I am publishing a new piece of my writing every month or so.
August, 2003: Haitian refugees. The overnight shift. Flying food products. Bon apetit.
This all occurred on the overnight shift. The checkers and bag boys were gone, with their sore feet and candy bars, dissolved into other lives. A sign reading "Sorry ... Closed" hung on each entrance. The stockers had taken over. They were Haitians; small men with quick hands and round, friendly faces. When left alone, they worked contentedly, moving down the aisles, marking inventory sheets, ambling back to the warehouse to cart out dollies loaded with paper towels and salsa and frozen pumpkin pies. They called out jokes to one another in Creole and laughed easily, tongues clicking over gossip, the suggested prowesses of wives and girlfriends.
On this night, they were not left alone. The manager, Antonio Bosch, had stayed on, pacing from one aisle to the next, standing behind each stocker, admonishing in a hard accent. A tropical storm was brewing in the Caribbean, bearing toward Florida, bringing with it banks of black cloud, winds and rain, a profitable panic. All day, the store had been beset by patrons loading themselves down with bottled water, canned foods, batteries. The store was "depleted." This was how Bosch put it, though to the stockers the bounty appeared undented. The displays were still full of peas and flour and sirloin steak. There appeared enough food to last years.
Bosch was Cuban, a squat man with a moustache that bristled and a black cellular phone into which he frequently barked. He did not like Haitians, spoke openly of them as lazy, careless people, la basura of the Caribbean. Though the stockers had never once failed to fill the shelves in the manner prescribed by his detailed orders, he found their sanguine mood contemptuous. "A slave people," he called them. "Frog niggers."
On this night, the stockers were burdened not only by his presence, but the storm itself, which was churning through the Lesser Antilles, toward Haiti. The stockers thought about the shanties where their friends and relatives lived, the wooden walls (sometimes cardboard) and tar paper roofs. One by one, they stole into the break room to tune in the radio station providing news of the storm in Creole, careful to switch the radio back to the Spanish-language station before hurrying back to the floor.
Bosch glowered. "Ain't my island no more. Belong to Fidel and his putas. Let 'em destroy whatever he built over there. We're in America now, in case you didn't notice. Hey, what I tell you about barbecue sauce? Heinz goes on the top shelf, not the middle."
Manno watched the sheeted rain strike the front window and wondered briefly how Bosch had come to Miami. Had he clung to an inner tube? Paid his way onto a boat? Or simply walked onto an airplane? Manno himself had made the journey wedged onto an ancient schooner. The ship had come apart in just such a storm, tossed about like a toy, its planks snapping one by one, producing a sound like muffled gunshots. What surprised Manno was the sensational calm of he and his fellow travelers.
They had known the ship was doomed and suffered so long that the calamity came as something of a relief. The hull shuddered and listed. The passengers came apart easily, some stepping daintily over the rail, others leaping toward stray planks. Only the captain panicked. He worried about the money taped inside his pant leg, and about sharks. No one paid attention to his thrashing. The water was not cold; these were the Florida Straits, after all. The storm cleared, and the surface calmed, a green in all directions like antique glass. They floated in tranquility, like islands. After a short time, a Coast Guard cutter arrived. Everything about the operation had been big and white: the vessel, the men and their uniforms, the buoys cast out to them, the forms they were told to fill out.
Manno wasn't the only stocker with such memories.
Young Jean Baptiste had twice paid for passage on ships. The first time, he had been shoved overboard in port. He tumbled into the muddy shallows and landed on what felt like an abalone shell. Laughter floated down on him from the railing. In a rage, he lifted the abalone, intending to hurl it at the departing boat. But rather than a shell, he found at the end of his hand a skull, a human skull, glowing green with algae, grinning like a huge talisman. The ship had sunk two days later, leaving no survivors.
Roi Louis rode the currents over, on a raft with his two brothers. Phillipe, the youngest, had a habit of dangling his foot in the water, and something -- a barracuda, or a small shark -- bit this off. Weakened by dehydration, the boy fell away from his brothers' arms, into the water, where he seemed to dissolve altogether.
The stockers told immigration officials they had come to the States to flee political oppression. And this was occassionally true. But the primary reason they came was to earn money, so that they and their families might avoid slowly starving. They regarded their homeland with fond regret and America's careless greed as a necessary step. They were friendly men, hopeful men, men without apparent hatreds. None of the stockers there on the evening of the storm could later explain why they had behaved as they did.
It began, though, with a single drop.
In his haste to please Bosch, who had stationed himself a few paces away, young Jean Baptiste let slip from his fingers a jar of peanut butter.
Bosch began berating the boy: "Watch what you doing!" and "Clean that up!" and "You want to pay for that, boy?"
Roi Louis, on the next aisle, reached out to steady a stack of canned peas. But hearing Bosch, hearing his savage tone directed toward another stocker, he pulled his hand back and the cans clattered to the ground.
Bosch came barreling around the corner. "What in the hell?" he said, and then, slightly more softly, he said, "You goddamn idiot."
"Don't say that. You shouldn't say that." Louis's voice was not cold or menacing. There was something even soft in his tone.
"Shut up," Bosch snapped. "We got three hours to get this store in order."
"Store in order, Mr. Bosch," Louis said. "That's what we doing now. No reason to scream."
Bosch was not a purely evil man. He was scared, mostly, scared that he would fail and be held responsible. That he would be punished for appearing carefree. Bosch had been carefree once, and played baseball until dark, and his parents had been wealthy and he had known wealth, the green promises of such a life. But for Bosch, these memories always ended in upheaval, his father hustled off into the night, his sisters throwing red tantrums, the chaos of an airlift with his mother gripping his arm. And so, in an effort to protect himself, he kept these sweet memories hidden from himself.
No one, after all, forgets. The weight of emotions never disappear; they simply shift in transit and must be manipulated to insure balance. Bosch balanced himself by worrying about the fate of the grocery store, and his wife and his fat mistress and his sullen children. He would never admit that he yearned to be carefree. He resented this impulse in same the way one resents a lover who has been lost. "Do your damn job," he told Louis. "Or I fire your ass, okay?"
"Okay," Louis held up his giant hands. "Okay." Louis began to pick up the cans from the floor. He had been a street performer in Haiti, and as he picked up the cans, he could not help but to juggle them for a moment, before placing them neatly in a row. There was no thought of defiance in his action. It was only a whimsical urge, the urge to balance one feeling against another, a brief merriment from his past against his current circumstances.
The idea that one of his employees would do this in his presence, would dare to defy his authority, infuriated Bosch. He called Louis "a fucking carnival monkey," howled the words, while Louis, a gentle man, pleaded with him to calm down.
The storm rapped at the front window. "Fired?" Louis said.
"And if any of your buddies drops anything else, one thing, they're fired too."
Manno's feet carried him down the aisles, toward the dispute. As the senior stocker, he felt some measure of responsibility toward Louis, whom he knew to be easily upset. "Is there a problem?"
Bosch turned and jabbed his finger at Manno. "You're goddamn right. We got the biggest night of the year, and you people, you think you're in some kind of carnival. You wanna know why your country over there is such a piece of crap? Because you can't take nothing seriously."
Manno smiled. It was his hope that Bosch might somehow be reached. "I'm sorry," he said. "You know, Louis make a mistake. It's okay. He won't do it again."
But Bosch wasn't thinking about the supermarket anymore. He was thinking about his mother, about what had happened to her on the flight over. They had landed in Miami during a rainstorm and his mother, who spoke no English, had become upset when she saw one of the customs officers opening her suitcase. She had reached for her bag suddenly, and the officer, a tall man with a mustache so thin it looked penciled on, had been startled. In a single sweeping motion, he turned and struck her across the cheek with the back of his hand.
From the expression on his face, it was immediately clear he hadn't meant to hit her. He had simply reacted. He began trying to apologize. Bosch hurried to his mother's side. "He didn't mean it, mama. He says he's sorry. We can go now. Let's just go now." But she refused to be comforted. She stood in the middle of the airport in her ruined makeup and sobbed.
Manno was still talking, but Bosch didn't bother to look up. "Get back to work," he said.
"Yes yes. Work. But just to make sure. Louis can still work too, right?"
Manno stood there with his big dumb hopeful grin. "He's fired, Manno. And if you don't get back to work, you'll be fired, too."
It is true that the stockers were graceful men. But even the most graceful among us can lose our balance. There is always that danger when memories are called out of hiding. And then, too, there was the absurdity of the situation, a man demanding an order to food, as if food mattered somehow more than being fed.
Manno noticed that he was holding a container of yogurt in his right hand. His first impulse, it must be said, was to hurl the yogurt at Bosch. He went so far as to lift the yogurt. But such a gesture suggested anger. And Manno, more than anger, felt disappointment. The yogurt slipped from his hand. It seemed to hesitate before falling to the floor, where it landed with a wet smack.
Bosch looked at the broken carton. "What the fuck? Was that some kind of protest? You, you little fucker. You're fired too." He could feel his rage building. It occurred to him that he wanted to fire all of the Haitians, had wanted this for some months. He jogged to the nearest checkout line and got on the store intercom. "If I see one more mistake, one more, I fire all of you bastards! Do you hear me?" Outside, the rain hissed and thunder drummed.
There was a brief silence. And then, somewhere near the rear of the store, a bag of flour landed, sending up a white cloud. A second and third followed. Bosch heard a metallic snap and looked up just in time to see a pyramid of canned peas toppled, white- labeled cans skittering in all directions. Someone plunged an exacto blade into a carton of chocolate milk and, enjoying the sensation, drew the blade across an entire shelf. Bottles of shaken soda fired off foamy plumes, cartons of cottage cheese sailed overhead like opaque ectoplasms. A barrage of fruit pelted the windows, bananas and mangoes and kiwi. Rolls of toilet paper rose in ribbons, catching an occasional gob of onion dip. Containers of lighter fluid rolled to and fro.
Bosch chased one stocker then the next but could draw no closer to them in his crepe-soled loafers. "Stop!" he screamed. "Stop! Stop! Stop! You know what happen if you get arrested? They send your black asses back to Haiti. Stop!" Then he began cursing in Spanish.
The stockers moved nimbly. They glided. They did not speak to one another, but moved from rack to rack, from row to row, like soldiers. Bosch spotted a dark figure setting his weight against a display of boxed white wine and set off in pursuit. But he hit a slick of olive oil and tumbled. "That's it: Police!" He punched at his cell phone with such vehemence that the device squirted away. A stocker rushing past kicked it into a pool of pickle brine.
"You're going back to the island," Bosch called out. "Your damn nigger island."
Manno felt as if he were already half way there, back on the ocean, lodged in a calm that responded splendidly to any circumstance. He looked down at Bosch, for a moment in pity, then into the air filled with exploding food. His feet carried him toward the meat section, where the remaindered steaks, ripening from red to dull brown, awaited his rescue.
© 2003, Steven Almond