We could be happy. I could be the one you’re looking for.
I DON’T KNOW HOW I LET MYSELF get talked into going shopping with Josh and Bryanna before my first shift at Hot Topic. My nerves are already going crazy, I couldn’t sleep last night. I picked out about seven different outfits, all versions of the t-shirt and jeans combo. Steph lent me her Ramones shirt, since my first day is a special occasion and all, but this morning it just seemed wrong. Like I’m trying too hard. I pulled on a boring black t-shirt, jeans, and my old Converse instead.
I have about an hour between turning my W2 in to my new manager, Candy, and actually starting work, so Bryanna’s convinced me to hang out with her and Josh. On one hand, I love this, obviously. Josh and I are actually talking. Better than that, we’re joking around with each other. I can tell he gets me, and I think I get him, too. It feels like, finally, something real is happening between us.
On the other hand, it’s hard to get too excited about bonding with Josh when he’s practically spooning Bryanna.
Normally, this sweetheart behavior (he just called her “honey”) would have me dying a little inside. But today it’s almost a welcome distraction from the terror I have about starting work. Going in early this morning to fill out tax forms only made a bad situation worse. I didn’t understand the forms, and I was afraid to ask questions of Candy. She has one of those ironic names, like when big guys go by Tiny. When I hear “Candy,” I picture a small blonde cheerleader, but she has unnaturally black hair that looks waxy and sticks up in spikes around her head, plus a nose piercing through the middle of her nose that forms menacing spikes on both sides. She also has a lot of tattoos, but I didn’t think it was polite to stare at them.
Josh and Bryanna are pretend-fighting because the Aveda worker offered Josh a “moment of wellness,” a.k.a. hand massage. I could use a few moments of wellness myself, but I don’t mention it.
An instrumental version of “Only You” plays through the speakers. So not appropriate. I feel more like Nerfherder’s “Lamer Than Lame.” Or some Mr. T Experience song filled with puns about twisted love. I wonder what Dr. Frank would call this situation: “Third Wheels Are Only Fun on Tricycles,” maybe.
I’m paranoid about being late on my first day, so I say goodbye. As I’m leaving, Josh winks at me. It barely registers at first — the concept of a guy paying attention is so foreign to me — but I break into a big smile as I’m leaving the store.
Alienation makes the world go round. And as a fashion statement it’s absolutely sound.
My kindergarten teacher used to have this treasure chest filled with little prizes that we could pick from when we did something good. It was probably plastic, but I remember it as being as authentic as a real pirate’s chest, and filled with just as many wonders. There were all sorts of brightly colored, mysterious things inside this chest. None of the trinkets had a clear purpose, and my mom thought that made them useless. I thought it made them interesting.
That’s kind of how I feel about Hot Topic. They have all this crazy merchandise, like t-shirts for wannabe vamps or confused semi-Goths, jackets that lace up the back like corsets, jewelry for body parts I didn’t even know existed. And I love all of it. I’m confused by it, and I’m intimidated by it, but I love it.
Candy seems to have forgotten who I am, even though I left here only forty-five minutes ago. When I remind her, she seems pissed at me.
“Oh, right. You. You filled out your form wrong. Do it again,” she says, and gestures toward the office area in the back.
“Will you show me?” I say.
“Seriously?” she asks. “You don’t know how to fill out a tax form?” I don’t know why she’s asking me this. Clearly, I don’t know how, or I would’ve filled it out right the first time.
“Well, I’ve never had a job before,” I say, then realize this makes me sound pathetic and I’m likely to lose the job if I don’t say something to rescue myself.
“I’m a really fast learner, though, don’t worry. I make all A’s in school.” I know this is a stupid thing to say before it’s all the way out of my mouth, but I can’t seem to make myself stop speaking.
“Aren’t school nerds supposed to be smart?” she says dismissively, then leaves me alone with my W2, which is harder than the PSATs.
The future has arrived, but where are you?
I’ve barely been at work thirty minutes, and I’m already convinced that Candy hates me. The only bright spot is that she seems to hate everyone else, too, including the two guys working with us.
She’s showing me how to use the cash register, and I know I’ll never be able to remember it all. I’ve used the cash register at the refreshment stand at high school basketball games, but this looks absolutely nothing like that. This is a touch screen filled with hundreds of buttons, each of them covered in tiny letters, abbreviations for products that I don’t know.
“We don’t usually hire high schoolers,” she says, and the way she says “high schoolers” seems the way most people say “pedophile” or “two-headed flesh-eating monster.”
“Thanks,” I say, at a loss for words.
“Yeah, well, we were desperate, we needed someone immediately, and your resume was on top of the stack. Don’t thank me, just make it worth my while.”
I’m trying to listen, but I keep getting distracted by a really loud argument my co-workers are having. I met Chad and Mike briefly when I turned in my application, but we haven’t exactly bonded. They remind me vaguely of Jay and Silent Bob from Kevin Smith’s movies: Mike is skinny and talks nonstop, and Chad is built like a lumberjack and seems less wordy. When they argue, though, they both talk quite a lot.
“Those slipper shoes you’re wearing are ridiculous,” Chad is telling Mike. Chad is wearing Dickies, old work boots, and t-shirt that says Reverend Horton Heat. Mike is wearing a tight plaid shirt and skinny jeans.
“These are Toms!” Mike protests, looking down at his canvas shoes. “They’re totally socially responsible.”
“Maybe so, but they look fucking stupid.”
“They don’t look stupid. They represent a commitment to vegan values, plus the company sends a pair to underprivileged children for every pair they sell.”
“Socialism through capitalism, is that what you’re trying to accomplish? Sounds to me like you’ve got your ideologies crossed.”
“They’re nothing wrong with bringing a little good into the world,” Mike responds.
“Bringing a little good into the world doesn’t count for much if it involves bringing a lot of ugliness into the store.”
Mike turns to Candy for backup.
“Candy, you like my Toms, right? What do you think?”
Candy looks up from sorting through hangers under the counter.
“I think we don’t sell Toms, and I’d rather you wear products we actually sell when you come to work.”
Mike gives up on Candy and turns back to Chad.
“I don’t understand why you hate the children. I just want to give shoes to poor children.”
“If those hideous shoes are anything like the ones they send to the children, I don’t think you’re doing them any favors,” Chad responds.
“Chad and Mike do nothing but argue,” Candy interrupts loudly. “And I mean nothing. God forbid they actually work.”
The guys seem to take the hint. I’m terrified that I’m going to have to work the register, so I’m relieved when Candy sends me to alphabetize CDs. This is a task that’s perfectly suited to my skill set. I like letters, and I get to look at pretty pictures (actually, most of them are not so pretty — a lot of mutilated elf men and skull people — but still). My relief is short-lived, however, when a customer demands that I help him use the music sampler. Somehow, I manage to break it.
I’ve run off a customer, and I’m terrified that Candy will yell at me. She just looks annoyed, tells me to fix it, and heads off to the office.
“Um, guys?” I say, but I don’t think they’re listening. “I don’t know how …”
Although Mike and Chad tease me for breaking the machine in the first place, they do come to my rescue. They also let me in on their favorite game: counting Ramones t-shirts.
“Only posers wear them,” Mike says. “Don’t get me wrong, we all love the Ramones, but these girls come in wearing push-up bras and candy necklaces and think the big bad Ramones seal is going to make them punk rock, while they couldn’t name a single member of the band.”
“Not even Dee Dee,” Chad says.
I try to commit the name “Dee Dee” to memory, silently thanking God that I left Steph’s Ramones shirt on the bed this morning and went with the safe, boring choice.
I’m feeling marginally better. For the moment, I have a task, and I’m not breaking anything. If only I could freeze like this for my entire shift. But the spell is broken when Josh and Bryanna make an entrance. Bryanna waves frantically as soon as they step through the door.
“Friends of yours?” Chad asks.
“Uh, yeah,” I say.
“Careful,” Mike tells me. “Candy doesn’t like for us to have friends.”
I’d actually love to ignore my friends — they’re holding hands, and it’s like a hot poker twisting on my skin — but not talking to Bryanna is easier said than done. She’s being too loud, and too cheerful, and both she and Josh seem oblivious to the fact that I’m nervous and they could get me in trouble.
I finally distract Bryanna by showing her the nail polish. She looks doubtfully at the skinny bottle printed with a silver skull, but opens a bottle of Day-Glo pink and swipes it over her finger.
“This could be cute,” she says, viewing the fingernail casually from different angles and putting the bottle back on the shelf.
Candy walks out of the back and I freeze with fear and awkwardness. Am I supposed to act like Josh and Bryanna are strangers? Introduce them to Candy? I don’t know much about workplace etiquette. They really should put this in the handbook.
“That nail polish is coming out of your paycheck,” she tells me, then sweeps past to straighten a display of Mary Janes. Mercifully, Josh and Bryanna leave soon afterward.
Self-pity won’t help you now.
Just when I think I’m about to get off work, I realize I’ve only been here for an hour. An hour! How can time crawl so slowly? I’m exhausted, I could really use some caffeine, and I feel like an idiot.
I keep making stupid mistakes all day. I forget to give bags to customers, I spill a glass of water all over the counter, and I mention that members of Operation Ivy went on to form Green Day (it’s Rancid, actually) and am mercilessly mocked by Mike and Chad for an hour.
Candy drags a huge cardboard box out from the back room and leans it against the counter. She nods at me and heads back to the office.
“That means she wants you to set it up,” Mike says.
I freeze, just staring at the box, which holds a temporary display meant to showcase Twilight paperbacks.
“Don’t worry,” Mike says. “It’s cardboard, so you can’t break it.”
I drag it to the corner and find a box cutter, but, once I cut through the tough cardboard and nylon straps, I can’t find instructions.
“They left out the instructions,” I say.
“It doesn’t have instructions,” Mike says. “It’s intuitive.”
Intuitive for him, maybe. I struggle with the huge pieces for twenty minutes, and I’m getting nowhere.
Candy notices my struggle. She stands over me and surveys the situation, clearly disappointed she’s hired such a stupid girl.
“Do you want me to get some construction paper and crayons and explain it to you that way?” she says. It’s mean, but she’s kind of right. I’m in the running for valedictorian of my class, but I can’t even manage to set up a simple display. I have a surge of respect and admiration for blue-collar workers everywhere.
Candy does take pity on me, though, sort of. She flips over one piece of cardboard and turns another counterclockwise, and suddenly the whole thing makes a lot more sense.
It’s the little things that get you down. It’s the bigger things that you can’t get around.
And it’s way too flat on the middle ground.
My shift is over in seventeen minutes — and, yes, I’m counting the minutes. I feel gross and tired and stupid. I can’t wait to get out of here. I want to be at home, in my bed, showered, wearing a comfortable t-shirt and reading a good book.
Chad and Mike are arguing about who would win in a battle between Worf from Star Trek and Chewie from Star Wars, and I’m trying to look busy alphabetizing the CDs again. We have one shopper, a surfer kid wearing a Guy Harvey t-shirt. I’m just thinking that it’s weird that he’s shopping in here when I realize he isn’t shopping. He’s stealing.
Surely this is my imagination. People don’t really do this, do they? Risk their futures for stupid crap like Bart Simpson playing cards? (That’s what he took.) I’d like to think I hallucinated the whole event, but I know it was real.
I try not to look suspicious (which strikes me as ironic, since he’s the one shoplifting) and walk over to the counter where Mike and Chad are talking passionately about Ewoks. I have to elbow Chad twice before he pays attention to me, and I finally whisper to him.
“I saw that kid shoplifting,” I say.
Chad lifts his eyebrows at first, like he doesn’t believe me. Then he looks at the surfer kid, than back at me. He doesn’t say it, but I feel his eyes asking if I’m sure.
“I’m sure,” I say.
Chad picks up the phone at the register that calls the back office. “We have a Winona Ryder,” he says.
Candy stays in the back until the kid tries to leave, and then things get really exciting. She confronts him and he breaks down immediately. Turns out he’s also taken a pen and a handful of buttons. And quite a few things from PacSun.
The mall cops come, Mike gets especially chatty, and Candy is beside herself with having a kid to beat up on. My seventeen minutes fly by.
Everything else is a picnic. Everything else is terrific.
I can’t define my mixed emotions. I’m happy about catching a shoplifter, sure. It seems to have redeemed me in the eyes of Mike, Chad, and Candy. They have a tiny bit of respect for me, and we’ve even bonded a little over it.
But my relief is short-lived. I’m a little sad for the surfer kid, for one thing. And I’m a little scared for me. I still have to come back tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that. I’ll still be clumsy, I’ll still suck at setting up displays, and I can’t hope to catch a shoplifter every day to make up for it.
I take a deep breath and clock out — one thing, at least, that I actually remember how to do. I decide to deal with tomorrow when it comes.
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