“It’s a lateral move,” she told me. “Still entry level, but with a huge raise. The warehouse has to meet the Teamsters’ pay scale or no one will drive for us. The position requires someone both competent and creative. I immediately thought of you, Jenna.”
Her compliment made me suspicious.
“What’s the position?” I asked.
Rhonda cocked her head, the spiked ends of her pixie haircut moving as one. She closed her mascaraed eyes for a moment in an expression we clerks called Rhonda's thinking pose. It usually meant overtime for some one, possibly everyone.
“China stock coordinator,” she said when she came to. “You would start on Monday.” She wrote a number on a piece of paper and handed it to me. “This is how much you would make an hour.” It was more than twice what I was getting paid.
Just out of college in 1981, I had taken the job as a salesclerk in the china and glassware department of upscale Whitney Stores, Inc. Nylons, make-up, skirts – it wasn’t my style. But, having majored in philosophy, I could find value in any experience. I started as temporary Christmas help. By summer I was doing the assistant buyer’s paperwork. Now Rhonda, the department manager, was offering me a transfer to the red brick warehouse by the river.
She explained that the new owners of Whitney Stores, Inc. wanted all stock to be kept in a central location rather than at each of the nine outlets. Retail stores would only have display samples on their shelves. The clerks would call and have items shipped from the warehouse as needed.
“Customers can pick up their purchases at any of our stores after three o’clock. Or….” Rhonda paused, alerting me to the importance of her next words. “We'll deliver for a small fee.” She flashed a Revlon smile.
My job would be to take the calls and fill the orders.
“It's a big responsibility,” Rhonda said, like she believed it to be true. “You'll design the forms, and set up the system yourself. Our warehouse man, Bob, will help you. He's been down there for years.”
I entered the warehouse the next Monday feeling like my old self in t-shirt and jeans. When I stepped off the scuffed and rusty elevator, the duffer who ran the shrink-wrap machine, grunted with disgust. It wasn't the greeting I expected. I thought a genial tutor would be awaiting my arrival. Instead, I found a balding man with eagle blue eyes. Bob.
“Aren't you on the wrong floor?” His sinewy arm gripped the handle on the side of a greasy machine that hulked beside him.
I scanned the elevator door. There were no floor numbers displayed. “Am I? They told me third floor.”
Bob snorted. “Alterations is on two. That's where the girls work.”
He turned away and pushed the handle. A metal frame holding a taut sheet of clear plastic belched out of the machine and descended through the empty center, engulfing a china plate turned upside down on a square of cardboard. There was a vehement sucking sound followed by a loud clunk. The frame released and rose again. The odor of hot cellophane tinged the air.
Bob pulled another length of thick plastic from a large roll fastened above the machine. He clamped it into the frame and faced me again. “You still here?”
I straightened, thumbs hooked in my jean pockets. “I work here. Same as you.”
Bob let out a guttural sound that became a throaty cough. He spit into a bucket at his feet, grabbed another piece of cardboard from a stack near the wall, and took a small teacup from a gray bin at his side. He pointed the demitasse in my direction. “No one here works the same as me.”
He arranged the cup on the cardboard at just the right angle so it wouldn't break under the vacuum pressure. I inched forward, intent on what he was doing. Bob jerked around and thrust a yellow stained index-finger my way. “Don't ever touch this machine. Don't even think about asking to run it.”
He pushed the handle for emphasis.
“I'm the new stock coordinator,” I said in my defense.
“Then go coordinate something,” Bob told me.
But I had no idea what I was supposed to do. I looked around in bewilderment. The part of the third floor not claimed by Bob and his shrink-wrap machine was filled, floor to ceiling, with metal shelves which in turn were filled with sets of china. The names of the patterns were posted at the end of each row: Tivoli, Rose Garden, St. John's Field. I peered at Bob. He was absorbed in packing orders from the gray bin.
Then a phone rang. It sounded from several places at once: from a speaker at the cornice, from a speaker by Bob's machine, and from somewhere amongst the shelves. I didn't see a telephone anywhere, yet one kept ringing. I wandered through rows of plates and cups and creamers and gravy boats toward what I thought was the origin of the insistent noise. It was close by, I could tell.
“Damn it.” Bob stormed past me to a telephone sitting on a rickety desk hidden behind tall boxes of plastic wrap.
“What.” Bob barked into the receiver. “Dessert plate? Tivoli?” He squinted one eye at the ceiling. “Yeah, I got one of them. I'll send it out today.”
He slammed down the phone and glared at me. “You sure you got off on the right floor?”
Bob marched down an aisle to retrieve the requested dessert plate. He placed it in the bin and went back to packing his orders.
The phone rang again. I answered it, “Warehouse.”
There was no response. “China, glass warehouse,” I said, thinking I needed to clarify my whereabouts.
“Um.” The woman on the other end took a beat. “Is Bob there? I have an order.”
“You can give it to me. I'm Jenna, the new stock coordinator.”
“I'll take the order.” I jiggled open the long drawer under the desktop and felt around for writing material.
“There are several items, all for one customer. Two place settings, two coffee mugs, two napkin rings, and one set of candleholders. Cosmopolitan.”
I was still looking for a pen and paper, opening the side drawers of the old desk, the ones that weren't stuck shut, and rifling through miscellaneous office supplies none of which were blank paper. None of which was a pen. “Can you hold a minute?”
I depressed a white button on the desk phone putting the line on hold. The little Lucite square blinked a light in warning. I hurried to Bob, who was messing with some gears at the back of his machine. “I have an order.”
“So take it,” he said, not bothering to look up from what he was doing.
“I need a pen and paper.”
“Look in the desk,” he snapped.
The phone rang again. The nine branch stores were now open and the clerks were getting busy. The warehouse phone could manage four calls at once. I rushed back to the desk to see the push button no longer blinking. The call on hold had hung up. Another was coming in. “China stockroom.”
“Can I talk to Bob?” I recognized the voice. It was the same clerk from before.
“You can give me the order,” I told her.
“Do you have a pen?” Her words dripped with annoyance.
Rhonda told me just Bob and I would be working on the third floor. What she failed to mention was that Bob had always worked by himself. He liked it that way. There wasn't even a women's restroom. I had to take the elevator down to alterations to use their bathroom. Those ladies all knew Bob. A fleshy middle-aged woman in a flowered smock struck up a conversation while washing her hands. “He's such a card. So funny. He cracks us up when he visits.”
“Bob comes down here?”
“On his way to the dock to smoke.” Wiping her hands on a brown paper towel she scrutinized me. Self-conscious, I twisted a strand of my frizzy brown hair. “So,” she said. “You're working with him now?”
“They transferred me in from the downtown store. Main branch,” I added, like it meant something.
“Really?” She pushed open the bathroom door. “Who’d you piss off?”
That week, I drew up an order form with spaces for the information I might need: date, item, pattern, store name, clerk name, customer name, and address. I made 100 copies of it on the Xerox machine in the office of the warehouse manager. When Bob saw the sheets lying on the stockroom desk, a chipped coffee mug filled with pens standing at the ready, he laughed. Later that day, I caught him reading one over. He stroked the stubble on his chin, nodding. I inhaled a deep breath in triumph.
Bob bristled when he saw me. “Waste of time.” He dropped the order form on the desk and tapped his temple. “I keep everything in my head.”
Rhonda came by the next week. “How are you getting along with Bob?” she asked, without a hint of sarcasm.
“I don't think he likes me,” I said.
“Oh, that's just how he is. You'll get used to him.”
Before she left, Rhonda cornered Bob in a row of metal shelves. They had a whispered exchange. I heard my name. Bob stormed back to his machine and didn't speak to me the rest of the day, not even a snort in my direction. We punched out at the time clock together. “See you tomorrow,” I said.
Bob didn't answer. Whatever Rhonda told him, it did not sit well.
The next morning, Bob shoved an inventory sheet in my face the minute I set foot on the third floor. “The Mikasa sale is this weekend. The pallets are down on the dock. That's the breakdown of how many go to each store. Come on.” He headed toward the freight elevator that went to the loading dock.
I hesitated. I didn’t know if this was a legitimate part of my job or some kind of trap. I looked over at my desk. The phone lines were dark. There was a half hour until the stores opened.
“Well?” he asked. “What are you waiting for? An engraved invitation?”
The freight elevator was a cage of vertical wood slats. You could see through it to the walls of the shaft. I stepped in with the trepidation of a prisoner entering his cell for the first time. Bob slid closed the elevator door, a metal gate of triangular links that clattered toward the lock. There were only two buttons, one for up, one for down. A lever controlled the speed. You pushed it forward from a stopped position. Bob stabbed his finger at the down button and shoved the lever. My stomach lurched into my throat.
“What's the matter?” Bob asked. “Don’t like free-fall?”
He pulled back on the lever and our descent slowed. He pulled back more. The elevator crept down its cable. My stomach regained its stability. That's when I realized the walls of the elevator shaft were covered with pictures of naked women in lascivious poses. Some appeared to have been there for years, judging by the faded colors and outmoded hair-dos.
Though I had seen such pictures before, I had never seen them in front of Bob. He stared at me, a sparkle in his eyes. I felt as naked under that stare as the disrobed models around me. I blushed and looked away. Bob’s snigger culminated in a fit of hacking. He stopped the elevator at the loading dock and rattled open the metal door. Idling engines of semis filled the morning with noxious exhaust. Bob walked out among the truck drivers, lit a cigarette, and said something. They stared at me and laughed. I bit my lip to keep from crying.
I avoided Bob after that. I stayed at my desk, listening to the machine belch and Bob cough. I took the orders over to the packing machine when Bob was down smoking with the truckers. I made sure to come in to work after he was already there and stay until he left for the day. I didn't want to meet him at the time clock.
Once Bob tried to make it up to me. “Connie called from the Bay Shore store while you were on break. I pulled the order but you might want to check it. Make sure I got it right.”
It was his way of apologizing, but I wasn't having it. I turned my back on him with no acknowledgment.
Then one day I arrived at work to find Rhonda standing at Bob's machine. A handsome, crew cut young man wearing a golf shirt and creased jeans stood at her elbow.
“Jenna.” Rhonda came to take my arm, her high heels clicking on the concrete floor. “I want you to meet Wesley. He's going to be filling in for Bob.”
I peeked around her at the new guy. “Is Bob on vacation?”
“He's in the hospital with pneumonia. Wesley?” Rhonda stepped aside. “This is Jenna. She takes the orders.”
Wesley gave me an indifferent, “Hi,” and turned to Bob's machine.
“So,” I said, after Rhonda had gone. “You’re new with Whitney Stores?”
“Isn’t that obvious? I sure wouldn't be working in the warehouse if I’d been with the company for any length of time.”
Overlooking Wesley’s pompous attitude, I gave him a coy smile. “I'll try to take it easy on you.”
“How hard can it be? Pushing a handle and loading a truck, big deal.” He took a comb from his back pocket. “Where's the john?”
I pointed the way to the men's room. Wesley left me in a fog of his arrogance.
I made a special trip down to the second floor bathroom to check the gossip. “I heard he's a friend of the big boss's son.” A skinny woman with orange lipstick poofed out her hair with her fingers “He's here to spy on us. Make sure we're not trying to unionize.”
“He is the boss's son,” said my fleshy, floral smocked acquaintance. “He's here because he got kicked out of school.” She met my eyes in the mirror. “We're punishment.”
Deciding I would rather work with a surly old dude than a conceited young one, I went to visit Bob in County Hospital. The place was huge and labyrinthine with pea green walls. In the main lobby, I gave Bob's name to the woman at the information desk.
“Room 312. Oncology floor.” She pushed a laminated map at me, detailing the route with the tip of a pen. She used terms like corridor A and elevator 2, but my mind was stuck on that word oncology. Bob had cancer. The story of his pneumonia was a ruse, most likely instigated by him to maintain privacy.
Of course, I got lost. A cleaning woman recognized my confusion and came to my aid. She hauled her cart of rags and spray bottles of disinfectant to where I stood. “Don't feel bad, honey,” she said. “Even the doctors get turned around in this place.”
She directed me to Bob’s room with simple instructions. Inside, I found a bespectacled man wearing a plaid flannel robe and reading a National Geographic. “Bob Kobalski?” I asked.
He gestured with his thumb at the drawn curtain beside his bed. I thanked him and edged around the drape. Bob was sitting in a vinyl lounger, thin white blanket over his legs, blue checked hospital gown loose at his neck. He had an IV in his arm. A plastic tube ran from an oxygen tank to nasal prongs inserted into his nose. His flesh was pale, his cheeks gaunt. Bob grinned when he saw me. “Jenna. What a surprise. You're the last person I expected.”
My name sounded weird when he said it. He had never called me by name before. I could tell he was glad to see me, and that seemed weirder still. “I come with greetings from the girls in alterations,” I said.
It was a prepared line.
“They sent me those flowers.” Bob nodded toward a vase of rose buds, carnations, and lilies, all pink. I could imagine my restroom friend, her smock pockets bulging with cash contributions, ordering the feminine bouquet for the gruff Bob.
“I have something for you too.” I pulled out the multi-pack of Wrigley's that I bought at the last minute on the way to the hospital. It was the flavor Bob chewed in the warehouse between cigarettes.
“Ain't that nice.” Bob handled the gift like it was fragile. “I can use that in here.” He placed the gum on the bedside table.
“Sit on down. Pull that chair over. Fred won't mind.” Bob shouted at the drape. “You don't mind if my girl here borrows the chair, do you Fred?”
“Hell, no.” The bespectacled man spoke from behind the curtain. “Your daughter can take it.”
“No, no,” I said, meaning I was not Bob's daughter.
“Sure, go ahead.” Bob gestured at the chair.
“I can't stay long,” I told him. “I just wanted to come by and tell you that we all look forward to you coming back to work.”
I couldn't quite say I missed him.
He gave me that snicker I had come to know. It ended in a long hacking spell. “I bet,” he said, catching his breath. “Better me than that ass Wesley, huh?”
I was about to ask him how and what he knew about Wesley, when a nurse tugged the curtain aside. Another nurse had the roommate, Fred, in a wheelchair and was pushing him into the hall.
“How's my lover boy today?” Bob's nurse asked.
“Waiting for my sponge bath,” Bob told her with a wink.
The nurse checked the fluid in the IV then turned to me. “You'll have to step out, miss. It's time to settle Mr. Kobalski back in bed.”
“That’s ok. I've got to get going.”
“Really, so soon?” Bob seemed disappointed. “I wanted to talk to you.” He looked at the nurse. “Karen, can I have a second with my girl here?”
She let out an exasperated sigh. “One second, no more. I have other patients, you know.”
“Yeah, but you like me best.” Bob gave her a weak smile.
Karen the nurse laughed. “That I do.” She muttered to me in passing, “Not too much now. Your father has a big day tomorrow.”
She left before I could contradict her assumption. “What's going on tomorrow?” I asked Bob.
“Oh, they're going to cut on me, that's all.” He peered at the door then crooked his finger, signaling me to come closer. I leaned in, wary.
Bob hushed his voice. “The elevator. The nudie pictures.”
Here it comes, I thought. He's been playing me, pretending to be glad to see me only to set me up for a zinger. I stiffened. “What about them.”
“It's tricky, stopping the elevator at just the right time. The lever sticks. The pictures tell you when to slow down, that you're coming to a floor. That's why we put them there. I wanted you to know in case you ever have to drive that thing.” He fell back in the chair, rubbing his chest. “Hit bottom too hard, you’ll knock your teeth out.”
I stood there amazed by both the explanation and his concern.
Bob's brows came down in a scowl. “That Wesley. He doesn't care, not like you and me. It's just a job to him. I bet half of the orders he packs show up in pieces.”
He fixed me with his sharp blue eyes. “When I come back I'll show you how to run the shrink-wrap machine. Then they won’t have to send idiots like Wesley. We’ll have the third floor to ourselves again.”
I reached out to touch his hand. “Okay.”
Back in the hallway, I stood alone in front of the shiny aluminum elevator. When the doors parted, several people walked off - a doctor in a white coat, a nurse in scrubs, a woman carrying a potted plant. Behind them the cleaning lady who had given me directions waited with her cart. The elevator empty, she pushed through the doorway. I put my hand over the frame to keep the doors from closing on her.