by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
In retail, if you don’t wanna be a Lucy, you gotta find things to make the bleak a little better. Lucy was that girl that jumped off the fourth floor of the Prominent last summer during her lunch break. She worked in the food court. It’s not that I don’t have respect for the dead. I’m not like that. It’s other guys in the mall that use her name a lot. She’s become a verb—“I’m gonna pull a Lucy if today doesn’t move any faster”—and a noun—“New guy never smiles. Looks like a Lucy.”
What I’m saying is, if you wanna be happy here you have to dig happiness up, ’cause it’s not gonna just walk up to you and ask you how you’re doing. That is, unless, somebody who doesn’t speak the language walks up to you. That’s different.
I love it when older Spanish ladies come into my store, looking for something for their daughters, or sons, or nieces, or nephews, and none of the Spanish speakers are in, so they have to deal with me. I like it when they’re older, because most of us younger types aren’t so good at not being assholes to one another. I think having had money, and lost it, and had it again, and lost it some more, older people kind of figure kindness is the only currency that holds weight. Maybe they’re just too tired to be mean.
The older Spanish ladies always begin, “Speak Spanish?” They’ll say that much in English. But even those two words they sing in a way someone who speaks English just can’t. Here, I usually close one eye, bring up my hand and measure out an inch of air between my thumb and pointer finger as I reply, “Muy poquito.” I say this with a smile and a half laugh, and it always amuses them that I’m willing to try. Make sure you smile. She’ll laugh and say, “Un poco inglés,” and we’ll both laugh as if to say, “I guess we’ll meet somewhere in the middle.” She’ll carry most of the burden. Her English is way better than my Spanish, despite the fact that I got an eighty-six on the Spanish Regents in high school.
“Un camisa para . . . eh,” she’ll look around. And I’ll jump in like, “Un niño o niña?” And the old Spanish lady’s eyes will light up again and she’ll smile honestly and widely and say, “Niña, niña.” Here she’ll tap you on your shoulder gently as a way of telling you you’re doing really well. She’ll be more excited than she has to be, and so will you. Pay attention to this moment. Suck it in like the last sip in the juice box. Get all of it.
Okay. So, now as we walk over to the woman’s side of your store we’ll be moving together in stride as if we’ve been friends for years. She might be saying a lot of words in Spanish now, and I’ll understand almost none of them. But I will know she’s being extremely friendly, and I’ll enjoy the sound of her happiness. Don’t forget to enjoy the sound of her happiness. If I’m lucky, I’ll catch one of the words I’ve hung on to from those basic level Spanish classes.
I’m proud I got an eighty-six on the Spanish Regents in tenth grade. I didn’t even have to take a second language in college because of it. I guess I shouldn’t feel too proud really, because there’s just no way I deserved that grade, and Ms. Ramierz was, at best, unorthodox and, at worst, absolutely bonkers-crazy. She liked me because I pretended I believed all her insane stories.
She once told the entire class that her dog, one of those little dogs that’s more fur than anything else, hung itself by slipping through the beams of her deck after securing the other end of the leash beneath one of the patio chairs. She said it was proof that even animals can think and feel. I think she wanted all of us to become vegetarians. After she told that story, some kids asked her to elaborate—surely she didn’t mean that her dog had literally hung itself because it was unhappy with the life she had provided for it. “Of course not!” Ms. Ramierz had said. It wasn’t actually her dog. Her dog had loved her dearly. The dead-by-asphyxiation dog was actually her neighbor’s dog. At some point there had been a mix-up—well not exactly a mix-up, but a switcheroo, I guess. Ms. Ramierz’s neighbor, seeing how much Ms. Ramierz’s dog had loved her, decided to get a dog of the same exact breed and size. When the neighbor’s new dog didn’t glow with the same delightful charm, this neighbor of Ms. Ramierz’s concocted and executed a scheme to switch the dogs, leaving Ms. Ramierz with an identical, though evidently psychologically troubled, mutt. Ms. Ramierz, being the pacifist she is, decided to allow the switch to happen without saying a word.
So, Ms. Ramierz was not all there, but I made sure I got on her good side. I laughed at the supposed-to-be-funny parts of her stories. I treated her myths as history. I also think she needed us to do pretty well on the Regents to get tenure. She was pretty much talking to herself during the oral part of the exam, leaving me to nod saying “Si” while repeatedly reaffirming, regardless of what she was saying, “Mi comida favorito es pollo y arroz,” and, “Mi color favorito es Rojo.”
And so, when we’re walking towards the woman’s side of the store, and I’m listening to the chorus of Spanish I don’t understand, I’ll stop walking as this lady—who is, at this point, practically my best friend—says, “Rojo.”
“Un camisa rojo, si,” I’ll say with a triumphant, damn-near-gallant smile. And the woman will practically jump in the air with happiness. She might grab my shoulder again. This time it’ll be more than a tap. A hug of the hand. I’ll just barely feel her nails through my T-shirt. We’re like old friends now. The kind that maybe hooked up once and silently agreed to never speak about it again. As I look into her knowing brown eyes, before changing direction and heading to the pile of female shirts, which are already separated by color, I can imagine, of course, what could have been.
Finally, we’ll get to the shirts, and there’ll be so many choices. I’ll run my hand across the red shirts like there’s a harp there and do a little dance. Fist in the air, a punch to heaven. She’ll clap and smile and then touch me once more on the shoulder and say, “Gracias, gracias,” and she’ll laugh. You should laugh too. Both laughs will taper off because we’ll understand that this is the end of the road for us. We’ll smile at each other and I’ll say, “Look for me if you need anything else,” and she’ll reply in her singing English, “Okay, okay,” and I’ll walk off towards a mountainous wall of quarter-folded Levi’s jeans that have to be counted before 12:30. Yesterday there were 1,598 pairs. Today there should be 1,595. We count them every day now, since the new district manager is trying to really push on the loss-prevention side of things. Work is hard to find these days, so count you will.
I count the columns of jeans with my clipboard and pen to keep track of the figures. I count up each section then add the section totals together at the end. If what I get isn’t exactly what the computer inventory reads, I’ll count them again. Touching each pair of jeans, feeling the starchy blue denim pull the moisture from my fingertips. Don’t let Lucy settle in. Remember that lady’s voice. Even though serious attention is advised when doing inventory, peek over at our old lady friend as she sifts through the piles trying to find the perfect shirt. Customers come first anyways. When she finally does grab a shirt she likes, you can see she’s pleased, the way she glides to the register. She is going to make someone happy. And, so, she is happy. And that was, in part, because of me. You did that. That’s what I was talking about. You have to grab for happiness in places like this because there isn’t enough to go around for everybody. Lucy didn’t get hers. There might not be enough for you.
Working retail is never gonna be the armed services or the police or anything. It’s a job at least. And, I mean, the police are great and all, but to this day I’ve never once been in a situation where I’ve been like, “Oh my God! I’m so glad the police are here now.” Not once. I do know what it’s like to be part of a crowd scrambled by pepper spray though. At first just wondering why so many people are coughing, then wondering why you’re coughing, why your eyes are so teary, why you can’t breathe. I’m just saying, cops are great and all, but also they’re usually asking for a license or beating some kid for being simultaneously Black and alive. I mean, it could be worse. It could be better. Some places, people eat alcohol-infused chocolate-covered strawberries. Other places, everything tastes like cholera. The idea is that even in nothing-jobs like this you need to think of ways you might really be helping somebody, or you could end up a Lucy.
And I gotta say, I hate to use her name like that, but like everybody in the mall does it. I don’t mean to degrade her at all. After all, Lucy knows what gravity really is. Lucy went to knock on the door most of us pretend doesn’t even exist. I’d never say anything bad about Lucy. The day it happened the mall was frenzy. A lot of stores were doing a mid-season “BOGO” sale. You’d have thought the circus was back—which would have been weird cause it had just left two weeks before; they’d set up in the G-H lots. It smelled like animal life and candy for two weeks.
I had punched out and was headed to the bus stop. I saw a bunch of people huddled around the railing. By the time I peeked down they’d already tossed a yellow tarp over her. You could still see some red around the edges. And that wasn’t the sick part either. The sick part was looking up and down—my store is on the third floor—at the people and their heads hanging over the railing peeking over. So many of them were pointing or snapping pictures with their phones. I remember thinking I just hope she died on impact. And hopefully, wherever she was, she remembered what those seconds before ground was like. People said she screamed the whole way down, but I don’t think she was afraid. I didn’t know her name then.
About fifty feet down from me, I saw two kids near Foot Locker joking with each other and, like, pretending to lean over and fall. They were only one floor above the yellow tarp. You’d think the mall would maybe stop for a few hours. Let people gather themselves. Nope. “Buy One, Get One” stops for no one. I hurried to catch my bus after that.
Go back to counting jeans. Think about stuff and count. Think about how a small part of you wishes you’d seen it. Her standing on the railing of the fourth floor. Lucy, flying. Count.
To keep from being a Lucy, you have to attach to certain things. As I tally up the Levi’s and think about how to not be Lucy, that beautiful lady who doesn’t speak the same language as me will appear behind me, tap me on the shoulder and pull a red shirt with some flowers outlined with gemstones on it out of her bag, and she’ll show it to me. It’s so red it looks like it might be hot to touch. She, having gone way out of her way to show you this—the exit is all the way over there—will make you happy. She’ll say, “Gracias, gracias,” a few more times and tap your shoulder in parting, and you’ll say, “De nada, de nada,” which is a lie, because she is everything.
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