Midway Shopping center at University and Snelling, Murphy Department Store, St. Paul. (Photo: Russell Schweizer, ca. 1960/Minnesota Historical Society)

The department’s floor personnel—Bobbi, Tess, Shaun, Alice, and the stock boy, Luis—received word in that week’s pay envelope, but rumors had been circulating for some time that the store was closing.

It was, after all, impossible to ignore how the shelves were not being restocked. “No mas,” Luis would shrug, his palms turned upward, when one of the sales associates asked why a particular item—like those fleece-lined shoe inserts the old ladies liked so much—hadn’t been replenished. “A little shipping problem,” Mr. Beechner, the head buyer, had assured Alice, the oldest among them, when she’d worked up the nerve to ask.

“Central’s working on it,” he said, then marched off in a rush. He was always in a rush.

But even though they all knew something was cooking, the news still came as a shock. In the break room that afternoon, Shaun stood transfixed, chewing his lower lip as he stared at the off-white sheet of company letterhead bearing the bad news. He was pale with shock. Everyone knew what was going through his mind; his partner, Allen, was sick—some said dying—and unable to work any longer. How were they going to pay the medical bills?

The gloom was finally broken by Angela, the pharmacy assistant. Waving her notice overhead, she declared, “Three weeks before Christmas! You’d think they’d have the decency to wait until after the holidays!”

“Honey,” Tess rejoined, her blue-gray jowls wagging, “Ain’t any good time to get fired!” That brought a flicker of a smile to Shaun’s face, giving the others permission to chuckle.

“Least I won’t have to listen to no more of them Christmas tapes,” Luis declared. “I hear that ‘bum-ba-bum-bum’ song one more time, I swear I’m gonna puke!”

Soon they were all laughing and gleefully denouncing the store, its managers, the district executives who swooped through once a month for “spot” inspections the store president knew about in advance (“Hurry, everybody, hurry! They’re going to be here in twenty minutes!”), the whole chain, and how the crooks and shirkers at the home office got all the goodies while the hard-working employees were left with the crumbs.

By the time Mr. Beechner became aware of the unusual noise coming from somewhere in the back of the store, Jacobi, the day custodian, had broken out a bottle of Seagram’s 7 hidden in his cleaning closet and was passing it around—even Bobbi, with her pale round face and startled-looking eyes, took a pull.

“Thank you, Lord! Thank you for not making me work in his hellacious place anymore!” Tess cried out, her head tossed back and her eyes closed in ecstasy just as Mr. Beechner arrived at the swinging doors to the break room.

He peered for a moment through the cloudy plastic window, blinking with incomprehension, while the scene registered itself in his mind. He was about to burst in and reprimand everyone, reminding them that they were still employees, still expected to behave professionally, when a fresh round of mirth exploded in the break room.

Bottle in hand, Jacobi was strutting back and forth, chest swelled with self-importance. With a shock, Beechner realized it was he who was being lampooned by this impersonation. Backing away from the door, he turned on his heels and stalked out into the merchandising area, pausing just long enough to straighten a rack of marked-down boys’ winter jackets with an impatient flurry.

“Damn employees,” he muttered to himself. “Can’t get anything right!”

Richard Broderick has lived in Saint Paul for the past twenty-one years. The author of three books of poetry and prose, the recipient of a Minnesota Book Award, and cofounder of The Twin Cities Daily Planet, an award-winning online community newspaper, he currently serves as president of the Macalester-Groveland Community Council.

Posted in: Places, Prose