by Audrey Forrest
It wasn’t really a “downtown” or even a city as it liked to pretend. It was some urban architect’s idea of how to disguise a shopping mall and make it look like some charming and quaint village—something you’d see on the back lot tram tour of a Hollywood studio or Disney theme park.
It’s all in the details. That was Darby Whitehead’s mantra, the managing partner of Stocker Park Village. That’s why he insisted on hanging fifties-style Christmas lights in neat rows that ran parallel over the tops of the make believe streets—streets with small town names like Main Street, Front Street and Market Street. According to Darby Whitehead, the reason why throngs of upper middle class patrons flocked to Stocker Park was what it did not have—homeless people, panhandlers, abandoned storefronts, and, the reason he gave to the public, expensive parking.
That’s why Darby was skeptical of hiring temporary workers even during the busiest season. The temp company representative, however, had managed to convince him that Ready Man screened and hired the most reliable, neat, and honest workers to man all of those extra odd jobs that the holiday season required. Darby made Ready Man agree in writing that he would have full authority to dismiss any temp worker—with no questions asked and no repercussions against Stocker Park.
For Joe Torres, the job at Ready Man was another temporary job that required him to take two busses and then walk half a mile every day from the middle of October until the job ended in February. But it was better than the last temp job where he was made to hold a placard on street corners, advertising going out of business sales. Cars would honk, passengers would point at him and sometimes laugh while Joe, wearing a caveman’s costume, stood holding a sign that read “OUR PRICES CAN’T BE BEAT.” Once a car load of teenagers driving a brand new Acura tossed a fast food bag at him containing half eaten fries and burgers. Joe was so hungry that day he had to fight back his urge to pick up the bag and eat the remaining contents.
Joe walked proudly toward Stocker Park Village, the site of his new job. As he entered Stocker Park, passing under the ornate stone and wrought iron gates, he looked above and admired the perfect rows of bright Christmas lights that he’d hung yesterday. The all white, slightly obese, and thoroughly highlighted forty-something clientele, outfitted in designer jeans and cashmere overcoats, wouldn’t laugh at that.
It would be a stretch to buy Christmas presents for his wife and new baby boy this year, Joe thought as he checked the bulletin board in the temp office in the back lot for his daily assignment. But Joe wasn’t complaining. Jobs didn’t grow on trees, even the opulently fake ones that lined the walks at Stocker Park Village. Mercifully, it was mostly inside jobs today, setting up displays and hauling deliveries to the mega bookstore known as Whitehalls. That was a relief; Joe’s arms still ached from hanging and then re-hanging all those Christmas lights yesterday to exact specifications in the ice cold wind.
Joe pushed a rolling rack of folding chairs out of the storage room at Whitehalls as his thoughts drifted to his wife, Lydia, and their new baby boy. It’s worth it, thought Joe. This year Joey Jr., or “mi cielo” as Lydia adoringly called him, would be three years old and ready to play with real toys. Joe had his eye on a big yellow construction truck he had seen earlier that morning at Clay’s Discount Drug Store where the bus stopped. Today was payday and with all of the holiday overtime, Joe would have enough for the toy truck and a heart shaped locket for his wife that he had spotted in the jewelry section of the drugstore. Lydia will love that, thought Joe with a faraway smile. She can put Joey’s picture in the locket and keep him close to her even while she is working the night shift at the nursing home.
Bing Collier had seen a hundred of these places if he had seen one. Another Saturday morning book signing at the local Whitehalls, this time at Stocker Park Village in a posh Chicago suburb. Problem was, nobody knew who the hell he was anymore. Back in the fifties, Bing had made his fame as a panel member on daily game shows broadcast between soap operas and local news. Unless you were in your mid-fifties, though, you wouldn’t even recognize his name.
“Eighteen chairs set out today? That’s it?” he asked aloud.
Traci Classer, the Stocker Park Events Manager, surveyed the small group of folding chairs that Joe had carefully placed in the café section at Whitehalls, three neat rows of six a piece. The card table in front of the chairs displayed a poster size picture of Bing Collier’s book and about two dozen new copies of The Memoirs of a TV Game Show Celebrity… Bada Bing!
Bing rolled the last drops of a tepid cup of Mocha Java between his teeth as he tried, but failed, to hide a disgusted glare at the rows of empty chairs. Frankly, it was embarrassing to have to sit near the back of the store for two hours on a Saturday afternoon behind a card table and portable microphone trying to peddle your own biography.
Damn , Bing thought. If that bitch hadn’t cleaned me out in that last divorce, I’d be teeing off on the back nine instead of driving cross-country to suburban shopping centers and staying at the deluxe suite in the Holiday Inn. Bing’s cell phone interrupted his thoughts with the theme song from I’ve Got Your Number—an old game show starring Bing.
“Yeah, babe,” Bing grunted into his cell phone. “Yeah, okay, okay, I’ll pick it up for the little bugger. Look, I’m onstage in two… later.”
Bing slapped the lid down on the cell phone and tossed it into the front pocket of his navy blue Italian sport coat. It was Reedy, Bing’s third wife, reminding him to pick up SkatePro, a kids’ video game for her eight year old hyper brat.
That’s the downside when you marry a chick twenty-five years younger. The sex is good, but the baggage that comes with it—It’s a tradeoff. Hey, at least I had a few hot nights with the cocktail waitress, Bing mused as he stared unabashedly at Traci’s behind.
“Hey sweetie, tell Pedro we need a few more chairs,” Bing stage whispered to Traci, looking no higher than her chest. “I’m good with the suburban mom crowd, ya know what I mean?”
Bing playfully draped his arm around Traci, pulling her into him for a wet kiss. Traci cooed back, giving Bing a wiggly hip bump in her tight black pencil cut jeans.
“Gotta check my hair, where’s the loo, honey?” Bing gurgled in Traci’s ear with coffee fouled breath. Tracie gestured with her shoulder, a deliberately calculated move which tightened her low cut blouse and extended her breast within inches of Bing’s nose.
“Back in a few,” Bing chortled in what he thought was a sexy voice.
Joe’s jaw tightened and his eyes began to well up as he felt his pulse surging through his temples.
Pedro? My name is not Pedro… Joe raged in his head. Whoever thinks that temp jobs don’t have stress should try one for a day.
Joe bit his lip and trained his eyes on the perfectly neat rows of chairs he had set up. He thought about his paycheck, the big yellow truck for Joey, and the golden locket that Lydia would wear around her dainty and graceful neck.
Joe headed towards the storage room to get another rack of chairs but detoured towards the men’s room to splash some cold water in his face. As he rounded the hallway corner he pushed the men’s room door open, unexpectedly catching Bing smiling at himself in the bathroom mirror, as if Bing had just heard the answer to the question, “Who’s the fairest of them all?” Joe looked at his feet noticing Bing’s navy blue jacket on the floor. Bing was lost in self-admiration as Joe stooped to pick up the sport jacket.
“Don’t touch that.”
Bing’s exhortation came too late, as he spun around nearly losing his balance with his arm stretched out in a blocking move. Joe had already scooped up the jacket. Bing and Joe both stared at the brand new copy of SkatePro, the plastic label half removed. Bing’s jacket had been concealing it on the bathroom floor.
‘Hey there, buddy… wow…uh… thanks for all that great….uh….uh… set-up work. I’ll put in a good word for you with the, uh… boss!”
Bing stuck his hand out intending to shake Joe’s hand. Joe stood silently, hands clenched in his pockets, while his eyes alternated between the video game and Bing’s outstretched hand.
“No comprendo, pal? Ha ha…” Bing said, snatching the video game and stuffing it into his jacket, before banging the door open with his fist.
Even with the stragglers and little kids playing musical chairs, the audience barely filled in twelve seats. The theme song to I’ve Got Your Number blared out of the portable amps, signaling the start of Bing’s book signing. Traci was now standing in the store vestibule attempting to usher patrons, or anyone, for that matter, into the free Bing Collier “show.” Bing entered through the back café door, jacketless, and with a little hop-skip, up to the book signing table.
“Well, hello, Stocker Park, it’s time to play… Ha ha ha, you remember the show!”
He rolled out the scripted dialog for the zillionth time, nodding with fake humility at the poster of himself and then mugging for the audience of six postmenopausal ladies, a couple of bored husbands, and a handful of kids whose mothers had dropped them off while they browsed elsewhere. Bing continued, pasty smile plastered across his face, as if he were doing the opening monologue at the Oscars.
“Now, don’t be shy, ‘C’mo- ah ah ah ahn Do ow ow ow nn!’ for your very own personal, autographed copy of my book,” Bing bellowed out as he concluded the “show.”
As the few ladies trickled out of the café, Bing pointed at Traci giving her the come here command with his index finger.
“Hey, hon, pack up the books for me and have someone load them into my Beamer in the front lot.”
Traci departed to the rear of the store, toward the back emergency exit, opening it with the key on her plastic wrist bracelet that looked like a mini telephone cord.
“Joe, you’re on a break again? I need you right now to load the books into Mr. Collier’s car in the courtesy lot and then take down the display tables and chairs. Now means now!” Traci said, snapping her fingers and pointing at Joe.
“Miss Classer, I need to talk to you. It’s important,” Joe pleaded as Traci turned her back to him. “It’s about Mr. Collier… I saw something that’s not right and I need to report it.”
“Joe, no time right now, okay? Mr. Collier is in a hurry. Here are his car keys, now get going.”
Joe piled the last box into the Beamer as Bing approached the car.
“Hey, buddy,” said Bing, “I put in a good word for you, just like I said. See ya.”
Bing did a finger wave at Joe as he backed up his car and gunned it out of the lot.
Joe pulled the rack of chairs into the storage area next to the table and portable audio equipment, and then rang the buzzer on the wall that signaled a manager to lock up the room.
“Hello, Mr. Whitehead,” Joe said quizzically as Darby Whitehead approached Joe, accompanied by Traci Classer and a security guard. Joe had not seen Mr. Whitehead since the first day he reported to the temp hiring office at Stocker Park.
“Joe,” said Darby, “I’m afraid we won’t be needing your services anymore. When we let an employee go, we have a policy of escorting the employee to his locker and then off the premises. It’s just a security thing. I’m sorry. You’ll get your last paycheck in the mail in two weeks. With the holidays, it will probably come after Christmas, though. Sorry about that. We can’t control the bookkeeping. Come with me.”
Mr. Whitehead gestured towards the door with a manila file that had Ready Man Temporary Staff printed on it.
Joe stood motionless, feeling a wave of nausea rising, and his legs beginning to collapse. The security guard grabbed Joe’s upper arm.
“But why I am being fired? I was trying to tell you, Miss Classer. I saw Mr. Collier in the restroom with a video game hidden under….”
“Joe, let’s go. Mr. Collier is none of your business, and frankly you shouldn’t have spent so much time in the restroom.”
Miss Classer stared blankly at Joe then checked her watch.
Joe shuffled, almost forgetting how to walk, as the security guard escorted him by the arm to the door in front of Mr. Whitehead. Tears streamed down his reddened face as shoppers in expensive ski parkas and designer sunglasses gawked, then veered away, clutching their designer bags tighter. A popular rock-style Christmas carol blared from the outside speakers where Joe was being led past fake trees and life-sized carolers.
“Feliz Navidad,” the singer sang in a not too Hispanic accent.
”Feliz Navidad,” the singer continued, even more upbeat upbeat, “Feliz Navidad, Prospero Ano y Felicidad.”
AUDREY FORREST is an author of short fiction whose most recent work is featured in the Spring 2009 edition of the University of Wisconsin’s literary magazine, Straylight. She is an adjunct professor at Lorain Community College in Elyria, Ohio. Her works explore issues of social justice.