Adam Matcho, 8/7/2011

Current Occupation: Obituary Writer
Former Occupation(s): Technical Writer for an invention company and many years working at Spencer’s Gifts and at a gas station
Contact Information: Adam Matcho is an obituary writer who works and lives just outside of Pittsburgh, Pa. After writing about death all day, he tries to make poems and stories about life. Some of these poems and stories have appeared in Chiron Review, Nerve Cowboy and Pearl, among other magazines and websites. He is also a regular contributor to The New Yinzer ( where his work-related column, “Counter Culture,” relives the horrors and joys of his time in the retail and food service industries.


Training for the Overnight Shift (Ron’s monologue)

Make sure the coffee is fresh.
That’s the most important thing.
you will get bawled out
and spit at by some of these people
if you don’t keep the coffee on.

And when nobody’s in the store
(and trust me, kid, there will be times
when it’s just you and talk radio
and sometimes it gets so lonely
you want to burn yourself just for something to do)

clean the cooler doors, wipe them down,
with a warm, wet rag. And keep
the sneeze guard free of fingerprints.
Give the floor a once-over with the mop
after sun-up. And don’t forget cops eat free.

If you want to look at the girlie books,
slit the plastic bag along the bottom
so you can slide it back in when you’re done.
And don’t go pulling your pud when you see
those naked girls, kid. Show some moderation.

Just listen to me. Do what I say
and you’ll be okay. You can smoke
in the backroom, but flick the butts
outside. Try and hit Chuck who sleeps
between the dumpster and the ice machine.

He may wake up and curse,
but don’t worry, he’s harmless.
You seem smart enough, kid.
Now do me a favor
and go pull that book
from the shelf, the one
with the black chick
in the cheerleader outfit.

And while you’re at it, put on another pot
of strong coffee. Only two hours ‘til sunup.


Meeting with Loss Prevention

“What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done
at work, Adam?” I say, “I don’t know.”
“I do drink one 32 oz. Mountain Dew
from the soda fountain at the beginning of every shift.”

He says, “You know we have cameras, right?”
I shake my head. I know
I would have been fired
long ago, if this were true.

I’d taken snack cakes and beef jerky
and rolling papers and cigarettes
and magazines and road maps
and money right from the register.

I gave free food to friends
and fresh cookies to strangers.
I played scratch-and-win lottery tickets
for several hours until I broke even.

I say, “That’s really all I can think of.”
Loss Prevention scribbles red
in a notebook, rolls his cobalt sleeves
to the knobs of his bone and ash elbows.

He says, “You know I have this thing,
right? This intuition. Some people have
perfect vision. But not me. I wear these
glasses for a reason: 40/60 eyesight.

Instead, I have the knack for knowing
when people are bullshitting me. A gift
of compensation. Poor vision, but flawless
interpersonal perception. Understand?”

I recall punching in this morning, the hour
was 6 and I was making 6 an hour and making
myself a sausage and egg bagel, a cup of coffee
and dozing for five minutes on the countertop.

I say, “Once when I was hungry, I created
a new sandwich. I called it a stromboli sub.
It was glorious. I’ve been selling it on the side,
and ringing it under a club on the register.”

“Jesus, kid,” Loss Prevention says.
“Who gives a shit? Just let me do my job here.
Have you or anybody else ever stolen anything
from the store while you were employed here?”

“No,” I say. “Why would I do that?”
He says, “Just so you know, we know
everything. I’m just giving you the chance
to come clean now. Clear your conscience.”

I shrug and say I’m sorry, but the stromboli sub
is the only thing I can confess. Loss Prevention says
he knows I’m telling him straight because he knows
how to read people and I am a good sort. Although,

he’d watch it, creating my own sandwiches.
It disrupts the store inventory: internal shrinkage.
Besides, I don’t get paid to sit around and think
of stupid shit like putting stromboli on bread.

Louis Bourgeois, 7/31/2011

Current Occupation: Executive Director of VOX PRESS.
Former Occupation: Instructor of English.
Contact Information: Louis Bourgeois is the Executive Director of VOX PRESS, INC, a 501 (c) 3 avant-garde literary press. His memoir, The Gar Diaries, was nominated for the National Book Award in 2008. Bourgeois lives, writes, and edits in Oxford, Mississippi.


A Story of Cans

(Or, Why I Hate the Middle Class)

My father and I picked up aluminum cans all over town one summer. He had a ’72 Mercury that looked worse than anything Robert Blake ever drove in Beretta. We drove around in this heap of a car all day until the back seat was overstuffed with cans to the roof.

I was twelve years old and not embarrassed about picking up the cans, even though I was constantly running into people I knew who looked astounded to see me doing such a thing. I knew my reputation at school, where I was considered a kind of child scholar, would eventually be damaged if the word spread I was harvesting other people’s throwaways, picking up aluminum cans on the shoulders of highways and roads, in national and state parks, in garbage bins of all colors and sizes, in barrooms and demi-whore houses, at car washes and seafood restaurants, etc. But I was with my father and he didn’t see any shame in what we were doing, so I didn’t either.

When I returned to school that August, everyone knew about the cans and I was shunned by my peers as well as my teachers, who were the very ones who fostered the notion that I was a child genius, un nouveau poèt extraordinaire, and all the rest. Apparently, everybody had seen me picking up cans with my bearded and tattered father, both of us working the lots of the worst places imaginable, at least to their narrow bourgeois minds.

The social denunciation by the community—this gross inequity, for what money we got selling the cans to the recycling plant to help me and my father stay alive that summer, since he had just been “laid off” from his job of eight years—maimed me for life. I admit it, I gave in to society and became genuinely embarrassed about the whole thing and embarrassed by my father, even if it wasn’t his fault that he had to sell cans to help pay the rent and buy food. I wasn’t old enough at the time to hold my own and stick by my working class ethics. Yes, I was humiliated by the fact that I had stooped so low as to pick up other people’s garbage for money, so much so that I have yet to fully recover even by the age of thirty-five, so that I’m still planning my revenge against this very middle class that caused me so much unnecessary shame.

I’m fully convinced I will prevail in the end.


Matt Love, 7/24/2011

Current Occupation: English, Journalism and Photography Teacher, Newport High School

Former Occupation: Caretaker of Nestucca Bay National Wildlife Refuge
Contact Information: Matt Love is the author of Gimme Refuge: The Education of a Caretaker and Love & the Green Lady. Both are available at independent bookstores or through


Taking the Bridge

Matt heading the Field Trip Bus

On Wednesday night, after eight inches of rain in five days in Newport, I prayed to the Oregon Coast Gods for a divine intervention from the ongoing deluge so I could mount my cultural offensive otherwise known as a field trip.

I had organized a Thursday morning mission to transport seventy students on a bus to assault the north and south approaches of the famed Yaquina Bay Bridge and seize the bridgehead at both ends with an overwhelming righteous firepower of art, photography, love and a little teen angst. My tactical plan was foolproof. In my youth I had seen The Bridge at Remagen, A Bridge on the River Kwai and A Bridge Too Far a hundred times on TV. I played army in the woods with friends at double the intensity that contemporary kids play Call of Duty alone in their bedrooms. Believe me, I knew how to steal a butter knife from my mom’s kitchen and use it as a bayonet, dig a foxhole and take a fucking bridge!

My troops would shoot a million photographs and sketch a thousand drawings that would later become part of a special Newport High School publication commemorating the seventy-fifth anniversary of the bridge. The field trip would require four permission forms, cover one and a half miles, last seventy-five minutes, and cost approximately three hundred and thirty-seven dollars. If the rain persisted however, I would have to scrub the mission and I might not get a second chance considering the Byzantine mandates of staging any field trip these days when testing often consumes weeks of a school’s schedule.

Approximately eighteen hours earlier I had nearly lost my mind in a faculty meeting where testing dominated the discussion. Did I tell you how much I hate testing, let alone the discussion of testing? Outside of the SAT, I never took a single standardized test in high school. So what? I did get to take creative writing, guitar, journalism, psychology and an art and music appreciation class. No one ever remembers a test they took in high school unless all they had were shitty teachers. You know what plagues education in America? The Masters of War and Jack Rippers who sit at the heads of the Chambers of Commerce evangelize their answer. They pass their laws in the political world where mercy has walked the plank and you don’t need an accountant to know which way the money blows. I can encapsulate their sick view of what plagues education by excerpting a letter below that appeared in the New York Times about the same time I planned my field trip with artistic and existential outcomes that would never, couldn’t possibly ever, appear on any test:

To the Editor:

At a time when America is struggling to retain its competitive advantage over countries like China and India, the caliber of America’s teachers must be first-rate. Take a lesson from Singapore.

The country consistently scores near the top of most international standardized tests in math and science, while spending less per child on education than almost any other developed nation.

Twenty-first-century trade will be defined by who makes things better, and new ideas are essential. This means graduating more scientists and engineers—whose paths start with inspiring educators, new and old.

James Dyson
Malmesbury, England, 2011

The writer is an engineer.

Mr. Dyson, if you mean producing more engineers like Conde McCullough, the master bridge builder who conceived the Yaquina Bay Bridge, then I heartily agree. If you believe that turning Oregon into Singapore will solve our education problems, then I think you are diseased in mind and desperately need to get laid in one way or another to restore your celibate soul. How about graduating more artists and photographers? Whose paths start with inspiring the Philistines that run and ruin the planet to consider—and confront—what is beautiful and sacred in this world? How about more rocking in the free world?

I awoke at four thirty a.m. and heard nothing tapping on the roof. I threw open the window and saw stars in the sky. I checked the weather report online and the forecast called for sunshine and temperatures reaching the high fifties. Driving to school, I heard Dylan on one of my ancient mix tapes made when high schools had darkrooms and kilns where students felt each other up or made bongs. In that jingle jangle morning…and Bob never sounded so good or so prescient.

My orders to the troops were to rendezvous with me at approximately eleven fourteen on a bus parked in front of the school. We would roll out at eleven fifteen. If you’re late, you suffer worksheets, videos, bologna and banality back in class.

Executing a successful high school field trip can challenge even the most battle hardened teacher and I have pulled off many a glorious one in my career. For that I can probably thank my Old Man, a master teacher of forty years and former combat Marine in Korea who taught me how to get teaching things done right and anticipate every contingency. Thus, I had every mission parameter timed to the second and brought along tampons and lunches from Subway.

But when I stepped onto the bus just seconds prior to departure and saw ten obviously special education students that I had absolutely no idea were going to join us, sitting in the first few rows and looking anxious, anxious like before a rock concert, well, this was an unforeseen development. I had never taken special education students on a field trip before.

I covertly asked the art teacher who was accompanying me with his two classes about the presence of the special education students.

“They’re in the class too. I forgot to tell you.”

I looked at them clutching their art supplies and then the word somehow got out that the Subway lunch contained a chocolate chip cookie. A cookie! Undoubtedly the greatest cookie on earth! A few of them rubbed their hands in anticipation of the cookie. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen a teenager get this fired up. There wasn’t a shred of that accursed adolescent malaise known as “whatever” in any of their faces, about the cookie, or the prospect of following me to the death on a jingle jangle morning, or life itself; they looked positively unhinged with giddiness and weren’t fiddling around with their goddamn phones! These were my crack troops!

A teacher dreams of having students like this. So what the hell? Let’s rock and roll on Highway 101 revisited and get unstuck from inside the Newport blues again!

I introduced myself to Mel the bus driver and briefed him on the mission. I actually used the word “mission” and impressed upon him that we didn’t have time to dick around. He said, “I drove a semi for nine years. I can handle it.”

On the way to the bridge, Mel jumped a couple of curves and took us in hot. Given the command, I think he would have driven right off the bridge for art’s sake!

We stopped under the north end of the bridge near the pedestrian plaza that virtually none of the students had ever visited. Surrounded by the seventy, I screamed, “Gear up!” and “spread out!” I swung four different cameras around my neck and stuffed another in my pocket. I had only one rule: you can’t walk on the bridge. Too much potential for grab-assing and a flattened freshman on the deck. They saluted and then…the assault of art and photography on the Yaquina Bay Bridge began. It was as gorgeous an aesthetic operation as has ever been recorded in the annals of Oregon history.

Field Trip Pointing

Some thirty minutes later, the seventy and I stood under the bridge at the south end and I barked out my orders: inhale your lunch and then mount another assault! The principal showed up with his awesome new camera and super telephoto lens, He was shooting eight frames a second, looking at the bridge at interesting angles, and sharing his passion for photography with students. He felt like my General.

Bridge Drawing


At one point, a girl spread Fritos on the grass and the gulls swarmed in like gilded vultures to a loophole in a securities law. The special education students went completely nuts and danced in the swarm. I wanted to join them but refrained. A little discipline for the troops, you know?

In the course of the field trip I saw images of the bridge I never imagined seeing. The students got shots no one has ever got and will never get again.

We arrived back at school five minutes late and I worried a bit about teacher retribution for tardies. Some of the unhappy personnel in the rear act like that sometimes. These are the same teachers who students will never remember, except, if later in life, they read Catch 22, and then all the lessons of school and life and America become clear.

We took the bridge.

Denise Emanuel Clemen, 7/17/2011

Current Occupation: Divorceé
Former Occupation: Child rearer, cat box scooper, landscaper, cook, laundress errand runner, social planner, travel agent and all-around indentured servant of high-powered attorney.
Contact Information: Denise Emanuel Clemen became a mother at the age of 16—but it’s a lot more complicated than that. Since then she’s worked as an art model, an au pair in Paris, a merchant of her own blood plasma, and a worker in a toy factory where she was expert at assembling miniature manure spreaders. Her fiction and essays have been published in several literary magazines (most recently “The Rattling Wall.”) and in the anthology “Saying Goodbye” from Dream of Things Publication. She blogs as if she were getting paid for it at,, and


The Dead and The Naked

“You would be the dead girl,” the director said. I nodded, hoping to appear unfazed. I could do dead. A low-budget independent film was a step up from the student films I’d been doing. There would be pay.

The director had graduated from USC film school and made sure to insert this impressive bit of his resume into our conversation. To support his claim, a framed diploma was hanging from a nail the size of a railroad spike protruding from the cracked plaster behind his desk. He had industry connections, he said. He didn’t want to drop names, but he had an uncle in the business that would set him up with something bigger if this project went well.

I wondered if his uncle had rented his office for him, furnished it and hooked up the phone. The two-room suite was on the corner of Hollywood and Cahuenga in a partially vacant bank building, and the metal desk and filing cabinet looked like survivors of a moving van accident. You could see the Hollywood sign if you pressed your face against the grimy window and looked north. It was 1977, and Hollywood was badly in need of a face-lift. The Hollywood sign itself also craved some cosmetic intervention. One of its L’s was sagging.

In the adjoining room, I could see four blond girls sitting on cockeyed folding chairs. They were being called back for the lead, but I was already cast based on the audition I’d done a few days ago. The director was still going on about how my part was really the most interesting one. “There’s a lot of meat in the two scenes you have before you die,” he said.

“We’ll need you to fill this out for us,” his assistant said, handing me a clipboard. “And there’s no problem with the nudity, right?”

“Wait a minute,” I said. “My character is nude?”

“Well, she has clothes on for the first couple of minutes,” the director replied, “but then the killers force her to strip. We’ve done a re-write. It makes the scene where she pleads for her life so much more powerful.” I would be dead and naked.

I could hear the blond girls rustling their scripts and imagined them craning their necks for a better view of me. Two hundred dollars a week for three weeks of work was a small fortune. And I wouldn’t have to work very hard after my first two scenes were shot. After that I just had to lie around and be dead.

I’d done worse. I’d sold my own blood plasma. I’d auditioned for a humiliating TV talent show with a friend where we’d worn tube tops and mini-skirts and did a juggling act while singing an Irish drinking song containing the lyrics, “The Saxons have stolen my balls.” Balls. Juggling. We’d found it funny. Nudity wasn’t exactly virgin territory for me. I’d been an art model for figure drawing classes in college and had even free-lanced for a certain photography professor. He’d taken pictures of me lying nude on a fake zebra rug, my body striped with light and shadow from the venetian blinds that he had tilted just so. If that was art, then maybe this would be too.

“The nudity will be shot very tastefully,” the director said.

“Your long hair will help a lot,” the assistant director said, staring at the spot where my long hair fell across my breasts. His eyes lingered for a moment on my neck.

“Is that a birth mark?” he asked.

“I burned myself with the curling iron this morning,” I said.

He smirked ever so slightly, and I knew what he was thinking because I’d had the same thought. The mark looked like a hickey.

The voice inside my head was talking to me now, and I didn’t like what it was saying. The director seemed like a nice guy, but there was something about his assistant that gave me the creeps. A girl had to be careful—but not too careful or she’d never get work. Maybe I was nervous because I was still getting over Jerry coming on to me.

Jerry was one of those teachers everyone recommended. He had a famous ex-wife and a reputation that stretched back to Broadway’s heyday when he’d directed her in a big hit before she’d gained a hundred pounds. I’d been in the prop room behind the stage preparing for the final showing of a scene I was about to do for his class, when he sidled in and started talking to me. “You have an off-beat sexiness that’s perfect for this scene,” he said.

“Thanks,” I said, trying not to think what I was already thinking. Jerry was nodding appreciatively at my costume, and I silently congratulated myself for finding the authentic 1940’s satin slip I’d bought for next to nothing in a thrift store.

“Your work gets better all the time,” Jerry said as he touched my hair and let his fingers graze the fabric above my left breast. I stepped back and bumped into a shelf full of prop teapots and wineglasses that crashed to the floor along with any aspirations I’d had about using Jerry as a connection.

The assistant director was on the make too. I filled out the form with a made-up home address, my answering service phone number, and checked the box saying I would perform nude. Then I handed the clipboard back to him.

“You have absolutely incredible hair,” he said.

“Thanks,” I said. The news coverage from the Son of Sam killings in New York buzzed inside my head. The killer had a thing for girls with long dark hair. Just one more reason blonds have it easier, I thought. I leaned back in my chair so I could see into the next room. Three of the four blonds still sat fumbling with their scripts. The fourth had apparently made a break for it.

Bodies of strangled, raped, and tortured young women had recently been turning up on the hillsides just a few miles from my apartment. A couple of them had been abducted in broad daylight. And here we were, a bevy of attractive actresses, in a decrepit building with two guys we didn’t know from Adam.

“So, we’ll be contacting you with the schedule in a couple of days,” the director said.

“Great!” I smiled and tossed my hair. There was just enough time to get to my regular job.

I taught English as a foreign language for the Berlitz School of Languages on Wilshire Boulevard. Last week I’d said good-bye to a “total immersion” student I’d been teaching for a month. He was the head of the Buenos Aries office for a big accounting firm and had taken a private lesson for six hours every day including lunch. Getting paid to eat with a gorgeous sophisticated guy who had eyes the color of turquoise was way better than getting paid to play dead, even if the pay wasn’t anywhere near as good.

We had learned a lot about each other in our month of lunches. He was married and had two grown daughters. He loved poetry and music and the theater. He knew that I was married, but that hadn’t stopped him from asking me to go back to Argentina with him. “Life is different in Argentina,” he explained as we sipped our post-dessert espresso at what had become our table on the patio at the Ambassador Hotel Café. He couldn’t consider getting a divorce, but he would set me up in a beautiful apartment with whatever I wanted. I declined Mr. Turquoise Eyes’ offer. He took it like a perfect gentleman.

Then on his last day of class he brought me flowers and an expensive box of chocolates. As we chatted in the cramped coffee room during the break, he tried to kiss me. Later that night, he called me from the airport. “Are you having second thoughts?” he asked, pronouncing each word in an accent that made my knees feel wobbly.

Life is full of second thoughts, I thought. I was standing in my cramped apartment bedroom next to the bed, and I could hear my husband humming in the bathroom while he brushed his teeth. “It was really nice meeting you,” I said. “I especially enjoyed our lunches.” What I wanted to say was, I really like you, but I’m totally in love with my husband, and I’d never consider being your mistress though I could really get used to a job where my every need would be met.

“Adios then,” he said as the announcements over the airport P.A. system squawked in the background.

So I could be stepping out of a stylish building with a doorman in beautiful Buenos Aries. Instead I smelled urine, and the famed Hollywood Walk of Stars was littered with cigarette butts and wads of chewing gum. A filthy homeless man was vomiting into a trashcan on the corner, and a hooker sauntered towards me in the highest platform heels I had ever seen. Love. Money. Art. Work. Everything I wanted seemed to be stranded on its own separate continent in some un-navigable sea. Except for sex. That was available anywhere.

I’d nearly gotten fired from the job I had back in Minnesota because I’d refused to shorten my uniform skirt to my boss’s specifications. Why anyone wanted to look at my behind when he had a perfect T-bone on his plate and a panoramic view of the Mississippi River was beyond me. The Frito-Lay man who’d delivered the chips and Cheetos and Fritos to the restaurant bar was even worse. He came on to all the waitresses. Behind his back we called him the “free-to-lay man.”

I was lucky to have been offered a part in a film and lucky to have a decent day job. The Berlitz hours were flexible so it was easy to schedule my auditions. Mr. Shimoto was a night student—very advanced. We were concentrating on idioms, but he never got them quite right. When he tried to say that someone was unenthusiastic or “dragging their feet,” he would get confused and say they were “dragging their legs.” Or if he wanted to say that he had done something well, that “he had nailed it,” he would say that he had “hammered it.”

After Mr. Shimoto’s lesson, I checked the answering service. There was a message from the assistant director. He wanted to finalize some scheduling with me, and I could call him at home, the message said. I scrawled down the number, and then hesitated. I’m dragging my legs, I thought, laughing to myself at Mr. Shimoto’s expense.

It took me a couple of days, but I turned down the role of the naked dead girl. I auditioned for other things and continued to teach English. Meanwhile more bodies turned up in the Hollywood hills. Mr. Shimoto went back to Japan. My student with the turquoise eyes never tried again to reach me. I got a part in a play, and then another, and another. My husband left me for another woman. And I never made it big in Hollywood.

Steve Theme, 7/10/2011

Current Occupation: chronic writer, professional job hunter, ruling monarch over my loyal minions of two Labradors.
Former Occupation: Marketing Director for technology companies (Microsoft, Compaq, Boeing, Tektronix, blah, blah.) fisherman, carpet cleaner, bartender, ….
Contact Information: After 22 years as an itinerant marketing exec, I’ve outed myself from the corporate closet and am querying agents to represent my recently completed memoir, Asphalt Sanctuary, Every Road Needs a Beginning. This story carries the reader 6,000 miles on a solo hitchhiking trek that evolves into an unintentional spiritual awakening: voodoo, the Mafia, yodeling, NASA, a couple miracles—this road twists. Snippets are available at


Junkyard Royalty I

After flying to Honolulu on a one-way ticket—hey, it was all I could afford—I knew I wouldn’t be living in the lap of luxury, but never pictured myself kneeling here in the gray sand, looking down at my black greasy hands, knuckles gouged, pulling tires off a wrecked car in a junkyard.
For the first month of my why-bother-planning adventure, sunny days consisted of Waikiki, Kailua Beach, boogie boarding and crashing on some new friends’ couches. What more could a trim, tan, twenty-year-old want?
But now I’ve got to make a living.
Mr. Yaseen is a fat guy with a thick black mustache, and he leases this chunk of paradise: an acre of rusted cars stacked four high on a blistering patch of Sand Island, just below the approach to the international airport. He pays me in cash at the end of each day.
This tire has been roasting in the July sun, and yanking it from the brake drum feels like wrapping my arms around a giant doughnut fresh from the fryer. Now I get to crawl under the chassis and extract the rear differential. All these cars are moving. I don’t know where, but Mr. Yaseen only wants to take the valuable parts, mostly engines, transmissions, drive trains and tires with some tread left.
The work is hard, but worse with the dogs. They’re everywhere: mangy, mean—just skin draped over ribs. They live in, and under, the cars. Now I don’t just pull open a door. I peer inside first to make sure nothing is going to charge me. They don’t like surprises.
“Hey, Steve!”
It’s Mr. Yaseen. From under the car I can see his thick black boots walking fast toward me, kicking sand with each step.
“What?” I figure we can talk without me dragging myself into the sun. He’s standing almost on top of my exposed shoes.
“Come here.”
Wriggling through the deep sand while enveloped in sweat is like plowing through gritty peanut butter. I wish I had a concrete floor, maybe a dolly, like a real mechanic. Pulling myself from under the car, I see he’s with a short guy a few feet behind him.
“This is Thanh.” He pats the boy on the shoulder. “Fresh off the boat.” Mr. Yaseen’s accent is so thick he sounds fresh off the boat. “You work with him. Show him the tools.”
Thanh looks a year or two younger than me. “Hi.”
Standing up, I take a few swipes and brush the sand off my arms. Thanh sticks out his hand, even though he can see mine are grease covered. We shake. Mr. Yaseen turns and walks back through an aisle between dead cars.
“Today is your lucky day,” I say through my best sarcastic smile.
He shakes his head enthusiastically.
“So, where are you from?”
The war has been over for five years, and these days no one from Vietnam just strolls out of the country and comes to the states. “How’d you get here?”
“Refugee,” he says. Then, slowly, as he works to form each word, “Six years in Thailand.”
Boat people. He must be one of the boat people. There are plenty of news reports about them. Rapes, torture, pirates, the stories are pretty horrific, but some survive to make it here. He must have learned English in a refugee camp. I’ve never met a real refugee. I mean a real, real, refugee. I don’t know what to say. He’s pretty skinny; The veins on his forearms are bulging like blue rivers, and his ragged shorts blend with the color of his skin. There have been news reports of a few charities, and our government, flying some of these people to America from the camps in Thailand.
“Okay. We’ll go this way.” The yard is a maze. Cars are stacked high enough that we can’t see to get any bearings. You just have to recognize the junkers to understand where you are. The balmy ocean breezes advertised in tourist brochures are just a mean heat rolling through these corroded trenches.
The tool shed is made of sun-bleached plywood, propped up with two-by-fours, and three tires on top to keep the roof from blowing away. “We can work together on the same cars,” I say. The work is a lot easier with another set of hands, and someone to talk with.
We make our way back to the car I was stripping and dig into the engine compartment. This isn’t real mechanic’s work—no need to unscrew fuel lines or hydraulic hoses. We just snip them, cut all the cables, whatever is fastest.
“What was it like?” I ask, not looking up to make eye contact. I’m almost afraid of the answer. “I mean, in the camp?”
“Three camps,” he says.
Surprised, I look up.
He clears his throat and holds out three fingers. “Bad, dirty, not food enough.”
“Pretty bad?”
“Yeah, pretty bad.”
I shake my head up and down slowly, acknowledging his statement. Then look down into the black engine. Once we remove all the mounting bolts, I walk out and drive back in with a backhoe to yank out the chunk of iron. Thanh and I pass the hoist straps to each other under the engine and I loop them over a hook on the backhoe’s arm.
“Here goes nothin’,” I say, pulling on the lever to raise the arm. It dawns on me he probably can’t make heads or tails of what I just said. “Here goes nothing” makes no sense. Once the engine is high enough I back up, but the engine starts wobbling. Thanh’s eyes get big.
Ka chunk. The engine slips between the straps and drops into the sand. I figure I can teach him some good American body language, and toss my hands up saying, “Oh shit!”
He tosses his hands up. “Oh shit!”
I bring my arms back down. “Oh well.”
“Oh well.”
We start laughing. A dog bolts away.
After we scrum around in the sand for a while, digging the straps back under the engine, I lift it again and drive off.
Coming back all I can see are Thanh’s butt and legs draped over a front fender. The rest of his body remains wedged upside down into an engine compartment.
Mr. Yaseen walks up to him and yells, “Hurry up! We don’t have all day!” Mr. Yaseen walks away, but gives me a self-satisfied glance.
I lean in and start working on the other side of the car. “Yaseen couldn’t even see what you were doing,” I say, as the engine compartment contains my voice. “He’s a butthead.”
“Yeah, butthead.”
I think I just taught him a new word. “How much is he paying you?” I ask.
I figured as much. He’s paying me six dollars an hour.
We end up yanking a few more engines. By late afternoon we both wear grease up to our elbows, and blotches of grey and black smudge our faces. Thanh and I look like improbable brothers.
I face Thanh and it’s time to teach him some more American. “This ain’t no disco,” I say.
He stares at me as if I’m from Mars.
“You know. Disco.” I start dancing and throwing an arm in the air with my finger pointed skyward, like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever.
“Yeah, disco,” he says, and we both start dancing—stars of the junkyard.
There are a couple alternators in the sand and they need some wires removed. This should be our last fun of the day. I start walking over and motion Thanh to join me.
While we’re sitting in the sun, hemmed in by rusted corpses, their torn sheet metal sticking out like arms and legs, we face each other, and I finally work up the courage to ask the one question that’s been on my mind all day. “Where’s your family?”
Thanh lowers his hand and draws an undulating line in the sand that looks like a fat hook. He’s sitting cross legged. I’m on all fours looking down over his hand. Then he flips his finger quickly forming a hard straight line through the middle. It’s Vietnam. He still sees the border dividing the north and south. He pushes his index finger deep into the southern sand. “Communists kill my father and mother.”
He’s looking down, but I can hear him inhaling sharp short breaths. Now his short breaths have turned into drips of snot coming from his nose and tears are dropping like dark bombs on his country.
Once again, I don’t know what to say. In our silence I think of my family in Seattle: the clean sidewalks, good schools, our dinner table, our sailboat—and quickly imagine the boat he must have crowded onto to escape.
I need only to open my eyes to find myself in a safe, prosperous country. To make it here I suspected Tahan worked, and hoped, for years. By simply being born, I became an American. Even Mr. Yaseen worked to immigrate. I’ve always thought of any birthright as an unearned advantage for royals, but suddenly see myself as one of them.
Thahn is still looking down, hiding his face. He lifts his finger and pounds his fist into the sand, widening the hole his finger made. Twisting his fist back and forth, he digs further. “They kill my brother and sisters.”
He raises his fist and pounds it into the sand again. “I hate the communists. I hate them!”
Thanh lifts his head. Tears push away the sand stuck to his cheeks, and he looks me in the eyes. “But I love America.”

Becca Deysach, 7/3/2011

Current Occupation: teacher, small business owner, bread baker
Former Occupation: rock climbing instructor, trail digger, communications director
Contact Information: Becca Deysach balances a need to move her body with her love of brainy pursuits by baking bread, teaching writing and environmental studies for Prescott College and Ibex Studios (, exploring mossy canyons, and practicing a super cool Indonesian martial art called Poekoelan Tjimindie Tulen.


Doing Bliss

“I don’t get it. Thomas is sooo smart… he could do anything. Why is he working here?”

At 27, Thomas was a full-on grown-up, rode his bike six miles to the bakery by five every morning, and mixed dough in the back room for most of his shift. When he did join us on the kneading table, he talked about irrational numbers and music theory. I couldn’t fathom why such an intelligent man was working the same job I was as a high school kid.

“So he has time to do the things he really loves. Like make music,” my manager responded. His comment quieted me. A brainy musician, himself, I recognized in his tone that I not only had insulted Thomas, but my manager, as well.

As a high school sophomore, I’d had my entire future mapped out. I would take a year off after high school before going to a liberal arts college west of the Rockies that had a scanning electron microscope, no Greek life, fewer than 2000 students, and was listed as “most difficult to get into” in my college guide. I would finish in four years, go directly to graduate school, and have a PhD by the time I was 26.

And then I spent a week volunteering at the Voyageur Outward Bound basecamp in northern Minnesota. I was deep in the throes of my junior year, and my backpack for the 8-hour train ride from Chicago to Minnesota was heavy with Latin, calculus, and American History books. While the city gave way to farmland and eventually the bare woods along the Mississippi, I conjugated verbs, differentiated equations, and memorized key Civil War dates. Success in each of these subjects was crucial to my entire life’s success.

But when I stepped onto the edge of a wilderness that stretched all the way to the Arctic, everything I had brought with me became irrelevant. All that mattered was the promise of a jump into the icy Kawishiwi River and the cinnamon heat rolling out of the lodge.

After just one week of chopping wood, setting floating docks on the water, taking saunas under an explosive sky, and canoeing through ice, I knew that the text-book-heavy life I’d been leading was over. Tingling skin and feeling small and woodsmoke in my hair had opened me up to something much bigger than good grades and scanning electron microscopes ever could. I returned home with sap-stained jeans, homework left undone, and big dreams of making a life outside.

Unlike the parents of most teenagers on the advanced-placement track, my folks encouraged my academic about-face and single application to a tiny experiential college in the mountains of Arizona. Prescott College did not fit my “hardest to get into” criterion by a long shot, but it did promise weeks of classes in desert canyons and ponderosa pine forests, and that was enough for my parents and me.

My father was a brilliant yet unmotivated man who crunched numbers as a biostatistician in a closet-sized suburban office for 25 years when he should have been digging up dinosaurs in Wyoming. He was forthright in his command that my siblings and I not end up in the same patent leather shoes we polished for him every Sunday, and he encouraged my westward migration as if it were his own.

“Remember, you’re only as good as your experiences,” he said as he saw me off to Arizona. “And, always, always follow your bliss!” I have tried to live by these edicts ever since. And do you know what I’ve found? They have not prepared me well for success in the working world. At least not as this culture defines it.

Work for other-than-human animals is the set of tasks they must complete to survive and reproduce, whether it’s stalking prey, sticking branches in termite holes, or seducing a potential mate with their inborn choreography. Their jobs are often risky and demanding, but their rewards are direct, tangible, and critical to their survival—a meal or a mate for themselves or their offspring. I long for that uncomplicated equation between impulse and action, activity and reward, and crave the direct communion with the earth that animal work necessarily entails.

Human work, however, at least that of a well educated modern Homo sapiens from Evanston, Illinois, is not evaluated by the depth of her satisfaction nor the volume of wild mushrooms she brings home for dinner, but by her bank account’s bulge and her occupation’s title. And it seems that the less dirt her day’s toil leaves beneath her fingernails, the better she is compensated for it, and the more respected she is by her peers.
So, no matter how many follow your blisses my parents spoke to me, I spent my twenties struggling to shrug off our culture’s tacit message that my worth as a person would be determined by the type of work I did, while my desire to spend my days in the wide open collided with a fierce longing to have a job title I could be proud to repeat to strangers. I tried “field scientist,” but hated the constraints scientific language placed on the animate world. I slipped on “adventure educator,” but was miserable being responsible for teenagers’ lives. I did wilderness conservation work, but it numbed my brain and challenged my ethics. So I went to graduate school, hoping it would open doors into fields I didn’t even know existed.

I landed in an environmental writing class during my first semester at the University of Montana, and came home to a place where words and science and the wilderness all mingled together. I spent the remainder of graduate school doing little but write from my front stoop, face to the sun, and the joy it brought me was urgent as my long-held secret desire to write had been.

Four years earlier, fresh out of college, I lay in the bathtub of the trailer I rented in Bozeman, Montana and whispered to myself, “I want to teach and write. I want to be a teacher and a writer.” It was so true I couldn’t repeat it to anyone, not even myself. And so, as my graduate studies came to an end, I failed to notice that I was doing exactly what I had wanted all along, and panicked. Sure, writing was fine as long as I was in school, but…. I couldn’t just graduate and become a writer. Instead, I noticed that I was already 27 and had done nothing worthwhile with my life. Sure, I’d had some great experiences, but none of them had prepared me for the adult world I thought I should be living in.

A Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology surely would, though. Not only would being a therapist/scientist fill my bank account, it would make me sound smart to anybody who asked what I “did.”

So I went for it. I signed up for a year of undergraduate psychology classes, took the first scan-tron tests I’d taken since high school, and volunteered in two psychology labs. I walked a little taller in my Dansko clogs every time I imagined myself saying, “I’m a psychologist,” to the doctors and lawyers at my high school reunion.

During the same time period that I was memorizing the differences between Wernicke’s and Broca’s areas of the brain, I was teaching creative writing to a group of environmental studies’ students. After an hour-and-a-half of writing outside, I’d return to the windowless psychology lab where I entered data into Microsoft Access.

One afternoon, while waiting for the computer to turn on, I saw my reflection in its darkened screen. My hair was tied in two knots, frazzled from the games we’d been playing in class. I wore an orange t-shirt and chartreuse pants. My heart sank. This is me, I thought. I am the crazy lady who wears buns and cat eye glasses and baggy pants and who thinks playing “duck, duck, goose” with college students has something to do with getting their creativity flowing. I don’t belong here.

But I couldn’t hear it. I was too far into the PhD application process to turn back. I listened to a louder voice, instead. The one that told me I wasn’t creative. The one that insisted I was the family nerd who had finally found a real career. That voice tried to convince me that turning human experiences into Power Point presentations was my bliss, and that eight more years of school was an experience I wanted to have.

That voice, however, was not as powerful in sealing my fate as the eleven rejection letters I received from graduate programs around the country were. Those letters brought bellies full of shame with them, but my relief that now I had no choice but to write quickly overwhelmed all traces of embarrassment.

Not long after the last self-addressed-stamped envelope hit my mailbox, I moved to Portland, Oregon to be amongst my closest friends, determined to center my life around writing. Right away I saw a perfect Craigslist ad: Writer, Editor, and Researcher all Rolled into One! It described the Craftsman house out of which I would work, the free espresso, and the laid-back atmosphere. The employer, a lawyer writing a book about relationships, was looking for someone who commuted by bike, was GLBT-friendly, and wanted to work for social change.

My response was something like this: OMG! I am a writer, editor, and researcher; ride my bike for transportation; love the gays; have worked at Chicago’s feminist sex shop; and am writing a book about the evolution of human consciousness. We are meant to be! He thought so, too.

At first, I enjoyed the casual nature of the job, the stories I brought home about my boss and his mistresses, and, especially, my business card that read Rebecca Deysach, Communications Director. But sitting at a desk all day bored me to tears, and my boss quickly went from quirky to condescending. “You don’t look like you just came out of the woods, but I’m starting to realize you just did,” he once told me. And when I insisted I be paid for our lunchtime meetings he responded, “You’ve made choices in your life that don’t make you worth more than ten dollars an hour.”

So I began job searching while I should have been trying to get his website a higher Google rating, looking exclusively for work worthy of my education. But as I clicked from one sedentary, indoor job ad to the next, I couldn’t stop thinking about my years cooking at natural foods stores; about a time when work was laughing and moving my body and filling bellies with delicious food; and when early-morning shifts left me plenty of time for reading, hiking, and friends. I was happiest then. Did having a master’s degree mean I was no longer entitled to the same kind of honest, joyful living?

And that’s when Thomas with the flour-covered face came back to me. In the misery of my basement office, I finally understood that doing work to convince strangers that I am intelligent when they ask me what I “do” has never turned out well for me. So I quit.

What I “do” now is live the life my cat-eyed reflection in the computer screen was not brave enough to admit she wanted. For the first time in years, I am happy in a major, daily way. My sneakers are covered in mud and moss from old-growth forests, I play “hot potato” with adults in the writing workshops I facilitate through my own little business, and I bake crusty organic bread a few days a week with brainy people who make me laugh.

If my seventeen-year-old self saw me covered in the sticky paste flour and water make on their way to becoming bread, she would be shocked. “But you’re so smart,” she’d say. “You could do anything. Why are you working here?”

“Following my bliss,” I’d tell her, knowing full well it would take another sixteen years for her to understand.

M.F. McAuliffe, 6/26/2011

Current Occupation: Co-founder & contributing editor, Gobshite Quarterly, co-founder GobQ Books, publisher, GobQ e-books
Former Occupations: Co-founder, contributing editor, Gobshite Quarterly

Contact Information: I was born and educated in Adelaide and Melbourne. I have an Honours degree in English and some graduate stuff in photography, video, and anthropology. My work has appeared in WORK, The Adelaide Review, Australian Short Stories, FEMSPEC, Overland, Jacket Magazine, and The Clarion Awards; Cataclysms (a book about cats for wise children of all ages, especially those 7 and up) is currently available as a Kindle edition. In 2002 I co-founded Gobshite Quarterly, an award-winning multilingual magazine based in Portland, Oregon. I continue at GobQ as contributing editor and publisher.


Films for All
(Swimming with Heraclitus – excerpt 2)

(January 1975)

The Tasman Bridge was destroyed, unemployment was up, Whitlam was furious, the Federal Treasurer’s secretary was screwing the Federal Treasurer, she was back at work.
It was pleasant enough, with almost nobody there. Laddie’s door was open; his office was uninhabited; the big main room was almost uninhabited; Connie went for longish bouts of tea between shortish bouts of typing. She herself had finished the appraisals. She yawned, stretched, and began thinking about updating a catalogue.
“I was wondering —”
An old woman was coming in from the street entrance, tilting her head at the angle for receiving permission to enter an apparently empty house; the woman herself was enclosed in an ancient hat and a long, lightweight lavender coat.
“— if you could help me?”
She managed to look gravely at the hat.
“There is an Adult Education class,” the woman said. “And we’ve had wonderful help from a gentleman here, from a Mr. Laddijoy, if you know him, dear. For many years.”
“Oh, yes.”
The woman put a tentative hand to the hat, to straighten it perhaps, or just to be reassured. There was a fine trembling in the woman’s fingers.
“Would you like something in particular?”
“Altogether about four hours on the history of English Literature, dear. And we need it by Friday afternoon. That’s tomorrow. The class is on Saturday, but of course we have to pick the films up on Friday because everything is closed on Saturdays.”
The tremor the woman could neither want nor control.
Of course, yes, she smiled; she’d attend to it herself; the films would be waiting at the counter.
The woman thanked her and left, a frail stepping.
Christ, she thought. Eight hundred years in four hours. She began at the card catalogue, found enough to cover most of the subject, noted the numbers, booked the films, grinned at Dispatch, made sure he’d be looking for the order, settled back down, began on the updating, and forgot about it.
The following Monday Laddie was consulting the Ministry by phone behind his closed door, Connie was typing, and she was finishing the catalogue, contemplating her lunchtime excursion and a series of hands, perhaps, blue, copper, sepia, wondering how to assign tint, enjoying the quiet and the lack of Laddie’s attention, thinking of ringing Keough, going to the Valhalla on Thursday, being free on Thursday because photography hadn’t started and Video Access hadn’t opened —
“Where’s that girl who helped me last week?”
She recognized the hesitant, tilted voice. She dropped everything and darted. Whatever she’d done, she didn’t want everyone in the place knowing about it as soon as she did.
“Where is that girl?” The woman was in front of Laddie’s door.
“Oh there you are!”
The woman wouldn’t move from the spot she stood on, reached out with a small gloved hand.
“I just wanted to thank you, dear. It was wonderful.”
The woman smiled, required a smile.
“Oh. Well, I’m glad you enjoyed them.” She smiled again to cushion the woman’s continuing, appalling, unalterable frailty, the heavy cameo at her neck, the faint waft of lavender from her cheek.
“Oh, we did, dear.”
The woman took her arm in a birdlike clasp.
She was caught at Laddie’s door. Greg Wigg was grinning and walking past, then Sandy was smiling and stepping nimbly to avoid them, eyes sliding when she wanted to wiggle her eyebrows, shrug, do something to make him look at her with some sort of inclusive humour and appreciation — But he was going, had gone, and she was left with the old woman and her own duty, and the woman would still not let her go.
“I’m so pleased.” She was almost bowing, trying to withdraw her arm. “And thank you for taking all the trouble to come in —”
The woman smiled, released her arm, began gathering her coat and preparing to go; she herself was starting to breathe a sigh of relief. Laddie’s door opened.
“Why, Mrs. —” waves of hair, eyebrows, open-pored smile. “We haven’t seen you in ages. What brings you to our humble abode?”
Miss Miller tried to become invisible. The woman groped for her arm again. Miss Miller stepped back quietly, out of range. The hesitations in the woman’s speech finally became a single silence. Laddie took over. Hooray, hooray, she thought, her own face impassive; we can all totter off and dwindle now, out of each other’s day.
The woman left, the same unbearable, uncertain steps.
“Silly old bat.” Laddie’s eyes swung back to her; the smile sank from his lips. “So what did you do that was so bloody marvellous?”
“Nothing,” she said. “Just got her some films.”
“Let’s have a look.”
She and Connie would simply have laughed and gone on with what they were doing. But now she had to turn and go while Laddie waited, get a copy of the slip from the pickup counter and hand it over. She’d done the job because Laddie hadn’t been there; the job had been good enough. Why couldn’t they all just leave it at that —
“Mm.” Laddie frowned. “A lot of this is very old.”
“Yes.” She knew the films were old when she’d read the catalogue. She assumed he hadn’t ordered new ones because the material hadn’t changed.
“But the material hasn’t changed.”
“And a lot of it’s in black and white. Especially the longer films.”
She knew the black and white films were in black and white.
He held the slip out, looked down the room. “Mix them up next time. If the long film’s black and white, put in a couple of coloured shorts. You’ve got to give people a breather. Programming’s an art. That’s what he —” a nod at Alex Lente’s end of the complex —”doesn’t understand. You can’t make people sit through hours and hours of solid information.”
“Oh,” she said, reflexively folded and folded the slip until it became an unfoldable, sharp-pointed wad. She stood, rigid, unmoving, having no idea whether he meant her to stay or go.
“Well, onwards and upwards.” The pores and shadows of his face folded in repose. “I’ll be in the canteen.”

Jennifer Barton, 6/19/2011

Current Occupation: English teacher
Former Occupation: Film projectionist
Contact Information: Jennifer Barton grew up in southwestern Virginia and currently teaches writing in Knoxville, Tennessee. She completed her MFA in Creative Writing at The New School in New York City in 2007. Her stories have appeared in Pindeldyboz, Lost, Hawk and Handsaw, Kudzu, Wilderness House Literary Review, Pine Mountain Sand and Gravel, Motif 2, and is forthcoming in Motif 3. She recently completed her first novel.


Paradiso Lost

When you tell people you run film projectors for a living, there are typically three questions they will ask you about it. The first is if you watch all of the movies that you show. When I was a projectionist, my answer to that was always that I am like the baker who doesn’t eat the bread she sells. When I get off from work, the last thing I want to do is stay longer and watch a movie. The second question is if you have ever spliced a frame of pornography into a kids’ film, like Brad Pitt did in Fight Club. People don’t seem to realize that home video has made actual film prints of pornographic movies almost non-existent. If I had a 35-millimeter print of a porno, I’d tell them, I definitely wouldn’t be chopping it up into frames. I would be selling it on eBay. The last question is whether you have seen Cinema Paradiso.
For years, my answer to that was no. I knew the gist of the movie – an old man works as a film projectionist in a small Italian town and takes a young boy under his wing, whom he inspires to become a filmmaker. I avoided seeing it for so long because I had no desire to romanticize a profession that I considered to be a mindless day (well, usually night) job. Running projectors was what I was doing until someone decided to give me a real film industry job, not an end in itself.
I did finally see the movie, however, after I had soured enough on the film industry to give up wanting to be a part of it and started writing fiction instead. Much to my surprise, I came away from Cinema Paradiso thinking I should have watched it years before. Alfredo, the projectionist character, doesn’t romanticize the job at all; he sees it for what it is: a dead end. He wouldn’t have made me complacent; on the contrary, he would’ve kicked even the tiniest amount of complacency out of me, just as he does Toto, the boy who ensnares him in a trade-off to make him his projectionist protégé. Alfredo resists teaching him for as long as he can, pretending to dislike the boy to scare him off. Before Toto suckers him into their deal, the boy asks Alfredo why he won’t teach him how to run the projector and Alfredo becomes adamant, saying:

Because I don’t want to, Toto! This is not a job for you. It’s like being a slave. You’re always alone. You see the same film over and over again, because you have nothing else to do[…] You work on holidays, on Christmas, on Easter. Only on Good Friday are you free. But if they hadn’t put Jesus Christ on a cross… you’d work Good Fridays too!

Amen, I thought as I read those subtitles. I had spent many Christmases, Thanksgivings, and even Good Fridays in the booth watching families come in after big dinners and see movies about other families enjoying their holidays together. A couple of times when my parents visited me on a holiday I had to work, I sneaked them into the booth and we ate Chinese takeout or deli sandwiches on a grimy desk surrounded by the mechanical whir of several projectors. It’s the being together that counts, I told myself, even as I envied each audience member who got up and left the theater after their movie was over.
Later in Cinema Paradiso, when Toto is grown, Alfredo insists that he leave the booth and their little town in Sicily to make his own way in the world. “I don’t want to hear you talk anymore,” Alfredo tells him, shooing him unmercifully out of a nest that is no longer serving any purpose except to hamper his growth. “I want to hear talk about you.” He tells Toto that if he comes back to the little town, he won’t even let him in his house. By this time Alfredo is not only a grizzled old pro, but blind from a nitrate film explosion that happened when Toto was still a boy. Through his physical blindness, Alfredo can see that this fresh-faced young man who took the old man’s place in the booth after his accident is already becoming a carbon copy of himself. If Toto doesn’t make a break now, he will never get out.

When I first started out as a projectionist in Blacksburg, Virginia, I worked at a downtown theater built in the 1920s that had fallen into disrepair. I began as a volunteer just when the community was getting behind it and making plans to renovate it. By the time I graduated college three years later, I had become a paid employee and the theater had received a major facelift. What was once a big dank room with broken seats and dirty wall tapestries was now a showplace where little kids sat in a balcony for the first time in their lives, where college kids (including myself) went on dates, and where people from all around the region saw artsy movies that were previously only available to them on video months after their theatrical runs.
The movie theater is the place where, like Toto in Cinema Paradiso, I learned what sacred felt like. Although I didn’t cross myself when I entered the Lyric like he did at his theater (maybe I would have if I had been raised Catholic), I treated the place like a church, polishing everything from the popcorn popper to the films themselves if they arrived dirty or in disrepair. Working there made me feel like a bright, shining cell in a great, luminous body. Not only did I care deeply about the films and the place itself, but also about the people who came there, who were just as excited about it all as me. And everyone came to the Lyric, just like everyone came to the Paradiso. We were all caught up in this vibrant endeavor together, laughing and crying and talking endlessly about the movies we saw, while breathing life back into our shared downtown at the same time.
As my college days drew to a close, however, I knew that my time in that snug, hallowed nest would have to end as well. That day came a couple months after I graduated, when I left Blacksburg for New York City to begin an unpaid internship at a film production company. As I toiled away painting blood on severed limbs for The Toxic Avenger IV in a stuffy Brooklyn warehouse, telling myself I was turning my filmmaking dreams into a reality, the Lyric itself began to feel like a dream. Although I was finally not just watching films but helping make them, I missed the community of the Lyric and the feeling that I was a unique part of it. On the film set, I was no different from any other free pair of hands, but at the Lyric I was known and loved. There was no going back, though, because as Alfredo tells Toto in Cinema Paradiso, “When you’re here every day you feel like you’re at the center of the universe, it seems like nothing ever changes. Then you go away, one year, two… and when you come back, everything’s different. The thread has broken.”

No, I couldn’t go back, but being a projectionist at the Lyric remains the most fun job I have ever had. While it didn’t pay the most, it made me happy and also gave me the skills I needed to join the film projectionists’ union in New York City. Several theater companies were opening multiplexes in Manhattan when I moved there, so for the first time in many years, the union was looking for new members. I needed something to pay the bills and since I already had three years’ experience in the booth, I got the fast track and ended up working at Sony’s Lincoln Square, and later AMC’s Empire Theater in Times Square, both of which are still two of the top-grossing multiplexes in the country. Going from making eight dollars an hour in small-town Virginia to twenty-seven dollars an hour in New York City in a matter of months made me think I had hit some kind of big-time. At first.
While the machinery was pretty much the same, being a projectionist at a multiplex for a major theater chain was a completely different world from working at a single-screen non-profit. Since my crew members and I didn’t split our days into shifts and Manhattan theaters open early and close late, my workdays were usually no less than thirteen hours on a weekday and seventeen on a weekend. A few times when we had special events, like a midnight opening of the last Star Wars movie or the world premier of King Kong, I worked a full twenty-four. I spent most of my workdays alone and was contractually obligated not to leave the booth while on duty, which meant a lot of packed lunches, take-out dinners, and quick wash-ups in the employee bathroom.
Every hour or two, I would get up from one of the ratty chairs that had been cast off from the manager’s office and thread a round of projectors, eventually getting my time down to two minutes or less per film. Speed was much more important at the multiplex than at the Lyric because I was now responsible for not just one projector, but twelve. If I lost track of time while reading or writing, as I often did, I would have to run to get a movie on screen on time.
Like the Lyric, multiplexes at that time were on a platter system, which means each film is not broken into reels, but rests as a whole on a timed platter and feeds from its middle into the projector, then back onto another spinning platter. Unlike the Lyric, however, multiplexes used this system to shoehorn as many screens as possible into one location. Since films can start on timers and one projectionist can potentially run a large number of machines, overhead is kept low while the number and variety of films is kept high.
Platters were the big new things a few decades ago and displaced many projectionists like Alfredo in Cinema Paradiso, who learned to run one film at a time, one reel at a time. Even though the Lyric used platters as well, it had only one screen and we didn’t use a timer, so when I started a movie there it was a holy ritual, just like at a reel-to-reel theater. I would wait in the lobby until about a minute before time for the show and if people were still coming in, I’d wait a little longer, letting them get in and find seats. Then I would start my climb up the carpeted stairs, make my way past a row of teenagers or college kids who liked the seclusion of the balcony, up another set of steps and into the booth. I always got things ready early, so the projector fans would be droning when I got there and a ribbon of film would be hanging from the top roller of the platter to the top roller of the projector. I would look out the port window as my finger hovered over the start button and take in the people, the blank screen, the anticipation. Then, click. My finger would press down, the lamp would pop on, the gears would chatter, and the film would start to move. I’d wait for the shutter to clang open and take a look at the screen before leaving, making sure the image was in focus and properly framed before starting my slow descent through the now-darkened theater.
Starting a movie at the multiplex was a non-event because I was almost never standing at the machine when it happened. Films would start and end all day around the desk where I sat, but the sound would inspire nothing more in me than a casual awareness that things were running as they should. It was this kind of sense-deadening routine that soon made me realize that the job I had originally thought was a sign of great fortune was actually drudgery. Alfredo would have lambasted me for taking a safe route like this, which was never even really safe, just familiar.
Ever since my first day on the job in April of 2000, I knew digital projection was a looming threat to every projectionist in New York. Digital was the next big thing and once theaters began converting to it, the effects on the industry would be much more devastating than what had happened when platters were put into use. Projectionist job loss would be almost total because digital projectors are completely automated and require no film handling at all. One minimally trained person can program an entire multiplex in the morning and barring any problems, the movies will start and run on their own for the rest of the day, in the same pristine condition as they did the first time. No scratches, no dirt, no misframes.
“Don’t plan on having this job more than five years, maybe ten at the most,” the booth chief at Lincoln Square told me when I first started there. I knew he meant this to scare me, but I was relieved to hear it. I didn’t want to get comfortable in the job and knowing it had an expiration date wouldn’t let me.
“That’s fine with me,” I told him. “I hope to be doing something else by then, anyway.”
He looked hurt when I said this and I worried that I had offended him. He had a mortgage and three kids, one with severe diabetes, and very much wanted to hold onto this job that paid well and provided health insurance, no matter how boring the work was or how long the hours. I had only myself to take care of and although I also appreciated the money and the insurance, I couldn’t let myself be satisfied with those things. I wanted to make my own art, not just show other peoples’.
So I continued to work low and unpaid jobs in the film industry and dream about one day leaving this unstable security that felt like a trap. Eventually, however, those unrewarding jobs and the long, lonely booth hours killed any desire I had to see most movies, let alone make them. I began writing fiction instead, which was much more gratifying to me than planning films that never got made. When I was done writing, I had a finished product, not something that still needed to go through several more people and processes before it was complete. In the three years following the switch, I started working toward a Master’s degree in creative writing, got a story published, and finally let myself see Cinema Paradiso.
Now that I wasn’t interested in making movies anymore, though, I resented the long booth hours even more. Each year that passed brought more talk of the digital takeover and more bad morale amongst my crewmembers. We would bicker between ourselves constantly about things like who didn’t clean the desk the night before, or who started a show late. But the only real question in any of our minds was whether to hold out for unemployment or find something new before the bottom fell out.

I found something new. It was the summer of 2008 and my year-old Master’s degree was gathering dust. Rather than wait for an uncertain severance package, I found a low-paying adjunct teaching job at a community college. That job is insecure, too, because whether or not I have a class to teach depends upon enrollment, but so far, that hasn’t been a problem. With the economy sinking lower and lower, many people who are out of work are returning to school to start new careers or just bide time until perhaps their previous employer calls them back.
In the two years since I left the booth, almost all professional projectionists in New York City have joined this group of job seekers. This is because every major New York multiplex, including the two I worked at, has now completely converted to digital projection. This saddens me in a way I never thought it would. It’s not that I want to go back – I am very thankful to be able to teach writing for a living – but I do have a hard time getting used to the idea that projectionists are no longer the bakers who don’t eat their own bread. Now we are the blacksmiths who had to scramble to learn a new trade after the Model T was invented. Of course, there is no stopping progress no matter what the industry, but since we can’t all be film directors like Toto, or make do on minimum wage, what is it exactly we’re supposed to do?
Recently, while visiting my parents in Virginia, I returned to the Lyric Theater and found the experience just as Alfredo said it would be. Most of the people I knew were gone and even though the place looked the same, the atmosphere had changed. It was no longer a new, exciting venture, but an entrenched institution. People who were kids when I first started working there thirteen years ago have now grown up with the place and will probably bring their kids there one day. It hasn’t converted to digital yet, but undoubtedly it eventually will to stay competitive with the nearby multiplex. I don’t think it’s likely to meet the same fate as the theater at the end of Cinema Paradiso – it’s demolished due to declining audiences, which the owner says is a result of TV and home video – but the day the 35-millimeter projector is dragged out, a little piece of me will go with it.

Alissa Nielsen, 6/12/2011

Current Occupation: Teaching Assistant. Chocolate-and-wine pusher at Pix Patisserie.
Former Occupation: Dishwasher, busser, host, server, barista, cafe manager, zine curator/librarian, editor, tutor, English teacher . . . in that order.
Contact Information: Alissa Nielsen is a fiction writer, editor and teacher. Her work has appeared in The Raven Chronicles, Ellipsis, and Prick of the Spindle. She studied literature and writing at Charles University in Prague, The Evergreen State College, and earned her MFA from Pacific University. Currently, she lives in Portland, Oregon, where she is working on a collection of short stories.


Beyond the Bay

It had been a long night. Kelley slipped from the covers, Araby at the edge, her shoulders wrapped in a thin, white sheet. He switched off the alarm and slid into his work pants.

“I’ll stop by later . . .” she said.

He patted through a couple pairs of jeans to find his wallet.

“Before I go,” she finished.

He sat at the foot of the bed, pulled on his socks, and stayed hunched, staring at a knot in the hardwoods. “Ara—” he sighed.

“I should really sleep,” she said, shifting her body with careful strain toward the wall. Early morning flare-up, he guessed. Osteoarthritis—early on for a woman in her forties, though not unheard of. He stood, one hand to his chest, trying to draw strength from some spot that hadn’t been whittled to a pulp.

In the kitchen, he downed four aspirin with the dregs of the OJ, laced his slip-resistant boots, and walked the dunes to work, hours before his scheduled shift. The air was damp, clouds gravid with rain. A boat moaned against the dock, one oar creaking at the hinge. Gulls keened.

He slogged through the back entrance, wasted tired, and pulled the strings for the fluorescent lights, each calming after the initial spazzy flicker. The kitchen smelled of bleach, artificial lemon floor soap, the toxic sting of griddle cleaner. He ran hot water into the coffee pitcher, and slid a basket with filter in the grinder clamps. The scent of dark roast filled the air. He liked the quiet of the early morning, before Rios blasted the music, before the yelling, the sizzle-bang-crash, though, in truth, he enjoyed that too. Not that he liked getting slammed. It was

more the building of the rush that he reveled in, a controlled chaos, and the satisfying relief of making it through as things started to die down. He used to work prep, scheduled smack in the heat of lunch hour—it felt like getting into the game just before it was over, going straight from sitting to sprinting. Kelley’s strength was endurance, pacing; Araby called him the long-distance type.

She’d trained him, Bennison Bay Restaurant being small enough for the owner to break in new hires. Had to fill out the accident form after a pot boiled over onto Kelley’s bare arm. His flesh had turned pink and shiny, iridescent as an onion. Araby calmly dialed 911, asked Kelley, Date of birth? penciling his answers as he tried to breathe through the pain, Eight, twenty-eight, sixty-eight, he could barely speak. I’m an August baby, myself, she said, except I’ve got six years on you. She sat by him in the ambulance—their first date, they laughed about it later. He recalled lying in that ambulance, skin burning, head woozy, hazed from the painkillers, her calm, soft face looking over him, and feeling a dreamy sense of molting, starting anew. Sure he pissed away most of his twenties on his dad’s rig inAlaska, partying at bars, dating (if you could call it that), but working at The Bay turned things around—he’d found his passion, met Araby, started a life with her in that kitchen.

Kelley opened the walk-in to see what they’d have to prep. The door suctioned closed with a heavy click, the fan whirred. He scanned the huge cylinder containers, labeled and dated, on the steel-grated shelves—romaine to chop, carrots to shred, scallions to dice, slaw and sides. He slid out a shallow pan with only about an inch of chowder—need clam juice before they could start on that, he thought, which meant waiting for the Sysco guy, which meant overall back-up on prep. Just past the eggs, he found some pickled vegetables, in the fridge for who knows why, marked over a year ago. Araby’s signature. The beautiful, elegant scrawl made him burn. Six years; just throwing it all away, he thought, as he backed out the door, heaps of produce in his arms. He dumped everything on the stainless steel table, and then stood at the sink, scrubbing between his fingers, glancing at the clock. He’d be training one of the prep cooks to work the line today, not something he was looking forward to, but the kid had more than earned it, working doubles, covering shifts. Kelley finished cleaning the romaine, chopped and filled the squares of green to the top of the container, diced tomatoes off the white board, into the cylinder, organized the remaining produce in the walk-in.

Slowly, the day shifters arrived—Jensea, always early, stumbled in with two bloated bags, unsnapped her bike helmet, water trickling down the reservoir of her raincoat.

“Shit weather out there,” she said, her waterproof pants sloshing as she crossed the kitchen. She stopped at the swinging door. “You look like crap, Boss. Another all-night bender?”

Kelley shook his head. “Something like that.”

“Liquor before beer,” she chimed, heading toward the restroom.

Kelley sopped up Jensea’s puddle, his head pounding. He did feel hungover.

Paxton stumbled in, one arm around Bernadette. She was laughing, the soundless kind you see in the eyes.

“Mornin, sir,” Paxton said, tagging his coat over a hook. Kelley hadn’t been able to break him of the “sir” habit. At the interview, he’d pegged Paxton as a slacker—his arms inked with skull and bird tattoos, one silver hoop in his lip, like a hooked fish—but he’d turned out to be a real natural, and a damn hard worker.

Bernadette had slipped out of her shiny red coat and was on a stool next to the counter, paging through her anatomy cards—patella ligament, tibialis antenor, peroneus longus, soleus. She had the test for her massage license coming up. Her serving shift didn’t start until noon, but she usually came in when Paxton was scheduled. Kelley disliked the idea of staff dating, but everyone knew about him and Araby, and, well, he couldn’t bear being a total hypocrite.

“So,” Paxton said, already in his chef shirt, rubbing his hands eagerly. “We starting with oysters, then?”

Kelley eyed the kid. “Sure,” he said, fighting the urge to tousle his hair. “Grab that knife, the funny-looking one.” Shucking oysters was tricky; it had taken Kelley months of training with Araby to get it right.

See this, K? she’d said, coming in from the ocean, drops sliding down the sheen of her stringy hair. You got to hold down tight, she said, palming the oyster with her left hand, knife in the other—it had a short, stout blade with a downward curve at the tip end. The trick is to jimmy the knife in and cut the muscle so it’ll unclamp. She slipped the tip into the shell, sawed, said, There! See? She pried open the shell to reveal pale gray meat, purple and bits of black on the edges. She tipped it into her mouth—it made his breath catch, watching the soft curve of her neck, imagined the oyster slipping down the back of her throat. Smiling, she leaned forward and dug into the bucket, slammed a European Flat on the cutting board and narrowed her eyes, Now you, and slid the knife to him.

“That’s right,” Kelley said to Paxton, examining the oyster. “Just make sure you don’t tear the meat. Damages the presentation.”

Paxton was careful in his arranging, delicately placing each shell around the shimmery red cocktail sauce. Took him about fifteen minutes, from start to finish. Not bad for the first go-around.

“Y’know,” Kelley said. “Araby can shuck thirty of those in under a minute.”

“Naw.” Paxton stared at the plate. “You’re shittin me.”

“Probably could’ve set the world record, if she cared about that kind of thing. Anyway,” he nodded at several orders dangling a safe distance over the stove, “just three more and we’re golden.”

“Yes, sir,” Paxton said, and pulled more oysters from the bin.

“I love this town,” Kelley said, flicking the slips. “Half-shells. Eleven a.m. and everyone wants half-shells.”

Of course Araby couldn’t shuck oysters anymore, not a one. Arthritis so bad and the meds just stopped helping. One day she was sautéing scallops and her elbow locked, the pan fell to the ground, oil scalding her calf clear through her work pants. They thought she’d be okay if she just cooked less, managed inventory, bills, the schedule. But even being at the computer was too painful; she’d talk of a sharp ache through her fingers, burning at the tendons. She’d lost weight, used warm water soaks, hot and cold packs, took her Paracetamol, swam regularly at the pool, but the relief was only temporary. She’d become snippy with how Kelley ran the kitchen, then she fell behind, insisting it was lack of sleep, the medication, or the weather; it took a while for Kelley to realize that she’d slipped into a pretty serious depression. Thinking back—he realized that things weren’t perfect, but they’d made such great partners, fantastic actually. And now, all this talk about going to stay with Lucy, maybe even moving down to Phoenix to be with her sister—better climate, closer to family. All these plans, her plans, really. And then, of course, there was everything else they’d managed to avoid.

“Order up,” a server yelled and smacked three slips on the spinner. Lunch rush.

“Okay,” Kelley said, grabbing the orders. “Two lobsters and three steaks—Calhoun, that’s all you, cowboy—two medium, one bloody—and one, two, five—six side salads and two chowders go to prep, and hold the tomato on this one—allergies, people!—Jensea says table eight needs to be bussed, that’s eight, Johnnie, eight, the little one in the corner—and here,” he handed Paxton a couple slips, “these are for you—crab cakes, just four, and a drizzle of coconut chutney, yeah?”

“Only two cakes left, Kel,” Rios said, still managing a full stove.

“Shit,” Kelley glanced at the orders, face flushed.

“No problem,” Paxton said, paging through the recipe book. “I can whip these up.”

“Okay,” Kelley said, assessing the plates waiting to go out, edging a splash of chowder with a dry towel. “Halibut for table six is nice, Rios. Redo for number eight, though.” He shoved the plates to the side. “Turn the burner down, yeah?”

Balls,” Rios shook his head. “I’m on it.” His dark hair was curling up at the neck, glistening with sweat.

“You need a break from those burners?” Kelley asked.

“Naw, I’m just warming up,” he said, two spatulas conducting.

Kelley tidied some plates, rang the bell. Calhoun slid two stunning dishes in front of him—god damn, he could grill.

“Man, those are some sexy steaks,” Kelley said.

Calhoun gave a smug grin. “Pax on top of things?”

“Yeah, he’s got it.” Kelley took off his hat and rubbed a hand over his bristly hair.

“Hey!” Jensea pounded the bell. “That bachelorette party needs their crab.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Paxton said, molding the cakes. “Almost up.”

“Don’t worry, kid.” Calhoun elbowed him. “Those girls? Probably already have crabs, know what I mean?”

“Shoot,” Jensea said, rolling her eyes. “You really should work on some new material.” She slapped a couple orders on the spinner, slipped a pen in her hair and teetered off through the restaurant, balancing a platter on her arm.

Everyone sprinted around the kitchen, narrowly dodging elbows and flailing knives, bowls of steaming crawfish bisque, skillets popping with hot oil. Kelley could feel it all surfacing, the rush, moving like a living organism, every part of the kitchen breathing, circulating, pulsing and he, Kelley, the core.

“Kel, these all right?” Rios showed him two plates of halibut.

“My man,” Kelley said. “Slap a little rouge on those puppies and they’d win MissAmerica!” He always got a little punchy when things were moving, a spinning boyish giddiness, but still focused, always attempting control.

Kelley grabbed more orders from the wheel, left them dangling at each station.

“Can you get these two, boss?” Rios asked, about the salmon.

Jacksonlooked like he was barely holding on with sauté and sauces, and Calhoun’s slips went on for miles. “Sure thing,” Kelley said and grabbed a spatula from the rack, noticed the cut-out taped to the wall—off to the hungry sea, stomachs of the wealthy. It was curling up at the edges, spats of yellow from the stove, but enough stick to hold.

Araby used to collage the kitchen in these random phrases clipped from the TimesI need your diamonds and jewelry on the register, Now stuffed with more beef in the meat freezer, Flee from fornication on the telephone, Because we are crooked and evil by nature on the safe. She was quirky like that, charming. Then he found Like it was the last day of your life, up above the stove. It was a small creative gesture, subtle, but he could’ve sworn everyone worked extra hard that day. She knew how to get people riled, inspired. It stung Kelley, really rattled him, thinking of Araby now, her quiet fragility, embarrassed disposition, her always-irritated tone, fearful and aloof.

“All right. Listen up,” Kelley said, and divvied out the orders. “We’re on the last leg, we just have to push through this round.” He got no reaction and for a moment wondered if anyone had heard him.

“The eight-top wants to talk to the chef,” Jensea yelled through the window. “Table ten, bachelorette with crabs.” She winked at Calhoun.

“What?” Kelley said. “I don’t remember those going out.”

“Sorry,” Paxton peeled off his plastic gloves, wiping his hands, smoothed out his apron. “I just thought they needed to get out ASAP.”

“Okay,” Kelley said, feeling a bit woozy—he hated talking to upset customers. “I’ll take the heat. Next time, no matter what, you check in with me.”

“Absolutely. Thanks,” Paxton sighed, teeth clicking nervously over his lip ring.

Kelley double-checked for food splatters on his chef smock, apron, and face. Arranged his hat and walked out to ten and eleven. One of the women was a checker at Thrifty’s, but he didn’t recognize the others. The table was split by two conversations, both intense. He loomed, feeling the heat rise in his cheeks, scanned each plate for the crab cakes.

“Oh, good,” a woman said, looking up at him. She had shoulder-length crimped blonde hair, like lightning bolts. Attractive, though older than he’d expected, hands of a woman well into her forties.

“Good afternoon, Miss. I’m the manager, how’s the food?” God, he felt awkward. Why couldn’t he be one of those casual-conversation types?

She stirred the olives in her Martini. “Unexpected,” she said.

The table went quiet.

Kelley crossed his arms, straightened. “Unexpected?” he asked. She nodded, pressing her glossy lips. Now he remembered her—she was a regular, way back, years ago; she’d changed her hair color, lost weight. Used to be a sous at the pricey joint on 27th. A shudder ran through him, she knows, he thought. He’d had this happen before, been lambasted by people familiar with Araby’s style. She’d found him out—he was a fraud masquerading as a chef, and owner. It made him feel simple, the way this woman looked at him, like he was a beginner again.

“You remember me?” the woman asked. “I used to come in here a lot.”

“Yes, ma’am. Dungeness, with garden salad, balsamic on the side. Sometimes crab cakes. The martini, I don’t remember. That’s new.”

“It’s celebratory,” she said, took a sip. “I’m getting a divorce.”

“Ah.” Kelley glanced down at his boots. He wasn’t sure what to say, that is, he understood these things were sometimes for the best, but it hardly seemed appropriate to congratulate.

“Well, look at that,” the woman chimed. “She’s still here.”

Araby was standing in the entrance, that huge wool shawl of hers wrapped around her like a tornado. Kelley’s tongue went dry, cotton-mouthed as the first time they met.

He tried to focus on the table. “And the food?”

The woman reached, held up a tiny green square. “Since when did you start putting jalapeños in your crab cakes?”

Oh, shit, Kelley thought. Jalapeños? With crab? “I’m so sorry.” He scooped the plate from the table. “Let me redo this, it’ll only take a couple minutes.”

“It’s not that they’re bad,” she said. “Just, well, if we’d known, Carol hates spicy foods.”

“Of course,” he said. “Those’ll be right up. I’ll be sure to knock an extra twenty-five percent off the bill. Anything else?”

She looked to her friends who all seemed content. “The rest was lovely. Thank you.”

“Wonderful. Enjoy the remainder of your meal,” he said. “And congratulations.”

She smiled. “Thank you, Mr. Bennison.” It was Araby’s maiden name, but he didn’t blame her, everyone made that mistake.

Kelley leaned on the host stand. “This might be the first time I’ve ever seen you walk through the front door of your own restaurant.”

Araby unwrapped her shawl, pulled it over her head, a wild mess of brown-gray hair at her shoulders. “I thought I’d sit for a while, until it slows down. Then maybe we could talk.”

“Sure,” Kelley said, his voice soft, trying to counteract the hardness in hers. “Shouldn’t be long, just have to . . . you know—”

They stood, silent. She rubbed at her hands, then started toward a booth.

“Ara?” he asked. “Can I bring you anything?”

She stared at him. “I’m not here to eat, K.”

“Right.” He put his palm on the table, patted it gently. “I’ll be out soon, then.”

Kelley hustled to the kitchen, glanced around. “Anyone seen Paxton?”

Rios shook his head.

“No, Boss,” Jensea said. “Smoke break, maybe?”

“Right,” he opened the back door. “And let’s go ahead and make up more crab cakes for table ten? And take a quarter off the bill, yeah?” He made sure to get nods from both Rios and Jensea before turning outside.

Calhoun was finishing a cigarette.

“You know where Paxton is?”

Calhoun shrugged, looking up at the gray sky. “I must have been crazy to leave Saint Kitts for the goddamnPacific Northwest.”

“Yeah,” Kelley took a breath. “Weather sucks here.” He tried to comfort, knowing that Calhoun was going through a rough patch. “But what were you going to do, stay with your girlfriend who doesn’t like to eat? I mean, what’s that? There’d be nice weather, yeah, but what would you guys talk about?”

Calhoun gave him a twisted look. “That don’t matter. So what if she don’t talk food?”

“Look, we’re slowing down,” Kelley said. “You can go ahead and clock out whenever,” he said, glancing at the full bins, wondering if he’d forgotten to pay the garbage bill.

“Sure thing,” Calhoun said and squashed the butt into a notch of the brick wall.

Inside, Kelley noticed inventory still had to be done. Screw it, he thought, tossing the crab cakes in the trash, then opened the walk-in. “Let Pax know I’m looking for him,” he said to all in range.

The fridge door closed, and Kelley was face-to-face with Bernadette, tugging at her shirt, all big-eyed. Paxton stood next to her, flushed, half-grin.

“What the hell?” Kelley said. “Jesus. What are you guys, thirteen?”

“Sorry,” Bernadette said, ironing her hair with a palm. “God, this is embarrassing.”

Paxton slid his hand over Bernadette’s goose flesh, but otherwise didn’t budge.

“Get out,” Kelley said. “Paxton—in the office.”

The two shouldered past him, and he was left to inventory the perishables. In a daze, he filled in blanks, made notes, but an unsteadiness started to build in him. Heated, his hands shook and his pulse quickened. The pen dropped from his fingers and onto the steel floor, rolled under the shelving lining refrigerator walls. He gripped one rack and, on an impulse, started shaking it, hard. The metal grating thudded against the walls as containers toppled over, and somewhere, deep in his gut, came a hard rrrrrrrr, cut short by several jars shattering on the ground, pickled vegetables everywhere. He leaned over and placed a thin asparagus in his mouth—so tart, still crunchy, sour-sweet. How? He wanted to ask, How did she do it? But no, they didn’t have those conversations anymore. He felt weak, as if his whole body were collapsing. His face went tight and he closed his eyes, feeling the cold air circulate. Then he sucked in one long breath, and made his last count, cleaned up, and pushed open the door.

“Jalapeños?” Kelley said, now in the office. “Really?”

“I’m sorry,” Paxton said. He sat on an upturned milk crate, his arms and legs crossed. “They didn’t like it?”

“No, they didn’t. But that’s not even the point. There’s a reason we stick to the recipes. People come here expecting a certain quality of food, not an experiment.”

Paxton stared at his sneakers.

“Because they’re familiar with our menu,” Kelley went on.

“Like at Burger King?” Paxton mumbled into his shoulder.

What?” Kelley said—Paxton was ordinarily so obedient, respectful. He wanted to reach over and pummel the kid. “Look,” he said, “I’m talking about superior food. Araby’s recipes work, they’ve won awards. If you can’t respect that, I’m not sure you should be working in this kitchen.”

This seemed to get his attention. He straightened, said he was sorry, it wouldn’t happen again, calling Kelley sir for the umpteenth time.

Kelley opened the office door for Paxton. “That’s right it won’t,” he said. “And, Paxton, no more orgies in the walk-in.”

“Aww, really?” Paxton joked.

“Go on,” Kelley said. “Clock out. We’ll see you tomorrow.”

Kelley slipped through the swinging door and into the restaurant. Most of the tables had cleared out, including the eight-top. Only a couple tables, the place quieted into mid-afternoon, rain whipping against the windows, a subtle chorus of violins played through overhead speakers.

He fell into the booth; the lamp dangling overhead felt obnoxiously bright.

Araby closed an issue of Food and Wine. He studied the dusky half-mooned pockets under her eyes. Such distance between them now, it was as if they’d been cracked open and pulled apart; he felt thin, sparse, a stringy, pathetic mess.

“So I’ll be at Lucy’s tonight,” she said, all business. “What’s your schedule? Maybe the movers can come by tomorrow while you’re at work.”

Kelley took a big gulp of water. “Right. That’d be fine.” He could tell she’d taken care in putting herself together that morning, choosing the red shirt he liked, some hair pinned with two barrettes. Ruby nail polish, how easily her hand could cramp up after pinching the plastic handle, how long it might have taken to slip the cool ribbon of paint over each finger. She never wore nail polish before and now—she hated drawing attention to her hands, always called them her knobby bones—it was as if she’d embraced them.

“Christ, this sucks,” she paused, then puffed out a laugh. “You know I never thought anything when my grandma complained about her arthritis, never saw it as such a big deal that it could ruin everything. Or, you know, make everything so different.” She looked up, waited for Kelley to say something, then gave him a gentle smirk. “It’s been mostly good, K. It might be too easy of an excuse, but I really do blame this goddamn body of mine. Wasn’t it, you know, good? Living together at your father’s old place?”

He felt a relief of pressure in his chest. He hadn’t seen the sweet side to Araby in so long. He had an idea in his mind, that perhaps they could both walk away from this appreciative of what they had, but ready to move on. People did that, right? That sounded real good to him, healthy. “It was—” he searched for the right phrase, but ended up repeating her words back. “It was nice for a while.”

Araby looked around. “I have to say, you’re doing an amazing job here. A machine, well-oiled. Food’s excellent, you know, staff adores you. I can really see it, K, you really love it.” She sat back and sucked in a couple breaths.

He reached across the table at her, his empty palm upward. “I know it’s hard for you. I hate that it’s come to this. There were always more write-ups when you were here. And the staff took you seriously. I swear, I can’t get people to listen to me, just today Paxton—”

“Kelley,” she blurted. “I’m sorry, I can’t do this anymore. I don’t want to talk about the restaurant. I just wanted to tell you that I think you’re doing a fine job here, truly, a damn fine job, it’s not that.” She went silent, her body closed-off. Self-defense, he guessed.

“What?” he said, the question almost a breath.

“I’ve appreciated all you’ve done, from the beginning: letting me stay with you when the restaurant was in a rears and I had to sell my place, being there for me with every step, trying new recipes together, taking over The Bay after I couldn’t cook,” she wiped at her nose.

“You taught me everything I know.” He said through his teeth. “It’s the least I can do.” There was a tug at him, an anxiety similar to when Araby stopped working, when he first felt the rift grow deeper, and those two questions that soured his stomach late into the night—who is she now and can I still love her? The thought made him goosy, could their love still exist without the tie that bound them? And now that she was leaving, would his dream, everything he’d worked for, be taken from him as well? “Ara, sweetheart?” he pleaded.

She looked at him surprised, probably hadn’t heard him call her that in some time. Araby focused fiercely on the table. “I guess what I want to say is that I need money to move and for doctors and I’m selling the restaurant.”

“To who?” Kelley blurted.

“I don’t know. Whoever can afford it.”

“And that’s not me, is it? Is it Ara?”

“Maybe if you sold the house.”

“I can’t believe this. That you’d sell this place.” There was a crash from the kitchen. “Jesus Christ, what now? If that busser breaks one more glass—”

“K,” she said, “what did you expect? That’d I’d just hand it over to you?”

“I don’t know. I figured it was more than just property. I mean, we earned this place and you’re willing to hand it off to whoever has the money? All of us worked hard for this place, it’s like our home.”

“It’s your home. For others it’s just a job. Don’t try to make this out like I’m taking away people’s home. It’s a business, Kelley. And I’m leaving. What did you expect?”

“You know I can’t sell my father’s place. All of this, Ara? Really? It’s just money to you?”

“It’s not just money. Jesus. It’s so I can afford medicine and be close to my family. Christ, I bought this place because I knew it’d make me feel alive and now I need to sell it . . . . because it’s the only thing I can do to keep going.”

“Your folks could help you.”

“No, Kelley. No. They really can’t. And it doesn’t matter. I’m moving. I have to sell. It’s hard for me too, you know. Look,” she reached out to him, bright red nails, “I know you’d be the perfect person to run this place. Maybe, I don’t know, I could give you a deal.”

“Goddamnit, Araby. You know I don’t have enough.”

“Maybe a loan? Credit cards?”

“Jesus. Isn’t this great. Isn’t this just glorious.”

“It could be good, K, you figuring this all out on your own.”

“That’s such a load.” He shook his head, jaw clenched. “Don’t give me that it’s-for-your-own-good motherly crap. It’ll be all right for you, maybe, but don’t pretend this is some lesson. I wanted to work on this, the restaurant, us. You’re the one that’s running out.”

She gathered up her shawl, wrapped it two times. “Hon, I couldn’t run if I tried,” she said, almost a whisper. “I’m sorry, K, I can’t do this. I have to go.” She stood. “I’m not sure—but we’ll talk.”

Kelley sat with his head in his hands, and still the glow leaked in; he reached up and unscrewed the light. Everything felt suspended, though there was a sense, an instinct in him, that the bulb had rolled off the table and onto the carpet, and then there were the details—would he go home or finish out his shift, because that depended on reservations, the number of servers, if they’d need an extra hand in the kitchen. He felt like he was suffocating, the same stifled feeling he’d had earlier that morning, only worse. God, was this it?

“So—” Kelley heard a voice, peered between his fingers to a couple tables over. A needling started in his chest. “That was her. The owner?”

“I thought you left,” Kelley said, fingering the shiny burn scar on his arm.

“No,” Paxton said. “I usually stick around until Bernadette’s done. I had to get some notes down anyway. Lots to remember. I was wondering if maybe we could do some more training, off the clock. I’d like to get a handle on some of these sautés and sauces, you know, just want to learn more. I’d go to culinary school in a heartbeat, if I could afford it.”

“Naw, don’t do that,” Kelley said. “Waste of money.”

“Where’d you go, again?”

“Didn’t. I learned everything from Ara.”

Paxton put pen to notebook. “Step one: Find a smart girlfriend. Got it.”

Kelley chuckled. “Maybe find the woman, first. It’d be a bummer if she was already someone’s girlfriend.” He scooted over in the booth, felt a little fuzzy, stoned. “You been sitting over there this whole time?”

“I would’ve said hello,” Paxton said. “But I didn’t really notice it was you until the light went off. It caught my attention.”

They both stared for a moment, then Paxton returned to scribbling in his notebook. Kelley leaned over and grabbed the bulb from the floor, rolled it on the table, under his palm. The restaurant had pretty much cleared out, their section anyway; he figured it must be around four, four-thirty. He had an urge to get up, check the reservations, arrange seating, but remained planted in the cushy vinyl of the booth, his mind like a jellyfish, floating and falling.

“Jalapeños,” he scoffed.

Paxton turned. “I know, I’m sorry. Dumb idea.”

“What were you thinking?”

“You’re right, I shouldn’t have gone over your head.”

“No—I mean, yes, always check with me—but jalapeños?”

“Well, this guy I worked with?” Paxton said, “he sort of ingrained the idea of the five flavors in me. So, in the crab cakes, you have salty, a touch of sour with the lime juice, and the coconut chutney—which is amazing, by the way—adds a bitter-sweetness . . . but I thought, maybe a kick, something hot, you know, bring together the range of the palate and all that stuff.”

Kelley nodded. “I see what you mean. But you can’t just throw in any spice, you have to consider the acidity and texture. Beyond taste, you have to think: what is the makeup, the consistency of jalapeños mixed in this crab cake. You chopped those way too large, didn’t consider how the waxy-crunchiness would mix with bread, the stringy meat. See what I mean? There’s a science to it, yeah, but it also takes a lot of imagining and intuitiveness.”

“Absolutely.” Paxton leaned in, his whole body pointed, focused, intent to learn.

It made Kelley uneasy, actually—this stuff wasn’t any big secret, after all. But he told Paxton he was on the right track. “Just keep thinking it through. Like, okay, this needs a kick—Why? What type? What’ll it do to the texture? But I see what you mean about the spice, we should experiment.”

Paxton beamed. “Maybe chipotle?”

“That’d work better with the texture, but I was thinking some Thai spice, to go with the coconut.” Kelley held the fragile orb of the light bulb, twisted it into the socket. “We’ll see,” he said standing. “Tomorrow, ten a.m.?”

“I’ll be here,” Paxton said, sipped his coffee, kept on with his note-taking.

Outside, Kelley collapsed onto a bench under the awnings, near the dumpsters. Rain trickled from the rooftop gutters, plunking down on empty milk gallons in recycling. The trash shimmered with drizzle, drops slipped from the eaves, puckering the pools left in potholes. But, amazingly, even the buckets of guts and entrails looked beautiful, showered in all that grayness, even the lopped-off heads of salmon.

Slowly, the events of the day filtered through him, like sand sifting down through water. Never mind about the future, he’d have to accept what was happening now, even if it made him feel broken and bloodless. He knew that soon he’d have to start looking into loans, could feel the fight buried down deep; the pull wouldn’t cease until a decision aboutBennisonBayhad been made, but that was for later. She was gone; she’d been gone for a while. He let this realization sink in, made it certain, familiar, grew to know it as surely as he knew that Angela would be dimming the lamps and lighting candles, scribbling reservations with a grease pen on the restaurant layout, that Swanson would be prepping chowder and mixing a rub for the steaks, that soon he’d join them. He stared off at the docks—a mountain of oyster shells, blanched, eerie, like a pile-up of bones, and at the bay, low tide, pockets of pearly clams speckled on the shore, and beyond that, ocean.

Nancy Brown, 6/5/2011

Current occupation: Circulation Director, Norway Memorial Library, Norway, Maine
Previous occupation: Cashier, Big Apple Convenience Store
Contact Information: Nancy L. Brown lives in Bethel, Maine, and writes a weekly column for the local newspaper, “The Bethel Citizen.” Previous publications include “Stonecoast Lines.” She is a graduate of the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast MFA program.


First Day at the BA

It’s Valentine’s Day and it’s snowing. Sloppy wet flakes splash onto the roadway. I’ve come home to Maine after thirty years and can’t find a job. Forty job applications in two months and I’ve been passed over for everything, including chambermaid at a bread and breakfast, insurance clerk at a medical office, school secretary, funeral home attendant, Wal-Mart associate, and reporter for the local paper. And so it goes. No work, no prospects, no cash.

I pull into the local BA convenience store and pump eight bucks into my tank. I stand in line to pay, and then argue with the droopy-eyed cashier when he says my Mobil card is denied.

“Give me another card,” he says. His hand is out and his fingers snapping. He smells like stale sweat and used cigarette smoke. “You don’t have a good card, then give me cash. Hurry it up. It’s wicked busy in here today.”

The people in line behind me shift back and forth. “Come on,” one of them mutters. “Hurry it up. Hurry it up.” I hand the cashier a crumpled five and count out three dollars in quarters. “Trying to get rid of my loose change,” I say. In truth, this is all I have. On my way out I see the sign in the window: “Hiring Cashiers. Benefits. See Manager.”

I pull away from the pump and wait for the customers to leave. Embarrassed, I go back in. The cashier — his name is Rick — hands me a clip board with a two-page job application. A handwritten job description is scribbled across the top page: “Cashier. Pump upkeep. Wash floors. Shovel snow. Clean restrooms. Minimum wage.” I write down a few job references, but leave off the college degree and wages from my last job in Virginia.

Rick points to a door. “Give it to the manager.” When he speaks, I notice black nubs where his bottom front teeth should be. I guess the medical plan doesn’t include dental.

The manager is a tired woman of about forty with fawn-colored hair. Her name tag says Ruby.

I hold up my application. Ruby’s eyes cruise my body up and down. They linger on my short gray hair. She shrugs and nods toward a chair covered with stacks of crumpled paper and cash register receipts. “Push that crap onto the floor and sit down. I’ll be with you in a minute. I’m on the phone with the district manager.” For another five minutes Ruby talks into the phone about drive-offs, gas spills, and teenage loiterers from the nearby high school. Then she swivels around and grabs the application.

“The BA is the second biggest gas station chain in the state of Maine. We have almost eighty stores. This store is a prime location because it’s the first gas station in almost twenty-five miles after people leave New Hampshire. Right now I need a cashier for night shift. We close at 10:00 pm. Pay is minimum wage and it won’t go up unless you get promoted, which is highly unlikely. Are you interested?”

I nod.

Ruby scans the application. “How old are you? Fifty-something? Never mind. I’m not allowed to ask you that. Can you lift thirty-five pounds without having a heart attack or stroking out? You need to lift a crate with four gallons of milk over your head. Up and down. Up and down. Up and down. Can you do that?” Ruby pushes her flabby arms up and down in the air.

I laugh. “Of course I can lift thirty-five pounds.”

“Awesome,” she says. She scratches the name of a clinic on a piece of paper. “This is for your physical this afternoon. If you pass, be here at 4:30 in the morning. Rick will train you. I’m working another store tomorrow.”

The physical takes five minutes. I lift thirty-five pounds above my head (Up and down. Up and Down.) while a scrawny nurse in wrinkled scrubs spots me. No blood test. No urine sample. No hernia check. The nurse signs a doctor’s name at the bottom of the form.

The next morning I wait for an hour for Rick to show up.

“I thought Ruby said 4:30,” I say.

“This job don’t pay enough to get here on time.” Rick fiddles with the door lock. “Stop talking and bring the papers in.” He points to the stacks of Boston Globes,Portland Press Heralds, and Sun Journals sitting under the gas island canopy. By the time I get the papers inside, Rick has brewed two carafes of Eight O’clock coffee. He’s taking doughnuts out of a bakery box and stacking them into a Plexiglas doughnut case. He sucks the frosting off his fingers.

“Jesus Christ. Don’t you wear gloves?” I ask.

“Not if the manager don’t catch me. Ruby left a shirt for you.”

The shirt smells like greasy hot dogs and somebody else’s sweat. There are old stains under the arms. I pull the bright red shirt over my t-shirt. It hangs almost to my knees. I pin the handwritten “Trainee Nancy” name tag over my right breast.

“No. No. No,” Rick says. “You’re all wrong. Corporate rule. You have to tuck your shirt in. They’ll fire you if you don’t tuck.”

I push the shirttails into my navy blue Dockers and the excess mass of red cloth cascades down over my belt.

“You have to wear black pants and black shoes. No jeans. Wear your name tag all the time. And it has to be on the left side. Above the logo.” Rick reaches out and pulls the name tag off my shirt.

I grab his wrist as he moves to pin the tag over my left breast. “What the hell are you doing? Just show me where the name tag is supposed to go.”

“I was just trying to be helpful.” Rick hands me back the name tag.

“For now, just watch me.”

I take out my spiral notebook and sit on the stool.

“Don’t let the managers catch you sitting down. The stool is not to sit on.”

I stand. “Then why is it here?”

“So that OSHA thinks we have a stool for our break. But we don’t get a break, so we don’t need it.”

Rick greets the first customer of the day, a log truck driver wearing a Carhartt work jacket and a blue knit cap. “Good morning. Welcome to the BA. How can I help you?”

“Coffee.” The trucker blows on his hands. “Been driving all night. Came down through Dixville Notch. Road’s a solid sheet of ice.” He pours a 24-ounce coffee and picks out two plain doughnuts. Rick charges him for the doughnuts. “Coffee’s on us.”

After the trucker leaves, I ask, “Why’s the coffee free?”

“The guy had a bad night,” he says. “But don’t let the manager catch you giving away anything.”

The next customers are the engineer and brakeman of the early morning freight train headed from Vermont to Danville Junction. The crew leaves the train idling at the crossing and runs across the street for a newspaper, coffee, and croissants.

“You’re the only place on our run where we can get coffee,” the engineer tells me.

For the next hour, the cow bell hanging on the door clangs every thirty seconds. The computerized cash register beeps when a customer picks up a gas nozzle. When the pumping is done, the computer beeps again, singing out “Fueling complete.” Every customer bangs through the front door because the outdated pumps don’t take credit cards.

Clang. Bang. Beep. Fueling complete. Clang. Bang.

Rick calls out. “Hello . . . . Good morning . . . . Hey, how are you . . . . Rough bit of weather we’re having . . . . How’s it going? . . . Have a good day . . . . Bonjour . . . . What’s up? . . . . Would you like a doughnut or newspaper to go with your coffee? . . . Good bye.”

I learn this is the standard routine. Hectic. Fast-paced. Noisy.

When business slacks off for a few minutes, Rick explains the constant chatter. The BA has a 30-second rule. When a customer enters the store, they must be greeted within 30 seconds or by the time they are 30 feet into the store. When the customer leaves, the cashier must acknowledge their departure by saying good-bye, nodding, or waving.

Rick tells me to use the breaks in customer flow to fill the coffee carafes, wipe down the counters, and restock the shelves.

“What if I run out of coffee during rush hour?”

“Don’t let it happen. When you’re not ringing up a sale, make a pot of coffee, or fill the coolers. Even if there’s nothing to do, don’t let them catch you frigging around. They want you doing two or three things at once. They got a word for it.”

“Multi-tasking?” I asked.

“Yeah, that’s it.”

Rick explains that six kinds of coffee are brewed each day. Each month there is a special. Usually the special has a holiday theme like Pumpkin spice, eggnog, peppermint patty, or blueberry. This month is February. The special is chocolate cherry. Rick confides that no one drinks the specials. “Only make it if someone asks,” he tells me. I ask Rick about the food. “Do we get a discount on sandwiches and soda?”

“No discount. Nothing’s free. Except coffee. If you buy something, you have to print a receipt and tape it to the item. The managers check everything. They fired somebody at the Railroad Street store for taking a sandwich outta the trash. Between you and me, at night you can eat stuff we toss out, but don’t let the managers catch you.”

I look up from my notebook. “What are you talking about?”

“The stuff we throw out each night,” Rick says. “It’s all written up as spoilage. Left-over doughnuts. Hot dogs and sandwiches we don’t sell. You can take them out of the trash and eat them if you want. There’s nothing wrong with them. Just don’t get caught.”

I ask him how much food we throw out each night. He estimates that the store trashes a couple dozen doughnuts, thirty hotdogs and sandwiches, and gallons of coffee each night.

“You know there’s nothing wrong with that food,” Rick says. “Working here for minimum wage, eating free helps a little bit. My girlfriend and I eat courtesy of the BA almost every night.”

He goes on to tell me that I’ll never be able to take a lunch break or a bathroom break. “You’re the only one here most of the time. You eat when you don’t have a customer. Same for going to the bathroom. You hear that bell on the front door tinkle, then you stop tinkling and get your ass back out here.”

Rick looks at his watch. “Time for a cigarette break. Do you smoke?”

I shake my head.

“Fill the cup dispensers while I’m gone? There are four sizes: 12 ounce, 16 ounce, 20 ounce, and 24 ounce. There should be exactly fifty cups in each dispenser at the beginning of the shift.”

Rick steps outside and lights a Marlboro. He pulls the squeegees out of the buckets and checks the windshield washer fluid levels. The cigarette hangs from his lip as he tugs the overflowing trash bags from the cans, replaces the liners, and drags the bags to the dumpster.

I watch him go pump-to-pump. He jiggles each pump handle to make sure it’s in a locked position. The cigarette dangles, losing ash onto the pavement beside the pumps. I write a note to look for emergency evacuation instructions.

When he comes in, Rick smells like gasoline. He wipes his hands on his pants and heads to the hot dog steamer. “I’ll show you how to set up the hot dogs. We sell the old fashioned red hot dogs. Maine is the only place you can get them.”

Rick pulls a box of Jordan’s red hot dogs from the cooler and drops it on the counter, slips a box cutter from his back pocket, slits open the box, and cuts the links apart with the box cutter. He holds up a hot dog and I see dirt and grease under his chewed fingernails. “You want me to throw in an extra for you. Free of charge since it’s your first day.”

“No. I brought my lunch.”

The rest of the morning Rick trains me on the cash register and explains the finer points of gas station security. “If someone drives off without paying, don’t chase them. If you’re robbed, give them the whole cash drawer, or whatever they want. If someone shoots at you, try to duck. If there’s a fire, leave the building first and then call the fire department. Turn off the gas pumps before you leave. And lock the door.”

I make a note to keep my cell phone on me. And my keys. I also check where all the exits are.

We squeeze in a brief lunch in the early afternoon. I drink a cup of coffee. It seems a safe bet that the hot water will kill any bacteria and germs. Rick eats an Italian sandwich rescued from yesterday’s trash. “Want one? They’re wicked good. Almost as good as Subway. I’ve got a bagful of them in the car.”

I shake my head.

“This afternoon we have the filling of coolers,” Rick says. “We have fifty different soft drinks and forty brands of beer. We run a beer special every week. This week is the Budweiser eighteen-pack with Dale Junior on the box.”

I have no idea what he’s talking about. “Who the hell is Dale Junior?” I ask.

Rick stares. “Seriously? You don’t know who Dale Earnhardt, Jr., is? He’s a NASCAR driver. Promoting NASCAR is a big part of this job. I think the BA owns a car or something.”

Rick explains all the rules, including which ones to ignore. The workload is overwhelming. “You can’t pace yourself because the managers will tell you, ‘The only pace we have is push.’”

At the end of the shift Rick tells me I’ll be ready to work alone by the weekend. I still have to learn how to close out the cash register, measure fuel in the tanks, clean the hot dog steamer, wash the floors and bathrooms, change the gas prices on the outside sign, and clean up an oil spill. These are tomorrow’s lessons. My back aches, my feet hurt, and a spot behind my right eye is pounding.

“With a bit more training, you’ll fit right in,” Rick says.

At that moment, I doubt it. But he is right. I am a good fit. I learn the ropes. I know the neighbors, their kids, and their dogs. When the next door neighbor’s three-legged dog comes to visit and beg for hotdogs, I bring him inside and call her. “He can’t afford to get hit by a car and lose another leg,” she tells me.

I know which elderly patrons need help pumping their gas and which ones can use a free cup of coffee. I know everyone who stops here: skiers, bikers, tourists, and locals. Everyone stops at the BA. I stay almost three years. At first, full time and then part-time, when I get a slightly better-paying job.

On Election Day 2008, Ruby calls me. “Did you vote?” she asks. “Who’d you vote for?” Then she tells me the real reason for her call. “They shut us down today. Two district managers and a guy from corporate walked into the store and closed it. Just like that with no notice. They ordered the cashier from behind the counter, took her store keys, and sent her home, and locked the store.”

The seven employees are told they can take jobs at other stores, some of which are thirty miles away. I turn down the offer. Ruby tells me that within an hour, forty local residents call the corporate office to complain. The company tells them the store isn’t profitable enough.

The store remains closed today. Sometimes in the early morning, my dog and I take a walk past the vacant building. If we have time, we sit on the gas station steps and wait for the early morning freight train. If the sun has risen and visibility is good, the train slows at the crossing, the window on the lead engine slides open, and the engineer leans out and waves as the train rumbles on to Danville Junction.

Al Simmons, 5/29/2011

Current Occupation: Retired
Former Occupation: Writer/Businessman/Entrepreneur
Contact Information: Al Simmons was born in Chicago, Illinois. He is a founder of the infamous Blue Store Readings, Chicago 1971, birthplace of the Spoken Word Movement, the first regular reading series in Chicago since Sherwood Anderson held readings in his living room in the 1930s. He was Poet-In-Residence City of Chicago, 1979-80. He founded and was Commissioner of the World Poetry Association and served as commissioner to the WPA and the World Poetry Bout Association, (WPBA), Chicago, Taos, New Mexico, 1979-2002. He is the creator of The Main Event, The World Heavyweight Poetry Championship Fights. He lives in Alameda, California.


Chick N’ Ribs

That was the place for broasted chicken
And BBQ ribs, Chick N’ Ribs
On Granville Avenue by the “L”
Where I worked when I
Was seventeen years old delivering dinners piping hot
In exchange for date money.
I worked three nights a week, 5-9 pm,
For $1.75 an hour plus tips, about $50 a week.

She lived at the Granville Hotel
Down the street, an old respectable
Granite faced and redbrick twelve-story complex with a doorman.
She lived on the second floor in the corner
Facing east toward the lake.

She was the sexiest woman I delivered to.
She was young, petite, single, a brunette, dark and mysterious,
Plus she flirted with me and tipped well.
She had a curious wisdom about her.

One Friday night I knocked on her door
With her order
And a man opened the door.
He backed me out of the doorway
Into the hall closing
The door behind him and checked the hall
In both directions like some phony crook,
Then invited me in.

There were two of them in the room with her,
Rush Street types with disco shirts,
The handsome dark-haired
Grease ball that opened the door
And a tall stocky guy standing next to my customer.

She was sitting on a dining room chair placed in
The middle of the room, her right blouse sleeve
Rolled up haphazardly above her elbow.
I had never seen anyone high on heroin before.
The one who let me in said, she’s a little
Out of it. How much does she owe you?

I told him.
He paid me and
I left.

A couple of weeks later, the next time
I delivered her order,
She was alone and herself again, but
Instead of paying me at the door
Like she always did
She invited me in.

She took the food package from me,
Told me to wait, turned and left to
The kitchen. When she returned
She paid me,
Then sat down on her sofa.
I stood there. She wore blue jeans
And a black top.

She looked at me.
I stood there for a minute thinking.
Nothing came to me. I was working.
My car was double parked in the street.
My parking lights were on. There were
Dinners in my car, customers waiting.
I was flattered and confused. Flattergasted.
She was 10 years older than me. I
Felt like a fool.

She was a beautiful woman,
Less mysterious, perhaps.

I did the only thing I knew how to do,
I thanked her and left.


A Short Career In Crime

In 1955, my family moved to a new track home in the suburbs
Just west of Cicero Ave, in Oak Lawn, Illinois, on
The southwest side of Chicago.
They still had wooden sidewalks downtown, Oak Lawn
Five steps up above the poorly paved streets.
They are gone now.

The 5&10 Cent Store downtown
Was the Wal-Mart of the day
And I’d go there for the penny candy,
And occasionally nick a piece of licorice or bubble gum.

I had a system for stealing candy.
I would buy one piece
While having another piece hid up my sleeve.
It was a good system because it worked
And I never got caught.

One day I saw something shiny and made of brass.
I had no idea what it was.
It was round and solid and looked important.

It had weight. I picked it up and examined it, and
Saw the shopkeeper watching me
From the corner of her eye.

I thought about it, weighed the risk and
Took it anyway
And got caught.

The shopkeeper phoned the police,
Then phoned my mother.

When I got home I went straight to my room.
A short time later my grandfather poked his head in
My doorway and looked at me
And shook his head, and that was all he had to say.
I was so embarrassed.

To this day I have no idea

What I got caught stealing.
Perhaps for that reason nothing came of it.
It was too stupid and of course, I was a kid.

I had an addendum to my system.
I stole for fun and excitement, but
I always knew that stealing was wrong.

I also knew from watching movies
That kids get off the first time,
And told myself, I’ll be a thief
Until the day comes
When I get caught.

I kept that pledge
And held to my system
And never did any
Shoplifting again.

He is a wise man
Who learns to
Rotate his vices.