Spend the last hour of your last day at Spencer’s hiding from potential customers. In the narrow walkway between a row of shelves and the back wall of the retail space, sit cross-legged on the black rubber floor tiles. Above the dark aisle, long ultraviolet bulbs replace the normal florescent ceiling lights. On the wall where three smaller UV lamps hang over a horizontal line of psychedelic posters, press your spine against a glowing neon portrait of Jim Morrison.
On the other side of the dimly lit aisle, sex toys, flavored condoms and penis-shaped candies pack the shelves. Pull a box of edible panties from its place. Read and reread the ingredients, because you are fascinated by the similarity to Fruit Roll-Ups. Consider setting up a display for the new sales items, stocking shelves, counting inventory, the things you should be doing.
As a Sales Associate you should be at the front entrance greeting passersby and luring them inside with details about discounted products. Your job description involves creating a vision for consumers, showing them how Spencer’s can enliven any social situation or gathering. Instead, you are admiring the way the stains on your shirt explode in the black light.
How many months have passed since you washed the blood-colored polo? At 16, doing laundry is less of a priority. Your work clothes always reek of the store: a combination of incense sticks and burning plastic.
Listen to the Slim Shady LP play on the overhead speakers as the other Sales Associate, Nathan, zips through the aisles on a compact folding scooter he removed from its packaging. Laughing wickedly, he raps along with Eminem, “I just drank a fifth of vodka, dare me to drive?”
If anyone ever asks you why Nathan replaced the music compilations approved by Spencer’s corporate office with compact discs from his car, do not mention how the idea came to him while carrying stolen merchandise out to the trunk of his sedan. Forget the fog machine and the two strobe lights Nathan snatched from the store’s front window display.
Nathan does not expect you to report the items he has stolen. He started two weeks ago and you have never been scheduled to work together. You don’t know anything about him except that he attends a rival high school. You don’t even know his last name. His trust in you is undeserved. But, you both share mutual acquaintances and a familiar space. You and Nathan wear the same uniform, and this makes you comrades.
Understand that Nathan won’t be caught. There are no closed circuit cameras, no theft detection system and no security gates at the entrance. Cory, the former manager, told you that your store plays an important role in loss prevention. “People steal,” she said. “There’s no point in pretending they won’t. Some can’t help themselves. It’s better they steal an overpriced tchotchke from us than something really valuable from another part of the mall.” Cory understood things like capitalism and human nature and how Spencer’s at Lakeforest Mall in Gaithersburg, Maryland, relates to everything.
Most of the inventory is easy to conceal and can slide comfortably into a coat pocket or down a pant leg. The crowded shelving creates tight corners and blocks lines of sight from the cash registers. The store is a darkened mini-maze with over a dozen places to hide.
Cory instructed you never to confront shoplifters. She said it wasn’t worth risking an altercation. She never said what you should do if you saw a coworker stealing.
Nathan skids up to you and hops down from the scooter. The blond freckles spread across his arms and face vanish under the UV lights. He turns violet as he steps closer.
When Nathan asks you if you plan to take anything, shrug, and tell him you haven’t decided yet.
Nathan rolls his eyes. He reminds you that none of it matters anyway. In the days that follow any large items missing from the store can be charged to Cory, who has disappeared. It is likely both you and Nathan will be looking for new jobs in a week.
Think back, and remember the morning.
Remember the District Manager’s face from earlier, puffy and pink like she had just risen from bed. Remember how she glanced over you and Nathan without introducing herself or asking for your names. When the District Manager squatted to unlock the rolling steel gate guarding the front of the store, the seams of her black spandex pants threatened to burst. She muttered to herself as she tried half a dozen keys hanging from her lanyard. And you thought about how each one of those keys represented another Spencer’s. Different locations at malls just like this one, with sales associates just like you. You tried to imagine the responsibility that comes with all those keys and your guts churned.
Once inside, the District Manager went to the cash registers. You and Nathan prepared for customers, which involves refolding novelty t-shirts, flipping on a dozen power-strips, and sweeping. While you worked, Nathan quietly speculated on Cory’s whereabouts and why she hadn’t come to open the store. One of Nathan’s imagined scenarios involved Cory embezzling money to pay for a sex change operation. The other involved Cory committing suicide. In either event, Nathan believed Cory had taken money and he made predictions on whether the District Manager would discover the bank bag missing from the store’s safe.
While you swept you saw a lone mop string on the floor, a remnant of the previous night’s cleaning. You bent down to pick it up. The long thin grey rope smelled like saltwater and bleach. It resembled something that had once lived, the tentacle of some strange cephalopod. The tight cotton coils of the mop string looked like muscle, and a thread of reddish hair traced over them like a vein.
That hair could have belonged to Cory. She might have stood right where you were standing. She was there and then she wasn’t.
Staring at the mop string you remembered how in the weeks leading up to Cory’s absence, she had often shown up late. Sometimes she smelled sour and unwashed with cigarette smoke and stale beer trapped in the thick tangles of her auburn hair. Recently, she had even forgotten to make a work schedule for the employees.
A few days earlier, you walked into the stock room and found Cory crying. She sat on a pallet of South Park themed coin banks, muffling her heavy sobs with a fist. When Cory finally acknowledged you she shook her head slowly and said, “We’re lucky you know? I’ve got benefits here. People can’t find work. There are people starving.” Her voice sounded like someone else. She waved a hand over all the merchandise around you and said, “We’re doing a hell of a lot better than the people forced to make this crap.”
Then she didn’t seem to care that you were in the room anymore. Her body shuddered as she tried to swallow the groans rising from her belly. You stood frozen near the door too scared to speak or move. You watched Cory bite down on her fingers while rivulets of tears smeared her eye shadow.
You hadn’t mentioned that moment to anyone. Tossing the mop string into Nathan’s dustpan, you wish you could understand the cause of Cory’s apparent sadness. You wish you could pin it between your fingers like a single dirty cord.
The District Manager called to you and Nathan from the register, “Where’s the safe?” Before Nathan could answer, the District Manager pointed at you. She told Nathan to stand at the front and handle any customers. You led her to the back of the store and through the swinging door with the Employees Only sign.
The District Manager pulled out Cory’s chair and sat down. The store safe, as deep and as wide as a single file cabinet, sits under Cory’s desk. Its black paint has several scratches from having been dragged and rolled.
The District Manager spun the dial of the combination lock.
“Are you the one who called me collect this morning from a payphone?” she asked.
You said yes.
She asked for your name and you told her, tucking the nametag hanging from your neck into your shirt. A month earlier when Cory had begun to stop caring, you used a pricing gun to decorate your store ID with $69.69 stickers. You feared the District Manager would not find it as funny as you do.
The door of the safe popped open and the District Manager paused to ask you how you got her number. You explained to her how you dialed 411, called the Spencer’s at White Flint Mall and they gave you the contact information.
“Pretty smart,” The District Manager said.
The District Manager rummaged through the contents of the safe and removed the bank deposit bag. You sighed relieved at the sight of the vinyl envelope fat with the previous day’s cash. The District Manager tucked the bank bag under her arm. She slammed the safe door and gave the dial a final twist.
“I spoke to Cory,” the District Manager said, “I called her after you called me. She didn’t answer at first. I kept calling until finally she picks up and says, ‘I’ll mail you the keys,’ and then click, dial tone.”
You nodded to show you understood even though you didn’t.
The District Manager asked you if there was anything she needed to know about Cory. You contemplated telling her about Cory crying in the stock room but decided against it. Instead you tell the District Manager that Cory seemed unhappy.
A thin smile spread over the District Manager’s mouth.
“Unhappy.” She chuckled and the fat under her chin jiggled. “It’s a job.”
The District Manager stood, grabbed a blank receipt and a pen from the desk, wrote her number on the paper and passed it to you. She said there would be restructuring. She told you she would need someone who could tell her who would be worth keeping around. The District Manager promised you that there would be a place for you at Spencer’s if you wanted it.
Before leaving, the District Manager told you she would return in the evening. She contacted a manager at another location to relieve you and Nathan at the end of your scheduled work shift. You and Nathan are in charge until then. The District Manager assured you that she had checked the balance of both registers. If the registers have money missing at the close of the day she will hold you responsible.
However, the store doesn’t have many customers on Saturday mornings, and with fewer transactions there exists less opportunity to steal money from the drawers of the register. In the hours since the District Manager left, you have made only one sale to a girl who attends Nathan’s high school. She bought a Playboy belly button ring and a steel hip flask. As you handed her change, a group of three middle school boys came into the store. They separated at the front entrance, each taking their own isle. The boys congregated again around the adult greeting cards. Their hands never seemed to rest, picking up a card, putting it down, picking up another one and putting it down. A few times you noticed their eyes dart from Nathan to you and back to Nathan. Whenever you caught their gaze, they’d turn their head away. There were snickers and whispers. The hands disappeared into jeans and jackets, and the boys hustled out of the store in silence.
Return the box of edible panties to its shelf. Retrieve the receipt paper with the District Manager’s number from your pocket. Pass the District Manager’s number to Nathan.
Nathan asks you, “What is this?”
Ignore the question. Ask him why neither of you tried to stop the three boys this morning.
He reminds you that Cory told the staff not to bust shoplifters.
You remind him, Cory no longer serves as the manager of Spencer Gifts at Lakeforest Mall.
Nathan says, “Fine.
Then Nathan says, “I don’t see the point in calling mall security just because some kids took a birthday card with a naked lady on it. It doesn’t seem worth it.”
You ask him why.
“Nobody is going to miss it, just like nobody’s going to miss the stuff I took out of here. And why should we care anyway? What are we even doing here, man? The District Manager is probably going to fire us all. She’s going to bring in new people and a manager she can trust.”
Nathan returns his focus to the receipt paper in his hands. “What is this?”
You tell him about the District Manager giving you her number.
Nathan falls quiet. He raises an eyebrow and asks if you plan to rat on him.
You say no.
Get up from the floor and brush off your pants. Nathan offers to bring back the items he has taken. He says he doesn’t want to get you into trouble. You tell him not to worry about it. It doesn’t matter.
Reach for the handlebars and pull the scooter away from Nathan. Place one foot on the deck and kick off with the other. Coast past inflatable dolls, past beer funnels, past shot glasses, past drinking board games.
Think about Cory. Had she known yesterday she’d quit or did she surprise herself? You have questions you may never be able to ask her. Realize you barely know anything about the person who has signed your paychecks. You have gathered that Cory has no children. She has mentioned a boyfriend. You know that she has worked at Spencer’s for nearly a decade. Cory appeared to be in her thirties, maybe a little older than the District Manager.
Try to imagine yourself as Cory, as a store manager. Then try to envision being the District Manager. Try to imagine heavy sets of keys hanging on a rope around you neck or on a carabineer clipped to your sagging belt.
Make a sharp turn and push past lava lamps, past collectible action figures and detailed models, past plush toys, past gag gifts and whoopee-cushions and rubber chickens.
Words like Globalization and Consumerism tie you to the other side of the world and the people who slave to make the things you call novelties. Somewhere else people starve. Someone else steals because they have too little. It is unfortunate, but you are not them.
Push for the exit, past the registers and the body jewelry display case, past Zippos, past funny hats and hoodies, past shirts with Bob Marley and pot leaves. Push past chain wallets and iron-on patches, past messenger bags and band posters. Kick your leg out and push the scooter past the entrance of the store, past the f.y.e., past the Cinnabon, past the payphone where you called the District Manager.
And then, push harder.
Return the scooter to Spencer’s.
Never come back.
Donald Quist is a writer and editor living in Bangkok, Thailand. His work has appeared in Hunger Mountain, Numéro Cinq, Slag Glass City, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, The Adroit Journal, Inscape, Metazen and Publishers Weekly. He received his MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts.