“Staring at the Lake with My Wife After My Morning Shift” by Joshua Gottlieb-Miller

Joshua Gottlieb-Miller


What happened? Lauren asked.
I’d started at this branch
a little over a year before,
spent three months revising my expectations
downward until the holidays. Since then it was a marriage
of convenience, me and the grocery store.

If only she’d chosen the other cashier, I said,
quiet. We lived in a one-bedroom on Lake Monona,
downhill from the capitol. When it had been too cold
to snow we would wake up to a horizon of glittering ice,
marvel at how we had learned to live so well
with so little. Now summer lay light on the lake.

She asked for plastic bags. I’d already bagged everything
in paper, I guess I took too long so she clarified
she used them for her dogs. “As a chew toy?”
I asked. And maybe I really was confused,
I don’t know, because of the way she said it,
the subtlety with which she refused to articulate
stooping to pick up dog poop.

Lauren sat silent, looking out at the sailors,
drinking her one cup of coffee,
the one she’d saved until I got home.
You know I don’t think that was even it.
She told me she used “our” bags
because they were biodegradable. “They aren’t,”
I corrected her. “A manager told me so,” she said,
and I explained that the manager was wrong.

I pulled the yellow complaint from my pocket.
I didn’t mention I’d been too late to my register
for one truly gorgeous sunrise, through abundant
street-facing windows its reflection
illuminating competing stores’ displays,
while we were unloading the truck driven
all night to our isthmus, how we worked
through three dawns: twilight, the rays the sun
shot over the horizon, sun breaking the plane.
I didn’t want to admit
I’d pitied this 10 a.m. shopper,
she didn’t know what she’d missed. I could have
just given her plastic bags, more than she asked for,
and in a thousand years they’d disappear.

from Rattle #69, Fall 2020
Tribute to Service Workers


Joshua Gottlieb-Miller: “I worked three different stints at Trader Joe’s, where the poem included here was inspired. I’ve always been an abstract thinker of a poet, and the grocery store grounded me in the textures and mundanity of every day. After my last stint at Trader Joe’s, I started a project where I recorded the coworkers quoted in these poems reading aloud the poems they were quoted in, and then I interviewed them about their lives. Many of the poems I wrote at the grocery store were informed by my sense of visibility or invisibility, and of course, during this pandemic, grocery store workers are both hyper-visible—recognized as essential—without always being seen as individuals. More recently, I’ve found myself in a service position at The Menil Collection, greeting visitors. I am, in writing this note, shocked to discover I’ve been writing and revising poems about the grocery store for a decade now.”

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