Sunday, July 05, 2020

New Short Fiction by S.F. Wright

The Cipher
Arlene Cardino lived with her mother. Before she was made a full-time cashier, she’d run the gift department, a job which allowed her to sit on a chair in the receiving area for long stretches of time while she opened and sorted merchandise. Once a year, Arlene attended the Renaissance Faire with her coworker, Katie, the latter of whom got into costume and jousted. Apart from this annual excursion, Arlene spent her free time reading romance novels.


Drew was responsible for changing out tills, counting deposits, authorizing returns, doing cash pickups, dealing with disgruntled customers, and supervising as few as one and as many as twelve cashiers at once. His day would run smoothly—even agreeably—if he had one of the efficient college girls or one of the more competent veteran employees for a cashier. On the other hand, his day could be aggravating if he were stuck with one of the garrulous housewives; the old man, Casey Fair; or Arlene Cardino.


Since corporate had rendered the position of gift department lead obsolete, Arlene had floated from one section to another: children’s, customer service, newsstand. But more and more management had put Arlene at cashwrap. Arlene was a slow ringer. However, she was always accurate, to the dime, with her till.
 She also went to the restroom often and for long periods of time, and always exceeded her allotted break time. Drew told Ryan Harris, the store manager, who told Drew that, as cashwrap supervisor, he should be the one reprimanding Arlene. Drew did. Arlene said it took two minutes just to walk to the timeclock, five if she stopped to use the restroom—and why should she use her break time to use the restroom when employees on the salesfloor didn’t? As for her fifteen-minute break—for which employees didn’t punch out—she didn’t consider the break to have started until she was in the break room. She walked as fast as she could, she shouldn’t be punished for not being able to move as quickly as others.
  Drew asked if she could be a bit more conscious of the time
Arlene huffed and returned to her register.

 One Saturday, Drew came in for the 10-6:30 shift. He’d closed the night before, and then drank Evan Williams and Coca-Cola in his room until two thirty. During the first hour, his mind was a blur; as it was two weeks before Christmas, the store was packed. He constantly approved returns, did cash pickups, counted down tills. Arlene had come in at eight thirty; the opening head cashier, Ken, had assigned Drew the register next to hers. So, throughout the day, he had to enter his numbers for her returns, restock her register tape, and do her pickups.
 At four, Ken took his till down, while the closing head cashier, Christina, set up her till in the cashroom. Drew had to authorize every return, exchange, and cancellation, and consequentially was constantly rushing around. So, he could barely suppress rolling his eyes when a man came to his register with a stack of dogeared books he didn’t have a receipt for and which he wanted to return to his credit card.
 Drew explained the return policy. The man was obdurate. Drew told him he couldn’t take the books back. The man got testy. 
 Drew called a manager. 
 Leonard showed up.
 A few minutes later, Leonard not only took the books back, but put the credit onto the man’s Visa. Drew was livid. When he asked Leonard why, Leonard shrugged. It was a judgment call; the books didn’t look that bad; he told the man he was making an exception. 
 Stewing, Drew said nothing more.
 Shortly thereafter, Arlene called Drew over. She held up a receipt, a woman at her register looked piqued. 
  She wants to return this book and put it back on her Amex. But this was from seventeen days ago.
  It’s only been three days. I was out of town and didn’t get back until last night.
  Drew, still exasperated, said, You can put it back on her card. He entered his numbers and walked over to help Violet, a twenty-two-year-old nursing student. And breathing in Violet’s perfume as he helped her with an exchange, he wished he had another life completely.


He thought nothing more about the return—he still smarted over Leonard’s approving the other one. When he took down Arlene’s till and she acted chilly, he attributed it to nothing more than her typical moodiness.  So, he was somewhat surprised, a short while later, when Ryan Harris asked to speak to him.
 In the tight, nearly claustrophobic cashroom, Drew’s mouth dropped open when Harris told him Arlene complained about the way he’d handled the return that was three days past the fourteen-day window.
  We know we tell our head cashiers to use their judgment, but you have to make an effort to enforce the policy—especially after Arlene was trying to enforce it herself. She felt you didn’t back her up.
  Drew looked at Harris. Any other day he might’ve let it go, but the frustration that had been building was too much: he told Harris he’d been very busy, that he’d just been overridden on a much more questionable return by Leonard, and that he did tell the woman the policy was fourteen days before authorizing it (a minor lie).
   Harris sighed. He said to be a bit sterner. Drew muttered, Fine, and returned to his register.


 He’d have Arlene as a cashier numerous times after that; always, there was unspoken tension between them. Drew knew he could’ve extinguished or at least assuaged the uneasiness if he apologized for—or even acknowledged—his cursory approval of the late return. But he didn’t think he had anything to apologize for.
  Less than a year later, Drew quit. He later heard Arlene left as well to take a job at the company’s customer service headquarters. He assumed the position would allow her to sit all day while answering the phone, which Drew was certain would suit her.

- © S.F. Wright 2020

S.F. Wright lives and teaches in New Jersey. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Hobart, Quarter After Eight, Linden Avenue Literary Journal, and Elm Leaves Journal, among other places. His website is

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