That summer I was trying to keep a low profile. I was trying to walk the straight line between jail and unemployment. I was too familiar with both and didn’t want slide either direction and my luck was holding. I had a job. I had an apartment and a roommate who didn’t ask too many questions. Then she and her girls had come sashaying into the Jewel-Osco where I worked night crew, all wide smiles, lip-glossed lips and super tight jeans and I fell.
I watched the group of them, five in all, as they walked up and down the aisles, giggling and cutting looks my way when they rounded the end caps. She was the only black girl in their little group. Her black bangs partially covered one eye and the rest of her hair was up in some clip, curls spilling out of it. She was something to behold.
The girls looked young, acted young and I knew I should stop looking. Last thing I needed was to get cornered on some statutory rape charge. While her friends acted like they’d never seen a man before, she acted like I was nothing terribly interesting and yet, she kept looking at me and I looked back. I wasn’t even looking to get into something but ain’t that the way of some things? A look and you think, this is something I want. There was no blinding sparks, no marching bands, nothing but a simple look. The girls sauntered along as if they had all the time in the world while the overhead speakers amplified my boss Franklin’s voice as he announced that the store was closing in fifteen minutes.
Ten minutes after the girls walked in, Franklin, balding and heavy-set, trotted down from his office on high, untucking his worn, white button down shirt and pulling up his navy polyester pants. He sidled up next to me and asked, “Them girls still in here?” He clasped his hands on top of his head, showing off the damp, yellow sweat stains under each arm. His deodorant was working overtime and failing.
I nodded and bagged three bottles of liquor. In front of me was Mr. Stedman, our nightly visitor. He was a little man with a white goatee and black professor glasses. I figured he must have parties or something ‘cause there was no way a little man like him could put away three bottles of Jim Beam in one night and still be among the living come the next.
Mr. Stedman and I traded cash for bags and he departed. I leaned against the bagging station.
“They’ll be up here soon enough,” I said.
“Did they look like trouble?” Franklin wanted to know.
I thought one of them did but I said, “Nah. Want me to go round ‘em up?”
“Fuck yes. I wanna get out of here early tonight. My wife will have my balls if I don’t hit the house by 2 a.m. and I really want to stop and have a beer, too.”
That was Franklin, all me me me, forgetting that some of us would still be working, throwing dairy in the cold case and filling holes in the food aisles until six a.m. “Cool,” I said. I stuck my hands in my pockets of my own navy pants and went to go see about a girl.
The girls were in the skin and feminine products aisle. Four of them, dressed in red and green and black and blue stretch jeans with low heeled pumps and concert t-shirts under their boyfriend’s jackets, were huddle up around the Maybelline display like the model on it was a fortune teller and they only had to pick the right waterproof mascara and they’d have the future they wanted.
My girl was leaned back against the tampons, her eyes closed. Her purse swung on its strap to and fro in her twitching fingers. She wasn’t wearing a jacket and so there was little hiding her body from me. Just an oversized white t-shirt that couldn’t hide the swell of her breasts. The white jeans she wore fit her like a second skin displaying firm thighs and the curve of her ass was perfect in profile and in a move I can only assume was a sign of rebelliousness to come, she didn’t wear heels like her friends but red Converse. The laces were done up in some intricate macramé shit and across the once white toe and sides of the rubber soles was writing and drawings done in blue pen. She was different than they were and proud of it. The girls didn’t hear me walk up until I leaned over to my girl and said, “Isn’t it past your bedtime?”
They all jumped and the four at the makeup display quickly spun and put their hands behind their backs. My girl tried to swallow a smile.
I put on my Franklin face, constipation with a touch of exasperation, adjusted the cuffs of my long sleeve white shirt, and intoned, “The store is closing. Please take your final purchases to the check stand and thank you for shopping at Jewel-Osco today.”
The girls rolled their eyes and tried to hide the eyeliner they’d swiped up their sleeves and in the pockets of their jeans. I didn’t actually care if they stole; I just wanted a minute to talk to my girl. For her part, she looked ashamed of their thieving ways. I opened my mouth to speak her and she looked at me then down at her feet. I couldn’t find words to say anything cool or something like I’m Ben. I closed my mouth. She pushed off the shelves of tampons and started after her friends, picking up a bottle of juice from an end display. Then my girl turned quickly around like she’d forgotten something.
“I’m nineteen. I don’t have a bedtime anymore.” She said this to me with a straight face.
Girl was serious as a heart attack. All I could think was, Oh, thank fuck for small favors. My girl turned back around and walked with an extra sway to her hips back to her friends. I followed. Hell, I would’ve followed her perfect ass to the ends of the earth if only never to lose sight of it but since I was the only checker on that night, I strolled up like I didn’t have a care and tried to figure how to start the conversation with her.
I don’t have trouble with women. Though my recent history with women was near nonexistent, my past track record, those glory years of mine between 18 and twenty-two, was a good one. I was good-looking by most women’s assessment and they would snuggle up to me with barely more than a Hello from me. The tattoos that hid under my work shirt seemed to draw in them in close in a bar setting. I guess I looked rough and that’s what they usually wanted from me and I could hand that out as easily as I could pick their wallet, steal their cash and credit cards and return it, usually before they’ve even finished ordering their whiskey sours, but I’d never hurt a woman. Never ran out on one or left before breakfast unless I was asked. Women were a good thing and I enjoyed them. Perhaps a little too much and that’s what got me in trouble. Stealing and driving the getaway car for guy in order to make up for screwing his girl. But that was behind me now and that girl was ahead of me, my future in red Converse.
Franklin was looking constipated and exasperated at the end of the register. The girls were giggling again. My girl had her juice on the conveyor, tapped her short nails on the tin top of the bottle. I hit the pedal and the conveyor jerked the bottle from under her hand. She glanced up at me and I gave her my best smile. She looked at her girls, who were looking back and forth between us like we were having a silent tennis match.
I scanned her drink and gave her the total.
“You sure that’s all you ladies are purchasing tonight?” Franklin asked. His arms were folded across his chest, very official-like.
The girls looked at each other then all four looked back at my girl. She was digging around in her purse. I heard change rattling and keys. The girls turned back and all four gave Franklin beatific smiles that unnerved him. I doubted he’d ever had so many women look at him before. He grumbled something about fucking kids and waddled back to his office. Franklin was twenty-seven, only two years older than me and I still felt young. I figured it was being married that made him feel so old.
My girl was still digging around in that purse of hers and the girls were getting concerned. They closed in, a little fortress of girldom around her. There were whispers. More giggling and then the girls parted like curtains and my girl took center stage, stepping away from them, her hand stretched out to me with the biggest smile on her face. Her lips were full and wet looking from the lip-gloss, her eyes were black hole dark and I could feel their gravitational pull.
I guess I looked a beat too long cause the smile drifted away and she began to bite her lip. Her hand dipped down like she was about to leave so I grabbed that hand, felt soft skin in my palm for a moment then felt stiff paper and change. Her hand withdrew. She picked up her juice and the five of them walked away.
I hadn’t said a fucking word. How could I let her leave without saying another word? “Hey, you in the red Converse. You gotta name?” The girls stopped and my girl turned back.
“I told you,” she said.
“Nah, I’d remember that.”
“Look in your hand, Grocery Boy.”
That set the girls off giggling once again and they all ran outside. In my hand, among the dollar bill and pennies and nickels was a torn piece of paper with ‘Nina’ printed on it and a phone number.
I tossed the money into the register. I committed the number to memory just in case I lost this little piece of her. Then I heard Franklin give last call again.
From another aisle a twitchy looking college kid appeared. Now whatever he was hiding in his oversized jacket was a lot more than eyeliner and mascara. I folded Nina’s number carefully and put it in my pocket. College Kid brought up a loaf of bread and placed it at the end of my conveyor. He nodded at me and drummed his fingers on the belt as the bread slowly made the trip into my waiting hands. My register phone rang.
“This guy got something?” Franklin asked.
“I would say so,” I said, bright and chipper. In my head, seven digits spun around and her name was on the tip of my tongue. Nina. I nodded at College Kid.
“I’m coming,” Franklin said, with barely contained excitement in his voice. He liked to be righteous and look down on people. I had the impression his wife was the righteous one at home.
I put the phone back on the hook and made motions like the bread wouldn’t ring up.
“Damn,” I said and scratched the back of my neck.
Franklin hit his office door with a loud thud, which spooked College Kid. He ran for it losing Slim Jims, Twinkies and Hostess apple pies as he went. I vaulted the conveyor and was on him as he went through the automatic doors, setting off the alarm.
Now there is a golden rule in the grocery business: don’t confront shoplifters outside the physical store building. I knew this rule. There was a little leeway in this rule and as long as I drug him back into the store I didn’t have to worry. But then College Kid spun on me, his jacket twisting out of my hands. He reached in his pocket and came up with a knife and I was like,
What. The. Fuck.
“Man, you’re shoplifting. Not fighting in a gang war,” I said.
I tried to take a step back into the store but College Kid came at me, jabbing with the knife like he’d watched The Three Musketeers one too many times. His hand swished back and forth and he said, “Ha!” with every jab at my chest.
I stumbled back against the rail that separated IN from OUT. I tried to get further away but I twisted wrong and landed on my ass on the IN door’s mat. Still he kept coming. His eyes were too wide and his face was shiny with sweat. Man, it was like he couldn’t see what he was doing. He had ample opportunity to run away. I was down on my ass; Franklin was bug-eyed at the big windows watching this shit go down with the customer service phone to his ear. College Kid could of ran. But he didn’t. Then he cut the sleeve of my uniform shirt and it was on. I had paid
good money for my uniform shirt. Fifteen dollars now wasted because of some kid with a knife and liquid for brains.
I was up and on my feet and the next time D’Artagnan came in for a slice of me, I grabbed his wrist, twisted it up and around until he dropped the knife and then I pressed him down onto the ground and twisted his arm behind his back until I heard something, cartilage I supposed, give way.
Franklin said, “Oh, shit,” from the doorway of the Out door.
On a Wednesday, approaching midnight, it seemed the police had nothing better to do than respond to a call at grocery store. At that moment, the police rolled up with lights blazing and sirens going. They were on us both and because of the damage to the shoplifter, suddenly he was bleeding from the nose, they took me into custody, too. As I sat in the back of the squad car, waiting for Franklin to sort this shit out for me, I saw Nina fifteen feet away, highlighted in the alternating red and blue lights. She saw me see her. I gave her my best smile again and she came forward, leaving her girls behind. She put her hand on the window and I pressed my forehead to the spot she touched. I closed my eyes and imagined that soft hand touching my head. Then she was gone, ushered away by a cop. She didn’t even know my name.
College Kid got a ride to the ER and then to the county lockup, which was where they took me. It came out that I was a parolee, something I had neglected to mention on my job application and Jewel wouldn’t stand up for me in court. So I lied, committed assault and battery (sort of) and when I stood before her two days later, the judge told me I was going back in to serve the last eighteen months of my five-year sentence.
* * * * *
I was three months out of jail when I finally dialed her number. Nina wasn’t there, of course, but her mother was and she took my name and only paused a moment when I told her I didn’t have number to be reached at. I was staying at a halfway house where they screened your calls and checked your underwear drawer for drugs frequently. The last thing I wanted was someone from there getting a whiff of Nina. Her mother said she’d call her daughter at school and tell her Ben from the grocery store called. As if Nina would remember me. she’d gone on to college and was going to make something of herself. She probably had frat boys knocking down her door. But hope still had me grinning for the first time in months.
I worked the late shift at a lumber yard and didn’t even mind when the fellas I worked with razzed me for smiling like a fool. Hope was there in me. It had me humming while I drove the forklift. But by the end of the day hope had given way to anxiety. The idea I’d missed my chance hung on to me tight. It was an uncomfortable pressure in my chest that if I thought about it too long. It left me panting and sleep was hard to come by during the nights that followed.
It was a week before I got up the nerve to call her mother back. Instead of her mother answering, it was Nina saying hello at the other end of the line.
I spluttered through a hello and an explanation of who I was. I could hear the smile as she said, “Well, hello, Grocery Boy. How are you?”
And like that I was back into something.