SOMEBODY’S COMIN’ TO TOWN
by Michael S. Walker
I was hired for Christmas help by a retail store in Columbus, Ohio, and let go (unceremoniously) after Christmas was over. I am actually a musician (guitarist/vocalist/songwriter) and have been struggling, I mean really struggling, to make money doing that for close to eleven years. No one in Columbus, Ohio really wants to hear my original material, so the gigs are pretty infrequent. I guess if I were willing to put together a band or something, play The Beatles or 80s covers at wedding receptions, I might have a little more luck. I pride myself though on not being “a human juke box” as I like to call it.
But since the bills always always always have to be paid somehow, I float from dead end job to dead end job. At the age of thirty-seven it’s a little bit tiring now. Wish I could find something along the lines of a career. But I really have no other skills but music. Thankfully I have no other mouths to feed but my own.
Finding a retail gig before Christmas is usually a pretty safe bet. So that was where I went in the fall of 2014.
Of course, the management there never once said the dirty word “Christmas” in all my tenure. It was always “the holidays” or “seasonal” in their PC vernacular. Actually it was pretty incredible, the lengths that store went to not to offend anyone at all in their pursuit of fourth-quarter profits. It went waaay beyond not uttering the dirty word “Christmas.” They had these giant cardboard cut-outs of Santa Claus that went up in the store the day after Halloween. The problem was, the store did not want any minorities to think that they were racist and bought into the traditional view of St. Nick as an old white dude. That would have been horrible. So every one of those cut-outs had been designed so that the face of the jolly old elf was obscured in some way. It was hilarious. In one of the cut-outs, Santa was in his sled, driving his team of reindeer. But the velocity wind had blown his white beard back in his face, making it a hirsute mask. Certainly a driving hazard there. In another cut-out, you could see Claus’s corpulent body. But his head looked like it was being sucked up into some mini black hole or something. Good ole Santa (certainly not white) on his way to deliver toys to all the children in the far-away Dinglydoo Galaxy. Every time I worked a shift in that place, I would look up in silent wonder at those lame decorations, and just shake my head.
My hours in the store were 11 pm until 7:30 in the morning—an overnight stocking job. I had never worked graveyard before, so for the first two weeks or so I was literally a zombie. Shambling through that big dark place, trying my best to stay the fuck awake while opening cartons of lightbulbs and roll-on deodorants. Cramming things into already overstocked shelves or hanging them on metal peg hooks. It was tedious within the first hour. And some of the people who worked that shift had been there for years.
There were these two young guys I worked with. They had also been hired for “seasonal” help. They were both hardcore Muslims—belonged to the same church or sect. One guy was named Don, or something. He was about twenty-five or so, with a big bushy black beard that he was always stroking and pulling at. There always seemed to be something wrong with his left leg: some break or wound that refused to heal properly. About two or three times a week he would show up for his shift with a cloth brace wrapped around it, and he would hobble from aisle to aisle as if he were the Frankenstein monster newly revived. The rest of the week he seemed perfectly fine. I wondered, idly, if the weather or the barometric pressure set it off. He was also (the whole week long) terribly lazy. I would often look up from my work just in time to see him skip an aisle that he had deemed too taxing for his meagre shelfing abilities.
One time, when I was in a perfectly shitty mood, I called him on this habit.
“Hey, Don,” I said, looking up from an oblong box of closet-sized mirrors I was trying, unsuccessfully, to open. “Anything wrong with E-17?” (That was the aisle that Don was nonchalantly passing over, in search of greener pastures.)
“Huh?” he said, glaring at me.
He knew exactly what I was talking about, of course.
“I said is there anything wrong with E-17? You passed right by it and went to E-16.”
“Thought someone was in that aisle,” he muttered, glaring at me just a bit harder.
But he did backtrack and start working E-17.
I thought that would be the end of it. I went back to my task, slashing at my unwieldy box of mirrors, slashing at cardboard flaps with what seemed to be the dullest box cutter in the entire world.
Suddenly, I was aware that someone was in the aisle, standing close to me. I looked up from my futile task. It was Don, of course. His brown eyes on full glare, maybe just a shade away from going supernova. His usually pale face was flushed.
“Can I talk to you for a second?” he said, sounding as if he were going to start crying.
“What’s up?” I asked, feigning ignorance. Certainly he was pissed that I had called him out on his lazy work habits.
“Are you a team lead?” he asked, stroking his black beard furiously.
“Uh no…I’m not,” I said, staring at him. It was amusing really. He looked like he was going to have a stroke.
“Are you…are you in training to BE a team lead?” he blurted out.
“Nope,” I said. “Just a member of the overnight team. Same as you.”
“Well then…YOU DON’T TELL ME HOW TO DO MY JOB!” he said, spitting on me. “I come in here. I do what I am told to do. DON’T. TELL. ME. WHAT. TO. DO.”
And with that, he left the aisle. Before I could rebut. Truth be told, I didn’t really care to. It was not worth the hassle. We both got paid the same stinking wage. No advantage in me calling him out on his lazy habits. Or pointing them out to management.
(Besides skipping aisles he did not fancy, he would often disappear for ten, fifteen minutes—presumably on a restroom break. So often, he had to have had some kind of bladder or kidney problem…)
He left my aisle.
And wandered over to E-16!
I opened my mouth to say something, and then thought better of it.
Above me, above the mirrors I was still futilely struggling with, was one of those damn Santa cut-outs. Claus, his furred arms wrapped around a high-rise stack of ornately-wrapped Christmas presents. Or HOLIDAY presents. The stack so high that the boxes fortuitously obscured his face…
The other Muslim guy who worked in the store was named Malick, or something. He was a handsome light-skinned black guy, about the same age as Don, maybe a few years older. He always came to work dressed in traditional Islamic garb. Like he had just come from a mosque in Kabul or something. A full-length djellaba, fez, felt slippers. And he would unload trucks and stock shelves dressed like that. I was surprised that management never said anything at all to him about how work inappropriate his attire was. Actually, I was not surprised. His religion. His right.
Santa Claus was never a white man, you know…
We were allowed, while we worked, to listen to music—on our phones or MP3 players. One of the tiny perks of the job. Most of the crew listened to their tunes discretely, through earbuds. Well, one earbud at least. Management had decreed it a safety hazard for employees to groove with both headphones jammed in. What if an asteroid were to collide with earth while we were unpacking toothbrushes? How would we ever be aware?
Malick eschewed discrete entirely. He moved from aisle to aisle, in his medieval costume, blasting out music through some kind of gray boom box that he carried around in one of the store’s shopping carts. Did I say music? It wasn’t that actually. It was always this male voice, chanting in plaintive Arabic. Chanting what I assumed were parts of the Koran. It would blend, unsuccessfully, with whatever I happened to be listening to at the time on my phone: Jimi Hendrix, New Order, Lana Del Rey. Some baroque countermelody. Ghosts from some primitive, purer empire that could not be blotted out or denied, no matter how loud I made the volume on my cell. A few times I thought about asking him if he could turn the recitation down a bit. Or better yet, buy his own set of Skullcandy headphones. But I never did.
Sometimes, other times, I had this strong desire to ask him what the voice on that boom box was saying. What sacred mysteries were being sung/revealed here at 3:00 AM, right in the middle of a narrow, dirty aisle overstuffed with terrycloth towels? I too had been looking for such a revelation all my adult life. Some meaning beyond what seemed to be the refrain of an old Godfather’s song: Birth/School/Work/Death The sacred Western paradigm: Work + Consume= Happiness. Was there really anything else? I was beginning to believe it wasn’t so. For a brief period, I had been enamored with Nicheren Buddhism. Buddhism, alone, out of all the religions I had read about, because enlightenment came solely from self-awareness. Not some Damascus-like encounter with some probably mythical unseen deity. I had a little statue I had purchased of the Buddha, sitting meditatively in a micro-sand garden. And two rocks at his feet. One stamped with the word: PASSION. The other stamped with the word: SERENITY. For a few brief months, at the start of the year, I had tried meditating in front of that statue for about a half an hour every day, chanting the words: “Nam-myho- renge-kyo” as fast as I could. I wasn’t even sure what those words meant any more. I had learned them a long time ago from a fellow guitarist who practiced Buddhism with the same ardor I reserved for writing new songs.
I would stare down at that fat, smiling little Buddha as I chanted, at those two rocks, hoping that the act of chanting might bring those two desirable nouns down from the clouds and in to my frantic soul. Sometimes when I chanted I would feel as if something WAS taking place. That some low-level energy, like the buzz I got from drinking several Monsters say, was breathing through my body. But that was rare. Mostly I just felt like a fool, sitting on my carpet lotus-style, my palms fused together. Saying words that I no longer knew the meaning of.
Might as well have been shouting out “Shazam!”
I gave it all up after a short time. Left the Buddha on a shelf in my little living room. To smile stupidly and gather dust.
Could Malick enlighten me? Did the voice on his seemingly never-ending recording have the message I was seeking?
I never did ask him.
They did not pay me to find out such things.
They paid me to unpack smoke detectors…
About twice a week I would stumble off of the sales floor, more than ready to clock out, to find Don and Malick in the bright service corridor that connected the sales floor to the team lockers and executive offices. They would be kneeling on a square of ornate, indigo-colored carpet, their faces pressed hard against the thread, their elbows jutting out, their bodies tense. Doing their morning prayers, apparently. The rug (hopefully) facing east toward the Ka’ba. Every time I opened the double doors to discover them there, my heart would jolt in my chest. As if I had just come across my mother and father fucking or something. Such an incongruous scene. Two guys prostrate in a dirty little service tunnel. Fervently chanting and debasing themselves, as if they were in an immaculate mosque, while around them busy retail drones psyched themselves up to sell a holiday that’s only ritual, anymore, seemed to be the very act of selling. It went beyond incongruous. It was almost…obscene. I would never say anything when I saw them there. Conducting their dawn prayers. But the image would stay in my head. Even as I was walking out of the store. Even as I was walking home. And it would irritate me. Why was it allowed? Wasn’t the store strictly a place of business? Would the executives turn a blind eye if I were to bring in my little sand garden Buddha, plop him down in the middle of the service tunnel, and start raining down “Nam-myho-renge-kyo” on his stone head? Or would they tell me, in no uncertain terms, to stow it in a locker and get the FUCK back to work? (Probably the latter.) What gave Don and Malick the right, the luxury, to jam up that tunnel with their morning observances? Was the store getting some kind of tax benefit for allowing it?
But then there was a small splinter in my soul that actually admired Don and Malick. A small splinter that envied their fervor, their unwavering belief in the goodness of Allah or whatever. I wanted that bedrock belief in something grander than myself, or the useless toys that happened to be cluttering my tiny apartment. A belief not moved by other people’s ridicule or hatred. I wanted it more than I allowed myself to admit.
And I would walk home in the freezing cold, the image of Don and Malick bowing in tandem on that square of carpet burned into the hard drive of my brain.
One day, about three weeks before “That Holiday”, I dropped and broke an ornate candleholder in the Housewares section of the store. There were glass shards literally everywhere, little splinters of amber and gold.
“Fuck!” I yelled out loud, for the benefit of my fellow team members. I was already in an extremely horrible mood. At the start of the shift, we had had to unload two semi-trailers in Receiving: two trucks stuffed to the top with all the flotsam and jetsam of a holiday the store tried their best to not ever actually mention. Two trucks crammed to the top with the trappings of that holiday. Snow Globes…fake Scottish pines…Lifesaver’s Storybooks…Star Wars’ ornaments…Elves on a Shelf. Even, yes, an arsenal of the dreaded Claus, his smiling WHITE face stamped on a million different little/large icons. It had taken us over two hours to empty those trucks, and by the end my arms were tired and numb, and there were dark floaters dancing lazily across my field of vision.
And still we had to put that shit on shelves.
Before the store opened at 8:00…
“Shit! Fuck!” I yelled once again, making sure everyone in the store heard me. “I hate this god damn job!”
I looked up from the broken candleholder. Malick was across the aisle from me, hanging curtain rods one after the other on a peg hook. As usual, he was dressed to the nines in his religious garb: an immaculate white djebella that reached down to his ankles, its hems decorated with elaborate gold brocade. He was wearing a gray knit skullcap on his head and gray felt slippers. He paused and stared at me. A flash of disapproval seemed to cross his clean brown face, as the Koran sang on and on in his nearby shopping cart.
Above him, one of the store’s Santas dangled on a wire. Claus holding a long long scroll of paper in his mittens—apparently the list of all those who had been naughty or nice throughout the year. Of course, he had this scroll (fortuitously) up in front of his face. So his offensive visage was once again blocked.
“Malick…Watch your feet here…Lots of glass…” I muttered, yanking an earbud from my own ear (I had been trying, unsuccessfully, to listen to the Beatles “Magical Mystery Tour” over the strains of Koran) and stomping out of my aisle to find a broom and dustpan to clean up all the fucking mess.
I left my aisle and went back to Receiving, where they kept all the cleaning supplies in a small cage-like room. I grabbed a wooden broom and a dust pan, muttering curses and gibberish under my breath as I did so, half-tempted to just chuck it, go find a team lead, executive, someone with keys who could just let me out of the building…
And just QUIT…
That would be so sweet…
A true “holiday” miracle…
Oh wait. There truly are no miracles…
So I walked back to the Housewares section, armed with the broom and dustpan. The Koran of Malick echoed through the store, everywhere, like some ghost of a ghost. Ineffectual and sad amongst the pillars of Almighty Capitalism.
When I got back to my aisle, Malick was nowhere to be seen. His boom box was still there in a shopping cart, wedged tight in the plastic child seat. Where the hell was he? Had he taken a page from his friend Don’s book? A fifteen-minute restroom siesta? Probably not. Malick was a good worker. That could be said for him. Even if it looked like he had time travelled from the 14th fucking century.
It was then that I noticed a gray slipper, overturned, propped up against one wheel of Malick’s shopping cart. The heel of it was stained brown…
I looked down the main aisle: connecting Housewares to Market at one end of the store, and Women’s Clothing at the other end. A ragged trail of scarlet blobs peppered the ceramic tiles, stretching from where Malick had been working and off toward the clothing section.
Obviously Malick had not heeded my warning. Stepped on a piece of glass.
And cut the fuck out of his foot…
I stood there and looked at that trail of blood, as the Koran continued to wail from Malick’s gray boom box. He had probably hobbled back to Receiving, where there was a first-aid kit, to try and disinfect it, bandage it up. I wondered if I should go back there. See if he was all right. After all, I had been the guy who had dropped the damn candleholder in the first place.
I didn’t do that, though. I just went back and swept up the little shards of candleholder, as Malick’s boom box continued to boom the incomprehensible east at my dumb ears. It took me a very long time. There seemed to be glass everywhere. And there seemed to be blood everywhere, as well.
Fifteen minutes passed. Twenty minutes passed. And still Malick did not return. His shopping cart just sat there across the aisle from me.
After I cleaned up the mess, I just returned to my own aisle and started unpacking boxes again. More candleholders. Candles in a variety of scents and colors. Bags of brightly-colored potpourri. Jars of decorative pebbles and glass beads. No one else came into the Housewares section as I worked. I felt very much like the last man on earth as I slashed open boxes, to the strains of the never-ending Koran. Like everyone else in the world had been raptured up or something. Sucked up into that black hole where the Dinglydoo children lived. And it was just me. Me and the vague ghosts of Ottoman glory.
And Santa Claus…
Two hours later, I clocked out. I half-expected, as I entered the service tunnel, to see Malick and Don crouching there, by the double fire-exit doors, groveling through their early-morning prayers.
A dayside team lead, whose name I did not know, was in there sitting on a brown metal bench. Flicking an index finger against the screen of an iPhone. Every time he flicked, he would nod and beam a bemused smile.
“How was it?” he said, staring at me as I entered the service tunnel.
He was enormously fat. He looked like a gigantic baby really, sitting there on that bench, flicking flicking, flicking, with one pudgy index finger. His red shirt (part of the standard store uniform) was really dirty. It looked as if he had just spent two hours working underneath a car or something, wearing that shirt.
“Ok,” I said, tentatively. This was the first time in almost three months that we had spoken, even though I saw him almost every morning. He was, apparently, in charge of the Signing crew—the department responsible for decorating the store. PC Santa? He had put up a bunch of them, whisking around the store in a motorized crane vehicle they called the Wave.
“That’s good,” he purred, flicking his finger once again against the screen of his phone.
“Yeah,” I said. There was something about this guy that deeply disturbed me—something that went beyond his corpulence and his dirty uniform shirt. What was it? I wasn’t sure. He looked at me with piggy little brown eyes, eyes that never seemed to blink, as if he knew me intimately or something. As if we shared some dirty little secret.
And this was the first time I had ever talked to him…
I made to go. I really really wanted to clock out and go home.
“So…you work with those ragheads, dontcha?” he blurted out, before I could break from the tractor beam of his disturbing gaze.
“What?” I said. I knew immediately that he was referring to Don and Malick. Ragheads? Had he actually used the word ragheads?
“Umm…not sure what you mean,” I replied. Every atom in my body wanted desperately to move away from this guy and get to the time clock.
“You know. Those two Muslim dudes,” he said. Before I could say anything else, he elaborated. “They are usually in here, prayin’ and shit. Bowin’ down to Mohammed or whatever…Shit makes me sick. They shouldn’t be allowed to do that…” He flicked his finger against his phone for emphasis. “You know, I had a fuckin’ buddy that served in the Marines. Went to Iraq. He lost a god damn leg fighting those towelheads.”
I didn’t know what to say. What weak defense could I mount against this guy’s vehement racism? Could I blithely blurt out something like “Their religion…Their right…DIVERSITY!” I did not think it right that they were allowed to pray here in his tunnel either. It seemed like more of an assault than a practice, really. This was a box retail store after all. Not a fucking mosque. Why could they not keep their religion private? Why did I have to see it in action, every single day? I did not go around chanting “Nam-myho-renge-kyo” at the top of my lungs, as I crammed boxes of mac and cheese on to shelves.
But “Ragheads?” “Towelheads?” As far as I knew, Don and Malick were both Americans. Both born and raised here. They just happened to be Muslim. That was all.
An image came to my mind of Malick’s gray felt slipper, overturned, its heel stained dark brown…
“True they can’t even handle Christmas shit?” the team lead added, as I stood there, numb, deliberating these questions.
Yes. It was true. They could not handle Christmas “shit.” It was against their religion. All of those things that spewed out of the numberless trailers we had to deal with during the “holidays.” Snow globes; fake Scottish pines; Lifesavers Story Books; Star Wars ornaments; Elves on a Shelf. Even (yes) an arsenal of the dreaded Claus. They were forbidden by their religion to touch that junk. AS if it were radioactive or something.
“Yes,” I said, simply. I was really tired. I just wanted to go home. Beat off maybe, then go to sleep. Not think about this shit any more.
“That’s fucked up,” the guy said, shaking his head. “Dontcha think that’s fucked up?”
I did. I did think it was fucked up. Every morning, close to the end of my shift, I would have to go and deal with insane amounts of the Christmas shit. “Holiday” shit. Whatever. At the rear of the store, in a section they called Seasonal, there would be, literally, fifteen to twenty wooden pallets of merchandise—a claustrophobic amount of Made-In China sparkling plastic JUNK. Cardboard Arctic hills of JUNK cheer that needed to be stocked as quickly as possible. (Because heaven forbid some housewife in Grandview could not find an Angry Birds Pez dispenser for use as a future stocking stuffer.) Usually, the strategy was for the overnight team to descend on these pallets at the end of the shift. Get the stuff out right before the store opened. So there would be fifteen, sometimes twenty people back there, running around, trying hard not to collide with each other, as they ripped open box after box after stupid box…
Under the watchful beards of Santa Claus.
Don and Malick never had to deal with it. EVER. It was, of course, against their fundamental Islamic beliefs to sully their hands by touching snow globes or Elves on a Shelf. When it came time for our crew to tackle the seasonal madness, they would casually saunter off toward the front of the store. Where they would casually spend the rest of their shift, stocking vitamins and tampons left over from yesterday’s push.
I would always say the same thing too, as Don and Malick made their escape. To whoever was in earshot.
“What the FUCK?” I would grumble, slashing open a box of silver garland. (Or whatever.) “Weren’t those two hired for SEASONAL help. And isn’t the season Christmas? Well why aren’t they back here helping us with this then?”
And whoever was in earshot would usually nod or shrug their shoulders. Not much else. Just get back to doing what the store paid them to do.
It pissed me off.
“Yeah. It pisses me off,” I said to the team lead. “They were hires for seasonal help. And the last time I checked, the season we are in is called ‘Christmas.’”
“Damn straight,” the guy said, flicking his finger hard against his phone for emphasis. “Store shoulda’ never ever hired those fuckers. Who knows…?” he added, lowering his voice almost to a whisper. “They could be terrorists. Think about it…”
What? Sent to destroy the American retail system by refusing to handle Elves on a Shelf? That seemed highly unlikely.
Once again, the image came to my mind of Malick’s gray slipper, stained with blood, overturned in the Housewares section. Part of me was like: “I hope he is OK.” And then another part of me was like: “Serves you right for wearing felt slippers to your overnight stocking job.” As far as I knew he had not returned for the slipper or his Koran boom box. I had meant to ask my team lead, this young guy named John, what had happened to him. But John sent me from Housewares to get a head start on the Christmas stuff, and I was so overwhelmed by the crap back there that it slipped my mind.
“I doubt that they are terrorists,” I said. And before the team lead could say anything else, I simply walked off toward the time clock.
It was really cold that morning walking home from work. (I don’t drive, and I refuse to take the city bus. It’s mostly worthless and overpriced.) The temperature was probably hovering a few degrees above zero. The streets were stained with white frost, and everything around me—trees, street signs, houses even-seemed sharp and brittle. All the way home I tried to take my mind off how cold it was, how tiring and fucked up the shift I had just worked had been, by doing my little Buddhist chant over and over. My magic talisman.
“Nam-myho-renge-kyo … Nam-myho-renge-kyo … Nam-myho-renge-kyo …” I said out loud, sending out great plumes of steam as I walked and chanted. Walked and chanted like some fool, the cold biting into my ears and fingers.
“Nam-myho-renge-kyo … Nam-myho-renge-kyo… Nam-myho-renge-kyo
In my mind’s eye I could see that little trail of blood leading back to Receiving, through the gauntlet of Christmas…er holiday…er 4TH QUARTER bounty. And above it, another Santa cut-out. The one of Santa being sucked up (possibly forever) into some kind of strange black hole.
When I got home, the first thing that greeted my eyes was my little statue of the Buddha, squatting in his micro-sand garden, smiling the smile of TRUE ENLIGHTENMENT.
I ignored it in favor of a few Rolling Rock beers I knew were still untapped in my refrigerator.
The next day, when I walked off the sales floor, Don and Malick were kneeling in the service tunnel, doing their morning prayers. I noticed, with a start, that instead of his usual pair of gray slippers, Malick was wearing a pair of neon-green Nike running shoes, as he prostrated his body on that little square of carpet.
About the Author:
Michael Walker is a writer living in Columbus, Ohio. He is the author of two published novels: 7-22, a YA fantasy novel, and The Vampire Henry, a “literary” horror novel. He has seen his fiction and poetry published in many magazines, including Fiction Southeast and PIF.