The young man did not seem disinterested in Helen, just unaware of her. She used to get noticed quite a lot before she was married. Before she got old. She recently became aware that she was no longer a woman who got noticed. Her husband, David, four years older than she, still got noticed.
The young man’s eyes were blank and there was no expression on his face as he waited in line for his turn at the cash register. Everywhere he looked while he was waiting seemed to hold nothing worth his attention. He regarded Helen with the same look. There were three registers in the 7-11, but only two of them were being worked by clerks. He was in the line closest to the door and she stood waiting in the line closest to the fountain pop and Slurpee machines. The door to the store was open and she thought the air smelled like fruit and spring.
His name was Derek. When it was his turn at the register, the clerk recognized him, flashed a smile and said,
“Hey Derek, spring cleaning?” The clerk lifted a bottle of all purpose glass cleaner, looked at it then scanned it. Helen noticed for the first time what Derek was buying. Bleach. Tile cleaner. Toilet bowl cleaner. Dish soap. She looked down at the wire basket in her hands. Cheese flavored crackers. Potato chips. Two bottles of diet cola. She was still waiting and she wished her husband had come in instead.
The clerk wore a dirty white baseball cap with the brim pulled down low. Part of its bill was frayed and ripped. Helen thought the hat must be old and mean a lot to him. Then she remembered that you could buy them like that now. Shorts, pants, shirts, hats -- you can’t take a bite of your goddamn Cinnabon in the mall without seeing a perfectly chiseled mannequin wearing an entire wardrobe that was torn and frayed. His curly hair coiled upward over his ears like wings. He wore a green tee shirt and was still talking to Derek.
“Folks coming down for graduation?”
“Yeah. The place is a mess. They’ll be here this weekend for the ceremony and all that crap. Staying at a hotel, but my mom will still freak if she sees our apartment in the shape it’s in.
Derek was at least 21 years old (she didn’t see the beer in his left hand until he put it on the counter) and looked very nice in his cargo shorts (frayed at the bottoms), grey tee shirt and sandals. He was in good shape. Mannequin good. Helen had noticed him walking up the block as she pulled their new car into a parking space in front of the store. He had his shirt off and she looked over David’s shoulder as he told her what he’d like to drink and munch on and she watched Derek pull his shirt from his back pocket, slip it on and pull the door of the convenience store open in one fluid motion. She had to ask David a second time what he wanted and repeat it to herself until she had them in her shopping basket.
Derek was getting his change and picking up his bag and six pack. He left saying “She’s only been down here three times and hasn’t even come into the last two places I lived.”
The skinny old woman who was standing in front of her in line was arguing with the clerk about her change and the numbers on a losing lottery ticket. She thought about changing lines but drifted off into thinking about how many men a cashier at a 7-11 must talk to every day. She was thinking about the opportunities that might come to an educated, good looking woman while working behind the counter at a 7-11 in a college town. Then she remembered the way Derek looked through her.
It was her turn at the register and she was fantasizing about a dark haired college boy that she would meet as a convenience store clerk. She liked the way he looked at her as he put his Mountain Dew on the counter and reached for his wallet. She absently stuck her middle finger in between the buttons of her polo shirt and rubbed.
“Help you ma’am?” the clerk said. Helen heard him, but was looking at the space between herself and the cash register where the skinny old woman had been. She looked up at the clerk and then over to the door. Derek was walking through it with the skinny old woman just behind him.
Helen looked back to the clerk, who was taller than both Derek and her husband. By her calculations, he was at least 6'1". Too thin, though, she thought.
“Oh, yeah, here you go. Getting hot out already. I was just wondering if I forgot something. I’m sorry.”
“This all for you today?” the clerk said as he scanned the last item.
“Yeah, that’s it.”
“Need a bag?”
Derek was gone, but Helen hallucinated him in front of her and to her left. He was wearing a Speedo and she noticed for the first time that his hair was almost red, not the dark brown that she would have thought about had she not seen him again in the way that she was just then. He was still in line, but this time buying suntan lotion and children's swimmies.
“Paper or plastic?” the clerk asked Helen as she looked blankly down and to her left.
Her hallucination of Derek was still there but now he was smoking. He was smoking and someone had stolen his Speedo. It took her a couple seconds to notice that he was wearing the bright yellow swimmies on his arms. She wondered how he got them over those biceps.
“Here,” Helen said and handed a ten dollar bill to the tall and too thin boy behind the counter. “And I guess I don’t really need the bag.”
As she walked through open doors of the 7-11, she could see her husband in the car. He was sitting in the passenger’s seat and when she saw his face she could tell that he was annoyed with her. She looked at the temporary handicapped parking sticker hanging from the rearview mirror. She wished he had broken his leg instead of just tore a ligament in his knee. A broken bone seemed more painful to her.
David had not seemed annoyed with her when she left the car, but she could tell that he was now. She wondered what she had done when she had not been with him to aggravate him. She wondered if he could read minds because he seemed to be more annoyed more often with her lately.
“You took the keys,” he said through clenched teeth. Helen had opened the shiny driver’s side door to their new, metallic black sport coupe. She leaned into it and handed him the things she had purchased. He kept spitting words through his teeth. “You took the keys and it’s hot out and I couldn’t get out or get the window down because you took them. We need to take this fucking thing back to the dealer. The power door lock on my side doesn’t work and every time I tried to reach over to hit yours, I got these fucking shooting pains from my knee up to my goddamn head.”
Helen was listening, but her attention was drawn to a shirtless young man, early twenties, locking his mountain bike to the rack in front of the 7-11. His tee shirt was hanging out of the back pocket of his cargo shorts. As he walked toward the door, he lifted his arms and put his shirt on. His back reminded her of a picture she saw of a rock climber in one of David's magazines. One of the five magazines he buys about outdoor recreation and cool places to live and cool things to buy. She adjusted her seat, checked the mirrors and turned the key in the ignition. She used the power window switch to unroll both windows in the coupe and then pressed the button that made the top go down.
Over the hum of the convertible's roof receding, she said, “I’m sorry. I thought your window was down when I turned the car off. I’m just in the habit of taking the keys when I park.” She paused for a second, looked in the side view mirror and over her shoulder. She waited for the traffic to clear and pulled out of the parking space and then continued. “I didn’t realize…”
“You didn’t realize? When do you realize? What were you thinking? Where was your head? You know I was listening to The Sports Guys when we pulled up. It’s hot out, too, and it was even hotter just sitting in here. No radio, couldn’t unlock the doors or roll the windows down, no air.”
“If you hadn’t insisted on the power windows and door locks and this whole…”
He knew what she was going to say. He knew she was going to blame him because she wanted the semi-luxurious sedan and he had to have the convertible. He didn’t let her finish. He was yelling at her and she only heard the hum of the roof receding and settling in place.
She knew it would set him off when she said it. She was looking forward to it. She smiled as she thought, If you’d have gotten up out of the car, and limped your over the hill, fat, mid-life crisis having ass, with your crutches and knee brace, to the store with me you wouldn’t have been so goddamn hot. Besides that, if you weren’t so goddamn fat you wouldn’t get so hot just sitting in a goddamn car. It’s not even eighty degrees out. Besides, the car I wanted was white…
She rolled the windows back up because the top was down. Her husband was yelling at her. Helen was not listening. She was still thoughtfully speaking her mind to him.
“I’ve been rolling up windows and manually locking doors all my life!” he yelled. “I’m forty-seven years old and if I want…”
“Don’t forget the heated seats,” Helen said softly. She was still in the world where she could speak her mind and she let the real words slip through.
“Yes, and heated-fucking-seats!” he screamed and raised his backside up off the heated seat so he could get a better look at her while he was yelling. He winced in pain and she smiled.
“And remote start,” Helen said as she slowed and stopped for a red light. She did not care anymore. John had become aware that people could hear him yelling because he was in a convertible.
He whispered, “What the hell has gotten into you? Are you picking a fight with me? Is all of this funny to you?”
He was still half turned around and focused on her and squinting like he could not believe what she was saying. He could not believe that she was even speaking.
“Well,” he whispered, “are you?”
Helen was checking the traffic to her left and the light was still red. It was a long light because the cross street was one of the busiest in the small college town.
“The seat belts even buckle us in automatically. All we have to do is tighten them at the waist. Which is more of a task for some of us than for others.” Helen was still speaking softly, calmly. The voice beside her grew louder, almost inaudibly, and the fat hand that was attached to it was backhanding her shoulder.
“Helen! Helen!” he screamed and grabbed onto her shirt.
Helen was looking to her left and there was still no traffic coming from that way. She was sure that the light was still red because of the way he was clutching her shirt and looking up at it. The car was rolling forward slightly and then she pressed her lips together and her foot a little harder on the gas.
“Helen! What are you…” he screamed and clenched her shirt even tighter and tried to pull her toward him or climb over her. He was interrupted by the sound of screeching tires and the sound and feel of their car being hit from the passenger side. There was the sound of metal crumpling and glass breaking, but no more yelling. Then the car was no longer being pushed abruptly to her left and there was quiet. Her neck hurt and so did the left side of her head. The driver’s side window was shattered and she could feel glass in her hair. Her husband had been pushed on top of her. She tried to push him away but there was no place for him to go.
People were gathering around the two cars and she was still trying to push him away with her cheek and shoulder. She couldn’t move her arms. His weight made it hard for her to breathe. She was able to strain her neck forward just enough to look past him and see the shattered glass on the dash and on his tee shirt that had been yellow but was quickly becoming red. The impact had turned them almost halfway around. She could see the boy unlocking his mountain bike from the rack in front of the 7-11. She heard her husband groan softly, like he does in his sleep sometimes, and birds singing.