Dollar Mart

By Julie Stout

The customer is well-groomed. Black, or African-American, and she has done something lovely with her edge hairs.  They’re curled into spirals and waxed to lay down flat along her crown. She has a French manicure, and she’s buying Midol, a box of tampons, and an individually-wrapped pickle.  We don’t sell a lot of Midol. Mostly, people steal it. We don’t sell a lot of those pickles.  I’ve often thought if we took them out of the refrigerator next to the yogurt and put them by the register, they would sell better. I’ve never eaten one of those pickles. The pickle costs ninety-seven cents. Do I want a pickle? Not really. What am I going to eat for lunch?

Anthony says, “I’m going to go ahead and take my lunch,” like he does every day around this time, which is absurd because he never actually takes a lunch. He clocks out, goes outside to smoke a cigarette, and then comes back in and keeps ringing the register once he’s off the clock.  Kim does the same thing.  When I clock out for my lunch, I don’t do shit. Most of the time, when I’m clocked in, I’m not doing shit. I am not trying to do shit.

I look at his hands. They are brown from whatever work he’s been doing. I recognize hands like that. Why is this man who obviously works for a living having to use an EBT card?

The customer is white, or Caucasian. He’s very dirty. OK, not very dirty.  He’s mildly dirty from work.  He’s buying three cans of Monster, a caffeinated “energy” drink. “EBT,” he says, which tells me he’s been on food stamps a long time because the PIN pad will take an EBT card the same as a debit card. You don’t have to declare your intent to use food stamps to the cashier at Dollar Mart, but sometimes, older customers do. The guy can’t get his card to swipe.  First of all, the card is broken in half horizontally. You see this a lot. Once you get issued an EBT card in Ohio, you have to keep that same card forever.  My caseworker said if I want a new one, it takes six weeks to replace, so everybody just keeps using their same old card that is older than kids who can drive a car.

The customer tries to swipe his half of an EBT card several times. It’s not going through. He’s got the card upside down.  I look at his hands. They are brown from whatever work he’s been doing. I recognize hands like that. Why is this man who obviously works for a living having to use an EBT card? How little is he making at his job that he qualifies for food stamps? Maybe he has like six kids.

I lean over the COVID sneeze guard to show him how to swipe his card on the PIN pad, but he’s not getting it, so I just hit the red button for him to put his number in manually The next customer is Black, older. He’s extremely clean cut with a golf shirt and an ivory linen flat cap.  I can smell his cologne. It’s nice. I recognize this guy as one of Anthony’s neighbors.  He’s buying a bottle of laundry detergent. I notice that he’s wearing a heavy gold chain with a large crucifix that bounces on his solar plexus.  I wonder if he’s Christian. He’s probably Christian. I’m Christian. I wonder what it’s like to purchase a necklace like that.  Do you say to yourself, “Jesus would be into this?” What is this necklace trying to communicate? I think this necklace has some significance other than to do with Jesus, but I am not the intended recipient of the message, so to me, it’s unknowable.

Anthony and his neighbor stand in the doorway of the store and exchange information about the old lady’s house where the pit bull keeps getting off its chain. Anthony and his neighbor both have pit bulls. Anthony has two. Well, one’s his girlfriend’s, but she’s in rehab. I wonder if the problem is that they don’t want the old lady’s dog to impregnate their dogs or if it’s a situation where there could be a dog fight. Probably a dog fight. The door of the store is wide open to the parking lot.  The air conditioning isn’t working so Anthony propped the door open.  It’s not helping to regulate the temperature of the store, but psychologically, it’s better than nothing. It’s something we have control over. I’m ringing up the next customer, a K-Pop fan. She’s buying stickers. I knew she’s a K-pop fan because she’s a regular and she likes to talk about those guys.  I don’t know any of their names.  I think it’s nice that she has a hobby.

Kim says, “Julie, is it ok that I put a pizza on your car?” Now when Kim comes up to ask me something while I’m ringing the register, it’s usually like, “Can you go help Anthony with the rolltainers? Can you go recover soap and shower? Can you go do the bathrooms?” Something I’m not really trying to do. I scan the sentence: pizza, car.  Doesn’t sound like I have to do anything about it. “Yeah, sure. Yes,” I say. This is Kim’s day off. What is she doing here anyways? “Where’s Anthony?” Where is Anthony? Pizza on my car doesn’t quite make any sense. I spray the checkout counter with Lysol.  Customers keep knocking the Lysol off the top shelf and cracking the plastic lid so we can’t sell it.  We have a shit-ton of Lysol behind the counter for store use, so I like to sanitize things. According the our work flow list that was probably printed in 2020, sanitizing is required on every shift because of COVID, but nobody gives a fuck about that now.

Anthony reappears with a bunch of helium balloons. They say, “Happy Mother’s Day” and “World’s Best Mom.”  Kim relays her story:

I was walking up to Ianazone’s to get the pizza for Trevor’s party.  This guy drives past and waves, so I wave back without thinking. Because I am a normal person. This guy pulls up, stops his car, and turns around to follow me like a stalker. I have a stalker now. He followed me to Ianazone’s parking lot and was still waiting out there when I came out with the pizza, so I walked across the street to come over here and see if Julie could drive me home so I can get rid of this guy following me.

I give Kim a ride home. The pizza smells wonderful.  Anthony says they changed their sauce, but that is a lie because I’m smelling this pizza and it’s transporting me back to 1987 where I’m roller skating around in my driveway and my stepdad just brought home a pizza from Ianazone’s and everything is basically okay.  It’s a good memory. When I get back from taking Kim home, Anthony is on the ladder trying to fuck with the thermostat. “I got all the balloons out of the air intake vent and now I’m trying to shut this fan off that’s blowing hot air down on us.”

“Don’t they control the heat from corporate now? From a computer. They can just control the heat in your store remotely,” the customer says.  He’s a generic old white man with white hair, I see a Narcotics Anonymous chip in his hand when he pays exact change for his box enema.  You have no idea how many of those we sell. My next customer is a regular, a white lady who usually comes in later at night. She’s buying three packs of licorice, Twizzlers, and a Coke. She’s one of the saddest people I’ve ever seen in my life. She lives in the High Rises. Kim told me that her daughter was murdered in the elevator.  Her daughter was stabbed to death. There were no witnesses.  Nobody knows why she was killed. But the mom still lives in the High Rises. She gives me eleven dollars in one dollar bills and says, “Keep the change.”  Eleven dollars isn’t enough to pay for three packs of Twizzlers, but I didn’t ring her up for them anyways.

If we were truly on strike, I guess we would lock the doors and shut the store down, but we keep the store open. A sit down strike. I know it won’t last.

“It’s too hot in here to work,” Anthony says. “I mean it.” I cannot believe my ears. Anthony, Mr. I-WORK-WHEN-I-AM-NOT-EVEN-CLOCKED-IN is telling me that we’re going on strike. He is calling Kim on the phone. “Don’t expect any of the rolltainers to be done when you come in tomorrow morning. We’re not going to do any work in this heat. It’s dangerous to our health. We could get heat stroke. Especially Julie on her medication. We are not doing any work tonight.” To be completely honest, I wasn’t planning on doing any work anyways. But this is something novel. Something unexpected. Anthony just declared us on strike. As far as I know, none of the Dollar Marts in North America are unionized, but like me and Anthony are going to get together and exercise our Weingarten rights and shit.  I pull lawn chairs out of the summer barbecue display and set them out on the sidewalk in front of the store where we can still see the register.

If we were truly on strike, I guess we would lock the doors and shut the store down, but we keep the store open. A sit down strike. I know it won’t last. Kim will come in tomorrow morning and do her work PLUS all the work we don’t do tonight, because Kim– she’s not ready to sign a union card. Not even close. They will probably make her management of her own store. She’s really into the whole Dollar Mart management agenda.  This strike won’t last out the night, but I’m absolutely doing everything in my power to support this kind of behavior from Anthony.  And by doing everything I can, I mean sitting in this lawn chair and looking at my phone.

The trees out back behind Ianazone’s pizza shop are in full green leaf. Tonight is special. We take turns sitting in the lawn chair and ringing the register while the sun takes its time setting.  

I’m at the register when this customer comes through my line with hot dogs, buns, ketchup, and mustard, a white lady with blonde hair. She tries to pay with half an EBT card. We run it manually and it comes up INSUFFICIENT FUNDS. “Do you know how much you have on there? Do you know how to call the phone number and check?” I ask her. Bewildered, she puts the ketchup and mustard back. I try to ring up just the hot dogs and the buns, but it still comes up INSUFFICIENT FUNDS.  “Try just the hot dogs,” she says. I look at her face while we’re waiting to see if it goes through. She has one of those Marilyn Monroe piercings with a little gem embedded in her cheek. I notice a tear forming in her one eye. She’s going to cry over the hot dogs, but I can’t believe it. When I tell her INSUFFICIENT FUNDS again, she runs out of the store. 

I tell Anthony about it, and he’s like, “Why didn’t you just give her the hot dogs?” It’s a legitimate question. Examining my role in this theater of poverty, I have to confess that I didn’t consider that she actually really needed those hot dogs. Because why would you go through the checkout line and fuck around with an EBT card that has no money on it when you can simply TAKE the hot dogs. Just walk out the door. Everybody else does. This is the Dollar Mart. Take it. Whatever you need. Maxi pads, baby Tylenol, pregnancy test. Just take it. Nobody’s going to stop you. A lady came in here yesterday and took an entire shopping cart full of groceries. I know this because a customer, a white lady, told me she saw a woman loading up her car in the parking lot with stolen merchandise. I said, “I didn’t see anything.” 

People from the High Rises start getting off work and coming into the store to get their late evening purchases. Me and Anthony have both registers open and there’s a line. Diapers, condoms, popcorn, blunt wraps. 

A customer, Black lady, comes through my line with her daughter whose hair is in the loveliest braids with those big round plastic opaque beads I haven’t seen in years. They used to sell them at Phar-Mor, but we don’t sell beads at Dollar Mart. The customer is buying things for her daughter’s school lunches: Ziploc bags and boxes of Hi-C fruit punch. We sell a lot of these. Every kid in Youngstown has to be drinking Hi-C fruit punch the amount of it we sell. It reminds me of The Wire, where the kid who is a drug dealer gets juice boxes for all the little kids and helps them with their math homework. That’s just so American. Here’s your juice box, kid. Your poison Red No. 5 and your sugar water. Don’t drink out the actual water fountain at your school because the water has lead in it. 

I think I’ll watch The Wire when I get home from work tonight. I have my sister’s HBOGo password. Or HBOMAX. Max. Whatever. 

One of the regulars, the lady who works for the bail bondsman, comes and asks if we’re out of the one dollar aluminum foil. “We’re out,” I tell her. I’m annoyed. Why the fuck is she asking me for one dollar aluminum foil? There is only one reason you need that, and it’s to smoke crack. Why do I have to be involved? Take the six dollar aluminum foil. Just take it. Don’t come up and fucking ask me about it. I’m not trying to work tonight. 

Two regulars in Anthony’s line are hooting and hollering. There are two fat white guys yelling at each other. The one keeps shouting, “I just came from my cousin’s funeral!” Allegedly, the one guy’s daughter is spreading rumors at school that the other guy’s daughter is a lesbian. The lesbian in question is pulling on her dad’s bicep, trying to coax him into leaving without a fight. “Come on, Dad,” she wheedles. She has freckles on her nose. I think I’ve seen her hanging out with the K-Pop girl. The fat guy who just came from his cousin’s funeral decks the fat dad. The fat dad loses his balances and knocks over the lesbian girl, who in turn knocks over a rack of gift cards. 

I’m thinking about how little I care about this drama when I see the shot. There’s a flash in the corner of my eye. Off to the left, there is an older Black woman clutching her purse and a pistol. She looks scared. The lady who works for the bail bondsman runs out the store. I’m trying to process what the fuck just happened, and it occurs to me that I’m being robbed, so I open the cash register. 

But something’s not adding up. Something about this whole situation does not make sense. The lesbian girl is crying. There is a smell. Did this lady just shoot me? What the fuck. I am pissed. 

I would have just given her the money, but I didn’t even know we were being robbed. This is way more bullshit than anyone should have to deal with for $10.50 an hour. I am not paid enough to deal with this shit. And I turn around and see it. Anthony is lying on the floor and there is something wrong with his face. Anthony has been shot. Anthony is dead. 

I walk out the door and I don’t look back. I head towards Ianazone’s. I keep walking. Into the woods. 

The End.

Anti-union poster from a Dollar General break room

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