I am hesitant to post this here. This is a story about being an essential worker with mental illness. Although it is set in a grocery store, it doesn’t reflect my personal experience working at my job. This is fiction, and not intended to be taken seriously. I love my coworkers and I am very, very grateful to be working right now with everything going on in the world. With that being said, read on!
The front end of the supermarket where I work is always a cacophony of bizarre sounds, but lately it’s gotten even worse. Shopping carts screech as soccer moms hustle down the aisles, throwing granola bars and Gatorade into their baskets, checking their smartwatches for the latest text messages from who-the-hell-knows. Little old men make their rounds, their orthopedic shoes squeaking and shuffling on the greyish linoleum tile, their canes making little “pop-pop-pop” noises. Grade school-aged children wreak havoc on the candy display and the soda machine. The candy rustles as they pile it into their grubby hands, and the soda machine roars as it sprays a cascade of sugary, empty calories into the buckets that pass for cups these days. Middle-aged women with nothing better to do berate any employee who cannot politely escape that there wasn’t any more organic ground turkey in the meat department and, “Don’t you know when you’re going to get more toilet paper? What does a person have to do to wipe their ass around here?” You’d think these women, with their sheer, pinkish-beige lipstick, acrylic nails desperately in need of a fill, and their pressed collared shirts wouldn’t kiss their mothers with that mouth, but in all likelihood, their mothers probably taught them this jackassery in the first place. There’s something going around, you know.
Barney’s Beach and Bread could never have thrived in any other state besides the red-headed stepchild of America that is Florida. What started as a small, family-owned bakery overlooking the beach became a Floridian corner store-supermarket hybrid. The company became a chain seemingly overnight, popping up in every major Floridian city like acne on a teen’s face. It is too tropical for a posh city like Denver, too posh for a state like Alabama. But here in Florida, the New York transplants, the retired millionaires in their mcmansions, the twenty-somethings who moved away for college, only to come home and work for their parents’ insurance company while their degrees collects dust, the Spanish-speaking immigrants, the bikers, the surfers, the good ol’ boys, and the meth addicts come together like a beautiful tapestry. Or a garbage fire. It all depends on the day.
Much like Barney’s itself, my coworkers who make up the vibrant and grotesque crew that keeps the store in business have their good days and bad days. There’s Arlene, the seventy-something bagger who enjoys yelling at customers. Rumor has it she got fired from Walmart. We also have a crew of lazy teenagers, most of them compelled into the workforce by parents who wanted them to “learn about the real world,” or “build character.” The dad in Calvin and Hobbes is ever-present, like the ghost of family values.
Not all of the teens working here are bad workers, though. Some of them won’t want or be able to attend college or move away from this town. Some of them could climb the corporate ladder, ascend from the grunt work like cleaning the bathrooms and find themselves in upper-middle management by their mid-twenties.
As for me? Well, college didn’t exactly work out. I’m not entirely sure why American society as a whole decided it was a smart idea to take a slew of barely-adult-children, ship them away from the watchful eyes of their parents, and leave them on a college campus rife with alcohol and other forms of entertainment, with few consequences for bad behavior and even fewer resources for when things went awry.
And things did, indeed, go awry. To make a long story short, I took a very, very bad trip and never fully came back from it. I decided that going to class was less important than getting high, and because I was young and sexy, I was able to get high for free. At some point, I smoked something that was laced with something else, which caused me to have a complete psychotic break.
When I arrived at the counseling center on campus, no doubt taken there by a worried friend, it became apparent that my problems were too much for the student counselors, and I was asked to leave the college.
That was seven years ago. My parents, distraught by their daughter’s illicit drug use and ensuing psychosis took me to specialists, but there was not much that could be done. I did the Thorazine shuffle for quite a while, took lots of Haldol naps, you know how it goes. So while I watched my little town grow up around me, I remained at Barney’s, where I do the best I can.
It’s 2:30 PM on a Friday. The store should be clamouring with shoppers, but it’s pretty dead in here. Arlene is not-so-subtly speaking into her smartwatch. She’s hard-of-hearing, but won’t admit it. “You people all just need to speak up!” she frequently admonishes us. Because of this, we’re all privy to her supposedly private conversations. She’s been known to slip into the bathroom to make phone calls on the clock.
Dana, the cashier who’s been working for Barney’s since before the birth of Christ, is drumming her fingernails on the till. This sound normally fades into the background of all the organized chaos that is retail grocery. But with scant few customers in the store, it sounds like the beating of hooves. I think of the horse in Animal Farm, “I will work harder!” as he’s being carried off to the glue factory. I think of him often, both when I’m putting my best efforts in and when I’m slacking off. I’d like to say I usually operate on the former, but in all honesty, it’s probably about fifty-fifty. I work just hard enough that most of the other employees here like me (or at least tolerate me), and occasionally, I’m allowed to train new hires.
I hear the automatic doors swish open and Hayley and Claire enter, both of them carrying gigantic Starbucks drinks. They’re fast-walking to the back room to punch in, giggling about something or other. Probably boys. Or maybe not. What the hell do I know? I’m not a teenager anymore, and that’s a weird thing to come to grips with, too.
“Excuse me?” comes a voice. “Does anyone feel like working?” Dana’s fingernail drumming stops abruptly. A customer is wheeling her shopping cart towards us. She’s a bottle blonde, with a cart full of organic, imitation PopTarts and whole grain mac-n-cheese. Dana gives me a look of exasperation, and then smiles at the customer. They exchange pleasantries, I ask the customer if she’d like plastic bags. She tosses a wad of canvas bags at me, not deigning to even speak to the help. I bag all her stuff up, and the total is more than I make in a week. So it goes.
“You’re going to need to grab us another cart,” the customer tells me. I’m moving slowly today. I was hearing voices in the middle of the night, scary shit, end of days kind of stuff, and I had to take some extra medication. Although it is twilight, I’m still feeling drugged up and groggy. I survey the couple’s shopping carts; it appears they’ve entirely demolished the frozen dinner section. They have ridiculous amounts of instant coffee, powdered milk, and don’t even get me started wondering how many kids they must have to require the purchase of twenty-three cans of off-brand split pea soup.
I go to get them their third cart. The woman is haggling with Nora, one of the younger, more intelligent cashiers, over a fifty-five cent coupon that expired three months ago. Nora looks sharp with her pink glasses and freckled skin. She’s got on just enough lip gloss to show that she puts a little extra effort in, and she smells like drugstore perfume. The customer, on the other hand, hasn’t even bothered to put on a bra, something most female shoppers regret when they enter the frigid store. When the braless women demand, “Why is it so cold in here?” I simply reply, “Keeps everything fresh!” Not that this (or anything, really) would satisfy them, but at least it shuts them up.
“I’m going to go ahead and take the coupon off manually,” Nora says. “But next time, be sure to make note of the expiration date.”
Despite getting her way, the customer rolls her eyes at Nora and then looks at me, as if I’m going to side with her, rather than my coworker. “Plastic is good?” I ask her.
“Yeah, whatever. It doesn’t matter,” the customer says. “It won’t make a difference when Armageddon comes.”
By the time this remark has registered with me, the man is rifling through his wallet looking for more coupons and Nora has totaled the order. It’s over three hundred dollars. “Shee-it,” the man says.
“Did you want to take something off?” Nora asks.
“Wait, I’m sorry, what?” I say, blockishly.
“Armageddon, honey. Don’t tell me you ain’t never been to church, now,” says the woman. “It’s the end of the world. Ain’t you read the papers? Watched the news?”
Nora repeats the total. The couple pays, mostly in crumpled fifty dollar bills, and a little bit on a credit card. As a “front end specialist” (the politically correct and gender-neutral term for “bag boy,”) it is my responsibility to make sure customers who need assistance in the parking lot receive it. And with two customers who have three carts, they’re going to need an extra pair of arms and legs. Despite being terribly afraid of the dark and knowing I’m too old for this fear, I wheel one of the heavy shopping carts out the door, following this bizarre couple. They’re talking to each other about how expensive the groceries were, how long it’ll take them to put it all away, normal stuff. Wordlessly, I load the trunk of their minivan and linger just long enough to collect a possible tip. Instead, the man reaches into the pocket of my uniform. I immediately stiffen. I don’t like to be touched, especially by strangers, but I’m at work and can’t tell him to piss off. He meets my terrified gaze and says, “Girl, you’d better pray like you ain’t never prayed before.”
I’m still standing in the parking lot as they pull away. I reach into my pocket and find that the man deposited a little pamphlet reading, “Do you know where you’ll go after you die?” But I’m not afraid of God. I’m afraid of all God’s children.
“Did I tell you about that bad car accident I was in?” Randy says to me one slow day.
I don’t know Randy too well, and I’ve made it a point that none of my coworkers should get to know much about my personal life, so I don’t know why Randy feels the need to inform me of his accident. Nonetheless, I take the bait. “No. Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine. I was real lucky,” he says.
“Uh-huh.” I don’t really care if he goes on or not. He takes this as an invitation to continue with the story.
“So I live right off of this one street where you gotta come around a curve, and it’s close to the exit from the beltway, so people are always flying around this curve, right? And, so, to get here to Barney’s, I have to go across six lanes of traffic. So anyway, I thought I was in the clear, and I was running late, and I just fuckin’ floored it, and some dude in a Mustang didn’t see me, and I didn’t see him, so he hit me in the rear driver’s side, like just a few inches from the driver’s seat. It was my fault even though he was speeding, but I didn’t get a ticket.” Randy completes his monologue, and raises his eyebrows.
“Wow… uh… wow, yeah I’m glad you’re okay,” I say.
“Yeah, thanks, me too. I feel really lucky to be alive,” Randy replies.
“I was in a bad car crash too. About two years ago,” I say.
“Oh really? What happened?” Randy asks.
“I was coming home from a… uh… thing in Orlando. I made it all the way off I-4 and I was almost home, driving down that two-lane road near the new hospital. It was raining and I was tired. I started to veer off the road and I overcorrected and it made my car roll–twice–across two lanes. Thankfully, there was no other traffic. And I was fine! I got a little bump on the head, and that was it,” I explain.
“Yeah, I bet you got a bump on the head!” Randy snickers.
I stare at him blankly. Is he making fun of me? Randy wanders off to collect shopping carts from the parking lot, and I wonder if he’s a vampire. He’s got a great body, he clearly enjoys going to the gym, but with a face like that, it’s hard to know if he’s nineteen or thirty-five. He’s soft-spoken and formal with the customers. I wonder if he’s a two-hundred-year-old vampire, yearning for Victorian times.
Still, somehow bonding over our common misfortunes makes me feel understood.
“Hey girl, you look bored,” says the customer. I’m standing at the end of register seven, the express lane, as I’m supposed to when not occupied.
“Are you ready?” I ask him in my best customer service voice.
“I was born ready!” he chuckles at his own joke, as if I haven’t heard that line twenty times today. He unloads his cart on the belt, which lurches forwards. He has many, many more than ten items, but once the first item hits the belt, I am prohibited from saying anything to him. It’s frustrating, really, because a big order on the express lane guarantees that a customer with just a few items will immediately appear behind He Who Cannot Count, and the Common Law Abider is always in a hurry. This wouldn’t bother me if I didn’t nearly always get blamed for the wait. You see, in most other establishments, schools, hospitals, construction sites, ten is a hard fact. It is the number between nine and eleven. If I’m in the hospital, the nurse isn’t going to give me “ten-ish” milligrams of medication. “About ten” feet on a construction site isn’t going to work if the ladder is only “nearly ten” feet tall. And I don’t think a math teacher would be very happy if I added 4+5 and got “sort of ten.” But at Barney’s, “ten” is not hard and fast. It is a feeling, a sensation, a thought, an idea. It is as ephemeral as the scent of jasmine on a spring day. Not to mention, I wonder if some of the customers can even count that high.
“Whatcha think of these masks the government is making us wear, girl?” the customer asks. I internally roll my eyes, and out of habit, touch my name tag, which reads Gee. My full name is Geraldine, and I’m pretty sure I’m the youngest woman in the world to bear that name. When I was hired at Barney’s, I didn’t want people to ask me questions about my name, so I said I went by Gee, which was the first of numerous lies I would go on to tell at work. I was not named after a grandmother or great-aunt. My parents were just weird. Regardless of nicknames, most of my customers call me ma’am or miss. These are the good customers, the ones who can count to ten and bring their reusable, canvas bags. The other customers, well, they can’t read the sale sign, they’re unaware that coupons even have fine print, and they refer to my coworkers and me as “the help,” “boy,” “sonny,” and “girl.” Believe it or not, I have a name. And my name is NOT girl!
As I finish scanning the customer’s order, I look up at him and see that he is, indeed, wearing a mask. “I didn’t realize we were required to wear them,” I reply. Masks freak me out. Halloween? My worst nightmare. You never know who’s behind them, who has fangs and a forked tongue.
Within two weeks, Barney’s has mandated that all employees must wear masks. “Social distancing,” is now a household buzzword. About half of the customers choose to wear masks. Some wear disposable gloves.
Change is hard for everyone, I get it. But for someone with psychosis, someone who is bound by a routine and relies on familiarity, changes like this can quite literally feel like the end of the world. It’s bad enough that my hours at Barney’s change every week. Now, I am not in full uniform without a cloth mask covering my mouth and nose.
“Do you know when y’all will be getting more toilet paper in?” the customer at hand asks me.
“No, I’m sorry. I don’t know,” I tell her.
Her brows are furrowed and her glasses are fogging up due to condensation from her mask. Her voice is muffled as she presses, “I asked the deli clerk too. He said he didn’t know either. Neither did the kid wiping down the carts. Are they just telling you to tell us y’all don’t know? Because I find it highly unlikely that nobody in this store knows.”
“You’re just not asking the right department, ma’am,” I explain. “You’d have to ask someone on the stock crew.”
“Well, are any of them working today?” she snaps.
I want to say, “No, we’ve decided not to put anything on the shelves today. It’s a stock crew holiday,” but instead I tell her, “Yes, that’s Jared on aisle nine. He’s a stock clerk. He would know.” I point to Jared, a portly, black man who is lining up tins of Pringles and whistling to himself.
The customer rolls her eyes at me. “I’ll just come back tomorrow.”
“We’ll be here!” I say, injecting some cheerfulness into my voice like helium into yesterday’s balloons.
I typically only work the morning shifts, and I see some weird things. I’m sure the closing crew does too, but sometimes there are things that only happen when the people motivated to “beat the rush,” come to the store for what they consider essential. We sell a lot of PBR and boxed wine before 9:00 AM, mostly paid for in cash, “You can keep the receipt.” (Oh boy! I can? I’m going to frame this one!)
In the middle of the night, I wake with the unbearable urge to shave my head. It seems that the world is burning, and my hair is too flammable. I’ve had enough. I stand in front of my bathroom mirror and examine my reflection. My hair isn’t much; it hits around my collarbones. Not quite blonde and not quite brown, I watch it cascade into the dirty sink.
When I walk into work the next day, my orange polo tucked into my Dickies, name tag shining brightly on my chest, my head shorn and fuzzy, I am met with stares. My coworkers know I’m odd (at best), but even this surprises them.
“Yo, Gee… Are you… Are you good?” Randy says to me, as I take my place behind the cash register.
“Yeah, why?” I reply.
“I just, ah, I… Never mind.”
When Brian, the store manager pokes his head out of his office, he does a double-take as he sees me. His eyes widen, and he beckons me forward.
Anxiously, I tiptoe into his office. I’m not comfortable around Brian–he’s the boss, and as if that’s not intimidating enough, there are rumors of, shall we say, “misconduct,” around some of the female employees. He stares at me with disgust, and I feel like I’m not even human. “Gee,” he begins, rubbing his temples with his fingers. “What in the hell do you think you’re doing here looking like, like… that?!” Judging by the vigor with which he’s rubbing his head and the tomatoey complexion creeping across his face like bad ideas in the middle of the night, he wants to scream. I think a lot of people probably want to scream at me for a lot of different reasons. Now and again, customers and coworkers alike get frustrated with my way of doing things. I’m slow, I’m disorganized, I’m “special.” People use a certain tone of voice with me when I’m doing something wrong, sort of the way you’d scold a puppy who shat on your grandmother’s Oriental rug. Some messes are more difficult to clean up than others.
“Uh… I just didn’t want to have hair anymore,” I say weakly.
“You didn’t want to have hair,” Brian says.
“Do you realize what today is?” Brian asks.
“Saturday?” The passage of time is difficult for me. I never know what day of the week it is, and I don’t know why it matters.
“No!” Brian throws his hands up in exasperation. “I mean, yes, it is technically Saturday. But are you really trying to tell me that these shenanigans have nothing to do with Barney’s visit today? Because I’d find that very hard to believe.”
“Why is Barney coming today?” I ask. I’m becoming more and more overwhelmed with Brian’s display of frustration. I watch the walls breathe, listen to their soothing breaths.
“The local news is going to be here today! They’re doing a story on how much aid this company has given the community due to the virus. Barney is here to glad-hand people, and we are here to make him look good. And this,” he gestures vaguely to my bald head, “Is not a good look!”
I begin to rock back and forth slightly on the balls of my feet. “I’m sorry,” I mutter.
“Sorry doesn’t grow your hair back. Make yourself scarce and get out of my office!”
I scurry out of the small, windowless office and back to the front end. Brian was telling the truth, there is already a Channel 4 News van here, and Barney, the big man himself, is striding through the automatic doors. He is accompanied by two girls who look to be about my age carrying a rolled-up banner. It’s eleven o’ clock in the morning on a Saturday, which means the store is teeming with shoppers. I’m standing awkwardly at my register, waiting for customers. My coworkers are staring at me. I began to wish the floor would open up and swallow me into the underbelly of the store where the souls of lost cashiers would befriend me and I could frolic in a palace made of expired coupons.
Moments later, all attention is turned to Barney as the cameras begin rolling. The banner is unfurled and reads, “Dear shoppers, thank you for your unending compassion!” Brian’s words, “Make yourself scarce,” are ricocheting through my mind. I stand stiffly behind a rack of potato chips until I hear applause and laughter. The newscast is over, Barney has secured the goodwill of central Florida. And then, he approaches me.
“What do we have here?” he says.
If Brian isn’t intimidating enough, Barney certainly is. He seems to stand eight feet high, in a designer suit and teeth so white they look unnatural. He looks down from his massive height at me like I’m a specimen in a lab.
“Hi. I’m Gee,” I mutter. I see Brian fast-walking towards Barney and me. I doubt Brian wants me, his bald-headed, “special needs” worker interacting with the founder and face of the company.
“Hi there, Gee,” Barney instantly adopts the dog-shat-on-the-rug voice. “Now, tell me something, what’s your favorite thing about working for this wonderful company?”
“Uh…” I am reeling. Brian is approaching us, Barney’s teeth glint at me like he polished them up nice and special just to devour me. I take a deep breath and will the floor to open, but it does not.
“Is the cancer in your brain, honey?” Barney asks sympathetically.
People have been asking me questions about my brain, my mood, my mind, and my thoughts for years now, and I have had it! I am not a puppy shitting on the rug! I am a person, just like Brian, just like Barney, or any of the other employees in the store. All I want is to be spoken to like a regular person, to be treated like there’s not something “wrong” with me. Isn’t that why I take all this medication? So I can fit in with the rest of these normies? “Cancer? No, I don’t have fucking cancer!” I shout. The volume of my voice startles both of us.
Barney’s horrifying smile becomes a snarl. “Did you just curse at me? In my store? Don’t you realize this company was founded on family values? I take it you don’t know nothin’ about family values if you’re comfortable desecrating your body with a bald head and those tattoos! This is what’s wrong with the youth these days! All y’all just want to look cool and smoke reefer! Y’all got no work ethic!”
“I’ll tell you what’s wrong with this place! It’s got sick building syndrome! You walk in here and your will to live? It’s gone! We’re out of toilet paper because everyone’s so full of shit! These fluorescent lights are melting my brain, the floors are paving my way to the grave, and I’d tell you to kiss my ass, but that’s desecrated too!”
“Get out!” Barney and Brian roar in unison.
I throw up both of my middle fingers and run. I get outside to the parking lot where shoppers are loading their groceries into their cars, and I catch my breath. Kids are unwrapping candy bars and opening bottles of soda. The sky is blazingly clear and the sun feels good on my face. I can hear familiar songs playing on car stereos. I take a moment and just observe my surroundings. Normal people doing normal things. This is the best I’ve felt in years.