He stood in the supply cabinet, muttering to himself that they could all go to hell because he had spent his day off in a stupor. It was 9:50. The store opened at 10:00. There was already an impatient crowd gathering at the door. He stood in the doorway opposite frontline watching to see if the cashiers were out yet, watching to see if his manager was in yet.
Like clockwork, all the cashiers shuffled out in a row, manned their stations, as the manager walked out to the front door, spinning her lanyard around her finger, whistling silently. Europe’s “The Final Countdown” played over the store PA, piping in the triumphant synths to overshadow his muttering. It was no use trying to connect with them. Oliver felt that his position was bad enough. He had been obliged to work in the ski boot department. Always pitching the benefits of cool alpine air, of good sport, and never fulfilling those charges. He felt his body again aching for the comfort of home, of sleep.
The blandness of retail exchanges had begun to chill him and he wondered could he retrieve his natural interests. Yet he must get money somewhere or other, he had been laid off, and soon it would be too late for getting money anywhere, after the unemployment checks dried up. Suddenly, as he tabbed through his phone browser, he thought of the office he had left, the spiritual rot, the boredom to boredom. He wished he hadn’t thought of it, and the front doors of the store clicked open.
It was a Saturday. It was time to put on the face he made up for clients. Especially Saturday clients. He felt himself reddening. In like manner, his hideous internal behavior was now masked by the lies others tell themselves as they perceive another’s external self. And all this fuss for a retail job.
Two, five, twelve, twenty-seven customers milling in and out of the rows of winter coats, socks, and accoutrements.
Two children, presumably brother and sister, ran through the ski display, knocking over a pair of Solomon skis, 190 cm. These rascals knew perfectly well they could get away with it. They knew they would inherit a fortune from their parents who followed close behind to pick up the toppled gear. He went through the narrow alley of the boot storage area, cordoned off from the rest of the store, looking around for a moment.
The walkie-talkie clipped to his employee vest beeped furiously, and a furious voice called out in a crackle of static:
“Oliver, get to the display, you’ve got a boot fitting! Asap!”
It was Beth. The manager. She was always scratching some itch.
Rachel and Colin glanced over from the camping department, wincing, shrugging, commiserating knowingly.
“Now, Oliver! Its Saturday!”
The man muttered under his breath and wheeled on his heel to go greet the customers, donning a mask-like smile. Working in the boot department came with its own unique ups and downs. There was a certain intimacy that came with the job. People never intend to show anybody their feet. Socks are perhaps the least considered aspect of the human wardrobe, behind undergarments. Unless socks are undergarments. When someone gets dressed in the morning, they never quite consider the humble sock, trod upon endlessly, threadbare, discolored even in cleanliness. They peel it onto the foot and leg and forget about it.
Fitting ski boots creates a sort of immediate familiarity with the customer that would make some uncomfortable, but not Oliver. For him, it was a rare opportunity to penetrate a stranger’s life for a brief moment. He knew that every customer who removed their shoes was hiding a slight discomfort and a concern for their foot odor. He knew that they rarely let another person, let alone a stranger handle their own feet. For Oliver, it could verge on the poetic.
Usually his clientele was a vivid mix of amateur skiers who had come to Silicon Valley for a well-paying computer science gig, the occasional old pro, the occasional deadhead, and a whole lot of first-timers who came here because they didn’t know how to shop for gear on their own. He had once fit Zuckerberg himself for ski gear. He was surprised by his kindness.
Today it was a family of four, the father was red, nose blistering from sunburn or drinking, or both. The two kids, probably 9 and 12 ran off almost immediately. The fitting was for the wife. She wore simple jeans, a mock turtleneck and a puffy vest. They were exchanging curt phrases in French. All the man heard was:
“Où veux-tu donc en venir?”
“What are you getting at?”
She smirked, he glared. The man sidled up to the two of them, making direct eye contact with the husband, briefly introduced himself and asked what they were looking for. He noticed the way in which the husband hounded his wife just moments prior, and wondered what he was getting at, what was he making room for? He sensed the red-faced man’s savage, thirsty, vengeful nature, and felt annoyed with himself for feeling so hot headed earlier in the morning, for feeling annoyed with everyone else.
Although his boss would never give him a full hour’s rest he wondered if the wife would ever get a moment away from him. He feared that her life would be a hell, her children taking everything until there was nothing left. He felt as though he had made a proper fool of himself this time.
“We’re getting boots for her”
The husband radiated reluctance and the man felt violated by his crass and slovenly wavelengths. He looked down to her, as she had sat down and begun to remove her shoes, taking time to unlace the knots in her keds. She placed the two shoes neatly at the base of the fitting pedestal.
He kept his tongue in his cheek.
“She doesn’t know how to ski, give her the boots for babies, heh”
As he heard the husband he simultaneously mimicked the French accent in his mind, thinking of him as a grotesque caricature, pinot noir seeping out of his ham-fangled nose, ears, and mouth. He felt his body aching again, a dull buzzing beneath his kneecaps. He fingered his ring of keys in his pocket as he looked for any distraction that would prevent him from engaging with the roiling man in front of him.
Suddenly, as he took his hand out of his pocket, he thought to play to the man’s pride, and asked
“Are you an experienced skier yourself? Perhaps you would like to parse through some of our new models?”
The husband looked over to the display of brand new Rossignol skis, and left without acknowledging anyone else’s presence, without providing a conversational terminus. As he walked away he glanced at the ski-rack and offered no remark. As soon as he walked past, the husband pulled a phone out of his pocket, put it to his head and ran quickly up the stairs to the second floor.
But he was gone, that was the ticket! Why didn’t he think of it sooner?
Oliver began to measure the woman’s foot. Taking special care to not pinch her toes on the Brannock device, that sliding metal measure featured in shoe stores of days gone by. She had worn thick woolen socks that day. She knew that she was going to get ski boots today. He noticed that her socks were clean, and her feet didn’t smell. He noticed that she had rolled up the cuff of her jeans, anticipating the height of the rigid plastic boot.
“So are you planning on going up to Tahoe? Great skiing up there, and what a place to learn!”
“I know how to ski”
“Oh, apologies, he just said…”
“He has never asked me if I knew how to ski”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to assume that you…”
“De rien. Don’t worry about it”
Silence. He stood up and walked over to the wall display. He picked up three pairs of intermediate level boots, not best-sellers, but ones he knew were well made at a fair price. He usually upsold the boots to the tech-workers because he knew they had money to burn and he didn’t mind lighting the flame.
“I’m thinking these, these, or these, since you’re not a beginner, you’ll probably be looking for a slightly stiffer boot, something that will hug your feet and allow you to make tighter turns…”
He held up all three samples. Women’s ski boots are always white and pink or grey and pink or white and baby blue or white and gold. Like so many other women’s products. Two of the boots were white and pink and one pair was jet black.
“I like those black ones”
“These are good, my favorite part about these is the switch in the back that allows the boot to flex, so you can walk around once you get off the slopes”
“Just a moment then, let me go grab you a pair”
He zipped back into the boot storage area. He usually took as long as possible to find the boots, just to spite the customer or to kill some of the time on his shift. This time he was quick to find the right pair, and even checked that both of the boots in the box were the right size. Making his way back out of the corridor, he outpaced two other customers who were heading his way, thus evading their inevitable questions. Customers always have this look on their face as they walk towards you with some piece of gear in their hands, an incredulous look, mouth ajar, almost beginning to say “You don’t have the color I want, but you said you had it online” or “How much is this?” when the price is clearly labeled on the back of the tag.
He returned to the fitting podium and knelt down to fit the boot. Unbuckling the four clasps on the exterior shell, he removed the crumpled paper inside the boot and placed it back in the box. He pulled the tounge out wide to make for an easy entrance. He guided her pointed foot into the channel of the boot, her toe hit the bottom.
“Now heel down”
She stepped down into the boot with a light thud, and stood up, like an athlete wearing a cast.
“So where have you been skiing before?”
He started to buckle the boot back up, making sure not to bind her foot or calf muscle.
“I grew up on the Swiss border, snow is everything there. I used to ski all the time as a girl. I loved it, the cool, fast air, the smell of pine and smoke, the effortless glide of the slope. My mother taught me how to ski.”
She looked around the store-
“Now I drive them” she said, nodding towards the husband and the two kids who were all gathered around a display of ice axes.
He pulled the Velcro strap taught across the top of the boot and fastened it. Then he did the same with the other boot. She stood up and he caught a whiff of moist pungent perfume. As she walked around the corner of the store, heel to toe, he considered the future ski trip the family had in store. He wondered if she would think of her mother as she slid down the slope. If her husband and kids would give her much trouble. If she would find the wet California snow dreadful when compared to the Swiss peaks. He wondered if she would narrate the story of her childhood ski lessons to her two boys, of if the red-faced father would whisk them away on his own. Would they stay together? Was there a way out for her? He caught himself staring. Then the husband looked at him from across the aisles of gear, scowling. He started walking towards the boot corner.
So he looked back, coolly, then looked at her, then looked back at him again, taking his time. Just as the husband reached the fitting podium, she spoke up,
“Claude, allez rassembler les enfants, ce sont ceux-là, allons-y”
She then turned to Oliver
“these are the ones”
The man grumbled and hurriedly staggered back to go gather the two boys. Oliver wondered where they would go next on their Saturday excursion. He hoped that she would be able to use the boots soon. As she removed the boots, he gathered them up and placed them in the box. The two boys and the father joined the woman. One of the kids tugged at his mother’s vest begging to go next door to Best Buy. The father opened his mouth and inhaled, but before he could shower the immediate vicinity with spittle, the woman tapped a finger on her pocketbook, revealing a twenty dollar bill, and then flicked it towards the boy as if to say “that’s all right: you can go.”
The husband walked heavily towards the door, the two boys in tow, leaving Oliver to hand the box of boots over to the woman. She checked out at frontline alone and bought herself a pack of ginger chews. As they all went out into the parking lot he heard one of the kids cry out that he was hungry and that they needed Chipotle.
What she would find when she got home was a pair of thick woolen socks tucked inside the left boot.
Oliver quit the job a week later.