Marilyn Teel was somewhat roly-poly but cute—or at least Drew thought so, although he wasn’t sure what to make of her nose ring, her dozen or so earrings, or her multiple tattoos, including a large black symbol on the back of each calf, which he’d overheard a coworker say were feminist icons, and were visible when she wore skirts.
Drew had a crush on Marilyn, but was intimidated. Marilyn was opinionated, and Drew was afraid of starting a conversation and inadvertently slipping up on some topic on which Marilyn was expert, or of showing ignorance of something that she held dear.
One evening, Jan, the store manager, asked Drew, who was over seeing reference books, if he could cover in music instead. There’d been a call out; the managers liked two people closing in music; otherwise, Marilyn would be by herself.
He did his best not to betray his elation, shelved the books in his hand, and went up the escalator.
The first two hours, Marilyn didn’t say anything, apart from when he came in and told her he’d be working there. She shrugged and said, All right. She then resumed talking to Casey Dominski. The two girls only moved when a customer came in—and then reluctantly—while Drew straightened rows of CDs and rang up customers.
At 6:30, Casey left. Marilyn roamed over to the entrance, the middle of the sales floor, the registers, and the middle of the sales floor again, arms crossed, as though deep in thought. A couple of times, Drew walked past her and smiled. She’d smile tiredly back.
Then it was time for their breaks. Marilyn went first; when she came back, Drew went. Returning, he again resolved to talk to her; and, a few minutes later, as Marilyn shelved CDs, he began shelving CDs, too, and said, So, are you in college?
She looked at him, blinked. I go to Montclair.She walked to the next CD rack.
Really? He followed. Me, too.
She shelved a Van Morrison CD. I know. Then she said, I’ve seen you there a few times.
He felt surprise yet vague delight. Really? When? Because I’ve never—
She nodded to the registers: a customer waited.
And, as sometimes happened, one customer after another appeared. Drew privately cursed each one. But as soon as he rang up the last customer, Marilyn said she’d be right back; when she returned, Drew was stuck ringing up another line of customers. By the time that queue disappeared, it was nearly ten.
But when he approached Marilyn and said, So, where’d you see me? she looked up from the row of CDs she was straightening and said, Sorry?
At Montclair. Then he said, You said you saw me?
Oh. I think it was you. Coming out of the student center once. And another time, by Drake Hall.
He made a note to keep an eye out for herby those buildings. I was probably getting out of my Shakespeare class, he said, as he straightened a row of CDs.
Marilyn suppressed a yawn.
A moment passed. Drew said, You should’ve said hi.
Marilyn didn’t look up from the CD row she was straightening. Should I?
Before he could respond, Marilyn said, Ugh, and picked up a book lying on a row of CDs, with her thumb and forefinger. Drew saw it was a biography of George W. Bush. Marilyn walked outside the department and dropped the book onto a table. When she returned, Drew was about to say, Not a fan? But noticed a customer waiting to get rung up.
Then, more people appeared by the registers. When Drew finally finished ringing up the last one, Marilyn was busy placing an order for an old man. Drew was impatient for the store to close, imagining he’d get ample opportunity to talk to Marilyn as they straightened. But right after Jan made the five-minute closing announcement over the P.A. system, she came into the department and asked Marilyn if she could take care of music by herself. Marilyn nodded, and Jan asked Drew if he could straighten reference.
Reluctantly, he returned downstairs.
He thought of Marilyn even more; every day, he checked to see if she was on the schedule. But she only worked three days a week, and usually when Drew didn’t; and even if she and Drew shared corresponding shifts, they worked in separate departments, and Drew wasn’t again asked to cover music.
He made a point to say hi if he passed her on the way to the break room. Marilyn would say hi back, albeit abstractedly, causing Drew to feel doubt.
At school, he’d scope out the campus as he walked to class, but he never saw her—not in the student center, not by Drake Hall.
Months passed. He was vaguely—perhaps unjustifiably—worried: What if she quit and he never saw her again? What if she did like him but was waiting for him to act? And what if she’d gotten tired of waiting?
One evening, he was in the break room eating spinach ravioli his mother had packed in a Tupperware container, when Marilyn walked in. His heart pounded. At one table sat Sean Kyoto, reading MLB box scores; at another reposed Bernadette, skimming through an issue of Entertainment Weekly. Marilyn got her dinner out of the refrigerator, glanced around. She then sat at Drew’s table.
He thought his heart might burst.
From a plastic bag, Marilyn took outa yogurt, pear, and bottle of Evian water. She and Drew made eye contact; he smiled, looked down; she said, Hey. He said, Hey, softly, but affected to peruse the Paul Bowles biography he’d brought into the break room. But he wasn’t concentrating on the pages; he was fretting over his case of nerves. He was afraid if he spoke, he’d say something inane, or his voice would crack. He worried that if he even looked at Marilyn, his lips and cheeks would contort, twitch.
What was the matter with him? He had no problem talking to her that night in music: Why couldn’t he now?
She took a bite of her pear, removed her yogurt’s lid. Drew caught a faint waft of mixed berry. Staring at a photo of Bowles in a Moroccan desert, he sipped his Coca-Cola and took a small bite of ravioli: He could barely swallow.
He was aware of something uneasy passing between them—or of Marilyn’s receiving negative (or questionable) vibes from him: Here’s a moody guy. Or worse: Here’s a strange guy, a freak.
But to make it right—and he could make it right—all he had to do was look up, smile, say something affable.
Why couldn’t he?
He finished his ravioli, his gaze down. Marilyn still ate: he had time. He got up, threw the disposable Tupperware container out. She glanced through a magazine, eating her yogurt. Drew sat down, again affected to look at his book. Okay. He stared at a photo of Jane Bowles. Stop this. If you don’t say something, she’s always going to remember sitting here and your not speaking, like some kind of. . .
But you can change that. All you have to do is—
She stood. She dropped her pear core and empty yogurt container into the garbage. Then, magazine in hand, she left.
He wanted to punch himself. When he got home, he sat in his room drinking Evan Williams and Coca-Cola. But after his third drink, he swore that the next time he saw Marilyn, he’d say hi. He’d engage her. And eventually, he’d. . .
Drew had just finished his shift and was heading toward the computer with the time clock when he saw Marilyn walking towards him. Looking right at her, he said, How are you?
Barely smiling, she kept walking.
He knew she could be having a bad day. But he chose to dwell on that other possibility.
He told himself he’d see her again. And the next time, she’d be in a better mood. And he’d be confident, sanguine, charming.
He did see her at work after that, but he never walked past her, nor did he again cover in music. Then one day on which he was closing, the manager at the shift meeting said it was Marilyn Teel’s last day; she’d be there until 4:30.
Drew was at registers. He cursed management for not putting him on the sales floor. But he thought Marilyn might have a till to bring down. If so, she might come over and say goodbye. He’d then do what he always wanted—let the customers wait—and ask her out.
But 4:25, 4:30, and 4:35 came and went; Marilyn didn’t appear. Drew had to conclude that she hadn’t been given a till. But he also wondered if maybe she’d seen him and, remembering how taciturn he’d been that night, figured, Why say goodbye to this guy?
He never saw her on campus again either, nor did he hear anything from other employees. Once he asked Casey about her, who told Drew she hadn’t heard from Marilyn.
At twenty-six, he was, at last, close to completing his degree; he hoped soon to quit his bookseller position and get a better job.
On a Saturday, Marilyn Teel appeared at his register.
She looked slightly older. She still had her nose ring; a new tattoo adorned her forearm. She was somewhat skinnier, her hair was longer and dyed blonde. Marilyn was buying a book on reiki, a textbook on environmental public health science, and a trade paperback of The Collected Stories of Ernest Hemingway.
After a moment, she said, You still work here?
Drew nodded. Scanning her reiki book, he realized he was as attracted to her as ever.
He sensed her watching him as he hefted up the textbook.
She said, How are you?
Good. The textbook wouldn’t scan. You?
She nodded. Okay. She looked at the textbook. Not scanning?
He shook his head; as he typed in the ISBN, he thought of that meal break they’d shared.
Are you done at MSU? he said.
Oh, yeah. Two years ago. She said, I’m at Rutgers now.
He checked the price on the textbook against the price on the screen. For grad school?
She nodded.Public health.
For a moment, neither said anything. Then Marilyn said,Did you finish at MSU?
Somewhat sheepishly, Drew said, No. But then he said, But I’m about to—this May. Took me forever but. . . He glanced at the computer screen.Comes to $82.63.
She handed him her credit card. So what? I mean, that’s great. As long as you get it. You majored in English, right?
He was flattered, yet remotely saddened that she remembered. Right, he said, swiping her card and handing it back to her.
Putting her Visa into her wallet, she said, Going to teach?
He shrugged, his hand over the printer. I don’t know. Maybe. He handed her the receipt.
As she replaced her wallet and he bagged her books, he had the feeling he was never going to see her again; and. . .
Would you mind wrapping that one for me?
He looked at the Hemingway book in his hand. Sure.
I personally don’t like him. Marilyn smiled at him, knowingly. It’s for my husband’s birthday.
As he wrapped her books, Drew felt leaden, could think of nothing to say, while Marilyn looked out the window.
A thought stirred, as he scotch-taped a corner of wrapping paper, and before he thought further, he said, You know, I used to have the biggest crush on you.
He expected surprise, embarrassment, amusement. But all he saw was puzzlement tinctured with vexation.
He glanced at her, finished wrapping. Kind of inappropriate for me to say? He forced a smile as he put her book in her bag.
Marilyn shook her head; she looked at the counter. No.
He tried to think of something else. She took her bag. You should always say what you’re feeling. She turned around and left.
He searches her name occasionally. She’s still married, lives in Pennsylvania, is the director of student health services at a college. She has a son. Her photos are for public viewing; she still has, of course, those black icons on her calves. But her legs are stouter; Drew no longer finds her attractive. He knows this is a mean if honest way to feel, but it does little to stop the space he sometimes feels. And, for entertaining such callous sentiments, he feels this is apt punishment.
S.F. Wright lives and teaches in New Jersey. His work has appeared in Quarter After Eight, Linden Avenue Literary Journal, and Elm Leaves Journal, among other places. His website is sfwrightwriter.com.