I’ve got two sports coats, about six ties, three dressy pants, Florsheims I polish a la madre, and three weeks ago I bought a suit, with silk lining, at Lemonde for Men. It came with a matching vest. That’s what made it for me. I love getting all duded up, looking fine, I really do. This is the thing: I like women. No, wait. I love women. I know that don’t sound like anything new, nothing every guy wouldn’t tell you. I mean it though, and it’s that I can’t say so better. It’s not like I do anything different when I’m around them. I’m not like aggressive, going after them, hustling. I don’t play that. I don’t do anything except have a weakness for them. I don’t ask anybody out. I already have my girlfriend Diana. Still, it’s like I feel drunk around them. Like they make me so pedo I can’t move away. See what I’m saying? So yeah, of course I love working nights at The Broadway. Women’s perfume is everywhere, and I’m dizzy while I’m there.
Even if what I’m about to say might not sound right, I’m saying it: It’s not just me, it’s them too, it’s them back, maybe even first. Okay, I realize this sounds bad, so I won’t talk about it. But why else did they put me in the Gifts department? I didn’t know ni nada about that stuff, and I noticed right away that most customers were women. And I’m not meaning to brag, but the truth is I sell, they buy. They’re older women almost always, rich I see now, because the things we have on the racks–cositas como vases and statues and baskets and bowls, from Russia, Germany, Africa, Denmark, France, Argentina, everywhere–are originals and they’re expensive. These ladies, maybe they’re older, but a lot really look good for being older, they come in and they ask my opinion. They’re smiling when they ask me what I’d like if it was for me. I try to be honest. I smile a lot. I smile because I’m happy.
You know what? Even if I’m wrong, no le hace, I don’t care. Because when I go down the escalator, right at the bottom is Cindy in Cosmetics. She says, “Is your mommy coming for you tonight?” Cindy’s almost blond, very pretty, and way out there. She leans over the glass to get close to me. She wears her blouses a little low-cut. She’s big for being such a flaquita.
“Maybe,” I say. “Maybe not.”
“Don’t marry her yet.” That bedroom voice of hers.
“What difference will it make?”
“None to me,” she says.
“You talk big,” I say, “but do you walk the walk?”
“You know where I am. What’re we waiting for?”
She’s not wrong. I’m the one who only talks the talk. I don’t lie to myself. For instance, I’m about to be nineteen, but I pretend I’m twenty. I do get away with it. I pass for older. I’m not sure why that’s true–since I’m thirteen I’ve had a job–or why I want it to be. I feel older when I say I am. For the same reason I let them think I know so much about sex. Ya sabes, pretend that I’m all experienced, like I’m all bad. Lots of girls, and that I know what they like. I feel like it’s true when I’m around them. It’s what Cindy thinks. And I want her to, I like it that she does, but at the same time it makes me scared of her. She’s not pretending, and I’m afraid she’ll find out about me: The truth is that my only experience is with Diana. I’m too embarrassed to admit it, and I don’t, even to her.
It’s not just Cindy though, and this isn’t talk, and though it might sound like it, honest, I’m not trying to brag. Over in Women’s Fashions is Ana, a morena with green eyes, and strong, pretty legs. She’s shy. Not that shy. She wants to be in love, wants a wedding, wants a baby. In Housewares is Brigit. Brigit is Russian, and sometimes she’s hard to understand. You should see her. She’s got the bones of a black girl, but her skin is snow. I think she’s older than she looks. She’ll go out with me, I know it. I don’t know how she’d be, and I wonder. Over there, down the mall, at Lemonde for Men, is where Liz works. That’s who I bought my suit from. Liz is fun. Likes to laugh. The Saturday I picked up my suit we had lunch together, and then one night, when I knew she was working, just before we closed, I called her. I told her I was hungry and would she want to go somewhere after. She said yeah. We only kissed good-bye. The next time she was letting me feel her. She likes it, and she’s not embarrassed that she does. I think about her a lot. Touching her. But I don’t want this to sound so gacho, porno or something. I like her, that’s what I mean. I like everything about her. I don’t know how to say it better.
“You’re such a liar,” Maria says. She’s my boss. The assistant manager of Gifts and Luggage, Silverware and China. I worry that she knows how old I really am, and she’s going by that. Or that she knows I’m not really going to college in the day. I don’t know why I can’t be honest about having that other job. I work for A-Tron Monday through Friday during the day. A shipping clerk. It’s a good job too. But it’s better to say you’re studying for something better. I am going to go to college next year, after I save some money.
“What’re you saying?”
“You just want to get them,” Maria de Covina says. “You’re no different than any other man.”
I have told her a lot, I’m not sure why. Probably because she catches me all the time talking to them. The first times I thought she was getting mad and going around checking up on me because I’d be on a break and taking too long. But she’s cool. We just seemed to run into each other a lot, and she would like shake her head at me, so now I tell her how I’m thinking. I told her about Liz after she saw us on that first Saturday, eating lunch in the mall.
“It’s not true,” I say.
“It’s not true,” she whines. She often repeats what I say in a mocking voice. Sometimes she gets close to me, and this time she gets real close, close enough to reach her hand around and grab one of my nalgas. “It’s not true.”
“Watch it, Covina,” I say. “You Italians think everything you squeeze is a soft tomate, but Mexicans got chiles that burn.”
I call her Maria de Covina because she lives in West Covina and drives in. I call her Italian because she doesn’t know a word of Spanish, and Italians can be named Maria. I can’t let up. She really is Mexican American, just the spoiled, pocha princess type. But I don’t let on. She tells me her last name over and over. What do you think Mata is? she asks. Does Mata sound Italian to you? I say maybe, yeah. Like a first name like Maria, I say. Like a last name like Corona. Probably it’s that, I tell her, and you’re messing with me. I don’t understand yet what you’re up to. Why is it you want everyone to think you’re a Mexican when you’re not? In my family, everybody always wished they weren’t. So she calls me names and means them because this really upsets her. Stupid, she calls me. Buttbreath. Say those in Spanish, I suggest to her, and we’ll see what you know. She says, Est”pido. One wrong, I tell her. What about the other? No reply. You don’t know, do you? Not a clue, right? This is a game we play, and though there is part of me that can’t believe she takes it seriously, another part sees how my teasing bothers her too much.
“Besides, no Chicanos live in West Covina.”
“Yes they do.”
It cracks me up how serious she sounds. She’s too easy. “I never met any from there, ever. It’s probably too rich or something.”
“You’ve never even been there, and I bet you don’t even know where it is.”
“Me and nobody like me.”
“My parents just never taught me any Spanish.”
“Did they talk it at home?”
“You see? What’d I tell you?”
“Asshole.” She whispers that in my ear because we’re on the floor and customers are around.
“When they were talking something, if they did, it probably was Italian and you didn’t even know it.”
I never tell my girlfriend Diana anything about these other girls. Though she’s been mad at me anyway. We used to go out more often than we do now, but with my two jobs, and her school, it’s almost only been weekends. After we go to a movie, we head back to her place because her parents go to sleep so early. I take her to the door and we kiss and then I leave. I park on the busy street around the corner and I walk back and crawl through her window. It’s a big bedroom because she used to share with her sister, who went away to be a nurse. She’s very sheltered in a certain way, in that Catholic way, but I’m not Diana’s first boyfriend, though I am the first one she’s made love to. She let me the second time we went out because she thought I expected it. Because I was so experienced. She’s sixteen. She doesn’t look it, but she acts it. She worries. She’s scared of everything she likes. The first time she orgasmed, she told me a couple of months ago, she didn’t really know what it was, and it felt too good, so she called her sister’s best friend, who can talk about any subject and especially sex, and asked if she was all right. She’ll let me do certain things to her, and now she’ll be on top sometimes. But she worries that one of us will get too loud. She has been a couple of times. I feel her pulsate in there real hard. She worries that we’ll fall asleep after and her mom or dad will be up before we know it. That happened once, and I got out of there, but she’s been really worried ever since about everything, every little noise, like they’re listening.
The only thing in the room that isn’t just for a girl is a statue I gave her of The Thinker. It came from Gifts. It had a chip in the wood base and was being sold at 20 percent discount. I kept looking at it, trying to decide if I should buy it. It’s big, heavy. He looks smart. I imagined having it in my own place when I got one. I guess that Maria and Joan, the manager of our department, saw how often I stared at it, and so one day they gave it to me, all gift wrapped, a ribbon and bow. I was surprised, embarrassed even, that they bought me a present, and one so expensive, and I didn’t think I should accept it, until they explained how it only cost a dollar–they’d marked it down as damaged and, being the manager and assistant manager, signed off on it. This was one of those nights that Diana came to the store to pick me up after work. She was suspicious of Maria, which seemed crazy to me since she was twenty-six and my boss, and then, as we were going down the escalator, of Cindy, who made a sexy wink at me, which didn’t seem crazy. So right there in the parking lot I gave The Thinker to Diana, and it’s been on her bedstand since.
“They got these pretty glass flowers,” I say, “and I keep thinking of ways to get them for you. You know, cheap.”
“They’re not for me,” she says. “Those are gifts for grandmothers or mothers.”
“Well, then I could give them to your mom.”
“A gift from you would be a good idea.”
I’m not sure I want that yet. “I could give them to my mom, too. You know, for Mother’s Day.”
“You better not,” she says. “It’s stealing.”
“Joan sells marked-down things all the time.”
“I think you should stop thinking like this.”
“But it’s easy,” I tell her. “I’m good at it.”
“How do you know if you’re good at it?”
“I know what I’m good at.”
“You know I don’t like that kind of talk.”
“You know I don’t like that kind of talk.” Lately I’ve been imitating Maria de Covina.
“You better go,” she says.
“Would you stop it,” I say. “I’m playing, I’m only teasing.”
“You really should go anyway,” she says. She’s naked, looking for her underwear in the bedsheets, in the dark. “I’m afraid. We’re taking too many chances.”
I don’t take too many chances. One time I did sell something to a friend, for example, for a much lower price than was on the tag. But that was instead of, say, just giving it to him in the bag when he buys something else for a normal price. Which is stealing. I wouldn’t do that. Another way is, a customer comes and buys an item, but instead of making a normal receipt, I ring it out on our long form, the one in three-colored triplicate, that one we use when the item has to be delivered. I wait for an expensive purchase. I give the customer the white copy, put the green copy in the register, then fill out the pink copy later–in blue pencil so it looks right, like it’s from the stencil. I can stick whatever I want in a box, put that pink copy with a name and address on it, and mail it out of the store. The truth is I think of everything and do nothing. It’s only a little game I play in my mind. There’s nothing here I want. Well, one time I wanted a ship, a pirate ship to me, with masts and sails and rope the width of string. It was going off the floor because it never sold in over a year, and some items like this are smashed up and thrown away instead of sent back-written off as a loss. I thought I should just take it home instead of destroying it, but Maria insisted on writing me out a slip and selling it to me for three dollars. I gave it to my mom.
“If you really want the valise,” I tell Mrs. Huffy, “I’ll sell it to you marked down as damaged.” Mrs. Huffy sells the luggage. She and I often work the same shift. Sometimes she comes over and sells gifts, and sometimes I sell luggage, but mostly we keep to our separate areas. Maria takes care of the silverware and china. The valise that Mrs. Huffy likes is going to be ripped up and trashed because it’s not made anymore and can’t be returned to the supplier for a refund.
“It seems like such a waste to throw it away.” Mrs. Huffy fidgets with her glasses all the time. She has a chain on them so she doesn’t put them down and forget them. You can’t tell most of the time if she sees better with them off or with them on. Sometimes the glasses go nervously onto the top of her hair, which is silver gray, the same color as the chain and the frames.
“It is a waste if you ask me.”
“You’d think they’d call the Salvation Army instead.” Glasses hanging like a necklace.
Mrs. Huffy makes me think of what Diana will be like when she’s old. Still worried. “But they’re not. They’re throwing it away.”
“It’s terrible,” she says.
“I could just sell it to you.”
She takes the glasses up to her nose and stares at me. “You can’t do that. I wouldn’t. Security looks at the receipt.” When we leave the building at night, guards examine our belongings, and if we’ve bought anything from the store, they check the receipt to make sure it matches.
“We’ll get it marked down. I’ll ask Maria.” Everything’s okay if a manager or assistant manager says so.
“It wouldn’t be right.” Glasses on the head.
“Okay then, but I think it’s no big deal.”
“Do you think she’d do it?”
“I’m sure she would.”
“I can’t.” Glasses on the nose. Holding the valise, snapping it open, snapping it closed. “I can’t ask.”
“I told you already I’d ask. I know she won’t care.”
“I don’t know.”
“Como quieras, whatever you decide.” I’m walking back to Gifts because I see a customer.
“I don’t know,” Mrs. Huffy says. “Are you sure Maria would?”
Maria saw me the other night in the parking lot with Cindy, and she wouldn’t stop asking me about it. So? she’d say, so? I didn’t think I should talk about it. Come on, did you get some or not? I didn’t think it was right to talk about it. But she kept insisting and, finally, it seemed okay. I told her how Cindy and I were parked near each other and she said something about a good-night kiss. She started pressing against me hard, and I just put my hand on a chiche and then she wrapped her leg around me even harder and rubbed up against me until she put her hand on me. She was physically hot, like sweating. She put her hand down there, I put my hand down there, and then we went into her car. I didn’t want to tell Covina the rest, I didn’t think I should. But still she says, So? Whadaya mean, so? I’m delaying because I feel her close behind me, and I’m not sure. Did you or not? she says. The store’s just closed, and I’m at my register, clearing it while we’re talking, about to take my tray out to count money, and she’s behind me very close. Why don’t you want to tell me? she says. She’s got her chiches against me, moving just a little, and, I don’t know, I don’t mind but I’m embarrassed too. In case someone sees. But I don’t say anything. I’m also surprised. I don’t know why it hadn’t crossed my mind. She had her register to clear, and she left.
“I don’t like it.” Diana’s worrying. She’s in pajamas.
“It’s no big deal,” I say. We’re whispering to each other in the dark. I’m not sure why it’s so dark this night but it is. I surprised her when I came to the window. I had to say her name a few times to wake her up.
“You better stop,” she says. Even though I can’t see them, the glass flowers I bought damaged are in a vase next to The Thinker. I told her I didn’t want them for either her mom or mine, and once she saw them, how beautiful they were, she wanted them. “You’re gonna get caught.”
“You’re gonna get caught,” I say.
“Why would Maria be doing this?” she asks. “I don’t trust her.”
I feel like Diana is really sensing Cindy, or Liz. I told her I had to work Saturday night, and that’s why we couldn’t go out. I feel like it’s because I’m talking too much about all this to Covina, and it’s in the air, that I’m not being smart, talking esas cosas out loud. “Come on, it’s crazy,” I tell Diana. “She’s a lot older than me, and she’s the assistant manager of the department. She knows what she’s doing.”
Suddenly she starts crying.
“What’s the matter?” I ask.
She’s sobbing into her pillow.
“You’re making too much noise,” I’m whispering. “You’re gonna wake up your parents.”
“You have to go,” she says. She’s talking in a normal voice, which is really loud at this time of night. Her face is all wet. I try to kiss her, but she pushes me away. “You have to go,” she says.
“Can’t we make love?” I’m being quiet at the open window, and though my eyes have adjusted, it’s so dark, and I can barely see her in the bed. “Don’t you want to make love?”
I feel sick. I love women, but I realize I don’t want to lose Diana. I love her.
Covina shakes her head as I tell her how Diana was acting. Mexican men, she says.
I do like it that she thinks of me as a man. I like being a man, even if it makes me feel too old for Diana. It’s confusing. I’m not sure what to do. I wonder if she’d say the same if she didn’t think I was almost twenty-one.
I go to the stockroom, and I sit on the edge of the gray desk. “Mrs. Huffy wants this valise real bad. You think you could sign this?” I’ve already made out a receipt. Instead of forty-five dollars, I made it for forty-five cents, damaged.
Covina gets up, and without kissing me, ni nada, she pushes her breast into my face. She has one hand under it, and another on my neck. Pretty quick she opens her blouse and she pulls up her bra and we’re both excited and she reaches over and slams the stockroom door and she gets on her knees between mine. I wouldn’t tell her, but nobody’s ever done that to me before. It was exciting, and I was scared–it was right there in our stockroom–and I guess I am a little shocked too, but I don’t want her to know it. You know. I follow her to her apartment because she told me to. Before I didn’t even think about whether she had her own apartment. I didn’t really want to go. And I didn’t do very well. She probably saw how inexperienced I am really, and then I made the mistake of telling her how I’m in love with Diana, and how bad I’m feeling.
So I’m tired when I clock in because I stayed with her. I was late in the morning getting to A-Tron, and I wouldn’t have gone in if I already didn’t know there were a lot of orders we had to fill. Mrs. Huffy is already in Silverware and China when I get to the floor, so worried she can’t even take her glasses off when she sees me, and Joan stops me in the middle of Gifts. Joan never works at night.
When Mrs. Huffy checked out with the valise, a security guard opened her package, and asked for the receipt, and the guard said he was going to keep it and make sure it was on the up and up the next day. Instead of, like, scratching the valise when she got home so it really did look damaged, instead of waiting for Joan to deal with it so she could tell us to never do anything like this again, Mrs. Huffy panicked and brought the valise back in the morning.
“Ms. Mata told me everything,” Stemp says. Stemp works for the LAPD, or used to, or something like that. I already know who he is, but I’d never talked to him before. He never talks to anybody. He might be chief of security at The Broadway. He wears cheap black slacks and a cheap white shirt and a cheap, plain blue tie. He looks like he might rock in his swivel chair, but he doesn’t. He just has it tilted back, his hands folded onto his panza. The office has no decorations, no photos or paintings or mirrors on the walls. On his gray desk is the cheapest lamp they sell in Furniture, which is across from Gifts, and one of those heavy black phones. He has a sheet of paper and a pen in front of him. “She told me about how you used triplicate forms and used our courtesy mailing service and how you sold goods to your friends.” He stares at me for a very long time, satisfied like he just ate a big meal.
“I never did anything like that,” I say. I couldn’t believe Maria told him my ideas. “It’s not true,” I say.
“It’s not true,” he repeats. He shakes his head with only his eyes. “Do you realize that Ms. Mata was building a career here ?”
“She didn’t do anything. I know she never did anything.”
He really shakes his head. “I don’t have time for this. I already have it all.” He slides the paper over to me. “Just sign it and get outta here.”
I read his form. It lists all these ways I took things from the store, and how Maria cooperated.
“No,” I say. “Maria didn’t cooperate, she didn’t do anything. I didn’t do anything either.”
“I can call the police right now if you’d prefer. We can deal with this in that manner.”
“I guess. I have to think.”
He sends me off after I sign a form admitting that I sold a forty-five-dollar valise to Mrs. Huffy for forty-five cents. I loved this job so much. I really loved being here at The Broadway, and I can’t think of what I’ll do now. I head to the parking lot, and I’m in my car, and I’m trying to decide whether I should go over to Diana’s or to Maria’s, if either of them would want to see me, when I see Liz waving at me. I get out of the car. How come you haven’t called me? she wants to know. I’m wearing the suit I bought from her store. The vest is buttoned but the jacket isn’t. I do always feel good in it.
Copyright ” 2001 by Dagoberto Gilb. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.