During my senior year of high school I got a job working at a large department store that I will not name (but if you think for even half a second about ‘large American discount department stores’ you can probably guess what it was). I ended up working in the deli. You know how things go when you first get plopped down into a group of people who’ve known each other for a long time: it’s pretty uncomfortable because they have lots of in-jokes or catchphrases that you have no hope in hell of understanding. That’s what I thought the Army Man was, an in-joke.
You see, whenever there was some sort of accident — like, say, a woman working in bakery knocking over a stack of boxes, or one of my coworkers in deli dropping an entire eight-piece chicken on the floor — it was customary to jokingly grumble “The Army Man did it” and then restack the boxes or throw away the chicken. I never bothered asking for an explanation since the only thing that makes you feel like more of a loser than not getting an in-joke is asking what an in-joke is all about.
After a while, though, I began to understand a little of what the crack meant. Sometimes whenever anyone blamed something on the Army Man, they would put their arms out in front of them and do a sort of pantomime of an on-your-belly-under-barbed-wire boot camp crawl. I took this to mean that that there was an imaginary solider crawling around on the floor of the store, causing all sorts of elfish mishaps, and some past joke to this effect had spawned whatever meme my coworkers were perpetuating.
But I’d been working for a few months when I finally decided to ask what the Army Man was all about. I was in the break room when one of my coworkers, let’s call her Betty, happened to go on lunch. She was about my mom’s age and took a motherly interest in my current affairs, so she asked me about how my grades were and if I’d been accepted to any colleges, what my plans were, and all that crap. I humored her while she ate and then, about five minutes before my break ended, asked her about the Army Man.
Betty froze up completely, holding her lips really tight, and just shook her head. She refused to say anything about the subject, not even trying to be subtle about it, but Betty was always one for melodrama. I mean, Betty had made the joke along with everyone else; I didn’t understand why she wouldn’t talk about it now, unless she was being intentionally childish. I dropped the subject and went back to work.
A few days later I was in the break room again when Ruth, one of the women working in bakery, happened by. This time she brought up the subject with me, asking if I’d spoken to Betty about the Army Man. I figured it wouldn’t make any sense to say otherwise so I admitted I had, and that Betty refused to say anything about it.
Ruth just nodded said, “Well, you know how Betty is.” When I said that I didn’t Ruth held her hands in front of her and began to flap her lips in a silent imitation of prayer. Betty was an ardent Pentecostal, I knew, and instead of swearing had a habit of yelling out “Help me, Jesus!” whenever she got hot grease on her hand, but why this meant she didn’t talk about the Army Man, I had no clue.
So Ruth explained:
Sometime the year before one of the unloaders working third shift had been moving pallets into the large freezer where we kept all frozen goods; it was common practice to keep the freezer door open for most of the night while the unloaders took stuff from the truck and moved it in. This particular unloader had surprised his coworkers when they found him outside the freezer with the door slammed shut. When they tried to open it he begged them not to and, when they ignored him, he tried to fight them.
At first they thought it was a joke, but soon it became obvious that this guy was desperate for them not to open the freezer door. He refused to tell them exactly what had happened; from the way he talked it sounded like he’d seen an animal sneak into the freezer, though why this would freak him out they couldn’t guess. They got the managers on duty that night, explained the situation, and against the unloader’s protests, ventured into the freezer.
There was nothing in there but boxes, though a few of them had been pulled down from their shelves and smashed, ruining quite a bit of merchandise. The unloader was fired, since it was assumed he’d done something wrong and was trying to shift the blame onto someone else. But before he left for good he worked a few more days, Ruth told me, and it was during this time he mentioned to some coworkers exactly what he had seen: a shape like a man on his stomach, naked and pale, just disappearing between the plastic flaps that hung down over the freezer door.
Of course the unloader could have mistaken a reflection in those same plastic sheets for whatever it was he claimed to have seen, so he was generally laughed at even after he was fired. It became harder to joke when other people began to see and hear it, though.
It was just snatches of conversation you might pick up, Ruth told me. The women working the returns desk, for instance, would mention that they thought they heard someone moving on the other side of their counter, but since they couldn’t see anything it must have been something on the floor — though they didn’t bother looking, because of course it was nothing. Cashiers had similar stories of hearing something move through their checkout lane when there were no customers, something too low to the ground to be glimpsed over the edge of a counter. Coupled with the description the unloader had given, this was when people began to think of the thing as a person trying to be covert, pulling himself around on his stomach by use of his forearms. This was why they started calling it the Army Man.
Betty saw it — really saw it — in the deli. We had a hot case, a metal and plexiglass display where we put warm food such as chicken and what-have-you under heatlamps; the top half of the case was filled with pans of food, french fries and so forth, while the bottom half was filled with boxed eight pieces and rotisseries that the customers could grab. One night while closing, Betty bent down to clean the glass windows on this section of the hot case. She screamed her all-purpose curse — “Help me, Jesus!” — before promptly tumbling back on her ass and twisting her ankle.
At first the people working with her thought she’d just slipped, since the deli floor was covered in grease pretty much all the time. Betty was having trouble standing up again so they called in management, who quickly arranged a way to transport Betty to the hospital. While they waited, Betty explained to them what she saw: on the other side of the glass, out on the floor of the store, was a thing looking back at her. That was what she called it, Ruth told me, not a man but a thing. Betty was out of commission while her leg healed up — it wasn’t broken, but twisted badly.
A few weeks later, a guy working in electronics insisted he’d seen someone crawling around on the merchandise shelves at the back of the department. Thinking it was a customer’s kid, he ran over to straighten them out, just as a few plasma TVs were knocked over and shattered. When he told management his story they of course didn’t believe him; there was barely enough room on the shelves for the TVs themselves, let alone a person, child or not, to climb around. The employee was fired.
Four months or so before I started working, one of the mechanics in automotive refused to let a customer take their car back. The customer was naturally pissed and called the department manager, a man named Rick. As the mechanic later told anyone who would listen, he’d been working on the customer’s car when he had to take a leak. Upon returning he saw something like fingers poking out from the vehicle’s undercarriage, curled around the bumper. They withdrew before he could do anything about it.
He searched the car and found nothing, but when the customer came back he still had his doubts about letting the automobile leave the garage. He explained the situation privately to Rick, who volunteered to test drive the car first and explained it away to the customer as some new quality control policy.
Rick drove fifteen feet into the parking lot before one of the front wheels of the car let out a groan and fell off completely. Needless to say Rick was very much embarrassed and there was a tangle of the usual insurance issues, with the customer blaming the store for tampering with his car. Somehow this was all settled out of court.
Rick killed himself two months after the car incident, though no one could say why. He hadn’t seemed particularly depressed and he’d been working as hard as ever, but one night he went home and (from what Ruth heard) overdosed on sleeping pills. Ruth had her own ideas, of course, and she was only too eager to tell me: the Army Man had gotten into the car with the intention of leaving the store, but Rick foiled its plans and so, instead of following the customer home, had chosen to follow him home instead. This naturally raised more questions than it answered: what the hell was the Army Man, then, and how had it gotten to the store to begin with? Ruth just shook her head and said something like, “Don’t ask me. I just bake French bread.” And that was that.
I quit the deli a few months later to head off to college. In the intervening time I had begun to wonder why people continued to joke about the Army Man, if it ever existed in the first place and if it was half as serious as Ruth made it out to be. Was it just some way of relieving stress, trying to make it seem less important than it really was, or were they fucking with me? It occurred to me that if Ruth was right, if this Army Man could somehow pass between people and places, then there was a chance, however small, that it might come back to the store, or worse, that Rick had brought it back before he killed himself — and if either of those had happened, it could leave again with someone else.
Perhaps it was done out of fear, as a superstition. I’d been doing it too, I realized. It was just part of the atmosphere of the deli, part of working with people for an extended period of time: you adopt their references, their in-jokes.
I work in the campus library currently. Whenever I’m not paying attention while stacking books on a cart, a practice that inevitably leads to a bunch of them falling over, or when the network goes on the fritz and we can’t figure out why, I often find myself muttering, “The Army Man did it.”
I think a few of my coworkers have overheard me, because they’ve started to say it, too.
Heh heh heh, as the Crypt Keeper would say. Happy Halloween. This story was originally written for one of the Ghost Story threads on a forum I frequent, and which you may also frequent if you want to waste ten dollars. What you see here is a version with some redundancies removed, spelling checked, and various other tiny errors corrected.