Story — From the April 2015 issue

If You Cannot Go to Sleep

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First, she tries counting. The numbers move sluggishly through her head in single file, like people in a line at the post office or at the bank or at the discount supermarket where you can only pay with cash so the line is always long and she is always frustrated by the time she reaches the counter, and so, to compensate, she always tries to be extra- friendly to the cashier, to be sure to instruct him or her to have a nice day after she gets her change back, because it seems worse, somehow, to be a cashier in a discount supermarket than it would be to do the same job at a place that sold expensive gourmet foods, although when she thinks about this now, so late at night that she doesn’t even want to look at the clock to find out the time, she thinks, Why would it make a difference whether you ran a cash register at a place where people buy brie and figs and Ethiopian fair-trade coffee, instead of at a place where people buy Pampers and Wonder Bread? In reality, she thinks, working at a gourmet market is probably worse because of the annoying people who shop there, the men and women in stylish business-casual clothing, or athletic wear because they are coming from or going to the gym, all of them buying organic heirloom tomatoes and the latest variety of ancient grain that is supposed to make you live forever and all of them exuding an air of self-satisfaction, of superiority, of knowledge that they are worthy and admirable and enlightened beyond ordinary mortals and wanting to chat with the cashier about his or her day and about the food they’re buying and the fabulous, complicated meal that they’re going to make with these ingredients, which is really just another way of showing off when you get right down to it. Do you really want to see those people every day? On the other hand, at the discount supermarket you might see people buying weird, sad, lonely food, like the man who’d been in front of her in line the other week who was severely overweight and buying twenty frozen dinners and nothing else, or the unnaturally skinny woman buying a big crate of caffeine-free diet soda and nothing else, or the mother with three children trying to figure out what she could afford with her WIC voucher, carefully watching the total as it came up on the screen, putting aside the things in her cart that she could not afford that week. For a cashier, that had to be depressing. Add to that the threat that you would be replaced any day now with one of those automatic swiper machines that don’t actually work and always require assistance before the customer can check out, and you have a pretty unhappy work environment as a cashier one way or another.

“White Dots,” by Mary Ellen Bartley, from her series Sea Change Courtesy the artist and Yancey Richardson Gallery, New York City

“White Dots,” by Mary Ellen Bartley, from her series Sea Change. Courtesy the artist and Yancey Richardson Gallery, New York City

Or maybe she is just being a snob and actually being a cashier can be a fine job and it’s only because of her particular privileged background that she assumes it would be miserable rather than fulfilling to be a cashier, because how would she know? The closest she ever came was waiting tables at a restaurant and that job was not terrible, she still has some good memories of the characters that she met among the customers, the man who came up to the counter and asked her if she could recite any Shakespeare and she spoke aloud the prologue to Henry V because she knew it by heart, or the time she . . . well, actually that is her only good memory of that job, the rest of it was boring or unpleasant and involved mopping floors and stacking dishes and wiping down tables and anyway she knew that she was going to leave and go away to college and that this wouldn’t be her job for the rest of her life, she would be able to go on to something better or something that at the time she thought would be better. She did go to college, and she majored in French, and she lived in Paris for a few years after she finished her degree and now she works translating technical manuals and she used to be married to a man who appeared to be steady and reliable if a little dull, qualities that she told herself were a good antidote to her own tendency to fret too much about small and insignificant things, and who had a successful career in hospital administration, but who suddenly, about six months ago, came to the conclusion that he’d had enough of expending his energy and intelligence working in a health-care system organized for the benefit of for-profit insurance companies, and decided to move to France. She found this moderately ironic since, when she had been yearning a few years previously to ditch everything and go back to Paris, he had insisted that they could not do this because he’d put too much time and effort into developing his career in the United States and he did not want to throw away what he’d worked so hard to build. She pointed this irony out to him during the brief period after he’d announced that he was moving out but before he had actually departed for good, and although he readily agreed with her that, yes, there was some irony in his choice, he did not change his mind. He said that she worried too much and that he didn’t want to deal with it anymore. And she said: This won’t make me worry less. And he said: I know, but it will no longer be my problem.

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is the author of a novel, The Last Summer of the World. W. W. Norton will publish her first story collection, Viral, in June.

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October 2019


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