“This is a pilsner cheddar,” Darnell said to the passersby. “It’s just $6.99 a pound and we only get it once a year!” He chopped the block of cheese into small cubes and set the pieces of cheese two inches apart on a red tray lined with parchment paper.
His boss had admonished the whole crew about the proper distance between free samples, her clipboard resting importantly at her side. She glanced at it regularly, as if to be sure she wasn’t missing any key instructions. She had checked her clipboard three times when she first interviewed Darnell for a job with the demonstration company.
“You don’t look like a Darnell,” she observed.
“It’s a family name,” he explained. It was the truth. He was the fifth Darnell in a long unbroken line. When she offered him the position, they had shaken hands for the first and only time. Their hands were about the same size, both with fingernails chewed to the quick, both pasty white. Darnell avoided the sun whenever possible. Skin cancer ran in his family.
Darnell’s boss always wore a black suit to work. Over time, Darnell had deduced that she only owned two. One with a skirt and one with pants. She alternated between them, starting with the skirt on Mondays. At most, she got her suits dry-cleaned every two weeks. Darnell knew this because one time, she had gotten a crusty yellow stain on her pants. That was the week they were pushing empanadas at two locations in the freezer section, so maybe it was a drip of cheesy oil. The stain was on the back of one leg. It appeared like clockwork every other day for a week and a half, except Sunday because his boss never worked Sunday. Darnell looked forward to seeing the stain during morning roundup. It helped him endure her droning instructions. He spent the meetings full of anticipation. Would she turn enough for him to see it? Would it still be there? Every time it entered his field of vision Darnell felt a small thrill.
Once he established that she only owned one pantsuit, he turned his attention to her other suit. Darnell memorized where the skirt hit just above her knobby knees and the dimensions of the lapels. No matter what bejeweled brooch she clipped on or which hideous scarf she tied around her long, scrawny neck, it was still the same suit. The cuffs had been worn shiny. There was no hiding them. They weren’t so different, him and his boss.
Darnell owned two pairs of black pants and two black polo shirts for work. He wore them every other day, just like she did, though he washed his clothes nightly in his bathroom sink and hung them on a rack to dry. After a day touting free samples at the bulk store, Darnell always stank of sweat, deodorant and whatever food he was in charge of giving away that day. These odors irritated Darnell. He had a very powerful sense of smell. Since he lived alone, the only thing he bought in bulk was Febreze. He sprayed it on everything, including his clothes. He kept a bottle outside his front door so that he could spray himself before he entered his basement apartment. In winter, he kept the bottle just inside the door so it wouldn’t freeze.
Darnell was fortunate to have found his living situation. An elderly woman lived in the main house. Her husband had died years ago. Darnell changed burned-out light bulbs, took out her trash, and, in her mind, by his masculine presence kept her safe from certain rape and death via home invasion robbery. In exchange, the old lady let him stay at a rental rate of half market and periodically gave him items belonging to her dead husband.
One time Darnell’s assignment was giving away small packets of laundry detergent. He had slipped four into each pocket. There was no limit on free samples. Potential customers could eat or take as much as they wanted, and Darnell considered himself a potential customer. The day of the detergent one woman came by over and over, grabbing two each visit and never meeting Darnell’s eyes. Darnell had been disappointed with her. He had predicted she would come back seven times total, but she only came back six. He spent ten agonizing minutes waiting for her to return, even telling his boss he could delay his break for a while, just to be sure he didn’t miss the woman. He tried to craft a greeting for her, one that would ensure that she knew that he knew she had come back seven times. But she never came.
Darnell refilled his tray with cheese samples, shifting his weight from one foot to the other in his new thick-soled shoes. They were supposed to help him lose weight. Darnell figured standing in them for eight hours a day would work just as much as walking in them. He wore a white paper cap over his receding hair. The cap was only a few shades lighter than his skin. Darnell was rarely outside longer than the walk to and from his car on the way to and from the cavernous warehouse that was his place of employment.
What was left of his hair was a nondescript shade of brown, neither wiry nor thin, not too long or too short. He was of average height for an American male and also of average weight, which meant that he had a band of fat around his middle and flabby arms. Darnell was turning thirty in eleven days, a fact which weighed heavily on him. He had determined to pick a religion before he turned thirty, and he was having trouble.
Darnell watched his tray of beer-flavored cheese empty. This was a popular one. Some days he was tasked with pushing niche products, like bags of microwaveable channa masala or vinegary jars of beans. Most people turned him down when he offered free samples of that stuff. Didn’t the store know its demographic? Darnell figured that they should stick with sugary, fatty, crispy, salty and/or pseudo-fancy health foods.
He enjoyed when the free samples got a little complicated, like when he had to cook quinoa with chicken stock and dried cranberries in a big silver bowl over a hot plate. That one had to be served in small paper cups with a spoon. All products that could be purchased at the store in bulk.
Darnell kept a continuous flow of cheese moving from his cutting board to the tray. The bright yellow cheese had brown veins in it, ostensibly concentrated deposits of pilsner flavor. He watched a child approach. “You have to ask your mother first,” he said. This was a rule as well. Parents were crazy when it came to their kids and food. Especially because kids these days had allergies up the wazoo. He wasn’t allowed to physically stop kids from taking food from his tray, but he was required to verbally forbid them in a loud enough voice to alert their parents.
“It’s fine,” the mother said resignedly. Despite the two-inch separation between samples, the child managed to touch several other cubes of cheese. Darnell got a napkin and surreptitiously removed them from his tray, discarding them into an industrial-sized trashcan behind him.
“Yucky!” the kid whined, spitting out half-masticated cheese. The brownish-yellow chunks dribbled down his chin and onto his shirt, which was emblazoned with superheroes. The boy’s mother muttered an expletive under her breath and grabbed a few napkins from the dispenser next to the cheese tray. The boy had his mouth open and was scraping at his tongue with his fingers.
“Do you have anything more kid-friendly?” the woman asked. A toddler with dried mucous on his cheeks sat in the front of the cart and she wore an infant in a complicated kelly green wrap. The undercarriage of her cart held diapers and wipes, and the basket was packed to the brim.
“Someone in snacks is giving out chocolate-covered blueberries,” Darnell recommended. It wasn’t just someone. It was Ashlynn. Ashlynn only worked samples on Saturdays. She had another job in the produce department of a grocery store. She always smelled fresh to Darnell, like lemon peels. Each Saturday morning, Darnell would hover near the coffeepot until the last minute, waiting for Ashlynn. She had a sixth sense when it came to morning roundup. She would stroll into the break room and take a seat near the front, no more than thirty seconds ahead of their boss, who walked with a heavy stride, her low heels clacking on the concrete floors. Their boss always wore the same black pumps with her two suits. Darnell was sure of it. There were distinctive scuff marks on the toes.
Once Ashlynn chose a seat, Darnell would quickly slide into a chair behind her. Somewhere close enough for him to smell her. Her frizzy brown hair was always twisted into a braid that fell to her waist, and her ample bottom spilled off the edge of the chair. Ashlynn wore bright red lipstick. Never to work of course, because makeup wasn’t allowed, but he could see remnants of it in the crevices of her lips. Like she had taken a tissue and wiped them clean as she walked the long hall to the break room. She smelled like lemons and was shaped like a pear. One of those luscious, bright green ones, not the skinny brown ones.
On days Ashlynn was there, Darnell would literally cross his fingers and pray to a higher power (though he personally remained agnostic) that he would be given an assignment across from her. Those were always his best work days, when he could put his hands on autopilot and methodically refill cups of Greek yogurt or microwave personal pizza bagels while he watched Ashlynn clip ravioli in half and sprinkle them with Parmesan cheese. Both items were available in the refrigerated section.
When their boss finished her daily instructions, she would dismiss them and Darnell would have a few minutes to talk to Ashlynn. Their conversations always went the same way.
“Good morning, Ashlynn.”
“Good morning, Darnell.”
“How are you today?”
“Great, thank you for asking. You know, I don’t think I’ll be working here much longer. I’m going back to school.”
“Really? What are you going to study?”
“Nursing. For old people. I really like old people. I think it would be fun to work with them and help them.” She would smile, her lips spreading, her teeth blindingly white. It made Darnell wonder if she used those whitening strips. They were available at the store too, but not in bulk. Darnell had started using them every night before going to bed. The instructions said that you shouldn’t use them more than twice a year. Darnell was sure this warning was just to cover their asses from lawsuits. His teeth were already much whiter. He had taken a picture of them the day he started the strips. They still weren’t as white as Ashlynn’s.
Ashlynn always had a new plan. Almost all of them involved going back to school, but in the eight months he had known her, she had never repeated herself. Darnell kept a spreadsheet at home where he would input her career choice for the week. Kindergarten teacher. Hair stylist. Medical billing coder. Paralegal. Dental hygienist. The first time she told him she was going back to school, Darnell had had a panic attack. He had to excuse himself to the bathroom, where he spent a rough fifteen minutes, his bowels spasming uncontrollably. He knew the exact amount of time because his boss was waiting for him outside the bathroom door. She had curtly pointed out that he was fifteen minutes late to his station. That was before Darnell figured out his boss only had two suits and was still intimidated by her silk scarves. Fortunately, it had been his day to push potato chips. He blew past quota three hours into his shift. When Ashlynn offered a new career alternative the next week, Darnell realized that this was just her thing. She liked to think about her options without taking any of them.
He had two favorites and hoped that she would someday bring them up again. One was her plan to study archaeology so she could unearth artifacts and mastodon tusks in the tundra. He liked to think of Ashlynn in one of those fur-lined hoods wearing her cherry red lipstick. The other was her plan to open a self-serve smoothie shop with frozen fruit in bins so people could fill up their own cup with fruit and she would blend it with whatever they wanted. Milk. Soy milk. Coconut milk. Almond milk. Vanilla ice cream. Darnell actually thought that one was a good idea. So much so that he considered offering to invest in her business venture. He had been working for demo companies since high school and saved ten thousand dollars. Darnell liked to look at his bank account and see that number. Five figures in the bank. He had no plans to touch it. Not ever. He hadn’t told anyone about it. Not his mom. And regretfully, not Ashlynn. He couldn’t have her after his money.
Darnell took another block of cheese from the cooler under his station. He heard the regular tapping of his boss’s heels growing louder as she got closer. She spent her day walking from station to station, stopping at the store manager’s desk every hour to check inventory and sales.
“Running low, Darnell?”
“I have six blocks left,” he said, stripping the plastic packaging from the cheese.
“You’ve moved forty-two units as of one o’clock.” She looked at her clipboard. “Ready for your break?”
She looked down at his tray. There were still eight pieces of cheese on it. “When these are gone, you can go. Twenty minutes.”
Three firemen stopped by in regulation yellow workpants and blue t-shirts, pushing flatbed carts loaded with supplies. They took two pieces each. Darnell looked down the aisle. Up next was a tiny woman pushing an empty cart. Her husband, parents and in-laws trailed alongside her. Darnell recognized them. They were all retired, and treated the free sample stations as their personal lunch buffet. They wouldn’t be satisfied with the remaining two pieces of cheese. Darnell quickly cut ten more cubes. The arrival of six old folks created a frenzy around Darnell’s station. Shoppers didn’t want to miss out, and a crowded sample station clearly meant something. Customer after customer put shrink-wrapped hunks of beer-flavored cheese in their carts, commenting on how delicious it was. You can really taste the pilsner! This will make a great fondue!
When the rush died down, Darnell was once more left with two pieces of cheese. He wrapped them in a napkin and stuck them in his pocket. He also removed the parchment paper from his tray. This was a sign that the sample station was closed.
Darnell walked down the wide aisle, nodding at his co-workers. He took a path that would lead right by Ashlynn’s station. His steps quickened as he realized she wasn’t there. This meant she was on break. This meant she would be in the break room. His boss never dismissed more than two of them at a time. Darnell quickened his pace. How much of her break would be over by the time he got there? He power-walked around the slow-moving carts, hoping his special shoes were slimming his calves and toning his butt. He arrived out of breath and was gratified to see Ashlynn sitting at a table, a small cup of chocolate-covered blueberries in front of her.
“Hey, Darnell,” she said. “Want some?”
“Sure,” he replied, sliding into the chair opposite her. He took the napkin-covered cheese from his pocket. “Want a piece of cheese?”
Ashlynn accepted and took a tentative bite. She popped the rest of the cube into her mouth, chewed, and swallowed. “This is pretty good. Moving units?”
She shrugged. “Chocolate’s easy.”
“It’s my birthday soon,” Darnell said.
“Really? Happy Birthday!” Ashlynn pushed the cup of blueberries across the table. “You can have it. I’ve been eating them all morning.”
This was against the rules. Demonstrators were not supposed to eat in front of the customers. Darnell accepted the cup. “Thank you.” He ate two blueberries, letting the chocolate melt before biting down. They weren’t really blueberries. They were more like bits of firm jelly that had been molded into a blueberry shape. “I didn’t get to tell you this morning. I think it’s really cool that you’re going to be a nurse.”
“Thanks,” Ashlynn said. “I’ve always wanted to be a nurse.”
“Do you want to go out some time?” Darnell blurted.
Ashlynn’s face broke into a smile, her teeth sparkling. “That would be very nice.”
Darnell sat down at his computer, more excited than he had been in a long time. He had a date with Ashlynn on Friday night. He had asked her what kind of food she liked to eat and she had said Italian. He had asked for her phone number and she had given it to him. He had asked where she lived and she had texted him her address. It was like a miracle. He sent up a prayer of thanks to whatever deity had facilitated this chain of events.
Darnell spent the next thirty minutes researching local Italian restaurants and reading reviews. He found one that was supposed to be romantic and made a reservation online. That task finished, he opened his spreadsheet on Ashlynn and added nursing for old people. He opened a second spreadsheet and logged onto his assorted social media accounts. There were close to a thousand notifications. A broad grin spread across Darnell’s face, his teeth wrapped in whitening strips.
Darnell had a thing too. Flamebaiting. He had personas of all stripes. Social justice warriors. Right-wing nut jobs. Gun freaks. Racists of varying colors. Religious extremists. Concerned citizens. He had one virulent animal rights activist and one avid trophy hunter. It was the most delicious fun imaginable. With a few choice words, Darnell could incite a virtual war. He could whip people into a fury. He did it on hundreds of news articles. On multiple forms of social media. On dozens of forums. He kept track of his personas in his spreadsheet. Darnell did not own a television. What was the point in watching drama when he could create drama?
He kept a separate spreadsheet for the best responses to his flamebaiting. There was a column for the ways he was encouraged to die. A column devoted to insults involving cuss words. Those ones had to be particularly vitriolic to make the page. Using cuss words was too simple. Darnell had seen them arranged in just about every mathematically possible combination. Most of all, he craved the creative insults, the ones that managed to be clever. His current favorite was the one assuring him he was at the top of the bell curve. It was subtle.
Scrolling through the new comments, he dismissed most of them. Same old, same old. He should improve the world by blowing his brains out. He should engage in immoral activity with his mother. His mother should have aborted him. He giggled as he read a lengthy explanation of why stress positions were not approved by the United States government as corporal punishment for children. He typed a quick response. It’s not torture. The CIA says it doesn’t leave a mark or have lasting effects. Sounds like a perfect replacement for spanking.
It was just too easy. Everyone got outraged about something. It was just a matter of finding that thing and stirring the pot. It was almost midnight before Darnell finished. He removed the whitening strips and rinsed his mouth out. Thick strands of saliva swirled around the drain. His black pants and polo shirt were drying on a rack in the bathtub. He squeezed a few more shots of deodorizing spray onto his right pants pocket. It still smelled like cheese.
Darnell pulled to a stop in front of Ashlynn’s apartment at exactly six o’clock. He was freshly showered and coated with deodorant, and he wore a pair of khaki slacks that used to belong to his landlady’s husband with a plaid button-down shirt his mother had bought him for Christmas. He walked to the glass front door of her building. It was locked, so he pushed the intercom button and punched in Ashlynn’s apartment number.
“Be right down!” she called, her voice tinny through the speaker.
It was a nice complex. He had looked it up. It had a pool and a workout room. The rent was more than Darnell could afford on his own. With a roommate, though, it might be manageable.
Ashlynn bustled through the lobby and pushed the door open. She wore a red dress with a deep neck and a short hemline. It was the same shade as her lipstick. Even in four-inch heels, she was an inch shorter than Darnell.
“You look beautiful,” Darnell said.
“Thanks,” she replied. “You look nice, too.”
Darnell walked with her to the car and held the door open for her. His mother had given him the car when he turned eighteen. It had been brand-new then, a small and reliable vehicle. Darnell maintained it meticulously. The interior was pristine. No food or beverage ever crossed the threshold into his car. On hot days, Darnell could still catch whiffs of new car smell. He wondered if Ashlynn’s lemony scent would linger, and resolved to take a slower route to the restaurant so she would be in his car as long as possible.
“Nice car,” she commented.
“So how is it going?” he asked. “The nursing thing?”
“Oh that?” Ashlynn said dismissively. “I don’t want to change bedpans. I think I’m going to get my real estate license. I’m good with people. I watch a lot of those home-selling shows. Do you?” She gave him a sidelong glance. She was wearing mascara too, her eyelashes curled and chunky.
“I’ve seen a few,” Darnell said. His mother liked to watch them. “I like the international ones.”
“Me too!” Ashlynn babbled on about houses for the rest of the drive. Darnell enjoyed the sound of her voice. She spoke with such self-assurance, like she knew everything there was to know about selling real estate all over the world.
The hostess at the restaurant led them to a booth. Darnell had asked specifically for a booth. He wanted Ashlynn to have a comfortable seat, not like the hard plastic chairs in the break room.
“Would you like to see the wine list?” the hostess asked.
“Thank you,” Darnell said, reminding himself that he had ten thousand dollars in the bank and he could afford to take a nice girl out to dinner. Especially a girl like Ashlynn. She was his first date in years. When he had started in demo work, a few of the older women tried to date him. They all had too much baggage. Kids he didn’t want to support and ex-husbands he didn’t want to hear about. “Would you like something to drink?” he asked politely.
“Do they have chardonnay?”
“A glass of chardonnay please,” Darnell told the waitress. “I’ll have a glass of the house red.”
“Everything looks so delicious!” Ashlynn said.
“Order whatever you want,” Darnell said recklessly. He was pleased when Ashlynn ordered the chicken marsala. It was at the midpoint of the menu’s price range. This was a good sign. He ordered the baked ziti and garlic bread. “Want to get an appetizer?”
Ashlynn gave him one of her brilliant smiles. “Calamari?”
“Calamari to start,” he told the waitress.
“Can I say something?” Ashlynn asked hesitantly. “You don’t look like a Darnell.”
“It’s a family name,” he explained. “I’m the fifth one.”
“Are you going to make it six someday?”
“I don’t know. It’s kind of selfish to name a kid after yourself.”
“It’s a tradition now,” Ashlynn said. “It’s not selfish.”
They discussed names until the wine arrived. Ashlynn raised her glass. “Happy Birthday, Darnell!”
Darnell clinked glasses with her. “Happy Birthday, Ashlynn!” He flushed at his mistake, taking a huge gulp of wine. He could feel a panic attack coming on.
“It’s OK,” Ashlynn assured him. “It was my birthday a month ago.”
A month ago Ashlynn was going to learn how to make balloon animals and do face paint. Darnell’s heart thudded and he could feel himself beginning to sweat.
“Can I tell you something?” she continued. “I’ve been waiting for you to ask me out.”
Darnell took another large swallow of wine. Ashlynn wanted to be on this date. Ashlynn liked him. If there was a higher power out there, it was making Darnell’s dreams come true. “Really?” he stammered.
“Why else would I keep coming back to that demo job?” She lowered her voice. “Do you know what? I think our boss wears the same suit every Saturday.”
All symptoms of Darnell’s panic attack vanished. “She does,” he confirmed. “She has one with a skirt too. For Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.”
Ashlynn giggled. A wave of lemon hit Darnell’s nose. It was too perfect. She was an angel. A short, plump angel in red lipstick. They discussed their boss’s accessories over steaming rings of calamari. They gossiped about the range of humanity that frequented the free sample booths. Before Darnell knew it, the waitress brought the dessert menu and they had selected a tiramisu to share.
“Let’s talk about the things we aren’t supposed to talk about,” Ashlynn said conspiratorially.
“Religion and politics!” she crowed.
“Are you sure?” Darnell asked. He definitely did not want to flamebait Ashlynn. Their conversations had never given him any indication of where she fell, either politically or with respect to religion. He would have to tread carefully.
“I think it’s important to talk about these things,” Ashlynn said. “I’ll go first. I think all politicians are corrupt so I don’t ever vote.”
Darnell was relieved. “I don’t vote either.” His reasons were different. The corruption of politicians didn’t matter to him. It was a given. He didn’t vote because he had no stake in government. With a salary only slightly above the poverty line, the shifting winds of law didn’t really impact him. In fact, the more flip-flopping between parties, the more fodder there was for flamebaiting.
“And I used to be Catholic,” Ashlynn added. “Now I just try to be a good person.” She drank the last of her wine. “Your turn!”
“I guess I’m agnostic,” Darnell said. He decided not to tell Ashlynn about his birthday deadline. His father had died of skin cancer at age thirty, still agnostic. Darnell didn’t want to die with no religion. So he had a spreadsheet at home evaluating each one. Since religions for the most part claimed to be mutually exclusive, it was difficult to Darnell to settle on the one that gave him the best chance at a good afterlife.
“What’s agnostic?” Ashlynn asked.
“It’s like this. I’d like for there to be a god. It would be nice if there is some greater purpose to existence and when we die we go to a better place. I’m just not sure which religion will get me there.”
“I don’t understand.”
“There are five major religions,” Darnell explained. “Each one has hundreds of millions of believers, who all believe that their way is the right way and everyone else is wrong. I guess I don’t want to pick the wrong one.”
The waitress set a tiramisu and two spoons in between them. Darnell let Ashlynn have the first bite.
“Do you try to be a good person?” Ashlynn asked. Her second spoonful of tiramisu dripped onto the glass-covered table. She used one finger to wipe up the glop of mascarpone cheese and licked it clean.
“Doesn’t everybody?” Darnell examined Ashlynn’s face. Half of her lipstick was gone, washed away with chicken marsala and chardonnay. She seemed satisfied. Darnell figured the conversation had rested on his religious beliefs long enough and it was time to turn the tables. “So what made you quit being Catholic?”
“Child-molesting priests,” Ashlynn said blithely. “It’s gross.”
Darnell paid the bill on his credit card, the one that gave him cash back. Once they were in the car, Ashlynn reached into her purse and took out a Ziploc bag half full of chocolate-covered blueberries. “I saved these,” she said. “Want one?”
It was a measure of how much Darnell liked Ashlynn that he did not refuse. He prayed to the universe that nothing would get on the upholstery. He held out a hand to accept her offering.
“Focus on driving,” Ashlynn said. “I’ll feed you.” She pressed one of the chocolate balls to his mouth. Her fingers smelled like tiramisu.
When they got to her apartment, Darnell hopped out and opened the car door for her.
“Thank you for a wonderful evening,” he said formally.
“You too.” Ashlynn adjusted her dress and gazed up at him, her eyes bright. She leaned forward and kissed him gently on the lips. “I have roommates,” she whispered apologetically. “Three of them.” She kissed him again.
Emboldened, Darnell kissed her back, wrapping his arms around her, feeling the wide strap of her bra underneath the flimsy red dress and where her pantyhose cinched around her belly. She was warm and sweet and tasted like chocolate blueberries. When he finally released her, the last of her lipstick was gone.
“See you at work tomorrow?” Ashlynn asked shyly, fumbling for her keys.
She waved at him from behind the glass, then tottered to the elevator in her stiletto heels.
Darnell’s car smelled like lemon the whole way home.
*Modern Love received an honorable mention in the University of Alaska, Anchorage/Anchorage Dispatch News Creative Writing Contest, Open to the Public Category.