By Jeannie Yee Davis
Summer is my favorite time of year. Summers meant the leisure life, no homework, sleeping in, watching all the TV I wanted, and wondering what my school friends were doing. The summer I turned fourteen ended my summers of leisure. One night, a week after my fourteenth birthday, my mother called me away from the TV set and told me to get dressed. I was baffled, where would we be going at 8 o’clock in the evening? I obediently got dressed and followed her. On the way down the twilight street, I asked her where we were going, and she replied that we were going to my job interview. I panicked at the prospect of what was forthcoming. I wasn’t ready to go to work. I didn’t want to go to work. I just wanted to enjoy my summer like I always did. My stomach knotted up inside me. I didn’t want to go to this job interview, but I knew I had no choice. I tried asking her more questions about this job, but she declined to answer and told me I’d know soon enough.
We headed down to Grant Avenue in Chinatown and walked into a large gift shop that smelled of incense, and in the background, I heard wind chimes softly chiming. I saw a couple of young girls about my age, in different color happy coats, one dusting and the other replacing merchandise on the shelves and a middle-aged woman ringing up a customer at the cash register. When we entered, the tall frizzy-haired woman looked up at us, smiled, and then gestured she’d be with us in a minute. Once the customer left, she came over to us and introduced herself as Mrs. Ja and indicated that the man walking out from the stock room was her husband, Mr. Ja. My mother and Mrs. Ja did all the talking while Mr. Ja and I looked on. Mrs. Ja told my mother I’d be working forty hours a week during the summer, and during the school year, I would work twenty hours a week, and I start work tomorrow. I tried not to be obvious, but I felt my eyes pop out of their sockets, and I silently gasped when I heard this. Right then, I lost my summer.
The next day my mother escorted me down to the gift shop where I would be spending the rest of my summer. My mother and I walked in silence. Once we arrived at the shop, Mrs. Ja smiled warmly and told my mother to come back for me at 6 o’clock. I followed Mrs. Ja into the closet, where she instructed me to hang my belongings on a wall hook and handed me a bright yellow happy coat. I looked around to see if there were other color choices, but the alternatives were bright orange, navy blue, or forest green. Yuck! The yellow didn’t seem so bad after all. I reluctantly put on the happy coat over the blouse and slacks I was wearing and followed her back into the store.
She introduced me to the two girls on my shift. Suki, who wore glasses, was tanned and a head shorter than me. She had long black hair flowing down her back over her orange happy coat. She reminded me of Halloween. Donna was pale and about my height with a short pageboy haircut and wearing a green happy coat. She made me think of a forest that never got sunlight. Mrs. Ja said to ask these girls for help if she wasn’t around then she took me through the store and showed me where everything was. I felt my heart beat faster as she gave me more and more information. How was I ever going to remember all this?
First, there were all the different T-shirts, kimonos, Mandarin coats, and slippers. How they were displayed and where the stock was stored. Part of my job was to iron the kimonos before I hung them on display. Next came the backroom tour where I would do the ironing. What if I burned something? I thought but was too afraid to ask. This backroom was scary, being lit by a single uncovered light bulb that stuck out of the wall right over the ironing board. There were no windows; instead, there were boxes stacked on top of each other on one side, and on the opposite side where the ironing board stood was the bathroom, a water cooler, the garbage cans, and a small square table parked against the wall next to the bathroom with a couple of chairs.
After the tour of the clothing items, she showed me the dolls, brassware, tea sets, plastic figurines, silk figurines, incense, onyx chess boards, hand-painted eggshells, and the display cases of Taiwan jade, ivory and costume jewelry. Next came the lesson on how I was to showcase these items to the customers. My happy coat, a loose-fitting cotton jacket with mandarin collar, ornately embroidered buttons down the front, and big baggy three-quarter sleeves looked lovely but was not practical. Especially when the display counter was almost too high for my height, those loose sleeves repeatedly knocked over the stands of costume jewelry that sat on the counter surface. Whenever I brought out a tray from inside the display case for the customer to view, my sleeve would run into one of the stands on the surface. Mrs. Ja wasn’t pleased with this as she kept grabbing the stand as soon as it began to tip over.
Once Mrs. Ja showed me all she could with the jewelry, she began to teach me how to use the cash register, followed by how I should count the change back to the customer. I was self-conscious, knowing she was watching my every move, and I had trouble counting the money, which didn’t please her. Eventually, I did well enough for us to move on to the next thing on her list.
The next thing on Mrs. Ja’s agenda was to take me downstairs, where the stock was stored. I thought the back room was scary, but that was nothing compared to this basement storage. The basement was humungous. It was dark, stuffy, spooky, and secluded with no outside sources of light or air. A single wall switch turned on a light bulb dangling from the ceiling at the bottom of the stairs. We made our way through the basement maze, where Mrs. Ja drummed into me the importance of remembering where the lights were. A pull on a string activated each light. Mrs. Ja instructed me to make sure I turned off the lights when I leave. This basement housed rows of wooden shelves with brown cardboard boxes everywhere. She started telling me where what was stored and if I needed to check on the stock to come down here and go to the respective locations and look for them. I nodded in acknowledgment, but as soon as she told me where something was, I had already forgotten what she said.
Mrs. Ja explained so many things to me; my mind began to wilt. I fooled myself into believing this was just an introduction and relaxed, thinking all I had to do was listen. But little did I expect her to have me perform the tasks she had spent the morning teaching me. I was racking my brain, trying to recall everything she taught me, but I soon realized I would have to just do the best I could. She observed my every move and corrected me immediately when I didn’t do something exactly as she had instructed. I was afraid to make a move without first searching her face for approval. Things improved for me as I did more and got more practice, and I started to feel pretty good about what I was doing.
Suddenly, a large group of tourists came into the store, and every worker was busy helping the customers, so I was forced to assist the customers by myself. I felt good when I was able to answer the first customer’s question correctly. Things fell into place as long as I kept calm. I realized this was something I could do after all.
When a customer asked for a pair of slippers in size 8, I looked under the counter, but the size 8 box was empty. I told the customer I would go downstairs, find a pair for her, and ran off to the basement.
When I reached for the light switch, I noticed the light was on. At the bottom of the stairs, I looked around, but I didn’t see anybody. I paused and listened but didn’t hear anything, so I headed for the aisle where the clothing was stored. I got a little turned around because everything looked the same. I was trying to hurry and get out of there before someone accidentally turned off the lights while I was still there.
Eventually, I found the box with the slippers, and after going through many boxes, I found a pair of size 8. I was elated. I quickly put everything away and ran back towards the stairs. Once I was sure of the path to the stairs, I started turning off the lights, and then I ran towards the next light. I kept doing this until I made my way back upstairs. I was pleased I had successfully taken care of the customer’s need and made it through the basement storage maze.
I was smiling big until I saw Mr. Ja walk through the basement door red in the face glaring at me. The smile fell off my face when I realized what I had done—I turned the basement lights off, leaving him to feel his way out of the darkness. He didn’t say a word to me, and I didn’t know what to say to him, so I didn’t. I kept busy and eagerly awaited 6 o’clock to come when I could go home.
Previously published in e-clips.