After the holidays I was back in Savannah and back to work in my new role as non-manager of Starship Records. I still had the keys, though, so 8 a.m. Monday morning I drove over to open up the store.
A big old boy was sitting out front, probably waiting for the Wal-Mart to open. He looked like Mike Ditka: broad, a little chunky, mustache and a menacing stare.
These kinds of moments remain uncomfortable for me. Maybe it’s a guy thing, or maybe it’s my high school history of dealing with jocks and rednecks offering daily to kick my ass. Regardless, I had no interest in dealing with the savage but I had no alternative.
Twenty feet and closing. I gave him the “what’s up” head nod and he reciprocated. Fifteen feet, ten. He rose to his full height. He was easily three inches taller than me. Five feet. He squared off. And then this strange linebacker shot his right hand toward me and said, “Hi, I’m Robert” in the most effeminate voice I’d ever heard. “I’m the new manager.”
“Oh, hey Robert. Did you forget your keys?”
“It’s my first day. Stan didn’t tell you? You’re training me.”
“Oh, okay. Cool, come on in.” We started with the alarm, then we made a time card for Robert because even though we were salaried Stan insisted on knowing when we came and went. We counted the cash drawer together, and I showed him the little green ledger that would now be his life. “Here’s what we made on the first Monday after New Year’s last year,” I said. “Day to day isn’t a big deal but you want to be up over last year by the end of the week, and you have to be up over last January by the end of the month.”
“Or what?” Robert said.
“Or Stan will shit.”
“I can handle Stan, don’t worry about that. By the end of my interview he was ready to give me his job. Don’t you think he’s cute?”
“Trust me, he’s cute. If I didn’t have a boyfriend I’d go after him.”
“That’s never stopped me,” Robert said.
“We need to get the store straightened up a little, then we’ll be ready to turn on the lights and open up.”
“Like truck drivers. You’d think they’re all straight, but I’ve had me some truck driver.”
That first morning set the tone for Robert’s and my working relationship: I worked and he talked about relationships; well, sex. And the less interested I acted the more explicit his tales of legs-in-the-air truck drivers became. It was was like clerking for Clarence Thomas.
Within a month the phone calls began: I think I have the flu. Can you open the store? Stuart and I were out late last night and I’m so hungover. Can you open the store? I need a mental health day…. Soon he started appending “and can you clock me in” to the end of each excuse. Robert sometimes vanished for days, but he always appeared when Stan was around, ready to smother him with flattery. Stan ate it up.
One morning when Robert actually arrived for work, we had a sort of shabby looking fellow in the store. This wasn’t unusual—Starship wasn’t located on the best side of town—but Robert decided that this dude was up to no good.
“He’s okay,” I said. “He comes in now and then to listen to music and get out of the cold.”
“He’s going to shoplift,” Robert said.
“No, he isn’t. He’s okay.”
“You better watch him,” Robert said.
“Fine, I’ll watch him.” I organized the 45s while the dude stared at the 12-inch singles. When I was done I walked back to the counter. “See? He isn’t a problem.”
“He’s up to something. I’ll take care of it, watch this.” When the poor bastard stepped to the front door, Robert mashed the keys on the cash register. “Excuse me, sir. Can you step over here, please?”
“What’s the problem?”
“That beep. That was our security alarm.’
“I didn’t do anything.”
“I’m going to need you to empty your pockets,” Robert said.
“Fuck you, I didn’t do nothing.”
“Fine,” Robert said, and he stepped from behind the counter. He grabbed the guy’s arm and said, “James, call the police. Sir, come with me.”
“Get your hands off of me,” the customer said, but he followed Robert to the back room. I didn’t know what to do, so I called the police.
Robert emerged laughing, and he told me to go watch the suspect. I sat at my old desk and the poor guy sat in a folding chair at the shipping/check-in table. “Let me go, man. I didn’t steal nothing.”
“I know you didn’t. Just wait for the cops. They’ll straighten this out,” I said.
“Look at me, brother. I am a black man. They going to arrest me. You know me, man. I didn’t take nothing.”
“I know, I’m sorry. He’s an asshole.”
“Please, man. Just let me walk out that back door.”
“Just sit tight, buddy. If you leave they’re going to think you ran. It’s going to be okay.”
“Man, I didn’t do nothing.”
We must’ve sat in that cinder block gray back room for an hour before the police arrived, but as soon as they stepped in my buddy was out of his seat. “Sir, I swear to Jesus, sir, I didn’t steal nothing.” He was peeling off his dirty winter coat. “That man assaulted me, sir. He grabbed my arm and dragged my ass back here. I’m sorry, sir, I didn’t mean to cuss.”
“Just have a seat, we’ll get this taken care of,” the cop said, but Robert’s suspect was out of his shirt, now.
“I’ll prove I didn’t steal nothing. If I stole it where I be hiding it?” He dropped his pants and stood there in nothing but a pair of holey, yellowed Jockey shorts.
“That’s not necessary,” the cop said.
“I didn’t do nothing,” the customer said, and he dropped the shorts. There he stood, in Starship’s back room, naked and ashy. “Where I’m hiding whatever I’m supposed to have stole?”
“For God’s sake, put your clothes back on,” the cop said. “Sit down, I’ll be right back.” He went back to the counter and talked to Robert, then he told the guy that he was free to leave.
As the fellow was walking out he yelled at Robert: “I’m going to sue your ass. I’m going to own this whole store, then I’m going to fire your racist ass.” Robert thought the whole thing was hysterical.
I put up with this for three months until I finally managed to catch Stan on a surprise visit. “Where’s Robert?” he asked.
“He’s sick today.”
“Everything going okay here?”
“What do you mean?” Stan asked. “Sales are up.”
I laid out the whole story, every detail of life with Robert. I told Stan about the sexual harassment, the customer harassment, even that Robert wasn’t really sick and that was a common occurrence. Stan took it all in, and then he said: “What the fuck, James? You didn’t want to be manager anymore. That’s what you said, right?”
“Sounds to me like you’re just jealous that you ain’t the manager anymore and he’s doing a better job than you did.” That was the last time I told Stan the truth about anything.
It was spring now, only a few more weeks until I went home for the summer. I figured I could ride it out then look for a new job in the fall. Everything would be okay until then. And then the phone rang.
“It’s your father.”
“Hey, what’s up?”
“Your grandfather died. You need to get to Colorado,” he said, and he put my mother on the phone so that we could make arrangements. I packed a duffel bag and was on a plane that night.