It is five o’clock, which means in half an hour, it will be five-thirty, and that’s only one hour from when I get off. So at five-thirty, I’ll allow myself to feel good. This is retail work.

I have been working at this place for three months now. It sells—we sell—boutique pet food and pet accessories. I am the most recent hire. Some people have been working here for five years, some ten. They are more willing to engage customers than I am, and when a customer asks for my advice, they jump in with their own suggestions. But I am not treated badly or condescended to. I try to show that I’m always grateful for their help. The other employees like dogs more than I do, and they’re more lively. They ask if I can hold the register down for them.

I don’t mind standing behind the register, because I can read there. Thanks to a minor security flaw in the computers, I can open a browser on them and read wherever I want. Judging by the search history, I am the first employee ever to have discovered this flaw, or at least the first not to use private windows. I browse furtively because sometimes a customer will come to the register, or a supervisor will go looking for something behind it, and then I have to be on form.

Today, I am reading about revolution. I have been doing this for the past three months or so, whenever I get the chance. I read about Berlin and Mao Zedong, but it’s the Russians I like best. I used to worry that I would get sloppy one day and let a coworker (and I had certain coworkers in mind) find things about Dzerzhinsky and Nechaev on the computer, and then they’d get anxious. I don’t worry about that anymore, because nobody here knows who Dzerzhinsky or Nechaev were, nor even Bakunin or Lenin. In these circumstances, it is impossible to be “sloppy.” There is no Okhrana pursuing me here, in Vermont, in the 21st century. A customer enters and I close my tab.


All day, I read about revolution, and yet I don’t mind my bosses. That’s the funny thing. Most of my bosses—there are several of them—are the airy-fairy types you might expect to find up here, which I can accommodate myself to, and the others are all right. I don’t even mind the office workers, the “corporate,” because I barely interact with them. It’s not bosses but customers I hate, and even then, it’s not really customers but the customer as a role. I hate the customer more than anything, more than anything in the world.

There is no such thing as a good customer. There is no such thing as a bad one, either. A customer is neither a person to be engaged with nor a task to be completed. It is an essential part of the day, without merit and barely noticeable, like breakfast. So don’t think you’re brightening my day with your jokes or souring it with your demands, because to me, you are not a person.

But I must be in the wrong on that point, because everything here is designed for you personally. You have your pick of ten hours of Tuesday to find a toy for your dog; for eight of those hours, you can even choose me to help you. You are a person and I am not. That, more than the toy itself, is what you are paying for. And maybe when you drive home, you’ll think about the nice young man who helped you with your unreasonable demands, and about what other nice young men you could visit with the remaining nine hours of your empty Tuesday. Meanwhile, I am still here, having already forgotten about you. Forgetting: that is what I’m paid for.

Sometimes, though, a customer does stick in my memory. Today, there was a middle-aged man who said his name was Vain, V-I-G-N-E, loudly as he dumped a basket of canned cat food on the counter for me to pick up. In my mind, he was a policeman, but then he didn’t ask for the discount. He put the basket down and watched as I sorted the cans by brand and flavor, all 36 of them. Maybe he wasn’t a policeman, but I wish he had been. It would have made a little more sense.

Another customer came in with her rowdy son, about eight years old. The boy punched her arm and laughed as she dragged him down the aisle. “Mommy, didn’t you say I was a comedian?” he said as I sorted the cans by brand and color, all 36 of them.

“Aren’t I a comedian, Mommy?” Little comedian, how I hate you!


Today, I gave a customer a 35 percent discount on something that wasn’t on sale. You might think it random, a spontaneous act of rebellion by the dispossessed, but it wasn’t. I had to select very carefully a customer who wouldn’t notice the difference: one who wouldn’t play the hero or the kindly old gentleman. After that, I thought about the role of the customer, and my role, and who was the subject there and who the object. I wondered whether the customer’s money outweighed my hatred for them, or whether the two forces were equivalent. Everything in the world tends toward equilibrium, toward absolute zero. That is a fundamental law of the universe, which cannot be altered. Maybe they pay, and I am paid, not to make my bosses rich (they make about $10,000 more than I do per year), but to achieve an equilibrium. Maybe the fundamental laws of society are outweighed by the fundamental laws of the universe, which, after all, take precedence.

It is three o’clock, which means it is time for acid reflux. This is the worst part of my day. Before I came to this place, I thought that acid reflux was something that could be avoided, and that I had GERD: a unique tendency toward heartburn. I have since learned that it is a fact of life. My coworkers, most of whom are much older than me, talk about heartburn almost every day. I feel very sick when I hear them talk about it. Our bodies must be on similar schedules. There are Tums in the break room, but I don’t take them because I find that the reflux only gets worse an hour or two after I do. It takes its revenge.

Suddenly, there is an uproar on the floor. Voices are ringing back and forth. I rush back from the warehouse, thinking something has happened, and that my attention might be diverted for ten minutes of my eight-hour day. But it is a false alarm; a customer has brought in a puppy, that’s all. I return to the warehouse and to thinking and feeling sick.

My love is visiting me. She is here, right now, in the city, while I wait to return to her. She is very brave to visit me because she hates the New England winter, and still she is here. The rest of her time she spends in California, working at her professional job. I don’t pretend to understand what she does there. When I come home, neither of us ask what the other did that day. All she asks is why I, with a university degree, am working retail. I try to explain about Dzerzhinsky and the Okhrana, but she only says that we should get married someday. We make up, have dinner, and in the morning, I go to work.

All day, I think about revolution. I think about the protests, and the cars that mowed the protestors down. The advantage of terror is asymmetry. Terror must attack something bigger, more menacing, less human than itself. To drive into a crowd isn’t terror, I think. The crushed bodies aren’t menacing. But then, every American drives a car. Do they identify with the bodies, thrown like dolls into the air, or with the car? Maybe the crowd is menacing to them. And then I think of Vigne, the man who dumped his basket onto the counter. He might be driving now. He has a car. He could throw bodies into the air if the opportunity presented itself. No inhuman menace, no non-person like me, could threaten him. He is revolution and reaction wrapped into one, a colossus astride his own little world.

All day, I think about revolution. In the early mornings, it seems almost possible; in the afternoons, when the road home is covered with cars, it is a fantasy.


My birthday is coming up. My coworkers once asked me when my birthday was, and I told them December, to buy as much time as possible; but I think they have already forgotten that by now. On my birthday, I will go to work and I will think about revolution. I will think about Portland and the Petrograd Soviet and customers driving cars. My head will spin with images of bodies, young bodies like mine, non-persons, thrown into the air, and the faces of Ronald Reagan and Henry Ford. At night, I won’t be able to sleep.

The leaves have changed color. A month ago, they were green; two weeks ago, they were yellow; now they are yellow, red, and gold. When I was a boy and my family went up to Vermont for vacations, I learned that this was the most beautiful time of the year. But the leaves are only beautiful when you see the forest all at once. I don’t see anything like that because there are only a few trees around the place where I work. So now I have a botanist’s view of the passing of seasons. I look at a little tree, right next to the bench I sit on during my smoke breaks, and I see that its leaves have changed color. I have a botanist’s view of this tree; I can see into its future. Soon the leaves will fall and the snow will come, and I’ll see the little tree in winter. It will bud in spring, then grow green leaves, then those leaves will turn yellow again. That process will continue for many years. Then someday, this little tree’s cells will give out, fail to meet the challenge of winter, and this little tree will die. All things tend toward absolute zero; equilibrium will be restored. Does this brave little tree defy winter, or does it accept winter as a fact of life, like breakfast, knowing that one day winter will kill it?

It’s three o’clock. I’m thinking about the future, and I feel sick.

My love has left for California again. She said she might come back in a few months, but I don’t think she will. She hates the cold. She asks me by text if I could find a job in California, so I could be with her, even if it was just a 15-an-hour retail job. I tell her jobs like that are everywhere, only I wouldn’t want her to have to live with me if I was just a retail worker, and she agrees. It’d be better, she says, if I got a real job, one with regular afternoons and weekends; then we could have fun together some days, and I could plan more easily for the future. I tell her I’m very tired and need to sleep.

For my birthday, I got calls from my parents, from my sister, and from my love, and a lot of texts from my friends. Nobody at work knew it was my birthday, and of course the customers didn’t either. I had the next day off and so I stood there for eight hours, regretting that I had a birthday at all if I was only going to spend it standing. That night, I felt sick and I had trouble sleeping. I spent the whole next day reading about revolution, but I didn’t wish it was my birthday then. I had already forgotten about it, and all the customers I had seen.


My love called me last night, saying that we had already been together five years, and five years is nearly seven, after which we would surely get married; then, when we were married, we’d want to have kids a year or two after that. She couldn’t have kids with me, she said, if I wasn’t going to find myself a real job. So she broke it off.

This morning, I went to work and stood there for eight hours. Then I went home. All evening, I read about the accumulation of plastic in the Pacific Ocean, and I didn’t feel sick, and I slept just fine, thank you.