Modern Modernity Pt. 1

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It’s stupid to fall for gay guys. That’s what my sister Suzanne said while she scoured the stovetop. But Grover is different, I told her. He wasn’t like all the men who fucked me over, men like Ariel’s father, whatever happened to him.

“Seeing faggot boy tonight?” Suzanne asked. She’d agreed to baby-sit Ariel while I worked the graveyard shift at Wal-Mart. She took another SOS pad from the box under the sink. A stickler for cleanliness, she refused to enter my apartment unless I vacuumed the rugs and washed the windows.

“I don’t know.”

“I thought you talked to him every day,” she said with a snide tone.

“Don’t start, Suzie.”

“Jill, I’ve got errands tomorrow. I can’t watch Ariel while you piss around town.”

Whenever Grover and I worked the same shift, he took me for breakfast at IHOP afterward, a little thing between him and me. He always asked if I had a boyfriend, if he should be jealous. You’re the prettiest girl there, he told me. Way too pretty to deal with all the meth addicts and welfare mothers late at night. I looked forward to our breakfasts more than anything.

Ariel coughed and shifted in my lap. I held her up and took a whiff, wondering if she needed changing. I couldn’t smell anything. She turned a year old next month.

Suzanne asked me to help clean the fridge. “Bobby hates it when I let the food go bad,” she said. Bobby was her husband. I set Ariel in the crib and Suzanne opened the fridge. What I saw stunned me. Three cartons of milk, two of them weeks past their expiration date. Countless Tupperware containers with spoiled food. A wilted head of lettuce.

“How did this get in such a state?” I asked. “You’re always so clean.”

“Everyone has a blind spot.”

* * *

I never intended Wal-Mart to become my career. After three years working there, though, it didn’t feel right saying I was just looking for a better job. The shit started when I was arrested for marijuana possession four years ago. None of the hospitals or clinics would come near me with that on my record. I used to be an x-ray technician. Wal-Mart welcomed me like a long-lost relative. Grover liked to joke that an arrest record was required to work there.

I trudged across the store to the employee lounge. It was eleven at night, and most of the graveyard shift was already there. At the punch-clock I scanned the employee slips for Grover’s name. I needed to talk to him. It hadn’t seen him in over a week, but we spoke on the phone a couple of times. He had big news he wanted to tell me in person. I wondered if he had a new boyfriend. His last one left him with a scorching case of anal warts. I hoped it was something else, something very different. I knew it wouldn’t be what I truly wanted to hear: he was going to take a chance with me. I felt awful admitting that, but every time Grover found someone new, I saw far less of him.

I spied Grover’s timecard and smiled. Just then, a hand slapped across my eyes, and another body pressed against mine. The sweet stench of whiskey wafted on my neck.

“Who’s my beautiful girl?” he asked.

“Who’s my beautiful boy?”

Grover took his hand away and spun me around, gave me a big smooch on the cheek. “You were almost late,” he said.

“Ariel was being fussy.”

“Can’t she take care of herself yet?”

I faked a horrified look and slapped his arm. “Shame on you! She’s just a baby.”

“C’mon, we’ve got Hamburger Helper to stock.”


Grover grinned and ran his hand through his dyed blonde spikes. “I’d never let this store break us up,” he said. “We’re the beautiful people.” He strode out of the lounge through the swinging doors. He walked a little funny, weaving slightly. He liked to knock back a few before work. I hoped he wasn’t too drunk.

I ignored the few customers who stared while I was out on the sales floor. Most never looked at me. Usually they breezed past as if I weren’t there. The rare customer slowed down and stared, as if she couldn’t believe I let myself sink so low—I still flushed with shame, like it was my first week on the job. I never told Grover it still bothered me. He would worry.

In aisle four, Grover hauled a box from the dolly and expertly slid his cutting blade across the taped lid. We plucked out the boxes of Hamburger Helper and tossed them onto the shelves. He was much faster than me. With this damn weight, it was tough to bend and stoop like Grover could. He finished before me, like always, and then helped with my half of the merchandise. Past midnight, I hadn’t seen a customer in a little while.

Grover put his hands on his hips and beamed. My God, he had such a beautiful smile—it was transporting. “You haven’t asked about my good news,” he said.

“Is that why you’re half-drunk?”

“Fuck no, I drink because this place depresses me. I’m talking about something completely different.”

“What?” I asked.

He winked and tossed the empty cardboard box onto the floor. In one fluid motion, he slid the cutting blade into the next box. “I met someone.”

I swallowed and ran my palms over my blue work-vest, as if I’d spilled something. I licked my lips and blinked. “That’s terrific, Grover.”

“Yeah, it’s about damn time.”

“What’s his name?”


Forgetting what might happen if a manager caught us, I grabbed Grover by the arm. “Just be careful. You know…after what happened with Doug.”

“Don’t worry, beautiful. I got a front-row view of his asshole. He’s clean.”

My laugh echoed through the cavernous aisle and up into the high ceiling. Grover dropped his boxed dinners and wrapped me in his arms. As I tried to break free, afraid we’d be caught, he swept me off my feet and swung me around like we were ballroom dancers.

“I knew you’d be happy for me!” he crowed. I tipped over, close to losing my balance, but I grasped one of the shelves and caught myself. “You’re the best hag a faggot ever had,” he said.

I blew him a kiss and smiled with my hands knotted against my breasts. I should be happy, I told myself. Grover was my friend, and nobody is truly happy alone. I knew that better than anyone.

* * *

Grover had already left for IHOP when I emerged through the store’s glass doors. I buttoned my overcoat and wrapped a scarf around my neck. A nasty cold front had swept through during my shift. I dialed Suzanne. I hoped Ariel hadn’t made too much trouble. I needed my sister to cooperate.

“You’re just now getting off work?” she asked, her voice sharp and mean.

“It’s only eight-fifteen.”

“That kid coughed and spit all damn night.”

“I told you she might be sick.”

“Can you afford a doctor?” Suzanne asked.

“I’ll take her to the emergency room if she doesn’t get better.” I hurried through the parking lot, lumbered out of the way of the minivan approaching from behind.

“You need to do something now,” she said. Ariel cried in the background. I wondered how awful people ever figured out they’re awful.

“That’s what I needed to tell you,” I said. “Grover wants me to go—”

“Oh, fucking Christ!”

“We have to talk,” I whined, ashamed she’d reduced me to a whimpering child.

“Grover, Grover, Grover. What about what I need, Jill?”

“It’s only an hour.”

“You need to pick up your fucking kid. She can sit with you and the faggot while you make goo-goo eyes at each other.”

“Ariel hates crowded places.”

I heard nothing that next moment, not even Suzanne’s breath. Finally, she agreed, grunting like a baboon. “No more than an hour, you hear me?” she said. “I’ve got to get things ready for Bobby.”

Clutching the phone to my cheek, I searched my purse for my keys. “I’ll help you with laundry when I come by, promise.”

“I don’t need your help.” The dial tone afterward stunned me. All these years and it still surprised me when she hung up without saying goodbye.

* * *

Grover sat in a booth at the far end of the IHOP. I paused in surprise. Every morning we came, we sat at the front. Grover liked watching the cars zip down the highway while he ate. I unwrapped my scarf and tugged the rubber band from my hair, letting it tumble over my face. Grover often told me my hair was gorgeous.

“You can’t see any cars from here,” I said.

“I’ve got more important things to watch.”

A tall, middle-aged hostess handed us menus and took our drink orders. Grover whipped his open and perused the dishes. I watched the hostess depart. Her orthopedic shoes clomped on the linoleum. Her slip dipped below the hem of her uniform skirt. I prayed God would spare me such a humiliating fate, waiting hand and foot on people who refused to acknowledge me.

“Jill, you still with us?” Grover asked in a playful tone.

I shook my head and grinned. “I don’t know why we look at these things,” I said, holding up the menu. “We always order the same damn thing.”

Grover stared elsewhere, pointed toward the kitchen. “Tell me what you see,” he said.

“What do you mean?”

“Look where I’m pointing.”

I managed a small laugh and looked. Waitresses flitted along the service line, picking up dishes to bring the customers. Their quick conversations with the cooks gurgled from across the restaurant. I looked back at Grover, expecting some crass joke. He still gazed somewhere far away. I wanted to ask what the hell was so captivating. Then, I saw him.

Emerging from a swinging door at the end of the serving line, a man strode into the dining area. He was a few years younger than Grover, maybe not even twenty-five. From his black tie, nametag, and maroon apron, I knew he was a waiter. He was a striking man: small, thrusting chin, nose with a sharp incline, widely spaced green eyes. It surprised me when he glanced over at Grover and me. He flashed a smile so perfect and white, it belonged on a billboard.

Grover’s features softened and he rubbed his hands together as if warming them at a campfire. The waiter reached our table and slipped a notepad from his pants.

“I told you I’d come visit,” Grover said.

“I wish I could talk more,” the waiter said. “We’re getting slammed this morning.” Indeed, almost all the tables were full of chattering, gesturing diners. Thank God I’d left Ariel with my sister. I knew it sounded awful, but she would’ve ruined this moment.

“You still get off at three?” Grover asked.

“Yeah, but I’ll probably have to stay a bit.”

Finally, Grover looked at me. He appeared flustered, as if my presence surprised him. “This is Bart, my latest distraction.” Grover clasped his hand over mine. My breath caught, my jaw dropped a bit. “Bart, this is my salvation, Jill.”

“Grover can’t stop talking about you,” Bart said, extending his hand. Still reeling, I shook it, managing a passable smile. I wasn’t going to let this upset me. Grover and I had been friends my whole three years at Wal-Mart. This man meant just a little fun in bed for Grover. He’d still have time for me.

“Why keep a gorgeous boy like you a secret?” I said.

“That was my idea,” Bart admitted. His narrow cheeks flashed crimson.

“Young Bart was a little ashamed of me at first,” Grover said, leaning over the table as if confiding a secret. The whiskey on his breath smelled stronger now. Did he keep a flask in his locker at work?

Bart gasped then let out a sharp pop of laughter. “You bastard, I was not!”

“One thing I didn’t tell you,” Grover said, still leaning close, “is this dear boy is almost a decade younger.”

I saw this situation with total clarity. Grover’s last boyfriend left him humiliated, the warts collected around his asshole reminding him constantly of the betrayal. He spent several months alone, not even a quick romp with one of his fuck buddies. Grover always informed me when he got laid. He probably stopped in the restaurant one morning without me and spied this good-looking boy, his pen poised and tie straight, ready to supply anything my best friend wanted.

“Age is just a state of mind,” I said, ignoring the charged atmosphere. “Look at me. I’m not a day over twenty-five.”

Grover pounded the table, doubling over with laughter. I turned thirty-one last month. Bart chuckled softly. He cut his gaze from Grover to me. I felt disoriented, exposed. He’d probably ignore me if he caught me stocking Hamburger Helper.


Thomas Kearnes holds an MA in Screenwriting from the University of Texas at Austin. His two collections are “Pretend I’m Not Here” (Musa Publishing) and “Promiscuous” (JMS Publishing). His fiction has appeared in Litro, The Adroit Journal, The Ampersand Review, PANK, Word Riot, Eclectica, SmokeLong Quarterly, Johnny America, Five Quarterly, wigleaf, Storyglossia, Sundog Lit, A cappella Zoo, Spork, The Pedestal, Digital Americana Magazine and elsewhere. His work has also appeared in several LGBT venues. He is studying to become a drug dependency counselor. He lives near Houston.

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