I’ve joined the workforce for three reasons: 1) the new minister of music at church is giving voice lessons for $8 a pop, 2) Mama and Daddy don’t have the money, and 3) free cookies.
I start on prep because I’m “too scrawny to work the counter.” I might have been creative about my age. Manager Judy thinks I’m fifteen. I’m fourteen technically, but I was a vital entity for eight months and sixteen days in my mother’s uterus, so I don’t correct her when she says I have to stop working at 8pm since I’m fifteen—there are so many ways to tell the truth.
Sheila, my mentor, keeps a glob of raw cookie dough thawing on our “nibble plate” in the back—to fatten me up, she says. I know everything about her. Her father is an “alky,” her mother is an “alky,” everyone in her family is an alky. We don’t have alcohol in our home since my brother and I inebriated the dog. Sheila says I talk like the Queen of England, that I should say “me and my brother got the dog drunk” so people don’t think I’m a homo.
“You are a homo, right?” she asks. We’re pinching wads of butter pecan cookie dough from the nibble plate, greasing pans for the rush. I’m never prepared for formative moments.
“No,” I say like I’m obviously going to get married and have four children and probably become a minister of music.
She slides a tray of butter pecan cookies out of the oven, rolls her eyes.
“They smell like joy,” I say.
“They sure do.”
Later in the week, Manager Judy pulls me aside, says she needs me up front because my co-workers are all “dumbass hicks” and giving away cookies.
“I have never interacted with the public,” I say. “And I’m apparently quite small?”
“There’s a counter between you and them. Talk loud.”
The cash register looks like a child’s toy. There are big, multicolored keys for the different kinds of cookies, and you put the weight in yourself. It’s the most fun I’ve ever had with numbers. The public is not as scary as I thought.
“I’m so sorry,” I shout up to the elderly customer in reply to her question as to whether she can get her cookie cake in butter pecan. “It’s so unfortunate,” I say, “but the cookie cakes come exclusively in chocolate chip. Butter pecan would be scrumptious.”
“You know,” she says, studying me like a painting, “you’re too pretty to be a boy.”
“Your order will be ready in 30 minutes,” I say, because formative moments. “The cookie cake needs time to cool.”
Manager Judy says it’s time for my mandatory 15-minute break, so I get in line at the men’s restroom. The missing-person poster over the water fountain stares at me. Jilliane Winters. It’s spooky because of three reasons: 1) We look alike; it’s the eyes; 2) my brother is obsessed with her; and 3) the combination of numbers 1 and 2. The posters have been up for a week now, so we all know she’s dead. When the line finally moves me into the restroom, the stall is occupied. The gap between the door and the frame is wide enough to see everything going on inside. I stare at my tennis shoes, but I can’t unsee the movement, the fluttering and the man’s pleasure when he discovers me. We stare like our eyes are some sort of communication device connecting, transmitting. Homing? But then he flushes, rushes out, and I have only 2 minutes left of my break.
Sheila’s leaning through the window to the backroom when I return. “You are, you know.”
I think she’s going to reiterate that I’m a homo, so I’m preparing to double down on my getting married and becoming a minister of music speech.
“Too pretty to be a boy.”
“It’s your eyes.”
They’re like saucers, too big and cervine for my body—like those cute little aliens on the 9 o’clock news. Like my body will never catch up. One hundred and twenty-two pounds. I want to shout it. That’s all I need, and everything will be different. Just two pounds away. I could explain this fact to Sheila, but she wouldn’t understand. I read it in the Collier’s. Puberty is all about weight.
“Just because it’s true don’t mean somebody should say it,” she says.
Have you ever felt a revolution, like a dislocation, that sends the mountains inside you sliding? Like some molten thing down deep in you has finally found its way to a surface it never knew it had?
“You just did,” I say.
She comes out to the front. “Did what, sugar?”
“You said it,” I say.
My body is whirring: an increase of testosterone and cortisol in my bloodstream, but knowing this doesn’t calm the shaking or cool the heat spreading to my face. Knowing things has never helped me, has only ever made me feel lost.
“Sugar,” Sheila says.
“Please. Stop calling me—”
“Sugar?” She starts to put her arms around me. She smells like raw oatmeal cookie dough and woman. I start to push her away, but the customer has come back for her cookie cake, so Sheila busies herself with boxing it up while I take the money. I can feel the elderly woman inspecting me again.
“It’s the eyes,” she says finally when I look up.
Christopher Allen is the author of the flash fiction collection Other Household Toxins. His work has appeared in Split Lip Magazine, Booth, Indiana Review and other good places. Allen is a teacher, translator, and the editor of SmokeLong Quarterly. He is a nomad.