I heard about her death five years after I quit. She was a heavy woman who dressed in tacky clothes; they looked like they’d been purchased at a yard sale. She kept her long brown and gray hair tied in a ponytail; she never wore makeup.
My friend, who still works at the bookstore, emailed me a link to the obituary. I don’t know why; I barely knew the woman. She was just someone who frequented the store.
At first I wasn’t even sure to whom he was referring.
I read the obituary, but even after I gleaned the information- she was 64, taught high school English, never married, was survived by a brother- and reread her name, I had no idea who this was.
You remember, my friend’s next email said. The heavy, round woman. I couldn’t picture her.With the pony tail. Wore those awful clothes. I still wasn’t sure, but an image started to form.
Always called the male cashiers Good Lookin.
Now I saw her, as clearly as if I’d seen her that morning.
So her name was Sally Jenkins.
I could never stand her. When she was in line, I’d intentionally ring more slowly so she had to go to another cashier. But sometimes I was the only one at the registers. Then she’d come over with her smile, and I had no choice but to ring her up and listen to her.
She spoke in platitudes and clichés. But her most annoying expression- and she only used this with male employees- was Hey, good lookin.
I don’t know why this appellation annoyed me so; it wasn’t insulting- if anything, it was complimentary in a folksy way- and it’s not that it embarrassed me (and, as I get easily embarrassed, there are a multitude of other things she could’ve addressed me by that would’ve done that). I don’t think it was those words as much as it was those words coming from that face; the combination just irritated me.
Good night good lookin, she’d say after I rang her up (despite the fact that she was (as I learned later) an English teacher, she bought mostly romance novels), and she’d give me her smile, no matter how badly I’d fail at returning my own.
Though I’m fairly certain there were times I liked working at the bookstore- there had to be, right?- most of my memories from that place are of misery and endurance. The more I worked there, the more I disliked it (I’d come to despise the place by my last year); so my most recent- and, hence, most vivid- remembrances are consequently the most disconsolate.
I disliked the customers; I hated the hours; I resented how poorly we were paid; I abhorred fighting for a parking spot on Saturday afternoons.
My best memory from the bookstore, on the other hand, is the day I quit.
A new store manager- the fifth I’d had- hadn’t cared for me and was looking to get rid of me. I didn’t like him either or- again- my job at all by that point. Soon after this manager started, I missed four days without calling out. He phoned my house. Before he asked anything, I said I quit.
It wasn’t a dramatic scene from a movie, with my telling him off and storming out (I was on the phone, after all), but it felt good nonetheless. In fact, it felt great.
All those year I’d wanted to leave, and with two words, I was gone.
I worked at a tutoring center for a while and enrolled in grad school. Upon completing my degree I found work as an adjunct professor. I loved the work- or at least I loved it compared to the bookstore- and my enthusiasm and dedication were such that I was hired fulltime. But the position only lasted one semester; afterwards I returned to adjunct work. And soon I hated being an adjunct as much as I hated working at the bookstore.
But it was a different kind of hatred: in the bookstore, there’d never been a future; at the college, there’d been one, but it had been snatched back.
I decided it was again time to move on. I ended up doing- even though I didn’t know this at the time- what Sally Jenkins did: teach high school English.
I’d been a high school teacher for two years when my friend sent me the email.
I’m now 37; Sally Jenkins was 64, which means all those times she called me Good Lookin I was around 20 to 30 and she somewhere between 47 and 57.
But why think of these things? They don’t matter.
What matters is that my high school job is starting to grate on me, even though it hasn’t done so completely. I’m making more money in the public schools than I’d made at the bookstore, tutoring center, or college (even as a fulltime professor), but if you’re miserable, or sense you’re going to be, what does that matter?
It angered me somewhat that my old coworker sent me the email about Sally Jenkins, a woman I only knew peripherally. It annoyed me that I remembered her face and her voice saying good lookin.
And it especially infuriated me that my friend thought I’d be interested.
I read the obituary- a couple of times- but it was with voyeuristic curiosity rather than concern.
I don’t like looking into the past, particularly my own. It doesn’t take you anywhere positive. All it leads to is what you’ve divulged about yourself to others, and sometimes- and who needs to know this?- what you’re revealing to yourself now.