watch and water
BY MALLORY JONES
For the past three months I’ve worked at a Kroger grocery store as a floral clerk, despite knowing almost nothing about flowers. Fortunately I am young enough that no customer mistakes me for an experienced florist, and the more seasoned employees promise me I’ll learn what I’m doing soon enough. So far, I can water plants just the right amount so they do not drown or starve, and I’ve learned how to print out price tags and attach them to rose stems in vase arrangements. Every time the front doors slide open and more customers enter, a burst of increasingly cold, fall air hits the floral department. I learn to wear layers under my navy polo, which my mother would say matches my eyes, if she lived here and not in another state. I learn about the hardy, bright mums on display in abundance outside of the store. The lead florist, my boss, teaches me to water them daily, watching them eventually deteriorate in the dry fall air until they are attacked by frost in November and we carry them inside together, a surrender.
I am also starting to learn how to approach customers, though I am often not sure how. The phrase “How can I help you?” feels clichéd, and it is true that my ability to help anyone find anything is pretty limited at this point. Instead, the question I find naturally emerges when I see a bewildered customer is, “Are you okay?” Some people wander around in a grocery store looking lost because they’re having trouble finding something, and others because they are looking for shopping companions from whom they’ve been separated.
“Oh, I’m fine,” they say, when I ask them if they’re alright. “I’m looking for my sister, son, mother, brother, uncle, friend.”
Most of my shifts are spent blowing up balloons behind the floral counter: for mothers trying to pacify their crying children, for realtors on their way to open houses, or for preschoolers’ birthday parties. When customers order large quantities of balloons, I stuff each one into an ugly white garbage bag and tape it shut so none of the balloons escape in the parking lot. If at any given time I am blowing up balloons for one child, there are four other children nearby, watching with envy from the child seats of their mothers’ carts as they wheel through the produce.
Many American retailers instruct their employees on what is called Code Adam procedures, which are what everyone’s supposed to do if a child wanders off alone in the store. During corporate training at Kroger in September, they played us a twenty-minute video on the subject. The instructor turned off the lights of the meeting room where I sat with a small group of trainees. We’d just been given our Kroger uniform shirts, and had been instructed to put them on immediately.
As I laid eyes on the opening frames of the video, which showed the guy from America’s Most Wanted, John Walsh, I tried to prepare myself for something that was in very bad taste. Perhaps because of my age, I had only known John Walsh as the dramatic television host, someone whose show exists to frighten people and to chase after criminals who will likely never be caught. I’d thought he was an opportunist who produced salacious real crime primetime, similar to Chris Hansen and “To Catch a Predator.”
I was lacking an important piece of information about John Walsh, who began the whole Code Adam movement with his wife after their six-year-old son, Adam Walsh, was found murdered in 1981 after he went missing from a Sears. The details of his murder are horrific, and the suspect was serial killer of-the-day Ottis Toole, who died in prison after being convicted of six other murders before he could be convicted for murdering Adam.
In the training video we watched, there were multiple portrayals of parents losing sight of their son or daughter, and telling Kroger employees in a panic. Then, Code Adam is enacted and the employees find the missing child in a calm and organized fashion. The children are returned to their weeping mothers by a smiling, poised actor playing a Kroger associate.
After the video ended, the man training us seemed to enjoy hashing through additional details of, say, the murder weapon, and my stomach turned. The picture of Adam from the video, framing a big-eyed boy in a T-ball uniform, smiling without front teeth and holding a bat, has haunted me for the past few months. Recently Adam Walsh would have turned 41.
Officially, there is to be an announcement over the intercom that says “Code Adam,” and then we go to our assigned search places and look around until someone finds the missing child. None of us were assigned spots during the training session, but since the floral counter is across from the entrance, I figure I can pretty much guard the door.
A man comes in one Saturday with a life-sized Mylar Spiderman balloon for his son’s fifth birthday party, and as I fill it on the helium machine for him, he is almost as excited as the children. “This is so cool,” he says, a big grin on his face, as I attempt to contain Spiderman in two extra large garbage bags, taped together at the openings. I rope a large weight around Spiderman’s middle to keep him from soaring up to the high ceiling, and hand him off to the man, who thanks me profusely. I imagine for earning him at least three points with his son.
On Friday nights, I fix bouquets of flowers at six o’clock for men on their way out, or on their way home. They want vases and ribbons and tissue paper--I suspect they want the flowers to look like they did not come from Kroger. They all want red roses. The older men proudly tell me if the flowers are for their anniversary, and how many years they have been married. They boast of their age: “I am 83 years old,” men will tell me. “And I’ve been married for 62 years.” Young men pick up flowers just because, maybe just because it’s payday or just because it’s been a hard week. Sometimes they inform me that they are getting the flowers because they are in some kind of trouble. “The doghouse,” one boy who can’t be older than fourteen calls it. He tells me he needs some roses for his girl. The boy’s mother waits ten feet away from the counter and then pays for the flowers after I’ve finished wrapping them.
A Mylar balloon has a tendency to deflate in cold air. Customers bring back their balloons when they wilt in the parking lot, concerned they’ve been ripped off, and my boss explains to them that it’s because of the interaction between the cold air and the helium, that their balloons will swell back up again when they get home, where it’s warm.
Kroger Fuel attendants report that recently widowed women in their eighties come to the gas station and must ask for help to fill up their tanks. In the past, their husbands had always put gas in the cars for them.
There is a small eating area near the deli and prepared foods sections of Kroger, and a handful of old men sit and eat there nearly every day, though seemingly not together. It’s the Kroger lounge, I guess. I suspect they are widowers, or that they simply need to get out of the house. They eat fried chicken and turkey sandwiches and potato chips, sip fizzy drinks out of big clear cups from the soda fountain. They stand around looking in the case for either the biggest sandwich for sale, or the cheapest by weight.
The timeclocks are located in the break room. My shifts often begin mid-day, and when I clock in, the employees who come in early are often eating lunch together at a large, rectangular table, about fourteen people of all ages eating Lean Cuisines and takeout and tuna sandwiches in their Kroger shirts and jackets (I don’t even know how to get one of these Kroger jackets) and watching The Bold and the Beautiful, or reruns of NCIS. As I stand before the clock and place my right index finger on the sensor to verify my identity, I feel like I’m intruding on another family’s dinner.
One old man is the strangest of them all. I often hear him talking to himself as he sits at the tables, eating his sandwiches and reading the paper. He doesn’t talk to himself in sentences, more in brief exclamations. HUHs and OH MY LORDs, and HAAAs.
The first time I ever talked to the old man, that I remember, I was behind the floral counter, filling up six jumbo Mylar ghost balloons for Halloween, tying them to spools of ribbon and watching them float toward the rafters. As I worked, the man appeared before me in a plaid shirt and suspenders, and asked me if I had ever seen Ghostbusters. I noticed he had enormous, bespectacled eyes. To my shame, I’ve only seen parts of the film, but I fibbed and said yes. He started talking about certain cars used during the filming of the movie, how they’d been preserved as collector’s items, how replicas had been made and such. As our conversation on this subject drew to a close, he glanced up at the ghost balloons once more, looked me in the eyes, and said, “I’ve always wondered if they were real.” And then he simply wandered off.
One Sunday night a woman comes to the counter and asks for me to make two bows for a grave site: orange and maroon bows, Virginia Tech colors. She spends twenty minutes patiently stalling around the store while I struggle to make the bows, having not mastered my ribbon skills yet and feeling this was too important to mess up. These bows are pretty weak tea when I am finished with them, but the woman is very gracious.
“My daughter picked out these colors for her father,” she says. For her father, she said, and I knew. “He would love this.”
She does not say would have loved.
I give her the bows for $1.98 because I didn’t do a great job with them, and because they took forever. She gently picks them up off the counter and carries them out to her car.
I eavesdrop on the conversations between the teenage boys who work in the nearby produce department. Their voices remind me of being home, sitting in the kitchen and listening to my brother laugh with his friends.
I wonder why the old man’s eyes are so big. It seems likely that he has an eye problem that makes his eyes dilated or swollen, or perhaps he has always looked this way. One of the things he does as he eats his lunches is draw. He draws motorcycles and self-portraits exclusively. Sometimes he shows me the self-portraits, where he has replicated his own face, and he has drawn his eyes to be exaggeratedly large. “Look at it,” he’ll say. “And I’ve just started a new one too. It’s even better.”
I am rearranging the pumpkins in the outdoor display when a family pulls up to the loading zone and piles out of their minivan. A man, a woman, at least three kids in elementary school and another in junior high, who looks awfully embarrassed. The woman hurries up to me, hands me her phone, and asks me to take a picture of their family in front of the pumpkins and mums and scarecrows. I oblige, trying to exclude any yellow price signs or the nearby swishing automatic doors that say “Kroger” from the pictures. I imagine my supervisor would be flattered to hear that people like the looks of the display, but am not sure why anyone would want their family portrait taken at a Kroger.
Once a child does go missing, though there is no announcement over the intercom that I hear. I find about the search from a panicked supervisor with delicate glasses and curling iron curls. She runs around the store with an uncharacteristic abandon, telling everyone to look for a little girl, looking behind every kiosk and cereal box. Within thirty seconds, the little girl turns up in the vicinity of the ice cream, and the frantic energy disperses. I see that supervisor a few more times that afternoon, and every time I greet her, she presses her hands to her chest over her red vest, and says her heart’s still pounding. I wonder if she is thinking of her own children.
I still don’t recognize most customers, but I’m sure many are regulars. The women all blur together: big coats and bigger purses. I watch two mothers with identically tied Baby Bjorns walk right past each other, bald baby heads heavy on their left shoulders, and I want them to see each other and acknowledge it somehow, to ask, are we alike?
I learn some more about the old man: he loves Cher, and classic horror movies, and sometimes, he lives in his car. Store managers find him sleeping in the parking lot, and ask him to leave.
Thanksgiving day is not especially busy for the floral department. Customers buy centerpiece arrangements in brown cornucopia baskets from the cold case, which I did not have to make because they were shipped to us in cardboard boxes, premade. I’m mostly left alone to watch the stragglers race in to buy forgotten ingredients and, often, turkeys, these poor procrastinating souls. A woman’s eyes dart around as she walks past with a boxed rotisserie chicken in hand.
I watch two men encounter each other at the lounge with some surprise. “What are you doing here on Thanksgiving?” one asks.
“I should ask you the same question,” says the other. The two men embrace, and sit down together with their deli lunches.
As I watch them, I realize I haven’t seen the old man, and I am filled with hope that he has somewhere to go, that he’s eating Thanksgiving dinner with his children a few states away. But around three in the afternoon, he arrives with his newspapers and buys three turkey sandwiches.
On the bulletin board above the timeclock, I finally notice a handwritten note listing designated Code Adam search areas, and find that, yes, as an associate of Floral/Produce, I am to watch the main entrance.
The ceilings are high and skylighted. When I accidentally let go of a balloon and it soars up to the rafters, there is a trick to rescuing it. I blow up a latex balloon in an unpopular color like brown or beige, cover it with sticky circles made from clear packing tape, and attach it to a wheel of balloon ribbon, letting it float up to the ceiling like a kite. Then I try to steer the tape balloon as close to the lost balloon as possible, until the tape catches the lost balloon or the string, and I can wind them both down together.
It is December now. Outside the store, the mums and scarecrows and pumpkins have been replaced with Christmas trees I carried off of a truck in the rain, with the help of the produce clerks and the teenage boys who push the carts around in the parking lot, and the store manager, wearing his raincoat. Inside, the flower shop has been blitzed with poinsettias, red and pink and white leaves towering taller than I am on an intimidating table display. It takes a full shift to water them all.
An older woman comes to the counter with a little girl who I assume to be her granddaughter, each wearing their Sunday best, and ask for one of the ugly free Kroger logo balloons. I pull a bright red one from one of the overstuffed drawers underneath the counter. The girl hands me a folded note, and they ask me to stuff the note into the balloon as I blow it up. It is a little tricky but I comply, inflating and then deflating the balloon so it’s stretched out enough to squeeze in the note before I blow it up again. I tie it off, an act that has finally become easy after three months of practice, and hand it to them.
“We’re sending the balloon up to heaven,” the woman explains. She walks away from the counter before I can reply. I remember being much younger, at a church picnic where my mother tried to reason with my crying brother, then a preschooler, that since he let his balloon go into the air, it could never come back again. I watch them leave through the automatic doors, picturing the way a balloon disappears into the sky, becoming so small so quickly, so hopelessly irretrievable.
Mallory Jones holds an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Hollins University. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland, and is a nonfiction editor at the Baltimore Review.
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