The unwritten rule of the hobby shop was that they could take money from the register so long as they didn't admit it or get caught doing it.
It was through yet another frustrating encounter between herself and a customer that Ryan, an assistant manager for over ten years, described the process of taking money to Carlos, the manager, who had only worked for the company a little over a year. A customer had tired to return an already launched Estes rocket, and when she refused to take its pieces back, the customer contacted the warehouse. Bernie, the patriarch of the family who owned the business, handled the complaint. When he asked Ryan about it, he agreed with her, but caved to the customer anyway.
The customer returned for his refund, and when she slipped the money over the counter instead of handing it to him without smiling back, he called the ownership again. Bernie wouldn't tell Ryan what the man said. All Bernie said to her was, "I told the guy I'd give you a stern talking to. Just try to be nicer."
As soon as Ryan slammed the phone down, Carlos jerked his head toward the back room for her to follow. By the time she got there, he was already flicking a lighter at his pipe, cutting his hand around the flame like they had just stepped outside on a windy day. They sat on metal foldout chairs smoking pot from a pipe purchased at Spenser's down the hall. It was one of the few remaining profitable stores, in part due to its prime location near the food court.
"It'd be real easy to rip this store off," Ryan said, tucking hair that came loose from coughing hard. She had inhaled too much.
"With that old register," Ryan said, "and the way the family runs the business, you can just ring in returns for cheap product at their exact price. No paperwork to fax that way. Repeat as necessary until there's a retirement fun."
"They can't keep track of their inventory, so it makes sense," Carlos said, leaning forward with his forearms on his knees.
"Which reminds me, I special ordered a new engine for Weaver last week. I'm sure he'll be in here for another four hours trying to impress us with his new build."
"I don't know how that guy earns money if he's never at work." Carlos wiped off his boots and said, "You don't think they'd know we rang in returns all the time?"
"Not if you're smart about it, which doesn't take much with that register. They've been saying for year that they would update the system," Ryan said. "It would be nice if we didn't have to use the manual credit card printer though."
"There's a kind of charm to it. Like a bit of the old school way of doing things that's missing now," Carlos said. "It's like the store itself, right? Here's this classic thing you forgot about that still works."
"It's just like the store alright. Nothing here works like it should," she said, and handed his pipe back after inhaling one more time.
Ryan and Carlos made good money for the local franchise in the past year. Though she trained him and others who worked in the area how the quirks of the business ran, like taking inventory by hand on certain days of the month or special ordering parts for customers, it was her expertise in gas-powered, remote-controlled cars that pushed the company to its largest profit in years. The hobby shop also sold other remote control vehicles, slot car sets that were cheaper than slot cars sold separately, trains in five different scales, models of popular cars throughout the twentieth century, model war planes and ships, and the glue to make them that kids tried using to get high.
Carlos brought his own management style to the store, wanting all four employees working together every Sunday for the six hour shift so that they could all be, “on the same page for the new week.” Carlos made sure there was enough overlapping coverage for the shipment of product on Thursdays, but Sundays were done together, the days where kids roamed free from their parents, knocking boxes from shelves and leaving fingerprints on the glass cases displaying hand-crafted chess sets, fully-constructed model ships that Ray built during store hours, and several rare Lionel trains, each priced into the thousands.
Every Sunday, Ryan would close down the register and count the money, Carlos would review the schedule for the week and help Ryan with the nightly paperwork, and Ray and Ed would clean the store.
“I get that it’s a family owned business,” Ed said to Carlos while wiping the glass cases,“but they should really pay us more.”
“The family would sell the business before that happened,” Ryan said while counting the money.
“Who would want to sell a place like this?” Ray asked while organizing product to his liking. He angled the boxes of model cars and airplanes on the far wall so they all faced the store entrance. This was an improvement over the pyramids he built that were almost always knocked over.
“They don’t make as much money as you think,” Ryan said. “Not anymore, anyway.”
Ed leaned against a tall glass case and said, “They wouldn’t tell any of us how much they made off our hard work.”
“The overhead on RC sets limits actual profit,” Ryan said. “We make about twenty bucks on each car sold, no matter what they cost. Accessories are where the money is at. We make thirty on just selling a pair of tires. And who’s only going to buy two tires? It’s not hard to tell how much money they make, and it isn’t much.”
Ryan pocketed money she made repairing remote control cars because there was no system in place for how to charge customers for that either. Then The Fast and the Furious came out. Too many people wanted to race their favorite cars from the film, and she had to tell the owners that many customers were coming in for repairs, because too many of them had heard about her work. Ryan ended the risk of getting caught selling her own services and looked like a model employee by expanding the family business. Ryan added spoilers to their plastic car bodies, switched out heavy aluminum parts for lighter carbon fiber fittings, and even changed stock engines for higher quality, more expensive motors. Ryan even painted dozens of the plastic shells, designing them just like the cars in the movie. Some customers spent thousands of dollars on multiple cars, and all that money went to the company now.
“My point is that the family doesn’t put enough money into the product,” Ed said, moving off the tall glass case and shaking the car engines inside of it. “They could be doing so much better and then we’d obviously do better.”
“If we sell one of those Lionel trains in the back, we make our week,” Carlos said. “Start selling more of the other product on top of what we’re already doing and maybe I can say something about a raise for you.”
“You can’t just sell this junk to anyone though,” Ed said. “It says something about who we are as a business.”
“Would you sweep the floor for once instead of making Ray do it again?” Ryan said.
Ed put his hands up like he was under arrest and said, “I’m just saying we all deserve
By the time Ryan finished filling out the nightly paperwork and faxing it to the warehouse, the vacuum finally began wailing from the back of the store. It sounded like there were rocks inside of it, and then the smell of grinding gears churned their faces. Ray mopped the hard tile at the entrance of store, and Ryan and Carlos waited for them to finish, saying little of anything beyond comparing their numbers to the year prior. Ryan locked the gates and together they all walked through the bowels of the mall to their cars, all used Dodge or Ford coupes from the mid-90’s, all running on their last fumes.
The following morning traffic thickened as Ryan edged closer to the mall. Though she was always late, it was even later today. Her mother’s multiple sclerosis affected Ryan’s pace, slowing her down because she had to help her move anywhere. So instead of arriving early afternoon with Ray to close the store four days a week, she would get there when she got there and stayed to handle all the closing duties. They all understood the situation and Ray often benefited from it. She’d let him leave whenever he wanted. Sometimes he did, but he enjoyed being in the store and having something to do post-retirement. When he did leave, Ryan would linger in the store for the solitude by sitting against the dimly lit cases with all the other lights off, relishing in the silence of the mall.
There were a few people in the store when Ryan arrived. She carried a bag across her body that contained car parts and she gripped her own remote control car by the front bumper. She never tuned any customer’s vehicle as good as her own, and she would special order rarer parts through the store’s inventory list by making up fake customer names and paying less than cost for them. She wanted to be faster than everyone else, if only on principle—she felt like she needed to be better than everyone else who paid her to work on their cars.
An old man approached her as soon as she stepped behind the counter and asked, “What
are these things? Rocket powered skateboards?”
She took her sunglasses off and stared at the man for a moment, deciding whether or not he was serious, and said, “It’s a chassis for a gas-powered, remote-control car.”
“Yeah, but that one in the glass case right there looks like a skateboard.”
“It’s just an aluminum chassis with the wheels attached.”
“You can build your own?”
“I can build my own, yes,” she said, lifting her car. “I built this one.”
“Maybe my grandson would like that.”
She smiled at the man and said, “I can show you a few if you’re interested.” She set her car on top of the case and said, “How old is your grandson?”
Ryan looked down at her sneakers and dropped her bag. She lifted her head, brushed hair away from her face, and said, “Sir, these cars contain really small parts and go forty miles per hour out of the box. If it hits me at full speed, it would break my foot.”
“Oh, I didn’t realize,” he said, still looking at the chassis. “We’ve sure come a long way.”
Ryan left the counter, went to the back room, sat down, and rubbed her tired face. She got up, began jumping in place, and shook her head like a boxer, throwing a few punches. She caught herself in a dirty mirror and stopped. So she pushed boxes of overstock Pinewood Derby cars further into the corner, still feeling winded from the impromptu workout, and snapped already broken balsa wood, damaged either in transit or by customers testing its, or their own, strength.
Carlos knocked on the door and peaked inside the back room. He said, “Everything okay? It looked like you just walked away from a customer there.”
“I’m not feeling like a salesperson today.” Ryan sat down and pushed her hair back with one hand.
Ray had come back too and said, “Are we supposed to feel that way? I thought that was part of what made this job so nice.”
“Hey I gotta get out of here and pick up my daughter from school,” Carlos said. “You
sure you’re okay?”
“Leave the door cracked,” Ryan said. “I’ll hang back here for a bit.”
“I’ll be back later for my check,” Carlos said.
Ray said, “I guess it’s all about perspective. Maybe I never grew up. Maybe I’m getting so old that I’m acting more like a child and I love what this store has to offer me.”
Ryan laughed and Ray brought out a small container that held a pipe. He packed it for her and let her take the first hit. He said, “There’s other perks to the job too.”
“Someone just asked me if we sold rocket-powered skateboards,” Ryan said with her lungs full.
Ray laughed. “See? That’s funny to me.”
Ryan blew out smoke with her first smile of the day and said, “You know what I did last night? I paid the neighbor for watching my mother. She stuck around for an hour telling me that I should be out on the town and dating. When she left, I slow simmered soup so I could have dinner after helping my mother to bed. Then I played The Sims until four in the morning designing a home. Even my video game characters are lame.”
“I’ve had a lifetime of jobs I didn’t like,” Ray said. “I’ve been where you are. I remember what it’s like. Can’t say I miss it, but consider that this job is the only one you’ve known in your adult life. There’s time. Just don’t let it all pass you by.”
“If you wouldn’t mind, I’d like a few minutes alone before I go back out there.”
“I’ll leave this here,” Ray said. He patted her shoulder and put the pipe on a shelf. “Take
as much time as you need. I’ll handle Weaver, since he just came in.”
Weaver was the kind of guy that insisted on wearing his cutoff, stonewashed, jean shorts wherever he went year round despite any inclement weather. His voice projected without him even trying, as everyone in the store easily heard him over the ambient sounds of running trains,demo videos, mall chatter, and anyone he chose to speak over.
“I’ve got a Lamborghini stored in a garage at a farmhouse two hours from here. I only take it out once a year because it was stolen and sold to me on the cheap. I’m making the replica now, so I want this to be the fastest car out there!”
“Okay, Weaver, I’ll race your imaginary Lamborghini with my Ferrari,” Ray said.
“Weaver, we’ve got important work to do,” Ryan said, returning to the front counter.“Why don’t you pay for your engine and get to work on tuning it all wrong.”
Weaver pulled out a fat wallet from a tight back pocket and said, “Hey, Ryan, let me take you out sometime. Pick the time and place. I’ll even get someone to look after your mother.” Ryan stopped entering information into the register and said, “Weaver, just what do you think you know about me and my mother?”
“Oh, nothing. Carlos told me she had trouble moving around by herself. I didn’t mean anything by it. I just wanted to treat you to a nice time.”
Another customer entered the store with his daughter. Ryan’s face turned red and she said to Weaver, “I bet.”
The customer paid for one of the clear, plastic car bodies and a couple cans of spray paint. Ryan told him he should use a primer first, but he ignored her. Weaver reiterated why it was a good idea but the man left, responding to each of them only in nods.
Weaver pulled a VHS tape from the front of his shorts and said, “Hey, now that he’s gone, you guys gotta check this out.”
Beyond the tall glass cases, the television played a remote control plane demo. Ryan removed the cassette and Weaver shoved his own into the player. Before long, a couple, whose faces were blurred, entered, embraced, and over the next few minutes, Ryan, Ray, and Weaver watched a sex tape.
“This isn’t you,” Ryan said, “right?”
“Of course not! I want to make money from this!”
Ryan asked without really asking, "This isn’t legal, is it?”
“That’s why we blur the heads. Me and my buddy, the one who owns the motel, we’ve got a series of these using my equipment and a few of his rooms. He keeps them modeled after other hotels so it’s harder to trace.”
“That’s twisted,” Ray said.
“If you guys spread the word, we can make it worth your while. We’ve hit a plateau and we’re hoping to expand a trusted customer base.”
“Weaver,” Ryan said. “We’re a hobby shop, not a sex store.”
“They don’t pay you guys enough, and this is easy money right here! I’m just askin’ you to find a few buyers!”
“There’s a line I’m not willing to cross,” Ryan said, “and you must have sped past it in your imaginary Lambo years ago.”
Ray told Carlos about the tape when he came back that night with his daughter, Mia. Ryan played with her, throwing a small balsa wood airplane back and forth, and giggling whenever they heard Carlos’ infectious laugh.
“Maybe we should take him up on the offer, make a little money, turn him in, and takeover his business,” Carlos said.
“You’d go down with him,” Ryan said from behind a shelf. “He’s so dumb I think I could get away with it, but yet he’s so dumb he’d somehow accidentally get me pinched.”
“Camila would kill you before you could get arrested,” Ryan said, and followed Mia to where the men stood.
Mia hugged Carlos’ leg and he said, “Wife kills husband over amateur porn ring. Family still gets money. Redneck wanted for questioning about a stolen Lambo.” They all laughed, including Mia, who wanted to belong.
Carlos shuffled Mia towards Ray and they began playing with a Thomas the Tank Engine train table on display specifically for children to destroy.
“Let me ask you something,” Carlos said. “Are you taking money from the register?”
Ryan hesitated and said, “Of course not. Why would you accuse me of that?”
“Nobody’s accusing anybody. It’s just been coming up short lately.”
“I have never shorted a register,” Ryan said. “You see the paperwork I fax every morning. It’s even every time. So what’s really going on?”
Carlos laughed and said, “I just wanted to mess with you and see your reaction. I know it’s not you, but he’s trying to make it look like you though.
“Ed,” said Carlos. “For the past two weeks. He’s been using your sales numbers to access the register. I figured I’d scare you for a second and let you know we’re through with him. Have you seen how red your face can get?”
Carlos showed the paper trail to Ryan and they discussed strategy. When Ed entered the store for his paycheck, Carlos placed a hand on his shoulder before he got very far and said,“Let’s step into the hall.”
Ryan couldn’t hear much of the conversation. Customers had come into the store and some asked questions. One had asked her for a price on a kite. The sticker, placed on the object when it arrived over a year ago, had been worn down and she couldn’t remember it. For the first time in years, she had to look up a price in the inventory book.
All Ryan heard was Ed say, “I needed a few bucks to make it through the week. I’m not the only one here who does it.” From there it was gestures and Ed flipping Carlos off as he walked away.
Customers formed a longer line than usual when Carlos came back in and tinkered with his own car. Ryan and Ray switched places every so often to smooth the process between ringing customers out and bagging their purchases.
“I don’t think anyone could be better at this than you,” Ray said.
“Years of practice,” Ryan said.
“You’re just a natural at this kind of thing. Nothing wrong with that.”
When the last customer left, Ryan went over to Carlos, and he said, “That’s the first time I ever fired somebody. Anyone I ever let go just flaked out. All I had to do was fill out paperwork.”
“It gets easier.”
“You ever have to fire anyone?”
“Managers flake too,” Ryan said. “I’ve stepped in more times than I ever wanted to over
the last, I don’t know,” Ryan thought about it for a moment. “Eleven years? Yeah, I’ve been here for eleven years.”
Carlos looked as if he strained himself to talk. “I mean, if you have to be that dumb about how you take money from the register then you need to go, right?” He said, “He’d end up costing us our jobs.”
And Ryan nodded.
The following Sunday, Ryan, Carlos, and Ray worked without a fourth person around. They had to kick out a half dozen guys so they could proceed with closing the store. The guys talked trash through the gates as the crew went through their closing duties before going to the parking lot. Weaver kept saying to Ryan, “Just you and me baby.”
When Ryan, Carlos, and Ray arrived, the guys were driving laps around a makeshift track between two cones and two medians that formed a large square. Ryan and Carlos had set up a system where everyone raced in twos in a best of three matchup before larger group races. Ryan and Carlos moved on easily from their first opponents, and then Carlos lost his second race to Weaver. Ryan advanced easily again, racing against a customer who preferred dealing with Carlos. She won when he crashed his car into one of the medians, and when they shook hands after the race, she told him, “No amount of work Carlos does for you will ever help here.”
The final race featured Ryan and Weaver, and she heard him say one last time, “Just you and me baby.”
“What makes you think you’ve got a chance, Weaver?”
“Oh, I know your type.”
Carlos raised his arm and waited a few seconds to drop it. Ryan took an early lead around the corner, handling her car with confident control. She took a wide turn around the first corner and Weaver caught up. They were even as they approached the next median with Ryan on the inside. Going into the turn, Weaver jerked his car into hers and forced it into the curb. Her ’68 Charger body popped off and floated as carbon fiber pieces rained over the second corner turn. The small crowd, mall security included, groaned. Weaver’s car remained intact and he slowly guided it to the finish.
“Put an asterisk on that win,” Ryan said.
Weaver leaned in close to her and said, “I can live with you thinking you’re better than everyone else here, but not me. See, you’ve got some suspiciously expensive parts all over the lot out there, so we can keep that between us, or we can make this conversation a party.”
Ryan pushed him away and gathered the scattered parts of her shattered car. She wanted to key Weaver’s Toyota pickup on her way by it but instead hugged Ray goodbye, who had helped her forage the lot for all the pieces they could find. She wondered how long it would take to fix the car, as well as her life at home. She wondered what she would have to do to make it through another day. She thought about the inevitable conversation she would have to have with her mother about her day, and she would complain about the job as usual. She knew though that it was the best job available for her, and she would never admit to anyone that she would rather be there than at home, and it depressed her more than it ever had before.
MIKE GOODWIN is in his second year of doctoral studies in English with an emphasis on fiction at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers. Born in New Jersey, he spent most of his life in and around Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.