Wednesday afternoon, 12:00, and the day is creeping along like this underwear between my butt cheeks: slow and insufferable. Three hours to go on my shift, and I’m starting to feel a little loopy. When the last customer asked if she’d have to trim her “cootchie” in order to wear the thong she was buying, I almost laughed in her face! I kept it together though; I’ve really improved at “keeping it together.” Plus, Sears frowns upon its employees laughing at their customers, especially in the lingerie and swimwear department.
Relief comes in the form of my supervisor, Maggie. Twenty-one and working her way through college, Maggie is still young enough to recall being a teenager working for minimum wage and the employee discount.
“Hey Allison,” she says, her voice already scratchy from years of smoking, “why don’t you go on your lunch break.”
“Thanks! See you in a half hour.”
I don’t wait for a reply. I’m halfway up the escalator in seconds flat, and soon enough, I exit Sears and enter the Cuyahoga mall.
A hundred conversations buzz by me as swarms of shoppers go from store to store looking for the next great deal. I know people who hate coming to the mall, but I kind of enjoy getting lost in the crowd. I get to be invisible. I’ll walk around the clothing or shoe stores, imagining the cool things I might be able to buy someday. Because of my Sears name tag, none of the clerks in those stores hassle me. It’s an unwritten rule between mall employees: leave your fellow minimum wage brethren alone unless they ask for help.
My favorite hangout is the bookstore. I’m a pretty fast reader, so whenever a new release comes out I grab it from the shelves, head to the back of the store and plow through forty to fifty pages before I have to return to work. I can usually get through a book in a week. I finished Stephen King’s Misery in four days.
No bookstore today, though; Gwen and I have plans to make. Our friend, Eric, is having a party tonight. Everyone I know will be there.
Brian will be there.
I wish I could stop thinking about him like I do; I wish I could think of him as just my friend. I can’t help it, though. I adore Brian, which makes going to Eric’s all the more nerve racking. His girlfriend already hates me. If for some reason I’m a little too effusive, who knows what could happen.
Maybe we shouldn’t go. No, that would irk Gwen. She thinks I need to start socializing again. My mom and Dr. Montenegro agree. Although, I doubt an unsupervised “kick off the summer” bash is what they had in mind.
I walk past Spencer’s Gifts and the Gap, making my way toward the Cookie Company, where my best friend, Gwen, is working this afternoon. When I arrive, she’s in the middle of helping a woman in expensive designer clothes and expensive designer sunglasses. Gwen gives me a quick smile. The transistor radio under the counter is playing “Don’t Get Me Wrong” by the Pretenders, one of my favorites from last year. I back up against the wall and shove my hand into my back pocket to finally free my undies from riding up on me.
“How’s it goin’ over there?” Gwen asks.
Designer Woman is gone, and Gwen has a smirk on her face.
“Emergency wedgie removal,” I reply.
Gwen laughs out loud, a big hearty laugh. I’ve known this girl since my freshman year and her laugh always catches me by surprise. She’s the one person I can turn to when I’m feeling down; the one I depend on most, except for Brian.
Anytime I even remotely think about him, I get all tingly.
“Will you look at that?” Gwen says, reaching into the glass display case and deliberately breaking an oatmeal raisin cookie (my fav). “Gonna have to throw this away. Unless you can take it off my hands.”
“If it’ll help you out.”
Gwen hands me the broken cookie. God bless her. During my stay in the hospital, she was there every afternoon with a bag of bite sized oatmeal raisins.
She was with me when it happened. I think she wishes she could have done something for me that night. All of her years of Girl Scouts had her believing that she should have been more prepared. There wasn’t anything she could have done. My brain just… hiccuped. That’s how my therapist, Dr. Montenegro, described it. I wish it would have waited to hiccup until I was home instead of in front of the whole youth group.
The way they all looked at me. The fear. Even the adult supervisors were freaked out. Here it was supposed to be some lame church sleepover, and I had to go and have a brain… hiccup. We were talking about that Harrison Ford movie, The Mosquito Coast, and everything got away from me. The universe, time, where we exist and how miniscule we all are and why, if some idiot in another country wants to fire a nuclear missile at us then life as we know it will end because let’s face it, they’re not going to blow up just New York or Los Angeles and Washington, they’re going to hit smaller cities, like Minneapolis and St. Louis and… our little suburb of Cleveland. And then I thought how pointless school was, studying for AP exams and SAT’s. Why? What good is all of that once everything goes nuclear? And that’s when my brain hiccuped.
All of the things I’ve accomplished in high school, good grades, All Conference soccer team, and the one thing I’ll be remembered for is being the girl who was carted off in an ambulance on a Saturday night.
“Can you believe what I have to put up with?” Gwen asks. “Not only do I have to deal with snooty customers who look down their noses at me, but the manager subjects me to this crappy radio station. Just listen to this.”
“It’s the Pretenders,” I reply. “You love the Pretenders.”
“I loved the Pretenders, before Chrissie Hynde sold out and started writing commercial jingles.”
“It’s a love song. It’s fun.”
She rolls her eyes. Gwen is kind of a music snob. One of her older brothers works at a record label in New York. He feeds her all of the up and coming bands out of England and the coasts. Half the stuff she listens to I’ve never heard of. Before Gwen makes me one of her mix tapes, I have to insist that she include a couple of songs I recognize.
“What time we headin’ to the party?” Gwen asks.
“Pick you up at six?”
“Think we can go see your cousin?”
“That can be arranged.”
Her eyes follow something behind me and Gwen’s smile quickly disappears. I look over my shoulder to see Andy, her ex-boyfriend, walking through the mall with some girl I don’t recognize. That jerk. When I turn back, Gwen is gone, the swinging doors to the kitchen swishing back and forth.
Luckily I know where she’s headed. Whenever Gwen needs to release some stress, she likes to break things. I rush through the “Employees Only” exit door and into the catacombs behind the mall stores. The sound of Gwen taking out her aggression on poor innocent boxes echoes through the hallway. I don’t know how she can stand it back here; it smells like pee and vomit.
“He didn’t even look at me. He knows when I work.”
“Andy’s an imbecile, Gwen.”
“We only broke up last week and now he’s out with some other girl? We went out for five months, Ally. Five months! He acts like he was all into the Smiths and Joy Division, but I introduced them to him. I did. I hate him.”
“I do, too.”
“You’re so lucky, Ally.”
“No one likes you, at least, no one who can go out with you.”
I’m kind of stunned. Is that a good thing? I can’t even answer. Meanwhile, Gwen puts her foot through an old chocolate chip cookie box.
“Well,” I manage to say, “that doesn’t make me lucky.”
She looks up with tears in her eyes. I wrap my arms around her.
“I’m sorry, Ally, that was shitty. I didn’t mean it.”
“You’re the best.”
“So I’m told.”
She wipes her tears and nose on her dirty apron, regaining her composure with a great big sigh. And just like that, it all seems to be forgotten. Andy, her tears, everything.
Gwen’s boss calls out from the kitchen, “Customers!”
“I have to go,” she says. “Cookies and crappy music await.”
“We’ll have fun tonight, I promise.”
“You bet we will. It’s going to be legendary.”
Gwen kicks one more box, a final act of aggression.
“Thanks, Ally. See you at six.”
“You got it.”
Gwen runs back into the store.
Legendary? I’ll settle for an uneventful evening where I can just be invisible. The stench of the alley finally gets to me. I walk through the dark hallway and reenter the mall.
Today’s artwork is by Villamor Cruz. Villamor is a filmmaker and writer living in the Los Angeles area. For more information about Villamor and to see examples of his work, visit www.villcruzjr.com
The Pretenders’ song, “Don’t Get Me Wrong,” is found on their 1986 album, Get Close.
Read Chapter 2 of Legendary
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