I thought I now understood what writers mean when they say the air was ‘close;’ that you wore it like a face mask, like scuba gear.It clung to me as I walked around the liquor store trying to figure out what to buy. I had just come in because I couldn’t stand the sun anymore. I couldn’t stand it catching on shiny stuff in the sidewalk cement and making me blink or trying to turn my scalp into an itching, overheated landscape for sweat to collect in and run down into my collar. I had been surprised at first that there was hardly anyone else in there besides the young guy at the counter in front, but then I realized there was no air conditioning. There was only a tall fan blowing the dry air around as it oscillated, ruffling the edges of the tabloids in their racks every few minutes. But at least the sun was out there and not on me.
I finally grabbed some stuff at random including two or three different drinks and headed up to the register. When I got there, I was in line behind two women.
The shorter of the two caught my eye first because she was pretty. She had light brown hair that was thick and wavy and her face had that clean, smooth skin that only young women have, like a glow they are born with and that life will gradually rub off. She was standing quiet while the other woman was having an irritated conversation with the store clerk. The woman was irritated, anyway. The clerk had a goofy smile on his face that might have indicated he was over his head.
I realized that this woman was pretty as well, though you could not see it so clearly at first because of the over-sized heavy glasses she was wearing. Her hair was dark and straight to her shoulders and she dressed like a Jehovah’s Witness going out to call on householders while her companion was in neat casual wear and flip-flops. There was a resemblance and I thought they might be sisters.
The woman in glasses was tilting her head at the clerk as if she suspected that he had just made an unfunny joke. “Excuse me?”
“I said, she doesn’t have any ID so I can’t sell her the cigarettes.”
The woman blinked at him. “She’s a married woman. With children.”
“That doesn’t mean she’s old enough to buy cigarettes.”
His adversary took a step back and closed her eyes. When she opened them, she looked at the other woman, but got no help. Her companion stood, looking off into the distance, as though the conversation was not about her but about something else; something she did not find interesting.
Then the clerk said, “But I’ll sell them to you.”
The woman’s head shot around to him. “You’ll sell them to me.”
“Well, you’re obviously old enough.”
The woman closed her eyes again and sighed, although it did nothing to reduce the tension she was almost vibrating with. “Very well.” She put a candy bar on the counter and looked at her companion, who pulled a bill from the pocket of a cigarette purse and handed it to her. She laid it on the counter and scooped up the change and the candy and handed the change back to her companion, who stuffed it in a pocket with one hand while picking up the package of cigarettes with the other.
The woman in glasses, shaking her head, went to the open door. She looked back at the clerk, though it was not clear what expression she wore.
The clerk and I had stopped moving. He was looking at her expectantly.
“I’m in junior high school,” she said, and stepped out of the store into the sunlight, which made her bright around the edges and somehow diminished.
Her older sister had opened the cigarette pack and lit one with a disposable lighter. She took in a deep drag and smiled at us, a weak, dreamy smile, and she shrugged. Then she walked out herself, her flip flops squeaking on the store linoleum. The tall fan caught the plume of her exhaled smoke and dispersed it into the flapping pages of the tabloids.
Outside, the junior highschooler had unwrapped the candy bar and taken a vicious bite. “This world is fucked up,” she said as she strode out of view.
The clerk and I looked at each other from the corners of our eyes.
“You want a bag?” he asked.