Chapter 6

The Animals

The daytime people called them the Animals. The store manager had come into work one morning to find one of them hanging, half-naked, from the giant red S of the Safeway sign and the rest of them drunk on the roof, pelting him with Campfire marshmallows. The manager yelled at them and called them Animals. They cheered and toasted him by spraying beer on each other.

There were seven of them now that their leader was gone. They wandered into the store around eleven and the manager informed them that they were getting a new crew chief: "This guy will whip you into shape  -  he's done it all, his application was four pages long."

Midnight found the Animals sitting on the registers at the front of the store, sharing worries over a case of Reddi Wip.

"Screw this hotshot from back East," said Simon McQueen, the oldest. "I'll throw my fifty cases an hour like always, and if he wants more, he can do it himself." Simon sucked a hit of nitrous oxide from the whipped cream can and croaked, "He won't last longer'n a fart on a hot skillet."

Simon was twenty-seven, muscular and as wiry-tense as a banjo string. He was pockmarked and sharp-featured, with a great mane of brown hair that he kept out of his face with a bandanna and a black Stetson, and he fancied himself a cowboy and a poet. He had never been within six-gun range of a horse or a book.

Jeff Murray, a has-been high school basketball star, pulled a can of whipped cream from the open case and said, "Why didn't they just promote one of us when Eddie left?"

"Because they don't know their ass from a hot rock," Simon said. "Can up," he added quickly.

"They probably did what they thought best," said Clint, a myopic, first trimester born-again Christian, who, having recently been forgiven for ten years of drug abuse, was eager to forgive others.

"Can up," Simon repeated to Jeff, who had upended the whipped cream can and was pushing the nozzle. Jeff inhaled a powerful stream of whipped cream that filled his mouth and throat, shot from his nostrils, and sent him into a blue-faced choking fit.

Drew, the crew's pot supplier and therefore medical officer, dealt Jeff a vicious blow in the solar plexus, causing the ex-power forward to expel a glob of whipped cream approximately the size of a small child. Jeff fell to the floor gasping. The glob landed safely on register 6.

"Works as good as the Heimlich maneuver"  -  Drew grinned  -  "without the unwanted intimacy."

"I told him to hold the can up," Simon said.

There was a tap on the glass at the front of the store and they all turned to see a skinny dark-haired kid in jeans and flannel waiting by the locked door. He wore a price gun low on his right hip.

"That would be our hotshot."

Simon went to unlock the door. Clint grabbed the case of whipped cream and shoved it under a register. The others ditched their cans where they could and stood by the registers as if awaiting inspection. They were sensing the end of an era; the Animals would be no more.

"Tom Flood," the new guy said, offering his hand to Simon.

Simon did not take his hand, but stared at it until the new guy withdrew it, embarrassed.

"I'm Sime; this is Drew." Simon waved the new guy in and locked the door behind him. "We'll get you a time card."

The new guy followed Simon to the office, pausing to look at the glob of whipped cream on register 6, then at Jeff, still gasping on the floor.

"Can up," the new guy said to Jeff.

Simon raised an eyebrow to the rest of the crew and led the new guy into the office. While he was digging in the drawers for a fresh time card, the new guy said, "So, Sime, do you bowl?"

Simon looked up and studied the new guy's face. This could be a trap. He stepped back and squared off like a gunfighter at high noon. "Yeah, I bowl."

"What do you use?"

"I like a twelve-pound Butterball."

"Net or no net?"

"No net," Simon said.

"Yeah, nets are for grannies. I like a fourteen-pound self-basting, myself." Tommy grinned at Simon.

Simon grinned back and offered his hand to shake. "Welcome aboard." He handed a time card to Tommy and led him out the office. Outside, the crew waited. "Dudes," Simon announced. "This is Tom Flood."

The crew fidgeted and eyed Tommy.

"He's a bowler."

The crew let out a collective sigh of relief. Simon introduced them each, tagging them each with what they did. "That's Jeff on the floor, cake-mix aisle, plays basketball. Drew, frozen food and budmaster. Troy Lee, glass aisle, kung-fu fighter." Troy Lee, short, muscular, wearing a black satin jacket, bowed slightly.

"Clint," Simon continued, "cereal and juices; he's buddies with God." Clint was tall and thin with curly black hair, thick horn-rims, and a goofy, if beatific, smile.

Simon pointed to a stout Mexican in a flannel shirt. "Gustavo does the floors and has forty kids."

"Cinco ninos," Gustavo corrected.

"Excuse the fuck out of me," Simon said. "Five kids." He moved down the line to a short, balding guy in corduroys. "Barry does soap and dog food. His hair fell out when he started scuba diving."

"Fuck you, Sime."

"Save your money, Barry." Simon moved on. "This dark-skinned fellow is Lash, dairy and non-foods. He says he's studying business at Frisco State, but he's really a gunrunner for the Bloods."

"And Simon wants to be Grand Dragon for the Klan," Lash said.

"Be good or I won't help you with your master's feces."

"Thesis," Lash corrected.

"Whatever."

"What do you do, Sime?" Tommy asked.

"I am on a quest for the perfect big-haired blonde. She must be a beautician and she must be named Arlene, Karlene, or Darlene. She must have a bust measurement exactly half that of her IQ and she must have seen Elvis sometime since his death. Have you seen her?"

"No, that's a pretty tall order."

Simon stepped up, nose to nose with Tommy. "Don't hold back, I'm offering a cash reward and videotape of her trying to drown me in body lotion."

"No, really, I can't help you."

"In that case, I work the can aisle."

"When's the truck due?"

"Half an hour: twelve-thirty."

"Then we've got time for a few frames."

There are no official rules for the sport of turkey bowling. Turkey bowling is not recognized by the NCAA or the Olympic Committee. There are no professional tournaments sponsored by the Poultry Farmers of America, and footwear companies do not manufacture turkey bowling shoes. Even the world's best turkey bowlers have not appeared on a Wheaties box or the «Tonight» show. In fact, until ESPN became desperate to fill in the late-night time slots between professional lawn darts and reruns of Australian-rules football, turkey bowling was a completely clandestine sport, relegated to the dark athletic basement of mailbox baseball and cow tipping. Despite this lack of official recognition, the fine and noble tradition of "skidding the buzzard" is practiced nightly by supermarket night crews all over the nation.

Clint was the official pinsetter for the Animals. Since there was always wagering, Clint's religion forbade his playing, but his participation, in some part, was required to ensure that he would not squeal to the management. He set ten-quart bottles of Ivory liquid in a triangle pattern at the end of the produce aisle. The meat case would act as a backstop.

The rest of the crew, having chosen their birds from the freezer case, were lined up at the far end of the aisle.

"You're up, Tom," Simon said. "Let's see what you got."

Tommy stepped forward and weighed the frozen turkey in his right hand-felt its frigid power singing against skin.

Strangely, the theme from Chariots of Fire began playing in his head.

He squinted and picked his target, then took his steps and sent the bird sliding down the aisle. A collective gasp rose from the crew as the fourteen-pound, self-basting, fresh-frozen projectile of wholesome savory goodness plowed into the soap bottles like a freight train into a chorus line of drunken grandmothers.

"Strike!" Clint shouted.

Simon winced.

Troy Lee said, "Nobody's that good. Nobody."

"Luck," Simon said.

Tommy suppressed a smile and stepped back from the line.

"Who's up?"

Simon stepped up and stared down the aisle, watching Clint set up the pins. A nervous tick jittered under his left eye.

Strangely, the theme from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly began playing in his head.

The turkey was heavy in his hand. He could almost feel the giblets pulsing with tension  -  the Butterball version of the Tell-Tale Heart. He strode to the line, swinging the turkey back in a wide arc, then forward with an explosive yell. The turkey rocketed, airborne, three quarters of the way down the aisle before touching down and slamming through the soap bottles and into the base of the meat case, smashing metal and severing wires in a shower of sparks and smoke.

The store lights flickered and went out. The huge compressors that ran the store's refrigeration wound down like dying airliners. The smell of ozone and burned insulation filled the air. A moment of dark silence  -  the Animals stood motionless, sweating, as if waiting for the deadly sound of an approaching U-boat. Battery back-up modules switched on safety lights at the end of each aisle. The crew looked from Simon, who stood at the line with his mouth hanging open, to the turkey, sticking, blackened and burned, in the side of the meat case like an unexploded artillery shell.

They checked their watches: exactly six hours and forty-eight minutes to exact repairs and stock the shelves before the manager came in to open the store.

"Break time!" Tommy announced.

They sat on a row of grocery carts outside the store, their backs against the wall, smoking, eating, and, in the case of Simon, telling lies.

"This is nothing," Simon said. "When I was working a store in Idaho, we ran a forklift through the dairy case. Two hundred gallons of milk on the floor. Sucked it up in the Shop-Vac and had it back in the cartons ten minutes before opening and no one knew the difference."

Tommy was sitting next to Troy Lee, trying to get up the courage to ask a favor. For the first time since arriving in San Francisco, he felt as if he fit in somewhere and he didn't want to push his luck. Still, this was his crew now, even if he had padded his application a bit to get the job.

Tommy decided to dive in. "Troy, no offense, but do you speak Chinese?"

"Two dialects," Troy said around a mouthful of corn chips. "Why?"

"Well, I'm living in Chinatown. I kinda share a place with these five Chinese guys. No offense."

Troy clamped a hand over his mouth, as if appalled with Tommy's audacity. Then he jumped to his feet into a kung-fu stance, made a Bruce Lee chicken noise, and said, "Five Chinese guys living with you? A pasty-faced, round-eyed, barbarian pig dog?" Troy grinned and dug in the bag for another handful of chips. "No offense."

Tommy's face heated with embarrassment. "Sorry. I just wondered if  -  I mean, I need an interpreter. There's some weird shit going on at my place."

Troy vaulted back to his seat on the carts. "No problem, man. We'll go there in the morning when we get off  -  if we don't get fired."

"We won't get fired," Tommy said with confidence he didn't feel. "The union  - "

"Jesus," Troy interrupted and grabbed Tommy's shoulder. "Check this out." He nodded toward Fort Mason at the edge of the parking lot. A woman was walking toward them. "She's out a little late," Troy said; then, to Simon, he shouted, "Sime, skirt alert."

"Bullshit," Simon said, checking his watch. Then he looked in the direction where Troy was pointing. A woman was, indeed, walking across the parking lot toward them. From what he could tell at that distance, she had a nice shape.

Simon climbed down from the carts and adjusted his black Stetson. "Stand back, boys, that redhead is down here for a reason, and I'm packing that reason right here." He patted his crotch and fell into an affected bow-legged gait toward the woman.

"Evening, darlin', you lost or just in search of excellence?"

Jeff, who was sitting beside Tommy opposite Troy, bent over and said, "Simon is the master. That guy gets more pussy than all of the Forty-Niners put together."

Tommy said, "Doesn't look like he's doing that well tonight."

They couldn't hear what Simon was saying to the woman, but it was obvious she didn't want to hear it. She tried to walk away from him, and Simon stepped in front of her. She moved in another direction and he cut her off, smiling and chattering the whole time.

"Leave me alone!" the girl shouted.

Tommy leaped off the carts and ran toward them. "Hey, Simon, lighten up."

Simon turned and the woman started away. "We're just getting acquainted," Simon said.

Tommy stopped and put his hand on Simon's shoulder. He lowered his voice as if sharing a secret. "Look, man, we've got a lot to do. I can't afford to lose you all night while you show this babe the meaning of life. I need your help, dude."

Simon looked at Tommy as if he'd just exposed himself. "Really?"

"Please."

Simon slapped Tommy on the back. "I'm on it." He turned back toward the store. "Break's over, dudes. We've got some wrenching to do."

Tommy watched him go, then broke into a run after the woman. "Excuse me!"

She turned and eyed him suspiciously, but waited for him to catch up to her. He slowed to a walk. As he approached her he was surprised at just how pretty she was. She looked a little like Maureen O'Hara in those old pirate movies. His writer's mind kicked in and he thought, This woman could break my heart. I could crash and burn on this woman. I could lose this woman, drink heavily, write profound poems, and die in the gutter of tuberculosis over this woman.

This was not an unusual reaction for Tommy. He had it often, mostly with girls who worked the drive-through windows at fast-food places. He would drive off with the smell of fries in his car and the bitter taste of unrequited love on his tongue. It was usually good for at least one short story.

He was a little breathless when he reached her. "I just wanted to apologize for Simon. He's  -  he's..."

"An asshole," she said.

"Well, yes. But  - "

"It's okay," she said. "Thanks for coming to the rescue." She turned to walk away.

Tommy swallowed hard. This was why he had come to the City, wasn't it? To take a few risks? To live on the edge. Yes. "Excuse me," he said. She turned again. "You're really beautiful. I know that sounds like a line. It is a line. But  -  but it's true in your case. Thanks. 'Bye."

She was smiling now. "What's your name?"

"C. Thomas Flood."

"Do you work here every night?"

"I just started. But yes, I will be. Five nights a week. Graveyard shift."

"So you have your days free?"

"Yes, pretty much. Except when I'm writing."

"Do you have a girlfriend, C. Thomas Flood?"

Tommy swallowed hard again. "Uh, no."

"Do you know where Enrico's is on Broadway?"

"I can find it." He hoped he could find it.

"I'll meet you there tomorrow night, a half hour after sunset, okay?"

"Sure, I guess. I mean, sure. I mean, what time is that?"

"I don't know; I have to get an almanac."

"Okay then. Tomorrow evening then. Look, I've got to get back to work. We're sort of in the middle of a crisis."

She nodded and smiled.

He shuffled awkwardly, then walked away toward the store. Halfway across the parking lot he stopped. "Hey, I don't know your name."

"It's Jody."

"Nice meeting you, Jody."

"See you tomorrow, C. Thomas," she called.

Tommy waved. When he turned around again, the Animals were all staring at him, slowly shaking their heads. Simon glared, then turned abruptly and stormed into the store.

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