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BLACK FRIDAY

StoryQuarterly, #48

      Your job is gone, a machinist's job you held for 12 years, a good job with a good boss. Your boss says it's the economy. He says his own job isn't safe. He says he is truly sorry and you believe him.
      It takes you four days of stunned inertia to understand and accept this loss, days when you feel like you are dragging around a large lead weight in your chest and stomach. Your wife says talk to me about it, about how you feel, but you don't.
      You start to look for work. You have a strong letter of recommendation from your boss. You are smart, quick and steady with your hands, good with power tools. But now, suddenly, no one needs your skills. Everyone reads the letter. Everyone is polite. But everyone is cutting back or closing down.
      Months pass. You call everyone you know. You offer to do any work at any wage.
      Your unemployment insurance runs out. Your wife begs you to take her and your ten year old son back to Puerto Rico and her extended family. You view this solution as a humiliating defeat, an admission that you cannot support your own family. You argue with her softly in Spanish because your son understands English far better than Spanish. You don't want to uproot the boy, take him out of school and Little League baseball where he is a star. You raise your voice to your wife and she starts to cry.
      You believe in America. America has been good to you and will be again. You are a proud man, a resourceful man, a man who has known and survived poverty. When a local mega store advertises for seasonal help in November, you show up early for the interview and take the minimum wage with no benefits and the 4:00 a.m. to noon shift because that is what they offer.
      They tell you that store employees get a 10% discount on all merchandise. You think of your son, who is tall for his age with big hands. You love your son and he loves baseball and you play catch with him every morning before work. You want to give him a baseball glove for Christmas, a quality glove, a grownup glove he will have for a long time. These start at around $100, but the employee discount will help.
      Your job is stocking shelves in garden supplies. It is a dirty and exhausting job but you do it willingly and well. Because you are working, there is peace at home.
      After two weeks, your supervisor tells you he is impressed with your work. He says this coming Friday will be a difficult day, because of the storewide sales. He calls it Black Friday. On this day, rather than stocking shelves, he says he wants you on the floor directing traffic. He says it will be very busy and you must remain calm and polite, no matter what happens. You are pleased that he trusts you to deal with the customers even though your English is not perfect.
      Stocking shelves is a crap job. If you do well on Friday, you think, maybe you can ask about a job in sales, something steady, not seasonal.
      The store is set to open at 6:00 a.m. on Friday, three hours earlier than usual. You take advantage of the pre opening employee sale to buy your son a $135 glove marked down to $79, which, with the discount, comes to $71 plus $6 tax. You are very happy with this purchase. You slip the glove on and thump your fist in the pocket. You don't want to leave the glove in your open locker all day. You put the glove back in its shopping bag and tuck it up behind the sales counter at ladies' sweaters.
      You are applying sale stickers to flat screen TVs when you notice the crowd beginning to form outside. It is 4:30 in the morning. By 5:00, the double front doors are filled with people's faces and bodies pressed up against the glass. You examine the faces. No one really looks happy about the sales; everyone looks anxious and angry. You see a man turn and hit another man. Someone is on the ground. You hear the crowd noise, a kind of low pitched roar.
      Calm and polite, you say to yourself. Calm and polite.
      You spot a man in a green store smock like yours one aisle over. He beckons to you. You walk over and tell him it is your first time on the floor and ask if he thinks things are under control. You ask if he thinks more people are needed. You notice his lips and smile, oddly small and delicate in his large fleshy face. You see sweat on his forehead. You see his darting eyes. He tells you more personnel will be in position by 5:45, at least 15 minutes before the store opens. He has a hand held mike which he casually passes to you and you take it, not knowing why. He says he has to go to the 3rd floor and asks you to do him a favor. He shows you how to turn on the mike, which broadcasts outside. He wants you to go to the front doors and talk to the crowd. Say things like, it's only 5:15, please step back and clear some space, plenty of merchandise for everyone. See if you can calm them down, he says. He thanks you before you have agreed to do it and walks away.
      You feel fear. Can you do this? Calm this crowd? You have no experience to draw on, except, perhaps, soothing your son when he was an infant and small child. Then you think, really, it is safe enough with the doors locked and the things you have to say — it is only 5:15, please be calm, please clear the door area — these are pretty simple things. And if you can handle this situation it will impress your supervisor. And nobody will blame you if you can't because you are just filling in for the guy with the big face who had to go to the 3rd floor.
      You take the mike and walk down the aisle, to the right, and toward the doors. You have an odd thought -- you are suddenly glad you secured the boy's baseball glove. As you approach you see the crowd extending out into the parking lot, a wall of people, eerie in the predawn light, slowly seething with motion like a fat snake. You see the faces against the glass, desperate and ugly. Two men are banging on the door. One is using some kind of tool with a long handle. You flip the switch on and raise the mike to your lips. WELCOME TO SHOPPERS, you say, surprised by the volume of sound you produce, clearly audible through the doors.
      Your words seem to cause a stir, then a forward surge. WE OPENING IN 45 MINUTES you say as you hear a splintering sound and a crash and the roaring wall of people is now inside and rolling toward you like a great wave and you say PEOPLE BE CALM PLEASE and the wall is upon you and over you and you are knocked down and your head smacks the floor. You see a flash of brilliant light. You touch your head and your hand comes away bloody. You struggle to your knees and you are knocked down again and feet are striking you everywhere, your head, your chest, your groin. You feel something crack in your chest and you think that's a rib, and then you feel a heavy thud and a sharp pain on the side of your head.

*          *          *

On the morning of December 4th, a middle aged divorced saleswoman in the ladies' sweaters department dropped an earring and while kneeling to retrieve it, spotted a shopping bag tucked up under her counter. The bag contained a baseball glove. A receipt dated November 28th indicated it was a $135 glove marked down to $79 and showed an additional employee discount. She thought she recognized the name. She thought it was that poor man who was killed on Black Friday. What a terrible thing! The newspapers said that the store management denied there had been a stampede and said the store had been closed for a "medical emergency," but she and her coworkers knew the truth.
      She checked discreetly and found it was indeed the same man.
      She should turn the glove in — she knew that. She considered herself an honest person.
      Then she thought about it. That poor dead man had no use for the glove now. His baseball days were over, but her 12 year old son who played Little League baseball could certainly put it to good use. The glove was paid for, so it wasn't really like stealing.
      She thought about her ex husband, who was behind with his support payments. She was angry with him. She needed the money for Christmas shopping.
      The glove was a deep russet, oiled and expensive looking. It was a man's glove, but her boy would grow into it. She decided she would give it to him as a Christmas present. He will love it, she thought. It will beat any present his Dad can afford.
      She slipped the glove into her shoulder bag.
      At that moment, in a modest ranch house eight miles to the west, a ten year old boy slipped his hand into his father's baseball glove and thumped his fist in the pocket. Tears welled and spilled from his dark eyes and streaked his narrow face.
      It's too big, he thought, but I will grow into it.

NEW YORK - Nov. 28th 2008. A 34 year old worker died after being trampled by a throng of unruly shoppers in a suburban Wal-Mart during the annual bargain hunting ritual known as Black Friday. A police statement said shortly after 5 a.m., a throng of shoppers "physically broke down the doors, knocking (the worker) to the ground." Nassau County police said the worker was taken to a hospital where he was pronounced dead at about 6 a.m. His name was not released.

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