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Tsuki, Tsuki : Lori L. Lake
Tee Durrant stood between Aisle Three and Four, stacking cans of pineapple rings on the top shelf. She lined them up next to the pears, careful to settle each can just behind the metal lip at the edge of the shelf.
Surrounded by full cartons, she pulled a box cutter from a leather holder on her belt and, with four flicks of the wrist, scored the next carton. She dug strong fingers into the groove and ripped the top off, letting it drop next to her. Cling peaches in heavy syrup. She grabbed cans and moved to the shelf. She didn’t much care for overly sweet fruit, but the thought of any kind of food all these hours after breakfast made her stomach grumble. She looked at her watch as she moved back to the box. Nearly seven a.m. She’d been at this for three hours.
“Yeah?” She rose, gripping two fifteen ounce cans to her chest.
Her boss stood at the end of the aisle, his arms crossed. He wore the same tan shirts and dark brown slacks every day. The only thing different was the daily tie. He seemed to have six or seven of them. Today’s was olive green with some sort of little gold glob every inch.
“Thought you’d be done here.”
“I’m close, Mr. Hochner.”
Hochner gave a nod, then reached for a cigarette tucked behind his ear. “I’m taking a quick ciggy break out back. Watch the clock. If I’m not back in four minutes, make sure you unlock the door. Mrs. Frahm’s been out there in her old tank waiting for the last twenty minutes.”
“Will do, boss.”
She finished shelving the peaches and sliced open the next box. The tiny individual containers of fruit cocktail took longer to unpack and had to be even more carefully lined up because they tended to lean. Once that box was empty, she kicked it aside. Only Mandarin oranges and apple sauce left.
Wiping dusty hands on her green apron, she trotted toward the front entrance.
Candie Butz stood at Checkout One, her hands in the pockets of her dark green smock. With a name like Butz, Tee wondered how she’d ever gotten through junior high school without killing someone. Tee was pretty sure she never would have made it with the name Butz, but maybe things had been different down in Oklahoma where the checker had grown up.
“Hey, Tee,” Candie called out in a slow drawl. “Why not go ahead and let the ol’ gal in.”
Tee looked through the glass and saw Mrs. Frahm was already nearly to the entrance anyway. Why shouldn’t she come on in? She glanced toward the bakery counter over near the manager’s office. Genevieve, the older baker, her helmet-shaped hair in an elaborate net, rolled out dough beside a scrawny woman with stained teeth named Ally who never looked calm except when she was smoking a cigarette out back. Ally didn’t look up, but the other woman gazed across the racks of buns and bread, her gaze hard.
Tee hesitated, then looked away. Behind the unoccupied service counter, she entered the code to turn on the automatic door. The wind blew Mrs. Frahm’s short silver hair up off the side of her head. Her pink and purple muumuu billowed in the summer breeze as she stepped on the pad. The door slid open, and she steamed in, dropped a purse as big as suitcase into the metal basket, and shoved off like a tugboat dragging a wheezing pastel-colored skier. Tee glanced over at Candie, who smiled and shrugged.
Tee hustled back to her final two cartons. She went down on one knee with the box-cutter just as Parker Feeney came strolling down the aisle, hands in his jeans pockets. The front of his green apron was spotless, and his white Nikes appeared brand-new. He was just out of high school and working the seven-to-three shift at Hochman’s until college started in the fall.
“Tee, Tee, Tee.” As he drew near, he leaned down and in a low voice said, “Perfect place for you—the fruit aisle.” With a snicker he waltzed past, leaving the smell of sickly sweet aftershave behind him.
Her face burned. She despised Parker Feeney. He was a cocky, rude, know-it-all who never missed a chance to hassle her. He was like all the verbal bullies she’d ever known—expert at slipping in the jab when no one was looking. She didn’t dare hit back, though. Guys like him had a way of coming out looking wronged and wounded while women like Tee got smeared. Mostly she tried her best to ignore him.
Still unsettled, she leaned down and grabbed at a jar of apple sauce, but, as she brought it up, the container slipped. With the other hand she grabbed frantically. She swore her heart skipped a beat as she pulled it safely to her chest. “Oh, man,” she whispered, relief course through her. Glass and apple and slick juice were no fun to clean up. Letting out a sigh, she got a good hold on the glass container and placed it on the shelf.
“Pretty impressive dexterity there.”
Tee turned to meet the eyes of a smiling woman in a long-sleeved, pale blue t-shirt and skintight black biking shorts. The brow of her light brown face was speckled with perspiration. She held a bicycle helmet in one gloved hand and ran the other hand through her short Afro. Before Tee could swallow away whatever canned good seemed to have lodged in her throat, the woman went on. “Got any Gatorade?”
Tee cleared her throat. “Sure. Aisle two. Just around the corner from here.” She gestured to the other side of the canned good aisle.
Parker chose that moment to reappear. “Help you, ma’am?” he asked.
Tee watched as the biking chick glanced at him. As soon as he got a look at her browned, muscular legs and attractive smile, he squared his shoulders and sucked in his stomach. Any second Tee expected him to let out a roar and start beating his chest like King Kong.
“I’m good,” the woman said. She turned back to Tee and was about to say something when a gravelly voice behind Tee called out, “Excuse me?”
Mrs. Frahm stood on the other side of the pile of cardboard cartons pushing at her cart’s hand-grip as though she were revving it up for the Indy 500.
When Tee stood back up from sweeping the empty boxes aside, both the cyclist and Parker Feeney were gone.
Tee got off work at noon. She folded up her apron and stuck it in the dinky locker she was assigned. Each of the twenty lockable enclosures was bigger than a breadbox, but not by much. During the winter she could hardly get her coat in, much less her boots. Mostly she used it for spare change, her book, and her apron. Unlike Candie and the other checkers, she didn’t need anywhere to lock up her purse. She kept her wallet Velcroed in the cargo pocket at her thigh. If she had any trouble, she could live without her book and vending machine change, but she didn’t want to have to come back for a purse.
She retrieved the latest Jane Fletcher adventure she was reading and locked up. As she turned to leave, Parker Feeney and Trey Anderson came through the doorway into the employee area. Trey had an iPod tucked into his shirt pocket. She could hear the music from across the room even over his humming.
As Trey flopped into one of the four chairs at the break table, Parker leaned down and elbowed his shoulder. Trey bellowed, “What?”
Parker leered at Tee and grinned knowingly. Trey looked up at him, obviously confused. Parker gritted his teeth and snatched one of the plugs from Trey’s ear.
“Hey! Gimme back my earphone.”
Tee took Trey’s momentary outburst as a chance to sidle past Parker, but he let go of the iPod cord and stepped into her path. She knew enough not to back down from him. He only intensified his harassment then. She looked into his blue eyes. His hair was blond, but his eyelashes were long and dark—as beautiful as a woman’s. He had every advantage, she thought.
He smiled, years of orthodontia revealing perfect white teeth that must have cost his folks thousands. “You know, Butch, you give new meaning to the word butch.”
She was his height, about five-eight, but his frame was bigger, his shoulders broader. He was soft though. Tee could see he’d never been a brawler, probably never had a fist fight. She thought she could take him, but he wasn’t worth it. “Out of my way, Pretty Boy.”
He smirked and nodded. “Bet I’m not the kind of pretty you’re interested in.” His tone was so juvenile she expected him to break out in “nyah nyah nyah” next.
She crossed her arms, counted to ten.
He took a piece of bubblegum out of his pocket, untwisted the ends, and stuck it in his mouth, a twisted smile on his face the whole time. He chewed noisily, then said, “I saw you looking at that fox earlier. I got you figured out. I figure I’ll ask her out.”
Tee laughed out loud.
Parker’s face reddened, and he looked uncertain.
She glanced at Trey. He was looking up at them with a frown. She leaned down and pretended to speak.
“What?” he said loudly. He pulled out an earplug. “What?”
“I said, your buddy here just told me to stay away from you since you’re his boy toy.”
“What!” Trey shot up out of the chair, knocking it over behind him. He stepped back, giving Tee just enough room to elbow between the two young men and escape out the door.
The last thing she heard was Parker whispering, “Dyke, dyke, dyke…”
She stomped toward the rear entrance, passing Genevieve along the way. Genevieve wasn’t wearing a hairnet, so her bouffant of hair drew Tee’s gaze away from her face, but she couldn’t help but notice the woman’s hard, cold eyes.
“Excuse me,” Tee said as she stepped around her and blasted out the rear door.
Her breath came in short bursts. She paced to get herself under control. What she really wanted to do was rearrange Parker’s loser face. She could visualize the karate moves so clearly: maeh geri, oi zuki, empi, tsuki tsuki tsuki—snap kick, step-in punch, elbow to his middle, punch to the nose, to the ear, under the jaw—and he’d be down for a lot longer than an eight count. He wouldn’t be so pretty then nor would he know whether to cradle his face first or his balls.
The images made her shake her head.
But she’d been through it all before, and she recalled quite clearly how badly it had ended.
Violence wasn’t the answer. Her dojo master had said repeatedly that one who lives her life in accordance with the precepts of Karate never attacks first, those who practice Karate must follow the way of justice and virtue, but Tee wasn’t living in a just world. And she wasn’t feeling very virtuous.
Tee did the best she could to avoid Parker Feeney, but he never quit with his patter, a smile on his face making rude comments sotto voce so that only she heard them.
Tee liked the job. For now. Hochman’s was smaller than the supermarket she’d worked at in North Dakota and didn’t pay as well. But the advantage was that nobody knew much about her here in Alafair, Minnesota.
Back in Dickinson she’d met Penny, a nice woman who was a student at Dickinson State University. Penny had come by to pick up Tee after work. She’d leaned on the counter, flirting outrageously, curling her long blond hair around one finger and making eyes at Tee. Amused and tantalized, Tee engaged in the equivalent of visual footsie while she waited on customers in the eight-items-or-less line.
Tee barely remembered the cowboy type who’d come through her checkout lane.
Ten minutes later, she was off duty, and she and Penny heading out into the icy winter night. Tee was almost to the passenger side of the F-150 when the cowboy caught up with Penny on the other side.
“Listen, bitch.” His voice was deep and raspy.
Penny whirled and let out a gasp of fear. Tee heard the tinkle of metal on concrete and knew Penny had dropped her keys.
“Hey, you asshole,” Tee shouted. “Get away!” She ran to the rear of the truck.
Penny stumbled back, the man talking a streak of trash.
Tee stepped in front of Penny and shoved him. He slipped and nearly fell on the icy ground. When he regained his balance, his eyes narrowed, and his face red with rage. Cowboy boots, jeans, and a tan workman’s jacket. He outweighed her, and was taller, would be even without the boots. She didn’t want to tangle with him.
“Get the hell away from us. Back off, and this is over.”
“You bitch. You’ll pay.” He cupped his fist in the palm of his hand and took a half-step.
It was his smirk that did her in. She didn’t wait for him to take a swing.
Maeh geri, oi zuki, empi, tsuki tsuki tsuki. Blood rushed in her head. She heard the words tsuki, tsuki, tsuki, over and over like a chant, the combination of blows as natural as a dance.
He fell between Penny’s truck and a van.
She leaned over him, her fist flashing in the pale slice of light from the fluorescent bulb nearby. She smelled his liquor breath and heard a whooshing sound, repeatedly, like a pneumatic piston. Her hand hurt, burning like nettles in her knuckles
Someone pulled her off him.
That’s how the night manager found them: the “innocent” cowboy on the ground, Penny scrabbling on the ground in search of her keys, and Tee held from behind by a burly truck driver.
The rage drained away and left her shaking. The knuckles on both her hands were bloody.
Her head had smacked against the side of Penny’s truck when the trucker grabbed her, and that was her saving grace.
She was arrested for assault and battery, but the goose-egg that welled up on her temple and brow belied the cowboy’s statement that he’d never hit her.
Still, she spent a sleepless night in jail before the cowboy, one Fritz Volker, a card-carrying member of the American Nazi Party, decided not to press charges, unable to face his buddies a 155-pound woman had kicked the crap out of him.
Exhausted, she went home, slept for three hours, soaked her hands in ice, and went to work on time.
Her boss was waiting for her near the service counter.
“You can’t beat up customers in the parking lot,” he said.
The checkers were craning their necks, and two of the stockers had crept up to the ends of aisles to listen. Even some of the customers were watching curiously.
“I was attacked by him, Mr. Franklin. He threatened us.”
Franklin bit his lip and shook his head slowly. “That may be. But you can’t screw around with customers in the store either.” He cleared his throat. “’Specially not the lady folk. I paid you for the whole week. Clean out your locker and get out.”
Face burning, she hustled through the store, back to the employee lounge. Into a grocery bag she stuffed four well-thumbed paperbacks, a sweatshirt, and a blue and white Dickinson Blue Hawks mug that Penny had given her. When she attempted to go out the rear door, Franklin was waiting. He insisted on looking in the bag to make sure she wasn’t taking anything that wasn’t hers. Then instead of letting her go out through the back, he said, “You go on through the store, now. Out the front. You bear your shame instead of slinking out like a coward.”
He didn’t say it in a mean voice. In fact, his tone was so matter of fact that she stared a moment to make sure he was serious. But when she stepped toward the back hallway, he moved in front of her, jaw tensed, and with a toss of his head said, “That way.”
Her former coworkers stared, but not one would look her in the eye. She put her head down and raced out the door to her old beater of a car.
When she arrived home, there were messages on the machine from her father and her older brother’s wife. They’d somehow heard what had happened—although they seemed to think she had been arrested for fornicating in the parking lot, not fighting. It might have been amusing, except that both of them informed her that she was no longer welcome in their homes. Not for Thanksgiving, not for Christmas, not for any reason. No amount of calling or explaining got her anywhere. After several tries, her family just hung up whenever she called.
She dialed Penny, who said, “After seeing you go crazy like that, I could never trust that you wouldn’t beat me.” Then she said she would be changing her phone number and hung up.
Tee sat in her bedroom for three days before the reality of what had happened finally set in. She was alone. No job, a bad reputation, and little savings. She didn’t even want to go back to the dojo and see her Karate sensei.
So she fled.
Her junker car took her a little over five hundred miles before the engine blew. She ended up in the YWCA in downtown Saint Paul. They found her a job at Hochner’s in Alafair, a small town east of the Twin Cities. She rented a temporary room over the nearby bakery and settled in.
That had been seven months earlier. Since then, she’d found a three-room apartment on Main Street above the coffee shop, and she’d passed her six month probation at work. But Parker Feeney was testing her, and it ate at her that there was nothing she could do except keep taking his abuse.
Tee was stretched out on her couch, a pillow behind her head and her novel propped up on her stomach, when Mr. Hochner called. He had never called her at home. Her mouth went dry and her stomach cramped.
“Sorry to bother you on your day off, but I was wondering if you might be available to work some extra hours? Candie’s swamped, and I need someone to spell her at the checkout, run after carts, you know, coordinate every little disaster. I’ve been here since five. I’d like an hour or two to go home and eat.”
“No problem, Mr. Hochner. It’ll take me about fifteen minutes to walk up.”
She dressed quickly and walked the eight blocks to the store, thankful that although the humidity was intense, it was only in the low eighties. Still, she’d be glad to get into the store’s AC.
Cutting between cars, she watched a bicyclist roll into the lot and dismount. She was removing her helmet as Tee approached the front door.
“Hey, it’s you,” the woman called out.
“Uh, hi. How’re you doing?”
“Good, thanks.” She smiled, and Tee was struck by how luminous, how thoroughly happy the woman looked. Her eyes sparkled clear and dark. “Beautiful day out. The path around the reservoir was lovely—all those flowers blooming and the water rippling.”
Tee came to a stop near the bike’s handlebars and watched her lock it up. “Nice bike. I ought to get one.”
“You should.” She stripped her glove off and stuck out her right hand. “Mona Trask. Call me Moe.”
Her hand was firm and warm, and Tee stumbled over her own introduction. “Tee? Short for Theresa?”
“Ahh. The nickname suits you.” She let go of Tee’s hand and removed her other glove. “It’ll be nice to pop into the air conditioning. Damn, it’s muggy out here.”
Tee followed her through the automatic door. A yellow muscle shirt and black biker’s shorts accentuated Moe’s lean physique. Guiltily, Tee looked around, worried that someone might notice she was ogling this woman’s well-toned assets.
Moe walked past the carts, turned, and stopped. “I’ve never seen you here on Sundays. I thought maybe you’d quit.”
“No. Got called in because we’re shorthanded.”
“Lucky for me.” Moe smiled, her teeth white and even. She gestured with her free hand, and Tee saw a jagged scar on her right biceps. Moe looked down. “Bad car accident, but it’s old. Doesn’t bug me anymore. So, hey, how about going bike riding sometime?”
“Like I said, I don’t have a bike.”
“Since I have three, I think you’re covered.”
“One’s a racing bike, and I never sold my old road bike when I got the city model. You could ride that.”
Tee hardly knew how to respond. Why in the world would this lovely woman chat with her?
She must have looked confused, because Moe bit back a smile and said, “I’m probably being overly forward, aren’t I. Maybe we ought to meet for coffee first?”
Glenn Hochner was fast approaching up the cereal aisle. “That’s my boss, Moe. I gotta go.”
“What’s your number?”
Tee recited it, realizing that she hadn’t given a woman her phone number in over a year. “I’ll write it down.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Moe said. She pointed to her forehead and grinned. “Steel-trap memory. Besides, I can always stop by during the week if I forget.” She backed up saying, “Later, gator,” and scooted down the canned goods aisle before Mr. Hochner arrived.
“Tee. Thanks for coming in. You’re a lifesaver. First order of business is checkout. Could you go help Candie, then spell her for a break when things calm down?”
The checkout line was backed up all the way to the coffee aisle with six carts stuffed full of groceries.
Candie caught sight of her. “Oh, Tee. Thank God. I can’t scan and bag fast enough.”
“Want me to open a lane or bag for you?”
“I can really fly if you’ll bag.”
Someone in line grumbled, “Open up another damn lane.” He was a gray-haired man with a boxer’s mashed nose. He held a ham under one arm and a carry-basket full of hot dogs, cold cuts, and Jimmy Dean sausage.
Candie flashed a smile at the heavy-set man. “We’ll speed up now, hon. Just watch. I’ll be with you fast as a cheetah with a hotfoot.”
The man’s face went from cranky to questioning. “Cheetah with a hotfoot? That’s an old Johnny Cash line. You a Johnny Cash fan?”
Tee swept past Candie, grabbed a plastic bag, and packed three heads of lettuce and a cucumber as Candie said, “Why, yes. Momma loved June, but Daddy lived by Johnny Cash. He always said Johnny was an honest man—didn’t never lie.”
“Well, that’s true,” the man said, a pleased look on his face.
Tee looked around, and the line of people had settled down, everyone listening in on the conversation. She marveled at how Candie could do that. Maybe it was her southern accent or deft multi-tasking. Whatever it was, Tee wished she had it.
She was glad when the rush finally cleared and there was a lull. “You know, Candie, you’re really good with the customers. I couldn’t do what you do.”
Candie straightened her smock and twisted a blond pincurl around her index finger. “I wouldn’t be modest if I didn’t say I was tickled to hear you say that. I just try to get along and be sociable. My daddy always used to say I was as appealing as apple pie à la mode.”
“He must have been a real character.”
“Truth is, I never was sure if that was a compliment or he was saying I was too fat.” She squared her shoulders and snickered, her breasts rising as she turned a little to the side and struck a pose fashion models usually avoided.
When she snickered, Tee stammered, “That can’t be right. You’re not fat at all. You’re perfectly propor—” She caught herself before her eyes could sweep the checker’s full figure. Once more she was blushing. “I mean, well, you know what I mean. He had to have meant you were appealing or, or—oh, hell.”
Candie laughed out loud. “You’re sweet, Tee. I think that’s about the most I’ve ever heard you say. And all in defense of little ol’ me. I’ll tell my boyfriend I’ve got a protector here. He’s always fretting someone will come in and sweep me off my feet. I tell him he’s the only one can lift me!”
Tee had seen Candie’s boyfriend. He had to be at least six and a half feet tall. Between his height and Candie’s voluptuous physique, any kids they had were either going to be pro basketball players or defensive linemen.
“You want me to cover so you can have a break?”
“Please.” She bent to scoop her purse out from under the counter. “My dogs are barking something fierce, and I’d love to take five and rest.”
After Candie left, Tee busied herself with refilling the bag dispensers at all the registers. A kid came by with a handful of candy bars, and she rang him up, then she got out paper towels and a spray bottle and wiped down all six check-stands and counters. She thought about the woman, Moe, and wondered if she’d call.
Tee looked up from the coffee grounds she was sweeping to see Parker Feeney peering around the Seattle’s Best coffee grinder and display.
Before he had a chance to say anything, Genevieve and Ally came down the aisle in their short-sleeved white baker’s smocks. Both had flour dusted on their arms. Ally abruptly stopped speaking and looked down. Genevieve frowned. “Parker.”
“Yes, ma’am.” He turned on a 100-watt smile.
“Could you bring some more flour bags up while we’re on break?”
“No problem, Genevieve. Anything else?”
“Nope.” The bakers swept past leaving a scent of cinnamon and almonds. “Four bags will be sufficient,” Genevieve said in a low voice.
Tee resumed her sweeping. When the two women disappeared into the storeroom, Parker said, “That skinny one looks like your type. Bet you’re hot for those meth teeth.”
“Don’t you have some work to do? Bales to tote, flour to haul?” He stepped closer, a menacing look on his face. She tightened her grip on the broom and brought it up in front of her. “You come any nearer and you’ll find this a broomstick whacking you upside the head.”
“Oooh, how butch of you. You got a whip and chains to go with your little broom?”
She turned away and ignored him until he finally meandered off. As she swept the last of the dirt and coffee into the dustpan, she realized that although Parker’s comments were offensive and irritated her, they were having less effect than they had at first. Only six or seven more weeks and then he’d go off to college. But what if he continued to work at Hochner’s on breaks and next summer? She liked Hochner’s, but she couldn’t take Parker’s crap forever.
Tee stood in her tiny galley kitchen trying to decide what to make for dinner. The window air-conditioner was valiantly attempting to cool the apartment, but it was stuffy and warm, too hot to have the oven on. “Microwave dinner it is,” she mumbled, but before she could open the freezer door, the phone rang.
“Moe Trask here, Tee. Feel up to a cup of coffee later on?”
“I feel up to a whole dinner right now. Have you eaten?”
“It’s been too hot. Haven’t been hungry at all,” Moe said. “Maybe if we went somewhere cool?”
“I’ll go for that. Burgers? Steaks? Pizza? Vegetarian?”
“All right.” They settled on the pizzeria closest to Tee’s apartment, and she was out the door before it even registered that she was meeting a woman she hardly knew. By the time she’d walked the three blocks, Tee was sweating and nervous.
She expected Moe to be waiting in the comfortably chilled restaurant, so she was surprised to find her leaning against the hot bricks outside next to the bicycle rack. “You rode your bike?”
Moe laughed. “I called you on my cell from the reservoir. I’ve been out riding this afternoon.”
“You’re a braver woman than I, that’s for sure. I’ve been holed up in my stuffy apartment.”
“You’re a smarter woman than I, that’s all. I actually feel faint from the humidity.”
“Let’s get inside. You probably need a quart of water.” Tee reached for the door and held it open. As Moe squeezed past, Tee couldn’t believe how easily they were conversing. It felt natural—as though she’d known Moe far longer than the approximately eight total minutes they’d spent in one another’s company at the store.
They found a booth and immediately ordered a pitcher of lemonade, and then the first thing Moe asked was, “You haven’t lived in Alafair long, have you?” Tee shook her head. “I didn’t think so. I definitely would have noticed if you had. I’ve lived here since my senior year in college.”
“Yup. Accounting and business degree. Now I work as an accountant for 3M. Big bucks, big bore. I should have taken up bicycle sales and repair. I enjoy tinkering a lot more than toting up accounts, but there isn’t much money in it.”
They talked for two hours, first over pizza, then, after the lemonade was gone, over frosty bottles of St. Pauli beer. Despite the food in her stomach, Tee felt a little buzzed, and she wasn’t sure if it was from the beer or company. She bit back a smile, listening to Moe talk about “Minnesota Nice” and how everyone treated her respectfully, but with such an air of reserve.
“Racial prejudice?” Tee asked.
“Must be that. I’m not sure they tumble on to my lesbian orientation too quickly.”
Tee couldn’t help but grin. She took another swig of beer and wiped the back of her hand across her mouth. “They tumble on to mine far too fast.” There, now it was out.
“I imagine.” Moe reached across the table and patted Tee’s forearm. “You’re a very handsome woman.” She said it earnestly, with not a trace of seduction in her voice. “You know that, right?”
Tee felt herself blushing all the way to the roots of her hair. She set down her empty beer bottle, and tried to think what to say. No words came.
Moe removed her hand and let out a big sigh. “There I go again, being too forward. My grandma always said ‘Mona’s shot through with gobs of gumption.’ Guess she was right.”
“I like that about you,” Tee said shyly.
“You do, do you?” Moe smiled, then looked at her watch. “It’s still early. Want to hit the nine o’clock movie?”
Still a little buzzed, Tee looked at her in amazement. “Why me?”
“Well, darlin’, why not?”
The next two days at the store passed in a blur. As Tee hustled to shelve goods, work the checkout stand, and back up the baggers, Moe was all she could think of: the warm smile, her snapping near-black eyes, the tight Afro which felt so soft in Tee’s hands when she kissed her goodnight after the movies.
She’d been so high on movie M&Ms and Moe’s presence that she’d forgotten to get Moe’s phone number, but Moe had called her yesterday and come by the store this morning. They were going out for pasta after Moe got off work. Tee kicked empty boxes out of the way and hastened to get the last of the Chef Boyardee Beefaroni on the shelf.
“Tee. You can’t say I’m not a quick study. I’ve learned some new words for you.”
“Oh, shit,” Tee muttered under her breath as she watched Parker approach. “I don’t want to hear them.” She pushed the cart away, but he caught up with her.
“Carpet muncher,” he whispered. This set him off into gales of laughter.
Trey came out of the back room, adjusting his green apron. Parker hastened over, blocking Tee from pushing the flat cart through the double doors.
“Trey, Trey. Get a load of the muff diver.”
To his credit, Trey gave Parker a scowl. “Jesus. What’s your deal? Move. I need to get to work.” He pushed past, got to the paper goods aisle, and stepped aside for Genevieve and Ally.
Genevieve glared at Tee. “You oughtn’t let that boy talk to you like that.” Her lips were turned down in a disapproving frown. Tee stood, mouth open. As if she had any control over Parker’s malicious mouth. She watched helplessly as Genevieve and Ally disappeared into the back room.
“That’s it,” she said. “I’ve had enough of you.”
He laughed. She closed her eyes for a moment, envisioning the combination of oi zuki, tsuki, oi zuki, tsuki tsuki—step-in punch, strike to the middle, step back, strike the nose, the ear, under the jaw…
She opened her eyes. He stood waiting, expectant, almost as if he wanted her to attack. She couldn’t understand him in the slightest.
“You don’t exist, Parker Feeney. You hear me? You’re dead to me.” To prove her point, she grabbed the flat cart handle and shoved it toward the double doors, forcing him to scramble to get out of the way.
Once she’d parked the cart, Tee reversed course and headed back toward the store. She passed the break room where she saw Genevieve and Ally carrying on a whispered conversation. Genevieve was pointing an index finger in the air. Ally sat looking frightened, her brown eyes wide and her face pale. Tee kept going. She walked along the salty snacks row, stopping to straighten up the Olde Dutch Potato Chip section.
When she got to the front registers, Parker was bagging for a woman named Sondra. Candie caught her eye. “Tee, you have a little time? Can you spell Ronnie? He’d like a break.”
Tee grabbed a paper bag and shook it open. When Parker Feeney looked over his shoulder, his handsome features sly and twisted, she looked right past him.
“So this little asshole is basically sexually harassing you.” Moe made it a statement, not a question.
“Pretty much.” Tee sipped a Sloe Gin Fizz. The first swigs had gone straight to her head, so she was proceeding cautiously until their food arrived.
Moe had slugged down half of her drink already, and now she spun the glass in her long fingers. “And he’s only eighteen? Sucks. Totally sucks. What are you going to do?”
“I can’t decide whether I should kick his ass or quit.”
“Not the latter. Definitely not that.”
“Most of the time I work hard at imagining he doesn’t exist.”
“If you have to imagine something doesn’t exist, then doesn’t it exist?”
Tee let out a sigh. “Yeah, I suppose you’re right. I should just call him out back and let him have it.”
“But he’s bigger than you. I could show you some moves so you could drop him before he could get at you.”
“I know enough Karate to kill him, Moe.”
“Really? How come I never see you at the dojo ?”
Tee sputtered into her drink. The woman was full of surprises. “There’s a dojo here in town?”
“Of course. Not many women, but enough for a women’s session Saturday mornings after the little kids. The rest of the time the men tend to hog up the place, but I go on Tuesday and Thursdays most weeks.”
“I know.” She smiled. “I preferred having dinner with you. But this is great news! Now you can join the dojo, and we can spar together.”
“Oh, I don’t know.” The thought of sparring with Moe, harming her in any way, shook up Tee in a way she couldn’t explain. “It’d be too easy to hurt you.”
“So you’re a black belt?”
Tee shook her head. “Brown belt—two black bars. Just reached that level before I left Dickinson.”
A smirk graced Moe’s face, and she looked so pretty that it took Tee’s breath away. “Bad news for you, girlfriend. I’ve had a black belt since I turned twenty-one. I’ll try hard not to hurt you. How about I get my bo and bakken, and the two of us track down this little jerk and kick his ass.”
Tee looked at Moe, really studied her. “Are you serious? You’ve got Karate staffs and wooden swords?”
“Nah, but I could get some from the sensei if you want me to. I’ve found that a regular old stick works quite effectively.”
“I’ve got three older brothers. I had to learn self-defense early, and, believe me, I used any weapon at hand—spatula, croquet mallet, fly swatter. I was turning into such a violent child that my dad put us all in training. I started Karate at eight.”
Moe slid her Rum Collins across the table. “Taste this. Does it seem a little funky to you?”
The rum burned going down, and the slice of orange stuck to the side of the glass fell off and splatted on the table. Tee sputtered and choked. “Oops.”
Moe laughed. “It is funky, isn’t it?”
“I think they forgot some of the soda.”
On Day Ten of dating Moe, Tee was as certain as she’d ever been that she was in love. She had no clue how these feelings had crept up on her so quickly, but she’d never had so much fun with anybody in her life. Moe made her laugh, and already Tee felt a fierce protectiveness for her, which Moe seemed to feel for Tee as well. Moe kept telling her that she’d be glad to help Tee confront her nemesis, but Parker Feeney didn’t seem worth one minute of Moe’s time.
Tee had begun looking in the classifieds for new jobs, but she hated to quit. Her boss had just given her a dollar an hour raise. She was trusted, and though both of the bakers, some of the box-boys, and one of the cashiers treated her coolly, everyone else was polite.
Then on a Monday night in early August, Hochner called a meeting of the entire staff. In an unusual move, all three of the shift supervisors had been called in to cover customer service and the checkout lanes so that every staff member could attend. Before the meeting, Candie pulled Tee aside. “What’s up? You have any idea?”
Tee shrugged. “Haven’t got a clue.”
“Something’s been going on for days. Mr. H has been stomping around, upset, and I’ve seen some of the box boys in and out of his office.”
Now that Candie mentioned it, Tee had noticed that people were extra cranky, but she’d been so busy she hadn’t paid any attention. “You think there’s money trouble? The store’s not closing?”
“I doubt that. Old Man Hochner left this place paid off, and his son’s as big a tightwad as he was. No,” Candie said, “it’s something else.” She took Tee’s arm. “Come on, let’s go get a good seat.”
It felt odd, but sort of good, to be ushered down Aisle Twelve by the blond cashier. Candie kept up a running commentary all the way back, and, when they got to the storeroom, the box boys had cleared out an area and set up four rows of folding chairs. Candie headed for the rear corner, exactly where Tee preferred.
Soon the room was full. Glenn Hochner entered followed by a man and woman dressed in neat, professional suits. Mr. Hochner raised a hand, and the black tie he wore slipped askew. “People. Give me your attention, please.”
Genevieve and Ally sat a row ahead and to the far right. Seated and in profile, Genevieve looked less angry, her face relaxed, and her dark blonde hair not so tightly helmeted. She glanced Tee’s way, amazing Tee with a brief smile. It changed the entire cast of her face.
But before Tee could get over the transformation, Mr. Hochner said, “We have a problem here, and it needs to be dealt with. In this store, on these grounds, we respect one another. We help one another. We work as a team. We’ve been a family store since 1921, and we will continue to be so for as long as it’s called Hochner’s.”
A murmur of agreement rose from the group.
“My father taught me to address problems head on and get help where needed. These folks, Mary Trimble and Daniel Staples, are here to talk to all of you about sexual harassment. We’ll be having an overview tonight, and then in small groups over the next few weeks. I hold you all to high standards, and I’d appreciate it if you’d listen closely.”
There was a flurry of motion to Tee’s right and Genevieve rose.
“Yes, Gen? What is it?” Mr. Hochner asked.
“Many of you know about me and my partner, Eileen, and most of you are very respectful. But I’ve put up with some harassment for a while, and I don’t want it to happen anymore. You respect me, I’ll respect you.”
Tee’s mouth went dry, and she was so shocked by what she’d heard that she sat for a moment not breathing. Genevieve sat down with a whumping sound, then glanced back over her shoulder, one eyebrow raised.
“Uh, yes, thank you, Genevieve. Anyone else?” Hochner’s eyes came to rest on Tee, and he looked at her expectantly. She didn’t move, so he said, “Okay, let me turn it over to Mary and Daniel.”
Tee’s eyes swept the room, looking for Parker Feeney, but he was nowhere to be seen. Had she gotten so used to pretending he didn’t matter that he had actually ceased to exist? She elbowed Candie and whispered, “Where’s Parker?”
Candie turned and looked at Tee for a long moment. “Whoa, doggies,” she said, her voice filled with wonderment. “He stomped out of Mr. H’s office a couple days ago, and I didn’t think much of it, but you know what? I think he got fired. Deserved it, too. Foul-mouthed little bastard.”
Tee couldn’t help but grin. “That’d be my lucky day.”
She looked around at the women in the room, suddenly realizing that perhaps she hadn’t been the only woman he said rude things to. Maybe I should have talked to people, she thought.
Two hours later, Tee dialed Moe’s house. “You’ll never believe this. Guess whose ass got fired?”
“Oh, hon,” Moe said, “please tell me not yours?”
“No way. Parker Feeney. He’s gone! And you won’t believe how this went down.”
Moe let out a squeal. “So we don’t have to kick his ass after all?”
“Nope. Not this time.”
“But we’re ready if we ever have to, right, hon?”
Tee shook her head and clutched the phone. Such warm feelings ran through her that for a moment she didn’t know what to say. She thought of Genevieve and Ally, odd ducks whom she hadn’t given a chance but who she now believed she’d make an effort to get to know. She had a friendship blossoming with Candie, and, to top that off, Glenn Hochner was a decent man. Maybe sometimes there was justice in the world. And it didn’t have to come from the end of her fist.
Breathlessly, Moe said, “You have to tell me all about it.”
“Gladly. I’m off work now.”
“Good. Come to my house, why don’t you. Oh, and Tee?”
“Bring your toothbrush.”