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For about a month I worked at a music store in a mall. I didn’t like the job, but I wasn’t taking classes that semester, and my parents didn’t want me sitting around the house.

I worked the register. When there was no one to ring up I’d straighten displays.

The manager was a short man named Tom. He wore glasses and had a thick, carefully trimmed beard. He reminded me of a guitar-strumming Christian. Tom didn’t like me. He thought I rang slowly and was taciturn with customers.

“Sean?” he said to me once after I rang up a woman buying a Neil Diamond CD. “Would it kill you to be just a little courteous and talkative? I mean, would it kill you?”

I shrugged and looked at the floor.

Tom exhaled and shook his head; he then walked away muttering to himself.

The store had a problem with shrink, which is retail language for missing inventory usually due to theft. Tom would meet with employees at the start of shifts and go over the shrink numbers, his face red with anger and worry.

“This is unacceptable,” he said one afternoon, and he shook the inventory report. “Unacceptable.”

He was addressing me and a heavy guy named Rodney. Tom looked back and forth between us. Neither of us spoke.

“What are we going to do about this?” he said.

I looked at Rodney’s shoes. Rodney scratched his stomach.

“I’ll tell what we’re going to do.” Tom shook the report again. “We’re going to be more vigilant! Vigilance is the key!”

Rodney scratched his stomach again. I looked now at my own shoes. Tom walked away.

“What an ass,” Rodney said.

“Yeah,” I said.

[stag_dropcap font_size=”100px” style=”normal”]T[/stag_dropcap]hree Korean kids frequented the store who Tom suspected were shoplifting. Whenever they came in Tom tried watching and following them. But this was difficult to do because they split up. One Saturday I had a few more minutes of my shift to go. I was killing time, pretending to rearrange a display of Mozart CDs, when Tom came over.

“Sean.” He spoke in an urgent whisper.

I glanced at him. “Yeah?”

“The Korean kids are here. Rodney’s watching the one with the baseball hat. I’m watching the one with the bleached hair. You keep an eye on the one in the Knicks jersey.” He hurried away.

I sighed and put down a copy of Don Giovanni.

The kid in the Knicks jersey stood in the Rap/R&B section. I lingered fifteen feet away. He affected to study the back of a CD and then very quickly lifted his shirt and stuffed the CD into his pants. He did it so fast had I looked away for a second I would’ve missed it. I hesitated and then walked over to Tom. My manager glowered at me. “What are you doing?” he hissed. “You’re supposed to be watching the one in the Knicks jersey.”

I considered just saying it was the end of my shift and I was leaving but then said, “I just saw him take a CD.”

Tom’s eyes widened. “You saw it happen?” he said softly. “You saw him do it?”

I nodded, though I wished now I hadn’t said anything. “He put it down the front of his pants.”

Tom hurried behind the counter and picked up the phone. I heard him ask for mall security. He waited until the three Korean kids made their way to the front. When they walked out Tom followed them and stood in front of the one in the Knicks jersey.

“Excuse me.”

Right then the fat mall security guard appeared.

“One of my employees saw you take a CD,” Tom said. “Please lift your shirt.”

The kid in the Knicks jersey appeared frightened; he looked at his two friends.

“Lift your shirt,” the security guard said. His voice was surprisingly imperative and intimidating.

The kid hesitated but then lifted his shirt. The CD stuck out of his pants.

“Ha!” Tom said triumphantly. “Hand it over.”

Listlessly, the kid gave the CD to Tom.

The security guard took the kid’s arm and looked at Tom. “You pressing charges?”

“Oh, yes.”

“I’ll take him to the office and keep him there until the police come.” He regarded the kid in the Knicks jersey as though he were lower than garbage and then turned to Tom. “You’re going to have to come down later to fill out the reports.” The security guard then walked away with the kid in the Knicks jersey, while his two friends watched, stunned. I’d been watching this scene from the counter, and now Tom walked up to me, smiling. “Excellent work, Sean.”

“Thanks.” I tried to sound interested.

“That’s what I call teamwork.” My manager put his arm around me. He was shorter than I, and looked up at me, beaming. “We all worked together- you, me, and Rodney.”

I nodded weakly and tried to force a smile. His arm felt cumbersome.

Tom squeezed my shoulder. “I think those guys were a major source of our shrink problem, but I bet they won’t be coming back anytime soon.” He then looked up at me with pride and complicity. “I think I’m going to write a letter about what you did today to the regional manager, Sean. What do you think of that?”

His awkward embrace had become unbearable, though, and I was tired of trying to smile. So I just muttered, “Huh,” and moved my shoulders in a way to suggest I wanted him to release me from his clutch. Tom’s smile vanished. He took his arm away. He regarded me with his lips pursed and appeared as though he were going to say something. But then he just walked away.

Rodney nodded at me. “A letter to the regional manager,” he said. “Not bad.” I couldn’t tell if he was being serious or joking.

I then remembered that my shift was over. I walked to the time clock and punched out.

[stag_dropcap font_size=”100px” style=”normal”]A[/stag_dropcap] girl named Maria was hired. She was petite and pretty and had nice firm breasts. She was also demure; although every male employee was enamored by her, she pretended not to notice.

But no one fawned over her worse than Tom. He relentlessly tried to talk to Maria, only for her to ignore him.

“Did you see the changeover we did in jazz, Maria?” Tom said one night while Maria leaned against the counter reading Rolling Stone. That was another thing: she slacked off, arrived late, and took long breaks, and Tom let her get away with it. Maria glanced up at him, shook her head, and resumed reading her magazine.

“If you get a chance check it out,” Tom said. “There’s this really cool Miles Davis display.”

She turned a page of her magazine and acted as though she hadn’t heard him.

Another time Maria returned from her lunchbreak half an hour late. This backed up the other breaks because Rodney couldn’t go on his break until Maria returned, and I couldn’t go on my break until Rodney came back. And when Maria finally did return, she carried a shopping bag from The Gap.

Rodney and I watched Tom.

Hesitantly, our manager approached her. “Maria?” He spoke in a sweet, affected voice.

She turned to him, innocently.

“You know you were supposed to be back at one, right?”

Maria blinked; then softly she said, “Can I talk to you in private, Tom?”

They went to the back corner. Rodney and I watched them, although we couldn’t hear what they said. Then Maria disappeared into the break room, and Tom came over and told Rodney that he was to go on his break.

But Rodney didn’t move. “Where was she?”

Tom regarded him as though this was none of his business. But then he said, “She had a family issue.”

Rodney and I looked at each other with incredulity.

“And you believed her?” I said.

“Yes, I believed her,” Tom said, his voice rising.

“Did her family issue involve shopping at The Gap?” Rodney said.

Tom glared at us. Then he said to Rodney, “Go on your break already,” and walked away.

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[stag_dropcap font_size=”100px” style=”normal”]M[/stag_dropcap]aria was stealing CDs. Rodney and I’d both seen her. We didn’t say anything at first because we didn’t- or at least I didn’t- care. But Tom’s constant favoritism of her and letting her get away with anything was getting to be too much.

One afternoon while Maria had left to use the restroom Rodney said something.

“No.” Tom shook his head. “You’re wrong.”

“No, I’m not,” Rodney said. “Sean’s seen her do it, too.”

Tom turned to me, skeptically.

“It’s true,” I said.

Tom exhaled slowly but then said, “No.” He again shook his head. “I don’t believe it.”

“No?” Rodney nodded toward the break room. “Go look in her bag. See if there are any CDs in there.”

Tom breathed out slowly again but didn’t say anything. But a little later he walked into the break room. When he came out he was biting his lower lip.

“So?” Rodney said.

Tom bit his lip and didn’t answer.

Maria returned from the restroom fifteen minutes later. Rodney and I watched and waited. But Tom didn’t say anything to her.

Later that day, though, as Maria was leaving, carrying her bag, Tom approached her. Rodney and I couldn’t hear what he said, but Maria looked at the floor. She then opened her purse and handed Tom five or six CDs.

Tom held them with quivering hands. Then he pointed to the exit. “Get out!” His voice shook. “Out!”

As Maria quickly left Tom put the CDs on the counter. He then began putting stickers on holiday CDs about to go on sale.

He didn’t say a word to Rodney or me the rest of the day.

[stag_dropcap font_size=”100px” style=”normal”]O[/stag_dropcap]ne Saturday morning I came in hungover. Tom was working; Rodney came in at noon. I’d just finished ringing up an old woman buying a Barbra Streisand CD when Tom came over.

“There’s a guy in the Pop/Rock aisle and another guy by the rap CDs. I’ve seen them both in here before, and I know they’re stealing. I think they work together. Go over to the Rap/R&B section, and I’ll go over to Pop/Rock.”

My head pounding, I walked over. The man was in his thirties and balding. He was flipping through a row of CDs.

“Excuse me?” a woman said. “Isn’t there anyone here to ring me up?”

I looked at Tom. He seemed annoyed by the woman’s presence but nodded for me to help her.

As I rang the woman up the two men left the store. Tom then came over, annoyed.

“Could you please be a little more sociable at the registers? You didn’t say one word to that woman.” Then he looked toward the entrance. “I think the guy who was in the rap section stole something. I’m not sure, though.” He rubbed his chin and surveyed the store. “Rodney’s not here until noon, so it’s just you and me until then. Keep an eye out for people waiting to get rung up, but be vigilant of potential shoplifters. We have to multi-task today. We have to work together. We have to. . .”

My head throbbed. I squeezed my temples. Then I said, “I think I’m going to go, Tom.”

He looked at me, surprised. “Go?”

“Yeah.” I blinked and then said, “I mean, I quit.”

Tom kept staring me; then his eyes narrowed. “Fine.” He bit his lower lip. “Fine!”

I got my jacket. As I walked out Tom was ringing up a customer. He glowered at me as I passed by but then turned back to the customer.

I’d have to tell my parents I quit. They wouldn’t be pleased. But I figured I could forestall this by not coming home until later and not mentioning anything for a day or two.

I walked to the food court. I bought a lime smoothie. Then I sat down at a table, sipped my drink, and watched the people walk by.

Cover image courtesy of Jennifer Wiggins via Flickr

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