The Opposite of a Movie Star, a short story by EM Reapy
Hennessy New Irish Writing winner, May 2016: a supermarket checkout girl learns that appearances can be deceptive
I’m sitting at my checkout, putting items through when I notice him. He’s looking at me as he stands awkwardly in front of the Community Board, under signs for Beginners’ Zumba, German Grinds and Garden Furniture For Sale. His eyes are the blue of a plain day’s sky and when he sees me spot him he quickly scans around. He scratches his head and then rubs his thin arm. I go back to my customer – a small, portly man getting hardened loaves and sandwich fillers. Basic egg mayo that’s turning orangey. Coleslaw marked down because it’s off. Corned beef from the heel. I tell him the subtotal.
He hands it to me.
I wait for the click of the CASH button, the pop of the till’s black lid, try count out his change in my head before making sure I get it right off the receipt. I always get it right.
“D’ya need a bag?”
“No,” the customer goes, trying to pile up his items on his chest.
“Boxes are over there,” I say and point. “They’re free,” I add, and notice yer man again, the thin one, staring at me.
Do I know him from somewhere? No. Couldn’t.
He’s got a one all-round haircut. The bones in his face jut under his skin.
I pass the receipt into the wriggling fingers of the sandwich man. He inches backwards to the door to keep balance of his load as he exits.
I smile and flick a glance at the thin guy again. His navy blue shirt looks too big for his body, like if the wind caught him it’d make a sail out of him and blow him round the city. He mops his brow with a tissue and then folds it back into his pocket. Why is he sweating? The A/C is blaring cool recirculated air above where he stands. Even here, a good twelve feet away from the noticeboards, I zip my red uniform fleece up to my chin, reminded by the fact I’m cold.
“Excuse me,” a woman with burgundy lips asks, “is this till open?”
“Sorry, sorry,” I say and go back to work.
She buys merlot and goat’s cheese, lavender detergent and dry dog food. She offers some chat about the rainstorms, about the floods in the clogged car park.
I nod, make soothing noises. “Terrible, awful out there. Yes. I know, yes. Loyalty card?”
Click, pop, notes, coins, receipt.
“D’ya need a bag?”
I check the queue, the time. Might head off to lunch. I look to the noticeboards again. The thin guy is muttering to himself. It looks like he’s got something bulky in his pocket, or is he just glad to see me.
“Don’t you find yourself so amusing?” Carolynn, my supervisor, says.
“You’re there, chuckling away to yourself. You know what they say about people who laugh at themselves?”
My smile drops. I don’t answer. I never really know what to say to Carolynn and found that not saying anything at all was the best way to get rid of her. She’s only three years older than me and we started work here around the same time but since she was promoted to supervisor she didn’t bother ‘fraternising with the floor staff’.
A customer asks for forty Benson and wet coughs into his jacket sleeve. Then he rubs it, leaving a snail trail on the cloth.
I get out of my seat and go to the cigarette machine by customer services. Over there I stretch out my legs and say hello to Anja, who’s counting new floats for us. Marty, the security guard, stands beside her as she makes piles of fives, tens, twenties and fifties.
“D’ya see that fella by the boards?” I say to Marty.
The thin guy walks off towards the side aisles.
“That one, just gone in by Fruit and Veg?” I point. “He was standing around for fifteen minutes.”
“A sketchy fucker, was he?”
I press my lips together, shrug my shoulders. “Dunno. No. Wouldn’t say so, but he’s a bit – you know.”
“Anja’s nearly finished this. When she is, I’ll have a goo.”
I bring the cigarettes back to the smoker and he’s tearing open the plastic and foil before the till pops for his change. I drop the coins into his hands, careful not to touch him.
My stomach grumbles and when I breathe in through my nose, I taste the oven baked baguettes from the bakery. I’m about to shout to Anja that I’m clocking off for lunch when yer man approaches, the thin one. Now his pale blue eyes are clamped on me.
“Ah, howaya?” he says. His voice is cracking. He clears his throat and gulps.
“Hi,” I say, smile fastened. In my peripheral vision I try to see where Marty is.
“Nice place here,” he says. He rolls up the sleeves of his shirt. There are small hole scars on his arms. He has faded Roman numerals tattoos on his left wrist.
“It’s grand,” I say.
“Good place, yeah,” he says. He’s looking around again.
“Mister, are you buying anything?” I say, nonchalantly as I can, “because you’ll have to step away, ya know, so the other shoppers can pay.” I wave at the queue, a woman with an overflowing trolley stands impatiently behind a sagging gothy teenager. An older man holding a greeting card and a bunch of white chrysanthemums joins and stands behind them.
The thin man glares at me for a moment. “Oh,” he says, “Yeah,” he says and jumps up. “Sorry.”
But he doesn’t move away from the checkout. He isn’t giving me a scary vibe, it’s more like he’s lost or something.
“Busy here, isn’t it?” he says.
“Busy enough,” I say, an eyebrow raised.
“I’d say ye serve a lot of customers, take in a lot of cash, just be so busy like.”
The mention of money makes the hairs on my arms bristle. I turn away for a second and give Marty a help-me look. I turn back and smile nervously at the thin man. “Yeah, I suppose.”
He takes a deep breath. “So busy like, yiz wouldn’t be able to be thinking about anything else, yer brains would be on task like, just putting the stuff through, taking the cash, giving the change, no room for distraction.”
“I guess so.”
“It’d keep ya in the present.”
I half nod then lift my shoulders, unsure. “I dunno.” I think of the blur on days that I don’t bother focusing on the customers, the days that slide between 10 and 7.
“It’d keep ya in the moment,” he says and suddenly dips his hand into his pocket.
“Marty,” I call, trying to keep the panic from my voice.
The man takes out a folded A4 paper and uncreases it. “Here, would you hand me CV in to your manager?” he asks.
Marty stomps over. I get the spice from his deodorant behind me. He stands by my stool, leans on it with his arm.
“You all right?” Marty says out the side of his mouth, like the man in front of him can’t see.
“Yeah,” I say. “Sorry. It’s grand.” I’m cringing.
Marty asks, “What seems to be the problem, bud?”
The man looks at him. “What?”
Marty keeps his face stern-still.
“No, Jesus, no problem here,” the man says and puts the paper down so he can show his palms to Marty.
Marty looks at me. I nod it’s okay at him. He nods okay back. Steps away.
I pick up the man’s page and try smooth it. “Sorry.”
He shrugs. “It happens.” He takes a breath, “So will ya?”
“Give it to your manager?” he asks, gulps again.
“Yeah,” I say and breathe out. “Yeah, of course. Well, to my supervisor. She’ll pass it up.”
“Ah deadly, I just knew you looked like the nicest one. Thanks a million. I’m Dean, Dean James,” he says and puts his hand out. I shake it. It’s damp.
“Nice one, Zoe,” says Dean. “Sure maybe we’ll be working together soon.” He smiles. His bottom teeth are all crooked but his smile is genuine. It lights his eyes, brightens his whole grey face and makes him look boyish. I smile.
“See ya, Zoe.”
“See ya, Dean.”
* I get a chicken roll and coffee and go towards the staffroom. Carolynn is stretched out at a corner table near the microwave. She’s reading a magazine that has a headline saying “Maximising Sales Opportunities”. I approach her. She eyes me as I put my food down on her table and take the CV out of my fleece pocket. I don’t sit.
“A CV,” I say and pass it to her.
“What was he like?”
“He was sound. I wasn’t sure at first, I’d kind of judged him.”
She’s not listening, though, she’s reading the page. Her mouth slinks into a smirk.
“Dean James, 44 Greendale Heights.” She puts on an accent, does these jerky hand signals. “From da flatz, waz he? Fonda da gear, waz he?”
I want to butt in.
She stops and sniffs. “I’ve a friend who was mugged at knifepoint by someone from there. Dean James, eh. He’s like the opposite of a movie star.”
“But Carolynn –”
“Ah look, he spelt ‘trustworthy’ wrong. No Leaving Cert. This is gas.”
“No, he was –”
“Look at the gaps in his work experience.”
She points at his CV. It’s single spaced but the font is too big. Maybe a 16 or an 18. She sniggers. “He must be a junkie, right?”
I sigh. “No, he didn’t seem like – maybe in the past – but he wasn’t high or weird or anything.”
“Come off it.” Carolynn says and laughs. “We’d have to get an extra guard just to keep an eye on him. And we don’t need any more of Marty’s kind around here either, do we?”
She balls up the CV, hands it back. “Fuck that in the bin there, love.”
She opens her eyes wide. “But what?”
“But he was sound.” I put my hand to the middle of my chest.
“Get real.” She flicks her hair and picks up her magazine.
I stand there unsure of what to do.
Carolynn glances up to see me gawping at her. “Zoe?”
“You could –”
“I could what?”
“He might –”
Carolynn sits up straight and her orange perfume scents the air as she moves. “If you want to go into HR and give buddies like Dean a break, I’d recommend you go do one of your evening classes in social work instead or go to bleeding hearts anonymous.”
She returns to her magazine. I pick my lunch up from her table, move over near the radiator. My hand is shaking as I take big burning slurps from my coffee and try to unroll the CV.
Dean James, 44 Greendale Heights.
Born in 1986. Four honours and six passes in the Junior Cert.
A job in a warehouse for two years in the late 1990s.
A taxi driver in 2003.
Lived in Glasgow for a summer.
A job in landscaping 2007-2010.
Completed a Fás course in groundskeeping, top of class.
Completed an ECDL in basic computer skills.
Driving job for a private company 2013.
Interested in the Premiership, DIY and enjoys listening to blues music.
For more references contact Sister Imelda McGrath and Dr John Barrett-Montague.
* A week or so later, Dean comes to the checkout, broadly smiling. “Howaya Zoe, you well?” He’s wearing a black hooded unzipped jacket over a checked blue shirt. The shirt matches his eyes.
“Yeah, you?” I feel delighted to see him, like he’s an old pal or something.
“Yeah, Jesus, yeah I’m the best I’ve been in years.”
“Good stuff, Dean.”
“So, did your managers have a look at me CV? Did they say anything about a job?”
My stomach sinks. “Em. They – I dunno.”
His smile is shrinking. He knows.
I start to mumble. “You see we’ve loads of staff at the minute. All the young ones have the weekends taken. All the foreigners and the old timers prop us full timers up during the weeks. Not much hours going.”
Dean nods. “Just, it’s kind of hard, this job hunting stuff, isn’t it? Ya hear bleedin’ nothing. Suppose it takes time. The processing and all that. Like the social, all those forms take ages too. Patience. Faith. That’s what they say to have.”
“I’d love to get something soon. Ya know. The days are long aren’t they?”
“I suppose they are.”
“They are.” He shakes his head. “They’re really bleedin’ long,” he says on an exhale. “Anyway, thanks, Zoe. Sure, maybe we’ll be working together soon.”
“Yeah, Dean,” I say. I think of his CV tucked away in one of my shoeboxes with my old letters, photos, ticket stubs and poems; with my important things. “Maybe we will.”
He zips his jacket as he walks to the sliding doors, pulls the hood up over his head, tightens it with thick black strings.
EM Reapy is from Mayo. Her debut novel, Red Dirt, will be published next month by Head of Zeus and reviewed in The Irish Times on June 11th.