There is a long line at the customer service desk, and Chester hates every other person in it. His sour mood is affecting the way he looks at the world, but he’s embracing it, because something about the way anger makes him feel is addictive. It’s not pleasant, but anger, for Chester, is like the flood of water that pours out of a broken dam. Once it’s begun, it’s hard to stop it.
Why is the person in front of him returning what appears to be an entire box of unopened food? Are they one of those people that decided they bought too much food, so now they’re returning it? Don’t they know that the store has to throw the food away, even if it’s unopened, because it left the store?
And why is the person behind him returning a bundle of green bananas? If they bought bad produce, that’s on them. They have ever opportunity to check the quality of it before they purchase it. They should just take the hit and move on. That’s what Chester normally does.
Chester hates how easily some people return things. He feels like returning an item is a privilege that shouldn’t be abused, yet here’s this huge long line of people, presumably abusing it. There’s a woman two people in front of him with an entire cart of childrens’ toys. Chester has already filled in the rest of her story in his mind: she threw a birthday party for her kid, and invited a bunch of her relatives, and they all gave the kid nice toys. Now she’s here returning them so that she can spend the money on stuff for herself.
Chester is scratching absently at his upper arm when he looks down and sees dots of black on the tile of the floor beneath him. The ink from the pens is leaking from the back. Spitefully, Chester chooses to ignore it. It’s someone else’s job to clean it up, and it’s sort of their fault that he got these leaky pens in the first place.
Wait, Chester thinks. That’s not fair. It’s not the fault of anyone here. They didn’t manufacture the pens. The pens weren’t leaking when they were on the shelf. Chester supposes he could push the blame further back, to whomever manufactured the pens, but that feels like it would take too much work. Somebody has to pay for the fact that his new desk is ruined, and he feels like his best — or at least, easiest — chance will be here.
The wait is painfully long. By the time Chester reaches the counter, though he tried his best to cling to it, all traces of ire have faded away, leaving him only with a strong exasperation. This is compounded by the obviously forced nature of the smile the person behind the service desk gives him as he approaches.
“How can I help you, sir?” she says. There are bags under her eyes. Her hair hangs limp from her scalp. It is a dead sort of brown, as though working at this place has drained all vestiges of life from it.
“I need to return these,” Chester says. He holds up the grocery bag, gripped in his fist in a way that is oddly reminiscent of a movie he once saw, in which a bounty hunter brought the head of his victim before a king.
A drop of ink falls from the bag and onto the counter. The woman’s smile fades. She reaches under her desk as she speaks, producing paper towels. “Okay. It looks like they’re broken.”
“They’re leaking,” Chester says. “They ruined my desk.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” she says, wiping the ink from the desk. She produces a small trash can from under the desk and holds it out toward him. “Let’s just put that right in here, so we don’t make more of a mess.”
Chester shoves the pens into the trash. “I have my receipt.”
“That’s good.” The woman’s words are the right ones, if she wanted to sound sweet and nice, but she doesn’t have the right tone behind them. She comes off, instead, as bored and uninterested. “Would you like to replace them, or do you just want your money back today?”
“I need more pens,” Chester says. “But I want money, too.”
“Well, we can only do one or the other,” the woman says. “I can do the replacement for you, if you like. You can have a new set of pens.”
“They ruined my desk,” Chester repeats. “I want my desk replaced, too.”
“You… Did you buy the desk here?” she asked.
“No, but the pens ruined it. I have pictures.” He pulls out his phone.
“Yes, but if the desk wasn’t defective when it was sold, and if it wasn’t one of our products, I don’t see…”
“You don’t understand,” Chester said. “The pens I bought from you leaked on my desk. They ruined it. They stained my floor, too.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, sir, but I don’t think it’s really covered by our return policy.”
Chester closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and spoke a sentence he’d never thought he would hear himself uttering. He just wasn’t that sort of person. He wasn’t a middle-aged woman with her highlighted hair kept long in the front and swept to one side, hair clipped short and spiked up in the back. He’s just an average-looking fellow with an average dude haircut.
“Can I speak to your manager?”
The conversation immediately takes a different turn than Chester expects, though frankly, he had no idea what the result would be. He’s never been on the giving or receiving end of that phrase, and he’s never thought about the consequences of uttering it. Actually saying it was like an experiment with chemicals of whose properties he previously new nothing.
“I am the manager of this department,” the woman says.
“Okay,” Chester says. He doesn’t really know how to respond to that. He had hoped someone with a greater authority would be able to get him what he wanted, what he felt was rightfully his. “I want you to replace my desk.”
“I already told you that I don’t think we can do that.”
“You said ‘think,’ though,” Chester presses. “That means you don’t know.”
“You didn’t buy the desk here.” She folds her arms in front of her. Everything about her posture says she’s ready to make a stand. “We can replace the pens. I don’t have any way to replace your desk.”
Chester brings up the pictures that he took. He turns his phone toward the woman. “Look. Look at what your pens did to my desk. I just had it delivered yesterday.”
The woman leans forward. She puts a hand on her hip. She raises an eyebrow. “Sir, pens did not do that.”
“Yes they did! You can see the ink stain.”
“It’s black,” she says. “The pens you bought are multicolored.”
“They, I don’t know, mixed together or something,” Chester says. “If you mix a bunch of colors together it turns black. Didn’t they have art classes when you were in elementary school?”
“Yeah, I guess.”
Chester scrolls to a different picture, one that shows the hole in the the desk where the ink sat the longest. “Look at this! The ink ate through the wood. It’s completely ruined.”
“Okay, look,” the woman says. “There’s no way that ink did that. I don’t know what game you’re trying to play here, but it’s not going to work. I can give you a fresh set of pens, I can give you your money back, or I can give you nothing and you can leave. I’ve got other people to help besides you.”
“I’m not trying to cheat you or fuck with you,” Chester says. There are all sorts of names he wants to call this woman pushing at the back of his tongue, trying to get out, but he restrains himself, feeling like none of them are going to get him anywhere. “Your pens ruined my desk.”
“Sir, I’m not going to give you money for a desk,” the woman insists. “I gave you your options. You can take them or leave them.”
“Is there a number I can call about this?” Chester says.
“A phone number. For someone higher up than you.”
“There’s a customer complaint hotline,” she says, shifting uncomfortably. She points at a poster on the wall to the side of the service desk. “It’s right over there.”
“Fine,” Chester says. “I want a replacement. I’ll call them and see if they can actually be useful.”
The customer service woman takes his receipt and punches some things into her computer. While she does this, Chester reads the poster to which she pointed. There’s a lot of information on it, and Chester has never been a strong reader. He has a hard time looking at huge blocks of words and numbers and picking out something small that’s relevant to him, like the phone number. By the time he’s found it and taken a picture of it so that he can call it when he gets home, the woman is done, and there’s a young kid in a store uniform approaching with a new pen set identical to the defective one.
Chester thanks him, but immediately feels bad, because the worse come out terse and irritated, and the kid has done nothing wrong. On his way out of the customer service area, he glares at the woman who refused to help him. She’s already interacting with her next customer. She seems to have forgotten him completely.
In his car, Chester opens up his new package of pens. He pulls out a red one at random to test it out, using a random receipt from a fast food restaurant that he, at some point, shoved into one of his cupholders. He draws a swirling scribble. The pen works. He tests a second one, the dark blue one that will become his new favorite, and that one works, too. Satisfied, Chester drives home to write his mom’s letter and call the customer service hotline.