(Two years ago The Curmudgeon used this space to express his dismay over the proliferation of stores that are open on Thanksgiving and their insistence that their employees spend this day standing behind cash registers serving customers instead of sitting at dining room tables serving turkey and stuffing. He is pleased that this situation appears to be receiving more attention, and while it is at least a little encouraging that some stores are making a big fuss over not being open, their numbers continue to dwindle and he suspects they are fighting a losing battle.
The Curmudgeon thinks about this often; as you know by now, he has much too much free time on his hands. He used some of that free time to explore another way to approach this issue: through fiction and a short story about a couple for whom the work-Thanksgiving-or-else ultimatum becomes all too real. He posted this story on Thanksgiving last year and, like yesterday’s message, believes it is worth sharing again. Enjoy – and have a good Thanksgiving.)
Danny and Colleen McBride were sitting at their dining room table, eating dinner with their three children, when the telephone rang. Colleen rose to answer it, going quickly into the kitchen.
Danny noticed the look on his wife’s face when she returned.
“What?” he asked.
“It was Marion,” she replied. Marion was the owner of Sissy’s, the girls clothing store where Colleen had worked part-time for the past four years.
“What did she want?” Danny asked.
“She said she needs me to work on Thursday from twelve to eight.”
“What?” Danny asked.
“You heard me.”
“Since when is she open on Thanksgiving?”
“That’s what I asked. She said she had just decided, that Walmart and Target and Macy’s and Kohl’s and a lot of the others were going to be open and she felt that she needed to be open, too, that if people are going to go Christmas shopping and spend money on Thanksgiving that she couldn’t afford not to compete for their business.”
“Of all the stupid ideas,” Danny said. “So you said no, right?”
“Well, I started to, but…”
“And she said it wasn’t a request, that I had to work it.”
“Or I wouldn’t have a job anymore. She apologized, but she said she couldn’t do it to her full-time girls, that in the end, it was more important for her to keep them happy than it is to keep me happy.”
“Why that piece of…” Danny started saying.
“Danny!” Colleen interrupted, moving her head and eyes almost imperceptibly from side to side to indicate that he needed to watch his words in front of the children.
“So what did you tell her?”
“I said I’d be there. Oh, Danny, what choice do we have?”
Working at Sissy’s was Colleen’s second job; she worked one or two three-hour shifts on weeknights and a six-hour shift on alternating Saturdays and Sundays. This was in addition to her full-time job, as a billing clerk for a small group of orthopedists.
“We need to talk about this,” Danny said. “It’s Thanksgiving, for pete’s sake. We’re expecting how many?”
“Sixteen,” Colleen replied.
“I can handle that with our sisters’ help, but that’s not the point. It’s Thanksgiving. Who works on Thanksgiving?”
Danny, too, worked two jobs. He was a butcher for a local supermarket, and after work every Friday night he headed across town to the food distribution center, where he worked an overnight shift breaking down carcasses for early morning delivery to many of the butcher shops in the city’s bustling Italian Market, where Saturday was by far their busiest day of the week.
Even with the four jobs the McBrides were barely making ends meet. Between tuition for Danny Junior and Kathleen and day care for two-year-old Amy and the mortgage and the health insurance, they seldom found themselves with two spare nickels to rub together. When the transmission in Colleen’s car went over Labor Day weekend and the shop said it would cost $800 to repair, they scrapped the car and Danny started taking two buses to work. Every Friday afternoon Colleen would pick him up at work, drive home, and then Danny would take the car across town to his second job and then hurry home the following morning so Colleen could get to work on time when her Saturday shift at Sissy’s started at ten o’clock. Ever since Danny started taking the bus and it took him longer to get home from work, Danny’s widowed father, who lived three blocks from them, would come to the house on the nights Colleen worked in case Danny didn’t make it home before Colleen needed to leave for the store. At times they talked about asking Jimmy to move in with them, it would be so much easier with him around to help with the kids and the bills and they knew how lonely he was since Danny’s mother had passed away three years ago, but the house was so small, just three bedrooms, one of which was more like a large closet, and only one bathroom, and it seemed impossible to squeeze in another person and they were already concerned about what would happen when Amy was finally potty-trained and needed to use the bathroom, too. They had been talking about adding a powder room in the unfinished basement and even started saving just a little money for that, but it was only a little and they thought it was so important that they had agreed not to raid the bathroom kitty to help pay for the transmission – not that what they had saved so far would have put much of a dent in the $800 cost of making the car run again, especially after they had raided the powder room fund the month before when the eye doctor told them Danny Junior needed glasses.
Two hours later the children were in bed and Danny and Colleen were in their living room, Danny with a bottle of beer in his hand as he sat on the recliner and Colleen on the sofa, occasionally sipping from a cup of decaf. The only light in the room came from the television. When the program they were watching went to a commercial, Danny spoke.
“What if you said no?” he asked.
“She said she’d fire me.”
“And if she did?”
“You know the numbers, Danny.”
Danny and Colleen were far from poor. The both made about $30,000 a year from their main jobs, and together they brought home another $7500 a year from their part-time work. If someone had told them on their wedding day that together they’d be making nearly $70,000 in ten years they would have smiled and thought they’d be living it up on easy street, it seemed like such a huge amount of money, but time had shown them that a house and three children made easy street part of a far more costly neighborhood than they ever would have imagined.
Danny didn’t know the numbers as well as Colleen; she was the partner with the bookkeeping skills. She paid the bills, kept an eye on the checking account balance, and maintained a constantly updated index card with a list of every major expense for which she thought she’d need to write a check in the next three months. Too often, she found herself adding unexpected expenses to that card.
“It’s Thanksgiving, Danny, and that means Christmas is a month away. We could scale back, sure, but we can’t eliminate it entirely, so that means the credit card bill will be higher than most other months. A St. Matthew’s bill, too: two tuition payments due January 10. I put some money aside for that every month so we have most of it, but not all of it, not yet. Plus it’s getting colder, so the gas bill will go up. That reminds me, I need to call the gas company and ask them to put us on a budget. And if I leave Sissy’s, I lose my discount on the girls’ clothes. With some work I can make up for that, probably by going to my sister’s house and using her computer to shop on the internet. It’s not terrible, but it’s not pretty, either.”
“Yeah, I’m hearing that,” Danny said. “This is just so…wrong. Even at the supermarket we close at two on Thanksgiving so everyone can go home, and the people who work that day all knew months ago and only after they finished asking for volunteers. This is such shit.”
“I know. But I can’t quit. We need the money.”
“You can’t find ways to cut corners, save a little money?”
“I can always find little ways to save a little money here and there but the thing about cutting back little things is that no matter how much you do, little things never add up to much. I think we’re stuck.”
“Yeah, I know. I’m just pissed, that’s all. We all belong together on Thursday.
“After the new year, though, I want you to start looking for a new part-time job, and when you find one, I want you to go into that Marion and tell her to go fuck herself.”
“What?” Danny asked.
“First of all, you know I’m not going to say that. Second of all, get what other job? Stores opening on Thanksgiving’s been going on for a few years now, so getting a job at Walmart or Target or Macy’s or Kohl’s won’t be any better. Marion’s open because they’re open, it’s self-defense, you know it’s not her and not something she wants to do.”
“I’m not so sure about that.”
“Come on, Danny. I’m going to be in the store on Thanksgiving and she’s going to be there, too, the whole day, and you know she’s got four kids of her own and eighteen grandkids and the store’s the last place she wants to be on Thanksgiving.”
“Yeah, I guess. But still…”
“It’s those people who run the Walmarts and Targets, Col. They’re not working on Thursday, that’s for sure, and they put their feet on the throats of people like us because they can, because they know we need them, and because they think if we won’t do it they can pull someone in off the street who will.”
“I know. A few of my friends are in the same position.”
“Yeah. Karen Reilly. Suzie Leonard. A few others.”
“These people don’t quit. They just keep squeezing us and squeezing us. Sooner or later there’s not gonna be anything left to squeeze.”
“Tell me about it. Remember, I’m the one who does the checkbook.”
“I don’t know, maybe I can look for something that’s not in a store.”
“I don’t know, but I can look. Maybe some kind of call center job or another doctor’s office at night, or maybe night housekeeping in an office building or waiting tables somewhere.”
“No to those last two. I don’t want you doing that.” Danny got up from his chair and sat close to Colleen on the couch; he put his hand on her thigh. “You do enough cleaning up and waiting on people around here without doing it for other people, too.
“This just isn’t the way I thought things would be. We’re doing better than a lot of our friends, but it never ends. Whether it’s the supermarket making us kick in more for the medical or your boss deciding he wants to extend his office hours an extra half-hour without paying you any more or tuition going up or our kids getting bigger and eating more food and needing new clothes, the pressure never ends. I don’t remember it being like this for my folks.”
“I don’t think it was for mine, either. My mom didn’t work and my dad didn’t make that much, but it was always enough.
“And it never ends. The kids want cable, the school wants them to have a computer at home, and Kathleen’s second teeth are coming in so crooked…”
“Stop. Let’s just get through this one and we’ll worry about the next one when the next one happens,” Danny suggested.
“Yeah, I guess. But when we do it that way, we never have a chance to get ahead.”
“I know, Col, I know.”