Part 3: Shopping

The wind blew constantly last winter, enough to distinguish that winter from others.  It was colder, too.  I felt it every time the double-doors slid apart.  The foyer did little to contain it.  If it wasn’t the double-doors separating then it was the low opening where they push in the shopping carts from outside.  Either way, the cold always got in.  And I’m expected to wear this red, short-sleeve polo!  I didn’t think my fingers and nose would ever warm up!

 

Shopping brings out the diva in people.  It lurks there behind their genial facades, waiting for you to overcharge them (as if the system allows this) or forget to scan a card or coupon or something.  I’ve learned to identify that defensive impulse.  People come to the store ready to pounce, as if this conveyor belt is the dividing line between the classes, like it’s their right to be so demanding.  I’m trying to finish school.  I bet half of these fools never even went, at least beyond what was required.  And they’re gonna look at me like I’m inferior?

 

I’d better compose myself.  Anyway, last winter.  So I’m standing there, doing my thing.  Moderate busyness.  I ring up a lady with a toddler–cute, kept smiling at me all shy-like and saying over and over, “Bye, bye.”  They’re in here a lot.  Kids are often the highlight of the day, as long as they’re not screaming.  So they finish up and move along.  Then comes a girl in her late teens, a bit younger than me but with clear entitlement issues.  She didn’t even look up from her phone except to question whether I’d gotten her soda.  “Did you get this?” she said in some kind of nasal, affected twang–a hybrid of Nashville and Malibu–probably lifted from some stupid reality show.  It’s a curse that I get to remember her, but she probably forgot me as soon as she turned her head.  You can feel the condescension from customers like this, even when they’re polite.  We all can.

 

But then the guy who came after!  Fidgety and wild-eyed like a wanted man.  The things people buy are usually a blur, but his I remember:  protein bars and antifreeze.  Harmless enough, I guess.  But he acted so strange!  He acted like the shoplifters that they watch with the cameras, all shifty and conniving, except he didn’t seem to be stealing anything.  He didn’t say anything, either.  Just handed me a debit card and then took it back afterward with his receipt.  Grabbing his bag with calloused fingers (I remember a wedding ring), he was gone, vanishing into the bright cold with little more than a gust to mark his passage.  I see my share of weirdos, but this one stuck with me for some reason.  It’s like those dreams you remember that seem important but you’re not sure why.

photo (2)

Part 2: The Lull

Usually, that time of day, there’s nothing to do but unload the dish sanitizer, balance the till, denominate large bills, break open coin rolls–stuff like that.  It’s that lull between lunch and happy hour.  We keep the switches dimmed because so much light is coming in through the windows.  TV’s are on but muted.  Pretty peaceful, actually.  Sometimes, when my manager steps out (I think she’s met somebody but doesn’t want it public), I catch up on social media.  Alleviates the tedium.  You have to be mindful of customers, of course, but like I said, it’s the lull.  Customers are sparse, especially on a Tuesday.

 

So I was leaning forward with my elbows on the oaktop, phone in hand, thumbscrolling, and this guy came in.  I watched to see if he would come to the bar.  Usually, that time of day, customers go to a table in the dining room.  But no, he was coming my way.  He walked with calm and measured steps.  With the exception of the eyes, his face was expressionless . . . but those eyes!!  Crazed and elated, or was it relief?  He unzipped his jacket but didn’t remove it.  Nor did he sit.  It seemed like he needed some time to process whatever was going on behind those eyes.

 

“Afternoon,” I offered.photo (1)

 

“Hey,” he said, shortly.

 

“What’re you having?”

 

“Ummm, do you have anything seasonal?”  His words were calm and measured like his steps.

 

“Winter Ale,” says I.

 

His response was a cheerless but certain, “Perfect.”  And he finally slid his haunches into a barchair.  Something was brewing with this guy.  Mid-life crisis?  No, too easy.  Whatever this man wrestled with, he was in it alone.  It wasn’t some universal male condition.  I know I’m taking liberties, basing an awful lot on a set of crazy eyes and a handful of words, but like I said, it was the lull–I had time, then, to think about it and I’ve had time since.

 

For a full fifteen minutes, the man stared at a silent television, never lifting his pint.  Then, as if jolted by a current, he exclaimed to no one, “I’ve been an irresolute lion, licking my paws in diffidence, giving them the power!  Today was the day, and I did it!”  The eyes flashed.  He dug out a five and flung it onto the bar and exited, his puzzling declaration still charging the air.

 

To this day, I don’t know what he did or what he was talking about, and likely never will.  What I do know is that the thing behind those eyes could only be madness.  I truly believe that I served someone crazy that day.

 

 

Part 1: We’re All in This Together

photoGary had an important job.  It was respectable enough.  Whenever someone outside the factory asked about it, he always impressed.  The terms involved had a way of sounding–specialized.  In truth, the work was specialized, though the superiors of the upper floor rarely saw this.  What they saw, firing accusatory glances at us from an interior window, were profit margins and bottom lines and various other abstractions of vague financiality.  In times of restlessness, the bosses would flex their authoritarian muscles by descending to the plant floor and solving problems that didn’t exist.  Gary avoided this meddling inasmuch as he was able.  After all, he did fine work, and this is what he would insist upon if ever his compliance with policy was in doubt.  It’s true, though, about the good work; the products of his workstation benefitted people.  So if he was to be watched–he and his coworkers alike–as if on probation (I know this is how he felt), at least he could be proud of his work.

 

My own station was a couple of units over.  I could see the bosses glaring from the little window, but it didn’t bother me in the same way it bothered Gary.  Nevertheless, when he would rail in private against the ever-multiplying, nonsensical corporate initiatives, I was right there with him.  Remember what I said about solving problems that didn’t exist?  Well, the company was afflicted with this recreation, from headquarters in I-don’t-remember-what city all the way down to our little plant.

 

One day there was a meeting announced by the supervisors.  These occasional meetings were called “roundtable discussions,” a ridiculous epithet calculated to imply equal status for all employees, as if everyone’s opinions would be considered.  Gary and I rolled many an eye at the mention of these.  Attendance was not always required, so I stayed behind to work, thinking that Gary would relay anything pertinent.  But he never came back.  I saw the others returning.  Familiar, sarcastic voices out of sight behind the workstations said things like “culture of excellence” and “we’re all in this together,” followed by mocking laughter.  The very use of such phrases only showed how out-of-touch the higher-ups were with the rest of us.  I thought that maybe he got sick and went home early.  When he didn’t show up the next day, I asked my super about him.  The super stared at me as though I was speaking French.  That was it–no explanation.  Now I know.  That is just how people tend to disappear around here.

 

 

*This is a departure from my usual posts in that it is a work of fiction.  Any resemblance to actual persons, places, or events is purely coincidental.  No, really.  It is.