By Christopher Bruce
Toby hadn’t changed out of his pajamas in what—a couple weeks? He was beginning to realize he should probably get out more often, and so he went to the Kroger Superstore to shop for groceries.
With some diligent maneuvering through crowded, labyrinthine aisles, Toby managed to fill his cart, and he entered a check-out line. As he waited, he thought, what the hell, why not let some of these other shoppers go ahead?
What a revelation! Those who had so impersonally challenged him in the aisles were now engaging and, for the most part, friendly. Oh, there were some suspicious comments, like, “What’s in it for you, Mack?” Or the lady who whispered to the checker and pointed at him. But that was okay with Toby. Even they were all too willing to get ahead.
Toby remained at his never-ending place in the end of the line for quite a while, and he used the opportunity to peruse the wide assortment of magazines. Hours flew by in the pages of Rolling Stone, National Enquirer, America’s National Parks.
By the time he left the store, darkness had fallen. The parking lot glowed in pools of light from sodium lamps. Cars around Toby’s were all different now. But he found his Mini Cooper and drove home with a new sense of the abundance of life.
Toby woke the next morning with dream images lingering in his mind of riding horseback through scenic landscapes of Sunset Magazine. There was a whole world out there just waiting to be explored, and he decided to return to Kroger for more. And on this new day, Toby put on his nicest khakis, a clean white shirt, and a bowtie.
He didn’t really need additional groceries, but the previous day had been so rewarding, he picked up a couple cups of yogurt and some chips, and got in line. Yet when he motioned for others to go ahead, they immediately refused. “All you have is yogurt and chips!” “Are you crazy?” A guy shoved him forward, but Toby resisted and backed into an old lady, who tripped and fell. A baby started screaming. The checker pleaded with him, “Please, sir. Come ahead!” As she reached for the inter-store phone, Toby escaped to join what he hoped would be a more compatible line.
Soon after settling into the new line, however, a large, burly man in a yellow Kroger vest approached Toby, and requested that he come along to the office. Now here was a new experience. Toby had never really thought about the store having an office. It was, in fact, a cozy upstairs room with bookcases, dark oak paneling, a couch, closed-circuit TV. The man said, “Please, stay right here. They’ll be with you soon.” The door clicked shut behind him.
Toby wandered around, looking at awards and such, then tried the chair behind the desk. It was perfectly comfortable, and he dozed off until a knock on the door roused him. He straightened his bowtie and called out, “Come in.”
A young man entered, came over to the desk, and said he had an invoice that needed signing.
Toby was delighted to have company, and he nodded to one of the visitor chairs. “Have a seat. What is the invoice for?”
“A new load of Tim’s Potato Chips.”
“I love Tim’s. They’re my favorite kind.” They were the young man’s favorite as well. Toby was only too happy to sign.
Soon after he left, someone else came in—an older man with a shuffling gait and thick glasses. He was the man who never looked you in the eye from behind the fish counter. According to his Kroger name tag, his name was “Ernie,” and he examined the office nervously. He had never been “upstairs” before, and he was a little short of breath.
Ernie gathered himself and peered at Toby. “Uh. Are you new?”
Toby sat up in his chair. “Well, this is my second day at Kroger’s.”
Ernie edged forward. “I hate to lay this on you so soon. But I need to take some time off.”
“I hope everything’s all right, Ernie.”
Ernie said he just needed the time.
Toby told him to go ahead. “We’ll miss you, but take all the time you need.”
Ernie squinted and looked at Toby sideways. “Hold on there. That’s it? Are you sure?”
“Are you sure? That’s all that matters.”
“Well—now that you mention it, I think I’m feeling better.”
Toby nodded. “I’m sure you know what’s best.”
“I want to keep my job.”
“Of course you do.”
“It’s really all I have.”
“Oh, Ernie. We’d hate to lose you.”
They shook hands. Ernie seemed more relaxed now. “Guess I’ll get back down to the fish then.”
Just as Ernie left, two policemen cracked open the door. One kept watch out in the hall. The other came into the office, where Toby was busy straightening the desk and shuffling papers.
Toby looked up. “Hey there. How’s it goin’?”
The one inside scanned the room and settled on Toby. “I’m sorry sir, but the checker said some nut who was bothering customers was being held in here.”
“Nope, just me,” said Toby.
“Oh. Well. Okay. My bad. Sorry to interrupt.”
“Not a problem. Let us know if we can help in any way.”
“No worries. We’ve got it covered.”
Toby pointed to the policeman and winked. “That means a lot to all of us. You take care now.”
The door clicked shut. Toby was alone in the dark office again. He leaned back in the chair and took in the rich ambiance of his surroundings, and yet, he found himself missing the camaraderie of the line, the interesting choices customers made, the amazing efficiency of the checkers. It was then Toby suddenly realized, this was Friday, and the rack magazines would be renewed for the coming week.