The Big Store (Part 3)

Of course, Eufaula is a good thirty five miles from my house and the Big Store is eight miles past that but a summer evening is a good time for a drive.  Ponder and I always liked to drive with the windows down catching the smells from whatever grew beside the highway.  That evening, the smell was mostly honeysuckle.  I caught a stink of paper mill once or twice and a big whiff of skunk as I passed a motel, but mostly it was honeysuckle.   It was honeysuckle when I turned toward onto the short road that ends in the Big Store parking lot.

Now, no one told me about that road.  It was dirt and chert rock for half a mile before it dropped so steep, the chert rolled off the road.  It drop was full of gullies from rainstorms and I had to shift down and ride the brakes to get to the bottom.  I hated to think about how I’d get up on the way back.  Once it bottomed out, the road just fanned out into a parking lot without any lights or pavement.  I didn’t guess there would be so many cars!   It looked like a Wal-Mart lot crammed with everything from clunkers to Hum-Vees.   People still parked in rows like there were lines painted and I left the Big Mule next to a bunch of scrub trees at the back of the lot.  Through the cars, a steady stream of people were all headed for what looked like a big cave opening with a lot of lights at the mouth.

I didn’t expect a Roach Coach to be at the Big Store but there was one, chrome gleaming in the car lights, next to the mouth of the opening.  Lots of people were gathered around it, laughing and drinking sodas and eating what the girls had fried up inside.  I’ve seen what goes into those Roach Coach burgers and I wasn’t about to spend my money there.  

Instead, I walked straight to the entrance, where a man checked my membership card.  There were red arrows painted on the concrete floor that pointed to the right and an empty place for shopping baskets. I thought I’d keep an eye out for an empty buggy somewhere in the store.  On the left, was a line of cash registers with cashiers checking people out and customers lined up behind each register. 

It wasn’t till I got past the entrance that I saw the Cavern part of the warehouse.  The floor was smooth cement and the wooden walls went up about twenty feet but above that the walls and ceiling were limestone.  The limestone was crisscrossed with electric cables fastened into the rock and florescent lights and mechanics lamps hung down every few feet or so.  The aisles were made up of gigantic shelves stacked two levels high and from the back I could hear the toot of forklifts, probably carrying more goods around.

I figured the Big Store would be pretty and bright but I was wrong.  For all of the hanging lamps it was dark on the inside, not well lit at all.   The store lamps only created pools of light right beneath where they were hanging and in between those light circles it got plumb gloomy.   I wasn’t expecting the clutter either.   I knew the Big Store sold everything from the cradle to the grave but I didn’t expect all of the clothes would be folded into stacks 3 feet high or hung so many on a rack that you couldn’t really see what was there.  I pulled at one stack of black dresses and found they all looked like tank tops with skirts sewed on to the bottoms.  Hardly something I’d wear.  At the end of one aisle was a bin of women’s sandals, one style but all different sizes, each pair tied together with a plastic cord.  Women were tearing through those ugly things a mile a minute but it wasn’t worth the fight.
            I never expected such a mix of people in the Big Store.  Lots of them looked like the families I had worked for with the men in khakis and golf shirts and the women looking stylish.  Some other folks were more like me, wearing clean jeans and t-shirts but a lot of people needed to be cleaned up before you could throw them in jail.   Imagine, walking through The Big Store wearing tube tops and open shirts with stomach fat bulging over your jeans!  One thing I did see: you could pick out the regulars easy cause they wore their membership cards around their necks, hanging from blue cords. I decided I‘d buy me one of those cords; it was a good idea.  

I could also see that Big Store had some bargains.  Close to the front was a jewelry counter, all lit up and showing engagement rings for less than a thousand dollars and one man was talking about a set of tires in the back he was getting “for half of what Goodyear charged”.  I didn’t need rings or tires so I started down the aisle, looking for the things on my list.

The Big Store (Part 2)

I was working as night aide for Mr. Kenneth Riley when I heard the Big Store’s membership had opened up; night aides don’t hear as much as the day help but Mr. Riley’s Depends ran out early one week and his great niece, Helen, brought out a case complaining about the trip she’d made to get them.
“Can you get me a glass of tea, Viola?” she huffed.  “I’m about to perish from this heat”
“I’ll bring it to you as soon as I get your Uncle Kenneth changed” I said.   “He’s been going through those diapers fast and I don’t want him to get sores waiting for a fresh one.”
“Never mind, I’ll get it myself then” she said and made a face.  When I came back from her uncle’s bedroom, Helen was sitting with her heels up on a kitchen chair, swilling iced tea like she was the Queen of Sheba.
“When did the Big Store start keeping late hours?” I asked her.
“Last year, I think,” she said.  “Probably, when the credit-union people started going.”
I didn’t understand that.  “The credit union?” I asked.  “No credit union around here hires enough folks to make The Big Store change their hours.”
“Not their employees, their customers” Helen said.  “Anyone with a credit union account gets a membership card to the Big Store, didn’t you know that?”
“No” I said and Mr. Riley bawled out “Viola, you got company?”  Helen dropped her glass to the table.  “Tell him no,” she hissed. “I’ll never get home if he wants to visit and Eddie Junior needs help with his math.”  Like that would fool me.  Helen Riley Biggs has a problem with soiled old men, not her son’s math homework.  Still, she left me with something to think about besides a sink full of dishes.
Everyone knows it takes fifteen dollars to open an account at the Credit Union.  Fifteen dollars, I could spare.   If I shopped at the Big Store, I might find enough bargains to make up for that cost, and then I could start living nicer at home.   I thought about my ratty old bedspread and the mismatched plates in my kitchen.   I could replace everything a bit at a time and shop in the later hours since my work had me sleeping days.   If I could get Cora McAuliffe to take my Saturday night shift some weekend, I could even visit the Big Store with my Friday wages in my pocket and rest enough on Sunday to go back to work.   Pretty soon, I’d be living like I wanted.

I put more effort into my own life that next month than I had in the all the years since Ponder died.  I cleaned the inside of my house down to the walls, and got rid of the three truckloads of garbage.  Ponder’s collection of Confederate bills turned out to be as counterfeit as I figured but his coin collection got rolled and turned in to the credit union for eighty-seven dollars and forty-one cents, over and above the fifteen dollar opening charge.   I carried Hazard Pay down to the credit union stuffed with those coin rolls (those Coach bags are tough as well as beautiful, the leather handle took the strain with no problem) and opened up my account.  The credit union teller took my photograph and then gave me a laminated card with Cavern Warehouse Incorporated printed on the back and a picture of me and Hazard Pay on the front.  I bought a cheap wallet to hold my cash, made a list of what to replace first in my house and looked for a body to take my weekend shift.

That part was nearly impossible.  Seven dollars an hour wasn’t enough to make Cora leave her Saturday Night Bingo, I had to agree to sweeten the pot with twenty more out of my own pocket! (By then, I would have paid her thirty to take that shift.

Finally, I gassed up the last car Ponder ever got me, a 1966 Ford that I call The Old Mule. Oh, that car is stubborn! It balks in front of hills and dies before it will go through any puddle big enough to draw mosquitoes.  Still, I own it outright and Ponder set it up so it takes unleaded gas, so I keep on driving it, silly as that sounds.  That Friday, the Old Mule felt like Cinderella’s coach, to me.  It was taking me to the Big Store at last.

The Big Store (The Beginning)

        Not all trash is trash: that’s the first thing you’ve got to know.  I’ve picked over, cleaned up and used other people’s trash all my life but I know the difference between a bargain and cheap.  It’s all about quality and no Big Store can sell that off its underground shelves, no matter what you hear.  You need to know how to shop.

        My name’s Viola; never mind how old I am, it’s probably older than you.  I’m a widow woman and I’ve spent most of my life working for somebody else. I was serving on the breakfast line at the Piggly Wiggly when I met Ponder, the man I married. 

 used to say he walked in for a sausage biscuit and walked out with me.  Ponder picked trash for a living, buying a car or cabinet someone didn’t want, then mending and selling it to someone else for a little higher price.  That kind of a job doesn’t bring in wages, not the kind you can show the government, so I stayed at the Pig, serving breakfast until the store shut down.  After that I cleaned houses and sat with sick and old people for a day job.  After Ponder died of a stroke, I started worked nights and weekends too.  There wasn’t much to go home to, except the bills and Ponder’s bargains.  I keep my people and their houses clean and that’s been my life these last five years.

          Ponder used to make me so mad with his bargains.  He’d come back from the junkyard with some invention that never worked or some stinky, stained stock papers on a business that bankrupted twenty years ago and say, “This will make us rich”.  Ponder always figured he could fix the invention or the business would come back  and then we’d be set for life.  Of course it never happened.  Instead, the contraptions filled up our yard and the stinky papers filled up the house.  I’ve had trouble getting rid of the metal but I burnt those stock papers right after the Ponder’s funeral.  That much I could do.

        Oh, I love finding bargains as much as Ponder but he and I had different ideas about what a bargain was.  I wanted to get something good for less than the other fella paid but Ponder wanted treasure from garbage.  Maybe it came from my cleaning work, but I got so I loved a tidy house with storage space and nice things that haven’t been chewed on. Most people around here buy their new things from this cavern warehouse they call the Big Store.

          I learned about the Big Store from my patients.  While I took care of them and their houses, their families brought in the groceries.  While somebody’s Aunt Virginia would be talking with half her kin in the front room, I’d be in the kitchen with the other half of them unpacking cardboard boxes with enough packaged dinners and washing powders to keep Aunt Virginia fat and tidy till Judgment Day.  There weren’t any price tags on these boxes – people buy stuff by the case at the Big Store  – but the families always said they were real good bargains.  Buying in bulk, they call it.  They told me you could even buy furniture and vacations at the Big Store.  

          Lord, I wanted to see that Big Store and all those things.  Problem is, only members of the Big Store can shop there and most people get memberships through their jobs.  My jobs don’t even have health insurance so the closest I’d get to the Big Store was using the washing powders and dreaming about what I’d buy there if I could.  Sometimes, when an Aunt Virginia finally passed on, her family would offer to bring me something from the Big Store as a bonus for taking care of her.  That’s not the same as choosing something for yourself so I’d say “No, thank you kindly” and they’d give me some money or one of her old brooch pins and I’d go on to the next Aunt Virginia.  And I’d think about that Store.
I will say, one family really did take care of me.  Eula Mae Albritton was a sneaky, mean gossip when she was young but that Alzheimers turned her flat-out evil.  I ought to know; I changed her adult diapers and ran herd on that old biddy for two years.  Funny thing is her daughter, Alicia, is just the opposite. When Miss High-and-Mighty Albritton snuck out of the house and ran down the street, showing her underwear to the neighbors, Alicia told the police it wasn’t my fault.  Instead, she gave me a good reference and a brand-new Coach bag while she put her mother in a home.  It’s a designer bag and I know it cost plenty.  Alicia said I deserved it from looking after her mother which is why I call it Hazard Pay.  With Ponder gone, I guess Hazard Pay is what I love most, now.  I clean it regular and carry to all my functions.  I wore it to Ponder’s funeral and I planned to carry it to my own.  Of course, having Hazard Pay didn’t stop me dreaming about the Big Store; it just meant that if I’d have the right bag to wear if I got the chance to go inside.