Years ago, my first real boss taught me two things. One. Listen to the boss. Two. Listen to your head and heart. In case of conflict between one and two, remember that God is watching; do what is right.
Today, my head is aching with the sandpaper of forced retail smiles and the fumes of polyurethane shoes. Against my heart, the jangle of three keys on a lanyard. Check shoes right and left, same size; scan barcode; enter payment; bag purchase; smile, “Thank you for shopping at Metropolis”; repeat.
My spine aches with ten-hour days and five-hour sleeps. While waiting for a Mastercard to ring through, I call my chiropractor’s office.
“The number you have reached is no longer in service.”
I leave a message on his cellphone. “Hello, this is Susan. I can’t get through to you. I am worried. I need you.”
Check shoes right left size barcode payment bag repeat.
As I hang up the phone, it rings. I juggle paperwork and small change, tuck the phone against my shoulder.
It’s my boss, calling to tell me he’s denying my request for a new ladder.
I remind him that already two of my salesgirls have been hurt from falling off the store’s broken and wobbly ladder.
He tells me that obviously I need to train my staff on proper use of a ladder. And furthermore, if my parttimer refuses to use the vacuum cleaner because it spits smoke and smells like burning flesh, instead of requesting a new vacuum cleaner I should get a new parttimer.
A little boy tugs on my pants leg. “Lady, how old are you?”
I tell him that today, I am really old.
He asks why I have green hair.
I tell him you are what you eat, and I eat a lot of broccoli.
Right left size barcode payment bag repeat.
I balance on a floor slippery with a layer of plastic shopping bags, dropped pennies, and till receipts as I headcount the lineup of customers and hand a lady her purchases.
She clicks her tongue at my wrist braces and Band-Aid fingers and asks if I am working alone again.
Before I can answer, the phone rings.
It’s my boss, wanting to know why I wasn’t working yesterday.
I tell him it was my day off.
He says that is irrelevant; there is work to be done.
He says that contrary to my request, the store’s carpet does not in fact need to be replaced.
After too many months of arguing, I am not concerned with watching my fucking language, so I remind him that my carpets are saturated with shit from a burst sewage pipe.
My customer looks horrified and scurries out the door.
Right left size barcode payment bag smile repeat.
Little boy tugs on my pants leg and asks how many earrings I have, and how I got them through my ears.
I tell him about a million, maybe more, and most of them were done with a big needle.
He looks impressed.
I tell him two of them were done with a gun.
He looks horrified.
A customer counts out pennies on my glass countertop. I pretend to watch, but really I am counting the reflections of burnt-out lightbulbs in the ceiling above me and weighing the consequences of my bosses’ wrath versus the logistics of climbing a broken ladder balanced on a shitstained floor with both hands bandaged and six months of five hour’s sleep to change four damn lightbulbs.
The phone rings. It’s my boss again. I can’t hear what he is saying, but it sounds like I am wrong again. I say, “We appear to have a bad connection. I can’t understand you,” and hang up.
Little boy tugs on my pants leg and asks if I am really really old, or if I’m just pretending to be.
He stands on his father’s toes and says, “Daddy, hurry up. The store’s closing and we’re gonna get locked in. This isn’t a good place to spend the night.”
I do not tell him I know from experience he is right. Instead, I lean over the counter and stagewhisper, “There is always a way out. I have a magic key to the magic door.”
He glares at me skeptically. There is no such thing as magic.
I pull my lanyard off over my head and hand it to him, keys jangling. “Have you ever seen a key like this one?”
He turns in a circle, counting keys, counting doors. One for the front door, one for the back. And one square and pockmarked, heavy and exotic, no door in sight.
Right left size barcode payment bag smile.
Wide-eyed, he returns my keys in solemn outstretched hands and whispers, “There really is a magic door.”
The phone rings. “Thank you for calling Metropolis.”
“This is a message from Telus Mobility. The following voicemail message is undeliverable: ‘Hello, this is Susan. I can’t get through to you. I am worried. I need you.’”
I lock the door behind the last customer and wave through the glass. The phone is ringing.
One. Listen to the boss. Two. Listen to your head and heart.
My head is full of sandpaper smiles and the fumes of cheap shoes. Against my heart, three keys jangle: one for the front door, one for the back, one for the bank deposit box. God is watching; do what is right. There is always a way out.
An earlier version of “Three Keys” appeared in the anthology Raising Lilly Ledbetter: Women Poets Occupy the Workspace. Lost Horse Press, 2015.