Smoking in the girls’ room, sneaking a drink, napping
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Daniela can’t stand Lisa. Exactly why, I’m not sure. I can see her criticizing Lisa, who is her boss, but Daniela’s anger goes well beyond mere criticism. I suspect her rage stems in part from their age difference: Lisa is twenty-nine. Daniela, I assume, is in her late fifties like me, and she’s been at this Big Box store for five years to Lisa’s two. And Lisa looks like a teenager, with her oversized sunglasses, bob haircut, and perpetual pout.
Lisa also has a political-science degree; that may be part of it. She assumes Daniela and I didn’t attend college, and this assumption bothers Daniela. She didn’t go to college, but for Lisa to presume so irks Daniela.
—Just because we haven’t gone to school, she tells me, doesn’t mean we’re stupid.
Daniela supposes I’ve not been to college, either. What would she say if I told her I have a master’s degree in journalism? The Great Recession ended my career as a daily reporter at The Kansas City Star, and after a year of trying to find work, single and with no family ties to Missouri, I returned home to the North Shore suburbs of Chicago to live with and care for my elderly mother. My father had died two months after I’d lost my job. I knew my mother would appreciate my company, and I’d appreciate not paying rent while I got back on my feet — which proved much harder than I’d anticipated. The job market in Chicago was no better than in Kansas City.
So here I am in 2013 at the Big Box not far from my mother’s house. I’ll never tell Daniela that, despite having a graduate degree, I couldn’t do any better than this.
It doesn’t matter anyway. I won’t be here long.
Daniela’s daughter, Ana, also works at the Big Box. The three of us staff the garden center, which sells plants and lawn-care products: hoses, sprinklers, sacks of soil — anything related to yard maintenance. Listen to me. Yard maintenance. Work here long enough, and you start talking the store’s lingo:
Product: the saplings, flowers, and shrubs we sort.
Corral: the enclosure in the parking lot where the product is displayed.
Guests: the customers.
This verbal stew suggests a kind of expertise is required for the job. Even my title, garden merchandiser, implies a profession. What do you do? I’m a garden merchandiser. Yes, but what do you do? Unload product and put it on tables. Anyone can do it. It’s what economists call unskilled labor.
But no one ever asks, What do you do? That’s the trick: make the title sound impressive, and people will assume you are a professional.
—Do you have a business card? guests ask me.
—I’m sorry, I reply. I left them in my locker.
To her credit, Lisa doesn’t pretend that her poli-sci degree means much. After she graduated from college, the only job she could find was bagging groceries at a supermarket. Then, in 2011, she applied for a garden-merchandiser position at the Big Box and got it. After a year she was promoted to supervisor. Her qualification? The old supervisor quit.
—Pays better than bagging groceries, Lisa says.
The Big Box offered Daniela the supervisor position first, but she turned it down because she enjoys organizing product. She’s good at it, too. Excellent, really. In another life she could have designed window displays on Fifth Avenue. Because of her, when guests enter the garden center, a brilliant arrangement of floral colors greets them. Daniela thrives on the praise she gets but doesn’t see it reflected in her paycheck. In five years she has never had a raise. The Big Box buys its flowers for next to nothing, she complains, and sells them for more than they’re worth. They could afford to give her a raise. Lisa could recommend Daniela for a raise, but she doesn’t. Daniela has concluded that Lisa doesn’t care about the quality of her work. Lisa only wants us to show up and unload orders and make her look good through our efficiency. She doesn’t concern herself with the appearance of the corral.
—Lisa thinks we’re stupid and don’t know what she’s up to, Daniela says, tapping her left temple. But I know.
Daniela crosses her arms, point made. She’s a short, compact woman in a green sweatshirt and jeans, a backward baseball cap on her head, the soles of her sneakers worn smooth, and a furious look in her eye. I feel the same bitterness, but for different reasons. I don’t care about the corral any more than Lisa does. I just don’t want to be here. That’s my problem.
The disconnect between the number of plants ordered for the garden center and the number sold only increases Daniela’s frustration. The mysterious orderer is like Oz behind a curtain. We never see him or her but only experience the results of the ordering decisions, which I would sum up as: throw as much out there as you can, and hope a few items catch on with guests. The plants that don’t sell die by the dozens, and even the ones that do sell have casualties, because the orderer floods us with so much product that it would require the populations of India and China to make a dent in our inventory. The orderer clearly anticipates hordes of manic gardeners for the two-month window of spring planting — Memorial Day weekend through mid-July. When the hordes don’t appear, we become a prison camp of flowers doomed to die. Most homeowners still haven’t recovered from the mortgage crisis enough to worry about their flower beds. Daniela’s meticulous displays, testimonials to her pride and skill, become a wasteland of withering plants that we must mark down and down and down until they perish. Lisa makes her pluck brown leaves off roses and prop up drooping stems with sticks.
—They’re dead! Daniela snaps.
The Big Box hired me back in April, about a month before the start of planting season. A guy named Kurt called in response to my application and asked me to come in for an interview. I drove around the parking lot beneath an overcast sky for ten minutes before I finally parked. You don’t have to do this, I told myself. But I did have to do this. I had no income, newspapers weren’t hiring, and out of the dozens of job listings I’d answered on Craigslist, only the Big Box had responded. I stepped from my car and dialed Kurt’s number on my cellphone.
—I’m here, I told him.
—I’m right behind you, he answered.
I looked over my shoulder and saw a kid waving to me, twenty-eight, twenty-nine, tops. Almost three decades younger than me. His bouncy walk jiggled the tassels on the winter cap he wore. I stuck out my hand, and Kurt grabbed it in a loose handshake. I offered him my résumé, which he took but did not bother to look at.
—Don’t worry; you’ve got the job, he said with a grin.
I forced a smile as my morale sank. I was applying for a job so mindless that the résumé I’d dummied up to show a fictitious work history of manual labor was unnecessary. Kurt chucked it in the trash. Glancing at my crumpled sheet of lies, I followed him to a table in the outdoor-furniture department. Hammocks swayed above green plastic mats designed to look like grass. Plastic lawn chairs encircled a barbecue on more artificial grass.
—This is worry-free carpet from the Big Box, a commercial blasted overhead, with advanced stain technology built in and our best warranty ever.
Kurt gave me an application and a proof-of-citizenship form. I wrote my full name: John Malcolm Garcia.
—I thought your name was Malcolm, Kurt said.
—I go by my middle name.
He said he would have to call me John: post–9/11 immigration laws required all employees to use their legal names.
—Malcolm is part of my legal name.
—Yeah, but it’s not your first name.
I assumed Kurt had been to some management-training seminar about screening for undocumented workers and terrorists, and all the legalese he’d been fed had boiled down in his mind to this: all employees must go by their first name. I resented that this kid who outranked me thought he had the authority to determine my rightful name. I told him no one had ever called me John, not even my parents, but it didn’t matter. He was firm. The Big Box had made a determination: I would be John.
Oh, hell, I thought. John or Malcolm. So what, right? I knew Kurt wasn’t a bad guy, just young and ignorant, as I once was, as we all once were. Besides, I thought, I won’t be here long.
An odd breakdown of duties prevails between garden merchandisers and the rest of the Big Box staff, who are known as associates: garden merchandisers are responsible for the unloading and exhibition of product; associates assist guests.
Sometimes the lines get crossed. An associate might move a pallet of boxwoods to clear a path for a guest. No, no, no. She should have asked a garden merchandiser to do that. Or an associate might unload product in the corral instead of leaving it beside the building for a garden merchandiser to distribute. No, no, no. He should have asked one of us.
Lisa fumes at such flouting of the rules.
—This is my product, she says when this happens, and stamps her foot.
At night I send out my résumé to online job sites. When a Chicago Tribune editor asks me to write some suburban feature stories on a freelance basis, I’m thrilled. It’s my ticket out of the Big Box!
I get an assignment about once a week, and each time, I think it will lead to a full-time job offer — probably in a suburban bureau, but that’s OK. I’ll take it.
After my fifth assignment my editor tells me the Tribune is cutting back on freelancers.
—It’s a budget thing, she explains.
I don’t hear from her again.
The publisher of The Kansas City Star called a staff meeting the day before six other reporters and I were fired. Five rounds of layoffs had preceded this one. After each, we’d been assured that the fiscal house was finally in order — until the next budget report, the next demand to reduce costs, the next round of cuts.
At the meeting the publisher told us that his wife had struck a raccoon on her drive to work that morning. The raccoon had probably safely crossed that road dozens of times before its chance encounter with the publisher’s wife.
—We’re all in the same position, he said. Without anticipating it, without any hint that one morning will be any different from another, some of us end up as roadkill.
I begin my shift in the garden center at 8 AM, five days a week, and I get paid ten dollars an hour. In my interview Kurt referred to opportunities of overtime, which means that I’m expected to work Saturday and Sunday, too, and because the pay is so low, I do. Coercion as opportunity.
Lisa wanders through the garden center at the start of each day with a cup of coffee and a serious look on her face. Maybe she thinks this is the expression a supervisor should wear; I don’t know. She answers to Kurt the way Daniela, Ana, and I answer to her, and Kurt answers to the men and women in suits who drop by every so often. He gives Lisa notice of these walk-throughs, as he calls them, so she can push us harder in preparation and make the corral look spotless. We sweep up and fill dumpsters with dying plants, leaving only the most vibrant specimens on display.
On the day the suits show up, they stroll the corral, taking notes and conferring with Kurt and Lisa away from where Daniela, Ana, and I might hear. Kurt strokes his chin and nods at their every utterance. Lisa does, too. When the managers leave, without even a glance in our direction, Lisa tells us in a deeper voice than usual that we have to be more thorough when we clean; that we need to shift the pallets of boxwoods to the front of the store; that we have to rearrange a table of roses to include more yellow with the red; that we’ve been slacking off, though she has never suggested we’ve been off our game until now.
—Kiss-ass, she calls Lisa.
She stares at the parking lot, then pecks out a text on her phone. Lisa glances in our direction.
—Watch out, I warn Daniela, as if we were two kids passing notes in class.
Daniela shoves her phone into her pocket. I start moving the boxwoods, but Daniela soon takes over. Despite my complete disinterest in the work, I’m impressed with her devotion to her craft. She can’t sit back and watch me do a less-than-perfect job in her corral. I pick up a broom. She lets me do that much.
This job provides no mental stimulation. As I go about my tasks, scattered memories enter my mind with no transition from one to the next, as if something were chipping away in my head, breaking off bits here and there, images from my past:
Remember that time in third grade when you were playing tag, and you got carried away and pushed a girl named Valerie, and she fell and bumped her head and cried? The other boys and girls, who seconds before had been your friends, started shouting, You hurt Valerie! The gym teacher rushed over and grabbed you and began slapping you until you fell. Remember the shocked looks on the other kids’ faces? You lay on the snowy ground, refusing to cry. Later you said nothing to your parents, afraid they would be angry with you, too.
Remember when you stopped by your older brother Charlie’s house and asked him how to make Mom’s chive dip? You drank a beer, and Charlie walked out to his garden and cut some chives. He was grossly overweight, and as he squatted by the chives, you could hear his breathing, the effort it required for him to take in air. You thought of telling him he needed to lose some weight, but you didn’t want to deal with the awkwardness that would have followed. So you had a second beer and watched Charlie make the dip and put it in a Tupperware container for you. Then you went home. You talked to Charlie by phone just once after that. Four months later he died of cardiac arrest.
Remember Sandy? You expected to be with her the rest of your life. The two of you rented a house together, but she wanted kids. Wasn’t that it? She said you thought only about yourself. Somebody has to, you replied, because you go through money like water. She’d bought a new sofa. Wasn’t that it? You were both living on just your income, and she’d bought a new goddamn sofa. Twenty years ago. You haven’t seen her since, and here you are furious with her again.
—You OK? Daniela asks.
—Yeah, I’m fine.
I drag my hands through my hair, stretch, and get back to work, helping Daniela move a pallet of arborvitae. I still feel worked up about Sandy. I still miss Charlie. I still wonder what happened to Valerie and that gym teacher.
One late-June afternoon, as two managers and Lisa stroll through the corral, the younger manager — early thirties, I’m guessing — introduces himself to Daniela and asks how she likes her job. I’m sure he was expecting a generic, upbeat answer. Instead Daniela cuts loose about the excessive orders, how so many plants die, the waste, the futility of the work. The smile on the manager’s face sags into a frown. He confronts Lisa about the orders, tells her he wants to know the number of plants we toss each day and the price of each one. Daniela didn’t say anything the manager didn’t already know, but she said it — that’s the thing. Now that she has complained about the inefficiency, it can no longer be ignored. Someone has to be held accountable. Daniela works for Lisa, so it’s Lisa’s problem to fix.
After the manager leaves, Lisa confronts Daniela.
—Throw me under the bus, is that it?
Daniela says nothing, a triumphant smirk on her face.
—You know, Lisa continues, July’s not too far off. Think about your hours. I won’t need you all full time after planting season ends. I’m just saying.
The following day I work with Ana. Dressed in her usual heels, skimpy blouse, and tight jeans, she sways to “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,” one of many soft-rock tunes piped into the garden center. Though I admit she’s easy to look at, I wonder how she makes it through an eight-hour shift in those clothes.
—Do you like my hair? Ana asks me.
—Do you like my hair?
I’ve got an ego like any other guy, but at fifty-six I won’t pretend, as much as I’d like to, that a twenty-seven-year-old would hit on me. Now, one of the associates, Patrick, who is about my age, would probably be convinced that Ana was attracted to him. Patrick’s a recovering alcoholic and goes to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings just to meet women. He swears he saw me at a meeting once, but I tell him I am a good three beers a night away from AA. After work I stop at Straight’s Tavern, not far from the Big Box. A mirror fills the wall behind the bar, reflecting images of the regulars who stare absently into it. Photos of baseball players hang beneath a shelf of trophies won by high-school teams the bar has sponsored. Above the mirror is a mural painted during the Great Depression. It’s tinted brown by smoke, but you can still see hints of country houses perched below hills and creeks coursing through green valleys.
I have my usual spot at the bar, as does every other regular. A guy named Larry always sits to my left. He puts up scaffolding for window washers for a living. He had throat cancer years ago and slurs when he talks. I used to think he was hammered all the time until I heard about the cancer. He drinks Budweiser in a bottle: just three, and he’s good to go.
Four stools down from Larry sit three guys all named Ralph. The three Ralphs, we call them. There used to be a fourth Ralph, but the recession got the best of him. He was unemployed for months. His marriage was ending. He had a house facing foreclosure. He would show up at Straight’s a few minutes before it opened and bang on the door to be let in. He never paid his tab. Then, the night he died, he ordered a beer and a shot of Jack Daniel’s, paid for his drinks, and left. He seemed almost giddy, like he was high, recalled the bartender. The next morning we read that he had stepped in front of a train. Now Straight’s is down to just three Ralphs.
—Do you like my hair? Ana asks again.
—Why do you ask?
—I applied henna.
—It looks nice, sure. Where’d you learn to do that?
—I was a beautician.
She says she earned seven hundred dollars a day working at a skyscraper downtown. I suppose she might have made that much. I’ve been charged thirty bucks just to have my hair trimmed, and I don’t have much left.
The good money didn’t last long, though. Ana became allergic to the chemicals used to dye hair. Her face broke out, and she quit the business. Maybe she’ll outgrow the allergies, she says; she doesn’t know. She’d like to move to Las Vegas for the weather. I adjust pots of red roses into neat lines on the display tables and wonder if she’d believe I was once a reporter. I want her to know I am capable of more than arranging plants. I figure she wants me to know the same about her. Why else would she be telling me all this?
When I was a young man, a college education guaranteed you a good job, and Americans still had a rising standard of living. All that came to an end in the 1980s. Today median incomes, adjusted for inflation, are about where they were at the end of that decade. The housing market has yet to fully recover from the crash. Part-time work is replacing full-time jobs. Patrick complains that he gets thirty hours of work one week and fifteen the next. He never knows what he’ll get, only that it won’t be a full forty.
—I can’t live like this, he says.
I suggest he look for work elsewhere. That’s what I’m doing. I’m not staying here. I’m out after planting season.
This afternoon, on our lunch break, Ana shows me how to cop a free meal at the Costco nearby. Neither of us is a member of the wholesale warehouse club, but we get around that troublesome detail by walking past a security guard and ducking up a closed checkout aisle.
Costco offers shoppers free samples of food from carts: cheese and crackers, mini-wraps stuffed with veggies, meatballs speared with toothpicks. Ana and I take one of everything, loading up our napkins and chewing with subversive delight. We circle back for seconds of the items we particularly liked. When we’ve had our fill, we look for someone handing out small squares of cake or brownies or pie. The only thing we don’t find is something to drink. For that, we retreat to the Big Box and snag soft drinks from the short refrigerators at the checkouts. None of the associates makes us pay. Ana and I return to moving saplings and hydrangeas to create space for an order of blue holly. We toss 104 potted roses that Lisa concedes have died.
As we sort the holly, Ana says she’d like to be a radiologist but worries that she’s too old to return to school. She also doesn’t want the burden of student loans. She broke her right arm last year when she slipped and fell on some ice, and she still owes the hospital three thousand dollars. At this point, she’d just like to meet a good man who wants children and is capable of supporting a family and paying her medical bills.
Every day, eighteen-wheelers unload towering racks of product beside the Big Box. Little plywood placards we call tombstones list the name and price of each plant: Emerald Green Giant Arborvitae, $46.98; Lily Magnolia, $32.98; Yew, $32.98; Three-Gallon Boxwood, $36.98; Euonymus Wintercreeper, $17.98; Rhododendron, $14.98. I slide the prongs of a pallet jack beneath each rack, crank down on the handles to raise the pallet off the ground, then pull it into the corral. I struggle against the weight, bent over with the effort. When I pass Daniela, I ask how she likes my imitation of a mule.
—It’s very good, she says.
Problems at work give our days meaning: A delivery is delayed. An order gets misplaced. A thunderstorm prevents us from working in the corral. Daniela, Ana, and I huddle to devise a strategy, as if the problem defies the collective knowledge of the other Big Box staff, and our combined expertise alone will resolve the matter. We blame Lisa for everything. If only we were supervisors, none of this would happen. We’d even prevent thunderstorms.
Privately I know it’s better that we’re not in charge; that we remain garden merchandisers, critiquing Lisa’s incompetence and believing we would do better if only given the chance.
Because I don’t know anyone in Chicago anymore, I keep going to Straight’s. A regular named Bruce always takes the stool to my right. One evening he and I end up talking about where we grew up. It turns out we attended the same high school. More than that, we were in the same graduating class. Neither of us remembers the other. Bruce tells me that, while we were in high school, he lost the vision in his right eye as a result of a skeet-shooting accident at the country club where he worked on weekends. He didn’t realize anything was wrong until he looked in a mirror and saw blood on his face. Guys, he told his coworkers, I’m in trouble. Then he passed out.
—You don’t remember when that happened? he asks.
—Everyone at school knew about it.
Bruce laughs. His teeth are gone from decades of chewing tobacco, and when he finishes laughing, his lower lip protrudes above his double chin.
—I was out of school for a month! You didn’t notice?
—What’s your name again? I ask.
Bruce calls out to a woman waiting tables:
—Joan, Malcolm and I went to the same high school, and he doesn’t remember when I lost my eye!
—What are you talking about? she says.
Bruce has a Grand Canyon–deep crush on Joan. She’s in her fifties and has jet-black hair, although a few gray strands peek through. She often wears a too-tight white blouse, and her smoker’s voice belongs to a character in a detective novel. Bruce adores her. His regular stool is next to the spot where the bartenders set out drinks for the wait-staff, and whenever Joan retrieves an order, Bruce waits to see if she’ll speak to him. She doesn’t.
The coincidence that Bruce and I went to the same high school gives him cause to adopt me as a brother. He could use someone in his life other than Joan, who isn’t really in his life — except in his dreams, maybe.
Bruce texts me almost every day around four.
Bar tonight? he asks.
Yes, I text back.
After nearly two months of hauling racks of plants into the corral, I’m in better shape than I’ve been in a long time, and my skin is a dark tan from working outside all day. I feel ridiculously young — until I see myself in a bathroom mirror. My gray beard and lined face don’t lie.
This afternoon, as I heft a potted sapling, a woman with shoulder-length brown hair watches me work. I’d guess she’s in her forties. She wears a light-blue spring dress with enough cleavage for my imagination to roam around in, and when she asks if I’d put two pots of Quick Fire Panicle Hydrangea in her car, she smiles at me like I’m the only man she wants.
—Thank you, she says. Now I just need someone to plant it. I don’t suppose you’d come home with me.
She laughs and covers her mouth.
—I can’t remember the last time I said that to a man, she says.
—I can’t remember the last time I had a woman say that to me, I reply.
Blushing, she thanks me again. As I watch her drive off, I have this unreasonable hope that she’ll return and something will happen between us, even though I know absolutely nothing will happen, any more than something will happen between Joan and Bruce. For a moment I stand outside myself and see my tanned body, the muscles in my arms and legs, and I remember the look in her eyes. Then I vanish into the emptiness that passes for peace when one no longer has expectations of any kind.
Lisa complains about living in Chicago. She has an apartment on the West Side, in what she calls a so-so neighborhood.
—Too many black people, she whispers, as if afraid someone might overhear. I got nothing against them, but you see so many broken car windows; that’s all I’m saying. Who else does that?
—Watch them, she cautions when a black couple enters the corral. They steal.
She listens to the news, hears the reports of crimes in predominantly black Chicago neighborhoods.
—These aren’t bad neighborhoods because the streets or the houses are bad, she says. No, it’s the people.
When I object to their bigotry, Lisa and Daniela dismiss me as naive and inexperienced.
—You live in the suburbs with your mother, Lisa declares, as if I’d never left home.
—That’s right, Daniela insists. What do you know about the city?
At these moments a tenuous harmony exists between them. I say nothing more. I have to be careful. I need this job.
Memorial Day weekend has long passed, and the planting season is coming to a close.
—It’s almost July, Lisa says to Daniela. Prepare to have your hours cut.
Daniela tells me she’s not worried. Her hours won’t be reduced. She’s too good, she says. So good, in fact, that a florist whose name she won’t tell me has offered her a job at fifteen dollars an hour. Daniela says the new job will start in a few months, and she’ll be done with Lisa and Kurt and the Big Box forever. She’ll try to bring me on, too, after she’s been there awhile. In the meantime she suggests I supplement my income by walking people’s dogs. One of her girlfriends does it and makes seventy-two dollars a day.
—Think about it, Daniela says.
This evening at Straight’s a regular named Mike sits with Bruce and me. Each of Mike’s seventy-six years is carved into his weathered face. His wife died of cancer a few years back, and since then he has become an expert on dating sites. About two months ago he started coming into Straight’s with an Asian woman in her thirties. He said he’d met her through Match.com, but Bruce didn’t buy it. He believed Mike had hired her from an escort service.
Mike never explained why the Asian woman stopped coming in with him, and I didn’t ask. Whatever he had been spending on her he now chooses to invest in a service that sets him up on two blind dates a week. He says his first date got so drunk, she couldn’t drive herself home. Mike took her back to his place, where she passed out in his room while he watched Fox News. When she woke up, she walked out without a word. Mike later discovered she had vomited all over his bed.
—I looked at pictures of my wife, Mike says, and I could hear her asking me, What were you thinking?
—Look at me, Bruce says to Mike: What were you thinking?
The dating service costs $2,400 for six months, Mike tells us.
—Why don’t you play with yourself with one hand and pay yourself with the other? Bruce says. It’ll be cheaper.
I laugh, sip my beer, and stare across the bar at black-and-white pictures of customers from before my time. In the mirror I see Bruce and Mike and Larry and me. I raise my glass to say something profound about Mike’s dating life, but the thought vanishes into the ether, where nothing is clear except this: I need a new toothbrush.
I drain my beer and drive to Walgreens.
I dream of the woman who asked to take me home: I’m standing behind her, and my hands dance across her stomach and unbutton her blouse. We’re in her kitchen, leaning against a counter. Outside, the boxwood I planted for her glistens from the spray of a sprinkler, its leaves dark green, and we sink to the floor, laughing. In the distance I hear a church bell getting louder and louder — until I wake to my cellphone’s alarm.
I get out of bed and wander downstairs to make coffee. In a shadowy corner of the kitchen I notice my mother sitting in a chair, her pink bathrobe loosely knotted. She’s been crying. Tears stain her cheeks, which are wrinkle-free from some kind of moisturizer she applies every night before bed. This part of her refuses to age, although everything else — stooped back, arthritic fingers, near-deaf ears — betrays her years.
—Mom, what’re you doing up? What’s the matter?
She turns to me with a sadness that ruins me, and I look away. Her expression reminds me of a lost little girl I once saw at the Big Box, bewildered, terrified at being left alone for the first time.
My mother shows me a greeting card. On the outside the cartoon figure of a cowboy grins. A feminine, sexy-looking cow leans into him. The inside reads, You’re my little heifer. Beneath that, my father wrote, Love, Chuck.
My father wasn’t one to express his feelings. The few times he did, he would hide them behind a joke, like this ridiculous card. He probably found the card while picking up a prescription, bought it on a whim. For my father this card was the equivalent of standing in the middle of Fifth Avenue and screaming, I love you! every day of their sixty-two years together.
—I woke up to go to the bathroom and saw it on a box of kleenex beside my blood-pressure pills, my mother says. When did he give it to me?
—I don’t know.
—How did it end up in the bathroom?
She begins to cry again, and that horribly sad look returns. Grabbing my sweatshirt, I tell my mother I have to leave for work. I squeeze her hand. She wipes her eyes.
—Don’t you want coffee? she asks.
—I’ll get it on the road, Mom.
—When I’m gone, you’ll have no one.
I don’t know what to say. I fidget with my sweatshirt and feel her frightened eyes staring at me. I have no comfort to offer her. I have none for myself. I’m scared, too.
—I’ll be fine, Mom. You’ll torment me for a few more years yet, I’m sure.
—I’m sorry, honey, she says.
—It’s OK, I tell her.
I pat her hand and hurry out.
By mid-July Lisa has cut Daniela and her daughter Ana’s weekly hours to ten. It feels like a long time ago that Daniela groused to management about the inefficiencies of the garden center, but Lisa hasn’t forgotten. This is payback. Ana is just collateral damage. Lisa knows that ten hours a week will barely put gas in their cars.
—I’ll come in two hours a day and do nothing, Daniela threatens, her voice cracking in anger. The corral can go to hell.
—Your funeral, Lisa says.
I don’t tell Daniela that Lisa has kept me on at forty hours a week. I agree with Daniela’s scathing opinions about the Big Box, but I’m not suicidal. I’ve kept my thoughts to myself, groused only at Straight’s, and been rewarded. That’s how the world works. I make no apologies. Daniela can take poodles for a jog if she wants, but I’m not walking dogs for extra money.
The reduction of her hours unhinges Daniela. She trashes Lisa to anyone who will listen, including guests, who don’t want to hear it and begin to complain. The store manager doesn’t want to hear their complaints, and by the end of July Daniela and Ana no longer have jobs. I come in one day, and they’re gone. No explanation. It’s as if they never existed.
I imagine Daniela and Ana met with Lisa, Kurt, and a manager. I imagine the manager did all the talking. Or maybe Daniela raised hell. I hope she did, but I doubt it. I didn’t when I was fired by The Star. The managing editor, whom I’d known for ten years, called me into his office. He didn’t even tell me I’d been laid off, just handed me a manila envelope containing information about unemployment assistance. No Thank you for your years of hard work. No I’m sorry. My heart raced, and my temples pounded so hard that I bowed my head in pain. I knew my voice would shake if I objected or begged for my job. What had I done to deserve this? Nothing. It was just my turn, as it had been for my colleagues who’d been fired before me. Still, I blamed myself. I wanted to flee, to hide from everyone. I wanted to get stinking drunk and wake up with a hangover and start a new day as if nothing had changed. Instead I maintained my composure. From the moment I’d stepped out of my parents’ house to attend the first day of kindergarten, I’d been trained for a lifetime of subservience to someone: teacher, principal, coach, employer. Don’t talk back, my parents drilled into me. Obey. I took the envelope and walked out without a word. Only later, alone in my apartment, beer in hand, did I feel a sense of panic.
What will I do now?
This morning Lisa tells me more overtime opportunities are available: up to twenty hours a week, courtesy of the dearly departed Daniela and Ana.
I tell her I’ll take them.
My father would always ask me whether whatever job I had at any given moment — even if it was just a summer gig in high school — offered a future.
—Is there room to advance? he’d say.
I didn’t know back then. I had no concept of the future. I was a kid and therefore immortal.
I understand his question now. Life is like chess: you need to think three or four moves ahead. What lies down the road? What backup plan do you have? I’m thinking of that today, and, though I hate to admit it, I see a future at the Big Box. There are dozens of them in and around Chicago, and they all have garden centers. If I stick around for a year or two, I could become a supervisor like Lisa. She’d give me a reference. I’d be salaried and have health benefits. As much as I loathe the idea, it might be my only option until I catch a break. It won’t be forever.
Leaning on my broom, I look at the corral and the racks of boxwoods I need to unload. I think of Daniela and wonder where she would put them. Remove all the empty pallets to make more room, she’d advise me in her raspy voice. Place bright-colored plants in the center of the corral to draw people in. When you water, dampen the whole plant so its leaves shine in the sun. I hope that florist hires her. I hope Ana moves to Las Vegas.
The groan of an eighteen-wheeler pulling into the parking lot distracts me. It’s probably carrying an order for me to unload. Sunlight blinks off the trailer, and I watch women in heels and skimpy summer dresses step around it.
My phone buzzes with a text message.
I see Lisa walking toward me, and I slip my phone back into my pocket and start sweeping.
The names of people and the store have been changed to protect privacy.
J. Malcolm Garcia
As the plant specialist in a big-box store, I identified with J. Malcolm Garcia’s essay “The Garden Center” [November 2018]. I, too, have felt dismay at the huge number of plants coming in, regardless of how few customers buy them. Loving plants makes it difficult to discard so many. It seems that plants — like almost everything in our materialistic society — are expendable.