On entering the break room, José noticed that Veronica was already sitting at the table eating her lunch. She said hi to him. He said hi back. Eye contact was not on the agenda. He took his lunch—Mac ’N’ Cheese with buffalo sauce—and heated it up in the microwave. He grabbed a seat away from Veronica and pushed aside a stack of old magazines to make room for his mac. The mac was positioned in such a way that it required him not to look at her while he ate. The juxtaposition was intentional. It wasn’t because Veronica was ugly. She was actually one of the cute ones at Meijer. She was his age, almost his height, and had dark-colored curls at the bottom of her brown hair that often caught his intention (often being every damn shift they worked together; it was either look at her curls or try memorizing the backs of cereal boxes—you wouldn’t believe the shit they put into Captain Crunch). He did like looking at her, just not during his lunch break. Whenever she ate, food would get stuck in her mouth. And right now she was eating corn on the cob.
Who eats corn on the cob for lunch? At work of all places.
It was enough to make one’s brain explode.
He stabbed his fork into the mac and blew on the nuked noodles before taking a bite. He needed to think about something else besides what Veronica’s teeth might look like. If he was going to get 77 carts today then there would need to be some sort of plan. There were a total of twelve cart corrals in the parking lot. At any given time, each corral would have eight to ten carts inside. On the busy days, it was a lot more. There would also be a minimum of ten tumbleweeds, his clever nickname for the rogue carts scattered throughout the parking lot. This gave him a high estimate of 130 carts, much more than he needed to break the record. But the amount wasn’t as important as the quality. A bum cart with a busted wheel would spell doom. Those things locked up like an old jar, or they spun around wildly like a busted fuel gauge. He thought it would be a good idea to use a couple of the corrals as a staging area for the bad carts, that way every cart making up the 77 would be the best of the bunch. All of this was going to take time, lots of time. Was there enough time, though? What if someone saw him? Didn’t he want to be seen? Maybe it wasn’t about being seen but making sure it happened at the right moment.
“Hey José,” Veronica said. “Did you see they’re already putting out the Christmas stuff?”
He looked at her, but only in his mind. A vivid picture was painted there: all the gaps in her teeth were chocked full of corn. It was like she was growing a field in her gums, a maze he couldn’t escape from. Was there a type of food that required more flossing than corn on the cob? José didn’t think so. It was like she knew how bad her teeth were going to get and gave zero shits.
Kind of bold, actually. Also kind of attractive, in a jacked-up sort of way.
“Nah, didn’t see,” José said. He took another bite.
“It’s crazy. It’s not even October yet.”
“I know.” There was no betterbuzz-off answer than ‘I know’. It worked magically in study hall and during family dinner.
“You on carts this afternoon?”
“Cool. So am I.”
He looked at her again, this time for real. Her mouth was closed. She is kind of pretty, he thought. Kind of not being the optimal word to describe her, but it was all he could come up with at the moment. Her skin was tan like his and she somehow managed to look nice wearing their company polo. Hard to do.
“I’ve always wanted to work carts,” she said.
“Yeah?” José’s stomach was full of butterflies. Was he crushing on her right now?
No. It had to be the mac. That buffalo sauce had a tendency to sneak up on him sometimes.
This mac isn’t that spicy today. Maybe I am crushing on her.
“Yeah, it seems like good exercise. I’m so lazy at home.”
After she said home, her mouth opened wide and she laughed. All of the butterflies that were flying around in José’s stomach suddenly had their wings clipped off. Her teeth were a mess; a yellow, husk-filled mess. The word fuzzy came to mind. He wanted to sprint over to the cosmetics aisle and shove all of the floss he could find into a bag and set it on top of her car. Plant a bow on top and add a note that read:
From: Someone who just saved your life
Instead of looking at Veronica, José stared at one of the magazines on the table lauding a monster sale on crocks. “Who said you were working carts?”
“Yeah, she told me on Monday that she wants you to show me how to do it. As if there’s some secret way to push around carts all day. I won’t need much training.”
Now she was throwing shade at his job. José’s mac suddenly didn’t taste as good as it had after the first bite. It was cold and flavorless and he didn’t think he would finish it.
“She never told me that I was going to train you.”
“She told me to tell you.”
“Why didn’t she tell me personally?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know how that woman works.”
Corn Mouth. I’m going to start calling you Corn Mouth.
The nickname came to him all of a sudden and he couldn’t think of anything else.
Corn Mouth Veronica. God, it was perfect.
“You’re right,” José said. “There’s not much to show when it comes to carts.”
“I know,” she said, stealing his buzz-off word. “But at least we’ll be far enough away from Margie so we won’t get yelled at for stupid stuff. I’m tired of her watching me all of the time. I barely even talk to anyone on my shift, but when I do, I get screamed at. Sometimes you need to talk or else you go crazy. Surprised she hasn’t come in here to yell at us yet.”
The one variable José had forgotten about.
Margie was the assistant manager at Meijer. She ran the store as if it was 1943 and the Fuhr had somehow made his way into America and transferred his consciousness into a middle-aged woman. There were no strikes or points with Margie; there was simply punishment. If you broke something, you were disciplined. If you placed something in the wrong aisle, you were disciplined. If you talked to another employe while on the floor about anything other than work, you were disciplined. Nothing ever got by Margie. If it did, you were one lucky S.O.B. and you never mentioned it to anyone or else you’d risk (you got it!) getting disciplined. She was the all-seeing eye that never blinked. How was José going to push a line of 77 carts without her noticing? It was enough stress to make one quit.
But José wasn’t a quitter. A coaster, yes, but not a quitter, not someone to give up that easily because the pressure was on. He was too bent on breaking the record today. If he pushed it off, then he would never do it. There’d be excuse after excuse to side-step it. It was going to be tough with Margie on the floor, and it was going to be super tough with Veronica (AKA, Corn Mouth) following him around outside, but he could do it. He knew he could. He had been thinking about this for so long that there wasn’t any room for doubt in his mind.
77 carts …
Being pushed across the parking lot …
Like the sound of uproarious applause.
“Why do you like working carts so much?” Corn Mouth asked.
“Why do I like them?”
“Yeah. I can tell that you like working carts.”
José didn’t know what she meant by that. Did he look like some over-eager puppy chasing a stick when he was pushing carts?
“I guess I like being outside. And it’s fun to see all of the people coming in and out of the store. Seeing all the crap they buy. Some of them have three carts full of stuff.”
“That does sound like it could be fun.”
And just like that, the conversation died an awful death.