Just Face It
by Jenna Maxwell
For nearly all adults, being employed gives them a sense of purpose. Like if they’re not running themselves ragged trying to please some tyrannical corporate clone, the day is for naught. For nearly all teenagers, being employed is simply a means of creating a cash flow. Having a part-time job is, for most adolescents, a way to attain that ever-coveted high school status symbol: a car. For me, being employed was all about just that, a car. Instead, I ended up spending the summer before my senior year trapped in pharmaceutical hell, answering phones, dealing with cranky customers, and stocking shelves full of analgesic cream. And people say that the four years you spend in high school are the best years of your life.
As I stand in my room contemplating the great issues of getting ready for work (khakis or dress pants?), I realize that it is a perfect August day in picturesque Pennsylvania and I really would like to put on my swimsuit and head to the pool for a day of relaxation. Unfortunately, this, like all the rest of my summer Saturdays, will be spent inside Rite-Aid, stocking shelves to the tune of “Jeremiah Was A Bullfrog” from two in the afternoon until ten at night. I think to myself, just visualize the reward: that shiny nineteen seventies Pinto I’ll soon be able to afford.
I’ve made it. I’m here, my vest is here, and I have thirty seconds to spare. Thank goodness the stop signs with the white outline are optional.
Despite the fact that I would rather be nearly anywhere in the world other than at work, being employed does have one redeeming quality: my coworkers. These five other people somehow seem to make the workday tolerable.
Karen is the store manager. Merely twenty five years old, she runs the store with an iron fist, but still exposes her inner-teenager once in awhile. Just ask her about the Kiss concert last week, or the hangover she had the next day. At least that explains why the “Summer Fun” sign is hanging askew from the rafters.
To offset Karen’s kinder, gentler approach to management, she hired Ahmad, RiteAid’s version of the Grinch. I choose to think that he has some small shred of humanity somewhere deep within his blackened soul, but evidence has yet to prove this theory.
Ever the life of the pharmaceutical party, Carl is consistently cracking jokes and playfully tormenting his fellow employees. His official title is “shift supervisor,” but all that translates to is assistant manager with a lower pay rate and a lousy title. Within the first week of meeting Carl, he attempted to cover Steph in “50% OFF” stickers while she took a nap over her lunch break.
Steph is by far the quietest and most mild-mannered of everyone at Rite-Aid. She’s constantly trying to please the management, and she never misses work. I think I would hate her if she weren’t such a good friend.
The day I met Kate, she told me about her former boyfriend’s unfortunate addiction and his consequential loss of one hundred pounds in three months. Just to compete, I told her about my father fleeing the state with my birth certificate and social security card. The saddest part of both stories? They’re true.
“Cassie, okay, I want you to go face the store. Start at the baby aisle, and just go the whole way back. Just face everything,” Ahmad instructs as I patiently await my turn to disagree with him.
“Should I do the beauty section?” I ask, knowing the answer to the question will be the same.
“No, Kate or Steph can do that. You face everything else.”
“But I’m the Beauty Associate. Karen told me that I should face the beauty area every time I work.”
“Karen’s wrong. Just go face where I told you.”
“Hello, my little work monkey.” A voice speaks as I zone out while staring at shelves of cough and cold remedies. Just from the affectionate nickname, I can tell exactly who is standing behind me.
“Oh, hey, Kate,” I reply, without turning.
“Oh. Have you seen Steph? She sent me looking for you. We thought maybe you were swallowed by the toy aisle.”
“No, I’m surviving. Barely.”
“Hey, well, I gotta get back to photo. You need anything?”
“Barbeque Pringles and a lemonade would be great.”
“You are such a fat kid at heart,” she tells me, referring the fact that my metabolism allows me to eat large amounts of food every two hours and maintain a weight of only 95 pounds.
Aisle 4: canned food. One more aisle to go...
“Cassie, come here.”
Ahmad leads me at a brisk pace to aisle 7: first aid.
“Cassie, this is not how you face. Did anyone ever teach you how to face?”
“Ahmad, I’ve worked here for a month. I know how to face.”
“Well, I’m going to teach you how to face. To face, you pull each product forward on the shelf. Not so that it sticks out, but so that it is even with the front of the shelf. See. You try.”
“Cassie, if you cannot face right, then I will have Steph come back to face and you can go up front.”
“Ahmad, I can—"
“Good, so, start over at the baby aisle and redo the whole store. Just face it. Face everything.”
And then he walks away. He just walks away. And I know it’s stupid, but I start to cry. Not because I’m upset that I have inadequately completed one of the many menial tasks assigned to me, but because, well, I have to begin again, and I think I might really lose my mind if I have to do that. So I simply ignore Ahmad’s instructions.
Mission complete, the store has been faced. My reward? Well, there is no reward. Carl keeps insisting that the honor is in the respect earned from my fellow employees. But, really, respect can’t buy me a car.
Without a moment’s relaxation for me, another tedious task is assigned to me and my associates by the charming managerial staff. We are sent to sort and stock twenty-five boxes of random merchandise. I begin to think I never liked driving much anyway.
With Kate running photo and the cash register, Steph and I have successfully sorted all the products into boxes labeled in bright magic marker with the aisle they belong in. In the midst of sorting, hunger overtakes me and I am seized by the urge to run to the food aisle. As I begin to tell Steph that I am going to run and find a bag of chips, Kate ambles back. I tell them both about my desperate need for sodium, when Kate has another brilliant idea. She thinks I should eat a Combo that has been sitting on a merchandise cart in the stock room for the past two days.
“Will you pay me?” I ask, never one to pass up a good dare.
“Uh, Steph, would you pay to see her eat one of those things?”
“Nah, but it would be really funny. Just eat it, Cass. It won’t kill you... I don’t think.”
Too weak or too stupid to resist the pressure, I eat one of the somewhat stale, definitely not crunchy Combos. Steph and Kate are infinitely amused. Not wanting to disappoint my audience, I consume the rest of the abandoned snack crackers.
Steph has left for dinner, while Kate and I sluggishly trudge from box to shelf, putting bottles of hair spray in their rightful places. Suddenly, Kate freezes. I ask her what’s wrong.
“Look who it is,” she says, indicating a stocky boy of about seventeen with dirty blonde hair and a conspicuous tattoo on his left bicep. I recognize him immediately. It’s Chris, the obviously strange, though well-intentioned boy who had stalked both Kate and I at separate times over the past two years. I duck below the shelf, not wanting to deal with awkward confrontations.
“Crap, he saw you!” Kate hisses through gritted teeth. And then she does what any sane girl would do in such a situation: she begins acting completely ridiculous.
“Abort! Abort haircare! Regroup in scrunchies! Abort!” she shouts, and drops to the floor.
As I watch her army crawl two full aisles over, I am struck by the hilarity of the situation. I collapse on the floor laughing, clutching my sides, tears streaming down my face. Ahmad sees me laying on the floor, and I realize that I don’t care. If I’m lucky I might get fired by closing time.
Alan brings me dinner. We’ve been dating for nearly a year and a half now, so we pretty much have each other’s habits memorized. I know exactly where his car is parked, and I know that because it is Saturday, he brought me chicken nuggets from Wendy’s. I also know exactly what he is going to ask me once I sit down.
“So, sweetie, how’s work?”
“Miserable,” I reply. Sometimes being predictable requires less effort.
“Work is always miserable.”
“I could go shoot a rubber band at Ahmad’s bald spot for you,” He offers.
Oh, the things we do for love.
The moment I clock in, a woman tugging two full carts of merchandise heaves her way to the register. I ring up what feels like every item we have in stock, while Kate and Steph place her purchases in the largest bags they can find.
“Please triple bag everything,” the woman asks, fluffing the mountain of AquaNet soaked copper hair piled atop her head. She is certain that her air of superiority is suffocating.
As requested, each of the seven bags is placed within another bag, and each of those two bags is placed within a third bag. It is a plastic bag extravaganza.
“Be a dear and carry these out to my car.” She pats the badly dyed poodle that has been strategically placed where her hair should have been once more, for emphasis.
I page Ahmad. After all, he works here, too.
“Cassie, did you ever see the movie Office Space?” Steph asks as we stand behind the counter, sorting damaged and returned merchandise.
“Yeah, I have, why?”
“Well, you know the guy in the movie, Milton?”
“The one with the stapler, and the squirrels?”
“Yeah him. The one who goes crazy and burns down the building because he hates his job.”
What about him?” I really don’t think I want to know the answer.
“Well, sometimes I relate to that character.”
“Steph, arson is a felony.”
Carl prances by holding up a pair of pantyhose, looking rather confused.
“Not your size?” Kate asks.
Ah, I love the smell of sarcasm in the evening.
“Cassie, listen to this. Okay, I have this friend, Andy, and he was doing work somewhere near Philadelphia, and this new guy came to work there. Well, the new guy only spoke Spanish, and the people he worked with only bothered to teach him two words, ‘yes’ and ‘not yes’.”
“You’re kidding me.”
And this is what I have come to love about Kate. She will, seemingly at random, tell me things that make no sense and have no relevance to whatever the previous topic of conversation may have been. I suppose we all have our idiosyncrasies.
“Carl, I have a question for you. Do you ever wake up in the morning and think, ‘maybe if I gnaw my arm off, I won’t have to go to work today?”
I am genuinely curious, because I think maybe the sensation that my job is more suited for Rosemary’s baby is something every employed person feels at one time or another.
“Every day of my life.” Carl replies, without hesitating.
As of nine o’clock, we all begin to feel the strain of working eight hours straight. Luckily for us, Alan is always looking for an audience, and he has conveniently come to visit me. He strolls into the seasonal aisle, finds every toy with a button that reads “Press Here” and presses. The store erupts in an auditory barrage of singing, howling, laughing and shrieking from the once-silent toys.
Kate, Steph, Karen and I are gathered around the front register, fervently discussing the events of the day. It is a pre-closing tradition to share any funny or interesting tales from the day. Kate reported that the Photo Center had printed eleven obscene photographs, and, even better, none of them belonged to her friends.
I share that six middle-aged men had attempted to get me to go to dinner with them, and, as usual, none of them were deterred by the knowledge that I am nowhere near eighteen. Karen especially enjoyed the story of Rico, the skeletally thin man who came to buy chocolates for his girlfriend, but felt that, “she would not mind” if he took me out for an evening.
Steph has no funny Rite-Aid tale for today, but she does mention that her mother came in to visit today, and made such a scene that Ahmad had to ask her to leave. It seems that the altercation stemmed from confusion as to who was supposed to purchase milk the night before. Apparently, lactose-free is not how Steph’s mother likes her coffee prepared, and felt that she had reason to burst into the store, screaming obscenities at customers in general, and Steph in particular.
“Kate, why did you get a job here?” I ask, simply trying to pass time.
“Well, I want to buy a car when I get my driver’s license, and I need to be able to pay my cell phone bill. What about you?”
“Why else? Car, car insurance, car repairs, gas money. Steph?”
“I don’t know... I don’t have to pay for my car or my insurance. I guess I was just bored.”
“Deranged doesn’t even cover it.” Kate says, while she and I both shake our heads in disbelief.
“Okay, so when you get here tomorrow, Cassie, I want you to face the store.”
No final hour would be complete without the reminder that I am allowed a few hours of sleep before having to return to this torture chamber I call my job.
“Well, Karen said there were other things for me to do,” I rebut, knowing that resistance is futile.
“Well, I want you to face the whole store from the baby aisle back.”
“Ahmad, I did that today.”
“Well, just keep facing. Face everything.”
Kate and I are standing in the beauty section, sniffing the various body washes and lotions, attempting to pick one favorite scent.
“I just don’t know what’s wrong with him, Cassie. I mean, he’s got some aversion to affection or something. I don’t understand.” She is complaining about her boyfriend, Kenny, and his many defects.
“Well, hey, look at Alan, I mean, he’s plenty affectionate, he’s just... emotionally constipated.”
Empathy was never my strong suit.
The moment ten o’clock strikes, Kate, Steph and I bolt for the registers as if the building were on fire. Sometimes I thank god there are three registers to time out on, because I have a feeling that, in a fight with those two, I would be the first to hit the ground.
As we say goodbye and walk out the doors, heading for our respective homes, we all realize that there is really no need to feel as if it will be a long time until we will see each other again. After all, tomorrow is another eight-hour shift.
Despite the long hours and arduous work, I realize that I did have some entertaining moments and that I genuinely enjoy the company of most of my coworkers. However, I also learned one other valuable lesson: No car is worth this amount of suffering. Thank you very much, but I will walk.