By Sarah Freligh
When Joe was a fun boss, he would allow me to sit with him in the dark room at the top of the stairs where we’d spy on K-Mart shoppers through a small, one-way window. On those days, Joe was witty and irreverent, carrying on a running commentary about which shoppers were stoned and which ones likely harbored fascist proclivities that would favor locking up any and all pot-smoking longhairs such as himself. I was twenty-something then, overweight, not pretty and easily dazzled.
Ostensibly we were scanning the floor for shoplifters, but I preferred to sneak looks at Joe, at his straight-nose and the way his hair flopped perfectly across his perfect forehead, at his big feet laced into red canvas sneakers. I suspect that Joe posted himself at the window in order to spy on my roommate, Sue, over in Sporting Goods, the object of his affection and his despair. From there he could monitor the guys she waited on and if she smiled too long or too brightly at any of them. Whenever that happened, he’d go back to being a shit again, Mr. Moody Blues, and I’d have to remind him that I got a lunch hour and two breaks, otherwise he’d have left me out on the floor by myself all night.
I’d worked there a month and already I was bored out of my mind, sick of the piped-in elevator music, of the job that played on an endless, predictable loop. Sometimes I paused in the midst of straightening out a tangle of sneakers and wondered if my life was always going to be like this, nothing but linoleum and fluorescent lights and the occasional Blue-Light Special juicing up the routine. From where I stood, I couldn’t see anything but racks and racks of shoes.
Thursday, I punched in five minutes early and headed over to Sporting Goods where Sue was showing a guy how to use a gun. I watched her cock and load the thing and site down the barrel, then glance back at the customer through the curtain of her hair. The guy looked like he wanted to eat her up. Something about a tall redhead who knows her way around a gun that turns guys on. He didn’t look like the typical K-Mart gun shopper, an older version of the hoody guy who used to smoke on the sidewalk outside high school. This guy looked country club in his pearl gray pants and matching golf shirt. He looked expensive.
I waited while Sue rung him up. “You’re going to love this model,” I heard her say to the guy. He said something back, something that must have been funny because she laughed. Then again, Sue was the kind of girl who laughed on cue, the way the teen magazines used to advise us to do to attract boys: Show an interest in what they like. Whatever. It worked. We’d roomed together for two years and she was never without a boyfriend. There was always a current one and another guy waiting in the wings. She outgrew boyfriends regularly, chucked them like worn-out jeans.
“What’s up?” I said. I fiddled with a purple-feathered lure hanging by the cash register.
“That guy I was waiting on just now? He asked me out.”
“So go,” I said.
“I told Joe I’d go bowling,” she said and rolled her eyes. She looked around. “Could you say I’m not feeling good? Tell him I’m thinking of going home?”
“Why don’t you tell him?” I said.
“You’ll see him before I do,” she said. She leaned closer. “He paid with a gold American Express card.”
I put on my smock and headed over to Shoes. My smock was a different color than Sue’s, a muddy green where hers was turquoise, striking with her red hair. She wore short skirts and cork-soled sandals with tall heels. When I asked her how she could stand to wear heels for eight hours, she laughed and said that sometimes she took them off and stood barefoot at the cash register. James, the store’s general manager, had caught her once and pretty much laughed it off.
I ducked into the doorway behind women’s sneakers and climbed the stairs. Joe was where I knew he would be, in front of the window.
“She’s sick, right?” he said.
“Right,” I said.
He continued to stare out at the store at the few shoppers wandering the floor. It was nearly dinnertime, a mercifully unhumid August evening when anyone of sound mind would be outside.
“Cunt,” he said. Soft enough to shave the edge off the hard consonants. Loud enough for me to hear him.
He gestured to a blonde woman flipping through piles of bath towels. “Bet you that chick there would fuck anything that walked.”
The sound woke me up, but for a few seconds, it knit itself into the dream I was having. I was locked inside someplace dark and small – A car trunk? A closet?—and knew I needed to knock to attract someone’s attention, someone who would let me out.
Someone was knocking on the door.
I felt my way into the living room and looked out through the keyhole. It was Joe, his face blown up into a giant nose by the fisheye lens. I opened the door as far as the chain would let me.
“Hey. Hannah,” he said. “Let me in.”
His breath smelled like booze and puke, the burned undertone of pot.
“Come on, babe. I gotta talk to Suzy. Please.”
“Jesus, Joe,” I said.
“Come on. Open it.”
“Go home. Please,” I said.
“Fucking open the goddamn door–”
He was quick but I was quicker. I slammed the door before he could wedge the rubber toe of his big sneakered foot into the opening. I stood there until he started kicking the door, splintering it a little more with each thud, each shouted cunt and bitch. Only then did I tiptoe back to my room, pull the phone into the closet and dial 911.
I told them to hurry. Please.
I didn’t see Sue until that afternoon when I got to work. She was busy waiting on a couple looking at basketball hoops. I figured I’d try to talk to her later, tell her about Joe. Warn her. By virtue of seniority, he was off for the weekend. Or maybe he was in jail where he belonged.
I punched in and was pulling on my smock, laundered and pressed for once, and was headed over to Shoes when I was intercepted by May, the payroll lady.
“James needs a word with you,” she said.
Aside from saying hello to him during his rounds, I’d never once talked to him. Not one single sentence.
“I’m due on the floor,” I said.
“He knows,” she said.
James’ office was on the mezzanine level overlooking the store, an even better view than the rectangular window in Shoes. From here you could see everything but the café directly below, though its tomato soup smell drifted up through the small vents in the floorboards. Aside from the view, there was nothing about the office that suggested “manager.” A linoleum floor, a desk that looked like a hand-me-down, a couple of file cabinets.
“Please. Have a seat,” he said, gesturing to a chair in front of his desk. He fiddled with some papers in front of him, pretending to read.
“This is very difficult,” he said finally.
I didn’t bother to punch out. I left my smock on the floor of the employees’ lounge and headed over to Sporting Goods where Sue was straightening a rack of fishing rods.
“Your goddamn boyfriend had me fired,” I said.
Inventory had been disappearing, James had told me. Of course Joe couldn’t jump to any conclusions but it was odd that the thefts had started a month ago, around the time I was hired. It could have been sloppiness. It could have been shoplifting.
It could have been Joe getting.
“Why would he do that?” she said.
“Because of you,” I said.
“That’s just ridiculous,” she said.
“He banged on the door this morning, looking for you,” I said. “Early. Drunker than fuck. When I didn’t let him in, he tried to kick down the door.”
“You weren’t home.”
“So?” she said.
I followed her over to a rack of sweatshirts. “So I called the cops on him. Now I’m fired. Coincidentally.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” she said.
“You’re kidding me,” I said.
She concentrated on folding a hoodie just right, first one arm, then the other. One night we’d gotten stoned and she’d demonstrated the proper way to fold a sweatshirt, the K-Mart way. Efficiently, gracefully, the way she did everything.
I knew that no one would ever fire her. She would get one promotion and then another, a string of Employee of the Month awards good for a weekend off with full pay and $50 worth of merchandise. The sky was the limit. Someday she might even be manager.
“Fuck you, anyway,” I said.
Of course I found another job without too much effort, and another and another. When you’re in your twenties, life is a string of shit jobs: nights spent getting drunk with your co-workers complaining about the days spent together at the shit job. You think you’ll never forget any of it and then you do. Pretty soon that part of your life has sealed itself into a time capsule where even memory is not enough to pick the lock.
Not long ago I needed a plastic cup for my mother for her nightstand at the nursing home. She’d broken a series of glass tumblers I’d bought for her, but she refused to drink out of plastic. On most days she had trouble remembering my name, but she knew the difference between glass and plastic. I needed a glass that looked like plastic and there was a K-Mart a half-mile down the road.
It wasn’t my K-Mart. That one had been bulldozed about ten years ago to make way for a bypass on the east side. But it could have been my K-Mart—the same tomato soup smells, same mustard yellow fluorescence, scuffed linoleum. A tall young woman running the cash register in Sporting Goods. I thought of Sue who I hadn’t talked to in years, not since I moved out of the apartment and took the iron frying pan she’d spent half a paycheck on. When she called and asked me to return it, I hung up on her.
Maybe there was a Joe here, maybe in Shoes. Or maybe upstairs looking out the window, issuing comments about the customers below. And maybe there’s a girl who works for him, overweight and not pretty, but wanting so badly to belong that’s she’ll laugh at whatever he says as if it’s the funniest thing she’s ever heard because a long-ago magazine told her it was the way to a man’s heart.
Because there’s a way to do everything. Fold a sweatshirt. Say goodbye.
Sarah Freligh is the author of Sad Math, winner of the 2014 Moon City Press Poetry Prize and the 2015 Whirling Prize from the University of Indianapolis. Other books include A Brief Natural History of an American Girl, winner of the Editor’s Choice award from Accents Publishing, and Sort of Gone. Her work has appeared in Sun Magazine, Hotel Amerika, BOAAT Journal, Rattle, on Writer’s Almanac, and anthologized in the 2011 anthology Good Poems: American Places. Among her awards are a 2009 poetry fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and a grant from the Constance Saltonstall Foundation in 2006.