Getting close to the end. We’re going to make it, I think! Don’t stop rooting me on, because I need all the encouragement I can get, especially after three weeks of writing so much pain. Thanks for hanging with me. Today I give you a story about some women who dealt with their pain and their problems in their own way. I’m not saying I approve; it’s questionable at best. But I am saying that I understand the frustration.
Why shouldn't they help themselves, after the way they'd been treated? Amy hesitated, but Jinny pulled her along. Kimmi and Lise were already inside, and Jinny was afraid they’d be seen. The two of them moved inside and caught up with their friends.
Lise was already grabbing items off the shelves. Bread, powdered milk, canned corn…her enormous tote was getting heavy. Once she had it filled, she reached for the one Kimmi held and started filling that. Amy felt nausea and pain in her stomach, and realized she was going to have to find a bathroom quickly.
She headed toward the back of the store, employees only, on instinct. Jinny grabbed her and pointed her toward the customer bathroom. “We can use that one now. We don’t hafta go to that crummy employee shithole any more.”
Amy pulled off her gloves in the bathroom and stared at her hands. Were these really her hands, these worn, calloused hands? She remembered it wasn’t so long ago they were soft, and Mike liked it when she touched him. Now he flinched and complained that her hands hurt. She told him that’s just part of getting older, but she knew other older women still had soft hands…women who didn’t have to clean toilets and scrub pots and pans and all the other things she had to do, she thought. Women who could go to the department store and pick out new dresses and shoes to go with them. Not women who made their own dresses, unable to even afford the pattern so she had to create her own. Nope, she wasn’t one of those women, and part of it was Mike’s fault.
She pulled her gloves back on without using the restroom. She was worried there might be some trace of DNA or maybe butts were like fingerprints…could they be traced? The pain in her stomach had eased, so she rejoined her friends and helped Lise pull diapers off the shelf and stuff them in the satchel. She didn’t need diapers anymore, but Jinny still had the twins. They were all in this together, and she wanted her friends to get what they needed, too.
Amy tried not to think about what they were doing, but it was impossible, especially while they were doing it. She never dreamed she’d end up someday breaking into the store where she had worked for so long, the store where she’d been fired that morning for daring to start her period while working the counter, the store that had treated her so badly for so long. She had assumed she and Mike would have a better life than her parents did, that Mike would succeed where her father…and his…had failed. He was so promising. It turned out that a lot of promises never pan out, and he never got the promotions his boss promised, no matter how hard he worked. Now, since his accident, he could barely keep up at all.
Amy grabbed a dozen boxes of tampons and shoved them into the bag. “They owe me”, she said. Jinny nodded, but Lise looked worried.
“You take those, they might tie it to you. And that might lead them to us, too.”
Amy stared at her friends, realizing they didn’t have to be here. She didn’t have to be here, either, but she was, and they had come with her. They still worked for the store, so the risk was greater, but Mr. Fuller didn’t treat them any better. Jinny was still working double shifts to make up for taking off time to have the twins, and Lise had been docked last week because she had to leave early to pick up her son when he started throwing up at lunch. Mr. Fuller had been rude and mean, not even caring that her son, who had a congenital heart condition, might be seriously ill. He was only concerned that he might lose a customer if the other women couldn’t move people through fast enough. Amy had told him she’d cover, and she had. No customer had been left waiting, and none had walked out. Amy put the tampons back on the shelf.
The satchels were stuffed with as much as they could hold, and the women snuck back out of the store, using the back door this time because the front was too risky. Lise hung the key she had pocketed that afternoon on the hook by the back door. No one would know they had it.
Mike was home when she got back. She had expected him to be later tonight; when he got together with the guys, he usually didn’t come home until after midnight. She tiptoed in, not wanting him to see her carrying the stuff. She planned to just use it as she needed it; they hadn’t taken anything but basic staples that would help keep them alive until she found another job. He heard her come in and headed toward the hallway; she stashed her bags in the coat closet.
“I didn’t know you were going out tonight.” He leaned against the door with a beer in his hand.
“I went out with Jinny, just needed someone to talk to. I thought you were out with Frank?”
Mike growled. “Damn it all, sometimes those guys make me so mad.”
Amy didn’t want to hear about the problems of ‘the guys’ tonight. She had enough problems of her own. She nodded, hoping he wouldn’t go into details, and headed to the kitchen. “You need a sandwich?”
“I got my own. Sit down, you work too hard.”
Uh oh. What was going on? Mike had never said she worked too hard. He just always expected her to have food and drink when he needed it, and keep his clothes and house clean, and keep the kids taken care of, and…she sat. If he wanted her to rest, well, she wanted to rest, so at least for tonight they had the same desires. It was almost like when they were dating, when they both seemed to want the same things.
“Amy, are you all right?”
“What?” This didn’t sound like Mike. It was a strange question.
“You didn’t tell me you were fired.”
Amy scowled. She had meant to tell him later, when he got home feeling good after the night with the boys. It was a difficult topic. They needed the money, and if she didn’t have a job, they might not be able to make the rent. They certainly wouldn’t be able to make the payment on the beat up old car that sat in the driveway more than it went because it seldom worked. Mike wouldn’t give it up. He felt he needed to have a car to be a man, and he spent hours on end thumping on the engine, using duct tape and determination to keep it running.
“What’s wrong? The boys were laughing, calling you a bleeder, a tramp…I know you’re not a tramp. As if you had time to be! What happened?”
The concern on Mike’s face, something she hadn’t seen in years, opened up a floodgate and it all came pouring out. The crap she took from Mr. Fuller, the crap they all took from him. The customers who were mostly nice, but a few of them were…well, they were…not nice. The pinches, the grabs, the leers, the nasty comments from the male customers, the snotty attitudes from the female customers who could afford to shop in that store, the teenage boy employees who made more money than the women but did so much less work. They all knew the women would do it if they didn’t, because it needed to get done. So they lazed around and let the women do it, and called them “Mother” and “Grandma”. Then this morning, the mad rush to the bathroom, the blood staining the back of her pants because she started her period two days before she expected, the customer standing at the counter shouting at her to get back there, Mr. Fuller standing there when she got back, holding her purse and her coat, telling her to get out. All of it. She only left out where she had been that night.
“You know what I think?” Mike stopped to take an enormous swig of his beer. “I think we oughta sue that guy. He had no right.”
“I don’t know. How could we afford a lawyer?”
“Maybe one of them…you know…ACLU lawyers? Isn’t this a violation of rights? Wouldn’t they help?”
“I thought you hated the ACLU.”
“Yeah, I do. But when they help on stuff they should be doin’, rather than stick their noses where they don’t belong, well, ain’t this what they should be doing?” Mike sometimes lapsed into the vernacular when he was mad, and Amy realized he was angry when the childhood “ain’t” slipped out.
Amy didn’t answer. She took Mike in her arms, needing to feel his warmth in this rare moment of caring. They held each other and whispered the old loving phrases, the word of courtship that had led her out of the abuse of her childhood home into the same poverty she thought she had left behind. At least Mike didn’t hit her, she thought. Things did get better that way, at least.
The next morning, it was all over the news that the store had been broken into overnight. Amy listened with fascination as the news…or perhaps the policemen…got it all wrong. It was after midnight, they said, apparently not aware that stores could be broken into at nine o’clock. Several men wearing black face masks escaped with loads of stuff, from televisions to video consoles, and even some of the jewelry! Amy snorted at that. All the jewelry in the store was fake and worth only a fraction of what they charged. It was not the sort of jewelry anyone would bother to steal; they rarely even opened the case to show it to anyone. Trying to attract upscale customers with crap jewelry had never been one of Mr. Fuller’s better ideas.
There was no mention of missing diapers or cans of food, no mention of the fact that there had been only one small window broken, and that only to make it look like an outside job. To hear it on the news, you would think the store had been smashed in bits, and lots of expensive stuff taken. Amy opened a can of corned beef she had grabbed last night, and stirred it into the potatoes that she had also brought home. Mike would love having corned beef hash. They hadn’t been able to afford that in years.
One by one, Jinny, Lise, and Kimmi lost their jobs over some minor incident, some whim of Mr. Fuller’s. Jinny went when she lost it finally and slapped a customer who was trying to put his hand up her dress as she bent over to fill the ice cream chest. Lise was fired soon after she found out she was pregnant with her third child; Mr. Fuller found a couple of wads of toilet paper jamming up the customer toilet, and pretended she had not cleaned the toilet properly. Kimmi was gone the day she came to work with a black eye, having fallen against her husband’s fist again and again. She was limping, and couldn’t keep up, so he let her go. The ACLU was unable to help; Amy was never sure why.
Each time one of them was fired, the other women rallied around. The store would lose some cans of food, some diapers, some tampons…the next time, Lise didn’t protest. She let Amy have her own form of rebellion. The news would be alive with yet another break in, countless expensive items taken, smashed windows, and Mr. Fuller would collect lots of insurance on items he had not lost. One by one, the women moved on, finding other jobs with other assholes who treated them as if they were barely human, and they managed to keep their families going.
Mike finally got a promotion, but it was barely enough to cover the cost of the time Amy was out of work, because the promotion didn’t come with a raise, only with more work. Amy shrugged and stretched the budget as she always had. She made the items they collected during their raids last as long as possible, because she knew there would be little enough left to pay for food once the rent and the car payment had been made. She watched as her daughters grew, and cried as they moved away to live with their new husbands, convinced that they would have a better life than their parents had managed. She wept as the truth sunk in, as her daughters went to work in crap jobs, treated as objects by the men they worked for and by their husbands. Until one day, Mandy came crying home to tell her mother she’d been fired because a customer had complained about her when she told him no. Amy nodded; she understood.
All she said was, “Have you ever thought about helping yourself?”