The beginning of a great career in writing
She throws her hair back over her almost bare shoulders and smiles, and smiles, and smiles.…I smile back and say what they’ve trained me to say: ‘How are you today?’
It’s a whole cascading sea of flesh overexposed to the universe — mad and frantic, desperate for freedom, for coupons that double, for organic pickles and tampons on sale.
Photos by Stacey Warde
By Larry Narron
The minute I sign in on the time sheet it begins. I move around the front desk and start making my way toward the registers. They’re all there, waiting like they’ve been there for a thousand years, pushing their hulking carts like tanks past the conveyer belts — sweating, shaking, cursing as they fumble with their car keys and go digging for their checkbooks. It’s a whole cascading sea of flesh overexposed to the universe — mad and frantic, desperate for freedom, for coupons that double, for organic pickles and tampons on sale.
I readjust my name badge and tuck in my shirt, and try to tell myself that I’m still going to make it as a writer. It’s like a mantra: This is the beginning of a great career in writing, this is the beginning of a great career in writing….
The manager looks at me like his hair is on fire. I rush in to relieve him from the register, and before I can say anything they are all scowling with sagging faces full of fury.
I smile at them. “How are you doing today?”
“Where’s the batteries?”
I move the barcodes over the machine and listen to the sound it makes.
The items slide down the second conveyer belt where they are packed into bags by the hanging hands of anguished teenagers, rejected by prom queens, by Stanford, by everything.
Here comes another one of these ex-sorority types from Santa Barbara with her short blonde hair glued to her skull and a personal jet waiting for her in the parking lot.
I try to smile at her. “And how are you doing today?”
“I want two hundred dollars cash back,” she says without even looking at me. Her credit card gleams as she swipes it. The thing looks like it’s made out of solid gold, like the earrings that dangle just above the shoulders of her mint-green coat.
I am calm and collected as I hand her the receipt. “Have a great day!”
She frowns and just gives me this hard, accusing look. “Aren’t you going to ask me if I want help out?” she says.
“I said, ‘Aren’t you going to ask me if I want help out?’”
I look down at the end of the second conveyer belt and the teenager has tears in her eyes as she rolls them and disappears to another part of the store. I look into the lady’s cart and see the solitary plastic bag packed half full: a pregnancy test, some condoms, and a seventy-five -dollar bottle of vodka.
“I’m sorry. Would you like some help out today?”
She shakes her head and rolls her eyes at me. “No. That’s not the point. I just thought that you people were supposed to ask. I just thought it was part of your job, that’s all.”
“I’m sorry. Is there anything else I can do for you?”
“Yes,” she says flatly, putting her hands on her hips. “You can get your manager for me.”
Still smiling, I pick the phone up and call him on the loudspeaker.
He comes over, already furious with me. He nods and nods at the woman, putting his hands in his pockets and taking them out again as she tells him that I am absolutely the worst grocery store worker she has ever seen in her life and that if I don’t get some better customer service skills she’s going to sue my manager, personally. My manager apologizes and gives her a gift card.
She snatches it from his hand. “You’re a good man,” she says to him. “I’m not saying that you’re the problem.”
But she storms out of there just the same, leaving her cart and swinging the plastic bag over her padded shoulder as she walks out, the sound of her high heels clicking on the floor muffled by the low crackle of machines, the squeal of broken shopping cart wheels and the screams of children.
The manager glares at me. “You ask them if they want help out with their groceries,” he says. “I don’t care if they’re a little old lady or not.”
He’s still standing there behind me, watching to make sure I don’t mess it up for the company as another customer steps up to the belt. This one’s about six-four with short black hair slicked back over his huge head. His heavily -muscled arms bulge out of his sleeveless motorcycle jacket and are covered with tattoos of naked women. A thick blue vein pulsates from his hairline down to his cheek. He’s got one lazy eye that just stares off, dead, into space; the other is looking directly at me.
The man sets two gallons of milk and a carton of eggs down on the belt.
I force a smile. “Hello!”
The eye looks at me.
I scan the items and put them into two paper bags and hand them to him.
“So you’re total comes to…$6.13.”
He hands me a wad of bills and tosses some change at me. I gather it up and put it in the till and hand him his receipt.
My manager is still standing there behind me.
I look at the man with the dead eye and the vein in his face. "Would you like some help out today?”
He scowls, says nothing. The vein pulsates, ripples up beneath the hairline; the eye stares. I can see his muscles flex obscenely as he walks out of the store with his milk and his eggs.
I look at the manager, but he just looks back at me. I know he understands, but he will never admit that he understands. That would be bad for the customers, and even worse than that, for the company.
“Break time,” he says.
I almost knock him over as I step out of the check stand. He’s in there in no time to take my place. I’m running as fast as I can for the front doors, dodging small children screaming for balloons and old drunks laughing at me for reasons unknown as I try to rip the name badge from my shirt so no one will think that I can help them find something.
“Excuse me,” some lady says somewhere behind me. “Do you work here?”
But I pull the name badge free of my shirt and leap through the front doors just in time.
The parking lot is insane: Little kids are running between the cars. Shopping carts are hurled toward planters and spin out of control, smashing into trees. Old men in electrical chairs buzz slowly through traffic, raising aged fingers with the apathy of old elementary school crossing guards who think they have no real reason to live.
The security guard is the only one who isn’t moving. He just sits there on the curb in front of the grocery store and stares into the parking lot.
I pass him as I run between the cars, people smashing their sweaty fists against their horns, wishing it was my face. I make it to the street and almost get myself killed trying to cross.
I go into the gas station and finally get my cigarettes.
Once I’m back in front of the grocery store I light up.
The security guard is still there sitting on his ass.
“Can I get one of those, man?”
I toss him one, saying nothing.
I take a few puffs, thinking to myself: 7,892 more of these things and I'll have a good case of lung cancer.
And maybe a short story published in a magazine.
I”ll die a horrible death but I’ll have a short story in a literary magazine and people will talk about me forever. I’ll be there with the greats, with Thomas Wolfe.
The security guard smiles at me. “One for the road, man?”
I toss him another cigarette and go back inside.
At the register the manager stands there without any customers, glaring at me, wiping a pool of sweat from his forehead.
“You’re late again.”
“Sorry,” I say to him. “You should see it out there.”
“Put your name badge on,” he says, stepping out of the register. “People will think you don't even work here.”
He runs off to some office somewhere to talk to some of the corporate people I have never seen.
I look up and there’s this girl in a yellow sundress.
She’s leaning over the conveyer belt and putting her avocados down carefully. She throws her hair back over her almost bare shoulders and smiles, and smiles, and smiles.
I smile back and say what they’ve trained me to say: “How are you today?”
I take her money, and her hand is so close to mine as I take it from her, and I try not to think about all the other hands that have touched those paper bills. Only hers. I don’t say anything to her, just smile back, this time for real, and as I hand her her bag full of avocados she stands there for a minute.
Like she’s waiting.
But I don’t know what to do: There are people buying things on all sides of me, and children screaming for toys, and the whisper of the country music thirty feet over my head makes me feel nauseous and takes all my courage away.
She walks away.
But then, at the end of the second conveyer belt, she turns and smiles at me again. And just stands there.
I violently rip a piece of register tape out of the machine and just look at it there, not knowing what to do, not knowing if I should ask for her number or give her mine, not knowing anything at all.
“I need twenty dollars cash back.”
I look up and see him—the football star, a thousand feet taller than I am, no bags under his eyes, his smile invincible, his face devoid of any human flaw, his eyes holding the confidence of knowing that his future is perfect, and one that nothing can ever change.
I grab his box of Trojan Magnum Large Size Condoms and scan the barcode.
He smiles at the girl at far end of the register, standing there with her avocados and her hopes and her happiness. She smiles back at him, and I realize it’s him she’s been smiling at, him she’s been waiting for.
The kid swipes his credit card and blows her a kiss.
She even pretends to catch it.
I feel like throwing up, but instead I hand him his twenty dollars and his condoms. “Have a great day, buddy!”
“Whatever, fag,” he says friendly enough.
He doesn’t even look at me, just smiles at the girl and walks up to her. He offers to carry her avocados for her and she takes his Magnums and tucks them neatly into her little purse.
I watch them walking away, hand-in-hand, the girl smiling up at her football star.
She passes through the doors and out of sight and I feel doomed forever again.
But at least the day will be over soon enough.
I finally make it home to my apartment later that evening. The typewriter is sitting there, calling me. But my mattress is calling me even more. I look at my answering machine and am reminded once again that no actual people are calling me these days, only automated voices trying to sell me subscriptions to quilting magazines.
I drop my keys on the floor and nearly collapse in my chair at the desk. I stare at the keys on the typewriter, the blank sheet of paper. I don’t know what to write about. I’m twenty-three and everyone tells me that at this age you don’t have anything to write about, that you haven’t lived.
So I just sit there and think of all the things I want to do with my life.
Finally I just roll off the chair and crawl over to the mattress. I don’t bother turning off the light before falling asleep.
The next morning I wake up early and call in sick for work.
It’s the manager who answers the phone: “What do you mean you’re sick?” he says. “You think this is a goddamn holiday?”
“I got food poisoning,” I tell him. “The meat department’s full of rotting animal carcasses.”
He hangs up on me.
I sit down on the kitchen floor and begin laughing to myself, feeling rested, feeling pretty damn good, even a little proud. The company will suffer, the customers will be in agony, but I take all the comfort I can in the fact that, among other things, the girl in the yellow sundress will most certainly enjoy her avocados.
I smile as I think about her now, and walk across my room and sit down in front of the typewriter.
For a while the blank page just stares at me. I don’t know where to even begin, but I’m not as bothered by that thought as I usually am. I’ve got a few ideas rolling up there in my head, but I’m not too sure of an ending, or a middle, or even a beginning. So I figure I’ll just think about the girl and her avocados for a while until something comes to mind.
Even some of the greatest writers weren’t all that great from the beginning; even the best of them had to start out somewhere: Hem had Africa; Hunter had Las Vegas; my buddy Jack had the Road. Me? I’ve got the grocery business, I’ve got checkstand #7. I’ve got the avocado girl coming through my line half-way through one more monotonous day at the register.
I’ve gotta think of a beginning. I say it over and over: Let there be a beginning, let there be a beginning, let there be a beginning . . . §
Larry Narron is a freelance writer who begins his career with this first published story. He lives in San Luis Obispo.