Selma Rosita Morales works in the back of the store; her job is to count clothing. She stands at the entrance to the dressing rooms and greets customers whose arms are draped in flaccid fabrics. “How many items?” Selma asks.
All kinds of women shop here. Ladies wearing worn loafers fill three way mirrors. Girls in tight jeans browse the junior’s aisles. Women in polished pumps, carrying designer bags, shop in the store, too; manicured hands turn over tags revealing brand names at slashed prices.
Selma admires those women who descend on the store between 6:00 and 8:00 on weekday evenings. Career Women, Selma thinks, studying the sensible items they bring back for her to count. Their cell phones buzz suddenly, like a baby’s cry; they answer quickly knowing just what to say.
“Can you believe the price of this pashmina?” one such woman might say to Selma, a silk shawl thrust between them like a bridge, not noticing that Selma’s own cardigan is pilled and worn.
“Only eight items at a time,” Selma tells all her customers plainly; her matter-of-fact expression suggests: I didn’t make up the rules.
Selma’s new manager, Mahmood Ashad, is big on rules. Most mornings before their shift, Mahmood scolds Selma as if she is positioned to break them. “Make the numbers match, Selma,” he says.
It’s the same the Saturday two girls show up from Wellbourne. At 7:45 sharp Mahmood scurries up to a group of doe-eyed employees already waiting by the back door. “Good morning, good morning,” he mumbles, jangling a fistful of keys.
“Yes and Selma,” he begins loudly enough that everyone to hear. “Our store, we lose a lot of money on Saturday to theft.” When Mahmood talks to Selma, he is guiding and, at the same time, chiding, as if he is a worried father and she is a wayward girl. But in reality Selma is a grown women treading through her fifties and Mahmood is just barely a man underneath his round mustache and collared shirt. He mops at his forehead with a tan-colored handkerchief. “In fact, Saturday is the favorite day of thieves.”
Mahmood requires all employees to watch a video called “Stamp Out Shoplifting!” He plays it at the start of each monthly meeting. The video details the mandatory prosecution of anyone caught stealing, including the employees themselves. During her years at the store, Selma has witnessed the arrest of many real-life shoplifters: young girls and old ladies mostly. Sometimes she feels sorry for them.
For every shoplifter caught in the act, management receives a citation from headquarters. In just six months, Mahmood has been awarded a record number. He hangs them proudly on the walls of his office, in frames, like college degrees.
“I will make Saturday a favored day for honest people!” he says.
“Now, Selma, you know what to do if the numbers don’t match,” Mahmood asks, but Selma knows better than to answer. His voice is like sugar — sharp and sweet. “If the numbers don’t match, Selma, don’t think. Don’t think. Just ask the customer to wait and push the red security button.” Selma nods then looks down at her white boxy shoes, like a nurse might wear.
“When you push the red button, the boys and me, we will come in minutes.” The boys are Rashaad and Michael: security. They carry walkie-talkies and smoke near the dumpsters behind the store.
Mahmood finally turns the key and the back door swings open. “All right, all right, everybody to work,” he says. He holds the door open and everyone files past him, except Selma. Selma is the last one inside.
The employees’ lounge is damp and hot compared to the rest of the store, so the workers pass through it quickly, only pausing to pin on nametags and stash bags into dented lockers that no longer lock. Then everyone, except Selma, fans out with a quiet rumble toward his or her posts. Mahmood heads into his office. When he turns to shut the door, he finds Selma at his heels.
“Mr. Ashad . . .” she starts.
They stand for a moment not speaking, Selma shifting her weight and Mahmood with his hands on his hips. “I need it off, Saturday, the fifth, of next month; my baby girl is graduating.”
“Yes Graduation Weekend is a very big event in the store. We get lots of customers: out-of-towners.”
“No — my daughter is graduating, from high school.”
Mahmood lets his breath out.
“You know store policy,” Mahmood says. “If you want the day off, for, for . . . for family business, then you must find someone to cover your shift.” With this, Mahmood takes a step forward so that Selma has to step out into the narrow hallway.
“Mr. Ashad,” Selma says again. His name sounds wrong when she speaks it, mishandled by her Spanish trained tongue. In an earlier life she tried to shake this accent, but it sticks in her mouth like old chewing gum. “I have asked all the ladies. Sorry, they say. Sorry. But they do not help.”
“Selma, didn’t you hear a word I was saying to you?” he finally says. “You are our first line of defense in this store. How can I let my first line of defense have off on our busiest day?” Saying this, Mahmood closes his office door sharply, leaving Selma alone in the hallway.
Selma and her husband worked in the orchards for many years when they first migrated to the United States. It was the apples that brought them. White men who spoke Spanish picked them up in big white buses and brought them over the border to do this work. When Selma first ascended the rickety ladders to pick apples, the men handed her a simple basket to collect the fruit. It strapped to her front-side giving her a cylindrical belly. At the time Selma thought: this is where my own children will be someday.
To unload the apples, the bottom of the baskets unlatched so that a flood of fruit, chartreuse knobs blushed with red, flowed out onto conveyors. “Treat the apples gently,” the bosses told them. “People won’t buy bruised fruit.” A few workers who spoke the best English got to work in the shade of the barn, sorting apples for cider and sauce and apple butter; but Selma was never among them.
As the baskets filled, it became more difficult to balance. Occasionally workers fell from the trees. Screaming vans came to whisk them away, or sometimes just screaming relatives. If it was the ambulance that had to come, the workers weren’t allowed to return to work in the orchards.
Selma never fell, but one autumn morning in her third season she woke up with an unfamiliar denseness in her belly, as if she’d eaten unripe fruit. It didn’t lessen even when she had to rush down from the apple trees to vomit beneath the neat rows of gnarled trunks. A few days later the nurse confirmed that she was pregnant. “You can’t keep working in people’s fields,” her husband answered when she told him the news; but for eight more months, she did.
The pain of labor startled Selma. But then there was a baby boy, sleek and round with curls matted against his head. She named him Marcos and held his naked body against her.
Selma stayed home with Marcos for two full seasons. Then she gave birth to a baby girl whose eyelids were so delicate and fingers were so long it made Selma laugh with delight just to look at them. She named the baby Rosalina after her grandmother far away. “Sweet baby Rosa,” her husband sang to the infant in the early mornings as he held her. Then he would lay the baby down and pick up his worn canvas jacket and set off for work. It was always late when he came home and peeled off that same jacket in the evenings.
One evening Selma’s husband did not come home. Women, wailing in Spanish, came instead. They wore kerchiefs on their heads and dust on their faces from the orchards. He had collapsed by the barn at the end of the workday, they told Selma. It was like he was under water, the way he gasped for air.
Selma makes her way to the dressing rooms, noticing the first shoppers of the day surveying the front racks. Soon the foyer in front of Selma’s post fills with these same women. They bring all kinds of clothing for Selma to survey: pastel twin-sets, polka-dotted suit jackets, jeans pre-faded and already streaked and torn. Selma doles out numbered tags across the counter top, fair and swift, thinking: I would love to shop on a Saturday, too. I’d wake up late, sip hot, black coffee brewed by some other woman’s hand.
Before long, Lacretia ducks back to the dressing rooms. Lacretia’s skin is darker than Selma’s, the color of roasted coffee beans; her people are from the Carolinas where they used to pick cotton instead of apples, dragging canvas bags behind them on the ground.
“Cariňa Lacretia,” Selma says.
“Girl, you working hard or hardly working?” Lacretia grins broadly. “I heard Mahmood give you a hard time this morning?”
“He did. He did. He is a big man.” Selma jostles a top back onto a hanger.
“You think so? I heard he isn’t so big, not where it counts anyway, lady.”
Selma laughs, but the laugh is forced because talk of Mahmood makes her think about missing her daughter’s graduation. Lacretia also has a daughter graduating from high school.
“It’s always the same with him,” Selma says to her friend.
When Selma says “him” it comes out “hymn,” like the English word for the spirituals she use to sing at church on Sundays. Even her English comes out in Spanish, full of lilts and curves.
“Don’t let it get to you, Selma.” Lacretia offers.
Selma wonders which “it” Lacretia is referring to:
The it of life
The it of work
The it of absence.
Lacretia saunters off, toward the sales floor, before Selma can ask her.
Up front, girls wear too much lip-gloss and work the registers and chat between customers. They wear burgundy smocks with white piping and their nametags identify them to customers as “associates” and Mahmood chastises the girls who forget to wear them.
The older women, like Lacretia, wear burgundy smocks as well. They sort and restock clothes, forcing items back from the dressing rooms back into already overcrowded racks. Just like the people in the barn sorting the apples, Selma thinks.
Selma doesn’t wear a burgundy vest. None of the women who work in the back of the store do. They only wear burgundy nametags, and Selma’s has worn to “elma,” but no one reads it. Years before, when Selma was first hired, Management used to put employee names on the nametags, instead of just “associate” and she has kept hers ever since.
Some customers are short with Selma, rude even, but mostly the women look just past Selma’s mud colored skin and dark eyes at the numbered tags on the wall behind her.
It’s the tags they want, Selma thinks. The tags are their keys inside.
Beside the tags, a sign reads:
NO MORE THAN 8 ITEMS IN DRESSING ROOMS AT ONE TIME.
SHOPLIFTERS WILL BE PROSECUTED TO THE FULL EXTENT OF THE LAW!
“Your heritage is like a passport,” Selma’s grandmother used to say to her. “It will open doors for you.”
“How many items?” Selma asks.
The last day Selma stepped inside of a church was the day of her husband’s funeral. The service took place at La Iglesia de Santa Maria, which had blood-red carpet. “Rich he lieth down and he is not gathered,” the priest intoned.
Selma had sat in the front pew, wearing navy. Her only black dress seemed improper because it failed to cover her knees. Her husband looked so different in the casket, against the baby-blue satin. An organist began to play from an unseen loft.
After her husband’s death, Selma found work — the kind that began right away and ended without warning. She found work to compensate for the new and numbing quiet she had discovered over her husband’s casket, and could not seem to shake. First, she was hired by a maid outfit that serviced big suburban houses. “But the yards are so tiny,” the other maids would say. Selma and the rotating band of women wore stiff pink uniforms, the cost of which came out of their first paychecks.
Later, Selma was employed as a night janitor, in a downtown building, cleaning office buildings that seemed clean enough already. The trashcans were only full of coffee cups and shredded papers. For many years, Selma worked at a country club at the edge of town. Other employees seemed to come and go, but her station remained by the dishwasher. The steam from the machine scalded her hands. When she was late with the rent, she pleaded with her landlord: “But I am working. I have small children but I work away from them every day.”
That first fall when Selma went back to work, Marcos was three years old and curious about the world. He enjoyed the new smells and sounds in the rotating houses of friends and neighbors with whom Selma left him and his sister. But not Rosalina. Rosa was still precious and small and, once again, crying for her mother’s breast.
Grown children and seasons later, Selma finds herself working in the back of a clothing store. She works in the store at all because they hired her and because it is cleaner and less strenuous than much of the other work she’s done. She works in the back because, even after many years in America, her accent is thick. She works a 12-hour shift each Saturday because her new manager, Mahmood, has mandated it in bold letters on his office window schedule.
Selma is proud because, for the first time in her life, she is able to make weekly deposits in her new savings account. With her children nearly grown, her home expenses are fewer. She has nearly $300 saved.
Selma’s daughter Rosalina is turning 18 and Rosalina is gifted. Years ago, during Back-to-School Night at Buford Middle, a teacher even told Selma so. During the autumn event, parents rotated in 15 minute intervals through a frantic version of their child’s school day. Selma arrived late, flushed, tired from a full day’s work.
Most of Rosalina’s teachers were ladies; they wore floral print dresses and flats, not unlike Selma’s own shoes (her best pair, which she had dug out to wear). They smiled at Selma and the other parents who hurried through the middle school halls. But Rosalina’s seventh period teacher, Mr. Horne, wore a jacket with leather elbows. When they entered his classroom, he immediately pulled Selma and her daughter aside. “Rosalina wanted me to talk to you, Mrs. Morales,” he said. “Your daughter has a gift for numbers and math in general. If you came to teacher conferences more often, you’d already know that.” Red-faced, Selma shifted and stammered something; she reached over to smooth her daughter’s hair.
During her junior year in high school, Rosalina’s gifts resurfaced for Selma in the form of a bright, white permission slip. Your child has a unique opportunity, the paper said, to attend a college level course while still in high school. Selma’s tired signature permitted Rosalina to travel weekly, with a handful of other advanced students, to Wellbourne College campus, nestled in boxwoods on the other side of town. So on Tuesdays, Rosalina rode the same big public bus to the college that Selma rode to work in the opposite direction. “Maybe, I could go to Wellbourne after I graduate,” Rosalina began to say.
One night at dinner, Wellbourne came up again. Marcos had moved out a year earlier, but still came to Sunday supper. He had brought a new girl over that day. The apartment smelled of rosemary and lime.
“I met with the dean of admissions at Wellbourne,” Rosalina offered. “The guidance counselor at school told me to call him. So they’re considering my application, even though I sent it in really late.”
“They say Wellbourne is a big, important school,” Selma said, piercing the chicken breast with a fork. “I just don’t want you to be disappointed.”
“Mamá, don’t make everything sound so desperate,” Marcos chimed in. “They need Latinos for more than landscaping these days, you know.”
Rosalina mussed her brother’s hair. “That doesn’t stop you from doing it.”
“I do construction,” Marcos corrected, flexing his bicep. Selma thought he looked like her husband when he was that same age. “Anyway, who knows? Maybe they’ll even let Rosalina in because she’s Latina. How much do you think being a morena at Wellbourne is worth these days?”
“I don’t know about any of that stuff,” Selma scoffed, “I only know that I get paid because I work. And Marcos works. And you too, dear. And Rosa, you work making your marks at the school every day. When I can’t work any longer, what will happen to an old lady like me?”
Selma’s final question lay before them, like plaster poured that wouldn’t set up right.
“Hey, Ma,” Marcos broke the silence. If Rosalina gets into Wellbourne, she can still live right here at home, right? That’ll save you some money. Also that’ll keep her away from those Wellbourne boys.”
“It’ll be a miracle if I even get in,” Rosalina said.
“I might work construction, but those girls at Wellbourne aren’t any better than me,” Marcos persisted. “Those girls are so stuck up. I mean my friend Carlos was dating one and she actually told him she couldn’t sleep with him because it would break the honor code. Ha.”
Marco’s girlfriend giggled and slapped his knee underneath the table. He grinned and caught her hand in his own. He’d washed carefully before dinner, still there was always dirt beneath his nails.
By 3:00 on Saturday afternoon, the clothing store is mostly empty when Selma sees two college-aged girls approaching her. She scans their clothes strewn over their arms.
“You should have tried on that dress, the slinky one,” the tall girl with pink lacquered nails says to her friend. The friend wears a powder blue sweatshirt with “Wellbourne Lacrosse” written on the front in felted letters, a small, blue backpack bunched under her arm.
“Just one for me,” the tall girl states plainly.
“I’ve got three,” the girl in the sweatshirt says.
The girls seem so graceful. “My daughter is going to Wellbourne in the fall,” Selma hears herself say. This hope, this half-truth, surprises her but the college girls don’t seem to notice. When she hands them their numbers they disappear into the dressing rooms. A few minutes later, when the twosome emerges, Selma is surprised again. The girl in the lacrosse sweatshirt has only two items in view.
“Where’s the other one, dear?” Selma says.
The girls shakes her head, says nothing.
“The third item . . .” Selma starts to say, but the taller girl interrupts.
“Look, lady,” she says. “She only has two, okay?”
“Her tag says three,” Selma answers. “If you ladies would just sit down for a moment?” The girls look at Selma, but they don’t sit.
“Why should we sit down, Elma?” the tall girl says. “She just has two, okay?” Selma notices her nails are hard and shiny and pointed.
“I’m sorry, but you must wait.” Selma says. Heat spreads through her body. The tall girl curls her mouth into a look of impatience, disgust.
“What’s your problem, lady? Don’t you understand English? She only has TWO sweaters.” The tall girl holds up two fingers like an angry peace sign. “Dos suéteres,” she adds in clear, lovely Spanish. Spain Spanish, Selma thinks, Spanish of medias lunas and cappuccinos. Selma has never been to Europe.
Selma points again to the plastic chairs and jabs at the red button marked “security.” An alarm sounds over the store’s distant speakers. “The boys and me will come and take care of everything,” Mahmood had said.
“Please don’t call the police!” the girl in the powder-blue sweatshirt whines, suddenly vocal. The tall girl looks over at her friend confused, then alarmed, and finally her pink mouth resigns itself into an understanding, “ohhh.”
“Siempre llamamos a la policía,” Selma answers them both in her own thick native tongue. She speaks loudly so that the girls can hear that her Spanish from the Americas, from apples orchards. We always call the police, Selma had said.
It takes a few minutes for the security to show up, and at first security is only a puzzled-looking Michael, hurrying towards Selma with a walkie-talkie holstered to his belt.
“What’s up?” he asks Selma, not noticing the girls now sitting behind him.
A few minutes later, Rashaad joins them, still holding a bag of fast food. He sees the college girls at once and stares at the tall girl’s cleavage: two bulbs where her polo shirt opens in front.
“You girls from up at Wellbourne?”
“This girl is stealing,” Selma reports, her voice wavering. “She took three sweaters in. She came out with only two.”
“One missing,” Michael says. Rashaad flips open his cell phone, starts to call the police station while Michael sets off, for Mahmood, toward the office. Selma tries to calm herself, but a moment later, Mahmood appears in a full huff.
“Ladies, I’m Mr. Ashad,” he says sternly. “What is going on here?”
“Selma said these girls are, like, thieves,” Rashaad answers thickly, digging in the oil soaked bag for stray fries.
“Did anyone check the dressing room?” Mahmood asks. Rashaad and Michael shrug.
“I’m not supposed to leave my post,” Selma says, feeling startled. What if the girl accidentally left her third item behind?
Mahmood looks at Selma and shakes his head. Then he struts back into the now vacated dressing room. When he comes back, he is still empty handed.
“She only brought back two,” Selma repeats; she lets her breath out, in relief.
The smaller girl sinks low in her chair, ignoring her friend who glares at her. She hugs herself protectively, shielding her felted Wellbourne letters from view.
“We’ll need to look in that bag you’ve got there, young lady,” Mahmood says. Reluctantly, she hands her backpack over. Michael and Rashaad rifle through it turning up a stray tampon and a student ID card. Then, in seconds, they pull out a thin, white sweater and everyone gasps. It is as if they are magicians drawing back a scarf to reveal a dove in a previously empty bird cage.
A moment later, police officers arrive seeming big and blue and impervious in the foyer. Embarrassed by the women’s garments strewn around, they pull the girls into the shoe department to interview them separately.
“This one here did it alone,” the sandy haired officer concludes, indicating the girl in the powder-blue sweatshirt. “Do you want to press charges?”
“We will press charges,” Mahmood says and the officer rifles through a folder of forms. Selma looks at Mahmood and, despite herself, she is pleased. It is true that old women should have Saturdays off for their daughter’s graduations, but it is also true that girls shouldn’t come out of dressing rooms with the wrong number of sweaters. Girls shouldn’t talk to grown women with such disrespect.
Back in the plastic chair, the girl from Wellbourne starts to sob. The men seem to feel it on the back of their necks. The policemen shift uncomfortably.
“I’m sorry, okay?” the girl whines as the men begin to mark up their forms, her voice is high and full of gravel. “If I get arrested for this, I’ll get kicked out of college, you know. I’m almost a senior. Wellbourne has a really strict honor code.”
“We must press charges,” Mahmood says, but softer this time. At once, Selma hears the change in his voice. The cop with the form hears it too. His eyebrows raise and his pen floats in his fat hands above his clipboard.
“You could just let me pay for the sweater. I could pay double for it.” The girl’s voice is different now too, textured but refined, like raw silk. “You could, if you wanted to.” Everyone follows the girl’s gaze to Mahmood’s face. Selma is shocked to see that he seems to be considering it.
“No, he can’t,” Selma hears herself answer in an unfamiliar voice. Her gaze toward the girls is piercing and high. As she speaks, she feels the weight of everyone’s eyes fall on her. A wave of surprise washes over Mahmood’s face, the second time today Selma has seen it.
“He won’t,” Selma adds, more softly, but it is too late.
“But I can, I can,” Mahmood says, looking at Selma. He takes a long breath to compose himself. “And today, I will. Special circumstances,” he adds for the benefit of the policemen. The cops look at each other, indifferently. The one writing puts his pen away. “It’s not worth losing an education, right?” Mahmood says this to the girl with the backpack as if he is a benevolent father and she is a repentant child.
Leaving, the policemen swagger slowly through the sportswear aisle but most of the shoppers are too absorbed to notice. The girls at the registers all look up. The buzz of the security alarm interrupted the drone of pop music. The commotion has broken the monotony of their Saturday.
Lacretia also sees the policeman leaving and rushes back to check on Selma. “I heard you caught some girls shoplifting,” she intends to say. But when she gets to the back of the store, to the dressing rooms, she can’t find Selma anywhere. Rashaad is the one who tells her what happened.
For the first time in five years, Selma has left her post unattended. She is holed up in the employee bathroom, the door locked. A violent anger rises up through her body but then melts into quiet weeping. How were they able to persuade Mahmood so easily, when she could not? Her anger repeats itself, like the uninterrupted line of Saturdays shifts marked on the calendar in red. “You know what to do if the numbers don’t match,” Mahmood had told her, like a judge. But he is not a judge. He is just a man like any other. He is just a man who works in the back of a clothing store. Selma’s gaze falls down, settling where her white nurse’s shoes squeak against the linoleum.
I’m still picking apples, she thinks, looking into the dirty mirror. My children are grown now. I should have found a way to be with them.
A moment later Selma hears someone knocking, but she doesn’t plan to come out.
“Your daughter just called the office, Selma,” Michael’s voice tells her. “She says you should call home right away.”
Hearing this, Selma comes out because she must. Her face is red and puffy. She gathers her pocketbook from the lockers that don’t lock. She digs in the bottom for change. With quarters in hand, she marches through the clothes store with a new urgent gait.
Mahmood sees Selma from his office window and thinks, “What now?” But he decides not to go after her. Instead, he turns back to the college girl in his office. “I took a class at Wellbourne once,” he tells her as she writes the store a check.
Lacretia sees Selma too and thinks her friend is walking out for good. Employees do it all the time, even responsible ones like Selma. For a moment, Lacretia considers joining her. But then Lacretia thinks of her own daughter at home and shakes her head. “Selma’s just gonna get herself in trouble,” Lacretia says to herself, and then moves more printed scarves to the clearance rack.
The girls at the registers in the burgundy smocks with white piping don’t notice Selma among the evening crowds. They mistake her for just another Saturday afternoon customer.
Outside Selma arranges her change in the one pay phone that is not broken. Women with cell phones glide by her as she dials the familiar pattern of numbers to her house. Her daughter picks up immediately.
“I can’t believe it, Mamá,” Rosalina nearly screams. “They are paying for me and everything. I can’t even believe it! I got into Wellbourne! I got in!”
“Wait, wait, more slowly, niňa,” Selma says to her daughter. But really she has already heard everything. As her daughter rambles on, Selma shifts the hard plastic receiver to her other shoulder. The girls from Wellbourne walk out past her, rolling their eyes.
As Rosalina reads the acceptance letter, Selma dreams:
I will take the money out of my account. Three hundred dollars — not enough yet even for schoolbooks. I will put on my best navy dress. I will wear it and go shopping in those small stores, the ones the other side of town. I will buy a dress that is special for Rosalina’s graduation.
I will tell Mahmood I no longer work on Saturdays.
And because Rosalina is gifted she will become a Career Woman. And because Rosalina is beautiful, she will marry a Career Man and they will make Career Grandbabies for me to hold on Saturdays when I am not working; I will hold my grandbabies with one hand and make coffee with the other.
“. . . Mamá, I’ll talk to you more when you get home.”
“Yes, Rosa. Of course,” Selma answers. She settles the phone back into its cradle. She heads back inside to finish her shift.