It’s September 1957 and World War II hasn’t ended. Every man I know is still reliving his time in the “service.” My Uncle Sammy was drafted at age 38 and spent four years ” talkin’ to the god damn goats” in the Galapagos Islands and running a laundry for the troops. My Uncle Willie flew sixty-seven missions as a tail gunner, way above the maximum twenty-five and was court martialed when he refused to go on the sixty-eighth. Now he can’t get a good job because of his dishonorable discharge.

My father had a good war. He graduated at the top of his Officer’s Candidate School class. As a combat engineer he won a commendation for building pontoon bridges ahead of the troops who were retaking the Philippines. Even had his picture taken with General Macarthur. Now he sells gravestones. He comes home smelling of whiskey and dozes before dinner in front of the TV. In the morning he stubs out his cigarette in the yoke of his fried egg and my mother dumps his plate in the sink. To this day I get queasy every time I see an order of “sunny side up.”

I’m fourteen and a half and I’m a careful thief. I take a quarter out of my mother’s change purse when it’s full, a cigarette out of my father’s pack of Pall Malls, but only when it’s freshly opened. I’m working at my first after school job–bicycle delivery boy at Bohack’s Supermarket on 7th. Avenue in Brooklyn. We’re paid the minimum wage, $1.00 an hour, plus tips. The store manager, Phil, is a neat little man in white shirt and tie. He wears a gold officer’s ID bracelet, engraved with his name, rank and serial number and spends most of his time laughing with the housewives. Dennis is the floor manager. He was in the first Marine wave to land on Tarawa and has an angry red trench in the side of his face where a Japanese bullet grazed his jaw, shattering his cheekbone and shearing off his ear lobe. He rolls his sleeve up over a Marine Corps tattoo of eagles and writhing snakes. (Tattoos are rare in those days and almost exclusively military.) He always has a cigarette in his bad ear. He butchers sides of beef first thing in the morning and wears his bloodstained white apron the rest of the day. He unloads the trucks, makes a change bank for the checkout clerks and stocks the shelves. Then he packs all the orders for the delivery boys. He staples the orders to the bags and when we come in he adds the perishables, milk, eggs, ice cream, sodas and beer, which everybody wants cold.

There are four of us. We work from 4 to closing. There are three new bikes with “Bohacks” painted in red on the sides of the bins. I’m the new kid and I go to a different high school so I get the old Schwinn. Dennis has welded a shopping cart basket onto its handle bars, making it completely unwieldy. With fifty pounds of groceries in the basket it’s almost impossible to handle. As I ride it fully loaded up the hill toward Prospect Park, items fall out of the bags and I have to stop, brace the bike and run down the hill to retrieve them. Once a dozen eggs falls out. I run into a small corner grocery and buy a replacement.

The other kids steal Milky Ways and Clark Bars off the shelves, but one day I see Dennis lurking behind the canned goods and I know he’s looking to catch somebody in the act. I notice that he doesn’t patrol the produce department so I take a banana off the bunch and stuff it in my school bag.

Dennis knows all the customers. He sells the good tippers to the boys, taking half of what they make. After my first week he slips me an order.

“This is a two dollar run, so you owe me a buck.”

Two dollars is an enormous tip. I climb four flights, carrying three bags full of cold cuts, Velveeta, Wonder Bread, Campbell’s pork and beans, Chef Boyardee canned spaghetti and meatballs, French’s Mustard, Miracle Whip, four quarts of Rheingold beer and a carton of Walter Raleigh cork tips. A jovial fat guy with a cigar answers the door. A woman in an embroidered Chinese bed jacket is watching TV. “Look at this kid, he weighs less than the groceries,” he says and gives me a crisp five dollar bill.

Dennis is waiting when I get back. “Where’s my end?”

I give him a dollar. He snaps it with his finger. “You little thief, I was testin’ you. That’s Jimmy Tully, the bookie. He’s always good for a fin. You should only owe me two fifty, but I’ll take the whole five to teach you a lesson.”

After that Dennis sends me to the dime tippers, the old ladies who make you bring the groceries into the kitchen and put them on the top shelves of the cabinets. He makes me stay late and mop the floors; flatten the cartons and tie them together with twine; stuff the garbage in black iron oil barrels and roll them out into the alley.

One Friday, he calls me into the meat locker. “You been a good soldier so I’m gonna give you a break.” He points through the frosty window, “See that broad?”

It’s a busty blonde in a low cut sleeveless yellow sweater green Capri pants and spiked heels. Dennis nudges me. “Looks like Jayne Mansfield, don’t she?”

I’ve been covertly eyeing her for weeks as she wiggles up and down the aisles and flirts with Phil. Sometimes I’ll walk by her just so I can get a quick sidelong look at her bra. She smiles as if she’s read my mind.

“She’s married to a fireman,” Dennis says,” but always comes in when he’s workin’ round the clock to give the all clear, know what I mean? I’ll send you over there for your last delivery in case you have to stay and give her a hand…”

I spend the next few hours overcome by fear and fantasy. At seven Dennis calls me over. “613 11th., basement apartment…Don’t say I never gave you nothin.’ “

The carton is loaded with cans and bottles. A light drizzle is falling through the dusk, the drops silhouetted in the streetlights. My hands skid off the rubber grips. My heart is pounding. I wheel the bike into the areaway and go into a gloomy alcove under the steps of the brownstone. No bell. I have to brace the carton against the wall and knock.

A man answers. So tall I can’t see his face over the door frame. Only his thick football neck. He’s wearing a gray undershirt and thick black woolen fireman pants.

“Whaddya want?”

“Grocery delivery,” I say in a quavering voice.

He steps out into alcove. His bald head glows like he’s a creature from outer space. Without taking his eyes off me he calls:

“You order groceries?”

A voice responds promptly. “No…”

“Sure you got the right address?” he says and before I can answer he finds a delivery order tucked in between the bottles. “Menino,” he reads. “703 President. That ain’t even close. How’d you get here?”

“This was the address they gave me,” I say.


I realize if I implicate Dennis he’ll deny it and I’ll be in more trouble. I’m stuck.

“I must have made a mistake,” I say.

“Yeah, you made a mistake.” He hits me in the forehead with the heel of his hand. I stagger. The back of my head hits the cobblestone wall. Somehow I manage to hold on to the carton.

He squeezes my neck so hard I think he’s going to choke me to death.

“If I ever catch you sneakin’ around here again you won’t have nothin’ to do with girls every again, you understand?”

My head is roaring. My hands shake so badly I can hardly get the carton back into the basket. A can of Del Monte peaches falls out. I run half way down the hill and catch it in the rainy gutter.

Now it’s raining hard. Mrs. Menino complains that her groceries are all wet.

Next day Dennis acts as if nothing happened. After a week he starts sending me to the better tippers. I make sure to give him half.

It’s been a long time, but I can still see the anguish on that fireman’s face.


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