In the summer of 1978, I was a 15-year-old rookie bag boy at the Bi-Rite, and prayer was the stitching that sewed up the fraying seams of my days. When a crimson stain split through the morning sky, I dispatched a heavenly request for aid to make it through my daily shift, and when inky darkness fell, a plea was made to be normal, but God laughed.
The grocery store was in a strip mall on Summit Avenue, and despite the lofty street name, it was neither the geographic nor fashionable pinnacle of Greensboro, North Carolina. The building wore rusted metal awnings and looked as if it had settled in with a sigh, like a slouching old man in a faded visor waiting for the afternoon bus. Shoppers arrived with wrinkled newspaper circulars clutched in their hands, lured in by the weekly specials and the wafting scent of fried chicken lingering like an unwanted relative. Layers of wax on the green Formica floor preserved artifacts left behind: a dropped coin, a pink plastic crucifix, a cigarette butt.
In the front of the store was a raised office with wood-paneled half-walls and a strip of corrugated smoke colored glass. Each morning, I’d step through the sliding glass doors, punch a time card, and glance up to see if my supervisor Larry had climbed into his perch.
I hated the sight of his head and the eddying smoke from the Marlboro Reds that clung to it. He had mutton-chop sideburns groomed to meet the ends of his mustache which accentuated his beak-shaped nose. Often, he’d pull a comb from his back pocket and run it through his coarse brown hair, causing the sides to stick up. With eyes wide like a great horned owl, he’d survey the store: the shoplifter tucking a jar of peanut butter down his pants, the female cashier in tight hip-huggers, or a gangly 15-year-old bag boy seeking refuge in the frozen food aisle while straightening cartons of Neapolitan ice-cream.
Larry’s contempt for me was hard-boiled, and I knew why: he saw through me. On a muggy Saturday, a group of us bag boys were asked to help set up a new grocery store in a better part of town. When we arrived by foot and bicycle, we met a group of boys who looked like they had just driven their fancy cars from the country club tennis courts. They had tanned faces carved of honey-colored marble, preppy side part hair-cuts, white shorts and sinewy limbs honed not by rough trade but by leisure sports. We Summit Avenue boys shifted in our dirty sneakers, straightened our holey t-shirts and then like a rival gang, silently faced the country club lads.
“All right, ladies, get to work,” Larry shouted.
We took our positions along a steel skate wheel conveyor set up at the tail end of a truck for unloading. Cartons and boxes of canned goods and sticky, sweet-smelling produce—peaches, apples, and pears—were placed on the conveyor. We pushed and guided them as they rumbled and clacked along to the end, where one of the blond country club boys lifted and stacked the goods. Our positions along the assembly line were based on strength. The skinniest kid, I was placed on the outer edge, where a slight turn in the path required a guard rail: me. The blond country club boy at the end, the strongest, grabbed the boxes and hefted them into stacks, his veiny arms bulging as dark rings of underarm sweat spread on his t-shirt.
When there was a lull in the action, the boy at the end peeled off his shirt in one fluid, slow-motion movement, his torso twisting and turning, revealing ripples of skin over taut muscles, a peek of underwear from the top of his shorts and more body hair than my scant hormones would ever produce. My pupils became fixed and dilated, and my heart raced. A car horn blared in the distance as a group of girls hollered and whistled, and then the clacking became louder—Bam! A speeding box of canned fruit punched me in the gut and sent me sailing to the ground. Before I could stand up, another carton crashed next to me as I threw my arms up over my head like I was a girl swatting at a swarm of angry bees.
When I opened my eyes, a dark shadow loomed over me, eclipsing the sun. In one sickening moment, I saw a reflection of my curled-up body in Larry’s bulging eyes before they narrowed into slits. He shook his head in disgust, not because I had failed at my job as a human guard rail, but because he saw how another handsome boy’s flesh made me weak with desire. That is when I became Larry’s prey.
The third of July was the busiest day of summer, and mothers with colorful, bug-eyed sunglasses descended upon the aisles with unruly kids wearing red, white, and blue striped t-shirts in tow. I tried to choose my bathroom break judiciously, but before I finished, I heard my name.
“Dameron, get your scrawny behind up front,” Larry’s voice twanged through the loud-speaker. He was waiting for me at the end of the cashier’s conveyor belt.
“Look, boy, you don’t leave this spot,” he said.
Michelle, the hip-hugger wearing cashier, cast a glance over her shoulder, blue eye shadow flashing and long, black hair swishing to the side. She was an unwed mother in her early twenties, and I could tell, in a way that a cat might offer up an injured mouse to its owner, that Larry had a thing for her.
“Keep your eyes on this varmint, Michelle,” he winked at her and flew back to his perch.
I felt the heat rising to my face as groceries piled up at the end of the conveyor belt. I fumbled to pull out another bag as Michelle slowed her pace to match mine. When she grabbed a bag to assist me, Larry came running over, smoke rings trailing.
“Michelle, take your break,” he said.
Larry took her spot and shot me a look. My heart pounded as I struggled to keep up with the cans of Spaghetti-Os and baked beans that he gunned towards my knuckles.
“You’re useless,” he said and snatched the bag from my hand. “Take them watermelons out to the car.” He pointed towards a middle-aged woman who was looking for assistance.
There was an unwritten rule among us bag boys that what could be carried should not be pushed. I eyed the two watermelons in her shopping cart, sizing them up and then wrapped an arm around each one, hoisting them with my knees and nodded to the woman. She eyed me suspiciously, this skinny kid wrangling waxed melons the size of twin toddlers. After a few steps, the first one dropped with a thud and a splat, and then the other followed. My stomach fell with them, as the Formica became awash in melon guts, peppered with black seeds.
“I ain’t paying for those,” the woman bawled as the crowd of shoppers laughed. Smoke rose from Larry’s head as hot tears ran down my cheeks.
After I mopped up the mess, I disappeared into the aisles, losing myself in the monotonous task of straightening cans and rotating stock. At the end of my shift, Larry summoned me. He sent me to fetch a beer for his consumption. Being a good Catholic boy, I had never taken a sip of alcohol, and the vast array of choices in the cooler confounded me. He mentioned the brand name so quickly that I could not make it out. My palms became sweaty as my eyes darted. I reached out, grabbed one, and whispered, “Please Lord.” When I returned, the staff was milling about the front door. Larry smirked.
“Now does that look like a Colt 45, you faggot? Are you going to cry like a girl?”
I walked home, wiping my cheeks with the back of my hand. Storm clouds pillared on the horizon illuminated by flashes of heat lightning. I could not quit. I was too ashamed of letting Larry treat me that way. When he bumped into my mother at church, he’d tell her it was my fault and then divulge my sin. That’s when my prayers took a dark turn. If my prayers to God could not make me straight, perhaps he could remove the person who knew my secret. I envisioned Larry and his motorcycle crumpled up beneath the fender of a car and cast this twisted image up into the clouds.
Each day, I prayed for an answer and then one hazy morning, a miracle. When I punched in, Larry was missing from his perch. I waited. Every time the door slid open, a hot wind licked my neck, and my heart jumped at the expectation of his smoky ghost. Midway through the day, with no sight of Larry, I asked Michelle where he was. She wrinkled her forehead and leaned towards me. “Larry’s kid brother was killed in a car accident.”
My face drained of color as I looked up at the vacant office.
“Honey, are you OK?” She placed her hand on my shoulder.
It never occurred to me that Larry might have a family, or that my prayers could spin off like a tornado, striking others in its path.
“Can I offer you a piece of advice?” Michelle asked. I stared at her, my face ashy white. “Don’t let him git to you so.”
I put the back of one hand to my forehead and the other on my hip.
“Try not to look so”—she paused to regard me—”well, like you do now.”
She dropped that bit of advice like a sharp object falling from a careless shopper’s purse. It stung, and it stuck with me. To survive, I would have to change who I was, or at least who I appeared to be. But, there is a thin veneer between appearing self-assured and feeling like an impostor. If you were to look closely, even after all of these years, you’d see the words Larry and the others left behind, like artifacts embedded in my skin.
My fragile confidence became bolstered by Larry’s absence and the knowledge that my summer job was nearing its expiration date. I began to keep up with Michelle’s pace, learned how to stack goods in the bag for maximum balance and prepared for his return by rehearsing witty comebacks, such as “sticks and stones,” and “you’re a jerk.” I practiced these lines in front of a mirror, snuffing out the gesticulating hands and high-pitched voice.
When Larry returned, he was a shadow of a man, slipping into the office and fading behind a veil of smoke. I was different now, and he didn’t even notice.
On my last day of work, when a fresh breeze tempered the steamy summer air I fetched a Colt 45, stepped up into the office and cleared my throat. A smoky halo of gauzy sunlight circled the back of Larry’s head.
“I—I have something to say to you, Larry,” I stammered.
I worked up the courage to deliver the final blow, a rapid-fire string of epithets that would pierce his skin, but when he turned around, he held onto an extinguished cigarette that clung to an entire length of ash, and I caught sight of myself in his startled, watery eyes.
“I’m sorry about your little brother,” I whispered. I patted the beer, placed it on his desk, and walked out, never to return.
Sometimes on a hot summer night, I lie on my bed and peel back the layers. I guess I could be angry about all of the years spent faking it, about the seemingly unanswered prayers and how it was not until after my fourth decade that I figured out how to sort, stack, and arrange my normal little life. But then, my husband throws a tan leg over mine, rests his bulging arm on my shoulder, and it feels—sacred. It starts to rain, and I can hear the rumble and clacking of thunder in the distance. It sounds like God laughing.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Thomas Hawk