Joe is a grocer.
Every night he clocks in at 5pm, works his shift, and leaves at midnight. Most of the time he does not encounter any issues. He faces the grocery aisles, pulling forward and straightening each and every box. Then he stacks the produce in neat little pyramids while educating customers about what fruit is in season, what fruit is not. Sometimes he’ll ring up customers when the line gets too long, but for the most part he doesn’t have to worry about the registers. The Store hires at least a dozen of those kids—mostly college students—who ring up customers all day and all night. Joe certainly doesn’t envy them; they deal with the leftover anger, the bullshit, from tired customers. Plus those kids who work the registers don’t get to move too much. They stand all day. Joe’s moving. Always moving.
By the final hour of the night, the regional truck arrives with the new shipment of product. Joe hops on the forklift, Ol’ Tank, and unloads the truck. He switches gears fluidly, bringing the forks up, tilting the heavy pallets back, and dividing the shipment to their appropriate departments. Joe, if he says so himself, is magnificent at forklifting. Every swivel of the steering wheel is smooth, every pallet drop is perfectly placed. The forklift isn’t a boy’s tool—that’s for sure!—and Joe isn’t a boy. Everybody who works at The Store knows he’s the best man to operate that vehicle, let alone the whole store. This very fact makes Joe proud.
Remember, four years ago he was awarded Team Member of the Year! Kids tend to forget that, though he doesn’t blame anyone for forgetting. Besides, most of his co-workers are brand new; every year—sometimes within a month—a batch of them quit or get fired. Joe doesn’t understand their behavior. How do you ever get fired from a job like this one? Joe cannot see himself leaving this way. Definitely not. One day, maybe, Joe might do something else. But, right now, there’s nothing beyond the horizon except the same old shit. As it has been said: he clocks in, he works, he leaves.
The only person who consumes Joe’s time other than the people at The Store is Joe’s very lovely wife, Allison. She often waits up, well past midnight, and shares her leftover dinner with him. Joe loves her. She loves him. Their soft, intimate conversations fill the kitchen until 2am.
“And the kids,” Allison lifts her fork like pencil. “Can’t even write their names.”
“You have to teach them to write their names?” Joe bites into an old lukewarm meatball that Allison cooked several hours ago.
“How can I teach a whole English lesson, if these kids don’t even know their alphabets? 7 years old and they don’t know their alphabets.”
“Makes you think how far they will get in life.”
“Don’t say that! Just because a kid isn’t adequate at school doesn’t mean they’ll become bums. I’m sure there’s plenty of your coworkers with no education; and they’re probably happy like you. And, may I remind you, you have a degree.”
Joe coughs hard. The meatball crumbles through the wrong pipe. A degree means nothing unless the person pursues the passion. He has no idea what to do with a liberal studies major. And who says that his coworkers are happy? Who says Joe is happy? How can Allison be so definitive? Happiness and working really hard: there’s a clear difference. Some days he’s happy as a grocer. Other days he’s not. Is he generally happy? Joe doesn’t know. He’s certainly not depressed. He is startled that he can’t agree with his wife. He beats his chest while the meat dissolves its way down. Allison reaches for a napkin but Joe snatches her hand, jolting her momentarily. He lets her hand go and stops coughing.
“I’m good. I don’t need a napkin,” Joe smiles. “Speaking of my coworkers: a fella in dairy spilled an entire milk pallet. Somehow I had to clean it up.”
“Oh no,” Allison covers her mouth and laughs. “What else happened tonight?”
“Other than the spill, it was pretty routine,” Joe thinks about the smoothness of his forklifting skills. “Is it weird to say that I enjoy forklifting pallets?”
“No,” Allison says. “I think it’s good that you’re a simple bub.”
“Well, I might be a simple bub but the forklift is a complicated matter.”
“I’m sure it is.”
“Listen not everyone is capable of operating that machine. Sure, you could drive it around and pick stuff up. But to really maneuver it? Now that takes years of practice. I could pick up quarters with Ol’ Tank.”
“I’m sure you can,” she smiles and calmly gathers the empty plates like bits of afterthought. She glances at the clock: it’s insanely late.
“Now, listen, most people look at a guy like me and not think much…”
“Who’s thinking that?”
“…but I’m telling you one mistake on that machine can cost the business thousands of dollars. And one grave mistake, like keeping the forks elevated while driving, can kill somebody!”
“Joe,” Allison looks worried. “Why are you mad?”
“I’m not mad,” Joe clarifies. He’s not, really. He just raised his voice a little. His wife doesn’t know a thing about forklifting. He does. “I’m just saying.”
The bed feels soft and sleep comes easy. Joe goes to bed without considering what just happened: a confrontation with his greatest question. Whether or not he’s happy, Joe appreciates his life: a job, a wife, talents at work. These joys should be enough evidence to prove, yes, he is happy. But why does this question keep appearing and spreading like pests? When Joe wakes up, three hours later, he discovers that he has just experienced a terrible dream that he cannot remember. Is it about Allison—no. Is it about The Store—no. Is it about doing something else other than grocery; is it about being someone completely different—maybe? And so he lays there, eyes open, until dawn, retracing a slight headache and a dark little feeling.
The next evening isn’t going well. The Store is unusually crowded and there’s been sudden no-calls, no-shows on behalf of a few good-for-nothing cashiers. Joe is holding a tight face while he rings and bags product after product. He tries ignore the rude customers who project their personal problems into his face (literally, a gross old man spit on Joe’s apron). Of course he hears: the line is too long, the cashiers are too slow, the strawberries are moldy, the whole business is going under!
“Ten!” Joe calls for a much needed break.
In the breakroom he stumbles upon another cashier, Matt, who is on an extended ten-minute break. Joe wants to say something—get back to work—but he decides not to waste the energy. God knows he needs it for the next six hours. Matt is a weird-looking kid—skinny but short, dyes his hair orange. Matt plays with his black lip ring as he flips through what looks to be a biology textbook. Joe shouldn’t bother Matt as he studies, but there’s a sweetness watching a young person maneuver through school. Joe must have been like Matt once. He doesn’t remember the last textbook he read or the last test he took. But he does remember studying during breaks at old jobs, all retail gigs, most of them grocery stores.
“You got finals or something?” Joe says.
Matt glances up and peers at Joe through those thick orange bangs.
“No, man. This is my girlfriend’s book. She’s got the test in a few days. I don’t go to school. I’m, like, too old.”
“Oh my god,” Joe laughs; Matt looks like a little boy. “You can’t be older than twenty, buddy.”
“I’m actually twenty-three.”
“Oh my mistake,” Joe raises his hands, mocking Matt’s seriousness. “Next thing you know you’ll be retiring.”
“Whatever,” Matt mumbles. “What about you? You’re, like, twenty-five.”
“Shit, I’m thirty-three.”
“Damn. You don’t look thirty-three,” Matt smirks. “You didn’t go to school either, huh?”
“I did. I got my degree in liberal studies.”
“What’s that? Like teaching?”
“You could teach with that degree, sure.”
“Why didn’t you become a teacher?”
“I thought about it,” Joe has never thought about it. Or, maybe, he did once. But that’s an ancient thought replaced by The Store.
“So,” Matt rolls his brown, micey eyes, “you decided to stay here.”
“I didn’t decide on anything,” Joe tries to sound wise and diplomatic. As he thinks about it, he just sounds simple. “I’m making a living.”
“No offense but I don’t know how people work here for years, even decades.”
“It’s not so bad. We get benefits and discounts. We’re not cramped in an office all day like some people.”
“I guess so,” Matt says. “But it’s still a grocery store.”
“What’s wrong with a grocery store?” Joe raises his voice now, mocking no one.
“Nothing, I guess. You could probably make more money with a degree. And, like, you don’t have to slave around your entire life, barely getting by. Unless you become a dickhead manager, which is cool. I guess. But I think they’re barely making anything either. And if you’re going to have a family, like, your kid isn’t going to respect you. This is a pretty lame job. What’s your kid going to say? That’s my dad—he stacks vegetables on top of other vegetables.”
“Oh yeah, what about you? You work here too! And get off your ‘ten’. I know you’ve been up here for at least twenty minutes,” Joe wants to curse Matt out, his mouth hot and loaded with insults. Matt: you little know-it-all loser. What the hell is wrong with working for a grocery store? “You have no idea what it’s like…”
“Are you timing my breaks?”
“I’m going to start timing you.”
“Honestly, everyone thinks you’re the weirdest. You’re so into this,” Matt slams the textbook shut and points at the exposed pipes in the ceiling, the pasty yellow walls, the broken chair that’s been broken for month, “You’re so, ugh, positive about this place.”
Kids don’t realize that other forms of work are not always better. Joe knows, at least he believes, that there are far more worse jobs than there are better ones. Like it has been said: some days he’s happy at this store, some days he’s not. Does that mean this is his life forever? No. Even though those hard days feel like a painful, brutally dull journey. Manning the registers sucks. That is a fact. But it’s not the end of the world.
Joe to register four. Joe to register four.
Break is over? Man, Joe wastes time thinking about these stupid things, concerning himself over kids like Matt and these frivolous opinions that mean ultimately nothing. On the worst days, these hard nights, Joe second-guesses all his decisions and wonders how much time has been wasted making the wrong ones. Time is wasting—Joe tightens his apron and heads back to work—time is wasting.
Four hours pass incredibly slowly: each customer stealing a chunk of energy from Joe. By the last two hours, he wants to crash in bed. But the regional truck arrives and needs to be unloaded. He gladly leaves the registers and heads for Ol’ Tank, sitting patiently on the loading dock. He makes the usual checks: the propane seems like a quarter full, the seat is adjusted, the rearview mirrors are cocked at the proper angles. Ol’ Tank caresses Joe’s stout shape as he hops on the seat. He runs his fingers along the steering wheel. It’s soft and worn and perfect. If everything goes well, the truck will be completely unloaded in twenty minutes. Time to work.
When Joe turns the key, the engine stalls. He tries again, it stalls. He checks all the points but the engine won’t start. Maybe it’s the battery. Joe grabs the portable jumper cables and jolts the engine: nothing but dry gasps. Even the truck driver, who impatiently waits by the dock, tries to chime in with instructions. Joe waves him off, enforcing that he’s jump-started the forklift plenty of times, that he doesn’t need any help.
“I think your engine is dead,” the truck driver says while Joe, for the fifth time, tries to revive Ol’ Tank. “We got to manually unload the truck.”
“That’ll take us another hour!”
“Got to do what we got to do,” the driver shrugs. “I got to make another delivery by 11:30!”
Joe ditches the cables. He’s so, so tired. He just wants the night to end. Ol’ Tank is now ol’ useless. He kicks the side of the forklift, a loud bang echoing throughout the empty dock, and whines a few curses at no one in particular. Unloading the truck is going to take forever! First the driver has to lower each pallet down to the dock level—his truck’s rear trailer lifts and descends so slowly. Up and down, down and up, each time takes, at least, another thirty seconds which adds to further delays. Then Joe has to manually drag pallets to their sections of the dock that span great lengths from each other; the meat department being about a football field away. He’s got to use his legs. He’s got to use his lower back, already tight and sore from a day of standing and picking shit up. But that’s not the only thing that’s bothering him: when Allison says he’s simple and happy, she is dead wrong. There’s nothing simple about working day in and day out at a grocery store. He has to deal with the broken equipment, rotting products, angry customers, angrier co-workers, and the fear of not making sales, the stupid weekly quota. Below the surface there’s nothing happy about this place: young dreamers with slim chances of making a better life for themselves and old dreamers who only dream, who unknowingly defend the means of routine and complacency.
The reality for Joe, as he snatches the manual pallet jack and yanks the first pallet from the truck, is a reality of small tasks. He lives from small task to small task, expecting that each step will get him closer to something much greater. But he has no clue as to what that greater thing means. Upper management? No way. They have too much responsibility, not enough resources. Yet that’s his only trajectory, a dickhead manager as Matt says. It is only now that Joe, at thirty-three years old, learns that he has pigeonholed himself. He seems stuck. But he acts tough. And, like most tough people, he works his shift the best he can despite a broken forklift and a painfully cumbersome process unloading this truck.
Joe is a grocer.
He may do something else, something in the field of his old studies. But not now. This is who he is today, who he might be tomorrow.