“In This Economy?!” Read an Excerpt of HELP WANTED, a Darkly Funny Workplace Satire

Literature

When their manager at big-box store Town Square announces that he’s leaving, the members of Team Movement see their opening. Chronically exhausted from shifts that start at 3:55 am and chronically under-scheduled because Corporate doesn’t want to pay for benefits, they vie to take over the management position and the increased pay and stability that would come with it.

If you’ve ever been given a cupcake for Employee Appreciation Day (today, March 1!) when what you really needed was a raise, you’ll recognize yourself and your colleagues in the pages of Adelle Waldman’s scathing, hilarious new novel, Help Wanted, coming March 5th.


While he shelved Toys, Raymond realized that the Advil he’d taken on his way to work had finally kicked in.

Contra Val, he hadn’t been hungover this morning. That would have been better. The reason he looked and sounded like shit—the reason everyone had turned to stare at him just before they clocked in for the four a.m. shift—was that he and his girlfriend Cristina had gotten into an hours-long screaming fight last night, and when he woke in the morning, his throat had been killing him. Every time he’d swallowed, he felt as if a razor blade were cutting into him from the inside.

Now that the pain had finally receded, Raymond’s thoughts turned—almost of their own volition—not to the promotion he hoped to get, not to how much better his life would be if he made what a manager’s salary, but to the last thing he wanted to think about: the fight with Cristina.

It had begun not long after his shift at Town Square ended the day before. Raymond had gone down to the basement of his mother’s duplex to clean the boiler. On his way upstairs afterward, he found a letter from the electric company in the mailbox. The letter warned that their power would be cut off if the outstanding balance wasn’t paid immediately. Raymond had stared at the paper. It made no sense. Cristina had paid the bill. And the one before it. But according to this notice, nothing had been paid for months. It took Raymond about ten seconds to understand that Cristina had spent the money on pills. When she got home from work, Raymond confronted her. She didn’t bother to deny it. She told Raymond that he was the reason she’d started taking the pills. It was because he was still in love with his ex, she said. How did he think that made her feel?

Raymond was temperamentally prone to feel guilty, to assume things were his fault. And there was, he knew, something in what Cristina said. He did think about Steph a lot. But in that moment he had been too angry to acknowledge any mitigating factors. “Funny,” he’d said, “I thought you started taking the pills because you hurt your back. Or was that a lie too?”

Then they were off. Over the course of hours, the fight had expanded into a greatest-hits album of their grievances, but no matter how many other issues were introduced—and no matter how cruelly Cristina imitated the frantic blinking caused by his eye condition or referred to his stupidity in imagining that Steph would want to get back with him—Raymond kept coming back to the fact that he’d have to use almost all the money in his savings account to pay the $447.57 they owed the electric company. What else could he do? It was his mother’s house—where he and Cristina lived rent‑free (in exchange, Raymond did all the maintenance for their unit, as well as for the tenants who lived in the upstairs apartment). It meant they wouldn’t have the money to have their son’s sixth birthday at Chuck E. Cheese. Raymond was furious. His own Chuck E. Cheese birthday party, when he turned six, had been one of the highlights, maybe the highlight, of his childhood. He’d wanted to give that to Lance.

Still, as he worked, he was bothered by what she’d said the other night about his being hung up on Steph, his ex. It complicated the narrative he wanted to hold on to: that he was the aggrieved party and she was wholly at fault. But he knew there was truth in what Cristina said, although Raymond would probably say what he wasn’t over was the idea he’d long had of Steph, and about him and Steph as a couple and the life they were going to have together.

He and Steph had been neighborhood friends. When he was thirteen and she was twelve, she told him she liked him. Raymond couldn’t believe it. Steph was pretty and fun. It had seemed impossible that such a girl would choose him. But Steph said he was sweet. And smart.

They stayed together all through middle school. And high school. They lost their virginity to each other. They planned to get married. Because Steph loved the beach, they would move someplace sunny, California or Florida, where she would go to beauty school. Raymond didn’t much care what he did as long as he was with Steph. They’d even picked out names for their kids.

Raymond was a year ahead of her in school. When he graduated, he took a job doing maintenance at a hotel, saving money while he waited for her. But the following June, Steph said she wasn’t yet ready to leave. A year and a half later, when Raymond was twenty and still waiting for Steph to “find herself,” he learned she was cheating on him with a white wannabe rapper, a minor celebrity in Potterstown at the time, because it looked like he was going to get signed by a real label. He didn’t, but Steph left Raymond for him anyway. She immediately got pregnant. She named their baby the very name she and Raymond had picked out for their future son. That was the second worst thing. The worst thing was when people started telling Raymond about the other times she had cheated on him over the years. Apparently he was the only person in Potterstown who didn’t know.

He wasn’t just angry. Nothing had made sense to him. He and Steph had been together for seven years. He didn’t know how to think about himself as other than half of a unit. She’d been the one stable thing in his life when his parents had gotten divorced, and his dad had moved to Jersey. Raymond began to drink in a way he never had before. For many months, he courted disaster or annihilation—he didn’t know what—starting fights with guys who were bigger than him, driving drunk, almost seeking an accident or arrest. If he hadn’t met Cristina when he did, he had no doubt that he would have moved on to hard drugs. Or killed someone, maybe himself, while driving drunk.

Cristina was a housekeeper at the hotel where he worked. She was sweet and gentle and shy—so different from Steph. She was on her own, without family to fall back on. She needed him in a way Steph never had. She got pregnant soon after they got together. By giving him something to care about, Cristina—and the boy—very likely saved Raymond’s life.

But their life together hadn’t been easy. In his dark period, Raymond had torn through everything he’d saved while waiting for Steph. Now there was a baby to take care of. By necessity, they lived with Raymond’s mother, who also took care of their son when they were at work, but she and Cristina didn’t get along. His mother wasn’t very nice to Cristina, was the truth. Cristina had been unhappy before she started with the pills.

Raymond sighed. He stacked several boxes of Legos and inserted them into their slot. (Aisle TKTK) Then he thought about something that had happened a few weeks ago. He had run into a guy named Kevin at QuickChek. Raymond and Kevin had been friends during his senior year of high school, when his mother had sent him to live with his grandparents in a small farm town on the other side of the river. He and Kevin had taken shop together at Pine Plains High School. After they graduated, Kevin had gone on scholarship to an automotive college in Ohio. Raymond hadn’t seen him since.

At QuickCheck, Kevin told Raymond he was a mechanic for UPS. He made $35 an hour, plus overtime. Raymond asked if he had health insurance. Kevin said of course he did—UPS was a union shop. Raymond had colored, embarrassed of his ignorance. When they said goodbye, Raymond watched Kevin walk to a gleaming black Ram pickup, only a year or two old. The truck must have cost at least $45K. He waited until Kevin had pulled out of the lot to get into his car. It was the same Toyota Celica that Raymond had bought used in high school—it had been beat-up even then. Its model year, 1991, was the same year Raymond was born.

Back in high school, Raymond had been offered the same scholarship as Kevin. But he’d been with Steph. Their relationship had barely survived his forced nine-month stint in Pine Plains, and Pine Plains was only forty minutes from Potterstown. Ohio was too far. Raymond turned down the automotive college. He thought, at the time, that he might go the following year, with Steph, on their way to California or Florida.

Since running into Kevin, Raymond had wondered what his life would be like if he had gone to Ohio. Would he have a good job like Kevin’s? Would he and Cristina live in a house of their own, like a real family? Would his relationship with Cristina be stronger if she didn’t have to co-raise their son with his mother? If Cristina had been able to quit working at the hotel and gone to school to be a nurse like she’d wanted? If she hadn’t hurt her back, lifting all those mattresses, making all those beds, she would never have started on those pills. Everything would be different.

Or not.

Because Kevin had also told Raymond that he’d known someone at UPS, someone who got him in the door. And that’s what people always said, wasn’t it? That it’s who you knew that mattered, that life came down to having the right connections. And Raymond didn’t know anyone. Who’s to say that college would have changed that? At least at Town Square he had a shot of getting the group manager job.


Adapted from Help Wanted: A Novel. Copyright (c) 2024 by Adelle Waldman. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

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