Cleanup at Register Three, Please
by Ted Bajek
You would have thought they were kissing booths instead of cash registers, the way Claudia's line was always the longest. The cynic, the novice, the fool could misinterpret this as a lack of efficiency on the girl's part, but that was untrue. I wonder sometimes whether the other cashiers are embarrassed, offering almost bitterly, "I can take you over here," and the men resenting them for it, even as they are obligated to accept the offer. What can we do? Clearly we cannot say "No, I think I'd rather wait in this line for an hour so I can have an eleven-second conversation with this eighteen-year-old girl, rather than pay for my green seedless grapes and be on my way in thirty seconds." I am smart: I don't get in line until I notice that Claudia's is short enough to permit me to wait without appearing conspicuous. Sometimes this takes considerable patience, timing. Lingering in plain view is not an option. So I gauge the situation, take a stroll down among the cereals, gaze at the back of a Rice Krispies or a Count Chocula, slink along to the front. It's a small store: at most they have three registers open at a time. Claudia is usually at the one on the left. But not always. She is Spanish, maybe Mexican; I don't know. Dark skinned, glorious wet-dark shining eyes cloaked coyly beneath straying locks of hair. She blinks, blows the wisps away. Her hair is shorn short in the back, her neck exposed and vaguely regal: it is so easy to see her as the princess condemned, the jewel ostracized by jealous sisters, an alcoholic mother. Her father I do not care to think about. I look at her and imagine her naked...no. You were expecting that, but it is not true. When I look at her, Claudia, I imagine her feet, just dusty at the bottom, the slope of an arch, the curve of ankle into calf. I want to kneel before her, fit her for soft slippers. "And how does that feel? Too tight? Hmmm. How about these?" They, her delicate feet, are hidden from us, somewhere beneath the bulky hardware of the conveyer belt and register. I would want to lick them, I think. Her toes. She turns us into boys again, either because we desire to be young when we stand close to her, or because we again feel as awkward as we did when we were her age. Is this why we love her? I am nearly a boy myself, only thirty-one, not so much older than Claudia, really. But older, it is true, yet I cannot meet her eye. Or I can meet it, but I am always first to look away. Last Friday I came in and bought a bottle of orange juice and a peanut butter PowerBar and she told me to smile. I apologized, explained that I was on my way to work. It was our first conversation. "Ah," she says, sympathetically, but perhaps not caring. Perhaps she tells everyone to smile and never expects -- or even wants -- an explanation for the smile not being there. When she tells me the price it is as though she is trying out the numbers for the first time, as though they've never been grouped in just that way before. As though, actually, she's calling the digits out to a roomful of Las Vegas senior citizens waiting with desperation for her voice to change their lives. There is a hint of derision in it, of mockery: she is condemning me for being stupid enough to spend "Threeee forrrtyyy ssssevennn" on a bottle of juice and a half-assed, dressed-down candy bar. "Three forty seven" she intones, somehow managing to stress every syllable in the phrase, to turn it into a radio station's call letters, reducing me in the process to a shunned schoolboy, a happy dunce. And Claudia, my Claudia, is smart. She knows to hand the coins back before giving the bills and the receipt, and of course I have the silly hope that she does this only for me, but I have had jobs like the one Claudia has, and the fact, however cold, is that you develop a routine. You do the same thing a hundred times a day and you develop a cadence to your speech, your pronouncement of numbers, the way you flick the coins from your drawer and pass them to your customers. I don't want to fail her, and I find myself pocketing my receipt instead of allowing it, in my usual way, to flutter lazily to the floor.
I smile at her when she looks away. Our hands nearly touch as I pass her the bills. The drawer chimes, her brown fingertips gather the coins like a grinning frog's tongue flicking flies, and ever courteous she recounts them to be sure. It is a matter of seconds that her head is lowered, but with vigor I drink in her skin, the short downy hair on the nape of her neck, the half-dozen ink flecks (blue) on the collar of her starched white shirt. My timing is perfect: I look away at the last instant, and am rewarded for my discretion with the soft chime of the closing drawer. It is, for Claudia and me, a moment of intimacy, supple with rhythms and bells and precise motion, a fleeting but beautiful dance. Yes...yes, there is a music to it, faint but palpable; at once I feel glorious, dizzy, drunk, and when she turns to me, as she always does, with the receipt between her right thumb and forefinger, the coins arranged similarly in the left, I find myself gently taking both her hands, then looking, really looking, into her eyes for the first time. What follows -- the small tremulous pause (as though between vastly divergent movements in a symphony), the coins falling from our sticky clasped hands to the counter, their hypnotic, throaty roll from the counter to the floor; Claudia's embarrassment, which mounts quickly into confusion and then fear as she protests, shrieks What is wrong with you? in her marvelous slighted-princess voice; the shuffling strides and warnings of concerned customers (among whom are many of my shifty-eyed rivals for Claudia's affections) and the store manager as they converge in outrage on our little dance, and all the while the black conveyer belt humming stupidly forward, delivering nothing and nothing again, for no one is in line behind me -- all of this is but an extension of our private aria, and as they drag me in delirious laughter to the street, push me roughly away, slander me and order me never ever to return, I instantly forgive them, all of them -- even you, my darling -- for who in this world is fool enough, is cruel enough to deny that where there is music, there is passion, and where passion...love?
About the author:
Ted Bajek lives in Chicago. Visit www.suedehead.net to read more of his work.