Give Me a W!

      Robin Parks

In many ways, my sojourn in a tiny community in the Pacific Northwest has been perfect. Then when I meet my husband-to-be, Sean, my life becomes a purgatory of longing: he is in Philadelphia, non-negotiable.
        At this point in our lives, neither Sean—who is blind—nor I ha
ve enough money for me to simply pack my bags and show up at his doorstep. So while I send off resumes to companies in the greater Philly area, I also consider getting a temporary job until something Back East turns up. Unfortunately, the tiny community where I live boasts the world's tiniest newspaper with the world's briefest classifieds…until one day when Wal*Mart rears its behemoth head.
        The newspaper ad is vague, but includes the word “temporary.” I am ecstatic: I am nothing if not temporary!
        I apply online and within a day get a call from a “recruiter.” The recruiter asks me impertinent questions. Do you do drugs (he asks this three times)? Do you have a background in theft? How do you feel about unions? He asks for the phone numbers of two references.
        Never in my working life has anyone ever once actually called a reference, not even when I asked them to. The next day, the recruiter has called both, asking them the same impertinent questions. Then he calls me, and is pleased to report that I have landed an interview. I have no idea what the job actually is.
        On a cold spring day, I drive my Festiva to the hotel where the interviews are being held. The Festiva is a tin can on wheels, a zippy little tin can I obtained by providing editorial services to an empty-nester with a memoir-in-the-rough and one too many cars on her hands.
        A handful of people mill around the foyer, and little paper signs taped to the walls direct us to rooms off the foyer: “Initial Screening,” “First Interview,” “Second Interview,” “Interview with Management,” and finally “Drug Screening.” An unsmiling lanky young man offers me a basket of hard candy with a sign hanging from it that reads “Welcome to Walmart.”
        In the initial screening room—a huge room filled to capacity with desks and facing chairs—the recruiter (I recognize his voice) tells me that my references spoke highly of me, but that I would have to pass a drug test. Then he slides a pile of papers toward me, hands me a pen. I am to fill out the paperwork before I can proceed to the next step. He asks if I have questions.
        “What exactly is the job?”
        “They'll explain all of that to you in the next step.”
        He leaves and I fill out the papers, endless “sign here” sheets of tiny type, endless repetitions of my work history, my criminal history. Then comes the personality profile. Page after page of probing philosophical questions, all multiple choice. I check my watch. I have already been here two hours.
        When I finish the paperwork, I am directed to wait in the foyer. I watch people come and go, and after a while I am called into another huge room where I queue up behind a long line of people—like at a bank—waiting for an opening at one of the tables. My turn comes and a woman my age beckons me to sit down. Then she gets up and leaves. After a while she comes back, sits down, reads through my paperwork (this takes about 30 minutes), then signs a sheet, tells me to wait out in the lobby, congratulations I made the next interview. Not once does she look me in the eye.
        I clear my throat. “What is the job, may I ask?”
        By this time it is noon and I am starving, but like a heroin addict, I feel too close to scoring that elusive job description to give up and go home. I eat the candy offered and rub my temples, which are throbbing. After a while, someone calls my name and I enter a narrow room lined with desks and chairs. I am led to one and sit down in front of a middle-aged man who is poring over my paperwork.
        “I'd like to ask you some questions,” he begins over the din in the room, and proceeds one-by-one through the personality profile. “Why did you answer 'no' to 'should an 18-year-old be jailed for a first-time theft of a $5 bracelet?'”
        One by one he calls into question my lefty principles, and one by one I recapitulate until he is satisfied. I tell myself this is acceptable because I am moving on. This is the whole point. This is just moving-on preliminaries. It's all just temporary.
        Finally, he gathers up all the papers and stands up. I do, too, then he tells me to sit down. I sit. He leaves.
        At last, a tall bearded 30-something wearing a white shirt and tie, the sleeves of his shirt rolled up, sits down in front of me and stares. He has big brown eyes, moist and bloodshot. He has my paperwork, which he does not even glance at. Instead, he opens up a large horizontal file and asks when I can begin.
        “Tomorrow,” I say, then, “what is the job?”
        “Didn't they tell you?” He seems shocked. Then he gets over it, and explains that I will either be on a team inside the store or in the warehouse, which did I prefer?
        “The store,” I say, having no idea what the hell I am choosing.
        “At this point, I would like to offer you employment,” he says. “Do you accept?”
        “Thank you. Yes. How much does it pay?”
        “$7.14 an hour.”
        I was expecting at least twice that. The company of my fiance will take twice as long to achieve.
        “You look shocked,” he says.
        I smile. I sign. He points me to the drug test room.
        A little pale woman my age who looks incredibly tired hands me a kit and a map. I notice her whole body seems to list to the right, as if she is wearing two different heel sizes.
        I drive to the medical center where there is a special room for drug tests takers. I feel incredibly guilty, sure remnants of my hippie days still course through my body. I am instructed by a surly nurse to take off my coat and my vest and my shoes before I pee into the specially-marked container. It is dark out by the time I get home.
        I get three calls the next day, each verifying one piece or other of my existence, the final call telling me to report to orientation the following day at 8 a.m.

        The orientation takes eight hours. The young woman who sits next to me is Latvian, I find out when she has difficulty filling out the 11 forms we are required to sign. It isn't a language barrier, it's that there are not enough pens to go around. There are 60 of us, and 35 pens. Do you think someone could go out there to the stationery aisle and get us a few more pens? I almost shriek, but remind myself that each hour I am $7.14 minus taxes closer to my husband-to-be.
        Beatrise is gorgeous and baffled. We are instantly friends and raise our hands simultaneously when offered a choice of shifts.
        During the next four hours we are subjected to many videos, one of which all but threatens firing if we so much as mouth the word “union.” At the lunch break I am depressed enough to warrant spending the day's profits at the Japanese restaurant across the street.
        The next day is training day. I arrive at 6:30 a.m. and find Beatrise in the lunchroom, a bandana over her hair, sniffing into a handkerchief. She tells me she is a physicist, but can't get credentialed to teach until she's been here a year. We stare into each other's eyes like deer caught in the headlamps: a whole year at Wal*Mart? She bursts into tears again.
        The training begins when the little, pale, tired, listing woman who had given me my drug test kit introduces herself as the HR director. There are about 40 of us crowded into the room, and I cannot hear her over the mumblings of my co-workers. At some point, she leaves the room and we snake behind her, but since the hallway is only two-persons wide, all of her explanations of time clocks, coffee breaks, paperwork, etc., are only heard by the first six people. The rest of us follow silently. We wander through the store, one behind the other, like prisoners, up and down the aisles. I notice the people shopping do not seem to regard this as unusual, a line of 40 people slithering across their paths.
        Finally we pool in the middle of women's clothing, and the HR gal appears before us, still talking. I push forward in time to watch her spill something on the floor and mop it up. Behind her I spy Beatrise running through the parking lot.
        Back in the lunchroom, the HR director teaches us the codes—blue was especially fascinating since it meant a lost child. All the doors of the vast building instantly lock and we are to converge on the restrooms, where kidnappers take children to change their outfits. Yellow is the code for a hostage situation. She instructs us to faint if a robber tries to take us hostage.
        We break for lunch and I again take myself out to Japanese food, swearing to myself and to Sean that I shan't continue this indulgent behavior. In fact, I have begun a mantra—I can do this!—that plays in an endless loop in my head as I dig in to sushi and hot miso soup.
        Four more hours of understanding just how dangerous pool chemicals are, just how many square feet of smoking space there are outside, and why-when-where we can park on any given day of the week. At no point in this training do we learn what it is we are hired to do. We are simply told to be clocked in before the time clock registers 8:00 a.m. We are told this is non-negotiable. That this is critical. We are lectured for 30 minutes about this.
        The next morning, the line of people waiting to punch in runs from the clock deep into the bowels of the store. I join the line, missing Beatrise's sad presence, and wait with the others. I finally notice that the line is not moving. Someone explains that the clock is jammed and we are waiting for a manager to show up to unjam it. By the time the manager shows up and I get to the clock it is 8:57.
        We gather in the same room and finally are told what we will do: move stuff. The 90,000 square feet that is Wal*Mart is going to get reorganized and we are the crack team to do it! Five women and the manager—who the whole time is scratching his crotch—stand in front of us and begin the cheer:
        “Give me a W! Give me an A! Give me an L!—”
        We are sullen and quiet. They stop the cheer and scream at us to get more involved or the offer of employment will be rescinded.
        “Give me a squiggly!” our leaders do the twist and we giggle with embarrassment. The cheer ends with, “What's that spell?” and we shout “Walmart!” and they shout “Whose Walmart?” and we yell “My Walmart” and then they yell something incomprehensible, or perhaps I've just momentarily lost my hearing. Everyone is clapping and woo-hooing and I'm trying very hard not to cry.

The reorganization is going to last six weeks, at which point if we are lucky we will be offered permanent employment. As we are pointed at and chosen for teams, I do the math. Six weeks times five days equals 30 days. At seven bucks an hour, I should be $1,680 closer to Philadelphia and Sean. I can do this!
        Pat is my team captain, a Wal*Mart lifer. She's 62, a heavy smoker and when she's not on the reorganizing team, she runs the automotive department, “her” Wal*Mart. She seems very excited about her team: me, a young man and woman, and Ginger, my age, who is a permanent employee. Ginger runs the frozen food section, “her” Wal*Mart, she says with an eyeroll. I love her instantly.
        We go out onto the floor and since the new shelving has yet to arrive, we help the other employees do their thing. I end up in pool supplies and am instantly doused with a caustic chemical that eats a hole in my shirt. I run through the 90,000-square-yard scrimmage to get to the bathroom sink. No one seems to notice or care that I am running at full bore holding my shirt out in front of me, crying.
        I cannot believe Wal*Mart has reduced me to tears, and I vow not to let this happen again. I am temporary. It is all very, very temporary. I plan to wear the damaged shirt everyday: See? See this, asshole? Now, leave me alone.
        I spend the rest of Day One helping two women who are clearly good friends. They are both obese, which doesn't seem possible since the work is incredibly physically demanding. We are lifting huge boxes of toilet paper up onto shelves, box after box after box. I'm winded and aching, but they are cheerful and joking. When lunch break comes and I head out to the Festiva for my sandwich, I pass them eating burgers at the McDonald's inside the store.
        I sit in the parking lot with the windows rolled down, listening to RVs pull into the lot. I am suddenly overwhelmed with the fact that not only is this my first day, it's only the first half of my first day. So I do more math and decide to face the beast that is Wal*Mart in two-hour increments. The first two hours, then a break, two more hours, then lunch, etc. I can do this!

        The next Monday, the manager (as opposed to the associate manager or the assistant manager or supervisor or supervisory assistant) reports on the weekend sales. The numbers are stupendous, in the hundreds of millions of dollars. I can't tell if the manager—who is scratching his crotch the whole time—is reporting on all Wal*Marts or just this one. But it doesn't matter. Either way the amount of money flowing through this world is not to be believed, especially as I look around at my cohorts in our “working” clothes.
        After this report, the Crotch Scratcher tells us we have special guests: grad students from the local college who are getting their MBAs. The students and their prof file in and surround us, and I can't help but check their fists for stones. While we all stand there—townies and gownies—Crotch Man tells the students that we are only the temporaries. As they file out, I whisper to each one: “Study hard!”
        Monday, week three. After the morning financials—Wal*Mart nets zillions—we have a visitor. The Lions Club president comes in, and Crotcher Dude presents him with a 3x5-foot check for $650 dollars. Someone takes a photo. We do the cheer and go out on the floor.
        For the most part, my two-hour increment strategy is working, plus I'm losing about three pounds a day. I've never worked so hard in my life, and I still can't get over how many of the employees (all female) are overweight.
        Pat, however, is not. She's all muscle. The shelving has arrived and we proceed to move the entire contents of Wal*Mart from this spot to that spot. We then move this other stuff from that spot and put it in a new spot. We do this hour after hour, stuff after stuff, while periodically a passing manager screams at us.
        The shoppers don't seem to notice this chaos. In fact, they don't seem to be aware that they are in a public place. “Shut up, stupid,” a woman calls out to her husband. “I hate you, Mom!” a teenager shouts down the aisle.
        Pat, clearly Type A, tries to keep her wits about her as the pressure to move more stuff faster builds. We are on the floor, putting metal pegs into metals holes, trying to line up shelves so we can put the stuff on the shelves. Pat is having a hard time keeping track of the holes, so I try to help her. I count out loud, and she whirls around and stops just short of backhanding me in the face. Instead, she opts for yelling, “Shut the fuck up!”
        I think about Sean. I think about being a writer. I think about anything other than how close I am to getting hit in the face. The smell of potpourri is overwhelming and I excuse myself, while Pat marches off to have a smoke.
        I go to the restroom and hide in the cubicle. That morning I got an email requesting a phone interview. A small Quaker college in the suburbs of Philly wants to talk to me about being their senior writer. It's the day after tomorrow. That's two hours, lunch, two hours, break, two hours. Yo si puedo! I have to call in sick to do the phone interview.

        The phone interview goes well, and they invite me to the campus for the full-fledged interview. They will fly me there, put me up in a historic bed and breakfast, take me to dinner at a fine French restaurant, then we will spend the next day interviewing with faculty, administrators, staff, etc. The schedule is such that I will get to be with Sean for a whole evening and part of a day. Oh frabjous day! I count the number of increments: do-able!
        My cheerfulness lasts until the next morning, when we are met with a special team flown in from New Orleans. They are taking over the management of the reorganization, because we are doing such a shitty job. Martha, one of the team captains, stands before us and cries, telling us she is tired of working 70 hours a week because of our laziness and how she is humiliated by having to have this new team. She says she plans to retire from Wal*Mart and that we can all fuck ourselves, or something of that nature. Then we do the cheer.
        Before I go out to the Festiva for my break, I leave a newspaper on the table. The headline reads: “Walmart discriminates against women, class action suit to be filed.” When I return from lunch, the newspaper is gone.
        I find the tired, listing HR gal and explain that I have a family medical emergency and must take three days off. She sighs deeply, and hands me a form. I am to gather three signatures from various levels of management. I prowl the arena in search of management. It takes me an hour to get all the signatures. Pat's is not required, though my absence will affect her the most. I decide not to tell her. I'm too scared of her.
        For three days I am soaring with joy and excitement. The college campus is gorgeous, the people dignified and brilliant, Sean more beautiful and hilarious than I remembered. I meet future in
-laws, eat French food, and explore the gorgeous Pennsylvania spring. Then it's back to Wal*Mart, “my” Wal*Mart.
        But I'm filled with hope for the future, and the increments begin to go by more rapidly. For one thing, I am no longer on Pat's team. Ginger and I have joined forces. Ginger is infinitely reasonable and a hard worker. She chats about her kids and her boyfriend and what she watched on TV. She doesn't ask me any questions, which I admire. She has all the physical markings of an unprivileged life: crooked teeth, bad skin, strange hair, cheap clothing. One day, Ginger tells me a story of how a co-worker's boyfriend hit on her, and how disgusted she was by that. She feels sorry for the co-worker, because “she's had a pretty rough life, and she doesn't deserve to be treated like that.”
         That day there is a terrific crash of broken glass and Ginger and I are assigned to clean it up. It's quitting time, but Ginger continues picking shards of glass off the floor with her bare hands, stacking broken vases into shopping carts. She tells me to go home and I say, “Okay.” But I can't do it. Unbelievably, I find myself voluntarily working overtime.
        Friday, Week Five, increment two. I'm hanging buttons on pegs when a woman calls out to me to “come on over.”
        “I'm giving you a Zap card,” she says. She pulls a business card out of her red apron and proceeds to write teeny tiny words on it. She hands it to me and says, “I'm on the safety committee, and you hung up that ladder instead of just leaving it on the floor. Good job.” I thank her. I read on the card that it is worth one dollar in the vending machines in the break room. I go to the break room and everything in the machines costs $1.25, except gummy bears. I buy them and put them on the table, where they remain for my tenure.
        When I get home, there is an email from the college saying close but no cigar. Sean and I have a long chat, and we decide that it is time for me to come to the East Coast, job or no job. I am thrilled, if a little nervous. Sean says he will Fedex me his new credit card. I'll trade up the Festiva for a station wagon, fill it with my stuff, and drive across the states.
        On Monday morning, I find the HR gal, whom I now realize is probably 10 years younger than I am. I tell her I am sorry, but I have to move on.
        “Oh,” she says, “before you go there is another interview.”
        “An exit interview?”
        “No, just one we forgot to do in the beginning. Then after that is the exit interview.”
        We go into the interview room, sit at a table and the Crotch Yanker comes in. He asks me a bunch of questions—“Can you lift 30 pounds? Are you allergic to pool chemicals? Have you ever shoplifted?”—then leaves. I sit across from the HR gal and ask her if I passed.

Unbelievably, she smiles.
        She hands me a piece of paper, the exit interview, already filled out. The last box is marked “yes”—would you hire this person again?
        It's good to know I'll always have a job to go back to.

ROBIN PARKS' stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in The MacGuffin, Bellingham Review, Prism International, and other journals, and her fiction has won the Raymond Carver Short Story Award. She has an MFA from Fairleigh Dickinson University, where she was the Presidential Fellow in Creative Writing.


                                [copyright 2009, Robin Parks]