Some Tomatoes Please 

This story gave me something to think about: the fragility of life and changes that could turn our lives around in a couple of minutes; the honest description of the struggle of an average citizen who gave himself the opportunity to step into someone else’s shoes for a moment.
— Short Fiction judge Mariela Griffor is publisher of Marick Press.

Some Tomatoes Please
Larry M. Webb, Dearborn
Grand Prize, Fiction

Gabriel walked through the vegetable area of his neighborhood grocery store. He picked up a green pepper and inspected it like his mother had taught him in his youth. Above all else, his mother had insisted on common sense. Maybe if he had gone to college instead of working for an airline he wouldn’t be on the brink of a nervous breakdown. Every day brought another battle with the unknown. After fifteen years of faithful service, his company sat on the verge of imploding. He reached for the chirping cell phone in his pocket. “Hey, babe,” he said to his wife.

“Hi. I called to ask if you could get some tomatoes. I forgot to put them on the list.”

His pregnant wife was in their living room at home chasing around their two-year-old son. The young toddler demanded much of her time, so Gabriel helped her out when he could. He didn’t mind grocery shopping or the housework. He didn’t even mind the occasional diaper change. He just didn’t have the time most days. When available, he stayed over at work for the overtime. Upon the birth of their son, both of them agreed to give up the extra money and certain luxuries in order for their children to grow up with a parent at home. There would be no day care, no latchkey kids. His family could make it if they kept to their tight budget.

“Are you still thinking about earlier today?” she asked. His employer made front-page news with their Chapter 11 filing in bankruptcy court.

“I can’t believe the judge granted the motion. He didn’t even look into the crooked executives who got us into trouble to begin with? It’s always the same. We do what we’re supposed to do; go to work, pay our taxes, and what’s left for us in the middle — nothing.”

Gabriel’s wife knew when to interrupt her husband before a rant ensued. “What motion?” she asked.

“I haven’t told you yet? It’s the 1113 (e) motion. The court is allowing them to reduce our wages by nineteen percent until we have a contract negotiated and ratified. But you know yourself. We haven’t had a contract for almost three years now. I can’t see two months changing anything.”

“That is bad news, but hopefully the judge will consider how it’s been long since your last raise.”

“Yeah, we’ll see. My conscious is clean either way. I’ll see you in a bit with those tomatoes. Love you.”

Gabriel laughed to himself — tomatoes. He wished it could be that simple. This pay cut would force them to tap into their savings. A big, unanswered question sat on his mind. It left him angry and feeling sorry for himself. This weight would have to be carried alone. His wife had enough to deal with being pregnant. He would work three jobs if necessary. Whatever it takes, he thought. Going back to college would have to wait again.

He panicked at the thought of failing, of not being able to face his family’s gaze. With no skills and nothing to look forward to, he meandered along to the tomatoes. Gabriel filled a plastic bag full of the suspect fruit. He heard a commotion behind him at the front of the store.

“Stop! Jim, he’s getting away!” screamed a woman’s voice.

Gabriel turned over his left shoulder. He saw a man bolt through the self-checkout aisle with a cashier in tow. The man dodged her and headed for the nearest exit. Ten feet later, a stock clerk grabbed a hold of his coat. The two men turned in a circle like they were square dancing. They each tried to get the necessary leverage. The clerk latched on to the shoplifter’s belt, causing glass bottles to tumble out from various hiding places. Breaking glass crashed off the tiled floor. The two men slipped around in Absolute Vodka. The clerk lost his balance and fell.

Jim, the manager, tackled the shoplifter before he could dart out the door. Several more bottles fell out as they careened off a string of shopping carts. Jim couldn’t get the fleeing man under control. The stock clerk regained his bearings and stumbled over to help. He pulled up on the man’s feet. All three hit the floor with a heavy thud. The thief let out a blood-curdling scream as he landed face down on the few remaining bottles lodged behind his belt buckle. The weighted impact crushed the glass, forcing jagged shards into his stomach. Gabriel replayed the slow-motion melee in his head. The surreal scene lasted about twenty seconds. The shoplifter lay subdued and in great pain.

Jim pressed his knee into the thief’s back, wrenching his right arm up toward the shoulder blade area. Gabriel walked over to the spectacle. Curious shoppers did the same. A call over the store’s PA announced, “All available men to the front of the store immediately.”

Stock clerks, a few butchers and even some vendors all appeared from the depths of the store. Gabriel stood just outside the pool of blood and vodka. The woman who sounded the alarm stood beside him.

“What happened?” Gabriel asked the cashier.

“I saw him and another grubby looking guy come in. They looked dead broke, so I watched them. The one asked me where we kept our Fix-a-Flat. I told him, and he went off to find it. This one here, she said pointing, just walked around casing the place. I spotted him over in the liquor section as his friend bought his stuff and left.”

“Do you get this a lot?”

“All the time. They sell the liquor to bars over on Michigan Avenue.”

“How do you know that?”

“An employee of ours saw it for herself. Our bar code was still on a bottle of liquor the bartender used to pour her drink. She reported it to the manager. We’ve been looking out ever since.”

“I never would have thought,” Gabriel said.

“They steal top-shelf liquor and sell it to the owners at a discount. It puts money in their pockets for drugs or whatever and the owners triple their profits.”

“Why not put the owners on notice? If you stop the buyers then the problem goes away.”

“There will always be an owner who will risk his liquor license to triple his profits.”

Gabriel looked down at the shoplifter. He couldn’t help but feel sorry for him. He’d steal if he had to.

“Ouch! C’mon man! Please, get off my back,” the shoplifter grunted.

“No chance. I let you up and we’re wrestling again,” Jim said.

“How about one of you get off me? I ain’t gonna run.”

“There’s a lot of blood here, Jim,” Gabriel said. Jim looked up not appreciating his sarcastic tone. Realization set in.

“Do you have AIDS?” Jim asked his captive.

“Probably,” he said. This had the clerk looking at his blood spattered hands and Jim readjusting his grip away from the wound.

Waiting for the police to arrive, Gabriel changed the subject. He asked the cashier, “You guys get a buyer yet? I heard about your concessions. That should draw a lot of interested money in buying your chain out.”

“None that I know of. But I’m sure we’ll hear something soon. I expect more cuts to come either way.”

The way Jim kept applying pressure to the man’s arm made Gabriel mad. He could see the man wasn’t a threat anymore. “Maybe this guy got bought out too,” he said.

“What do you mean?” she asked with a hint of bass in her voice. “He’s a criminal. You’re not actually defending him are you?”

“No. I just wonder what his story is. Maybe he had a good job once before it all came crashing down. Maybe his wife left him and he lost his house along with his mind.” Gabriel also thought that Jim was enjoying this too much. Something in his face said so.

“Or maybe he’s just a drug addicted thief,” she said.

“You sound like this is personal or something. I mean it’s not your money, or your liquor he’s taking. It’s the company’s; a company that put your livelihood up for sale to the highest bidder.”

Jim, stared up at Gabriel who glared back saying, “Maybe you should mop up this mess before somebody falls.” They were in the middle of the entryway. On cue, Jim told the cashier to get a stock clerk with a mop and bucket.

Gabriel watched as two policemen swaggered into the store. They took their man outside and stuffed him into a police cruiser without any further incident. One officer came back inside to ask questions regarding the arrest. Jim led the cashier and stock clerk into his office with the police officer following behind them. Gabriel watched as another stock clerk mopped up the scene. With one last swipe, the blood and vodka disappeared. Shoppers went back to their lists and new shoppers entered the store oblivious. Life down-shifted back to normal again, or at least Gabriel hoped it could.

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