Tomorrow is my sister's birthday, and despite the twenty-three years of sisterly torture she has given me, she did also give me a birthday present this year, so I had to get her one, too.

Fine. Easy. Latte cups, freshly ground organic coffee, biscotti from a local bakery and for presentation... a wicker basket that she can use for magazines in her new apartment when she takes the other gifts out. Having obtained all but the basket, I wandered into the Marshalls department store in my home town.

I worked in this store, starting at the age of 16, just on the weekends, and it taught me a loathing of retail and shopping that I carry to this day. I get frantic when caged in malls and stare up at the skylights like a bird whose wings have been clipped. Okay, that part is melodrama, sure, but I do get dizzy. I was working on the weekends and full time during two summers, initially this was to save up enough for a school trip to Europe, and later it just became habit.

When I was working there in high school, almost ten years ago now, my principle lunch buddy was a twenty-something guy named Jim. Jim was maybe not so brilliant, but a genuinely cheerful and personable guy, always chatting with the customers and remembering their names and particulars. Exceedingly good at his job. He stood ouside with me at night while I waited for my parents to come pick me up after 2nd shift. We ate lunch together when we could manage it with the rest of the store. He never once acted inappropriately towards me in any way, falling gracefully into some strange older brother role.

When I went to college I avoided that Marshalls, even when I was back in my hometown on term break. I have to admit, I was embarassed to be associated with them, I thought that I was going to make it, to not get stuck in the retail trap forever. I was a snooty privileged teenager. When I did go in, Jim was always there, and he always said hello to me and asked how things were going. I figured he was a lifer.

So I went back, today, to find this perfect wicker basket, and snuck in through the opposite door from the registers (he always worked the registers). And something seemed wrong. I made it to the back of the store with the housewares and gifts before I realised that the off-putting thing was a man's voice, yelling. And even more upsetting that it really sounded like Jim was emitting the loud but unintelligible noise. I peeked around one of the aisles to look at the registers and saw that Jim's normal, slightly unkempt shock of sandy hair was missing altogether, and the shine on his skull indicated clearly that it was an unintentional baldness. I could hear him now, in between outbursts, speaking normally, as if he only lost control when he allowed emotion into his voice.

It scared me.

I spent a ridiculous amount of time inspecting baskets, even after I'd picked one out, and then moved on to shoes. Men's, Women's, Children's, sneakers, and the next item on the back wall was lingerie. Then handbags. Then I was getting close to the registers, so I went back through the handbags and held my breath.

Well, fuck.

What was I doing? Sneaking around, pretending to be interested in things that I hate to avoid talking to this guy with whom I spent so many bored evenings at work, talking about what we thought of life. Of the shitty job. Of my parents. Of growing up.

So I sucked in my breath, fought the urge to ditch the basket right there in the ladies' socks and bolt. I sucked in my breath and got in his cashier's line, right after a guy with a radio flyer full of kids. Maria (I know because they called her on the loud speaker), opened up another register and called for the next customer just as Jim said, haltingly, "Hey, Rugg!" I told the guy in back of me that he could go over, I didn't mind waiting, and he hesitated, gave me disbelieving look and said "You sure?"

I told him that I was working on the North Shore now, making ink for printers, I told him what I was doing back in my hometown again, and I didn't ask what had happened to him. Turns out he was training a new girl on the register and yes, making complete sense when he could keep control of his voice. It just got so loud and loose when he couldn't. I got done with my order, wished him well and got out of there...

A man, unremarkable except for his good manners, made drawn and haggard by ten years of... what?

I feel like I am still shaking, or dreaming. How does this happen?