Current Occupation: Adjunct College Professor
Former Occupation: Watch Salesman
Contact Information: Bryce Journey teaches composition at Iowa Western Community College. His creative work has been represented for sale in Hollywood and his poetry, creative nonfiction, and short fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in over a dozen different literary magazines. His comedy won him a film credit in Mike Nelson (of MST3K fame) and crew’s RiffTrax Live: Reefer Madness project. When he’s not entertaining his three-year-old son, Luke Ender, he likes watching bad movies with his wife, Laura, satiating his passion for board-gaming, and increasing his skills as an amateur yo-yo enthusiast.
A Square Pocket Watch in a Round Hole
There were six of us clarinets in the University of Nebraska at Omaha concert band, but I wondered if that wasn’t one too many. It wasn’t that the music was too difficult. Certainly, the music was considerably harder than the first parts I’d played in high school last year, but I knew that with enough practice and dedication, I would eventually get the hang of this new music. The real problem lay in the dress code.
Dr. Sayers caught me completely off guard when he rapped his baton on the podium at the end of rehearsal, his signal for our completely attention. “Our first performance is in a month,” the large director reminded us. “Make sure to purchase your tuxes or gowns by then.”
I dropped my clarinet and caught it just before it hit the ground. Not that a fall would harm it. Indeed, the plastic clarinet my parents purchased for eighty dollars at the local pawn shop eight years ago had survived many falls without looking or sounding the worse for wear.
A tux?! How did Dr. Sayers expect a freshman who worked for minimum wage at the mall to afford a tux for concerts? I should have expected it, though. College was different than high school, after all. Why did I think that a black dress shirt and my Darth Maul tie would be good enough for the university concert band?
Actually, the face of the matter was I hadn’t thought of what I would have to wear at all. I just liked being in band, was all. Besides concert band, my course-load also included marching band and basketball band. And I wasn’t even a music major. I was a Creative Writing major enrolled in more bands than writing classes!
The problem of the tux and my future in the concert band occupied my thoughts as I took apart my clarinet and replaced it in its case. There was another rehearsal tomorrow but I wasn’t sure I wanted to attend. I liked the feeling of being in the exclusive concert band but, from a strictly academic standpoint, I didn’t need to be in it. Besides, did I belong in an organization that I wasn’t willing to invest in? Of course, I could just bite the bullet and buy a tux, despite the significant financial allocation that represented. But a college freshman only has so much time and money to allocate. The problem deserved careful consideration at least.
And so the questions played and replayed and played again in my mind as I walked from the music building, laid the clarinet case on the backseat of my second-hand station wagon, and drove to work at Westroads Mall. It was my turn to close at the Dakota Watch Company kiosk. I parked as close to the food court entrance as I could. Normally, I approached an empty stall carefully, watching for the mall security guard. If he were on his rounds and spotted me, I would have to park in the back of the parking lot with the rest of the mall employees. But Dr. Sayers announcement distracted me and I parked without checking for the security guard.
I was fortunate, though, excited my car, and crossed to the food court doors without incident. My sandaled feet clipped lightly on the pavement and my red Hawaiian shirt billowed out behind me in the gentle Nebraska Autumn wind. Dakota Watch Company’s casual uniform guidelines were more to my liking.
The Dakota Watch Company kiosk was just on the other side of the food court. My manager, Lisa, emptied a shipment of watches on the glass counter as I approached. They clattered and spilled against the glass like stainless steel raindrops. I lifted the counter-door and stepped inside the kiosk. Lisa turned at my entrance, smiling. This was not unusual. She always smiled.
“Hi, Bryce,” she said. “You’re right on time.”
I smiled back at her. “It’s hard not to be on time working at a place that sells watches.” I pointed at the watches spread out on the counter. “Anything exciting in the box?”
Lisa shrugged. “I don’t know if exciting is the word for it. But we do have something new.” The computerized register we used for receipts also kept track of which watch styles we sold and the home office replenished the store accordingly. But occasionally, we got a shipment like this one with a new style of watch to put on display.
Lisa scooped up a pile of watches from the counter and held them spread out in her palms. My eyes widened and I took one from her, holding it up to the light like I was a jeweler examining a flawed gem.
“What the heck is this?” I asked.
Lisa’s smile turned into a good-natured grin. “It’s a pocket watch!”
I frowned. Anyone walking past the kiosk just then might have thought Lisa and I were in the midst of performing a classic Greek drama with our opposite expressions. I peered closer at the watch, not quite sure if I really saw what I thought I did. “But it’s square!”
Lisa put the other square pocket watches back on the counter. She picked up the flyer that accompanied the shipment and glanced at it. “No. It’s ‘revolutionary!’”
I ran a finger over the lid of the pocket watch. The cover of the pocket watch was a series of crisscrossed bars. “What’s up with the front?” I asked.
Lisa read from the flyer. “’The lid of our new thrilling pocket watch line is reminiscent of the grills of classic automobiles.’”
I put the pocket watch back in her hands. “It looks like a waffle iron,” I said.
“I know! That’s what I thought! A cute little square waffle-iron pocket watch.” Lisa giggled. “I kind of want to stick the chain in a socket, pour some batter in the watch, and see what happens.”
I returned her grin now and pointed at the watch in my hand. “This is the most ridiculous thing ever.”
That was really saying something. The creative geniuses in the research and development department at the home office of Dakota Watch Company had come up with some real winning designs over the years. There were the clip-on watches with upside-down faces, ideal for attaching to belt loops and backpacks – unless one wore a long shirt that covered their belt loops or didn’t carry around a backpack everywhere, in which case the watch was pretty much useless. Then there was the digital watch with six different alarm functions, a miniature keyboard to input messages to oneself, and the ability to display the current time in a selection of cities around the world. The watch sounded cool but it came with an instruction booklet an inch thick. Lisa stored extra manuals in a stack in the back of one of the cupboards. At least once a week, one of the unfortunate customers who had purchased one of these digital watches came back to the store with a question about how it worked. I couldn’t figure the thing out any better than they could and usually wound up giving them one of the spare instruction booklets, telling them it was an updated manual guaranteed to answer all their questions. But my own personal favorite reject watch the was the ladies style designed to look like a bracelet. The watch face slid out of a tiny compartment built into the bracelet. This made the bracelet ridiculously thick and ridiculously unattractive. We hadn’t sold a single one in the mix months since receiving the new stock.
I gestured at the case where we displayed the pocket watches. “Where are we going to put these things?” I asked. They wouldn’t fit in the molded circular displays we most often used for pocket watches and they would stick out glaringly if we pinned them to a flat display.
Lisa chuckled. “I’m not going to display this shit,” she said, still smiling. “Why would I want to waste the space? We’ll keep the pocket watch display as it is.” She scooped the square pocket watches from the counter into a small cardboard box and put in the cupboard behind the pocket watch display. “If anyone begs us to sell them a square pocket watch, we can bring these out and show them. Until then, they can sit right back here out of the way and not offend anyone until their inevitable recall.”
“Sounds good to me,” I said.
For the first time, Lisa frowned. There was an uncomfortable silence until she sighed. “It’s not going to be all fun and games and silly square pocket watches tonight, though,” she said. “I need you to come help me fire David.”
“We’re getting rid of him?”
Lisa nodded. “I have no choice. He’s never in the store when he’s supposed to be.”
David was a teenage mallrat. His mom worked evening waitressing at one of the restaurants next to the mall. She dropped her son off to wander the mall for four hours every weeknight until she got off her shift. Evidently, it was more convenient than taking him home first or something. Whatever the reason, David was a regular fixture in the mall. His unkempt brown hair, torn jeans, and sun-faded light brown jacket was an accustomed sight to every mall employee. The jacket in particular was his mallrat uniform. It was synonymous with him. When it was his turn to work a shift, he changed his t-shirt to a polo sports shirt he kept rolled up in his backpack. He wasn’t supposed to wear his jacket while working, but I had heard from others in the mall that he wore it anyway if he was working alone.
Many of the mall employees had worked with David at one time or another because, like Lisa, more than one manager figured that if David was going to be at mall every night, he might as well be working. Having reliable transportation and knowing an employee showed up for shifts are the two biggest positive checkmarks for retail managers during applicant interviews. But, unfortunately for Lisa and the other managers who took a chance on David, showing up for a shift was no guarantee that he would actually stay there. The blood of a mallrat coursed through David’s veins and he could not deny the instinctive wandering that was a part of that lifestyle. There were certain people he just had to see every night at specific times and if that meant leaving his post for half an hour every now and then, then so be it. Lisa wasn’t the first to discover this, and I was confident she wouldn’t be the last either.
“What do you need my help for?” I asked.
Lisa managed a weak smile. “I hate firing people. He’s a decent salesman when he has the chance and is real good talking with customers. But I already warned him more times than I should have about staying with the kiosk during his shift. And the regional manager was in the mall during David’s shift a couple days ago and was pissed that there was no one in the store when he dropped by.”
“It doesn’t matter how good a salesman you are if you aren’t here to actually sell anything,” I observed.
“Exactly! Will you come with me? I’d like to take care of it right away and get it out of the way. He’s usually upstairs somewhere about this time.”
I shrugged. “Sure, I’ll come. What do you want me to do?”
“Just stand beside me. If he starts yelling, I don’t want to take it alone.”
“David won’t do that,” I said. I was confident in that too. David might be a talkative person, but he was also a friendly one. I couldn’t remember him ever complaining about anything. He was the sort of guy who just took things as they came at him, in an easy, deliberate mallrat stride.
Lisa nodded. “Probably not. Still, I’d rather you were with me.”
“Let’s do it then.”
We left the store abandoned behind us and took the nearest escalators up to the second floor. The second floor’s layout was a single long hallway with stores on each side that looped back on itself like a racetrack. It was perfect for bored mall security guards, bored mall-walkers, and bored mallrats.
“We’ll just walk in circles until we run into him,” Lisa said.
She picked a direction and we started walking. The long, loose-fitting sleeves of her black blouse billowed out slightly behind her and her red plaid skirt swished against her legs as she walked. Her calf-high boots clicked against the tiled floor in a determined step. The punk schoolgirl outfit was her typical work costume and, like my Hawaiian shirt and slacks did for me, doubled as her casual clothes too. Neither Lisa nor myself had to change before coming to work. But David did, and he had to take off his jacket once he got there. I wondered if that might be part of the reason as well why he didn’t work out at the kiosk. Then, I couldn’t help but think of that tux Dr. Sayers wanted me to buy and I wondered how college concert band would work out because of it.
It didn’t take us long to find him. We turned the corner of the long hallway to go back the other direction and spotted him walking out of an athletic shoe store. He spotted us too and stopped in his tracks. He didn’t go anywhere, though, when we waved at him. He just stood there in the middle of the hallway and watched Lisa and I approach. The occasional evening mall-walker and the even more occasional evening mall customer walked around him like he was one of the small potted palm trees that brightened up the center of the hallway.
David lowered his head and stuck his hands in his pockets when we stopped in front of him. It occurred to me that he knew exactly why he had been tracked down this evening. He managed a slight smile but didn’t look at us directly and squeaked out a soft, “Hi.”
Lisa jumped right into our purpose. She managed to replace her perpetual smile with something that was almost a frown. “I’m afraid we won’t need you to help us out at the kiosk anymore,” she said.
David looked up at us now. “I’m fired?”
“I’m real sorry,” she said. “I’d like to keep you around but the regional manager caught the store deserted a couple days ago while you were wandering the halls.”
David nodded and lowered his head again. “I understand.”
There was a long moment of silence. Upbeat jazz played from the store nearest us and didn’t match the atmosphere at all.
Lisa cleared her throat. “Well, we’d better get back.”
“Yeah, I guess I’ll still see you around, though,” David said.
Lisa’s smile returned to full force. “Sure! Feel free to stop by anytime and chat!”
David didn’t look up but I could just make out a small smile on his down-turned face. “I’ll do that,” he said.
Lisa and I walked past him. Before we stepped on the escalator, I looked behind me, but I couldn’t see David anymore. He must have gone into one of the other stores, holed up in one of his comfortable nests.
I turned to Lisa as the escalator took us back downstairs. “That wasn’t too bad,” I said.
Lisa nodded. “It went better than I thought.”
“He knew why we were there and that the kiosk wasn’t the place for him.”
Lisa looked thoughtful. “Yeah, I think you’re right.”
A customer stood by the kiosk when we returned. He wore a stiff white collared shirt and tie and looked completely comfortable in it. Lisa had just lowered the counter-door behind us when the man pointed at the display in front of him. “I’d like to see some pocket watches,” he said.
I winked at Lisa. “How about some square pocket watches?”
The customer frowned. “What the hell would I want with a square pocket watch?”
Lisa and I chuckled. I took out the display of conventional pocket watches and put them on the counter. The customer picked one up and popped the lid open. As he examined the watch face closely, I thought about the concert band rehearsal tomorrow. I decided I wouldn’t attend and skip it. That tux was too uncomfortable an obstacle to fit into.
The customer handed me the watch. “This matches me perfectly. I’ll take it!”
I turned to the register, punched in the code for the watch, and printed a receipt. When the customer walked off, I replaced the empty space in the display with another round pocket watch. When I didn’t show up to rehearsal tomorrow, Dr. Sayers would find someone else that fit better into that empty space as well.