“What They Wanted to Hear” by Phillip Sterling

Tawny told them what she knew about the old man. Or what she thought they wanted to hear. How the first time he’d come in she was working the register and for once had a customer so she’d not paid much attention. More often she’d have been spraying and wiping the belt or sorting the racks of candy and gum after kids had grabbed something and held it up and begged an anxious parent, expecting to catch them off guard, only to be told put it back, and some did but seldom where it was supposed to go. So when Tawny had no one to ring out, she’d sidle into the next aisle and bend down and organize the yellow-packaged M&M’s with the yellow, the blue with the blue, pile them all face up—something to make her look busy, so she’d not have to wipe down the dairy case or mop the break room, though it wasn’t very likely with the cutbacks, and not being much of a job, anyway. Easy-peasey, as Mrs. Voss, Tawny’s kindergarten teacher, used to say. She’d worked at Family Fare two months by then, but there was no real pressure, as everyone knew the rumor of the store closing come the first of the year was probably true. They’d been bought out. Not much of a job was actually how Jen had described it to her when she’d first applied. Minimum wage. But it would provide some experience at least, experience that might help her get something else if the store closed for sure, something perhaps at the new mall going up at Knapps Corners.

So she was ringing up a small order, she couldn’t recall it exactly, but it was probably stuff like canned goods, Spartan peas and peaches—which were always on sale then, it seemed, and you got additional reward points if you used your card—and rainbow pasta, and a jar of Newman’s Own alfredo sauce, and maybe fresh broccoli, which she likely had on the scale and was about to punch in the code (4481#) when the old man came up to the bagger’s station, behind her back, and asked for laxatives and after shave.

She didn’t even look at him that time, just pointed beyond the basket that the woman she was checking out had left on the belt, and said, “Aisle 4, Health and Beauty Aids.” Easy-peasey, as she had just straightened the mouth wash and NyQuil in that aisle a day or two before, maybe a Sunday, when things were slow. If he had asked for something else, like artichoke hearts or toothpicks, which they often do, it would have been harder. She’d have had to stop and think, look up from the scanner, run her mind down the rows, as Jen had taught her. It wasn’t until later that Tawny thought how strange it had been, not until she began to wonder if he’d even gone back and gotten the items, as she was the only lane open and could not recall him checking out. Though he might have caught Jen at the Service Counter/Express Lane, Always Open, if Jen wasn’t back in the office checking her email. Laxatives and after shave—both things he’d have better luck finding, and more choices, at Rite Aid, just next door, anyway.

The second time she was weighing apples. They must have been on sale. The woman had five or six different kinds—Honey Crisp, Gala, Ida Pink, Golden Delicious, Granny Smith—maybe three or four of each, each in a different produce sack which the woman had knotted so Tawny had to kind of smooth out the plastic to get the code number for the scale—not that they weren’t all the same price per pound on sale, but management liked the different kinds keyed in separately to keep track. And Pampers—the only other thing the woman had in the cart, not counting a humongous red diaper-bag thingy she’d fetched her wallet from, and a baby strapped in one of those portable car seats.

He’d asked for Tylenol and shaving cream. And when Tawny looked at him for the first time standing near the bagger station—she had turned to put the apples into the paper bag the woman with the baby “would prefer, please”—it seemed obvious to Tawny why he’d asked for the shaving cream. Though odd now, now that she thinks of it, as all the other times she’d ever see him, his face would be stubbled in the same way it was the first time, black and gray, somewhere in-between what Tawny’s father called five-o’clock-shadow and the kind of thin, well-groomed beard so many male actors must have been told looked fashionable. The man’s eyes were reddish-brown, the white parts less like newly fallen snow than like the crusty piles of snowy crud plowed up in the parking lot. His coat looked worn, maybe second-hand, one of those plaid-checked insulated-shirt jobs, gray and blue and green, and Tawny thought she could recall that he—that Leonard (“Lenny”)—had been wearing those old-time black rubber boots with the clips that day, though he had on duck boots every time after that, like the ones he had on when they found him.

Then Tawny told them about the times he came to the store after that, the ones she could remember, when Lenny would come in and help himself to a half-cup of the free coffee by the entrance, no matter what flavor or grind management was promoting, then wander around a bit before finally checking out with a single doughnut, or a newspaper, or something from the Clearance cart, and how he’d make a point to check out in her lane, and how he’d ask her about school, about Marlow, her cat, about what she was going to do once the store closed, whether she’d be taking another job somewhere near, or moving to another town, whether she had a boyfriend, or even a girlfriend, like so many young people were doing today, and did she have a good weekend. Those kinds of things. Things she’d thought they wanted to hear.

And she told them about his place. About going there the first time, down by the river, by the bridge below the dam, a small cottage-like place, gray vinyl siding with the red shutters. Underneath the siding was real log cabin, Lenny told her. And from the looks of the inside Tawny believed him, everything woodsy, furniture like you’d see at one of those outdoor crafts stores up north, planked wood floors, walls of rough pine paneling—the kind that sort of fits together, like tongue-and-groove—and bookshelves made of cement blocks and unpainted boards. There were a lot of books, all kinds of books, books on sailing and engineering and math and cookbooks, books on making your own furniture, on space exploration, on gardening, books on trees, on bee keeping, The History of Civilization—a whole series of volumes—encyclopedias, books on automotive repair (and Lenny didn’t even own a car!), books on winemaking, on tapestry, on different religions, some not even in English!, which surprised Tawny. So many books in foreign languages, and yet not, it seemed, a single book of poems or stories or even a novel, like most people have. And Lenny didn’t read any more, he said, because of his eyes.

She’d been invited to “tea,” of all things. Like in one of those British comedies on PBS. And she wasn’t even sure why she had agreed to it, why she had stopped by there one day after work, early in November, when it’s nearly dark already at 4 p.m., the time Lenny said it would be a good time to call. And no, she hadn’t been afraid, for he seemed to be a nice enough guy, no real threat, just lonely, and not, as Jen once put it, pathetic. But Tawny had nothing to judge by. Her father’s father was dead—a heart attack, before her parents even met—and her mother’s father, Grandpa Hardley, was, as he called it, kept warm in his old age by “Grammy” Anita, the much younger woman he’d married after the first Grandma Hardley died. They lived near Las Cruces and seldom traveled.

And it really was tea, said Tawny. Bigelow Orange & Spice Herb Tea, from the Clearance cart. And Pecan Sandies, which Leonard kept referring to as “biscuits,” and which Tawny had recalled he’d bought during the week all Keebler cookies were on sale, 2 for $6. And they’d talked. About all kinds of things. Funny things, like he asked her what animal she’d want to be if she could be any and she said an otter, though she didn’t know why, it was the first thing that popped into her head and it was probably because of the river, which she could hear just outside the door, a shushing gurgling kind of sound the whole time they talked. And like if she had a million dollars what would she do with it? And did she think the strange weather was a result of global warming? And what was her favorite movie of all time? Things like that.

And then Tawny told them that when the tea was gone, and the dark had arrived completely, and Lenny had turned on the reading lamp beside the rocking chair that Tawny told him looked like it was made of tree branches that had been bent by a heavy snow storm. And he said or like some boy’s been swinging on them and Tawny said What? because she didn’t understand, and he said Knock Knock, and she said What? because she didn’t think she heard him right, so he said KNOCK KNOCK again, a little louder, and so she knew it was going to be a joke and she said Who’s there? and he said Otter and she said Otter who? and he said Otter you think about getting home before Jen starts to worry? because Tawny was staying at Jen’s until she knew what the story was for sure about the store closing and what she’d be doing after that, or where she’d have to move, and at Jen’s she could keep her cat, Marlow. So she took the hint and thanked him for the tea and biscuits and said See you later and left. 

She told them about the other times, some of them, which she thought they wanted to hear, the other times she’d gone to the real log cabin by the river, with its gray siding and red shutters, many of them the same—the tea, the cookies called biscuits, the talk, the questions—how some were thoughtful times, some silly, some strange, but all enjoyable—that much Tawny could tell. How Lenny seemed to enjoy the time that she was there. But she did not tell them all. Not about the limp dick, Jen’s term for what was more often referred to on TV as “erectile dysfunction.” She did not tell them about that. It was not something she thought they wanted to hear.

Yes she was surprised, she’d said, to hear Lenny had disappeared, especially so close to Christmas—well not completely surprised that he stopped coming to the store, the stock was quite low by then and the Family Fare was to close for sure so they weren’t re-ordering, only moving what they had left closer to the door, and not completely surprised when she went to his place by the river and it was locked. He had, after all, mentioned some distant cousin or someone somewhere in New Mexico or Arizona, and Lenny had talked about going out there, taking her, and since they’d be so near she could visit her grandpa and Grammy Anita. Since the holidays were coming she could only guess that that’s where he went, to see his family, as Tawny was planning to do so herself, though not until the holidays were over, once the store closed for good, since in the meantime she was getting more hours after Peter quit and Lois was transferred to the Leonard Street store (and funny, now that she thought about it, just now, the irony, or whatever—the same name). She was surprised only that Lenny hadn’t said anything to her. That’s what was funny about it. They’d become friends.

She wasn’t surprised, however, that they’d found him in the river, his body anyway, for he once asked How can you not love a river? when Tawny mentioned the constant shushing gurgling in the background of their talk and she’d thought at first he’d expected an answer, for he’d turned to her just then and looked at her in a way that expected an answer, and she’d laughed, thinking it was one of those questions that didn’t want an answer, rhetorical, because the answer was obvious. Tawny told them that. It was something she thought they wanted to hear.

She did not tell them about touching him. About her wanting to touch him, to reduce the space between them, the darkness between them, even as they grew closer, more intimate, as the questions became unnecessary, for their loneliness was enough to hold them together—enough cause, enough effect—and the sound of the shushing and gurgling river was the sound of her heart aching to have Lenny love her in the way he loved the river. She didn’t tell them about the time she crossed through the darkness and embraced him, though it was awkward, with him slouched down in the bent wood rocking chair, and how she was astonished at the coldness of his flesh, once she’d unbuttoned his gray-green jacket-like shirt and removed his duck boots and his brown wool pants and pulled down his boxers far enough to take his cold cock in her hand, and how cold it was!, and then her mouth, and how soft it was, and no matter what she did, how he remained soft, wrinkled and old, and how sadly he looked at her with his dim, wet eyes. 

Not easy-peasey.

And still she had gone to him after that, several times, and each time he’d been happy to see her, and he asked her questions, and made her tea, and they ate cookies he called biscuits, and when it got late enough, he’d say Knock knock, and she’d say Who’s there? and he’d say Otter, and she’d say Otter who? and he’d say Otter you think about getting home before it’s too late?, and then she’d know that he was tired and that it was time to say Thank you and See you soon and leave.

And some of that she told them, for it was something she thought they wanted to hear. Then they asked if he’d said anything odd the last time she saw him, before he disappeared, and she told them again what she’d told them already. He’d not said anything odd, she said, not even goodbye. They asked if he’d done anything to her that might have made her angry, and she said no, he was a perfect gentleman the whole time, biscuits and tea. Then they asked if she’d been more than a friend to him, if they’d been intimate in any way, and she told them she hadn’t. She had not even kissed him. Which was the truth. And while it was something they had asked, something they must have wanted to hear, it was not something Tawny had wanted to say.

Phillip Sterling is the author of a book of fiction, In Which Brief Stories Are Told, two collections of poetry–And Then Snow, Mutual Shores–and four chapbook-length series of poems. His new book, Amateur Husbandry, a collection of fable-like micro-fictions narrated by the domestic partner of a yellow horse, was released from Mayapple Press in November 2019.