Sensitivity Training down at the Wal-Mart
a short story by Jen Cullerton Johnson
(Cover Art | Susan Byrnes)
About the Author
Jen Cullerton Johnson is a writer, educator, and urban environmentalist. She has published short stories, essays, and poems in various literary journals, both in the United States and Argentina, as well as a non-fiction children’s book Seeds of Change. She is a recipient of the Illinois Arts Fellowship.
Last week, my wife, Sal, came home from her job. She is a Thanksgiving/ Christmas cashier down at the Wal-Mart. I had the TV tuned to Animal Kingdom when she walked in and kissed the top of my head. She blocked my view of a lion killing a stray zebra. I moved my leg so she could sit down. “How’s work? Lots of credit card junkies this year?”
Sal shook her head then put her finger to her lips, as if I was a third grader. “Listen up, ’cause I gotta tell ya somethin’ and I don’t know if your gonna like it. Next Saturday, you can’t have the boys over. I’m not gonna be around.”
“Well, down at the Wal-Mart, in the employee’s lounge, the manger, Mr. Kim, posted this sign. ‘Free Seminar on Sensitivity Training.'”
“What the hell is that?”
“That’s what I asked and just like that too. Mr. Kim said I’d be the perfect candidate, so I’m gonna go.”
“But what are you gonna do there?” I asked.
I kind of thought Sal pushed her luck these days working at the Wal-Mart and going to all these groups while I sat in the house. It wasn’t like I wanted to mope around, flicking through the mid-day crap on the tube. I had no choice in the matter. Joe Grady, the head boss, I worked for at Grady’s Construction, went belly up after his D.U.I. It got ugly, and his wife wouldn’t bail him out. Then the company folded. Finding construction work in winter is impossible. We were using our savings when Sal got her Wal-Mart job. Grady wrote me from the joint that things would start up first of March. Now every night she walked through the door, I heard about discount prices, sneaky teenage thieves, gossipy co-cashiers and now, this seminar.
“Sounds good to me. Ya wanna eat?”
Sal squeezed my big toe then walked into the kitchen. In a half a hour, we ate her diet frozen food. Things were silent between us. “Do you think I’m sensitive, Frank? Tell me the truth.”
“Sure. Ya ask me about my day. I never once saw ya throw trash out the window. Why wouldn’t ya be?”
“I dunno. I guess not sensitive like that, but with people from other races and religions?”
I thought about this for a minute. Both of us grew up on the South side of Chicago, in an all Irish-Catholic neighborhood. There weren’t any other races or religions. I’ve got a good pal named Raymond who is black, and at Grady’s, there was Juancito. I didn’t know if it made me sensitive, I thought it just made me like Raymond because he’s got the dirtiest jokes, and well, Juancito covered my ass when I was hung over.
“Ya better try it out and see. What’s the worst that can happen? You’d be more sensitive.”
It was the worst advice I could have given her. The week before the Wal-Mart training, we were both riled up. It was like we were using that week to prove something to each other. Sal tried to show off how sensitive she was, and I was right there behind her. All the things that made her steam about me, like how I left burnt noodles in the pot or cigarette butts in the coffee cup. I cleaned it all up. She never once asked me, “Frank is my butt big? Bigger than last week? How big is big?” She shut her mouth. Yeah, for those seven days, we thought of ourselves as sensitive. Maybe, we were respectful of each other’s likes and dislikes. Maybe, we weren’t lazy and tried to do the best for each other and not solo jobs.
When Saturday did roll around, Sal put on her Wal-Mart uniform over her jeans and light blue sweater. She spent a long time on her hair and face. She came out when I was reading the Sun Times in bed.
“Aren’t you a knockout, lady,” I said. She made up her face in what she called the Evening Look. I called it the Lookin’-for-a-little-Somethin’ look.
“I wanna show ’em I’m sensitive about my personal appearance. Ya know, at least I’ll score points on that one. Hands down, I’ll probably beat out all the other cashiers.”
“Don’t get so close to Mr. Kim lookin’ so great. Are ya nervous?”
“Kinda. He said I was perfect for this, and I believe him.”
“Ya got it all over those bozos down there. Don’t ya worry about it. Can ya bring home some of those honey mustard pretzels? We ran out.”
She bent down to give me a kiss. I kissed her back and tasted hair spray in my mouth. Before the big game, I called Raymond. I told him to count me in on our Sunday morning hair cut. He told me no problem, then a dirty joke about a redhead and a lizard. Later, I went down to watch the game with the boys at the Corner Tap. It was one of the best of the season. Bulls verses the Jazz. We beat their asses. I came home a little drunk with some romantic intentions. But when I opened the door to our apartment, I knew right away nothing but sleep would happen for me. Sal paced the carpet with her bare feet. I tried to kiss her and tell her about the dunk shot, but she stopped me mid-way with a Time-Out sign she made with her hands and then pointed to the couch. I knew I was in for it but I couldn’t have guessed how badly.
“I came home from my seminar and well, listen up, Frank. We gotta change. We’re prejudiced. Pre-ju-diced. That’s right, Frank James Leary. Prejudice. No doubt about it.”
“Hold on, Sal. Calm down. What happened?”
I knew my wife real well. She fired off at anyone, then needed someone to flash a stop sign in her face to cool her down. She took a deep breath then walked into the kitchen and poured herself a glass of water out of the pitcher from the icebox. I followed right behind her.
“It’s like this. Mr. Kim told me I was the perfect candidate for this, and I showed up thinking, ‘Great! I’m finally perfect at something. I’m sensitive,'” she said. Then she stopped for a minute and took a long drink from her glass. From the way she scrunched up her nose and how her eyes flashed back and forth without focusing, I knew she was down for the count. I walked over to her and took her hand. Then I tugged her into one of the kitchen chairs and sat down besides her.
“You’re sensitive, Hon. Honest.”
“No. No way. Not in a million years. Not this woman. Guess what, Frank? I’m not. Sensitive means usin’ all these words I’ve never heard of before. I’m not sayin’ just because I don’t know ’em, I won’t use ’em but I didn’t know we were so dumb, so stupid.”
I don’t like to be included in Sal’s We-Pity, We-Blame moments. Usually, I nipped it in the bud, but tonight, maybe it was the beer or maybe I felt sorry for her, I let it go.
“‘Member that girl, Jane who bags three stations away from mine? ‘Member her?”
I nodded my head and remembered I had heard of Jane’s motor mouth running off to any customer who dared the Express Lane. She chattered on about her pet ferret, Earl, and his daily life. Earl ate barbecue potato chips out of her hand. He didn’t like Oprah. He wanted to sleep on top of the toilet not in his cage. Customers complained, then flooded over to Sal’s lane. It made Sal frantic. She called in price checks and added up fifteen-items-or-less with Jane announcing that Earl looked more adorable in his Santa hat than any real elf.
“Mr. Kim told me, I insulted Jane when I told her only her ferret would put up with her blabbing and to get a move on. I didn’t even know I did it. See here on this questionnaire,” she said. She reached into her back pocket and yanked it out.
“Jane is what I call slow, but she’s not slow. That is not sensitive. She is audibly challenged.”
“Is she a dope?”
“No, Je-sus! What did I just tell ya? Audibly challenged is what ya gotta say. Listen up, Frank. She talks too much and that is what the word audibly challenged means.”
Sal had to memorize a whole new list of words just to put bills into a cash register. I tried to tell her to look on the bright side, that she wasn’t audibly challenged. The list would be easy to know by heart in an hour. She laughed at me with this kind of I-don’t-believe-it laugh and stomped out of the kitchen and into our bedroom.
I sat at the table and read over the list. Some of it sounded reasonable. I decided I would try few of them out on Raymond. But most of the other words made me laugh. I found out I was visually challenged, and Sal, who is about forty pounds over weight, was physically challenged, even though I would call her a human vacuum cleaner without an ‘Off’ switch. Still, I stayed a little while longer and answered the ‘Are You Sensitive’ quiz. I scored in the lower percentile. Then I stumbled into our bedroom. Sal’s back was to me. I could tell by the way her shoulders shook, she was crying. I slipped into bed then slipped my arm around her. She didn’t warm up to me.
“Good night, Frank. I’ll see you with my un-sensitive self tomorrow.”
I kissed her and told her I loved her then fell asleep.
The next day, Sal’s side was empty. I got dressed and stumbled into the kitchen and saw her drinking coffee, checking her quiz score.
“I’m just tryin’ to see if they scored me wrong. Mr. Kim went over those answers fast. Maybe he missed somethin’. ‘Member when I won Miss Polite in high school. That’s gotta still count for somethin’ ya know it does.”
“Leave it be, hon, that was years ago, and this is a stupid quiz. Why should some paper tell ya who ya are?”
“Je-sus! Don’t ya get it? It is 2000. Ya gotta be usin’ this language, those words. It is part of ringing up a purchase.”
Then she pointed to me and said, “You’re not respecting me. Don’t enter into my boundary limits with that tone.”
“I’ll stop whatever the hell I’m doin’, but I can’t understand what you’re sayin’.”
“Quit buggin’ me. Go get a haircut.”
“Yeah, will do, sensitive Sal,” I mumbled loud enough for her to hear. She threw a plastic saucer at me as I walked out the door.
Down at Raymond’s it wasn’t busy, just him and his grandkid.
“Raymond, got some coffee?” I asked. It was our standard joke. We had been doing it for fifteen years.
“We got more than that, but that’s extra. That is gonna cost ya. Ya don’t look so good.”
“It’s nothin’ What do ya say about a shave?”
“Anything you want, Frankie.”
Raymond was the only friend I let call me Frankie. It came from one of his jokes and stuck on me. He took my coat and then told his grandson to quit looking into space for the answers and start sweeping. The kid screwed up his face and stamped into the back room in a huff.
“Black kids just don’t know how to treat their granddads these days.”
“Don’t you mean African-American, Ray?”
Raymond started to laugh. Then he got serious, more serious than I had ever seen his face in all the years of him being my friend.
“I guess I do. That’s what I am, African and American. But I just use black for me, white for you and brown for the Gomez family down the street. But I am African-American.”
“Yeah, I just learned it. Sal went to the Wal-Mart for some Sensitive Training. Ya know, I’m balding but ya can’t say that. Ya gotta say hair challenged or something.”
We cut up over that one for a few minutes, and then he started to cut my hair. The shop got silent. I felt strange for the first time with Raymond. We don’t ever talk about that stuff. He liked me not because I was a white, balding man but because I was one of his oldest and best paying tippers. I liked him for being him.
I watched Raymond’s eyebrows crease and uncrease in the streaked rectangular mirror, as if he was trying to figure what we just said but couldn’t. He brushed the back of my neck and shook off the loose hair. We made eye contact a few times but each time one of us would dart away.
I figured out real fast how sensitive subjects could get ugly and how Mr. Kim drew lines and shuffled real people like Sal, Raymond, Jane and me into things without feelings or faces.
Raymond finished up the last touches on my shave. When he was done, I got out of the chair and handed him his money. He shoved it into his pant pocket and called out to his grandkid. I shuffled out of his shop and took a quick look back at them. Raymond was telling him to be a good African-American grandkid and get him some donuts across the street. I felt a little sad, like him and me, after those words, were thrown at opposite sides of the line, and the gap would be harder than hell to cross.
“Sensitivity Training down at the Wal-Mart” Copyright ©2001 by Jen Cullerton Johnson.
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