One Hundred Dollars

Keith Lesmeister

     
   

When I arrived that afternoon, there was a suited man waiting for me near the seating area of the deli. As I approached him, he asked if I would follow him upstairs to his office.

“Sure,” I said. My cheeks grew flush with anxiety. “What’s going on?”

“Just need to go over a few things,” he said.

His fancy shoes slapped the cold tile as he escorted me through the grocery store. I was sixteen at the time, following close behind, and eyeing my nametag. I wanted to make sure it wasn’t crooked. This was my first official job: working at the Hy-Vee grocery store that also housed a deli, which was where I worked. Our dress code was black pants, white shirt, black apron and visor. But don’t let that fool you. We were not a fancy looking bunch.

Here was my schedule: I worked two or three weeknights with the occasional weekend shift, and usually with my buddy Tony, a friend of mine since elementary school. If not Tony, I’d get paired with Tiff, or, our boss, Rob, a guy in his thirties who was always asking if I was getting laid regularly by any of the girls who worked in our department. Self-preservation and a lack of confidence guided my reaction which was usually a laugh, then, “Not yet.” At which point he’d say, “If I were you, I’d go after Tiff.” This was followed by a menacing wink that suggested he had some insider information that might help my cause.

Nothing ever happened between me and Tiff.

Not that I really tried. Tiff was a year or two older, full-figured and sassy, and while I didn’t disagree with Rob’s observations of her, I couldn’t abide any of his suggestions because everything about him—even his preference for Tiff—was a complete turn off. Rob used to strut around the deli, and when he wasn’t doing that, he was strutting around the aisles of the store looking for female shift managers to flirt with. He always had this dumb, half-grin on his face, and everything that came out of his mouth was some sort of order/suggestion, or judgement, followed by a wink or a laugh.

***

The office upstairs—to which I was led—was dimly lit with two desks pushed against the wall and three tinted windows that allowed a view of all the cashiers. Two suited men sat in chairs waiting for us. They asked me to take a seat.

            “Do you know why you’re here?” one of them said. He had a fat neck that was bulging over his collared shirt. His cheeks were red and puffy.

            “No,” I said. I tried sounding upbeat, tried to mask my anxiousness.

            “We found discrepancies in your receipts last week.”

            “Hmm,” I said. “That’s interesting.” A week prior, a night on which I was nowhere near the store, one hundred dollars went missing from the till. I figured they knew about it, but I wasn’t about to volunteer the information.

            “It was only off by a few dollars,” another guy said. “Do you know what happened to the money?”

            “No,” I said. “I don’t know anything.” I looked at the clock on the wall which said a few minutes past four in the afternoon. I was late for my shift.

            “The person working with you said you were giving out ‘deals’ to random customers.”

            My heart sank. This was true. I’d forgotten about it until that very moment. I reached up and touched my nametag, making sure it was still in place.

            “Two for five dollar specials,” I said. “It was kind of a weird, random thing. I don’t know why—I just decided to offer a few specials.” And that was the truth. I’d found myself engaged in conversation with a nice elderly couple—kind strangers who looked you in the eye and asked questions about your life in a way that made you feel like being a teenager wasn’t so bad. These people—they weren’t like other customers. They had a nonchalance and unhurried manner that was attractive and made a person feel like they wanted to be their best possible selves. And to reward their kind, genuine interest in me, I wanted to give them something on special, so in that moment I made up a nightly special: two pints for five bucks.

The couple had already conferred their choices, coleslaw and broccoli salad, and as I rang them up, I told them of the (made-up-on-the-spot) two for five dollar deal.

“Oh,” the wife said. She looked at her husband. “Are you sure?” They looked confused, almost paranoid, and their vocal tones had changed from upbeat to hesitant.

“We have specials all the time,” I said.

My co-worker, Tiff, was standing nearby, freshening the jello-fluff so it looked more appealing. When those foods sat in the cooler for too long, a dull crust formed, and according to Rob, that was “unacceptable.”

I printed the price sticker and sealed it to the underside of their plastic pint containers, set them in a bag, and handed them their goods.

Of course I know now that any such offer, especially from a sixteen year old, could make a customer feel uncomfortable, itchy with uncertainty, or worse, they might feel as if they’re doing something wrong. It could ruin their entire shopping experience. I myself hold a general distrust of teens—perhaps my own shortcoming—but partly due to my own teenage inability to make well thought-out decisions.

            “And what did you do with that money?” one of the suits asked. I sat up in my chair.

            “I rang it up,” I said. “Put it in the till.”

            “Why the special? We weren’t running a special that night,” one of them said.

            The room started to fog over, and I could feel my temples swell, my pulse race.

            “I didn’t take any money,” I said. “The specials were stupid, I was just trying to be nice, I guess.”

            “What about the hundred dollars?”

            “Hundred dollars?” I said. “I wasn’t even working that night.”

            “But you know about it?” They looked at each other, as if to confirm their own suspicions of me. “Have you ever stolen from us before?”

            “No,” I said.

            “Nothing?” The guy leaned toward me.

            “Well, I guess I eat a few chicken wings every once in a while, if that counts.” At the moment I thought this minor confession would save me, allow me out of this shrinking room without consequence.

            “So you do steal from us.” They were taking turns talking. The talking heads. I tugged slightly on my nametag. It had a wide needle point that left little holes in your dress shirt.

            “I eat a few wings every once in a while, the ones that aren’t fit for selling.”

            “What does that mean, ‘fit for selling’?”

            “Like if the skin sticks to the fryer, you know, people want the skin on their fried chicken.”

            “So you eat it instead?”

            “Right,” I said.

            “But you don’t pay for it?”

            “It’s either that or throwing it away,” I said. The two other guys looked at the guy in middle, the one who seemed to be in charge. The truth is: I did steal more than just a few chicken wings. In fact, in the six months I worked at the Hy-Vee Deli, I don’t think I paid for any food. I ate tenderloins, potato salad, cole slaw, cookies, meatloaf, and more. I drank chocolate milk, punch—whatever I could find—and I left work five pounds heavier than when I started. The other part was this: Tony and I were great friends. We grew up together, played sports together, and hung out on weekends. And when we worked together, we were complete goof offs. One night, I got on the intercom in a spooky Halloween voice, and announced our nightly specials. Another time, we flung condiment packets along the ground as hard as we could. They skidded and skipped along the tile floor toward the ice cooler, so that once it hit, they would erupt, sending sauce all over the cooler. Of course we had to clean it up. We were the night shift and that meant a thorough cleaning of the cold/hot bins, fryers, floors, and yes, wiping down counters and other spaces that appeared dirty. And we did that—we worked hard. But we had a lot of fun too. Still, the thought never crossed our minds—Tony or myself—to steal one hundred dollars. After it happened, I asked if he took the money. He was offended at my asking, and I understood why. He didn’t do it. He thought it was Rob. I told him I thought it was Tiff. He suggested they might’ve been in on it together.

            “We had a hundred dollars missing last week,” one of the suits said. “Now the inconsistencies in your receipts, and now you’re admitting to us that you’ve stolen food.”

“I wasn’t even working that day,” I said. “I didn’t take the money.”

“So you know who took it?”

“All I know is what Tiff told me,” I said. “That a hundred was taken. Or missing.”

“Did she say anything else?”

I shook my head. The guy in the middle, the one in charge, the one who walked me across the store, sat up in his chair, unfolded his legs and set both feet firm on the ground.

“I’m sorry,” he said, “but given what we now know—that you’ve knowingly eaten food without paying, the missing money, and making up food specials—we have no choice but to terminate your employment.”

***

Hollywood’s depiction of being fired usually brings forth some primal aspect of those in question. The person on the hot-seat might rise to some unworldly level of indignant posturing, might yell back something like: “You can’t fire me, I quit!” Or, at other times, the person being fired might level some kind of hidden threat, some secret knowledge they have on the boss, so when that information is revealed, the person issuing the pink slip has no choice but to honor the threat and keep that person as an employee—the lesser of two evils.

Often, in these Hollywood scenarios, power is wielded, shifted, and passed back and forth, like some kind of coveted hot potato. The frequency and speed at which it’s being traded—a menacing wink, a knowing nod, a one-line zinger—most certainly never happens in real life. The actual act of being fired at the age of sixteen is as undramatic an event as a fifteen mile per hour fender bender. If anything, it’s just a major pain in the ass. At sixteen, the questions I’d formulated immediately after the fact were about addressing imaginary scenarios that held no prominent real life consequences: upset parents, future employment, general reputation, etc. The one thing that did haunt me was that my mother shopped at Hy-Vee regularly, but the question of telling my parents was never really a question. I would never reveal such an embarrassment.

As I walked out of the store, head down, cheeks red, I felt, unmistakably, the oppressive rule of shame. That was all. There was no indignant wrath, no overturning of tables, no yelling, no posturing, no counter-threats, no outing of other employees. It was a silent walk out to my dad’s car, a Spectrum hatchback with a manual transmission. I know now that underlying this notion of shame was some false pretext that my parents would’ve actually been upset at my being fired; that whatever I did, up against the world of adults who have life figured out is that even though I wasn’t at fault, I was still somehow at fault. And when you’re somehow at fault, when your mind can’t process surprise news in an orderly way—like being fired for a wrongful accusation—then the reaction is, without a doubt, shame. If it weren’t shame, then, for me, it would’ve been something else entirely, shame’s opposite, perhaps, which is apathy (If I didn’t care, I wouldn’t feel shamed). Which made this situation that much worse for my sixteen year old self: I genuinely cared about that job. I liked it. I liked my co-workers (except for that creep, Rob), and I liked working with the customers. But most of all, that first job provided me with some sense of pride that was attached to the very notion of having a job. I had a job. I felt somehow that this position made me a better person than my sloth-filled, spoiled friends who had rich parents—parents who insisted they not work and just have fun. My parents insisted that I purchase my own movie tickets, CDs, clothing, school lunches, etc, and at just over five dollars an hour, minimum wage at the time, I wasn’t even making a hundred dollars a week. One hundred dollars was, and is, a lot of money. Still, I was earning something, making enough to support all of my extra activities, and purchase those necessary items. My idea of work then (perhaps imbedded by my family upbringing, or, perhaps conceived in my retrospective mind) was an idea and act for which I felt, as mentioned, a profound sense of pride. I helped support myself. Work was fun! Then, without any warning, and for no fault of my own, that job was no longer.

The other thing is this: I knew a lot of people for whom their first job at sixteen was still their job at twenty-six or thirty-six. I knew a lot of people who had dropped out of high school to work. My uncle, an example. He dropped out at the age of sixteen because the monetary reward of cutting meat far exceeded any intrinsic reward associated with learning. College wasn’t a given scenario in my family, and at the time, I didn’t have a single blood relative who’d actually attended college, including my own parents. Our family values were in work.

***

            I couldn’t go home after that. My parents may have understood, but I didn’t want to find out one way or the other. I wanted to keep hidden that heat bubble of shame that had formed and settled around my neck, cheeks, and eyes.

I stayed out that afternoon and into evening, went to a CD Warehouse located across town, and probably bought something. I’ve never been able to walk into a secondhand store and leave without a secondhand treasure. That’s why at this point in my life I try to avoid such places. After the CD Warehouse, I drove around Cedar Rapids. My shame turned to anger as I cranked the volume, listened to Bush and the Stone Temple Pilots on repeat. I kept driving in circles, visiting vaguely familiar neighborhoods, until finally I parked in a strip mall lot that housed an Old Navy, Barnes & Noble, OfficeMax, and a few other stores. Perkins and Olive Garden were across the concrete lot. It was a cool, spring night in mid-March, and if you’ve ever been to the Midwest you’ll know the drab inconsistencies of March: a bright, sunny, hopeful thaw during the day—melting mounds of dirty snow—and later, the cool, damp nights that refreeze everything. There are no natural sounds in a March evening. No crickets, no cicadas, no frogs. So standing in the open parking lot, on a Wednesday evening, most people either at home or at church for lent, I stood there in the dark silence of a spring night, staring at a huge sign in the OfficeMax window that said, “Now Hiring.”

Standing outside the strip mall that night, my shame and anger turned (almost) joyful with the prospect of new work so soon. I walked toward OfficeMax shedding my shame and anger knowing that I could be newly employed by the end of the week. If there is one bonus of being a sixteen year old boy (at least in my experience) it’s that you unknowingly let go of certain emotions as they’re replaced by others—shame and embarrassment, anger and happiness included. Now, I was feeling empowered; feeling as though nothing or no one could hold me down; that this little act of walking across the parking lot was in some way pushing back against those three suits in that office who thought they knew what was best, but were wrong. Wrong! I was on my way. Never to be held down.

As I approached OfficeMax, I dug my hands into my pockets, and for whatever reason, maybe the glow of the store lights catching just right, I noticed I was still wearing my Hy-Vee nametag along with my wrinkly white shirt and black pants, and I wondered if people were taking notice in the music store, wondering why I hadn’t taken it off. I obviously hadn’t noticed.

Before entering OfficeMax to fill out an application on which I would blatantly lie (have you ever been released or fired from a job?), I took off my Hy-Vee nametag and thought about throwing it in a trash receptacle outside the store. I ran my finger along the rectangle tag, the shiny gray surface and black lettering. But instead of tossing it, I tucked it safely away, deep into my pocket. So soon, and already, a remnant of my past.

     
   
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Keith Lesmeister lives in rural northeast Iowa. His essays have appeared in Tin House Online, River Teeth, Water~Stone Review, and elsewhere. He has work forthcoming in Gettysburg Review, Slice Magazine, and december