Note: Yet another snippet from my work-in-progress for NaNoWriMo (click here to read this story from the beginning), picking up right after I have stumbled out of the walk-in freezer at the convenience store where I worked, circa 1986, and discovered that someone had stolen my checkbook from the checkout area. Fair warning: This one contains a potentially annoying array of obscure entertainment trivia. But did you really expect anything different from Bonnywood? Enjoy.
I slowly closed the small drawer where my checkbook had been resting innocently less than a minute ago, and I glanced around the store, listening for movement. But before I even had a chance to fully investigate, my inner sense told me that the store was completely empty except for myself.
You get this specialized ESP after you’ve worked in a store long enough (“I see dead people!”), especially if your hours are spent on the midnight shift, alone and bereft. You just know. Things are generally much quieter, so any sounds are that much louder. You can be clear in the back of the store, changing out the mop water with the sink faucet running full blast and “Yaz” blaring from your cassette player, when suddenly you get this feeling that you have a customer. And 90% of the time your gut is right. You stroll out into the main part of the store, and there’s some stoned yahoo clutching a wrinkled five-dollar bill and wanting a Klondike bar. (“Dude, I am SO hungry. How many of these things do you have?”)
So how did this happen, then? If there really wasn’t anyone hiding in the bread aisle, ready to pounce on me with a vicious stale Danish, how did they pull it off? The only possibility was that someone knew exactly where to look, knew exactly when to race in, and knew exactly how much time they would have before I finished screwing around with the milk jugs in the walk-in. (I know that sounds a bit naughty, but trust, it wasn’t.)
Which meant that someone had been watching me, hovering just out of sight and calculating the dirty deed. Right then, that bothered me more than the theft itself, the concept of some unknown person making plans in the dark while I walked around in the store, clueless about the impending assault and possibly singing a show tune or two. (“Midnight… all alone with the memory… of my days in the sun…”)
I was really starting to hate this store, despite the excellent soundtrack.
Because there I was, once again contemplating whether or not I should call the police and report a crime against me. (“Hello, 9-1-1? You not going to believe what just happened.” Operator: “Oh, I think I can help you place this call.”) This just wasn’t a healthy way to live one’s life, having to involve civic authorities on a regular basis. Why wasn’t I working in an office building, where the most tragic thing that could happen would be someone swiping my stapler? (Of course, I would want to work in the same office as Dolly Parton, Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda. That’s just a given. And there would be more songs to sing, double bonus.)
But really, I should call the police, right? Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do? Something about needing that police report just in case the criminal did something mind-boggling with my checks, and I was suddenly responsible for covering the cost of a vacation home in Bermuda. You hear stories. I didn’t want to be a story. I didn’t even want to be a footnote. I just wanted to live a simple life and maybe have sex every once in a while.
Just then, another person with her own sense of ESP rolled into the parking lot and got out of her squad car. Office Justine ambled into the store, fiddling with some new high-tech piece of gear that she had apparently just been issued and wasn’t quite familiar with the inner workings of the gadget. She finally sighed and plunked that thing down on the counter for future fiddling, because props are always critical in any decent drama (“The Usual Suspects!”), and she glanced at me.
“Okay, who took what?” (See, she’s good.)
“I don’t know who. And my checkbook.” I tried to appear pitiful and in need of sympathy, because my extra senses were telling me that I was about to be made responsible for my loss. Not only did that prove to be the case, but Justine got right to the point, because that’s how she was raised down on the farm. (“Son, we gotta put Old Yeller down. And you have to do it, because your sisters are busy churning butter and shucking corncobs, and I’ve got some drinking to do.”)
“Your checkbook? How’d they do that? You do something stupid?”
I sighed and stated my case, knowing full well that there would be a cross-examination. (In my mind, concerning the crossing, I would be Bette Davis, smart but neurotic, and the swarthy man interrogating me would be Rudolph Valentino, preferably without pants.) “I left it in this drawer right here and stepped away for five seconds and now it’s gone. It just happened.”
Justine studied the drawer briefly. “Why the hell did you leave it all exposed like that? There’s not even a lock on that thing. Why didn’t you just stand there and hand it to the next person who walked in?”
I quickly decided that I did not care for Justine at that particular point in my life. (Comparative movie scene: The moment in “Titanic” when Jack realizes that if Rose would just scootch her privileged ass over a little, there would be plenty of room for both of them on the floating debris. But she ain’t budgin’.) “I didn’t think anybody would take it. Not when the cash register is right there, and there’s no lock on THAT thing, either. You just hit the ‘No Sale’ button and you’re in.”
She dramatically rolled her eyes, a gesture that really belonged in my repertoire more than hers, but I let it pass. “That’s nice. Why don’t you put that information on a brochure and hand them out in the parking lot? Better yet, why don’t you just take the tray of money and set it on the sidewalk out front? Huh? Save a lot of time, don’t you think?”
I was no longer smiling and just glared at her. (She was smiling a tremendous amount, although there was a slight manic tinge to her eyes. Wait, had I missed something?) “What’s going on? Why are you being more mean than fun?”
Her smile faded. She picked up the gadget thing, jiggled something for a few seconds, then chunked it back down on the counter. “Might be getting transferred. Down south. Might happen pretty quick.”
“Isn’t that good? Better part of town and all.”
She poked at the gadget with one finger that had never seen a manicure in its life, not that there’s anything wrong with that. “I like it just fine right here. I like the people around here. Good people. Most of ‘em, anyway.” She briefly shifted her eyes at me and then became very interested in a magazine on a rack to her right, a slim tome that she would never peruse unless she had something in one of those shifting eyes.
I was smiling again, but I kept it on the down low. Justine might be direct, but she wasn’t the greatest when it came to expressing emotions. (Sound familiar? Anyone?) But I understood exactly what she was saying. And who she was saying it to.
Then she was all professional again. “I’ll go get the paperwork. Let’s write up this checkbook thing.”
“And I’ll go throw on some fresh coffee. Extra strong. No sugar, of course.”
“Never any sugar.” She slipped out the door.
Justine left a bit later, after my financial risk had been minimized with a time and date stamp. She reminded me at least three times to call the bank first chance I got. I swore and promised. She also told me to look around really good when I detailed the parking lot. My checkbook might not be that far from home.
And she was right. As I was lugging huge plastic sacks of trash to the bins behind the store, I found my checkbook lying on the lid of one of the bins. Which was kind of odd. The bin was inside a little walled area with a gate. You really wouldn’t know what was in there, unless you scoped it out or were maybe familiar with how these stores were organized. A faint little bell went off in my head, quiet enough that I couldn’t quite place what the bell was saying, but I definitely heard it ring.
All my blank checks were still in the little vinyl folder, the numbers matching up with where I had left off with my scribbling in the register. All the odds and ends that gather in your checkbook, like a lint trap for phone numbers and business cards and receipts, were still there. The only thing missing was the loose cash I had tucked in the book. Which had been about sixty bucks, because we had just gotten paid and that was usually what I allowed myself to receive as cash back when I cashed my paycheck every week. Kind of a sizable chunk for me to lose at the time (hell, my rent was only 200 dollars a month), but not the end of the world. Lesson learned.
The faint bell in my head turned into a fire alarm a few days later, when the store manager called me one morning to say that corporate was investigating our store. There was serious money missing, but with the mess of paperwork that we filed every day (nothing was computerized then), it wasn’t clear who was to blame. We all had to take polygraph tests.
What? How could they even think it was me? I tried to get the scoop from the manager. “You know I always balance. Always. I’ve never had to call corporate.” (You had to do this if you were ten dollars over or under on your shift balance sheet.)
“I know you balance. Most of us balance. We all have to take the test. Everybody, me included.” There was an undercurrent to his voice, something odd. I didn’t know if he was telling me not to worry about it, or that I should be really worried. I’m sure he couldn’t come right out and say it, but whatever message he was sending was not clear.
I hung up the phone, and that’s when I understood the warning bell that had faintly tolled on the night of the checkbook incident. Someone who worked AT my store had done this. That would explain how it had happened so quickly. It was someone that knew my habits, knew that I kept money in my checkbook and that I usually put the checkbook in my drawer, and knew how long it took me to do something like re-stock milk.
And this person had come back after his shift to take my money. A lousy sixty bucks. And then they stupidly threw the checkbook into an area that only the employees would know contained the trash bins for our store.
Of course, this was all speculation on my part, but I suddenly felt like I was in a very twisted episode of “Murder, She Wrote”, just without the bit where somebody actually dies. And the bit where Angela Lansbury is involved. Or the bit where we figure out who the killer really is. But other than that, TOTALLY the same thing.
Anyway, I had to take a polygraph test. Prior to this, I hadn’t really thought much about such tests. I knew enough to understand that some people were not fond of these tests, because of the potential for false positives or whatever they are called, and the fact that professional liars can be very convincing. But I really didn’t care either way.
This all changed on the fateful morning when I was viciously strapped to an electrified gurney that reminded me of those lightning-powered operating tables in old Frankenstein movies. I was about to have my chestnuts roasted and I would end up with a really bad perm. And possible undeserved jail time. (“The Green Mile!”) My joy-cup runneth over…
Click here to read the next bit in this series…
Originally published in a different form in “Memory Remix” and “The Sound and the Fury” in 2010. Modified considerably for this post. I hope you survived the onslaught of trivia, some of it obvious, some of it deceitfully buried deep. Bonus points to the first person who can name the movie referenced in the title of this post…
Categories: My Life