My oldest brother, Trey, was a soft-spoken movie lover who attended all the big openings of major motion pictures, could imitate Bill Murray to a tee, and introduced the family to the art of movie critique. He could recognize excellence in directing, screenwriting, and acting. For several years in a row, he won top prize from the local movie theatre that held an annual Oscar prediction competition. Trey also worked at our family’s grocery store, the same as my older brother, Troy, and myself.
For Trey’s senior year in high school, he made a movie of his own for his Media Arts class. The final project was to make a piece of media-related art. Students could choose to make a poster, give a speech, or shoot their own movie, and instead of putting up a parody, or doing a scene from a popular movie, Trey chose to do an original piece.
He titled his movie “Attack of the Killer Grocery Carts.” This was 1979. Hollywood was already on their second Jaws movie, Halloween was in the theatres, and the original Friday the 13th release was still a year in our future. It was a golden age of horror movies, so it followed that Trey chose to work in that genre. Trey was screenwriter, director, and cinematographer. He cast the film with friends and family and used the grocery store as the setting. He shot on 8-millimeter film he later edited into a silent movie for the class. He scored the whole thing with selections from the sound track to Jaws. Needless to say, he got an A in the class.
The movie told the story of how the grocery carts came alive at night, moving about the darkened store of their own volition. Anyone left in the store after hours would be chased by the carts in their homicidal effort to cleanse the store of intruders. The lead character, played by Troy, then about thirteen, was a young boy who was trapped in the grocery store after hours. This character had to contend with a mugger, played by, in a cameo appearance, Trey; killer grocery carts brought to life with a bit of movie magic, including some stop motion photography; and a sadistic burglar played by Tony, a friend of the family about Trey’s age.
The movie follows the boy’s horrific experiences as he is trapped in the store. He’s first mugged while in the restroom and knocked unconscious. He wakes after the store is closed and stumbles upon a burglary in process. The boy flees from the burglar; he runs to the back room and up into the labyrinth of lofts above the store, where he hides. Tony’s character, the burglar, pursues him – hunts for him, really – in the darkened labyrinth. The burglar quickly catches the boy and a violent struggle ensues in which the burglar ends up taking a knife in the back. The boy then tries to escape the store but is prevented and pursued by the grocery carts come alive.
There is more to the movie: another chase, another hiding place, another death. There is even time for a commercial break: a sort of comic relief. It’s as if Trey knew the darkness of the film needed a little lightening for the viewer, so he added a mock commercial for a cannibalistic funeral home/slaughterhouse, which he filmed in the meat department.
We had great fun making that movie. I was a couple of years younger than Troy at the time and wasn’t much use onset. However, I remember Trey had me play a key role in filming one of the special effects, a role for which my eleven-year-old frame was especially suited. I crouched into a grocery cart while holding the camera and filming as Trey rushed it down the center aisle, chasing Troy. It was just a few seconds, but I remember it being glorious.
I remember how we all kind of stood back when Tony came on-set to film his scenes. Short for my age, I remember him being impossibly tall, thin as a rail, and very imposing, dressed all in black. Like many teenagers in that era, he cultivated a sullen and brooding air, which I took for great wisdom and knowledge. Trey treated him with respect, talking in hushed tones about the scenes and what he wanted him to do. Tony seemed willing to put up with anything asked of him.
Tony literally threw himself into the role. For one critical scene, Trey asked him to lunge at Troy’s character, stumble over an office chair, and fall down a short span of three or four stairs. Tony was game for it. I don’t remember how many times they filmed the scene, but the shot that made it into the movie looks brutal. Tony really did take a hard fall in that scene.
I think all the principle photography was shot in just one night, one that seemed to last forever. I remember how we were finishing up just in time for the store to open the following morning. Then there was the waiting. Trey had to mail off the cartridges of film to an out-of-state developing lab, a process that had a turnaround time of two to three weeks. Once they came back, my brother quickly cut it together into a finished product for his class. Once he had his grade, things seemed to quiet down and go back to normal.
Dad opened the store himself on Sunday mornings, and on one Sunday morning not long after the shoot, he came in to find all the operating cash was gone. The store had been burglarized. We had a two-drawer filing cabinet for money: one drawer for change and another for the tills. The change drawer, on top, had a few hundred dollars in ones and fives and another few hundred in rolled coins. The lower drawer had a hundred dollars in small change for three or four cash registers each. Both of these drawers had been emptied. A burglar had made away with about nine hundred dollars, all told.
Dad called the police right away. A couple of disinterested cops took the report. “Cases like this,” they said rather glumly, “rarely get solved.” With less than a thousand dollars missing, there was little interest on their part to do more than file the report. There would be no investigation, no hunt for forensic evidence – CSI was still a long way in the future. All the police could offer was a recommendation for Dad to file an insurance claim.
That would have been the end of it, if it weren’t for Tony’s mom. That Saturday night, Tony had joined his mom on a trip to the store for some groceries. She shopped, paid, loaded up her car, and waited for Tony to come out. Closing time approached. She watched through the window as the clerk, Irving, readied the store to close, expecting Tony to come out any minute. He didn’t come out. Irving finally shut the lights off, came out and locked the doors, but still there was no Tony. There was nothing left for her to do but go home. I guess she assumed he got what he wanted, quickly tired of waiting on her, and left, probably walking home. They didn’t live that far from the store anyway.
When she heard about the burglary the next day, she quickly put Tony and the crime together and called my dad. That must have been a hard conversation to have. Her and her husband, and my Mom and Dad had been friends for two years already. They had kids in the same age groups as my brothers and I.
Dad relayed her suspicion to the police, who picked Tony up later that day at his place of work. They quickly found his stash of money: rolls of coins, stacks of ones, and several cartons of cigarettes. He was quickly arrested and charged for the crime.
The police collected the loot and returned about $200 to my dad in change and ones. Despite it being only a day or two after the burglary, the police expected dad to believe that was all there was left. Tony claimed he hadn’t spent much more than a few rolls of quarters before he was picked up. I remember it being a hot topic at the house. Dad couldn’t believe there was only $200 or so left, but how could he believe Tony? I think it was our pastor, a retired Air Force Chaplain, who suggested quietly that the investigators may have kept the difference. Thus I learned at a very young age that although the police were the authorities in cases of crime, they weren’t always helpful, and it wasn’t unheard of for some of them to be dishonest.
We were all so very slow in figuring out what actually happened. Much later, when Troy and I explored the lofts more extensively, we found a kind of nest of half eaten chip bags, spilled pop cans, and magazines. That’s when we really started to put things together. We imagined that Tony must have taken a page from Trey’s movie and hid there in the lofts, waiting for the store to close that Saturday night.
Tony copied so many elements of the movie. Trey had filmed him picking the lock on the money drawers. I wonder what Tony thought; re-enacting that part when it was no longer pretend. Did he expect to be interrupted, like his character was in the movie, before he could pull the money out of the drawers? Did he know how heavy hundreds of dollars in rolled coins would weigh? I wonder if he wore a mask like he did in the shoot: completely unnecessary in a burglary, but convenient movie shorthand for identifying an antagonist.
I wonder if Tony thought of the movie while he was still in the store when dad came in to open it. Pursued by killer grocery carts, the boy in the movie couldn’t get out. They stalked him, assembled themselves in formation readying for an attack. They crowded around him, blocked his exits, and chased him down the aisles at breakneck speeds. They hemmed him in until he had nothing left but bad choices. He eventually trapped himself in a cooler and died before morning. Did Tony think he was going to get caught red handed? He got out before being discovered, leaving by the back door, which was only used for deliveries.
I wouldn’t say that it was hushed-up, but it was like that. I don’t remember my brothers and I thinking or saying anything ill of Tony at any point, although we did imagine Tony going to the video arcade after the theft and being the only one there with rolls of quarters. We’d joked that Trey’s casting of Tony as the burglar was typecasting, but none of us had taken it seriously. To Troy and I, he was simply a distant figure who grew even more distant simply because he was so much older than we were. On the rare occasions we saw him after the burglary, it was simply “Hi, Tony.”
Mom and Tony’s mom remained on good terms, and Dad never let the incident come between him and Tony’s father; they remained friends for years afterwards. I guess dad recognized in Tony’s dad simply another father trying to raise his children as best he could and chose not to hold a grudge. To my knowledge, they never even spoke of the burglary.
I know Trey and Tony remained friends, but I don’t know what Trey thought of the of the whole thing. Trey was a bit aimless after graduation, moving out of the house and from apartment to apartment, eventually enlisting in the army. His unit was the First Infantry, and he spent time on the ground in Kuwait when Desert Shield became Desert Storm. Except for one or two visits for Christmases, I never saw him again. I never had the opportunity to ask him how he felt about those events. Clearly, he saw the burglary as a passing expression of rebellion, and not a more profound betrayal. I wonder if he felt responsible: filming a burglary featuring Tony, having him pick the lock of the money cabinet in the film. Trey carried those secrets with him for the many years of silence after he discharged from the army, and he carried them to an all to early grave.
I sure do miss my brother.
Scot Sorrells, 2018