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The Expiry Dates

by Daniel Perry

(Deathmatch 2011)

20 AL 95

My eyes flit from Ron to the corkboard on his wall, just long enough to think What has to go wrong in a man’s life? When does he decide that opening a Giant Tiger store is a good idea?

And he says: “I should hire you.”

My eyes flit back.

“Uh, pardon?”

“Why should I hire you?” he repeats. Tiny beads of sweat form under my shirt. Did I just hear what I wanted to hear? Is that what I wanted to hear?

“My experience,” I begin.

Oh, good one. You’re a seventeen year-old kid.

In person, Ron must see how young I am. That I couldn’t have been sixteen when I started at Bevan Eggs. That there’s no way my résumé should also list a gas station. Or a flooring factory. Or Price-Mart, Currie’s lesser grocery store, where all I had to know was how to rotate by expiry date.

1. Take the old eggs off the shelf.
2. Put the new eggs on.
3. Bury the new with the old.

I started at Price-Mart in September, so now I’ve learned to rotate yogurt. And cheese. And milk. But I’ve also learned the really important stuff about working. Show up on time. Don’t call in sick unless you’re dead. And, most importantly, don’t talk about people behind their backs. They always find out. Or at least, the Wilson twins on cash did, that time Pat O’Connell asked me who I liked better. I said Ashley, but Angèle found out, so here I am applying at Giant Tiger.

And now, I’ve somehow impressed Ron by stopping at “experience.” The silence hangs a moment, until he says “Well, alright,” and moves on to the next question.

“Why is it important to pull the older stock forward on the shelf?”

This is just too easy.

*

22 AL 95

The phone rings in the afternoon, and when I pick up, Ron hires me. My mom drives me to the first meeting, where he welcomes me and the other sixty-three employees to Giant Tiger Two-Forty-Two, Currie, Ontario.

Ron talks through his moustache about goal-setting then points out the Section Bosses. The last is a shaggy young redhead named Derek, who will supervise me in the Grocery Department. The managers needed introductions, but almost everyone else is from Currie High School. I even recognize Sharon Foster, who I don’t have any classes with.

Sharon’s a year older than me and she’s repeating Grade Twelve math. I know this because even The Most Unremarkable Girl In School can’t be invisible here. Everyone from Currie goes to CHS. So do all the Farm Kids from Currie Township. The only ones who don’t are the Catholic Kids, who lived beside us in grade school then went missing around puberty.

Tonight, I see them again. I can prove they’re real.

Currie has Catholic School Girls.

*

20 MA 95

First I met Katrina, the dark-haired, dark-eyed Polish-born figure skater; then, Catrina, the dark-haired, dark-eyed Portuguese-born figure skater; and, finally, Jenny Devereaux, who has tiny blonde curls that fall over the arms of her glasses. Who has miniscule, not-quite-separated fingers from being born premature. (And who clearly figure skates, though she doesn’t mention it.) All three of them work in Ladies’ Wear with den mother Tami, the curvy Romanian who taught me the first night (while pointing to another new hire) that “In Bucharest, you never see woman in just T-shirt and shorts.” Sadly, for Tami, in Currie you do.

The first few weeks have been easy work:

1. Wait for a shelf to be built.
2. Find out which unsellable GT Brand product it holds.
3. Stock it.
4. Resume waiting. Or flirting. Or whatever it is you’re doing to pass the time.

At ten this morning, a Saturday, Currie’s first security guard stands aside. Its first automatic doors slide open and let half the town in, led by a woman with grey permed hair. She makes history by grabbing at a cellophane bag filled with strawberry candies.

“It’s Marlene Simmons,” she snarls, hoisting her trophy for the Seed-Tribune. “I bought the first thing from this store.” She tosses the candies on the counter and adds: “Gimme a pack of Craven A’s, too.”

Marlene leaves with the first of the signature yellow bags and smokes her cigarette outside the sliding doors. Moments later she re-enters pushing a cart, nerves calmed, her shopping bag nestled where a baby could have sat.

*

30 NO 95

Three years ago, my mom closed down her sewing shop, but not before I had spent every Saturday of my life there, at the back, reading on the hard wooden chair. When she went to the stockroom she left me out front, where I’d play shopkeeper and greet grandmothers until she returned to rescue her best customers.

I must have absorbed something. At the first-ever Giant Tiger Christmas Party, Ron presents three Customer Service Awards. Greg Watkins called an ambulance for Mrs. Roberts when she had a heart attack in Housewares. In Menswear Maria-the-Lifer is already Little Portugal’s Woman On The Inside. And when Ron cites two comment cards saying Jeff’s so kind, I win the third one. I don’t recall trying to be kind, but I decide that I’ll take it.

*

03 JA 96

My last semester of Grade Thirteen starts Monday. I’ve been going out with Brandy a year but there’s no way I’m taking her to prom. She doesn’t have a job, for one, and she keeps failing her driver’s test. And since my dad passed me down his old Pontiac 6000, it’s been me who’s had to take her to London all the time to go shopping. Brandy always says she’ll pay me back, but I’ve lost track of how much she owes me.

Like The Catrinas and Jenny, Brandy’s a year behind me in school. She tells me every day that she hates Jenny, despite having never met her, and it doesn’t help that my best friend Arlo fooled around with Katrina-with-a-K on New Year’s. It especially doesn’t help that he’s going out with Brandy’s friend Stephanie.

Arlo works at the store now, too. I’ve known him since we were six, so when Greg went off to college I put the good word in. And other than spending more time trying to move on to Catrina-with-a-C than Ron would like, Arlo does alright. Tami, who’s married, has even extended Arlo the same, increasingly serious “Be my boy toy” offers that she’s always given me.

Sometimes Arlo and I have coffee and smokes after work, then follow each other around the County Roads in the dark. Arlo’s usually got his mom’s Buick, with the big thirty-eight-hundred in it, and he’s made a habit of dropping his window to tell me this before peeling out and vanishing in the night. I caught him once, but I jumped the tracks going one-eighty to do it.

*

21 MA 96

All month our grade’s been raving about how drunk we’re getting Two-Four Weekend. Most of us are still underage, but we’ve spent five years in all the same classes. Kyle Hall’s next bush bash is all that’s left to talk about.

Kyle’s a bassist in two bands. One begs to play every school assembly, and the other incants clarinet scholarship and makes lonely, kind-of-pretty girls disappear from Currie forever. Jenny’s his date tonight, but when Brandy and I rumble up with Arlo – this time in his dad’s decrepit blue van – she’s already by herself, leaning on an oak and drinking a cooler. From the backseat, before Arlo’s even turned off the key, Brandy starts going on about what a skank Jenny is.

You’ve become a flirt. That’s what Brandy says when she gets a glimpse of, as she calls it, what goes on at work. She spends our half-hour at the party glaring over my shoulder, making faces and repeatedly flipping Jenny off. And when Jenny laughs too hard at something I say, Brandy punches her in the face, snapping the bridge of her glasses. Then she runs straight to the van.

Arlo and I have no choice but to follow. He sprays gravel and we leave Jenny’s girlfriends in the laneway, shrieking at our tail lights. I nearly fall out as I heave the sliding door. When it closes, with a thud, I know Giant Tiger will never be the same.

*

07 JL 96

Brandy and I broke up a month ago, but it had nothing to do with Jenny. I just outgrew the relationship. Besides, Jenny’s with Stephen now, this blond wiener who transferred in from Welland. He’s younger and he’s looking to replace me. Seriously. He runs around the store stocking shelves – sometimes actually running – and his mop and bucket find accidents faster than an ambulance. I caught him making siren sounds once, but otherwise, this kid is good. He never gets busted for flirting with Jenny. Not that I mind. He can have her, and for all I care he can have Giant Tiger, too. I got into university, in London, and I start in the fall.

Inventory in June pushed back our One-Year Reviews. Today is my first crack at a good, but not too good, self-evaluation. I complete my form in the Break Room and make my way downstairs.

Instead of the usual power-figure-behind-a-desk look, the Managers’ Office is laid out like a public library, with a bank of computers at the back. Ron shuts the door. He pushes a chair into the centre of the room – an island, for me – and then he sits at his work station. He scans the page. He chortles.

“First things first,” he says, “Nice try. But I don’t give five out of five.”

I set my jaw.

“Ron, look at the questions.”

“Alright,” he sighs, setting the paper on the desk. “We’ll go through them one by one.”

I wheel in beside him and look over his shoulder. He reads the first checkbox.

“Presentation. Clean uniform. Hair, and, if applicable, facial hair well-groomed.” He pauses. “You gave yourself five.”

I meet his eye and dare him to look. My hair is cut short and gelled in place. I shave redundantly before every shift. And today, my Giant Tiger golf shirt is fresh from the wash.

Ron takes the bait. He puts pen to paper.

“That’s a five,” I say.

He glowers through his puny glasses. His forehead wrinkles, but his face softens.

“Well, I suppose I can give you one five,” he says, looking to the next criterion. “Uniform. Always worn, complete with name tag.”

“That’s a five too, Ron,” I say. He doesn’t argue. I take four out of five in the rest of the categories – only fair since I’ve started coming in late every day – and I return to The Floor. Just my luck, I meet Stephen in the doorway. Of course Stephen transferred in right before evaluations. Of course he’s being lumped into this round. Of course Ron will give him the One-Year Raise.

*

21 SE 96

Beyond Tami, and the figure skaters, and me, only two originals remain. Derek is still running Grocery, and Sharon’s made a home of Cash Six. Since high school, Derek’s smoked so much pot that he likes this job, and since last winter, he’s been dating Sharon, who’s in her second year at Western. She and I crossed paths on campus yesterday, and she invited me to a mixer tonight.

Before pulling into my laneway, Sharon has straightened her light brown hair and put concealer over her too many freckles. As she shifts into drive, her slender collarbone crests the V-neck of her sweater. She smiles when I switch from Hitz Radio to the campus station. And when we finally have to say something, she tells me she and Derek had a fight.

At the Drips, London’s oldest dive bar, Sharon and I dance, and we drink, and we introduce ourselves as just friends. Neither one of us should drive by last call, but I’m in better shape so I offer. When she refuses I collapse on the passenger seat.

There are never any cops on Highway 22, but to be extra safe, Sharon says, we turn down a dirt road just outside the city. The farm fields grow longer, and darker, and emptier. Each is more desolate than the last. We ride quietly until the only sound, the motor’s gentle hum, gives way to crunching gravel.

Sharon stops the car. She looks down at her lap.

“You’re right,” she says. “You should drive.”

I step out in front of the headlights. Just past the ornament, she throws us both on the hood.

*

25 SE 96

I ask Sharon out for the coming weekend. She says Friday was fun, but…

*

28 SE 96

Derek quit Giant Tiger yesterday. Ron doesn’t talk to me anymore. And everyone seems to have forgotten about Stephen and Jenny, getting caught behind the box-baler making out. Golden Boy’s already the new Grocery Manager.

Stephen’s a shoo-in for a Customer Service Award. The other two will go to employees who catch people shoplifting, but the name won’t reflect the change.

Arlo and Katrina are off-again, for good. Back in August he took a job installing carpets. He’s been talking about going army ever since.

*

25 OC 96

A buzz-cut tenth-grader named William took Arlo’s place. I noticed him on his first shift, already chafing under Stephen’s micro-management, and I immediately took him under my wing. I taught him who he could tease, and who to stay away from, and of course, a wide range of deniable misdeeds that make Golden Boy crazy. The best of the bunch is the Pickle Drop, and for this one Will’s proven to be a natural.

Like I said, no one buys GT Brand. A few Fridays ago, I slit open some expired GT cold cuts and tucked them under a pallet of GT pickles. On every trip to The Front that weekend, Will took a pickle jar from the shelf. He snuck them through Ladies’ Wear and deposited them at Register Six. By Sunday afternoon, when he’d whittled the stock down to two, he paged Sharon to cash, the signal for me to leave Dairy and tell Stephen that his pickles were empty.

Stephen jumped at the chance to move another case. He burst through the flapping stockroom door, where the putrid smell greeted him. For two hours he unpacked and repacked the skid, looking for the source of the stench. When he finally emerged, frowning, he carried a box of pickles to the shelf and unloaded it, lightning-fast as always.

Will works Mondays, before school, which is when he retrieves the cold cuts. Friday nights, after Ron goes home, I open another pack with my box-cutter. And Sundays, Sharon saves a cart with a bent wheel. At five minutes to close, she pages Stephen to The Front for returns. Golden Boy collects it and pushes it to Ladies’ Wear. Jenny skims the mountain of ill-fitting jackets from the top and reveals Stephen’s pickles, weighing them down again.

*

01 NO 96

I drive to London for class every day, and I’m down to four hours a week, so today I hand Ron the letter. He coaxes lame applause from my last pre-shift meeting and makes a show of thanking me, for two years’ service. It’s barely eighteen months but I don’t correct him. He goes on to air-quote the bigger and better things I’m moving onto but he doesn’t name them, which implies that I actually said this. I didn’t.

Only Will asks what the things are. He has two years left at CHS, but last week, when Stephen transferred back to Welland – with Jenny, they’re engaged now – Will became Grocery Manager. On a life total of six weeks’ experience.

I spend the night expressly not working, and for my final exit, I cartwheel past Ron and out the sliding doors. The air is cold, the season is changing, and in the store window next to Giant Tiger there’s a sign. NOW ACCEPTING RESUMES: JEAN STORE OPENING DEC. 1! I linger on it, just for a moment, and then I turn my back on the strip mall. As I walk to the 6000 I hear Will’s voice from the foyer.

“Hey, Jeff!”

He’s the last person I’ll speak to at Giant Tiger. So be it.

“I got a date with Catrina on Friday,” he calls.

Catrina-with-a-C. The mousy one who always spoke Portuguese to her parents, and who’d been barred from her driver’s test until she turned eighteen. She hadn’t gotten taller before I introduced her to Will, but while none of us were watching, she grew up. Now she drives a sporty red hatchback, she’s in college, and she’s traded her glasses for contacts.

“In case I don’t see you beforehand,” Will continues, as though I’m coming back tomorrow. “You’ve known her forever…”

I get in and shut the door, hard. I turn the key. I click the shifter into drive. Behind me the sign’s stupid grin goes dark, and in the rear-view now, Will’s invisible. I toe the brake and wash him in harsh red light, and as he approaches I wonder whether I’m proud or embarrassed for his success. I lower the glass and he offers his hand, but my eyes stay glued to the console. Faintly, campus radio crackles in. I twist the volume to MAX so he leans in and shouts.

“Can’t you give me any advice?”

I close my eyes and wish for power windows. Then I punch the gas.

 

Daniel Perry grew up in Glencoe, Ontario. His short story “Aria di Gelato” is forthcoming in The Nashwaak Review. Previously, his poems have appeared in Propaganda and Grubstreet magazines. Daniel has an MA from the University of Toronto, and a BA from the University of Western Ontario. He has lived and worked in Toronto since 2006.

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