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The Girls

I woke up at five that Saturday morning. I showered and ironed my uniform. Got dressed. Put my hair up. Attached my gray nametag to my vest and thought about the blue one that would come in the mail after my 18th birthday, the one that would mean I was an adult. I looked forward to longer hours, shorter breaks, and being taken more seriously as an employee.

I snuck down the stairs and tried not to wake my mom up. She woke up, as she always did, and offered me a ride. I told her it was early and she should go back to sleep. I liked the walk, even when it rained. The day started sooner, and I watched the sun come up.

As it was, I clocked in at 7 and opened the store. My first responsibilities were to stock the shelves at the front with gum and to chat with Tom, the store manager, and ask him how his week had been. Tom was the one that hired me, as a cashier rather than a bagger. He complimented me on my work ethic and my willingness to come in on short notice. A traditional southern gentleman, he never let me or any of the girls collect carts in the parking lot and made the boys do the heavy lifting.

I liked my work. I took pride in it and wanted to do more of it. I thought being more efficient would get me more hours. On slow days I would memorize the look-up numbers of produce items and practice coding them in. I learned to bag a gallon of milk with one hand in a single motion. Some days I would drink four cups of coffee starting in the early morning to keep lines from forming at my register.

A month after my May birthday, I wasn’t getting more hours than when I was a minor, I still took two breaks on nine-hour days rather than one, and most importantly to me, I still hadn’t been upgraded to the blue nametag that meant I was an adult. I went to my supervisor Raul and politely reminded him to order my new nametag. He told me he had no idea I’d turned 18 and would order a new one the next chance he got.

Around that time, the store manager, Tom, stopped coming into work and there were rumors that he had resigned. I didn’t think much of it. Still trying to get more hours, I covered a friend’s shift the afternoon of July 4th, a typically busy day. Raul came to talk to me on my break and thanked me for taking the extra shift. He told me I looked good that day, better than normal, and asked me if I wanted to go out on a date. Out of surprise and respect for his title, I said okay.

The next day, he picked me up at my house. He drove fast and played loud music in the car. As a joke, he brought my new blue nametag with him to the date and congratulated me on my adulthood. After dinner, he wasn’t talking much, so I carried most of the conversation. He told me how much he hated his job. We talked about our coworkers, about who would be promoted and how much my other superiors made. I thought I should be getting home because I opened the store the next day, but he kept driving until one or two in the morning. He asked me if I thought this was going anywhere, and I said no in a way that I thought he couldn’t hold against me. He finally drove me to my neighborhood, but passed my house and took me to the park. He played on the playground like a kid while I sat on the swings. He said he knew I wasn’t attracted to him but that he would win me over with his personality. I could feel him manipulating me and decided it was better not to respond. He told me why our manager, Tom, didn’t work at the store anymore. He’d taken one of the young baggers to his apartment and Internal Affairs was conducting an investigation of her attempted rape. I didn’t want to know that about Tom. I saw every conversation I’d had with him in a new context and realized I’d been naïve. I left Raul at the park and walked home.

The next day I opened the store. I drank six cups of coffee to stay awake, having been at the park with Raul until about 4:30. There was an empty space on the manager wall, next to Raul’s picture, where Tom’s face had been. The coffee didn’t react well with my stomach and I went home feeling jittery and nauseous.

I stayed in bed the rest of the day, falling in and out of sleep. I thought about the nature of my work at the store, and came to the conclusion that my morning conversations with Tom, in retrospect creepy and possibly predatory, were as much a part of my work as bagging groceries. Staying out all night with my supervisor was my job as much as stocking the shelves.

I’d thought too literally about my work at the store. Working harder would never get me the hours I wanted. I befriended Raul, and I came to him directly asking for more hours. It was no problem at all, he said. I could work every day of the week, he said. I told him that’s what I wanted. I told him my younger sister had applied to the store a few months back, and he should check on her application. He hired her within a week. Seeing my sister in the uniform for the first time, I was at once proud of her, worried for her, and proud of myself for getting her the job. She looked just like me, naïve and eager to work. I thought about my time at the store and wondered if she would have a similar experience, but I took the gray nametag she wore as a symbol of her innocence and consoled myself.

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