It was only November but holiday decorations were already starting to creep into the store displays: cutouts of Santa wearing sunglasses, windows poxed with fake snow, as if cold was just another joke. It hadn’t even rained since Alice moved here, the good weather holding. Back in her hometown, it was already grim and snowy, the sun behind her mother’s house setting by 5 p.m. This new city seemed like a fine alternative, the ceaseless blue sky and bare arms, the days passing frictionless and lovely. Of course, in a few years, when the reservoirs were empty and the lawns turned brown, she’d realize that there was no such thing as unending sunshine.
The employee entrance was around the back of the store, in an alley. This was before the lawsuits, when the brand was still popular and opening new stores. They sold cheap, slutty clothes in primary colors, clothes invoking a low-level athleticism – tube socks, track shorts – as if sex was an alternative sport. Alice worked at a flagship store, which meant it was bigger and busier, on a high-visibility corner near the ocean. People tracked in sand and sometimes beach tar that the cleaners had to scrub off the floors at the end of the night.
Employees were only allowed to wear the brand’s clothes, so Alice had gotten some for free when she started. Emptying the bag on her bed, she had been stirred by the pure abundance, but there was an awful caveat: her manager had picked them out, and everything was a little too tight, a size too small. The pants cut into her crotch and left red marks on her stomach in the exact outline of the zipper, the shirts creasing tight in her underarms. She left her pants undone on the drive to work, waiting until the last minute to suck in her stomach and button them up.
Inside, the store was bright white and shiny, a low-level hum in the background from the neon signs. It was like being inside a computer. She got there at 10 a.m. but already the lights and the music conjured a perpetual afternoon. On every wall were blown-up photographs in grainy black and white of women in the famous underpants, girls with knobby knees making eye contact with the camera, covering their small breasts with their hands. All the models’ hair looked a little greasy, their faces a little shiny. Alice supposed that was to make sex with them seem more likely.
Only young women worked the floor – the guys stayed in the back room, folding, unpacking and tagging shipments from the warehouse, managing stock. They had nothing to offer beyond their plain labor. It was the girls that management wanted out in front, girls who acted as shorthand to the entire brand. They roamed the floor in quadrants, wedging fingers between hangers to make sure items were hung at an equal distance, kicking dropped shirts out from under the partitions, hiding a leotard smeared with lipstick.
Before they put the clothes on the racks, they had to steam them, trying to reanimate the sheen of value. The first time Alice had opened a box of T-shirts from the warehouse, seeing the clothes there, all stuffed and flattened together in a cube without tags or prices, made their real worth suddenly clear – this was junk, all of it.
At her interview, Alice had brought a résumé, which she’d made some effort to print out at a copy store. She had also purchased a folder to transport the résumé intact but no one ever asked to see it. John, the manager, had barely asked about her employment history. At the end of their five-minute conversation, he instructed her to stand against a blank wall and took her picture with a digital camera.
‘If you could just smile a little,’ John said, and she did.
They sent the pictures to corporate for approval, Alice later discovered. If you made the cut, whoever did your interview got a $200 bonus.
Alice fell into an easy rhythm at her post. Feeding hanger after hanger onto the racks. Taking clothes from the hands of strangers, directing them to a fitting room that she had to open with a key on a lanyard around her wrist, the mildest of authorities. Her mind was glazing over, not unpleasantly, thoughts swimmy and hushed. She’d get paid tomorrow, which was good – rent was due in a week, plus a payment on her loans. Her room was cheap, at least, though the apartment, shared with four housemates, was disgusting. Alice’s room wasn’t so bad only because there was nothing in it – her mattress still on the floor, though she’d lived there for three months.
The store was empty for a while, one of the strange lulls that followed no logical pattern, until a father came in, pulled by his teenage daughter. He hovered at a wary distance while his daughter snatched up garment after garment. She handed him a sweatshirt, and the man read the price aloud, looking to Alice like it was her fault.
‘It’s just a plain sweatshirt,’ he said.
The daughter was embarrassed, Alice could tell, and she smiled at the father, bland but also forgiving, trying to communicate the sense that some things in this world were intractable. It was true that the clothes were overpriced. Alice could never have bought them herself. And the daughter’s expression was recognizable from her own adolescence, her mother’s constant commentary on the price of everything. The time they went to a restaurant for her brother’s eighth-grade graduation, a restaurant with a menu illuminated with some kind of LED lights, and her mother couldn’t help murmuring the prices aloud, trying to guess what the bill might be. Nothing could pass without being parsed and commented upon.
When the father relented and bought two pairs of leggings, the sweatshirt, and a metallic dress, Alice understood he had only been pretending to be put off by the prices. The daughter had never considered the possibility that she might not get what she wanted, and whatever solidarity Alice felt with the father dissipated as she watched the numbers add up on the register, the man handing her his credit card without even waiting to hear the total.