Originally published (September 2016) in Geeky Press’s Bad Jobs and Bullshit: It’s Unlikely We’ll Be Missed.
I worked at a large chain department store in the southeast. We specialized in everything outdoors, from guns to swim trunks, which catered well to the caveman-like conspiracy theorists and government haters alike. He was an elderly man named Eddy. As a self-proclaimed Christian, I found it strange that he was always roaming the marine aisle on Sundays, rather than the church pews.
The first Sunday I met him, I opened the store. As soon as the store opened, Eddy was there. He made a beeline for the counter gripping something in his hands.
“Hello, how are you?”
He stared at me, grunting. His overalls hung off the sides of his naked shoulders, revealing a patch of white, curly hair in the center of his chest. Dirt and grease hung in the wrinkles of his face and arms. It was hard to tell if he was tan or if it was just a layer of dirt. His receding hairline formed a crescent moon on the top of his head, leaving a wall of white and black tuft surrounding it. Had he not been frowning, he might have looked like my own grandfather.
“You know why I don’t go to church anymore?”
He dropped a broken reel on my counter before pushing a full pinch of chew into his front lip. I eyed the return suspiciously. We didn’t carry that reel anymore. He’d probably had it for years. Still, our ‘no hassle’ return policy kept me from saying so.
“Is this a return, sir?”
Without answering, he dug into the front pocket of his overalls and pulled out a crumpled mess that might have once been a receipt, but had been used as a napkin. He dropped it on the counter as I held out my hand to take it from him. I stared at the counter, then looked at my still outstretched hand. I met his gaze and he was still idly chewing, just staring at me.
“Too many damn Mexicans.”
My stomach condensed to the size of a walnut. I could feel my breakfast hot in my throat. The taste of blended eggs and bile made me gag as I plucked the receipt from the counter, doing my best to smooth it out and avoid the unidentifiable stains. I began typing it into my register.
“And don’t get me started on the blacks.”
There was a whistle, and out of the corner of my eye I could see him spitting a putrid, oily liquid into a soda bottle. I could taste the bacon now burning in my esophagus. My hands shook as I continued to type. My face, of its own accord, was stiffening and tightening into a hard, fearful mask. It was as painful as the one-sided conversation Eddy carried with himself. He didn’t seem to notice, and his voice grew louder with his own rising anger. He might not have been at church every Sunday, but he knew how to preach.
“Lazy. Pure laziness. Like the Chinese.”
He picked up the dirt-encrusted reel before dropping it back on the counter.
“Can’t even get a decent reel by those bastards. This wouldn’t be a problem if it was American-made.”
He made a show out of pointing and jeering at the ‘Made in China’ insignia on the reel’s handle. One could barely make it out through the red mud caked onto the mechanism. Another whistle, then a grunt. The smell of tobacco and grease hung in the air. My hands just wouldn’t move fast enough.
“Damn, are you gonna be done today?”
I swallowed down the ever-rising bile and breakfast, and my voice climbed from my lungs as a shriveled whisper.
“I’m sorry, sir. I appreciate your patience.”
Eddy slammed his plastic bottle onto my counter and all progress halted. The only thing still moving was Eddy’s bottom lip, which worked and chewed, allowing for a single line of tar to slip down his chin and fall onto my counter.
“I ain’t got no patience.”
My pulse thrummed wildly in my ears and the corners of my eyes were burning with hot, liquid fear. Eddy groaned, picking up his dirty reel, which left its own pile of dirt and mess amongst the spilled spittle and oil. He then reached across my register and snatched up his receipt.
“Damn it to hell. Even the whites are useless now. Damn bitches don’t need to work here if they can’t return a damn reel without whining.”
All the while, I watched, gaping at him. He walked toward the exit and, instinctively, I called after him.
“Have a nice day.”
He looked back long enough to flip me the bird, then continued on his way through the sliding doors. A whine crawled out of my lungs just as the next customer came forward.
I did my best to smile, though it took much more effort than it should have.
“Hello, how are you?”
The woman waddled forward, leaving a trail of unwanted clothing along the product shelving leading up to my register. She smiled with a glazed look in her eye. With her hair still up in curlers and her attire, a t-shirt with a hole exposing her belly button and pants with frosted, pink donuts on them, it was easy to assume she had rolled out of bed and immediately came here to start her day.
Then, her glazed eyes fell onto my counter.
Her lips curled back, then twisted into a bow, and she held her clothes close to her chest as a mother would to a child.
“Disgusting. This is not how a lady – or a faithful employee, for that matter – should treat their customers. What have you done so early in the morning? Do you not clean every night?”
I tried to explain Eddy. Surely if she knew about Eddy, she would be more understanding. It was all in vain as her cloudy eyes cleared to a hard, icy stare.
“I refuse to support such an establishment.”
With that, she dropped her brand new, unpurchased, brand name items into the spittle and the dirt on my counter. She then ‘humphed’ and waddled out of the store.
I didn’t even try to wish her a good day.
I stared at the mound of cloth, chewed tobacco, and dirt, unsure of how to proceed. Another woman waddled up to the counter and joined me in my assessment of the pile as she clutched her own purchases to her chest.
“Are you open?”
I stood there for a few moments, contemplating that very question myself. Another woman sidled up next to the first. Then there was another fellow with a receipt and a dirt encrusted fishing rod who lined up behind her. Another woman with three kids came up at the rear of the line, barking into a cell phone. Either she was screaming at the person on the phone or she was threatening one of the children who had begun to climb up the product shelves.
I eyed my line, the pile on my counter, and finally the clock on my register. I opened the store a mere thirty minutes ago. I grumbled an uncommitted yes before scraping the pile off my counter and onto my feet. Tobacco stained my sleeve and was now running onto my shoes. It was still more tolerable than the people who seemed to endlessly filter up to my counter only to comment on the unprofessional state of my work environment. All the while, children were knocking down shelves, men and women alike were trailing clothes and other product around the store, and one man was notably spitting tobacco onto the floor rather than into a bottle or trash can. Yet, the endless complaints were targeted at me. I had only thirty minutes into my shift done. I still had eight hours to go.