Rob Roensch

The Customer

I have been here all day, waiting to save you. I have been standing here all day at my register waiting for you as I scanned giant cans of soup, jugs of salad dressing, small strange kitchen appliances, packages of batteries, shrinkwrapped muffins and shrinkwrapped meat, DVDs, powerdrills on sale, shampoo, Tylenol, and, once, a trampoline. I waited for you while I counted change and thought about a slice of the ordered-but-never-picked-up white birthday cake in the break room. I have been waiting for you as I waited for the credit cards to come through, my fingers poised over the receipt machine, a chewed pen in my other hand. I have been waiting for you as I clicked on the light in the Seven so one of the managers would notice and come to give me ones and fives for a twenty or to okay the void or to retrieve a customer’s desired ink cartridge or watch or thin gold chain from the cage.

I have been waiting here all day and I have been waiting here all of my life to save you, and I have not saved you.

I have not saved you, but I don’t want to stop speaking, even though this is not my voice. I won’t remember these words, although I will wake up suddenly in the middle of the night imagining that you were still awkwardly in my arms, that you were parting your lips to speak. I don’t know where this voice is coming from. Perhaps I’m not a cashier, a thin young man with a scar on his forehead, perhaps I’m only a section of your brain that you’ve never before heard from. Perhaps what’s really happening is that you’re locked in your own head and my voice is just some captured but unconsidered fragment of your life cycling back on itself.

In any case, imagine what it means if these words are real.

I am not here to push you offshore with a final blast of poignant regret for the simple life you never appreciated. You understand–you have felt drunk with happiness when you were not drunk. I am not here to offer a final epiphany about the way people are fundamentally connected despite the accidents of money and body, despite what you thought of me when you first saw me in the corner of a glance when you walked into the store, how I was leaning sourly on the counter behind the register, thin as a thief, waiting for a receipt to print, my jeans dirty and low, my name tag crooked, my cheeks splotchy and pockmarked, my orange-blond hair sloppy and my goatee in contrast monstrously sharp and neat. I am not here merely to say that I am a person too, with hope and pain and breath, although these things are true. I am here to save you, and I have not saved you. But here you are.

Here is your life. Here is a photograph of your mother when she was young. Here is that city street. Here is a breath of his voice. Here is that painful sunlight. Here is the face beneath the earth. Here is a song. Here is the feeling of stepping in from the outside into a place like a hushed hollow in deep woods and here is the way you felt as the door closed behind you, the feeling that there was some necessary part of yourself that you could only sense here, in this place, in this particular light, in this particular not quite quiet. Here is the great question that you assumed would somehow answer itself.

Here is your worry. Here is who you were when I first saw you from a distance, coming toward my register with this look on your face—there was somewhere else you needed to be. You were wrapped up in a thick coat against the cold outside, carrying milk and a box of pills and a bottle of bright red cold medicine that wasn’t for you. You aren’t sick. Your eyes were clear, your head was up. You looked me right in the face and I looked you right in the face and even shook my head to warn you away but your attention had already impatiently shifted to the rack of candy next to the register—perhaps you were about to select something for yourself, or for the person who is sick, for someone you love. Perhaps you would have chosen a Hershey Bar, or Hershey’s with Almonds, or perhaps Nutrageous; Butterfinger or Twix or Baby Ruth; Reese’s Pieces, Reese’s Sticks, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, or Reese’s Fast Break; Almond Joy or Mounds; Whatchamacalit; Skittles or Sour Skittles; Starburst or Tropical Fruit Starburst; Twizzlers in red or black; Breathmints; Velamints; Chicklets or Chunky; Three Muskateers or Milky Way or Milky Way Midnight; Five Fruit or Butter Rum or Wintergreen or Gummy Lifesavers; Orbit in Peppermint or Spearmint or Wintermint; Snickers or Snicker’s Crunch or Nestle’s Crunch; Bubble Yum or Bubble Yum Sugarless; Fruit Stripe in Bubble Gum or Assorted Flavors; Mint or Cinammon or Mixed Fruit Mentos; Juicy Fruit or Doublemint or Big Red; 100 Grand; Dove Milk or Dove Dark; red or blue or green Breathstrips; Gummy Bears; Denteyne or Denteyne Ice; Icebreakers in Cinammon or Peppermint; Heath Bar or Rolos or Payday; Wonderball or Blow-Pops; Jolly Ranchers or Runts or Airheads; Laffy Taffy; Certs or Mini-certs or Smints; Tic-Tacs in Wintergreen or Cinammon or Orange or Lime; Skor; Kit-Kat or M and M’s or Zero.

All of these are here whether you are here to see them or not in the same way that your not noticing the man with the wide-open eyes and the gun two aisles down did not make him disappear. You didn’t hear the silence. You put your items absently on the belt and looked at the top row of mints. You were only paying attention to what should have been true.

I tried to warn you. I tried to whisper but you did not hear. I watched you looking at the mints. You were so absorbed. I hated you and I saw that I was the only one who could save you.

It all happened very fast and very very slowly. The man with the wide-open eyes fired twice in the chest of the cashier two aisles down (an older woman with stubborn red hair, you’ve seen her before) and you woke up into the world and threw your hands over your head and crouched as if to duck under the bullets that were already lodged in her body. You did not scream. The man with the wide-open eyes and the gun was blocked from your sight, you could only see the scuffed floor, the racks of candy and gum and mints above your head, my face. You could see a few empty shopping carts and through the glass doors out to the parking lot where people and cars were moving as if nothing was happening even though you could see that they themselves were charged with the piercing aura of existence—a silver car sleek as a weapon, a young man wearing an impossibly red sweatshirt. The specific is magnificent and murderous.

Here is my story:

I was seventeen. I tagged along to a party at an enormous white house in one of the new developments of enormous houses. The lawn was vast and treeless, the driveway was as smooth as a lake, the garage door could have held back a golden tank. I knew I didn’t belong. I hated the house and I wanted to live there. When I got inside I kept my head down and went right through the crowd and music and girls to the kitchen and the alcohol. I slurped whiskey quickly, preparing the whole time to defend myself—but no one seemed to care.

I expected magic or at least danger, and what I discovered was kids who thought they were cool all packed together being loud and stupid. The whiskey gave me courage. I wandered around the party tipping over cups of coke onto the carpets, rearranging kitchen drawers, hiding toilet paper. I poured a beer on the back deck. I dipped a toothbrush in the toilet. I jammed a leather jacket underneath a white leather couch. I stole a fork.

I ended up sitting on the pink carpet of the upstairs hallway, listening to the blurry music and the slurred whooping coming up through the floor, staring into the flowery patterned wallpaper trying to make the 3-D dolphin appear. I was very drunk. The earth was tilting and righting itself with every breath. For lack of a better word, I was happy. I always knew I wasn’t one of them, but in that hallway I didn’t care anymore. I thought I had no part in their lives. It was all so ridiculous.

One of the hallway doors opened and a kid my age with broad shoulders came out backwards, carefully pulling the door shut. He turned and at first he seemed surprised and even nervous, but then he caught himself and grinned.

“You next?” he asked. His face was red.

“I’m next,” I said, just to say something.

“She’s out, dude. She’s gone,” he said, grinning.

And as I nodded and he ducked away down the stairs to where he didn’t have to be alone, I understood.

I was drunk. I was happy and angry, and at that instant more curious than anything. I was seventeen and I had never touched a girl. I stood up and opened the door to the dark room and slipped in, closing the door behind me.

There was enough moonlight from a crack the curtains to see her on the bed. There she was. The last kid had bizarrely half-covered her nakedness with an open long black coat, as if to keep her warm. Still, she shivered in her mumbling sleep. She was gone. I knew who it was: the girl with the upturned nose and the short shiny dark hair. The beautiful girl. I could see her collarbone and the rise of her breast.

It was cold but the room smelled hot.

I can’t say what I would have done next had another broad shouldered kid not drunkenly threw open the door a few seconds later and pushed me out into the hall. I didn’t protest. I didn’t raise an alarm. I went home.

I never told anyone.

I used to walk by that girl in the hallway at school and she didn’t know me. She didn’t have to drop out of school to have a child. She didn’t send half of the party to prison. She went away to college. It was as if it had never happened, but I am not so naive to think that she was not hurt, that I was not responsible. It happened. I often imagine that I saved her. That I wrapped her in the long black coat and carried her out through the light of the party into the safety of the night.

I think about her every day of my life. I know I will think about you every day of my life from now on, and I’ll think earnestly about these two moments of my life in terms of the great questions that seemed so inappropriate when I was a teenager. I’ll think about the way you can’t help building your own soul, the way that, despite what you think you think, you know deep down who you really are, what you did, what it means. I leapt to throw my body between yours and the man with the wide-open eyes charging madly out of the store while firing his gun. For all the good I did, I may as well be a ghost. But now, I can see. I know that even if I had saved your life, I could never save myself. I know moonlight on the collarbone of the beautiful, helpless girl. I know the heat of spilled blood. I know what I could have killed, what I could have protected, what I held in my arms.

Are you still here?

Now it’s summer. It’s absurdly hot and humid outside and a Saturday so the air-conditioned store is packed with men and women and children seeking relief and socks. It’s so hot outside the air-conditioning can only keep the air inside lukewarm at best. You’ve been at your register all afternoon, scanning and packing purchases for an endless line of customers. You try to look each person who goes through your line in the eyes. Memorizing all their faces would be too much, impossible, but you know that you remember more than you think you can remember and that someday, perhaps, if you were to see that one face in some other corner of the world, among strangers, you would not be alone. You are exhausted from the faces and the money and the work. You are hot and your head hurts and there is sweat dripping down from your armpits. The manager comes to your register and clicks off the light in the Seven and at first you are grateful for the fifteen coming minutes of rest but then he asks you to go out into the parking lot to help collect scattered shopping carts. You swear at him in your head. You finish what’s left of your line. The last customer is a sour faced old woman buying four jumbo boxes of toothpaste. When you hand her the change she tells you to smile.

You secure your register and walk past the managers’ station and the other aisles and push through the non-automatic door into the brilliant day. The heat and thick, hazy light radiate down from the sky and up from the pavement. You are burning. But, as you shield your eyes from the sun and look out over the chaos of the full parking lot, you can make out a black line of clouds just above the horizon in the west. There is wind. Already the clouds have moved closer. Men and women and children in the parking lot stop and point out the clouds to each other. You move through the waves of heat out to the end of the parking lot and pull a few shopping carts off of the strip of grass and jam them together. The small trees throughout the lot shudder in the wind. The clouds reach the sun. A hint of thunder, a drop of rain. Someone has flipped a shopping cart upside down so you lift it up and set it right and jam it into the others. The men and women and children in the parking lot are hurrying to get inside. A few are standing under the overhang, looking out at the sky. A flash of unearthly light. A snap of pure silence. The sky is black. A spattering of raindrops. You hear the manager calling out to you from underneath the overhang: “Hey! Hey! Get back in here!” He doesn’t know your name. You pretend not to hear him. What can he do? The pale empty light fills the world suddenly and crashes and falls on you and all around you as bullets of water. You’re soaked through already, feeling cooler with each breath. Your ears are ringing with the sound of the raindrops pinging off the shopping carts. The whirr of cars gliding by on the highway and the chatter of human voices are drifting away. A flash, and the light does not fade to reveal the ordinary parking lot but is instead becoming brighter and brighter. You stand there in the bright cool rain thinking only: let it come down.

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