Grocery - A Short Story
Ross looked disapprovingly at the grocery buggies that were starting to pile up in the parking lot and snapped his fingers in the air like someone who was summoning the family dog. “JEREMY”, he called out, but there was no response. Jeremy was on the far end of the parking lot. He was busy calculating how many miles you could drive all stacked up in a row like dominoes, counting the cars in in batches based on the parking grid, and gas efficiencies he had gleaned from car manuals, assuming most vehicles in the lot were about half-full. What nobody cared to know, was that he was startlingly accurate, even down to the decimal points because the numbers stuck to his brain. Jeremy was a math genius whose enthusiasm encompassed reading the fine points of technical manuals. Unfortunately, that genius precluded a basic facility in the more normal demands of life. In his mind at least, Jeremy was already somewhere down around Nashville, Tennessee, eating chicken fried steak and about to treat himself to the Grand Old Opry when he noticed Ross signaling from the far end of the lot by the grocery store, and he started to gather up the buggies which had made it to the far periphery of the lot, but not as far as Nashville, Tennessee.
Returning to the store, Jeremy intercepted a plastic bin of groceries coming out from the trap door like kids on a roller coaster. Their destination was a car pulled up alongside loudly belching exhaust fumes, already piled up with a Styrofoam cooler and a large bag of charcoal briquettes. Two men and a fat woman were holding their beer bottles tucked between their legs and laughing. As Jeremy loaded up the groceries in the back seat, the sound track played loudly on the tape deck. It seemed to be a home-made recording of the unabashed sounds of a couple making flat-out whoopee, calling out gleeful encouragement between the sliding grunts and squishing moans. Jeremy finished packing up the grocery bags while the three buckled over in suppressed laughter, nudged each other, and took another swig of their beer before careening away in a medley of guffaws. “Hey Retard” one of them called out. “Ever get yourself some of that good cushion for the pushin’?”. The occupants of the vehicle hooted and roared off in a cloud of smoke. Jeremy knew about people doing sex because he had read about it in a medical book from the library, but hearing the sounds only made him confused and uncomfortable and he didn’t know why the people were all laughing. Touching was something that the people at the place with white rooms took seriously. When he was in for his shots, they talked to Jeremy. They said, “OK Jeremy, we are going to touch you on the arm now, is that ok?” Jeremy liked the nurses and the calm white. But he still winced involuntarily when they took him by the arm.
“He’s a genius” the principal had said. “I mean he comes up with things that are like from another planet and at the same time he cannot seem to deal with things on a human level. He’s like a robot. The special education teachers figured out fairly early on that advanced mathematics was his forte, but Jeremy was a genius who could not extend his skill set to those things most people called “normal”. The principal looked out across his desk where Jeremy’s mother was clutching her purse looking nervously aggrieved, and Jeremy’s father was looking down picking lint from his trousers, and he laid it out plain. “Look” he said, “You have a problem. Your boy is an idiot savant – both too smart and too dumb for most things in the world. He’s the kind of kid who could likely run the space program and yet may not be capable of driving a car safely because he would be so bound by the rules that he would rather run over a kid on a bike than go through a red light. Numbers and rules, they capture him. You have to have a long-term game plan to keep him out of trouble, we are just basically temporary babysitters. The good news is that if there are rules and structure, he will be ok because to him that makes the world safe”. “Well, what good is the bit about being smart, if he can’t hold down a steady job?” his father had asked rhetorically, looking very cross indeed.
After his schooling was done with, Jeremy’s mother had found him a position at the Food City, because she knew Ross the owner from years of shopping there. Ross had hired Jeremy to pack groceries, to retrieve stray buggies, and to mop aisle mishaps when called upon. Jeremy seemed most drawn to the side parking lot which was being repaved and he liked to watch the workmens’ progress beyond the orange pylons and barriers and to count the symmetrical parking spaces all in a row. He especially liked the orange pylons because they represented a boundary and Jeremy liked rules and boundaries because they were predictable. He knew people should never cross over the barrier and that made sense because it would mess up the paving job. Jeremy thought everyone should obey the rules and he was confused when people did not. Every day Ross had to call him away from straightening out the orange pylons into even rows and stepping back to inspect them, fascinated at their power. “Jeremy”, he would call. “Get in here, take your head out of your ass, boy”.
The mental sorting of life that allowed Jeremy to cope, extended to invisibilities that others might never fathom. It would addle their brains to know the things he obsessed about, overlaid on basic functions which should normally require little thought. Packing groceries for example, was not just packing groceries. It was systems piled upon systems. Jeremy knew about the rules that the other packers did not know about, and he winced when he saw them pack with utter disregard for what he knew as absolutes. Orange should not go with green for example, he thought, as he separated one orange package from a bag of lettuce. My mother told me that, he thought inside his head. “Orange should never go with green. They don’t match”, he repeated to himself. His mother had told him that the other day when he was putting on his clothes and Jeremy remembered because his mother was usually right and always nice to him. Others were not.
Ross for example, was not so nice. He had bought his franchise in the grocery chain with money from his dad. At home his wife numbered her days according to the “next thing on their list” although Ross was not sure how the list was compiled, only that it grew and amplified its own wants. The next thing that “they” wanted, was new couches for the sitting room, though Ross knew that they would be covered with stiff linoleum on the arms and backs, rendering them useless for much more than show, and life in the boudoir seemed to follow suit. As a moral response, Ross rationalized that because life was not very fair, he must cut himself an extra slice of pie on the side. Ross found relief with his favorite hobby, hunting. In the back of his mind, was always the next hunting trip, where he could live life on a level he understood, and quietly visit the nearest whorehouse to boot. To stave off the boredom meanwhile, he would set up his hunting targets in the back warehouse, a large plastic deer and a bear with a bulls-eye painted on the side. He would climb up on the hunting tower and take shots with his high powered cross bow. “Rifles are for pussies”, Ross mused to himself. He calculated in his head how many women he had bedded in his life so far, sure it was more than any of the friends he had polled. He also wondered what it would be like to stalk the ultimate adversary, a human being. “We need a good war, like my dad said” he mused to himself. “Separate the men from the boys. I know I’d be one of the last ones standing that’s for sure.” Jeremy sometimes crossed his path, and he involuntarily wondered if Jeremy ended up with an “accidental” arrow through his skull, how many people would miss him. Ross’s employees knew enough to clear out as a matter of personal safety, when he went back to the stock room to burn off some steam. They didn’t know how to properly respond when they found a box of cereal lying dead on the stock room floor with an arrow through the heart. It made them nervous.
Jeremy however, was fascinated with the cross-bow and hunting magazines that sat on the table in the break room. He pored over them, devouring the information – charts which calculated trajectory, wind drift, and other exigencies that someone who loved numbers and pure math could appreciate. Once Ross came across Jeremy absorbing a page with a serious expression on his face. He laughed derisively. “Hey Jeremy” he quipped, “you know what a crossbow is son? It’s a can of whoop-ass, that’s what. You got a crossbow in your hands, you’re the LAW. No one in charge of the rules but you.” He cackled again as if reliving some hunting escapade, which had been a teaching moment for the recipient.
Back of the store, Billy Borne was sitting on a pallet of sugar bags smoking a forbidden cigarette. He liked working at the Food City and he understood how to bend the rules and live off the small perks that came with the job, like cutting into bags of doughnuts and other sweets so that they ended up in the break room as “accidental spoilage.” “Hey, this stuff is bound for the trash. The store, they write it off anyway,” he said to himself. Billy also had a side business going on with food that “fell off the back of a truck” once a week at closing time. Billy’s system, involved filling up the two large food bank containers by the cash exit, one box or can at a time throughout the day. Two of Billy’s former high school buddies would pull up to the loading dock like normal customers once the store had closed, and Billy would quickly load up the stolen goods before locking up the loading chute for the evening. Minimum, they would enjoy some free groceries at home. Maximum, they would sell the surplus and split the proceeds. This small perk would provide them with cigarette money and bragging rights, and Billy and his two accomplices would compare notes about the big score they would arrive at one day if they only could come up with the right plan. Billy would brag that the best hiding place was out in the open. You had to do things right out in front of people’s eyeballs, as part of what they used to seeing day to day. “Hitler said it” he gushed. “If you want to succeed big you have to lie big.” He had once stolen a canoe from a department store in broad daylight. Nobody could describe him to the police afterwards, not even the sales clerks who had held the door for him when he exited with the canoe loaded over his head. “Who would expect a guy to steal a canoe in broad daylight?”, they had protested when questioned. Billy also liked Tracy the cashier because when he offered her a piece of Freshen Up Gum, the one with the flavor burst in the centre, she had smiled at him and laughed when she chewed it. “It came in my mouth” she giggled. Jeremy could feel a tug on the inside of his trousers and needed to go to the men’s room to adjust himself, carefully re-tying his white apron in front before reappearing. Billy had a ’93 Camaro that had passed certification, despite the piece of twisted coat hanger wire he used to keep the muffler in place. He had an upstairs bachelor pad with a kitchenette, and a used water bed he had inherited from the curb on somebody’s moving day. When he had enough money saved up, he was going to get one of those panel vans, like in the song, with the shag carpet, column speakers and endless possibilities for a rolling party. He sang a verse of the Sammy Johns song, “She’s going to love me in my Chevy van, and that’s alright with me”. He wondered if Tracy would love him in his Chevy van, thinking of the tight jeans she changed into at the end of her shift. He had a glorious feeling that for those things which really mattered in life, he had already practically arrived.
Closing time on Friday night, the parking lot was almost empty. Jeremy was leaving the store when in the loading area, he spotted Billy’s two friends who were standing smoking on the pavement, having grown cocky and incautious. “No smoking in the parking lot. That’s the rules.” Jeremy intoned mechanically. “You have to go away now because the store is closed. We open up at nine o’clock tomorrow morning”. One of the teens, tossed back his long hair and laughed. “Go away? What are you, the fucking boss or something?” he said. “Now clear out Bozo, we’re having a meeting here and you’re not invited”. Jeremy meanwhile started to get agitated and he did not know exactly what to do. “You are not allowed to smoke in the parking lot, it’s against the rules. YOU’RE BREAKING THE RULES” he repeated, louder, rocking back and forth, hugging himself and starting to groan audibly. Jeremy could feel his world of order spinning raggedly out of control.
One of the toughs, losing patience, grabbed him roughly by the collar and slammed him up against the wall. “Listen Bozo, next time you come around making up the rules you better remember your can of whoop-ass”, he said. “Now piss off, we’re busy!”. His friend meanwhile spit on the ground for emphasis and roughly kicked an orange pylon to show they meant business. Finished with Jeremy, who lay crumpled in a corner, they commiserated loudly. “Where the hell is Billy?” they asked, scanning their watches. Behind them in the darkness, Jeremy gazed at the fallen orange pylon like a father who has witnessed his virgin daughter defiled.
It would have been better if what came next, had not happened at all, but who can predict what consequences lurk in the dim beyond the headlights? Jeremy’s high alert had been sounded. He was in charge of the rules, like keeping the parking lot clean, and locking up the grocery chute once the store closed. As instructed, he had indeed gone looking for a can of whoop-ass. He went inside the store to the cash office and came out with Ross’s cross bow cocked and loaded, with a calm equation in his mind that made perfect mathematical sense.
By the time the two toughs had adequately sized up the situation and started to run it was already too late, and their underestimation of Jeremy might have at that point gone against them. If you are being assailed by a cross bow, you don’t want it in the hands of a math whiz who digests his boss’s crossbow aficionado magazines in the break room for personal interest. Neither someone who might in a nanosecond calculate human running speed, trajectories, velocity, and wind drift. The cross bow bolt made a soft thud as it passed through the body of the closest runner at heart level. The other turned around in disbelief but dallied too long in panic over his fallen comrade. The second bolt travelled neatly through his head, splitting him between the eyes like an over-ripe melon.
But stories do not end with what happens. They end with results weighed and assessed in the hearts of those of us who witness.
Ross was the most crestfallen. He sat in his lazy boy the next day smoking a long cigar and nursing a double malt whiskey. He relived in his mind what it must have been like, the enemy in your cross hairs, the release of the trigger, the triumph of the kill. All lost on that simpleton he thought to himself. Should’ve been me instead. “Damn him, I bet he can’t even tell a proper hunting story. Now that would be one for the lodge”, he pondered jealously.
Billy’s plans had also suffered a bit of an upset, but his mind was now preoccupied with his latest personal developments. Tracy had a boyfriend. Word had it, he was a drug dealer, and he had a big car. When he came around after work to pick up Tracy, he would make a show in front of the floor clerks and stock boys to grab her booty firmly in hand while exiting the store. She would squirm and protest, but Tracy liked bad boys and it showed. Billy still had his big score in mind, but he had to find some new partners in crime now that the old ones were pushing daisies at the local cemetery. There had to be some short cuts. Time was precious. He had heard rumours about a new car theft ring he could join, and if he held his aspirations high, he might even score that Chevy van he so coveted. And there still might be a chance at Tracy. Sloppy seconds, he winced, contemplating the prospect of diminishing returns.
Jeremy meanwhile had expired his lease on liberty in one fell swoop, having enforced the rules in a way he still did not understand to be wrong. But never mind. He had a more permanent place now with white rooms and nurses. His parents came to visit him there and he told them with enthusiasm about the routine. Sunday was movie day. Mondays were mashed potatoes with gravy, Tuesdays were crokinole in the games room and Wednesdays he got to play volleyball in the courtyard, being careful to respect all the rules of play. But what he liked best was the huge double-paned plexiglass window. It overlooked a tidy parking lot. Every day he would count the cars and do his own mileage calculation. In his own mind, some days he was practically as far as Nashville Tennessee, and contemplating his day at the Grand Old Opry. He would see Johnny Cash there, he thought. Of all parties he might have been happiest of all. He had rules and repetition in plenty, and everyone acted exactly as they were expected to, every single day.