The cracks in the grocery store’s parking lot are so severe I can feel the tires dipping every time I drive over them. When I pull into a parking spot the car slides a bit, and for a moment I’m terrified my brakes are out. I lean my head out the window and see the problem: a loose piece of asphalt is stuck beneath the front left tire, and slid across a jagged pothole from my car’s momentum. Greeeeat. I’m gonna need to be careful when I back out.
Walking to the doors I stick close to the parked cars, as the vehicles in motion give no heed to directional arrows, pedestrian crossing signs, or even to each other. Before I’m inside, two cars straddling the center of a driving lane almost meet nose-to-nose. They sit there, blocking other cars, honking at each other as I go inside.
I’m five steps in when I overhear someone ask: “You ever see Bush People?” I’m not one for eavesdropping, so I keep walking.
“You ever see Bush People?” I hear again, and now the voice is closer. Whoever’s talking is talking to me.
I turn and see a guy about my age walking up to me. Blue polo shirt, black work pants, black sneakers. A handheld device for the self-checkout counters dangles from one hand. He adjusts his Kroger cap. At first he looks unshaven, but as he gets closer I notice it’s actually the sheen of acne I’m seeing.
“You ever see Bush People of Alaska?” he asks me. Half his face seems to droop a bit, like Stallone’s. “It’s on Discovery.”
“Nope. Never seen it.”
“You should, man. You look just like this one guy on the show. I mean just like him!” He laughs at this. “It’s an awesome show.”
“I’ll check it out. Hey, do you guys have restrooms?”
“Yeah, man. Back of the store, far left corner.”
“Sweet. Thanks man.”
“Watch that show!”
“I’m on it.” I do a mock salute and retreat down the center aisle.
The toilets are tucked way back. I duck under a sign and into a small walkway that leads to a storeroom, a walk-in cooler, and an office. There’s a little hallway to my left, but it veers right a few feet in, so I can’t see where it goes. Still, the sign outside said Restrooms.
I duck into the hallway, turn, and see the men’s room at the very end, past two shopping carts stuffed with the remains of broken-down water fountains. The dim yellow light bulb gives the cramped space an eeiry, lonesome feel. I squeeze past the carts and an abandoned mop bucket and go in.
While I’m washing my hands I hear a woman’s voice over my shoulder: “This is the LADIES room!”
I spin, and see an irate worker standing directly behind me. A female worker.
“Oh, SHIT. Oh shit, I’m so fucking sorry!” I bolt for the door. I can feel my face burning red. Jesus Christ, how did I pick the wrong door?
When I step outside I look to the next door down and sure enough, it says “MEN.” Fuck fuck fuck fuck shit.
I turn back to the women’s room door, still in horrified shock that I made such an unbelievably stupid mistake, when I pause. The door behind me says “MEN.”
I look to my right: “MEN.”
I look in front of me: “MEN.”
I double check. I triple check. Quadruple, quintuple. I’m still doing it when the woman comes into the hallway.
“That’s the WOMEN’S bathroom!” she scolds me. She’s stern the way people are with dense but naughty children.
“It…it says ‘MEN.'” I point to the door behind her, then to the one beside it. “They both do.”
She turns around, studies her door, studies the other door. She seems to contemplate them for a moment, then turns around and repeats: “This is the WOMEN’S bathroom!”
“Okay. Well, maybe fix the signs then.”
“It’s for WOMEN.”
“Yeah. BUT IT SAYS IT’S FOR MEN.”
“I can read the sign,” she says, but I don’t entirely believe her.
I wince as I stroll down the beer aisle. The tiled floor is as cracked and bumpy as the parking lot, and I can feel each ridge sharply through my Converses. The tiles are off-white, and thick, brown cracks spider-web across them in every direction.
I grab a six-pack, a local craft brand that somehow found its way into this shitty corner of town. I consider grabbing another, but I don’t wanna get shitfaced. I drove into town to help my parents move, and we start packing tomorrow morning. I say we but what I mean is I. My parents are moving into a retirement community. They’re not going to have the energy to box up the five decades of baby-boomer kitcsh that packs that place. I got a long weekend ahead of me.
The self-checkout machine beeps for the attendant, and I see the woman from the bathroom whispering to someone, another woman who works the deli counter. They look at me, the woman pointing as she talks, and the deli worker gives me an icy stare. I give them both the finger.
“What kinda beer is that?” asks the guy who watches Discovery.
“It’s a wheat beer. Wheat beer with strong lemon notes in it. Summertime thing.”
“Lemon in beer?” I can’t tell if he’s appalled or amazed. “How much did it cost?”
“About ten bucks.”
“Ten bucks?!” He laughs, a choked, barking sound. Everyone nearby turns to us. “Ten bucks? Bud Light’s only five! Man, did you get ripped off!”
He keeps laughing as he types in my birthday. “Next time, get Bud Light. It’s so much cheaper.”
I swipe my card to pay. “Oh, it’s cheap shit alright.”
He’s still laughing when I walk off, but the laughter seems forced. He doesn’t seem to be laughing at anything funny; he seems like he’s laughing to make something funny. I leave him to it. Third shift always sucks. I know that personally. Let him get through it how he can.
Before I reach the doors another customer cuts me off. She doesn’t mean to, it seems. We were just both moving towards the same door at the same time. When I stop to let her by, she stops too. Stops, turns her head, and stares at me. Her doughy, pimply face is scrunched up with a look of…confusion, I guess.
“You can go ahead,” I tell her, but still she just stares at me. I gesture to the door and she just stands there. After another moment, she finally shoves her buggy and heads out. I duck out behind her and race for my car.
The two drivers who almost wrecked are parked, out of their cars, and yelling at each. The night would be completely still if not for their cursing.
“Excuse me! Excuse me, sir!” I keep moving. I need to get out of here. “Sir, excuse me, you saw what happened, can you please explain…”
I dive into my car like an Olympic swimmer, start the engine, and drive across the half-empty parking lot. I need to turn left, so I choose the exit with a traffic light. While I wait at a red, I hear a tapping on my window.
An older middle-aged man is knocking on the glass. He has an oily brown goatee and deep red pockmarks on his cheeks. “Can you give me a ride?” he asks me, when I crack the window open an inch.
“Where to?” I ask, even though I’m only stalling till I get the green.
He’s quiet for a second, then says “I need a ride.”
“Okay. Where to?”
“Can…hold on.” He rubs his eyes, the way people do when they’re exhausted. Or, as I suspect with this guy, when they’re too wired to be exhausted “Can…can I get a ride?”
Meth has burned away the second half of his question. A green arrow shines from the light. I drive off, leaving him staring after me, bewildered.
I grew up here, I think.
The drive to my parents’ house is rough. The car bounces on gathered mounds of asphalt, and shudders whenever I drive over a protruding manhole. My parents have already moved into their new apartment, so the house is dark when I get there. Tomorrow I prepare everything for sale or storage, but tonight I break myself down, my constitution an old cinder block, the sweating six-pack the jackhammer.
I get out of the car and head inside. In the distance, from different directions, I hear sirens. Grass peeks out between the concrete steps to the porch. I go inside and lock the door behind me, packing away a great box of shattered ground and empty, bored suspicion.