Janelle Bassett's work has appeared in the Offing, Southern Humanities Review, the Rumpus, Slice Magazine, Okay Donkey, and Jellyfish Review. Her story collection, Thanks for This Riot, was short-listed for the 2019 Santa Fe Writers Project Award. She also reads fiction for Split Lip Magazine.
Folding used newborn onesies is like stupid-easy origami but with faint poop stains. I tell this to new trainees, and if they wrinkle their noses at “faint poop,” I know they aren’t going to make it here. Aisle Six is all faint poop, arranged by severity of shade. Further onesie-folding instruction: Take one arm and two ribs in toward the chest, take the other arm and two of the other ribs to the chest, condense the crotch, then go in half—a baby sit-up. No swans emerge, only flat stacks of the skins that babies shed immediately.
Other resale shops might roll onesies up like snackable ham, but this is the way we fold here. Anita, the owner, is firm on folding. She says, “You can’t stack rolls! I refuse to make pyramids on this back counter. What if we elbowed it? Toppling, rolling. Disaster.”
We typically buy forty used onesies a day. We used to accept only ten per day because there wasn’t a huge market for them. New parents wanted to buy pristine, neutral-smelling clothing for their upcoming babies, whom they assumed were going to be considerably less leaky and distressed than the babies they’d seen in the mall food court. We’d sell the newborn onesies to moms who were on their third or fourth babies. We could probably sell them two mismatched washcloths sewn together and they’d cut out the leg-holes themselves.
But two months ago, this lifestyle blogger called The Effortless Peppercorn posted about how she had found a method to never touch or wash soiled baby clothing again. Instead of scraping and soaking the stained garments, she would instead buy huge quantities of used onesies for a quarter apiece, and if her baby had a blowout, she’d simply throw the outfit away with the disposable diaper. She hashtagged the post #greenliving, #thriftymama, #wastenotwantnot, #buyused, #effortlessnessstrikesagain, #momsfindsolutions, #everyonehasaquarter #hacklife #bodyback #nowyoutry #cleanhands #trashdaycantcomesoonenough.
Now we get her devotees (nicknamed EffPeps) coming in and buying up our whole onesie supply. I want to tell them that they are putting a lot of effort into their effortlessness and into our landfills, but instead I smile and double-bag and tell them their baby looks like Fred Astaire and they say “Oh, thank you” because they cannot recall his face, only a GIF-length flourish of his legs.
They named this place “Infant Replay” without me—way before I started working here. Like eighteen months before. If I’d been in on the naming, I would have voted for a simple, straightforward name like “Preloved Kids' Clothes” and encircled the whole name with a braided multicolor heart. Puns are for hair salons and the saddest gas stations on the highway.
But I proudly wear the name tag that says both “Infant Replay” and “Leona” because having those two words attached to me does help narrow down the options of who I am to be. Parameters I’m paid for. I put on my tag and I see the day’s path ahead of me—I am to be an employee of Anita’s, and I am to buy and sell in order to clothe the children of my community, and I am to do this until four p.m., and I’ll deal with who I become at 4 p.m. not a moment before 4 p.m.
Today Anita is taking her son to audition for a reality show about kids who make pop songs using only plastic salvaged from the ocean. The show is called “Ocean Trash Bangers.” She’s left me in charge of the shop for the first time. She said it like it was no big deal. Like, “Thursday and Friday I’m out, so you’re in. Drayden has put a lot of work into learning ‘Bennie and the Jets’ on his Mello Yello accordion and I can’t let him down.”
So I’m opening the shop and I’m training a new employee all on my own. I’ve trained employees before, but always with Anita over my shoulder repeating everything I say in a more authoritative voice. I’ll say, “The swimwear goes here.” And she’ll come over and say, “Swim goes here” and point straight down at the spot, and then jiggle her wrist so her bracelet doesn’t fall off.
I’ve been dreading this day, which will forcibly widen my parameters. I like that Anita tells me what to do. Her prescriptions for my body enable me to be thoughtless. After 4 p.m., I lose all structure, all sense of how-it’s-done. This past Wednesday night, I sat on my bathroom tile and had to restrain myself from calling Anita and asking her what people do with their time. Is it cleaning? Am I supposed to be scrubbing on an hourly basis? Is it list-making? Cooking from scratch? Back scratching? Backpedaling? Front crawl? Can I go ahead and start my morning shift tonight? Take me back and put me in, Anita—before more of the nothing happens!
In order to sufficiently dread my first day of leadership, I made an event in my calendar for today named “Ocean trash finds another way to fuck us.” This joke was less funny when it popped up this morning at 7 a.m., day of the being fucked.
We open at 11. I need to arrive at 9. My trainee is coming at 9:15. I hope my black Keds look authoritative. I put on the one bracelet I own, so that I can pull off Anita’s pointing gestures. I practice pointing here, here, here. My one bracelet has a Betty Boop charm. I’ve had it since I was eight. Why should an eight-year-old wear a curvy, flirty sex symbol on her wrist? Why should a twenty-nine-year-old wear a cartoon character on her wrist? I pull Betty off the bracelet. There was maybe a one-week span the summer I was twelve when I had the exact childlike sultriness to have worn her admissibly. What an unsavory week. I’ve suppressed it.
I leave home at 8:40 and hope the drive-thru line isn’t going to make me late. I need a big drink with a straw for two reasons. One: I've admitted that I’m powerless against my use of plastics and all non-biodegradable materials. Two: The culture of Infant Replay dictates that everyone must have a big drink and place it in the far corner behind the front counter. I call the corner our “thirst trap,” but not aloud, which makes it a better joke because it isn’t groveling for laughs—it’s simply making me slightly less sad.
With my sweaty Diet Pepsi between my knees, I pull into the strip mall where Infant Replay sits between a toasted subs place and a tax prep place. I’ve never been inside either of the neighboring businesses, but I’ve thought about applying to one of them so that at 4:00 I could simply go next door and be told what to do until bedtime.
I take a deep breath before getting out of the car. Once I go inside the store, I am heavily burdened and majorly in charge. In this car, I’m a background extra, a safe witness. My phone rings and it sounds too loud because of the quiet moment I’ve created with my stalling. Anita.
“Are you at the store? It’s three 'til nine and you know New-Girl-Jenny is coming today and if you’re not at the store I’m going to feel like I can never leave again and I don’t want to feel that way, Leona!”
There’s a bunch of tooting and crinkling in the background. It sounds like warbling birds but if the birds have swallowed packing peanuts and poker chips.
I open the car door and say, “I’m just about to walk in. Everything’s fine.” I don’t tell her about the bracelet, but I think of it now as evidence of the fine-ness I’ve claimed.
“Okay. You’re there. I feel better. You’ll be fine. I’ve left lists. You know what to do. I trust you, Leona.”
“Thank you.” I put the key in the lock. Anita had handed it to me two days ago and said, “It’s not that I trust you, Leona. It’s that you’re my best option.”
The door opens and the place smells sweet, like carpet that’s been splashed with soda many, many times. I say to my phone, “I’m in,” and realize Anita’s already hung up. She’s out.
I let the door close behind me, and I point authoritatively toward the cash register, then the security camera, then the single dressing room, then at the thirst trap corner. It’s all there and I know it. Point point point, easy. Parameters claimed and deemed doable.
New-Girl-Jenny shows up with a ponytail that feels defiantly juvenile, and I’m immediately worried about being a person who’s trying to tell her what to do. Society and culture have told her that adult women don’t do that to their hair, and yet here she is starting a job with a side-pony you can’t even call a side-pony because it’s behind the ear—a no-man’s-land pony. A Droopy-Dog’s-left-ear pony. As I tell her my name and point to where she can put her purse, I decide it would be more troubling if she had replicated this same pony on the other side of her head. Maybe part of her knows it’s a ridiculous look and stopped her from forming symmetry around it.
Jenny glances at our rows, stacks, and bins. She lets me do all the talking, which makes me feel like I’m trying to sell her on this job, on this business, on my own decision to work here. I resent having to justify the existence of our used Halloween costume rack. It looks like we skin superheroes.
I hand her the stack of paperwork. “Anita needs you to fill these out. Sign everything.”
Jenny nods at the tax form like she’s met it before, then asks me, “So what’s Anita’s deal?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, like, does she suck or does she not suck?” She sticks the tip of her tongue over one of her front teeth, like that somehow clarifies the question.
“Anita won’t be back until Saturday.”
“But, like, as a boss? Does she suck to work for?”
What is she suggesting by asking me this? That we are somehow co-conspirators? I’m no New-Girl-Jenny cohort. I’m no tittering snitch. Listen, Jenny-Jenny, it’s not me and you against Anita. I’m on Anita’s level, nearly, and she and I will teach and assess you. We have folding techniques to impart. I consider scoffing and pointing at her hair, but then I remember this Instagram post I saw and liked just-this-morning, right after the fucking ocean trash event popped up. It was about supporting other women. The post was actually two animated llamas in skirts trying to square dance and stepping all over each other, but the caption was “Get it together lladies.”
With this animated-yet-applicable sentiment in mind, I tell her, “Anita is a fair and energetic boss. She’s very sure about how things should be done, which is a comfort to her employees.”
Jenny laughs and says I’m “so funny,” which makes me think she may have seen the llady llamas this morning too. Look at us, two feminists, avoiding each other’s toes.
I show Jenny the pricing formulas and buy-back protocols and corduroy slack stacks. She seems to be taking it all in neutrally, which I appreciate after her overly familiar and pointed question about Anita. She’s nodding a lot, so she’s getting it, but the nodding engages and emphasizes her ponytail, which undermines the obedience and seriousness of her nodding. It’s like teaching a Bloodhound to distinguish traffic signage—his eye contact might suggest he’s learning, but when his tongue falls out during the lesson you both feel silly about wasting your time.
I show her the “husky” section, which is slowly overtaking the store. It's my understanding that kids cannot go outside for exercise nor play, because danger lurks, so they stay inside and play video games or watch movies so they can be the perpetrators of violence and chaos, or the consumers of violence and chaos, instead of the victims of violence and chaos. Parents (understandably) don’t want anything to happen to their kids, they want their kids to happen to life—to make an indoor impact that reverberates through all other indoor spaces via the Internet, so that the parent’s high school classmates can sit right on their own couches and see how well all the kids are turning out—how, for instance, they wrote the best essay on not letting food waste ruin your appetite—and the classmates (plus the aunts, plus the former co-workers) “like” the kids’ accomplishments and then all of their lives are a complete, meaningful circuit.
I actually say most of this out loud to Jenny, but she does not nod at this part. She says, “Oh my God. That’s the saddest thing I’ve ever heard.”
I’m pulling down outfits to show her. There’s a red jumpsuit that actually used to be a cover for an oval doggie bed, to which some crafty mother added a fashionable collar. “Which part’s sad? Food waste ruining your meal?”
Jenny opens her mouth, but seems to be unable to decide what to say next. She’s learned a lot today, so much new information. She finally says, “I have no idea if you’re joking or not. I thought you were before, but now I’m not sure.”
Oh god, did I accidentally say “thirst trap” when I was showing her all the corners?
Jenny goes on while I try to mentally retrace my points. “It’s like you see things so clearly, but at the same time you reach the wrong conclusions about what you see.”
“You mean you don’t like the dog-bed jumpsuit?” I point out the stitching around the collar.
Jenny’s mouth opens again while she looks from the jumpsuit to my face over and over. She finally says, “I like it just fine.”
By the time our other employee, Desiree, shows up, I feel like Jenny knows enough to do a heavily supervised shift. There’s no way I can convey to her all that I know about the inner workings of Infant Replay in only a couple hours. I haven’t listed all the hashtags from the relevant EffPep post for her yet. I haven’t even shown her the blue-liquid spray bottle we use to sanitize the used toys.
I introduce Desiree to Jenny. Desiree says, “Hey.” Then, “You always wear your hair like that?” Desiree does not do Instagram, and in addition to not having access to the right mood-correcting drawings, she might be sour about Anita choosing me to run the store, because she technically has seniority. I look at Jenny. Will she fire back? I’ve never seen firing back in real life, only on Twitter. What if I have to make Desiree and Jenny sit in a circle and process their pain, and navigate toward common ground and issue public apology videos to each other?
But no, Jenny laughs at Desiree’s question. I guess this shouldn’t surprise me—Jenny’s spent the last two hours finding everything other than written numbers and polyester blends either funny or sad. She’s like that two-headed keychain my high school drama teacher had attached to her Volvo fob. Jenny touches her hair and says, “My daughter made me this ponytail for good luck. I meant to take it out before I got here.”
“Oh good. I thought you were crazy. Didn’t you think she was crazy, Leona, coming in here like that?” Desiree looks at me like I should be able to easily answer this question.
Jenny has pulled out the hair tie and is trying to flatten that piece of hair back down. We open in five minutes. I say, “Sure I noticed. It's part of her head.”
Once we are open, the day moves swiftly. The good thing about working resale is that the giving of money balances out the taking, so you're not like those straight-retail slobs, peddling all incarnations of plastic products. There’s a feeling of warm mercy in handing someone thirteen dollars in exchange for six pairs of overalls they have absolutely no use for.
Jenny keeps up, she stays close, except for when I send her out to perform specific tasks, like, “Go hang these dresses over in formal wear, Jenny. This time of year there’s always a lot of last-minute funerals, and parents want dark velvets to make it look like the kids will miss their great uncles.”
I’m finding Jenny to be pleasant to work with. She’s a quick learner, friendly with the customers, and the small section of her hair that refuses to lie down reminds me of the good times we spent together this morning talking about how life is so funny and yet so sad.
I plan on reporting to Anita that Jenny is a keeper and that Desiree was wholly adequate in her role as “wrangler.” We all take turns being the wrangler—the one who deals with the customers’ children. The job involves picking fallen tots up out of soda puddles by their belt loops, reuniting kids who hid inside of circular clothing racks with the parents who are only partially relieved to see them again, and standing between slapping siblings to act as a buffer while their mother decides between shoes that fit now but barely, and shoes that will fit next month but in the meantime will flop about the heel.
Desiree leaves at 4:00 and becomes whoever she is outside of her employment parameters. Maybe she bakes and fingers guitars and seldom sits numb on her tile. She’s replaced by Tyler, our high school employee who works from after-school until closing. I don’t know his backstory, because I respect the boundary he’s created with his silence. I secretly imagine that the reason this male teen has chosen to work at a used kids' clothing store is because he is the youngest of four brothers, and he never got to pick out his own outfits. He had no choice but to wear hand-me-downs, which had pockets and stripes and corporate grins in places that felt unauthentic to his true nature. He works here to be close to all the choices he didn’t get to make.
The three of us deftly handle the after-work crowd, which is comprised of parents who’ve had trash bags of clothes in their trunk for weeks and are finally off-loading them, or parents who’ve forgotten an important clothing deadline like “red cloak for school play” or “black dress shoes for wedding photos” or, most often, “shorts for sports.” I put Jenny on wrangling duty, which is a big ask for her first day, but I feel she’s up for it. Tyler joins me behind the counter. As I work the register, I keep an eye on Jenny, watching as she puts too-high children (the climbers) back down and too-low children (the fallers and wallowers) back up. She does all this tot-righting with a calm-faced spunk I find contagious. I’m so buoyed that I tell a young mother her baby looks like Ginger Rogers—a dancer with a face actually worth galloping about.
When it’s time for Jenny and Tyler to leave, he bows out quietly so we don’t notice how many sleeves he fondles along the way, while she takes her time collecting her things. I pause my close-up-shop vacuuming and say to Jenny, “You did really well today. I noticed that you didn’t go to the bathroom and emerge tear-streaked. I think you’re a great addition.”
Jenny’s face is the sad crying part of that keychain trying to be the laughing part. She says, “Well … I need the money.” Before she opens the door, she says, “See you tomorrow, Leona,” and I wave and turn the vacuum back on. Right as the machine vrooms up, Jenny starts to say something more, but when I turn off the motor to hear her, she’s already on the sidewalk outside, walking toward her car and its four-wheeled glass/steel/rubber/plastic parameters.
At home, I sit on the tiles, even though I was so recently competently managing a resale establishment. I consider calling Anita, but decide against it. She’s probably sprawled on a hotel bed watching Drayden eat rhythm-enhancing carbs out of styrofoam, while being comforted by my lack of checking in.
I want to text Jenny and ask what she was going to say before I sucked up her words. I have her number, because bosses must be able to contact their employees about shift changes or inclement weather or sudden-onset-bowel issues.
I open a message, type “Jenny” and hit send.
She doesn’t respond and I send, “I understand what you mean about how I see things clearly and then reach … limited conclusions.”
She doesn’t respond and I send, “I worked hard to achieve my narrow focus. I was once concerned about everything! The income gap, police brutality, climate change, fascism, unwanted pets, diet culture, Amazon.com, the narrow confinements of gender, institutional racism, rising anti-intellectualism, YOU KNOW THE LIST.”
She doesn’t respond and I send, “I was barely functional when I got this job. I was always late because I’d be sitting on my bed immobilized about the honey bees. But Anita changed my life. She forced me to pick one worry to focus on and let the rest go. I chose our overdependence on plastics—how it never breaks down and never goes away. I’m super zoned in on that. Sure, I still use a lot of plastics, but I’m very AWARE of my use. Anita allows me to dig through the trash and take the plastic home to my own recycling bin. That’s how I’ve taken control of the swirling overcast.”
I read back over what I’ve sent. It’s all what I meant to say. I turn the volume all-up and stare hard at the screen, so there’s no way I’ll miss what Jenny has to say about how I’ve conquered my demons to such an extent that I was given keys.
A ringtone blasts so loud that I drop my phone onto my bathmat. Anita is calling. But then, from down on the bathmat, a message notification peeks over the top of my screen, and I see that it’s from Jenny before it peeks away. I pick up the phone and end the incoming call. As I navigate toward Jenny’s message, I think about how nimbly she lowered the child she caught scaling the mound of winter coats … how she’d worn a sloppy wandering ponytail for her daughter … how we’ll see each other tomorrow.
I open her message. “Thanks for this riot. I GET YOU now. Hilarious.”
She gets me now. I imagine myself through her eyes: charmless bracelet wearer, ponytail ignorer, plastics crusader, Anita defender. I try smiling at this image of myself, to try and get the joke that is me.
I get another message. Anita asks, “How did it go today?”
I type a thumbs up, and then,“I can’t stop smiling about it.”