Why Do People Tell Me Things?

by John Jeffire

Good god, not this morning. Not now, not now, not now. Move, move, move. C’mon, kids.

“C’mon, Scotty, you need to finish that cereal. Tosha, you need to eat something. Both of you, let’s go, you’re gonna miss the bus.”

Of all days to drag their feet. Mr. Nichols from corporate is in town for his walk-through, and Sunny has to nail it. She hadn’t gotten home until after eleven the last four nights, staying almost two hours after close to stock shelves, making sure all items were signed, spacing racks for customers—everything perfect. And what did she find when she got home? Both kids still up, the sink full of filthy dishes, the stove slopped over with baked mac-and-cheese gunk, a present from the dog in the hallway, and no homework done.

“I’m not hungry.” Tosha twirls her hair, reading something on her pink phone.

“Just have some toast. One piece of toast won’t kill you.” Sunny slips two pieces of bread into the toaster. “You need to eat something.”

“I said I’m not hungry. You’re just wasting two pieces of bread.”

Sunny looks at her daughter. Any other day, be my guest, flaunt the attitude, but not now.

“Okay, Tosh, fine, don’t eat anything. Scotty, please, finish your cereal, and let’s go.”

Dreamy-eyed, Scotty leans his head against a hand and drips a spoonful of soggy Corn Pops into his mouth. Sunny notices Tosha’s top; she’s just fourteen, but a generous helping of cleavage is busting out of her v-neck t-shirt.

“Alright, let’s get these dishes cleared and brush the teeth and get to it. And Tosha, change that top.”

“What?”

“You heard me. Change that top.”

“Why?”

 “Because.”

“Because why?”

“Because you know why. You got off with a warning last time—this time it’s a suspension. God, you know it’s my walk-through. Will it hurt you to just cooperate?”

“Whatever.”

Tosha pushes loudly from the table, rolling heavily mascaraed eyes.

“Must be her period.”

Sunny and Tosha both look at Scotty.

“What?”

Scotty is eleven and says little, at least at home.

“Her period. Timmy Pinner says that’s when all girls turn into total bitches. Maybe it’s both of your periods.”

Sunny freezes, the first moment she has stopped moving since waking before her alarm even went off. If she can get the kids on the bus on schedule, she can get to work fifteen minutes early and check everything one last time.

“Dammit, that’s it. I’m not listening to any more of this. I can’t believe you two. Both of you, let’s move it. Scotty, we’ll talk later—you’re in for it, mister. It’ll be a wonder if I even have a job at the end of the day. Move it. Let’s go!”

Within five minutes, the school bus pulls up to the curb outside the apartment complex. Sunny waits in her minivan until she sees both children climb inside. She breathes deeply. Tosha calls her a “retard” and says she doesn’t need to wait to see them physically step on the bus anymore, but this is her ritual, something she must do. She assumes nothing anymore. Scott Sr. told her she’d never make it without him when he left, but he was wrong. If he wanted out so bad, he could have just left. But he had to tell her that. Why? Why tell her that? The mother of his children? She agreed to be primary custodian, so he could freely be with the woman he’d been chasing. Why throw salt in the wound of betrayal? Saying something just to hurt someone—she could never do that.

Sunny looks in the rearview mirror. Scott Sr. couldn’t leave quick enough two years ago, but she didn’t fall apart. Ha—and what about old Scotty? Rosa the hostess from Miguel’s left him last summer; she met him in winter when he lived off his landscaping company’s earnings, but in the summer good-time Scotty wasn’t around much. Two summers and Rosa was gone for good, and Scott the Snake was out of town and off to Indiana to start all over again. No, she made it. She’s still making it. She looks in the mirror. She is still sharp. Plenty of men flirt with her, many of whom already know about the two kids. Her hair shimmers, her face virtually unlined. She is trim, sharp, her smile bright. She is ready for Mr. Nichols and the walk-through.

*****

One of the signs on the leather coat rack at the front of the store is not facing traffic from the main mall entrance—how many times has she told the associates about that? Panic tightens her chest. She didn’t have time to check every sign. In the Women’s Fall area, a stack of cashmere sweaters has been rummaged through, and no one has refolded them. That was Janice’s job, and she wonders why Sunny doesn’t give her more hours. Damn—the bathrooms. Jerry from maintenance was supposed to make them extra clean and good smelling, and restock all the toilet paper and towel dispensers.

Sunny turns to hit the bathrooms; she can still restock them if Jerry forgot. Too late. Mr. Johnstone, her store manager, is standing at the Fall check out with Mr. Nichols and a severe-looking woman, who must be the new hire at corporate. This is it, game time, no more last second fixes. Sunny straightens her suit top, breathes deeply, then uses her most confident stride to meet the conversing trio.

Confidence. Confidence. Exude confidence.

“Good morning, good morning. Great to see you again, Mr. Nichols. And I don’t believe we’ve met. Sunny Janes.”

She gives a firm handshake to everyone, especially the corporate woman. She smiles. She is confident. The toilet paper, though—did Jerry restock it?

 “Gloria Hanson. Pleased to meet you.”

“Gloria’s the new district merchandiser, my new right hand. Mr. Johnstone has given you rave reviews, Sunny, so we’re eager to see what all the hullabaloo is about. Why don’t we start right here in Fall. I want to see the signs and displays.”

Mr. Nichols is what Sunny calls a silver fox: hair silvery grey, suit impeccably tailored, shoes glowing in the fluorescent light, fingernails manicured and shiny, teeth perfectly white. When you made it to corporate, you were a poobah, a top dog, a big cheese.

“Jim and Gloria, you’re gonna love what Sunny’s done with Fall,” Mr. Johnstone says. He is Mr. Nichols-light: perfectly garbed, salt and pepper hair, orange silk tie, tanned even in winter. “She really is my sunshine.”

Sunny hopes no one sees her blush. Corny, sure, but still nice to hear. Sunshine. That’s what she is. Confidence, girl. Confidence. Stay confident.

“Fall has really taken off. Sweaters are running a twenty-eight percent gain over last year, and we’re going to keep pushing.”

“I have to admit, the colour coordinations are appealing. The signs are clear but don’t take the eye away from the merchandise. Well done. Very well done.”

Mr. Nichols observes the display, checking the sizing, making sure no Eights are mixed in with Tens and the like. No, everything is where it needs to be. Sunny simmers. She is doing it. She is winning. Calm down, though, calm down, girl. The toilet paper—did Jerry square it away?

“I’m wondering, Sunny, if it’s too tight in here. It seems there’s not much passage between these fixtures.” Gloria makes a frown as she looks at the circlular racks of leather jackets.

“Actually, we did put an extra display fixture out here, but that’s because leathers are our top seller right now. We’re up thirty-four percent over the district average as of yesterday, so we can’t keep enough units on the floor. The more on the floor, the more we sell.”

Sunny hopes she does not sound defensive or worse, arrogant. Confidence. Confidence. Know your figures. Know why you’re doing what you’re doing, but don’t come off like you’re looking for a fight. Everyone waits for Mr. Nichols’ final judgment.

“In this case, Gloria, I’m going to have to go with Sunny. Normally, yes, this is too crowded, and as soon as sales slow down one of these racks is going to have to go, no question. But now, considering how fast product is moving, a little cramping is justified.”

Warmth flushes through Sunny. She wants so bad to look at Gloria, but she can’t appear to gloat. No, she can’t make enemies. Be confident, not cocky. The walk-through continues for another hour and a half, and even the bathrooms ace the test—God love Jerry. Sunny will bake him brownies and bring in her special chocolate chip cookies for all the associates who helped ready the floor. Tonight after work she’ll get the kids and take them to Olive Garden, and she’ll even have some wine. She’s pulled it off. She’s won. She has done it, on her own, herself and no one else. She’s ready to burst.

“That’s fine. This is what we want to see in a Women’s World store. Neat, attractive, the items selling themselves. Sunny, quite impressive. You’ve got yourself a winner, Ted.”

“Oh, don’t I know it,” beams Mr. Johnstone. “I told you I’ve got a special one here. I just don’t know how long I’ll be able to keep her before she demands her own store.”

They all laugh. Sunny is almost embarrassed, but she actually could do another full tour of the store. It’s her day. Thank god, it’s her day.

“I wouldn’t worry about that, Mr. Johnstone,” she chimes, trying her best to both absorb and deflect the praise. “I’ve still got a long ways to go.”

“Well, Gloria, we best be getting on. We’ve got two more stores to walk today, and I’ve got a feeling Roseville isn’t going to be glad to see us. What a mess over there.”

“It’s been great having you here, Jim. And Gloria, very nice meeting you. Sunny, meet me in my office, will you? I’m just going to see our guests out.”

Sunny floats to Mr. Johnstone’s office and stands by his desk. Quite impressive. A store of her own. Ha! Never make it, huh? Well, how’s that for making it? No, how’s that for more than making it. Tosha and Scotty will have to hear all about it. They’ll be proud of her. She will teach them how to be strong, how to win, how to survive even when others say you can’t. They, her children, her flesh and blood, will be winners because of her and no one else.

“C’mere, you!”

Mr. Johnstone stands before Sunny with a huge smile, his arms held wide. When she is checking sales on her computer, he has a habit of coming up behind her and placing his arms around her on the arms of the chair as he glances at her computer screen. He gets so close that she can still smell his cologne when she leaves at night. Sunny hesitates a second, and then gives in to the moment of victory. He pulls her into him with too many congratulations.

“Sunny, Sunny, Sunny. My word, what a superstar. I don’t know how much longer I’m going to be able to hold onto you with walks like that.”

Sunny stops hugging him, her arms drifting awkwardly to her side. She hears Mr. Johnstone breathe deeply, like he is trying to inhale her. He rubs her back. He finally lets her go, but keeps his hands resting on the tops of her shoulders. She needs to say something, anything.

“So, Mr. Johnstone, you think it went well?”

“Well? My goodness, Sunny, it couldn’t have gone any better. You wowed ’em. You wowed me.”

He again gathers Sunny into him. She smells his cologne. There isn’t anyone in the store who doesn’t know about Mr. Johnstone’s personal life. His wife Merriam becomes morbidly drunk at every company party, and they end up leaving early. He had become “friendly” with Cheryl in cosmetics and Lainie in shoes, and both no longer work at the store. Sunny is engulfed. She cannot move. She is one of four assistant managers. She can run her own store. She is quite impressive. She has wowed everyone. She has two children. Monthly rent to pay. Groceries. The world to conquer. An ex-husband to prove wrong. She must win, but this does not feel like victory.

Mr. Johnstone releases her slightly, then draws his mouth near her ear.

“Let’s have an affair.”

Sunny tightens. She wants to unhear what she has just heard. She wants to hit rewind and tape over Mr. Johnstone’s words. She wants silence. She wants Mr. Johnstone to be her mentor, her cheerleader, her number one fan in the store. In the store. Nowhere else. She does not want to smell his cologne at the end of the day, or even at all.

“Oh, you’re such a joker, Mr. Johnstone.”

He releases her all the way. She pulls back, straightens her jacket, creates a smile.

“You really know my humour. Anyways, you did a fantastic job today, Sunny. You really pulled it off.”

Inside, she exhales, deflating, decompressing, safe.

“Thank you, Mr. Johnstone. Well, I better get back out on the floor if we want to keep getting those great reviews. Never enough hours in the day.”

“Fantastic, Sunny. Don’t work too hard now. I mean that.”

He smiles, never taking his eyes off her. She gives a smile back. She leaves his office, still feeling the weight of his eyes upon her back as she crosses onto the floor.

*****

In twenty-two minutes, she is free. The euphoria of Mr. Nichols’ visit has disappeared, replaced by exhaustion. Sunny takes two dresses to the back of the house for customer pick-up, then returns to the floor to tidy some fixtures. If she keeps busy physically, she has a better chance of avoiding Mr. Johnstone. Maybe he’s left early again to happy hour at Renée’s Lounge with the rest of his store manager cronies. The thought of taking the kids out to dinner is in itself exhausting—maybe they’ll just want pizza, and they can all stay home and watch TV. Yes, in twenty minutes, that’s what she’ll do.

“Well well well, howdy neighbour.”

It’s Glen Parker, whose son Richie is buddies with Scotty. At two-hundred-fifty-plus pounds, he towers over Sunny. Scotty and Tosha call him Lobster Eye because he has a lazy eye, but Sunny can never remember which one it is.

“Oh, Mr. Parker, hey, great to see you. How’s Richie and Sherri?”

“Call me Glen. Driving me crazy, same as always. How about Scotty?”

“Just fine. Still trying to find a way to disconnect him from the computer every waking hour. So what can I help you with?”

“I’m glad you asked. This is really not my forte, so I’m glad you’re here. What I need is, what I’m looking for, is, is a bra for the old lady.”

“Okay, that’s not a problem. Let’s just have a walk over to lingerie.”

Sunny knows Glen’s wife Sherri—she’s a big woman, double-D cup, but her exact measurement? Her style? Colour? Men can be impossible—so many of them never know what they want and never ask their wives exactly what it is that they need.

“Did Sherri have a particular brand or style she was looking for?”

Glen raises an eyebrow, and his eyes look off into different directions.

“You know, I thought you’d ask that. I can tell you what like. Something shiny and smooth, nice to touch if you know what I mean.”

Glen winks, then smiles, his mouth imbalanced, the eyes taking turns pointing at her. Too much sharing. She doesn’t want to think about what Glen Parker likes to touch, and she does not like to think about Glen Parker touching his wife Sherri. She tries to look into his good eye, but neither one is cooperating.

“Um, well, here are some Living Physique models, with an underwire support system and a very soft fabric.”

Glen looks at them. He runs his hand over the fabric—several times.

“What kind are you wearing?”

Sunny freezes. Now, there is no question which eye is the good one—Glen’s right is fixated on her chest as his left looks off at something in cosmetics.

“Ah, no, ah, I’m not wearing the Living Physique right now, but I do own two. They’re very comfortable. Sherri would love one. Now, do you know her size or the—”

“Wait wait wait, let’s hold on one tootin’ second here.” Glen puts his hands up, a traffic cop signaling oncoming traffic to halt. “This is where things get tricky. You see, Sherri’s bazoongas are, well, they’re not both the same exact size. One is, it’s kinda, you know, bigger than the other one.”

Glen Parker makes grabbing motions with his fingers, his left hand handling a much larger invisible boob. Sunny looks up at him, and he returns the uneven smile.

The day is almost over. So much has been good, so positive, so affirming. And yet it could not be totally perfect, never. Someone always speaks up, says something, makes her listen to something she does not need to hear. She does not want her head filled with Sherri Parker’s imbalanced breasts and Glen Parker’s creeping hands and Mr. Johnstone’s cologne or anything else she has not invited into her life. Why? Why, she asks herself, wanting nothing more than to be home eating pizza with Tosha and Scotty and watching a movie in her pajamas, why do people tell me things?


December 2018

John Jeffire

John Jeffire was born in Detroit.  In 2005, his novel Motown Burning was named Grand Prize Winner in the Mount Arrowsmith Novel Competition and in 2007 it won a Gold Medal for Regional Fiction in the Independent Publishing Awards.  Speaking of Motown Burning, former chair of the Pulitzer Jury Philip F. O’Connor said, “It works. I don’t often say that, but it has a drive and integrity that gives it credible life….I find a novel with heart.” In 2009, Andra Milacca included Motown Burning in her list of “Six Savory Novels Set in Detroit” along with works by Elmore Leonard, Joyce Carol Oates, and Jeffrey Eugenides.  His first book of poetry, Stone + Fist + Brick + Bone, was nominated for a Michigan Notable Book Award in 2009.  Former U.S. Poet Laureate Philip Levine called the book “a terrific one for our city.”  His most recent book, Shoveling Snow in a Snowstorm, a poetry chapbook, was published by the Finishing Line Press in 2016.  For more on the author and his work, visit writeondetroit.com.

2019-08-07T07:37:33-05:00