Fall 2014, Volume 17

Fiction by Rosalia Scalia

Bag of Secrets

On a stool behind the counter near the cash register, Delia rests her feet on the shelf without caring about the scuff marks her black shoes paint across the dusty, painted wood. Her boss Bird always leaves the store on Saturday afternoons after the lunchtime rush, but today he’s stalling, locked away in his second floor office. Delia guesses he’s waiting for Joyce, her coworker with the habit of disappearing on secret errands. Bird knows about and sanctions Joyce’s disappearances because when she returns, she’s always carrying a small, crinkled brown paper bag, and they eye each other. Twice Delia saw Joyce passing the brown bag to Bird, nonchalant movements, as if she were passing him something unimportant to drop in the trash. Although Delia always pretends not to see them passing the bags, she’s curious about them and, just as nonchalantly, attempts to keep track of the bags, which always turn up in the bathroom trash can, crushed into brown balls and empty of whatever they held. She keeps track of Joyce, too, because when Joyce vanishes, Bird indulges his desire to kiss her and touch her private parts in ways that make her feel both uncomfortable and drawn to the sensations his touch sends rippling through her. Peering through the store’s front window at the congregation of valet drivers gathering on the corner across the street, she sees the tops of their knitted hats bouncing up and down like small half-moons and knows that the red Terps cap belongs to her friend Fred.

Fred, the tallest of the valet drivers, hops from foot to foot to stay warm in the frigid February air. He also stamps his feet, and Delia scans the rest of the street, looking for Benny Pokino and his mother in the hope that the pair will walk past the store, returning from wherever they went earlier. She likes Benny. She likes his dark curly hair and arched eyebrows like double triangles above his onyx eyes. She likes his nutmeg complexion and the way he smells, like cardamom and cinnamon. Her stomach flip-flops whenever she sees him. Although they share two classes, they have never spoken to each other, and Benny probably doesn’t know that Delia is alive. In class, he stares at his scratched, worn brown shoes, whispering his response when teachers call on him. That she likes Benny is her own secret, one that no one else knows. Bird’s kissing and touching her is another secret, like her mother’s stash of empty Admiral Nelson minis hidden in a shoebox marked “makeup and hair gel” in the bathroom linen closet. She knows her father would never look into a box of cosmetics and hair products, but nothing would keep Delia from exploring makeup, not even her mother’s warning to leave her makeup alone.

The valet boys blow warm breaths, visible puffs that disappear into their black gloves. Tucking his hands underneath his armpits of his coat, Fred edges away from the group toward the store, stopping in front of the window where he smiles and waves at her. Inside, he plucks off his red hat, stuffs it into his jacket pocket, and his hair tumbles free in a cascade of ginger curls. He nods at Delia before heading straight for the coffee station when Bird thunders out of the office, slamming the office door behind him with a bang echoing like a truck backfiring, his feet slamming and clapping each stair, shaking the entire structure, rattling boxes and cans on the shelves. He emerges from the back of the store into the retail area without his jacket and backpack, and Delia knows he’s not leaving anytime soon. She glances at his face, his expression grim, and raises her guard.

“Hey, Bird, the coyote after you or something?” Fred asks from the coffee station and laughs. He’s laughing and pouring cream, emptying three sugar packets into his cup without a clue to Bird’s treacherous mood. Delia unsuccessfully tries to signal him about Bird’s mood.

“What the hell are you talking about?” Bird says, glaring at the boy, who easily towers over him.

Fred catches Delia’s eye, rolling his. She shakes her head no.

“The Roadrunner?” Fred asks and then sings the stupid cartoon theme song.

“A funny man. Like I got time for jokes. Do me a favor: Don’t leave your day job,” Bird says. Behind the deli case, Bird pretends he’s preoccupied with a deli order, but Delia can see that he’s only moving the stainless steel bowls inside the deli case around into different positions. Daggers in his eyes point straight at Fred.

“How about them Terps? Think they’ll make the Final Four this year?” Fred asks.

He keeps talking, a cheery verbal diarrhea to which Bird barely responds. Fred sets four small boxes of nugget candy, two boxes of donut holes, and three chocolate bars onto the counter.

“Sugar rush?” Delia says, teasing him, smiling, glancing sideways at Bird to see if he’s still behind the deli counter. She’s known Fred since she was in kindergarten when he was in second grade and their mothers would drink coffee together in each other’s kitchens, smoking cigarettes, and baking cookies for the church bake sales. She didn’t know then that her mother’s coffee was laced with rum. She remembers Fred always returning from the kitchen where they played in the living room with enough cookies for both of them to have a small feast. He always looked out for her, and sometimes, when not busy with after school activities like wrestling and basketball, he drives her home from Saint Mary Star of the Sea High School on the other side of the harbor. In the warmer months, they never go straight home. Fred always stops at the snowball stand on Lawrence Street, and they sit at the nearby picnic tables eating snowballs. Fred always picked cherry and she, always chocolate, and both with vanilla ice cream on the bottom and marshmallow on top.

“I need the extra layers of fat to stay warm,” he says, smiling, showing his slender, wiry frame. “Don’t forget the coffee,” he says, holding up the cup. Fred’s height and his slender build give him a thin, wiry look. His teeth, slightly buck, protrude imperceptibly under his freckles and cerulean eyes, and she knows that he and his grandfather both share the same curly red hair. Delia never thinks of kissing Fred the way she dreams of kissing Benny, although she’s always happy to see him and even more happy he’s in the store, a foil against Bird’s always wanting to kiss and touch her when no one is around. Delia slowly rings up the doughnuts and purposefully dumps the candy in the bag without charging Fred, who slouches against the counter. Fred unpeels the first candy bar and tosses the paper in the bag. He manages to eat the bar in two bites, and Delia shakes her head, laughing.

Behind the deli case, Bird grows agitated, now tossing an empty stainless steel bowl into the sink, the sound reverberating around the store.

“What’s wrong with Grumpy?” Fred asks. He leans almost across the entire counter, and his face is so close to Delia’s, she can smell the coffee and chocolate on his breath. He whispers, “Come to my prom with me. I know it’s a few months away still, but we have to buy the tickets soon, and I’ve been saving up some moola to do it right. If you don’t come, I’ll be saddled with someone my mother picks.”

Before she answers, Bird, who must have leapfrogged across the store from the deli case, pulls Fred by his jacket collar away from Delia. “You trying to break my counter?” he asks, sounding angry.

“What’s your problem?” Fred asks.

“You’re my problem. You leaning across my counter. You’re going to destroy it,” Bird says, his tone still furious.

“Delia, yes or no?” Fred says, ignoring Bird’s tone.

Delia hesitates before nodding her head yes.

“Yes, what?” Bird asks, his voice loud. “Yes, what?” he repeats.

“None of your damn business,” Fred says. “Next time you touch me like that, I’ll put you in the hospital.”

Delia knows Fred’s strength and fighting skills, having watched him win matches during the school’s wrestling team competitions, but she doesn’t know if he can best Bird, shorter but wider and toned from lifting weights, and she doesn’t want any trouble.

Bird smirks. “You need some new jokes, funny man,” he says, pronouncing each word like a threat.

“Let’s do it now, old man,” Fred says. Feet spread apart and angled, hands balled into fists, Fred looks ready to spring. “Right here. Right now.”

Bird backs away and Fred steps toward him. Delia’s stomach tenses, knots, and she begins picking at her cuticles.

“Stop!” she yells. “Fred, stop!”

Fred stops advancing.

“Get out of my store,” Bird yells, pointing to the front door. “And don’t come back. You’re banned from the store.”

Fred snorts.“Nice way to treat a paying customer,” he says, the bells above the door jingling their cheer as the door closes behind him.

“Do you like that boy?” Bird yells, the fury in his voice now directed toward her.

She doesn’t respond. Of course she likes him! He’s her friend.

“Do you like that boy?” he yells again.

“He’s my friend. We’ve been friends for a long time. He drives me home from school; otherwise, the walk around the harbor on days like today aren’t fun,” she says, sounding angry. “What is wrong with you?”

“You can’t talk to any boys. I told you that last time,” Bird says. “I’m your boyfriend now.”

“You don’t own me and you aren’t my father,” she says. “And I don’t want a boyfriend,” she adds. She imagines quitting, but she doesn’t because she needs the money for her piano lessons.

How can she tell her mother? She knows that her mother Ivy might have married Bird, if Leo Carmello hadn’t entered the picture with his red, ragtop Chevy Malibu, if sultry summer nights at the Benji’s drive in movies hadn’t turned into steamy backseat sex, if Delia hadn’t been conceived a month before Ivy’s own high school graduation. Who’d believe her? Everyone would think she invented the story. Even to her, it sounds too freakish to be true. She picks at the cuticle of her left middle finger, scraping off the skin around her fingernails until they bleed. She worries about those black marks collecting on her soul from the sins of kissing a married man. Back in second grade, Sister Thaddeus explained about how white and shiny the soul is after baptism and how each day little sins, called venial sins, and big ones, called mortal sins, stained it indelibly like a Magic Marker scribbled across the white sheet. She wonders in what category Bird’s kisses belong: Venial? Mortal? Or another category she didn’t yet know about?

“I’m your boyfriend. That means you can’t talk to other boys,” Bird says.

“I never asked you to be my boyfriend. Fred’s my friend and he drives me home from school.”

Bird’s body fills up the space between the counter and the wall and crowding her against the wall behind the cigarette display. Bird wraps both arms around her, nips her neck like a vampire in training, her chin, her bottom lip before he fills her mouth with his too-big tongue.

“I’ll pick you up myself from school myself. Problem solved.”

“No,” Delia says. “I prefer you do not.”

Bird pushes himself closer to her, and she can feel the hardness in his pants. “I like it when you’re feisty,” he says.

The front door bells jangle, and Bird moves away from Delia, pretends he’s looking for something under the counter.

“Hup, Gracie, forward, good girl.” Delia hears Lucy before seeing her, and she is relieved her piano teacher has entered the store.

“Lucy, how are you?” he asks with a chuckle before mouthing the words “close call” to Delia. Bird performs like an actor, talking loudly, as if Lucy were deaf instead of blind. He winks at Delia. Of course, Lucy’s blindness would prevent her from seeing him standing too close to her, from touching her, from winking at her. His grin stretches across his face.

Delia’s face burns.

“My, you’re chirpy today, Bird,” Lucy says.

“Maybe I’m chirpy every day. Maybe that’s why they call me ‘Bird.’ Maybe you’re just not around me enough to know,” he flirts. “Right, Delia?”

“I guess,” Delia says flatly. She avoids looking at him.

Lucy turns her head in the direction of Delia’s voice. “Delia? Had I known you were working, I would’ve called my order in and asked you to deliver it. I forget you’re here on Saturdays.” Lucy smiles in the general direction of Delia’s voice.

“So what can I do for you?” Bird speaks in a loud voice, preventing Delia from speaking to Lucy. He wags his tongue at Delia, pretending to lick the air. Only Gracie, silent, on duty, watches Bird, who rushes toward the deli case and cuts thin slivers of ham that he feeds to the dog. Gracie gulps them down in two bites and looks at him for more, wagging her tail and licking her chops.

“Stop feeding her,” Lucy says. “Bird, we go through this every single time I come in here. It’s a dangerous distraction for me when you feed her.”

“It’s only a small treat,” Bird says, waving away Lucy’s objections. “A few slices of ham ain’t going to hurt.”

Lucy’s brows knit and she frowns. “Next time, ask if it’s OK to feed her.” Lucy folds her arms, her right hand holding her black wallet.

“No need to get your panties in a twist, my girl,” Bird says, drying his hands with a white cloth.

“I haven’t been ‘a girl’ for a long time now,” Lucy says.

Bird shrugs. “So what do you need?”

“I need you to respect the boundaries with my dog when she’s working, or I can take my business elsewhere,” Lucy snaps.

“Awww, Lucy, you’re overreacting. I didn’t mean nothing by it, just giving her a little treat,” Bird says, without apologizing.

“This is a nice little store, Bird. Too bad you’re in it,” Lucy says.

Bird throws his head back and laughs.

Lucy sounds annoyed as she ticks off what she needs from behind the deli. For something to do, Delia sprays glass cleaner on the counter and on the plastic cigarette case, the lemony smell filling her nose. Using paper towels from the roll under the counter, she cleans the counter and display. Delia admires Lucy’s independence. Even blindness doesn’t stop her from doing what she wants, from going anywhere she wants, from working, from taking care of herself. Delia imagines herself living independently, but the image refuses to gel. How would she support herself?

“I’ll carry this to the register,” she hears Bird say. “Anything else?”

“Yeah, three links of hot sausage. Some grated cheese.”

Bird wraps the sausages in brown butcher paper and grabs a container of grated cheese, before setting all of the deli orders on the counter in front of Delia. Knowing Lucy can’t see him, he brushes the sides of Delia’s breasts and stands in her bubble of space.

“Do you need anything from the front of the store?” Bird asks.

“Bread,” Lucy says.
“I’ll get it,” Delia says, scooting by Bird to exit the counter area and get away from Bird. When she’s directly behind him, he leans his body backward, pins her against the wall, and wiggles his ass into her crotch area. Then he steps forward, allowing her to go.

“Delia can deliver all this when she’s off work, maybe an hour or so,” Bird says.

“That’ll work,” Lucy says.

Delia places a crispy loaf of bread on the counter and does not return to her place behind the counter, forcing Bird to ring up the order. “I can take them now, if you want,” she says, glancing sideways at Bird.

The bells jangle again, signaling the end of the afternoon lull. Benny Pokino and his mother enter the store, and Delia feels a bit giddy. She’s waited all day for him and his mother to walk by, and now they’re in the store.

“That’s even better!” Lucy says. Delia stares at Benny Pokino, mesmerized by and unable to look away from his beautiful face, now regretting her haste to leave the store. Lucy fishes for bills in her wallet, feeling each one carefully before handing Bird three twenties. “I have exact change: three twenties and two nickels,” she says, pulling the coins from the wallet’s change pocket.

Bird pushes the brown bag across the counter toward Delia, who grabs it and begins walking toward the door.

“Delia!” Bird says her name sharply. “Your coat!”

Delia hurries to the store’s back room where she and Joyce store their things. The door in that area leads into an alley behind the store’s structure, and now it creaks open, its dissonant note breaking the quiet. Joyce is returning from her hours-long foray and enters carrying a crinkled brown bag.

“What’s in the bag?” Delia asks, grabbing her coat.

Joyce sets the bag on the floor between her feet while taking off her coat and hat. “Nothing you want to know about,” she says in stern tone.

Delia considers snatching the bag but thinks better of it, knowing she could miss her big chance to talk to Benny. She hurries toward the front of the store, wanting to see Benny before she leaves with Lucy and her groceries. Delia pauses in the doorway separating the retail area from the back of the store because Benny’s crouching at the end of the aisle, a red shopping basket at his feet. Her heart beats fast at the sight of him, and she wonders if she should approach him just to say hi. She wants to say something to him. Anything. Now’s her big chance to find out if he even knows she’s alive. She watches his every muscle, his hands too large for his body selecting items and dropping them into the basket. Then he deftly slips packets of prepackaged cheese under his coat into the space between his belted slacks and his stomach. Benny’s a thief! Shocked, she waits until he exists the aisle before she continues toward the counter, her feet heavy as wet cement.

Lucy’s waiting for her at the counter. Bird’s busy slicing deli meat for Benny’s mother, ignoring Benny’s thieving trip around the store. Delia wonders if Benny and his mother are a team of sorts, where she distracts Bird while Benny gets the goods.

“Don’t be long,” Bird calls from behind the deli counter without looking away from the slicing machine, and Delia wonders how he knows her whereabouts.

“I can cover while Delia’s gone,” Joyce says. “I’m back.”

Now Bird does turn and he and Joyce exchange those eye signals before he glances at Delia. “Like I said, don’t be long,” he said, his voice pointed.

“Gracie, left,” Lucy commands the dog and turns toward Delia. “Are we ready, Delia? Lucy flashes Delia a wide smile, and the warmth of Lucy’s affection brings her small comfort. “Gracie, hup!” Lucy says before asking Delia about her day.

Everyone must possess a bag of secrets, Delia thinks. Grocery bags in hand, she follows Lucy to the front door, where the bells jangle when Lucy pushes it open. “G major triad,” Delia says before Lucy can ask, and as they step outside, Delia feels the blast of cold air smack her face.




BIO: I am a Baltimore-based writer who has worked on both fiction and nonfiction. My magazine and newspaper articles have appeared in several local, regional, and national publications. I have worked as a staff reporter for a local weekly newspaper, The Messenger, and have written for Web sites including E-Diets.com. I am currently an assistant editor for Narrative Magazine; my poetry has been published in a U.S. Department of Agriculture newspaper and in a publication by the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

I earned a master’s degree in writing from Johns Hopkins University in May 2003 and am working on my first novel, Delia’s Concerto. The first chapter was one of seven finalists in a competition held by the National League of American Pen Women and a more recent version was published as a story titled “Soul Music,” in Crack The Spine #109. My story, “Henry’s Fall,” was a finalist in the Gival Press Short Story competition. My work has appeared or is forthcoming in Amarillo Bay; The Baltimore Review; Blue Lake Review; Crack The Spine; The Oklahoma Review; North Atlantic Review; Pebble Lake; Pennsylvania English; The Portland Review; Quercus Review; Silk Road Review; Smile, Hon, You’re In Baltimore; South Asian Ensemble; Spout Magazine; Taproot; and Willow Review. The story that appears in Taproot won first prize in its annual literary fiction competition for 2007, and “Uncharted Steps” merited a 2010 Individual Artist Grant from the Maryland State Art Council. “Sister Rafaele Heals the Sick,” first published by Pebble Lake Review and nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2005, appeared again in an anthology titled City Sages: Baltimore (CityLit Press, May 1, 2010), a collection of stories by 32 Baltimore writers, including Poe, Anne Tyler, and Alice McDermott, among others. Most recently, my story, “You’ll Do Fine,” was a recipient of the Willow Review Award for the Spring 2011 issue. My short story collection, Sister Rafaele Heals the Sick & Other Stories, was shortlisted in the 2013 Santa Fe Writers Project Fiction Awards.