Aaron Summers, 9/11/2017
Current Occupation: Retail Support Associate
Former Occupation: Video Store Clerk/Student
Contact Information: I am graduate of Florida State University with a B.A. in Creative Writing. My life's ambition is to translate the complete works of Jane Austen into emoji. I am @AaronovichJoker on Twitter.
The Post-Collegiate Guide to Slow Death
You close your eyes to make it darker. Too early. This is too fucking early to be awake. Unfortunately your bladder disagrees. So there’s the damned culprit. You twist your legs, spiting it. You can hold it in your sleep but if you stand up, walk those ten feet to the toilet, turn the light on and acquiesce to your organ, it’s all over. Sleep is gone and you get to lay there for God knows how long, losing rest until the alarm makes your day official. You don’t want to check it, pick up the phone, squint under the blue screen, let your eyes focus on the time. As bad as it is not knowing, the anxiety of the countdown is futility. You squeeze tight, damn, please, only forty-five more minutes, thirty, twenty, then…fuck it. You throw in the towel and let the last fifteen go by the wayside. Give up. The game is over when you start counting.
When four o’clock swoops in through the dark and silence and that blissful cloud of ignorance, you roll onto your side and pick it up, hold it above your head, try to push the buttons. Your hand’s still asleep, so it slips through your fingers and hits the bridge of your nose. You curse the phone, then the day, then yourself. You find it in the folds of your covers and turn the damned thing off. Then you find the switch on the lamp sitting next to your bed and close your eyes before turning it on, letting your lids filter the new light. When you open them you see the room in your mother’s house that used to belong to your sister, then your brother, now it’s a mess. Your dirty clothes are strewn in heaps on the floor, twisting all over each other like fallen souls in some Renaissance depiction of Purgatory. They cover everything: the boxes of your old pots and pans, two unused laundry bins in the corner next to the mirror you can’t look at, your old garment bag, your old messenger bag, your books. You scan and squint and lock in on a black shirt and pair of black slacks, and boxers. You know they’re clean because they’re still folded. You only slightly care. Now the feet have to leave the bed and find the floor. You stand up, your left ankle says a dirty word that it repeats with ever step as you gather today’s garments and limp to the bathroom.
The usual happens.
Half an hour later you emerge, clean and wet. Your limp is better; the ankle has adjusted. It gets this way when you get too fat. That’s been happening too much lately. Into the dark living room, your mother and the dog are asleep on the couch. Three kids, three-bedroom house; sleeping in a real bed these days makes her back hurt. You hate yourself when you acknowledge shit like this. Next to the love seat are today’s shoes and yesterday’s socks. You sit down in the dark, put them on. The clock on the cable box tells you that you have to leave in ten minutes if you don’t want to be late. Do you? Breakfast is taken on the back patio: two cigarettes and a bottle of refrigerated tap water. You gave up caffeine for fear of heart palpitations. They still come sometimes. It’s probably the cigarettes. On the way out you collect your wallet, car keys, name tag, and your pocket watch, the chain of which broke off two weeks ago.
On the way to work you blast music, The Offspring, The Fratellis, Eve 6, anything loud enough to keep you safely lucid. For a moment you can appreciate being up and out at this hour. There are only a few other cars and the orange street lights on the pavement has always been one of your favorite aesthetic motifs. They line the roads as if inviting the small fraction of night owls and early morning grinders a clear way in a world that is temporarily their own, coveted from those still stranded in their nocturnal comas. The car can rev up to 55 on 45mph streets with little fear of cruising authorities, though still, even at a quarter to five, there’s too damn many in this town. You come to a red light that fills up the windshield, giving everything a glow that matches your eyes. You blink and wait for the green. It comes a few seconds later than you want it to.
The large parking lot behind the department store has a handful of cars spread about. None right up next to the entrance, associates aren’t supposed to take the good spots from the customers. The limp is almost gone as you make it from your car to the employee entrance. You punch the code on the little key pad on the secure door and hear the lock click out of the frame. Inside, the walls are white. Down the hallway and to the left, the selling floor is dimly lit in the early morning hours. An endless catalogue of designer garments hang off of racks and sit folded on tables ready to be molested by prying consumers. At the nearest checkout counter you find a computer and punch in your measurable identity, a ten-digit number that brings your name and hours up on the monitor. A few more buttons are pressed and a little piece of paper spits out telling you that the day’s transaction has commenced: your time, their laughable paycheck. Three different songs are playing from the speakers as you walk from the Juniors section, passed Better Collections and Swim Ware. You make your way into the alcove decked out with mattresses with price tags and through door on the right to the loading dock.
It’s first a thin hallway with stale yellow lighting and rough concrete floors and racks with clothes hangers and metal shelves hugging the walls. A bunch of bars are on the next wall behind a concrete ramp decked out with with wooden hangers bearing names like Ralph Lauren and Tommy Bahama. Your co-workers are walking around dressed in black like you. Tim, your leader steps forward with his tall, balding, liver spotted head and offers you a ‘good morning’ and a fist bump. Maybe he does it ironically; it’s hard to tell. You return the courtesy and try to seem more awake. The clothing that came off the truck two days ago has been processed enough that everyone is taking the wheeled racks out into the store for the merchandising team to put out on the selling floor. You grab a bar of Kids Apparel and wheel them out into the store, swerving between fixtures and tables advertising Estee Lauder and whatever fetid piss is being promoted by Justin Bieber or Brad Pitt till you reach the elevator and drag the bar passed the impatient sliding doors. The box rises and you look out through its glass walls over the floor, its white walls and gaudy displays soon to be lit up by bright fluorescents and crawling with consumers like a beehive in slow motion. At the second floor your roll out your wares and then jump back in to get a second load. Two minutes later you’re pushing a gigantic open cage on wheels carrying sixteen comforter sets in big plastic cases. You open the elevator, push it in, squeeze in with them and see that the end of the cage is just an inch passed the doors. The doors too seem to notice this because they’re not closing. The cage is too big for you to maneuver it at a diagonal angle. Eventually the elevator calls out in some ominous beeping. While muttering curse words you push the damned thing back out and try to think. The first and last idea that comes is bringing the damned comforter sets up by hand. You grab as big a stack as you can and stagger back to the elevator. When the doors open the comforters spill out of your arms and onto the floor. You step in and press the 2 button. As the elevator rises you remember that six months ago you were sitting at a desk and talking to a tenured professor about Thanatos and Eros and the homosexual undertones in Coriolanus. You get to the second floor and kick the comforters out before picking them up and trudging your way into the Home Textiles department. When you get back you have to wait for the damned elevator. It comes back up and when the doors open you see the cage with the rest of the comforters accompanied by your new work friend, David. He’s had time to get to know you for the dick you are so instead of saying ‘hi’ you say “How the fuck did you get that thing up here?” He explains that apparently it’s as simple as just pushing the CLOSE DOOR button and you try to come up with an excuse for not figuring that out yourself. You sigh and thank him for helping you with the rest of the load.
On the way back down the two of you make small talk, ask about the last seventeen hours between when you last saw each other and now. Not much transpired, it rarely does for people like you. David is four years younger than you, but it’s hard to tell. This says more about you than him. Interestingly enough he’s pretty close to where you were at 21, living with his mother, working part-time, matriculating at a snail’s pace at a community college. Much different than where you are now, living with your mother, working part-time, recently graduated from a state college. You’re kind of friends because you’ve both spent a significant amount of your hours on earth watching movies and seem to share an almost limitless capacity for talking about them. Where you differ is that he’s more attractive than you, tall and thin, and you’re more educated than him: he gets laid, you get drunk and read Walt Whitman to yourself out loud. David’s also a hopeless romantic. He tells you that he was up last night texting with ‘Pittsburgh,’ a girl who he knew when she lived down here in Florida but now lives in Pittsburgh. One morning you went to breakfast after your shift and he showed you a picture of her on his phone. She was not far from what you imagined, slim and beautiful with a smile that could have been a billboard for optimism. You took a second, let him see you see her and let it sink in. Then one word. “Remarkable.” It really seemed to work for him, after a moment he said that was probably the most complimentary thing anyone could say. Before you could stop yourself you told him that there’s a French phrase that sort of applies to that, mot juste, which translated literally means ‘best word.’ After that he was quiet until one of you thought of something else to talk about, something random, non sequitur.
When you two get back to the dock you see Tim kneeling down in front of the truck door. He takes off the tag, unlocks something and strains to push it up and open. A ten-foot-tall wall of boxes looks ready to spill out from behind it, a few at the top do and nearly come down on Tim’s head. To your left are a bunch of bars and racks on wheels, on your right is about half a dozen big open cages, also on wheels. In five hours or more they’ll all be full of hanging clothes, boxed House Wares, and bedding wrapped in thick plastic cases. There will also be other boxes of garments and accessories to be opened later which are stacked in the space between the dock and the hallway. The task seems daunting, it becomes more so the more times you do it. Jobs like these kind of suck that way. You grab a box cutter, push out the blade and pull it back in and then pocket it and move to “the line,” an extendable table with a surface of little metal wheels that works like a manual conveyor belt. Glen, another kid in his twenties, helps you wheel it to the mouth of the truck trailer, and then you all go to work.
As you start to wake up the hours become longer, the first two feeling like one and a half, the third feeling like century. It’s exacerbated by every moment being punctuated in every step with your ankle’s discomfort being too pronounced to continue ignoring it. The limp is only gone for while at the beginning before it’s reminded of how it came to be in the first place. You slice into tape, tear open the cardboard box flaps, grab handfuls of dresses on hangers and place them on a wheeled rack with other dresses. Then you break down the box and put it on a pile at the end of the line. The pile’s getting big. You lay your chest on it and reach around, finding the edges of the bottom box with your fingertips. When you come up your ankle groans and the stack you’re holding is pressed against your face. You have to walk sideways so you can see where you’re going while gravity works against your whole body. Around the corner, up a few steps, you’re in the compactor room. The last person to do this forgot to reopen the compactor doors, the metal rod is still horizontal across their edges. After a curse or two you push it open with your funny bone while bitterly questioning – and then acknowledging – the hilarity of something hurting like hell. The metal doors swing open and your use your upper-half to throw the cardboard stack into the compactor before you close it up and turn the knob to start it. Industrial squeaks and moans echo through the hall until your latest load has been jammed into the dozen or so that preceded it. You open the doors and limp down the steps.
The wall of boxes in the semi trailer has given away to another, then another almost indistinguishable from the last, like a bunch of failed games of Tetris. To look at the regression of boxes still to be unloaded, the first couple of hours seem like no progress at all. Then you’re halfway through and you stay there for another hour until you see the back wall of the trailer above four more layers boxes of all shapes and sizes. You come to love big boxes because they take up more space in the truck; you hate smaller boxes because they take up less. You also take note of the different types of plastic you have to strip off the clothing. Some of them are thin but are difficult to tear; others are thicker but come apart easier. The best are the ones with a perforated line down the front that separates and falls of the garment with the least effort. Not long ago your Italian Cinema professor – who has two post-graduate degrees, one from the Sorbonne the other from Berkley – was grinning at you while you explained the use of Wagner’s Flight of the Valkyries in Lina Wertmüler’s Pasqualino Settebellezze, and how, in the same sequence, the imagery was an homage to Fellini’s Otto di Mezzo, and that both scenes were inspired by Dante’s Inferno. Later she asked for anyone else to speak after making a joke about you knowing ‘everything.’ Now you know about what types of plastic are easier to strip off a pink t-shirt with #YOLO printed on the front of it.
You and your co-workers move closer to the truck trailer’s end and your limp is more imposing. In an effort to think about something other than your jobs, your lives, and the fact that you woke up at four in the morning, you and David play a game, a memory game known to the rest of your friends as “categories.” Yours is specifically movie themed. One of you comes up with a category such as movies set in the 1950’s, and you each have to come up with qualifying titles. The first to get stumped and give up loses. Today is a particularly grim day. The fourth can of Miller Lite consumed was, in the end, only enough to fuck up your REM cycle, limiting the hours you actually slept to something between three and four.
“Movies in which an animal dies,” you suggest.
“No disaster pictures where everything dies, and the animals can’t be evil or anything, it has to be either tragic or funny.”
“Okay,” he says, and takes a moment to think. “Where the Red Fern Grows.”
“Of course you’d start with something that obvious,” you say back as you pick up a heavy box to take to the sensor room. This task is the most of the ankle-punishing things you do while working a truck. Big boxes loaded with up to a hundred pieces of higher-end Ralph Lauren, Tommy’s Hilfiger and Bahama, and Guess need to be carried to a room in your workspace so they can be affixed with magnetic sensors before hitting the floor. After hour four your ankle isn’t just fighting you in the present, it’s making promises for the future. You get back to see him opening a big box of Michael Kors and tearing the hung dresses out to place on a nearby rack. “A Fish Called Wanda,” you throw back, and the game goes on: Marely and Me, Needful Things, Dumb and Dumber, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Turner and Hooch, Hudson Hawk, Secret Window, etc. You’re both distracted long enough to finish the day. The truck trailer is now a big dusty block of negative space. Tim and Glen pull the door back down and fix it into place with its iron lock. You’re thanked for your help and offered another fist bump from Tim as he says that he’ll see you tomorrow, same time. You thank him for the reminder and limp off the dock next to David. He says that you move like a geriatric. You tell him you feel worse, and also, fuck him.
The store is lighted now and a medium volume of customers are milling about the floor. You avoid eye-contact until you can clock out and take your name tag off. The walk to the door is excruciating. The walk through the parking lot is worse. Out of the doors the A/C abandons you to the aggressive sun and stifling humidity. You say goodbye to David and the two of you veer off in different directions across the black top. The car is an oven. You roll down the windows and back out, moving as fast as you can to get the wind blowing through the interior. The A/C has been shot since two years before you first drove it to Tallahassee. On the way home you hit the liquor store for a handle of gin and a twelve-pack of ginger ale. Your limp conveys and air of desperation that gives the pretty girl behind the counter a pained look.
No one is home when you pull in. You sigh in relief. The little Jack Russell jumps around in excitement when you open the door. You let her out into the back yard and change your work clothes for a dirty pair of shorts and a dirtier stained t-shirt. The shoes come off, the ankle brace comes off, the socks come off, the ankle brace goes back on. The dog starts barking to be let in. You step into a pair of worn flip-flops and violently limp back to the living room, leaning on walls and furniture for support. As the dog continues to bark you manage to get the gin, ginger ale, cigarettes, and a tumbler full of ice on to the table on your mother’s back lanai. The dog’s barking is getting louder so you limp over to the other side of the screened in area and let her in, and then follower her inside for your IPad and Bose noise-cancelling headphones.
Finally seated outside with your ankle resting a beige plastic lawn chair that matches the one under your ass, you pour the booze and soda over the ice and glug down half the glass. Pleasure finally ceases being and abstract as the ice chills your body and the painfully sweet mixture of ginger, sugar, and distilled juniper berries fizzes out over your tongue. You light a cigarette and pull in a draft of warm nicotine that further numbs you into some form of relaxation. On your tablet you find a podcast of comedians talking to other comedians about what it’s like to be comedians.
You put your head back and smoke and drink and try not to think about when you would pound beers with the girl who lived in the apartment across the hall on the bricks of your shared stoop as you talked about how E. M. Forrester’s A Room With a View was really about Charlotte Bartlett as opposed to the two young heroes of the novel, and how Dylan’s “Serve Somebody” is a better song than Lennon’s “Serve Yourself” though you more agree with Lennon’s overall message, and that you both hoped that the Tea Party movement would eventually tear the Republican Party to shreds in the coming elections. You also try not to think about sitting on the bed she kept in her living room while she showed you the best way to crush a beer can, and how you took turns playing songs on YouTube and drunkenly danced with each other to Bowie’s “Oh, You Pretty Things,” and how you drunkenly wailed through tears that you were in love with her and how she through her own tears asked you to leave for the third time and how you prematurely opened your first bottle of absinthe when you heard her loudly fucking one of your upstairs neighbors and how your days outside of class became couch-stranded with sitcoms on Netflix and cases of cheap beer and your grades started to slide and taking the GRE with a hangover was probably a mistake and the counselor in the student center working on his psych. degree wasn’t much help and you didn’t get into any graduate programs and your School of Arts and Sciences robes felt like a funeral shroud, and that the sun is setting and tomorrow and tomorrow – and that tomorrow you have to wake up at four a.m. again for another truck, and that you likely won’t get very many hours of sleep.