March 12, 2018




There's a boy works in here says he knows me, says me and him used to be at some old store a while back, but I don't recollect him much, either his name or his face. He's not really a boy, I guess, since he's got little specks of gray in his beard and in his hair. I guess I call him a boy because I feel so old these days everybody looks young to me.

They build these big stores now where you got to walk a mile or so to get what you want. You can walk through the whole doggoned place and never see much of anybody doing any work out at the cases or in the aisles. Back in the days I was working there'd always be a bunch of us doing something all the time. Nowadays it's either that people don't want to work or big companies don't want to pay them anything -- I don't rightly know what it is.

They got produce priced so high it about makes me sick at my stomach to buy anything. Me and my wife are on a fixed income. How are we supposed to afford tomatoes so expensive? You can't tell me companies can't get better prices than what they charge. I worked produce for ten years at least, and back then when the price wasn't to our liking we'd pick up the phone and call somebody else. We wouldn't just throw something out on the shelf and expect people to pay an arm and a leg for it. We knew they wouldn't do it. People had good sense back then. Today they don't care, don't even look or know the difference. They just up and buy anything. I guess they don't know any better.

We'd get a truck four days a week. Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday. Wasn't nobody open on Sundays. You had to order heavy for Saturday because what you got had to last you through the day and be good enough to open up with on Monday, because on Mondays we had to take everything off the racks and clean them real good and build our new displays and re-trim and rotate it all out. We didn't sell much of anything in bulk back then. We had to put it in a tray and wrap it and run it through the shrink tunnel and weigh it and price it back in the prep room. It was me and Marvin and David who were the full-timers. There was a part-time fella who came in on truck days. Wally, that was his name. He was kind of a pitiful person. He was just a little older than I was and he already had heart problems and trouble breathing. But he still liked to drink that whiskey and smoke them Pall Malls, so he really wasn't much help to us. We just felt sorry for him and did all the hard work ourselves so he wouldn't have to. One afternoon he didn't show up and Marvin went down to where Wally rented a room to see if he was still home. He was there, all right. Old Wally was laying in bed dead as a doornail. Been dead all night and day, as far as anybody could tell. Marvin quit a few years later and went to work driving a truck for Goodwill. Dave's maybe still working at some store somewhere, I guess. He was younger and I kindly lost track of him.

I'll get me one tomato and a bag of potatoes. That's about all I want right now.

My brother Paul was a butcher for over forty years. He was going to retire early but his wife got sick and he had to keep on working. Thing is, I don't really think she was all that bad off. I think she just wanted to keep Paul busy doing things for her. He worked all that overtime and kept all those benefits going just so he could fill her prescriptions and buy her medicine, and really and truly he was in a lot worse shape than her. I think about Paul every time I walk by the meat case and look through the glass at them boys working back there. One of them told me they don't actually cut too much meat anymore. It comes in from a plant somewhere already packaged and priced. About all they do is put it out and keep the case halfway neat. That's a whole lot different than it used to be.

Paul died before he ever got to retire. He was just about deaf the last ten years of his life and had to wear a hearing aid in his right ear, which he always turned off back in the prep room so he wouldn't have to listen to the jackasses he had to work with talking all their foolishness. Sometimes when he clocked out he forgot to turn it back on and he went home that way.

You never see nobody out in the aisles stocking anymore. Every now and then I see a fella over in the dairy department putting up eggs or something like that, but you never see a soul working any dry groceries, like canned goods or paper towels or cookies and crackers. Back when I was a head grocery clerk we used to stock during the day, and everybody had their own aisles they was responsible for. You ordered the stock and you worked it up, and if you had any holes in your aisle after the stocking was through you had to answer for it. You'd better be able to show on the scratch sheet that you had ordered something but that the warehouse was out of it or you were going to be in trouble. The manager would write you up in a split second if you were out of something and it was all because you didn't order it.

It ain't that way now. I had a guy tell me that about all the stocking is done at night now, and mostly all the stockers are Mexicans and foreigners and such. He says they can't even speak English. Now I'd like to know how anybody expects to get anything done when you can't even talk to somebody and tell them what you want. I'm sure they're good workers -- at least that's what I've heard -- but I don't think I could cut that cake.

On Saturday nights I'd always work until midnight. Since the stores weren't open on Sundays you had to get your displays built and all your backstock gone through before the new ad broke on Monday morning, and you couldn't start pulling stock out on the floor and breaking down the last week's displays too soon, because you still had that week's ad to honor. You were lucky to get through by midnight, and there were times I had to stay over and finish up. I didn't do it too often, though, 'cause I always went to church on Sunday mornings. Ain't none of it like that now. There ain't no big displays that catch your eye when you walk in the door. You got stuff cluttering up the aisles and thrown just anywhere somebody wants to put it, no rhyme or reason to it at all. I don't think there's much thought behind it whatsoever.

I've got me four or five items and that'll be enough for right now, so I'll walk up this frozen food aisle toward the checkout lanes so I can get checked out. A body could lay down in some of these empty spaces inside these coolers I'm passing by, but I guess nobody cares how it looks. About anything will pass for good around these stores now.

They ain't never got much of anybody to check you out once you get up front, and the ones they do have are about as friendly as rattlesnakes. We used to have some real nice gals was checkers when I was around, but they're all retired and gone now. I could come up front and buy me a Hershey bar and a bag of peanuts on my break and spend the whole fifteen minutes talking to the women on the front end. People used to kid me and say I spent more time flirting with the cashiers than I did working, but that wasn't true. I just believed in being friendly to everyone. I wanted all the people I worked with to be one big happy family.

Now I'll have to admit there was one woman I kept coming up front especially to see. I was forty or so, been married twenty years already, and I never once looked at another woman as far as I could remember. But there was something about Katherine Owens that made my mind wander, that didn't necessarily make me forget I was a married man but just made the fact seem not all that important anymore. She sure was a pretty thing. I never seriously wanted to have relations with Katherine or leave my wife or anything like that, but that gal just had a way of making me want to be around her a lot. I'd be up there buying my break food, and she'd be up in that office doing the books, and she'd say, "Hello, Harlan," or something like that, and I'd go over to speak and the next thing you know I'd be leaning on that office ledge where people cashed their payroll checks and my break would be over and I hadn't even sat down. I didn't care, though.

It was something I needed back then, that spark between Katherine and me. I knew she was a married woman with children and I never wanted to do anything to harm that at all. That wasn't the kind of man I was. All I can tell you is I was forty and I'd been a working man all my life and been married for a long time too. I was settled into my life. But there was still something missing.

I didn't have any children and Mildred and I very seldom did anything but go to church and socialize with the people there. They was all Church of Christs and nobody cared too much about laughing and cutting up every once in a while. Mostly all that group was interested in was discussing what was wrong with everything and condemning folks if the situation warranted it. Katherine Owens was different from those folks. She wasn't like any of them at all. She had this laugh you could hear wherever you went. It wasn't that it was loud or anything like that, but it was more that once you heard that laugh in your ear it became like a song that wouldn't go away. And you for sure didn't want it to. That melody turned into one of your favorites, and you could hear it all night and day and never once begin to get tired of it. And Katherine had that smile to go along with the laugh, and I could be all the way in the back and hear her laughing up front, or imagine that I heard her laughing, and I could feel the place I was in light up and become not a store or a place I worked at but somewhere you could feel easy and happy and you didn't have to think so much about the minutes ticking away into hours and the hours adding up to the paycheck that got you by for another week. You didn't think so much about working while you were there doing it -- you thought about ways to make Katherine happy so you could hear that laugh again.

Like I said, I didn't want anything to happen. I didn't want to leave Mildred or anything. All I wanted was that feeling of being special when Katherine laughed at what I said, when she smiled as I walked by. I like to think that in another life I would have been her chosen fellow.

So you can imagine how I felt that morning when the district manager came in and called the store manager into the back conference room and shut the door. I knew something big was up when I saw that door close, and it didn't surprise me much when in a few minutes the door opened and the store manager walked up front and put on his suit coat and walked out the door without a word of goodbye to anyone. The next thing you know that district manager had Katherine back there behind that closed door, and when she came out her smile was gone and I could tell she didn't feel the least bit like laughing. The next day a new woman came in to do the books and Katherine was transferred to another store.

I never saw Katherine much after that. What I heard was she and this manager had had some kind of affair and the manager's wife had found out about it. There was a whole lot of stink involved, so the main office decided the best way to handle it was to fire the manager and move Katherine somewhere else before there was a big scandal. Things like that just weren't tolerated in those days. You did something bad like that and you had to pay the price. Hurt as I was over Katherine doing that type of thing and how I felt betrayed by her in some way, I was still glad my own self had toed the line and not let myself fall into the same trap that manager had. I felt proud in one way, but there was another part of me that wondered if Katherine had really liked me as much as I thought and if she'd had that affair with me if I'd gone a little further. It was something I'd think about for a long time -- would I have, or would I have not?

I'm all checked out now and watching the girl that checked me out come around to the end of the counter to bag my groceries. Stores are so cheap now they won't even hire baggers. I used to offer to bag my own and be friendly a little when I checked out, but I don't try anymore. People don't care where you used to work or what you used to do. You're just another face in a long line of faces. It doesn't matter where you've been or where you're going. I didn't see that boy who knows me or maybe I'd have gone through his lane. I don't much like to do that though. Sometimes he starts talking about a lot of things I don't recollect. He says things that confuse me.

It ain't but two little bags but I leave them in the cart and wheel them out to the car anyway. Sometimes I don't feel so strong. I have to walk a long way to where I'm parked, and when I get everything loaded up I have to walk a little more to find a corral to park the cart in so it won't roll off into somebody's car. I wonder how many times I've walked across one of these dern parking lots on my way to or from work. I still have to eat. I still got to shop.

It's all changed quite a bit, but I still got an idea what I need. I get by without anybody having to help me.

Article © Ralph Bland. All rights reserved.
Published on 2018-03-12

1 Reader Comments

02:26:17 PM

I absolutely love the way your characters reveal themselves. All the details you provide about Harlan allows me to get to know the type of person he thinks he is, and allows me to make my own judgments, but then there is the moment in your story where he bares his soul..."would I have, or would I have not?"
When I grow up, I want to write like you.

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By Ralph Bland: