The Walk-In (A Short)
Last month a drunk trucker bumped into the register on his way out the door. That revealed the grime that had built up underneath, which caused me to finally move the whole checkout counter over by the window. That’s how come I saw Him coming last Sunday evening. He unfolded from a dusty Grand Cherokee and looked up at the café’s sign like it was a sunset. I dropped three mugs, two plates and a water glass, but at least I had a heads up to suck some breath in. I made a beeline for the kitchen past the three customers and ignored Heather’s asking me what was wrong. Max was already on his way to scoop up the broken dishes, one of his headphones in so he could keep himself fueled with that awful electronic stuff he calls music.
I ditched the apron and stacked my curls and speared them into place with a skewer off the chef’s station. I opened my blouse one button and bit down on a Cert’s. I was relieved that, save for Humberto, who was blasting a pan with his back to me, the kitchen crew had already gone.
He was sitting at the same table he did all those years ago. It had been a Saturday. He’d climbed out the back of a custom van with a black dog. Mom was still the queen bee back then and had finally, that same month, left dad—after four of his affairs and just one closed-fist blow to the head. A whole life wasted. Mom pretty much hated men, but maybe because He appeared the downright opposite of dad—long honey hair, skinny arms, sandals—she saw my dazzle and just sighed through her nose. Don’t you sign on the wrong line, Addie, she said, as she always did.
So when I came through the kitchen door last Sunday it was like one of those time warps from a sci-fi movie or something. I walked the same strip of carpet I had before; I tried to mimic the same walk. I didn’t have to try to mimic the smile and neither did He. Even though Max was chatting on the phone with one of his buddies, I could feel him watching and I have to admit I wished he wasn’t. The poor kid has started noticing girls, so he didn’t have any business seeing his mama acting like one.
I flipped the order pad and cocked my hip right up against the table edge and looked straight into his brown eyes. I was aware of how bald he was and the meat on his cheeks, not to mention the fat wedding band, as I’m sure he was aware of my extra pounds, but it didn’t matter. Max ambled over all fake casual and checked the sugar packets and napkins on the next table. I flicked my eyes at him and saw that he was studying the stranger’s profile. I felt a surge of panic.
“Max, bring this gentleman a Dos Equis and a water, please,” I told him. He glanced at me before floating off to the cooler.
I flashed three fingers at Him and got a bright wink in return. Then I asked Heather to cover for me so I could make a couple of calls.
The alley door opens directly onto the freezer door and I had him by the belt before he could tap at the frame. I pulled him in and slid the safety bolt through the door handle so we wouldn’t end up like the slabs of pork and also so we wouldn’t be interrupted. The bare bulb hummed and blinked and dropped enough light for the glimpses that make up these kinds of encounters: the wild crescent of an eye, a tiny bubble of saliva on a tooth, a fingernail etching flesh, a black triangle of pubic hair raising toward my eyes.
The roll-away wire shelves skated around; his shoulder slammed into one of Dale Hackley’s sides of beef; my bare back melted the skim of ice on the metal wall; our breath spun our heads in blur. But at some point after we’d knocked the urn of minestrone across the floor and had to migrate to a stack of cardboard boxes to avoid the mess, the thing changed. His long fingers left my nipples and found the back of my neck and his torso levered down from on high to press against me. The thrusts grew softer but deeper and his breath entered my ear like prayer. Even when he turned me around and gathered my hair in his hands he was gentle. Again, I knew that I’d never match up with a man the way he and I did when we arched our spines together.
Our breath started to even out and the steam around us faded away and the pounding of blood quieted and the weak bulb seemed to surge brighter. He was still inside me but was shrinking away, and then he fell out. The cold was suddenly in my bones. I wanted to turn around but I didn’t.
You gotta go, I said. First, I mean.
I heard his zipper and the clink of belt.
Let’s do it again sometime, he said, just like he had in 2000 and we both laughed like we had then, too. It came surprisingly easily, me with my ass still in the air.
Sure, I said, and reached back to drop the skirt over me. I heard him fiddle with the handle, then the yawn of the steel door and whisper of the seal as it closed again.
As I sat down on a big tote of winter greens and wiped myself with a dishrag, I thought back on the first time, after he’d left me alone in the walk-in:
I’d still been bent over, feeling his seed drop out of me. It landed on the loose flap of a box of catfish fillets with a steady patter. A kind of sad panicked feeling had started up in my guts as I’d looked down between my legs and watched the cold immobilize the milky drops. For some reason I’d tipped onto my back (in the Minestrone, so I had to change blouses before I got back out front) and put my legs in the air for a couple of minutes, wondering what the hell was wrong with me. I’d heard a bang and clatter in the kitchen and gathered myself up and righted the rollaway shelves.
When I came out of the kitchen, four truckers were attacking boysenberry pie slices and sucking on mugs. He was gone, of course. I wrote up a check for the truckers, counted out the till and wiped down my half of the tables. Then I set up at His table to count my tips and smoke my daily Winston, but I couldn’t focus right. Max had probably already forgot about Him and his Dos Equis as he pressed napkins into holders; he was likely already thinking about World of War or whatever that internet game is that he hooks himself up to as soon as he’s home.
I wondered if He’d paused on his way to the car to look at Max. He might’ve done the math, especially if he noticed Max’s long fingers, honey hair and square jaw, but I’m sure it would have seemed too unlikely. As unlikely as my meeting someone else that I fit with as perfectly.