Baltimore writer and UB undergrad Sarah Rayman describes her creepiest work experience to date — and what a wonderful truth she learned from the ordeal.
My friends were mixing cheap liquor with Mountain Dew and playing beer pong in Jeremy Sullivan’s basement. I was trapped at Bed, Bath & Beyond, ringing up the one person in Baltimore who felt the need to exchange a cartload of bathroom accessories for a $200 duvet cover at 9:59 on a Friday night.
“Hold on now,” the hefty woman said as she rifled through her giant leather purse. She smelled like White Diamonds and hairspray. There was a smudge of bright pink lipstick on her tooth. “I know I’ve got one of those 20-percent-off coupons in here somewhere.”
Pieces of gum, crumpled receipts, used tissues and sunglasses swished around in her purse. She unzipped secret compartments and rummaged through her wallet. I knew her kind. They linger in the store long after the 10 minutes ‘til close warning is announced. They return boxes of Keurig coffee packages after using their favorite flavors. They smuggle bath rugs and towel warmers in the bottom of their carts or baby strollers and feign innocence when the alarm goes off. They hold up Black Friday lines searching for 10-dollar-off coupons that they know damn well they used on their last visit.
“I know it’s in here,” she insisted. “I remember cutting it out of the magazine this morning…”
“That’s okay,” I said. “I’ll just scan one from earlier.”
“Oh really? Could you?”
Her shifty brown eyes revealed that she’d been expecting this from the moment she began her well-rehearsed coupon hunt. She was one faulty return away from winding up on our Code Red sheet. We had a list of repeat offenders stashed at each register: people that went store to store returning coffeemakers they didn’t pay for, demanding cash back for gift card purchases and running their store credit through the roof. We were supposed to page the manager on duty if someone from the list appeared in our line.
I finished ringing up Crazy Coupon Lady and locked the sliding door behind her. She was our last customer and I was in a hurry to begin my weekend. My boyfriend, Brad was out buying an eighth of what his idiot drug dealer referred to as “Sour Diesel.” His drug dealer was a rich Italian kid who went to our high school and spoke as if he’d never grasped a single English grammar rule in his entire life. He sold weed and mushrooms out of his father’s basement. His name was Mauricio, but he insisted people call him Dank.
After Brad bought the weed, he’d be headed to the party without me. All I could think about was what spray-tanned skanks would be there, asking to hit his blunt, giggling when he made a joke or recited a moronic line from a Will Ferrell movie. It took a six-pack of Coors Light and a cigarillo of Sour Diesel to make Brad bubbly and sociable; he was naturally shy and awkward. Whenever we went out to get pizza with friends or spent an afternoon at my aunt’s house, he’d avoid eye contact and keep stoically silent, opting to tweet lyrics from rap songs on his iPhone or update his Facebook status rather than make conversation with the people surrounding him.
The other cashiers were meandering around the store, finding sly corners to text and eat bags of chips where the manager couldn’t see. At the end of the night, we each had different responsibilities for closing the store. The manager would highlight employees’ names in various colors on the clipboard. Pink meant sweep the store, blue meant clean the bathrooms, yellow meant fold the towel section and purple meant vacuum the vestibule.
I lucked out with towel-folding duty, but finished early and decided to start other chores in hopes of getting out of work as soon as possible. The other employees didn’t seem as concerned about salvaging their Friday night. The bookkeeper, Maggie—a middle aged woman who smelled like cats and drank green tea from a plastic water bottle—looked like she had a riveting night ahead of her reading a Nora Roberts novel or watching “Days of Our Lives” recordings. Christian, the closeted homosexual in charge of bridal registries, was never in a rush to get home. His obnoxious wife called the store at least four times a day to nag him.
“Christian, you have a call on line one. Christian, line one.”
I’d find myself paging him over the loudspeaker several times per shift. He’d trudge to the front of the store, exhale loudly and roll his eyes as I handed him the phone.
“Hi, honey,” he’d say sweetly into the phone, all the while wagging his middle finger in the air or sticking his tongue out while pretending to choke himself. His wife was always calling to complain about something their satanic three year old had done, or micromanage his work schedule and the pit stops he’d be making on his way home. Whenever the store wasn’t busy and I had downtime to straighten the end caps, Christian would find me and vent about his life. He’d stand like a girl with his hand on his hip, rubbing his temple as he recalled his latest marital woe in an exaggerated flamboyant tenor.
“Jacey colored all over the walls with oil pastels,” he’d once told me. “I asked her what the heck she was doing while he had the time to paint a freakin’ wall mural the size of the Taj Mahal. Now she says we have to go back to marriage counseling. Apparently, I’m not sensitive enough to her feelings.”
I could tell the leashed collar his wife kept around his neck was rapidly turning into a noose. It would only be a matter of time before Christian had a full-blown mental breakdown.
Val, the store slut and head cashier, spent our shifts babbling incessantly about her boy troubles and asking me to block her from the manager’s view so she could sext her lovers. Dave, the manager on duty that night, was the type of guy that wore form fitting t-shirts and flexed his muscles every chance he got. He loved the sound of his own voice and held unnecessary nightly meetings just to gush about how much he could bench press. He was about as interesting as An Inconvenient Truth. Sometimes he’d corner me on my way to the break room and appear as if he had an important matter to discuss.
“Sarah, come here a sec,” he’d say.
“Did you get your tickets yet?”
“What tickets?” I’d ask. His face would crack into a smile as he held his arms out and kissed his contracting biceps.
“To the gun show,” he’d bark.
None of these people had lives. They were a cult of misfits that thrived on the daily drama and politics of Bed, Bath & Beyond. They needed to be there. I, on the other hand, had a life. At the time, I thought I needed to be monitoring Brad in a smoke-filled basement that smelled like overpriced marijuana, Cool Ranch Doritos and girls with tongue rings who wore far too much fruity body spray. I thought I needed to be massaging his shoulders and kissing his neck, anything to keep his attention. The truth was I needed to be far, far away from Bed, Bath and Beyond and from any kind of 19-year-old Neanderthal that had alternating names for the same exact marijuana Mauricio had been growing in his backyard since junior high. One week it was Sour Diesel; the next it was Afghan Kush; the next it was Hydroponic Pussy. Looking back, I have trouble recalling what I ever saw in Brad. In the beginning, I was attracted to his violet eyes and dimply smile. He liked my hip-length hair and colorful personality. Brad didn’t have opinions and feelings and grand aspirations for the future pouring out of him like I did. He was a simple, quiet guy and it made me feel special that he reserved his rare moments of emotion for me. There was a moment in time—it may have been weeks; it may have been months—when Brad and I were crazy about each other. I spent years holding onto that moment.
On my 18th birthday, he showed up to my family’s cookout two hours late and gave me a 10-dollar gift card to Rita’s. On our second Valentine’s Day together, he brought me a pack of Raisinets and a balloon from Dollar Tree before heading off to snowboard with his friends at Round Top. Brad was the kind of guy who cared more about washing and waxing his Subaru WRX than what my father thought of him.
Back at Bed, Bath and Beyond, I felt like the only sane one in the infirmary, except for Liam. Liam was a stocker working his way through grad school. He looked like Paul Walker and smelled like aftershave. I’d spend my shifts watching him lift heavy things and fantasize about the two of us escaping to the main office. I imagined running my bony fingers through his shaggy black hair and letting him kiss me on the manager’s desk. Liam was the only form of civilized life left on our deranged Bed, Bath & Beyond planet. He and I found common ground laughing at the villagers’ insanity and discussing all the great books I had to look forward to reading in college.
“Who cleaned the bathrooms?” Dave asked that night, flexing his muscles as he charged down the hall. Dave was the kind of guy who spent hours at the gym, but had never stepped a foot in a library. If you had a problem at the register and Dave was the manager on duty, you knew not to page him. He would only make the problem worse. He’d grunt and push all the wrong buttons until the entire system froze up. Dave reminded me of Barney Rubble.
I looked around our circle waiting for Val to say something. Her name was highlighted in blue to clean the bathrooms and although I’d started the job for her in hopes of making it to the party before Brad was too stoned to whisper cheap compliments in my ear, I didn’t finishing cleaning it. Someone had really done a number on stall three. Some sick, tribal animal that evidently ate a boatload of bad curry the night before, soiled all over the floor and toilet, and didn’t bother to flush.
Val wasn’t saying anything. Dave walked over to the clipboard seeking an answer.
“Val?” he questioned, scratching his balding head.
“I thought Sarah did it,” Val answered. “She had the mops out.”
He looked to me for an explanation.
“Well, yeah I started to clean it, but it wasn’t my job,” I defended.
“You left the bathroom like that?”
“It wasn’t my job. I had the towel section.”
“So, let me get this straight,” Dave said, crinkling his brow and cracking his knuckles. “You started the bathroom and didn’t clean any of the shit in stall three?”
Liam snorted and laughed. I could feel the heat rising in my cheeks. Why was I being interrogated instead of Val?
“It wasn’t my job,” I repeated, glaring at Val who’d completely thrown me under the bus. I was so done with her and all of her sob stories—the time her boyfriend gave her chlamydia; the time she couldn’t choose between Moron One and Moron Two; the time she had a massive cold sore outbreak and I covered for her on my day off. She was dead in my book.
“Go clean it up,” Dave instructed, his tone rather hostile.
Is this a joke? I thought to myself. I looked at him like he had seven heads.
“You’re going to clean it up,” Dave demanded, his face flushing red.
“No…I’m not,” I maintained. “That’s disgusting.”
“Clean it up,” he yelled, pointing toward the bathroom. Something was severely wrong. He was quickly shifting from the typical power-abusing ogre I’d come to know and loathe to a complete madman. The veins in his neck and forehead were bulging out.
“None of us are leaving this building until she flushes that toilet.” He charged toward me with his finger pointed in my face.
Liam stepped between us.
“Come on, Dave it’s not a big deal. I’ll go clean it up right now,” he offered.
“Don’t move another inch!” Dave yelled as Liam walked toward the bathroom. He turned his eyes back to me. “You flush that toilet or you’re fired.”
I looked around the store, wondering if this was real life.
“Flush the toilet!” he scolded.
I turned and walked toward the door to leave. He charged after me, but Liam intervened and stopped him in time for me to get out.
The following morning I received half a dozen panicked phone calls from the main store manager, Carl. He left messages on my cellphone saying it was urgent and that he’d like to clear up the matter. After talking it over with my parents, I returned Carl’s phone calls and filled him in on the story he’d already heard from Val, Christian and Liam. He apologized profusely, assured me that Dave didn’t have the authority to fire me and said I still had my job. He asked if it would be all right if someone higher up in the company called me to ask a few questions. They were worried about my taking them to court.
I decided not to go back to Bed, Bath & Beyond or pursue any legal action. I’d had enough crazy coupon ladies for a lifetime. The world of retail was not for me and, as it turned out, neither was the world of basements that smelled like “That 70’s Show” and boys with very little chance of ever developing into men. I didn’t need Bed, Bath and Beyond and I didn’t need Brad. I had three rambunctious little cousins who got so excited when I spent a Friday night with them watching “7th Heaven” reruns and making microwaved s’mores that they’d roll around on the couch wrestling with each other, fighting over who got to sit beside me. I had a grand-mom who baked my favorite peanut butter chip cookies and sat around the kitchen table with me, long after everyone had gone to sleep, telling stories about when she was a young girl and moved to Florida. I had a patient uncle who would take me out early on Saturday mornings and attempt to teach me how to drive and parallel park. Sometimes I’d drive so slow that he’d take me to an abandoned parking lot and force me to do donuts at 50 miles an hour, just so I wouldn’t be scared to go a normal speed, anymore. I had an aunt who knew how to be an older sister, a best friend and a mom all at once. We’d spend the weekends running errands and talking about everything from what I wanted to study in college to how come only certain girls could pull off things like skinny jeans and red lipstick, to why losing a first love hurts so bad that a piece of you never fully recovers. The summer I left Bed, Bath and Beyond I found something I hadn’t known I’d been searching for all along. I found friendship and comfort in my family and a bond that would get me through the hardest of times, and beyond.
Sarah Rayman is a freelance writer in Baltimore. Both her fiction and nonfiction are often inspired by her scandalous suburban adolescence. You can learn more about Sarah and her writing here. This essay was originally published in Welter, the University of Baltimore’s literary journal.