During Travis’s second week at ShopRite Cunningham asks him to clean the milk case. Cunningham watches from beside the cottage cheese: Travis with his sleeves rolled up, forearms rippling as he wipes down each section of shelving.
Everything smells like sour milk, but when Cunningham wheels out a cart of low-fat small curd he’s thinking of Travis’s chest, his thick dark curls, especially his lips, which are shapely, moist and rosy red.
College kids start returning to ShopRite in late-May, showing up late, hungover, flirting or fucking off, talking shit about their possible fabulous futures.
Outside the dairy cooler while Travis explains his astronomy course, Cunningham leans in close.
Travis steps back. “What the fuck?”
“I don’t,” Cunningham reaches into his apron pocket, paws at the pens and rolls of sales stickers. “I don’t—”
“You’re asking for so much trouble.” Travis pushes closer. “Read the employee manual.”
“I know it.”
“Boss Man.” Travis touches his arm. “You better mind your P’s and Q’s.”
Travis is majoring in poetry? astrophysics? music theory? After lunch his eyes are smoked-up and glassy, lips wet with peppermint breath spray, mind loose and liquid.
“Hey Boss Man, I saw this thing online,” staring at the milks, “there’s a blackhole pulling at the fabric of the universe. Direct quote. Pulling at the fabric of the universe.”
“Is that twenty-four Hoods?”
“Planets, stars, comets, all being drawn in.”
“Crazy.” Cunningham glances at the clipboard. “So—twenty-four Hoods?”
“And I found out you’re not the only one fucking up.” Travis looks over the yogurts. “Yesterday Bradstreet had Carla’s tits out in the Ladies’ Room.”
“Bradstreet?” Cunningham writes on the clipboard. “I’m just gonna say twenty-four.”
“But what if this blackhole force gets much stronger?” Travis slides over to the shelf of creamers. “Like how powerful could it get?”
Behind the store there’s a path into the woods, a clearing above a stream. After a rain the stream’s loud with run-off, birch leaves drip in the breeze. Travis and Cunningham crouch behind a rock, their hands smelling faintly like garbage because on their way they loaded the dumpster—their cover story. Travis’s long, lean cock curves to the right at the tip; his jizz drips between Cunningham’s fingers, a dab on his cheek that Travis wipes with his thumb. The rest smeared into a napkin pulled from someone’s brown ShopRite apron, balled up and tossed into the swollen stream.
“You have young eyes,” Travis tells him in the upstairs office. “Eighteen year-old baby blues.” Cunningham’s in the desk chair; Travis kneels beside, rubs Cunningham’s crotch through his khakis. “All those hopes still trapped in a forty year-old body that hasn’t moved.”
Cunningham swallows a moan. “Let’s not talk about all that.”
“You’re old but your body’s still a boy.”
“I’m not that—”
“I’m complimenting you.” Travis pulls his hand away. “In a way I guess.” He touches with one finger. “Your narrow little bird chest.” Two fingers. “Your ass is also a teenage boy’s.”
Cunningham touches Travis’s hair. “I can’t think about it anymore.”
Travis stands up. “But still though—you know? It’s not over for you yet. You have time.”
Cunningham invites Travis to his apartment for dinner. Canned ham, green beans, microwaved potato. They try to fuck, but Cunningham keeps going soft, so Travis says, “Fine,” and they lie together listening to Travis’s iPod, Fiona Apple’s Cy Coleman covers, Brian Eno, D’Angelo, Sade.
Travis falls asleep; Cunningham looks back at him on his way for another beer. In the kitchen their brown aprons tossed together across the table, name tags side by side: “Travis,” “Kevin.”
Cunningham is careful not to wake him as he climbs back in bed. “Why try to change me now?” he sings softly, in fact silently, to himself.
Beside the highway the silvery plumpness of the dead racoon in the morning dew.
“That’s the place,” Cunningham says, pointing at the field. “My gram owned it.” The field undulates for a hundred yards, color touched by low sun: buttercups, daisies, asters. “Just leave space for the wild ones,” he remembers her telling him.
“Must look like more color when the sun’s higher,” Travis says.
“It’s not just a dream, that’s all I wanted you to see.”
That night Cunningham takes him to meet his parents, pretends they aren’t already in Maine for the weekend. “They must be out,” he says. “Maybe I got the weekends mixed up.”
He also pretends he doesn’t have a key. They sit on his parents’ deck, barely speak, don’t touch, as darkness settles in the sudden mid-August coolness.
A thrush sings until there’s no light left. “Guess they’re not coming,” Travis says.
The next week when Travis is away Cunningham drives to the store at two AM and stares at the ShopRite sign at its dead corner of town. The neon pulses as if inside there’s a pent-up orgasm, teased to the edge but unreleased. He sits and smokes, listens to Brown Sugar, listens to Love Deluxe.
Cell notifications that week are updates from American Eagle, Nordstrom’s, Cunningham’s cousins on Facebook—but not Travis, not Travis, not Travis.
After Travis’s last shift Cunningham collects his badge and keys, the brown apron, confirms an address to forward his last check. They’re at the Customer Service desk, in sight of Carla, Jill, Bradstreet, so there’s no lingering kiss, no brushed cheek, no caress of dark thick curls. Through the side window around a BOGO spaghetti sale sign Cunningham watches Travis walk to his car, jangling his keys.
At nine when ShopRite closes the air is cool as autumn. Sitting in the clearing in the darkness Cunningham shivers but sees ahead to spring, to forget-me-nots beside the big rock, buttercups at the base of the birches, lilies above the stream, fresh blossoms appearing wherever they’ve left evidence, traces of themselves.
Timothy Boudreau’s recent work appears at X-R-A-Y, Third Point Press, Riggwelter, Milk Candy Review, Spelk and Fiction Southeast. His collection Saturday Night and other Short Stories is available through Hobblebush Books. Find him on Twitter at @tcboudreau or at timothyboudreau.com.