It’s Not Rocket Science

Submitted into Contest #216 in response to: Include dialogue that shows that a character is socially awkward.... view prompt

35 comments

Inspirational

TW: possible sensitive themes.


The shit usually hits the fan an hour or so after the shop has opened. On bad days, before then. On really bad days, it continues after we’ve closed. People keep donating, often bringing boxes they can barely lift themselves, and expecting you to express undying gratitude when you’re desperate to cash up and go home. We’re not saints here, even if we’re expected to be. Sometimes I can’t get the key in the lock because some bright spark has blocked the entrance with donations. They tumble onto the pavement as I try to step over them, then turn out to be nothing more than a pile of unwashed bedding, or worse. Don’t even go there! The older I get (and let’s face it, I’m not getting any younger), the more it bugs me.


From 10 o’clock onwards, the donations pile in like there’s no tomorrow and I wonder why I keep putting myself through this punishment. My belief in the cause is undiminished (having lost a sister and my beloved partner to the disease the shop was originally set up to raise funds for), but physically the job is killing me. My arms, neck and shoulders ache from constantly lifting heavy bags. Over time, the aches accumulate.


That’s why I’m so grateful to have Jack and others like him to take the load off.


The work might be never ending, but it has its rewards and I don’t mean first pick of the stock like people think. There are actually rules about that kind of thing, human nature being what it is. No, what I like best about the job is meeting great people and exceeding targets, year in, year out. I just don’t know how much longer…

But when something nice happens, I tell myself, “Today is a good day.”

***


“Didn’t you say Jack should be here soon?” My new assistant Trace interrupts the monologue that’s been playing out in my head for weeks, even months now:

Should I stay or should I go? Like the single by The Clash.


I check my phone…

“Barring something unexpected, Jack will be here on the dot of ten.”

“Right. Is there anything I need to know?” Trace is into her third week of the assistant role and is still learning the ropes. Overall, the job isn’t rocket science, just bloody hard work. That what I told her when she decided she was going to apply for the position. She was already a helper, but needed paid work. I wanted her to get an accurate picture, not one with rosy unicorns and pink ribbons. If that didn’t put her off, then great. Fate smiled on me and offered the right person for the job. I find with this kind of work, the honeymoon period usually lasts around six months. After that, the realities of the job set in and it’s easy to get disillusioned. Still, that’s in the future and might never happen. 


So far, so good. 


“Just make sure Jack has plenty of space at the table. He likes to work on his own. He’d feel uncomfortable with anyone working next to him. He always sits on the side facing the door. Also, you need to have the games ready for him to check.” Some of the customers are only too happy to point out faults. If they think we’ve overlooked something or there’s a piece missing, they’ve plenty to say about it.”


Maybe they need to get a life!


Only the other day, a man came into the shop all hoity-toity, vigorously complaining about some missing pieces in a game of monopoly. “It says it’s complete on the box,” he moaned. He’s the same one that asks us to search for impossible items in the back of the store (usually a tea set with an obscure pattern no one’s ever come across) and is disgruntled when you come back empty-handed. As if we can control what comes into a charity shop! It’s not as if we can order things! WE GET WHAT WE ARE GIVEN.


I wouldn’t have minded, but the game only cost a few quid in the first place! Hopefully, an identical one will come in soon. But no! He had to go and make a point of showing his friends photos of said item on Facebook. Don’t you just hate it when people do that? The job is hard enough without people making it harder and I hate it when our shop gets a bad rep. Judging how packed out it gets though, most people love it.


Luckily Trace dealt with annoying man flawlessly. Textbook style, in fact. She listened politely, kept calm and did plenty of apologising.


Not like me. I mean, REALLY? I’m more than happy to apologise for genuine mistakes, but there are limits. When Trace came over and discreetly asked what to do next, I suggested she give him a refund or offer an exchange, but that would have been too easy. He wanted drama. He wanted to make a song and dance out of it so all the other customers could hear how useless we are here! Such people must have sad lives. Next thing, he’ll be emailing head-office; my boss will respond and it will involve bucketloads of grovelling on my part. (Incidentally, I didn’t dare tell Jack about the missing monopoly bits because he’s usually scrupulous when it comes to checking things – maybe it was the one time he got distracted), but that’s the way it goes…


In spite of this little blip, I appreciate Jack’s work and we rarely get complaints as a result of anything he’s done or not done.


IF THEY ARE SO UNHAPPY WITH THINGS, WHY DON’T THEY OFFER TO HELP?

On second thoughts, that’s not such a good idea. I might end up killing them.


“Just stack the games up neatly on the stool next to the sorting table, Trace. Jack will sort them from there.”

“Will do. Erm, shall I give him puzzles to check as well? Or just the games?”

“Good question. You can give him puzzles – he loves doing them, but try to give him ones with less than 200 pieces.”

“Oh, why’s that?”

“He’ll happily spend all morning checking the larger puzzles, but that means actually doing them. Admittedly, he’s quick, but it means there’s time for nothing else. He won’t have time to check the games if he does a 1,000 piece puzzle. And let’s face it, there’s no shortage of things to do round here.”

“Got ya.”

“Ah, here he is now. Hi Jack.” A strong-looking lad arrives bearing a rucksack and wearing a hoodie displaying the shop logo. He beamed when I gave him the hoodie. 

“Hi Yvonne.”

“Hi Jack. You alright?”

“Yes. I’M OK.”

“Good.”

“Have you had a good week?”

“FINE.”

“How”s Murphy? I hope he’s been behaving himself.”


Jack’s face lights up. “Murphy has been good. THIS WEEK. I’ve had to keep him away from the river. Danni doesn’t like it when he puts dirty footprints all over the carpet. She GETS CROSS with him.” He shows me a video on his phone of an adorable golden Labrador smiling and wagging his tail.”

“He’s gorgeous, Jack! How old is he now?”

“JUST 14 months old.” He puts his phone away.

“This is Trace, by the way. She’s our new assistant. I don’t think you’ve met before.”

“I’ve seen her… HERE. BEFORE.”

“Well, she’s come to work here as the new assistant. You’ll be seeing her regularly from now on.”

Trace smiles encouragingly. “Hello Jack.”

“HELLO.”

“Well, now you’ve met Trace properly, I’m going to need you to move some boxes and bags of books in the storage room. Things aren’t looking too good in there. There needs to be a clear metre walkway in case of fire. I don’t want my boss telling me off. Can you do that, Jack?”

“YES.”

“Ok, great. There’s going to be some lifting involved and you might get hot in this heat. Remember to break the heavy loads down into smaller amounts and call me if you need help.”

“I KNOW. I’ll be alright. You forget. I’M STRONG.”

“That’s true. Do you want a coffee before you get cracking?”

“Not now! AFTER.”

“Ok. Can you take a look in the cupboard and see if we’ve got any Oreos left?”

“I’ll do the books first. THEN I’ll check the biscuits. YOU ran out last time I was here.”

“I did.”

“YOU ran out of them the time before too.”

“Oh dear! Sorry about that! I know how much you like Oreos.”

“Doesn’t MATTER, I’ll get a packet soon.”

I hear myself rambling while Jack awaits precise instructions about where to put the books. 

“Oreos are so tasty. Not very good for the waistline, but nice.”

“NOT WORRIED about that.”

“Right. Well, if there aren’t any in the cupboard, I’ll get the money out of petty cash and you can go and get some.”

Jack checks the fridge. “We’re about to run out of milk, Yvonne.”

“But there’s enough for a drink now, right? Do you want to to have coffee before you start moving the books, or afterwards?”

“AFTERWARDS.”

“Ok.”

“After that, I’ll get more milk and Oreos.”


Jack opens the bathroom door. It’s nothing to write home about, not much more than a cubbyhole, but it’s all we’ve got. 

“You only have TWO toilet rolls. Shall I get some more?”

“That’s a good idea. Don’t forget, I’ll need the receipt to put it through the till.”

“Ok. I WON’T forget.”



Half an hour later, I go and see how Jack’s progressing with the books.

“That looks great, Jack. All spick and span. Nice and tidy. No trip hazards for me to worry about now. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. I’ll get my coffee NOW. Then, I’ll get the shopping.”

“Ok. See you in a bit. By the way, there’s plenty of games ready for you to check in the sorting room.”

“Ok. See you in a bit.”


Having tidied the books and drunk his coffee and bought the shopping, Jack sets about his other tasks with aplomb. He seems comfortable round Trace, but it will take a while for him to get to used to another person. He’s not worked with her before.


Jack gives equal attention to each game, but he has his favourites. Special attention is given to Buckaroo, maybe because he enjoys setting the parts up. It’s satisfying watching the contraption working and seeing the horse buck. Perhaps for the same reason, he’s absorbed by “Operation” – seeing if all the tiny body parts are present and inspecting the wiring. However, I’m convinced his greatest pleasure comes from laying out the pieces of a jigsaw on the table and fitting them all together. It’s rewarding to catch the glow in his eyes when he completes one.


If it isn’t complete, he’ll say, “It isn’t all there, Yvonne. It has pieces missing.” 

He waits for me give him permission to dump it in the bin.

***


Having worked through eight games, he’s just about to start on a two-hundred piece puzzle with brightly-coloured parrots when there’s an intermittent bleeping. He covers his ears and screws up his face. 

I’m standing opposite, pricing clothes on a rail. Trace is serving on the till playing great music from her phone, upping the atmosphere. Soon the place will be filled with customers.

“What’s the matter Jack?”

“Ah.” He pokes his ears. “The noise!”

“I can’t place where it’s coming from. None of the toys are beeping.”

“Aggggh.” He presses his hands against his ears while I try to locate the source.


Trace has now been relieved by a helper and has returned to the sorting room. She squats, her ear to the ground, pointing at the fire door guard. “I think the noise is coming from here. It’s been a bit temperamental lately.”

“Try taking the batteries out for the moment. We’ll replace them later.”

Trace gets  a screwdriver, removes the batteries and the bleeping stops. Relieved, Jack returns to his puzzle.

***


A week later, everything changes when Jack pops his head round the sorting room door. He’s standing at the door, not coming in. It’s not always easy to read his emotions, but he looks sad. And when he speaks, his words come out in a rush.

“Erm, I won’t be able to help anymore… I’ve got a job cleaning dishes.”I try to hide my disappointment. Not for him. For myself. “We’re really going to miss you, but I’m pleased about the job, Jack.”

“Yes.”

Trace comes over to offer her congratulations.

“Well done Jack.”

“Thanks.” 

“That’s great.”

“Ok. I have to go.”


“I thought Jack seemed crestfallen, considering he’s just got a job,” Trace says.

“He’s been helping here for four years and I’ve never seen him like that!” I feel close to tears myself. “I’m going to miss him.”

***

It’s been two weeks since Jack left and just as I’m trying to readjust to not having him around, there’s a call.

“It’s for you.” Trace hands me the phone.

“Hello, how can I help?”

“Is that Yvonne?”

“Yes.”

“Hello. It’s Danni. I’m Jack’s older sister. You know he lives with me.”

“Oh. Hello Danni. Yes, he’s said.”

“Erm, I think I’ve made a mistake encouraging Jack to leave the shop. He’s been really upset about it. I hadn’t realised how important it was for him to come and help. So much so, I’ve spoken to the people at his workplace and they’re willing to let him change shifts. That means he can still come to the shop,” – she hesitates- “that is, if you still want him.”

“Of course we still want him.” 

“That’s great. I’m so relieved. Sorry to have messed you about. Shall I ask him to come on Thursday and Friday morning, as normal?”

“Oh, yes please. It’s not been the same since he left.” 

***


It’s Wednesday morning and a postal worker hands me a letter at the door. I mean to open it, but get distracted by a phone call. Someone’s bringing a car load of donations and have we room for them? At least they’ve bothered ringing; it means I can work out where to put them. I add the letter to the pile growing on my desk. To be opened when things calm down, whenever that will be.


The tension lifts a little when Jack turns up. He’s wearing a walking jacket and beside him a great Labrador with a lolloping pink tongue and waving tail offers a welcome respite.

“Settle down Murphy,” Jack says.

“Hello Murphy. Wow! What a lovely dog!”

He pats him affectionately. “He’s the BEST dog.” He rummages in his rucksack, producing a dog biscuit for Murphy. “EAT IT GENTLY, Murphy,” he says holding out the biscuit. When he returns to his rucksack, out come two packets of Oreos. “I’ve brought these in for tomorrow. It’s my birthday tomorrow.  They are for everyone.”He looks at me.“ Danni has made a cake for me to bring in too. It’s my TREAT.”

“Thank you, Jack. That’s great. It hasn’t been the same without you.”

“Ok. I have to go now. Got to give Murphy a run.” He shakes his head at the dog. “No jumping in the RIVER Murphy.” Then grinning at the rest of us. “See you tomorrow.”

“Looking forward to having you back,” I say.

***


After Jack leaves, I remember the letter. It turns out to be an invitation for me and a group of other long-servers to attend an event at a London hotel to celebrate our time with the company. Can I really have been here twenty years? Will I be given a china dish to celebrate – like you get in a marriage? In a way, the job is a bit like a marriage, full of ups and downs. Rewarding too.


What with the letter and the prospect of Jack returning to help, today is proving to be one of the better days.

***

September 19, 2023 17:42

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35 comments

02:57 Apr 01, 2024

It's all about teamwork in places like that. Jack needs the consistency, people around him who appreciate his need for space, can handle his being pedantic and understand his need for consistency - keeping on at a place where he is valued and feels like he is doing something meaningful. A rewarding read. Thanks, Helen. Glad I chose one of your older stories.

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Graham Kinross
00:24 Nov 21, 2023

I take it this is based on the same charity shop from your other stories? The relationships in those places make or break the environment don’t they. I was doing a similar job to the one I do now but with colleagues who understood me more and it made everything better. The emotional toll of work getting you down ruins home life which makes work harder and becomes a vicious cycle. I like how you’ve shown the way a good team can help each other here.

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Helen A Smith
12:08 Nov 21, 2023

Hi Graham, Charity shops can be full of life, especially behind the scenes. Sadly, they are increasingly becoming some of the few shops remaining on the high street and in some cases have become the hub of a community. You are so right about colleagues who work well together making a job easier. It seems a constant battle these days to balance home and work life. You’d think with all the advances in technology, it would be the other way round. Thanks for reading.

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Graham Kinross
12:15 Nov 21, 2023

You would think. In my experience employers chance their arm to get workers doing things outside usual working hours and just tack that on to contracts which shouldn’t be allowed. Being contacted day and night for a job is completely out of order.

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Helen A Smith
13:24 Nov 21, 2023

It is. There is certainly no work/life balance there.

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Graham Kinross
22:07 Nov 21, 2023

Exactly.

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Amanda Lieser
02:07 Oct 20, 2023

Hi Helen! This was a great piece because I adored the setting so much. It’s an environment that we are aware of but not always engrossed in and I thought you did an amazing job of creating your cast of characters. It’s hard to know what our callings are truly enduring, and I appreciated that this team seem to truly value each other and appreciate the personal and professional balance for one another, it’s hard to leave the personal at the door when you walk into work and it’s near impossible to leave work at work right before you come home. ...

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Helen A Smith
07:17 Oct 20, 2023

Hi Amanda I love your take on this story. The relationships between work colleagues often makes a job worth doing, even when over time it may well have lost a lot of its original charm and become stressful and/or monotonous. I’m so glad you liked the setting and cast of characters. Thanks for reading.

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Karen Corr
11:20 Sep 26, 2023

Touching and engrossing, Nicely told!

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Helen A Smith
16:02 Sep 26, 2023

Thanks Karen. Glad you found my story engrossing. Will go over to read yours when I’m not working.

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C T E
08:44 Sep 26, 2023

Excellent story. Reminds me of a place I’ve worked at before. Heart warming and well written. Awesome. 😊

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Helen A Smith
09:43 Sep 26, 2023

Thank you CTE. It was fun to write.

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Hannah Lynn
03:03 Sep 26, 2023

I enjoyed your story! You really brought those characters to life :)

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AnneMarie Miles
15:59 Sep 23, 2023

This a sweet tale, and a great place to put it: at a charity shop, where altruism does show through, despite the toughness of the job as well. It takes both grit and compassion to do that job, I imagine. Your MC doesn't hide her frustration or the stresses of the job, but she handles them well and we can see the kindness that drives her. People like Jack certainly make the job rewarding and worth it. Jack, by the way, was developed really well. I hadn't read the prompt for this story yet and I kept thinking... what's wrong with this guy? See...

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Helen A Smith
16:22 Sep 23, 2023

Thank you. Your comments are insightful. I’m glad the show/ don’t tell side of things came out here. I’m so glad you noticed as I’m working on show/don’t tell. I’m so glad you enjoyed it.

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AnneMarie Miles
16:29 Sep 23, 2023

Show don't tell is one of the hardest parts of writing for me!

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Helen A Smith
16:34 Sep 23, 2023

That doesn’t come across in your writing.

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Rebecca Miles
20:06 Sep 22, 2023

You craft Jack really well, using the dialogue especially the caps to build his character. I enjoyed the gentle humour of him being apt to check all the puzzles. I can imagine this is based a bit on own experience but you transform it beautifully to the needs of the prompt. I hope your Egyptian book is still on the burner ;-)

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Helen A Smith
20:29 Sep 22, 2023

Hi Rebecca I’m pleased you thought it transformed to the needs of the prompt. It was great to focus on something positive. I think there’s a bit of my experiences in all the stories, even the fantasy one I wrote about the lonely dragon. I’ve got a few days off so I will almost certainly have a look at the Egyptian book again. The trouble is I get preoccupied with these short stories and the book gets put on hold. It seems there’s never enough hours in the day! I hope you are able to spend time on your novel too.

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Rebecca Miles
05:16 Sep 23, 2023

That's always the problem with the shorts. I've completed a novella which I'm going to query agents with. Be dedicated with the book and try to keep Reedsy to a hobby ( easier said than done I know!)

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Helen A Smith
07:30 Sep 23, 2023

Good luck with the novella 👍

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Delbert Griffith
11:22 Sep 22, 2023

Nice tale, Helen. Amid the chaos, the rude customer, and the piles of whatever people want to donate, humanity exists. Also, I'm glad the batteries in the fire alarm didn't portend a fire. I was afraid that was going to happen, but it's great to see the old charity store in full swing again. Nicely done, my friend. Cheers!

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Helen A Smith
11:41 Sep 22, 2023

Thanks Delbert. I wanted to portray the goodness in people. A fire could have been a possibility, but it didn’t seem right for the story. Maybe another time, but not for here. I’m currently working on a murder story, so who knows what might happen there? 😧

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Danie Holland
23:04 Sep 21, 2023

Helen— I thought this story was very endearing and what a creative take on dialogue. I loved the cast of characters and I loved the setting of a charity shop. One of my favorite parts — IF THEY ARE SO UNHAPPY WITH THINGS, WHY DON’T THEY OFFER TO HELP? People are so quick to complain but so slow to offer solutions. How relatable! Thank you for sharing this story with us 💜

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Helen A Smith
09:07 Sep 22, 2023

Thanks Danie Glad you liked the dialogue. I really wanted to get that right. You noticed the key points. Thanks for reading.

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Danie Holland
11:11 Sep 22, 2023

Also, big fan of the name “Danni” 💜 😏

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Helen A Smith
11:15 Sep 22, 2023

Of course 😊

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Michał Przywara
20:57 Sep 21, 2023

It's nice getting another story in this charity shop. Time goes on and brings with it change, and possibly an even bigger change that the narrator is mulling over. But she's passed the torch on. Trace isn't a replacement yet, but she may well one day be. Jack's a neat character too, and it's good his sister reconsidered things. "He wanted drama" - yeah, that's what I was thinking the whole time. I was worried midway through the story, that it would take a dark turn with the beeping, and the disabling of the guard. Naturally, I wondered...

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Helen A Smith
09:10 Sep 22, 2023

Thanks Michal It felt good to write a positive story. Human nature working together at its best.

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Aeris Walker
15:32 Sep 20, 2023

These were all endearing characters, and you did a good job working in the awkward dialogue through Jack. I loved the imagery of him sifting through the donated games and puzzles, putting things together, and just making the shop a better place. Sweet story :)

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Helen A Smith
15:44 Sep 20, 2023

Thanks Aeris. I enjoyed writing it. I’m glad you thought the dialogue worked. It was tricky and I didn’t want to overdo it.

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Mary Bendickson
19:01 Sep 19, 2023

A taste of life in the busy charity shop. Thanks for sharing. Love Jack and best of luck with your celebrations.🎉 Happy birthday 🎂🥳

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Helen A Smith
19:12 Sep 19, 2023

Thanks Mary It’s actually my birthday this week which made me think of celebrations and anniversaries. Look forward to reading your story tomorrow.

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Unknown User
02:35 Sep 20, 2023

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Helen A Smith
06:59 Sep 20, 2023

Thanks Joe. Murphy is definitely top dog. Dogs bring so much positive energy into a place.

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