There was nothing particularly interesting or exciting about Elk Grove as a town. The houses were white, the roads paved in dark tar, and the common amenities lined perfectly along Main Street. There was a barber, a butcher, a laundromat, and a pet store – all surrounding a grocer. Nothing exciting happened besides the two-for-one avocado sale on Friday. Everything was, and always had been, extraordinarily ordinary. Jamie woke up at 7 o’clock every morning, pulled on his customary vest and khakis, and hopped on his bike to make his a.m. shift. He’d probably get Employee of the Month for arriving early every morning if he didn’t spend the entire hour before clocking in sitting up on the roof.
He’d slide off the seat of his six-speed, lean it against the tall brick wall, and walk around to the back of the grocery store to pull down the black steel ladder affixed to the bricks. The climb up to the roof was familiar and, once he reached the top and climbed over the short wall, rewarding. Pulling the Walkman from his pocket, he plugged in the end of the headphones and pressed the large black button to play before stuffing it back into his jacket pocket. He strode across the roof, tapping his fingers against the hard indent in his jacket pocket, and staring up into the sky.
Kites hung in constellations, some high above while others were just out of reach for someone of average height. No one held their ends, but they spun and danced around each other. Some were blue, purple, or red diamonds with tails trailing behind them in garlands. Others had patterns or took up a variety of shapes. They weren’t always the same. The day before, a few new ones had joined the crowd; blue with gold stars printed in their silk screen. Today there were oranges – large, rippled, and vibrant.
There must be a new shipment in, he thought, looking over the edge of the building at a delivery driver carrying in new products. Jamie felt bad for the guy. To be awake this early in the morning for work without a chance to climb up to the roof, bypass that invisible barrier, and see the kites? Jamie couldn’t imagine starting his shift without catching a glimpse first.
The cucumbers came flying from the cashier’s hand at a remarkably unreasonable speed, sailing past a stack of microwave dinners and colliding with a box of juice packs. The newly minted owner of said cucumbers flinched, her pink flamingo lips stretching and contorting to expose crooked teeth. Feigning ignorance, Jamie snatched up the produce and stuffed them into the flimsy plastic bag on top of the rest of the woman’s scavenged goods. The customer couldn’t be right if he ignored her toothy stare and the inevitability of her complaint.
“That’ll be 19.86.” Cindy, the cashier, didn’t notice the small war between Jamie’s hands and the woman’s puckered lips. Cindy never saw anything beyond her own buttoned nose.
Jamie packed the last of the woman’s groceries into the bags and glanced at her twisted expression once more before retreating from his place at the end of the register. He moved down the line of check-out lanes, emptying as gaggles of customers paid for and left with the swinging bags temporarily storing their purchases. He envied them as they walked out to their matching suburban cars to drive back to their matching suburban houses.
While the tag pinned to his starched vest read “Associate,” Jamie had almost always swung on the lower rung duties of his job and stuck to bagging groceries, mopping floors, and stocking shelves. The older women preferred standing behind the registers and working with the customers, and he was happy to step aside. While he wasn’t particularly anti-social, he didn’t like dealing with people either. Having to come face-to-face with unhappy customers wasn’t exactly something he wanted to experience repeatedly.
“Hey, Jam!” he heard the chirp of a familiar voice as he maneuvered through the maze of aisles, stopping next to a tall metal cart stacked with glaring green bananas.
“It’s Jamie, Buck. You know that.” His thick, dark eyebrows raised as he looked down on his co-worker crouched next to an upturned box. Buck couldn’t stock a shelf without something he was working with falling to the ground.
“Nah, it’s Jam. See.” Buck’s lips pulled into a broad grin as he stretched his butter fingers up to jab at the name tag on Jamie’s chest. “Jam.”
“Yeah, because the damn label maker won’t print anything longer than three letters.” Jamie exhaled; something was lacking sound but almost comparable to a laugh.
“Guess you should’ve picked a better name then, huh?”
“Whatever, man. You want help with all of this or not?” He pressed the toe of his shoe into the side of the discarded box. “I’m dying for a break. It’s boring as hell down here, and I think the lady in pink up there is gonna eat me.”
Buck laughed a laugh that made his watermelon belly shake and pushed himself off of the floor with his hands. He wiped them on his jeans before picking up the box and stacking it back up on the cart. “You think I can’t handle stocking a few bananas?”
“No, I really don’t.”
“Push the cart, then.” Buck shook his head with a smirk, and Jamie pressed his lips together. He should never have asked. It wasn’t the first and wouldn’t be the last time that Buck let someone else do his work for him. Wrapping thin fingers around the slick black metal of the cart bars, Jamie pushed the produce to follow his co-worker across the expanse of the linoleum floor. The people that still haunted the aisles parted as he pushed, staring at his back with upturned noses, as the bad wheel spun and squeaked under the weight of the bananas. When Buck finally found their stop in produce, Jamie locked the breaks in place and pulled down a box to empty.
Jamie looked up, brushing the dark bangs from his forehead with his wrist and raising his eyebrows in question.
“You see the new ones yet?”
“The new ones. You know,” the man paused, tilting his head to the side as his eyes darted to look up to the ceiling. “The kites.”
Jamie shook his head, the wisp of bangs he’d moved before mussing back into his eyes. “Not since this morning. Haven’t had a break yet. You? Anything good?”
“Get this,” Buck started, reaching into his own open box for a piece of underdeveloped fruit. “Bananas. Tons of ‘em.”
“Sick, man.” Jamie smiled, folding up the emptied containers and stacking them onto the cleared cart. “I’m gonna hit the clock. Think you can handle the last box yourself?”
Buck rolled his eyes and waved him off, pushing more bananas into the heaping stacks they’d built up. With a nod, Jamie dipped his hands into the pockets of his corduroys and disappeared behind a tower of sky blue cereal boxes.
The employee’s designated break room was situated at the back of the store, sitting snugly between the men’s and women’s bathrooms. In one corner sat an old refrigerator that was probably white at one point in time but now matched more closely to the yellow in the tiled floors. The mop closet sat, door perched open, in the opposite corner. A card table with three rusting grey fold-out chairs around it sat in the middle of the room. The time clock was mounted to the wall next to the entrance, with employee time cards filed in a rack above it. Coats lined the wall next to them, hung from curved brass hooks.
Ashley, the store manager, sat in a chair facing the door with a cigarette dangling between her heavily glossed lips.
“Hey, Jam, you busy?”
“I was just gonna take my break.”
“You’re not scheduled until 2:15. I have to keep a tight schedule around here or y’all are gonna start taking advantage.” She pulled another trail of smoke from the stick before pressing the last of the ash down into the glass candle holder on the table. A chunk of gum stuck to the end she’d had in her mouth, and Jamie grimaced as Ashley tugged it from the paper and sucked it back into her mouth with a ‘pop.’
With his lips pressed together tightly to hide his recoil, Jamie lifted his arm to check his watch. ‘1:50:45’ flashed in green digits against Slimer’s face. “It’s close enough. I’ve been here since 9.”
Ashley raised her thin-lucked Barbie blonde eyebrows. “You don’t need a break, Jam. I don’t have to give you one. It’s outta the goodness of my heart, really, that you get one at all.”
He sighed in response, shoulders dipping down in resignation. She smiled.
“Good. Mop the bathrooms, then.” She pulled the gum from her mouth and stretched it between two fingers, waving him out. “Take your time, kid. Make em shine. The kites aren’t going anywhere.”
Jamie pushed his time card back into its home on the wall and shifted around his boss in the cramped space, avoiding the spit-riddled tac in her hand. He dumped bottles of chemicals into the wheeled, yellow wash-bucket as a hose filled it with water and grabbed the cleanest mop available.
“Scuse me,” he muttered, pushing the bucket forward with the mop as his handle. He passed her as she shifted her chair closer to the table, pulling another cigarette from her breast pocket. Waves of cleaning solution sloshed in the bucket, dangerously close to overcoming their container.
Jamie started with the women’s bathroom first. It was usually the cleanest and, if he were fast enough, would leave him time to hide out in a stall in the men’s room without anyone thinking he was slacking off. With his first task completed, he pushed the mop into the larger stall at the far end of the men’s room, locked the door, and leaned against the wall with a foot resting on the edge of the bucket.
There was nothing quite like the sweet ringing of the time clock as Jamie punched out for his break at 2:18. He pulled his coat down from its designated hook, dug his headphones out of the pocket to hang around his neck, and made his way outside. The ladder still hung down the wall where he’d left it that morning, and he climbed up the steps quickly. Once he’d made it over the edge at the roof of the building, he pulled the headphones up to his ears and pressed the button to play where he’d left off in the middle of ‘Billie Jean.’
Just as Buck had promised, fresh kites hung low in the sky shaped like large, yellow bananas. Among them, Jamie also noticed the addition of silkscreen flamingos and robust watermelons. His cheeks stretched, and lips formed a smile as he stepped up onto the ledge, reaching for and tangling his hand in the string of a banana kite. With a slight tug, he was lifted from where he’d been standing and rose into the sky until he was surrounded by the kites.
Under them, the neighborhood changed. Instead of the white picket and pale pastels, the sun shone through the colors of the kites and gave the world a variety of different patterns and colors. It wasn’t quite as boring as a dusty old store in a dusty old suburb. But it could only be seen from above, only from the sky or the roof of the store.