You’ve found a job in a liquor store. This is your vocation, now: selling half-pints of budget vodka to the neighborhood end-of-the-liners and staring sideways at your profile on the security monitor behind the cash register. Although the vodka has a Russian brand-name, it comes from a former nut factory that you can see from the window of your attic apartment. Scabby paintings of peanuts and cashews dressed in little tuxedo jackets still parade across the bricks, their pink tongues wagging offensively. You used to wonder what the hell went on in that building, and now you know. Now, you push the product. Your universe is shrinking, but your nose and forehead seem to be growing larger.
“You’ve got to get into the local spirit,” says The General Manager. “Love this city. Love its trademark rotgut. Otherwise, being here will just make you want to kill yourself.” He’s as local as you are and knows your business, all of your crazy business. Let’s say he used to be in a band with your one remaining friend from high school, a composer who stockpiles stereo equipment and never leaves the house. Let’s also say that he used to cohabitate with your second-to-last boyfriend, an abstract painter who recently got arrested for running amok in a Starbucks and threatening customers with a child-sized baseball bat. He worries a little about how you’re doing. He also worries about the neuralgia that plagues half of his horsey face. Sometimes, when he shaves, he leaves a patch of stubble there, fearing that the scrape of the razor will trigger an attack. Sometimes, you feel compelled to reach over and stroke the fuzzy patch, but you don’t really want to sleep with The General Manager. You just want to know that you have options.
Everyone who works here has trouble with their nerves. You’ve never seen anything like it. You expected suffering and spasticity from your regular customers – yellow-eyed, crusty-lipped men and women who stand in the middle of the street with their pants unbuttoned, making shadow puppets without shadows. But the employee maladies are epic. The Assistant Manager, for example, is recovering from a crippling case of Lyme disease. He claims he had it for more than a decade before getting the right diagnosis, and that he spent the whole second half saying goodbye to his loved ones. “The pain got so bad that I stopped caring what it even meant,” he tells you, his mouth full of folic acid. “I just wanted it to go away for a few minutes so I could play my fucking banjo.”
Then there is The Stock Clerk, who battles a wretched case of sciatica. Everyone calls him Johnny, even though that is not his name. He told you his real name, once, and you couldn’t pronounce it, so you immediately forgot it and started calling him Johnny as well. He is a short man, shorter than the stacks of boxes that he is forever struggling to dismantle. His condition causes one hip to jerk upwards into his hefty midsection, further compromising the distance that his legs can take him before he has to bend over and curse. Johnny’s first language is Portuguese, and this is the language in which he curses when the pain reaches its highest pitch. You once read that physical discomfort becomes greater in situations where you can’t effectively describe it to other people. No one else here speaks Portuguese, and Johnny often looks like he wants to die. But when you ask him how he is feeling, his standard response always gives you an empathic jolt. “It’s the flame,” he answers, brushing a hand down one thigh in a go-away motion. “I have the flame.”
Your high school friend The Composer schooled you right away on everything that is wrong with your colleagues, everything worthy of sympathy or suspicion. He used to have your job, back when he was less afraid that the Freemasons and certain TV commentators might be on a mission to silence his artistic voice. One night, after a particularly demoralizing shift, he and The Assistant Manager took acid together. They spent two hours locked in a bathroom, crying and looking for bugs, both living and electronic, inside each other’s ears. “I’d advise you to stay the fuck away from that guy,” he says. “I’m glad he’s OK now, I’m glad he’s healthy, but he’s still all about death. Plus, he’s gay, but he won’t admit it, so he just hates women. That means you, too.” The General Manager, in his opinion, is basically decent but also really a piece-of-shit sellout for trying to turn their now-defunct noise band into an 80s cover band, and for getting engaged to a nutritionist. “Fuck her, man. Fuck their beige carpeting.” But his chief concern is Johnny, who he thinks might possibly practice Santeria in the basement.
Remember, you are stuck. Nobody in the world who matters cares about your creative dabblings or your sex life. You work in a liquor store, and you live in an attic, and you are getting older and older in the same stupid city you were born in, which you know like the back of your progressively veiny hand. Anything having anything to do with transformation has to be good, and Santeria, with all of its blood and fire and suggestions of shape-shifting, sounds like a total party. “Not at all,” The Composer insists. “Look, I’m not saying anything about Johnny’s culture. His culture can tell me to go fuck myself. I respect the sacred ritual.” Even so, he swears he once walked in on Johnny nervously blowing out candles near the body of a dead rat. He knows you are a sucker for the unfathomable, and he wants to make everything so obvious that you’ll lose interest. You tell The Composer that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, and then you hang up the phone.
So today is your city’s approximation of Carnivale, an extravaganza of excess and poverty that happens at the beginning of every fall. Sex, spangles, booze, and fried plantains. This is always the time of year that you think things will be different. Young, red-eyed people have been coming in all day to replenish their supplies of peppermint schnapps, coconut rum, cinnamon vodka: wild flavors to go with the sequins on their bodysuits and the feathers at their hips. You’ve been drinking vitamin water and trying to recall the man from last night, who you only noticed because of his orange sweatshirt, and who kissed like a slobbering twelve-year-old, making you feel desiccated. He said that his name was Jerry, but you knew that he was lying. Up in your attic, after drilling you from behind, he also said that he was a cook. “But,” he said, raising his finger in the air for no reason, “I never get to make the kind of food that I like.” He said that one day maybe he’d cook for you, like you were supposed to be grateful, and you rolled over to face the gasping air conditioner jammed in the window.
You have never been this tired. You half-sleep your way into the evening, shoving big and little bottles across the counter, catching glimpses of Johnny swaying back and forth to a tape of Brazilian power ballads. So far, you’ve seen nothing to indicate that he is involved in any secret worship. Every workday, you exchange minimalist pleasantries with him, growing sparer and sparer as you both burn out. He still has “the flame,” though, which you’ve taken to mean “inflammation,” and it still apparently hurts like hell – the cursing has gotten louder, spittier, leaving flecks of white on his patchy moustache. You often overhear him talking on his cell phone, presumably to a very young child, but you can’t understand any of it. Only that it sounds kind. His one main, oddball thing is putting on this overblown music and moving around to it just enough to indicate that movement is still possible. You ask him if he’s planning to catch any of today’s event, and he dismisses you the same way you dismiss your customers when they ask you to marry them or loan them money. “Nope,” he says. “Enough crazy here! Outside, forget. Going home when I finish.”
Johnny finishes, and so do you. You’ve just sold your last half-pint of the fake Russian vodka to a man who stands in front of the store and plays the recorder for spare change, only he can’t play at all – he just puffs out non-notes and coughs into his shoulder. You lock up and pull down the metal grating outside the store windows, keeping the inside safe. The sky has gotten dark all of a sudden, and you’ve managed to flush the alcohol out of your system, but it doesn’t make the world look any clearer, because everyone around you is trashed. Girls walk up to each other and shimmy, and each shimmy is like a big “fuck you.” Boys do a dance where it looks like they’re holding jackhammers between their skinny legs, and then make tossing gestures, as if to say “never mind.” Cop cars have started showing up, flashing their festive red-and blue lights around, and some older ladies in tiaras are running from them and screaming. Like you, they are in their thirties, just beginning to spill out over the hard edges of their former, younger selves. The flesh of their bare legs jiggles as they run. Even sober, you find it impossible to walk in a straight line.
Somewhere, in a different city, a man you remember better than The Cook from last night is enjoying an extravaganza of his own. Let’s say that his creative dabblings have actually brought him some success; he is, and you quote, an emerging performance artist. He knows nothing of what you do for a living, because you lied and said you tended bar at the swankiest club you could think of. This seemed more acceptable than pushing bottles across a counter under buzzing fluorescent lights, though when you regard your situation under softer, more flattering lights, what you do could also be a form of performance art. Still, you aren’t getting paid enough for it. Tonight, people are throwing down money to see this man’s work, and they, too, will be drunk soon. They will snap his picture, they will swoon over his command of critical theory, and at the after-party, a woman painted up to look like an octopus will grab his hand and stick it in her underpants. He knows nothing of what you do. You dig your cell phone out of your purse and send him a text message, zinging with hyperbole, that he won’t receive until tomorrow. “Greetings from the underworld,” your message will read. “Love and Kisses, Eurydice.”
Earlier in the summer, maybe a month ago, maybe two, The Performance Artist lifted you onto his shoulders and went at you with expert lips. The hand at the base of your spine held you up above everything, the whole sad parade of your life, and from your perch it all looked okay. Now you are down in the middle of it all, and you are scared. Someone is playing a lone steel drum, and your pulse skitters along with it, occasionally just stopping. You’ve been noticing lately that your own body is falling apart, doing weird things that could only signify trouble. Your back has begun to stiffen, and you feel a vague sensation in your abdomen of something eating you from the inside out. Either you are dying, or you have physically damaged yourself from too much screwing around. Your phone rings, and it is your ex, The Abstract Painter, the one who went crazy with the tiny plastic bat. “Just wanted you to know that I’m dying,” he chirps, from his mother’s house halfway across the country. “Actually, I’m just kidding, but do you think you could send me some candy bars?” You hobble past a teenaged couple, boogying to a boom box in beaded necklaces. Yes, you will send candy bars. You hang up, and then the General Manager calls you and tells you that his face hurts, so he won’t be coming in tomorrow. Could you handle an incoming order of pumpkin beer? You hobble past an old man in sequined short-shorts, rhythmically kicking a mailbox. Yes, you will come in early and handle the pumpkin beer.
You put your phone back in your purse, then dig it out again and call up The Composer, scared out of your mind. You’re not sure if you’re more afraid of the shimmying and shouting all around you, or the quiet that awaits you at the end of the journey home: the attic, the broken air conditioner, the empty, torn-apart bed. The Composer rants about the fall of the mighty, about how even Rupert Murdoch is going crazy now and is scuttling away from the limelight so that no one will see it. You can hear him smoking, taking big, hungry drags. You consider buying a plate of fried plantain from the nearest food stand, but then you see two fat flies crawling on top of the shiny mess and remember hearing that flies regurgitate every place they land. So you chew the insides of your cheeks instead, until you taste blood and fire. “I take full responsibility,” says The Composer. “I walked through the Death Star, and I kicked the emperor in the fucking knee. You’re on the same path now, but you need to stay focused. Just keep your job, and kick that stupid dude. And yeah, stay away from Johnny.” But Johnny, unbeknownst to either of you, has already quit.
Rachael Marks is a writer, music maven, sociological excavator, choreographer and performer living in the Boston area. Her writing has been published in DigBoston and on the Flat Field Records website, and she is currently at work on her first book. She has also created and performed numerous solo works, and danced with the butoh companies Bodydrama and CHIMERAlab.
Story photo credit: www.evgrieve.com.
I never had the pleasure of reading this work before it was accepted, I’m so glad that in reviewing essays for Pushcart prize nominations I’ve now read this unusual, masterfully told story.
And thank you for writing something different from the normal stuff everyone writes about. Refreshing
Thank you so much for these comments! Words fail me.
this is brilliant work. the kind of thing that makes you want to re-read. precision of language. a literary feast.
beautiful, sad, seamless
This essay/story touches all its topics beautifully, delicately, straightforwardly, with an enormous heart, and it makes all the run-of-the-mill confessionals pale by comparison. Its author is just who I’ve been looking for – the poet of 30something creative women who did not do all the conventional things. Bonus, she handles each sentence like it’s wrought gold. Thank you for this wonderful work.