Phebe Jewell – fiction

In Line

Fourth in the express lane at Safeway, you scan the rows of gossip and gum displayed at eye level. The old man in front of you keeps taking the same piece of paper out of his pocket, reads it aloud, then puts it back in his pocket. A little boy in the lane next to you points to the mylar balloons floating above the registers. A blue and gold “Congrats, Grad!” rubs against a pinkly sweet “Happy Birthday”.

You’ve been stuck with this cashier before, the one who whistles “On Top of Ol’ Smokey” as he punches in each code. You glance behind you. The line stretches through the aisle beyond the frozen pizza.

Someone calls your name.

“Hi Marge” you reply, keeping watch on the boy, now begging his mother for a balloon.

“I thought that was you! How are you? It’s been ages. How are Jim and the kids? When does Abby graduate? And Simon? What’s he up to these days?”

Unsure which question to answer, you ask, “How’s work?” trying to remember her new girlfriend’s name, the one who works with disabled kids. The next lane over the mother nods, smiles at her son.

Marge tells you Elise is a miracle worker, amazing and beautiful, and how lucky she is while the cashier untangles strings, finally presenting a green and purple “I Love U!” to the boy.

Marge has never been so happy, so alive. You smile at the appropriate moments and wonder what Marge would say if she knew you’d just left your latest lover, a 24 year old bearded dog-walker who can only fuck standing up, pushing you against a wall, a doorjamb, or a kitchen counter.

“Do you know what I mean?”

“Sorry, Marge…it’s been a long week, and it’s only Wednesday!”

“I hear you!” You remember that little-girl nervous laugh. You want to slap her. Instead you lean towards her, head tilted as if you really care. The guy behind you looks up from his phone and juts his chin. The line is moving.

What would she say if she knew you and Jim haven’t had sex in two years, that Abby has been cutting herself, and Simon refuses the gender binary? What would she say if she knew  the dogwalker was your fourth fling in three years?

What if she asked the right questions? Would you tell her about waking every night, creeping downstairs for a glass of water, your breath a small animal fighting gravity in your lungs? Would you tell her how often you hesitate by the second floor window?

You time your smile at just the right moment, and Marge beams at you. The cashier beckons you to place your six items on the belt. You plunk down salsa, beans, tortillas, two overly ripe avocadoes, a bloodied pound of hamburger, and a bottle of merlot. The little boy smiles up at his mother, the balloon string wrapped around his wrist.

“See you.”

“Bye, Marge.”

You thank the bagger and slip outside, impatient to devour the candybar you lifted when no one was looking.

 

 

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Phebe Jewell

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