Jeana Steele Burton
The Red File
Mark swung his Jetta around the brick cube that looked like the orthodontist’s office he’d gone to as a teenager. No coincidence. The company’s flagship store fit the neighborhood’s medical/retail mix, to evoke feelings of healthful spending. He aimed for the gravel lot in between this and the next identical-looking building. He felt the anxiety he always felt whenever the company directed him to park here. Parking here meant he was in for a busy night. From the after-happy-hour rush until last-call rush, the paved lot would be filled. Last year, on the night before Valentine’s Day, they had grossed 87,000 plus dollars in eight hours. A river of merch—pink rubber, red nylon, black leather—flowed over the cashiers and out the door. Now, as Assistant Manager, he’d net five percent of whatever they made tonight.
Mark walked to the back door. The usual clump of smokers. Even over the smoke, he could smell the breeze from the nearby desert preserve and the orange blossoms leftover from the old orchards carved into subdivisions. The breeze was cool, the sun nicely warm on the back of his black shirt. Spring made it hard to go inside. You knew the sun would turn mean soon and stay mean.
He was relieved to see Chloe’d shown up after all. She was holding a cigarette in one hand and petting Yoshi’s mohawk with the other.
“Pointy!” she giggled. “How do you get it so hard? My dad says they used to use egg whites back in the day.”
It was hard to connect this girl to the one who’d called him at home, again, this afternoon, whispering against Rick, the manager, and asking for Mark’s help.
Even if what Chloe said was true, he couldn’t help her. He still had rent to pay. And now, because he’d wrecked his old, paid-for Jetta in what the police and his insurance kept calling a “single car accident,” he had a new car payment. Not to mention the fines for a DUI, not to mention a prescription cocktail for trauma-induced epilepsy that, even with the company’s health insurance, cost four hundred a month.
He could see Robert Smith from The Cure on her skinny bicep, peeking out from under the short sleeve of her black uniform. That big, black tattoo was hard to connect to this girl, too. She was so small, pretty, but all bones and blue veins showing through white skin. The tattoo Robert was eight inches tall, a couple inches wide. Like them, the tattoo Robert was dressed in black. Mark looked down at his black shirt, black pants, and thought of the creatures, the koi, the dragons, and other creatures that coiled underneath them. He tried to picture Chloe in the tattooist’s chair for hours, needles pushing ink in and blood out. What he saw was Chloe in his bed. Not good.
When Chloe had come in for her interview, two months ago, he’d seen that tattoo and told her The Cure was his first concert in 1989, his 13th birthday. And she’d said, “Yeah, my dad used to play their tapes when I was a kid.” Her dad. Mark did the math. Figured her dad must be six years older than himself.
It was hardly more depressing when she’d said, “I got the tattoo to remind me of the good times with my dad, the times he wasn’t beating the shit out of me. It’s ironic, sort of, because this is the arm he broke.”
Mark checked his watch. 3:40. They all checked their watches too. They had five minutes until they had to count their drawers and log in. But he could see them trying to gauge his mood, especially Chloe, to see if they should grind their cigs out and follow him in now.
“See you guys in five,” he said and pulled the metal door off the shelf bracket they’d used to prop it. “Go around front.” How many times had he told them? Hold-up guys could sneak through the propped door, hide in the stock room, jump them at close. He chucked the bracket in the bin inside the door. Let the door bang shut. Let them think they were on his shit list. Maybe they’d learn.
He expected to find Rick on the floor, this busiest night of the year, but on his tour of lingerie, shoes, books, magazines, toys, lubes, DVDs, and bachelor/bachelorette novelties, he saw only the backs of black twill shirts, employees straightening and dusting and windexing. White-hot spotlights illuminated any speck of dust on the glass shelves. All 4,000 square feet, department store bright to make customers drop any previous porn-store connotations. So far, it was a typical weekday afternoon—a handful of bachelors flipping through the rental bins—but he knew that would change at 5:00. The employees knew it too. Everything being done would soon be undone by the advancing hordes.
The hordes would want coffee so he went to the kiosk at the center of the store. The company insisted on a constant flow of coffee through the chrome samovar, to appeal to young, educated women. It was the biggest pain in the ass. Riding employees to refill the grounds, to wipe the sugar and instant creamer off the counter, to pick up the lipstick stained styro cups that accumulated on the toy bar. Easier to do it himself. Easier and it gave him the feeling he deserved good things because he was working harder than anyone. He stared at the plastic finial atop the samovar, waiting for the brown percolating bubble. No bubble. He sighed and bent to open the cupboard where they kept the coffee.
“I just started a new pot.”
Chloe stepped out from the Bath and Body aisle, paper towel in hand.
“You know it takes forever to get going again. But I can bring you a cup, take it back to the office when it’s ready.”
Why did she have to be so nice? Why did her eyes have to be so big and brown, making him feel so bad?
“Yeah. Rick’s back there. Aren’t you looking for him?”
Her eyes searched his face again.
He looked down at the counter, brushed a couple of sugar crumbs into his palm. “I better go back there, then.” He turned and carried the sugar to the stockroom door. He could feel her eyes on him. He rolled his shoulders but it didn’t help.
He hadn’t said he’d do anything. Hadn’t promised her anything.
Behind the glass wall separating the office from the stockroom, he saw Rick slouching in the leather swivel chair.
The cordless phone cradle was empty. The office door closed, so he could only guess who Rick was talking to on the phone.
Mark hid from Rick’s view. He listened hard, stopping down his eyes as if that would open his ears wider. He thought he heard Rick say, “baby.” But was it “baby,” as in, “I want to come on your face,” or “baby” as in, “we need diapers”?
Rick had two little kids. A wife. A tan stucco house, a normal house, which Mark had been to for dinner. He couldn’t imagine Rick calling Chloe from there, doing what she accused him of doing. Mark leaned closer to the door.
Which suddenly wasn’t there anymore. Instead, Mark’s ear was tilting at Rick’s white dress shirt. Mark stood up straight but his palm, cupping sugar, hovered.
“You look like the lawn jockey in my grandma’s front yard. Are you going to stand there all night or get in here and get down to business?”
Over Rick’s shoulder, Mark could see the posters the company was required by law to display.
“Yeah!” Marlyse had yelled, as the cops dragged her past the poster he was looking at now.
“This is fucking rich! That poster should read ‘Sexual Harassment Whiners Will Not Be Tolerated at This Company!’” She’d looked right at Mark then, to back her up, to walk out behind her.
The cops had dragged her to the door. All dead weight and bad attitude. She was a female version of himself, he’d thought, a good person until you raised that bad temper. And she was six foot four in black patent heels and size 16 black suit dress. Venus of Willendorf meets Betty Page. Big brown eyes under black baby bangs. In them, he saw the tears she was fighting back and he could tell she was remembering the night before, when he’d said he would do anything for her. She’d looked at him and he’d looked down at his polished black dress shoes, not moving an inch. Here his shoes were now, on the same blue carpet just outside the office. Here they were stepping over that threshold.
Inside the office, he looked into Rick’s blue eyes for clues—was Chloe telling the truth? Rick looked like always did. Like you and he were in on the same sly joke. But “lawn jockey”? Maybe Rick was a racist, sexually harassing piece of shit.
“Sit, sit.” Rick said, sitting in the chair Mark still thought of as Marlyse’s. “Let’s pow-wow. What do you want, what do you need before I clear out of here for the night?”
Mark sat down next to Rick. His clenched fist on his knee. The sugar. He opened his sweaty palm and wiped it clean on the side of his black pant leg. It was Valentine’s eve. No time to think about Chloe.
But he couldn’t go anywhere that night without running into her. Even now, he just wanted to eat his “lunch”—a midnight lunch—in peace. On a normal night, he’d be in the office, sitting in Marlyse’s old chair, watching “Futurama” on the little black and white TV he’d nicked from his mom’s house. But tonight he was in the break room, within sprinting distance of the registers. And, of course, his lunch was the same as Chloe’s. And now he was stuck in here with her.
The break room was small, a square just bigger than the round table at its center, and it felt even smaller tonight. There was this smell, too, coming up off the floor. A combo of the floral whatever the janitor used to mop and the yeasty, fetid smell of the mop. You couldn’t smell it in the store, under all the girls’ perfumes, and the customers’ perfumes and colognes, and the shelves stocked with fruity lubes, lotions, and oils. But in here you couldn’t not smell it.
Mark held his breath as Chloe bent down to take her food from the fridge. She was bony but with a nice, round butt. Was she taking her time so he could look at her butt? Was she offering something in return for helping her bring harassment charges against Rick? Didn’t she see the irony? Didn’t she understand they wouldn’t win? Marlyse wasn’t talking to him anymore but he’d heard she couldn’t find a lawyer who thought she had a good case. She was still unemployed.
The microwave hummed, venting clouds of garlicky steam. Chloe stood with her back to it. She seemed fascinated with her arm hair. Mark watched the steam rise behind Chloe’s head and curl into nothingness, revealing the red, white and blue rhetoric of the labor law posters tacked there. They were the same posters as in Rick’s office. Mark wondered if Rick read them, and if he thought they had anything to do with him.
Chloe looked up at him, let a slow smile steal across her face. Her brown eyes, a lot like Marlyse’s, he noticed for the first time, were flecked with gold. The gold spots, like the freckles on her cheeks, sparse but significant, like constellations. Above her black pigtails, the poster: “It’s The Law! Es La Ley!”
“That smells good,” he said because it was something to say.
“Doesn’t it? Yoshi made it for me. I forget what it’s called but it’s a chicken curry thing he learned from his mom. He said he’d teach me how to make it, too.”
He couldn’t look her in the eye, so he looked at her name badge lanyard. Lots of buttons on it. LIKE I CARE was the biggest. They sold rude buttons so the company let them wear rude buttons. One of the reasons Mark applied there out of high school, telling his friends it wasn’t “corporate,” like their jobs.
“Oh?” He didn’t know Yoshi could cook. He knew Yoshi talked a lot. In English, in Japanese.
To the girls who loved him in that way that girls love gay guys.
“Do you want some? I can put it on a paper plate.”
She held the bowl out to him. Chunks of chicken floating in coconut milk. Normally it would smell good but his stomach felt tight. He didn’t even want the burger and fries he’d run across the street for.
He chewed a mouthful of fry, swallowed. It stuck to the back of his throat. He sucked soda from his straw but that didn’t dislodge the greasy scratchiness.
She sat down across from him and began to eat.
Sitting, she blocked none of the posters with her little body. “Sexual Harassment Will Not Be Tolerated at This Company!”
He took a bite of his burger but pushed it away. He wished the walkie-talkie would jolt him to the registers where he could rescue one of the girls with a managerial flourish of keystrokes.
A buzz told him he’d gotten his wish but when he reached for the walkie-talkie it was dim.
“It’s mine,” Chloe said and reached into her shirt pocket for her tiny flip phone.
Employees weren’t supposed to have cell phones on them but this wasn’t the time to get into that.
“Hello?” Blood pooled in her cheeks. Flushed, they looked like white peaches.
“Damn it,” she mouthed, “It’s him!” and shoved the phone at Mark.
“Baby, oh, baby,” the phone whispered.
Was this Rick’s voice? It was hard to tell.
Rick would have had time to get home already and call her.
“You know you want it. You know you want me to put it in you.”
Pretty cliché, Mark thought, if you’re going to sexually harass a girl, at least get creative. He could hear breathing and a sandpapery beat that—though he knew what it was—made Mark think of his Japanese tattooist, holding back a handful of Mark’s ass, stabbing ink into his upper thigh with a razor and bamboo hauhau.
Before he could make himself think, he said, “Rick?”
The beat stopped. There was a click and then nothing.
He flipped the phone closed, set it on the table between them.
“I told you,” she said, reaching over her curry to lay her palm on his forearm. God, she was sorrier for him than he’d been for her when she called him this afternoon. He could feel the warmth of her hand even through the sleeve of his shirt, imagined the pink chrysanthemum inked there, its petals curving to her touch.
“He won’t stop. No matter what I say or do.”
He wanted to ask why she even answered. Why didn’t she just get a new number? What the hell he was supposed to do without getting them both fired? But then his walkie-talkie thrummed.
“It’s Alexis. I need help in lingerie.”
“You need me to bring the red file?”
“Yes. I don’t know. Maybe. Yes.”
He drained his soda but still felt the scratchiness at the back of his throat. He coughed and when he tried to catch his breath, got a big whiff of the sticky floor smell. He threw his food in the trash on his way out the door. Chloe was fascinated with her arm hairs again, petting the ones on Robert Smith’s legs. But he could feel her silent question following him onto the floor.
Would he help her like he was running to help this red file girl?
There was no red file. “Red file” was code for “this customer is creeping me out.” And there was no Alexis, only a girl named Jennifer who’d chosen a name not her own for the name badge she was required to wear. The company required all female employees to use a pseudonym to prevent customers from looking up their phone numbers or addresses.
You could tell a lot about a girl by her pseudonym, Mark thought as he shouldered his way through the magazine section: Laid Maids! Titillating Tongue Fests! Puffed Pussies! Party-girls, like Lori, picked stripper names like Sindy. Girls working their way through college, like the blonde, tan, Iowa girl Jennifer, picked classy sounding names like Alexis. Chloe, whose name already sounded like a pseudonym, was Jane.
“Mark!” A voice from the far corner of lingerie. Alexis/Jennifer.
Since it was Valentine’s eve, there were more couples than usual. Hard to see Jennifer through the crowd, size up who was bothering her.
Jennifer saw him and waived him over to fitting room.
“Did you need the red file?” he asked, looking around lingerie for the creep. This store was just a jog from million dollar homes, they had fewer “red files” than most stores. One tonight felt like a bad omen.
She pointed to the hairy feet beneath the batwing doors of the fitting room and whispered, “It’s a panty guy.” Then loudly: “Oh, uh-uh, I could see how you’d need a lot of material in the crotch, then.” Roll of her eyes for Mark’s benefit.
“Do you have the purple mesh boy shorts in an XL?” a deep voice asked.
“I’ll check,” Jennifer said. She walked over to a long rack of panties and pretended to look for the XL. Mark followed, keeping an eye on the feet.
“It’s not that he’s a cross dresser,” she whispered, “you know, I love the drag queens and there’s been some real sweet transvestites and their wives who come in.”
“Yeah,” Mark whispered back, “I know.”
“But this jerk-off comes in and he’s got to put it in my face. Literally. You wait, you’ll get a good look at it too. And that’s what pisses me off, Mark. That guys like him think, just because I work in a sex store, I have to share their kink.” She had blue eyes and bluer circles underneath them. He felt her tiredness as his own, just for a second, a heaviness in his elbows and knees.
But he fought it. Imagined the smug face of the panty guy behind the fitting room doors. Willed his body to start that rush that always came before a good fight. His eardrums pounded and his eyes blurred except for a tunnel of stunning clarity right in front of him. Shit, that came on so hard and fast, was this a seizure? He checked his body against memories of his last onset. He had smelled ozone, felt his arms and legs go boneless. This was different. He wasn’t tired now at all. He clenched his fists, breathed fast, in and out. Counted the guys on shift: Danny in DVDs, Hector in toys, him. It’d be enough. His high school buddies hadn’t called him Nuclear for nothing.
“Look, Jen, he starts shit, I’ve got your back. I’ll call the other guys too. And don’t forget, you’ve got the whip.”
The fitting room key in her hand, was attached to a black cat’o’nine tails, mainly so they wouldn’t lose it. She laughed a little. “Okay, okay,” she sighed against the rack, making the panties tremble. “Thanks. I’ve been working this job too long. I need a vacation.”
“Me too,” he said and pressed himself to the wall by the fitting room door just before the guy walked out, balls swinging.
The red satin thong, with its appliqué butterfly, hung at the side of his chubby like a theatre curtain. He was a stocky guy. Muscle sheathed in fat. He reminded Mark of the seals he and his ex-girlfriend had seen in San Francisco on their last vacation together, before she gave him back his ring, before the thing with Marlyse, before the accident.
“See?” the guy said, not noticing Mark who stood behind him and a little to the side. He was looking at Jennifer who stood with the panty rack between them. “These don’t cup –
“Get back in that dressing room. Now.” Mark boomed. “And get your saggy ass dressed so I can kick it out.”
The guy spooked. Shoved his way back through the batwing doors so hard they flapped on their hinges for the whole time it took his feet to march out of panties, into jeans, socks, sneakers. Mark called Danny and Hector. They were there before his walkie-talkie sizzled to silence. Leaning forward, willing the fitting room doors to open.
They waited and waited. Mark kept an ear out for the creak of the door but looked across the store to the front counter. Chloe. He wasn’t the only one watching her. A line all the way to the lingerie. He could hear them silently chanting--hurry, hurry, hurry—as she loaded tester batteries into a pink Decadent Indulgence vibrator. They never understood why you had to test toys before they left the store until you explained the obvious: No exchanges.
Chloe caught him watching. At the same time, the doors creaked open.
It was on!
But the guy came trodding out like a kid to the principal’s office.
He looked at Mark, flanked by Danny and Hector, with his damp seal-eyes and said, “I’m sorry.
I’m sorry and I’m leaving, so don’t hit me.”
Danny and Hector. Psssh! in stereo.
This was no fight. This sucked.
“Don’t apologize to us,” Mark said. “Apologize to her.”
The guy kept squinting like any second his forehead would slam into Mark’s fist. When it didn’t, he opened his eyes wide enough to look at Jennifer.
“I’m sorry,” he said. It seemed to Mark that he said this to the circles under her eyes.
She considered this guy in his normal t-shirt and jeans, his normal sneakers. She wove the whip’s tails through her fingers.
“Don’t do it again,” she said. “If you’re sorry, you won’t do it again, not to me or any other girl. Right?”
The guy nodded.
Danny and Hector moved from Mark’s side to the guy’s elbows. Like the cops with Marlyse.
“Come on, dude,” Hector said. “You’re out of here.”
“Wait. You’re buying those panties,” Mark said. He pointed to the red wad. “Pick ‘em up.”
Walking to the counter, Mark was relieved to see the line now ended right before the registers at the bins full of flavored lubes, glow in the dark condoms, and little candy-bar vibrators with names like Tootzypole. Good. They all deserved a little break before the last-call customers stumbled in feeling beautiful and demanding.
It was Chloe who rang up the panties.
“Did you find everything you were looking for?” Corporate boilerplate but Chloe sounded like she did care. No wonder the secret shopper had given her 98 out of 100 possible points.
“Yeah,” the guy mumbled and slid the panties across the counter.
Chloe scanned the barcode with the laser gun and then went to pry off the security tag.
Mark stopped her. “I’ll get it.” He didn’t want her touching the panties. While Chloe ran the guy’s card, Mark made a ceremony out of wrapping the panties in tissue and putting them in a fancy red gift bag. She had to be wondering why he was doing this but she acted professional.
“Thank you for shopping with us, sir.”
“Yes,” Mark said, walking the guy’s bag down to the end of the counter. He held it out to him over the security gates. Waiting. Let the guy decide to start some shit now. Please.
Hector and Danny trailed the guy to the security gates and watched him walk through.
Mark held the bag by its prim ribbon handles. The guy took it and slouched out the door. Mark called after him, waving like a parade-queen, “Thank you so much for shopping with us, sir! Have a fantastic night, sir!” Maybe that would set him off.
He kept standing in the open door hoping the guy would turn and bum-rush him but the panty-loving coward just got in his stupid white Honda Civic and drove off.
Some customers gave him funny looks as he came back in. What if one of them was a secret shopper? The usual tightening of his chest at these two words. But then for some reason a picture popped into his head of Chloe’s button on her thin little chest, Like I care.
The last-call rush came and went. It was 1:55 and there was no one in the store but him, Chloe, and Jennifer. Hector and Danny had offered to stay but he made them punch out at 1:00. “It’s Valentine’s,” he said, “go home to your girlfriends.”
“Boyfriend,” said Danny.
“Pssh,” said Hector. “I ain’t even got one of those.”
Chloe and Jennifer were counting down their drawers. Mark checked his watch, 1:56. Close enough. He locked the front doors and pulled the chain killing the neon OPEN sign. All he had left to do was the coffee kiosk. He’d unplugged the samovar an hour ago so it was cold. He carried it to the break room by both handles, like some kind of offering, and let the tap water run through it. He scrubbed its innards. Stared at the poster above the microwave. “It’s The Law!” It’s the law. It’s the law. A kind of mantra. He let it and the water carry him.
“It’s the law, Mark. I have to report it.” Marlyse had been sure that the company would fire the
Vice President of Marketing who’d repeatedly groped her on his visits to the store. And why wouldn’t the company be on her side? She was the youngest female manager, ever. Her sales were the highest in the region. Secret shoppers loved her. Customers loved her. Employees, like Mark, loved her. She was a big woman, but didn’t let all the cultural shit about fat get to her. She was confident in her big body, in her stylish plus-sized work clothes, in her heart. She had confidently reported the abuse and was promptly fired. For something else, allegedly, but really for that. The night before Marlyse had gone in to clean out her office, the night before the cops had hauled her away, Mark had sworn to help her.
They’d been sitting around her swimming pool. Her husband brought her another margarita and put his hand on her shoulder and said what he was supposed to say, “It’ll be okay, honey. You’ll find another, better job.”
“Fuck that!” Mark said. “No disrespect, Gary. But fuck that. She had a good job and they stole it!”
At this, Marlyse had turned her face to the dark sky and howled. She was holding the toy Mercedes the president of the company had given her, a token of the bonus that was supposedly coming her way soon. A one-year lease, a company car.
“…and those fuckers should pay.”
Gary started saying sensible things like, “Well, I don’t know about that. It is a right to work state.”
Marlyse threw the toy car in the pool and howled at the car instead of the sky.
Mark jumped in and retrieved it.
“Fuck them and their car!” he yelled.
He pulled himself up out of the pool and slammed the car down on the deck. He stomped it. Godzilla in DC shoes. Water poured from the car—just plastic shards now—and from his shoes and from everywhere. He watched a “chrome” wheel roll away into the dark beside the little poolside bar. Tequila, that’s what they needed. He grabbed the bottle off the bar and slugged from it. Held it up for Marlyse.
“Fuck them and their car!” Marlyse yelled, draining the bottle. She threw the empty tequila bottle against the fence, joined Mark in the dance of car stomping, splintering the plastic, panting revenge fantasies. He had known, even then, they were only fantasies. He wouldn’t go to jail, not even for Marlyse. But he would help her.
He’d threaded that “chrome” wheel and put it on a chain around his neck. That was the last thing he remembered. Woke up two days later in the hospital. It was there that people started saying “single car accident,” like it was a fucking mantra. The doctors thought he was fine. The seizures wouldn’t start rolling in for another week yet, so they released him.
That afternoon he’d walked into the store with Marlyse’s toy wheel at his throat. He was going to quit. Then a bald guy he’d never seen before met him with a new name badge. MARK, it said, ASSISTANT MANAGER. Mark had looked at the bald guy with the scalded-looking skin, RICK, and thought, “More like dick.”
But he’d pinned the ASSISTANT MANAGER badge to his shirt, forgot to hate Rick, and stayed. Cashed the checks.
What in the hell was he going to do with no pay check two weeks from now? With seizures and no health insurance?
Mark watched the water running down the stainless steel throat of the sink as if the answers could be found there. When the water ran cold over his pruney fingers, he turned it off and turned the samovar upside down to drain. He sprayed Sheila Shine on a towel and polished it up so he could see his reflection in its belly—they couldn’t say he’d left the place a mess—and then he carried it back out to the kiosk.
“Are we out of here?”
Chloe standing under a spotlight. Her dyed black hair shone and made her skin seem creamy, childlike. She was somebody’s child, he thought. Even if they broke her arm.
“Yeah, Mark, are we frickin’ out of here?” Jennifer had unbuttoned her shirt and was scratching at her tan belly where her wife-beater had ridden up.
“Boy-beaters” the girls called them.
He smiled. Brushed sugar crumbs from the counter into the trash bin and put his empty palm to his chest. Thick black work shirt, underneath that, the wheel on its chain, underneath that, a tattoo dragon chasing a pearl.
“Yeah,” he said, “we’re fucking out of here.”
They pushed through the front doors. Breathed in, ah, orange blossoms. Spring in the desert. But, he thought as he locked the doors, it would be summer soon. The worst time of year to dress up and go on interviews.
“Chloe,” Jennifer asked, “you need a ride?”
“My step-dad’s coming.”
“Okay then, bye.”
“Is he coming soon?” Mark asked as he watched Jennifer drive away. Her car the only one for miles.
“I called him while you were doing the coffee. You don’t have to wait.”
He watched the red radio tower lights blink against the dark sky, a warning to pilots not to fly into South Mountain. He looked up and down the dark street. Dark offices, fast food joints, strip malls. In between, bushes thick enough to drag someone into and do whatever to them, just a few feet from any passing car. Was there something of the predator in him, in everyone, was that why he always thought like this?
“I’m waiting with you, Chloe.”
“Whatever,” she said. “I’m sitting my butt down.”
He sat down next to her on the curb, their tired legs stretched out in the handicapped parking space. Both of them looked at their own black shoes.
“I’m telling corporate about Rick.”
She locked eyes on him with a sweet, puzzled look.
“Yeah?” she said at last.
She put her hand on his arm again, the pink chrysanthemum tattoo. Now he would always have to think of it as where she’d touched him. Him. Old enough almost to be her dad.
“Yeah. But you should start looking for another job. I am.”
“Oh,” she said, picking up a cigarette butt from off the handicap logo and hucking it across the empty front lot. “Well, thanks anyway.”
A white Civic pulled into the lot and Chloe stood up. Did every creepy guy in Phoenix drive a white Civic or did it just seem like that? Mark craned his head, trying to peer through the tinted glass at “step-dad” inside. But all he could see was a shadow behind the wheel. If her own dad broke her arm, what wouldn’t a step-dad do?
“See ya later,” she said as she opened the passenger door. “Thanks for waiting. Thanks for…everything.”
She climbed inside and swung the door to her.
Then her step-dad drove off, squealing tires.
“—it happened to you.”
He sat there on the curb for a long while after. The air spring-damp and alive. A coyote, her tail full with that life, trotted past him, through the parking lot and across the street to where still-vacant lots hid jackrabbits. He looked at his watch: 2:33. Denny’s was open. And he felt like he could eat.
Jeana Steele Burton
Jeana Steele Burton earned her MFA in fiction and creative nonfiction from Colorado State University, where she now teaches writing, rhetoric, and literature. Her work has appeared in journals such as the Laurel Review, Matter, and upstreet. She is a member of the Slow Sand Writers Society.