Melissa Cundieff | Fiction

Invitation

The convenience store is filled with an impulse I can’t place. I’ve just fought with my husband and left our home.

Behind me is a man, tall, in his fifties, his shirt’s top button buttoned and the fabric off-white like bone. He’s standing a reasonable distance from my body and is exhausted-looking, possibly transient; I saw him first at the gas pumps talking with immediacy on his cellphone and thought that he might ask me for money, but then I heard the pump click, indicating to me that the tank had been filled.

When I was young I was bitten by a dog that left my right ear mangled, my nose taken half away.

I move forward in line. The man follows, and I move forward again. I can hear him chewing. I can smell that he has gum in his mouth. The teenaged cashier with tangled hair carefully regards each item scanned.

A second man comes in and says to the one behind me, “We have to get the shoes in the morning when the stores open.”

“What sizes?” the buttoned one asks.

“Four, six, six and a half, ten, a whole bunch of sizes, man,” the other says. I turn my head enough to see he is reading the numbers off of his own hand.

The dog that bit me was a stray scavenging on the street; I was eight years old. After letting go of my mother’s hand to embrace the dog around its neck, I only remember a few details.

I step forward and say to the cashier, “I’ll take a pack of American Spirits yellows.”

But the teenager pulls out the orange pack. I picture him as a small child wearing a suit at a funeral, his mother in a black dress. I imagine that I’m sitting beside him, to his left, on the church pew, and he looks over at me, glances at my face and then whispers to his mother that I am ugly.

“That’ll be ten dollars and seventy-four cents,” he says.

The men behind me aren’t speaking anymore. I pay and move to the end of the counter and begin looking through my purse for my keys. I feel the sharp edge of a broken seashell my son gave me—an invitation to pretend that we were boats on rippling water.

Two twenty-something women walk in. “Shut the fuck up,” one says to the other, “there is no way you did that.”

I look up to confirm that the men are watching the women, both of whom are blonde and thin with bright, beaded string around their ankles, laughing as they disappear to the aisle where the energy drinks are displayed.

In the hospital my mother told me that the dog had been euthanized but hadn’t suffered.

An overhead light draws a fly. I realize that the two men are talking to the cashier.

“Look, kid, you know, I understand. I was just like you. I was exactly where you are,” the buttoned one says.

The other one adds, “Father grants fresh starts—new, better paths. We didn’t even know each other one year ago. We came from complicated pasts, from different lives, each of them bad, very bad, like everyone’s, their lives, which Father saved. I mean truly saved, son.”

“And continues to save,” says the buttoned one. His index and middle fingers beat the counter as he notices me listening and watching.  

“It’s not nice to stare, ma’am,” he says, not looking into my eyes or at my face, but aligning his attention on the refrigerator-lit absence between my ear and shoulder.

The way he opens his hands as he speaks catches me as the silver of a pinwheel might.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “I was trying to trace where I might’ve left my keys.”

“Looks like you forgot them here,” he says, his feet fixed in front of the register, “These must be yours, ma’am.”

The dog felt like winter grass when I grabbed him.

I wait for the buttoned one to ask me if I’m all right. What size dress I wear. What size shoes.

The blonde women position themselves in line and stare at their phones. I move towards the automatic doors which open prematurely like birds breaking in unison from a tree due to a soft, faraway boom.

I hear the other man ask, “Is she gone?” and the buttoned one says, “Almost.”

“Anyway, son, you have our phone number. We can talk to you anytime, tell you more about what we do and how we live,” the other man’s voice expanding and concluding behind me.

And the buttoned one continues—the last thing I hear, dimming in the rhythm of his chewing gum, “And Father. And Father. He doesn’t know you, not yet, but I promise he will save you, son.”

The instinct I first had, whatever it was, flattens its palms against the smudged glass of the store’s interior.

The dog stared at me like he wanted me to run and never turn back.

Melissa Cundieff is the author of the poetry collection Darling Nova, winner of the 2017 Autumn House Press Full-Length Prize. She received her MFA from Vanderbilt and currently lives in Saint Paul and teaches at the University of Minnesota.
2018-11-03T01:17:27+00:00