Will Ackerman has been writing for twenty plus years, from the trenches of field reporting through editing, consulting and on. His work has been published in many publications including Field and Stream, Grit, Cats, Rockford, Worcester, and The Dana Literary Society. He has been nominated for The Pushcart Prize and currently lives in New York where he is working on selling his novel.
For one giant economy-sized summer I was indentured to a grocery/deli/sports store as a sort of assistant manager/clerk/ stock boy/janitor/complaint department. Out front, like a thought lingering above the door, was a red, white, and blue neon sign that patriotically declared: OPEN ALL NIGHT!
The "O" in "OPEN" was neurotic and flickered as though winking as though aware of something that no one else was privy to.
I always closed the store at 11:00 p.m. Manager's orders. Then I went home. Why go out if "all night" is over?
That damn "O" was right.
Food stamps Are Forever
Guy down the block from the store wanted to purchase an Alfa Romeo with Food
Stamps. Said he saw a Texan on television (on a talk show dedicated to such
cutting edge insanity) who ate a ten-speed bicycle in Tokyo. Said it took the
man a passel of weeks, but he consumed the thing a chopsticked
piece of magnesium alloy and rubber and vinyl sashimi at a time.
"I bin gettin' Food Stamps for five years, eight months, fourteen days and some odd hours, and the Welfare Mafia gots title to everything I ever called my own.
"If it can be ett and ain't s'posed to be warmed up like soup or them plastic sam-wiches and whatnot," he said, "then it qualerfies for Food Stamps."
"Nope," I said. I was authoritative. I, after all, was wearing the apron. "They'll never allow it, Sam. Not an Alfa Romeo. Maybe a 1991 Geo but never an Alfa Romeo."
Six months later I ran into him and asked how he made out.
"It was delicious," he said. "I ett it in Milan with 7,046 side-orders of linquini."
$52,000 and Hold the Rye
One seven-year-old kid in the neighborhood made $52,000 in the five months I worked at the store by running 104,000 errands at 50 cents an errand.
He knew the prices in that place better than I would have if I had been shackled to the shelving the rest of my adult life.
He would blur through the door, flurry around the aisles in a rolling tangle of hands and feet and, with a magical blush of dust, he'd be gone. The correct change would quaver to a stop on the counter in front of me, like little lost hubcaps from little gone cars.
If he lives long enough—say, to see eight or nine—and doesn't get squashed by a truck or assassinated by UPS, he'll probably join the National Security Council.
To Pause or Not
A girl—young lady—came in, pregnant. She was always pregnant.
I only worked in that store for a short time, but I had seen her turtling around the neighborhood before, and she was pregnant then, too. Later—long after I quit—she was still pregnant. She's probably pregnant yet.
I guess she likes it: being pregnant, that is.
Elephants gestate for something like twenty months.
Maybe she's an elephant.
Absolutely No Personal Checks!
We had this sign. It was green and yellow:
ABSOLUTELY NO PERSONAL CHECKS!
It read just like that except the "NO" was underlined so many times that it looked like a rocket lifting off from the Cape. NO!
Every night, when I took over from the afternoon shift, there would be about 176 checks circling the cash register, caught in small negative orbits.
"Da manager, he cashes ma cheks," a talking truck claimed. He said it just like that: "C-H-E-K-S." There was absolutely no place in his life for silent "c"s.
"Maybe he does, but I can't," I explained. I pointed to the sign with its nervous "NO." "I'm not allowed," I said.
"He's allowed. He's da … er, the manager." I looked up into the high beams of his headlamps and the missing dental work of his grill, and my voice sounded to me like it was stuck in the ice cream freezer with the Nutty Buddies and the Eskimo Pies.
"Ah'm gonna pull off yore legs," said the truck very deliberately so there could be no mistake. He looked down at my legs and began to mouth a wish.
"How'd you like that? A ten and two fives okay?" I asked.
"No personal checks," the manager bellowed.
The manager was an Italian guy who looked like Mussolini—upright—and was named Vitiello. He had the build of a sausage skin over-filled with riccota cheese.
"Don't see me takin' no personal checks," he proclaimed.
"I don't see you at all," said I. He was always gone before I got there. "Besides, that guy was going to cram me in an empty Miracle Whip jar and send me to Zambia."
"Shoulda gone," snarled the manager. "Zambia ain't bad this time a year."
He had Mussolini's compassion too.
Lesson in Economics, Part A
When I was growing up we'd do just about anything for money. For instance, we used to collect rags and paper and tin and iron and steel and lead and aluminum and brass and copper and bronze, and when we got enough we'd go to the scrap yard and sell it for cash. Aluminum was the best because it paid well per pound and there was a lot lying around unattended. Brass and copper and bronze paid better, naturally, but they were about as plentiful as Passenger Pigeons in our neighborhood.
So we'd collect all those things and then take them down the road to the scrap yard and fight with the red haired Jewish guy who practically charged us to take the stuff off our hands so he could peddle it later at a ridiculous profit. But we did it anyway. We needed money because we didn't have very much money, and that seemed important to us at the time.
Rags and paper and tin and iron and steel and lead and aluminum and copper and brass and bronze. Ah … the good old days.
I really thought that sort of drive—initiative—was dead. You know: "Kids today ain't got no incentive! Not enough good old fashioned greed!"
But I was wrong. Very wrong.
One night while I was working at the store, a quiet, nice looking, unassuming lad came through and collected all those things: rags and paper and tin and iron and steel and aluminum and brass and copper and bronze. He collected them to take down the road to sell—and he did his collecting all at once!
He stole my car.
A Dog's Life
Elderly couple without particularly concerned relatives or pets of any kind came in twice a week right at closing. They would hide behind the telephone pole across the street and watch until the store was emptied and I had my hand on the red CLOSED sign in the door. Then they'd bark at me and charge.
"Six-pack of canned dog dinner to go," the old gentleman would say. And, that quickly, they'd be gone, chasing each other back across the street.
Lesson in Economics, Part B
"What's the difference between this loaf of white, basically unproteinaceous, sliced, enriched bread with virtually no Vitamins A or C and only traces of Thiamine, Riboflavin, Niacin, Calcium, or Iron, and the loaf you usually have for seventeen cents less?"
The questioner was a distinguished looking, lofty gray-haired gentleman in a Brook's Bothers three piece and the sensitive sentient eyes of an IRS inquisitor.
I mulled through my answer very carefully. "About five slices of bread." I said this with what I thought to be a certain mercantilistic verve.
"That's well out of line with the price per slice of the rest of the slices in these loaves," he observed. He put away his reading glasses, gold case of course, slipped the case into his vest. The offending loaf was clutched in one manicured hand.
"We're out of the chea —ah, less expensive loaves," I explained.
"I don't require the additional slices," he counter explained.
"Tomorrow we should have the other kind," I counter counter explained.
"I don't care to ask my man to make another stop."
I glanced out the front window to where his "man," resplendent in blue livery and bluer boredom, leaned against a car bigger than Moldavia.
"I understand," I said. It used to cost something like $27,000 an hour to take the QE II for a spin around the block.
"Well …?" He eloquently placed the bread on the counter.
I looked at him. I looked down at the affronting loaf. I looked at the car. I looked at the "man." I looked back to the loaf.
It was a dilemma.
"What do you intend to do about it?" The gentleman asked this as though it were the final exam for a seminar on Business Incentive For Semiliterate Subordinates. He delicately dropped eighty-three cents in change on the counter (the correct price of the chea— less expensive loaf) and slid the coins toward me as though poling kibbles to a muskrat.
With a deft swipe I transferred the money from the counter top to the ledge of the cash register. He reached for his prize.
"Just a moment."
I picked up the bread, untwisted the twist tie, reached into the heart of the package and withdrew five slices of white, basically unproteinaceous, etc. I then tossed those over my shoulder, where they sailed onto and bounced off of the aspirin rack. I retwisted the twist tie and handed the less-expensived loaf over.
Outside his "man," who had been observing the entire transaction, yodeled into hysterics and toppled out of sight behind Moldavia.
Outflanked in a Delicatessen
"Just come from NCO school," a fellow in green Army fatigues and a green Army fatigue cap and black regulation Army boots informed me.
I didn't say anything, couldn't think of anything to say. I handed him his change and nodded and arched my eyebrows in an attempt to look appropriately enough impressed that he might just go away. I failed.
"That's Noncommissioned Officer's School," he continued. I arched my eyebrows higher still. "That's a trainin' school to become a noncommissioned officer in the United States Army Reserve." He intoned "United States Army Reserve" as if each syllable were a separate word, and it came out sounding longer than the entire text of The Book of Revelations.
He studied me for a reaction. If my eyebrows got much higher they were going to slide off the back of my head. "Oh?" I said—precise and blanketing the target.
"Yep," he nodded. He took two sticks of strawberry gum from the pack he'd just purchased, field-stripped and stuck them both into his mouth. I guess that's how they train noncommissioned officers to do it.
"Yella Slopehead Pinkos kilt my brother in Nam," he said.
I knew the eyebrow thing was doomed to failure, so despite desperate misgivings, I commented, "I see." And just about did see.
"Rolled a jeep over on him." His face clouded grimly, which wasn't easy considering it was buried beneath three layers of green, brown and black camouflage grease paint. And I didn't "see" anymore.
I tried to picture this enormous North Vietnamese Regular flinging a jeep at a GI, but the scene absolutely refused to gel. Too many of the folks I'd known who went to Vietnam chose less exotic ways to get dead over there.
"He was in a race with another jeep driver and lost control," the camouflage paint stated.
Dawn shown over D'Nang.
"But if them Yella Slopehead Pinkos hand't've been a fightin' us, he wouldn't a bin there to get hisself kilt to death."
"Yeah. I guess you got a point."
"Yella Slopehead Pinkos," he growled. He properly adjusted the brim of his cap, chomped furiously at his gum and advanced out the door.
I was sorry for any "Yella Slopehead Pinkos" he might chance onto in the next few highly emotionally charged moments, and I felt not a bit safer for having met him.
A Little Delicatessen Pedantry is a Dangerous Thing
"You got any a that there baked round ham?" a little porcine guy with horn rimmed glasses asked. He had a head as hairy as a bowling ball, and ears adhered to the side like shelf fungus.
I bent down and peered into the meat case to confirm what I already knew. (They never believe you can actually remember something so complicated as what meats you might have left without first looking.)
"Nope. All out. Got pepper, chopped, and Cappacola's all."
"Capp … cap … ca …?" His face scrunched up into little fleshy folds of lard-laden bacon. "What's that?" he wanted to know.
"Cappacola. It's Italian ham," I informed him. "Spicy. Kinda hot."
"Oh." His face unscrunched. "Hot … huh?" he asked doubtfully.
"Not real hot. Just spicy."
"Cappa … cap … cap … ca …."
"C-a-pp-a-c-o-l-a," I said, trying to be helpful. "But some Italians pronounce it more like: `Gaa-ppa-goool!'" I was shamelessly showing off knowledge gained from bygone days of dating a nymphomaniac of Italian heritage and an appetite that portended a shape like Pavarrati.
His little olive eyes inflated and his wet lips dribbled into each other like all-meat franks, as he soundlessly mouthed the magical word for himself. Then, finally comfortable with his mastery, he ventured back into the audible world.
"Gim'me a third pound of that there gaaa-perr-goool."
And I, in that fleeting moment, realized I had unleashed another monster onto the unknowing, sensitive, conversation-starved world. How many insane places would he find to use his new word? How many diverse ways could he thrust it into the heart of an otherwise healthy dialogue that would quickly collapse and bleed to death? How many lonely souls craving a little simple verbal exchange would be driven forever into brooding silence for its intrusion?
Guilt tromped all over me.
"A third pound of this here hot ham?" I begged. "Hot ham … huh?"
But he just scrunched up contentedly. It was far too late.
Cash register closed-out and locked.
Had all the aisle lights off.
The big neon sign with its CIA secretive "O" was dark.
The "Open" sign in the window was down.
The big red "Closed" sign on the door was faced out for all the buying world to acknowledge and beware.
I was mopping the floor. It seemed about the size of the flight deck on the USS Enterprise.
Unbelievably, the guy hammering at the door kept right on doing so. He beat at it with the meat of one hand while he mushed nose prints onto the freshly Windexed glass. I finally dropped mop and unlocked to see what he wanted.
"You closed?" he asked. He was holding the "Closed" sign to one side so that he could peer around it.
I nodded, afraid of what I might say if I spoke.
"Oh." He walked away.