Yellow Mama Archives II

Daniel C. Bartlett

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Zeigler, Martin
Zimmerman, Thomas
Zumpe, Lee Clark

Carryout

By Daniel C. Bartlett

 

Among the young guys working at Market Pantry back then, there was fierce competition for Esme’s attention. To say she seemed from an exotic place isn’t enough. She was from another plane altogether. Her lithe figure, hair so blonde it was almost white, an unplaceable foreign accent. There was something delicate and precious about her. Something that made you ache to protect her. Any of us would have killed for her.

Which is exactly what happened.

***

She must have made a deal with the manager to let us carry her groceries to her house. She lived around the block, two streets behind the store.

She apologized the first time I bagged and carried her milk, soup cans, bread, and eggs. “I’m sorry for walking slowly,” she said. “This is my brief escape. Frank doesn’t like me to go anywhere. Frank’s my … husband. He can’t get out much at all. Work injury.” She leaned close and whispered, “That’s not the only thing he can’t do much anymore. It makes him mean.”

As I reeled to mentally track all that, she asked about me. I told her I was working to pay my way through college. She was maybe five years older than I was. But she seemed far beyond that. I was drawn in instantly.

“You’re from here?” she asked.

“I’ve always lived here.”

“Frank brought me here. He has connections here. I don’t know a soul.”

She didn’t tell me where she was from. I wasn’t sure if I should ask. I didn’t want to say the wrong thing.

When we got to the end of her driveway she paused, took in a long breath. As though steeling herself. Then I followed her to the front porch where she had me set down her groceries.

“I better get them from here,” she said. “I’m sorry I can’t give you a tip. Frank checks the receipts and counts the change.”

I’d been so captivated that I was disturbed by the mention of a tip. That seemed to corrupt the connection I felt.

***

The next time I saw Esme, she checked out in Lance’s lane. Brash, cocky, gym-pumped-muscled Lance. He bagged her groceries, then followed her out, sculpted arms hefting her bags. Lance, with his self-assured grin, was the type to view her as a trophy. Something to be won.

I spent the rest of the day simmering in vague frustration. I knew it was jealousy and there was no valid reason for it. I had no claim to her.

Still…

***

I found myself watching for her, holding my breath, hoping she’d pick my lane.

Sometimes I carried her groceries home. Sometimes another bagger did. I got the impression it wasn’t random. She chose her company for each trip. She often stood looking at the lanes, waving other customers ahead of her, then giving a slight smile and stepping into her chosen line. We all wanted to be the one who escorted her home.

Like fools we all thought we’d be her savior.

***

One trip I saw her husband, Frank, smoking a cigarette on the driveway. He looked like a guy who’d once been powerful but whose muscles had softened to flab. Broad nose and forehead. Unshaven shadow darkening his face. He leaned heavily on a thick cane.

Esme slowed her already sluggish pace as we approached. He watched us. Took a drag on his cigarette. Then tossed it into the yard and walked away, back toward the house. His cane knock-knock-knocked against the concrete, somehow both menacing and dismissive.

“That cane,” Esme said, and honest-to-God shivered. “It’s got a knife blade inside it. He likes to sheath and unsheathe it again and again. He smiles at the sound of the blade sliding open. I think one day he’ll use it on me.”

She touched her hand to my arm. It was perfectly casual yet somehow also intimate. Nothing was promised. Nothing offered. But I’d have been willing right then and there to kill.

“You better stop here,” she said. She had me set her groceries there on the driveway. “I’ll make a few trips for these.”

I started to protest, but in a pleading tone she whispered, “Please. Don’t make it worse. Frank will….” She trailed off, touched a shaking hand to her eye. “One day I’ll get free of him.”

***

The last time I saw her, she wore huge sunglasses that covered her face. She kept settling and resettling them. As though making sure they continued to hide her face.

She stood considering those impulse items near the checkout lanes. She looked toward my lane. Then to Lance’s. I saw him notice her sunglasses too. Saw him tighten his fingers into a fist. His usual smirk was a tight line. I swear she looked toward me with a sad smile like saying goodbye, then stepped into Lance’s lane.

As he lifted her bags and followed her out, I saw her place a hand on the hard curve of his bicep beneath his red uniform shirt.

All I know for certain is had she not chosen Lance that day, it might have been me in his place. Had she protected me when I thought I’d be her protector?

***

The assault was brutal. Lance repeatedly stabbed Frank with the blade hidden in that cane, then beat him with the cane itself, leaving him lying half-in and half-out of the front door. Esme left town not long after that. I never saw her again. I heard she inherited a sizeable sum, including a massive life insurance payout. She was long gone by the time Lance was convicted of murder.

Years later, I still wonder what happened that day. Maybe Esme manipulated Lance into doing her dirty work. Maybe Frank instigated something. Or maybe Lance simply lost it.

If it’s that easy for us to be turned into killers, what hope is there in this world?




Daniel C. Bartlett’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in publications such as Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Mystery Magazine (formerly Mystery Weekly), descantIron Horse Literary ReviewChiron Review, and Crab Creek Review. He is also currently working with agent Jacques de Spoelberch to place a mystery novel series with a publisher. He currently teaches writing and literature at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas.

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