When I was 17, I worked at the Target store in my hometown of Laurel, Maryland. Up until then, like most teenagers, I’d suffered from an aversion to labor, be it paid or parent-imposed, that was tantamount to a mild peanut allergy. The mere suggestion that I go out and get a job was physiologlcally repulsive enough to make my hands clammy, my arms itchy, and my face contort like a pretzel in some peyote-inspired Picasso painting. But upon entering my senior year of high school, having become irrevocably Stockholm’d by the materiallstic zeitgeists of that yeshiva of vanity, I finally understood the paramount importance of keeping cheddar in one’s pocket. The Beltway Barbies at my alma mater valued in their lovers, fashion savvy even over athletic aptitude, and most of those angels without whom we sons of Adam cannot live wouldn’t be caught giving a boy with stab wounds directions to the school nurse if he was sans a decent ride, cool threads, and a fly pair of kicks.
The main catalyst to my self-induction into the work force was this cute brown-eyed girl who, sitting next to me in AP Calculus, informed me rather curtly one day that receiving her digits would never become even remotely possible so long as I continued to dress like a resident of skid run. Since our House Committee on Financial Allocations (moms and pops) had made it clear that their walletts’ boycott of my name-brand predilections was still ongoing so long as I remained a lazy bum, I was finally forced out into the wilderness of the classified section to attain the means to secure those swagger accoutrements that men purchase, not to meet their own approval, but that of women. When I got hired, my parents tried to act as if this were not some totally earth shattering event, but I could tell that it was, them being third-rate thespians and all. I splurged my first, seemingly sweatshop-produced paycheck at our hick town’s one and only shopping mall, then returned to school the next day “Fresh to Death” as my generation puts it.
But alas, to my dismay, I found the seat next to me in AP Calculus empty, the lovely brown-eyed girl having abruptly transferred to a different course. Even in between classes, I could never acquire the providence to bump into her in the hallways, and everyone I asked said they never heard of her, furthering my suspicions that all along, she had been some plant, paid off by my folks to arouse my economic ambition.
I know it sounds schizophrenic to even suggest such a thing, but I had learned long before to never doubt the depths to which my parents (mostly just my father) were willing to sink to get me to do, or not do, a certain something. The gem of our town, the one feature that gives this tiny blip on the radar any signifieance in the entire outlying landscape of the Potomac power structure is the fact that the National Security Agency is located there. At the time, my father was Deputy Chief of Middle Eastern Signals Intelllgence, the N.S.A.’s quasi-clandestine division of peeping Tom lnterpreters who, through the use of super computers, spy sattelites, and the wiretapping of thousands of miles of oceanic fiber-optic cables, eavesdrop on the landline, cell phone, internet, and radio communications of America’s enemies in that area of the globe. As my father explained lt to me (unofficially of course), his Big Brother minions compile these peek-a-booed conversations into transcripts which are subsequently translated from whatever foreign language they were communicated in, then sent to the agency’s “End Users,” eagle-eyed analysts who search for items associated with a concept or key word, like “Bomb,” and then look for meanlng. It is in this manner that electronically conspired threats against America are discovered, assessed, and reported daily to the nation’s various national security big wigs, the biggest wig of course being that second Bush guy who, back then, was about eight months into his first term as president. Because of this career which so dominated his life, about 12 hours a day, six days a week to be exact, my father was always applying the terminology and nomenclature of his job to our domestic situations. He referred to my chores as “missions” (Did you complete your mission?); family meetings were “briefings”; Post-its taped to the fridge were “assignment memos”; being told to do something was a “directive”; sneaking out late at night was considered a “breach.” And until I turned 15, whereupon I became clever enough to figure out what they were really saying, “Let’s go make a dead letter drop” had always been the code phrase proferred before my mother and he would disappear for about forty-five minutes behind the closed door of their bedroom. Yuck!
Even so, as corny as he could be, I came to revere my father’s skills, and the hectic work schedules of both he and my mother, a State Department attorney, did not give me confidence that in their absence, I was any more at liberty to satisfy my mischievous inclinations than were the children of hyper-vigilant, stay-at-home parents. My father would pull no punches when expressing to me how I would never be slicker than him, how I would never be smarter, not even if I received every Ph.D. Harvard had to give out, and thus, to even plan an “operation” behind his back was in his oplnion, the very definition of futility.
“If I can spot two sand worms doing the nasty on a camel’s hump 7,000 miles from here,” that native east Texas tongue of his would brag with Judge Judy arrogance, “then I can damn sure catch you and your boneheaded friends doing something retarded like drugs or booze, so don’t!”
For a time, his scare tactics had the desired effect. I remained a good boy. When I reached the age of rebellion though, having become more cynical not just of his omnipotence, but of life in general, I stopped fearing his so called “all seeing eye,” figuring that all of his hawkish rhetoric about having me tailed and hovering sattelites over my location was just a scared father’s attempt to bluff his boy into behaving. That is, until the spring of 2001, during which time I was caught dead bang doing dirt more times than seems mathematically possible. And not just the dirt that I did by my lonesome, but even the pow-wow’d, premeditated dirt of my friends and classmates somehow became compromised. Parties that I was psyched to attend, where the liquor and the free love would be prolific, were snuffed out before the D.J. could unload his record crates. Preemptive strikes were launched against our upperclassmen ditch days, the sheriff’s department waiting for us in full force at the lake before we’d even arrive. I’d sneak in unseen from a late night rendezvous at the home of some walking, talking chemical weapon of mass destruction to the childhood of boys made fathers by their fornicatlon, you know, a girl who would quake your earth in the midnight hour, then flash that secret, knowing smile at you in between volleyball serves in gym class the next day from a tryst with just such a damsel. I’d arrive, our house empty, the operation an apparent success, and plausible deniabillty still in tact, seeing as how my parents had not yet returned from some Senate Intelligence Committee member’s boring cocktail party, only to depart from school the following day and find an assignment memo taped to the fridge informing me that I was currently grounded, and listing as the reason for my incarceration, the exact name of the girl, the precise location at which our age-old fusion had taken place, and the curfew-violating hour I’d made it home.
These inexplicable, highly detailed discoveries drove wedges between my co-conspirators and me, for how else could I have gotten caught execpt that the lack of honor existing between we thieves of such shadowy joy had prompted one of the rat bastards to dime me out to my jailors? But they’d always swear they had’nt revealed a thing. And why should they? After all, they had just as much to fear in losing liberty under the approaching summer sunlight as I did. It just didn’t make sense. The answer came to me one afternoon like Issac Newton’s apple. As I was parked Indian-style on the hardwood floor of my bedroom, playing Madden on the Playstation, a roach climbed out of my backpack and scurried down onto the floor. The filthy creature certainly hadn’t hailed from our domicile, for we dwelled in a pristine, two-story house in one of those suburbs of Laurel where paint schemes that parted ways with the neighborhood’s drab white and terra cotta consensus would have the indigenous population up in arms, and where white people problems, like how too keep it hidden that Maria the maid lied in her immigratlon papers, gave the resident D.C. dignitaries many sleepless nights. Rather, I knew right away that the insect had smuggled itself into my bag during a recent after-school visit to my best friend Dax’s crosstown trailer park. Immediately, I paused the game, leaving my beloved Baltimore Ravens five yards from the endzone, then lifted a foot and stamped the stowaway into roach eternity.
On my way back from the kitchen with paper towels to clean my shoe off with, the word “bug” bizarrely tunneled its way into my brain and held on tightly. It seemed to allude to something other than the smeared guts of the creeping thing whose soul I was about to commit to the trashcan. After the deed was done, I followed up on the epiphany, honing in on the telephone on my night stand, an archaic, yellow, clunky contraption that looked like a piece of memorabillia from some short-lived 1970s sitcom. I took the receiver off the hook and unscrewed the mouthpiece. To my heart-palpitating amazement, nudged deeply inslde was a bite-sized earbud-shaped object with two short, curved wires protruding from it like antenas. The listening device had N.S.A. written all over it, and I knew without a doubt that my father, in his Mad Hatter ingenuity, had planted it there. How many of my intimate, late nlght pillow talks had he made himself apprised of? Oh God, all the plans! The unguarded rants. The gossip. That’s how he had been busting me, the dirty rotten bastard! After my Mount Saint Helens rage waned enough for me to catch my breath, the idea came to me that I should avenge myself against the old man by leaving the bug in place as though I were still ignorant of his espionage, and feeding hirn mounds of disinformation, KGB-style, then lying back to watch in silent revelry as he bit on one red herring after another, until he eventually lost both his mind and his credibility with the other player-hating parents and beer confiscating cop types he was so fond of tipping off about the covert activities of my comrades and I. But the indignation was too consuming.
“See, I been saying for the longest time that I don’t get any privacy in this damn house, and now I got the proof right here!” I waved the evidence in the air like it was a bloody Isotoner glove.
With devil-may-care indifference, the old man just sat there, can of Heineken in hand, his arm robotically raising every 30 seeonds to take a swig.
“What the hell is wrong wlth you?” mama, with a furious gasp, interrogated my father.
He continued to swig in silence. We took turns badgering him. Half a can later, this dumb cowboy smirk etched itself across his mug. He looked at me and grunted, “What took you so long?”
“What! You…I…You…” his flippant admission caused me to choke on the rest of my rehearsed Marcia Clark oration.
I found myself vaccumed in by the sorcery of those thermonuclear, cognac colored orbs of his, eyes that looked like marbles so special, only God got to play with them. As I stared, I got the sense that he was actually proud of me, like he had never in my life been prouder, and that my intuitive discovery of the bug had done much to not only quiet his fears, but validate in him this cloistered confidence, that in the days that had yet to see the sun, when the flood waters of this life were rising all around, and each of my contemporaries were going under, I alone would have what it took to tread the waves. Still, now that I knew that my father’s threats to spy on me were true, certain contingencies had to be instituted. He had me so paranoid. Before getting dressed, I’d run through my clothing wlth a fine-toothed comb, checking for tracking deviees and tiny microphones. Plots to sneak off for some rebellious or romantic excursion had to be made in person. During our puff-puff-pass grass sessions in his broom closet-sized bedroom, Dax, my skater-slacker-stoner buddy and best pal since kindergarten, the one soul l’d been permitted to tell about my father’s true employment, well he insisted on wearing this special alluminum foil helmet he’d constructed, you know, to keep dad’s celestial government sattelites from hijacking the electronic pulses in his brain and reading his mlnd. I didn’t think it absurd at all. It got to be such a hassel, purposely going the wrong way to check for tails on the way to score from dime bag apothecaries and seedy liquor stores, that my usual virility for devilment began to fall victim to frequent bouts of erectile dysfunction, softening so much so, that eventually, I found that I had less and less desire and time for Dax and the other degenerates of our motley crew. What sand I did have in my hourglass was grossly monopolized by school, and of course the Target store. Because I was good with math and had a nice face, they made me a cashier. I mostly worked the express checkout lane for customers who had 10 items or less, Tuesday-Friday, after school from 4-10 p.m.
That particular shift came under the purview of an assistant manager named Donny, a bald, anal-retentive, 38 year-old braces and girl booty-having, skinny jeans wearing, taskmaster-in-chief who had pipe dreams of rising up into the company’s corporate ranks, and as such, insisted on things at the store being run with the efficiency of a German blitzkrieg. The problem was, Donny’s supporting cast, which of course included myself, was a Bad News Bears collection of ex-cons, creepy old men greeters, high school dropouts, and Breakfast Club rejects who were there to appease parole officers, baby mamas, and landlords, and as it were, possessed woefully insolvent sympathy for the ambitions of our heavy-handed quarterback. Drudgery and monotony were the orders of the day. The customers, an unending swarm of bad ass Bart Simpsons five-fingering candy, teenagers reading magazines they had no intentlon of buying, bleary-eyed mothers issuing backhands to silence the wailing temper tantrums of their brat children, elderly ladies taking hours to dig two ’25 cents off’ coupons out of their dufflebag-sized purses to pay for a 50 cent can of cat food, then nearly inciting an insurrection as you politely tried to explain to them that the coupons were expired. And there I was, standing in one spot for six hours straight, serenaded by helter skelter, elevator to hell background music, the beeping of the price scanner, the fussing and clamoring of the people pushing and shoving to be the next in line, and the stalking, bird-dogging, over-the-shoulder pestering of Donny, with whom you had to be dialed in and focused like a member of a Minuteman Intercontinental Ballistic missile crew, because if your cash drawer came up even 10 cents short, he would axe you on the spot. Your feet hurt and your back was sore, then on payday, you went home pissed because Uncle Sam and some dude named FICA had again walked away with more of your money than you did, and one day later you were flat broke all over again, with nothing more to show for your two weeks of toil other than a pair of Nike socks from Foot Locker, a half a tank of gas, two candy bars, a six pack of condoms, a new video game that didn’t live up to the hype, and enough weed to roll three joints. To get through our shift without at least one of us going all John McClane, my co-workers and I dredged up ways to infuse gaiety into our mothball boring landscape. Marijuana of course was always helpful. During the lunchbreak that we shared, my schoolmate and fellow cashier Sandra and I would sit out back behind the loading docks on milk crates and get herbally aerodynamic, sometimes nearly coming to blows when it got too serious during our debates on such philosophical, meaning of life ponderings as “Are aliens born with buttholes?” and “If not, wouldn’t that explain their fascination with probing ours during abductions?” Sandra, always needing to take the opposing view, even when she knew she was wrong, insisted that aliens did have buttholes, but that a protective flap common only to their species covered it up. After the zero gravity engagements, we’d spacewalk back to our registers and make whispered wagers on who could best maintain a facade of sobriety. Sandra, being a giggler, a yakker, and a mediocre mathematician when high, always lost. Those were the days when I would come up with my most satisfying games, old school gimicks like opportunistically faking malfunctions of my price scanner, then basking in the mortified glow of the customers’ faces while I broadcasted storewide, my trumped up need of a price check on their Preparation H hemorrhoid cream. When that ceased to be hilarious, which took quite awhile, I’d sometimes, intentionally, accidentally forget to remove the security tags from their purchased clothing or dope c.d.’s and d.v.d.’s, snickering at the deer-in-the-headlights panic and sirens that would wash over them while they hustled to produce their papers for Donny and the Loss Prevention gestapo. Okay, maybe that was a bit much, but in my defense, I usually only did it to the people who were just totally uncool. You know, those stick in the butt, stuffed shirt types who’d come through, cell phone glued to their ear, yapping so obnoxiously, obliviously loud that the entire store could hear them, rudely flinging their Benjamins down on the counter instead of placing them in my hand. It didn’t make me sorry to spook them, no sir, not one bit. By far though, my most satisfying game tested the wits of certain shoppers, in particular men who’d come through from the store’s recently added grocery section carrying a carton of eggs, flabberghasted to find themselves told they didn’t qualify for my lane.
Man: “What da ya mean?”
Me: “Well sir, you got a dozen eggs there.”
Man: “Yeah, so?”
Me: “Well, the express lane is for 10 items or less.”
Man: “l only got one damn item.”
Me: “No sir, the eggs, they put you over the limit.”
Me: “Yeah, you got 12 eggs sir, that’s too many. It’s 10 items or less.”
Man: “That’s bullshit!”
Me: “I’m sorry sir, but it’s the law. Now if you were to take two eggs out, I could gladly ring you up, but as it stands, you’re gonna have to join one of the main lanes.”
Man: “Are you freakin’ kidding me?”
Me: “lt’s the law, sir.”
You would think they’d then call my bluff by demanding to speak with the manager, but no, without fail, they’d stomp over to Sandra’s lane, frowning confusedly as if locked in the throes of some complex, mentally worked out trigonometry equation. Sandra would shake her head with maternal disapproval, and as the next winner approached, I would struggle to keep my face straight, thinking this thlng called common sense a most uncommon thing indeed. The women shoppers aren’t nearly as mentally malnourished enough to fall for such tricks, and knowing that, I hadn’t the testicular chutzpah to try them.
One Saturday night in early September, my day off as it were, I went to a party thrown at the home of our school’s head cheerleader, one of those spray-tanned, bleached blonde girls who seemed destined to be stripped of a Miss America crown by unvirtue of leaked sex tapes and Playboy spreads. The night before, our football team had crushed one of our school’s hated crosstown rivals, inflating everyone with the kind of buoyancy that is undoubtedly the leading Lightening rod for teenage pregnancy. Posted up by the punchbowl with Dax, the Woody Harrelson to my Wesley Snipes, knocking back cup after cup of the vodka-spiked KoolAid with the aim of doing so until we could no longer feel our faces, my eyes nearly bugged out of their sockets when I spotted across the room—Oh what luck! What fate!—that cute Iittle brown-eyed girl!
Emboldened by the liquid courage and the real chill feel of my designer couture, that Target money at work, I strode over there to give the prodigal crush a sample of what she’d been missing. Whatever the hell that means. Fighting through the half naked, pulsating mosh pit of booty shakers and gyrating two steppers, midway to my future ex-wife, the Nokia cell phone on my hip suddenly vibrated with the insistence of a lonely housewife’s personal massager. Like a dummy, I answered it without checking the caller I.D., figuring it was just moms and pops calling to sweat me in vain about keeping a curfew that we all knew I was gonna break. Instead, to my shock, the voice on the other end was that of my manager Donny, spewing some crazy talk about how he needed me to come in to work right away, because Sandra had gotten ill and had to go home. I raised my eyes to the staircase where two football players were dangling Sandra over the bannister by her ankles, while down below, two more gridiron gladiators held a huge beer bong over her mouth as she tried to chug-a-lug a gallon of beer, to the “Go-Go-Go!” hysteria of the rabble.
“Uh… I can’t make it Donny, I’m at a previous commitment.”
“Are you at least an hour outside the city limits?” he asked me.
“Are you sick?”
“—Then you need to be here within the next 20 minutes, or consider yourself out of a job!”
Before I could further object, he hung up. Oooh! I looked across the room to where the brown-eyed girl had been oozing availability moments earlier, only to find her slow dancing in the elephant trunk arms of some steroidal linebacker. Before exiting stage left, I stopped by the liquor trough to tell Dax the tragic news. He laughed in my face and called me several kinds of stupid. Traversing the sidewalk on my way to my car, I glanced over into the front yard and saw Sandra down on her hands and knees near a rose bush, the putrid, regurgitated montage of breakfast, lunch, and dinner puddled beneath her while she speed-dialed Ralph, Earl, and God very miserably, proclaiming many false promises to the latter. Two of her girlfriends dutifully held her braids back and pinched their noses. Hmm… maybe she was sick.
I made it to the store around eight p.m. On the phone, Donny had made it sound like Armageddon had arrived, and all of the townsfolk were flooding in to raid the shelves. Instead, all I found was the customary Saturday night tumbleweed traffic of mostly old women hurrying, in slow motion, to replenish their Fancy Feast supply in time to get home and catch Walker Texas Ranger on the colored televlsion. I’d been taken away from a night that I could potentially regret for the rest of my life for thls? And malingering ass Sandra, I hope she got alcohol poisoning. Well… but still.
With my punchbowl buzz completely deflated, I proceeded to carry out my cashier duties in automaton, tin man stiffness, bankrupt of the ambition to puIl my usual price check antics, even when a gentleman came through with a jar of genital wart remover. Some months later it felt like, 10 o’clock finally arrived, closing time. My heart leapt at the sight of Donny heading over to lock the doors so as to prevent other people from entering. There was only a small splattering of shoppers left, and though I was the a cappella cashier on duty, I dispatched them with a proficiency that Donny and his corporate, Devil of Deutscheland overlords could certainly delight in. The final customer of the night plodded hls way through the express lane’s narrow bull pen. But for the “ooh wee” whiplash induced by the women who sauntered in with fender bender causing rear ends, I usually didn’t pay much attention to what the patrons looked like, them being, for the most part, a herd of faceless, mindless cattle that came and went by the thousands, marching, livelihoods in hand, to the poverty proliferating pied pipering of this Mecca of consumerism. For some reason though, I took particular notice of this guy. Mid-to-late-thirties, maybe younger. Wrinkled brown Dockers. Cheesy gold necklace of dubious gold origin. A forest of nappy, coal black chest hair. His face was clean-shaven, though the light dew of stubble just beginning to show foretold of the potential thickness of his full beard during the times he was at ease letting it grow as such. He had a head chock full of suave black hair, neatly trirnmed, with a silly cowlick lapping up the sprinkles of sweat on his sunken forehead. At first I thought he was hispanic, but the bushy crescent of his eyebrows, and the dark, feral racoon quality of his eyes testified to the truth of his Arabic bloodline. Where was he from? He didn’t strike me as a long assimilated Arab-American, but an Arab fresh off the boat from Jordan, Yemen, or Palestine, perhaps.
“Nice night, huh?” I smiled amicably.
“Uh yes, night is nice,” he replied with a tinge of nervousness in his screwed up English.
There were vastly more than 10 items in his basket, so he was no doubt a recent immigrant, being clearly unable to read, as it were, the big ass sign hanging over my head that said “Express Lane—Ten Items or Less.” And then again, I had to admit that even the native-born Americans who came through speaking perfectly fine poor English seemed to have difficulty comprehending the sign.
As he unloaded the items onto the formica counter, I couldn’t help but be puzzled, for all this man had seemed to be interested in picking up on this trip were boxcutters and rolls of duck tape. 20 of each to be exact. Who the hell comes to Target late at night just to buy box cutters and ducktape? Strange. Picking up on the bewildered furrowing of my face, he grinned awkwardly, reached over, grabbed two packs of Gummi Bears and a Cosmopolitan magazine off the adjacent racks, and laid them on the counter behind the other stuff. Contrary to his intentions, the move did not dilute my looming suspicions, but rather made them 90 proof. I communicated this feeling with my eyes, but still ignorant, it seems, of American facial expressions of ridicule, he merely smiled, nodded again and again like some coked-up dashboard bobblehead, and said, “Yes, night is nice.”
Slowly, in spite of belng a little creeped out, I began swiping his items across the price scanner. Beep-Beep-Beep. Something about this guy did not smell right, and I wasn’t referring to that cheap motel bathroom eologne he had bathed in either, though that too did not please my nose. He was a Swiss Army knife of hurky-jerky histrionics, swaying on his toes, averting his face avay from the surveillance camera looking down on us, taking repeated glances at his gold Movado wrist watch like the White Rabbit perpetually late for tea.
“Pay attention to detail, dammit!” I could suddenly hear my father’s Barry White voice lecturing me from the archives of my heart. The same eerie breath of intuition that had blown across the back of my neck and tickled the inside of my gut on the day I serendipitously stumbled across that bug in my phone, that same knowing without knowing, but in an infinitely more potent dosage overwhelmed my central nervous system, ravaging me until my hands were trembling, and each inhale of oxygen became more labored than itrs predecessor. What detail, daddy? What was I missing? I couldn’t say, but in my troublemaking heart of hearts, I just knew this dude was downright foul. Each beep that brought him closer and closer to departing with his box cutters, ducktape, Gummi Bears, and “How to help your man find the G-spot” issue of Cosmo seemed to visibly instill in him more confidence than whatever crazy, way out shit he was about to pull when he left this place, if it hadn’t been before, was now indeed incredibly possible. Was he some kind of serial killer? Oh great, that would be just my luck to have an encounter with an Arab Buffalo Bill, spilling brains all up and down the Beltway, pressing pause on the joystick of his killing spree to re-up on his torture tools at his friendly neighborhood Target store, then returning to his underground lair, where some senator’s chubby daughter was down in a well, about to have her back fat ran through a Singer sewing machine so as to complete the final piece in his fall line of woman suits. Okay, okay, I know what you’re thinking, dude, that’s the plot to The Silence of the Lambs! But if it can happen on TV, it can go down in real life right? Whatever was true, this much I knew, if I was gonna hinder this guy in any way t it had to be done soon, because the box cutters and ducktape had all been rung up, and all that remained were the candy and magazine. Compelled by some divine spider sense, I took a deep breath for audacity’s sake, and while the unkind sir was momentarily distracted by yet another OCD peek at his watch, I reached under the price scanner and clicked off the power switch. He looked up. I ran the Gummi Bears across the seanner.
“Dang it, this raggedy thing.” I feigned exasperation.
His eyes buldged with alarm as I reached for the price cheek microphone.
“What is problem?” he inquired in a wary, more dangerous tone.
For a split second, he looked as though he might make a mad dash for the exit, terrified that I had inexplicably managed to uncover his secret, and having done so, was about to broadcast it to the world.
Cooly, so as to not provoke him into flying the hell off, I smiled, “The bar code on your Gummi Bears ain’t scanning, so I just have to call in a price check real quiek. It won’t take long.”
He shot me a skeptical glower through the natural mascara of his roguish, charcoal orbs. I had to break it down twice before he got my drift.
“That’s okay,” he shape shifted baek into a sunny Doctor Jekell, “just give me things already priced, I go without rest.”
Oh no you don’t, I thought, you aint slipping away that easy. I grabbed an armful of the box cutters and ducktape and moved to bring them up the conveyor, back to the beginning of the counter. Instantly, his face swelled with rage.
“What are you doing?”
“Oh,” I smirked delicately, “If you don’t want the other stuff, then I have to re-scan these items or it’ll mess up your receipt.”
It was all I could think of. He blew out a hot gust of disgust and mumbled some words in Arabic that I didn’t need Rosetta Stone software to tell me were profanity. “Just go ahead and do the price check,” he bid me in English. I called it in. Donny had disappeared to go micro-manage some clean up on aisle 3. My adversary and I stood there in painful silence, sizing each other up like reluctant prize fighters. The nerve-racking, faux-Kenny G background music served as the soundtrack to our psychologieal chess match.
“So,” I meandered, trying to impregnate the awful quiet, “box cutters and ducktape, huh?”
He said nothing, just stared.
“What, you some kind of construction worker?”
He cleared the uneasy phlegm from his throat and nodded. I appraised his hands for hardship. They were like porcelain prosthetics, more flawless than his face. Guy could’ve modeled ladies rings and bracelets for QVC.
“You from around here?”
He said he was.
“What, close by?”
“Yes,” he said, “close.”
“Oh,” my eyes increased their incandescence, “then you must be one of the workers building that new hospital down the street.”
“Yes,” he murmured listlessly, “I build new hospital.”
There was no new hospital being built. I had him. Just as I was about to pounce, Donny popped up on the scene.
“If you turn the damn thing on, it might work.” The manager cut his taciturn fish eyes at me.
The corners of my grill curled up sheepishly. I asked to speak with him in private. We stepped off to the side. In rushed, conspiratory whispers, I laid out the case as to why I thought we should call the cops on our gentleman shopper, even tossing in an Atticus Finch eloquent analogy about how, since gun owners report people who buy exorbitant amounts of ammunition, we had the grounds to do the same regarding the box cutters and ducktape.
With palpable concern, Donny leaned in close to my face, locked serious eyes with me, and asked, “Are you high?”
“What? High? Nah man, I—”
“—Ring up this man’s purchases so he can leave.”
“But Donny, listen—”
“—But nothing! Do it now or I’ll fire your ass this instant!”
Defeatedly, against every fiber of my being, I turned to do as I was told.
“Your change is forty-four cents, here’s your receipt.”
“What else do you say?” Donny prodded me like some assistant principal of discipline, his arms folded, his toe tapping.
With a zombie’s exuberance, I muttered, “Thank you for shopping at Target.”
The man nodded pompously and grabbed his bags. Donny walked him to the door, apologizing for the delay, explaining how I was “new.”
“It’s okay,” the semi-exonerated serial killer replied, pausing at the threshold of the sliding glass doors to take one last furtive glance back at me, “he’s just silly boy.”
Then, as though all along, he had only been some figment of my imagination, he was gone, vanished without a trace into the moonless Maryland night, leaving me standing there, plagued by that same emptiness you feel watehing your car being towed down the street after being too slow to run out and stop the driver. Three days later, none of that seemed to matter, beeause something happened, something so monumentally nightmarish as to make me forget all about that wierdo from that night at Target. The Tuesday morning that would change everything showed up, purse snatching my boyhood and fast tracking my induction into the macabre despondency of the real world. In second period Earth Science, we beheld, as if in a dream, the cataclysm, the infamy, the madness. Towers toppled in the way some jealous maniac would do it because he couldn’t stand how good you were at Jenga. That Gotham City skyline, no Bat Signal in sight, blackened with ash clouds and smoke, like the kitchen of a bunny-boiling lover who wouldn’t let go. Those 3,000 poor souls, catapulted into forever, propelled to their doom by obedient children, fast Starbucks service, light traffic, no middle fingers to wield or obscenities to shout at being cut off or held up, just imperceptible gravitational pulling, lullabyed slaughterhouse wooing, and evil punctuality to this, the appointment that all the children of men are cursed to be on time for. But oh the horror of their particular appointment, and the heavenly mathematics that before the world was, had answered the question: If a hijacked plane leaves Boston before 8:00 a.m., and a man in New York leaves by car around the same time, and they’re both headed to the same place, what time will that man perish from the earth?
My parents had been fighting that entire weekend prior. Something about my father being gone too much and loving his work, seemingly more than he loved us. But when I got home from work that night, I found them arm in arm on the sofa, their dilated, grief stricken glimmers watching rescue workers dig through the deadly confetti, while Dan Rather’s soothing voice narrated the anguish. I plopped down beside them, my eyelids heavy, and fell asleep with my head on my mother’s lap. I awoke around midnight, alone and feeling vulnerable. My mother had retreated to her bedroom, my father back to his job. Unable to bear the blackness by myself, I drove across the railroad tracks to kick it with Dax. We got loaded in the back of his pickup truek, musing on death and war beneath the roar of two F-16’s that were guarding the purple skies over the N.S.A.
Some weeks later, vegetating on the sofa while thoroughly enjoying the thrashing that my Ravens were delivering to the Browns, my mother yelled from the kitchen for me to come run a dinner tray back to my father, who was again entombed inside a sarcophagus of paperwork inside the den he’d long ago converted into a home office. Naturally, we were seeing less and less of him in those days, and so, to have him home at all, even if it was mostly in body and very little in spirit, was a thing to savor indeed. Since the attacks, his entire demeanor had transformed, rendering this once boisterous Paul Bunyan of a figure into a sullen, sulking shell of his former self. So ashamed was he by the national intelligence apparatus’ catastrophic failure to prevent 9/11 that he left for work before the morning star arose, and came home long after it had fallen, shrouding himself in darkness for fear of running into one of the neighbors and having posed to him the question then on the minds of 300 million people, “How did this happen?” None of them knew he worked for the N.S.A.; they thought he sold insurance, but still, he didn’t even care to chit chat about what had become for him, the most crushing defeat of his life. In our house, as with the name Voldemort, no one was allowed to even say the words, that entire day having been erased, via forced denial, from the pages of our family’s history book. If only it were that simple.
“Just leave it on the coffee table.” Dad ordered distractedly from behind his desk when I entered carrying the tray of seafood gumbo and crackers that take one’s breath away, but that he would no doubt barely touch. As I was swivelling around to do as instructed, my eyes happened to roll across this white dry erase board that was standing off to the side. It was similar to the kinds detectives on cliched cop shows use to organize the facts of their investigations. And as with those t.v. “Murder” boards, my father’s had all manner of chicken scratched writings, lines, arrows, and photographs splayed across it. Nineteen photographs to be exact. As if it were meant to be, one photo in particular jumped out at me, sequestering my vision. No, it can’t be, I thought. The tray of gumbo slipped from my grip and clattered to the floor, wasting everywhere. With abruptly atrophied legs, I collapsed, breaking my fall on my gluteus cushions. My father shot out of his chair like a belligerent space shuttle.
“Goofy ass boy! Why don’t cha watch what cha doin’?”
But I couldn’t hear him, my whole life force was glued to that picture. After machine gunning some more vitriol at me for my Steve Urkel clumsiness, it finally dawned on him that my focus was elsewhere. His head oscillated back and forth, from me, to the board, back to me. I sat there gawking, my jaw dropped in paralyzing disbelief.
“What is it, boy?” he queried me the way one would do a barking hero dog who was trying to tell you little Billy fell down a well.
I pointed at the board. “Those pictures…those men…who are they?”
He frowned at the off-the-wall inquiry. “It’s work related.”
“Yeah, but who are they?”
“Boy, you know I cain’t discuss classified information with—”
“—Who are they!?” I screamed at him.
Stunned by the bravado of my disrespectful outburst, he softly capitulated. “It’s them son, the ones who did it. The attacks. We believe they’re responsible.”
A scorching wave of male menopause washed over me. I felt violently nauseous and weak, like I’d just gone through a marathon session of chemotherapy. I told him to bring me the photo I recognized, #15. He placed it in my Parkinson’s grasp. Sure enough, it was him. Those same ski mask eyes. That same deceptive jackal face. That same stupid cowlick. I told my father this. He didn’t believe it.
“He came into the store? When? What did he buy?”
Three days before Tuesday, I told him. He bought box cutters and ducktape. My father dropped his face into his Wilt Chamberlain hands. The items gave my story the ring of truth. Box cutters and ducktape, those were low budget hijacking tools! One to threaten and control. The other to bind and subdue. He had purchased 20 of each, a set for everyone. But there were only 19 pictures. Maybe one of them had overslept.
My father fell to his knees and began to sob openly. Shaken to my core by the mythological sight of a grown man crying, let alone my father, a proud oak whose bark was so hard, I thought him not born with tear ducts, I too began to weep. If anyone had a reason to cry it was me, for I had sold the terrorist his tools, against the alarm bells of my mental geiger counter, even when all of my soul was kicking and screaming for me not to, I’d done it anyway, swayed by a weaker man than I. All my life, my father, in his own eccentric way, had been preparing me for just such a moment of truth, a moment in which one looks up with recognition and says “This is the place,” the moment for which one has been born, and in my moment I had failed him. I had failed those poor people. In the midst of openly confessing my failure as a human being, my father lovingly suffocated me in his bear arms and begged me to know that it wasn’t so. But no amount of Vulcan logic and arguments to the contrary could make me see differently in that crucible of self loathing. My mother mosey’d in, thrown for a loop to find us in such a state of disarray. Over my wailing, my father brought her up to speed. At the news, she too had a melt down, joining us in a mush of devastated emotions, bemoaning our twisted luck, insisting, like some prophetess driven mad that this was God’s work, and that we were unwitting chess pieces in another of His mysterious tapestries. My father carried me to my bed as in the days of the Smurfs and monkey bars, leaving me there in the care of my mother, who began an all night vigil over me as I cried myself to sleep, vanquished and utterly laid waste.
The next day, some government men came by the house, shadowy types with academic eyes, sharp faces, and bone crushing handshakes. For six hours straight I was what they called “Debriefed,” forced to recount every detail of that night again and again, an experience akin to a colonoscopy.
Needless to say, I never returned to the Target store. In the months to come, it would be discovered that before finalizing their plans at their New Jersey and Boston staging areas, some of the 19 Saudis had rented rooms in a motel in Laurel, only two miles away from the N.S.A. campus. You could even see the motel looking out of the windows from the agency’s upper east wing. While all of the billion dollar satelites and technology had been searching outward, the hijackers had been literally right under our noses. It is this fact alone, apart from the equally heartbreaking nature of all the others, that was undoubtedly the cause of my father’s cancer. We laid him to rest with his people, in the east Texas town of Tyler, May 29th, 2002. The day after we gave him to the dirt, I joined the Navy, made E-5 by 24, then the Seals, then Team Six, graduating first in my class at every stage of my advancement, my hustle and my drive so fiery as to make my brothers-in-arms wonder, like Heath Ledger’s Joker “Why so serious?” And now, as I write this to you from the jump seat of a stealth Black Hawk helicopter, slicing through the glittery black airspace of Pakistan, on the way to a resort town with a funny name, it looks as though the day may have finally come when I can lay this burden of mines down for the count. You see, the man who ultimately started all of this, the one who sent #15 into my store on that night of nights, well we’re 60-80% sure we’ve found him, to the shock and awe of all the doubters, nay sayers, and contradictors who said we never would, who said he would die of old age first, we found him. And though, upon landing on target, my team and I have orders to do everything possible to take him alive, I have made it clear to them in no uncertain terms that if I get a clean look, my face will be the last thing he sees in this life. That may offend certain sensibilities for sure, but you know as well as I do how much I have to make up for. I think dad would approve.