“Why do you wear a key around your neck, Mickey?”
The way Sylvia asked the question, it was like she had already asked him the question and he hadn’t answered. So why was she asking it like she was asking again? He was sure she hadn’t asked, because he was paying attention and there was nothing wrong with his ears. He touched his ears briefly and shook his head. He focused on his thoughts, trying to remember for sure, the way his sister Ellie was always telling him to. He frowned and thought. When he looked up at Sylvia again, there were other people’s heads next to her, and they were all waiting for him to answer.
For example, there was Abby from the next cash, and there was James, who was a bagboy like him but not really like him because he went to college. And there was a teenage boy and two teenage girls who were waiting at the till. They were all smiling a little, so he smiled back too. Then he realized he had been thinking of his question, and his thoughts, and not Sylvia’s question, and he didn’t really know how to answer hers.
“I guess because Ellie says to. I guess I do most things because Ellie says to.”
And he didn’t mind, in general. He knew Ellie was smart. That’s why his mother had told Ellie to look after him and not the other way around, even though he was really Ellie’s big brother, and she was the little sister. He wasn’t used to living on his own yet, and he certainly wasn’t used to having a job yet, but things would be fine soon. He wished Ellie could help him out with answering questions like this, the questions starting with why. But these days Ellie was really busy with her new husband, Kevin, because they had to start a life together, and that’s why he’d had to go away.
“Who is Ellie, Mickey? Is that your girlfriend?” James was smiling, and so were Abby and Sylvia, but they were smiling behind their hands.
“No,” Mickey said, and felt his cheeks burn. “Anyway, I don’t lose it this way.” He nodded at the other people before looking down again at the bag he was packing. There was a trick to it. Heavy things, like frozen fish, on the bottom. Eggs separate or on top of something steady. The frozen fish was pretty steady.
“What key is it, Mickey? Is it the key to your heart?”
Mickey stopped what he was doing and looked up. Sylvia was smiling. She had very nice teeth. The other people were smiling too, not just behind their hands. He smiled back. Sylvia was just kidding, he decided, and in a nice way.
“Naw,” said Mickey. “It’s the key to Mrs. Myer’s house.”
“Who’s that, Mickey?” asked a teenager he didn’t know. “Is that your girlfriend?”
The boy seemed to be a customer and a friend of Sylvia’s at the same time.
Mickey turned to look at him, and then slowly at Sylvia.
“No, Mrs. Myers.”
“Naw. Mrs. Myers is the lady who has the house. I have a room in her house. She makes me breakfast and supper. Sometimes she leaves a bowl of Cheezies on the table in case we get hungry other times. I think I am the only one that eats them, though.”
“That’s great. Is she cute?” the boy asked, but he didn’t wait for an answer. Instead, he asked Sylvia what time she was finishing, and then the others, including Abby, started talking on top of each other about going to one of their houses. So the teenage boy and the two girls were customers and friends of Sylvia’s, James’s and Abby’s too. Mickey wished he knew that trick, how to turn customers into friends.
The boy had a ring in his nose that reminded Mickey of the cow calendar on Mrs. Meyer’s fridge. Mickey wondered what would happen if he suggested they come to Mrs. Meyers’s house, but he also knew that his part in the conversation was over. He finished packing the bag. Potato chips, he remembered Mr. Markham saying, always went on top.
Kevin had got Mickey this job. They had driven over in Kevin’s black sedan one muggy, drizzly night. Inside Markham’s Groceries, everything was very bright, white and cold. Kevin told Mr. Markham that Mickey had a lot of potential. Mickey had wondered about the word potential, and had decided it was not like polenta, which was sold next to the white flour, in small, medium or large bags, next to where Mr. Markham had been standing. The bright lights were making Mickey’s thoughts race around madly.
Kevin told Mr. Markham that Ellie, Mickey’s sister, held him back. Mickey’s mind flashed back to the car crash, Ellie throwing out her arm against his chest as the car lurched forward, his mother lurching forward too like when she had drunk too much, and how she had started to swear but had never finished her bad word.
Mr. Markham had a skinny neck, black hair and glasses with black frames. He looked a bit like a crow, he didn’t say much, and he wasn’t a big smiler, but he called Mickey “son” and Mickey liked that. Mickey had never known his father. He remembered his mother, but mostly all he remembered was that she liked to drink cider on the orange couch in front of the TV and that Ellie hated that so much that she had gotten rid of the orange couch, the cider and even the cider glasses after the accident.
Once Mickey started working without supervision he rarely saw Mr. Markham. He spent most days with Sylvia, or the other girl sometimes, who was pretty like Sylvia but didn’t seem to like him much. Her name was Sandy, and Mickey wondered if it was because she had sandy hair. He had tried asking her that once, but she just looked at him blankly, and then at her watch. Then he had told her that Kevin had taught him how to read the time, but not on a digital watch like hers. She hadn’t said anything to that either.
At 6:15 Sylvia counted the cash and a few minutes later they went outside. Mickey hung around while Sylvia locked up.
“Want me to walk you home, Sylvia?”
“No, not tonight, thanks, Mickey. I’m going over to Julian’s.”
“Okay,” said Mickey. He knew the boy’s name now. But he doubted he would ever see the inside of Julian’s house. Something hurt under his ribs. He wondered what would make him feel better. He wondered what was for supper at Mrs. Myers’s house.
Sylvia gave him a little wave and crossed the street. Mickey continued down the same side, past the hardware store, the pharmacy and the beginning of the long row of skinny houses. A woman was walking back and forth from the beginning to the end of the row, as she had several times that week. It was the little woman who called him Michael. She had thin grey and red hair that was partly covered by a red headscarf, a brown cardigan over a red T-shirt, a brown skirt that looked itchy, and thin grayish legs. Mickey thought she looked like a robin.
The woman stopped in her tracks as he approached and then moved closer to him and peered right up close, into his face. Her eyes were very large for her face, and a very bright blue. Her face, a warm nut-brown, seemed to crack into little lines when she smiled. She opened her mouth and cried, “Michael!”
Mickey thought of correcting her, but he actually liked being called Michael. Before, when he went to school in the special stream, the kids in the normal stream would say, “Hey, Mickey, you sure your name isn’t Goofy?” and he kept getting in trouble for punching, for not using his words. If he could have been Michael then, maybe school would have worked out.
“Michael,” the woman was saying. “You don’t be late for supper now. You don’t like it cold, and neither do I.” She walked into her house, letting the screen door swing shut behind her.
Mickey stood there for a minute and then continued down the street. He looked back a few times, wondering if she would come out again. Mrs. Myers was the one who was supposed to be making him supper. He wondered if it would be pork chops tonight. He wondered what the robin lady was making.
Mickey came to the tiny store with the snacks and the magazines with the naked girls and then to the little bridge that led to the hill that went down, and then the street that turned into Mrs. Meyers’s street.
A small child toddled by, led by the hand by his mother. Mickey pulled the string from around his neck and began to open the door with his key. “Right, left, click.” The little boy craned his neck around to stare at Mickey. Mickey felt stupid; he had said the words aloud. He felt his face grow hot. As he was coming through the door he heard Mr. Dixon call out, “Here’s someone who will eat your horrible muck.”
Mickey stood at the door with his head cocked. Mr. Dixon hadn’t said, “idiot” or “retard” this time, probably because the last time Mickey had lunged at him and Mr. Dixon had been forced to apologize. Mickey had felt very tall and wide next to Mr. Dixon.
Mickey walked past the kitchen, and quickly looked in. Mrs. Myers was just standing by the stove, looking at Mr. Dixon. Mr. Dixon was pushing his plate away and standing up. Mickey ran up the stairs to his room, sat on his bed and looked around.
Ellie had oohed and aahed about the room; she had said the colour was pretty. Robin’s egg blue, she’d called it. The bed was covered with a bright yellow bedspread that she called a happy sort of colour, but Mickey missed the one he’d had at home, with the Simpson faces and the smell of Oliver, their basset hound. There was a framed picture of him and Ellie when Ellie was just his sister and not Kevin’s wife yet. Ellie’s hair was naturally curly then, and she wore braces. Next to her, Mickey thought, he just looked like a big fat goof. And he still looked the same, hadn’t changed at all, despite being a big independent grown-up now.
He was hungry but he could already taste the warm salty water that was pouring down his face, and he knew he couldn’t let Mrs. Myers see him being a crybaby. He heard someone coming up the stairs. The footsteps stopped at his door.
“I’m not coming down for dinner, Mrs. Myers. I’m not going to eat your horrible muck tonight.”
Mickey clapped his hand in front of his mouth. His heart was beating very fast. There was no noise, and then the footsteps went back down the stairs.
Mickey felt awful and better at the same time. He wouldn’t have pork chops now, but maybe he could find something else to eat. He had fifty dollars that Ellie had given him for emergencies; that was probably enough for several bags of potato chips at the little store across the bridge.
Feeling sweaty and excited now, he wiped his tears and swallowed down the ones that had ended up in a snotty pool in his throat. He went to his closet and found his jean jacket, making a clanging racket with the coat hangers.
What’s he doing now? Mickey heard Kevin’s voice in his head, and wondered if he should be more careful. Making noise made him feel less lonely here, though; it helped fill up the quiet.
Anyway, he was going out. Maybe someday he would be the one with the girlfriend or the wife, and Mrs. Myers and Mr. Dixon would be the ones moving out.
Could that happen? He puzzled over this as he left Mrs. Myers house, yelling out one more time, “I’m not eating your horrible muck!” He slammed the door behind him and ran out the door.
He ran all the way to the little store, stopped and looked through the window at the young girl behind the counter. She was awfully pretty, and probably had nice titties too like the girls in the magazines. He wanted to go out on a date, he thought, but every time he’d asked a girl, she’d said no. He first asked a girl when he was 15 and she’d said no. Then when he was 26 he’d asked another girl and she’d said no too.
At the store he put six bags of potato chips and a six-pack of cans of Sprite on the counter when a voice behind him said, “Are you having a party, Mickey?” He turned to see Sandy come in. He was confused for a moment, because at work, at Mr. Markham’s, he had never heard her voice, or not talking to him, anyway. Behind her, a young man with a crew cut grinned at him as he grabbed Sandy by the belt loops and pulled her against his front. Did they think he was the one having the party?
No, because when he shook his head, they just started talking to each other and kissing as if he wasn’t even there. After that, they didn’t look at him again.
The pretty girl behind the counter didn’t look at Mickey either as she gave him his change and the case of Sprite and stuffed the potato chip bags into other bags. He understood then that Sandy had been making fun of him, and tears started to fill his eyes again; he could hardly see as he took the change and stuffed it into his pockets. He hurried outside and walked back up toward the bridge with his snacks. The sky was darkening with both grey clouds and night-time. He suddenly realized that he had taken off his key when he’d come back from work and had forgotten to put it back on.
He put down the case of Sprite, still clutching his bags and looked down at the brown water under the bridge. I can’t swim, but I can jump.
Then he heard a woman’s voice.
“Michael! Michael!” He ran across the bridge, dropping his bags, and almost bumped right into her. She looked up at him, bright little face, eyes like robins’ eggs, and touched his cheek.
“You’d better come in, now. Your supper is ready. Come in before it gets cold.”
She turned and went into her house, letting the screen door slam shut behind her. Mickey looked at the pale orange light from her front window for a moment, then opened the door and followed her inside.
Anita Anand lives in Montreal, Canada. Her stories and essays have appeared in Frostwriting.com, the Louisiana Review and the Toronto Globe and Mail.
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