Ruth Rouff, 7/15/2013
Current Occupation: freelance educational writer and part-time English instructor
Former Occupation: retail manager
Contact Information: Ruth Rouff lives outside of Philadelphia in southern New Jersey. She received a BA in English from Vassar and a MS in Education from Saint Joseph's University. Her poetry and creative non-fiction have appeared in various literary journals, including SLAB, Four Ties Lit Review, and SNReview.org. In 2012, Townsend Press published her young adult non-fiction book, Great Moments in Sports.
It was the night before Easter, and Joe Kirby and I were condensing the plush at the Plum Hill Kmart. In other words, we were squeezing the leftover Easter merchandise from a 25 feet run of counter space to about 10 feet near the front of the store. We were also setting up the summer merchandise—coolers and other cookout stuff. At this late date, the Easter merchandise was pretty well picked through. All the remaining plush bunnies and ducks from China with their blank staring eyes, along with the remaining plastic pastel Easter eggs, cheesy plastic Easter baskets, candy eggs, jelly beans, and chocolate bunnies were now designated with a 50% off sign.
Joe Kirby was an assistant manager. I was also an assistant manager, but Joe had more seniority than me. Unlike me, he had never gone to college. In fact, he had been working in retail since high school. He was a hardscrabble, assertive guy from Kensington, a blue collar Philadelphia neighborhood that had been going downhill ever since manufacturing began going overseas. Once famous as the manufacturing hub of Philadelphia, Kensington was now best known for high levels of dope dealing and hookers.
From what I had heard, Joe had gotten his future wife pregnant while they were both still in high school. He had never finished high school, but I think he had gotten his GED. By now he had two kids and was separated from his wife. He was 22-years-old. Every work morning he’d pull up to the Plum Hill Kmart in a battered blue Chevy Cavalier with a child seat in the back.
Although there was no denying that Joe was a hard-working guy, there were things about him I didn’t like. For instance, I was standing at the customer service desk one day when a young black guy came in to inquire about a job. Spotting my assistant manager nametag, the guy smiled hopefully at me. He looked clean-cut enough. But when he saw Joe Kirby approach down the midway, his smile turned to an expression of bitter knowingness. I guess it was the way that Joe looked at him—with not so thinly veiled hostility. He knew he wouldn’t get a job at our Kmart.
Soon afterward, Joe hired a young white guy who showed up for a job. One day he introduced him to me.
“Ms. Rouff, this is Kevin,” he said smiling. We always called each other by our last names when we were around the “associates.” Kevin, our newest “associate,” looked to be about 19 years old. He had wavy brown hair and a rather nondescript face. By the obvious warmth Joe had for him, I took it that he was a product of the same blue-collar background as Joe. It was Joe who gave the okay for Kevin to work in the sporting goods/automotive department. Because I had managed sporting goods/automotive for several years before being promoted to assistant manager, I still felt a proprietary interest in it. One of my major responsibilities back then had been to keep records of all gun and ammo transactions. I was really scrupulous about it because once in a while the ATF audited us. Back before the Columbine shooters had purchased ammo at a Kmart, in Colorado, Kmart used to sell tons of guns and ammo…not handguns, just shotguns and rifles.
For several months, Kevin seemed okay to me. He did his work—stocking shelves and waiting on customers. He didn’t say much. He seemed like a regular teenage numb-nuts to me—not too bright but bright enough to hold a retail job. Sometimes when it was my turn to close the store and he was working, I enlisted him to carry up the bags of money from the cash registers to the second-floor office in a black vinyl duffle bag we used for that purpose. The bag was heavy with all the cash in it, and I didn’t like carrying it up the long flight of stairs. I was 5 feet tall and weighed about 110 pounds. I had the combination to the safe. Kevin would stand there, an impassive look on his face, as I placed the bags of money in the safe and then closed the heavy door.
But after a while, Bobby, the loss prevention manager told me that radar detectors were missing from the automotive cabinets. He said that he had an idea who the thief was but didn’t yet know for sure. Evidently Bobby was really paying attention to what was going on in the store, not just faking it. We had one loss prevention manager who was caught sleeping in the room with the video monitors. She was fired. At any rate, a little while after Bobby spoke to me, he caught Kevin in the automotive stock room stuffing a radar detector into his baggy green cargo pants. Evidently this wasn’t the first time Kevin had done that.
I thought it could have been worse. Kevin hadn’t been at the store long enough to get his license to sell guns and ammo. I thought it was ironic, though, that he had helped me take the cash to the safe. I wondered what he was thinking as he watched me put the cash into the safe. He could have held up the damn store if he had had the key to the gun cabinet. But that would have been unlikely. Everyone would have known who he was…the schmuck that Joe Riley thought was so great. No, Kevin wasn’t an armed robber…. just a garden-variety sneak thief.
Although Joe didn’t say anything to me about Kevin’s decline and fall, I could tell he was embarrassed by it. For a day or so, he looked abashed when I looked at him. But that was a few weeks ago. Now we were working side-by-side, condensing the plush. Despite the differences in our backgrounds, we got along fairly well. We often talked about the Phillies. We had both been at the store since 7 am. Now it was ten pm, and the last of the customers had filed out. We had locked up the cash, gotten our jackets, and were both looking forward to having Easter Sunday off.
But before we could leave, Joe had to set the alarm system. Walking over to the customer service desk, he punched some numbers into the box, but it wouldn’t set. He tried it again. The damn thing wouldn’t set. The security company would have to be called. Someone would have to wait until the technician arrived to straighten out the problem. Joe called the company. They said they were sending out a technician. Then he turned to me.
“You can go,” Joe told me. “I’ll wait for the guy.”
“Are you sure?” I asked. I wasn’t exactly eager to hang around, but I would have done it. I knew Joe had kids.
“Yeah, you can go,” Joe said, a tired look on his long, pale face.
So I left.
Poor Joe. Sitting around Kmart late on a balmy Saturday night, the night before Easter…his only companions the stuffed Easter bunnies. I hoped the technician showed up fast.
So you can see why I have mixed feelings about Joe Kirby.
After the Plum Hill Kmart went out of business, I heard Joe got a job as a receiving manager with Macy’s. That was good. He always was a hard worker. I hope as he’s matured, he has gotten more open-minded about race.
But I wouldn’t bet on it.