Good Reliable Frank
Frank Rooney had been the manager of the Shop & Save for thirty-eight years, and he wasn’t retiring anytime soon. He was sixty years old, and he’d been working at the town’s local grocery store longer than he needed to shave. There was once a time when he was young and fit, easily stretching for the hard-to-reach bottles on the upper shelves. Now, he felt lucky when he didn’t wake up with an ache in his back or a crick in his neck. As years passed, Frank transformed into a round man with a belly that stuck out past his toes. His auburn hair turned gray, and then white. But, while his body metamorphosed, his blue eyes never lost their luster. When he woke up each morning, he gazed into the mirror, wondering after all the changes, if he would ever leave the Stop & Save.
Everyone in the town of Cold Spring, Indiana, called him Good Reliable Frank. He took diligent care of the money, paid his cashiers well, and made sure that the store was clean and tidy. The Shop & Save had been around for Frank’s entire life, and, even though it had grown in the last nine or so years, it never lost the small town atmosphere. He saw the same customers come and go, as reliable as the rotation of the Earth, purchasing the same groceries week after week. Frank tried to offer his customers change, but in those shopping carts he saw the same chips, the same bread, the same brand of cheese.
Never too big to take on the smallest of roles— Good Reliable Frank’s Rule Number One— he would work the checkout aisle on certain shifts. “Mrs. Watson, this brand is on sale, you know?” he told a regular one afternoon.
Mrs. Watson gasped. “Oh, is it? Well, I’m just so used to the kind I already buy. It would be silly to change now, wouldn’t it?”
“Perhaps,” Frank murmured. He pushed buttons on the register. “$38.95.”
Mrs. Watson shook her head and pulled out two twenty-dollar bills from her wallet. “Food’s just getting more and more expensive these days,” she said.
You could save a little if you stopped buying this junk, Frank thought. He didn’t dare say it out loud. Good Reliable Frank’s Rule Number Two: Never argue with the customers.
When Mrs. Watson left, Frank wiped down the buttons on the register with a wet cloth. It looked like he had never been at the register at all. Good, he thought.
The clock on the wall made a sound that echoed through the checkout space. Frank thought the loud clock was a good way to remember that time kept on moving, no matter how slow business went. I need to get everything ready for tonight. His eyes scanned the vast aisles from produce to bakery. He remembered the first time he walked into the Shop & Save as a boy, imagining that he could get lost in the labyrinthine trap, wandering for eternity.
A short and recognizable face stormed in Frank’s direction. “Do you think this is a joke?” Mrs. Norton asked. Frank’s head spun toward her. A frequent customer for years, she had shrunk several inches after the death of her husband, yet she never seemed to lose her spiteful demeanor. In fact, the town had thought she had grown more rude in recent years. She glared up toward Frank with cold, grey eyes that magnified behind her thick, round glasses. “I said: Do you think this is a joke?”
“No, ma’am,” Frank replied.
“Then explain this to me,” she said. She slammed a carton of eggs down on the counter. Frank opened up the carton. His wrinkled hands were like ten quivering sausages.
There were eleven unopened eggs in the carton. The last egg was cracked. Instead of a yolk, Frank saw a tiny baby chicken, body mangled and broken, large deformed head with its beak pointing downward, black tongue lolled out, eyes half-open to the world, as if averted in shame.
Mrs. Norton crossed her arms over her chest. “I found this instead of breakfast.”
Frank took in a deep sigh. His brow furrowed and he tried to hold back any feelings of nausea. “I’m terribly sorry about this. Here, let me give you store credit.” Frank turned toward the register and opened up the drawer. Beneath the drawer he pulled out a stack of handwritten certificates, each about the size of a dollar bill. He scribbled in blue ink the amount of $50, handing it to Mrs. Norton, who was flattered and taken aback all at once. “Of course, you’re welcome to get another dozen, on the house.”
Mrs. Norton scoffed. “Mr. Rooney, I don’t think I’ll shop here ever again.” She snatched the certificate out of Frank’s hands. “I’ll be going to Wal-Mart,” she said. She marched out of the Shop & Save.
Frank watched her leave. Another one lost to Wal-Mart. Good Reliable Frank’s Rule Number Three: Don’t engage in conflict, don’t make a scene. But that was easy for Good Reliable Frank. He straightened his back and forced a smile on his weathered, rubbery face.
One of his cashiers, Marcia, stationed at the next register, stood picking at her cuticles. Frank placed the carton of eggs in front of her. “Take all the eggs with this sale date and put them in the back. Now, Marcia.”
She turned her head toward Frank, confused. “Why’s that?”
Frank opened the lid.
“Aww, gross!” she screeched.
Frank snapped the carton shut. He thrust a thick, stubby finger to his lips. “Shhhh!” He looked around. There was no one near them, but he couldn’t be too careful. Rule Number Four: Never take chances on selling anything that had gone bad. Good Reliable Frank hadn’t sold anything gross. Not for thirty-eight years.
“Just take all the eggs that we got on this date.” He pointed to the sale date printed on the carton. “We’re going to have to put in a recall, or something like that.” Frank pushed the carton into her arms. As he walked away, he saw Marcia peek inside for a second look.
Frank remembered when he was Marcia’s age. When he was younger, Frank wanted to explore the American Southwest. The wide open spaces, where the sun stretched high over one’s head, where the arid heat coughed dry dust down your throat and the sunsets cast a red and pink haze over the mountains, like slices of ripe watermelon. He saw a cowboy movie where two men went out there to make a life for themselves. Of course, it didn’t end well. One man betrayed the other, and that was that, but Frank said to himself, That’s the life I want. Freedom, where one could see the desert sky stretch beyond tomorrow.
But Good Reliable Frank never left the small town of Cold Spring, Indiana. He remained in the small town where everyone knew him, where he could sell groceries to the loyal customers. He never did save that money to make that trip. Instead, it went to the payments for his dusty, old Subaru. Then, his mother’s quiet, yet lavish funeral. His sister’s loans when she disappeared from Notre Dame. His father’s bail. His sister’s plane ticket back from Prague. The mortgage.
In his eyes, New Mexico seemed as far away as Venus.
It took Marcia hours to unload every carton of eggs. Frank helped her bring it outside. She turned to Frank. “What do we do now?”
“We throw them away. It’ll be bad if someone gets sick.” Frank stacked several cartons of eggs and brought them outside to the dumpster. He brushed white flakes off of his shoulders. Whether it was snow or dandruff, he couldn’t tell.
Marcia opened a carton of eggs. “Wait, Frank, can I take some of these? I’m going to toss ‘em at my ex’s.”
“Well, in that case—no.”
Frank caught her placing the eggs toward the top of the dumpster. He shook his head. Kids.
“Hey, is Deb ever coming back to work? I saw her the other day—she avoided me on purpose.”
Frank froze. “D-Debbie?” He looked at Marcia. She couldn’t know, Frank thought. Not a chance. “Uh, I don’t think so. A few months ago, she said that this job wasn’t for her.”
Marcia scoffed. “That girl’s probably never worked hard in her life. Deb would never touch raw eggs. Did I ever tell you that time, in home ec, she was afraid of touching them? Said it would get her sick, like salmonella, or something.”
“Where are all your eggs?” a customer later asked.
“Recall.” Good Reliable Frank didn’t lie, but he moved the truth around like a baseball player who ran around the base line. Rule Number Five: You’re a salesman. Sell. No one had to know the reason why there was a recall, only that there was a recall.
The sky had grown a deep, endless purple and Marcia packed up for the day. “Are you sure I don’t need to lock up or anything?” She changed out of her store uniform and into yoga pants that elevated the curve of her legs. Frank couldn’t help but stare down at them. He squeezed his eyes shut.
“I’ve got this one. It’s the weekend. Go have fun with your friends.”
After Marcia left, the parking lot in front of the Shop & Save was barren. Frank appreciated the silence, the solitude. He’d looked forward to it almost every day for the past thirty-eight years. Sometimes, he closed his eyes and imagined he was all alone, somewhere in the New Mexican desert.
Frank went one by one to each register and locked them with a small silver key. The process felt second-nature to him, like brushing his teeth before bed.
When he locked the final register, he saw headlights growing larger as they approached the glass windows of the Stop & Save. “Oh, shit. She’s here early,” he said out loud. He shuffled away from the window and toward his office, which was behind the dairy aisle. The fumes from the coolant behind the wall reeked of chemicals and dust. It made Frank sneeze every time he went back there.
He knelt to open the safe in the back of the room and felt the muscles in his back lock up. The combination had been the same for the past thirty-eight years: 25 – 12 – 24. He heard a click from the safe and the door popped open.
Frank piled up the bills in tidy stacks. He knew how much there was. It was about twenty-thousand, but he needed to make sure. He counted out loud, his voice deep and slow. When he was done, he turned to the clock. A quarter to eleven. He held back a sneeze. She would be waiting.
Suddenly there was a loud crash. It sounded like the rumble of shelves collapsing and food spilling along the floor. No, not now, he thought. He clenched his fist, squeezed his eyes closed. Those damn shelves. I told that girl not to put too much weight on it. I told her.
He stuffed the cash into a black backpack, swung it over his shoulder, carrying the hefty package along one side of his body. Frank closed the door to the safe, as if it were just another evening.
Outside the office, he stumbled toward the shelves of the first aisle. “What the hell?” he said aloud. The untouched shelves hung like gallery paintings. I must be imagining it all. It’s the stress. I’m hearing things. He nodded to himself in the silence.
Frank heard the pitter patter of footsteps echoing from behind him. He turned around, his ears and eyes tuned to the noise. His heart began to race. Frank called out. “Hello?” The footsteps, if that’s what they were, grew softer. “Is anyone there? Hey! We’ve been closed. I don’t know how you got here, but you have to leave.” Frank tried to recall if he had locked the door. In fact, he was positive that he had locked it. The keys were in his pocket. If he hadn’t locked the door, they would have still been beneath the register. This routine was one of many practices that he’d maintained over the last thirty-eight years. Rule Number Six: Best practices should always become your routine.
Frank turned the corner, tiptoeing between the back aisles. Further back, he saw the toppled shelf. Chicken, pork, and fish were sprawled across the tiled floors. “Oh, God damn it,” Frank swore. He picked up his pace, stepping carefully toward the devastation. When he arrived at the scene, it looked as if someone had thrown the food about. Nothing had collapsed. His first inclination was to put the food back on the shelves. But he needed to leave as quickly as possible. He swore again for being late.
At the end of the next aisle, Frank discovered the culprit. A small animal, walking on two little legs. He rubbed the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger. It was not a human, not a dog or cat, but a chicken, with bright, ruffled feathers. He shook his head. How did you get in here? Don’t tell me we have birds in here again. Once, a roost of pigeons built a nest and stayed above the rafters. They flew around the store for weeks, leaving droppings throughout the aisles and scaring customers. After Frank destroyed their nest, a sloppy bundle made of twigs, newspaper, and food wrappers, the pigeons abandoned the store.
The chicken waddled down one of the aisles. Frank followed it. There was no way he could leave a chicken in the store. Too many questions would arise. Frank would never be able to leave the Stop & Save.
In the aisle, the chicken was larger than he recalled. No longer were its feathers mustard yellow, but a pale blonde—almost platinum white. It looked like it had grown, and now was about the height of a soda bottle. Frank whistled, but it ignored him, its feet skittering along the cold floor.
He scurried toward the chicken, his arm outstretched, ready to grab at the small animal. Right as his hand was over its body, it flapped its wings. Feathers scattered like dandelion plumes. The chicken fluttered atop one of the shelves, perching on a bag of jasmine rice. He saw now it was now a large, white rooster. Its red comb stuck out like an erect flag.
What would Good Reliable Frank do? He could call animal control, or capture it himself, releasing it into the wild. Good Reliable Frank tried to think of any friends who kept chickens. But it was winter, and the frigid winters of Cold Spring signaled death to any animal foolish enough to wander into the open air.
The rooster turned its head. It was looking at Frank. The bird’s bright coppery eye glinted like a jewel. Frank backed away, fearful of what it might do. The animal puffed up its chest, ready to crow. But the rooster didn’t crow. It screamed. The scream was of no creature Frank could name. He heard the cry of a baby mixed with the screech of a speeding wheel. Frank covered his ears with his hands. He began to panic. He snatched a can of food from behind him, and threw it at the rooster. The can made a thud when it made contact, and the bird cried out, its voice echoing throughout the store. The bird fell off the shelf and into the next aisle.
Frank waited a moment, counting the seconds in the ubiquitous hum of the refrigeration machines. He anticipated the rooster returning for vengeance. Maybe I killed it. The can—it was a can of Goya black beans—rolled along the floor. He fixed his bag over his shoulder and went to the next aisle to see if he’d killed the bird.
The rooster was not in the aisle. In its place, he saw the baby chick he had found in the egg carton. He picked up the creature by its tiny foot, lifting it with a pinched thumb and forefinger. Its head flopped and leaked wet and sticky liquid. He counted several crimson droplets that splattered on his shoes. Although he had eaten countless eggs and just as many chickens, he felt his chest tighten at the sight of this one.
A car’s horn blared and Frank dropped the chick onto the floor. He turned his head toward the front of the store. A woman stepped out of the car.
Frank hustled to the door and unlocked it. “Hi, Debbie,” he said.
Debbie walked into the store. She wasn’t wearing her coat and she crossed her arms over her chest, hands stuck in her armpits to keep her body warm. Gazing at her, Frank began to feel his heart race.
“I’ve been waiting for a while, Frankie,” Debbie said. Her voice reminded Frank of fresh summertime bee honey.
“I was in the office, getting the money. And some weird stuff was happening in the store.”
“Who cares? We’re leaving, anyway, right?”
“All the money’s in that bag?”
Frank looked toward the floor. Debbie’s muddied boots left little brown prints on the clean tiles. Frank had the thought to scrub them out, make the floor spotless. Instead, he scuffed out the footprints with his heels. Rule Number Seven: A spotless presentation is key.
“It’s all in here,” he replied.
“Good.” The two of them walked outside into the cold air.
Debbie grabbed the door handle. “Put it in the trunk,” she said.
When Debbie turned, Frank could see her stomach. It wasn’t much more than a bump now, but it was getting bigger and bigger by the day. Debbie kept saying she couldn’t hide anymore. Too many people were wondering why she skipped morning classes, or why she changed for gym in the bathroom, rather than the locker room. Soon it would be spring, and she couldn’t wear thick sweaters.
Frank looked down at his own feet. He wasn’t wearing boots. Even though it wasn’t snowing anymore, it was still wet outside, and he detested the feeling when his socks got wet.
“Frankie, we planned this. You get the money, and we go to New Mexico. We can find a doctor. Isn’t that what you wanted?”
“Yes.” He didn’t look up.
“The money’s in the bag?” she asked again.
He pointed at the backpack. “It’s in here.”
“Yeah?” She let go of the door. “You’ve been here for like, thirty years now, Frankie. Come on. We can leave. We can be happy out there. You told me that night, Arizona was where you wanted to go.”
“Debbie—,” Frank tried to smile but he knew he couldn’t. He wanted to correct her, but he didn’t. “I think there was a chicken in the store,” he said.
“I think there was a chicken. In. The store,” he replied. He realized that he was speaking to her in the same way that he spoke to Marcia. He dictated each step like a parent to a child.
“Is it still in there?”
He thought about the chick again. “I don’t know.”
“Well, it doesn’t matter. It’ll get taken care of.” She stepped into the car. A frigid wind sent shivers down Frank’s spine.
Debbie stuck her head out the window. “Frankie, put it in the trunk. We’ve got to go.”
Frank was still holding onto the store keys. He put them in his pocket. They felt like a growth on his thigh.
“Do you remember how you got this car, Debbie?”
“Of course, Frankie. You sold it to me.”
“It was also where we first kissed.”
“Right.” Debbie turned and stared out through the windshield. She was facing the Stop & Save, but Frank thought she was staring thousands of miles out into the distance.
Frank rested his hand on the car door. “It was where I first said that I love you.” It was also where Good Reliable Frank decided to become Frankie.
Debbie turned to Frank and smiled. “I know, Frankie,” she replied. “I love you, too.”
Frank made his way toward the rear of the car. The car’s exhaust fumes made him cough.
“Come on, Frankie. Put it in the trunk. Put it in there good.”
Frank popped open the trunk. The only thing in there was an old menu from the local pizza restaurant, with the corner ripped off, a coupon redeemed. He felt for a notch in the back of the trunk. His fingers crawled around a small, round gap. Frank and Debbie cut a hole in the car together, when they concocted this plan. Frank pushed with all of his strength to get the bag to fit. When he forced it in, he could feel the bills fold and crinkle. But no one could guess their guilty pleasure. Thousands of dollars, stolen away in the trunk of a used, old car.
Frank slammed the trunk closed. His eyes met Debbie’s. He wanted to see her smile again. “Sorry, Frankie,” Debbie may have said, but Frank couldn’t hear anything. He saw Debbie move her hand along the gearshift. Frank heard the wheels whir and spin and the next thing he felt was the force of the car, the car that once belonged to him, as it slammed into his body. It had hit him so fast that he toppled over the roof and hood, tumbling like a Barbie doll, until he collapsed onto the cold, hard concrete of the parking lot. He fell on his head, and when he touched it, it was warm and sticky. Lying in there dazed, he saw the car spin around and fade away. The roar of the engine faded, little by little, leaving him in the silent darkness. The only sensation Frank felt was the harsh wind against his exposed skin.
He needed nine stitches over his eye. Good Reliable Frank got robbed, was what everyone said. Frank filed the police report. He stated that two large men in ski masks and black winter jackets hit him with their car when he locked up. They forced him at knifepoint to take out the money from the safe. He didn’t dare say a word about Debbie. Frank spent a few days at home, but he returned to the Shop & Save, as if nothing had happened. Mrs. Watson came up to him the day he returned from the hospital. “You’ve been through quite a scare, but we’re glad you’re okay,” she said.
Frank glanced at her shopping cart. “Mrs. Watson, you’ve never bought tortillas before.”
“You always tell me to try something new. We’re going to make tacos tonight!”
“You’ll have to tell me how that goes.” Rule Number Eight: Always make a strong relationship with your customers.
“You’ve been working here for how long, Mr. Rooney?”
“Almost forty years, now,” Frank said.
“I hope you’re not retiring any time soon. This place wouldn’t be the same without you. Ever thinking about settling down with a woman? Even at your age, there must be someone.”
Frank smiled. He would never see Debbie again. Who knew if she made it to New Mexico. He would be just fine where he was. On the days that he covered register duty, he would open up every single carton of eggs. “Just making sure,” he would say. Then he would close it and say, “Have a nice day.”
• • •
Alexander Moser is a writer living in Brooklyn. He aspires to do this full-time one day, but until then, he’ll be running around Prospect Park, eating fine food, and spending time with friends.