Tampons, beach towel, postcards, and, mysteriously, a can of green beans.
Miriam grabs each item with a black-gloved hand. Runs the item over the scanner. Sometimes, she looks down and stares into the winking red laser. She’s not supposed to do that. But she does it anyway, a meager act of rebellion in her brand-new life. Maybe, she thinks, the ruby beam will burn away that part of her brain that makes her who she is. Turn her into a mule-kicked window-licker, happy in oblivion, pressed up against the walls of her Plexiglas enclosure.
The word drags her out of the mind’s eye theater and back to checkout.
“Jesus, what?” she asks.
“Well, are you going to scan that?”
Miriam looks down. Sees she’s still holding the can of green beans. Del Monte. She idly considers braining the woman standing there in her beachy muumuu, the worn pattern of hibiscus flowers barely covering a sludgy bosom that’s half lobster red and half wood-grub white. Two halves marked by the Rubicon of a terrible tan line.
Instead, Miriam swipes the can across the scanner with a too-sweet smile.
“Is something wrong with your hands?” the woman asks. She sounds concerned.
Miriam waggles one finger— a jumping inchworm dance. The black leather creaks and squeaks.
“Oh, these? I have to wear these. You know how women at restaurants have to wear hairnets? For public health safety? I gotta wear these gloves if I’m going to work here. Rules and regulations. Last thing I want to do is cause a hepatitis outbreak, am I right? I got hep A, B, C, and the really bad one, X.”
Then, just to sell it, Miriam holds up her hand for a high five.
The woman does not seize the high-five opportunity.
Rather, the blood drains from her face, her sunburned skin gone swiftly pale.
Miriam wonders what would happen if she told the truth: Oh, it’s no big deal, but when I touch people, this little psychic movie plays in my head and I witness how and when they’re going to die. So I’ve been wearing these gloves so I don’t have to see that kind of crazy shit anymore.
Or the deeper truth behind even that: I wear them because Louis wants me to wear them.
Not that the gloves provide perfect protection against the visions. Nobody but Louis is touching her anywhere else, though. She keeps covered up. Even in the heat.
Behind the woman is a line seven, eight people deep. They all hear what Miriam says. She’s not quiet. Two of the customers— a doughy gentleman in a parrot-laden shirt and a young girl with an ill-contained rack of softball-sized fake tits— shimmy out of the queue and leave their goods on the empty checkout two rows down.
Still, the woman hangs tough. With a sour face, she pulls a credit card out of nowhere—Miriam imagines she withdraws it from her sand-encrusted vagina— and flips it onto the counter like it’s a hot potato.
Miriam’s about to grab it and scan it when a hand falls on her shoulder.
She already knows to whom the hand belongs.
She wheels on Peggy, manager here at Ship Bottom Sundries in Long Beach Island, New Jersey. Peggy, whose nose must possess powerful gravity given the way it looks like the rest of her face is being dragged toward it. Peggy, whose giant sunglasses call to mind the eyes of a praying mantis. Peggy with her gray hair dyed orange and left in a curly, clumsy tangle.
“You mind telling me what you’re doing?” The way Peggy begins every conversation, it seems. All in that Joisey accent. Ya mind tellin’ me what y’doin’? The lost Rs, the dropped Gs, wooter instead of water, caw-fee instead of coffee.
“Helping this fine citizen check out of our fine establishment.” Miriam thinks but does not say, Ship Bottom Sundries, where you can buy a pack of hot dogs, a pack of generic-brand tampons, or a handful of squirming hermit crabs for your screaming shitbird children.
“Sounds like you’re giving her trouble.”
Miriam offers a strained smile. “Was I? Not my intention.”
Totally her intention.
“You know, I hired you as a favor.”
“I do know that. Because you remind me frequently.”
“Well, it’s true.”
“Yes. We just established that.”
Peggy’s puckered eyes tighten to fleshy slits. “You got a smart mouth.”
“Some might argue my mouth is actually quite foolish.”
By now, the line is building up. The woman in the floral muumuu is holding the green beans to her chest, as though the can will protect her from the awkwardness that has been thrust upon her day. The other customers watch with wide eyes and uncomfortable scowls.
“You think you’re funny,” Peggy says.
Miriam doesn’t hesitate. “I really do.”
“Well, I don’t.”
“Agree to disagree?”
Peggy’s face twists up like a rag about to be wrung out. It takes a moment for Miriam to realize that this is Peggy’s happy face.
“You’re fired,” Peggy says. Mouth twisted up at the corners in some crass facsimile of a human smile.
“Oh, fuck you,” Miriam says. “You’re not going to fire me.” It occurs to her too late that saying fuck you is not the best way to retain one’s job, but frankly, the horse is already out of the stable on that one.
“Fuck me?” Peggy asks. “Fuck you. You bring me nothing but grief. Come in here day after day, moping about like someone pissed in your Wheaties—”
“Do people even eat Wheaties anymore? I mean, seriously.”
“— and I don’t need a grumpy little slut like you working in my store. Season’s over after this weekend anyway, and you’re done. Kaput. Pack up your crap and get out. I’ll send you your last paycheck.”
This is real, Miriam thinks.
She just got let go.
She should be happy.
Her heart should be a cage of doves newly opened, the free birds flying high, fleeing far and away. This should be a real the-hills-are-alive-with-the-sound-of-music moment, all twirling skirts and wind in her hair. But all she feels is the battery-acid burn of rage and bile and incredulity mingling at the back of her throat. A rising tide of snake venom.
Louis always tells her to keep it together.
She is tired of keeping it together.
Miriam yanks her nametag off her chest— a nametag that says “Maryann” because they fucked it up and didn’t want to reprint it— and chucks it over her shoulder. The muumuu lady dodges it.
She goes with an old standby—her middle finger thrust up in Peggy’s juiced lemon of a face— and then storms outside.
She stops. Stands in the parking lot. Hands shaking.
An ocean breeze kicks up. The air brings with it the smell of brine and fish and a lingering hint of coconut oil. Serpents of sand whisper across the cracked parking lot.
A dozen gulls fight over bread scraps. Ducking and diving. Squawking and squalling. Drunk on bread crust and victory.
It’s hot. The breeze does little for that.
People everywhere. The fwip-fwip-fwip of flip-flop sandals. The miserable sob of somebody’s child. The murmur and cackle of endless vacationers smelling a season drawing to a close. A thudding bass line booms from a car sliding down the slow traffic of Long Beach Boulevard, and she can’t help but think how the beat sounds like douche-douche-douche-douche and how it echoes her hammer-fist heartbeat dully punching against the inside of her breastbone. And Walt the “cart boy,” who’s not really a boy but in fact a developmentally handicapped fifty-year-old man, gives her a wave and she waves back and thinks, He’s the only one here who was ever nice to me. And probably the only one she was ever nice to, too.
She thinks, Fuck it.
She peels off one of her gloves.
Then comes the other.
Miriam pitches both over her shoulder—her hands are freakishly pale, paler than the rest of her body, the fingertips wrinkled as though she’s been in a long bath.
If Louis wanted her to keep it together, he’d be here. And he’s not.
Miriam goes back inside the store, cracking her knuckles.