Attic Salt for April 8, 2012

Short fiction inspired by Walmart

By Ed Cullen

Advocate staff writer

After a week on the vacation couch reading the short stories of Charles Baxter, I discover that I can’t stop turning the mundane into short fiction.

Because I am under the influence of Baxter, my short stories of the mind end in just-so, nicely crafted denouement.

“Where’s the passion, Baxter?” I say, rising from the couch in search of my car keys.

“What?” my wife asks, not lifting her face from the iPad.

“Going to Walmart,” I say and step into a warm, breezy afternoon.

I make the short drive to the giant box store, the largest building in a little rural town up the road.

At the store, the doors whoosh apart before grinding and rattling into the walls. I step into Walmart, a theme park of smells, sounds, lights dedicated to the short story and overweight Americans in tight-fitting clothing.

On every aisle, there is action rising to climax as shoppers go for electronics, the necessities of plumbing, goldfish, things for the bathroom, giant flat televisions and computer stuff.

I appreciate Walmart best as entertainment. It gets harder and harder to find what I’m looking for, though willing employees, all three of them, stop what they’re doing to help me hunt.

We shake hands at the end of the search, whether we’ve found the goldfish food or not, and promise to meet again on the “Pet aisle” in another day’s story.

Now, I’m free to roam, looking for the short story characters I know are loose in the store between “Plants” and “Sporting Goods.” They, too, have come to Walmart as an excuse to leave home for a while to see what’s going on in the world on a spring afternoon.

Some shoppers go right to the little thing that is their reason for coming to Walmart. Others, put off the actual shopping until they’ve walked the aisles to gather the material they need for their fiction. Then, they grab the grout and head for checkout.

See the woman living out her afternoon of quiet desperation as she reaches far into the upright cooler for the last carton of Lactaid.

Here is a man who will succumb to heart attack in seven days, but hugs himself in delight at finding the Timex Expedition watch he thought was no longer made.

The images posted at http://www.peopleofwalmart.com show the more bizarre Walmart shoppers, grossly overweight people in tight-fitting clothes bending over to show how much stretch there is in stretch pants.

The website’s images are funny and sad, but the shoppers are some of our best storytellers, characters in their own stories.

If the stories in the aisles seem overly wrought, amateurish, unbelievable, what is life like beyond the acres of free parking?

Some of our best short fiction is made at Wal-Mart, that writers’ workshop, where a writer doesn’t need a grant or even permission to do his or her best work.