JR: The following story is something I wrote for my first public reading, which took place Friday December 11th at Happy Endings Lounge in New York City. The main character of this story works for a supermarket chain as a district manager, and this is her first visit to one of her stores during the holiday season.
OFFENDER by Jason Rice
Marlo listened to the Super Foods store manager, whose name she wouldn’t be able to remember if he wasn’t wearing a nametag, tell her that this was a good employee, someone who had been with the store for years. Marlo didn’t nod her head; she just focused her eyes on Frank’s. He was treading water and they both knew it.
“It was a mistake. She just put the change in the tip jar.”
“Frank. It was an unfortunate mistake. She did it without asking. Now we have someone out there in the world that thinks we employ thieves. Do you see the perception this creates?” Marlo tried to keep her voice steady; this was Frank’s problem now. She didn’t discipline hourly employees; she just made phone calls to store managers when complaints came into the home office. It was a coincidence that she was dealing with this.
“She is very sorry.”
“Sorry is for old people and children. The customer is now going to tell anyone who listens that our store ripped them off. Would you come here if you heard that?”
Marlo stood up and tucked her cell phone into the inside pocket of her leather jacket. She remembered standing in front of the mirror in her bedroom; she’d left before the sun came up. She thought the white corduroy pants might be a mistake, the Versace belt certainly could have been reconsidered, but that decision was already set in stone. The night before she laid out her outfit for a day of protocol enforcement.
Marlo had a list as long as her arm, each store manager seemingly overwhelmed by the business of keeping their stores running properly during the holiday season. She thought about the mistakes she was going to have to correct and it made her mind wander.
“This is a learning opportunity for you, Frank. Please. We can’t put spilled milk back in the bottle, but we can, you know, stop it from happening again.” She patted him on the shoulder. This poor man, she thought to herself. The weight of this place was crushing him. She left Frank to do his own thinking.
Standing at the last check-out counter she caught herself in the reflection of the automatic sliding doors. As they opened and closed she knew the thoughts that were whipping through the minds of the employees of the store at the very moment they heard she was coming in for a visit. They all thought they’d be fired, which was a good thought for them to have, kept them motivated. She watched her reflection again; her hair was perfect, blown out and straight as an arrow. Marlo knew that to make this work she needed to chew lemons, and never give away what she was thinking.
She watched a white haired man stumble his way towards the customer service counter, his hands shaking as he went. Then she watched two women, one with sucked in cheeks, the other with light gray hair, they both desperately held onto the same shopping cart. She wondered if they shared an apartment, a bed, or were just mother and daughter out food shopping.
Frank wobbled his way towards her staring at his shoes as he went.
“She’s in my office.”
“No. I don’t. This is your store.”
“She wants to talk to you. It’s a girl thing.”
Marlo smiled and crossed her arms. She followed Frank back to the office. Earlier that day she had stood behind the observation glass in the bakery and watched two employees pick their assholes and rub shit off their noses, no one wore gloves. The level of pain she could inflict…if she were heartless. But she let it go. She let it all go. There were only so many battles that could be fought.
Marlo’s chest tightened as she breathed in and held the air down like a deep drag off a joint. The office was now so small that she felt sick. Frank’s coffee breath and this woman’s tears filled the tiny space.
“I’m so sorry.” This woman mumbled.
This idiot woman, asshole, fuck up, do nothing, Marlo thought all of these things and more. She wasn’t sorry that this woman had to work in a place like this. She wasn’t sorry for this woman’s luck. There was only one way this could go.
Marlo let her breath out, and tried to find a smile that had as few sharp edges as possible.