by Brandon Bell
I stopped in Sud’s for a beer after getting fired from my temp job for my “inappropriate use of a copier.” It was Wednesday afternoon. A few roofers cramped together at the bar. I’d gone to school with the bartender. I recalled his name when I saw the picture of our high school baseball team taped to the mirror. Adam Wescott, that was the bartender’s name, squatted in the front row. Martin Spaulding, our star shortstop, towered behind him.
“What happened to Martin Spaulding?” I asked. “I always assumed he’d become a senator or at least a controversial internet mogul.”
Glossy eyes fixed to the poker on the TV, Adam rattled out details about Martin: He’d lost his baseball scholarship to Western Kentucky University because of a “drug thing,” he had two sons by different women, and now, at age twenty-four, he ran a cash register at Kroger.
I went to Kroger to see Martin, swooped by the checkout lanes and down aisles and waited for him by the floral display outside, but I never found him. Figuring Adam had fed me bad info, I hoofed it back to Sud’s.
“Does the guy even work at Kroger? I’ve been there all damn day,” I said.
Adam glanced up from his paperback. “Night shift, asshole,” he said.
I returned to Kroger at midnight. Only one register was open and, sure enough, it was manned by Martin Spaulding. As if ashamed of his six-three frame, he slumped down while chatting with the grinning old guy whose groceries he was ringing up.
There wasn’t a bagger, so the groceries piled up on the belt after Martin scanned them. Without saying a word, I positioned myself at the bag rack and packed up the groceries. The rules of bagging hadn’t changed in the few years since I’d worked at Kroger: group like items (cold stuff, breakables, household cleaners) together, don’t put too much weight in one bag, etc. Martin scanned groceries as if I wasn’t there.
“Put my milk in a bag,” said a factory worker in line. It wasn’t his turn—the groceries I was bagging belonged to the old guy.
“Bag his milk,” Martin said.
“Sure,” I said. “So, Martin, how’ve you been?”
“Hey. I hear you’re a father.”
“Yep,” he said and then read the old guy’s total off the screen.
“You need help outside?” I asked the old guy.
“I imagine,” the old guy said. He was wearing a loose gray suit, as if he expected to die soon and was dressed for the funeral. I loaded the groceries into the back of his beat-up pickup.
“Won’t your stuff blow out?” I asked.
“I drive slow,” he said.
“You’ll have to drive super slow. Otherwise you’ll lose this,” I said, holding up a bag of lightweight perishables.
“If I lose some I lose some.”
“Is that part of getting old? Like you don’t get hung up on insignificant shit like your groceries blowing away?” I asked Martin after I got back inside.
“I said put my milk in a bag,” the factory guy said.
“Milk in a bag,” Martin said.
“I forgot,” I said. “Do you still play baseball?”
“Why would I play baseball?” Martin asked.
“Because in high school you were a stud, as they say. And now you work at Kroger. I don’t know, man, I feel like I’m fated to help you. See, through a strange turn of events I saw your picture. When I saw it I thought, I need to help that dude. Maybe I can turn your life around. Help you become something better than a cashier. Is that possible? How can I help you, Martin?”
Staring blankly, he hefted a bag of charcoal.
“Price check?” he asked.
The rest of the night I spoke only when spoken to, bagged orders, and occasionally collected carts from the lot. At dawn an elderly lady took over Martin’s register. Martin stretched his arms overhead and yawned as he headed for the exit. He seemed satisfied, relaxed, and superior.
“Don’t let her work you too hard,” he told me.
“Okay,” I said, bagging fast as the lady fired groceries down the belt. “See you tomorrow.”