Fresh Rack

A man, a job, and a secret

Andy Spears


Scott Warman/Unsplash

James found himself sitting alone in his car at around 8:30 each night, wet from a mixture of his own sweat and the sprinklers on the fresh rack — the place in the tiny store where the vegetables were displayed. He’d light up a White Owl Sweet and roll down the window. The faux leather interior (red) was slightly worn, but well-maintained. James tended to the car himself. He’d learned all he knew about auto maintenance in college. Now, at 51, he drove a red Mercury Monarch.

Because he was the manager of the Produce Department, he worked every single day. There just wasn’t enough reliable help. But he didn’t come in too early, and he left by 8 or so each evening. This gave him time for a few drinks or a date and it let him get decent sleep.

He didn’t make much money running the fruits and vegetables at an independent grocery, but it was enough to maintain his Monarch and buy some White Owls and pay the rent on the 1500 square foot, two-story brick house about five miles from work.

The fresh rack, that’s what he did himself. Keeping the lettuces clean and fresh-looking. Sticking his hand in ice, emptying boxes of kale and collards. He let the kids do the fruit. Usually, it didn’t take too much training to get them to get the fruit just right. But they didn’t stay long and they couldn’t be trusted to get the rack perfect. So, it was James. Running the kids on the fruit, tending to the rack himself.

No one asked why a guy with a Ph.D. and the resume he had wanted to work at this little store and sweat like a damn pig in frigid conditions. They just knew James worked hard and got the job done and was especially good at coaching up the kids who’d stay for a summer or two or for a few years at college.

The managers figured he’d messed up somewhere. But reference and background checks didn’t turn up too much of interest. A Google search yielded the profile of a guy who was once quite political, but then he’d been a Ph.D. student and a young professor — and that was 20+ years ago.

So, James ran the produce department. The fresh rack, mainly. Coached the kids.

Before he stopped at home, he’d go to the third floor of the building that also housed his favorite — his only bar. Well, unless he was fortunate enough to have a date. He’d take her into town for a proper meal and drinks. But James always drank at the bar on the corner.

Alan was on the third floor. He’d text James once a week for the work. James knew what this meant and, just as he was in produce, he was a reliable worker for Alan.

James took the package from his trunk. Kind of an expanding file type thing. Tied shut with string. He bounded up the stairs, handed it to Alan. Took an envelope with $2000 in it and went down to get a drink. Or three.

Originally published at on February 20, 2022.



Andy Spears

Writer and policy advocate living in Nashville, TN —Public Policy Ph.D. — writes on education policy, consumer affairs, and more . . .