Pay Day by Anna Dempsey

The man leans close to the glass and loudly recites his employee identification number. The cashier types in the eight digits then studies the screen.

“Zero citations, The Store has issued you a full paycheck,” they say opening a red tin box full of cash.

The man puts his forehead onto the window that separates them and watches with vigilance as the cashier counts the money. Before taking the bills from the counter he lets out three aggressive, wet sneezes. He doesn’t cup his hands to catch them and instead takes the money and counts it again, holding each bill up to the light. His snot is now sprayed across the glass, hiding the cashiers face.

I stare at the sneezer’s back, at his closely shaved head and narrow my eyes. I know that noise. It belongs to the employee on Aisle 8, the one next to mine. The Store doesn’t let us leave our rows, so I’ve never seen him, only his fingertips as they reach with ease over the highest shelf that we share. His fingernails are always too long with too much dirt underneath them. I often wondered if he’d get a citation for that, in case a customer’s white box showed up on their doorstep stained with grease.

I hate those sneezes; they interrupt my daydreams during the twelve-hour shifts. But I always say bless you. I’m not religious but it’s what you do. It’s what a decent human does anyway. He never says thank you, never returns the kindness when the warehouse dust enters my nostrils.

When it’s my turn to collect I don’t lean on the glass window; I want the cashier to know I respect their space. Their job can’t be easy. I give my employee identification number and watch as they click clack on the keyboard. Aisle 8’s snot is now dripping down the once shiny glass window, the way rain falls across the dashboard during a downpour.

“Citation for Failure To Reach, Emotional Unloading and a Bathroom Overstay,” they read off the blinking computer screen.

“What?” I ask.

“Citation for failure to-” the cashier continues.

“No, that’s okay I heard you. Are there any notes? I talked to The Manager about Failure To Reach. My step stool was missing at the start of my shift, there was nothing I could do,” I explain.

“I don’t see any notes for that one. I do see a note for the Bathroom Overstay. Records show that you got a super-plus tampon from the company bathroom.”

“Yes, that’s true. But I paid for it.”

“We calculate that you stayed in the bathroom longer because of that purchase. As for the Emotional Unloading, the note says here that your attitude was taken out on the boxes, dropping them often, leaving Aisle 8 to do extra reach work.”

They count out eighty two percent of my paycheck and slide it under the glass, drops of his snot have made their way onto the crumbled green bills. The next employee is called forward.

Anna Dempsey is an American-born writer and teacher based in London. She moved to London after several years of teaching elementary school in Brooklyn and to her great surprise just won the 2019 Costa Short Story Award.  Twitter: @HeyItsAnnaDemps