LET US HAVE THIS
For the broke or bored or forced of us there is always the Hart-Mart hiring. The hired of us stamp tags in clearance for markdown and work checkout and give directions as to what can be found. Besides us there are the others in the Hart-Mart who we consider year-rounders. Year-rounders like Benjy pushing carts in the parking lot or Sandra speaking on the overhead speaker or Cedric greeting people at the front entrance, saying, Welcome to the Hart-Mart, or when they are leaving, Thank you for shopping with us at the Hart-Mart. We promise everything we sell here is quality. Quality like the Hart-Mart's generic brand Fresh-Fresh, as in Fresh-Fresh cereal, Fresh-Fresh coffee, Fresh-Fresh granola. If what you are looking for cannot be found, you may choose to browse elsewhere but we must inform you nothing compares to the quality we have here. From the heart of the Hart-Mart's heart, that is our promise to you: the best of quality.
Summertime most of us are either off from school or graduated and need to either find some way to spend the summer or move on with our lives none of us are sure what to do with. In any case we end up at the Hart-Mart because we hear they are hiring. Some of us are young enough to still have fathers to tell us work builds character or whatever it is our fathers might say about work, though others of us have work permits to work early or are have-nots who once tried to become a have but are still a have-not. The have-nots of us have gone to college and dropped out or have started businesses that went bankrupt or did one of the many things you might do to make you end up a have-not. It might be best just to say we're all here working for the same thing regardless of having or having not at any time at all.
All the time we are sure to watch for Benjy. Benjy walks into work this morning blazed off ganja. Benjy, we say, you can't keep coming in here like this. Benjy doesn't care. He's a have-not like the rest of us. Before Mr. Parson or any customers or regulars see Benjy baked and get him canned, we borrow sunglasses from the revolving rack up front and put them on him to cover his big-pupiled eyes. We help Benjy pull on his orange vest then send him out to the parking lot to push carts all day under the sun that Benjy gets burnt up under and we say we'll see you in a couple hours.
We're straightening Family Size Fresh-Fresh pretzels in the chips aisle when Mr. Parson tugs on one of our sleeves and asks, Excuse me, do you work here? We say what with the uniform we wear that says Hart-Mart on its back, Quality stitched across the chest, Fresh-Fresh on the sleeve, that we would hope we work here. Oh, good, Mr. Parson says. Can you tell me why everything is so expensive? We tell him nothing else anywhere compares to our quality. Should you choose to browse elsewhere we must inform you that you will not find their selection as Fresh-Fresh as we have here. Horseshit, Mr. Parson says, so we guide him with a hand around his bicep to our goods on clearance. These are our goods on clearance, we say. Mr. Parson looks at the prices of the goods on clearance and says, Outrageous, and with Cedric our greeter saying to him as he leaves, Thank you for shopping with us at the Hart-Mart, and Sandra on loudspeaker speaking loud, One-oh-six in produce, Mr. Parson walks out of the store he's owned his whole life.
When there's a lull in shopper flow we go looking for Cedric. Cedric out of any of us is not hard to find. He is all day standing at the entrance saying, Welcome to the Hart-Mart, and Thank you for shopping with us at the Hart-Mart. Cedric could have gone to college or done anything else well enough to become a have but here he is working for quality. Not really. Really he's working for his eight sisters back home. When we find him at the entrance during the lull we say, Hey C, you greet anyone quality today? Cedric's writing down the conversation of two teens sitting on a bench near returnables. You're going to get beat up or arrested if somebody catches you doing that, we tell him. Besides being our hero Cedric is also our writer. He is writing a novel all by himself in hopes of becoming a have, a better have than the haves we sometimes see around town. Cedric gives us writing advice we won't ever use or need. Like right now once he finishes writing in his notebook, he says to us, Pay attention.
It could be worse, we think. Could be that we decided against the Hart-Mart and everything the Hart-Mart has to offer and instead got a job cutting timber in the forests at the edge of town, where we'd likely lose a hand or at least some fingers. Could be we got a job delivering papers at the post office or mowing somebody else's lawn, or doing whatever else our town needs doing. In any case we find working at the Hart-Mart easy enough but it is still a job none of us feel qualified for regardless. We do our best to give out-of-towners and other first-timers directions when they ask, the hired of us pointing these people to the cereal aisle or dairy section or deli with fingers we might've lost in a job we did not take, giving this somebody directions when we don't even know where any of us are going or doing here in the first place.
Cedric says whenever we write something down we should put it aside and come back to it later. He says we never know how we sound or how what we say is said until we distance ourselves from ourselves. Separation is key, he says, and we tell him, That's nice, C, really. We say, How's the novel coming? Cedric says another key is to never tell anyone what you're working on or it'll never get finished and he says he's writing a chapter where a group of grocery-store clerks are falsely under siege by police. What do you mean falsely under siege? we ask, and he says the three clerks have been accused of murdering customers in the storeroom, plus their boss who went missing under suspicious circumstances. Was it really them? we say, and he says, Falsely, before turning away.
In the heart of the Hart-Mart's heart we wheel tugger carts with crates packed with resupply, clinging to the backend pallets with our hands gripping steel bars, drifting past never-before-seen Sandra doing a front handspring over the aisles. Up above in the rafters Benjy wears a loincloth and flies around with a trident. He smiles down on us from above as we drift past the deli where haves are slaughtered by have-nots and are sold on markdown, not so much quality but so Fresh-Fresh, us all drifting past Mr. Parson meditating in the cereal aisle and to the front entrance where Cedric's signing copies of his best-selling grocery store novel. We somersault over the tugger carts and out the automatic doors of the Hart-Mart and into the new day's light. All of this is happening and none of this is happening. We have been having what Benjy's been having.
None of us feel the best about this job that we do our best to do. The overhead speaker Sandra speaks to us through says different numbers that we're trained to know the meaning of but none of us do. We are all of us or at least most of us young and we feel there is something wrong with us in spite of our age. We ask Cedric how he keeps on like this, how has he worked here as long as he has, and Cedric tells us it's a lot like writing, because Cedric compares just about everything to writing. You do it every day with the hope that you'll get better, he says, and you're stuck doing it because either you don't know what else to do or can't imagine doing anything else. None of us are meant for this, he says, but it's all some of us will ever do.
It's not all of us who will ever do this though. We begin to come and go when school starts up again in the fall, just for those who had been us to come back during winter break or next summer to be a part of the Hart-Mart again. We put up posters around town that say the Hart-Mart is hiring because we always are and because Mr. Parson, when he is in the right mind, says we need to start recruiting. Mr. Parson walks around the aisles looking at canned soup and reading the labels and putting them back on the shelves. He's supposed to be training the newbies who have applied to the Hart-Mart upon seeing the posters we put up but the newbie-training is left to us who have stayed on. We teach the newbies how to promise people that we're quality even if we don't believe it ourselves. We show them how to stamp goods for markdown and work checkout and give directions even though there are signs with directions on them, teaching these newbies until we feel they are less of themselves enough to become a part of us.
Cedric says the grocery-store clerks have barricaded the front entrance with shelves and carts and have armed themselves with frying pans and knives from the kitchen and cutlery section. Cedric says they have to find a means of escape without getting arrested or long-shotted by a sniper. He says they have to prove they aren't what the town thinks they are.
Black Friday's always terrible timing since by November we've already lost a lot of us to education. All month we've been advertising discounted Fresh-Fresh toasters, Fresh-Fresh bicycles, Fresh-Fresh toys Santa doesn't have shit on. Tonight a line curls around the building, Black Friday shoppers set up in tents and bundled in blankets early to get the best discount. Most stores have a First Fifty gift for the first fifty customers that enter the store but instead we hand out pamphlets that say we are hiring. Cedric says we have to make sure people are informed. We make sure they are informed. With the Black Friday shoppers spilling in and out of the Hart-Mart and grabbing at everything quality we will soon be out of, it is difficult to keep track of all of us. Cedric does his best to greet and say goodbye to the coming-in and going-out shoppers but there are far too many people to say these things to. Some of us help Benjy with the collecting of carts in the parking lot because we see how most shoppers leave their carts scattered in the lot to get home faster. With all the shoppers shopping for the best discount we forget all about Mr. Parson. We find him later on in the cereal aisle, down where he has fallen, a hand placed over his Hart-Mart's heart.
By the time the ambulance pulls up to the curb outside most shoppers have checked out with their best discounts and have already gone home. Some of us watch the paramedics load Mr. Parson onto a stretcher to take him into the ambulance they lift him up in the back of, but others of us walk around the store to check the shelves because we are required to take inventory. Those of us watching the ambulance also watch with Cedric and Benjy and this other woman we don't know the name of. Benjy looks at the receding red and blue lights and says, Well it was going to happen eventually. Jesus Christ, Benjy, Cedric says. This woman we don't know the name of says, He'll be missed, but we should get back to work. All of us look at this woman and how unnamed she is and none of us know her as a part of us. You don't even work here, Benjy says, and she says, I've worked here for eight years. One of us says, Bullshit, what section? She says loudspeaker. All of us look at Sandra, taking a good long look like we won't ever see her again, because it is more than likely that we won't.
Two days after Black Friday we have our first snowstorm of the year. Most of us take the day off because our less-than-quality cars and trucks and vans aren't able to get through the snowstorm. The Hart-Mart itself is empty of shoppers or regulars or any person resembling a customer, since nobody shops during a snowstorm regardless of how quality or Fresh-Fresh we are. Cedric greets those of us who do show up to work and we say, Cedric, we work here, and he says, Welcome anyway. Where's Benjy? one of the few of us asks Cedric. Cedric says he's not sure, that Benjy's either not coming in or he got caught in the snowstorm. Not long after Cedric says this, Benjy walks into the Hart-Mart shirtless and wearing swim shorts. He walks past us and punches himself in like everything's quality and couldn't possibly be any better anywhere else though in truth Benjy's skin is this weird freezer-burn color. Hey Benjy, Cedric says. Come here a minute. We grab him to try to wrestle him to the ground and try to put our coats on him, but Benjy twists free and books it back outside to gather carts, his flip-flops flopping in the snow.
Cedric says the grocery-store clerks have a plan. He says they have strapped cast-iron pans to themselves with duct tape and are wearing pots for helmets. He says after they have escaped they plan to find the real crime-breaking person or persons that need to be found. Cedric begins to expand on these plans but Benjy right then wheels a conga line of carts in from outside. Benjy pushes the carts to the cart station and turns to go back outside to gather the rest from yesterday's shoppers but his hands are frozen to the cart handle. He tries to pull away but the skin on his hands starts to tear. Cedric and the us that are here gather around Benjy and place our hands on him. Come on, buddy, Cedric says. Let's get you some help.
Since we are already at the hospital Cedric and some of us go up to the third floor to visit Mr. Parson. We find Mr. Parson lying in bed watching the History Channel. How are you feeling, Mr. Parson? we ask, and Mr. Parson rapid-fire clicks the nurse call button. What's wrong? we say. Mr. Parson keeps pressing the call button and tells us he remembers us, which has those of us that are here looking at each other like, He remembers us? Cedric says, You remember us? Yeah, he says, you should all be ashamed for what you did to that poor orphan. We give Cedric a look like, Okay, he doesn't remember us, and Cedric gives us a look like, What did we do to an orphan? Before we can say anything else Benjy walks into the room with frostbitten fingerless hands and we push him out the door before Mr. Parson can have another heart attack.
Most years Cedric does Santa for the Hart-Mart but this year it's Benjy since he doesn't have any fingers to push carts with. We are all of us at the Hart-Mart making sure Benjy's laying off the ganja as Santa. He's got on this four-sizes-too-big red and white Santa suit, the sleeves long enough to hide his hands but of course Benjy's got them rolled up to his elbows. It's hot in here, he says. The coming-in children with their parents take one look at fingerless Santa and bolt out the doors to the parking lot. We duct tape a bell to Benjy's hand so he can wave it around and say, Ho-ho-ho, welcome to the Hart-Mart, or Ho-ho-ho, thank you for shopping at the Hart-Mart. There's a red bucket beside him for donations and everything. When the haves of our town see Benjy as Santa they drop quarters on the floor knowing he doesn't have any goddamn fingers to pick the change up with. Since Benjy's shafted into the holiday greeter role, Cedric's out in the parking lot pushing and collecting carts in the snow. We can see him out there, those of us who are watching from behind the big Hart-Mart windows, a Cedric-shaped outline of this man so quality.
Cedric on break, blowing snot into a Fresh-Fresh deli napkin, says the grocery-store clerks have managed to evade the police but one of them has been shot in the neck. He says the rest of the grocery-store clerks have holed up in the woods, holding the neck-shotted man together with towels and duct tape. He says it is not looking good. All we say is, Please tell us it was Benjy who got shot, and Cedric says, What? No, listen. None of this is anything real. It's fiction, you guys. He says these clerks are nothing like us. Please, Cedric, we say. Let us have this.
As of late Cedric's been taking time off sick from work. As the new year starts we wait for him to return to the Hart-Mart to finish telling us how we end, waiting just as we wait for Mr. Parson. For now it is just us, doing the best we can. We stamp tags in clearance for markdown and work checkout and give directions to what can be found. Benjy stays on, greeting in Cedric's place, and the more we see of Benjy the more we see how much we are like him, how he is a part of us, and us a part of him. We are year-rounders, we are seasonal, we are all of us having not. For the new year most of us make resolutions we won't follow up with. I guess the best and only thing we can promise to you is our quality, and that we will always be here, even when we are not.
In the words of Walt Whitman: "I am large. I contain multitudes." So goes with this piece.