Mannie takes another quick glance at her phone hidden in her pocket between customers, and internally sighs when she realizes time has hardly passed since the last glance. Still another half hour remains of her evening shift. Why are Sunday nights the slowest? She keeps telling herself the money is worth the time wasted sliding across the scanner the various and diverse products that populate the shelves of Wal-Mart. Still, when a woman places her items on the conveyer, Mannie smiles and greets her as if she’s enthused to be behind the cash register. When the woman stares into space without any acknowledgement to the fact that another human being is attempting friendly interaction with her, Mannie rolls her eyes.
As she slides each item over the scanner, she laughs quietly to herself. At least here she’s doing something productive, which is far less a waste of time than sitting at home, rotting her mind with video games. She bags a can of whipped cream and a jar of cherries, and a smirk shoots across her face. She doesn’t notice the gallons of vanilla and chocolate ice cream, the variety pack of sprinkles, or the birthday banner that the woman also purchases, her mind too wrapped around some bedroom fantasy involving the first two items.
When the customer pays and leaves, still failing to spare even a glance in the cashier’s direction, Mannie is almost joyful when the next customer, a guy probably still too young to buy alcohol, returns her greeting, even if just with a half-hearted smile and a polite nod. Being around the same age, she’s not bothered by his response, knowing it’s one she’s given to cashiers before.
Mannie rings up each item as he places it onto the conveyer, but she hesitates as she reaches for a pack of X-Acto knife blades. She looks up at him, but he just nods. “Yeah, that, too,” he says, as if she’s questioning if this item belongs to him or someone behind him.
She slowly scans the package, looking down as she does so, and places it in the bag. Her focus shifts to his outfit as she reads his total to him. Despite it being a particularly warm September day in Oneonta, New York, he’s wearing a long-sleeved shirt. Her eyes follow his arms as he pulls out his wallet and swipes his credit card, wondering what lies beneath his sleeves.
She looks back at the register after he swipes his card, but nothing changes on the screen. “It didn’t read. Could you swipe it again?”
“I suppose,” he jokes. She wonders why all customers couldn’t be as easy-going as him.
“Still not reading. I can get a manager over here to type the numbers in manually,” she offers regretfully.
“I’ve got no cash or time limit.”
“Hopefully they don’t take forever…” she sighs, looking over her shoulder toward customer service and fiddling with the thick leather band on her right wrist.
“At least there’s no one in line behind me,” he comments, and she’s almost thankful he’s open to conversation. She hates awkward silences, and she’s burning to ask him questions.
She nods, then again looks at his long sleeves. “It was such a nice day. You must have been warm in that shirt.” As soon as the words come out of her mouth, she realizes how creepy they sound.
He laughs, though, relieving her. “Nah. I’m from Miami. Sixty-five isn’t warm.”
“Oh. That makes sense.” Her tone is less satisfied than she intended, she realizes as her eyes focus on the knife blades in clear view from the top of a plastic bag.
He follows her gaze, then looks back up at her. They lock eyes for a moment, but before either could say anything, the customer service manager arrives.
Each night for the next week, as she goes through her nightly routine, Mannie is reminded of that package of blades and the intriguing customer from Miami. She isn’t sure exactly why he is on her mind as she takes off her leather bracelet and places it beside her alarm clock, but she doesn’t try to understand.
The next Sunday, Mannie finds herself once again watching the clock on her phone during the couple minutes between each customer. The second it hits one, she reaches down to switch off her light. As she looks beyond the isle, she sees that guy’s face again, something she never expected. In a store as large as a Wal-Mart that caters to a town with two colleges, the chances of a part-time employee running into the same customer twice aren’t too high.
“Mind staying for another couple minutes? The other few lines open are all full.”
“I don’t mind,” she replies with a smile. She’s almost happy to see him until she looks over the items he places on the conveyer: a box of gauze and a roll of medical tape. If she wasn’t sure about him before, she is now.
“I don’t want to invade privacy or anything…” Her voice trails off at the end, realizing the words are actually coming out of her mouth. She looks up, but he is quietly laughing to himself.
“My roommate attempted cooking while drunk, and ended up with stitches in two fingers. He has a dressing he needs to change every so often.”
Mannie winces and laughs as she reads him his total, but isn’t sure she buys the story. Why it matters to her if the gauze is for his own methods of stress relief or for a roommate that needs to stop drinking, she doesn’t know, nor does she care to.
He hands her a ten dollar bill and smiles. “I have cash this time, just to be safe.”
She returns the smile half-heartedly, and as she opens the register drawer, she glances at him through the corner of her eye. He’s watching her, more importantly, her hands. Anytime people take notice of this area of her body, it makes her nervous. After a minute of silence, something clicked in his mind. Mannie could see it in his eyes when they snapped back to hers.
“What are you doing after you get out of here?” he asks as she hands him his cash.
She looks at him for a brief moment before registering his question. “Waste away in front of a PlayStation.”
“I hear there’s a Dunkin’ Donuts open twenty-four hours somewhere in this town.”
She nods. “The one on Chestnut, by the Hess.”
“Do you like coffee?” When she nods again, he continues. “I’ll meet you there, then.”
Guessing she doesn’t have much of an option in this, Mannie punches out and takes the short five-minute drive from Southside to West End. She pulls into the coffee shop’s parking lot and spots him through the glass, sitting at a table, a large cup in his hand. She orders medium French Vanilla, joins him, and takes the top off the cup to allow the beverage to cool.
“I’m Mannie, by the way. In case you didn’t see the name tag.”
“Connor.” He takes a sip of his coffee. “Are you a local or college student?”
“Local. I live on the street right behind the McDonald’s a few buildings up. I’m guessing you’re a student?” He nods. “SUNY or Hartwick?”
“Wow. What are you studying?”
“Psychology. Just started my junior year.” This worries her a little, always having hated the mind-prodders. Before she can respond, though, he continues. “So, do you always freak out over the things people purchase?”
Her brows pull together, and she cocks her head to one side slightly. “What do you mean?”
“Last week, you seemed to analyze the modeling supplies I got. Today, you obsessed over the medical supplies. Do you have something against hobbies and safety?”
Though Mannie feels accused by his question, she only hears light-hearted curiosity in his voice. “Wait, what modeling supplies?”
“The model car kit, enamel paint, brushes, model cement, X-Acto blades.”
She thinks about his list for a minute, staring at the steam arising from the coffee. She saw the knife blades. How did she miss the other items?
As she ponders over this, he speaks again. “Then, you question the fact that I was wearing a long-sleeved shirt, as if you thought I was trying to hide something.”
“No, I was just trying to make conversation…” she says weakly. When she looks up at him, he’s focusing on her hands again, and it makes her put them in her lap beneath the table. “So that’s all you use the blades for?”
Connor nods. “What else would I use them for?” Again, all she hears is curiosity in his tone.
Mannie raises an eyebrow, but then shrugs, trying to think of some other use for the blades. When nothing else comes to mind, she forces herself to laugh. “I don’t know.”
He looks away and doesn’t say anything for a few minutes. When he looks back at her, he smiles. “So tell me about yourself.”
She looks out the window for a second, then back at him. “What about me?”
“What do you like to do?”
He nods, taking this in. “Anything else? Are you a student?”
She shakes her head. “I just graduated high school in June. I decided to take a year off before heading to college. No idea what I want to do with my life yet.”
Connor just continues to nod, which unnerves Mannie. She can’t get over his major, and feels like she’ll leave this coffee shop owing him for a visit.
“Do you live at home?”
“Sort of. It’s the house I grew up in, but it’s just me and my sister now. And her stupid fiancé.”
“Is she older?”
“By eleven years.” She takes a sip of her coffee, then stares at it for a minute before speaking again. “Why all the questions?”
Connor shrugs. “I don’t know. I’m just curious about you.”
Her brows pull together again. “Why, though?”
He doesn’t speak for what seems like forever to Mannie. She desperately wishes she could hear what is going on inside his mind, but as she begins to think of his possible thought processes, she decides she probably doesn’t want to.
“Have you heard the quote, ‘A thief believe everyone steals’?”
The words sink into Mannie’s brain, and she just sits in silence, staring out the window at the occasional car going past. The words play over and over again in her mind. What is he trying to imply? Does he think that she’s as curious about him as he is of her? She turns back to Connor, and he’s still watching her. “What are you saying?”
He looks away. “I… I don’t want to invade your privacy, either. But you’re quick to jump to conclusions…”
Mannie is about to ask what conclusions he’s referring to, but it occurs to her. He knew she assumed the knife blades and gauze were both for the same reason. So, does he think she…? “I—” Before finishing her thought, she looks down at her hands, particularly the thick leather bracelet wrapped around her right wrist. She didn’t realize it, but a thin red line is visible beyond the cover of the strap. She looks back up at Connor as she puts her hands in her lap again.
He’s quiet for a brief moment before asking for a pen. She nods and reaches in her purse for one. After handing it over to Connor, she watches him write a number onto a napkin.
“Call me before you do it next time,” he says as he sets the napkin and pen down in front of her.
“Why do you care so much?” she asks, staring at the napkin.
Connor inhales deeply before responding. “I had a friend in high school. Chris Pitts.” As he says the name, Mannie can hear the strain in Connor’s voice, but he continues without hesitation. “He was one of the most talented artists I’ve ever known. Drew with so much detail that you would swear it was a photograph. He was depressed, though. Senior year, just a couple months before graduation, he decided he had had enough. Took some sleeping pills and never woke up.”
Mannie listens to the story, fiddling with her bracelet as her hands rest in her lap. “I’m sorry,” is all she can say.
“It’s what inspired me to study psychology. I figure if I can help at least one person from taking the same path as Chris did, then my life will be worth something.”
She nods slowly, taking the napkin and shoving it into her purse.
“I have to get going. Ten a.m. comes pretty early. But please, call or text if you need anything.”
Connor leaves, but Mannie doesn’t move. He thinks she’s in dire need of help. Maybe he’s the thief who believes everyone steals. By the time she finally heads home, her coffee is cold. When she gets to her room, she sits on her bed and stares at the wooden cigar box she collected from her father years ago before cancer took him away from her. It wasn’t enough that her mother died while giving birth to her. No, life wasn’t complete until it took both parents from her.
As these thoughts envelope her mind, she reaches for the box. The still-strong scent of tobacco and wood wash over her, and if she closes her eyes, she can almost imagine he was sitting right next to her. She remains still for a moment, hoping that maybe her father’s arms will wrap around her and give her the comfort she so desperately needs. Tears welling in her eyes, she takes from the box a pencil sharpener and tiny screw driver without even thinking about it. Once she has the blade in her hand and the bracelet is sitting on her nightstand beside her alarm clock, she stares at the mess she’s been working on for the past few weeks. There’s a similar job currently healing on her ankle, the place she turns to when her wrist can’t take anymore without needing stitches. Her eyes continue up her arm at the faint pink remnants of work done during the past few winters, when the weather permits long-sleeves.
For the first time, the sight of bright red marks crisscrossing on her wrist makes her sick. She drops the sharpener blade back into the cigar box and fishes through her purse for the napkin. With shaking hands, she takes her cell phone and dials the numbers. She’s relieved when he picks up on the second ring.