Alan Humason, 7/16/2018

Current Occupation: Marketing Consultant
Former Occupation: Executive Director (Destination Marketing Organization)
Contact Information: Alan Humason is a writer in Fort Bragg, CA. He has published poetry and short fiction in such periodicals as Flash: The International Short Story Magazine, Third Wednesday, The Longleaf Pine, The Reed, and 100wordstory.com. He has a BA in English Literature from UC Santa Barbara and is a past winner of the Grand Prize Phelan Award for writing from San Jose State University.

#

Making Wood As Smooth As Glass

Working by hand
Using different grits
I slowly bring up the grain
Like facts in an investigation.
I prefer hardwoods –
Teak, maple, walnut, oak –
They resist more, yield more
In color, clarity, and sheen.
Looking into the grain as it emerges
I can gradually see its course,
Its variations, speckles, and streaks –
The tree’s true nature revealed,
Or some influence of nature I cannot know –
And depending on the wood
I can guess how hard I have to work.
Sometimes I worry I will go too far
And have nothing left –
The wood will simply vanish in my hands,
A mystery, sawdust.
But sometimes I think I’ve got it right –
A moment of learning, confirmed
By the proper play of light –
And that’s the reason I work at this.
My father knew this
And some day my son.

DS Maolalai, 7/9/2018

Current Occupation: Facility Maintenance Dispatch
Former Occupation: Hospital Control Room
Contact Information: DS Maolalai recently returned to Ireland after four years away, now spending his days working maintenance dispatch for a bank and his nights looking out the window and wishing he had a view. His first collection, Love is Breaking Plates in the Garden, was published in 2016 by the Encircle Press. He has twice been nominated for the Pushcart Prize.

 

#

The window

where I work now 
– yes, it's one of those ones –
it's an office.
and I have a window.

I remember 
years
sitting in mildew-ridden basements
sending out calls to bikers who refused to take them.
I remember other basements,
and begging carpenters
to do one more job please before going home.
I remember making calls to old ladies
and explaining 
that if they signed up for a free quotation
(no obligation)
our technicians would also look at their fascias and soffits
and could even advise
on the placement of new window-panes. 

never
was my complaint
against the bikers
or the carpenters. they worked
the same shifts as us – sometimes for more money,
sure, but always
harder than we did. they were the ones 
in the rain and snow
or dealing face to face with patients
asking why they'd taken so long on a broken windowpane.
we were just in chairs,
leaning back,
taking calls,
arguing over the coffee runs.

my complaint was always
and is always
violently against management;
who were perched up there
in their nice offices,
bathed in vitamin D from morning to night
and with windows. a window
seemed like nothing but luxury.
a window
was grapes dropped in your mouth.

and now 
I have a window of my own.
and I still don't enjoy it;
all I can see outside
is a burned out caravan
and a road 
packed with traffic like piano keys.
I still spend my day
arguing with drivers
and trying my best
to stop things falling too far behind.
all they have given me
for the money
is nothing else to complain about. 

#

300 alarm clocks

I work at 
this. the poems. you may not see it
but I do. I don't want to be
sitting in a rolling armchair
still answering phones for people
as I edge into my 30s. this woman
works with me – she has a degree
in physical therapy 
and her wife has a masters in law
and now they both take phone calls
and arrange quotations for people
looking to order 300 alarm clocks
for the insane ward
in a new hospital
opening next summer. the conversation
at their dinner table
must be stunning. all this 
for a quiet room in a boarding house
where I can come home to wine and music of a night
and no money left over 
when you take away the rent. god 
is an object lesson
in defeat. we are all trapped in fates
comfortable enough to bear. I 
am still interested in getting out. 
squirrels run straight up trees
and disappear. I scratch
at the belly of the cave
in the hope of being discovered.

#

People from abroad and an artist and a lady who wanted to be left alone

this was a few years ago
before I'd left ireland and then come back again
when I was picking up some money in the evenings
by working as a census collector 
in the slums on the northside
around mountjoy sq.
it was early enough in the year
that you had to wear a jacket
and cold
and the rain would land on the ground in blankets and stay there
and shine like a mirror as the sun was going down until
the whole world looked silver and white.
I'd go door to door in these big victorian buildings –
mountjoy sq has these big victorian buildings
that you wouldn't know were holding slums from outside –
and I'd knock on the plywood doors of these subdivided oneroom deadwater flats 
with two or three people seating there
and a toilet at the end of each hallway filled spilled piss, wet dirt and detergents
and hand out these forms people had to fill in and sometimes
help them fill them if they were roma gypsies 
or eastern european or spanish 
and had trouble with 
english words like "residence" or "continuing".

it was easy work all over and I liked seeing how these people
would manage to live in spaces small enough for a woodlouse to get noticed,
small enough that you'd never lose your cigarettes.
there was this woman who's whole room smelled deliciously of coffee and apple perfume
and she invited me in to sit down because she said I looked tired
and then kissed me and said that if nobody lived in the apartment
she'd let me do whatever I wanted 
and she sat on my lap and unbuttoned her blouse
and I didn't say I wanted anything 
but I guess the room was empty an hour later
and her mouth tasted like fruit because she must have been eating fruit when I knocked
and her hair was light brown
hearing into red in some places.
and there was this old guy down in the basement who looked like he could barely walk at all
but somehow he must have made his way up these metal steps covered in rainwater every day
and he had all these paintings
and he let me have a coffee and talked to me for a long time about how nobody in the whole goddamn                                                         country
liked art anymore
and I used to bring a little whiskey with me sometimes to feel exciting and I offered him some
and he put it in his coffee and said
"this is really good whiskey
thank you
this is going to be the fuel for a really good painting"
but I filled out the form with him and never went back
and never found out how the painting turned out.
sometimes people wouldnt want to answer the door either
they would say that I was a garda
or somebody's old boyfriend
and I would have to slide the papers under the door
and sometimes they would slide them back filled over with "fuck you"s and "cunt"s and sometimes 
                                    they wouldn't slide them back at all.

one of the other guys said he'd just staked out the liquor store all day on a Friday and
handed out papers to anyone who went past 
and he said he got all of his forms filled out in two days of that.
the rain that came was very light usually but it stayed for a long time on the ground
and then sometimes you would walk rain into the hallway of a building and come back the next day
and you could still pick out your footprints it was so cold.
a lady from mauritius gave me a handful of bread she had just baked 
and it was delicious full of spice and fruit pieces and aroma and nuts
or maybe I was just hungry.
the people were poor and mostly not very happy
but they all talked a lot to me.
I was only once threatened with violence in four weeks of going around
and that was from an irish guy who thought I was trying to count out how many people lived there
so I could have the building condemned and then turned into condos.
mounjoy sq. seems like a place with good people 
like you dont really get anymore
like Orwell's Paris in Down and Out
or like somewhere Charles Bukowski might have lived if he wasnt such a sour auld fucker
and thought he might learn how to like people.

I sometimes walk through it now on my way home from work and
I guess there was a fire in one of the buildings or something and a bunch of people must have been
                                                     killed 
or died later from emphysema 
and now they're planning on tearing it down anyway
this place I got laid and met a guy who could paint well well into his seventies
and there was a dog that barked at me every day and then once when I got close it licked my hand    
and they're going to make it into student housing for kids up from the country that want to go to dcu    
and there's a pretty hip bar now down near there on a corner
and someone said they're paving the park.
the whole neighbourhood is really going to be coming up 
into somewhere you could visit
really very soon.

#

I'm scared, coach

he works a step above me
in facility management
which means basically
that he's the one
who decides the when the lights should stay on
and I go off and do it.

he's one of those
lilybalding white men
that you can't quite examine – 
could be springwater 60
or well-worried at 40,
coaches football
in his spare time
and sometimes comes in
bruised and tore up
or with a cut 
on top of his bald 
limping head. 

I stay home at night
listening to music,
drinking wine 
and eating apples by the basket
and come in every morning
fresh as a salmon
but he is always
still there,
a little more worried
a little more lined. 

I call in contractors
while he speaks to management
and frets 
like a 10 year old caffeine addict. he wasn't born 
for anything 
more taxing
than teaching
those skinny 16 year olds
the right part
of a ball to kick
and if any of our lives were just and ordered
that is all 
he'd have to do.

#
Humber River Hospital

when I worked
at Toronto's 
Humber River Hospital
it was
(they said)
the most technically advanced hospital
in the world outside Dubai,
with robots running rails
to deliver pills, blankets and syringes,
messages 
and samples
sent by pneumatic tube,
and a special panic system that could track the location
of anyone in the building
right down
to the very portion
of whatever room they were standing in.

when I worked at 
the Humber River Hospital 
I witnessed:
2 deaths of children caused by errors with the intercom,
1 attempt by a guy in the ER to steal a policeman's gun,
1 woman 
collapsed in blood on the floor
and forgotten for 30 minutes by the orderlies
and 8 escapes from the insane ward, 
of which 3 ended in assaults
and 2 
in attempted suicides.

I used to walk there
in the afternoon
if I was going in for a night-shift
and the sun would summer overhead
and drain sweat
until my mouth was dry
and my shirtsleeves
were soaking. the hospital
was located
outside the city
and I lived down the middle of downtown
but there were parts of the walk
which were not unpleasant. once
I saw a hawk bring down a pigeon
right into the highway
and cars swerved
but nobody was killed
as it stood on it's capture
blinking 
with chicken-eyed stupidity. 

the control-room office I worked from
was on the basement level
right next to the main cafe
and we spent a lot of time in there talking,
drinking coffee
and watching tv. it was in there that the intercom went out from
and I knew both the guys pretty well
that made the mistakes mentioned earlier. one of them was me. 
but we'd both worked there almost two years by then
and anyone
who works somewhere for that long
in a mindless job where the biggest problem most days
is resetting a robot that failed to detect a door 
can be forgiven 
for making one
fumbling 
panicked mistake
in an emergency,
right?
 

 

Gary Beck, 7/2/2018

Current Occupation: I am currently a writer
Former Occupation: I was formerly a director/playwrite.
Contact Information: Gary Beck has spent most of his adult life as a theater director, and as an art dealer when he couldn’t make a living in theater. He has 13 published chapbooks and 1 accepted for publication. His poetry collections include: Days of Destruction (Skive Press), Expectations (Rogue Scholars Press). Dawn in Cities, Assault on Nature, Songs of a Clerk, Civilized Ways, Displays, Perceptions, Fault Lines, Tremors, Perturbations and Rude Awakenings (Winter Goose Publishing) The Remission of Order will be published by Winter Goose Publishing. Conditioned Response (Nazar Look). Resonance (Dreaming Big Publications). Virtual Living (Thurston Howl Publications). Blossoms of Decay and Expectations (Wordcatcher Publishing). Blunt Force will be published by Wordcatcher Publishing. His novels include: Extreme Change (Cogwheel Press), Flawed Connections (Black Rose Writing), Call to Valor and Crumbling Ramparts (Gnome on Pigs Productions). As part of the continuing series, ‘Stand to Arms Marines’, Gnome on Pigs Productions will publish the third book in the series, Raise High the Walls. Sudden Conflicts (Lillicat Publishers). Acts of Defiance will be published by Wordcatcher Publishing. His short story collections include, A Glimpse of Youth (Sweatshoppe Publications) and. Now I Accuse and other stories (Winter Goose Publishing). Dogs Don’t Send Flowers and other stories will be published by Wordcatcher Publishing. His original plays and translations of Moliere, Aristophanes and Sophocles have been produced Off Broadway. His poetry, fiction and essays have appeared in hundreds of literary magazines. He currently lives in New York City.

 

#

Incendiary Moments

Fire in the city
a tall office building
too high for ladders.
Smoke pours out,
people begin to flee.
Most don’t know
about the blaze.
Power fails,
elevators stop,
some are trapped
screaming in the dark.
Firefighters arrive
burdened with gear,
sweat pouring off them.
Rescue efforts begin,
the long climb
to the top floor,
evacuation
of the injured,
panic a short breath away.
Only the steadiness
of the firefighters
prevents mad stampede.

Careful search of premises,
careful check for hazards,
then the battle of the fire,
smoke impeding the fight.
PCBs, other harmful chemicals
seep their way
through respirators,
constricting breathing.
Strong bodies lug equipment
up 40 flights of stairs,
axes chop, hoses spray,
endless hours without relief.
Ambulances remove the injured.
Finally, hours later,
all residents accounted for,
the blaze is under control.
Firefighters make sure
the flames are out,
hot embers not a threat

to larger conflagration.
Engines return to the station,
the men exhausted,
and hope it’ll be a while
before the next emergency call.

Wayne Lee, 6/25/2018

Current Occupation: Retired
Former Occupation: Writer/Editor
Contact Information: Wayne Lee (wayneleepoet.com) lives Hillsboro, Oregon. Lee’s poems have appeared in Pontoon, Tupelo Press, Slipstream, great weather for media and other journals and anthologies. He was awarded the 2012 Fischer Prize and his collection The Underside of Light was a finalist for the 2014 New Mexico/Arizona Book Award in Poetry. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and three Best of the Net Awards.

#

Shift Work

Thirty-seven years they’ve lived in their bungalow. 
It looks the same now as when they were wed–
steps cracked, shingles missing, gutters sagging low 
as old clotheslines. 

They painted it once, back when Reagan won, 
slapped a dirt-brown coat on walls and trim, splashed
half the windows.

She does 12-hour nights down at the nursing home, 
sleeps till afternoon. He takes what shifts he’s given 
at the mill—swings, days, graveyard.

She smokes and reads paperbacks out on the porch, 
then ducks inside to watch TV. He tinkers 
with their trucks in the fluorescent glare 
of their basement garage.

I see them together once a month or so at dawn
or dusk, pickups passing in half-light.

M.K. Breitfelder, 6/18/2018

Current Occupation: Editor
Former Occupation: supermarket check-out girl, flea market goon, legal secretary, wannabe historian, editor 
Contact Information: M.K. Breitfelder is a writer and editor living in NJ. 

#

Termination

I sit behind the desk and wait. Deep breath, deep breath. In. Hold. Out. In. Hold. Out. Not working. I straighten the stack of papers. 2017 Performance Evaluation. Employee: Milly Cook. Core Competencies. Areas of Focus. Incentive Goals. Unsatisfactory, unsatisfactory, unsatisfactory. What would I say? I had been thinking all day yesterday. All night, too. HR had coached me, but each time is new.

A soft knock on the door.

“Come in.” The words stick in my throat. Nothing. “Come in,” I say, strongly.

Milly pokes her head in, like she always does. Trepidant, almost servile. This annoys me. I instill fear in people?

“Now? It’s good?” she asks, minion-like. Do not do that to me. Not fair.

“Hey there, come on in.”

She’s a large woman, wearing almost clown-like makeup. Dangly bracelets, pink tights, baby blue ballet flats. A walking crazy-quilt.  Almost 20 years older than me, but somehow girlish. She backs into the chair, paying me some compliment. A plastic grin, a nervous head nod. My grin is plastic, too.

“So Mill, I think you know why I scheduled this time,” I begin. The outline of her lips, scarlet; the inside, almost white. Still grinning. Still nodding. Earrings bobbing in time.

“Not my best year.”  A stab at humor, a forced chuckle with that harsh Queens inflection.

“Well, no. But more than that.”

I detail it all: Her repeated failures. Her inability to get it. The classes where she learned nothing. As coached, I give her time between items. To “process.” To respond. She takes it in. The grin is gone. No defense, only defeated murmurs of assent.

How could I be doing this? She’s had such a difficult life. Not difficult. Tragic. I know all the details. The abandoning mother. The cold stepmother. The philandering husband. The ingrate son.

But she had been spoken to, then warned. Many times. Her peers tried.  Her supervisor tried. I tried. What more could I do?

It was sinking in. Her glasses came off. Tears were forming.

She has an inheritance. Her kid is grown up. She can get Medicare in a couple years. I can’t heal her life. She'll probably sue anyway. Big settlement and the last laugh. I hoped so.

“…so I’m left with no other option.”

Deep breath. Deep breath. I have a job to do, too. And I fire her.

 

Steve Slemenda, 6/11/2018

Current Occupation: Retired college instructor; volunteer with various community and professional organizations
Former Occupation: Community College Instructor of English and Film Studies
Contact Information: Until now, Steve Slemenda has been an unpublished poet for 50 of his 66 years.  He is recently retired from a 25 year career teaching English at Chemeketa Community College in Salem, OR, and is active in poetry organizations and events throughout the Willamette Valley. He is a founder of the annual Silverton Poetry Festival. He writes for pleasure and contemplation and, like most poets, because he seems to have no choice. He is preparing a first chapbook of poems.

 

#

Short Order

I was 19 on a hot summer night at a Greyhound rest stop 
in Fresno where I ordered burgers from the old man. 

He wore a slanted paper cook's hat and an apron 
greasy as the smoke that hung in the air. 

His face was sucked into a furrowed toothless frown, 
his mouth an open lipless oval like a pitted peach.

The wrinkled skin of his arms hung like loose dry leather.
His right forearm had a tattoo that said USS California 1913.

His hands were long and raw and bony. He was beautiful and grumpy.  

I wanted one hamburger. But at the window he scowled at me
and barked “You?” and I blurted out "Two cheeseburgers."

At a jukebox in a corner was a plump blonde beehived woman,
her lips moving to the croon of a country western lament.

Her eyes were fixed in a far off inward stare. She had 
big green pastel eyelids and eyelashes like peacock's tails.

Back on the bus moving through the black I-5 night 
I opened the bag and ate the burgers. One had cheese.
 

Craig Brandis, 6/4/2018

 

Current occupation: writer, student
Former occupation: Craig Brandis has picked crops, been a mill worker, a cannery worker, a carpenter, a surveyor, a bus driver, an engineer, and a resident corporate mustapha.
Contact information: Craig Brandis lives in Lake Oswego, Oregon and studies poetry at the Attic in Portland with David Biespiel, Ed Skoog and Matthew Dickman. His goal is to become a working poet – with a small p. He believes that labor, the work of one's hands and heart, is sacred and you shouldn’t give it away to just anybody.  Poetry is culture work. At its best, it becomes insurgent art and a human call to arms. As William Carlos Williams pointed out, “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.”  His work has been published in the Red River Review, New Verse News, Poetry Quarterly and elsewhere. You can find more of his poetry at www.craigbrandis.com.

 

#

Hanford 1944

We found his body
in an oil drum behind the J&M tavern
left there like a roadkill deer
dressed in denim overalls

Hardly a week goes by here
somebody doesn’t die–
the work grinds all our skulls
as thin as wasp wings

We poured seven foot thick
concrete walls so remote controls
can poke the plutonium dragon
It won’t sleep now until we do

Still it is beautiful here
In between the mud
and the dust storms
and the war on the radio–
an angry cloud of hornets
storming through
a broken front screen door
we can’t ever fix now

#

Logger 

I am hanging upside down 
from the seatbelt in my truck 
after drinking all night
and running off the road 
My daughter left home 
to live with a stoner in Mexico 
Comes back skinny & addicted 
wearing no bra, tits flapping in the breeze 

The doctor says my back is going 
& no more heavy lifting 
so I end up working the burn pile
But it’s okay, I still get a paycheck

I’m flopping around 
sucking for air
like the steelhead 
in the shallow stream 
my brother threw an axe at 
when we were kids 
but couldn’t hit 

& if I could just reach my knife
things would be okay
back to same shit
different day

& the sky looks like
runny pancake batter
& it’s growing 
fuzzy tin stars

& I can’t breathe
& my wife 
is going to kill me

if I haven’t 
saved her 
the trouble 

Craig Brandis, 5/28/2018

Current occupation: writer, student
Former occupation: Craig Brandis has picked crops, been a mill worker, a cannery worker, a carpenter, a surveyor, a bus driver, an engineer, and a resident corporate mustapha.
Contact information: Craig Brandis lives in Lake Oswego, Oregon and studies poetry at the Attic in Portland with David Biespiel, Ed Skoog and Matthew Dickman. His goal is to become a working poet – with a small p. He believes that labor, the work of one's hands and heart, is sacred and you shouldn’t give it away to just anybody.  Poetry is culture work. At its best, it becomes insurgent art and a human call to arms. As William Carlos Williams pointed out, “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.”  His work has been published in the Red River Review, New Verse News, Poetry Quarterly and elsewhere. You can find more of his poetry at www.craigbrandis.com.

 

#

Tower Worker – West of Mt. Hood

I am 
a broken bird
and I am dying
It took me five seconds 
to fall four hundred feet down 
the hollow leg of a radio tower 
I was helping to build on Council 
Crest. One second ago, molecules 
of concrete, individual ones, seemed 
to know my name. Two seconds ago my 
left boot caught the side wall, flipping me 
over. Three seconds ago, my buddy tried to 
grab my belt and missed. Four seconds ago my 
new safety clip failed. The spring was too stiff and
and it slipped off the railing. Five seconds ago I just 
noticed there was a strand of my wife’s hair on my sleeve
I had gotten to work before sunrise and climbed to the top of the
tower. The sun was rising behind Mt. Hood and my first impulse was
to jump–like it alway is, like I can fly. I felt a quickening too, like a seed 
but there was something feeding on my un-ripening. I felt fine-wired 
to the sunlight. Like all the electrical cables I had pulled the length 
of the tower, life was a field of layered grids, all wired hot
and if I just flew above them, always doing tower work
maybe sometimes dipping low but still staying above 
them, I could sail forever. The clouds behind the
mountain were sighing and I could see into 
the nothingness that reached forever
around me. Somewhere the smell
of mint and something else 
on the wind too, a bird
just above me, a
seagull with an
orange beak
and dark 
wing 
tips
 

#

Sex Worker in Shinjuku

In the hard loud alone of Shinjuku
in a bento box theater, rows 
of salary men in white shirts
pack together like eggs
to watch a live sex show

One woman on stage uses a device 
and her well-trained muscles
to shoot cigarettes from her vagina 
into the audience – Hai!

Another plays rock paper scissors
to select men from the eager front rows
who want to have sex with her on stage
One man can't get it up and she tells us 
behind his back with her drooping finger

I am embarrassed that my group 
of American business colleagues
have urged our Japanese hosts to bring us here
though they seem to think nothing of it
After a few minutes, I am oddly bored
As I get up to leave, the pretty blond woman 
on stage with the salaryman wrapped 
around her like an abandoned carousel horse
calls out to us in english. Goodbye, she says
over the heads of the crowd as if to say 
I am lost, but you don't have to be

#

Road Work

She’s leaking hydraulic, he says
and lowers the blade of his D8 dozer
to the ground and shuts it down

The smell of newly exposed 
forest soil mixes 
with diesel exhaust

Robins drop from the trees
to feast on the sudden 
bloom of nightcrawlers

There is a boulder in the road bed
he needs to dynamite anyway
He can replace the broken hose later

Jumping down from the track, he catches
a glimpse of  an impossibly blue egg shell 
in the dirt at the edge of the cut bank

He drills an eighteen inch hole
in the boulder and gently packs the hole
with a full stick & back fills with gravel

He runs the wires 
two hundred feet back 
Yells for everyone to stay clear

Fire in the hole!
He touches the wires 
to an old truck battery

When the deep thud hits his chest
he stands still, looking straight up for falling rocks
every other time but this one

This time he forgot
For no fucking reason
he just forgot

 

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.