The Huddle – Sam Fishman

Before I clock in I have this routine where I walk up and down every aisle and make non-threatening eye contact with anyone I see. I like to establish a rapport before I get started—somehow it makes it easier to relax.
Today on my walk I see four employees and a handful of customers. I could describe the employees for you but we aren’t very interesting. We don’t have any nicknames or unusual injuries. Our faces look like faces.
I clock in and have the following thoughts when I’m about to bag a young man’s groceries:
I’m the kind of person who has a regular face. I just mean that the people who should remember me do, and the people who shouldn’t remember me don’t.
I can’t remember ever being surprised, to be honest.

I hold up this young man’s cucumber in front of the space between us. This cucumber looks exactly like a cucumber. It has that cucumber dark green in the middle and then it gets lighter and lighter until it’s almost white at the tip. I look at the sticker and type the corresponding five-digit code into the computer.
I ask this young guy if he wants any bags, but he already has his own.
He has a tattoo on his face. It makes me feel like I could be in danger, but I’m not really afraid.

It could be that he’s just not like me and my coworkers on any level. But there are probably unusual things about my coworkers. I believe I have lived a reasonably hard life and it’s been even harder for most of them.

Alexa walks past the cereals and to her register wearing one of our work-vests; they look like clinical X-ray protectors but they’re lighter. She makes eye contact with me and holds up a hand so the back of it faces me. She puts the other hand over that hand, so I can’t see how many fingers she’s holding up.
When she takes her hand away I can see she was holding up one finger, it was the middle one.

Alexa pulls a key from an elastic string on her waistband, turns it into the computer on the register, and then lets it go so it snaps right back to her side.
She looks at me and makes a clicking sound with her teeth that I think is her imitation of loading a pistol.
I smile at her to show her that I’m the kind of person who understands her. I’m not sure she believes me—that’s ok.

It’s funny to me that as soon as she turns her key there’s this family with three full carts of groceries waiting for her. No foreplay today.

Sorry—I forgot about the young guy. He got mostly vegetables but he had a frozen pizza in there too. In that way, he reminds me of myself. I’m a healthy person, but whenever I’m pissed off I don’t feel like going through the rigmarole of treating my body with respect. I guess I like to blow a small hole inside of my good life when I feel like a decent implosion will get me back on the right track.

Anyway, I clock out and I buy a yogurt at a 10% discount. I take my yogurt outside and sit on a bench that faces the grocery story and I watch Alexa work. I just want to be clear that I have no romantic feelings about her. I don’t know why I feel like I have to say that but I feel like I have to. I’m not watching her because I’m interested in her—I’m just watching her, that’s all.

She’s working on this family I told you about earlier.
There’s a mom, a dad, and two young children.

I am watching Alexa’s arms work. Like how her elbows are pendulums that swing from the conveyor belt to the scanner and to the bag in one motion. Like I said, I don’t know really anything about Alexa, but I admire her practiced gestures. I like how obvious it is that she’s good at what she does, even if you don’t know anything about bagging groceries.

I like that she’s not concerned with how this family thinks she feels about them. She is so busy being Alexa and they are so busy being a family and I’m just sitting here eating my yogurt. We are all doing our own individual thing.

I see the family loading all their bagged groceries into their carts. I see them walk towards the automatic door to go home.
But it won’t open. We sometimes have issues with the motion detector.

So the dad jumps up and down and waves his arms like he’s making a snow angel in the air.
This makes me smile. I think I start to like him.
The motion detector detects him and the doors open.

When mom and dad come out of the store, dad says ok everybody, like he’s going to give them the lowdown for the rest of the day. When they stop to convene they do it right around me.
It’s probably just incidental, but because of where I’m sitting it feels like I’ve become the other half of their semi-circle. Like I’ve joined the family huddle.

Mom has on a neon visor like she’s ready for the casino or to play tennis. She says alright kiddies, who remembers the game plan? And both their hands go right up.

Mom says go ahead, Charlotte.

So Charlotte says I’m gonna tell grandpa we’re making chicken.

Mom says you’re damn right we are. She says how about you Sam.
That’s my name too, but I know I’m not the one who’s supposed to answer.

So I duck down. I pretend I’m the same height as the boy.

Sam says I’m gonna help daddy take in the groceries and then when I see grandma I’m gonna say I love you grandma.

Mom says Eskimo kisses and he jumps into her arms. They rub their noses together and giggle.

Which reminds me of this: When I was a kid I would hold up a carrot to my mom and she’d say let’s play chipmunk. We’d both chomp down on our carrots as fast and loudly as we could.

And whenever I was in the car with my dad I could say let’s play Batman and he would rip the gas and send us up to 50 down a residential street and then slam on the breaks. He’d even let me hold the wheel.

So I take out my cell phone and point the camera at this family in order to remember this feeling. I hold up a peace sign with my other hand and stick my tongue out so it looks like a selfie when I take their photo.

I put my phone in my shirt pocket and it is like a firecracker has cut through the sky. I can feel my dad’s old shirt-smell on my nose, when everything didn’t smell like dusty mold. I am propelled through the air and I miss my dad and I love my dad. I’m headed in the direction of my family, watch my legs as I go to them.

I’m so glad to be back that I put my arm around the boy.
Now everybody stops what they were doing.

When I’m running back inside my store I don’t even stop to look at them one last time. I crumple up the white plastic container to my yogurt and I stuff it in my shirt pocket. It makes it look like there’s a rat struggling to get out.

I tell Alexa I’m going to leave early, even though she is not my manager.

I’m not really sure where my manager is. I don’t really remember who my manager is.

I get in my car and I look at this photo I have taken. I put on my seatbelt but I don’t start the car.

I swear this is the most important picture I’ve ever taken. I notice, because I’m crying, that I think I’m beginning to understand something about myself.

I would like to be silly with my mom and dad. I would like to cuddle, I would like to tell them all my deepest secrets.

When I put my phone away I get this idea. I start the car and I go to Home Depot.

I park my car in the parking lot of Home Depot and I walk in with an exaggerated strut. I just feel like a millionaire.

I hike it right to the back of the store, where all the large rectangles of wood sit on the walls, waiting to be cut by these nice people.

When I am walking down this aisle I hold my hand out, so it’s touching wood the entire way. It makes me feel connected to this aisle. I think I’m really on the verge of understanding it.

I see a woman in an orange apron and I say, excuse me please.

She turns around. She’s holding a clipboard that has a pen attached to it with a piece of string.

She says what can I do for you. I tell her I just had this idea—I would like to build a baby crib.
This makes her change a great deal. She is so much more friendly.

She talks to me about slats—about how some people will just build the thing like it’s a rectangle without a top, but that there’s a great deal of nuance you can apply, if you want to, and in her opinion, it has a great deal of influence on the development of the psyche of the baby. Bad crib, bad baby, is the idea.

She leads me around the store and whatever she tells me I say yes. I’m just going to put everything in my cart and when I get to the register I’m going to take out my credit card and buy it all. Then when I get home I’m going to put everything together, because she has told me exactly how to, and then I’m going to try sleeping in a baby crib, just to see how it feels.