Monday, November 9, 2020

Issue #69 -- November 2020


By Michael Penncavage

Barry opened the panty door and reached for the serving platter perched on the top shelf. It was a bone china with a light blue lattice pattern that had been in the cabinet since Thanksgiving when Beth had last used it. It had been a gift from their wedding shower and was part of a larger set. Over the years, several of the dinner plates had chipped and a few sets of silverware had been accidentally lost to the garbage can, but the serving platter remained pristine, mainly due to its infrequent use.

Barry carefully wrapped the platter in a terry bath towel to keep it secure, then placed it into a shopping bag.

“Where are you going with that?”

Beth was standing in the doorway. Her arms were folded and she didn’t look happy.

“I need it for work.”


“It’s just for tonight.”

“Tonight?” she repeated, her voice softening somewhat. “You didn’t mention…”

“I know. I didn’t want to bring it up.”

“It’s been a while since...”

Barry let out a sigh. “I know.”

“What else are you taking?”

He opened a drawer. “Do we still have the lobster cracker?”

“Lobster cracker? Sure.” She pointed. “Top drawer. It’s probably in the back. Been a while since we had lobster. Are you even allowed to bring that to work?”

“I’m not sure.” Barry fished through the drawer until he found it. He placed it into the bag and looked over at her. “I’ve got to go.”

“You’ll be home late?”

Barry nodded. “Don’t stay up for me.”


The overhead sky was a gun metal grey as he drove. He tried to remember when he had last seen a blue sky. A really blue, cloudless sky. He tried to remember but couldn’t.

There was a steel mill situated on the outskirts of town, the last of its kind. Once there had been a dozen textile mills and a factory that made washing machines alongside the steel plant but they had all shuttered long ago, taking with them countless jobs and leaving nothing behind but crumbled buildings and crumbled lives.

From within the mill two concrete stacks emitted plumes of grey smoke that drifted high into the sky, regardless of the time of day. He often wondered what exactly was coming out of them. It was probably best he didn’t know.

A few minutes later he pulled into the Food Bear parking lot. Only a handful of cars were there. A light, cold drizzle had begun to fall. It wasn’t strong enough for an umbrella but it still misted up his glasses.

The sliding doors parted with a rusty squeal as Barry walked into the supermarket. Closest to the entrance two cashiers were manning registers. Both checkout lanes were empty. One of the cashiers was on their phone.

Muzak played overhead from tinny speakers, sounding louder than intended due to the lack of noise. Barry’s shoes echoed through the cereal and juice aisle until he reached the rear of the store.

Hugh Stephenson was carefully working the ice box that displayed the fish. He looked up as he heard the approaching footsteps. He sported a welcoming grin but it quickly vanished as he saw who is was. Barry did his personal food shopping at the Food Market on the other side of town. He only shopped at Food Bear for work.

Hugh nodded solemnly. “Barry,” he said. “It’s been a while.”

“Yeah. It has,” Barry said. “Family been well?”

Hugh nodded. “Peter is in his final year and Jennifer is a freshman.”

“Freshman?” Barry chuckled and shook his head. “Damn. I remember when she running around in her diapers. Where the hell does the time go?”

Hugh looked at Barry with troubled eyes. “So…you’re here to pick something up?”

“That’s right.” He looked past the tilapia, trout, and clams until he saw the lobster tank. A half dozen stared back at him, seemingly resigned to their fate. “Those guys fresh?”

Barry started packing tuna steaks into the ice. “Yeah. They arrived yesterday. Straight from Massachusetts.”

“How much will a three-pounder run me?”

“Forty-five, give or take.”

Barry nodded. “Bag me one up, will you?”

“You want me to steam it or are you taking care of that?”

Barry looked at his watch. It was getting late. “Probably best if you did it here.”

Hugh walked over the tank. “Okay. Give me five minutes.”

“Sure. I’ll stop back.” Barry dug into his pocket and reviewed his shopping list. There wasn’t much and Barry should have been able to commit it all to memory, but he didn’t want to forget anything. Vegetables for a salad. He had plenty but he would need to pick up a bottle of blue cheese dressing. Potatoes. He marked a check next to that. He had more than enough of those also. A chocolate cake. Barry had considered making one from scratch, but the supermarket’s bakery was surprisingly good.

Barry also picked up a loaf of Italian bread. The one with the hard crust and the seeds. It hadn’t been requested but he felt confident it would be well received.


A large white sack was resting atop the seafood counter by the time he returned. Barry looked around but Hugh was nowhere to be seen. Barry wasn’t surprised. He wasn’t expecting Hugh to still be there. The earlier conversation had most likely been enough for Hugh.


Barry drove back in silence. Normally, he would have turned on NPR to pass the time. All Things Considered was playing, but Barry opted instead to listen to the wind whistling through open windows. To be left alone with his thoughts was all that he wanted at the moment.


Twenty minutes later he pulled up to the security gate. Burt Carey stepped out of the guard booth and tipped his hat at him. “Evening, Barry.”

“Evening, Burt. How has everything been today?”

Burt shook his head. “Not good. You can feel the tension in the air. It’s been getting worse with each hour that passes.”

“What time do you get off?”

“Ten o’clock.”

“You’re not going to be here…”

No. No overtime for me tonight. I just want to get home, take a long hot shower, have a beer or two, and go to bed.”

Barry was going to ask if showers really worked for him but didn’t. He already knew the answer.

Burt stepped back into the guard booth and raised the security gate. Barry drove on until he reached his parking spot.

The metal detector loomed just inside the front entrance. Two guards flanked the machine. Sam was to the left and Steve, who Barry played Texas Hold ’Em on alternative Fridays, was to the right. Gray plastic storage containers were neatly stacked next to a conveyor belt. Barry put one of them onto the conveyor and placed his items into it. Into a separate, smaller container, he emptied his pockets.

Sam waved him through the metal detector. Over by the machine’s monitor, Steve studied the X-ray. “Lobster?” he said. “Got enough for two?”

“Afraid not.”

“We still on for next Friday?”

No alarms went off as Barry stepped through the machine. “Eight o’clock sharp.”

“Do you know if everyone else is going to make it?”

“I think so. No cancellations. At least not yet.”

“That’s good. I need a chance to win my money back. Pete was counting cards last week. I’m certain of it. This time I’m going to make sure I don’t get screwed.”

Sam looked at the video monitor as Barry’s items emerged from the other side of the machine. “I need to take a look inside the bag.” He walked over to it and opened it up.

“It’s a cracker for the lobster,” Barry answered before the question was even asked.

“I’m not sure if this can go in.”

“How else can you eat lobster?”

Sam thought about it for a moment. “Fine. You can deal with it at the next checkpoint.”

Barry picked up the bag. “You fellas take it easy tonight.”

“You going to be here until…?” asked Sam.

Barry nodded and began walking away.


A short time later he arrived in the kitchen. The room was quiet. Dinner had been served early and the room had been scrubbed down for the night. The air stank of bleach. Pots and pans hang from ceiling racks while the knives were locked inside thick Plexiglas cases, all carefully cataloged and accounted for as if they were rare butterflies. If any of them ever went missing, it would be a problem.

Barry filled two pots with water and fired up the stove. He removed the lobster from the bag. The aluminum foil was still plenty warm which was good. Reheating the lobster would have made the meat rubbery and bland.

Barry quickly chopped up the broccoli and quartered the potatoes. A few minutes later the water came to a boil in each pot. He placed the broccoli into one and the potatoes into the other.

Barry unwrapped the platter and placed it onto the table.

The water returned to a boil. Barry waited another ten minutes before draining the pots and placing the contents onto the platter. He then removed the lobster from the foil and positioned it in the middle of the platter. The claws were huge and it took some positioning to keep them from hanging off. He wondered if two pounds would have been enough.

Barry glanced at the wall clock. He was right on schedule. From one of the refrigerators, he removed a half stick of butter and placed it next to the bread. He placed the plastic cutlery onto the tray along with the claw cracker. Then, to keep everything from going cold, he wrapped the entire platter in several layers of plastic wrap.

He had just finished when one of the kitchen doors opened. A pair of guards walked inside. He knew them well. Keith Klenhall and Howard Jones. “It’s time. You ready?” asked Howard.

Barry nodded.

Howard looked over at the wrapped platter. “That’s everything?”


“You coming with us?”

“That’s right.”

“You know you don’t have to.”

Barry picked up the platter and began walking toward the door. “I know.” 


It took a while for him to get there. But then, to get anywhere took a while. Locked doors had to be buzzed open. Identification cards needed to be presented. Just before Barry reached his destination, the entire platter had to be placed through another X-ray machine. More questions were asked about the claw cracker. An argument later he was waved through.


The hallway that he walked into was silent. The walls were painted in a dirty blue gray. Each cell that he passed had a cot, a toilet, and a sink bolted into the wall. All the cells were empty. A desk had been set up near the end of the hallway. A guard was sitting behind it. As with most of the guards, Barry recognized him.

Still flanked by Keith and Howard, Barry walked up to the desk and placed the platter down. “How are you doing, Dennis?”

The guard studied the food for a moment. “I’ll need you to remove the wrapping, Barry.”

Barry did so and the smell of lobster quickly permeated the area.

Dennis studied the contents of the platter like he was preparing for an exam. He pointed to the cracker. “That can’t go in.”

“It’s a lobster cracker.”

“Doesn’t matter. It can’t go in.”

“How else is she going to open the damn thing? With her teeth?”

Dennis picked it up and studied it for a moment. “But I want you to take it back with you when you leave.”

“That would mean that I…”

“That’s right.”

Barry stared at the man annoyed. “Fine.”

He picked up the platter and walked over to the cell door. There was a short, loud buzz and the door slid open.

Barry nodded to the occupant. “Hello Denise.”

The woman inside the cell had long blonde hair, tied back tightly with a rubber band. Though she had been confined to the sunless cell for the better part of two years, she had managed to keep her physique. Once, Barry guessed, she could have even been a model. But those days had long passed. Dark rings encircled her eyes from countless nights of restless sleep.

“Lawrence,” she said, closing and putting down the book she had been reading. She didn’t use a bookmark. She wouldn’t be opening it again. She looked down at the lobster and smiled. “That’s quite a monster. I’m impressed.”

He nodded. “It should still be warm.”

“I’m sure it’s fine.” Denise picked up the claw cracker. “I’m surprised they let you in here with this.”

“It wasn’t without an argument.”

“You know if you gave me a metal file and a few days, I could turn this into a shiv.”

“I’ll have to take your word on that.” He gestured at the platter. “I was able to get everything that you wanted.”

“Thank you.” Denise touched the lobster. “It’s still warm.”

“I kept it wrapped.”

She cracked open a claw and forked out some of the meat. As she chewed, she closed her eyes.

“Good?” he asked.

“You have no idea.”

“Lobster not too chewy? It was steamed not too long ago so I didn’t have to reheat it.”

“Not at all. And even if it was, I wouldn’t have cared.” She wiped her hand with a paper towel. “I appreciate the company, but you don’t have to stay.”

Barry opened his mouth to answer, reconsidered, and said, “That’s all right. I want to make sure that everything came out okay.”

She looked at the platter. “That doesn’t look like prison issue.”

“No. It’s from my home.”

She smiled and looked at the platter again. “Wedding present?”

“That’s right. From the registry.”

“It reminds me of the set I used to own.” She looked at it again and smiled. “But that was a long time ago.”


Barry tipped the platter over the kitchen trashcan and watched as empty shells and bread crumbs tumbled in. He washed the platter down and wrapped it back up in the bath towel. He picked up the platter, thought twice, then placed it back down. Barry was off for the next two days. He remembered James, one of the other cooks, mentioning yesterday that they had received in error twenty quarts of blueberries. They had gotten wet, which meant they were going to quickly get moldy.

Barry looked over at the industrial-sized mixer that sat silent in the corner of the room.

It was late.

But he knew that if he went home, he would just end up in front of the television watching reruns.


Barry removed the last of the pies out of the oven and looked at the wall clock. It was twelve fifteen. Midnight had come and gone. If there had been a last-minute clemency, word would have reached him, even here in the kitchen.

It took him another half hour to put the kitchen back to the sterilized way in which he had found it. By the time he was done, the pies had cooled down enough for him to put them in the refrigerator until morning. He didn’t know if anyone in the general population was going to appreciate what he had done. Maybe someone would.

Weariness began to creep in across his shoulders. Barry picked up the platter and placed it into the shopping bag. He looked around the kitchen one last time. Everything seemed to be in order for the morning crew. He switched the lights off, closed the door behind him, and began the long walk back to his car.

Michael Penncavage’s story, “The Cost of Doing Business,” originally appeared in Thuglit, won the Derringer Award for best mystery. One of his stories, “The Converts,” was filmed as a short movie, while another, “The Landlord,” was adapted into a play. Fiction of his can be found in over one hundred magazines and anthologies from seven different countries such as Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine (USA), Here and Now (England), Tenebres (France), Crime Factory (Australia), Reaktor (Estonia), Speculative Mystery (South Africa), and Visionarium (Austria). He has been published by IDW and Ahoy Comics. He has been an Associate Editor for Space and Time Magazine as well as the Editor of the horror/suspense anthology, Tales From a Darker State.

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