It’s a six hour shift with one fifteen minute break after your third hour. There’s big boxes and small boxes and light boxes and heavy boxes. Many people along the line wear weight lifting belts to ease the strain on their lower backs. It’s a fucked up job for a variety of reasons but, for me, the most fucked up thing about it is the fact that you have to push the conveyor belts by hand. Who ever heard of such a thing? In the movies or TV you always see them humming along with the workers doing their damnedest to try and keep up with the speed of the belt. Like the time Lucy and Ethel were working in the chocolate factory trying to keep up by eating half the candies just to stay out of trouble. That was a good one. It even made my mother laugh. It’s strange… I can remember her laughing but I can’t remember her face. Just her worn out blue bath robe. She was skinny, the cloth belt cinched tight about her waist. Sometimes in dreams I see her but then she always has the face of Lucy. I don’t know why this is so. I should be able to remember her face since it was only the two of us living together from the time I was three until the time I was seventeen. But I do remember my father’s face. Well, not exactly his face, but rather the picture of his face that stood in the frame on top of the TV. Often, I would be looking at his face while Mom watched the TV. Then again, maybe that’s what she was doing too. But this I’ll never know because I never asked her and she’s dead now like my father.
The break whistle blows and everybody leaves the line for the cafeteria. It’s a pushing rush to get there because you don’t have much time to drink your drink or eat your sandwich before the whistle blows again. But just about everybody does it anyway. That is, everybody but me. At the whistle, I prefer to stroll past the super’s office and out the highway-side door where I sit on the steps and, depending on my mood, think or not think about things while the traffic flows by like a metal river.
This is the longest I’ve been on a single job. Longer than the meat market by almost a year now. Today is my birthday and nobody knows it but me. I’m forty years old and ten years older than my father was when he still walked the earth. It feels like it should mean something when I think on it, but what exactly that is, I don’t really know. The whistle blows and the break is over. But today, I stay an extra few moments sitting on my step. The second whistle blows and I wonder how long I’ve got before Lamont figures out that I’m not at my spot. Lamont is basically alright but basically an asshole too since he thinks he’s important and moving up in the world. Lamont wears a shirt and a tie and is part of the union. Belonging to the union is a big deal around here, the giant carrot that they constantly dangle in front of your face. Just work real hard and one day, young man, you can be in the union too. Yeah right. Everybody on the line knows it’s basically bullshit because management fires the entire crew every twenty-nine days before rehiring them again a day later. That’s because if you work thirty days straight, you’re automatically in the union. They got it all figured out, the bastards. It’s just like the six hour shift. Six hours makes you a part-timer and as a part-timer you are ineligible for benefits or a regular lunch break. It’s a scam but everybody plays along on the idiot’s hope that they will someday be picked to come off the line to wield a clipboard and a pen. They call it, The Ladder of Success and there are actually posters of this ladder taped up everywhere you look. It’s a crazy looking picture of a bunch of grinning, multi-racial people climbing the rungs over the rainbow and through a big pink cloud into an office space on the far side of a smiling sun. On the bottom rung, a happy Asian guy comes off the line to become a supervisor like Lamont. After that, they got a black lady climbing her way over the rainbow to become a driver. This is what most everybody talks about, what most everybody aspires to: becoming a driver. Rumor has it that they are making over forty grand with benefits and holidays to boot. But for those really ambitious climbers, the idiots who fantasize making it past the pink cloud, there’s always the dream of the central office, the worker’s heaven, where you’ll enjoy a desk and a phone and who knows what else. And all you need to get started is that magical union card. Yeah, it’s crazy, I know, but the craziest thing about it is the fact that everybody secretly hopes that their gonna be the next one up while at the same time knowing their odds are better playing Lotto. That’s why hardly anybody has anything to do with me anymore because I’m the first guy to turn them down. Can you believe it? I actually got an offer to join the union. That’s right, had a spot on the first rung all picked out for me.
“What?” said Lamont. “You want to stay loading boxes?”
“I guess so.”
“But this is a big opportunity. I hate to see you pass something like this up. We’re offering you the first rung. Do you know what that means?”
“Thanks. I mean, I really appreciate it, but I’m alright with where I am.”
“I can’t believe it. I never heard of anybody—ever—turning down a card. You know, this is probably it, they’re probably not gonna offer it to you again.”
“You sure? You absolutely sure?”
“Yeah, I’m sure. But thanks anyway.”
After that, just about everybody cooled to me. Like who the hell did I think I was. But, much to his credit, Lamont still treated me the same. Even though he would never understand why I turned down such a big opportunity.
By now, they all must be back to their spots. I get up off my step. I open the door slowly to the sound of the industrial chirps of a truck backing up to the fat yellow line where the blue crew waits to unload the next trailer-full of boxes onto the belt. Acting focused and important, Lamont motions the truck with a steady waving of his clipboard. It will be a good half hour, maybe more, before he circulates back to the red crew, back to my spot. I look in the supervisor’s office. A depressing spectacle of dullness. A chair and a desk and a calendar with X’s over the days gone by. I open the door to the office. I do this without thinking. I sit down in the chair behind the desk. On the desk are some folders and time sheets and an empty cup of coffee. I open the top right drawer. It is the drawer that holds the keys to the supervisors’ cars. I know this because I saw Mr. Rathbone take them out the day Lamont was offering me a job in the union. Mr. Rathbone is a supervisor like Lamont but he’s an old man now and we call him Mr. Rathbone because nobody has been working here long enough to actually know what his first name is. All the supers park their cars in front of the last loading bay. Sometimes, on especially busy days, they have to move their cars in order to free the bay for an incoming truck. I reach in the drawer and take out a set of keys. They are Lamont’s. The keys to his Trans Am. I hold the keys in my palm. I get up from the desk and walk out of the office and out the highway door. The Trans Am is black with gold trim and a big, ugly phoenix painted across the hood. I fit the key and open the door. I do this like it’s nothing, like it’s been my car all along. I turn the ignition and back out with a big shit-eating grin all over my face. Hours before the rush hour, I escape the city without a problem.
As I drive, I think about shaking hands with the President. In one way, it seems like it was ages ago but in another way, it seems like it just happened. But what sticks out most in my mind is the tan leisure suit that my mother bought special for the occasion from Caldor’s. Back then, leisure suits were the hot thing and I was happy to put it on and wear it while I shook hands with the President. Boy, did I feel snappy. I was fifteen and it was two years before my mother would wake up dead in bed, her blue bathrobe uncinched and showing her pale stomach and left breast and me turning away and turning back again while I dialed the phone to the police.
So I’m thinking these things that I haven’t thought about for years and suddenly I realize I’m driving in the direction of my childhood home. It’s been over twenty years since I saw it last and what have you done with your life? Nothing. You’re just a forty year old loser who just stole your loser boss’s loser car. Well, at least that’s something. In fact, it’s most definitely something. Something I never did before. But, strangely enough, I don’t feel any different. No guilt. Not even any fear. If anything, a certain sense of hope. But hope for what?
I turn off the highway. I travel regular streets lined with regular houses. House after house after house with front lawns and driveways. Pretty soon, I’m in my old neighborhood. It’s all very familiar but in a dreamy sort of way because everything seems smaller. I remember the road signs and the names of the kids who lived in the different houses. But instead of turning right, I go left in the direction of my old grammar school. I drive down the hill and around the circle in front of the school. The kids are out of school by now but a few teachers are still walking the halls inside. I see them walking through the glass corridor between the principal’s office and the gym. I drive the circle and stop. I honk the horn. I wave to the teachers inside. A lady teacher removes her glasses and scrunches her face. The teachers wave back even though they don’t know me. I step on the gas, straight to the floor, and the back tire squeals and burns. It’s a wonderful rush. The car slides a bit to the side, peeling out from the circle. Gone.
My old house is still there. It looks the same except smaller like everything else around here. I pull into the driveway. I sit there in my old driveway. I wonder if anybody is home. My father moved us away from the city to this house when I was just a baby. He had got a promotion of some sort. My father was a smart man, a scientist. My mother loved him and I suspect that I loved him too although I can’t really remember him. Just his picture on top of the TV. I shut off the engine. I get out of the car and go to the front door. I ring the bell. Nobody responds so maybe nobody is home. I ring the bell again. If nobody answers, I’ll try to find a way inside. I don’t want to do anything bad. I just want to have a look around.
There is a sound inside. Somebody’s home. Somebody coming down the steps to the front door. The door opens. It is a black woman. I was not expecting this. Although I don’t know what I was expecting, I know I wasn’t expecting her. She has a big Afro head of hair. She is in a black silk robe. Her skin is a deep black too. Although I don’t know that much about black people, I do know that her hair style is a good twenty years out of date. She looks like she just stepped out of a Superfly movie. I look at her and she looks me over and she is clearly very beautiful. As I think these things, her face turns into a wondering look. A look that says, “Who the hell is this white guy standing on my front stoop?”
“Yes?” she says.
“Oh,” I say. “I’m a… I’m just here because I used to live in this house. I was passing through and I thought—”
“You lived here?”
“That’s right. When I was a kid.”
“Is that your Trans Am?”
“No. No, actually, that’s my boss’s car. My ex-boss.”
She looks at me but I don’t know what she’s thinking about.
“I just quit. I quit today. Walked right out the fucking door.”
This makes her smile. “You wanna come in?”
I look at her. I look at her dark eyes and then up to her big Afro and I say, “Okay. Thanks.” Nice and easy, just like that.
She shuts the door behind me. I smell a kind of perfume. Everything in the house is black. But not because the lights are out. It’s all black because everything is literally black. The walls and the ceiling are painted black. The thick carpet is black. There is no furniture that I can see. No chairs or tables. Only pillows. Big pillows and small pillows and all of them different shades of black. We walk up the stairs to where my old living room used to be. A big velvet painting of two black people making love is on one wall and another velvet painting of a black panther (the animal) is on the other wall. The curtains are drawn over the front picture window. A lamp covered with black lace throws enough light to see and move around. There’s no TV but there is a stereo in the corner where our old TV used to be, where my father’s face used to sit.
“It’s a good feeling, isn’t it?” she says.
“Quitting your job.”
“Oh, yeah. It sure is.”
I take her hand. “Jake.”
“Hi,” I say and I’m wondering why I lied about my name.
“You can look around if you’d like but it’s all pretty much the same except for the bed. That’s the one piece of furniture I can’t do without.”
“Oh,” I say, trying to think what I should say next.
“Would you like to sit down? Maybe have something to drink?”
“Alright.” I find a spot beside a big overstuffed pillow. I sit with my legs crossed. I try to look comfortable. I try to look cool. Desiree is still standing. She says, “But it’s only temporary, isn’t it?”
“The feeling. The good feeling. When you quit your job.”
“What? Yeah, I guess so… But…”
“But isn’t that how everything is? Isn’t everything just temporary?”
Desiree looks at me a moment but she doesn’t respond. Then, she says, “I don’t have any coffee or tea. But there’s some juice, I think.”
“I guess I’ll have juice. Juice is fine.”
“There’s also brandy if you’d like.”
“Brandy? Well, okay. Brandy would be great.”
Desiree smiles. “I’ll be right back.”
I look around at the black room. I look at my hands a bit and then Desiree comes back with a bottle of brandy and some glasses on top of a plastic tray with little folding legs underneath. She puts the tray down. She pours out the brandy and hands me a glass. We touch glasses and drink the brandy.
“So you used to live here?”
“Yes. A long, long time ago. When I was still a kid.”
“How old are you now?”
“Me? I’m forty. I just turned forty today.”
“Today? It’s your birthday?”
“Yep. I keep forgetting. But it is. I guess they don’t mean so much once you get old.”
“You’re not old.”
“Well, thanks for saying that. But I am forty. And when I was young, I always thought that forty was old. I’m old now.”
“Well, I don’t think so.”
“That’s easy for you to say.”
“Why you say that?”
“Just wait until your forty. Then you’ll know.”
“How old you think I am?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Thirty or twenty something. I don’t know, I’m not too hot at knowing stuff like that.”
“I’ll be forty-four in June.”
“Get outta here!”
“And I don’t feel old.”
“Really? You’re gonna be forty-four?”
“Boy, that’s something. How you keep looking so young?”
“I try to take it easy.”
“That’s a good plan.”
“Yes, it is.” Desiree goes over to the stereo. She presses some buttons. A lady starts singing, “Mack the Knife.”
“Who’s that singing?”
“I never heard a woman singing that song.”
We listen to the song. But as it continues, I begin to become annoyed by it.
“You hear her? She’s laughing. She was just laughing over that last verse.”
“It’s a live version. She forgot the line.”
“So she thinks it’s funny?”
“Yeah, why not? That bothers you?”
“I don’t know. I guess it bothers me for some reason. But now that I think about it, I don’t know what that reason is.”
The music continues and Ella goes on to other songs. It really isn’t my kind of music but it sounds good enough and the brandy is kicking in nicely. I finish my glass and Desiree pours out some more. We drink and listen to the music and I bend my thumb to the beat of the song.
“You like the music now.”
“Yeah, it’s great,” I say.
“Ella was my Momma’s favorite… But Momma never liked Elijah.”
“Elijah. Elijah’s my ex.”
“He’s dead now.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
“Yeah, he killed his self.”
“That’s too bad.”
“Yeah, and everybody felt sorry for me. Huh. They had no idea.”
“No idea about what? The people you were talking about.”
“Oh. Well, they just didn’t know. They felt sorry for me but they didn’t know it was all my fault.”
“That he killed himself?”
“That’s right. I drove him to it.”
“You shouldn’t say that.”
“Why not? What do you know anyway?”
“I know some things. I know about my father. I know about my father jumping out a window.”
Desiree looks at me like she’s mad now. “You fuckin’ with me?”
“No. I swear. He jumped out a hotel window in the city.”
“You wanna smoke?”
“Do you smoke weed?”
“Me? Weed? Sure. Not all the time. But sometimes.”
Desiree walks away and comes back again. In her hand is a big ceramic ashtray in the shape of a goldfish. A rather large joint lays nicely beside a pack of matches. Desiree fires it up, blowing large puffs of smoke towards the ceiling. She hands me the joint. I take in the smoke. I hold it a moment. I let it out. I pass back the joint.
“That’s some good shit,” I say.
Desiree smiles. I’d like to fuck her on the black carpet. I look at the ceramic goldfish. It’s the only thing besides myself that’s not some shade of black.
“So tell me about your Daddy.”
“He jumped out a hotel room window. Smashed right through the glass and dropped forty floors onto the hood of a parked car.”
“What kind of car?”
“I don’t know. Nobody ever told me that.”
“What did they tell you?”
“Not much. Especially when it happened. I was only a little kid. Barely three years old and all I ever got was that he went up to heaven. Went up to heaven to be with God and the angels.”
“When did you find out that he jumped out a window?”
“When I got older. Right before I shook hands with the President.”
“The President of the United States.”
“Don’t go fucking with me.”
“I am not fucking with you. I shook hands with the President. Me and my Mom, both. We were invited to the White House.”
Desiree pours more brandy. I am thinking that I am high and I am drunk. I sip brandy. She sips brandy. I look at her and she gives me a kiss on the lips. It’s a solid smack, no tongue, but solid and juicy.
“Happy birthday,” she says.
“Thank you,” I say.
Desiree is looking at me and I’m wondering if I should jump her.
“So tell me about the President,” she says.
“Yeah. What was he like?”
“I don’t know… I guess he was kinda regular. Nothing special outside the fact that he was actually the President and running the country and all. But, other than that, he looked mostly like a salesman or something, like any other older guy, like somebody’s father…”
“So what was the deal?”
“Yeah, why were you there in the first place?”
“It’s kind of a long story.”
“I got time. You got time, don’t you?”
“Yeah, I got time. We were invited so that he could personally tell us that he was sorry. That he was sorry on behalf of the government for what happened to my father.”
“So who the hell was your father?”
“He was nobody you would know. Nobody famous or anything like that. He was a scientist, a scientist for the government.”
“No, not the CIA. It was sorta like the CIA but not the CIA. Mr. Joneswick, he worked for the CIA. He was the guy who lied to us first.”
“That’s right. He’s the one who told my Mom he was my father’s boss. At first, he told her that my father died of a ‘classified illness.’ He said there was an investigation going on but he couldn’t talk about it because it had to do with national security. He was a decent sort of a guy. At least, he seemed like a decent sort. Said all the right words, made all the right faces and gestures… Told us that he’d make it his business that my mom would get two-thirds of my dad’s salary as a pension.”
“But he wasn’t a spy?”
“No, he wasn’t a spy. He was a scientist. A scientist who worked for the Special Operations Division of the Army Chemical Corps. The SOD they called it. Dad’s specialty was the airborne distribution of germs. His job was to find ways of getting things like anthrax into everyday products like underarm deodorant and nasal sprays. Of course, my Mom knew nothing about it until years later.”
“So what happened? What, he knew too much?”
“No, nothing like that. He wasn’t pushed or anything. My father jumped because that’s what he wanted to do.”
“Partly. Maybe. But mostly, he was just out of his mind. Just gone plain out of his mind from acid.”
“Acid? LSD acid?”
“Yep. It was back during the cold war days, back when the CIA was experimenting with all kinds of drugs. And this guy Joneswick, his project was seeing how acid affected an unsuspecting victim. Of course, finding the right guinea pig wasn’t always so easy.”
“In the beginning, Joneswick’s team tried it out on themselves. First in the lab, but then in more relaxed places like agency cocktail parties where they played games of spiking each other’s drinks without warning. But this wasn’t good enough because they were all aware of what was going on when they started to trip. What they really needed were people who were completely unaware. People outside the agency. The so called, ‘normal’ people.”
“Like your father.”
“How’d they do it?”
“Joneswick invited him to speak at this weekend retreat upstate. Of course, my father didn’t suspect anything because he had been there before. They say it’s a very beautiful place high in the mountains, not far from Bear Mountain. In fact, it was actually a Boy Scout camp that the agency liked to use in the off seasons.”
“A boy scout camp?”
“That’s right. And from time to time, they would invite members from groups like the SOD to come up and share the latest research. But apparently, it wasn’t all business all the time. The CIA were notorious party animals who did an awful lot of heavy boozing.”
“So they spiked his drink.”
“Yep. And within an hour, he was laughing out of control. But then, for no apparent reason, he suddenly fell to his knees, sobbing and crying like a baby. They say he didn’t stop crying until the next day when the drug finally wore off. But Joneswick never told him what went down. He just sent him back home like nothing ever happened. Of course, my mother was stunned. She never saw him so depressed before. He wouldn’t change his clothes. He didn’t shave and he didn’t wash. He was a total wreck. Like he was a completely different person. You gotta understand, my father was basically a happy guy, the kind that used to get a kick out of retelling a comic strip joke. So my mom, she didn’t know what to do because he refused to tell her what happened.”
“Because he didn’t know himself.”
“That’s right. All he knew was that something was very wrong with his head. Pretty soon, he refused to speak to my mother at all. But, surprisingly enough, he did manage to drive into work the next day where he told Frank Nesbitt, his boss over at SOD, that he wanted to quit. My father complained of being all mixed up in the head. So Nesbitt puts two and two together and calls Joneswick who tells him the score on the condition that my father be kept in the dark. Then, the three of them meet with a special, CIA doctor called Doctor Danzinger at Mount Sinai hospital.”
“I know where that is. It’s on Fifth Avenue.”
“Yeah, and by the time they got him there, he didn’t know who he was. He couldn’t walk straight and he couldn’t talk. All he could do was hum and whistle. But that didn’t faze Doctor Danzinger. Apparently, all my father needed was a proper rest so he’s put straight to bed with a glass of scotch and a handful of Nembutal.”
“Then, the next day, they try to cheer him up by having him watch a hospital magic show. But that doesn’t work either. Half-way through, they have to literally drag him away, kicking and screaming, completely terrified of being made to disappear. So now, the good Doctor decides to play hardball, pumping him so full of sedatives that he sleeps for forty-eight hours straight.”
“I hate doctors.”
“Me too. But I guess it kinda worked because as soon as he woke up, he appeared much better. In fact, so much so that they took him to see Jesus Christ Superstar on Broadway where he was reported to have laughed at all the right parts. What’s more, he was walking straight and talking in sentences and acting basically normal. Or so they say. In any case, Danzinger declares him officially cured. He’s discharged from the hospital before checking in to the Statler Hotel along with Nesbitt who tells him to call my Mom and tell her that everything is alright and that he will be back home tomorrow. But early the next morning, for whatever his reasons, he decides to run full speed out the picture window.”
“Within an hour, a team of CIA spooks meets with the police to cover all tracks since my father’s arrival at Mount Sinai. He became a John Doe. Nobody knew who he was, why he jumped—nothing. It was like it never happened.”
“So how did you find out the truth?”
“Almost ten years to the day, the New York Times broke a story about the CIA’s mind control experiments. This in turn prompted a Congressional investigation led by the Rockefeller Commission. When Dad’s files were opened, Mom, along with the rest of the world, found out the real story. Pretty soon, we had reporters calling day and night with some of them showing up at our front door.”
“That’s deep. That’s real deep,” says Desiree.
“Yeah,” I say. “It’s been a long time since I thought about it…”
“But it’s been with you. It stays inside you.”
“I guess so.”
“C’mere,” she says.
I move to Desiree. Her perfume fills my brain. She pulls me to her. We slide off the pillows onto the black carpet. She is on top of me. As her tongue goes inside my mouth, her silk robe falls open to expose her breast. I soon run my mouth down her face and neck and collarbone, straight for the big, black nipple. She clutches my hair and her robe is all the way open. With her hands still tightly holding my hair, she pulls me around so that she is on the bottom now, my head firmly directed between her legs. She holds me there, by my hair, until her body quakes. Desiree let’s go. She moves towards the wall, wrapping the robe back around her body. I sit up. She stands.
“I’ll be right back,” she says.
I pour myself a full glass of brandy. I knock it off in two quick slugs. I feel confused. I hear a door close down the hall. I get up and, like a dog, tilt my head to the side, trying to figure out what she’s up to. The toilet flushes. I turn away and sit back down. But then, in the wake of the toilet flush, comes the unmistakable sound of a running shower. I creep down the hallway. I stand near the bathroom door. Inside, Desiree is singing. She is singing, “Mack the Knife,” while she takes a shower. I linger there a moment, wondering what the fuck is going on. I walk back to the living room. I take a swig of brandy straight from the bottle. I walk down the stairs and out the front door.
Darkness is falling. I sit down on the front stoop. I sit there just like I used to do when I was a kid. I sit on the stoop looking at my old neighborhood. Suddenly, the street lamp glows, sending light across the fake phoenix on the hood of the Trans Am. What to do about that? They must be looking for me by now. Searching for the thief, the fugitive on the run…
And what about Desiree? What was that all about? I look up at the house behind me. There is no light inside that I can see, no sounds of movement… Nothing… I stand. The cool night air feels cool against my head. I walk across the lawn. I stop in the driveway, taking the keys from my pocket. I toss the keys on the hood of the Trans Am. I walk down the driveway to the street. I walk along the street in the direction of Bolivia. As I continue my stroll, the music from “Mack the Knife” invades my brain. Although I don’t know all the lyrics, whistling does the trick just fine.
Steve Romagnoli’s novel, Ghetto Dogs, is soon to be published by the Alternative Book Press. His short stories have appeared in The Mid-American Review, The Carolina Quarterly, Gargoyle Magazine, Booth Magazine, Beat to a Pulp, The Rusty Nail, Chicago Center of Literature, Photography Magazine, and real fiction. He’s had four plays produced in New York City, including Stealing Heaven and running off-Broadway at the Samuel Beckett Theater.