She was walking up to me, with that triumphant look in her eye. She only got that look when she had found something to lord over me; when management had decided I had screwed up and needed correction. Her mouth was open, and as she waddled up to me in her size 11 wide magenta ballet pumps, she greedily sucked air into her nostrils, making a rasping sound as it whooshed in, and exhaled it in short puffs out of her chapped, flaking lips. Her hair was newly highlighted and cut yesterday, yet somehow the roots already glistened with grease, and her black shrug was dusted with snow.
My body had involuntarily bristled, and it took some effort to make sure my thoughts did not manifest themselves in any physical way. I glanced back down and watched my hands as they involuntarily counted the crisp bills, my thumbs mechanically moving in short jerky movements, and somehow keeping their own count as my mind was busy, dreading what was to happen next. I knew what it was about.
As I finished counting the change, she arrived. She came alarmingly close, mimicking the way my fellow cashiers and I would stand when we wanted to share some highly sensitive department gossip, or personal information. I could smell her lunch on her breath, even though her break wasn’t for another hour. Her beady eyes watched me as I stapled the slips together and inserted them into the bag, noting every minute detail. My hands started shaking, out of nervousness I guess, and I fumbled and crumpled the slip as I tried to stick it in the obnoxious little bag. Nobody likes being watched by someone whose job is to correct your mistakes.
“Catherine, dear” – she was trying to sound sympathetic now, like a parent and a child, funny, her sympathy always reeked of condescension – “are you done checking the change?” – here I nodded in the affirmative, careful not to make eye contact, lest I show her the weariness and defeat in my eyes – “can we go talk in the back for a bit?” she finished, attempting to camouflage a reprimand with words two friends might exchange over coffee. I had no choice but to follow wearily, halving my stride to compensate for her waddle-sashay.
She trekked her way past the cash desk, and into the back room. On the way I caught his eye, his lips spread in a grin, the corners of his mouth quivering with a joke, or comment that was sure to make me laugh until I cried. His face red, sunburned, peeling to an oompa-loompa tan, remnants of a Floridian vacation. His hair carefully gelled to conceal the slightly balding spot in the back his mother’s father had bequeathed him. His hands were dry and cracked from handling the shoe boxes, and gripped two UGG boxes loosely. The sight of her stopped his grin, but only for a millisecond. His lips drew together in a distressed line, but only briefly: confusion, shock, concern, his face was a slot machine of emotion, she was yanking its handle. His hands tightened around the boxes uncomfortably, the skin turning white at the cracks, coloring them like a marble counter top as he debated whether this was serious or not. His eyebrows drew together, his eyes met mine. I smiled mischievously, sharing an inside joke with him, letting him know it was no big deal. His features wavered for a second, and then morphed into a smile once more as he turned his big feet out and started to mimic her waddle with his long legs, earning a muffled giggle from me, and another spectator standing nearby.
At last our journey ended in her bare office. It was only hers because there was no other manager on duty, but she treated it like it was hers and hers alone, fixing the functional calendar on the wall, and neatly laying a sharpened pencil next to a small pad of paper before instructing me to sit down and close the door. The next five minutes went by in a blur. She started by asking me in her sympathetic way if anything had happened. I explained. She listened the whole time, halfheartedly. She asked me to repeat the story several times. I could see she was struggling to understand. The wheels were turning furiously behind her eyes; sweat created a film on her scrunched, un-tweezed brow.
With those red flaking lips and yellowed teeth, she told me it must have been a miscommunication on my part. Joy was trying to help but I ignored her. I needed to listen better. Her smile was smug as she said this, expressing a joy that only sick people drew from finding flaws in others. Yet her eyes refused to meet mine for more than a millisecond at a time, flicking all over the barren closet. Expressing the shame of someone who knew that their victim was innocent, but continued anyways. This had happened too many times. Here is where I would mumble “sure” and scramble out humbly with my tail between my legs.
But just looking at her sitting there, looking down on me even though my chair was a good four inches taller, I couldn’t form the words. Something inside me snapped, ice, venom, frustration, indignation rushed through my veins. The dam had burst. The wall had been breached. “No. That’s not what happened,” I calmly stated. I immaturely let a little of the ice grow on the edges of my words: maybe not the best choice, but oh so satisfying. “I was doing my job. She was not trying to help. She was trying to get out of doing her own job. I did nothing wrong.” I watched those red cracked lips jump as her mouth hopped open to suck in a breath. There were a couple moments that slowly dripped by without a sound. She stared at me dully, her dark brown eyes did not look as beady as they did before, they had lost their shine, they had lost their momentum. I sat straight, and did not fail to meet her gaze, I would not waver this time.
Finally she spoke. Stammering, and haltingly she started to recommend something. She no longer corrected. She no longer condescended. It was only seconds, though, before she remembered our places at the desk, and regained her momentum. “I’ll overlook it this time,” she informed me – her words were made of solid, biting ice, the kind you get your tongue stuck to – “but next time, you need to work faster.” My lips parted in surprise. Her eyes regained their gleam. Her arrow had hit its mark. She had shoved me back into place savagely, like a poor clock master forcing a rebellious cog into its notch, like a child forcing a puzzle piece into the incorrect slot.
I sat there just staring at her. Then my head involuntarily shook from side to side, my hair falling over my face, as I lowered my gaze. “Sure,” I mumbled. She nodded her head, started scribbling furiously, bent over her little pad of paper, excitedly pressing the lead to the pages, and told me I could leave, and to shut the door behind me. I did not tell my body to get up. It obeyed her command like a puppet would a stranger’s hand. I numbly opened the cheap door and shut it behind me. My worn shoes slid across the plywood floor of the shelved back room, and somehow made their way down the metal steps, guiding my body to safety. My mind was still in that little closet with her, trying to fathom, trying to understand, to wrap my mind around it all. I rounded the corner, heading for the water cooler, dazed and defeated. He was there waiting, but this time it was me, not her, who stole the smile from his face.
He didn’t say anything; it wasn’t in his nature to pry. “She says I need to work faster so I don’t have to say no,” I managed. His brow crinkled. “Really,” his voice was flat, disgusted, annoyed, “that’s really all she could come up with?” I managed another yep. “Wow.” His eyebrows shot up here, his head tilted to the side. “So she really is that dumb.” A half-smiled smirk painted itself onto his cracking sunburn, and he turned to me: his co-conspirator. “I’m sick of this,” the emotion in my voice scared him. He looked at me blankly, and then smiled. He liked seeing me flustered, but that was how we joked, and this was real. He started to laugh, “Oh, you are?”
“Yes,” I replied, my mouth spreading into a smile, “yes I am.”
We laughed together. We laughed all the stress off, we laughed until she didn’t matter anymore, until finally, with a tear in my eye, I turned to him. “I’m quitting. You coming with?” A smile played on my lips. He looked down on me, with his eyebrows drawn, his mouth flat, his eyes somewhere else, thinking. My smile faltered as I picked out the valleys borrowing into his peeling forehead, this wasn’t meant to be a serious question. Finally he snapped back to reality. His lips spread in a smile, his mouth twitched on the verge of a reply, but none came. It wasn’t necessary. The creases in the corners of his eyes ripping through his sunburned skin as his head swiveled up and down was all I needed. With the mischievous smile of an inside joke we sighed and we both turned and we both headed back to work.