We spend hours adrift in the aisles, lost. But it's a happy sort of lost, knowing that we have whatever we need, enough to last.
Sugar Smacks is our favorite cereal. When we were kids, our mother and father could only afford bulk, and the unsweetened variety was our staple. Now Sugar Smacks has been renamed Honey Smacks because it sounds healthier. We still call it Sugar Smacks. Tough to change old habits.
Growing up, when we were out in the world, the "real world" as the parlance has it, we were an oddity for sure. Nine brothers, all identical twins. Nonuplets: a word unknown to most. When had this ever happened in history? Life around the house was chaotic and vibrating and noisy, with all the attention we got. Nine boys—nine children of any sex—are loud on their own, but add to the mix the regular media coverage, donations from across the globe, offers for television shows, gawkers stopping us on the street for photos... well, our household never felt like the real world, at least not in the sense that it probably does for most.
Gathering food is like walking among tended fields, plucking what is ripe for eating—lettuce, corn, beans, and fruit. Except here there is no weather, no heartbreak, no rot on the vine. The floors are waxed and glowing; the world is well lit even in the dead of night.
We are the same age, with the same face—same nose, eyes, eyebrows, teeth. We have the same cadence and tone when we speak, the same posture when we walk. We have dimples when we smile. We are handsome and athletic with dark features. We are beautiful, or so neighbors and strangers often told us. We believed it so much that we started to hate it. We hated our beauty but not our sameness. We didn't understand our sameness, certainly. Everyone else had brothers and sisters who looked different from each other. Our peers observed us with awe and curiosity, but never with love. We frightened them. The uncanny doubling, the sense that we brothers shared a hive mind—such fears nagged at any potential friend. How could they even begin to get to know us? Befriending one of us would mean befriending nine. And so, we had no friends. We couldn't depend upon others to love us, with the possible exception of Mother and Father. How could anyone love a boy who had nine selves in the world?
We were coded in this fashion from our earliest days. Little round stickers were affixed to our foreheads so Mother and Father could distinguish us from one another. Naturally, our real names faded away, replaced by the colors. The clothes we were given corresponded to the coding, and to this day none of us wears a color other than that with which we were labeled. Some thought it cruel of our parents, thought it removed our individuality, our "selfhood" in favor of this pragmatic, identity-less appellation. We were nicknamed the "Rainbow Brothers." We were schooled at home by our mother.
One of us is employed at this store, a legitimate hire. It doesn't matter which of us it is because it's all of us. He/we use the name Neal, which isn't any of our names, or at least none of us remembers being named Neal, although once again it's been years since we were known by our birth names. Neal is a good employee: always punctual, helpful to customers, easy to work with, knows the ins and outs of the cashier section, customer service, and stocking, knows every department of this place, knows all there is to know about deliveries to the warehouse in the back of the building. Neal knows so much, in part, because he has the strength and brainpower of nine young men at his disposal. Neal rose quickly through the ranks and is now a manager, which means he has his own key and security code, which is why we elected to officially leave the real world and move in.
The store isn't a Wal-Mart, although it's the same concept. It's a regional version, a so-called "superstore" that won't be named here. Our location is not important. Suffice to say that it contains a full selection of groceries, hardware, sporting goods, automotive parts and supplies, housewares, indoor and outdoor furniture, pharmaceuticals, toiletries, clothing for men, women, and children, shoes, pet supplies, and a greenhouse. Open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, it never closes, not even on holidays.
When Neal was hired, the manager said he looked familiar. Neal smiled and said he had one of those faces.
Pickles are our favorite, but we have to keep our appetites in check. Steak and potato salad, too. Nine young men can put away a lot of pickles, steak, and potato salad, and someone would notice. So we have a system, a meticulous rotation for farming what we eat. We know which foods are about to be moved to the discount bin. We know when foods are going to be disposed. We know which foods are going to be delivered, and when, and how much is expected to arrive. We have access to inventory lists, which are easily manipulated. We can't eat what we want at all times, but who in this world can?
The surveillance system is thorough but not infallible. Cameras go out routinely, little blips in time signatures, little blackouts, moments lost forever.
Of course, Neal has to have a life outside, in the real world. He can't just appear magically at the store every day. He drives what they now call a "pre-owned" Toyota. He rents an apartment in town. Once in a while he is required to go to the bar and socialize with his coworkers. They label him "shy" and "quiet," personality traits by design. When people ask questions about his life, his past, he's good at deferring by making jokes or giving vague responses that nonetheless leave them satisfied. We live far, far away from the town where we were raised.
As children our mother and father did the best they could. They were nice people, simple people. No one in their family had gone to college; most chose careers in the automobile plants. Our father worked maintenance at an elementary school, and our mother was a bank teller. When we were born she had to quit, naturally, to stay home with us. Nothing could have prepared our parents for the madness of nonuplets. Undoubtedly they harbored mixed feelings. They'd only wanted what all married couples want: a family. Instead they'd gotten a bizarre nightmare. We used to hear our mother sobbing in her room, an awful sound, helpless and lonely. Our father worked as much as he could, sometimes seventy hours a week. The first few years, when we were too young to form memories, our parents received donations: diapers, food, clothing, and money. As time wore on and the novelty wore off, people forgot about us. Or perhaps, having already given generously, they figured their duty was done. Either way, once we reached school age our parents were on their own.
Where do nine young men bed down in a superstore? There was a great deal of discussion of this question. Some of us thought it best to select a single room where we would all cram ourselves, sleeping in a tidy row. One room would be easy to hide from prying eyes. Others thought each should find his own place in the warehouse—in a crawlspace, a box, wherever—and arrange a cozy nest of blankets and pillows. This way, if one of us was ever caught, it could easily be explained: Neal would blush and say, "I'm on the outs with my girlfriend and need a place to crash," or "I had to be here again for another shift, and it was too much trouble to go home." It's never a bad idea to play for sympathy or to show one's dedication to the workplace. So ultimately the latter arrangement was unanimously chosen.
The music is the most difficult part, pumping through the speakers constantly. The song selection is dismal. Mercifully, earplugs are available.
Neal is an attractive man, so it is only natural that his female coworkers want to date him. Although some of us were initially opposed to excessive fraternizing with outsiders, the needs and urges of a young man are difficult to quiet. We make sure not to form any long-lasting relationships. We have an orderly rotation, and no suspicions have been raised.
When we were high school age, our parents cautioned us not to go out with girls. Being home-schooled kept us from the trappings of most social situations, but our father went so far as to impose a ban on dating. At times our mother tried to soften his position, but he remained steadfast. The trauma of bearing so many children had made him terrified of pregnancy. Poor man: to see his own children as a plague, a scourge. We liked to play with his mind. As he sat in his recliner we would approach, one at a time, in two-minute intervals, and ask the same question: "Can I go outside and play?" Nine times he would have to say yes, although usually by the fourth or fifth he would turn red and begin yelling in a loud voice that "Everyone can go out! Everyone in the world, okay?" Or we would switch our stickers around, never failing to befuddle him. He didn't even resemble us, with his squat body and sagging jowls. We suspected he was envious of our good looks.
Now and then our coworkers or our women will look at us with confusion: "Didn't you tell me the other day that you don't like Chinese food?" Or "You didn't want me on top last time." It's inevitable that some variation, some individuation, will occur in spite of our best efforts. The nearly infinite spectra of tastes and opinions, the smallest personality quirks, the intimate moments of deviation—we realize that these are ultimately what humans are composed of, and these are our Achilles heel. This is why Neal must be cautious about spending too much time with outsiders. This is why we need our world to remain inside the store.
When our father died, we surrounded his hospital bed: nine tall, muscular boys three weeks from graduating high school. Our father, the victim of a serious heart attack—the doctors citing stress, poor diet, overwork—stayed alive for two days before he succumbed, the surgery not enough. Seeing our faces, so stoic, hovering over him, he must have realized it was time to go. Tears came from our mother. We tried to comfort her.
Another difficulty: we can never be on the floor simultaneously. One at a time, we are sent out for farming, or for supplies like propane for the gas stove, or to take our turn as Neal. The others must remain in the warehouse, in their designated sleeping spot or in some other unseen place. We read, we watch television, we surf the Internet, we exercise.
But surely we must miss our freedom, right? Surely we cannot live like prisoners for the rest of our lives?
We understand that all people are in prisons, some more spacious than others but all of them restrictive: the captivity of homes, neighborhoods, jobs, marriages, and habits. Even the wealthiest man, able to travel unbounded whenever he sees fit, is a prisoner inside his body, his memories.
Neal has been seeing a woman named Marcy. She was a customer at the store, and he assisted her in finding the humidifiers. They've gone on five official dates and have slept together twice at her apartment. She is attractive and intelligent with a highly developed sense of humor. When Neal holds her hand it gives him a warm feeling that he hasn't had with other women. Neal has begun to imagine what it would be like to have children with Marcy, although this possibility gives Neal a deep sensation of terror. His father's fear, seemingly, has passed into him. No more mothers for these men. A few more dates with Marcy, then the end.
Father is dead, but where is our mother? She is in a long-term care facility, her memory a thing of the past: a funny phrase because, of course, this is true. We are all a thing of the past. Every moment slips behind us, every action in past tense as soon as it occurs. We love our mother, but she has been gone for a long time. Love is a muscle, weakening with disuse. When we moved away, escaped, found the superstore, we said goodbye and didn't tell her where we were going. Her sadness is irrelevant; life has many sadnesses. She has already begun to fade like a name in the sand.
The real world:
Grapefruit, sliced. Collared shirts in nine colors. A sitcom about a family with a talking dog. The daily news. Combs and hand soap, shaving gel. Cans of beans, baked and refried. A radio playing the baseball game, its volume as low as a whisper. The cool, conditioned air and the click of Neal's new shoes on linoleum.
Title image "Aisle Nine" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2016.