Aisle Worker of the Year
At the toy store, competition for the first annual Aisle Worker of the Year Award began just before Thanksgiving. Now, the night before Christmas Eve, customers would cast their final votes and Nick was glad of it. His photo had been hanging above the electric doors for a month, and he couldn’t stand to look at it anymore because he’d only lip-smiled, and his eyes glanced a little left of the camera. When Yvonne the manager had taken his photo, he tried to think of someone he liked so that he could smile, but he couldn’t settle on a particular person. His uncertain expression beside the broad smiles of Chrystie and Lee was already a strike against him. And worse, next to their photos was Alphonse’s face, full of confidence and a warmth that seemed to say, I like you, and I’m sure you already like me.
Nick worked the games aisle. During breaks, he read what he could of his Carl Jung book for an evening college class. Sometimes before work he went to the golf course nearby where he’d found a way to play alone. The starter took his extra ten dollars the first time but waved him along after that because it was cold and the course was nearly empty.
On the course, Nick liked to make his round more interesting by thinking of people he liked and imagining a match between them. One day he held a contest between Carol and Sarah, two friends he’d known in high school. The next day Maureen and Sylvia, who worked the registers at the toy store, faced off. The winners competed on the third day, and then there was a new tournament. He’d think of the same four or sometimes conjure up other imaginary competitors, all of them people he’d known in the past or wanted to know now. The winners were gracious and the losers were a little disappointed, but none of them felt really hurt or angry. In his most recent match, Sylvia played the first hole and Maureen the second. They alternated through even and odd holes, and at the end he counted the scores to find the winner.
He missed Carol and Sarah, and this was a way of keeping them in his mind, and he liked Maureen and Sylvia at the store. Maureen was outgoing and had wavy red hair and bright brown eyes. She was easy to talk to, but there was an unfriendly, gossipy edge to her. Sylvia was more reserved and thoughtful and impossibly pretty and equally impossible for him to talk to. Once in the break room, Nick watched her smile a little sadly as she listened to Maureen and the other cashiers gossip.
After the Aisle Worker of the Year competition was announced, he’d played a match between Sylvia and Maureen, deciding that he’d ask out the winner. Sylvia trounced Maureen, who blew several short putts and lost two balls in the woods and threw a mini-tantrum. In his mind, Sylvia told him, What a baby she is. Now ask me out and get it over with.
Maybe, but you don’t even look my way, he answered her on his way back to the clubhouse for a beer.
At work, Alphonse was in charge of the infant and toddler section. He told jokes to the customers and made up nicknames for their children, and he seemed to make a lifelong friend each time he sold a stroller or a baby carrier. Meanwhile, Nick pointed out Mr. Potato Heads to confused customers who were standing right in front of the Mr. Potato Heads the whole time. He spent much of his time not on the floor but in the back room where he could think or read while organizing or stacking boxes of games. He’d been keeping his Carl Jung book stuffed between boxes of Connect Fours and Shoots n’ Ladders. He read it when he could, and during breaks he took it to the break room upstairs.
Out on the floor, he watched Alphonse tickle a baby under the chin while the child’s parents beamed. He imagined himself married to Sylvia, and when Alphonse tickled their baby under the chin, he’d knock Alphonse into one of the strollers and send him rolling wildly down the aisle.
The parents were ready to move along, but not before Alphonse pointed to the Aisle Worker of the Year voting table under the photos on the wall. He handed them a card and waved to the baby with his fingers as they placed him in the stroller.
Later in the break room, Sylvia, Maureen, and Alphonse sat together, and Nick sat on the other end of the bench pretending to read Carl Jung.
“One hundred dollars is nothing to sneeze at,” Maureen was saying.
Nick thought of faking a sneeze but reconsidered.
“I know I have no chance,” said Alphonse. “That big lug over there has it won, I hear.”
Confused, Nick looked over, then shook his head. “Not me.”
“Yes, you,” said Alphonse. “You’re like The Rock of Gibraltar over there with those games. Very reliable—he’s very reliable,” he said to Maureen and Sylvia.
Maureen laughed but Sylvia stifled a yawn and rubbed her eyes. Nick imagined her crushing Maureen in golf the next time he played.
“Nick’s a sweetheart with the customers too,” Alphonse went on to them. “Always pointing to the right games when they ask. Just. . . top notch.”
Nick smirked and looked away, and Alphonse whispered something. Maureen laughed so loudly that Nick couldn’t tell if Sylvia laughed too. His face burned and he stood and headed for the stairs.
“See ya, sir,” Alphonse called.
Out on the floor, Nick looked for Yvonne because a customer had opened a game and left it on the shelf. On the way, he passed Sylvia at the register, back from her break. He looked at her coldly and she knit her brows.
In the games aisle, an older man with a young child, maybe his grandson, wanted advice on the best games for seven-year-olds.
Nick had no idea, but he showed the man Shoots n’ Ladders and Candyland and Connect Four and a few others.
“Monopoly was around when I was a kid,” the man said, pulling one from its stack and examining the box.
“When I was younger,” said Nick, “there was an argument every time I played that game.”
“Money does that to people.”
“No one feels good playing it, and the winner feels greedy.”
The man slid the game back onto the shelf. “Not always. Sometimes the winner feels smart or lucky.”
“I guess. Maybe it’s just me who feels greedy.”
The man took his grandson’s hand. “Some people say greed is good.”
“Rich people say it’s good,” said Nick.
The man laughed to himself. “Some do, sure. Maybe it’s all right to want more but not at the expense of others. Is that what you’re thinking?”
“Maybe. . . I think so.”
“I think we’ll go with the Connect Four,” the man said, and he gave the game to his grandson. “Nice to meet you. What’s your name?”
“Nick, nice to meet you. I’m Ronnie, and this is Evan.”
“Nice to meet you too—both. . . of you.”
They walked on. Soon Nick drifted to the open space between aisles and watched Alphonse talk with Ronnie, who smiled politely with his arms folded. Then Alphonse shook Ronnie’s hand, and he bent to shake Evan’s hand, and Nick growled low in his throat. He headed for the front of the store to place a broken game box in a wagon set aside for broken items. Sylvia glanced at him. Beyond her, near the electric doors, a few customers were checking off names for Aisle Worker of the Year. He approached her register, his heart hammering.
“Not so busy for Christmas,” he said.
“It was busy before, but now there aren’t so many people,” she said and bit back a smile. “So it’s not that busy anymore.”
“So you’re saying that when there are fewer people in the store, then it’s not busy, but if there are more people, that’s when it gets busy.”
“So I’m onto something here.”
He smiled and walked away. He imagined three or four dates followed quickly by marriage, and then the uncertainty and the competition and the need to pose and the hope for love would end, and meanwhile she would certainly trounce Maureen the next time he played golf in the cold. And after their baby was born and Alphonse tried to tickle its chin to win a vote, Nick would toss Alphonse into a shopping cart and send him careening into the Barbies.
Back in the games aisle, he found himself more patient with some last-minute customers. One customer couldn’t find the Mr. Potato Heads, but instead of imagining telling the man he was a potato head himself for not seeing them right in front of him, Nick patiently reached onto the shelf and picked one out.
“I can’t believe I didn’t see that,” the man said.
“I’m always surprised when I find something, too,” said Nick. “Sometimes I can’t see what’s staring me right in the face.”
“Me too,” said the man.
“Me too,” Nick said.
Near closing, word passed that the Aisle Worker of the Year voting was closed and the winner would be announced at punch-out time. Nick dragged himself to Yvonne’s office and stood outside the circle of employees. Maureen talked excitedly to Sylvia, who looked on solemnly, and Nick studied the side of her cheek, her jaw, her hair, her lips, her neck, her ears, and her eyes. Yvonne called out names and votes one at a time.
“Lee. . . sixteen.” She shuffled the index cards. “Alphonse. . . twenty-eight.” She shuffled again. “Nick. . . one.” She shuffled. “And Chrystie. . . eight. Nice, Chrystie, wow. And the winner is. . . Alphonse!”
They applauded. Nick clapped once, and Alphonse very humbly collected his one hundred dollar check. Smiling sheepishly before them, he made a heart sign with his hands.
Nick drifted away and headed outside. In his cold car, he slammed the door and growled, and while idling at the first red light, he roared a stream of curses and drew looks from a family in the car beside him.
Later, in his apartment building’s parking lot, he turned off the ignition and sat in the car and took deep breaths, focusing on the vapor from his mouth. He rested his head on the steering wheel and shivered and whimpered a little. Then, numb and stinging from cold, he thought of Sylvia and Ronnie, imagining that one or the other had cast his only vote—a vote that equaled those from twenty-eight ticklees, he told himself, and made the heart sign with frozen hands.