Grocery Story

Cleanup on aisle six.

So, I’m trying to arrange the entirely fucking lackluster produce situation at New Day Foods while Lee mops the floor around me, though he seems to be pushing the dirt back and forth more than anything, rearranging the black gunk that used to be lint or hair or flecks of vegetable skin from one crack in the tile to another.

The bosses gave me crates of just-shy-of-mushy tomatoes and bananas and lettuce to arrange in some artful manner. Artful is the word they used. They told me to arrange the produce in such a way that any customer might be compelled to pick up tomatoes, bananas, and lettuce. Make them decide, shit, I need all three of those, this is what I’d been looking for my whole life.

“So, I’m looking through the dining room window, right?” says Lee. He’s been talking, I realize, and I should pay attention. I’m a great multitasker. I’m great at juggling fucking thoughts, man, the fucking tasks at hand.

“Wait you’re doing what?” I say.

“I’m looking through the dining room window. I’m hiding pretty good. I’m good at hiding,” says Lee.

His hair looks stringy today, more than usual, almost like he collected the floor gunk and plopped that shit on his head, then sprayed it with some of that sea salt hair stuff for the wind-swept look. Hell, maybe he stood on a cliff over the ocean as part of his morning routine, I don’t know what Lee does.

“You are very good at hiding.” I’m imagining Lee’s stringy head all silhouetted in some stranger’s living room window and I get the chills.

“Thank you,” says Lee.

“Yeah,” I say.

A banana enters the shopper’s life, the tomato complicates things, and lettuce wraps all that shit up in its calm and forgettable way. Everyone wants to be remembered, but not lettuce. No, that’s not how lettuce plays the game. We start with something sweet but generally disappointing—the banana. Yeah, the banana comes first and then you see the tomato and you realize that what you’re really missing is passion, man, passion that keeps life moving toward…the lettuce.

Shit, I don’t know what to do.

“You don’t have to try so hard. This isn’t even your job,” says Lee. “Sandra does the displays.”

“Yeah, well, if Sandra wanted to keep this job, she shoundn’ta disappeared,” I say.

“Technically,” Lee continues, “it should be Billy’s job when Sandra is gone, but he also disappeared.”

“What’s your fucking point, Lee?”

The bosses took me aside at the start of my shift and said Hey Sammy, you took Psych in high school, you should know how to manipulate these people, move our shit into people’s carts. So it’s my job now—moving this rotting shit out of here so the customers can deal with it. And customers are walking in so dead-eyed, so distracted these days, you gotta grab their attention.

“My point is, I’m looking through the window,” says Lee. “And her kid, what’s his name, Kimbo? Clark?” says Lee.

“How the fuck should I know?” I think I know the family Lee’s going on about. They almost always come through my lane at checkout. At least the woman does.

“Kyle! It’s Kyle,” says Lee. “Poor little Kyle. So, it’s dinnertime and they’re not even sitting at the table. And they got this beautiful table, like, gorgeous table. You know?”

“I don’t pay much attention to tables.” I swap the bananas and the lettuce and that feels better for a minute. Lee is mopping hard, like really pounding at the gunk near where we used to keep the peaches, when we got deliveries of peaches. Back when we got deliveries of fresh peaches on the regular. Back when we got deliveries of anything on the regular.

“Well, it’s the most beautiful table you can imagine,” Lee says. “And it’s dinnertime and they’re not even sitting at it. Just little Kyle by himself, chomping away at some Coco Puffs, and what’s-her-name and her husband are wandering around, in and out of the room, arguing about something.”

“Not our business how they use their table.”

“It’s a waste, that’s all I’m saying.”

I take a step back and look at the display. The tomato is so loud in all its red.

“How does a tomato make you feel, Lee?”

“How does it make me feel?”

“Yeah, how does it make you feel?”

Lee stares at the tomato. “Nothing. Makes me feel nothing.”

“If it had to make you feel something.”

“Makes me think of spaghetti,” says Lee.

“Okay.”

“And blood. Lots of blood,” Lee says.

“Fuck,” I say.

“Sorry Sammy.” Lee starts mopping again.

The word blood is like a flash across my brain, and all of a sudden I’m thinking back to yesterday. I was getting gas on my way to work, and I go to use the bathroom. It was locked and had been locked for a while, so the clerk and I broke in to see what’s up, and there was a guy in there who’d died. I can’t say how, exactly. But there was blood everywhere, fucking—what’s the word?—tendrils of blood hanging off the walls. He’d been there most of the afternoon and no one noticed. And there was this smell in the room, I don’t even know how to describe it. But familiar. Like something from the back of the refrigerator.

And after I peed in the field behind the gas station, I sat in my car and just sorta stared into space. I mean, physically that’s what I was doing, but really my mind was on the body. On the blood. Anyway, I couldn’t sit there staring all damn day and wait for the cops. I couldn’t afford another late penalty.

“So, I’m looking through the window,” says Lee, “and Kyle isn’t much of an eater. He’s as thin as a celery stick, so I just watch what’s-her-name and her husband—”

“Carol,” I say.

“What?”

“That’s her name, I think. Or Cathy.” She wouldn’t be noteworthy except that she has a premium rewards card, and the bosses always require us to repeat the name of the premium rewards shopper that pops up on the screen. Thanks for being a New Day Foods loyal shopper, Carol. (Or Cathy.)

“Connie?” Lee is searching his brain.

“Maybe. Maybe that. That sounds right.”

“You should know. You gotta pay attention,” says Lee.

“I fucking pay attention,” I say.

“So, I’m watching Connie or Cathy and her husband move from kitchen to hallway to living room and to rooms I can’t see, but I can still hear ‘em. I couldn’t make out the words, just a weird uneasy mix of shouting and whispering, mixing so much it’s like they’re swallowing each other’s words—swallowing—and there’s little Kyle, just munching at the chocolate cereal, which is really no excuse for a dinner, if you ask me.”

I’ve moved the tomato a bit further away from the bananas, but now I’m worrying about the dick-to-balls comparison ratio and if I’m going to be fired for accidentally creating a pornographic display with produce. “How does the tomato make you feel now?” I ask Lee.

“Stop obsessing over the tomato. I’m trying to tell you something.”

“I don’t want to hear about you stalking people anymore.” I shouldn’t have said that but it’s hard, being a multitasker and keeping an eye on every little feeling.

“I’m not stalking! It’s research!” says Lee.

Sure. Following customers home is totally normal and not a lead-up to murder. That’s what I think and have been thinking, and I go ahead and say it.

“Take that back. It’s not even funny,” says Lee. “I got a gift of memory, Sammy, and what good is a gift if you don’t use it, huh?”

Yeah, maybe I got a gift too, maybe I’m a rare talent, and maybe I like my job but sometimes I sit in the parking lot after my shift, when I suddenly don’t have a purpose or a next thing on my list and the evening is stretching out ahead of me like a desert and I think, well, that was cute and all, but what’s the point? The thing is, it’s not the job that makes me think that. I’m pretty sure if I was a doctor or lawyer or superhero, I’d sit there too. Staring.

And thinking about that body I saw yesterday.

The guy had been gnawed on and spit out all over. I know food. My job is food and I can tell when someone’s chewed on an apple or something and not paid for it. Happens all the time. Take a bite out of something, decide it isn’t for you, and stuff it back where you found it, good side out, so it takes ages for anyone to notice.

I can’t be in the produce section anymore, now that I’m thinking of people taking bites out of my tomatoes and not paying for them. I head to the canned food aisle, Lee trailing behind me, whispering at my back the whole way.

“I remember what the customers get every week and I start seeing the patterns, like some detective in those old black and white movies,” he’s saying, and I’ve heard some of this shit before. I try to keep my mind focused on what he’s saying and the task at hand, since I got a lot of tasks, since I’m so trusted here, a real employee-of-the-month type.

And Lee goes on: “Every night I smoke and pace and try to piece out what they’re probably having for dinner, based on what they bought here that day. And I started going to the customers’ houses as a way to…just confirm. You gotta confirm things, Sammy.”

Canned food. Peas, kidney beans, chicken soup.

“I just peek in their window,” says Lee, “try to see what they’re eating. Or I poke through the trash cans—food packages, rotten leftovers, scraps from cooking—all paints a picture. You know, I got so good, I can predict what they’re going to buy the next time they come here. I’m just confirming reality is reality.”

Peas, kidney beans, chicken soup. Sell these Sammy, the bosses said. Let them deal with the expiration dates and the rotting.

There’s no story here. Kidney beans are kinda red, but a sad red. Not a passionate red. And there is nothing like the smell of kidney beans rotting in your fridge. Like death. “What’s the use if I can’t confirm that I’m right, you know?” says Lee. “What’s the point? Here I am thinking I’m good at something, but if I never take the chance to see for sure—to see I’m really right about it all—what’s it even matter? If I can’t prove it, it’s not real, and it’s gotta be real, Sammy.”

Kidney beans. That’s what the guy in the bathroom smelled like. Rotting kidney beans half digested, the bile of something eating but not filling up, not absorbing anything.

“You’re not listening,” says Lee.

“I’m a multitasker,” I say. “You can’t always tell, but I’m multitasking.”

“So, I watched Connie or Cathy fight with the husband,” says Lee, “and poor little Kyle eating his chocolate cereal. I watch for a long time, and not one pan goes on the stove, not one box of pasta opened, not one chicken put in the oven. Yesterday was trash day, so the empty bins don’t give me any clues to the rest of the week. The whole trip was for nothing. All I got was muddy knees and a knotted-up stomach. I didn’t learn a damn thing about how they’re using the food they’re buying.”

I arrange the cans. Peas. Then soup. Then beans. Beans seem to be the finale here.

“Lee, I’m thinking maybe you should…get a different hobby,” I say. My voice is shaking and I don’t know why. There’s a customer wandering down the aisle toward us and I’m trying to focus on the task at hand and get the display looking good by the time she gets close enough to see.

“Don’t you wonder about people though?” says Lee. “Like, they’re buying tomatoes but how many of those tomatoes are going to rot on the counter? How many bowls of rice will get thrown in the trash? How many gallons of milk will get chunky?”

“That’s not my job. My job is to get them to buy it. Not my business what they do after. You can be a student of the people without going through their garbage.” Just another minute. She’s walking real slowly, aimless, like she didn’t bring a list, so this display really has to pop.

“But that’s the only way,” says Lee. “People show you who they are by what they throw away.”

“And by what they buy.” I switch the beans and the peas. Yeah. Maybe we gotta be brutal here. The kidney beans right off the bat. I can almost smell them through the can and I feel queasy. No no no no—soup first, beans last.

Shit.

Lee looks at the display. “It’s fine,” he says.

Fucking fine?

The woman is here, almost runs right into Lee and his mop, and I think maybe she’s not even going to notice my work, so I’m holding my breath because I don’t want her to notice me, I want her to notice the soup. And then she stops and lingers, and she grabs the kidney beans, the fucking beans, and drops the can into her cart.

Lee is talking but I don’t hear him because I’m a little pissed she didn’t grab the soup first like I’d planned, but then I’m watching her walk away and I swear to fuck she’s got a bite out of her shoulder and there’s blood dripping down her blouse. And the smell—

“I’m not done yet with the story,” says Lee.

“Do you see that,” I say, pointing at the blouse.

“You never listen to me,” says Lee.

“Are you seeing that?” I try to turn Lee’s shoulders toward the woman but he doesn’t like being touched, and he pushes back and his mop clocks me in the shoulder and I fall into the display, the cans slamming to the linoleum and rolling all over. One of the beans pops open and leaks where Lee had been mopping. And I can smell it, like the beans have turned.

Lee doesn’t look at me, just starts mopping it up and mumbling I’m sorry I’m sorry.

My shoulder’s aching where the mop handle knocked me, but the woman turned the corner of the aisle. I stumble stupidly over the rolling cans of beans and soup and peas to try to flag her down, so I can say hey, I think you’re bleeding. And those beans might be expired. Excuse me, loyal New Day Foods shopper, I think you have a bite out of your flesh.

I look down the next two aisles but she’s nowhere.

The store has been so empty lately, maybe I’m just making up customers now.

I keep on going to the meat aisle for the last display. Chicken, beef, pork. Lee follows me, mopping the floors where the weird meat grease drips off the packages, like a butcher-mutant’s saliva or some shit.

Now move this dead flesh, Sammy, the bosses said. Don’t make their deaths mean nothing. Don’t let their deaths be pointless. Nothing worse than that, if you ask me, something dies with no purpose but to sit and slowly expire, stinking up the whole damn place.

Chicken, cow, pig. Have to think about this one.

“I’m sorry,” says Lee.

“I’m trying to think,” I say.

Lee’s breathing right behind me, and if I thought he was a real threat to anyone, maybe I’d be uncomfortable. But it’s not Lee we gotta be afraid of in this world.

“Maybe you need something flashy for this. More than a sign,” Lee says. “Wrap it up like a gift. Ribbons or something.” He starts mopping slowly around the meat display, trying to catch every drip.

That’s actually a good idea. I head to the break room, Lee following, his mop dragging the meat saliva all over, but I try not to think about it, disease trailing on the floor everywhere I go. The break room is empty, coffee from yesterday still burning in the pot, the fridge left open a little bit, something moist and chunky sliding out of the drawer and onto the floor.

Lee mops that up too, as I dig through the party supply cabinet and find some red ribbon from Sandra’s birthday a couple months ago.

“So, that all happened last night,” says Lee, mopping and following, “at the house with Connie or Cathy and Kyle and the cereal. And so this morning, I overhear some old ladies buying English muffins and marmalade saying there’d been a disturbance last night, real late. That’s what they called it. A disturbance on Laurel Street, and everyone’s gone, that’s all they said, just like all the others, just that everyone was gone, and they’re giggling and sighing over their English muffins but not saying why there are people disappearing, not saying why everyone is gone or what that even means. And I can’t ask because I don’t want them knowing I’m listening. And I get this bad feeling.”

I have to pee, I realize, and I glance over at the employee bathroom in the corner of the break room but the door is closed and that little red OCCUPIED slider is clicked over and I don’t want to knock on a locked bathroom ever again. I’ll hold it.

I walk back to the meats, Lee following and yammering on. I make him hold onto an end of ribbon so I can cut it precisely, because this matters, this is going to be fucking gorgeous, this display, and the bow is going to work.

“So, I take my first break this morning as soon as I can, and I go back to the house,” says Lee. “There’s police tape on the front door but not really any cops, just one sitting in their car staring off into nothing. And there are a couple neighbors sitting in their cars too, or standing real still on their porches, just looking out at nothing. I don’t even think they see me walk up the sidewalk.”

The ribbon is looking fucking gorgeous.

“So, I go to the dining room window,” says Lee, “exactly where I was sitting the night before, and the cereal bowl little Kyle was eating from was still there. Not sure why he wouldn’t have put it in the sink when he was done eating, but some kids are raised different. I couldn’t see anyone moving around, and what I got concerned about, actually, is the gallon of milk she bought a couple days before. If they’re all gone now, I mean, I’m sure little Kyle didn’t drink the whole gallon in his Coco Puffs, so all I can think about is the milk sitting in their fridge, slowly going sour. Milk only lasts for what? A week? Two weeks? Who knows how long they’re going to be gone. I just had this terrible vision of the milk going all rotten and eating through its plastic jug and then eating through the shelves, and at that point, who knows what kind of damage milk can do.”

“This is really coming together,” I say, stepping back to admire the ribbons and the goddamn celebration of life happening for this meat right here. I’m so proud of myself, I never get to feel proud.

“So, I break into the house,” says Lee.

“You what now?” I say.

“I break in because I’m afraid of the milk, you see.”

“The cops didn’t see you?”
            “I told you. Everyone was just staring into space, not paying attention. You gotta pay attention, Sammy, this is what I mean. I just walked in the back door. Not really breaking and entering when you just enter.”

I think I hear the squeaky wheel of a cart behind us. I spin thinking maybe it’s the woman with the bite and the beans but no one’s there.

“So, I go to the kitchen to get the milk,” says Lee. “I’m just thinking of them. I’m just trying to take care of them.”

I’m getting this gnawing feeling, like right before the gas station clerk and I broke down that door, like there’s something I shouldn’t be seeing, that I should just keep ignoring, find a different fucking bathroom, leave the milk alone, focus on the task at hand.

“But the floors are sticky,” says Lee. “All the floors, everywhere. All covered in this red gunk. There’s red everywhere. Like tomato sauce. But I know Connie or Cathy doesn’t ever buy tomato sauce, Sammy. I know because I pay attention. I remember.”

“What was it then?” I ask. I’m looking around the store. I think there are footsteps somewhere. Fuck. Is that another wheel? Is that breathing?

“It was blood. Blood in long trails, like they were just bleeding and walking around. Bleeding, walking around, something gnawing on them, slowly stringing out their insides. Blood like ribbons all over the house.”

I think I hear chewing. Or was it there the whole time? Why wasn’t I paying attention?

“So, I try not to step on the red stuff but there’s so much of it. I go get the milk. But there were other things in there—stuff that would go bad. Some fruit. A head of lettuce. Bananas on the counter. I just took it all. So it wouldn’t stink. So it would be okay for them when they came back.”

The ribbon is fucking perfect. But it doesn’t matter because in between Lee’s words, I can hear the bathroom door in the break room click. I can hear the fucking hinges cry out as the door opens.

“Blood like ribbons everywhere,” Lee says. “I left the canned goods because they’ll be okay. Canned goods don’t bother themselves with much. Canned goods will be fine.”

There’s a growl somewhere, but I can’t tell if it’s my stomach or the meat coolers popping on or if it’s coming from the break room. Or something else fucking entirely. This had been a good day, too.

“You know what the real kicker of the whole Connie or Cathy thing is, though?” says Lee. “I’m never gonna know if I was right about the dinner she was going to make that night. It’s too bad. I was on a roll.”

Lee keeps mopping, but I hold steady as I see the customer with the kidney beans appear from an aisle, her eyes suddenly wide open, just like mine, holding still except for her good arm reaching up slowly to touch the bite, like she was just noticing it, like she wasn’t paying attention before. We stand there, like the three of us are some kind of display, waiting for whatever the footsteps and the growls belong to, whatever is emerging from the break room, needing us to tell it what it needs, what it’s hungry for, what it’s been looking for its whole life.

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Go west and weird, join the Goth Girls’ Gun Gang, explore the bottom of the Mariana Trench, learn what cicadas taste like, hide from the corporate warlords, and sew your fractured self together.

Climb to the top of the pyramid scheme, find the joy in devouring, and save your stupid boyfriend. Pick a door, pick a door, then pick another door-and hope none of them open into the void of space.

Whatever you do, don’t listen to the man in the mirror, try not to overthink the produce arrangement, and remember, there is nothing in the jar.
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