Oh Lordy, I thought. She’s looking at me. At me. Finally.
It was midway through the shift, but maybe I still had a chance.
Her cheeks rose into an easy smile, and it took all I could to avoid waving to her, which would have looked silly behind the camera.
She was wildly attractive, which is probably why she was the chosen one. She had deep auburn hair, peaches-and-cream skin sans any blemish, and tiny dimples that rose as she smiled. Which she was doing right now. In my direction.
“Look out, dude,” came a deep voice from behind and left of me.
Assuming it was a customer looking for those olives that just went on sale, if you had your Shopper’s Card, I turned and nearly ran into Big Russ, who barreled past me en route to his bagging station.
Lane Two. Paper or plastic?
Cashier: Monica, the dark-haired beauty.
Damn. She was waving at him, not me.
And why not? Big Russ lived up to his name. About six-foot-two or -three, lots of muscle, good looking in a 1980s Arnold Schwarzenegger sort of way. Why he was working at Luigi’s Food Mart was beyond most of us. Maybe he was a tweener between high school and college, looking to make enough to take that next step.
I personally thought he was lazy.
And he was probably going to win.
I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was the cameraman.
“Can you come around the corner here for an interview?” he said, holding his video camera on his right shoulder, in such a way that made it seem like I didn’t have a choice. I didn’t want to do an interview, but even if I didn’t win Aisle of Denial, I still wanted however many of my 15 minutes of fame I could get.
“So, they call you Paulie…what?” he said.
“Paulie Chocolate Cake,” I said.
“Why chocolate cake, and not, say, cheesecake?” he said.
“Mostly because I like chocolate cake, especially from our bakery.”
Admittedly, I looked like it. I had a bit of a paunch, though I managed to suck it in when I thought Monica was waving at me. That was back when I had a flattop that was starting to gray just a smidge around the temples. And my nickname.
Everyone at Luigi’s had a nickname, it seemed, especially the guys, because it was kind of a fly-by-night fraternity of misery and laughs. There was Charlie the Butcher, who worked in the meat department and early on in the shift had made a big show of presenting Monica with a Porterhouse steak on a faux-silver platter he had stolen from the expensive cheese display. I don’t think that went over as well as he thought it would. I heard she kind of clenched her jaw and tried to fake a smile as he presented it to her.
There was Nicky Coffee, who worked as a barista in the Luigi’s coffee lounge, whose signature phrase was, “What’s up, guy?” which he said to everyone, no matter the gender. He went out of his way to make her one of those expensive espresso drinks with the foam in the shape of a heart. That and his signature phrase I hoped wouldn’t put him in position to win.
There was Slicer Syd from the deli department, whose nickname I thought made him sound like a serial killer. He had a brown, hairy mole on his right cheek which he swore he was going to get removed with the prize money he’d get from winning Aisle of Denial.
Then there was Big Russ, who was just…big.
“So, Russ just picked up a wave from Monica,” the cameraman said, wearing a tattered Pink Floyd T-shirt and ripped jeans. “How does that make you feel?”
“There’s plenty of time left in the shift for me to make my move,” I replied with a confidence I didn’t really feel.
“You know the shift ends at 10 o’clock?” he said. “That’s two hours from now.”
“Don’t worry,” I said, throwing out a false grin. “I’ve got a plan.”
What that was, I had no idea.
Here’s the deal: Luigi’s corporate thought it would be great for both business and branding if it could get one of its many Chicagoland stores on Aisle of Denial, which was in its 10th season on one of the major networks, I forget which one. The object of the show is simple. The production company brings in a fetching young lady to work as a cashier (Monica), while the guys in the store (and in our case, one girl) try to get her to choose you at the end of the 4-10 p.m. shift for an all-expenses-paid date and$10,000. The show name simply meant that if you didn’t end up next to the girl at the end of the shift, you were denied.
Hence, why Slicer Syd’s eyes bugged out when Tony, our store manager, told us we were chosen for Season 10, apparently unconsciously massaging his mole, then his goatee and back to his mole.
“I’ve got this sucker in the bag,” he said at the time. “You all might as well not even show up for that shift.”
When we found out the show was a go, I was more interested in the ten thousand big ones because I myself was a tweener. After graduating high school, I had kicked around several part-time, nowheresville jobs while living at home with my folks and spending most of my time at Wrigley Field. That was the year the Cubs won the World Series. My dad got on his high horse one day, telling me to get wise—get to school. There’s financial aid, he said, and he and mom could help, but I’d have to put up some of my own money. Hence how I ended up at Luigi’s, because it offered flexible hours and a small college-fund benefit.
But now…now there was the opportunity to really cash in, and I was letting it slip away.
My job at Luigi’s was to stock shelves, so most of the time I pull around a bright-red motorized Raymond pallet truck, carrying anything and everything across the store for restocking. That gave me a distinct disadvantage in Aisle of Denial, because like Charlie the Butcher and Nicky Coffee, I really had no reason to be upfront. True, Tony relaxed the rules to give everyone a fair chance at winning the date and dollars, but nothing seemed fair when Big Russ was assigned to work as a bagger on Monica’s lane. Though Tony denied it later, the prevailing feeling was that Russ was a great example of the guys who worked at Luigi’s and that he would in effect be a store representative when he won, mostly because was tall, dark and handsome.
Thus, Big Russ would get to spend most of his shift chatting up Monica as she rang mac-and-cheese, liquor, potato chips, meat, toilet bowl cleaner and hand sanitizer for dozens of customers who also wanted their few minutes of fame. I don’t remember the store being as packed as it was that evening. Maybe it was the same on Christmas or New Year’s Eve, I guess.
Therefore, we all had to worry about Big Russ and what he was saying to Monica, because he had all night to use every line in the book, while the rest of us had to hope she noticed us. I trundled my pallet truck around but couldn’t get close to her lane because there were so many customers, and when I looked over, Monica was laughing out loud, apparently at something Russ had said. He had her in the palm of his hand.
God, she was a vixen.
C’mon, Paulie, I thought to myself. Focus on the big picture. You need those dollars for school. I wanted to study journalism, which people have told me is a dying profession, but I had always loved to write and felt I could make a difference in the world in my own way. There was a little part of me, though, that worried I would go to school, be unable to find a job, and would wind up back at Luigi’s. That’d be ironic.
The cameraman and the show host—former Hollywood B-list actor Dash McSorley—followed all of us guys (and the one girl, Amanda) around the store, watching what we would do to gain Monica’s affections. Don’t think I didn’t do anything. Even though I technically wasn’t supposed to be upfront with my pallet truck, I did have occasion to deliver a pallet of flowers and balloons to the floral department, and let’s say the route I took was circuitous, which allowed me to hand off a sad-looking bunch of carnations to Monica at the start of the shift.
She flashed me that winning smile that would probably take her lots of places in Hollywood, but even so, it was slightly pursed-lipped, which to me meant, “Nice try.”
So I floated on the outer perimeter most of the shift, watching my coworkers make asses out of themselves, like Charlie the Butcher bringing up that Porterhouse. What does that say to a prospective date—you need a pallet-sized load of red meat? Slicer Syd had prepared a wine and cheese tray that he tried to give Monica as she was headed to the bathroom, a big fat grin on his face below a worn black Luigi’s cap.
I did another brief interview later with the Pink Floyd cameraman, and then I went to the break room and who do I run into there but Big Russ. I had to wash my hands after cleaning up a jar of gravy a customer had shattered, and there were two sinks. He used one and I was forced to use the other, or wait. The smell of gravy nauseates me, even on Thanksgiving.
At first, we didn’t say anything to each other, but I just had to gather some intel on what was happening up front, and why not get it from the source?
“So…how’s it going up there?” I said weakly.
Russ stepped away from the sink and said just one thing as he united his eyebrows.
“What? It’s not the end of the shift,” says I.
“I don’t care. I still won.”
I don’t know if it was the money or the girl, but either can make you do and say some strange things. He finished washing his hands—All Employees Must Wash Their Hands Before Returning to Work—wiped them with a paper towel and left, but not before flashing me a look of “Give up, dude,”
At 9:45 p.m., it really was getting late and options were limited. What am I going to do in 15 minutes? I thought about delivering another pallet of flowers, but that seemed cheesy. How about providing her a lifetime supply of toilet paper? Everyone needs toilet paper.
No, that would send the wrong message.
I went in the back, behind the meat department and ran into Charlie the Butcher.
“Looks like Russ has this one,” he said with resignation.
“Yeah. He had a big advantage over us, working up front.”
“He’s a slick cat, man. Any girl would fall for him.”
I was single at the time and hadn’t had a serious girlfriend since high school, but it wasn’t as if I didn’t try. I dated around a little, including Amanda once before she decided she had to change teams. Someday I’d be a catch, I told myself. After I got my degree and could afford nicer clothes.
At about 9:50 p.m. I reemerged on the floor with my trusty Raymond pallet truck, this time stacked high with boxes of M&Ms. My route to the candy aisle took me past the coffee lounge, and lo and behold.
There she was, sipping a caramel crunch latte that Nicky Coffee had prepared for her with extra whipped cream. Again, what kind of message does that send? You need more caffeine and calories?
At this point, I had about given up, but then she turned to me and said:
“M&Ms? I love M&Ms!”
My heart dropped somewhere into my diaphragm. Was she talking to me? To me?
“Come on over,” she said, beckoning me with a kind smile, full-lipped and slight show of her perfect teeth.
Not knowing what else to do, I went over. Nicky flashed me a hateful look as I sat down at a table tucked away in the corner. Standing nearby was the Pink Floyd cameraman. Dash McSorley was nowhere to be found.
“So,” she said. “You’re the one they call Paulie Chocolate Cake?”
How did she know my name?
Suddenly embarrassed, I replied, “You can call me Paul.”
The kind smile persisted.
“What do you like to do, Paul?” she said, with what I was now perceiving to be real interest.
Maybe, just maybe.
“I’m a huge Cubs fan,” I said. “I also play a little guitar,” which was barely true, “and I like to work out.” Which was a bald-faced lie. The paunch said so.
“I’m a Dodgers fan, myself,” she said. “And I love to work out. It’s, like, my outlet for stress.”
“Yeah,” I replied, realizing too late how dumb that sounded.
“What are your plans for the future?” she went on.
I paused. What were my plans? A degree? More Cubs games, perhaps? A wife and 2.3 kids? It was a perplexing question.
“I want to go to UIC to study journalism,” I said, and when she frowned, I added, “University of Illinois-Chicago.”
Now she was the one who paused.
“I think that’s great,” she said. “It seems like a lot of guys around here are content to just work here. That’s not you, I take it?”
“I guess not, but school is expensive. Did you go to college?”
Geez, Paulie, of course she did. Knucklehead.
“Actually, no. I grew up in Oklahoma and went to L.A. to find my fortune. I ended up on Aisle of Denial. But I’m planning to hit the big time after this show is dead and gone.”
Wow. She was actually…real.
That’s when I noticed two things: The camera right next to our table, and Tony the manager standing behind the cameraman touching his watch as if to say, “Your time is up.”
“I guess I have to go,” I said to Monica, and she maintained that kind smile. But before I left, I sliced open one of the M&M boxes and handed her a bag. Tony didn’t like that very much, but I told him later I’d pay for it.
The shift ended, and Dash McSorley suddenly materialized in front of the floral department. Tony had gathered up all the guys (and Amanda), and lined us up next to the weepy carnations I had delivered earlier in the shift.
Monica stepped to Dash’s side and he said, “Well Monica, you’ve successfully survived your shift here at Luigi’s, and you now have to make your choice as to who will be denied both the opportunity to date you and walk away with that cash prize. Have you made your choice?”
“Why, yes I have, Dash,” she replied and at this, she looked squarely at Big Russ, who all but puffed out his chest.
She cycled through everyone, letting them know how much she enjoyed getting to know them, but that they had been denied the prize—Slicer Syd, Charlie the Butcher, Nicky Coffee, Amanda and a couple of other guys.
Then she arrived at Big Russ.
“I just want you to know that I had a lot of fun tonight talking with you,” she said. “You’re a really funny guy…” She went on to list out pretty much all of Russ’s best attributes, and I could almost feel the sweat and sleaze dripping on the floor next to me.
He was right. He had won.
“…but while I enjoyed working with you tonight, I’m going to have to deny you, too….”
“That means…” Dash McSorley broke in.
“…I’m going to go with Paul.”
Not Paulie Chocolate Cake.
The rest of her remarks didn’t matter. Dash McSorley congratulated me, they held up the giant $10,000 check, with my name on it in Sharpie ink, and she held my hand. It was cool and smooth and for the first time I noticed her nails were perfectly manicured.
Russ frowned. Too bad on him.
Monica turned to me and said, “I’m looking forward to getting to know you better on our date. I want to know what makes your interest in journalism, and the Cubs. You’re a special guy, Paul.”
I handed her another fun-size bag of M&Ms and smiled, too.