Koon Woon, 8/14/2017

Current Occupation: Koon's current occupation is mathematics and logic tutor, freelance writer, editor, literary consultant and publisher.
Previous Occupation: Koon's previous occupations include running a restaurant and as an employee of the US Postal Service.
Contact Information: Koon started working in the family restaurant at age 12. Then he worked for the US post office. He earned his BA degree in creative writing from Antioch University and his MLS in literary arts from Fort Hays State University. He currently works as editor and publisher of Goldfish Press. Here is a link to Poetry Foundation website about Koon  https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/koon-woon

 

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A Drive to Nowhere

 

Like I would just jump into the car; it was variously a ’55 Plymouth, a ’61 Comet, or a ’68 Plymouth again. Where would I go? There was no one I know on a Saturday. The weekends, the dreaded weekends. My search for psychic sustenance begins with those fifty mile drives to nowhere.

 

The family restaurant would be busy on the weekends. I would need to work until three in the morning on both Friday and Saturday nights, amid the grease vapors and the clanging of the wok, steam from the noodle vat and the steam table. I was eighteen and still a senior in high school in the coastal town of Aberdeen, Washington. These are the towns that the freeway missed in Richard Hugo’s poetry. The rain was melancholic and it drip and slanted all day, and I was trapped being “Number-One-Son” of a Chinese immigrant family, born to Kim and Bill who operated the Hong Kong Café on Simpson Avenue which was on the Highway 101 as it slices through the logging town of Aberdeen, where logging trucks carried the long logs with dancing red flags on them to warn the drives behind them. This road goes up to Forks, Washington and eventually to Port Angeles as it looped around the Olympia Peninsula. And going south, the same two –lane road would lead to Pacifica, California.

 

I worked variously as waiter, cook, and occasionally manager. Except for work and study, I was lonely and alone. I was so lonely that I enjoyed reading Silas Marner in my room during the holidays of Thanksgiving and Christmas, the only two days that we closed the café. My parents had undergone the world-wide Depression in their youth in China and then the Sino-Japanese War. I was so lonely that the book on the back seat of my car, Eleven Kinds of Loneliness was actually a good dialogue with an imaginary companion. I knew the writer in the sense that he knew me, he knew my loneliness. It was a small town, and there were few minorities in it. There was a black janitor at the Smoke Shop Café, owned by the mayor. I suspect that he was there for a reason, just like the only black student at the local Grays Harbor College was a football player. The black janitor seemed to recede into the wood panels of the café dining room as he mopped it during idle hours.

 

I remember I keep on filling the coffee cup of the girl with the dark Spanish eyes that came alone or with her sister, mostly alone. She drank her coffee black and I was the awkward waiter in the slow hours of the afternoon. She and I never chit-chat and I never learned her name, but somehow once I summoned the nerve to asked her whether she lived at home. She said she lived away from home alone and as long as she doesn’t get into trouble, it was OK with her mom. She was a year older and had dropped out of high school. I was also a part-time worker at the Aberdeen post office and I drove the truck two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon picking up mail from street boxes. And on Saturday, I had the downtown walking route. I had a regulation uniform on, and I felt like a worker, a government worker.

 

The way out of town was a windy road, evergreens on both sides, a monotonous green with firs shouting up 30 to 40 feet. These were new growth and I was a fourth generation immigrant to these parts of lands. I was wondering how far I could go and how high I could rise. But all I could envision was driving a modest car to work at Boeing and perhaps have a son and a daughter and live again in a modest house, befitting of an electrical engineer. Everybody in high school said I could have become whatever I wanted to.

 

I didn’t go that far, I drove to Ocean Shores and back then in 1968 it was only one street along the beach front with the burr of the crabgrass waving in the wind. There were summer homes that people did not live in during the winter. It was fog and winter mists as described in Ken Kesey’s novel Sometimes a Great Notion. He was talking about the roads in Oregon. Here the crabgrass rose from the sand, an occasional gull, and the steady sloshing waves greeted my loneliness, and I encounter no other cars.

Posted in

Jeff Nazzaro, 8/7/2017

Current Occupation: university English instructor and copy editor
Former Occupation: journalist
Contact Information: Jeff Nazzaro teaches English at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, where he also serves as copy editor for Tsehai Publishers. His short fiction and poetry have appeared in numerous print and online journals, including Angel City Review, Oddville Press, Aberration Labyrinth, and Flash: The International Short-short Story Magazine.

 

#

Jobs

    I was stuck in traffic on Merrimack Street downtown, in the right lane, behind a bus, two buses, that bus stop between Central and John, just past Bridge Street and the monument to the little old industrial city’s most famous son, you know the one—that hip angelhead, dharma slacker, beat drunk. It was cold and drizzly. I want to say December, but it could have been March.
    I hadn’t locked the passenger-side door. What for? Then it opened, and in a wet frazzle a guy hopped right in my car. This surprised me, not a little, but it was a surprise that was, along with any possible violent reaction, overwhelmed by the fake arm. The stub.
    The man who’d jumped in my car out of the cold rain was missing the lower half of his left arm. The thing just rounded off into a stub where his elbow would have been if he’d a had a full arm, and he was trying to attach a fake arm to the stub. It was a plastic forearm with metal clips at one end, and at the other end a system of straps and buckles. He tried and tried to attach the contraption, and then he just flung the thing onto the floorboard of my car.
    “Fucking thing!” he said. He turned his head towards mine. A streetlamp through the rain-spattered windshield, dots at the corner where the wiper arced but couldn’t reach, red from bus brake lights, lit his face, rough-hewn, dirty-tanned beneath a tangle of damp black curls, nut-brown eyes craving explosion into tears—or violence. “I been standing out here all fucking day with this thing. Finally, someone who can help me. Can you help me?”
    I had no time to answer, to process. I could help him.
    He unleashed a torrent of agitated speech about his car, his arm, a cousin’s phone number, a mechanic’s garage, money. He said where. It was on Bridge Street, just across the river, a pain in the ass because of all the one-way streets, but close. It was very close and I had time.

    I was in college then, taking a full load, writing for the school newspaper and doing a media internship with the local PIRG chapter. Twice a week I cleaned a small professional building downtown for a little cash, since none of those other things paid a dime.
    It was Friday. I was on my way to clean the building. There were two dentists—one for children—an orthodontist, an oral surgeon, and an optometrist. I’d been or still was a patient of each one. I cleaned all the offices except the oral surgeon’s. I felt very comfortable in the building and, sometimes, when I stopped to think what I was doing in there, I felt very strange. 
    I didn’t mind the work, but I never thought I’d be mopping floors and emptying wastebaskets for chump change in my early twenties. I always thought I’d go to college then get a good job, but I now knew that to have been an oversimplification if not flat-out wrong. I’d already flunked out of a private university and was attending the state school down the street from my parents’ house, paying for it with loans. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I didn’t know what I could do.
    I often took my time cleaning the building, especially on Fridays, looking through unlocked cabinets and desk drawers, flipping through magazines, messing around. I got paid hourly in practice, but it was the same amount every week, no matter how long it took me. I was hanging onto this relationship I’d had with a girl at my previous school and we talked on the phone, had phone sex, but I had no real social life at that time.
    The guy who’d hired me to clean the building was my mother’s cousin’s husband. Maybe. Something like that. Jerry. He was in between my mother and me in age. He’d never gone to college, but he was doing okay. He had this cleaning business. He had four or five buildings he cleaned and two or three other guys who worked for him. He took me around on my first day when the offices were still open. I got specific instructions from the various doctors—mop this bathroom floor, empty these wastebaskets, don’t go in there. I knew all the doctors. 
    Jerry and I talked to the orthodontist’s son. His father had put on my braces, but his son had done most of the check-ups. There was a blonde assistant with huge tits who tightened the braces. She used to pull my head close to her chest and wrench the braces tight. It hurt like hell but the back of my neck would be warm and my cock would be hard. Then the son would come in to check on me. I’d be melted into the vinyl chair, gums and cock throbbing and there would be his grinning face. 
    He was always after me to wear my retainers. Now he was married to the blonde assistant with the big tits and close to taking over the whole practice. He asked me what I was doing besides cleaning the building. Maybe the other doctors knew I was in school. Maybe they asked. But the orthodontist’s son really asked. “What are you taking up?” he asked me. I hated that expression. I hated the way he said it out his grinning face. But I told him: English. “What do you plan on doing with that?” he asked out a new grin. I told him: teach, write. I didn’t tell him I didn’t know. I didn’t smile. I never had worn my retainers.
    I went to clean the building late most nights, after everyone was gone. I tried out those little water and air guns in the dentist offices; at the optometrist’s, I tried on frames, expensive ones I’d never be able to afford. The latest fashions. I never took anything, not even one of those toothbrushes dentists give you for free after a cleaning, or one of those cloths for wiping your specs. I saw one of the dentist’s season tickets to the Bruins, pulled apart, stacked, secured with a rubber band. They were just sitting there in his desk drawer. I flipped through them once, but I didn’t even think about it. Oh right, once I found an old Physician’s Desk Reference in the trash, and I took that. I couldn’t understand the thing, and I didn’t need it, but I liked the way it looked on my shelf at home, and it made a nice bookend for my CDs. 
    The optometrist had Sports Illustrated in his reception area, and sometimes I sat there and flipped through it. I found the swimsuit issue stashed in his private office the week it came out. This business with the guy with the fake arm came after that, so I guess it probably was March. I opened up the swimsuit issue and slowly turned the pages, then I took it into the bathroom, folded it back to a shot of Kathy Ireland, topless, arms wrapped around her body—and beat off all over the floor. I had to mop the floor anyway because the optometrist was like eighty years old and pissed everywhere. I had to vacuum the lobby, mop the lower floor and clean the common bathrooms down there, and vacuum the rugs and clean the bathrooms in the other offices.    
    The guy with the fake arm was sitting in my car. I started to drive. To get to the garage he said his car was in, I had to go right past the police station. I thought I could pull in to the station and politely ask him to get out of my car. If he refused it was a crime, right? But I had already decided to help him. I felt bad for him and his stump and his defective prosthesis, his dirty face with its visible frustration, his angry but cracking voice, and yes, I feared him. He was speaking to me in a calm voice now, thanking me, asking me where I was on my way to, but yes, I feared him. I feared his intrepidity and the violence he laced into his helplessness—the cursing, the slamming down of the equipment, like a vintage John McEnroe tantrum designed to unsettle a psychologically weaker opponent, to seize what he wanted through practiced force of will. His good arm, his right arm, kept rising up and over into my side of the car, the fist at the end balling and balling.
    I drove him to the garage. I drove past the cop shop, past the office building I still had to clean, across the steel expanse that lent Bridge Street its name, over the swollen river below. Or was it still frozen? In the garage parking lot the guy sat in my car and said he needed fifty bucks to get his car out. I told him I only had twelve on me. It was a lie. I had a twenty, a ten, and two ones. He said twelve was perfect, actually. He could get the rest from his cousin, if he ever fucking called back. I extracted the ten and the ones and handed them over. He held up the stub, like a reminder, then reached over with his right hand and took the bills. Then he told me to give him my name and address and that he’d send me the twelve dollars once he got home and could get to the bank. I did it. I did it because he told me to. True, I hoped he’d send me the money, but as soon as he was out of the car and I was back in traffic, I knew he wouldn’t. He hadn’t needed my information to get the money. I’d already forked it over. He’d needed it for a threat. Once he had my money in his pocket, and then had his threat, he reached back across, shook my hand firmly, leaned his chiseled head towards me, and thanked me.
    I went back and cleaned the office building. I mopped the downstairs and vacuumed the lobby, then I hit the offices. I worked quickly that night, like I had a date or something, but I was just going home. My girlfriend would be out. If I waited until she got home I’d get a story. Maybe something fresh. I cleaned quickly anyway. I thought the whole time about the guy who’d jumped into my car and what I’d done and what I should have done and then I started worrying that maybe he’d come to my parents’ house to rob it. He’d said he lived in Leominster or Groton or something, or his cousin did, but I no longer believed any of it. Only the stub. It was pretty stupid to give him my name and address. I thought all this and emptied wastebaskets and vacuumed and when I got to the optometrist’s office, that was definitely the night I found the swimsuit issue, the week it came out, so really it was a cold, rainy, slushy night in the middle of February, and once I had the page with that Kathy Ireland shot folded back and secured in my right hand, it didn’t take long at all. 
 

Posted in

David Caplan, 7/31/2017

Current Occupation: Editorial associate
Former Occupation: Writer, proofreader, retail store manager
Contact Information: A Chicago native, I studied English and writing at the University of Illinois. After 12 years in the retail shoe business, I started working in the publishing industry. Over nearly three decades, I have been a proofreader, writer, and editorial associate. Outside of work, I have had pieces published in a number of newspapers and magazines.

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Kinney Shoes 1975

    The men’s shoes had high heels and bulbous toes, like something out of Yellow Submarine. The patterns were confusing, with their overlaid pieces and seams and multiple colors. I had never worn such shoes, and I didn’t know how the other salesmen could stand to wear them—they felt hard and steep when I tried them on.
    The women’s section was even more difficult to learn. But most of the teenage girls who came in on summer afternoons bought one of two styles, a platform sandal, which was tall, or something called a water buffalo sandal, which was flat as a board and sold for five dollars. I knew where each of those was located in the back room and there was no confusing them.
    The junk was present in great variety. Junk for everyone in the family, toddlers and teens, women and men. There were a few items of better quality, like the approved nurse’s shoe and the men’s tie shoe with a leather sole and upper.
    I tried to hurry. One of the salesmen had told me that if you let customers sit too long, they get impatient and walk out. After that I had a recurring dream in which I went into the back room and wandered the aisles trying to find the right shoes. When I finally emerged, someone would tell me the customer was gone, at which point I would wake up.
    I thought I had found the right style, but just to be sure I also grabbed one that looked similar. My teenage male customer, typically silent and lanky, made up his mind quickly. Once I found the shoes in the back room, waiting on customers wasn’t bad, and they bought from me as often as from any of the other salesmen. It was the times between customers that went the slowest, when I stood around with the others in a cluster by the entrance to the back room.

    I had to lie to get the job. Toward the end of my first week home from school, I spotted an ad in the Tribune for a cutter in a shoe factory. Finally a real job, not some scam phone operation or door-to-door sales. The man who came out to the lobby of the small factory building in an old industrial area northwest of downtown Chicago accurately sized me up as a college student. He explained that it wouldn’t pay to hire me just for the summer, that it took time to learn how to match the pieces of leather and avoid the weak or rough spots. The cutter he was replacing was good and had done the job for several years.
    I tried to convince him to hire me anyway. The prospect of living with my father for the summer and not having a job must have shown on my face. “Come on back, let’s talk for a minute,” the man said.
    He was around my dad’s age and probably from the same West Side Jewish milieu, as evidenced in the voice, the manner, the hustle. His office was just a cubicle with tall walls, but he had the self-assurance of an owner. He wanted to know what kind of work I’d done before, and I said warehouse and factory. To my dad the jobs I’d had didn’t count as work. Real work was putting on a tie and talking to people.
    The man said I should get a job selling shoes. He was definite about this. He said that was the way he had started out. He said I was presentable and it would be good experience.
    He might as well have asked me to bring him the broomstick of the Wicked Witch of the West. It was the first week of June already, no one wanted to hire college students, and I had no experience in selling. But the man spoke with such certainty—he even said I was presentable. Afraid that the shot of confidence he’d given me would soon wear off, I drove straight to the outdoor shopping center near my father’s apartment in a blue-collar northwest suburb, parked in the empty parking lot of a summer morning, and walked into Kinney Shoes, where I asked to speak to the manager.
    Tim came out of the back room and greeted me with his optimistic smile. He was 26 years old and had a tall, friendly, all-American presence. He wanted to know if I was a college student and I admitted I was but said I was going to take the coming year off. To add verisimilitude to the story, I said I wasn’t sure what I wanted to major in, so I had decided to take a year off and work. Tim invited me to come in back and talk.
    The back room of a retail store was foreign territory to me. I had often wondered how people got jobs in stores and seemed so comfortable in them. I was excited to enter but feared I was going to be exposed as a liar at any moment and shown the door. “Are you sure you’re not going back to school in the fall?” Tim asked me. I said I was sure.
    Tim said he needed someone full-time for when the summer employees went back to school. Business was slow in the summer, but I would have an opportunity to make money at back-to-school and Christmas time. While it was slow would be a good time for me to learn. He would schedule me for as many hours as he could. “Dress sharp,” Tim said. “I’ll see you tomorrow afternoon at one o’clock.”
    That night when my dad came home from work, I told him I had gotten a job at Kinney’s for the summer. He did a double-take, as if he hadn’t heard me correctly. I repeated myself. “Now you’re doing something,” he said.
    I didn’t tell my dad about the man at the shoe factory, or that I had to lie to get the job, or that I didn’t know how I was going to make it through the next eight weeks.

    Tim had served in the Coast Guard for several years. I suppose he chose this as an alternative to being drafted into the army and sent to Vietnam—his age group faced a set of difficult choices. He ran the store like a ship, and the bridge was his desk in the back room. A large chart was spread across a drafting table next to the desk, but it was for accounting rather than navigation. The rows and columns on the big ledger sheet broke down what everyone in the store sold by category and what everyone in the store made, including Tim.
    On payday Tim met with each salesman and went over his sales. My overall dollar volume was about the same as everyone else’s, but I lagged in my percentage of accessory sales. I was willing to lead the customers to the table where bundles of socks were always on special, but I was diffident at the counter with shoe care products. For example, we were supposed to sell a tin of mink oil with the men’s white patent slip-on. I thought rubbing mink oil on a vinyl shoe was absurd. Mink oil was meant to waterproof and condition leather. The sales pitch was that mink oil would keep the patent from cracking. Mink oil was only a two-dollar sale, and I figured it wouldn’t make or break the store. The first time I sold the white patent, I didn’t even suggest it. The next time Tim happened to be on the floor, and he jumped in with a demonstration. Breaking a tin open, he used his index finger to rub a dab of the greasy stuff on the vamp of the white shoe and accentuated his handiwork with a big smile. Sold.
    I liked Tim but didn’t understand how he could place such importance on a dubious care product for a ridiculous looking shoe. I wasn’t going to be judged on such nonsense.

    During the summer the store had a full crew. Bill had just graduated from high school and was starting junior college in the fall. He was a good-looking kid with perfect Andy Gibb feathered hair parted in the middle. In his blue polyester suit and heeled shoes, he looked like he was going to a wedding or dance.
    Matt was a Kinney’s veteran who had just finished his first year of college and returned for the summer. He was considered the top salesman, and I had heard Tim say that Matt was always welcome to come back. Selling was a funny thing. Matt hustled but wasn’t particularly nice to people. He sold like an automaton, repeating the same lines over and over with a touch of pressure and impatience. His conversation off the floor was on the crude side.
    Robbie, a slightly built kid with a wide smile, had just finished high school and was still deciding whether to take junior college classes or work for Tim full-time during the coming year. Sometimes I asked Robbie for help finding merchandise. I felt he was my only friend in the store.
    The assistant manager, Nick, was a thirty-something guy who used to drive a truck and was now trying to break into retail management. Nick was unhappy because he wasn’t making enough money, and he lacked Tim’s grace with people.
    Tim’s part-time cashier and bookkeeper was Beth, a junior-college student whose petite frame belied the important role she had, or believed she had, in the store. Her duties included collecting the cash register tapes and penciling in the figures on the big chart in back. Her smiles were only for Tim.
    The stock boy, Chris, was quiet and hard working. A few afternoons a week, he’d come in with his long hair tied in a bandanna and tackle the stacked-up cartons of merchandise that had been delivered.
    In addition to Beth, there were two high-school girls who worked as cashiers evenings and weekends.
    I owned one sportcoat, a brown herringbone tweed I had bought by myself at the Marshall Field’s department store in lakefront, cultured Evanston, some 10 miles and a world away from this shopping center. I had bought a wool tie to go with it, and I had a pair of olive pants that matched the coat reasonably well. In high school I had always felt good when I wore these clothes to temple, but now they felt hot and unstylish. Everything was different then—my mom was still alive, our family lived in a house, I went to Evanston Township High School. Now I was marooned with my dad in a transient apartment complex that felt far from home.
    The only dress shoes I owned were a pair of plain brown oxfords, which were out of the question. I also had a pair of brown crepe-soled slip-ons. They weren’t true dress shoes but would have to do for the moment.
    One of my first hurdles on the job was meeting the district manager. Tim had told me to be sharp on the day of the district manager’s visit. I was sure the district manager would see through me, but it turned out he was an unsmiling guy in a navy polyester suit who briefly shook my hand and then turned his attention back to Tim. With his charisma and easy manner, Tim easily outshined the DM.
    My dad had told me a store was like a family. It was true in a way. The store was a family, and Tim was the father. He invited everyone to his place for the Fourth of July, but I didn’t go. The next day Robbie said, “You should have come, everyone was there.” I asked what they did, and he said they just sat around and ate and drank beer and had a good time.
    Waiting on customers was a relief from hanging out with the guys near the entrance to the back room on long, slow summer afternoons. From our vantage point, we had a clear view of the front door. That summer the FM radio on the store’s sound system constantly played 10 CC’s I’m Not in Love, along with generous helpings of the still-popular instrumental Tubular Bells.
    The guys talked a lot about TV shows I hadn’t seen. Somewhere along the way I had dropped out of the television loop. I watched the occasional Kojack episode or late-night movie with my dad, and that was about it. I exhausted myself trying to think of things to say. When the cashier girls were there, it was social hour, and the guys were adept at flirting with them.
    For lunch I ate a sandwich at Kresge’s and then walked around. The shopping center had a Twilight Zone quality of eerie desertion on summer days. Suits were perennially on sale two-for-one at Richman Brothers. A one-man Regal Shoes, not much larger than a kiosk, was run by a kid with a wide grin who wore incredibly tall platform shoes.
    If we were working the opening shift, Robbie and I went to get coffee for everyone. The restaurant was the one place with life in the godforsaken mall. Robbie would linger and chat with a waitress who worked the counter. She was an older woman, somewhere in her early to mid-twenties, thin with a washed-out look but a big lipsticked smile. Once I asked Robbie why he talked to her so much. “She’s a good kid,” he said. “Has a lot of problems. Single, with a kid to raise.” Robbie was worldly beyond his 18 years. The waitress was always happy to see him.
    Business was slow and Tim’s wife was going to have a baby, so he often worked mornings and then took the rest of the day off. The store ran well without him. I figured Tim’s distraction worked to my advantage and would help me achieve my goal of eight weeks.
    A few times when Tim was around he would show me things, like how to bar-lace a gym shoe for display. Kinney’s had come out with its own brand of athletic shoes called NBA. They looked like cheap Adidas knockoffs and didn’t fit exactly right, but Tim said they were an important effort for the company because there was future growth in athletic footwear. He mentioned that as an experiment, the company had recently opened a few stores devoted entirely to athletic shoes.
    One day Tim talked to me about floor awareness. He said he didn’t like to sit on the fitting stool—he stayed upright so he could monitor the floor. At back-to-school time, it would be necessary to double up, take two customers at a time. I was just passing through and had difficulty taking any of his lessons seriously.
    When the store suddenly came alive one evening, it was just me and Nick, the assistant manager, closing with a cashier. By that time I had a month of experience under my belt, and my knowledge of the inventory had improved somewhat. Among other things, I sold a nurse’s shoe, one of our higher priced items, and managed to double up without losing a single customer. When the rush was over, the floor was a disaster area, littered with shoe boxes I had brought out. I still wasn’t adept enough to put away unwanted try-ons when I made trips to the back room. The evening had flown by, and I felt satisfied as I cleaned up.
    Tim gave me a big smile the next morning and said, “I see you had a good night.” I feigned indifference at his recognition, but the truth was that it meant something to me.
    In our meeting on payday at the end of my sixth week, Tim said I would have to improve my accessory sales or he’d have to let me go. I suppose I deserved his ultimatum—he had to know if I was willing to give the effort he required. Still, it hurt, like a sudden slap I felt throughout my body.
    “But I can sell shoes,” I managed to say.
    “You’ve been able to sell shoes since you started,” Tim said. He left it at that.
    Tim took the next few days off to be with his wife and newborn daughter. Determined not to be fired, I told Nick I was quitting and this would be my last week. Tim called me into the back room when he returned on Friday. I said I had decided to go back to school. “I sort of thought you would all along,” Tim said.
    I had made it seven weeks, one short of my goal.
    When I walked out of the store for the last time, I thought, thank goodness that’s over, now I can get back to my real life. But back at school I sometimes wondered if it really would have been so bad to spend the year working for Tim and learning to be someone he could rely on. If I had it to do over, I would have gone to Tim’s Fourth of July gathering and maybe I would have learned to properly form a gym shoe for display.
    The following spring I stopped in the store. The guys I was so worried about fitting in with were gone. I asked for Tim, and he took a few minutes to chat. I let him know how close I was to graduating—I needed two classes and was going to take them over the summer. He asked what I was going to do then.
    “I’m going to be a writer.”
    Tim considered this. “We have to get you a career.”
    “I just stopped in to say hello,” I said.

    And now, as Paul Harvey would say, the rest of the story. After college I drifted back to the shoe business. I thought about going to see Tim, but something held me back—maybe it was the fear of letting him down again or the dead-end atmosphere of the shopping center or a little of both. I wound up working for the Florsheim Shoe Company for 10 years, mostly downtown, first as a salesman and then as manager of small stores with a few employees. Managing was always hard for me—it took everything I had.
    Over the years I wondered what had happened to Tim. The internet finally made tracing him possible. I found several stories in footwear publications and general business news. Tim had been correct when he said there was growth in athletic footwear. He had moved over to Kinney’s sister company Foot Locker, the venture that had started the year before I worked for him. From what I could tell, he soon became a district manager and was instrumental in building the new company. He ended up as president and CEO of the U.S. division of the athletic shoe retailer. His journey from manager of a backwater shoe store to company president ensconced in a Midtown Manhattan office might seem unlikely, but it made perfect sense to me. He was the best manager I had ever known.
 

Posted in

Thomas Locicero, 7/24/2017

Current occupation: Teacher
Former occupation: Customer Service Supervisor
Contact Information: Thomas Locicero’s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Roanoke Review, Boston Literary Magazine, Long Island Quarterly, The Good Men Project, Adelaide Literary Magazine, Jazz Cigarette, Quail Bell Magazine, Antarctica Journal, Rat’s Ass Review, Scarlet Leaf Review, Tipton Poetry Journal, Hobart, Ponder Review, vox poetica, Poetry Pacific, Brushfire Literature & Arts Journal, Indigo Lit, Saw Palm, Fine Lines, New Thoreau Quarterly, Birmingham Arts Journal, Clockwise Cat, Snapdragon, felan, The Ghazal Page, Red Savina Review, Better Than Starbucks, Poetry Quarterly, The Write Launch, Bindweed Magazine, The Skinny Poetry Journal, Abyss & Apex Magazine, The Avocet, Speculative 66,  Lit.cat, Kestrel, and Spectator & Spooks, among other journals. He lives in Broken Arrow, OK.

 

#

There Was a Time in America

There was a time in America
when life and work were synonymous,
when people, actual people, were forced to come
to a New World to work—and for this privilege,
they were permitted to live—and when almost all
of a civilization was forced to go, to march, so that
their red earth could be “worked” by white men
off the backs of black men. A new definition of work.

There was a time in America
when tilling meant food and “Timber” greed,
but lumberjacking was work and work meant
life, so now we plant a tree when we tear one down
because we are better people than we were then.

There was a time in America
when if a man did not work, he did not eat,
a warning the apostle Paul wrote to the men
of Thessalonica, who lazed about believing
the Parousia was imminent. We scoffed at those
who did not work, acted as if we invented it,
mocking siestas and European naptime and, eventually,
maternity leave, suggesting that vacations were for
the lazy.

Today, in Japan, death by overwork is called karoshi.
Some say it is a culture. This we also mock.

There was a time in America
when a job was like a marriage, till death—or retirement—
do us part, when a paycheck was paper and smelled
of sweat. Now, in our divorce culture, we feel lucky
to have the privilege to work for people who would
prefer automatons to us, people who know our families,
yet would discard us like stale bread without a moment
of hesitation.

(more)
Today, in America, we clutch our invisible paychecks
like they are winning lottery tickets.
 

 

Posted in

Jan Priddy, 7/17/2017

Current occupation: beach walker 
Former occupations: private and public high school Art and English teacher, college English teacher, quilt store clerk (best reverse income), baker, architectural draftsperson, freelance designer, dog magazine columnist, direct delivery junk-mail rep (most disreputable), artist, record store sales clerk, abused Taco Bell employee.
Contact information: My work has earned an Oregon Literary Arts Fellowship, Arts & Letters fellowship, Soapstone residency, Pushcart nomination, and publication in journals such as Brevity blog, The MacGuffin, CALYX, Work Literary Magazine, Raven Chronicles, The Humanist, and North American Review. An MFA graduate from Pacific University, I live in the NW corner of my home state of Oregon. Contact me at andpride@gmail.com.

#

LEAVING WORK, 1970

 
I was good at my first job. I filled and wrapped 
a taco fast as anyone. I smiled, my hands
busy filling tiny containers with hot sauce
when no customers came to my window.
I cleaned and closed best of all, shifting
the food to the refer, scrubbing down
 
the stainless steel, mopping again and again
beginning early because we were not paid
to close. The work had to be done whether
it took ten minutes or an hour. I did it right
in ten. The new boy was paid a third again 
each hour what I received for training him. 
 
When I asked, the boss said he was a boy,
something I had already noticed. But I
did not walk away from that job because
the work was hard and boring, or because
I was not paid for closing, or because
my boss thought it was fair to pay me less.
 
I walked away the day he told me protesters
deserve to be shot. Wrapped in his belief 
that made me want him dead. But instead, 
I walked away and even when he asked, 
I never went back. He shorted my last check, 
well, what could I expect?

#

WOMEN’S WORK

Jobs for women used to appear
separately from the classified listings
for real work in the paper.
 
My grandmother worked and so
did my mother, only when they needed
to support the family. 
 
Each took the sort of position
women were welcomed to, and each
suffered discrimination. 
 
They worked in clerical
positions, under the supervision
of men younger than they.
 
And each enjoyed the work
until they left because was expected
of women who became wives. 
 
As if working were a sorry
circumstance, a pointless leisure 
that kills the soul. 
 
My grandmother cranked
the laundry on Monday, filled
shelves with canned fruit.
 
Housework and mothering
kept her busy every day until
she began dying. 
 
It was only late in her life
that my mother acknowledged
how much she loved her job. 
 
“You always feel better,”
she claimed, “when you are earning
your way.” I felt it. 

#

AWFUL WORK

Before I delivered junk mail,
folded burritos, and priced records
I folded laundry and penciled
out the cost of aquarium supplies.
 
Sometimes I swept and dusted
before vacuuming. I washed 
the family dishes and none
of this was fun. It was work. Work
 
was also roasting a turkey, baking
pies, a batch of cookies, a green
salad—also work, but work enjoyed. 
Bad managers can ruin a job, but
 
the job itself might not be so bad. 
I enjoyed leaning out the window
of my friend’s truck, hanging
leaflets and coupons. We laughed 
 
together as we went, house to house
in our disreputable task. The fast
food job was sometimes fun, a way
to get work done swiftly. I got a tip
 
one time. I learned how to make 
pastries during the year at a bakery.
I watched the boys go into the ovens
and come out loaves. I stood 
 
at counters and waited on tired
and hungry people. Even the bad
days were not so awful. Awful 
was watching my father die
 
of cancer. Awful was burying
dogs. Awful was losing my
temper with people I love. Work
never dipped into awful. 
 

 

 

Posted in

Caroline Taylor, 7/10/2017

Current occupation: writer and editor
Former occupation: publications director, speechwriter, and magazine editor
Contact Information: Caroline Taylor's short stories have appeared in Work Literary Magazine (one, two, three, four occasions) and other online and print magazines. She is the author of two mystery novels and one nonfiction book. Visit her at www.carolinestories.com

#

RISKY BUSINESS

Nearly every office has its would-be thespians—staff members who are asked to partake in the annual holiday skit in which the actions of management are parodied by the staff. To Corliss, it was looking more and more like she might be the only person foolish enough to have done it twice. And, the only reason she even considered it the first time had to do with rumors that staff members who went that extra lap around the Christmas tree—whether providing food and drink, decorating the conference room, or acting in the skit—might see just a bit more pay in their holiday bonuses.

The first time was back when Corliss was writing grant proposals for the state historic preservation league, a place ripe with the scent of old wood and old money. Her colleagues, she’d learned, were people of cultural refinement and obvious good taste who found the mission of protecting the state’s architectural and historical treasures a worthy task for their specialized talents. Thanks to Corliss’s winning prose, a generous mix of state funding and private donations made it possible for everyone to be paid to do this noble work.

That should have made them happy, but the preservation to which they were so devoted seemed to apply only to inanimate objects. The knives slipped into unsuspecting backs were long and sharp. So, yeah, she should have known better when she agreed to take part in the skit. She should have known that the rumors of an extra generous holiday bonus were as believable as trees on Mars. And she had to know there was bound to be somebody among the high and mighty managers about to be lampooned who lacked a sense of humor.  

The cast for the holiday skit included the league’s affable president, who, everyone suspected, was already grooming himself for a higher-paying position; the brilliant vice president and chief operating officer, who did not get along with the president but knew far more about architecture and preservation; the clueless vice president for marketing, whose skills at yacht racing far outmatched his business acumen; and the aggressive chief financial officer, whose power over the purse strings had terrorized the entire organization, including the board of directors. The president and two vice presidents were men, so the role of “Bonnie Cashbox” landed in Corliss’s lap like the contents of a freshly microwaved cup of coffee.

She had to admit it was a great name, though—combining the CFO’s real name, Bonnie (who was neither sunny nor blithe), with a word neatly summing up her job.

“Hey, guys,” Bonnie would say, barging into a meeting with her blouse only half tucked into her mini-skirt. “Sorry I’m late.”

Yeah, right. We’ve only been sitting here for fifteen minutes.

Then, she’d throw herself into her chair, hoist her legs up onto the table, cross her ankles, and proceed to shred the theories of whoever happened to be talking, all the while snapping her chewing gum.

Corliss could tell right off that such louche behavior had never before been witnessed by the Talbots and Randolphs and other patricians whose blue-blooded cohorts still governed the league. Perhaps they tolerated Bonnie’s belligerence because she was a CPA with an MBA from Wharton. She knew where the secret budget fat was deposited and how to surgically excise that deposit from beneath a vice president’s stricken gaze faster than you could say “gotcha!”

The role itself was a cinch. All Corliss had to do was arrive (ancient metal cashbox in hand and, of course, late) to a meeting of all the other “managers” and then pull “a Bonnie” by plopping into her chair, throwing her legs onto the table, crossing her ankles, and snapping her gum.

“Can’t do it, guys,” Corliss said. “I don’t know how to snap gum.”

Oscar, the IT guy who was going to play the sailing vice president, offered to instruct Corliss. But he was immediately overruled by Chaz, the architect who would play the president-loathing VP. “Just blow bubbles,” he said. And somehow manage to keep that bubble from popping each time the script called for Bonnie Cashbox to say “no.”

Corliss managed to pull it off. In fact, the audience, employees and their families, laughed so hard, some of them probably snapped a few straight laces.

It took a couple of days for the euphoria to wear off, leaving in its wake a lurking suspicion that perhaps it was better that Bonnie herself had skipped the holiday party in favor of a ski trip to Vail.

“I’m okay,” Corliss kept telling herself. Maybe Bonnie would never find out. And, if she did, she wouldn’t dare fire the league’s best proposal writer. Bonnie was not without friends, however, so naturally she did learn all about it, probably even watched a video captured on somebody’s cell phone.

One day the gum-snapping CFO dropped by Corliss’s office. “I am so sorry I missed the holiday skit,” Bonnie said with a warm smile. “I hear you had them all in hysterics.”

As for the little bit of extra pay in the holiday bonus, who knew? Nobody shared that kind of information for fear it would produce even sharper knives. As memories of the skit faded, Corliss began to relax. But then, two months later, the league lost its biggest donor, and Corliss was let go. She kept telling herself it was simply coincidence. It had nothing to do with her role in the skit.

It wasn’t because she loved to ham it up, either. It had started when she was only sixteen. She’d made it to the finals of the Louisiana Music Educators Association statewide vocal competition where she won first place for a solo folk song called “He’s Gone Away.” Getting to that point had required a serious investment in voice and music lessons. But the award was based, not just on vocal prowess, but also on interpretation—which was not at all difficult for a hormone-crazed teenage girl whose boyfriend had just enlisted in the Marines.

Once a performer, always on the lookout. That at least partly explained why Corliss couldn’t help saying “yes,” when her thespian talents were again requested at the annual holiday skit put on by her new employer, a federal cultural agency headed by a woman. “Please call me Chairman Alistair,” she’d announced when first meeting the staff. “I don’t cotton to chairperson or, heaven forbid, chairlady.”

There would be no padding, real or imagined, to the holiday bonus this time because Uncle Sam did not play that game. But he did acknowledge teamwork—in the form of contributing to and participating in the holiday party. Serious Brownie points were at stake for those who sought them.

Corliss was one of several employees who reviewed grant applications. But she saw more of Chairman Lisa Alistair than would normally be the case because Alistair happened to live two blocks away, and they often encountered each other while Corliss was out running and Alistair was walking the family dog. They had even more in common since Corliss’s nickname happened to be Lisa. The two women were also about the same height, although Corliss was a blonde and about ten pounds heavier than the chairman.

Alistair had only been chairman for a few months. Her appointment was not controversial, perhaps because her husband was a distinguished federal judge. They hailed from one of those western states known for big skies and small populations.

“How can I make fun of her?” Corliss asked her colleagues. “She’s too new! She’s too nice!”

“You’ll figure out something,” was the response.

After much deliberation, the skit writers settled on a comedy routine in which “Chairman Lisa” was feeling stressed out by her new job. Donning a brown wig, Corliss decked herself out in a western outfit, complete with cowboy boots and a leather belt that sported a big brass buckle.

Drawing on her earlier success as a singer, Corliss belted out new lyrics to an old-time country tune called “Why, Oh Why, Did I Ever Leave Wyoming?” The original lyrics had needed only slight alterations—changing the name of the state, for example—to suggest the noble “sacrifices” that the Alistairs had made by relocating to the hazy skies and overcrowded roads of Washington.

This time, Corliss had learned her lesson. Long before the curtain went up on the holiday skit, she’d insisted that the revised lyrics be put through the agency’s version of the “humorless staff” test and also vetted with various higher ups.

During Corliss’s boffo performance, Lisa Alistair laughed so hard, her face turned beet red. Afterward, she approached, grabbing Corliss’s hand. “Love your outfit. It’s so Wild West.”

Corliss felt her face grow hot. “I hope you weren’t offended.”

“Don’t be silly,” the chairman laughed. “As a matter of fact, Frank and I are going to be hosting a chuck wagon dinner in a couple of months. I might want to borrow your belt.”

Afterwards, though, Corliss sensed the tide of opinion shifting. Several colleagues who’d once found the skit hilarious were now pointing fingers at her (back, of course), whispering, “The fool!”

Corliss ignored them. This time, she’d not be handed a pink slip under the guise of “downsizing.” It was not that easy to get rid of civil servants. All she had to do was outlast Chairman Alistair, who would either move on to a more prestigious appointment or, if the other party won the next election, be replaced by a new chairman.

Instead, a few months later, Corliss found herself rewriting the lyrics to “Thanks for the Memories,” in preparation for a farewell party celebrating her own transfer to a job in a government agency that turned out to be so enormous, there would be no chance that anyone could possibly put together a holiday skit making fun of top management.

That more or less marked the end of Corliss’s amateur thespian days—at least when it came to skits lampooning senior management. She’d had fun doing them, even though her two forays onto the stage had turned out not to be particularly smart career moves. The occasional spoof newsletter? Roasting a departing colleague? Sure. But, if there actually were amateur thespians at the new job, and if they had big ideas for the holiday party entertainment that involved a risky “but morale boosting” skit, Corliss would have no problem whatsoever pointing out just how fond she was of safe.

Posted in

Joan McNerney, 7/3/2017

Current Occupation: Volunteer Museum Guide
Former Occupation: Typesetter

Contact Information: I am from Brooklyn, New York and fell in love with poetry when I was nine years old.  My first publication was in Young America Sings at fourteen. It has been a long and wonderful journey. After retiring from the advertising business, I have moved to upstate New York near the Albany area.  The natural beauty of the area has given me a great deal of inspiration to continue my voyage through the world of literature.  Thank you for this wonderful opportunity.
 Joan McNerney’s poetry has been included in numerous literary magazines such as  Seven Circle Press, Dinner with the Muse, Moonlight Dreamers of Yellow Haze, Blueline, and Halcyon DaysThree Bright Hills Joan McNerney’s poetry has been included in numerous literary magazines such as Press Anthologies, several Poppy Road Review Journals, and numerous Kind of A Hurricane Press Publications have accepted her work. Her latest title is Having Lunch with the Sky and she has four Best of the Net nominations. 

 

 

#

Maintenance Man
 

Everything falls apart, 
all things rot and crack.
 
Each day another tenant
fills out forms to request
repairs.   Hot water tanks
burst, sinks back up, toilets jam. 
Smoke alarms break. 
It's a messy life, he pushes
against riptide.
 
All spring and summer,  
weeds keep growing. 
Leaves gather during fall.  
In winter time, ice 
covers walkways.
 
It’s time to go home now.
Tomorrow he will return
to pick up the pieces again.
 
 

#
The Teacher

 
She hoped some would leave, 
rise above dirty factory gates
past plumes of smoke spewing
from the cement plant.
 
Occasionally when discussing
great American novels, the walls
shook. Ravines were blasted
for more rocks to crush into powder.
 
She wished they would not become
clerks for soul-less chain stores or 
cooks in fast food joints where
smells of burning grease lingered.  
 
What was the use of teaching literature
and poetry to these children who would
soon grown listless?  Their spirits ground
down like stones in the quarry.
 
 

#
The Librarian
  

Always cherished the sanctity of 
this place.  This refuge of
knowledge arranged in infallible 
logic of the Dewey Decimal system.
 
Brian loved to touch these volumes.
Especially heavy reference
dictionaries, atlases, almanacs
and encyclopedias.  Those sheltered
in secluded shelves for staff only.
 
Children come along each day
to feast on colorful books. Lounging 
in small chairs they became
spellbound by cornucopias of words.
 
Mostly he likes the retirees who
linger with newspapers and
magazines in the reading corner. 
They confess not to understand 
computers, writing down requested titles.
 
At the end of evening, Brian walks
through the quiet.  Before leaving,
he will select a saga of spicy
adventure to flavor his evening.   
 
 

#
An Accountant
 

During the day, 
he could calculate
the secrets of ciphers
grabbling with white 
ledgers and tight rows
of numbers.
 
Richard knew how statistical 
data can be rigged while
cash flow double entries
could conceal trouble.
His eyes were wary
but he still believed
in good faith credit.
 
As night grew so did his 
appreciation of the
eloquence of one. 
That fat place maker
known as zero. Why
mystics marveled
at the holy seven.
 
While Richard slept his
dreams multiplied.
Suddenly long division
subtracted an unknown
quantity yet sums still
added up. Where had
his equations wandered?
 

Posted in

Carl Wade Thompson, 6/26/2017

Current Occupation: Graduate Programs Writing Tutor
Former Occupation: Janitor/Meat Packer/Waste Disposal/Fork Life Operator
Contact Information: Carl Wade Thompson is a poet and graduate programs writing tutor at Texas Wesleyan University. His work often focuses on his manual labor experiences.

#

Once, I Signaled A Crane

    In spring of 2015, I was working a dead-end job at a warehouse distribution center as a member of waste disposal. After being in graduate school for three years and unable to take my comps, I had quit school, moved back home, and started working at the distribution center near my home town. Stuck in a deep depression, the job did not help matters as I saw myself becoming more and more meaningless as time passed by. I wanted a job that would take me away from my hometown and provide meaning in my life. As I scanned the want-ads one night, I saw that there were open interviews for working on an off-shore oil rig. As my uncle had worked on an offshore oil rig and had enjoyed the experience, I decided to try out for an interview. After an interview and physical examination, I was soon driving to Lafayette, Louisiana for training to be an offshore oil rig roustabout for Noble Oil.

    Arriving in Lafayette, the other trainees and I were immediately put on a bus and soon were driving south into the swamp until we arrived at our training camp, which was nearly an hour out into the boonies. The training camp was right beside the bayou and was held in part of an oil rig where we ate and slept with a modular building for a classroom. Beside the modular building was a small crane, which was part of our training. As a person who had been in school for most of his life, most everything there seemed foreign and new as I knew next to nothing about working on an oil rig. As we got off the bus and went into rig sleeping quarters to claim our bunks, I knew the week of training was going to be more challenging than I had ever imagined.

    Over the course of the week, my fellow trainees and I learned about safety guidelines for working offshore and the tasks that would comprise our daily workload. Whether it was learning to always keep a hand on the safety rail while walking on all stairs or how to chain hoist a load of pipe, it was all hands on, where class room instruction met hard application. As the days went by and we learned more about the ins and outs of working on an oil rig, the more I felt like I was over my head. In order to pass the training, you had to take a live test and show you could do all the tasks that we had practiced. But after witnessing the skills of the other students, I knew that I was way behind, because every physical task took me longer to perform, and speed is everything on an oil rig. By the end of Wednesday of the first week, I was sure of failure, and I wasn’t sure what I should do.

    While in the classroom on Wednesday, the coursework turned to working as a crane signalperson. Our instructor, who was a Noble safety officer named David, was a stern teacher who looked like he was more at home in the bayou than in the city. With a deep Cajun accent, every word that came out of his mouth was built on a foundation of Louisiana history. After working for 20 years as an offshore oil rig safety officer, he had seen the worst accidents imaginable, and he taught us as a man who had seen it all. So when we went through the book and he told us about how important a crane signalperson is, I made certain that I listened.

    “Now guys,” David said as we ended for the day, “We will be testing on signaling cranes first thing in the morning. And remember, you only get two tries to pass this test. You don’t get a third chance.”  When he said his last words, I knew he was talking to me, because I felt like I was barely passing as is. As we walked out and headed to the rig housing to have supper, I made up my mind that regardless of what happened for the rest of the training camp, I was going to pass the signaling portion with flying colors.

    After dinner, the evening was free before lights out, and so I went back to the classroom to study my textbook. As I looked at the hand signals, I set out practicing what the images showed. Whether it was signaling how to hoist a load up to lowering the boom, I practiced over and over again, reading the chapter on signaling like my life depended on it. I knew that night that maybe working offshore was not the job for me, but I wanted to at least do one thing well. All my life, the only thing I could do well was reading and writing, my world always being within the confines of school. Just once, I wanted to do something physical and being good at it, have a work skill that translated to manual labor.  Regardless of the outcome, I wanted to do my best to show I could at least do this one thing even if I didn’t pass the rest of the training.

    That night as I slept in my small bunk among the other recruits, I lay awake for a long time. I was worried about the next day, but I was also questioning my resolve to be a roustabout. I was scared of the whole thing, scared of what might happen on the oil rig and how I would hold up in the middle of the ocean while constantly scrambling to carry cable or chipping paint. When I finally went to sleep, I wasn’t sure what I was more worried about, my resolve for sticking with the training or passing the test the next morning.

    Early the next morning after breakfast, we all went outside to demonstrate our crane signaling skills. As I waited for my turn, I was so worried that I started sweating in the cold bayou air. But when I went to stand before the crane and begin my test, I suddenly became calm and collected. All of a sudden, I understood all I had to do was to take my time, think, and signal accordingly.

    “Okay, Wade, signal the crane to hoist it up, slowly,” ordered David.

    Standing as straight as I could, I point my finger straight and made a circular motion with my right palm straight out above it.  Slowly, the crane’s hoist went up and carried a load of pipe. For a moment, time stood still as everyone stared amazed as I performed the motion like the picture in the textbook. It even surprised David, the safety officer, as I had never done anything right the first time.

    “Okay, that’s good,” said David. “Now, direct the crane to move the load to the right.”

    I nodded, never taking the eyes off the crane operator. I took both of my hands, moved my upper torso, and signaled with my hands turned right for the operator to turn the hoist right. I watched as the crane’s hoist moved the load to the right, high overhead.

    “Stop,” said David, his arms folded.

    Raising my rand hand, I made a gloved fist, motioning for the hoist to stop.

    “Hey look at him,” said one of the other trainees. “He’s just like the textbook.  He’s doing it exactly like the pictures in the textbook!”

    Hearing his words, I smiled, knowing I was doing good. And as David directed me to signal other maneuvers, I did so with a skill that none of the other trainees was able to match. Even David, the man who gave praise sparingly, said I had done fine. For once, I passed with flying colors, and for a moment I could picture myself as a signalperson on an oil rig. It was a fleeing moment, that feeling of belonging, like I could actually make it offshore. After the day’s training ended, I knew that I had at least accomplished one thing, something I could take away and make my own. Even if I never signaled a crane again, at least I knew that I could have done it.

    That night in my bunk I thought about the day and what I had accomplished. I was able to do something well, the only time where I had stood out in all the training sessions. And my skill had come from all my studying of my books, which was what I was good at all along. My mind played over the signaling again and again. But I knew, deep down, that I didn’t belong. Finally, as I drifted off to sleep, my mind was made up: I was going to quit the training at morning call.

    The next morning, I went to talk to David and the other instructors and told them my decision. What surprised me was that they said they could understand why I would quit, and it was good to do it now instead of finding out on a rig that I didn’t belong. But the words I took away, that stayed with me the longest, was David’s:

    “You know what, when you first came on, I didn’t think you would make it. Really, I didn’t think a college boy would make it out here. But you really could have made it, got through the training. You proved that yesterday with the crane.”

    I smiled and nodded. His words meant a lot, and I knew that the training hadn’t been a total bust. After I turned in my work gear and collected my duffel bag, David gave me back my Noble hard hat. “Keep it. Something to remember us by.”

    As I was driven out of the training camp, I had no regrets about my decision. Going back home, I straightened out my life and eventually went back to graduate school and obtained my PhD in English. Now an academic and the graduate writing tutor and instructor for a university, I still think back to my time training on the oil rig in the bayou. I still have the hard hat, and my twin sons play with it. Sometimes, I wish I had completed my training and done one stint offshore. But I know, deep down, that the world of the roustabout was not mine, and I am thankful for making the decision to ultimately leave the training.  But whenever I see construction that has a crane, I think, “Once, I signaled a crane.” And that knowledge gives me a sense of peace that makes the decision I made all worthwhile. For that experience I am thankful as it lives on in memory.  

Posted in

Mitchell Toews, 6/19/2017

Current Occupation: writer
Former Occupation: marketing
Contact Information: Mitchell Toews lives and writes at a lakeside cottage in Manitoba. When an insufficient number of, "We are pleased to inform you…" emails are on hand, he finds alternative joy in the windy intermingling between the top of the water and the bottom of the sky or skates on the ice until he can no longer see the cabin.

#

Fairchild, McGowan and the Detective

 

THE BOSSES I HAD IN MY LIFE and the boss I became are closely related. I learned from all of them. Some taught me how to act, others taught me what not to do. Coming from a small town where so many people were my relatives or – at the least – a member of the Mennonite community, it was my good fortune to become educated in the work world by some outsiders; “Englanders” as we called them secretly. They were Englanders because of the language they spoke, not necessarily because of their country of origin or citizenry.

As a young teen in Hartplatz, I was fortunate enough to have an after-school job in the Loeb Lumberyard Sash & Door shop.

It used to be that window sash was built and installed onsite with pre-cut parts. A skilled carpenter could produce and putty-glaze four windows or more in a day. In the Sixties, companies began prefabricating the entire sash package – building ready-to-install windows for the openings. Now any carpenter could glaze a whole house in a day or two.

Loeb was deeply invested in this new fenestration enterprise and I had a job chopping sash components on the mitre box saw. We had a power saw, but it broke down so often that many days I was required to cut the pieces by hand, from 4:15 to 5:45, Mon-Weds-Fri.

With the day shift gone at 4:00, it was a pleasant job, working in the quiet workshop that was scented with the fragrance of sawn cedar and fir. The sawdust from these resinous species would be settling as I arrived, my work area neatly swept and tools put away by the departing worker, “Mexikaunsche Froese”. His real name was John Froese, but there were so many John Froeses around that his “eatjenome” (nickname) was “Mexican Froese”, owing to his family being the only local Froese family to have returned from Mexico, where many had gone in a sub-migration several years earlier.

My rolling cart of sticks was at the ready. Pieces were gathered and bundled like bunches of celery, tied with twine. My job was to process the pieces, cutting them to length at 90 or 45 degrees, according to the form attached to each job. After they were cut, I would inspect them for flaws, clean up the ends with sandpaper and put a check mark on the work order.

It was boring, steady work, requiring just enough attention allocation to prevent finger amputation but still allow for mental meanderings to other, more interesting mental vistas. My job provided comic book money and created in me an abiding desire for a future career that required, and gave, a little more.

On Mondays and Wednesdays, my boss, John Fairchild, would be there. He would stop in on me a couple of times per evening – making sure everything was OK and checking on my production, so he could plan for the morning.

Mr Fairchild was, as it turned out, my best boss ever, even though I did not know that then. I worked at the sash & door shop for four years, eventually growing to know many of the regular tasks and being able to safely run most of the equipment; even knowing the foibles and idiosyncrasies of the older belt-drive turning machines. Like the hockey player who wins a Stanley Cup in his first year, I did not yet have a full appreciation of what I had in Mr Fairchild.

He had been recruited from Winnipeg and came originally from distant St. John where he had run a sash & door business for the Irvine family. His Maritime accent stood out in stark contrast to the flat, nasal Mennonite twang common to the sash shop.

Fairchild was quiet, calm and observant. He had the habit of suddenly being there, whenever needed. Like the Ghost of Sash Production Present, he would appear just as the saw was going wrong or to help decipher a messy work order.

He told stories about sailing in New Brunswick and had a technical degree from Ryerson, a school in Toronto.

Fairchild was short and lean and his work clothes – though dusty – were neatly pressed and clean, save for the inevitable stains: glue, paint and cutting oil from the sharpening shop. His eyes were pale blue and he always had a red Loeb carpenter pencil behind his ear. Like a lot of Englanders, he used the Canadian “eh” in abundance. I never saw him lose his temper or shout.

Once, during one of my rare day-shifts, an older co-worker, a man with a family of seven, Nathan Wall, had a melt-down. His car had broken down that morning and he was in a generally foul mood. Nathan had a temper and when frustrations piled up, he often burst. He was a craftsman and overall a fine person, except for the occasional incendiary outburst.

That morning, after his drill jammed for the third time, Nathan threw a hammer the length of the shop in frustration. Mr Fairchild saw it from his shop desk across the room. Carrying a folding measure and flipping it open and shut casually, Fairchild took his time wandering over to where the hammer had landed. He then picked it up and ambled back. Fairchild stopped at the bench next to Nathan's and engaged Frank Dueck in a lengthy conversation about Saturday night's hockey game.

Nathan stood helplessly – without his hammer he could not continue. He fidgeted as the manager chatted with Frank. Then Fairchild patted Frank on the shoulder and placed the hammer on Nathan's bench. He motioned for Nathan to follow him back to his office. As we watched, Fairchild conducted a painfully slow progression, stopping at each station while hot-headed Nathan followed behind him, feeling our gazes.

Nathan went home to “cool off.” At lunch, Fairchild, knowing my affinity for comic books, asked if I felt safer now, seeing as, “we apparently have Thor working in our shop, eh?”

#

On Fridays, one of the other managers, Bob McGowan, was in charge. McGowan was also an import – having come from a large millwork in Chicago. He was both a part-time production manager and also led the sales team. The sales team – such as it was – consisted of McGowan and Walter “Eadshock” Wohlgemuth. (“E-yid-shucka”; literally dirt apple – translated to “potato.”)

As a production manager, McGowan made a fairly good salesman. Fairchild, I sensed, took a dim view of McGowan but tolerated him, despite their differences. Fairchild treated McGowan with respect and the proper deference, as a fellow manager. The fact that they were both non-Mennonites also served to align them and for McGowan in particular, it formed a feeling of “us and them.”

I believed that Fairchild felt a kinship to all those who did their job properly. He did not care who you were or where you were from so long as you worked hard and treated others with respect. McGowan did not share this inclusive viewpoint.

Fortunately, the two bosses did not work together often.

McGowan, despite his roguish tendencies and sometimes-unhidden disdain for the Mennonites who provided his income, was not without some charm. He was humorous and energetic. Tall and fit, he too wore neat shop clothes, often opting for a tie — tucked into his shirt-front buttons for safety. He had white teeth and his neatly cropped hair was salt-and-pepper grey. He tended to look at you directly and without blinking during a conversation.

I noticed something strange about McGowan one day. I watched him as he went from workbench to workbench, checking on production totals. At each station, as he made his tally, he stood in exactly the same pose as the other man. When he spoke to Klippenstein, he stood leaning back, his weight on his heels – just as Klippenstein did. For Nathan, McGowan mimicked the smaller man’s peculiar crouched posture. With me, he stood as I did – hands on hips – until I changed my pose to fold my arms across my chest. He did the same, his clipboard dangling.

At quitting time, I walked by his office where he sat with his feet up and a Sportsman cigarette smoking in a large glass ashtray on his paper-covered desk. I stuck my head in to say, “G' night, sir!”

“Yea, yea kid, goodnight, goodnight,” he shouted back. I paused, and then leaned into the doorway, “Say, may I ask you something?”

“Sure thing. What is it, Matt?” He sat forward in his chair and tapped the ash off his cigarette.

“Well, it's no big deal,” I said, “but I have noticed that when you talk to someone… ” I started.

“Yes?” he said, leaning forward a bit more, making me feel tense about quizzing him.

I plunged ahead.  “I’ve noticed that you always copy the person you are talking to. The way they are standing, I mean.”

I started as he jumped up, both hands slapping the desktop and his chair rocking back violently.

“Ha, kid,” he laughed, his eyes bright. “Ya caught me!”

I looked at him questioningly.

“It's a salesman trick, see? What you do is take on the same posture as the other guy. It kind of flusters him and puts you in the power position. Understand?” He stopped and reached over to tap a book on the credenza. “Power Poses” was written on the thin spine.

He continued, “It's like animals. When a deer and a cougar meet in the forest, you can imagine the difference in their postures. The cougar would be aggressive – the deer scared and ready to run.”

“OK,” I said, still a bit iffy.

“So, you don't want to take on the ‘cougar pose’ right away or it puts the other person on the defensive and they run. And you can't sell ‘em if they run, right?”

“Right.”

“So, you copy them a few times. This puts them off-balance, but not scared. You, on the other hand, are in control.” He stood, his cigarette dangling from his lips, the white smoke curling up towards the yellowed ceiling tiles. “Then, when you want to get them to agree to something, you switch to a 'power position' and they instinctively agree.”

“Wow!” I said. “Does it work?”

“Yeah, I think so. I practice all the time when I talk to you guys in the shop.”

“Well, I kinda think it works with us just because you're the boss.”

“Yeah, maybe,” he said, butting out his cigarette and regarding me with some late-arriving pique. “I also have some power tactics in here. See how my chair is higher than the others and how you look UP at me? And see how I have pictures of my family and awards and shit on display?” he pointed to the wall behind him. “That is like baring my FANGS!” he concluded, flashing his white teeth for emphasis.

“Does it work on Mr Fairchild?” I asked, crossing my arms and leaning forward, tall on the balls of my feet.

He leaned his hands on the desktop and tapped his shoe on the tile floor a few times, then sat down and said, “Nice try, kiddo. See yer tomorrow, ya rascal!” busying himself with a sheaf of printed pages.

#

A favourite McGowan misadventure concerned hapless Eadshock Wohlgemuth. “Ead” for short, was a well-meaning, earnest but somewhat lacklustre sales professional. Ead’s father was a wealthy potato farmer and his many sheds, garages, barns and houses made the Wohlgemuths powerful Loeb Lumber customers.

Bob McGowan was the chief salesman and Ead did the travelling to Winnipeg and Kenora and beyond, selling lumberyards pre-fabricated sash and doors. Ead knew his father's influence was partly why he had this plum job. He also knew he was not particularly well-suited to it and he often ran scared, believing his days in sash sales might be numbered. Ead feared McGowan like a Robin fears a cat.

Ead had a small office in the lumberyard. It had a window facing into the retail tool and hardware portion of the store and his name and title were painted on the glass. One day, I happened to be in the store talking to Don Hoeppner, the store manager. Ead walked up to us fresh from a trip to Gimli. We greeted him, but he was distracted, staring in astonishment at his office where Nathan was busy scraping the lettering off of the glass with a razor.

“Don, Matt, what, am I . . .” Ead stuttered, his posture slumped in defeat and his arms hanging slackly at his sides in a most prey-like pose. He clearly believed he had been fired and had not yet been told.

Just then, Bob McGowan came striding up the stairs – two-at-a-time — from the basement, a box of sash locks under his arm. “Oh! Wohlgemuth!” he called out, pointing a long arm at him and snapping his fingers loudly.

“I meant to tell you,” he shouted.

Ead sucked in his breath, and looked quickly at Don and I, his florid face pale.

“I've changed your title and I'm getting you some business cards. YOU are our new Sash & Door SALES ASSOCIATE!” he said, skidding to a halt in front of Ead like a thirsty cowboy galloping up to a saloon. He pushed the carton of sash locks at him. “Here, drop these at Beaver Lumber in Ste. Remaude.”

“McGowan OVER and OUT! “ he said, wheeling on his heel and marching off rapidly, oblivious to Eadshock's elevated heart rate and welling eyes.

#

McGowan carried on for several years and then suddenly one day he was gone. When he did not come to work for a few days, I asked Mr Fairchild about it. Fairchild nodded and said simply that a mutual decision had been reached and that Mr McGowan had moved on to another job in Winnipeg.

McGowan, over and out, I thought.

#

Years later, I began working full-time – as my dad said, “for real” – in a large Grambles Department Store in Winnipeg. Here I often recalled and employed the things I learned from Fairchild and McGowan. In addition, I met a third Englander who taught me about the rough world I was part of.

My job was in the Hardware Department and that suited me fine. I felt at home with the pieces and parts, tools, cans of paint and other lumberyard merchandise. I was part of a regular coffee break group that included the store’s assistant manager, Ted Olynyk, and Art Ross, who was the shipper/receiver. We often sat at a table beside Miss Sharon Stewart, who was a pert, 5'2” Scot, as tough as pig iron and our fearless Store Detective. Miss Stewart would sit alone at her table, looking straight ahead, sipping her tea and following along with our conversation. She took pains not to reveal her cover as a shopper. Her lips barely moving, she would often brief us about those she was surveilling.

The most exciting days occurred when a “crew” was in the store. These were professional teams of shoplifters who hit the store with a practiced routine of distraction, deception and theft. They stole big-ticket items and were hard to catch. Miss Stewart felt that if we at least made it difficult for these “nickers”, as she described them, it might be enough to take our store out of their regular rotation. Hers was a patient, bend-don't-break strategy.

On days when the game was afoot, Sharon would sneak over to one of the store telephones and after activating the public address option, announce, “Hardware personnel to Aisle 10 please; Hardware – Aisle 10.” There was no Aisle 10 in our store. It was code for me to go to the front of the store and be ready for action. Art and Teddy would go outside for a smoke, chatting casually just outside the entrance. I was the “rover” inside the store, ready to chase the shoplifters in case they sensed the trap and bolted for one of the emergency exits or tried to get out through the Auto Centre.

By law, Sharon could detain them only after they were outside of the building. She would indicate with her eyes and some surreptitious pointing, which person was holding the stolen goods. Sharon would also let us know who the accomplices were. At her signal, we would converge on the culprits just as she addressed them; the moment they exited.  “Excuse me, may I see your receipt please?” she would demand, brandishing her Store Detective badge.

We loved these situations because they took us far outside of the normal, boring routine of the department store. Art “Lady Byng” Ross was a big burly fellow, and he was imposing despite his gentle name. Teddy was a former street fighter and his smaller size was deceptive – he had the demeanour of a honey badger once things got rough. I was young, foolish and relentless – often chasing flushed crooks through backyards and across school playgrounds in the surrounding residential neighbourhood. It truly was a game to me.

When one particularly hardened crew arrived at our store, Sharon was steely-eyed and determined to catch as many as she could and try to get the ringleader. They had hit us hard in the past and as she said in her pleasing brogue, “Is this personal? Oh, you bet it is. They goan tah be liftit for their crime!”

As Detective Stewart drew the net taut that day, one of the thieves broke for the Auto Centre. I followed, vaulting a shopping cart and tackling the shoplifter in the middle of the Grambles Coffee Cafe. I arm-locked the skinny kid and waited for Sharon. Outside, Teddy and Art had a grip on a tough looking bearded man. Seeing me, Sharon left them and hurried to where I knelt on top of the teenage accomplice. She leaned over and whispered, “Let him go!” urgently, but very quietly, into my ear. I made a face at her – I had worked hard to snag him and my knees and elbows were hurting as a result. She hissed, “NOW!” and I jumped up. He scrambled for the door and took off, dodging traffic on Regent Avenue.

She grinned at me, “Bonnie open field tackle, lad. But, he was still in the store!” she admonished, her R's rolling like kegs of single-malt on the distillery floor as we rejoined Art and Ted with their captive.

“Now help take this gentleman,” she paused to shine a gold-capped, toothy grin at the suspect, “up to the interrogation room and wait for the police. You stay with him there so Art and Teddy can get back t'work.”

By law, only the police could search the shoplifter for stolen goods. To prevent the suspect from discarding any stolen goods on their person, we would lock them up in a small room together with a store employee until the cops arrived. It had to be a person of the same gender as the suspect. The interrogation room was secretly connected to an adjacent room with a small one-way mirror. It was also wired for sound. Sharon would wait in the adjoining room watching and taping any conversation for possible evidence. Grambles was waging war on shoplifting.

While I waited with the bearded thief, he began whispering to me. “Look, buddy, I know I shouldn't have done this, and the thing is, it's my third offence this year. I'll go to Stony for sure.” Stony Mountain Penitentiary was the Province's most severe lock-up. “Please, kid; I'll give you the three watches I got. They're worth a hunnert, easy.” I stared straight ahead – I didn't want a trip to Stony either.

After a minute or so, the guy bent forward, his face in his hands, and he began to cry. He broke down, saying, “My son, my damn son . . . stupid, stupid!” I sat in the tiny room, listening to the thief tell me his woes, shaking my head slowly at Sharon through the two-way glass.

Later, after the police had searched and interrogated him and he was led out of the store, Sharon and a tall constable motioned me over. “So that guy was pretty upset about his situation, eh?” the big cop said.

“Yeah, he said he has a little kid and the guy figured gettin' caught meant going to Stony and not seeing his kid grow up.” I replied. I could not help feeling a little sad about it myself.

“He will go to Stony, that’s sure,” said Sharon, grinning sheepishly as the cop held up a Ziploc bag with two large hunting knives in it. The bag was marked EVIDENCE.  “He’ll be in prison for a while, since he was carryin' these twin beauties – one in each boot.”

 

Posted in

Cass Hayes, 6/12/2017

Current Occupation: Intern at the Oxford American
Former Occupation: Food preparer at Taco Casa in Waxahachie, Texas
Contact Information: Cass Hayes is from Waxahachie, Texas and is currently a student in the Arkansas Writers MFA Program at the University of Central Arkansas.

#

Wanted Dead and Alive

    Steve could feel his brain getting harder and heavier. The doctors had looked him over, shook their heads, said there was nothing they could do– his brain was turning to stone. A tale as old as time, some pathogen had caused some virus. They had said he’d gotten it from a mosquito bite, but bull to that. Steve thought he probably got it from drinking out of the school water fountain after Mitch McDougal, the redneck twerp who always had sores oozing on his lips. No matter, though. Right now, mostly all Steve had was a little spot of stone in the back of his brain, and headaches that came and went. Nothing world-ending.

    “You don’t touch anything, don’t do anything, don’t say anything,” said Dale as him and Steve sat in Dale’s pickup on the shoulder of old Highway 77 way out somewhere in the country, surrounded by cotton fields freshly tilled and bare. Dale was all gray– gray hair, skin, fingernails, cowboy hat, and gray stubble on his jaw– and he had to shoot himself up with morphine just so he could stand up straight without passing out. Right now he was in the driver’s seat with a needle in his arm. He caught Steve staring and Steve looked away.

    The truck was ragged, with a trash bag over one of the back windows and a blanket stapled over the backseat cushion. In the passenger’s seat there was a dark stain Steve just knew was blood. Dale had a gun on his hip that he told Steve not to even look at, but then when Steve got all huffy about why’d he even invite him to help out if he wasn’t going to give him nothing to do, Dale’d let him hold it. The gun hadn't been as heavy as Steve thought it’d be. Dale’d snatched it away before Steve could see how it shot. Anyway, he knew he hadn’t been asked along to shoot the ghosts. He’d been asked because he had a smartphone and was dying and so supposedly could see them, and because Dale’d happened to sit next to him in the hospital during treatments a time or two.

    Dale’d waited a while before asking Steve what he had.

    “I don’t know,” Steve had shrugged, as if he couldn’t care less. “It’s something in my head.”

    “Welp,” nodded Dale, rolling his eyes, “at least we know it’s not a brain.” Then he’d asked Steve if he had a smartphone that could record video. When Steve said yeah, Dale asked if he wanted a job, something about hunting down criminals who’d escaped into the ghost world, videotaping them for proof of capture to show to the bounty people. Anyway, it had sounded exciting at the time, and when Dale had said it was dangerous work Steve had jumped on board.

    Steve, of course, knew exactly what he had. The sickness had started out in the pasture with his dad. His dad liked to walk the land sometimes on weekends, traipse around the creek and stock tanks, carrying a pistol and a glass of bourbon and looking to shoot the heads off snakes. He liked Steve to go because then he could ramble to himself without admitting he was a crazy person. “My father used to take me out here, just like this,” he’d say. “But I’m worried about you, son. You’re going soft awfully young. I always feared your place was in the kitchen with your mother.” Then he’d spot a snake, sometimes a moccasin or a cottonmouth but more often just a little old grass snake. “Here,” he’d say, whispering like a prisoner escaping from jail or something, not booming or stomping anymore. “Hold my glass.” And Steve would hold the bourbon, wincing against the crack of the pistol, bracing himself because once he’d jumped and spilled bourbon all down his front, and his dad about to never let it go.

    Steve didn’t remember much of getting sick that first time. He had felt lightheaded and suddenly weak, fell over into the grass and felt so tired he couldn’t move. His father had stared at him. Just tilted his head and stared, his folded eyes glowing fiery blue, squinting down at his son in the tall grass and black dirt– like somebody looking at a possum and trying to figure out if it was dead or not. Then Steve had sort of blacked out. Had woken up in the hospital with a load of doctors observing him, commenting on his color and vitals, taking notes.

    On Highway 77, Steve gazed out the window at the empty field and white sunlight, the bigger and newer highway blurred with cars on the other side of the pasture. “So, what do they look like?” asked Steve, thinking about the ghosts. He knew they weren’t just floating bed sheets. He pictured them being almost see-through and gray, like a projection, or maybe zombiefied like that girl from The Ring. “How do you get to ‘em?” he asked. “Can you shoot ‘em?”

    “You can’t shoot nothing,” said Dale.

    Small fingerprints smudged the window glass. Steve guessed the stains on the seat cushions could also be from a chocolate popsicle running down a little kid’s hand. Or mud from off a dog. Or soy sauce. “I’ve shot snakes before,” said Steve. “My dad showed me how.”

    “Ghosts ain’t snakes,” said Dale.

***

    Steve’s head hurt like heck. He winced, licked his fingertips, and slicked back his hair, checking his reflection in the pickup truck passenger’s side window– checking the ugly red pimple that’d appeared that morning. Then he hustled after Dale. Dale walked a lot like Steve’s dad– with assurance, a manly swagger– but with more caution, slowly and with a hand pressed to his side. Steve guessed the pain in Dale’s gut still hurt even with the morphine. If it was anything like the headache, they were in for a rough day. They walked on the shoulder, careful not to stumble into the steep ditch, Dale’s eyes scanning the road ahead. A few cars shot by. “So,” said Steve, “who we looking for?”

    “Judge Smith.”

    “He’s a ghost?”

    “No. He’s not even a judge. He’s a farmer.” Dale swatted a hand around. His hand was rough and scarred, like the hands of the men who actually tended all the acres Steve’s dad owned while he sat in a pressed suit behind a polished oak desk in an air conditioned bank. “He owns all this land,” said Dale. “Grows cotton. Old school.”

    Steve kicked a broken chunk of asphalt. “If he ain’t a ghost, when why are we looking for him?”

    But Dale wouldn’t say. Steve wondered if Dale had a father or was a father or if someone was waiting at home already mourning his absence, already growing used to it, already moving on. Up ahead, a rusty tin gate was left open to a white rock driveway that led to a small farmhouse in the distance. The farmhouse looked boring, shrunken surrounded by the huge pastures, the waving grass and black dirt tilled in unwavering straight lines. “Judge don’t like nobody driving down his driveway,” explained Dale. “He says other folks’ tires rut up the gravel.”

    “You know him?”

    “Came across him. I’m looking for somebody he used to know.”

    They crunched down the driveway towards the house. The closer they got, the more cussing Steve could make out. “Well I’ll be a sorry sumbitch straight from hell,” grunted a giant of a man swinging a shovel at the ground. He hit something, and the something exploded dark slime onto the man’s shovel and boots. Dale took off his cowboy hat, the wind licking up his gray hair, and called out Judge’s name.

    Judge saw and walked toward them, taking out a handkerchief and mopping his forehead.

    “Frogs?” asked Dale.

    “Hell yeah. Useless as tits on a bull. They tunnel into my foundation.” Dale nodded, as if any of that made a single lick of sense. Steve looked Judge over, feeling a bit unsure about how to take him. He was old, bald, with a wart on his protruding chin and a liver spot over the thin wire frame of his glasses. He moved with stiff knees and had broad shoulders like an ex-linebacker or something– somebody who could snap your spine with his bare hands, if he could catch you. One thing was for dang sure– he wasn’t no ghost.

    “I wish I could help you,” said Dale. “Is there some sort of poison, maybe?”

    “They don’t make none that work right. It kills the rabbits, and then you ain’t got nothing to eat.”

    Dale shook his head sympathetically. Judge stabbed his shovel into the dirt. “You’re still looking for Lana?” he asked, folding his handkerchief back up and slipping it into his jeans pocket. “Because she sure as sin been hanging around here. Asking for money, same as always. Wants to go to Italy.” Judge laughed as if the desire was as crazy as rabbit poison. “She ain’t here now, though. Went down to the lake.”

    “So Lana is the ghost?” asked Steve. “They can use real money?”

    Dale stared daggers at Steve for speaking up. Judge grunted, said, “Money ain’t real, boy.” His glasses glinted as he checked Steve up and down. “What’s your name?”

    “Steve.”

    “Well, Steve, I don’t know what field trip Dale here’s taking you on, but don’t get your hopes up. I’m nearly seventy years old, with two stints in my heart and a rotten pair of lungs, and I ain’t seen no ghosts yet. Most I can do is hear ‘em. And Lana, she leaves me notes. Wrote the last one on the mirror with my dead wife’s lipstick. The slut.” Steve gulped, wondering whether Judge meant Lana or his wife. He looked to Dale.

    “You’ll see ‘em,” said Dale softly, almost sad-like. Steve could see the pain and drugs dulling Dale’s red-rimmed eyes, his irises like stagnant water. Dale nodded and turned back to Judge. “Welp,” Dale said, “thank you anyway.” He returned his cowboy hat to his head.

    Steve heard a ribbit, and Judge scowled and picked back up his shovel, started hunting through the tall Johnson grass. Steve’s head hurt like a spike jabbed through the back of his skull. It made him feel weak. It made him think of his father staring at him in the pasture, the glint of the bourbon glass sharp in the sunlight. The ache steady as a tom-tom, Steve frowned and followed Dale back down the driveway. “Lana’s a criminal?” he asked softly.

    “Lana Jones stole over two million dollars worth of diamonds, which were later recovered with her accomplice brother. He was arrested, but she got away, into the ghost world.”

    Turning back toward the house, Steve watched Judge crash further out into the pasture and start digging some kind of hole with the shovel. “How do you get to the ghost world?” Steve asked.

    “More ways than you know, Steve.” Dale’s jaw was tight like he was holding a marble in his mouth. “Lana did it by shooting herself. It surprised me, a woman like that. But I shouldn’t be surprised. I figure she panicked, but still I woulda thought poison, maybe jumping off a bridge.”

    Steve swiveled back to Dale. “She’s dead? I mean, really dead?”

    Dale twitched his nose and stroked the stubble on his jaw. He glanced out to Judge, grinned and shook his head. “God knows what Lana saw in Judge,” he said. “Grit, I suppose. They don’t make men like that no more.”

    Well, in Steve’s opinion, maybe it was a good thing men like Judge had been discontinued– if only for the frogs’ sake.

***

    Steve imagined the small spot of stone in his occipital lobe expanding, soon calcifying his nerves and brain matter. First taking his vision. Then his ability to understand language. Then making his clumsy. Finally making his head so heavy he wouldn't be able to lift it with just his neck. He’d have to hold it up with his hands or maybe get some sort of contraption to keep it propped up. Like maybe one of those dog cones turned upside down. Of course, by then he’d be drooling like a kid in Calculus, groping around blind too, so would there even be a point in looking around?

    “Do you have a family?” Steve asked. Dale kept his eyes roving across the road, checking the mirrors.

    “Have some daughters. Adults. Had a wife. Had a son. He died.”

    Steve gulped, his throat dry. “Is he–”

“He ain’t no ghost. He’s gone.” Dale pulled through a gate, the fences on each side crooked posts connected with brittle rope. “This world just ain’t for some people, Steve. It eats them out from the inside.”

Steve knew he was maybe supposed to say “I’m sorry,” but he couldn’t say it. Instead he asked, “How can you be so sure I’m gonna see them?” Dale put the pickup in park beside the  lake. “You don’t even know what’s wrong with me.” The radio played Ernest Tubb, but quit as soon as Dale killed the engine. He lifted his hat and pulled his fingers through his gray hair.

“You’ll see ‘em, Steve,” said Dale. He opened the driver’s door and got out.

“My dad didn’t really teach me how to shoot snakes,” Steve said quickly. “I’ve never fired a gun.”

Dale rolled his eyes. “If you really wanna kill a snake, you don’t need a gun.” He slammed the door and the whole truck rattled. Steve hopped out too and followed, even with his head aching and butterflies fluttering in his stomach, thinking maybe he’d made a mistake, thinking maybe he shouldn’t of lied to his dad and went with this broke-up, quite possibly deranged ghost bounty hunter he didn’t know nothing about. They walked toward a tiny shack near the water that said, “Bait and Grub” in peeling red paint on a piece of plywood above the door.

    “You want to kill a snake,” continued Dale, “you got to have talent. Quick hands.” He grinned. “You snatch it up by the tail and snap it like a whip.” He mimed the motions with a startlingly fast fist. “You do it right, the thing’s head’ll dislocate from its spine. It’ll be dead. Not a drop of blood.”

    Dale winced and touched his side. Steve swallowed. “I think my dad likes shooting ‘em.”

    “Well, you don’t have to like what your dad likes. There’s more than one way to kill a snake.”

    The waves cracked against the limestone shore like a knife on a cutting board. A few weeks ago, Steve wouldn’t of gone with someone like Dale, not in a million years, not for a million dollars. He wouldn’t of lied to his dad. The man who’d taken care of him during one of Steve’s mother’s many breakdowns. The man who’d had Steve’s second grade teacher fired when she scolded Steve for refusing to participate in show and tell. The man who’d slapped Steve for making some stupid joke about his grandfather being so pickled with vodka that his body would make the grass on his grave turn yellow. Family meant something sacred and historic to his dad that Steve never did understand. And now Steve could feel the stone creeping forward, the stone that would lay him by his grandfather and leave his dad with no one to hold the bourbon on snake-hunting trips.

    Dale was hurting again. He held up a hand and then went back to the truck to shoot up.

    Steve drifted to the shore. He stood a few steps from the brownish water that rocked fish skeletons and beer cans onto algae-slick limestone. Bullshit that Dale could kill snakes by snapping them like whips, Steve thought. Nobody could do that. It was just big talk. He checked toward the truck and saw Dale grimacing behind the wheel with his head leaned back and a needle in his arm. The truck pinged about the open driver’s door. Steve could feel his smartphone warm in his pocket. He would only have to record Lana if Dale had to shoot her. And Dale said he’d have to shoot her.

    Steve turned back to the lake.

    A cloud of something that resembled gnats drifted up from the surface of the water. Grayish-tan and quivering, the bits floated and dispersed and pulled together, buzzing faintly like the wail of a siren faraway in a pitch-black night. Steve stepped back. Gnats didn’t drone. Mosquitoes? They didn’t form clouds of such fine particles. A dust devil? But the cloud didn’t spin, and dirt couldn’t of been picked up from the water.

    The cloud continued to drift toward him, and in a panic Steve thought of calling out to Dale, but when he turned his head slightly a woman’s voice said, “Please don’t,” and the voice was so desperate that Steve stopped.

    He looked closer, harder, and could see that the cloud had started to take the shape of a woman– tall, with long arms and wide eyes that seemed secure and curious, like a girl who sees her features in an old photograph of her mother. She stayed milky grayish, hugged her stomach and, once her legs fully formed, swayed her hips as she walked toward him in a long fur coat and fashionable high heels. “My name is Lana,” she said in a breathy voice with a New York accent– Steve recognized it from TV and because it didn’t sound like the way people talked around here. She was beautiful, glamorous, with a smile like a pearl necklace.

    “I’m Steve,” Steve said with his mouth gaping open.

    “You’re dying aren’t you?” she said, concerned but flipping her hair like a cheerleader. “It’s not so bad. I can tell you about it.”

    “But you’re not all the way dead,” he said.

    She pursed her sepia lips coyly. “Why are you here?” she asked. “You look awfully young. Looking for one last adventure, one last screw-you to mom and dad?”

    She seemed to be daring him to stare. He looked away, toward the Bait and Grub shack and then toward Dale, who was still in the driver’s seat with his head leaned back and his eyes closed and the needle in his arm like some kind of junkie.

    She wasn’t a criminal, Steve thought. Maybe she stole some jewelry but, Jesus, hadn’t she paid for it by practically dying? Seeing her made Steve’s heart jump like it jumped at the crack of the pistol and the splatter of a snakehead on those shooting trips with his dad. And Steve would always stiffen his jaw at his father afterwards, pretending he could handle it– pretending he felt proud to be a part of a family tradition greater than himself. Pretending that seeing reality– seeing real death– would make him better appreciate life. But in reality Steve felt sick when his dad shot stuff for no reason. In reality, Steve figured death wasn’t part of some sacred family tradition. It happened to you and you had to face it alone.

    “You stole jewelry,” he said.

    “I know.”

    “You broke the law.”

    “We needed the money.”

    “And then you shot yourself.”

    “Yes.”

    “Both stealing and killing yourself are wrong, just so you know.”

    Lana tilted her face upwards. “I wasn’t going to jail. I wasn’t ever going to be locked up. And I’m not going to be locked up now.” Steve watched her as she stood there, her arms hidden in the folds of the fur coat and the smile on her face and a coolness drifting around her. She was some rich girl. Had to be. She walked with the same assurance and flippancy of girls stepping off Highland Park school buses.

    Through her, he could see Dale creeping nearer, holding out his gun with both hands. He must of seen.

    Steve inched his cell phone from his pocket. “You know what it means, Steve, doing things in life that you aren’t proud of but you have to do them anyway. You’re young but you know that,” said Lana.

    “You stop right there, Lana Jones,” Dale said. Steve raised the cell phone and flicked to the camera app. The smile that had been fixed to Lana’s face since she’d appeared now drooped away, and her eyes suddenly became a predator’s eyes, angry at Steve for not letting her get away, for filming her. The moment seemed to Steve like it should be private. Like scattering ashes into an ocean– Steve felt she didn’t want to be seen again. He felt a tug of shame, of fear. Not at her or her anger, and not at Dale or his gun, but at the knowledge that Lana was going to try to get away and Dale was going to stop her– and then she would be gone. Gone all the way this time.

    “What I did was wrong,” Lana said, facing Steve but her eyes cutting to Dale, “but I didn’t hurt anyone but myself.”

    Dale’s hands shook and were loose on the gun. “Death like that hurts everyone who’s ever known you.”

    “Just do what you’re going to do.”

    “I’m obligated to take you in if you cooperate.” He squinted down the gun barrel.

    Lana smacked her lips together as if she just put on lipstick. “I stole that jewelry for money, yes. Me and my brother were in great debt. Terrible debt. But I chose jewelry for personal reasons too. My mother, when I was little, used to open her jewelry box and let me put on the necklaces, the rings, the bracelets, my grandfather’s silver watch. It was all too big for me then, but it made me feel glamorous. There’s always personal reasons.” She swiveled her head to face Dale. Steve noticed her highheels had started to get blurry. The camera recorded. Dale flicked his eyes at it.

    She was starting to disappear, the cloud of what had been her feet and legs now starting to dissipate. The grayish tan of her faded, the gnat-like particles spreading apart again so that her form became fuzzy as if faraway. Dale’s hands tightened on the gun and he squeezed the trigger, and out burst a bullet of blue electricity that hit Lana in what Steve guessed had been her stomach but was now an ill-defined cloud. She spun around, her blurred face shocked and writhing like… like a bucketful of snakes. A dark spot appeared on her temple, and when black ink started to run from it Steve realized it was the bullet wound that had killed her. She screamed louder than a tornado siren. Steve ducked and put his hands over his ears. He dropped the phone. Pain flashed through his skull, and he imagined the high-pitched sound shattering the stone from his brain. But that wasn’t possible. The cloud with Lana’s face shook violently, cobalt blue sparks flying from where Dale’s bullet had hit her.

    In a burst of blue light, she exploded, the particles of her turning white and zipping away into the sunlight through the expansive sky, water, and pastures. Water lapped on the shore.

“Welp,” said Dale, putting his gun back in its holster, “let’s get some lunch.”

    Steve stood timidly and let his hands drop from his ears. He picked up the phone, still recording, and pressed stop. He pressed delete. He dropped the phone again, trying to put it back in his pocket. The whole world had gone a bit hazy, like he was crying, but he wasn’t. Blackness outlined his vision. The headache was gone, and without the pain he felt empty, almost floating, almost as if he didn’t exist. He stumbled after Dale, who walked back to the truck, but Steve only made it a few steps before he stopped, feeling tired, dog-tired. Feeling too worn-out to follow Dale. Steve sat down on the shore. He wanted to tell Dale that he didn’t get the recording. He wanted to know whether Dale would be infuriated or not care, but either way Steve knew Dale couldn’t do nothing about it.

    Sunlight played on his skin– miraculous little flakes dancing and glowing white, the white of apple blossoms in an orchard or magnolia petals in the moonlight. And Steve didn’t think of Mitch McDougal at the water fountain. And Steve didn’t think of Judge bludgeoning frogs to death with a shovel. And he didn’t even think about Dale being mad about not getting the recording and sticking himself with needles.

    He thought of Lana, how she had become a burst of pure energy, scattered throughout the universe.

    He thought of his dad and holding the cool glass of bourbon and feeling proud and dirty at the same time. But Steve didn’t feel proud or dirty one bit now, sitting there beside the wide-open water.

    He felt free.

    He was dying. But for now he was alive. He was alive. He was alive all the way.

 

 

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Sam Smith, 6/5/2017

Current Occupation: Senior Support Worker
Former Occupation(s): Waiter, Kitchen Porter, Office Assistant, Charity Fundraiser, Support Worker.
Contact Info: Sam Smith is a former student of the University of Salford, where he recieved an MA in TV/Radio Scriptwriting. His stories have been featured in Lit Cat, Maudlin House, Two Words For and Baphash.

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The Merger

Redmond was sweating. He had no reason to be nervous, yet his armpits and midriff were becoming damper by the second.

He turned everything over in his mind once more, in an effort to reassure himself. He’d spearheaded the Kyoto buyout, which left some of the Epsilon team with egg on their faces. That was by far his crowning achievement as captain of this leaky vessel. So long as he focused on the apples and oranges, it was likely to be plain sailing.

Redmond applied moisturiser methodically to the bridge of his nose and his knuckles. He wanted to do his elbows too, but it wouldn’t do to partially disrobe in the offices of Barker, Barker, Reece & Lindstrom.

Opposite him were twin oak doors that led to the main conference room. In there, the fate of his business was being decided. The sweatiness intensified twofold. Every now and again a burst of raucous laughter would spill out from between those doors and make him jump. Were they laughing with him, or…?

He pushed the unsavoury thought right to the back of his mind, replacing it instead with a picturesque villa in Tuscany, and a woman in a pristine white dress waving at him from a balcony. One day, in the not too distant future. If he could just get his feet under the table at B, B, R & L, then everything else would simply fall into place.

He just wished he hadn’t left his meditation sphere back at the Mews. Marjorie would have given it to that idiot dog of hers to use as a chew toy.

The double doors swung open, and a wiry mantis of a man who Redmond recognised as Lindstrom stepped out. The latter fixated on the former, and eyes ablaze, stalked forward, hand outstretched.

Redmond stood, and took Lindstrom’s curled hand in his. At once he felt a strong connection.

“You’ll be happy to hear we’ve okayed the merger”, he gushed, his eyes still twinkling like new stars.

Redmond glanced down and saw his and Lindstrom’s hands, now no longer indistinguishable, but one smooth and melded ball of flesh.

He looked back up in horror at Lindstrom and where there once was a mouth, there was now a slowly unfurling proboscis. As his eyes began to roll back in his head, he was dimly aware of words coming from somewhere high above him.

“From here on in, we’re inseparable!”

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