Difficult Peopleby Lou Gaglia
All I said was, “You want me to hold this?” and she went nuts, almost losing her balance from the top step of the ladder before bending down to grab onto it and make her way down.
“What the hell are you trying to do, kill me?”
She held some robot toy that I guess she’d been trying to store high.
“I thought you needed—”
“Scared the friggin’ crap out of me.” She stepped her way down to floor level and folded the ladder and lifted it. “Moron.” And she stomped off to another section. I wanted to laugh but I stood there and fumed.
She made a racket crashing up the ladder farther down near the Barbies and stood on the second to last step again, throwing me a glare, daring me to interfere again. I looked at her boots and at her curly brown hair, and then drifted away back to the games aisle where I stared at a neatly stacked group of Connect Fours.
Louise the manager dropped a box at my feet.
“Hang these, you look like you got nothing to do.” They were small boxes of action figures complete with holes for hanging on the hooks of pegboard displays, so I went into the back room for a ladder and set myself up across from the cash registers. Melissa worked several aisles over, parallel with me and high up on her ladder, so I angled mine away from her and looked over at Louise instead. She glowered from behind the cashiers while they cackled over some joke. Finally she stepped closer and barked, “This is a place of business.”
They broke up laughing all over again.
I got busier when she hurried by me but then watched her stand near her office, business-like and furious. One hand gripped the bottom of her blouse and kept gathering its cloth into a bunch and then releasing.
The girls at the register talked about her, loud enough for me but impossible for Louise to listen. Joan kept a lookout, and I climbed the ladder with a new box.
Louise thought they’d been laughing about her, they chuckled. Let her think it, then. Look at her. She’s so stuck up she has a poker—
It’s all about Ivy and Russ, Russ and Ivy. There is no Louise in the mix. Her one and only Russ, and she can’t hide it to save her life.
Did you hear about the poem Russ wrote?
Pathetic. They laughed again. That airhead Ivy.
Smarter than him, though. She’s just playing with him. She knows he—
Just because he’s assistant manager he thinks—
Melissa’s voice was close, near the registers, asking something. I arched my turned back and sneered at the action figures, speed-sorting them until she clonked away.
Melissa’s an ass, said Joan, and there was general agreement from all except Carol who said, No, no, she’s just stuck up, not an ass. There’s a difference.
She thinks she’s God’s gift, that’s all. She just thinks she is God’s great—
Did you all see how she changed her hair, and the way she struts around? She’s too hot, too good to talk to anyone while everyone else here—
Oh, I know, everyone else—
They stopped. I glanced back at a customer on Joan’s line. Then there was a chorus of bright thank you’s and the electric door opening.
Did you see the brown dye spots on his mustache?
He needs to get that dry cleaned.
They cackled again and Louise strode by.
“We’re just talking, Louise,” Joan said.
Louise said nothing. She came over to me. “You finished yet?” I nodded. “Because I’ve got more for you on the other side.”
I stepped down and picked up the ladder and followed her. She walked fast.
“Oh, if your college schedule is going to be the same this spring,” she said, “can you keep the same hours?”
Melissa tromped up the back stairs on the way to the break room. I looked away.
“Can you take your break now, too?” Louise said to me, kicking a box over to a pegboard of empty hooks. “I need you when it gets crowded. Ivy’s out.”
Out of the corner of my eye I saw her motionless, reading a book and sipping at coffee at the end of the only table in the room. I didn’t want coffee but could face away from her by making some, so I slid fifty cents into the machine and waited, watching the coffee pour and then spit into the cup. I sat at the other end, sideways to her, and then straddled the bench facing completely away. I sipped and waited for her to leave, but Joan appeared with Carol, so I swung around again.
“Hey, Mark-o.” Carol wacked me on the shoulder. “How’s it going?”
They sat in the middle of the table between Melissa and me, talking about Ivy liking Chris, who worked in the back. Chris was wild, though, and wasn’t that just like Ivy. Meanwhile Russ had left her that poem.
I looked at the wall straight ahead and sensed Melissa glance up briefly.
He copied that poem word for word, Joan said. Word for word, some poem, some love poem, and he left it in front of her punch card. She showed it to me. Swinburne something. Russ signed it Swinburne.
Who the hell was Swinburne, Carol wanted to know.
“Hey, Mark, do you know who Swinburne is?” Joan asked me.
“I think he’s a poet,” I said, and glanced at Melissa who stopped reading briefly to roll her eyes.
“That’s crazy,” Carol said. “A poem from a poet. And she’s—”
“I think she just laughed and threw it out or something.”
I got up.
“It’s like Peyton Place over here. It really is,” said Carol. “Everybody knows everybody’s business. Right, Mark?” I looked at their faces, at the corners of their sneering mouths.
“What’s Peyton Place?” I said. Carol and Joan laughed. Melissa shifted her body and gritted her teeth at the wall.
“It’s like being in high school all over again,” Carol said.
“Oh.” I turned away toward the stairs. “I hated high school.”
He’s such a dope, I imagined them saying upstairs while I methodically slipped more action figures onto more hooks.
Melissa’s heels clattered behind and past me back to her section. Joan and Carol went on in my mind.
He’s crazy about her, you know, but she can’t stand him. She really can’t. Did you see the eye rolls?
She can’t stand anybody, are you kidding? But he’s like a mute. He won’t say anything to anyone unless they talk first. She’s the same way, too. Until today…he told her he’d hold her ladder or something, and she jumped down his throat.
You gotta feel a little sorry for him, though, liking that witch. It’s all over his face.
Joan and Carol walked by me up the aisle toward the registers, their voices loud and then fading. “Look what she did to my vest,” said Carol. “Friggin’ coffee.”
“Accident, my ass,” Joan said.
“This’ll never come out.”
“Some accident,” said Joan.
It was all over the store how Melissa had ceremoniously dumped coffee on Carol, or that she had flicked it from her seat, or that she pretended to trip and was so sorry about the splash and what a klutz she was. It was all because she’d overheard Carol call her an ass, but it hadn’t even been Carol who’d said it, so who did Melissa think she was. And then Carol complained to Louise and Louise gave Melissa an ultimatum to calm her temper or she’d be gone; or Louise fired her on the spot, or she told Melissa she could finish out the day or the week; or Melissa quit before Louise even opened her mouth; or Louise laughed and said Carol deserved a good splash of coffee, but Melissa quit anyway because the commute to college was too long. She needed a transfer anyway, so Louise said she’d work on one because she liked Melissa and couldn’t stand Carol and Joan; or Louise told Melissa she would have to call the store manager in Commack herself and see about a transfer on her own, because of the coffee incident. It was only an accident, really, and Carol was mad at nothing; a little accident, a little coffee on her precious vest, and she and Joan went wild. And meanwhile Mark was so miserable all afternoon after hearing that she quit or was fired or transferred. He moped along the games aisle and even snapped at a customer who asked where the Mr. Potato Heads were, telling the customer he was a potato head himself for not seeing it right in front of him, and the customer stomped off to complain to Louise about being called a potato head by one of her people, but by that time Louise had had enough, just listened and nodded and let it all go.
Afternoon break and she was there again, sitting in the same spot at the table near the wall, a book open, so I turned away and made coffee and sat on the table bench with my back to her. After a while, I heard her shift and sigh, and I leaned over with my elbows on my knees, swirling what was left of the coffee.
“You’re not a moron,” she said.
“What?” I looked back over my shoulder. She had put the book down.
“You’re not a moron, okay?” She closed her eyes for two beats and then opened them again. “You’re not a moron. I’m sorry, I really am.”
I turned half-way around on the bench. “No big deal.”
“God’s going to get me, I swear. I’m sorry.” Her voice was pleading. “I’m so mean.”
“No, it’s all right.” I finished my coffee and turned all the way around to face her. “I forgot about it already.”
She looked down at her hands. “No you didn’t,” she said. “People don’t forget anything.”
I looked at her, and because she didn’t look up, I kept looking at her eyes that looked down at her hands.
“Are you leaving? I heard…”
“No. I don’t know. Commack maybe.” She looked up, finally. “Why?”
“That’s a good answer.”
Nighttime and the shift over, I sat in the car, door wide open and legs swung out, trying to get the key to turn, but it wouldn’t. “What...is…this!”
On her way past me to her car, Melissa hesitated, then walked over.
“The key won’t turn,” I said.
She peered inside, and I imagined a ride in her car to my parents’ house: a formal introduction, an invitation to Christmas dinner, and my father driving me back to look under the hood. Who was that girl? he might say. Got a little edge to her, huh?
Melissa stood inside the open car door. “See?” I said. “See? It won’t move, but I don’t want to break the starter, you know?”
“Can I try?”
“Oh…okay.” I moved my body to the side.
“You have to get out first,” she said dully.
“Oh.” I got out and she sat in the driver’s seat. She jiggled the key and turned the wheel at the same time, and the starter released.
“Want me to start it for you too?” she said, getting out.
I winced against her smile. “Thanks. Maybe I am a moron.”
“No, you’re a good person.” She spun and hurried across the lot to her car.
She kept striding to her car.
“See you tomorrow,” I called.
Without turning she gave me a “ciao” wave from high above her head: hello and good-bye at the same time—my friend for life now, even if I never saw her again.