By Amos Wright
When the Wal-Mart Supercenter pushed into the neighborhood on Aaron Aronov Drive, where the abandoned Western Hills Malls used to be, there was a two-day block party in the newly paved parking lot. The parking stall stripes were white as a grand wizard’s starched bed sheets. Tar fumes smoked up our lungs like unfiltered Pall Malls.
Ray, the general manager wore a bright blue Wal-Mart apron and grilled chicken and steaks over a barrel pit. Barbecue smoke ghosted through us, and fireworks flowered in the black sky above our heads and flickered colorfully in the dark windshields of SUVs and minivans.
Starting a new job always gave me a bad case of the blahs. I leaned against a concrete pillar, watching kids toss a deflated football in a parking lot on the other side of the Drive. At any moment one of them might be struck by a car and there was nothing I could do. The blinking circus lights of the twenty-four hour payday loan offices – Eazy Money, Loans for Less – lit up the lots importantly, as cars lined up in fast food drive-thrus and the open sign of a thrift store winked off.
Fairfield was once called the model industrial city. After U.S. Steel, where my father worked, closed the local furnace there was a domino effect: Woolworth, Loveman’s, Pizitz, Parisian, J.C. Penney, they all knocked off and ditched Fairfield and we were left with their empty strip malls whose emptiness never left us. Ray’s Wal-Mart is the only place to spend your paycheck once you cash all three figures of it at Eazy Money.
After the rockets’ red glare fizzled out, and the crowd returned to earth, Ray snipped a blue ribbon with a pair of safety scissors held in his good arm, and then raffled off product samples and giveaways. As I watched neighbors I’d grown up with collect their prizes, I couldn’t help thinking that one day the new Wal-Mart too would be old and empty.
Markus, a buddy of mine from a semester at Miles College, took the other side of my pillar and together we silently supervised the happy crowd disperse. Wal-Mart had kept us from taking out tabs with the loan sharks.
-Nobody knows how it got this good, Markus said, and I hawked up a large quantity of phlegm onto the blacktop and walked off. I don’t know why, but Markus’ words stuck with me and they never let me go.
The mayor had been courting Wal-Mart for years, wearily waving the flag of taxes, noisily beating the drum of job creation. In his preachy campaign speeches Wal-Mart was a foreign occupier who’d come in here and civilize the heart of darkness. Who the hell needed the mom and pop stores when there’s Wal-Mart to retail every new thing ever made under the sun: hunting supplies and camping equipment, firearms and feminine hygiene products, frozen foods and football fan merch and oranges out of season, clothes from a hundred Asian countries, a cathedral of electronics, one-hour photo processing, a pharmacy and eye doctor, a lawn and garden center smelling like manure fertilizers and wilting, waterless house plants whose browning leaves descended onto the sparkling white tile floors. Thirty-six merchandise departments in all. That was before they took the hyphen out of Wal-Mart and then by Black Friday two years after the Supercenter opened it was just Walmart, no hyphen. I could buy a gun in sporting goods right now if I had a mind to. If I had a mind to ever set foot on Walmart property again.
Four thousand applications for one-hundred fifty positions of poverty are not good odds, but I look better on paper than I do in person, even though I interview well. Me and Markus took the Walmart job after we nearly got caught siphoning gas from the buses in the bus lot. We couldn’t find work anywhere else. We’re not employees at Sam Walton’s multinational, we’re “associates.” You weren’t allowed to refer to yourself or anyone else as an employee.
My first month I was chronically late to work, which I blamed on the bus. The bus driver blamed it on the cars, and the cars blamed it on the buses, so I saved up some cash and bought me a hot Escalade, spinning chrome rims and darkened windows. I told my little brother Davidson that when he decided to grow up and stop siphoning gas he could drive it. Until such time, he wasn’t to think about touching it.
In that Escalade, I could barrel through traffic and never be late for the nightshift. Since he learned how to siphon, Davidson had been dreaming of working on an oil rig in the Gulf. I told him he wouldn’t last longer than a gnat fart in the wind on a rig. He had a job at a chop shop for a minute until he was fired for pinching gas. I wised up, stopped siphoning, but Davidson didn’t.
No one takes a job at Walmart and expects it to become a career. Except Ray, the general manager. He was career Walmart material, a lifer, born for the job of middle management overseer. Markus and me used to joke he had a Walmart tattoo above his crotch, so he’d think about Wally World every time he wacked off in the women’s room.
If you worked the nightshift, you were locked into the store, for “safety” Ray said, and the doors weren’t unlocked until he showed up again the next morning. You prayed to the Walmart cave gods in Arkansas he came back in the morning. We didn’t know what the hell we’d do if he died in his sleep. Ray was a motherless, pasty, card-carrying Walmart worker bee who couldn’t see real good. You could stand on the other end of the toy aisle and flick him off and he’d think you were waving. Markus said he wished god had given him more than two middle fingers.
The most important part of Ray’s biography is that he was missing an arm. A freakish accident on the job, and his armless sleeve dangled limp from his shoulder. You got to have a slobbering make-out session with Ray to move up the Walmart hierarchy, no hyphen. I started at the bottom of the totem pole, a nightshift stocker. I’m still at the bottom of that pole. You try climbing it, then you see it’s greased. When Ray locked the doors at night before hobbling homeward, Markus and I had the store mostly to ourselves, a dangerous situation.
We zipped up and down the aisles on mountain bikes, and target practiced with pellet guns. Markus took the shenanigans too far when he tacked up local union posters on the break room bulletin corkboard, right under the sign that said all associates must associate on Black Friday or risk termination. Loss Prevention is as humorless as a judge. They saw the irony alright, but Markus’ prank was political enough to make Ray’s nub tingle where his invisible arm thrashed at Markus’ throat.
-Have a seat, the one-armed general manager said to his associate.
Markus hesitated, then sat down at the only table in the break room. Ray wasn’t one of those chummy general managers who’d invite you to lunch with him out of the low-priced kindness of his general heart. Markus’ union posters were still thumb-tacked to the board behind Ray’s head, and Markus fought off a shriek of laughter.
-Look, Ray. Sorry about those tire
marks in the sporting good aisles. It won’t happen again.
-This ain’t about no bicycle tire marks.
-What’s up, boss?
-You’re being terminated, Markus.
-I ain’t never stoled nothing long as I been here and you going to accuse me a stealing shit from this pukehole. Ain’t nothing here worth stealing anyhow.
-You took a nineteen minute break two weeks ago. You’re being dismissed for time theft.
And this is what Markus did: Markus pushed his chair back, stood up and said good day, overturned the table and glided out of the break room. Markus had flair.
Black Friday was Markus’ last shift at Walmart, when customers were corralled into the store with door-buster deals and loss leaders placed in some out of the way region of the store.
Making customers walk by made-in-China goods with higher profit margins is how Ray explained the theory. Like catching flies with honey, he said. Ray was a retail theorist, really going places.
Whenever Ray plunged into his general manager ideas about how to make the store more profitable, I nodded, pretending nothing more than a general interest. I thought about all those people who were willing to stand outside the Supercenter, open before even the sun was up for its bright business, blankly staring at each other as if waiting for a late or missed revelation in the damp cold with their cups of gas station coffee and wallets primed to spend, their bloated stomachs still turning turkey from the night before.
On the eve of Black Friday Ray found me breaking in the break room at a folding table and sharply focused on the empty, off-colored square where Markus’ union poster had been. Ray hadn’t slept in two days. Readying the store for this moment gave the man some meaning. Half-moon bruises under his eyes, crow’s feet lining the edge. He slouched more than usual, oddly in the direction of his missing arm. Ray near about lived in his office, a hermit’s quarters littered like a landfill.
So riveted by this blank spot on the corkboard, I didn’t hear Ray jawing about no breaks on Black Friday. The union poster’s ghost square was about the size of Ray’s head, which was large for a head. I’d never been in a union, but I found that if I focused on empty places – parking lots, the warp of a man’s mind while driving, your own self before you had a name, my wallet before I began associating – the life around me seemed less empty, fuller of direction and marked with high feeling.
-What are you doing?
Ray is always asking questions he knows the answer to. He was sporting his fake arm this time, and I was afraid he would make me shake his hand. Ray’s fake hand tormented me. I wondered if Ray used his real arm or the fake one when he fantasized about Walmart while standing over the women’s toilet with a full-color spread from the magazine section.
-Taking a break. What are you doing, Ray?
-Went looking for your ass in the lawn and garden department and what do I see?
-What did you see, Ray?
-I didn’t see nobody working, Ray levied against me.
-You going to fire me too for time theft, that’s fine. Just show me where to sign.
Ray ignored this threat and told me to stop what work I was breaking from and to get those manure pallets off the floor in the lawn and garden before some shopper tripped on them and we had another lawsuit on our hands. Walmart is apparently shitdeep in lawsuits.
-This ain’t shit season no more. Get them bags a shit off the floor before I come back to open the doors at five. This is your first Black Friday, ain’t it? Just you wait.
Ray said he was going home to nap before “all hell broke loose,” the kick off of the Christmas shopping season.
Markus was assigned to toilet duty for his last shift. Yellow latex gloves and gallons of antiseptics. I heard him whistling tunefully in the bathroom as I walked by the unending cash registers that would soon be beeping with discounts and holiday sales.
I was once in the Walmart across town on Lakeshore and became disoriented. The men’s clothing department was identical to the men’s clothing at the store on Aronov Drive. The line of registers, the bright gym lights above, and the ugly people sadly shopping were all the same. It didn’t matter which Walmart you were in. I almost offered to help an old man find the white tube socks he was hunting for, until I realized that I wasn’t working.
Forty or more associates had been put on duty that night before Black Friday, and I knew no more than a dozen faces, maybe six names. Their strategy is to keep you isolated. Returning to the lawn and garden department to move Ray’s bags of shit, I waved politely to an associate organizing hair products. Both hands overfull with shampoos and conditioner, she did not wave back.
I was forklifting a palette of manure onto a high storage shelf when the fork clipped a metal rung and I sat helplessly watching the manure palette tumble and bust on Ray’s clean white floor.
-What the fuck was that, Markus whooped from within a janitorial closet.
-Shit, Markus. That’s what that is. That is the sound of shit falling.
Markus barked with laughter, his white teeth gleaming in his mouth. He was still wearing those yellow latex gloves elbow deep. He returned with two shovels from the utility closet and said, -We got to clean this shit up, thrusting a shovel into my hand.
He rolled the yellow gloves forward and popped them off. We started shoveling, and dug into a rhythm, lobbing shovelfuls of shit into a wheelbarrow like gravediggers.
-I remember what you said when this store opened, I said.
-What’d I say?
-You said, Don’t nobody know how it got this good.
-Have you told your girl yet?
-Told her what?
-That you got canned.
-Naw, I ain’t yet. Figured I’d just tell her I quit. We’ll be alright for a while.
-You ought to steal Ray’s fake arm first, I said tucking my own up into my sleeve.
-I never seen it.
-He wears it sometimes up in the office when he doesn’t want corporate folks to know he ain’t got but one arm.
-If I got aholt a that arm I’d knock his ass into next week with it.
-Cain’t beat a man with his own arm. It ain’t right.
-Hell you cain’t.
We both laughed at that. After almost an hour of shoveling, we were sore and the floor, although not speckless, was ordered as an apple pie. Then we heard a rioting, glassy clamor from the direction of the front doors like the cheering uproar a home team football crowd makes on a touchdown. I thought the hullabaloo was in my head, but then I saw Markus look up too and then at the clock above the registers. Thirty more minutes until the store opened.
-What’s that racket? I asked.
Markus leaned his shovel against a shelf and went to investigate.
-We got a whole ’nother kind a shit on our hands, Markus said.
-What the hell is going on out there?
-It’s them crazy ass customers. They want in.
-It’s not five o’clock yet. They’ll have to wait. And Ray ain’t here yet to let’em in.
Markus and I dumped our shovels on the floor and split off down separate aisles. I charged by associates mopping, stocking and shelving, and toward the front doors, passing the shopping carts arrayed in long silver rows and the gumball machines and arcade games blinking dumbly. I thought of fireflies, but I haven’t seen those in years. I stopped between the security towers before the mob crushing against the doors. Markus was gone.
I fished two quarters out of my back pocket that I’d found on the floor underneath a register and coined them into the slot on the face of the game machine. We’re supposed to put lost change back in the registers, but I’d been collecting lost quarters since I started here and no one said anything.
The swarming sea of people behind the glass doors looked on as I craned the metal claw over a furry, stuffed dinosaur smiling, it’s plastic button eyes fixated on me. I thought about my dad angling on the Cahaba after he got laid off from US Steel and the otherworldly bycatch he’d dredged up from those poisoned waters, and I wondered what fish-thoughts the sturgeon and darters and the few frecklebelly madtoms had as they dodged dad’s wormed hook sinking from the world above.
Someone tapped on my shoulder and I lost the stuffed dinosaur. –Goddamnit, I spun around, the empty metal claw craning up into the game sky above that soft sea of stuffed creatures. Markus had Ray’s prosthetic arm, and was tapping my shoulder with it. He pulled his real arm inside his shirt and fitted Ray’s fake arm into the hole and faced the parking lot of faceless, milling and desperate Walmart fans. Still sunless, I couldn’t see my Escalade for all the people pressing against the sliding doors garlanded and wreathed in red and green, wired white lights blinking like distant stars. BLITZ LINE STARTS HERE a crayon sign cautioned.
When armless Ray didn’t show up to open the doors at five, I began to wonder if he’d done it on purpose, leaving Markus to scrub urine rings off the men’s toilets all night, and me to meaninglessly forklift shit off the floor.
More customers were crowding around the doors now, wordlessly demanding that we open the store. I couldn’t make out the individual words, but I knew what they wanted. Fuzzying and squished faces of the cahooting horde bottlenecked against the doors. I thought of traffic jams, the depleted masses of honking cars unconfederated in purpose.
Markus was taunting the legion with the general manager’s arm, beating it against the glass, egging them on to greater crowding, and then he ripped the fake arm out of his socket and feigned agony. Bodies were hammering down the doors now like wild animals, as if they and not we were locked inside. I thought I picked out my little brother in the throng, and maybe one of the self-appointed non-denominational preachers who counted the quarters you tithed, but I couldn’t be sure, it happened so fast, the angry society tiding in upon us and Markus brandishing that third arm, now a slapstick routine where the fake arm appeared from nowhere, grasped him by the neck and dragged him kicking out of sight.
But I did recognize one face, that of Ray the lifetime, one-armed store manager quelled among the press of crazed customers, and then Markus’ words returned to me, -Nobody knows how it got this good, my last thought as I heard the doors shatter before I felt the glass flying. I threw my hands up in defense and searched through the rushing welter for my associate, and the ultimate thing Markus saw as he went down beneath the shopper’s stampede were the black linoleum tiles he fell into like a grave, then only scattering feet blurring facelessly storeward before he closed his eyes, the air wrung from his lungs like popped balloons, and shrapnel of Wal-mart door glass is buried in my face to this bottom day.