I’m forty-seven and a bagger at Kroger, Bowling Green, Ohio, and a stranger in my own life. I was an accountant, graduated from the university in town, and had a good life until my company, Deltafoil, was bought by a private equity firm and loaded up with debt. The firm declared a dividend on the stock that put them in the black, and when the debt sent Deltafoil into a long slow dive, they declared bankruptcy and hired their golf buddies to manage it, who took a big fat fee up front and then laid everyone off. The plant now sits empty on North Dixie Highway, across the street from a driving range and miniature golf course carved out of the cornfields.
While I tried to find another job, my wife took our two kids and moved in with her mother in Howell, Michigan. Her mother has survivor’s benefits on a G.M. pension – I never met my wife’s father – and she says she’ll always have room for her daughter and grandchildren.
Kroger is it. No place else in town is hiring. Toledo, forget it. Everyone who has a job is clinging to it like a barnacle on a ship hull. I aced the test they give on Cashier Aptitude, but everyone has to bag six months before they put you on the cash register. I thought, in six months, I’d get a raise, maybe save our house, maybe talk my wife and two daughters back down from the town best known for holding an auction of Ku Klux Klan paraphernalia on Martin Luther King’s birthday.
That was eighteen months ago. Every time I get close to the top of the list to be made a cashier, they put in another bank of automated checkout machines. I keep bagging near the old-fashioned cashiers, watch people with jobs that are better than mine check out their own twelve items while a little female voice says “Welcome Valued Customer!”
My boss, Susan Eberly, was my girl friend in high school for three weeks. That’s a problem with small towns. It was thirty years ago, but she still remembers. I can tell every time she brings me into her office and lets me know another bank of machines is going in. She tells me she knows I’m at the top of the list, but because of the less cashiers being needed system-wide, two cashiers are being transferred down here from Maumee, and seniority being what it is, I’m bumped down the ladder again. She tells me this, and I can see again the seventeen-year old girl who wore rainbow platform shoes and told me she didn’t need college.
She always liked being right.
For Christmas week, they decide that all baggers should wear Santa Claus hats. This is supposed to be cute, and maybe it is on my young co-workers. They only order one size hat, perfect for the slender and young. On my middle-aged head, it sits like an ill-fitting dunce cap and makes me look like the Grinch. When I wear it, I see my boss peeking out the door of her office at me and smirking.
That’s when I volunteer for shopping cart roundup. It’s snowing outside, a wet slushy snow, and I can hear a sucking sound with every step I take to the cart corrals. I have a long elastic band with a hook on it, and I wrestle about twelve carts in a row, hook the band around the front, and guide them like a long train ahead of me, through the inch of slush, and into the foyer where the Salvation Army woman is ringing her bell. Her hat fits much better than mine.
I stay on shopping cart roundup for an hour. My handkerchief is a wad of soggy sandpaper I keep using on my dripping nose. Eddie, a boy who was in high school with my oldest daughter, tries to spell me, but I won’t let him. He’s a good kid, all the cashiers like him, and there’s no reason for him to deny them his good looks under a perfectly fitted Santa Claus hat. I plan to stay out until my knock off time, six o’clock, when it’s been dark for an hour and the snow will be speckling my bifocals.
I find the trombone at 5:45. I know what a trombone case looks like, because my daughter was in the marching band. It’s a black case, long, fake leather with black cloth tape on the corners from being banged up so much. It’s been left on the bottom part of the shopping cart, where people usually forget the big bags of dog food.
I make up another shopping cart train, keeping the trombone cart closest to me, and bull it back through the lot. Around me, people are headed back to their cars, dark parkas hunched over their carts squishing through the wet snow. I feel like I’m going in the opposite direction of everyone, pushing my winding line of carts, but I feel like I’ve got a secret with me.
In the enclosed foyer, I leave the trombone on the cart and make myself busy to the end of my shift with the mop and bucket they keep for days like this, when the carts bring in snow that melts and pools on the tile floor.
I should take the trombone into lost and found, at the front desk. But I don’t. I decide it belongs to a girl the age of my younger daughter. She’ll notice it’s gone in a little while, when it’s time to practice after dinner. She’ll go up to her mother in tears and ask for her trombone, and they’ll both rush to their car.
I go inside and punch out at the time clock near the re-stock shelves. My old girl friend peeks her head out from her office to see me. I know my face is red and chapped, and I can feel my Santa Claus hat begin to sag as the snow crystals melt and turn it soggy.
“Be sure to hang your hat up when you get home,” she says. “You’ll need it dry tomorrow.”
I walk back out to the foyer. The Salvation Army lady is ringing her bell behind her black pot. People leaving the store hesitate, peer outside, put up their hoods, and then, as the automatic doors slide open, lean out into the darkness.
The trombone case is where I left it, and I pick it up and carry it to a bench in the foyer, sitting beneath the display of evergreen wreaths and red bows and garlands they sell once a year. I open the case for the first time and look at the trombone, a beautiful shiny brass color nestled in blue cloth that is thick and soft.
I close the case, hug it to my chest, listen to the bells ring. I know that soon, very soon, someone will be coming through the doors who will be very glad to see me.