I only knew her first name when I was working there: Karen. Man, I still get goosebumps just thinking that name.
Karen was my manager at the Goodwear store downtown. It was between two other big stores, real narrow and deep, like a closet that goes way back. It had two levels and it was just women’s clothes, no men’s. There was a basement too, where no customers went down, and that’s where Karen had me working after I was hired.
But I’m telling you, that interview had me thinking otherwise.
She goes, ‘Why do you want to sell women’s clothes?’
I’m like, number one, I don’t want to sell women’s clothes. Damn, I don’t want to sell men’s clothes either. But it’s looking like I’m going to have to sell women’s clothes, feel me? I’m an unemployed brother with a high school degree. I don’t have any options.
I didn’t say that, though. I said some other bullshit that I forget.
And I love when she asked me that question they’re always asking you when they know you’re just there to get paid, that you couldn’t care less about the shit they’re selling. She goes, ‘What makes you passionate about the Goodwear brand?’
I’m like, bitch, what do you think? I’m tryna eat!
I got that job, though.
Now Karen, her body, reminded me of some kind of lollipop. Them big ones with the candy or the gum in the center. Not those weak-ass flat ones they gave you at the doctor’s office when you was a kid. But it’s not like I was into her, feel me? It’s just that she was skinny as hell, you know? With a head that looked all big and disproportionate on top.
Me and Jones, we used to mess around behind her back, saying she’s gonna tip over like that. That she don’t need no Halloween costume because, man, she already a skeleton. That boy, Jones? He used to make me almost bust a rib laughing.
And she was real sweet, too. Always acting all sugary and bubbly, no matter if she wanted to whoop your ass for taking too much time on your break. This chick, you see, was nothing but friendly. Nothing but the friendliest, smiley-est white girl you ever met. She greeted you and you’d be like, bitch why you smiling? What did I do? Because this smile wasn’t the kind that make you feel all warm and good inside. Because you knew that that chick really hated you and your lazy ass, you know that she was really smiling in order to say something like:
‘What the fuck are you doing not greeting that customer over there, son.’
Or: ‘I know I didn’t see you hang up that shirt without buttoning it up just now.’
I don’t know man. She just gave me this feeling – me, this six-foot tall, one eighty pound dude – like I was scared of her. I ain’t never been obsessed with no chick I didn’t want to smash, man. That was the thing that had me spooked. What was I doing getting all worked up over her scrawny ass?
I mean, she wasn’t ugly, but three minutes in her presence and your ballsack would be up by your stomach. I’m telling you: sometimes it’s just the personality, you know what I’m saying? She had one of those short haircuts that women are always going and doing to themselves. And big eyes a little close together, all round and crazy-like. Plus the whitest, straightest teeth you’ve ever seen, like piano keys all lined up in her mouth.
Me and Jones, we would just chill and talk smack all day down there in stock. It was some good times, I’m not gonna lie. We’d be taking the shipments in and sorting, and we had these walkie-talkies so them girls upstairs could tell us what to run up to them. When there where no managers down there and it was just us? Man, we didn’t do shit. Jones would do this impression of Karen that dead-ass would have me on the floor.
Jones was this white boy from Queens a few years older than me. At the time I thought he was alright. When he did his Karen impression he’d stand up straight and put this smile on his face like, ‘How are you?’ and ‘Let’s have our best Goodwear smiles on!’ With this voice that had me looking around me like, how the fuck he do that?
A few months into the job, Karen moved me upstairs. It was a promotion, I guess, but it also meant I couldn’t just fuck around no more. It started one day when one of the girls had called in, and she put me on the first floor by all the jeans.
‘Now, I want you to keep a smile on your face and remember: we do anything for the customer. Michael, this is what we at Goodwear like to call the Unified Brand Experience.’ Her teeth were bared at me, smiling. ‘We want every interaction with the customer to be just right. Helpful, but not intrusive; proactive, but not pushy. Do you understand?’
‘Yes, ma’am,’ I said. All I ever said to her was yes, ma’am.
Here was the thing about working on the main floor: you had less stuff to do, but you had more people watching you do it, checking to see if you did it right. I got a raise, so that was dope. But I don’t know why I did though, because everything I tried to do right was like a fuck-up to her.
‘Michael? Do you see the Comfort Tees? Do you see how you arranged them?’ She would say, looking all happy about it. ‘Can we try again with the Comfort Tees, Michael?’
Sometimes I’d see Jones in the break room and he’d ask how it was up there, and I’d smile and be like, ‘Just giving them all that unified brand experience, you know.’
But Jones had changed, man. He was like, okay, you think you all cool and shit because you got a raise? He meant it as a joke, but there was resentment there. I could see it.
‘Nah, man,’ I said.
‘What, you tapping that shit?’ he said.
‘Hell no,’ I said. But that dude was starting to annoy me.
We would still talk but it was weird, man. Talking about Karen all the time. I mean, I did it too. Even the girls upstairs did. They thought she was just as crazy as we did. But Jones, he couldn’t get off it. He wanted us to, you know, try something with her. Just to scare her a little, he said. As a joke.
I was like, you out of your mind?
‘Come on,’ Jones said. We were on break together downstairs. I was eating leftovers I’d brought for lunch, and he was sidling up next to me like he was scheming.
‘I thought you hated her ass,’ I said.
‘Yeah, I do,’ he said. His voice was low. ‘Thinking she’s all high and mighty. All the more reason to give her a scare.’
I just shook my head, smiling like it was a joke. Like he was just playing with me.
There was this night where she sent everyone upstairs home and it was just me, folding and cleaning. When I was done I went downstairs like usual to get my stuff, and I said what’s up to Jones, who was still there too. Then Karen called me over to her office as I was clocking out. She goes, ‘You did real good today. Showed real dedication.’ And she said it seriously, like she really meant it.
I ran into Jones again as soon as I came out her office. I just wanted to go home, but he was talking some crazy shit, man. Stuff about this being our chance and shit, no one else around. I was just trying to get paid, you know? I didn’t want to get involved with none of that. I told him that.
The next week Karen didn’t come to work and the assistant manager, this thirty-something dude, took over. So I’m feeling like something ain’t right already when Jones comes up to me and starts telling me all this shit about that night last week when I left before him and Karen.
So I’m like, what the fuck did you do? I mean, he was talking some real nasty shit. And sometimes it’s just talk, you know, with some dudes. But I had a feeling that it wasn’t just talk this time.
‘Forget it, man, forget it,’ he says.
‘You fuck around with her?’ I say.
His eyes narrow and he says, ‘What? You gonna tell on me?’
‘The fuck you say to me?’ I say, and push him back against the wall.
He looked like he couldn’t believe it, that I would put my hands on him. And then he starts laughing. He goes, ‘You think they would believe someone like you?’
So I come out my face at him. I fuckin’ beat his ass. Would’ve liked to kill his ass, too, but the assistant manager came over and pulled me off him.
I got fired – we both did. He had beat up on me a bit, too. Neither of us said anything to the manager. And he didn’t give a fuck, either.
My moms nearly kicked me out the house after that. It was one of her friends who had put in a word for me at the store, so she was mad as hell. Said she didn’t raise no thug. What her friends gonna think of her? Her son beating up on white folks. Losing his job, acting like a damn fool.
Some months afterwards I looked Karen up on the internet. I don’t know why. I just felt like it. I wondered how she was. She had a profile on one of them job websites with a picture of her, long hair and everything. Smiling real big. The website said she was managing this other place now.
When I dialed the number of the store she was at I got someone who said yes, Karen works here and could I please hold. I stood listening to a message about the brand’s new online deals before she picked up.
‘Hello?’ she said. ‘Hello, this is Karen?’
My throat tightened.
Finally, I said, ‘It’s Michael.’
There was a long pause. Then she says in her same sing-song voice, the one she uses whether you’re in trouble or when she hates you or when you did a real good job, ‘What can I do for you, Michael?’
I felt dumb. I couldn’t get any words out.
There was silence on the other end.
Neither of us said anything for a long time. But eventually I heard a noise, real small, like a hiccup.
And then I said, ‘I’m sorry.’ I said it again and again.
I could hear what sounded like shaking; it was the saddest sound I’d ever heard. She didn’t say nothing, and I just listened. I felt like I could see her in her office, her face all twisted and in pain. But I had to hang up when my moms came into the room and seen me and asked what’s going on. She starts hollering like, who died? So I get out the room quick, wiping my face on my arm and saying, nobody. Ain’t nobody died, goddamn.
Read the stories in 218.5: Autumn fiction: