Living the Dream

August 27, 2008
By Eric Fulcher, Englewood, CO

“Eric, you have a call holding on 101. Eric in Grocery, 101.”

As soon as the girl’s voice faded on the announcement, Eric knew who it was waiting to talk to him on the other end: his boss Rob. He had hinted, more like warned, that he may call later that day to instruct him on further tasks.
“Hello,” the nineteen year old said with a fake enthusiastic tone, as he caressed the phone piece on his ear.
“Eric, it’s Rob. How are you buddy?”
“Hey Rob. Pretty good.” Eric began thinking: maybe I should call him idiot he truly is.
“Could you do me a favor?”

The worst six words anyone could here from a boss had just been spoken. Eric knew his options: hang up and get written up, or do what he asked and perhaps get some overtime.
“There’s a display of Gatorade at the front of the store on aisle thirteen. I need you to take it down and put the spare Gatorade bottles somewhere in the back. Make it neat.”
“Okay Rob. Anything else?” Why did I ask that?
“Oh, and mop the cooler and grocery backroom. Thanks brotha.”

Eric and Rob had known each other since Eric was seventeen, and had worked with the big guy for almost a whole year, off and on because of college though. He insisted on calling the tall and skinny white nineteen year old brotha, maybe to make a delusional bond between them. Eric hated it.
“Yes sir.”

Rob hung up the phone, but Eric slammed it into the dial buttons. Two chipped off. It was a crappy old phone anyway. With a roar of anger Eric let out two words, each accompanied by another slam of the phone piece: “God… Dammit!”
“Everything okay?”

Eric knew that voice. It was Ryan, a courtesy clerk, or bagger to the general public, who he had been friends with for almost a year since high school. He was standing behind him.

Stunned that anyone would be back there at this hour, Eric slowly turned to face his friend.
“Yes Ryan, things are good. How’s the front end?”
“Hell. I was bagging two stands by myself while a bunch of teeny-boppers played grab-ass. Frank never does anything.”

Frank was the head clerk, a position otherwise known as middle management, in charge of the courtesy clerks, the most hated group of people in the whole grocery store.
“Why you so pissed then, if everything is alright?”
“My boss just made me stay later.”
“He can’t make you stay later. You mean he asked you.”
“It’s the same thing Ryan. I was supposed to get off two hours ago. It’s my girlfriend’s birthday and I wanted to take her to that new restaurant at the mall but my reservation expires in half an hour. If I leave now I’ll get there on time. And that’s if I take the bus.”
“Were you supposed to meet her there?” Ryan asked.
“Ya, but now I don’t know. The bus leaves in a few minutes and I still have a lot of work to do.”
“Where is she anyway? Maybe she can pick you up,” said Ryan.

Eric felt a vibration in his front pant pocket. With his right arm he extracted his cell phone, blinking with blue light from the received text message. With a grin Eric read the message to himself and then tossed his phone to Ryan.
“I think this will answer the burning question.”

Confused, Ryan, a chubby blonde, read the message out loud. “Hey, sorry but I had to change plans. I’m going with my parents to Three Margaritas and then to see a movie. Maybe next time. Love you.”
“I’ve always liked those kissing faces,” said Eric, noting the work his girlfriend had put into the text. Lauren, his girl, always put the emoticons in her texts, regardless of her mood. “It makes me feel better, and then I look at my surroundings and I feel like crap yet again.”
“You need to get out of here, and I mean now,” Ryan insisted. “We’re going up north in two weeks. Quit now and enjoy some of your summer.”
“I can’t,” Eric replied, “my dad hasn’t said a word about finances. I’m in limbo here and I’m going straight for a breakdown. The bastard hasn’t said anything about college funding since I told him how much was in my savings.”
“How much?” asked Ryan.

Eric looked up at the kid and paused.
“It’s alright if you…”
“No I’m not private about those things,” interrupted Eric, “I just didn’t know anyone took an interest in my problems.”
“It’s not a problem if you can fix it.”
“If I didn’t have $11,000 in my bank account my dad would pay for school in its entirety and I wouldn’t have a problem. Maybe I should have worked less in high school.”
“You worked two years at McDonald’s at $6.00 an hour and managed to save almost $7,000, and got a cumulative 3.4 GPA. You never got drunk or did drugs. You never got arrested or snuck out of your house, and you even created a film festival at our school. You did your job!” Ryan’s voice was becoming rather motivational, too much for Eric’s taste. “I think your dad should reward you with a full ride.”
“Well he won’t. Besides I… I don’t have time to think let alone talk about this right now,” Eric spoke, stumbling over his words. “I got a lot of stuff to do and my back hurts from lifting all those orange juice boxes.”
“It isn’t the end of the world,” commented Ryan.
“But it’s the beginning of my night,” noted Eric. “I probably won’t get out of here for another hour, maybe an hour and a half. That mean’s I’ll be getting an extra three to three and a half hours overtime tonight.”
“You get paid how much?” Ryan inquired.
“$10.13 an hour.”
“So an hour of overtime is like fifteen bucks. That’s pretty good.”
“But after taxes and union fees and union dues, I make about 72 cents on every dollar I earn. I make four hundred a week but I come home with about 290. It sucks.”
“Dude, I make $6.91 an hour.”
“But your college is paid for. I still got to write a check or they won’t let me attend class: at least not officially.”
“Well, I get off in thirty minutes. You want to do something with me?”

Ryan’s sudden choice to redirect the conversation to a more optimistic mood encouraged Eric to forget the troubles of his job, but he shook his head as he made a trek back to the cooler, the little room in the grocery store where he would fill the milk from behind the racks, along with cottage cheese and creamers.

Ryan had seldom stepped in there, only to leave damaged dairy products. But with Eric slumped over in disappointment, and most likely frustration, he decided to follow him.

As Eric pushed open the black swinging doors guarding the cold contents from the room temperature air, Ryan felt the refreshing breeze jam its way onto his neck and cheeks. There was a reason people worked inside here. Outside it was about eighty degrees, and the clock only showed the hour hand at the six.

Once both were inside, Ryan picked up where the two left off.
“It’s only six. Maybe you can still grab her and do something.”
“Like what,” Eric questioned. “She’s busy with her folks and I’m stuck here. I have four pallets to break down and work, mopping to do and a huge Gatorade display to take down. If that moron Jose had showed up to work like he was supposed to, none of this would be my concern.”

In the past three weeks Eric had been picking up extra shifts on the count of Veronica, a coworker, hurting her MCL, or ACL… it didn’t matter to Eric. At first he saw it as an opportunity: a way to ensure more hours and extra money. But with a “slump” in profits, as his store manager had put it, hours had been sliced off like an apple piece. This “slump” was a profit value 2% lower than last year for the same month of June. The solution, as Eric’s mother company had agreed upon, was to cut hours.
“You wanna chill in here for a while? Get away from Frank and the others?”
“That’s the best thing I’ve heard all day.” Ryan finished his sentence and found an empty flatbed to sit on. It was a cart used to transport produce products. Now it was a cold, hard seat.
“You know what I was doing last night?” Eric said, tossing his question over to his buddy to give an unknowing answer.
“No, what?”
“I was in my boxers, lying in my bed and watching tv.”
“Eric if there’s a box of tissue involved in this story I don’t want to here it.”
“Oh that’s really clever Ryan. I think I hear the metal on that cart bending. You should probably remove your fat ass off the damn thing before you bend it.”
“You’re just mad because you can’t see my backside right now.”

The two glanced at each other and Eric continued working. As Eric spoke he lifted a crate of milk off the floor and using his body, wedged it between his crotch and the shelf of the rack. It was milk with green caps screwed on, meaning it was low-fat.
“As I was in my bed I started asking myself why do I keep letting myself get whipped? I’m not a slave, I’m not a sissy and I didn’t have a surgery to remove my back bone.”
“Okay,” said Ryan.
“And then it hit me: I got to do this. It’ll better me for the future. No offense to you Ryan but you work, what? Twenty hours a week? I’m full-time. We both have bills but at least both your parents are pushing money at you. I got my mom… and she don’t got a lot.” Eric grabbed another crate and plugged more milk onto the shelf.
“I think this is just a time in my life that will make a rift that will offer better opportunities, like what happened back in June when Rob said he wanted me to put in papers for a management position.”
“But he knew you were going to college and wouldn’t be back until winter break.”
“I still could have used him as a reference and gotten a job up at school to help with the bills.”
“Dude, just forget this place,” Ryan shouted. A customer outside, unbeknownst to the two, held the cooler door open as he pondered what was going on in the darkness of the cooler room.
“Forget this place for one night, drop your things and come out with me. Just you and me tonight. We’ll do this every night up at school, so might as well get a head start.”
“I can’t just leave. If I do I risk my promotion.”
“You mean the promotion they promised you two months ago? You mean that damn promise they made by having you fill out papers that probably never got turned in. I know the procedure as well as you Eric: after the paperwork you get an interview. It’s been two months, and there hasn’t been an interview.”

After emptying a fourth crate Eric threw aside the cube item and walked within inches of Ryan’s face.
“If I keep working hard I’m bound to get something.”
“Hey I’m a hard worker too, but I haven’t gotten an offer.”
“Yes Ryan, you’re a hard worker,” said Eric with a sarcastic tone and glaring eyes, “and MTV is about the music.”
“That’s low man,” replied Ryan. “I can’t believe you went that low.
“Okay I’m sorry,” Eric said. A silence fell upon the two and then Eric snapped his fingers. “Okay how bout this. You’re a good worker, and Britney Spears is a good singer.”

Ryan took a moment to stare off into space, pondering the comment that had just been uttered.
“Okay I can do that. That’s still pretty low but I’ll take that.”

Eric smiled, a true smile, and punched Ryan on his shoulder. Ryan showed his teeth in delight.
“Come on. We can go see Step Brothers; it looks hilarious. And you love Will Farrell.”
“No, I said I like Will Farrell. There’s a big difference there buddy.”
“Do you want to spend your whole life working for people who don’t appreciate your hard work or do you want to have your mind full of good times and happy memories made with the people you like, love and care about?”

Ryan had posed a deep question. Eric turned to face him but then walked over to a mop and bucket that sat on the concrete floor against the far wall.
“Alright, work here. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

As Ryan began turning around, with anger building in his body, his eyes caught sight of Eric kicking the bucket over, letting water splash and then spread over the entire cooler floor. Water managed to get under his shoes and nearly out to the backroom beyond the cooler doors. There had been a lot of water in the bucket.
“At least I can leave knowing the mopping is done.”
The two laughed.
“So,” Eric began, “should we get McDonald’s on the way or after the movie?”

The author's comments:
This piece was inspired by my work as a grocery clerk. I'm hoping that anyone who reads this knows that at the end of the day all that matters is what you care about. If that doesn't mean your job, then there really is nothing to worry about.

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