Colette Tennant, 5/21/2018

Current Occupation: Professor of English, Corban University, Salem, OR
Former Occupation:  I worked in retail and as a waitress for years. Some of this poem is based on that.
Your Short Biographical Statement: Colette Tennant is an English professor where she teaches creative writing and literature at a small university in Salem, Oregon. She has two books of poetry, Commotion of Wings and Eden and After. She is currently compiling her third poetry book. She likes to travel and play Scrabble when she isn’t grading papers.

 

#

In the Museum of Part-Time Jobs

Everyone has a name tag
that jabs in just above their heart.

Some wear gaudy green aprons,
heavy as military canvas.

Some herd grocery carts like dirty sheep,
shepherd them into single file.

Some lift handfuls of wet salad,
shove them into plastic bowls.

Some make change at a drive-through window,
the intercom scratchy as an infected throat.

Some serve ice cream to old men at the counter
then watch as they chew it every time.

Some fill sugar bowls and salt shakers
with a million grains of whitest white. 

Every night, they polish coffee makers 
till they shine to sleep.

Some fold the t-shirts small to extra-large, 
collars round as yawns.

Some clean the fitting rooms,
empty dresses tried and rejected.

Most here smile on demand,
know the customers are always right – 

the woman who insists she had asked for soy milk,
the man who wants “whooped cream.”

Time clocks emotionless as Kafka 
ka-chunk greetings and farewells.

As they leave, lights dim, 
doors lock tight behind them.

Everyone’s car appears to be the last one in the parking lot. 

They listen hard to be sure their footsteps are the only ones they hear.

 

W Tracy Dillon, 5/14/2018

Current Occupation: Teacher
Former Occupation: Quality Control Lead, Technical Publishing House
Contact Information: W Tracy Dillon lives with his family on a farm in rural Oregon where they practice permaculture farming techniques. He is a faculty member at Portland State University.  However, he’s a lot more fun than this bio would seem to indicate.

 

#

Control

On August 5, 1981 President Ronald Reagan fired 11,345 striking union members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, leaving the skies of the nation in perilous disorganization.  Stunned men and women who had held the safety of thousands of people a day on their minds and in their hands had to find employment in quotidian sectors of the economy. Banned for life from ever serving their government through gainful employment again, they descended to the ranks of common workers, directing their uncertain futures into crash landings as safely as they knew how.  This is the story of one of those men.

His name was Randy Cross, and he was so very confused on August 8, 1981.  Even among his brother air traffic controllers, his self-assurance and calm in the face of potential disaster set him apart.  No near miss of packed commuter planes above and beyond the runways of Norman Y. Mineta San José International Airport could nonplus him.  In a crisis, he believed that he was the controller everyone looked to. Yet, he wasn’t really one of his brethren, either. Known for his meticulously knotted neck ties and clean-cut appearance, he never accompanied his controller acquaintances for beers after a scare, never got asked to join the bowling team, never got to know anyone well enough to indiscreetly sleep with their wives.  He kept his private life to himself, and nobody really cared, because he was a capable air traffic controller. He stacked tin efficiently, came in for extra shifts when the supervisor had his hands full, and clearly remember never making a mistake.

And that is why he was so very confused on August 8, when the supervisor called him into his office and fired him.

Stunned, he didn’t know what to say.  He had not seen it coming.

When things got complicated, Randy liked to lay them out verbally.  He enunciated each succeeding point in the chain of events leading to a present situation in order to analyze its origin, trajectory, and probable outcome.  Each idea acquired syntax and floated like words in a bubble over his head so that he could arrange them in a logical order that led to an inevitable conclusion.  In this way, he gained perspective. So he began reviewing the facts as he sat in the supervisor’s office, speaking to no one but himself, and staring at the pulsating words wrapped in invisible bubbles tethered tenuously to his head.

“I have been a good employee for four-and-a-half years.  I supported the quest for better working conditions, better pay, and the 32-hour work week.  I pointed out that the Postal Workers’ strike in 70 also violated the Taft-Hartley Act but that postmen were not fired.  That gave everyone courage, I believe.”

As he ticked off these facts, the supervisor began looking a little annoyed.  Not that Randy was watching the supervisor’s expressions. Maybe that’s why the supervisor was annoyed.  Instead, Randy was watching the chain of reasoning unfold in the air overhead. He couldn’t afford to miss anything.  He had to see how all of this lined up.

Then it occurred to him that the evidence for being a good employee that he was sharing actually illustrated his alignment with the union organizers.  He was sitting here sorting things out in a manager’s office, after all. He decided then on a different direction.

“I came out with everyone but returned when Reagan ordered us back. I’m one of the thirteen-hundred.  I didn’t come back in because of financial need or to take care of a family. I don’t have a family. I did it out of love for the job.”

Given this direction, it became harder to see where the supervisor was coming from.  Where was he headed with this?

“It’s got nothing to do with that,” said the supervisor.

What, then?

“You really didn’t see it?”

“See what?” asked Randy.

“And it’s not the first time.”

The first time for what, wondered Randy.

“Just out there.  Just now,” the supervisor said.  “You didn’t see it. You didn’t hear it.  The can that disappeared right off your screen?  The pilot who called in instrument failure? Said he saw a teardrop shaped metallic object with a spinning ring off his left wing for over three minutes?  Then it shot up into the air? You got none of that? Just sat there in a stupor, Maury said?”

 

Randy really didn’t know what the supervisor was talking about.  Maybe if he returned to the beginning and reorganized his thoughts.

 

“I have been a good employee.  I do my job. I help out all the time.  I bailed Maury out on 336, for gosh sake.”

 

Randy was referring to AirCal Flight 336, which crashed on February 17.  Maury had cleared the flight to land on Runway 19R at the same time that he cleared another flight to take-off from Runway 19R.  Randy heard Maury make the mistake. He moved swiftly and decisively, ordering 336 to fly a go-round and aborting the other jet’s take off.  The Tower could blame the AirCal Captain after that. He didn’t execute the go-around fast enough, brought his landing gear up too soon, and skidded, sparks flying, down Runway 19R until the plane caught fire before stopping.  Only four passengers were hurt, none of them seriously. Ninety-one passengers and five crew members went “whee” down the emergency exit slides that day, safe because Randy had done his job. Maury never said a thank you, but everyone knew that Randy had stopped two Boeing 737s from plowing into each other and killing hundreds of people.  Everyone knew Randy had stopped that from happening, right? Everyone knew. Didn’t they? And now here he was, being fired?

 

“That’s another thing, Randy,” the supervisor said.  “You’ve got to stop making out that you’re special. Shit like that happens all the time, and we’re always covering each other’s ass.  You know that. And now with completely untrained …” His voice trailed off and he looked around the room, as if he’d find the word he wanted pinned to the wall.  “… completely untrained, whoever, coming in here, I can’t afford to have someone … who I know can lapse like that … around.  I’ve got to bring … whoever … up to speed, and if I can’t count on one of the few pros I’ve got left over after this … whatever … I’d just as soon not have him around.”

The supervisor’s manner softened when he saw how Randy was taking this.

“Listen, Randy.  There’s another reason I’m doing this now.  The real reason.” His voice lowered. “I know we have, well, our differences of opinions about things.”  And he paused. Randy had no idea what he was talking about. None of this made any sense. “But really, I’m doing you a favor here. You can use the strike as an excuse for why you lost your job.”

“But I came back,” Randy said.  “I always come to work. I always come on time, and I stay late and do extra shifts if you need me.”

The supervisor interrupted him by swatting the words out of the air.  Randy’s mental bubbles bumped and collided, dissipating in ten different directions.  

“Listen to what I’m telling you, Randy.  I can make it look like you got let go like the rest of them, see?  You’re just another poor bastard who gambled and lost. I won’t put down that you were let go because of error.  We can just make it look like you were one in ten thousand. That way–” He paused. “There won’t be a competency issue on your record.”

“Randy?

“Randy?  Randy, do you understand what I’m saying?  I’m doing you a favor here.”

But Randy did not understand.  Not at all. Just one in ten thousand.  Like all the rest of them.

Maury ignored Randy when he came out of the supervisor’s office under the pretense that he was safeguarding airplanes in the sky.  He stared at the green glow of the radar screen with his smug back turned. Only Allen, the one air traffic controller at Norman Y. Mineta San José International Airport who ever seemed to take an interest in Randy as a possible friend, said goodbye.

“It’s bullshit when they do this kind of thing to us,” Allen said.  He tried to offer comfort, but there was a distance. It wasn’t Allen losing his job.  He looked at Randy like he didn’t recognize him anymore, like Randy wasn’t getting it. “Take care of yourself,” he said.  And then he just drifted away.

It was Randy’s last day on the job.

Six months later he was sitting in a cubicle at Mage Technical Publications.  Randy had gotten a job proofreading The Yellow Pages.  The job was to compare the proofs of advertisements to the original customer contracts.  Customers wrote down the words they wanted in their ads on their contracts. The Quality Control Manager distributed these hand-written ads to the Quality Control Lead.  The Quality Control Lead then distributed the ads to the typists. After a proof run, the Lead distributed the typed ads to the proofreaders. The proofreaders then compared the original hand-written ads to the proof ads.  But the proofreaders weren’t looking for misspellings or grammar errors. They were looking for differences between the original hand-written ads and the typed ad copy. The proof ad typed by the typist was supposed to replicate the hand-written ad.  If the proofreader determined that it did, the proof and the original hand-written ad got placed in the basket on the left of the Quality Control Manager’s desk. If the proofreader determined that the typist had not keyed the exact copy when preparing the hand-written ad for publication, he changed the copy back to the original version, and placed the proof and the original contract in the box on the right of the Quality Control Manager’s desk.  The job paid six dollars an hour, which was two dollars and 65 cents higher than the minimum wage. It was 1982.

The Quality Control Lead was a twenty-something kid who was trying to grow a beard.  Facial hair was not allowed as part of the dress and grooming code at Mage Technical Publications, but it didn’t matter, because the Lead wasn’t old enough to sprout serious whiskers.  Most of the time he looked rarefied, like his face was in soft focus. He was trying to explain something to Randy.

“You see, here it is again,” he was saying.  “The original ad says ‘Reality World.’ The typist typed ‘Realty World.’ You’re supposed to catch that.”

Randy furrowed his brow.  He hadn’t really been listening.

“And then this one.”  The Lead with the peach fuzz face rustled through the several contracts he had brought over to Randy’s cubicle.  “In this one, the typist got it right. She typed ‘Reality World.’ But then you actually changed it to ‘Realty World.’”

At first Randy had doubts about working as a proofreader, but it came pretty easily to him.  The words were fixed points in space and held his attention. He made sure they lined up and flew right.  When something didn’t make sense to him, he fixed it. That’s why he couldn’t understand what the Lead was talking about.

“But clearly it’s supposed to be ‘Realty World.’  ‘Reality World’ is the mistake. It doesn’t make any sense.”

The Lead tried to look amused, but he was scared.  He clearly was a kid doing a man’s job. He wasn’t used to calling people out and criticizing their work performance.  Randy wondered why he even had the job. Then he noticed another Lead. This guy was a floater in Quality Control. A switch hitter.  Sometimes he turned up in proofreading. Sometimes in art. When he wasn’t inspecting the proofreading department, he was in graphics, making sure the artists were setting up the ad copy right on their end.  Randy wasn’t sure where he fit in all of this, but it was clear that he was looking out after the boy, who was in training for something great, but Randy didn’t get it. He didn’t want to show insubordination while the floating lead was watching, so he straightened up in his seat.  He concentrated on what the boy was whining about.

The Lead tried to look amused, and maybe he was.  He paused and searched the air for the right way to explain things to this person who clearly didn’t appreciate irony.  Yet, at the same time, Randy noted that he tried very hard to restrain himself from sounding condescending. The Lead was probably a good enough kid and a likeable enough fellow.  It’s just that Randy was used to keeping people from dying every day. Now he was employed to make spelling errors so that Mage Technical Communications could return the proof to the customer, point out the error, explain that Mage did not presume to change a single thing in the written copy it had received out of respect for the customer’s reputation for excellence, and then charge the customer extra to make the edit.  

That made some sense on one level.  Because once you determine that you know what the customer wants better than the customer does, where would it stop?  Maybe the customer did want the words spelled the way they had been written. Maybe the customer ran Reality World, and not a real-estate company.

On another level, it didn’t line up.  Mage was counting on poor spelling to make extra money.  Heck, they were hoping to land contracts from dyslexics writing ad copy for Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious Reality World of Tehachapi or Yreka or Yucaipa.  Just as long as they got it wrong and paid more to make it right.  

 

In a logical world, the arrangement of the workflow in the proofreading department at Mage Technical Publications was inefficient and bizarre.  The Lead knew that. He just didn’t know that Randy knew it too.

 

How to explain this.  Again. In language you’ll understand the Lead’s baby face was trying to puzzle out.

 

“Matt, I understand,” Randy said.  But he was really talking to the Floating Lead, the boy’s mentor, who was listening.  “We replicate the error so that the customer has to pay to fix it. If we fix it for him, we lose a step in the billing cycle.  I get it.”

The Lead was pleased that he was off the hook and didn’t have to fight about it.  “Well, that’s one way to look at it, for sure,” he said, jovially. It’s the only way to look at it, Randy thought, but he didn’t say anything.  The Lead had some sophisticated, intellectual, ironic way of dealing with the lack of order, and he knew Randy wouldn’t understand.  He thanked Randy and walked away. The Floating Lead linked up with him and they went off together for a debrief. Randy could tell that the Floating Lead was telling the kid he’d handled that well.

“Why do you think you’re still working here?” Sally, one of the two typists, asked Randy on lunch break.  

Randy always stayed in his cubicle and didn’t get lunch in the cafeteria.  Sally rarely did. Randy could tell that she thought herself overqualified to be making seven dollars an hour, which was three dollars and 65 cents higher than the minimum wage in 1982.  Randy got that. He was overqualified to be a proofreader because he’d been a professional air traffic controller. But he’d gotten laid off during the strike. He’d turned up here at Mage Technical Publications for a brief layover on his way to the more responsible position that his talent and temperament would lead him to.  Maybe that would be here, at Mage, but the boy lead clearly was competition. Randy thought about the soft little hairs around his lips and on his chin and got angry. He wished he could change the subject.

“I’ve had opportunities, but the right one hasn’t come along just yet,” he said.

“No, silly,” Sally said, slapping his knee.  “You’re terrible at this. Proofreading I mean.”  

Sally was the fastest and cleanest typist on the team.  She could misspell 80 words a minute without slipping in accuracies by mistake.  There were faster typists than Sally, but the faster they were, the less they read, so they erred by typing the word they perceived instead of the letters they saw.  A fast typist might slip up and skip over the “i” in a real estate customer’s ad. That cost the company money. Instead of going directly back to the customer who then paid to fix it, the ad had to be rerouted back to the typist, who had to slow down in order to recreate the error on a second run before it could be returned to the customer, who only then was able to pay extra to fix it.  That is, if the proofreader caught the typist’s error. A proofreader who missed the typist’s errors could get fired. A proofreader who missed the typist’s errors could get the typist fired, because the frequency of errors would come to the attention of the Quality Control Manager.

In this way, the proofreaders and the typists gained a symbiotic alliance. They became paired in teams.  If both proofreader and typist did their jobs well, they took care of each other, and the Quality Control Manger never had to get involved.

Randy leaned out beyond his cubicle wall and glanced quickly across the room.  There was the Quality Control Manager, sitting at his desk behind the left and the right boxes for proofs and contracts.  His name was Arnie and he was in his 50s, much older than the minimum wage employees who worked for him. Except for Randy, that is.  Randy was older, too old to be making three dollars and 65 cents more than the minimum wage. Arnie knew that Randy had been a professional air traffic controller, and that’s what probably attracted him.  Randy was a mature and responsible worker who had been caught up in circumstances put into play by higher forces that he could not control. Even if it took a little extra training time, having that kind of worker on the team would pay off in some way.  

Sally saw every letter for what it was and was fast.  Randy appreciated being paired with her because she created fewer errors for him to miss.  Typists made a dollar more an hour than proofreaders, so Randy wanted her to like him. If he wasn’t good at proofreading, maybe he could move up to a typist position.

“I mean, don’t you know why you’re still working here?” Sally was going on.  

Randy didn’t want to say.  He hated it when people reacted badly to his nostalgia about being a responsible professional who protected people’s lives and property.  They acted like he was bragging, but it’s just that he missed the tower. He missed watching the planes come and go and tracking their trajectories in green diodes across the vast black expanse of his radar screen.  He missed the night shifts most of all, when the room was dark except for the green haze around the controllers’ faces, and the lights from the jets winked in the heavens among all the stars.

“They pair me with the newbies to watch out for them, you know.”

“You are the fastest typist in the department,” Randy said.

“I can tell Arnie likes you,” she said.  “So you’ll probably be taken care of.”

“What’s the arrangement with Matt?” Randy asked.

“Oh.  Matt,” Sally said flatly.  Randy got the feeling that she didn’t like Matt.  “Too pretty for me.” She smiled. “Did you know he’s got a Master’s degree?  In English literature?”

“Really,” Randy said matter-of-factly.  

“Can you imagine.  All of that intense preparation and you end up proofreading The Yellow Pages.”

Randy was a bit uneasy.  Jealous, really. No one seemed to care that he’d been a professional air traffic controller who saved people’s lives.  But people seemed sad for Matt, who’d risen to academic heights that no one making minimum wage could even imagine. His fall seemed somehow more tragic than Randy’s.  It didn’t line up. But somewhere, somebody was taking care of Matt, whose higher degree made it possible for him to consciously misspell Reality while reveling in irony instead of condemning inefficiency.  

“When did he become Lead?” Randy asked.

“About a month before you got here,” Sally said.  “He’s a good kid. They’ll probably make him manager when Arnie’s gone.”

“Arnie’s leaving?”

“No.  Of course not.”  Sally looked uneasy, as if she’d insulted Arnie and wanted to say something to compensate in case she was being overheard.  “Arnie’s a fixture. He started with the company. But he’s getting older. I mean, one day…” She stopped talking.

Lunch hour was over.  People were trailing back from the cafeteria in ragged lines, and Sally stood up to go.

“I’ve got a feeling that kid won’t stay around long though,” she said. “Me either.  We’re not going to spend the rest of our lives pushing out The Yellow Pages.  Now, you—” she said, slapping Randy’s knee and laughing.  “I can’t tell yet about you—”

Summer came, and Randy hadn’t lost his job proofreading The Yellow Pages.  At his sixth month review, Matt give him a rating of “good,” not “excellent,” but it gave him a 35 cents-an-hour raise, as was the custom at Mage Technical Publications.  A heat wave in Santa Clara County that year knocked out the mainframe computers. The giant units got too hot and shut down. The plant manager had to call in experts to reboot them, and the employees got a day off.  From then on, though, a safety feature shut down the computers when the temperature became uncomfortable. But the employees couldn’t be sent home every time it happened, so they stayed, lolling about in the cafeteria or playing frisbee outside on the lawn.  Some even brought picnic lunches in case the power went out and they got to eat outside near the city fountain.

Arnie the Quality Control Manager didn’t like anyone getting paid for playing frisbee, even minimum wage.  He started acting angry just after the weather turned and the heat put the mainframes offline. The fact that the experts couldn’t fix the problem seemed to bother him inordinately.  He read his newspaper at his desk at lunch time, slapping the pages right to left one after the other as he flew through the news too bothered to read. Randy had seen this kind of behavior before.  It reminded him of his supervisor at Norman Y. Mineta San José International Airport when the strike got called.

One day in October, when the mainframes shut down after the fourth brownout of the morning, the proofreading department emptied of everyone except Randy and Arnie.  Randy still kept to himself for the most part, while Arnie tended to work over lunch and breaks. Arnie was always at his desk. Without power to the mainframes, Randy wondered what Arnie could be working on.  But he wasn’t working. He was reading The San Jose Mercury. Randy could hear the newsprint pages turning, but infrequently.  Arnie was tense and reading his paper closely. And Randy heard something else too.  Arnie was crying. He couldn’t be sure, but that’s what it sounded like. Soft, quiet sobs. Randy stiffened.  He knew that if Arnie could see him, Arnie would know that Randy could tell he was crying. It was only nine a.m.  How long could he last like this, pretending not to hear Arnie crying? He thought about excusing himself to go make a pay phone call in the lobby beside the cafeteria when the phone rang.

Arnie had the only phone in the department.  It sat on his desk next to the box on the right where the Lead put proof corrections.

“Randy Cross,” he heard Arnie say.  “Yes, Randy Cross works here. Randy—” called Arnie, “You have a phone call here.”

This was a strange series of events.  No one ever got called at work, and Arnie never gave them the phone if they did.  Employees who got calls at work got a demerit for it. Talking on the phone during work hours went against the code of acceptable employee conduct at Mage Technical Publications.  But Arnie didn’t sound mad. Maybe it was because he was trying to stop crying.

“Randy,” Arnie called again, his voice quiet and hoarse.  

There was no getting around it.  Randy had to walk over to Arnie’s desk and take a strange call while trying not to let Arnie know that he knew about the crying.  Arnie passed the receiver and went back to his paper. Randy wished he would leave the room, but Arnie was the Quality Control Manager.  This was his department, his desk, his phone. Nobody should have been talking on it except him anyway.

“Yes?” Randy said.

“Randy?  Randy, it’s Allen.”

“Yes.”

“Allen Richter.”

“Yes?” Randy was trying not to look in Arnie’s direction, and Arnie was hiding behind the newspaper, the limp corners of the rag trembling in his hands.  Every once in a while he sniffled.

“Randy, you remember me?”

“I remember you.  From SJC.” SJC was FAA code for the Norman Y. Mineta San José International Airport.

“What about last night?  Do you remember last night?”

Arnie’s hand reached out from behind the newspaper page to retrieve a tissue from a box by the phone.

“Randy?  Do you remember last night?”

“Yes, I remember you, Allen.”  Randy had the feeling he was in a conversation that he didn’t want anyone to hear the other side of.  He ought to have said, “Last night?” But he didn’t want Arnie to hear him asking about last night in a strange way during an inappropriate call.

“I remember everything now, Randy.  Can you? Or are you still out?”

Of course Randy didn’t say, “Remember what?” or “What do you mean, out?”  He merely said, “Uh-huh.”  Not a “yes” uh-huh, but a “go on” uh-huh.

“You can’t remember, can you?” Allen asked.

Where was Allen going with this?  He was making no sense.

“All right.  I’m coming out. I have to see you.  I’m leaving now. I can be there tonight.  Randy? Randy?”

“Yes.”

“Do you know Mac’s downtown?”

“Is that where you guys used to go for beers?”

“No, Randy.  The guys didn’t go there for beers.  Do you know it? It’s downtown. Meet me there tonight.” Randy paused.  Then he said, “It closes at 2:00 in the morning. I can make it if I leave now, I’m sure I can.  Randy? Randy? Will you meet me?”

“Yes, I’ll go.”

“I think I can get there by midnight, but wait for me.  Promise.”

“All right,” Randy said.

Allen hung up.  Randy put the receiver back in its cradle.  He felt like he needed to say something to Arnie.  

“That’s strange.  An old friend,” he said.  Arnie didn’t move behind his newspaper.  “From my glory days as an air traffic controller.” Randy laughed nervously, reminding Arnie that once a long time ago he’d been more than just another proofreader.  He stood awkwardly in front of Arnie’s desk. Finally he said, “Are you following the story?”

“Yes.  Yes, I am,” Arnie said.  Randy had worried that Arnie was angry and hiding a face of uncontrollable rage behind his paper.  He must have been so mad that he knew his anger was misplaced and inappropriate. But Arnie wasn’t angry.  He dropped the newspaper and looked at Randy with a deep and profound sorrow. It was saddest look Randy had ever seen in his life.  It made him heartsick.

“It’s terrible what’s happening.”  He stared at Randy but was disconsolate.  Randy might as well have been ten miles away.

That night Randy sat uncomfortably in a booth waiting for Allen to arrive.  He got there at 11:00. The bartender was beginning to get irritated because he’d only ordered one drink in over an hour.  But it was a slow night, so better some business than none at all.

Finally Allen showed up.  He saw Randy as soon as he came in the door and joined him.

“I just flew in from Des Moines,” Allen said.  “Clear weather.” He waited for the server to take his order and went on.  “I was on a cross country with a kid two days ago,” he said.

“Uh-huh,” Randy said.

Allen looked at him like Randy should have been more curious about all of this.

“You really don’t remember anything?” he asked.

“I really don’t know what you are talking about,” Randy said.  “Why did you fly in from Des Moines?”

“I live on a farm outside Des Moines now.  Got a flight instructor job at a little training school.  Single-engine puddle jumping for the local kids mostly, but at least I’m around the airport that way.”  

Allen’s drink came.

“Borrowed their baddest Cessna to get here tonight.  Probably get fired for that.”

Randy glanced around as if someone were missing and they should wait to talk until they were joined.

“Like I said, I was on a cross-country with a kid a week back.  Flying to Lowell. C97.” He paused and took a drink. “We saw an orb.”  He paused.  “The kid saw it too.  Saw it first.”

“Uh-huh.”

“A … double … spheroid…” He mimicked a shape in the air above the tabletop.  Getting the words out was a terrible effort. “…convex…”  He was staring at the imaginary orb that wrestled to break free from his hands.  “…orb…”

Allen was going in circles. Was he some kind of crazy person now?

“I’m not crazy,” Allen snapped.  “Listen.” He decided to get down to it.  “That’s when I remembered. Brenda and I have moved out to a farm.  An Iowa farm, for Christ’s sake. To get away.”  He chortled.  The irony of it had caught him off guard.  “Before that. Before that flight, I don’t remember when, but I remember.  I was looking at stars. There was a bright light. It floated over the farm.  I could hear cattle in the neighbor’s field. They were crazy. I’ve never heard cows low like that, not in my life.  I didn’t think they could sound that way.

“I went into the bedroom to wake up Brenda.  We’ve been having trouble, you know?” He looked at Randy.

“Uh-huh.”

“After the strike.”  Allen cleared his throat.  “I was confused about what to do, what direction.”

Allen righted himself in his seat.  He was getting off track.

“There was a glowing green disk over the barn.  I was scared to death. We both were. Then calm.”  He looked into Randy’s face. “I mean, the peace that passes understanding, Randy.  I’ve never felt like that before, never in my life.  I was at peace, and everything made sense. Me. Brenda.  Everything.

“These … beings …suddenly came into the bedroom. They led us to the ship.  A stairway came out of it. Everything was calm, quiet. Dead quiet.  The cows had stopped. You couldn’t hear a thing, Randy. No crickets on an Iowa midnight.”  He guffawed at the implausibility.

“They led us up the stairs and into the ship.  It was dim, Randy. Just like the tower. You remember the green glow of the radar screen?  It was like that, only … it was a different kind of light.

“They asked Brenda to lie down.  They didn’t have mouths. They had slits for mouths, but I couldn’t see any lips moving.  But Brenda was fine with it. She laid down on an altar, Randy. That’s the best way I can describe it.  It looked just like a white ivory altar.

“They bound her wrists and ankles with manacles.  She told them they didn’t have to do that, but they said it was for her own protection.  I mean, I heard what they said inside my head.  

“There was a woman.  I don’t know how I know that.  They didn’t look like they had a sex.  This one was a little smaller than the others, with bigger eyes, a thinner nose, and pouty lips.  She took Brenda’s gown off and started singing. I swear. She made this humming song.

“They took me away to another chamber and gave me this green drink.  I was fine with it. I drank it. But then I felt flushed, just a real rush of hot …

Allen glanced around to make sure no one else was listening.

“And I got an erection.”

“Uh-huh.”

“They put this metal cup on it and sucked out my sperm.”

The story was winding down.

“Later Brenda told me they’d stuck a needle in her womb, and took samples of hair and blood.”

“Uh-huh.”

“And you were on the ship.  Randy. Did you hear me? You were on the ship, in another one of the cubicles.”

Allen drained his drink and called the server over to order another round.  He was waiting for Randy to say something. After a while, he broke the silence himself.

“There was something about seeing that saucer with the kid on the cross-country, Randy.  The kid saw it, right in front of us. And I didn’t see it. And the kid goes, ‘Don’t you see that?  Don’t you see that?’ And I didn’t see it at all. But he was so scared, terrified. And I said, ‘Don’t be afraid.  They won’t hurt you.’ And that’s when it all came back to me, my whole life. Right there on descent into Lowell, Indiana.  They’ve been coming for me my whole life, Randy. I’m some kind of experiment for them.”

Randy let out a sigh and stretched, like a bad cramp had just relaxed.  “I don’t know where you’re going with this. This is crazy.”

“I remember everything now.  Everything. They’ve been coming for you, too, Randy.  That’s what I figure. And for a lot of us. There were like fifty rooms on that ship, and they had somebody in every one of them.”

“Jesus, Allen, this is crazy.  Do you know how this sounds?”

“Do you ever have blackouts?  Ever?”

Randy couldn’t remember if he’d ever blacked out.

“And have you always been interested in space?  In flying? Always looking up there like there’s something to figure out?  I’ve always wanted to fly, always. Got my license when I was 17. Didn’t have the vision to be a professional pilot, so I became an air traffic controller.  It’s like I’m waiting, watching. Always waiting for them to come.”

“Ok, Allen,” Randy said.  “I don’t know what you want from me.”

“I don’t want anything from you, Randy.  I just want … I just want…” Allen was looking for the right words.  “I just, I don’t want to feel so alone with this thing anymore.” Allen looked sad.  Not because he was ashamed that aliens made him masturbate into a metal cup on their flying saucer, but because he felt so totally, completely alone.  

“What about Brenda?”

“Brenda won’t remember.” Allen corrected himself.  It wasn’t like she had a choice. “She can’t remember.”  

“You told her?”

“Of course I told her.  Once I got things straightened out, I couldn’t not tell her.  I just can’t go on that way.”

“Are you still together?”

Allen paused.  His second drink was coming.  He waited until the server left them and continued.  “I don’t know. I just don’t know.”

There was a long silence, and Randy was glad for the second drink.  Finally, Allen said, “So! What you been up to lately?”

They both laughed like they’d just pulled off a high school prank.  It was the first time Randy had laughed since his days in the tower at SJC.

Randy was a wreck at work the next morning from staying out all night.  He missed correction after correction and made mistake after mistake. Sally the typist was getting fed up.  She was intolerant today for some reason. Finally, Matt had to talk to him.

“Hey, man,” Matt said.  He seemed low key and was doing his best to show understanding.  “I understand. If you can afford it, why don’t you just take the day off and go home.”

Randy could afford it, but he didn’t want to be alone.  He didn’t want to be with anyone, but he didn’t want to be alone either.

“I’m ok,” he said. “Look, an old friend came in from out-of-state last night.”  Randy was resorting to the I used to be an air traffic controller play.  “We used to be air traffic controllers together.  There was this one crash, AirCal Flight 336. It crashed, and my friend thinks it was his fault.  He can’t forgive himself, and it’s getting his marriage into trouble. He felt he needed to talk to someone who could understand.”

Matt nodded his head like he knew Randy was lying but was ok with it.  “It’s ok, Randy,” he said. “Arnie’s out too.” He paused. “So it’s ok.  There’s nobody who’s going to hold it against you.”

What the hell, Randy thought.  And he got up to leave.

Sally stopped him.  “I’m sorry, Randy,” she said.  “I’m being a bitch today. I’m just so worried about Arnie.”

“It’s ok, Sally,” Randy said.  What the hell, he thought. Is everyone just going nuts?

Sally hesitated as if she didn’t know how Randy was going to take what she was about to say.  But she said it anyway. “He’s got GRID. Randy? Did you know that?”

No, Randy didn’t know that.  He had no idea what she was talking about, and she could tell.

“Randy, it’s the disease.  It’s been in all the papers.  Arnie’s already lost friends because of it.”

It was inappropriate to turn your back on someone just because he had a disease over which he had no control, Randy thought.  It was wrong.

“They’re calling it AIDS now,” she said.  “It’s all over the news.”

Randy wasn’t sure what to say.  

“You take care of yourself,” Sally said.  She gave him a hug and said goodbye. But she’d see him at work again tomorrow.

A few weeks later, they came for him in his bed.  They offered to suppress his memory, but he told them he didn’t need it anymore.

On the ship, he disrobed and sat on the table in the examination room.  The ship hummed quietly and was bathed in soft green light. Randy felt comfortable for the first time in a long while.  He wished he’d be able to remember after this time. On every visit, he could remember all the other visits, and his mind was clear.  He knew exactly who and where he was, and his mind and memory were sound. On every visit, he remembered the other visits clearly, and he realized that he would be made to forget them when they were done with him.  That’s the one thing he didn’t like. He liked the way being chosen made him feel important. But he didn’t like not being able to remember. And he didn’t like the way his mind worked in-between visits. It was as if now, in the ship, with the visitors, he was his waking self, the real Randall Cross.  The one that people knew, the Randy at work, Randy the tenant or the neighbor, Randy the customer, Randy the friend, that was the dreaming one, the pretend real life a hallucination.

This time something was different.

“What’s wrong?” Randy asked.

The visitors communicated telepathically and could not censor their thoughts.  There was no deception in them and no stealth. But the result was a constant stream of consciousness that overwhelmed Randy’s mind.  And if there were more than one nearby, Randy felt their whisperings competing inside his head. Ironically, his thoughts were not exposed to them.  They could not guard him from hearing their minds, yet they could not read his. To understand him, they had to hear Randy speak.

Normally the complications of thoughts dovetailing in their minds presented a rushing flow of information that Randy could not assemble in linear fashion.  The visitors thought all at once and did not unfold their instructions or desires one after another in linear fashion. Yet, they were not confusing. Listening to them was calming.  It put Randy in a passive, receptive state of mind. He was at peace in this state, because there was nothing he needed to do. It was only when he was required to act on their information that he had to force himself to dissemble the One Thought into something that resembled sentences with temporal structure and a logic based on beginnings, middles, and ends.

This time, when Randy asked, “What’s wrong?” she only gave him two thoughts. This was surprising.  Only two thoughts? These two thoughts are important, Randy recognized.

“You are too old now,” she said.  “We can’t use you anymore, so we will be saying goodbye after tonight.  And the ship is in trouble. There’s something wrong with the navigation system.”

The first thought was alarming.  He knew that if the visitors were done with him and would never return, the Randy who lived in the dreaming life of the real world would fall into a deep depression.  The people in the dream would wonder why he was drifting so far away. He imagined that separating from the visitors would leave a void in the dream, and that Randy would have to find a way to kill himself one day, and no one would ever know why.  Perhaps he would seek out Arnie, the Quality Control Manager at Mage Technical Publications, and learn how to acquire an immune deficiency.

“Don’t leave me,” he asked.  The visitor understood that he simply wanted her company now, on this final visit, for as long as possible.  She understood that he knew his place in the order of things and accepted his fate. But for now, as a kindness, if she could be with him, he would appreciate it very much.

“Come with me,” she said.

“Thank you,” Randy said.  She waited for him to dress, and let him accompany her on her rounds.

He greeted Allen warmly when they came to his examination room.

“Thanks for trying the other night,” Randy said.  “What’s it like, being able to remember?”

She fetched a vial of the green liquid and gave it to Allen.   

“I’m still never completely clear.  I can remember, but it’s like remembering a dream.  It’s like I’m only a little out, but not altogether.”

“How does it happen?” they asked her.

“At a certain point we don’t mind if you remember.  We know you won’t hurt us. When that happens, we lessen the retraction of your memories.  At some point, a significant joyous or traumatic event triggers the recognition that releases the memories.  At that point, you come close to us.”

She transmitted these ideas in the time it took to hum a single musical sound.

“Will I remember, then?” Randy asked.  If the dreaming Randy could wake, he might be able to sustain the life without her, nourished by his memories.

“You are not yet at that place,” she said.

“But can’t you keep visiting until you lead me there?”

“You are too old.  We can’t use you anymore.”

“But can’t you just visit anyway, please, until I come close enough to you to remember?”

“It doesn’t work that way.  Some people never get to that point.”

Randy understood.

“Bottom’s up,” Allen said, and he knocked back the green drink.  “Now if you’ll excuse me,” he said, laughing. Randy respected his privacy and left with a smile.

When they came to Brenda’s examination room, she expressed her concern.

“It’s terrible not to remember when he can.  I see myself in those times between visits, and it’s like I’m watching a movie, or looking at someone I don’t even know.  I can see poor Allen explaining the truth to me, and I just can’t bring myself to hear it. Now, in this place, I know how horrible my ignorance there is.  But still I am at peace here.”

“I wish I could do something to help,” Randy said.

“I think we’ll be ok.  We have to be. Somewhere inside, I have to know that it’s true, that he’s telling the truth.  There has to be someplace inside of myself where I know. Or it’s just too horrible to consider.”

The visitor told Randy to come with her.  Something was happening on the bridge.

The visitors all were of agitated mind.  Something was wrong with the ship.

Randy didn’t have to inquire.  The air was full of their concern.

“The navigation system has failed and we cannot steer anymore.  We can’t communicate our location to the mother ship.”

“How do you steer?” Randy asked.

They told him.

“What do you mean you cannot see?” Randy asked.

It became clear to him.  

“I can save the ship,” Randy said.  “I was an air traffic controller. I can look here, on this screen, and see the other ships.  I can tell them where you are at.”

They agreed.  Their almond eyes smiled.

“Control, this is SJC,” Randy said, just to say something familiar.  The ship was listing slowly now. Another few minutes, another few feet, and it would all crash to the ground, for everyone in Lombard to see.  

Randy looked out the windshield.  He looked at the instruments bathed in green light.  He determined their geographical position. They’d flown from Washington through California then northeasterly from Nevada through Utah, Colorado, Nebraska and Iowa into Illinois.  

 

“41° 52’ 48” North, 88° 0’ 28” West,” Randy announced.

 

“They can see us,” said the visitors.  “We get in trouble with the supervisor when we allow ourselves to be seen.”

 

“Don’t be afraid,” Randy told them.  “Tomorrow morning somebody will call the planetarium to report a UFO sighting.  No one will believe them. It won’t matter if anyone does.”

 

From the south, several small crafts arrived to encircle the airship.  They bobbed and weaved a tapestry of invisible power around the unmoving mass, fixing it to the sky.  In a few minutes, the repairs would be made.

The visitors’ thoughts became calm.  They thanked Randy and answered his request.  “Yes, you can stay with us. We might need an air traffic controller again.”

Randy was delighted.  They let him sit in the console in front of the green navigation screens and delivered the transcendent thoughts of higher beings who take great pleasure in seeing the joy of a child.

Randy laughed and answered the starship that hovered above North America.  He pinpointed the other airships that were patrolling Eastern Canada and the Southern United States.  Soon they would all rendezvous behind a star.

“I’m gay, and I live on a ship in outer space!” he declared.

In November of 1982, that was a startling thing for an Earth man to say.   

 

Diane Funston, 5/7/2018

Current Occupation: Diane Funston is currently retired from working with adults with developmental disabilities and at-risk elementary school children. 

Previos Occupation: Diane’s former occupation, and the one depicted in the poem was working in the gift shop of a zoo as a retail salesperson and cashier. 

Contact Information: Diane grew up in Rochester, New York and has lived in California for over 20 years. She has been published in San Diego Poetry Annual, Summation, Poetry Now, Whirlwind, and several other publications. She enjoys gardening, making mosaics, her family, including three dogs. 
 

 

#

Break Time

I sit in the picnic park,

lunchtime from the working day.

Sport-utility vehicles flank my Corolla,

absorbing the sun with their noon-time mass.

 

Blond children burst from Explorer's doors,

trekking across plastic playground

towards a serpentine tunnel slide.

I eat my sandwich, chomp on cold cuts,

smile and nod to younger mothers

at a different table.

 

"Bill—Bob—Ben—got his promotion last month",

say the moms, sipping Snapple, watching the kids climb higher.

"The vacation to Colorado—Connecticut—Cape Cod—was superb.

Oh, Ashley—Alicia—Allison—don't tear your Oshkosh

On rusty public swings.

Sorry girls, it's just the stress

from the remodeling,

the workers are taking longer

than I imagine a job could take."

 

They remain animated in parallel conversations.

I get up, crumble wax paper,

pack my recyclable drink bottle

in my Arctic Cooler bag.

I pull my car from between trendier shadows,

drive back to the working world.

 

Later, I enter my apartment door.

Later still, after clients—children—clothes washing—

I sit at my table

seething silent stanzas,

aimed at blank paper,

like lawn darts landing

in suburban backyards.

 

Charles Rammelkamp, 4/30/2018

Current Occupation: Retired, Reviews editor for Adirondack Review
Former Occupation: Technical Writer and Teacher
Contact Information: I am the Prose Editor for  BrickHouse Books, in Baltimore and a compulsive writer, which falls more in the category of stuff-I-do than stuff-I-get-paid-for. Recent books include MATA HARI: EYE OF THE DAY, and AMERICAN ZEITGEIST, both as published by Apprentice House (Loyola University), and a chapbook, JACK TAR’S LADY PARTS published by Main Street Rag. Forthcoming from FutureCycle Press in 2018 is another chapbook, ME AND SAL PARADISE.

 

#

Stuck

 

“Long way to Quincy from Kenmore Square,” Riley, the warehouse manager said when I reported for duty as the weekend security guard, duded up in my uniform: navy pants, officer’s cap, badge and jacket.  My first day. He had one of those squeaky Boston accents (kwin-zee, ken-moah skuay-uh).

“Green line to red line on the T, but yeah, took maybe an hour to get here,” I nodded.

Riley looked me up and down, a guy in his fifties with a too-small herringbone sports jacket, a grease-spotted tie on a shirt that didn’t button at the neck, a cigar in his hand like an extra finger.

It was 1975. I was taking a “gap year” between college and grad. school, though it wasn’t called that at the time. I’d come to Boston from Potawatomi Rapids, Michigan, where I’d gone to college, a Midwesterner through and through.

“You go see the Red Sawx much?” he asked around his cigar.

“Once or twice.”

“Okay, well, this job ain’t much. About the worst is some kids throwing stones at the warehouse (wayuhhouse) out back, but mostly it’s slow around here (aroun he-yuh).”

“My commanding officer,” I said, not sure what the proper title was for my boss, O’Malley, “told me I should make the watchclock rounds every two hours, write up a report.”

Riley flinched at that “commanding officer.” He looked like he was probably a war vet, Korea or World War Two, and probably thought I was playing army or something. Commanding officer. What should I call him? I didn’t even have a gun, not even a nightstick.

“Okay, I’ll show you the rounds.”

    We walked through the various stations, covering enough of the building to get a thorough overview of the territory. If anything was amiss, I’d be sure to notice when I made my rounds.

    “This elevator (elevaytuh) can get stuck sometimes,” Riley said, puffing on his cigar, when we got to the back of the warehouse. He’d shown me all of the stations I needed to pass, the big clocks with the keyholes where I’d twist the key on my belt to show I’d been by.

I nodded.

“Just be careful.” (kehfil)

I nodded.

“There,” he pointed with his cigar out the back bay where the trucks drove up, “they’re out there.” (They-uh they-uh out they-uh). A group of teenagers roved around like feral cats, throwing railroad-sized rocks in the direction of the warehouse. He shook his head. “Kids,” he muttered. Then he raised his voice, pointing the cigar between middle and pointer finger. “Get lost!” he shouted. They ignored him and we continued on our way, Riley unperturbed.

The service elevator was indeed unreliable. You pushed the buttons and it juddered up from the first to the second floor, protesting all the way. It was during my 4:00 AM rounds, a Styrofoam cup of burnt coffee in my hand, that the damn thing gave out between floors. Just stopped.

I began to panic when it wouldn’t move, seeing myself stuck here until Monday morning when somebody showed up for work. I was stuck. In fact, I was stuck in my life, it occurred to me. What was I even doing here, working as a security guard? Had I thought it would be a cool, exciting gig, like Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op, instead of a tedious drudge? And what about graduate school next year? Did I really want to pursue a degree in Economics? Wouldn’t a degree in Film Studies be more interesting? But my parents called that a waste of time.

And my romantic life? I was stuck there, too, going nowhere. I’d recently broken up with my girlfriend in Potawatomi Rapids, or rather, the relationship had died on its own. Shirley wanted to settle down in Muncie, Indiana, where her family lived, and she wanted me to settle down there with her, stuck in some sort of assistant manager job in a bank or some such. She’d spelled it out more than once. But I remembered being naked with her and my breath quickened with the memory of her body.

I’d just about given up trying to get the fucking elevator to work. For a couple of hours now I’d been pushing that unresponsive button like a B.F. Skinner pigeon pecking for food. But what else was there to do? Plus, the rancid coffee had worked its way through my system and I really needed to pee. I pressed the button again, and – mirabile dictu – the elevator started to move! Relief flooded over me when the doors opened on the second floor and I stepped out of the elevator.

Suddenly the idea of studying Economics seemed like a welcome, exciting prospect after all. Markets, fiscal policy, economic growth. And Shirley? Well, maybe getting back together with Shirley really wasn’t such a good idea.  

 

Kyle Kutz, 4/23/2018

Current Occupation: Security Officer, Freelance Writer, Small Business Owner
Former Occupation: Salesman, Laborer 
Contact Information: Kyle Kutz is a semi-recent graduate of Kutztown University, earning his B.A. in professional writing. His work has appeared in Expressions, Essence, Shoofly, Draft, The Jet Press, Better Than Starbucks!, Not Your Mother's Breast Milk, Gumption, and Aberration Labyrinth. He resides in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, writing freelance for LNP and marketing for Woven Spectrums, a local boutique.

 

#

The Dance

Perform,
Damn it!

They judge,
You deliver:

Your heart,
Your body,
Your mind,
Your soul.

And hope –
No, pray –
That your all is enough

To breathe,
Once again,

To hold
Your head high.

 

#

Free Samples

Please,
Just toss away
Your napkin,

So as not
To pollute my tray.

I'd hate for others
To catch an illness,

Like your lack
Of common courtesy,
Today.

#

Blue Collar

I've died
A few times before.

Havin' slaved, labored,
Like a two-bit whore,

Just to cater to
Her every whim

Before she ran,
Out the door,
Seekin' life again.

 

Bradford Middleton, 4/16/2018

Current Occupation:  Low-grade sales assistant for big supermarket company.
Former Occupation: Student, Music PR, writer, admin serf.
Contact Information: Bradford Middleton lives in Brighton on England's south coast.  When he isn't writing stories and poems he can often be found on the check-out at a local supermarket.  For more from him follow @beatnikbraduk on Twitter.

#
SECURITY ALERT: AN UNUSUAL DAY AT THE CHECKOUTS

Scotty is stood on the checkouts, it's another day at work, another long four hours that will drag like a bug through treacle, bored, alone and with his pre-work joint buzz wearing off rapidly he is desperate for something, anything interesting to happen.  But it never does, not here, not in this palace of doom, depression and occasional real insanity.  Just as he is contemplating life outside this place, this place that continues to bring him down, continues to leave him worried about the state of life and his mind, the possibility of a drink later that evening, a police car pulls up outside the store.  This doesn't always immediately get his attention as the sandwich store up a couple of doors seems popular with the police and whilst he never saw any of them on the streets their cars, with their ubiquitous sirens wailing, were a common sight indeed.  A far too common sight unfortunately but never coming to arrest the shoplifters who persist to target Scotty's shop, not that it bothers him as they are generally homeless with no money and desperate for something to eat and it ain't his store, just another generic supermarket chain.  Moments later though the impossible happens.

"You!" One of the officers shouts, sounding quietly scared of what he is about to do, "Don't move, stay right where you are!"

The other pulls a tazer off his belt and points it, with a huge noticeboard and pillar blocking his view Jack isn't immediately sure but it could only be one person.  It has to be the shops' security guard or else he has apprehended a minor convict and that kind of thing never happens.  Scotty realizing what is going on maybe of interest to some of his colleagues he gets on the in-store tannoy and sends a call-out to all staff.

"All staff to check-outs please" he intones knowing there will be groans downstairs in the warehouse but he knows this will most certainly be more interesting.  As Scotty moves front and center of the checkouts he witnesses a scene he thought he'd never see, not here anywhere, something so surreal it is still a struggle to realise even whilst looking at it.  The stores' security guard has his right arm up behind his back with a police officer pushing him up against the newspaper rack, the other still poised, tazer at the ready.  A bag drops from under Fred's jacket, a carrier bag that splits wide open, revealing a hundred more bags, a much smaller variety of bag, inside of which appears to be a huge quantity of hashish.  Scotty stands back, astonished at the scene, whilst also trying to work out exactly just how much smoke there is on the floor.

Alan, the shops manager, finally gets his weighty presence onto the shop floor and upon hearing the voices at the end of the aisle starts talking in his bumbling style.

"What, well look here, what is going on here?  What are you doing with Fred?"

As the policeman with Fred in the arm-lock fixes the cuffs around his wrists the other, having secured his tazer back on to his belt, turns to Alan.

"Are you the shops manager?"

"Yes, well yes I am, I'm Alan Salter and you will need to explain yourself, what is going on?"

"This man has been selling narcotics from under your very nose, a very smart operation that has taken us a while to piece together.  He's been selling out of your shop for a good few months now, we reckon six but it didn't come to our attention for a while.  We are placing him under arrest for possession with intent to supply and with all this evidence I think that shouldn't be too difficult," he says finally reaching down and piling the whole lot into an evidence bag, "with all this material.  I would recommend you need a new security guard as Fred here isn't going to be available for work for a fair while, potentially a very long while."

"Well, OK, you can understand my astonishment at this situation though, I had no idea, I'm sure none of my staff knew anything either."

"Your astonishment is easily understood, I did tell you it was a very smart operation and we will obviously need to talk to you and all your staff at some point in the next forty-eight hours."

"OK," Alan announces as a community support officer enters the shop, pen and pad poised. 

"This officer will take down all details and we look forward to speaking with each one of you shortly."  The two officers return to their car through a throng of people looking on aghast at the unfolding scene as inside the community support officer begins to take down details.

It is all the staff can talk about for the rest of the shift, even occasionally with a customer despite express instructions from Alan not to mention it to anyone outside the company.  Scotty hates Alan and never pays any attention to his instructions anyway and best of all it doesn't seem to matter.  If only Scotty had known about Fred's inventive little scheme he would, almost certainly, have tried to buy some of the good stuff off him but as it is the moment he walks from the shop at the end of his shift all he can think about is what he is going to say to the police when they call.  Eventually after smoking a forest of weed he finally calms himself enough to sleep that night only to be so rudely interrupted the next morning at seven a.m.  He knows immediately who it is.

'Bastards' he thinks, deciding that he needs a big mug of coffee, to help him cope with what the morning has to throw at him. 

"Hello," he says.  The officer at the end of the line begins talking, confirming details and then asking, as if a question, if he is available to be at the station by eight a.m.

"Sure," Scotty says before hanging up the phone moving back to his armchair and drinking his coffee and smoking a cozy little joint to help him ease into the day.  About ten before eight Scotty climbs from his chair, pulls on a jacket, something vaguely traditional, and leaves.  Arriving just in time he is escorted through the inner corridors to a room where the officers he saw yesterday wait for him along with, he guesses by the appearance of a non-uniform type, their direct superior.

The officer who yesterday appeared to be in charge is walking the room, pacing around, looking at how Scotty is behaving, taking mental notes whilst the actual arresting officer sits hunched over a notepad at the table which is nailed to the floor.

"So," yesterdays' leader begins, "we are currently developing a theory, a theory that implicates you.  We've seen your record, the life you lead before you got down here and we can even piece together some of the details connecting you."

Scotty sits, shocked and all at once terrified.  Anytime he'd been sat in a police station before it had always been because he was guilty and it wasn't that big a deal, a minor bust for possession, one for criminal damage, that was all, nothing like this. 

The officer in plain clothes coughs loudly before slowly beginning to outline the links they are investigating.

"We see you have some educational background that should perhaps place you higher on the food-chain, a Masters degree is it?"

'How deep have they dug?' Scotty worries but remains silent.

"What would make you want to stay in that kind of job for ten years, a whole decade in fact?"

Scotty knows if he remains silent there is nothing they can do, they are trapped unless they find an invisible connection between him and the person they currently have under arrest.  There is nothing to it, they have no evidence but they attempt to make him squirm in his seat for at least six hours, six hours that made any day at work, any length of shift he had endured before, appear like a walk on a beach on a sunny day.

iDrew, 4/9/2018

Current Occupation: Retail. Assistant manageress (living the dream!)
Former Occupation: Call Centre Operator / Customer Relations
Contact Information: Writing under the name of iDrew, to co-ordinate with her titles, Essex girl Drew has previously been published both on-line and in print.  She enjoys shopping, boys and clubs, claiming these are merely research for her writing.  She is one of the founding members of the Clueless Collective and to be found at:  Clueless Collective – Home

 

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iCooper Clarke

yet again fucking rush i’m fucking late
‘cos i got drunk stoned shagged on a hot date
in a tiz i’m going fucking beserk
spilt me cuppa all down me fucking skirt
forgot to iron me crap fucking top        
that fucking says i fucking work
from nine to fucking six o’clock
in quidland

me fucking wholemeal toast is fucking burnt
me fucking hangover’s banging proper fucking hurts
the fucking radio’s a moronic drone 
can’t recall where the fuck’s me fucking phone
me keys me keys shit where the fuck’s me keys
now me brain’s got a memory disease
just as well i ain’t paid to think
just look cute act like an air hostess
in quidland

the fucking boss thinks it’s a bit of fun 
to lay his sweaty paws upon my bum 
all fucking grins when brushing passed my tits
i’ll fucking slap the pervy git 
i’ll fucking kick ‘im in his nuts
i’ll fucking tell me fucking bloke
who’ll fucking mash ‘im to a pulp
all fucking blood and fucking guts 
‘round the back
of quidland

this fucking place ain’t worth a fucking poke
the fucking pay is one sick fucking joke
you can fucking stick this shit fucking job
i’ve more than had e-fucking-nuff
i just don’t give a fucking toss
when i walk out it’s quidland’s loss
i’ll get a job
in top shop
 

Colleen Wells, 4/2/2018

Current Occupation: Writer, Mom with emptying nest, Volunteer, Antiques Vendor, Furniture Painter/Crafter, Activities Assistant, Stringer for a small Newspaper
Former Occupation: Adjunct Faculty at Ivy Tech Community College
Contact Information: Colleen Wells’ work has appeared in Potomac Review, The Voices Project, and Veils, Halos & Shackles – International Poetry on the Oppression and Empowerment of Women. Her memoir, Dinner With Doppelgangers – A True Story of Madness and Recovery became a springboard for mental health discussions and inspired her to become certified as a community health worker/peer recovery specialist. She edited One in Four, an anthology of student mental illness narratives. Colleen taught college courses and currently works as an activity assistant and stringer for a weekly newspaper. You can read more about her work at: www.dinnerwithdoppelgangers.com www.ColleenWells.com

 

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Taking Care of Business

Hypomania – In bipolar disorder, a mild-to-moderate level of mania, the period marked by increased energy, euphoric mood, restlessness and racing thoughts. Hypomania may become mania or depression.

www.healthtalk.com/bipolardisorder/diseasebasics06.cfm

 

Note: Some names and distinguishing characteristics have been changed. Some events have been compressed in time in service to the story.

 

There is no gentle ascent into mania for me. Once I’m “up,” I usually turn the corner into psychosis pretty quickly. Some highlights from the last time this happened — six years ago — include me running into a snowy night at 2:30 a.m. wielding a large, white cross constructed from foam core with the word “possum” painted in purple. Later at the hospital I stood under the TV mounted on the wall waiting to get sucked into it. The trigger for this psychotic episode was work-related. I was teaching a semester-long course offered in a concentrated week-long January session. The tremendous preparation and complicated commute contributed to my spiral into madness.

I’ve held other various part-time jobs since but now I need to work full-time, to earn more money and see if I can pull it off.

I note throughout my job search that the local chain art supply / home décor store always has a sign on the door indicating they are hiring. As my employment prospects grow slimmer, I decide to apply. This will be minimum wage work, but it is close to our house, and I won’t be bringing any work home with me.

 

When I get a call from Tim, the store manager about an interview, I feel lucky. Upon my arrival, I follow Tim upstairs to his office. He scans my application. Tim’s dark hair is cut short, with some grey on the sides. He’s a little bit cute.

“What kind of activities did you do at the assisted living home?”

I detect a northern accent, Wisconsin, maybe.

    “I took the residents to the grocery store. I brought in all sorts of entertainers, including an Elvis impersonator. We did things to improve their quality of life.”

    Tim smiles.

    “Before that I taught college classes part-time, but then we moved from Indiana.”

During the next phase of the interview he explains the details of the job. “We’re looking for someone to help Martha in home accents. It’s our toughest department, and it’s growing. The truck comes on Thursdays. Nobody leaves until it’s empty.”

    I nod, wondering how big that truck is.

Tim’s demeanor changes from amiable to business-like. He hands me a piece of paper, saying, “This is a math test. If you don’t pass, we can’t go on with the interview. You need to get at least eight answers right.”

    “Math test!” I blurt. “I’m terrible at math.”

    “You can use the calculator on your phone if you have one. I’ll be back in ten minutes.”

    I have a cell phone but no clue whether it’s got math capabilities. My heart starts racing. I stare at the sixteen problems.

    The first few are basic addition and subtraction. Then I move on to the middle section which asks me to calculate percentages of prices.

    I’m working on computing sales tax when Tim walks in the room. Handing him my paper, I say, “I didn’t finish.”

    He pushes it back toward me, instructing I go ahead and complete it.

    I hurry along and give him the test, certain the interview will soon be over.

    “You got nine right,” he says after checking it.

    “I squeaked by, huh?”

He flips through his papers, then stops and begins drumming his fingers on top of them, as if deep in thought.

    “You’ve got the job if you want it.”

    “Wow!” I say. “I’d like it.”

    “Come in tomorrow and see Heather about the paperwork. She’s in the next office. There’s some training videos you need to watch.”

    As I turn to go, I look out his window, noticing that the view allows him to see the whole store.

    That night over pizza I tell my family the good news.

“So you’re going to have to help keep your rooms clean better than you do,” I caution the boys.

    “Okay,” they say without enthusiasm.

    “Mom, will you make a lot of money?” asks Yakob, our youngest.

    “Not a lot,” I say, “But some.”

    “I’m happy for you, Bean,” says my husband, Rick.

    I smile, helping myself to another slice, pinching off a corner of crust to toss to Bear, our fluffy, big-hearted Border-Collie mix, pants at my feet.

    The next afternoon I find Heather busy at her desk counting money. She’s wearing plastic gloves and is coughing. Heather is middle-aged and sports large glasses. The sides of her hair are pulled back in silver barrettes.

    “Hi, Colleen,” she says. “Give me just a minute.” Hacking again, she adds, “I was out for three days with this walking pneumonia.”

    “I just got over something, too,” I say.  

    What I don’t offer is that I do not want to catch anything else.

    I sit in the spare chair and work on the tax forms, handing them back to her with my driver’s license. “I couldn’t find my social security card,” I say. Some time ago I had hid it at home and now can’t remember where.  “Will a passport work?” I ask.

    “Yeah, just bring it with you on Monday.” She types something in the computer, saying, “Colleen—You don’t meet many Colleens.”

    We go to the break-room and she hands me a stack of videotapes and the television remote saying, “Sorry it’s so grimy.”

    There is a Coke machine and Pepsi machine along with a vending machine for snacks. As I watch the videos, the Pepsi machine makes loud noises at varying decibels, so I keep turning up the volume. During the safety video I am surprised by the statistics of injuries due to products falling from the top shelves of stores. I begin to worry about a piece of furniture or pottery falling on my head. There’s also a skit where an employee reaches for something on a top shelf and starts falling.

    As if it isn’t enough to have bipolar disorder, I have anxiety too. I hate climbing ladders and heights in general.

    In between videos I make sure to rewind the tapes.  While I’m waiting to move on to the next video regarding protocol for when children go missing in the store, the television channel defaults to a documentary about St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital. I hear about a small toddler with brain cancer. Part of his brain was removed and now he can’t walk very well. Then a bald teenage girl and her mom take the screen. Her mother says, “The doctor said if it ever comes back it would progress quickly.” Whenever I’m channel-surfing at home and I see a show like this I quickly change the channel.

   

On Monday I locate Heather in her office to complete the rest of my paperwork. Handing her my passport I say, “I should have asked Tim this, but will I be required to go up on a tall ladder? I don’t think I’d be very good at that.”

“Not a real tall one, unless a customer needs something taken down.” She hands me a lock for my locker and its combination on a sticky note, then walks me to the break room where the Monday morning meeting is in session. Heather points to a tall, dented, industrial-looking locker which already has my name on it.

“You can go ahead and sit down,” orders Tim from the head of the table while everyone watches me struggle to fit my hulking Vera Bradley purse in the locker.

After the meeting I sift through the videos on the table and find the one on cashiering. It isn’t rewound, so I put it in the VCR and rewind it. The volume on the television has to be cranked up to forty because the Pepsi machine is making a racket again. As the video progresses with cashiering skits and instruction, I begin to recognize some of the same actors. The woman who was a shoplifter in the last video is a paying customer in this one.

 

That night I have trouble falling asleep. When I get to work the next day, Roxanne, another manager, greets me at the door and says my floor trainer Martha is going to be late, so I should walk around and familiarize myself with home decor some more. Roxanne, who looks to be in her seventies, is tall with slightly stooped shoulders, has weathered skin and wears a belt around her back to support lifting.

When Martha finally arrives around 9:30 I’m in the aisle with the smaller wall art, examining a black and white piece that says, As for me and my house, we shall serve the Lord. I recognize Martha from the Monday morning meeting. She has thin, penciled-in eyebrows and dark circles under her eyes. Her hair is black and curled under all around the edges of her head. I wonder why she is late, given there’s a huge poster on the wall by the break room admonishing tardiness.

We walk around home accents and she straightens pillows and throws as she goes. “At the end of the day you’ll do recovery, and make sure everything’s straightened up. It’s not hard.” Following her lead, I tuck a white tag back underneath a beaded pillow.

“I’ll teach you how to do orders,” says Martha. “We need to go get the book.”

I notice Martha is chewing gum and try to remember from the training video if we can have gum. There was a skit of a guy was drinking a soda and eating a candy bar at the register. He got chocolate on a lampshade, and the customer went home enraged and had all her friends over and told them not to shop there anymore.

Martha locates a thick, black binder in a plastic box in the hallway. On the way back to the floor she grabs a shopping cart. As we cruise the aisles, Martha says, “I’ll be ordering lamps and furniture and you’ve got the rest.”

The home décor looks like about three fourths of the store’s home accents inventory, while lamps and furniture only comprise a few aisles. I feel light-headed for a moment, like I might have a panic attack, but thankfully the moment passes.

“I’ll show you the back room,” Martha says, navigating the cart through the aisles at a fast clip. I wonder if Tim is watching us from the huge window above as I try to keep up with her. She pushes the metal doors open with the buggy.  A chemical smell permeates the huge room. Green metal racks line the walls from floor to ceiling. I hear the song Holiday by Madonna emanating from a long, messy work bench, but can’t locate the radio amongst the pile of broken lamps and knickknacks. Pallets of merchandise sit in the interior of the space. Along the far side wall is a bailer and incinerator.

Martha parks the cart by a wall of stone pedestals. “The last one they had in here helping me would wander off a lot and kind of do her own thing.”

“Oh really?” I thought Tim said this was a newly created position.

Martha reaches for a flat piece of wood on a shelf and places it on the cart. “You can put your book on here,” she says, opening the binder.

We go back to the floor and she instructs me how to compare what’s in the book to what’s on the shelves, starting with framed art. “You got ya a pen?” she asks.

“I think so,” I say, locating one in my pocket. “Are you sure it’s okay to use a pen?” I remembered from the video one of the actors kept saying to use a pencil when ordering.

“It’s your book. Just go ahead and mark in there.”

When we finish with framed art, it’s time for the decorative balls. By afternoon we’ve progressed to the round displays of what’s called “men’s items.” There are polyresin statues of two-headed eagles, pen holders shaped like cowboy boots, metal fire trucks, wooden tortoises, piggy banks shaped like baseballs, and fake books that you can hide stuff in. I select a mahogany one with a gold edge of faux pages. This would be a good place for me to hide my social security card and small documents at home, but I decide it looks too fake.

I can see through the front doors that a rainstorm has begun. Later, while unwrapping some plastic chargers, I note the sky looks an eerie shade of greenish-grey.

“Does Tim tell everyone when there’s tornados or something because it’s looking bad outside and my husband said there might be some.”

Martha keeps unpacking chargers and doesn’t say anything.

A good minute passes.

“I mean does he tell you where to go if something happens?”

“Yeah.”

Next there are some large decorative plates which Martha asks me to display, pointing where to place them on a top shelf. “Just go find you a ladder.” She pauses, raising one of her pencil-thin eyebrows at me. “Oh wait a minute, you’re the one that doesn’t like ladders.”

“It’s just the tall ladders.”

“You’ll only have to go up a step or two. Then you can go to lunch.”

While on the ladder, I can’t figure out how to put together the plate holder for the display. The plates are heavy and I don’t want anything falling on anyone’s head, so I leave it for later.

During my break I step outside to call Susan, my best friend.

When she doesn’t answer, I hear the lyrics to a Killers song she set for her ring-tone. The chosen one, A southern drawl, In a world unseen. While I’ve heard these lyrics a hundred times before, I wonder if they might have some special meaning applicable to me and my new job. But I stop myself after I realize it’s already gone to voicemail because it is when I search too hard for meaning that I get into trouble. Last time I was manic, I thought the answers to life’s greatest questions could be found in Tom Robbin’s book, Still Life with Woodpecker, and I called several people to tell them to read it, including random acquaintances like the contractor who had remodeled our house once.

A younger employee rushes outside while muttering something about “those red candles.” She lights a cigarette. Her long, brown hair is parted in the middle with over an inch of outgrowth of grey hair, giving her the appearance of having a stripe at the top of her head. I recall during the Monday morning meeting that when she spoke her thoughts seemed scattered but Martha still hasn’t introduced me to anyone, so I don’t know her name.

“Can you imagine having candles?”

“No,” I say.

I can tell that she’s touched, and feel sorry for her because I think when you are younger and go grey it means you’ve already had a tough life. Then when you try to dye it, but can’t afford to keep it up, that means you’re still having a tough life.

“Good luck with the candles,” I offer, and go inside.

Upon return to my unfinished task of the plates, I see that someone else has already completed it, which makes me assume they think I’m inept, so I pile up another cart and get to work. I am hoping to find something cool like woven baskets.

 During my tenure back-up cashier from 1-2, when I’m alone at the register a woman walks in, her hair plastered to the sides of her face from the rain. “Do you know where the snow globes are?” Her eyes look crazed like she’s been given divine instruction to find them. I can relate to those types of marching orders. Once when I was ascending from mania to psychosis, I

was convinced I was God’s messenger and compiled random objects like paperclips and a children’s book in a white bag leaving them on my friend’s doorstep.

“I don’t know if we have snow globes, but I’ll find someone who can help you.” Not wanting to veer too far from the front of the store, I summon an employee in seasonal to assist her. A customer approaches with a buggy full of wall art which is on sale this week. She has purchased the wall hanging that says, As for me and my house, we shall serve the Lord. I ask her if she found everything okay.

 

I remember to ask this because in the video the same guy who smeared chocolate on the lampshade is later shown with the same customer. This time he doesn’t get food on her purchase and asks her cheerfully if she found everything. She was so impressed she appeared giddy. This time when she went home to hold court with all her friends, she told them to shop at the store.

Back on the floor my feet ache as I start working on recovery. I see Martha in the pillow aisle. “You worked retail before?” she asks.

“Yeah. It’s just been a long time.”

She smiles, but doesn’t say anything.

Time creeps by. I see a piece of framed art that says, Hope is the feather that perches in the soul — Emily Dickinson. Fishing a piece of scrap-paper out of my pocket, I jot the saying down.

Finally my shift is over. I’m pelted by rain and wind as I hurry to my car, parked at the far end of the parking lot where employees are supposed to park.

Rick is picking up the boys and a few groceries, and I’m grateful for some time alone after my shift. I sit at a small table in our screened porch with a draft of an essay I’ve been working on about an eccentric retired sailor I worked for in college. He loved telling me he had the heads of other English majors upstairs in jars filled with formaldehyde. He also made me scratch his dry back with a soup ladle.

    The next day I’m not scheduled to work and I spend my time doing a lot of writing—more than usual. I think it’s because there is a powerful synergy between physical labor and creativity, but my husband isn’t so sure. When he comes home from work to find me huddled over a draft on the porch he asks if I’m doing too much. I survey the stack of books and magazines littering the table, and cover the overflowing ashtray with my notebook.

“I’m fine,” I say. “I feel good.”

I understand his concern. When Rick visited me in the hospital six years ago, he says I didn’t recognize him and introduced a fellow patient to him as my husband. When he asked how I was doing, I said that I had just witnessed the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

That night I get my period and wonder how I can go in the next day. I routinely get terrible cramps not long after I start. Tomorrow is the day the truck comes. The day nobody goes home until all product is put away.

 

Somehow I don’t get cramps and go in. Roxanne tells me to head to the back and find Martha.

    I walk into a frenzy of activity. A man in a ball cap, whose name is Tucker, loads trash into the incinerator. Howard, a part-timer, is breaking down boxes. There’s a radio somewhere playing the opening guitar chords in “Sweet Home Alabama,” a tune I’ve been listening to lately in my car on a compilation CD called Songs for the Open Road. Martha summons me over to our pile of freight and hands me a box cutter. I dig in surprised at how adept I am with the tool, but make a mental note to be careful with it.

    I wonder if the strong chemical smell is harmful.

    Martha asks how I like it.

    “The job?”

    “Yeah. You think you’re gonna like it?”

I don’t know what to say. On the one hand, I don’t trust Martha, yet I think she knows I’m a hard worker.  “Well I think this kind of work is good,” I reply.

    As we unpack the product, I notice nothing looks like anything I remember ordering. There are fabric storage boxes that come individually wrapped with three additional boxes inside the largest size.

I start to get cramps while unwrapping some metal crosses and don’t have any Aleve in my purse. I ask Martha for some and she walks me to the medicine cabinet up front. She picks out a white package. It’s got an unfamiliar brand name but it says Ibuprofen on the packet so I take it.

As Martha and I put away plate hangers she asks me again if I like the job.

“I think I’ll be good once my feet get used to it.”

“Yeah, your body will adjust and you’ll be fine.”

“Actually I don’t feel very well right now. I’m having really bad cramps, and I don’t want to say anything to Tim, but what happens if you need to go home?”

“Just a minute,” she says, and walks away. I’m thinking she’s going to get Tim, but she returns with Roxanne, saying, “She’s an Obgyn nurse.”

Looking at Roxanne I say, “Well it only happens once a month for a few hours, and it’s stock day and all, so I didn’t know what to do.”

Roxanne listens intently but doesn’t say anything, so I continue.

“It started last night and the worst of it is usually the next morning. I was hoping it wouldn’t happen when I was working.” I wait for her to offer advice or at least ask for more details. But it is Martha who fills the awkward silence by saying, “She don’t think she can keep her job,” as if I need an interpreter.

“It’s not that,” I say. “It really only lasts half a day at most.”

Roxanne throws her hands up in the air and says, “Let us know. Everybody’s got something and we can work with it.”

But I’ve got a lot of somethings, I think to myself.

As I put merchandise away, I notice many products have sayings like Every day is a Gift and Simplify. These are messages designed to uplift an overworked and overscheduled society, and I begin to buy in to them. For starters, I need to simplify by decluttering my house. A metal sign that says “Home is where your story begins” also gives me pause. I think of our sons, hoping their story will be a good one. The decorative boxes begin to overwhelm me because there are so many of them.

The harder I work, the more conversational Martha gets.

“Do you have any children?” I ask.

“I’ve got a daughter. She’s married and she’s got her a good job.”

I think about her response and how she described her daughter in terms of her status (married and employed) instead of who she is (funny or caring or artsy).

After the boxes are put away, I go back to see if there’s anything else. As I walk, my strides seem to be in beat with the song playing, which is “Taking Care of Business.” Strangely, this song is also on my Open Road CD. I normally skip over it because I think it’s cheesy, but today it’s pumping me up. Martha is standing amongst a huge pile of more decorative boxes.

“I thought you were about done, but they just found more of your order.” I assess the work and dig in wondering if she thinks it’s somehow my fault. There are too many leopard patterned boxes for the remaining space at the display. Now I will have to redo a whole shelf.

As I navigate my cart toward the door, another song from my CD begins to play. I figure indeed it is the same CD as mine at home. This is a strange coincidence, leaving me to wonder what insight I’m supposed to gain from it. Do I fit in here more than I think I do because we all like the same music? As I listen to the lyrics, Give me the beat boys to free my soul. I want to get lost in your rock and roll and drift away, I get lonesome for my sons. It’s the song they like best on the CD.

After lunch I return to the back room. There are yet more boxes of freight waiting for me. Slicing one open, I hope to find something good like the baskets I still haven’t seen, but it’s more of the men’s items. I try to find something to get Rick, but nothing looks like anything he’d like.

Finally, I’m relieved to be pulling the last cart of merchandise through the metal back room doors when a sailboat in a glass bottle rolls off the top and smashes on the floor. Howard, the part-timer, is walking by at the same time and says, “Hold on.”

As he sweeps up the fragments, I decide the sailboat is similar to Mr. Tufford’s boat. He’s that eccentric sailor whom I’ve been writing about. I say to Howard, “I hope breaking that isn’t going to bring me bad luck.” I’m not really serious, but Howard inhales deeply and thinks about it as though trying to recall if broken bottles with sailboats entombed in them actually bring bad luck.

Then he says, “No. No it won’t.”

After putting away the product, I track down Martha for further instruction. She’s sitting on the loading dock smoking a cigarette with Tim and Roxanne.

“Can I join you?” I ask.

There’s a pause, maybe a beat too long, before Tim says, “Yes, ma’am.”

I’ve always thought that when someone calls you ma’am, and you’re still young, it means they don’t like you, or at best are indifferent about you.

Regardless, I take an empty chair between them and light up. They keep talking amongst themselves. Now I’m certain I’ve crossed a line and am not welcome here, but it’s too late, I’m sitting down. When there’s a lull in the conversation I look at Tim and say, “So I still don’t know if my cell phone has a calculator.”

He doesn’t say anything. I reach into my pocket and pull it out.

“It’s not on one of your functions?” he asks.

“I don’t think so. My husband has to program this thing for me. I’m really low-tech. I can’t believe they are going to do away with regular photo-processing and it is all digital now.”

I look at Martha, and add, “I guess I need to get up with the times.” She looks at me with vacant eyes. Roxanne examines her nails. I direct the conversation back to Tim.

“It makes me sad,” I say.

He too, is non-responsive. Not knowing what else to do, I turn to my phone and press “send.” This takes me to voicemail where there is a message from Rick who says he’s thinking about me. Somehow hearing his voice gives me the courage to stand up.

“I guess I’ll start on recovery then?”

“Yeah, you can do that,” says Martha.

As I leave, I feel a cold tingle up my spine which means they are talking about me.

 

While straightening our department, I pass through the aisle of crosses. There are pounded silver crosses, beaded ones, and others with scrolling edges, but none that have Jesus on them. Growing up Catholic, I am accustomed to crucifixes. When Rick and I got one for a wedding gift, though, he displayed it by the front door of our first house and I took it down. Rick put it back up; I took it back down again. Then he gave up and hung it in the garage. It made me feel guilty every time I walked by it.

 In the metal aisle I find a wall plaque that says “Laugh” on it mixed in with the ones that say “Family.” Trying to locate its proper place, I check the last three digits of the number on the price tag, which are, ironically, 6-6-6.

 

Traffic is heavy on the way to get the boys from school. I’m enjoying a feeling of satisfaction from working hard. I feel grounded in my body. Elton John is playing on my Open Road compilation and I start singing. While belting, “I’m gonna be high as kite by then,” I notice to my left a large truck with a Pepsi logo. It is open at the top and transporting two Pepsi machines.

    The guy riding shotgun motions for me to let him in so he can turn right. I stop so he can maneuver over. The machines jostle around. I feel my upbeat mood escalate as I catch all the green lights. Could I be feeling euphoria? Perhaps even hypomania? This is not good. Maybe Rick is right. I turn down the music and concentrate on my breathing. Perhaps I should remove the CD since it’s also playing a lot at work. Or it could be that I shouldn’t listen to music, period, because I’ve heard familiar songs can release dopamine, and I don’t know if I need any additional feel-good chemicals coursing through my brain now.

    After gathering our sons at school I ask them a lot of questions about their day.

    “Can we listen to music?” asks Ayalkbet.

    “Not right now,” I say. “Do you want some sushi for a snack?”

    “Yeah!” they shout.

    As I try to sleep that night, cramps kick in again. Additionally, I’m having racing thoughts, which for me could be a precursor to mania. If they don’t stop, I’m going to have to call my doctor. He told me it is in the early stage of mania that intervention must happen. I get up to take a hot bath, being sure not to wake Rick. It would really flip him out to catch me up in the middle of the night. The hot water eventually relaxes me and slows my speeding mind.

After my bath I want a cigarette and maybe some chamomile tea, but decide against it. I also want to write, but I don't want Rick to find me awake. I’ve written three essays in the last few days and started on a feature article. I’ve also done an unprecedented amount of housework. I don’t want to do anything that might tip the scales, so I crawl back in bed noting that it is 3:33 a.m. It’s a time I notice a lot.

During the last manic episode, number three was significant for me. I was living three parallel lives. In one life I was replacing Natalie Maines as lead singer of the Dixie Chicks. In another I was one of three good witches who cleaned and cooked for moms with newborns. In the third I was joining a think-tank in Wisconsin. Headed up by one of my favorite authors, Lorrie Moore, we were going to save the environment. I knew that it was only after I successfully accomplished all my missions that I could help others catapult into their parallel lives.

The next morning I’m arranging the nautical items when an elfish man comes up to me and says, “Colleen, this is a test.” He’s wearing a red vest and his mustache curls upwards at the ends. It crosses my mind that he could be an angel, when he asks, “What is decoupage?”

“It’s kind of like glue, and you can use it for paper mache’.”

“And it dries clear, doesn’t it?” he asks.

I wonder if he is an undercover quality control person for customer service. Just in case he is I muster extra enthusiasm as I say, “Yes. I can show you the glue aisle.”

“I know where it is.” He looks at me with an amused glint in his eyes and says, “You probably get a lot of weirdoes in here,” then whistles as he walks away.

That night I call my aunt Patty to get her take on the encounter. She and I sometimes discuss angels and synchronicity. Patty points out that the peculiar man probably knew my name because I was wearing a badge, not because he was an angel or a spy.

“That’s right,” I laugh. “I forgot that I have a name badge.”

 

Over the next few days I notice less coincidence and more volatility in the workplace. Martha gives me a task of setting up a pottery rounder, a task I had never done before, and I go to find her because I can’t make all of the knickknacks fit. I lay some of the taller blue vases on their sides. After searching the whole store, I finally locate her right in front of the display I had left pointing out my mistakes to Tim and Roxanne. Tim is shaking his head while Roxanne stares at it with a puzzled expression. I rush over to them saying, “I didn’t think it looked right. I was just looking for Martha to see how to fix it.”

Tim and Roxanne walk away as Martha grabs some of the ill-placed vases.

“Go get a buggy,” she orders. “You’re gonna have to take everything down.”

I decide to take my last break before tackling the project. I want to smoke and call Rick, but I need to go to the bathroom first. Looking at myself in the mirror as I wash my hands, I notice the broken capillaries on my face, and enlarged pores dotting my nose. I stare into my own eyes, and wonder what I’m doing here, Martha walks in and catches me examining myself. Neither of us say anything. She opens a stall door while I try to think of something witty to offer. But I can’t.

Outside I smoke standing in the corner by the front door careful to not blow it near the patrons. The girl too young to have a grey stripe who says random shit all the time appears.

“I got to get them bags done,” she says. I don’t know what she’s talking about, but say, “Oh, yeah, that’s good.”

“I don’t know if I’m going to the party or not,” she announces. I nod, wondering what party she’s taking about. Is there a work party that I don’t know of? If so, should I really be surprised I wasn’t included? I stub my cigarette against the cement wall and wish her good luck with the bags.

Back inside as I struggle to rework the rounder to Martha’s specifications, I recall her telling me how the last girl “kinda went around and did her own thing.” I was once determined to one up whoever that was, but I realize now there is no pleasing Martha. I know too, that I don’t belong here. These people will never accept me, and they don't even know about my history of bipolar disorder. At the end of my shift, I trudge up the cement stairs to Tim’s office. He exhales loudly when I tell him I’m quitting.

“Do you work this Saturday?”

“Yes.”

“Can you work it? It can be your last day.”

“Sure,” I say.

Tim leans back and tugs at a tuft of his hair located at the top of his head.

“You know what, don’t even worry about Saturday,” he says.

I glance out of the window which boasts that bird’s eye view. The store looks smaller than it once did.

“Okay, if you’re sure that’s okay.”

“Just turn in your apron and lock,” he orders. His face is flushed. He looks back down at his paperwork indicating that I am dismissed.

I look out his window one last time. The store looks like a pile of organized but useless clutter.

As I walk downstairs, I’m flooded with both embarrassment and relief. This place is toxic. I have enough trouble maintaining happiness, and while I do not always have control over whether I lose my mind, I do have a say in how I spend my time between the highs and lows.

 

My heart sinks when I see Random Girl at the time clock. I don’t want to talk because I need to get out of here.

“You want to see my favorite thing in the whole store?” she asks.

Fuck no, I don’t actually, is what I want to say.

Instead I smile and follow her over to a display of cartoonish polyresin horses. She points to the ones she’s already purchased and starts naming them.

“This here’s ‘Seven’, that’s Tigger, and that one is ‘Wembly’.”

Wembly has the biggest set of teeth of them all.

“They’re really cute,” I say.

She picks up a brown one with white spots and stares into its face and whispers something inaudible.

Then she walks away without saying goodbye, talking to herself as she goes.

 

William Metcalfe, 3/25/2018

Current Occupation: Having retired from profitable work, I am playing about with either writing or photography.
Former Occupation: There were 40 years of picture framing. My company was one of the first in Washington, DC, to push for preservation as a very important aspect of a framing job. 
Contact Information: After 30 years of aimless travel, I settled down in Washington, DC. after I found I enjoyed working as a picture framer. In the years of travel and of working with customers, I have accumulated a large collection of stories, which exist as short notes. For a period, I was also, by acclamation, a interesting photographer, but a move to a near suburb, a wonderful wife and our 3 children took more and more time. I had to curtail my pursuits. Now that I am retired and my children are adults, I have returned to earlier interests. The iMac which sits on my desk offers itself as a means of rendering a legible copy of a story from the dusty corridors of my mind. It also offers itself as a instructor in converting digital snapshots into something much more meaningful, might I say art. One can only hope

 

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CRAWFORD AND THE LIEUTENANT’S INSPECTION

 

    At one point of my Army life in the early 60s, three soldiers and myself shared a cubicle on the third floor of an imposing building. We all worked in different sections of the Army base and rarely saw each other. Once a month though, we were all gathered together for an inspection of our area. Normally, the inspecting officers were new young lieutenants. The senior officers had more important things to attend to, like avoiding inspections and immature 2nd lieutenants.

     Our space was formed by tall, dark green lockers that hid most of the fake wall behind them. Opposite each locker was a metal chest of matching color and, behind that chest, was a single bunk. The pillows were positioned on each bed so that we could sit up to watch our lockers all night, if we so desired. Even though the ceiling lights were turned off at the time our superiors thought we should be asleep. There was one window, but after a week, each new tenant lost interest in the view of the parking lot.

    If we were interested, we could look across the walkway to see the similar cubicle opposite ours. Generally, our view was as interesting as that of the soldiers who slept there. They could see our cubicle. If we walked down this empty walkway, we could count the other cubicles that housed more low-ranking soldiers.

    On inspecting day, a look out was assigned to stand near the swinging glass doors to our quarters. On this day, as soon as he saw the officer and his contingent striding towards him, he gave the signal. Immediately, we all jumped into the favored position, standing at attention beside our chests, staring at our lockers. We would be severely penalized if we even swayed while our inspection was ongoing.

    Crawford was the soldier whose bed was on the right side of mine.We were in the first cubicle to be subjected to this inspection. The officer must have known that this was a waste of time.  I watched him perfunctorily examine the soldier on my left. But he must have seen some deviation in Crawford's area for he quickly passed by my bed.

    Crawford was a nice enough person, but unfortunately his face suggested an evolution from a frog ancestor. His face would have been perfectly circular, but for his two ears clinging closely to his head. His large round eyes were sunken into his face. From the wide upwardly curving mouth, one expected a long green tongue to dart forth to catch a fly. In spite of his appearance, Crawford was a very pleasant human.

    The lieutenant opened Crawford's locker and immediately saw, at eye level, a blond Playboy centerfold. The officer was taken aback. Pinups were not allowed at all. In fact, they were forbidden. He looked at the photo more closely and saw that it had been inscribed, “To Crawford, with all my love. X X X”. The young lieutenant turned and stared at briefly at Crawford. "Private Crawford, if that photo is of your girl friend, it can stay, but, if it is from a magazine, it has to go." Crawford saluted and replied, "Yes, sir." The officer then carefully closed the locker, skipped our other cubicle mate and moved on to the next space.

    Thereafter, the Playboy playmate remained where she had hung. Love conquers all.

    In future inspections, the officers passed through as quickly as they could. I doubt that they would have seen a Bunny reclining on Crawford's bunk.

 

 

Gene Twaronite, 3/19/2018

Current Occupation: Writer, Poet, and Author
Former Occupation: University of Arizona Instructional Specialist
Contact Information: Gene Twaronite is a Tucson author, writer and poet. He is also the author of two juvenile fantasy novels and three collections of short stories and humorous essays. His first book of poetry "Trash Picker on Mars" was published in 2016 by Kelsay Books. His second collection of poetry "The Museum of Unwearable Shoes" is scheduled for publication in September of 2018. Follow more of his writing at: https://www.thetwaronitezone.com.

 

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Lot O. Jobs

Even when you’re writing about something you think is completely different, in the end you’re always writing about yourself. Each of us has a unique take on life, and elements of this will invariably creep into your work, no matter how rigorously objective you try to be. In my middle grade fantasy novel "The Family That Wasn’t," for instance, I created a character with the pen name Lot O. Jobs. He was the author of an autobiography Travels of a Mixed-Up Man, in which he described the hundreds of different jobs he had held, each with its own special flavor. The character didn’t just pop out of my head. He’s me, of course.

Not that I’ve had hundreds of jobs. Let’s just say I’ve had my share. And yes, I’m still mixed-up.

I remember my first job as paperboy for the Hartford Courant, in Connecticut, supposedly the oldest continually published newspaper in the U.S. I should explain here, particularly for younger readers, that a newspaper is a multi-paged object composed of wood pulp, filled with news of local and world events, that is published daily or weekly and requires you to hold it up at arm’s length to read while you flip through the pages and grimace before using them to line your parakeet’s cage.

Since it is a morning paper, I was required to rise at 5 am, which for a school kid is inhuman. Fortunately, my dad, being a mailman, was used to getting up early. He would wake me, then put on some strong coffee. I forced myself to drink it because it was the only way to stay awake and get moving.

Then I had to walk two blocks to where half a dozen bundles of newspapers awaited me. In those days, if you took on a newspaper route you didn’t get to cancel delivery on account of weather. Just like my dad’s mail, newspapers were to be delivered through rain, snow, sleet, flood, hurricane, earthquake, volcano, or nuclear war, the latter being very much a possibility in my early youth. So if we had a big snowstorm, and all the schools had snow days, you were still expected to trudge through two feet of snow and deliver your damn papers. Often it would take me hours to finish delivering my route, while my buddies were out sledding.

Delivery was bad enough, but then came the hard part—collecting each week from my cruel, miserly customers. This was before the days of credit card subscriptions. Each Friday evening—and the following Saturday morning if that didn’t work—I was expected to ring doorbells and politely ask people to pay up. You wouldn’t believe the lengths some people will go to to avoid paying what they owe. They would simply hide and not answer the doorbell. In some cases, I could plainly see them scurrying around inside like trapped roaches. Other times, they would let out their big ugly dogs in the yard, timed just before I showed up. Or they would purposely avoid being home, for weeks on end, then when I did finally catch them home would question my accounting and try to convince me that they couldn’t possibly owe for two months. I did have my little pay stubs to prove otherwise, but they would then accuse me of forgetting to hand them out when they had obviously already paid. And forget getting any tips. How dare I accuse them of not paying? I suspect many of them secretly enjoyed this game of screwing the paperboy. I think this is when I first became deeply cynical about human nature.

During high school, I was a page at our local library, which for a bookworm like me was a dream come true, though the wages sucked. The job involved mostly re-shelving returned books. I simply wheeled my cart of books through the aisles where, for a brief time, I diligently placed the books in their proper locations. After a short time, however, I learned how to find a quiet, secluded section of the stacks, preferably upstairs and out of sight of the main desk. This was where the benefits came in. As long as I stood in front of my still full cart, I could make it look as if I were working while reading to my heart’s content. That is, until the hatchet lady head librarian invariably found me, chewing me out so badly I didn’t dare do it again until next day.
I think back on her fondly and can still see the poor woman chasing us pages through the stacks, shaking her long, bony finger in stern chastisement.

There was one other aspect of the job I should mention. It involved taking reference room calls to retrieve past issues of magazines and newspapers from the basement, where such materials were stored. I would be issued slips of paper, with names of the items and dates published. In those ancient days, you couldn’t simply Google something on your smartphone or computer and find a hundred online articles on the subject. There were no personal computers and no digital information. Repeat, no digital information. Let that sink in for a moment. Any information you needed could be found only on the printed page. So there I was, lifting up piles of musty magazines, searching for some obscure issue, only to discover that it had been lost or misplaced. It was sort of like the great lost Library of Alexandria, where all the world’s knowledge at the time was stored on scrolls. Being a page back then was probably a lot harder.

In my senior year of college, I briefly had the best job a lonely, testosterone-fueled young male could ask for. It was only part-time, in the evening, but the benefits were priceless. I was the designated male host—sort of a bodyguard—in a women’s residence hall. All I had to do was sit behind a front desk and check male visitors in and then escort each of them off the premises at a set time, defined by each dorm. A word of explanation here. I went to college during the late 1960s when many colleges and universities had what were referred to as parietal hours, limited times when men were allowed to visit and mingle with women in the female dormitories. Dorms would often insist that doors be kept open and couples instructed to keep "three feet on the floor.” Talk about thwarting your sex life.

Of course, creative women would always find ways around restrictions to get their men inside. Meanwhile, as I sat at the desk—studying, of course—young ladies wearing slinky nightgowns or pajamas would come downstairs and greet me, offering cookies and snacks. I was treated like a god. Even the kindly old dorm matron liked me. I admit, it was quite possible that some diversionary tactic was in play here, with dozens of guys sneaking past me as the women plied me with cookies. But what did I care? Life was good.

My other part-time job in college was as freshman counselor during my senior year. In exchange for a free room in my dormitory, I was expected to offer information and advice to incoming freshman. You can imagine what a perfect fit this was, wise old senior that I was, enjoying my own first year on campus after commuting three years. In the midst of cramming as much drinking and carousing with women as humanly possible into just two semesters, I did manage to fit in some actual counseling. Not that I had much advice to offer. Mostly I just listened. And sometimes I would break up unruly dorm parties at 2 am, for which at the end of the year I was ceremoniously awarded a carved wooden wand in the shape of a penis with the words “King Prick,” signed by my grateful freshmen.

Fresh out of college, and not finding any suitable positions based on my considerable experience drinking and guarding co-eds, I took a job as science teacher at a small residential private school for emotionally disturbed kids. As part of my forestry major, I had taken some basic science courses, and that was good enough. The fact that I had no educational certification or training, and even more important, no psychological or counselor training, did not matter in the least. I was a warm body who knew how to dress for an interview and to give the right answers. And they were desperate for someone who knew at least a little about science and would be willing to work for slave wages.

My first experience with one of my new charges gave me a clue of the challenges ahead. As part of my duties, I sat behind a desk after class in the administration building, as a faculty member on call to assist students with their homework. One of my female students—an attractive, shapely, and much too mature looking sixteen-year-old—approached my desk. Then, looking over her shoulder at her friends in the corner, who seemed to be daring her to do it, promptly sat upon my lap.

Dazed at first, it took me a couple of seconds to figure out what was happening and what to do. (There was no mention of such things in the employee handbook.) Normally I am not at all averse to attractive young women suddenly deciding to sit in my lap. But this was way different. I could hear a little voice in my head ask, What’s wrong with this picture? Then, seconds later, the voice started screaming, “Stand up, stand up, you fool! I jumped from my chair, nearly dumping the girl on the floor as I mouthed some indignant protest. She just smiled and walked away.

As someone with no teaching experience, suddenly thrown into a classroom filled with unruly teenagers, I fared no worse than most first year teachers, many of whom leave after only one year, vowing never to return to that infernal snake pit. Fortunately for me, the class sizes were small, and the kids were too emotionally messed up to notice what I was trying to teach anyway. I’m talking real heavy emotional issues. Kids hooked on drugs or suffering from various traumas. Kids who had been verbally and physically abused, often by their parents or other relatives. Many had even been sexually abused. They were shunted off to this school because their parents and their former schools could no longer deal with their problems. If this didn’t work, the next stop was military school or an institution.

So there I was, a 22-year-old guy, still screwed up in far too many ways, surrounded daily by a bunch of emotionally bleeding kids. Forget about the lesson plan. All they wanted was for me to listen. So I did.

In the process, I quickly realized that I was in no way equipped to handle this. I became too emotionally involved with these kids, talking with them frankly while trying to teach them a little science, but not having a clue how to help them.

I made it through the academic year and decided to leave, when the school offered me a limited, temporary contract due to financial uncertainties. Shortly thereafter, the school closed, though my decision probably had nothing to do with it.

After my ill-fated experience with teaching, I decided to try something else. A local pet shop was looking for a full-time sales associate (Don’t you love the way stores add that little word at the end to make the job sound more important?). This wasn’t your run-of-the-mill pet shop, but an exotic pet shop. In addition to the usual puppies, birds, and tropical fish, they also sold critters like lizards, tarantulas, and snakes—my kind of animals. They liked the fact that I was a college boy and promised me that, if I worked really hard for two years and brownnosed the boss and didn’t mind taking orders from his wife, who arrived each morning wearing more makeup than Alice Cooper, I would be promoted to assistant manager.

What I really wanted, however, was my first python, at full employee discount. He arrived at the shop one cold winter evening. A beautiful baby African rock python, he was only 18 inches long and perfectly gentle. I put him under my coat and brought him home to my parents’ house and placed him in his cage, where he thrived and grew … and grew.

The problem with pythons as pets is that, with proper care, they can quickly begin to approach adult size, which in the case of a full grown African rock python can be over 20 feet long, with a thick, muscular body used to constrict its prey.

Not only did my darling little pet quickly outgrow his cage, but he was now six feet long and quite a handful. Though still gentle as ever, there was always the danger in handling such a powerfully muscular snake that he might suddenly grow frightened of falling and wrap his coils around your neck for support, which is not conducive to breathing. In fact, that is exactly how they constrict and kill their prey. So sadly, I found him a new home and bid both him and the pet shop goodbye.

After that came a stint as a computer operator for an insurance company in Hartford. At the time, I knew nothing about computers—and still don’t—but the job’s hours seemed ideal. All I had to do was work three consecutive 12-hour shifts from 7pm to 7am, and I had the rest of the week off. And for full-time pay and benefits. How tough could it be?

Basically, the job involved running large, room-sized computers called mainframes, which were series of various processing and communication units all hitched together and operated in batch mode. I was expected to keep them going, feeding them punch cards and magnetic tapes to run them at near full capacity while they spat out tests, insurance policies, statements, and payroll. I would then collect the continuous printed copy that came out. Scattered throughout the room were interactive terminals where you could push a button and make the computers pause in their operation.

One night, I was told by my shift supervisor to go hit a certain button. Now I knew perfectly well which button to push, having been instructed numerous times in proper button pushing. Turns out there was another button, way on the other side of the terminal console, which I think read “System Stop” and which was never, never to be pushed unless absolutely necessary. This button, you see, didn’t just pause whatever operation was being run but shut down the whole system. Meaning that whatever programs had been running at the time had to be completely restarted, at considerable cost.

To this day, I still can’t figure out why I pushed the wrong button. As soon as I hit it, I knew it was wrong. Perhaps the subversion of my circadian rhythm and the cumulative lack of sleep had something to do with it. I remember a lot of yelling throughout the department, with people running around, looking for someone to blame, followed by the sound of laughter from my colleagues.

I was due for my annual performance review, the very next week. My boss, a kindly man whom I really liked, told me that I was doing great, overall, with top marks in all categories. Then he looked me straight in the face and shook his head. All he said was, “Why?”

Shortly after, I decided to pursue more normal work as a public-school teacher, normal only in the sense that I was able to work during daylight hours. Despite the fact that my private school teaching had pretty much left me as much of an emotional wreck as the students I tried to teach, maybe I wasn’t as bad a teacher as I thought. I took a few more college courses to get certified and to show I was serious. I was ready, or so I thought.

As it happened, there was an opening for a science teacher at the very same junior high school I had attended. I desperately needed a job and didn’t give a second thought to any potential weirdness of going to work with my former teachers, including my much-feared, former Phys. Ed instructor, who had treated us worse than Marine recruits in boot camp.

The interview was a snap. The vice-principal and science department chairman briefly glanced at my Forestry degree transcript, with a minor in philosophy. It was not especially heavy in hard science courses. However, they remembered that I had been an A-student and science nerd and hired me on the spot.

I was to teach Earth Science, which included geology, meteorology, and astronomy, to ninth grade students. As a kid, I had loved to collect rocks and gaze at the stars with my small telescope, so I was sure I could transmit that enthusiasm to my grateful, attentive students. Trouble was, I didn’t know the first thing about either ninth-grade students or class control, which as I learned the hard way is just as important as knowledge of subject matter.

I shall not dwell here on the ugly details that still haunt my dreams. The kids were rude, disruptive, sneaky, and downright mean, constantly inventing new ways to torment and subvert me. In other words, they were perfectly normal, ninth-grade students. They ate me alive. A couple of times, the department chair who had hired me, upon hearing all the yelling and commotion coming from my classroom across the hall, came running into my room, as if someone were being murdered. As soon as he entered, of course, the kids would all be sitting at attention, perfectly quiet. He would give me a disdainful look, then shake his head as he walked away muttering.

Bad as things were, at least I didn’t have to worry about mass shooters. The worst event to happen was when one of my troubled students pulled a knife on a jock, right outside my classroom. We all ran out, and I momentarily froze. Then I herded my students to slowly back away. The issue was quickly resolved, as the jock yelled and threatened the student enough for him to drop his knife and run out the door. Show’s over. No heroes, no deaths, that day.

I was a terrible teacher, but I made it through my first year. That was the main thing, the principal told me upon renewing my contract. “You survived.” I had passed the test, and he expected me to carry on.

I worked there five more years, becoming a reasonably competent teacher, able to control the classroom while providing my students with a creative learning environment. I was now teaching seventh-grade life science and was given an expanded new science lab, which I lined with tropical plants and cages filled with snakes (including two boa constrictors), tarantulas, hissing roaches, and other exotic creatures. On Parents’ Night, the principal would always show off my lab as a model classroom.

I did not delude myself into thinking I was a great teacher, however. During that time, I came to know some truly extraordinary teachers, fully attuned to their students and learning outcomes. But that would never be me. I had fallen into teaching because it offered a regular paycheck while aligning with my social and intellectual ideals, but my mind was elsewhere. And that’s always a dangerous thing.

One day, one of the boys in my class called me out, openly challenging my authority. Something inside me snapped, and I suddenly shoved him up against the wall and shouted in his face. I watched myself, as if in slow motion, acting out this scene, and knew right then and there that I had to get out. (Can you imagine a teacher doing that in a public-school classroom today?)

There were many other jobs on the journey. None lasted more than five or six years. Yet, much like my character Lot O. Jobs, I saw each job as having its own flavor, providing new insights on life. I never wanted a big house or family, and fortunately neither did my wife, who found her niche early, pursuing a long career in education. So that left me free to follow my dreams, whatever the hell they happened to be at the time.

Some of the jobs, like groundskeeper and landscaper, involved down-and-dirty grunt work, even menial tasks, such as picking up trash. Others, like teaching and bookselling, required me to use my brain more than my back. Most of the jobs paid so little that, had it not been for my wife’s job, I would have qualified for food stamps. What they lacked in remuneration, however, they repaid in new experiences and discoveries. It may sound corny, but through them, I found dignity in a day’s labor and the simple joy of performing a job well. Mostly I was flying by the seat of my pants, learning as I went, though the last job I filled—Instructional Specialist at the University of Arizona—made it sound as if I knew something. And when I left there, after working the usual five years, I actually did.

Through it all, writing remained the one constant thread. It was the one thing I really cared about.  Since my twenties, I had dreamed of making a living from my creative writing, something that very few writers achieve. I did manage to find jobs as columnist, feature writer and editor at small local newspapers, and scored occasional sales of my stories, essays, and poems to magazines and newspapers—always the sweetest dollars earned—as I continued to feed the writing madness.

Maybe someday, I kept telling myself, if I do this long enough, I will make some real money from my writing. Yeah, right.

Meanwhile, I think back to all the jobs along the way, a rich tapestry which has given me enough raw material to last a lifetime—or at least to fill these pages—and to make a life from my writing.

Parnavi, 3/12/2018

Current Occupation: Student
Former Occupation: N/A
Contact Information: Parnavi is a student of class 9th, St Mary’s Academy, Meerut. She aspires to become a doctor and make her parents proud of herself. Her hobbies include dancing and writing and she maintains a diary of her own to recall the exciting moments of her life. She states that reading this diary in her leisure time provides her immense happiness.

 

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* Poem by a woman tired of this world *

To me I am a prisoner who is living in horror of being a girl
But I am more precious than a pearl
For me my feets are locked
I am not allowed to leave this world
As I am a toy for anyone’s joy
They can use me or throw me but will never let me free
My hands on the other side are tied up by a thick chain of marriage
Where my husband doesn’t give me respect
To him I am not worth than his shoes
But I have decided to tape my mouth
For the sake of my kids
As they will loose hope from this world
And a dad as well
Let no other pearl be disappearing from this world
Let them free
Make their feets walk
And give them a voice to talk.