Receiptby Kat Lewin
From across the counter, Victor can smell the conditioner in her hair, pulsing toward him in fruity waves. "Can I see some ID?" She is buying a bottle of white wine and a package of diet cookies at two fifteen in the morning on a Tuesday. He has seen her ID so many times that he knows which corner the tricky Maryland license hides birthdates in, that she will be turning thirty-six ten days from now.
The woman in the picture flashes a hard, too-big grin at the camera. In reality, there is nothing hard about her mouth. The bottom lip is overripe, like a plum left forgotten on the counter, grown heavy with juice.
"You know what, I've got a coupon for those cookies," she says, clawing through the wallet again. She retrieves a wadded coupon and hands it to him with a quick smile. The last joint of her thumb grazes his ring finger during the exchange. She is the most beautiful woman who has ever touched him, even accidentally.
Victor prints two copies of her receipt, outstretching his fourth finger as he hands her the paper. No contact. She gets an awkward grip on the paper bag, cradles it in the crook of her arm and walks out.
Victor tucks the second copy of her receipt into his pocket then dials the night manager on the intercom to ask if he can take a cigarette break. She's leaning on a column outside, checking her phone, when he gets outside and pulls a soft pack of Camels out of his back pocket, lights one. As he flicks his lighter, she pauses. He flicks it again, pretending to have missed some edge of the cigarette, and she turns around completely.
"Could I possibly—" she rubs the palm of her left hand over her hip as though wiping away sweat or searching for an invisible pocket in her skirt.
He flicks the upside-down lucky cigarette from the center of the pack into her outstretched fingers. The first flame is eaten by the wind. They reach to cup it with their palms at the same time. On the third try, he lights it and she inhales theatrically, rolling her eyes back. The fluorescent lighting pulls out their bunny-pink tinge.
"I'm trying to quit," she says after a moment. "My boyfriend hates it. But, you know." She holds her right hand palm upward and waggles the fingers helplessly.
"It's a bad habit," he agrees, taking a drag.
"It is." They smoke in silence.
It's light already when he walks home. He comes up to the back door and jiggles the broken lock to let himself into the kitchen. A draft comes from the cracked window and the stack of receipts on his desk topples to the ground. Every horizontal surface is littered with receipts. He turns from the window, picks the receipts up from the floor, settles tonight's stack on top and begins sorting through the pile.
At 4:53 this morning, a tall bearded man came to Victor's register and bought a jar of pickles and an Archie comic. Victor finds the receipt and smoothes it with the palm of his hand, breaks a small piece of tape off the roll and sticks the paper to the wall, then goes back to find another. One from three months ago – an elderly Asian woman had purchased crayons and a bottle of caffeine pills. He tapes this up overlapping the last one, anchoring the bottom to the wall with another, smaller piece of tape.
There are thousands of them, pinned and taped and rubber cemented to cover three walls of the bedroom. Normal, happy people do not go to the store after midnight, and certainly not to purchase one or two items, is Victor's theory. Yes, the occasional six-pack or quart of milk or half-priced pie, but there is something broken about wriggling out of your pajamas after Letterman and popping down to the store for vodka and baby formula. For every way to be sad in this world, there is a supermarket receipt that proves it.
Her receipt is in the center of the stack, already smoothed and wrinkled and resmoothed from reading. He trims it and applies tape carefully to its upper edge, then pastes it on top of Gouda/SleepRite, two rows to the right of the nicotine gum and cigarettes she had bought three months ago. She shops at the supermarket like some people write poetry.
Her section is separate from the general organization. There is a zone for each type of unhappiness: single women, bad mothers, substance abusers, those who have no sex, those who have too much, people with eating problems, money problems, just problems. At some 3:18 AM everywhere in the world there is a fat balding man buying a cheese grater, duct tape and personal lubricant. There is a luminous woman with firm calves and a terrible driver's license photo who drinks too much white wine and is afraid to eat real cookies even though she is beautiful.
On Saturday night, she comes just for wine and before he can smell the metallic reek exuding from her pores, he can tell she has already had too much. Her eyelids are pinker than before and swollen. He wonders whether she's been using the sedatives she bought last Wednesday.
"I don't know if I can sell this to you," he says, even as a copy of the receipt is printing. "I'm not sure you should be driving."
"Don't be an asshole—" she leans forward to read his nametag. Her breasts are little tart apples. He slides the bag closer to himself.
"Do you have someone you could call for a ride? Can you call your boyfriend to come pick you up?"
She lets go of the bag and rocks back on her heels. "I sincerely doubt he would pick me up right now. I don't even know where he is." Victor starts to work his mouth around a sympathetic murmur but nothing comes out. "Just do your job and give me my goddamn wine, okay? Or I'll drive someplace else."
Victor glances around to see if anyone is watching. Miriam in Customer Service is on her cell phone, restocking the cigarettes; the night manager left to meet a delivery truck a few minutes ago.
She tears the bag away from him, leaving Victor pinching a half-moon of brown paper between the index finger and thumb of each hand. As she sways toward the exit, her right shoulder pounds the door, hard, and she shifts the bag in her arms but does not stop.
There are only four cars in the parking lot at this time of night, and hers is easy to spot. It's the one with a woman crouched in front of it, sweeping shards of dark green glass into a soggy paper bag. As he approaches, a little jag of glass bites into her thumb. She pops the thumb in her mouth and continues sweeping glass into the bag left-handed. When he approaches, she does not look up.
"Hey, are you okay?" he asks, bending his knees deep but not quite kneeling.
She stands, removes the thumb from her mouth, and holds it out between them. She has bitten trenches around both sides of the embedded glass, and the saliva that gathers in the dimples is pink and frothy. He thinks for a moment of the Band-Aids and Neosporin on aisle seven, but she would be miles away by the time he has run inside and rung them up. He looks away from her hand and nudges the wine-soaked bag with the toe of his sneakers.
She closes her eyes and exhales hard through her nose, then starts slipping down along the back of the car. Her weight catches on the bumper, gliding the whole car downward for a second.
"Do you – do you want a ride? I can borrow someone's car," he says. "If you want." The night manager's shift doesn't end for two hours. Every day he hangs his heavy tangle of keys from a spiral stretch cord inside his locker. Maybe Victor's shift-leader skeleton key works in the employee break room—
She looks away from him and digs through her purse for the keys.
Her quiet curvy sedan is a different breed entirely from the rasping old pick-up he learned on. He jerks and bucks them out of the parking lot, keeping his foot tamped lightly on the brake as soon as he gets the car up to a passable speed. She is absorbed in choosing a station on the satellite radio, still trying to bite the glass out of her thumb. The dial sweeps over an old Tom Jones song and she shudders.
"He loved Tom Jones. Isn't that the sleaziest thing you've ever heard? What a dick."
Victor wonders whether her ex-boyfriend is a once-a-week stock-up or the kind of guy who goes out at 1AM for Ziploc baggies and a pumpkin. Have they met before and neither of them known?
"I'll bet he was a jerk."
She exhales heavily, staring hard and without comprehension at the rearview mirror. Victor pretends not to notice the snuffling when it comes. He is afraid to interrupt to ask for directions, so he clenches on the brake a little, praying for a red light. He drives reflexively toward his own apartment, fifteen miles below the speed limit, until a custom-painted minivan behind him strobes its brights. He pulls to the side of the road to let it pass.
"So, what direction are we going?" he asks, jerking the gear selector back to drive.
When she speaks again, she is not crying, but her syllables squeak up and down from odd angles. "Don't take me there. Can you not take me there?"
"Do you think you could make me a cup of coffee? Everywhere's closed. I'll sober up enough to drive myself," she rushes.
Victor's cell phone buzzes in his pocket. If the car clock is right, Victor has been away from the store for twenty-two minutes. His break only lasts fifteen.
When they pull up in front of his house it is so late that even the teenagers who live in the duplex across the street aren't out front, playing music loud on someone's friend's car stereo and crunching empty beer cans into the sidewalk. The street is heavy.
A breeze stirs outside and cold air blows through the bedroom, into the kitchen. There is a scratching and flapping of paper, like moths taking flight, beating its way through the house.
"What's that?" she asks.
"It's nothing," he says, putting his body in front of hers. But she is already walking toward the bedroom.
"This is ridiculous. What are all of these?" She spins slowly around the room, her eyes widening.
"They're receipts," he shrugs, hanging back by the door. She squints at a receipt for a loaf of bread and single can of cat food. "It's not illegal or anything."
"It's weird, though. You don't have any of mine up here, do you?" She is in the homeless section, fingering one for bologna and reduced-for-clearance snack cakes. Her section is ten feet away, on a different wall. He wonders whether she would even recognize it.
"No, I don't think so."
She turns to face him. "So how many are there? There must be hundreds."
"There are about four thousand, give or take." He bats the pile of receipts on the desk lightly from side to side. "You wouldn't think so many people shop at night, but they do. I think sometimes they're only going to the grocery store to get out of the house." The cell phone buzzes again in his pocket and he takes it out. Eight missed calls and two voice mails. He has been gone for forty-eight minutes. He slides the phone into an open drawer.
"It was my idea," she says finally. "I'm the one who wanted to break up with him. I don't know how he beat me to it." She takes off her coat and lays it on the bed, then sits on top of it.
"You're sure you don't have any of my receipts up there?" she asks. He walks to the side of the bed and sits down, leaving a foot of wrinkled sheet between them.
"Maybe one or two, I don't know." She blinks slowly. "I don't think so."
She leans in toward him and he thinks she is going to start crying again, but she doesn't.
Strangely, wonderfully, they are in his bed. It is as undeniable as it is completely improbable. He sweeps his palm down over the fuzz on her upper arms, then draws his fingers slowly up her back, creamy and yielding like a ripe avocado. Her body is sweet and humid. He slides around her and kisses her stomach, imagining it churning away gouda and Chardonnay and organic pears. Her hips are rounder than they looked under her clothes, grown soft with apple juice and madeleines. He prods her skin with the tip of his tongue – grapes and crackers and aspirin and strawberry jam and the chalky bitter laxatives she bought three weeks ago. Her thighs are pulpy and aristocratic-pale. As he strokes them, she begins to cry again and he asks if he should stop, but she shakes her head, no. Her face is slick with tears and wine so he kisses her belly full of organic fruit. He thrusts not like he's stabbing her, but like he's stirring her.
Afterwards, she melts, slowly. At first she doesn't think to lift her head and then she doesn't want to and then she can't. He lies with his chin nestled into her shoulder and notices it sinking into her bones. Her toffee hair regranulates into sugar and when he strokes it, his fingers reemerge covered with syrup.
"I can't move my toes," she gurgles, trying to wiggle them. She cannot see they have melded into one another, forming a creamy dripping mass. He lifts her hand from her stomach and it has left a deep impression in her viscous skin. Foam rises to the surface of her flesh, then saturates the bed sheets.
He pushes himself up onto an elbow to look at her face. It is still whole: her skeleton is intact but melting like barley sugar; her skin is sinking rapidly, making her features too big and garish. She is so beautiful for a moment that he leans in and kisses her – her lips smear across the side of her face and puddle on his nose.
"Oh," she says quietly, then cannot say anything else.
He watches her for a few minutes, her features swirling into each other, peaceful and indistinguishable.
"Do you want me to move you somewhere? Would you be more comfortable in the bath tub?" he asks. She ripples in response.
He slides his hands under her lower back and tries to lift her, but her body just oozes between his outstretched fingers. He licks the palm of his hand, then runs a finger through her stomach, her thighs, her breasts, whisking her in broad strokes. He licks his palm again, then pads naked to the desk.
The phone is blinking with fifteen more missed calls, all from the same number. His shift was officially over half an hour ago. Victor turns the phone off and fishes through her purse for the bottle of sedatives, then takes three and lies beside her on the bed. Where his weight drags down the mattress, she creeps toward him with absurd viscosity. His drags his fingers through her, gently, and focuses on the sound of the receipts flapping in the breeze. There will be questions in the morning – from the night manager, from her – nothing but questions. But now is the time for sleep.