Captain Corn by David Howard

“I was never in the Boy Scouts,” I lied. It seemed the wiser course in the job interview than to have the possible employer learn I had been asked to leave Pack 22 after telling the Scoutmaster what he could do with the rope he was using to teach knot tying.

The job was making popcorn at Captain Carmelcorn’s in Pleasure Beach at minimum wage, no knot tying required. My non-scouting background wasn’t held against me.

“I’m pretty good in math,” I told the Captain himself. That’s what he said to call him. “I shouldn’t have any problem making change.”

“No, you shouldn’t, because I do all the cash register stuff,” Captain said. “You just make the product, pour sodas, clean up and don’t eat too much.”

I could handle that, I replied.

“We’ll see. Start Sunday at 11 am.  Schedule’s in the back room. Get two T-shirts in your size from Mandy; wear them with jeans along with a Captain Carmelcorn hat. That’s it. Give Mandy your info so we can pay you. Any questions?” Without giving me a chance to answer, the Captain continued, “Good. See you Sunday.”

Mandy, the place’s lieutenant to Capt. Corn, as some of the other employees called the owner behind his back, said the job was easy. “Five cups of popcorn in the hopper with two cups of oil. Make sure the top is on and set the gas at medium. When the popping stops, turn off the gas and let it sit for three minutes before opening the lid. Less chance of losing an eye from a late blooming kernel,” she said, smiling. Mandy was about 25, a bit on the chunky side, but with gorgeous red hair, most of which was hidden under her own Captain Carmelcorn hat. Her eyes, behind glasses with red frames, were an interesting shade of brown.

I wondered if she and the Captain had anything going, but they mostly communicated with hand gestures or one or two syllable answers.

“Oh, two more things,” Mandy said before she headed to the office in the back. “Don’t ever answer the phone unless asked to and if you see a police car pass, stop whatever you are doing and tell the Captain.”

“Why?”

Mandy shrugged. “Why not?” she said, with a devastating smile and walked away.

It was a good job for the summer before I went off to college, fifty yards from the beach with lots of girls coming in for soda and popcorn.

The Captain was OK, as long as you did your job and never messed with his cash register domain. Mandy was a fringe benefit — pretty, funny and helpful. When the Captain wasn’t there, she ran the cash register, and reminded me to tell her if any cop cars went by. “Just like you do with the Captain.”

I knew better than to ask.

Police went by on the average of four times an eight-hour shift. I guessed cops liked the beach and girls in bikinis, too. And whenever the Captain was alerted police were in the neighborhood, he would rearrange the filled popcorn boxes in the case according to some dynamic only he and Mandy knew.

I became more observant as I learned the job. Besides families and teens, there were a lot of older men as customers. That really should have been a clue, but maybe they were part of an unusual popcorn/carmelcorn demographic.

Watching the Captain at work, I noticed when a non-traditional customer ordered popcorn, never carmelcorn, the Captain took an already filled box off the bottom shelf of the case. He never packed a fresh box, as he did for everyone else.

It really wasn’t my business, but I asked Mandy why the Captain wanted to know if I had been in the Boy Scouts.

“I don’t think he meant the real Boy Scouts,” she said, “more like are you a boy scout, you know, a good kid. Oh, who knows what he meant?”

A few days later I was finishing up a pot of corn, when my brother, in his police uniform, walked in. The Captain stared at me with an angry look.

“Can I help you, sir?” he said.

“Sure, that kid over there, he old enough to work?” pointing at me.

I started laughing, but the Captain didn’t find it funny.

“He said he was 17, officer.”

“OK, but he looks a little young to me. How about some popcorn?”

“Sure,” the Captain replied, and took an empty box from the stack and filled it. “Here you are, officer.” When my brother reached for his wallet, the Captain shook his head no. “Our compliments,” he added.

“Thanks,” my brother said, adding, “keep your eye on that kid over there;” pointing at me, “he could be trouble.” He waved at me and walked out the door, laughing.

The Captain stormed over and said in a low voice, “I told you to let me know whenever a cop went by.”

“I have.”

“What did that cop do,” waving his hand in the direction of the street, “drop out of the sky?”

“Captain, the cop, that’s my brother.” My voice squeaked on the last syllable. “He probably parked on a side street.”

He looked at me. “Your brother is a cop.? Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Didn’t know I had to.”

He reached his hand into my popcorn pot and grabbed a handful, slowly chewing it, while he looked everywhere but at me. “You sure you aren’t a boy scout?” he said, shaking his head. He went back to his cash register and yelled, “Mandy!”

She hurried from the back room, drying her hands on a towel.

“Yeah, I’m washing out the spare poppers, like you said.”

I watched as he spoke to her in a low voice, pointing at me, then shaking his head, then bending over and taking six or seven boxes of popcorn, handing them to her. “Gotta start over, just in case,” he said.

Mandy looked like she wanted to say something, but instead gathered the popcorn boxes in her arms and went to the office in the back. I tried to look busy, measuring popcorn to be popped and cleaning the already sparkling soda machine. Things were pretty quiet the rest of that day. The Captain left soon, with Mandy in charge and I watched her give already filled popcorn boxes to two older guys in suits.

I figured drugs, though the two that Mandy had just served looked more like retired guys fresh from playing cards at the Senior Center. Mandy looked at me, watching and yelled over. “Make sure we got enough carmelcorn for the beach people this afternoon.”

“OK,” I said, knowing there were two dozen bags I had packed this morning.

After a busy afternoon, things slowed down before the nighttime crowd arrived, lots of teens and college age kids, walking Ocean Boulevard, visiting the arcades and places like Captain Corn’s.

During the lull, Mandy came over to check the supply of popped corn in the machine.

“Ok,” I said, “what did I do wrong this morning? I didn’t know my brother was coming in.”

Mandy looked at me, then around the shop, even though we were the only ones in it.

“I shouldn’t be telling you this, but the Captain’s got a side business going, ah, well, it’s tough making it all year selling corn and sodas.”

“He’s pushing drugs, right?” I said.

Mandy started laughing, saying, “Drugs? Are you crazy? Captain would never mess with that stuff. He’s a bookie. Why do you think he’s on the phone in his office all the time?”

“I don’t understand,” I said.’

Mandy looked at me as if I was ten years old. “He uses the popcorn boxes for transactions. The better comes in and either pays what he owes and gets a regular box of popcorn in return, or if he won his bet, pays his $1.50 and gets a box back with whatever the payoff is, stuffed in an envelope along with the popcorn.”

“So the cop warning is so he can hide the payoff boxes?”

“Yeah, but more in case one of his betting customers comes in and there’s a cop in the area, he’ll tell him to come back later. Don’t let the Captain know I told you. He’s pretty tense now, knowing your brother is a cop.”

“He probably won’t be back. He just came down here to bust my chops, I’m sure.”

“Let’s hope so,” Mandy said and went back to her cash register post.

The rest of the day I concentrated on my popcorn making job and the Captain never did come back. I had a feeling my life at Captain Carmelcorn’s had changed, a fact verified when I went home to find my brother waiting for me, with lots of questions.  The cops had obviously been watching Captain Corn’s for awhile. And probably knew what was going on in the shop long before I did. I’d never been able to stand up to my brother and now I folded faster than a leaf in a windstorm. I felt awful. The Captain wasn’t a bad guy — a little rough around the edges, but probably just trying to make a living. My brother suggested I call in sick on Monday, when he said the cops would raid the place.

I didn’t. I thought that would look really funny. The best I could do was keep Mandy out of it by telling my brother that Monday morning would be best. The day after the weekend was usually slow for betting traffic, and it was Mandy’s day off.

When I arrived early to make the day’s carmelcorn, Mandy was cleaning the soda machine.

“Captain asked me to come in, he’s not feeling well. Maybe he’ll be back this afternoon,” she told me.

I almost threw up. My brother said the raid would be at about 11 am. I pictured the cops taking Mandy away in handcuffs, TV reporters, which my brother had said would be alerted, focused on the front door.

I started my carmelcorn prep. “Mandy, I think today would be a good day to open late, maybe at noon, not 9 am.”

“Are you nuts?” she said. “Captain would have a fit.”

“The cops are going to raid the place,” I said.

“What?” She stopped in mid-wipe at the soda machine.

“I overheard my brother talking on the phone,” I lied.

“You told him, didn’t you?” she said, angrily.

“No, I didn’t tell anyone. If I did why would I tell you about the raid?”

She seemed to buy that, at least for now.

“OK, let’s think. Come with me, I need some help here.”

I followed Mandy to the back part of the store, where she opened the safe and took out a thick envelope. “Count this,” she directed.

“Eleven hundred and seventeen dollars I said, when I finished.

“Now go put it in the wheel well in the trunk of your car, under the spare.”

I looked at her for a moment, knowing that now with my fingerprints on the envelope and the cash in my car; I was part of the operation. She reached into the safe, opened another envelope and handed me a twenty-dollar bill and told me what to buy at the souvenir shop next door.

When I returned, I gave Mandy the stuff and she told me to hold up on the carmelcorn and make a batch of popcorn. After the corn had cooled, she brought over a dozen boxes and stuffed each one with an item I had bought. “Get as much popcorn as you can in these, and put them on the bottom shelf at the register. Then go back to your carmelcorn batch.”

If Mandy ever tired of the popcorn business, she could have a good career as an actress. When four cops, including my brother, charged through the door at 11 am, a TV cameraman following them, she was cool and calm. The cops waved the two customers out, and pointed Mandy and me to the back of the shop, where they handcuffed our hands behind our backs. A cop I didn’t know went right to the bottom shelf of the front counter and placed the dozen boxes of popcorn there on the countertop. He told my brother to get a large bowl down from a cabinet in the back and, while the TV camera was rolling, opened each box and poured the contents in the bowl.

When the first box yielded a pair of toy handcuffs, along with popcorn, he cast a quick look at my brother. A toy western sheriff’s badge and popcorn fell into the bowl with the second one. The parade of toys and popcorn continued through the 12 boxes, the police officer getting madder with each succeeding box. He looked at Mandy. “You own this shop?”

“Nope. I’m just the assistant manager.” She pointed at me. “He’s the popcorn maker. Owner’s out sick, but I can call him if you want.”

The cop waved the TV camera out of the shop, and then turned to Mandy and me. “Cute,” he said, pointing the bowl of popcorn and toys.

“We thought that if Crackerjacks does so well with a toy inside, we’d give the customer some good popcorn with a prize,” Mandy said, without a hint of sarcasm.

The cop just shook his head, and came over and unlocked the handcuffs. “Sorry about this,” he said, “we must have gotten some bad information.”

“I guess so,” Mandy replied, rubbing her wrists. “Sure not good for business, though having the cops charge through the door. The owner might be making some calls.”

The cop just shrugged and waved the other three, including my brother, out the door. My brother never looked at me, but I could feel his anger bouncing off the walls of the shop.

“I’ve got to call the Captain. If we have any customers, take care of them while I’m in the back.”

“You mean you want me on the cash register?”

“Yeah. Special circumstances, but don’t tell the Captain. Your brother live with you?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Well, maybe you better go home with me, the next couple of nights ‘til things cool down a bit.”

“Ah, yeah, sure,” I stammered, and started another batch of popcorn, holding back a smile.

 

David Howard

Banner image: Pixabay.com

 

13 thoughts on “Captain Corn by David Howard

    • Thanks, I struggled for a while with this one, but after some revising, it came together. It is the eighth Pleasure Beach story to be published, with two more in the works.

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