I didn't intend to overhear anything. Grabbing my Walmart Great Value mozzarella string cheese and my sandwich bag of self-mixed nuts from the fridge, I'd only intended to take my quick break the same time I always did.
She sat at the other end of the long table, her left arm, elbow on the table, supporting her head, which faced away from me. Though hushed, I clearly heard her say, "I can't do this job. Maybe I'm not cut out for any job."
That is, of course, when I realized that she spoke to someone on her phone. I couldn't see it when I sat down, though I suppose if I was paying attention I would have realized. Feeling awkward, I started to get up, but then I heard her say, "Look, I have to go. I'm sorry if I disappoint you…. Yes… I love you too."
Then I heard the phone clatter on the table and her head now rested in the palms of both hands. She brushed her hands back, pushing her dark brown hair out of her face as she straightened. She spotted me then in the process of getting up. "I'm… umm… really sorry."
"No, I'm sorry. I had no intention of eavesdropping. Had I known you were on the phone, I wouldn't have come in." I noticed her eyes looked a bit red, and puffy. "Look… it's not my business, and I'm not asking for details, but are you ok?"
She dropped her head back into her hands and broke down. Clearly she wasn't.
I didn't know what to do. Leave? Put my arm around her shoulders? Try to say something soothing, which I didn't really excel at anyway. I didn't know her. I didn't even know if this was her first day, being off on Mondays and Tuesdays. So I opted for awkward silence. Something I did excel at.
Finally, haltingly, she started speaking without looking up. "I'm sorry. I'm sure this is awkward for you and I didn't mean to lose it. You must think I'm weird…"
"No," I said, "I think you're hurting."
She started to get up from the table, reaching over to gather her purse. "I need to go."
I got up, walked over and sat across from her. She hesitated a moment, then sat back down. "Why do you need to go?" I asked. I'm not even sure why I asked. I don't tend to get involved in other people's personal issues. Maybe it was something in the words I overheard.
"I don't know anything about working retail. To be honest, I've never actually worked a day in my life. I don't know a thing about Lawn and Garden, or Appliances, or Electronics, or anything for that matter," she said.
I looked at her and calmly said, "Yet, they hired you."
"They didn't hire me because I'm experienced. They only needed a body to throw out on the floor."
"So, maybe that's true. So what? Mostly It's why anybody gets hired. Even most college graduates only have a vague idea of the job they are hired to perform. Someone saw something in them, and they have to prove that someone right. They saw something in you. It's up to you to show THEM what a great decision they made."
She gave a hesitant smile. "You sound like my son, even if we are probably close in age. It was at his urging that I take this job, 'spread my wings' so to speak. He worries about me. I just don't know that I'm cut out for it."
I reached across and gently cupped her hand. "I don't believe that at all. You ever washed clothes?"
"Of course. Who hasn't?"
"Do you have a refrigerator, or do you cut ice out of a frozen lake and store it in your barn under sawdust to preserve it through the summer?"
She smiled. "I do own a refrigerator."
"Good. You live with the rest of us in the twenty-first century. I bet you know what you like, what you don't like, and what might be better, right?"
"And you're not stupid."
Her eyes flared, and I put my hands up in surrender. "Sorry. Poor choice of wording. I only meant that I believe you are capable of learning."
"I'm sorry. My ex-husband could be verbally abusive, though he didn't see it that way. His favorite saying was 'What are you, stupid?' I really grew to hate that." I noticed how she clenched her fists as she spoke.
She also used a lot of past tense speaking of him. Widowed or divorced probably, and none of my business. "My name's Robert. Robert Fullerton, but everyone calls me Bob." I reached across the table.
She took the proffered hand. "Jane," she said, Jane Walters." Then she regarded me a little more intently. "So you're the number one sales guy. Their ace. The other's spoke of you."
I sighed. I know what the others tend to think of me. Some regard me as arrogant. Maybe I come off that way. I'm much older and don't have the same interests they do. I'm not stand-offish, nor am I one to discuss much about myself. There's little I have in common with them. So I said, which held a lot of truth was, "Retail tends to be a transient position for people. Some last a few weeks. Some a few months. I have been here for years. I know the business. Some might say I 'own' it. Not the store, but the experience. That goes a long way. If you apply yourself, Jane, you can own it." I rose from the table. "I'm willing to help if you want. If you feel the need to go, by all means do so, but I'm asking for a week to give it a chance."
She sighed. "It would make my son happy. If you're sure, I'll try not to pester you too much."
I smiled at her. "You won't. I'm glad you'll try"
For the next week Jane ghosted me when able, listening as I spoke with customers. She took brochures of the different products and studied all the capabilities and features, took online product training, and walked around the store to familiarize herself with everything.
She asked questions, and she listened. I found her to be extremely intelligent as well as personable. She just needed the confidence to put it all together while comfortably interacting with the customers. She did very well with the small items. The bigger ones; tractors, large appliances, and high-tech electronics still intimidated her at times. But she forced herself to work on it. It pleased me to see her return for week two, then week three.
We spoke often during slow times while doing busy work like pricing, stocking and straightening shelves. I learned how her husband won quite a large sum of money in the lottery, and then decided he no longer wanted to be married to her.
"Now he is with Tina, the twenty-something gold digger with the firm tits and ass I no longer possess at forty-nine," she said, "and good riddance. I'm done with relationships! Sometimes I wonder if he goes to any of her friend's houses while they record themselves dancing to upload on Tik-tok. God forbid!"
I wanted to let her know that she was still a comely woman, but it seemed not the time and felt disrespectful to the memory of my wife.
She also said he tried to take all the winnings, but the courts didn't see it that way. She confided that she probably didn't have to work, but feared the possibility of a medical issue leaving her destitute. "And my son was adamant not only that I find a job and get insurance, but that I also do it for my sanity. He feared me home with only my thoughts."
I understood. I told her about my wife, and how she passed. Work kept me from being alone too much with my thoughts also.
Then the day came she walked in no longer looking anything like the Jane I met sobbing in the breakroom. She had her hair cut and styled in an almost movie star sort of way, which she could've pulled off if she didn't also look so uncomfortable. "I broke down and went to a stylist instead of cutting my own. It's too much, I think. It isn't me."
Almost speechless, I struggled for the words, but I am generally clueless. All I could muster was, "Jane, honestly, I think you're becoming the YOU you were always meant to be."
It must have pleased her. Her hazel eyes lit up and her face glowed as majestically as a sunset over the ocean. Smiling, she unexpectedly pecked me on the cheek and quickly moved away. I just stood there completely dumbfounded, as I am apt to do.
A few weeks later my daughter called my cell. "Hi daddy, Bill and I are coming in to get our new kitchen appliances. He got that promotion and a sizable bonus on top of it."
"That's great, Anne! I'm so happy for you and Bill." Then I thought about it for a minute and said, "Listen, Anne, we have a fairly new associate named Jane. I'm asking that you work with her."
Silence greeted me from the other end. I almost thought we got disconnected, but then, "Why dad? I want you to have the sale."
I sighed. "I know Anne. See, the thing is, Jane has worked so hard and come so far. I think a sale like this might really boost her confidence. I don't need the money as much as she needs the boost. If, though, you are really unhappy with her, let her know you really came to see me. Just don't let her know you're my daughter. Please."
"Ok, dad, if that's what you want. I will talk to Bill so he knows.
"Thank you," I said.
My daughter and Bill came in a few hours later, and walked over to the major appliances section. I saw Jane walk over and engage with them. The store was fairly quiet, so I hung around Electronics checking signs, which gave me a good vantage point to watch.
Jane worked with them a good hour or so, moving from refrigerators, to ovens, to dishwashers and even over to microhoods. She looked confident, smiling and animatedly opening doors and pointing out features. Eventually Bill followed Jane to the sales register. Anne nonchalantly made her way over to me.
"I think she might be better at this than you are, dad," Anne said.
"You think so?"
"Let me put it to you this way. Not only did she upsell us, she got Bill to get the extra warranty on everything."
I was dumbfounded. Mr. 'Those things are just gimmicky rip-offs' actually decided to purchase them. "I am stunned."
"And," Anne held up a finger for emphasis, "guess who is opening up a store charge account and taking advantage of the twelve-months same-as-cash?"
Now I felt fully stunned. To get him to open a charge was not unlike filling in the Grand Canyon with a garden spade. "Now I am humbled."
"You should be. Hey, is that a new shirt?" she said, pinching the material between her fingers and giving a gentle tug.
"This? I got it on sale a week ago or so."
Anne looked at me a little closer. "Those pants are new too."
"Can't your old man spend his money on clothes if he wants?"
"My old man never spent money on new clothes when his old ones worked perfectly fine."
Then she leaned in and started sniffing me! "Hey, no sniffing your dad! There are rules against that. Besides, it's weird."
"Oh hush! THAT is not Old Spice you're wearing. What gives?"
"Nothing 'gives.' I ran out of the Old Spice. That's all," suddenly finding a sign that needed straightening.
"Fibber Mcgee, you are daddy. The only thing you had more of was socks. That's all we got you every Christmas and every birthday - socks and Old Spice."
"Not true, Anne," I said. "You guys did get me that electronic putting green that kicked the golf balls back."
Anne smiled, then just regarded me quietly, long enough for me to start squirming, then said, "You know mom would approve of her, don't you?"
"I don't know what you're talking about," I said.
"Uh huh," Anne said before walking back to Bill who was finishing up.
From that point on, it did become a friendly competition between us. Jane really came into her own, and our sale's metrics were often very close. If she got a good sale, or got ahead of me in sales and extended warranties, she'd lick her finger and draw a number one in the air. Seemed she did that more and more all the time. It made me laugh.
We also spent some time together outside the store. We went to dinner once in a while, and I took her to see the plays Phantom of the Opera, and Wicked. She really loved Wicked, being a huge fan of The Wizard of Oz. She said her ex-husband had no interest in seeing a play.
Then one day she pulled me aside and asked, "Bob, how do you see me?"
I really didn't know where to go with that one. "I'm not sure what you mean, Jane? Competent, funny, personable…"
She looked exasperated. "I'm not asking this right. We spend all this time together, in and outside of work. Yet, you never make any kind of moves or anything."
Now I felt really confused. "We're friends. You've made it clear that you have no interest in any relationships."
"Anne was right. You are thick-headed," she said, pressing her index finger against my forehead for emphasis.
"Your daughter, Anne? The one you asked to give me the sale? We've gotten to be quite close. Remarkable young woman."
And a traitor too. "I didn't ask her to give you -"
"That is not what I am asking, Robert Fullerton. Since that day you found me crying in the break room, I felt that you saw ME. I've never felt seen before, yet I do everytime we're together. You've never pushed, never nudged, never even tried to hold my hand; and yet you are always there. Why?"
I found it hard to meet her eyes. Emotions long buried struggled to the surface. "My wife, Anne's mother, was everything to me. When she passed, when I lost her, I lost a significant part of me. I didn't believe anyone else could help me regain that." I went to slide my hands in my pockets, but Jane grabbed and held them gently. It took a moment for me to gather myself. "Then you came into my life."
I fought the urge to walk away. So many raw emotions and I didn't know how to process any of them. Tears streamed down my face, adding to my discomfort. "But you said you were done. That you wanted no more relationships. So, I satisfied myself knowing that, at least, I could spend whatever time I could with someone I loved. I… I… was afraid of pushing you away if I admitted my feelings."
"So the new clothes, the cologne…"
"You really need to not talk to my daughter."
"But she loves you, and she's said more than once the difference in you since we met."
I looked away. "That was just a coincidence."
Jane smiled. "You're not just thick-headed. You're a dunderhead, too!"
Then she kissed me, and I forgot all about being a dunderhead.