Family Five and Dime

by PJ Woodside


I was telling Justine, the other checker, about my murderous nightmares when the boy who buys make-up came into the store. We stopped talking long enough to watch him pick up a basket and head for the Revlon display. Today, even though it wasn’t summer yet, he had on cut-off shorts with the fringe hanging down to his knees, a yellow polo, and pink flip-flops with a daisy blooming on each foot. Justine shook her head as if dismissing a fly. There wasn’t anyone else in the store. Rosemary, the manager, had gone to get her nails done.

“Now tell me this again,” she said once the boy was out of sight. “You dream about killing somebody?” She unloaded snack cakes onto the end cap nearest the register.

“I don’t kill them in the dream,” I said. I could hear the make-up boy drop something loose into his basket, lipstick, maybe, or eyeshadow. I lowered my voice. “I just have this feeling like I know I’ve done it and I’ve chopped up the body and hid the pieces in an abandoned well out behind the apartments.”

Justine’s head jerked up from the shelf. “Girl!” She said this at about three times the volume I expected.

“Shut up,” I said. The make-up boy was standing real still in the shampoo aisle, like he wanted to overhear. I don’t know why I cared. I guess I didn’t want him to think I was an axe murderer.

“Why would you dream a thing like that?” she asked, not any quieter. “You need a shrink or something.”

“I do not.”

“You have dreams about throwing body parts down a well and you think that’s normal?”

“I don’t dream about doing it,” I said. “I dream about being guilty. There’s a difference.”

She raised her eyebrows—they’re dark brown, as compared to her hair, which is peroxide blonde—and put her hand on the counter right next to my elbow. I thought she was going to give me some words of comfort to help me through the bad spell I’d been having. Instead, she flicked her glance toward the shampoo aisle.

“You think he’s doing other boys?”

“Justine, he’ll hear you.”

“Don’t you want to know? Don’t it make you wonder just a little bit? I mean, he comes in here almost every Thursday for three months. What does he need that much makeup for?”

“Maybe it’s for somebody else,” I said.

“Yeah. Right.” Justine picked up two empty shipping boxes. “I’m taking these to the dumpster,” she said. She shifted her hips. “I just hope you ain’t dumped none of your bodies back there.” Then she snickered.

I should have known better than to tell Justine my dreams. She’s twenty years older than I am, so sometimes I think she’ll help me with my worries, like my Mama would if she hadn’t died and my Daddy would if he hadn’t met Tabitha and moved to Indiana. Justine was the closest thing I had to family in Liberty, and I was starting to think she didn’t know any more about how to live in the world than I did. Maybe less. That’s the odd thing about growing up—you think the world will come clear at some point, like when the clouds part and the fuzz on satellite TV goes away. But I was twenty-three now, and starting to think everybody lives in a fuzz most of the time; we just get better at hiding it.

The boy who buys make-up came to the front just then and set his basket on the counter, but he didn’t unload his items. He’d picked out two lipsticks, an eyeliner, some mascara, and a big jar of cold cream. He held the handles of the basket against his chest and leaned toward me. His cheeks were soft and pretty and his eyes were deep blue. Sometimes when he came in you could see he hadn’t gotten all the mascara off his eyelashes the night before, so they looked dark and slutty. But today they were clean.

“I heard you talking,” he said. “About your nightmare.”

“I was just fooling,” I said. “Trying to creep out Justine.” I figured by now he knew our names from the tags on our smocks. Justine had lived in Liberty all her life, and she said she’d never seen him outside the store. She said he probably came from out of town to buy his stuff so he could hide his secret life. She acted like he ought to be ashamed, but I didn’t think he was. I didn’t even think it was really a secret.

He shook a wavy lock of hair out of his eyes. “Dreams are important,” he said. “Dreams tell you things.”

“What kinds of things?”

“Things you should listen to. Things you can only say to yourself when you’re sleeping.”

I looked at him, from one pupil to the other. I couldn’t remember the details of the murder my brain had concocted—no knife or gun, no victim, not even the body pieces slipping over the edge of the well. Just me harboring a guilt in my chest so terrible I ached from it the next day. Even after I woke up and remembered I had never hurt a soul in my life, I found myself drawn to the tiny patio of my apartment, wondering if there really was an abandoned well back there, daring myself to go look for it.

“You think I’m some kind of psychopath?”

“No,” he said. He let out a soft giggle.

“That’s what Justine thinks.”

“She has no vision,” he said. He lifted his hand across the counter, brought it toward my face. Just when I was about to flinch he touched his finger to my forehead—touched it skin to skin like we had known each other all our lives. “You want to figure it out, you have to look in here.” Even after he moved his hand away I could feel the spot where he’d had his finger. It burned into my forehead like one of those dots Indian women wear.

“What’s your name?” I asked. I never wanted to know before, but this changed things.

“Brady.”

Justine pushed a handtruck full of boxes out of the stockroom. She parked it on the drug product aisle, about fifteen feet from my register.

“Are you finished shopping?” I didn’t want Brady to leave—I had more to ask him, more to talk about—but I didn’t want Justine to overhear.

“Not quite,” he said. “I’ll be back.”

I watched him carry his basket through the aisles: past the sand buckets and flip-flops; the hats, t-shirts, hammers and light bulbs; the towels and oven mitts and vases and candles and measuring cups and frames. I knew every item in that store. I bought practically everything in my apartment plus snack food and toiletries on my 15% employee discount. It wasn’t great stuff; it wasn’t even decent stuff. But it was cheap and most of the time adequate, which is good enough when you can’t afford more. Sometimes I sat in my plastic outdoor chair on the walkway in front of my apartment and watched the people in my building come and go, imagining what kinds of lives they had inside their own apartments, whether they were on their way somewhere else, or finished going, or had settled for less than their dreams, or if they even thought about stuff like that at all. When my mother was alive she used to say I had too much imagination for my own good, but I disagree. I never had quite enough.

When Brady disappeared in the far back corner, Justine left the hand truck in the aisle and crossed toward me. Her face had the curled-up anticipation of a pampered dog. “What did you find out?”

“What do you mean?”

“I saw you talking to that boy. What did he tell you?”

My lips were dry—I had to lick them to get the words out. “He said he forgot something.”

She pointed a bony finger at me. “At first he was funny. You know—look who’s here, the make-up boy. But he’s not funny anymore.”

“I don’t think he was trying to be funny.”

“Here’s what you need to do. When he comes to check out, ask him why he’s always buying make-up. If he’s some kind of freak, he doesn’t need to be shopping in our store anymore.”

“He seems nice to me.”

She jerked her head and her hair swatted from one shoulder to the other. “You’re too soft, you know that? I thought it was just part of your Mama dying year before last, how you see the world like a five-year-old. It ain’t that pretty. There’s sick people and mean people and nasty people, and we don’t want ‘em in here. You want to keep your job, you better get used to doing some of the dirty work. Besides.” She gave me a sour look. “He scares customers away.”

“There aren’t any other customers.”

“See?”

The bell on the door jangled and we both looked up. It was Rosemary, returning from her manicure. She held her fingers apart so her nails didn’t touch.

“Ya’ll don’t both need to be up here at the register,” she said, taking a quick breath after every other word. She was winded from the short walk between her car and the store and she smelled of cigarette smoke.

“That homosexual boy is in here again.” Justine turned her back to me a little bit as she spoke to Rosemary. “I was just saying we need to get rid of him. He scares off the customers.”

“You think so?”

“I know so. Look around for yourself.”

Rosemary scanned the aisles and my heart sank a little bit when I saw where her eyes stopped. Brady was standing in the clothes section holding a frilly blouse to his shoulders.

“Tell him he’ll have to shop somewhere else,” said Rosemary. She settled her sight on me. “This is a family store. We cater to families. Tell him that when he comes to check out.”

I felt my pulse throb in the vein of my neck. Working at the Family Five and Dime wasn’t a hard job—not like taking orders at a fast-food restaurant or stocking at Wal-Mart. But when I looked at Rosemary, who got her hair done one Thursday and her nails done the next in exactly the same style for the seventeen months I’d been working there, and Justine, who had about as much warmth inside her as a block of ice, I got kind of sick.

Brady put the shirt down and headed toward the front. He smiled at the three of us standing there.

“I’m ready now,” he said. His voice sounded sweet, like a pouty girl who’s trying to get something out of a difficult boyfriend. In addition to the make-up, he had some pantyhose and a four-pack of toilet paper.

Rosemary picked her purse up off my counter and headed for the office by the stockroom; Justine returned to shelving merchandise out of sight of the register. They were both cowards. I rang up the toilet paper and put it in a bag, all the while looking at Brady.

“What do you think my dream means?” I asked him.

Two more people came in to the store; one went to the kitchen section and the other headed for pet supplies. Brady tilted his head toward me; he looked so innocent, standing there. I wondered if I looked innocent to him.

“Maybe it’s a metaphor,” he said.

I rang up the pantyhose and the make-up and put it in another bag. “I think I know,” I said. “I think it means I’m going to kill somebody if I don’t get me a better life.”

He handed me a crisp twenty dollar bill. “Maybe you’ve killed something already.”

I froze for a second. The light coming through the store-front window had shifted and somebody’s windshield reflected the sun in my eyes.

“Here’s your change,” I told him.

I gave it to him and he started out the door, turning as he did to wink at me. It was a nice wink. In fact, it was the best wink I’d had in a long time. I felt saved, like when I was thirteen and got baptized under the water at the church my Mama took me to.

When Justine saw he’d gone, she charged over to my register.

“So? Did you tell him?”

“No,” I said.

“What do you mean?”

I popped open the smock with my name embroidered on it, revealing the cheap, sweat-stained, store-brand t-shirt I had on underneath. “I’m not doing your dirty work,” I said. I shed the smock and laid it over the stool behind the cash register.

Justine froze up like the tin man on the Wizard of Oz. “Where are you going?”

“I need some air.”

I walked out the door. I didn’t know if I was quitting yet, but I knew I couldn’t stay inside that place a second longer. I had everything I needed: five dollars and a license and a picture of my mother in my wallet. Keys and a chapstick in my front pocket. Everything except a way home. I’d been catching rides with Justine ever since the engine of my Escort burnt out on the way back from my father’s wedding.

I stood with my back to the concrete blocks that framed the window-glass at the front of the Family Five and Dime, trying to make up my mind which way to go. Then I saw Brady. He was getting into a tan-colored grandma car, the kind that’s big and boxy with one seat going all the way across the front. Plenty of room for a passenger.

“Hey Brady,” I shouted. He was several parking spaces away. “Could you give me a lift?”

Maybe he didn’t hear me or maybe he pretended not to. Either way, he closed his door, started the car, pulled out of the lot without a glance in my direction. I watched him disappear down the road.

I didn’t hold it against him. I only regretted I’d never see him again. The air was chilly, so I put my hands in my pockets and headed home.