Breathe in life, breathe out gratitude.
Karen Rogers sat in the parking lot of Barton Creek Mall before going into Dillard’s. Even five years ago, she would have been keen to get a jump on her work for the day, but now she didn’t want to be inside any longer than necessary. Since graduating college in 1995, she had been a Purchasing Manager for Dillard’s. Or more accurately, she had been a Management Trainee, who took over the head purchasing job at this very store after rapidly advancing through the Assistant Purchasing Manager role. She had been considered young for her level at the time, back when there was still at least a little glamor in the job. That was before big-box stores and Amazon put malls into terminal decline.
Before Karen found herself back at Dillard’s, the Pretty Pony had been the dream that she left the corporate world for — her own boutique where she sourced beautiful things, shared them with an appreciative public, and took an entrepreneur’s pride in running a tight ship. The shop had opened in April 2007, but the timing couldn’t have been worse. It was just before the housing bubble popped. Reality collided with dreams as the Great Recession began. When the Pretty Pony closed its doors two years later, she lost not only the shop, but her house as well. A home equity loan had funded Pretty Pony’s lease and inventory.
Slinking back to Dillard’s put food on the table and provided insurance that covered her husband Simon’s chemo treatments. But by then, Dillard’s was rapidly closing outlets and only had room for her as an Assistant Purchasing Manager, an APM. Now at forty-six, she had a lower-level job than she had when she was thirty.
As she sat in the parking lot, she thought about how staff used to be told to park at the back to save space for the customers near the building. Now nobody cared. They were probably happy to have staff vehicles up close to simulate the appearance of customers. She looked at her watch.
Eleven more minutes.
Breathe in life, breathe out gratitude. She closed her eyes and repeated as she waited. It was something from a mindfulness book that she was giving a try.
A group of mall walkers came out of the building, chatting as they moved in her direction: three women and a man in various combinations of track suits, yoga pants, and sneakers. The loud colors of fuchsia and lime green accents popping from shoes and brand logos clashed with their grey hair. The gentleman thrust his hands in his pockets and scrunched up his shoulders from the cold. As they reached the first row of cars, they scattered to their different vehicles. “Same time on Thursday?” she imagined them saying as they waved to one other.
Eight minutes to go.
Why won’t they let me transfer to the Domain store? Although the Domain Dillard’s was newer and had better sales than the Barton Creek location, mostly Karen wanted the transfer because of the open-air format of the complex. It wasn’t as depressing as the mall. With local restaurants and apartments sprinkled between the retail stores, there was always a lively atmosphere — people hopping from one place to another, walking their dogs, meeting friends for drinks in sidewalk cafés. She had been trying to get transferred for years. A colleague recently passed word to her that a position was going to open up there soon. Karen resolved to follow-up on it more assertively this time.
Some mornings she thought the Pretty Pony’s failure had shot her confidence. Other mornings, she thought her skill set wouldn’t allow her to pull a six-figure salary. Anywhere would be better than the mall, though. Even the Lakeline Dillard’s way out in the suburbs would be better than being stuck in the same place that she used to hang out in high school. Some of the names had changed — Montgomery Wards was now a Nordstrom — but mostly it looked the same as it did back then — minus the crowds. Elderly mall walkers replacing the kids. Even the food court these days seemed to cater mostly to the workers trapped inside.
When Karen came home, she saw that her son Christopher had a couple of textbooks spread on the kitchen table and his laptop open. “How was your day, Mom?”
She gave him The Look. Her job was a subject not to be discussed.
“I mean, did you do anything after work?”
She set her purse down and gave him a peck on his forehead. She lifted the front of his Chemistry textbook and set it back down, making sure not to lose the page. “You better bone up on that stuff,” she said. “A&M is no walk in the park.” While Christopher was active in his high school theater, she was pleased that he was going to pursue a practical degree. The next four years of tuition and dorm fees would deplete the last of the insurance money. And they were barely getting by now. Christopher was also set on going to vet school, which would probably require student loans to bridge the extra three years. She had lectured him in the past about not taking on any debt if it could be avoided, a lesson learned the hard way.
“Your dad would have been so proud of you,” she said.
“You talk like I’ve already got my degree.”
“You’ll make the Dean’s List, I’m sure. But it’s not just that. I think he would be proud of the man that you are becoming. You’ve got the right attitude, a good work ethic.”
“I get all that from you — Purchasing Manager of the Year.” She shot him another Look. “I mean, Mom of the Year! Geez.”
She ruffled his hair on her way out of the kitchen.
She was having lunch in the food court when a beautiful boy of about fifteen came into the seating area carrying his tray. Although he still had a childlike face, he was big for his age and starting to form broad shoulders. His eyelashes and freckles were at odds with his thickening frame. When he didn’t find who he was looking for, he made a quarter turn to scan the food counters. Connecting with someone, he jerked his head towards a table and moved to set his tray down. Coming towards him was a middle aged — oh, no. No, no, no, no, no.
But it was too late. Before Karen could slink away, the woman had spotted her. “Karen? Oh my god! Is that you?”
Allie McGregor. Allie was a girl Karen used to run around with in high school. Looking at her now, Karen found Allie put together incredibly well in fitted earth tones — probably head-to-toe Ralph Lauren. Allie’s outfit was far pricier than anything Dillard’s carried.
Karen struggled to give her best ‘Surprise!’ face. “Hey, Allie. What a coincidence. How long has it been?”
“I go by Allison now, but yeah. Wow! Must be, what, twenty-five years — more! I haven’t seen you since graduation.”
Karen nodded and offered uh-huhs. She was trying to think of an excuse for an exit while Allie — Allison now — droned on.
“This is my son, Bradley.” Allison finally acknowledged her fifteen-year son, who was looking bored. “He is in his first year at Westlake High. We live right nearby.” She pointed vaguely to the northwest towards one of Austin’s poshest neighborhoods. “Bradley’s orthodontist moved in here. Can you believe it?” Allison rolled her eyes. “Bradley, Karen and I used to hang out right here when we were just a little older than you are now.”
“Really?” Bradley seemed neither convinced nor impressed.
“Oh, yes. We used to spend entire Saturdays here. It used to be so lively. Walking around, spending our allowances. Flirting.” Allison gave Karen a wink. “Now it’s just so …” She glanced around trying to find the right word, “so sad.”
Karen followed Allison’s eye, scanning the other side of the atrium as if something would miraculously be different today. As she did, her name badge caught the light and Allison’s attention, flashing ‘Dillard’s, The Style of Your Life’ in metallic gold.
“Do you work here?” There was a slight pause. “So cool. It is so good to see you.” Allison changed the subject to whether or not Karen was married, whether or not she had kids. But it could not be undone — Allison’s hand had come to her throat with ‘Do you work here?’ The awkwardness of Allison trying to cover up her reaction hung stale in the air with the scent of fried food.
Eddie, the Store Manager, was holed up in his office reading reports — or possibly playing Minecraft. Nobody was quite sure what he did with his time. Staff grumbled that he rarely walked the floors and that he was out of touch with both customers and trends.
Karen knocked more to announce her arrival than to ask permission to enter. “Eddie. This is bullshit. I’ve been doing the job of Purchasing Manager for three years now, but without the title — ever since what’s-her-name quit.” Karen liked what’s-her-name, but she was too flustered to recall it at the moment. “I’ve taken on all her duties, the extra hours — everything. And with nothing to show for it. Nothing.”
“And you’ve been trying to get transferred out of here the entire time as well.”
“What?” said Eddie.
“Samantha. That was the PM’s name. She quit three years ago.” Karen heard that Samantha had taken a job with Target, then got laid off a year later. There was no point staying with department stores, and the big-box chains were now shrinking as well. Amazon was eating everyone. Despite the external challenges, the job was also getting more mundane. Now there was little discretion in selecting goods. Products were determined centrally. At the store level, you mostly just put into the system how many units you wanted, then monitored whether or not they were selling. Karen could do the job in her sleep.
“Your point being …” Eddie held his hand palm up, then flopped it back down near his mouse. He had no idea what had set Karen off. She was one of the most reliable people in the store. Since he never had to worry with her area, he decided to bide time and see where the conversation was going.
“Just what I said. I’m doing the job of a full Purchasing Manager, but I’m only getting paid for being an APM. It’s not fair, Eddie.” She exhaled. She was out of her element, but she was stuck in the rabbit hole now. Not wanting to show weakness, she crossed her arms. “It’s not right.”
“Well, I wasn’t supposed to tell you this just yet, but I put you up for a promotion. And it has been approved.” He was not the person who had submitted her name for promotion, and he was supposed to have told her already. Eddie had been vaguely hinting to his superiors that they were managing fine despite the empty position partly due to his own efforts rather than commending Karen for doing the work of two people. Eddie spent a disproportionate amount of his time managing upwards and taking credit for other people’s efforts. At the mid-year reviews, the Finance chain had pressed for Karen’s change in status to reward her on the job that she was doing. The store could promote Karen and fill the Assistant role since Barton Creek was one of the few stores that was ahead of budget.
“Really?” Now what was she supposed to do? Pushing for a transfer at this point would be inappropriate. “How much will the pay raise be?”
“Three percent. I’m sorry, but it is all I could get. Times are obviously tight.” Her new salary would be at the very bottom of the salary range for the new pay grade. Eddie knew he could have easily obtained a larger increase if he had put forth any effort.
Karen did a quick calculation in her head, biting her lip as she did the sums. Anything extra would help with Christopher’s books and tuition. She would check on the Human Resources website when she got back to her desk; maybe there were some additional side benefits. Still smarting from her interaction with Allison, she undid her name badge and set it on Eddie’s desk with a clang. “I hated wearing that thing.” As a full manager, she would not be required to wear one anymore.
Eddie slid open the middle drawer of his desk, dropped the name badge in, and closed it. “Of course.” He knew when he had made a sale. He figured that he had her on the hook now for at least another year, maybe two if he played his cards right. Not having an APM under her would remain a convenient excuse for why a transfer was impossible. “I’ll get the paperwork started right away.” He stood and shook her hand with a big smile. “Congratulations.”
Karen sat in the parking lot still processing what had transpired before starting the car. It got dark early this time of year; moths were flitting around the lights that dotted the expanse of the parking lot. Once again, there were only a few vehicles clustered around the entrances even though it was the perfect time for people to stop on their way home from work. She was grateful for the confidence that Eddie had shown in her, and was even more grateful for the extra income that would now be coming in. Yet she couldn’t stop thinking that a part of her wanted to get downsized, forcing her into the market to find something different. Maybe that would give her the chance to try something that she might enjoy, or find something that she would at least find challenging. But things had gone so badly with the Pretty Pony the last time she tried to make a go of it, and now there was less financial cushion than before. She couldn’t chance quitting until Christopher was settled in his career.
She thought of her days here as a sixteen-year old flitting around the mall — trying on dresses, getting pretzels at Auntie Anne’s, playing games in the arcade. Her first date was here. Her first kiss was right over there in the movie theater. Fast forward to age twenty-nine, a proud young woman elevated to Purchasing Manager. She had conquered the mall and was on a great trajectory. Now it was stifling. She was back to where she started, but without Simon and without the house. She couldn’t forget the failed business. Christopher would be leaving for college soon.
Christopher would be so happy to hear that she got promoted. He was such a good kid; he would probably forgo college and work construction to pay the bills for them if he knew how much she wanted a fresh start. Maybe she could set up a doggie boutique next to his clinic once he was in private practice. That was years away, though.
Karen put her head on the steering wheel and started to cry.
Sean Winn got a late start at writing and is doing his best to catch up. After living in Indonesia, Hong Kong, and Singapore, he currently makes his home in Austin, TX, where he is currently working on a novel. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Ocotillo Review and Echo
*Brenden Barraza is currently a college student studying to get my Bachelor’s Degree in Commercial Photography. My photography style focuses on the abstract and carries a surrealistic influence in most of my works. They often consist of composite photographs layering multiple exposures together or long exposure works.