“You could use the extra money, couldn’t ya?” Kent asked. “It’s the perfect high school job."
“If it’s such a good job, why are you quitting?” I countered.
“It’s time to move on,” Kent said.
“So why don’t you just move on?” I asked.
“They won’t let me quit until I find someone to replace me,” Kent said. “It’s an easy job. They want you to stay three hours, but it will take you half that long to clean the store. The rest of the time, you get paid for sitting around. You can write your songs.”
“I dunno…” I hedged. “I make more money working construction for my dad.”
“Do you meet babes at the construction sites?” Kent asked.
I chuckled. My comrades of construction were swarthy, sunbaked men. The only thing filthier than their clothes were the jokes they told.
“This is a women’s clothing store!” Kent said. “You’ll meet babes!”
I wanted to meet babes, so I parked my motorcycle in front of Lerner Shops, at the north end of Fallbrook Square. The open-air mall became obsolete six months after its launch when Topanga Plaza—California’s first enclosed shopping mall—opened its doors less than two miles away. The Sears at the south end of Fallbrook Square did brisk business. The rest of the stores struggled—especially the stores at the north end.
By 1975, Fallbrook Square had been struggling for a dozen years. Its archaic design made the storefronts look twice their age. Above the glass doors, the “Lerner Shops” sign hung precariously above the glass storefront—script lettering in an anemic sea green.
I pushed open the heavy glass door and headed toward the formica-clad sales counter. The laminate was the color of calamine lotion, somewhere between a muted umber and blanched salmon. The walls were the same hue, a few shades lighter.
The store smelled like the inside of my grandma’s purse—of mildewed hankies and lavender candies. The tranquilizing tones of Percy Faith’s orchestra wafted from the ceiling speakers. I was sure I had crossed a portal that had transported me back in time twenty years.
Three women approached me, dressed in the styles I saw my mom wear in snapshots taken before I was born. I could tell the women were hungry for a sale.
A stout woman lead the pack wearing a knit top and polyester slacks two sizes too small. She had large, rosy cheeks and a soft, kind smile.
Behind her stood a bony woman with bulging eyes that made her look like she was in a constant state of surprise. She wore a sheer scarf on her neck which partially concealed a large scar that I tried not to notice.
On the stout woman’s other side, a seventy-something woman's perfectly-coiffed, bright red hair caught my attention. Her cat-eye glasses were as thick as her Austrian accent. She moved in a tight, controlled gestures as if to protect her brittle bones.
“Kent sent me,” I said.
Their collective postures drooped once they realized I was not a potential customer who had come to purchase hosiery for my Nana.
The stout woman held out her hand.
“I’m Patti,” she said, “This is Nora, and this is Anneliese."
Patti eyed my elbow-length hair. “Kent said you were a responsible boy. Are you?”
“The job is to clean the store, right?” I asked.
“Yes, the official title is ‘store porter’,” she said.
“Will I be moving luggage?” I joked.
“No, the term also applies to cleaning and maintenance,” Nora said.
“We liked Kent,” Patti said.
“But he vas a bit sloppy from time to time,” Anneliese added.
“I have to clean our entire house,” I said. “I vacuum, wash windows, dust, clean floors.”
The women looked at each other, nodding.
“My mom is real picky,” I continued. “If I don’t clean it right the first time, she makes me do it over again. I learned early on that I’d better do it right the first time. The overhead ledges on the door trim have to be just as spotless as the places she can see.”
The women smiled and nodded some more.
Patti cocked her head toward the sales counter. She headed toward it and I followed. She fumbled through a sheaf of paper forms and pulled out an employment application.
“Can you fill this out for me?” she asked. “It’s just a formality. When can you start?”
“Any time,” I said.
“The job is three hours a day, four days a week,” she said. “Please stay longer than three weeks.”
I began work the next day. For the first few weeks, I deep cleaned all the nooks and crannies, which kept me busy the entire three-hour shift. I found dust thicker than wads of dryer lint on top of everything above six feet. The ladies hovered as I worked.
The store’s Sherman tank of a vacuum cleaner was bound up with long threads and clots of dust embedded with metal pins. I took it upstairs to the storage attic and partially disassembled the motor and beaters. Mrs. Liebowitz followed me up.
“You’d better not hef spare parts ven you finished,” Anneliese warned.
She was impressed when I said, “Machen Sie sich keinen Sorgen! Es wird richtig sein. (Don’t worry! It will be right.)"
I brought the vacuum back to efficient suction. I then deviled the wall-to-wall carpet’s edges until they surrendered their grey tinge.
As I worked, the ladies lingered nearby unless a rare customer entered the store.
One morning, Nora arrived with her eyes swollen and red. Patti and Anneliese cooed at her and patted her shoulders. Nora burst into tears, and they escorted her into the back room. Anneliese came out and staffed the front counter for fifteen minutes, then she would switch with Patti. They took turns comforting Nora until she had regained her composure. When Nora emerged, she came toward me.
“We have paper towels upstairs,” Nora said.”Why are you using newspaper to clean the mirrors?
“Paper towels leave streaks,” I said. “Newspaper doesn't.”
I finished cleaning a mirror and Nora nodded her approval.
“Are you okay today, Nora? Is there anything I can do to help?”
Nora suppressed a sniffle.
“Let’s just say that I thought I had found someone who would stick around,” she said. “But I was wrong.”
“I’m sorry,” I sighed. “I hate that feeling. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy—well, maybe on the girl who broke up with me.”
Nora laughed through her sniffles.
“All I know is young love, obviously,” I said. “But when it falls apart, it still hurts. I’m sorry you’re hurting.”
Nora dabbed her eyes with a cloth handkerchief.
“You are nothing like I thought you would be when you first walked in here,” Nora said. “Thanks for caring enough to ask about me.”
Nora moved toward the glass storefront and gazed at the parking lot outside. She looked as if she was trapped in a 1955 aquarium, wondering how she might swim in the strong current of a future that had already arrived.
After I had been there a week, I approached Mrs. Liebowitz. (I secretly enjoyed repeating her full name - Anneliese Liebowitz - to the tune of the William Tell Overture.) She saw me approaching and made a rusty pirouette.
“I vas a dancer,” she said, “In Vienna, before we fled the Reich. Kin you believe det?”
“I think it’s good that you escaped when you did!” I said.
“My Fahzer sees it coming ahead of everyone else,” Anneliese said. “He vos schmart man.”
“Sie sind aber glücklich (You were quite lucky),” I said.
“Genau! (Exactly!)” she responded. “Und du bist ein netter Kerl (And you are a nice guy)."
“Hey, Mrs. Liebowitz, can I temporarily transfer clothes from the free-standing displays to a rolling rack so I can clean the displays and the carpet underneath them?”
“Hey iss for horses...You vant to do vot?” she asked.
"I want to move the clothes to clean the displays. Temporarily. I’ll do them one at a time. I’ll put everything back just like it was,” I said.
“I hef to ask Patti,” she said.
Patti approached me.
“You’re a real go-getter. When I saw your long hair, I took you for a slacker,” she said. “I guess I shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. But lot of people do, so you really should cut your hair."
“The hippie girls like my long hair,” I said. “And I like the hippie girls.”
Patti rolled her eyes and said, "Sure, you can clean the racks.”
Thanks to my demonstration of ambition, I had finally passed muster. Patti instructed "her girls," as she called them, to stop hovering while I worked. After a few days, the scrutiny ended and the ladies let me be with little or no supervision.
Three weeks into the job, the deep cleaning was finished. I could clean the entire store in an hour and fifteen minutes. Still, the ladies expected me to stay for the entire three-hour shift. I pushed the vacuum across the grey-teal carpet as slowly as I could. I washed the windows at the speed of a three-toed sloth. When I took out the trash, I shuffled to the dumpster like a constipated tortoise. That extended my active cleaning time from 75 to 90 minutes, and I had no idea what to do with the remaining hour and a half.
Once I finished cleaning, I lingered on the sales floor, keeping my eyes peeled for the parade of babes that Kent promised. Rarely did a woman visit who wasn’t at least three times my age.
I quickly learned to spend the remainder of my shifts upstairs in the storage attic. It was a bleak environment that smelled of dust and rodents, except near the metal employee lockers, whose vents released the faint scent of mustard and baloney sandwiches. Raw sheet-rock adorned the walls and bare light bulbs hung from thick black electrical cords. A large, masonite-topped table dominated the center of the space. Rolling chrome clothing racks filled with milk-white plastic clothes hangers surrounded the table.
After a month on the job, I ran into Kent at a high school assembly.
“How’s the job going?” he asked.
“It’s pretty easy,” I said. “But there are no babes.”
“I saw plenty of babes when I worked there,” Kent lied.
“So how long does it take you to clean the place?” he asked.
“If I crawl, an hour and a half,” I said.
“So what do you do the rest of the time?”
“Hang out in the upstairs storage room,” I replied.
“Yeah, that’s what I used to do. But it creeped me out,” he said. “All those white hangers began to look like bones to me. And under those bare light bulbs, that boneyard started looking spooky.”
“That’s ridiculous,” I said.
The next day, I ascended to the attic, looked around at all the suspended white clavicles and thought, “Kent I’m gonna kill you for putting that thought in my head!"
I tried to ignore the macabre setting. Armed with a pad of lay-away order forms, I spent my time sitting atop the big table drawing cartoons and writing songs of love and agony—mostly agony. I was a vanguard Goth without the black lipstick.
I had grown up watching my mother leverage woe to gain affection, so I assumed that was how it worked. I believed that playing the sad victim would eventually attract an angelic girlfriend who would rescue my sad little heart.
My compositions included uplifting phrases like:
♪♫ I hide near the sky in this maudlin maze of bones
Lover, oh lover, why can’t you hear my moans?
Alas, no winsome damsel and came to rescue me. Still, it wasn’t a bad deal to get paid $3.50/hour to sit in the boneyard and write sophomoric love songs.
The fire door at the bottom of the stairs leading to the attic was made of thick, heavy steel. The stairs were situated atop a reverberant space behind the dressing rooms. When one of the ladies headed for the attic, I first heard the ka-chunk-whomp! of the door, followed by the plodding clomp-clomp-clomp of dress shoes on the hollow linoleum stair treads.
There was no way I could be caught by surprise. The ladies’ slow trudge up the stairs provided ample time to stash my compositions in my locker and pretend to rearrange hangers. By the time they arrived, I looked industrious.
I became emboldened. One day, I risked smoking a joint in the crawl space above the storage attic. I had just finished when I heard ka-chunk whomp! The storage room reeked of hemp. I could tell by the lighter, quicker footsteps that it was Nora coming up the stairs. I glanced around and noticed a case of aerosol air freshener near the lockers. I grabbed a can and began spraying. I succeeded in making the room smell like a blend of artificial lavender and cannabis.
Nora wrinkled her nose as she reached the top of the stairs.
“What are you doing up here?” she said. “And what’s that smell?”
“I…I was rearranging some of those boxes of notions,” I stammered. “I stacked too many on top of a case of air fresheners and it set off a few of the cans. By the time moved the top boxes, the cans had sprayed a lot! Sorry.”
Nora sighed. I tried to divine her thoughts. Was she thinking that she couldn’t relate to my generation, and sighed because her youth was a 1950s hot rod that had burned rubber and sped out of sight? More likely, she sighed because she could detect the soupçon of cannabis mingling with the lavender—but she knew if she had me fired, they would lose the best store porter they had had in years.
She paused for a tense minute and said, “Whatever happened up here, just make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Nora grabbed her sack lunch and left.
I was paranoid for weeks that Nora would tell Patti and I would lose my job. A month later, it was evident that Nora wasn’t going to mention the smells in the attic room. I strode onto the sales floor, relieved that I was in the clear. My relief waned as I sensed the tension in the room.
The ladies flitted about, buzzing around the displays. Their hands shook as they spaced the hangers evenly on the racks. Patti kept tugging on her knit blouse as she shuffled paperwork behind the sales counter. Nora readjusted her scarf for the dozenth time. Anneliese seemed unconcerned. She peered at the displays half blind, her glasses hanging from their chain, resting on her chest. She was Frau Zen, the eye of the hurricane.
Patti rushed up to me and whispered, “Mr. Brodsky is coming today. Make sure you look busy at all times.”
“Mr. Brodsky?” I asked.
“Mr. Brodsky is my boss,” Patti said. Her eyes scrunched inward slightly every time she said his name.
Though the store didn’t need it, I cleaned as if I were deep cleaning again. I was at the far end of the store when I noticed the ladies pacing tightly behind the sales counter, as if the were practicing a subdued fox trot. They looked furtively at each other, then at the paperwork on the counter, then at the front door. A stocky figure darkened the glass.
Brodsky banged open the heavy glass door with his left elbow. As he marched toward the sales counter, he raised his right arm above his head. In his meaty hand, he shook a clipboard.
Brodsky was thick all over, from the thick fabric of his hound’s tooth suit to his thick nose and his thick head of curly hair, which traveled down the back of his neck and disappeared behind his thick, celery-green shirt collar.
His Hai Karate cologne thickened the air in the entire front half of the store. The smell exacerbated the ladies’ nervous gestures.
Brodsky pressed his torso against the front of the sales counter. His quivering clipboard was now level with Patti’s ear. Patti gritted her teeth and leaned backward, as if readying for a game of limbo.
“You call these sales figures?” Brodsky bellowed. “What have you girls been doing around here?”
“We…we…we have been following your sales plan to the letter,” Patti stammered.
Her cheeks flushed crimson red.
Behind her scarf, Nora’s neck muscles became so tense I imagined I could play them like a string bass.
“Ve follow ze plan eggzactly! Patty makes sure.” Anneliese said.
She stood ramrod straight. I half expected her to click her heels.
I was no retail expert, but I knew that a sales plan works only when there are customers in the store. I hadn't seen more than 3 or 4 people in the store at any given time. Not only wasn’t there the cavalcade of babes that Kent promised, but there weren’t many women of any age shopping the store.
“I’ve had enough!” Brodsky snorted. “Patti, get your things. You’re fired!”
Patti broke down into tears, and ran toward the stairway door. As she ascended the stairs, I could hear sobs alternating with the clomping of her feet.
I realized that I hadn’t pushed my vacuum in about 30 seconds. I turned back toward the carpet and made myself look busy.
“Liebowitz!” Brodsky barked, “You’re the new store manager. Congratulations.”
“Ach du lieber!” Anneliese exclaimed.
Brodsky and Liebowitz hovered over the clipboard as Brodsky bounced his finger off the masonite, highlighting areas where the ladies had failed.
“Hokay, Mr. Brodsky,” Anneliese said, “But vot is better is more customers in ze store. How can we do?"
“Just worry about the things I just showed you,” Brodsky commanded.
Brodsky parked his thick carcass just outside the stairway door, awaiting Patti’s return. When she clomped back down the stairs, she was startled to find Brodsky blocking her way.
“Do you have all your things?” he demanded.
“My…my coffee mug is still on the sales counter,” Patti sobbed.
“Get it and go!” he shouted.
Patti got in her car, hunched and sobbed for 5 minutes, then straightened up and drove off. Brodsky watched her through the glass storefront until she pulled away.
He then turned his attention toward me. I kept my head down and continued vacuuming. He pivoted back to Anneliese.
“What’s with the hippie?” Brodsky asked.
“He iz ze best porter ve hef in five years,” Mrs. Liebowitz said.
“I don’t care if he’s the best porter you’ve had in twenty years!” Brodsky roared. “He cuts his hair or he’s gone.”
Brodsky stormed around the store, screaming about the sequence of clothing racks and the deplorable arrangement of accessories. When he ran out of criticisms, he charged out the front door just as fiercely as he had entered it.
The ladies caught their breath, victims of a direct hit by a short, stocky cyclone. Anneliese beckoned me to the sales counter. The inside ends of her eyebrows raised as I approached.
“Did you hear vot Mr. Brodsky say?” she asked.
“I know what you’re going to ask, Mrs. Liebowitz. But I’m not going to cut my hair.”
“Sad zat you must go,” Anneliese said. “You’re a goot boy. But now you must find your replacement, and zen you can leaf."
The next day, I saw my friend Rick in algebra class.
“Wanna earn some easy money?” I asked.
“Maybe,” Rick said.
"The job is easy,” I told him. “Half the time, you get paid to sit around. Plus, you’ll meet lots of babes!”
“You met a bunch of babes on this job?” Rick asked.
“For sure!” I said. “A bunch—but there were three babes in particular I really liked."
David Lynch is a graphic designer, writer, Appalachian fiddler, choruster, and proto-hermit who lives with his Boston Terrier Oscar in a Civil-War-era cabin in West Yancey County, North Carolina.