Fiction by Matt Chelf
I would always take my cans to Grocery King around 2 P.M. on Thursdays because that’s when Stacey was working the bottle drop. Taking my cans inside with me, I would politely ask the first clerk I saw, “Stacey around?” They’d ring Stacey on the intercom, “Stacey, bottle drop,” and then I would go around back and wait. Sometimes it took Stacey five minutes, sometimes it took her an hour, but Stacey always showed up and that made her different from all the others.
Three guys were already back there, coughing, pacing, leaning against the wall and talking to themselves. Engorged black garbage bags were tied to bicycle handles, piled in grocery carts. We waited alongside the dumpsters, locked inside a chainlink shed. I sat on a stack of flattened cardboard—beer boxes, shipments—bound by taut metal wire. Gray splatters from vomit and tar marks, cigarette butts and wind-blown burger wrappers—it was a place for rats.
So what was going to happen is that garage door, that rusty pink shutter, was going to open and Stacey was going to come out pushing a green metal cart. On that cart was going to be two giant cardboard boxes lined with strong clear plastic, strapped on by bungee cords. Labeled: PLASTIC. ALUMINUM. Rules printed, laminated, taped: ALL CANS AND BOTTLES MUST BE COUNTED ALOUD. Stacey was going to be dragging a blue rain barrel for our glass bottles.
Weird system. Only place in town that operated this way as far as I knew. But I liked it. Better chances than the Can-Do machines at Freddy’s and Whole Foods. Machines break down. People don’t. Unless they die. Or go crazy. Or quit. But even then they keep going. Just look at me and my friends.
Bones snapped out of it. Lunged forward, hacked, bent over. He came up, wiping his hands on his camo pants. Bones fixed his pale blue eyes on me. Took him a second to realize who I was. Then he said, “What’d they say to you?”
And I said, “Said Stacey would be right out.”
“My ass,” he said. “We been here all morning.”
“She’ll be here,” I said. “She gets busy.”
And Marcus said, “Busy! Shit. I’m busy. They act like we ain’t got better things to do but wait on them.”
Marcus jumped from his haunches. Hands shoved in his hoodie, he cussed and shook his head. He kicked the chain link. He said, “I ain’t got time to wait around. I got shit going on.”
“I set Marcus off,” I said.
Bones said, “He been mad all day.”
We watched Marcus walk back and forth, muttering to himself. He kicked the cinderbrick wall. He turned around, got to the dumpster chain link. Looked up, studied it. Then his face twisted. His fingers coiled around the links. He threw himself into it and threw himself away. The metal rained and rattled like he was trying to yank it from the wood, lift it over his head, and throw, but the staples were too strong.
“He ain’t getting in that dumpster,” Bones said to me. “Unless he got bolt cutters or something.”
There was this other guy. The Poet. He never said a word. Stood head bowed, pen scratching the fleshy page of his black leather journal. At his feet, white fluffy Glad bags, no holes or tears, hint of lemon perfume. His ‘06 sand beige Hyundai Accent was parked in the lot. There was a phone charger in the twelve volt and a cd binder on the floorboard. Yellow club on the wheel. Nothing else. He wasn’t sleeping in his car. I always wondered what he was doing here.
The Poet’s bags fell over because of that shaking Marcus was doing. Miller High Life bottles smacked the asphalt. Pen froze. Marcus looked over his shoulder. Bones sat forward, smacking his lips. We watched the stream of beer bottles roll down the ever so faint incline and logjam around the drain.
“Look at what you did,” Bones said.
“Shit,” Marcus said. “My bad. I’ll pick’em up.” Marcus hitched his pant legs and bent over.
The Poet folded his journal and was on his feet. “No worries, man,” the Poet said, picking the High Life bottles from under Marcus’s fingers. “No worries.”
Marcus went upright. His eyes bounced on the Poet’s back. His thin high cheeks quivered and his eyes glazed. His shoulders sat back, and he swallowed his rage.
The Poet, satisfyingly shaking his bag, went back to what he had been doing.
Bones said toward Marcus, to try and calm him down, “I’m ‘bout to ride to Freddy’s. See if they got the machines fixed yet.”
And Marcus said, “I’m about to kick this door.” He cupped his hands to his mouth and shouted, “Ain’t got all day.”
There was a buzzer by the garage door. There was a printed sign below it that said, DO NOT PRESS BUZZER FOR BOTTLE DROP—FOR SHIPMENTS AND DELIVERY ONLY. Marcus leaned into the buzzer. An electric shock grinded inside the warehouse. I knew the employees smoked dope in the stock room. They were in there watching us on the security camera, smoking dope and laughing, probably.
“Quit that,” Bones said.
Marcus let off the buzzer. “Fuckers,” he said.
Then, on a bicycle, arrived a fifth man. Wheels slashed the water on the asphalt. The guy careened broadside, bolted his shoe to the ground. Shouted at Marcus, “They’re going to clear the site. We gotta go.”
“I ain’t on the sidewalk,” Marcus said. “They ain’t gonna do shit.”
The guy on the bike said, “They cleared out Jerome. They’re waking up Bennie.”
“I’m not on the sidewalk,” he said, louder.
The guy on the bike shrugged, and then he was gone.
Marcus, hands on his face, “I got shit goin’ on.” He kicked the door.
Bones closed his eyes, sighed, and shook his head, mumbling under his breath. The Poet, who’d stopped writing to watch the whole scene between Marcus and the guy on the bike, was now writing so hard and fast I could hear sharp, crispy marks burning into the page of his journal. I looked up at him. He had this desperate look on his face, eyes wide open. What’s that guy doing? I wondered. Aren’t poets supposed to hang out by lakes or waterfalls?
Whatever, I closed my eyes. I was hungry. Waiting made it hard. I had to think about something else. The Poet’s scratching slowed down to a soft, streamlike trickle. It was a mushy sound, like my belly.
Electric grinding. Gears kicked on raw bearings. Wheels began to turn in the secret machinery. Pulleys ached awake, seams cracked and collided. The garage door rose in folds. It was like the gods could see and hear Marcus’s anguished cries and decided to respond.
Stacey, short, round, and sincere, appeared in a neon safety vest. Her stubby arm pushed the green cart. She said, “Alright boys, don’t give me any bullshit and count out loud so I can hear you. That means you, Marcus.”
Marcus threw his bags at the foot of the cart. Ribbons slipped. He was chucking two, three cans at a time, hollow thunks, mumbling his count.
“Louder,” Stacey said, already fed up. “One at a time.”
Stacey was careful these days. It was easy to turn one can into ten. Tricks of the tongue. “Twenty-one, twenty-two, twenty-three, thirty-three, thirty-four, forty-four.” We all did it, even the Poet. Stacey usually doesn’t care, but she was in a bad mood today. The bad mood made a big V across her forehead that dipped down to her nose and curdled her beautiful smile. She counted every can with Marcus, hand on hips.
“Thirty-four Bud Lite can,” Marcus said. “Thirty-five Coca-Cola bottle.”
She got in a better mood when Marcus left. She had a big sweet spot for Bones. They’d been doing this for years. Thursdays were special. She said, “Bones, honey, how you been?”
“Not too shabby,” he said. “Can’t complain.”
Bones had a hard time bending his back. His knees wouldn’t flow. So he cradled his bag to his chest and plunked his cans.
“Tell me something new,” she said.
“I saw my daughter,” he said. “She bought me lunch and gave me this new coat I’m wearing. Then she drove me down to the mission and I stayed there a month. So I can’t complain.”
“Carl,” Stacey said during my turn. That was the first time anyone had said my name in a while. Made me forget what number I was on.
“They got a sale on black beans in a can,” Stacey said, “Two for a dollar. Minute rice for a dollar. Spicy Juanitas on sale for two bucks. Get a lime for fifty cents, that’s a burrito bowl.”
“I got a friend with a gas range,” I told her, “He’ll let me use it if I share.”
“That’s good,” she said, pausing, probably thinking about me and some rat huddled around a gas range eating beans out of a can. “I been getting my kids to eat it. They like it alright.”
I kind of stood there, hand in my bag, trying to think what number I was on.
It was fifty-two.
I liked counting aloud. Stacey there to listen while I count. Stacey’s lips ticking to my count. I drew it out as long as I could, but my bags ran out. I had exactly one hundred cans.
She lifted her pen to pad and her smile flattened. She wrote. Ripped my receipt.
“It’s a shit show in there,” she said, handing me the receipt. Her eyelids flickered and she drew her thick black bangs out of her eyes, bracelets and brass jangling. She peered into the dark hole of the warehouse like it was the last place she ever wanted to go.
The Poet’s journal clapped closed and he twisted a rubber band around the leather. He stuffed it in his backpack. His cans and bottles clanked as he made his way toward Stacey. He passed me and said, “Howdy.”
I said, “What you writing about?”
He yanked open the mouth of a bag, said, “I don’t know,” and laughed. He unzipped another yellow tie. From his back pocket he pulled out a wad of chalky plastic and began to work the fingers over his hands. Gloves. Food service vinyl gloves. He said hello to Stacey.
Stacey said, “Yeah, what are you writing in that Grim Reaper-looking book? Better not be my name.” Her laugh barked against the cement walls.
The Poet smiled, said, “No. There’s no one’s name in my book.”
“So you’re writing a book,” I said.
“Yeah,” he said, over his shoulder. Then he turned, looked me up and down as if to remember me, “You could say that.”
Then he cleared his voice and took his time counting aloud.
I handed Randy, the help desk guy, my ticket and he flashed me his gold teeth. The register shot open. Randy counted out the money, making a show of it. He laid my ten bucks on the counter in a fan of one dollar bills like he was a Las Vegas cardshark. I swept up my bills, clacked them on the counter, and said, “Thanks, Randy.”
And out the door I went. I would have liked to have done my shopping right then and there, but they don’t want me around the customers.
Randy called after me, “Stay warm out there.”
Rounding the corner, I shoved the ten bucks down my pants. I got a magic pocket sewn into the hip.
I got between some bushes and got down on my knees. I laid one of my bags flat. Nicks and tears shredded the black plastic. I smoothed my hands over the cuts. I lifted the bottom to top. Smoothed my hands over. I folded one side over to the other, smoothed my hands over. The bag sighed as I touched it. I folded the bag down to the size of a paper towel, and then I tucked it in a side pouch of my backpack. I tied the other bag around a loop of my backpack.
After that I said thank goodness. I wrapped my arms around my backpack. I laid my head against the concrete, closed my eyes. Now I just had to wait around till closing to do my shopping, about ten tonight.
Matt Chelf completed his M.A. in English at Lehigh University in May 2016. He hails from rural Kentucky, but currently lives in Portland, Oregon, where he teaches reading and writing to the night class community at Portland Community College.