It's a good thing Cathy McCormick's mother had such a strict Saturday routine, otherwise the three of us -- me and Alan and Steve -- probably would have gone crazy with anticipation waiting for the two of them to show up to buy their groceries every week.
It's straight-up four o'clock on this Saturday, it's the middle of March with spring doing its best to bust out, and Cathy and Mrs. McCormick are due to walk through the door any minute. Now sometimes it's hard to come to work on a Saturday, especially when you get scheduled in the afternoon and you know you've got to stay at the store until closing time, but you still have to take whatever hours the people at Armstrong and Lewis give you if you're needing money to live on, and when a kid is seventeen like me there's always never enough to be had. Me and Alan and Steve all got hired together about a year back -- me and Alan on a Friday and Steve on Saturday -- so we're like the Three Musketeers of all the part-time guys. We're the ones who are always going to come in to work no matter what. The big reason for that is probably because we're so goddamned poverty-stricken compared to everybody else, all those kids whose parents give them money whenever they need it. Our parents never have any extra cash to donate, and, if they do, they're sure as hell not going to give it to us.
I'm the first one to see Cathy arrive because I'm up on the front end checking and trying to get away from my cash register as fast as I can so I can bag groceries and take orders out to cars and rack up on some tips. Mr. Baker -- he's the store manager -- doesn't like for us guys to fight and finagle for tips too much because he's afraid we're going to intimidate the customers being too pushy and putting them on the spot for a handout, but I've got this thing down to a science by now and I know how to quietly line my pocket and supplement my income without being too obvious about it, so I just stay polite and humble and suck up to all the old women and men with made-up sob stories about saving my money to go off to school and buying a car and shopping for my own clothes and lots of bullshit like that, and I get slipped dollar bills just about every time out in the parking lot where no one can see what's going on from inside the store. I'm stashing two bucks in my front pocket when I see Cathy and Mrs. McCormick pulling their Buick into a parking slot on the second row out front. Cathy parks and they both get out and Mrs. McCormick stands waiting and settling her purse on her arm so nobody will snatch it while Cathy is locking the car. I wonder if I ought to slow down a little and time my entrance back through the automatic doors at the entrance so I'll be there at the same time they walk in. Maybe, I figure, I can do something really chivalrous and cool like offer my empty bascart to them so they won't have to go over to the rows by the window and have to pry one apart from the others. Our carts at Armstrong and Lewis are so damn old they get stuck real easy, and then after you've practically killed yourself separating them you find the one you've liberated won't hardly roll, and if it does it veers off to the left or right like there's some kind of super magnet over behind a display keeping it from going straight. I'm all set to go through with this plan until some old guy in a pickup truck that ought to already be scrap metal pulls in at the walk and opens his door to where I can't get by, then sits there listening to what sounds like Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn finish out some old song about drinking and cheating and being in love with each other despite it all. I watch Cathy and her mother go through the doors and it's just like it always is with me on these Saturday afternoons when they come to shop -- I can think about them coming all week long and make all kinds of sinister and diabolical plans and it still doesn't matter, because there's always going to be something that comes up out of the blue to spoil it.
Of course it doesn't take long at all for Alan and Steve to know Cathy and her mother are in the store. Alan's been walking up from the dairy department for fifteen minutes already, peeking around the corner to see if he sees her. He's the damn bravest of the three of us. He'll stop stocking eggs or milk or filling up displays and stand there in his apron and say hello and talk about the weather and all sorts of bullshit for as long as he can keep Cathy and Mrs. McCormick in his aisle. He tries to do shit like this every week. Hell, I've seen the guy block them off with his four-wheeler so they couldn't get away from him and keep them pinned in as prisoners while he runs his mouth being friendly.
What works against Alan, though, is he's not what you call a very handsome guy. The truth is he looks sort of doggy, with big ears and a long nose and this stupid goofy grin on his face. He can talk all day and night long, but he's always had trouble with girls. Not too many girls seem to want to go out with a guy who looks like a bloodhound. That's just the way they are.
And like he does every Saturday, Steve has waited until Cathy makes her appearance before he clocks out on his fifteen minute break. He's only been here two hours and has to stay until nine, but he clocks out anyway so he can walk down the aisle by them while they're shopping and smile and say hello and then go by like he's got something to do that's really important. Steve likes coming on to everybody in the world like he's real smart and cool and shit like that, when the truth is he's the biggest chicken of all of us when it comes to a girl. He'll go on all day about all these wonderful girls he's dated and been with, but the facts are he spends his weekend nights after work with me and Alan, riding around in Alan's Malibu drinking beer and smoking a joint if anybody's lucky enough to have one. To tell the absolute truth, we all spend more time buying beer as minors and finding somebody to sell us pot than we do trying to further our romantic lives, probably -- and I hate to admit this -- because it's a whole hell of a lot easier getting drunk and high with your buddies than it is trying to impress some girl that you know already is way out of your league to begin with and that you're going to end up getting the golden shaft from and feeling like shit about it in the end.
This Saturday, though, starts out different.
I'm back inside the store bagging and doing my best to stay out of my checklane so I can be free to keep tabs on where Cathy and her mom are. All of a sudden I hear somebody yell and a couple of people gasp like they're looking at something they really don't want to see. I look over to the first checklane by the front office and there's a circle of people around it, all of them looking down with worried looks on their faces. Everything on the front end just all of a sudden comes to a stop. Nobody's ringing up groceries or taking money or bagging up orders or anything. Everything gets really quiet for a supermarket on a Saturday afternoon.
"What in the world?" Miss Nola asks, walking out from her register to try and see what is going on.
"I don't know," I tell her.
I wander down and peer inside the group of people gathered around and there's Harold Thompson lying halfway on the tile floor and halfway on the rubber mat of his checkout station. His eyes aren't open and his face is pale and close to ghostly looking, and being the vulture I am I stare long and hard at his chest to see if it's moving up or down or not, trying to get it straight in my head if he's dead or not. I haven't ever seen anybody die before.
People are weird, you know. All at once it's like there's this specter of death around or a damn Irish banshee has come through the electric doors of the store and everybody's got real nervous about it and doing their best to get out of the door and away from it before, like some blood-sucking tick, it attaches itself to them and makes them into its next victim. They start pushing their carts off to the side or inching forward like they're in this big damned hurry to get their groceries checked out so they can leave. I wonder right then if anybody is really focused on whether Mr. Harold is down there on the floor fixing to bite the dust or not, and from what I can see, I'd say probably not. They're too worried about getting stuck in here with no way to get out.
It's the strangest feeling I get, but right away I become aware of somebody standing beside me. This is not some faceless entity like I see all the time back in the aisles or up front here getting checked out, and I know it's not just some regular customer I need to be polite and friendly with just so I can get a tip. This someone standing by my left elbow goes way beyond my personal mercenary matters.
Cathy McCormick is standing beside me, inches away and the closest I have ever been to her. Sure, I've maybe said hello to her and her mother a few times when I was able to summon up enough guts to take the chance of opening my mouth, but unlike Steve and Alan, I haven't yet been able to force myself into the line of fire as far as personal interaction goes. Most of the relationship I've shared with Cathy McCormick so far has consisted of seeing her in my goddamn dreams.
"Is he going to be okay?" Cathy asked.
I couldn't believe she'd spoken directly to me right then, and it was all I could do to not stroke out or die of ecstasy-overdose, but somehow I forced myself to not fall on the floor like old Harold and made myself be collected and debonair like I try being most of the time these days, did my best that moment to be this cool guy I keep practicing to be in my head all the time, but it was hard. Cathy McCormick was right there at my elbow, and she was even better looking up close than she'd ever been from a distance, and I damn well knew this was my one chance and I'd better do my best not to blow it. It was almost disgusting, to tell the truth. Harold Thompson, my co-worker, the old guy who taught me how to bag and check when I first got hired, was over there on the floor in front of me dead or maybe getting ready to be that way, and all I could think of while it was happening was could I possibly get a date with Cathy McCormick out of these circumstances. It was like Harold was sacrificing his life so I could have the opportunity to go out with Cathy McCormick.
Shame on me.
"I don't know," I told her. "He's pretty old, so it could be he's having a heart attack or something. I think he's about sixty. He's been working here a long time. They put him up front on the register because he was having a hard time unloading trucks and lifting things in the back anymore. Of course, you still have to lift stuff up here on the front too, so it's sort of the same thing, only different. There's bags of potatoes and cartons of drinks and gallons of milk and other things that can get pretty heavy when you keep picking them up over and over."
Suddenly I was turning into some sort of blabbermouth, talking about a lot of crap that didn't matter while Harold was lying there in front of us waiting on the angels to arrive and carry him home.
"Well, I hope he's going to be all right," Cathy said. "We heard people yelling from all the way back in the meat aisle, and I told Mother I'd go look and see what was happening. I thought for a minute a robbery was going on."
"I've been in a robbery before," I said, like I was experienced in almost everything that could possibly go on and a real man of the world and she should just give herself to me right then and not worry about it. "One night last summer I had a guy point a gun at me and tell me to give him everything in the register or he'd kill me."
This was almost true. I did get robbed by a guy last summer, but he never really said he'd kill me. I'm not even sure he had a gun or not; he just said he did.
"It sounds like there's something going on around here all the time," she said.
"Hardly ever a dull moment," I assured her.
By this time Alan and Steve have made it up to the front and spotted me standing by Cathy. This is more than they can stand, and I'm expecting any second for either one or both of them to come barging up and try and push me out of the way and settle into the spot where I'm standing. Both of them stay where they are, though, Steve looking like he is fixing to cough up a hairball, and Alan grinning in his usual goofy-ass way like he'd just got off the bus from the retard school. I look at them and try to play it cool like I am the goddamn winner and this is the way it is supposed to be, but I knew I'd have to do something to cement my claim on Cathy McCormick or these two pretenders will be ambling over any minute trying to challenge me to determine who is going to be the head lion of this pride.
All this is going through my head while Harold Thompson is lying on the floor ten feet away, perhaps getting close to croaking.
I think back on all this now and I still don't know the proper way a guy goes about asking a girl out on a date while there's somebody dying right there in front of them. I don't know if there really is any good way to do it. I've thought about it and thought about it, and I'm damned if I can come up with an answer.
"By the way," I told her, "I'm Owen Scott. I don't guess I've ever introduced myself to you."
Of course I hadn't introduced myself, I thought. Hell, this is really the first time I've even said anything to her.
"I'm Cathy McCormick."
"I already knew that," I said, and then I wished I didn't. "There was a guy who used to work here who went to school with you." This would have been great information to impart if only I could remember the guy's name, but I couldn't, mainly because there really wasn't such a guy because I'd just then made him up. Cathy stood there waiting for me to say who it was and I just stood there searching for words. Harold kept lying there dying. Maybe he was dead; I couldn't tell for sure from where I was, and there were other things to concentrate on.
"I don't remember anybody I go to school with working here," she said. "It's sort of hard for a guy to go to school with me when I go to an all girls school. He'd stick out like a sore thumb, don't you think?"
"Maybe it was church was where he knew you. I don't remember."
"Did he go to St. Anne's? That's where I go, but it's on the other side of town."
"I don't know if it was church or not."
"You don't remember his name or if he went to school with me or if he was a member of my church. What else did this mystery guy have to say about me?"
I figured out she knew right then I was making a bunch of shit up and there hadn't really ever been a guy here who knew her, but I didn't want her to know how I'd made it a point a while back to find out her name by getting Miss Nola to let me look at the check her mother had written when they'd come through her checklane. The big mistake I made was telling Alan and Steve I knew who she was. I should have just kept that to myself, and then I wouldn't have to be trying to beat them out now and win whatever contest we've got going on about who gets to go out with her first and a bunch of impossible shit like that that's probably never going to happen. Maybe because I am standing here actually talking to her right now, instead of watching her out of the corner of my eye and trying to bag her groceries and take them out to her car and trying to get it where Alan and Steve are in some kind of awe at me and thinking how out of the three of us I am the one who is this really big cocksman and I am the leader of whatever stupid-ass little gang we have going, maybe if I'd just kept my mouth shut I might have the nerve to ask Cathy McCormick out right this very minute, but now I've gone and spoiled it by talking about it, and I'm afraid to say another word now for fear Cathy McCormick will see what a goofy fake I am, and for fear Steve and Alan will both be standing around to watch me go down in flames when she tells me no.
I feel a little better when an ambulance pulls up out front and these guys come in with a stretcher and all sorts of tanks and wires and machinery. They hook Harold up and tote him out the door, and the next thing I notice is Cathy McCormick is walking away and Steve and Alan are coming up to me. I know they are dying to know what we'd been talking about all that time but there's something in me that doesn't want to tell them. I move over to Miss Nola's lane and start bagging again until Mr. Baker tells me I need to open up my lane and get some of this crowd out of here.
I start in checking and the next thing I know Cathy and her mother are in my line and she is smiling at me from about two orders back. I keep trying to stay cool and act like I am the most wonderful cashier on the face of the earth and the store probably couldn't get along without me here working on this Saturday afternoon. I try to come up with some way in my head how to ask Cathy out with her mother standing beside her, but I'm worried that even if I do she might just up and tell me she's sorry but she has a boyfriend already, she's wearing his ring and they're practically almost engaged and a bunch of shit like that, and I think how then I'd be standing here trapped in my checklane with no place to get away to, no way to escape, just standing here rejected and looking goddamn pathetic, and then I look behind me and there's Steve up from the produce department and Alan from the dairy bagging groceries at my lane like the store's so busy and they're such good employees that they've left their stock back in the aisle and the prep room and come up here to help the customers get out in a hurry out of the goodness of their hearts, even if such a sacrifice makes them get way behind in their regular duties.
The two of them keep bagging at my counter, grinning and smiling at me every time I turn around. I want them to leave, but these assholes aren't going anywhere. Cathy and her mother are the next ones in line, and I start in on their order. I know I'm not going to ask Cathy out now, not with her mother and Steve and Alan around. There's also the fact that Harold may be dead this minute and I know somehow I shouldn't be worried about asking some strange girl I don't even know out on a date when something like that has happened. I don't have a damn car, so I don't know what in the hell we'd do on a date anyway. Then I realize how it's probably true I'm not ever going to ask Cathy McCormick out. I could get her phone number off their check when they leave, but the truth is I'm too chicken to call her. Maybe it's just I know when I'm beat and bound to lose right from the start. I don't have to get hit in the face with it or get my nose rubbed in it.
Tonight, when we ride around in Steve's car drinking beer, I'll say how I got Cathy's number this afternoon and how maybe I'll call her sometime but maybe I won't. I'll tell them how I'm just going to have to think about it for a while.
The thing of it is this. All this stuff's a lot of damn pressure. You look at some girl and you make her into some kind of dreamboat in your brain, and then you get worried that you're either wrong about what you've made her out to be in your head or you're right as rain but you know you're not good enough for her, you're lacking somehow in that cute guy department girls seem to go for, and then you feel like shit for a while until you can talk yourself into sticking your neck out for the next damn dreamboat who comes along. You worry about it and think about it so much it about makes you puke. You can talk about doing something all the time, but in the end you really don't want to take another chance at failing and falling on your face and feeling like you need to take a motel room at the bottom of the barrel because you're just so damn pitiful.
You can't help it. You end up feeling like there's nothing on the face of the earth that's worth all this kind of trouble.