Bart Plantenga, 12/26/2011

Current Occupation: writer / proofer / translator / editor
Former Occupation: foot messenger / house painter / cab driver / factory worker
Contact Information: Writing is enjoyable work although not getting paid very much for it makes it less so. I have always had to combine labor with writing to survive. I realize that labor and any attached agony or adventure inspires writing while too much work kills spirit, drains energy, leaves little time… my work is available at numerous sites but my website is a good place to begin: http://bartplantenga.weebly.com/. My entire novel BEER MYSTIC, which deals with beer, NYC but also laboring at the low-end of the esteem/pay scale is available online in a global pub crawl of 40+ host sites: http://bartyodel3.wordpress.com/.

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Paris Sex Tête

[novel excerpt]

For real money I did very odd jobs for ladies with money and knowing not what to do with it except chemically alter their hair so that they all had these perms that looked like forests on fire, like autumn upstate, like the color of a bordello sign in Nevada. Ladies with slender catalogs of cultural icons, phrases, astute pronunciations of stock French phrases, charades that allowed them to convince themselves they were deeply involved in the lively marketplace of ideas and art. Ladies who had gathered around WACO [Women’s American Community Organization, the founder of which had indeed been from Waco, Texas] and WOOP [Women’s Organization of Paris] who took me to cafés in my work clothes, ladies that sat mystified by the passage of time, ladies who gathered in clubs to do good deeds for no good reason other than to get out of the house or advertise their souls via their magnificent benevolences, ladies rendered useless by their leisure who at once touted and complained about their men in expensive precisely-cut suits, (suddenly they weren’t husbands but something more generic – hims, the fathers of their children, absentee roommates), ladies, up to six of them, all with their own strong personal scents and the prowess of knowing where to get it at a wholesale price, confused about whether to hide who it was they were underneath all these scents or accent who it was they still wished they were. The clash of their fragrances was like an orchestra tuning up.

I seemed to perk them up immensely especially in the dark, crisp afternoons leading up to Xmas, which they all celebrated with days stuffed with gala events, appointments, cocktails, running around with elegant shopping bags, their days stuffed the way they allowed someone else to stuff their holiday turkeys.

Their adoring, insinuating, wide-eyed attentions made me feel like a cute puppy rubbing against the legs of ladies at a Tupperware Party. Somehow. I managed to cause a stir, a bidding war. The three that smoked blew smoke rings in the shapes of hearts, caressed my cheek with long, slender hands. It made me believe the very grandiose ideas I was entertaining in my journals – that every woman wanted me, desired me. That every femme had a thing for me. This led to some wobbly feelings of gratification and magnified self-esteem. As managing director of desire I assumed new responsibilities. It meant grooming, hand-washed underwear, lists, quotas, pacing, flattery, shaving pubic hair into suggestive shapes, presentation, posture, seminars, letterhead, chivalry, consultations, physical therapy, massage (where was my copy of The Art of Sensual Massage?). In short, it meant kama over to my house, Sutra.

Sometimes they talked about me in the third person impersonal – “my handyman.” And so I’d quote lyrics “If your broken heart should need repair / Then I am the man to see.” It was a song they all remembered. Or politely acted like they did. The sentiments of the song made everyone at the table giggle a little like the giggle that comes from drinking sparkling wine too fast. “I whisper sweet things, you tell all your friends / They’ll come runnin’ to me…” And one of the lady crew chimed in with: Come-a, come-a, come-a, come-a, come, come / Yeah, yeah, yeah…” with a little shake of her shoulders and a discreet yet insinuating youthful friskiness.

I realized there was something to be mined when I heard them picking and pecking away at me from around the café table. Hey, its that Xmas spirit of generosity. “What’re you going to put in our stockings?” that kind of winkwink provocation.

Quibbling like slave masters in a market square, smoking with all the elaborate gestures of youthful empowerment and connivance. Like jezebels because they were smoking against the wishes of their … their whatevers. What delicious decadence too; communicating with the likes of me via their Gitanes and Rothmans. At once naive, willing and … fatigué … world-weary washed out, pissed off, demanding, willing to discuss or argue as long as I had the charm to know my best-kept place and all looking younger than their years. Preserved, mounted, pickled, uplifted, tucked, professionally made up. Some were no more than 8 years older than me but had lived such mature, gentrified lifestyles for so long that they, in silk scarves, business suits and encrusted Rodin or Chagall broaches, looked exactly as kept as their lifestyles had kept them.

“He’s yours on Sunday. I’ll wager he’s not cheap. What can you do for me?” Each phrase and question filled with innuendo and insinuation. And don’t think I was immune to all this. I was very prone to the afflictions of flattery. There are things you can take for flattery but most of them involve some level of deafness.

“He reminds me of Jan Michael Vincent?”

“More like a young Rutger Hauer.” Speaking as if I wasn’t there except in some inorganic, holographic form, like they were discussing some antique urn and fed their forlorn sex lives on innuendo, double entendre, and leveraged passive-aggressive charm.

“Or that guy in Jules et Jim …”

“You mean Oscar-Meyer Wiener?”

“No, haha, don’t make me laugh, Oskar Werner. Don’t you think?” What is that particular spiritual state between annoyance and swagger, between satisfaction and ennui?

They hired me to do odd jobs, to accompany them, sit in cafés and talk so they could convince me and themselves they were a lot more with it than some of the others in the group, or I’d take them to bookshops, recommend books and chapbooks by people I knew. They promised publication of my every word and fart. They promised to invite me to parties. To Herald Tribune affairs. One of their husbands or whatever she called him, worked for McGraw-Hill.

They looked at my poems like they might the genitalia of rams at a livestock auction. In their homes, they watched me hang blinds for them in my shorts as they walked around their spacious apartments wielding a curling iron or something like it. Or they kept me company as I painted their kitchens, inspecting my work periodically, leaning in their doorways, arms akimbo in weirdly incongruous pret-à-porter costumes. Ladies who prowled about, insinuating gestures, suggestive postures, intonations suggesting the prowess of knowing what taste should feel and look like, gazing down at their own painted toenails, wistfully inquiring if I liked their color.

These were women buried in their awesome baubles, in their absolute destitute worthlessness and the hopeless activities that might temporarily obliterate that fact. Women who felt free to brag about their childhood devilishness, their liberties, their skipping classes at Bryn Mawr to go skinny-dipping, a car for college graduation, their libertine-ness. Women absolutely mortified of being alone. They even read books together. This wasn’t friendship this was tribal behavior. Money is always wasted on the rich. I don’t remember who said that. Maybe it was Orwell. But he’d be proud to see that I was determined to help redistribute some of it.

I wasn’t about to say anything controversial like the fact that painting your toenails different colors was a teen thing. You could hold your breath and listen to the slow unravellings of long dormant feelings, Mrs. Robinson, the way Lauren Bacall held a cigarette, tips from Romy Schneider, Jeanne Moreau, Rita Moreno, Joan Collins. Ladies who would then offer refreshments, exotic cheeses like Boulette d’Avesgnes from Picardie with herbs and a fat content of only 45%, from a silver tray and then something from their Louis the-whatever splendid lacquered little liquor cabinet and later a drink in the local brasserie in their bejeweled sunglasses by Dior or Omigh. Tawdry in Silk would be the name of this story.

Genoa Trieste was much younger than these gals. She lived in Venice so the distance between us could weave an intense and strange tale of lust that our letters made look like love. It is with Genoa that I developed the encryption techniques, so amazingly cryptic and involved that I began to believe they were somehow of worldwide importance. The encryption was meant to spare Sophie the anguish of suspicion. It WAS – no, really – out of deference to her emotions that I encrypted Genoa’s phone number in my spiral notepads. And there I was, armed with a phone card, venturing out into the rain, standing in the steamed-up phone booth on the corner of Rue des Quatre Fils and Rue du Temple, staring at the page in my journal. Where had I circled the random words in my journal and ascribed numbers to them which corresponded to Genoa’s phone number in her Venice – each number plus 10. Oh, here it is; the journal page, March 27, had 6 circled words and this is how it read FUR-9, DINK-19, OMBRE-31, LACTOSE-12, FULSOME-48, NASA-16… So I wrote the decoded number on an old bar receipt (have to remember to throw the receipt away and NOT n-o-t put it back in my pants pocket!!) – 19-29-41-22-58-26.

I’d then dash into a tabak, buy a phone card at the first pang of desire or loneliness. Bam – 50 francs in 5 minutes. 50 francs that had taken me nearly 4 hours of jogging through the rain, three days before Xmas, to earn, hanging Paris Patois posters.

The phone rangrangrang, with me drawing Matisses into the condensation on the booth glass as I waited, waited. I tried to be systematic, calling her late at night but sometimes, especially when it was rainy going on 3 weeks steady and I’d been on my rounds of putting up Patois posters and my sneakers and socks and feet and the bones in my feet were soaked through with rainwater I’d suddenly need to hear her voice and we’d talk hesitatingly about Raymond Chandler vs Dashiell Hammett or how she made risotto or the effect the Pope had on the current zeitgeist! That’s right and all at 10 francs per minute! Or we’d imagine elaborate maps and describe how I would find her in Venice and how I dreamt of her on her knees. And how the streets of Venice are so quiet off the beaten track that we could do it at high noon under a balcony. IF I WERE TO EVER GET THE COURAGE (her word) TO COME VISIT HER. (Her emphasis.) And here I’d be in the middle of Paris traffic staring at a huge grafitti that said:

WHO AMI

POLE VAULT HAHA

trying to decipher its meaning with Genoa on the other end and suddenly ordinary time blossomed into an extraordinary moment, a time ripe and pungent with possibilities, so ripe that I would hustle down to Gare de Lyon and just study the timetables, look at the boards, check the prices… See Genoa’s generous face fluttering by like a film outtake.

“How will you be seeing me?”

“You are on the edge of your bed and I’m rubbing my hands in the shape of a prayer from bellybutton through the crevice, which is scented exactly to match what it is my nostrils process as arousing … the wetness, the fur and across your perinium and circling your other …” Frankincense, sage, chickory cigarettes, wool rubbing against perspiring skin… She was one of those exceptional women who never overacted the part, an enchantress, all the more so because she looked like a librarian, albeit one who oversaw the Ligurian Erotica Archives. She understood perfectly the full significance of scent and the incredible bond it was capable of creating between a man and a woman. The nose’s work of taking the secreted molecules of two people who are in some kind of negotiable equilibrium is assimilated by the brain, which gives myth, power, and structure to this sensual encounter. It was as if she were preparing to go blind.

“I am now like that exactly. You can see me. Scent me. I am sure you know and like the smell of leather pants that I am wearing now the whole day. The smell in the seam that separates my right leg from my left.”

“Almost.”

“What is wrong? Are you crying?” I was actually hyperventilating, well, maybe I was unhappier or sadder or lonelier than my feelings of gratitude and awe allowed me to feel here in Paris.

“Not exactly. It might just be pollution …”

“Well …”

And then the card would begin to die its horrible death; I was helpless as the centimes ticked off … and then – shrrt – her voice was gone, shorn from my hearing. But I could fill in the silence. I could hear and see her lips forming the very words – IF YOU WANT TO LEAVE HER YOU SHOULD. I WILL TAKE CARE OF THE REST. LEAVE OR FOREVER JUST FORGET THE IDLE DREAMS WITH ME IN THEM. YOU MUST… I could stare at the phone, I did stare at the phone, I mouthed her words, kissed the steamy little window in the phone, said nothing, it said nothing back.

Months later, I received a musk-scented package which contained several aromatic sheets of paper folded in half, quarters, eighths. It involved her pursuit of her own notions about scent as borne out by various scientists such as Auguste Galopin and Wilhelm Fliess who both pursued the bio-psycho-sexual connections between nose and hard-on. She wrote that Fliess found evidence that during certain heightened states like menstruation, sex, and pregnancy that actual structural changes take place in the tuberculum septi region of the nose. These were described by Fliess as “genital localizations.” He noted swollen membranes, increased sensitivity, even nosebleeds as sympathetic reactions to something like menstruation. He noted that certain erectile membranes in the nose were similar to those in the vagina and penis. I later re-read the letter in the Patois toilet and masturbated while holding the folds of the letter up to my nose.

I only ever saved one phone card from all those calls. How many cards did I go through? How many weeks had I by then lived in Paris: let’s say 50, that’s 2500 francs [$416]. Which, of course, could have brought me there via train any number of times! The card has a portrait of Billy Holiday on it. Coincidentally, that was Genoa’s or Chandler’s(?) favorite singer.

But that’s an entirely different story. Triest Trieste, would evolve into a novel full of melancholy and unfinished business, remaining forever devoutly unfinished.

“JOYEUX NOEL!” The fêtards yelled, hoisting moist bottles of medium-priced champagne as they wended their ways to their Renaults. “Merry Fuggin’ Xmas” I grumbled, knowing I’d be working all tomorrow right up until the edge of Xmas Eve.

Posted in

iDrew, 12/26/2011

Current Occupation: Call Centre Operator / Customer Relations

Former Occupation: Retail Sales for a High Street Fashion Store

Contact Information: Writing under the name of iDrew to co-ordinate with her titles, Essex girl Drew has previously been published in various magazines such as: ‘The Delinquent’, ‘Battered Suitcase’, and ‘All Things Girl’. She enjoys shopping, boys and clubs but claims these are all merely research for her writing. She is also one of the founding members of the Clueless Collective and can be found at: www.cluelesscollective.co.uk where her free to download chapbook is available . She also recently found herself on Purple Patch’s ‘Best Poets of the Small Press 2011’.

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iMistlekiss

i hate that combination of mistletoe

and the office party

gross sweaty accountant blokes

in hand knit cardigans

with their beery breath or

smooth talking sales execs

drenched in after shave

and a love of themselves

think mistletoe has magic qualities

that when activated by a wet slobbery

snog i will somehow automatically

develop an uncontrollable urge to

join them in a travelogue bed or

more likely a quickie in

the stationery cupboard

devastated no such charm exists

they resort to groping my bum

some even try for a handful of tit

boss or no boss they get a

sharp kick on the shin

i hate mistletoe

it fills me with dread

but then

very occasionally

oh my god good will to all men

and drew

the magic does seem to work

from the admin department

in strolls my christmas bonus

and i get a present i

deffo want to unwrap

before christmas morning

Posted in

Jerred Jolin, 12/19/2011

Current Occupation: Intake/Assessment Coordinator for a company that provides vocational-related services to individuals with a variety of intellectual deficits and developmental delays

Former Occupation: Clinical Assistant for a compay that provides early intervention services to children with Autism.

Contact Information: A writer by night, between the hours of 9-5 Jerred works supporting individuals with special needs. On any given day he might be found at Walgreens completing a vocational assessment or learning the ins and outs of selling flirty flats in the Kohls shoe department alongside a young man with Asperger’s Syndrome. He resides in Oakland, Ca., holds a Master’s Degree in Human Science and has been interested in writing poetry, fiction, and creative non-fiction since around 2005, the year he completed an undergraduate degree in armchair anthropology. His writing has appeared in Challenger International and he currently has forthcoming publications in The Binnacle, Chest, The Ultimate Writer, Conceit Magazine, and Amulet. He has managed to survive 31 years on this Earthplanet.

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Emoluments

Curious, are you, about what it’s like behind the wheel of a Swedish luxury sedan for 2-3 hours each day fully embedded in the Bay Area commuter cluster fuck more part of the problem than a solution? Why would a sane individual willingly subject oneself to the physiological-altering stimuli concomitant to being stuck in a large mass of slow moving vehicles all wishing they could go fast who think that the reason they’re not going fast is because of all the other stupid drivers on the road getting into accidents and, if not that, then just driving in ways that are generally erratic? How does one cope with the reality that is 1/12 to 1/8 of a day devoted to driving and crossing bridges that may or may not withstand the seismic waves of the impending ‘next big one,’ all this toward the end of devoting nine hours to a desk + unfulfilling massage chair, computer screen, and no shortage of difficult individuals calling with a host of annoying complaints and/or excuses that must be taken seriously and acted upon based on codes of procedure and protocol?

To what length will one go pursuant of emolument?

It’s……learning from a coworker—and then experiencing it yourself—that the scent concomitant to the receptionist’s menses period is perceptible to the human olfactory system in a serious kind of way and that it has already been necessary to have a talking to her about it—one occasion being so obvious both in terms of olfactory perception and visible, flow-deterrent breach, that a trip home to change was required.

It’s…….realizing the recently hired Behavioral Therapist for the South Bay region just doesn’t seem to understand the most basic concepts of following a schedule—this void in her faculties for common sense being most apparent with respect to on-time arrival—and who is then attitudinal when confronted about these violations

Emoluments?

And now, for the purpose of context, to really establish the mis en scene of this workplace, to really bring you into the world of an early intervention classroom intended to facilitate the development of speech, language, and appropriate 1.5-3 year old child deportment, I have transcribed below an authentic greeting/good-bye circle time cycle (fill-in the blank as you see fit):

“Heeeeeeellloooo _________. Heeeeeeellloooo _________. Heeeeeeellloooo ________, it’s nice to have you here!’

“Goooooood byeeeee _______. Goooooood byeeeee _______. Goooooood byeeeee _______, it’s time to say bye bye!”

When engaging in clandestine work writing it is imperative that one take certain precautions as it isn’t always the case that higher-ups will look favorably upon an employee using on-the-clock time for the purpose of creative production that is not in line with said company’s growth and/or the expansion of its general sphere of influence. But when the tar starts to bubbling the well should be tapped! The pressure should be released and the stuff should be left to flood wherever it may. Generally, the instigation of this state of percolation is beyond the realm of conscious human control and were it simply dammed, back into the tar pit the words would recede, down into the depths along so many other forgotten creations….But to get back at the matter at hand: one must devise clever subterfuges if success is to be met with during clandestine work writing. Perhaps the most obvious—and remarkably effective—tactic is to mask one’s creative expression in the guise of email—particularly if it is the case that managing these electronic communications requires many hours of the workday. A benefit here—specifically if is the case that one shares a confined work space with two other individuals—is that persons entering will tend not to peruse the contents of partially composed messages visible on screens what with the whole ‘respecting of privacy’ movement that has rooted firmly in nearly every occupational sector except pornography. But beware of the temptation to send for then they’ve got you as those above the glass ceiling may access employee electronic mail accounts at their leisure

–it should be noted here that shortly after the composition of the current passage, an employee who will remain nameless here sent an inquiry to the administrative staff in which she expressed suspicions of a successful, email-privacy compromising (her evidence being the presence of two ‘read’ messages amidst a large number of yet to be opened ones that had arrived while she was in the field—said read messages, according to her testament, not having been perused by her. This is not clandestine)—m eaning that, if suspected of clandestine work writing, mine could be infiltrated to expose the true nature of my spent company time.

Mundane work doings requiring partial shifts of attention are enfeebling. For example, effective November 6, 2009, a recently hired employee will be quitting and what this does is set into motion the recruiting machine, a mechanism that is under my control and beckon and that will transform any geek off the streets—provided this geek has the appropriate level of credentialing and experience—into a capable warrior in the battle against autism. This, though, not until the winnowing of the chaff; a painstaking sift through the applicant resume database –the majority of the cock suckers comprising it being unqualified for a position as behavioral therapist—in search of suitable candidates. Which is to suggest that these cock suckers (cock suckers, in this instance and the previous one, referring to those applicants unqualified in one way or another) either:

Chose not to read the job description wherein are articulated the necessary academic and experiential requirements.

Submit resumes anyway in the hopes that somehow their biased expositions of work aptitude (not without such key phrases as):

a.‘Motivated self-starter’

b.‘Synergistic team player’

might dupe some distracted recruiter on the receiving end. It is from such a pool that suitable candidates must be selected, prescreened by telephone, then invited on over for a traditional face-to-face that are always characterized by unique interpretations of what the most appealing ‘potential candidate’ mode of deportment might be. Consider this individual:

I am interested in the: Classroom Assistant, Head Behavioral Therapist, Apprentice Behavioral Therapist, Speech Therapist, and Behavior Manager positions as posted on your online request for suitable candidates.’

Generally when such an individual is applying (‘individual,’ in this instance, referring to those who feel it appropriate to apply for every position the company has to offer, or, to continue with our parlance, ‘cock suckers’) their dearth of relevant experience is so great that even the most ‘entry’ of positions is too advanced. There are children’s lives being shaped in this business—not work for dilettantes. To explore deeper our current example, the area of academic specialization was also disclosed:

B.A. Interdisciplinary studies of Theatre, Environmental Awareness, and Somatics

A flock-shooter is what this candidate is; doesn’t have the patience that is required to hone in on one target with deathly precision, instead just pointing the barrel toward the movement and firing away manically.

–It should be noted here that the very real threats of global warming are currently imposing on our inner administrative sanctum as at approximately 3:15 P.M., during a routine foraging mission into the mini fridge, we became aware of the fact that a large amount of water was present in the unit and in tracing it to its only logical source, learned that the small freezer section had thawed. The horror…….the horror……..

And now here is a collection of accolades that would not be out of place on the Autism whisperer’s resume:

–Achieving excellent results in independent functioning by fading out strong prompts using ABA techniques.

–Increasing frequency of independent peer interactions by encouraging child to respond elaborately to the questions of other children.

–Promoting special friendships with classmates by facilitating peer play and expanded duration of parallel play through positive reinforcement.

–Successfully working with child’s various therapists and teachers to improve pragmatic and expressive language skills, reduced meltdowns by implementing sensory diet, help child meet IEP goals, redirect behaviors and attention.

–Establishing positive relationships with students, parents, teachers, and school administrators/staff in an inclusive environment.

The clandestine work writer shall prevail!! Company time will not impede the oil from gushing forth! The petroleum inhibitors, they are the rightful owners of the fire! Therein they will abide! For the clandestine work writer, a land underneath which rivers flow awaits!

It’s…….the clicking sound that the Hawaiian Breeze air circulation machine makes when the timer runs out—sounding as if it were being transmitted through the computer speakers—and the general commotion next door in the Early Intervention classroom (at this point equal parts Raffi, Classroom Assistant motherese, and speech/language delayed vocal expression) and I, the man at the business end of a one-way mirror, taking in this important neural development while beyond the window the sound of traffic headed roughly west on the boulevard and the clickety-clack of three keyboards in unison, one, who, at this point, has moved well outside normal job protocol.

Posted in

Karen Swartz, 12/12/2011

Current Occupation: Business Analyst in the health care industry

Former Occupation: Environmental Engineer, Laboratory Technician, Grocery Bagger

Contact Information: By the time Karen Swartz was 18 years old she had lived in 10 different places all over the United States. She settled in Middletown Connecticut which has been her home for 12 years, and she is planning to stay put. Karen is an active volunteer for arts and environmental organizations and she is a reporter for the online news blog The Middletown Eye, which is run completely by volunteers as a community service.

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On-the-job Injury

The air was thick with dust and dirt. Grains of sand pelted the side of my face and grit crunched between my teeth. My heart was racing. I was very disoriented. I put my hands up over my head and pulled my yellow hard hat down tight. I was sure that the drill rig behind me had toppled over, the hammer at the top of the 50-foot tower having slammed into the ground. When I looked at the rig, it appeared horizontal, as if it were at the wrong angle. I might have thought the rig was at a different angle because I myself was at a different angle, lying on the ground having fallen. I don’t remember if I fell; it happened so fast.

In reality, the rig remained upright. A high-pressure hose similar to a fire hose had become disconnected and had flung about ten yards to where I’d been standing, recording the day’s drilling progress in the yellow waterproof log book. My co-worker, always trying to make light of our intense and demanding work situations, laughed later about how the notes in the field log book stopped abruptly, a stray line crossing the page diagonally from it’s starting point in the middle of the word I’d been writing when I was hit. When the metal clamp that held hose lengths together forcefully smashed into my leg, I did not see or feel it coming at all. Simultaneously, there seemed to be a roaring cacophony and an absence of sound. The earplugs that I had in as usual to block out the noise of the drill rig and the busy street probably contributed to my sonic confusion.

I had recently earned my engineering degree and I was working for an environmental consulting company. Much of the work was on sites that had long ago been manufactured gas plants, where gas was made out of coal in the 1800s and early 1900s. The process to create gas from coal was industrial and messy. Byproducts were carcinogenic. The waste was left in tanks and buried underground when the plants were decommissioned throughout the first half of the twentieth century. These plant sites are all over the United States, in big cities and small towns. My coworkers and I spent a lot of time traveling to and working on field jobs, where we would oversee the drilling of boreholes into the ground with huge rigs, install groundwater monitoring wells, and collect samples of soil and water that we sent off to laboratories to be analyzed. Back at the office, we’d compile the data, compare it against regulatory criteria, and write site characterization reports that were submitted to local and state regulatory agencies. Once one round of field work and reporting was completed, there always seemed to be another phase waiting to be started. These characterizations and investigations could go on for years, decades even.

The job site was a public park in a small town just north of Philadelphia. The park was nothing more than a big grass field in a residential area, bordered by a wooded creek on one side and busy streets on the other three. Most of the visitors to the park were local residents walking their dogs. They were very inquisitive about what we were doing, and not afraid to approach us and ask. On some of our sites, especially the ones in more urban areas, passersby regarded us with suspicion, and approached less often, and then reluctantly.

Working on this particular site was pleasant, because there was a family-run deli just down the street where we could get a quick lunch, and it was easy to get our van full of equipment in and out. So much of our time was spent traveling and on various sites, there developed an ever-evolving informal rating system that made for easy conversation during long drives with virtual strangers. How close was the hotel to the job site? How many decent and interesting restaurants near the hotel? Was there a hardware store nearby for the inevitable odd tool that would be needed? What’s the bathroom situation on the site? These were the types of things that were important to us.

There were four people working onsite; myself, my coworker John, who worked at the consulting company with me and was the Project Manager, and the drill rig operator and the driller’s assistant, who were subcontracted from a local environmental drilling company. The drill rig operator was named Jeff. He was a tall, large man with piercing blue eyes, thinning black hair, and pale skin. He wore the same threadbare dark blue coveralls over his clothes every day. He spoke in a thick New Jersey accent about how this job site was one of the most stressful ones he’d worked on, due to all the unexpected obstacles we continually encountered. He talked about how his wife had worried about him since he’d been working this site, because he hadn’t been eating or sleeping well. He spoke about his teenage daughter and how he wanted to be able to buy her name-brand clothes for Christmas. His hands shook when he talked about these things. The driller’s assistant, Mike, had pock marked skin and long, shaggy hair that seemed to place him square in 1977. He was quiet in a thoughtful way. He pulled a banana out of his work coveralls every day at about 9:30 a.m. and ate it methodically. At about 11:45 a.m., out came a peanut butter sandwich in a foldover-style thin plastic bag, the kind that was the only type of sandwich bag available before zipper bags were invented. Mike would squat down low to the ground, resting on his haunches as he ate his regimented snacks, eyes on the drilling augur the entire time.

This particular day was a crisp, early fall day. The day before, the drillers had installed a piece of equipment called a cyclone that was meant to vacuum up the drill cuttings from the borehole and spill them directly into the dumpster, which we called a rolloff. Typically the soil that came up as drill cuttings was shoveled manually into the rolloff. During this job, we had to drill deeper than planned, there was more soil than expected, shoveling became too laborious, and the cyclone was introduced as a way to try to make the job more efficient. The cyclone looked like a giant human heart, except it was hollow to allow the soil to flow through it. It was about four feet long and two feet wide and made out of cast iron. The inlets and outlets were hooked up to hoses, the same kind that you’d see on a fire truck, with big metal clamps on the ends. In order to operate, these hoses were pressurized. Either there was too much pressure in the lines, or the connections were not fitted tightly enough, or both. I’d been hit hard, and it hurt.

The shouts of my co-worker brought me out of my torpor.

“The cyclone broke! Can you walk?”

At first, I impulsively answered no, but then I hobbled a few steps, and it was clear that I would be able to limp away. I sensed gratitude from muscular and athletic John, who had offered to carry me out, and was visibly relieved that was not necessary. This was probably both in avoidance of an awkward intimacy between us, and also because it meant that I was only injured and not terribly maimed.

John dropped me off at the local hospital’s emergency department. While sitting in the waiting area, the same two thoughts kept repeating over and over in my head. I found these thoughts funny, and I kept loudly shouting “ha!” every few minutes. I was still disoriented from the accident. There was no humor in the repeating loop in my head, but I needed to feel something other than fear, and I was instinctively trying to force myself out of terror mode. When the panic-driven fear of the moment had subsided, I was left with a deeper question about my future in a job that could hurt me, damage my psyche, make me age too quickly.

When I returned back to the job site, Jeff pointed a thick finger at me and said fiercely, “I wanna see you running across this site!”

This was his way of apologizing to me, telling me that he felt responsible for the accident.

As much as he wanted absolution from the guilt he was feeling that he may have caused my injury, I wanted to be able to give it to him. My leg was badly hurt, but there was no serious or permanent damage expected. I did not say anything in reply. I looked him in the eye and nodded, an unspoken pact between us.

It took a few weeks before I could walk without limping, and when the time was right, I was happy to oblige, ecstatic, truly, that that the hose clamp had hit my thigh, rather than a few inches higher, my hip, or a few inches lower, my knee. Muscle trauma was bearable, a joint injury might have been debilitating. I trotted across the site when I knew he’d see. It wasn’t exactly a subconscious action, but it felt involuntary, necessary. The bruise was about four inches long and three inches wide, and it lasted for six months. The purple skin could not be denied, but I was incredulous that it was possible for a bruise to remain visible and tender for so long. I was reassured when this came up in a conversation with some ice hockey players; they helped me understand that this type of hematoma does last for many months. Those lumps I could feel under the skin were normal, nothing to worry about, they said.

I went on to experience two more on-the-job injuries in the next six months, one of them fairly serious, though I never missed a day of work. The injuries were badges of honor; stories to swap over dinner after long days under hot sun or in bitter cold winds. There were so many incidents, the stories never ran out, and we never got bored of them. There were car crashes, frostbitten feet, chemical burns, an acetylene tank fire, a structure fire, dehydration, hypothermia, poison ivy. These mishaps and episodes connected our physical being with our work, and solidified our identities as geologists, engineers, scientists. Our work set us apart. The accountants back in the office insisted that we tape our receipts to our expense reports just so, and questioned us with disbelief when we called in to report our hours at just over seventy for the week. These were details that we felt would not be asked of us, if the accounting staff ever had to spend one day out in the field doing what we did. The human resource representative listened to us vent with sympathetic nods, and then reminded us that we had to make time for our annual physical exams. We felt undervalued, and sometimes misunderstood.

There was a deep-seated sense of irony that was mutually felt, but rarely discussed. In the interest of working for the betterment of the environment, we were putting our own personal health in jeopardy. It was easy to bury the pain when the work itself was consuming. One of our tools for doing that was saying a common refrain, “It’s all just a part of the job”. This was something that we mumbled to ourselves when standing out in the rain all day, or when eating energy bars and soda for our meals because that’s all there was time for. We used it as a retort when a friend or relative would ask pointedly after hearing a description of our work,

“Aren’t you scared?”

There were certainly moments of fear, but we did not walk around in a constant state of anxiety over what might happen next. It was expected that there would be moments of fear, we were being realistic in saying it, it truly was just a part of the job.

After a decade, I did eventually feel that it was time for a change. I became a business analyst, working corporate weekday hours, a job as mundane as it gets, with evenings and weekends free to focus on non-work pursuits. I now stare at numbers in spreadsheets, I create graphs and charts and presentations. Physical hazards haven’t been eliminated, they’re just different. Neck and shoulder pain from hunching over the keyboard, eye strain from too much time staring at the computer monitor – typical side effects of a desk job. Sometimes, when I’ve exhausted my ability to manipulate data, my mind wanders. Scenes flash through my head. A drill rig sputtering and groaning to life at 7 a.m., clouds of diesel exhaust fumes billowing out of it. A backhoe clawing and tearing at the ground, dinosaur-like. A group of leathery men in hard hats, dirty jeans, and orange safety vests standing around a food truck drinking watered down coffee from disposable styrofoam cups at mid-morning break. American flags waving from the tops of crane masts. I remember these scenes and I smile, blink, stand up and stretch, and turn back to my screen.

Posted in

Ronald Roy, 12/5/2011

Current Occupation: Operating Room Processing Technician.

Former Occupation: Operating Room Processing Technician, Car Dealership Delivery Driver, Traffic Flagger.

Contact Information: Ron Roy has always written about work and working people. Since graduating from college with a degree in Literature, he has worked primarily in the Health Care industry. His first novel, “Passing Time” which takes place in a paper mill, was published last February by Blue Cubicle Press of Plano Texas, which also devotes itself to people caught in the daily grind.

###

Jamie and the Flagger

I think it’s the hats. Maybe the dark glasses. In the morning before we leave the yard, they seem to be a normal enough bunch. But once they put on their hard hats and shield their eyes with mirrored safety glasses, they take on the swagger. They slouch. Their bones dissolve. Every motion is a shout: I’m tough. I’m cool. I lay pipe.

Curtis Brigham, the foreman, doesn’t swagger. He speaks through his collection of T-shirts

“OBAMA LIES AND GRANNY DIES.”

“WORK HARDER. MILLIONS ON WELFARE ARE DEPENDING ON YOU.”

“THE BEST MAN FOR THE JOB IS A MAN.”

In spite of Curtis Brigham’s T-shirt, we have one female laborer on our crew, Jamie. She’s always the first one down the hole, emerging caked in mud and sweat, but those can’t hide her smooth skin, her exquisite features.

Sometimes she drives the roller from one part of the jobsite to another. The thing practically runs on autopilot, so she reclines, stretched out like Cleopatra on a chaise lounge, waiting for Marc Anthony to pay court.

I direct traffic while the others lay pipe, but my job is a joke to them. Sometimes, one of the dirt workers has to hold a sign.

“Flagger, flagger,” the others taunt, as if there’s no greater insult they could find.

One evening, Jamie waits for me by my car at the end of the shift.

“Hey,” she says. “Did you want to get a beer?”

“Well, well,” a voice says behind us. “What have we here?”

I turn to find Marco, Curtis Brigham’s second-in-command with a half dozen others from the crew.

“Why don’t you assholes run along,” Jamie says. “Can’t a girl get a little privacy around here?”

“Privacy?” Marco says. “Why did you need privacy? What did you want to do with the flagger that you can’t do in front of us?”

“What the fuck is going on here?” Curtis Brigham says as he comes up behind them.

“We caught Jamie getting cozy with the flagger,” Marco says. “She could do better.”

“Better?” Curtis Brigham says. “The only reason you guys look down on flaggers is because you don’t know what they really do. Did you ever watch this man in action?”

“Action?” Marco says. “What action? He holds a fucking stop sign.”

“This man is always on top of things,” Curtis Brigham says. “Not only that, he knows all the people who drive by here regularly. He waves at them and smiles. He talks to them when they’re waiting at the head of the line. Not just the pretty women, either. He talks to the old geezers and the fat broads and the punks in their pimped-up trucks.

“That’s why you don’t hear any horns blasting or drivers cursing on this site. People trust him. He’s like a fucking member of their family”

“So you’re saying we should let Jamie screw the flagger because he’s good at his job?” Marco asks

“Shit, no,” Curtis Brigham says. “I’m saying you should mind your own goddamn business. Get the hell out of here, all of you.”

I’d like to say they skulk off, defeated, but they only shrug and swagger to their cars. Each step says they have better things to do than argue about who Jamie wants to bang. They are SO past that.

I turn to Jamie, ready to head out for that beer, but she isn’t looking at me. She only has eyes for Curtis Brigham. He winks at me as he drapes an arm over her shoulder and walks her to his truck.

Posted in

Jan Priddy, 11/28/2011

Current occupation: public high school and college English teacher

Former occupation: Art teacher, quilt store clerk (best reverse income), baker, architectural draftsperson, freelance designer, dog magazine columnist, direct delivery junk-mail rep (most disreputable), record store sales clerk, abused Taco Bell employee.

Contact information: My work has earned an Oregon Literary Arts Fellowship, Arts & Letters fellowship, Soapstone residency, Pushcart nomination, and recent publication in CALYX, Raven Chronicles, and North American Review. An MFA graduate from Pacific University, I live in my great great aunts’ house on the north Oregon coast where I am not completing a novel, but do irresponsibly rant and thoughtfully rave on my “Quiet Minds” blog: http://janpriddyoregon.blogspot.com. Also find me at andpride [at] gmail. com

#

The Girl at Taco Bell

Last summer we stopped on Aurora

Avenue North at the place I worked

my first job in high school. From behind

the counter, she answered my tiresome

questions: Lard? Trans fat? How are your beans

fried? A strand of hair came loose, she sucked

on it and smiled. Everything different

from forty years ago. Everything

the same. She smiled continuously,

her head cocked to one side, all the while

I talked. And when I finally made up

my mind, she washed her hands, piled lettuce,

cheese, and tomato on tortilla

shells. I offered her the extra dimes

and she added sour cream, salsa,

a packet of hot sauce on my tray.

How many hours had I kept busy

when the store was empty, pouring sauce

into tiny cups, snapping on lids?

We knew our manager spied on us

from across the street while we stood

and cleaned everything after we closed,

hauled meat to the refer, mopped floors, scrubbed

the steam chest, counters, tongs, spatulas.

Sliding forth the tray, she said my words:

“Thank you, please come again,”

and while I ate, she said it again,

handing change to the next man in line.

Still, I believed the girl: “Thank you, please

come again.” I believed her patient

smile. It once was mine. Someday I’d like

to see Wall Street suits maintain their cool

while scooping refried beans and ground beef,

filling cups, making change—minimum

wage. This smiling girl stood her ground while

strangers fussed over animal fat,

ice in their cups, counting change. I owe

her a Hallmark card, acknowledgement

that her work is hard—I owe her some

bright token reminding us both this

is temporary. How sweet it will

be to recall the work here some day,

perfectly, as if from a distance.

Author’s Footnote: For my first job I was paid $1.25 an hour, and I was the second fastest taco wrapper in the store. A boy I trained was making $1.60. I asked the owner about why the kid was paid more, and he said, “He’s a boy. He has a car.” Well, I might have had a car, if he’d paid me a little more.

Posted in

Clint Walker, 11/21/2011

Current Occupation: Unemployed. Associate Editor for recently launched online literary magazine “Prompt“.

Former Occupations: Graduate Assistant/English Teacher/Financial Aid Director for small school

Contact Information: Other than a stretch of time spent living on the Washington State Peninsula, I am a lifelong resident of Central Illinois. I have spent time teaching English, and have just completed my MA degree at Eastern Illinois University. I have had short fiction published at Mary Magazine, and in the soon-to-be released November edition of Carte Blanche.

###

The Tallest Building in Topeka

For Shelly

Pneumatic punch press #39 was a bitch of a machine. It was bolted into the cement of the factory floor, just behind the “redline,” which long timers at the plant affectionately referred to as the “deadline,” even though the machine hadn’t actually killed a soul.

It came close a few times, like when Chisum dropped his hardpack into the knockout tray while he was leaning over the machine. He was lucky. He had long, greasy hair that was technically against every regulation the company had, so it could have been a lot worse. He thought he’d try to fish the pack out by hand, and almost pulled it off, when McElroy on the forklift thought he’d pull the same gag on Tammy that he had on every other woman who worked there by throwing himself off the 220 while it was moving and watching them jump back in shock. That one particular time though, his knee bumped the wheel just as he jumped off, and the 220’s tungsten forks hit a concrete pylon with a loud gong that sounded like someone picked up the factory and dropped it.

Chisum jerked just as he got his fingers past the crush bar and next thing he knew he felt a slight sting before he blinked instinctively and opened his eyes to see three fingertips tumbling across the metal tray where they came to rest against the tiny cardboard pack.

McElroy kept his job if only because there was so much chaos caused by Chisum’s crying and screaming that no one remembered what caused him to jerk. In Chisum’s particular take on the finger story, the one he tells to every new front desk secretary they hire, he never even flinched when it happened. He’s a real hero in his version.

Pneumatic punch press #39 was currently unmanned. It sat behind the deadline quietly but ready to spring to life with the flip of a switch. For the first time in years, the entire floor was quiet. Row after row of greasy belts and sharpened blades held in place by elbows and arms of hydraulic flexors made no sound and took no action. Every employee of Mekkatrex Inx had filed into the ad hoc “convention hall” which everyone there thought was a joke. The higher-ups had a meeting, nodded heads, signed a form, and within three weeks, contractors knocked down the eastern wall of the men’s bathroom, carved half the urinals and a third of the commodes out of the lime green tile, and turned the resulting empty space into the “convention hall” which looked very much like a crappier, more run-down version of the already crappy and run-down stage of the local high school just up the street. T.Q. Quackenbush designed them both.

Just about every employee was a graduate of that same school, so they all got the joke.

The seats were peeled and smelly and nearly every one of them was filled. They all faced the main stage which featured flood lights casting a wan yellow glow on a single podium that had the Mekkatrex Inx corporate logo affixed to the front of it. Behind that was Merle “The Pearl,” their plant manager, and talking to him was co-manager “Big” Jim Applegate, who everyone dealt with when they didn’t feel like dealing with Merle The Pearl. Their heads were down as they talked off mic, both absentmindedly kicking their heels into the scuffed wood of the stage while they looked up occasionally to see the last of the workers filing in to the last row of seats in the back.

When the entire hall was filled, Merle walked to the podium and flicked the switch on the microphone. The public address system, which hadn’t been used since the announcement of the great hand washing stratagem of the fall quarter, clicked on with dull whine of feedback.

Suddenly, a younger man in an immaculate black suit, his hair perfect, his jaw line exquisite, walked onto the stage from behind the curtain. He walked right toward Merle and Jim who seemed to want to engage him in some type of conversation, but this other man simply waved them off dismissively and pointed to two metal chairs behind the podium, right next to the American flag that hung limply from a tarnished golden pole. Merle and Jim took their seats like they were instructed and sat ramrod straight as the man took his space behind the podium. Some of the women who worked there gasped to themselves at this man’s beauty, although for many of them, he was just young enough to be their son.

A select few knew the score, not saying much, because they knew it was rare to see someone sent directly by corporate.

“Ladies and Gentleman,” he said. Pale blue eyes tilted down to a single index card he held on the podium.

“Mekkatrex Inx Plant Number 2324 will cease operations effective at the end of this quarter. There will be no new Futuregen plant built in the Coles County area as previously reported. That project has been relocated to Monmouth due to calcium issues in the soil. Your direct supervisors can answer any questions you may have. Thank you.” And with that, he walked away from the podium and strolled off stage without looking back, leaving Merle and Jim, both completely out of the loop, to answer questions they weren’t prepared to answer. They stood up from their chairs and appeared to have a few cross words between themselves before they walked up to the podium themselves. But most everyone was standing now, murmuring to themselves or to each other. They were promised months ago there was hope, and with that gone, nothing Big Jim or Merle the Pearl could say really mattered much to them anymore.

Merle started a sentence with the word “Please” but in an effort to get his voice over everyone else, he popped his “p” into the microphone and the result was a loud squealy report that erupted harshly from the twenty-year old Peavey speakers bolted into the concrete over the stage. It was the loudest sound that had been pushed through the subwoofers in years, and as such, a puff of compressed dust and vermiculite billowed from each speaker in a cloud before floating to the floor like poisonous snow.

Candice was the only one to see this. As the battle between the workers and Merle’s struggle with barely adequate public address equipment intensified, she watched the cancer-causing particles drift downward, eventually losing sight of them as they sank into the range vectors of the stage lights. She stood and glanced to the back corner of the room but couldn’t see Shelly. Candice pushed her way through the workers of soon to be non-existent Plant #2324 and made her way to the back exit.

She walked through the empty factory floor, following the green “Safety” line through the most injury prone area. She would know. She was the winner of “Safety Days” three years in a row. She even designed the tee-shirt they all had to wear on Safety Saturdays. It was lima bean green. They all hated her for that shirt, but at least it gave them all chances to earn “Safety Bucks” by wearing it when they were told.

The south exit of the factory led out into a ragged patch of asphalt that no one parked in anymore. The fall air bit into her face as soon as she stepped outside. She looked farther south to the edge of the property, which terminated in an endless dirt field. Shelly was sitting atop the long disused set of monkey bars which had been sunk into the asphalt in an aborted plan to install playground equipment for the children of employees. By the time word came down from corporate that no child would ever be allowed within one-hundred yards of the plant, the monkey bars were already up. And there it stood, a rusted cage for the waist-high weeds that had sprouted up within.

Candice walked up to the bars, running her hands across the rust and the rivets. Shelley sat perched above her, taking long, slow drags from her cigarette and letting the smoke curl out over the field and into the golden late afternoon horizon beyond them.

“Why weren’t you there for the big announcement?” Candice said, reaching up for a cigarette of her own, which Shelly slid for her out of a crumpled pack.

“Once I saw that the 480-I order got cancelled, I had a feeling this was going to happen. The way I look at it, I’m not going to spend any more time in there than I have to from this point forward.”

Candice took one last angry pull that terminated with an abrupt intake of air. She released the cigarette from her lips before she said, “You know Shelly, it really wouldn’t hurt you to at least act like what happened in there does matter for some of us. Or is that just too below you now?”

From her perch atop the rusty monkey bars, Shelly looked down on Candice, her eyes wide.

“What?”

“Don’t act like you don’t know what I mean. You’ve been checked out of here ever since you started going back to school last year. We can all see it.”

“Really?” Shelly hopped down from the monkey bars. Her shoes hit the crumbly asphalt with a crunch. “‘We’ all see it? Don’t you mean, ‘you’ see it? I mean, that’s really what this is, isn’t it? You and me?”

“You think those people over there at Eastern are just going to roll out the red carpet for you, huh? How long can you keep hiding where you’re really from, because I’m guessing you don’t talk about us much, do you?” Candice said. “You,” she continued, pointing at Shelly, “belong in there, with us. With me. That’s where you should be. It’s where you used to be.”

“Candice, I…I had to do this.”

Shelly looked down at her feet and continued, “I knew this was going to happen.” She was talking to herself as much as she was to Candice.

“Yeah, I kind of did too.”

Shelly started to say something back but Candice heard nothing. She ground her cigarette into the asphalt with her toe, turned her back on Shelley, and stormed back into the plant. The floor started to come back to life as workers took their old positions again in a daze, firing up the machines one by one, and wondering what the point was when it was all going to be gone anyway. All sold away, every brick, re-bar, and pipe.

Candice took her place behind the deadline, flipping starter switches one, two and four on pneumatic punch press #39. It roared to life like it was angry it had been put to sleep in the first place, but it responded to her just like it always did since ever she took over that position in the wake of the Chisum Incident.

She reached into her pocket and fished out her lucky Susan B. Anthony piece. She placed it on her tucked-in thumb, and flicked it up into the air where it traveled in a long arc, end over dull end, where it missed the crush bar and landed right into the knockout tray of the press with a tiny pang that only she could hear over the noise. She realized that as the current holder of the “Safety Days” title, she just committed a cardinal sin, but the most she’d lose out on were about seven Safety Bucks that were really only good if she wanted to buy another shirt that she had designed.

Six months from that moment, just before her daughter’s tuition bill was due in, Candice would walk into Ned’s Buy and Trade with every mint condition collector’s coin she had, only to be told by Ned’s son that none of them were worth a thing, despite the fact that every coin came with a certificate of authentication. Ned’s boy would tell her that taking valuable coinage and coating it in holographic gold-plating makes it just as valueless as if you’d dip a hundred dollar bill in chocolate. “It sure looks pretty,” he’ll say, “but you can’t get to the real money anymore. It’s gone.”

Posted in

Julie A. Jacob, 11/14/2011

Current Occupation: Communications Manager

Former Occupation: Journalist

Contact Information: Julie A. Jacob is a writer who lives in Wisconsin.

###

Journey Between the Years

“Are you going to take the job?”

It was three days before the winter solstice. My father’s question hung in the air as we enjoyed dinner at an Irish pub in downtown Milwaukee. My niece had just graduated from college and we were celebrating with my sister’s family.

“Yes, I think so …” I hesitated. Of course I should take the public relations job I had been offered at a university. I had been sending out resumes for more than a year. My formerly engrossing work in my current job had changed, following a change in management, to mind-numbing routine punctuated by coworkers’ withering criticism.

The job I had been offered was closer to home, paid a little more and had a better title. My organization’s retired CEO had written a sterling letter of recommendation. And yet … the position was almost identical to what I had been doing for eight years. It would be more of the same, but harder and under greater pressure. The person who had held the job previously had been fired, and I worried about meeting the high expectations of the person who would be my boss. I didn’t like the remote suburban location, lacking even a Starbucks, which was so different from the vibrancy of downtown Chicago.

In an economy as cold as that December night, with newspapers and websites filled day after day with stories of the jobless and pictures of sad-eyed people staring blankly into the camera, I was afraid or uncertain, I wasn’t sure which, of making the move.

“You should think seriously about that job,” my father said. His advice was wise, based on his own 40 years of experience as an engineer in the white-collar jungle. He was right. I should take the job. It was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up, one that was unlikely to come along again.

I had dragged out the interview process as long I could. An offer was on the table, and now I had to go forward or withdraw.

I kept turning over and over in my mind the Mary Oliver poem, “The Journey,” the one where the narrator breaks free of the voices “shouting their bad advice” and strides out into the night on her own path. I loved that poem. I used to think that the voices represented the admonishments of family and friends who, with the best intentions, say, “stick to the tried-and-true path,” “it’s too risky,” and “what if you fail”? But after re-reading the poems many times, it dawned on me that maybe those voices were every person’s own self-critic, the inner voice that whispers “I’m afraid to change, “I’ll fail,” and “I’m a fraud.”

Was I hesitating because I badly wanted the job, but was stymied by my inner critic murmuring, “you’re so going to fail”? Or was I frozen in indecision because I wanted to strike out on a different career path, one with more writing and less meetings, more creativity and less politicsbut couldn’t shake off my inner critic telling me that I was a fool to walk away from the offer? After all, when would an opportunity like that come along again, especially in this grim economy, for a woman over 40? Like the narrator in “The Journey” I I had to turn my back to my doubts and head out into the nightbut should I be striding toward the job or away from it?

I had no idea. So I sipped my spicy, steaming tomato soup and toasted my niece and her boyfriendtwo sweet, bright young people impatient to begin the journey of their own careers. It was their time and I kept my doubts to myself.

That night I composed an e-mail, fingers poised over the keyboard, took a deep breath and hit “send.”

***

“So how come you didn’t take the job”? Michael, my friend, asked on the winter solstice. We were sipping warm gluhwein at the ChristKindll Market in downtown Chicago. The cup warmed my chilled hands. The night was cold and clear. An enormous evergreen, decorated with oversized, candy-colored lights, towered majestically over Daley Plaza. The aromas of roasted nuts, chocolate and hot cider scented the crisp air. Strings of white lights illuminated wooden stalls selling candles, nutcrackers and ornaments. The occasional clanging of a cowbell could be heard over the laughter and music, signaling that someone had left a tip. It was a charming scene, but I was distracted by doubt.

I shrugged. “It didn’t seem like the right fit. Too much focus on marketing and … ”

My words trailed off. I had no good reason why I had turned down the job. Had I been scared or had I not wanted it? Had I been afraid of failing or justifiably concerned that a demanding new job with a fancier title and more responsibility would distract me from what I really wanted to do, which was to write and teach? Did I feel guilty about accepting a good job when I already had one and millions of talented people with college degrees were unemployed and desperate? Did a person even have the right to dream in a brutal economy? I thought again of Oliver’s poem. Was I still trapped in that damn house, surrounded by the voices of doubt, or had I walked shakily into the night toward some yet unknown job that I really wanted?

I didn’t know.

Michael looked puzzled, for I had confided my fears to him a few weeks earlier, and he had assured me that I could do it. “Everyone feels like a fraud when they start a new job,” he said.

He kindly changed the subject.

“Do you work tomorrow?

“No, I’m off from tomorrow until Jan 4. I love having that week off between Christmas and New Year.”

He nodded. “In Germany everyone gets off the week between Christmas and New Year’s. It’s called zwischen den Jahren. Between the years.”

Zwischen den Jahren. I knew some German, but had never heard that phrase. I instantly loved it. It was the perfect name for that peaceful week suspended between the years, balanced between the year not quite done and the one not yet started. I thought of it as a week with all worries and fears erased, or at least dusted over with a soft, powdery snow of holiday cheer. Every year I took vacation during that time and happily did a lot of not much: reading, watching old movies, having lunch with my dad, and visiting my sister and her family.

During zwischen den Jahren, the decision to decline the job felt like the right one. I had been wise not to take the job, I told myself. I would find something else, eventually, a position where I could write more and go to meetings less at a place that was quirkier and more vibrant, located in a bustling downtown. Yes, it had been the best choice.

The New Year came and went. The decorations were packed away. On a gray January day, I rode a packed train filled with grumpy commuters and returned to work. My boss came back from vacation. Nothing had changed. I thought about that job every time the train passed the suburb where I would have worked, and I began to feel an ache of regret at what might have been.

One Saturday afternoon, no longer able to resist my curiosity, I checked the website of the university where I had been offered the job. A new name was listed in the position. I felt a pinch of remorse so sharp I caught my breath. My name could have been listed there.

I looked out the living room window at the dirty snow, cloud-smeared sky, and black, bony trees. Nothing stirred. Would I have excelled or failed at the job? Loved or loathed it? No answers were to be found in that mute, frozen tableau. There was nothing else to be done, nothing else I could do, but to turn away from the window and write.

Posted in

Mary Slocum, 11/7/2011

Current Occupation: retired social worker

Former Occupation: 17 year shipyard electrician

Contact Information: A poet since she was 14, Mary Slocum was the last winner of the Portland Artquake competition in the 90s and a winner of Washington State Poetry Assn. humorous poetry competition in the 90s. Mary Slocum has been published in Stanza, NW Literary Review, Upper Left Edge, Tradeswomen’s Network Newsletter, Black Cat, Portland Alliance, Work and Carcenogenic. She enjoys reading more than publishing and has also appeared with a comedy collective. Presently working on a complete collection and some of which is on her website: www.maryslocum.com

###

Great Expectations

For $70,000 they gave me a Masters in Social Work,
Expecting to , “Do no Harm”,
Be of service, Fix the broken,
Services purported to care.

Got my first job
County Mental Health Clinic,
Hangin with schizophrenics
And their voices,
I was in my element.
Politics, beaurocracy, funding
Cuts dropped like a rock
In clients puddled in the street,
Rippling out to the community.
Homeless for the first time in their lives,
And management
let me tell them they were homeless.

Charged for meds that kept them
“Stable”. Complained about
By Christian neighbors
In the grocery line. Boss
Chewing social workers out for our clients
Making their neighbors uncomfortable.
Peeking behind the curtain
Wizard now lacking arms
Could no longer deny
I volunteer for the layoff
So the budget would balance.
And I can
Do No Harm.

Got the second job
Pushing Methadone
To addicts poor and homeless.
Believed it was treatment.
Same curtain, different wizard.
Loved the groups, loved the people trying,
Loved to help until I focused.
On the business, It was a business.
Charged for dosing.
Methadone eats calcium from bone,
Curtain flapping in the breeze.
Clients with walkers after years of “Treatment”
For this illness of addiction.
Taught that relapse was a symptom,
Saw them cut the dose to punish for the symptom.
Withdrawal price for illness,
Methadone more addictive medication than when they started
Do No Harm.

Curtain billowing.
Relapse. A limit to the number of groups
you can attend
After the hook is set. “Do No Harm”
Pounding in my ears
Support allowed only once a month
Makes it hard to schedule cravings
I let anyone in my groups that showed up.
Got busted, got fired,
Happy now I could “Do No Harm”.
Expectations filling.

Got foster girls, thought I might be effective.
Got threatened. Had my furniture thrown at me.
Laser shot anger focuses burning through my skull
Laughter dies in my home.
Asked for medication management.
Told it was a once a month privilege
Got bit, kicked and hit.
Watched her try to kill my dog, kill her fish.
Never knew there could be so much anger in
Such a small package, I was paying for their damage by their system,
I too was angry.
Still wanted to Do No Harm.
.
Decided I needed to help myself.
Left the program, stayed in bed for months.
Lost all faith in humanity to be human.
Lost like dust bunnies under a couch.

Got an e-mail
Class on “How to tell your client
You have no resources.” “How to handle their frustration
When you tell them the truth.
Behind the curtain. That you have no services.
$125 to change your expectations to, “Do No Harm”.

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Michael Casey, 11/7/2011

Current Occupation: Retired

Former Occupation: Creative Writing Instructor

Contact Information: Casey has a book Obscenities in the Yale Younger Poet Series. He has written several other books including Millrat and The Million Dollar Hole. His new book, Check Points, is due out soon from Adastra Press.

###

ff

I have a friend named ffitch
he says it’s a Scot name
and begins with a lower case f
he pronounces it like it is one f
although maybe at one time it was different
I am reminded of the F Troop episode in which
Larry Storch plays a mountie
in pursuit of the Burglar from Bampff
I always thought Larry Storch brilliant
and he worked that word
into three or four syllables
then too
I am reminded of my boss
most called him the Big Bopper
but one of his nicknames
was the Big Booper
both shortened to BB
but the nick name I used and preferred
was always shortened to FF

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Jason Preu, 10/31/2011

Current Occupation: Security Engineer

Former Occupation: Shipping and Receiving Clerk, Chef, Dishwasher, Help Desk, Factory Line Worker, Administrative Assistant, Security Administrator, Grocery Bagger

Contact Information: Jason Preu studied English at the University of Kansas. He now lives, works, and worships avocados in Kansas City, KS with his wife and two children. His writing has most recently appeared in the 2010 issue of Kansas City Voices magazine.

#

Infrastructure

You sit.

You sit waiting.

You sit waiting for your turn.

You sit waiting for your turn to meet with your boss.

You sit waiting for your turn to meet with your boss knowing that you’re interviewing, up against five other internal candidates (from a pool of thousands, likely), for an available slot on One World, Inc.’s Infrastructure team.

You know it’s a rare availability.

You know it’s a long shot.

It’s almost 10:30. Your boss’s door remains closed. The business hums along. No one walks by.

Your palms begin to sweat, ever so slightly. You think about getting up for a cup of coffee but don’t want to miss that door opening. First impressions are everything and everything more. You rub your hands together as though to warm them. You are not cold.

10:31 A.M. The door to your boss’s office opens almost of its own accord. You hear a few shuffling papers, then your boss calls, “You out there, Nelson?” You stand, approach the open door and peek your head inside. “Yes, sir.” “Well, come on in then. Shut the door behind you.” You do as you’re told. (Maybe that’s why you’re here.)

You haven’t been in your boss’s office all that often. It’s disheveled but otherwise nondescript. No ornaments on the walls. A picture of a Yorkshire terrier next to one monitor. Paper, paper, paper. Frankly, it looks to you as though your boss could be picked up and replaced at any time and no one would be the wiser. Maybe they’d notice a picture of a different dog next to the monitor.

“So much for the paperless office,” you say, despite yourself.

“Yes, yes, sorry for the mess. Time enough for paperwork when we’re dead.”

“Uh, sure,” you say, not really understanding.

“You know why you’re here. I see you’re well-dressed. I suppose that means you’re interested.”

“To be honest, I don’t know much. I just thought it best…since it’s an interview and all…” You look down at your lap and make an altogether half-hearted gesture at your outfit. He knows you know you don’t know what the fuck you’re doing here. Your boss smiles – almost aggressively. He knows you know he knows. And he likes it that way.

“Sure. Look, Nelson, to be blunt, we’ve completely drained a couple of our guys. Top producers, so we’re taking a real hit while they’re out.”

“I’ve not noticed any increased calls to the Service Desk,” you reply. Your boss takes his time to respond, folding his hands and placing them atop a stack of papers on his desk. He looks over your head, then down at his hands. You pay attention to his eyes when he looks back up. Tired, dark half-circles.

“Not yet, you won’t. The rest of the team can handle the increased load – but not indefinitely. We’re looking to move on this position ASAP. Next few days. We need to get the role filled and there are some preliminaries to handle before one can do the actual work.”

“Background check?”

“That is a concern, but one that’s already been handled. In that respect, you and the other candidates have been given an all-clear by HR and Legal.”

“My credit is good. No criminal history.” Your boss offers an oddly-placed smile and an almost sympathetic tone.

“Little more to it than that. Family history, ties…any obligations outside of work. Demanding job we’re offering and we can’t afford to place someone who can’t give one hundred and ten percent.”

“Lots of travel? Dealing with government data?”

“No, no. Not this role. This one requires the ability to deliver on full power all the time.”

You don’t have a lot to say to that. You are happy with your work but don’t really relish the thought of having to be available and ready for anything 24/7.

You look again at the bland, taupe walls – so blank that after a while they seem to breathe – and you wonder if this is what you have in store: work, blank walls, work. In many ways, this is what you signed on for. Everyone here has. Four walls and a door to close. The great life.

“So what do you need from me? You have have any questions for me…should I ask you some questions?”

“Doesn’t matter a whole helluva lot.” Your boss leans in toward you. “I really just schedule these interviews so that I have a clean, uninterrupted chance to look you right in the eyes.” And look in your eyes he does. He does so with a sinister sadness so serene you feel slightly dislocated. A power and a misunderstanding pass between the two of you.

He believes he is spilling his soul.

You believe he is stealing yours.

You inhale audibly, smelling sweat and toner.

He slowly closes his eyes and says, “Thanks for your time, Nelson. You’ll hear from me soon. You may go now.”

You stand up, dazed and strangely enthused about the prospects ahead. After an interview like this, you’re sure to land the job. However daunting the work, however bland the walls, you now feel unable to fail and ready to take it all on. You walk back to your workstation, put on some headphones, and get back to work.

#

Your boss was right. A few days passes before he finds you in the hall and asks you to follow him to his office. He closes the door behind you then takes a seat himself. “The job is yours, Nelson.” You knew it.

“What’s the offer?”

“Beg pardon?”

“Do you have anything in writing for me?”

“The job is yours, Nelson.”

“How long do I have to respond?” You aren’t used to playing hardball with superiors. It feels kinda nice. “I just want to look over the offer and –”

“And what, Nelson? Discuss it with you wife? Family?” Odd.

“No, I don’t really have any family. I just –”

“The job. Is yours.”

“And what is the offer?” This is getting ridiculous. Do they plan to laterally transition you? Hell no. Not for that kind of shift in workload.

“Go back to your desk, Nelson. Clean it out. Be back here at midnight. Your new shift starts then. Orientation will take roughly thirty minutes. Then you’re part of Infrastructure.”

“And the offer?” You try to be as insistent as possible without overstepping. “What if I refuse?”

“Oh, hell, Nelson, you can’t refuse. Haven’t you figured that out by now?” And like that, the conversation is over. You have a new job. Starting tonight. Midnight.

#

You return to One World’s building at around 11:45 that night. Enough time to pause outside and light up a cigarette for a few choice drags. The cigarette tastes good but isn’t nearly as satisfying nor calming as you’d hoped. You can’t recall ever being here at night and its somewhat unsettling. Blue-white glow from halogen ghost send shadows skittering into impossible angles. Just inside the front doors, illuminated by dull fluorescents, behind a massive, black desk and hidden by a row of video monitors sits a crusty, old security guard. You squash your cigarette to death against the concrete wall and scan your TrakBadge™ across the door to get inside the building.

The security guard stirs to life like leaves rustled by wind. He looks older than dirt. Hell, he looks like he just climbed out from under six feet of dirt.

“Evening,” he croaks, “scan your badge, please.”

He gazes at the monitors, mesmerized. He chews his gums and does not look your way. You scan your badge across the thin plastic reader on the desktop. You wait. The old man turns his head slowly toward you, tendons in his neck straining with this Herculean effort. What looks at you isn’t so much a life nearing end, but a death being born. The guard’s eyes are cataracted and what teeth remain in his mouth are blackened and broken.

“Nelson!” he spits, full of spirit and venom.

“Yes, that’s right. Infrastructure. Night shift.”

“That’s what this goddamned screen tells me,” he coughs.

His body rattles. He reaches over and uses a bony, middle finger to press a tiny, red button which opens the gate. “Need to take elevator 6 to B3.”

“Thanks.”

You walk through the gate and say “Good night,” over your shoulder to the old man.

“Goodbye,” he rasps.

You laugh to yourself. That’s right, old-timer. You’ll be lucky to make it more than a few more nights.

You hop onto elevator 6 and push the B3 button. The doors seal closed before your eyes and you feel the pulleys engage. Down you go. You figured Infrastructure would be in a different part of the building – no one ever sees them – but being in the basement is somewhat surprising. The elevator car stops but the doors don’t open. You hear some buzzing and whirring then the car violently shifts toward the right, throwing you off balance and into the wall. The elevator moves sideways. Stops. Buzzes and whirrs. Then down once again. Finally, the doors open to complete darkness.

Small red, green, yellow, blue lights slowly begin to populate your field of vision – lights from the servers. Luminescent dust motes forever suspended in air. You step off the elevator and into a darkened hall. The elevator bay is the only break in a wall that runs behind you. A wall of glass stands before you protecting the data center and all those glowing, blipping, blinking lights.

Left or right?

You decide left.

You start to walk, floating lights on your right keeping you in a somewhat straight line down the narrow hallway. As your eyes begin to adjust to the dark you venture another look into the data center and see row after row beyond row behind row of server racks filled with servers. A living field of floating lights. How much must it cost to cool the air in there?

You keep walking and far ahead you make out the faint glow of a fluorescent light. Some time later you arrive at a small break room, more or less a little hole cut right into the wall. There’s a table, two chairs, a key on a chain and a piece of paper. No sink. No fridge. No coffee.

No coffee?

You sit down on one of the hard, plastic chairs and pick up the piece of paper. It reads:

Please take the key to the end of the hallway and use it to open the door.

Follow the signs to the UPS area.

Go to UPS bay 142 and use the key to open the door.

Further instructions await within.

No welcome, no nothing.

You put the key around your neck and get back to walking. And walking. And more walking. You do finally come to the end of the hallway where a single, white door marked DATA CENTER ACCESS stands before you. Your key fits perfectly and you open the door to a blast of uncomfortably cold air.

“Holy shit!” you say, rubbing your hands together. “Igloo…”

You don’t see any signs on the wall but then you look down and see painted on the floor different colored words and lines. A red line overlaid with the the words “Uninterrupted Power Supplies” leads you away from the door and into the belly of this cold beast.

At some point (you’re pretty much lost) your line stops at a metal handle attached to the floor. You lift the handle to reveal a dimly-lit spiral staircase. The top of the handled door reads UPS BAYS. You head down, feet clicking and clacking on the stairs. You see no other members of your team.

At the bottom of the stairs you see rows and rows of what look like lockers, slightly wider than average, running down the side of the walls in front of and behind you. Each locker is marked with a small plastic placard emblazoned with a number. Below each placard is a keyhole. Locker number 22 is in front of you. Behind you is number 3,561. Fueled by the promise of “further instructions” you wander through the rows until you find number 142. Your key fits. No surprise.

You turn the key and open the locker door.

The interior of the locker runs some distance back and along each side are square black boxes, stacked atop each other. UPS. Those must be the batteries. Not like any UPS you’ve seen before. But, no surprise that One World uses some heavy tech to fuel its operations. At the very back of the locker sits a large reclining, leather chair similar to what you’d find at your dentist. Upon the chair, another piece of paper. You look around for a bit. No monitors. No interfaces or peripherals at all. You pick up the paper and read:

Sit down.

You laugh.

You worry. Skeptical. But damn if curiosity doesn’t win out.

Every time curiosity wins out.

You sit.

The chair’s armrests extend up and over your wrists, pinning them in place. The bottom of the leg rest extends down, out and flips up, grabbing your legs before you even realize you’re being restrained. You thrash about now, grunting, trying to break the grips, when something flips over the top of your head. Your breathing increases five-fold. You see nothing. You feel your hot exhales being directed back toward your cheeks, forehead. You feel a thick, flat something slowly snake its way across your chest. Your breath smells sweet and sounds as though it’s coming from a place outside of you. The strap across your chest begins to tighten. You hear a slight beeping from above that grows louder, closer. Your hands are clinched to immovable fists. Your mind beings to drift, remembering a time your next door neighbor, older, a jerk, trapped you inside of an old refrigerator his parents had in their garage. Smell of stale beer and sulphur. The beeping draws nearer. You hear a whirr and the cover over your head begins to vibrate. You feel an isolated vortex of air open next to your ear. The whirring stops and your left periphery begins to glow ever-so-slightly. Light coming in. Something jams into your ear-hole filling your head with explosive pain as your lungs fill the air with screams. You remember nothing now. Nothing but pain. You feel two more sharp stings – one in each arm – and then feel something crawling under your forearms’ skin. Two, four, six more crawlers. They stop crawling at your shoulders. You cry, yell, beg, whimper. Sharp pains in your legs and the crawlers making their way to your groin. Your head vibrates again. Stops. A jab into your right ear. Pain. White. You hear a machine voice say, “Power connect successful.” You pass out. You come to. You feel your mouth wrapped around a large, plastic tube. You try to stop breathing. You hear a beep and feel a blast of air into your lungs. You fall asleep. You wake up. Nothing’s change. You fall asleep. You wake up. Nothing’s changed.

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