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After the Golden Age by Alvin Schwartz
Giving a glimpse into the formative years of comics and beyond.

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AFTER THE GOLDEN AGE for 02/04/2008
Vol. 2, #202

Section 2

He watched her trundling the cart ahead of her as she disappeared down the next aisle. He shrugged again and proceeded toward the rear of the store.

"How about it?" the butcher said, holding a fish up by the tail to inspect it for scales. He held the scaling knife in his other hand, pointing it in the direction of the front window. "Do I have a beef or don't I?"

Lippert stared glumly down at the chopping table. "I can't help it, Charlie. I've had to skimp on everybody's space to make room for that damned contest. It's going to be a disaster anyway. The whole plan is wrong. I tried to tell them they should've gone to a regular contest house like Blair or Donnelley instead of listening to that idiot nephew of old man Margolis. Anyway, I tried to make it up to you in the new flyer."

The butcher slapped the fish down on the table and made a couple of passes at it with the knife. The scales splattered about in a miniature storm. "You'll be stuck with a lot of stinking fish on Saturday. You'll see." He dropped the knife and wiped his hands on his bloody apron. "So what's it with you? Ulcers? Graham had ulcers. You didn't know that, did you. But you got the same kind of look."

"Graham had ulcers?" Lippert repeated.

"Would I make it up? Of course, I didn't do the diagnosis."

Lippert shook his head. "You've no idea how much better that makes me feel."

"You don't like Graham? I didn't know you even knew him."

Lippert chuckled. "I'm getting to know him now."

"What are you talking about?"

"Charlie- how old is your kid?"

"Which one? The boy? Five. The little girl- she's three. Why?"

"You don't send them to nursery school by any chance, do you?"

"Hey- has my wife been talking to you?"

"No- you mean she wants to send the kids to nursery school?"

"You're psychic. Otherwise, why would you bring it up? A whole month now, she's been after me. Charlie- what kind of a father are you? Charlie- don't you even take an interest? Charlie- who's Lisa got to play with her own age? It's bad enough these days everybody's got to go to college. That costs enough, don't it? All right- I don't object. I even bought into one of those funds to cover tuition way up front. Okay- but when they start adding on at the other end--nursery school- it's too much. If I don't think my kids have to spend half their lives in school- I'm a monster? You tell me."

Lippert smiled. "I can see your point, Charlie. Tell me, do all these nursery school people make such a holy cause out of it? You'd better brief me, because I'm still a long way from understanding the suburban outlook."

"So that's it. They've started to get after you. Just like Graham." The butcher paused, wiped his hands on his apron and dipped one of them beneath the big white folds to find the pack of cigarettes which he now held out to the manager. Lippert made a negative gesture. "No thanks. Only in back. Company policy. You know that."

"Yeah-forgot. Sorry." He put the pack away. "One of these days, I'll kick it. How about you?"

"I already did. Ten years ago."

"Not Graham. A two-pack a day man. But then- they used to bug him like you wouldn't believe."

"The cigarettes?"

"No- the nursery school gang. Always needing something. Some cartons for the kids to make cutouts with. Paper bags! You can't imagine all the different things you can do with paper bags that has nothing to do with wrapping nothing." The butcher clamped his hands together and shook his head. "You'd think it was just a waste using them to pack groceries in. And then there's packing cases and egg-boxes and foil. One day Graham even came over and asked me if I had any fish-heads for them. Fish-heads! They're the only people in the world who could think up something to do with fish-heads. I never thought of asking them what. To this day, I'm still wondering. But that's not all. Wait'll they start borrowing things- light fixtures- tools- sticking tape- paints- brushes. And I'll tell you something else. You're not going to be able to refuse. You might not do it for plain and simple community relations after a while. But when they come to you in the name of the children- for the sake of future generations- what kind of man can say 'no' to future generations? I tell you, when you say 'no' to those people, it's like vetoing tomorrow. You'll find out. Just wait and see."

"As for that," Lippert confessed, "I won't have to wait much longer. I just said 'no' or what amounts to the same thing- I didn't say 'yes'. She's in the store right this minute. Her name- she told me her name. It was something like- like Brillo. That's not quite right either. But it suits her. A gentle abrasive- if you know what I mean. All steel wool. But processed. Nicely processed."

Lippert started to smile again. But the smile was suddenly arrested by a shift of attention. He looked up without raising his head, only his eyes moving. "Wait," he said quickly, his voice dropping to a whisper. His finger stabbed upward toward the mirror, the bright circular chrome-bordered platter of reducing glass fastened to a pillar and affording a panoramic view of the empty aisles, the stacked rows of canned and packaged and bottled goods standing out in ranked antithesis to any and all human appetite under the sterile, white-washed light.

"There she is now," Lippert said, still whispering, as the figure of a woman moved through the rectangular interstices of the endless shelves, a minute flicker of alien light along the mirror's immobile surface. "Mrs. Brillo."

"Oh- that one," the butcher said. "Dumbrille- her name's Dumbrille. You had to start with her? Not because she's one of my best customers, but because she's a pusher. It's like starting off on the wrong foot with city hall."

"She got under my skin," Lippert confessed. "It just happened. I don't know what got into me."

"You're too sensitive."

"That's what she said too," Lippert admitted, his eyes still following the flickering presence in the mirror. "And she seemed to know exactly where."

The butcher shook his head. "You couldn't have been so sensitive in Manhattan East. Or you'd never have gotten here in the first place."

"She's still at the boiling point," Lippert murmured as he watched. "I can tell. She moves like she's building up pressure inside. It's the same with my wife. When she's mad, she'll walk around like that for hours, not saying a word. And finally- the blowoff. Though I'll admit it doesn't happen often."

"Well- you may not be married to this one, but I ain't so sure there won't be a payoff just the same." The butcher clamped two fingers against his mouth, caught a bit of fish gristle clinging to his lower lip, slipped a third finger under it and sent it spinning into a can of fat alongside the chopping table. At the same time, his eyes rose to the mirror again.

And then the two of them, the butcher and the manager, stood watching, their heads upraised, silent, unmoving, their twin gazes pinpointed to a single shimmering spot on the bright burnished surface. It was as though the glass itself were conniving at the event as it revealed the hand lifting the object from the shelf and then dropping it, not into the shopping cart that wasn't quite filled, but into the discreetly open mouth of the woman's shoulder bag.

"The payoff." It was the butcher who spoke first. From the manager's lips came that single obscene expletive preceding the sudden step he took that would have started him off in the direction of the aisle if the butcher hadn't reached out and caught him by the arm.

"No you don't," the butcher said.

Lippert stood irresolute. "She only did it because of that display."

"That's not good thinking," the butcher said. "It goes on all the time. A whopping five percent. Think of it that way."

"But not in her case. You know that, Charlie."

"Even if I did know it, I wouldn't think it. What would you do anyway- arrest her?"

"Just this once, I'd like to let her know at least."

The butcher shook his head. "I told you there'd be a payoff. It could've been a lot worse. Figure you got off easy. Forget it."

"Understand something, Charlie. I'm not usually like this."

"A bad day. It happens to everybody. Just take it easy. I'll tell you what-" But the butcher never finished. His eyes were on the mirror again.

It was the same reflection with the same moving spot just a little off center, but with a slight variation. It was a youth this time instead of the woman. And it was happening in the same sweets and packaged candies aisle where it had happened with the woman. Only instead of a shoulder bag, the youth wore a roomy poplin jacket. "Both of them," Lippert murmured incredulously. "And only the two of them in the aisles. You'd almost think they were a team. Except I know that kid. He makes a habit of it. I saw him pinching something only two days ago-my second day at the store."

"And let him get away with it?"

Lippert made a gesture of resignation. "A typical poor kid from a poor family. They'll do it every time. Used to get the same types every day at Manhattan East. As long as it doesn't go above five percent."

"Right now, it's beginning to look like a hundred percent," the butcher said.

"But her- that's a different story."

"But- for the whole day- it'll probably average out to say- six percent. Of course, that's still one percent too much," the butcher ruminated.

"It's that Mrs. Brillo who really gets under my skin."

"Dumbrille," said the butcher. "You better stop one of them. And it better be the kid. With the other one, the odds are good it won't become a habit."

"That's not how I see it," Lippert said. Too fast this time for the butcher to restrain him, he started toward the aisle again.

After watching the manager disappear between a pair of gondolas of canned fruits, the butcher hurried around the end of the glass fish counter, walking fast past the meat cases to turn right at the far corner of the store, then down past the vegetable bins to where the produce manager was busy setting up a watermelon display.

"Pinky," the butcher said. "Up front- quick. Lippert may need a hand. There's been some shoplifting and I wouldn't want him to make a fool of himself."

The produce man thrust his knife into a side of watermelon. "Why me?"

"Go ahead," the butcher said. "If I had your muscle, would I be asking you?"

-- Alvin

<< 01/28/2008 | 02/04/2008 | 02/11/2008 >>

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