BY S. F. WRIGHT
Copyright is held by the author.
CHRISTINE’S RETURNING from her break, which she spent reading a paperback she bought at Walmart. She hasn’t read an entire book since high school, and she’s proud of herself for finishing half in two days; reading books was one of the goals Christine had set in jail. The story, though she knew was fluff, put her in a positive mood.
She’s finishing checking out a woman talking on her phone when her name’s called. Christine sees Dave Hensel, the manager, wagging his finger.
Dave Hensel’s a tall heavy man with grey hair, a pinkish face, and cold blue eyes. He stands by the cashier station with Oscar, a supervisor, pointing to his clipboard. Dave Hensel wears his usual black slacks, white shirt, and New York Giants tie. Christine resists the urge to roll her eyes and walks over.
“Did you ask that customer if she had our ShopRite savings card?” Dave Hensel’s expression appears earnestly inquisitive, but Christine detects derision and meanness in his eyes.
She sighs. “No. She was —”
“Because the last time I checked,” he says, “we were asking every single customer.”
“That lady was yapping on her phone.” Oscar checks off something on the log. “She wouldn’t have heard even if she asked.”
Christine feels a rush of gratefulness to Oscar. “Right,” she says. “I didn’t ask because she was on her phone, so I just applied the store card like we always do when —”
“If a customer’s on their phone,” Dave Hensel says, glaring at Oscar, who doesn’t notice, “then politely say ‘excuse me’ and ask if they have our card. If they say no, tell them we’ll courtesy it, and encourage them to go to customer service to sign up for their own. Once they have a card, we send them coupons, and once they have coupons, they come here more, and once they come here more, we get more business. Is this concept clear, Christine?”
She stares at a dried-up piece of gum and does her utmost not to express the anger roiling inside. “Yeah,” she says.
“Say, ‘I understand, Dave.’”
Christine glowers at him; then, breathing through her nose, she returns to her register. She’s glad she didn’t answer, but she’s nervous Dave Hensel will accuse her of impudence. She hates that instead of being left alone to do her job she has to put up with this.
Christine didn’t like Dave Hensel the moment she met him; it was the way he smiled at her. Sometimes she got similar vibes from male customers. It was not unusual for men to wait at her register even if other cashiers were free. These men would pretend they didn’t notice the open registers and feign reading National Enquirer; they’d then try not to show disappointment when Armando, a short bald guy, or Melinda, a squat woman, would call them over, and they’d reluctantly take their purchase to the open register.
One day a week after Christine started, she’d just put on her coat in the break room and was turning toward the punch clock when she noticed Dave Hensel, leaning against the wall. His arms were crossed; he smiled.
“Hi.” Christine punched in her numbers.
Dave Hensel watched her. “You know you shouldn’t be doing that, right?”
“What?” she said, warily.
He nodded toward the time clock. “Punching in after you’ve put on your coat. You should really punch out first, then get your personal items.” He winked. “It’s all right, though. We’ll let it slide this time.”
“Uh, thanks.” Christine turned toward the doorway, but then Dave Hensel spoke again.
“So how you liking it up front so far? Used to the registers by now?”
“I think so.” She wrapped her finger around her purse’s strap. “Oscar and Melinda have been really helpful.” She looked toward the doorway; she didn’t like the way Dave Hensel was looking at her.
“Good to hear.” He crossed his arms. “Can I ask you something?”
Christine wanted to say “No,” but reluctantly said, “Sure.”
Dave Hensel nodded toward her. “Is that your natural hair colour?”
Discomfort flooded through her. “Yeah.” Again she looked at the door.
“A natural blonde.” Dave Hensel slowly shook his head, as though witnessing a miracle.
The back of Christine’s neck warmed.
“You know,” Dave Hensel stepped forward and rested his arm on the time clock; Christine could smell his Old Spice cologne. “You’re one beautiful girl.”
“I have to go.” She hurried through the store and across the parking lot to her car. Not until she was on the road did the sense of uneasiness go away.
She debated about saying something. Dave Hensel hadn’t actually “done” anything, but what he’d said and the way he’d said it made her extremely uncomfortable. At home Christine made the mistake of mentioning it to her mother. As she should’ve anticipated, her mother expressed anger and disapproval: She told Christine she’d be risking her job; she reminded her how fortunate she was her parole officer even found a place willing to hire her, considering her record (Christine served three months for possession earlier this year); she then told Christine to keep quiet, be glad she had a job that would keep her out of jail, and, if she had to endure a manager’s hitting on her occasionally, to tolerate it — people put up with far worse every day.
All night Christine fretted over what to do. Finally, despite her mother’s advice, she called “We Listen,” the employee helpline, the next morning, and told a woman named Kathy. Kathy assured Christine she’d done the right thing and that these incidents were what “We Listen” was for. She then said the matter would be addressed, thanked Christine, and told her to call again if she needed anything.
Christine never heard anything more about it, either from “We Listen,” or management, but from then on, Dave Hensel treated her differently: usually he’d ignore her; but occasionally he’d hang around the registers, point out things he said Christine was doing wrong, and criticize her in a way that made her feel like a child.
And that’s what he was doing today.
Christine mutters about Dave Hensel and starts ringing up the next customer. A few minutes later, though, she gets into a pleasant conversation with an old man with a large purchase, and her anger abates; by the time she’s rung him up, she’s forgotten about her manager.
Half an hour later, Christine rings up $150 of groceries for a woman who’s forgotten her wallet. The woman, embarrassed, apologizes and leaves.
“Oscar!” Christine calls; she starts to help Paul, the bagboy, put the unpaid-for items into a shopping cart.
But instead of Oscar, Dave Hensel appears.
“Os-car,” he says, pronouncing the name in a way so it’s impossible to tell if he’s being derisive or jocose, “is on his break. I’m covering for him.” He looks at Christine with such apparent ingenuousness had it been any other man she’d have thought it was sincere interest to be helpful. “What’s the problem?”
Christine tries to conceal her annoyance and nods toward the screen. “Lady forgot her credit card. I need a post-void.”
Dave Hensel turns to the screen; his eyes then widen, as though confounded. “Why don’t you have it set up?”
Christine isn’t sure what he’s talking about; she wonders if this is a joke, but is also afraid she’s in trouble. “Sorry?”
“The post void.” Dave Hensel appears to be in disbelief. “Yes, you need my authorization numbers, but you should have it set up so I, or the head cashier, doesn’t have to waste time when we get here. You don’t know that?”
Christine’s neck warms. “I’ve never heard of that.” She tries to keep her voice level and calm. “Oscar always —”
“You’ve been working here how long, Christine? Three months? And you don’t know how to set up a post void?” Dave Hensel shakes his head. “Here. Watch. First,” he says, his voice laden with exasperation, “we hit F1. Then, we click number three. From here, we hit F4. Then we drag down to the third option and hit enter. Okay?” He smiles condescendingly. “You should’ve learned how to do this months ago.” Dave Hensel punches in his authorization numbers, waits for the receipt, and signs his initials. As he walks away, he mutters to himself.
Christine feels as though she could murder Dave Hensel; but she’s also so upset she needs to be by herself. The last thing she wants, though, is to tell Dave Hensel she’s using the restroom. She considers just going, but she’d get reprimanded. Right then, though, she sees Oscar; she hurries toward him and says, “Be right back.”
“All right.” Oscar looks at her uncertainly. “You okay?”
Christine nods; his concern — albeit perfunctory — hits her with such poignancy she wants to hug him, but it also makes her hurry even more.
She stays in a stall for 10 minutes, blowing her nose with toilet paper. She thinks what’ll happen if she quits. Her mother will be furious. Frank, her parole officer, may recommend she be sent back to jail; Christine doesn’t think he will, but he might. It’d be best if she could just deal with Dave Hensel.
Yet she can’t stand him: What a shame, she thinks, that she has a job she doesn’t mind but hates going to because of one person. She abhors that she checks the schedule when she comes in, groaning when she sees she’s working with Dave Hensel, sighing in relief when she isn’t.
Suddenly Christine wishes, more than anything, that she had a hit of rock.
By the time she has control she’s come to a decision: she’ll do her best not to let Dave Hensel bother her. But she’ll talk to Frank about another job, promising to keep this one until he finds something else.
Christine dabs her eyes with a wet paper towel. As she returns, she passes Dave Hensel, who’s straightening up a candy bar display, and Oscar, who’s doing a pickup at Melinda’s register. Neither of them says anything about her being gone.
For the next hour, things are okay, though whenever Christine thinks of Dave Hensel, indignation rises. But by the time her shift nears its end, she’s unbothered; she even gets into a good mood when a woman compliments her earrings.
A little before three there’s a lull. As Christine straightens her shopping bags, she notices Armando has a large purchase piling up and Phil’s bagging for Melinda. She walks to Armando’s register, which is next to hers, but then hears, “Hey!”
Christine turns and sees Dave Hensel, who’s carrying a cardboard sign for a sale on six-packs of Pepsi, point to her register. A man in a Mets jacket is putting items from a basket onto the conveyor belt.
“What are you doing walking away from a customer?”
Christine flushes. “I didn’t see him.” She returns to her register. “Sorry,” she says to the man. I didn’t see you.” As she rings up the items she turns to Dave Hensel. “I was going to help Armando bag.”
Dave Hensel looks up in exasperation. “Worry more about ringing up customers at your register and less about helping bag for Armando. Okay, Christine?” He turns to the man. “I’m terribly sorry about that, sir.”
“No problem.” The man hardly pays attention as he places more items down.
“But apparently we have a cashier who likes to wander.”
Christine’s face is hot. She rings up a jar of peanut butter and looks at Dave Hensel. “We’re told if we’re not busy and other cashiers need help bagging, to help them.” Her voice trembles. “It was slow, Armando needed help, and I went to help him. I hadn’t realized in the meantime someone had come to my register, okay?”
It’s quiet. Melinda, who doesn’t have any customers, watches. Armando does, too, along with the woman he’s ringing up. The only sound is the beep of Armando’s scanner.
Even the man in the Mets jacket watches, as though suddenly aware there’s a dispute.
Dave Hensel points at Christine. “You do not talk to me like that. Do you understand me?” His blue eyes glint in the store’s harsh light.
Christine’s anger, which has been quiescent albeit brimming, finally gets the best of her. She turns and glowers at Dave Hensel. A multitude of words that she wants to say flood through her, but in her emotional state, all she can say is, “I quit.” She walks away quickly and everything’s blurry; she’s aware everyone’s watching. Oscar calls her name, but she doesn’t turn.
She takes her purse from her locker and hurries toward the entrance. Blood in her head throbs; the fact that she’s just quit looms largely but vaguely, as if it hasn’t fully hit her.
It’s drizzling. Christine gets in her Corolla. She still wears her red and yellow ShopRite apron, which she yanks off; she considers tossing it out the window but puts it on the passenger seat, on top of a GED book she studies sometimes on her breaks. She then remembers she’s left her paperback in her locker, and this saddens her more than she’d have expected.
She decides she won’t tell her mother until she talks to Frank and finds another job. She’ll leave every morning with her apron and pretend to go to work. Then Christine remembers how hard it was for Frank to find this position, how scarce jobs are, all the more difficult for her because of her record.
She takes deep breaths. She rests her hands on the steering wheel. Again, everything becomes blurry.
Then Christine makes a decision which restores her self-control and fills her with promise and relief.
She starts her car. At the light by the exit, she doesn’t turn left, which is the way home, but instead goes right, which leads towards the highway to Paterson.
Christine parks in front of an abandoned factory. Its fenced-in lot is strewn with garbage and weeds.
She waits for a Mack truck to pass, the engine so loud it drowns out all other noise, and crosses. The drizzle has turned to mist that’s barely noticeable, although visible in front of the streetlights. Christine’s heart beats fast, but she’s no longer upset; she’s comforted knowing she’ll soon feel better. She heads toward an apartment complex, passing homeless people on benches. Teenagers sit on the entrance’s steps; they talk loudly and pass a blunt.
Christine hurries past; one kid whistles, and though she’s been here countless times, fear envelops her. She walks around the building and heads toward a courtyard, a wasteland of homeless people and junkies. She passes three men in rags leaning against a wall and drinking from bottles in paper bags; their voices are scarily raucous. Next she walks by two guys on a bench, sharing a joint; one guy gives her a look that makes her back shiver. She then passes an indented, shadowed part of the building, in which a hooker fellates her client. Finally Christine spots a guy she recognizes; he wears a hooded sweatshirt and leans against a bicycle rack, looking at his cell phone. She remembers his name’s Trey, and approaches.
Trey nods, tentatively. “Sup?”
Christine glances at a man urinating against a wall. “You know who’s holding?”
Trey regards her, as though debating whether to answer. “Maybe. What you need?”
He nods, studying her. “How much?”
His eyes narrow, but not in suspicion. “You look familiar.”
She feels conspicuous. “I used to come here a lot.” She again looks at the man, who’s finished urinating but stands with his genitals still out, talking to himself. “So you know who’s holding?” she says.
Trey studies her another moment, as though still trying to place her; but then he says, “Four? Meet me by that bench in five minutes.” He disappears into the shadows.
Christine sits on the bench, her backside dampening. She taps her foot and looks around and listens to the voices of the men drinking; her knee twitches. The mist has turned to drizzle again. She fears Trey’s not going to return, and thinks of other places to score.
But then Trey appears.
“Got the money?”
“Walk with me.”
She follows him under trees, into shadows. Then, softly, Trey says, “Gimme the money.”
She furtively holds the bills out; they brush against Trey’s hand. He grabs the money, counts it quickly, and presses a tiny baggie into her hand. He then puts his hood over his head and casually walks away.
Christine stuffs the baggie down her panties and hurries toward the gate, head down; she walks so quickly her shins hurt.
In the car, the baggie presses against her navel. She considers tossing it out the window: not only is she about to throw away six months of sobriety, but if Frank tests her next time and she fails, she’ll go back to jail. But then Christine thinks of quitting her job, having to lie to her mother, and finding a new place that will hire her. She rationalizes that since she just got tested two days ago, it could likely be another week before Frank tests her again.
In the elevator, she transfers the baggie to her purse. She smells food cooking in the hallway, and outside her door, she hears her mother’s humming. Taking a deep breath, Christine goes inside.
“Christine?” her mother calls from the kitchen.
“Hi, mom.” She worries her voice sounds funny; but if it does, her mother doesn’t notice.
“How was work?”
Christine feels a sinking in her chest; but she says, “Okay.”
She takes off her shoes; when she looks up, her mother stands in the doorway. She’s 51 and has the same blonde hair, although hers is dyed. She holds a dishcloth. “I made spaghetti. There’s enough for another meal, so make sure you wrap up everything. And don’t forget to wash the pots.”
Normally, her mother’s orders would irritate Christine, but tonight they just make her melancholy. “Okay.” She puts her shoes in the closet, and her mother returns to the kitchen.
Christine can barely swallow her food, she’s so anxious.
“How come you’re not hungry?” her mother says, as she eats her own dinner.
“I went on my lunch late.” Christine then reflects on how happy she was that afternoon after her break, and how drastically her life has changed since.
Her mother cuts a meatball in half and regards her. “But work was okay?”
Christine nods but now the sinking has turned into a painful hollowness.
“Good.” Her mother seems satisfied. “You should thank your lucky stars every day Frank was able to find you that job.”
The hollowness becomes so intense Christine has to look down.
Twenty minutes later, her mother emerges from her bedroom in her black-and-white cleaning uniform. “All right,” she says, as Christine scrubs a plate she’s already washed three times. “I’m going.”
Christine looks at the water coming from the faucet; her heart beats hard.
Her mother puts her purse over her shoulder. “So everything’s okay?”
“Yeah.” Christine stares at the wet plate.
“Good.” Her mother glances at herself in her pocket mirror; then she walks over and kisses Christine on her head. “Love you. I’ll see you.”
As her mother walks to the door, Christine’s knees quake. “Mom.” Her voice sounds like a little girl’s.
“Yes?” Her mother’s hand is on the doorknob.
Christine doesn’t answer; she feels tears coming. But quickly she regains her composure. “Nothing. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“All right.” Her mother gives Christine a look of gentle admonishment. “Make sure you scrub the pots well.” She opens the door and is gone.
Christine stands there a moment, as though paralyzed. Then she puts the dish down, dries her hands, and opens the recyclable garbage can. She takes out an empty Sprite can, and grabs the letter opener from a drawer. Then she gets the baggie from her purse and heads to the bathroom.
She considers flushing the rock away. But then she again thinks of the nightmare her life has turned into since this afternoon. She crunches the empty Sprite can, making one side flat and indented; she then punches tiny holes into this side with the letter opener. On the bottom of the can, she pokes a hole half the size of a dime. She then removes a vial from the baggie and opens it. The rock’s translucent and sparkling.
She places a hit on the perforated, indented part of the can. She takes out her lighter.
As Christine holds the can with one hand and her lighter with the other, she considers the rock. But it’s not consequences that absorb her. Instead, it’s this lingering, this restraint; she’s as much aware of its power as she is of its ephemeralness. Still, she tries to prolong it, to linger, the Sprite can cool against her fingertips, the silence eerie but natural around her.
I wanted to connect with this story but it didn’t quite work for me. The shifting between past and present tenses felt awkward, I never felt I knew Christine, and didn’t empathize with her, despite her victimization. The interchanges with the odious Hensel felt real but there were a few too many and I ended up skimming. And, small point I know, but would a woman in her situation really own a car?
I could see this as the opening chapter of a novel, where Christine has a chance to prevail, but as a standalone piece, not really.