The sun glinted off the bus’s dirty windows. The Wallace Grocery store loomed large and white as the bus pulled into the parking lot, rolling to a stop in front of the only park bench. I grabbed the worn leather of my book bag and the hard plastic handle of my suitcase. I could feel the frog beanie roll in the open space. My sister’s last gift as she hugged me goodbye.
The first steps of my new life sang as I traversed the sidewalk to the store’s door whooshing open in welcome. Inside the light was as bright as the sun.
“Welcome to The Wallace Grocery,” the greeter said with a smile. He asked if I needed a cart.
“No, thank you,” I said. “I’m meeting with Manager Greg.”
The greeter turned and waved to a man in a business suit with a red tie. He checked the knot and walked over.
“Welcome to The Wallace Grocery, where we stock all of your grocery needs,” Manager Greg said. He shook my hand.
“Let’s take a grand tour of the store since it’s your first day, Benjamin. Congratulations on your position with us.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”
“There are various departments in the store, but there are two main categories,” Manager Greg said. “Perishable and non-perishable.”
We walked through aisles of toys and clothes and school supplies. At the back of the store, we turned to the right and proceeded through grocery.
Manager Greg stopped next to an employee who was stocking canned goods. Her hair was a mousy brown, pulled back into a tight ponytail. The standard store uniform, a purple polo shirt with black pants, was loose on her bony frame. He pulled a ruler out of his pocket and smacked her hand three times. She rubbed her hand, moving her silver bracelet up and down.
“Sandra, please state the correct method of stocking shelves,” Manager Greg said.
“Put the oldest product in the front and the newest product in the back,” Sandra said. “That way no food is wasted.”
“Correct. So why did you put the 13th of July behind the 2nd of February?” Manager Greg pulled two cans from the shelf. He showed Sandra and then he showed me. I nodded.
“Oh. I messed that one up.”
Manager Greg handed her the cans, and she put them on the shelf correctly. Manager Greg nodded to the man behind him. I jumped. The man’s head was shaved save a neatly trimmed mustache below black-rimmed glasses; he was also wearing a suit. Manager Greg nodded again, and the man scribbled a note on his clipboard.
“We have a point system here,” Manager Greg said. “Every time you make a mistake, you get a point. The person with the fewest number of points at the end of the month receives a monetary bonus to his or her paycheck and gets his or her picture on the wall of honor at the front of the store. Right now Julia is in the lead, as per usual. She is our star employee. We will meet her later. If you get a hundred points in a month…well, let’s hope you never find out, Benjamin. Let’s continue our tour.”
We passed the cash registers lining the front of the store. A cashier spoke sharply to a customer.
“Ma’am, please try a different method of payment,” the cashier said. “That card has been declined three times. Do you have a different card?”
“Timmy,” Manager Greg said. “What seems to be the issue here?”
Timmy licked his lips and rubbed his hands on his black pants. “She has tried the same card three times to pay for her groceries, but it has been denied each time.”
Manager Greg turned to the customer.
“Mrs. Nelson, it is a pleasure to see you,” Manager Greg said. “How can I help you today?”
“My card isn’t working today. I just made a deposit, so there is plenty on it. I have no idea why it isn’t working. But I need to get home to start making dinner. You know how Larry is if dinner isn’t at precisely 6:30 p.m. every night. It’s my head.”
Manager Greg nodded. “Yes, of course, I understand, Mrs. Nelson. Just this once I’ll cover it.” He slid his card, and it was accepted. “There. Thank you, and have a good day, Mrs. Nelson.”
“Thank you, Mr. Greg. I certainly shall.” Mrs. Nelson pushed her cart at a fast pace.
I watched her leave. With banking classes emphasized in high school, I did not expect to see a customer walk away with a cart of free groceries.
“Benjamin, please pay attention,” Manager Greg said.
“Yes, sir. My apologies,” I said, returning to Timmy and Manager Greg.
“Now,” Manager Greg said, “Timmy, please repeat the third commandment.”
“Remember to thank the customer and bide thou a good day,” Timmy said.
“Yes. But you didn’t do that, did you?”
“No, sir. You did.”
“Ah.” Manager Greg looked at the man behind us. Again he scribbled a note. To me, he added, “We update the point board at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Timmy, please repeat the tongue twister of the day. Ten times in a row should do it.”
“Clean clams crammed in clean cans. Clean clams crammed in cans.” Timmy stopped.
“No. Try again.”
Timmy took a deep breath. “Clean clams crammed in clean cans. Clean clams crammed in clean cans. Clean cans crammed in clean clams.”
Timmy closed his eyes and tightened his fists. “Clean clams crammed in clean cans. Clean clams crammed in clean cans. Clean cans crammed in clean clams.”
“No.” Manager Greg turned to the man behind us. The man nodded and scribbled another note on the clipboard.
“If I catch a mistake and it can’t be corrected like Sandra made a mistake and corrected it earlier, I give employees the option of completing a tongue twister to redeem themselves and prevent another point on the docket. Three tries before the opportunity of redemption are gone.”
“I understand, Manager Greg,” I said.
“Very good.” Manager Greg continued the tour. Timmy put his head in his hands and started to cry.
A man pushed a mop bucket out of the bathroom.
“Ah, perfect timing, William,” Manager Greg said.
William stopped pushing the mop bucket. He nodded his head to us.
“Every employee is expected to know the location of every product in our store,” Manager Greg said. “It is best to walk through the store on your off hours. We have jobs because of our customers. If they didn’t shop here, we wouldn’t make a living. William, where can I find gluten-free bread?”
William held up both hands with all fingers extended. And then he held up one finger. His bracelet fell from his wrist to the middle of his forearm.
William nodded yes.
“There,” Manager Greg said. “Simple. Any questions, Benjamin?”
“Yes, sir. Why didn’t he say eleven?”
William opened his mouth. He no longer had a tongue. I took a step back.
“William has been with us for a long time,” Manager Greg said. “He started out as a stocker but made so many mistakes that he was punished. Now he can clean and make fewer mistakes.”
“I understand, Manager Greg,” I said. I closed my eyes and gulped for air. Maybe I should have stayed with the bankers. Their punishment was a few hours in the vault. They never detached body parts.
“Let’s continue to the front, Benjamin,” Manager Greg said. “Here are the commandments of the company, to be followed and taken seriously by the employees. Please read them aloud. And visit them as many times as you need to in order to memorize them fully.”
The Ten Commandments were each written in large print across the wall.
Each line was illuminated. The shadows in-between danced, a sinister reminder of William’s dark mouth.
“Yes, sir,” I said, clearing my throat. “One. Thou shalt not look elsewhere for work unless it is because of marriage.
“Two. Thou shalt not curse on the premises, especially not in front of customers.
“Three. Remember to thank the customer and bide thou a good day.
“Four. Honor thy Manager and fellow co-workers.
“Five. Thou shalt not run over customers in the parking lot.
“Six. Thou shalt not date within the same department. Look elsewhere for love.
“Seven. Thou shalt not steal. There is plenty of food available in the break room.
“Eight. Thou shalt not lie to thy Manager.
“Nine. Thou shalt not covet a different life.
“Ten. Thou shalt not covet a different job.
“Very good, Benjamin,” Manager Greg said. He handed me a card with the Ten Commandments printed on them.
“So you can learn them better still,” Manager Greg said. “You have great potential, Benjamin. Maybe one day you’ll be a manager.”
“Now if you will turn your attention to the wall, here is a picture of me, the manager, and our employee of the month, Julia.”
The wall indeed had a flattering picture of Manager Greg. He had more hair then. His bald spot was not visible in the photo.
Julia smiled, her dark curly hair framing her heart-shaped face. She was the employee for the month for the last year. There was a large chalkboard, and the man following us updated it. I found my name on the list. Zero points. Probably the only time it would be zero.
“Follow me, Benjamin,” Manager Greg said. “We are almost done.”
We walked to the west side of the store, where the deli and bakery were located. Manager Greg went to the deli first.
All of the employees were kneeling. The floor had pieces of deli meat on the floor and a small pool of grease near the fryers. One employee stood in front of employees with a raw, whole chicken in his hands.
“That is David, our senior deli employee,” Manager Greg said.
David lofted the chicken in front of him.
“Our help is in the name of the Lord,” David said.
Together the employees said, “Who has made heaven and earth.”
“The Lord be with you.”
“And with your spirit.”
“Let us pray,” David said. “Lord God, You are King of heaven and earth. You are the Word of the Father. Through You, He has given us all created things for our support. We beg You now to consider our lowly position. Just as You have given us help in our labors and needs, so in Your most kind mercy, please bless these chickens with a heavenly blessing, and guard and preserve them. Be so kind, too, as to give us, Your servants, Your unfailing grace, so that we may gratefully praise and glorify Your holy name, who live and are King and God with God the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit forever and ever.”
“Amen,” said the employees in unison.
“In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
David sprinkled the raw chicken with holy water, put it on a cart with its brothers and put it in the oven. The employees bowed their heads and crossed themselves. They rose and returned to work.
Manager Greg smiled at me. “We have mass every two hours, starting at 9 a.m. No matter where you are in the store, you are more than welcome to join them, even if you aren’t assigned to the deli.”
“Good to know,” I said. “Thank you, sir. I shall have to join them.”
Manager Greg nodded. “And now, to the bakery, since we are so close.” He wove through the produce carts as they misted the vegetables, and he stopped at the bakery entrance. “Julia, good afternoon!” He waved.
A woman wearing the typical purple polo and black pants looked up from her work and waved. Her curls hid underneath her hairnet halo. Two employees stood next to her, mouths agape as Julia sculpted a castle cake. She handed the icing bag into one of the employee’s waiting hands and walked over.
“Julia, this is our newest employee, Benjamin. Benjamin, Julia.”
I shook Julia’s hand. “It is nice to meet you, Julia.”
“A pleasure,” Julia said.
“What are you working on today, Julia?” Manager Greg asked.
“I had some orders for castle cakes and one for a snow globe,” Julia said.
“Two cakes were taken to the break room today because they did not sell yesterday.”
“Good,” Manager Greg said. “Two is better than five. I don’t understand how we still have cakes leftover. They are so delicious!”
Julia smiled. “Yes, they are. Betty does a wonderful job of mixing the batter from scratch.”
Manager Greg nodded to the man with the clipboard. He scribbled on a different piece of paper.
“Praise from the employee of the month earns two points knocked off the tally,” Manager Greg explained. “Excellent. And how is the bread today?”
An employee on the other side of the bakery stepped forward with a warm baguette loaf.
“The new sourdough bread recipe is splendid, Manager Greg. Would you like to try a sample?”
“Don’t mind if I do.” Manager Greg ripped off an end of the baguette. He gestured for the man with the clipboard and me to do the same.
The bread was indeed good, light and fluffy. I could get used to this. Fresh bread. Amazing cakes. Maybe I made the right choice after all.
“Thank you, Heidi.” Manager Greg nodded to the man with the clipboard.
Manager Greg led the way to the back rooms. “This is our last stop on the tour. And then you have the rest of the day to settle in, Benjamin. Tomorrow you will start as a stocker. We’ll go from there.”
We passed through shower rooms, laundry, kitchen, library, a hallway of private rooms, lockers, and a large room with multiple bunk beds. The rooms were spacious, a softer, warmer sun than the store’s fluorescent lights. It felt like home with children’s crayon scrawls on the kitchen tables and faded posters with curled corners on the wall. The bookshelves boasted well-loved paperbacks, the covers faded from multiple readers.
“You are more than welcome to leave the premises,” Manager Greg said. “However, I do recommend against it. We take great pride in providing room and board for our employees. Whatever we don’t sell is brought here,” Manager Greg pointed to the two cakes, of which little was left, “and the employees are free to eat it. Otherwise, you shall have to purchase your own food with your earnings.”
“Sir, if I may ask a question,” I asked.
“Besides that one? Certainly.”
“Where do the employees’ children live since children are not allowed in stores?”
“Ah,” Manager Greg said. “Employees are allowed to rent private rooms, one bedroom apartments, with their own bathroom and kitchen. Those are for the employees with families or single people who prefer privacy. Let us return to my office. I have forgotten your bracelet.”
They walked back through the back rooms to the manager office. The desk was in the center of the room, its dark wood knotted and shiny from polish. Ferns sat in large pots in all four corners. A single framed picture of Manager Greg and the founder of The Wallace Grocery faced the door. Both men stood in front of this store with goofy grins and thumbs up. On the desk Manager, Greg picked up a metal bracelet. He held it up for me to see. It was an attractive silver bracelet, unisex.
“This is your bracelet. You are to wear it at all times. There is a GPS tracker inside, in case you get lost or kidnapped. But it also tracks how long you leave the store. That is why I recommend you commit to living here. You will be docked pay for every hour you are off the premises. You’ll make friends here. I’m sure of it. This is the only piece of jewelry employees are allowed to wear besides wedding rings.
“But before that, you have a decision. You’ve seen the store. You’ve seen the living quarters. What do you think? Are you willing to commit to The Wallace Grocery and live by the Ten Commandments?”
I thought about it. Manager Greg can come and go. He has a job. He has a home. He can smile.
I have a job. I have a home. I can smile.
“Yes, I will live by the Ten Commandments and commit to The Wallace Grocery.”
Manager Greg put the bracelet on my left wrist.
“Welcome to the future, Benjamin.”
Suzanna Anderson studied creative writing at Bowling Green State University. She participates in National Novel Writing Month every year. Her interests also include watercolor, charcoal, and bookbinding. Currently she is the editor-in-chief of The Magnolia Review and the Review Editor at The Odd Ducks. She blogs about her graphic novel progress at Ashes: The Graphic Novel.
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