What My Boyfriend Loves About Literature

Meghan Gilliss
Issue No. 12 – June 2016

What My Boyfriend Loves About Literature

“I bet he’d like to shrink your head,” the man said, keeping his head down.

The tabloid lay atop his unchecked groceries. A cache of shrunken heads had been found in a celebrity’s jungle resort home. The photo was so grotesque I smiled. But even real shrunken heads must look ridiculous.

I scanned the other items one by one: a can of olives, a bag of shredded cheese. With some customers, I entered into friendly talk. This one had never said a word.

“Here’s hoping,” I said, raising the package of cellophane-wrapped boneless chicken breast in my hand.

Meat is almost always gross, but sometimes it’s also sad. Not that we’re paid to have these opinions.


“They use sand, you know,” he said. He was wearing the same brown coat he always did, and he’d forgotten to buckle his belt.

I reached for the can of cream-of-mushroom on the conveyor belt, which I knew in my checkout girl bones would be his Sunday dinner.

“They fill the head with sand,” he continued. I could see the human panic in his eyes, even as his mouth went for it. “That’s what brings the moisture out.”

“I always knew we weren’t using sand to its full potential in this country,” I said.

Sometimes you say a thing just to talk, but then you start thinking. When I was a kid, we spent a week each summer on a manufactured beach on a manufactured lake, where the little bodies of imported fish bumped up against the scuzzy sand. We kept the ritual going, renting the same two adjoining motel rooms for two years after my parents divorced, though the configuration of who slept where changed, as did the configuration of where people sat at the beach—my brother and I had to walk nearly a quarter-mile from where our father watched us play in the water, to where our mother had the suntan lotion and our sandwiches packed in a bag with the magazines my father criticized her for.

Some beaches are gross, but not necessarily sad, until all of a sudden they are.


I reached for the jar of Tostitos cheese dip on the conveyor belt. It still amazed me how much more gracefully you could do this job once you knew ahead of time the weight of things. It took about three months to know everything in the store. Until I picked it up the first time, I’d imagined a vacuum-packed brick of polenta would be as light as astronaut ice cream. Polenta—which is basically just corn meal, it turns out—is neither gross nor sad, inherently, but it does smell a bit like a dog food rendering plant while it’s cooking, which makes it both gross and sad for just a little while. If you can forget about that smell—and if looking at cornmeal doesn’t always play the word maize in your head which makes you think about the slaughter of American Indians—it makes a pretty good cheap dinner.

And as for astronaut ice cream—I’m realizing how much my attitude towards it has changed over the years.

He in his brown coat took the heavy jar of cheese after I’d run it over the scanner, and held it up next to my head, nodding at the comparison. It was nice to see him looking so pleased, eyes and mouth together, even as I wondered if I should mention this to my manager, even though I knew I wouldn’t.


 “Think you can grow your hair any longer?” he said. His whole being was jittery now.

This time I was supremely ready for the end of my shift. My boyfriend said he wanted to show me something down by the lake—not the manufactured lake of my childhood, but our lake, here in the city of my choosing—and my imagination was running wild, even though I can hear him now telling me that’s a cliché. The sun in February can do that, can override your powers of critical thinking. I was seeing a green goose shit stain on his knee, and knowing he loved me. But the man was waiting for an answer about my hair.

“No,” I said. “This is as long as it gets,” which was basically true—my hair has never made it much past my chin. I scanned his groceries one by one: fish sticks, white bread, Gatorade. I was five minutes from freedom. I wished I had other clothes to change into.

“That’s too bad,” he said. “It’ll need to be longer.” He clenched his fist and stretched his arm straight out, as if dangling a tiny head in the empty air between us. He now made me slightly less sad than astronaut ice cream. And I could see he was right about me needing longer hair for his particular purpose.


“I signed up for that class,” he said. I could tell he was getting in my line on purpose now.

“What class?” I said.

“The one in the Amazon, where they teach you how to do it.”

“Do what?” I said, realizing too late.

I scanned his items fast: cream cheese, Cheezits, mayo. The last item on the belt was a bottle of Mane ‘n Tail Herbal Gro Shampoo.

“For you,” he said, handing me back the bottle. “The vitamins will help your hair grow faster.”


Sometimes it’s hard to tell if it’s the thing that’s gross and/or sad, or if it’s you. I kept the bottle of shampoo under my register for a month, intending to give it back when he next came in. “I can’t accept this,” I’d say. “I have a boyfriend.” Would that explain it right?

But he didn’t come in.


“Think you’d be more inclined to shrink the heads of your enemies, or of those you love?” I asked my boyfriend.

“Oh Jesus, that creep still on about that?”

“No,” I said.

We were in bed, and he was reading Joyce again, hardly even grateful I wasn’t calling him the cliché he was. He’s getting a PhD, which probably explains why he’s not going to marry me. It was the third time he’d read that same book. His lips were moving noiselessly, in the way that sometimes made me want to kiss them, sometimes made me want to rip them off.

What he wanted to show me, at the lake that day, was how the underwater reeds stood tall and frozen after the lake had been drained out. Only they weren’t tall and frozen anymore by the time I got there after work. The sun had been out all day, so they were just lying limp in the mud. He described to me how they’d been that morning, when he must have been there in the perfectly right, freakish window of frigid time, which I lied about and said was as good as having seen them myself, standing all tall and frozen, instead of limp and dirty. “So you finally understand what I love about literature?” he said.

“But really,” I said, kicking him under the covers to bring his attention back from Joyce, for whatever stupid reason, talking just to talk. “Those you hate or those you love?”

Meghan Gilliss lives with her family in Portland, Maine, where she works at the public library. Her stories have appeared in the journals The Rattling Wall, Salamander, Nat. Brut, and New Letters, among others. More of her work can be found at meghangilliss.com.

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