U Askt If I Was Alright
by Richard Jespers
Richard Jespers

Originally from Wichita, Kansas, Richard Jespers holds a graduate degree in English from Texas Tech University. Stories most recently receiving honors can be found in Boulevard ("My Long Playing Records" was a 2008 Pushcart nominee), Blackbird ("Basketball Is Not a Drug" was anthologized in Dzanc Book's Best of the Web 2008), and The Ledge, where "Engineer" was published as an award winner early in 2009. In the same year, he was awarded a two-month residency at Writers Colony at Dairy Hollow in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, where he worked on a novel, tentatively entitled <crablegZdotcom>: A Novel For Voyeurs. He lives in Lubbock, Texas.

U Askt If I Was Alright—24 (Boise) w4m

Reply to: pers-924***6258@crablegz.com

Date: 2008-12-15, 5:15 PM MST

I saw that there was something different about you the moment you came in. You walked confidently and had a very serious expression on your face. You were almost hard to look at . . . maybe even a little scary (those intense eyes). I mean, you seemed really tough in your pea coat, black gloves and turtleneck. But your quick smile (yes, I'm sure) told me you had, well, a soft side. Your broad shoulders and strong legs also stood out. You looked straight at me and said, Pardon, could you tell me which isle has the antacids? I told you isle A against the wall and off you went saying thank you very much. When you returned to check out, there were two kids in front of you and they were giving me a hard time about my hair, which you will remember was chartreuse (now orange). You let out a sigh and they noticed you standing behind them. You shot them a look (it wasn't mean or dirty, just grown-up) and they immediately paid for their stuff and left without uttering another word. You askt very kindly if I was alright. (I love your deep mellow voice!) I hesitated because I had never seen anyone with that much presence. (And you said not a word!) You askt me again, Are you alright? I said yes and felt myself blush (my neck always feels like it's on fire). You said, Kids . . .

I askt who you were. You said you were a PhD student at the university, 'no one of consequence.' You paid for your items (a box of Band-Aids® and a bottle of Gaviscon®) and walked out. (Hope you don't have a wife and/or kids, tho I do like kids.) Wow! I have no idea who you are but you left a lasting impression. Superman, Spiderman, and Hulk--step aside! If you happen to read this, tap me please.

# # #

Hayley Hilsabeck worked days at one of those large chain drug stores, like the one near South Cole and Amity, with the same layout, the same brands as eight other stores in town. But she made it her goal not to be like most people who worked there. For one thing, she kept her red rugby clean and neat (she owned two). Each day she made it her goal to be helpful to customers without getting in their way; she felt it was like a calling to do her best. And as a result, good things were sure to come her way.

May I help you? she asked a young woman, who was dressed in a gray suit and charcoal heels, a sprayed-to-the-max blonde.

I'm looking for a particular brand of antihistamine, and I'm sure I bought it in this store some time last month.

What was it, do you remember? Of course you don't, or you wouldn't be asking me? Was it this pink box? It's our most popular brand.

I can't recall, but yes, each tablet was oblong and pink.

Here, this must be it, Hayley said, picking up a container and pointing out the picture of the pink tablet.

Yes, yes, the woman said, that looks right, but there's something wrong with the box. She tucked her lower lip inside her teeth and rolled her eyes, as if it were a momentous decision. And it was. You didn't want to wind up with the wrong brand.

What did you use it for?

What do you mean?

Hayley explained how an antihistamine, which was good for counteracting the effects of allergies, could also help you sleep. My own doctor told me that, she said.

I want it for my son, who has a bad spider bite, but I think the children's liquid may not be strong enough.

If you want to speak to our pharmacist, Hayley said, pointing to the back of the store, I'm sure she'd be glad to help you.

Yes, thank you, the woman said, giving Hayley a brief, practiced smile.

No problem, Hayley said, returning to her job of stocking on the next aisle, Aisle A, where she had first spotted her rugged Ph.D. student. He'd never returned, and she wondered if he ever would. Was he the kind who only came in when everything else was closed? Hayley liked to keep the store scoped out for others in need, but when she looked up, she saw the woman speaking with the pharmacist. She then knelt down and began to shelve large bottles of antacid. She recreated her favorite daydream, which was to become a noted missionary like Mother Teresa—sometimes she felt a boundless love for others, that there wasn't possibly enough she could do for humanity. Her church hierarchy would send her to Africa to organize the fight against poverty, ignorance, AIDS. Sometimes . . . when she couldn't actually see herself boarding the plane, she would dream of being a wedding planner. Usually, it was her wedding, how she would orchestrate its execution: she and her father at the end of the aisle, the slow stutter steps forward, the organ playing a piece she'd heard one day, not the usual fare of Wägner or even Purcell's Trumpet Tune, but something equally stately, just not so familiar, as if her wedding, her life, were to be a breath of fresh air for the world. When Hayley had filled the empty spaces, she shook her head and looked up to see the hem of that gray dress again.

The pharmacist said you were wrong, the woman said.

Huh? Hayley said, her head still full of Africa and weddings.

Antihistamines should never be used as a sleep aid, especially if you're on certain drugs, which my son happens to be.

Did she say that?

You could have caused my boy a great deal of discomfort, if not certain death, the woman snapped.

I'm so sorry, Ma'am, Hayley said, looking down. I was only . . .

Right, the woman said. You won't need to find a lawyer just yet.

Hayley watched as the woman stomped off to the front counter to check out. Then she knelt down again and tore open another corrugated box of antacids. It was the house brand, the package that was colored the same as the popular brand. If you checked the ingredients, you could see they were nearly identical. The only difference was the flavors manufacturers used, and they were like thirty percent cheaper than the popular brand. Maybe that was what the woman had been looking for, the house brand of antihistamine. As she worked, a tear fell to her hand and she wiped it on her chinos.

When she finished with the shelf, Hayley looked to make sure that everything was neatly arranged—her eyes always seeking a certain order. Then she went back to speak with the pharmacist, a thirtyish brunette who was eight months pregnant (her first). She asked what the woman in the gray suit had wanted.

Dragon Lady? the pharmacist joked. Seemed a little incoherent to me. Max? she said, to the skinny delivery boy who walked up to the high counter and snatched the bag from her. Take this one, too, please, she said, winking at him.

I think she threatened to sue me.

Really? the pharmacist said, cocking her head.

Did I do something wrong?

Listen, she said, every doctor in the world knows a tablet or two of that antihistamine is not going to hurt you, and every pharmacist worth her salt is going to catch contraindications before anything reaches the patient. You just ran up against someone who'd rather be right than forgiving. She gave Hayley a quick wink and then grimaced. Think one of them just kicked me. Twins, she whispered.

It gave Hayley a thrill to share the secret. Over the PA, the store manager summoned Hayley (Number Three to the front, please). They'd suddenly gotten very busy and she was needed on register four, the one reserved for peak hours. It had a faulty drawer that you had to shove in twice to get it to close.

# # #

When her shift was over, Hayley drove to her church and pulled into the spot next to the pastor's car. It was a severe contemporary building made of corrugated metal on the outside. Inside, it was a dream, layer upon layer of blond wood. Huge frosted windows with a select few reserved for the lollipop colors of stained glass. Her favorite was of Jesus holding little children in his lap. She always wondered what he was telling them.

The main hallway was lined with poinsettias, each pot given in memory of someone departed. The Christmas Eve service would be lovely, with the deep red flowers arranged symmetrically throughout the sanctuary—as if you were strolling through an exotic garden. Presently, she knocked on her pastor's door.

Come in, came his voice. She turned the knob.

Hello, Hayley layley, how are you today? He seemed to be collating some kind of handout on his desk.

You need help? she offered, closing the door.

No, no, he said.

She sat where she always did, in a comfortable wing chair about two feet from his desk, a deep dark mahogany.

Marla left early, and I need to get these ready for my class tonight. I'm—almost—done. There. He stapled what looked like the last handout and crosshatched the stacks. Then he placed them on a counter out of the way. What's up? he said, returning to the black leather chair behind his desk.

She leaned on his desk with her elbows. Do you ever feel like you try too hard?

What do you mean? She looked into his gray-blue eyes that so reminded her of a peaceful sea, his thick eyebrows, the puff of brown hair that rose out of his shirt collar. His hair he kept short and a little bit gelled. On the street he would have looked like any other man of six feet, with broad shoulders squared against the world, ready to do battle if called upon.

She shrugged. For a long time she had visited with him weekly, to talk about her mother and father, who didn't go to church and who, for a time, had prohibited her from attending. When she'd finally moved out of their house, it was no longer an issue, but she dropped in from time to time to solve other problems in her life.

I had the weirdest experience at work today, she said, and she carefully explained what had happened with the lady in the gray suit.

Make you a little angry? he said.

Just sad, I think. I try to live like Christ would every day. I know I'm not a pastor like you, but if I can be nice and truly helpful to people, perfect strangers . . . . She hiccoughed and began to sob. That woman was so mean and hateful.

He came around the desk and sat next to her, holding both her hands in his.

People are essentially wicked, he said. It is only through the blood of Christ that such iniquity can be stripped from their lives. You can be happy that you turned the other cheek. You can be happy and comforted in the love of Jesus that you continued to the end to be loving and helpful to that woman. You may not think so, but she will remember you for your kindness.

She will remember I almost killed her son, Hayley said, bowing her head.

Her pastor raised her chin and stared at her. You're so pretty, Hayley, did you know that? Come here. He stood and enfolded her in his arms. She envisioned a long sequence of events, whereby she would raise her head and he would kiss her, and their relationship would be forever changed, yea, they would begat their own children and celebrate Christmases with red bows and ivy laced across the mantle. She raised her head and stared up into his eyes, eyes that crinkled with kindness. The way it actually happened was not like her vision at all. His mouth seemed to snap onto her hers, their teeth gnashing, rock against rock. She felt his tongue search hungrily for something she wasn't sure she had, but if it was there, he could devour it all. She nudged her hips against his and felt them surge back against hers. It was happening very quickly, like bolts of electricity shooting back and forth between them. She continued to kiss him, holding his face in her hands, feeling his afternoon shadow grate beneath her fingers.

You're so pure, he finally said, whispering into her ear in a most desperate voice. You're what Christ wants people to be, giving to a fault, not caring about your own needs. My wife is always after me, always after our kids. But you . . . he stood back and held her face in his hands . . . you work so hard to be a very good person.

I'm hot for my minister's body, she said, pulling away. Isn't that coveting?

It wasn't just his good looks; she was drawn to his strength, the forcefulness with which he preached God's word on Sundays, without being overly judgmental (he was always using himself as an example of human frailty). At church dinners he was just another sinner enjoying his meal. He tugged at her again, but Hayley pulled free, and, without looking back, left and drove home. I think of all the time that I wasted . . . think of all the times I took you back. She hated it when she couldn't get one of Britney's songs out of her head. It was as if she were telling Hayley what to do.

When she got to her bungalow located at the rear of her landlord's property, she was bombarded with more thoughts. Because her pastor was a married man, she'd done the moral thing by walking away, but why did she feel so empty, so cheated? She unlocked her front door and sat at her small oak desk. She flipped open her laptop, logging on to her account at <crablegZdotcom>.

Dear U Askt,

I don't know why, but I always check this column when I'm on crablegz, and here you are, looking for me (I think)! How could I forget that hair (orange you say)? I'm sorry I didn't answer sooner. I've been out of town doing research for my dissertation. It's hard to believe it's been three weeks.

Hey, I'm down for something pleasant. Dinner? Drinks? Coffee? (Who knows, maybe we could even go to the H. Bowl on the 30th. Should we root for Nevada or the Terps?) Let me know. It's good to be back. Costa Rica is a very buggy and humid place (I'll tell you all about it). Shoot me your phone number, and I'll give you a ring. Chet

Hayley hit the reply button and wrote him something simple, but she wasn't getting her hopes up. Last year, she'd gone to a Christmas Eve party one of her oldest friends threw. Following a great deal of drinking, she'd asked one of the guys she met to her place afterward. They'd spent the whole night talking and exchanged information before parting at four in the morning. When three days passed without a word, she'd contacted him. And when he didn't answer his e-mail, didn't respond to her voice-mail, her texts, she did her best to forget him . . . thinking of all the time she'd wasted. Yet he always seemed to be there, like one of her mother's endless anecdotes about her childhood—easily recalled but just out of reach.

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