She looked at the clock. She was expecting him to come through the door at any moment. After all, it was getting close to 7:30 in the morning. Vernon was always on time. Earl had been the same way. But that’s not to say she hadn’t heard a lot of scuttlebutt—over the years people gossiped, called him an intolerant asshole, including her brother, Joe Nicholson, who hadn’t lasted long as his second in charge. He complained that Vernon was a micro-manager. Of course in his more generous moments, Joe admitted that Vernon was one of the best environmental safety officers around, but not a pleasant guy to work for by any stretch. Rae-Ann was attracted to Vernon’s youthful good looks with a head of hair and large hands that could pick up three cases of beer at one time. And she knew by the way he looked at her, his eyes traveling along her neckline to whatever he could see or imagine, that he was attracted to her as well. She was a fifty-three year old woman feeling something that she hadn’t experienced for a long time, something that resembled lust.
“How you doing?”
“Clear to partly cloudy.” Vernon moved to the back of the store and waited for Rae-Ann to finish with a customer so he could talk more privately. He stalled and picked up a sugarless candy bar, several packs of gum, and eyed a bottle of energy drink to caffeinate him up the wazoo for the long day ahead. On second thought he put it down: his doctor had told him to keep away from the stuff—wasn’t good for his blood pressure.
Rae-Ann watched him. Now he was walking down Aisle 3 and heading back toward her, a stream of morning sun shining a spotlight on the whole wheat bread. He picked up a can of Vienna sausage with a pop-up aluminum top and placed it inside his shopping basket. “That’s it. Except for this.” He handed her his thermos, battered from years of use. “Fill ‘er up. I can drink this by the gallon.” She turned on the spigot of the coffee pot and kept her finger on the spout. “Also a pack of Marlboros, please.”
“Ever tried these?” Rae-Ann pointed to a pack of tobacco-less cigarettes.
“Fuck no.” He shouldn’t have said that. No way to talk to a lady. Rae-Ann handed over the Marlboros and a book of matches without looking at him. Outside a customer parked his car and pushed the door open.
“How’s that new grandbaby of yours?” Rae-Ann asked. “Didn’t you show me pictures? By the way, I was sorry about Shields. Real sorry. He’s been a pillar around here. I’m not sure what we’re going do without him.” She took a breath. Vernon’s face was clean-shaven and she could almost smell his after-shave. It wasn’t anything she sold in the store, a lemony fragrance. She hoped that she’d get a chance to ask him what it was. “I wanted to attend the funeral, but I couldn’t get away from the store.”
Vernon remembered when he had bought a Powerball ticket from Rae-Ann, the same night he had found out that Raymond Shields had been hospitalized with cancer. “He died at home. It could’ve been worse. Judy appreciated your card.” Another customer walked through the door and was walking up to the cashier. He had come to Rae-Ann’s this morning with one purpose. It was time to blurt it out. He squeezed his hands around the thermos. “I was wondering if you’d like to go to the VFW dance this weekend.” She leaned toward him. He could almost feel her hair brushing against his face.
“Pick me up Saturday around seven. You know where I live?”
He passed her house going back and forth from the mill all the time. “See you then.” Vernon left with his thermos. The next customer asked for an egg sandwich and a lottery ticket.
“Sorry,” said Rae-Ann. “I didn’t hear you. My mind was someplace else.”