Thirty-Eight by Jack Coey
Thirty-Eight by Jack Coey
He worked at the supermarket unloading trucks, and moved out of his mother’s house three months ago. He rented a one-room apartment over the hardware store, and his mother couldn’t understand why he didn’t want to live with her anymore even though he was in his mid-thirties. His name was Bruce and he was a nice-looking fellow who wanted more out of life although he didn’t know exactly what the more was. He looked at women in the check-out lanes, and sometimes he felt something that shamed him. He heard the men on the loading dock talk about the websites, and one time he looked, and couldn’t believe his eyes. It upset him so bad he had to walk three times around the common. He knew a few girls. There was Lucy who was a cashier who talked to him in the break room, and she seemed to spend a lot of time at her church. She was younger than Bruce, but he sensed she was restless like he was, and one time, he saw her at the movie theatre with an older woman who he guessed was her mother. He talked to himself about going to see his mother, and he often pictured her sitting on the couch across from the flickering TV screen with a half-eaten bag of Fritos next to her. She talked about her aliments and how could he abandon her the way he did? Bruce didn’t know what to say, but felt like crap. He tried to do something for her so as not to feel so guilty – buy her scratch tickets or fix a leak, anything. He left her feeling bad, and the next day was in the break room, and asked Lucy how she liked the movie, and she went on and on about the love scene between the hero and heroine, and it wasn’t until he was unloading produce two hours later, that he realized that Lucy’s appreciation for the love scene revealed her desire. He felt something when he recognized that Lucy was looking for a hero for her heroine. He thought about whether he’d ever seen Lucy with another man, and the only time he thought of was when she talked to Oscar, and he was telling her how Trump was good for business. Oscar was old enough to have grandchildren, and smelled like the fish he sold. Bruce decided to ask Lucy on a date. He looked at the paper to see what movies were playing, and didn’t think Lust in Laredo would be a good idea. He came across a review of a movie titled Arthur’s Gamble which he read, and it said it was a light-hearted, romantic comedy that would warm your heart. It was then he felt nervous. Now was the moment he asked her out. What if she said no? He’d never been told no by a girl before. He’d seen men get drunk and drive really fast in their cars when they had woman problems. He thought maybe he should talk to an experienced man before taking such a chance, the problem was, he didn’t know any except Oscar. Oscar could tell him how to fillet a fish, but probably not too much about romance.
“Romance? That’s what this is, romance?” he questioned.
He was nervous no doubt, but he decided to go ahead and ask her. He played it out in his head. They would be sitting across the table from each other, and he would nonchalantly ask,
“How about we catch a movie Friday night?”
And she would smile from ear to ear and just about scream,
Like he was releasing her from her dungeon of loneliness after years of incarceration. He knew, of course, this was fantasy. When he was in high school, in the back seat of Suzy’s father’s car, and her blouse was unbuttoned, and she unsnapped her bra; he couldn’t help himself, and squirted on the back seat. Suzy was pissed, and they spent twenty minutes cleaning up, and Suzy was certain her father would see the stains. Bruce told her to tell him he spilled ice cream. Suzy screamed,
“You don’t think my old man don’t know what happens in a back seat? How do you think I got here?”
He not only stained a back seat but his reputation as well, and couldn’t get a date if he arrived in a Rolls Royce. High school was a lonely time for Bruce. It got better when he got out, but still his mother never liked any of the women with whom he’d had any kind of relationship so things moved along nicely until he brought the woman home to meet his mother, and his date got a full-blast of overt hostility. Bruce figured out if he was to have any sort of relationship, he would have to get away from his mother. He had great expectations for Lucy because she seemed as socially retarded as he was. He knew from listening to her talk, she lived with her mother. He wanted to break that up, but chastised himself for getting ahead of himself. He had to ask her out first. The next time they were in the break room together, after many er’s and ah’s, Bruce asked her to the movies Friday night. She flushed at the invitation, but declined because she was going to see her uncle. Bruce felt embarrassed by exposing a need, and having it turned down, while Lucy got this glow about her. Lucy was not used to being desired, and it lit up her hormones like fireworks. She was giggly and red-faced and louder than before. She was a chrysalis to a butterfly transformed. Bruce was red-faced too but for a different reason. He got up and went into the stall in the men’s room to hide his embarrassment. When he came back out onto the floor, he suspected the workers were talking about him. He couldn’t wait for his shift to be over. That night, in his tiny apartment, he brooded over his belief that others were laughing at him, and drank four beers before falling asleep.
Lyle Brooks was in charge of the loading dock. He was in his mid-thirties, twice divorced with children with whom he didn’t get along. Bruce didn’t like him, and thought he tried to boss with authority and not cooperation. Lyle was a bad drinker which made everything worse, and he relished finding out about the troubles of others to make fun of them. To listen to Lyle talk, you’d have the impression the supermarket couldn’t run without him, and those lucky women who were fortunate enough to have him pay attention to them. He was a candidate for the store manager position three years ago, and lost out to a church-going family man who didn’t drink. Lyle was a loser in denial topped with a frosting of bitterness. Bruce and Lyle figured out an accommodation which was Bruce lugged the heavy items in the truck and Lyle left him alone. That is until Lyle heard about Lucy. Lucy had slightly buck teeth which gave her a goofy look especially when animated, and Lyle would do an imitation, and he and the other men laughed. Bruce didn’t catch on at first, and when he did, he was wise enough not to react. Bruce noticed workers stopped talking whenever he approached them which caused him anxiety. Lucy was more social now always in the company of two or three girls – whispering and giggling, that is, until Bruce was there, and the whispering would stop while the giggling would increase. Bruce withdrew into himself and sat alone.
There was a new girl on the front end who was around thirty, plain looking, and remarkable for her silence. She watched what went on and said nothing. Her name was Ariel which the teenagers thought a strange name until one of them had a clue.
“Don’t that come from Shakespeer?” one of them guessed.
The rest of the shoulders at the table shrugged to put an end to that inquiry. Lucy tried talking to her but was rebuffed. In the vacuum of information, rumors filled the void. Ariel was in recovery, Ariel was a lesbian, or Ariel was a white nationalist, and all the while, Ariel watched. What she observed, and came to understand was, there was a dominant group that one either complied with, or was made fun of, for being different. This she found fascinating because she was taking a sociology course at the community college where she was exposed to the theory of that phenomenon, and now, she was experiencing it. She certainly noticed Bruce’s isolation and wondered what his circumstance was. Out of the group of them, to her, Bruce was the most curious. For his part, Bruce noticed Ariel and reciprocated her interest. So it was, one day, he entered the break room, and they made eye contact, and he said, “Hello.” She smiled, and he made a gesture asking if he may join her, and she nodded. They bonded quickly over their isolation from the group; one desired, and the other imposed. What surprised Bruce was the lack of hostility from Ariel. He took notice when she said,
“I would rather keep to myself than be silly with others.”
He felt better. Ariel gave him an understanding of being on your own he never heard before. She talked about her sociology class, and Bruce had the idea that might be a good thing for him too. That and it would give him something to do besides sitting in his cramped apartment. Ariel gave him possibilities, and he wanted more. He asked her questions one after the other until she stood up to go back to work. Bruce, in his desire for information, missed all the cues.
Two days later, he came into the break room, and saw her sitting alone. He gestured permission to sit with her, and she turned her head. He felt the other employees watching him. When he went to ask, the words stuck in his throat. He quickly glanced around looking for a seat. He heard snickering. Flustered, he spun around, and went into the men’s room. He clumsily opened a stall door on Lyle Brooks.
He went into another stall; he sat panting. For some reason he remembered how his father brought home dead animals from hunting, and as a boy, that upset him. It seemed one-sided to him, and when his father tried to interest him in hunting, he became withdrawn. His father laughed at him for his lack of manliness, and his mother told him he was sensitive. He still got hunting magazines in the mail from his father. His memory was abruptly ended by the door being swung open, and Lyle Brooks grabbing him by the lapels and pulling him up.
“You like to look at men?” he accused.
“No, no, Lyle. I was in a hurry and didn’t notice you were in there.”
“You pull anymore funny stuff, and you and me got a problem, get it?”
“Sure, Lyle, sure. Whatever you say.”
Lyle went to the sink to wash his hands, gave a scowl to Bruce, and walked out. Bruce stood in the middle of the men’s room and felt pain. He walked out and went to the loading deck to unload the truck. The men were already working, and he felt they shared some secret about him. He was feeling a mixture of pain and anger. Frankie bumped into him and he pushed him.
“Hey!” yelled Frankie.
The men gathered around the two.
“No need to push,” accused Frankie. Two of the men had their hands on Bruce. Bruce was angry, but he was also outnumbered.
“I’m sorry,” he said. He was angry at having to apologize.
“One more chance, Bruce, before I send you home, got it?” warned Lyle.
Bruce nodded. That night he took the mail from his mailbox before climbing the stairs to his apartment. He sat on the couch sipping beer as he looked at his mail. He was thumbing through a copy of Hunter’s Supply when his eyes paused on an ad for a Thirty-Eight Special.
February 6, 2018