"Thank you, happy holidays," Jordan said as he handed a receipt to what felt like his five millionth customer of the night.
The day was Black Friday, also known as the absolute worst day of the year, especially if you worked retail. The location was FreeMart, the biggest superstore in all of Marquette which was a frigid city located in northern Michigan, right along the lower edge of Lake Superior. The hour was 3:00 AM, and Jordan Mitchell had already had more than enough. It was only four hours into his shift and his cheeks already ached from fake smiling at every chipper, deal-hungry zealot that came sauntering his way. He had no idea how he was going to make it another four.
Normally, Jordan worked in the clothing department, putting away misplaced merchandise, building display racks, and making sure nobody stole things or had sex inside the dressing rooms. The work was frustrating, and downright demeaning at times, sure, but at least it was dull and familiar. Tonight, he had not been afforded that luxury. Since he was a regular register trained employee and not just a seasonal floor hand, he got trapped behind the jewelry counter all night.
The counter was home to some of the store's biggest doorbusters, and as such, had drawn an enormous crowd. Every five seconds there was some tryptophan-filled asshole wearing a Santa hat or reindeer onesie, shouting at him from one glass case or the other. Nine times out of ten they weren’t even there to buy anything. They just wanted to look at a necklace they couldn’t really afford or get their ring fingers sized as a hint to their clueless boyfriends. No matter how stupid the request, Jordan had to accommodate all of them. By himself. While still ringing people up and making sure that nobody reached into the cases to take something.
Usually, that last one wasn’t a problem seeing as the cases were locked and only accessible by a series of color coded keys worn by the unlucky sap stuck behind the counter, but Kelly, Jordan’s manager, had told him to leave the cases open tonight in order to save time. Still, even though he was following direct orders from his superior, Jordan knew that he would get blamed and fired if anything went missing. He may have been light skinned, but he was still brown, and he knew that brown people didn't get the benefit of the doubt in this world, at least not very often.
So, to summarize, Jordan couldn't leave or take his eyes off the customers for even one second. He couldn’t yell or raise his voice, even though the crowd was unbearably loud, and on top of that, different versions of the same dozen or so Christmas songs kept blasting from the speakers overhead on a demonically cheerful loop. He was seriously about to punch somebody in the face if he had to listen to one more shitty rendition of Frosty the Snowman.
Finally, after nearly six hours of clustered crowds and non-stop jewelry handling, there was enough of a lull in customers for Jordan to call someone to cover him while he took his break. He tiptoed toward the breakroom with his head down, praying that none of the customers on the floor would ask him for assistance. In his first, and likely only stroke of good luck for the day, he was able to make it to the back in peace.
Once he was safely in the bowels of the superstore labeled for employees only, Jordan’s shoulders sagged, and he breathed a huge sigh of relief. He'd already worked at FreeMart for more than three years, but Black Fridays never got any easier. If anything, they were getting progressively worse. He swore, these people were like freaking vultures, but instead of hovering over dead bodies, it was slightly discounted furniture and electronics. Even worse were the people who dragged their kids and significant others out to the big box stores at the ass crack of dawn and made pummeling people for cheap shit into a family activity.
Jordan shook his head at the stupidity of it all and glanced over at the Thanksgiving spread that was still set up from the night before. He searched for things that weren't likely to give him food poisoning and came up with a slice of pecan pie, two thick bread rolls, and one candied yam. He piled it onto a plate, stuck it in the microwave all together, and then unceremoniously scarfed it down. As far as Thanksgiving dinners were concerned, Jordan had definitely had worse.
Holidays had never been a really big thing in his household growing up. His uncle was usually working, trying to get that time and a half in order to keep up with bills. On the rare occasion he did get a holiday off, they usually spent it sitting around, watching TV and trying not to think about the fact that Jordan’s parents weren’t there to celebrate with them. Jordan figured this was much harder for his uncle than it was for him, considering his uncle had actually known them. Jordan had never even seen his parents in person. They were both in a fatal car crash when his mother was eight months pregnant. His dad died on impact, and his mom only lived long enough to make it to the hospital where doctors could extract her baby via c-section.
It wasn’t like he shared this morbid fact about himself very often, but when he did, most people didn’t know how to handle it. Jordan couldn’t blame them. He himself had been bad at handling it for more than 23 years. It wasn’t always an easy thing, grieving for the idea of someone rather than the person. It left you feeling isolated and empty. Aware that you were missing something great and important, but unable to conceptualize what that thing really was and how different your life might have been under different circumstances. But Jordan knew better than anyone that you didn’t get to choose the kind of life you got.
Growing up poor and parentless, with only his uncle’s mechanical skills to support them both, food and other necessities hadn’t come easily. Jordan knew that his uncle often sacrificed and went without just so that he could pitch in the ten dollars required to go on a school field trip or buy the books that he needed for class. He was immensely grateful for his uncle. Especially since he knew that not everyone had someone like that; someone who’d put your needs above their own for completely selfless reasons.
It was because of his uncle’s love and dedication that Jordan had developed his superhuman work ethic. He started working when he was 14, shoveling snow for his neighbors in the winter and selling home goods out of a catalogue in the summer. He worked lunch duty at his high school cafeteria and a burger flipping job on the weekends, all while maintaining a B average. It wasn’t enough to get him a full-ride scholarship to a fancy out of state university, but it had gotten him accepted into local NMU, whose tuition he could just barely afford thanks to his countless hours here at good old FreeMart.
At least, he had been able to afford it, before his financial aid ran out earlier this year. His counselor had told him it was because he was taking so long to get his degree, but he was only taking so long because he had to work so many hours to be able to afford tuition. It was a vicious cycle.
And, that wasn't even the worst of his money troubles. Less than three months later, his sweet elderly landlady had been replaced by a douche-y blonde trust fund kid named Chad. Chad was barely older than he was, and he seemed hellbent on making Jordan's life a living nightmare. In his few months in charge of the building, Chad had increased the rent, refused to replace frozen pipes, and dropped by unannounced to check up on him at least a dozen times. And since Jordan didn't have a lease and couldn't afford to live anywhere else, there was nothing he could really do about it.
To add insult to injury, his ancient Sedan named Big Bertha had also taken a dump back in January and he hadn’t been able to replace it. That meant he always had to walk or take the bus wherever he needed to go, even during massive snowstorms.
Then, just when he thought that things couldn't possibly have gotten any worse, Maddie had gone and dumped him out of the blue, as if their six year relationship had meant absolutely nothing to her. He and Maddie had been high school sweethearts. No matter how bad things got, she was always a shining beacon of support. A pillar he could lean on. Someone rational and kind that would call him on his bullshit, but still let him vent when he really needed to. Jordan had naively thought that they'd get married and stay together forever, but apparently Maddie was "going places" and didn't want his love and undying affection "dragging her down." Despite his anger and betrayal, Jordan hadn’t tried to change her mind. As devastating as their breakup had been, he still loved her enough to want what was going to make her happy, even if that wasn’t him.
So yeah, it had been a pretty rough year, and today’s session of retail hell was only one day in a string of terrible ones, but Jordan was doing his best to maintain hope that his hard work would pay off and that he’d come out stronger on the other side.
“Hope is the most powerful feeling we have,” his uncle used to tell him. “If you wanna achieve something in this life, the first step is believing that you can do it. It doesn’t matter how bad of a hand you’ve been dealt. There’s always a chance that you can succeed if you work hard enough at it. But the second you stop believing in yourself, you lose that chance. Never. Give. Up. Hope.”
And he didn’t plan to. No matter how shitty things got.
Jordan finished eating and lingered in the breakroom a few minutes longer than he was technically allowed, but he doubted that anyone from management would notice. They'd be too busy putting the store back together for the next forty eight hours. Still, he’d procrastinated long enough. So, with a heavy heart and more than a few internal pep talks, Jordan walked out onto the sales floor and returned to his post.
The second half of his shift went a lot faster than the first, mostly because morning was well underway and the midnight doorbusters had long past. Jordan was even able to stop and wipe down the counters a couple of times. A post-Thanksgiving miracle! He left at 10:00 on the dot and hastily bid his replacement good luck.
Once outside and squinting against the sunlight, he didn’t know what to do with himself. He was due back here for another shift in just under eight hours. He was bone-tired and desperately wanted to go home, but his bus wouldn’t be coming by for another thirty minutes, and that was assuming it wasn’t running late like it usually was. He was also starving since his meager “lunch” had worn off hours ago. He turned out his jacket pockets to find three crumpled up dollar bills nestled in amongst his bus pass and student ID. That left him one dollar to spare for food. Sighing, Jordan fixed his pockets and started walking in the direction of the nearest convenience store. It looked like he was having a cup of noodles for breakfast once again.
By the time he made it home and prepared/ate his 89 cent feast, Jordan only had about five hours left to nap before he had to start getting ready for his next shift. He set an alarm, kicked off his shoes, and threw his jacket over the back of his desk chair before belly flopping onto his creaky old mattress. The distant hum of Christmas music was still ringing in his ears, but it felt so good to finally close his eyes and burrow into a nice warm nest of blankets that he didn’t even care.
Alas, his comfort was short lived. About twenty minutes into his much needed rest, Jordan was awoken by his phone loudly vibrating on the pillow next to him. With a groan he rolled over and took the device in his hands. He was about to press ignore, but then he saw the number on the display and reconsidered.
“Hey Uncle Kenny,” he said, taking the call. “Can I call you back later? I had to go into work at midnight last night and I haven’t been to bed yet.”
“No worries boy,” Kenny said in his usual rasp. There was a strange timbre to his voice, almost as if he’d been crying. “I’ll make it quick.”
Jordan sat up and tossed his comforter aside, sleep momentarily forgotten.
“What is it?” he asked.
Jordan heard a gruff inhalation on the other end of the line, followed by his uncle saying, “I have cancer.”
Needless to say, he didn’t end up sleeping that afternoon.