Short story by Michael Botur
You clock onto your shift at 11.50pm. Nicholas is standing by the automatic doors waggling his clipboard, like ‘Hurry up.’ This is the biggest Kmart in the country, it closes at midnight, and Nicholas wants to lock the doors and hand over to the Nightfill Manager. That’s you.
Nicholas is the same age as you, but white and skinny and goin bald and married and obviously he’s on a higher salary than you. Most of the world is. Nicholas inspects the shelves in each aisle, peering at the dust on his fingertip. He says he wants four pallets of Huggies pull-ups unloaded in Infantware – no, wait, scratch that. Do Infantware at 1.30am. First hour you can spend on putting some of that motor oil out. Upstairs says the mark-up’s higher. Better margins. Put out 2000 gallons of motor oil instead.
‘Although, bear with me – Mother’s Day IS coming up, I’ll bet those pull-ups would move pretty quick… stand by.’
You roll your eyes while he hums and ha’s about two products both of which will end up on the shop floor tonight regardless. God damn Nicholas doesn’t have a bone of leadership in him. You notice some of the girls are eavesdropping. They want you to be decisive, authoritative. ‘Just tell me what we need to put out. We’re nightfill. We got this.’
He doesn’t need to know who you’ve rostered on overnight and he doesn’t need to know you got a map showin the black spots where the CCTV doesn’t cover. You’ll get the work done, for sure, but there’ll be fun and games tonight, too. Some stress relief with the girls he doesn’t need to know about.
You escort him to the front of the store and press the Exit button. He lifts a sheet of paper on his clipboard, says ‘Oh: and you have a new team member starting tonight, by the way. Since that other girl quit on you.’ He puts his foot out so the doors can’t close on him. ‘She has retail experience, I can tell you that.’
‘I thought I got a say on who’s in my crew? I already rostered Misty and Nevaeh. Cazandra’s on, even.’
You see what looks like a Mercedes pull into the parking lot. Piglet, your 2IC, comes squealing up beside yous and jumps out of his forklift, still short even in his rubber-heeled work boots. Piglet points through the glass at the car.
‘New girl starting? She gonna pay tax?’
‘Of course, Pig. She gonna pay.’
‘G’night, homies,’ Nicholas says. Piglet spits on the floor right by Nicholas’ shoes. He wants Nicholas to know we’re not his homies. Nicholas passes the woman coming in from the parking lot and they exchange some words and the woman shifts her handbag from one shoulder to the other, looking scared of Nicholas for some reason. She’s disappointing, this newbie, only about a five outta ten. Oldish, classy-looking. The woman’s skinny as fuck, haircut short and yellow and dykey and her throat’s loose and wobbly. Lady’s 46 years old, maybe. She’d be the 19th hottest piece of arse out of the 22 bitches who work under you, and brother: she’d better be prepared to work under you.
Before you let her into your huge, quiet store, Piglet points towards her whip, buried under so much night you can only just read the licence plate. Looks like the plate reads RCHBCH.
‘What’s that sposda spell?’
‘Rich bitch, I think.’
You keep her standing on the cold side of the glass for two minutes, three, sizing up how much self-esteem she’s got. She doesn’t speak up. Finally you let her in and the door hisses closed behind her.
‘I’m Richelle,’ she goes, ‘With an I, ha ha.’ She sticks out her hand for you to shake, like she’s your equal or something.
Piglet pulls his head back. ‘Sup with the licence plate?’
‘The licence plate from hell, you mean, ha ha. Anniversary present from my former beau, you know, R-C-H for Richelle… he’s, erm, not currently beau du jour, nor beau anything for that matter, ha ha.’
It takes a second or two for you to translate the way she talks. Why she showing her education off? And what’s there to be upbeat about? Bitch ain’t gonna fit in here.
‘…silly licence plate, I know, but those things are dreadfully expensive to replace and, well, things are tight for us all, ha ha.’
You hear tight and think of pussy, and give her a second look-over just in case you missed some attractiveness the first time around. Why is management lumping you with this weird-ass lady?
‘So, Nicholas said I report to you?’
You nod. ‘Big night ahead of us. Getcha self a hi-vis vest. Drive forks?’
‘HAVE YOU DRIVEN A FORKLIFT BEFORE?’ She looks at Piglet, as if the Oompa Loompa-loookin motherfucker’s any help. ‘Lady, do you want me to Google Image a forklift?’
‘Oh. I wasn’t expecting… I could learn? If you could show me?’
You waggle your eyebrows at Piglet. ‘Just go with this guy, he’ll show you how to build bins with the pallets. There’s 6000 Oral B toothbrushes to go out. And your work had better be perfect – god damn mystery shoppers come through every day. We’ll get our asses chewed out if the store don’t look perfect by morning.’
‘Upper management have told you this?’
‘Lady, just go with the Pig, alright?’
You veer off, march down through Plumbing Supplies, ignore the girls with their arms full of pipes who try ask you stuff. You march past Drapery, take a right at Cleaning and through the door up to your office, where you are the mayor of the night, elevated, all-seeing, all-knowing. You give your people instructions over the PA, remind them that you’re watching them. Your voice is the voice of God. It’s good to have some power for once in your life.
Through the window, in the southwest of the maze, you watch Piglet point the Rich Bitch at a pallet jack with 10 boxes of 100 toothbrushes on it. The two storey tall shelving racks look like city blocks. Suburbs of shoes, suburbs of umbrellas, a central business district of checkouts and chocolate and chewing gum.
She gets the toothbrushes replenished and, without being asked, drags a pallet of odd socks from Clothing over to Footwear and spends 90 minutes putting each stray sock back where it belongs, then she goes and asks Piglet for more work. She doesn’t take a cigarette break; she probably doesn’t even smoke. The other girls keep their backs turned to her. They hate her already. Good.
Dziah tells the new girl she’s got a job for her and starts lobbing these heavy boxes of photo frames at Richelle, hoping Rich Bitch will drop one and get her arse fired. Dziah’s screwed-up pit-bull face is saying, ‘He’s not boyfriend material, so stay the fuck away.’
Good to know she’s talkin about you.
There’s a downside to getting too many beaver pelts, knocking back shots in the dark privacy of your car, sucking smoke, unbuttoning blouses, nibbling necks, watching the clock so when your break’s over you can zip up and walk back into work, catching your breath. Sometimes you give yourself a heart attack with the exertion of it all, using your stomach muscles, panting real hard, blood pressure up, sweating, grunting, holding these agonising positions for minutes just ’cause it feels better than any other drug. Fucking in the handicap toilets ’cause they’re clean and spacious, fucking in the freight elevator ’cause it’s always empty. Putting down an airbed in a CCTV black spot and stroking the spiderweb off a girl’s brow after she’s been dusting shelves all night. These girls go down on you, but the oral stuff’s a one-way street, no way in hell you’ll ever get on your knees and work to please some chickypie.
Justice, Keisha, LaRaine, Dziah, Tamzin, Maxeen, Marley, Krystal, Nevaeh, Misty, Nazia, Cazandra, Roxxane, K’rina, Aimey, M’riah, Trina, China, Jess, Honor, Janelle and Jule: you protect them, keep them employed, keep their shifts predictable, keep a buffer between management and working class. Your girls do what you tell them ’cause they’re on 10 bucks an hour after tax is taken off and you’re on 12. You all smudge your income, dilute it, stretch it out by covering what expenses you can at work. You polish your shoes and put the tins of nugget back on the shelves, you open bottles of vitamins and swallow half and screw the cap back on, you step into three pairs of boxer shorts and take ’em home to add to the mountain of merch spilling out of your cupboards. You drench your necks in stolen cologne. You use lip balm, put it back on the shelf. You steal back the dignity management’s trying to take from you, a few cents at a time.
Most of the girls take the bus to work and get off the bus and trudge through the carpark to arrive at 11.57 at night, just as Rich Bitch is rockin up in her Benz. You hear some of them call her Bichelle when they’re talkin about her up on the catwalk over Sporting Goods where the smoke alarm can’t smell their cigarettes. The other girls give Richelle the shittiest jobs, scraping bubblegum off the polished concrete floor, price-stickering bottom-shelf jobs, jobs that involve the most crouching and bending, ’cause a person knows they’re really doing shit work when their face is close to the ground. You’re not sure how, but Richelle has stuffed her karma up and got herself a sentence in the country’s hugest department store. Richelle’s there midnight to breakfast for five straight days, proving that she’s not a quitter, and that’s fine and dandy, but Ms Mature will never be able to catch up on all the in-jokes she’s missed out on. Plus she’s been hired directly by Nicholas, making her a nark, most likely.
She wipes the dust off jellybeans that some customer’s three year old has split open. She puts the jellybeans back in their packet and uses her sticker gun to mark the packet down to 20 cents. She checks bottles of spring water and disposes of the ones that people have taken sips out of. Above the towering shelves, energy-saving lights switch off when she’s been on her knees for too long, still as a statue, moving only her wrists, replacing toddler underwear that people have filched out of five-packs. Some of the dropped undies stink of piss. Customers are pissing on her, essentially. Serves her right for being rich. Every night we get the displays perfect as a museum all so the daywalkers can start wrecking things when they file in at 7.30. Welcome to our hell.
Pay Day comes around. You all love getting your tiny slips of paper; you hate how little money you get. You need to vent. You gather in the centre of your city and clear the dehumidifiers out of the way to create an arena for gladiator battles on forklifts, or you race trolleys through the aisles, or see if you can stack 100 baked bean cans in a tower from the floor to the vast ceiling. The highest anyone’s ever stacked the cans without them falling was the night you stood on the forklift forks, got Piglet to raise ’em 3.5m, then Piglet briefly stood on your shoulders and stacked the 57th can, making 7m of elevation. It was 2.50 in the morning, an insane part of the night without rules. The cans collapsed on a pile of airbeds you’d blown up. Piglet went down after, and you on top of him, and as the girls separated you from him and you laughed so hard your abs scraped your ribs, you thought, I’m not going anywhere, and wept with laughter. King of a store with no customers, carrying out orders for executives asleep up in the hills somewhere.
Tonight’s not Beaning Tower of Pisa Night. It’s Medieval Night. When everyone has re-hung the dropped wetsuits and hotboxed the handicapped toilet with the extractor fan that sucks the weed smoke away, you tip out all these saucepans from these wonderfully stiff cardboard boxes and you slice and Sellotape and fold the cardboard into rectangles the height of a human then put slits in the side and the crotch until there are four limbs and a head. These cardboard people are stiff enough to stand up on their own. Piglet staples little packets of ketchup on the throats and chests and inside the thighs of the effigies. You print out colour photos of the managers you hate most and staple the photos onto the heads of the effigies. As everyone cheers, and the clock limps into that emptiness between four and five a.m. when it feels like dawn is impossible, you and your people take turns strutting up to the effigies like gangstas or knights or Jedi or cowboys and slicing their faces and guts and necks with your box cutter knives. They bleed ketchup and M’riah thumps her chest and fistbumps Janelle then collapses into your arms, heavy with sweat.
When the party is at its most fierce, its most ferocious, joyous, primal, feral, you squeeze the hand of Nazia, this sorta fattish girl with these straight-o Pakistani parents who never let her do anything wicked. You tug her towards the toilets; Misty high-fives her on the way. You go, girl. On her knees with a razor blade, scraping a stuck barcode off the leg of a Cape Cod deck chair, the Rich Bitch looks up as you pass.
You wake up on your couch round dinner time while the weather report’s on the news. It doesn’t matter what the weather high was today. Doesn’t matter what the Russians are up to in Syria, or who won the cricket. There’s no one to cook for you, no one to make the bed for. You eat breakfast cereal at 8pm, get on the bus at eleven.
Nicholas picks salt out of his eyes and yawns and hands you your list of things to stock and count and shift and box and unbox and rebox and says, ‘Have a nice – aw, I almost forgot: how is my Precious Princess getting on? Just gimme the signal if she’s not keeping up.’
‘Richy Rich you mean?’
‘Not as rich as she used to be,’ he winks. ‘God, she used to seem decent before she… bah. Never mind. Have a nice night.’
‘Got something you wanna tell me, Nicholas?’
‘Call me Nico, bro,’ he goes, and fumbles a gangsta handshake that embarrasses you both. ‘Aw and um, there’s like a note, like from the GM? Says for your guys to sweep up your crumbs after you make those frozen pizzas in the microwave in the break room, so if you could do that… Just sayin. Anyway – ’
You hit the Exit button and he’s sucked out of the airlock into space. General Manager? You’ve met that motherfucker, just once, when he hired you, before you were put underground with the pit ponies. Fuck him and his sunlight.
You stroll through the passages of the City With a Single Ceiling. You roam the Dining Table District, linger in a suburb of scented candles, turn down Shampoo Street, ride a trolley, sit on a bench of stacked Coke cans. In a land of Levis, you avoid Nazia ’cause she’s been catching feelings, and you just say a couple words to China and LaRaine, ’cause they’re scanning the expiry date of every single Twix bar and it’s a helluva job. You find a canyon to dip into and hover a moment, watching the girls position those hard-to-balance bottles of hot sauce. They can operate a forklift good as you or Piglet, and you know you don’t have to ask them a second time to replace that Linestra bulb that went out over in Whiteware. Everything’s swell in the City. Time to check up on the Rich Bitch, who you’ve spoken to as little as possible, not wanting the other girls to get jealous.
It’s 5.51am and Richelle is running the concrete polisher over 16000 square metres of floor. It takes about a minute per square metre if you want to do an excellent polish. It’ll pretty much take her the rest of the year. The old machine takes unleaded in its tiny tank so she has to stop every half hour and add more fuel, carefully mixing oil into the fuel because it’s only a two-stroke. The polisher is a punishment from management, you’re sure. It’s revenge because you and your people leave lights on, leave taps running, put blow-up foam dinosaur toys in the executive toilets. You glue their chairs to the tiles of the conference suite. You put fish oil in the soap dispensers of the executive toilets. You once placed an order for 120 butt plugs under the GM’s name.
Richelle is humming as she polishes the concrete and you’re watching her bend and push, wondering if her pussy is hairless and polished, not that you’d ever eat it. Just wondering. She turns, pauses, but doesn’t switch the machine off.
‘Oh hi,’ she says, and does that chirpy laugh she probably practices in the mirror to get herself through another shift. Being upbeat round here is a mental illness. ‘You seem to be following me. Those water coolers? I carried them over to Office Supplies, like you wanted me to, sir.’
‘Do I look like a sir? Fuck you workin here for, anyway? You a spy?’
Rich Bitch looks side to side, spotting Jule, who’s parked her trolley and is chewing gum with her arms folded, enjoying the confrontation. ‘Preee-zumably I’m working here same reason as you? It’s all about the benjamins, as you kids would say.’
‘Not for me it ain’t,’ you go, shaking your head. ‘I need it, to… Listen, where you going after this? We mostly drink round nine in the morning at the Daysleeper, that’s this club that’s for my people. Cops, ambos, hospo, peeps who work at gas stations, all the night-niggers. People make you swallow shit all day, so when you’re at the club, YOU get to be in charge of what you’re swallowing. You oughta, I dunno. Just come drink with us so we know you’re not a nark.’
She unplugs the polisher, starts pulling in the extension cord. ‘Gosh, I don’t understand, sweetie. You’re – you can’t be asking me out?’
You notice Roxxane spit into a dumpster full of clothes hangers.
‘Course not. Just say yes or no, already.’
She squeezes your shoulder. ‘I have classes. Management units, you see? I have to be in class 8.30 to 2.30 most days. I hardly sleep, ha ha. The gods of management are making me re-do a few management units, for my many crimes.’ She stares down at her polished floor. ‘Busy busy busy.’
You scrunch your fingers into fists and punch your thighs, half turned-away. ‘Just rock up at the usual time tomorrow night, then. We’ll have us a fuckin date. Yes or no?’
She’s here for an induction, that’s all. Just a shift with her nightfill manager, one on one. Every girl gets a little private time.
You give Richelle a plastic flower and she gushes about it and tries to kiss your cheek and you tell her to cool it in front of the other girls and guide her through the black spots onto a leather couch you’ve moved with your forks from Home Décor over to Electronics. Surrounded by $2500 of tweeters and subwoofers, you put on the DVD of Avatar. The graphics are eye-popping on the 3DTV. You slide red and green plastic glasses onto Richelle’s face and think about kissing her pink glistening lips, melting her uppity posture a little. At the far end of the couch she’s munching a bag of caramel corn marked down to 50 cents because it got cut by someone’s craft knife. Richelle looks innocent and content, munching away, old-fashioned hoop earrings swaying. You wonder if she has children. Probably. People who are happy have kids, don’t they?
You’ve pulled a shade sail all the way over here from Outdoor Living and it covers your bodies from the security cameras. You have to keep your hi-vis and safety boots and blue t-shirt on, ’cause you might need to leap up at any moment if Trina needs help building cardboard versions of Nicholas and Harumi and Kirk and all the other management bastards. You hear snatches of your girls’ conversation leak between the shelves and you get antsy. This respectful shit’s not normal. Your date needs to be over, ASAP. The movie suddenly becomes annoyingly lengthy and you’ve used up all your little tricks to make her lean into you and let her hand come near your cock. You’re not really having this date. You’re not really sacrificing your time to please someone inferior. It’s just a ritual you’ve gotta go through to get the Rich Bitch to look up to you a little more. To keep control.
Richelle clutches a cushion over her crotch, as if she’s blocking you from eating her pussy with your face underneath her, looking up, as if you would ever do a thing like that. It’s hard to stop thinking about eating her now that the thought’s crept under your eyelids. She gasps through her fingers as Avatar gets tense and the holograms flying at her eyes are too exciting to take.
Finally the movie ends and you tighten the laces on your boots, grab a jack and wheel a pallet of IKEA desks 200m across the store, just in chase Honor asks you what you’ve been doing. Richelle scurries behind you. You spin her into Kitchenware, park her arse at a bar stool, fetch a pizza from Frozen Goods, heat it in a display microwave that stinks of plastic, serve the pizza on its circle of cardboard, dine at a Formica breakfast bar under a 0% Interest For 3 Years sign dangling over your heads.
5 a.m. becomes 5.30. You play minigolf on a strip of Astroturf. You relax a little. Your hi-vis vests come off. The date ends just as Nicholas is buzzing the main door for you to let him in, haloed with orange sunlight, and you squint against the light and realise seven o’clock has caught you by surprise and you think: Did we move the dye? Did we clean up the cardboard? Did we shelve those towels? Will we pass inspection if a mystery shopper comes through?
‘Yo, I saw your arse last night already, Nicholas,’ you go, letting the glass open. ‘What you doin here?’
‘Bro, please, it’s Nico,’ he goes, playfully punching your shoulder with his knobbly knuckles. ‘Listen, I kinda wanted to catch up with you: there’s a spot on my social soccer team and we could use a big aggressive guy to really, y’know, kick the shit outta the opposition on Thursdays. 8 o’clock, it starts.’
‘I work nights,’ you grumble, your eyebrows crushing your nose. ‘Fuck you doin at work this early anyway?’
He laughs. ‘Bro, when you’re management, you get treated like a grown-up!’
‘Well isn’t there a job goin for Assistant Buying Manager?’
‘Yes indeedy. I’ve got a few CVs to read over today, actually.’
‘Well my CV’s in there, I could be a awesome manager.’
Nicholas bursts out laughing and punches your other shoulder. ‘God you’re a crack-up,’ he goes, and tucks in the bottom of his shirt. ‘Hey – lipstick, by the way, on your cheek,’ Nicholas goes, touching his face.
Rich approaches. You notice her lower her head. ‘Ah: Little Miss Management,’ he chuckles.
‘I’m out of here, guys,’ Richelle goes, squeezing your arm. ‘Thanks for last night.’ She squeezes past Nicholas, who doesn’t even stand aside to let her through the door.
‘Richelle’s used to a little mismanagement, so that’s what we call her upstairs.’ He claps and tries to strut away towards the stairs leading up into the office suite.
‘Slow your roll,’ you go, grabbing his collar bone. ‘Nico, er, bro: tell me everything.’
Nicholas raises an eyebrow. ‘Thought you knew? I mean, hellOOO?! You don’t just cancel quality assurance procedures without asking the generals. She was only Regional Seef.’
‘Regional CFO, man. Cost the company money – money that wasn’t hers. She’s lucky to have a job. She wouldn’t exactly have received a glowing reference were she out in the job market now, would she. “What did you achieve in your last position, Richelle?” What’s she going to say, honestly? “Well, gee, I gave away benefits to the night niggers.” I mean, come ON! You screwed up, sister!’ He’s panting, worked-up about how much he hates her. ‘We had an amazing Mystery Shopper scheme and she terminated it without authority, as if our floor staff didn’t need daily audits. Socialist heroine? Puh-lease.’
‘Is that right?’
‘Just say the word and we can get her pulled, no problem. Plenty more slaves around to do nightfill, yeah?’ He looks at his $2000 watch. ‘Time for you to head home, eh. Off ya go, bro.’
You lurch out into the parking lot, desperate for sunglasses, eyes compressed to slits, walking at first, then sprinting. You chase her down. She’s trying to sit in the driver seat.
In a corner of the parking lot you wrestle her for the car keys. She gets out of the car, tries to shove you away. You step over a puddle, hold her wrists. She bites your chin, begins sucking your neck. You push her back inside the car, crawl in after her, opening her thighs. It’s cosy and soft inside the car. It reeks of deodorant. The back seats are stuffed with clothes and hair brushes. You lean on her, bite her neck, lick her eyes, suck her little nipples. No areola. She hasn’t had kids. She has the nipples of a woman who put work over family. Her hips rise above the passenger seat, her pussy pulled toward your mouth. You bury your nose inside.
Night again. Tension. 600 white lights. One Ceiling City. Your girls snap the dull ends off your box cutters. The girls need their blades fresh and sharp for when they see the Rich Bitch.
You send Richelle to search through bins of 20,000 CDs, tell her she needs to find an artist named Snipe. She hardly says anything, just saunters away.
You get on the PA, announce that everyone needs to assemble by Coffee Therapy. A team meeting’s on.
‘You need to hear this from me, people: word is she used to be some kind of management,’ you say from atop a pallet high up on the raised forklift forks. Your makeshift Vatican balcony. Everyone is small, underneath you. ‘Could be bullshit, though.’
‘It’s truth,’ Marley calls out, ‘Look how good she stacked them pool noodles. Tryna make us look like slack-arses.’
‘Oh no she DIDN’T.’
‘She’s slipping, for real.’
‘Are we gonna have Upstairs fucking up our shit?’ Piglet yells.
‘FUCK NO!’ the girls chant. They add their own variations, Jess yelling ‘Fuck that bitch’ and Keisha saying something about rolling her. You look down on the mob of girls, girls whose faces you’ve pushed into pillows, girls who’ve left sticky resin beneath your belly button where their stomachs grinded against you, girls who’ve cursed you and hated you minutes after you’ve come in them. Girls you babysat until the doors opened at dawn and they walked off into the sun.
Everyone’s heads turn. Richelle is approaching your gathering. ‘I couldn’t find that CD, I’m really sorry, and sorry I’m late for the meeting, um, no one told me, sorry…’
‘You living in your car or what?’ Piglet goes, and everyone laughs. ‘Does a fuckin maid come and clean every morning, huh?’
Richelle looks around. Two dozen girls who’ll never go to management classes, stand there with their arms folded. Her skin is worse than theirs. Her muscles are weaker. ‘I don’t have a maid anymore,’ Richelle begins in a plain, simple voice. ‘I don’t have even have a house, ha ha. I was on 140,000 dollars a year. I had a husband. I had children – your age, actually. They have a new mother, now, sooo… yeah. I am the maid, I guess.’
Piglet lowers the forks till you’re only a metre off the floor and you hop off.
‘We got something for you,’ the girls coo, and chuckle, and extend their blades.
Richelle sprints toward the exit doors. You sprint after her.
‘OI! I DIDN’T SAY YOU COULD GO ANYWHERE!’
You drag her back inside the store and she squirms and wriggles as you force her into the circle of knives.
Piglet approaches. In one hand, he holds his blade. In the other, a cardboard cutout, woman-shaped. It could be a silhouette of Richelle, it’s that precise.
The girls have printed a photo of Richelle from the corporate magazine, from her Regional CFO days when she would come into work all prestigious and powerful, with makeup confident and joyous, the same makeup stolen by these girls who take bites out of the foundations of the company like rats then go off to have families, leaving you feeling like you’re the one who’s been used. These girls, their wombs are their ticket. Have a baby and you’ll never have to polish a concrete floor again.
Richelle stands in front of the image of herself. You press a cutter into her hand, close her fingers around it.
Richelle cuts the face of the woman from management and the ketchup dribbles down from one eye as if she’s weeping blood.
She comes over and collapses into your arms. She fits you perfectly. It must be morning now. There is a halo around the front doors.
‘Where you going after this?’
‘I’m not going anywhere,’ you tell her.