Current Occupation: Writer, Mom with emptying nest, Volunteer, Antiques Vendor, Furniture Painter/Crafter, Activities Assistant, Stringer for a small Newspaper
Former Occupation: Adjunct Faculty at Ivy Tech Community College
Contact Information: Colleen Wells’ work has appeared in Potomac Review, The Voices Project, and Veils, Halos & Shackles – International Poetry on the Oppression and Empowerment of Women. Her memoir, Dinner With Doppelgangers – A True Story of Madness and Recovery became a springboard for mental health discussions and inspired her to become certified as a community health worker/peer recovery specialist. She edited One in Four, an anthology of student mental illness narratives. Colleen taught college courses and currently works as an activity assistant and stringer for a weekly newspaper. You can read more about her work at: www.dinnerwithdoppelgangers.com www.ColleenWells.com
Taking Care of Business
Hypomania – In bipolar disorder, a mild-to-moderate level of mania, the period marked by increased energy, euphoric mood, restlessness and racing thoughts. Hypomania may become mania or depression.
Note: Some names and distinguishing characteristics have been changed. Some events have been compressed in time in service to the story.
There is no gentle ascent into mania for me. Once I’m “up,” I usually turn the corner into psychosis pretty quickly. Some highlights from the last time this happened — six years ago — include me running into a snowy night at 2:30 a.m. wielding a large, white cross constructed from foam core with the word “possum” painted in purple. Later at the hospital I stood under the TV mounted on the wall waiting to get sucked into it. The trigger for this psychotic episode was work-related. I was teaching a semester-long course offered in a concentrated week-long January session. The tremendous preparation and complicated commute contributed to my spiral into madness.
I’ve held other various part-time jobs since but now I need to work full-time, to earn more money and see if I can pull it off.
I note throughout my job search that the local chain art supply / home décor store always has a sign on the door indicating they are hiring. As my employment prospects grow slimmer, I decide to apply. This will be minimum wage work, but it is close to our house, and I won’t be bringing any work home with me.
When I get a call from Tim, the store manager about an interview, I feel lucky. Upon my arrival, I follow Tim upstairs to his office. He scans my application. Tim’s dark hair is cut short, with some grey on the sides. He’s a little bit cute.
“What kind of activities did you do at the assisted living home?”
I detect a northern accent, Wisconsin, maybe.
“I took the residents to the grocery store. I brought in all sorts of entertainers, including an Elvis impersonator. We did things to improve their quality of life.”
“Before that I taught college classes part-time, but then we moved from Indiana.”
During the next phase of the interview he explains the details of the job. “We’re looking for someone to help Martha in home accents. It’s our toughest department, and it’s growing. The truck comes on Thursdays. Nobody leaves until it’s empty.”
I nod, wondering how big that truck is.
Tim’s demeanor changes from amiable to business-like. He hands me a piece of paper, saying, “This is a math test. If you don’t pass, we can’t go on with the interview. You need to get at least eight answers right.”
“Math test!” I blurt. “I’m terrible at math.”
“You can use the calculator on your phone if you have one. I’ll be back in ten minutes.”
I have a cell phone but no clue whether it’s got math capabilities. My heart starts racing. I stare at the sixteen problems.
The first few are basic addition and subtraction. Then I move on to the middle section which asks me to calculate percentages of prices.
I’m working on computing sales tax when Tim walks in the room. Handing him my paper, I say, “I didn’t finish.”
He pushes it back toward me, instructing I go ahead and complete it.
I hurry along and give him the test, certain the interview will soon be over.
“You got nine right,” he says after checking it.
“I squeaked by, huh?”
He flips through his papers, then stops and begins drumming his fingers on top of them, as if deep in thought.
“You’ve got the job if you want it.”
“Wow!” I say. “I’d like it.”
“Come in tomorrow and see Heather about the paperwork. She’s in the next office. There’s some training videos you need to watch.”
As I turn to go, I look out his window, noticing that the view allows him to see the whole store.
That night over pizza I tell my family the good news.
“So you’re going to have to help keep your rooms clean better than you do,” I caution the boys.
“Okay,” they say without enthusiasm.
“Mom, will you make a lot of money?” asks Yakob, our youngest.
“Not a lot,” I say, “But some.”
“I’m happy for you, Bean,” says my husband, Rick.
I smile, helping myself to another slice, pinching off a corner of crust to toss to Bear, our fluffy, big-hearted Border-Collie mix, pants at my feet.
The next afternoon I find Heather busy at her desk counting money. She’s wearing plastic gloves and is coughing. Heather is middle-aged and sports large glasses. The sides of her hair are pulled back in silver barrettes.
“Hi, Colleen,” she says. “Give me just a minute.” Hacking again, she adds, “I was out for three days with this walking pneumonia.”
“I just got over something, too,” I say.
What I don’t offer is that I do not want to catch anything else.
I sit in the spare chair and work on the tax forms, handing them back to her with my driver’s license. “I couldn’t find my social security card,” I say. Some time ago I had hid it at home and now can’t remember where. “Will a passport work?” I ask.
“Yeah, just bring it with you on Monday.” She types something in the computer, saying, “Colleen—You don’t meet many Colleens.”
We go to the break-room and she hands me a stack of videotapes and the television remote saying, “Sorry it’s so grimy.”
There is a Coke machine and Pepsi machine along with a vending machine for snacks. As I watch the videos, the Pepsi machine makes loud noises at varying decibels, so I keep turning up the volume. During the safety video I am surprised by the statistics of injuries due to products falling from the top shelves of stores. I begin to worry about a piece of furniture or pottery falling on my head. There’s also a skit where an employee reaches for something on a top shelf and starts falling.
As if it isn’t enough to have bipolar disorder, I have anxiety too. I hate climbing ladders and heights in general.
In between videos I make sure to rewind the tapes. While I’m waiting to move on to the next video regarding protocol for when children go missing in the store, the television channel defaults to a documentary about St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital. I hear about a small toddler with brain cancer. Part of his brain was removed and now he can’t walk very well. Then a bald teenage girl and her mom take the screen. Her mother says, “The doctor said if it ever comes back it would progress quickly.” Whenever I’m channel-surfing at home and I see a show like this I quickly change the channel.
On Monday I locate Heather in her office to complete the rest of my paperwork. Handing her my passport I say, “I should have asked Tim this, but will I be required to go up on a tall ladder? I don’t think I’d be very good at that.”
“Not a real tall one, unless a customer needs something taken down.” She hands me a lock for my locker and its combination on a sticky note, then walks me to the break room where the Monday morning meeting is in session. Heather points to a tall, dented, industrial-looking locker which already has my name on it.
“You can go ahead and sit down,” orders Tim from the head of the table while everyone watches me struggle to fit my hulking Vera Bradley purse in the locker.
After the meeting I sift through the videos on the table and find the one on cashiering. It isn’t rewound, so I put it in the VCR and rewind it. The volume on the television has to be cranked up to forty because the Pepsi machine is making a racket again. As the video progresses with cashiering skits and instruction, I begin to recognize some of the same actors. The woman who was a shoplifter in the last video is a paying customer in this one.
That night I have trouble falling asleep. When I get to work the next day, Roxanne, another manager, greets me at the door and says my floor trainer Martha is going to be late, so I should walk around and familiarize myself with home decor some more. Roxanne, who looks to be in her seventies, is tall with slightly stooped shoulders, has weathered skin and wears a belt around her back to support lifting.
When Martha finally arrives around 9:30 I’m in the aisle with the smaller wall art, examining a black and white piece that says, As for me and my house, we shall serve the Lord. I recognize Martha from the Monday morning meeting. She has thin, penciled-in eyebrows and dark circles under her eyes. Her hair is black and curled under all around the edges of her head. I wonder why she is late, given there’s a huge poster on the wall by the break room admonishing tardiness.
We walk around home accents and she straightens pillows and throws as she goes. “At the end of the day you’ll do recovery, and make sure everything’s straightened up. It’s not hard.” Following her lead, I tuck a white tag back underneath a beaded pillow.
“I’ll teach you how to do orders,” says Martha. “We need to go get the book.”
I notice Martha is chewing gum and try to remember from the training video if we can have gum. There was a skit of a guy was drinking a soda and eating a candy bar at the register. He got chocolate on a lampshade, and the customer went home enraged and had all her friends over and told them not to shop there anymore.
Martha locates a thick, black binder in a plastic box in the hallway. On the way back to the floor she grabs a shopping cart. As we cruise the aisles, Martha says, “I’ll be ordering lamps and furniture and you’ve got the rest.”
The home décor looks like about three fourths of the store’s home accents inventory, while lamps and furniture only comprise a few aisles. I feel light-headed for a moment, like I might have a panic attack, but thankfully the moment passes.
“I’ll show you the back room,” Martha says, navigating the cart through the aisles at a fast clip. I wonder if Tim is watching us from the huge window above as I try to keep up with her. She pushes the metal doors open with the buggy. A chemical smell permeates the huge room. Green metal racks line the walls from floor to ceiling. I hear the song Holiday by Madonna emanating from a long, messy work bench, but can’t locate the radio amongst the pile of broken lamps and knickknacks. Pallets of merchandise sit in the interior of the space. Along the far side wall is a bailer and incinerator.
Martha parks the cart by a wall of stone pedestals. “The last one they had in here helping me would wander off a lot and kind of do her own thing.”
“Oh really?” I thought Tim said this was a newly created position.
Martha reaches for a flat piece of wood on a shelf and places it on the cart. “You can put your book on here,” she says, opening the binder.
We go back to the floor and she instructs me how to compare what’s in the book to what’s on the shelves, starting with framed art. “You got ya a pen?” she asks.
“I think so,” I say, locating one in my pocket. “Are you sure it’s okay to use a pen?” I remembered from the video one of the actors kept saying to use a pencil when ordering.
“It’s your book. Just go ahead and mark in there.”
When we finish with framed art, it’s time for the decorative balls. By afternoon we’ve progressed to the round displays of what’s called “men’s items.” There are polyresin statues of two-headed eagles, pen holders shaped like cowboy boots, metal fire trucks, wooden tortoises, piggy banks shaped like baseballs, and fake books that you can hide stuff in. I select a mahogany one with a gold edge of faux pages. This would be a good place for me to hide my social security card and small documents at home, but I decide it looks too fake.
I can see through the front doors that a rainstorm has begun. Later, while unwrapping some plastic chargers, I note the sky looks an eerie shade of greenish-grey.
“Does Tim tell everyone when there’s tornados or something because it’s looking bad outside and my husband said there might be some.”
Martha keeps unpacking chargers and doesn’t say anything.
A good minute passes.
“I mean does he tell you where to go if something happens?”
Next there are some large decorative plates which Martha asks me to display, pointing where to place them on a top shelf. “Just go find you a ladder.” She pauses, raising one of her pencil-thin eyebrows at me. “Oh wait a minute, you’re the one that doesn’t like ladders.”
“It’s just the tall ladders.”
“You’ll only have to go up a step or two. Then you can go to lunch.”
While on the ladder, I can’t figure out how to put together the plate holder for the display. The plates are heavy and I don’t want anything falling on anyone’s head, so I leave it for later.
During my break I step outside to call Susan, my best friend.
When she doesn’t answer, I hear the lyrics to a Killers song she set for her ring-tone. The chosen one, A southern drawl, In a world unseen. While I’ve heard these lyrics a hundred times before, I wonder if they might have some special meaning applicable to me and my new job. But I stop myself after I realize it’s already gone to voicemail because it is when I search too hard for meaning that I get into trouble. Last time I was manic, I thought the answers to life’s greatest questions could be found in Tom Robbin’s book, Still Life with Woodpecker, and I called several people to tell them to read it, including random acquaintances like the contractor who had remodeled our house once.
A younger employee rushes outside while muttering something about “those red candles.” She lights a cigarette. Her long, brown hair is parted in the middle with over an inch of outgrowth of grey hair, giving her the appearance of having a stripe at the top of her head. I recall during the Monday morning meeting that when she spoke her thoughts seemed scattered but Martha still hasn’t introduced me to anyone, so I don’t know her name.
“Can you imagine having candles?”
“No,” I say.
I can tell that she’s touched, and feel sorry for her because I think when you are younger and go grey it means you’ve already had a tough life. Then when you try to dye it, but can’t afford to keep it up, that means you’re still having a tough life.
“Good luck with the candles,” I offer, and go inside.
Upon return to my unfinished task of the plates, I see that someone else has already completed it, which makes me assume they think I’m inept, so I pile up another cart and get to work. I am hoping to find something cool like woven baskets.
During my tenure back-up cashier from 1-2, when I’m alone at the register a woman walks in, her hair plastered to the sides of her face from the rain. “Do you know where the snow globes are?” Her eyes look crazed like she’s been given divine instruction to find them. I can relate to those types of marching orders. Once when I was ascending from mania to psychosis, I
was convinced I was God’s messenger and compiled random objects like paperclips and a children’s book in a white bag leaving them on my friend’s doorstep.
“I don’t know if we have snow globes, but I’ll find someone who can help you.” Not wanting to veer too far from the front of the store, I summon an employee in seasonal to assist her. A customer approaches with a buggy full of wall art which is on sale this week. She has purchased the wall hanging that says, As for me and my house, we shall serve the Lord. I ask her if she found everything okay.
I remember to ask this because in the video the same guy who smeared chocolate on the lampshade is later shown with the same customer. This time he doesn’t get food on her purchase and asks her cheerfully if she found everything. She was so impressed she appeared giddy. This time when she went home to hold court with all her friends, she told them to shop at the store.
Back on the floor my feet ache as I start working on recovery. I see Martha in the pillow aisle. “You worked retail before?” she asks.
“Yeah. It’s just been a long time.”
She smiles, but doesn’t say anything.
Time creeps by. I see a piece of framed art that says, Hope is the feather that perches in the soul — Emily Dickinson. Fishing a piece of scrap-paper out of my pocket, I jot the saying down.
Finally my shift is over. I’m pelted by rain and wind as I hurry to my car, parked at the far end of the parking lot where employees are supposed to park.
Rick is picking up the boys and a few groceries, and I’m grateful for some time alone after my shift. I sit at a small table in our screened porch with a draft of an essay I’ve been working on about an eccentric retired sailor I worked for in college. He loved telling me he had the heads of other English majors upstairs in jars filled with formaldehyde. He also made me scratch his dry back with a soup ladle.
The next day I’m not scheduled to work and I spend my time doing a lot of writing—more than usual. I think it’s because there is a powerful synergy between physical labor and creativity, but my husband isn’t so sure. When he comes home from work to find me huddled over a draft on the porch he asks if I’m doing too much. I survey the stack of books and magazines littering the table, and cover the overflowing ashtray with my notebook.
“I’m fine,” I say. “I feel good.”
I understand his concern. When Rick visited me in the hospital six years ago, he says I didn’t recognize him and introduced a fellow patient to him as my husband. When he asked how I was doing, I said that I had just witnessed the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
That night I get my period and wonder how I can go in the next day. I routinely get terrible cramps not long after I start. Tomorrow is the day the truck comes. The day nobody goes home until all product is put away.
Somehow I don’t get cramps and go in. Roxanne tells me to head to the back and find Martha.
I walk into a frenzy of activity. A man in a ball cap, whose name is Tucker, loads trash into the incinerator. Howard, a part-timer, is breaking down boxes. There’s a radio somewhere playing the opening guitar chords in “Sweet Home Alabama,” a tune I’ve been listening to lately in my car on a compilation CD called Songs for the Open Road. Martha summons me over to our pile of freight and hands me a box cutter. I dig in surprised at how adept I am with the tool, but make a mental note to be careful with it.
I wonder if the strong chemical smell is harmful.
Martha asks how I like it.
“Yeah. You think you’re gonna like it?”
I don’t know what to say. On the one hand, I don’t trust Martha, yet I think she knows I’m a hard worker. “Well I think this kind of work is good,” I reply.
As we unpack the product, I notice nothing looks like anything I remember ordering. There are fabric storage boxes that come individually wrapped with three additional boxes inside the largest size.
I start to get cramps while unwrapping some metal crosses and don’t have any Aleve in my purse. I ask Martha for some and she walks me to the medicine cabinet up front. She picks out a white package. It’s got an unfamiliar brand name but it says Ibuprofen on the packet so I take it.
As Martha and I put away plate hangers she asks me again if I like the job.
“I think I’ll be good once my feet get used to it.”
“Yeah, your body will adjust and you’ll be fine.”
“Actually I don’t feel very well right now. I’m having really bad cramps, and I don’t want to say anything to Tim, but what happens if you need to go home?”
“Just a minute,” she says, and walks away. I’m thinking she’s going to get Tim, but she returns with Roxanne, saying, “She’s an Obgyn nurse.”
Looking at Roxanne I say, “Well it only happens once a month for a few hours, and it’s stock day and all, so I didn’t know what to do.”
Roxanne listens intently but doesn’t say anything, so I continue.
“It started last night and the worst of it is usually the next morning. I was hoping it wouldn’t happen when I was working.” I wait for her to offer advice or at least ask for more details. But it is Martha who fills the awkward silence by saying, “She don’t think she can keep her job,” as if I need an interpreter.
“It’s not that,” I say. “It really only lasts half a day at most.”
Roxanne throws her hands up in the air and says, “Let us know. Everybody’s got something and we can work with it.”
But I’ve got a lot of somethings, I think to myself.
As I put merchandise away, I notice many products have sayings like Every day is a Gift and Simplify. These are messages designed to uplift an overworked and overscheduled society, and I begin to buy in to them. For starters, I need to simplify by decluttering my house. A metal sign that says “Home is where your story begins” also gives me pause. I think of our sons, hoping their story will be a good one. The decorative boxes begin to overwhelm me because there are so many of them.
The harder I work, the more conversational Martha gets.
“Do you have any children?” I ask.
“I’ve got a daughter. She’s married and she’s got her a good job.”
I think about her response and how she described her daughter in terms of her status (married and employed) instead of who she is (funny or caring or artsy).
After the boxes are put away, I go back to see if there’s anything else. As I walk, my strides seem to be in beat with the song playing, which is “Taking Care of Business.” Strangely, this song is also on my Open Road CD. I normally skip over it because I think it’s cheesy, but today it’s pumping me up. Martha is standing amongst a huge pile of more decorative boxes.
“I thought you were about done, but they just found more of your order.” I assess the work and dig in wondering if she thinks it’s somehow my fault. There are too many leopard patterned boxes for the remaining space at the display. Now I will have to redo a whole shelf.
As I navigate my cart toward the door, another song from my CD begins to play. I figure indeed it is the same CD as mine at home. This is a strange coincidence, leaving me to wonder what insight I’m supposed to gain from it. Do I fit in here more than I think I do because we all like the same music? As I listen to the lyrics, Give me the beat boys to free my soul. I want to get lost in your rock and roll and drift away, I get lonesome for my sons. It’s the song they like best on the CD.
After lunch I return to the back room. There are yet more boxes of freight waiting for me. Slicing one open, I hope to find something good like the baskets I still haven’t seen, but it’s more of the men’s items. I try to find something to get Rick, but nothing looks like anything he’d like.
Finally, I’m relieved to be pulling the last cart of merchandise through the metal back room doors when a sailboat in a glass bottle rolls off the top and smashes on the floor. Howard, the part-timer, is walking by at the same time and says, “Hold on.”
As he sweeps up the fragments, I decide the sailboat is similar to Mr. Tufford’s boat. He’s that eccentric sailor whom I’ve been writing about. I say to Howard, “I hope breaking that isn’t going to bring me bad luck.” I’m not really serious, but Howard inhales deeply and thinks about it as though trying to recall if broken bottles with sailboats entombed in them actually bring bad luck.
Then he says, “No. No it won’t.”
After putting away the product, I track down Martha for further instruction. She’s sitting on the loading dock smoking a cigarette with Tim and Roxanne.
“Can I join you?” I ask.
There’s a pause, maybe a beat too long, before Tim says, “Yes, ma’am.”
I’ve always thought that when someone calls you ma’am, and you’re still young, it means they don’t like you, or at best are indifferent about you.
Regardless, I take an empty chair between them and light up. They keep talking amongst themselves. Now I’m certain I’ve crossed a line and am not welcome here, but it’s too late, I’m sitting down. When there’s a lull in the conversation I look at Tim and say, “So I still don’t know if my cell phone has a calculator.”
He doesn’t say anything. I reach into my pocket and pull it out.
“It’s not on one of your functions?” he asks.
“I don’t think so. My husband has to program this thing for me. I’m really low-tech. I can’t believe they are going to do away with regular photo-processing and it is all digital now.”
I look at Martha, and add, “I guess I need to get up with the times.” She looks at me with vacant eyes. Roxanne examines her nails. I direct the conversation back to Tim.
“It makes me sad,” I say.
He too, is non-responsive. Not knowing what else to do, I turn to my phone and press “send.” This takes me to voicemail where there is a message from Rick who says he’s thinking about me. Somehow hearing his voice gives me the courage to stand up.
“I guess I’ll start on recovery then?”
“Yeah, you can do that,” says Martha.
As I leave, I feel a cold tingle up my spine which means they are talking about me.
While straightening our department, I pass through the aisle of crosses. There are pounded silver crosses, beaded ones, and others with scrolling edges, but none that have Jesus on them. Growing up Catholic, I am accustomed to crucifixes. When Rick and I got one for a wedding gift, though, he displayed it by the front door of our first house and I took it down. Rick put it back up; I took it back down again. Then he gave up and hung it in the garage. It made me feel guilty every time I walked by it.
In the metal aisle I find a wall plaque that says “Laugh” on it mixed in with the ones that say “Family.” Trying to locate its proper place, I check the last three digits of the number on the price tag, which are, ironically, 6-6-6.
Traffic is heavy on the way to get the boys from school. I’m enjoying a feeling of satisfaction from working hard. I feel grounded in my body. Elton John is playing on my Open Road compilation and I start singing. While belting, “I’m gonna be high as kite by then,” I notice to my left a large truck with a Pepsi logo. It is open at the top and transporting two Pepsi machines.
The guy riding shotgun motions for me to let him in so he can turn right. I stop so he can maneuver over. The machines jostle around. I feel my upbeat mood escalate as I catch all the green lights. Could I be feeling euphoria? Perhaps even hypomania? This is not good. Maybe Rick is right. I turn down the music and concentrate on my breathing. Perhaps I should remove the CD since it’s also playing a lot at work. Or it could be that I shouldn’t listen to music, period, because I’ve heard familiar songs can release dopamine, and I don’t know if I need any additional feel-good chemicals coursing through my brain now.
After gathering our sons at school I ask them a lot of questions about their day.
“Can we listen to music?” asks Ayalkbet.
“Not right now,” I say. “Do you want some sushi for a snack?”
“Yeah!” they shout.
As I try to sleep that night, cramps kick in again. Additionally, I’m having racing thoughts, which for me could be a precursor to mania. If they don’t stop, I’m going to have to call my doctor. He told me it is in the early stage of mania that intervention must happen. I get up to take a hot bath, being sure not to wake Rick. It would really flip him out to catch me up in the middle of the night. The hot water eventually relaxes me and slows my speeding mind.
After my bath I want a cigarette and maybe some chamomile tea, but decide against it. I also want to write, but I don't want Rick to find me awake. I’ve written three essays in the last few days and started on a feature article. I’ve also done an unprecedented amount of housework. I don’t want to do anything that might tip the scales, so I crawl back in bed noting that it is 3:33 a.m. It’s a time I notice a lot.
During the last manic episode, number three was significant for me. I was living three parallel lives. In one life I was replacing Natalie Maines as lead singer of the Dixie Chicks. In another I was one of three good witches who cleaned and cooked for moms with newborns. In the third I was joining a think-tank in Wisconsin. Headed up by one of my favorite authors, Lorrie Moore, we were going to save the environment. I knew that it was only after I successfully accomplished all my missions that I could help others catapult into their parallel lives.
The next morning I’m arranging the nautical items when an elfish man comes up to me and says, “Colleen, this is a test.” He’s wearing a red vest and his mustache curls upwards at the ends. It crosses my mind that he could be an angel, when he asks, “What is decoupage?”
“It’s kind of like glue, and you can use it for paper mache’.”
“And it dries clear, doesn’t it?” he asks.
I wonder if he is an undercover quality control person for customer service. Just in case he is I muster extra enthusiasm as I say, “Yes. I can show you the glue aisle.”
“I know where it is.” He looks at me with an amused glint in his eyes and says, “You probably get a lot of weirdoes in here,” then whistles as he walks away.
That night I call my aunt Patty to get her take on the encounter. She and I sometimes discuss angels and synchronicity. Patty points out that the peculiar man probably knew my name because I was wearing a badge, not because he was an angel or a spy.
“That’s right,” I laugh. “I forgot that I have a name badge.”
Over the next few days I notice less coincidence and more volatility in the workplace. Martha gives me a task of setting up a pottery rounder, a task I had never done before, and I go to find her because I can’t make all of the knickknacks fit. I lay some of the taller blue vases on their sides. After searching the whole store, I finally locate her right in front of the display I had left pointing out my mistakes to Tim and Roxanne. Tim is shaking his head while Roxanne stares at it with a puzzled expression. I rush over to them saying, “I didn’t think it looked right. I was just looking for Martha to see how to fix it.”
Tim and Roxanne walk away as Martha grabs some of the ill-placed vases.
“Go get a buggy,” she orders. “You’re gonna have to take everything down.”
I decide to take my last break before tackling the project. I want to smoke and call Rick, but I need to go to the bathroom first. Looking at myself in the mirror as I wash my hands, I notice the broken capillaries on my face, and enlarged pores dotting my nose. I stare into my own eyes, and wonder what I’m doing here, Martha walks in and catches me examining myself. Neither of us say anything. She opens a stall door while I try to think of something witty to offer. But I can’t.
Outside I smoke standing in the corner by the front door careful to not blow it near the patrons. The girl too young to have a grey stripe who says random shit all the time appears.
“I got to get them bags done,” she says. I don’t know what she’s talking about, but say, “Oh, yeah, that’s good.”
“I don’t know if I’m going to the party or not,” she announces. I nod, wondering what party she’s taking about. Is there a work party that I don’t know of? If so, should I really be surprised I wasn’t included? I stub my cigarette against the cement wall and wish her good luck with the bags.
Back inside as I struggle to rework the rounder to Martha’s specifications, I recall her telling me how the last girl “kinda went around and did her own thing.” I was once determined to one up whoever that was, but I realize now there is no pleasing Martha. I know too, that I don’t belong here. These people will never accept me, and they don't even know about my history of bipolar disorder. At the end of my shift, I trudge up the cement stairs to Tim’s office. He exhales loudly when I tell him I’m quitting.
“Do you work this Saturday?”
“Can you work it? It can be your last day.”
“Sure,” I say.
Tim leans back and tugs at a tuft of his hair located at the top of his head.
“You know what, don’t even worry about Saturday,” he says.
I glance out of the window which boasts that bird’s eye view. The store looks smaller than it once did.
“Okay, if you’re sure that’s okay.”
“Just turn in your apron and lock,” he orders. His face is flushed. He looks back down at his paperwork indicating that I am dismissed.
I look out his window one last time. The store looks like a pile of organized but useless clutter.
As I walk downstairs, I’m flooded with both embarrassment and relief. This place is toxic. I have enough trouble maintaining happiness, and while I do not always have control over whether I lose my mind, I do have a say in how I spend my time between the highs and lows.
My heart sinks when I see Random Girl at the time clock. I don’t want to talk because I need to get out of here.
“You want to see my favorite thing in the whole store?” she asks.
Fuck no, I don’t actually, is what I want to say.
Instead I smile and follow her over to a display of cartoonish polyresin horses. She points to the ones she’s already purchased and starts naming them.
“This here’s ‘Seven’, that’s Tigger, and that one is ‘Wembly’.”
Wembly has the biggest set of teeth of them all.
“They’re really cute,” I say.
She picks up a brown one with white spots and stares into its face and whispers something inaudible.
Then she walks away without saying goodbye, talking to herself as she goes.