Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Graveyard Shift

Tony fell to his knees cupping the left side of his lower back. It was wet and he knew from the red stained snow that he was bleeding. The knife had gone in deep, so deep he could feel every muscle and nerve the sharp blade had severed. He could feel the thrum thrum of his heart through the wound. With every beat more blood pushed its way past the barrier of his hand. He tried to focus; tried to see past the white and red snow and frozen pizza boxes that covered the store parking lot. What if the man came back? What if the scream that escaped Tony when he got stabbed wasn’t enough? It was, after all, two o’clock in the morning. Tony knew that no one ever came to the store at two in the morning, no one that is except the crazies with knives and the desire for a free frozen pizza.

With every ounce of strength Tony could muster, he crawled to the grocer’s door. The cold slush that pooled the parking lot made his knees go numb. Only ten yards, maybe five and he would be near a phone. He could call the police and they would come to protect him—protect him? Tony should be able to protect himself, after all isn’t that why he ran after the guy in the first place? Tony was a two hundred and fifty pound Italian-American who grew up in the south side of Chicago, a town that might make William Klondike or Al Capone want to look for new residency. It was that hard street life that had accounted for the twenty-seven tattoos on his body, ranging from topless women to crucifixes. It was that hard street life that accounted for him taking no crap from anyone and giving plenty of it. Tony was tough, as tough as any other guy who spent thirty-six years in the projects. So why was it that he was on his hand and knees crawling toward a grocery store entrance at two in the morning and leaving a trail of blood in the snow?

The answer was simple, Tony worked there.

The graveyard shift at any job could be risky, but Tony always liked the kick of it. He was a big fan of those thriller books that they sold on aisle nine, the dark paperbacks that were next to the cheap romance novels that sold for under six bucks. In those stories there was always the suspense of the unknown. The night shift was similar in suspense; Tony never knew who would walk in next. Mainly it was the junkies, gangbangers, transvestites, drunks, thugs and any other unwanted individuals that shopped the graveyard. Sometimes he would see normal people, although their faces were so ugly he could tell why they shop at night. But mostly it was the strange ones that had the nocturnal shopping habit—the ones that got the evil eye from God-fearing grannies and over protective mothers. The unwanted. They shopped at night because no one would stare and wonder about who they were—because they were all different. It’s the hairy crowds that make the job. Tony could deal with any loser that came through the door, whether stoned or drunk off his feet. No one ever messes with someone when they’re are six foot two and built like an NFL linebacker; that is unless that someone is hungry for pizza.

The pain was getting worse and Tony could feel it, that feeling of hopelessness. The feeling one gets when they know that something is seriously messed up with their body and they are going to die. In those short yet endless seconds they can think of nothing but the ones they love and the mistakes they’ve made. At least that was what Tony was thinking. Would he ever get to see Kia’s face one more time—would he ever get to touch her skin with the tip of his finger, the way he knew she liked to be touched. Maybe he should have kept in closer touch with his brothers—if his Mom were around she would be disappointed in him that he didn’t take better care of them. After all he had made her a promise a promise he deadbeat father never kept. Perhaps, he would see her again soon—would she be there waiting at the end of the tunnel, all white and glowing—isn’t that the way these things play out? Who was going to cover his bills? Would Kia ever find out about his mess up in Vegas—man was he stupid for falling off the wagon—would Kia ever forgive him, would Tony forgive himself?

His mind drifted from past to present and then back again. Kia sat in the green recliner in front of the living room window. The light from the sun shone in through the glass making her glow like a painting of the Madonna. Wet streaks crisscrossed down her. Tony crossed the room and tossed his jacket on the couch. Soon he was kneeling down beside her, gently lifting her face to meet his.

“Kia, what’s wrong?”

She said nothing only looked down at his shirt, lost in her mind.

“What is it Baby?”

The question only served to ignite a wail of emotion from her. The tears began and she let out a moan. Tony pulled her into his arms and gently rocked her back and forth. He kissed her forehead and silently wished for her to be okay.

“Tell me, Honey what’s wrong.”

“I…I…” she stuttered.

“Come on, Baby talk to me.”

“I… lost the…”

He knew then what was wrong. She didn’t need to say anymore. Stinging began to grow at the back of his eyes. He pulled Kia in closer and they held each other tight. Tony had been so excited when they had found out three months ago. He had secretly made a calendar, checking off each day until the day he would be a daddy.

Tony crawled through the snow past the pizza boxes left by the thief. He read the brand and remembered they were even on sale, two for six dollars. He reached the door. The motion detector blinked and the glass panels slid open. Tony could hear the music playing throughout the store, more to drown out the squeaking carts than to be entertaining. It was a tune that seemed to call out for death, begging him to uncap his hand and let the blood flow from the wound all over the highly-polished floor. Tony let out a smile—at least he wouldn’t be the one who would have to clean up his mess. There was a phone that hung not five feet from the front entrance. Not a phone, per se, but he could use it to call one of the grocery freight boys up to help him. At least four other employees worked the store at night, but they were always in the back room or sneaking a smoke on the loading dock. Tony hoped they would have their headphones pulled out of their ears, which was nothing more than wishful thinking. Not a one of the freight crew worked without their trusty iPods plugged into their heads as if it was the life support system that connected them with the mother ship. Tony hated iPods—hell, give humans a few more years and everyone will resemble something that could only be imagined by the writers of Star Trek. Enterprise, can you hear me now?

Tony pulled himself off the floor and worked his way up to the phone with the help of a shopping cart that was left out of the return area. The white piece of plastic felt heavy and Tony wondered when it was that he felt as weak as an infant. He pressed two zeros and a loud beep sang out over the store. The horrible music cut off and nothing could be heard except Tony’s haggard breathing.

“Security to the front of the store,” Tony called out.

This was the thing Tony should have said over the intercom before he charged after the thief, before he went out the door and got a knife in the back. It was store policy that any possible theft was to be first observed, and then to call additional help to the front of the store. It was not store policy to charge after the culprit and confront them in the parking lot. Tony pushed the thoughts of getting a suspension out of his mind and listened for the sound of running steps. The only thing he heard was the heavy breathing, rasping over the store’s sound system. For a second, Tony’s eyes filled with a dense fog of blackness and he slid down the wall. With the receiver still firmly in his hand, the Italian-American did something he was very accustomed to. Tony cussed. He not only cussed he said stuff that would make the hardest, grease-ball sailor blush pink. He shouted out the profanities as if it were the last thing keeping his heart beating in his chest. When he stopped he listened. In the distance he could hear hard shoes hitting the tiled floor. He could hear the boys laughing and asking if Tony had gone nuts or if it was just a joke. They had all played on the intercoms before—mostly to shoot crap comments at each other, but none so profane.

Tony dropped the receiver and stared fixedly at the bins of fresh produce. Onions and garlic were on sale. So were the potatoes, a five pound bag for just four dollars. He could just make out the brown plastic bags under the dark cloth the produce clerk had placed over the potatoes before leaving. For some reason Tony wondered why they used plastic bags now instead of burlap sacks. He always liked the potato sacks when he was little. He loved his mom’s potato salad and Marilyn Monroe wearing the sack. Tony tried to focus his eyes, but the brown of the plastic was blending with the dark fabric and the white tiled floor.

“What the…”

“Oh my…”

“Call 911!”

“Hang on man…”

Tony couldn’t tell who the voices belonged to. By the time the freight crew had gotten to him he could no longer see. The only thing his eyes captured was a red, deep shadow blocking all light. Tony, once again, thought of the mistakes he had made in his life. He thought of the big ones, like fudging on his time override sheet when he purposely forgot to clock in; then onto the little, like rewiring his cable to get the premium channels off his neighbor. He thought of all the mess-ups, from the ones cause by a hormonal teenager to the ones caused by a sex deprived man in a city full of cheap women. All those stupid mistakes would all be added up into one great whole and that was why he was now facing the darkness. He knew it. He knew that if his heart were to stop beating this very second he would not be singing hymns with St. Peter in heaven, but forever be barbequing a meal with the devil over a pit of brimstone.

Then it happened. The moment every person faces when they reach this particular section of life. Tony began to make promises.

Oh, he prayed and he begged. He promised that if he lived he would change his ways. He would start walking the straight and narrow and become the man he promised Kia he would be when he married her—Kia, he could think of nothing but Kia—her long black hair and her warm brown eyes. How could he spend eternity never seeing those eyes again?

His thoughts jumped from the day he met her at an interstate gas station to the day they wed at the courthouse. Again his mind jumped, and he saw her face as she told him he was going to be a daddy, and then the day she lost the baby. He saw her kissing him goodbye and wishing him luck on the tables with his friends, and then her face when he came home from making the biggest mistake of his life.

It was her face over and over, moment after moment; the good and then the bad. Tony could see every little detail of Kia in his mind, from the pouty upper lip to the dimple that only pierced her right cheek. There was a birth mark just below her navel and he knew that he was the only man to ever see that mark up close. Each detail that made her different from any other woman in the world was one more reason why he loved her. It was her face, and the little things in between, that made Kia who she was. Tony fixed her image in his mind like a beacon of hope—suddenly, the image changed.

The smell of sweat and cigarettes clung to the casino. The tang of it tempted the habit that Tony had given up, years ago. As long as he told himself he didn’t need a cigarette he would be fine. Slowly he pulled his drink to his lips and sucked in the beer. It was cold and the froth stuck to hair that ran the rim of his upper lip. The one thing Kia couldn’t get him to give up was drinking. He had given up the smokes, but forgoing the beer was pushing the line. He had spent most of his money on the tables and so now he found himself sitting in an uncomfortable lounge chair watching a set of old women dropping nickel after nickel into the slot machines. He was about to call it quits for the night, when she asked him his name.

She was slender, tall and had red hair that danced above her shoulders. She reminded Tony of an actress he had once admired on TV show—Bay Watch, maybe. Tony was polite and answered her question, but then rotated his hand on his glass so his wedding band was clearly visible. The woman looked down at his beer, obviously seeing the ring.

“Your drink is almost gone, how about I buy you another?”

“I really…”

“Oh, you’re here with someone.” It was a statement, rather than a question. She looked around as if trying to find his match.

“Actually, my friends have all ditched me for the night. They’ve all found dates.”

“And left you here all alone, you poor thing. I can give you some company if you like.”

She didn’t wait for a reply; she sat down in the chair next to his and crossed her long bare legs. Tony tried to pull his eyes away, but her skirt was short and her tan legs called for him to stare. Alarms started ringing in Tony’s mind, but one after another he shut them down. The woman bought him three drinks—a Bombay-sapphire-martini-up, with extra olives and two Jaeger-bombs. She ordered the concoctions like a pro and somehow it made her look sexy. It wasn’t long before Tony was wasted and inviting the woman up to his hotel room. Somehow he had forgotten about calling Kia that night—another promise broken.

Tony’s mind blurred with the effect of morphine as its antiseptic glory swam circles in his blood stream. His mind jumped from one memory to another. Now he was reliving that night at work. He was on chapter fifteen, page one hundred and seven to be exact. Rosalie was just about to be taken once again by her night time caller, Claudio. The sex scenes were always Tony’s favorite parts. He loved how the authors could take simple things like nipples and turn them into “buttercups of perky peaks”. He loved the sense of voyeurism as he delved into the most imitate scenes in someone else’s life. It was just as Rosalie was removing her lush, red robe that Tony looked up and saw the man. He had noticed him before, of course he had—anyone who wears a black hooded sweater is marked for trouble. The man had about eight boxes of pizza, and who knew what else, in his arms. The hooded stranger was leaping over the line of grocery carts that framed the front entrance and heading for the exit. Without thinking Tony dropped the cheep paperback and ran after him.


The sound pulled Tony from his thoughts and he was once again plunged in the present. He was straining his eyes, trying to focus, on where he was and what was going on. He saw people in green and blue scrubs rushing about in a brightly lit room. A woman was saying something, but the sounds were all muffled and Tony was reminded of when he was little and he would cover his head with a pillow to drown out the yelling going on with his parents. Tony tried to speak, but there was something in his throat. It was hard and tasted of plastic. He could feel needles in his arm and he saw the mesh of tubes running from two bags to his right arm. One bag was filled with a clear liquid the other with dark, red blood. Suddenly a large face bore down on him and he could see blue eyes and an ever deepening frown. The face pulled away and Tony could hear the woman’s muffled voice again.

“Hey, you can’t be in here.”

“He’s my husband and no one has…”

“Orderly, escort Mrs. Tamburo out.”

“No! Someone needs to tell me what is going on. I’ve waited over two hours…”

“Mrs. Tam…”

“Tell me about my husband?”

Kia, it was Kia. Tony wanted to sit up and pull his wife close to him. He wanted to tell her all the things that he wanted to change about himself—he needed to. Kia baby, I’m sorry…I’m sorry…


“Doctor he’s going into cardiac arrest.”

“Orderly, get her out of here.”


“Clear…Clear…Come on, Mr. Tamburo, don’t you want to live?”

Tony was out the door and on the guy even before the glass doors slid shut. Heavy they fell, knees and ice cracking. The pizza boxes arced away from the thief and slowly fell in precession with the falling snow. The two men rolled like children in the winter of the parking lot—misshapen snow-angels dying in the wreckage. Tony pulled at the man’s arms to fix them to the ground, but the thief was strong and jittery. For a moment Tony wondered what the man was on—drugs were plentiful and came in many varieties—some dope gave you superhuman strength, but not lasting. He made the mistake to think the man’s energy would slow down, that the adrenaline would wear off and Tony could pin his arms. The knife came out in a surprise, fixed tightly in the thief’s right hand. Tony tried to react, but it was too late. The metal pushed in past his apron, shirt and skin. It severed tissue and nerve. The thief jabbed Tony hard with his knee and his groin joined the pain in his back. Tony lost his grip and his jaw hit the icy asphalt. The knife pulled out as quickly as it had entered, bringing with it the fluidity of life. Tony cried out.

“Doctor, I can’t get…”

“I need more blood, damn it. Get me more blood.”

Tony opened his eyes and he could see her—a vision of beauty. Her face was spilling radiance—light and love. Kia—yes, that was her name. He molded the letters over in his mind spelling them out to say his wife’s name. She pulled in close to his face, her lips contracting into a kiss. Then the features changed. She wasn’t Kia anymore—she was…no, Tony did not want to see her again. Oh, how could he have done what he had? Closer her face came, lips sticking out in twisted dare. Her breath was hard liquor, acrid and moist. He wanted Kia—he needed Kia. Again the features shifted. Red hair turned blonde, brown eyes to blue, tan skin to pale—unrecognizable. The woman leaned in close inspecting his eyes. Her lips sucked in as her brow furled. Then suddenly, all went dark.

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