Personnel Tracy had spent the last thirty minutes trying to figure out what to do with me when she received a garbled call over the walkie.

“Do you know how to do picks?”

“No, but I’ve heard my mom talk about them.”

The blue and yellow plastic nametag has ‘CASHIER’ in black type below my name, but the box cutter is a familiar weight. My mother received one on her first night on third-shift five years ago. It’s old and worn now and she’s overprotective of it; she says it carries nostalgia from her nights as an overnight stocker, something I could never understand as a cashier. When mine is pressed into my hand it registers as dull, like the lecture I’m ignoring. It’s a new Easy CutTM 2000 box cutter, and it’s got that new car smell, sterile but plasticky.

A throat clears, and I rush after Personnel Tracy who leads me to the loading area, whispers to Sales Associate Christopher and Assistant Manager Elisabeth, and then abandons me for her fifty minute hour lunch break. They ask if I know picks as they push a pallet laden with boxes toward me. I think I understand the basic concept. Clipping the box cutter to my khakis is like strapping the holster of a gun to my thigh, and I walk out of the backroom with the cart and a John Wayne cowboy swagger that carries me to aisle 7. Boxes of organic Kashi, Cheerios, Reese’s Puffs, Cookie Crisps, Kix, Apple Jacks, Great Value Fruit Loops, Quaker Oats, and Great Value oatmeal flavors fill the shelves of the aisle. Relax; you’ve got this.

And I flounder. Bright yellows, greens, purples, and blues shout generic marketing catchphrases but there are no empty rows available for product placement. As I walk the aisle back to the pallet, the box cutter holds onto my khakis like that little girl bouncing to keep up with her mother. I arbitrarily pick a box on top. There’s a thick line of tape and glue holding together what I am meant to cut apart. The schwik of the blade is loud against the voices of customers, and it stands out unashamedly. It isn’t hesitant. Schwik, it opens the box and I holster the box cutter; product comes out, and I shelve it. Cheerios find halfway houses on shelves only meant for twelve boxes. The box cutter doesn’t care that the product can’t fit; it only knows schwik, and squeezing that cutter is as normal as breathing.

But it’s all so heavy. Off-tan metal shelving units sag under cereals. Hot and cold breakfast foods spill into each other’s columns and some clatter onto the cheap linoleum. The smell of Oatmeal and PopTarts weighs down the air I pull into my lungs, and I expel heavily. A yellow Cheerios box gleams under sickly fluorescent lighting, highlighting every pock mark and dent. The box cutter is now shiny, slippery, in my sweaty hand. It’s smooth like the finger’s worth of Highland Scotch my mother drinks after a hard night of picks. Standing at the counter in the kitchen packing a two-day old leftover container of noodles for cold lunch, I’d ask about work. She’d only pour another glass and stare into amber liquid, mumbling as she placed her box cutter on the table. Our silence is our last name in thick, black Sharpie marking it as something I shouldn’t touch. This secondary character interjected all our conversations, laying proudly between Mom and me.

It’s the stinging sensation of a cut that jolts the cutter from my hand and sends it falling. It knocks against my knee. Pulling it up by the curling wire it’s the phone cord connecting my call to a landline, letting me go only so far out of range. The dial tone is deafening: the sound of settling.



Creative Nonfiction