Monday, April 6, 2009, changed the course of my life, here in the Lake Conroe area. And it really opened my eyes to the realities of the workplace. I had been sick with the common flu that was going around, at the time, and had taken a few days off work. I was surprised that I’d gotten over it so quickly. Others had come down with pneumonia, after that flu went around. But I, like my mother before me, have a bad habit of pushing myself and ignoring discomfort. If I were able to get out of bed, I would be at work. No matter what. I had noticed that I’d been rather tired, lately. I hadn’t quite bounced back from the flu. I had been sleeping more than usual and got dizzy at work. I found myself breaking into a strange sweat at odd times. The kind of sweat that said a fever had broken. But I was unaware that I’d been running a fever. I only knew I got hotter than other people did. Working six nights a week gave me little time to think about it. And not a whole lot of time for rest or getting other things done. During those first few days in April, I noticed pains in my chest and realized I was having trouble breathing. I attributed it to pollen in the air and my smoking habit. I tried to quit smoking, but managed only to cut back to lights, and less than a pack a day.

On April 6, I was halfway to work, when my left arm went to sleep on me, while I was driving. Then my chest started cramping, and I felt a little dizzy. I thought, for a short while, that I was going to have to pull over. My only thought, though was I HAVE TO GET TO WORK.

I pulled in right at 6:00 pm. Just as I shut off the engine, those cramps in my chest became sharp pains. The dizziness was worse. I felt completely out of it. I took a deep breath to steady myself, and went on inside and clocked in.

Karim and Raj were doing price changes on the wines, and had put me in charge of collecting the bottles from the shelves and returning the ones that had been changed. I couldn’t quite see. Things were going blurry on me. Dizziness swept over me, but I simply grabbed the counter to steady myself until the moment passed. Raj thought I was just tired and was joking with me about lack of sleep. I simply smiled and continued. I tried to ignore what I was feeling, but my legs began to feel weak.

At 6:15, I was hit with severe chest pains that doubled me over. At the same time, my left arm went completely numb, and everything went white. I felt the floor move. I couldn’t breathe. I fell back against the counter and developed tunnel vision. I was aware of only what was right in front of me. And barely even that. I allowed myself to sink slowly to the floor, to avoid simply hitting it hard. I fought to keep from passing out. I was only vaguely aware of Raj asking me, “Melissa, are you okay? Should I call 9-1-1?”

“I think you should,” I answered.

Then Karim ran in, from the office. He’d seen it on the cameras. “What’s going on?” Raj explained, just as a customer rush hit. Karim immediately turned to the register and he and Raj began taking customers. I was ignored. I vaguely remember Raj reaching for the phone, and Karim pulling him back to the register. I heard several customers ask if they were going to call 9-1-1. Karim kept saying he would. But then he’d go on to the next customer.

I was, by then, lying fully on the floor, staring at the white tiles. Karim was stepping over me and around me to get cigarettes for the customers. I thought I was having a heart attack. The thought entered my mind that I could die right there, literally at the feet of my boss, and no one would even know, until my body was being carried out. My thoughts turned to Sedona. I saw her face so clearly in my mind. All I could think was: She’s expecting me to come get her, at the end of the school year. What will she do, if I died? She lost her real father at the age of two, and never really knew him. If I died, she’d be an orphan. She’d have to be raised by someone else. I thought of the bond between my daughter and me. A bond no one else really seems to understand. And many don’t really believe there is one. I wanted to cry, thinking I was about to die, and would never see my Sweet Pea again. Thinking she hadn’t seen me, since January 10th, and the next time she sees me will be in a casket.

That was the moment I heard a voice I recognized. One of my regular customers, whose name I cannot remember. “Are you gonna call 9-1-1?”

Karim responded, “I’ll call them. What can I get for you?”

He didn’t answer. Instead, he said, “What’s the address here? I’m calling for her.”

Karim’s voice sounded worried, as he responded, “We will call.”

“When?” came the question.

“In a moment.”

Again, that customer, said, this time more firmly, “What is the address here? I’m calling for her RIGHT NOW!”

I heard Raj give him the address. A moment later, I heard this customer making the call. I couldn’t move. I had no strength. When the customer came around the counter to approach me, still on his cell phone, I saw Karim move to intercept him. Customers are not supposed to be behind the counter. This man, who, at that moment, I saw as my saving grace, shot Karim a deadly glare and kept walking toward me. He knelt beside me. Vaguely, I was able to answer the questions asked. When he got off the phone, he took my hand. “I’m staying right here with you, Melissa, until they get here. Okay?” I saw him glance angrily up at Karim, then back at me. “Okay?” he repeated, when I didn’t respond. I could only nod. He kept me awake and aware, until the paramedics arrived, about five minutes later.

At 6:32 pm, I was in the ambulance, hooked up to heart monitors, oxygen, and a fluid I.V. drip. On my way to Conroe Medical Center. At the hospital, they took blood samples, and did an EKG on my heart. I only vaguely remember it.

6:50 pm, a sharp pain hit my chest, and I got the shakes so bad, the nurses thought I was having a seizure. I heard one nurse report, “Her heart-rate just jumped from 88 beats-per-minute to 166! Her temp is 106!” I started to hyperventilate. “Oh my God!” that nurse shouted. “She’s going into shock!”

I don’t remember that next hour in the ER. I only remember suddenly opening my eyes and looking at the clock. It was 7:45 pm. My fever was down to 99 degrees, and I was back to some semblance of normality. They had run other tests, during this hour. And had discovered that I had not had a heart attack, and it wasn’t a stroke. Apparently, they’d thought that, as well. I managed to send a text message to my brother’s friend, Bobby, explaining the situation. So that he could go by the house to get David, my brother. Then he could take David to the store to pick up my van.

After another hour, they did another EKG, just to make sure nothing had changed with my heart. Another precautionary measure to ensure it wasn’t even a mild heart attack. Then they sent me into X-Ray. And by 10:15 pm, they finally determined what my problem was. I had a bronchial infection so severe it was about to become pneumonia. The consequence of not paying attention to my body, and pushing myself too hard. They gave me some medicine and a strong breathing treatment, and sent me home at 10:45 pm with a prescription for antibiotics.

The eye-opener for me, on that day, was the knowledge that I am completely disposable. Not just dispensable, but disposable. I could have died, right there on that floor, not six inches from Karim’s feet. And all he could think of was the customer rush. Money to be gained. If it had been a heart attack, I would be dead. And it would not have mattered, at all. I would have been replaced, the very next day. I began to wonder where my life is going. What have I done with my life? Have things really gotten better? How could I have found myself working for someone for whom the quality of life means absolutely NOTHING?

I spent the next few days at home, in bed. Karim wouldn’t let me return to work, even with the doctor’s note. My fever kept spiking to over 104, and I spent many sleepless nights, soaking my head in cold water, and bathing my face with a cold washcloth. I started taking Nyquil to reduce my fever, so I could get some sleep. During a time when I should have been resting, I was using my energy trying to keep my fever from rising too high. I made another realization: I am more alone than I thought. I had gotten so used to helping others and taking care of others, and I forget about myself. There is no one to stand by me. No one to take care of me, if something happens. How did I end up so alone?

By the end of the week, my thoughts began to turn to my customers. I knew no one else took care of my regulars like I did. No one else would stay open a little later, while a customer decided which beer he wanted, or which bag of chips his pregnant wife craved tonight. No one else cared about the customers as people and individuals. I wasn’t totally well yet, and already I was back in the “service mindset”.

I found things changed, when I went back to work. Suddenly, in Karim’s eyes, I could do nothing right. He started watching me on the security cameras at his house, and calling me at odd times, to complain about something I hadn’t done. Even if I had a line of customers, from beginning of shift, to end, it didn’t matter. I wasn’t busy enough. I wasn’t selling enough. I had stopped doing the extras that helped the girl who opened in the mornings, because Karim was putting extra pressure on me, to do more on my shift. When I stopped doing her job for her, she began to complain. Suddenly, those “extras” I had been doing were now part of my job list. Yet when Raj closed, he didn’t have to do them. Only I did. The printer began acting up, making closing more difficult, adding an extra 10 minutes to my time. Karim complained that I wasn’t closing early enough to account for it. Then he began complaining in front of customers, berating me, humiliating me, in front of customers.

Finally, on May 14th, things came to a head between Karim and me. He started in on me, as soon as I clocked in. Ignoring the line of customers, he began berating me over something I didn’t do, the night before. Something that was supposed to be done on opening, not closing. I can’t even remember what it was now. But I got so angry, I began to tremble. I had grown tired of his verbal abuse, and lost it. I began arguing back. This surprised him, because I got right in his face. I can’t even remember what was said, because I was so angry I blanked out. I only remember that I caught myself drawing back to punch him. And stopped. I told him, “You know what? I’m leaving!” And walked out.

I was nearly out of the parking lot, when he stopped me. “If you’re leaving and not coming back,” he said, “I need your keys.”

I didn’t even look at him, I removed the store keys from my keychain and removed my nametag from my shirt. He looked at me, surprised. I reached out to hand these to him. He only looked at my hand, then back at me. Instead of taking them, he asked, “What’s the problem?”

I looked him in the eye, my rage still boiling beneath the surface. He stepped back. “YOU’RE the problem, Karim!” I shot at him. My barely-controlled rage was so all consuming that even my voice trembled. I realized, in that moment, how much I had come to hate this man. “Ever since I collapsed that day, lying there AT YOUR FEET, you’ve done nothing but nit-pick at me.”

So he began, again, pointing out everything I was doing wrong. I simply nodded, and pushed the keys and nametag toward him. He looked at them, then stood up. “Come back in, if you want,” he said. Then he went back inside.

I sat there and thought about it. I knew I had to keep this job, until Sedona came back. If I got another job, right then, I wouldn’t be able to take the time off to go get her. I gritted my teeth, parked the van, and went back inside.

Raj didn’t look at me or speak to me. He didn’t even say goodbye, before he left for the day. He only looked at me in fear. None of them had ever seen me THAT angry.

I simply took my faux-military “at-ease” stance by the register. Acknowledging no one, except my customers. But, to them, I was as friendly as ever. I heard Karim in his office, speaking in Urdu on his cell phone. I knew, from what little I understood, that he was telling someone about what just happened. I refused to look at him, when he came back in.

It took a good hour for me to begin to calm down. But, when I did, I decided to apologize to Karim. Not for what I said. Nor the fact that I’d stood up for myself. But for the way I had handled it. Because that wasn’t like me, at all. He apologized, as well. Then he told me, “Raj is putting in about 10 hours a day. I’m going to have him work nights. You will be floating between this store and the other one. Three days here, and three days there. I don’t know what your schedule will be or when it will start.”

I smiled at him for the first time, in weeks. He looked confused. “That’d work out,” I told him. “The other store is a bit closer than this one. I won’t have quite so far to drive.” He looked shocked, then relaxed. That’s when we discussed my taking off at month’s end, so I could go get Sedona. He actually seemed relieved, then relaxed more. For the next few days, I was actually courteous to Karim, and began laughing and joking with Raj again.

Then Karim surprised me again. He actually gave me a choice: I could be a floater, with my shifts rotating, or I could just take the night shift at the other store. I was elated! Continue with the same company, but not have to deal with Karim, at all? Yeah, buddy! And I started at Quick Mart Exxon on Monday, May 18th.

The first thing I noticed, when I first got to work, that night, was no one else was in uniform. It was casual-dress. The manager there is Ali. And the first thing he said to me was, “You will find I am not like Karim.” I liked him, immediately.

“Karim said I could keep my Tuesdays off,” I mentioned.

“Yes,” he said. “Is this what you want?”

I nodded, then talked to him about my days off to get Sedona.

He agreed, then asked, “Is there anything else you need?”

“No,” I said quietly.

“You will find I am amendable,” Ali said, with a friendly smile. “If you need something, let me know.” I nodded. “You know you will get less pay, here.” I looked at him, questioningly. “I can pay you $7.50 per hour.”

“Okay.”

Ali smiled at me, again, putting his hand on my shoulder. It was a genuinely friendly smile. “You will find it easier, here.” I remembered this man had been in the hospital, just under a month before, after a mild heart attack. Brought on by the stress of his job. But so many people had told me he was friendly and easy-going. I only smiled back.

The man who would train me came in, right then. Michael. Oddly, the same age as my nephew named Michael. Strangely, after being around him, I realized he reminded me a lot of my nephew. But when Michael first came in, and Ali introduced us, he added, “But do not make her mad.” Then he laughed. “Karim said she has a temper.”

I looked at him. “He told you about that, huh?”

Ali laughed again, patting my back. “We will not make you mad, Melissa.”

Michael shook his head, laughing,. “My ex-wife is a redhead. I know all about those tempers.” I liked him, immediately, too. I felt at home at Quick Mart.

Thursday, May 28th, David and I left to meet our cousin in Jackson, Mississippi, to pick up Sedona. That, though is another story. I was back at work on Tuesday, June 2nd. But on Wednesday, June 3rd, I got grim news.

Aftab, the true owner of both stores, was there, when I came into work. He informed me that money is tight, and they were having to make cutbacks. That meant cutting out the middle shift, and putting Michael on closing. This left the floater position. It was a choice between me and the girl who was floating. Aftab had left the choice to Ali. Ali chose to keep me. This meant my entire schedule had changed.

Open at Lake Conroe on Saturdays. Open at Quick Mart on Sundays. Afternoon shift at Quick Mart on Mondays. Tuesdays off. Close at Lake Conroe on Wednesdays. Close at Quick Mart on Thursdays. Afternoon shift at Lake Conroe on Fridays.

And I was informed that same day that changes were about to take place. Karim would be taking over Quick Mart, and Ali would be taking over Lake Conroe. The Lake Conroe crew would move to Quick Mart and the Quick Mart crew would move to Lake Conroe. I shrugged it off. I didn’t think it would affect me, one way, or the other. Boy, was I ever wrong!

On Wednesday, June 17th, when I went into work at Lake Conroe Exxon, Karim introduced me to a Pakistani man named Jay. He told me Jay was in training, and I would be helping to train him on closing. Later, I watched Jay sifting through paperwork in the office, and asked Karim, “So, who IS he?”

Karim gave me one of those self-satisfied smirks. “He came from Chicago. He’s going to be taking over this store. I’m training him how to run it.”

I looked at him in confusion. “I thought Ali was coming here. You and Ali were going to trade places.”

Karim only shrugged with that smirk, and said nothing more.

I stood back, after Karim left and the rush was over, to watch Jay handle the register. I went about doing my side work. It was easier to get it all done quickly, since I wasn’t dealing with the customers. Jay told me, at one point, “I’m going to rely on you to teach me about things around here.”

I looked at him. “I don’t know how much help I’ll be. I’m floating between the stores.”

He and I talked a bit. That “getting to know you” chitchat people do, when they’re new. Close to the end of the shift, he mentioned the fact that Quick Mart does better business than Lake Conroe Exxon. “Why do you think that is, Melissa?”

“The other store is closer to the best access to the lake. People naturally come in there, when they’re heading to the lake, and when they’re coming back from it.”

Jay chewed on that thought a moment. Finally, he asked me, “What do you think would make things better, here?”

Without even having to think, I responded, “Better customer service.”

He looked confused. “Explain, please.”

I shrugged. “I’ve listened to so many customers complain about the customer service they receive here. These people end up becoming customers of Valero.” I stepped to the window. “Look at what surrounds this store, Jay.” I glanced at him. “We have Walgreen’s right behind us. Walmart right across the street. Valero just down the street. All of them offer better prices. Lower prices, than we do. But they keep coming here only at certain times of the day. That’s because they will pay a little more for better customer service.”

He looked at me thoughtfully. “Who are they complaining about?” I only looked at him. “Off the record,” he added.

I glanced up at one of the cameras, knowing that Karim was probably watching. “Off the record?” I gave a little sarcastic chuckle, and shook my head.

Jay looked up at the camera, then back at me. “Ah,” was all he said.

On Saturday, June 20th, I opened Lake Conroe Exxon. Karim was a little late coming in, that day, and let me leave at 11:30 am. The last thing he said to me, as I was leaving was, “Jay is going to be changing your schedule. He’ll call you, to let you know.”

Odd, I thought, but put it out of my mind.

Sunday, I opened at Quick Mart, and when Michael came in, I asked him about the changes that were coming. “Have you met Jay, yet?”

“Who’s Jay?” he asked.

“He’s the guy that’s taking over Lake Conroe Exxon.”

Michael stared at me. “Ali’s taking it over.”

“That’s what I was told, until I met Jay on Wednesday,” I told him. And we talked about Jay. Since he’s the man who will be Michael’s boss, I figured he needed to know. Obviously, I knew more than he did. So, when I came in on Monday, for my afternoon shift, I asked Ali about it all.

Ali only looked at me. “Why is this Jay changing your schedule?”

I shrugged. That didn’t matter to me. “Where will YOU be going, Ali?”

He stared at the desk, but didn’t answer.

Later in the shift, I had a problem with the gas pumps, so went to the office to consult Ali. He was on the phone with someone, and speaking Urdu. From what little I understood, it sounded to me like Ali had not been informed of this change, either. I wondered about that. But, when I asked him, again, later, “Where will YOU be going?”, he only said, “I don’t know.”

Tuesday was my day off. It was around 6:00 pm, that I got a call from Jay. “We’re not going to need you tomorrow night. I need to try and close, on my own.”

I had a sinking feeling. “What about Friday?” I asked.

He consulted with Karim, then asked, “What was your schedule here?”

“Open Saturday, close Wednesday, 4:00-9:00 pm on Friday.”

“We won’t need you on Friday, either. In fact, not for the rest of the week. I’ll call you about next week.”

“Uh-huh,” was my response. As I hung up the phone, I knew my time was up at Lake Conroe Exxon. This is Karim’s way of letting someone go. I immediately called Ali, to make sure I was still closing on Thursday.

“Yes, please,” was his response. “Why you ask me this?”

I explained what I’d just been told. He told me to keep my schedule there at Quick Mart.

I spent Wednesday putting in applications around Willis.

On Saturday, June 27th, I went into Lake Conroe Exxon to collect my little one-day check. Jay and Karim were both extra-nice to me, but neither would really look at me. Karim stayed in the corner behind the register. I stood there, after collecting my pay, waiting for one of them to say something about the store keys. Neither would say anything. Karim kept backing away, glancing at me. Jay barely spoke. I knew, if I headed for the door, one of them would ask for the keys, as if it were a last-minute thought. I’d seen Karim pull this before. So I chatted with Karim about the weather, smiling and being friendly. Finally, I outright asked him, “So, do you want the keys or not?”

Karim stepped behind Jay, looking away from me, as he said, “Yes, I think so.”

I smiled, as I handed them over. Both of them seemed surprised that the keys were already off my keychain. “I knew you wanted them.” Karim stepped back again. I shrugged and smiled, “Well, I knew you didn’t need me here, anymore.”

Karim quietly asked, “You’re still at the other store?”

I nodded. “For now.”

He gave me that self-satisfied smirk, as he said, “You know I’m about to take over that store.”

Again, I nodded. “I know. That’s why I said ‘for now’.”

He looked slightly confused. “If we need you, we’ll call you. We still have your number.”

I smiled, thinking: I won’t hold my breath.

I stopped at Quick Mart, to collect my pay, there. I asked Ali, “Am I still working here? Because they let me go at Lake Conroe.”

He looked upset for a moment, then said, “Continue your schedule here.”

So my adventures at Lake Conroe Exxon have ended. My short job at Quick Mart will soon end. And I search for another job.

The adventure continues.

Source by Rehan Hasan

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