Pumpkin Grins

pumpkins

It’s cool tonight, and I light a cigarette and sit down among the leaves. The pine trees rustle from a breeze that doesn’t quite make it to where I’m sitting. The dim sodium light by the road outlines the bare branches above the house. Candles flicker in the laughing faces I’ve carved.

My earliest memory of Halloween involves my sister and I dressing up in stuffed costumes and going to our grandparents’ houses for candy. There is little memory beyond those vague recollections. The clearest image I have is of walking to the car, the streetlight having flickered out. I remember the comfort I took in holding my parents’ hands as we moved through chilly darkness.

A stray cat is walking along when it takes notice of me. It’s clearly nervous, and stands completely still while I smoke. I don’t move except to breathe. The cat looks off to the side, and something startles it enough so that it breaks into a run. I look where it looked. There isn’t anything there. I tell myself it’s the wind I hear sighing.

When I was about five, there was a Halloween when I was left alone in the living room. Not really alone, mind you. My parents were less than half a dozen steps away. But when you’re that small a shadow is an impassable divide. I sat beside the electric jack o’lantern, dressed in my plastic vampire costume, and listened to a battery operated ghost moan in the window whenever someone walked by. I became aware that I was alive on a magic night.

A light comes on inside the house. A shadow moves across the curtains. I’m apprehensive even though I know it’s just my sister. The light goes off. The shadow I saw won’t leave my vision.

When I was ten I rode through a spook house at the city fair. It was one of the better ones, before traveling dark rides let themselves get irredeemably cheap. I screamed when a rotting corpse hanging from the wall waved us by. I had never felt more miserable and scared than I did then, cowering in that electric car, my father’s arm around me. When it was over, I begged my dad to take me through again.

I carved three jack o’lanterns, even though Halloween is over a month away. They all have triangle eyes and triangle noses. Two laugh with square teeth. One screams with hastily carved fangs. The dark swirls like floodwater when the candles inside threaten to flicker out. The backyard is deathly quiet, and the streetlights do not reach where I sit.

Halloween when I was twelve was unusually robust. Every other yard was flooded with fake spider webs and plastic zombies. Three haunted houses left eager lines of giggling children trailing into the sidewalks. I filled two pumpkin pails with candy, and stayed up till two watching scary movies because it was a Friday. The next morning the decorations hung like crumbling ruins, and the city was quieter than it should have been for Saturday morning. It occurred to me that November 1st is the saddest day of the year. I consoled myself that weekend with a private marathon of old Hammer horror movies.

I lie back in the leaves, and watch the orange grins shimmer across the walls of the shed. At this angle I can hear the wafting of the candle flames. They each have a secret story they will only share with each other.

One Halloween, when I was nineteen or twenty, I met a girl at a party. We were probably both a little too drunk for it, but we ended up in a back bedroom. We kept our costumes on…mostly…and when we were done she was the first to leave. I dozed off for less than ten minutes, but it felt like I’d been out for hours. Before going back to the party I watched the shadows the tree branches made against the streetlight, and listened to the moan of the air as it rushed through a crack in the windowsill.

There are footsteps in the leaves around me. I tense up, until a telltale rustle tells me it’s a squirrel, out late to forage. It breaks away when an owl calls into the night. I hear movement in the trees.

I feel bad for eating the last of the candy. The last trick-or-treater had gone all-out, giving herself bloody makeup worthy of a Jason flick. I made up for my transgression by breaking into my secret stash, the cupboard where I stored my Lindt chocolate and my Ghirardelli bars. It was either that or give her a bottle of Maker’s Mark, so I erred on the side of caution. When they saw the fancy candy, her parents told me lightheartedly that I take Halloween too seriously. I tell them earnestly that that’s impossible. Later my roommate and I navigated our way through a haunted house, a warehouse to be exact. A rainstorm screamed against the tin roof while we scrambled through the dark. We were soaked to the bone when we made it to the car. The rain kept coming when we entered a haunted trail off a nearby mountain. I screamed and cowered as we went through cabins and actors whispered in my ears. Usually the performers went after my roommate. She’s five feet tall and petite, but between us I’m the coward. One actress picked up on this and terrorized me brilliantly. By two a.m. I was in my underwear and drinking beer, watching a horror movie while a strobe light flickered through my window. The light from the television imparted an eerie quality to the ventriloquist’s dummy sitting on my bookcase. I didn’t remember it facing me when I first lied down.

The cigarette has gone cold. I need to get up for work in the morning. I lean forward and blow out each of the pumpkin’s candles. For a moment I sit there. I let the chill in the air soak into my clothes. I can smell burned candle wax. The wind has picked up a little. It tells me a story, but only in whispers. I stand up, walking carefully through the leaves. Something instinctive tells me not to make too much noise. Even if I can’t hear it, something hears me.

I go inside, I lock the door, and I go to bed. Halloween comes every night, but only for the diligent.

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Little Family

My friend isn’t very fond of cats, for understandable reasons. He doesn’t dislike them, but give him a dog over a cat any day. I’m the exact opposite. I love dogs, but I’m not much of a fan of dependency. I’ve always preferred cats.

So it was surprising when one day he texted me saying he had a cat now. She’s adorable, an almost freakishly tiny stray he saved from the front yard of his apartment building. She’s very affectionate, and it makes us laugh to no end when she breaks into a run, and slides three feet on the hardwood floor when she tries to stop.

It turned out she was pregnant, but she’s really young so she only had one kitten. Eventually he decided to keep this one too, as two cats wouldn’t break him. They’ll both be sterilized once the kitten is old enough.

He still prefers dogs. Cats freak him out when they stare at him, and he hates their habit of tackling people’s ankles. But the new cat is having known of his sassafras.

“Stop melting my heart!!!” he mock demands of the four-pound kitty, wrapping his hands gently around its neck and pretending to choke it. She just purrs and nips at his thumb.

***

Childhood neighbors of mine had a golden retriever they never played with. The dog was starved for attention, so my sister and I would play with it through the fence all the time. One time it broke loose while the family was away, and we spent a great afternoon petting it and playing fetch. It actually made me cry when she was taken back into the yard, and locked back up behind the fence. She was eventually adopted out, hopefully to someone who knew what kind of treasure she was.

The police loved few things more than stealing the pets of black citizens and taking them to the pound. My general distrust of the police began when I found out another neighbor’s dogs, three dalmatians I liked playing with, were mistakenly seized. The animals that were supposed to be taken lived on another street with a similar name, but in their haste to destroy precious things that were loved by a non-white family, the police in my town had them put down almost immediately. This was against pretty clear policy, and the police were actually pretty hostile when the family complained. A few town hall meetings later, and the officers involved in the incident were fired and fined. It’s almost worthless compensation, compared to losing those three babies so cruelly, but it was at least an acknowledgement.

There are a lot of pit bulls in my hometown. Occasionally a couple of assholes will try to start up some kind of dog fighting ring, but it’s never more than a handful of people out of the nearly 80,000 that live here. If you see a pit bull around here, you can usually assume it’s as beloved a family pet as a miniature poodle. There are plenty of idiots around here who buy into the vicious myths about the breed. They do so out of a misguided notion of pity, not realizing that they’re perpetuating the cycle of animal cruelty they believe they’re opposing. I once saw a pit bull lick and nuzzle an injured kitten a family on my street had rescued. Nowadays dog and cat spend plenty of afternoons napping, wrapped around one another, on front porch and back. It’s important to realize this is neither the exception nor the rule. Animals, like people, come in all shades.

aww

***

When I was twelve, we took in a cat that was over twenty years old, because its owner, the mother of a friend of my father’s, couldn’t care for her anymore. The cat lived another year and a half, and she slept in my bed every night. She got sick eventually, and one day I heard her begging desperately behind the hallway door we used to keep her and the other cat from fighting. I tried to let her out, since the other cat was outside, but Missy would only walk in quick circles, begging. I went in and sat down, and she hustled to curl up in my lap. She fell asleep, purring, and about ten minutes later she died.

***

We had one cat, Gray Baby, who would follow me everywhere, even to the shower, as soon as I came home. Spotty wanted me to carry her 24/7, and had a habit of hugging me with her front legs. Princess could somehow sense, no matter where in the house she was, that I had just sat down, and she would run at full speed until she dived onto me, full force, before curling up and going to sleep.

***

I had three gerbils: Karma, Dharma, and Samsara.

I had Samsara first. He was kind of old by gerbil standards, and the pet store I got him from wasn’t very diligent about keeping him safe from the other gerbils. It was shut down and forced to make upgrades a few months later. He only had half a tail, but he was friendly enough. He liked to ride around in the crook of my elbow while I fed him sunflower seeds.

He died of natural causes, and a friend of mine gave me a little black gerbil I called Karma. Karma was a vicious little bitch, and would leap to bite me whenever I fed her. I was resigned to just having a shitty gerbil until someone reminded me that gerbils live in colonies. I adopted another gerbil, Dharma, and put her beside Karma’s cage. Karma immediately become fascinated, and followed her down the length of the cages as she moved around. I moved them in with each other, and afterward I could pick them both up with no problems. Karma developed a habit of licking the end of my nose if I held her close enough. When they slept, they made a little yin yang with their bodies.

***

Magpie was a rescue. He was born feral, but he and his brother seemed way more at ease around me than their mother did. We fed them a little but generally left them alone. One day he was dragging his hind legs behind him. The vet said he’d broken his hip, probably from being hit by a car. We took him in and fed him. I would sit with him some mornings and pet him. Even with his hurt hip he would climb out of the cat bed and follow me. When he healed up and could walk normally, he decided he didn’t want to go back outside.

Boots literally demanded adoption. When he was little he’d race inside at every opportunity, amusing my late grandmother to no end with his persistence. He was an adorable, almost freakishly sociable ball of fluff, and he was already allowed in by the time we took in Magpie. He isn’t as inside-oriented as Magpie. He spends all day, every day lounging in the boat outside, or sunning in the grass, only coming inside to eat and drink. We keep him in at night, and though he loves us he’s never okay with this. He’s like a puppy, mewling for attention and prancing when he gets it.

Their mother had another litter of kittens, but all but one died. The little black kitten would come inside, curl up, and purr for hours when he stroked it. We stopped seeing it for awhile, and were afraid a nearby owl had gotten it. Eventually I saw one of the neighbors had a new black cat, with little white spots exactly like the kitten’s. The mother, feral to her bones, is probably long gone.

We also have Charlie. We love him and he loves us. He’s the only cat I’ve ever had declawed. He’d be a nightmare to deal with otherwise. Nowadays instead of wincing at random pinpricks in our ankles, we feel as though we’re being batted by tiny clusters of pillows. Charlie’s a bit murderous. We love him and he loves us, but he would probably try to eat us if we slept just a little too long.

***

One drunken night I had to sleep at an unfamiliar house. I didn’t feel unsafe at all – the people who lived there were close friends of mine – but I very much crave the security of a familiar place when I sleep. I lied in the dark, wide awake on the pleather sofa. Eventually their little rat terrier hopped onto the cushion I was lying on and snuggled up under my arm. I was out in five minutes, the rat terrier’s cold little nose pressed against my chin, his body a furry little furnace warming me against the air conditioner’s chill.

***

When I sit around my friend’s apartment, his cat likes to hop up and head butt me. She’s the kind of cat who just keeps her head pressed against your face, and it’s hard to resist to urge to just indulge and kiss her forehead. It’s a painfully effeminate mannerism my friend only mildly shames me for.

We’ll sit and drink beer and make bawdy jokes we will never repeat when female friends of ours are around. His cat will sit on my leg and I’ll start to pet her, and in a stern tone, my friend will command me to stop stroking his pussy.

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Note in a Record Sleeve

Record Player

 

It takes me five minutes of rooting through the record cabinet before I find my late grandmother’s copy of Don’t Fence Me In. I haul the record player outside and set it on the stand I usually reserve for my ashtray, then plug in a pair of headphones older than me and put the needle down.

I sit down in a folding chair, next to the bowls I set out for stray cats and a bag of kibble I forgot to bring inside. It’s been knocked under a small worktable, and a possum hangs by its tail and hind feet into the bag. It was almost empty anyway, so I scratch its butt and let it finish. When it’s done it climbs out of the bag and stretches until its paws are on the concrete, then waddles over and sits down beside me, leaning its weight against my ankle.

My grandmother played this album whenever my grandfather would get jumpy. It wasn’t often, but there would be days when even the buzzer on Jeopardy would be too much for him. I only saw this once, on a day when I guess he couldn’t sneak to the back of the house for a smoke. He tried to hide the fact that he smoked but with two grandchildren constantly prowling the yard it was a titanic effort. There were many instances when he would turn with a squeak of his sneakers, and drop a butt into the little copper tube he stored his smokes in, hoping we wouldn’t see his vice.

The possum has gotten comfortable. The two strays I feed are poking their heads out through the iron railing set in the brick. They eye the possum, the only thing between them and their food. The possum sometimes plays with them but tonight tensions seem high. I grab the nearly empty bag and flick it, scattering what’s left of the kibble onto the concrete. The cats carefully creep out and begin to nibble. The possum keeps sleeping.

The sky is turning a dark blue, and deep grey clouds are spinning in tufts studded with heat lightning. I can hear the rumble of thunder even over the headphones. The pulsing light illuminates the house across the street, where my childhood friend Scott grew up. After what happened with Scott’s baby sister, his parents felt it best to move across town.

My grandfather would jump at any loud bang, no matter how relaxed he felt. My grandmother walked with a cane, and if it tipped over against the wall my grandfather would leap out of whatever seat he was in. He avoided World War II as long as possible. His generation didn’t fall for the affected machismo that propels so many Millennials to pose with handguns on Facebook. War wasn’t glamorous where my grandparents came from. But when the draft called he went, and worked on B-17s as an engineer during bombing raids. He liked telling boot camp stories, but clammed up whenever you’d ask for details about the actual war. He had a dark spot on his little finger from a piece of shrapnel that had dissolved beneath the skin. Some weekends when I’d sleep over, I’d wake up to Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral and the sound of Grandma sighing “It’s okay, Tom.” My grandfather would be sitting on the couch, his hands shaking, his breathing deep and ragged.

I scratch the possum’s back and he stretches, waving at the air with his paws and flexing his toes like fingers. I feel his tail whip around my leg for a second, then curl back under his belly. Or maybe her belly. I’ve never thought to check. I don’t plan to anytime soon. The strays have finished eating from the scattered pile. They’re curled up in the bushes asleep. Scott’s old house sits empty. It’s been on the market for five years. It hasn’t had any permanent residents for the past fifteen.

“I can’t believe he would do this!” Scott’s mom had ranted. “He oughtta be in jail! He oughtta be hanged! How could he? How could he? He always seemed so friendly!”

Our mother wouldn’t allow my sister to visit after what happened with the neighbor girl. My sister didn’t know what was going on then but she does now. She deals by just not mentioning it. She and that little girl were the same age. I stopped coming over out of disgust, honestly. My father would sometimes go behind our mother’s back and ask if we wanted to “come along” when he visited his parents. “Grandpa misses you two,” he’d say. He stopped trying after I blurted “I don’t care” in a fit of pubescent moodiness.

At Grandma’s funeral they laid her beside Grandpa, and I remember thinking “liar” when I noticed the stone read Beloved Grandfather.

The girl seemed too young to be upset over what happened at the time. From what I hear she just mentioned it off-handedly to her folks, the way you would if you’d just gone picking flowers somewhere. I imagine she feels a lot differently about things today.

I kinda wish I had smokes. I haven’t bought a pack in over a month. I usually don’t give in until the craving’s had a couple of weeks to smolder. The air smells of wet ozone.

My grandparent’s married in 1946, and both began working at an Army Air Forces airfield in South Alabama. When the field closed in ‘65 they took transfers to Georgia. Grandpa’s mother bought them Bing Crosby’s Don’t Fence Me In as a housewarming gift. There’s a note, now brown from age, which falls from the sleeve whenever I remove the record:

My fighting son. He always comes home. – Your Mother

My possum has gotten up and waddled over to the leftover kibble. Its tail thumps against the door I found Grandpa in as it turns in circles, sniffing for grub.

The sodium streetlamp hums to life. Yellow light washes out the dark, cloudy blue. Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral begins to play as I find a loose cigarette in a pack I thought was empty. The spark of the lighter flashes across the porch. In the dim glow of the streetlamp, out of the corner of my eye, I can almost believe that I see my grandfather, hanging the way he was the morning I finally came to visit. The way I remember it, the rope was swinging. I take a drag on my cigarette. In my memory, Grandpa’s feet brush the threshold in time to Bing Crosby.

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Midnight Until Morning

sodium light

 

The light in the Kroger parking lot buzzes, and I amuse myself by pretending the buzzing is coming from the moths circling overhead. It’s muggy tonight, and my cigarette somehow makes things feel warmer in the car. Eventually she comes outside, and when she climbs in she changes her clothes in the passenger seat.

We sneak into her house as quietly as possible. Her mother’s still at work and her kid sister is asleep. She calls her a kid sister even though the girl’s almost seventeen now.

We get to her room, which she’d tried to abandon for a few years for an apartment across town, but she is inextricably tied to this drywall box. Poverty is a lock built for heavy use.

I text my sister to tell her she doesn’t have to leave the hall light on for me, at the house we both share on our parents’ dime. Our folks moved out of state a couple years ago but kept the place as an investment, though not so much monetarily as familial. We try to pay them rent, but generosity won’t allow them to keep the money for long. It always comes back in Christmas cards or unusually generous amounts of “gas money” for errands. I would complain, but it’s something of a sin to do so when there really aren’t any complaints to have.

We drink warming beer I bought while waiting for her shift to end. The cashier in the next line seemed exasperated when I wouldn’t respond to her attempts to wave me over. I very nearly whispered “But it’s this cashier I want to fuck!” but crudeness is not a taste for every palette.

She opens her windows and we smoke cigarettes. We sit on the floor and watch headlights trace across the walls. We’re in our late twenties but don’t want to know it.

She has red hair that’s almost orange, and it curls so that every movement makes it leap from her shoulders. The ends of it brush my face when she stands and bends to kiss me, before shambling to the bathroom.

I crack open two more beers, and she comes out in green cotton boxers and a white men’s tank top she likes to sleep in. We drink beer and talk about anything other than the fact that we won’t be doing this – any of it –very long from now. That’s a topic we’ll visit later, when we add “not thinking about it” to the list of luxuries she can’t afford.

The ends of her hair tickle my face again. They puff with every breath I take. She hugs me tight around my neck, and her breath makes my left ear feel wet. The boxers have tied her right ankle to my left one, somehow.

In movies and novels, only the boring parts about sex are covered. The parts of each other’s bodies that everyone likes. The generic mentioning that someone eventually experiences an orgasm. The interesting bits are always overlooked. Like how your stomach always makes a paunch, no matter how skinny you are, when you’re hunched over towards the other person. Or how small flecks of stubble ignite the nerves in your skin when her leg brushes yours. Sometimes I see dark bristles under her arms. They’re short, regularly waxed away, but they’re there, just barely.

I want no one else as much as I want her in this moment.

My teeth brush her ear and I feel her arms tighten. I keep forgetting that’s something she likes. She scratches at my shoulders, and I feel undutiful because she clearly remembers that’s what I like.

We fall asleep for awhile. She wakes me an hour before her sister usually gets up. Her mother has already come home and gone to bed. We dress and kiss and she goes to shower while I lock the door behind me. I start the car and drive home. The sun isn’t up yet. Last night will stay on my mind all day. It will be years before I realize we were saying an early goodbye.

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Folding Chairs

old folding chair

 

The pickup lurches a little when I put it in gear, and there’s a rattle I’m starting to fear is coming from the water pump. If it’ll hold for the next two paychecks I’ll be able to have it replaced.

It’s October and warm for the afternoon. I steer to avoid smashed road kill and a deputy notices that I cross the center line. I see him in my rearview mirror, debating whether or not to hassle me. He never pulls out, though. I’m at my pop’s house in twenty minutes.

He gives the dogs free reign inside, which gives the house the suffocating odor of musk and hidden dog shit. I make a mental note to set aside a weekend to help him clean.

He’s sitting at the kitchen table, a fat boxer sitting over both his feet. Two disassembled pistols are on the table, and he’s cleaning them with oil and cotton balls. The guns give off a sharp odor that I hate worse than the smell of the dogs.

“Hey, Pop.”

He’s let his hair grow since retirement. He keeps it tied back but he doesn’t brush it enough, and it looks stringy. I can see patches of his scalp between the vines of gray hair. He turns, slowly. “Hey, kid,” he tells me, looking almost stunned. He runs a hand over his unshaven face. “How’s work?”

“It’s work.” I grab a nylon folding chair from against the wall and bring it to the table to sit. The whole tabletop is overrun with mail and small tools. Mom always hated this. “I wash dishes. I fry eggs.”

He nods gravely, like I’ve said something worth pondering. “This is that .357 I got you that one Christmas. The one you left behind when you moved out.”

“Oh, yeah.” The gun is somewhat obscene in size, and I can’t imagine ever being in a situation where I would practically need it. I do carry a gun, though, sometimes. A little .38 I’ve always been fond of. Pop bought it for Mom but she never much cared for it. He’s something of a lone enthusiast under this roof. I doubt the dogs care about guns at all.

Roscoe, a rickety old brown pitbull, comes hobbling over. He’s got bad knees, and watching him sit down or stand up makes me wince. But he’s a sweet old thing and I scratch him behind the ears.

“I oughtta take that gun back with me one of these days.”

“Well, I can hold onto it for ya,” Pop tells me. “Keep it safe till ya need to come home.”

I moved out five years ago. I’ve been taking night classes the past two years. The nest is old and covered in cobwebs.

“You ready to head out?” I ask him.

He turns and checks the time on the microwave. “Yeah, I guess we should go.” He stands up, takes a moment to steady himself against any joints that might yell out. He grabs his cane, an oak branch with a handle shaped naturally like a duck’s head, and I stick close in case he loses his balance. He doesn’t. He shuffles his feet loose from the boxer and we head for the door.

 

***

 

“Sean’s here, too.” Pop waves at me, standing by the door.

“Oh,” Mom says, sounding unsure. “That’s nice.”

“Hey, Mom.”

“Come on in, kid,” Pop says, obliviously.

“I’m okay, Pop.” The only thing she remembers about me these days is the rage I used to inspire in her. Last summer she swung at me with a plastic fork. Pop sits alone across from Mom.

“Me and Sean are heading out today, the way we used to when we all had Sunday off.” When she shows no interest he asks her as casually as he can: “Would you wanna come with us sometime?”

“Oh. No.” She turns to watch hummingbirds out her window. Her roommate mutters in her sleep.

Pop reaches out and squeezes her hand. “I miss you, baby.”

Her arm doesn’t move. She doesn’t pull her hand away or hold his tighter. The knuckles sit there, unflinching.

When we start to leave Mom is still looking through the window. The nurse at the desk tells her she’s been more lucid than usual lately. This nurse always says that.

 

***

 

Pop and I dig a fire pit. Really I dig it, but Pop sets out the can and lays the charcoal inside. A grill is balanced, and sausages begin to sweat alongside hissing potatoes in foil.

We drink bottles of water pulled from a cooler. “I almost miss beer,” Pop says after a quiet moment.

“You ever miss it much?”

“I said I almost miss it,” he reminds me, then lights a cigarette. Putting the lighter down makes him wince.

“You alright, Pop?”

“Back,” he mutters. “My fuckin’ back.”

The aluminum armrests of the folding chairs scrape together when we move. Pop chews his food loudly, smacking and sucking at his teeth. I’ve learned to not let this bother me. Conditioning makes it hard to ignore, though. Nothing used to irritate my parents more than when my sister and I smacked our lips at meals.

“You’re doctor’s kids,” Pop would say, in that tone he used during lectures. “Behave like it.”

The old man in plaid and faded denim wipes his face with a dirty napkin.

It’s getting cold. We sit under blankets and sometimes talk about Mom. At some point I notice the wheezing breaths he takes when he’s fallen asleep. I put my arm around his shoulder. There are stars out tonight. Moonlight shines against the armrests of our folding chairs. I hold my father while he sleeps.

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Scrub Clean

Dishwashing

 

There’s a six hour orientation I have to sit through before I am entrusted with the task of running clunky ceramic platters through an industrial dishwasher. The chef running me through the course is affable but a little absorbed in himself. He’s tearing through the workbook at twenty miles over the speed limit, and the bartender nearby jokes that I can’t possibly remember everything he’s saying. It’s nothing I haven’t heard countless times from every other restaurant I’ve worked in. If this seems tough around here, I should be fine.

 

***

 

The first night I have a really sympathetic trainer, who shows me where everything goes multiple times, and carries the brunt of the workload while I learn my way around. After two hours I’m put on the fry pit, where a nice fry cook runs me through the timing that goes into deep frying the greasy meat that subconsciously suicidal patrons will be shoveling down their gullets. I don’t intend to be frying much but the managers want me to cross train in something, so here I am. The cook I’m with is a master of timing, and he cooks twelve batches at a time with the four fry baskets he’s given. I’m told I need a menu matrix before I’ll be able to hold my own in here. The restaurant won’t have new matrixes for a month.

I go back to the dish pit before closing, and watch the trainer break the machine down. We scrub our corner, then hit the lights and leave. I smoke a cigarette and listen to Roy Orbison as I drive home. I barely stay up long enough to shower. My GRE workbook sits untouched in its Amazon box.

 

***

 

Rolling silverware is the easiest job you can possibly have in a restaurant. I know this from personal experience. It literally doesn’t get any easier than rolling silverware. I’m actually amazed that in some places it’s a shift all by itself. Here there aren’t even any special folds required. You just wrap a napkin around the flatware and go.

Naturally, the teenager given the job bitches about it ceaselessly. She’s horrifically rude to everyone around her, and has already been called aside twice tonight by the equally bitchy manager on duty. He’s given her two warnings but she’s sixteen, so what’s she gonna do? Modify her behavior?

I drop off fresh forks and she blithely says: “Hey, can you take that back with you?” She sweeps generally at me.

“Take what with me?”

“THE THING IN YOUR HAND!” she snaps, meaning the dish rack. She’s seething, hissing the words through her teeth.

“What the fuck did you think I was gonna do with it?” I ask her, then immediately forget about her once she’s out of eyesight.

I ignore her through the night. I don’t do it consciously. It’s just that she’s sixteen; my default action around teenagers is to just not care. I don’t mean to not notice them. They’re just so…boring. Caring would require a greater man than me.

She drops off my radar until around ten, when she starts begging other people to come help her. At one point she offers twenty bucks…half a shift, without taxes…to anyone who’ll help her. No one takes her up on it.

“You mean help you with your own work?” a friend of hers snickers as he walks past.

“You’re such a little bitch!” she snaps back, but without the good-natured tone of her friend. She sees me, and comes over.

“Hey, I’m sorry I was mean to you.”

“I don’t care,” I tell her. I don’t say it to be mean. It really doesn’t bother me. It’s amazing how little you can care about things when you’ve legitimately grown up.

“Really? Cuz you’ve been ignoring me all night.”

“Not ignoring you,” I tell her. “Just not caring.”

“You really take shit personal, don’t you?”

“Pretend my answer is whatever you want it to be,” I say, and unload the last platter before retreating back to the dish pit.

 

***

 

The cooks and dishwashers want to play football after work. I don’t want to join them. I will stop caring about this place the second I clock out.

The people here think I have a son I take care of. They think this because I have a habit of calling my best friend “my boy,” and also because I’m old enough where, this far below the Mason-Dixon Line, pretty much everyone my age has a kid. I’ve never corrected the assumption, as it gives me a convenient excuse to just head home at night without what seems to be the requisite socializing.

I don’t mind hanging with coworkers after work. In the city I lived in before, I did it almost every night. But Perry, GA is a place where only bitterness and boredom come up in conversation. When the sun sets, I want to be around the few people I know who aren’t desperately chasing distraction until morning.

 

***

 

“Hey man, how you like it?”

The silverware roller is a guy tonight, the same guy who actually referred me here. He’s really nice, actually, so I feel bad when I reactively I blurt out: “I don’t, but I didn’t expect to, so it’s all good.”

He laughs at that. “Yeah, I get that.” I could actually hang with this guy without minding. He and I met through his sister-in-law. I guess he’s reading my mind because when I remember that he asks me how she and I are doing.

She and I have our own lives. We’ve gone out once, but only once. We’ve basically been opposite sex dude-bros for a decade, give or take a couple years here and there. Not best friends but good enough.

I tell him she doesn’t want to go out again. “Aw, damn. Don’t that suck,” he says.

I shrug. “Could suck worse.”

“How?”

“Coulda got married.” And I can see myself hanging out with him because he laughs at this. Everyone else in this church infested area would wonder what my beef against the holy union of marriage is. This guy just laughs.

 

***

 

I’ve been at it a couple weeks now. I’m falling into a familiar rhythm, one I remember from my days at the hotel. My arms are swelling and my stomach’s flattening. I fancy myself a worker-scholar on days when I don’t have cigarettes waiting for me in the car.

It’s late on a holiday, and we’re running every removable piece of equipment through the washer. The manager, who’s sat and talked the entire night, looks us over and curtly tells us that we “need to move it up about ten notches.” She walks away before she can see that we give her instructions less than zero regard.

The line cooks help us break down and clean up. We hose off the kitchen, squeegee the water, and hit the lights. The manager grumbles that it’s after midnight when she locks up behind us.

Cigarettes are lit immediately. Applications are emailed. Eight hours later I’m back inside, opening up the kitchen. The grill cook also had a turnaround, and he comes in after me.

“You did a good job last night, man,” he tells me, putting on his apron. I thank him, praying the compliment doesn’t become an endorsement, and roll the first rack of plates through the machine.

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Safari

safari

 

 

 

© Copyright 2014

Sean Ganus

 

 

The coffee shop calls me two weeks after I submit the application. I’m in the shower when my phone rings, so I have to call them back. The hiring manager who called is unavailable, so I leave a message for him to call me back. I leave three more before I learn he has left the property for the week.

The next week I call to follow up. He tells me he was excited to review my application. My experience in customer service is just what he’s looking for in a shift supervisor. He tells me they’ve already hired someone else, though.

“But we still have positions open for baristas,” he adds. I tell him a barista gig would be fine.

“Come in tomorrow for an interview, then!” he tells me warmly.

I interview the next day. He calls me later in the afternoon and tells me the interview went wonderfully. He adds that he went with someone else for the two open positions.

“Someone with a little more coffee experience,” he tells me, in a measured, manager’s way. He adds artificial gravitas to the phrase coffee experience, as though coffee making is a degreed skill set.

In trying to avoid insulting their workers and applicants, companies now just condescend to them.

 

***

 

“So why are you interested in this job?”

The librarian interviewing me looks almost out of place. She’s very cold and businesslike, more suited to an insurance office than a public library.

I tell her I love books. I tell her I’m a voracious reader and that I’m fastidiously organized. I tell her I’m used to environments that require extensive electronic recordkeeping.

“I notice you have your degree,” she says.

I do.

“You know this job is only part-time, right?”

I do.

“Don’t you want to do more with your diploma?”

I’d love to. If only there was more available.

“I’m not sure this job is for you,” she tells me. “Frankly, you may be overqualified.”

It’s reassuring to know I’m too smart to feel hunger.

 

***

 

“We went with someone who has a little more bowling experience.”

Bowling experience.

 

***

 

I hear the dial tones of a computerized answering service. This is the third time I’ve called.

“Due to the extremely high volume of applications, we’re unable to provide any definite figures relating to the probability that you’ll be called in for an interview. We thank you for your call, though, and appreciate your interest in working with our team.”

 

***

 

I’ve spent the entire morning taking computerized tests, role-playing customer care scenarios, engaging in verbal interviews, and filling out questionnaires. This is the fifth person who has interviewed me today.

Customer service reps dutifully answer calls around me. One young man in the next cubicle is doing really well. He’s relaxed and personable, and I can hear customers on his headset. They’re delighted at the end of each call.

His manager comes by, whispers something to him. Whatever it is that she says, he’s clearly bothered by it. He answers the next call in the same artificially chirpy tone everyone else is using. The customers now aren’t nearly as satisfied as the customers before. They’re uncomfortable, put off. They can sense they’re just getting a form routine. No one is happy with the enforced brand standard, except, perhaps, the brand itself.

“We’ve reviewed your file,” the hiring manager says as she walks back into her cubicle. “And overall you’ve done wonderfully. But unfortunately, we aren’t able to offer you a job at this time. I’m so sorry.”

“Was there anything that caused particular concern?” I ask, honestly curious.

“I’m…not really at liberty to say. But…we just don’t think this job is the perfect fit for you.”

“But I’m…I’m qualified, right?”

“Perfectly qualified, yes. To be honest…” She looks around quickly, leans in, says in a low voice: “There aren’t any more training positions open until our next hiring cycle.”

“So…can I possibly apply for an opening for the next cycle?”

“Unfortunately no.”

“Were these openings already filled.”

“They were, actually.”

“So…why did you people call me in?”

“Company policy is to process employment applications as quickly as possible, as soon as they come in.”

“…even if there isn’t anything left to apply for.”

“Yes.”

“So it’s a policy of false hope.”

She laughs. “I wouldn’t go that far.”

“I think you people owe me two gallons of gas for driving out here.”

She gives me a sympathetic look. “Your application will remain on file. I’m very sorry.”

“It doesn’t matter if you are.”

She walks me through security. She asks if I’m okay with the stairs, since she’d need her card for the door past the elevators. I opt for the elevators.

 

***

 

“I’m calling about the application we have on file for you. Are you still interested in working for our company?”

“You people pulled this trick before. Have a good day.”

I hang up.

 

***

 

I stuff the lady’s receipt into her bag. She must be a big fan of James Patterson. Or, more specifically, a big fan of James Patterson’s ghostwriters.

Later, in the attached café, she and I talk about a scuffle in Iraq between militant and Iraqi army forces. While I prepare her mocha she asks me, “Are you in school?”

“Got one degree. Hoping for one or two more eventually.”

“Then what are you doing here?” She looks amazed.

“…working.”

“Don’t you want more from life?”

I ring up the coffee drink. “I do. But I also don’t want any less.”

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