I was holding Lily’s right arm when Sal called for help at cage three. The rest of Lily was lying on the ground, a red cashmere sweater from the new Sable & Co line ruched up at her shoulders, her smooth bald head barely visible above the bright fabric. I was cruising— there were still two more mannequins to dress before I could tag markdowns and with the launch just two days away Boss said I couldn’t leave until it was all done, even if it meant staying past my shift and going into overtime. And besides, Marv would’ve chewed my ass off if I wasn’t there to pick him up from his shift.
I can only guess that’s why I was halfway there before I noticed I was still carrying Lily’s plastic arm. Since I’d been docked twice for not reaching customers in less than 30 seconds (a loss of $20, a whole lotta Easy Mac & Chicken of the Sea), I decided to keep the limb and see what Sal needed. I swear to Odin (that’s a viking god) when I saw what was happening at cage three I almost turned and walked away. Hell. I’d been working retail for almost five years, two at the department store in the mall on the north side, and I’d seen some things: giant turds left in dressing rooms, wobbling old ladies with merchandise stuffed in their bras, kids busted doing drugs in the tools section, but this shit was incredible, out of control. People are really fucked up, you know?
All the checkout counters on the second floor were hollowed-out squares, with four registers at each side, and only one opening, so we called ‘em cages. Once a cashier like Sal clocked in for the day, she only left the cage to fix a rack or slipper display, all within 10 feet of the cage. That was the rule, a cashier couldn’t go more than 10 feet from her cell. When I got there Sal was at least fifteen feet from the nearest register, I’m guessing, far enough to be docked, that’s for sure. I knew that was gonna hurt; Sal had two kids, a little boy and girl who sometimes came by the store with Sal’s mother, all of them wearing clothes from the clearance racks I’d marked down.
Bad enough she was out, but Sal, bless her heart, was crawling. At first I didn’t understand why an adult woman would be on all fours in public, especially on the ladies’ fashion floor, which was so absolutely filthy from foot traffic. Given the choice, I would’ve rather licked a light pole in New York City, not that I’d ever been. But anyway, Sal was crawling away from her cage and at first I didn’t know why, but as I got closer I saw the man at her heels. A big dude, as strong-looking as Marv who spent hours lifting tires at the warehouse, and so close to Sal it seemed he was trying to bite her, and I thought, Yes, Zombies. Finally. But he wasn’t trying to bite her feet, I was standing right there, he was trying to kiss them. I can’t even make this stuff up. The area around the cage was trashed, the orthopedic sock display in a heap— at least an hour’s worth of work and I knew right then I wasn’t picking Marv up on time.
A customer stood on the other side of cage three, in her arms at least half a dozen shirts and dresses still on hangers, wearing an expression of such dumb disbelief I almost second-guessed myself. But no, it was happening. As Sal crawled away from the cage, the man followed, his head close to the ground and his lips puckering over and over again making the grossest smacking sound I’d ever heard. Men are gross. I love Marv, but he often made me feel so dirty I’d take burning hot showers to clean myself off.
I’m not sure why I reacted the way I did. For all I know the man was a customer and customers are always right. I don’t know. I should’ve hopped on the PA, called for security. I know that now. But Sal was crawling toward me and she looked so scared and I thought about her children, how any minute they could come ‘round the corner hand-in-hand with their granny and I’d been training for hours on the online game Marv and I were playing for just this kind of moment where you’re supposed to whip into action, no thinking. And I still had Lily’s arm.
One second I was watching that man try to kiss Sal’s feet and the next I was raising the slick plastic arm in the air and bringing it down, cracking it right over his head. And the sound was like the time I dropped a cantaloupe on a concrete floor. The man’s mouth dropped that disgusting pucker. I don’t remember lifting all three arms to hit him again. They told me later.