From Each According to Ability (Part Two)

This is the second installment of a story I wrote for my senior thesis at the University of San Francisco.  Set in the strange world of a women’s clothing store, the story follows Carin on a trying shift.  Part Two picks up just after an awkward interaction with a difficult customer.  Carin has tried and failed to graciously explain why the Sale signs say “Up to 70% off” and why the items may in fact be only 30% off.  Carin has finally told the customer that it’s just the evils of capitalism, and escaped by taking the woman’s clothes to the fitting room.

You can catch up with Part One here, and continue the story below.


Back in the fitting room area, Joanne looked up from folding clothes when I came in.  She was stationed back here this shift and I envied her.  I usually enjoyed the fitting room more than other positions.  I liked it when it was busy.  Not insanely busy, but right on the edge.  I liked having six things to do and to bounce and whirl and twirl between all of them, not overwhelmed but dancing right on the edge of it.  I’d gone off the edge sometimes and that was no good, but I loved it when I could skirt the cliff, moving fast and getting everything done.  Those were the best days.  They went by much faster too.  I’ve had eight-hour shifts in the fitting room that were shorter than five-hour shifts spent sizing clothes. 

Even on days when we weren’t busy, there was usually more to be done in the fitting room than elsewhere.  If nothing else there was almost always something to fold.  I found that board-folding—laying a shirt flat on the table, folding it just so around the folding-board so that all the shirts would be the same size to stack up—was a strangely soothing activity.

“I thought you were up front, Carin,” Joanne said, sliding a folded shirt off her board.

I shrugged as I juggled armfuls of clothes.  I very nearly dropped it all.  I just barely got the Embroidered Lady’s clothes hooked onto the relevant bar, and kept a hold of the clothes to return as well.  Sometimes this job required three hands—at least.  “I’m supposed to be up front,” I said in response to Joanne’s comment.

To which Joanne smiled and said, “Quiet out there?”

“Fairly.  Some people, but none of them want help.”  Joanne and I got on well, even though she was old enough to be my mother.  That was normal among my co-workers, and among our customers.  Most of our sales associates were in their forties or fifties.  At twenty I was the youngest; the oldest was eighty-two, though you’d never guess it seeing her.  “I’ve got clothes for a customer who’s still shopping,” I said, slipping a rubber band around the hangers.  I reached for a sticky note to label them, and saw the problem.  “Oh no.  I forgot to ask her name.”

“Do you remember what she looks like?” Joanne asked.

“Yes…”  I was sure I remembered her shirt, anyway.

“You could go ask her for it.”

I sighed.  “What would you say if I told you I really, really don’t want to?”  I would never, under any compulsion, say that to my manager.  The associates could say things like that to each other, and did.

“That bad?”

I nodded.  “Worse.”

Joanne moved a stack of shirts off the table and onto a chair, to make space to fold more.  “I could ask her what her name is when she comes in.  What does she look like?”

“She’s got embroidery all over her shirt; you can’t possibly miss her.  And thanks.”

“That’s all right, hon, don’t worry about it.”

I was just turning to head back to the sales floor when Joanne added, “Oh by the way, I watched South Pacific last night.  Turner Classic Movies had it on.”

I turned around again.  Joanne and I had a fondness for musicals in common.  “Yeah?  Isn’t it good?”  I took a quick peek out into the rest of the store, and saw no manager or fresh flood of customers.  I set down my armful of clothes on a bench, and started buttoning a shirt from the rack of clothes still to be straightened.  So I wasn’t really wasting time, standing there talking about South Pacific.  “Which song is your favorite?”

“I’ve always had a soft spot for ‘Some Enchanted Evening.’ ”

“That one’s good.  I like ‘Cockeyed Optimist.’ ”

At that moment a customer poked her head out of a dressing room to ask about a jacket.  Joanne got into a discussion with her.  When I was sure she wasn’t going to be free soon, I picked up the clothes I had meant to put back, added the white blouse I’d just buttoned to the pile, and headed back out.  Fragmentary conversations were typical on the job.

Out on the floor I debated what I might do next.  Hang up the clothes I’d been dragging around?  Or judge that I had been away from my post at the door for ten minutes now, and I’d better return the clothes to the go-back rack and hie myself to the front?

The management would tell me to get to the front.  There were those Secret Shoppers to watch for.  It made sense, and yet, standing next to the front table, positioned in my best approximation of parade rest, chirping, “Hello, welcome to the store,” and “Thank you for shopping” at appropriate moments always felt like a waste of myself as a resource.  A robot programmed with only two lines could do that part of my job.  Surely I could be more useful than that.  Arranging things by size near the door didn’t take long and didn’t feel much more useful either.

Part of me thought, so what, they’re paying me whether I’m useful or not.  The trouble was, it wasn’t pleasant standing there.  I was grateful I wasn’t a digger of ditches, grateful I worked inside in a mall, but all the same…if you want to drive someone mad, give them no mental stimulation for three hours and see what happens.  Sometimes the hardest part of my job was thinking of something to think about.

On this particular day, I just couldn’t face standing up near the door again quite yet.  I looked around for my manager.  There was still no sign of her; she spent a lot of time in the back office.  I promised myself I would keep an eye in the direction of the front door, and set out to circle the store, putting clothes away.  That’s me, such a rebel: abandoning my post so that I could do other work.

I saw the Embroidered Lady, still in the sales corner, and deliberately steered clear of her.  Luckily for me, the items I’d pulled from the go-back rack weren’t any percent off, 70 or otherwise.

I put away the two skirts quickly, because, surprise of surprises, I actually knew where they belonged.  Among the associates we joked that the clothes got up and moved during the night.  It felt that way.  Someone was always rearranging which shirts were on which rack and with dozens of racks and hundreds of styles of clothes it was a trick to keep track of it all; I’ve never had a knack for it.  I spotted the orange pants from across the room, found several shirts without trouble, and then got down to the nitty-gritty.  The white blouse.  We had twelve different styles of long-sleeve, button-down-the-front white blouses.  Why anyone needs that many choices between white blouses is beyond me.

I commenced circling the store, checking racks of white blouses and humming “Cockeyed Optimist” under my breath.  Halfway through my circuit I came upon a woman carrying three pairs of jeans and poking through a rack of skirts.  I was fairly certain I hadn’t previously asked her if she needed help.

Into the vocal programs.  “Hello, is there anything I can help you find today?”

She looked up from the skirts to smile at me.  “No, thanks for asking.  I’m just looking around to see what might jump at me.”

Basically the standard response, but at least she’d been pleasant about it.  “Well, can I put your items in a fitting room?”

That she agreed to, and seemed to think it was uncommonly kind of me to ask.  Not all of our customers were like the Embroidered Lady.  Most were on the pleasant side, if I’m going to be honest.  I did my best to help everyone, that was my job, but there were some people I liked helping much more.  I remembered to ask this one her name.  It was Kathy, with a K; we got a lot of Kathys, probably ninety percent with K’s.  I told her my name was Carin, with a C.  I promised the clothes would be in the fitting room for her whenever she was ready and that Joanne was back there to help, and then I headed that direction myself with her clothes.

I dropped the white blouse onto the go-back rack, disgusted with it, and went to hang up and label Kathy’s clothes.  Joanne was done with her customer.  I said, “You know what I can’t figure out?”

“What’s that?” she asked, finished with folding for the moment and buttoning shirts instead.

“How can you be a cockeyed optimist about a sky that’s a bright canary yellow?”  Back to South Pacific.  We were all good at dropping conversations and then picking them up again.  “Skies aren’t supposed to be yellow.  Sounds like a sign of oncoming radiation clouds or something.”

Joanne laughed at me.  “What a horrible, grim thought.”

“Speaking of grim and musicals,” I said, as I wrote Kathy’s name on a sticky note, “I still think you should watch Sweeney Todd.”

“Not a chance.  That’s much too bloody for me.”

True, Sweeney Todd, about the demon barber of Fleet Street who liked to slit throats, was a bit on the bloody side of things.  “Yeah, but amazing.  It has great songs.”

I had recently purchased the soundtrack, and spent a lot of time with it running through my head.  It was one thought I often went to when hunting for things to think about at work.  It amused me in some unholy way to stroll sedately across the carpeted floor of my high-end retail store with a pleasant expression on my face and helpful advice on my lips, while thundering through my head ran, “In all of the whole human race, Mrs. Lovett, there are two kinds of men and only two.  There’s the one staying put in his proper place, and the one with his foot in the other one’s face, look at me, Mrs. Lovett, look at you.  No, we all deserve to die.  Even you, Mrs. Lovett, even I.” 

I’m not a violent person.  I don’t even kill spiders if I can avoid it; I’m not a total pacifist either, death to mosquitoes, but spiders usually aren’t hurting anyone.  I just love good loud shrieking music with intense emotions.  You’re not allowed to have emotions in retail.  I’m always unreasonably pleased when a customer asks me how I am, but all I ever say is something along the lines of “fine.”  After an entire shift of smiling politely, sometimes I practically run when it’s over, drop into my car, put on Brigadoon and sing “It’s Almost Like Being in Love” with Gene Kelly at the top of my lungs.  I’m not sure it’s about sentiment as much as it is about noise—and emotion.  Any strong emotion.  It doesn’t matter so much which one.

Joanne didn’t share that opinion.  “I don’t care how good the songs are, I don’t need to watch a musical about popping people into meat pies and eating them.”

I was about to tell her that it was her loss, but the conversation fragmented again when that same woman Joanne had been helping earlier emerged with another question. 

She was wearing one of our flowered skirts, blue with red flowers, and a blue cotton shirt.

“Do you think this shirt matches the skirt?” she asked tentatively, stepping in front of the three-way mirror at the end of the dressing room area.  I glanced at the sticky-note affixed to her dressing room door, and learned that her name was Linda.  Just like Kathys, we got a lot of Lindas.

Our sales associates are known for offering helpful advice on clothing choices.  Joanne studied her thoughtfully.  “The shirt doesn’t clash with the skirt, but I’m not sure it’s really the best choice.  Carin, what do you think?”

My mind went into a frantic scramble.  Only occasionally did I have a genuine opinion about what someone ought to wear.  Rarely did I feel qualified to comment.  Even after a year, I didn’t feel anything like an expert on what shirts go with what skirts.  I don’t think I had enough respect for retail work to learn the skill. 

I couldn’t understand why any of it was supposed to matter so much.  Why are there so many different kinds of pants and shirts and jackets?  Why do we have four hundred shades of pink, and twelve different long-sleeve white blouses?  And how do I figure out which ones go best with which?  Whenever this kind of question came up I was always afraid that I was going to blunder into saying the wrong thing and reveal what felt to me like the utter inadequacy of my knowledge base in this area.  Ask me about Vladimir Lenin, and I can tell you about Red Square where you can still see his body but it’s a mystery how it’s being preserved.  Ask me about shirts and I don’t feel nearly so confident.

I was good at keeping alarm off my face, though.  I’d cultivated that skill in college, when professors assigned utterly unreasonable amounts of work.  Like that class in my last semester, the one that had involved reading an entire book (a theoretical, historical, multi-hundred page, non-fiction book) every single week.  But that was a class that I preferred not to think about.  It also had nothing whatsoever to do with blue shirts and flowered skirts.

“The color definitely matches,” I said cautiously.  “It’s a little bland, though.”  That was something that even I could see—a plain blue shirt worn with a blue skirt of the same color, even a skirt with red flowers, was too solidly blue with not enough of anything else to create anything very interesting.

“I was thinking that too,” Joanne said.  “I’m not sure it’s the best style either.  Didn’t you say you were looking for something to wear to a wedding?”

“An evening wedding,” Linda confirmed, as though the fact that it was in the evening should tell us something.

It didn’t tell me anything, but it told Joanne something.  “I think you’ll definitely want something more formal then.  The skirt’s fine; it’s a good length for you.  I’d put a fancier blouse with it.”

I hunted through my brain and dragged out an image of a blouse we had.  “Maybe that blue one with the lace around the hem?”

“With the v-neck?  Maybe,” Joanne agreed.  “Or what if you did something sleeveless, with a jacket?”

“I could do a jacket,” Linda said, nodding.  “It’s in the evening so it could be cold.”

“We have some blue jackets that would be nice.  What about a red shirt underneath?” Joanne suggested.  “It would bring out the flowers in the skirt.”

Bringing colors out.  Strange as it might sound, I could remember one magical moment related to matching clothes.  I had been at the store for a few months and heard about matching colors and “bringing colors out” and none of it had ever made much sense to me.  I’d said things about it myself, like telling a customer the kind of thing Joanne had just said, but it was only mouthing lines.  I’d heard other coworkers say it and I knew customers understood it—probably much more than I did.  Then one day a coworker and a customer were in a discussion over a black skirt with red and yellow embroidered flowers on it.  My coworker swept a red shirt up against it, and suddenly the red embroidery leaped out, looking brighter, sharper, more stunning.  It felt strangely significant, strangely revelatory.  It was an oddly similar feeling to the one I had when I was studying a theory, or a math equation, and suddenly something in my head fell into place and it all became clear to me.

So I actually did know what Joanne was talking about here, about bringing out the red in the skirt.  The discussion continued, other options were suggested, I went to find a few shirts for Linda to try on, and then stood in the dressing room area with Joanne and hunted for an occasional comment to make on the different possibilities, because at least this was more interesting than greeting people at the door.  While I was hunting for my occasional comments, Joanne got Linda’s whole life story out of her, all about the wedding she was going to and who it was for and soon they were comparing stories on family gatherings.

After several options that didn’t seem exactly right, Linda decided she wanted to go look around the floor herself.  “Is it all right if I wear the skirt out of the dressing room?” she asked.

“Sure, that’s fine, go ahead,” Joanne told her.  “We trust you.”

It was standard policy; the cynic in me couldn’t help but wonder how much we lost from shoplifters.  No one had ever said.

“If you find something you like bring it back here and we’ll see how it looks,” Joanne said.  “And if you find something you can’t live without, just yell ‘help’ and we’ll save you.”

Linda laughed as she went out to the floor.  I smiled.  That line was one of Joanne’s standard ones, one of her vocal programs, you could say.  I’d heard her say it dozens of times, but it always made me smile.  And somehow it never sounded like a vocal program from her.

“Sometimes I don’t feel like coming to work,” Joanne said as she began to rebutton one of the shirts Linda had rejected, “but I feel better once I’m here.  You know what I mean?”

I nodded and said “sure” and felt like even more of a fraud than I had when I’d been offering fashion advice.  I often didn’t feel like coming to work, and I rarely felt better once I was here.  More often the opposite.  I had good shifts sometimes.  I liked my coworkers.  Some customers were nicer than others.  But I didn’t exactly get a warm and fuzzy feeling from my job.

And I definitely didn’t know how to do it the way Joanne did.  I earned my pay, I worked hard, but I wouldn’t have known how to get Linda talking about the wedding she was going to.  Some of my coworkers knew just how to connect with the customers.  I didn’t.  I always told myself that I didn’t want to be like my co-workers; this wasn’t where I wanted to spend my life.  But it hit me more than usual, watching Joanne talk to Linda, that I didn’t have the talent to be like them either.

“I’m going to head back up to the front,” I told Joanne.  “I was supposed to be there for the last fifteen minutes anyway.”

“Sure, hon.”

I wandered up and stood by the front table.  I straightened a few stacks of clothes piled there, idly.  The simple truth pricking at me more than usual today was that, while I could certainly hold a retail job, I didn’t really have much aptitude for it.  I got on with people fine, but not like my coworkers did.  I’d always known my area was more towards academics.  I more often felt an immediate connection to a book I’d just picked up than to a random customer I’d just met.

At least college had involved books.  And I’d done pretty well there, for a while.

Until that one last class, that one that had assigned a book every week.

The professor was undyingly passionate about his subject, and expected us to be the same.  I don’t think he understood that we had lives outside of his class.  He assigned insane amounts of reading and there were far too many papers, most of them at the end of the semester.  I fought and flailed and struggled, and everything exploded around me near the end.

It was not a good day when my grades were posted online.

One problem with believing that you can reach your potential, with believing that you can achieve anything, is that it really, really doesn’t feel good when you don’t.

It didn’t feel good to me, anyway.

That was a spring semester.  I got the retail job over the summer, and made some noise about taking a semester off.  In December I just sort of didn’t fill out the papers to go back.  Nothing wrong with another semester off, I was earning money, that was good…and so there I still was.

After several minutes and a few customers wandering in, I chirped, “Hello, is there anything I can help you find today?” at one of them.

To my very great chagrin, she said she wanted help finding jeans.

I’d gotten my vocal programs crossed and used the wrong one.  Offering help was for when I was actually at liberty to go wander around the store helping, which technically I wasn’t right now.  That whole sticking to the front regulation.  Much more important than the regulation, it was exactly five minutes to my break and I emphatically didn’t want to get sucked into helping a customer right now.

But once I’d offered…I put on my best perky smile.  “Of course.  We have a rack of jeans right over here.  Are you looking for boot cut or straight leg?”

I took her around to at least half of our dozen racks of jeans, explaining the different pant legs and waist styles, and hunted through the racks to find size twelves for her.  I surreptitiously checked my watch twice.  Once I had three pairs of jeans, she decided to look around for shirts.  I offered to take the jeans back and start a fitting room for her.  Another escape by way of the fitting room.

I headed to the back, carrying Anita’s jeans—I’d remembered to ask the name—and reflected that this job would be so much easier without any customers.

Joanne wasn’t in the fitting room; I’d seen her out on the floor, looking at skirts with Linda.  Once I hung up Anita’s jeans, I started to look at the time again; it had to be time for my break by now.  I was still twisting my watch around my wrist to view the face when I heard a door open behind me and an imperious voice informed me, “I can’t reach this zipper.”

I swallowed a sigh and turned towards her.  I felt even more like sighing after I turned around.  It was the Embroidered Lady.  She was standing in the open door of our largest fitting room, wearing a dress that was not her color.  I was terrible at knowing what someone’s color was, but that particular dress was just plain slime green ugly, which made it no one’s color.  Her eyes tightened and the corners of her mouth turned down just a bit when she saw me (not that she’d been smiling to begin with) but I was the only one there and she couldn’t reach her zipper.

            Without comment she turned around and presented her back to me.  The zipper ran all the way down the back of the dress.  I took hold of the tag and pulled, trying to judge the right spot to unzip to—far enough, but not awkwardly too far.

            When I reached the small of her back she said, “That’s fine,” and stepped away.

            I wondered if I was permitted to leave now.

            Evidently not, because she turned around and said, “You’re not the same clerk who was here earlier.”

            I was a sales associate.  I was not a clerk.  “That must have been Joanne.  She’s helping a customer out on the floor.”

            “And you are?”

            I was wanting to stop talking to her.  “My name is Carin.”

            She nodded, expression absolutely neutral.  “Joanne was very nice.”

            I could feel the unspoken statement hovering after that sentence.  “Yes,” I said.  “I always enjoy working with her.”

            She nodded again, and stepped back into the dressing room.  I hesitated a second, wondering if I was dismissed—and wondering if I cared whether I was or not.  She reappeared before I’d quite taken a step, dress flapping oddly because it wasn’t zipped anymore, and thrust an armful of clothes at me.  “I need different sizes in these.”

            I really wanted to tell her that I couldn’t get her other sizes, that I was busy, that I didn’t feel like doing it.  If I was Joanne, I would probably feel like doing it, and would ask her if she was buying for an occasion, and would know how to ask in a way that would make her feel good about telling me.  Only I wasn’t Joanne, I was me, and I didn’t want to do this.

            I had already pushed it with this customer, with that capitalist comment, and while on the one hand I felt emboldened by that, on the other hand I knew that I really, really shouldn’t push it any further.  Not if I was going to be the good, responsible, reliable sales associate that I could be.

            I hated responsibility.  I despised responsibility.  I smiled and said, “Of course.  Larger or smaller sizes?”  My bet was on larger.

            She pawed through the pile a bit.  “I want a 14 in these pants and a 16 in these; I want to try both sizes in this skirt, an extra-large in the shirt and this jacket, and another large in this shirt because this large seems to be cut small.  Also, find me a blouse that will go with these gaucho pants.”

            I tried to assemble all those sizes in my head, and knew that I was probably doomed.  “Do you have a color preference for that blouse?”

            “Not really,” she said, and closed the door again.

            “Right,” I muttered under my breath, and headed for the floor again.  It was past time for my break, in more senses than one.

            Most of the items were from the sales section, which didn’t surprise me.  Why a woman who clearly had money, based on all those rings on her hand, cared about getting things on sale was a mystery to me.  It happened often, though.  In the sale section we had a limited range of sizes so I only found half of what she wanted.  I circled the entire store and grabbed four blouses that might go with the gaucho pants.  It took seven minutes.

            Newly supplied with a fresh armful of clothes, I headed back to the fitting room.  Joanne was still absent, still talking to Linda.  I walked up to the relevant door, nerved myself, and knocked.

            “Did you get everything?” the Embroidered Lady asked, as she opened the door.

            “Well, I’m afraid not quite,” I admitted.


            There can be so much in such a small word.

            I explained about the ones I did and didn’t have, and then presented one that was the right size and style but wrong color.  “Now, I know you wanted this one in purple but since we didn’t have it in purple I got it in blue because—”

            “I don’t want it in blue.”

            “Right, of course, I understand, but if you try it on for size in blue then you’ll know it fits so that you can order it in purple if—”

            “I don’t think so.”

            I wished she’d let me finish my speech.  There were certain distinct points I was supposed to raise about the subject of ordering and she wasn’t letting me get the entire program out.  “Well, all right, but just so you know, if you order while you’re here in the store we’ll pay the shipping for you.  If you order from the catalog at home you’ll have to pay the shipping.”  And our particular store wouldn’t get credit for the sale. 

            The Embroidered Lady pursed her lips.  “I’ll think about it.  What about the blouses for the pants?”

            “Right, about those.  I picked some I thought would go well.”  I presented the four shirts I’d chosen.

            She looked them over and frowned.  “I don’t like any of those.”

            I knew I should ask why, ask about what she might prefer, and offer to go get something better, but I couldn’t make myself do it.  It was all I could manage by this point to say, “That’s a shame, but if there’s nothing else I can do for you I’ll let you try those new ones on.”

            “What would you consider preferable to capitalism?” she asked.

            This was when I should have laughed and said it was a joke, something I had studied but really I thought Karl Marx’s ideas were implausible and his arguments illogical.  That would fix my slip from earlier; even if I said something neutral, the previous comment probably wouldn’t cause me trouble.  I was only in for it if I said something more, and I knew better than that.  Except—I was far past time for my break, this woman was incredibly aggravating, it had been a long shift already, my feet hurt, and I could feel it coming that she was going to ask me to do something else in a few seconds.

            And why the hell was I trying so hard to do right by a company that, let’s face it, wasn’t doing me any favors anyway?

            I smiled my widest.  “I keep The Communist Manifesto by my bedside table.  Karl Marx says wonderful things about the alienation of the worker.”  And then I kept talking.  I wasn’t a communist, but I’d read enough essays by people who were that I could give a very credible impromptu speech about the permanent revolution and from each according to their ability and the rise of the worker. 

             It was astonishingly fun.  It was fun to say something to a customer that I knew I shouldn’t say, and it was fun to lay out an intellectual argument too.  Much more intellect is used in college than working in retail.  They’re both dull at times, but in college you have to think now and again.  I’d missed thinking.  I finally wound up my speech with the ridiculous claim that virtually every essay writer made: “So of course communism has never worked in practice, but next time we’ll get it right.  Is there anything else I can do for you?”

            “No,” she said, and closed the door.

            I practically ran for the door to the break room, hoping all the way that no customer would stop me.  None did.  That was probably fortunate for them.

            I felt giddy.  It felt good to finally tell off a customer.  And it felt very good to reflect that I knew more than I had realized about communism.  After reading an entire book every week for The History of Communism, it was good to know I’d learned something.  Even if my final bad grade hadn’t reflected that fact.

            It was glorious to sit down after being on my feet for over three hours.  I moved the celebrity magazines out of the way on the table.  Why anyone should care that a celebrity couple had been spotted at Starbucks was something I could not fathom, kind of like why we have twelve white blouses in our store.  I pulled my book out of my bag, and resumed the biography I was reading of Winston Churchill (who was definitely not a communist).

            I wasn’t checking my watch so I can’t be precise, but roughly ten minutes into my fifteen-minute break I was interrupted.  My manager wanted to talk to me.  I sadly put down Winston, who was clawing his way back from a major setback in his political career, and walked into her office.

            My favorite thing about my manager was that at least half the time she didn’t pay attention to what I, or anyone else, was doing.  My least favorite thing was that she liked to give lectures when she did pay attention and discover a problem.

           Right now, she was not looking happy.  “I just had a complaint about an associate named Karen.  We don’t have any Karens.  Could that possibly be you?”

           Probably caught.  Leave it to the Embroidered Lady to not remember my name.  And it didn’t even help me, since my manager figured it out anyway.  “It could be me.  What, ah, was she complaining about?”  As if I couldn’t guess.

           “Maybe you can try to explain to me why I was just called out to the floor because a customer wanted to complain that you’re spreading communist propaganda.”

            Definitely caught.  I tried to smile.  “Yeah.  Well.  You know how the signs say ‘up to 70% off’?”

            So it was explained to me exactly what was expected of a sales associate and why I was to be living up to that.  My manager knew that the signs were stupid and that customers could be irritating, but she also knew that I knew I shouldn’t be talking about overthrowing the bourgeoisie with potentially-paying customers.

            I smiled and nodded and promised I wouldn’t do it again.

            “What ever possessed you to do it to begin with?” she asked, exasperation not abated by my promises.

            A bad grade in a class a year ago.  A sense that Karl Marx, illogical and unreasonable as he was, might have actually had something when it came to the alienation of the worker.  Maybe even that unholy amusement brought on by Sweeney Todd was mixed up in there, and the way my feet felt almost certainly was.  “Nothing in particular.  Just tired, I guess.  It’s been a long shift.”

            “We all have long shifts sometimes, but I’d expect better from you.”

            Because I was the responsible one.  Because I was the one who lived up to my potential.  “Right.  I know.  I’m sorry.”  But on the other hand, was my potential really defined by one interaction with a customer?  Or, for that matter, by one unreasonable class?

            Finally she finished with the lecture, told me to go back out onto the floor and turned back to her computer screen. 

            I thought about pointing out that I still had five minutes of breaktime left, if we considered time spent being lectured as not part of my break, but under the circumstances…well, I’m not a complete idiot.  I turned to go.

            “By the way,” she said before I could get out of her office, “when I was out on the floor I noticed there were a lot of white blouses piled up on the go-back rack.  See that you get those put away.”

            And somehow, that was it.  Not the irritating customer, not the usual scramble to find something to say, not the late and shortened break, not the hours of utter boredom standing by the front door, though all of that was part of it.  But it was the white blouses that finally did it.

            I turned back around.  “I’ll get right on that.  By the way, I’ve been meaning to tell you that I’m going back to school in the fall.  So you could consider this my two weeks notice.”

            She looked up from her computer screen.  “Oh.  Well.  Congratulations.  But doesn’t school start in September?”

            “Late-August, usually.”

            “Right.  And this is mid-June.”

            I smiled and shrugged.  “Oh, you know.  I need time to prepare.  So.  Two weeks notice.  I’ll go take care of those white blouses now.”

            And I walked out of her office and I put my book on Churchill away and I went back out to the floor and I found the right location for every single one of those white blouses.

A few acknowledgements at the end of this story.  First, to a girl I knew in a writing community six years ago named Carin.  She told us it was pronounced CAR-in, not Karen, and I remembered that when I knew I wanted a name that could be mispronounced by the Embroidered Lady.  Second, to a coworker I once had named Penny, who routinely saved women who found clothes they couldn’t live without; I borrowed a vocal program from her.  Third, to Stephen Sondheim, Tim Burton, and Johnny Depp, who all contributed to produce a musical that thundered through Carin’s head…and mine.

2 thoughts on “From Each According to Ability (Part Two)

  1. Diane

    Loved this story! You made a routine exercise in most people’s lives (clothes shopping) exciting. I wanted to read to the end to find out how the story turned out. I will not look at “sales associates” in retail stores the same in the future – I’ll wonder what they’re REALLY thinking when asking me if I want help finding something.

    1. I’m so glad you enjoyed it! I have to admit I don’t find clothes shopping–or retail work!–exciting myself, so I’m glad to hear the story came out that way. 🙂 And I always felt when I worked retail that smiling and staying polite was part of the job description, which leads me to wonder…what ARE people really thinking?

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