Sunday, July 3, 2016

Heather's Story by Shamrock McShane



[McShane writes about his last year (after 30) teaching Language Arts in Middle School, which is shocking if you've never experienced or read about such things before. His wife's story as an employee at a supermarket, however, ain't that much different, same deal, and easier to tell.]


Gainsville, Florida


The sky was faint blue and cloudless, the temperature in the 70s with a slight breeze. I had traded Chicago winters or this along time ago. I could have stayed and kept plugging away at sports writing, or played the cards I was dealt in the theatre, which weren't bad, since I was rubbing shoulders with Mamet and Macy and getting gigs at Wisdom Bridge and the Goodman. Then I bolted for Key West and that changed everything. I went there to write and become a writer and when that didn't workout I went into teaching. I never stopped writing, and for a long time I never stopped believing I was going to make it big as a writer and I could quit teaching, but it never happened, and by the time I hit 50, I knew it was over for good. I could keep on writing , but I would have to serve my time as a teacher. That was when my wife of 20 years  bailed out on me, and I couldn't blame her. Things didn't pan out the way we thought they would when I was dining with Tennessee Williams in his conch house on Duncan Street and when my wife and I dined together sumptuously in New York City with an ex-girlfriend of mine who had risen to the height of being head writer for All My Children. With connections like that and talent to boot, how could I miss?


Somehow I did. Nancy left me with our two boys, Mike and Bill, then age 12 and 7 respectively, and I went through most of the next ten years as a single dad, until I met Heather or, rather, Heather met me. She was looking for me, and when she found me it didn't matter that I was 28 years older than she was because that was he point - an older man, hale and hardy, with a brain, an intellectual who had grown up with the Beatles and Bob Dylan, whom she loved, and none of the young men her age even knew what she was talking about, and she wanted to have my children, and if I wasn't going to be around to see them get old, so be it.


A four-day weekend, coupling UF Homecoming with Veterans Day. The school board had outdone itself with days off this year, my last after 30 years. Three and four-day weekends were downright common, and this year there was a whole week of for Thanksgiving, which was now being called the Fall Holidays.

Over the weekend Heather was hard at work at Sweetbay. She had just gotten a new job there, after nearly a decade, as the Receiver, It was going to pay her $11 and hour, which would amount to about a $10k a year raise. We were hoping that would keep us going, the four of us including Oliver and Homer, for the foreseeable, after I retired.


Someone put in an order for the weekly truck to deliver to Sweetbay, Heather sipped a beer on the back porch with me and smoked a cigarette. "If you are going to order cheese, that's one thing, but that Cracker Barrel cheese? You know what I am talking about - in a block? A big block of cheese? They go for like eight bucks, eight-something. People aren't going to buy that. People who come in our store. They're not going to buy that. It's going to sit there. They come twelve in a case, and you order three cases of it? That's just going to sit in the back. People who come in our store aren't gonna buy the first one. They can't afford that. Why would you order it?"
 
                                 .         .        .         .         .         .


I lay down on the floor behind my desk and tried to regain enough energy during my planning period to be able to teach the last class of the day. I had the shakes and I had a fever. It hadn't exactly come out of nowhere. Everyone at home in the cave was sick. Ollie and Homer were subdued and submissive to their caregivers at the Church of God. Heather had gone  morning to have a cortisone shot in her foot so she could keep trekking miles around Sweetbay full-time despite the injury heaped on top of her illness.


Heather had back-breaking work to do at Sweetbay, where the clock was also ticking towards the end. All the Sweetbay stores in the country had been bought by Winn-Dixie, which would be taking over later in the spring. In the meantime the management had taken heather off her Receiver duties and put her to work cleaning shelves in all the coolers, so she was wet and freezing and bone tired for two weeks.


Heather was the Shining Star of Sweetbay. She  devised a means of cleaning all the shelves in all the freezers by means of a hose and hot water and even though her superiors were loath to tell her lest it swell her head how dynamic a solutions hers had been  the word had quickly spread to all the extant Sweetbays  and none other than the Regional Manager himself sent out a directive to all Sweetbays in the region to do what Heather had done


From all appearances, they were going to let Heather keep her job. She had worked there ten years, from the time it had been Kash N' Karry and transformed into Sweetbay. The grocery stores were battling it out in the market place. Survival of the fittest.

It would take a massive effort to close the place out. But it would happen fast. First, stop ordering. No more groceries coming in, just what's on the shelves at prices designed to jettison out the store. But some people would not understand.


"I'm cleaning on aisle six," Heather told me,, "and I can hear this black woman on aisle five and she's talking to herself and she is pissed off: 'What the hell is this? There ain't no food up here, where the motherfucken food be at? I'm not even believing this shit. Where the food!' And I know she's goin to come charging around the corner at me and ask me where the motherfucken food be at. And I hear her getting to the end of the aisle. She's probably looking for sugar, and there is no sugar.  And she says: 'Y'all need to restock this bitch up in here.' And I'm thinking: Now there's one for you compo, and here she comes singing out "Y'all need to restock this bitch up in here!"  She looked surprised to see me, so she probably didn't mean for me to hear her, but as soon as she saw me she launched into: ' What the hell kind of store this is?' And I told her, 'A closing store, mam.' And she just looked at me. "A store that is closing,' I said."

Everybody was pissed off until they got to the sale items. Then they switched. They got happy. Some of them got downright apologetic. They were sorry they had been rude and said nasty things to the people who were just working here, doing their job and who were poor people just like them, who didn't decide to sell Sweetbay to Winn-Dixie, and they scooped up the bargains by the case and carted them out the store.

And for the rest of the day Heather and her comrades greeted each other with their new motto: "y'all need to re-stock this bitch up in here."


At Sweetbay Oswald, the manager, was citing the Bottom Line as his reason for not shelling out for two saws that needed to be replaced in the bakery-deli and meat department. One was to replace the crooked blades in the slicer in the deli. The thing sliced automatically but with the blade bent you had to force feed meat into it and if you didn't know what you were  doing you could automatically  slice your hand off. The kid who was working with it in the deli now was 19 and not particularly bright, but so far he still had two hands.


The other saw was actually riskier. It was in the meat department, a circular saw, and it was used to cut really big hard pieces of meat and it could cut right through bone -  but it would jump  at you if you hit something and it didn't go through, and if you didn't  jump the hell out of the way when it jumped the damn thing could cut you in half. Oswald didn't want to buy a new one of those either.


To close out the store everybody had to work overtime. That was good new for us. We could use the extra hours and extra pay. But some of the college kids who worked at Sweetbay were upset by this. If you didn't want to work a twelve hour shift. you would be fired.



"They make you work a twelve-hour shift. That's not right."

"Thirteen hours. Thirteen hours plus. Be there at 5:45. Get off at seven."

"That's a long day."

"Thirty minutes for lunch."

"You get a break?"

"No breaks."

"No breaks?"

"I figured you'd get a ten-minute break every four hours, so I'm standing outside in front smoking a cigarette and Gladys from the North Main Street Winn-Dixie comes out and says to me, "Heather, what are you doing?" I said, 'I'm taking a break.' And she said, 'We don't take breaks.'

'They can't do that."

"Well, they are."

"That's why people have unions."

"Thirteen hour days, and I have to work every day. I looked at the calendar and its going to be 19 days straight before I get a day off - if they give a day off then."



.      .      .      .      .      .     .      .

Heather had to be at work at 4:45 in the morning for Opening Day, so we set the alarm for 3:45.  Homer was up before the alarm went off. We appeased him with a dry diaper and a bottle and some Mickey Mouse on Netflix, but before its was five o'clock he was rousting Ollie out of bed and by six he was clamoring for another bottle and we were out of milk, so off we went to the Grand Opening of Winn-Dixie where Sweetbay used to be, winding our way through the same traffic we would have encountered had we been going to school as usual.  It was raining to befit Good Friday, and by the time I started fucking wit the strap to buckle Homer into the shopping cart I was good and pissed off.  I grabbed a gallon of milk, some soda, Ollie tossed in some Little Debbie and Homer snatched a bag of pizza-flavored Goldfish. Heather was nowhere to be seen.


The Winn-Dixie conversion team was having its way with Sweetbay.



'They act  they're saving a dying store," Heather had fumed, "but we're not a dying store, they just bought us - it's not like we're losing money, we're making money."


The conversion team was calling all the shots.


"Hi, McShane," Heather's boss, the store manager, Oswald, called to me, looking up from his clipboard where he was checking his inventory.



"Store looks beautiful," I said. What else should you say? They'd spent the last month beautifying it at the clip of 13 hour workdays. Damn well better look beautiful.


He shrugged. "Heather's in back."

"Oh."


"Go ahead. You can go back there. Go on."


There weren't many people in the store. It had just opened at seven. Really. Just opened, after having been closed completely for nearly two weeks. Today was the Grand Opening of the new Winn-Dixie. Sweetbay was gone forever, consumed by corporate America. It wasn't even eight o'clock yet. Homer kept trying to climb out of the cart. I could never get the damn straps that held him in to work. Oliver was running free.

"Walk, Ollie, walk!"


The last time Heather had taken the two of them shopping Ollie had commandeered the shopping cart and the shoppers in front of the cart couldn't see Ollie behind it, so when Heather yelled "Watch where you're going!" they though she was yelling at them.


I didn't know about this. First, I never knew if I was going to get Heather into trouble just by showing up at the store, let alone with the two kids. I had gotten her into trouble before just by showing up.


I wasn't like I wanted to go there, to inflict myself and the kids on the Opening Day patrons, but there was no way I could survive the next twelve hours in the cave without some milk.


Second, I remembered that Oswald was a lame duck and wasn't really running things anymore. The conversion team was running the show and they were all arrogant Winn-Dixie assholes. There was a group of three of them acting all officious as hell at the end of the aisle, conferring among themselves while the Opening Day shoppers and the people who actually worked there went about their business.


The conversion team stopped me just as I had run the shopping cart into the black rubber bumpers and through the double doors to the back of the store.


"Can we help you, sir?"

"Are you looking for the restroom, sir?"

"You can't go back there, sir."


All three of them pounced on me at once.


"Sorry," I said, backing away. "I was just looking for Heather."


"We'll tell her you're here," said the female. It looked like she was in charge.


"That's ok," I said, still moving. Now I had done it. I was no longer a shopper, not even a shopper who had wandered from the right path, now I was kin to the reviled Sweetbay staff that they were here to convert. I could be an object lesson. The conversion team would now go in the back where Heather was working and interrupt her work to tell her that I had broken security.  Best to just keep moving.


"You can wait right there, sir," the officious female hectored, but I was having none of it.  I wanted out of there. I has my groceries, I had my kids, I headed for the check-out line. "I said you could wait right there, sir," she kept it up, even following me a step or two, and this was too much.

"Actually," I said over my shoulder, "I can go wherever I want," and I kept ongoing, Ollie trotting in front, Homer squirming against my chest, to the checkout line where I started putting our stuff near the belt for the register when Heather came rushing up from the back of the store.

"I am so sorry, honey, " she said in a whisper. "That fucking witch, Do you know what she said to me?"


"What?"


"There's some grampa out there with his grandkids looking for you.' I said "That's my husband and those are his kids.' And she says,  'I thought they were yours.' 'They are," I said. 'They're ours.' And she just looked at me.


"Ah fuck her," I said.


At least we has the milk, and soda a snacks, so we could make it through Heather's shift, and rest up and be ready to start the next day at 3:45  in the morning.




      .      .      .      .      .      .      .



The final fury of FCAT consumed the last week of April, proving it beyond a doubt to be the cruelest month. I would be spending two days in the READ 180 Lab with Brad Penny, where we would be administering jointly the computer-based FCAT Reading test all day on both Monday and Tuesday to three consecutive groups of 20 eighth graders each, the same readers  had observed not reading for the past 30 weeks.  Meanwhile Heather was in Winn-Dixie hell.


"I knew it when they made us go visit their store on Main Street. As soon as I went in the back I told the girl who was  showing me around, 'I've never seen  this much back-up stock in my life,' and she just looked at me like she didn't know what I was talking about."


The people at the Main Street store didn't seem to get the subtext: We're never going to sell all this shit - it's going to go bad - we'll have to throw it all away.


"Now it's just like that at our store. The back of the store is piled to the ceiling with back-stock. As soon as we get anything half-way put away another truck pulls up with three times as much as we already have, and it's just impossible, there's no way. It's just going to sit there until we have to throw it all away in the dumpster. Half the stuff - no, not half the stuff but a lot of the stuff - it's already past the expiration date when it gets here and we have to take it off the truck and throw it away, right then. How much sense does that make?"


"See how much better they do things in the private sector?"


At Winn-Dixie on south 34th Street the former Sweetbay had undergone a sea change. The message had come down loud and clear from the new brass that all subordinates were to be treated harshly and the managerial approach should be that of the hard-ass, the slave master cracking the whip. The entire workforce was branded as lazy.


"I couldn't believe she said that."

"Who?"

"Heaven. She called Jimmy lazy. She called the rest of us lazy too. And she knows us. She's Sweetbay. But that's the way they're going to talk to people now. I said I don't know if I can work in a place where they're going  to talk to people that way."


Lazy. Shiftless. You could see where this was trending. Heather was a tad bit offended. She put in for a transfer to the Winn-Dixie on North Main Street. She told Oswald: "I always did everything I was asked to do and more. There was nothing you could ask me to do that I wouldn't do. I expected to work here forever. I thought when I walked out that door for the last time I'd be and old lady.:"  And she cried, and gave her letter requesting a transfer to Oswald, the manager for whom she'd been working for the past five yeas and was the most dependable employee in the store, and he put it in his pocket and there was never any sign thereafter that he had ever even looked at it.


[ Shamrock and Heather, on top of  plumbing and computer repair expenses, are slapped with an unexpected, pass due IRS bill on account of a previous mortgage default. They lose all the extra money Heather  made working overtime. Shane has to raise the cash from his 403-B , which will also cost. Shane describes caring for their two young children: .  .  . 'suddenly it was twelve hours later and you had never once gotten away from it. Being a plaything of the gods is one thing, but being the plaything of children just sucked.']


[Shane is trying to maneuver to retain access to the school's basketball court and well -appointed  weight-room after he retires, in exchange for hosting the annual Writing Awards.]

 "You think it would be worth it?" Heather asked.

"Oh yeah, Full court. Nice surface. Perfect lighting. Protection from the elements, enclosed to prevent the kids from escaping. Plus, the powerhouse, all of those state of the art machines, and Homer and Ollie fucking around with them.

"Ok, so go for it. It just means you have to put up with all the shit at school with a smile for a couple of more weeks."

"Three more weeks."

"Whatever."

"Then we'll be good," I said. "At least until my book comes out."

"Why? What happens then"

"Then? Then they are never going to let me set foot on that campus again."

"You mean when they read it?"

"Yes"

"Honey, they're never going to read you book."

I laughed. "That's true."

"Nobody's going to read your book."

Nobody could hurt me like Heather could, and she wasn't even trying.

.     .     .     .     .     .     .
"It's like stepping on a Lego - permanently."

Heather  needed another cortisone shot to live with the bone spur in her foot while governing the traffic caused by the overlapping trucks arriving to unload mountains of overstock at the back of Winn-Dixie giant tractor-trailers battling for space and yielding to Heather's stern governance like the triremes of Ulysses before Athena's gaze.


When they pulled the chains to lower the ramp onto the truck at the back of Winn-Dixie to unload what would become mountains of overstock, Oswald, the lame-duck manager who to his credit was always willing to lend a hand, was helping out and go his middle finger stuck in the chain and snap just like that it was broken. He couldn't bend it and it was all purple-blue-black.

Heater took a third cortisone shot in her foot and the doctor said, "That's enough."

"No more shots?"

"You need to have surgery."

"Really? It's not going to get better? I just want the pain to go away once in a while."

"Isn't there some other job you could do, where you're not on your feet so much?"

"Not in a grocery store."

"Somewhere else then."

"I don't want to work somewhere else. I want to work in a grocery store. I like working in a grocery store. I love working in a grocery store. Is there anything wrong with that?"

"Just your foot."


Winn-Dixie's sales were up sixty percent over Sweetbay's, so what difference did it make how they did things, how much overstock went to rot?




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