Everything Here Belongs Somewhere

Natalie Vestin

The department was called softlines. Clothes for adults, children, and babies. Unlike the rest of the store, it was carpeted. I hung dresses and folded jeans, smoothing the fabric, stacked squared denim in perfect towers, used two fingers to place even spaces between hangers.

Everything here belonged somewhere. Everything had a code, a number, a country, a size, and a color. It stayed for a season, then was pushed outside on wheeled circular racks or brought to the aisle by the groceries, slapped with red stickers, price after price crossed out; three dollars, now only two dollars.

The radio received only the Walmart channel. Between the same ten songs, depending on who had topped the adult contemporary charts, were advertisements for engagement rings, fishing poles, and dog food. Southern voices carried the ads along, their accents overly friendly in northern Minnesota. I imagine this false cheer made people want to buy those rings and fishing poles and kibble. I loved those sunny voices. Perhaps I was one of those helpful people the voices said would lead you to everything you might need.

It was late afternoon when the bombing started, and it continued into the the evening. The radio only played the bombing -- no Sheryl Crow, no ads. That night, I worked with a manager and a woman named Marisa, who was hired the same day as I was. We were close in that way that only two people who have gone together through the Walmart orientation and training modules can be. Marisa hated the bombing. She said she couldn't stand listening to all those people die on the loudspeakers. She looked scared, and Marisa never looked scared. She smoked unfiltered cigarettes on her breaks, and sometimes we drank root beer schnapps at the bowling alley after work. She lived in the backwoods area of our town, and she could threaten and flirt with men at the same time. But when the bombs fell for hours, her eyes stayed big, like she couldn't relax their muscles. This was nothing like fighting with rowdy boys at the bowling alley.

Sometimes it was just bombing, and sometimes there were voices--smothered robot narratives, unintelligible, encoded. The voices cut in and out, deep and official but hitched in places where adrenaline narrowed the speakers' throats. Commentary from half a world away, which the radio signal near Arkansas corporate headquarters couldn't pick up. But the bombs still fell.

I worked in the dressing room that evening, staring out the glassless window, handing numbers to somber people who listened to bombs fall as they pulled clothes over their heads. We had only the sounds, but I could see what was happening. The shrill splitting of air like a firecracker in reverse, muted explosions, the fall and crumble. The ectoplasmic green heat night vision goggles show. Desert and cities brown and real in the flash, something suddenly gone.

As Walmart employees, we were demonstrably proud of our company affiliation, even if forcibly so. At daily staff meetings, after hearing profit totals from each of our departments, we did the Walmart cheer. If you've never seen the Walmart cheer, there's some spelling of the company name, traditional call and response, and much vigorous clapping. If the manager leading the cheer were in a particular mood, we escaped the lunch room and performed the cheer at the front of the store near the cash registers. All the customers could see our pride -- unless we blushed -- and then they blushed and looked down, while we stared straight ahead and clapped and clapped.

There was space between, before the bombing began, when the quiet ended, when the hurt couldn't stay itself and began to turn into something desperate. There was a month between the hurting thing and the bombing. During that month, we didn't do the cheer, just as David Letterman didn't find anything funny to say. In a small town in northern Minnesota where nearly everyone worked at the Walmart, the paper mill, or the match mill, the month was divided like this:

Week One: Tuesday when thousands of people died. Tuesday when we thought about being crushed, when we dreamed about falling, when families didn't know how to tell each other to never ever leave. The classic rock radio station that played "Ground Control to Major Tom" on repeat. Wood furniture on which I painted ivy leaves for something to do during the afternoons. Skin I rubbed off my face trying to relieve the itch of salt that poured as I tried to sleep. An ache of muscles in the abdominal place that heaves. The baskets I shot, the Discman that bounced on my hip, as I fantasized about being there, having superpowers, turning the planes back.

Week Two: Have you ever seen a Walmart vigil? On the one-week anniversary, managers distributed tall, thin candles. Those of us who worked the evening shift walked outside at six o'clock and formed a circle at the edge of the parking lot, between the entrances and the smoker's tent. The manager lit our candles and pressed play on the boombox she'd carried outside. Lee Greenwood sang "God Bless the USA." Our manager closed her eyes and clasped her candle, but the rest of us were uneasy, unsure of the stance and manner we were to take with respect to this rather dorky country song.

I stood by Marisa. We grinned sideways at each other in a camaraderie of cynicism formed between people forced to be sacred in public. People passing us by, walking into the store, seemed embarrassed and looked away. As vigils went, it was bizarre and irreverent, not just because it was held by a stand of garden rakes on clearance sale, but because the second week was nothing but a grasping.

Week Three: Our manager strung red, white, and blue beads on safety pins, then attached them to a larger safety pin in the image of an American flag. She wore this on her blue Walmart vest above a large yellow button encouraging people to ask about professional silver cleaning in the jewelry department.

This was the week of the flags. Boxes of t-shirts arrived. We sliced them open, unfolded flag after dusty flag, and placed them on hangers. The t-shirts were only five dollars, and hung on circular racks in the wide aisles for maximum display. By Christmas, they were a dollar, the racks shuffled out to the enclosure that sold fragrant spruces and pines.

In September, the t-shirts kept coming, stacked on pallets, wedged into their cardboard boxes with crumpled newspapers to keep them from shifting. Some of the t-shirts came from Pakistan, and I saved several sheets of Pakistani newspaper comics. I liked the shape of Urdu script. The previous year, my freshman Spanish professor had given readings in Urdu and Turkish and Persian during the evenings, letting the strange syllables burgeon from his throat and wrap his tongue. Love and blood and tears, the subject of every poem, like the language so full in his mouth could speak only of certain things.
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