Growing Up Gardnerville: Semester Break, Part II
Growing Up Gardnerville is a series of vignettes and short stories, combining the moments we’ve experienced, heard about and imagined in this wonderful Valley. It is an indulgence of the memory, Twainian in nature: It’s how it happened, clouded by years of exaggerated re-telling. The series premiered in June with The Lake. The places are real, some of the events are too, but names have been changed to protect the innocent, characters have been melded together for the sake of brevity, anonymity and convenience and the timeline has been jumbled and folded over on itself to serve a more entertaining storyline. When you say, “This didn’t really happen,” you’re mostly right. But it did happen, to one of us, sometime, sort of, growing up in this incredible place we call home.
Semester Break: Part II
by Joey Crandall, firstname.lastname@example.org [twitter-follow screen_name=’joeycrandall’ show_count=’yes’]
“So, the big guy from ‘Armageddon’ asks Tom Hanks not to put the hood over his head, because he’s scared of the dark, and Dale Knotts is two seats down from me …” Kyle Cooper toggled bottles of red wine on the liquor aisle at Scolari’s, pulling them evenly to the front of the shelf, two deep.
It’s a subtle, simple act done throughout every grocery store everywhere. You wouldn’t notice it, unless it wasn’t done. Pulling all of the product to the front of shelves to make them appear full and uniformly stocked at least once a day – more frequently in the areas of higher customer volume.
My job, between 3:30 p.m. and midnight every shift, was to make sure the perimeter of the store – the liquor, dairy, bread, soda and frozen foods was filled, faced and stocked before leaving for the night.
With business dying down for the night, Kyle, as had become his routine, was helping me face the liquor aisle.
“Dale’s crying like a little girl. He’s seen the stinking movie three times already, and he’s crying like it’s the saddest thing he’s ever seen.
“I’m just cracking up and shouting at Dale to get over it and the manager comes in and asks me to leave. I’m like, ‘I’ve seen this six times already, bro. And hey, turn the heater off in here next time, huh?’ So I left.”
Kyle tipped a bottle off the shelf and managed to grab it by the neck just before impact.
Recovering quickly, he said, “It’s a really good movie, though. It’s like … deep.”
“You already told me how it ends, Kyle.” I said. “Isn’t it like three hours long?”
“Hey what do you think is going to happen when this thing hits zero?” Kyle pointed to the large Korbel display at the end of the aisle.
Glassy dark green-tinted bowling pins topped with pristine ivory foil stems and gold neck ties stacked in neat rows towering up to a large digital clock meticulously counting down. Fireworks were boldly painted behind the metallic Korbel lettering. Above it all, in big cursive letters, it read “Happy New Year.”
It was still 11 days away. We hadn’t even gotten past Christmas yet.
“What do you mean? It’ll probably turn off.”
“You don’t think it’s going to shoot fireworks out of the sides and play a Sousa march or something? I mean, buddy, it’s the freaking Millennium, man. It has to do something. Something special.”
“Robots,” Billy was examining vitamin bottles near the pharmacy window a few feet away, humming along with the Scolari’s theme song — was basically a complete copy of Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” except the titular lyrics had been replaced with the words, “Oh, Scolari’s, Yeah, You’re Special Every Day.”
It played over the store’s speakers at least 90 times every day.
“Robots, like dancing robots, are going to spring out of it and … dance around … to the Scolari’s song!”
Billy had a routine too. All break, since we’d gotten home and Kyle and I started to work, Billy would come into the store around 11:30 and hang out until the end of the shift.
Then we’d go to breakfast at Katie’s. At midnight. Every shift.
“Nothing’s going to happen,” I said.
“It’ll at least play a song,” Kyle said. “Maybe it’ll spit out hundred dollar bills.”
Manny, a member of the janitorial crew, rounded the corner with his industrial-sized floor cleaning machine, maneuvering it like a Zamboni across the tiled floor.
“Hey Manny, what’s up?”
Manny offered a half wave before wrangling the machine past the milk shelves.
A couple high school girls grabbed some sodas from down the aisle.
They were whispering as they passed, just loud enough for the three of us to discern the word “Snowball” as they looked at Kyle.
Kyle’s cheeks turned a heated crimson. Word of his exploits at the Gazebo lighting had spread quickly, winning him Gardnerville Infamy in short order.
A sharp metallic clang cut the chagrin, though, as a 4-year-old terror on wheels trailing after his mother shinned Kyle in the right leg with one of stainless steel kid carts.
Kyle doubled over, muffling his shout into his work apron as he knelt to the ground.
“It’s almost midnight,” he grimaced. “What’s that kid doing out?”
“So, Billy, how’s your girlfriend?” I tried to deflect the subject at hand.
“Delilah? I talked to her again tonight, for three minutes this time.”
“Did you use your real name this time?” Kyle asked, face still buried.
“Well, I used the same name.”
“You’re pathetic,” Kyle was back upright.
Billy feigned respiratory attack. “Cough, Snowball, Cough, cough.”
The manager cut in over the store’s loudspeaker before Kyle and Billy could come to blows. “Service 5 please.”
Service 5. There was a customer at the register.
Every grocery store in the United States has its own unique cast of characters. The people who come in almost daily, or the ones who come in at the same time every week. The shoppers who lodge the same complaints against the same employees repeatedly and the customers that go out of their way to make life easier for the workers.
I’d developed my own set of favorites over three years at the store.
There was Morty, who always walked in after 9 p.m., wearing the same sky-blue knit sweater and faded grey slacks. He would pace up and down the dairy aisle, peering through almond-rimmed coke-bottle glasses at the various products. He would tell me, in a thick Boston accent, all about the items that were on sale that week, often reading ingredient labels out loud and comparing the difference between pineapple and low-fat cottage cheese.
Then there was the father in his early 30s, who would come in late at night to pick up whatever his pregnant wife was craving at the moment. He’d make conversation at the register, engaging in topics ranging anywhere from local government to the latest movies. Sometimes he had his 2-year-old son slung over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes. He was one of the few customers who asked questions of me – how class was going, or what my goals were. After 10 minutes or so, he’d get that look in his eye that it was time to be home with his wife.
And he’d go.
On this night however, there stood a man we’d never seen before.
Sandy-gray hair and a tanned, wrinkled face, he eyed me as I slipped a pack of cigarettes, a bottle of mouthwash and a toothbrush past the scanner.
Kyle quickly placed all three items in a plastic bag while I tended to the man’s credit card.
“Well you’re a couple of strapping young lads then, aren’t you,” the Irish tinge of the man’s voice startled me. “You going to school?”
“Uh, yeah,” I nodded over at Kyle. “We’re just on semester break right now.”
“Beautiful, Beautiful,” the man exclaimed, directing his head toward the ceiling with closed eyes.
Kyle glanced at me with an eyebrows arched high. I shrugged my shoulders.
“There is nothing more valuable than a good education, young men.”
“Well, we try our best,” I said, just trying to fill the gap until he started talking again.
“And that’s the best anyone can do then isn’t it? Good for you lads, good for you.”
“Thank you,” we said in awkward unison.
The Irishman eyed us for several more seconds. His jaw set harder and he jabbed a finger toward each of us.
“I’m going to give you lads two pieces of advice that you’ll need to keep with you for the rest of your life,” he said, not waiting to see if we would accept.
“Start reading poetry. Nothing in the world will affect your prose more and nothing will magnify your vision of your environment better than a good verse here and there.”
Neither I or Kyle could find a response in the moment.
“Might I suggest Mr. Robert Frost, or perhaps some of William Shakespeare’s sonnets. Those two will blow your mind, let me tell you. Those lads had some passion in them.”
“Tell me, Kyle,” he scraped Kyle’s name from the revalatory white and black name tag. “You got a girl?”
“Sort of,” Kyle muttered.
“Ahhh, I see that young man. You do, you do. Nothing better than young love. You make sure you write her a poem before she gets away. A well-written song will stay in a woman’s heart long after she has moved on from your life.”
Kyle started to object, “O …OK. But …”
The man didn’t afford him the opportunity.
“Here’s the second piece, young men, and this is even more valuable than the first.”
He leaned over the counter until we could see the tan flakes speckled throughout his gray eyes.
“You start keeping a diary, a journal, for your grandchildren,” he smiled wryly. “They’re going to want to know someday how their granddaddies lived, and it’s your responsibility to make sure you’re there to tell them about it, whether your still around or not.
“Now don’t you forget that one lad, there’s nothing more important than getting the story of your life down on paper.
“The good Lord gives us each the opportunity to delve through the chapters of these wonderful lives he’s given us. You don’t want to be the only one who gets to hear your tale.”
We remained speechless.
“The man winked, straightened up, buttoned his brown leather jacket, whirled on one pivot foot and left, humming “Big Yellow Taxi”as he went.
Several seconds of silence passed.
“Man,” Billy was sitting on the counter two registers over. He took a sip from his can of Ruby Red Squirt, “That was intense … Was he singing Joni Mitchell?”
The great thing about Grand Central Pizza … No, the greatest thing about Grand Central Pizza, was that it sold an extra large cheese pizza measuring — no joke — 24 inches in diameter and costing 6 dollars and 50 cents.
Better, it was located about six doors down from Scolari’s. If you could find even two other co-workers to chip in two bucks each, your lunch could be a literal pizza feast.
A couple days after we’d been confronted by the Irish poet, that’s exactly what Kyle and I had decided to do for lunch. I called during a break earlier in the evening, then he ran down and picked it up.
The trick was smuggling in the enormous box, which was as wide as Kyle’s arms were long, without any of the high school employees feeling entitled to a piece.
He strode briskly past the bakery-deli, pushed through the produce department and into the swinging doors by the florist. I was waiting for him, peering though plexiglass windows that had been marred and scuffed by years of impact from broom handles, cart corners and box cutters.
We hurried down the stockroom corridor to the employee break area – a table with a microwave tucked away between pallets of 12-pack soda.
A man wearing a red hooded sweatshirt, red sweatpants, red socks and red tennis shoes was sitting in one of the folding metal chairs surrounding the table, taking a long drag off a cigarette.
He nodded a welcome as we sat down. Sweat beaded off his forehead and his hair was damp.
“Want some?” Kyle opened the box toward the man in red.
“Hey, don’t mind if I do,” the man grabbed a large wedge from the pie, raised it in salute our direction and began alternating his attention the pizza and the cigarette.
“You new here?” I asked.
“Oh I travel store to store, you know, on contract.”
We ate in silence for a minute.
“So … what do you do?”
He stuffed the rest of his slice in his mouth.
“I’m Sacky,” he forced a muffled voice through packed cheeks.
The man in red gestured toward the brown, anthropomorphic grocery sack, brimming with plastic groceries.
Sacky was the company mascot. He made stops to the store during the holiday season to pass out gift cards and take photos with children of the customers.
“How is it, you know … do you like doing it?”
“It’s OK, I guess. The suit is a sauna during the summer … and it smells. Plus, I get the feeling corporate is trying to push me out.”
“Out of being the mascot?”
“It’s all about Louie these days,” he spat on the floor. “Everyone loves Louie.”
“Who’s Louie?” Kyle had begun to fidget the minute he saw the mascot outfit. He was now freely pumping his feet so that the soles of his Chuck Taylor All-Stars pattered in rhythm against the polished concrete floor.
“Louie, you know,” the man in red stood and gestured to the items brimming out of the top of his grocery bag costume. “The stupid lobster.”
He batted at a brown, google-eyed crustacean hanging off the side.
“They started bringing him into the corporate branding last year. The kids go crazy for Louie.”
The man heaved the rectangular mass over his head and inhabited the suit, pulling a pair of white padded gloves over his hands.
He gave a slight bow. “Sacky … see?”
Kyle was virtually vibrating out of his chair.
“If they made a change to the company mascot, couldn’t you just wear a lobster suit?” I asked.
“It doesn’t work that way, brother,” Sacky laughed deep within his foam, grinning face. “Mascotting is a deep character study,” wagging a padded finger in the air. “Hey do you mind if a take another piece of pizza for the ro…”
Kyle snapped, cutting the bag man off in mid-sentence and slamming the pizza box shut. “Dude, the suit is really creeping me out. Could you … go?”
Sacky raised his the white mitts in surrender, forced one of them into a thumbs up and toddled out of the stockroom.
I stared at Kyle.
“I’m terrified of mascots, man,” he offered dismissively.
The old store used to absolutely hum during the holiday season. People make a big deal out of Black Friday, but grocery stores are busy all month.
All month. Really from the week before Thanksgiving to the week after New Year’s Day.
Six weeks of fury. At least that’s what it used to feel like.
It all reached a fever pitch about mid-afternoon the day before Christmas Eve. Every checkout line was stacked three deep with customers. The chatter of holiday plans and recipes was repeatedly punctuated with the staccato pings emanating from the UPC scanners.
Kyle was wrapping up bagging a two-cart order for me when Tina Pinkle stepped up to the register with Abercrombie & Fitch in tow, his left eye still darkened from Kyle’s snowball.
She set a couple candy bars down on the counter, the diamond on her ring finger twinkling brilliantly with the aid of the florescent lights above the register, before looking up to see Kyle and I standing there.
There was an awkward pause as she realized we were there. She searched for a convenient and gracious exit to another line. Finding none, she remained at our station.
“Tina,” Kyle gasped. “Wow, hi.”
Abercrombie locked eyes with Kyle, saying nothing.
“Hi Kyle,” she said. “How’s it going?”
Good … good,” Kyle sputtered. He collected his thoughts. “Yeah, hey, I hear congratulations are in order. “ He gestured toward Tina’s hand.
She nodded, saying nothing. Abercrombie paid for their snacks and they started for the door.
Kyle stared down at the counter for a moment, speechlessly moving his lips and hammering the outside corner of the stand with his thumb.
“Tina, wait,” his voice struggled forth.
She huffed as she turned, daring Kyle to excuse her without incident. Abercrombie’s eyes blazed as his fists clinched in on themselves.
“I have something to say.” Kyle fiddled a piece of paper out of his apron, squinting his eyes as he began to discern the hastily scribbled words thereon.
“Tina, let’s go.” Abercrombie rolled his broad shoulders forward, stepping closer to his fiance.
“The way a crow
Shook down on me.” Kyle’s voice shook mercilessly.
The paper rattled crisply between his trembling fingers.
The beeps of the UPC scanners had ceased. All activity at the front of the store froze in time.
Customers looked up from their checkbooks. Cashiers turned toward the uneasy trio mid-scan. Somewhere, in the silent hum of the moment, I heard the words “Snowball guy,” cutting through an awkward tension.
Kyle stumbled onward.
“The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree.”
“Is that Robert Frost?” Sacky’s muffled voice broke into the silence, puffy gloved hands gesturing outward. He’d somehow worked his way into the void between Kyle and the betrothed – a maniacal, gleeful face bridging the tense gap between opposing parties.
Louie the Lobster flopped out of Sacky’s head, its eyes wobbling toward Kyle, but saying nothing.
Kyle nodded impatiently toward the gigantic paper sack, taking a step of retreat.
“Has given my heart,” Kyle’s voice cracked. “A change of mood.
“And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Tina demanded.
“It’s poetry,” Kyle cleared his throat. “A, uh, well-written song will stay in a woman’s heart long after she has moved on from your life.”
The entire front end of the store seemed to lean in anticipation – waiting for … well, something.
Tina Pinkle stared at Kyle, seemingly searching for the right response. Instead, she pivoted, grabbed her fiance by the hand and walked out the door.
Sacky moved toward Kyle, offering him a big, giant swat of consolation on the back, but Kyle shrugged him off.
And with that, the Christmas shopping push picked back up right where it had left off.
“Hey, check this out, check this out,” Billy motioned me over to the desk that same evening. We’d taken up a new hobby in the preceding week. When Kyle would head out to gather all of the shopping carts in the parking lot for the final time of the night, we’d scramble into the bookkeeper’s office and watch out the window.
The frigid, damp 1999 December tended to leave the asphalt slick and rife with potential hazard for anyone venturing across it.
It proved to be remarkably entertaining viewing.
“Look, I just got this from my Uncle Roger for Christmas,” Billy reached into his pocket and withdrew a small black box with a dial and LCD screen.
I shrugged my shoulders.
“It’s an mp3 player, dude,” he said. “This thing holds, like, 40 songs. That’s like four CDs! It has to be worth about 200 bucks.”
“Why not just burn a bunch of CDs for your car?” I said.
“It’s not for your car, bud,” Billy plugged his headphones into it and cranked up the volume. “This is the best part: I got on Napster today and downloaded the theme from Super Mario Brothers. It’s perfect for this.”
We watched for a couple minutes while Kyle slid around the parking lot, flailing and contorting unknowingly in rhythm with the plunky 8-bit strains of NES composers. Billy kept restarting the song for its signature, “Do Da Do Da-Do, Do!” opening whenever he felt Kyle was on the verge of a big fall.
“What?” Kyle challenged once he returned inside. “What are you guys laughing at?”
Late at night in a grocery store, you receive a survey study on human behavior, watching the few shoppers meander the aisles in search of their respective goods.
People are more … well, people are more themselves, their true selves, as the hours wane. They shed the protections of the day and boil down into recovery for the next morning.
They’ll engage in conversation if they spend their days secluded, and they’ll say nary a word if their daytime life is a bustle.
You can see when there is purpose in their visit, and you can pick up on when there is simply escape.
Every once in a while, though, you see something else. It’s a nervous glance as they pass you at the front of the store. Or repeated checks over the shoulder.
You’re up to something.
We all saw him come into the store with his buddy. Probably 15 years old, wide-eyed yet determined. A good three-second stare as they took inventory of the staffing at the front of the store.
“Watch this,” I elbowed Kyle. “They’re headed for the liquor aisle.”
“Oh sweet,” Billy exclaimed, pumping his fist in the air and hopping down from the counter.
We burst into the store manager’s office, where the surveillance cameras fed to a master screen.
The pair wandered down the frozen foods corridor, turned past the lobster tank by the meat counter and intently examined some packs of Kraft Singles American cheese slices.
They ventured past the eggs and the Sunny Delight, heads all the while whirling for witnesses.
We had corralled our manager by this point, and the four of us were packed around the television screen waiting for their next move.
They crept past the milk cases, past the drinks they were old enough for and toward the drinks they weren’t.
They rounded the Korbel display and moved toward the harder drinks.
“Robots,” Billy said. “I promise.”
“What?” Our manager quizzed.
“He thinks there’s going to be an … event,” I tried to explain. “When the Korbel clock gets to zero.”
Through the grayscale filter of the surveillance monitor, the teenagers were examining the vodka, and the tequila.
“Five bucks says he goes for the Goldschlager,” Kyle said. “Did you know it has real flakes of gold in it?”
“Don’t you think that could cause cancer, or something?” I asked. “What does gold even taste like?”
“No bet,” Billy said. “Schnapps. He’ll take the Schnapps.”
“Come on, buddy, steal like a man,” Kyle hissed as one of the duo picked up a four-pack of wine coolers.
In one motion, the kid opened his parka, tucked the container under his left arm, and then grabbed a bottle off the opposite shelf, hiding it to his left as well.
“What did he take?” I asked.
“I didn’t see,” Kyle shook his head in resignation. “He was close to the seltzer water.”
The parka closed, the kid zipped it quickly up. The pair headed for the front of the store.
The four of us escaped the office and waited, casually … well, as casual as we could manage — which meant Billy examined a People magazine while repeatedly glancing toward the approaching thieves and Kyle stood out in the main passageway in front of the registers with arms folded and feet shoulder width apart.
Our manager stood with an elbow resting on the store safe, and I manned my register.
The duo paused, wide-eyed, when we came into their view. They instantly dropped their faces, making eye contact only with the tile at their feet.
They picked up their pace, moving quickly past Kyle. Our manager fell into stride with them on the opposite side of the registers, cutting them off at the doorway.
“Hey,” he said. “What do you think you guys are doing?”
“Nothing, man,” the parka-clad one said. “We’re leaving.”
“You’ll stay here,” the manager demanded. “Open your jacket.”
“No way,” the boy was defiant, but his buddy had begun to wilt.
“Open it up, come on let’s go.”
The kid huffed, ripped open the front zipper and spread the front folds of his coat out, moving his elbows in to his sides to obstruct the view under his arms.
“See? Nothing, man,” he said derisively, his volume increasing with each new word. “I’m not coming back here again. I’m not ‘Special Every Day’ here.”
Billy nodded in mock approval, corners of his mouth turned down and eyebrows raised as he suppressed a laugh.
Just then, the four-pack of wine coolers dropped out of the back of the kid’s jacket, shattering upon impact and sending a fruit-laden, alcohol-tinged aroma across the front of the store. Sticky, lavender-tinted liquid spread across the ground at our feet.
Our manager grabbed under the teen’s arm, withdrawing a bottle of bright green Pucker Sour Apple.
“What’s this?” Our manager demanded.
“SOUR APPLE?!” Billy cackled, no longer able to resist, pointing at the suddenly thinner culprit. “You stole Sour Apple, man!”
The young man spun on his back heel and bolted out the front sliding doors, leaving his hapless friend, now sheet white pale, standing next to me.
Kyle sprung into action, giving chase and quickly closing the ground between himself and the shoplifter.
The kid shed his parka, throwing it hard on the ground and tipping over a shopping cart trying to trip Kyle up.
Kyle hurdled the barrier in a single leap and tackled his prey at a dead sprint. They rolled to the icy concrete sidewalk, with Kyle pinning the kid down before letting loose a victory yell.
He’d gone from goat to hero in a matter of hours.
It was a Christmas Eve Eve miracle.
“You got me on the wrong day, kid,” Kyle growled as he led the kid back into the store by his arm.
It was another hour and a half of each of us filling out police reports and our manager handing Kyle corporate literature on customer contact – decorated with Louie the Lobster in the foreground and Sacky waving haplessly in the background – before we were finally out of there.
Billy’s report included sketched schematics of the “battlefield” and phrases such as “You could cut the tension with a knife as he peered around before tentatively withdrawing the woman drinks from the shelf.” He read aloud as he wrote and wrote and wrote.
“Come on Billy, let’s go,” Kyle grumbled, watching Billy wrap up the fifth page of his report.
Billy handed it over to the officer, who thumbed through the pages and chuckled.
“Thanks, kid,” the officer said.
“It’s too late for Katie’s tonight,” I said as we ventured out into the parking lot. “What do you guys want to do?”
“I rented ‘The Matrix’ from Major Video,” Kyle said. “You guys wanna come over and watch it?”
Just then, I slipped on a patch of ice and went tumbling to the ground.
Amidst the laughter, Billy withdrew his mp3 player. “Hey, Kyle, did I show you what I got for Christmas? Look what I found on Napster today …”