When I was a junior in college I took the winter semester off to work an internship at the Kiwanis Club’s national magazine, which was based in Indianapolis. I was poor and free and happy. I had to wear my dad’s old clothes and shoes, because I owned nothing dressier than T-shirts and sneakers. I lived in my car for a few days, then in a walk-up that smelled of cockroaches and cabbage and darkness, then finally in a sunny apartment building downtown that was right on the front line of the city’s gentrification. That’s where the seed of this story actually happened, Mamma and Blade in the express lane on a snowy night. • I wrote the scene up as a short nonfiction piece for a class I was taking from David Brill, who was the first guy I ever met who understood that a piece of writing could be taken apart and put back together in different ways, the guy who got me to understand that tense, voice, tone, rhythm, length, punctuation, diction were tools to be deliberately used. I’d write something and he’d ask me to rewrite it entirely with passive verbs, or to change tense, or take out all the adverbs and see how it read. “This should be longer,” Brill said when he read this assignment. But I was already off writing the next thing, and I put the story away and forgot about it. • Years later, when I was living in Cincinnati, Beth and I shopped at what we called the Bro-Kro, a Kroger grocery store that was rougher than many prisons. You’d always, for instance, have to pry the plastic lids off all your purchases to make sure they hadn’t been half-eaten and returned to the shelf. Shopping there reminded me of Blade and Mamma, and over months and months of mining the story, the rest of the details came to me. It was published in a little literary magazine called Amelia in 1990, and I thought I was on my way.
For a month now, she’d been buying single quarts of vitamin D milk, which meant she lived alone.
And that, Bagman tried to explain to Heavyweight — without really understanding what he meant himself — was more symptom than reason. More cause than effect. But Heavyweight just leaned against the stockroom crates piled to the rafters, looking like he could shift the whole damn BuyLow building with his bulk, and said, “Don’t get all talkshit on me. The girl be trouble.” He waved off Bagman’s protest with a shake of his meaty black finger, tipped by a white fingernail and dancing like a magic wand there in the gloom of the stockroom. “What else a whitebread be shopping here for? Be shopping this late? Something wrong.”
It was true. Other midnight shoppers straggled in for six-packs, Tampons, cough drops or ice cream. She was the only full-scale shopper in the real-grocery realm of detergent, pepper, trash bags, eggs and hamburger … daytime groceries at two in the morning. Bagman thought that even more out of place than their common whitebreadhood.
Whitebread. He felt strange even considering that. His year of working there had blinded his skin to his own eyes, until he just assumed he was the same color as everyone else he saw every day. Somehow, she’d re-whitened him.Thinking that made him jumpy. He wondered if he’d been bleached in Heavyweight’s eyes, too, and looked there for an answer. But in the dim reflection he caught before losing his nerve and turning away, he was, if anything, gray. Stockroom gray.
Marcia was on register. She had the drawer open — against policy — and jumped a little when Bagman walked up from the detergent aisle, making her tight black frizzes jump a little, too.
“Thought you was Simmons,” she said, not closing the drawer. “He think we all thiefs. I just like to look.”
“On company time?” Bagman said in a lousy imitation of Simmons. Marcia smiled anyway, trying to keep her lips closed, but Bagman could see where her old boyfriend had knocked her two front teeth out.
“It ain’t so bad,” Marcia would say whenever someone noticed. “I used to have bucked teeth.”
Bagman had never seen her the old way, but was positive the change had improved her appearance. When he’d first seen the gap in her teeth it seemed somehow both alluringly full and waiting to be filled.
The grocery girl had a look that Bagman could only describe as “finished.” Everyone else he’d ever known looked strung together, loose at some joint or missing a piece. The grocery girl’s hair fell perfectly enough between black and brown to not be called either shade; her lips curved together instead of trailing out onto her cheeks; her nose pugged cutely proportionate to its length. The legendary girl next door, who never lived next door.
Bagman had to laugh a little at that. No one like her would live by anyone he knew. She bought exotic items, foods he didn’t even know BuyLow stocked. The names from the labels sang through his mind like psalms: Kiwi fruit, scallions, harvest muffins and saffron. Ginger roots, Grundy leeks and sprinkle parsley. And peppercorns, Dijon, provolone. He felt hypnotized by the possibilities, shook his head to scramble the rhythm. As his eyes came into focus, he saw Marcia, hands folded chastely at the edge of the drawer, looking down at the money again.
“Marsh,” he said, “what’s the most exotic food you know?”
“Egg-zotic?” She looked up and slammed the drawer shut with a bump of her hip. Bagman loved the way she bit certain words into syllables. “What you mean egg-zotic?”
“You know. Something you want your whole life and get once, maybe never.”
“That’s all you mean?” She looked at him in a way she sometimes did before telling him what he was about to say next. Bagman smiled a shy caught smile, like some of the young shoplifters did when emptying their pockets.
“If that’s all you mean,” Marcia said, “my answer’s easy. I had that downtown Cornerstone pizza once.”
Bagman frowned, and when he did, Marcia laughed. “You asked the wrong one. Egg-zotic means what I like most, not something I want because I can’t get.”
“No,” said Bagman. “It’s about tasting different thing.” He wasn’t sure what he meant, but sensed that some illumination as powerful as Heavyweight was just behind the sentence. And he stopped. He swung a little to his left, bumped the candy rack with his butt, and stuck his arm on his hip. “Who you know,” he mimicked Marcia just enough so that she would get it, “buy the most egg-zotic grocery?”
No laughs this time. Instead, Marcia twirled around so fast her BuyLow smock swung like a red tutu and Bagman was left looking at the blue zipper that ran the length of her back.
“Hey,” was all he could say, slow and bulky. He could feel each letter push past his lips. “Are you mad or something?”
“Got no right to be.”
“But you are.”
“Don’t matter. Except I don’t know how you consider me. That one time…” Her voice faded as she began turning to face him. When they were looking at each other again, her tongue found the gap in her teeth and began swabbing the hole, shaping and reshaping itself to fit, and Bagman thought about “that one time,” the solitary, drunken kiss, how Marcia had slipped her tongue like a candy cane into his mouth, flattening against his teeth then twining around his own tongue.
“…then stuff like this,” Marcia was saying. “That Heavyweight warn me.” Her voice sounded like she had to tell a customer cottage cheese was no longer on sale. “Always scared, Heavyweight say, and that eventually you go easy and go for her just because she —” Marcia bit the end of the sentence off.
The weight of the unvoiced word hung there between them, dead and cold like hooked beef in the deli. Bagman backed away, pulled himself up to sit on the vacant register counter, looked over his shoulder to make sure Simmons wouldn’t come out of the management cubicle to give him hell, then said, “Marsh, it’s not how you think.”
Her lips were squinted shut, but Bagman could see her tongue pushing against her cheeks, and imagined she was chewing on that word she’d bitten off, rolling the taste of it around her mouth.Marcia swallowed, said, “I don’t know what to think. You only talk safe. At least I told you the express thing.”
The express thing. About his second week of work, when just being in the place still made him cringe, he’d been sweeping up in Chips & Snax when Marcia suddenly appeared near the corner stand of dips and said, “What you doing?”
He supposed that at the time his open-mouthed silence and listless gesture with the broom seemed like shyness, but he’d actually been awestruck at the unforeseen sleekness of Marcia’s skirted legs. Until then, he’d only seen her cut off at the waist behind the register counter. She stared at him staring at her, then walked toward him. He noticed her teeth, she made the joke, then said, “We’re paid to stay awake. We got busy once — two, three years ago when that snowstorm scared people. Otherwise, we get ten, twelve customers a night. You keep your mouth shut around Simmons and there ain’t no need for this.” She made sweeping motions.
“And let me tell you something else. I worked dinner shift once, and every shopper think the express line be just for their convenience for they get through quicker. But the store use that convenience right back, put the training checkers there so they don’t have to deal with more than twelve items at a time.”
And she’d done a tight about-face, leaving Bagman unsure if he should concentrate on deciphering that as a comment on life, or on appreciating the sway of her hips.
Thinking back on that, he had the feeling Marcia could tell him a lot more than the express secret. But she’d turned around to stare out the big windows that ran the length of the storefront. Bagman turned, too, saw their reflections imposed on the colored letters announcing that week’s special, and, beyond that, looking less real, the snow-powdered parking lot.
“Man,” Heavyweight said when Bagman went back to tell him Simmons wanted the parking lot shoveled, “you axed her that?”
Walking toward the back of the stockroom, Heavyweight had flung the last word high-pitched over his shoulder like a load of snow, and Bagman felt the chill of it sting his face.
“Not exactly,” Bagman said.
Again, but this time not a question: “You axed her that.”
Bagman wasn’t sure if the tone was awe or pity; Heavyweight was hard to read. The first time he’d ever talked to Bagman came after he’d watched two kids scrape Bagman’s nose across a brick wall for four or five minutes one morning after work. After Bagman lobbed one weak punch their way, Heavyweight had said, “That’s enough. You got the money.”
When the punks ignored him, Heavyweight grabbed one by his beaten parka and tossed him across the sidewalk as easily as he slung twenty-pound sacks of potatoes across BuyLow aisles.
Bagman swooned into the wall like a tipsy date, then slid face-first down it until his head lightly bonked the ground and he could peer through his wallet propped open like a pup tent on the sidewalk. He heard Heavyweight say, “You fight back and they kill you.”
Bagman tried to say thanks, but opening his mouth drove pain up through his nostrils. His first broken nose. It wasn’t so bad; kind of like what walking on a sprained ankle might feel like if it were in the middle of your face.
Heavyweight kicked the wallet across the sidewalk, and as Bagman reached for it, he heard Heavyweight say, “What you doing here anyway? Trying to die or trying to hide?”
The “hide” scrapped across Bagman’s ears, and he’d jumped to his feet and kind of half-yelled, “It ain’t no tragedy or nothing.” He wiped spit and blood and snot off his lips. “Mom humped half the neighborhood and I always had shitty clothes and —”
He’d said more than he’d ever even admitted to himself, and he dropped back against the wall, breathing hard and fast. When he wiped his lips again, he felt them quivering. “And so I disappeared.”
Heavyweight just stared and stared into his face, until finally Bagman reached up to feel his nose and said, “They knock it real crooked or something?”
Then Heavyweight grinned, teeth like polished cinderblocks, and said, “Man, you ain’t gonna disappear here.”
Bagman looked around at the trash-speckled streets and crumbling buildings; it was like a war zone. Anyone could disappear there. Anything. It was only after Heavyweight palmed Bagman’s shoulder and pulled him off the wall that he saw the contrast and understood. But by then Heavyweight was pulling him toward the BuyLow doors and saying his nickname — for the first time, and it started out as two words — “Bag, Man, you either real blind or real cool. And I think real cool.”
After that, they’d gone back into the store, stolen six bottles of Lambrusco and drank them up in the storeroom catwalks, and Marcia — who sometimes worked a shift-and-a-half and got off at 8 — came back to tease Bagman and touch his nose, and then . . . then Heavyweight, who seemed to know what was going to happen, walked away, saying disinterestedly, “Shit, I told myself it coming.”
No way to tell if that had been wine or wisdom. Or both.
But whatever it was this time, back in the stockroom, Heavyweight seemed truly curious. Because after he reached the rear wall, picked up the blue tin BuyLow shovel and slung it across his shoulder like a picket sign, he yelled, “What she say?”
“Not much,” Bagman sort of half-yelled back. It wasn’t the kind of thing you could explain loud. “We talked about what egg-zotic means,” he said, softer, then laughed a little.
“What?” Heavyweight asked. “What you laughing about?”
Bagman didn’t know; he shook his head.“You laughing cause you hurt her ass? You laughing?” Heavyweight was still yelling, even though he was close enough not to. He swung the shovel between them like scythe. Even from 20 feet away, Bagman could hear it slice the air.
“She say how you make her feel?”
“Shit, Heavyweight —”
“Don’t matter. Cause I’m telling you how she feel. You lead her on and tease her on and always pulling away too afraid.”Heavyweight just kept rolling forward, arcing the shovel in front of him like a guy in a gladiator movie holding off ten lions, and Bagman, even though he thought Heavyweight wouldn’t hurt him, backed up until the cool of a metal storage rack touched his neck. Heavyweight stopped just feet from Bagman, stood the shovel between them and leaned onto the handle. Leaned until his bulk blocked everything else from Bagman’s sight, until Bagman had to either close his eyes or stare into the dark brow locked up like colliding icebergs.
“But,” Heavyweight said, “you not scared to go after this new girl because she —”
“Bullshit,” Bagman interrupted. At the same time Heavyweight’s bulk became too much for the shovel, and sent the blade screeching across the floor like nails on a chalkboard, rammed it into Bagman’s feet. “It’s not about color,” Bagman said. “I’ve never —”
“Bullshit back.” Heavyweight’s voice rolled over Bagman’s like a boulder. “What is it then, man? You know you go after Marcia if she white.”
Heavyweight spat the word down into the shovel, then lifted and tilted the blue metal blade between them, but Bagman didn’t want to look down and watch the word slide out onto the floor.
Behind the canned juice scaffold, some long-gone employee had piled flattened cardboard boxes ten high into a makeshift couch, and Bagman went to that, feeling numb, drawing his knees up to his chest and squinting his eyes shut, watching white lines and bars and specks streak across blackness like reverse UPC codes on generic items.
After a while the white seemed to fade away, then the blackness was teeming with even blacker, circular microbes that just sort of stayed in place and vibrated. And a long while after that, the microbes followed the whiteness wherever it had gone, and Bagman was left looking into a void of color it would have been useless to name.
The house phone rang.
The noise woke him. The phone, an old rotary, hung on a yellow post set in the middle of the stockroom. Bagman had never heard it ring. He often imagined it clanging almost constantly during the day, summoning stockers and baggers to check prices, mop mayonnaise and broken glass off the floor, round up carts from the lot and rearrange the letters on the flashing arrow sign at the curb. None of that happened at night. Instead it was just him and Heavyweight trading stories or dozing. One night even bowling with frozen turkeys and two-liter pop bottles.
The phone rang again. Again. Bagman looked toward the noise, although with the night reserve policy of turning every other light off, he couldn’t even see the post. He slid off the cardboard couch and started toward the center of the room.
“Christ,” Simmons said when Bagman picked up the phone. “Fucking Christ.”
Bagman wasn’t sure how to reply, so he just held the phone.
“You there?” Simmons asked. His voice, through the phone, sounded tinnier, shrill. If Heavyweight was there, Bagman thought, the two of them would make fun of Simmons.
“Get your ass up here. You’re on Express.”
Express! Bagman dropped the receiver, heard it clack against the post as he ran through the stockroom. He busted through the stock doors on the run, smack into a cart propelled by a hobbling man who’d hung his cane on the handle.
“Watcha!” the old man coughed, his hands twisted from the cart by the impact.
The place was packed, teeming like the black-on-black vision of his sleep, people and carts wedged so rush-hour tight in some aisles all they could do was stand still and vibrate. Other shoppers carrying blue BuyLow baskets scurried past like scenery glimpsed from a moving car.
Bagman stood for a minute, ignoring the old man and timing the traffic, then leaped across the aisle. If he could follow the breads up to the carryout fruit stand, he knew he’d be able to crawl under that into the register area. But the bread aisle was a minefield of hot dog buns dropped by consumers too frantic to look back, and about ten feet ahead he could see a lemon meringue pie strewn across the aisle like the gooey remains of a spectacular car crash.
A cart from behind rode up on his heel, and Bagman flashed to a vision of himself mashed under someone’s shopping cart, his head locking the wheel up and making that squeak that drives people crazy. He drove into the wall of customers. He could see that he wouldn’t have to crawl under the fruit stand; a line of buyers had sliced the stand in half, and curved out of sight into the register area. He grabbed the end cart and, pulling himself hand-over-hand, began to make progress against the current headed for the back of the store.
When he surfaced in the register area, he saw he’d been pulling himself along Marcia’s line. She was at the register, attacking the groceries like a terrier digging out a mouse. Simmon’s bald, intent head bobbed between heaped carts at the next register, battling a line just as long.
Stepping into the calm area between lines, Bagman walked to the open side of Marcia’s register and said, “Should I bag?”
“We’ve been calling,” Marcia said, not slowing her furious snatch and toss pace. “Look outside.”
White. White piled two feet high against the windows, laying siege to cars in the parking lot and still dumping down from overhead. Flakes as big as golf balls, so many of them it looked fake, like an encased Christmas scene in a shaken globe.
“They’re saying it’ll fall till tomorrow afternoon,” Marcia said. “No workers coming in this mess, so you’re on Express.” She stopped, looked up at him for three precious seconds. “Can’t be the Bagman. You got to be away from me.”
He felt punched in the head, scraped across a brick wall, and before he could think about it, he was moving around the end of the check-out where two kids were bagging the mother’s groceries Marcia’s was ringing up, and into the Express register.
Simmons must have announced the register’s opening a while ago, because the line snaked back into the detergent aisle. It moved in shaky, restless jerks, people inching forward and compacting the line even though there was no actual progress.
Bagman stepped up to the register, touched it to feel for the hum, make sure it was on, then looked up.
The first customer was a big, black mamma shuffling around in galoshes. Big. Her arms stuck out at the sides, solid stubs of fatty tissue. Her nose was smashed in; she might have boxed at one time. A little more muscle, and she might have been the female Heavyweight.
She clucked, worried the scarf on her head, and pulled a tattered wool coat tighter against herself. Every movement was an elephantine effort, forces almost beyond belief at work — what it would take to dislodge one of those arms or budge a thigh.
Her cart was loaded down, too, heaped with emergency food, bottom heavy with a 50-pound sack of dog food and three cartons of soda. Twelve-items-or-less gone berserk. Hairspray, cucumbers, chili powder, candy corn — a cart as big and cumbersome as her body. Their combined bulk blocked the next few customers from Bagman’s sight.
He reached into her cart for a package of pinto beans, and heard the voice, that voice — the grocery girl’s — come from somewhere behind Mamma: “This is the express line.”
Bagman craned his neck, trying to see around Mamma, but he might as well have tried to see through her. He looped an arm around the register and drew himself off the floor until he could peek around Mamma’s side.
It was her. She’d had a tough time in the storm. Her hair strung across her shoulder like wet confetti, and her lips were wind chilled pink. But her eyes still looked warm. Melted taffy, maybe. When she saw Bagman’s face, those eyes got even warmer.
“Oh, thank God,” she said.
Bagman had never been the recipient of one of her sentences before. He wondered how he looked blushing.
“I was so afraid I was stuck,” she said. “But now —” She raised one hand palm up, as if it were common knowledge that it was where Bagman resided. The other hand held one of BuyLow’s shopping baskets; a few colorful bottles rolled around in it.
Behind the girl, swagging around in faded jeans, was a guy built like a switchblade, face full of purple bruises, ratty, untied tennis shoes, a sock hat, a six-pack in one hand. His eyes flicked past Bagman’s.
“Well?” said the grocery girl, and Bagman looked back at her. She smiled, but that was more unnerving than the Blade’s busted face behind her. “This is the express line.” She motioned with her palm up again, and Bagman realized she was gesturing toward the hanging sign that displayed the Express rules. “Someone is over the limit.”
Mamma didn’t speak, just clucked and consoled herself, studied a frozen turkey. Behind Blade, the line jerked and jerked, compressed a few more feet.
Bagman took a deep breath. Instead of a perfumed whiff of the grocery girl he tasted Mamma’s coat, like mildew, in the back of his throat. The grocery girl stamped her feet, thinned her lips across her face, and the taffy in her eyes began hardening. Bagman dropped back to the floor, leaned over to look Mamma in the face. Her eyes were the color of dog piss.
Mamma looked at him.
“This is an express lane, and you have more than twelve items.” He let that rest a moment, watched her face for a reaction that never came. “I won’t ask you to leave, but I will ask that you let the people with the proper amount through.”
Mamma kind of bobbed her head, looked ready to comply. But she had plugged the aisle. It might have been easier for everyone behind her to scale her wool coat and coast down the incline of her bosom to the register.
Valiantly, Mamma attempted a turn. There was a shriek from behind her. Bagman climbed the register again, and saw the grocery girl crammed ass-first into the candy rack. Behind her, the Blade was on springs, rollers, something. Bobbing around and around, up, down, everywhere, but still on his feet.
When the Blade saw Bagman, he became still and said, “We all a little on edge.” Then he seemed to lean in closer without moving, in the menacing way only true tough guys could. “Easiest thing be take us in order and avoid trouble.”
Bagman knew another broken nose wouldn’t kill him. And he knew what it might earn him. He was about to ask Mamma to step through to the front of the store to wait, when the shadow of Heavyweight fell across them all. Bagman realized he’d been holding his breath, and let it all out as he turned around. Heavyweight held the shovel like a guitar, dripping beads of water at Bagman’s feet. The muscles in his forearms and hands stood out like they’d been chiseled.
Heavyweight could fold the Blade in half.“What’s the problem here?” he asked.
Bagman saw his friend’s eyes jump from Mamma to the grocery girl to Blade. But never to him. Bagman said, “I was about to ask this lady to let everyone pass.”
Heavyweight tapped Bagman’s chest with the edge of the shovel. “You on you own,” he said. “This a color thing now.”
He turned, walked away. When Bagman turned back to the line, Blade was grinning.
“Look,” said the grocery girl, “my eight items are worth more than her whole cart.”
Bagman looked at each person’s groceries. Heavyweight was wrong.
“It’s not about color,” he said. To Blade, to Mamma. To Marcia, who couldn’t hear him. “It’s about knowing what egg-zotic is.”
He was afraid, but he reached into Mamma’s cart.