The afternoon swung steadily from noon to night like the way a hammock sways in a warm breeze. I was finishing a transaction with an older gentleman who stood not much taller than my register. I rang up his last item, a gallon of milk, and told him the total. As I was bagging his groceries he demanded the price of the tomatoes. Stating they were much less than what the screen displayed. I reiterated the price and he proceeded to inquire about the cost of each of his items. He was certain the whole wheat bread was on sale and flipped through this week’s circular to find the coupon. As I picked up the toilet paper rolls he shouted that those too were on sale and a gust of wind pushed my hair as he swiftly turned the pages of CeeCee’s circular to find the price. A ten minute transaction turned to twenty. I collected the scraps of his weekly coupons and he tells me I need to acquire better customer service skills, shortly after snarling at the line behind him. He insisted he was leaving now and mumbled something under his breath, as he transferred his groceries into his shopping cart. He gave us a grim look and shuffled to the exit.
“Next on the line.” I shout, ushering the next person forward.
My coworker Vinny asked if I wanted a smoke for our fifteen minute break. It was too busy earlier in our shift for us to step off the register. Though the shift was winding down, and we had two hours till close, Cecil, the store owner, covered our break. We sat on the parking block of parking space ‘22’, lighting a cigarette. We laughed over the obnoxious customers while Vinny defended crabs after I insisted on comparing the coupon man to one. We inhaled over the particulars customer’s have regarding their groceries. And exhaled a chuckle over the items that need to be bagged together. We have one customer, Charles, who does not like his fresh broccoli touching his loaf of seeded semolina bread. We know this because every month, for the past two months, he comes in and buys the same items. Fresh Broccoli, a bunch of bananas, a half gallon of milk, two cans of tuna, and a loaf of bread.
Vinny wasn’t his usual humorous self. I enjoyed working with him because it made the shift fly. He and I would banter with Cecil. She constantly yelled at us for sitting on the register, even when the store was empty. She told us it looked unprofessional, a customer could enter at any minute, she’d exclaim. We always gave her a hard time about it. Our feet were burning from standing all day. But Cecil wasn’t nasty about it or anything. She often sounded more like a mother or elder sister. Yelling from the end of the aisle that we know better and should be down by the time she walks up to the front.
Vinny threw his cigarette butt and went to reach for his pack in his back pocket. I let him know we didn’t have time for another cig but he insisted on returning late from his break. He didn’t feel like working today and I didn’t blame him. The store’s air conditioner broke last week in the highest heat wave our city was having this summer. Vinny insisted we shouldn’t have to work in this condition. He wanted to head home early today but I pleaded for him to stick it out so I wouldn’t have to close alone. He lit his cigarette and nodded for me to head in. He said he will be right in, he just wanted one more smoke.
I clocked back in and before returning to my register I caught a glimpse of Vinny standing at parking space ‘22’, shaking his head and kicking an empty soda can that was next to him. Vinny returned ten minutes late. Cecil gave him a hard time about it. She said he will have to mop the aisles when we close. He argued it wasn’t in his job description but Cecil said one of us would have to do it since we were short staffed. She said his actions meant he drew the shorter straw.
Closing wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. We had a few of our usuals this evening. A married couple, Clein and Sahar came in–they were one of my favorite customer’s. They traveled often and would tell me stories of the latest city they’ve explored. Every time they showed me photos of a new place, I’d joke saying I was living vicariously through them. They would then insist I’d see that city for myself. Oh, you must try the coffee from this cafe. Sahar showed me a photo of the two of them sitting outside of it, holding two small coffee cups. I've never tasted anything more delicious, Sahar explained.
Vinny was quite annoyed with them this evening. They were our last customers and my curiosity was killing him. They will be here next month with a new story, he murmured between his teeth. He was disinfecting his register. I finished bagging their items and said goodnight. I took out the cleaning supplies from under my register and wiped down my station. And a paper towel to wipe the sweat from my forehead. Vinny was making his way to the back to grab the mop.
Mrs. Oldurgberg was tapping on the window when I was drying my register with paper towels. I shouted to her we were closed and she pleaded she only needed one item. Before I could repeat we were closed, Cecil approached the door, unlocked it and let her in. One item only, Cecil said sternly. I looked at Cecil and rolled my eyes. She lives alone, Cecil explained in a softer tone. I told her I lack the compassion she possesses and she laughed.
Mrs. Oldurberg came up to the register carrying three items. I shook my head and rang her up. She requests her bag to be doubled, explaining she has a long walk ahead of her. She tells me she would get here before close if it didn’t take her so long to walk down her apartment stairs. She tells me the building elevator broke down. I shrug, collect her payment and tell her to have a good night. She takes her groceries and Cecil locks the door when she exits.
Vinny and I finish cleaning and clock out for the night. On our way out we ask Cecil when will the air conditioner be fixed. She brushes us off with a “hopefully soon” and locks the gate. Cecil says goodbye and Vinny asks me if I want to smoke but this time it is not a cigarette. He pulls a joint from his backpack. We gather near the dumpster in the back of CeeCee’s. Vinny tells me he is going to call out from his shift tomorrow. He insists we go on strike to rebel against the unsafe working conditions.
“It’s bullshit.” Vinny said, covering the joint from the wind, to light it.
He tells me how Stella almost fainted in the deli. She was slicing turkey when the meat slipped from her hand. She caught herself but not the turkey. Cecil placed a fan that was in her office, in the back of the deli. Stella splashed cold water on her face before returning to slice the next customer’s cold cuts.
I agree with Vinny, and let him know I will call out tomorrow too.
“We are going to fight the system!” He exclaims.
He told me he was going to reach out to Stella about her incident today, he wants to report it to a News station. He wants to draw attention to CeeCee’s working condition. Blow the roof off this place, as he declared. We finished our joint and pondered about life. About our existence and how miniscule it all feels.
“It’s not like I’m saving lives or anything.” He says.
I joked how we worked at a grocery store and food keeps people alive. Vinny didn’t laugh though, he just looked towards the stars and sighed. I was stoned, my feet were hurting and I was ready to have dinner and go to bed. I asked Vinny to take a walk to the ATM with me. I had to withdraw money for my Landlord. When we reached the bank, an ATM receipt informed me my account was overdrawn. It seems Vinny could sense a shift in my demeanor. I got silent and still, staring at the ATM receipt. I shook my head and let Vinny know I could no longer call out tomorrow. I could see the disappointment splash across his face.
Vinny and I left the bank and walked together until our paths went their separate ways. That night my eyes flickered open and close. Worrying about rent being due. What happens when we die and what if I don't wake up tomorrow. I suppose all this worry would be for nothing then.
My alarm clock dispelled that fear. My hand felt more like stones, than bones, and I plopped towards the clock to hit snooze. I didn’t sleep much last night. I worried Vinny and Stella would be outside CeeCee’s with signs of protest and a News crew to document. When I arrived, it was just an empty parking lot. No pitch forks. No Vinny. And still no air conditioning.
Cecil informed me Vinny called out. She said she couldn’t get another cashier to cover, so it would just be her and I running the store.
“Did Stella make it in today?” I inquired. Wondering if Stella too called out, in solidarity.
“Yeah, she’s in the deli. Why?”
“Just asking.” I replied, opening my register to count the cash.
My shift went by rather quickly, seeing how I was the only cashier. One of our usual customer’s, Kenza, who I haven’t seen in months, stopped in today. She tells me she just came in for a snack. I tell her it’s been a while and ring up her box of cereal. She says she found another grocery store, with better prices. She said it’s a bit further of a walk from her house but she wants to retire early and every coin counts.
“Besides…” She states. “I need to change it up a bit. Routine is an absolute bore.”
I ask her what she does for a living. I couldn’t imagine such a person working a nine to five. She tells me she is a flight attendant. I asked her about her application process and how one would go about applying. She told me it is quite a competitive field, but to keep an eye out for any local airports that were seeking new attendants, as it is not very often they hire.
I complete our transaction and send her on her way with her sugary cereal. I daydream about being a flight attendant and how I could visit many of the places Sahar has shared with me. I envision myself taking my break at a local cafe in Paris, not in any of those tourist areas, as Sahar warned me to avoid. But a quaint, local spot where I meet friends who remember me every time I have a flight there.
That last hour of my shift flew by thanks to my chat with Kenza. I hardly noticed the heat today.
I grab the cleaning supplies and wipe down my register. Cecil hands me the mop. She let me put my headphones on while I cleaned. I pressed play and danced down aisle one. It’s one of those tornado mops, made of cotton and the handle made of wood. I imagine the mop as an actual tornado but instead of destroying everything in sight, it cleans it up. I become one with the tornado and so I take each aisle by storm.
The next day, I was working a double. Vinny was cashiering in the AM. He and I opened the store together. I was happy to have him back but Vinny didn’t feel the same. As we count our register he tells me he is going to write to the corporate office to make a formal complaint. I tell him Cecil is a small busy owner, there is no corporate office. He says he can write to the city’s business bureau, to report her. I worried how this would affect Cecil and the store. Later that afternoon, Vinny and I suggested purchasing fans for the front of the store. Cecil tells us she’s not sure she can afford it—that we barely made payroll this week.
“How is that our problem?!” Vinny blurts.
Cecil walked to the frozen aisle, came back up to the registers holding two popsicles. She hands me one and turns to give Vinny his. This made Vinny furious. He could no longer contain his outrage. He grabbed the popsicle and threw it on the floor. Exclaiming he quit. He let Cecil know he was going to report the store. All Cecil did was grab a paper towel and clean up the grape flavored puddle on the floor. It almost looked like she was on the brink of tears. She looked at Vinny one more time and told him he was free to do whatever he felt was right and asked him to leave. Vinny didn’t look at me. He had nothing else to say. He walked out the store and that would be the last time I saw him.
Two years later, and I am still working at CeeCee’s. Vinny never came back to the store. I thought I might have seen him one more time when he came to pick up his last check. But Cecil informed me he requested it to be sent by mail. She said the address was out-of-state. I wondered where Vinny was. He told me he had dreams of moving out of this city, and working for a non-profit organization that made a difference in this world. I imagined him living in another city, changing the world, one company at a time. Ultimately, he made a difference at the store. Cecil purchased fans that week after Vinny quit. She is now able to afford on-site maintenance and we haven’t had issues with the air conditioner since that summer. I have to wear a sweater when I come in, as it's often too cold with the air conditioner on.
My shift today moved slower than a snail crossing the street. I looked up at the clock that hung above our exit door and sigh with relief that we would close in three minutes. The bell on the door dings and I see Mrs.Oldurberg hobble in. I roll my eyes before greeting her. She explains she would have gotten here earlier if it weren’t for her misplacing her wallet. I exhale and she tells me she is just grabbing one item.