You don’t just wake-up one day and decide to manage a CVS. It’s something that happens to you when you become a real adult and find yourself needing money.
I did my thing where I sit on the toilet forever. Cassandra banged on the door, asked if there was something wrong with my constitution. Just needed an honest breather, though. Passively squeezing, I skimmed Gawker on my Samsung, trying to remember the meditation technique Pema Chodron outlined on that podcast. Every time you breath out, it’s a gift to the world. Every time a turd splashes water…
“Cassandra, I’m fine,” I said.
“You been in there awhile is all,” she said. “Thought you might be sick or somethin’.”
“Get back on the floor, please, Cassandra. Respect my privacy. And watch the freakin’ store. If there’s one shampoo bottle unaccounted for, I’m gonna have to can you.”
“OK,” she said. “Just checkin’ up. Man…”
Cassandra is a terrible worker. Last week, I caught her toking-up behind the koi pond at Scotto’s funeral parlor. Last night, I had to warn her about eating top ramen in the entrance vestibule. Scaring customers away. Earlier, she toppled a Sun Chips display with her vacuum. Cassandra, basically, has no respect for the job.
Not that respect is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of me. I know that. Before the promotion, I was cited twice for showing my forearm tattoos. (The quadratic equation, a saguaro cactus, the maple-leaf logo for Stiff Little Fingers.) Corporate doesn’t like that I smoke. Or that I wore a blue Uniqlo oxford rather than my CVS Polo. But I’m playing ball now. No other option.
I wiped my ass. Fixed a button. Walked out, and saw Cassandra wearing Beats, swaying in the hair dye aisle. I tapped her shoulder.
“What on God’s Green Earth are you doing?” I asked. “No headphones.”
She laughed. “You sound like an old white man,” she said. “Like a lil white nigga from the 50s or some shit!”
“What did you just call me?”
Cassandra forces the issue. I’m no suit, but I’m surely not here to babysit and be called names by fat employees with no respect. I just want to do the best job possible for the agreed-upon hours. Get paid at the agreed-upon time.
“Oh, shit,” she said. “My bad. My bad.”
“I don’t know what to say,” I said.
Cassandra slid the Beats around her neck and tugged the cord. “I’m sorry, Karl. I swear. I didn’t mean it like that.” I went to swipe a cigarette customer’s ID at Self Checkout. “I wasn’t tryin’ to be fresh or nothin’. I need this gig.”
Not Karl. My real name is Karlheinz. Used to be Helmut, but I changed it after I read a Stockhausen biography as a sophomore at University Of Arizona. Fine. Full disclosure: My name used to be Helmut Pickleman. I have no clue how, or why, it happened. Pickleman by itself is a cruel name. I plan to lose it sooner than later. But put the two together – HELMUT and PICKLEMAN – and jesus, it’s just terrible.
Break time. I lit a Camel Light and went around the corner to buy an artisanal Arnold Palmer from Milk Bar. The barista, Jasmine, had been so kind to me after I finally got up the nerve to introduce myself three weeks ago. Her demeanor was different tonight. My CVS Polo had increased significance. She stared at the plastic nametag over my left nipple.
“They make you wear that?” she asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “It’s a corporate requirement. I bend the rules constantly, but, you know, when it breaks down, and everything’s said and done, I’m management. I have to look the part or my employees won’t respect me.”
“Do they tell you what to say to customers, too?”
“Sometimes. It’s a limited framework, but I generally do things my way. Put my executive spin on things.”
“I could never do a job bereft of artistry,” she said.
“But you pour coffee,” I said. “You scoop ice cream.”
I smiled like an a’hole. She stared through me. “Yeah, I never implied I was special.”
“Not what I meant,” I said.
When I returned, the air conditioner was perfection and Cassandra, bathed in fluorescent light, waited near Self Checkout, crouched on a Seventh Generation toilet paper display.
“Sorry I called you a nigga, Karl” she said, holding out a Hallmark card. “I know you’ve told me I need to use my work voice rather than my life voice. And that conversation really stuck with me. It was a slip of the tongue, or whatever you call it. Like, really. No hard feelings?”
“Did you pay for this?” I asked, tearing at the blue envelope like a 3-year-old. It said SOWWY in adolescent handwriting above a drawing of an elephant with his tusk dragging through the sand. There was no signature or personal message inside.
“Nah,” she said. “But it’s one of the ones no one would ever buy.”
My shoulders dropped. I was exhausted. “Cassandra,” I said. “I can’t have you stealing merchandise. What am I going to say when I send my stock report to corporate? What if…” I pointed at the security camera next to the Old Guys Rule t-shirt rack. “What if they just watched this entire interaction? They have all the footage. And I opened the freakin’ thing!”
“Oh, fuck,” she said. “You did now. Didn’t you?”
“Mother F,” I said, waving my hand towards hair dyes. “Just go make sure we are good on deodorant. I’ve been seeing lots of outgoing Old Spice today.”
I perched on the throne ‘til my shift ended at midnight.
We were robbed! My lord, what a mess. Randy called-out again (his fourth sick day this year), so I had to hold it down with just Cassandra. Little snot took advantage of our understaffing situation.
I was having bathroom time, answering emails from corporate, and Cassandra was supposed to be cataloguing Mead stock while keeping an eye on Self Checkout. Guidelines clearly state that two employees must be present on the floor at all times. I’m a rebel, though. Been flaunting that rule for months.
So, I’m faux-crapping and the alarm system just goes bizerk. I yanked my pants, belt unbuckled, and ran through school supplies. The customers were going wild.
“That way!” said a bearded Mets fan, pointing at the store’s lone entrance/exit.
Outside, Cassandra was leaning against Vayashu’s Yoga Retreat smoking a Marlboro White. “Sorry, boss man,” she said. “Got away.”
“Which way?” I buckled my belt.
She shrugged. “Honestly, couldn’t get out here in time. If you hadn’t noticed, I’m not exactly an athlete.” She was breathing so deep. It reminded me of when Hank, our old lab, accidentally ran into Dad’s barbecue fork. “Anyway, doesn’t the handbook say…”
“Yes, you’re right,” I said. “During a theft event, you don’t need to leave the store.” A janitor cut the lights at Capital One across the street. “Our surveillance system should take care of it. Corporate will go through the footage and see if we can’t ID this young man.”
“What did he take anyway?” I asked.
“Mother F,” I said. “They get so sensitive about HP products.”
The phone rang. Brian from corporate. I walked back inside, and the Mets fan shrugged at me.
“Karl,” he said. “Everything OK down there? My regional alert system just triggered.”
“Yeah, there’s been a breach,” I said. “I was in household products, working my forms, and the alarm went off. My sales associate was up front and this unidentified male-with-scanner blew by her. She’s not exactly, uhh, fleet of foot, so he got through the door before she could automate lockdown mode. No clue where he went.”
“Let’s not comment on the weight of our employees, Karl,” he said. “We’re looking for constructive information here. Save the judgment contests for culture at large.”
“You’re right,” I said. Such a fake.
“Were you able to cross-reference stock and determine which unit was burglarized?”
“Not quite yet.”
“Well, call me back, Karl,” he said. “I’ll be combing the footage, seeing if we can’t ID this young man.”
A great war was being waged in my stomach. Would have given anything to retreat back to the throne, but I knew Brian was monitoring our live feed now. Cassandra was slotting copies of Guilt Trip into the DVD umbrella, and I called her over to electronics.
“Reporting for duty, sir,” she said.
“Cut the cute crap, Cassandra.”
“I need you to behave yourself until corporate completes its ID investigation,” I said. “No smoke breaks, no headphones, no messing around. Do your work and keep your head down.“ I looked at the camera. “I’m going to figure out which unit was stolen.”
We only had four scanners on the floor – not our biggest seller – so I quickly surmised that the missing unit was QY0445AA. Pretty non-dramatic. I called Brian.
“Brian,” I said. “It’s Karl.”
“I know,” he said. “Did you get the code?”
Gave him the code and he promised to email the research results by morning. Man, I was exhausted. My back curved at the top like a walking cane. My man boobs were well-defined. CVS Polos leave little to the imagination.
Went to Abilene and crushed a few beers with Jeremy before my shift. Love the guy, but it really mucked-up my night.
Back in 06, we used to be in this trio called Disparate Footage. Great CMJ performance, Times review, blogs all over, opening slot for The Bozniacs across the midwest. “New York’s next rockers,” wrote Blackbook Magazine. We had some promise, man. I can’t say I don’t think about it.
How it fell apart. We were driving up the turnpike after a gig at Johnny Brenda’s. Pretty routine. Except Jeremy fell asleep at the wheel, and our van flipped over one of those interstate dividers. Our drummer, Mark Colery, was sleeping, head in elbow against the window, which immediately shattered. I thought I died but didn’t – praise! – and looked-up from the back seat to my life’s most terrifying vision: a Chevy Silverado ripping Mark’s arm off. At first it dangled against the divider. Then a Tahoe hit it, and the arm flew towards the middle lane, where a Dodge Ram collision sprayed the bones over all six lanes – northbound and south.
Beyond terrible. I broke my leg in three places. Crushed my left eye and collarbone. Had to walk around looking like Napoleon for seven months. Jeremy snapped his neck and needed two years of back surgeries to walk again. But jesus, Colery! To see his arm all over the place. He slept through his own death.
Drinking with Jeremy just reminds me of that. Put me in a real bad mood before I walked to the store and greeted Cassandra on Court Street. She gave last rites to a Marlboro and waved me through the entrance vestibule. We were both five minutes early.
“Damn, boss man,” she said. “You tired or somethin’? Looks like you didn’t get much sleep. Look at those bags!”
She pointed at my eyes and I looked away. “Hi, Cassandra,” I said. “I slept just fine. Your perception of my eyes is, legally speaking, none of your freakin’ business.”
“OK, sassafras,” she said. “Just tryin’ to help.”
“Well, you’re not helpful,” I said. “Pretty much ever.”
“You wanna smoke some shit?”
“No,” I said. “Never again when we’re working.”
I walked straight to my office through mascaras & beauty and locked the door. Turned on my Dell to an email from Brian from corporate.
After an exhaustive database search and considerable cross analysis, our team of security experts has been unable to positively ID the young man who stole that HP product yesterday. We continue to pursue this matter at our highest priority level.
That said, as I’m sure you’re aware through our handbook comprehension training, we have to hold someone responsible for the theft. If we’re unable to make an ID by the end of this pay term, CVS policy is to deduct the product’s list price – $249.99, in this case – from your direct deposit.
Please do understand that this is not a value judgment on your management skills or labor abilities. It’s simply policy.
LMK if you have any questions I can answer. We won’t let up. I still think we can find this guy.
How am I – an innocent man, who was, admittedly, on the toilet at the time of the robbery – held financially responsible for some little snot stealing a scanner? It had nothing to do with me. No, if anything, Cassandra is the one who should pay.
Pissed. Walked to Milk Bar to get a cold-brew iced coffee. Jasmine was hunched over the counter reading Lucky Peach and waited at least 20 seconds before acknowledging me.
“Oh,” she said. “What’ll it be?”
“Hey, Jasmine,” I said. Nothing. “I’ll, uhh, have an iced coffee. Large.” I looked at the magazine rack. Clean. Curated food quarterlies. “Long shift tonight.”
She wore a black tanktop, and I watched her sweaty shoulder blades rotate as she scooped ice into the plastic cup. The cold-brew had its own dispenser bucket. Jasmine leaned over and hit the nozzle, humming along with Tom Petty (“but let me get to the point…”), which played faintly over the cafe’s soundsystem.
“How’s everything been?” I asked.
“What do you mean?”
“With you. Like, how’s everything been?”
She placed the coffee down the counter from me. “$4.50, Haus,” she said.
“Is this about the other night?” I asked. “I really didn’t mean it. You know, I have a lot of respect for what you do here.”
Jasmine put out her hand for money. I handed her a saggy 5 from my back pocket. She opened and closed the register rapidly, flicking 50 cents on the counter.
“I’m really sorry,” I said. “I would never deliberately offend you.”
She shook her head. “I literally have never thought about you,” Jasmine said. “Ever.” She opened her magazine to an article about orgy buffets. “So, like, I guess don’t worry about it.”
On 2nd Place, it was humid, slightly misty, as I walked back to the store pining for bathroom time. Cassandra was out front, head in hands, pacing, clearly freaked.
“Karl!” she screamed. “There you are! The whole shit is goin’ haywire in there. I can’t get it to stop.”
The sound was deafening. Our alarm system was, indeed, going haywire. Self Checkout had erupted in syncopated sirens and the consoles were spewing receipts towards the bottled water pyramid. A ginger yuppie by cigarettes had one of the most sour facial expressions I’ve ever seen.
I couldn’t trigger the doors as the alarm system had enacted automated lockdown mode. “Mother F!” I screamed.
“Make it stop,” said Cassandra.
Forgot the keys. I called Randy.
“Hey, boss,” he said, after three rings. “Just in the shitter. I didn’t cut out or anything.”
“Randy!” I said. “Get the f up here. The alarms are going off. Cassandra and I are locked out.”
“Oh, fuck,” he said. “One second.”
Could hear the toilet flush before he hung-up. 35 seconds later, Randy was at the front door and defused lockdown mode via traditional locks. I ran through household groceries to the security console, where I punched-in 5692589 and the chaos died.
Calm. Cassandra’s forehead was dripping. Wet circles around my armpits. Randy slumped up front with the store’s keys, looking ashamed. I got on the intercom.
“Ladies & Gentlemen of CVS,” I said. “Dear customers: We are tremendously sorry for disturbing your shopping experience. That was, as they say, out of our hands. Please accept our apology in the form of a $5 coupon available upon checkout. Just ask your nearest CVS representative.”
My Samsung was buzzing. Brian from corporate. I ignored the call. He rang again.
“Brian,” I said. “Hi. It’s all under control.”
“Not sure – but it wasn’t human-related. Everything just, uhh, went sort of haywire.”
“No theft?” he asked.
“No, sir,” I said. “All clear on the floor.”
He hung-up without saying goodbye. I walked near Scotto’s and lit a Camel Light. Closed my eyes and saw Colery – dead, armless, end of band, end of my life. Thought of Jasmine and my chest tightened. Super woozy. The lamplight and the mist made it look like another era. I wanted to lay in the middle of 1st Place and let chance decide.
Wow. Pretty embarrassed at how dramatic I was yesterday. It’s really not so bad. Sometimes overwhelming. I don’t know. I’m just trying to be honest on this thing.
No work tonight. My apartment has been a wreck, so I fired-up a This American Life and tackled some major cleaning: recycled the bedside seltzer bottles, cleared the dust out of my old fan, swept the floors and used my Swiffer steam mop (bought at discount) on the kitchen linoleum.
Watched the second quarter of the Spurs game and ordered some Indian on Seamless. I chose ‘hot’ for my tikka masala and it was way too spicy, so I sat at the card table by my bed sweating through my wifebeater. Called up mom, but she’s distracted raising my niece. I asked if she had been watching Mad Men. She said there’s no time for that.
Since the promotion, I only smoke harder stuff on off-nights. Rolled a spliff with Dank Sinatra, hit the bathroom fan and lit-up, blowing directly upward so my landlord wouldn’t notice.
I opened OK Cupid on my Samsung. No messages.
The G Train performed well, so I arrived at the store 10 minutes early. Would have gotten coffee, but I’d rather die than encounter Jasmine again. Got a Red Bull instead. Forget Milk Bar. I don’t need some failed bicycle artist with rolled-up jeans telling me how to live my life. What did Blackbook say about you in the mid-aughts?
Cassandra was late. I stood near Self Checkout greeting customers. Remembered the handbook. “Every smile is worth your while,” said one of the pull quotes. “Every smile translates to an extra 1.3 dollars per sale. Never justify, just amplify… the customer experience!”
A’holes. Remembered when Brian and Roger and all those guys stood over my shoulder while I read the corporate guidelines before receiving my promotion. They lent me a pen. I signed and we all shook hands and, you know, I felt kinda proud. I know it’s corny now.
“Where are you?” I texted Cassandra. “I’m up here like an idiot.”
No response, but she surfaced 15 minutes later, sans uniform, with her boyfriend. “So sorry I’m late, Karl,” said Cassandra. “We had a little family emergency. I know, I know. No excuse. That’s what you were gonna say, right?”
“Where’s your polo?” I asked. “Do you have spare Dockers in the back?”
She looked away, snorted and rubbed sweat off her forehead. “This is my boyfriend – Raekwon,” she said. “Raekwon,” she pointed at me. “This is my boss. Karl.”
I shook his hand. “Like the rapper?”
“Like the what?” he said. “What you know about it?” They both laughed. He kissed her with considerable depth. “No, I’m just playin’. I was born on the day 36 Chambers came out. Mom was locked into the movement, you know?”
“I loved the Wu,” I said.
“You did?” asked Cassandra.
“You underestimate me, Cassandra,” I said. “Now, please, go get dressed and hit the floor. You owe me an extra 15 tomorrow.” I nodded at Rae. “Nice to meet you, man.”
He wrinkled his nose at me before kissing Cassandra three times on the neck and slapping her ass. She made a Michael Jackson sound.
“Sorry, sorry, sorry,” said Cassandra, running back to change into her uniform.
Finally free, I hit the toilet and ran down the blogs. Read an article about how management is a performance, how the manager must create illusions, how the manager must act his little heart out, how management, at its core, is a job based on fostering emotions and humanity. The better you manipulate, the better you facilitate growth across multiple sectors.
Then, an email from Brian from corporate.
The search continues, but it’s honestly not looking good, buddy. We ran diagnostics across all potential data sets. Roger circled back with his contact at the 76th Precinct. We have, as they say on many beloved television series’, no leads.
It is with a heavy heart – but equal responsibility for corporate policy – that we will have to dock your direct deposit for the amount outlined in the email I sent on April 23. We regret that this cost-saving mechanism is necessary, but our business would be chaos without strict guidelines surrounding theft reimbursement.
Let’s never let this happen again.
Not like I had a choice, but I buried my past – my passion, really – and put everything I had into succeeding within the CVS framework. Four years. You’d think they’d have my back a little. My gut itched like crazy. Rash forming stage right. I squeezed one more time and flushed while the sink ran. The walls gurgled.
Jabari, a new transfer, ignored my presence while reorganizing nasal decongestants. His shirt actually fit. Dockers were clean, new.
“Any questions, Jabari?” I asked. “You settling in?”
“Ah, you know,” he said, and turned away, back to work. “Job’s a job is a job.”
I’d rather manage the unkempt hair on the back of Randy’s neck than deal with this new guy. I remember being that age, being punk, wanting to hit the road, sleeping wherever – but it’s important to show passion for what you do. These new kids are very surface-level. It’s all fashion with them.
Needed a smoke. And surprise! Cassandra was nowhere to be found. No one greeting customers. No one assisting the elderly through Self Checkout. Exited the entrance vestibule, which was half-filled with a late Brawny delivery, and there she was: leaning against Vayashu’s Yoga Retreat smoking a blunt with Raekwon.
“Oh, shit!” she screamed.
“Cassandra,” I said, throwing-up my hands like she blew a call. “I mean, come on. You know, with this, I have to…”
“Wait, wait, wait,” said Rae. “You don’t have to do shit. It might be better for your constitution to think this one through. She’s allowed to take a break.”
His eyes were on another planet. “She’s using drugs,” I said. “On company time. 15 minutes after being 15 minutes late. In the middle of the street. In her uniform. It’s pretty clear cut.”
“I need this job, Karl. Really. I know I get silly sometimes, but just give me a chance. You used to be cool.”
“Yeah, nigga, how’s she gonna pay her rent? The way I see it, the only irresponsibility I see here is you puttin’ a good bitch on her ass.”
“Please!” I yelled. “Don’t say that word to me ever again, you mother…”
And he pushed me into the yoga studio’s door. I fell to the ground. “You a bitch,” he said. “And that ain’t it.”
They both ran. So I fired her. Had to. But first, I straightened-up, slumped against the buddha logo, knees pulled to my stomach. Crickets chirped in the distance, and each time a new customer walked-in, the bell made its purchase-influence tone.
No way I was sleeping after Raekwon destroyed me on Court Street. Kept looking through the side of the blinds. Kept waiting for the moment when Rae’s frame would fill the open space and knock on my window, demanding that I step outside so he could complete my emasculation. But nothing happened. Awake all night with bloodshot eyes. Ordered a Penne a la Vodka from Nino’s at 330am. The delivery guy silently handed the bag through my ground-floor window.
Termination is a sobering experience. Woke cased in sweat and filed paperwork that officially ended Cassandra’s run. She was over, effective immediately, and would be instructed by corporate that her final paycheck could be picked-up at her earliest convenience. No doubt my behavior was pathetic – with the shove, the moaning, the tears – but no chance that was going in the report. Fired for drug use on company time. Reasonable enough.
I could barely summon the energy to start my shift. Lingered outside of Vayashu’s catching snippets of our in-house radio station. Rod Stewart and Windex. My brain was a throbbing pit. Two neglectful tan women ashed Parliaments on their mats as they asked me to step aside so they could make their class.
Deep breath. I swallowed, bit my lower lip and walked through the automatic doors. Jabari was on greeting duty and winked at me. The Self Checkout robot-voice asked for a debit card swipe and offered discount tickets to Book Of Mormon.
“Hey, uhh,” said Jabari. “There’s some dude waiting for you in back. From corporate, I think.”
“What does he look like? I asked. Jabari shrugged. The crispness of his polo implied pricey detergent. “Like, was it Brian or Roger or a name like that?”
“Seems familiar. He had on, like, the white polo with the blue collar. You know? It wasn’t like ours.” He went to confirm ID for a Jewish woman, mid-30s, buying a 12-pack of Budweiser. “The good shirt. He’s in our office.”
No. My office. I walked through school supplies, stopped, picked-up a pack of Pilot pens like a stray flower. Coolio’s “Rollin’ With The Homies” was interrupted by an ad for our MyPharmacy app. An aisle over, Randy unloaded a box of Pert Plus. Went through sexual health and found Brian from corporate sitting at my desk.
“There you are,” he said, pressing the off button on his iPhone.
“Wow, Brian,” I said. Shook his hand. “Quite a surprise. Is everything OK?”
“Depends,” he said. “Do you know a Raekwon Jones? I guess he’s the husband of one of your junior associates. Or boyfriend or something. You know, the one you just terminated this morning?”
I instinctively looked down. Thought my man boobs might be approaching a B cup. “Oh,” I said. “Yes, I met him last night for the first time. Unfortunately. May I ask what the issue is?”
“Sure,” Brian said. “You have the right to ask. And I have a duty to tell.” Tapping his pen on a generic manila envelope, he embraced the drama of dangling information over my mouth. “Mr. Jones filed an official protest to your termination of this, mm, Cassandra Harris. I guess his girlfriend. Right? Do you want to hear his version of the events before I document your side via our official affidavit module?”
“Yes,” I said.
“OK,” he said, opening the envelope. “We’ll get this right. There is an outrage somewhere here. I need to find its exact point and dissect it.”
“I did nothing wrong!” I said. A fax arrived. Brian, after a glance, crumpled the page and threw it in the blue recycling bin without looking.
He cleared his throat. “He says, after Cassandra introduced you, you invited both of them outside to smoke marijuana that you had rolled into an emptied-out Optimo cigar, which was provided, gratis, from our tobacco products inventory. That this was something you used to do with her, alone, all the time. Theft, drug use and personal activities on company time.”
“That’s freakin’ ridiculous,” I said.
“Well, let me just tell you what he said. Can you listen? Take in the information.” I needed the bathroom. Seriously. “He claims you entrapped Cassandra. That, for weeks, you had been looking for probable cause to fire her for a combination of race and weight. That after he asked you to show some respect, you tried to sucker-punch him – after which they promptly ran to the craft beer bodega across the street and hid until you re-entered the store.” Brian flipped the page. He waved it in the air as if that might produce deeper information. “Anyway.”
“Can I speak now?” I asked. “Did you even listen to what you just said?”
“Yeah, you know,” said Brian. “After hearing it all laid out like that, I can’t see any motive there. If you were going to fire her…”
“I’d fire her for a reason,” I said. “Which was, as clearly stated in my termination report, drug use on company time. Not drug use I condoned in any way. Not drug use I was privy to until the moment I saw her. This was a flat, total disregard for my position, the chain of command and basic employee guidelines. She was unmanageable.”
I felt guilty trashing a human being like that. But it was all true. If I have to suffer because of regulations, if I have to pay for stolen scanners and get interrogated by emotionless security executives, then Cassandra must be held to the same standard. I’m guilty, but I’m righteous.
Brian, at ease, dropped his shoulders. “Listen,” he said. “We have to take every complaint seriously. There’s a policy here, and I have to investigate or else I would be bad at my job. No hard feelings?”
“I understand,” I said. “Nothing will come of it, though.”
“That’s good to hear,” he said. “I’m sure your suspension won’t last long.”
“My what?” I asked. “You can’t be serious.”
“If there’s any chance this accusation contains merit, it must be investigated. And as I enact protocol, policy is that you must be informed – which I just did – and then temporarily separated from any and all management responsibilities.”
“But I,” I said.
“I’m sure it won’t take long,” he said. “A day or so. I’ll comb through the footage, see you didn’t walk out together, make sure there was no funny business in the street. Then you can return to work and make us proud. Like always.”
His hands were clammy when we shook. “That’s not fair,” I said. “I can’t just miss days, Brian. You know I work too hard for…”
“You’re a valued member of our family,” he said, snapping his messenger bag.
He gave me the back pat of a disappointed high school football coach before walking down the frozen food aisle. Jabari with the effeminate goodbye wave. I went straight to the throne to do some thinking.
Distasteful mother f’ers. No doubt my name would be cleared, but I obsessed over the fantasy of Brian, Roger, all those guys, watching the street footage and laughing their stupid heads off. It would become a cult concern. They’d order some Jimmy John’s, project it in Conference Room B and the whole office would float in-and-out as they played the footage over and over and over. Poor Karlheinz! Shoved into the yoga studio! What a clown. What a pathetic life. Look at him slouching there, losing his shit, out of breath, no self-respect.
The handle jiggled. “Occupied!” I shouted. Nothing in return.
I zipped-up, walked through diapers & baby goods (change of pace) and told Jabari the deal. “It’s just gonna be you and Randy tonight,” I said. “Corporate needs me for an important security initiative. High-level stuff. I’ll be back in action tomorrow. Just, uhh, hold down the fort, will ya?”
Jabari shrugged. “Be careful,” he said. “Have fun.”
As I walked out, sample box fans – $22.98, on-sale – blew cool air through Self Checkout. The carpet was filthy – paper scraps, unidentifiable stains, flattened leaves, the occasional gum patch. I hit Court Street and, never going anywhere near Milk Bar again, walked towards 1st Place to take the long way to the train. Outside Scotto’s, I heard a yell. Cassandra.
Raekwon behind, she power-walked towards me. “Karl, Karl,” she said. “Wait up.” Signaled stop with her hands and, even while huffing, wouldn’t extinguish her Marlboro White. “Just wait a sec. Before you take that break, I need my check. Corporate said I could come pick it up.” Cassandra’s eyes narrowed to slits as she looked into the street. She laughed. Shook her head. “Actually. Fuck that! I shouldn’t even use the word corporate. Those punk motherfuckas don’t have any say on me anymore. Just like you. You can’t say shit.”
“Cassandra, really,” I said, eyeing Rae. Seemed way too energetic. “You got me in enough trouble as it is. I’m sorry it had to go down like that. But you know, I got f’ed, too. They won’t give me a penny until they analyze the footage and clear my name. You want your check? Randy is in there somewhere. He’ll help you.”
Raekwon fidgeted like a homeless shelter line on Christmas Eve. “You know,” he said. “You’re a little bitch. I should have fucked you up last night. I mean, you just gonna hit and run like that? Mess up a girl’s life? That’s the kind of nigga you are? It’s like…” He looked around, kissed Cassandra under her left ear and charged at me.
I shifted before contact, and he blew past. Eyes insane. “Little bitch!” he screamed.
I ran down 1st Place, but couldn’t build distance. He clocked my shoulder blade outside the Carroll Elementary playground. Threw me into the metal fence. “You’re no better than me. No better than Cassandra,” he said, landing a punch almost through my gut. “You no better than anyone.”
“Come on, man,” I said. “Be reasonable.” Tried to run and he shoved me right back into the iron. Cassandra, as usual, was nowhere to be found. “Please.”
I was so sick of being a piece of crap. So sick of being another stupid, sad a’hole in a uniform. So f’in sick of being ripe for humiliation. No idea where the strength came from – if it was within me, if it was pure self-defense – but I rapidly jabbed Raekwon twice across the face. He jerked his head back. Bleary red eyes shocked that I had any fight in me.
“Please!” I said. “Please, please, please.” I shoved him as hard as I could and started running towards Court Street. He fell onto his back, right into 1st, and the passenger-side of a speeding Corolla immediately steamrolled his ribcage. It screeched to a halt and then, just as quickly, accelerated through the green light on Smith. Senses on fire, I ran.
And that’s basically what happened. I’ll turn myself in. I’ve told the real story in here, and I pray that you’ll see I was acting only in my own defense when the unfortunate incident took place. Sure, there were circumstances which led to that moment. But they were circumstances beyond my control. These are bad people I’m talking about. Ultra scum. The kinds of people who, for whatever reason in their f’ed-up lives, go after a fundamentally good man for doing his job. I tried to be cool to Cassandra. That’s part of being a manager, I guess. (Pema would love this.) You can’t manage everything. There is no protocol beyond.
Carter Maness lives in Brooklyn, NY. The former editor-in-chief of RCRD LBL, he has contributed to The Awl, Village Voice, New York Daily News and more. He is currently working on a chapbook based on Cam’ron lyrics.