Published in The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature (February 2016).
Nakia was working the afternoon shift on register 17 in the Wal-Mart Supercenter one bright-hot day when they came up, all three together. The older man and the lady he walked beside—half his age but not his daughter—were both speaking in a language other than English, gesturing as she translated labels for him while Nakia tried hard to listen, to block out the groaning floor buffer and the child screaming in Electronics. The younger man—late twenties, dark hair, dressed casually and cleanly—passed the other two with a grocery basket in his hand, carefully placed the milk, bacon, bread, butter, and block of cheese on the conveyor belt and stood smiling at Nakia from behind the do-it-yourself credit card console. Nakia nodded at him and pushed the braids falling onto her forehead behind her ear. The woman was now pointing out different candies to the older man, laughing as she read the flavors of the Wild Berry Skittles.
Nakia reached out for the loaf of bread, still concentrating on their voices as the younger man looked at his two companions and asked a question, eliciting nods and an affirmative-sounding response from the woman. There was something familiar about the words that they spoke, the specific sounds that Nakia could discern. The man in front of her turned back to Nakia, and her pulse sounded in her ears as she looked into his dark blue eyes. He smiled again, politely, with only the slightest hint of confusion.
Clearing her throat, Nakia smiled back and said, “What language is that?” Her voice sounded distant and drowned out through the sound of her heart.
“Excuse me?” The man leaned in, turning his head slightly to the left. His accent was familiar, something she heard imitated on sitcoms, something her co-workers would mock as she told them the story later. Nakia paused, the package of bacon in her hand hovering above the bar code scanner.
She said it a little louder. “What language is it y’all’re,” she searched for a word, nodded toward the other two, “conversing?” Nakia tried to look loose and confident as she asked so he’d know she already knew and simply wanted to confirm an assumption.
“We are speaking French.” The other two looked over for a moment, grinned blankly, and then looked back to the models on that month’s magazines.
She nodded to herself. “I thought so.” Nakia slid the bacon to her left, over the scanner, and placed it delicately in a plastic bag. “You know,” she said, glancing back up at the younger man, “I used to know a little French.”
He smiled again. “Yes?”
“In elementary school they taught us some—you know, the colors, words for food, stuff like that. I think it was the fourth grade.” It had been the fourth grade—Nakia was sure—because she’d been in Miss Johnson’s class that year, and Miss Johnson was the one who went on about the importance of learning other languages, of traveling, of walking in someone else’s world. Nakia would sit in class and read along silently from the flimsy French textbook as Miss Johnson’s voice filled the room with graceful dips and rises, sounds that Nakia would have thought impossible for any human to produce. When, a week after first hearing French spoken, it came time for each student to read vocabulary words out loud, Nakia’s stomach had turned to lead as she tugged on one of the three large, tapered braids that her mother had put in her hair that day. She had waited quietly as the other kids read the words Miss Johnson pointed out in the book, mouthing each one carefully as they were said aloud, trying her best to fold her mouth around the new sounds connected to familiar letters. When Nakia’s turn had come, she sat up straight and imitated Miss Johnson as best she could.
“That was nice, Nakia. What about this one?”
“Okay, but make sure you push the ‘uh’ sound. This one?”
The word Miss Johnson had pointed to looked mysteriously familiar, and when Nakia said it, she pronounced it like the word she already knew: “Mercy.”
“No, Nakia, it sounds like this: merci.”
Nakia had tried again, rolling the sounds in her mouth like candies, but it came out the same: “Mercy.”
“Concentrate on the r. It’s tricky in French, but you’ll get it.” Miss Johnson had patted Nakia’s shoulder and moved to the next student as Nakia hunched over her book, wrapping her arms around its open pages like a loose hug, as if intimacy might bring its secrets to the surface. She had held her thumbs in the middle of her fists as she whispered the word again and again, her lips slipping on the graceful syllables, “Mercy, mercy, mercy.”
Nakia felt the stick of butter’s soft weight in her paused hand. The younger man was looking at her expectantly, his eyes the color of the ocean during a Carolina storm.
Nakia blinked and glanced down as heat escaped up her throat and along her cheeks, then reached out for the block of cheese still on the conveyor belt. “I forgot it all now.” She slid the cheese in front of her as a weight began building in her stomach. “I wish I still knew some, though. It’s a real pretty language.” The plastic the cheese was wrapped in had the thinnest layer of water on it, and Nakia could feel it wet her palm as she lowered it into a bag with the butter and bacon.
The man swiped his credit card and signed across the little screen. He glanced over at the other two and said, “Corrine.” The rs sounded just like they were supposed to in French, folded back over themselves, like little halves of rs rather than the full letter.
Nakia’s lips seemed to move on their own as she turned to the man collecting his bags, his receipt in her outstretched hand, her mouth a wide smile. “I’m real glad I got to talk to you guys. I hope you have a good day, and come back by if there’s anything else you need. There’s everything here, really.” Nakia heard the sound of her own rs, like she was dragging them across asphalt when compared to “Corrine.”
The younger man took the receipt as the other two walked past him toward the exit, still pointing and talking. “Thank you.” He smiled again, warmly, as he lifted the bags and turned away.
For a second Nakia pictured herself tossing off her store apron and rounding the end of the counter, grasping his hand and running right past the others with him in tow, taking him through the cool whoosh of the automatic glass doors and into the blazing heat and light of the vast world outside.
Nakia’s chest felt fluttery and full, her legs trembling, as she watched him step quickly toward the other two. She reached up, tugging on one of her thin braids, and whispered as he disappeared into the sunlight haloed around the doors, “Mercy, mercy, mercy.”