Stock Clerk’s Story

Something about me, maybe my puppylike looks, invites people to open up and pour out their most personal stories. Or maybe not my dogface, because one time it started even before I could remove my motorcycle helmet, which is of the full-face type. As niece Amy Cottle will attest, on an October ride together, we pulled up to the curb in downtown Chelsea and a guy on the sidewalk spouted off to us about his crash into a guardrail. Lest we disbelieve, he pulled up his shirt to reveal hideous, gruesome scars. A couple of months later I sat on a barstool while the next rough-looking guy related everything about his unemployment and depression and substance abuse and failed relationship and past years in the alternative school for dangerous, ill-adjusted kids. A nuance in my tone once caused him to bristle, as in, “What do you mean by that?” I remember thinking, with his obvious volatility, I’d better watch it. Around midnight I paid for his beer and walked home feeling pretty vulnerable if he felt like running down someone with his pickup. Surely he had one.

I'm all ear.
I'm glad you're all ear.

Yesterday I pushed my grocery cart out of Produce and there in the health and beauty aisle was the stock clerk who tends that department. I don’t want to use her real name so let me call her Wauneta, after the Nebraska town where my friend Budd grew up. Wauneta has rich brown hair that falls below her shoulders, equally dark brown eyes, and is quite pretty. I’ve known her since we moved back to town in 2002. She worked the cash register then and would carry on in an informal and sometimes self-deprecating way that I found charming. She used to start at 3.00 a.m. and stock shelves in the early morning hours before taking a checkstand, and she got home in time for her kids to return from school. This schedule suited her. I’ve always made a point of saying hello and bantering a bit.

I don’t know what triggered her this time. I guess it was the mention of my upcoming winter vacation. Wauneta began to wax poetic. She said that a year before she and her husband were married, they purchased a Florida timeshare. I reacted to this: What confidence they had in each other! “Oh!” she said, and explained this is her second marriage and they’ve been together fourteen years. Wauneta was just twenty-nine when her first one ended. She never imagined being divorced. Remarrying didn’t even seem a remote possibility. But she attended her sister’s wedding and ended up dancing with a man from Jackson. At evening’s end he asked if he could kiss her.

“I didn’t know a man would do that,” she said.

I came within a whisker of saying men just figure divorced women are wantonly promiscuous. She might have laughed at this, or pelted me with the bottles of hairspray she was shelving.

Anyway, she said, he asked for her phone number that first night. Not long afterward, he called up. “What are you doing?”

“I’m sitting here watching TV with my kids.”

“Would you like to go out tonight on a date?”

“I wouldn’t be able to get a babysitter.”

“That’s OK, we’ll bring them along.”

She knew she had the right guy. But she was predisposed to think that, when one phase of her life closed, the next would be easier; however, her two kids struggled to adjust to a stepdad (the ex-husband’s generosity and diligence helped matters) while two more kids came along. Meanwhile, husband Number Two has had a pacemaker and defibrillator installed.

I don’t remember what triggered the strange transition our conversation—or I should say, her monologue—took next. Maybe it was the thought of death. Wauneta said she wished she had gone to college. (Some might equate college with death.) Her sister didn’t like science but studied hard and works for the FDA. She’s currently in Belgium, doing an inspection. She plans to retire at fifty-five. Wauneta will load store shelves for another twenty years.

“So what about the timeshare?”

“Oh, we still have it. My husband insists we go every year at spring break and take the kids out of school for an extra week.”

Life is good. So by tacit mutual consent, the exchange ended. Maybe Wauneta noticed my wilting celery. She wished me a great vacation if we don’t see each other. The next item on my list was black peppercorns with the built-in grinder in the cap.

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