The Next Story by Carol Guess

This time, the story writes itself.

You’re in the grocery store and someone passes by with their cart. You stare into each other’s eyes above your masks and feel desire, or you stare into each other’s eyes and feel disgust. Whichever way it goes is the story you write. One of you follows the other into the parking lot and offers up a phone number or shakes a fist. Maybe the vaccine is ready. Maybe the vaccine has been distributed, free of charge, at-risk populations first, and so you kiss. Maybe you spar, one of you throwing the first punch. Either way, you’re down, you’re done for.

This time, the story leads you to its minor characters all on its own. Someone turns their car into the lot just as you’re kissing or punching, just as the electric connection that will haunt you forever sparks inside your heart. Someone jumps out of their car, shouts, “That’s my husband!” and offers to buy you a drink. Let’s give this minor character a name. Let’s call them Rough Henry. Let’s call them Bartender, Make That A Double. Let’s call them Spider Saved While Taking A Shower. Let’s not call them again.

Let them go.

Minor character, all that.

You Are Here.

You’re in the grocery store and someone passes by with their cart. You recognize each other from seventh grade. She held your head in the toilet while the other girls kicked you because you were gay or fat or smart or all of the above.

Let’s give the girl holding your head in the toilet a name. Let’s call her Work Husband. Let’s call her In-flight Magazine. Let’s call her collect. Let’s give her a shiny new Charlie’s Angels lunch box filled with sandwiches and notes from Mom. Let’s say she breaks one of the metal soap dispensers when the tussle breaks out, when she twists your arm behind your back and pushes you down to your knees while gritty pink cherry-scented soap drips from the broken soap dispenser.

Let’s turn on all four hand dryers at once.

Let’s flush all the toilets, including the one holding a girl in ill-matched plaid, standing on the seat, untied sneakers shaking, arms pressed against the stall. The door to Plaid’s stall is broken. All the doors to all the stalls are broken. Plaid knows she’s next, and she is.

You turn a corner with your cart and produce unfolds around you, rainbow. Glistening apples; hard yellow bananas; fuzzy kiwi; piles of carrots, green tulle tops spread on ice like hair. You’ve got a knife in your apron pocket and you’re cutting cardboard boxes. Sometimes you peel an orange in a careful curl and wrap the peel around your wrist. You draw a clock face on the peel with marker. Starting now it’s noon forever.

Sometimes the door opens and Plot rushes in, scarf around her neck, matte red lipstick. Sometimes she’s running away, sometimes chasing. When her scarf slips off, you pick it up.

And every impulse tells you to wind the story around her neck and pull it tight enough to tie a bow. And every impulse tells you to make her look beautiful, hold up a mirror and let her adjust her lipstick, her hair, her smile. And every impulse you have is wrong, so you hold the scarf over your head until it becomes an umbrella. It isn’t raining, but when cops push back on all of you with shields and barricades, when they pepper spray faces, you hold up your umbrella and three of you huddle beneath. Facial recognition follows you home. Helicopters buzz overhead and you sleep at a friend’s house. You sleep with your friend. Now you’re sleeping with your friend. Now you are the minor character. The city moves through you as if your name doesn’t matter.

Carol Guess is the author of twenty books of poetry and prose, including Doll Studies: Forensics, Girl Zoo, and Tinderbox Lawn. A frequent collaborator, she writes across genres and illuminates historically marginalized material. In 2014 she was awarded the Philolexian Award for Distinguished Literary Achievement by Columbia University. Her short story collection Sleep Tight Satellite will be published by Tupelo Press in 2023.