THE NIGHT CREW • by Carl Robinette

Sometimes I can’t sleep at night, or maybe I don’t want to. I don’t know, but sometimes when I don’t sleep I drive to the supermarket nearby which never closes. In the deep end of the night there are few customers. Mostly just people working at the store, rheumy-eyed people with backyard tattoos and backstory faces. I look like I just rappelled out of an asylum window by knotted sheet. Not everyone can mix in comfortably with a daytime crowd.

Almost every night there are shrink-wrapped pallets of food on the floor of all the aisles. They use box cutters they keep clipped to their hips to slice down the sides of the pallets and they peel the plastic off the stacks of food like a zipper-backed dress.

They restock the shelves. The overhead music is louder than usual without all the customers. Or maybe they turn it up. Dead of night, day-bright neon screwy vibe.

***

On the cereal aisle, two guys sat on milk crates talking as they unloaded a pallet. One of them had skulls tattooed on the tops of both hands.

He was saying, “We got him from the shelter.”

“Oh yeah?” the other one said.

“Yeah. He’s a good boy.”

“What about your son?”

The skull-hands guy shrugged in response.

The other asked, “He’s good around kids?”

“Yeah. They take naps together”

“Pit bull, huh?”

“Staffordshire terrier.”

“Yeah. Okay.”

I moved on. The frozen aisle was empty of pallets and workers. Halfway down the aisle, there was a shopping cart with a baby’s car seat wedged on top. It rustled and gurgled. Two tiny feet kicked rhythmically into the air.

I picked out my frozen waffles. I picked up a couple of pizzas. Nobody came for the kid. I waited. Still nobody came.

I said, “Did somebody forget their baby?”

I said, “Hey, whose baby is this, man?”

Nobody answered.

I called out, “Hello.” I walked to the cereal aisle. The two workers weren’t there anymore. I headed to the back of the store where they sell meat and dairy, and walked to the next aisle over. No one was there either. The baby started crying.

I went back to the frozen section. The little booger’s blankies were on the floor and I guess the baby was freezing his fanny off. I got the kid tucked back in and pushed the cart to the front of the store.

Nobody around.

The music cheered on overhead. The baby cried. The register terminals hummed.

I tried not to panic. I called out again and a tall woman who had been crouching behind her cash stand popped up.

She said, “Ready to check out?”

“Um, I found a baby,” I told her.

She just stared at me, working the gum she had in her mouth.

I said, “Yeah, because, yeah. I think someone left a baby. Like abandoned it. On the frozen aisle.”

“Okay?” Gum popping.

I waited.

She said, “Let me call a manager?”

***

The manager turned out to be the guy with skulls tattooed on his hands.

He said, “Son of a bitch. Sonsabitches.”

“Yeah.” I shrugged.

“Motherf—” The guy stood there clenching all over.

The clerk said, “Should we make an announcement, maybe?”

The manager grabbed the nearby phone and paged.

“Attention, shoppers. Will the customer who left their baby on the frozen aisle please come to the front of the store. Your party is waiting.”

“I’m not, like, their party,” I said.

The man with the skull tattoos said nothing to that.

Nobody came for the baby.

“Code Adam?” the clerk said.

The manager said, “Parents are missing. Not a child.”

I once heard you can leave a baby with the fire department and they’ll make sure it gets somewhere safe, where it’s supposed to go. I think maybe a nunnery too, but we just ended up calling 911. While we waited, I went to the baby aisle and got food and a bottle and fed the little booger.

The clerk chewed her gum, asking me did I know what I was doing, how did I know the baby wasn’t allergic or something, and she said she hoped I knew I had to pay for “all that baby stuff.” But I was just feeding the kid scoops of goop from a jar with a little dinosaur spoon. Didn’t barf or anything. Stopped fussing even.

The people who came from child services seemed to be good at what they do. I handed over the baby and watched them strap him in the backseat of a minivan. The child services people waved and drove off and that was it.

I never went back for my groceries. Forgot all about them, but I think about those pizzas I left behind that night, sitting there thawing and going soggy. I bet someone eventually bought them, all refrozen and crystally. Whoever it was would never know why the freezer crystals formed, if they thought about it at all. Every time I get a pizza now, all I think about is all the hands it passed through. Other shoppers, stock crew, truck drivers, factory workers, more factory workers, farmhands and god knows who all.

I never followed up about the kid. Wouldn’t have even known how, but I think about that baby in that cart all the time, more than I’d like. I mean, orphaned, freezing, absolutely alone. I can still see it — that moment of seeing the cart on that empty aisle.

I imagine the mom, the turns her life must’ve taken. And child services people, day-or-night rescuers of lost souls.

I don’t know.

I never saw the gum-chewing clerk again but recently, during one of my wee-hour shopping excursions, I exchanged nods with the tattooed manager — some cagey link between us now. I felt it and I knew he did too, I think. Like if one of us had to choose a stranger to trust for some hypothetical reason, we would both choose each other. But still. Strangers.


Carl Robinette is a freelance journalist and author. His short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and Mystery Tribune.


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