Westwind

The Bagger

Alina Cutrono

Joanna saw the six-year-old wearing Hanna Montana leggings and just knew that the girl was an exquisite taxidermist. Visions of expertly stuffed and posed squirrels were flooding her mind when the sounds of the market brought her back to earth. The constant, rhythmic beeping of the scanner, the screeching of shopping-cart wheels on the polished floor, one of the six nondescript pop songs that dribbled out of the speakers. This cloud of noise surrounded Joanna almost every day of her life.

The only things that kept her interested were the faces. With each new beep came a new face to explore a new life to gaze into. She was satisfied to read them, just as they read the tabloid headlines while waiting.

Would you look at that smirk, she said in her head of the tall man with a crew cut and an argyle sweater. His eyebrows were slightly raised and the corners of his mouth twitched upward every few moments. He’s thinking about the crazy things he did to his inflatable girlfriend last night, spreading peanut butter on her toes and licking it off, careful not to bite since he’s lost his repair kit. She tried to smile at him as she bagged his three jars of peanut butter, but couldn’t bring herself to look him in the eye.

The next customer was a large woman in a rumpled tweed suit. Thin lips pursed, she snapped at the cashier to hurry up. This one, she thought. This one is upset because her neighbor’s yappy Chihuahua harasses her every morning. Frito Bandito knows that the woman was a cat in a past life and is not going to let her get away with it. She stifled a giggle behind her wrist and had to bag one-handed.

The readings were amusing today, but this wasn’t always the case. One Monday, she observed a closet cannibal pondering the similarities between hamburger and human flesh. Regardless of what she read, her ability made her feel like both an undercover investigator and a powerful sorceress. One day, her true mission would be clear and she knew she’d be ready for it.

“Your ability is a gift, honey,” her mother always told her as they ate their T.V. dinners when she got home from work. “It’s not something that just anyone can do. You should be thankful for it.”

Joanna wasn’t so sure. She’d discovered her ability in the 5th grade when she’d learned that Janie Piccolo had an unusually stimulating relationship with her Barbies. In instances like this, she saw it more as a heavy burden that she had to bear and Janie’s furious denial of the Barbie incident caused her to keep this burden to herself from then on. She only shared it with her mother, carrying the faces of each day in her mind as she rode the bus home.

One slow morning, she was sneaking peeks at her favorite fantasy novel under the counter when he walked in. The quiet, skinny-armed man with the unusually squeaky loafers. She didn’t know his name, but she always noticed when he walked in two to three times a week and it wasn’t only because his shoes were so loud.

This man was head-over-heels in love with her. If she knew anything, she knew this. She could see it in his subtle smile and his warm brown gaze; in the way he asked forpaper bags, please with a poorly disguised hint of longing. His bare wrists said it, exposed to her as she handed the bags to him, his sleeves always rolled up. His loafers squeaked it as he strode over to her register from the wilderness of canned goods in the endless aisles. Everything about him radiated love.

She had to do something about this. She could not let this connection, these signs of camaraderie, go to waste. This kind of attention was more rare than the magic crystal shards in her novel. He must be quite popular to buy that much food, she thought, picturing fancy dinner parties with elegant, educated people nibbling on dainty hors d’oeuvres and swirling wine glasses. She imagined herself among them, chatting nonchalantly as if she’d been to hundreds, no, thousands of get-togethers like this. She thought he must also be quite wealthy and have a sophisticated job, since he always wore spotless white shirts and the creases in his trousers were steamed to a pristine finish.

How could she tell him that she knew? This Monday, she tried to soak her bagging techniques with implications. As she placed his eggs at the bottom of a brown paper bag, she did it so carefully, so lovingly, there was no way he wouldn’t be able to see it as evidence of her returned affection.

“Joaaanna,” Britney whined, picking some dirt from beneath hot pink fingernails. She smacked her gum as Joanna finished her focused bagging ritual.

“Willya finish ringing this guy up for me? I really gotta pee.”

Joanna nodded and scooted behind the register. What a perfect opportunity. He gave her his credit card, his driver’s license tucked behind it, and she suddenly had in her hands all of the information that she needed. Her mission was now clear.

Joanna rode the bus to his house that very night wearing her nicest flowered dress and the pearl earrings that her mother had given her for her 45th birthday. Imagining alternate scenarios for what would happen when she got there had kept her occupied all day.

“Could that possibly be you?” he would coo, finding her waiting in his kitchen. She would be the loveliest surprise he could have hoped for and he would tell her.

“Why you’re the loveliest surprise I could have hoped for.”

She patted her hair and forced herself to put away The Lost Princess of Klandora, her favorite “fantasy” novel, although she refused to categorize it like that.

His bungalow was smaller than she’d expected, with a perfectly manicured lawn and shuttered windows. She hesitated before knocking on the front door. If she wanted this to be a surprise, she figured she’d better try the back and when she found it unlocked, she saw it as yet another sign that she was right about him. She walked into the living room. All of the surfaces in the room glittered with reflected moonlight and she paused for a moment to imagine what might be on them. Gold and silver trinkets? Frames upon frames of photographs of his family and friends? Expensive stereo equipment?

But when she switched on the light, hundreds of tiny faces came into view. She soon realized that they belonged to hundreds of action figures peering out from behind clear plastic. In front of each was a carefully placed, yellowed card describing the time and place of purchase as well as the price. There was a big green overstuffed chair, a lamp, a stack of comics and old magazines, three huge refrigerators, and a deep freeze.

Well I guess that’s where he keeps all those groceries, she thought. It was the only thought that she could process at the moment. She began to wonder if this was the right house, but the names on the many issues of “Survivalist Monthly” showed her that this was no mistake. Joanna flopped into the green chair and tried to staunch the flow of doubt that had begun to creep into her heart.

She had been so sure that she knew this man. She took a deep breath and tried not to loose her grip on the situation. Sure, she might have been slightly off on some things. He certainly wasn’t throwing any dinner parties in this place. But she knew deep in her heart that he love love loved her. It didn’t matter to her that he was stocking up for the apocalypse. They could face it together. The more she reassured herself, the more romantic it all seemed, just like Gwin and Rodrick in The Lost Princess of Klandora.She knew she had to trust herself, and she said aloud, “Love is my mission. I will not be stopped.”

Suddenly, the click of a turning doorknob shot through the room. She froze. He walked into the room wearing only white briefs and socks. No squeaking. They stared at each other.

“Who the fuck are you, what are you doing in here? ” he demanded.

Joanna laughed, sure that he was joking. He would smile in a moment, wrap her in his skinny arms, and tell her how glad he really was to see her.

“Darling there’s no need to pretend. It’s all right, I know everything.”

He didn’t respond, but shuffled over to a chest of drawers, his clean white socks silent on the shag carpeting. As he opened the top drawer, a little excited shiver ran through her. Was he reaching for a gift of some kind? A token of his hidden desire?

He pulled out a small revolver. She almost laughed again, but when he pointed it at her head, she stopped herself. She sunk into her chair, trying to find the words to bring him out of this; to get him to say how he truly felt.

“B-but you always come to my register!” she blurted. His gaze was cold, devoid of recognition.

“You think I don’t know what you’re after? You think you can just walk out with my collection? I bet you know how much my Bionic Man figure is worth! Way more than all the Transformers put together! Not that I would ever sell them.”

She looked around her at all the tiny, painted smiles and felt like vomiting. “It’s not like that at all, just calm down! All that I want you to know is that I understand.”

Joanna forced her stare from the barrel of the gun to the man’s eyes. She hoped he’d see all the love in the world in her stare, just like she had seen it in his. “I understand.” She started to stand up.

“Don’t move, I’m warning you!” he screeched in a high-pitched whine, so different from the sweet whisper of paper bags, please that she often recalled from their grocery store interludes. But Joanna knew how he truly felt. Her love was here to save them both. She took a step toward him.

“I’m not going to steal anything from you,” she said. “Maybe I want to give you something.”

“G-give me?” he sputtered, the gun dropping a fraction of an inch.

“Would you get that gun out of my face, please? I’m gonna pee my pants if you don’t.”

“You are not getting into the bathroom under any circumstances! You just sit down and hold it!” Joanna dropped back into the chair, but to her surprise, he brought the gun down to his side.

“I’m a very fast draw, so don’t get funny.”

“Don’t worry, I wont. I’m a little nervous. I think this is my first time alone in man’s house.”

He began to shift his weight from foot to foot and avoided her gaze, staring instead at the gun in his hand.

“Well, I’ve never really, I mean technically, invited a woman in here before, besides my mom. But I have a damn good reason! You can’t be too careful in the end-times you know. If people knew about all the food and the weapons and the water I have in here, it would be all over for me when the day comes. So I keep it, you know, private. Private is good. ” He took a deep breath, as if he hadn’t said that many words in a long time.

“So you really have no idea who I am, do you?” she asked. He shook his head. She slumped back and let the old chair swallow her a little, too confused to notice that her dress was riding up, exposing a few inches of her fat, white thighs. When the silence drew on for longer than a few minutes, she looked up at him again.

He was staring at her legs. His hand had gone slack, barely holding onto the gun and his thin lips were parted. She couldn’t hold in the laugh this time. A shocked, relieved, delighted giggle spilled out of her.

“What the hell do you think you’re laughing at?” he yelled in a husky voice, before quickly clearing his throat. He pointed the gun at her with one hand and held the other in front of his white briefs, doubling over in his attempt to hide himself. “You’d better close your eyes or I’ll shoot! Don’t look at me!”

“Well you were looking me,” she said, but she closed her eyes anyway and with an impish grin, slowly uncrossed her legs. “It’s okay,” she went on. “I want you to.” She stood up with her eyes still closed and tried her best to embody the sultry pose of the seductress in her fantasy paperbacks. Then she stumbled forward, waving her arms in front of her and following the sound of his ragged breathing, punctuated by small uncomfortable whines.

But as she reached for what she thought was his face, her toe caught a snag in the carpet and she tripped forward, her fingers brushing soft cotton briefs.

BAM.

Joanna was knocked to the floor by the close range of the bullet. Her dark blood seeped into the carpet. The man stared at her, trembling. He hurled the gun away from him and covered his face with his hands.

“Fuck, I didn’t mean to, I didn’t mean to, fuck,” he whispered over and over. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to.”

When the police later questioned the man in the well-ironed suit, he replied that she had broken into his house and lunged at him. He had just known that she intended to rob and murder him next. In fact, he confessed, he could always tell exactly what people were thinking just by looking at their faces.

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