“So, anything you want to tell me?” Ralph the pasty, wormy-faced floor manager of the ValueSave discount co-op asked Lenny. Ralph was taking some joy in the proceedings, but kept the celebration down to a pencil-thin smile that curved into a frown on one side – the worst poker face in the history of poker faces. His rat-like, beady eyes could barely hide their excitement as they darted from the desk to the warehouse floor to Lenny’s black, puffy face that could have passed for an exhausted looking NFL linebacker he couldn’t even name, set atop slumped shoulders which indicated that all was lost.
It was a stupid, fake kind of question, Lenny knew. He hated the question. He hated Ralph for asking it. Ralph had him dead to rights, but Lenny was damned if he was going to say anything. If the bastard wanted to pass judgement and render the execution, he was going to have to damn well read out the charges. But then, Ralph’s barely-hidden pleasure in all of this made a play for time kind of pointless. For just a second, Lenny thought about just standing up, turning a 180 and walking right out through the warehouse door. But that wasn’t going to happen. Not yet – because Ralph had him and he knew it.
They were sitting across from each other in the cramped, musty side-office inside the warehouse, in a booth the architects must have designed for pre-schoolers, because their knees were practically knocking together. There was an old computer monitor that looked like a tiny television set. It was rigged up to the cheap CCTV system top management must have installed years ago for as cheaply as possible, given the dusty cables and masking tape holding the mess of clunky technology together.
Lenny had never noticed any cameras back in the warehouse. Not that he was so quick to notice much of anything most days, working double shifts on a few hours of bawling-baby interrupted sleep. No, it wasn’t just that. Not the baby. Not Shyreese giving him the cold shoulder, the scorn of a woman who hated him for getting her pregnant in the first place, for making her a mother when she had that big dreams to work at First Class Beauty and Hair, her cousin’s place just a few blocks from their crammed closet of an apartment. She blamed him, blamed their boy, Toby, blamed the brother or sister growing in her belly that made her retch every morning, just like when she carried Toby. Shyreese wouldn’t work, couldn’t work, couldn’t do much of anything besides watch her ‘stories’ on their battered old GE television that you had to hit on the side if you wanted more than four channels.
He was tired, but it wasn’t just this damned $7.35 per hour job he was sure to lose in the next three minutes. It wasn’t the mother of his children, or his son who stared past him with a look that seemed to know even at the age of three that his father was a nobody, do-nothing loser. It was this life. He was tired of life.
Maybe he’d always been tired, since growing up as the runt of a pack of seven children by four different fathers. Tired since the days of dodging the dime-bag pushers on his block as he went to school. Tired since before he dropped out at sixteen because his asshole stepfather of the week had an opening for a fry cook at the chicken shack restaurant patronized by skinny drunks in moldy clothes and women with big asses, who wore far too little clothing over their ample breasts that just sort of merged into their trunk-like midsections. He could still smell the rank oil and the ranker chicken they served up to their non-discriminating customers on greasy paper plates.
When that closed down when the ownership went to jail, it was welfare and food stamps for a year until he landed the job at ValueSave about five minutes after he put in his application. No good jobs around – the factory where his father – his real father, had worked until his heart kicked while he was at his machinist station making turbine parts for airplanes, that factory was long gone. Not too many places to work around here, but where was he going to go? So he stuck it out, put in his application and one day, it got through.
He wasn’t an ex-con (only misdemeanor stints in youth detention, once for tagging an old post office too near a cop shop, once for weed possession at an outdoor party where everyone else was holding, too). He also wasn’t creepy as fuck, like their last five hires – and he had just the right tired look even then that the lady from head office in the wire-rim spectacles, bead jewelry and the flower dress that was two sizes too big recognized as a good fit. He wouldn’t complain about the crappy hours or the shit pay, no breaks, no insurance, no nothing. He’d take his measly paycheck and just keep showing up to do the work. He would keep his head down.
And mostly, that’s just what had happened. Had it already been three years now, almost four, he’d been in this stupid job at the warehouse? Not the forklift for him. Not even a bag-and-tagger – no, he was the janitor, sweeping away the dust and grime from the crates that came up from Mexico full of cheap produce, mopping up the spills from the boisterous warehouse workers who would drop a box of good shit whenever they wanted a discount on product. Good little scam, that – dropped pallets and busted crates got you a 25 percent discount. Not for Lenny or anyone else outside the warehouse, of course – just for the idiots who spaced their fuck-ups out just enough that management couldn’t say for sure whether the spill was an accident or on-purpose – despite the recording equipment they’d installed just for that purpose.
“Last chance,” Ralph said to Lenny, though there really was no chance in there at all. If the cameras were on, they had him dead to rights.
It was the sheer economics of it that had done him in. Low pay and a growing family did it. There were the high interest Payday loans that he could never quite pay off, so the interest just kept mounting. Then, two weeks ago, he came back to his box-like apartment and Toby was crying and Shyreese was in his face and the fridge was empty – not even goddamned mustard. Empty, picked clean. And he had not a goddamned dollar in his faded, torn-up wallet. No spare change under the cushions of the ratty couch. Nothing to sell. Nothing to do.
And the next day, just when he was getting off his ludicrous 5 am to 8 pm double-shift (the sunrise was always at his back as he started his time, heading in past the big delivery trucks and the corrugated metal gates – and a gloom had set in by the time he was done for the day), he did something so automatic, so instinctive, that he hardly recognized he was doing it. He took a cardboard shipping box off one of the palettes and sauntered tiredly over to the last long aisle in the warehouse where they stored the expired food until it was ready to get shipped off to the dump.
No one paid Lenny any heed that first time, or for at least a week and a half after that. Ralph certainly didn’t see a thing, poring over his printouts of inventory spreadsheets (he insisted on reading off paper, which was just as well, since the old green-black monitor screen was about as old and ineffective as any other piece of equipment in the building except the new freezer unit lifts). Without missing a beat, yet without any effort to hide what he was doing, Lenny simply filled the bulky box up with dessert-sized yogurt cartons that Toby liked, cheese-and-cracker snack combos, a brick of cheddar, licorice packets, a loaf of white bread and other assorted bits and pieces of past-their-sell-date pantry staples that were otherwise destined to rot in a neglected yard about 30 miles down the road from the facility. It all went into the box and when he was done, Lenny simply folded over the top pieces into each other and walked right out the door of the warehouse, with no one the wiser. His boy would have something to eat – not exactly living high and going to bed on two nights with a sore stomach, but it was something. Shyreese could tell from the start what was going on, but she didn’t say anything. If anything, she was just a little easier to deal with, at least that first week.
Most days after that, Lenny had repeated the same process, boxing up the expired food at the end of his shift and leaving invisibly past those big delivery doors. And no one had noticed, except when Ralph finally looked up from his numbers one day to see what the man was doing, from the start of his walk to the far aisle all the way to the big escape.
He’d watched him two nights in a row, just to be sure of what he was seeing. The ancient security cameras recorded one night of footage, then the next – and he looked from the camera monitor screen back to his real-time view with his own eyes to confirm what he was seeing. And he frowned. He snorted. He shrugged. And the next night, he called Lenny into his cramped little side office to have their chat.
“I’ll ask you one more time, Lenny,” Ralph said, a little more imperiously than he intended – though he wasn’t displeased with himself for it. “You got something you want to tell me?”
Lenny sat there, stone-faced. His slumped shoulders went down just half an inch, if that, but Ralph was pretty sure that’s what he saw. Other than that, Lenny was a statue in a stained gray shirt that probably should have been cut up for rags six months ago.
“We got you on the camera here, see,” Ralph said. “I know you’ve been taking from ValueSave. Stealing.”
Lenny just sat there, watching him.
“Now, I know you were asking for a raise a little while back and I told you the accountants at the head office were going to sort out why you weren’t getting paid for overtime. I know they ain’t worked that out yet, but Lenny, this ain’t the way to deal with it. All that junk in the expired aisle is still company property. It’s theirs to do what they want. Stealing from the company…”
“I’m no thief,” Lenny said. “Never done nothing with nothing.”
“The video says different,” Ralph said. “I’m sorry, my friend.” He smiled a little too gleefully as he clicked on the security camera monitor and pressed the button onscreen to reveal the previous night’s recording.
But nothing happened.
Ralph wasn’t exactly an expert with technology anytime. Before last week, he hadn’t even played around with the security system more than a dozen times – just on company-mandated training, really. They used to have a guy who would monitor the recordings at all times, but they got rid of him and just used the one security guy who came around at night to make sure no one got over the wire fences into the warehouse through the treeline in the back. So right when Ralph had been viewing last week’s video footage – and last night’s, he’d trashed the recording without even realizing it.
His triumphant moment to show Lenny the evidence of his crime was gone, like it had never been.
Lenny’s expression barely registered, like a crocodile just watching from prey above the waterline, but Ralph caught it. His eyes had glanced over to the monitor. He knew Ralph had nothing. He didn’t know why, but he knew that much.
Ralph froze. He half-choked on a sudden splurge of saliva that bubbled down his throat. He coughed, then looked back at Lenny, who was still staring back at him with those expressionless eyes.
“Got something you want to say?” Lenny asked.
Ralph sputtered. He raged on the inside – and on the outside, his face went flush.
“Just get out of here,” Ralph said. “See you tomorrow, Lenny. Stay out of trouble.”
Lenny just sat and watched for another moment, before rising up like a stone statue that had just come to life. He swiveled around, staggered out of the tiny office and walked right out of the warehouse, past the deliver doors.
He wasn’t smiling. He wasn’t happy. He was still just damn tired. And tomorrow was going to be another long shift. There was nowhere else for him to go. It was just the way it was – the way it would always be.