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Steven P. Servis
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lunchmeat.jpg
Art by Jeff Fallow 2010

Lunch Meat

 

 

Steven P. Servis

 

 

He wanted to die, Darrell Gooding, and he was going to go out with a bang.

 

Darrell had no aspirations, minimal education, and when his wife and son had disappeared, the government put him in jail for three years while awaiting trial.

 

 His vindication would come by way of suicide bombing. Armed with a ticking vest bomb, Darrell made a timely detour into a nearby Well-Mart to purchase a bologna sandwich.

 

It was late evening and the five o’clock rush had died. The sun had set and only a few sluggish families straggled about the gray concrete floors of Well-Mart.

 

 Darrell went through the separating automatic doors and hobbled across the main entryway. He focused on his mundane projections; anxiety, however, vanquished his will’s stronghold. His mind wandered as the Well-Mart setting jogged curious thoughts behind the others in his mind; experiences he hadn’t considered, variances that could affect the outcome of the bombing. Suddenly, he was entranced in a distant memory.

 

***

 

“Could it take any longer?” his father had said quietly to clingy toddler Darrell, some thirty years earlier in a similar Well-Mart on the outskirts of a similar rural town.

 

“Look at all these people.” Darrell’s father had flailed his arms in a rubbery, temperamental fashion. “Well-Mart can’t afford another cashier, for Christ’s sake?” he yelled with the intention of being overheard by a manager. “What do I have to do to be treated like a customer around here? I have money! Here!” He turned and reached for his wallet, but his colossal hand collided with a box of Snickers bars, scattering the candy across the linoleum floor. Patrons stared.

 

***

 

With a distant feeling of embarrassment, Darrell returned to reality. He blurted “Hello” with soft, yet excessive volume that dissipated into the quarter-mile complex as he fiercely waddled past the attentive Well-Mart greeter.

 

It was Friday, and Darrell plotted the timeliest path to the bread and bologna. He was both excited and nervous about the forbidden ritual—he’d said an extra prayer this morning amidst a slew of others, which lightened the burden of guilt. He attributed the guilt to the tension, which caused the painful, stooping malformation of his shoulders and nape of his neck.

 

As he focused on the bologna, he was reminded of its importance.  A childhood deprivation had caused this craving.  As his mouth watered, he lost focus.

 

***

 

“Ma, why can’t I have a bologna sandwich?” he’d asked, many years back.

 

 His weary mother held her head in callused hands. “Because, I said so.”

 

 Confused and frustrated, Darrell fired back, “Why?”

 

Like thunder in an auditorium, his father’s voice boomed. “What did she tell you, huh?” he yelled, getting up. “Huh? What did she tell you?” He raised his hand.

 

***

 

Shaking his head, Darrell shook off the distant thought and the paradox: his love of bologna and his hate for volatile authority.

 

Out of the corner of his eye, Darrell saw the Wade family pass. The young mother paraded her three, dark-complexioned children alongside him.

 

A fatherless family, he judged, draining the resources of the hard-working, Christian families.

 

At least my father was around, he thought, smugly. He stopped short of the intersection, peering at the family. The mother has no control, he thought. Whore, he thought, then, as the little Wade boy raced ahead of his sister.

 

Darrell concentrated. Don’t forget the mustard, he reminded himself; bread, bologna, and mustard. Serious as a veteran suffering from posttraumatic stress, he wove an awkward path, approaching the busy intersection of the converging clothing and food markets.  As his hands shook and sweat dribbled down his nose, he reminded himself of his motives.

 

He gazed ahead as the tramping family passed. “Crack!” he muttered, almost inaudibly, but loud enough to get the boy’s attention.

 

Miss Wade collected her children who were baffled by Darrell’s eccentric posture and piercing rural accent. “Momma, look at that hillbilly!” the boy said, pointing.  His mother shushed him, harshly.

 

“You’re stepping on the cracks,” Darrell told the boy. “That’s bad luck. Haven’t you ever heard, ‘step on a crack, break your momma’s back’?”

 

The boy hid behind his mother.

 

As the family walked away, the mother told them, “Don’t talk to strangers!” and pushed them along.

 

Squinting at the “Sale” signs strung from the ceiling, Darrell hopped along the tile squares to the opposite side of the main isle and paused, imagining the grout between the tiles as bottomless crevices to Hell.  Somewhere in those depressions was his life, one that was ripped from him like a dolly from a skipping girl.

 

Suddenly, he was reminded of his bad sense of direction: often getting lost, unable to find his classrooms, getting on the wrong buses, cutting in the wrong direction in basketball.

 

***

 

“What’s wrong with you? Are you stupid?” The coach’s voice had echoed across the gym. “I said cut right!” He’d grabbed the adolescent Darrell by the back of the neck, and pushed him to the right, forcing Darrell to run like a dog leashed to a moving car.

 

***

 

Darrell realized he was being hard on himself, but failed to find comfort in knowing he was special. According to his grade school Special Ed teacher, Darrell was only an underachiever by way of fate.

 

He realized that something was strangely diverse about this Well-Mart. The aisles are backwards, he thought. The bread and produce aisles were opposite from where they should’ve been. The milk was on the far end of the store, and the bologna was nowhere to be seen.

 

Where is the bologna? he asked himself and realized all the items had been scattered about the quarter mile like in an obstacle course. Very inconvenient.

 

          Satan’s Labyrinth, he thought bitterly.  He felt overwhelmed by the unwelcoming changes. He breathed heavily; his head bobbed and weaved as he searched for familiar landmarks, reading the signs and labels meticulously.

 

The word “Well-Mart” was interpreted by Darrell’s occipital lobe repeatedly but failed to register in the frontal lobe with confidence, his heart pounding in his ears as he attempted to make sense of the disorganization, noting each misplaced aisle in panic.

 

He frantically paced down the aisles, checking the stock to make sure the signs had been placed correctly. As things started to look familiar, he once again began to believe in his surroundings.  He recalled his original intentions.

 

He asked himself how he had gotten here, and remembered the events that had led up to his assignment.

 

***

 

In a county jail, Bob, a heavy-set, middle-aged man, introduced himself to cellmate Darrell as they awaited their trials—Darrell for the murder of his wife and Bob for conspiracy charges.

 

Bob said he was a preacher whose Baptist church had been watched by the local police after his patrons appeared on national TV boasting extremist signs at Tea Party Rallies. These signs vaguely alluded to an attempted presidential assassination.

 

Bob and Darrell struck up a friendship, mostly since they both felt they’d be acquitted for lack of evidence against them.

 

***

 

With some effort, Darrell regained his focus and realized he’d been staring at a cake for several minutes.

 

He turned sharply, detecting a thick donut fragrance. As he got his thoughts together, a tall, twenty-something police officer nearly ran into him, making Darrell skid to a halt.

 

Officer Landers looked down on Darrell’s rolling head. “Excuse me,” Officer Landers muttered.

 

Darrell’s eyes flew from the officer’s dull black boots to his gun holster, where the gun was angled so it could be easily removed. Darrell nodded at the gigantic man, but Officer Landers’ attention was on the checkout register. The cashier was a blonde (Jewish-looking, Darrell thought), humbly-dressed girl struggling to handle her workload.

 

Darrell eyed the officer’s polyester pants legs, each with precise creases running to the center of the hem. “Good evening,” Darrell said, in his formal, clear voice.

 

Officer Landers walked on, with Darrell staring after him, as Darrell recalled his long stay in the county jail. Rev. Bob James’s words weighed heavily on his thoughts as he tried to concentrate but failed.

 

***

 

They were acquitted, Bob and Darrell, as they’d expected, and their friendship quickly turned into a partnership and a mutual hatred of the oppressive state government. 

 

Darrell realized Bob was everything the authorities had suspected him of being but couldn’t prove. Bob had been plotting assassinations of progressive bureaucrats all over the country. And now, Darrell, having lost everything important to him, was rescued and recruited by Reverend James as a suicide bomber.

***

 

Darrell wrenched himself from his daydreams. He bolted down the bread aisle where he carefully wedged a loaf out of the shelf. He checked and tapped his watch. He reassessed his constraints: he had only ten minutes to get across the parking lot to the bus stop. On the bus he would have his last supper. 

 

Now he could hear his Timex ticking.  He squinted at the blinking colon as sweat broke on his bristly brow. He suddenly recalled James’s lessons: the maps, the fake IDs, the glorification of martyrdom.

 

Inspired, Darrell sped down the main aisle, peering across shelves for the familiar mustard bottles. There, he thought. Since the aisle was clear, he’d easily spotted them.  Finally, a break, he thought. My luck is turning. He wrapped clammy fingers around the smallest bottle and looked ahead.

 

Bologna, he thought, but to him, it wasn’t just bologna; it was his crown of thorns, his symbol of humility, as he sacrificed himself for the cause. He scurried across the aisle and paused in front of the sandwich meats. Evaluating the time, he allowed himself fifteen seconds to get to the register.

 

He ran for the checkout with his food clutched to his chest. His cross: the climatic end of the fate that had stolen his wife and child who had disappeared into a storm at the hands of an undocumented immigrant. His sweat-soaked hair stuck to his forehead. His feet narrowly avoided the devilish cracks in the concrete as he rounded the last corner, humming monotonously.

 

The Wade family was at the register, in line behind a woman with a notebook and a manila envelope full of coupons.

 

Darrell searched for the automated checkout, counting thirteen registers, each lacking the computerized technology he’d expected. Where is it? he thought. Again he searched and counted.

 

There was no automated checkout.

 

Why? He looked around, panicked.

 

“Can I help you, sir?” The passing employee seemed concerned with Darrell’s vexed expression.

 

“Where is the automated checkout?”

 

“We don’t do that here, sir,” the well-groomed employee said. “We take pride in customer service. Emily will be happy to assist you.” He gestured to the struggling, impoverished cashier, who wiped the sweat from her forehead with a cotton sleeve.

 

Obsessively adding the minutes, Darrell, carefully projected how much time he had to catch the bus. Five minutes, he thought. I must get through the line in five minutes.

 

Behind the bickering family he waited, checking his watch again. Ten till ten, he thought. I might be a little late. He was positive that the bus, too, would be running late. His ego allowed him to believe that the world revolved around him.

 

“I have a coupon for that,” the woman said. Emily rested her sore tendons while the customer searched through the bulging envelope.

 

“Can I get a Snickers, mom?” the little Wade boy begged his mother.

 

“What did I say?” Miss Wade scolded.

 

Officer Landers pushed his cart to the end of the line. He pulled out his Blackberry and began texting his girlfriend.

 

“Why?” the Wade boy whined.

 

“Because I said so.”

 

“Please?”

 

“No.”

 

Darrell stared at his Timex. One minute passed while the woman searched her envelope; another passed as the cashier keyed the coupon’s numbers into the computer.

 

 “I have a coupon from Harter House for those steaks,” the woman said.

 

Darrell’s eyes bulged and his humming became audible. His blurry eyesight shifted desperately between his Timex and Emily and the woman with the coupons. The bread was squished in his ever tighter grasp, his fingers now buried in the plastic. The Timex ticking louder. No turning back, he kept thinking as tears and sweat rolled down his face. His body ached. His vision narrowed to a tunnel, his blackened eyes focused on Emily’s thinning hair, his Timex turning 22:00, the woman searching her purse for a checkbook. “I know it’s in here,” she said.

 

Eyeing the sweat lines on Darrell’s shirt, Officer Landers shoved his Blackberry back in his pants. He didn’t want to get involved while off-duty, but he was fearful of this suspicious man. “Sir, are you doing okay tonight?”

 

Darrell didn’t answer.

 

Miss Wade, all too aware of Darrell, held her children tightly. The oldest were crying, scared of the noise coming out of Darrell’s mouth, of his bloodshot stare, and the blue veins protruding out of his pale, malnourished skin.

 

“Sir, please. My children,” Miss Wade pleaded.

 

Oblivious of the situation, Emily asked the woman for identification. Others waited patiently, depending on Emily to keep the line moving so they could go back to their safe lives, away from this uncertain world, this uncertain man.

 

“Oh, yes.” The woman fumbled to remove her ID from her wallet.

 

Officer Landers placed his hand on Darrell’s sopping shoulder. “Sir?”

 

Darrell’s silver Timex ticked loudly, echoing through the Well-Mart aisles, beckoning his conscience with a decision he couldn’t understand.  His disorder, his autism, wouldn’t allow him to leave the Well-Mart line without checking out. In his mind, he had to finish the task before him. Only then could he continue to the bus stop, where he would wait, get on a bus, sit down, eat his bologna sandwich, and let his bomb explode as the bus drove over the I-44 Bridge.

 

Suddenly, Darrell snapped. “Don’t touch me, you pig!” He fiercely pulled away from Officer Landers.

 

The officer saw Darrell’s veined face, the smashed bread in his hands, the soaked t-shirt stretched at the collar to reveal the edges of the black polyester vest, modified to hold twenty pounds of gunpowder.

 

Again, Darrell heard his Timex echo off the walls.

 

He panicked. “I have a bomb!” he said. “I have a bomb.”

 

Suddenly, as if triggered by his frantic voice, the bomb was triggered. A plume of black smoke escaped from his collar, the gunpowder soaked by his excessive perspiration. He screamed in pain as the fiery gunpowder burned his skin.

 

          Officer Landers’s gun was out, and he raised it to Darrell’s face. “Get down on the floor!” he told Darrell, as he backed away slowly.

 

The women and children, though, hadn’t moved, and stood there in shock, with the gun pointed in their direction.

 

“Help me,” Darrell begged Officer Landers, as the powder burst into flames around his neck. He inched closer to the officer. “Please, shoot me. Please,” Darrell said, as skin began to liquefy under the blue flames.

 

          Officer Landers continued to back away slowly, as Darrell reached forward, still begging. “Please!” Darrell yelled, as the flames engulfing his face.

 

Emily also backed away, but then, suddenly circled the counter and snagged the Wade boy and tugged at Miss Wade’s T-shirt. Tears rolled down their faces as they broke into sprints pulling the confused children along. Other customers seemed unaware of the crisis.

 

          Officer Landers pulled out his radio. Before he could call for back up, the floor rumbled fiercely, taking his legs from beneath him. Burning black flesh infiltrated the air; a flash of orange and white light blinded him. The deafening boom rendered him senseless. In the dark, he rose to his knees, bleeding from the ears and face. The ceiling lights had blown out, the “EXIT” signs only dimly visible through the black smoke.

 

Backup arrived shortly after the explosion. Officer Landers was carted off on a gurney, deemed a hero by the press, though the entire situation was mysterious.

 

He managed to keep his legs and, after therapy and numerous prescriptions, returned to work months later. However, he still wakes up at night screaming and stands on his bed searching for his gun before he realizes he was dreaming.

 

A thorough investigation yielded no evidence of this peculiar man, Darrell. A sketch of his veined face was hung on the walls, and even broadcast on America’s Most Wanted, but no one came forward with information. The case soon went cold.

 

Possibly there was no motive to explore Darrell’s background; after all, he was dead, and there were no major injuries to Well-Mart customers.

 

There was, however, a large hole in the floor of the Well-Mart, and had the business not been so profitable, the executives would have shut it down and liquidated its merchandise.

 

 

 

Steven P. Servis has had fiction published in Taj Mahal Review, Piker Press, and Aurora Wolf.  In addition, he has a BA in creative writing.

In Association with Fossil Publications