A Small-Time Hustle
A Short Story by D.F. Wharton
Boone had been ringing up customers for hours. The line he was working was unrelenting. All the lines were packed but he would only look up to see the full shopping carts lined up in his aisle, with a feeling of despair. For a while anyway. After enough time, he didn’t care anymore. He was supposed to have had a break an hour ago but the Shop-Rite was short on cashiers. Whatever. He needed the job. But even still, he wasn’t sure how much more of this he could take. His feet and back were killing him. In his head it felt like a revving chainsaw was slowly grinding his brain in half, brain matter shooting off like sparks from a grinding wheel, splattering all about the inside walls of his head.
But Boone was in a zone. He exchanged greetings and price checks and went through stacks of coupons and bagged groceries like an automated and automatic machine. He was in a thick fog—and though he was functioning well—heard very little of what was going on around him. Everybody who worked at Shop-Rite pretty much felt like Boone: in a fog.
An intense voice grabbed his attention. He gradually realized that the older lady next in line was yelling at the lady behind her. She seemed ready to fight. Apparently she had been holding a spot in line for her friend, who pulled up to the front of the line, with a shopping cart spilling over with groceries. Boone looked over the faces in the line back of the woman and her newly arrived friend—now with two heaping-near-overflowing carts of groceries—and saw anger and rage plastered on faces and fire in eyes. If looks could kill, the old woman and her friend would have been consumed in a fiery furnace.
Yet it was the old woman whose yelling had lifted Boone’s thoughts out of the fog. One look at that old coot and you knew to keep your distance. Had a look on her face that seemed to dare somebody to say something to her. Retaliation was brewing behind her eyes and standing on the edge of her lips as if waiting for an invitation to attack.
But the woman that was next up in line had a swagger and an expression that radiated its own brand of hostility, and when the lady in front of her pushed her cart back to make room for her partner—and the loaded shopping cart—a modern-day standoff was at hand.
“You must have lost your damn mind,” said the lady who was being cut. “You better take that ass to the back and get in line like the rest of us.”
“Hold on a damn minute,” said the lady who was holding the line and was now up to check out. “My partner ain’t going nowhere. She with me and I was here. So the only one lost their damn mind is you,” and with her right hand she gave a hard and sharp push to the cart of the lady behind her and with her left hand she reached out and pulled her friends cart into the checkout aisle behind her cart, the cart she had already had with her in the aisle. Everybody in the whole store, for the most part, was watching.
But the lady behind them was not about to go out like that, and she gripped both hands on her cart handlebar and gathered herself and pushed with all her might and rammed it into the newly arrived cart that was at an angle in front of her. Groceries spilled over and onto the floor. A bottle with a liquid broke and spilled and spread out on the floor.
Like everyone, Boone was in shock and staring. He stood there, motionless. The old lady in front of the line started heaving and struggling to breathe. She fumbled in her pockets and yelled, “My asthma pump!” Her friend—that pulled up with the loaded cart last minute—pulled out her phone and started filming, documenting the assault, providing a narration of the events that happened and that were now taking place. She wasn’t the only one. Several phones were out and recording.
She filmed her friend who was trying to tell her to help get her asthma pump, but she was so focused on making a video to post on social media that she wasn’t thinking about actually helping her friend breathe. “My friend Rosetta is dying because this bitch…” she turns to film the lady who rammed her cart into the other, “…assaulted…” But the lady who rammed the cart had stepped forward and slapped the phone out of her hand and then slapped her in the face. It’s hard to tell how out of control things could have gotten, but some good Samaritan customers got involved, some good-sized men, and pulled them apart, and kept them separated long enough for things to calm down. There was a security guard in the front, but outside of calling 911, he just watched. He didn’t even notice the five or six shoppers that walked out with carts of groceries, un-bagged and unpaid for.
It was five, actually. Five cartloads of groceries with specific grocery lists, reasonably good size lists, but not too big because the five people that went into the Shop-Rite and executed the grocery lists and pushed out the carts were junkies who Pryor—the mastermind of the whole operation—had cleaned up and trained for the work. They got ten dollars when they successfully unloaded the groceries into the proper car. They didn’t have much trouble. Ellwood and Grover, who played the good Samaritans breaking up the fight, helped the crack-heads stick to the program and the timing. Pryor and Blanche were driving. They were in the parking lot. Pryor had a 2000 Dodge Caravan and Blanch was driving a 2001 Ford Focus. Three carts went to Pryor and two to Blanch.
They pulled up to building 21, the Adams projects, in the Soundview section of the Bronx. Blanch went to her apartment to get the grocery bags and came back. Pryor and Blanch started bagging up the groceries and Blanch sent a text to their oldest son, Chancy, to round up the others and come down and carry up the groceries.
Pryor and Blanch, Ellwood and Birdie, Grover and Adaline: those were the couples. They all lived in building 21 of the Adams projects. They all had kids. Rosetta was Pryor’s mother. She lived with Pryor and Blanch. She was the one who taught Pryor how to hustle on the low, how to hold a regular job, but be able to pull off a hustle when the money was tight. Once the groceries were secured, the kids dividing up the food between the apartments; Blanch parked the car and Pryor went to pick up the others at The Spot, the bar where they planned to meet up.
Ellwood, Birdie, Grover, Adaline, and Rosetta were sitting at a table and laughing at the video that Adaline had made—everybody but Adaline, that is—when Pryor walked in. Adaline was mad that Birdie had smacked the phone out of her hands so hard and that she had smacked her in the face so hard. Birdie had said that she was just trying to sell it and Rosetta agreed and told Adaline to chill. Adaline did but said that they were changing roles if they ever did that kind of job again. “I almost wasn’t able to find my phone!” she complained.
Pryor walked up and sat down and took a deep breath. He said to Ellwood, “You take care of the fiends?”
“Yep,” said Ellwood.
“OK, good. Let’s go home.”
“We’re gonna hang out and celebrate for a little. You want to join us?” said Grover.
“No,” said Pryor. “I got things to do. Come on Mom.”
“See y’all later,” said Rosetta.
Pryor and Rosetta went home and the others hung out at The Spot and had some drinks. In the three freezers and refrigerators of their kitchens in building 21 of the Adams projects were hundreds of dollars’ worth of the best stakes, pork, ground beef, and chicken. Cases of expensive beer, juices, sodas, cereal, and milk. Pryor had one of the fiends get him ten new books and ten DVDs. He had most of the stuff anyway because it was his idea. Well, it was actually Rosetta that was the mastermind, but Rosetta didn’t want that known.