For most of the previous decade, Wittie worked at a number of different Jammin’ Joe’s coffee shops, a chain of drug dealerships where people go to type the next great American novel, to meet for work, or to listen to local musical acts in addition to getting their fix. After years of being used up by the job, she was practically gone. Wasted away.
Starting a new job is always stressful. It makes one feel like a foreigner. Makes one feel both useless and powerless. You’re overwhelmed in a way that feels like culture shock, the shock of being dropped head first into a de facto sub-culture created by the employees.
But Wittie had to quit, there was really no other option. She had begun to turn to hatred in most interactions with both coworkers and customers. The cloying smell of mocha infused her uniform and even her hair, it never seemed to go away, even after washing. It haunted her.
The job had already taken her soul, now it was taking the only thing left to her: sleep. She would lie awake at night remembering the things she had done and said. As a result, she would find herself falling asleep at the worst times. She began falling asleep in the car, on break, at dinner with family, anywhere but in bed.
Falling asleep at the wheel on her way home one afternoon settled her mind into the idea of finding a new job. She was driving her usual route through town, mostly side-streets, about three miles, when started nodding off on Fox Road, a fairly straight section of road between neighborhoods. The jostle of the passenger side tires slipping off the paved road thankfully woke her up. She narrowly avoided putting the car in the shallow ditch by mere inches. Afterward, her heart was pounding so hard, she could feel it in her eyeballs.
She gave Joe’s two-weeks notice, in spite of the cries of her soul. Her soul would have preferred her to just stop showing up. Her mind, however, was acutely aware of the injustice and selfishness of that. If one thinks they do any damage whatsoever to a corporation by quitting suddenly, they are dead wrong. Quitting suddenly would only affect those people who shared shifts with her, not anyone in the corporation, and certainly not the corporation itself. They would have her shifts replaced within the week, and the business would keep rolling.
Wittie gave her two weeks notice in writing, then was persuaded to work a third. She hadn’t locked down a job by the end of the first week, so she felt safest staying on at Joe’s another week. By the beginning of the third week, she had been offered a job at Roger’s Market, a national grocery chain. Joe’s and Roger’s, polar opposites in most respects, share one common thread: corny decorations. Joe’s walls are decorated with pictures of musicians and bands who had never seen the inside of a Joe’s, let alone that particular location. Roger’s is decorated like some kind of tiki shipwreck.
The new job will be quite an adjustment for Wittie. The job — explained to her as “putting shit on shelves — was classified as third shift pharmacy stocker. Fine, as long as she doesn’t have to deal with shitty, entitled, drug-addicted customers anymore.
She started the job on a Sunday night at 11pm, arriving a few minutes early to give herself a little time to get her bearings. She sat in the car before going inside for about 15 minutes, giving herself a morose pep talk. This should be good. Seems like it should be fairly solitary, plenty of time to think. You’ve been lacking introspection time for years.
Wittie doesn’t practice any religion, per se. She considers herself a humanist, but steals practices from disparate religions as she sees fit. For example, she used to meditate for half an hour each day, first thing in the morning. She intends to use this job like meditation, for introspection, to search her soul for answers.
At five minutes before 11, she left her car and walked toward the front entrance of the store. The Roger’s was the anchor store for a pathetic strip mall. Half the units seemed to be unoccupied, and the ones that are occupied are typical to say the least. A tanning salon, a massage place, a Chinese restaurant called literally “Chinese Restaurant,” and a hair stylist. Set in the parking lot near the street are a few fast food places and a bank. Standard strip mall fare.
Wittie had, at one time, thought herself too good for jobs like this. She took the job at Joe’s as temporary while going to school. During her first year working there, she had dropped out of school. Growing resentment toward the establishment replaced her youthful curiosity. After having gone through three aimless years at University without having declared a major, she dropped out in an attempt to find herself. What she found was the truth. The truth that no one cares what you are inside, they don’t care to hear your opinions. Each and every person is more concerned with their next move, their next words, than with what goes on around them. This realization was the genesis of the hatred that consumed her at Joe’s.
Coffee people are just drug addicts in expensive clothes who live relatively normal lives. Caffeine addicts don’t normally drink themselves out of house and home; the fix is too cheap. It is just harmless enough to become commonplace, and just commonplace enough not to require strict control.
Working mornings at a coffee shop, you don’t see people at their best. You see the addict seeking his fix. It would be less stressful to deal actual drugs. If you’re rude to your dealer, they might stop serving you, give you weak shit, or otherwise fuck with you. The people dealing caffeine don’t have the option. Corporations like Joe’s treat their customers like petulant children, they practically train their employees to coo and stroke their faces. Putting shit on shelves should be a breath of fresh air compared to the noisome coffee shop.
She was told to report to the pharmacy after clocking in, so she hit the time clock and then meandered across the front side of the store. She looked from side to side, taking in the odd decorations. Multiple canoes filled with vines and moss, oars, tiki faces, unlit torches peppered in here and there, grass skirts wrapped around check stands, and rope nets among many other nautical and tiki themed decorations. She thought it an odd theme for a grocery chain based out of Ohio.
Wittie looked to her left down each aisle as she walked past, seeing besieged shelves in a state of disarray. To her right, the check stands, a couple of them were still open serving the last few customers. The store closes at 11, but some people always wait until the last minute. Wittie thinks about the people who arrive at the coffee shop first, usually the same five or ten people. She chuckled, wondering which group of people were worse.
No one was at the pharmacy when she arrived. She checked the time on her phone: 10:58pm. She shrugged and took a seat in one of the fake leather chairs they have for the elderly waiting for their scripts. She peered into the pharmacy through the plastic windows. A curtain made of metal bars was pulled down behind the openings. Though closed, it seemed like all the lights were still on inside the shop.
“No sittin’ down on the job.”
She heard the loud voice coming toward her from the left, a man, medium pitched but gruff. She stood up and turned toward the voice. It came from a bearded man with very black hair, as if it were recently dyed. He wore a baseball cap with a Toyota logo embroidered on the front. Despite the dress code being any solid colored shirt and jeans, he wore a threadbare yellow polo shirt tucked into cheap cotton slacks in black, the old uniform. His name badge said, “RICKY,” the letters worn to nothing in spots.
“Sorry, I’m just starting tonight. I was told to meet Jason here,” Wittie said.
Ricky walked past her and disappeared down one of the pharmacy aisles, saying nothing. She shrugged it off, the H.R. manager had warned her about some people. He didn’t mention any names, but the way he said it made it seem like it was most of them.
Wittie stood there waiting for Jason until about five after, and when he didn’t show she decided to look for him. The pharmacy shop was in a separate room in the front right corner of the store. Five aisles, indigestion to incontinence and everything in between, that face the opposite direction compared to the rest of the store. She walked outside the pharmacy alcove and looked right toward the back of the store, seeing a set of double doors marked with bold red text. She starts walking that direction.
The double doors burst open with a loud BOOM-THWACK and through them came a giant red-haired man with extremely pale skin pulling a cart piled high with boxes of all sizes. His eyes were transfixed on a spot on the ground about 5 feet in front of him. As he approached, she stood to the side trying in vain to get his attention. He pulled the cart straight past her, then made a quick left down one of the pharmacy aisles.
The man came barreling around the corner of an aisle behind her, headed back the way he came. “Excuse me,” Wittie hollered after him, “I was told to report to Jason, do you know where he is?”
The man never stopped walking, but slowed down and, with a slight look over his shoulder, made a swiping gesture with his hand that said “come along.” She skittered to catch up to him.
She followed behind him as he went back through the double doors. The back hallway smells strongly of cardboard, as if the baler compressed the smell too. She follows the ruddy man through the baler area to the loading dock.
The dock reminded Wittie of a half gymnasium. Where the bleachers should have been were giant steel shelves loaded with pallets on three levels. On the wall to her right, dull metal roll-up doors sat in various states of openness along tracks that reached all the way to the ceiling. A couple of them were open into trailers, one of which is currently being unloaded, the other filled with pallet stacks and cardboard. One door was open a couple feet — presumably for airflow, although it doesn’t seem to be helping.
The mute redhead approached an older lanky man. His hair was almost entirely white where it showed beneath his hat — a standard issue cap with a patch embroidered with a vintage-looking “R” logo. The mute fat man gestured toward Wittie, then walked past toward a pallet piled high with boxes.
“You must be new in pharmacy,” Jason says, as if it were a question. He slips his work gloves off, and slips them in his back-left pocket. He extends his hand, with a smirk he says, “Jason, I’m the warden.”
“Wittie. Nice to meet you,” Wittie said, shaking his hand.
Jason walked toward the hallway, Wittie followed side by side.
“Well, the job’s real simple. That guy, Ken, he’ll bring shit for you to work, most o’ the time just a couple o’ rollers. You open all the boxes and put that shit on the shelves. If you have trouble finding where somethin’ goes, set that shit aside and try again later. Trust me, it works. Match the UPC on the product to the shelf. Grab a shopping cart or two for your cardboard. Let me know if you need help with the baler. You get two 15-minute breaks. Take ‘em whenever you want.”
Wittie just stood and looked at the old man, trying to piece together a response. Instead, she could only think about what the job must have done to his body over the years. Although he was tall, he still managed to stand up straight. He put on a good front, but the weariness was evident in his movements.
“Any questions,” Jason asked, obviously eager to return to his own work.
“Nope, if I think of anything, I’ll come find you.”
She walked out of the hallway through the double doors, attempting to put on an air of confidence. Just put the shit on the shelf.
Wittie walked up to the front, to the lobby and got a shopping cart, then returned to the pharmacy to find the roller that Ken pulled out. After working for a few minutes, stocking here and there around her five-aisle area, she realized that she was pretty much alone in the pharmacy section. Wittie let herself get lost in the rhythm of cutting open the boxes and emptying them onto the shelves. She was about halfway done with the roller, when Ricky came by again.
“You gotta make sure you’re puttin’ stuff ina right spot. I’m sick of findin’ stuff ina wrong spot,” the middle-aged man said dully, with a tinge of anger. She could tell that it was directed at her — she was alone in there, she was sure of it — as though he could have already found something she had put in the wrong spot. She was certain she had been alone since she started. Plus, it seems like this is her area, not his. Why does he keep walking through here?
“I just started tonight, Ricky, no need to be a jerk,” she said, but not before he had already left the aisle.
I already hate that guy. I should see if anyone knows what his deal is.
After Ricky broke her flow, Wittie realized that she had been at work for almost 3 hours and was almost glad that the jerk had interrupted her. A little less than half of the roller still remained, but Jason had told her she could take her break any time. She took her shopping cart full of cardboard back to the baler and dumped it all in, then returned the cart to the pharmacy.
The store’s break room was reached by going down the long back hallway, then climbing a staircase up to a mezzanine. The room had two folding tables along the wall on either side. Each table has 4 folding chairs pushed underneath. A kitchenette occupied the back left corner of the room. She didn’t bring lunch, she just wanted a place to sit.
The room was empty when she got there, but a twenty-something woman came up shortly after she sat down. The woman moved very slowly with plodding steps, her shoulders were slumped and her arms hung limp at her sides. The skin around her bloodshot eyes was dark and swollen, the rest of her face sallow and mottled.
Not wanting to be rude, Wittie said a quiet, “Hello.”
“Hi,” the woman croaked, eyes focused on nothing, then shuffled over to the TV mounted on the wall. She turned it on and changed the channel to an infomercial for an all-powerful skincare regimen. She dropped into the chair nearest the TV, slumped onto the table, and promptly fell asleep.
Wittie decided she would ask Jason about the guy if she got the opportunity. Hopefully, he would ask the guy to knock it off or something.
She scrolled mindlessly on her phone for a very quick fifteen minutes. When the time came, she got up and climbed down the stairs with hopping steps that made her ponytail bounce. As she rounded the corner where the stairs switched direction, a pudgy man of indeterminate age, with disturbingly asymmetrical facial features, came around the corner. The man’s face quickly took on a crooked-smiled leer, following her with his head as she continued down the stairs. She switched to a normal walk as soon as she saw him, and followed his gaze with her own. Ugh.
She strode down the back hall, trying to put as much space as possible between herself and that… man. She hoped that she would see Jason on her way by the dock, but the dock was deserted.
When she got back to the pharmacy, Ken had brought her another cart of about the same size for her. She was just realizing that she would need to pick up the pace when Ricky came around the corner with a shit-eating grin on his pockmarked face.
“I betchu thoughtchu only had the one roller,” he said, then strode out of sight.
Wittie went back to work with the pressure of anger building inside of her. Who does this guy think he is? Is he trying to run new people off? Savagely cutting boxes, she worked frantically and finished the remainder of her workload before her second break at 5am.
This break, she was the second person, the same woman as before was sleeping in the same spot. She wondered if the woman had been there the whole time. She hears snoring coming from the other woman. Not wanting to listen to the woman’s gross mucousy snore, she turned around and walked back down the stairs.
Instead, she would explore the store. To the right at the bottom of the staircase is another set of double doors that lead out between the deli and bakery departments. She walked past a refrigerated case filled with an assortment of brightly decorated ice cream cakes.
“Hi, there! You must be new, is this your first day,” a woman’s voice came from behind the bakery counter.
Wittie looks up to see a matronly woman smiling at her. She wore a white hairnet over her voluminous blonde hair. Her name badge said “Cassie” and was decorated with several pins and small stickers. “Yeah, they’ve got me working in the pharmacy aisles,” Wittie replied, returning the smile.
“Well, whaddya think? Pretty nice not dealin’ with customers,” Cassie said with a self-congratulatory laugh.
“Yeah, I’ll say so. My last job was at Jammin’ Joes, so I know shitty customers,” the younger woman replied. “There’s a guy over there, Ricky, who’s been giving me grief though. Do you know this guy?”
Cassie racked her brain for a few moments and then, with an exaggerated a-ha moment, she answered, “Yeah, that guy’s an ass. I was out havin’ a smoke a few weeks ago, an’ he asked me if I had a smoke. I tol’ him I cain’t spare none, so he says ‘I saw you got more smokes in there.’ So I tol’ him it’s all I got. Can you b’lieve he tol’ me to go fuck myself?”
Wittie shook her head, no. “He came by earlier and accused me of putting stuff in the wrong spot, like as if he had been checking my work. Who has time for that?”
Her elder shakes her head and laughs with her shoulders. “I dunno, some people.”
“Well, I better get back to it. Nice talking to you.”
“You seem nice, I hope you stick around,” Cassie said, looking back down at her work.
She tried again to find Jason on her way back. She walked past all the grocery aisles, but saw no one at all. Just aisles with boxes strewn about.
Once again, she found a new roller at the pharmacy area. This time it was loaded with stackable crates, eleven of them. She peeked into the top crates and saw a variety of bottles, some loose and some strapped together with plastic.
She went back to the lobby to retrieve another shopping cart, then she dumped the first crate out into one of the carts. She felt like a genius, one cart for trash, one for product.
“Ya not s’posed to work outta carts.”
This time she only heard the voice, never laid eyes on the bastard. She was certain that Jason had told her to use shopping carts, so she paid no attention to Ricky’s admonishment.
She managed to finish with a few minutes to spare, which she spent looking for Jason. She started at the dock, then walked down the back hall, then went through the double doors near the break room, then went around the front of the store. The aisles were mostly cleaned up, product on the shelves and looking nice and neat. Finally she found him in the cleaning products aisle.
“Hey Jason, I finished,” she said as she approached the man. He was down on his knees straightening the bleach on the bottom shelf. He struggled to get up, taking a while to do so.
“Good, good. Hope you didn’t have any trouble,” he said once he had stood up.
“Nope. I wasn’t expecting the crates at the last minute, those were pretty time consuming, but I got there” she replied.
“Well, thank you for finishin’. I’m impressed, this was a pretty big delivery.”
“Oh, thanks! Hey, I’ve been trying to find you all night to ask you about this Ricky dude. What’s his deal?”
The man’s face, which had been amicable, turned dark in an instant. Fear ran across his face chased by anger.
“Ricky? How do you know about Ricky? Ricky killed ‘imself in the bathroom last week.”