I was in my early 20’s, working retail as a sales lead in a clothing store. I was on my way to the top!
A woman, no taller than 60 inches, approached my register. She had short hair, like teenage boy short, and it was all one uniform shade of tree bark brown. She wore a tight-fitting tee shirt and jeans with elastic in them, over a stout and somewhat oval frame. Behind her glasses she wore a frown in her eyes.
I greeted her with a warm, polite smile, but behind my own eyes was a tired, weary brain in which my sense of self was pliable and flimsy.
“Did you find everything you were looking for today?”
I removed a pair of slacks from their hanger and removed a shirt from one as well. Carefully, I folded her outfit, preserving the crease of her pant legs and leaving the tags visible, so I could quickly scan her items in one swoop.
“We’re running a 30% off sale on our jewelry this week,” I said, out of sheer habit. I smiled at her again.
Her face remained stuck, as if her lips were somehow constipated.
She said nothing. Then, her eyes shot down to the gift cards in front of the register. We had a bright display full of loose, plastic gift cards of all colors and patterns, that people sometimes bought to give to their loved ones.
With one hand, she selected one. I can still see it in my mind’s eye; the design on the front resembled a package wrapped in a green bow, with our store’s name in bold, capital letters across the front of it.
Now listen, what you’re about to read is the start of a small series of events that composed a true story that haunted me for years. There are several reasons why this story was a wound for so long, but mostly it’s because it involves gaslighting, the psychological torment of retail work, and the convoluted nature of American businesses. Thankfully, I guess, the store is no longer in business, but I’m sure it wasn’t the only one to operate in this fashion.
The woman grabbed the gift card from the hundred or so others on the counter in front of her that clearly were new, not loaded with any money, and wouldn’t be activated until they were purchased by people putting money on them.
Clearly, it was empty.
She handed me the gift card after I told her the total of her outfit.
I asked, “how much would you like on this?”
“The full amount.”
“Oh, you can put whatever amount you want on them,” I said, confused.
At this point, I still thought she was trying to buy the gift card.
“No, I’ll pay with it,” she said, rather forcefully.
I looked at her, feeling even more confused and my heart rate rising.
My memory gets a little hazy on the following details, but basically, she tried to pay for her items with the blank gift card. I asked her if she had another gift card with her, as in, her wallet. She never once opened her wallet or purse during this exchange, but I thought maybe her circuits got crossed and she saw the gift card in front of her, making her think, for some reason, it was one she already had. We all have brain farts every once in a while, and on more than one occasion, I’ve found my own competency in public lacking.
Entertaining her delusion, I tried scanning the card for payment, but it came up on the computerized register as “inactive.” No matter what I did, she got more and more hostile. My attempts at mitigation were fruitless. Her emotions became volatile, and she was caught between anger and crying. She didn’t calm down. She rattled off a disjointed story about doing a purchase on a Discover card and then getting her return on a gift card.
Her account was already pulled up in the transaction. I opened her transaction history, and asked her when the return was done.
“Some six, seven months ago!” she spat.
My limbs were shaking at this point, as her outburst was attracting attention from customers within and outside the store. My manager was gone for the night, and I was working with a part-timer.
“I’m sorry, but there’s no returns under your account from any time in the last year. It looks like you have one from two years ago, but I can see that it was refunded on a VISA card.”
Her face got flaming, cherry red. Her mouth opened wide and her hands waved circles around her body. Fingers flew, feet stomped, and she threatened to call corporate. Her words turned nasty. She insulted me with quick jabs at my character and ability to do my god-awful job.
At that, I got a bit defensive and didn’t budge. I checked for duplicate accounts under her name, but nothing came up. She refused to check her purse for another gift card and she refused to pay any other way. I didn’t have the capacity to calm her down from this ledge, and I let her get to me, as I felt tears of frustration roll down my cheeks.
In the corner of her mouth, I saw the smallest inch of a grin.
She stormed out.
I knew that wouldn’t be the end of it.
A few days later, I got a scathing email from the district manager. My boss had a serious sit down with me and I was written up. My stellar record was smudged.
My anger grew. On a lunch break the same day I was written up, there was no one in the manager’s office, so I logged in, and emailed the finance/auditing department.
I took a diplomatic approach, and explained the situation, in which I was just trying to resolve this for the customer and I included within my intent, to hopefully prevent any situations like this in the future. The reason I did this, was because if the customer had a return matching her description on her account, I could have mitigated the entire thing by just using the gift card number in her file. I could have smoothed this whole situation over without shattering her weird delusion.
The other reason I reached out was because the witch was lying. Clear as day, I saw her grab that card from the empties in front of her. I didn’t know if she was just a brazen manipulator, if she simply didn’t think I was looking, or if her brain genuinely went defunct in that moment. I knew was I was right, but due to the customer’s tantrum and accusations, my two bosses wouldn’t believe the truth.
In her statements to corporate, the customer made me out to be the aggressor and her to be the victim, leaving out the detail of her snatching the gift card up from where she did, as well as not mentioning all the chides she hurled my way. I was beyond upset and inconsolable about the entire situation, feeling myself fall into a deep low point. My mother had done this sort of song and dance my entire life, being nasty to my face, and then running to the entire family, making me out to be some kind of monster. I didn’t have the foundation of self-respect and esteem yet, I was still quite young, and freshly hurt from eighteen years of abuse and neglect, that no one, not even my closest family, believed.
So, whether I realized it or not, I had made the instigation with that customer my hill to die on. I was convinced I could clear my name.
I heard back from the auditors a few days later, after they checked and rechecked records. What I thought would be my vindication had arrived, evidence of no gift card issued to this customer ever.
I forwarded their findings to the district manager, thinking this would get me off the hook.
Not long after, I got written up for emailing him. Apparently, I didn’t respect the “chain of command,” and by emailing him and the auditors, I got them both in trouble with the regional manager.
So it was, of course, all my fault.
And the witchy customer from my nightmares? The district manager issued her a brand new, unused $60 gift card.
Luckily for me, she didn’t come back in the store when I was working.
I kept my job, but was getting worse and worse at making anyone happy. I didn’t learn my lesson until much later, that I should have left it all alone after I got written up the first time. Nor did I realize until even later, that I should have played along with just how stupid that customer thought I was in the first place. Complying with her expectations would have appeased her tiny, rat-like soul, and avoided the entire second half of our interactions.