by Rory Douglas
Old Cougar's Grocery is the only grocery in town with an adult section. The adult section has all the products that adults use—Old Cougar's Facial-Hair Amplification Hot Dogs, Old Cougar's Instant-Muscle Strawberry Yogurt, Teeth-Whitening Tan-Enhancing Popsicles, Height-Augmenting Shredded Monterey Cheese, Age-Reduction M&M's, Temporary-Intelligence Pastaroni. Even though my dad was born 50 years ago, he's really 30 years old because he eats a handful of Old Cougar's Age-Reduction M&M's once a week. It's called the adult section because a few years ago some high schoolers bought our whole stock of Pastaroni, aced the SAT, and now Old Cougar won't let anyone under 22 up there.
The adult section is on the catwalk that goes around three of the store's walls. The fourth wall is just a big mirror. That's Old Cougar. That's his office. It's a two-way mirror so you can't tell if he's watching or not, so he's always watching. Only one stairway goes up to the adult section and Old Cougar's office. My job is to stand at the bottom of the stairway and check IDs on everyone, Old Cougar's orders. I don't know if his real name is Old Cougar or if it's always been Old Cougar, but when he bought Old Cougar's Food Store he had to buy the name too, since if he weren't Old Cougar someone else could come in and say my name's Old Cougar, what's yours, this is my store. So he's Old Cougar. Nobody's ever called him anything but Old Cougar. My friend, This Many, heard that Old Cougar's wife called him The Coug, but his wife's dead now so no one calls him The Coug.
Old Cougar hired me when I was eleven. I've been working here every summer and school day since then. He found a loophole in state child-labor laws that said children as young as eleven could work, as long as they worked on a family farm. Old Cougar had a distant nephew plant a tomato vine in the parking lot, and every three hours I fill the green watering can with hose water and water the tomato plant, or that's what I did until the tomato plant died. Now instead I make mud.
Today as I'm coming in from watering the tomato mud I hear Old Cougar's voice on the intercom saying, code five on aisle seven." I stay at my post. I'm never to leave my post. Except for code eights and farming duties. But the baggers and checkers scatter from their check stands so they won't be the last one to find the code five. The new hires run to aisle seven. The code five isn't on aisle seven. There isn't even a code five. Code five isn't even anything. It's just one of Old Cougar's employee validation tests. My friend, This Many, runs to aisle one. Good choice. But I hear Landry, the senior checker, hollering on aisle eight, which means he found the right aisle. The new kids on aisle seven run over there. Since he has to come all the way from aisle one, and since he's the slowest kid at his school, This Many is last to find the code five.
Since Old Cougar doesn't like to come down from his office, Uri, the manager, is in charge of the drill. He's standing on an upside-down shopping basket giving the post-drill debriefing with all the employees gathered around him. This Many joins the back of the group.
Old Cougar hired Uri as manager when Safeway and Albertson's moved into town and almost put Old Cougar's out of business. Uri changed everything. He made us wear uniforms, started firing someone every month, and, most importantly, he built the catwalk and moved the adult foods up there from their old spot next to the day-old bagels. Then Uri put advertisements in all the gyms and weight-lifting classes saying that Old Cougar's was the only place for real adult body-building supplements. Uri includes this story in every talk, how he made Old Cougar's the number-one grocery store in town. Today he ends the story by saying, "This Many, you are no longer Old Cougar's employee."
Last place in a drill always gets fired. It instills respect and fear. This Many gives Uri his orange Old Cougar's employee vest, walks out the automatic doors, gets in his car, and drives home. A customer asks me where he can find some imitation ground nutmeg.
"I just need it or something that tastes like it," the customer says. "It's not by the cinnamon."
"We don't sell imitation nutmeg," I say. "We sell real nutmeg."
"It's not by the cinnamon."
"You mind telling me where I could find it?"
"It's on Old Cougar's Non-Nut Nuts Aisle. The ninth." I give him the speech. There are the nuts, arranged accordingly by size, and then there are the things one might consider nuts by their name or by their looks, but aren't. Nutmeg, Corn Nuts, Nutella, and nuts as in nuts and bolts. Old Cougar's system is like the Dewey Decimal system for grocery stores.
"I didn't come here to be sassed," the customer says. "Where's your manager?"
"There," I say, pointing at Uri. Uri is arranging the condensed-milk display. While he's doing it he's flexing, except he always looks like he's flexing. The customer taps Uri on the shoulder and Uri stands up. They're the same height but Uri is as thick as three of the customer. The man says something, Uri looks at me, looks at the man, then points to the aisle with the nutmeg. The man does a little bow then backs away from Uri to the Non-Nut Nuts Aisle.
After my shift I go upstairs and make sure all the adult products are in order and stocked. Then I lock the doors to the stairway, punch my timecard, and walk to This Many's house, to his backyard. His sisters—he has about fourteen of them, but some aren't his sisters but are his sisters' best friends—are sitting on the grass in a circle making dandelion necklaces and braiding hair. This Many's doing pull ups on the metal part of his mom's clothes line.
"Like 25?" I say.
"Eighteen," he says, and lets go and drops to the ground. He sits cross-legged on the stiff grass. His face is red and his biceps are swollen to the size of golf balls.
"Are you killing the lawn?" His mom shouts out the kitchen window. "You know it kills the lawn when you sit on it. It breaks its back. I bet someone could sit on your back and break it. Then see how you like it. Not at all is how you'd like it."
This Many and I move to stand on the log that separates the garden from the lawn. Then I give him a boost for his last set of pull-ups, twelve of them.
"Grass on the field yet?" I ask when he's done.
"No," he says. "I thought I had a pube but then I peed out of it." He lies down in the grass using a log as a pillow. I pick a grass blade and try to use it as a whistle, but it's brown and dry and doesn't work.
"Quit molesting your sisters, both of you," his Mom yells. She's in the kitchen making spaghetti sauce, which she seasons with Old Cougar's Hair Shine Enhancing Pepper. Every Monday This Many's mom comes to Old Cougar's and buys a pound of the pepper, and every time she has to ask Uri where she can find it. She uses it in everything. You can almost see yourself in This Many's hair. "When you were their age," his mom yells, "you didn't have anyone ogling your training bra, so give unto others."
We go inside to the room he shares with four of his sisters, but they're still outside. It's just us and the pony wallpaper and their cats.
"Your mom know?" I ask him.
"About what?" he says.
"I can't tell her. She'll kill me. Do you think I could just hang out at your house when I'm supposed to be at Old Cougar's?"
The next day at Old Cougar's two underagers try to get into the adult section. When they give me their IDs one looks at his shoes. The other smiles at me.
"Hi, Eleven," he says, looking at my nametag. "How are you doing on this fine day?"
Old Cougar named me Eleven when I started working. When I go to school I write Eleven at the top of my papers. The IDs are New Jersey IDs, the easiest to forge. Old Cougar says not to let anyone with a New Jersey ID into the adult section, even if they're from New Jersey, just in case. I ask them what they're going to buy and both of them at the same time say Moisturizing Potato Chips. That's a dead giveaway. No one their age buys that. I tell them sorry, tough luck, and they leave.
A little while later I lock the stairs so I can go outside and milk the goat. Old Cougar says the goat's been in the family for three generations. Now it's one of my farm duties to milk it, but no milk ever comes out. When I get back I unlock the stairway and a woman with a baby in her cart is waiting to go up. The woman is as tall as two of me. Since children aren't allowed upstairs she asks if I'll watch her baby for her. I watch her baby. In a few minutes the woman comes down carrying Split-End Eliminating Waffles and Height Augmenting Shredded Cheese, and walks off with her baby.
At three I get off and go home. This Many isn't in the tree house, so he's at his house. I fold my vest on my bed, eat a can of tuna, climb the tree, and stand on my branch outside the tree house. Across the street high schoolers are hanging out. When I'm their age I'll be 17.
"Eleven, you have a telephone call," my mom yells out the window. I climb down the tree and go inside, and grab the phone from my mom.
"What's up," This Many says.
"Do you want to come over for dinner?"
"I just ate my can of tuna."
"But could you, really? My mom's having her new boyfriend over for dinner. I need you to come."
I walk into This Many's living room and he and Uri and his mom are sitting at the little table and his sisters are sitting at the big table. Uri's telling a story about why you shouldn't attack Russia in the winter. When he finishes the four of us are quiet but then This Many's mom taps her fork against her glass and clears her throat.
"Well," she says. "I would like to announce that Uri will be living with us from now on." She squeezes his hand, which is trying to crumple a fork. This Many's sisters are giggling. "He's going to make a man out of you, This Many."
"You're small for your age," Uri says.
"I can do twenty pull-ups," This Many says, poking his lasagna with his pinky.
"And you have under-developed pectorals because you don't eat enough of your meat. You don't develop your pectorals by doing pull ups and not eating meat. You do it by eating meat and doing bench press."
Two days later after my shift at Old Cougar's I go over to This Many's house. His mom and his sisters are sitting in a circle braiding hair. His mom doesn't get up but tells me that This Many is in the backyard training. I walk around the circle, through the kitchen, and to the back glass door. I put my face against the door. This Many is lying in the grass trying to bench press a garden hoe while Uri stands over him yelling. This Many's arms give out, and the garden hoe hits his chest and rolls onto the grass. Uri keeps yelling at him, then lies down on his back and bench presses This Many fifteen times until he drops This Many on his stomach on the grass by the garden. Uri comes inside and I open the door for him. While he goes to the cupboard and eats protein powder with a spoon, I go outside to This Many. He's still on his stomach and he asks me to roll him over. I roll him over.
"How long?" I ask.
"Two hours," he says. He's still catching his breath. "My nipples are even sore. Uri says they're an important part of a developed pectoral."
His sisters come running into the yard with their butterfly nets so I lift him up and we go into his room. He lies face down on his sister's bottom bunk. I climb onto his top bunk and lie facing the ceiling next to a stack of bodybuilding magazines addressed to Uri, with stickers forwarding them to This Many's house.
"I didn't even know you had muscles in your nipples," he says. He's talking into the blankets, so I can't really hear him. He might be crying. "But Mr. Uri says you do, four distinct muscles."
"Does your mom know about Old Cougar's?"
"Uri told her. That's part of why she's making me do this. And then this morning before he went to work he took me to Big Five Sporting Goods to work out on their machines there and I grunted as loud as I could every time just like he does and he still makes me do more."
"Then he started doing a grip exerciser and forgot about me and one of the employees had to come lift the bar off my chest. And we're supposed to do the same thing tomorrow. Every day. Until I can bench press 200 pounds."
"That's a lot."
He doesn't say anything for a while or if he's saying something he's saying it into his pillow and I can't hear him.
"Will you help?" he says after a while.
I climb down and roll him to his back, and then climb back up to the top bunk.
"No," he says. I can hear him fine now. "That's now what I meant. Will you get me some Instant Muscle Yogurt? Then I won't have to do this anymore."
"Or I could have someone else do it. You'd just have to let them upstairs."
"Don't know. It's still stealing."
A few minutes into my shift the next day an old purple-haired woman is trying to return a carton of eggs at check stand four. A line is building up behind her. Over the intercom I hear Old Cougar say, "Charlie you have a call in the deli." There's no Charlie and he's not in the deli. We don't have a deli. It's code that I need to lock the stairway and go help at check stand four. I look up at Old Cougar's mirror.
When he hired me Old Cougar didn't just give me a job. He gave me an orange employee vest, a name, and money that I'm saving for nails to add on to the tree house. And his store provides wholesome and life-enhancing products.
"Ma'am?" I say to the old woman.
"Eleven will help you if you could just step aside with him for a moment miss," Landry says. I pull her aside so she's not in people's way.
"They said I could return these eggs when I called," she says.
"What for?" I say.
"I paid $2.49 for one dozen extra large eggs. Then I saw in the Sunday ads when I looked that eggs were $1.99 for a dozen. They said I could return them when I called if I just would bring back the carton."
"The man over there said I couldn't return them."
She hands me the carton of eggs, but it's empty.
"Where are the eggs?" I say.
"No one said anything about any eggs when I called," she says. "They just said to bring back the carton and I could return it."
"One moment." Old Cougar's allows merchandise returns, but not without the merchandise. I walk to the nearest phone and dial Old Cougar's number. Before I say anything he says he'll be down in a moment to take care of it.
"Old Cougar's coming," I say.
Old Cougar comes down the stairs, leaving them unlocked so I can go back to my station. After a minute he goes to the back and gives the woman a new carton of eggs and $2.49. Old Cougar's allowed to make exceptions.
Half an hour later I lock the doors to water the tomato mud. This Many is hiding in the parking lot behind one of the cars.
"Hey," he says. He puts his hands in his pockets and winces like it hurts his pectorals.
"My mom and Uri are getting married."
"Uri's going to be my dad now."
"Yeah. He's using my room as a workout room. He threw away all my Old Cougar's uniforms and my stuffed animals to make room for his bench press weights. He says that now he'll be able to wake me up in the middle of the night to do push ups."
He watches as I pour the water.
"Two of the high schoolers from the bus stop said they'll steal the Instant Muscle Yogurt for me if I give them twenty bucks," he says.
"Twenty? It's still stealing."
"You'd just have to let them by," he says.
"You'll get in trouble."
"Worse trouble than working out with Uri?"
"Old Cougar will catch them."
"Yeah maybe but so."
"I don't know."
When my shift is almost over two high schoolers come with laminated and holographed Idaho IDs, asking if they can buy some yogurt. Both of them wink at me. The IDs look real. I probably would've allowed the guys upstairs, but I already know the IDs are fakes so I say no. They say some swear words at me and I say no again. They leave. At the end of my shift I go upstairs to stock and arrange the adult food products and sweep the floor.
When I'm three months older, if I don't steal the yogurt for This Many, he'll hate me, and he'll be working out eight times a day with Uri, which no one should have to do. He might die of pectoral failure. But when I'm three months older, if I steal the yogurt, I'll probably have been fired and I won't be able to help people anymore, and worse, I'll have stolen from Old Cougar, and he only ever wanted to help people. Either way I'm punishing someone.
I finish sweeping the floor, lock the stairway, and take off my vest and fold it up.
When I get back to my house I stand in the tree watching the high schoolers until it's dark, then I go inside to my dad's cabinet and find his Age Reduction M&M's, eating them by the handful until the bag's gone and I'm four years old again.