The ex-employee has been hanging around again. You will know she’s there when the heels of your shoes click click click down the aisles as usual but with a subsequent shuffling after each step. You will know when unfamiliar customers say things like, “It’s good to see you again,” or “You are looking well.” The artificial lighting starts burning your eyes and your heart races for no reason at all. You will begin to have a hard time with your handwriting and with the spelling of words. Not that you need to do much of either anymore. You will know that the ex-employee is there when the days begin to blur together, and at night as you fall asleep, you can only think of pretty things you would like to buy on your lunch break the next day.
You’ll notice a smell, too. It smells like four things: vanilla candles, tissues, spaghetti sauce, and something else that you almost remember. It will be hard to put your finger on, but think back. Think about that time you set off fire crackers in your backyard as a teenager. Maybe one got stuck in the laundry on the line or maybe it landed in a pile of debris but poof, flames. You grabbed the hose and sprayed everywhere and then breathed in the plumes of steam rising from the earth and learned a valuable lesson. That’s what the ex-employee smells like. Vanilla candles, spaghetti sauce, tissues and valuable lessons. You should know, too, that burning candles is forbidden at the discount department store, as is eating. And tissues don’t smell like anything.
The ex-employee had worked at the discount department store in the scarf section for 30 years. You were hired as her replacement. On the back wall of the storage closet was a frame that read In Memoriam – A True Consumer, A Loyal Worker in golden cursive. Inside was an old list on a page torn from a date planner, it read:
To do Today –
- Send Mary a birthday card
- Pay American Express (minimum payment $28.76)
- Pay Barclay (minimum payment $57.32)
- Pay Visa (minimum payment $42.88)
- Pay Master Card (minimum payment $65.40)
- Order new Clinique colors for Fall
- Book tanning appointment
- Buy a new watch
- Refill prozac, xanax, etc.
Legend has it that the list was from the day that the ex-employee had, sometime around 5pm, taken the elevator to the courtyard sunroof on the top floor of the building across the street, stepped over the balcony rail, and jumped, landing on a bus stop surrounded by commuters waiting for their ride home. They didn’t get to go home until very late that night. The buses were shut down for hours. People say that she was still alive when she landed and that she said, “I have wasted my whole life, but don’t you like my dress?” before her eyes fluttered closed.
One day, the old man who sings karaoke on the street corner outside the big automatic doors at the entry of the store, stops singing right at the crescendo of Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight”, grabs your shoulders and looks into your eyes very deeply as you are eating a sandwich.
“Oh no oh no oh no. Hold on baby. Hold on real tight.”
“Sir?”, you say chewing a bit more slowly.
“It’s you. Or anyway, it’s her.”
“Is there something you need, should I call–” The old man clutches his chest and runs away, leaving his speakers and his karaoke machine and even his bucket full of change. You watch him as he goes, eating your sandwich with the fervor of a bulimic ghost.
The discount department store is heavily adorned. Bejeweled, shades of magenta and orange. Tinsel and mirrors. Mirrors forever. You can never get away from your own reflection, and each one shows you in a different light and angle. It is awful. In one mirror you’ll see a round ass, in the next an aging neck. You compulsively primp 9 hours a day, running a circuit of the mirrors peaking out behind bowls of alpaca mittens and hollow glowing counter tops and butterfly wing earrings from Nepal (they don’t kill the butterflies, they wait for them to die). You race around, chasing the right reflection.
The store is full of dust and women. Shopping and analyzing their choices as a means to ignore the reality that they still work here or they still work there, or they’re still with him, or they wish they hadn’t left him. How long have you been working here? It will be hard to say exactly how long it has been. Tearing Made in China labels off mock Bali-printed scarves, gluing the arms back onto porcelain figurines. Days go by, but you’ll get the feeling that time has given up its passing around you. You say this to your co-workers and they scrunch their noses, whisper to each other, and ignore you for the rest of the week. So you try not to say anything like that again.
A thousand people a day will see your face, and since you are a fixture here, another oddity amongst all the oddities, they will comment on you. They will say things like, “I have a niece about your size, maybe a little smaller, do you think this pendant would get lost in her breasts?” or “I like to shop here because it empowers women by giving them a job.” It is very exhausting work, being seen all day. Lately, when you feel overwhelmed, you make little to-do lists to hold in your hand and look at. You feel better all day, knowing that you have things to do. You feel better at night too, having gotten all the things on your list to take home with you. Lipstick (I’m still looking for THE red, but this is pretty close), a blouse (so billowy and flattering!), a black leather bag (I just really need something for the every day, ya know?), a floral perfume (new season, new scent, new me.)
In the Winter, it’s quiet at the discount department store. People outside forget about shopping for a while and go about their lives. The quiet is immense and it crawls around and rings small bells and knocks things over. Sometimes, for hours at a time, you can only hear the tinny and distant sound of decade-old pop hits. You try to talk to your co-workers, but they don’t really feel like talking. You look around the store for something to buy, but it’s all so ugly. It’s dark when you leave at night and when you get there in the morning. One day you are the first to arrive for work and while straightening and checking the store, a small older woman steps out from behind a tall rack of the pashmina scarves. It should startle you, but it doesn’t. You’ll know the ex-employee is there when nothing takes you by surprise.
“You’re not supposed to be here yet. We’re not open.”
“Oh, I just HAD to buy this little coin purse I saw in here yesterday. I simply had to!” the woman clasps knobby manicured hands together and grins. Her lipstick is the perfect shade of red.
“Well you can’t be in here. How did you get in here?”
“What do you mean, honey?”
“How did you get here?”
“On the bus.”
“No, but how did you get HERE. How did you get here?”
“Sweetie, I don’t quite understand what you mean. I’m always here.”
“You’re going to have to wait outside until 9,” you say, gesturing to the door.
“Oh, I can’t go out there.”
“Listen lady, you need to go outside and wait for the store to open just like everyone else.”
“I’ll try. But I tried to leave so many times and then after awhile too much time had passed and it just didn’t make sense to leave anymore.” The woman walks away and fades out somewhere in the brownish shadows cast from the streetlights and when you hear the doors open, you shrug and continue straightening.
You see her later, running her fingers through the scarves. And again, chatting up a woman who is trying on hats. Then she is in the basement staff bathroom. As you wash your hands, you examine the reflection of the reflection of the mirror on the opposite wall and adjust your bra straps, straighten the back of your hair. She’s there, behind you, brushing something off of her skirt.
“This bathroom is for staff only,” you tell her, still facing the mirror.
“I’ve had just about enough of your smart mouth. I was once as young as you,” she scowls back at your reflection.
“You need to leave. I’ll tell security.”
She laughs then, “If anyone is looking for me, I’ll be on the sunroof across the street having my lunch,” and walks out of the door.
“I doubt anyone in the whole world is looking for you,” you whisper into the mirror.
As you turn to leave you see that there is no mirror on the opposite wall, no reflection of the back of your head. You scream and can’t find the door. You claw at the walls. The door was right here. The mirror was right there. You can’t get out. You can’t breathe. You dig and dig and suddenly there is sunlight. There is street level. Air whistles in from somewhere. At first breathing feels unfamiliar. This is not my air. These are not my lungs. But still you gulp it up and then you see it. The big screen. An aerial view. A snapshot of everything. All the roofs, the dirt roads, the scenic routes, all those trees, oceans, fields, blinking hillsides, peaks and plateaus. People sleeping, people dancing. As the crow flies, compasses would explode. She’s on the balcony, clutching the rail. You will know the ex-employee has left when you give your 2 weeks notice.
© 2015 Rosie McKinlay