SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
July 28, 2013

I Didn't Do It

 

 

It took a few days after my dad’s funeral before things started quieting down around the house. Of course things wouldn’t really quiet down for a long time, if ever, but most of the people had gone away, and the phone and doorbell weren’t ringing like they had been. I was still in Green Bay to offer what I could, and planned to stay as long as it took before my mom started getting sick of me.

            My parents weren’t big drinkers themselves, but always kept the refrigerator in the basement stocked with beer for any visitors who were. In the week since I’d arrived I think I was the only one who touched it, and now I couldn’t help but notice the well had run dry. I was a little ashamed to ask my mom to go on a beer run with me—there were other, far more important things going on that needed doing and needed consideration, and above all I didn’t want to be a bother—but I wasn’t so ashamed that I didn’t go ahead and ask her. I’d need something after all, and figured beer was the safest bet to hold off the tightness in my head. It had been a hell of a time for all of us.

            Maybe I wasn’t all that surprised that she was eager to grab the car keys. It wasn’t that she needed a beer herself, she just wanted something to do to get her out of a house that was now far too empty and far too quiet without my dad. And while we were out we could run a few other errands, maybe swing by and visit my sister while we were at it. Anything to stay busy and distracted for an hour or two.

            Green Bay had changed a great deal since I’d left in the early eighties. It was no longer a shock. I’d seen it happen piece by piece during my sporadic visits home. Most of the old landmarks had been scrubbed away. My old school was now a drug store, and the old drug store where I used to hang out was now a dry cleaners. What had been endless open fields were now filled with cheap houses and box stores. As we drove down the long, straight road my mom pointed out things I’d never heard of and could hardly imagine. Not being able to see them, though, I could let it all slide and remember the landscape as it was. That is, until she took a right where she shouldn’t in my mind have been able to take a right. What had once been a small commercial cherry orchard was now a massive parking lot surrounding a strip mall capped at one end by a gigantic grocery store with a generic corporate name.

            It was a beastly hot day, and as she led me across the parking lot to the sliding glass doors I recognized a kind of radiant heat that’s absolutely unique to parking lots. Inside it was cooler, but the air was still thick somehow with an intangible menace that settles into any grocery store of this size anywhere in the world. It’s all just too much, aisle after aisle and shelf after shelf and checkout after checkout. It goes on forever, and I always step into these places with the deep fear I’ll never be able to find my way out again.

            Fortunately my mom knew where we were headed. There were very few people shopping that day, which was a relief. It made navigation easier. She led me down a few aisles to the very back of the store, where she took a left into the liquor section. That’s one thing about the glorious Midwest. In New York there’s this strange apartheid separating beer from wine and anything harder. You can get beer in the grocery store, but you want anything else you need to find a liquor store and make another stop. We may not have those annoying goddamn state stores like in Philly, but we might as well. In the Midwest all such artificial boundaries have been erased for the sake of convenience, and you can get anything you like right off the grocery store shelf. Plus everything costs about one-fifth what it would back in New York, praise Jesus.

            I could hear the low, throbbing hum of the coolers to my right, and up ahead what sounded like a department supervisor was talking to a new employee.

            “You think you can lift those cases, or are they too heavy?”

            “I think I can get ‘em,” an obviously uncertain young woman replied.

            “You sure? 'Cause I could go get Hemmy and Zack to help you heave them in there. They’re pretty heavy and I can’t have you dropping one.”

            “Naah . . . I’m pretty sure I’ll get it all right.”

            Having heard the same thing I did in the trainee’s voice, the supervisor said, “Tell you what. Come with me a sec and we’ll see if we can find Hemmy and Zach in the loading dock.”

            They walked past us, and when they were gone we were completely alone in the back of the store. My mom stopped. “Okay, what would you like?”

            I wanted to keep this as simple and quick and cheap as possible. “Oh, I’m not picky. Something in cans.” (Cans were lighter and cheaper and you got a lot more of them.)

            She began reading off the brands until I stopped her. “It’s no big deal, really, here.” I pulled open one of the glass doors and tapped the first case I found. “What’s this?”

            “That’s Bud.”

            “Bud’s fine.” I started sliding the heavy case off the cooler rack, but even as I did I heard the unmistakable rattle of glass. “Whoops,” I said, half to myself. “Bottles.”

            “Those were bottles?” my mom asked.

            “Yup.” I was already pushing it back on the shelf. Now, here’s the annoying thing. See, again for the sake of convenience, the shelves (unbeknownst to me at the time) were installed at a thirty-degree angle. That way when you remove a case, the one behind it automatically slides into place to make things easier for the next guy. So suddenly I found myself with a heavy case in one hand while trying to shove that second case back up the inclined plane and keep hold of the cane with the other.

            It took a bit of doing, but I finally got the first case back on the shelf thinking I’d just stoop down and grab the cans on the shelf beneath it. The moment I removed my hand, however, that first case slipped neatly off the rack. For just an instant it seemed to float there in the air, mocking me. I made a grab for it, but my once-catlike reflexes failed me again and it smashed on the floor at my feet.

            “Oh,” my mom said. “I guess they were bottles.”

            Thinking maybe I could still salvage it, I tried to pick it up but found myself with a double handful of glass shards and foam and soggy cardboard. It felt like every last bottle in the case had exploded. The pale, frothy beer was flowing freely from the case, pooling briefly around my feet before dribbling down the aisle.

            “Well, shit.”

            My mom, a very quiet and self-possessed woman in her seventies, knew exactly what to do.

            “Just leave it!” she whispered fiercely in proper gun moll fashion. “Grab another one—anyone—and let’s get out of here!”

            By the time I grabbed another case (cans this time) and pushed myself to my feet, she was already halfway down the aisle. I toddled after her, damp and sticky and stinking of cheap beer, trying to remember if I was ever prouder of her than I was at that moment. We made it through the checkout and the cashier never batted an eye. My mom and I both remained poker-faced and silent about the spreading mess in the back of the store.

            When we were safely in the warm car a minute or two later, my mom began to laugh in a way I hadn’t heard her laugh all week. Yeah, sometimes maybe it’s not so bad having a bumbling clumsy oaf for a son, though I hope the next time she goes back there she doesn’t find our picture on wanted posters all over the store.

 

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