Kilby Allen is a native of the Mississippi Delta, and received her MFA from Brooklyn College, where she was awarded both the Himan Brown Award and the Lainoff Prize in 2010. While living in New York, she worked in the literary department at Symphony Space and helped with the production of WNYC’s Selected Shorts. Currently, she is a PhD candidate and Kingsbury Fellow at Florida State University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in such journals as Nashville Review, Drunken Boat, Day One, and elsewhere.
A Stockroom Exegesis of Psalm Fifty-One
I remind myself that this is penance, my bare back pressed against the wall of the dairy cooler. Arlo, the produce manager, is pawing my breasts with his sweaty hands, still too hot even though we’re standing in a refrigerator. Behind him a customer opens the door and takes out a gallon of grass-fed two percent. She doesn’t see us through the wall of milk. Arlo snuffles at my clavicle, boar-like, beard wet with condensation. I let him do these things because it’s our lunch break, and he shares his mid-day joint with me in the alley behind the store. He’s nice enough, and it doesn’t hurt. Where my heart used to be there’s a mason jar, hermetically sealed.
After forty-five minutes we clock back in. I put on my apron and return to the register. It’s a small grocery store, the kind that caters to hippies and hypochondriacs—hormone-free dairy, meatless meat, bulk bins of seeds, an entire room full of vitamins and herbs and tumescent dried roots you grind for tea. No one in the place wears real deodorant, but you can smell the incense section out on the street.
There are two other cashiers, an obese high school dropout who regularly shows up for work with her hair in Princess Leia bagels, and this thirty-year-old Viking who spends weekends in the woods, pretending to be a dragon, while the stock boys chase him with pool noodles. We don’t have much to talk about. Last month I was in seminary. Today my register was short two dollars and thirty-seven cents, which will be taken out of my paycheck.
I am twenty-six years old and live with my parents. My childhood bedroom is a forgotten museum wing. Plastic ponies stare down from the shelves. Generations of spiders homestead in band camp trophies. I have trouble sleeping with so many observers.
Six months ago I had my own apartment just off the Episcopal Theological campus, a duplex. Two married seminarians lived next door, David and Holly. They probably still live next door. I didn’t even tell them I was moving until Holly saw the U-haul in the driveway.
“We’ll miss you,” she said, but I knew she wouldn’t. She had to say that. It was pastoral. It was caring. Part of the job. Probably she knows what happened by now. They talk about it at coffee hour after Eucharist.
I stand at the cash register for eight hours, not including lunch and two smoke breaks. I wear a green apron and a nametag—Scott. At least once a day someone comments on my name and I look up with red-rimmed bovine eyes. I don’t make small talk. I give change and say Have A Nice Day. I get paid seven seventy-five an hour, and my manager is eighteen years old and takes community college night classes.
Because he didn’t have a son, my father named me after himself. My older sister was forced to take ballet and piano lessons, but with me suddenly everything was about breaking down gender roles. On the up side, instead of prancing around in a tutu, I played little league all the way up until my team was sanctioned because I wasn’t wearing a cup.
I ring up plastic bags full of macrobiotic nutmeat, locally grown burdock, bottles of kombucha, hemp fiber washcloths. Princess Leia and the Viking talk about Dungeons and Dragons. On my second day of work, an old lady brought a tapeworm in a peanut butter jar to show the women in supplements. It floated in yellow liquid, coiled and flecked with feces, at least a couple feet long. The supplements manager brought the jar to show us at the registers.
“I passed it last night,” the old lady told me.
“Proof that wormwood works,” the supplements manager said. She tried to hand me the jar, but I kept my hands in my apron pockets.
I spent last summer wearing a cassock, black, floor-length, tight around the neck where the collar would be buttoned after ordination. I took the sacristan job at the chapel so I could afford to stay in my apartment. I led tours of the church, talked about the Civil War stained glass windows, worked weddings and funerals, drank or buried the crumby dregs of consecrated communion port, and bleached the holy water to kill green gunk that grew on the marble baptismal font. That almost paid the rent.
When my Liturgics professor, Father Selden, offered me five hundred dollars to house-sit and feed the cats for a week, I took the job immediately.
It was a mistake.
There were two identical black and white cats, brother and sister, both so fat that their flabby bellies drug the ground when they waddled to the kibble dish. The female had to be dosed with anti-depressants every morning and spent the rest of the day drooling on the couch. The male was skittish and preferred shitting in the potted palm. The first night one of them pissed in my purse while I cleaned the litter box. I slept in the guestroom, and when I woke both cats were perched on the bedside table, staring.
I drugged the cats, cleaned the pool, watered the plants, and ate everything in the refrigerator. On the third day I was reading poolside when I heard a car come up the driveway. By the time I pulled on a shirt and walked inside, she’d already opened the front door--the priest’s daughter. She dropped two massive duffle bags on the foyer floor. She traveled with her own atmosphere, an aura of nag champa and cigarettes.
“Who the hell are you?” she said.
Arlo and I are sitting on overturned buckets in the alley behind the store. Flies cloud the recycling bins. It smells like sauerkraut. Arlo grows his own weed. It’s heady and tastes like gasoline smells. When he hands me the joint, the paper is already spitty. I inhale and hold it in, waiting for the world to tilt.
“Rough day, Baby?” Arlo says.
“Don’t call me that.”
“New cask of mead, come over tonight,” he says. He and his roommates are always distilling or brewing something. Their house smells like a bakery, but one that only makes moldy bread.
“If there’s nothing good on TV.” We will drink and smoke until my head feels like a balloon, and I can stand to let him touch me. We’ve had sex four times and I know the sheets haven’t been changed. He is not unhandsome but beer flabby, and hair sprouts from nearly every part of him. His body is always salty with drying sweat. But I almost feel something, lying there in his yeasty bedclothes, my breasts rug-burn raw from his matted chest hair. I think, isn’t this what it means to be human, an animal?
I stayed in the house, because she asked me not to tell her parents. Her room had been turned into a guest room, white carpet, white comforter, white walls, no trace of lived girlhood. If I hadn’t seen the family portrait in the living room, I never would have known the Seldens had a daughter. Her name is Anna.
“Boarding school,” she said. “I haven’t lived here in a long time.” The cats hated her and hid when she came into a room. I would have believed her if she’d said she was sixteen or twenty-five. She is a coltish girl who’ll have the same body at fifty.
She couldn’t talk without touching—a hand on my shoulder; pushing a wild curl behind my ear; a fingertip to the sternum, punctuating. She stood so close I could feel her breath on my face. At night after I showered I could smell her on my dirty clothes.
The first night I was still sleeping in the guest room, her room. I dreamt that someone pulled back the sheets. I pretended to sleep, and she didn’t speak, but I could smell the nag champa as she slid beneath the covers. Her body pressed against my back. Her arms, surprisingly strong, held me so tight I was afraid to breathe. And I knew it was a dream, but I couldn’t wake up. I couldn’t move and then I didn’t want to. Suddenly night dissolved around me, and I was alone.
It was early morning, light greyly seeping through blinds. I wandered through the house, and found her sleeping in yesterday’s clothes on the living room couch, blanket-less, mouth gaping. I wanted to cover her up, or carry her to bed and tuck her in.
Arlo meets me in the stockroom. I’m eating a vegan carrot muffin from the day-old baked goods bin. It tastes like potting soil. He cups my left butt cheek and I slap him away.
“On the rag?” he says, already stoned. His eyes are mirror shards.
“Don’t touch me.”
“You didn’t mind last night.”
“Fuck you.” I throw the uneaten half of the muffin in the garbage and push past him through the double doors.
“I’m rolling another!” he yells, but I am already gone.
The Sunday after Anna arrived, I biked to the chapel for Eucharist as usual. The summer congregation was small. There was always too much bread and wine left over at the end of the service. Consecrated wine and bread must be consumed or buried, even when diluted by the backwash of a hundred people. Usually I poured most of the wine directly into the ground behind the chapel and left the bread around the St. Francis statue for the birds. But I hadn’t eaten breakfast that morning. In the sacristy I tore into the leftover loaf. It was dry and gummed up into unswallowable boluses in my mouth. It took the entire chaliceful of port to wash it down. My throat burned like I’d swallowed kerosene. I realized I was drunk on the bike ride back to the Selden’s.
Back at the house I found Anna smoking a joint on the back deck in her pajamas.
“Gonna tell on me?” she asked. A cloud of smoke bloomed between us. I could see her nipples through the holey t-shirt—The Bishop’s Barbecue 1992.
“You’re an adult.”
“Well.” She offered me the joint. My head was already swimmy, so I took it. I hadn’t smoked weed since college, not after a panic attack in a fraternity house bathroom.
I was drunk. I was stoned. These are not excuses. We dozed in poolside lounge chairs. I could feel the sun on every part of my body. I imagined I was a turtle on a log, my eyes closed, drifting. When she kissed me I didn’t stop her. It felt inevitable, part of the infinite fabric of the day. It felt right.
I am behind the register. Arlo is misting the asparagus and making mangy puppy-dog eyes. I haven’t spoken to him in an hour. Princess Leia is out sick, so the Viking volunteered to skip his lunch break. Behind his register he’s eating a roasted turkey leg from the gas station across the street. Bits of flesh and skin stick in his beard. The two vegans behind the wheatgrass juicer have already lodged a complaint.
Arlo sidles up to my register.
“Will I see you out back?” he asks.
“And then after we get blazed, we can cool down?” he leans in and whispers this. I smell kombucha on his breath.
“Probably not.” He walks away, leaving his misting can on the counter.
She peeled off her shirt, dropped her pajama pants and dove into the pool. I unbuttoned my oxford with clumsy fingers, let my skirt puddle around my ankles. Still in my camisole and underwear I eased into the water. It was bathtub warm. She peeled off my wet clothes. She touched me first. But that doesn’t matter.
I’d kissed boys before, men my own age. I’d felt lips on my lips, rough hands on my breasts, body parts in places where I knew, anatomically, they should fit. I understood that I should be feeling more than hands, more than hurt, more than biology, but before Anna I never did. When she kissed me I suddenly realized why people kiss. I was drowning and never wanted to resurface.
We didn’t hear her parents drive up. They weren’t supposed to be home for another day.
“What the fuck,” her father, the priest, yelled. It took infinite seconds for me to realize we were not alone. Even after, she wouldn’t let me go. She clung tight. “Jesus.” Her father stood on the edge of the pool, hands screwed into his eyes, trying to wipe away the image. “She’s seventeen, Scott.”
At Arlo’s house we drink mead. We smoke. When his roommates build a fire in the backyard, we go to his room. I undress myself and lie back on the spinning bed and let him do what he wants. When he kisses me I try not to think about her. I wish for her hands, small, insistent but gentle, not like his. He could crush me if he wanted, and sometimes I think he does. Her mouth, her tongue, how she tasted like smoke and cinnamon gum.
When he is done, his beard has rubbed my lips raw, and my chin is sticky. Parts of me ache dully, and I live in that ache. This is penance. Draped in a white sheet he lights a cigarette. Backlit by a halogen desk lamp he looks like a Sunday school paint-by-number Jesus. He offers me a drag, but I wave it away.
“You good?” he asks.