Heather Notes a Change
Living in San Francisco had its perks. One of them was the view of Golden Gate Park Heather enjoyed from her apartment, which she shared with three other young people. The price of rent, and just about everything else, was skyrocketing with the influx of techie talent, but Heather lived under rent control, and had been able to keep up. Her promotion to assistant manager at the wine shop even meant she could think about moving in somewhere without or with fewer roommates. Or, maybe, moving in with Leon. The thought of it was like a far off mirage, and if she got too close she feared that it would disappear. Even now she wasn’t sure she was going to return his calls, and he had been calling. Three times this week and she hadn’t answered once. It was like it hadn’t even occurred to him to send her a text message, demonstrating how he was old fashioned in some ways. Almost as if she were being courted all over again, as if he could have done this from the beginning. So what had changed? She would flatter herself indeed to imagine it had anything to do with her.
Heather dressed conservatively in a clean, freshly pressed pant suit, and she took the bus to work. She liked to look at her fellow passengers, to observe her surroundings. There was something off about the atmosphere today. No one spoke to each other and there was something like a muted hostility between strangers, far removed from the practiced neutrality of your average commuter. Maybe there was a full moon tonight. Heather didn’t know.
The bus reached Lombard Street at Steiner and Heather disembarked. The wineshop was in the Marina District, an upper middle class, low lying neighborhood of three- and four-story apartment buildings with their accompanying specialty shops on street level. The wine shop was on Chestnut Street, just parallel to Lombard. This was her fourth day as Assistant Manager, a Tuesday. It was ten o’clock in the morning when she arrived. She fished the keyring, an intimidating fistful of all shapes and sizes, out of her purse and unlocked the front metal grating pulled across the front door’s alcove and the display window. She pulled the grating back and it released a high-pitched squeal, then, continuing the process of elimination, she fingered through the keys and tried just about every one of them on the front door lock until she found the right one. It must have taken ten minutes. If this were a rough neighborhood she would have been begging to get robbed.
When inside she turned all the lights on, then went to the office in the back and turned on the computer and, after waiting for it to load, she turned the Pandora on to a station for smooth soul and jazz.
There was much to do. First thing’s first, as soon as Stacy arrived Heather would give her a dressing down for being late to work. Second, after Jonathan and Steve arrived about an hour later, Heather would remove herself to the back, where there were three days worth of safe money to count. She decided that she would have Jonathan do the inventory that would normally fall under her purview. Assistant managers had to make decisions like these from time to time.
A few customers came in while Heather was waiting for Stacy, and she smiled and greeted them, told them not to hesitate to ask if they had any questions. None of them responded to her in the slightest, not even with a nod of their heads. Heather wondered vaguely if she’d put her makeup on screwy or something, then she took a sip of water.
At long last, Stacy came bustling through the front door, made a bee-line for Heather at the counter with a wide, sparkling smile on her face.
“I’m so sorry I’m late,” she said.
“Twenty-five minutes,” Heather reminded.
“I know I know. It was Muni. There was an electrical problem or something, it backed up the whole system.”
“If I were to check your story out after work would I find that you were lying?”
“No you wouldn’t. I promise you.”
“I know where you live, remember. I know what bus you would catch.”
“I swear to God none of the other buses could go around us. It backed up the whole system.”
Muni ran in part on a spider web network of electrical lines that criss-crossed the air twenty feet or so above San Francisco’s streets, and problems were constant, so Stacy’s story was plausible. Unfortunately it was not the first time that she’d been late, and now that Heather was assistant manager she would, at some point, have to lay the law down for those who might still think she was a little girl who could be walked over.
“I’m not going to argue with you this time,” Heather began. “You know the rules. If Muni causes you too many problems you just go ahead and get on your bike. Take a cab. I don’t care. You’re late way more often than Muni has delays. This is just a warning. I’m going to look it up when I get home.”
“Jesus Heather, I’m sorry. There was nothing I could do.”
Maybe that had been unnecessary, Heather thought. The unfriendly atmosphere the customers had brought into the store must have rubbed off on her.
“As soon as Jonathan gets here I’m going into the office to do the books. Until he gets here I want you manning the door and answering questions, then I’ll have you do inventory. Got it?”
“Got it Heather. Sorry again.”
“No need to apologize. If it was the bus it was the bus. It’s just that I know this wasn’t the first time for you, that’s why I yelled at you. And I took the bus to work just like you did and it worked out fine for me.”
“It’s okay, I’ll go to the door now.”
Stacy left her and Heather let out a deep breath and took another sip of water. She wondered what kind of managerial style would suit her. It was important that she didn’t compromise her personal integrity. She liked working at the wine shop, but she didn’t like it that much. Her true passion was writing, but nobody knew that, not even Leon. She wrote poems in her free time, which, after her promotion, would be in short supply.
Jonathan and Steve arrived on time at eleven o’clock, and Heather followed through with her plan to have Stacy do the inventory and Jonathan man the front door while Steve would run the cash register. Lorraine would arrive later this afternoon to see how things were, and Heather intended to have everyone in the right place at the right time. It usually wasn’t so busy in the early part of the day.
After a small rush, three groups of customers coming in at almost the exact same time, Heather left for the back office, mulling through the strange impression that persisted, that everyone seemed more tense and hostile today.
But the front room, the customers and what may or may not be going on with them, was not to be her battlefield for the day.
She started with Tuesday’s cash envelopes, and unfurled the attached cash register run sheets, credit and debit cards and cash back totals, and she started counting. It turned out to be correct, short only fifty cents or so. It was at this point that her cell phone began vibrating in her pocket. She took it out and was not surprised to find that it was Leon. She had ignored three calls from him, and his voicemails had become increasingly befuddled. She decided to let it go one more time, just for good measure. After that, maybe she would agree to see him, and find how good his newfound game would be.
She put her phone back in her pocket and finished auditing the run sheet. When she was done she moved on to Wednesday, and she only had one question to ask of Lorraine by telephone, and, making the call, she understood the answer when she posed it.
“How is it there today?” Lorraine asked.
“It’s slow, but I’ve been in the office all day so far.”
“Keep up the good work.”
“Stacy was late again. She blamed Muni again.”
“I’ll look into it. Call me if you have any more questions.”
Lorraine hung up.
When it was time to break the front staff, she went out onto the floor and told Stacy to take her thirty while Heather manned the cash register, nudging aside Steve until Stacy came back.
She watched the customers enter in and grudgingly accept Jonathan’s assistance in perusing the bewildering shelves of wines. They specialized in local vineyards, but tried to stay abreast of international, national and local competitions as well. Heather had spent enough time here observing Lorraine as a salesgirl to know the place and the system like the back of her hand. As the day progressed she was hardly even nervous that she was doing anything wrong.
And then, just after Stacy came back from break and Steve returned to the cash register, there were sounds of shouting. Heather recognized one of the voices, though she had never heard it at this pitch before: It was Jonathan. Mild mannered Jonathan. It sounded like he was getting into it with one of the customers.
“I said the San Francisco International Competition gold medal,” the customer was shouting. “Not the bronze or silver you fucking idiot. The gold! The gold!”
“Don’t you talk to me that way.”
“I’ll talk to you any way I see fit,” the customer continued.
“Get the fuck out of this store,” Jonathan rejoined, and then Heather arrived.
“What’s going on?”
“Nothing,” Jonathan said, wild-eyed. “This man started insulting me.”
“I did nothing of the sort,” the man, an older black man, said. “This guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about. What kind of establishment you running here when he can’t answer a simple question?”
“I’m sorry, I don’t know who won the gold this year, and I don’t even know if we have the bronze medal. We just have the silver. Now get the fuck out of the store.”
“Jonathan, watch your mouth!”
“No need,” the customer continued. “I’m leaving. I’m never coming back again. You clowns just lost a customer.”
The man stormed out of the store and knocked several bottles of Charles Schwabb red to the floor while brushing past a display counter. None of them broke.
Heather turned on Jonathan:
“What’s the matter with you?” she said.
“Nothing’s the matter with me. Did you hear how he was talking to me?”
“Jonathan you were cursing at him.”
“He cursed at me first.”
“Then you should’ve told him to leave.”
“He said I didn’t know what I was talking about. I beg to differ Heather. I’ve worked here longer than you have.”
“Yes but not full time,” she shot back.
Jonathan breathed deeply several times as if coming to a decision. A small group of customers was observing their interaction.
“Who fucking cares?” he said at last.
“Jonathan, you keep your voice raised at me and I’ll send you home right now.”
“You know what?” Jonathan said, eyes crazy and wide as ever, sweat gleaming on his pale forehead, “I don’t fucking care what you think Heather. I’m pissed off that Lorraine promoted you instead of me. I’ve worked here way longer than you and I would be such a better manager. I can’t believe you’re taking his side.”
“The customer’s always right,” she hissed.
“I quit, Heather. I’m done. I’m out of here. Have a nice life and go ahead and mail me my last check, I don’t even care to wait around for Lorraine to get here.”
“Jesus Christ,” she said.
“Jesus Christ is right,” he said. “I’m fucking pissed.”
“You’re making something out of nothing.”
“I am not. I should be assistant manager right now, and I’m not even going to bother telling Lorraine that I said so. I’m walking out. I’m walking out now.”
With that he whipped off his Kendra’s Wine Shop uniform t-shirt and stood before Heather bare-chested, breathing fast as if he were ready for a physical confrontation, which gave Heather pause. She backed away from her former employee, who had been hired at the wine shop six months earlier than she.
“I don’t need this fucking job,” he said, throwing his shirt to the floor and stomping on it.
“What the hell is wrong with you?”
“Nothing, I woke up this way,” he said, and stormed past her towards the back of the store and the counter.
“If you touch the cash register I’m calling the police,” Heather yelled after him, following at a distance.
Steve and Stacy watched. Neither looked overly shocked at Jonathan’s display.
Jonathan was behind the counter now and rooting around in the employee’s effects shelf. He stood up again with his backpack in hand and stormed past Heather one more time. She had the impression that he would have walked right through her if she had tried to stop him. At the front door he spun around one more time and hollered at the top of his lungs:
“Have a nice life!”
Then he was gone, and the wine shop was in silence. There were a few more customers who had gone back to searching the aisles, apparently unfazed.
“I’m sorry about that,” Heather told them.
In response they shrugged their shoulders or ignored her, and kept about their business.
“What’s with people today?” Heather breathed to herself, and walked in a daze back to the cash register.
“Can I go on break now?” Steve said, as if self-righteously, like he’d agreed with Jonathan’s actions.
Heather looked at him in shock. They weren’t even going to discuss it.
“Go ahead,” she murmured. “I’ll cover you here.”
“I’ll call Lorraine if you want,” said Stacy.
“No. Just get back to your inventory. I’ll deal with the customers, I think it’ll be slow enough.”
Stacy left at that to approach the shelves again, and Steve exited out the backdoor to eat his paper bag lunch.
“Don’t worry,” Stacy called to her. “I’ll help with service if you need it.”
“Thank you,” Heather said, wishing she had answered Leon’s phone call. For some reason she believed that he might be the only person who wasn’t acting crazy today. For some reason she thought of the surprised, far off look in his eyes at the sushi restaurant, and about his talk of an adventure. She looked forward to him calling her one more time.