Editor’s note: The following story was the 2012-2013 recipient of the Doug Fir Fiction Award, which was judged by Canadian-American writer Rivka Galchen.
You smooth your new slacks. The tag says “Express,” but you bought them at TJ Maxx, the one just across from the Barnes & Noble, at the Kirkland mall. You are not allowed to wear jeans at Barnes & Noble, or sneakers, or logos of any sort. This is in the “Welcome to Our Team” employee handbook you received last week. You raise your head when Daniel, the store manager, begins to read over the numbers from yesterday. This is your first morning staff meeting and you do not know what these numbers mean. Some are big, like 27,000. Others are small, like 3.022 percent. The other employees nod or offer commentary. A girl with green dreadlocks in an apron reads the café’s numbers. She promises to upsell better today. The Music and DVDs manager reads his numbers without looking up, even though he is not reading off of anything. You like him because he is the Music and DVDs manager. You like him because he looks as uncomfortable as you even though he’s not new. Daniel announces employees who sold memberships. “Ethan sold five memberships, Jenny sold three.” You know who Jenny is because she slowly looks around and coughs like it’s an accident.
You stand alone behind a row of registers. You play with your nametag, which is not really a nametag, but a plastic card holder strung around your neck holding a piece of cardstock with “Nicole” typed neatly beneath “Did you remember gift cards?” You smile when a customer comes up. You ask them if they found everything they needed. You ask them if they, or anyone in their family, is a Barnes & Noble member. “Would you like to become one for $25?” You list at least two benefits of becoming a member. You ask if they would like any gift cards or gift receipts, because it is that time of the year. You ask if they would like a bag. You smile and slam the cash drawer when they leave. You do this for five hours and then you clean up at the end of the night, even though you do not really know where the stray books go. You stick to straightening up the board games. You did not know there were so many board games.
The music and DVDs manager is smoking in the parking garage when you get off work the next night. You make sure to glance accidentally at him just long enough for him to offer a ride home. He says he would feel bad if you took the bus home in this weather.
His car is cold and it smells like cereal. He says his name is Mark. He asks what you did before you worked at Barnes & Noble. You tell him you got a degree in communications, in Wisconsin. “And a minor in film studies.” You know that you should ask him how long he has worked at Barnes & Noble but don’t, on the off chance he’s sensitive about working so long in a suburban Seattle mall.
He lets you off at the one-bedroom apartment you share with your roommate, Kaylie. You thank Mark for the ride. He says he would have felt bad, “You’re probably not used to this kind of rain.” You tell him Eau Claire has two feet of snow right now. He asks when you are working this weekend. You say Friday night, Saturday morning, Sunday afternoon. You step out the passenger side and he tells you to take it easy. At your door you realize he was not actually asking when you are working this weekend.
During your breaks you sit in the staff room. You flip through the Barnes & Noble catalogs and the local alt-weeklies. You check your phone for texts from a friend back home or from Kaylie, but usually if you have missed any calls they are your mother asking you if Barnes & Noble has given you health insurance yet. You have stopped reminding her you are holiday help, with a chance of being kept on at the end. The staff room walls are covered with white boards that look like dry-erase Excel spreadsheets, paper stars with the names of employees who have sold memberships (or cookies, if they work in the café), grainy printouts of shoplifters, and small lockers you are not allowed to leave your things in overnight.
You have forgotten the layout of the store from the tour you took two weeks ago, you do not know the difference between a C-cap display and an end-cap display. You do not think you could show someone where the Poetry section was without a lengthy stroll through Religion and New Age first. But your job mostly takes place behind the East Entrance registers, where you have learned other things, like that 10-percent Barnes & Noble membership discount does not apply to bargain books. It does not apply to gift cards, or to buying a Barnes & Noble membership. The East Entrance registers are always cold, they’re by the parking garage. You are working with Sandy at the East Entrance registers today. She is rearranging the gift-card stand, her rings sparkling beneath the fluorescent lights. She lowers her reading glasses. “Oh, look at this one.” She flashes you one with Curious George on it. “It’s got Curious George on it.” She folds it and puts it in the rack. “That’s cute.”
Even when it is slow at the register you try and keep busy. You organize membership applications and Barnes & Noble bookmarks, you call people and tell them that the book they ordered is in. It almost feels like an office job, the kind you expected to land after getting a degree in communications. You straighten the stuffed animals and chocolate-bar display. Eventually, there is little to do but pick stray rubber bands off of the green carpet. You think about the chocolate bars, how it would be so simple to take one, how they couldn’t possibly set off the alarms by the two entrances. You think about this even though you don’t really want a chocolate bar. You think about Mark, the Music and DVDs manager, and if he chooses the music that plays on the speakers, and you decide to save that question in case you can’t think of something to say to him later.
Mark gives you a ride Friday night, but it is not to your house, it is to his. He asks if you want to watch a DVD that he just got from Netflix, and you do. Mark says the movie is “so indie” and laughs at parts of it that are funny but, you think, not funny enough to laugh out loud. It is a movie where a drifty young loner falls in love with a cute quirky girl, who eventually falls in love with him too. You think the young man is less like an indie loner and more like an unemployed psychopath. You are skeptical of the young woman’s decision-making. Mark gives you a drink that tastes like cream soda. “I’m so glad you’re here,” he says. “I didn’t know what to do with all that vanilla vodka my roommate bought.” Later you make out and have sex on his futon.
You wake up in sheets that smell like cereal. Your right eyelid is sealed shut from the contact lens you didn’t take out. But then Mark turns toward you and his voice cracks when he smiles and says, “Hey there,” which makes you smile too; and outside snow is falling in big fat flakes that you were beginning to think didn’t actually form on the West Coast.
In the mornings you stack the newspapers. It is a small job but you take pride in it. The same people come in every morning to buy papers and you have stopped asking them if they are Barnes & Noble members. One man is a member and he gets 10 percent off the New York Times every day. You wonder about this. You wonder if that might not be a good selling point for memberships. You do the math and are about to factor in the Sunday edition when you realize what you are doing.
At the staff meetings you begin to pay attention to the numbers. You wonder about the sales in Music and DVDs and if they mean that Mark is doing a good job or not. Mark looks like he hates the morning meetings. “Nicole sold two memberships yesterday,” Daniel says. It’s not that you look forward to hearing your name, you just know it will happen eventually.
You ask Mark about his sales when you are watching another movie, an action movie from the ’80s. Mark says, “Sorry, can we not talk about work?” he says, “It’s just—” but you are already apologizing and saying of course, of course. “You know,” says Mark, “I just don’t think work should interfere with us at all.” He twirls a strand of your hair and kisses you on the ear. “And not let other people worry about us either, they don’t need to know we’re a thing.” Of course, you think.
Today you are not behind the register, you are shelving books, and you think there is a good chance that you will be asked to stay on part-time after holiday season. You cover the large store, running books to Current Affairs, Former Bestsellers, Maps USA. The girl with the green dreadlocks is walking around the store offering chocolate chip cookie samples form the Barnes & Noble café. She tells everyone they are fresh out of the oven, and that members can save an extra 20 percent on all baked goods that day.
A customer asks if you sell that vampire series. You point to the back. You sell that vampire series, that confidence book, and that patriotism book. You sell books about growing marijuana to young men who are either excessively discreet or bold in their purchase. You do not judge the men who buy Hustler or racecar magazines wrapped in plastic. You judge the men who buy Kama Sutra books off the bargain table with sweaty palms.
You sell a Barnes & Noble membership to a woman buying 16 Berenstain Bear books. You sell a membership to an old man who liked it when you called him a bibliophile and believed you when you said the membership would pay for itself. You renewed the membership of a woman who forgot she had one in the first place. You don’t try especially hard to sell memberships, you simply point out what would be beneficial about having one. You feel good when you can tell someone they received over 20 percent off their purchase today. That’s what you tell yourself.
Mark isn’t working today, but today is Monday, payday, and he comes to work wearing jeans. He stops by your register and you tell him that you need to call a manager over to make an employee purchase. It is a joke you make to each other, but you see Daniel coming over. Mark winks, tells you to take it easy, and walks away. Daniel tells you, “Three memberships—that is really something spectacular. Three memberships in one morning.” You do not make a big deal about it, like your mother would want. You are about to muster a thank you when Daniel says, “But this week we are really pushing gift cards.”
You say you are sorry, which is not difficult to muster at all. “But,” he says, “you know what I find just really helps,” —his voice changing like he is trying to sell you something—“is that when someone is buying a greeting card”—he shrugs his shoulders—“just say, ‘Hey, you know what would make Mom’s birthday even more special is to throw in a $25 gift card to Barnes & Noble.’ Jenny did that yesterday, she sold five gift cards that way.” You know about this. It was at the morning meeting. Jenny’s name is on a star in the staff room.
You hear the alarm by the exit doors beep, and you wave the person with a Barnes & Noble bag through, just like you did at the college library. “It’s fine,” you say, and tell them to have a nice day. The store security guard does not like it when you do this. Neither does Daniel. “Nicole, we are really trying to lower our IPR percentage. Kip has made it very clear that a lower IPR percentage is one of our store’s priorities this fiscal year.” IPR stands for Inventory Peculation Rate. Kip is the regional manager, which means he is Daniel’s boss. “Gift cards,” Daniel says before walking away.
Sandy is arranging the Barnes & Noble tote bags that can be bought regularly for $4.99 but that are only $1.99 with the purchase of any other item. “What a deal,” says Sandy. “Have you seen these?” Sandy holds up the bag printed with books flying away like bats. “They are adorable.” The loudspeaker cackles overhead, “Threeee more to go!” “Someone sold a membership,” Sandy says slyly to no one in particular.
“Do you want the receipt in the bag or with you?” you ask a customer. You snap open a plastic bag only to find it has no bottom, it’s just empty at both ends.
That night, mark puts in a movie that opens with a woman writhing on a bedspread. You ask if you can watch cartoons tonight. “It’s Criterion, baby,” says Mark. You ask him why he didn’t heat up a Hot Pocket for you, too. “Do you want me to heat up a Hot Pocket for you?” Mark says. You ask him if he picks out the music that plays on the loud speaker. He says, “You know I hate talking about work.”
You drink quickly that night and in the morning you can’t remember how the movie ended. You don’t bother pulling your tights back on, you wrap them around your hand and stick them in your purse.
He drops you off outside your place. You get out and he empties his ashtray. “I wish you could stay, but you know how Daniel rides my ass about being late.” From the sidewalk you yawn and cover your mouth, not just because it’s early but because if you had kept your mouth closed, he would see your jaw tremble.
At the next meeting Daniel reads the numbers. He asks everyone to welcome a new team member, Maura, who will be working in Music and DVDs. She looks like the cute quirky girls form the movies do, with short hair and a small nose piercing that you doubt is in line with the dress code. She looks like she did not buy her slacks at TJ Maxx but at the real Express. She looks like she knows a lot about music and DVDs.
Later at the West Entrance registers you can tell that the woman in front of you does not want to be a Barnes & Noble member. “Fourrr more to go,” you hear on the loudspeaker. You ask anyway, in case Daniel is watching, but also in case she does, actually, want a membership. You ask if you could get her email address for a free coupon online. You are not allowed to ask if she would like to have a portion of her sales donated to a local school today, she has to mention it first.
Sandy is with you at the West Entrance registers today. She tells you about her sister Cathy’s birthday, and, like always, they went to Cathy’s for dinner. It was, like always, a little hard getting out there, but it was lovely, like always. She asks you if Daniel has talked to you. You say, “Yes, the school fundraiser. We’re not allowed to prompt. The promotion code is 7543.” Sandy looks down and adjusts her tiny watch on her small, speckled wrist. She says Daniel wants you to train her to sell more memberships. Now you are looking down, wishing you had a small watch to adjust. Sandy says she has been really good at getting customers’ email addresses, she got seven just this morning, but in this economy no one wants to buy a membership. “Believe you me!” she says, grabbing your shoulder and trying to laugh.
You know that Sandy says too much about her sister and not enough about potential discounts to people who just want to get a bargain book and leave. She talks about the stuffed animals instead of what would make Mom’s birthday extra special. You also know that Sandy has a son your age who makes more than her managing a Taco Bell; she told you that when you were rearranging board games one night. You say, no, Daniel didn’t say anything to you and what, exactly, does he expect in this economy. “Do you know what a C-cap is?” you ask. “This needs to go on a C-cap.” Sandy is happy to help. You know what a C-cap is.
You text Mark during a break. Do u want to hang out this weekend? He doesn’t reply until you are back on the floor. He leaves a voicemail saying he is sorry, he is going to Boston, he will be there for a week or so to visit his sister. He never told you he had a sister—then again, maybe he did, you think she has a dog, or maybe it was a husband and a baby, and that she lived in Boston.
You snap your phone shut. It doesn’t bother you. You have a job to do. You walk into this store, sell memberships, shelve bargain books, and walk out back to your real life. You leave your problems at the door. That’s why you like this job. That’s what you tell your mother when she asks. You shut your locker, you hang up your name tag, and leave for the bus. You don’t even care that you came in third for gift-card sales this week.
Two days later someone steals a book. A man rushes out the exit and the doors beep. These occurrences are not actually uncommon at the East Entrance, so you do not realize he has actually stolen something until you see him race through the parking garage. The security guard, whose round head and police officer outfit reminds you of a Fisher-Price toy you used to own, makes his way to your register three minutes later than you feel is appropriate for apprehending criminals. Since the shoplifter is gone, you are the one questioned. Up until now, your interactions with the security guard have consisted of him bringing up his girlfriend in conversations about whether you are working hard or hardly working. You are not impressed with this girlfriend, and you are not impressed with his mall-cop clipboard. You shrug and say he went by really fast. He asks, “You can’t give me anything?” You shake your head. “You can’t even remember what race he was? Black, white?” he asks, poising a pen above a box marked “R.”
“He went by really fast.” You say it slowly through your teeth, like the book is not the thing at stake. The guy took off, he’s not coming back.
The next week Daniel stops by your register. “I just want to thank you for all your good work recently.” He hands you an envelope. You know there is a gift card inside. You say thank you but you do not open the envelope in front of him.
Today is payday. You wish you had done direct deposit. You write it on your hand to remind yourself, just like last week. You see Mark walk into the store and toward the office. If you had known he was back you would have worn more makeup and the tights he said were cute. You have a customer who is explaining a book to you that you don’t think actually exists. You tell her to go to the information island in the center of the store. You tell Sandy you need to go to the bathroom and could she watch your register? You do not go to the bathroom, you follow Mark with your eyes as you walk right angles around the vampire books, the board games, and the biographies until you meet him face to face outside the staff room. You say, “Hey, stranger,” like the girl in the movie would say to the psychopath. Mark says hi to you and goes into the staff room. You follow him and ask how his trip was. He is leafing through the print-outs on the wall and says, “Good times, really good times. Have you seen Daniel? I came in to get my paycheck.” You watch him flip the pages for a while until he turns and looks at you in a way that makes your stomach hurt.
“I took the wrong nametag,” you say. You grab a new one by the lockers and leave. Back at the register you open the envelope. It is a Barnes & Noble gift card worth five dollars.
Your mother was upset you didn’t come home for Christmas, but you reminded her again that you are holiday help, “I have to work holidays.” She bought you a new umbrella and a bus pass, so it doesn’t matter that Mark stopped offering you rides home. And what’s the use of a $100 bus pass if you’re not going to use it, is what you think.
The store is awash in unsold day-by-day calendars. They are not good any other year but this one. It sounds like it would be a good selling point, but it’s not. They sit stacked in front of your register.
Your nametag has been switched to read Shop Express, Shop Online! You take it off whenever you use the bathroom. You feel camaraderie with the women in line, all of you reduced to the same needs of relief. Here you have no insider bookstore knowledge, only that the right-hand soap dispenser is a little leaky and that the tampon machine takes two dimes, not one. The bathroom can be a nice respite, except for the occasional day when it sounds like someone’s crying in the handicap stall. Except when you’ve been carrying two dimes that you haven’t had to use for what you know is too long. You use the left-hand soap dispenser and walk out of the bathroom, and back onto the green carpet. You follow the sound of receipts ripping back to your register.
After work you walk to the grocery store, to the section where they keep condoms, lubricants, spermicide, and pregnancy tests, in that order. A young man with his hands on his hips scans the upper rack while you squat to compare the price-per-ounce of ClearBlue and First Response. You grab the two that have a Safeway membership discount and walk toward the register. Maura is in line ahead of you, and you turn and walk the other way, which is out the front door. There are no alarms at Safeway.
At home you pour a large glass of water. You take a sip and dump it out. You fill it halfway with whiskey and halfway with ginger ale. It is a good thing you made a big drink, because after the first pink line you think it’s best to try all of them. You finish your drink quickly, even after you have finished all four tests and there is no need to pee anymore.
You start watching your roommate’s Party of Five box set, drunk enough that it feels like you’re one of the gang. Kaylie gets home from her hospital shift during Season 1, Episode 4: Worth Waiting For. She reminds you that rent is due soon. She will be mad that you drank all her ginger ale, but she will understand after looking in the bathroom trashcan.
You are working at the West Entrance registers where you can see into Music and DVDs. You watch Maura sort CDs facing Mark behind the register. You watch him tell a joke you can’t hear. You think of the way he’d gingerly knead your knee with his thumb when you watched movies. You watch her laugh, you almost start crying.
A girl wearing a shirt from the vampire series just returned an unread copy of Oliver Twist. You have started reading it behind the register to get your mind off Music and DVDs. You are beginning to wonder if Oliver is ever really going to catch a break when Daniel is at your register and asks what, exactly, are you doing.
You tell him you are very sorry and make a poor excuse about hand-selling Barnes & Noble Library Classics. Daniel is flustered. “Do I need to remind you that Kip is making a store visit any day now? How it would make us look if he walked through those doors and saw my booksellers reading behind the register? This isn’t Subway.” You would like to remind Daniel that $8 and 50 percent off of all café purchases is not enough to make you care what Kip thinks. Or that if Kip did walk through those doors what he would see would be teenagers touching each other in the aisles, quiet kids sitting cross-legged in the comics aisle slowly peeling off the security sticker as they flip manga pages right to left, women who wear PolarTec vests year-round haggling about the buy-two-get-one-free wrapping paper, and tired-looking men who sit in wooden chairs and quietly prophesize in the magazine section. These men do not have Barnes & Noble memberships. The café does not take the cookie samples to the magazine section.
You look Daniel in the eye and apologize, but you know that without its dark-wood bookshelves carrying the pretense of sophistication or its employees that dress like their degrees, the store would look just like any other empty warehouse with green carpet floor that fades gray near the exits. You hear the roar of the espresso machine steamer and the thought of the hot milk briefly nauseates you. You think you could really go for a cigarette right now because that’s what always happens in the movies, someone smokes a cigarette and then they throw it away on something soaked in gasoline.
Daniel is walking toward the information island when he turns back. “You haven’t read Oliver Twist?”
At the end of your shift you shut the register with a defiant click. You know the rent is due. You know you do not want a baby, and you definitely don’t want a baby whose father has thinning hair, can’t keep track of the expiration dates of his prophylactics, and can’t even sell memberships in Music and DVDs, where, honestly Mark, it is probably the section to convince someone they want to save 10 percent. You know it can be done with pills these days. You think you want to go to library school.
You call Sandy. “I’m sorry, but I can’t work the weekend of the ninth and I was wondering if you’d like my shift.” Sandy would love your shift.
Two days later you sell nine membership cards. You sell them at the East Entrance registers. At the next morning meeting, Daniel saves this announcement for the end. He says, “Yesterday, something very incredible happened.” He says it in a way that makes you think, even though you know you’re not, that you are in trouble. You blush, embarrassed that this is happening in front of your co-workers, who have never sold nine memberships in one day, not at the East Entrance registers. Your face is so red it hurts.
You take your break in the staff room. By now you have noticed the other employees do not spend their breaks in the staff room. You look at the alt-weeklies, you look up at the stars, it’s like a fifth-grade classroom. You see your name on one. It is on a larger star, reserved for SuperStars. You are a SuperStar. Your break is over.
Today when the register dings open, you smile at the customer while curling stacks of bills into your palm, and then into your cardigan sleeves, and then into the deep pockets of the jumper, the one you bought especially for this job. You do this until your lunch break, when nothing’s left in the drawer but coins and paper clips.
Daniel comes by the register to tell you that because of your hard work he will buy you anything you want form the café. “My treat.” You meet him at the café after a quick trip to the bathroom. Daniel buys you a chicken parmesan panini and a coffee. He pays with a Barnes & Noble Mastercard. You wonder what kind of sucker has a Barnes & Noble Mastercard. It is a joke you make to yourself and you let out a small laugh. Daniel asks what’s funny, since he’s your pal today. Your sandwich is soggy, but it was free and you are hungry. You thank Daniel and grab your bag from the locker for the last time. You pass by the restroom where no one knows your name. You walk through the East Entrance parking garage that smells like Cinnabon. You take the bus to the river and eat your sandwich in the sun.
Kjerstin Johnson is a writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. She is editor-in-chief of Bitch Magazine. Reprinted from The Bear Deluxe (No. 34 —Town & Country issue), a Portland, Oregon-based magazine dedicated to the environment, literature, and visual art. It is published twice a year by Orlo, a nonprofit organization using the creative arts to explore environmental themes.