“Excuse me,” the man said, placing his elbows on the counter and leaning forward. “I need to make a return.”
The sales clerk, a teenager with feathered bangs and rings on every finger, took her time with the shirt she was folding. The man tapped his knuckles against the counter. His shirt had come untucked in the back and his hair stuck up on one side. The clerk finished folding the shirt and gave it a little pat. She looked up and met the man's eyes.
“What can I do for you?” she asked.
“I need to make a return.” The man placed a plastic bag on the counter.
“Do you have the receipt?”
The sales clerk reached into the bag and pulled out a human heart. Faded to the pink of overchewed gum, it was slightly shriveled, shrunken, like leather left out for weeks in the rain and sun. It beat softly in her hand, ka-thump, ka-thump.
“It's my girlfriend's heart,” the man explained. “Well, ex-girlfriend.”
The sales clerk frowned slightly. “Are you sure you got it here?” she asked. “I don't remember carrying this in our store.”
“It was a while ago,” the man said. “We were looking for a Christmas present for my mother. There were glass figurines where that perfume display is now.” He pointed to a case by the escalators.
“I remember those figurines,” the sales clerk said. “That was when I first started working here.”
“What happened was, she leaned forward to peer at those figurines, and her hair hung partly over her face — she has this gorgeous dark shiny hair like melted chocolate — ” The man rapped his knuckles against the counter, staring at the heart in the sales clerk's hand. “I told her I loved her. And she gave me her heart, right then and there.” He ran his hand over his face. “I never thought I would have to return it. I didn't think I needed a receipt.”
The sales clerk nodded and said, not unsympathetically, “No one ever thinks they'll need a receipt.”
The man's face crumpled. The sales clerk busied herself with the computer. “What's your last name?” she asked after a moment.
“Weaver,” the man said. He wiped his face with his sleeve and took a deep, shaky breath. The sales clerk continued tapping computer keys. Her rings glistened in the bright store lighting.
“Aha! Here we go,” she said. “Jeremy Weaver?”
“And this transaction occurred ... December 16th, two years ago. You received the heart of Miss Samantha Concord.”
The man's chin wobbled. He clenched his jaw to steady it. “That is correct.”
The sales clerk slid the heart back into the plastic bag and placed the plastic bag under the counter. “Would you like to make an exchange?” she asked.
“No — I mean, it's much too soon for that,” the man said. “We just broke up last week.”
“I can give you store credit,” the sales clerk offered.
“Unless ... would it be possible for me to exchange it for my own heart back?”
“Let me check,” the sales clerk said, turning back to the computer. She frowned. Tap, tap, tap. “I'm sorry,” she said after a minute. “It looks like Miss Concord has not returned the item yet.”
“I figured as much — it's only been a week, like I said.”
“Would you like store credit then?”
The sales clerk tapped the computer keys a few more times. She double-checked that the receipt printer had paper. Suddenly, she turned and touched the man's hand on the counter. “Are you sure you want to do this?” she asked. “All returns are final.”
“Yes, I'm sure.” The man pulled his hand away and scratched his nose. “She's moving to France for an art fellowship. Long distance is too hard.”
“Why don't you go with her?”
“Yeah, if you love her so much. Why not?”
“It's not that simple. I've lived here for eight years, ever since college. My whole life is here.”
The sales clerk brushed her bangs out of her eyes. They immediately fell back into place.
“Besides,” the man continued, “I don't speak French. Even if I wanted to go.”
“You could learn. She could teach you. French isn't that hard.”
“So I uproot my life to be with her? And what if everything falls apart three months from now? What then?”
“I don't know. Come back here.”
“A waste. It would be such a waste.” He swallowed hard. “Sam and I agreed this is the practical thing to do.”
The sales clerk nodded. They were both quiet as the printer whirred. She ripped the receipt free and smiled as she handed it to him. “Have a nice day,” she said.
The man folded the receipt twice and slid it carefully into his wallet. He turned to leave, but stopped after a couple steps.
“Excuse me!” he said.
The sales clerk looked up.
“Will you call me when she returns my heart?”
“Yes, of course.”
“I'd just like to get it back,” the man said. “As soon as possible.” He knew when he had his own heart back, he would begin to heal. That was how it worked. You got your own heart back and gradually the hurt lessened, and at some point the receipt fell out of your wallet onto the city streets, lost among old movie tickets and gum wrappers. And then, just when your heart began to feel like yours again, you would find yourself in a department store at Christmastime with a beautiful girl, and you would swear to yourself that this time was different from all the times before, this girl was the one who would last. You would hold out the gift of your heart to her, grinning like a schoolboy, giddy with the exchange. And you wouldn't get a receipt. Because you wouldn't need it. Not this time.
All rights reserved.
I am grateful to the editors of The Literati Quarterly for publishing this story in their Winter 2014 issue!