“Beef stew is disgusting” I muttered as I peeled the can open and poured it in my bowl. As I placed it in the microwave and pushed the buttons, I heard voices from the other room.
“That little boy peed all over the wall in the fitting room!”
“No! You can’t be serious!”
I recognized the voices as Margaret and Lizzy, two of my coworkers from the clothing department. Margaret was an older woman that was very well off, but when her husband died she started working to stay busy. Lizzy was a bit younger than me, and although we didn’t hang out much beyond work, we got along very well.
I looked over at the doorway just as they entered the break room, and Lizzy looked like she was gagging. Margaret came striding in behind her, looking way too fancy in all her jewelry and makeup to be at a minimum wage job.
Lizzy recovered a little from the news, and asked, “Where was that little boy’s mama?”
Margaret’s face became animated, like she was about to bust from containing this last bit of information.
“I asked him that, too, and he said she was waiting for him in the car!”
I started laughing, and both of them jumped. They had been so deep in conversation that my presence had gone unnoticed. Once they realized who I was, we all started laughing.
As I grabbed my food out of the microwave and they sat down at one of the tables, I said, “That’s some pretty bad stuff there. But is it better or worse than finding a used tampon in the purse aisle? Because that is what happened yesterday.”
Lizzy and Margaret made sounds of disgust, and I laughed again.
Margaret was about to go on a rant; I could tell by the way she started, “What is wrong with people these days? I mean – ”
The sound of a man clearing his throat made us all look up at the doorway. Harry, our assistant manager, was standing there with the same sour expression he always wore. He was a cynical, grumpy man that smoked at least two packs of cigarettes a day. Standing next to him was a girl about the age of 25, and she looked nervous, maybe even a little frightened.
“Sorry to break up this meeting of the minds,” he paused in true Harry fashion to demonstrate his wit, “but I want to introduce you to Sara.”
The three of us said hello, and I waved because I have an annoying habit of doing that when I greet people. Sara stood there with her eyes darting around, lips stretched tight in a line, and nodded her head. There was a moment of awkward silence before Harry interceded.
“Anyhow, Allison, you’ll be training Sara in Menswear today.”
I was about to take a bite of soup, but I put my spoon down and said, “Harry, I’ve never even worked in that department.”
His face became a little flushed, although it was hard to tell – I think he enjoyed his spirits.
Harry snapped, “You work right next to it, and it’s all the same over there.”
Without missing a beat I said, “Do you crap in your boxers, Harry? Because I sell diapers.”
Harry must have recently had a cigarette, because a smile twitched at the corner of his mouth. I had never seen him actually smile, and I think his big bushy mustache helped hide any trace of amusement.
“Just do it you smart ass!” and with that, Harry turned and left poor little Sara standing in the doorway. She still looked terrified, and I could swear there were tears in her eyes.
“You can have a seat.” said Margaret as she gestured toward an empty chair.
Sara stood there, frozen, and whispered, “No thank you, I’ll just stand.”
Lizzy, Margaret, and I made a series of quick glances at each other, silently saying ‘what?’ We were being polite enough not to be obvious about our confusion, but Sara wouldn’t have noticed anyhow because she was staring at the clock.
I’m not one to end a break early – I think 15 minutes isn’t enough – but the scene was intense. As I ate my soup, I was overly-conscious of every little sound in the room. Margaret finally began to talk to no one in particular about how she cooks turkey. I’m assuming she brought it up because Thanksgiving was less than a week away. Lizzy smiled and responded to Margaret, but she’d occasionally shoot me a look of wonder.
I gave up the prospect of a peaceful break, and decided to go back to work with a few minutes to spare. As I rinsed out my bowl, I said, “Looks like we can get to work Sara.” But when I turned around, she was gone.
I looked at Lizzy and Margaret, but they threw their hands up in the air, indicating that they didn’t know anything. I sighed, walked out of the break room to my locker, and put my things away. I found Sara standing by the time clock.
She didn’t look any less nervous than before, but she actually made brief eye contact with me as I approached. I swiped my badge to clock back in, and waited for her to do the same. When she continued to stand there, I asked her what she was doing.
“Harry said I have to wait until two minutes before my shift to clock in. He specifically told me, ‘No sooner.’”
I stood there with my hands on my hips, which I do when I’m thinking, even though it makes me look like an angry mother. I could tell it intimidated her, so I seized the moment by snatching her badge away and swiping it.
“The rule is no sooner than five minutes before your shift. Harry is rude, and he’s trying to increase the store’s profits so he can get promoted.”
I held out her badge to give it back, and Sara’s hand shook as she reached for it. She looked so scared I instantly felt bad for her and said, “I know you’re nervous, but I’m not going to lie to you or get you in trouble.”
She instantly smiled.
The rest of the day was uneventful, as far as retail stores go. I only had one woman yell at me, I didn’t have to fish any used diapers off the shelves, and all the shoplifters must have taken the day off. Or they were extremely good.
All in all, Sara seemed like an okay person. After working with her for a while, she began to loosen up, but there was still an air of anxiousness about her. She spoke in a halting fashion, so that everything she talked about was set up like a suspenseful story full of cliffhangers (and boring finales).
She mentioned that she had a son, but that was as personal as it got. No mention of a boyfriend or family, and since I had just met her, I didn’t press her for details.
When I left at the end of my shift I said goodbye and went home.
The next few days at work were insanely busy because we were getting ready for Black Friday. Sara and I worked overlapping shifts, so she would normally arrive while I was on lunch, and her first break coincided with my last.
All the other women were critical of Sara. I didn’t pay much attention to them, because they acted the same way when I started working there. Yes, she had some weird habits. Sara would buy cheese and crackers, pull the crackers apart like an Oreo, and scrape all the cheese off before eating the cracker. I asked her why she didn’t just buy plain crackers, and she said, “They don’t taste the same.”
When Sara would go on her lunch break, she would choose a seat or booth as far away as possible from the other people in the break room. She would organize all of her things in what I can only assume is a form of feng shui dining. Sometimes, after all that effort, she wouldn’t even eat. She would just sit there and stare at the space in front of her.
One day it was just the two of us, and we were both at opposite ends of the room.
Sara whispered, “Hey, Allison.”