Something’s wrong in the freezer section. The meat slowly spoiling. Ms. Cross unaware purchases four pounds. She asks how I am. Am I going to the game tonight? Okmulgee is tough. Jerry is suspended for fighting and can’t play. She wishes he was a good boy like me. Toodle-oos with her harlot’s hands. I go back to mopping.
Crew-cut kids buy pecan sandies after school. One says Nice nametag. Cindy from homeroom laughs. I swallow and swallow again and they leave. I walk to the counter where we sell frito pie, slush puppies, cold cuts. But Jay who works it won’t give me a cigarette and so I skip my break.
Mr. Smith is five-four and keeps his apron immaculate. Somebody spilled corn starch in aisle six again, he says. Looks like it’s been there all day, he says. I don’t know what I pay y’all for. He locates Fred who’s been parked out front. Parking is for paying customers. Fred shoots him the bird behind his back.
Miss Lynch asks if we have any FFA sausage for sale. Freezer aisle, I say. Smith overhears and is eager to help her find the sausage. I go to sweep up the mess.
Customer, says Smith. Get up front, he says.
It’s Miss Lynch. She asks how’s my dad and have I started going with girls yet. I don’t know. I try not to stare at the freckles on her chest. She asks well have they been keeping me away from the whipped cream. I turn red and pretend to laugh.
Sophomore year Smith caught me doing whippits and phoned my parents. I could hear Mother on the other end. Her voice confused and deferential. It got around school. Other kids were fornicating in hayfields, stealing from registers.
I tell Miss Lynch to enjoy the sausage.
Something smells funny, says Smith.
I sweep up the starch. The boxes depict an Indian with a body made of corn. She holds her green husks open to show me her swollen golden kernels, sticky and sweet. A tepee arises in my own apron.
I tell her about the gambling man who called me a homo. I tell her about people who cut in line. I tell her about Jay who’s been stealing my yogurt. I tell her about the cigarette burns in my carpet, funny shapes in the stains. I tell her about wild-eyed missals and western disciplines. My shining baby, my falcon, my heart. Even that dumb muscle.
The track lights heat me.
Shorty rides in on a backhoe. He is purple-complected and bespectacled, squinting against the sun as he enters looking for pork loin. Freezer aisle, I say.
Smith offers him a piece of cake. It’s the store’s anniversary. But Shorty can’t have cake due to diabetes.
I marry her and we have four golden niblets. They are precocious, surefooted. Every evening we dine together and they recount their days with wonder. The breeze rustles through the bushes outside our dining room. Dusk hushes the neighborhood. One by one the windows light like torches, deep amber on moody blue. I gray at the temples. I wear sweater-vests. She reminds me that I am the only man she could ever love. She remains fresh, keeps my collars crisp. I have time. I live.
At the register Shorty asks is the meat ok. He notices it’s not quite cold.
I look out over the shrouded interstate. The silent work of leaves gloved in water. Low clouds mumbling down the mountains. I’ve got to get my mind off her. I know it’s not healthy but I can’t stop.
The freezer is failing. Closing time approaches and I am alone in the store. Outside I see headlights only. A guy getting gas. No chit-chat. No muzak. My breathing only.
Shane’s dad enters, drunk. He is dark-skinned and feather-haired. He steals timber from his neighbors and sells it back to them for firewood.
He buys Budweiser and chuck roast. He notices blood on his hands from the beef and expresses concern. It’s dripping down the aisles.
He motions me closer. Closer. He has a secret. How to make gravy.
He shows me the box in his cart. She is holding open her husks for him. Blank-eyed and unquestioning, she disrobes. Her kernels tumid, membranes nearly bursting. Quivering, I reach out to touch but feel only cardboard. His eyes ringed red follow my hand, size the situation. Seeing my weakness he snatches the box from me. He looks me in the eye, dares me to stop him.
I’ve known all along. He opens the box, tips his head back, pours her onto his face. The starch dusts his moustache and clogs his nostrils. It covers his wriggling tongue. He is in her powdery cloud and I am outside, watching. She is as passive as a polled Hereford. He lets out a scream of triumph and bites into the raw beef, tearing the paper with his teeth. He throws off his clothes and runs naked into the night, alive.
I am trudging toward home down a dark road. Weedy ditches on either side of the ruts. The surface worn convex over long dry years. Any stretch of this road a good place to break down. Any stretch of this road a good place to whistle a lonesome tune.
Up ahead is the big game. Two hundred pickup trucks parked on a dirt lot. Kids smoking under the bleachers. The brass band blaring. The stadium stabs blades of light into the sky and turns its gaze on me for it is the hour of my judgment. All the festering worms inside me shriek to the surface, boil out of my skin and fall to the gravel. The stark face of God rises in the field like marble and blinks blind eyes—you were wine, he says. You were a cup for the world to drink. An endless basket of bream. All the swimming suns and moons, all the daisies racing to the sky. All the high winds and antennae. All the pieces put together. Did you think you knew what love was for? I cried: What do you mean, Lord? I’ve seen only the black machinations of men. And he said to me convert, convert, convert if you can. You were wine when I made you.