The job hunters sat in a row of plastic chairs in a library meeting room, facing a white board framed by a banner of upper- and lower-case cursive letters.
The facilitator, a perspiring man in a striped polo, had them repeat his mantra: “You’re braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.”
“Is that a line from Winnie the Pooh?” Vaughn asked the woman next to him. She shrugged. He didn’t need an answer. He’d read the book to his children. He recognized Christopher Robin’s encouragement.
Vaughn wasn’t encouraged in this basement room with its school decor. He worked for the main branch of the library system, as an archivist and a periodicals coordinator, two separate jobs combined after city budget cuts. Then in another round of cuts, those jobs became a half-time position. He fell behind in child support. His ex-wife urged him to check out the job-search club.
“I want everyone to name one unique thing about yourselves,” the facilitator said. “We’ll suggest jobs that will utilize skills you might not be highlighting on your resumes.”
“I collect comic books,” Vaughn offered when it was his turn.
The group suggested he work in a toy store. He left the meeting early.
At his son’s classroom holiday party, another parent mentioned she was down a team member in her card shop.
“I’m down a dozen hours at my library job,” he responded as his son sprinkled glitter on a paper snowflake and Vaughn’s pants.
By the new year he had his first-ever retail job. He worked every Friday evening, every Saturday and every other Sunday, hours the other part-time employee, Petra, who drove for Uber, couldn’t work. It curtailed the time Vaughn could spend with his kids. He had to give up Saturdays as batting coach on his kids’ softball team.
On the first day his boss Shannon handed him a four-page document. “I give this to all new employees. It explains procedures and what we sell.” She watched him ring up his first few customers, telling each person Vaughn was new, that he was just learning. He felt clumsy, like his kids when they learned to snap their fingers or pour milk.
Shannon asked employees to stay busy even when no one was in the shop. For this reason, there was never dust on the shelves. The stacks of soy candles in silver tins, the pressed flower prints, mugs bearing motivational sayings: all realigned daily.
Vaughn hated the feather duster. As he waved baby-blue feathers over porcelain figurines, he imagined knocking one of the gaping baby owls or pouting puppies off the shelf to hear it shatter. He would never actually do it. He needed his minimum wage. Plus, there were cameras overhead.
He tossed the duster on the floor when the phone rang and side-stepped around a table of imported tea and floral mugs to the wall behind the cash register. In the next aisle Petra organized rows of cards and envelopes, filing misplaced greetings with their designated occasions.
“Remember, don’t turn your back to the door,” Shannon said into the phone before he’d had a chance to say good morning and may I help you, as instructed in the employee handout. “Someone could walk in and take something before you even know what’s happened,” she added.
Petra looked over. Vaughn rolled his eyes.
“Right,” he said into the phone.
“Did you post a photo online yet?”
“Not yet,” he said. “I know. Valentine’s Day.”
“I just got into the chair at the hairdresser’s. You and Petra should eat lunch soon. We might get busy this afternoon.”
“Got it,” Vaughn said. “Enjoy your day off.”
Shannon sighed. “You know how it is, being a single parent. Plus, I have the added responsibility of being a small business owner.” She paused. “Remember to roam with the customer, show them merchandise they might not have noticed.”
He hung up and resumed dusting, careful not to turn his back to the door. A year ago he had no clue what it was like being a single parent or what it meant to run a small business. Then his wife decided their marriage wasn’t fulfilling. He wasn’t completely surprised. Their conversations had become limited to who was doing pick up, who was doing drop off, and whose fault it was their oldest had started saying fuck. He didn’t blame her for wanting more. In order to live close to his children, he’d rented a studio apartment in the neighborhood near their school. The day he signed his lease the city reduced the library’s hours. He became even less.
He’d absorbed Shannon’s policies: never say no to a customer, ask questions that invite conversation, and keep his hands busy. On one of his first shifts, as he roamed with a customer through a cluttered aisle, he bumped a table stacked with soy candles and coffee mugs. Two mugs broke and a candle tin dented as it hit the floor. Shannon sighed loudly as she marched to the table.
“I’m sure you’re a good archivist,” she said as she inspected the candle tin. “What even is that?”
“Besides preserving historical …” Vaughn started to answer.
She continued. “I’m just not sure you’re meant to be in a job like this.”
“Of course I wasn’t meant for a job like this,” he said, then regretted it. “You know what I mean. The library is orderly.” He picked up a mug missing its handle. “You can take this out of my paycheck.”
“I hate to do that,” she said. “But I don’t mind asking you to clean it up. There’s a mini broom and dustpan in the back.”
He used the tip of the broom to pull broken bits of mug from between the candles.
“What are you doing?” Shannon yelled. “You’re going to break more stuff!”
He put the broom down and moved the candles to the side. His hands shook. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been yelled at. Unless he counted fights with his ex-wife, but those were rare.
“Did you eat a lot of paint chips as a child?” Shannon said. She laughed theatrically. “I’m joking. Did you see that movie? With Chris Farley?”
He refused to look at her. He emptied the mug shards into the garbage. He’d spent his professional life believing the boss knew best. That was starting to seem like a lie. Combining two very different jobs to one, insulting new hires. No wonder he’d never climbed the ladder of success. He considered walking out and going from store to store in the mall to find another job. But the thought of the online application process rooted him in place. He’d spent hours one night at his job club entering employment history that existed on his resume, for a bookstore job. He wondered if human eyes had ever seen the application.
“Shannon suggested we eat soon,” he said to Petra after he hung up the phone. He wasn’t hungry, but knew if they didn’t sit down at the table behind the counter, they’d get another phone call.
“Should I set the timer for thirty minutes?” Petra asked.
He couldn’t tell if she was joking. She was from Brazil and had come to the U.S. to study graphic design. She also said she was communist, making her doubly foreign to Vaughn. After a shift with her he would go home and Google things she said that he didn’t understand. She suggested he read Karl Marx.
“I’m afraid if I ask for it in a bookstore or buy it online, I might be placed on some kind of government-watch list,” he said.
She laughed. “Maybe Emma Goldman then?”
After lunch, he told Petra he had to run to the drug store, for a chance to get out, even though it technically wasn’t out. He walked away from the quiet end of the mall where the card shop was located, along with a travel agency and mattress store. He wandered into a comic book store, and studied a series of action figures with large eyes. He picked up a box holding the hero from a TV show about a zombie apocalypse. On television he was gritty and invincible. The doll looked like Vaughn felt: shrunken and infantilized.
“Are you hiring?” he asked the guy at the register.
“If you wanna work for store credit,” the man answered without looking up from the laptop he was typing into.
Petra had finished dusting by the time he got back. He leaned against the counter and opened one of the comics he’d bought for his kids.
“Did you enjoy the manufactured cheer?” she asked.
He raised his eyebrows.
“The institutional lights and overproduced music. The styling products in the air.” She gestured toward his comic book. “You’ll get a phone call if you stand there and read,” she said.
“Wouldn’t you rather work in one of the stores where people your age shop?” Vaughn asked.
“Not really. You have to wear what they sell. Plus, I need a job more than any of those businesses need an employee. I had to take what was offered.”
He put the comic under the counter and pulled out a bottle of window cleaner. He started for the door to clean the window, but abandoned the task when a customer entered the store.
“I would have thought mall management cleaned the windows,” the woman said. She was out of breath, as if she’d sprinted to reach them. She walked slowly down the aisle of notebooks and journals. Vaughn followed. He wondered if the mall had custodians, or if they’d been let go after the movie theater closed and the mall became quiet.
“Do you sell those little plush animals with the large, sparkling eyes?” she asked.
“We’re hoping to get some in. They’re a popular gift for Valentine’s,” he said, never saying no.
She turned up the aisle with the figurines. “What about these statues? Do you have any unicorns?”
Vaughn looked at Petra. He still wasn’t sure what they sold. She shook her head no, imperceptibly, so it wouldn’t be caught on camera.
“You’re welcome to take a look back here, in the clearance section,” he said.
“Oh. The nice woman who works during the week usually knows what you have.” The customer’s eyebrows were drawn on at an arch that conveyed distaste.
Vaughn busied himself straightening a series of framed mermaid prints on the wall. The woman left without buying anything.
Shannon called Vaughn midweek. She had to take her son to a doctor’s appointment on Thursday, so she needed him to pick up an extra evening.
“I know you don’t like to work weekdays, because of your other job. But Petra has to leave early. You’ll be alone,” she warned.
His normal schedule, with five days off between shifts, meant he started each weekend feeling a little rusty. A Thursday shift would help his learning curve, not to mention pay for rent and cereal and frozen pizza for his kids.
When he arrived Thursday, Shannon had a list prepared of work he could do while the store wasn’t busy.
“Concentrate on these,” she said, gesturing at a collection of miniature ceramic purses. “Let’s put them on the table by the front door. Move the candles that are there to aisle two. I cleared space.”
“What are these?” he asked, holding up one of the purses.
“They’re designed by an Instagram celebrity. I hope they sell. I was thinking we could put little succulents in a few of them. Cute. Cute. Cute.”
He signed in on the sheet next to the cash register. Petra stood next to him, signing herself out. In the back office Shannon packed up her water bottle with the flavored ice ball and her dozens of keys held together on a ring adorned with coconut-shell beads.
“She has an affinity for products designed to alert people that she’s doing good in the world,” Petra said as she put the cap on the pen.
“Are your parents hippies? Or do you learn that kind of stuff at school?” he asked.
“I read. You should try it,” she said. “Did you read the book I recommended?”
“Not yet,” he said.
He had the display of ceramic purses arranged when a couple came in looking for a Valentine’s gift for their puppy. Vaughn explained they didn’t sell dog toys. As they turned to leave he remembered the camera.
“The plush animals we have in the back aren’t that different from what they sell at the pet stores,” he said.
The woman stared ahead and breathed in slowly.
The man said, “Let’s just go to the pet store.”
“How about taking a look at our toys?” Vaughn stepped further into the aisle, hoping they’d follow. They turned and left.
The phone rang. Shannon, he thought.
“Good evening. This is Vaughn. How may I help you?” He managed to get the full spiel out.
The caller asked about framed prints of local maps. As Vaughn tried to remember if they sold such a thing, a woman walked into the store.
“I need favors for party bags for a birthday party,” she said, walking past Vaughn.
“Be right with you,” Vaughn said away from the phone receiver.
“I’m here alone,” he said into the receiver. “We have prints of the different neighborhoods. But I’m afraid I can’t describe them over the phone. You’d have to come in.”
He wasn’t sure the answer was correct, but he could hear the woman in the back handling things and putting them back on the shelves. He hung up. His shirt grew damp under his arms. The phone immediately rang again.
“Good evening …” he got out.
“Why did that couple leave?” Shannon asked.
“I’m busy,” he said and hung up. He made his way to the woman in the back.
“I know it’s late,” she said. “I have a birthday party tomorrow afternoon for my ten-year-old. I just want a little something to put in the party bags that’s not candy.”
He glanced around. Tea wouldn’t appeal to a kid. Nor would candles. He thought about the fruity lip balm. His daughter had opened them one by one to smell them the day she came in. He walked the woman back toward the front, to the lip balms in a fishbowl next to another fishbowl with the coconut-bead keyrings. In between them a pink sign on an easel said $2.50 EACH.
The woman sniffed a kiwi scented one. Vaughn could smell the nondescript sweetness from where he stood.
“Little girls love those,” he said.
“They’re perfect,” she said.
He went to the cash register and pulled a shopping bag from under the counter. The phone rang.
“Good evening …” he started.
“Use a smaller bag,” Shannon said. “We pay a lot for those.”
“Got it.” He bit his lower lip. “Anything else?”
The woman stood on the other side of the counter watching him. He attempted a smile.
“Don’t hang up on me again,” Shannon said.
He turned toward the wall. “I’m not a small-business owner, but I know these calls aren’t good business. I don’t think they’re good for your parenting either. Aren’t you with your son?”
“I’m coming back before closing. We have to talk,” she said.
He finished ringing up the woman, dreading Shannon’s presence. She lived in a constant state of near panic.
The customer thanked him for saving her party bags. “I was about to go to the dollar store,” she said. “It’s not often I find something affordable in here.”
“I know. And I know you don’t want to splurge for a ten-year-old. Everything small ends up under the sofa or the car seats.”
She laughed. “How old is yours?”
Normally he enjoyed talking about his kids. It made him feel connected now that he saw them only every other weekend. At the moment, he couldn’t muster the energy for conversation. The woman said good night. He grabbed the bottle of window cleaner and stood near the window, so he’d look busy when Shannon approached.
The key ring and flavor ball announced her marched toward the store. Her cheeks were bright red from the effort of rushing and carrying her giant tote.
“I know it’s late and you want to go,” she said. “Let’s get the store closed. Did you finish the windows?”
He nodded. He didn’t want his voice to betray his exhaustion and rage. He went to the office for a garbage bag. Shannon started to follow, but stopped at the table with the fishbowls.
“How many lip balms did that woman buy?” she said. She moved the sign. “This should be in front of the key chains. We’ve had them since last year.”
Wet dread slid into Vaughn’s stomach. He didn’t answer. He emptied the garbage behind the cash register, heavy with takeout containers from Petra’s lunch, while Shannon printed out the day’s final sales tally. The most recent sale printed first, he knew. She’d have her answer in a moment.
“Crap on a cracker!” she said. “You practically gave those away.”
He nodded slowly.
“You knew that sign was for the keychains.”
“How was I supposed to know that?” he said. “I come in three days a week. And in between those days, you move stuff around. I can’t keep up with what we sell and where it might be located.”
“You have no idea what it’s like to run a small business.” Her voice went up. She was whining like his daughter. “I’m sure to you it doesn’t matter that I paid a dollar fifty for those from my distributor. But it does to me. That’s not a sustainable margin.”
Vaughn stood still, feet grounded to the earth, as the facilitator at the job-hunt club had recommended, so he’d look strong and confident. “She was about to go to the dollar store. But she spent her money here.”
“You’re a good person, Vaughn,” she said. “I shouldn’t have brought you on as an employee. I’m just always trying to help people.”
He stared at her and pulled the trash bag over his shoulder to walk it out to the dumpster. He felt like a baseball player, with his arms at shoulder height and his feet apart.
“Do you take something pharmaceutical to make you so calm?” she asked.
“That’s a pretty intrusive question. But no.”
“I wish I could be as mellow as you are. It’s not easy to run this store. I have to keep track of so many details. It’s not like an easy library job.”
“Poor you,” he said. He walked past the porcelain puppies and owls, past the untouched rack of wrapping paper, and toward the inspirational coffee mugs. He swung the trash bag forward like a bat and swept the mugs off the table toward Shannon’s feet.
“Not that calm, I guess,” he said. He dropped the bag. His torso felt weightless, his back straighter.
Shannon gasped. “Those will come out of your paycheck.” Her voice was as brittle as the shards at his feet.
“Good luck with that,” he said. “Minimum wage doesn’t go far.”
He walked out of the store and out of the mall. His job-search club was wrong about retail. They were right about confidence. Absolutely necessary.