Shop Girl by Dionne Irving Bremyer
You will spend your entire life selling – but this is the first time. So small, you barely reach the counter. You are given a stool. You are told if you work hard, there will be a reward. You are taught to make change. You are taught to make smiles at the customers. You are taught to cut yam, to chop pig feet, to take hot patties from the hotter oven. The burns and scrapes and cuts will last through adulthood, will last beyond death. Injury will always remind you of what it means to work.
And: “We’re gone help our people, help them right / Oh, Lord, help us tonight! /
Cast away that evil spell / Throw some water in the well / And smile!
On Saturday morning, the shop is clotted with people from the Island, all there to buy oxtail, and pig feet, to take packages of tripe, leaking, wrapped in heavy butcher paper – and to argue and laugh, and laugh and argue. They’ll lean toward bags of otaheiti apples, or chocho, or tins of Milo. If only you could inhale the coming future in which these foods will become fashionable, in which this education in butchery, in food and flavor, will twenty and more years later help you appear hip and cultured – exotic, even – to lighter-skinned friends in particular. You can’t now know, but you will be the lonely one who understands how blood thickens stew, how marrow complicates flavor, how the perfect pepper in the bin needs to be found. Forget this work? No. Never. This work defines you, contains you. Allows you. But much later, your friends somehow think you spent your early years traveling – not, in fact, in the back room of a small shop inside a strip mall, listening to the high musical Bajans remind you that Coward dog keep whole bone. Listening to the Trinis insist, better belly buss than good food waste. And the Jamaicans, the Jamaicans, measuring out mutton with their eyes, asking, Just a toops more fi make mi belly na cry fi hunga. Floors always need sweeping, candies kept clean, not to eat. You dust shelves stocked with things you cannot imagine your friends at school eating: Guava jelly, tamarind paste, cock soup. There’s always, always a cricket match on the small portable television, and everyone complaining about the gassed bananas and eating gizzada and bun and processed cheese that comes in a tin. How can you explain this, any of it? Your history with food, with work, the way they are fastened together? The way that you love and hate the shop equally?
Your parents don’t understand the shame of Monday morning. Don’t know what it means to have fish scales on your pink Keds, or what it means that your hair smells like brown stew chicken, or that your sandwich is corned beef and salad cream between two thick slices of hard dough bread, or that a boy tells you it looks like mashed brains so you look down and chew and chew and chew. You won’t know for years that it tasted like home and empire.
And: “Dancin’ to the reggae rhythm / Oh, island in the sun”
On Saturday you will hear – over and over again – It’s so good to have the whole family here. Working. Over and over again – all day – you will hear it, thinking of other girls your age in ballet classes. Sleeping in. Shopping with their mothers. Settling into Saturday morning cartoons. And Bowls of Captain Crunch. You sweep floors, cut dasheen, and try to read when you can, waiting for the book to be snatched from your hands. This shop is your story, your inheritance. Over and over again – as you haul ten-pound bags of basmati, stack tins of coconut milk. I’m glad you are doing it. Just like the Chinese. We need to be more like them. You will remember Oliver Twist, which you read between snatches, and the workhouse and Fagin. And you can’t imagine why someone won’t come and save you, too. But you remember that these are your real parents, that these Saturdays are your real life. That this world and everything beyond it is yours, and not yours. You will always associate work with the coppery smell of animal blood and saw dust and blades that cut fish.
And: “Miss lady whey Sonny bite yuh / Right deh, right deh, right deh”
If you could, you’d squint and look into the future. Tell the customers – so much in love with your work, with your working – that the Chinese and everyone but them will own their Island one day. Hurt them. If you could, you would look down, fold your arms, suck your teeth, and tell them that you won’t remember them fondly. You can’t know if they will remember you with fondness either – or perhaps at all. You – the little girl, swinging with effortless precision, wielding that machete– the magic of it all. You close your eyes and the rest of you becomes the machete too. Cutting through their dreams, as they lie in bed, their bellies full. Will they remember the sound of the blade cutting meat, cutting bone, before it thuds home of the butcher’s block? Will they remember who did the selling? Or will they only remember buying?
You will just remember the work.
Dionne Irving Bremyer’s work has appeared in The Missouri Review, Boulevard Magazine, The Crab Orchard Review, LitHub, and others. Her essay “Treading Water” was a notable essay in Best American Essays 2017, and she recently co-edited the collection Breastfeeding & Culture: Discourses and Representations. She has also received fellowships from the Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation and Sewanee Writers’ Conference.