Aisles

“Excuse me, do you know where I could find diapers or —”

“No, sorry. I think there’s a registry in aisle three that might help.” “It’s just that—”

“Sorry, it’s my first week. Aisle three is down that way,” I pointed across the store.

I had been working at Bonnie’s—a name once so full of meaning, but had since been impersonalized as a suburbanite, bulk-buyer haven—for two years. I was a professional, excelling in the mediocrity that my work demanded.

Looking at the list of employees in the break room, I might have been easy to miss. As far as stars and employee commendations went, I was dead last. On the alphabetical list of employees, I had been pushed to the bottom. My penance for disgracing the Bonnie’s name. The ideologues in management were drunk with power. They saw me as a living affront to the chipper attitude that THE JOURNEY OF THE CUSTOMER asked of us. This was the

seventy-four page packet handed down from corporate that detailed customer interaction down to the most boor-ish detail, explaining how Bonnites (their jargon for employees of Bonnie’s) how they might say ‘hello’ to customers as they walk in. The latest edition featured a new chapter: “THE PRONOUN”, warning against ‘ma’am’ or ‘sir’ greetings. How disgruntled the elderly Bonnites were. That section was snuggled neatly between “BAKING AISLE: DOs & DON’Ts” and “SO YOU WANT TO STOCK EGGS?”. Managerial Bonnites read it like a Bible. Every other Monday they asked us to come in for employee meetings. Useless drivel, no doubt, but the Bonnites flocked to it as if it came from the tongue of God himself. They would read certain sections from the packet, newly added or just slightly revised ones, and talk about their experiences in the past week. Managers in states of rapture would flavor the meetings with their own Midrash, blending fact with fiction and Bonnie’s with life. Sometimes there was food.

Mostly it was just leftover bread in a rocky limbo between fresh and molded. For obvious reasons, I was often sick on those days, but the minutes were emailed with uncharacteristic promptness the same night.

I glanced up from my fiftieth re-fluffing of the pillows in the bedding department just in time to see my manager, Doltan, walking in my direction.

Fuck.

He bent down to pick up a fallen pillow case—packaged, as we assured customers, in the most hygienic plastic Bonnie’s had to offer—and I bolted, zigzagging through the maze of identical comforters and bed sheets. The shelves at Bonnie’s kept my cover. Like most superstores, Bonnie’s prided itself in enormity but took that enormity to new heights. Shelving towered over most aisles, the uppermost products only accessible by absurdly long hooks wielded by bodybuilder Bonnites that roamed the store.

I reached in my back pocket for the map given to me in orientation oh so many hours ago. I had surreptitiously marked it with different hiding spots throughout the store. While the ‘Bed & Bath’ section might seem a comfortable place to sprawl out, it was the most dangerous, too. There were too many areas that management could approach from, and Doltan was already close in pursuit. I went through my list of typical spots: Women’s Clothing? no, being caught napping in the clothing racks is never a good look; the Toy Department, at least this close to the holidays, would be crawling with shoppers and Bonnites alike; the Hardware Department looked to be the place to go.

“Excuse me, sir—”

I shook off another customer and continued walking.

Bonnie’s had everything. It was the golden child of hyper-consumerism and an exploding population, flaunting all of it with a fluorescent shimmer. It took fifteen minutes to maneuver across the store into Hardware. How beautiful it was. Aisle 16, my escape, was lined to the ceiling with options— garage doors, storm doors, screen doors, cat doors, and just regular doors, too. On the bottom shelf there was a carousel of doors, each inhabited (unknown to management) by rent-evading tenants. Benadryl— he was adamant that it was his given name —usually played chess with me behind door number three; the blue door was home to a burgeoning tech start-up. Disheveled, bug-eyed programmers in sweat pants and button-down shirts could be seen wandering in and out throughout the day. We maintained a mutual silence. The last door was mine, complete with Drevil’s highest end bolt lock. I napped more often than not, preferring it to the barracks in the Bonnie’s break area.

As I shut the door behind me, I saw Doltan’s foot, laced up in his white orthopedic sneakers, rounding the corner. I laid back to rest. I had since brought a blanket and pillow from B&B to rest on in my down time. I closed my eyes and dreamed a Bonnie’s dream:

Visions of bubblegums danced in my head — Sticky’s, Bubble Breaker, Mintsy. I dreamed I was somewhere in Produce, blowing the biggest bubble I had ever blown while I did stock, shuffling around boxes of Andrew’s Pudding Pops, Gonzo Beans, Catalini Spaghetti, Auntie M’s Microwavable Fish Sticks, Valhalla Avocados, Zemurray Bananas, Thistle-brand Cilantro, Thistle-brand Fresh Oregano, Bonnie-brand Cilantro, Bonnie-brand Fresh Oregano, Spagliano Tomato Sauce, Ho Chi Minh Instant Pho, Bonnie’s Non-Oxygenated Mozzarella Cheese, Goudie’s Mozzarella Cheese, Patriot Hamburgers, Sticky’s Rice, —

MILO MADISON REPORT TO REGISTER FOUR MILO MADISON REPORT TO REGISTER FOUR

—I woke, only ten minutes into my nap, to the sound of my name ringing loudly. Doltan must have caved. Using the intercom was a forgotten art form, one that most avoided at

Bonnie’s. It required a level of apathetic detachment that most spend their entire lives mastering, each syllable competing for enunciated sorrow, but Doltan, that magnificent man, had it perfected at the ripe age of twenty-six. Ever since his promotion six months ago, he had been hassling me to re-straighten t-shirts for the nth time or spray down the men’s room. His nametag had been enlarged twice the size to show the word MANAGER across the top, and his ego had inflated proportionally. Disgruntled, I stepped out of my makeshift bunker into the blinding light.

“Hello, how are you, ma’am?” I said, startling the woman on the other side. Behind her, two children peered into my hovel. She pulled them close.

“Hi,” she said after a moment, “could you tell me where I might find the Bed & Bath department?”

“You know what,” I said with an air of regret, “it’s actually my first day, and I’m trying to figure that out myself. There’s a directory in aisle three if that helps at all.”

She thanked me and scooted away, her shopping cart dragging a broken wheel across the linoleum. Just as she rounded the corner, I started towards the front of the store.

Walking past the appliances, I saw some teenagers whispering to each other. A good Bonnie’s employee would step in, investigate. I kept on to register four.

Oh no. Two departments away, I spotted them: Doltan conversing with a woman whose age I would calculate in centuries rather than decades. Her floral moo moo dress stopped just short of the ground. She laughed at one of Doltan’s jokes, throwing her whole body against the wheelchair.

“Well, here he is. The man himself,” Doltan greeted me, a smug smile tacked on to his

face.

I asked what the problem was and damn was he happy to fill me in.

“See, Angel here is doing some shopping for her family, but she has some trouble

moving around. I told her that, at Bonnie’s, we only believe in the best of service. You’re going to be pushing her around for a bit while she picks some things out.”

I told him it was alright. Not my first lie to the man, I suppose. I reached my hand out to the old woman, “Milo.”

She returned it with a firm shake, “Angel Newkirk, honey. Glad to meet ya’.”

“Well aren’t you two just the best of friends!” Dolton said, his faux enthusiasm eating away at me. “I’ll leave you to it, but if you have any questions, just let me know.”

He glared at me as I pushed away with the old woman. We were off towards Children’s Clothing for her granddaughter. In our four minute walk, I learned more than I ever thought I might know about an eight-year old.

“She likes yellow. Not what you might normally think of as yellow. A maroon kind of yellow. Something you might see in a fall catalogue. If that fails, banana laffy-taffy yellow is a second option. A creamy kind of yellow. Somewhere between light and regular yellow. Almost like butter, but don’t think of it like that. Construction worker yellow is good, too. Not that hard hat yellow, but a bright, reflective one. Neon? Is that what they’re calling it? She likes to glow at

night, my granddaughter. Sometimes she bikes laps around the neighborhood to prove that she has the endurance, more so than the boys, anyways —”

This is about where my thoughts began to wander. I glanced at a woman who had precariously stacked three televisions in her Bonniemobile. I had both the urge to caution her and to knock them all down. Caution tape yellow. That’s another one. Fifth on the granddaughter’s list if I had to guess. I started curating my own list of yellows when the old woman yelled at me to stop.

“This is the one,” she said with a gleam in her eye. “The magnum opus of yellow.”

It looked an okay yellow, I guess. She beamed, holding up a sweater with a stripe across the chest. Charlie Brown yellow, that has to be on the list.

“Is there a husband you’re shopping for?” I asked her, trying to avoid an awkward lull more than anything.

“Are you asking if I’m single?” her laughter cracked like a whip, “Shit, no, Honey. Remo died ten odd years ago. Take me to the liquor aisle, will ya.”

Grocery Department, Aisle 21. Off we were. On the way she told me about him, about Remo, Ray.

“Remo was his Italian nickname. When he came over from Italy, he couldn’t speak shit for English, and the only job he could find was in a shipyard. He’d spent three weeks learning ‘English’ with the other guys— he got pretty good, too —, only to find out that they were Poles. Hah! The bastard could speak basic Polish ‘til the day he died. God love ‘im. Eventually, he learned English, just took ‘im a few years. I told him I wouldn’t marry him until he could recite Hail Mary in English, and he did it in Polish, too, just to be funny.”

Conversations with the elderly always caught me off guard. I never knew what was appropriate to say, but she had a personality to her. “He sounds like a great guy,” I said stupidly.

“Shit, he was a piece of work. I met him at a dive off 44, somewhere long since demolished. When he asked for my hand, he couldn’t afford a wedding ring. That sumbitch got me a small hoop earring instead. Said I could wear it as an earring or an engagement ring. Have a look, Hun,” she said, tugging at her ear. An earring older than bronze dangled off her right lobe.

“It’s broken a few times since then, but I keep sending it back to the jeweler. I’ve probably since replaced the whole thing.”

“I like it, I like it,” I told her earnestly, “did you ever —”

“— here, Hun. Stop here,” she gestured towards the olives. “Can’t make a vodka martini without any olives, can we?”

“No, ma’am.”

To the liquor aisle, through the sea of muted faces, despondent shoppers. “What’s your drink, Honey?”

I told her I didn’t drink. “Don’t do much of anything.”

“That’s good. That shit’ll kill ya’, just like it did my son. I’m old enough that if anything kills me it’ll be a saving grace. Pull off that bottle from the top there. May as well celebrate while we can, right?”

“I suppose so, yeah.”

“You suppose so? Of course we should. There’s always something worthy. Always, always.”

I handed it to her. She placed it gently atop the sweater, and sat for a minute.

“If you were a bitter daughter-in-law, what kinda present would you be expecting?” “Not a damn thing,” I told her.

“Hah. I wish. Drag me on over to Home & Garden. Maybe we can get some poinsettias to kill her tabby.”

Again, we were off, the finest crew in all of Bonnie’s. Overhead, the intercom rang through the store:

MANAGER DALTON TO APPLIANCES MANAGER DALTON TO APPLIANCES

Fate would have it that Appliances were on the way to the Home & Garden. “I’m jealous of you, Hun” Angel told me, unprompted.

“Why might that be?”

“Look around you,” she said with a flourish, “not that background noise you restock, but what it really is. Can you see it?”

We were approaching appliances pretty quickly when something changed. I felt hot, humid. Both Angel and I started breathing a bit slower. My head dropped; I was exhausted from pushing. I saw my arms were covered in thick beads of sweat, growing by the second. I glanced to our left. Fifteen of Honeydew’s best humidifiers (on sale for three-fifths their original price) were plugged into the back wall, humming. From the sound of it, they were all running on the highest setting. The air in the aisles surrounding them had congealed into a thin, almost imperceptible liquid. As we got closer, it became thicker and thicker. It felt as if we were floating. Angel’s earring hovered, suspended just above a dangle. She spoke for both of us, saying:

“Shit, Honey. What in sam hell we just stumble into?”

All of the boxes, stacked oh so high, were dark and damp. Irreparable, if I had to guess. Four teenagers in ripped Vans swam above our heads, cursing at us, each other, who knows. We caught our reflection in their faces, arrested somewhere between fright and excitement.

“Push me up there with them,” Angel said. I assented and kicked off.

The harder I kicked, the better the view we had. Soon enough, we were afloat in the rafters. All of Bonnie’s, those ten square acres, came into full view. The meticulously designed packaging diminished to a blur; the products themselves seemed even to move away; and the shoppers—the people, rather—were all that remained. Back in the Bed & Bath Department, a woman dozed on a bed while children swung pillows at each other. Over in the diaper aisle, a laughing couple perused their options. And a man in chunky white shoes sprinted towards us.

He stopped.

A woman had dropped a few large boxes. He bent over to pick them up, gave her a reassuring pat on the arm, and sprinted on. Just below, I heard Angel call out:

“Well I’ll be damned. Looks like I might need a towel after this!” “Don’t worry,” I yelled through the air “Bed & Bath, aisle 46!”

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