Time passes much quicker when you have a lot of customers. That’s what the manager told us and most of the time it seemed true. Today time must have been going at warp speed because there was a line of customers that snaked around the racks of clothes past the Thomas the Train display all the way to the door.
Put on a happy face. That was another one of her pearls of wisdom. Holiday music was playing and most of it was pleasant so smiling wasn’t that hard to do. Michael Buble was dreaming of a White Christmas. But it was hard to hear him because the people were jabbering. When they reached the counter they were excited and not always in a good way.
“I need this in a size 16,” said a puffy blonde woman with a red face. She shoved a red velour pantsuit in my direction.
“Everything we have is out on the floor,” I said, smiling extra sweetly. “Unless it’s in the dressing room, but we haven’t had time to check there,” I added, indicating the long line with a glance and a nod.
“But you could have one at another store,” she protested.
“Perhaps,” I said. “If you’d like to call our South Lake store there’s a courtesy phone behind the…”
“I know where the courtesy phone is,” the woman snapped. “But that’s really not my job, is it? I’ve been standing in this line for more than half an hour. The least you could do is call.”
Merry Christmas to you too. I smiled even wider and turned to call our other store.
“Yes. Could you please check an item for a customer? Yes, I know, we’re swamped too, but she’s been waiting for over half an hour.” I smiled at the woman. “They’re checking for you now. I’m on hold, so I can take the next customer.”
A timid little creature approached with a pair of fluffy slippers that looked like polar bear feet.
“How cute,” I said. Who in the world would wear these? Not this sweet little dormouse? But why would she buy such a tacky gift? “Would you like them gift wrapped?”
“Oh, could you?” she asked.
“Just bring your receipt. Gift wrap is on the second floor, across from the elevator. You can take your card now.” It was amazing how many people forgot to retrieve their credit cards during the holidays. Maybe it was because there was so much chatter they didn’t hear the obnoxious beeping that came from the card taker.
“Oh, you don’t have a size 16? Thank you. Thank you so much for checking. Yes, Merry Christmas to you too.” I turned to the blonde woman whose face seemed even redder. Like a tomato that’s been dropped in scalding water so the peel falls off easily. “I’m so sorry, ma’am. They don’t have a size 16.” I wonder if she has any idea I faked that call? She stormed away, knocking several sequined shawls off a rack as she left. Was that on purpose? Should I pick them up? I looked back at the line, still infinite despite the efforts of three other cashiers beside me.
A burly man leaned toward me. “I think I’m parked illegally,” he said.
“Don’t worry,” I chirped. “They never tow during the holidays.”
“I’m right by the fire hydrant,” he said.
“Well, if you’d like to move your car, I’ll take your things and check you out as soon as you get back,” I promised.
“I’ll take a chance,” he said. He laid several identical sweaters on the counter. “I’ll need gift receipts for these.”
“Of course.” I began ringing up his order, wondering if his car was being towed.
“Oh, and these need to be gift wrapped,” he said, indicating two boxes of Godiva chocolates. The boxes were gold and had a sprig of holly on them. Why did he need them gift wrapped?
“You’ll just need to bring your receipt to gift wrap. Second floor, across from the elevator. After you re-park your car, of course,” I smiled. As I finished ringing up his order, the man leaned in over the counter and asked if I got a lunchbreak. There was a distinct smell of bourbon on his breath. It almost masked the halitosis.
“Not on Black Friday.” I pulled a granola bar from under the counter. “Lunch,” I smiled.
“Well, I hope they’re paying you well. This can’t be easy.”
Brilliant observation! Well, at least he’s thinking about us. About our plight. About someone other than himself. Or is he? Perhaps he actually thinks has a chance with me. That I might actually go on a date with him? Oh, dear Goddess, can I make it another six hours?
“Good luck with the car,” I said.
The next customer was so nicely dressed I couldn’t believe she was actually in our store. Belk’s was definitely a store for the middle – and lower classes – and this lady was definitely upper class. Upper upper class.
“I am so happy you had these ornaments,” she said, beaming. “It’s so difficult to find the right gift for everyone. And people forget those who help us on a regular basis. I mean everyone remembers the mailman, but what about the pharmacist? The plumber? The garbage men?”
She handed me thirty two sugar plum fairy ornaments, one by one. They were on sale, two for five dollars.
Yes, the garbage men will adore these sparkling sugar plum fairies. Maybe if they have a daughter under the age of ten. If she likes that kind of thing. But wait, aren’t most of garbage men people of color? And these fairies are definitely white. Snow white. And what if the garbage men don’t have children? Why not give them five dollars? They could buy lunch – or at least a cup of coffee?
“Of course, I’ll need gift receipts and wrap,” she cooed.
Gift receipts? Gift receipts? What are you thinking? Maybe the garbage man needs two dollars and fifty cents so badly he’s actually going to come in the store and stand in line to get a refund?
“Of course,” I nodded. “Gift wrap is on the second floor, just as you get off the elevator.”
“I don’t do elevators,” she said.
I don’t do elevators. Do you do stairs? Escalators?
“Well, if you take the escalator, gift wrap will be on your right.”
“Thank you,” she said. Only it sounded like Theng Queue. “I always feel so claustrophobic in elevators. You never know who’s breathing down your neck.”
Well, she had a point.
“Are you paying by card?”
“Oh yes,” she said, and she pulled out a cardholder with a dozen platinum member cards. “Let’s do this one. I get five percent back when I used it in department stores during November.”
What would that be? Forty cents? Why do you care about forty cents? Is that your secret? How you can afford the St. John’s jacket and Gucci purse? An accumulation of credit card rewards?
“Hey, Mama, I made it. I’m next in line!” A teenage boy with a rubbery face staked his place at the counter. ”Mama, come here!” A big boned woman wearing too much makeup yelled back. “I’m coming.” She pushed her way to the counter using her shopping cart like a snow plow. “Good job, Bubba!” The cart was overflowing.
“You got some good bargains here.” The woman grinned. “Let’s see. Let’s ring these up first and give me a subtotal.” She pushed several pieces of lingerie onto the counter. I bet Bubba’s enjoying this. But Bubba seemed oblivious, still basking in his accomplishment.
I added up the pieces on the counter. “We’re at forty nine dollars and ninety eight cents,” I told her.
“Is that before tax?”
“Yes, ma’am. With tax it would be closer to fifty five dollars.”
“Well, let’s add these next,” she said, plopping a pair of men’s sweatpants on the counter.
“Sixty four dollars before tax,” I smiled.
She rummaged through the cart. “Bubba, what do you think? Would Paw Paw like these?” Bubba squealed. “Paw Paw’ll LOVE those!” She held up a pair of bright green boxers with a pattern of lipstick kisses. Do we sell those here?
“Okay,” she grinned. “Let’s add these.”
It was at that exact moment I realized that the half pot of coffee I’d drank at 4 a.m. had passed through my system and was demanding a hasty exit.
“We’re at seventy six dollars,” I smiled. Please let this be the last item she buys.
“Those boxers are twelve dollars? Oh, we can’t do that,” she said, snatching them back.
“But Mama, Paw Paw…”
“Paw Paw won’t know what he’s missing. And don’t you dare tell him. How about if we add these socks?”
“Sixty nine dollars – before tax.”
“Okay,” she said. Again she rummaged through the cart. “How about these?” She tossed a wool scarf and mittens my way. Apparently mental arithmetic was beyond this woman’s ken.
“Eighty five,” I said.
She pulled out a wad of cash from her fanny pack. Yes! There were some larger bills, but for some reason she began counting out fives and ones. The woman behind her looked pained. Please hurry, please.
“Seventy eight, seventy nine, eighty, eight five,” she said.
“With tax, it comes to ninety six eighty.”
“Ninety six eighty? Where’d that come from?”
“Taxes,” I smiled, squeezing my legs together.
“Well, now wait a minute. What if we subtract the socks?”
“But Mama, if you don’t get the socks, Paw Paw won’t get nothin’ “
“You got a point, son. You got any change on you?”
Bubba fumbled in his pocket and reluctantly handed over a five dollar bill.
“Okay, that means I need six dollars and eighty cent, right?”
I nodded, my cheeks and lips starting to ache from holding the artificial smile.
“One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, and you owe me twenty cent,” she said proudly.
I handed her the two dimes and turned to Becky. Becky was the cashier next to me. It was actually her turn for a ten minute break. Ten minutes is all that’s allowed on Black Friday. “I’m sorry, Becky, I’ve got to go,” I said. “Well, I’ve got to go too,” she said. “And it’s my turn!”
“Great,” I said. “We’ll go together.” Becky scowled. I locked my register and headed to the restroom, which was on the second floor, right next to gift wrap. The escalator will be quickest. I don’t do elevators.
It felt good to relax my face. There was a line outside the door to the restroom. I squeezed by, ignoring the looks of indignation and disdain as I pushed through the restroom door. Suddenly, I began making a retching noise. Coughing, spluttering, heaving. Anything I could think of to suggest that unless I had access to the very next available stall, a volcanic eruption would occur. It worked. A woman with a little girl held the door for me. I made one more retching sound and quickly flushed the toilet. And then I sat down. Finally, relief!
I probably should have stayed in the stall longer, or at least kept up the charade when I came out, but I didn’t. I came out transformed. A new woman. My attitude was something akin to the lady with the Gucci purse. The world was my oyster. I washed my hands, and looked in the mirror quite pleased with myself. All I needed was a string of pearls to complete the look. A shop girl no more. From the corner of my eye I saw a middle aged woman still looking worried for me. I gave her a smile and a nod and exited the restroom.
The escalator down offered the best view of the store. It actually looked somewhat elegant from that vantage. The lit Christmas tree, the sparkling glass counters around the perfume counters, and the silver mannequins pertly posed in pastel cashmere sweaters and neat pencil skirts.
I was almost tempted to go back to the second floor and come down the escalator again when something caught my eye. A small red rectangle on the wall. An escape hatch! Why hadn’t I seen it before? It must have been there all the time.
But as I headed toward it, a sudden nagging thought stopped me. Wait. Wasn’t it a federal offense to set a false alarm? There were cameras everywhere. I couldn’t just go up and pull it. Think. Think.
We’d been told to check the dressing rooms when we came back from breaks. I popped inside and there they were, piles of unwanted clothes falling off hangers, flung on chairs, strewn on the floor. And then I saw it. The instrument of liberty! A long woolen coat on a large wooden hanger. I piled the clothes in a cart and carried the coat and hanger over my arm. The fire alarm was on the way back to my register. I’d have to make it look like an accident. It was just below shoulder level. There was a plastic door over it. If I brushed by, it would open. There was a woman pushing a stroller toward me. Of course, I’d have to get out of her way. “Excuse me, ma’am.” I pulled back awkwardly and bumped against the plastic cover. Open Sesame. So easy!
Pulling the handle wouldn’t be quite so simple. I positioned the wooden hanger at the exact level of the lever on the alarm. “Pull down” it said. As though it was ordering me. Just then, I heard a familiar voice behind me. “What are you doing? It’s not your turn for break. Becky hasn’t had a break since six a.m.” This was it. This was the moment. Who could possibly imagine I would finagle the fire alarm with my boss standing right beside me?
“Oh, Miss Carter,” I said, smiling brightly. “I’m so sorry. I just had to use the restroom and I thought I’d check the dressing rooms –“ Suddenly, the deafening and unrelenting sound of success!
“Now look what you’ve done,” said Miss Carter, horrified.
I watched the ensuing panic with detachment. It all seemed to be happening in slow motion. Mothers clutching their children and heading to the exits. Shoppers anxiously clutching their purchases.
“There’s no need for panic,” said Miss Carter in her sharp voice. “It’s a false alarm!” No one paid any attention to her.
The personalities of the individual shoppers emerged in the crisis. “Everyone form a line,” barked one sturdy woman. “Let’s have some order.” Gym Coach? Drill Sargent? “I can’t find Mother,” said an older man. Mama’s boy. He had to be at least sixty five.
“Do we think this is a real fire?” Ah, the Skeptic. One woman catapulted herself like an asteroid toward the door. “Asthma,” she panted. The Invalid. “I don’t think I can take this,” said a young teenage girl. “It’s too much!” Drama Queen. Her friend picked up a tester cologne from the cosmetic counter and dropped it in her purse. The Opportunist.
And so the parade of human stereotypes made their way to the exits of the store until it was almost empty. The holiday music was still playing under the deafening sound of the alarm.
“You wait here,” said Miss Carter. The firetrucks had arrived. Miss Carter was suddenly surrounded by men with yellow helmets and black boots. It seemed like a very long time passed before she headed toward me with the Fire Chief. He was an imposing man.
“So what happened?” he asked. He didn’t look happy. I wondered if his job was as boring as a cashier’s. It couldn’t be. At least he didn’t have to smile all day long.
“I went to the bathroom,” I said. He rolled his eyes. “And?”
“On the way back from break we’re supposed to check the dressing rooms. People leave things in the dressing rooms. We’re supposed to put them back on the floor.” I knew how to play this role. Breathy. A little ditzy. A young Melanie Griffith.
“It wasn’t even her turn for break,” piped in Miss Carter.
“Miss Carter came up behind me and frightened me. I’m sorry, Miss Carter, but you did.” Miss Carter narrowed her eyes. “And I bumped into the alarm.”
“Bumping it won’t set it off. Pulling the lever sets it off.”
“Oh, I didn’t pull the lever,” I said, wide eyed. “It was the coat hanger. The hanger got caught…” I could tell I was winning him over.
A local news crew appeared at the store entrance. Cameras began flashing.
“I get clumsy when I’m nervous,” I said. “I haven’t had anything to eat since 5 a.m.” I said this last part loud enough for the journalists to hear.
“Everything alright, Chief?” asked the newsman.
“Yep. False alarm,” barked the chief.
“You’re not going to charge me?” I pleaded.
“Charge you for what? Being a klutz?” I grimaced at the characterization. And then, suddenly, I hugged the Chief. “Oh, thank you, Chief. You’ve made my Christmas!”
That was the picture they printed on the front page of the paper. The caption ready “Overworked Employee thanks Fire Chief.” There was even an editorial in the paper about minimum wage workers needing better working conditions. I was a local celebrity for a few weeks.
Miss Carter didn’t put me on the schedule for December. Which was quite fine, because I got a job as a receptionist at the Fire Department. There were much nicer people at the Fire Department, and I always got an hour break for lunch. Miss Carter had been right about one thing, though. Time goes faster when you have a lot of customers.