Love Blooms at the Save-A-Lot
A Short Story by Tim Josephs
Written using the suggestion "Valentine"
Originally featured on 02-13-2007
As part of our series "Anniversaries"

“But what if we get caught?”

Roger gazed at Josie and smiled. Even under the harsh lights of the dairy cooler he thought she looked beautiful.

“We won’t,” he said.

She got up from the black overturned milk crate and walked to the other side of the small room. “This just feels wrong.” The mist of her breathe encircled her brown hair and slightly pink face.

Roger got up from his own crate and joined her in front of the boxes of I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter.

“Does it feel wrong, Josie? Does it really? Or is that what they want you to think?”

She stared at the floor and he put his hand under her chin and lifted her head up. She smiled but her eyes looked sad. Suddenly she hugged him tightly, very tightly. And even though he had a lot of soy milk to put up, Roger hoped the embrace would never end.

“Why does it have to be like this?” she asked. “Why do we live in a world where two people, two adults who care about each other have to sneak around, hiding their feelings for one another? Why?”

She was crying now. It wasn’t the first time they had held each other and lamented about their situation.

“I don’t know,” he said softly; it was the only answer he was ever able to give her.

She quickly released her hold on him and wiped her eyes. “I gotta get back.”

Roger nodded. She crept to the gray double doors and peeked through the small murky windows. She turned back to him and smiled wearily.

“I’ll try to come back on my next break, but it won’t be easy.”

“I know, but please try.”

After another glance outside, she quickly slipped through the doors. He watched them until they stopped swinging and then began gathering the boxes of Soy-Sation.

 

 

Roger had met Josie a month earlier when she came back to the dairy case to return a quart of half and half that had been sitting out too long. While he was stocking the orange juice she emerged from aisle six and looked around.

“Excuse me?”

Roger looked up and was surprised to see she was talking to him.

“Can you tell me where this goes?”

He put down the cardboard box he was holding and walked over to her.

“Um, right over there,” he said, pointing to the left. “But I can take it.”

When she held out the carton and he took it, their hands touched just slightly. She looked up at him and smiled.

“Thanks,” he mumbled and turned to go back to his boxes of juice.

“Actually, it’s kind of slow up front. Would you mind showing me around a little? I just started a few weeks ago and I’m still not sure where a lot of things are.”

Roger looked stunned.

“That is, if you’re not too busy,” she added quickly.

He glanced back at the small stack of boxes. “Well, not really.” He looked at her and smiled. “Okay, follow me.”

 

 

The reason Roger was so surprised was that there were certain rules you learned to follow at the Save-A-Lot Supermarket. One (as the sign with the helpful visuals told you) was to always wash your hands after using the bathroom. The other was that the front end people — cashiers, bookkeepers, managers, etc, the ones wearing the green aprons — were not supposed to mingle with the backroom workers — Dairy, Seafood, Deli, etc, the ones in the brown aprons. It was an unwritten rule, but one that was strictly followed nonetheless.

So when the Front End Manager, David, saw Josie and Roger talking, he wasn’t happy. Later on he cornered her in the break room just as she was digging into her tuna salad.

“Hi, Josie, how are you?”

“Good. How are you, Dave?”

“It’s David and I’m fine. Listen, I couldn’t help but notice you and Roger from Dairy talking before.”

“Yeah, he was just showing me where some stuff was and-“

“That’s super, and I know you’re new here but in the future if you need to find something you can ask me or someone else up front, okay?”

“Uh, okay but why does it mat-“

“Okay, great. I’ll see you later.”

He left her there looking very confused.

 

Later, when Josie and Roger started meeting secretly, he explained it to her. He told her how it was at the Save-A-Lot, how the front end people looked down upon the backroom workers, how they were thought of as second rate, lower class, and therefore unfit to socialize with.

At first she thought he was joking.

“That’s crazy! How could that kind of discrimination go on today!?” she exclaimed, pacing the dairy cooler.

It was the same question Roger had asked Gary in Seafood when he first started. Gary had worked at the store for over 20 years.

“That’s the way it’s always been and always will be,” Gary had told him. Roger didn’t have the heart to give Josie that answer so he just told her he didn’t know.

 

 

At first things were great. When Josie went on breaks she’d sneak into the cooler where Roger waited for her. There they would feast on semi-stale cheeses and just-expired chocolate milk. It wasn’t much, but to them, it was paradise.

Sitting on damp milk crates with the lights turned low, they talked and got to know each other. Roger learned that Josie wanted to go to school to become a teacher. And he told her something he had never revealed to anyone, that more than anything he wanted to visit Wisconsin, to see where many of his dairy products came from.

But what else happened in that chilly room with metal walls was something neither of them expected, something amazing: they started falling for each other.

 

A few weeks later when Josie came to see him, she looked very worried.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“They know,” she said, turning over a milk crate and sitting down.

“What are you talking about?”

“They know, people know about us.”

Roger started getting nervous. “What people?”

“I overheard Barbara and Sophie this morning, they were talking about us; they said some horrible things about you.”

She was nearly in tears.

“What did they say?”

“I can’t, I just can’t say it.”

“You can tell me, Josie. What did they say?”

She gazed up at him with moist eyes. “They called you a dairy degenerate. And a, a lactose loser.” She sobbed and buried her face in her hands.

Roger’s eyes blazed and he smashed his fist on a box of sour cream. “Those close-minded witches! How dare they say that!?” He glanced at Josie. “You don’t think that about me, do you?”

She looked at him and her eyes widened sharply. “Of course not, Roger.” She got up and wrapped her arms around him. “One day. One day things will be different. One day people will be judged by who they are and not by the color of the apron they wear.”

“You really think so?” he asked.

“Yes, I do, I really do.” She hugged him a little tighter. “Hey, is there any of that strawberry milk left?”

 

On a Thursday morning a couple weeks later, disaster almost struck. Josie and Roger were munching on some discolored Gouda when the double doors opened and in walked Gary.

“Hey, Roger, they need some large eggs out there and-“ He stopped suddenly when he saw Josie.

Roger hurriedly got up.

He looked at Roger and frowned. “Oh, I see you’re busy. Just get those eggs out when you can, okay?” He quickly turned around and went back through the doors. Roger looked at Josie and then followed him.

“Hey, Gary.”

Gary turned around.

“That really wasn’t what it looked like-“

“Do you think I’m an idiot, Roger? I know exactly what that was. Have you listened to anything I’ve told you? Have you? You’ve been here long enough, you know how it is. Do you want to lose your job? ‘Cause that’s what’s gonna happen if you keep this up.”

Roger looked ashamed and stared down at his shoes.

Gary sighed. “But I do know how it is. I never told you this but many years ago I had a chance to be with a girl who worked in bookkeeping, but I never went for it and I regret it to this day.” He gazed off into the distance. After a moment he looked back at Roger.

“Do you know what you’re doing, kid?”

Roger smiled. “I think so.”

“Well, I hope you do because people are watching. Be careful.”

 

The next day when Roger was stocking the cream cheese, Josie sidled up next to him.

“Don’t look at me, just keep working,” she said out of the corner of her mouth. She started putting back containers of ricotta cheese, in the wrong place Roger noticed.

“What is it?” he asked.

“I don’t think we can do this anymore.”

Roger’s heart sank. “What? Why not?”

“This morning David told all of us cashiers that we now need permission from him to leave the front end. And if we get caught without it, we’ll be fired.”

Roger squeezed the small box in his hand until the cream cheese oozed out the sides. “He can’t do that!”

“He did it.” She put the last container on the shelf and turned to leave. Roger grabbed her hand and she gasped.

“We can’t,” she said, looking around.

“Why not? Just because they say we can’t? Please, Josie. Look in my eyes and tell me you want this to end.”

She stared up at him; she was on the verge of tears again.

“I can’t say that,” she said breathlessly.

Roger exhaled. “I knew you couldn’t. Now come to the cooler on your next break; I’m making yogurt smoothies.”

 

 

A few days later, just as Roger was opening a dented cup of vanilla pudding, Josie stormed into the cooler. Her apron had a large brown stain on it.

“Josie, what happened?”

“Greg in Produce threw a tomato at me,” she said irately.

“What? No, I’m sure it was an accident.”

Josie glared at him. “An accident? He threw three, the first two missed.” She groaned. “I can’t take this anymore!”

She rushed over to a shelf in the corner and grabbed a small white carton. She opened it and held it to her lips.

“Don’t do it, Josie!” Roger yelled. “That egg nog is two months past its sell-buy date!”

“I just can’t do it anymore, Roger.” She tipped the carton up.

Roger lunged for it but it was too late; the chunky, yellowish fluid dripped into her mouth. Josie gagged a little but was able to get a few swallows down before Roger knocked it from her hands.

Josie’s eyes rolled back in her head and her legs gave out. Roger caught her and gently laid her down on the floor, supporting her head with a few rolls of cookie dough.

“Why, Josie? Why’d you do it?”

“I just can’t go on like this,” she said faintly. “Living this way. I’m not going to die though, am I?”

Roger shook his head. “No, but you’re probably going to hurl in a few minutes.”

She sighed. “Things need to change, Roger.”

“You’re right,” he said. With a defiant look on his face, he suddenly got up and left the cooler. On the other side of the doors he grabbed the white phone on the wall.

“Attention Save-A-Lot employees,” he said into the phone, his voice ringing throughout the store. “This is Roger in Dairy and I have an announcement.” He glanced into the cooler at Josie and took a deep breath. “I know there have been some rumors about me and Josie and I just wanted to make it clear that yes, we are seeing each other and we don’t care what anyone thinks.”

The doors opened and a very pale Josie came out and stood beside him. He put his arm around her.

“And we’d appreciate it,” Roger continued, “if you’d just leave us alone.” He was about to hang up the phone but stopped and held it to his mouth again. “After all, we’re not so different, are we? Can’t we all — the brown aprons and green aprons, the backroom people and the front end people — just learn to appreciate each other? Can’t we get to know and respect one another? Is that so much to ask?” He paused and Josie smiled. “That’s about all I have to say, thanks for listening.”

Suddenly Josie broke free of his grasp and hunched over. He turned away as the egg nog made a return appearance.

“Oh, and Tommy, please come to the backroom for a cleanup.” He looked over at Josie and cringed. “And bring a mop.”

When Roger and Josie emerged from the backroom a short time later, a small crowd of employees — both green and brown aprons among them — had gathered to meet them. Roger and Josie stared at them a little nervously for a second and then joined hands. All of a sudden someone started slowly clapping. They looked to their left and saw Gary standing in front of the seafood case. He winked at Roger. Roger smiled and nodded at him. Soon a few more people started clapping.

Roger and Josie glanced at each other and began walking through the crowd. They went down aisle eight, past the diapers and baby formula and then walked by a disgusted-looking David standing at register three. They didn’t stop until they were up in the break room.

There they did something they had been waiting a long time to do: they ate lunch together out in the open for all to see. They talked and laughed over turkey sandwiches, Cheetos, and a fresh carton of chocolate milk.

Read More By Tim Josephs

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Portland Fiction Project

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