Brian McCurdy, 12/31/2018

Current Occupation: Technical Writer
Former Occupation: Verbal Identity Creator (i.e., product namer)
Contact Information: Brian McCurdy lives in Michigan with his wife and two children. He's been writing personal essays about anything and everything for more than twenty years. Two self-published collections of his, Anatomy of a House and Portrait of a Vegetarian, are available through Amazon.

 

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Portrait of an Artist as a Middle-Aged Worker

Every week, Monday through Friday, my day starts like this. I wake up between five-thirty and six. I sit at the edge of the bed, plant my feet on the carpeted floor, rub my pajama-covered thighs once or twice, listen to my breathing. If it's summer, the burbling trill of a robin drifts through the screen of the open bedroom window. In winter, the vaporizer, set atop the dresser, hums a soporific white noise. Finally, committed to rising, I stand, exhale, and head for the kitchen. On the way there, I stop at the bathroom to remove, rinse, and deposit my plastic mouth-guard. I open my jaw wide, stiff joints cracking loudly in my ears. I continue toward the kitchen, where my wife, Mayu, is already sitting in her usual chair at the dining table, consuming information on the tablet, an empty cup of “milk coffee,” as she calls it, on the table beside her. “O-ha-yo,” we both say drowsily, mustering smiles to communicate our pleasure at seeing each other once again, another day, life continuing. She asks me if I slept well. Sometimes I have, sometimes I haven't. I rub her back a few times. Then I go to my backpack, get out my journal, join Mayu at the table, and begin writing, or thinking about writing, as I'm doing right now.


        Casting my imagination forward, I can see the next few hours clearly. Mayu and I will go down into the basement to do our exercise routine, accompanied by the music and instruction of a DVD, one that Mayu found during her morning tablet researches. The kids, boy and girl, will pad down the carpeted stairs and join us there, fiddling with toys or simply watching their strange parents swinging arms and legs in unison. Then we'll all go up and settle into the kitchen for breakfast, usually toast from bread Mayu bakes herself, thick square slices slathered in salted butter and strawberry jam (the boy prefers chocolate hazelnut spread). I'll brush the crumbs from my plate into the waste basket, rinse everything in the sink and put it into the dishwasher. I'll shave, straighten my pillow-mussed hair with splashes of water and a hand towel. Finally, I'll get dressed, replacing pajamas with a white T-shirt, a plaid button-down (today's color theme red-and-blue), a pair of chinos, my brown work belt, and of course a fresh pair of socks (ankle-length, to encourage circulation). Hardly knowing where the time has gone, I'll find myself standing at the door (from kitchen to garage), kissing and hugging everyone goodbye, and then heading off to drive the five minutes separating my house from the office building where I work as a technical writer.





This job of mine, this work I'm accountable for each day, with its eight-thirty start time and five o'clock quitting time, is largely responsible for the structure of my morning activity. Without it, I might not leave my bed as early as I do; I might not shave as often; I might not inhabit these moments of essay-writing with the same appreciation for time. For that other work, the paying, source-of-livelihood kind, takes so much of my time, keeps me away from so many things—family, art, my thoughts, the natural world—that are more important to me than what I do for money those 7.5 hours a day.


        What I do for money . . . why do those words, instead of giving me a sense of pride, make me feel let down, self-critical, and vaguely trapped? If someone—in this case, a company—is paying me well to do something they believe I'm good at, then I should be pleased, right? I should feel recognized and validated, rewarded for my skill and effort. But I don't feel any of that. I do occasionally feel good about something I've written, or a document I've designed. I invest a creative interest in anything I make, especially a written thing, so the final product, as a manifestation of my mind, my inspiration, always has some value in my eyes. But that value comes from me, not from my company. And the seriousness and effort I put into my work—that, too, is for my sake. I don't expect perfection from myself, but I do expect the best that I can do.


        Recently the department I work in started a “Rewards and Recognition” program, where each team nominates a member to be voted on by the entire department. The winner of this process receives the title “Department Standout,” along with some money and a trophy. My first thought, when I heard about this program, was, “Please don't pick me.” Now, I always have to be suspicious of such reflexive responses, especially when they concern personal recognition. I know I'd be embarrassed to be hailed as a Department Standout, especially if a trophy is involved, which I'm sure I would be obligated to display at my desk. I don't mind standing out now and then, but I'd rather do it for a room of ten to twenty people, not a department of five hundred. At the same time, I know I would feel gratified, despite myself, to be nominated by my team for my work. Maybe there are some people at the office who are already, if only subconsciously, engineering their effort, plotting their initiative, to poise themselves for this kind of standout recognition. I don't believe I'm one of them, even if those around me suspect I am. It's almost impossible, actually, to tell the genuine work ethic from the political, opportunistic kind. Ostensibly a Rewards and Recognition program is meant to encourage the former.


        It's always been important for me to feel satisfied by the work itself, not by the prize or compensation. Even on those cynical, weary days when I say to someone, not my manager, that I'm here for the money, I return to my desk and immerse myself, free of worry and complaint, in some problem requiring a solution. Even as far back as my very first job, at age sixteen, as a busboy at a shopping mall steakhouse, my attention was engrossed by the nuances of plate stacking, the efficiencies of booth wiping, the finesse of working a mop. If I had to wash dishes, I figured I should at least get them very, very clean. Every work, especially physical work, has a technique behind it, an optimal method, a performance to be perfected. I still remember the disappointment and frustration I felt, later at that same steakhouse, when I failed to excel as a grill chef, donning a stiff white hat in place of a flimsy blue bonnet. I just wasn't cut out for the fast, high-pressure work of cooking food to order. Every steak of mine came out more or less well done, marred by the scissors I used clumsily to check the meat's progress on the grill. When it became clear my “promotion” wasn't working out, I had already moved too far away mentally from the grunt work of busing tables. I had to move on.


        I suppose it's possible I could have become a first-rate grill chef, if I had stuck with it. My heart wasn't in it, though, and moreover I was too young to care about the challenge and travail of apprenticeship. In fact, I didn't realize it at the time, but that first restaurant job was also my first step on a long journey to discover “meaningful” work for myself.





It's hard to find meaning when you're focused on survival. The pressure to make a living, to support oneself (or someone else), is easily antithetical to luxuries like meaningfulness and fulfillment. All through my high-school and college years, I was under no illusions. I needed money. I found my way naturally into the usual service jobs—selling clothes, serving food, pouring drinks, working cash registers. I've been a clean-cut, well-spoken guy most of my life, so these people-facing jobs were never hard for me to get, and each time I got one, the next job seemed to come all the more easily. It was hard work, though—physical, dusty, greasy, with either too much movement or too much standing, and always too much social interaction. Even clothing retail work, which to passersby must seem the easiest, most boring job around (the boring part is true), left me feeling drained to the last drop of life. It helped always to know that these jobs were temporary, that eventually I would leave each one for something else. And the prospect of having to do such work for the rest of my life was so horrible to contemplate, I felt compelled to finish college and join the “skilled workforce,” as I've heard it called. The problem was, even that realm of work held no allure for me, no promise. I'm certain, after finishing my Bachelor's in English, that I applied for graduate school largely to stay out of that increasingly hazy and menacing workforce. What would I do there? What company would I work for? Would I have to wear a suit?


        The closest model I had of this sort of work life was my father, who died when I was nineteen. The oldest of three boys, he was the only one in his family to attend college and pursue a profession. He chose optometry and eventually formed his own practice in the town where I grew up. Driving past his office building on our way somewhere in the family car, I enjoyed seeing the words “McCurdy Optometric” on the lit sign. It felt important, like seeing one's name in the newspaper or on TV. My father was in fact known by a lot of people, it seemed to me. He was an active member of the Lion's Club, selling candy canes on street corners at Christmas, and he sponsored and played on his own softball team. People recognized him when our family was out and about, usually at a restaurant or the local shopping mall. “Hello, Dr. McCurdy,” they would say, or “Hey, Doc,” if the relationship was more collegial. My father could rarely be found walking the aisles of a supermarket; my mother, a “stay-at-home mom,” handled that duty on weekdays, while he was at the office.


        That daily workaday rhythm, the ancient rhythm of the farm, structured my family's life then just it does my own family's life now. Even we children felt the force of it; grade school was simply a lighter version of working 9-to-5. Sometimes, with homework and extracurricular activities, the rigor of being a kid could surpass that of an office job. At least my father, after dinner was finished, could settle into the sofa, choose his favorite TV show, and let his mind rest for a bit. More often than not, though, he worked longer hours than all of us (except for my mother, who seemed to be perpetually working), leaving the house around the time I left for school, and returning just in time for a six o'clock dinner, but often later, his plate, covered in shiny foil, waiting for him on the empty table. In the early days of his practice, my father, outside of a couple part-time receptionists, was his company's main employee. He performed the exams, cut the eyeglass lenses, and was even involved in the fitting, using heated sand to soften the frames for final adjustments. Eventually it was too much for one person, so he hired an optician to take the glasses off his hands, freeing him up to focus on being an optometrist. The person he hired, in fact, was my Uncle Tom, my mother's little brother, who at the time was in need of skilled, reliable work that could bring order to his youthful, disordered life. He turned out to be a disciplined apprentice, and a natural optician. Years later, perhaps following my father's example, he started his own business, which has kept him busy ever since.





To have a skill, to work hard, to support one's family—these are the traditional ideas I picked up from watching my father. It's taken me many years (I'm 48 now) to realize them, or even desire them at all. For so long, as if in a constant state of rebellion, I resisted following in any of my father's footsteps. I didn't want to “go to work” every day, especially not the same little box of an office week after week. At every regular job I've had, I've spent occasional moments noticing the routine path my feet travel from bus, train, bike, or car to the building entrance, down this and that corridor, up these stairs (or elevator, if it's a really tall building), past that painting, around that corner, until at last there it is, the place (hopefully it has a chair) where I work. No matter how fondly I might feel about the work itself, the daily sameness of the setting, and the worn grooves of my movements within it, have always brought me waves of discontent. The sameness of it all—this is what I've always disliked, sometimes hated, about work. At my current job as a technical writer, for example, the first thing I do every morning, after hanging my jacket (not a suit coat, thankfully) on the hook at the entrance of my workstation, is take a blank sheet of paper and write the time, 8:30, at the top, and beside that the word Admin, indicating the category of work I will perform for the next fifteen to thirty minutes. The company requires us all to categorize and count our work in this way, for reasons that are still not clear to me. I've seen “pie charts” showing how our team's work divides into this and that category, but I've never seen a managerial decision or action stemming from such data. Companies like to collect and analyze numbers, I suppose. Happily, outside of these moments jotting times and minutes on paper, I spend the rest of my day focusing on words. And this ability to focus on an activity I like, if not also a subject I like, helps pass the time, and distracts me from the existential malaise hovering about me, all day, like the white noise broadcast by the company throughout every work area.


        Too much silence, or too much stillness, can be a problem for me at the office. In such slack moments, when the busy-ness recedes like a wave, I can see the debris of my inner thoughts, my suppressed day dreams, scattered across the sand of my exposed consciousness. One of these thoughts, one I'll call The Dilemma, has been with me ever since I started working and supporting myself. It enters my head as a question, a kind of accusation: “What are you doing?” Presumably this inner voice is mine, but I have the strange sense it's also not “me” as I understand me to be. It's as if I'm being visited, not by my real-life boss, but by The Boss, the Grand Supervisor, come to check on my progress. He doesn't articulate himself fully like we mortals tend to, but the overall feeling he gives me could be expressed like this: “I thought I expressly asked you to do something with this existence. And here I find you entering numbers into a 'spreadsheet,' writing 'procedures,' drawing 'flowcharts.' (He makes those quotation gestures with his fingers.) Where is the art? Where the literature? There are plenty of people who would kill—not that I support that kind of thing—to have an existence like yours. You don't have forever, you know. I gave you a deadline—actually, no I didn't. Anyway, you get my drift. The next time I check on you, I better see some progress. Don't disappoint me.”


        Then, after this paternal taskmaster leaves me to contemplate my condition, a more forgiving, motherly presence, my internal Mentor, arrives to help me find equilibrium. “You shouldn't take everything he says to heart. He has his own issues, I can tell you. Deliver, deliver, that's all he really cares about. He doesn't have your best interests in mind. Besides, what does he know about existence? You've got a family to support, your health to maintain. Balance, my dear, balance, that's what matters. Lose your balance, and everything falls. Then what good is existence? You know I'm right.”


        I'm not sure who to believe, to tell the truth, but I usually end up siding with the Mentor, who seems to see existence as a personal possession, not a loan under contract. Also, she makes me feel better.





The Mentor is especially right about one thing—having a family changes everything. Before I had kids, before I had people to “support,” I saw employment as something that should serve me, not the other way around. If one job didn't make me happy, I replaced it with another. I've been with my current company for five years now. Before this, I never stuck with a job for more than three. Year one is always interesting. There are many new tasks to learn, facts to absorb, skills to acquire, people to meet. In year two, shaky ground is solidifying, confidence and power are mounting. By the end of year three, routines are ingrained, relationships deepened, initial challenges surmounted, and the job, like a romantic partner, starts expecting a more long-term commitment, a broader, deeper vision of the future. It's usually at that point that I break up with my job (for good or ill, my jobs have never broken up with me).


        But having children forces one to see the broad, deep future, instead of the shallow, disposable present. I realize it may sound like I'm describing the condition of being trapped. It's true, I don't have the luxury, as I used to, of leaving on a whim. I could probably manage it, but the risks are too high now, and more than that, I would have to give up a situation—five minutes from the office, good salary, nice coworkers, word-focused work—that frankly I don't dislike. In fact, everything seems perfectly in balance and in place these days. I would hate to disturb it all just to avoid boredom.


        The boredom, though, if that's really what it is, has always been lurking at my side, no matter what job I've had. That recurring feeling of emptiness, of purposelessness, that every job has produced in me eventually. I would be foolish to try escaping it now, since it appears to have as much to do with me as the place I'm escaping. “You have something,” Mayu diagnoses, when I go on like this at the table in the morning, a still, quiet time that often makes me philosophic. “You have some spirit that likes this kind of thing.”


        Mayu enjoys the notion, one she brought from Korea, that every person is followed about by a coterie of spirits, each of which, in addition to being attached to a particular human, has a specific, one-track interest. In my case, for example, there would be a spirit who likes language, one who likes to make things, one who likes to clean, a movie critic spirit, a thespian spirit, and an especially nagging spirit who feels everything is broken and it's his job to fix it. Each spirit, depending on its strength, and the environment in which its host human carries it, exerts more or less influence, finds more or less fulfillment. Some feel satisfied most of the time; others collect years of pent-up frustration and finally push their leader, coup-like, into an abyss of obsession. These frustrated homunculi, I imagine, are behind many a midlife crisis.


        In my case, all the spirits have a roughly equal hold on me, tugging me this way and that, one after the other, like attention-hungry children. The result is that I never feel I'm doing the right thing. That thing I'm supposed to be doing, am meant to do, is just over there, always out of reach. Even now, as I write these words, I wonder if I should instead be studying Japanese, or reading a novel, or practicing my mandolin, or sewing a dress for my two-year-old daughter. This chattering of dispersed desires is even more intense when I'm at work, sitting alone in my little three-walled “cubicle,” a kind of administrative cockpit, where none of my spirits has the least interest in being. So it's perhaps not just one voice—The Boss, as I called him—ordering me to examine my existence. It's probably my spirit groupies, insisting I get back on the road and do another show.


        I have little tricks for keeping everyone happy. A bag of tricks, as it happens. In my backpack, which I carry with me nearly everywhere, I keep totems of what I feel is my central vocation—language. A pen case, a journal, a novel, a Japanese manga, a Korean children's story book. The weight of these objects, as I hump my bag around, reminds me that I have a real work that is not the work I do for money, that is more enduring, more profound, and finally more important than those procedures, flow charts, emails, and mass communications taking up so much, too much, of my time and energy.


        A little sad, I suppose, that I feel the need to console myself (who am I fooling? those spirits are all me) with physical things, with burdensome trinkets. How I wish I could be free of them. But we all carry some burden of identity, it seems to me. And the lightness of its absence can be the hardest weight to bear.





We don't go long without some identity wrapped about us, like a protective skin. If we shed one, it is soon replaced by another. This molting happens for most of us every day, as we slide from our home skin (T-shirt and pajama bottoms, no socks), into our work skin (aforementioned button-down shirt and chino ensemble), and back into our home skin once more (unless, as there is for some, an intermediary workout skin is involved). I've never enjoyed the personal aesthetics of going to work. I'm talking about uniforms. Every company culture has one (or several), even if it professes not to. From a customer's point of view, I understand the utility of uniforms. We've all felt that relief, searching a cavernous warehouse store for assistance, when suddenly a blue/green/red/etc. logo-emblazoned shirt emerges from around a corner. “Excuse me,” we say, “Do you know where the tall kitchen garbage bags are?” They always do, thankfully.


        There's nothing worse, of course, than mistaking someone for a store employee. “I'm sorry,” they say, with a souring expression and slightly combative tone, “I don't work here.” Then why are you wearing those khaki trousers and that royal blue polo shirt? I want to ask. But I can see they already feel bad enough, questioning who they are and wondering how long they've been living an illusion.


        I experience such moments whenever I visit the office bathroom and have occasion to inspect myself in the mirror. I try my best to give my look a “personal touch.” Slightly tousled (though still short and orderly) hair, collar unbuttoned to clearly reveal the white T-shirt underneath, sleeves rolled up to the elbows, soft leather belt, canvas loafers, striped ankle-length socks. It almost looks like me, especially if I squint my eyes. But I'm forced to acknowledge, with a sinking in my stomach, that I basically look like all the other guys shuffling around the office, cradling their laptops, smartphones, notepads, all the precious accouterments of their livelihoods.


        I should be thankful. At least my company's “dress code” allows a semblance of personal style, the forgiving, gentle imperative of “business casual.” I don't have to wear a suit, thank God. Nor do I have to wear a hat, don a strange color designed to stand out amid the pedestrian population, or feel the eerie texture of thick polyester blend against my skin.


        When I lived in Tokyo with Mayu the first few years of our relationship, I was struck by the number of uniformed people I saw. The impression was very strong in Japan that what you do is what you wear. Barbers, train station attendants, bakery clerks, massage therapists, ramen cooks, grocers, grade-school students, “salary men” (as male white-collar workers are called there), sumo wrestlers, pop singers, TV comedians—uniforms and work-based attire seemed to be all around me. For college graduates in Japan, both men and women, a simple black suit and white dress shirt are necessary investments. I saw armies of these uniformed youngsters walking the streets and riding the trains to their mass interviews and eventually to their first days on the job. I too had to participate in this culture of uniformity in my work as an English teacher, which required a formality of dress like any other service role. I had three cheap suits, in black and gray, that I rotated throughout the week, hating every minute I spent wearing them. Eventually I got a better job at a branding company, working on a small team of “verbal identity creators” (name makers, that is). Most of the time, I wore jeans, casual shirts, and sandals in the office, suiting up only on days when our team had to present ideas to a client in person. Creative work seemed to lend itself to this more lax style. The “visual identity” team, the logo creators, they also wore what they wanted to the office.


        I don't know how Japanese people feel about the uniforms they wear to work; I never asked anyone about it. They do seem to feel more comfortable overall, compared to Americans, with being in groups and working as one, unified body. For me, it was always a bit oppressive to watch those thronging uniformed masses, or, when I had no choice, to join them.


        Of course, working in groups is nothing foreign to Americans, and most of us work in teams of some kind, serving organizations comprising hundreds, sometimes thousands of people. And I have to admit that, between working at home alone and working among many at an office, I prefer the latter, or at least a portion of the latter. Eight hours a day at an office are obviously too many, interfering with too many things I'd rather be doing. But all day doing those many things at home might also not be the best situation for me. I would feel obligated to structure my day into focused, goal-oriented segments, spanning the clock from morning till suppertime. In other words, I would need work.


        The reality, these days, is that more time at home would mean more time caring for my kids, who are still quite young, instead of working for myself. I would embrace that parental work, as Mayu does so well (better than I could) as a stay-at-home mother, but I can't deny it would be hard for me, giving so much of my time to my kids, just as it's hard to give so much time to a company. Neither scenario would protect me from those same existential questions: What am I supposed to be doing? Where am I supposed to be? Who am I?


        Again I think of my father, the business owner working more hours a week than I ever have as an adult. Did he ask himself these kinds of questions? Or did he feel that he, and everything around him, was in the right place? What kind of spirits followed him around? He's not here anymore, so I can't ask him such things. But I think about him a lot these days, now that I'm just a little older than he was when he died. Once, he invited me to help out at one of his practices (he had opened a second, in a neighboring town). I got to watch him in action, being the “Doc” I'd heard people call him so many times. He was lively and polished, all smiles and gentle expressions, turning machine dials, handling delicate instruments, all his movements precise and “practiced.” I felt he was a good optometrist, and one who enjoyed his work.


        I have two kids of my own, who watch me, as I watched my father, going to work in the morning and returning home for supper (actually, I live close enough to come home for lunch, which I do every day). They're both used to the routine (“Go to work?” my daughter says), and I have to say, so am I. I'm thankful, in fact, for the regularity and dependability of this routine, of the balance it helps me maintain in myself, despite my habitual self-examination. One aspect of Japanese culture that infuriated me were the ridiculously long hours people spent working for their employers. For most workers, leaving the office at nine or later in the evening was normal, especially for those without spouses and children at home. I always felt uncomfortable, the strange non-conforming American, leaving my coworkers behind to sit at their desks for a couple more hours, while I turned myself and my thoughts in my family's direction. Now, back in America, it's the opposite. People are suspicious if you stay too late at the office. Either they resent you for being an over-achiever, or wonder why you can't finish your work on time. Even when I can't get my work done in those 7.5 hours at the office, I leave at the same time every day, taking my laptop home to finish up later. The conditions of my job permit this flexibility, and I exploit it for its intended purpose—to keep me, the worker, happy.





Am I a happy worker? I'm not disgruntled, I can say that much. My employer pays me enough (for what I do, I mean; there's never “enough,” is there?), and I seem to be adequately captivated by the work itself. Just this morning, in fact (a Monday morning), lying in bed waiting for the robins to trill, I found myself thinking about—yes, my job. Some problem I hadn't been able to solve completely on Friday, which I was able to forget about Saturday and Sunday, has resurfaced in my mind, though not in an unpleasant way. There is even a part of me that wants to get back to the office so I can find the conclusion my brain needs, that closure we seek when some task is unfinished. I don't like to admit it, but there may be several aspects of my job that give me this problem-solving satisfaction. Why do I not like to admit it? Because “it” would mean that, all in all, I like my job. And that would mean I have no reason to leave it, which in turn may imply I am “building a career” there, or something long-term like that. I'm almost fifty, so I suppose I'm long overdue for this sort of thing. But I'm nonetheless disappointed. There is a kind of letting go, a relinquishing of oneself to the work that I still resist deep down. The one conclusion I have never wanted to reach is the one about myself.


        When my son Leo asks me at dinner, “How was work today, Daddy?” (not bad, he's only seven), I'm torn about what to tell him. The details, though engaging for me when they were happening, feel flat and lifeless in retrospect. Outside of their context, they seem to have no meaning, no importance at all. “It was OK,” I tell him. “I wrote some things. I edited someone's writing. I went to some meetings.” I even feel a bit irritated having to answer this question. “Oh, okay,” Leo says, perhaps sensing my undertone, “That sounds interesting.” He's a good kid; I should try harder. But it's complicated. How do I tell him what I really feel about my workday? That it was interesting, I got some work done, but all the same I feel I lost eight hours of my life? Should I invite him to my office? To see what, though? Me sitting at a computer, scratching my head and sipping tea? No, I should just give him the simple, more affirming account of my day. Maybe, if I say it enough, I'll begin to believe it myself.

Jim Daniels, 12/24/2018

Current Occupation: professor
Former Occupation: autoworker
Contact Information: Jim Daniels' recent poetry books include Rowing Inland and Street Calligraphy, 2017, and The Middle Ages, 2018. He is the author of five collections of fiction, four produced screenplays, and has edited five anthologies, including Challenges to the Dream: The Best of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Writing Awards. His next book of short fiction, The Perp Walk, will be published by Michigan State University Press in 2019.

 

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THE DETROIT STATUE OF LIBERTY
Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., for more than four decades the sponsor of the Detroit
roadside billboard that flashed a running total of North American light-vehicle
production, has ended funding of the longstanding landmark.
 
In traffic, we watched as numbers turn.
We were stalled. The numbers weren't.
We could not help it, the looking up. Down
on factory floors we made those numbers
 
turn. No one felt bad or even noncommittal
about their turning. Some believed our plants
had underground cables wired to the sign
to keep it up to date. We believed a lot back
 
before cars went bust, came back, went bust again.
Not exactly Liberty, but a living wage. Praise
the living wage. Family, house, and the pursuit
of, yes, happiness. Liberty, we could only imagine,
 
stuck in freeway traffic, on our way to or from
making those numbers turn. How much did it cost?
 

 

Alice Campbell Roman, 12/17/2018

Current Occupation: Writer 
Former Occupation: Writer
Contact Information: Alice Campbell Romano worked in Italy as a translator of movie scripts; in California for RAND; for MCA-Universal on both coasts, and for the company her husband founded to distribute television shows around the world. In each job, Alice wrote whatever was required, using words to the greater glory of others. Nice work, but with children grown, Alice enjoys writing her own material, at last.  Poems will shortly appear in Atlanta Review, Thema, Mudfish Journal, and did recently in Antiphon, Front Porch Review, plus a short story in Dreamers Writing. 

 

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JEANS

We met the young woman and her husband, and another young couple — their very good friends — and the baby sons each couple handed off, husband to wife, wife to husband — babies under two who never squawked during the whole time my Italian husband and I shared a lunchtime picnic table outside a brewery in Peekskill, New York.  Both couples had grandparents who grew up in tiny villages in southern Italy where they worked vineyards and grew “the most delicious tomatoes and basil you ever ate.”

Eventually, we talked about the young people’s work. One of the mothers had just come back from California.  She said she’s in denim now; before, she was in shoes.  She travelled to California to check on the manufacture of her company’s denim jeans—in California.  And, all the denim is made in the United States too, but before you stand up and cheer — she volunteered as she stroked her baby’s firm little arm — the processes to age the denim, the multiple washings and chemicals to stain the jeans — are really not that good for the environment. 

Does your company make, I asked, the torn jeans, the jeans that cost hundreds of dollars, that are stained and shredded to appear that the wearer had worked in them hard years?  We do, she said, and I wear them too.  She stood, all two pounds of her — of course she’s “in fashion” and so must be thin — to show us her thin legs in pure white jeans (nice change), with ragged holes covered by only the tortured-out weft of the fabric — rough strings. 

I couldn’t say, gosh, you look great in your fashionable ripped jeans. I didn’t say, at least they’re not stained by fake spills of crank oil. But if they’re so pure white, I wondered, what’s the fiction that tore those holes in the knees and on the upper backs of her vulnerable thighs?

I’m afraid I became politely belligerent.  Let the woman who buys such jeans from a Fifth Avenue store put them on before your company treats them, go out into the fields and kneel on the ground to pick strawberries, let her pitchfork and bale hay, cull weeds from row after row after row of kale, rake muck, stuff bleeding meat products into packages; and then see what the jeans look like.  To wear those fake jeans is an insult, I said; it’s wrong for a woman with too much money to imitate a laborer who can’t afford a new pair of regular jeans.   

And what about the workers in your company’s factory who abuse newly-minted jeans to make them look like the battered work pants their own family members abused the old-fashioned way?  How do those factory workers feel — at factory wage — making skinny rich women look like fools?   

What about the dirt under nails of your own grandparents?  But I didn’t go that far.  I was polite, and I played with the babies; rather, I let them play with my glasses case, my straw hat, garnered their sweet, four-toothed smiles. I pleased their mothers and their fathers.

Then one of the fathers said, yes, I know.  I worked on a farm all during my teens.  And summers home from college.  You should have seen my jeans.  My mom washed them on Sundays — they hung on the outside line, flapping dry.  I know what it’s like to get dirty working. 

And then, the young mother who worked for the denim company said to me, “You know, you’re right about one thing.  Fashionistas are not buying these distressed jeans as much.  They’re asking for solid denims.  It’s the up and coming trend. You’ll see less of these around.”  She flicked her hand toward her pantlegs. She took her son back from his daddy. She kissed his soft, almost invisible, hair. 

“Good,” I said. “We enjoyed meeting you all.  You have happy babies.”  And my husband and I left the picnic table to head back to our old-fashioned home.

RanRan Eversmann, 12/10/2018

Current Occupation: English Teacher and Developmental Editor
Former Occupation: Bookseller at Powell's City of Books
Contact Information: RanRan is from Oregon. He and his mom and dad love to eat spaghetti dinners after long days working in the yard. There are jackrabbits in the yard. We watch. They dig holes in the yard. The jackrabbits are afraid of the streets and run through the gardens. We grow peppers and tall corn and pumpkins in our garden. RanRan's other work can be found here: roberteversmann.com

 

#

Park Service

 

I work for the park, as per my degree and need to be away from people to the degree I need. I can hide behind trees, under park benches, etc. I can curse loud under the roar of our babbling brooks. Anything and everything is the bane of my existence. I hate the birds. I hate the trees. I hate the people. I hate balloons.

I was out cutting trees in the park. Dutch Elm. I’ve suicided many, plunging in so much death juice, trunk-by-trunk. I used to tell them prayers, now trees hurt me to look at them. You just need to go, I’d say. I have the degree. I know. I trimmed two down to stubs. I cut enough down I lost track and hoped I’d remember what I’d meant to do with my life. I went to another, the tallest of them, but heard a groan. I groaned to match, groaned murder at the crow up the tree. I settled. Here I was in my prison-orange standard-issue groundskeeper jumpsuit. I’ve never been in prison. I’ve never smoked a joint. I spit as high as I could. I asked the crow would it tell me how much I had left. Before I threw my clippers in my throat I heard a second grown.

I threw my clippers and my gardening gloves—striped tan and blue, my mother gave me—and there was a sick man there ten fifty yards down lying on the rocks beside the creek.

I asked him was he was all right. He was but his back was hurt. Did I have any medicine, he wondered. I did not but I would call a doctor. He was a doctor already, no matter, he said. No need for another one. He clutched my orange jump and seethe-shouted would I check the flow to his blood, would I touch him at least. I checked and told him sixty beats per minute. He pushed on his pants at his hips to get them down. It was sore there, could I check. He was bruised.

‘Can you walk if I help you?’ I said.

‘Do you work here?’ he said.

My jumpsuit, nuclear-colored, ‘No,’ I said. ‘But I just love nature and I am trying to reconnect.’

He said something I couldn’t understand. I said I didn’t. He said it again. He winked and gave me a thumbs up. He turned his mouth up to the right. I gave him a thumbs up back. He turned it up left so I just pulled him up over me, his arms over my back and he held me very tightly and I held him like a backpack. We had a so much park to get through, a long path through a forest, and to cross a small stream before we reached any doctors.

I had nothing to gain. But yet already I couldn’t escape. I get a paycheck every month but it feels like looking at a mountain frowning at me. He pointed at the stars.

‘I was a great man with a large house, a wife, friends, children,’ he said. ‘I have been to this many countries,’ and he, wheezing, covered my eyes and nose with all his ten fingers. ‘Don’t you have goals?’ he said.

He pointed down a hill toward the river I knew had killed visitors before. I walked, still carrying him on my back, to walk beside the river, the river I’d dredged for ‘the boy’ who went missing, who we never found. I met his parents and they were in a different income bracket than me.

‘I can help you achieve the same things,’ he said. ‘For instance, do you have your dream house already?’ He laughed.

I felt a ringing in my head. I had nothing in mind nor could I draw anything to mind. In fact, I had nothing of ‘house,’ nothing, I was completely incapable forming any image of any house. ‘House’ did not exist. I tried to spit and spit on my own shirt.

‘Do you know what is blocking you, what planet blotting out your setting sun?’ he said.

‘I think the hospital is this way,’ I said but was so disoriented. ‘I have an idea of what I want,’ I said. I know the trees here. I have walked over so much grass. I have spilled weed killer and I love dogs. I have put my fingers into the dirt so many times and unearthed so many patches of grass, for a time believing I was removing a living person’s scabs, undoing the earth. And sometimes, drunk, I apologized. Then, drunk, I have plucked up so many daisies.

The man on my back came very close to the back of my neck, his mouth a smile like PVC-tarp tearing. He kissed my neck. We neither of us mentioned this because I burned under his weight near the stream it was colder and denser. I could see what would feel better. I could dump him off and drown him but he was promising me so much and his chin was prickly the way a father’s is and the way he gripped my arms, though caring, felt waxy like he’d leave some residue was leaving residue.

‘I have one girl who loves me very much,’ he said.

The flowers blooming nor produced pollen like slow confetti indifferent to us, spreading like mist.

‘I have women waiting for me,’ he said. ‘Waiting in rubies, gems, whatever it is I ask of them. You could too.’ He looked distractedly along the horizon of trees like he’d seen this before, knew I’d carry him every time.

My body began to ache and my head felt hot. The stream and the grass lost color as we passed under a long cloud.

‘Do you want a girl? Do you have one now?’ he said.

I’d had many in mind. But now could think of none.

‘You want one,’ he said. ‘You have one in mind. I can bring you anything.’

He squeezed his legs under my ribs and asked to be let down so he might see the stream. I collapsed under his squeezing. I put my hands into the stream to try and refresh my face. It felt like a gel. And like there was no temperature to it, like I couldn’t feel hot or cold.

‘Did you make this?’ he said, pointing to the small stack of rocks I’d stacked on break, five or six stacked like a mini-tower. ‘Do you like what you do?’

‘I do. I love this job. I love to be a part of nature. I am confident in my abilities to manipulate the aesthetics of earth in a sustainable way. I have experience in digging up bulbs, replacing them. My favorite flower is the tulip. I love it so much because of my mother. I am a steward of the earth. I say this to myself everyday in front of the earth.’

I felt his old legs squeeze hard around my waist. I said to stop. He held his hands up for me but he was too heavy. I could not pull him up. I tried to bend him and get him onto my shoulder but I could not do that either so we walked together. Everything looked far away. The trees along the edges of the park looked painted on like a movie set.

We walked a little further along the stream until he told me to lie down. I couldn’t breathe right. Collapsing, I noticed all the shrubs I hadn’t pruned. I knew there were weeds I should have killed. The stream was choked. I tried to touch the man’s face but already he was standing tall. He made me, manhandling me face to look at the grass I’d planted, understand that I had made this for other people, that I could be happy that they came and picnicked, even if I only watched afar.

He told me to wait while he got another doctor, a second opinion. I was never going to own a home. I couldn’t if I didn’t know what one looked like. I wouldn’t find a girl. Not if I didn’t get a doctor. He went for the trees at the edge of the park. I couldn’t get anywhere. He was going to help me now. I had helped him and he was going to return the favor.

I took a small handful of rocks. It took me fifteen seconds to move my hands, to pick them up, to regard them as long as I needed to make them a symbol of my for-now position in life. I was paid maybe ten cents for that self-realization. Take that, you park bastards, albeit colors shifted, but I did notice a cloud in the sky from my vantage point of the park I was caretaker of, that it looked like a rabbit.

Alyssa Clang, 12/3/2018

Current Occupation: HR for tech startups by day, poet and novelist by night
Former Occupation: more HR for more tech startups.
Contact Information: Alyssa is a native New Englander currently residing in California, where she drops 'r's and Ralph Waldo Emerson quotes with alarming regularity. She enjoys rhythmic verse, flash fiction, global soccer, and Oxford commas.

#

The Ballad of Silicon Valley

 

I'm sick of meeting trust fund boys who think they're Raymond Carver

Writing nihilistic garbage while they disappoint their fathers

At their nepotistic desk jobs where they claim to feel like ‘frauds’

'Cause they'd rather be in college spiking beer cans in the quad

 

That's why they go get MBAs at Wharton, Booth, and Tuck

They're not in it for the knowledge, they're deferring growing up

The last thing the Valley needs is yet another class of 'Masters'

Who’ve been taught to shun stability and bet on scaling faster

 

I'm sick of nodding quietly while speaking to VCs

No, "speaking" implies back-and forth; they always talk AT me

You can't get a word in edgewise when conversing with a man

Who's convinced that he's worth billions and that you're a fawning fan

 

But the joke's on him, and all of them, they're wrong more than they’re right

Their portfolios tank just as fast as those of neophytes

If you think about just a bit it's not far-fetched to reason

You'll do better if you bootstrap than take money from Andreesen

 

I'm sick of engineers who think they've built the world from scratch

Just because they know some C++ and sold one shitty app.

"I'm entitled to $300K," they'll tell me on the phone,

"and I don't want a manager, I'm perfect on my own."

 

I'll curse them out all day, but they’ve got power in this deal

Because no one can pay less than that if Snap and Google will

These "talent wars" we claim to fight are brought upon ourselves

Why pony up for jerks? Just hire anybody else.

 

I'm sick of being told that I don't care and I don't listen

Just because I think there's more to life than user acquisition

And that half the stuff we build out here just hurts more than it helps

When it glues us to technology and wrecks our sense of self

 

Moving fast and breaking things for businesses to thrive

Becomes pretty damn macabre when we're breaking people's lives

And this crazy cast of characters thinks little of effects

Yet we trust them with our content, with our data, with what's next?

 

That whiny MBA? He's selling access to your shit.

That VC that you want to slap? He's funding all of it.

That cut-rate engineer? He's off reducing latency

For the global corporations robbing you of agency

 

Think different, don't be evil, it all sounds good on its face…

but like most tech infrastructure, the whole backend's a disgrace.

 

Jared Pearce, 11/26/2018

Current Occupation: English Professor
Former Occupation: Furniture Delivery
Contact Information: Some of Jared Pearce's poems have recently been or will soon be shared in Picaroon, Southword, Wilderness House, Triggerfish, and Valley Voices.  His collection, The Annotated Murder of One, is just released from Aubade.

#

Musical Chairs without the Music

Does anything I do matter,
He asked and then sobbed
Behind his desk.  I was there
Submitting an inconsequential
Report that occupied me
Four months, then returned
To crank on a three-year project
We all pretend is worthwhile.

To brace him I mentioned the necessary
Scent of leather, the locusts’ vitality,
But my heart chirped, like that cardinal
In the spruce right now, that,
Nope, we’re all wasted, stewards,
Place-holders in a duck-duck-goose,
Lunging property like hot potatoes.

He was sent a consolatory
E-mail. He didn’t reply.

#

Ashamed

My boss won’t say he’s sorry.
Once he forced everyone submit
Their work before he’d sign
Their contracts, and when no one did,

He explained how the nature of the business was evolving
At an even greater pace today, and to keep abreast the changing market
We must all sacrifice and be a team-family and understand his terrible
Position in mediating the increasing government, public, and team-family interests.

And no one cared.
All he needed was an apology, and
We’d be brothers,

All he needed was to be loved
For coming down and knowing
We are all afraid.

#

Merit-based

Everyone is sad
the world’s no
longer doling 
blue ribbons,
a cookie and punch
box after the game,
like how we were raised,

Yet on my corporate
team it’s clear you shut
your mouth,
do your dirty,
cash the check,
check to see everyone’s
happy as me.

#

Department of Education

The boss applauds our work to make
The company an holy place,
Where kids partake of saving grace
Through academic lessening:

We take it soft on coming late,
Assignments roll whenever they please,
We guard the student’s egos and ease
Them back to safety space.

So we maintain our passing rate
And keep our college functioning
And cite retention and assessment
For proof our efforts taught someone.

The business holds; we keep our jobs.
The college gets from whom it robs.

Colleen Wells, 11/19/2018

Current Occupation: Writer, Activities Assistant, Junk Dealer/Furniture Painter
Former Occupation: Adjunct Faculty Member
Contact Information: Colleen Wells’ writes from Bloomington, Indiana. Her work has appeared in magazines and anthologies including Potomac Review, Ravensperch, The Ryder Magazine, The Voices Project, and Veils, Halos & Shackes – International Poetry on the Oppression and Empowerment of Women. She is the author of Dinner with Doppelgangers – A True Story of Madness & Recovery and editor of One in Four – a student anthology of narratives on mental illness. www.ColleenWells.com, www.dinnerwithdoppelgangers.com.
#
Many Mansions
 
Steam rises from my coffee mug. Stacks of handouts, spiral notebooks and pens are piled on a vintage chair. I take a sip of coffee, keeping my eye on the computer screen. I’m teaching my first creative writing class to a group of seniors at the retirement home where I volunteer. The agenda includes a plan to cover description and dialog, and read examples of both fiction and nonfiction to illustrate the point that they should be indistinguishable from one another in terms of craft. Then we’ll write for ten minutes, share our work, and wrap up.
        I decide to insert another sample of writing in the handout and type a paragraph from E.B. White’s Death of a Pig. I’ve still got to pack the snacks I bought for the residents—soda, pretzels, Doritos and a bag of Hershey’s Kisses.
        The stately brick building houses both assisted living rooms and independent living apartments. A long, inviting, front porch with fat, white columns is lined with rocking chairs like at a Cracker Barrel. Out here some of the residents who aren’t restricted by diet can drink a mint Julep or two, a favorite beverage here in the South. While the exterior of the structure inspires a homey feel, the inside tells a different story. There are brightly lit offices off to the right and left that hum with activity. The covering up scent of cleaning products masking urine is not profound, and the lobby space does open into a sort of living room complete with a fireplace, couches, plants and even a piano in the corner, but it still elicits the feeling of a fake home. Just off to the right of this space are apartments for independent seniors, and straight ahead are rooms for those who require higher levels of care.
Bustling into the conference room, I note the clock says it will be 10:30 in seven minutes which doesn’t give me much time to set up.  Flipping on the lights, my eyes rest on the large, wooden table mottled with drink rings. This is where decisions are made about the residents changing levels of care. Attending the meetings are the home’s administrator, the head of nursing, the director of admissions, and if appropriate, hospice. When it is empty, there’s a heaviness to the room. I place the food in the middle of the table and arrange seating so there is access for wheelchairs.
        Miss Evans inches her walker through the door. She’s five minutes early. I still need to go over my notes.
        “Hi!” I say rather loud because she is hard of hearing.
        “Good morning,” she says. “Am I in the right place for the book club?”
        “Yes!” I help her settle into a chair surprised by her thin frame. In the four months I’ve known her, she has lost considerable weight.
“We’re going to do some writing.”
        “Writing? I don’t know if I can write but I’ll sit here and listen.” She smiles. Her piercing blue eyes emanate serenity as she squeezes the plain gold cross on an even simpler chain hanging over her white turtle neck.
        I’m interrupted again, this time, by Mrs. Murphy standing in the doorway, tapping her cane against the frame. “This the writing class?” she asks.
        “Yes, come on in.”
        Mrs. Murphy limps to the nearest chair. Her left foot drags as she navigates her way. I wonder if she has plantar fasciitis or something more serious.
        She lowers her bulky body into a chair, scratches at her scalp, then examines her fingernails. Soon Mr. Sparks, a tall man with thick silver hair, quietly takes a seat two down from her.
        For the next fifteen minutes I continue to make room for wheelchairs and walkers and arrange notebooks, pens, and handouts at each participant’s place. I had not anticipated how long it might take to get everyone settled at the start of class, and now I’m nervous we won’t even get to the writing prompts I have planned: writing about a favorite pet, a humorous situation or a time of illness.
 As I set supplies in front of Mrs. Murphy, I see she is already helping herself to the bag of chocolates; a trail of silver wrappers lines from her notebook to the bag.      
“Thanks for coming, everybody,” I say, glancing at each of the seven weathered faces. Three seats remain empty.
        “Let’s go around the table starting with Mrs. Ewing and say our names and what type of writing we’ve done.”
        “I’m Jane Ewing, and I haven’t done much writing.” She adjusts her bun and continues. “But I’ve always enjoyed writing letters. When I fell ill I stopped doing it.” She lowers her dark brown eyes toward her notebook.
        “You know the nice thing about any kind of writing is it’s always there for you again when you’re ready,” I say with an encouraging smile. I rest my hand on Miss Evans’s shoulder and she jolts awake which causes her cross to bob a little on the chain.
“The Bible is the only book you need to read,” she blurts.
        I thank her, and she nods, eyes shining.
        “Mr. Smith, it’s your turn.”
Mr. Smith’s khaki pants are held in place by striped suspenders.
“I’m Walter Smith,” he says. “I grew up on a peanut farm in Virginia.” He places emphasis on the words peanut and Virginia. “We also grew tomatoes.”
Mrs. Murphy cuts him off.
        “I grew up on a farm in Minnesota. Talk about cold. Sometimes the wind-chill was sixty below! There were eleven of us kids. My son is a heart surgeon and his wife is a doctor, too. She’s got her PhD.”
        “That’s good, I say, moving the bag of candy from her reach There’s a pile of foil wrappers in front of her. “You must be proud.”
        “We also grew tomatoes,” Mr. Smith says.
        As we work through introductions, I realize it is already ten minutes to eleven and the class will be over in forty minutes.
“There are some writing samples on page two of the handout.”  The students shuffle through their papers. Some of them have trouble turning to the second page. Miss Patricia Parker, who’s in a wheelchair and wears an oxygen tube, looks in her notebook instead of at the handout for my reference.
I scan for the shortest example from the selections, then read an excerpt of a memoir while doing my best to use inflection. “On a particularly hot and sticky night in August 1998, I stood in front of the display kitchen in the restaurant where I worked and waited for my food to appear. The cooks, sweating, frantic, and bad-tempered, shot me dirty looks.”
        I can tell the passage doesn’t resonate with the group as I discuss creating tension in writing. Miss Evans is asleep again. Miss Parker is fiddling with her oxygen tube. I make a mental note to keep an eye on her. She often removes the air supply from her nose and isn’t supposed to. Mrs. Murphy starts taking apart her pen. Mrs. Madison, the only one in the group who lives in the independent wing and often keeps to herself, looks uncomfortable.
        “Let’s go ahead and write,” I say.
        “On here?” asks Mr. Smith, flipping through the hand-out.
        “You have your own notebook.” I point to his green one.
        The sulfuric scent of a spoiled egg fart engulfs the room, but from whose direction it emanates, I cannot tell.
        Mrs. Madison quietly gathers her things and slips away, leaving the door open behind her. Mr. Sparks, who has been listening intently, begins scribbling as if he has hypergraphia.
        Noise from the hallway filters inside. I close the door.
        Remembering it’s time to break out the remaining refreshments, I offer Mr. Sparks a drink.
“No thanks,” he says, barely looking up from the top of his second page.
        Miss Parker wears a blank expression under a crown of perfectly coiffed, white hair. She slowly picks up her pen.
        “The prompts are just ideas if you can’t think of anything else to write about,” I say. The room is quiet. They are writing. This bolsters my confidence. “Remember to use description,” I instruct.
        Mr. Smith gets up to go to the restroom. He makes it half way around the table, and then decides to go the other way. I notice we only have five minutes left, and ask those remaining in the class if they’d like to share what they wrote. I’m especially curious about what Mr. Sparks has penned, but to my disappointment he closes his notebook when I prompt him to read.
        Upon request I pour Mrs. Murphy a refill of Diet Coke.
        She burps quietly as I pour. It smells like Doritos. A sharp hair pokes out from her chin.
        “Well I guess I’ll go if no one else wants to,” says Mrs. Ewing while adjusting her glasses and her bun.
        “I came home with groceries in my arms and dropped them on the floor when I saw my husband of 42 years slumped over in his seat at the kitchen table.  I screamed and don’t remember the rest. They tell me I fell and broke my hip shortly after he died. That’s how I ended up in here.” Her voice wavers but she continues. “At first I didn’t want to be here and I couldn’t remember things. But everybody was real nice.”
        Mr. Sparks removes a pen from the pocket of his plaid oxford and fiddles with it.
        Mrs. Murphy starts crying. “My husband died seventeen years ago.” She reaches for the chocolates I had moved just out of her reach. I push a few of them back closer to her.
        I make my way toward her to pat her arm. Pain shoots through my knee when I accidentally bang it into Patricia’s wheelchair. When I get closer to Mrs. Murphy, I can more clearly see her anguished expression. I squeeze her hand. On the way back to my seat I stop to rest a hand on Patricia’s shoulder because she’s fallen asleep. I catch a whiff of her rose-scented lotion, my grandmother’s smell. Startled, she jolts awake. I see at some point during class she’d written “Patricia Parker” over and over on her notebook. I ask Mrs. Ewing if she wants to keep reading.
        She nods.
        “I started to remember again and my hip got better. Everyone here was real nice. But I hope to go home again because like I said, everyone is real nice here, but that’s my home.” She sets her notebook down on the table and closes it. The room is quiet.
All eyes are on her.
She looks around and says, “That’s all I wrote.”
        “There are many mansions in God’s house,” says Miss Evans, nodding her head on the word “God’s” for emphasis.
        Mr. Sparks softly adds, “My wife died last summer.”
        The room grows still once more, then Walter, who is fumbling his way back to his seat, breaks the silence by stating, “I come from a long line of peanut farmers. In Virginia.”
The writing group continues to meet over the next several weeks. I carefully plan for each session from the comfort of our home where all my favorite things surround me in my cozy office. There’s the snow-globe with photos of my husband and I during our engagement party embedded inside, pictures of our children, a whimsical long-legged doll with a porcelain face beneath her crown. She is wearing long, striped socks like Pippi Longstocking. Bright colored pillows and soft blankets are piled on my vintage-inspired chair with Queen Anne’s legs. It has a cheerful floral pattern embossed into a burgundy material.
Despite the time it takes to plan my agendas, they are never adhered to. Sometimes new faces join us and we have to squeeze in and spend time orienting the newcomers. Other times only two or three residents show up. Two consistencies are Mrs. Ewing always attends, and when Mrs. Murphy is there she eats too much.
        I learn where everyone is from, and what their parents were like, how many siblings and grandchildren they have, and whether or not their families come to visit. I hear about a another time when people grew their own food, and sitting down to eat it together meant something different than it does today. They share how after dinner instead of sitting in front of a TV, they often gathered around banjos or sang around a piano.
Miss Evans turns 100 years old toward the end of the course, and unexpectedly meets her beloved Jesus a week later. Walter grows ill and stops attending shortly after that. I stop by his room and ask him about the peanut farm on occasion, but his enthusiasm has been replaced with hollowness.
This is the way it is in many retirement communities. People get sick, people die, and new residents move in. It is rare that anyone gets to go back home.
And yet with only one session to go though, Mrs. Ewing returns to the house she shared with her husband for over forty years. When the course ended, I stayed on as a volunteer for the life enrichment department. Mrs. Ewing stops by from time to time when her niece can bring her for a visit. Though happy to see us, my former student is even happier, I think, when she leaves, because she knows where she is going.
 Home.

Francesca Tronetti, 11/12/2018

Current Occupation: Curator of Lake Shore Railway Historical Society Museum
Former Occupation: Adult Education, English as a Second Language
Contact Information: Educator and historian with a Ph.D. in Philosophy and Religion. Contributor to Return to Mago magazine and Erie Reader, local alternative paper. Hosts an organic gardening and green living show on a community radio station.

 

#

Gone Job Fishing

The job hunt
Such a weird concept
If it’s a hunt, then why am I unarmed
Why is success in the hands of my quarry
 
I find the listing
It looks like a good job
I send them my resume and references
And a write a new cover letter, selling myself
 
And then I wait
Rejection, looking for someone else
Rejection, decided to go in another direction
Rejection, I don’t even know why, they never called
 
I think it’s fishing
You put some bait on the hook
Cast it out into a lake, where you can’t see the fish
Hoping you’ll attract that one job that will be your prize
 
Yes, the job fish
That’s an accurate title
Bait your hook with buzzwords galore
To land yourself that prize-winning fish, I mean job
 
But, along the way
You may hook jobs you don’t want
Why did you even apply, you’ll never take it
It is that you want to be the one rejecting them
 
12 applications sent
One rejection right away
Checking my email every two hours
Reeling in the line to see if I’ve got a nibble
 
Love to stay and chat
But 20 more postings just went up
Looking through the listings for buzzwords to use
Checking all my references, which ones should I send?

John Grey, 11/5/2018

Current Occupation: Retired
Previous Occupation:  Financial Systems Analyst
Contact Information: Australian born poet, US resident since late seventies. Worked as financial systems analyst. Recently published in Front Range Review, Chiron Review and Columbia Review with work upcoming in Midwest Quarterly, Convergence and Pulsar.

 

#

DRIVING THE PILE

Pile driver at the building site,
noise upon noise upon noise
to the point where the brief silence
between poundings
is also a noise.
To some who work nearby,
it's an itch
that only five o'clock
and the commute home
can scratch.
To others, it's a nail
in their headache's coffin.
Kids watch through cracks
in the surrounding fence.
Someday, they'll be old enough
to work the machinery themselves,
hard-hatted, tattooed and sweaty,
battering the earth into submission,
making a din loud enough
to antagonize every adult
they've ever encountered
down through the years.
For now, they're awestruck
by the brutal pulverizing.
For now, the grimaces,
the pain of strangers
will have to do.

#

BILL'S BOILER

Up before dawn, walking the six dark blocks
to the mill, lunch-pail thumping against his thigh,
his wife dead.
And he was walking through her dying,
the cracked asphalt beneath,
the unlit houses on either side,
the brick monster emerging form the weeds
at the end of the lane.
He was breathing her last breath,
chilly and damp.
He was hearing her last heartbeats,
the clip of old shoes on sidewalk.
The wind was her groan.
The creak of her crippling arthritis
was the swing of the rusty mill gate.
Nothing could live until he opened up
the back door, stumbled down the cellar steps,
flicked on the light, started up that wretched boiler.
Until radiators kicked on, all through the upper floors,
the town was nothing but a corpse, awaiting burial,
and he, the very last undertaker,
the early morning crew straggled in,
there was movement, activity, somewhere above him.
He settled back in his chair,
selected a well-thumbed magazine from the stack,
read the same stories, looked at the same pictures,
he did every day.
His wife dead, this was how he remembered her.

in the same blue overalls he wore to every funeral.
But the room warmed up,

Ron Riekki, 10/29/2018

Current Occupation: freelance writer
Former Occupation: military
Contact Information: Ron Riekki's books include U.P.: a novel (Sewanee Writers Series and Great Michigan Read nominated), The Way North: Collected Upper Peninsula New Works (2014 Michigan Notable Book from the Library of Michigan and finalist for the Eric Hoffer Book Award/Grand Prize shortlist, Midwest Book Award, Foreword Book of the Year, and Next Generation Indie Book Award), Here: Women Writing on Michigan's Upper Peninsula (2016 IPPY/Independent Publisher Book Award Gold Medal Great Lakes—Best Regional Fiction and Next Generation Indie Book Award—Short Story finalist), and And Here: 100 Years of Upper Peninsula Writing, 1917-2017 (Michigan State University Press, 2017).

 

#

Ten Thousand Infants

   I went to teach at a CPR company to see if I’d be a good fit.  The owner of the company told me I did not need to do the infant portion of CPR.  I asked why and he said, “It just doesn’t happen that often.”  I knew that the success rates with infants in need of CPR is only 4%.  96% die.  I told him this.  He said to not tell the class that statistic, that it was too morbid.  I told him I wanted to motivate them to do CPR, to help save lives.  He said, “There’s only ten thousand infants who go into cardiac arrest per year.  That’s nothing.”  That averages out to one every hour, every day, all year, which is pretty much the opposite of nothing.  He said that babies stay at home, that parents should be trained, that the hospital trains them on CPR before they’re sent home with the baby, which isn’t always true.  And one-year-olds are everywhere, in restaurants, in parks, on planes, on buses, in schools, at amusement parks, but he said that the clients don’t want to learn infant CPR.  They want to save adults.  He didn’t even have any child mannequins at all, just adult mannequins and infant mannequins.  I told him that the problem with such terrible infant CPR success rates is that people don’t know what to do so they never start CPR.  The whole purpose of training people on CPR is so that they’ll know what to do.
   I started the class, saying I was going to include the infant portion of CPR.  At one point, I put an infant mannequin next to an adult mannequin with the intent of showing that the differences are not major, that people should not be intimidated to do CPR no matter the person’s age.  He came over and took the baby off the floor.  He put it sitting up, saying he doesn’t like the baby mannequins to be on the ground, even to demonstrate a point.  I had some of the infant mannequins nearby in a pile and he put them so they were all sitting up, one at a time, posing them so that they were looking at the class with their plastic eyes.  “I like for the baby mannequins to look cute at all times,” he said to me later, “For the class.  It’s important.”

Caroline Taylor, 10/22/2018

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 and other online and print magazines. She is the author of two mystery novels and one nonfiction book. Visit her at www.carolinestories.com

 

#

THE THING ABOUT ENEMIES

Eddie tended to drift into whatever jobs were available that would pay the rent. They never lasted long, mostly because he would eventually lose interest in the work. 
Thing is, he didn’t want the kind of work his education had prepared him for—wearing a suit and tie, toeing the corporate line, working your ass off twenty-four/seven. What kind of life was that?
Eddie’s mother didn’t understand. “What did we pay all that tuition for at Duke?” she’d say. It drove her crazy, him sliding from one gig to the next, none of which offered what she referred to as “a future.”
Fine with him. He was over twenty-one. He wasn’t living at home like a lot of guys he knew. He just chose to drift. In fact, he liked drifting. Speaking of which, he was just about to float off from his present job digitizing old stock records at Andrews, Moskowitz, and James. It wasn’t that he was bored, although the job was so mindless he could barely stay awake, but his boss Althea had hinted there might be an opening for a junior trader. “You’d be just the candidate,” was how she’d put it.
The hospital was looking for orderlies. Only problem, when he’d worked there before he’d had found it impossible to get over the feeling he might be exposing himself to some killer drug-resistant microbe. Maybe he should try the nonprofit world where surely the bottom line was something other than maximizing profit.
Yeah. Something touchy-feely like the local food bank or artsy-fartsy like the historical society. Or would that be too close to home? His mother was a major donor for that outfit, and Eddie had no desire to have her thinking, “at last, he’s found something decent!” She’d be so happy, she’d probably even offer to pay his salary.
He was pondering his options one morning while walking down 38th Street when he ran into Janet Oldham—or Jo, as she preferred to be called. Despite the fierce scowl on her face, she was looking every bit the foxy babe she’d been back in high school. A long, tall drink of a woman with shiny brown hair and ice water blue eyes.
Eddie said hi.
She passed right by. Then she turned back. “Do I know you?”
“Eddie Guilford,” he replied with a mock half bow. “AP English. You were Fitchman’s pet.”
She smiled. “Oh, yeah. What a prick.”
“You got time for a coffee?” he asked.
“Don’t I wish.” She looked down at the phone in her hand. “I’m already late for the ten o’clock.”
“Then skip it,” he said with a smile. “Tell ’em you had a family emergency, something along those lines.”
“Wouldn’t work,” she said with a rueful smile. “They know my Mom passed away last year, and Dad hasn’t been around since the divorce.”
“Oh,” said Eddie. “I’m sorry about your mom. I liked her.” Actually, he couldn’t recall if he’d even met the woman. Not likely, considering Jo had been part of the goody-good A-list crowd, and he’d been a loser stoner.
“Hmmm,” said Jo, eyeing Eddie’s frayed jeans and scruffy leather jacket. “Why not play hooky?”
Jo, it turned out, was the membership director for ConserveIt!, a nonprofit that encouraged landowners to do environmentally correct things—“anywhere from recycling and composting for the small fry to organic farming and conservation easements for the biggies,” was how she put it.
To hide his yawn, Eddie sipped his coffee.
“It’s funny I don’t remember you,” said Jo, pleating her paper napkin.
Eddie shrugged. “I was totally forgettable.”
Her eyes narrowed. “And are you still?”
Oh boy. If he told the truth, Jo would finish her coffee and walk out of his life forever. “I work for Andrews, Moskowitz, and James,” he said.
“You’re a lawyer?” Her eyes lit up.
“Brokerage firm.”
“Oh.”
“Why?” he asked. “You need a lawyer?”
“I might,” she said. “I’m hoping not.”
It took two more coffees that cost money Eddie really didn’t have before he got the full story. Jo had discovered that her boss, the vice president for membership and development, had been inflating membership numbers to meet his annual targets.
“You mean you nonprofits also have a bottom line?” asked Eddie.
“Of course. Otherwise we’d just drift along, spending other people’s money like crazy, with nothing to show for it.”
The vice president’s name was Marty Rodgers. “Unfortunately, he’s our golden boy,” said Jo. “He can do no wrong. The CEO thinks he walks on water.”
“Ah. So you don’t feel you can—”
“If I rat him out, I’ll lose my job,” she jumped in. “And possibly also any prospects for another.”
Eddie sat there, drumming his fingers on the table. “You need a spy—somebody who can’t be fired.” Or who wouldn’t care if it happened anyway. He felt his pulse quicken.
“You mean like somebody on the cleaning crew?”
“Nah. I got a better idea.”

***

Working in the mail room at ConserveIt! was pretty much what Eddie had expected. The mail came in, you sorted it and delivered it, while picking up any outgoing. And then you weighed and metered the outgoing and delivered it to the post office. Boring.
Once he got the hang of the place and figured out how late the ass-kissers hung around, Eddie put his plan in place. It involved figuring out ol’ Marty’s computer password, which was—duh!—PASSWORD, and then searching for the right files. The room was lit only by the desktop monitor, but Eddie had closed the blinds anyway, just to be safe. 
The numbers of ghost members were never the same and never too large, but over the course of the current fiscal year, they would amount to a totally amazing membership increase of fifteen percent, when the actual numbers were—and had been for the past five years—fairly flat. No big losses, but no real gains either.
The tricky part would be matching the increased numbers to increased revenue. Eddie made a quick calculation. According to last year’s annual report, total membership revenue was $978,642. A fifteen percent increase should put it at somewhere north of a million. Marty’s spreadsheet said $1,125,438.
Either ol’ Marty was working miracles, or the revenue numbers were bogus. 
“I didn’t find anything suspicious,” he explained to Jo the next morning in the coffee room. The double espresso wasn’t doing a thing to calm nerves badly jangled when Eddie had nearly run into somebody on his way out of the building last night. He’d just left Rodgers’s office when a large man rounded the corner, making a beeline for Eddie. Luckily, the guy was too busy with his smartphone to notice Eddie. Luckily, the office next door wasn’t locked, and Eddie had ducked into it with only seconds to spare.
“How hard did you look?” said Jo. 
“Hard enough. There is a whopping fifteen percent increase in membership, but the revenue—”
“It would be easy enough to make the numbers match up,” she said, a frown forming above those mesmerizing eyes.
“I know, but what got you suspicious to begin with?”
She looked him like he needed a few more brain cells. “I told you. On good years, when the economy’s ticking along and people are feeling generous, we get maybe two or three percent increases in membership. Fifteen is totally off the charts!”
Lucinda in Accounting just kept shaking her head. “What, you think we’re morons? I see the checks. I record them. The membership revenue is exactly what Marty says it is.” Then she narrowed her eyes. “Anyway, what business is it of yours?”
Eddie leaned forward and lowered his voice. “I’m undercover with the FBI. Investigating alleged fraud.”
“Let me see some ID.” She held out a pudgy hand.
Eddie reached inside his one and only suit coat and then patted both of his trouser pockets. “Oh, boy,” he said. I must have left it at home.”
“Uh-huh.” Lucinda pushed the chair back from her desk. “What I told you is public information, so I won’t get in trouble for that; but unless you can show me some genuine ID, this conversation is over.”
Eddie held his hands up in surrender. “Okay, okay. But don’t blow my cover.”
Lucinda had the last word, though. “It might be hard for you to believe, Mr. so-called G-man, but Marty Rodgers is golden. He works harder than anybody else in this friggin’ place. Word has it, he’s even here after hours. That man could persuade people with acid reflux to eat orange habañeros.”

***

“I gather ConserveIt! doesn’t discourage employee, uh, fraternization?” This was said as Eddie’s hand caressed the lovely Jo’s naked curves later that evening.
“We shouldn’t be doing this,” she replied as she ran her fingers through the hairs on his chest.
“Will I be fired?” he whispered, before sticking his tongue in her ear.
“Not by me,” she sighed. 
What did he care, anyway, since he tended to drift from one job to another? So far, this one had more enticing perks than he could ever have imagined, so why sweat it?
When the sweat had dried from their exertions, however, Eddie began to wonder. He didn’t want to mess things up at ConserveIt! Leaving jobs had always been his decision, not the other way around. He made a note to check the employee manual.
Two weeks later, Jo cornered Eddie in the mail room. “Haven’t you discovered anything yet?” she asked, arms crossed in front of her.
“No,” he said. “Apparently, your vice president for membership and development is so good he can sell orange habañeros to people with acid reflux.”
“What?” Jo looked puzzled, and then she crimped the corners of her mouth. “So no hanky-panky with the numbers?”
“None.”
“You can prove it?”
“Lucinda in Accounting.”
“Shit.” She started pacing up and down the aisle by the mail slots. “I want him out of here.”
“So I gather.” Eddie stepped in front of Jo and pulled her close for a kiss. “Later?” He whispered.
She jerked away. “Maybe. But you should be careful. Somebody might walk in.” Then she gave him that melting smile that turned his insides to putty. “You’re a smart guy, Eddie. I bet you could figure out a way to make it look like Marty’s up to no good.”
“Maybe,” he said. “But why? Why not just accept the fact that the guy’s damn good at recruiting new members? Isn’t that what you want? More money to do what you’re here for?”
Jo shook her head like he’d said something really dumb. “I want him gone, Eddie. What part of that don’t you understand?”
The why of it, perhaps? It took up a great deal of Eddie’s thinking as the day wore on, so much so that he put the wrong mail in the wrong slots for a lot of employees and got called on the carpet for it by his supervisor. 
Unfortunately, later—as in him asking for another romp in the sheets with Jo—did not pan out. She was, as she put it, “crashing on a rush project.” If she’d been his mother’s age, shampooing her hair would have been the excuse.
Time to move on, a little voice in his head kept saying. But Eddie wasn’t quite ready. Jo wouldn’t be “crashing on a rush project” tomorrow, after all. He’d already begun to suspect that their intimacy, while genuine on his part, might be just a tiny bit motivated by Jo’s idea of quid pro quo. Even so, he’d be a fool not to indulge while he had the chance, right? Except no way could he see himself crossing that moral line into territory that involved setting up a guy who had done nothing wrong.
In the morning, Eddie awoke with one thought running through his head: The enemy of my enemy is my friend. He went through the routine of sorting, delivering, and handling the mail and texted Jo to say he couldn’t see her after work because his mother was demanding his presence at home for supper. 
Instead, he let himself back into Marty Rodgers’s office. Closing the blinds, he sat down behind the desk and waited, even dozing off for a few minutes until he heard the elevator ping down the hall. This was followed by heavy footsteps heading his way. “Be Marty,” he whispered to the empty room, and was rewarded by the sound of the door opening, followed by the overhead lights coming on.
“Hey!” said a big football player-type guy with a bald head. “Who are you?”
“A friend,” said Eddie, leaning back in the chair.
“I don’t think so,” said Rodgers. “We don’t keep any money in here, so why don’t you take my computer and get the hell out? It’s Windows 7, by the way. You’d be doing me a big favor.”
“I’m not a thief,” said Eddie. “I just have a couple of questions.”
“Then send me a text.” The man reached inside his jeans pocket and pulled out a crumpled business card, tossing it across the desk.
Eddie sat there. “This won’t take long.”
“It’s already taken too long. Now get the hell out.” Rodgers pointed his beefy arm at the door. Then he turned back, squinting. “Hey. Aren’t you the mail room guy?”
“Yep,” said Eddie. “I’m curious about Jo Oldham. You know her?”
“Of course, I do. She works for me.”
“So she’s helping you boost the membership numbers?”
“Absolu—” he stopped. “What’re you getting at? And why would you care?”
“Fifteen percent seems like a huge increase.”
“It is. It’s amazing, in fact.”
“Is it real?”
Rodgers crossed the room, placing two huge hands on the desk in front of Eddie. He leaned into Eddie’s face. “Are you accusing me of something?” he whispered.
“Nope,” said Eddie. “Just curious. It seems so out of whack with what your numbers have been over the past few years.”
“And you think I’ve been cooking the books?” His face turned red and his voice rose as he said the last few words.
“Cool it,” said Eddie, scooting out of reach. “I’m not accusing you of anything. Just, like I said, curious.”
“What does this have to do with Jo Oldham?”
“I’ll get to that,” said Eddie. “But, first, I wonder if there’s more to the membership increase than your, uh, golden touch.”
Rodgers waved a dismissive hand. “Of course, there’s more. The competition’s about to go under, and the rats are leaving the sinking ship.”
“Competition?”
“You think it’s not dog-eat-dog in the conservation world? Hah! There are too many of us doing the same thing, going after money from the same people. This outfit, they’ve got some weak leadership right now and a board that’s got them doing all this touchy-feely sensitivity training, rather than executing their mission. It shows up in their numbers. The percentage they spend on non-program activities has grown to an alarming extent. And in this world, that’s a huge no-no.”
“So you’re sort of like a shark circling the waters?”
“You got it, kid. And it’s working, so don’t expect me to be apologetic.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it.”
Rodgers stepped back, plopping into a chair in front of the desk. “Now, what’s this about Jo Oldham?”
 “I’m telling tales out of school here,” said Eddie, “but I think you’re being played.” Just as he himself had been.
“By Jo? You’ve got to be kidding.”
“She wants you gone. She’s made that very clear to me. Even wants me to, uh, make it happen.” 
Rodgers sat there, drumming his fingers on the chair’s arm. Then he got to his feet, now moving slowly, like an old man. At a corner bookshelf, he thumbed through a number of booklets that were stacked there. He pulled one of them out and flipped through to the back.
The chair creaked as Eddie leaned back, steepling his fingers. “I thought she was being, like, a bit overly ambitious. But now . . .”
“Oh, she’s ambitious, all right.” Rodgers kept reading. “Shit.”
“She used to work for that outfit you’re raiding, right?”
“Nope. But her sister Rowena does.” Rodgers stood there, looking down at the booklet. “They’re not in a death spiral yet, but they’re so close it’s practically a no-brainer.”
“Death spiral?”
“You know. The point at which an organization just can’t survive. The income falls too far below the outflow, so far that even drastic budget cuts and layoffs ain’t gonna help. They’re doomed.”
“Oh, man.” Eddie got up and walked over to Rodgers, who showed him the list of staff at the back of the annual report. “You’re saying it’s too late?”
Rodgers nodded. “Jo shoulda tried this six—no, make that eight—months ago. Poor Rowena.”
“Seems kind of drastic, you ask me,” said Eddie. “Why not just help poor Rowena find another job?”
“Beats me,” said Rodgers. “We’d probably have a place for her here, except for the damn nepotism policy.”
“You going to fire Jo?” Eddie asked.
Rodgers grinned. “I suppose most people in my place would do just that, but there’s an old saying I think applies in this case: Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.”