Friday, June 08, 2012

Terrible Minds Challenge: Purple Toenails

Sir Charles of Wendig issues his customary challenge this week for his penmonkeys to choose one of eight settings. I chose "Aisle Nine", and this story is called "Purple Toenails".

Alexa was tagging, going down the long aisles of Fresh Food Markets Co. Inc. LLC and taking off yellow stickers that indicated last week's sale prices, replacing them with blue ones that indicated this week's. Alexa didn't feel well, and the work was pointless and stupid, but she went to work because she had to, in order to keep herself alive. She had experienced bad moods before, but this one was a beaut, a gray blanket of nothing that had coated her life for the last month, refusing to lift.

Alexa was changing prices on a whole row of soups- cream of mushroom, bean, tomato, Italian wedding, and she groaned softly when she straightened up. She used to run every day, but it was now just easier to stay in bed, waiting until the last possible second before getting up to shower and change into the khaki pants and blue shirt and overbright name tag that marked her status. She stared up at the rows of flourescent bulbs that ran across the ceiling. One bulb above her head flickered to black, then shone brightly again, like it had changed its mind about burning out. .

Alexa was taller than most people she knew, and it felt good to arch her back now and reach up high, scanning the tags above her shoulders. It was nice to feel her blue shirt grow taut across her chest as she reached, the top gapping slightly in the back where her pants dipped down. She felt the cool air of the store on the suddenly bare skin of her lower back. She secretly hoped someone was checking her out, although she always felt revolted when someone actually was. Even her mother, sniffing around at the first hint of potential grandchildren, had stopped asking her about her love life, which was a relief because she had nothing to tell.

Alexa didn't want to work here for the rest of her life, but as the days slipped by into weeks and months and years, she was starting to grow genuinely frightened that she was going to. It was like that first mistake, not enrolling in even a community college, had now grown and metastasized to cover her entire life. Now she had bills, and rent, and food to buy, and a few single friends who depended on her to join the wolfpack on Friday nights, and suddenly she couldn't see any other way forward but the same path she was on.

A customer came around the corner as Alexa was marking the final variety of linguini that was on special. She had waves of brilliant red hair and a beautiful tan dress with a print of green and brown leaves on it. She was visibly, hugely pregnant, her midsection taut and hard like she was stealing watermelons, and she was walking in that way expectant women do, walking around her stomach. Alexa registered the woman's wedding ring, pasting an automatic smile on her own face in case she asked for help, but her eyes kept jumping back to that hard belly, the way the dress was plastered against it, then dropping away loosely at the bottom. A signal passed between them, but Alexa couldn't read it. Did the woman need help? Or was she just grateful that it was only the two of them in this narrow aisle?

Alexa had a couple of friends who were pregnant, and she hated what it did to them. They had no sense of humor anymore, and they were super emotional, like they had the world's worst PMS, and they had it all the damn time. They were so obvious, so blatant, the way they swelled up so huge, as if they were trying to say, look what I did, as if any 16 year old with a couch and 15 minutes and a boy couldn't have done the same thing. Alexa watched her walk, studying the woman as she looked at the different varieties of Shake and Bake. She looked decisive, calm, everything sharp and clear as she took a Southwestern flavor box from the shelf, bending with difficulty to lower it into her cart.

Alexa thought about rushing over to help, but that might seem insulting. Alexa looked down at the woman's toes, which poked out of her sandals, a bright, luminous purple. She couldn't possibly do that herself, Alexa thought. There's no way she could reach, as big as she was. Alexa thought about the woman's husband, probably a dark haired, rakishly handsome lawyer, tenderly painting the woman's toenails, and she felt herself beginning to cry. She didn't want to cry because she wanted someone in her life who would do that, although she did, she wanted to cry because she couldn't believe anyone could care about anyone that much.


  1. I don't know how you do it, Michael. You write women like you've lived in our heads (perhaps in a previous lifetime, you did).

    This one makes me want to cry. There are tender, gentle life partners in this world who DO paint toenails long after we can't reach 'em. I'm lucky enough to be married to one of those guys.


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