Just East of Eden
With all the pride her twenty-two-year old heart could muster, Lucille swept her right arm upwards, bringing it across her forehead in a crisp salute.
“I thought the Corps would help straighten out my life, sir!” she proclaimed. “I’m here to save humanity!”
Standing across from her in this tiny grocery store breakroom, Regina gave her a long look. “...right.”
Langdon's grocery store anchored one of East Eden's shopping plazas. Both Regina and Lucille wore the particular green polo shirts and brown khakis that served as their employee uniforms; Regina was looking to trade hers in for a supervisor’s button-up and tie soon. She had a name-tag that proudly declared her four years of service below her name; Lucille wore one that simply said NEW ASSOCIATE.
“You feeling confident now that you finished training?” Regina asked.
Lucille gave her a vigorous nod and crossed her arms in pride. “I kicked the shit out of basic training and boot camp. I know what I need to do - I should be polite and respectful. Discrimination is wrong. Don’t steal.”
After a quick glance of her resume - the only criteria for working at the local grocery store was a living body - Lucille got an offer of employment. Said offer was contingent upon passing a drug test - whoops. So, rather than the local grocery store and a two minute commute, Lucille worked at Langdon’s on the other side of town with a fifteen minute commute, but at least Regina was there. And no drug tests!
And now that Lucille had a job, she was going to make the most of it. You know what grocery stores pay new hires in Massachusetts nowadays? Twenty bucks an hour. Screw $7.50 once a week, Lucille would be depositing two Andrew Jacksons every hour in the bank (minus taxes). At thirty hours a week (Langon’s wouldn’t give her forty, otherwise they’d risk giving her full-time benefits), Lucille could realistically clear 26k a year after expenses. She could wipe out that debt in a matter of years, and by her mid-twenties, her net worth would be finally be back to zero!
And then, she’d go beyond that. Visions of wealth danced around in her head. She could move out one day. Buy a cat! Go golfing like the rich folk do! She would be the self-made (wo)man, rags to riches to baddest bitches. Look at Prigozhin - as of July 9th, 2023, he seemed to be doing alright. He went from hot dog seller to the gates of Moscow (almost)!
As an aside, Lucille would’ve continued that march on Moscow, bloodshed be damned. She had that thought while rehearsing what she would say over the phone before ordering a pizza.
“I’ll introduce you to E-Flat, she’ll be helping you these first couple of days,” Regina explained, gesturing toward the exit of the breakroom. Time to begin Lucille’s first shift - she punched an open palm in anticipation. There’s nothing like a bad drug trip to make you want to become a functioning member of society again, ills and evils and all.
“Slow butter?” Lucille asked before Regina slipped out the door.
Regina gave her a look of disbelief. “We haven’t done that since high school.”
“We first did it after the group project where we became friends,” Lucille reminded her. “And look at us now.”
Regina looked away, shaking her head, chuckling. “Alright.”
Slow butter. Up top, down low, a light slap to the other’s face - a promise between friends.
A moment later, Regina led Lucille through the aisles, past rows of candy and chips and vegetables. It was a Tuesday morning, so not too crowded. Even though she was stone-cold sober, Lucille had to shake off the feeling that everybody was staring at her - don’t do drugs, kids - and followed Regina into a big aisle of bread and English muffins and the like. A girl waited for them there - an honest-to-God child. That’s how Lucille felt about her, anyway.
“This is E-Flat,” Regina explained. E-Flat stood shorter than either of them, with blonde hair, looking like she had only just graduated from Cartoon Network to Adult Swim, if that.
Lucille shook hands with her. E-Flat's grip was surprisingly strong, or maybe Lucille’s was unsurprisingly weak.
“Best of luck,” Regina said in farewell, then went off to perform her own duties.
After Regina left, E-Flat spoke confidently, as if to an equal, not somebody years older than her. “I just finished the bread aisle, so we can go face the canned vegetables now.”
“Face?” Lucille asked.
“Make the labels and stuff stick out so the customers can see them.”
“Ah.” As Lucille followed the child down the aisle, more questions sprung from her mouth. “What’s E-Flat stand for?”
“Ah. You go to East Eden High?"
“I start this September.”
“Start…Jesus H. Christ.”
Lucille knew child labor was making a comeback, but she didn’t expect to see it right in front of her. But then she frowned, because this child’s net worth was probably (definitely) bigger than Lucille’s. But then she wiped her face - E-Flat wasn’t a child. Well, she was, but in this context, she was Lucille’s equal. More than that. She was a coworker, somebody who knew the ropes, somebody who Lucille needed to learn and study from.
The work wasn’t all that bad. There was a big aisle of canned vegetables - peas, carrots, beans, you name it. After a morning of shoppers came through, the aisle needed to be restocked and tidied up, so the duo got to work on it. The labels on the cans, depicting picturesque hillsides dotted with olive trees, large fields crossed by green giants, and picnic tables sporting bowls of corn, now faced out towards the shoppers to better induce them to buy.
Lucille only had a couple of existential crises while working the first shift of her grocery store career. About five minutes in, she almost had a seizure, imaging the next sixty years of her life being spent neatening up endless rows of cans amid endless rows of aisles. That old feeling of narcissism and self-grandeur she was trying so hard to improve upon appeared once more - she had better things to do in life than spend it in a grocery store. Lucille shouldn't be working with a fourteen-year-old, she was a grown woman! Ukraine had just started the counter-offensive, why wasn’t Lucille there as a war correspondent?
Because she was normal. Or, at least, she lacked the drive, ambition, talent, and network to make far-flung dreams like that a reality. She didn’t want to stock shelves, but she didn’t want to be homeless, and yeah, being a jobless burden on her parents wasn’t ideal, either, so she recognized her situation and improved it by getting a job.
But then Lucille got into the groove. When she looked back at her work, the aisle actually looked pretty neat. A rare feeling arose in Lucille, something too often mixed in with the narcissism - pride. Not arrogance, but the kind of feeling that says wow, I did a pretty good job.
E-Flat left for a few minutes to get more cans to further restock the shelves. When she came back, Lucille was so engrossed in fixing up the aisle that E-Flat startled her (and briefly made her hallucinate the sound of a bomb exploding).
“Nice job,” E-Flat said with all the innocence and happiness of a middle school graduate, fresh out of a slice of life anime. Maybe she should've been wearing an animal pajama onesie to complete the look.
And that, my friends, was enough to make Lucille blitz through the boxes of cans in record time. The aisle looked fantastic, all stocked up, and Lucille even went above and beyond by helping E-Flat sweep the hell out of it. The grocery store had over a dozen aisles, but with other associates helping, Lucille and her little team (or rather, the little team that now included Lucille) made that store look pretty damn good.
Lucille almost missed her lunch break. She took it on the back loading dock. The break was for lunch, but the thing about working four hours straight is that she went four hours without nicotine. The fattest cloud this side of the Mississippi rolled out of Lucille’s mouth, a freshly bought vape in her hand. Speaking of the Mississippi, the sky was a light blue, the color of midsummer, with equally fat clouds rolling overhead, behind the power lines that lined the edge of the parking lot.
As Lucille idly kicked her legs, E-Flat emerged through the loading dock door to join her. Lucille blinked, because someone her age shouldn’t be doing nicotine, but then several thoughts clicked in her head - and that’s where the trouble began.
E-Flat was not vaping or smoking. She came out here to join Lucille and now happily munched on a sandwich.
Lucille was E-Flat’s age when she started vaping.
Lucille was 22. E-Flat was 14. That eight year age difference, in another life, in another country, could only mean one thing, one thing that made Lucille’s heart race and flooded her head with dreams and soft-pitched voices:
Lucillenee-chan Lucille nee-chan.
Lucillenee-chan nee-chan nee-chan nee-chan nee-chan nee-chan nee-chan.
As an only child, Lucille adopted this new role immediately, without any hesitation, because she knew she’d be the best goddamn older sister the world had ever seen.
“You can’t have this,” Lucille preemptively answered E-Flat’s surely inevitable question, pointing at the vape. E-Flat was now wearing a sailor fuku, by the way. “Vaping is god awful for you. You start out by just taking a puff from a friend, and it seems cool and stuff because you get a head rush and you’re doing something illegal. But then you start buying your own, and then you’re old enough to do it legally, and now you’re twenty-two with a genuine substance abuse problem. Don’t do it.”
As E-Flat stared, Lucille tapped her chin with the vape in thought. Then took a puff in thought. “Well, I don’t want to sound like the DARE program. Let me just say, if there’s anything - alcohol, marijuana, nicotine, harder stuff - save it for after high school. There’s a time and place for everything, and it’s called college. No, enjoy your childhood in high school. You’ll grow up at some point. We all do. But no need to rush it.”
“Boys, too,” Lucille realized. “Save the boys for college. Well, high school relationships are fun and all. You ever watch romance anime? Sometimes, high school relationships can actually be as sweet as Japan depicts them. But save the hooking up and stuff for college.” Lucille shook her head. “I lost my virginity in the back of a PT Cruiser. A PT Cruiser! I didn’t really care for the guy and he didn’t really care for me, but he sat behind me in biology and we sat next to each other at the football game that night. It was alright. He got me McDonalds after. I don’t think I even washed my hands.”
A summer breeze rolled through. Lucille let out a long sigh. “That stuff’s important. You only get to lose it once, so make sure it’s worthwhile. I thought I was so smart back then. All of us girls did. But everyone is stupid in high school. At least the boys embrace it. But us girls, we upturn our nose and think we’re better, because we really are, except we really aren’t. That’s how you end up with fifteen seconds in a PT Cruiser and a couple things off the dollar menu.”
E-Flat stopped eating. Lucille knew that, as an older sister, she needed to provide encouragement as well. “But high school's not all that bad. Well, I wanted to kill myself junior year, but besides that it was fun. Made a lot of good friends. And the world’s your oyster at that age. You can set yourself up for so much success. Eating good food, making good choices, getting the bad ones out of the way. Becoming a citizen of the world, as my English teacher used to say. It’s important to be involved. I myself check the news subreddits everyday. And don’t be afraid to speak your mind. That’s how democracy survives, after all.”
Lucille raised a finger. “This might sound controversial, but since we live in a democracy, I have a right to say it. I personally think the Iraq War could’ve been handled a little better.”
Another summer breeze rustled through their hair and uniforms. E-Flat sat there, staring open-mouthed at Lucille. Considering this was the first time Lucille was an older sibling, she was going off her anime knowledge here, but was coming up empty when it came to this kind of response.
Perhaps I wowed her by being such a great role model.
E-Flat slowly nodded in understanding. And then she smiled and spoke softly. “You remind me of my older sister.”
Fireworks went off. Lucille walked on the moon, danced among the stars.
“Really? Wh-what makes you say that?”
E-Flat twiddled her fingers. “Well…she’s kind of…my hero.”
Lucille planted a flag on Jupiter, rode a comet’s tail, jumped for joy and felt Super Bowl confetti rain down on her because she was going to Disney World.
“What makes me - I mean, what makes her your hero?”
“Promise not to tell anyone?” E-Flat whispered.
Lucille nodded in anticipation.
E-Flat tapped her fingers together. “Well, you see…my sister’s on the spectrum, but she doesn’t let that stop her. She does what she likes to do. She has a job, she makes new friends, she isn’t afraid to talk to people.”
The imouto pulled off a piece of sandwich and offered it to Lucille, being very careful not to touch her.
Lucille had a blank stare and took the offering with the grace and emotion of a robot. As she slowly ate the little piece of sandwich, she reflected on everything that had brought her to this very moment on this very loading dock. And then she gasped.
Wait…wait a minute. I had it all backwards. I’m not the wise onee-chan with the impressionable imouto…I’m the foolish onee-chan with the responsible imouto!
And you know what?
I can live with that!
With something like that providing the wind beneath her sails, Lucille banged out the remaining four hours of her shift, went home, got hammered, and decided this working thing wasn't so bad.
LUCILLE'S GUIDE TO IMPROVEMENT
1. Get a job
2. Quit the vices
3. Reconnect with old friends
4. Get out more