Stories

for whom the twinkle bells toll

For Whom the Twinkle Bells Toll

I started my thirteenth year in March. I was skinny, short, and generally normal-looking for my age. But by the time August rolled around, not only had I grown upward—three inches— but I’d grown outward, too. Practically overnight, I had hips; “birthing hips,” my mother quipped (and I died a little inside). Then, my boobs inflated. Inflated like they were syphoning off a helium tank.

Suddenly, my “puberty swag,” as I’ll call it, took me from looking ten to looking about twenty. My puberty swag also made me clumsy. So, so, SO clumsy. I was the Frankenstein monster, lumbering through summer with a bunch of foreign, sewn-on body parts.

All the while, I hadn’t realized, the first thing had been crossed off my “Become an Adult Immediately Through Voodoo, Science, or Sheer Force of Will” checklist. I looked like an adult, or at least, a lot older than I was. Perhaps, even old enough to get a job.

So, I went around town looking for “Help Wanted” signs. I discovered Twinkle Bells. As part of the revolving door of tourist traps our town created, Twinkle Bells was yet another store designed to appeal only to indiscriminate tastes. 

Twinkle Bells smelled like Christmas. Inside, heavily lacquered Eiffel Tower statues, heart shaped-pillows, and “Bless This Mess” signs assaulted my senses.            

Way. Too. Kitschy. I thought. But I was broke. And it was ironic, because whilst wearing an apron as a skirt and tap shoes as regular footwear, I had no right to call anything kitschy. 

 “Hi. I’m Annamarie,” I said to the woman sitting alone behind the counter. She had a face like a mystical forest creature. I asked if she knew if they were still hiring, and if so, could I please speak with the manager. I used my best “please don’t realize I’m actually thirteen” voice.

 The forest creature’s name was Susan and she was the owner. She stood, holding her white, silent dog in her arms.

  “And this…” she said, making the dog bob up and down like he was saying hello, “is Twinkle Bells. The dog. Not the store.” And she laughed.

 Susan showed me around, asking me questions about my availability. The whole interview was so deliciously adult. I didn’t even lie about being thirteen, per se. I let my body speak for itself. My body lied. But that was hardly my fault. This body was as much a stranger to me as it was to Susan.

    I did lie about one thing. I told her I loved her bracelet. Her eyes lit up. 

   “Italian Charms,” she gushed. “They are my specialty.”

    She pointed to the display counter with the word “charms” written over an Italian flag.

    “They’re gorgeous,” I said.

They were not gorgeous. But my fib convinced Susan I was a perfect fit for Twinkle Bells (the store). She told me to start Saturday and to dress nicely. I’d been waiting my whole life for someone to tell me to dress up AND pay me for it.

  I walked home, tapping my tap shoes on the concrete the whole way. My new body only managed to trip over the sidewalk and skin its knee twice.

Saturday arrived. I wore my favorite skirt. It was a green pencil-style that matched both my vintage high-heeled shoes and my desired image of myself as a professional woman. The only trouble was this was my favorite skirt from forever ago. From the time before. B.H.E. Before Hips Era.

The skirt didn’t seem too tight at first, although I should have known it was. I put it on lying on my bed and almost ripped out the zipper. 

I didn’t realize that I could barely walk in the skirt and shoes combo until it was too late. The skirt was a straightjacket around my thighs. The shoes were made the year my parents were born. Old school craftsmanship can’t compensate for the half-life of rubber and adhesive.

I entered Twinkle Bells (the store) more nervous than I’d ever been in my whole life. I was shaking. I had to shove my hands into my pockets.

 “Good Morning, Maryanne,” Susan said, in between kissing Twinkle Bells (the dog) on the face

“It’s Annamarie.” I said, trying not to sound rude.

“Of course. I’ll show you around.”

   Walking and standing became painful. Susan showed me everything we sold. The creeping pain of my bending heels and pinching toes amplified. 

At the end of the tour, we stopped at the “most important part of the job,” the Italian Charm bracelet counter. Susan taught me about starter bracelets. They were blank links connected by stretchy bands. Then she showed off the giant rack of thousands of tiny tiles with everything from four-leaf clovers, to Canadian flags, to stiletto heels. I could barely focus on how to snap an individual charm into the band, because my feet blazed with the hot pain of a thousand suns.

When we got to the credit card machine, I could finally sit. The relief was short lived, however. I realized my straightjacket skirt would not allow me to sit at all. I tried once more, but could feel the fabric grinding into my skin. I knew that if I sat, it would definitely rip my skirt. So I stood. In the vintage demon shoes.

The card machine was a geometric grey box with neon buttons. So archaic, it would have been like using a 1960’s Polaroid camera with self-developing film to take a Snapchat video. I smiled, nodding in my “I’ve totally got this” expression.

After two hours, I wanted to amputate my feet. Susan told me to mind the register. I had a better chance of figuring out which button launched a cruise missile into Denmark than knowing how to complete a transaction.

All at once, a swarm of people from five tour buses descended upon Twinkle Bells (the store). One by one, hundreds of tourists in shorts and giant white tennis shoes lined up in front of me. They gave me their credit cards and tapped their acrylic nails on the wooden counter impatiently.

The machine was both sensitive and impossible. On average, it would take half a dozen tries to recognize the card in the swipey slot. Worse than that, if I even looked at the neon buttons, phantom numbers would multiply at light speed.

I had to put each amount in manually. If someone spent $75 on an angel made of mushrooms and bark, I’d have to enter 75.00 into the machine after I swiped their card. 

This was an assembly line of torment. I stood on one foot thirty seconds at a time like an anxious flamingo.

Susan didn’t help me at all. She did randomly appear to order me around.

“Maryanne! Tell them about the first time customer discount!”

“Maryanne! The ribbons are supposed to be tied face up!”

“Maryanne! Remind them Italian charms are five for the price of four!”

Every once and awhile, when I wouldn’t get it right, she’d harrumph at me. She would move into my space with a “Fine, I’ll Just Do It Myself,” energy. 

But conversely, she’d disappear for thirty minutes at a time, presumably to order more bark statues or feed caviar to Twinkle Bells (the dog).

Hour Four. I now understood why adults griped about work so much. No breaks. No recess. I even yearned for my 4th period Algebra class. At least it was only forty minutes. At work, I had not had a break. Or water. But I had perfected my spastic flamingo stance to the point where my feet were now numb.

I swiped a card and typed in “100.00.” The machine spat out alien symbols from Mars. I gave the customer the slip for her to sign with the accompanying pen dressed up like a flower. She let out a shriek. An actual shriek, like I’d handed her a plague-infected gerbil on a silver platter.

I’d mistakenly charged her $1,000.        

The irate woman asked to use the phone to call her bank. As I pointed to the phone, I panicked. The tourist line snaked out the door. Twinkle Bells (the store) had reached critical mass.

Susan, with Twinkle Bells (the dog) in hand, came storming back inside. She practically tossed me aside to deal with the irate woman.

I stood, helpless; the heat of shame spreading. 

 “Maryanne. Help at the charms counter,” Susan barked at me.

The Italian Charm line was almost as long as the register line.

The job now was to show perspective Italian Charm buyers how their customized charms would look on their bracelets. Susan had made squeezing the metal locks and sliding the charms in look easy. The first time I had to show a woman how a charm with her favorite sports team on it looked on a display bracelet, I pressed at it hard, just like Susan had shown me. The metal edge on the charm sliced across my thumb. I started to bleed. 

I hid my bloody thumb in my hand. After another hour, I still hadn’t gotten the hang of it. I had repeatedly sliced my thumbs. There was so much blood I had to run to grab paper towels.

After the second hour of charms, my thumbs were massacred; fingerprints covered in wet and dried blood.

I was helping a self-professed “Italian Charm connoisseur” who looked nearly identical to Susan. 

“Maryanne!” Susan yelled from the register and I fumbled. I clicked the connoisseur’s charm in place. I handed it back, distracted. The self-proclaimed connoisseur flinched.

Susan came up right behind me. I could feel her, but all I could see was the bracelet, being held up at me in disgust. Sticking out of the charm was a bloody chunk of my thumb skin.            

And the second I saw it, so did Susan.

She pulled me aside and told me to get her a coffee. She shoved a rumpled $5 bill in my hand and ushered me toward the door.  

It all happened so fast. I wanted to leave as soon as possible. But with the perfect storm of my soggy heels, legs I couldn’t work, hips I couldn’t control, and boobs that threw off my center of gravity, I smashed right into the display rack of Italian Charms.

Twinkle Bells (the store) echoed with a cacophony of metal on wood, and hundreds of the tiny tiles scattered everywhere. The charms painted the floor silver.

All the tourists stared at me. Tears pooled in my eyes. I tried to clean it up. My skirt restricted any bend. My bloody thumbs were useless. 

“Stop,” Susan said, seeing my struggles. “I’ll handle it. Just…just get the coffee.”

Next door, in the coffee shop bathroom, I took off my skirt and shoes, and cried. When I was brave enough to put them back on, I drank three cups of water and then got Susan’s coffee.

Ready to continue my first day, I returned to Twinkle Bells (the store). The embarrassment receded. Based on movies I’d seen, this was the time where everyone would smile, laugh at the tragedy that didn’t happen to them, and return to their prior activities. 

Susan was waiting for me. She took her coffee and asked, “How old are you?” like she already knew the answer.

I gulped, and then answered, “Thirteen.”

“Yeah,” she said, handing me a white envelope. 

“I think it’s best if you go home, Maryanne.”

I was going to tell her that my shift had another hour, but then I realized: I’d just been fired.

The Twinkle Bells had tolled for me. I walked away. My escalator to womanhood had stalled.

For all the years since, I’ve told my family, friends, and employers, “No, I’ve never been fired from a job.” And technically, that was the truth. 

Because I didn’t get fired from Twinkle Bells (the store), my very first job, on my very first day. 

Maryanne did.

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