In Recognition of Norse Warriors Moonlighting as Safeway Cashiers
Fluorescent lights cast a punishing halo along tresses of flaming red hair, his skin–1% milk–a hint of blue at the edges. He rings up the groceries, deft fingers scrawled with tattooed crosses, knuckles marked EVOL and LOVE, one thumb inked with angry scarlet umlauts. He looks up and through me, a nothing-person, a middle-aged, rain-drenched mother who buys inferior meat products, dried, Teriyaki-flavored. He shakes his head, disappointed in my late-night selections. He mumbles, scanning, packing, and punching keys at an alarming rate before launching into a soliloquy, his low voice like a rolling boulder.
“Tonight, after 800 years, my people are besieged by lava. It is something we have gotten used to. Sometimes the lava flows all the way down, covering the town and all its people. This has not happened in a few thousand years, though, the creeping flow of red death.”
His name tag is written in all caps: GUNNAR. He juggles a can of mushroom soup, flipping it into the bag, unconcerned with where it will land. I turn to see if the person behind me is paying attention to his outburst. But the man is unavailable, staring at his phone and holding a red-netted bag of oranges. Water drips from the man’s jacket. I shiver in the refrigerated temperature.
GUNNAR looks at me with eyes like my father’s, blue as glacial ice, a familiar mania skittering just beneath the surface. I jolt, attuned to sudden danger from a lifetime of quick familial assessments. I want to dig into my rusty emotional toolbox and ask where are you now on a scale of one to ten in a calm voice. But we have only just met. I am keen to hear about lava, less about lithium.
“Iceland?” I ask. I have always wanted to go. Desolate, remote. Where people don’t make small talk of any kind. He offers a lopsided grin, one side yanked higher from an old scar, pausing, seeing my red hair, my pale skin, my blue eyes. He sees me. I could be an aunt of indeterminate older age from his mother’s sister’s cousin’s side.
Twenty-five years ago, I scaled a wall to sleep with a guy who could have been his twin, who also had a name like a blunt instrument. I’d wanted him because he hadn’t wanted me. I’d crawled in the window and woken him from a bong-induced stupor, Led Zeppelin IV banner covering one wall and wavering slightly in the summer breeze. He’d also had tattoos and a similar air of recklessness and destruction, two of his fingers permanently stained yellow from hand-rolled cigarettes.
“Whoa, where’d you come from?” he’d asked like I’d fallen from heaven to land on his dick, a Valkyrie seductress seeking the pleasures of Thor’s hammer.
I blush, reflecting on the hammering. How I’d barged in and taken what I’d wanted, as a man might, or a rapist. Valkyries were supposedly sadistic and terrifying. My face simmers with an added flush of shame.
I just came in to get a few things, that’s all, just a few items the family might need.
“Yes, Iceland,” GUNNAR says with pride, slamming potato chips into an already overstuffed paper bag. It is pouring outside, I could use plastic, but I came for two items and I haven’t brought bags and I don’t want to burden him further, his village possibly burning, someplace near the top of the world. Creeping death and such.
“After Eyjafjallajökull spoke, cities were covered in a foot of black ash. Magma meets ice at 1,200 degrees and BOOM!” GUNNAR pounds the rubber belt that brings him my bad choices. “Explosion happens! It gets in your mouth, rests on your eyes.”
My father’s eyes got darker when he was angry. People say this is impossible but my husband has confirmed it: mine do too. The inner heat of a flame buried deep, like a volcano turning rock into liquid, which also seems impossible.
I titter. The manic phase means invincibility—you’re a King in every land.
“Ash has a taste,” he says. “Like burnt reindeer.”
My eyes widen and he laughs so loudly the man behind me looks up from his phone, tentatively putting it away. My turn to smile. That last part is bullshit.
“That’ll be 82.64,” he says. I take my bags.
“Hope it turns out alright,” I say, a useless phrase. He gives me a sly smile. I wonder, was it all bullshit? I shift one bag to my hip, preparing for it to break.
He does not speak to the man with the oranges.