Photo of Zoelle Collins Malcolm Cooke ’21

With the dawn of a new month and our first full issue, The Words is thrilled to present this semester’s first edition of Wordplay, featuring the writing of Zoelle Collins ’21. Hailing from Salem, Oregon, she is majoring in Religious Studies and English Literature. Currently taking her Creative Writing Capstone with Marlon James, she is trying to explore the idea of conflict avoidance, and the havoc it wreaks in personal relationships. Today she is bringing us “Ace Hardware: An Essay,” which she wrote for Salley Franson’s Narrative Non-Fiction course about the local hardware store of the Mac-Groveland area. Ruminating on the space, it explores ideas of tangibility, deadlines, and permanence.


Ace is a very cluttered haven. When I walk in, to the left is the paint mixing area and to the right is the main checkout counter set in front of leagues of kitchen supplies. I wind my way forward to find pet food and litter and further back, gardening and lawn supplies. It’s this that gives Ace its smell —kitty litter, new damp dirt, and fertilizer. It’s warm and welcoming. It’s similar to any supplies store, like Lowe’s or Home Depot, but Ace is small. The size gives the garden section a chance to overwhelm the scents of everything else. There’s something about this smell that makes me want to build a house, to plant my own vegetable garden, to DIY myself into oblivion. Who needs a Macalester education when there’s very real dirt and gravel to be moved? When you could have the opportunity to spend the day getting your hands dirty, combining brain and body’s work to produce and create, when you could go home pleasantly exhausted and sore and feeling practical— physical—down to earth— of use. 

That trip I walked directly toward the back, past the kitchen supplies and grilles, and turned to the right to find the garden section.  They have all the bits and bobs I could want but only one version of each thing, most of it MiracleGro brand. I was on a mission to find an eight inch pot. I already had the dirt back home and the plant. It was a moonlight snake plant named Obiajulu Jones.  I stood a few seconds too long and a worker paused beside my aisle.  He had a can of oil in his hand and looked like he had somewhere to be but he paused nonetheless and asked, “Can I help you find anything?”

“Oh, no thank you, I’ve got it,”  I responded quietly.  And he nodded once, preceding to go on his way. No, “are you sure?” No snooping glances to try to guess what I was looking for. Just a nod, no need to pry and trusting that I knew what I was doing.  Of course I wasn’t doing something particularly dangerous, there’s not much that could go wrong with pots. Unless they fell on me. A distinct possibility considering my short reach. For some reason I felt like I couldn’t be too loud here, it’s like a library. Stacks of material surrounded me, floor to ceiling. They must’ve done something to dampen the noise of the store. When I walked my steps clicked clearly on the tile but I couldn’t hear anyone else, maybe a few scuffles here or there but not what I’d expect from a hardware store. It was like walking in a warm bubble, no one was going to bother me and I wasn’t going to bother them. I got the impression the plant/garden section was under frequented in the beginning of winter —can’t imagine why that would be. 

I decided on a blue pot. It had a built in water reservoir at the bottom and felt heavy as I lifted it. Heavy means sturdy, less likely to break, higher quality. Decision made, I spun round to head back to check out weaving through stacks of random supplies as I went. The check out process was quick and I put the pot in my backpack. I don’t know if Ace has bags to help you carry your things, I’ve never been offered one. Maybe they assume their customers are prepared to haul away whatever they buy. Or maybe the college student behind the counter gets very few forms of entertainment beyond watching people fumble with various ungainly shaped house goods. I try to move quickly to put away the pot and my wallet, my urgency making me feel like I’ve never put a card back in its slot before. There was a person behind me. He looked mildly impatient, and as I wrangled my wallet like most would a feral cat I imagined him tapping his foot. To be honest though, he could’ve been smiling with the purest patience and grace of God and I would’ve still assumed he was about ready to push me out of the way. 

Ace Hardware on Grand
Ace Hardware on Grand

The customers that come here have shit to do. They walk briskly through aisles to their precise area of interest, halt and scan promptly. The wandering just to look and stroking of fabrics and sniffing of candles of other stores does not belong in Ace. And not just because there aren’t really fabrics to stroke or candles to smell. They’ve got towels and probably citronella candles somewhere. Customers purchase exactly what they came for, no more no less. They come and they go quickly, they are, after all, busy people. In the way that people who have practical things to do are busy because they have practical deadlines that haven’t been arbitrarily constructed.  They are busy and tired because if they don’t insulate their basement by winter the pipes will freeze and burst. Which in MN is not a question of if, but when. The deadlines are fixed because they cannot be changed. 

Compare this to a paper I had due before my night class at 7 pm.  If I ignored the assignment for five more hours it would disappear. In a tick of the clock a responsibility would evaporate from my shoulders. And what would the cost be? A loss of some percentage points, perhaps even a drop in my grade. But what the fuck is a grade anyway? I can’t physically touch a B+. It can’t beat me up for not making friends with an A-. Nothing would happen to me. It would be a fictional loss, arbitrary, only important if I say it is. Turning in a paper on time is only as practical as my belief in the value of the institution, that can wax and wane in ways that my belief in the concrete happenings in the world cannot.

Ace doesn’t have time to stress about things that aren’t real.  When I am in Ace hardware store I do not think about assignments to turn in and research to do. I think about trash bags. Pots for my plants. Finding a can opener. When I take these things home they will immediately be put to use, and they will continue to serve until they break. My papers do not serve me. I haul them back and forth between dorms and houses and I don’t know why. They are just weight. Representations of what happens when people don’t have anything better to do but stare at their bedroom ceilings. I look at my papers and think, why haven’t I done more? The world will never shake under this weight. 

I want more. I need to feel impact. I am here, present, solid.  I want to reach out and touch; get to it, there is more to be shifted through than sheets of paper. Until recently my fingers had forgotten the feeling of loose dirt, of pulling together and apart, of enacting physical changes, for better or worse, on my surroundings. Remember your body, know that it is capable, that muscles can remember without the help of the amygdala or hippocampus, that guts have instincts, and that bones stand long after the brain has rotted away.