by Josh Denslow
We called him Sonny Boy for no apparent reason. Names were just thrown out there and some of them stuck. Like they called me Meat Locker. And William in Produce was called The Shocker.
I hate bagging groceries, but I hate ringing up customers even more. So I made Sonny Boy scan it, and I dumped it in bags. I had this pain in my wrist that I wanted to go to a doctor about. I tried not to lift the bags with my right hand, but that made me move a little slower and you can’t ever please the customer. They say things like, “Don’t put the bleach in with my tampons,” and you just want to smack them over the head. This wrist thing was pissing everybody off.
Sonny Boy kept offering to switch places with me but that wasn’t happening. He’s pretty tall, but he’s as skinny as my eight-year-old sister. His Adam’s apple was threatening to burst out of his neck and he had two or three hairs on his chin. His hair sat limply on his head and he was constantly pushing the bangs out of his eyes. When Sonny Boy looked right at you, it was like he wasn’t looking at you. Like something way more interesting was going on right behind your back.
When he graduated high school, Sonny Boy wanted to travel across the country in his mom’s station wagon. He said he was going to sleep in the back and see everything that America had to offer. Then he was going to move to another country. We all thought he was crazy, but as our high school graduation approached, I realized he was the only one with a plan.
Our manager was named Dobbs. No one ever came up with a nickname for him, so instead, the word Dobbs became synonymous with asshole. If someone talked back or was eyeing someone’s girlfriend, you could say, “Stop being such a Dobbs.” When you first saw him, you might be tricked into thinking he was a nice guy. That is of course if you think overweight guys are usually nicer than skinny guys. I used to think that, and I don’t know why. Dobbs just looked jolly. And his work shirt was always a size too small and you could see the outline of his nipples and his enormous belly button.
Whenever anyone saw Dobbs walking up, they started acting like they loved their job more than beating off. Once when Dobbs walked up to the Produce counter, I saw The Shocker smile at a customer and it totally freaked me out.
Just as the evening rush was dying down, Dobbs walked up behind me. I tried to act like nothing was wrong with my wrist, but he knew I was faking.
“You really shouldn’t be bagging,” he said to me.
“Why’s that?” I asked casually.
Dobbs raised his eyebrows and all of his wrinkles went away and his face looked smooth like a baby. I bet he was an ugly baby.
“Why don’t you rest that wrist and go face aisles two and three.”
Bagging groceries and running the register suck and all, but I hate facing. And aisle two is baby food and that shit is never faced out correctly. Sonny Boy sniggered under his breath as I walked away.
Then Dobbs said, “I’ll stay here and help you bag for the rest of the rush.” Wiped that grin right off of Sonny Boy’s face.
The thing about facing is that I could easily spend my last two hours doing what should take me only ten minutes. But the bad part is that the customers are all out there and they are always asking me to tell them where things are located in the store. Do they not notice the signs hanging above each aisle that tells them what to find there?
One time my mom told me I had to look on the bright side. She said I never see the good in situations, that I’m always talking about how much I hate things. So that’s why I decided to think about how at least I didn’t have to bag anymore for the day because my wrist really was hurting. And I was also lucky that I got to see that girl from my math class come in wearing her pajama pants and a t-shirt. And she clearly had no bra on.
When I got done facing the baby food, The Shocker poked his head around the corner. “Yo, Meat Locker!”
I looked up and gave him the finger.
“I just saw Mrs. Ewing at the Produce counter.” He grinned widely.
That wasn’t really her name unless The Shocker was just really fucking good at guessing. Mrs. Ewing came in about once or twice a week to buy a gallon of spring water. And then she worked her way to every register in the store hoping that someone had dropped money. She had a really big ass that seemed to fling itself back and forth behind her dress as she walked. She always wore sandals and her arms were hairier than my legs.
My sister said she saw her at the Sears down the street doing the same thing. Even though it is really funny to watch her bend over and pick up a penny here or there, I sometimes couldn’t shake the feeling that I shouldn’t be watching. It seemed like a private thing she did. I asked my sister if she felt the same way and she called me a pussy. And she’s only eight.
I looked up to the front of the store and it seemed Dobbs had gone back into his office, so I walked down the aisle and followed The Shocker.
About two aisles over, Mrs. Ewing was still looking for the best deal on spring water. The Shocker elbowed me in the arm.
“Snappy left a quarter next to the sale tag.” The Shocker had a really deep voice. Not Barry White deep, but pretty deep for a short white Jew. He only had one eyebrow.
And sure enough, as soon as Mrs. Ewing got to that brand of water, her beady eyes landed on the quarter. She angled over at the waist, her knees not bending at all, her enormous ass pointed right at us, and she reached down and scooped it up into her pudgy fingers. She looked at it for a moment and then gingerly placed into her side pocket.
The Shocker laughed. “Oh man, Snappy totally tagged that quarter.”
“What?” I asked.
“He tagged it. He put the quarter in his ass crack for at least thirty seconds before he dropped it there. It’s Snappy’s signature move.” The Shocker said this to me as if I was a dumbass for asking. I then thought about the time that Snappy offered me his Twinkie during our fifteen minute break.
Mrs. Ewing grabbed her water and walked up toward the front of the store. I know that The Shocker thought tagging the quarter was funny, but I bet people did that kind of thing all the time. In fact, The Shocker probably had a quarter in his own pocket right now that someone had put in their ass. It wasn’t that big of a deal. Money is gross anyway.
The Shocker slugged me on the arm and walked away. But the more I thought about it, there was a part of me that wanted to run up to Mrs. Ewing and pull the quarter out of her pocket and jam it down The Shocker’s throat.
My mom said I had to watch my anger. Apparently my dad had an anger problem too and that’s why she left him. One time I had kicked a hole in the wall when my sister ruined the case to one of my cd’s and I covered the hole with a poster. My mom wondered why I had turned a car poster vertically, the nose of the car pointed directly at the ground, and that’s how she figured it out. My mom was pretty smart. She told me that eventually I wouldn’t even remember which cd case was destroyed. And she was right again. She was trying to tell me not to get upset over small things.
I went back to the aisle I was working on and decided not to think about Mrs. Ewing. I turned a jar of peanut butter around and felt a sharp pain shoot from my wrist to my elbow. I didn’t really want to tell anyone about my wrist because I thought they would just make fun of me and say I was jerking off too much. And maybe I was, so I didn’t want to get into it. I pictured myself punching Snappy in the face and having the force of it jam my wrist back into place.
Sonny Boy came walking down my aisle, his shoulders a little slumped, his body bobbing up and down with his long strides.
“Going to break,” he said. “Dobbs wants you to cover me.”
“Fuck him,” I said back, but I began walking up to the front.
Dobbs was standing at the register looking at me severely. “You finish facing those aisles?”
“Yeah, for the most part.”
Dobbs looked sweatier than usual. “I’m sure you can handle the register for fifteen minutes.”
I leaned up against the register, a little uncomfortable, and waited for Dobbs to walk away.
“So, what did you do to your wrist?”
“Nothing wrong with my wrist.”
“Maybe you have carpal tunnel. You should get it checked out.”
“Sure.” I couldn’t go to a damn doctor. We didn’t have any insurance and the doctor visit would be that week’s groceries. Mom said we only go to the doctor for emergencies. My wrist was not an emergency.
“You know what carpal tunnel is?” Dobbs asked me.
“It’s from repetitive motion.”
“I’m just trying to be nice.”
One thing I learned from my mom is that people are either nice or they aren’t. If you have to try to be nice, most likely you’re a prick. Like Dobbs.
Dobbs looked at me strangely. “Look, I can loan you the money if you need it. You know. To go to the doctor.”
“No thanks.” What was he playing at? Did he think I wanted to be in debt to him? Then he could get me to do all the crappy jobs in the store. And I would try to say something and he’d be like, “Remember that money I loaned you?” And then suddenly I’d be cleaning the shit off of the baby changing station in the bathroom.
Just then, the girl from my math class walked up to the register with her cart loaded with groceries. She had a cell phone pressed to her ear and was talking loudly with some girl named Abby. I only knew that because she kept saying, “No way, Abby! He did not say that!”
She absently placed everything on the belt as I began to scan it. Without even taking a break to breathe or to show any embarrassment, she placed a box of condoms down with everything else. So not only did some dude get to fuck her, but she bought the condoms. If that girl in my math class was my girlfriend, I wouldn’t make her buy the condoms. I would gladly do that with my wages from the grocery store. Hell, I might even be able to slip them into my pocket on the way out one night.
Dobbs settled in behind me and bagged the groceries, but I could feel him eyeing her in a manner that said he was an old man into high school chicks. I personally liked the way her lips moved while she talked, slightly brushing up against her cell phone. But Dobbs seemed to really like her tits.
Without ever looking directly at me, or even noticing that we had a class together, she paid and left with her stuff. I could still hear her on the phone as the automatic doors whooshed closed behind her.
Dobbs shook his head in disbelief. “Man, you should be all over that,” he said to me.
Dobbs sighed. “How old do you think I am?”
“Forty.” I didn’t give a shit how old he was. I had never even thought about it before.
“I’m twenty-nine. I’m not that much older than you.”
“It’s over ten years though.” That girl in my math class could have probably figured out the difference in her head.
“You have plans for after you graduate?”
I’d been asked this a lot lately. My mom said I’m the only one who can come up with a plan for my life. She said I don’t need to do what some counselor tells me I should do. But the problem is I’m not interested in anything. I suddenly thought of Sonny Boy’s plan to travel around the country. I had no idea if he would really do it, but it seemed like the only thing anyone had told me lately that I thought sounded like a good idea.
Dobbs sighed again. “I never thought I’d be managing this place. This was just my job to get me through high school.”
“Yeah, I’m not going to work here forever. I’m going to take my mom’s car and travel across the country and see everything it has to offer. Then I’m going to move to another country.”
Dobbs laughed. “Are you serious?”
“That’s not a plan, that’s a vacation. How are you going to pay for gas? When the trip is over, what will you do then? And don’t you think your mom will want her car back?”
“I’ll find something somewhere.”
“Why is this your plan?”
I thought about it and wished I had never said anything to him. I hadn’t fully worked it out yet. I just wanted to hear it come out of my mouth. And it felt pretty damn good, like I stood for something.
“Because after I do it,” I said, “I’ll come up with another plan.”
Dobbs looked down at his hands and then tapped the bag dispenser. “I’ll be in the office, let me know if you need anything.”
Dobbs waddled away and I tried to imagine him ever finding a girl that would want to have sex with him. I didn’t think it was possible.
As soon as the office door closed, I saw Mrs. Ewing walk up to the last register and look around on the ground. When she didn’t find anything, she shuffled over to the next one.
Snappy suddenly appeared behind me, his hair slicked back exposing a forehead full of zits. “Dude, she has a pocket full of quarters that have been in my ass.” He threw up a hand for a high five. Wasn’t going to happen.
Just then, Sonny Boy and The Shocker walked up, both of them looking at Mrs. Ewing as she worked her way toward my register.
“I think Mrs. Ewing gives Meat Locker a boner,” Snappy said.
“Eat a dick,” I said.
“Can you imagine what her pocket smells like?” The Shocker said.
“Yeah, I even ate a burrito for lunch,” Snappy laughed.
We fell into silence as Mrs. Ewing hunched over at another register, her beady eyes intensely scanning the ground. None of us could seem to look away.
“I wonder why she does that,” Sonny Boy said. “I don’t think she’s homeless.”
At that moment, I realized that Sonny Boy was the smartest guy I knew. He had a plan for after high school. And he wondered why things happened whereas me, The Shocker, and Snappy just accepted things as they were.
“I think you guys are stupid,” I said.
Snappy looked at me. “What happened to your sense of humor?”
“We’re just having fun, Meat,” The Shocker said.
I looked over to Sonny Boy for support but he was still watching Mrs. Ewing.
“Did you tag that Twinkie you gave me the other day?”
“What are you trying to say?” Snappy looked pissed.
“You calling him a Dobbs?” The Shocker said.
“No, I was just asking.” Maybe it was a bad idea to try to understand things.
“I wouldn’t do that to you. But maybe I will next time.” Snappy looked genuinely offended.
I suddenly felt really bad and my neck felt warm. “Look, I’m sorry.”
The Shocker let out a burst of laughter that made the hair on my arms stand up. “You might as well tell him, Snappy?”
Snappy looked pretty pleased with himself. “Yeah, I tagged that Twinkie.”
My chest swelled up and I wanted to ram my fist down his throat and pull out his stomach. Why would he do the same shit to me as he did to Mrs. Ewing? I’d be really pissed if I had actually eaten it. But I never trusted that fucker. With a pang, I realized I had given it to Sonny Boy. But Sonny Boy still wasn’t saying anything.
Mrs. Ewing was only three registers away now. “The reason tagging isn’t funny is because you aren’t smart. Any dumbass could come up with that.” I had to hit him where it hurt.
“And what, you some kind of rocket scientist?” Snappy retorted.
“If you want to mess with someone, you have to think it through first. A monkey could put a quarter in his ass. But could a monkey super glue it to the ground?” I felt pretty pleased with myself for a moment, until I saw the look of pure joy wash over both of their faces.
The Shocker took off running toward Aisle 1.
“Aisle 15! Aisle 15!” Snappy yelled.
The Shocker’s shoes squeaked as he turned around and ran toward the opposite side of the store.
Mrs. Ewing walked up and placed her water on the belt. Sonny Boy smiled at her.
“Hello,” she said cheerfully. “I think you rung me up last time.”
“I certainly did,” Sonny Boy replied.
Sonny Boy scanned the water and placed it in a paper bag.
“Can you believe that I found enough quarters on the ground to pay for this water? Must be my lucky day.” She dug into her pocket and pulled out the quarters.
Without even hesitating, Sonny Boy took them and dropped them in his register.
The Shocker came running up holding a thing of super glue. He waved frantically at Snappy who looked puzzled. The Shocker mouthed the words “stall her” and Snappy suddenly smiled up at Mrs. Ewing.
“Would you like me to help you to your car?”
Mrs. Ewing laughed. “No I think I can manage.”
This was all unfolding before me like a horror movie.
“You know what,” I said, “I’m actually leaving right now. I’ll be happy to walk you out.”
The Shocker was done gluing the quarter to the ground next to the door. I intended to get her past it without her noticing. I grabbed the bag forcefully and the most severe pain shot through my wrist and all the way up to my shoulder. I jumped back as if I’d been burned and cradled my right arm across my body.
Mrs. Ewing looked concerned. “Are you okay, dear?”
“Just my wrist,” I said. “Sorry.”
I tried to grab the bag again but she picked it up too quickly. “You should really check that out. Could be carpal tunnel.” She patted me on the shoulder. “I can manage fine on my own, dear. Such a nice group of young men.”
As she shuffled to the door, Snappy looked at me and grinned. “Brilliant,” he said. “Perfect diversion.”
The pain in my arm was excruciating. I knew my mom was going to be disappointed in me. I was going to have to go to the doctor. I looked up at Sonny Boy but he was staring past me to Mrs. Ewing.
I thought she might not see it. She had made it a step or two past it and the doors had whooshed open. But maybe a glint or a sparkle caught her eye because she threw a glance back and a smile formed on her face. She looked up at Sonny Boy again and said, “Can you believe I found another one?” Then she bent over to pick it up.
But it wouldn’t budge.
Snappy was desperately holding in his laughter as Mrs. Ewing tried to work her pudgy fingers under the quarter. The blood seemed to be rushing to her head and her forehead was turning red. Her ass rocked back and forth frantically. She was determined to get that quarter.
Just behind her, The Shocker mimed that he was fucking her. He had his eyes closed and was throwing his right hand back and forth as if he was slapping her.
Mrs. Ewing grunted and Snappy had to clamp his mouth shut.
My stomach rolled and I could feel my large intestine working its way up my body to strangle me. There was no way I was going to live through this. I gasped for air.
I made myself turn away. I made myself stop watching. And I found myself looking up at Sonny Boy. And for once, he was looking right at me.
“Sonny Boy” originally appeared in print in Upstreet Number Four in 2009.
JOSH DENSLOW’s stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Black Clock, A cappella Zoo, Storyglossia, Fifth Wednesday, and Twelve Stories, among others. He has written and directed five short films that played at a few festivals, and he plays the drums in the band Borrisokane.