Aisle 9
March 15, 2021

Against the smoldering afternoon sun, the clerestory windows turned to butterscotch, honey, and tea, each pane unlike any other. The filtered light, falling thirty feet before reaching Joanie and Deb’s upturned faces, was beatific. “Jesus Christ, those windows are grimy as hell,” Deb said.

“Used to be a factory,” Joanie said, “what did you expect?”

Their trance ended abruptly. Behind them, a small, shrill voice wailed, “Where’s Daddy?” A girl no older than seven sobbed while hugging a thick steel column. Her mother, wearing yoga pants and a hoodie, tried to pry her fingers loose. “I want Daddy!”

Joanie turned to Deb with an exaggerated grimace, ticking her head towards a furniture display.

“Look at this!” Joanie said, breathing in, patting her chest. “Gorgeous. Just gorgeous.” She brushed her fingers against carved stone. “Looks like it came from an old pulpit.”

The two women walked on and turned down an aisle filled with old kitchen cabinets. Deb laughed. “My folks had these exact same ones. The seventies were ridiculous.”

They turned the corner and Deb peered down Aisle 2 at hundreds of old doors stacked along the wall. “What the hell is this place, Joanie? You said we were going antiquing.”

“No, I said you might find some antiques. This is a, whaddya call it? Reclamation warehouse. Old building materials. Windows, doors, furniture. Wait until you see the toilets. People bring stuff here instead of throwing it in a, whaddya call it? Landfill. It’s good for the environment.”

“Looks like a junkyard.”

“It’s called Home Wreckers’ Depot. Get it?”

“Yeah, I get it. Who buys this crap?”

“Be patient,” Joanie said with a wink. “As they say, one woman’s trash is another woman’s treasure.”

In Aisle 6, Joanie caressed porcelain doorknobs perfect for her patio doors, when Deb said, “I’m sorry, Joanie…about Doug. I thought everything was good between you?”

Joanie sighed, pulling out a drawer from an oak card catalogue. “We just grew apart, that’s all.” She held an ornate bronze door hinge up to the light. “They don’t make them like this anymore.”

“Joanie — ”

“No, it’s for the best, really. Sad though. The kids took to him right away. Papa this, Papa that. Marrying Chuck was a mistake, obviously,” Joanie said, rifling through drawers, “but marrying Doug seemed to make up for it, you know? At least a first. You saw how he adored the kids, and how he fixed up the house so beautifully.”

“Your stair railing-thingy is gorgeous!”

“Balustrade. I know. And the mantles, crown moldings, bookcases.” Joanie pulled Deb closer by the arm, grinning. “Doug is very good with his hands. I’ll give him that.”

Deb’s cheeks burned crimson wanting to ask for details, but instead said, “Oh, Joanie, you’ve always been so hard to please. Good dad, responsible, good in bed…what’s the problem?”

“What do you know, Deb? You’re forty-five and haven’t even been married once! You haven’t had a date in years!” Joanie’s words came out sharper than she intended; she hadn’t wounded her friend like that since high school, after Jeannie Finch told her she saw Deb with Joanie’s boyfriend Alex LaRosa at Applebee’s. “I’m sorry I said that. Doug’s lost interest. In me. He falls asleep, Deb — , ” Joanie said sternly, waiting for a pair of rummagers to pass. “You know…down there.”

Deb gasped, shifting her eyes up and down the aisle. “Well, maybe it’s you!” Now it was Deb’s words that stung, and this time Joanie gasped. Deb wanted to retreat, but couldn’t. “Maybe you take too long! You know…down there. Or maybe Douggie’s just tired of you bossing him around!”

“Douggie?”

“Saying he’s lazy and dimwitted. Maybe he’s tired of you saying ‘What size pants are you up to now?’ Come to think of it, you — ”

“Deb!”

Deb, stunned by her own words, said, “I’m….so sorry, Joanie! I don’t know what came over me!”

Joanie’s dilated pupils narrowed. Deb looked away first. “I don’t take too long,” Joanie declared, laughing uneasily. “He goes out at night, Deb. Comes back late. I go through his pockets. Julie. Candice. Amy. Even a Deborah. Can you believe that? Just my luck. I’ve been too embarrassed to tell you.”

Joanie waited for Deb’s face to fall. It didn’t.

In Aisle 7, the women craned their necks toward dozens of chandeliers hanging from the corrugated metal roof. “What do think about this one for the breakfast nook?” Joanie asked.

“Kind of shabby,” Deb shrugged. “So now what?”

“You’re right, too big anyway. I don’t know. Divorce, I guess. But as they say, maybe the third time will be the charm.” Joanie waited for Deb to argue, but her friend had already strolled down the aisle and turned the corner.

Joanie and Deb didn’t speak as they walked through Aisle 8, full of stained bathtubs, an array of pastel toilets, and crates of miscellaneous ceramic tile, and looped to the next aisle. One side of Aisle 9 was like a hall of mirrors. Halfway down, Deb traced her finger along the hand-carved ridges of an antique wooden mirror, exquisitely painted in gold leaf. Deb looked deep into her reflection, lifting the corner of her eye with a finger, then smoothing the wrinkles on her forehead. Then she stepped back, tussled her curly hair, and screamed.

Deb spun around. Joanie, with her back turned, looking over her shoulder, smirked. Deb panned her head from left to right, slowly, as if seeing the ocean for the first time. Four dozen men, maybe more, were displayed from one end of Aisle 9 to the other. Some were stacked like sandbags, others were hanging from chains and harnesses. Others were standing in a row, leaning chest-to-back. A few were posed like mannequins.

Deb’s jaw hung as she staggered forward. “Are they…real?”

Joanie laughed again. “Of course. Just, you know…discarded. What you think of this one?” She read the tag attached to a man’s sleeve. “Hello, Vincent.

Deb didn’t look at Vincent but at Barry. At Jerome. At Jimenez. At Luke. All chained and harnessed. “Why are they so — ?”

“They’re sedated. You can touch them.”

Deb’s outstretched hand trembled, and when she touched Alan’s flannel shirt pocket, he flinched, causing her to shriek again. Unfazed, Joanie said, “Craig’s in pretty good condition. Tall, has all his hair. Not a fan of beards, personally.”

Deb swayed as she walked down the aisle of husbands, dragging her fingers along their torsos like she was dress shopping. Joanie wrestled with Greg, trying to pull him off a stack to get a better look at Jeff, muttering, “I hate when they put good ones at the bottom.”

Deb read each condition tag. “Gambler, no refunds.” “Emotionally Unavailable, a 30-day refund with receipt.” “Lazy Slob.” “Philanderer.” While Joanie tried to lift Greg onto Zhang Wei, Deb screamed again.

Joanie saw Deb lurch backwards. A hand belonging to a man named Timothy had a fistful of her hair. Greg groaned as he tumbled onto the concrete floor and Joanie bounded down the aisle. Timothy’s grip on Deb was too strong for Joanie to pry open, so she punched his jaw.

“Pick me!” Timothy shouted. “I like you! Take me home!”

Deb sobbed while Joanie landed a flurry of direct blows. “Let her go, Timothy!

Timothy’s teary eyes shifted between the two women. “Please…pick me,” he said, letting go of Deb’s hair as Joanie clamped her teeth on his hand. “Please?” Footsteps pounding in the distance grew louder. “I’m begging you. Please — ”

Two warehouse workers rounded the corner, stopped, and aimed their rifles. “No! Please don’t! I’m sorry!” Timothy cried, before slumping forward with two darts in his neck.

Joanie cradled Deb in a church pew, straining to reach its price tag. Where do they get off charging so much for shit they got for free? she thought. When Deb stopped weeping, Joanie said, “Will you be okay until I get back? Only be a minute.” Deb nodded. Joanie walked off pushing a long wooden cart. When she returned with Craig curled up on it, Deb joined her at the checkout counter.

“Thought you hated beards?” Deb said, sniffling. Joanie shrugged.

The cashier asked, “Will you be bringing one back?” Joanie nodded, and Deb’s eyes sparkled. “Your five-hundred-dollar deposit for the tranquilizer gun will be refunded when you bring him in. Cash or credit?”

Craig moaned in the back of Joanie’s SUV when she hit a pothole. “Sorry, honey!”

“What will you tell the kids?” Deb asked.

“Same as last time, I guess. Sonofabitch ran off with the secretary. They’ll get over it. They get home from school at four, so we gotta make this quick.”

Joanie parked in her garage and opened her tailgate. “Craig? Craig, honey? We’ll be right back. Don’t go anywhere.” She patted him on his shoulder and grabbed the rifle.

Joanie missed with the first dart: “Damn.” Doug barely had a chance to look for whatever whizzed past his ear before another landed with a pffffft between his shoulder blades. “Bullseye,” Joanie said. The women pulled Doug’s limp body by the feet from the TV room through the foyer, through the kitchen, where they paused to catch their breath, then into the garage to the back of Joanie’s SUV. “Forgot whats-his-name was in here,” Joanie said with a sigh, then took Deb’s suggestion to put Doug in the backseat.

With his arms draped over the women’s shoulders, Craig wobbled like an injured quarterback through the garage, kitchen, foyer, and then fell heavily into the still-warm couch in the TV room. Joanie glanced at her watch. “Cutting it close.”

Joanie turned from her subdivision onto Route 29 and rode the rolling pavement through corduroy fields of wheat and newly sprouted corn, glimpsing her rearview mirror. Deb had offered to sit in the back with Doug.

Route 29 turned into a commercial strip of car dealerships and shopping plazas. Joanie watched Deb gazing through the window, as if still passing a pastoral apple orchard instead of a Cracker Barrel. After merging onto the highway, Joanie tilted her mirror to see Deb combing Doug’s hair from his eyes as he lay with his head in her lap. “You’re getting gray,” Deb whispered.

After the clerk refunded her deposit, Joanie glanced at her watch. “Thirty minutes.”

She came to a stop in front of Deb’s house. “Hard day,” Joanie said, “but a good one, you know? I’m so lucky to have you as a friend. Couldn’t have done it without you.”

Deb’s eyes filled with tears as she lunged forward, wrapping her arms tightly around Joanie, knowing it was for the last time. She waited for Joanie to pull away before jumping in her own car. She soared through farmland, leaned into turns through orchards, and weaved through cars near the strip mall. As a traffic light turned yellow, and the brake lights around her turned red, Deb stomped the gas pedal. A sole pedestrian waiting to cross eight lanes heard Deb cry, “Keep your dirty hands off him, bitches!” as she rocketed through the intersection.

Deb left her Subaru idling with its hatch open outside Home Wreckers’ Depot. Inside, she ran pushing a cart with a bad wheel and hung a hard right into Aisle 9.


Photo by Alexander Isreb from Pexels

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