Storytime: The Garden Center

Please enjoy this post where I tell you a story about an event from my life. Nothing more, nothing less. Today’s story : working in the garden center at KMart.

Janice is a 45 year old woman who has worked at the Kmart for 12 years. Her cheeks are hollowed out in the corners because she is so thin that her bones seem to cling to her skin instead of the other way around. I think Janice might be a heroin addict with a cool motorcycle but mostly she’s just some lady who works at Kmart with me. On paper we’re diametrically opposed, I’m look like a teenager with her whole life ahead of her, hearty and hale. Once when I talk to Janice in the break room, she tells me that she is a dead end.

I don’t want to tell her I was almost a dead end too.

Janice works in the garden center with her shift back to back with mine so we only see each other in passing but it means there’s an empty space to fill when her shift ends. The first time they ask for volunteers to go to the special garden center register I decide to do it because Janice and I need more in common. After the fourth time I “volunteer” they don’t bothering asking me if I want to fill in anymore. The garden center is an isolated island tucked away in the far corner of the store. To get there you leave the safety and companionship of the 10 other front end cashiers, you take your little till out of the register, and are escorted by an entourage of managers to your final destination.

The garden center at Kmart is exactly what it sounds like. A small cove of the store connected to the outside with plants, soil, basic weed control items, lawn gadgets, seeds, and associated outdoor ornamentation. The perks of the garden center are not immediately obvious. You are alone. You have to be by an open door for hours on end that leaves the space cold in the winter and blisteringly hot in the summer. Since it’s located on the other side of the store you see only 1 or 2 customers an hour instead of the 50+ at the front so there is practically nothing to do. But it has one upside: no one is monitoring you.

At the normal checkout stand you aren’t allowed to sit down. You aren’t even allowed to lean on anything. You have to wear the standard uniform no matter what the weather is like or the store is like. You can’t write on ticket tape, you can’t adjust the volume of the in-store music, you can’t even dance and sing – no matter how good the music is. I do all of this at the garden center. I even hide books and snacks under my check stand to distract myself from the idea that I work at Kmart.

On this particular day I am lazily re-reading Antigone. I fortuitously found this copy in the locker room at work and brought it in to the garden center in my shirt in secret last week. I smile because there’s another bookmark squeezed between earlier pages which means Janice was reading it too. I thumb at the book to turn the page when I hear long, heavy footsteps. Looking up I’m greeted by a face I am familiar coupled with a much less familiar feeling.

It’s my best friends mother. This isn’t quite right. The truth is it’s my dead best friends mother. I don’t even know her name despite having dinner at her table and having slept in her house. In the two months since he passed there’s been no breathing room between his suicide and her blaming me for it for this interaction to go well. I startle and drop the book on the floor and the noise causes her to turn and look at me. She stares me dead in the eyes and I go to move but I can’t. I can feel the muscles in my body rejecting commands in fury and anger. I feel the bile coming up in my throat and tears trying to surface under my eyelids. My throat ready to burst forth in a scream realizing even if I could there is nowhere to go. A complete misfire of fight or flight. And then a weird thing happens.

I notice she’s cradling something in her arms. It’s hideous large lawn gnome, the type with a smushy face and a big nose and a tall red hat. He could have stood in for Santa if you squinted.

The entire world snaps back into motion and I pick my book up from the floor, taking the moment to covertly look at her. She’s gaunt and her skin is the color of soot as if someone had rubbed dirt over her. Her eyes are dead, hollow spaces pushed into her face. She doesn’t look thinner to any degree but she’s shrunk down in presence, her shoulders slanting downwards as if she were being swallowed whole by her blouse and jacket. She brings the gnome to the register and her eyes flash up at me. For a second I think she’ll say something. She’ll look at my name tag and that’s when it will all pour out. She’ll start yelling again. She’ll move to hit me again. She say “you killed my baby” and “you’re a monster” all over again. Instead her lips are sealed and thin. Unlike in the past, on this day all that happens is she cocks her head to the side because I’ve been starring at her instead of doing my job. Her brown eyes starring at me with caked on sadness and tired anticipation.

My hands shake and fumble around as I take the gnome from her. I scan it and manage to mutter a price under my breath while jabbing the keys on my register so hard they make a painful ‘ping’ in protest. She takes out her credit card and swipes it as I shift from foot to foot, digging my hands in my sides, wondering if she recognizes me or if she’s just being polite. I console myself that it sure is polite not to scream in public. I bag her gnome and she tries to smile at me when she picks up the bag. The corners of her mouth briefly flirting with turning upwards. She turns away from the register to leave but before she makes it completely outside, she pauses and touches the door frame. In a low rasp she says nothing but my name strung out in slow, painful syllables. Each one weighing me down. Each one feeling like a punch in gut. My stomach wobbles and every hair on my body stands up but then she disappears. And it’s over.

This is kind of why lawn gnomes weird me out.

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