|Marc Chagall's Clock with Blue Wing|
A Woman Named Jeremiah Spavey
THE FIRST ASSOCIATES to arrive that day shivered like usual at the air blowing from the store’s cavernous break room, the constantly chilly backroom where no one liked to be found, and where the managers sent children who climbed steel shelving units or got caught loitering where they sold soda by the check-out registers. Children were not valued customers. When children got put in the break room, everyone gave them the evil eye until the parents arrived, tired and lost, to retrieve them. The room had been empty since Monday. Managers’ tempers were rising and their eyes held in them the mean small looks of potbelly pigs deprived of their bread, even first thing in the morning, so when the woman wearing heavy boots emerged from the ice-cold room, asking about the best washing machine in the store, Jim, a newish associate, rubbed his eyes and wondered which of the tricky managers had hired her to throw him off. Or maybe it had been his direct supervisor Glenda. She had written up Jim once several weeks before for laughing at a customer’s joke over in Plumbing, something that involved an old couple and some leaky pipes.
Other associates skittered from Appliances to Windows and Doors, waiting for the end of the Christmas season when they would return to their regular posts, longing for the quieter months, and the only occasional questions about how to install a water line for a refrigerator ice-maker, or about when you could solve an ant infestation with powdered charcoal or turmeric versus needing to bait with boric acid. Jim had joined just before the seasonal rush, so he did not have a strong preference for anything but getting home at night to tell his wife about his day, stories mostly about particular customers, such as the urban mother of two who had just moved to central Pennsylvania and needed someone to understand her, or the old man who came in once a week, wanting to talk about his dead wife. In a clean but threadbare shirt and wearing sturdy black workboots, this woman who had appeared as if from nowhere, exiting from the break room, seemed on closer inspection not to be an employee plant. Nor was she a petulant child, nor a person Jim had seen before. He would have noted her hair, a gray halo about her face like a windblown cloud, or her reddened eyes that suggested hours spent worrying over the state of the world, or reading the fine print of every written arrangement. She made Jim wish suddenly that he’d been a better son and taken his mother back to his house with his young wife rather than installing her in the home for elderly people. What he said out loud was a question: The best washing machine in the store?
Yes, she wanted to buy the best, and the best dryer, too, the ones that stacked and didn’t knock around like the devil in God’s pantry, could Jim lead her to them?
No, the managers would not stoop to planting this kind of person, but maybe Jim’s supervisor Glenda would do something like this, he thought. The store featured upward mobility in its training sessions held daily in front of a screen in a much warmer room, the training room, and Glenda, Jim’s customer service supervisor, had ambitions to become a manager. She had she ratted out associates for random acts of unworkmanlike behavior, such as keeping candy in service center drawers that were meant for pens, or being too casual with customers. Her steadfastness was why she now earned $10.42 an hour, more than two bucks over her starting point, and she had been with the store only four years. Jim did not want to be written up again, as his young wife loved that he had this job, and her pride was the stool where he rested his feet at night. He ushered the woman over to Glenda and then stood back to watch his supervisor’s eyebrows rise like arrows into her puffy brown bangs. The black-booted woman said again that she wanted to purchase the best washing machine in the store. Glenda shot a look at Jim that said: Is this some kind of joke?
Jim’s chin jerked. Both of them knew that in that old shirt and pants, in those old workboots straight from the farm, or the construction site, this woman did not fit a thousand-dollar washing machine. The boots and worn shirt indicated one problem, and there was also something uncooperative about her wispy white hair. Yes, the woman said, and she started flying toward Appliances, shuffling her legs like the wings of some heavy-bottomed insect. She hovered in front of the most expensive machines in the store and said, I want this one, to an associate named Robert. I have this unit, and it’s a good one. I’m buying it for my neighbor.
Robert, who had been at the store for even less time than Jim, a seasonal employee who might not even last until the end of the season, stroked his salt-and-pepper goatee. He listened to the woman say that her neighbor’s washer and dryer had broken. Her neighbor didn’t have anyone to take care of her. It’s what my dad would have done, the woman said. Your father? asked Robert, thinking that this woman's brain had been addled somehow by the years she'd spent alone on a farm somewhere, nothing but cows to warm her, and chickens for conversation. His name was Jeremiah, the woman said, and it’s my name too.
The beginning of something, to be continued…