Current Occupation: Super underpaid, but gloriously happy graduate teaching assistant at a small mid-western university.
Former Occupation: The highlights include: Take-out pizza shop girl; Unit clerk on a busy maternity ward; Summer camp staff; Katimavik Project Leader
Contact Information: Jen Ferguson has been writing since she learned not to eat the crayons. She is a Canadian studying for her PhD in the USA and enjoys watching the corn grow when she’s not writing, renovating her log house, or playing with her horde of foster dogs.
A fire started in the basement of one of the local hotels off the highway. It was a Saturday in June, so most families packed lawn-chairs, expired bottles of sunscreen and coolers with beer and diet soda in their trucks, drove out to the four and set up camp to watch a hotel burn down. Talking loudly, drinking beer, discarding empties on the ground behind them, off duty rig pigs were milling about after being evacuated from their rooms. They were young, but worn, unkempt with bags under their eyes or dangerous with over-sized tattoos and overgrown hair. Some rig pigs had family in town and were chatting with high school friends, mostly women who stuck around after graduation to take care of babies. Teenagers showed up in packs even though we weren’t sure we wanted to follow our parents when our basements were now peacefully unsupervised.
When my friend’s fire department connection cousin walked past me, one of the few twenty-something men I knew who wasn’t a father to a handful of toddlers, or on hard drugs, he asked, “You working?”
I nodded even though I thought the uniform gave it away. Local eateries were taking advantage, selling hot wings or pizza by the slice to the crowd.
“Well, enjoy the show,” he said. “We’re not winning this one.” He moved off into the crowd to talk to a couple rig pigs he probably knew from his school days.
Seventeen-year-old, repeating-the-tenth-grade, Chris caught up to me holding a stack of pizza boxes. I was searching for a good spot to set up shop since I was in charge of the cash box, on the boss’s orders.
“How about over there?” Chris asked, his voice muffled by the boxes.
I ignored him, figuring we shouldn’t have to work too hard, seeing as how the people at the shop would get to sit around all afternoon, smoking and consuming sodas. “Maybe we should stand in one place and yell pizza?” I suggested.
“I’m not sure—”
“Pizza!” I yelled, reaching a high pitch reserved for AAA hockey games. “Come and get fresh, hot pizza!”
As the crowd descended upon us, I realized my mistake, but didn’t own up to it. Not in front of Chris. I tried to ensure that everyone who took a slice paid, but we were beyond the dream of an orderly, straight line.
When we ran out of slices, Chris called in for more pies, while I reassured the crowd they were coming. Soon. Thirty minutes or…it’s running late. After Chris hung up, he turned to me and said, “Got any more good ideas?” Then he wiped pizza sauce from his uniform. It appeared he hadn’t washed the once white chef’s uniform in months, but the newest stain was so my fault.
The hotel came crashing down, a little after two in the morning, and a roar erupted from the crowd. A few whoops. Some slow clapping. Chris polished off the last of the cold slices, waved and was gone, tagging along with a couple of girls from school. No one stuck around to watch the firemen continue watering the heap of concrete and twisted metal, after the building fell. The show was over and we didn’t want to watch the credits roll.
The weekly local featured a five-page spread, as if we hadn’t already heard. On the cover, the boy who was to blame stood hands on hips in front of the police tape, in full colour. He’d never done laundry before and with the laundry woman out sick, the lowest ranking of the room service boys was sent to the basement. He crammed the laundry from room 210, a rig worker’s oil-stained coveralls, into the industrial machine, noticed he’d stained his jeans in the process, stripped down to his boxers and waited for the load to finish, like his sister told him to do.
He was damn lucky, the boy told anyone who would listen, that he stepped out to take a cigarette break followed by a bathroom break, when the laundry machine exploded, ripping through the basement, igniting the linen stores. Before the firemen cleared the hotel staff’s trucks from in front of the water access lines, the first onlookers took up residence and began calling their friends. Nobody got hurt, but the boy demanded compensation, in the form of a new pair of hundred dollar jeans.
Friends and family clipped the front-page photograph and displayed it on their fridges. At school, the boy’s infamy reached new heights. Even middle school girls knew who he was, dared to say hello when they were safely in groups. And when the hotel owner presented the boy with a gift certificate to West Edmonton Mall and a promotion at a hotel further up the road, the local paper memorialized the moment in another front-page appearance. He became the face of the teenaged workforce.
A week after the fire, my boss presented me with a key to the store and an Alarm-Safe code. I was, he said, unusually mature compared to his employees, the other high schoolers. To remember the code, I changed my pin number to match the series of non-sequential digits written in pencil on the backside of an invoice for produce.
Remembering the warm rush of pride my boss had instilled in me with honour of having a key, I let the news slip to my co-workers. They assured me that that everyone but Jimmy the dishwasher, a thirty-something man whose father still picked him up after work, who was either slower than most or brilliant in his laziness, was excluded from our key club. So over sodas, I told my co-workers—kids in my grade, and some older from the public school—my brilliant plan to redeem myself. “The time wasted at the bank was worth it. Better than calling the boss, or Phil, at closing time to admit that remembering four numbers on top of the other things a sixteen-year-old has to know is just too much work. Nobody forgets the number that gets them cash.”
While we were making the day’s batches of dough and dicing all the green peppers and thawing the onions and crumbling the industrially processed cheese gingerly with one hand to resemble a “fresh” product while the other held a smoke or a can of Coke, the other staffers told me that I was pretty smart. They knew from school that I was intelligent, but never once had any of them congratulated me for making the honour roll seven-and-a-half years running. This was different: now they knew I was worthy.
“I mean… You guys could do it too,” I said, smiling and trying not to blush. “I don’t have the monopoly on good ideas.”
Assistant-to-the-manager Phil nodded. He was skinny, and didn’t seem like the kind to work the rigs, or maybe he had tried that and quit after the first day and hitched back to town with a group rotating off shift before he signed on at the pizza place, I decided as he scratched his stubble. I couldn’t figure out how Phil had ended up here if he hadn’t been chasing gold in the oil fields. He had a habit of echoing the consensus when he was near us teenagers, saying, “You are smart. Pretty damn smart, kid. You won’t stick around here for long with ideas like those. Nothing but the big time for girls like you.” His east-coaster accent grated on my ears, but I couldn’t help but smile brighter. Even Phil could see that I had a future beyond where I was for now. I wouldn’t be selling pizza slices at future town fires much longer. I glanced at Chris. He could do that all by himself.
Chris was playing with little balls of leftover dough, shaping them into sculptures or rolling them into ping-pong ball sized globs and throwing them on top of the walk-in freezer where they would harden and then be forgotten. He threw a crusted over bit of dough in my direction, before he said, “Don’t go on inflating Connie’s head, guys.” The dough fell flat.
Everyone laughed and told Chris he would never be as smart as me. I scooped up the dough and tossed it in the trash, enjoying my victory.
A few Friday nights later, it was crazy with only eight of us working. Eight of us and Phil. We were taking orders, making pizzas, filling delivery bags with boxes and reminding the driver not to forget the side of wings or dipping sauces or twelve extra sets of plastic cutlery with those wet-nappy-things for the man who ordered one large pepperoni pizza and called twice reminding us not to forget. Phil loitered in the back room, doing what he called “managerial things,” which looked like Phil sitting on a blue plastic milk crate, legs spread, smoking and trying to get the hair on his chin to grow in faster.
Phil normally abandoned ship at eight on Friday nights, and I always hurried on making pizzas and answering the phones and reminding the driver not to forget things, even if everyone else slowed down some with Phil gone. Chris and a few others finished work around ten, giddy by the prospect of another Friday night in town. To boot, it was payday, so a good night of drinking in someone’s dad’s field lay ahead of them. The rest of us worked until two, mopped the floors without sweeping, put unused stock in the fridge after we scratched off any expired product stickers, necessary shortcuts if we planned on getting to sleep any time soon. I volunteered to carry the cash box to the backroom, placed it under a large grey plastic food container on the clean side of the dish-rack as instructed, a printout of the day’s sales blessed with my signature folded thirteen times on top of the twenties.
I found Chris had returned to the store. He was on his hands and knees rummaging beneath the hooks on the wall across from the unisex bathroom where we hung our coats, purses and school bags. “You haven’t seen my ATM card? The bank sent me a new one and I’ve lost it. And I’m out of cash-money. Say, can I borrow twenty?”
“You owe me from last time. No way.”
“Fine, fine,” he said. “I’ve got money, but if I pay you back I can’t buy myself a little, you know—” And he pinched his index finger to his thumb just so he was sure that I really did know.
Or to make sure that he made me uncomfortable. Not that I hoped he knew I pretended to know things about drinking and Randal, the drug dealer who lived on an acreage on the North side. I sharpened my tone, knowingly compensating, but hoping that I was faking it well enough, “I am never going to get my money back, am I?”
“Probably, you think that,” he said and got up off the ground, stumbling towards the back door in that sullen way of his. Then he giggled, his bottom lip jutting out, but he still looked like the kind of kid you didn’t want to see walking in your direction, even on the other sidewalk, after midnight or on a lonely Sunday afternoon, with grungy hair and watery bags under his eyes.
I approached the Alarm-Safe panel, keyed in my code, then locked up and waved goodbye to Chris, who was still loitering in his truck with the engine rumbling. The door handle didn’t always work in my dad’s car, so I climbed in through the driver’s side window and headed home quick as I could because it was Saturday morning and I had pizza sauce and knots in my hair. But the tank was on empty. When I drove past the gas station with its slurpy signs, I doubled back and filled the tank, mesmerized by the neon buzz. And since I noticed a green bill crumpled on the vinyl of the passenger seat, I didn’t go over two-oh-point-oh-oh on the pump and left my wallet in the car when I went to pay. The clerk told me I had red goop in my hair and commented on the drawing of a snake devouring a pin-up in a bikini on the bill, followed by a grunt that stood in for a laugh. He didn’t offer me a receipt.
At home, I crumpled into a ball on top of my sheets without showering because I had done it before and I would do it again, and my eyes were already closed. In my dream, I was swimming in pizza sauce and when I climbed out of the vat of the stuff, my boss would look at me and ask me why I hadn’t cleaned the pizza oven yet. I never had a decent answer. I remember thinking, when I wake up I’m going to be so upset I was dreaming about work and not about something I don’t get to do all day. But I probably got up for water and didn’t dream that last part.
The next thing I remember, my cell phone rang, a song I’d been loving but that sounded more like an advertising jingle at that hour, and I either managed to turn it off, or flung it across the room into the laundry hamper, dislodging the battery. The room fell still and I closed my eyes because they burned. Eventually my mom came down to my room in her bathrobe holding the portable phone and told me that it was for me.
She said, “Wake up, baby. Baby? They’re asking for you.”
I held my hand straight out, my eyes firmly shut, demanding the phone but not willing to acknowledge my mother. I saw the red of my eyelids, light filtering through as I waited for the phone to find its way to me.
“Where did you leave the cash box, Connie?”
“Under the thing… What time is it?”
“Which one? On the clean side? Check the dirty rack,” my boss hollered into the phone. I didn’t suppose he was talking to me. “Connie, why did you come back ten minutes after closing up?”
And so I was awake now and I know I wasn’t dreaming because I could feel the sleep sitting in my eyes and I saw the wall instead of the red of my inner eyelids and I was telling my boss that I was gassing up at the 7-11, craving a slurpy ten minutes after I closed up shop. But then I went to bed without showering or the satisfaction of a blue tongue. I still had pizza sauce in my hair. I paid cash. I had no receipt.
“Ah, shit,” my boss said all deadpan-like and told me to get dressed and come in. There was no need to shower. Then he sighed. “I knew giving you all the same code would come back to bite me one day. We’ve been robbed,” he said, and this time he was talking to me, but there was not a thing I could do about it. “It was just so much easier to remember when one of you called at two in the morning after forgetting your code.”
I nodded, overlooking that he couldn’t see me. “I’ll be there.”
Once the cops left, my boss held a mandatory staff meeting, and he told us that from now on, “since the incident,” instead of placing the cash box under the large grey plastic food containers on the clean side of the dish rack, that we would leave the cash box in the walk-in freezer overnight. Nobody, he said, would think to look in there. He would be issuing new Alarm-Safe codes for each employee so that the next time someone tried to rob him, well, he would know who it was that did the crime, or that let the robbers in the store, by their now unique four-digit code. Missing from the early morning meeting were two model employees: East-coast-slacker-manager Phil and home-boy Chris.
My coworkers didn’t see anything wrong with the new “safe.” They weren’t gossiping over where the two prime suspects might be. They weren’t placing bets on who they thought committed the crime, even though they usually bet on everything. They kept going on about how this was the last time they listened to anything a “pretty smart” girl said. So I took the bait and asked what they meant. It was not really my fault they were here before nine on a Saturday and certainly none of mine that the Pepto was unable to calm their hangovers. Chris’s blonde cousin, always a spokesperson for the high school kids, dared me to check my wallet. I could never really refuse a dare from Chris or his cousin if I wanted to maintain my credibility. I discovered my debit card was just not where it was supposed to be, but then that was old news to my coworkers.
“You know, like, most of us changed our PINs like you told us to,” a girl in the grade below me said.
And everyone agreed it was my fault, even if I didn’t take the money.
Glancing around the back room of the store, I wondered where we could assemble the guillotine to enact swift justice. I knew what no one else knew: we wouldn’t be seeing Phil any time soon because really, who returned the twenty-bucks they owed you if they were going to steal a cash-box and eight debit cards on payday? Phil was probably on the highway towards St. Johns, moving on to try his luck down the road with another bunch of high-schoolers at another take-out pizza place.
So when Phil walked through the door raving about a dead cell phone battery as he took a drag from his cigarette and that he only got the message just now, I started wondering if Chris would have the nerve to show up to school on Monday or if he would be stirring in one of the two cells at the cop shop waiting for the circuit judge to get around to setting bail. I felt bad for thinking the worst of Phil, guilt mingling in my stomach with an early morning Coke I’d helped myself to during my interview with the cops. I admitted to myself that once the hair came in, the goatee would probably suit Phil.
And I hoped that Chris got caught, or at least felt really bad about using my plan to defraud us. The weekly local ran a cover story on the cash box theft, but made no mention of the debit card incident.
On my hands and knees, I gathered loose change from the bottom of my locker seeing as how the bank insisted on freezing my account until they could “investigate the, uh, theft.” I hadn’t gotten around to telling my parents about my proud moment in order to beg for some cash. Yet. They had been vaguely proud of my free-pizza earning status. A shadow fell about me and I craned around.
“Connie-Con, did you catch the twenty I slipped through the window?” Chris was all brash banter like nothing had changed and he might have winked, or was that just a nervous twitch in his left eye?
“Yeah, I did, asshole.”
“I paid, didn’t I?”
“After you decided you were going to rob us. The way I see it, you still owe me. A lot.” I smiled as fiercely as I knew how. “A lot a lot.”
A smirk and another wink, or was it a twitch, livened up his face. “Everyone says you’re smart, Connie. Riddle me this, though. What kind of brilliant bastard steals their own debit card? I’ve already been arraigned for shooting the sheriff, but I didn’t shoot the deputy.”
I didn’t like asking him questions, but in this case, I had to. “What does that even mean?”
“I only took the cash box.”
“Oh. Who took the debit cards then?”
Chris shrugged. “Do you know how much was in the cash box? Like two-hundred bucks. I got arrested for two-lousy-hundred dollars. Turns out we do more credit card business than I figured.”
He held out a hand to help me off the ground. With a blue pen he had given himself a mock-tattoo on the inside of his wrist, a snake eating a girl in a bikini feet first, and I wondered if they were going to kick Chris out of school like they did the pregnant girls and if he would end up tattooed and robbing liquor stores with spray-painted toy guns like the other boys who made the front page of the weekly local, then ended up as twisted town heroes when their cousins and girlfriends taped the clipping up next to their kids old spelling tests.
Blinking twice at my silence, Chris decided to change the subject. “Do you know how much money Phil took from us? I lost in this deal. The boss might press charges even after I returned most of the cash and the container it was in. He hasn’t quite decided not to fire me yet. But I’m still actively apologizing,” he said, smiling the way a dog looks at you when you’ve caught it chewing on your shoes, hoping that you’ll let the matter drop because you love him.
“He didn’t fire you? That’s—” It was my turn to drop the subject. The smart-girl assessment wouldn’t help the situation. “You sure about Phil?”
“My debit card was lifted before I left work on Friday. Steve and Brice’s too. They both had to borrow last night from Bev’s kid sister before we put it all together. But it doesn’t matter. We can’t catch Phil. He had our pins, so it doesn’t qualify, exactly, as theft.” Chris punched me gently in the arm. “And chances being we won’t ever find the cards or anything, so like CSI-style fingerprints are out. We need a full confession. Least the cops I talked to when I was bringing the cash box back seemed to think so.”
“Wasn’t that whole thing your fucking idea?”
“Yeah,” I said. “You listened to me?”
“You owe me two-hundred dollars, Connie. In twenties. They’re easier to spend.” His hand landed on my shoulder this time.
“Get in line,” I suggested.
Chris had been pleased by his front cover appearance, a follow up on the pizza theft. Our boss taped it up in the store window, happy for the extra publicity. The rest of us were hanging on, coming to work, pretending nothing had changed even though we all knew that we knew it had. We couldn’t accuse Phil of anything, since we didn’t have any proof. So we had to continue taking orders from him, but I know I took them a little less seriously and kept my replacement debit card in my uniform pocket, even though the bank issued us new PIN numbers and recommended we avoid sharing them in the future. Three weeks after the theft, after a busy weekend where Phil had left at eight, and most of the other staff left at ten, and I had closed up shop, the phone rang and my boss wanted to know if I put the cash box in the empty cardboard box that had pepperoni misspellt in magic marker on the outside. “The one in the freezer?” he asked, a wishful tone in his voice.
“Why are you calling me? It wasn’t my code, right? I didn’t share the code,” I said.
He exhaled into the receiver. “So Phil probably didn’t come back ten minutes after closing to fetch his coat, or a mixed-tape, or something?”
“Mandatory staff meeting in thirty minutes?”
“Nah,” he said. “I have to go out to buy a fucking safe. Make it an hour.”
This time, the theft didn’t make the front cover, but all of us staff were asked to pose for a picture the newspaper filled under “local happenings”: we stood in a line under the yellowing storefront sign, while the photographer kept asking us to act natural. The photo the paper settled on, had the bunch of us, dressed in our street clothes, looking just a little depressed.
That summer, I spent many long hot nights working extra shifts slaving over the pizza oven and picking up overtime at my grocery store checkout girl gig to pay my debts. When I tried to pay Chris, in crisp twenties, he refused. He suggested I hold onto them for a while longer, seeing as how he was bad with money. He knew how to spend twenties, on the North side of town, at one of the liquor stores, on over priced candy at the sticky-floored cinema canteen as he tried to show a much younger girl a good time, sneaking her into an R-rated movie. I held onto the bills for a week, anticipating a quick change of heart. When he failed to behave as I expected, I made a deposit in my long ignored savings account. I always felt like after that I owed him something and one day he would come to call.
When I wasn’t working, I was busy tracking down copies of the paper where my picture had appeared months before. I started out by keeping them, stored in a corner of my closet under a pile of long ignored dirty laundry. The day I caught my mother, clipping out the photo so she could send it to my grandfather, I knew that the only way to survive would be to destroy every instance of that picture.
I waited until my parents were out of the house, fired up our gas fireplace and fed each copy in, a few at a time, until the black smoke started billowing into the living room. After prying the battery out of our smoke alarms, I relocated to the fire pit in the yard.
Eighty-two down. A little under five hundred to go. Only then would I be safe from my teenage mistakes.