Don blinked as if he couldn't believe what I just said. I hadn't said anything. We stared at each other over the customer service counter. Don was the kind of guy who looked like he could come to life any minute now, as if the vacancy in his face was only a restfulness and not a sleepy boredom. I used the silence to ask him his Chinese name. I'd been curious.
“Don,” he said. “It just...it sounds just like ‘Don,’ so I go by ‘Don.’”
I told him that was convenient.
Don and I were not friends, per se. We both worked at an upscale grocery store in the North Chicago suburbs, associating for survival and out of convenience. He worked in customer service, and hated it when I called him a checkout girl. I was in loss prevention, and I pretended to hate it when he called me a rent-a-cop. I didn't mind, though, because he was right. Loss prevention isn’t security, though: I moonlit as college security. My coworkers there complained about students interrupting their reveries, but none of them wanted to sit there on a Saturday morning and say hello to the three staffers who might come in to prepare whatever the faculty demanded for Monday.
“What does your name mean?” Don asked.
“Chord,” I tell him. It's one of several I came across in various arts and crafts projects in elementary school when we’d make acrostics or glittery posters of ourselves. I clarify, “Like in music, not a rope.”
“That your last name?”
“What about your family name?”
“Seafarer,” I said, adding “Gaelic” before he could ask. “Anglicized Gaelic.” I have no idea if this is true; I dated a woman who lived in Cork for a while researching grazing patterns, and she told me that’s what it meant. While I can't say I believed her, I didn’t care enough to argue or entertain incredulity. I was grateful for the easy answer.
In the Midwest, people obsess over European ethnicities, but are apathetic toward European cultures. Everyone is a mix of German and Swedish and English and Scottish and “Scandinavian,” and they leverage these as explanations. “This is why my leg hair is so thin; this is why I drink whiskey and not gin; this is why I eat organ meats.”
Their interest ends at calling some unknown place the “mother country.” That's why I'm not worried about spouting what may very well be a lie about my name, since knowing the authenticity of my name’s translation would interfere with “melting pot” Americanism. Accuracy diminishes the value of homogenization.
“‘Seafarer’? That makes sense,” says Don.
“Why does that ‘make sense’?”
“Because you're always over by seafood. At least, that's where I always see you.”
I wondered if he actually saw me at the fish counter all the time, or if Don was suffering from confirmation bias. I hoped it was the latter. Working loss prevention, you’re not supposed to have a pattern. Even the most cursory observer could tell I'm LP: no one needs milk as regularly as I seemed to. A set path through the store would only confirm suspicions.
If you think no customer would be in the store often enough to tell, you probably don't live very close to a grocery store. Or, even if you're close, you drive so you can buy a bunch of groceries at a go. Plenty of people who live nearby come in on a staggered schedule to restock their ingredients for, say, oatmeal with peanut butter and bananas for breakfast. They run out of oatmeal one day, and know they'll need bananas soon, but that day’s bananas are green. They say to themselves, “I'll just get bananas tomorrow.” A couple days later, their spouse is out of town, so they figure they might as well have an oven-bake pizza for dinner since it’s no fun to cook for yourself. I get to know these people pretty well, hopefully without ever talking with them.
Maybe those regulars thought I was always picking up one more thing. Maybe I drank a lot of protein shakes and need a lot of milk. People like talking themselves out of what they figure is true if that thing makes them nervous. That's why not having a pattern helps. That way, I might just look familiar, or I always need one more thing. They didn’t notice anyway.
Joe, the other regular loss prevention, doesn't dress like he lives in this neighborhood and always hangs out at the bakery counter. He started calling himself the “cupcake police.” As in, he’d stop at the bakery and say, “Hands up, cupcake police,” and then eat whatever the sample was. He's right when he says bakery has the best samples, but it's hard to shoplift from the cake case. And if we had a perp that talented, Joe wouldn't be the one to catch them. His ability to coast is why he’s been at this job, in this position, for years.
Don has been around the store forever, in one capacity or another. He hates it. I don’t know if he’s always hated it, but if I asked, I’m sure he’d say “yes.” This strikes me as sad because, for me, at least, starting a new job should be fun, even you expect you’ll grow to hate it. Before the hate sets in, should enjoy meeting people, maybe learning a skill. I know a lot more about tire rotation now than I ever expected to, and I’m regularly shocked at how often the information comes up, now that I have it.
The only thing Don learned in customer service is that he hates servicing customers, a fact he reminded me of while he leaned on the CS counter.
“Why do you keep doing working here, then?” I asked.
“I dunno. Why do you keep doing LP? It’s not like you’re actually keeping people safe.”
I never said that’s what I wanted to do. Don assumed I, like a lot of LP, wanted to be a cop but department’s entrance exam. It’s not that I’m enacting a lesser version of my childhood dream. No, I actually enjoy making middle-aged women cry after they shoplift for kicks. Plus, these benefits are better.
All I say to Don is, “That’s a little too personal, don’t you think?” Don cultivated his awful interpersonal skills in CS, where it’s kind of a requirement.
“Maybe,” he says, trailing off to extend the conversation. I want to get back to work, prowling the aisles while curling the basket I’ve filled with staple groceries. It used to be I could only curl an eight pound basket all day. I’m up to fifteen. I helps that I drink a bunch of protein shakes, though I never buy the milk I walk around with.
I nod goodbye, and Don says, “Wait.”
“Some friends and I are going to that sushi restaurant you keep talking about. For my birthday. You wanna come?”
“You’re going to Chromatic Scales?” Chromatic Scales is jazz/fish-themed restaurant which serves Japanese food. On its sign is a rainbow fish playing the trumpet, puffing its cheeks and flaring its gills. I hate jazz. Pieces of music are called “compositions” because they’re put together. Music is not supposed to be slapdash you-all-back-me-up-and-follow-my-key-change-while-I-do-whatever-the-hell-I-want noise sessions.
But on a busy night, you can’t hear the sound system over the inevitable party at the back table, the one on a raised platform where diners kneel in the Japanese style. People there get big boats of sushi, laughing and toasting. I get a table near that one because it’s the only table small enough for one person. I have to shout at the server to be heard over the party, but I get to enjoy the excellent food.
Chromatic makes the most remarkable tuna roll in the whole city. They dry rub the the fish the day before it’s served, and while I wouldn’t expect the cloves and paprika to work so well in fish, a dab of salt evokes a bed of slickness in the sea meat which cushions the spices. After that, the ginger feels so delicate in your mouth.
“I could probably go,” I say. “Anyone else from work coming?”
“I asked Andrea if she wanted to come. I’m still waiting to hear back from her.”
Don was going to wait a long, long time.
“I have work at the school tomorrow, but I’ll try to make it after.” I’d get out at three, and I didn’t ask when the dinner was. I knew Don would volunteer the information.
“You can bike over,” said Don, as if I needed permission. “Reservation’s at seven.”
I said, “Sure,” saluted/waved, and walked away. I curled my basket a few times, even though there wasn’t a lot in it. A warm-up set. I wandered by dairy, where Andrea was just settling in. She was a student--I never worked at her college--so her work schedule was syncopated.
She was tall, and never slouched, even when talking to a short person. She was careful, I could tell, not to make people feel like she was lording over them. She had an openness, one that didn’t require her to smile the way so many women feel compelled to do. She listened, and let listening be enough.
I smiled and nodded to greet her, not too familiarly, in case anyone was watching.
She greeted me, as was compulsory for all employees who made eye contact with a customer. She asked if I was looking for anything. I wasn’t, but I asked what was good so she could volunteer some cheese she wanted to try.
“Well,” she wiggled her eyebrows, “then have I got one for you.”
She wasn’t flirting with me. Not in any romantic way, at least. Friendly flirting, regardless of gender and preference, is how a lot of hourly wage workers build camaraderie. I accepted food as part of the bargain. Someone to talk with is a respite for retail employees.
Andrea handed me a sliver of the cheese on a piece of wax paper. The cheese was a washed rind, and even before I took it I could smell the creamy fecundity. It nearly knocked me over. While I like cheese in general, and some more exotic strains (blues and bries especially), I tend to avoid the really stinky kinds.
Then again, I am not one to turn down any favor, opportunity, or even charity. I tried to relish the cheese. The rind was orange and supple, and wrinkly. The inside coloration started as a fainter shade of the rind’s orange, graduating to a weighty white, like the thick liquidity of the sun setting over Lake Michigan.
The taste nearly undid me.
“It's really good cheese,” I said. “Thanks.”
“You're welcome,” said Andrea, trying it herself. From the look on her face, I guessed she wasn't in love with the piquance either. But wanted to take the chance to try something that cost thirty-two dollars a pound (not that it came in that large a block).
“Yeah,” she said to me, to the cheese, to nobody. Then, focusing, “How are you doing? Whatcha up to?”
I tried to maintain the casual posture of someone at perfect ease, the kind of ease that comes from knowing you're immune to responsibility. A customer’s slouch. “Just work,” I said, not gesturing around us. “Just work.”
“I hear ya.”
“How are your classes going?” If I were a regular customer, I could know she’s in school.
“Fine. I’m taking some gen eds. All my classmates: 18 year-olds. Some of them look like babies to me. It’s weird.”
I’d been a transfer student, switching to art school to become a painter. I was very good at capturing the tone of an expression, revealing something about the subject’s mind. I’d only painted for fun, but enough people told me I should pursue it that I decided to take the plunge. I transferred from a public liberal arts college, where I had just started taking classes for my major in my fourth semester, to a school where students were splashing in paint day one.
My just-out-of-high school classmates intimidated me. A lot of them went to arts high schools and were technically proficient. They knew anatomy. Some could sell a light source without adding a lot of brightness to a subject; they started the painting with softer tones. I had my insight into expressions, but everyone had expected me to be an engineer or something and that’s what my high school tried to make me. I was analytical, but that only helped in my painting so much, because my style was minimal. I had a hard time picking out small details when I felt like I saw all features as equal all the time. Looking at someone’s face, I saw the warping I’d use to suggest their eyebrow twitch, but I couldn’t see the brow by itself. I needed that to add up to outstanding work, and I didn’t know if it could. I sometimes missed some fundamental detail or aspect that made my painting, for all my talent, fall apart. My classmates, young as they were, made their paintings work.
Not that I found, or even looked for, a lot of support in my “artists’ community.” Beyond my jealousy, I had a hard time making friends with any these children (or at least that’s how they seemed to me). I figured I entered the world of adulthood the year before when I got an apartment on my own, which I worked full-time to afford. I didn’t mind not having free time between the job and my studies. I set up my easel in my living room and didn’t worry about a roommate getting annoyed by the perpetual sunset hovering in the corner while watching TV. I could look at my painting from my couch and enjoy my non-desire to work on it.
I nodded to Andrea, and she read my silence as permission to expound on her classmates. She told me about them being too young to appreciate the music she’d enjoyed because when she was a sophomore in high school buying her own CD’s. Her classmates had still been the age when their parents might check for warnings on the album cover.
“And they expect the teacher to just tell them how to do things,” she went on. “I’ve been ‘learning’ these accounting programs since high school--you don’t really learn how to use them, you know, you just play around and fill out worksheets--but if I don’t know how to do something, I Google it. I figure it out. And sometimes they ask about stuff professor went over, but missed because instead of listening to the lecture, they were checking Facebook!”
She smiled as if we commiserating made us closer, kind of like how the cheese was a suffering we both chose. “That sucks,” I said, trying to sound as if I meant it.
“Doesn’t it?” she said, then let the silence linger.
I realized her classmates didn’t suck because they didn’t really matter. “But you only have to do your own work, right? That’s what matters.”
“Yeah,” she said, dismissing this topic of conversation. I watched her jaw work as she decided whether or not to broach whatever she’d planned to talk about. It was something I saw all the time, questioning shoplifters: they had lies ready, but now that they were sitting at that table in the back, wage slaves walking by and passing judgement on them, they their excuses sounded lame.
“What were you and Don talking about?” said Andrea.
“His birthday dinner tomorrow.”
I was warning her, but it was also true.
She tried out the excuse she’d give him. “Midterms. You know how it is.” Don would want to believe whatever she told him. She could say anything from “I need a nap” to “my mother died,” and he would respond the same way: concern and a promise to check in with her again closer to dinner time.
“Yeah. I’ve noticed the kids look really stressed.” I leaned back on my heels, getting ready to go.
She stepped forward, resting a hand on the counter. “You pay attention to them, huh?”
I stopped. “Yeah. It is my job.”
“Which you’re working at tomorrow.”
“Only ‘til around three.”
She did the math, her tongue moving in her mouth as if working an abacus. “You’ll be off in time to go to Don’s dinner?”
Oh I thought. “Yeah,” I said.
“Are you going?”
“I wasn't planning on it.”
“Ok. Well, if you change your mind, text me.”
“I will.” I did text Andrea sometimes, because, this moment made me realize, commiseration is a closeness we shared.
I motioned to something. The rest of the store, I guess. “I should get back to my ‘shopping.’”
“Yeah. I should face the shelves.”
I glanced at the customer service desk, but only in my periphery. Thankfully, they were busy, so Don maybe hadn’t seen me talking to Andrea. I got back to work, curling a few dozen times. I followed a middle-aged woman in Juicy Couture jeans, but she didn’t steal anything. That was about it.
At home, I didn't turn on the lights. Instead, I let the setting sun wash my rooms yellow, my thin curtains dappling the light. The thin wall-to-wall carpet took on the color of the cheese Andrea and I tried and didn’t throw up. I hadn’t, anyway.
My bicycle helmet went on top of the coat rack, my jacket on one of the pegs. I'd picked up a few things from the store, though I didn't buy the milk I'd carried around for an hour: I put that back and got a new carton. After that settling in, I turned on the lights. The easel’s shadow fit perfectly into the corner, the lines of light and dark forming a setting for the small canvas. The painting was mostly green, an emerald set in the gold band of the sunned room.
I was working on a landscape I remembered from when I was a teenager, a creamery in Wisconsin was supposed to have the best ice cream in the world. They were so confident in their ice cream that they made you have vanilla your first time there. After that, you could try the chocolate or strawberry, the berries locally grown and mixed in by hand. That was the extent of the menu.
Urban legend had it that a girl smuggled some malted milk balls to mix with her ice cream. Once she finished her bowl, they banned her for life. I always imagine her crying when they ban her, but maybe that's because so many of my many confrontations elicit tears. I don’t remember if I imagined her crying before I worked in LP.
I could relate to the possibly-fictitious girl's frustration. The creamery was not easy to find, and my high school girlfriend and I only found out about it because they set up a stand in her neighborhood farmers’ market one weekend each summer. She’d made plans for us to go to the stand, but I left the house late and the stall was packing up when we arrived. The market was on for another hour or two, but they were out of ice cream. My girlfriend didn’t return my calls for several days.
The next weekend, I drove us to the creamery, trying to follow the instructions on the pamphlet they gave us at the farmers’ market.
“What the hell,” I said. “What the hell is a ‘Route AA’?”
“I don't know,” my girlfriend said. “Wisconsin’s weird.”
“I'm hungry. We're stopping at Culver’s.”
“No!” she said.
I know I looked at her as if she'd threatened me with a switchblade. “You're not my mother.”
“We came up here for this, and I don’t want you to eat a burger and frozen custard and then decide we should just turn around and head back.”
“I see your point, I do.” I didn’t. “But I'm a grown man.” I was seventeen. “If I want a butter burger, I'm going to get one.”
This conversation distracted me and we missed the exit for a Culver’s. I started looking for the next one, which a sign promised in thirty miles. I did the math: twenty-eight minutes in silence before I would eat.
She let three minutes go by. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched her compose her thoughts, her words. “You can, I just don’t want--”
Twenty-two miles. Despite the distance, a faded billboard in a pasture gave directions to the fast food restaurant based on local landmarks.
Four more minutes, then she sang, “A better brand of beef makes a butter burger better.”
I tried not to hear the commercial jingle which stuck right in my head every time I went to Culver’s.
“A…” Dani started back in. It was supposed to be a tongue twister, though I’d never had a problem with it. She said it so fast, it almost could have been. “Betterbrandabeefmakesabutterburger...better!” She decided to risk it and poke my shoulder while she sang. As her fingertip touched, I flexed. She sang it again, squeezing my upper arm. I smiled.
Fifteen minutes later we passed the burger place. In another fifteen minutes--it would have taken ten if county routes had just one name, as opposed to a number/Old Route Whatever--we found the creamery. The road was bumpy and paved with macadam. In some stretches, it was just gravel. The only thing to look at besides corn fields and cowless pastures were ditch lilies, each their own minute sunset, drops of the proper sun. It was only about 1:30, but the sun promised a golden hour as it colored the clouds.
We came over a hill, or the closest the Midwest gets to hills, and there was the creamery. It was nestled in a valley I thought impossible for this part of the world. The rolling pastures would have made crop farming difficult, but it was perfect for raising animals. The house, animal buildings, and store were swatches on a palette, or splashes on a drop cloth.
There was a farmhouse, exactly the kind I imagined when my parents said they wanted to retire to the country. It wasn’t only the right kind of farmhouse; it was the colors I’d imagined. It was eggshell white with bright green shutters and a brick red water pump. There was a long porch starting three-fourths along the front of the house which wrapped a quarter of the length of the side. The side porch, enclosed, faced the sunset. The front porch was open and the spindles along the railing were detailed to match the shutters. The rail itself was the color of the barn.
The barn’s shape was traditional, but instead of being candy apple red, the owners painted it the color of hay with a red roof. The doors were open and, as we pulled into the parking lot, our straight-on perspective gave the impression that the building was a solid mass of dried grass so warm it glowed. Walking across the parking lot, which was just lumpy enough to make you feel an Earth under your feet, I saw inside the barn’s shadows, where a young woman bottle fed a calf. The calf was small enough for her to cradle its head.
The store was green, with signs in earthy yellows and reds to direct you to whichever order window was pertinent. We weren’t interested in taking any ice cream home, so we went to the window under a helpful “Order Here” sign. The sign was varnished oak with the letters were burned in, so they stood black against the shop. Anyone coming from the parking lot could see it and walk straight to it, as the several people in front of us had done, and those coming in behind would.
Some of them were suburban families, nuclear and unstable. The parents were in casual costume, t-shirts and shorts. Their children were either little kids not used to being in the wider world, or surly teenagers withholding their personalities and enthusiasms while they created those same things. Both kinds of kids pretended not to buzz with desire and run directly to the ice cream.
There were young couples too, but they weren’t like us. The boys were cornfed or wiry, the former decked out in burlappy Carhartt jackets and steel-toed work boots and the latter in baggy jeans and Fox Racing t-shirts. Both gave the impression of being caked in mud. The girls were dressed in mall haute couture. Their A&F ensembles looked out of place because the girls were out of place in the clothes themselves. They hung on their slumping boyfriends, talking with each other in the circles they formed within the line. The boys acted as if whatever the women were saying was stupid, but listening was the price of a girlfriend. The girls talked about cheering on the football team, glancing at their willfully disinterested, letter-jacketed boyfriends.
We didn’t talk on the way up to the window. I didn’t have the energy. I was very hungry by now, though no longer in an unpleasant way. I just knew I’d need to take care of it soon, and hoped the ice cream would sustain me. My girlfriend was really excited, almost dancing around me.
I don’t remember the ice cream at all. I remember the sun setting behind the tree line, dappling the whole farm. The woman who was feeding the calf left the barn to help close the shop, and I watched her silhouette move back and forth as she swept and mopped and counted the drawer. Once the sun was down, it was a little too cold to eat ice cream outside, but I didn’t really want to leave the picnic table my girlfriend and I shared with each other and no one else. I don’t remember her sitting with me, but she must have been.
As the woman who’d fed the calf finally shut the order window for the night, the first pickup truck engine turned over with a deep grumble. Headlights flooded the shop for an instant, and the woman covered her eyes as the kids rolled out, a convoy to raise hell.
“Is cow tipping really a thing people do?” my girlfriend asked.
“Of course not.” I’d been wondering the same thing.
It was late when we got back to the suburbs. Dani’s parents were still up, and they let me sleep on the living room couch, which her mom had already folded out and put bedding on. They gave us a “don’t try anything, we’re not stupid” look. Of course they were stupid: we’d had unsatisfying teenage car sex somewhere in the hinterlands of Wisconsin. I only remember that as being the case, and couldn’t picture it while I stood there in my apartment, in front of my easel.