Empathy

In Issue 71 by Vincent Casaregola

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Photo by nrd on Unsplash

Angela was smiling, not at anyone but to herself, a quiet, satisfied smile that reflected her increasingly relaxed mood. She would bend, grasp a jar, lift it, and place it on the shelf beside the similar jars, all in neat rows and patterns. It was satisfying work, bringing order, if not to chaos exactly, then at least to the ever-changing ebb and flow of randomness of the center store shelves of Barone’s Family Super Store—shelves forever subject to the entropy of customers rooting around for something actually located in another aisle and carefully labeled that way. So be it—customers were a necessary evil, but one that could, with skill and planning, be avoided.

Angela had been working at Barone’s for over a year, and most of that time as a check-out clerk. She had, in fact, become one of three senior check-out clerks, despite others having had several years or more of experience than she had. As the front store manager, Velma Ann, had said over and over, “Angela, you are a people person—you have a way with them, I just can’t explain it, but customers like you. You have such a nice smile, and you just connect with people, hon.”

Velma Ann, who called almost everybody “hon,” would then turn and walk away smiling after each one of these cheery chats, but once, she had turned back and said, “I know what it is—I heard the word on The View last week, it’s called ‘empathy’—that’s what you’ve got, lots and lots of empathy.”

While Angela knew that these pep talks from the front store manager were sincere and well meaning, and Angela always smiled at Velma Ann and shyly said, “oh, thank you,” each time, such moments constituted the most cringe-worthy times of her employment at Barone’s. Angela was, by everyone’s acknowledgement, a “people person” and always had been. She had begun being so as a small child intrigued by new people, and by the time she’d reached high school, she’d become aware that most other people not only relied on her to be the “people person” in the room but that they assumed it took no effort from her at all. Fish swim, birds fly, and Angela just exudes empathy—all this made her cringe inwardly till she had started to give herself stomach cramps.

Well, she thought, it was nice that Velma Ann had been improving her vocabulary with the help of her sisterly team on The View, but new words didn’t make it any easier for Angela to realize that, since she had entered her teen years, and up to now at the ripe old age of twenty, people had been taking advantage of her. They had figured that, since Angela could deal with people, they could lazily continue to behave in whatever ignorant, insensitive, arrogant, and careless ways that they always had. Angela became, at school, at work, and in all other social situations, the emotional “heat sink” for all the negative feeling generated when people felt mistreated, aggrieved, angered, or whatever.

“Angela, honey,” her dad had said after listening to some of her recent, after-work venting, “it’s just that you’ve always seemed to gravitate toward people, even as a little kid. You give them the feeling that you’re a good listener, and so they unload on you. It’s not your fault, but it is your personality—I don’t think you’ll change that. You give people the idea that you’re the salve that can be applied to any wound, and everybody’s got wounds, large or small.”

Her reply, sounding a bit snarkier than she had intended at the time it had just popped out, was “Yeah, Dad, I’m just a big tube of Neosporin with arms and legs.” But he had just shrugged and gone on preparing dinner.

“Empathy,” she realized, was just a nice way of saying, “Yes, I’ll stand here, till my ankles scream, and not only smile at the customers but talk with them and make them feel welcome, and all for just slightly more than minimum wage, all because that’s the ‘Barone’s Family Way.’”

Yes, the “Barone’s Family Way,” which sounded to Angela like some strangely conservative method of birth control, was the code of employee behavior that each trainee had to memorize and recite by heart by the end of the first week of training. The Barone’s Family Way was a ten-point list, just as long as the Ten Commandments or the Bill of Rights but not as moralistic as the one or as philosophical as the other. At its essence was a simple idea, “make the customer feel so happy that they want to return to Barone’s because Barone’s ‘is not just like family, it is family’” (#1, “Barone’s Family Way,” 1985, revised 2001).

Fortunately for Angela, she had a high tolerance for absurdity in the pursuit of practical goals—in this case, the goal of getting a job that did not involve childcare, that paid at least somewhat more than minimum wage, and that allowed for sufficient flexibility to maintain her heavy schedule as a full-time college student with a double major and an internship. At this, Angela had succeeded, and quickly she had become one of the most reliable and popular members of the check-out crew. Throughout, she had had to keep smiling and chatting to the point that it was beginning, in her imagination at least, to cause permanent damage to her facial muscles.

Now, Angela was smiling again, voluntarily, but at no one. She was smiling at a jar of pickles and smiling at the fact that she need say nothing to that jar of pickles to make it feel better about itself. Of course, that jar of pickles would feel at home at Barone’s, but unless it was internally spoiled or outwardly cracked, it would likely never return to Barone’s. So, Angela could lovingly hold the jar, place it on the shelf, and say to herself “Thanks for being sold at Barone’s—good-bye and good luck, little jar—I hope you land at a good backyard barbecue!”

That’s why, two months before, and to everyone’s surprise, Angela had requested to be reassigned as a stocker in central store. No one could understand why a “people person” would want to be stacking cans and boxes and lugging pallets of merchandise from the storerooms to the aisles, no one except Angela, that is. At last, she could stop forcing conversations with glum customers, stop chatting up cranky old women, stop calming irritable middle-aged men who complained about prices, and also stop deflecting the aggressive remarks of teenage males convinced of their own irresistible personalities. As she told her dad, “A jar of pickles might fall and hit me, but it will never hit on me.”

Angela was also working to music, not the endless twang of country-western that droned on and on from the store speakers because it was the favorite of Eddie Barone’s wife, Linda, but to her own playlist of everything from contemporary love songs to old fifties west coast jazz. The music flowed up from her phone, through the ether, and into her wireless ear buds—well, not exactly hers but her fifteen-year-old sister’s. She had assured Amanda that soon she could give these back and buy her own—end of the month, for real. Besides, as she told the frustrated teen, “it’s just when I’m at work.”

Having finished unloading all the pickle jar cases, Angela turned to pull the empty pallet back down the aisle to the storeroom when she noticed something strange. It was an older man—well, a very old man, rather short and squat and awkward looking. He wore an oldish but clean-looking overcoat that seemed a bit too long for what she assumed was a height of about five-six or so, and he seemed to be doing something with the cans of tomatoes and tomato sauce, while betraying a level of confusion and irritation that looked like trouble. He was pushing the cans to each side to open a space in the middle in front of him, and he was sticking his nose right into the shelf and seeming to squint at something. Angela, who not half an hour before had finished arranging the cans into a pattern that, to her at least, had the precision of a Byzantine mosaic, was more than a little shocked and perturbed, leading her to think of a string of utterances that she would never say in these instances because, of course, she had a reputation to maintain as a “people person.”

Angela took out one of her buds, paused the phone playlist, and began to walk down the aisle toward the old man. By now he was even trying to cram his head into the shelf to see something in the back, and in doing so, he knocked the cap off his head. It fell to the floor and made a lazy circle before landing right side up. By that time, Angela had reached the spot, bent, and lifted it to return to the man. It was an old-style cap, like the ones you’d see in pictures of workers on strike back in the 1920s, like the pictures she’d used in her PowerPoint presentation last week in her current political science course, “Labor Movements, 1880-1980.”

The man, however, whose behavior made her think of going on strike, did not notice either the absence of his cap or the presence of Angela. Some people would have then tapped the customer on the shoulder to get his attention, but she knew better, having engraved on her brain the Barone’s Family Way. The relevant point was number 7, “Customers are to be touched only by your service and kindness but never by your hands” (#7 “Barone’s Family Way,” 1985, revised 2001).

“Sir,” she said, first in a normal voice and then louder, “Sir,” and then intoning even louder and fuller, as if practicing for choir, “SIRRR.”

The man reacted with a start, moving quickly and awkwardly, and with his left elbow accidentally knocking five eight-ounce cans of tomato paste from the shelf (store brand, “Barone’s Best—Organic”). Of these, Angela managed to field two with the deftness of a good shortstop on a minor league team, but the others cascaded to the floor, one rolling left, one right, and one squashing in place, dented beyond further sale or use. The screen in Angela’s brain ran the series of expletives that any normal person would have uttered under the circumstances but that she managed to keep inside, especially because of number 9, “At Barone’s, our lemons will need to be sour, but the words of our workers are always sweet” (#9, “Barone’s Family Way, 1985, revised 2001).

“Oh, sorry, sorry young lady, I guess I made a mess here” said the man, sounding both distracted and a bit sad.

Angela, now feeling just a touch of guilt for her inner anger, but not more than a touch, replied, “No problem, sir, that’s what we’re here for—to help.”

“I’ll get the cans, just let me . . .”

“No, sir, that’s my job,” said Angela, quickly placing her two cans on the bottom shelf and deftly sweeping up the others from the floor, into her arms and onto the same shelf.

Returning to face the perplexed man, Angela smiled, a slightly exasperated but now generally honest smile, and asked, “So, what can I help you to find, sir?”

“It was supposed to be tomatoes, you know, tomatoes, that’s it,” he said.

Angela sighed inwardly—they just cannot make it easy, she thought, glancing across the full expanse of twenty linear feet of shelving, from top to bottom, filled with thirty-nine different varieties of tomato products, forty percent of which were Barone’s store brands.

“Ok, sir, can you tell me what kind of tomatoes you would like? As you can see, we have a great variety of tomato products for all your needs at Barone’s.” This was actually a direct quotation from number 4, “Always remind the searching or confused customer that ‘we have a great variety of ______ [fill in the blank] to meet all your needs at Barone’s,' and then always direct them to the Barone’s store brands first” (#4, “Barone’s Family Way,” 1985, revised 2001).

Of course, finding herself in a situation of quoting the Baronian scriptures did bring some cringing back, but Angela brushed the thought away with the idea that, “if my gut cringes, maybe it will tighten my abs, right?”

“It was tomatoes, all right, that’s it, tomatoes,” repeated the man.

Once again, Angela responded with both instinctive and learned patience, “Of course, sir, tomatoes. Maybe you could tell me what you would like to make with the tomatoes, and then I could help you better.”

But the man’s attention had drifted back to the shelf, and he stared at the rows and rows of cans, big and small. Then, he reached for and grabbed a mid-sized can, sixteen ounces of Barone’s Special Diced Tomatoes (these were not organic).

Angela thought, “Ok, maybe some progress . . .”

But before she could fully relax, the man said, “This is it, a can like this. I mean, not this stuff, but this size.”

A groan echoed across Angela’s inner consciousness, and she recognized that she still had two hours before her shift was complete, and there were at least a dozen pallets of happy little jars and cans back in the storeroom, each little one awaiting the moment when it would arrive on the shelf.

“Well, the little buggers can wait,” she thought.

“Sir,” said Angela, returning to her prior approach, “tell me what you want to make with the tomatoes.  Is it something like spaghetti? Is it pizza? Is it soup?”

“Make, oh yes, yes, make . . .” he said. “Well, these would be for the chili wouldn’t they, right, the chili. It’s my wife’s recipe, well actually it was her aunt’s recipe, but that was a long time ago, so now, it’s my wife’s chili. I mean, her recipe for the chili, right? We can say it’s her recipe, right?’

“I am sure that we can call it your wife’s recipe,” responded Angela, grateful for at least some movement forward in this circular conversation. Chili was one of the dishes that Angela had learned to cook in recent years, and now she might be able to steer this discussion toward some rapid conclusion so she could straighten the shelves and get back to work.

Looking to her left, Angela reached for a can and brought it out for the man to see. “Sir, may I suggest you might like to try the Barone’s Best Crushed Tomatoes” (organic, 16 ounces, low salt). “They have a ‘full tomato flavor’” (again, a quotation, this one from the back of the can), “and they have less salt, something appreciated by a number of our more health-conscious customers.”

“Health Conscious” was another quotation, not from the Barone’s Family Way, so not having the force of scripture, but from this past January’s Barone’s Family Quarterly Newsletter, where the central marketing office had urged all stores to emphasize the phrasing “health conscious” when talking to older customers who might have high blood pressure, heart ailments, or other problems. “Nobody likes to be reminded of being old and sick,” said “Marketing Note 6” in the newsletter, “especially not our patrons in their golden years” (“Marketing Note 6,” Barone’s Family Quarterly Newsletter, p. 3).

“I’m pretty sure that these will make a wonderful addition to your wife’s fine chili, sir” she added, hoping that he would grab the can and depart. Her brain was now screaming, “Please leave, please leave, please leave.”

“My wife would know since it was the recipe she made for years. I don’t cook much, you know. I wish I could just ask her now, but I lost my wife a bit ago.”

That did it, now Angela’s storage tanks of reserve skepticism and cynicism suddenly drained away rapidly, with a warning sign saying something like, “sentimental reaction imminent,” but it was no use. Lost his wife. The whole narrative flooded into her highly imaginative mind—the hospital, the doctors with grim faces, the final farewell, the funeral, the whole story. Then the following weeks, when everyone got back to business as usual, and this old man just sat in his house trying to figure out how to cook. Before she could do anything, Angela was awash in pathos and sentiment and, let’s face it, empathy.

“Sir, I am so very sorry to hear of your loss. I know things must be hard for you right now, so I’ll try to be of as much help as I can.  Let’s concentrate on what you need.”

Angela’s empathy levels were steadily rising, perhaps to critical levels, and to control things, she snapped into practical action mode.

“I make chili myself, you know, and your wife’s recipe is probably much better, but I think I can help. Let’s just think of some of the things you need for your chili, OK? Along with the tomatoes, you’ll probably need some spices, that I can get for you in Aisle 7, some beans in Aisle 4, and you’ll need some produce—onions and maybe a jalapeno or two.”

The man was staring at Angela rather oddly, but by now, Angela was on a run to keep focusing on something practical to do to help him, so she didn’t pick up on his confusion, or at least did not understand all its implications.

“Oh, and we might need some meat, ground beef or pork or maybe turkey. What meat do you like in your chili?”

Pausing, Angela realized she’d forgotten an alternative, and she was about to ask the old man if he preferred vegetarian chili, when out of nowhere came a loud, high-pitched, woman’s voice.

“HARRY, HARRRRY, what the hell you doing standin’ around like that an’ botherin’ folks. I been lookin’ all over for you.”

Angela stood stock-still, in part because she saw that the voice was coming from a little, wizened, old woman, wearing an old stocking cap and pushing a cart, and in part because the voice was such an irritating combination of volume, frequency, and pitch that it had frozen Angela in mid explanation, so she just stood in the aisle, holding the can of crushed tomatoes, more confused than the old man had ever seemed earlier.

The woman walked toward them purposefully, her glasses bouncing a bit on her skinny and slightly crooked nose.

“Young lady, has this old coot been givin’ you a hard time?  Don’t pay him any mind, honey, ‘cuz I been married to him for fifty-five years and I still can’t figure him out.”

“Emmy, I was just getting these tomatoes, that’s all.”

Angela did not know what to say, feeling as if she were witnessing a parody of a paranormal experience.

“Harry, God love ya, can’t you just get two cans of whole tomatoes and get back to where I was waitin’ at the meat counter? Honestly.”

“Ma’am,” Angela said hesitantly, “you’re, ah, your husband seemed to be a bit, ah, confused about which type of tomatoes he wanted.”

“Confused? Hell, honey, he’s been confused since I married him. Also, a pain most of the time,” she added, elbowing old Harry for emphasis.

“You know damn well what we need for the chili, Harry, and you were just trying to get attention again, weren’t ya?  Old coot.”

“I must have misunderstood, ma’am . . .”

“No, Harry does this all the time—spots some young honey in the store and gets her to feel sorry for him. Men, honestly! Don’t worry, honey, he’s harmless, but a real pain.”

“I just said I’d lost my wife—I just didn’t know where you were, did I?” Then, he added, rather slyly, “Not my fault how people take what I say, is it?”

Emmy gave Harry another elbow, this time even harder, and adopted a sterner expression.

“Com’on, Harry, let’s go—I got everything else in the cart, and we gotta get home—you oughta be spanked some days, honestly!”

“So, is everything OK, sir, and ma’am?” Angela, asked quietly, still feeling dizzy with the sudden shifting nature of the story line.

By this time, the woman had already grabbed the necessary two cans of whole tomatoes, not store brand, whisked them into her cart, grabbed Harry by the arm, and had him going up the aisle before Angela, wide-eyed and open-mouthed, could react.

As the old couple proceeded away from her and up the aisle toward check out, Angela recovered enough of her self-possession to say, not too loudly and a bit haltingly, “Thank you both for shopping at Barone’s, and have . . . have a good day.”

Quickly, old Harry glanced over his shoulder, wearing a big grin, and gave Angela a very stagy wink.

The skepticism and cynicism storage tanks in Angela’s consciousness had spontaneously refilled by this point, and against her will, she found herself mouthing but not uttering, very slowly, “W-T-F.”

Just then, Andy, the assistant center store manager, came up from behind, looked at the shelves, and said, “Hey, Angela, finished with pickles? Good, now these tomato cans need some work, and there are still a lot of pallets in back. Let’s get cracking, OK!”

Angela nodded slowly, saying nothing, and began rearranging the shelves to some semblance of their former neat order, though without the enthusiasm she had had before. She was not smiling.

The rest of her shift went by without any more contact with customers, for which Angela was deeply grateful. She dutifully handled the twelve remaining pallets with her usual efficiency, despite feeling stunned, winded, and dizzy most of the time.

As she transited the back break and locker room, heading for the door with her coat and purse, she passed the large, framed print of the “Barone’s Family Way,” and noticed again number 10, “Never forget, as you finish your shift, what an honor and privilege it is to be able to serve the public” (#10, “Barone’s Family Way,” 1985, revised 2001).

Angela stared at number 10 with growing intensity, and then she suddenly started coughing and couldn’t stop for a couple of minutes. Of course, right at this moment, Velma Ann waddled in.

“Angela, you alright, hon?  You’re not catching a cold or anything?”

Angela nodded, frustrated with herself, and when she had managed to regain the powers of speech, said in a now slightly gravelly voice, “No, I’m fine, something just went down the wrong way, I just swallowed wrong or something. I’ll be fine in a minute.”

“That’s good,” said Velma Ann, “because we can’t afford to lose you as busy as we’ve been these days.

“And I’m glad I caught, you, though, since I wanted to tell you something. Some folks stopped by customer service this afternoon on their way out, and they had some real nice things to say about you.”

Angela had already been headed to the door, but she turned and looked back at Velma Ann.

“Yes, really nice old couple, and they said you went out of your way to help them when they couldn’t find things on the shelves. Now, that’s what I like to see, happy customers complimenting our employees—that makes the whole store look good. Like I always say, you’ve got something that works with people. It’s that empathy all right, and you’ve got it.”

Angela smiled slightly, mouthed her thanks, and said goodnight, heading straight out the door without putting on her coat.

Outside, in the back parking lot, she stood for a few moments, taking a series of deep breaths, trying to relax. When she’d finally started to regain her composure, she put on her coat, grabbed the keys from the pocket, and headed to her car.

Walking toward the car, she remembered that on Thursday she was scheduled for an appointment at the college career center to talk with counselor about the kinds of jobs she might want after graduation next year. Now, she started to wonder and fantasize about possible jobs where you never had to speak with another human being. Perhaps she could work in one of those fire towers off in the forests of Montana or Idaho, just spending her time watching the trees and the forest and looking for signs of fires. Just bugs, bears, and natural disasters to bother you—no people. Paradise.

About the Author

Vincent Casaregola

Vincent Casaregola teaches American literature and film, creative writing, rhetorical studies, and composition at Saint Louis University. Recently, he has published poetry in a number of journals, including The Bellevue Literary Review, The Examined Life, Natural Bridge, WLA, Dappled Things, 2River, Work, Lifelines, and Blood and Thunder. Some time ago, he had published creative nonfiction in New Letters and The North American Review.

Read more work by Vincent Casaregola .

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