Sunday, July 12, 2015

Fiction #61: Thomas Robbins

Village Tale

Amanda came into the shop twice a week amidst the third wave of sailor girls. Their headquarters sat four blocks away: a sandstone ziggurat with modern glass additions like cubic polyps and wide, fresh-mown reaches of field hockey turf. The first wave of girls were under-12s who moved like gaggles of electric sparks and arrived no later than 3.45. The second wave were teens fresh from extracurriculars: athletes in gently wrinkled track pants; yearbook editors with heavy eyeliner and rolled-up skirts. The third wave of girls came around 6, when sunlight began wavering and spitting weird depleted colors over the village. These were girls with disciplinary problems. Amanda liked to steal.

Amanda's technique was sensuous. Unlike the St. Simcoe kids - teeth-gnashing barnacles in dirty sneakers who held lighters under newspaper stacks while their friend with adderall shivers crammed cigarette packs into his too-new MEC backpack - she never took the same thing twice. Running her fingers over Newsweek and Psychologist Today covers, she'd settle on a pile of Economists and place three copies into her rucksack. Or she'd hover through Cereals and pluck two single-serve Frosted Flakes pouches from the rack. One day it was batteries; the weird miniature kind, resembling waterlogged coins. By the ninth week of term she'd taken nearly a hundred and fifty dollars of merchandise and it was at that point, as she fitted the blister-pack of an E-Vape device into her bag that Tom move out in front of the counter and asked her out.

He'd thought about this for a while. To begin with, he thought about vanishing his linoleum countertop - the mountain range of price-checking equipment; the tarnished aluminum register with renovated electronic guts, beloved by dad; the credit card billing apparatus with jelly keys that Tom could use to peg $10 bonus charges onto the tabs of Bentley-piloting senior citizens - and standing arm-to-arm to Amanda. Just a sliver of dying sunlight between his shoulder and her blazer-sleeve. Her: quiet, gazing, expectant. Moving beneath the blazer. Then he thought about Amanda seizing his hand under dingy neon signage and the two of them sprinting past bouncers, plunging into a bass- and strobe- addled dance floor; finding one another in the club's warm crush of bodies. Smelling the city on rooftops with only strays nearby, preening, on the creaky fire escapes.

What Tom said, leaning against the Big Chew boxes stacked by his mom, was: "Hey, do you go to ______ ____?" And Amanda, top slice of E-Vape box still poking out her bag, said Yes happily and without pause. Cheery and alert: the tones of a front-of-class student. Tom asked if she knew ____ or ________, girls he'd never met but heard of through skate friends, and she affirmed Yes. She had science class with both. Tom let the question hang, and she didn't stop smiling or ask a question of her own. Was there a sheen on her skin? A glaze? No. But she hadn't moved, and now Tom felt, despite Amanda's fourteen recorded thefts, predatory. What he wanted was for Amanda's shoulders to drop; for her to say Do You Smoke? And for the two of them to lock the store and find a place in the ravine, far from the kid's playground but not too deep into the sycamores, to try out that E-Vape. And Amanda stood, waiting.

A few weeks later, Tom would be healed up and eager to work the register, a request which his parents would flatly deny. He'd never have to juggle store hours and homework again, and he'd miss the low fluorescent hum matching his pen-strokes. The store had been empty most nights, except for those local retirees. And the few students. Tom stopped thinking about the whole matter through university, and that was that, except for those times during Med school that he'd snap back from near-sleep, hovering over a textbook, and fling himself violently back in his chair. One time, he'd actually lash out at the desk, defensively flailing in a way that sent the four-pound anatomy text crumpling against a wall. In those moments, he’d catch all over again the glimmer of Amanda’s knife, and feel the hot snapping rush of disbelief. It didn’t matter how many times he’d reviewed the moment: he never found it plausible, the blade snapping toward his cheek and eye, and the tight little fist beneath it. The blankness beneath mascara. She never stopped being pretty, and right up until his skin parted, he thought: how silly for anyone to consider this real. Then, connection, and there were no more words. Tom only heard his panting breaths. Droll fluorescents. After some time, Tom got back to studying.

*

Thomas Robbins will be glad to never again see the inside of Canada's Telcom industry. In retirement, his old English textbooks have seen more use than his golf clubs. His favorite things are clean fishing reels, thrilling language, and northern Ontario campsites shared with his astounding daughter, Lilly. He's working on his first story collection.

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