Tom Larsen, 10/8/2012

Current Occupation – writer
Former Occupations – printer, trucker, roofer, bartender
Contact Information: Tom Larsen was a journeyman printer for 26 years before giving it up for the writer’s life. What he was thinking isn’t clear.

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Printers Inc.

Take it from me. You can fall asleep on your feet, but sooner or later your knees will buckle. Happened plenty of times running presses over at Printers. It’s a crazy feeling waking up like that and sometimes, for a second there, you don’t know where the hell you are. Then it’s back in a flash and you see it’s so wrong for you. At least I did. Which is why I quit.
Cute name, Printer’s Inc., right? Believe me these guys were murder. The Donnellis would screw you just to stay in shape and every guy there had gone a few rounds with them. Jack the midget, throwing his arms around, smacking his head like he can’t believe it. Believe it, Jack. Things go wrong all the time in a print shop. For what the Donnellis charge customers expect the best, but I can tell you that’s expecting too much.
Then there’s Al. The “brains” of the family, a man with more tics then a cuckoo clock. Al’s the excitable type. He graduated cum laude from Harvard Law, but his face makes him unemployable. He’s also gay; bad combination in a Neanderthal trade. I liked to work him up to a lather then get all big and crazy looking so he’d think he’d crossed a line. If that’s homophobic, so be it. Where I come from an asshole is an asshole
Some days I’d get a long run, twenty, thirty thousand and an hour in that press would be running itself. Forget about shooting the breeze or catching a few scores in the paper. The Donnellis wanted their pound of flesh and that meant keeping your nose to the grindstone. So you pull a few sheets and you fiddle around and pretty soon you start to fade. Maybe you were up late or you had a few too many and you know you got five more hours. Standing around watching the clock, worrying about one stupid thing or another. It wears you out, I can tell you. Pretty soon the eyes are drooping and the noise seems to fade and then boom! Your knees give out. It’s a funny thing to see unless your name’s Donnelli.

Most guys I’ve worked with would kill to get out of the business, but with families and the time put in it’s hard to walk away. I did it and I ain’t looking back. People don’t realize the pressure printers are under. One little mistake and it’s ten grand down the shitter. The halftones are reversed or phone number’s scrambled and it’s NFG. No Fucking Good! Skids of product no one can use and you get to run the whole thing over. Not your fault maybe, but you made it irreversible. Shit didn’t run itself, dude. That’s not even considering the stuff that IS your fault, you backed it up wrong or it’s crooked or it offset or a million other things. Every printer I know drinks too much and most have an ex wife or two on retainer.

The schmoozing thing really bugged me. You work with guys every day, but if you can’t talk to them you can’t get to know them. And I’m the kind of guy; if I don’t know you I generally don’t like you. It drives my wife nuts but it’s something I can’t change. To me everybody’s a blowhard until they prove different. So Printers was basically a shop full of grumblers who hated the boss and kept their distance. I was there ten years. I spent more time with those shmos than I did with my family, but I didn’t know where one of them lived. Take it from me it wasn’t natural.
So OK, I may be slow to warm, but I’m no sociopath. I’ve worked in places where the crew was as tight a TV family. Worked together, played together, married each other, got divorced. I still have friends I haven’t worked with in twenty years. So when I say Printers was unnatural, I hold myself apart from it. From my first day I could see what the problem was. I was fifteen years younger than the next guy and I was pushing forty. A few decades running presses will knock the snot out of you and suddenly the old pension’s so close you can taste it. So the job sucks. It’s almost over. Get through the fucking day.
None of this was lost on the Donnellis.

Not that we NEVER talked to each other. Some days there’d be nothing else to do or you’d run into one of them in the mall and you’d have a few words, mostly about the boss. The Donnellis did this or said that, and always some big talk about getting even, dropping a wrench between cylinders or tipping off OSHA. The longer I was there the worse it got.
OK, that’s my fault. You don’t like the job you get another or you do something to change it. But the only thing worse than working is not working. I’ve been there often enough. Sit around the house driving the old lady nuts, Try finding work when you really need it. Especially when you’ve been around and expect to make a decent living. The trades have dried up here and everywhere, so you hold on to what you got. You might not like it but you shut up and take it. Or you walk away and hope for the best.

Funny how it goes. When I think back to how I got into printing it’s almost comical. I’d been to college a few years, but what I got out of it was either sexually transmitted or drug related. This was back in the seventies when a career was what your dad had and your dad was a loser. Guys I know now are surprised when they hear I went to college. Most of them came from working class where higher education meant finishing twelfth grade. My dad made a good living, but he was convinced a degree would have made him and he was probably right. From the time we could listen he harped on college, drummed it in our heads until we hated to be around him. He must have thought we’d go along just to shut him up and for a while we did. Then the old man died and in the end not a one of us could hack it.
I knew I’d have to get a job, but back then guy I was pretty particular. No suit and tie, no sucking up, no working my way up the ladder, not me. I wanted a skill that would let me be mobile. Not a career but an occupation, something to pay the bills while I figured out how to make my mark. I was leafing through the phone book to see what was out there and when I got to the P’s my fate was sealed. If I’d given it any thought I would have seen the limitations, advancement, for instance. Once you’re the printer there’s nowhere to go. OK, foreman, maybe, but that’s a suck up job and the pay is only slightly higher. So where does that leave you? You’re never going to own the place, not on a printers paycheck. It took me a while to see my mistake. What’s good money when you’re 20 is peanuts when you’re hitting 50 and your kid brother just bought a place in Pompano.

Printers Inc, a real shit hole, I can tell you. Funny thing is I loved the building, a hundred years old, easy, with high ceilings and big windows facing out on the city. You couldn’t really see through them, what with fifty years of grime, but some mornings those shafts of light were as soft as an old flannel shirt. The place was a monument to industry, one of those brick monoliths that take up the whole block. Covered in graffiti, rust belt down to the dumb waiters and the wood brick floors. From a distance Printers looked haunted and up close it could break your heart. I got to like going to work in a scary looking place. When I left for the last time I pried up one of those wood bricks and took it home with me.
It was the mouse that pushed me over the edge. Being old and semi permeable, the building was a haven for the lower life forms. Rats, bats, pigeons, the odd crackhead, and bugs! Holy Jesus! Horrible things with fat, hairy bodies and more legs than they’d ever need. And not shy about making an appearance either. You’d be smoothing ink into the fountain and all of a sudden something would catch your eye, moving fast over the wooden bricks, slipping under your press and not coming out. Gave me the willies, I can tell you. One time Big Lenny crushed three toes stomping one on his shoe, a truly funny thing to see.
So the place was a dump and a few bugs weren’t gonna make much difference. But then Jack brought his wife in to work the phones and the Godzilla of bugs took up in file cabinet. Like she’d found a head in there from the way she went off. Jack called in an exterminator, skinny guy with a spray wand. He went along the floors and into the corners, nodding and smiling like we were all in the same boat. The smile of a man who expected more from life, but believed, in his way, he was making a difference. We watched him angling around work tables, squeezing into places no one ever thought to go, spritzing every cranny with God knows what. We stood there smirking in the time-honored way of slightly skilled men lording it over slightly less skilled men.
“What the hell is he so happy about?” Big Lenny wondered.
I shrugged. “Maybe he’s drunk.”
“What kind of job is that for a grown man?” Owens shook his head. ”I stopped killing bugs when I was six.”
“The kind you have right before you throw yourself off the bridge.” Lenny snickered.
Owens sucked his teeth reflectively. “It’s the uniform, with the name above the pocket. That’s where I draw the line.”
I looked down at my own uniform, then to Lenny’s, then Owens.
“OK, but ours are cool,” Owens said in all seriousness, glancing at the name above his pocket, something long and Polish. “It’s like a disguise or something.”
“The bow tie,” Lenny muttered, almost to himself. “That’s where I draw the fucking line,”
The guy wasn’t wearing a bow tie but Owens and I never let on.

I first saw the mouse when I was cleaning up to go home. Things were slow and I was drawing it out. It’s the slow days that never end. I was digging through a box of parts when I spotted him under my workbench. There was something wrong with his leg or back, some deformity or old injury. It didn’t seem to bother him much, but it made me wonder what was in that spray wand.
I watched him poke around an old gripper assembly, nosing along as the press pounded a few feet away. I figured he was hungry so I tossed a few donut crumbs over. The crumbs startled him and he darted off, but a few minutes later he was back, sniffing the length of chain, sniffing the crumbs then sniffing all the other crap that was down there. Marking thing for later, or so I thought. But the crumbs were there the next day and may be there still for all I know.
He’d only show when the press was cranking. Maybe with the noise he thought I couldn’t see him, or maybe with the noise he couldn’t see me. What I know about mice is they’re smaller than you’d think. I’ll admit I looked forward to seeing him. What the hell, he was cute. I thought about what it must be like creeping around the old plant at night, not so bad, I suppose. There’s heat and water and enough junk to hide in. You can pass in or out in a million places and there are two restaurant dumpsters in the alley out back. A mouse might spend his whole life in here, generation after generation passing down the secrets.
How long does a mouse live anyway? My guess is not too long. Almost anything will kill you and tunneling through garbage all day can’t be healthy. To me mice seem super skittish and I’m thinking lots of them die of fright. When you’re that small and that defenseless you know your place on the food chain. Low man must be stressful. When your numbers up you blow all the gaskets.
“Got a little mouse at the job,” I told the wife over supper.
“A mouse? You sure it’s not a rat?”
“Believe me, you wouldn’t get them confused. This guy’s tiny,” I held my finger and thumb a mouse length apart.
“Better kill it.”
“What do you mean? I like him.”
“Mice have fleas and fleas carry diseases. Remember that show on PBS?”
“I’m not going to kill him. He’s a friend of mine.”
“ … OK.”
“His name is Bernardo.”
“Bernardo.”
“ … right.”

I was running Safeco’s annual report when the pest control guy showed up again. Watching him, I couldn’t help wondering what it was like, exterminating for a living. The day’s work measured in small-scale carnage, genocide, when you think about it. Sure it’s bugs and vermin, but they were living and now they’re dead. Where he goes tiny organs dissolve, synapses misfire, little limbs and segments wriggle their last. Whole populations, countless thousands wiped out in the wave of his wand. The few who survive breed a stronger strain, immune to the toxins, then stronger toxins.
There must be consequences to his line of work.
He made his way toward me and smiled his big smile. I gave him a nod and motioned him over.
“Hiya,” he studied the thumping Heidleberg, eyes wide at the wonder of it. “Boy, ain’t she something,”
I glanced back then led him off a few paces. He stood solemn and trusting, the wand at his side. My smile was barely menacing.
“Listen, …” I checked his shirt,” … Bert, can I ask you a favor?”
“Sure. What’s the problem, uh, …” he squinted at mine. “… Pinky?”
“The problem is I got a thing about, you know,” I pointed to the canister.
“ …oh?”
“Look, I know you got a job to do, but, … ” I ran a hand over my face for effect. “You remember Agent Orange, right Bert?”
“ … you mean?”
“That’s right. Pleku, It’s not something I like to talk about.”
“No hey, I understand.”
“I mean most of the time I feel OK, OK?”
He looked down at the wand, the canister. I did the hand over the face thing again.
“Whaddya say Bert, can we make a deal? Do what you have to do, but can we skip around here. Just, you know,” I gestured to the immediate area.
“I gotta tell you though, this stuff has been tested by every underwriter in the business. Seriously. The chances of you -”
I let the smile sag.
“… uh,” he looked around as if someone could hear us. “See, I’d have to check with the owner.”
“Bert, look at me,” the smile gone now, replaced by a world-weary grimace. “I didn’t ask to be sterilized. You know what I’m saying? I didn’t sign on to have my liver pickled or my brain cells scrambled.”
“Oh my Lord.”
“You ever get night sweats, Bert? How about it?”
“Gee no, but -”
“C’mere,” I drew him to me. “Answer me this. Did you ever catch yourself staring into space trying to remember your kid’s name?”
Bert turned deathly pale.
“It’s not that much to ask, my friend. Not that you owe me a thing.”
“OK,” his eyes didn’t quite meet mine. “It’s against company policy, but you’re right. Jesus. We’ve done enough to you already.”
“You’re a stand up guy Bert. I won’t forget it,” I clapped him on the shoulder and sent him on his murdering way.
Not that it would make any difference. Hosed down the way it was the building had to be toxic. The mouse came around now and then but he probably combed the whole building, soaking up poisons like a sponge. Spray day had to be the worst, though, a fresh coating of lethal substance settling over. Surely he can smell it and feel it in his eyes. Hey, I’m no animal rights nut, but I’m no sadist either. The nature of pain is to be painful. For the creepy-crawlies you can overlook it, but a crippled little mouse? I don’t know. It didn’t sit right.

I didn’t see Bernardo for a while. I went on vacation and when I came back, the shop had been painted. They’d covered the presses, moved everything else away from the walls and sprayed the whole place. The color, a slight variation on the old toothpaste green made it feel more like prison than it did before. I couldn’t see why the Donellis would bother, but then Lenny told me they’d gotten a “deal” on it, some poor schlub working off his business card debt, if I had to bet. He said Jack’s wife had nagged him into it but brother Al was refusing to kick in. I don’t why this cheered me up but it did. Something about the brothers going at it always made my day.
The schlub’s crew really botched the job. Paint had hardened into lumps and dribbles. The floor was rimmed inches deep and the windows and fixtures had taken a dusting. Anything that hadn’t been moved had been painted over, including the arm of my chair and my poster of Westbrook breaking a long one. Paint was everywhere. I could still smell it.
Shortly after lunch something moved under my workbench. Crouching down I saw a gob of green inching along the green gripper assembly. The mouse was crusted in paint, just his legs moving under a green shell. It didn’t look like collateral damage either. Someone had zeroed in. On top of everything else Bernardo had been gang painted.
Enough was enough. Those Donellis always struck me as sadists, but this was way beyond the pale. I scrunched down on my hands and knees and poked around with the dolly hook. Bernardo rolled out and I scooped him up. Oh man, it was pitiful. One of his legs was bound up inside and his eyes had been painted shut! I took him to the sink but it was hopeless. I could pick away bits and pieces but only a solvent would do the job. And then I noticed he wasn’t moving anymore. I touched his little head but it just rolled back in the collar of paint. I’d been careful with the water so he couldn’t have drowned. I might have scared him too much but I had to do something. I was sure he was dead, but I laid him on workbench and checked on him all morning to be sure. Little guy never moved a muscle. Just before noon I walked into the lunchroom, opened the refrigerator, popped a Tupperware top and buried Bernardo in Jack’s lasagna. That done I cleaned out my locker, pried up a floor brick and took the 5 bus home.

Russell Koharchick, 10/1/2012

Current Occupation: City Firefighter
Former Occupation: City Firefighter
Contact Information: I am an English writing major in my final term as an undergraduate at Boise State University, and hope to start graduate school next fall. In addition to school, I am a professional firefighter and constantly find ideas for essays in my work experiences. Creative nonfiction is the genre I hope to specialize in, and my goal is to write essays that form a strong connection with the reader.
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No, I Don’t Get Paid Enough For That

Most people assume calling 911 is only for emergencies; while I admire their integrity, there are many others with a less discerning dial finger. In five years as a professional firefighter I’ve been called to a parrot “stuck” in a tree he flew into, rescued ducklings from a storm drain three separate times, responded to a “parachutist drowning in a river” that was a kite boarder, and moved a couch at a retirement home. And while calls as ridiculous as these are few and far between, there’s one specific type just as non-emergent, and far more common.

Whether a sprinkler pipe bursts in a warehouse, a kid pulls the alarm handle in a store, or a residential fire alarm is activated by burnt pop-tarts, it’s safe to count on at least one false alarm per shift. You show up prepared for the world to be on fire, half expecting to see a blushing mother and her toddler at an alarm pull station, walk around looking serious, and try not to knock anything over with your air-pack or look winded carrying 100 pounds of gear. In the end you reset the alarm that started blaring before you got there and give everyone an understanding smile as you leave. These are some of the most benign calls we respond to, so of course, it had to be a false alarm that became the self-effacing career moment I can never decide to laugh at, or blush over.

The setting was perfect to the point of cliché: middle of October, thick cloud cover, dim moon; I feel like there may have been a black cat walking past the station. I was curled up (literally, because it’s not possible to sprawl out on a twin bed) in Station 84 after a long day of nonsense when the tones sounded around 2:30 am. I clicked on along with the lights, stumbled into the bays and slipped into my gear. We were soon out the door and heading to an alarm in a residence, reported by a neighbor, and from the moment the officer hit the on scene button, the house before us terrified me.
This was the house where Saw was filmed, where Charles Manson lived, and where the Masons performed their annual blood sacrifice. I can’t support any of that, but those were the vibes; something was very wrong with this structure. For one thing, it was literally the creepy old house on the block. This house stood decades before the introduction of subdivisions, and years before modern builders attempted to integrate it into their cookie-cutter community. Their attempt didn’t work so well, and the whitewashed plantation style structure puffed its clapboard chest out in defiance against the new construction. The lawn was untrimmed, of course, and the few trees in the yard waved their arms in warning. I don’t want to say the apple tree by the front gate was laden with poison apples, but at the same time; I think the apple tree out front grew poison apples.

The house was abandoned, classic, and not in the “someone packed up and moved on to the next stage of life” sort of way. This house was abandoned in the “oh shit, let’s get outta here, forget the dresser” kind of way. Still in the engine, I could see rotting furniture on the porch, tipped over and broken, and debris in the backyard. I could also hear the smoke detectors sounding, and not the normal polite yet stern kind of alarm, these alarms had a piercing quality that made my nasal cavity hurt. Right now you’re thinking, “I didn’t know smoke detectors made different noises.” Well, neither did I.

Because I was getting paid to do a job, I tried to go about business as usual. I gathered my tools and met the officer at his door with feigned composure. The good news was the lack of obvious fire meant Hell was still being suppressed by the floorboards. The bad news was, because the alarm was sounding, someone would have to go inside to investigate.
We shined our flashlights into the windows, seeing nothing more than abandoned furniture, peeling wallpaper, and broken light fixtures, and tried all the doors. Each one was locked, and the hair on my neck stood up as we walked through the back yard. When we reached the fourth side of the house I saw the object that sealed my fate, sent my heart to my throat, and the pit of my stomach to my toes; on the second story was an ajar single window. Did it have thin white lacy curtains, eerily floating in the wind with fraying edges? Of course it did.
I knew what was coming before the officer said a word, and a minute later I was putting my tools away and grabbing a ladder so I alone could climb through the window, walk through the house, and open the front door so we could investigate and reset the alarm. And no, I don’t get paid nearly enough for that.
I want to say I didn’t dawdle, or fumble with the ladder hoping someone else would volunteer, but I can’t. I imagine they were both breathing sighs of relief knowing they were off the hook, and I cursed them for being cowards (under my breath) as I placed my boots on the metal rungs.

I got my first unobstructed view inside at the top of the ladder, but because this was the concentrated darkness of all the world’s evil, the beam of my flashlight was little help. All I could make out was a long hallway of peeling wallpaper with three rooms on either side, ending in a spiral staircase. This is when I realized the likelihood of Jack Nicholson popping out of a doorway and axe murdering me, either that or a zombie; and to think I left my axe in the engine.

The piercing alarm stung the back of my teeth and magnified the pulse in my temples as I leaned into the window, feet still firm on the ladder. Then, with a final deep breath, maybe a quick prayer, I climbed in. And in the modified pushup position that resulted from entering headfirst, I learned that terror smells like cat piss and wet carpet. I tried to push the smell to the back of my mind, stood up, and descended the hallway in slow steps of false composure, throat dry, heart thumping, and legs shivering inside sweaty turnouts. In the darkness, as the floorboards creaked under my boots, the smell of rancid stagnance consumed my nostrils, and the stinging noise of the detector grew, I may have started to whistle.

I passed the first room, and looked in to see a moldy twin bed with no sheets next to some dismembered furniture. I walked a little quicker.

I passed the second room, and it was empty except for some broken wood and a shattered closet mirror. The pieces threw my flashlight’s beam across the room at a thousand untrue angles, and I walked a little quicker.

The alarm grew louder, it’s sting filling the empty space between decaying walls, and the third doorway revealed another vacant room, in which the offending detector hung by its wires, swinging in the emptiness.

A broken smoke detector moving for an unknown reason must be exactly what it takes to break my tough guy façade. I quit whistling, pointed my flashlight forward, and ran, fully anticipating something lethal, or at least horrible, to jump out of the remaining rooms. I grabbed the stairway’s center banister, half swung half jumped to the first floor, found the entrance, fumbled with the lock, and pushed out on the inward swinging door. I stumbled into the cool air flushed, sweaty, and never happier to see the lights of my engine. My crew met me on the porch with, “Wow that was fast,” and “Why the hell are you sweating?”

Cowards.

We stomped around the house for the next few minutes looking for signs of smoke or fire, and I stayed closest to the door making sure it didn’t spontaneously combust, or even worse, close. The standard procedure for alarms is to look for any signs of fire, smoldering or extinguished, and check the walls, floor space, and attic space for concealed heat with a thermal imaging camera (TIC).

After the TIC yielded no heat, and there were no signs of smoke, we pulled the wires and batteries from the alarm and prepared to exit. With a deep exhale I slammed the door a little too hard, maybe to show the house who was boss, and made a comment about how creepy it was, my voice full of masculine composure now that I was out and we were leaving. The officer stopped me.

“What are you doing?”

I looked around.

“Uhh, taking my gear off so we can get out of here and never come back?”
“Someone has to lock the door.”

This was the second time my stomach dropped.

“Wut.”
“We can’t leave the door unlocked. You gotta’ go lock it from the inside and climb out the window.”

I protested once on the grounds that it was abandoned and B shift could lock it in the daylight, but they don’t pay hosers like me to protest. The officer said they would wait for me to butt the ladder, and as I dropped my helmet in a microtantrum, I realized how much I hated his big stupid firefighter mustache.

Alone at the front door, I strategized as my crew walked to the ladder side of the building. I felt my pulse pounding in my wrists and the plan became simple: forget being a tough guy and run as fast as I could. Still standing on the porch with the door open, I reached in and put a hand on the deadbolt, practicing turning it a few times to maximize efficiency. By my calculations, I could be halfway up the stairs within four seconds of the lock clicking, and out the window (if I made it out) in another fifteen. With a final deep breath, and a glance over my shoulder to make sure no one was watching: the race began. I slid past the door and turned the lock as my feet hit the first steps. My boots clomping filled the house and halfway up I started talking to myself. It sounded something like this: “Shit, shit, shit, shit!”

At the top of the stairway I swung around the bannister and saw the vacant hallway; my voice rose. If I was gonna’ get axe murdered, captured by a bad guy, or eaten by that thing from Alien Vs. Predator, it would happen in the hallway. My eyes set on the nearest doorway as I ran, once I had passed it they focused on the next. The window on the end wall shrank, moving further away with each step, and the light from my flashlight bounced and threw shadows onto every surface.

I reached the window as a blur of gear, and using the rapid evacuation technique reserved for emergencies, dove out headfirst, grabbing a rung with each hand and swinging my legs down until my feet found lower rungs. When the training officer had said “emergencies” he had meant backdraft, structural collapse, and flashover. In this instance, I used my own interpretation to include probable monster attacks and didn’t think twice.

I slammed the window shut with the same zealous I shut the front door with, and made it to the bottom of the ladder, sweaty, flushed, and out of breath. The officer stared at me, squinted, started to ask “Wh-,” but then just shook his head and started to the engine. Resuming my façade, as though it wasn’t a bit late in the game for that, I unzipped my coat and returned the ladder to its rack on the engine. At the station, I took a shower to wash away the smell of fear and body odor, and watched TV with the light on until it was time to go home at 6 am.

A few weeks later I found myself giving a tour to a group of six year olds visiting our station. An important element of such a tour is to teach them what firefighters in full gear look like, the rationale being if they recognize us, they won’t hide or run deeper into a burning building when we search for them. The gear adds substantial bulk, and the mask creates breath sounds similar to Darth Vader. A few of them are inevitably terrified.

In past tours I’d never spared much empathy on this fear-based reaction, accepting it as a routine part of the tour, and I’m sure my consolations were formal and empty. But since the night of the fire alarm, the night I found myself running from nothing and yelling in an empty hallway, I had a more appreciative perspective. I knew there was fresh validity in my tone as I told them: “It’s ok guys, firefighters get scared too sometimes.”

Sara Greenwald, 9/24/2012

Current Occupation: Technical Writer
Former Occupation: Teacher
Contact Information: Sara Greenwald is a contracting technical writer in San Francisco who will be unemployed again this fall. Stories of hers have been published in Pindeldyboz, Third Space, Red Fez, the Harvard Medical School Literary Magazine Lunchtime Stories, Comet, Moondance, Thirteenth Moon, Chalk Circle, Stories, Bread and Roses, and Janus magazines. One received a New Millennium Writing Award. Other work was nominated for publication in the HBJ Best New American Voices anthology, and one of her novels was a finalist for the Bellwether Prize.

She has been through layoffs where everybody was miserable, where nobody much cared, and where the only people who were miserable were the ones who had to stay. Then there are the ones where they lay you off and try to sneak you out of the building so no one will know… but don’t get her started.

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Layoff Love

It wasn’t a downer at all. The first thing we did was to have a big party, right after the all-hands meeting, which we called the all-shaft because that’s what they gave us. My whole department and the managers and vice presidents and attorneys and administrative directors, and docketing and administrative specialists and resource acquisition specialists, and project directors and project managers and assessment assessors and quality assurance evaluators and evaluation assurance specialists and information technologists and technical administrators, and just everybody, came. It was a time for situational festivity.

The guys from MarCom borrowed a forklift from Facilities and brought us all the leftover corporate gifts. I got three company t-shirts, one with the old SmartStuff Pharmaceuticals logo, one with the SmartStuff Worldwide logo, and one with the SmartStuff Biotechnical name that we’d only had for six months. They’d be cool soon; we’d know each other by our ex-company t-shirts if we got jobs together again. My best InfoTech friend Cynthia got some adorable boxer shorts with last year’s new logo, and two company-logo alarm clocks it turned out didn’t work. We drank all the champagne left over from parties MarCom threw at conventions, and got so drunk we could hardly pack up our cubicles. I was looking forward to two weeks of severance pay and the company also paid for us to take classes on how to look for a job, and the Human Resources manager gave everybody a hug and said to remember not to beat ourselves up about things we couldn’t control.

Next morning I got up just as early as if I still had to go to work and got in my car. Since there wasn’t any work to go to, I drove to the mall and bought a notebook and went to the class, all ready to be situationally studious. Situational, that’s one of my favorite words.

My class all had to say what we loved about our old job. I didn’t know, because there were so many fun things. The hacker nerds had amphetamines and the attorneys had cocaine and there were the greatest times the day the product would ship. We’d all do our drug of choice and play computer games a stock-option a point. When the work was done, we’d lie out in the SUVs in the parking lot making love if we weren’t too wired and looking up at the stars. Sometimes we did it after the ship and sometimes during QA check and sometimes nothing shipped at all. When the teacher came around to me I still wasn’t sure. Maybe the day I became a permanent employee with options. That was the day I understood what the company made and realized I could never explain it so somebody else would understand. Mostly I told people it was about computers and the genome and said ‘let’s interface’ or ‘up-regulate,’ depending which they knew.

An admin said she loved helping people organize their calenders. A project manager said he got excited walking bankers through wiring diagrams. A QA tech said her biggest thrill was triple-checking every item on a forty-page list and knowing before she even started that every single one would be right. An attorney said negotiating the last tick on a contract made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up.

Waves of understanding flowed over me while they told their lies, because all of them, one time or another in the parking lot, had told me I was the biggest thrill they could ever hope for, but they were married and things. They brought the same love and devotion they declared for me and were using it here to be situational about work. I was overwhelmed by their situational love and solidarity and the bittersweet realization that this layoff and this job wouldn’t be my last. Next time we met we’d know only by our identical t-shirts that we had been to heaven together in the parking lot.

Patty Somlo, 9/17/2012

Current Occupation: Writer
Former Occupation: Part-time Paralegal
Contact Information: Patty Somlo has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize three times. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review, The Santa Clara Review, the Sand Hill Review and Guernica. Her debut collection, From Here to There and Other Stories, was published in November 2010 by Paraguas Books.
###
Man out of Work

Jim Brown was no hero, as some folks claimed. He simply ran out of options. Jim also liked to say, “I just started walking.”

And then he made up a sign.

MAN OUT OF WORK, the first line of the sign read. HEADED FOR WASHINGTON, the next line read. TO TELL THE POLITICIANS WHAT’S HAPPENING, the final line read, the letters getting smaller so they’d fit.

Jim carried an olive green pack on his back. Tied to the bottom was a royal blue nylon sleeping bag and a small light tent. He’d quit camping years ago but he hadn’t stopped fishing.

His wife June had taken the kids, Emily and Eric, when she’d left Jim the previous year. He’d considered stopping by for the last time but he didn’t like the kids thinking of their dad as a bum.

The night before, he’d rolled and stuffed his things into the nylon pack three different times and hefted the pack onto his shoulders, to make sure he could manage the weight. It was impossible to know what the pack, sleeping bag and tent would feel like after hours of walking, or his feet in the boots he’d worn for work. But as he liked to say to people he met along the road, a man sometimes has to head off into the unknown when life’s not treating him right.

Oh, Jim Brown had gone round and round about his plan. It wasn’t some crazy scheme he’d dreamed up overnight. Months out of work stretched into a year. A year practically turned into another. He’d snagged an odd job here and there but barely enough to make the rent on a one-room apartment. Then the unemployment ran out. That’s when even the rent got to be too much.

Jim asked June to hold onto his tools until he got back. He didn’t tell her his plan but left it at, “Gotta leave town to look for work.” It had all come crashing down so fast, some days Jim thought this had to be a bad dream he’d wake up from and see his old life come back. Why, it hadn’t been so long ago that he could barely keep up with the jobs. A finish carpenter, a skilled craftsman, Jim Brown was needed by builders all over the county and in the two counties east and west. Houses and condos were popping up but not fast enough for the demand. Jim went from eight-hour days to ten and then twelve, seven days a week, and June said it was too much. She wanted a husband and the kids needed a dad who was around some.

The week Jim got down to his last fifty dollars, he decided something had to give. If nothing else, a man needed to move around. In truth, he would rather have gone fishing. There was nothing in the world he liked more. It wasn’t catching fish that he most enjoyed, though June’s breaded, pan-fried rainbow trout was about the best-tasting thing in the world. No. Jim Brown liked sitting by a stream, staring at the water.

He didn’t need beer or company or anything to make a day of fishing worthwhile. The peacefulness drew Jim to the woods every time.

And that’s what he felt had been taken from him. The chance to sit, once in a while, on a nylon folding chair, leaving the world and its hammering, grinding, sawing noise behind, and listen to absolutely nothing at all.

Jim Brown walked along two-lane highways, as he knew the interstates would be dangerous and he wasn’t even sure it was allowed. He’d made two holes on either side of his sign, threaded a thin rope through and tied the rope in back. There he was, a man of forty-five, walking along the shoulder of the road, and on his back he carried a sleeping bag, tent, and a sign. Once in a while, a passing car honked. Occasionally, someone would yell out the window, “Good luck.”

Mostly, he avoided cities. He liked stopping in small towns. After the first two weeks, there had been too many to recall. People wanted to know what he was up to, with all that gear and the sign.

A little past midway across the country, in a town at the edge of the Navajo reservation, an old Indian man stared at Jim, from a bench where he sat doing nothing at all.

“Mornin’,” Jim said, though given the heat of the sun, he thought it just might be afternoon.

The Indian, whose stiff, straight gray hair fell past his shoulders, a good distance down his back, nodded. The Indian watched him a minute more and began to clean his teeth with the sharp pointed nail of his index finger. While he watched, Jim lifted the pack, sleeping bag and tent off his shoulders and set them on the wooden porch in front of the store, then began rolling his shoulders up and back and sighing.

“Looks like you gotta load there,” the Indian said, in between jabs at his top front teeth with the fingernail.

“Sure do,” Jim said.

He leaned the sign against the front of the store and the Indian read it.

“That true?” the Indian asked, nodding his head ever so slightly in the sign’s direction.

“What?”

“That true, you’re headin’ all the way to Washington?”

“Yup,” Jim said and gave his shoulders another two rolls. “If I make it, that is.”

“Where’d you start?”

“California. Near San Diego.”

The Indian let out a long sigh and nodded his head. At the same moment, Warren Wright who owned the store stepped outside for a smoke.

“Hey, Warren. You hear what this guy’s doin’?” the Indian asked.

A tall, broad man with a belly that overshadowed his waist, Warren looked at Jim and then moved his attention over to the pack and the sign.

“Looks to me like he’s doing some camping.”

“Read that sign, Warren. This guy’s going to Washington.”

In between puffing on his cigarette, Warren read what Jim had scrawled on that white piece of board.

“You’re not walking, are you?” Warren said, turning back to look at Jim.

“I am,” Jim said and smiled.

Warren Wright invited Jim to have dinner with him and his wife. He told his friend, Earl Mathers, who edited the town paper, the Canyon Herald. Earl stopped by just as they were finishing Eva Wright’s splendid apple pie.

Earl’s story about Jim got picked up by the Journal in Albuquerque. From there, the news went out over the wires.

A crew from CNN figured the best place to find Jim would be headed west toward Albuquerque, on Route 66. The following afternoon, they spotted a man walking along the shoulder, a white sign hanging on his back.

From that point on, people tuned in to catch up on Jim’s progress. All across the country, they watched. Shots of Jim Brown walking with his sign along a highway repeated throughout the day and night. Lights hooked to a map of the United States blinked on and off to show Jim’s location and progress. Along the route, crowds of people gathered, many of whom were unemployed, and they cheered Jim on as he walked. The attention made Jim blush.

It started with a guy named Dwayne, somewhere in Oklahoma. Jim turned around when he felt a tap on his shoulder.

“Mind if I join you?” the young man asked.

Jim stopped to consider the question. The guy was probably half his age. Jim noticed that he had a pack on his back and was wearing army-issue fatigues.

“It’s a free country, I suppose,” Jim said. “You sure you wanta’ do this?”

“’Course I’m sure,” the young man said. He had the bluest eyes Jim had ever seen. His head was freshly shaved. Jim felt certain he’d end up with a fierce sunburn.

“You in the army?”

“Was. Two tours in hell.”

“Guess the heat won’t bother you then,” Jim said.

“Nuthin’ bothers me. I’m Dwayne Ritter by the way.”

Dwayne reached his hand out. Before Jim responded, Dwayne said, “Everybody in the world knows your name.”

The line of men along the highway grew, as Jim Brown headed north. By the time he landed in the Carolinas, the group had mushroomed to around fifty. Naturally, they voted to make Jim the spokesperson. Each night when they stopped to camp, he addressed the press.

The men made dinner from food donated by local churches. One of the guys who’d joined them in Arkansas had brought along a guitar. After they finished eating, he played and sang a string of country songs. Jim didn’t know the words, but he hummed along.

By the time Jim and the group reached West Virginia, reporters from all the major networks and even other parts of the world had joined them. Jim especially liked one young Japanese reporter, a pretty, thin thing Jim couldn’t believe was old enough to work. She called him Meester Brown, and hung on his every word. She also asked the one question none of the other reporters had yet dare raise.

“Why do you think, Meester Brown, that businesses are earning such high profit but you and many other people cannot get work?”

Jim pulled on the beard he’d let grow since setting out from San Diego. This had been a puzzle to him. There’d only been one thing that made any sense.

“They’d rather keep all the money for themselves,” he said.

“Do you think, Meester Brown, that what you are doing is going to make a difference?”

During all these days, since hatching the plan, this had been the question Jim Brown wouldn’t let himself consider.

Jim looked at the young reporter, her sweet face gazing up at him. He noticed that her skin looked perfect, not marred by a single blemish, as it must have been the day she was born. Jim suddenly wondered. If he were the reporter’s age, would he have fallen in love with her?

“Yes, it will,” Jim said. He’d hardly gotten the words out of his mouth when he turned away.

It’s true that there had been times in his marriage when Jim hadn’t told June the complete and absolute truth. But he’d never allowed himself to tell June a boldfaced lie, at the same moment that he was looking her squarely in the eye.

Philip Kao, 9/10/2012

Current Occupation: Student and House-Keeping Assistant
Former Occupation: Nursing Home Caregiver
Contact Information: Philip Kao hails from Michigan, and graduated in 1999 with an AB in Economics from the University of Chicago.

###

A Room with No View

In the corner room
On the top floor of
A nursing home
We call the ‘health house’

A drawer of hidden
Memories rests dormant
In a thrown-away
Dresser. Pull it out — gently.

Discover a brittle
Blue poker chip,
(Perhaps from an infamous Bingo
Game)

Look and see a folded letter
Badly typed but never sent.
A worn out pack of finished Paul Malls
Next to a picture of wife and husband
Turned face down.

I turn towards you like a robot
You blink, I think.

Another revelation of a monument beholds:
In my shame, a perfectly pulled
Hospital curtain track system.

Who can endure the whisper of a blurred existence?

The oxygen concentrator
Purges our chasm with vents
Of stupid sporadic visions.

#

The Uncertified Caregiver

She’s drooling again in her sleep
With her left foot dangling just there.
I sit in old scrubs tired of the lifting
Looking with half-ass care.

Someone died today just as they woke.
I say
“Frost happens to flowers”.
Who’s got time for time, when you’re broke
In your car crying at power?

In the heart’s eye, no picture of happier times
No family in their canoe.
I loosened the skin of my crime
And rendered me in your arms too
newly dead.

Mary Slocum, 9/3/2012

Current Occupation: retired social worker

Contact Information: 17 year shipyard electrician

Contact Information: A poet since she was 14, Mary Slocum was the last winner of the Portland Artquake competition in the 90s and a winner of Washington State Poetry Assn. humorous poetry competition in the 90s. Mary Slocum has been published in Stanza, NW Literary Review, Upper Left Edge, Tradeswomen’s Network Newsletter, Black Cat, Portland Alliance, Work, Uphook and Carcenogenic. She enjoys reading more than publishing and has also appeared with a comedy collective. She has just published a complete collection called GREATEST HITS: 60 YEARS OF LOOKIN with Dancing Moon Press (order here!). Her website: www.maryslocum.com

###

Ode to Guerrilla Joe

ON LABOR DAY 1993 GUERRILLA JOE AND HIS BAND OF WORKING OUTLAWS PLACED A 700 POUND BALL AND CHAIN AROUND THE ANKLE OF THE 43 FOOT HIGH HAMMERING MAN SCULPTURE IN FRONT OF THE SEATTLE ART MUSEUM. THE MUSEUM EVENTUALLY REMOVED IT IN SPITE OF PUBLIC OPPINION, UNDER THE COVER OF DARKNESS.

THE TRIUMVIRATE THAT RECOGNIZED ART

DIVERTED THEIR EYES

As MEN HAMMERED ALL OVER THE GLOBE

SMALL PECKING, LARGE SLEDGING

MEN MADE ART, WERE ART

AND THEY HAMMERED AT THE WORK,

IN THE WEST, IN THE EAST, ACROSS OCEANS

THE HAMMERING MEN HAMMERED

AS HAMMERING MEN EVERYWHERE APPLAUDED,

REFLECTING LIFE, REFLECTING OUR LIVES,

TO CELEBRATE UNDERSTANDING

THAT EVEN THE LEAST EDUCATED OF US SAW

ON THAT LABOR DAY 93′ THIS WORLD HAMMERING

BROKE THROUGH TO REAL ART

BROKE THROUGH THE PRICETAG

HANGING OVER THE COUCH

To MATCH LIVES THAT WERE ART

To MATCH WHAT WAS IN HEARTS

OF HAMMERING MEN

LET IT BE KNOWN IN 93′

ART BECAME REAL LIFE

AS VALID AS A PAYCHECK

ON SEATTLE STREETS

HAMMERING MEN REVEALED

FOR ALL US HAMMERING MEN

THE BALL AND CHAIN THAT CONNECTS

ALL HAMMERING MEN

AND THE EMPEROR WAS NAKED

THE TRIUMVIRATE DIVERTED THEIR EYES

ON LABOR DAY, ART REVEALED ITSELF.

#

Watching an Industry Die

Picking bones and hanging on

Bits stuck between teeth and craw

Work coughed up

In death throes

The carcass

Heaves and writhes

Under the weight

Of a monetary system

Of dollars and scents.

It stinks, stinks

Leaving nothing but rotten

Down and dirty

Uncrafted craftsmanship

Get it in

Get it out

So it can go overseas

The insignificant cog

Ground down

Down until the nub is showing

Knuckles ache for real work

Work fed now and then

Like the treat

For a hungry dog

Just enough

To keep him hungry

Juice a memory

Of sweet satisfaction

And pride

Waiting for something

To break down

In the backyard

Something that needs fixing

Waiting for

Unemployment running out

Time running out

Praying for a contract

From a corporate big wig

Who doesn’t give a damn

If you loose your house

Loose your self-respect

loose this battle

Doesn’t give a damn

If you’re satisfied

If you’re valuable

The work trickles

As you finger the pump handle

In this drought

Reduce expenses

Fight depression

Watching, watching

For years

Taken other jobs

That felt empty

Worked hard to find this

Worked hard to keep this

They got you again

By the neck, by the balls

Got you all right

Not letting go

Someone’s gonna have to

Ride this one out

Gonna go back to school

Soon as there’s enough work

To pay for it

Someone’s gonna have to

Ride this one out

Show them it’s a craft

Not easily replaceable

Someone’s gonna have to

Show them work is more

Than moving stacks of paper

Work is more than a paycheck

Someone’s gonna have to show them

A voice needs to speak out

Sing the anger

Sing the frustration

Feel the thing they’re taking away

The thing they won’t replace

Standing here

Clenching fists

Choking on Loss

Watching this industry die.

Ann Neuser Lederer, 8/27/2012

Current Occupation: Nurse
Former Occupation: Factory Worker
Contact Information: Ann Neuser Lederer was born in the Black Swamp region of Ohio, location of the factory discussed in “Factory Job.” After an period of infatuation with Anthropology and earning two impractical degrees, she decided to study nursing. Locations of her very practical later jobs as an RN include Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Kentucky. Her nursing jobs have included Hospital Staff Nurse, Outpatient Chemotherapy Nurse, AIDs Nurse Clinician, and Hospice Home Care Nurse. Her nonfiction and poems appear in journals such as Hospital Drive, Pulse, and Brevity; in anthologies such as A Call to Nursing, and The Country Doctor Revisited; and in her chapbooks Approaching Freeze (Foothills), The Undifferentiated (Pudding House) and Weaning the Babies (Pudding House). For more information see Ann’s website https://sites.google.com/site/annneuserlederer/.

###

Factory Job

The summer when I turned seventeen, I worked in a factory and got my first real paycheck. One dollar and sixty five cents per hour, minimum wage but a gold mine to me, compared to random babysitting stints in the neighborhood at fifty cents per hour, sometimes seventy five, after midnight.

I rode my bike to work. It had been assembled by my father from stray parts of various broken bikes, but its frame was sturdy and its balloon tires created a bouncy, comfortable ride. I had painted the fenders with black shiny enamel, an effective background for the pink and yellow green leafed daisies I had added. I rode the few miles to morning shift, passing into an industrialized, less inhabited area. Sometimes I rode on sidewalks when traffic began to fill the busier streets. Although the bike was old, I wove a chain through its wheels and locked it to a fence. I packed my lunch, just like for school: an apple, some raisins, a peanut butter sandwich.

The place was concrete block and double storied, its unscreened windows open to the air. I walked up the steps and clocked in. No elevator or air conditioning here. Most of the workers, all older women, had been employees for years, and knew each other by name. There seemed to be cliques, even enmities. During regularly scheduled breaks, groups sat together at tables in the break room. Many smoked. No one was like me. But that did not bother me much. I was entranced with the newness of the tasks, and the strangeness of the system’s established routines. This was my first encounter with a foreign world. Some people tried to be nice, showing me the ropes. Some seemed curious about me. Some goaded me with questions, or pointed out my slowness and failings. Most ignored me.

Soon, I fell into the routine. I did my work, and suffered through the long, boring, often stuffy days, until the shift ended. Then, I rode my bike home. The factory’s focus was crafts, possibly seasonally determined. One thing we often did was put together paint by number kits. Assignments were rotated by some system mysterious to me. I found myself frequently assigned to duck decoy duty. Newly hatched plastic ducks, the color of human flesh, the size of an actual wild duck, had to be prepared for painting. Ragged edges of plastic left from the mold were trimmed with exacto knives, then sanded. I sat on a small stool with a raw, shaggy duck on my lap and polished until it was smooth. To this day, I carry a small badge of that effort in the form of a thumbnail size scar on my left thigh, from a knife that slipped from the duck, into my flesh. We wore no protective garments, no gloves. My legs were bare as I wore shorts and sleeveless shirt to work, due to the old building’s heat and poor circulation. I don’t remember fans. The wound was fixed with a band aid, and I quickly returned to business.

Sometimes, I got to paint the ducks. A set pattern of green and black colors and shapes was loosely followed, until the creature began to resemble a wild duck. I was pleased to paint the beak golden. But no creative efforts would be acceptable in this context. I did not even allow my mind to wander towards the ultimate role of my efforts. The hunters with guns, the doom of wild ducks, did not enter my imagination. I learned instead to concentrate on the task at hand, especially so after the knife blade mishap. I learned to look forward to breaks, and to get through the day. I don’t remember for sure how I had learned about this job. Maybe my sister’s boyfriend’s sister had worked there once, and heard about an opening. I did not know at the time this would be my first and last factory job.

At the end of another routine day, I came outside to discover both bicycle tires had been decisively slashed. I felt stunned, then sad. I said nothing to anyone, and slowly walked my mangled bike back home. I think I then decided never to go back. Maybe I picked up my final paycheck, I don’t remember.

Ronald Steiner, 8/20/2012

Current Occupation: Bakery Assistant
Former Occupation: Movie Extra, Night Shift Nursing Home Janitor, Home Theater Installer, etc.
Contact Information: Ronald Steiner lives and migrates in an infinite loop from western Pennsylvania. He has lived in Arizona, Pittsburgh, and the Philadelphia suburbs. Other than the craft of poetry, he is a playwright and songwriter. Have a listen at www.myspace.com/steinerstreet0.

###

High Profile Labor

On my first day of work
I meet Joe at the store,
And help him load
Three – plasma – TVs
and three sets of speakers
Into the van, then wait and listen
To 88.5 WXPN.

I grab the keys to the other van
And drive to Phoenixville to the warehouse
And pick up two more TVs and drop them
Off at the store.

I get back into my car, drive to Center City,
Jump in an elevator, seventeenth floor, meet Joe,
Have lunch – look out over Schuylkill River, Rittenhouse
Square – 30th Street Station, eat California rolls,
And lunch cart hot dogs.

Hang the big plasma in the living room.
Two others in guest bedrooms.
Take a picture out of the window
of Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Meet at Bill’s and ride to Cape May, NJ, run
wires, install product,
program remote, breakout laptop,
design touch screen, fill in the guts –
Test over and over again.

Drive back to store
Stop and get coffee for salesmen
Put entertainment stand together
Wait at the end of the day
Get called into private room
“We have to let you go today”
Last day of work.

Emily Strauss, 8/13/2012

Current Occupation: private tutor

Former Occupation: college and adult English and ESL teacher

Contact Information: I have written poetry my whole life and been a teacher my whole life. I have about four dozen poems in public in over two dozen small journals and online venues. I seldom wrote about my work, but sometimes tell stories of my daily life. Teachers have funny nightmares.

###

Starting Class

A student died after class last Thursday—
He went home, drank a beer, and went to sleep,
Had a heart attack. They told me before class
Tonight, you know, the one who sat in the front,
Smiling, older, they buried him on Sunday

And I stood there and considered mortality
Before their writing summaries, I had to announce
It, I have bad news— someone smiled
In confusion, he couldn’t have been over 45
A girl caught her breath, the eldest man took
Up a collection, I gave my last dollar
I was saving for the laundry.

Now what should I do with his homework?
Give it to his wife and two young sons?
I could drop it off the second story and let
It drift on the wind across the freeway.
How will I fill out the grade form?
Maybe I’ll leave it blank like the empty
Chair in front of my desk. If only he’d
Waited two weeks until after the final.

I wrote “deceased” next to his name
In my roll book. I guess they’ll figure it out.

#

The English Teacher’s History Class

Suddenly for unknown reasons
I am granted one class at the State college,
In history—
The United States in the Twentieth Century
And I am thrilled, but now in mid-semester
I realize in horror I’ve hardly met the class,
haven’t read one page of the ponderous text, dozens
of footnotes for each chapter, and must lecture
at an appointed hour I invariably miss.
This is my nightmare.

I’m desperate to arrive on time because even now
I remember a handful of eager faces in the front rows
of the theater whom I know have read the book
and expect a lecture of explication. I wonder if
a Socratic discussion of the day’s news would suffice.

In fact, I can’t reach the room, I will never make it.
I am lost hopelessly, the campus paths have changed,
the elevator malfunctions, I must find the correct hallway
or door, or pass through a maze of hotel corridors
or a shadowy bar full of smoke, the clock ticks
and once again I’ll never arrive, eager students will leave
disappointed—

I must read the next chapter
I must leave earlier next time
if I only knew the day and hour
if only I could prepare the inevitable
final exam, at least then I’d salvage
this poor class that has lasted years.

Denise Emanuel Clemen, 8/6/2012

Current Occupation: Companion to my 88-year-old mother and our 19-year-old cat
Former Occupation: Child rearer, 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. Denise has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Nebraska. She blogs as if she were getting paid for it at http://leavingdivorceville.blogspot.com/ http://deniseemanuelclemen.blogspot.com and http://myfrenchunderpants.blogspot.com.

###

The Business of Blood and Skin

My mother was getting married. No need to come home, she said. It was going to be a no frills kind of wedding—a justice of the peace, and there wouldn’t even be a reception. My new stepfather was the father of my grade school crush—the first boy I’d ever kissed back in the sixth grade in a planned tryst at the park. The complications to my family tree were unthinkable. Now in addition to my adopted half-sister, my half-brother, my stepsister, and my two younger brothers, I’d be acquiring a new family with six stepsiblings, one of whose lips had pressed against mine. Not to mention that both my mother’s new husband and his son, my former crush, bore the moniker “Duke,”—also the name of my brother’s German Shepherd.

Now what? I didn’t want to share a house with Duke, Duke, and Duke. I’d had enough of assembling miniature manure spreaders in my hometown toy factory. And I needed a break from college. My friend Karen was teaching at a “free school” in Knoxville, and she and her friends had a big apartment in the upstairs of a ramshackle house. “Come down,” she said.

The balmy January weather in Tennessee redeemed the bone-numbing ride stuffed into a sleeping bag inside an old VW bus with a broken heater. I’d never started a new year without the assault of ice and below-freezing temperatures. Now, outside the door of my southern digs, flowers exploded from a landscape that was so green it looked fake. But azaleas couldn’t buy my share of the groceries, so I went to the university and applied for work as an art model for figure drawing classes.

“You can undress right here,” the professor told me as he sat down in his desk chair and swiveled ever so slightly away from me. There was a small mattress covered with a plush zebra rug on the floor just inside the door of his office. I stepped around it and unzipped my jeans. I’m in an art professor’s office, I told myself. I’m two feet from the door. Someone will hear me if anything goes wrong. I took off everything then, and the professor swiveled back to me. “Go ahead and lie down,” he said. He got up and fiddled with the Venetian blinds on the opposite wall of the narrow room until bands of light and shadow cut across my body. All of the scars from the back surgeries I’d had during the previous two years were hidden from view by the wall behind me, and with the zebra markings beneath me and the stripes from the blinds on my skin, the stretch marks across my stomach and hips felt camouflaged, too. The professor slipped his camera strap around his neck and knelt down to adjust my long hair, his hands grazing my breasts. “These won’t do,” he said, grasping my nipples between thumb and forefinger. “They need to look interested for the photographs.” I worked at mumbling some sort of excuse, but he flicked his tongue across each nipple while my own tongue lay mute and dry inside my mouth, my body frozen to the zebra rug as if it were some sort of exotic tundra. He pulled away and crouched a few feet from me, clicking away with his camera. He made little satisfied sounds underneath his breath, and when he stood up, he smiled. “You’re hired,” he said.

I had two classes a week, one for freshman students where I was instructed to wear a leotard and put a chalk mark where my navel was. Upper division students were allowed to see me stark naked, and for them I undressed behind a partition and came out in a soft gray plaid flannel robe that hung on a hook for all the models to share. On a platform in the front of the room, I shed the robe and did short poses for two-minute warm-ups, and then longer poses of ten or twenty minutes depending on what the instructor asked for. No one ever commented on my scars, but one afternoon I found that someone had chalked on the partition wall, “You’re fat.” Another hand had scrawled beneath it, “And we like it!” I was only ten or fifteen pounds overweight at that point, but I’d seen the other models coming and going, and they were all as lithe as ballerinas. The chalked messages, mixed though they were, and seeing the way the students’ charcoal sketches traced my curves, I decided that my body held some appeal after all.

In addition to selling my skin, I discovered I could also sell my blood in Knoxville. I noticed the sign through the bus window and got off to check it out. $$$ for Blood Plasma! sounded too good to be true. The pay was thirty dollars, and a person could donate every two weeks. The only catch was that two pints of whole blood had to be extracted and then run through the machine that spun out the plasma. After that, what remained of the blood had to be returned to the donor. Still, thirty dollars for an hour or so of my time reclining fully clothed on a cot was more than four times what I was making modeling.

The process went smoothly the first couple of sessions, but the next time the technician had trouble transferring what was left of my blood back to me. Evening fell while the petite woman in the lab coat tried first one arm then the other. After three or four jabs in each arm, she propped me up with an extra pillow and brought me two cans of 7UP and a package of cheese and peanut butter crackers. “Your veins don’t seem too good,” she told me. “We’ll try again in a little bit.” After about an hour, the needle slid in smoothly, but I retired from the plasma business after that. Every needle poke had left a bruise, and at the next figure drawing class, everyone’s eyes traveled up and down my ravaged arms.

Money was tight for my housemates too, and a couple of them had found an ad in the newspaper asking for people to deliver advertising flyers. We had to go for an interview, and even though this wasn’t the sort of job that required a wardrobe, I was embarrassed by how ragged my clothes were. My jeans were patched and re-patched, and even the newest layer of patches was wearing through. My dressiest shirt was equally threadbare, which wasn’t exactly a faux pas in the circles I traveled in, but having nothing to fall back on reminded me that I’d already sold all the parts of me I could bear to offer. The second semester was about to start at my college back in Minnesota. I took my blood and skin money to the bus depot and bought myself a ticket.

David Frazier, 7/30/2012

Current Occupation: Retired Steelworker (2003-Present)
Former Occupation: Production Steelworker (1972-2003)
Contact Information: David was born in the steel town of East Chicago, Indiana. He attended D.E. Gavit High School in Hammond, IN. He spent one year attending Indiana State University in Terre Haute, IN. He met his wife Kathie (of 39 years) there. David Frazier grew up to be a third generation steelworker at a mill in Indiana Harbor. He worked there for 31 years before developing an illness causing him to retire. After retiring, he began taking creative writing classes at Bernard Klienman Learning Center. He wrote a short story for the book, “Kindred Voices 2” published by the University of Massachusetts. He and editor/publisher James Ward Kirk have mutual respect for each others work.
David is a featured poet in most James Ward Kirk anthologies including, “Indiana Horror 2012” and “Indiana Science Fiction 2012”. David has also has many poems on line. Circus of the Damned blog has several of his poems on line. “Harvest Time: Inwood Indiana” has printed one of his poems. “American Steelworker’s Saga” an early work, is included in the National Gallery of Writing (National Council of Teachers of English). David’s poems are popping up in many print anthologies and magazines.

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Steel Memories

Over thirty years ago
I made a trek,
To days gone by.
Another place, another time.

Through number one open hearth
A ghost mill.
No bells nor whistles sounding,
No clanging or banging.

No loud voices,
Nothing but silence.
Dark and dead.
I still smelled sweat,

Of those who toiled there.
Pungent odor.
Dust flew from my boot
As I trod.

Past each silent furnace.
Steel was made for Henry Ford
And many others.
In old furnaces now cold.

Slag makes up our city streets,
A by-product of steel-making.
I reflect, my father worked at a
Open hearth for many years here.

My Grandpa
Worked as a locomotive engineer.
I was at the B.O.P.
Three of us together gave,

Over a hundred years,
Of our lives to:
Inland Steel, Mittal,
And Arcelor/Mittal.

Grandpa and Dad are dead.
Just as dead,
As number one
Open hearth.