I used to work the morning shift at a grocery store. Stocking produce at 6 in the morning (or 10:30 at night, depending on which shift you were) was grunt work, but it was something. It carried me through a time while I searched for what I wanted.
I could walk to work from where we lived then. Any time of day, it was the same path: Down a couple roads, through a small square with a memorial for soldiers, to a glorified strip mall with our grocery store on the far side of a parking lot. It became routine, thoughtless, walking there most days.
Going home was too, sometimes- getting off at 2:30, so tired that you couldn’t enjoy a nice afternoon, or in a peaceful evening, as I secretly relished the quiet. Summer OR winter (though I discovered I was definitely a warm weather creature).
If I cut straight through the square, it was the quickest way home. That didn’t always happen, though. There were others I worked with who walked home, too, and I would occasionally find myself with them, enjoying a brief connection as we finished our day. As if eight hours wasn’t enough, but it was different: it wasn’t about rotating peppers or making sure the lettuce was trimmed properly. There was conversation, without tension or pressure or boxes of cabbage to worry about.
Instead of going straight through, I would turn left at the monument in the middle, ensuring a longer walk for me, just so we could keep with the conversation.
He was confused, the first time. “You go this way, Churchy?”
“It’s fine,” I’d say, the roadmap in my head. A couple minutes more, but it didn’t much matter, with the right words.
I listened to him for a while, then, his words connecting even in his obvious turmoil. Emotionally, he was the surging wave to my even keel, riding the highs and sinking with the lows, his emotion buoying me and attempting to pull me out of my introspection when I got trapped in my own head, my steadiness keeping him in line when he needed a guide. We might have been a strange pairing, at times, but we found a connection in our shared experience- not just in the work, but in life. We were the outsiders. Awkwardness and insecurity was our stock in trade, as much as the onions we’d pile up by day.
More words from him, and a few less from me came with a trip down awkward steps and past a condo complex, our walking and talking eventually bringing us to where we would actually part. He’d started the conversation in a low, speaking of troubles and worries, but ended it on a high, smiling at me. His wave was cresting here.
“You’re a smart guy, Churchy,” he said. “You’ll probably figure it out before I do.”
I chuckled at him, insisting otherwise before waving and walking away. In some ways, I believed him; in others, I didn’t. I’d taken the long way home, so I couldn’t be THAT smart.