I stared down at the pool of white goo slowly devouring my feet.
“Ah, shit,” I muttered, kicking a scrap of broken glass. These were new shoes. Well, nearly new, according to the lady at the thrift store. In any case, they were new to me, and I wasn’t planning on upgrading anytime soon.
I winced, waiting for the stream of Polish invectives that would stream my way any second. Allowing myself a quick sigh, I turned to see a small, muscular Polish man walking up to me with his fists clenched into tight balls.
“What the fuck are you doing?”
I didn’t recognize anything he said for the next 10 seconds or so, other than spierdolić, which roughly translates to “fuck-up.” I’d learned that word towards the beginning of my then-two-year tenure as the shelver, stock boy, and general spierdolić of Wojcik’s Grocery on Main.
“Mr. Wojcik, I’m sorry,” I said, trying to imitate remorse. Really, I was feeling massively hungover and slightly pissed off that I was there in the first place. We were supposed to be closed on the night before Thanksgiving.
But six hours ago, I’d received a rushed voicemail with plenty of Polish phrases that I didn’t recognize, along with some classic American curses that seem to be part of every American boss’s vocabulary. I’d also heard the words I’d been dreading the night before: You must come in, we must work.
Unfortunately for me, I’d spent Thanksgiving Eve’s Eve drinking heavily with friends to celebrate the birth of Turkey Jesus, mistakenly believing that I’d have a rare full night’s sleep to mitigate any chaos I could inflict on my liver.
That had not been the case. At around 7 in the morning, I’d heard the message and rushed in, running my head under the tap in lieu of a shower and stuffing down some Alka-Seltzer and Gatorade on the way over. I wasn’t late, and for a few hours, I thought that I’d miraculously avoided the entirely predictable consequences of my actions.
But at Wojcik’s, we work 14-hour shifts, and that’s if you don’t count breaks or the time spent locking up (Mr. Wocjik didn’t). As the day went on, I realized that I hadn’t avoided a hangover; I’d gone to work while still slightly drunk. Around noon, the nausea set in. Around 2:00 in the afternoon, my head was aching. And at 7:00 p.m., I was feeling so goddamn fatigued that I dropped six jars of mayonnaise.
No, that’s not a euphemism.
“This stuff, it’s not growing on fucking trees!” Mr. Wojcik said, tenderly holding up a fragment of a mayonnaise jar.
“Yeah, I know. I think it’s…eggs and cows?” I said, scratching the back of my neck. “Is that right?”
He tut-tutted, shaking his head. He looked near tears, as if the mayo was an infant that I’d just curb-stomped in the middle of the aisle.
“To you, this is your big joke,” he said. “To me, it’s my business. And to you, it should be your business, too!”
I immediately felt actual remorse, and not just from the seven or eight Jagermeister shots that were still working their way through my system. Mr. Wojcik wasn’t some sort of cruel corporate overlord. He was a good man, if a bit stingy and verbally abusive (and hey, who isn’t during the holidays?).
My days there weren’t easy, but my boss was always fair and occasionally generous. I was making $11.00 an hour. That might not sound like much, but I knew more than he could afford. The store wasn’t doing well lately, not since Wal-Mart had put one of its bloated blue eyesores at the end of the block.
I also knew he’d taken no pleasure in pulling me out of my hangover bed on this, the holiest of turkey-related pre-holidays. Yet here I was, standing hungover in a pool of mayonnaise and insulting him.
“I know, I am sorry,” I said. “I really am. It’s just…”
“You have the hangover,” he said, stumbling a bit over the last word so that it sounded more like hamover. Damn. I thought I’d been hiding it pretty well.
“Yes,” I said. “But in my defense, I got really drunk.”
“And this is okay, Andrews,” Mr. Wojcik said, his tone softening. “Everyone gets drunk, every single day.”
That wasn’t exactly true, but I wasn’t going to step on this heartfelt moment.
”I know you did not want to work today, and I did not either,“ he continued. He looked down at the jar fragment and watched a thick drop of mayo drop onto the floor. “But we are here now, are we not?”
“And so we must work.”
“Makes sense to me.”
He patted me on the shoulder.
“You know you are a skurwysyn, yes?”
That was another one I knew: skurwysyn is, roughly, “my close friend who is more like a son and capable of amazing things.”
Just kidding. It’s “son of a whore.”
“Yep, I know,” I said, idly wondering whether I could pass off mayonnaise stains as part of the shoe design.
He smiled, then gave me another pat.
“Tonight, you can have many good beers. Maybe drink seven.” He shot out a quick forced laugh. I wasn’t sure whether he’d told a joke that translated poorly or if he was still overcome with condiment grief. “And I tell you this right now: I will run the store tomorrow. You stay home all day.”
“Tomorrow’s Thanksgiving. We’re open on Thanksgiving now?”
“Yes, yes, it will be good day for business,” he said, looking down to show that he didn’t want to continue that line of conversation. “Not you. I will work alone, I promise you. But we must still work now, tonight. Also good day for business.”
He turned and walked away, still cradling the piece of broken glass. I wondered whether he’d try to reassemble it.
It wasn’t a good day for business.
The store was mostly empty that night, save for a few last-minute shoppers.
Our little grocery was located in a strip mall a few blocks from main street in Templeton, Illinois, a town of about 10,000 people. Most of those folks had bought the stuff they needed for their pistachio puddings and green bean casseroles in the weeks before Thanksgiving.
That year, most of them hadn’t done their holiday shopping at Wojcik’s Grocery on Main. The store – which, again, wasn’t actually on main street – was everyone’s favorite grocer, if you asked them in person. Mr. Wojcik manned the deli, meat market, and bakery himself, often arriving early in the morning to bake chrusciki, kolaczki, and various other Polish delicacies that I have neither the memory nor the keyboard accents to type out here.
He was a talented baker and a discerning butcher, and every person who walked into that place walked out smiling. Every kid would enjoy a free pastry or two. If someone left their wallet at home, or if they were a few days away from their next paycheck, he’d tell them to take their groceries and pay him when they could. They always came back to pay.
In Templeton, mentioning Wojcik’s in casual conversation would inevitably lead to grandiose declarations:
“There’s no better grocer around here!”
“Best pastries I’ve ever had!”
“I’d do anything for that guy!”
“I would literally blow him!”
And, most commonly:
“I’d never shop anywhere else!”
And then, the people making those declarations would head down the street and walk right into Walmart.
I knew why they did it. Sure, Wojcik’s quality was unmatched, and he treated every customer as a friend, but what does that mean to you when you’re just looking for a can of green beans? And if you need toilet paper, are you going to go to the guy with the best kolaczki, or are you just going to head to the store with the cheapest toilet paper?
The big blue supermarket had moved in several months ago, and the change was gradual. Some people stopped coming in for their full grocery runs, preferring instead to stop by once every few weeks for Wojcik’s far-superior meat and desserts. Then, when they realized that there’s not that much difference between a great chicken breast and a sort-of-okay chicken breast, they just came in for desserts.
“I always buy local,” they’d say, holding their bag of kolaczkis.
But the desserts didn’t yield much of a profit — in fact, I suspected he sold some of them at a loss, though he wouldn’t ever admit it. And as people stopped coming in, Mr. Wojcik had to lay off his workers (at least, the ones who made more than $11 an hour), and then he had to work in the front of the store, which didn’t give him much time to bake.
Soon, the bakery selection dwindled to a few time-tested favorites, and when that happened, people stopped coming in at all. But ask any of them, and they’d tell you that they’d never shop anywhere else.
Mr. Wojcik was clearly hoping that a big Thanksgiving rush would help him regain some ground, but the rush never came. Why pay 90 cents for a can of beans when you could pay 85?
So here we were on the night before Thanksgiving, with Mr. Wojcik paying me to stock shelves that were already stocked and help the occasional shopper find the weird ingredients that the supermarket didn’t have. In a few months, Wocjik’s Grocery would be an empty shell, waiting for a corporate crab to crawl into it. Maybe the town would finally get an Arby’s.
I thought about all of this while I meandered through the store’s aisles, looking for something that would draw my attention away from the aching fog of my dehydrated body. I never meandered long, because the store wasn’t especially big. That night, though, I was thoroughly enjoying my meandering.
Everything changed when I turned down aisle 7 at about 9:45 p.m.
“Andrews!” Mr. Wojcik shouted, gesturing wildly for my attention.
He was standing next to a tall older gentleman in an olive-green suit.
I don’t toss out the word gentleman randomly, but that’s what this man was. He was leaning on a freshly waxed cane that gleamed in the fluorescent lights, impeccable apart from some signs of obvious wear on the handle. His shirt was pressed and his suit was immaculately tailored, a dark red handkerchief poking out of the breast pocket. I’d have guessed that he was 80 years old, at least, but his sharp blue eyes seemed unweathered and vibrant. When he saw me at the end of the aisle, he grinned broadly, showing off a set of white teeth that seemed impossibly complete for a man of his age and era.
Something about him bothered me, but I didn’t have time to think about it. Mr. Wocjik was calling me over, his hand flailing wildly in a hurry-up gesture that reached near-comical speeds as I power walked down the aisle.
“This is Adam Andrews,” Mr. Wocjik said to the man, giving me a don’t-spierdolić look. “Adam, this is Mr. –”
“Armaros,” the man said, extending a bony hand for me to shake.
“Armaros,” I repeated. “Is that Finnish?”
I didn’t really think his name sounded Finnish, but I’ve never been great at making smalltalk. Mr. Armaros chuckled briefly, three short hu-haws that clearly were not genuine.
“Something like that,” he said. “It’s Greek. I was wondering if you could help me find something?”
I wanted to sigh, but I didn’t. This was, after all, my job, and I knew that Mr. Wocjik spent too much time behind the store’s various counters to know the location of every single product.
“Of course,” I said. “I’d be happy to help.”
Please, God, let all three of us drop dead right now.
“Good, good, Adam,” Mr. Wocjik said, slapping me on the back. He only called me by my first name when customers were around. “You help Mr. Armoni, and be quick, we close in 15 minutes.” He turned to Mr. Armaros. “Thank you for your business sir, and have a very good Thanksgiving.”
If Mr. Armaros had noticed the store owner’s mangling of his name, he didn’t seem offended.
“And you, too,” he replied. His voice was small, almost meek, and seemed somehow unfit for him. He turned towards me with the same broad smile on his face.
“Adam,” he said. “Nice name. Is that Finnish?”
I laughed and rubbed the back of my neck. “No, sir.”
He let out three more fake hu-haws.
“Well, I’ve got a job for you Adam, and you might find it difficult. I am looking for a product called Mount Hermon Marshmallow Creme. I was told by a colleague of mine that I could find it here.”
“I’ve never heard of that brand,” I said. “Or that product. Marshmallow creme?”
He laughed again, but his gaze turned strangely intense. You know what marshmallow creme is, I imagined him saying.
But obviously he didn’t say any of that.
“It’s a – well, I think of it as a condiment, but I suppose you might call it a bakery item,” he said. “But I wasn’t sure where your bakery aisle is, or whether you might know off-hand about that particular brand.”
My head was pounding, and I wanted to get this finished as quickly as possible.
“Yeah,” I said. “Well, you’re in the right place, sir. Follow me.”
We walked to the opposite end of the aisle, where I was dismayed to see an open pack of chocolate chips jutting off of one of the lower shelves. Some kid had hurriedly torn it open; they come in with their parents, they see the candy, and they can’t help themselves.
I bent down to clean some of the chocolate chips off the floor, and as I did, I gestured to the shelves.
“Should be somewhere near this stuff,” I said, then realized that I was right in front of a line of marshmallow creme jars. “Oh, actually, it’s right here.”
I held one up. Mr. Armaros shook his head slowly from side to side, gazing down on me as though I were some sad, ignorant creature.
“No, my friend,” he said. “Mount Hermon Marshmallow Creme. It’s an older brand. Far superior.”
I looked again. “I think this might be the only brand we carry, sir,” I said.
“That is unfortunate. I’m afraid I must check for myself, then,” he said, bending down to the lowest shelf. He moved fluidly and effortlessly, reaching past the jars of Kraft Jet-Puffed, then locked eyes with me.
“Ah, Eureka!” he said, his voice an oddly musical squeak. He held out a jar of Mount Hermon’s Marshmallow Creme as if he was waiting for my approval. “And it seems to be the last jar, too.”
I smiled weakly and nodded, my head pounding.
He flipped the jar in his hand, catching it by the top, then started walking down the aisle.
“Will you accompany me for a moment, Adam?” he asked. “I’ve a few more items that I’d like to take home for the big holiday dinner, and I’m worried that I won’t be able to find them by the time your store closes.”
Fuck no. I’m not your personal shopper.
“Sure,” I said.
“Good man,” he replied. “If you wouldn’t mind, please fetch me a cart.”
I nodded, then walked towards the front of the store, briefly wondering how he’d seen the jar of Mount Herman’s all the way at the back of the shelf. I thought for sure he’d been staring at me the entire time.
Mr. Armaros had quite the shopping list.
We started over at the butcher counter, where Mr. Wocjik hurriedly threw on a white apron to take his new customer’s orders. Armaros asked for a few cuts that I didn’t recognize, but his way-too-excited butcher was happy to oblige.
“You can’t find these at a typical store, my boy,” he said, holding up some grey, indistinguishable organs that Mr. Wocjik had passed him across the counter. “And they’re excellent. One pound, please.”
My boss beamed with pride.
Next was the condiment aisle, which is where I started to get uncomfortable. This guy loved his condiments.
“Firmament Pickle Relish.”
“We don’t have —” I started to say, but Mr. Armaros reached past the rows of Vlasic relish and plucked out a jar of Firmament, holding it in front of me with his long spider-fingers.
“Corson’s Barbecue Sauce.”
This one I found, sitting next to some bottles of Sweet Baby Ray’s that I’d stocked earlier in the week. Only three bottles were left, but I was sure I’d never seen them before.
Armaros stayed closed to my side and called out items, sometimes chiding me when I preemptively told him we didn’t carry the brand. After a few minutes, I stopped saying that; he was able to find everything on his list, and at times, he seemed to know the store’s shelves better than me.
Now, I should note that he also picked up a few items from well-known brands (Charmin toilet paper, Colgate toothpaste), and we get quite a few elderly customers asking for stuff that I don’t recognize. But typically, those are Polish ingredients with names I can’t pronounce or other “ethnic” foods that the big box stores don’t carry. The old man was asking for pickle relish, mayonnaise, ketchup — products that I would see every day even if I only came to the store occasionally. I worked there. I knew those aisles.
And every time he found one of his obscure products, it would be tucked away at the back of the shelf. At most, there would be one or two other jars, but most of the time, Armaros would snatch up the last one, placing it with unnatural delicateness into the now-crowded cart.
“Tell me, Adam,” he said, marvelling at a container of Orcus Mustard, “Does everyone in town shop here? It’s such a lovely store.”
“Not really,” I said. “They go to supermarkets. But they always say they’d never shop anywhere else.” I’d blurted the last part out without thinking.
“Oath-breakers,” he said. “What a shame. Well, more for me, I suppose.”
His sharp eyes flashed towards me.
“How old are you?”
“Too young, too young,” he said, sighing. “You know, there was a time when you could have found all of these wonderful products anywhere in this town. Good, local items. Trustworthy quality. Now, it’s not so easy.”
“You don’t seem like you’re having much trouble.”
Hu-haw, hu-haw, hu-haw, fake, plastic laughs rising above the tinny sound of the buzzing fluorescents and the store’s Polish muzak.
“No, I suppose I’m not, am I?” He grinned. His teeth seemed yellower than before, but I blamed that on the lighting. “A man your age has a lot to look forward to. But you shouldn’t forget how things used to be. How lucky you are to have a little store like this.”
“I try not to.” The muzak blaring over the store’s lone loudspeaker seemed to grow frantic.
“At the very least, you should try Mount Hermon’s.” He dug in his cart and held up the jar of marshmallow creme. “One scoop. You won’t be able to go back.”
I laughed nervously. Fuck you, dude, I’m not eating anything you’ve touched, you elderly fuckhead.
“Maybe when I’m off work. I never creme on the job.” I smiled, confident that he’d missed my double entendre.
“Well, I hope you do try it. Speaking of which, it’s time to check out, isn’t it?”
It was time to check out, indeed.
The store was about to close, and Mr. Armaros was the last customer in the place. In fact, he was the only customer I’d seen in about three hours. Mr. Wojcik chatted happily as he rang up his elderly patron’s shopping list.
“Still, someone is making this? I did not know,” he exclaimed, holding a box of gelatin.
“I insist on the best,” Armaros said, locking his eyes on me.
That became clearer and clearer as each strange item passed under the scanner. A jar of horseradish: $7.50. Tartar sauce: $8.95. Mount Hermon Marshmallow Creme: $11.00 even. Our prices were high, but I’d never consider Wojcik’s Grocery to be a boutique.
Altogether, Mr. Armaros owed more than $300. I expected him to write a check — most older folk did — but he paid with cash and exact change. The bills were crisp and fresh. I noted offhandedly that the money matched his olive-green suit.
“Do you need help out to your car?” Mr. Wojcik asked.
“No, no,” Armaros replied, “but if you don’t mind, I’ll leave the cart outside.”
“Not a problem,” Mr. Wojcik said, “Andy will be happy to bring cart inside for you. Just leave up against the curb.”
Another smile from Armaros.
Keep fucking smiling. Smile your way the fuck out of this store and into whatever weird-smelling house you live in when you’re not being a freaky old fuck.
“Absolutely!” I said with a big smile. “And please come back and see us again!”
I’m not a misanthrope. I don’t hate our store’s customers, even when I’m hungover.
But when I heard our new patron’s car starting up (the fucker probably drove the goddamn Dragula), I felt like I could have tap-danced down the aisles of that place for the rest of the night. He was gone. Everything was normal. No more weird condiments with mysterious origins, no more knowing smiles, no more sudden staredowns with sharp, too-blue eyes. He’d only been in the store for about 15 minutes, but those were some of the most uncomfortable minutes of my life.
To that point, anyway.
“Andrews!” Mr. Wojcik called out, happily gesturing to me with the old man’s money in hand. “This is type of sale we need every day!”
Not if you want me to keep working here.
“I know,” I said, forcing a smile to show that I shared my boss’s happiness. “That made up for a pretty slow night, didn’t it?”
“Yes sir, yes sir,” he said. “And I am thanking you for this. You are not always skurwysyn.”
It was the nicest thing he’d ever said to me, but I couldn’t really appreciate the near-compliment.
“All I did was show him around.”
Mr. Wojcik shook his head like I’d told him the oldest joke in the book.
“No. You know my store better than me now. And I know how this happens tonight: You make these orders for new things, you spread the word. I should be angry — but this thing you’ve done, it works.”
I’d been worried that he would say something like that.
“No, I didn’t, really,” I said. “I don’t know how that stuff ended up on the shelves. Did your wife —”
“Stop, stop,” he said, his voice growing annoyed. “You know she orders same items every week. Less items some week, more items other week, but always same. And you order things, and I cannot care! Really!”
I opened my mouth to argue, but thought better of it. Mr. Wocjik’s grammar tended to slip when he was getting angry. He thought I’d ordered all that obscure stuff, and obviously I hadn’t — but we could have that discussion after Thanksgiving. After I’d had some time to sort out what the hell had just happened.
“Yeah, you got me,” I said. “But those were the only items I ordered. He cleaned us out.”
His look of aggravation faded.
“And how much I paid for those items?”
“Ha!” he yelled. “You’re businessman, Andrews! Very good! Now we close up shop. Tomorrow, I work. You take off, you think up more good ideas. And you drink your good beers. Seven beers.”
He winked at me, then looked down at the stack of bills in his hands.
I went out and retrieved Mr. Armaros’s cart.
The ice-cold November air shocked my system and slightly relieved the weariness I’d felt for the past few hours. The sky was pitch black, no stars, but I looked up anyway, taking in the muted sound of a car speeding down a nearby country road.
Soon, that’ll be me. Driving home. And God, I just hope I can stay awake.
I always took my time wheeling the carts in, but there was no reason to do so tonight; I wanted to get the hell out of there. After a few deep breaths, I headed back inside to close up.
“Clean-up, Aisle 7,” Mr. Wojcik said, laughing.
He thought that was a funny thing to say because he’d seen a comedian say it on a sitcom. The audience had laughed, so it was funny. I’d tried to explain to him that it wasn’t funny, since supermarkets are exactly where you’d use that phrase in context, but he didn’t seem to get it.
I walked over to 7, thinking about how I was going to totally demolish a Hot Pocket as soon as I got back to my house. I lived about half an hour outside of town, but I didn’t mind commuting, and I’d found a nice little rental on a rural route. The neighbors were fine, the roof didn’t leak (much), and I had a decent-sized freezer filled with unhealthy junk food. What more could you ask for?
Down at the end of the aisle, I saw the reason for the cleanup call. I wasn’t scared or creeped out — just confused.
A bag of chocolate chips had been ripped open. Chips littered the floor.
I cleaned those up earlier…didn’t I?
I certainly remembered using my palm to sweep them up from the floor. But had I moved the bag? I thought I had, but maybe I hadn’t. Maybe I’d left the bag in place, and more had spilled out after I left to help Armaros complete the world’s worst edition of Supermarket Sweep.
That seemed likely. I was hungover, after all, and Armaros had my full attention at the time. I grabbed the bag, threw it away, and bent down to sweep up the new chips from the floor.
That’s when I noticed that the chips were in a perfect line, all upright. They hadn’t been spilled haphazardly by some candy-crazed kid. They looked like they’d been placed there carefully.
Fuck this. I’m never drinking again.
I swept up the chocolate chips, letting my eyes wander over the bakery inventory. I started to chuckle when I saw the marshmallow creme, thinking about the old man in the green suit scarfing it down by the spoonful in his car. It was an oddly cathartic mental image.
But any relief I’d felt stopped abruptly. Next to two lines of Kraft sat a single jar of Mount Hermon’s Marshmallow Creme, its dark-green label mocking me under the flickering light.
He thought he got the last jar, but he missed one. He reached to the back and shuffled the jars around.
I didn’t really believe that.
I thought for a moment that Mr. Wojcik was playing some sort of joke, but he hadn’t been there when we’d found the stuff. I wiped sweat from my forehead and sighed.
This is nothing, shithead. You’re not at 100 percent right now. You’ve got mayo all over your shoes because you couldn’t concentrate earlier, and now you’re freaking out over a jar of liquid marshmallows. Stop being a shithead, shithead.
I turned and walked back down the aisle, rushing back to the front of the store where Mr. Wojcik was finishing up.
“When did you mop last?” he asked, and I could tell from his tone that I’d messed something up.
“30 minutes…an hour ago, I think.”
“Good, good. And why is mop at front of store?”
He pointed to the big commercial mop bucket, which sat inelegantly towards the end of Aisle 1. I winced.
“Fuck, sorry.” Nothing strange going on here; I’d left the bucket there earlier after cleaning up the mayo. If we’d had any customers that night — any non-creepo customers — they’d have walked right by that mop on their way to checkout. Not exactly great for business. “I’m all over the place today, boss. Friday, I’ll —”
He smiled. “You came in today, last minute, you took one break, you worked hard. Go home.”
I tried not to smile. I wanted to argue, tell him I’d stay with him until he left, tell him I’d pay more attention after the holiday. But mostly, I wanted to get the fuck out of there.
“Thank you.” I checked my pocket for my keys and started walking towards the back door. I always parked in the back.
Mr. Wojcik looked up briefly, then dismissed me with a nod.
“No problem. Oh, and don’t fucking let this happen again, or you’re out on your asshole.”
The temperature had dropped a few degrees.
I felt that right away.
Walking to my car, I saw my breath floating in front of me, thin clouds of pent-up anxiety and fatigue I’d collected over my shift. Deep, full breaths, each one a cool balm on a hot wound.
It’s finally over, and you’re headed home. You are the greatest grocery worker in town, apart from Mr. Wojcik, and probably most of the people at Walmart. And maybe the folks at Kroger’s. And…
I stopped tempering my opinion of myself when I saw my car, or more accurately, when I saw the backseat. Suddenly, I was standing completely still, the anxiety creeping back through my chest.
Someone was sitting in my car. Someone tall and thin.
Fuck this. Go inside. Call the police.
But I didn’t. I’m still not sure why, but I moved towards the car, my mind protesting every step I took. Part of me wanted to see who was there — why they were waiting for me. And part of me knew exactly who it was.
I threw open the back door while simultaneously stepping back, preparing to defend myself from…what, exactly? A mugger with low aspirations? A geriatric condiment aficionado? A demon from hell? In any case, I wasn’t in physical or emotional condition for a fight.
There wouldn’t be a fight (at least, not right then). The backseat was empty, save for some discarded McDonald’s wrappers and the spare jacket I kept hanging on the passenger’s seat.
Of course it’s empty, shithead. You saw the jacket, assumed it was Mr. Marshmallow Fetish, and your eyes saw what your brain expected. You’ve lost it, and it ain’t coming back without some sleep. Get thee to a nunnery. Or at least get thee to a futon.
For the moment, at least, that worked. I let out a deep breath, trying to capture the feeling of relief I’d enjoyed only a few seconds earlier, then climbed into my car.
You’re probably calling me an idiot right now. Well, I called me an idiot first, and I’m willing to bet that you’re kind of an idiot, too.
Most people can rationalize just about anything that happens to them. It’s dishonest, busy work, and we all do it from time to time; you rewrite your memories, adding in the new elements that explain away the unthinkable ones. You alter your reasoning, smoothing out the rough edges of your explanations until they’re at least superficially plausible. Then, you mock the old you, the one that was naive and uncomfortable and scared and stupid.
That type of work takes a lot of effort, but the payoff is enormous: For a few minutes — maybe for a few days, maybe even for the rest of your life — you get to believe that you understand your world. If you can understand it, you might be able to control it.
I felt some of that comfort as I started the engine, but with a tinge of instinctual unease that I couldn’t quite bury. And soon, I learned the fundamental problem of rationalization: It assumes that the world has a set of rules, and that breaking those rules carries consequences for the rule-breaker.
On my drive home, I learned to stop rationalizing.
I don’t know what John Denver saw in country roads.
They’re awful. Maybe that’s why he flew everywhere.
Get it? Flew everywhere? What, too soon?
Anyway, if you’ve never spent extensive time driving through rural routes with gravel kicking up against the bottom of your fender, maybe you hold some romantic notions of clear country nights with acres of tall corn waving at you through the rearview mirror.
Well, the corn loses some of its romance when you’ve driven past it a thousand times, and the sound of rolling gravel becomes less entrancing when you replace your tires for the second time in a year. When you drive them every single day, country roads become unbearably boring, but you can’t afford to sit back and zone out. If you don’t pay attention, you’ll get a brand-new paint job from a deer, or you’ll miss the lights of an F-150 pickup with a moonshine-drunk redneck behind its wheel.
Normally, I don’t mind my commute. Not much. I pay close attention to every curve in the road — which isn’t difficult, as it’s mostly a straight shot from town to my house — but I’ll play a podcast or listen to talk radio to keep my brain from atrophying too much. I only live half an hour from the store, but it’s enough time to collect my thoughts and relax.
That night, I wasn’t doing much relaxing. When I’d started the engine of my 2010 Chevy Cobalt (ladies, try to contain yourselves), I noticed that my heater didn’t kick on right away. By the time I turned onto Rural Route 3, I was fiddling frantically with the temperature controls, hoping in vain that the blower motor hadn’t finally given up the ghost.
No heat. No comfort.
Well, at least it’s something you can repair yourself. And the cold air will keep you awake. Plus, you have heated seats. Stop by the gas station, if it’s open, grab a hot coffee, and you’ll…ah, fuck it, this just sucks.
By the time I pulled onto the country road that would take me home (to the plaaaaace, I belooooong), my teeth were clattering from the cold. The heated seats helped, but they also made my ass sweat, and the only gas station on my path was closed for the holiday.
I thought that the radio would take my mind off my discomfort, but the local Hot 100 station was starting a “50-song non-stop song marathon” that started with about 30 minutes of commercials. Every other station was modern country or religious programming, so I listened to the advertisements and made snide comments to myself.
“Come DOWN, DOWN, DOWN to THOMAS CHEVROLET for GUARANTEED APPROVAL on ANY CAR ON THE LOT!” a deep voice blared from my car’s tinny speakers.
“And 20 percent interest on the loan,” I scoffed while wondering how many more payments I owed Thomas Chevrolet for my Cobalt.
My eyes were heavy, finally bearing the full weight of the day’s events, so I looked for a reason to keep them open. The drive was mostly boring, especially at night, but there were a few points of interest. The billboard was one of them.
You certainly don’t see billboards on most country roads. My route had a small one about halfway between my house and town. Evidently, some farmer decided he could make some extra cash on the side, though I doubt he got much — the billboard would occasionally show a Farmer’s Only ad for a month or two, but it usually bore the message “RENT THIS SPACE” in big blue letters.
Tonight, though, I was pleased to see the space rented. It helped break up the monotony of the drive.
Carl’s Delivery Service
First delivery’s on the house, to your house!
The text accompanied a photo of a smiling man in the front seat of a sedan — Carl, I assume — giving a big thumbs-up to the camera. His car wasn’t in great repair; the seat next to him looked like it’d been shredded by a particularly large housecat.
I smiled, allowing myself to sink deeper into my seat and relax.
“Yeah, those $6 tips might get you out of that shitty Ford Focus, Carl,” I said as I drove past. “Eventually, if you ever stop spending money on billboards. Good luck with Redneck DoorDash.”
The radio station finally cut away from the onslaught of advertisements, and I was surprised to hear the opening riff of Harry Nilsson’s “Down,” an old favorite of my father’s. It wasn’t exactly a hit — I’m not sure if it was on the Hot 100 back in the ‘70s, but it certainly wasn’t charting in 2020 — but the late-night DJs sometimes snuck in a few of their favorites onto the playlist.
“I’m goin’ down, to the bottom, to the bottom of a hooole, goin’ down,” Nilsson sang, his voice slightly distorted from the FM station’s compression. “Down, to the bottom, to the bottom of a hole, goooiin’ down.”
And so on. The lyrics weren’t Shakespeare, but it was better than hearing the same damn Ariana Grande song on repeat. I cranked the volume and looked out at the rows of corn framing the curves in the road ahead. The tight rows shifted and shook in the cold wind.
Wait. Corn? It’s late November.
The corn had been cut weeks ago. That morning, I’d driven past empty fields.
My rational side immediately began offering explanations, but they couldn’t stop the panic from rising. No Illinois farmer waits that long to harvest.
Unless they’re dead, or they abandoned their farm, or they can’t harvest because of a Monsanto lawsuit. Are you absolutely sure you saw the fields cut this morning?
I was. But maybe I’d driven past my turn. That made some sense — more sense than spontaneous corn growth, anyway. And looking ahead, the road was unfamiliar. The twists and turns were a little too sharp, and the gravel seemed a little too old.
I slowed to maneuver the curves, my heart pounding. I could turn around when the road straightened out. But how long had I been driving? It felt like 10 or 20 minutes, but if I’d passed my turn, I’d been out for at least a half hour. And hadn’t I just seen the billboard? That was only 5 minutes from the store.
Past the curves, the road straightened, but it also narrowed, both sides dropping steeply into wide, deep ditches. Another billboard flanked the right side of the road.
Mount Hermon Marshmallow Creme
One scoop, and you’ll never go back!
The last four words were underlined in bright red paint that seemed far newer than the rest of the billboard.
I hit the gas.
“Down, to the bottom, to the bottom, of a hole, goin’ down,” Nilsson warbled. Then the song ended, then it restarted, the opening notes slightly more distorted. I slammed my fist on the radio’s power button, then grasped the steering wheel as hard as I could.
When the radio kicked off, the car’s blower motor kicked on, blowing scorching air through the cabin. I turned the fan off, but the air kept coming, foul and hot.
Cooking me. Or just fucking with me. Or something in between.
Gravel kicked against the bottom of the car. Moments ago, the rows of corn had seemed to wave somnambulantly, calming my mind while drawing a straight path home; now, they seemed to be rows of yellow teeth, rigid and jagged.
Like his teeth. Ready to rip me open like a bag of chocolate chips and spill me over the cold floor. They see the candy, they can’t help themselves.
Another billboard. Carl’s Delivery Service again, identical to the previous ad — no, not identical. The driver wasn’t smiling anymore. He looked terrified, his eyes wide and hopeless.
I stepped on the gas, but the road seemed to stretch on endlessly, getting narrower and narrower by the foot. The radio clicked on again, and I wasn’t surprised to hear the ending notes of “Down.”
Then, an advertisement. A deep male voice with a near-Transatlantic dialect, the kind you’d hear on old reruns of What’s My Line?
“Hey, parents! What are you feeding your kids? Do you ever wish what made them happy would make them healthy?”
Then, silence. In spite of the situation, I spoke, my voice rasping and practically inaudible.
“Nothing healthy tastes good.”
“That’s right! Nothing healthy tastes good. Until now! Firmament Pickle Relish has the sweet, tangy taste kids love and the vitamin C that moms adore.”
A chorus of kids laughing. The sound grew louder and louder, distorting my speakers. It went on for far too long.
“And Firmament Pickle Relish is only available at Wojcik’s Grocery on Main! Only for a limited time! Get it while you can!”
The laughter was deafening. I briefly considered running the car off the road, but something told me that I wouldn’t fare better in the cornfields. The cornfields that shouldn’t exist.
The song restarted, but now it was nothing but harsh, overdriven noise.
But that just brought me closer to the next billboard. This was for a company I recognized.
Wocjik’s General Store
You’ll never shop anywhere else!
And there was Mr. Wocjik on the sign, tied to a chair, his pleading eyes looking straight out at me. His stomach was cut open and his intestines were spilling out, the red of his blood clashing with the olive green letters of the ad copy.
Help, Andrews. Make it stop.
I only glanced at the billboard, but it’s burned into my memory. I didn’t slow down. I heard a harsh wheezing sound and realized it was me, sucking in big, shallow breaths as fast as I could.
Going faster wasn’t working — maybe it wanted me to go faster — so I slowed down. Just slightly, but I slowed down. I tried to calm my breath, tried to think clearly underneath the blaring radio and the unrelenting heat.
Another bend in the road — no, the same bend — and another billboard. I didn’t want to look, but I did.
Wocjik was still there, but he had changed. He was chewing his own intestines, strung out from his abdomen and around his hands and mouth in a ghoulish Jacob’s ladder. He was holding them out like a piece of meat he’d show to a customer who wanted to inspect the product.
And his eyes. I’ll never forget the look in his eyes, because I’d seen it before. They still looked pleading, but he wasn’t hoping for help — not anymore — he was trying to make a sale.
Andrews, I make sale! Get your mop! Clean-up, Aisle 7!
The cornfields drew closer, long chapped fingers brushing my windows as I sped faster and faster down the road.
“Wocjik’s Grocery on Main, where you’ll shop ‘till you drop!” a voice taunted from my radio, and I recognized its high, near-musical tone.
I saw his figure in the road, suddenly but clearly. His yellow teeth were stained the deep red of his handkerchief, his sharp eyes locked on mine.
Hit him. Hit him. Do it. Run straight through him.
I jammed on the brakes. I’m not sure why, really, but that’s what happened. Maybe my body knew something that I didn’t.
The tires tried to grip the loose gravel, then careened towards the ditch, then back to the center of the road, then back to the ditch, and then I started to spin. I wanted to close my eyes, but I kept them open, avoiding the figure in the road while I concentrated on regaining control.
Then, I stopped. I was sidewise, or I should have been. Instead, I was perfectly positioned to take my turn onto the road that would bring me to my house.
I didn’t question it or try to understand how I’d escaped.
What good would that do? I sped down the road and pulled into my driveway, expecting to see a tall man in a green suit waiting for me on the porch. He wasn’t there.
I expected to lay in bed with my heart pounding, flinching at every odd noise until the morning. I didn’t; I fell asleep almost instantly. My sleep was restful and dreamless.
And when neither of those expectations bore fruit, I expected to wake up to a frantic voicemail from Mr. Wocjik explaining that he needed me to open up the store on the holiday after all. I was ready to delete the voicemail and deal with the fallout. I wasn’t going in again. But I didn’t receive a voicemail.
I did encounter one more surprise when I finally gathered the courage to leave the house the next day. I wasn’t going anywhere in particular, just walking around for a bit, and I certainly wasn’t driving anywhere. The weather had warmed considerably, and the light exercise felt nice.
I must have missed it when I’d left the house, but I’m sure it had been there all night. A half-empty jar of marshmallow creme. The label was ripped off, so I couldn’t say for sure, but I doubt it was Kraft.
Mr. Wocjik didn’t open the store that Thanksgiving, or any other day, for that matter. Wojcik’s Grocery is a Starbucks now.
His wife says he never came home, which I suppose is true. His car was gone, along with the money from that day’s sales. The police figured he’d skipped town, overwhelmed at the prospect of his failing business and hoping to start over somewhere else.
I’d love to believe that. I tried, I really did. The part of my brain that tries to rationalize is still working, still rewriting, still looking for ways to disassemble what happened. I try to rationalize the stuff that’s easy to explain and write the rest off as temporary insanity.
It doesn’t work, but every once in a while, I’m able to convince myself that Mr. Armaros – if that was his name – was just an old man trying to get home to see his family for the holidays. And someone drugged my beer the night before. And Mr. Wojcik, well, people disappear all the time. Maybe he’s working in a bakery somewhere.
The feeling of understanding your world — of controlling it — is warm and comforting, so I let myself indulge in it whenever I can.
It was traumatic, shithead. The trauma let your shithead memory turn more shitty.
But the machinery of rationalization has its limits, and over the days and weeks that followed, my explanations weakened and buckled. I still have evidence, after all — and no, I’ve never tasted “one scoop,” and I don’t think I will — and wherever I’d gone that night, it was nothing that I could control or understand. There, rationality was a liability.
So I looked for something more satisfying. I looked for something that could tell me what I saw. I haven’t found it, but I think I’m closer.
See, I moved out of Templeton about a month later, taking out as many student loans as I could to get the hell away. I ended up in California, a long way from whatever I saw on the roads of Southern Illinois that night.
And, since I never want to work at a grocery store again, I signed up for a few college classes. I decided to major in psychology, and this morning, my professor mentioned a phenomenon that I’d heard about a few times before. I’m sure you have, too.
It’s called the “uncanny valley.” It’s what happens when you build a robot that’s supposed to look like a person, or a CGI movie that’s supposed to look real. If the simulation isn’t very good, no big deal – nobody cares.
But if the simulation is really, really good – nearly perfect – people start to freak out. Something deep in our biology starts screaming, not a person, not a person, imposter, imposter. We become defensive and afraid.
Every person in every culture feels this effect. We can all pick up on little cues that tell us that the robot isn’t real or that the film doesn’t have real actors.You can’t quite put your finger on what’s wrong. You just know something’s wrong. The uncanny valley.
After explaining the phenomenon to the class, the professor asked a question, which she probably intended to be rhetorical:
“Why did we evolve this ability over thousands and thousands of years? Why was it so important to our survival to distinguish between a real person and a fake?”
I know the reason. And he’s very particular about his condiments.
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