Three months ago I got a job. A job pushing carts and bagging groceries at the local supermarket chain. God its dull. After college, everything seems that way. Okay, sure it was a community college and sure an archaeology degree may not open a world of possibilities for me, but at least its something. Its always come naturally to me. I’ve always felt purposeful while searching. I guess that tendency to discover has morphed into my life and degree.
The one benefit of this dreadfully dull job is solitude. Sure, there are people. But you don’t always have to interact with them. When bagging inside, conversations drain me. You meet some nice people, but then your legs lock up and your shoulders ache and you find your shift isn’t half over. It becomes increasingly difficult to maintain that award-winning smile.
Outside, conversations are sparse and light.
“Excuse me, bud.”
“Would you mind helping me with that Coke young man Yes, that’s the one...”
The old-lady-with-the-pale-blue-cardigan’s smile almost breaks up the boredom. She’s 77. I never ask people, but she volunteered her life story one afternoon.
Then there’s that one twenty-something-married-couple. The regular twenty-somethings you see around. Prius? Check. Bearded guy? Check. Small spotted mutt as a pet? I’m not quite sure if that’s a regular twenty-something thing, but check. I always find a flower bag in the cart they use and they often link arms to cross the street. One thing confuses me though about this happy couple. The guy, gets really weirded out by the mutt. The dog starts barking, and its like the man snaps or something. He just throws it in the back. I have a funny feeling that the mutt’s barking at the bearded guy. I guess somejust aren’t dog people.
There’s this other guy I really like. Tony, I think that's his name. He reminds me of an old stereotype I was warned to avoid. Scruffy face, tattooed arms, baggy clothes. He’s laid-back. I haven’t seen him too often, but the days I’ve seen him, he makes an impression. The other week, carts were packed out into the street in the middle of a rush. And I had to deal with it. Alone. Management isn’t observant. Well Tony was waiting and had nothing better to do, so he helped out. He’s fast and sure had some interesting stories. It turns out that he’s an ex-cart grabber from 7 or 8 years ago. Apparently it didn’t last too long though. Management couldn’t see the value in old Tony.
Well, as of late people have become less distinctive. Tony hasn’t come around recently. I think I’ve seen the old-cardigan-lady recently, but then again there’s always a sea of old-cardigan-ladies. My schedule changes. That’s probably it. I can never count on saying hello to the same customers each shift, aside from the odd handful. The 20-something couple is an exception. At some point in almost all of my shifts, they seem to whisk into the store for a few things. Sometimes a half gallon of 1%. Sometimes sushi. Only a few things. I don’t know when they do the bulk of their shopping, but I know they have to stock the fridge with more than the odds and ends I see them with.
Maybe “see them with” isn’t accurate. I more often see their receipts or grocery lists left over in their carts. It sounds worse than it actually is. When you’ve been baking in the hot sun for half your shift, mindlessly pulling around carts, you need to find something to capture your interest. Its often forgotten papers. Why not entertain myself? Management loves to remind us to dispose of trash anyway, so why not be thorough? Sometimes receipts. Sometimes lists. Sometimes grimy paper towels that you just want to ignore.
That couple’s cart remains unchanged. They always park their black Toyota to the far right of the store, if you’re walking out. A tall, dark grove of pines provides shade for many cars on that side now during the long summer afternoons. But they only come at night. Otherwise, we don’t get much traffic on that side. Its rather isolated and removed from the main entrances. Well, actually now that I think of it, that couple does change. Recently, I haven’t seen much of that dog. Or the woman. Only the man shows up. His beard receives less attention, hairs have become scraggly and overgrown.
He now balls up receipts in hand. Dropping them loosely before peeling out of the lot. I no longer see loopy handwriting spanning hallmark grocery lists. I can only imagine from the receipts. They’re no longer in the carts themselves. I still pick them up. Receipts have changed. No more flower bags. No more dog food. The distance I felt from my work has suddenly vanished and I find myself in the middle of things. Walking near the grove, I found myself unnerved. Still detached. But focused.
I was closing up the store, later than most shifts I work. I had just switched off from bagging and now had to take in the last remaining carts for the night.
There were only a few carts left. A sporadic clump or two. The scene felt pretty normal for a closing night. I was both tired and excited. My shift was almost over and TV’s sweet release awaited at home. A pretty attractive bed too.
He came back. The Toyota was parked in its usual spot, just before that steep little hill and pine grove on the edge of the lot. I hadn’t seen him get out. The parking lights were still on. I could see movement in the shadows, but nothing was illuminated. Curiosity pulled me to the odd scene. I only had one row of carts left.
The car was still out there, after I got off work. No lights this time. I walked to the edge of the lot, passing the it aimlessly. I didn’t want to look too closely at that car. So I decided to just stand at that hill. I looked out. Before me, the dense pine grove, faint moonlight in its boughs. Boy was that a steep hill. Then I heard. A scratching at the bottom of the hill? It didn’t sound like just another animal. I heard again. This time behind me. The Prius? I turned but fell, my foot catching on the curb, I fell back first down the hill, tumbling in a daze. That hill was steep. I kept tumbling until I was stopped in the pine grove past the tree line.
Pain from my back and ankle pulsed through me. My shirt clung to me. A puddle, below me. I couldn’t gather the energy to stand up and my body ached and stung and then my shirt was wet and then I felt something against my side. What? I shot up from the ground, ignoring my broken ankle. For an instant my heart stopped. As I turned, I saw them. For an instant the wife and mutt. In the dim moonlight my eyes matched the woman’s. Gagged and bound, she writhed, squirmed. Her eyes said what her mouth could not: help. The mutt beside her, motionless. For an instant I moved to help. The next, I heard it again. Looking up from the woods, I saw him. A shadowy figure running down the hill with some light. I didn’t look too closely. I ran.
I ran further into the grove near the parking lot. God knows what time it is. I hear noise behind me and shouts from a distance growing nearer. I can’t walk. My phone’s gone, must have fallen down the hill. God, there’s something else in the distance. My jacket’s still wet from that puddle. Damn, my whole back is drenched.
Its funny. After all this commotion in the woods and the pain from my ankle, I’m only now beginning to smell the gasoline.