I work in the Gifts department. I'm Jessica. Let me tell you, it's not like I have huge knowledge of great things you should buy, like the perfect item for a visiting grandmother from Arizona or a brother who is returning from military duty. No, I was just put here when I got hired. They asked me what I'm good at. I said I could wrap presents and that I sold a lot of lemonade as a kid. I just needed a job. I felt like telling the lady, "Look, just put me anywhere. I'll do all right. I learn fast." And so now I look at Precious Moments and music boxes and seasonal ornaments all day.
Claire works in Lingerie. That's the next department over, right on the other side of the colored vase display. She can be a blast. When she was interviewed for the job and asked what she was good at, she said she could sell lingerie. So what happened? She got Lingerie. You would think the lady would have asked Claire more questions in her interview, but no. I guess this just goes to show how much you can accomplish simply by saying the right thing at the right time.
Claire and I have been working next to each other for a year now. Rhombach's is a big department store, three floors, right smack in the middle of your basic New Jersey mall. It can be as classy and expensive as Saks or as tasteless and cheap as your local secondhand rag shop. It's what makes the job interesting because I get to know what's good and what's not. I watch the customers and figure each one out. There are those that spot the real thing miles away and would never go near the crap. Then you get those that always buy the cheapest item on the shelf. And finally—and yes, there are some—those that are just totally clueless, like someone who picks up a fine German centerpiece and thinks it's about the same price as the plastic candelabra they were handling a moment ago.
We gab a lot, Claire and I, when business is slow. We take breaks together, and we'll have a quick dinner sometimes at the cafe on the second floor. She and I can eat anything. We've got what we call Lucky Body Metabolism. We could share a pepperoni pizza (eight slices) and not gain an ounce. It's amazing. It makes people jealous.
There's one other person at Rhombach's like us—this girl Raine. She's thin and beautiful, the only one here Claire and I really envy. She's probably got fifty boyfriends, but the weird thing about her is that we've never seen her happy. You'd think with those kind of looks she'd be smiling all the time.
I'm a high school senior that never tried out for cheerleading. It's not that I don't look good enough to be on the squad—I do, Claire will vouch for me—it's just that I'm not stuck-up snotty. Claire will turn just as many heads as me. She goes to community college. She's got her own car. I don't have a car, but I grub rides from Hank and I ride my bike a lot. Hank is this guy I've been seeing. We've gotten to the stage where he is now constantly asking to get into my jeans. I haven't completely made up my mind about it yet.
Claire told me she never tried out for cheerleading either. She says she likes selling lingerie more than going to school. I ask her sometimes what's so bad about college. She says, "Nothing. It's just not thrilling." I ask her what thrills her. She says The Gorgeous Man thrills her.
The Gorgeous Man is this guy who comes into the store about once every two weeks, buying great stuff. He'll go to Men's and get a silk tie from Italy and a cardigan sweater with a ritzy crest on it. Then he'll go to Ladies' Dresses and look at the new BCBG that is every girl's dream. He's married. We've both seen the ring. Claire doesn't care. She's told me ten times she's in love with The Gorgeous Man. I know for a fact, if given the chance, she'd have him in a flash.
One fun thing we do here is give nicknames to a lot of the regular customers. It keeps the day moving. It gives us something to talk about. Did you know The World's Oldest Man shops at Rhombach's #49 in East Rutherford? (That's our store.) It takes him hours to walk the floor, from one side to the other. Heaven help anyone who gets stuck behind him in the tight space.
Then, there's The Skitzoid. She's a woman about fifty who will talk to anyone, endlessly, about anything. She'll speak to you as if you're her neighbor or bridge partner. We've learned how to cut her off. You just turn your back and start walking. It's the only way.
The Monkey Woman comes every Saturday afternoon at around three o'clock. She's at least ninety years old and walks with a severe stoop, the highest point of her body being this bulge the size of a beach ball that sticks out behind her neck. I feel sorry for her sometimes. She's pleasant and only bothers you when she really needs help. Other customers should learn from her example.
Last but not least is The Bag Lady. Every major shopping store has one. A rude, obnoxious, extremely stubborn individual that arrives just before the store closes for the evening, failing to observe the announcement, "Attention customers: The store will be closing in fifteen minutes. Please bring all your purchases to the nearest register. Thank you and have a pleasant evening." (I can recite it by heart; I've heard it twenty thousand million times.) Last week, it was The Bag Lady's mission to buy a lousy board game for a nephew or godson or neighbor, I'm not sure exactly. I had to close my register half an hour late. The week before, Adrienne in Accessories was stuck with her selecting a scarf until twenty minutes after nine. Someday all of us are going to team up and get that old hag. She'll need to summon Satan himself to get out of the trouble we will cause.
Of all the customers, The Gorgeous Man is the one we talk about the most. He's got the bluest eyes Claire and I have ever seen. He combs his short blond hair with just the right amount of gel. He looks like the perfect companion, exactly the one a girl wants coming home to her at dinnertime.
A few weeks ago he was in Gifts buying something for his niece. He approached me wearing a gray suit. He's obviously got some snappy office job. Maybe he's a stockbroker. Whatever. Anyway, he said his niece was ten and she liked collecting things. I asked what kind of things. He said, "All sorts of things." He couldn't be more specific. He just won me over. I wanted to die in his arms right there. Meryll, my boss, a forty-year-old witch, could have fired me right on the spot. I wouldn't have cared.
I showed him a Russian doll we had, something new from this hot outfit in Secaucus. He loved it. It had short black hair like mine, straight as anything. He took it from my hands, smiling. At the register I rang it up twenty-five percent off. I told him it was on special. It really wasn't, but Meryll can go to hell. He smiled again. As he took his credit card back, our fingertips touched and I felt this awesome electric volt shoot up my arm. I still get the chills when I think about it.
I told Claire afterward, and she almost pissed in her panties. I wonder what she would have done had she been in my shoes. Claire can be radical at times, and when I say radical I mean knock-your-braids-back-and-pry-your-eye-open-with-a-toothpick shocking. I've seen it. She'll get women that come into her department and ask about lingerie. They'll want to know how seductive an item is, and Claire will say it's really up to the individual and that they should try it on and see for themselves. Once in a while she'll be cleaning up the fitting room and a woman will call her over and ask how something looks. I'll hear Claire's remarks over the fake wall. "Nope, I don't think so," she says a lot. Or, "Not too shabby. Is your husband an animal?" That's getting pretty personal, don't you think? There was even one time when I heard the customer ask, "Do you think the nipple should be showing?" I call this The Nipplage Incident. Claire replied, "Well, what are you trying to say to him? Would it be, 'Come here, darling. Unwrap me and have me.'? Or would it be, 'Look at this nipple. Lay those lips on it, big boy. It's yours.'?"
One other thing I know about Claire is that she steals. Rhombach's has this awful rule requiring all women staff to carry clear plastic pocketbooks. Security wants to be able to see everything you have in there, right down to your last damn tampon. But working in Lingerie, Claire's able to sneak things in her pockets. She took home this lacy set of bra, garter belt, and panties last week. She showed me before she lifted them. I don't know how she gets that plastic security tag off.
Claire wants to know what I'm going to do when I get out of high school. She asks me all the time if I'll be taking up teaching or nursing or politics. I don't really have any set goals yet. I'm signed up to take the SAT's next March but I know I'm not going to score high enough to get some great scholarship or anything. I'm good at talking with people down-to-earth. That's what they tell me. I'm thinking of majoring in Counseling. Do they have such a thing? I like helping people out with their problems. Claire's a math major. She's good with numbers. People that are good with numbers have it made. They can figure things out quickly and win your confidence easily. Me, I have to sit down and look long and hard before I know whether to add or subtract. My mom was good in math. She was the one who did things in the family. She taught herself how to play the piano. She told me my father's most notable traits were his laziness and indecision. This from a woman whose husband died nine years after her only child was born. At least she was honest.
"Jess, what are you doing Friday?" Claire calls out over a rack of flannel nightwear.
It's a slow Tuesday evening in October. I walk over to her. I can do anything I want here tonight; Meryll's leaving early, thank God. I can't take the woman when business is slow. She's one huge heap of misery.
"Probably Hank's softball game," I say.
"Johnny and I are going to Faraday's," Claire says. "You want to come?"
Claire's cool because she's always open to having friends come along when she's going out with her boyfriend. I don't think he really cares that much, as long as he can slip it to her before the night is over. I've been with them to Faraday's before. It's a bar that used to be real sleazy, but this past year some lady took it over and gave it a facelift. On Friday nights, she clears away the tables in the back and lets us all dance.
"I'll mention it to Hank," I say. "Maybe we'll head there after the game."
"You stick around the whole game? Isn't it boring? Those big-headed sports jocks—that's just what they want you to do: watch them all the time." Claire should have her own advice column. "Leave the game early, sweets, and come out with us. Have him meet you. Flirt with some guys at the bar and see what Hank's reaction is when he walks in. You'll know right away what's going on with him."
"I know what's going on with him, Claire," I say.
"No you don't. You're too wishy-washy. You've been stringing him on for months now. Do you really like him or not?"
"It hasn't been that long," I dispute. "It's been six weeks."
"That's still too long."
"I'm just not sure about him yet," I say.
"No one's ever sure."
Claire can be quite convincing when she wants to be, and sometimes it might seem like we're having an argument, but really this is the way we talk. We could be in complete agreement or we could be at each other's throats, it makes no difference. We'll still talk the work hours away and get together on weekends.
Hank likes it when I hang out in his car, but I'm getting tired of the I-really-care-about-you, I-need-to-be-with-you, don't-you-want-to crap. I tell him I need to know if I'm the one, and he says, "Yeah, you're the only one. You're it. Everything is going to be fucking amazing." As if I'm really dumb enough to believe him. Even though I don't tell Claire all of this, I suspect she's got a pretty good idea of it all.
We start to notice some of the few shoppers in the store. Tuesday nights are rarely busy, and Meryll usually has the other girls straighten up in the late afternoon before they leave. I call them girls, but really they're all mothers and grandmothers. The older ones work the day shift. They've been looking up sale items and ringing up exchanges for thirty bloody years. The younger ones like Claire and me work the evening shift. We're usually out by ten.
There are decorations for Halloween all over store. Almost everywhere you look is a battery of orange and black. Across the aisle, a cardboard cat is standing on a bale of hay. Its tail is straight up in the air, as if the creature was just shocked by a ghost.
"That lady's shoes are a riot," Claire says, raising her head in the direction of a woman browsing in Ladies' Dresses.
I look at the woman. She's wearing a celery green top, beige slacks, and shiny red shoes. They look like the sparkly heels Dorothy clicked together to get back to Kansas.
Rob moves a straight rack of men's trousers along the main aisle in front of us.
"Hey ladies," he says, tipping an invisible hat as he goes by.
"Hey Rob," we reply in unison.
Rob's funny. Claire or I will sometimes walk over to Men's and socialize, but it's not like we're trying to pick him up or anything. He's gay. He's dating a guy who works at Brook's. We see them together when we all go out.
"Have you heard from that slimeball Scott since that date at Chicago's?" Claire asks me.
"Would you believe he called me last week?" I say.
"Some guys just don't get it." She shakes her head.
Scott was this blind date I had a while ago. We all went to a restaurant called Chicago's. This girl Daria set us up. She works as the cashier downstairs. She's the one who gives out the paychecks. Scott couldn't take his eyes off me the whole night, like all he did was stare at me. He was making me nervous. I think he was making everybody nervous. Some of us were doing some beer guzzling and he was knocked silly. He started putting his hands all over my legs. I had to stick an elbow in his side to get him to quit it. Everybody saw but they were all too ripped to really do anything about it.
Some of the Rhombach's girls can really drink. Two of them were having a contest on who could put down a whole mug the quickest. This girl Melissa won easily. She just threw her head back, opened up her mouth, and poured the beer in as if she were dumping it down a pipe. She didn't even have to swallow. In one second the whole glass was empty. What a boozer. Melissa is also quite quick with boys. Her real name is Melissa Masterson but we call her Melissa Mass-a-slut when she's out of earshot.
We ended up leaving the place around midnight and Scott was driving me the short way home. Now that I think about it, I don't know why I let him drive after he'd hammered down those beers. Halfway there, he pulled off the road. He said he had to pee. He got out and walked to the edge of the woods, and when he came back to the car I saw his fly was still open. And his belt was unbuckled. "You know, you have the sweetest little ass," he said.
Let this be a lesson to all you girls out there: Don't ever be afraid to kick the shit out of a guy when he pulls this crap on you. If he's had a few beers, take note: He can't defend himself all that well. Have no mercy.
"There's one thing I don't think I'll ever figure out," Claire says. She looks like she's in a trance, staring straight ahead, as stiff as a mannequin.
"What's that?" I ask.
"How some guys can be the biggest losers while other guys are, like, the greatest."
"For example, Scott and The Gorgeous Man?"
"Yes," Claire says. "Exactly."
We both stand, stare, daydream in the aisle. After a minute, I ask, "What's the nicest thing a guy ever did for you?"
"The absolute, best, nicest thing?" she asks.
"Yes. The most nicest thing."
Claire thinks with one foot on the base of a clothes rack. She scratches her head. It messes up the back of her lightened hair.
"It was about two years ago. I was working in this women's boutique. You know, all pretty clothes, cashmere, chenille. We had this staff perk where, if we liked a new item that just came in off the truck, we could save it in our wish pile in the back room until we were able to buy it."
"And...?" I say, anxious to hear the rest.
"I was dating this guy Dan. What a hottie. I mean, he just had that thing about him, like he knew just how to make me feel inside. It wasn't the sex. Sex can't make you feel that way. You know what I mean?"
"I guess so," I say.
"So what happened was, Dan knew I had this wish pile. He went to the boutique on a day I wasn't working and he got Terri the manager to show him everything I was holding aside. He bought the two he liked best—a creme crochet sweater-vest and a denim skirt—and he wrapped them up and gave them to me."
"Oh, that's beautiful, Claire." I am touched. "Whatever happened to him?"
"Broke up with me a few months later," Claire says sadly. "A girl just can't keep a guy that good."
It's a wonderful story, this one Claire just told me, but I feel a bit sorry for her. She's going out with someone else now, someone she is not as crazy over. I've never been in that situation. I've never had a guy sweep me clean off my feet and set me in a daze, a holy rapture. I wouldn't know for sure, but I don't think I'd be very comfortable going out with someone when I'd been out with much better previously.
"So, how's Johnny?" I ask.
"Johnny's Johnny," she says, shrugging her shoulders.
"He's never given you your wish pile?"
"Nope. He's not the type," Claire says.
"But he's social, and he's fun to be with," I say.
"Yeah, I know," Claire replies. "He'll spend the evening with anybody and talk up to high heaven, just as long as he can go home with me."
I knew this.
Claire motions for me to come closer. I do.
"You know what happened when he was over here last night?" she whispers.
"What?" I ask.
"He got me in the back room," she says, nodding in its direction.
A woman at the other end of Lingerie is wandering through the circular racks. Claire talks quietly so she cannot be overheard.
"You know that ladder we have back there?" Claire asks wide-eyed, with half a smile.
As I start to close up, I begin wondering again what I'm going to do about Hank. Actually, he could be wondering the same thing about me. Relationships are a two-way street, right?
Hank is the son of a friend my mother made through her Home Extension classes. I don't think she will like it very much if I tell her that a classmate's son is making these major advances at me. I probably won't say anything until he is long gone. I don't want to give my mother undue grief.
I'm trying to guess what it's going to be like this last year in high school. You can take advantage of everything that happens if you search hard enough for a way. This was the last tidbit of advice I heard my mother give my father. I'm wondering what words of encouragement my father himself could have given me these long years without him. I guess I'll never know.
I'm not going to take Claire's suggestions about Hank to heart. Claire's cool, but she can be too much sometimes. Hank's preoccupied and self-centered, but I like spending time with him and I like the attention he gives me. Even though I can't remember much about my father, I know I'm definitely his daughter. Like him, I just can't make up my mind.
Every night it's the same thing. All the Happy Halloween cards are so messed up on the shelf Why do people send cards to each other on Halloween? I mean, it's not a holiday or anything. And we're not celebrating things like love or family or the establishment of our country. I just don't get it.
I'll be at the softball game this Friday. What the hell. The nights are getting cooler, the mosquitoes are gone, and there are only a few more weeks left. I know because Hank showed me his schedule. He's playing in something called the Snowflake League. It runs until the middle of November. I guess by then it's too cold to play softball.
I wonder if I'll ever be smacked silly over Hank, if an attraction grows the longer you know somebody. I wonder if, in a month from now, we'll take our sneakers off together, run out onto the highway at night, and throw them over a power line that crosses the street, the toes of the shoes facing each other as they hang there for days, weeks, years later, to show the world we are together.
When I get outside Rhombach's, I see Raine waiting for her ride. Beautiful Raine, one of the few girls I'll admit has me beat on looks. She's got this long, stringy blonde hair that's been worked so much you can see it's damaged, but somehow it still looks terrific.
I say a few words to her as she waits. I'm in no rush. My bike ride home takes ten minutes. I mention how slow it was at work tonight, how boring it is when business isn't busy and the weekend is nowhere in sight. I ask her what she did Saturday. She says she "went out." It's not that she doesn't like me, she just doesn't talk much.
"Let me ask you something," I say.
Raine looks at me as if I'm wearing a Halloween costume that has failed to impress. I can see her eyes peer out through stiff strands of hair dripping down the sides of her face.
"How do you know if you like someone?" I ask with sincerity.
Her feet move in place on the pavement. She rolls a pebble around under one of her soles. She doesn't look at me. I know that she is honest, that she's been there a hundred times when she says, "You just know."
I'd like to say it's Raine's boyfriend who is driving up to meet her, but it really could be anybody. She knows so many guys; I can't keep track. She doesn't seem to be in such a rush to get in the car when the door opens.
"You just know," she says again, looking at me this time, as if she understands exactly what I'm asking, as if she can tell me so much more.