“We’ll be getting a new store manager soon.”
“Yep, it’s coming on”–Rusty swiveled his chair and peered at the calendar on the wall–“ten months. They ain’t ever here for more than a year.”
“Beats me, Luke. Someone told me it’s so they don’t get too attached to us. The same reason farmers don’t give their hogs names. Just makes it more difficult when it comes time to…” Rusty drew a finger across his throat.
“You think they’re going to be letting people go?”
“Sure looks that way.” Rusty took a sip of his coffee. “They’ve cut all the hours they can, and when there’s no hours left, it’s people that get the chop. Course they’ll cut the day walkers first, so we’re probably safe.” He rubbed his red-rimmed eyes. “For now.”
“We’d best be gettin’ back.” Rusty rose from his chair. “C’mon, I’ll walk with you.”
“That’s okay, Rusty. Don’t trouble yourself.”
“It ain’t no trouble.” It was a short distance from the break room to the produce department, but one of Rusty’s legs was shorter than the other, and it took him a while to get anywhere. “I forgot to mention, we had a temp alarm go off yesterday morning. Someone forgot to close the cooler doors. Since you’re the only one working this shift, it stands to reason it was you.”
“I’m sorry.” Luke lowered his eyes. “I don’t know how that happened.”
“That’s alright, son, I ain’t shittin’ on ya.” Rusty cleared his throat. “Just keep an eye on it, that’s all. You remember what I told you about the 3 S’s?”
“Sanitation, safety, and…uh…sales.”
“Son of a bitch!” Rusty picked up a bunch of lettuce and thrust it toward Luke. The end of the lettuce was red and wrinkled as a bloody fingerprint and just as incriminating. “Those day-walking clowns haven’t been trimming the greens. Look at that. Just look at that! Would you eat that? Would you feed that to your family?”
“No? I didn’t think so. Do me a favor, would ya? Trim the ends off and sit ‘em in some warm water. A nice warm bath that ain’t too hot and ain’t too cold. That’ll fix ‘em right up.”
“Sure thing, Rusty.” Luke shivered as if an icy finger had been drawn up his spine.
“You’ll get used to it. The cold ain’t so bad–it’s the hours that’ll kill ya.” Rusty turned and hobbled away, leaving Luke in the fluorescent twilight of the produce department.
Luke brought a cart from the back room and loaded it with handfuls of limp vegetables: romaine, kale, collard greens, and broccoli rabe. In the prep room, he ran warm water into the sink. It felt good as it flowed over his raw and frozen fingers. He shut the faucet tightly, but it continued to drip, in perfect intervals, like the ticking of a clock. Luke closed his eyes.
There had been a war. Some eternal conflict burning and roiling and requiring young lives for its fuel. Luke’s friends signed up, his brothers signed up, and finally he signed up. They all left, but only Luke returned. He swam up into the bright light of the hospital as if he were being born again. He checked his fingers and toes to make sure he was all there. But some part of him had been blown apart, fractured, left behind.
The Veterans Association got him a job in Trexlertown. The locals called it “Truck Stop City” because of the big rigs that thundered down the lonely stretch of highway bisecting the town. This had been coal country, but the coal was all gone and now the town’s biggest employer was the 24-hour grocery store, Goal. He worked the night shift, and it made sense–he earned an extra dollar an hour, and he had fewer people to deal with.
“I had a strange customer in tonight.” Luke poured some coffee into a polystyrene cup and handed it to Rusty. “She wanted big green bananas. She was very particular.”
Rusty blinked at him. “Short cropped hair? New York accent? Nasty face?”
Luke nodded. “You know her?”
“Oh yeah, we call her ‘Miss New York.’ She’s always after her green bananas.”
“Well, Miss New York wasn’t happy with any of the bananas out front, so she insisted on coming in the back room and having a look for herself. She wanted five green bananas, so that she could eat one on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and finally one on Friday. She stressed this to me more than once. It was very important.”
Rusty grunted. “Silly cow, them bananas ripen up so quick that Wednesday’s green banana will be yellow before she’s taken a bite.”
“I tried to tell her that, but she didn’t care. She wanted them big, and she wanted them green. I don’t know who decides they need big green bananas at two a.m.”
“Well, Luke,”–Rusty grimaced–“you ever considered that maybe she ain’t using them bananas for eating?”
“Well, she did say, ‘Whatever you do, don’t give me a soft one.’”
Rusty emitted a hoarse laugh that quickly became a wet, wretched cough. He reached for the handkerchief in his breast pocket and hacked into it. He peered at the handkerchief for a while as if reading tea leaves, then folded it and returned it to his pocket.
“Are you okay, Rusty?”
“Maybe, maybe not. Somethin’ in this place don’t agree with me. Don’t be surprised when you see me on the TV in one of them lawyer commercials. You know the ones–some sick old codger has got asbestos in the lungs or a bum hip replacement, and now he has a pack of lawyers chasing down millions of dollars for him.”
“I hope not.”
“Are you kidding, kid?” Rusty made a whistling sound. “I’d looove to catch a lawsuit.” Those were Rusty’s exact words: catch a lawsuit. Like it was a bur or a Frisbee. Rusty rubbed his hip thoughtfully.
Ed sauntered into the break room. His hand trembled slightly as he poured himself a coffee.
“He seems friendly…” Luke observed sarcastically as his eyes followed Ed to a quiet corner.
Rusty lowered his voice. “He’s an alcoholic.”
Luke glanced over at Ed, who sat hunched in the corner cradling his Styrofoam cup like a panhandler begging for change.
“When does he get the time to drink?”
“People like him…” Rusty leaned in. “They always find the time.”
Who were these people?
Long-haul truckers with haunted faces, their bodies covered in bedsores and smelling faintly of urine. “They piss in empty soda bottles so they don’t have to stop,” Ed had told Luke. “They throw those goddamn bottles all along the highway, and I’m always running over ‘em! Goddamn Trucker Bombs!”
Where did they come from?
The impossibly obese men and women who roamed the store in electric scooters with gallons of lurid colored soft drinks crammed into their carts. Great, soft people–as useless as melted candles. They grunted and wheezed and perspired when they reached for things or simply turned their heads. Even breathing was a burden. Everything required such an effort that it seemed as though they were subject to a different gravity. A gravity that pulled at them relentlessly, that pulled at their very flesh so that it hung in great cascading folds.
Where were they going?
Those post-midnight pretty girls. They had to be strippers or prostitutes. They wore too much make-up, not to beautify but to mask. Mask the bruises and the track marks and those weeping sores at the corners of their mouths. So few teeth. When they smiled or laughed, you’d notice the small brown holes on the sides of their jaws. It was a mercy then that they smiled and laughed so infrequently. A mercy that they just pushed on dully with their carts of cheap white bread and iced tea.
They swam before Luke not as people but as shapes–they blended together, moved apart, and finally disappeared. Oil in water, impressionist, lava lamp shapes. He looked not at them but through them, the way you find hidden 3D images in those repeating patterns. Those “Magic Eye” books that were all the rage when Luke was in high school–“A New Way Of Looking At The World.” Luke could never see those images back then. Now he opened his eyes and he saw a coyote. Now he saw a skull. Now he saw a gun. Now he saw a flame.
“Ed, Rusty, I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Unless there’s a fire,” Ed sneered.
Luke hoped that there would be a fire–a great churning storm of flame, the kind that would singe your eyelashes from fifty feet. Something wild and unnatural that would devour the store from the inside out and leave nothing but a blackened, smoldering skeleton.
Rusty yawned, “Hey, remember that fire back in ’92, Eddie? Totally gutted the place. They shipped us up to Pleasant Valley for a couple months. When we came back, well, Goal was as good as new–better, maybe. They had a ribbon cutting, a photographer from the local paper…Even News 13 was here. Hell, it was quite something! You see, Luke, this place don’t quit. It’s like a goddamn phoenix–fire only makes it stronger. It would take something bigger, something biblical. Maybe an asteroid or the end of the world. Even then I’m not sure the whole thing wouldn’t all come together again. Like mercury. Like magic.”
“Are you paying attention, kid? Rusty and me, we’re LIFERs! Ain’t that right Rusty?”
Rusty’s hoarse laugh clattered over the parking lot.
Luke scrubbed the floor; the concrete was cracked in countless places and filled with ancient black stains. Ed came in pulling a cart loaded with great slippery bags of meat waste.
“Give me a hand with these, will ya?” Ed barked.
Luke picked up a bag and carried it to the trash compactor. “The Hole” was the receptacle for all of the store’s waste–rotten eggs, spoiled cauliflower, Styrofoam packets of graying meat that had lain forgotten at the back of the cooler–it all ended up here. The dark, hot, fetid mouth of The Hole stood shoulder high. Luke rested the large bag on the lip of the chute and then pushed it with both hands. He heard it tumble down and land with a slick thump. There was a moment of silence before the inevitable sound of the compactor springing to life. Luke squinted into the darkness, trying to catch a glimpse of the machinery at work.
“Out of the way, you fool!” Ed gripped a bag with both hands, turned in a half circle, and lobbed it toward the chute with a grunt. It whistled past Luke’s head, cleared the mouth, and joined its brother at the bottom. Luke was impressed–Ed was like a blue-collar Olympic hammer thrower. “Get the last bag, goddamnit!” Ed shouted as he lined up another toss.
Luke frog-walked a heavy bag to the compactor just as Ed’s went flying in. He hoisted the bag to the lip of the chute, his arms quivering with the effort, and then pushed it with all his might. The bag rested stubbornly on the edge of the mouth.
Ed shook his head. “Now you’ve done it.”
Luke took a step back–the bag sat defiant and immovable. He brought an empty corn crate over and climbed onto it. He shoved and shoved. Finally, the bag yielded to his effort, to gravity, to its fate. The black machinery came to life again, its walls closing in. The bag wheezed, popped, protested as it was compressed. Luke watched as it was ground into nothing.
Luke stepped back as Ed swung the iron door shut and padlocked it. Ed bent over, wheezing, “I’m beat.” He retrieved a crumpled pack of cigarettes from his pants pocket. He offered one to Luke, who nodded toward the security camera. Ed grinned and spat on the ground. “Damn thing’s been broke for a dog’s age.” He lit up and stared at Luke, unblinking and vaguely reproachful. “You’re not all together, are ya?” Ed sucked on his cigarette. The cherry burned bright.
“Look, Luke, nobody really enjoys their job–that’s why it’s called work.” Jim was cleaning his fingernails with a toothpick. He was the HR manager, an Australian ex-pat who had gotten the job on the strength of his accent and little else. “Well, maybe not nobody,” Jim continued. “Film stars, real estate developers–those are the lucky punters, the one-percenters, you know? My advice to you, Luke? Stick it out! It’s the best job you can find ‘round these parts, and if you get full time–well then you’re talking benefits, health insurance! $12 an hour! That’s not so bad, right? Who knows, maybe later a position will open up during regular hours.”
Luke imagined his future, one identical day next to another. All those days together, not in a procession like a train but filling the entirety of his life like a mosaic, like the compound eye of a fly. He could barely breathe.
“I mean, you’ve been to war, kid! It can’t be that bad working at Goal. Is something else the matter, maybe?”
“I just…I thought…”
“Like I was meant for something else. Something…more.”
Jim bristled. “Everyone feels like that. There’s that palmistry place up the road–you know it?”
Luke nodded–the Palm Eye Rah was a local legend–its red neon hand with an eye in the center could be seen for miles.
“They do past life regression where they put you in a trance and ask you questions. You learn about all the lives you lived in the past. Do you know what the amazing thing is? Turns out, everyone was a king, a queen, an Egyptian bloody princess–isn’t that something? No one was shoveling shit from the stables or emptying chamber pots or dying of the black plague. Nope, everyone was prancing about in palaces! So, they fail or give up or perhaps life doesn’t give them a fair shake, and then they go and hear about how they once sat on a gold throne and had a harem of a thousand virgins. It’s comforting, I guess–a kind of therapy. You see, Luke, everyone believes that they are meant for greatness. We all have this sense of entitlement, particularly your generation of bludgers. We all want more, but it’s not going to land in your lap, son–it’s only hard graft that gets you there.”
Luke almost laughed; Jim was notorious for his idleness.
“You just need to get used to it. A man can get used to anything with enough time.”
Luke nodded. Maybe Jim was right. He remembered the military. The heat, the endless card games, the waiting. Now here he was at Goal. He remembered how he almost gagged when he first drank the break room coffee. How it tasted like so many cigarette-ends and burnt dirt. And now? Well, he almost looked forward to it.
“See there, aren’t you glad we had this talk, Luke? I appreciate you coming in so early–or is it late for you? I never can tell with you night crew folks.” Jim extended his hand. Luke rose, shook it, and turned to go. “This is what I’m here for, and my door is always open.”
The door closed behind Luke with a click.
The salad bar was full. Full of slices of boiled egg turning green, wilted lettuce, and clotted rice pudding. Rusty spat into his handkerchief and shook his head. “Look at this mess. Typical day walkers–always kicking the can down the road. They were supposed to pull all of this at the end of their shift and clean the dishes. I guess it’s up to us to drag their asses out of the fire. If management saw this…” Rusty made his little whistling sound. “Did you have mess hall duty in the service?”
“Well, I’ll leave you to it then.”
Luke began putting the lids on the containers in the salad bar. Caesar salad, crusty potato pancakes, and “Homemade” potato salad that arrived at the store from out of state in five-pound plastic bags. He paused when he reached the pickled eggs. They bobbed in their pink brine. Pale as corpses.
He was ten years old in the basement of his childhood home.
“Here’s another one, Son.” His father was holding up a mousetrap with a dead mouse hanging from it. The mouse was stiff as a board, but its dark eyes shone like two perfect drops of black ink. Luke held a plastic bag, and his father opened the trap. The mouse slipped into the bag. “We can’t be having any vermin in the house.”
Luke nodded solemnly.
His father reset the trap with a piece of greasy cheese and eased it down carefully. He brushed his hands on the sides of his jeans. “Well now, I think it’s just the one under the water heater and we’re all set.”
Luke’s father crouched by the water heater. He stretched his arm beneath it like he was noodling for catfish. A curious expression came over his face. When he brought his arm out and opened his hand, there was a tiny, trembling creature in the center of his palm–a pink, hairless, and wrinkled baby mouse. There were two dark spots on either side of the head where the eyes would emerge. Luke’s father removed his baseball cap and put the mouse carefully, almost lovingly, inside it. Then he reached under the heater and pulled out another and another until there were seven tiny mice in the cap.
“I think that’s the lot.” His father stood up, the cap cradled in his hands.
“They’re so small, Dad.”
“Yup.” His father walked toward the far end of the basement, and Luke followed him.
“Just not open yet.” His father put the plug in the basin and opened the faucet.
“What are we going to do with them?”
“What we have to.”
The water was rising.
“Remember, Son–we can’t be having any vermin in the house.” Luke’s father shut off the faucet and lifted the tiny mice from his cap and dropped them into the water.
“It must be horrible.”
“What’s that, Son?”
“It must be horrible to be born blind.”
“These goddamn mongoloids all look the same!” Ed tapped at a piece of paper taped to the refrigerator. “Like one giant goddamn ugly family. What you think of that, Luke?”
“I think you shouldn’t call them mongoloids.”
“I can goddamn call them anything I like.” Ed glanced over his shoulder. “I don’t see any in the vicinity.”
“What are you whining about now, Ed?” Rusty chided as he hobbled toward the coffee machine.
Luke sighed. “Ed is…upset about Goal’s policy of hiring developmentally challenged individuals.”
Rusty pulled out a chair and took a seat opposite Ed, his eyes twinkling with mischievous energy. “Well, Ed, we already have The Thumb–why not hire a gaggle of mongoloids too?” At the mention of The Thumb both men broke into laughter.
She worked at the front end, and they called her “The Thumb” for obvious reasons. Her head was balloon shaped and emerged directly from a pair of horribly hunched shoulders. Luke didn’t know if this was a congenital deformity or the result of an accident. He didn’t even know her real name.
Rusty returned Luke’s frown with a wink. “Seriously kid, draw a smiley face on your thumb and you’ll have her.”
Ed was literally slapping his knees. “Stop, Rusty. Don’t keep talking about her–you’ll make me sick!”
“Hell, Eddie, I’d take her over any of them mongoloids—have you seen her ass?”
“No. No! Her ass?! I’ve never been able to get past her head!” Tears streamed down Ed’s face.
“Ah, well, you are missing out, my friend.”
“Maybe…maybe…”—Ed struggled to get the words out between guffaws—“maybe, Rusty…you…can teach her to walk on her hands so we can look at her ass instead of her face!”
Rusty threw his head back and launched into great, guttural laughter. His face reddened as his laughter transformed into a sucking, wet sound. His eyes bulged, and his hands reached for his throat. His chair fell backward, and he landed heavily on the floor. Rusty was coughing up blood. Thick, red, it ran down his neck, staining his blue shirt black.
Ed shuddered and bent down to help. “Jesus Christ, Luke, call 911!”
Ed was staring at the ceiling. There was a half-moon under his right eye, a dirty green smudge.
“I got jacked…”
“They took your car?”
“No, you dumbass.” Ed dangled his wrist in front of him. “They took my watch.”
Ed massaged his wrist as if the missing watch were causing him pain. “Outside the bowling alley. I got cold-cocked. Watch was gone when I woke up. Wallet too.”
“Did you get a look at them?”
Ed shook his head forlornly. “That watch was my first real investment.” He looked down at the pale strip of skin.
Ed pulled his chair closer to Luke—he smelled faintly of sour beer. “Now we’re going to keep this to ourselves, right?”
Luke nodded. He remembered Rusty’s adage: There are no secrets at Goal. “No one has to be privy to what you tell me.”
Ed frowned. “What’s a privy when it ain’t an outhouse?”
“I’m saying…I won’t tell anyone.”
“Good. Ya see Rusty has the big C. Cancer. All up in his lungs. Stage somethin’. Terminal.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t say sorry to me, kid. I ain’t the one that’s dyin’!” Ed turned his wrist one way and then the other. “Here I thought he was a lifer. Did he ever tell you what LIFER stands for?” Ed snorted. “Lazy Ineffective Fucker Expecting Retirement! He gave this place the best years of his life, and now he has maybe six months to live. You wanna know the best part? Here’s the kicker! He wants to come back.”
Ed had spent an hour wandering the greeting card aisle before finally settling on a card that would serve the dual functions of “Welcome Back” and “Get Well Soon.” It had a chimpanzee on the front—the chimp’s lips were pulled back in a gummy grin, and a childish 50-point font proclaimed: “Keep Smilin’!”
Keep Smilin’! Luke picked up the card and was absorbed by the picture of the ape. He wondered whether the chimpanzee had been photographed in the wild or in a zoo. The hazy green blur of the background betrayed no secrets—there were no telltale bars or shadows. Why is that important? Luke asked himself. Just sign the card. Keep Smilin’! It was because Luke knew. He knew that apes don’t smile, that they display their teeth only when they feel threatened or afraid. The photographer had captured not a smile but a silent scream. The ape was looking right at him, and it was terrified.
“What’s the problem?” Ed hovered over his shoulder. “You forgot how to spell your name?”
“I…I don’t think I’ve ever seen him smile. Rusty, I mean—I’ve seen him laugh, but I’ve never seen him smile. Is that weird?”
Ed walked to the sink, and his hands twitched as he poured the dregs of his coffee down the drain. “Just sign the goddamn card.”
Luke was losing colors. Objects were tinged with yellow and green now as if he were looking through river water. Muddied, indistinct, floating. Even Rusty’s face looked different. Like raw chicken packed under a thin translucent film. To know that Rusty was dying, that he carried death with him everywhere, made it even worse. Three weeks. That had been all it took for Rusty to return. He’d lost weight in those weeks, weight and substance–he was fading away like a Polaroid in a forgotten photo album. Luke felt sympathy, of sorts, but something else too. Rusty didn’t even seem like a person anymore, just a voice in another room.
There was a card taped to the refrigerator next to the poster of the developmentally challenged kids. Luke picked it up, opened it.
Dear Gaol Friends,
Thank you so much for the all the well wishes and the cards! I received over twenty cards! The lovely desserts and baked goods. My husband has been ill for some time and now this. I can only hope that he will turn up soon, it is really not like him to go off on his own and not tell anyone.
Dolores never touched a drop of alcohol. She was one of those people who took immense pride in telling you as much. “I never took to it, and it never took to me,” she would say, and her wrinkled walnut face would crease into a smile. Now she sat at the bar with Luke and raised a glass of sweet wine to her lips. No one said anything. No one even seemed surprised, given the circumstances.
Dolores worked in the deli at Goal. She never wore make-up, and she tied her thin gray hair in a braid that reached the small of her back. Old and sexless, she looked as if she were from another time, a portrait in sepia or a wizened school marm that had stepped out of a Norman Rockwell painting. “Rusty was such a good man. You know, we worked together for thirteen years and he never tried anything.” Dolores smiled her little wistful smile. “Anything sexual, I mean. He respected me.”
Luke was certain that Dolores, who had probably never been a target of venial carnality, had mistaken Rusty’s lack of sexual interest for respect.
Dolores’s dark eyes twinkled. “I’m a little surprised that Jeanne isn’t here. Did you see her card? How sad! That was before, of course…” Dolores took a sip of wine.
Luke peered down at his hands. “She spelled it wrong.”
“In her card. Jeanne spelled Goal G-A-O-L. That’s how they used to spell jail, in the old days.” Luke chuckled. “Maybe she was on to something.”
“Oh, Luke, are you sure you’re okay? You haven’t seemed–”
“Jesus, Dora, I’m sorry! I’m such a drongo.” Jim had stumbled into Dolores, spilling his beer all over her black coat. As Dolores staggered off in the direction of the restroom, Jim settled on her stool and slapped an arm around Luke. “I blame this cheap domestic swill—it sneaks up on you. Fosters! Now that’s a beer! How are you holding up, Luke? Strewth! Who would have guessed? The poor ol’ bastard. What a way to go, though. Christ.”
Luke’s eyes followed a bead of condensation as it glided down his pint of beer. “It’s…sad.”
“Sad?! It’s more than sad! It’s a bloody tragedy! There we were looking for him all over town, and he was right there. It would almost be funny if it weren’t so tragic. Those vultures at Channel 13 have been phoning me day and night asking for a comment. We don’t have vultures in Australia—the birds, I mean. You didn’t see it, did you?”
Luke shook his head.
“Better that way, kid. It wasn’t Rusty anymore. Hell, it wasn’t much of anything anymore. I just feel so bad—I wish he’d talked to me, or to anyone, rather than, you know, doing himself in. Ed, poor fellow, he found him—said he saw something shiny catching the light at the bottom of the compactor. It was Rusty’s class ring–with all that rendered meat and rotting produce and splintered wood and shit. And other bits. Bits of Rusty.” Jim shuddered. “Crikey.”
Jim downed his beer and squeezed Luke’s shoulder. “You haven’t spoken to Ed, have you? I think it really shook him up. I’ve always thought of him as a harmless bogan, but I think he’s going off the deep end. He thinks Rusty was done in! Says it wasn’t possible for him to have lifted himself into the compactor being as weak as he was and with his bum leg. It makes no sense—why would anyone off a bloke who only had weeks left to live? You can’t tell Ed that, though—he’s as cross as frog in a sock. I just hope he doesn’t hurt himself or anyone else.”
Luke was walking. It was dark and cold and felt like early morning. Streetlights hung lantern-like. As he walked toward them, his shadow retreated behind him, and then it leaped in front of him as they passed overhead. Luke felt disembodied, as if he were watching himself in a film. He felt like he was growing smaller, or maybe he remained the same size and the world was growing around him—growing the way a bubble grows, larger but less substantial, until finally the slightest touch—even a breath of wind—would cause it to collapse. From beyond the blackness he could just discern a red and flickering shape. It glowed like the end of a cigarette. He walked farther, and the shape blurred into focus—a glowing red palm with an eye in its center. In his arms he carried something dark and heavy—he knew it well, its weight and heft. A weapon. From high above he heard the far-away rumble of an airplane. Then all at once he was reduced to a single black speck in a wave of white light.