“Can I help you, sir?” The old man looked over his horn-rimmed spectacles with a polite smile.
The boy standing at the counter looked up from his shoes. His eyes were red-rimmed and bleary with tears and his bottom lip trembled. The old man pretended not to notice.
“Uh, yeah,” the boy mumbled. “I, uh, I need to return this.” He held up a brown paper sack, rolled over at the top, its bottom greasy wet and bulging under the weight of whatever it held.
“Ah, yes,” the old man said. His expression never changed. Rule #1: Never let the customer know what you’re thinking. “Name, please?”
The boy ran a hand through a mop of mousy hair, already thinning at the crown even though he couldn’t have been more than a year out of college. He was trying very hard not to tear up—then again, they always did. The men, anyway. Some deeply embedded human notion of machismo, the old man thought—and he’d had a number of years to think about it.
“Uh. A–Aaron,” the boy stuttered. “Aaron Lynch. I–I was in here, uh…five m–months ago.”
The old man slid a thin tray filled with white index cards from beneath the counter. With fast fingers, he filed through the list of names, flipped the corner of one up with his pinkie.
“Was there a problem with the model, Mr. Lynch?” he asked. Not that there had ever been a problem—not the kind the old man could fix. But there were questions one had to ask in these situations. It was expected. Rule #2: Don’t do anything that shocks or offends the customer. They might not come back.
“No…no,” the boy said. “It just…it didn’t work out, I guess. I mean, I guess she had her reasons…Whatever, look, can I just return this, please?” He moved to sit the package on the polished countertop.
“One moment,” the old man said, putting up a hand. The boy obliged, though he heaved a sigh. Licking a thumb, the old man pulled a thick sheet of wax paper from the roll on the counter’s right, spreading it over the countertop.
“Thank you,” he said, his experienced smile fixed to his face. He pulled the sack from the boy’s limp hand and sat it on the paper. From his breast pocket, he pulled a pair of tiny, gleaming tweezers, which he used to unroll and lay the bag open. Then, with a pair of silver tongs, he extracted the package’s contents, laying it delicately on the paper next to the bag.
The object itself was a sliver of tissuey meat. Red and shiny and slick with blood, blue veins arching through it, trailing bits of gristle at both ends, it pulsed in rhythm with the beat of its owner—wherever she might be.
The old man paused. Was it a she? It was so hard to tell these days. Rule #3: Don’t ever judge—at least not where the customer can see you. But a quick glance at what was left of the ventricle, along with a few trade secrets he’d picked up after a number of years in the business, confirmed that this was, indeed, a piece of a young woman’s heart.
The boy coughed, putting a fist to his mouth. Now that the object was no longer in hand, his face was already calming—the eyes were no longer as red, the hand at his mouth steadier.
“It’s in very good condition,” the old man said to break the silence. “You cared for her?”
“Yeah,” the boy replied, his grief-racked stutter fading. “I really loved her. She had a kid, you know? I loved her, too. The kid I mean. I thought…you know, I thought we were gonna make it.”
The old man nodded. He’d heard the same story too many times from too many people, and he would hear it again and again until he finally decided to retire from the business. But that was the way love went, wasn’t it? Rule #4: The customer is always right. No, really.
“I trust she will appreciate its return, Mr. Lynch,” he said. “We will contact her shortly, and let her know her property has come back into our possession.”
“Hey, thanks, man,” the boy said. There was confidence in his voice now, a bit of swagger. His lanky shoulders were straightening, his slouch starting to disappear. He was forgetting her already. “Hey, you wouldn’t…you know…She hasn’t dropped my piece off by any chance, has she?”
“Let me see,” the old man replied, brushing a finger through the card box. He already knew the answer, of course; this was just for the show of it. “No, sir, it looks like she still holds yours.”
“What?” the boy was getting angry now. Not that the old man was worried, but it was always fascinating to watch. “She broke it off with me! What the hell is she doing holding onto that, it’s mine!” The boy restrained himself, closed his eyes, breathed deeply. “Can you, I don’t know, call her or something? Let her know that I’ve got hers here, and I’d like mine back?”
The old man removed his horn-rimmed spectacles and put them in his breast pocket. They all needed this speech, at some point. And sometimes, you had to throw the rules out the window.
“Mr. Lynch, when you fell in love with that girl, you gave her a piece of your heart—freely, and with no regrets. And when she returned your love, she gave you a piece of hers, with the same lack of compunction. What a person does with that piece, in the end, is out of our control. Both yours and mine. You have chosen to return her piece. That is fine. No one can fault you for that. She, on the other hand, wants to remember the love you and she shared.
“At least, she does now. That could, of course, change, and if it were to do so—if she were to apply for a return here as well—we would contact you immediately, just as she will be contacted. But until she is ready to forget you, I’m afraid my hands are tied. I can only process the returns that are brought to me, Mr. Lynch.”
The boy’s shoulders slumped. “I guess that makes sense.” He looked down at the quivering red muscle in front of him. “I…I didn’t realize what I was giving up, you know?” he said, his tone almost wistful. “I mean I…I feel great. Better than I have in weeks. But I didn’t realize what I was losing.” The boy looked up at the old man. “Do you mind…Could you re–bag that for me? I don’t…I don’t think I’m ready to do this yet.”
The smile never left the old man’s face. “Of course, sir,” he said. He tore the wax paper the heart was laying on with a precise air, wrapped it up smartly, and slid it into a fresh paper sack. As the boy wrapped his fingers around it, fresh tears began to roll down his cheeks. But he was smiling. The old man was not surprised.
“Is there anything else I can help you with today?” “No,” the boy said. He was crying again, but the smile was still wide across his face. “No, sir, I’m good.” And he turned, and he left the queue.
“I can get next in line,” the old man called as the boy walked away.
Another young one walked up to the counter as the old man crumpled the rest of the wasted wax paper and tossed it into the rubbish bin. This one looked about thirteen, with a glow about him that could only be first love. The old man smiled politely. “Can I help you, young man?”
“Yeah, I’ve never been here, can I pick up packages at this station, or do I need to go to another one?”
“Don’t worry, sir, I can take care of you right here,” the old man said. “Now let me fill you in on our return policy—”
“No way, dude, I’m good. You’re never gonna see me again.”
The old man smiled. “Be that as it may, sir. It’s just a part of my job.”
Derek Moreland <INSERT SELF-DEPRECATING, HUMOROUS WITTICISM HERE>. He also writes the comic Legends of Streaming, available at facebook.com/streamingcomic, and is co-host of the podcast “Blah Blah Comics Blah Blah Curse Words” available on iTunes sometimes. You can follow him on Twitter @VoodooBen if you are so inclined. He lives in Texas with an awesome dog and an infinitely more awesome spouse. He has a bad habit of picking out beard hair when nervous.