by Jennifer Turnquist
A guy comes into the drugstore and goes to the snack aisle. Early twenties, longish hair, patchy beard like he never learned to shave properly. He glances at me so I look away quick, busy myself with straightening the packs of Life Savers on the counter. I’m not watching him because he’s attractive or anything. He isn’t. He’s skinny and stoop-shouldered. I’m watching him because of how his eyes dart around and because he keeps fidgeting with a buckle on his canvas backpack.
Our only other customer is a middle-aged lady who came in right after the guy. She’s chewing gum and looking at a magazine. When I check the snack aisle again it’s empty, but I can still see the guy in the surveillance mirror, which is long and runs across the back of the store under the ceiling. In the mirror, I watch him take a box off the shelf—aspirin or antacids maybe—and put it back. He looks over his shoulder, glances at the mirror, fiddles with the buckle again. What’s he doing? If he’s a shoplifter, he’s pretty terrible at it.
Mr. Parr comes back from the bank and stops to see if I need change for the register. I tell him I’m all set. He points at the display behind the counter where we keep the pipe cleaners and filter tips and such. You’ve got some empty spots there, Donna. Let’s get those filled in. I’ll take care of it, Mr. Parr, I say, my eyes still on the mirror.
Now if that were David, he would have waltzed in here, taken what he wanted, and waltzed right out again. Not that he never got caught, but when he did he’d be all friendly and innocent and oh man, did I really walk out with that? My mom always said David could talk his way out of anything. It wasn’t an act either. David was really a nice guy, but also he was restless. People who used to know our dad usually let him go, but they’d talk to him first, tell him it was time to get serious and grow up. Not everyone in town let him off so easy though. He ended up at the police station a few times, but no one ever threw the book at him. Maybe they should have. The Army doesn’t take criminals. What’s worse? Having a brother who did time or not having a brother anymore at all?
This stringy-haired guy is probably one of the unlucky ones who got his head screwed up in ‘Nam. Whether the Army straightened David out or he ended up a vacant-eyed unfortunate like those you see wandering around we don’t know. Personally, I consider him dead. How often do you hear about a guy who’s MIA showing up alive? Once in a blue moon, that’s how often. Sometimes somebody’s remains are identified, but then they’re only definitely dead instead of probably dead. This is all my own private opinion not to be shared with my mother. She’s convinced he’s in a camp in the jungle over there. She writes to the government every month begging them to keep searching. I urge you, she writes. I entreat you. One time I heard my uncle telling her it was time to stop writing, to move on. Sometimes living is hard work, Ellen, he told her. It’s heavy lifting. Other people talk to her too, but it doesn’t do any good. I get so fed up with her, sitting at home acting like her own life is over. I even told her once that if David was alive he would have talked his way out of that camp by now. Isn’t that what she always said? She just looked at me and said in that slow way she talks now, he doesn’t speak the language.
Mr. Parr heads toward the back with the bank pouch. On the way he gives our stoop-shouldered friend the once-over, like he does with anybody who’s grooming is less than excellent, and goes into the office. The bell over the door jingles and Jerry from the lube joint comes in for a pack of Camels. Jerry likes to talk. Today he’s got a story about a guy who brought in a Firebird and Jerry and Raoul found a pair of pantyhose in the glove box. Jerry waggles his eyebrows at me, so I say, so, maybe his wife keeps a spare pair. It’s not hard to get a run in a pair of pantyhose. Jerry shakes his head. Nope, these were all bunched up. Definitely some hanky-panky going on in that Firebird. Like what, I say, and regret it when Jerry grins at me and says, like, you know.
Jerry’s got to be close to thirty and shouldn’t be grinning at me like that. If David was here he would tell Jerry to get lost, maybe even pop him one, like he did the boy who ditched me at the Sweetheart Dance freshman year. But David isn’t here, and Jerry’s visits are about the only thing that keep me from dying of boredom at work. So I ask if there was any other evidence, like a barrette on the floor. Jerry laughs and says, who wears barrettes with pantyhose? I’m about to say my mom does, but I know what Jerry’s mind will do with that. He’ll have my mom steaming up those car windows, even though she’s barely left the house since we got the telegram. So I say, what were you doing going through the guy’s glove box when all he wanted was an oil change? Jerry laughs again and knocks twice on the counter, like he always does by way of saying so long.
Jerry walks away and I nearly jump out of my skin because the guy is right there behind him. He’s fingering the buckle on his backpack and I wonder if he’s about to stick us up. I glance at the woman in the magazine aisle. She blows a big pink bubble and lets it pop, probably getting flecks of spit all over a magazine she has no intention of buying. She’ll be no help if he pulls a gun. I ring up his deodorant and pack of crackers. He pays with a five and puts the change in his pocket and stands there jingling the coins. And that makes me think maybe he doesn’t have a gun but that he wants something else. Then he starts fiddling with that buckle again. I’m telling you, I’m starting to sweat now. I manage to ask if I can do anything else for him. He licks his lips and leans forward. I have something, he says. And then he says it again: I—I have something.
I shouldn’t, but I look into his face. I think, what is it? What does he have? His eyes are worried and angry and sad all at once. Lost-looking, and I wonder, was he over there? Did he know David? Maybe he has a message I can pass on to my mom, a yes or no that will let her get on with her life. He’s going to tell me how he and David were together, bullets raining, and David died a brave death. Or there’s a camp, and he—
The magazine lady comes over and stands next to him. Come on, Phil, she says. Time to get you back. Wait, I say, what’s going on? He lives in that group home on Fulton, she tells me. I ask if she works there and she shrugs and says it’s a living.
I watch through the big glass window as they walk down the block and out of sight. I’m still staring out the window, thinking about David, thinking about how it would feel to finally know, when Mr. Parr comes out of the back.
I hear him plunk a box on the counter, probably full of after-shave or enemas. Wake up, girlie, he says. I swear, you get moony-eyed over every Army-surplus hippie who comes in here. I stare out the window, dreaming, a little longer before I tell myself it’s time to get back to work.
Jennifer Turnquist has a BA in psychology that she never put to any professional use. After several years working in a neurophysiology laboratory, homeschooling her children, and attempting various entrepreneurial enterprises, she discovered that she really likes to write. Ten years later, she’s still at it. She lives in the Twin Cities with her family.