Receiving by Gordon Johnston

My best memory of working Receiving is clocking in in December. After I slipped my timecard into its metal slot, I crossed the sales floor busy with Christmas shoppers and clerks and pushed through the swinging double doors into that big, cool, concrete space—the only quiet place in the store, if not the entire mall. The holiday rush in the stock room had begun in October, with box after box of ornaments, sweaters, gloves, slippers, and crystal streaming in over the rollers from the loading dock until they were stacked to the ceiling. The rush had ended two days after Thanksgiving with perishable gifts—fruitcakes, pecan logs, and holiday-boxed Russell Stover candy. Gladys, Shirley, John, and I had unpacked, counted, and priced every piece of it, then I had rolled it out to its proper department on a rumbling carpet-decked float. The stock room’s plywood-topped steel tables had been beautifully bare ever since. 

Harold had given the other workers evenings off, letting me sit in a plastic-wrapped glider rocker and study for exams in the stockroom corner until I was called to cart a Christmas tree to a grandmother’s Buick or to deliver more shirt boxes or ribbon to the girls at the gift wrapping counter. I liked this alternating between mental and physical heavy lifting, and between my solitary rocking and the sociability of dealing with appreciative customers. I liked staying just busy enough to feel I wasn’t being paid only to study. My American Romanticism notes made me flatter myself that I was Thoreau, the stock room a sort of retail Walden Pond where I placidly contemplated higher laws apart from the jaded commerce of the sales floor. 

So when I found the lone box on the pricing table—toaster-sized, absurdly small given the huge cases of jeans I often unpacked and priced—I was mildly surprised. Razored open, it held no multi-packs of earrings for me to separate by style and deliver to Jewelry, no fake wire-footed cardinals. I couldn’t tell what it did hold, even after I had torn the bubble wrap. It swaddled a seamless, stitchless softball sheathed in panty hose. I had priced this shade—nude—before, but hose were always flat-packed and pre-priced. This ball had no packaging at all. Rummaging the box turned up no shipping manifest, no packing list, though there was a clear plastic pocket for one, already slit open, on the box flap. 

I reached in to lift it out. Its weight and fullness and the way it gave against my palm sent a familiar shock through my fingers into my forearm. It had a density that I couldn’t place. It wasn’t a ball after all, but half of one—a soft hemisphere, so strangely familiar and so easily contoured to my hand that it seemed perfectly in place there. Its touch and heft were satisfying. My blood slowed. A girl I had dated two summers ago, Lori, suddenly seemed to lean against me. 

I was still standing there in the scent of Lori’s Jhirmack shampoo when one of the double doors onto the sales floor cracked open behind me.

Harold? The department manager from Ladies’ Shoes leaned in delicately. Sales workers hardly ever stepped onto the fluorescent-lit cement floor of shipping and receiving, with its trash compactor in the back wall and its musk of flattened and baled cardboard.

No, ma’am. It’s only me tonight, I answered. I had delivered creaking floats of aerobics sneakers and high heels to her but didn’t know her name. Harold punched out at four.

He left me a note that I had a package.

There’s only one. It’s not shoes.

She came in. Her clicking heels stopped abruptly as she rounded the end of the pricing table and saw what I held.

That’s a special order, she said. The way she said it and the way her eyes moved from my hand to the box and back told me there was a reason there was no manifest.

I’m sorry I opened it. There was no paperwork.

It’s all right. Harold left the note while I was at lunch. Annie only just gave it to me.

            We stood there, six feet apart. She held her arms a little too straight at her sides, like an actress onstage who didn’t know what to do with her hands.

As she spoke I nestled everything back into the box, but before I could pull packing tape from the dispenser she reached across the table. 

Excuse me. 

She pulled the wad of wrapping from the box briskly, turned, and stepped into Harold’s small cinderblock office, closing the door.

A few minutes later, she came back out, hands empty.

So, she said, the word not a conjunction, but punctuation.

So, I replied. Another apology, I sensed, would make things worse. The one conversation I had had with her hadn’t really been a conversation, just her snorting into the phone after I had answered Yes, ma’am when she had asked me to bring her a roll of mark-down stickers. 

We stood there, six feet apart. She held her arms a little too straight at her sides, like an actress onstage who didn’t know what to do with her hands.

She was younger than my mother by at least fifteen years but reminded me of her—I think because of how still she held standing there. Around my twelfth birthday, my mother had begun to knock at my door, standing like this women’s shoes manager stood now, asking me about the drape of her dress, whether her slip was showing, whether her beige pumps clashed with an off-white shade in the print of her blouse. Something vital had been at stake in my answers. I had tried to be honest, to see and judge what she had wanted me to.

It’s Gordon, right? 


I’m Lydia. I don’t want to embarrass you.

You’re not.

You have a girlfriend?


Are you close?


I need a young man’s eye. I need you to look at me the way you look at her.

You look right.

Don’t be polite. Look.

This time I did. I looked so hard that when she spun in a slow circle I thought for a second my eyes were turning her. She stopped in profile facing left, then right. I looked, as she had asked me to. I forgot all about my mother.

I can’t tell, I said. When my eyes came back to hers, she was smiling.

Could you tell before? When I came in? Ah — you didn’t look. She laughed wryly. It’s not for looks anyway. The old one looked fine.

What is it for, then?
I asked, my chest tight.

Balance. A woman’s balance matters. I hope to dance, New Year’s.

I asked her if she wanted to try it now.

I’m not talking about your kind of dancing, she said. 

I told her had just earned an A in ballroom for Phys Ed. It was her turn to look embarrassed. She shook her head slowly, smiling, not wryly this time. She stepped out of her right heel, then her left, and laid her right hand on my shoulder.

Waltz, she said. We did, tracing a large circle composed of smaller ones in the space between the pricing tables. I tried not to clench her and I tried not to count out loud.  We danced for maybe a minute once we found the same rhythm, then she stopped.

Will that do it? She asked.

I said I couldn’t tell the difference.

Yes you could. But you’re a gentleman for saying that.

One side was softer.


I’m not sure. Can we go again?

This time her laugh was big: she had to step back from me to make room for it. It was the rightest thing I had said to a woman. We waltzed another minute or two, closer this time. I hadn’t looked down before, but I did now. I still remember her feet dancing against the cement floor. 

Gordon Johnston is the co-author of Ocmulgee National Monument: A Brief History with Field Notes (Mercer University Press, 2018) and the poetry chapbook Gravity’s Light Grip (Perkolator Press, 2008). Johnston also collaborates with potter Roger Jamison to fire poems onto stoneware in Jamison’s anagama kiln in Juliette, Georgia.

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