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When he smiled his face radiated a kind of icy bitterness, and from the beginning I’d always found it difficult to meet his gaze, a look that simultaneously challenged as it stripped you down. It was of a piece with his voice, masculine but bright as a thunderclap, a sound likely to make you jump if you weren’t expecting it. Those impressionable aspects were nothing compared to the sight of his hands. Ted’s fingers were stubby and thick, like sausages that managed to escape the butcher’s window. They looked as if they pumped iron instead of a huge Victor cash register, or the massive electric calculator whose keys he spent the majority of a day’s hours tapping as he sat in his throne-like office surrounded by pillar-like shelves of men’s shaving needs on side and women’s hair needs on the other. His fingers exuded confidence, right down to their stare-worthy nails, exaggerated pale bumps with fine ridges like the shells of snails that surfaced and pulled themselves along the moist cement walk adjoining my mother’s garden after a strong Cincinnati rain.
He was my boss from the week after my 14th birthday to the week before I moved to New York at the age of 22. He owned Save Discount Inc., a quartet of health and beauty-aid stores that served downtown Cincinnati exclusively, and it was there that I worked as a stock clerk and cashier, though such janitorial tasks as window-washing and all-around maintenance also feel within my purview. A family affair: me and my older brothers Alan and Jeffrey made up the primary menial workforce (Ted’s two boys Scott and Paul joined our retail chain gang for extra cash during the summer). Our father, who worked for a restaurant supply store next door, sold Ted on the idea of hiring us. For him it was a boon—his financial obligation to us ended the day we signed on at Save Discount, not counting room and board. I can still hear him crow: “You got yo’ own money now, you can take care of yo’ selves.”
Ted was white, Kentucky-born and rumored to be a prodigy who’d graduated from high school at the age of 14. His short, liberally salted hair organized with a side part, he was icily handsome with scornful gray-blue eyes that flashed like the passing of overhead clouds; of average height, Ted was so physically swift that the sound of his walk preceded him—this kinetic impression lingered even when he stood stock-still. Though I can’t ever recall him in a jacket, he always wore a white shirt and tie.
I’ve only feared two men in my life: my father and Ted Davidson. My youthful paranoia convinced me theirs was a conspiracy to keep me cowed, for light moments when either man was around were few. My father’s commandments were gospel at home: “You don’t do what I tell you, well, you can get the hell of my house.” Daddy’s occasional whippings or slaps were pro-forma; a like aura infused those hours at work, though Ted never raised his hand. Instead he’d hiss something like, “You still stocking those shelves? My grandmother could do a better job—what in the fuck is taking you so long? You need me to light a fire under your ass?”
His words felt indivisible from the imagined blows of those swift thick hands. In my mind, the two men’s voices ran together, echoed each other in their south-of-the-Ohio River drawl and their bright startling timbres. With Ted, too slow a response to a question or a command elicited withering retorts, ones that left me feeling stupid and impotently angry. No one could make the word “boy” sound more demeaning but when I complained, my father accused me of willful laziness: “They ain’t nuthin but words—you got another job lined up?”
Ted’s presence exacerbated my minimum wage blues. I hadn’t developed an instinct to rebel; if I’d been a different kind of adolescent, he and I would surely have come to blows. But I loathed conflict; I was obedient to a fault. Perhaps my father thought the work might exhume some toughness from my scrawny frame, but in the brightly lit confines of Save Discount, I felt less an employee, more a servant. Ted’s dictum, “Never argue with a customer,” guaranteed a fair amount of browbeating from strangers, but my compliance didn’t end there.
If someone broke a bottle of hand lotion, it was my job to mop up the sticky mess. If another store ran out of an item, Ted would send one of us off with the product and a warning not to dawdle: of course he knew how long such errands should take. Dust was verboten at Save Discount Inc., so unless I was assisting a customer, unloading a delivery truck, or in the stock room ripping up empty boxes, I worked the aisles with a feather duster in my hands—like someone’s maid.
I made sure there were “no holes” on the shelf, arranging the merchandise to make it look as if the store was always fully stocked. A half-hour before closing, it fell to the clerks to sweep and mop. All but one of the stores had flecked butter-colored linoleum floors, and each night I’d politely edge around the remaining customers as my eyes scanned the floor for bits of gum, sticky Lifesavers or some other broom-defying obstacle that I’d remove with a single-edge Gem blade. After sweeping the aisles with a push broom, I’d swab them with a heavy mop, a callus-etching activity that made me loathe the smell of Pine-Sol forever. Throughout, Ted was always five steps ahead of your inevitable mistake: he couldn’t understand why the simple task he’d assigned hadn’t been thought of and completed before he’d thought to utter it.
Keeping an eye out for shoplifters was also my job, and one I dreaded. The “suspects” were almost always black; sometimes they were obviously riff-raff, but often they fell into the gray area of a customer who might be merely killing time in the store, or taking a touch too long to make up his or her mind about a product. I lived in dread of confronting someone about a pack of gum, or tube of Chapstick. Ted and his other store managers sensed my reluctance, which made them ride me even harder: “You got to get real close, you got to stick to him.” Fortunately I never had to get tough, but the times when Ted did, he seemed to actually enjoy it—thank God he didn’t carry a gun.
The day I left Save Discount felt as if I’d been let out of jail. But as they say in the movies, escape is futile. Bounteous, multitudinous retail Manhattan, city of stores, won’t let me forget. Whenever I encounter an empty shelf at Duane Reade, or an indifferent (or incompetent) cashier at Macy’s, the same involuntary thought murmurs: If this were Save Discount, Ted Davidson would have someone’s head…