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It had been twelve years, and I swore I would never work retail again. There was $11 left in my wallet. I had no food. I had a couple cigarettes. The plan wasn’t working. I went to the bar and found Kelly. I told her everything. That I smelled because a hair clog in the shower backed up all the filth water. I told her about the dog magazine paying me $75 per article. I told her about my parents and why I couldn’t move home.
“Write more dog articles,” she said.
“I’ve already written about every dog I know.”
“Write about my dog. She does this thing when I come home. It’s so cute.”
I asked Kelly what kind of dog she had. She clasped her hands together and held them to her heart. “I have a Pomeranian. She’s the best.”
“I can’t write about a Pomeranian,” I said. “I’m trying to build a reputation.”
“What’s wrong with Pomeranians?”
Pomeranians. Shit-poos. Schnoodles. The small dogs that crawl around all my ex-girlfriend’s apartments like evil hamsters.
“They are the perfect companion for the general idiocy of this country,” I said.
Kelly disagreed. She said I had to see “this thing” the dog did when she came home. I was out of beer. Out of friends. I said why not.
Kelly lived with her parents in one of the row houses close to the interstate. We drove out of downtown Frederick and got on Highway 40. They’d once called this stretch “The Golden Mile,” but that was long before I’d come to town. Now it was a globalization hell-hole broken up by speed traps and Mexican ghettos. We passed a Michael’s, a Best Buy, a PetsMart, and a Barnes & Noble. Kelly’s mouth dropped open and she started slapping my leg in excitement. “LOOK LOOK LOOK!” she said. “You want to be a writer. Why don’t you work at Barnes & Noble?”
“I wear clothes, too. Maybe I should get a job in a sweatshop.”
We got to Kelly’s and she parked her car in the driveway and we walked up to her house.
“Okay,” she said, “be really quiet. She’ll only do the thing if she thinks I’m alone.”
I stood to the left of the door. It was a glass door. I watched Kelly bend over and dig around in her pocketbook. We’d gotten drunk once and made-out but I hadn’t changed my underwear that week so I pretended to pass out before it went any further. Did she remember? Would I ever get another chance?
Kelly jingled her keys and opened the door. “Sophie,” she said. “Sophie. Mommy’s home.”
I could hear little feet tapping against a marble floor, heading toward us.
“Sophes,” Kelly said. “Come get mommy.”
A Pomeranian ran through Kelly’s legs and lunged at me. I jumped over it and climbed up one of the pillars supporting the porch like a bear cub. The dog wanted to kill me but it didn’t have much reach. It had heart, though. It bounced on its back legs and circled the pillar with endless stamina, growling like something you’d find living under a woodshed.
“Oh, damn,” Kelly said. “She never acts like this.”
Kelly got the dog in the house and came back. We sat on the porch and watched the police set up a speed trap on the interstate.
“What does the dog even do?” I asked.
“She gets really close to the ground, then she does a backflip.”
“Yeah. She lands it every time.”
I gave Kelly my cell phone and asked her to get a video of the dog doing a backflip.
“Are you going to write about it?” she asked.
“I don’t know. If the dog can do a backflip we’re definitely on to something.”
I paced around the porch waiting for Kelly. I thought about my fate. I looked up into the trees and said, “What is my fate?”
A blue Volkswagen pulled into the driveway. It was Kelly’s sister, Gina. She was twenty-one or twenty-two. She got most of the family’s looks. Jenny Lewis bangs. The sweet Appalachian drawl.
“Gina,” I said. “What’s up?”
“Same shit. Always the same shit.”
“You’re too young to say stuff like that.”
“I’m going back to college. I hate my job.”
“Where are you working?”
“Barnes & Noble.”
“Barnes & Noble?
“Yeah. On the interstate.”
I started rethinking my commitment to avoiding retail. Being locked up with Gina eight hours every day might not be so bad. “Kelly said I should get a job at Barnes & Noble,” I said. “Should I apply?”
“If you want to hate your life.”
“I already hate my life.”
“I know we’re hiring seasonal.”
It was September in western Maryland. There were only two seasons up in those hills. Either you were shoveling snow off your car or you were waiting in a sweaty line to swim in the mud-pit at the top of Mt. Catoctin.
“What season?” I asked.
Kelly came outside with my phone. She said she had recorded a perfect flip. We gathered around my phone and watched the video. Kelly held a biscuit in front of the dog’s face and taunted it. The dog whined and ran around in circles. Finally, it sort of crouched down and sprung up into a back-roll.
It wasn’t clean, but the dog landed the trick.
“Maybe I was wrong about Pomeranians,” I said.
Kelly told Gina she needed to get her car out of the driveway. They started to argue like sisters do. About stolen clothes. Something terrible Kelly had said after Gina’s new haircut.
“Your eyebrows are uneven, that’s why no one wants to date you,” Gina said to her. “I have to go back to Barnes & Noble anyway.”
“I’ll go with you,” I said. Then I looked at Kelly. “Might as well apply, right?”
“You’re such a dick,” Kelly said. She knew what I was up to.
We drove to the Barnes & Noble on the interstate. Gina went into an office to find Craig, the store manager. I walked through the fiction aisles. Fifty Shade of Grey had a special booth at the end caps.
It’s just a job, I thought. You’ve sold your soul before.
Gina came out with a man in a brown polo shirt tucked into brown khakis. She did the introductions.
“We’re only hiring seasonal,” Craig said to me. “But Gina says you’re a good worker. Maybe we can put you on full-time after Christmas.”
“That’s, like, five months from now,” I said.
“The economy is bad for everyone.”
“Not everyone, Craig. But definitely for us.”
I filled out seven pages of paperwork. Listed my college degree. Gave them three references who I knew wouldn’t pick up their phones.
“All right,” Craig said. “I’ll give you a call in the morning. If everything checks out we can start you tomorrow afternoon.”
The next day I got the call to come on in. “Oh good,” I said to Craig on the phone. “I’m really looking forward to joining the team.”
I hung up and loaded the video of the Pomeranian doing a backflip onto the internet. I named it “Pomeranian Doing A Backflip”. I clicked “Yes” to load the video with as many advertisements as could fit onto the screen. Then I checked my email. I looked around my room. I couldn’t think of any excuse not to show up.
Craig met me at the door. “We just have to get you set up in the computer,” he said.
I sat in the break room. A girl told me it was a good job and I was lucky to have found it. She told me we got a 10% discount on every book we purchased. Her mother worked there, too. She told me they were both at the community college and wanted to be English teachers.
Craig came back. He handed me a brochure that said it wasn’t illegal but severely unethical to ever put anything about this interview on the internet. Then I watched a video on corporate theft.
I fell asleep during a video about a “Membership Program” and had a dream about a big auditorium filled with people. Every exit had a sign above it so people could organize by their pronoun and rejoin the world with their preferred herd: “Friends – Exit here”, “Member’s – Exit here”, “Guests – Exit here”, “Family – Exit here”, “Loyalists – Exit here”.
I woke up and Craig was standing there staring at me. “Do you have any questions?” he asked.
“What’s the pay?”
“$7.25 an hour.”
I did some quick math. I would have to work eighty-two hours to even make my rent.
“I have a degree,” I said. “Can’t we up that a little?”
“Everyone here has a college degree.”
Craig paired me with Peggy for training. She was sort of new but understood the computer system. Every employee in the store was having a meltdown. The Barnes & Noble in the next town had sold more Membership Programs the previous quarter.
“What you really want to remember,” Peggy told me, “is push the Membership Program.”
Peggy had just moved to Maryland too. She had driven a Harley and lived in Taos, New Mexico before this. But her mother died and said her only wish was for Peggy to find God. Then the clocks and the dates and something about the amount of hairs on her cat all aligned and Peggy received a revelation which instructed her to start a church. So she gave up her Harley and hitchhiked east, like a Joseph Smith in reverse, and for some reason she stopped in this cesspool with no natural beauty and decided it was the perfect place to start her flock.
“Do you want to make a donation?” she asked.
“I’m getting paid $7.25 an hour,” I said. “Ask God to raise the minimum wage if he needs money.”
“You’re a Catholic, aren’t you?”
“I can tell. That’s why you’re so angry.”
We went over the computer system again and again. It was impossible to screw up. You just scanned a book and the computer did the rest.
“Do I have to clock out for a bathroom break?” I asked her.
“No. Just tell someone you’re going.”
I grabbed a copy of Fifty Shades of Grey and went into the bathroom. I spent twenty minutes reading and had an issue with some of the grammar. In the next stall, a man was frantically babbling on a cellphone: “I’m never going to make my quota. I have to sell a hundred more Membership Programs by next month.”
I went back to the register and read more. An old lady asked me if I was enjoying the book. I said the writing was rotten but the descriptions were right on.
Peggy was watching me from another register. She coughed. I knew it was to get my attention so I ignored her. Then she walked over and flicked my shoulder. “You didn’t ask that woman if she was part of our Membership Program.”
“Oh yeah. I’ll get the next one.”
“We’re not supposed to be reading at work.”
“Look Peggy, how much of an incentive is there to sell these Membership Programs?”
“Yeah. Like, if you sell the most, do you get a pizza party?”
“Do you get a free book?”
“What is it then?”
“It’s just … what we’re supposed to do.”
The woman had a brain. And even if she’d forgotten how to use it, she at least had a heart. Where was her self-worth? But then I started to think that maybe it was me who was wrong. Peggy could’ve worked at Wal-mart, but she had chosen Barnes & Noble. Even if it was a major label soul-melting monster, it was still a book store – possibly the last home to literature. Between these four walls sat all the tomes written in basements and bloodshed and love and death. The carefully crafted words the world thought important enough to immortalize between bound pages.
That had to mean something.
I began to feel like an asshole. Peggy needed this job and she was following the rules. I decided to play her game. We were the ambassadors to these books, after all.
A family came up to the counter with a college chemistry book. “This is the wrong book,” the mother said.
“Do you have the receipt?” Peggy asked.
“No. I went online to barnesandnoble.com and they sent me the wrong book.”
“That’s not true.”
“Are you calling me a liar?” The woman looked at her husband. “Did she just call me a liar?”
“No,” Peggy said. “I’m calling you a thief.”
Peggy reached down and pulled the woman’s from out of her hand. Then she dropped it on the counter with a loud thud. The inside was lined with aluminum foil. Peggy pulled out two children’s books and said, “Ah ha! The smoking guns.”
The husband grabbed the kids and they all ran for the door.
“Stop them,” Peggy screamed. “Stop them. Robbers! Thieves!”
No one moved. Craig watched the family leave the store but he didn’t go after them. He came over and asked what happened.
“First they tried to return a book they didn’t buy,” Peggy said. “Then, they tried to shoplift.”
“What did you do?”
“I reached down and took the woman’s bag.”
“Did you put your hand on her?”
“I think I touched her arm. But, Craig …”
“Peggy, this is the third time I’m telling you this – you can’t touch a customer.”
“But they’re criminals.”
“Peggy, I told you this last time. You can’t touch a customer.”
“I’m sorry, Craig.”
“Peggy, I have to fire you.”
Peggy looked at me like I could make everything right. Like there was a simple explanation I could give to Craig that would restore some order. The poor woman. See what God did to her? Her life was fine without Him. And now that she’d found Him she was broke near the West Virginia border with no Harley, fired from a job that was just above can-collector on the shit ladder.
“It’s never going to get better for you,” I said to her.
Peggy ran out of the store crying. I worked one more hour by myself. Gina never stopped in to see how I was doing.
I saw Craig approaching my counter with a clipboard. “What’s good, Craig?” I asked.
“It says you didn’t sell any Membership Programs.”
“Bad economy, Craig.”
“Gina said you were a hard worker.”
“Day two of training tomorrow.”
I clocked out. Three and a half hours. $25 before taxes.
I went to sleep that night and had a dream. I was a box full of Barnes & Noble Membership Program cards. Thick plastic credit cards. All an expensive green color like new currency. But there was one card in the box that was different than the thousands of others just like it. It was always that cards turn to be next. To be sold. It was what all the other cards wanted. But every time the box opened that one would jump far back into the pile. And I’d watch it smile while all the other cards got plucked out by peasant hands.
I woke up ten minutes before I was supposed to be back at work. I went on the internet to see how my video was doing. “Pomeranian Doing a Backflip” was nearing 120,000 hits. I wrote down some numbers and figured my pay from the ads had to be about $25. I looked around my room. At the shirt I had picked out to wear to work. At the wrinkled pants I’d left in a heap. I went back to sleep.
Scott Laudati lives in NYC with his schnoodle, Dolly. He is the author of Play The Devil (Bone Machine, Inc.) Visit him anywhere @scottlaudati