Village Writers Write
My Listening Corner
a short story by Kenneth Allen, Village Writers Group member
I hate to wear a nametag. I usually just leave it at home. It says BIRDIE-LEE JOHNSON. My momma named me that because she thought my nose looked like a little birds beak. I wanted another one that said Ms. Johnson but this crazy new manager we got says I’d have to pay for it. I’ve been workin’ at this here Winn-Dixie Supermarket since I graduated from High School and I feel like I’m sittin’ in an airport while all the planes are leaving. Why does our company keep sending us these young managers who haven’t got a clue as to what they’re doing? If I was a younger gal, and not so big, I’d work my way through all the different departments; but the thought of workin’ nights, unloading trucks, stocking shelves, and mopping floors is not what I think a manager trainee should do. They need to let us women be managers. We handle all the complaints and problems just like they do. I’ve trained my fair share of store managers. Experience is the best teacher I say. A middle-aged head cashier could teach a manager a lot if they’d listen. Most of them won’t though.
Now take Dale McFishy our last manager. That’s not his real name, mind you--that’s what I called him--but never to his face. Before he started, I phoned my friend Frances, who’s the head cashier at another store, and got an earful about Dale.
“Boy, is he hot wired. Good luck!” is what she said before she hung up.
I’ve always been taught to do unto others, but on his first day here, I was at the end of my rope. He flat out told me, with a straight face, “Birdie-Lee, I’ve been watching this place all day long, and I believe it’s a dumping ground for problem employees. When they remodel this store in the spring, I’m going to fire Joe the Assistant Manager, Scott the Produce Manager, a half a dozen useless clerks, and you’re on my borderline list. So, watch yourself!”
This head cashier job has always paid me pretty good. It’s one of the few in town that do. I got the job when the previous one left her husband and ran off with the bread man to Florida. I come to work on time, stay busy, and train my cashiers right. I try to see the good in people, and leave well enough alone, but Dale’s plans didn’t set too well with me. I knew we was going to have problems with this here fellow.
Last Saturday, he found his picture was gone. They take pictures of the managers and hang them up by two chains over the office wall. That way, customers know who’s in charge. Well, those who think they are. His picture was definitely gone all right. Dale found it later that morning, glued to the trash dumpster, with yellow stains, and a mustache drawn on it in magic marker. It was glued on real good too because one of his “useless” clerks couldn’t get it off with a box cutter. Not that he tried too hard. The picture frame was busted up and sittin’ nearby. Give a man some rope, let nature take its course, and sit back and watch the show. Some folks just have to learn the hard way. How it happened is too funny to be true.
Recently, I’ve noticed lots of changes in this neighborhood. I’ve seen more and more Chinese lookin’ people shopping here. Come to find out they’re Hmong—one of those mountain people from Vietnam or Laos or some place like that. Most of them don’t bother learning any English. I figure we had no business being over there in the first place, and now we’re stuck with their surplus population. President Johnson used to tell us that we was there to defend liberty. We lost that war, to my way of seein’ things, and ended up with a bunch of food stamp and welfare recipients. Give ‘em an inch and they take a mile.
They always shopped in big bunches, wore cheap flip-flop sandals, even in the coldest weather, and never cut their toenails. Come to find out they lived in a housing project about a half a mile away and walked to the store and back.
“Birdie-Lee honey, do you have any idea why our shopping carts are missing?” hotshot manager Dale said to me a couple of weeks ago while we was counting money in the office. “I did a buggy count on Friday and we had one hundred and ten. Now we’re down to ninety-three.”
“I don’t know, Mr. Cole. Have you tried the housing project down the street? These Orientals are always taking em’ home.”
I hate it when he calls me “honey.” It makes my skin crawl. I ain’t his honey!
Dale just hissed through his mess of crooked teeth, “Fffttttt.”
He’s always hissin’ and talkin’ to you like everything you have to say is good for nothing. Maybe that’s why he gets into so much trouble. Dale makes me tired. He’s always puttin’ someone down.
You see, we have this spot, over by the razor blade racks; I call it my listening corner, where, if you stand just right, you can overhear conversations going on in the office, like some kind of echo effect. I learned, years ago, that if I stood there, pretending to work, I could hear things that I normally wouldn’t be privy to. Not that I always liked what I heard. I once overheard Dale tell a vendor that I was just a “tub-o-lard” and looked like a “big buzzard” with a beak of a nose and frizzy hair. I can’t say I’m the best lookin’ gal in town. I used to spend lots of money on makeup. I lost fifty pounds before my boyfriend ran away with a telephone operator. Sure, a coat of paint makes an old barn look better, and sometimes I do fix myself up some. Losing that much weight is too much of a bother these days--and what for? A gal can only do so much with what she’s got. I do take a lot of pride in my hands. I think you can tell a lot about a person by looking at their hands and nails. I could feel the blood in my eyes when I heard him say that. I didn’t appreciate it at all; you can’t help the way you look, and I believe in “judging not,” but held my tongue ‘cause I kind of figured he would go hang himself eventually. Folks like that let their mouth overload their rear end so I’ve heard.
He just looked at me with his usual frown and said, “Well, I’ll ride over there and check it out. At this rate, in a few weeks, we’ll have nothing left for anyone to shop in.”
Dale has a shiny, bald head with a pink mole on top that turns bright red when he gets angry or upset. Kind of like an alarm button. Sure enough, he came back into the store and told me right off that there were at least twenty shopping carts in the apartment parking lot. His mole was crimson so I figured he was going to do somethin’ crazy.
“Fffttttt,” he hissed as he walked away.
When I came in the next morning, Dale was on his knees outside, with an electric drill, drilling holes in the concrete wall. He was wearing a tool belt, had inserted four O-Snap rings, and ran a hundred feet of chain around the front porch of the store. I figured he had lost his marbles ‘cause I knew he didn’t have company permission to do that.
Well, sure enough, it got him into trouble that same day. You see, a lot of our customers are older folks who walk to the store from their homes nearby. Many of them bring their two wheeled carts and carry their groceries back with them. Curbside loading into a car trunk is okay. Stepping over a chain with a cart is almost impossible without help, so they loudly complained to me, the cashiers, and to old Dale. Well, all he did was hiss and tell them that he was losing buggies so fast to these “chinks” that soon he wouldn’t have any left. Attitude is half of aptitude I say; that didn’t sit too well with most of our customers, and soon we heard about it.
Speakin’ of attitude, let me tell you about Boumpaign from Laos. About three months ago, the county started issuing something called WIC vouchers: Women, Infants, and Children, or some such thing as that. It looked like another welfare hassle for us to deal with ‘cause it was pretty narrow in what was eligible. You could only buy high-vitamin cereal, dried beans, baby formula, cheese, and milk. The biggest problem with it was that you needed to read English to know what was eligible.
One day, in waddled Boumpaign with a WIC voucher in her fat hand. She’s an itty-bitty woman, as wide as she is tall, who couldn’t read, but could speak English. This gave her special status among her people so she brought all her friends and neighbors with her when she shopped. She asked me if I would help her find the eligible items. So, up and down the aisles we went. I would point to different products and say, “This okay, that okay, this not okay, that not okay.”
She flashed her toothy grin and said, “Thank you Birdie Lee. You good lady friend.”
The other day, while I was working in my listening corner, I heard her ask old Dale for his help with her vouchers. I know what comes round goes round as you do unto others, and Dale just hissed and told her to figure it out her own damn self. She drew in a big breath and began to loudly babble in her lingo, but with every sentence out came an English curse word. That got me tickled and I felt like he got his just desserts especially when she stuck out her middle finger in his face and said, “Shit you.” After that, our buggies started disappearing even faster.
The day Dale put up the chain, Boumpaign came in and I overheard her talking to him again. She put both hands on her ample hips, looked at him with her slanty eyes, and said, ”Why you put chain up in front? We can no get out of store with carts.”
“You’ve been taking our property to your apartments, haven’t you?” Dale replied, lifting his nose slightly. “That’s called stealing in English, you know.”
Somebody once told me that she had fought communists in the jungle, and I sort of figured it would be “Katie bar the door” ‘cause Dale was about to meet his match. All Boumpaign said was, “We fix you.”
That afternoon, Mr. McCraw, our supervisor, came into the store and asked Dale who put up the chain. Dale’s mole got bright and his cheek twitched a little as he admitted to doing it.
“Take it down!” McCraw snapped. “I’ve been deluged with phone calls from customers complaining about it. We can’t stop people from taking their groceries to their cars, and we’ll get sued if someone trips over that chain. Get it down now!”
It don’t make you look too smart when you have to go and undo something you did to make yourself look smart in the first place. So, down it came. The buggies still went missing though. Dale would get Joe, our assistant manager, to go to the projects and round them up in his pickup truck. It got to be a twice-a-week ritual. About a week after the chain incident, Joe came back empty-handed.
“Guess what I saw,” he said. “Those people have taken the wheels off our buggies, flattened them all out, and are having a barbecue. I drove by there twice and saw it with my own eyes.”
Dale’s mole got real red, his mouth kinda flattened out, and off he went with Joe to the apartments. A few minutes later, he came back into the store and got on the phone to our supervisor.
“Those damn chinks have taken ’em, yeah, slaughtered a goat and two pigs in the parking lot of the apartments, and are roasting the meat on our flattened buggies! The only buggy that’s not flattened has no wheels and all the skin and guts have been thrown into it. No sir, I didn’t call the cops. Why? I didn’t think to, but I certainly will. Ffftttt.”
It didn’t surprise me when it took the cops an hour to respond to Dale’s call. I feel like cops are never there when you need them and always there when you don’t. They spent another forty minutes in the store interviewing Joe, filling out a police report, and drinking coffee before they cruised over to the apartments. By then the evidence was gone and the buggies were hidden.
Unlike Dale, Joe is easy going and doesn’t have an enemy in the world. Boumpaign really liked Joe because of his cheerfulness and his willingness to help others. When Joe helped her, Boumpaign brought him egg rolls. The Hmong made delicious egg rolls. They stuffed them with cabbage, bean sprouts, and sometimes potatoes. They loved fish sauce. They used fish sauce like we used catsup. They put it on everything. I hated the stuff. Especially after Joe told me he thought it smelled like a dirty butt. Joe always loved a practical joke. He once put dry ice into the toilet bowl in the ladies room and scared us all half to death with that smoke coming out. Then he played a good one on old Dale.
Dale opened up the store one morning and a solid wall of odor hit us both. Boy, did that place stink! Joe told me later on that he poured a couple of bottles of fish sauce into the mop water and mopped the floors with it the night before. A couple of days later he put a little on Dales’ managers vest he kept hanging up in the office at night.
Phew! The odor would have gagged a maggot on a garbage truck.
Dale was fussy about his vests and took care to keep them clean and neat. The next morning, I noticed, he was sniffing himself a lot. He sniffed his hands, his underarms, and when he thought nobody was looking, he bent over and sniffed his pant legs. He even took off his shoes and sniffed them like an old dog. We knew something was up.
Two of the night cashiers, who were in on the joke, came in to get their checks and one said to the other, “Ann, do you wash your ‘you know what’ after you have sex?”
Ann giggled and said, “You better believe I do, and I’m sure you do too. So, if we both do, why does it smell like someone didn’t?”
Well, I don’t talk that way, but I was holding my hand over my mouth to keep from laughing out loud. Dale jerked his head back real quick and his mole got red when he heard that. Those girls were something else sometimes. Then, in came Mr. McCraw. Maybe this is something you need to do to be a supervisor, but he was bad to get right up in your face when he talked to you. Power thing, I reckon. Well, that’s what he did to Dale, but then he stepped back real quick.
“Jesus H. Christ Dale! You need to work on your personal hygiene. This is not what we expect of a store manager in this company. Hell, if all our store managers smelled that bad, we’d be out of business. Call Joe in and go home and take a shower.”
That’s how Dale became Dale McFishy. Do as you would be done by. That’s what my Momma always said. If you don’t, then you get done by as you did, and Dale was headin’ in that direction fast.
Dale would open up the store early, let Scott and the meat cutters in, so they could get their departments set up for business. Right behind the store we had a nice apartment complex. Every morning, while they were unloading the truck on the back dock, the guys would watch a woman standing in front of an open bathroom window. She was bent over her sink, putting on her makeup, and naked from the waist up. Dale laughed to me about it and I told him he’d better be careful. Women like that get guys into trouble. Sure enough it did. The next morning Dale brought a telescope and set it up on the unloading dock. I had to go to the back door to get Dale for a phone call, and I saw the guys fighting each other to get a peek.
As they were looking through that scope the woman’s husband pulled up in an old station wagon and yelled, “What the hell are you guys doing with that thing? I’m going to call the cops on you bunch of perverts!”
Dale went immediately back up to the office, and a few minutes later, a police car pulled up out in front of the store. I got into my listening corner and heard him blame it all on Scott and the meat cutters. He told them that the telescope belonged to a part time clerk who was in school at the time. The nerve! The cops, or the lady’s husband, must have called the main office because after that we got a really unwelcome visitor.
R.J. Powell is the senior vice-president and district retail operations supervisor. We were never too sure what the initials stood for ‘cause when you get that high up in the company totem pole, you only have initials. A visit from Mr. Powell was an unpleasant experience, kind of like a bad thunderstorm. All you could do was hold onto your apron and ride it through. He was always nice to me, but his sharp blue eyes gave everyone the feeling that when he looked at you, he was really looking through you. He always gave Dale the twitches.
When he came in, I made myself look busy in my listening corner, and got a real good picture of what happened.
“Dale, we have had a complaint about a Peeping Tom from one of our neighbors here. He said you had a telescope. What do you know about it? I want to know what’s going on!”
Dale tried to sound innocent. “Sir, I haven’t got a clue. I know that one of our part-timers left a telescope here last night and my assistant manager is not here and I have been up front and we got cops in and all this trouble and…” Mr. Powell just glared at Dale, whose mole got redder and redder.
“Sounds like you don’t have control over your store, Dale. If I get one more complaint about you, from anyone about anything, you’re going to be out on your ass!”
Right after that we got a new part-time clerk, Jimmy Powell, R.J. Powell’s son.
Dale hired him and put him to work in the produce department. He was gangly but smart. Jimmy didn’t give a rat’s hinny about his job. He knew his old man was the head honcho and would bail him out if trouble came along. Sure enough it did. I think trouble followed that boy like a puppy dog. Call it family blood or whatever; Jimmy was one enterprising kid. In a couple of weeks he was selling marijuana out of the back room. He used the produce scales to weigh and measure out his stash down to hundredth of a pound. He only worked at night and we noticed lots of longhaired hippiefied kids comin’ and going through the double doors into the produce department. Dale already had his backside in a crack about the Peeping Tom incident, so he didn’t investigate this problem thoroughly at all. Actually, he didn’t have a clue as to what was going on. The rest of us knew, but since we despised Dale, we did nothing but sit back and watch.
Jimmy bought his grass by the pound from some guy downtown, would weight it, bag it, and hide it in the paper towel dispenser by the produce-washing sink. Funny thing though, our produce manager Scott, never tumbled to what was going on either, because he didn’t use the towel dispenser or bother to fill it.
Jimmy would work his department list and serve his customers as the evening wore on. He made his big mistake when he sold a bag to Phillip Cook. If Phillip didn’t have bad luck, he’d have no luck at all. He was a sloppy kid, who seemed to get caught at everything. I noticed he spent most of his time staring at the girls instead of working his stocking float of frozen foods. He loved to brag. One Saturday night, he got caught in bed with his girlfriend by her parents. He forgot to close the garage door. The next weekend, he was speeding and the cops took his driver’s license. Two weeks later, he was pulled over for weaving. The cops searched his car and sure enough found a bag of grass under the front seat.
Phillip’s dad hired a fancified lawyer, and during the course of the first hearing, it was discovered that the cops hadn’t read Phillip’s rights to him. The judge dismissed the case, but during the investigation, he confessed to buying his weed from someone in the store. The police put a surveillance team in and watched all the kids going in and out of the produce back room. Last Friday night everything came to a head. The cops suspected Jimmy and began to question him. He called his dad, denied everything, and said he was being framed. His dad called in Mr. McCraw and Dale, and together they all went with the cops to talk to Jimmy. The police brought in their search dog, and with everyone standing nearby; the dog went to the paper towel dispenser. When it was opened, five pounds of marijuana fell out, all neatly packed in individual bags for sale. Scott told me later that everyone just about crapped in their pants. Dale just stood there opening and closing his mouth like a fish in a bowl .R.J.Powell eyed him suspiciously, but didn’t say a word. All Jimmy could say was, ”Well, whaddya know about that?”
I’ve never told anyone this, but I was one of Jimmy’s customers too. I knew what was going on and would buy a bag or two from him. Now I’ll have to find my old supplier. I like to go home, to my little apartment, fix dinner, put on some music, roll me a fattie, and let the day’s worry go up in smoke. It’s relaxing and harmless, but boy, was I scared when he got caught.
Anyway, Dale came up to the office afterward, with his bright red mole, and told me flat out that if I didn’t put on my name-tag, he was going to fire me on the spot. I looked him in the eye, and told him flat out I would slap him right between the eyes if he talked to me like that again. I will not let anyone push me around anymore, especially an arrogant, two-bit store manager, who I had to train right. The next morning, when Dale found his picture plastered on the dumpster, he just kind of gave up. He turned in his keys to Joe and walked out, never to return. Two days later, we got a new store manager. I’ve worked for thirty-two managers during my twenty-seven year career and most have met bad ends. Looks like I gotta train number thirty-three. They only promote good ‘ole boys who can put up stock the fastest.
That Friday night, I personally took Dale’s picture down, Phillip Cook drew the mustache, Scott peed on it, and Joe glued it to the dumpster. Hang em’ high I say. Looks like this new manager may be decent for a change. If he isn’t, then all he has to do is to go look at the dumpster. Maybe we’ll make a rogues’ gallery out there. We’ll see what happens then.
Kenn Allen is a long-time member and former Chairman of the Village Writers Group. He has several short stories published, including others based on his experience as a Winn Dixie supermarket manager. His novel, The Golden Cockerel, set in the first-century Roman Empire, is available from Dog Ear Publishing. He is working on two other novels with the Novel Critique Group.
The Village Writer's Group regularly publishes essays and other short pieces by our members.