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Our Passions, Our Day Jobs

Under the Bridge Downtown

When you’re a competition-level grocery-store bagger, it’s easy to overlook the messy lives of your co-workers. But when one of them goes missing, and you start to grow up, the picture changes.

Marc Trujillo, 1053 Burbank Boulevard, 2011. Courtesy the artist and Hirschl & Adler Galleries.

I was a bagger at the same grocery store for almost two years, and when I tell people, the first thing they ask is “Why?” It’s a good question. Private-school kids generally last a month in grocery jobs, but I stuck around. There were reasons: I needed money for college, I had flexible hours, and I was excellent. I got so good that I was invited to represent my store at the Best Bagger competition, a nationwide speed and accuracy contest that sounds made-up but is real.

People ask questions besides “Why?” too. Sometimes they ask whether I had to wear a reflective vest (I did, three sizes too big for me) or whether I liked my job (I did, sometimes).

And then there are questions that people never ask, like “Did any of your co-workers get murdered?”

That’s a bad example, though. Asking that would be really awkward.

 

On my first day of work, the store manager gave me a tour. He had interviewed me the week before, basically by checking out my legs and telling me I was “so hired.” He showed me the home department on the lower floor, the food on the main floor, and the top floor, which had the beer, pet supplies, and scented anal douches. When we were done, he gave me an apron and sent me off to bag. I had never had a job before.

After five minutes, one thing was clear: Bagging was hard. The plastic bags stuck together, and the paper bags cut my hands. In my first 15 minutes, I crushed a carton of eggs under several cans of beans. I wanted to quit. If I had known that this was only the beginning—that someday, an enraged customer would throw oranges at my head—I would have quit on the spot.

The store manager had interviewed me the week before, basically by checking out my legs and telling me I was “so hired.”

I didn’t know what I was in for, though, and the rush ended. The cashier I was bagging for, a balding white guy with a well-maintained mustache, asked me how I was holding up.

“I’m okay,” I said. “I’m sorry if I’m slow. It’s my first day.”

“Are you kidding? You’re doing great. Ten times better than most of these yahoos.” He smiled. “I’m Larry, by the way.”

Apparently, this is how I work: Tell me I’m a good bagger, and that’s it. You’ve got me. I’m yours.

 

Larry became my first work friend. I liked bagging for him, mainly because he asked me about myself. The other cashiers didn’t, and I had not figured out that I could ask them things, so our conversations were limited to either their monologues about the spinach sale or silence. With Larry, it was better. Except when he asked me about school.

I went to a fancy private high school that took itself very seriously. We had a quad, and the cafeteria was called the “refectory.” It was a great school academically, and my classmates were freakishly attractive, but we were best known for being rich. Which we were, on average. Some people drove BMWs to school the day they turned 16.

Once people at work found out where I went to school, I just knew that it would all be over. Not that I knew what “it” was, exactly, but I wanted it to continue. I avoided the subject until, finally, Larry asked me point-blank where I went.

When I told him, he said, “You must be smart.”

Not “You must be rich,” or “You must be a jerk,” or “What in the name of God is a refectory?” Just “You must be smart.” I thought, this is a nice man.

By this point, I was turning into a real bagger. I could open paper bags one-handed, and I knew my way around the store with my eyes closed. By the time Larry broke his ankle, I could even ignore the smell of cheese and vagina that pervaded the break room. Cashiers can’t work on crutches, so Larry had to go on sick leave. I didn’t see him again for three months.

 

The day he came back, I was in the break room having lunch. We chatted about how his ankle was doing, and I asked him how he broke it.

“I fell down the stairs outside the library,” he said, sitting down across from me. “You wouldn’t believe how long I sat there, calling for help, and no one came over. Except one guy, but he just stole my cell phone. I tell you, this neighborhood is going to the dogs. People were walking by and just ignoring me. It was like they thought I was creepy or something.”

“Oh man,” I said. “I mean, not that this neighborhood was ever a picnic.”

That was an understatement. I worked there because I had applied to the store’s corporate headquarters, and they had assigned me to their first opening. I would never have chosen that neighborhood myself. It was high-crime enough that one cashier didn’t like to work at the back entrance registers alone. “Last time I did that,” she told me, “this guy got stabbed outside, and he sort of staggered in and fell down by my checkstand. He bled all over the floor, like really everywhere. The police came pretty fast, and I guess he was fine, but I had to mop up all that blood myself. It was a pain in the ass. I had to get the biohazard kit and everything.”

Not that the neighborhood was all stabbings. It was great if you wanted to eat pho, get your ears gauged, or go thrifting. But at the end of the day, a lot of meth users hung out there. My co-workers generally took a “you won’t get stabbed unless you’re doing something stupid” stance, but it didn’t comfort me much. I was not at all sure I wasn’t stupid.

Larry got up and threw his backpack in his locker. “So how’ve you been?”

He was one of the few people at the store who asked me that. I had missed him.

 

While Larry was gone, I had gotten close to another cashier, Melissa. We had our first real conversation a few weeks after Larry went on leave. I was about to clock out and she said, “You know, when I saw you trying to mop up a spill on your first day, you were having such a bad time that I kind of assumed.”

“Assumed what?”

“You know, that you were… special.” She looked at me out of the corner of her eye. “Are you?”

I was thrilled that instead of thinking I was a snob, Melissa thought I was mentally disabled. We became friends. She was loud; I was quiet. She was funny; I was funny mainly when I tripped over stuff. She had a no-nonsense attitude; I put up with nonsense like it was my job (which it honestly was). Melissa and I still hang out whenever I’m home. She is one of the few people in the world who I like without reservations.

It’s just not possible to see a lacrosse practice and then, an hour later, discover your co-worker has been murdered. It’s just not.

Right after I saw Larry, I was bagging for Melissa. I mentioned that I was glad he was back.

“Is he seriously back? I should punch that fucker,” she said.

“I don’t think we’re talking about the same person.”

“Yes. Larry Petersworth. Broken ankle. Do you know how he broke it?”

“He fell down the stairs at the library.”

“He fell down the nothing. He broke his ankle beating up his girlfriend. She fought back and kicked him. She has a restraining order out.” She looked at me like she had just realized that I was a lot younger than her. “Sometimes I think you live in a fantasy world.”

I wanted to say, “No, you live in a fantasy world! Larry would never do that!” But I never said it—a customer came along, and I also kind of believed her.

 

The next day, I was on the bus to work when someone called my name from the very back. It was Larry. He came and sat down next to me.

“How’s it going?” he asked.

I said something. He said something. I think we talked about the traffic, and maybe vegetables. All I remember clearly is thinking about a story I had just read for English class, about a teenage girl who talks to a guy who shows up in her driveway. Everything seems normal, but halfway through the guy turns scary, and I didn’t understand the ending. My teacher said that the guy was a metaphor, and that the story was “a twist on the classic encounter between a young girl and the devil.” I thought she was being melodramatic, but after I got off the bus I never bagged for Larry again. When he was ringing up a big order by himself, I would go round up carts in the parking lot. I had it down to a science.

I kept bagging for Melissa, though, and I heard about Larry from her. That he had started coming to work on acid. Melissa said one night, he was giving a woman her change and became so entranced with the dollar bill in his hand that he just looked at it and said, “Oooooh,” until the customer complained. Another night, he was high in the break room, talking to himself while he ate. When Melissa came in to put her stuff in her locker, he came up behind her and grabbed her. No one else was there.

She said, “What the hell are you doing?”

He slurred something about dinner.

“Can you eat your dinner without grabbing my ass?”

He sat back down. She complained to our manager, but he wouldn’t make Larry take a drug test. I think he said something like, “Larry got a little confused.” The manager had ignored Melissa a few months earlier, too, when she complained about a produce assistant who groped her. She told me that when that guy finally got fired, it was for sticking his tongue in a customer’s ear.

Eventually, Larry stopped showing up for work. Nobody knew where he went, and I barely noticed his absence. I hadn’t talked to him in months, and graduation was coming up. I was less worried about Larry than about finding a cute dress.

 

A few weeks later, I was bagging for Melissa while the cashier next to us read the newspaper. Suddenly she said, “Hey guys, listen to this. Larry Petersworth, 51, murdered… found near a bridge by a morning jogger… wow. You think that’s our Larry from the store?”

“No,” I said.

“But that’s his name,” Melissa said.

“But…” But I had just walked through a lacrosse practice on my high school’s manicured football field, in the sun, and it’s just not possible to see a lacrosse practice and then, an hour later, discover your co-worker has been murdered. It’s just not. You have to pick one, and right then I picked private school and state-of-the-art gym equipment and teachers constantly reminding me that I was a “global citizen.” My co-workers were not allowed to die. “But the store would have told us if Larry was dead.”

“They can’t,” Melissa said. “The privacy policy is crazy. If someone leaves, the managers can’t say where they went.” It’s true. Later, another cashier would disappear with no explanation. Some people said she moved to California, some people said she had a nervous breakdown. I called her, but she didn’t answer.

“Well…” I wanted to argue, but I had nothing to say. We looked at each other. Customers probably came, but even pushy customers can tell when you really need a minute.

“Who do you think killed him?” the other cashier asked.

We stared at the ground.

“Me,” Melissa said finally. “I killed him.”

She was joking, and we knew. The question was if we would laugh, or if it was too soon. Melissa laughed first. She started out quiet, and then suddenly the floodgates opened and we were all cracking up, leaning on the checkstands to stay upright. I laughed so hard I broke a sweat.

Looking back on it now, it seems like nervous laughter, but it felt real at the time. At first, the situation didn’t register as something tragic. It was just another thing to riff on, a new piece of store gossip that was totally absurd.

 

My dad picked me up from work that day, and I told him about Larry on our drive home. “I mean, I guess there are worse things than murdering an abusive boyfriend who lies to people about how he broke his ankle and does drugs all the time,” I said.

“Mae,” said my dad. I expected him to tell me not to be awful. Instead he said, “You can’t judge people by the worst moments of their lives. When you started working, you thought Larry was great. And now you don’t think that, but don’t think he’s all bad, either. People are complicated.”

I remember this speech word for word because, at the time, I thought it was such crap. Larry was a bad guy. He was dead. It was shocking, it was ridiculous and made-for-TV, and then, after those things, it was sad. A little. I didn’t admit to myself then that there was something especially tragic about Larry’s murder, because once you’re dead there’s no chance to turn it around, or find a hobby, or treat someone right. I also didn’t admit to myself that what happened outside of private high schools still counted as real life.

Instead, I got obsessed with the bridge. I thought about it constantly. I imagined Larry standing under it, waiting for his killer. I imagined what the guy said to Larry, the last thing Larry smelled, the various positions his body could have fallen in. What was the last thing he saw? The bridge, or the stars?

Mostly, I tried to picture the bridge itself. In the end, the image in my head was weirdly perfect—its arch, the shrubs on either side of it. Even Larry’s face has gotten blurry in my memory, but the bridge is crisp every time.

And whenever I hear the phrase “water under the bridge,” even now, I picture Larry’s body floating in water. It’s bobbing a little, facedown, and I am looking up at him from the bottom of the river. His eyes and mouth are open very wide.

I wish I could say that my obsession was sadness, but it wasn’t. By the time I really considered being sad, Larry’s death felt distant, like a movie I had seen when I was drunk. I sat in my room one night the summer after I graduated from high school, thinking about him and trying to cry. I thought about how I would have quit on my first day if he hadn’t been nice and called the other baggers “yahoos.” I thought about the tidiness of his mustache, and his jacket that looked like a letterman’s jacket without the letter. He wore it every day.

My eyes didn’t even water, though. After about an hour of waiting, I got bored and fell asleep.

 

I didn’t think to look up what happened to Larry until three years later, during my junior year of college. I found a news article online, from a week or so after he died.

Here is what it said: Larry’s childhood friend was really drunk one night. He took his shotgun and, although his family tried to stop him, met Larry in a public park in the very early morning. He shot Larry in the face. The article didn’t mention where the body was found or any possible motivation. It was short, mainly about how the suspect was in jail on $2 million bail and would go to trial soon.

When I finished the article I sat in my favorite campus coffee shop, silently dry-heaving. I wondered if I would vomit on my laptop, and if a three-year-late barf was an acceptable substitute for an on-time cry. Shot in the face? The mechanics of it were horrifying. His head must have at least partially exploded. Someone I know has skinny-dipped in a river containing traces of his brain.

At the same time, the article answered some of my questions about Larry’s final moments. The last thing he smelled was alcohol. The last thing he saw was a shotgun. I felt like I had learned something clean and factual, something you could pick up in a class.

I didn’t, though. Here’s what I really learned: Sometimes, you meet a drug user who beats his girlfriend, and he lies to you and gropes your friend and you think that you are better than him. You are above him. You got good SAT scores and you never beat anybody.

You think that, and he gets murdered, and you keep thinking that. But when you hear the phrase “water under the bridge,” this thing keeps happening. Where you see him, and even though you think you are above him, he’s the one floating above you. His face is stretched by God knows what, so that his eyes and mouth are twice their normal size. And somehow, you’re the one at the bottom of the river.

Note: Some names have been changed in this article to protect the privacy of people involved—ed.

Mae Rice is a writer who lives in Chicago. Her work has appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Awl, and The Hairpin. More by Mae Rice