The Nobility of Labour

by Christian Koll

     Mal-Mart. Perhaps many things are associated with this word. Not just a store. Cheap prices. Cheap merchandise. Cheap labor. Cheap customers. A gigantic retailer that cannot afford to call in the service man to fix its' cash registers unless at least four are broken at once.

A heavy set woman in her late forties stood in front of Mal-Mart Sackville's time clock, drinking a Dr. Pepper and talking to a well-groomed young man with his head cocked to one side like a woman.

     And I told him, I said, I'm not going to take this anymore, I'm going to get the divorce.

     In a high, whimpering sort of voice the young man said, That's what he needed to hear. The young man was rubbing the time clock's cracked display with one of his clean white thumbs.

     I know, am I supposed to work part-time here and baby him at the same time? I had four kids, I'm done with all that.

     It's a halfway-house and they aren't even very nice to you here. For you to work with that foot problem of yours it's a real sacrifice.

     The way they tried to make me check out customers with fifty-three items is just wrong. You know that. I wouldn't complain, but it hurts me. It really does. And when the cashiers at the Front could do it easily It isn't much to ask.

     I don't know how you do it I couldn't. I get tense when just regular management raise their voices, but you have actual customers actually shouting at you, sometimes.

     It's not an easy job. And when you have to stand up to the management too I've never had to cuss anyone out, but I can tell you, I've come this close. She held her worn hands together until they nearly touched. Managers, I mean. That Phyllis, she's a real but you're right, it's a tough job.

     It is, it is The well-groomed young man leaned forward confidentially. I was meaning to tell you, you probably won't be stuck with the late shift for much longer. The recruiter was telling me that she hired somebody in, some unemployed guy. He--

     I'm going on vacation. They should have hired someone a long time ago, I'm not staying on longer to train him. He gets one day with me, after that I'm going on vacation. They can pull someone from the Front if they want more. You can say what you want, they should have hired another cashier two months ago. They just delay and delay, trying to scrape by on less than a skeleton crew.

     No, I agree.

     Well, I better go ahead and clock out and you, aren't they going to be looking for you?

     Oh, I guess. Back to work, right?

     He walked off. The heavy set woman gazed after him until he was out of sight, then drained her soda. After another moment or two, she threw out the empty can and clocked out for lunch.

     Upon returning to the Lawn & Garden department's cash registers an hour later, she found that a person had been waiting for her. Which person immediately began by saying,

     Hello, I'm Hal. They just hired me. Alicia told me to come back here and tell you that you're supposed to train me on the cash register.

     Oh. I see. And she thinks that I'm going to do it just like that? Never mind, I don't have anything against once you've been here a while you'll see the way they treat us. There's no kind of respect. But training. The first thing you need to know is that when a customer comes back here and tries to check out more than ten grocery items, you tell them that it is against company policy. Send them up Front. Be polite, be respectful, but don't ever put up with anyone who tries it.

     It's against company policy, then?

     It's against my policy. I can't do it because I have a foot condition, and you can't do it because that will train customers to come back here. But come over here and I'll show you how to start.

     Hal walked over to the register and looked at the buttons.

     Now, this button here is what you press to total the transaction

                                                                  .

     Over the course of the next two hours, the heavy set woman put her mind to the training of a new cashier. It was no easy task for a woman unaccustomed to such things. Notwithstanding, she had a tolerably considerable fund of natural kindness, especially when the object under consideration was so altogether and unexceptionably civil. This same kindness tended to temper all the little difficulties of the matter.

     It was due to this that she went to the trouble of walking back to the break room on her last break and his first, solely because she wished to be friendly. Otherwise, it would have been her inclination to remain where she was. Her foot pained her considerably less than she imagined but slightly more than the management wanted to believe.

                                                                    .

     Hal sat erect in the break room, his back not touching the plastic chair. It was some accomplishment, for the company had deemed it reasonable for the employees to use used chairs. They had not been refurbished, and his particular choice was rather shaky. He sat at the other end of the plastic table from the heavy set woman, who leaned forward in order to be closer. Their conversation had at first been rather dull, there being few commonalities on which to draw. However, the heavy set woman soon began talking of the ways of the customers, and then moved to the job in general, and finally settled upon her ideas of what the company owed the employee. She herself was the specific used to illustrate the abstraction. Her foot, her home life, herself But the subject at last stirred a response from Hal.

     I don't want to at least, you seem to have been drawn into all the politics, and the management are all set against you now because they don't want to have to bother with employees. They want you to do your job so that they look good to their own bosses without having had to work much to get you to do your job. The managers have the power, so I'll do what makes them happy. And that's doing my job without asking for help and if I have nothing to do I'll ask for something.

     The heavy set woman considered a moment.

     It's nice that you are going in with that kind of attitude. I did myself. But when you've been here a while They could care less about you. And if there's a weakness anywhere, they'll pick at it. They don't leave you alone. A lot of the other employees are like that, too. They get tired of the runaround and start hating the company, the customers, even the other employees.

     Yes, but I don't have a weakness. At least not yet. And if they don't know anything about me except that I do my job and never waste time, I never will. And I don't think that they can be that bad. They just want to do their jobs as best as they can. Think of what we owe them.

     We owe them? We don't owe them anything.

     Of course maybe you don't know where I'm coming from. God has appointed them as authorities, therefore we owe them respect and obedience in the workplace. And besides that, the person in power will always win an argument. What is wrong with making them happy?

     When you've been here as long as I've been here, when you've been treated the way I have I know it gets old, but you'll see the way it is.

                                                                                .

The heavy set woman sat in the break room, right across from the well-groomed young man. He had a pleasant, very clean-shaven, rather indecisive looking face. Her face was always somewhat red, and now, since she was in a rather emotional state of mind, it was quite red.

     Anyways, I just can't go through with it, not now. At my age, without a real career He made as if to break in, but she waved it aside. You know this isn't a real career. I can't go forwards or backwards, you know? I'd have to quit to look for another job the money, it's just not there.

     I guess it has to be that way. It's not right. It's not fair. The people here, even, they don't understand they don't appreciate you. You know that new guy you trained on the register? Ever since you went on vacation he's been sucking up to the management, reporting anyone not working, whining about the good of the company He's checking out everybody, no matter how much groceries. He went to management and said that you made up all that about there not being room on the Lawn & Garden registers, said you were just afraid you'd hurt your foot. They'll force you to check everybody out because of the way he's been interfering with things. You fought to keep things fair, and now he's messed it all up.

     The heavy set woman's face grew yet redder. I stay here, and I stay here, and they think they can just trample on me. And him, I stayed for him, I was never anything but nice to him But thanks for telling me you're the only one who's ever been straight with me here.

     The well-groomed young man giggled, and then, in a simpering tone, said, I've always tried to help. I was just born that way.

     When the heavy-set woman got to the Lawn & Garden cash registers, the first thing she saw was Hal, about to check out an elderly woman with a cart full of groceries.

     Ma'am, she called, Ma'am, you can't check out back here.

     But the elderly woman looked confused.

     Oh, Hal said, leaning forward, It's all right, I'll check you out.

     No, the heavy-set woman said, Ma'am, it's against company policy.

     I'm sorry, Hal said to the elderly lady, That policy is new to me too. He began helping the elderly woman load her groceries back into her cart. The elderly lady, before about to break forth in righteous indignation, appeared somewhat appeased.

     Employees don't know the policies, and yet they expect the customers to know about them. This here is why I don't like shopping at Mal-Mart.

     I understand, Ma'am, Hal said, And I'm very sorry about it.

     Oh, I guess you're all right, it isn't your fault, you didn't know. Just remember next time. The elderly lady shook her white head emphatically. Her items being now returned to her cart, she set off for the Front.

     As soon as she was out of earshot, the heavy-set woman exploded. She had trained Hal, stayed on for a solid week before taking her vacation just so he wouldn't make any mistakes with people's cash. And now he turned on her with no more gratitude than the rest of them. Through it all, Hal remained absolutely imperturbable, answering angry invectives with a uniformly smooth evasiveness. Finally, after about five minutes of this, (by some unfortunate chance customers seemed set on avoiding Lawn & Garden that evening) he said,

     You are overreacting because of the stress of your personal problems.

     If you mean the divorce, I'm not getting it. We are doing okay again. Don't think this is about me, this is about you.

     Hal left shortly thereafter to go on his lunch, and the heavy-set woman took over the register. He was gone twice the time allowed, not returning even when she paged him repeatedly. When he did come back, he refused to answer all inquiry, but instead purchased a Dr. Pepper, which he then handed to the heavy-set woman with a smile.

     What is this supposed to be, an apology? She sneered.

     No, not really. But you need to get along to the Ad Office. A manager wants to speak with you. Leave the registers to me.

     When the heavy-set woman got to the Ad Office, she found a manager waiting for her. She was given to understand that she had been terminated as a result of repeated and deliberate violations of company policy.

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