Features  The Fountain

David Graves had high hopes for his son’s career at Walmart Kirkland. By the time he retired last year, the old man was already something of an in-store legend, having not only worked in every possible department, but also transformed the standards of excellence that were applicable to most of them. As a greeter, “Dave the Dynamo” had learned the phrase “Hello! How are you?” in at least 15 (some say 20) languages; in Outdoor Living, he’d more than once sold every grill in the fleet – from the modest “Apex” to the sprawling, cup-holdered “Zenith” – within an eight-hour shift. He had even personally apprehended dozens of septuagenarian shoplifters over the years, many of them former servicepeople whose field training had made their crimes invisible to lesser employees. And with enough “Customer Service Star” badges to represent the English, French, and Chinese zodiacs simultaneously, Dave knew that it was time to ride off into his own personal sunset, leaving behind these luminous accomplishments for the more ordinary, downcast kids to steer themselves by.

But from his own boy he expected something different, something unique – and was very likely to get it. John Graves never spoke, never stopped sweating, and had never once mistaken himself for the hero of his dad’s old yarns. Without his golden pedigree, anyone would have realized how ill-equipped he was even to shop at Walmart, much less work there. Instead, the mandatory three interviews became no more than an awkward formality – John mumbling his thanks while managers lavished their elaborate praise upon the last generation—and just six days after submitting his cover letter, the younger Graves suddenly found himself stationed in the Food department, with no idea what he was doing.

“What the hell are you doing!” hissed department manager Luke Sargent, having appeared out of nowhere, on the evening of that sixth day. “Are you just going to stand there in one spot? Don’t you remember the Three-Metre Rule?”

But in the heat of the moment, and despite drilling himself with homemade store policy flashcards for hours the night before, John had no answer. Luke breathed a sigh that seemed to expel the last vapours of his faith in human society, and said: “When a customer comes within three metres of you, look them in the eye – SMILE,” he pulled at the corners of his mouth with two large, beet-red index fingers, “and ask if you can help them find anything. That’s the Three-Metre Rule, okay? You ought to know – your dad invented it, right?”

John wouldn’t find this out for some time yet, but it was a sign of the veteran manager’s commitment to professionalism and excellence that he could mention David, almost by name, at this moment without an eye roll, pause, or any other sign of real feeling. Apparently the two men hated each other. Everybody in the store knew why, and nobody really minded that no two definitive explanations were exactly alike. Most followed basically the same premise, anyway: Luke had expected to make Kirkland a footstool on his way to becoming store manager somewhere, and was shocked when, decades later, departments 17, 18, 19, and 20 were still hanging around his neck like four millstones – except they were getting heavier each year. He blamed David – who could have gone anywhere and done anything but chose instead to live out his illustrious career in the sticks – both for stealing his thunder and for wasting it completely.

John, as I said, was still oblivious to store gossip, and finding no significant change in the boy’s sweaty face, Luke decided to change tactics. He smiled. “Look, let’s just take a minute to calm down and regroup, okay?” And with a vague backward wave he both interrupted and dismissed the customer behind him, who stomped away unseen. “Look. If I told you that we’re exactly the same, that we both just wanna get to the end of the day with our brains intact and go home and do something else, something worthwhile – would you believe me? I mean, is that so crazy? Some people around here say that I’m the Devil or whatever,” he looked around as if to catch such a person spying on him through the shelves, “but what do they know, right? Shouldn’t you of all people not care what they think, when they think at all? So let’s just start over and do the best job we can until closing time, huh? What do you say, kid?”

The boss extended his hand. He could see that John was drenched with sweat, but that was all he could see. Since the little snob refused to say anything, Luke threw up both hands and changed tactics again: “Tu penses que je demande le ciel entier? D’accord. Mais le programme, suis-le, hein?” Then he turned on his heel and walked away briskly, headed for the more promising new blood in Pets. If he said anything more, it was lost under the intercom’s sudden, grainy blare, “ATTENTION WALMART EMPLOYEES. CODE ADAM. NINE-YEAR-OLD BOY. CURLY BROWN HAIR. LAST SEEN IN HARDWARE.” John felt for the missing child.

This first dysfunctional exchange became the mould for dozens more. Under the added strain of a brand new nickname – repeated innocently by some lunchroom commentators and more cruelly by others, “The Fountain” did his best and tried everything, but couldn’t begin to please Luke, who, to his credit, quickly saw this opportunity for what it was. What better chance to test his arsenal than on the worst, most wet-behind-the-ears-and-everywhere-else worker that minimum wage (plus 30 cents) could buy? Highly rhetorical ‘coachings,’ close supervision from one aisle to the next – these were just a few of the sharp, two-edged motivational tools available to managers at Walmart. “Two-edged,” I mean, because they had the unfortunate side effect of slashing John’s chances at successful salesmanship. Every customer’s time is precious, and nobody wants to waste it on an employee so feeble that he needs longwinded lectures, personal escorts, or his own security blanket (actually a damp towel) just to survive his shift. Shoppers therefore took great care to remain well outside John’s three-metre-wide proximity at all times, thereby rejecting him like so much cracked merchandise. For two more weeks the young man wandered through his appointed aisles, losing more water from his forehead than most people need in a day, and speaking to no one. Then one quiet evening, with only minutes left in an eight-hour tour, he felt a tap on his shoulder and whirled around to find an old woman – talking directly at him!

Pardonnez-moi,” the lady murmured before mistaking John’s terrified grimace for a plea to change languages, “Please excuse me. I need to locate the fresh fruits and vegetables.” She wore a blindingly colourful jacket and matching skirt covered with plenty of both: apples, peaches, pumpkins, lettuce, turnips, onions, cucumbers, pineapples, grapefruit, squash, watermelon, and strawberries, among other natural delicacies, looked even fresher and more beautiful against her small, crooked frame. Everything above her waist was nearly parallel to the floor, the poor woman. John felt a surge of obligation before she’d even finished her question. “If you could tell me what aisle number to try, I’d be very grateful. I know you’re very busy.”

“Certainly, ma’am. If I’m not mistaken, fresh produce can be found in the aisle between Soft Drinks and Frozen Food, and across from Health and Beauty. Let’s go there now. If I’m right, well and good; if not, I’ll ask someone’s help and get you where you want to go.” Surprisingly, while his brain was still gathering the nerve necessary for a queasy smile, John had managed to make all of these hospitable-sounding noises. Mentally he asked himself what had just happened, and was answered from somewhere deep inside with another, much more forceful question: Will you do something with your life, or not?

“No, you won’t,” said the old woman, her voice suddenly much stronger than before, “because, as everybody knows, this store doesn’t sell fresh produce. Hasn’t for decades.” Then, with no idea what was happening, but sure that it was a judgment on him, John watched in horror as her metamorphosis began. He was aware that her gray hair had hit the floor like a dead pigeon, and that her warm eyes were growing steadily colder and more alert, before the telltale sign: her hunched back healing and recoiling itself into the perfect posture that could only belong to one man. “On top of that, my poor son, Walmart aisles have no numbers, which you should have pointed out from the beginning to avoid misunderstandings later. All in all, I am disappointed in how little progress you’ve made after nearly two weeks’ work. Everyone takes time to adapt, of course, but I’ve been watching you since day one, and have yet to see any real improvement in your approach. You’re not a dull boy, John. It pains me to say this, but if your mother could see how your talents are being wasted, it would break her heart.”

“But what really bothers me,” he continued after a pregnant pause, “is how little it would take for you to improve. If you – look at me now, son, this is important. If you just smiled once in a while…”

“It’s him!” said John, louder than he’d ever said anything. His gaze had fallen on something over David’s left shoulder. “It’s who?” said David, turning around.

What he saw was a small boy, ten feet away, squatting on his tiptoes and whining gently: “Eh-ha, eh-haa.” His legs were thin and bruised, his lacerated arms encircling them like red ribbon around a gift box. He kept trying to rest his chin on his knees, but nearly lost his balance every time and was forced to rock back and forth to keep from falling over. His pale, discoloured cheeks showed two dark lines descending from his eyes – paths forged by the constant traffic of tears, though right now they were dry. With his brow tightly knit, he seemed to be nursing a migraine, or a memory, or both. T-shirt, sneakers, shorts – all were stained and damaged.

“What is that?” said the father, horrified.

“My God. It’s Adam,” said the son, moving toward the boy with outstretched arms. “Code Adam. Brown, curly hair. But that was so long ago. My God,” he whispered, forcing the words out, “My God, they never found him, did they?”

John was right. The boy who had disappeared in Hardware two weeks ago had, until then, remained that way. Through a spectacular perversion of parental duty, almost too repulsive and unlikely to be told, Adam (suppose that was really his name) had been abandoned at Walmart on May 25 (the Planting Holiday), found by a concerned customer, and then lost again. This woman had brought his existence to the store’s attention before a prior engagement had forced her to go home, and the “Code Adam” announcement had sounded six times that day when the staff, distracted by a sudden rash of complicated transactions at Customer Service, forgot all about her story and the child himself. In the 14 days that followed, he likely explored every lost corner of his massive new home, a prisoner with diminishing delusions of unsurpassed freedom. Love confined him to the store; fear kept him quiet and in hiding. Often he had slept between boxes in the long-neglected half of Receiving – and sometimes in the empty trucks themselves. But he was not invisible. As later private confessions would reveal, at least a dozen associates had crossed paths with this increasingly frail and isolated boy during store hours, yet somehow none of them had thought to do anything. One might hope that some severe punishment, if not actual convictions, would follow swiftly on the heels of such failure, but the issue remains in question.

What we know for sure is that after the incident, John was much friendlier and more open with everyone. Even his sweat problem seemed to disappear overnight. Neither Luke nor his father failed to notice the change, and he accepted their praise with a serene mix of gratitude and relief. Still, he could be as quiet as his surname sometimes, and as far beyond reproach. And when anybody mentioned Adam, or attempted to say outright that he, John, had acted heroically that day, the young man would change into a third person, with no resemblance to the other two – shielding his eyes with the back of his hand as he burst softly into tears, asking himself what business we have to speak of heroism; to speak at all.