Gerber stepped outside for a cigarette break after stocking frozen foods all morning. He removed his ShopRite cap and, sore from hours of bending forward, stretched his lower back. The smell of leaking freezer fluid lingered in his nose. Smoking helped him forget about it. Smoking seemed the cure for everything.
He smoked and spit and fixed his eyes on nothing in particular. Big day, he supposed. They had just named him Employee of the Month and taken the honorary photo. Big, big day. The thought of his face hanging on the wall for the whole town to see made him sick. But he convinced himself that working here wasn’t the worst thing in the world. After all, he did occasionally have sex with the girl who worked Customer Service, and the crazy old man who collected carts from the parking lot told a good story now and then.
Gerber took a final pull at his cigarette, then stamped it out beneath his shoe. As he walked back inside he played air-guitar and sang loudly to himself, attracting the attention of an elderly couple that looked at him as if he were crazy. The air guitar was a resource that never failed to make otherwise dull moments amusing.
He passed through the produce department on the way to frozen foods to say hi to King Carl. Carl was at work unpacking a crate of fruits. Gerber smacked him on the back, and the self-proclaimed king expressionlessly turned. Tall, pockmarked, and perpetually bent forward, Carl was less than twice as old as Gerber and more than twice as cynical.
“What’s up?” Carl said.
Gerber picked up a bunch of bananas. “What the hell, man? These’re black already.”
“Don’t blame me. I just put ’em on the shelf.”
Gerber rummaged through Carl’s crate and found a thoroughly bruised peach. He pressed his finger against a diseased-looking crater.
“Really?” Gerber said.
“Don’t put your hands all over ’em.”
Across from them, two customers hovered over a selection of bell peppers. They examined each one individually, then put each one back. Gerber tossed his own damaged peach back into the crate and asked Carl what he was doing after work.
“Drugs,” Carl answered.
“Well, sign me up too,” Gerber said. His impression of the produce department had changed since he was a kid. The rows of fruit used to glow like a certain dotty painting he’d seen in an elementary school art class. Now, the smell of old water showering supposedly fresh greens just gave him a headache. The smell of everything in this place gave him a headache.
“So I hear you made the grade,” Carl said, pointing to the customer service desk. Behind it hung a joyless, smiling portrait of Gerry “Gerber” di Paolo.
“Oh, Christ. Already?” Gerber said. “Kill me.”
Carl formed a gun with his fingers and fired.
“Gerber to stock room, please. Gerber to stock room,” blared a voice over the loud speaker.
Carl made an enthusiastic gesture with his fist. “Go get ’em, champ,” he said.
Gerber groaned and obeyed the voice that summoned him. The craving for another cigarette stirred his blood.
Hank McDuffie, the afternoon manager, met him in the stockroom and explained that one of the other stock boys had called out. Hank rolled over a dolly loaded with canned goods and handed it over to Gerber.
“All you, buddy,” he said.
Gerber hated Hank McDuffie. He hated his pink face and white hair. He hated the sound of his name when pronounced aloud. He especially hated his fingers and how they looked like fat, wet sausages, but getting away from the leak in frozen foods curbed the impulse to say something insulting. Gerber indulged in a smile and kicked the dolly into motion.
On Gerber’s way out, Hank congratulated him on being named Employee of the Month. He assured him that it was an honor—really, really an honor.
“What I’ve always dreamed of,” Gerber said, and the heavy door fell shut.
Thirty-six … thirty-seven ….
One by one, Gerber filled the shelves with canned fruits.
Thirty-eight … thirty-nine …
He usually stopped counting around sixty. The counting itself was pointless, but he liked to see how long the uninteresting could hold his interest. He felt the uninteresting holding his interest becoming the story of his life.
He went from canned pears to canned peaches without noticing. Then one of the labels caught his eye. It had the image of two peaches nestled together side by side. They were the peaches he remembered as a kid, peaches perfect and glowing. The rest of the supermarket faded into an unreal backdrop and the mental counting stopped. The peaches gripped his mind like a great idea. The great idea gripped harder, and he tore back the tab on top of the can. He closed his eyes and drank its syrupy liquid from the brim. A piece of fruit dropped to the floor, and the big idea let go.
Behind him, a shopping cart came to a stop and Gerber felt eyes on his back. It was an almond-faced woman, thirty-five at most. The mouthful of peaches bought him a few seconds to think.
“The picture’s better than the real thing,” he said.
The woman laughed, or maybe coughed. Then she was still and silent again. Gerber noticed boxes of kiddy pasta and Lunchables in her cart.
“The picture’s always better than the real thing,” she finally said.
Gerber extended his hand, gesturing for her to try a piece.
“Uh, no thanks.”
Gerber shrugged. He looked around the aisle for a place to put the can, then settled his eyes back on the stranger. He liked the way she stood there, awkwardly lost for words. She said nothing, but invisible thoughts materialized on her face—glowed on her face. The mouth gave it all away. Her thin fingers tapped playfully on the shopping cart’s handlebar. One of them wore a ring.
“Now what if your boss were to catch you eating off of the shelf like this?” she said.
Gerber’s heart kicked. “He’d … know it’s for the good of the customers. The whole point of eating off the shelf …” He paused for a second. “… is for me to tell you firsthand that these peaches ain’t as good as they look on the outside.”
“But the outside’s just a picture.”
“Exactly! And the reason the picture looks so good is ‘cause it ain’t the real thing. See, you’re with me. It’s all a scam.”
The woman’s tongue rolled around a piece of gum. She studied Gerber with narrow, curious eyes. She wore her hair in a ponytail like a girl half her age and chewed gum like a kid, but subtle lines carved the skin around her eyes.
She cracked a bubble behind her teeth and broke the silence.
“How old are you?” she asked.
“How old am I?” Gerber repeated. “How old are you?”
The woman pushed her cart forward slowly. She rolled her eyes. Her winding imagination rolled away with it. “Enjoy yourself while you can,” she said.
Gerber watched like a spectator at a fashion show as the woman disappeared down the rubber-tile runway. He thought to himself, not in words, but in pictures. The pictures entertained but led nowhere. He placed the opened can alongside the others and began stocking the shelves again.
The mental counting never returned.
King Carl joined Gerber for a smoke break toward the end of their shift. Gerber was quieter than usual. He pulled at his cigarette long and thoughtfully. Nearby, pigeons gathered around a pile of dog shit, bobbing their heads with interest. Carl began retelling the plot of a movie he’d seen last night. Gerber found the pigeons and dog shit more interesting and stopped listening after the first scene.
Frankie the cart gatherer walked by. Carl raised his head as if to shout, and Gerber shoved him in the side.
“Don’t call him over,” he said.
“You and the old guy ain’t friends no more?”
Gerber said nothing and flicked away his cigarette with an impressive arc.
“What’s the matter with you?” Carl asked.
“I have to get that picture off the wall.”
It took Carl a few seconds to realize what Gerber was talking about. Then he laughed.
“What? I’m serious,” Gerber said. “I don’t want people to see that picture and think it’s me. Like, actually me.”
“But it is actually you.”
“No,” Gerber said. Trying to elaborate was useless. Someone like Carl wouldn’t understand the difference between a picture and the real thing. He thought it was funny, the bastard. They should have given the honor to him: “King” Carl Workman, Employee of the Month. King was the perfect candidate to hang on a wall lifelessly collecting dust. There wasn’t much life in him to begin with. Gerber wondered when Carl last kissed a girl, if ever. Of all the things he rambled about, he never rambled about girls, and girls were an important thing to ramble about, Gerber thought. Carl was old enough to be married. He was probably older than the woman with kiddy pastas in her cart. Carl once mentioned that he still enjoyed kiddy pastas now and then.
Gerber’s mind indulged in a picture of the almond-faced stranger. He liked the way she glowed. But it was a passing glow bookended by spontaneity and dutiful restraint, spontaneous intrigue and that ring on her finger. Dutiful restraint, builder of fictions. It was that same restraint that nailed Gerber to a wall above a baptismal inscription he’d never asked for: Employee of the Month. That he’d never really live up to: Employee of the Month.
Dutiful restraint, builder of King Carls. And Gerber was sure he was no King Carl—almost sure.
Raymond Belli is a professional drummer and writer originally from New Jersey. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.