I Should Stay

SouthernLit

words: Marla Cantrell

If you’re not in love as Valentine’s Day approaches, you shouldn’t work in a candy shop. But I do, and today the parking lot is full. Sandy, who owns the place, had the windows painted with Cupid and hearts and a message that reads, If you don’t bring home the choc-o-lit, she’s bound to have a hissy fit!

Which reflects poorly on every woman I know and respect, but Sandy doesn’t get that. Right now, I’m working the register, and I’m wearing my name tag, which is a big white paper heart, turned around backwards, so instead of seeing Genevieve, the customers are seeing my inside joke. I’ve written, Guess What Rhymes With Cupid?

Since my name tag is positioned right below my collar bone, most of the guys are checking it out. Nobody’s said anything, though, until right now, when this man, maybe forty or so, who smells like money and is loaded down with heart-shaped boxes, stares at my chest and then laughs.

“Stupid!” he says, and the guy behind him, a guy who smells like motor oil, and thinks the rich guy’s talking to me, says, “Hey, buster, watch your mouth! She don’t deserve that!”

“He was answering my question!” I say. “Get it? What rhymes with Cupid?” I point to my chest, and the guy’s face reddens, “Oh, sure.” He pulls off his ball cap, scratches his head with his thumb. “I just don’t think it’s funny.”

The rich guy has all the same boxes, leopard print with red bows. He probably has a ship in every port, if you know what I mean. Still, he has that look I like: a smile that’s almost a smirk, shoulders that barely fit through the door frame.

He sees me staring. “My daddy was a linebacker,” he says, and I laugh. “My mama was a cheerleader,” I say, which isn’t true but doesn’t seem to matter.

He drops the boxes on the counter. “What’s your name?” And that’s when the mechanic moves to the other checker’s line. Melba doesn’t have much personality, but she’s fast as a flu epidemic in an old folks’ home.

“Genevieve,” I say.

“Hank,” he says.

“Who’s all this candy for?”

Hank flashes a too-white smile. “Maiden aunts and what-not.”

“You must be a saint.”

Hank waves his hand in the air, “Saint. Sinner. Whatever,” and two more people move to Melba’s line.
Sandy comes out of the office. She’s fat from years in the business, red-faced and hangdog from too little loving, I suspect. “Genevieve, is there a problem?”

“No ma’am. Just helping Hank, here.”

Sandy is a dragon in polyester. “We appreciate your business, Hank, but if Genevieve’s line don’t start moving soon, I’m going have to start charging her rent instead of paying her salary.”

Hank points to the largest box of chocolates we’ve got in the store. It’s up on a pedestal, three feet tall, at least. “Genevieve just talked me into buying that box, right there,” he says. “For my mama.”

Sandy unfolds her arms. “It’s one hundred and fifty dollars.”

Hank folds his arms. “Worth every penny.”

“Your mama’s a lucky woman.”

“I tell her that all the time,” Hank says, and Sandy smiles at him and then me.

When I ring him up, he uses a platinum credit card. I figure he’s going to ask me out, but he never does. The next day, though, the flower van pulls up. The delivery gal, a sour-faced woman with a streak of gray where her dye job’s grown out, hands over a bouquet big as a tow sack. Hydrangeas and ranunculus and gardenias. The card reads You need to give Cupid another chance. No signature, but I know it’s Hank.

When I leave work, I strap the flowers in my car like they’re a toddler, and drive through town grinning. I stop at Mickey D’s, order from the kids’ menu. The girl at the drive-through points at my flowers and says, “Must be nice.” It is nice. The smell of the flowers, the smell of the chicken nuggets, it’s perfect, like a storm rolling in on the hottest day of the year.

I like this part of love. When nothing bad has happened yet. Me and Hank, we haven’t been on a date. We haven’t had one harsh word between us. When I met my ex-husband, Johnny, I thought I’d caught a falling star. I thought we’d sail right on through life, but we did not.
Hank is messing with me. He could have called after the flowers came. Or showed up again. I put the flowers on my dresser, so they’ll be the first thing I see when I wake up. I have to move my jewelry box to make them fit. And my trophy from volleyball back when I was in junior college.

All day the next day, I watch the door at Sissy’s Sweets. I’ve turned my heart-shaped name tag back around since my actual heart’s got a crack of light shining in it now.

When I leave, Hank is outside, leaning against one of the columns that are painted to look like a candy cane. “Evening,” he says, and I smile up at him. “Like the flowers?” he asks and puts his hands in the pockets of his slacks.

“Those from you?” I ask, innocent like.

He smiles. His eyes are blue like wildflowers.

He shows his keys to me, pushes a button, and the lights come on his Chevy truck. It is black with chrome, and once I’m inside, I see the leather seats. Hank hits a button, and the seat warms up. I smell like chocolate and the lavender oil I wear behind my ears. I look in the vanity mirror, pull the clip that holds my hair in place. It falls across my shoulders, a tangle of blonde curls. Hank says, “Good lord.”

When he brings me to work the next morning, the fog of winter has fallen. We ride through clouds, which seems right since I can’t feel the ground below me. He calls me, his voice a brook in spring when the water tumbles. My head swims. My legs quiver.

For a week, I see Hank every day. And then he just disappears. When I call, he doesn’t answer. I leave messages that don’t sound like me. “Please,” I say, “just let me know you’re not lying in a ditch somewhere.”

Sandy hears me. “Hank?” she asks.

I shake my head yes.

“He’s lying,” she says, “but not in a ditch.”

She takes me into her office. She pours me coffee. She adds Kahlúa. “Drink,” she says.

When I take a sip, Sandy says, “I doubt he calls anytime soon, honey. And if he does, you shouldn’t answer.”

“What do you know?” I ask, but Sandy holds her hand up.

“Trust me,” she says.

I have my cell phone in my lap, and I watch it.

“Men like that,” Sandy says, and looks down at her fingernails, “they come in on a comet. They slip away on winged feet.”

“You sound like a poet.”

“I dated one, once. He broke up with me in a note that rhymed.” Sandy looks around. “I have it here somewhere.” She clears her throat. “Want to know what happens now? Hank gives you a few days to squirm. Then he calls. He’ll say he was busy but won’t say with what. You’ll be so glad to hear from him; you’ll let him off the hook. The next time he disappears, it will be for longer. You’ll throw a fit, but it won’t do you any good. Just when you think you’re over him, bingo! He’s back again.

“After the while, you start feeling bad about yourself. You’ll stop strutting around this shop like you’re the Queen of Sheba. You’ll start thinking you’re not worth much, which is a hundred percent BS. In six months, little lines will start forming around your eyes and lips. In a year, you’ll look ten years older.”

I take another sip of coffee, feel the liquor settle in my stomach. “How old are you, Sandy?”

“Forty-seven.”

“I know, I know,” she says, “I look older.”

“Who broke your heart?”

“If you believe the last Bozo, I did it to myself. Every dang thing was my fault.”

“So, what did you do?”

“I got a dog. I bought this place.” Sandy points to the heart-shaped boxes stacked in the corner. “I decided to cash in on other people’s love.”

“You just gave up.”

“I did. I was low-down, so low-down I could barely pull my head off the pillow. Ain’t nobody worth that.”

I look at my phone again, and Sandy says, “Give me that thing.” And then she grabs it and turns it off, shoves it in her desk drawer. I feel my heart racing. I have this unreasonable thought that if Hank calls and I don’t answer, it might make him mad.

“But I don’t want to end up like you.”

“Don’t feel too sorry for me, Genevieve. I gave up, sure I did, but not forever. I met Sam at the dog park two summers ago. He has a mutt with a hitch in its hind end. He has a good heart. One day he said to me, he said, ‘Sandy, you are goodness wrapped in sweetness wrapped in beauty.’” Sandy winks at me. “How’s that for poetry?”

“You don’t talk about Sam around here.”

Sandy smiles. “I like to keep a few things to myself.”

There’s a rap on the door, and Melba comes in. “Got a guy out here, Genevieve, says his name is Hank. Says you’ll want to know he’s here.”

Sandy looks at me. “Moment of truth, darling. Walk out there, and you’re on that old slippery slope.”

Melba looks at me with her one good eye. “You should stay,” she says.

I can feel Hank, that pull that makes every cell in my body gravitate toward him. I can feel his breath on my ear as he whispers to me, and see the long line of his body. I reach out and touch Sandy’s hand. “I should stay,” I say.

“You should stay,” Sandy says back to me and wraps her fingers through mine so I will. Melba hugs my neck, something that’s never happened, and then slips out the door. I hear Hank’s voice rise, and then a bitter laugh, and then the bell that rings when a customer leaves.

I have been rescued, I know I have, and knowing that makes the emptiness not so bad. I hear tires squeal across the parking lot, and I smile, at last, feeling a little bit more like the girl I almost abandoned for a thing that was not even close to love.

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