In Tiger Shrimp, a young grocery clerk ponders a difficult question: what items can a customer morally shoplift? He would probably let slide a hungry thief making off with staples like bread, potatoes, or even a chicken, but when a man purloins a pound of fully cooked colossal tiger shrimp, the clerk--who happens to be a runner on his high school track team--decides to give chase.
About the Author
J. Eddie Edwards is a writer from Florida who has a love for the odd and humorous of his native state. He received his MFA from the University of Tampa, and his recent work has been featured in or is forthcoming from The Creativity Webzine and The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature.
Read more of Eddie’s short stories at his website: jeddieedwards.com
Tiger Shrimp by J Eddie Edwards
What items can you shoplift, morally? Can we agree that items necessary for survival are worthy of consideration? Can we agree luxuries like fresh shellfish do not meet the criteria? Has a starving child—the kind you see in advertisements narrated by movie stars—ever begged for oysters Rockefeller, bacon wrapped scallops, or stone crabs with a zesty Dijon mustard sauce? Has anyone seen a man on his hands and knees—after wandering in the desert—begging for lobster bisque or anything from the seafood counter at my grocery store? I have never seen a man in such dire need, but I imagine he would ask for bread, water, some fruit, a potato, maybe a whole chicken or something. So on that day, in my store, would this bagboy have overlooked the shoplifting incident if the suspect had purloined a package of spicy wings from the deli or a loaf of Cuban bread or a banana? I had never considered that moral question before that day, that boiling summer day when a man dropped a one-pound package of fully cooked colossal tiger shrimp from his pants.
The stranger wore black sweatpants cut below the knee with a drawstring elastic waist. He was in his mid-forties with thick black curls peeking out from the sweat-soaked neck of his red “Just Do It” shirt. He wore a white long-sleeve rain jacket over the shirt, useful for rainy Florida afternoons though there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. A salty breeze from the east carried the scent of the Atlantic, coconut oil, and fish carcasses from Mango Mama’s Raw Bar.
He caught everyone’s attention, including mine, when he exited aisle four with a tree trunk in his pants. As he attempted a graceful stroll, albeit bowlegged, he passed a cluster of appalled gray-haired church ladies, one of whom actually smiled. But no man, no matter what circus, could have naturally produced a bulge like that. Its shape resembled a foot-long four-by-four, beyond reason and imagination. What kind of man wants that? What kind of woman wants that? It was too much for my sixteen-year-old mind to unravel.
I followed him through the store, past the red, white, and blue Fourth of July Potato Chip Extravaganza, around the Great Wall of Soda display, and beyond the cooler of discounted hotdogs. He made a sharp left into the lane of an empty register, acting cool, like nothing was going on.
“Excuse me!” I said in front of everyone, standing in my neatly pressed, stained, blue apron. He froze and gawked at me as the store hushed into silence. Maneater played softly over the PA system. I lifted my chin, staring back unafraid, waiting. He slowly stepped backward. Suddenly, gravity took over, and the package slipped from the grip of his drawstring waistband and dropped like a brick out of his right pant leg.
Some people laughed. Others gasped, not understanding exactly what had happened. The now-to-be-called suspect stood like a gunslinger that had just dropped his six-shooter between his legs. Did he have a gun? Why did I think of him as a suspect rather than a perpetrator, a thief, or a criminal? I had witnessed the crime with my own eyes. Had the political correctness of the world hampered my ability to grasp the reality of the situation? The shrimp fell from his pants, and unless someone else placed them there without his knowledge, it was safe to declare him a guilty shrimp smuggler.
I stood firm with my legs shoulder width apart, waiting for his next move. I looked down at the tightly packed package of shrimp. Had he hidden anything else in his pants, perhaps an uncomfortably wedged bottle of cocktail sauce, a huge Meyer lemon, or a container of breadcrumbs? No, nothing else plummeted to the earth.
My manager—a wide Marine who sported the flattest of flattops—stepped out from the front office. The bandit barely glanced at him, as if to say, “Touché, today you foiled my plot, but I shall return for these tasty colossal tiger shrimp.” Or so I imagined.
Forgoing the evil laugh, he sprinted out the main door and down the covered walkway. The eyes of all the onlookers stared at me, waiting to see what I would do.
And what would I do? Initially, I thought: Do nothing. Just watch him run. But then he stopped running and slowed way down, as if he could afford to take a relaxed walk into the sunset, and that bothered me. He felt completely safe, beyond reproach, unafraid of me, the supermarket, or the cops. And he couldn’t care less about people who paid for their food, people who couldn’t afford fully cooked colossal tiger shrimp that cost $12.99 a pound. This man was not going to walk away from his crime casually. Not on my watch.
I ran after him, but at the same time, a dangling thought distracted me. Why were the shrimp $12.99 a pound? Were they different from the shrimp I could get for half that price at Chubby’s Bait and Tackle on the pier? Had the thief planned to use the tiger shrimp for bait? That would be a waste unless he knew something the rest of us didn’t, that the fish in these waters preferred fully cooked colossal tiger shrimp over raw, less-colossal, non-tiger, shrimp. Perhaps that was why I had had no luck at the pier.
I wondered if I should just eat bait shrimp from Chubby’s. At his lower prices, I could splurge on an ultimate shrimp extravaganza feast that I could never before afford. And why didn’t the shoplifter just steal the shrimp from Chubby? He could have strolled a mile before Chubby got his fat ass off his high chair. Had this man stolen from us to spite my grocery store? To spite me?
“Hey!” I shouted, to let him know I was still chasing him. He cast a sour face of disbelief at me and then fled the parking lot. Every fifty yards after that, he looked back to verify that I still pursued him. Each time, I grew more proud of my commitment to the chase for justice. He dashed across the busy boulevard and stopped at the median. As traffic sped by, his white jacket flapped like a cape in the hot tar-filled breeze. He watched me wait for my turn to cross.
He started from the median, not seeing the car speeding toward him. The screech was deafening, stopping hearts for blocks around. Time stood still on the boulevard. In the Air Tonight blared from a car stereo at the stoplight. The car barely missed him. Shaken, he patted himself, briefly rejoicing to be alive.
His smile and disregard for my continued presence rekindled the flame of my commitment. As a member of my high school track team, I had plenty of gas in the tank.
“Hey,” I shouted to remind him, to let him know I was ready to re-engage in the race.
“Really?” he said, before taking off again with his flip-flops in hand.
I followed, but not before doing a slide across the hood of a papaya Pontiac for dramatic effect. As I gained on him, he performed a graceful superhero spin, threw his flip-flops at me, and told me to do something to myself.
“Ha ha, not today!” I said in my best action hero voice. Confused onlookers shrugged their shoulders and continued walking.
Thirty seconds later, I found myself catching up to him . . . again. Apparently, this tiger-shrimp-stealing supervillain was not that super. It was annoying how easily I caught up to him . . . at the Circle K, again at Ronnie’s Barbershop, then at St. Ambrose Church, Tito’s Pizza, DJ’s Donuts, the next boulevard, and at the liquor store. Each time, I slowed to a light jog to keep a distance, gradually realizing I had little desire to actually catch him. I had started the chase in a flash of anger at his audacity, and perhaps to show off, and maybe to scare him from ever coming back.
But what was I to do if and when I caught him? Would I adopt a superhero pose, point at him, and tell him to never do it again, inform him that stealing shrimp doesn’t pay? Would I tackle him and hold him down until the cops arrived? Would I beat him in the middle of the boulevard in front of my Church and hogtie him with my Smiley’s Supermarket apron as onlookers watched from their cars?
Did I care? Yes. Did it bother me? Yes. Did I want to be a hero? Yes. Did he deserve a beating? I didn’t think so at the time. More importantly, I didn’t see myself as the guy to do it. I got a thrill from the chase, but nothing else. I felt sad for him, hunched over trying to catch his breath. I mimicked him to make him feel better, as an excuse for not catching him.
My manager rolled up in his just-waxed black Datsun and asked me where the guy was. I pointed at the shrimp villain standing by a brick wall that surrounded a housing complex.
“Let’s get him,” my manager said.
“He’s too fast,” I said.
The exhausted, barefooted, defeated man awkwardly scaled the wall and plopped onto the other side like a two-hundred-pound package of fully cooked, previously frozen, colossal tiger shrimp.
My manager said it was just as well. He was proud of what I had done, but it could have cost us our jobs. Mr. Davis, the head of the store, would undoubtedly give me a lecture about the liabilities of my stunt and perhaps suspend me for a day. But in the car, my manager went on and on about how awesome it was to watch me chase the thief from the store. He said he would have pummeled the guy if he had caught him. I nodded, closed my eyes, and leaned back as he drove me the long mile back to the store.
One mile. Running one mile and crossing of the town’s busiest intersection had taught me something new.
I was sixteen and too young to know for sure, but I began to wonder if I was perhaps a passivite, a passicist, or whatever the term was for someone who didn’t want to pummel some poor guy—or anyone for that matter—over a pound of stolen crustaceans. This ideology was not fully developed or understood, so I kept my mouth shut. I just knew that when presented with the perfect opportunity, I had no lust to harm another man in any way.
I was unsure, ashamed, or maybe afraid to tell anyone and risk being perceived as less of a man because I had no primal desire to hurt someone else. At sixteen, I wasn’t afraid to die, more than people knew, but I was sure I never wanted to take a life.
Years later, I saw joining the military as my chance to help people. I could take a life if it meant saving the life of the person next to me. But secretly, when I did pray, I prayed I would never have to, and to this day, I have been blessed.
I don’t know if anyone ever ate the shoplifted tiger shrimp. Were they unwrapped from the paper packaging, released from the plastic bag, and mixed back into the sea of thawed shrimp in the case? Were they eventually placed on a proud family’s table to be enthusiastically consumed? Could the store morally sell them knowing they had taken a ride in someone’s pants? It disturbed me to think about it. To this day, I eat shrimp with a little more soul-searching introspection and wandering thought than the average person. Please forgive me and pass the cocktail sauce.
About the Story
Tiger Shrimp is the tale of a young man's first struggle between empathy and bravado, justice and giving a damn. It is part of a series of stories inspired by the author's time working for a supermarket.
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