UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION - 10/2011
Drive your cart through the automatic door. Zoom it past the rows of repeating cereal mascots, the sugar-water juices, and the sample cart of cold and unloved pizza rolls.
I work graveyard, when our red Indigeo Foods sign buzzes over a blank parking lot, and when we get only three customer types: fat, or drunk, or lonely. And yes, often a single customer, rolling more than four cans of gravy across the Self-Checkout, will fit all criteria at once.
My stopwatch reads 1:34am. Tonight, I am on milk duty. I can go from crate to shelf in 30 seconds or less. Personal best: 23. Our manager, an old, sour woman with a melting face, has no reward system to honor such a feat. I don't mind. Character, I say, is what you achieve when nobody's looking.
In the stockroom, I wheel a grand stack of crates to the cold, barren shelves. I begin.
Start. Bottom row. Red caps. Whole. Back and forth. Stop. 0:27. Reset.
Start. Row 2. Blue caps. 2%. Back and forth. Stop. 0:29. Too close. Reset.
I give people what they need.
Start. Row 4. Green caps. Vitamin D. Back and --
Beyond the metal of the shelves, I see a small, pale hand reach for a skim. Could it really be--
"Pat?" I ask. The hand flinches back. I realize the milk must seem like it's talking, so I say, "Hold on." I speed out the stockroom like a cartoon cop to meet whomever I have startled on the other side.
Yes. It's him. It's Pat.
With a casual jog, I approach, and he cranes his neck to make eye contact. Customers have described me as a “tree,” and Pat has described himself on his blog as a “munchkin.”
He says, "Um."
"Pat!" I tell him. It is late, so I forgive his relapse and give him an assist. "It's me, Justin."
Pat snaps his fingers with the hand that isn't holding the skim I had shelved only 37 seconds prior and says, "Yeah. The History of America --"
And, as if of the same mind, we both say, "1868 to Present!"
"I sit behind you," I remind him.
"Yeah,” he says. “That's right."
"I also live two doors down from you.”
“Yeah,” he says. "You've got the roommate with the bongos."
"Do you usually come this far to do your groceries this late?"
"Not really. Midterms bring out the midnight munchies, I guess."
"And the alliteration," I say. He chuckles. I knew he would appreciate that.
He adds, "Plus, you heard about the campus drugstore, right?"
"No," I tell him.
"It's closed. Someone put, like, a dead raccoon in the fro-yo machine. They'd pass it off as a prank, but George said he knows it was one of his disgruntled workers from, like, two years ago."
I don’t feel like talking about George, that horrible man, so I clear my throat and ask him, "So, what did you do all day?" He says, "Oh. I don't know. Went to class. Bought a new dry erase. Ate a mango."
I tell him, "That's great." I take a step closer, only to show him I want to commit to the conversation. "So, what line of work do you want to go into?"
He scratches his head and says, "Heh. Well, uh, I don't know, Charlie Rose."
I say, "Well, you're a psych major, right?"
He squints and cocks his head back somewhat, as if a bright headlight just snapped on. "Yes," he answers. He wonders how I know this, probably. He must have forgotten about the psychology textbook he invariably carries with him to History of America, but I hesitate pointing this out as it might seem as if I was faulting him. Instead, I figure some sound advice from the nephew of a bona fide shrink should do. "Well, you gotta get a Ph.D.," I say. "It's something to consider." In any event, a subject change is in order. Males enjoy discussing sex, so I assume it's a fair bet and ask him, "Are you a virgin?"
He clears his throat, lifts the milk like a dumbbell and says, "I don't wanna be rude, but I gotta book. It ain't a midnight snack without the cereal soup."
I burst out laughing, maybe too much, but I only want him to know I appreciate the way he can manipulate words into humor, even this late at night. Introverts like him need the support. "Cereal soup. That's good, man. I once had a cousin who called milk 'boobie juice.' But he was twelve, so what else are you gonna expect?"
Pat just stares at me, and I realize that our friendship has not yet reached the intimacy level at which references to breasts or bodily fluid are the order of the day. I had only wanted him to know that I was comfortable with making such comments I'd certainly heard him volley with others. Still, I know I have made a mistake. Character, I think, is knowing when you've erred in your ways.
After a bald man in a windbreaker squeezes past us to nab a Vitamin D, I say, "I'm sorry, man. That was weird."
He nods for a time.
I place my hands on my hips and clear my throat. "So--"
"I'll see you in class then," he says.
"Yes," I reply, and he turns and walks. I shout, "Y'all come back now, y'here?" but he only speeds up.
As I watch him recede into the horizon of the bread aisle, I cannot help but think, "More than anything, that man needs a friend."
12:21am. Aisle 6. Tonight, I am stocking soup cans. Clam chowder. Clam chowder. Clam chowder.
The lite FM from above soon gives way to the nightmare clamor of whooping frat boys invading Aisle 7: Soft Drinks. They laugh. They bellow. They're the dogs of cavemen. I roll my eyes, but amidst the racket, I hear one familiar voice say, "Did you just say 'fuckabees'? You said 'fuckabees'! What is that?!"
Curious, annoyed mostly, I jog the length of Aisle 6, curve around, and sure enough, there is Pat, inexplicably among a band of stocky college alpha males at the end of Aisle 7. We make eye contact, and he gives a little wave. I yell, "Pat!" and wave back.
He says, "Justin."
He actually remembers my name, and I am glad. I approach. Pat gestures to his so-called buddies, all four of whom stand at least six inches above Pat's simple brown hair, and says, "Justin, I'd like you to meet, uh, Ginger, Sporty, Scary, and Posh." They all explode with paroxysms of laughter, and it seems as if they might stop breathing altogether. I want to call security for many reasons.
"So, what are you here for?" I ask. "Midnight munchies?" Before Pat can give me an answer, perhaps acknowledge that I recalled his clever phrase from the other night, one of the polo-shirted muscle-jocks - the one he dubbed Sporty - picks up a two-liter of lemon soda and says, "Look! Urine!" Again, everyone laughs. Even Pat.
Pat turns to me and says, "No, uh, you know that video, where they put breath mints in some cola and the whole thing goes kablammo? Well, Scary here… is going to drink it! Insane, right? Never been done before, never will again."
Pat’s breath stinks of whiskey, no doubt fed to him by force. I fold my arms and say, with as much emotion as a monolith, "Mr. Gaines would be proud."
He furrows his brows. "Who?"
"Oh," I say and clear my throat. "My high school chemistry teacher.” I tap my foot. “Yeah, you wouldn't know him."
Pat says, "Um."
I see I've cornered us into a conversational jam, so I graciously get us out by saying, "So you mentioned Charlie Rose last time you were here."
He asks, "Did I?"
"Yeah, You said, 'I don't know, Charlie Rose.' And I didn't get the reference, but the name sounded familiar. And, like, right after you left, I totally remembered he's the guy - I mean, the dude - who interviews everybody. On television."
"Heh. Uh, you've done your homework."
"His website says he just interviewed the wheelchair physics guy with the computer voice. He’s one of your moral heroes, right?"
"Yeah, actually," he says. "Did I, uh, ever mention that?"
"I read it on your online social networking profile. We're friends, remember?" Pat only responds by nervously eying his cola-buying cohorts, as if his concern to impress them trumps having a conversation with anyone else.
Another one of the giants in tow - the one he called Posh - interrupts, rudely: "Dude, let's get this road on the road."
Pat looks at him, looks at me, and says, "Yeah, man, I'm coming." He offers me a "See you in class," before trotting off with the Future Janitors of America.
Lite FM fades back into the air, and I retreat to Aisle 6 to finish the soup cans. Vegetable Beef. Vegetable Beef. Vegetable Beef. Ginger, Sporty, Scary, and Posh couldn't be further away from what a guy like Pat needs.
I'm stocking frozen pizzas tonight. The stopwatch reads 2:55am. It has been twenty-six days since the fall semester ended, and I have not seen Pat since. I worry about him. During the History of America final, I noticed he carried a small paperback entitled Jean-Paul Sartre: Essays. The next night, I read an Internet website that said Jean-Paul Sartre was a philosopher who believed our existence was meaningless. Pat deserves better.
Deep dish. Deep dish. Deep dish.
Smooth jazz plays overhead.
If you squint down the length of Frozen Foods, you can see the Family Planning section in the back of the store. Tonight, a figure wearing gold-rimmed aviator glasses and a gray hooded sweatshirt browses Indigeo's prophylactic selection.
I rub my eyes. At 2:57am, customers will arrive in anything: their pajamas, wrinkled nylon costumes, once even a beekeeper suit. But this lone shopper draws me instantly. Still holding a deep dish box, I walk the procession of the Frozen Foods aisle. I reach the Family Planning section and stop so many inches behind the disguised patron contemplating a box labeled “For Her Pleasure.” I tap his shoulder.
Startled, he squeezes the box in his hand, sending purple foil squares everywhere. "God, fuck!" he says. He turns to me, and beyond the mournful aviator shades, I recognize him instantly.
"Pat! No way! How's it been? Dude?"
With a sigh, he says, "Hey. Uh, long time," and crouches to pick up the mess he's made. I graciously bend down to help him. Together, we gather the squares and shove them back into the box. At the same time, we stand. He keeps his sunglasses on.
I look at the box in his hand and say, "Getting a little action tonight then, yes?"
He says, "Yep."
I say, "Man. And you gotta drive out here this late for that? Sucks what happened to the campus drugstore. Not to mention George. I heard this whole side of his face was just, you know, unsalvageable. What'd they say it was, arson? Did they ever find who did it?"
He says, "I don't know. But she's waiting in the car, so… Bye."
I say, "But you're listed as 'single' on your -- Well, nevermind. Hey, we should grab some lunch sometime like we said. I mean, we’re friends, right?”
At this, I can see him gulp - the loudest answer anyone could give. His cheap aviator shades are no match for the fluorescent lights above, and at this angle, I can see right through them and into his eyes. We lock stares, almost tugging each other into opposing trances, and it is right then that I know this will be our final meeting.
I raise my flat left hand, the hand that isn't holding the deep dish box I will continue stocking until the next world collides, and I slide it up the bottom of his gray hooded sweatshirt. He does not flinch. Underneath, I can feel the roughness of an old cotton t-shirt. For some reason, I assume it is a Christmas gift he wears out of pity. My fingers crawl underneath even further, until I hit flesh upon flesh. Patrick's stomach is warm, smooth, as if never touched. I push my hand up ever further. Further, and further. I stop.
He remains frozen, and I press my hand even closer. I can feel him beat at a speed that would level a schoolhouse. A speed that would raze any path. A speed that would break every metronome setting. A speed that would kill an old fool.
I retract my hand and inhale, as if breaking an ocean surface.
And he runs.
I bow my head in a strange grief. After so many seconds that all seem to boil into little pocket-sized eternities, I break my meditation and shuffle back to Frozen Foods, ensuring every box is as it should be, where it should be. Cheese. Pepperoni. Stuffed crust. Thin crust. Sausage. Pan. Supreme. Everything in its place.
Someone will appreciate this – someone who can barrel into Indigeo with clarity and vision and purpose, like a sub at wartime, and know with precision just what the pantry lacks and just what the heart needs. Character, I believe, is knowing exactly what you need.
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