My father’s father was born into the callused hands of a vegetable farmer who groomed him for a life of labor. Till the land. Sow the seed. Don’t have me tell you twice. Cuff ‘side the head. In that day and age, wives were bred to capacity; four daughters plus five sons equaled eighteen hands, full.
My father was born into tar, feathers, and chicken poop, on the cracked-corn floorboards of a coup. His weekends were oriented around the achievement of three objectives: (1) slit the throat; (2) pluck the feathers; (3) sell sell sell. Kennett boys have always been goal-oriented and strong, but shy, as if handmade cogs for other men’s machines.
As a young man, Brad had grander aspirations than shoveling shit, so he saved his coins for education and adventure. When his cap hit the ground, he vowed to hit the road and drive, just drive, as many miles from that piss-poor town as his leaking gas tank could stand to propel him. At nineteen, he descended the stairs with an announcement caught in his throat. Mama, I want wings. Let me go to Kitty Hawk. I’ll come back a pilot, a professional, dressed in pleated pants and soot-shined shoes, the works.
In her solar system, motherhood was the sun; with an empty nest, Patty felt about as useful as a heart singing to an empty chest. But, with four celestial bodies, could she not spare just one? She could and, ten years later, brother and sisters would be scattered, like marbles across an ever-expanding dugout. As mothers know, and youngest sons do not, the baby is precious and rare. Patty refused to barter with her cat’s eye, so Brad stayed home, and made a baby of his own.
A single father, with a baby on his hip, will take the first job he can get. In 1992, when the machine shop closed its doors for good, Wal-Mart was our godsend. They offered eight dollars an hour, plus benefits, and a whopping 25% discount on edible merchandise. Looking back, I imagine they must have known that we were starving; the frugal fisherman baits with his baseline when the fish have no choice but to bite. In 1992, when formula became the new liquid gold, Wal-Mart was our godsend.
Like a crop circle, the store seemed to materialize overnight, in a lot that had been empty for ten years, matted over with clover and crab grass. No one had seen them coming, especially to a town so modest but, when the higher-ups issued a press release, they thanked the community for its warm welcome, and insisted that the pleasure was theirs. A wise man once told me: “Never throw your filet into a hot pan without butter.” Looking back, I imagine they must have known that one too.
The grand opening was an affair of local acclaim, grander even than our town-wide yard sale. When I close my eyes, a void lies where the miniature horse is supposed to be but, at least, we captured it in a snapshot. Upstairs, in the tackle box where photos go, my father and I are posing with four men in fresh-pressed suits. When my father tells this story, he uses m words: meet-and-greet, mingling, mustaches, mind-wash. From the periphery, it appeared a carnival, with popcorn and bouquets of smiling balloons, but that was before he learned how much Wal-Mart spends, and can afford to spend, on maintenance control.
In his first year of employment, Store #1975 hosted a half-dozen public relations events. As a natural introvert, playing grill master at sidewalk barbeques did not lie within his comfort zone. Yet, Brad was a good ol’ boy and everyone knew it. The customers loved his crooked smile and salty sarcasm but, most of all, loved that he was someone they could imagine grabbing a beer with. He accumulated more sunny ‘hellos’ than could be counted, drafted a mental list of his favorites and, slowly, human interaction became comfortable, even fun. The big boss took notice. In April 1993, one year following Sam Walton’s death in Little Rock, Arkansas, Brad was granted reign over Lawn & Garden. Not bad for the son of a butcher.
The shark lures the minnow into its mouth by pretending to be a cave, a home. In 1998, Wal-Mart introduced The Neighborhood Market, a small-concept model designed to emulate the experience of shopping in a mom-and-pop grocery store. Ten years later, the corporation began aggressively expanding this division, pitching their growth as an altruistic attempt to increase food access in urban communities. The most rewarding element of working for Wal-Mart, Brad tells me, are the opportunities for employees to “give back.” In the time I have known him, he has shown sympathy for few social movements, but food justice hits where his heart lies. At home. My father was born into a home with cobwebs in the cupboards, raised on peanut butter n’ mustard sandwiches and, sometimes, on nothing. Throughout my childhood, our holidays were spent volunteering at local food banks and soup kitchens, stuffing cavities at the Annual Thanksgiving Turkey Drive and, of course, serving steaks fresh off the sidewalk. Those were sentimental days for the both of us, though he never said as much, his restrained tears told me so. As a boy, the companionship of neighborhood kids helped Brad feel full. As a boy, he promised they would “get out” together but, with only four major employers, steady work does not not come easily. So, as a man, Brad lent his hands, choking up every time he filled the empty mouth of a friend.
A wise man, my father once told me: “Never bite the hand that feeds you.” Sometimes, when he’s feeling cynical, Brad has to remind himself that Wal-Mart does “good work.” They have become the nation’s largest grocer, stocking more pantries than Stop N Shop, Hannaford or Food Lion. He has to remind himself that they stock his pantry too. There aren’t enough mom-and-pops to feed America and, even if there were, Wal-Mart would drive them into the ground. He has to forget to remember this. When I fled the nest, he accepted the salary position that they had been grooming him for and, as he ascended the ladder, a broader picture came into view. “At the top,” he says, “they do not care about people, they care about demographics, market trends and, most of all, money.” When my father tells this story, he drops “corporate greed” by the dozen. From the inside, he still sees a carnival, with popcorn and smiling balloons but, differently somehow. This year, he will work sixty hour weeks during the holiday season, and make penance at the turkey drive.