By Michael Stoll
one of these had been used
to describe Joe Whitehead Jr., owner and manager of Whitehead’s Grocery in the
small town of Daniels, Arkansas.
And having been a victim of Joe
Whitehead Jr.’s abuse, Seth Elwood agreed that the shoe fit.
Seth had been grateful to get
the job at Whitehead’s Grocery, at least initially. He was not a very good
student in school. That would be an understatement; he was a D-average student
at best – not college material in any sense of the word. It didn’t help his
cause that he was mildly handicapped. He was born with congenital kyphosis,
making him what many have called a “hunchback,” though his particular deformity
was in no way comparable to Quasimodo.
But he was sure his life was
worse. Seth never felt normal, and whereas Quasimodo spent his formative years
and most of his adult life hidden in the bell tower of Notre Dame Cathedral, out
of sight and out of mind, Seth was condemned to spend his life in the terrifying
hell that is the American public school system. A good day only involved other
kids staring at him and pointing their judgmental fingers as they whispered
silently to each other.
The bad days, on the other hand,
varied. A minor bad day involved other kids “rubbing” his “hump” for good luck.
He could tolerate it, though it was certainly unwelcome, as was any attention
to his deformity. The moderate bad days involved kids slapping his “hump” for
But that was small potatoes
compared to high school – the time when he was most self-conscious. He hoped
and prayed that when he became a freshman (albeit an older freshman due to
repeating fourth and seventh grades), some sense of maturity would set in among
his classmates; that all of the years they had been in school together would
finally get them used to seeing his “hump” without giving him trouble for it.
And for the first two weeks, his prayer seemed to be answered. Sure, the
occasional student cast a sideways glance at him, but as a whole, the issue
seemed resolved, and Seth figured he could start anew.
Then came the day of the first
football game of the season. Seth was getting books out of his hallway locker
when a beautiful girl approached him, smiling. He had seen her only once before
and was charmed by her chestnut hair that flowed over her shoulders. But he was
a realist and immediately wrote her off as too good for him – well out of his
league. But this time, she was looking right at him and smiling. There was no
one else between them. His heart beat a little faster and he smiled back. He
could feel his cheeks warm as they reddened and his hands felt clammy. She
continued smiling as she got closer. After a deep breath, he decided to
“Hi! I’m Seth!” he said
excitedly, extending his right hand to her. She flinched backward, giving him a
disgusted look. She then turned her head away from him and smiled again as a
tall, handsome guy, likely a senior, wearing a school football jersey walked
past him, putting his arms round her and planting a kiss on her lips. Seth felt
his cheeks get hot with embarrassment.
baby!” the football player said, giving
the girl another kiss. He then glared at Seth, a look of disdain and disgust
crossing his face. “Who the hell is he?”
“I don’t know,” she replied,
looking at him with equal disdain. “He tried to introduce himself to me.”
“Did he really?” the football
player asked, casting what looked like the “Evil Eye” at Seth.
“He did!” she replied
emphatically. Seth began to feel uneasy.
“Away, foul beast!” the football
player yelled. Several nearby students stopped and turned their attention to
what was going on. Seth felt panic rising up inside.
“I said away, foul beast!” the
football player yelled again. He grabbed Seth by the top of his head and
slammed his face into the locker. A loud metallic clang rang out as Seth’s head
struck the locker door. The observing students laughed as Seth tried to shake
loose the stars that flashed before his eyes.
“How dare you prey upon the fair
maiden!” the football player yelled, again grasping Seth’s head and slamming it
into the locker. Seth stumbled backwards, feeling dizzy as the students
continued to laugh. He reached out for something, anything, to help him
maintain his balance and inadvertently grabbed onto the top of a girl’s blouse,
his hand slightly touching one of her breasts.
“Pervert!” she screamed as she
slapped him with full force. Seth stumbled and fell forward, hitting the floor
chin first. The other students roared with laughter. Those that had not yet
pulled out their phones were doing so, snapping pictures and recording videos
as Seth tried to get up and shake off the pain.
“I vanquished the beast, my fair
lady!” the football player said with a laugh.
“My hero!” the girl responded.
“What a loser!” someone else
said as the gathered crowd of students dispersed.
So much for high school being
The football player incident was
the first of many. Eventually the bullying and poor grades resulted in Seth
dropping out of high school at 17. He knew he would never take the SAT or ACT,
and getting his GED would be a challenge, though not impossible.
And it was with the goal of
finding a full-time job while trying to earn his GED that Seth applied to
Whitehead’s Grocery, a grocery store that was large enough to meet the needs of
Daniels, but not yet big enough to expand beyond the town. He was hired to work
in the deli department as a meat slicer. It was not the most stimulating job in
the world – all he had to do was to ask the customer what they wanted, how much
they wanted, and adjust the width of the requested slice before packaging it –
but he was grateful to have a job.
Or at least he was, until Joe
Whitehead Jr., who had inherited the store from his father after never ever
having to start at the bottom and work his way up, made it clear what kind of
boss he was.
“Are you working, or just
daydreaming, Humpty Dumpty?” Joe liked to yell if he thought Seth was working
too slow. He was a short, stout man, maybe five feet tall at best, with a
receding hairline with long black graying hair around the sides. When he
accused Seth of being too slow, Joe meant not running, jumping, or doing
anything that resembled rigorous exercise. The man demanded unreasonable
productivity, as if the $10 per hour was worth the effort.
Still, Seth tolerated the abuse,
if only for the purpose of keeping his job. After all, until he could get his
GED, this was probably the best he could expect.
But as time went on, things did
not get better. Seth continued to work for Joe, albeit grudgingly, with minimal
improvement in pay. He was coming up on his fifth year with Whitehead Grocery,
still slicing meat in the deli (now for $11 per hour) and having yet to find
time to work on getting his GED. All the while, Joe Whitehead Jr. had continued
his abusive streak, still calling Seth “Humpty Dumpty.” Seth had continued to
remain a loyal employee, but others (at least those with better futures than
Seth) quit shortly after they started. They always confided in Seth – perhaps
because he was not threatening – and the complaints were always the same;
always going back to Joe Whitehead Jr.
hardly agree more. But then again, what could he do about it?
On a cool
October morning, as the store was preparing to open, Seth was in his usual
place behind the counter of the Whitehead Grocery deli. He had made sure the
front display case was stocked and that he knew where each deli selection was
placed for easy access. He double checked the slicer so he knew it was clean
and ready to go. It was like every other day.
Whitehead Jr. was making his rounds and berating several employees, as was his
custom. When he came to the deli, he didn’t hold back.
“The ham at
the end of the second row is crooked!” he yelled much louder than necessary.
Seth reached into the case and adjusted the ham so it was no longer crooked as
Joe stared with a seemingly intense hatred. If he stared any angrier, his eyes
might burst from their sockets.
was done, Joe walked up to the display case and lowered his head so he was
eye-to-eye with the ham. He then raised his head and gave Seth what could only
be described as an “eat-shit-and-die” look.
it up again, Humpty Dumpty!” Joe demanded as he turned around and continued his
inspection of the grocery store. Seth forced a smile and nodded his head,
stifling the urge to strangle the little prick.
opened and the usual crowd of customers came in. As they came to the deli
counter, Seth prepared their orders accordingly, readjusting if necessary. He
never dared eat any excess deli slices – Joe Whitehead Jr. insisted that excess
slices be added to the next order of the same meat.
The day wore
on and it was soon 3:00 in the afternoon. The day was busier than usual and
Seth had not been able to eat a full lunch, just sneak in a few bites here and
there. He was hungry and tired, but he still had another five hours left on his
shift, and Joe Whitehead Jr. didn’t like it when his employees chose eating
over working. Seth was sure that Joe had cameras everywhere, constantly watching
everything his employees did.
into the back, hoping to finish the peanut butter and jelly sandwich he brought
from home, when he heard the hand bell at the deli ding for his attention.
Sighing, he went back to the counter.
“Can I help
you?” he asked, not looking up as he grabbed a sheet of parchment paper and a
plastic bag with Whitehead Grocery printed on the side.
“I’ll have a
quarter pound of oven-roasted turkey and a half-pound of honey ham, please,”
the woman on the other side of the counter said.
“How thin do
you want…” Seth began and paused as he looked up. There before him was a woman
he recognized – a beautiful woman with chestnut hair that flowed over her
shoulders. She was a few years older, but he recognized her all the same.
then replied, “I’m sorry, how thin do you want that cut?”
regular sandwich slice,” she said, smiling. As he reached into the display case
and pulled out the turkey, Seth wondered if she didn’t recognize him. He tried
not to glance at her as he sliced a quarter-pound of turkey. When he was done,
he nonchalantly packaged it and handed it to her, then removed the ham from the
display case. After slicing a half-pound, he packaged it up as well.
else?” he asked as he handed her the ham, hoping the answer was no.
will do… oh, wait!” she said. Seth cringed, hoping it wasn’t because she
could I please get a half-pound of your Swiss cheese?” she asked.
he replied, relieved. He pulled the Swiss cheese from the case and set it on
the slicer. He went to grab a sheet of parchment paper as a man walked up to
the deli counter toward the woman. Seth glanced up quickly and recognized the
man to be the football player from that fateful day in high school.
the man said as he kissed the woman. Seth began to panic, walking to the slicer
with parchment paper and placing it beneath the blade. As he began to slice, he
began to breathe heavily, hoping and praying he could fill the order without
them recognizing him. He was so nervous that he almost nicked his thumb on the
blade. Once the order was sliced and weighed, Seth placed it in a bag and
handed it to the woman, trying not to look at them.
anything else?” he asked, not making eye contact.
beast!” the man yelled with a laugh.
gave him a mild smack on the chest.
“Devin, what was that for?” she
“Don’t you remember, babe?”
replied. “This was the weirdo that tried to talk to you in high school!”
“Of course, I remembered, but I
didn’t want to point it out! How could I forget that?” she asked,
pointing a finger at Seth. They both laughed.
“We’re just messing with you!”
he said to Seth. “Sorry I beat you up. I hope there’s no hard feelings.”
As he usually did, Seth forced a
smile, even though he felt like breaking the man’s neck before crawling in a
hole to die. “None at all. I forgot about it.” All lies.
“Good to see you again,” the man
said with false sincerity. Seth could hear them talking softly as the two of
them walked away. “He still looks like a freak,” he heard one say. “Thank God
we don’t look like that,” the other said.
Seth stood there flabbergasted.
He looked around and his heart sank. He knew that some people’s past came back
to haunt them, but he always thought those people deserved it. He had never
wronged anyone, nor had he ever harmed anyone in any way. He didn’t deserve the
pain he felt at that moment. To say it was unfair would be an understatement.
As if to rub salt in the wound,
Joe Whitehead Jr. decided to make his grand entrance – another inspection from
the czar to make sure the peasants were toiling so that his will be done!
And Seth clearly wasn’t toiling.
“Get your ass to work, Humpty
Dumpty!” Joe yelled. “Right the fuck now!”
“Yes sir, sorry sir!” Seth
replied. While his tone was sincere, his intention was not. It was right then
and there that he made his decision.
It was time to quit.
When the doors closed that
evening and the rest of the staff went home, Seth asked to speak to Joe, who
agreed to talk in his office.
“What do you want, Humpty
Dumpty?” Joe asked as he sat down at his desk in the backroom office. It was
clear from his tone that he was in no mood to talk.
“I’ll be quick,” Seth said as
sat in the chair directly in front of Joe’s desk.
“Thank God for that!” Joe said.
“For starters, I want to thank
you for employing me for the past five years,” Seth began. He knew he was lying
about being thankful, but hoped things could end on a good note. “That being
said, it’s time I move on. So, I quit!”
Joe gave him a confused look,
then laughed. “Oh, that’s rich! And do what? Why the hell are you wasting my
Seth took a deep breath, trying
to keep his temper. “I’m not wasting your time, Mr. Whitehead. I am sincerely
Joe laughed again. “Well, what a
relief! You were a shitty employee!”
“I’m going to be going now,”
Seth said as he stood up in the hopes of getting out quick.
“Stay right the fuck here!” Joe
yelled. Seth knew he was not compelled to do so, but turned and sat back down.
“Do you know why I hired you?”
Joe asked angrily. “It was because I wanted a freak show attraction! Go see
Humpty Dumpty the Deli Freak! That’s the only reason you got a job to begin
with! Just know that when no one wants to hire a deformed freak like you, don’t
even think about crawling back to me for a job, you mutant fuck! You will never
be welcome here!”
Seth held his tongue as he stood
up and turned to leave the office.
“Away, foul beast!” Joe said.
Seth turned around and glared at
Joe, his cheeks burning red with anger. “What did you say!?”
“I said, ‘Away, foul beast!’”
Joe replied. “It’s from Shakespeare, or one of those other fucking literary
homos! I don’t know!”
Joe was barely able to finish
the statement when Seth suddenly grabbed him by the back of his hair and pulled
him up to eye level with him. The two stared into each other’s eyes – Seth with
a look of pure rage, Joe with a look of surprised fear.
“Come with me!” Seth growled as
he exited the office, dragging Joe by his hair. Joe protested, both angry and
afraid, as he tried to free himself from Seth’s grip. As he struggled, and at
one point even tried to scream, Joe remembered that no one else was in the now-closed
building. Despite Joe’s efforts, Seth would not let go; he refused to be
deterred by the man he hated with every fiber of his being.
“Let me go, you freak!” Joe
shouted as he struggled. “Right now, you are assaulting me! I will have you
arrested and I will press charges! They’ll send your freak ass to prison!”
“Almost there,” Seth said as he
continued pulling Joe along. Joe glanced around, his heart beating, and realized
they were close to the deli counter, the place where Seth had spent almost
every day for the past five years. Joe jerked his head hard in an effort to
free himself, but Seth responded by pulling Joe’s hair even harder in a manner
that twisted his neck, sending a jolt of pain through Joe’s body before falling
to his knees in front of the deli counter.
“Get up!” Seth yelled as he
pulled Joe by the hair again, lifting him to his feet. Seth then pulled him
around the counter toward the meat slicer.
“What are you doing?” Joe screamed.
“Do you know how to work a meat
slicer?” Seth asked, forcing Joe’s face into a position where his chin rested
on the top part of the slicer’s back plate.
“Let me the fuck go!” Joe yelled
as he tried to push his head back towards Seth. Seth pushed harder on the back
of his head, keeping it into place.
“Do you know how sharp a meat
slicer blade is?” Seth asked as he switched the meat slicer on. The blade came
to life with a whirring sound. “Well, do you!?”
“You don’t have the fucking
balls!” Joe said, trying to be defiant, but only coming across as scared.
“Here’s how sharp it is!” Seth
yelled. Grabbing hold of the handle, he pushed the blade to the left, cutting
into the front part of Joe’s chin. Joe screamed as the sharp blade sliced into
his flesh, splattering blood onto the wall. Seth pulled Joe’s hair, raising his
head as blood poured from the wound on his chin.
“Do you know how wide the blade
on a meat slicer can cut?” Seth asked as he adjusted it for a wider cut. He
shoved Joe’s head, left side down, onto the back carriage so he could watch
what was about to happen. Joe screamed as Seth pushed the blade towards him,
slicing off his left ear and part of the left side of his face. More blood
splattered as Seth once again pulled Joe’s head up from the meat slicer.
“I know you’re losing blood, but
you need to know one thing!” Seth yelled into Joe’s remaining ear. “Every other
employee in this store wants to do to you what I am doing now!”
Joe tried to respond, tried to
plead and reason with Seth, but the blinding pain stymied his tongue. Seth
positioned Joe’s head face first on the back carriage, then shoved the blade
full force, slicing first into Joe’s nose. Joe screamed as the blade sliced
through the cartilage, leaving a blood gushing hole where his nose used to be.
Seth pushed Joe’s face harder down and sent the blade into the right side of
his face. The sound of blade meeting bone resonated as Seth pushed harder, grinding
out slices of Joe Whitehead Jr. cold cuts. When the machine finally clogged and
could cut no more, he switched it off and let Joe’s body slump down to the
Seth looked at the bloody mess
and began to laugh. For years, he had been considered the beast; the one to be
slain. But now before him lay the real beast, dead and impotent.
For the first time in his
Seth felt normal.
Stoll is a former historian and journalist looking to break into the fiction writing scene. His influences include Clive Barker,
Stephen King, Edgar Allen Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, and Bentley Little. He currently resides in Rogers, Arkansas, with his wife