“Dolls” by Nick Sansone

Middle of the shift the security-sensor beeps as the frosted-glass door swings open, and, preceded by a humid blast of wind, a customer-bald, middle-aged, no point to card-enters the shop, regards the display carousel of weighted testicle parachutes by NassToys ($14.99 each plus tax), and then churns on past the checkout counter.

“Welcome to Fantasy Adult,” I say.

The customer looks back and nods, then disappears behind the tall shelves of DVDs in the She-Male section. When the sensor chimes again a few minutes later, this time a regular comes in:  Greg D. Davis, Rental Account 13227, a man who, since I have known him to frequent Fantasy, has tallied an impressive list of felonies and misdemeanors against the store. He once came in, drunk off his ass, ranting about the lack of BDSM titles.

“Four f-ing racks of pegging and splosh, but only one rack of bondage. Demand drives the market, for fuck’s sake, and I am demanding,” he said. Had he not been using an axe as a walking stick, steadying his uneasy balance by gripping the blunt top of the blade, I may have wondered (as I did later), why he bothered to censor himself, only to then use at the next opportunity the same word he found too obscene to utter a second before. But the situation what it was, I only wondered how long until the cops
responded to the silent alarm.

Another time, though I wasn’t there to see it, so don’t quote me or anything, Mr. Davis came into the store drunk–a persistent theme–and gave the new girl Amy a roll of red duct tape, on which he had inscribed in black permanent marker several times around the spool, this love note: RAPE TAPE. (Amy had made the error of telling Mr. Davis a vulgar joke, I won’t repeat it, and he mistook her jocularity as a sign of encouragement. She quit the following Monday.)

Most troublesome for me, however, is four days ago Mr. Davis gave my girlfriend a lace bra stuffed inside a cigar box. “Why would you take that?” I asked once Sarah told me where she got her new bra, and why her breasts smelled like a bar. “You can’t accept gifts from that psychopath. Give him a week and he’ll be bringing you severed fingers in glass cases or some such shit.”

Management, the immaculate assigner of days off, the all-knowing dispenser of paychecks, has barred people from Fantasy for less serious offenses. For instance, people who get belligerent about our policy of no returns, incredulous we won’t take back their defective (read: used) vibrator. But because Mr. Davis drops an inordinate sum of cash each week, buying a Melinda Muse replica blow-up doll by Doc Johnson ($199.99 each plus tax), as well as any new title in which the starlet has appeared, when Mr. Davis misbehaves Management only whaps him on the nose with a rolled up magazine, says NO!, then forgives, such is his magnanimity.

“How’s it going tonight?” I ask Mr. Davis as he approaches the counter.

He bends the brim of his hat, a floppy, worn ball cap with the faded logo of a basketball team embroidered on the front. “Feeling fine as frog’s hair,” he says. He isn’t an elderly man, fifty-four according to the birth date listed on his account, but the wrinkles enclosing his lips like an unsolved equation give him the appearance of a longer life. Or perhaps just a harder life. My thoughts derail. In the context of my hyper-sexualized environment, I make disturbing leaps with the word harder, and like an Etch-a-Sketch I have to shake my head to erase the carnal /images of Mr. Davis. My mind, ever the survivalist, focuses on some diversionary stimuli: the magazine racks. A lanky man with gray hair and a slightly ridiculous ponytail thumbs copies of Gallery and Swank. He knocks one onto the ground, checks to see if he was spotted, then slinks away from the mess without picking it up. Jerk.

“Is Sarah here tonight?” asks Mr. Davis.

“Nope.”

“When she work next?”

I shrug.

“All right. I guess I’ll just give her this next time I see her.” He pats his pant leg, and I snap to attention, but I say nothing. Anything beyond the standard greeting, and I risk being drawn into a conversation. I want nothing more than for the weirdo to be gone. “Onto other business… I’ve got a quick question for you.” He takes a while to ask, his breathing short and ragged.  Years of smoking, I figure. The rectangular outline of a pack of cigs bulges in his shirt pocket. “Did you get in any new Melinda Muse movies?” Melinda Muse’s fan-base has grown considerably ever since she won Best New Starlet of 2006, and Adult Video News described her as their favorite gap-toothed whore. But to Mr. Davis’s credit, he has obsessed over her long before she became popular, boring me on multiple occasions with recitations of her features: her luxurious, whiskey-colored hair, her radiant, gleaming eyes, her big gorgeous, grin. I swear I thought he was going to break into poetry. Over a porn floozy.

“Yeah. We got a few. In New Release.”

“I know, but which ones?”

With a few keystrokes, the motions made unconscious through countless repetitions, I search the database, pull up her new titles and read him the list: “Invocation, CumCocktails 12, Cock Caroling Cunts, Pacific Rimmed, and You Do Me So Hard. Pacific Rimmed is checked out though.”

“Damn,” he says. “That’s the one I really wanted, too.”

Of course it is. Had I named any other title, then that would’ve been the one he really wanted. What is unobtainable is always more desirable.

“It’s due back in a couple days. I can put it on hold.”

“I’d appreciate it.”

“Yeah, no prob.” I grab a pen and pad of Post-Its from beneath the counter and jot a note to hold the movie for Mr. Davis when it is returned.  Leaning forward to write, I see soldierly rows of Eros and Wet Glide and I.D. lubricants stocking the guts of the display case. “It’ll be set aside for you when it comes back.”

Mr. Davis, the deranged bastard, pivots on his heels and totters off without saying thank you-but then again he never does-hustling towards the New Release DVDs, humming or wheezing, I can’t be positive which.

This is technically my day off. But earlier Management ambushed me with a call at 7:45 in the morning. Still drugged with sleep, I rolled over and pounded on the alarm clock until I realized it was the phone ringing. “Huh?” I answered. I knew it was a mistake before I identified the voice. No one ever called this early unless someone died.

I drifted in and out of consciousness, catching only snippets of what was said. “Hey…we…thief…,” the voice rumbled through the receiver.

“Guh?”

Louder this time, the voice repeated, “Hey…we…thief…”

“Muh?”

“Wake up!” Distilled into a whip-cracking imperative, I finally recognized the voice as the fascist bark of Management. I rolled over onto my back, elbowing Sarah in the face; she stirred, then continued lightly snoring.

“Puh.”

“Hey, it’s me. We caught the thief. Or thieves to be more accurate.  Dorsey and Derrick are no longer with us.” Management spoke of them as if they were dead. And to Management they were. He would mail them their final checks as though sending flowers to a funeral. “Look, I know this is short notice, but I called last night and couldn’t get hold of you”-last night when I was cognizant enough to read the caller ID before answering-“Can you come into today?”

“Yuh.”

“Great. See you at nine.”

“Buh.”

“Oh,” he added, just before hanging up, “I need you to work a double.”

The receiver clicked. For awhile I lay in bed, phone at my side, watching little white spots float in front of my eyes, translucent comet tails trailing them, until the busy signal began pulsing loudly enough that Sarah protested and shifted beneath the blanket. I put down the phone and slipped out of bed.

“Where you going?” Sarah asked.  “What time is it?”

“Good morning, doll-baby.” I stretched across the bed and planted several kisses on her forehead, cheek, lips and nose. “Got called in.”

“What? You should’ve said no. We’re supposed to get groceries.”

“Yeah, I know. Management fired half the staff, though, and he needs warm bodies.” Grabbing a folded pair of khaki slacks off the chair in the corner of the room, I say, “Which reminds me: don’t pick up your cell. They’ll be calling you next.” Sarah’s phone vibrated on the nightstand. “See.”

Since we began dating, I have been protective of her. In the little ways as well as the large. Sarah was a friend of my last girlfriend, Monica Kidd. She roomed with Monica for a while once she moved to Orlando from Riverside, CA. I had only met her a couple times before Monica drowned, swept from shore by a riptide at Daytona Beach. Sarah carpooled with me to both the wake and the funeral, drawn to one another by our mutual loss. “I need to find a new apartment,” Sarah had said as we drove back from the service. “I need to find a new apartment and a job.”

“Fantasy’s hiring,” I said.

“No offense, but I don’t want to sell porn.”

“It’ll pay the bills until you find something better.”

“I guess.  But so will flipping burgers.”

“We don’t make you wear hats. Come in and fill out an app. And you can crash at my place until you get set up with a place of your own.”

“Thanks,” she said, and Sarah laid her head on my shoulder, a cruelly tender gesture. As roommates, Monica and Sarah shared a bathroom, and the scent of her hair, a strong whiff of mango-kiwi identical to the scent of Monica’s shampoo, wounded my heart. I pulled over and cried.

Management lectures me. “I’m going to need you to come in tomorrow, too. If you can. I haven’t gotten hold of Sarah yet, but she’s scheduled for tomorrow morning, so it’ll be you and her and me. One of you is going to need to pull a double with me.” Management reads my face for a reaction. I betray none. “Anyways, I went through some of the old apps and made some calls, left some messages, so hopefully we can get some fresh people in. Welcome to Fantasy Adult,” Management says, a conditioned response to the sound of the security-sensor, and it stops the conversation dead. A youngish-looking woman scampers in with her boyfriend or husband or cousin (who can tell?) lagging several steps behind. “IDs?” Management asks. The couple reaches into their wallets, presents their licenses, and Management, the grand centurion of smut, allows them to pass.  “Let me know if I can help you find anything,” he says as they head off towards the novelties, brushing past a few other customers, including Mr. Davis, who is still loitering in the New Release section.

“Now what was I saying?” asks Management.

“I have no weekend.”

“No need to be so dour, this is OT. And I really appreciate your help. So thank you.” An immature giggle erupts from somewhere in the region of the anal beads and butt plugs. “If there’s anything I can do to help you out, you know, let me know.”

“How about a raise?”

Management chortles.

“Ban Mr. Davis. That guy is a freak, and he’s been hitting on Sarah.”

“No,” Management says, and the finality with which he says it stuns me. “You’ve only been working here, what, two, two and a half years? I’ve been here for eight.  And Mr. Davis has been coming here even longer. You don’t know him. He’s a good customer. And a good person.”

“He gave that one girl rape tape.”

“An ugly rumor.”

“Fine. Whatever. But he gave Sarah a bra, and that is a fact.”

Management shakes his head and closes his eyes. “I’m going to have a smoke. I’m telling you to let it go.”

It is 9:47 p.m., two hours since he arrived, when Mr. Davis, the creepy old sleaze, finally comes to the register to checkout. He palms a stack of four DVDs in one hand and carries a Melinda Muse blow-up doll with his other. Winded from the weight of the doll, he plops the items on the countertop. “Find everything you need?” I ask.

“This ought to do it.”

I grab his movies and scan their barcodes with the pricing wand. The titles pop up on the monitor accompanied with a perky boop.

Mr. Davis cracks open his wallet. “I’m disappointed Sarah wasn’t here tonight. I brought this for her.” He removes a folded slip of paper and slides it across the counter. “Take a look.” I had planned to let it go.  Management said to let it go, and he was right. Mr. Davis isn’t going to steal Sarah away from me; she’s mine. But, no, this is too far. Enough.

I push the paper back at him, and I unleash: “I don’t know what this is, and I don’t really care, but I’m damn sick of you screwing around with my girlfriend. I know Sarah took that bra from you, but only to be polite. That’s just really weird.  And for the record, she threw that thing away once she got home.” Mr. Davis winces. I neglect to mention that Sarah trashed the undergarment at my insistence. She needed the bra she said. It was nice, had good support, good for her back, and did I know how impossible it was for her to find a bra in her cup-size? I won’t go anywhere near you if you wear that thing around me, I said.
So don’t even bother. “And I’m not about to let you pass her notes like you’re in middle school. I won’t.” I pull the blow-up doll over to the pricing wand and ask, “And what’s with these dolls? That’s just really weird, too.” I finalize the invoice. “Total’s going to be $314.29, sir.”

Through my whole reproof, Mr. Davis stood there, staring at me, motioning to speak, but I kept stomping on his protests. It had to be said.

He picks up the paper from the counter and tucks it back into his wallet. “I didn’t know she was your girlfriend. I didn’t mean anything by it. I just like her is all. She reminds me of my wife.”

“You’re married? And you’re flirting with my girlfriend? What the hell?”

“My wife is dead.”

The words pin me in place, like a note to a corkboard.

Mr. Davis removes three hundred dollar bills and a twenty. He lays them on the counter individually, as though he were dealing a hand of cards. “She was murdered,” he says, placing the final bill in front of me. “Six years ago a man named Richard Marketis broke into our house and killed her.” He seems reluctant to continue, his words mouthing air like a goldfish in a tank, but when he speaks again the story spills from him with the scripted familiarity of song lyrics. “I was at a Magic game,” he says. “I had season tickets. Never missed a game. Marketis, that evil son of a bitch, broke into our house sometime during the fourth quarter. Bethany was sleeping on the couch. She never slept in our bed without me. Said it was too lonely. I know what she means.” He scratches at his face trying to dab away moisture covertly. “She was asleep on the couch and this miserable fuck woke her up while he was digging through our drawers. ‘Greggy’ she called him. That’s what the bastard said at the trial. The last word my wife spoke was my name, and I wasn’t there to answer her. I was at a goddamn game.” He sniffles and swallows and shifts his weight from one foot to the next. “He panicked and he strangled her.” Mr. Davis is no longer looking at me, seems to have forgotten I am here, because when I say I’m sorry, he says, “What?” as if he were rousted from a daydream, as if he were back home watching, unable to defend his wife as her murderer forced out her last breath.

In the months after Monica died, I often found myself standing on the shore of Daytona Beach, the hoots and taunts of children at play mixing in my ears with the faint scream sailing from a fleck offshore, only to have someone speak and find myself holding up the checkout line at the grocery store, or parked at a green light.

“I’m sorry,” I repeat. “I didn’t know.”

“I know.”

I peel $5.71 from the register and give him his change.

“Keep it,” he says.

The gesture nearly cripples me. “Thank you,” I say, taking his money, knowing guilt will only prevent me from spending it until I’m low on beer. I want to apologize more, but felt a third would be insulting and gratuitous. I detested the meaningless condolences from friends and relatives who had never met Monica, but felt bad for me, because that’s all they gave me: the obligatory sympathy, and then they left for the spread of free food, unwilling to let me share why I cared for Monica.  “Do you have any pictures with you?” I ask Mr. Davis.

“Of course,” he says, brightening. He reopens his wallet, pulls out a photograph with furry, worn edges, and passes it to me. In the photo, Bethany sits on a red porch swing in front of a flower box filled with azaleas outside a big window with wooden shutters, a crape myrtle in bloom behind her. “I took this picture when she wasn’t expecting it. I never could catch a genuine smile any other way.” Bethany stares at something out of frame, resting her slender arm across the back of the porch swing, baring a large smile that displays her crooked teeth, and the rings with familiarity. I know that snaggle-toothed grin: Melinda
Muse.

“She’s beautiful,” I say.

“She was.”

As I return the photo and bag his items-the doll, the skin flicks-I tell Mr. Davis, “I made Sarah throw the bra away. She wanted to keep it.”

“Thanks,” he says.

I slip the receipt inside one of his bags. “Have a good evening,” I say, though I know he won’t. With a grunt, he shoulders the burden of the doll and pushes open the door. The security sensor beeps so long I think he’s just flat-lined. And I watch as the night claims him.

 

 

 

Nick Sansone is an MFA student at Emerson College.  This is his first published short story.  His poetry has previously been publish The Wilmington Blues, The Phoenix, Mi-Po, and the Orlando Sentinel.

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