Video Store by Simran Khalsa

The woman at the video store’s name is May. I know this because she told me, leaning over the counter on her bony forearms, forehead nearing ever-closer. Conspiratorially.

“A young name for an old gal, I know,” she’d said. “Believe me, pumpkin, I used to be just like you.”

She lives somewhere buried between the plastic DVD shelves. Behind the gum counters, filled to the brim with stale balls that taste like dust, almost, if you think about it too hard. Before those movies from the eighties starring that woman with the big white teeth and cornsilk hair.

I rented Three Over Four.

“That’ll be $2.99,” she said. She gave me a mint.

The woman at the video store wears turquoise blouses. Always buttoned up in every place there is a button. Crawling all the way up her neck. All the way down her wrists. Cuffs stiff and heavy-looking.

“You’re back!” she’d said with a customer-service smile and popped the gum she was chewing – a gray that once might’ve been purple. “What can I do for you, kid?”

I asked her where the documentaries were and she told me not to mind that. “You can learn so much more about the world just from absorbing the people around you. You’re so young, you know, you have so much more to learn.”

I told her that I just like watching old professors talk about things they love. She examined me carefully after that, dark eyes completely impossible to read.

We were silent for two seconds. Then four. Then sixteen. Then she turned behind her and handed me a DVD. She brushed dust off of it and a thick coat went flying – a cloud in a video store. I put it in my bag.

“Will that be all for you?” she asked. There was no more gum in her mouth. She must’ve swallowed it, I think.

The woman at the video store has dark circles under her eyes now. Like she isn’t sleeping. Like she lays awake watching the darkness like a TV screen.

They’re the color of that gum she swallowed.

She still smiled when she saw me. “That backpack looks heavy, darlin’,” she said. “You must be so strong to carry it around all day.”

I shrugged and said that I guess I am and she smiled again, big and wide. I thought her jaw might break.

I returned the documentary and she rubbed it all over the counter, covering it again in dust. “Did you like it?” she asked. I told her that it was okay. “How about that Bloody Mary?” she asked. I told her that it reminded me of my childhood, when we used to go into the bathroom in the dark to try to summon her in the mirror but it never worked. She’d lived in England, anyways.

She laughed. “Maybe you just weren’t looking hard enough.”

I asked for another documentary. She hissed at the word. “Don’t say that. Never say that.” I rented an action comedy instead.

Before I left she licked the dust off of the DVD I’d returned. Just on a little corner. A librarian’s stamp.

The woman at the video store was not there today. I went to get my backpack — I’d left it there yesterday — and found, instead of her, a young man with thick, foggy glasses. He reminded me of a fly.

I asked if May was in today. “Who?” he said. I told him nevermind and instead asked about my backpack.

“I don’t know if I can help you. I’m usually in the back, eating at the documentaries.” I don’t know why, but I flinched at that word. “No one’s ever back there. I just get crumbs all over them. They’re rough and small and I can feel them under my fingernails when I open the cases.”

I did not rent anything today.

The woman at the video store was nowhere to be found. No one was. Beyond the open door, the store was an empty box of dust. It crawled down my throat into my lungs. A cough. A cloud.

I saw a sign I’d never seen before. Over in the far corner. White lettering on black. Ghosts of cyan and magenta. I moved towards it. A light above me flickered. Documentaries.

I paced through the aisle slowly, running my hand along the cold white plastic shelves. Some empty. Some dusty. Some dark. I swung a little as I turned the corner, feeling a rush of air and a dizzying sense of height, over and up and down until my shoulder slammed into something sticky.

A warm purple goo, almost gray, and then she was in front of me, only recognizable by her turquoise blouse. Bones and ash turned forgotten gum. I saw her smile, somewhere under there. A lump turned up and then wide, wider than it was ever supposed to go.

The goop moved down my arm to my hand, a slow, ambulatory movement. For a moment, it enveloped my whole hand in a fuzzy, prickly kind of warmth. Then it was gone.

The gum peeled away from her face and I stared at an empty void. I swear I saw a light flash. “We do not have documentaries in stock, young one,” the void said. “We have nothing anymore.”

The rest of it peeled away, a slow, blooming process — a flower of unwanting. At the end, all that was left was a turquoise blouse, crumpled on the floor. And then there was darkness. Darkness and a flashing CLOSED sign.

 

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