Nonfiction

Grocery Season

A young couple, mid-twenties, appears. She wears a brown dress with a dark orange sweater, he a green cardigan and tan button-up.

“You two have great colors,” I say, smiling.

They laugh, glancing at each other. I hand them their bag: two wrapped sandwiches and a glass bottle of lemonade. They’re my last customers of the night, ten minutes before closing.

As I watch them leave, she turns her head, profile illuminated by the streetlights, and kisses his shoulder. A hand stretching backwards. He rubs her neck, then links his arm through hers.

The unhinged shell of an oyster, swaying.

*

There’s an older man—mid-seventies—who comes in every week or so. The rest of the staff seems to know him. Last week, Jack stopped him as he entered the store. “We just got a new shipment in! I set them aside for you.”

When he gets to my line, he buys three packages of ox tails—$24.50 each. I can see the cartilage: stiff white rings, pink blood frozen against the shrink-wrapped cellophane. He pays with twenty-dollar bills, pulling them carefully from his pocket, loose. At the last second he adds a Sprite. He’s over by a dollar.

“Then—no soda. Yes?” he says, smiling at me. He speaks with a thick Greek accent. I cancel the soda, bringing the total to $76.61. He hands me the three bills, takes his change, and leaves.

The next week, he comes to my line again. I ring up the ox tails, now accompanied by a stalk of wet spinach, four cans of beans, and tomatoes. He’s brought a wire shopping cart with him. After a moment of wrestling with the paper bags, I manage to fit everything into one. I walk around the register and lower it inside the cart.

“Dear—thank you,” he says. His words are choppy, but he reaches out abruptly and grabs my hand, squeezing it. His eyes are wet, his brow lined with wrinkles. “You’re too cold. Cold.” When he finally lets go he’s pressed the extra change into my palm.

*

Two boys, mid-twenties, are checking out. A 24-pack of beer and three bottles of wine.

“Hey, we’re having a party!” announces the bolder one, blonde.

“Oh, yeah? Can I see some ID?” I hate asking for ID.

“Sure. Do you have some paper? Maybe I can write down the address, you can stop by.”

“I’m working!”

“You work all night?” He laughs, glancing at his friend.

“Yeah, straight through the night. In case of late-night grocery issues. I’m the one who gets you milk at 3am.”

“Oh, you’re the one! What’s your name?”

“Gwyneth.”

“Really? Gwyneth? That’s a pretty name.”

“It’s on the receipt. It’s spelled wrong there,” I say. I hand them their beers.

“See you soon, Gwyneth.”

They return a week later. Another case of PBR, two bottles of red wine.

“We’re having another party!” Again, the blonde boy does the talking.

“Another party? You guys need to hit the books.” The register is crowded, and there’s a line of people growing behind them.

“Hey, I read! You like Bukowski?” he asks.

“Sure, I like Bukowski. But I think you need some more heroin for him, right?” I’m confusing Bukowski with Burroughs.

“Bukowski didn’t do heroin! Just drank,” his friend interrupts, indignant.

The blonde boy takes the receipt, says, “You read Ham on Rye before the next time we come in, and I’ll—I’ll sign up for college.”

I laugh. “Okay, man. You’ve got a deal.”

“Bye, Gwyneth! We love you, Gwyneth!”

*

A man stumbles to my register clutching a bottle of juice in one hand, the other pressing a cell phone to his ear. His white hair stands up in disheveled tufts, and his face seems gaunt. I try to make eye contact, but he looks right through me.

“I’m unsettled,” he says into the phone. “I’m not going to lie. I’m unhinged.” His breaths rattle, coming in gasps between each phrase. “I’m unhinged, Paul.”

Two girls are waiting in line behind him, and I see them look nervously at each other. I scan the juice.

“I’ve lost too many people lately,” he continues. His eyes flicker shut briefly, then snap open. “I’ve seen too many funerals. I don’t understand—”

“Three fifty,” I interrupt, immediately regretting it.

He blinks, then tosses a bill on the counter. When I hand him his change, the coins slip out of my grasp and go rolling over the countertop.

“I’m scared, Paul,” he says. Abandoning the change where it fell, he lurches backwards to the exit. His voice trails behind him as he moves through the doorway. “I’ll tell you, I’m unhinged.”

*

“Where do you keep your bread?” a woman in her mid-sixties asks, standing impatiently before my register.

I answer this question a dozen times a day. “It’s over there, by the door,” I say, pointing.

She frowns. “You moved it. It used to be next to the milk.”

“Sorry for the confusion,” I reply. “We just changed it.” Even though we rearranged it six weeks ago, I still tell this to everyone who asks. I think it offers them some comfort, allowing them to believe that the store only exists when they inhabit it.

She walks to the bread aisle and returns empty-handed, exasperated. “I was hoping for a baguette!”

I point to the bowl of baguettes positioned next to my register. “No problem, ma’am—they’re over here. Sorry for the confusion.”

She shakes her head, laughing, and takes one. “I mean, do I look like the Wonderbread type to you?”

She’s wearing a sheer silk shirt and flaring black pants. A gold-studded clip holds her hair in a neat updo, and I’m passing her a bag of boutique hummus and chives worth $25. Five minutes ago a man and his two daughters bought a full cart of vegetables, rice, and Wonderbread with $20 of EBT.

“No, ma’am. You don’t. Sorry for the confusion.”

*

A man walks in wearing a white tank-top and sweating in the afternoon heat. He hurries to the alcohol coolers, across from the registers. After a moment, he calls out to Sue and me.

“Do you have any hard liquor? Vodka, whiskey?”

“No, sir, I’m sorry. Just beer and wine.” My response to this question is scripted by now. “But you can check at the Schnucks down the street—or there’s a gas station on Olive.”

He grits his teeth. “It’s okay. I was just looking for something for my arms,” he says, his voice shaky. “I was in a motorbike crash a few weeks ago.”

He turns, baring his left bicep for us. The skin is mottled red and black, lustrous. Sue gasps—“Shit.”

“It was the other guy’s fault,” he explains. “I didn’t do anything. But he got out clean.”

*

It’s Wednesday afternoon, the slowest time of the week. I’ve dusted all the shelves and fronted the candy bars twice. The store is empty except for me and Bill, the produce manager, who’s carried a crate of mangoes out from storage and is piling them onto a wooden shelf. The muscles in his arm tighten visibly whenever he reaches for the next piece.

Bill’s music is playing over the radio. The managers take turns choosing songs; the cashiers just listen.

We are living

At the deli, one of the chefs leans over the counter, her forearms flat against the metal slab. “Pork 6 for $5” is scrawled across the blackboard below her. She plays with a blue ring on her pinky, twirling it in slow circles around her knuckle.

In a material world

Outside, the light hits the abandoned bus depot directly, and the old red bricks look like they’re burning. The neon words in the window of the Thai restaurant next door seem dim, conspicuously artificial. A car pulls into the parking lot and leaves without finding a space.

And I am a material girl

*

Bukowski returns. I scan his beer before looking at him. When I do, his face is bruised and swollen. Stitches lace his right eyebrow, and his left cheek is purple.

“Hey, Gwyneth,” he murmurs, quiet.

“Hey!” I don’t know what to say.

“How’s Ham on Rye going?”

I laugh, too loud. “I’m getting there, I promise.”

He reaches for his receipt, and I fumble with the slip. “I hope so,” he says. His bony shoulders jut out against the cotton of his shirt, and sweat plasters his curly hair to his temples. “You know, I signed up for college.”

“I’m proud of you!” I reply, handing him his change. I pause. “I’m proud of you.”

*

It’s become dark enough outside that I’ve forgotten where we are. The rain starts slowly and then comes in great sheets, curtains of water. The atrium fills with people fleeing it. Two young men shifting on their feet. A uniformed veteran in a wheelchair asks me to plug in his phone.

I don’t see anyone in line; I can’t name a single item I’m holding. All my body’s eyes are looking at the rain. It’s so thick I think we must be underwater. I had a friend once who cried because he couldn’t live inside a reef.

A man asks me if I’m alright. “Sure—” I say, surprised. “But I hate storms.”

The register goes black. The lights cut out. Then everything hums back to life.

And now the looters, right? I think. They creep forward, picking over my mind.

*

The walk to work is a little under twenty minutes. I read my book, usually. Peripheral vision guides me through the construction and crowded streets. Today, I freeze in an intersection to the skidding of brakes. Someone tried to make a right turn into me. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” I mutter, hurrying onto the sidewalk.

When I enter the store, the chill of air conditioning after St. Louis’s humidity makes my skin clammy. I shake until the sweat dries.

“Number four today,” Sue says. “It’s been busy.”

Anna is on register three, which means we’re standing back to back. It’s the easiest place to talk, and Anna is one of my closest friends at work. But, walking up, I cringe. I think of the book in my locker, the slam of a horn. As I reach to flip my sign, I know she can see the sweat stains on my shirt.

“Hey! How are you doing?” Anna smiles.

“Pretty go—ood,” I reply. I always use the same inflection. “How are you?”

I can feel my hair falling out of its bun, clinging to the nape of my neck. I cut it a few weeks ago—too short, but for days I didn’t look in a mirror to check. I start to twist a lock under the rubber band, but my hands tremble. I used to fantasize about shaving it all off, until my sister said she’d never speak to me if I did.

*

One man comes in every few days and buys a six-pack. He’s usually drunk and clutching wildflowers picked from the beds that line the street, the city’s latest attempt at drawing tourists into the area.

It’s early in the afternoon, and the store’s been busy because of the Fourth of July—lots of watermelon and hot dog buns. He stumbles in clutching a wilted bouquet. His shirt is open, and his bare skin is streaked with sweat.

“I’m back, I’m back!” he screams, staring at me. “And look who’s still here!”

I glance toward my register and straighten a stack of bags on the counter. He walks past and returns with a six-pack, stepping into my line.

“How old are you?” he sighs, handing me the beer.

I don’t know why I never lie. “Eighteen.”

“Are you gonna come see the fireworks with me tonight?”

I scan the beers and lower them into a paper bag. “I’m sorry, I’m working. I can’t.”

“I’ve got a question. I’ve got a question,” he says, angry. He’s pulling out crumpled dollar bills from his pocket one at a time. “I’ve got a little crush on you. You know that? I like you.”

“Thank you, sir.” I apologize silently.

“But I guess I’m a little old for you. I’m fifty-five! Is that too old?”

I look at him. “I think so, sir.”

He sways. I try to give him the bag and his change, but he grabs suddenly for my hand, his fingers wrapping around my palm and ending at my wrist. “Sir—“ I say, wrestling backwards.

He releases his grip and careens away, staggering towards the door. “I’ll see you soon!” he calls, and vanishes into the busy street.

At my register, flowers litter the black vinyl conveyer. I stare at them for a moment, then pick each stem, one by one, into the trash.

*

A few hours later, Shawn is at the register with me, checking out a couple with two full carts of groceries. The man walks back in, his bouquet missing.

“Do you have some paper?” he says. “And some tape?”

“I’m sorry sir, but we’re working. We can help you after this transaction,” Shawn replies.

“People keep messing up my shrine! I built a shrine across the street and people keep messing it up. I need to put up a sign. Do you have some paper?”

“Sir, we’re working,” Shawn repeats, annoyed.

Chris, from the kitchen, is rearranging the bread by the window. “I can help you, sir,” he says, grabbing a pen from my register. “Here you go.”

“I need you to write it. I can’t spell. Can you write it?”

Chris rips some paper out of the receipt machine and scratches something onto it, then hands it over. “That good?” he asks.

“I’ve gotta protect my shrine,” the man says, clutching the paper. He turns toward me, distracted. “Hey, you see her? I’ve got a crush on her, but she thinks I’m too old for her. She thinks I’m too old! What do you think?”

Chris shrugs, looking at me. “I don’t know, man,” he says. “Probably right.”

The man remains in the doorway, watching me. Shawn hands the customers their bags—six of them—but he stays beside me at the register.

“Okay, okay,” the man says after a minute of silence. “I gotta go. I gotta protect my shrine.” He walks out.

Chris and Shawn glance at each other. “Crazy dude,” Chris says, laughing. Shawn shakes his head. “Geez,” he sighs. “Sure was.” I shift on my feet.

Do you thank people for what they would have done?

I gotta protect my shrine, I hear. I gotta protect my shrine.