By the age of fifteen I've taught myself the essentials: how to walk cool, how to shave, and how to masturbate. The first involves spacing your feet wide and looking like you're about to fall sideways; the second, starting with your sideburns and proceeding with downward strokes; the third, the efficient application of saliva.
And yet, despite these skills, I have a number of strikes against me:
My name is Humphrey.
I'm overweight, with a lame haircut.
I'm the new kid.
No one knows dread like the new kid. No matter how friendly we may try to be, we're none of us easy to talk to. We're all either snobs or assholes, because we're scared as shit.
Summer school won't start for a while, so all I do for the first two weeks of June is swim in the pool at the crappy motel my family has moved into. At first it's all bright fun, games of king of the dolphins with the girl with the wet band-aids from room 10. Then she leaves so I float lizards on leaf boats, collect the curled husks of drowned centipedes, or, finally, just stand for hours at the shallow end, my arms hitched over the wet concrete, and stare through the chlorine haze at the low palms at the edge of the parking lot. One day Mom comes home from work and finds me like that, my hair a greenish matted mess, both dry and wet like pool-hair gets, my shoulders peeling, and that's the day she throws her hands up and says I'm not contributing anything to the family and I call her a bitch and she says I'm ungrateful and moody so I wander off and come home late that night. She rubs my back and says she's sorry and I say I'll apply for a job the next day. I guess I'm ready to do something else. What I really hope is that I'll make a friend at work, at least one friend, so I'll know someone when I arrive at summer school.
The woman who interviews me is named La Toya, and she seems nice but doesn't say much, so I lead the way and tell her about how I worked at the supermarket back in Fresno. She chuckles when I ask if she wants references. I start the next day. My pay is $5.15 an hour, which means I can buy a new video game every couple of shifts. She makes me a bagger, but tells me that I could train on the registers and become a cashier in a few weeks. That comes with an automatic ten-cent raise.
My first few nights I'm bagging for Bernice. She pretty much ignores me (everyone at Food Festival does; I'm not really loud and also I'm white), but I really like her, because she talks back to the after-work assholes in suits, smiling the whole time, tapping her fake nails on the corner of her lips.
Even though the other baggers and cashiers live near me, they're mostly in their late teens, and moms, so I don't make any friends. I bet Bernice might hang out with me if we started talking, but we haven't yet.
I wish I could capture the moment for you, what it was like when they walked in. I was wearing the uniform: a red plaid button-down, black jeans, black apron, black Velcro sneakers that I bought down the street from my old school in California. Bernice was scanning a mound of tortilla packages for a couple of Mexican dudes. The air conditioner had just snapped off, so the fluorescent lights were brighter than usual, and they made the edges of everything sharp. I had just got back from asking the front end for a carton of Winston Lights for Michelle's customer on 2. Bernice slid the last plastic package down and placed the dudes' tomatoes on the greasy aluminum scale. She punched 5 8 9 [scale] [code] and handed them to me.
So. 5 8 9 [scale] [code] and the receipt printer's whirring and they come in. High school kids. The girl comes first. She's got one of those careless-yet-worked-on ponytails that hot girls wear you know, where the hair has probably been blow-dried because it's perfectly straight and flying above her head, full inches higher than her scalp, and the tail fans out like the wash from some department-store fountain. She's got this tight army-green T-shirt with a little pocket over a nipple no bra, I think and this pair of khaki shorts that flare over her tan legs, and she's wearing flip-flops that are soft brown leather. I don't think I'm an expert on this kind of thing, but she's definitely pretty well-off, a lot richer than this neighborhood, for sure. She sails right past the bread aisle with this purposeful expression, looking like most dumb people do when they have something on their mind, like she's balancing all the troubles of the world on the down of her upper lip, and the solution to it all is somewhere at the back of the store.
He comes in after, but he's totally different. She's all directed, like she's on an errand that someone has the car idling outside for, but he comes in pissed and reluctant. The automatic doors have already half-closed and opened again before he makes it inside.
Hot air must have blasted in when the girl entered, too, but because of some chaos of wind currents in the rafters, I only feel a wave of wet heat when the guy enters. He's got Vans on (like he's a skater! like he's from California!), and these baggy pants that make it look like there's some other pair of pants inside trying to get out. He's also wearing and this is what makes me think he might be a nice kid a yellow tank top. I mean, what guy wears yellow? He's got these defined arms, so he's clearly got some social capital, but at the same time, I figure a guy who wears yellow has got to be kind, right? He doesn't seem really friendly, though. He scowls and saunters into the Food Festival like it's a pool hall. He's wearing a baseball hat, but the hair sticking out in the back is crusted with beach. He's got this small and intense expression that might mean he owns a shotgun. He disappears down the wine aisle, after the girl.
If I could be friends with them, it would be perfect.
I look down at the scored metal of the checkout. I could be as popular as he. If only I weren't wearing a plaid shirt embroidered with "Food Festival." If only I had gotten around to losing those twenty pounds. If only I weren't earning minimum wage at a supermarket.
"Hey, Bernice," I say. "Do you have any go-backs?"
She has been picking price-tag goo from beneath a lacquered nail. "Um," she drawls as she scans the shelves beneath the register. She holds up a box of tea like it's an artifact. "Yeah, I got this."
I take the box and head toward the aisles before La Toya can stop me.
I take the middle row and sweep the store, glancing left and right, just like when I was a kid and would lose my mom. Unless my potential friends happen to be passing an end cap, I'm sure to spot them. 4AB, jams and spices, no; 5AB, toothpaste, no; 6AB, paper goods, no; 7AB, cake mixes, no; 8AB, soft drinks, no; 9AB, cereals, toys, no; 10AB, frozen foods, no or yes. They're in the dairy section, at the end of the frozen foods.
It has always been the most untamed section of the grocery store. The pastel purple gives way to stark whites and silvers; puffs of cold vapor make the whole area an arctic passage. And at the end of the aisle, leaning against the grill where the white and purple of the 1 percent shifts to the white and blue of the skim, they are making out.
He has her pressed past the half-gallons and into the gallons, her ass pushing so deeply into the containers that they seem to be fleeing her. His half-thrusts have pushed the plastic sliding tags over, so the milk prices are bunched at the yogurt. Her legs are spread around his hips, and her shorts are short enough that from my angle it looks like she's not wearing any at all.
Her eyes are closed the rule of teenage kissing and he's not facing me, so I can watch them in privacy. He's got her neck between his hands, and the frayed bill of his cap cradles the top of her head. He's going after her with such animal intensity that I feel anxious for the girl if she's even a little bit not into him, she has to be really uncomfortable. But by all evidence, she's into him. I stare at the spot where the denim of his jeans presses against the smooth skin of her thigh, and then walk away. I have a box of tea in my hand, after all, so there is something to be done.
As I pass back down the cereal aisle, though, I wonder why they have come into the store. They lost no time getting to the milk section. Why head straight to Dairy and go at it? By the time I reach Produce I think I've got it figured out: summer break is weird like that. You slam against the emptiness of the suburb, and in order to relieve yourself of the boredom of hanging with your girl and yet remain into her you come up with challenges, ways to break the deadening feeling. Maybe getting it on in public places was the best solution this guy could come up with.
I've never had a girlfriend. Well, I had a couple back in California, but all we did was hold hands in the hallways and go to the mall after school. We made out a bunch and one girl gave me a blowjob but she had braces and it hurt. I can't help but feel that whatever I did with those girls is lily-white compared to what's going on in the dairy section. I wonder if this is what Florida will be like, all girlfriends and intense making out. I hope not. Hooking up was fun sometimes but usually I found it kind of boring, like playing a chess game by following the moves written down in some book. And when the ultimate thing turns out to be boring, it's really depressing. I put the tea back and return to Bernice.
I can see straight to the front as a couple more kids arrive. The door slides open, and in the wavering space of hot air outside the store I see their pickup idling. They have the yellow-tank-top boy's coolness but not his hotness. Their hats are at the same angle as his. They have sulky what-the-hell expressions on, like they're pissed off but not ready to fight about it, and they storm toward the back. I slot myself behind Bernice, fit another tab of plastic bags on the dispenser.
I know La Toya sees them come in. She's leaning against the front counter, with her ass out and both elbows on the ledge, the pose she always takes when she's at the end of her shift and wants to rest her tits, but she's got this preoccupied face on, like why does this shit always have to happen on my watch? She takes the public-address phone in her hand, presses the little button. She stares at me the whole time; I'm only a yard away. "Humphrey to Dairy, please. Humphrey to Dairy."
She's looking at me with one slick plucked line of an eyebrow raised: That's right, boy. She knows the power of loudspeakers on a kid; I can't say no. I angrily head to the back of the store. What the hell am I supposed to do? I'm fifteen.
I'm not dragging my feet, not exactly, but I'm definitely taking my time. I imagine that the hot kids will still be making out, that the two roughs will be hanging in front of the shredded cheese and watching. But that's not the case. They're all standing in a circle, the three guys and the girl. She's obviously peeved that she's sharing her boyfriend she's toying with her flip-flop, letting it clap to the floor. The guys and here's where I become intensely aware of my own name badge and uniform, my official position have opened a carton of milk and are passing it around like a bong.
Their gulps are so carefree, so manly, that they could as easily be three frat brothers in front of the house fridge. But they're in a grocery store. I stand there, stunned by the impossibility of drinking milk in the store. One of the guys spots me. He's pale and beefy.
"What the fuck do you want?" Pale Beef says.
Anything I could say would put me in the straight-laced loser role, so I don't say anything.
"Are we in trouble?" Pale Beef asks. The guy in the yellow tank turns down the carton when it comes back to him.
"We're not in trouble, right?" the other guy says. He's wearing a tribal necklace. There's a touch of nervousness in his voice.
I smile. It does seem weird that they'd be in trouble. They are, after all, drinking milk. "No, I don't think so," I say. "I'm just supposed to check up on you guys. You know, store security, all teenagers are thieves, that sort of thing."
The girl tucks her hand around Yellow Tank's waist. He's smiling at me, and that makes me feel a little more sure.
"Are you callin' us thieves?" Tribal Necklace asks. His eyes are wide and his mouth is firm. He's not stupid. But he's mean and bored.
"No, of course not." I'm starting to get mad, too, because I want friends, dammit, and I was being funny and confident, and this fool won't let up.
Pale Beef moves toward me. "He's acting like we weren't going to pay for it."
"No, I'm cool," I say.
He takes another step closer. The girl is ignoring me, staring into Yellow Tank's shoulder, and he's smiling a little but not doing anything to stop the guys.
"There doesn't have to be a problem here," I say. "Make sure you pay for the milk, that's all."
Now the guys are near me and I'm pressed against a door of the frozen section. My hand grips a pizza sale sign.
I've been bullied before back in Michigan I used to get shoved around at recess, until I hit my growth spurt and I'm used to the routine: a few stupid words, then a push and nothing more as long as I haven't lashed back. But these guys are pressing into me, and the bigger one, as cleanly as if it's a dance move, takes my head in his hands and slams it into the freezer door. His palms slapped on my ears, and I'm so shocked by the noise of my head against the door that I just stare back. It's like I can't hear anything, like I'm stuck somewhere within the glossy unreality of a television screen.
My nose is bleeding how did that happen if he slammed the back of my head? and I dab at my bloody shirt with one hand and plug my nostrils with the other and yell at the kid, "What the hell do you think you're doing," then I see he's got his hand back like to punch me so I swing around with my foot out. I kick him in the thigh and he falls back a little, but his friend grabs my foot and suddenly I'm on the ground with my leg twisted in his hands and I'm yelling and he's yelling, and the girl's like, Let's get out of here, okay? and they're all heading out, but not before the guy in the yellow tank holds out his hand and helps me to my feet and maybe even says he's sorry, I still can't hear anything. I've kind of teleported away and watch them leave from a distance, both hands on my nose because it's bleeding more now.
I go back to the front and La Toya asks what the hell happened and I tell her and she gets some ice from the deli department because apparently I'm going to get a black eye even though I don't remember being punched. She couldn't be more sorry for not going back there herself, and if she ever sees those kids again she doesn't know what she'll do and she lets me off early, without even having to clock out, and drives me home. She's being motherly, which is exactly what I want, and she's a lot more concerned than my own mother would be, though maybe she's just worried my parents are going to call corporate. I tell her I'm fine, and I do feel fine except for the crust of blood on my nose...except that summer school starts in a week, except that instead of having friends I might have a couple of full-on enemies.
I have La Toya let me off before we get to my block because I live in a motel and that's embarrassing. I must be disoriented because I've told her to let me out blocks away. I walk beneath the power pylons, on the sidewalk covered in dirt and sharp palm fronds. I've been the new kid all my life and I promise myself that this will be the last time. If I have to run away and rent my own place, then fine. My half-sister ran away, after all, and it worked out for her.
Places I've lived: Duluth, Detroit, Coeur d'Alene, somewhere else in Coeur d'Alene, some suburb of Vegas, Fresno, and now Haven Township, Florida. We got here at night. I sat wedged in the backseat of the minivan in the middle of my stuff, my eyes closed, the streetlights of the interstate regularly flashing my eyelids purple, my dog Citrus licking Doritos dust from my fingers, and I imagined what it would look like in the day.
I figured everyone lived on the beach, came home to high-rise hotels or huts along the water with sand between their toes and turquoise bathing suits under their work clothes. But you know what? People who live here don't go to the beach; they drive around and shop or stay home and watch television. All the stores are new. No homeless, no corner tobacco shop, no dilapidated anything. Target and Starbucks and T.J. Maxx. With so much sun-bleached concrete the heat and light hit the ground and stay there, and we all walk around like we're being pressed down by some heavy, luminous gas. When we first arrived and I opened the car door and stepped into the parking lot, even though it was midnight the air struck me like a hot wave. We're all sluggish and unmysterious here.
My parents didn't have any money for a deposit to rent our own place, so Dad worked out some deal with a motel. It was June, so he got a cheap rate. We could stay six months for "practically nothing" and pay by the week. Mom didn't agree that the motel cost "practically nothing" and she was mad that she'd have to ask for a transfer to a Florida Arby's after all. She had started working at one of their California restaurants when Dad started losing jobs. She was a manager or something important like that but did sixty hours a week and hated it always came home smelling like urinals and whatever grease they put on the bread.
I always wondered why rich people didn't live in motels instead of in houses there's no clutter, there's a little fridge with food in it, someone else makes your bed. But actually it isn't that awesome. Sure, it was cool at first there's a pool, and at night no one even notices if I bring Citrus swimming but when the motel became home, it began to suck. The bedspreads smell bad. The tables are smooth on top but rough as broken plywood where your knees go. The kitchen only has a coffee maker and not much else. I eat my cereal out of a coffee pot because we couldn't fit our dishes in the van. The first time I poured my corn flakes up to the 2-cups line it felt weird, and after that just plain bad. Then Dad finally stopped watching TV and unpacked all of his stuff. He programs elevators, and he's got so many motherboards and other sharp green cards covering the industrial carpet that to make my way across the room I have to jump from bed to bed.
My mom's home and although I wiped away the crusty blood and took off my work shirt apparently my eye's already black because she asks me what the hell happened to you. I tell her that I was beat up on the way back from work because made-up bullying is less embarrassing than real bullying. She lets me off picking up dinner, even though it's my turn. I go to bed early and hang out with Citrus and play a video game at the foot of my cot in the walk-in closet and listen to her yell at my father that he's the one who made them live in this shitty neighborhood so what does he expect?
Copyright © 2007 by Eliot Schrefer