I live in Walmart. No, really. I live in Walmart. A few years back I dated a guy who’d been involved in the construction of the Super Walmart on Highway 8 in St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin.
“There’s an anomaly in the wall,” he’d told me. “A crack you can squeeze through.”
I thought he was lying, and I’d insisted he take me there, show me the crack. He was almost too fat to squeeze through. But me, I made it easily. Once inside, we pulled out our key chains with their little lights. A room about twelve-by-twelve. Cement block walls. Cement floor. “Somebody could live here,” I’d said, laughing.
And then the recession hit.
You wouldn’t recognize the place now. Green shag rug, red lamps, posters, inflatable couch and an inflatable bed. A small television. It’s really quite cozy.
I usually sleep late, then wake up to hit the restroom followed by a visit to the Walmart cafe before taking my usual spot in the traffic outside. I was still nursing my eggnog-flavored coffee when one of the security guards approached my table near the front of the store.
I’d guess him to be close to my age, maybe twenty-six. He’d asked my name once, and I’d told him.
“Hi,” I replied. That one syllable ended in a cautious lilt as I wondered what he wanted.
“Enjoying your day at Walmart?”
“I’ve noticed that you’re here quite a bit.”
“I like to people watch.”
“Me too.” And now he was giving me one of those you-know-what-I-mean looks.
He knows. He knows about my secret room.
I hated to think of moving. Especially now, at Christmas. I glanced around, expecting more guards to materialize. When they didn’t, I calmed down.
“Well, have a nice day,” he said.
Once he was gone, I remembered I was dressed in insulated Carhartt overalls, a wool stocking cap, and a red scarf. Not attire for a day of shopping. I wasn’t fooling anybody.
Outside, I took a spot on the median so people in cars were forced to look me in the eye as they entered the parking lot. The cardboard sign I held said Merry Christmas in black magic marker.
Panhandling was against the law, but nobody could really do anything about saying Merry Christmas. And it wasn’t as if I didn’t mean it. Christmas was my favorite time of the year.
Two hours later, I’d had enough of the near-zero temperature. On my return to Walmart, I passed the Salvation Army worker ringing her bell, shifting from one foot to the other, her breath a cold cloud. I removed a mitten, reached into the pocket of my overalls, pulled out a ten, and tucked it into the red kettle.
Inside, I sat down at a table near the soft pretzels and popcorn to count my earnings.
Two-hundred dollars. It would last a few weeks if I didn’t go crazy.
“You might want to move along.”
I looked up to see the young security guard standing there, a stern expression on his face, his eyes cold.
“Sure. Okay.” I gathered my money and shoved it in my pocket. A movement caught my eye, and I turned as a group of teenagers sauntered away.
When I swiveled back around, the guard’s face had lost its chill. I pulled off my stocking cap and tried to smooth some stray strands of hair.
“We’ve had a lot of robberies lately,” he explained.
I’d always taken care of myself, and I didn’t need anybody watching out for me, but all the same his concern felt nice.
“What’s that button?” I pointed to his lapel.
“This?” He tugged at the blue pin with an upside down V that looked like a roof. “I’m a member of Have a Nice Day. It’s a secret society for hidden spaces.” He was giving me that look again.
“You know about me, don’t you?” I asked.
“Your space? It’s not unique. Not a mistake. There are close to ten thousand Walmarts in the world, and all of them have at least one secret space. Most superstores have more than one, and don’t even get me started about Sam’s Club. A hidden city.” He smiled. “We just think of it as reclaiming what used to be ours.”
“What about surveillance cameras?” I’d often wondered why I hadn’t been caught.
“We take care of that.” He pulled a pin from his pocket and gave it to me. A yellow smiley face.
“This isn’t like yours,” I said.
“The blue pins designate the builders; the yellow pins, the occupants.” In a gallant gesture, he found my hand, almost brought it to his lips, but seemed to think better of it, then said: “Have a nice day.”