BY BONNIE BREWER-KRAUS
Copyright is held by the author.
RAY STANDS outside the drugstore in Verona, Indiana, hands in pockets, freezing his ass off in his flannel shirt and thin down vest. Snow drifts and eddies around him. He can’t feel his toes in the new leather motorcycle boots that looked so cool in the store but provide almost no insulation. Tonight’s the night, he tells himself. He forces open the door, setting off the bell.
The woman at the cash register glances at him without smiling and says, “We’re closing in ten minutes.” Ray ducks down the first aisle, picking up a birthday card that depicts a bear bending over with the phrase, “Happy Birthday You Old Toot! Bottoms Up!” Ray pretends to study it while observing the woman behind the register. Why couldn’t the clerk have been a man? She looks like his mother, with her tight perm and the glasses on a chain around her neck. He sidles to the next aisle, which contains diapers and baby formula.
A thin elderly man in a white shirt and blue tie materializes at his side so abruptly that Ray jumps. The man smiles and says, “We’re closing soon, can I help you find something, son?” The man’s nametag reads, “Archie Bold, Manager”. His voice is kind, but there’s something hard and suspicious underlaying his tone that says, don’t mess with me.
Ray sees himself reflected in the man’s glasses: a shifty, jittery guy coming in right before closing time. The old guy resembles his grandfather, with the slight stoop of the near-sighted, the dandruff in his thinning white hair and the metal framed glasses sliding down his nose. Just his luck, to pick a drugstore where everyone looks like one of his family after he’s driven twenty miles to avoid anyone he knows.
Ray considers fleeing, finding another drugstore, but how can he face Julie if he does? She’s waiting in her trailer, after pretending illness to get out of attending a wedding in Indianapolis with her family. Ray’s parents think he is staying overnight with his friend T.J.
“I need something that men use,” Ray says, “when they don’t want….” He gazes at all the baby products, with their pictures of smiling infants, but they are no help.
Archie Bold looks at him sternly, “Are you sure you know what you’re doing, son?” His breath smells like cherry cough medicine.
Ray’s face reddens. Does he know what he is doing? He and Julie love each other, yet he feels chills when he thinks of penetrating her tender flesh; wonder and joy, yes, yes, but also a weighty sense of taking an irrevocable step. He imagines Jesus’ compassionate but disappointed eyes looking down on him from his wooden crucifix in Grace Bible Church. Jesus asks, “What are you doing to this trusting young girl, Ray?” In Bible class, he vowed with the other teens not to have sex outside of marriage, but it’s not like he was given much of a choice. Pastor Tim says, “Your body does not belong to you, but to God. Do not dishonor the sacred.” But when he and Julie are together, that feels sacred, too. And what does God want with his body? When he and Julie are together, everything feels so clear and wonderful and then the blasted world has to intrude and tell them what to do with their bodies, their lives.
Ray nods at the manager. He is going to do this. For Julie, for himself.
The bell jingles and a bundled figure enters, saying brrrrr and shaking off snow like a dog. Ray recognizes Linda Simms, his mother’s hairdresser, just as the old man shouts, “Millie, this young fellow needs some condoms!”
Millie shakes her head, and says, “Let me get this lady first.”
What is Mrs. Simms doing here? Ray does odd jobs for her occasionally, like raking leaves or trimming her bushes, but she makes him uncomfortable with her crude humor. Once she offered him a beer and asked him to rub her sore neck. “Oh, get over yourself,” she’d said when she saw his anxious expression.
Linda spots him and says, “Hey Ray! Funny seeing you here on a night like this. I had to do the hair up at a wedding in Moorville, what’s your excuse?” She gives him a broad wink. “Up to no good, I bet. Don’t worry, I won’t tell your mother on you.”
She snickers and launches into a long saga of vomiting children, runny noses, and a husband with back pain for Millie’s benefit. Millie and she discuss various remedies for these ailments, with Archie Bold weighing in with his opinions, and ferrying various products up to the cash register. Mrs. Simms reads each label slowly and carefully, sounding out the words. No one seems worried about closing time now.
“I don’t know about this medicine; it’s got so many warnings about alcohol use. Frank likes his beer, and I don’t want him getting liver failure. And isn’t there anything that handles both nausea and diarrhea?” More discussion.
Ray plasters a grin on his face, trying to appear at ease with this discussion of organs, bodily fluids, and disease. It’s too hot in the store and he feels like he can’t breathe. He studies the boxes of condoms on the shelf behind Millie’s head.
Ray thinks of how his mother makes a little sour grimace whenever Julie’s name is mentioned, as if something tastes bad. Ray wants to shake her for her hypocrisy. Everybody’s equal, his mother says, Jesus loves everyone, but what she thinks is: Julie’s father was born in Mexico, he works in a chicken processing plant, and they live in a trailer. Ray’s family has farmed the same land for four generations and are pillars of their church, with a fine old white farmhouse rooted in the earth. His mother thinks only girls from her church are good enough for her son.
Julie’s parents don’t trust Ray, either. Her father barely speaks when Ray arrives to pick his daughter up. Once, he turned and spit, as if he had something caught in his throat. Ray is afraid of him, to tell the truth.
“Don’t mind him,” Julie had said. “He’s just protective. We know what we’re doing.” Ray is only allowed to see Julie once a week if he’s home by eleven. His father says, “Don’t let me down, son. Be responsible. I sinned in my youth and lived to regret it.”
Neither set of parents knows how often they slip away to an abandoned fishing shack by the lake or drive the little country roads aimlessly in his Chevy. He and Julie talk about going to California, or Alaska, where he’ll get a job and she’ll attend art school. “My dad wants me to be a paramedic or a nurse,” Julie says, “although I hate the sight of blood.” Ray’s father plans for him to take over the farm, but Ray dreads the long days outdoors, the struggle to make the finances work. He and Julie commiserate over the blindness of parents, how little they know about anything. Still, Ray feels guilty. If he leaves, he knows he will break his parents’ hearts. He sees them alone and old on the farm and hates himself.
Linda Simms says, “I better get moving and let this young Romeo get on with his evening.” She winds her voluminous scarf around her head and grabs her purchases. “Must be nice to be young and free,” she says, as she shoulders her way out the door.
Millie wipes off her smile and barks at Ray, “What will it be? I haven’t got all night.”
Ray backs up, trying to take in all the labels. Ultra-ribbed, Extended Pleasure, Magnum, Her Pleasure, lubricated… Too many choices, too many people who could be hurt.
He stumbles and almost knocks down a display of windshield scrapers. “I’ve got to go,” he says, and flees the store. He stands on the barren sidewalk, the snow blinding him, smearing the few lights he can see. He is alone in a frozen world. Behind him the door jingles and Archie Bold appears, his downy hair blowing sideways. Ray sees Millie glaring at him through the window. The manager extends a small paper sack to Ray. “Here, young man, be safe.” Ray touches the warm old hand as he takes the bag.
Bonnie Brewer-Kraus is a former architect from Cleveland Heights, Ohio. She is a member of LitCleveland and a volunteer reader for Gordon Square Review. Her fiction can be found at Potato Soup Journal, The South Florida Poetry Journal, Gordon Square Review and Coffin Bell, among others.