Don’t Fear the Reaper

Here is the prologue (Before) and sample chapter of the novel I’m working on for publication in 2017.

Before

Rick awakens from a troubled sleep to few prospects, little hope, and no one with whom to share his life. It stretches before him like the vastness of Patagonia, his bucket list vacation place now more myth than real.

Chapter 1

On Sunday night at 10:58 p.m., I punched my six-digit employee number into the time clock as though it had offended me. Its beep announced the start of my first shift as a sixty-year-old, night cashier for Southern Grocery—an inauspicious moment that reverberated suspiciously like the acceptance of defeat—signifying the last round of my life-long employment dance after my failure as a night grocery stocker, preceding this position, which is considered the lowest of the low in the grocery store caste system.

Kevin Thompson, this evening’s Front End Manager, approached. “Wassup, Rick?”

He really didn’t want an answer; I didn’t provide one. My arrival acted as his permission slip to skedaddle into another sultry late August night and participate in whatever tomfoolery happened to top his agenda. His perfunctory question fell to the floor like a used tissue as he scurried past me.

Kevin, twenty-three, sported an underdeveloped mustache on a slender face with a pointy nose that made him worthy of his moniker, unknown to him, as “Ratman.” He tiptoed the gray line between being a sniveling weasel who could be embarrassed into doing the right thing and a sly thief without morals. I had started work on the night crew six weeks ago. On my second day, I watched Kevin fill a cart with items damaged by him and then heard him at the register lamenting over the destruction customers commit. He paid pennies on the dollar for those same items. Since then, I’d heard stories of his duplicitous nature and legendary lechery with the young, impressionable female cashiers under his tutelage and authority. I was surprised he hadn’t been sacked, but he understood the edge of the harassment line and knew every aspect of his job. I suppose that made him despicable on a moral level, but valuable enough to be kept in a position that pays little but doles out a great deal of responsibility.

I was glad he’d kept on walking past me and out the sliding glass doors into the brightly lit parking lot. I had been pleasant to him these past weeks, but I didn’t want anyone to think that I was somehow “employee kin” to this jerk.

The last remaining evening cashier, Trisha Dorn, a tiny-mouthed, messy-haired brunette, had just turned twenty, moved out of her parent’s basement, and rented an apartment with three other teens all seemingly equally ill-equipped at making adult decisions. Her mid-section beneath her brown corporate polo shirt had begun displaying either a premature beer belly or the first trimester of pregnancy. I wasn’t in a position to ask or judge. I had no idea whether she would listen to any presumably sage advice I might offer. What did I know? I was an old man working at just above minimum wage in a grocery store in the middle of the night.

Trisha exhaled a deep sigh as she watched her last customer, a Rob Lowe look-a-like, exit the store. Her languid stare lingered. It had the earmark of conflicted emotions: lust for Rob Lowe’s doppelganger, relief that I had arrived so she could leave, and annoyance that Kevin had left abruptly and without her.

“Kevin filled your drawer. I’ve already signed you on to register 2,” she said without enthusiasm. I stutter stepped as I proceeded to the register. Her having signed me in was a breach of protocol, but I said nothing. Despite our age differences, she was the experienced professional; I was the newbie. With the U-scan registers shutdown, I was now the sole line of defense between profit and loss as it related to the fortunes of Southern via its customers.

Trisha closed down her register, slender fingers flying over the keyboard like a virtuoso piano player. She flicked off her register light. She was done. “The cookie bandit struck again tonight.”

I flicked my light on—open for business. “Why is it that everyone has seen her but me?”

“Don’t know.” She gathered her purse and a bag from under the register. “Have you seen the tapes?”

“A few.”

Store surveillance tapes had captured the cookie bandit several times from less than perfect angles. The good-looking woman in her mid-thirties sported a throwback Doris Day bob hairdo and was always impeccably dressed. She cruised the store without haste stealing four cookies each trip and leaving the abused container in various locations. Her polite, quiet manner at the checkout never betrayed her sweet-tooth larceny. She always paid with a one-hundred-dollar bill regardless of the total amount, walking away without her receipt or her change, leaving the cashiers to decide if it was a tip or something else. As far as I knew, they all viewed it as a tip for their excellent service.

The time clock beeped, signaling Trisha had clocked out at a minute after eleven. I was on my own—a feeling I’d had all too often recently, but a sudden burst of voices from the members of the night crew prevented a backslide into dwelling on my past. Their words floated directionless over the food aisles from somewhere in the cavernous store as they went about the business of restocking the shelves. I knew their routine, but the toll of lifting, bending, and walking had forced me to accept the night cashier position in order to remain gainfully employed. The effort to keep up with the much younger crew damn near killed me and not in any manner I’d contemplated over the past months—but slowly and more painfully.

From the produce section, a tall, imposing man wearing overalls approached. In his large hands, he held a carryall basket loaded with fruit. His thick-soled brown boots thudded the floor. Gray infiltrated his short-cropped nappy hair by his temples where it merged with a day or two’s growth. No hint of a smile broke his rough face. He reached my register and deposited the basket as though he carried a load of marshmallows. He didn’t indicate any joy at shopping so late in the evening.

My cashier training flashed through my mind, and I prayed that I would ring-up the order correctly. I felt woefully unprepared for this relatively simple job and wished someone had stayed to mentor me for the first night, even for the first hour, even more importantly, for my first customer.

“Welcome to Southern. Did you find everything you needed?” I parroted what the training video had encouraged us to say.

“Yes.” His mellow baritone voice made the word linger.

I tapped in my password to unlock the register. “Do you have your Southern’s store card?”

He held out a massive key chain. The card dangled from it. Over thirty keys were clipped together with two locks and a dozen store cards adorned it. It must have weighed three pounds. I swiped the card and absentmindedly did an arm curl with the hefty key chain before handing it back to him.

“Yeah, It’s a load,” he said.

“It is a ponderous chain that I forged in life.” Jacob Marley’s line popped into my head, but I didn’t utter it, lest my quote offend him.

My tiny register screen displayed his name. I blinked.

“Thank you, Mr. Automotive. Paper or plastic?”

A closed-mouth smile from him, and then, “Plastic is fine.”

I entered the code for bananas, 4-0-1-1, and rung them up. I guided six mangos, a package of strawberries, a pineapple, two star fruit, and three large oranges over the scanner. The fruity smell filled my nostrils. “Makings of a healthy fruit salad, Mr. Automotive?” The small talk masked my nervousness.

He chuckled. “The fruit’s for my girls. I’m a meat and potatoes guy.”

“So am I. You can’t beat a sizzling pork chop.” My own words actually made my mouth water. The irony struck me as it often did. The store was loaded with food I’d love to eat, and yet, I couldn’t prepare a damn thing while stuck here and couldn’t afford any meat that wasn’t in the manager’s special discount rack—meat that if not sold that day goes somewhere unspeakable. Like so many things, all this immediate gratification lingering just out of reach, testing my patience and resolve to pull myself out of my life’s situational ditch.

I hit the total button.

“That’s $20.17.” It took a second, and then I recognized that his order matched the year. Signs. I had been looking for signs for what to do, if anything, with the rest of my life. Was life trying to tell me this is the year? If so, to do what?

He swiped his credit card through the reader. I hit the appropriate buttons to accept the transaction and then bagged his fruit.

“It’s Sam. Sam Ayers,” he said. “That’s my name. I took this card out in the name of my business, ABC Automotive.” He arched his back and blew out breath. “These long days are killing me.”

“Business booming?” The register drawer flew open. I closed it, ripped off the receipt, and handed it to him. “You saved $4 tonight.”

“Thanks,” he said. “Business is good, but I can’t find any young people willing to do the hard work and get their hands dirty. I’m not over the hill yet, but there are days and fixes that are best left to someone with more dexterity.”

I thought about my weeks on the night crew and touched a hand to a sore spot on my hip. “I hear you.”

“Most vehicle diagnostics are on the computer these days. The kids like that, but give them a torque wrench, and they look at you like you’ve asked them to fix the toilet on the space station with a spoon.” He grimaced.

I grinned at the image as I handed him his two bags. “Sorry to hear that. Maybe you should petition the local schools to bring back the type of shop classes I had when I was a kid. I wasn’t very good at either wood or metal shop. Everything I made turned out to be an ashtray.”

His laugh was warm and genuine, and from a deep understanding.

“I’ve read where some districts are realizing that college isn’t for every kid and that apprenticed trades provide for a good life. Maybe you’ll be able to find the right kid while pushing the idea.”

He pointed to my nametag. “Rick, that’s a good idea. I might just hit up the schools.” He waved goodbye and left.

I leaned back and let out a small breath. I hoped my nervousness hadn’t shown through. One customer down. Who knows how many more to go?

Moments later, a slender young man slipped out of the soda aisle, aisle five, and headed in my direction. He scanned the candy racks in front of the registers as if searching for just the right treat. He was holding a can of black olives from aisle one in his left hand; his right hand was fidgeting with the waistline of his sagging black and gold shorts. He wore an unzipped thin, loose-fitting, blue, long-sleeved sweatshirt over a brown tank top.

I greeted him as I had Sam.

He mumbled something unintelligible, continuing to pull at his shorts.

I waited for him to surrender the can of olives.

His shoulder-length blonde hair snuck out from beneath the hoodie as he jostled with his sweatshirt as though it was fighting him. The hair needed a shampooing, and his adolescent whiskers might have never seen a razor blade. He finally looked at me. His wide-set blue eyes hid behind eyelashes any model would kill to have. He raised a gun and aimed it at my head.

 

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