Wednesday Nights at a Dying Supermarket

June 14, 2008
By Alexandra Piunti, San Jose, CA

Bryan was waiting for his shift to finish. He was always waiting. He used to text his girlfriend during his work hours, but there was a recent ban on employee cell phone use. This is not how he had imagined gap year. How was he supposed to know that you can't plan a life-changing backpacking trip to Europe for $2000? So maybe he had known, sorta. But the truth is he wasn't ready to leave yet. None of his friends had, except for Jon Anderson, and everyone knew he had been planning his departure since freshman year of high school.

No one really shopped at Safeway on Wednesday nights just before closing. No one really shopped at this Safeway anyways. It was probably going to close within the next year. "Good," Bryan had thought when he heard the news. "I can't work here forever."

Ricky, the shift manager, liked to remind Bryan that he had worked at Safeway for 12 years. "When you were 7 years old and learning to read, I was working my a** off to get to this position." Bryan didn't bother to correct him that, actually, he had learned to read when he was 4.

Someone was coming to the counter now. Bryan ran a hand through his hair. It went right back to the short brown mess it had been before. He smiled as a middle aged lady unloaded her cart. She had a thin but puffy face, with high cheekbones and a skinny nose with a bulbous ending. Her lips were tight and pale. Bryan guessed she was about 52. His guesses were always precise - not necessarily accurate, but precise.

"Hello, ma'am, did you find everything okay?"

The lady smiled back at Bryan. "Yes I did, Bryan," she said, reading his nameplate. She seemed to be trying so hard to do something - was it be happy? Smile? Impress him? "You have a fairly late shift," she remarked.

"Yeah, I guess I do."

"It must get pretty lonely."

"I suppose so. But I have a good view of the clock." Bryan pointed to the clock on the wall.

The lady laughed a loud "Ha ha ha!" She still seemed like she was trying so hard... Her eyes seemed very sad. Tired and sad. They were green, which was unusual, but Bryan hadn't even noticed. He supposed they were just the kind of green that had lost their magic.

"Bryan, do you mind me asking how old you are? I have a son who I think is your age, and I've been asking him to get a job, but he doesn't want to!" She pauses for a breath. "He's in college down south, at Pepperdine. Right now he wants to par-tay and finish school, and doesn't even want to think about real life! Ahaha!" She waited for his response.

Bryan had forgotten she asked a question. He was still monotonously passing vegetables through the scanner.

"I'm 19," he said, attempting to smile.

She swiped her credit card. "19! You're so young! My son's 21. Almost done with college, I don't know what he'll do with his life. Are you planning on going to university once you graduate?"

She must think he's still in high school. Bryan didn't want to disappoint her for some reason. She seemed so lonely.

"That's the plan," he said.

The woman broke out into another smile. This one seemed a little less forced. "That's wonderful. I'm so happy for you. One day you'll be very proud of that."

"I hope so," Bryan replied, handing her the receipt that had finished printing.

"Well, Bryan, I'd better let you get back to your work. It was wonderful speaking to you. I hope you do well in university next year." She sounded like she honestly meant it.

"Thank you, ma'am, and I hope things work out with your son." Bryan tried to sound like he meant it too. As she walked out the building he found himself wondering why she kept on using his name.

It was another ten minutes before he got another customer. A boy around his age, with a bored, antsy expression on his face. His eyes were medium blue and clouded. He dumped the items he had been carrying on the counter. There were two bottles of Robitussin cough syrup and three packages of Coricidin Cough and Cold. Bryan knew guys like these. His brother had done this for a while. Drinking a bottle of cough syrup and hallucinating for a while. There was no point of not selling it, though. “They’ll just go elsewhere,” Ricky had told him once. Bryan picked up the boy’s things and swiped them through the scanner.

“Find everything okay?” Bryan asked.

“Uhuh,” the boy grunted.

Bryan hated that he had to ask that. Who was going to say, “No, actually, I had issues finding the celery.” The boy was handing him a wad of wrinkled cash. It was mostly one dollar bills. Bryan counted out the change - 67 cents. The boy was already starting to walk away with his bag.

“Your change?” Bryan held out his hand.

“Keep it.”

He watched as the boy sauntered out of the supermarket and wondered how long it would be before he was back.

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