He had his back pushed against the wall, his knee acutely cocked so the sole of his sneaker found support on the bricks. A lone plastic bench sat cemented in front of him and beyond that was the expanse of the supermarket parking lot. He was the only one out here now, which was rare for this time of day. Troy was standing behind the store’s unofficial smoking lounge. Though corporate had banned the sale of tobacco in its stores more than a year ago, likewise strongly dissuading all employees to partake in the habit while on the premises, all but six of the store employees smoked, and heavily. They lit up before their shifts started, on their ten minute breaks, a minimum of two cigarettes for lunch (one before the meal and one after), and for some reason Troy hadn’t been able to figure out, some of the guys popped by the bench to light up on their way out to the parking lot after their shifts were over. Even if no one was there. It was habitual as the act of smoking itself and it completely baffled Troy. One night after punching out, he watched while Dennis, the deli counter clerk who was twenty years his senior, went over to the bench and actually sat down to have a cigarette before going to his car and driving home.
Troy was one of those six store employees who didn’t smoke. He ran track and cross-country and even though he had been breathing it most all his life, he had never so much as taken a puff. His old man told him that the easiest way to quit smoking was to never start, which was obvious logic, but coming from a man who wasn’t accustomed to saying such blatantly obvious lines, he figured a simple line of logic like that was probably the best way the old man could explain an it. Troy grew up seeing his dad go from quitting cigarettes by way of picking up cigars and getting off them by switching to a pipe and eventually getting back around to cigarettes again, just a different brand. The only time Troy could remember his dad not smoking was for about a four-month drag when bought hard candy, mostly lollipops, in bulk and kept a stash in his car and around the house. Before very long an excess of sugar made it so he couldn’t eat anything that required a great deal of chewing on account of the deterioration of his gums. Nerves fired off from under yellowed teeth with the slightest bit of pressure. The four-month candy binge was enough to get him in the schedule book for a root canal the next time he saw the dentist. He went back to smoking a week after the procedure.
It was just a little after 10:00 when Troy was standing out there against the wall and he was already loathing the day ahead. He came in at 9:00 thinking he’d be inside working on end caps and replenishing the bread aisle every hour. The weather report he heard from his car radio when he was counting the minutes down before he had to get out and go in guaranteed that. They wanted snow, something like six to eight inches of it, which would get everyone around here in a tizzy and send them running to the store right quick. As soon as he’d punched in and walked to the back, his manager Jeff told him Fritz called out. Jeff, being the kind of guy who wanted all stock clerks to look up to, expressed his sympathies to Troy. He needn’t say anything else. Troy was going to have be Fritz for the day.
Fritz had hands-down the worst job at the place. He showed up at 8:00 and stayed on until 4:00 and during that time, each and every day, he walked around the parking lot and collected carts. They’d all be gathered up in these covered racks called cart corrals and from there he’d make a big line of them and push it up to the area next to the store entrance in neat lines. On busy days he’d get down the line of corrals and before he got five minutes to catch his breath, the supply by the door would nearly be diminished. Out he’d go again, braving that pavement in his florescent yellow pinny. Fritz was going on his third year in that position. Troy once heard him refer to the carts as his kids and wondered if the wires were loose before he’d started the job or if the Sisyphean task had done permanent neurological damage. He’d stare down the shoppers who refused to return the carts to their designated corrals in the parking lot. When carts were not returned, they created outliers, these unruly children, that were often times taken by the wind to every corner of the parking lot. Fritz trudged out and collected them all and said a word of complaint.
On the busiest days, backup was required. On occasion, Troy was paged over the public address to go out and give Fritz a hand in the parking lot. He learned quick that he didn’t have the patience to do it day in and day out. He’d rather have the torture chamber. It was getting colder by the minute and the first sign of flurries would bring with it the onslaught of crazed masses wanting for their bread, milk, and eggs. He pulled his hands out of his back pockets and rubbed them together as he surveyed the parking lot from behind the smokers’ bench, expelling a visible sigh into the air. He kicked off the wall as two guys from the seafood department walked up, pulling crushed packs and matches from their pockets. Troy scuttled past them and out to a corral he’s emptied an hour earlier, made an interlocking row, and prayed the day would be over as soon as possible.