Most are regional chains now, the only way
to keep afloat in a Wal-Mart-fleeced economy,
but the one my mother shopped in Ocilla—
called Bill's—was locally owned and owned
its part of the town's squalor, by the late '80s
impossible even for a kid to miss. It squatted
next door to the Red & White Grocery, a hub
for the poor blacks across Fourth Street.
Once-waxed floors got dirtier with each mopping,
clerks more surly the longer they stayed there.
If you've been dirt-poor, you know the deal.
Minimum wage for eight hours at a register
or unloading half a semi's load of inventory
or the squat and rise, squat and rise of stocking
and fronting the shelves so they look full.
The cry in your back as you stand hands on hips
smoking by the dumpsters, smoking Jacks—
nastiest cigarettes ever made that you bum off
the nastiest man you've ever met, you smell him
every day, you wish to God he'd take a bath—
while the boss leans with crossed arms against
a door he doesn't trust you to lock behind you.
No overtime, no holiday pay. Laboring "at will,"
meaning that son of a bitch doesn't need
a reason to show you the other way out of here.
Bill's closed for good when I was in high school,
but I cheated the piss test and went to work
at a Family Dollar in Fitzgerald, riding shotgun
in my brother's truck to shifts matching his
at the Piggly Wiggly across the parking lot.
After work, we'd perch up on the toolbox
passing a Black & Mild cigar and waiting
for our friends to get off their bullshit jobs.
They always came, cars rattling with overdriven
bass, thonged girlfriends in tow. Between
the two-screen movie theater that never showed
anything worth seeing, pool on worn-out tables,
dragging back roads, a quest for dope or shine,
we chose a place to be for the night, some of us
for the rest of our lives. That was the best
Fitzgerald had to offer. Ocilla had nothing,
not even a goddamn dollar store anymore.