It was raining and still dark out when Amanda opened the grocery store. She switched on the automatic doors and then swept between the registers and beneath the plate-glass windows. Peg, the day shift cashier, was supposed to sweep the front of the store, but Peg was late and with the chill in the air, it was better to keep moving.
As Amanda worked she thought about her shift. The rain, if it kept up, would keep most of the customers away, and she was almost certain the guys she worked with would come in late. The Vikings had beaten the Cowboys in overtime. It was a rare, well-played game for the Vikes and with the guys sleeping off their hangover’s, Amanda would be free to work wherever she wanted. She got along with the guys, but some were territorial over the departments they managed and some never got tired of flirting.
Forty minutes later there was gray light outside the windows and Amanda had completed everything she could at the front of the store. There was still no sign of Peg and Amanda was pacing. Her hands were on her hips and her anger was evident in her blue, slightly-protuberant eyes, the tilt of her head and in the flick of her auburn ponytail. “Getting mad at Peg,” she thought, “is like getting mad at the rain. Peg is never going to change.”
Amanda circled the grocery carts and came around the front of the registers. When she reached the first one, she stopped. Between her and the office was a tall, rotating stand full of cigarettes. Amanda turned the heavy stand and watched the fluorescent light travel over the cellophane rectangles. When her beloved Camel Lights came into view she made a face. So far she’d made it twenty-three long days without a cigarette.
Amanda walked over to the stacked bags of dog food and looked out. The streetlights were still on and bodies were moving around inside the fast food restaurant. The rain was still coming down. The store’s wide parking-lot ran at an incline down to the street and the wet asphalt reflected the pearl-gray sky.
If Amanda snuck a quick smoke, none of her co-workers would be able to give her a hard time. A pair of headlights approached and Amanda wondered if she could be out under the awning with a lit cigarette before it passed. It was fun to be tempted. She went back to the stand and walked her fingers up to the Camel Lights.
As she pressed her thumb and index finger in between the soft packs the automatic doors made her jump. A man entered wearing a wet jean jacket and gave an overly-enthusiastic hello. He headed toward the bakery department and Amanda went over to the second register and waited. The man had been in before. Amanda had been friendly to him once and he’d then embarrassed her by hanging-out while she’d rung-through customers. After he finally left, Amanda’s boss didn’t believe her when she said she didn’t know the guy.
The man came back with cinnamon rolls, bacon, eggs and orange juice and the beeping of Amanda’s scanner was loud despite the drumming of the rain.
“It could be worse,” the man said, “all that could be snow!”
Amanda smiled without opening her mouth and the man looked disappointed as he reached for his wallet. Then the doors swooshed again and Peg shuffled in shaking her umbrella and grumbling about the rain. She headed toward the backroom and Amanda felt better. At least Peg hadn’t called in sick. Amanda bagged the groceries and when she turned to make change the man looked longingly at the clean, milky skin between Amanda’s ear and her auburn hairline. Amanda gave the man his change and he departed looking like he still had something he wanted to say.
In the twenty minutes that followed, Peg failed to reappear. Amanda’s gaze shifted from the clock above the pay phone to the swinging doors at the far end of the pharmaceuticals aisle. To come in late and then blow smoke at the break room ceiling was pushing it, even for Peg. Amanda cursed and then decided that if Peg didn’t show within two minutes she’d drag her to the front of the store by her brittle, overly-processed hair.
Three more customers came and went before Peg shuffled back up the aisle and set her purse beneath her register. Amanda watched her open her drawer and pretend to count her petty cash.
“I have a huge, huge favor to ask,” Peg said. “I have an important phone call to make at eleven and you have to promise you’ll remind me. I can’t even begin to tell you how important it is…”
Peg’s artificial tan and dark eye shadow reminded Amanda of the jack-o-lanterns taped to the windows. “How,” Amanda thought, “can it not occur to you to apologize for being late?”
“Seriously,” Peg continued, “this is the most important phone call in the history of my family. I’ll need to take my break early. I can’t even begin to…”
Amanda walked away from the registers.
Peg looked disconcerted. “You’ll remind me?” she called.
“I have a ton of work to do,” Amanda said, “and I’m late getting started.”
Amanda walked into the warehouse-like backroom and found the dust broom leaning against the frozen foods cooler. She then carried it out away from her, so it couldn’t brush against her jeans. The back room smelled like damp cardboard and the cement floor felt sticky beneath her sneakers.
Amanda came out into the pop aisle and began to push the wide broom. As the reflections from the fluorescent lights traveled over the checkerboard tiles Amanda thought about San Francisco. Two years ago Amanda had spent a magical week there and since then the city had grown in her imagination.
In Golden Gate Park, Amanda and her girlfriend had happened upon a large drum circle. There were hippies of all ages and nationalities and the women had let go and danced with strangers beneath the shedding eucalyptus trees. In a bistro on Hyde Street, while dining on unbelievably fresh seafood and pasta, they’d listened to Russian, Italian, Spanish and French being spoken at the little tables surrounding them. And in North Beach they’d marveled at the white spires of Peter and Paul Cathedral standing against the tallest, deepest, bluest sky they’d ever seen. The cathedral, they read in their guidebook, had been where Marilyn Monroe had married Joe DiMaggio.
On the last night of the trip Amanda and her friend strolled down Polk Street feeling the camaraderie that comes on the final day of a shared adventure. The sidewalks were busy with yuppies, hippies and artists beginning their nights out on the town. Homeless men were curled up in doorways and taillights were glowing in the twilight.
As the women tried to decide where to have their last dinner in San Francisco there was a commotion ahead of them. Cars were honking and people on both sides of the street were laughing and calling. The crowd parted and a man glided toward Amanda and her friend on roller skates. The man was hairy and had on a white, scoop-necked leotard, a pink tutu and a silver tiara. The gap of his belly button was visible where his stomach stretched the leotard.
As the man rolled by he smiled and waved a homemade, foil-covered wand above the women’s heads. He then continued down the sidewalk, blessing everyone he met. In the middle of the next crosswalk, as the waiting cars flashed their lights and honked their horns, the man executed a shaky pirouette and then glided on with one leg raised behind him and his arms stretched out in flight.
“We have definitely,” Amanda’s friend had said, “discovered the Land of OZ.”
After Amanda came home she continued to think about the man in the tiara. She thought and dreamt about him for months before realizing he represented a freedom that didn’t exist in her hometown.
Amanda came down the last aisle and then turned and crossed the back of the store. She swept her pile of debris and sugar into a cardboard box and then set the box onto a rolling cart and methodically began to make her way down the produce aisle, straightening and dropping anything past its prime into the box.
The second half of Amanda’s San Francisco daydream consisted of an ever-evolving list of tasks. She’d sell her car, pull extra shifts and perhaps score a part-time job at the video rental store. No matter whom she met, she’d remain single and she’d rid herself of her non-essential possessions. Her goal was to pack everything she owned into two suitcases. Then all she’d have to do would be to walk onto an airplane.
Amanda pushed the cart into the backroom. Then she came back out and walked toward the dairy cooler. It would have been quicker to get to the cooler through the back room, but then she would have passed Peg’s cigarettes lying on the break room table. As Amanda passed the yogurt, the intercom screeched.
“Carry-out on one,” Peg said with her mouth too close to the microphone. “Amanda, carry-out on one.”
“Yes, Peg,” Amanda thought, “I know you’re working on the first register.”
When Amanda got up front Peg was counting change into an elderly woman’s hand. The woman had on a clear, plastic kerchief and a long, black raincoat. Amanda put on her own raincoat, picked up the woman’s bag of groceries and followed her outside.
The elderly woman stopped behind a dark green station wagon and began to rummage for her keys. When she was unable to immediately locate them she shook her purse and apologized. Amanda rested the groceries on her hip and watched the white clouds of the old woman’s breath. She didn’t become impatient. As the cold rain tapped on her shoulders and her hood she felt a pinch of guilt.
When she wasn’t annoyed, Amanda could see how much Peg wanted to be accepted by her co-workers. Whenever Peg began one of her stories about her family the guys wouldn’t even bother with excuses. They’d just roll their eyes and walk away. It was painful to witness and Amanda knew she’d done the same when Peg had wanted to tell her about her phone call.
When Amanda was back inside, she hung up her coat and then went over and leaned against her register. Peg was straightening magazines that didn’t need to be straightened.
“So,” Amanda said, “what’s all this about a big phone call?”
Peg looked up with suspicion and Amanda added: “I’m supposed to remind you, right?”
Peg thought for a moment and then leaned forward. “We’re all so excited,” she said. “Caitlin is going to be a model!”
“Caitlin? Your daughter?”
“Yes. Well, we don’t know for sure yet. It isn’t a done deal.”
“You don’t mean Tabitha?”
A crease formed between Peg’s eyes. “No, I mean Caitlin. Caitlin is just as beautiful as Tabitha.”
“No, I know,” Amanda corrected. “She just doesn’t seem to be quite as, um, confident.”
“Well, you haven’t seen her lately have you?”
“I saw her last week when she picked you up.”
Peg looked hurt and Amanda reminded herself that it wasn’t necessary to be mean. A customer entered and walked toward the baking aisle.
“We’re all so excited,” Peg repeated. “It would be so great for Caitlin. She’s been kind of down lately, kind of drifting.”
“She wants to be a model?”
“It’s actually all a complete surprise. A man came up to us at the mall and asked if Caitlin had ever modeled. We said she hadn’t and he suggested we enter her in a contest at his modeling agency. He said Caitlin might be the fresh face they’ve been searching for.”
“Right, so, last night Caitlin and I went and learned about the contest and their modeling school. It was very informative.”
“I thought he was from an agency.”
“It’s both. It’s a school and an agency. It’s quite an operation. They gave their talk and then they took a Polaroid of each girl.”
“How many girls were there?”
“Fourteen, but only one will receive a scholarship. They’re making their decision today.” Peg glanced at the clock. “I’ll be disappointed if Caitlin doesn’t win, but I swear not knowing is almost worse. I don’t think that clock has moved since I got here.”
Amanda wasn’t sure how to proceed. The man came back with a box of blueberry muffin mix. When he was gone Amanda asked: “How long is the course for?”
“And it’s all paid for?”
“There’s nothing you have to pay?”
“Nothing except for Caitlin’s portfolio, you have to have a professional portfolio to land modeling jobs.”
“How much does that cost?”
Peg made a face. “No, No,” she said, shaking her head, “it’s all on the up and up. A portfolio can cost thousands of dollars.”
“Okay, so how much?”
“It isn’t important.”
“Come on, Peg.”
“Do you seriously think they can afford to give their course away for just seven hundred bucks?”
“I don’t know,” Amanda replied, “but it doesn’t sound like they’re giving anything away.”
Peg snorted and went back to straightening the magazines. Amanda looked at the blonde model on Cosmo and pictured Caitlin with her rounded shoulders and her acne scars. Amanda didn’t know Caitlin well, but she pictured her as still having a pile of stuffed animals in her bedroom.
“I just hope,” Amanda said, “that for Caitlin’s sake it isn’t a scam. If it is she’s going to be devastated.”
“I wouldn’t do this if it was phony-baloney. I only want the best for Caitlin. My daughter is beautiful even if she isn’t all…flashy like you.”
“Flashy?” Amanda thought. “Or, do you really mean trashy?”
A customer came up to Peg’s register with an armful of groceries and Amanda walked away. She filled the dairy cooler and at five to eleven headed back up the center aisle. Before she was past the cough drops, Peg flew by in the opposite direction. Amanda couldn’t help herself. “Peg!” she called. “Don’t forget about your call!”
Business picked up and Amanda was happy when a bag boy named Kevin arrived. He was a junior in High School and one of Amanda’s favorites. The guys called him Q-Tip because of his bean-pole physique and brown, curly hair. He went to punch-in and then came back and bagged for Amanda. Whenever there was a pause between customers he took swigs from an over-sized bottle of Mountain Dew and told Amanda about the game. He was so happy that the Vikings had handed it to the Cowboys that he didn’t complain about carrying-out groceries in the rain.
Peg’s thirty-minute break stretched to fifty and when she came back up the aisle she was shaking. “My little girl won!” she announced while Amanda was ringing through an elderly man’s groceries. “Caitlin won! Her father is so proud! I’m sorry I was late getting back, but there are just so many people to call! This is a great, great day for my family and I’ve never heard Caitlin so happy. Can you believe it? My little girl is going to be a model! I never even got around to eating my lunch!”
Customers lined up and Peg and Amanda stayed busy. When the rush was over Amanda took a slow breath.
“Peg,” she said, “seriously, what if it is a con?”
“What if what is a con?”
“The contest, what if the whole thing is an elaborate con?”
“What do you have against Caitlin?”
“Not a thing.”
“Then why do you have to pooh-pooh her success? Why do you want her to be as miserable as you?”
A woman came up with a full cart and Amanda went to the end of Peg’s counter and began to bag. When Kevin got back he worked alongside her. Water dripped off his raincoat onto the groceries and the stainless steel counter. After Kevin followed the customer through the automatic doors Amanda said, “Did you know anyone else at the seminar? Did Caitlin know any of the other girls?”
“I’m just wondering.”
Peg shrugged. “Sheila Rogers was there with her daughter Jessica. They go to St. Benedict’s.”
“Then do me a favor. Call her and ask if she’s been able to get through to the judges.”
“No, you don’t understand. There can only be one winner. If I call it will seem like I’m gloating.”
“Tell her you keep getting a busy signal and are just wondering if she’s had any luck getting through.”
“I’m not a liar.”
“Wouldn’t it be better to know for sure?”
“I do know for sure.”
“Peg, you’re gambling on strangers. Call for Caitlin’s sake. I’ll cover up here. Take as much time as you need.”
Peg looked less confident. “I’ll just go have my lunch,” she said and walked toward the backroom.
It remained steady and Amanda and Kevin worked well together. Most of the customers commented on the heavy rain and once, when Kevin was outside, Amanda had to run and check the price on a frozen pizza. When she returned, Peg was back on her register. She was standing very erect and Amanda felt a little sick when she realized Peg wasn’t greeting her customers.
During the next lull Amanda said: “Peg, I am truly sorry. I’m sorry there are such evil, greedy people in this world. It’s depressing what some of them will do for money.”
Peg kept her back to Amanda.
“We could call the Better Business Bureau or one of the TV stations up in Minneapolis. There always doing exposés on corrupt businesses. I bet they would be interested in a-”
“I hope you’re happy,” Peg interrupted. “I hope this just makes your whole day.”
“Peg, I’m…” Amanda didn’t see any point in continuing. She drummed her fingers on the sides of her register and then walked away.
Amanda hit the swinging doors and marched to the break room. Just like she’d imagined, Peg’s cigarettes were out on the table. She withdrew one, placed it between her lips, flicked Peg’s pink lighter, and inhaled to her toes. Then Amanda slowly exhaled and opened her eyes. The cigarette tasted stale and was too light to deliver a decent buzz. As Amanda took another drag she noticed Peg’s lighter.
“I Smoke Every Day,” it said in black letters, “And Jesus Still Loves Me!”
Amanda’s blue eyes widened as her frustration drained away. She didn’t know how the day had brought her to it, but her decision was made. She was done stalling. At twenty-three she still had no idea what to do with her life, but she would at least take a chance. A threshold had been crossed and now her plans would take on a life of their own.
“What the…? You’re smoking?!” Kevin was standing in the doorway with his mouth open and his long arms hanging at his sides.
Amanda smiled and twisted the cigarette out in the ashtray.
“I’m leaving,” she said, “and you’ve been a sweetheart.”
“Let’s make a pizza, my treat.”
“But, how come you’re smoking?”
“Kevin,” she said, “it’s just been one of those days.”
When Amanda’s break was over she still had two hours to go on her shift. When she wasn’t on her register she worked in the deli. Twice the store was shook by thunder and one by one the rest of the guys came in looking pale and strained. Peg didn’t say too much and Amanda gave her some space. Amanda hoped there were better days ahead for Peg and her daughter.
The time moved and Amanda observed the customers. A housewife was trailed by a two-year old calling: “No! No! No! No! No!” A mechanic picked-up a steak, a baking potato and a jar of mushrooms on his way home from work and a large man in suspenders bought a pack of Winstons and then leaned against the twenty pound bags of dog food and relived the Vikings game with Kevin. Amanda watched their gestures and listened to the excitement in their voices. She studied their faces. She wanted to remember everything.