Small and Ugly
by Carlos D. Williamson
I scroll through my feed and see that Michelle is having a party. I want to be there, with her, but I’m here, slicing cold cuts for middle-aged housewives, who get short with me whenever they feel their lunch meat isn’t cut to par. Every time one of them shakes their head, which causes their jowls to jiggle, I know I did something wrong. Then Freddy lets me know, usually in the form of name calling, in front of them. Faggot is one of his favorite insults. Maybe his favorite word. I just keep my head down, slicing that ham thinner and thinner until it’s damn near crumbling. Then they snatch the bag, sometimes smile, and walk away. For some reason, getting berated at work seems less stressful today.
I can’t stop thinking about Michelle and the party, and the fact that she didn’t tell me. I want to look at my feed again to verify that what I’d seen wasn’t my eyes playing tricks on me, but customers keep lining up. I immediately begin to think the worst. I start thinking about the guys at her party. Especially that one dude who was really close to her. This wasn’t the first time I’ve seen a photo of him damn near pressed up on her like that. I’m pretty sure his name’s Reggie. Then I think about her moving to L.A. She’s always talking about it, how glamorous it is, and the life she wants to live. Whenever I tell her I’m coming with, she just rolls her eyes.
I told Freddy about her, when I first started, before I really knew him. When he saw a picture of her, he said gorgeous girls like that don’t go for fags like me. I was pissed. But I didn’t say anything. Freddy’s big and white and grew up in the country somewhere. And he used to hunt or still does. I can’t tell how old he is, but I know he’s older than me. And I know not to ask.
The next day, before work, I finally see Michelle. We haven’t hung out at her place in weeks. I tell her, only because I miss her, and she goes off about chillin’ with her girls, something she’s been saying a lot lately. When I look over, she’s texting. I go to get us drinks and walk behind her, like I always do, to hand her the bottle. And she presses the phone against her chest.
“Damn!” she says, “Can you give me some space? Please!”
“My bad, I didn’t wanna walk around just to—”
“Gon’ sit down somewhere.”
The last time I was here, her phone kept ringing while she was in the bathroom. When I looked over, a few texts came through, and I saw some guy’s junk on the screen. I told myself it was porn, even though I knew it wasn’t. I scrolled through a message or two and stopped after, “You know u wanna ride my face.” I heard her open the door, so I put the phone down. But she saw me. She bolted to her phone like Carl Lewis and told me to stop being nosey. That’s when she said I had to leave.
Today she seems happy.
“Uh, ain’t you forgettin’ somethin’?”
“Really?” she says, holding out her palm.
“Oh, right,” I say.
I dig into my pocket and pull out the money I’d just gotten from cashing my check. I know it’s a little over two-hundred, but I don’t bother counting. I hand it over. She says it’s for bills. The first time she needed help with rent, I gave her as much as I could without question. She called me sweet afterward, and it made me feel needed and useful. Now she collects every week and calls it my rent. So I’m over every Friday, except for when I can’t pay up. Those weeks suck because it’s hard to get in touch with her. I tell her about helping out my mom. And she just says, “What we gon’ do if you not gettin’ no money, stare at each other?”
She doesn’t know that I know about the party a few weeks ago, so I don’t bring it up. I just ask her what she did that day, and she says she doesn’t remember and that she was probably with her girls. Her photo album shows otherwise.
At work, I don’t really have anyone to talk to besides Freddy. And Michelle is usually the topic of discussion. I tell him about how she’s been acting. He tells me she’s fucking someone else. Then he nudges me, laughs, and says, “Yeah, she’s probably gettin’ stuffed by meatheads at some frat party.” I start to think about my friends at college, the ones who don’t text back, the ones who ignore my messages on Facebook. I wonder if they know who’s stuffing Michelle. I get sad just thinking about it and mad at Freddy for even saying something like that. But it’s Freddy. I laugh and pretend to not want to force his face through the meat slicer. One ear, I think, won’t look bad on him. I try, before becoming irate, to focus on the women Freddy’s matched with on Tinder while he gives me the intimate details of his one-night stands.
After he tells me how pathetic my relationship is, he says I should get on Tinder, and that maybe, if I can find someone just as desperate, I might get lucky. I take a long lunch break, a really long one. I let him deal with the uppity customers alone. The funny thing is they treat him just like they treat me. They probably think he’s stupid, though they wouldn’t be far off. I’m on break so long that I’m afraid to go back to the floor.
When I get there, he seems happy. I walk closer to wash my hands in the sink behind him and hear him chatting with a customer. I can tell he’s smiling by what he’s saying. I eavesdrop more and hear what sounds like flirting. But it’s one-sided. Her responses seem brief and abrupt, though I can’t tell if she’s in a rush or if she’s repulsed. Maybe both. I turn around to take a glimpse. She’s a regular. I served her before. Butterball. That’s what she likes. I remember slicing that Cajun turkey breast thin. Unlike the middle-aged hags that come in, she’s pretty. Tall and thin with olive skin. Looking at her almost makes me forget how long of a lunch I took.
The more he talks, the more bothered she looks. Then I hear him ask for her number. She doesn’t say no, but she doesn’t say yes either. I can’t make out all of what she says. But now he looks bothered. He hands her the bag of shaved turkey. And she walks away. I hear his feet shuffling on the greasy floor behind me and feel his fist dig into my back. I turn around sharply.
“Hey, puss, just got that bitch’s number,” he says, after giving me a jab in my lower side.
“Yeah, right,” I say, trying to hide the pain I’m in.
He doesn’t expect my response, and his face reddens.
“You callin’ me a liar?”
He grabs me by the smock, and I try backing away in case there are any onlookers.
“N—no … I’m just sayin’,” I muster.
Finally, he lets go and I stumble backward. He says, just loud enough for me to hear, that I’m a pathetic nigger. I clench my fists and scowl as soon as the words leave his mouth. And not even ten minutes later, he’s helping a customer as if nothing had happened. I can’t focus for the rest of my shift. I think about taking one of the long, sharp knives we use to cut open the unwrapped blocks of cheese, sneaking up on him once we close up shop, and surprising him with something in his side. I think about it over and over. Then I remember the cameras, the ones in the parking lot, which got me thinking about jail time. So I imagine sucker punching him instead, then running. The truth is he’d probably catch me. I’m not trim. And I’m about as fast as I look.
I clock out a few hours later and know I’m not following through. I make it to the parking lot and hear him honk his horn, his F-150 gleaming underneath the streetlight. He gives me a half wave and a nod. A half wave and a nod. I reluctantly nod back and make the long walk home.
Once I’m in bed, I weigh options. I want to be able to give Michelle money. The feeling I get when she hugs me after I buy her something she’s really wanted is hard to describe. That feeling is the reason I haven’t bought a car with the little I have saved up. But Freddy … Freddy is something else. I don’t know how to deal with this problem until I remember Jeffrey.
I think I overheard someone say he’s the nephew of the regional manager. Anyway, he’s sort of a pothead or dealer—not really sure. I just remember him talking to Andrea on one of the nights I had to take out the trash. They were both smoking and probably didn’t notice me or cared that I was there. He told her about how his cousin’s friend got shot and that his cousin’s friend wasn’t strapped. Then he started telling her how easy it was for his cousin to get a strap and how they’d planned on retaliating. The few times we’d spoken, he kept telling me that if I ever needed anything to come holla. He’s one of those white boys who, you know, talks like he can relate. I don’t know why he was so friendly. I just think about asking him if he knows where I can get a piece. I don’t even know what the hell I’d do with it if I ever got it.
It’s Friday, and I text Michelle to meet me at my job. I don’t have a bank account, so I just cash the checks at the TCF inside. Hopefully, the line isn’t too long. I just wanna hand over whatever she needs and spend some time with her. I feel a buzz in my pocket. I figure it’s her trying to get in touch, so I check. I look down at the screen to read the message. She’s in the parking lot. The line is moving along. And before I know it, the teller, the pretty one who usually helps me, waves me over. She looks at the stub, types something, opens the till, then proceeds to hand me my cash.
Then, from behind, I’m grabbed. I feel pressure on my throat, and whoever’s holding me squeezes tighter. I can’t scream, except for the gurgling sounds that I keep making. My body is being tossed about violently. In a frenzy, I try freeing myself by pulling the arm, whosever it was, off my throat. It works but barely.
“Pussy! Woulda had you tap out anyway!”
It’s Freddy. Of course it is. He’s the only person capable of roughhousing in public without shame. All while this is going on I hear my phone ringing in my pocket. I knew it was Michelle making her way in. The teller’s eyes, soft and brown, were on us—two adult males, the alpha handling the beta. This woman, the same woman who’d always been polite, watched me get mock strangled.
“Russell?” I hear, fighting the urge to massage my bruised neck. “Russell, wh—what’s going on?”
I try not to gasp in front of Michelle and the teller. Before I can answer, I feel a thud in my back. And the pain spreads to my side. He punched me in front of Michelle and the teller. Sweat’s rolling down my cheeks. “Faggot!” he yells before jumping at me. I flinch, and he runs off. The teller comes from behind the counter to check on me. Right then I remember her name. It’s on her tag: Jasmine.
“He so wrong for that; he just ignorant. You okay?”
She pats my shoulder and Michelle looks at her, then at me, and asks what happened. Jasmine tells her. And I stand there, fingers trembling as sweat drips onto the floor. “Oh my God!” Michelle says. “You shakin’.” They console me. When it’s all over, I collect my cash, stuffing it into my pocket, avoiding Jasmine’s eyes throughout the transaction. I hand it all to Michelle in the parking lot right before she gets in her car.
“What’s wrong?” she asks, while starting it up.
“Nothing,” I say.
“Uh, you sure … after what just happened in there?”
Once I confirm that I’m fine, she lets out a sigh while shaking her head. She says she has to leave soon, so I bend to kiss her. My lips graze hers before she turns her neck abruptly, presenting her cheek as the appropriate place for my kiss to land. I settle, and she drives off. I try to forget about the incident on the walk home. I feel better when I think of the pizza I’m gonna have. Then I remember my check, all one hundred eighty-seven dollars, is gone. I dig into my pockets, fiddling with the loose change I still have.
I think about asking Mom to pick up pizza on her way home. But she’ll probably ask what I’ve been doing with my money. And she doesn’t need to know. I make it home finally and instinctively call Michelle. The phone rings before I can gather my thoughts.
“Didn’t I just see you?” she asks.
“Yeah … but I thought, you know, maybe we could hang out.”
“Uh … yeah,” I say, unsure if she senses my anxiety.
“Hmm … don’t you remember me tellin’ you I got plans?”
I hear mumbling on the other end. It sounds like it could be a soft whisper or a subtle kiss.
“When?” I ask, trying not to let what I hear bother me. “Tonight?”
“Uh, yeah, tonight. I already told you. I swear, you don’t be listenin’.”
There’s a brief pause in our conversation. I hear her playfully whisper stop. Then I hear giggling. I know she’s not talking to me. So I wait.
“I mean, I don’t remember.”
“Huh?” she says, switching her attention to me. “Uh, well, now I’m reminding you.”
“What you got planned?”
“Uh … I already told you … my girls, remember? We goin’ out.”
I hear more laughing, then flirting that’s not directed toward me.
“I—it’s just that … I thought we could, you know, maybe chill.”
“Maybe chill? Look, I have a life. I can’t just be all up under you.”
“Wait, hold on, I’m not sayin’ that. I’m just say—”
“I’ll call you back.”
I hear a deep voice say finally in the background. Then it cuts out. I start to think Freddy’s right about me. He’s the only person I can confide in, but the feeling isn’t mutual. I hate him. And I’m sure he thinks less of me. At this point, I don’t even care. I just want control. I call Jeffery and ask him for that favor he’s always talking about. He’s surprised by my request. But he obliges. He shows up to my house in about an hour. I’m nervous, but I walk to his car parked in front of my mailbox. I open the door and greet him. And he immediately insists that I call him Jeff, not Jeffery. I’ve been calling him the latter for a while, and he never seemed to mind. But today he does. I hand him the little I’ve scrounged up over the past few months and tell him the rest will come when I get my next check. He looks down at the cash and tells me not to worry about the rest.
He pulls it out of a brown paper bag. I look at it, not knowing what to expect. He can tell something’s off because of my silence, so he starts telling me stuff to reassure me. He says it’s been around, which explains why it looks the way it does, tarnished but reliable. He shows me where the serial number once was and tells me I’m good. The last thing he mentions is that it’s loaded. After giving me a brief tutorial, which lasts all of two minutes, he hands it to me with the nozzle pointed in my direction. He palms his face after immediately realizing his mistake and tells me never to hand someone a gun like that unless you mean to kill them. I nod, shake his hand, and walk to my door. I hide it underneath my shirt and walk as quickly as I can to my room.
I’m afraid to grip the handle, so I release the magazine and pull the slide several times to make sure nothing’s in the chamber. Then, and only then, do I feel safe holding it. I can’t believe I went through with it. I stare at it for hours then place it in a shoe box before going to bed.
The next day I show up late after having overslept, and Freddy’s there. He gives me a look that I know can’t be good. But he’s helping a patron. He remains as inconspicuous as he can. Once he slips the half pound of American into a plastic bag and hands it to the customer, he comes right at me. He looks me in the eye and waves me over in the direction of the freezer.
“C’mon,” he says, holding the heavy door wide open.
I follow without question and shut the door behind me. It’s cold, like always. But I still haven’t gotten used to the chill. He shakes his head, looking me up and down.
“You sorry piece of shit.”
“Huh?” I say confused.
“You heard me, you fucking fag.”
I’m still frozen.
“You think it’s funny to have me work alone to serve these old, entitled cunts by myself? After all I do for you. And for all the fuckin’ respect I show you.”
I’m furious, but I don’t know how to react. He makes his way past me and bumps me hard as he reaches for the handle.
“F—f—fuck you!” I finally say, my bottom lip quivering. My reaction is impromptu. But that’s all I’ve got left in the defense tank. He turns around, looks at me and says, “What’d you say, faggot!?”
“I’m not a fag!” I say.
It looks like he’s winding up to hit me, so I brace myself, tightening every muscle I possibly can. Then I hear a yell from up front. It must be a customer. We both walk to the counter, and she’s tapping the bell incessantly. He nudges me hard. So I help her. She’s not one of our regulars. She looks like she just came from spin class or hot yoga. I really don’t know what you’d do in those classes. I just know thin, rich, hot girls go to them.
“Excuse me,” she says.
“Yes, how can I help you?” I respond.
“You mean may. How may I help? That’s what you meant.”
I force a fake smile. It’s hard. I contemplate going off. But then I think about Michelle. And I know I need to keep this job.
She asks for the Krakus shaved. I see Freddy sneaking off to the freezer, while I grab the eleven-pound block of Polish ham. I turn the dial on the meat slicer so that it comes out paper thin. After the first smooth stroke, I hold the pink, transparent slice so she can see.
“Thinner,” she says.
I nod my head in compliance. Then I show her again after a few more adjustments to the dial.
“I said crumbling,” she says, letting out a low grunt.
“Well,” I say, “first of all, you said shaved, and I was just making sure by showing you.”
“Where’s the manager?”
“I wanna speak with him now.”
“He isn’t in.”
“I can’t believe this. What’s the number to corporate?”
I pause, trying to keep the scowl on my face neutral, before heading back to the walk-in to ask Freddy.
After my shift, I think of other ways to give Michelle money. I imagine her reaction when I tell her I quit. Then I think of my life without her and let out a deep breath. What would’ve happened if I had brought the you-know-what with me? I picture myself at Cook County—or Will—awaiting trial and not having my time spent count as time served even though my shitty attorney, the one appointed to me, told me he tried his best.
I check my shoe box when I get home, and it’s there, just like I left it. I fall asleep, knowing that it’s neatly put away, within reach, and ready for use when I need it.
I make the daily walk to work with the .38 tucked in the small of my back because I’ve seen people in movies do it. It’s chilly out, but sweat runs down my face and neck. The more the wind blows, the more I feel my shirt stick to my wet back. My belt’s fastened tight, so I know the gun’s secure.
I reach work more tired than usual. I’m breathing hard, so I head for the break room. I’m not sure if Freddy’s working tonight and don’t want to check the schedule. I go straight to the washroom and pat my face dry with paper towels while taking deep breaths. But the sweat keeps coming. I quickly lift the back of my shirt to check if it’s still there. I felt it and knew it was. But I had to see, just to confirm, what I had brought.
After sweating in the bathroom, I take off my coat and slide it on a hanger.
“Sorry,” I hear from behind.
“Huh?” I respond in disbelief.
“You know? About yesterday?”
“Uh,” I say, still unsure of how to respond. “Oh, it—it’s no problem.”
“So we’re cool?”
I nod my head. And he reaches out with his fist, then our knuckles tap. I don’t know how to react now that he wants to make amends. I walk down the steps of the breakroom confused. I’m overcome with a feeling I can’t quite describe, but I shake if off, wash my hands, and help the next customer in line. He asks for half a pound of the Sara Lee roast beef, shaved. I take a knife to the package and split it open. I firmly place the meat onto the slicer, lock it into place, and glide the blade handle back and forth. I slice it thin at first. After a couple more attempts, it’s as thin as he wants. I keep going. Once I think I’ve reached a quarter pound, I hesitate, expecting Freddy to intercede. But I hear nothing, so I continue until I reach half a pound. I hand the customer the meat when I’m done, and he smiles before walking away.
“Way to slice that shit, bro,” Freddy says. I look straight ahead. I wonder, while the gun rests snuggly between my back and belt, if he’s seen a shrink or talked to a pastor in the past twenty-four hours. Then I shake the thought from my head after I convince myself he’s too fucked up for that to even work. I watch as he helps the next customer. This one’s gorgeous: voluptuous with a slim waist. Her ’fro is curly and glowing. Her bronze skin looks soft and smooth. The more I look at her, the more I think she may be prettier than Michelle. I suddenly feel guilty. But after a brief moment, she’s gone. It doesn’t matter, though. I wouldn’t have done anything. I wouldn’t have made a move.
Freddy notices me looking at her as she walks away. He looks at me then at her and repeats this before smiling at me while thrusting his hips. Then he gives me a wink. She turns around and makes her way back to the counter. His face turns red as he stops mid thrust.
“Hey,” she says, oblivious to the fact that we’d ogled her.
“Uh … yea—yes, how can I help?”
“Yeah, can I have half a pound of muenster?”
“Sure, no problem. How thin you want it?”
“Oh, it doesn’t matter.”
Freddy adjusts the dial before pushing the handle forward. She’s on her phone, back facing us. We both gaze. Then I hear it. I’d never heard a noise like that come from anyone and never expected such a sound to come from Freddy. When I look over, there’s blood, a lot of blood. The customer looks, puts her hand over her mouth, and asks if he’s okay. I stand there, thinking about all the times that same blade nicked my finger tips, ruining fresh cold cuts in the process. But I do nothing. I wait and pretend to be too shocked to help. Then I remember that I’ll have to redo this lady’s order after Freddy makes me clean up the mess.
“Ma’am, as soon as I’m done cleaning and disinfecting, I’ll get on that order, pronto. Thanks for your patience.”
“Oh … no worries,” she yells over Freddy’s moaning. “I—I … I’m good.”
I’m relieved. She walks away still on the phone, relaying what had just happened to the person on the other end.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck!” he yells.
Red droplets seep through his tattered glove, leaving a trail of blood that I now have to mop. He runs to the sink shaking as he lets cold water run over his hand. It’s too early to tell if he’s lost a finger. He goes to the breakroom in a panic, so I guess I won’t know until he comes back. As I glide the mop handle, trying hard not to step or slip in his blood, I remember I’m still packing. It’s still in the small of my back like I’ve seen in movies. I decide, after already having seen him suffer, to forgo the plan.
The next day at work, Freddy arrives with a bandaged hand. He tells me he’s going to be doing more overseeing than working and that Mr. Oswalt promoted him. Once he sees the look on my face, he assures me it’s true, and Jeffery confirms it while I’m on break.
I get to the floor and pick up the pace when I see a line of customers waiting. I start with the first order, thinking of the night ahead and frantically slice the honey ham. A quarter inch of the meat plops down onto the plastic wrapper. I don’t bother showing the customer, as I know he’d be disgusted. I adjust the dial, getting it right where I think it should be. Then I slice as rapidly as before. Freddy comes up to me and points at his bandaged hand before telling me to be careful. His concern seems oddly genuine, so I slice at a slower, more controlled pace before showing the customer his sample. This man’s burly, tall. I don’t remember seeing him before. His voice is resonant, and he uses it to tell me to try again, indifferent but firm. It was almost like he wasn’t trying to be rude but didn’t care if he was. I hesitate before pushing the blade handle forward. Then I hear, “You heard the customer!”
Freddy was back to his irritable self. I knew the kindness act was temporary. I just wasn’t sure when he’d revert to being the Freddy that made me want to jam a .38 to his neck and squeeze and squeeze until we were both covered in him. To be honest, though, once, or if, I go through with it, I don’t know how it’ll look, whether it’ll be loud or messy. I just know I want him to feel something—something hot and red and permanent.
When I get home, after my shift, I bite my lip to keep from weeping, but my eyes are already starting to sting. Seconds later my cheeks moisten, so I clamp down harder. I grip the handle of the loaded weapon, thinking about what I could’ve done, wishing I would’ve at least said something. Pacing my room, I conclude that escaping would be easier than confrontation. It’d only take one motion. It’d be swift. Almost effortless. Then I think about that one guy a friend told me about a while ago. He actually did what I was thinking, only he used a shotty. I heard his face got fucked. I don’t know how he looks, but he’s alive. Thoughts of being alive but disfigured start seeping in. I know Michelle would leave if that happened, and the thought of that makes my stomach tighten. My grip loosens on the handle, and I put the gun back into the shoebox and push it out of sight.
I wake up the next morning, struggling to roll off the mattress, unsatisfied with the rest I’d gotten. I was in bed longer than usual; I know I slept, but the weight of the previous day was still on me. I drag my feet on the way to the bathroom and splash water on my face. There’s no soap, so I cup warm water into my hands and go over my face at least three more times. I return to my room after brushing my teeth and throw on the faded blue polo my mom just washed along with the tattered, meat-stained khakis. After my first week on the job, I stopped caring about how I looked as long as I was clean.
Before I leave the room, I flip open the shoebox and stare at what’s inside. I close my eyes before slipping my fingers around the handle. I let out a deep breath and open them again once it’s tucked in the same place it was the other day. When I leave the house, I walk slower than I ever have. Every few feet, I find a way to touch the small of my back or tug on my belt just to make sure it’s snug in place. I finally make it to work after the long walk. I can feel the sweat cooling on my back, and I just know there’s going to be an awkward, dark spot there. I jog to the restroom in the breakroom to pat myself dry. I know I’m late, so I quicken the pace.
I look into the mirror, and there are wet spots on the front and back of my polo. My face is also gleaming from the walk. I untuck my shirt, lower my head, and figure what the hell. It’s not like it’s dry anyway. I give my face a few good pats. I’m still a sweaty mess, but I have to get to the floor. Before I can wash my hands, a portly woman makes her way to the counter. I remember seeing her before. She’s a regular. Once she places her order, her face becomes more familiar. She orders a pound and a half of the Krakus, a half pound more than what she usually likes. She asks for it thin, but not shaved. She’s a sweet woman. A bit older. I don’t remember her ever having an attitude, and for that, I think how lucky she is—lucky that I still care enough to care enough. I slice the ham the way she likes it, the way most of these suburban housewives do, and send her on her way.
“What you been up to, fag?” I hear as I turn around. Freddy’s shadow boxing inches from my face. I can almost feel air waft near my nose and lips as he throws jabs.
“Hey,” I respond with indifference, my head cocked to the side. I turn to look at him, and his fist connects with my jaw. My vision gets blurry, and my face goes numb. I can already tell my lip is bleeding.
“Oh shit! My bad, bro,” he says while bursting into a laugh. “My bad. But you shouldn’t have turned your head. You basically walked right into it.”
I cup my hand over my mouth, hoping no one saw what had just happened or my bloody lip. I make my way to the breakroom, head down, walking as fast as I can.
“Hey,” I hear him yelling from the counter, “no bathroom breaks!”
I don’t stop until I’m in front of the mirror. The bleeding isn’t bad at all once I pat it down with some toilet paper from the stall. But the swelling, though … the swelling I can’t do anything about. I look into the mirror, and anguish overrides embarrassment. Thoughts of Joe Pesci enter my head, and I think back to Casino when he stabbed the guy in throat, with a pen of all things, repeatedly. Or when he snuck up on that lady and put the gun to her head and not even a minute later, she was limp, leaning back into his arms as blood streamed down her temple. Maybe that’s how I had to do it. Right before closing or while he’s taking out the trash. After the thoughts about ending Freddy dissipate, I head back to the floor and realize he disappeared for the rest of his shift. So, as always, I end up doing the heavy lifting. If I ever brought this up to him, though, he’d gladly flash his badge, reminding me of his new title or worse.
Time is moving quicker than usual, and I find myself breaking down the slicer for its nightly cleaning. The edge of the blade is caked with what looks like a blend of American and Swiss, and maybe muenster. I slide the steel-mesh glove over my soiled plastic one, so I don’t end up like Freddy. As I start scrubbing away, my mind drifts off, and I wonder about Michelle and how we haven’t talked in a while. I wasn’t particularly fond of how our last conversation had ended. I think she was with that guy, the one from the photo from the day of the party.
I look at the phone just to verify the last time we talked even though I know two weeks had passed. My thumb hovers over the last outgoing call I made to her. I cringe, then tap the screen. It rings several times before going to voicemail. I end before I hear a beep and send a text of a kiss emoji followed by a heart and quickly regret it. I get home and still no response. I call again. This time it goes to voicemail after two rings. I call again just to make sure her phone isn’t off. This time I count the rings. But, like the first two times, I get her voicemail.
That night it’s even more difficult to sleep. I double-check to make sure my phone isn’t on vibrate or silent. I shuffle through all the messages I’d sent over the past few weeks. I even replay the last conversation we had in my head. At this point, I don’t even care if she’s with one of the dudes in the photo. I just want to hear from her. Before I can get much rest, my eyes catch a glimpse of the peaking sun. My mild headache, probably due to a lack of sleep, makes it even harder to shut my eyes. I roll over and look at my phone. There’s a text from Michelle. I stare at the screen afraid to open the message because of what I might read, so I close my eyes, take a deep breath, then tap reluctantly. Hours go by as I lay in bed, thinking of what I had just read. I call, but nothing. I keep at it, hoping my persistence pays off. It doesn’t. I’m off for the next couple of days, so I stay in my room, only leaving to use the bathroom or answer the door for takeout. Before I know it, my days off are gone, and I feel heavy once I get out of bed.
I go to the shoe box and bend down to pick it up. This time, when I hold it, I feel something I haven’t felt in a while. A surge. It starts at my stomach, then makes its way to my back and chest where it reverberates. It’s a glow I can’t see but feel. That warmth settles into my core, and the idleness that has weighed me down for days is gone. I think of how to approach him when I’m at work.
When I get there, I ask him if he’s closing with me, and he tells me not to fuckin’ worry about it. My face is expressionless. All I can think about is what I want to do to him. Walking in the opposite direction, he says, “I’ll leave when I damn-well please. I’m your superior.” I greet the person approaching the counter, and the night gets busier and busier. After each order, I think step by step how I’m going to execute what I’ve been planning for months. Minutes before closing, I tell him we’re out of the honey ham to which he replies, “Which one, dumbass?”
“You know,” I say, “the same one the customers always ask for. Think you can help?”
“Of course. As always.”
He follows me to the walk-in, and I ask him to help carry the box out to the floor. He walks to the end of the freezer and grunts as he tries to balance the broad box while pulling it off the top shelf. As soon as he turns, he drops it. His mouth opens, and his eyes widen. But nothing comes out. I’m speechless, too. It almost doesn’t feel real, pointing the pistol at him.
“Yo!” he says. “Yo! Hold on, bro. Wait. Just wait.”
His palms are up, covering his face as if his hands could actually protect him.
“Dude! Wha–whatever I said … or did, I’m sorry. I’m fu—fucking sorry, man.”
He lowers his head and crouches. His hands still up as he grovels and weeps. This isn’t the same person. This isn’t the same man. I back out of the freezer slowly, the gun tucked away as I walk out of the store. I go to the alley and lean against the wall as I try to get a grip on what had just happened. I take a squat to relax. Not long after, I hear sirens. The sound closes in, and I don’t have the energy to fight, or hide, or run. I pull out the gun, shut my eyes, and slide the barrel into my mouth. I hold it there for a few seconds before I spit it out. Tears blur my vision, so I wipe them away and try again. This time I aim the nozzle at my temple before closing my eyes. The grip is slippery from sweat, and my hand is trembling. Again, I can’t go through with it. I hear footsteps coming into the alley, and before I know it I’m face to face with an officer. She looks down and sees the pistol in my lap. I look up at her and reach for it. The sound is like nothing I had ever heard before. Those thunderous claps go off twice more before I actually feel the pressure in my chest. My head leans forward, and my body slumps over, and flashes of Michelle’s smile fade in and out before it all dissipates into a dull haze.
Carlos D. Williamson‘s work has appeared in Medill News Service, Folha de S.Paulo, and the Chicago Tribune. He’s currently an editor/designer at the Chicago Tribune and has recently received a Fulbright U.S. Scholar Award to Brazil, where he’ll write about race, culture, and class in February 2021.
Image source: Daderot/Creative Commons