Where we work is not a co-op. Privately owned, we are taught to say. All of us owned privately for this wage or that salary, a number we hide like an embarrassing prescription in an interior pocket.
It’s a natural foods store with a small vegetarian café attached. You’d think it was the Holy See to hear some people talk about it, yoga maidens and the lower ranks of the Green Party who gather in a scrum at the long cafe bar. We watch them down there at night amongst the fake candles, fighting over the war or a recent Supreme Court decision, their monstrous shadows reliving an ancient battle on the fogged glass. That’s why we switched from candles to rechargeable LEDs after one of them set fire to an article in the local paper endorsing a long seated Republican.
You never know. It might have been an accident.
Yes, we work here. There are no uniforms or nametags so if you’re from out of town you may have to ask. Maybe you’re from around the block and have simply never been in. Doctor Oz told you to come, said, “Hemp oil,” said, “Your local health food store,” and you said, “Gosh, do we even have one of those?”
We’ve been here for five years, a dozen, eighteen. It depends who you ask. We grew out of the sidewalk with the trees that drip sap onto the patio in the summer months, that leave their blood like caramel on the aluminum tables for us to scrub at fruitlessly with a sudsy bucket of something that promises not to hurt the earth.
Our store is the inside of an ant hill. It would be more at home in Brooklyn or the Village. This far upstate no one can understand why the shelves are so shallow or its aisles so close. Secretly we take pleasure in watching humanity play out on this small stage. The brushing of arms and shoulders, the flesh on flesh contact that screens have begun to filter out of our earthly experience. What is it like to smell the bacteria on somebody’s breath as he tells you about his cataract? To see his wrinkles quiver, feel a nostril twitch as dead skin wafts up it? What will our children know of such an interaction? Or will produce be drone-bombed onto their front porches in wax boxes, overnighted from California.
Our boss is named Duncan. It might be his last name, or a fake name. A pseudonym. He is a tall man whose style consists completely of unbuttoned blue shirts and dirty sneakers. He has a wife, a family, all of them sweet and living well and much better than we are. It’s easy to hold a grudge, but he is a man who has done his time and worked hard and when we see how thinly he is stretched across the arenas of his life we do not envy him. He is immediately funny, self-deprecating and as strange as any of us. We wish we could have known him before he built this castle for which he is now known, into which anyone can go and feel safe.
Everything in the store is rewired or held together with plumber’s tape. Duncan has an epic collection of half-broken machinery from which to cull parts—springs for register tills, old sprayer nozzles. Even the new equipment isn’t new. It’s refurbished or second hand but still better and so new to us. After a while we realize this is one of the ways he makes money, by making do with one-handled cauldrons, or making us make do with them. We want to hate him when the last handle comes off in our hands and hot soup comes out all down our legs. But then we see him sliding around the icy roof patching a winter leak and think, All of us are using this place the same way: like a file. Scraping away at our calluses, our sinuous tissue, feeling the momentary relief as each raw nerve is exposed to the air.
We are incredibly thin and much older than we look. Our skin is vibrant and moist and we’d be happy to tell how we keep it that way, what combination of creams and exfoliants. Our shit is 89 percent organic and happens three times a day. When we die, they will bronze each and every one of our colons. In an effort to stay ahead of trends, we eat pure soil, drink distilled rainwater and brush our teeth with three parts baking soda, one part Indian black salt. Our collective knowledge is too brave for a pamphlet or a seminar or even the Internet.
You have to come in and ask us. Word of mouth, it used to be called.
Step into our office. It’s an add-on. One wall used to be an exterior and the new one is hardly insulated. The whole place is freezing and no wider than a railroad track. Shelves have been built to the twenty foot ceiling and contain more than enough paper to keep this place burning overnight. Sometimes there are three of us in here at a time, working in a tight line. Think of old telephone operators all facing the same pock-marked board. We are as close and archaic—filling orders on photocopied sheets to fax or by calling up a person in Dutchtown or Tonawanda, someone who makes soap in her basement and when she answers we can hear her dog in the background, her kids playing shove tag. For a moment we are there with this person, in a faux-wood paneled living room trying to pet an uppity Boston Terrier.
“Hello, are you still there?” she asks
“Yeah. Yeah. Sorry.”
“What can I get for you?”
There is some argument over what we sell here. It used to be called natural foods—cardboard style crackers and the like, snacks so repulsive they had to be healthy because why else would anyone touch them? Now everything we sell has sugar in it. Sorry, dehydrated cane juice. Just last week we saw the disappearance of the last sugar-free O’s cereal. You can no longer buy a tasteless, wholesome O. This void is staggering. We shape the letter with our mouths as Duncan pours over Google Shopping results in search of this new unicorn—yesterday’s shadow bounding off over some final hillside.
We are between jobs, taking classes, figuring things out. We yawn and are momentarily beautiful. Our boyfriends are bastards and our wives never listen and we are helplessly in love with them. They cannot understand our obsession with this place, the inherent paradox it contains and protects like a rusty bar puzzle.
How can it be healthy?
Maple syrup weighs seventy pounds, steel cut oats: fifty, basmati rice: twenty-five. Add the weeks and years of this load; graph a curve of our spines. Consider our Olympic-level multi tasking abilities. How long before our cranial lobes split and drift apart like the continents of early earth? We fork back our paychecks for red yeast rice (hypertension), melatonin (insomnia) and St. John’s Wort (depression) all at a twenty percent discount. If money is short, we’re allowed to log it on our tab in a box of alphabetized index cards. We write small, thankful to work at a place that takes care of us.
Unbeknownst to our patrons, we eat meat, smoke cigarettes. They scowl at us from a neighboring table at the Thai Orchid as our yellowfin roll arrives with its bedazzled coat of masago. We are pure carnivores. In an instant, our status has been re-filed in the desk drawer of their judgment, downgraded from Role Model to Murderer. Later we’ll wash down the blood with alcohol, sitting in a dark bar and pointing at the groups of rival employees that come in from this restaurant or that bakery, who are not as keen as us in the arenas of trivia, billiards. If a fight breaks out we will have each others’ backs.
In the caustic morning that follows we rise and shake off each personal darkness. We swallow bile and kill the taste with coffee. We walk to work embracing our torsos with crossed arms, reminding ourselves: It’s only for a couple more months.
We know you better than your doctors, your own mothers even. We’ve inspected the zit under your greasy ponytail and determined that it’s probably infected and probably, you should have it looked at by someone who’s not wearing an I’ve Got a Black Belt in Keeping It Real t-shirt. We can identify you by the shape of your ass walking away from us in black spandex, that’s how many times we’ve seen it. We’ve been stepped on and kneed and sneezed at, all while being told we’re fine, we’re fine, you’re just going to reach around us.
And that’s what we tell you, when you eye us across the counter with the look of a long lost relative who, after all these years, has come mining for recognition.
We’re fine. Just fine thanks.
We are the standard bearers of green, local, organic, slow food, precycling. Every word you’ve seen on the cover of Mother Earth News, we invented. Our store is powered by a dozen giant windmills in the Green Mountains. We walk to work, ride bicycles and our carbon footprints are untraceable. We are inconsequential in the best sense of the word. We compost each half eaten Brussels sprout, every noodle you thought twice about. Pigs get fat on your recklessness. We use technology from the 1970s because it still works. If we don’t use it, then what—bury its lead insides, wait for it to come back in our water supply, our collard greens? We recycle bulbs, batteries, scrap metal, pare down cardboard boxes with ninja-like efficiency.
Still, we despair. This work is never done and when we try to imagine a thousand stores like this one, a million, we cannot. We’re bailing an ocean here.
We fill this place. We pack it in. Every item has a price tag on it. No scanner at the checkout. No shelf tags. Every product in here is also on a shelf in somebody’s brain. Duncan calls this Zen Ordering. Others terms come to mind. Maddening, is a good one. For instance, someone knows that we stock three iris facial moisturizers but only two iris day creams. Someone used to know the lyrics to “That’s When I Reach for My Revolver” and now, instead, knows how many beauty aids reside in each row. This, we realize terribly, is how adulthood happens. The inventory begins to cast long shadows as we safari through it with our pads, our order guns—amateur hunters who’ve just learned there’s too much in here to defend against.
What are we trying to accomplish anyway? In essence our job is to buy more than you will buy from us. We are the center segment of a merciless capitalist snake, a single hand that receives money from its left and passes it off to the right. We try to predict your needs and you are consistently let down by our inability as prophets and seers.
Can’t we stock at least one unsalted rice cracker?, you ask.
Secretly we refer to you as termites. When the food is gone you will eat the shelves. Your collective belly creates a critical mass, a black hole that has just erased a whole day’s work. And yet, you pay our salaries. In exchange we keep you alive, proffer carbs to power your jaw muscles, horribly making possible every complaint, every sidelong glance.
This is a job where keeping even is a victory.
We are told that a Whole Foods is coming. Their analysts have been checking the pulse of our region, feeling its fleshy palms for a vein that needs its company’s wide aisles and unbeatable assortments. They have perhaps been in our very store, on deep assignment. They have dressed unfashionably and acted as weird as everyone else, asking where we keep the ashwagandha, all while probing our blueprints for places where we are weak, disjointed. Perhaps they are here still, working among us, phoning HQ from the basement phone on lunch break.
Wakame. Quinoa. Butterbur, they’ll say. Which is code for, It’s time. Begin the invasion.
What follows will be nothing short of a siege. We’ll send someone over to the new megastore to see how much rice milk is going for.
Duncan will rub at his eyes with his palms. Why spill blood, cut us open when you can simply strangle us from the outside? Our store will empty out. First the customers, then the goods and we’ll be all alone in our tiny sanctioned country, snubbed by the world community for doing what any of them would have done in our place.
When it’s over perhaps we’ll line up at the Whole Foods job fair, lured by the promise of dental insurance and paid vacations. How about a career in natural foods?, asks a banner flanked with fruit baskets and voluptuous wheat husks.
On second thought, maybe we will walk right on by. We’ll wander this town with nowhere to be until night colors the sky, humming to ourselves, a once-forgotten tune slowly coming back.