Tuesday, May 16, 2006

amaranth floor

Each Thursday and Friday, I turn the corner onto Elm Street and most days I glimpse Andrew in the store window, stocking the produce section. People of each age have some sort of uniform, and Andrew’s regular daily wear includes a giant black sweatshirt cloaking his rather skinny frame, and those funny kind of jeans that seem to be near falling off, at least to me I should say, twenty years his senior. That long silver chain for keys—I see the practicality of it, as well as the practicality of the giant black hood on his sweatshirt, into which he disappears like a monk when entering the walk-in cooler to unload the lettuce and cilantro. Often he looks up from his apple-stacking and potato-hauling to wave as I slide up Elm Street to park my car. He pushes the door open to welcome me, laughs at me juggling my coffee mug and water bottle and orange hemp apron, my messenger bag and sometimes my toast for breakfast. I enter to some caffeinated music, either Cold Play or a Beatles mix blaring loudly, for Andrew only, until time to open the store for customers.

Andrew carries the heavy sandwich board sign down to Main Street, while I switch on the lovely copper fountain, the Himalayan salt lamps, the lights of the makeup display. I fill my apron pockets with necessities: my glasses case, my hair sticks, a pad of paper and a pen. The cash drawers slide into place with a satisfying jingle. I check the condition of the floor, the counters, the coffee grinder. If the wooden floors were not swept the previous night, I tuck a feather duster into the belt of my apron and go fetch the push broom in the staff room, and say hey while Andrew puts wilty vegetables in the sink to soak.

After a quick hello and “how goes it?” I ask if he needs help.

“Nah. Got it under control,” he answers. We discuss coffee, whether the morning warrants another cup.

And then it’s time: the store is open. Pull every product to the front of the shelves, first in the food aisles, then in the supplement aisles, then in the beauty product aisles. Check the dates of the perishables in the glass-front refrigerators. Look for the dirt and spills that no one else has noticed, the dust bunnies under the bottom shelves, the wayward coffee beans which seem to migrate into the furthest possible locations. Andrew picks up the muffins from the café down the street. I cover them with plastic wrap. I take a minute to catch up with the new produce Andrew has arranged—he has photographer’s eye, making finicky lettuce beautiful.

And this is how it goes, every day. The store owners arrive at nine and Andrew and I look at each other to time how long Pat will wait until she changes Andrew’s morning music—usually less than one minute, and we smile and nod to each other, going about our business. It’s mostly not exciting. It’s a good little life. We find jokes.

A month ago, a warm stretch of days found me in a flowing pair of dressy pants, covered with my usual orange hemp apron, feather duster parked in the back waistband of my apron tie. I’d been gone for a week, caring for my daughter’s flu. I was removing the eight-foot long kickplate of the bulk bin shelves, dumping the trays that collect spills of amaranth grains and popcorn. I was deep in a knee-bend, my broom fishing out the stuff underneath, my head turned sideways and my tongue probably poking out of my mouth in concentration, when Andrew appeared around the corner of the aisle. He placed his hands on his hips in amusement.

“What?” I said, as if I am always squatting in flowery pants, with a feather duster tail, cleaning under something.

“I miss you!” he laughed.

“Are you admiring my brute determination?” I asked.

“Yeah, something like that.” He shook his head and moved on to his work, and me to mine.

A few minutes later, we were standing behind the counter for a moment, and Andrew told me his plan to take two weeks off, to see if he likes being an electrician for his stepfather, someplace in Maryland.

“Oh,” was my response, tears welling in my eyes before I could prevent them. “You might not come back,” I nodded. In the past, in another life, I would have said, enthusiastically, “Well, then, we’ll have to get together when you are back in town!” But I know better. He will have skateboarding friends and family and his girlfriend when he visits. I barely have time for my forty-year old friends, who have children and playdates in common. I have no excuse to hang out with Andrew at length, outside of work.

I looked at my shoes, and back at him. I’m the last person on earth to be uncomfortable with strong emotions, but this was different, somehow. “Andrew, figure out if it will make you happy, okay? You’ve never lived away from the ocean. I know you’ll make a lot of money. But you need to be happy, remember. Wait, what I mean to say, is that I will miss working with you. I will miss you. Contrary to popular belief, I don’t like just everybody, but I really like you, Andrew. It will be different without you.”

What must it feel like, as a young man, to have a forty-four year old woman cry over losing you?

“I know, Denise. I like working with you, too. I look forward to the mornings we open the store together. I’ll miss you, too.” We broke the moment, as it was just too goofy to be standing teary-eyed behind a cash register. He’s my buddy, but I’m old enough to be his mother, and a hug would seem entirely out-of-place. I shook it off. There was work to do.

Another few weeks passed, and my job at the organic grocery has ended, as well. “Staffing crisis,” simple words. It barely matters why. Those tears seem like a pre-cursor to these tears, now. I will miss the store, with all its good smells and good customers. I will miss being downtown. I will shop at the organic grocery from time to time, in the morning before the crowds hit. I will not look under the bulk bins—if amaranth grains have piled up, there, I don’t want to know.