Destruction, dead rats and degenerates. All in a day's work...
When I was nineteen, in 1985, I lived in Boston. America was just fine then. Everyone was drinking and dancing. By watching television, I learned that because I didn't use needles and because I wasn't Haitian or homosexual, AIDS was nothing for me to worry about. It was the golden dawn of speed metal, and the only bands ever worth listening to were reaching the heights of fame. Beer was cheap and there weren't so many video cameras monitoring the world, so I was able to be myself. It was easy to get a job. Even an idiot could make enough money to live in some degree of comfort—for example, me.
In January, it had been snowing for five days. I woke at daybreak. My dog, Wotan must have known somehow that I'd opened my eyes. Maybe he actually heard them open. In any case, at that very moment, he jumped up against the door to my bedroom. It flew open and hit a wall. When the door smacked into the wall, the toilet on the other side of the wall shattered, spilling gallons of water and spewing a confusing fountain of mayhem into the bathroom. None of my four housemates believed that it possibly could have been Wotan's doing.
On the train to work, an old woman jabbed me in the kidney with her umbrella for no reason. I looked at her innocently. She scowled and grunted. Then it struck me that perhaps it was going to be that kind of a day.
When I got to Loughland's, the juggernaut department store where I worked, Mr. Yellowfield, an assistant manager, said that he wanted to talk to me. He looked like a claymation character and appeared too thin and sickly to be alive. Still, he could move somehow, and did so in a quick, angry way. The surprisingly long piece of hair he'd grown on the left, which he pulled across his scalp, was fried, and that condition was accentuated by too much hair spray. It must have required a lot to keep that long piece of hair stationary, especially in Boston where it's very windy.
I think Yellowfield's hatred for me was compounded by the fact that I had long, shining hair. "Don't hate me because I'm beautiful," I often joked with my housemates. (That was a silly line from a commercial of the time.) Yellowfield did hate me because I was beautiful. Like all my friends, I'd hold my head upside down and nuke it with a blow dryer in the morning. That made my hair very large. It stayed that way all day, even in the rain. I was also at least a foot taller than Yellowfield, and with the hair it looked like two. Plus, my job had made me strong as a chimp. I was trim and fit.
Because I was never required, or even allowed to see customers, I could wear a T-shirt that said "Napalm Death." So, needless to say, I was wearing one. All of us who worked upstairs were young, and we loved speed metal. We always wore shirts like that to work. I often thought those T-shirts made Yellowfield think that we weren't like him. We subsisted on one-tenth of his salary, while any of us could have done his job. Yellowfield sat down behind a small, laminated particle-board desk, coughed, and pretended to straighten a small stack of paper. He said, "We have a problem, Ezra." I nodded, regretfully. Yellowfield continued, "We just don't feel that you're realizing your full potential here." I thought about that for a moment. My job was to demolish large pieces of furniture which had been deemed "non-marketable."
"Well, I guess that is a problem" I said, "'Cause actually, I think I've been doing really well." He started to yell. I looked at the floor to my left and slowly waved my open hand in the air. "Let's not do that," I interrupted him, "You can speak to me normally and I'll still listen." He was silent for a moment. Then he spoke again, quietly, like a rattlesnake: "We just don't feel you've been showing a lot of initiative, Ezra."
Given my duties, I had no idea what he meant. I said I'd try harder, and I did. I grabbed a sledgehammer and smashed couches, chairs, and entertainment centers with great vigor, and perhaps even "initiative" that morning in the alleyway behind the store.
Then Robert, the stockroom foreman told me and the other two workers to stop. He was always smiling. Short but strong, Robert had blunt, merry Irish features and thick, reddish-blond hair. He never took things too seriously. Dave and Jonny, the other two demolition guys, drank beer with Robert and me for seventy-two hours, nonstop, every weekend.
Compared to Dave and Jonny, even I was tiny and frail. They were both six-five and went to the gym every night. Dave was Italian and Jonny was Irish. They both told a lot of dirty jokes. In a rush, either one could reduce a large couch to cloth, stuffing, and splinters in two minutes. In the course of destroying dozens of tons of perfectly serviceable furniture, I once asked one of my eleven bosses a question: why didn't we just give it away? The explanation was tedious. All it meant in the end was that it was slightly cheaper for the store to have us smash it all into dust.
Dave got a phone call. I only heard his end: "Yeah? Well I hope they buried that $150 with the sonofabitch. It meant more to him than life itself." Then he hung up on whoever it was.
Robert told us he was getting married, and ordered Dave, Jonny, and me to fill his station wagon with "bridal offerings" for his new wife. Stealing was something all of us did, every day. Much of what we liberated from the store would otherwise have been destroyed. Honestly though, it wasn't as if we empathized with the furniture. The fact was that when I got home with a new coffee machine or a nice vase, it made me feel my labor had borne fruit. I felt my salary was completely insignificant.
So we followed Robert's instructions without question and packed his Pontiac to the ceiling with every piece of furniture we thought was nice, along with a lot of little appliances. He complimented us on our fine choices and sped off laughing, leaving Dave, Jonny, and me unsupervised.
First, we shared a pizza. Then, we smoked a joint and laughed in the alleyway for about an hour. We seized the initiative and gleefully obliterated all of the furniture deemed unfit for Robert's new wife before noon. Everything in the stockroom was in place. We had recently completed a major inventory and, after having signed release forms, swept all the carcinogenic dust up from the particle-board flooring in the temporary storage room. No work was left to be done. We'd have stayed in the alley all day, if only to avoid Evelyn. She was a step above Robert in the pyramid of managers. We had to go inside though, because it was snowing.
We were sitting in recliners around a glass-topped showroom table in the freight elevator, smoking cigarettes, when we heard Evelyn's annoying little footsteps.
Four-ten and slightly overweight, with facial planes that looked like the angry work of a recently divorced plastic surgeon, she was irritation personified. Even her hair was irritating, with a disconsoling shine. Though it looked as if it had been cut at an expensive salon, it was perhaps intentionally turtle-shaped, and it made everyone uncomfortable.
Evelyn blew up immediately upon seeing us lounging in those recliners and said, "Shouldn't you guys be working?"
Dave said, "We finished everything."
Jonny added, "Yeah, and Rob left ... and I feel kinda funny. Maybe we should just go home."
I was the lowest-ranking employee in the entire store, so I didn't say anything.
Evelyn shouted in frustration: "You guys just don't get it, do you? Everybody has to be working, all the time."
Jonny laughed, "Want us to put a couch back together, then smash it again?" Jonny was very stoned. Both of those guys had a lower-middle-class Boston accent. It makes everything sound doubly sarcastic.
Dave had an idea: "Hey! Why don't ya put us on the floor? Let us deal with the customers!" He was wearing filthy jeans and a T-shirt that said "SLAYER" in razor-slashed, blood lettering. The back read, "I smell of death—I reek of hate—I will live forever." Jonny's T-shirt simply said "Necrophiliac."
Evelyn sighed and looked out the window into the alley. "You didn't crush it!" she erupted. Jonny said, "That's cause of the health code, remember? Remember the rats, Evelyn?" We all laughed. We shared the giant crusher in the alley with a large restaurant that filled it with garbage by day. The food attracted a multitude of rats. At first, we just threw pieces of smashed furniture in with the rats and restaurant waste. Then we crushed it.
It wasn't for the faint of heart: Half of the rats screamed horribly as they were crushed. The rest leapt out of the crusher's every orifice and made an applauding sound as they scampered away. Blood poured out of the crusher. So there was rat-screaming and "applause" for a moment or two or three every day. It brought to mind a twisted, neo-Roman coliseum: a strangely humorous, terrible world of death-sport. I felt we should've been paid one thousand dollars each and every time we had to do that.
Jonny reminisced, "Yeah. 'Save the rats,' remember?"
Dave chimed in, "Yeah. I think it was them people from Greenpeace or somethin'."
(When you have a job no one else wants, you become just difficult enough to replace that you can get away with having a somewhat overt attitude problem.)
Evelyn demanded that we crush the broken furniture, "Health department or not." The guys held up their hands in reluctant accord, and we stood up to close the freight elevator. We descended into the alleyway.
We threw everything into the crusher. Taking initiative, I pushed the red button and ran. Five hundred rats sprang out of the machine, in all directions. Sometimes, one would run across our feet, or even hit someone in the face, leaping out of the crusher. It made us all hate Evelyn just a little bit more.
We crushed all the furniture, killed a swarm of rats, and stole a few neat clocks from the floor-rooms next to the freight elevator. All that took about an hour.
Back in the easy chairs, we dried off and warmed up. We'd been working in three feet of snow. Jonny said he had a plan to win the lottery. It was completely illogical and would never have worked. As he described this hoax, his smile grew exaggerated and disturbing. Jonny was losing his psychic balance.
Evelyn marched in to confront us, again. She said, "I'm not going to tolerate you three sitting there and getting paid for laughing and smoking. I want this entire stockroom in perfect order." In fact, not a single item was out of place in the entire, airplane-hangar-sized space. During inventory, we'd completed Robert's reorganization project and nothing had been displaced. We'd even cleaned up the cancer dust again, after which I noticed black stuff up inside my nose.
We often posited that it would be nice to be paid according to the work we actually did instead of logging in idle hours as we slowly went insane beneath the fluorescent lights of our chamber. Evelyn didn't want to know what we thought, so I walked through the aisles, taking boxed, easy-assembly entertainment centers to quadrant three ... and back. Evelyn clicked like a silverfish, out and down the stairs.
I was lost in stupefied fantasy when Jonny yelled, "Heads up!" I saw a boxed lamp fly far above me. It crashed near Dave, who was counting the same tables over and over again. There was a moment of silence. Then Dave hurled a large cappuccino machine into the wall above Jonny. "Damaged in shipping," he said, and we all laughed, continuing to pretend that we were working.
Five minutes passed before we heard Evelyn coming up to bother us again. Jonny said, "I think I hear fuckin' angels." As she entered the room, Dave and I were unsuccessfully trying to stifle our laughter. She inspected a stack of large, boxed sofas, four high, near the freight elevator. After a few minutes, she said, "I don't see a blue one."
Jonny sounded tired of Evelyn; "They're on the top."
Evelyn condescendingly said, "Uh, yeah. Well, if a customer wants one, I want it down here." She crossed her arms childishly.
Jonny said, "Yeah, but Evelyn, we'd have to take down the whole stack with the forklift to get 'em, and then Robert has to be here 'cause ..."
Evelyn interrupted him: "Hey, use your gray matter. Just use a ladder and the aluminum ramp, and slide a couple down. It's called 'problem solving'."
I had stopped pretending to work, and was watching the confrontation, and feeling the undertones. Jonny smiled, tipped down the visor on his Red Sox cap, began to chew something imaginary, and said, "OK, Evelyn."
He climbed the ladder while Evelyn stood by, supervising in order to humiliate him. He was halfway up, and Dave was talking about what a dangerous idea this was when Jonny looked at me and silently mouthed, "Watch this." Then he kicked Evelyn in the face and simultaneously began apologizing; "Oh my Gawd! Evelyn! I slipped. Oh God, I'm sorry. Are you OK?" She was OK. She just looked a little surprised and disenchanted. Dave hadn't been paying attention, and also believed it had been an accident. I felt slightly ashamed in my silence. I stared at a shelf and tried to appear preoccupied.
After we punched out, we were searched at the front door for the stolen merchandise we'd already hidden behind the "fresh squeezer" for retrieval later. The guys and I went down the street to spend our pay on beer and wait for Loughland's to be completely deserted, as was the routine. Dave was shocked when he found out there had been intent. Jonny said, "Yeah, so? I kicked that bitch in the face. What am I? Fuckin' Mussolini?"
"Rot in hell, Ezra."
"Yeah, but Jonny…" said Dave.
Jonny wouldn't accept any criticism. "Sure," he said, "and oh, yeah ... you want sympathy? Look between 'shit' and 'syphilis.' And fuck yous both too. Don't look at me like that!" He slapped a five down on the bar, sickened by the entire situation.
When we got to the alley, Robert was there, taking a set of fine cutlery out from underneath the rat sprayer. That stuff would be perfectly wonderful after he washed a little of the rat blood off. He checked out our clocks and said, "Oh yeah. I like these," grinning.
The snowflakes floating beneath the halogen street lamps made the world appear silvery and alien as we left the alley, walking toward Exeter Street. Robert thanked us again for the wedding gifts. He was going home to arrange it all in his new place. Robert and the guys lived in East Boston, so they all left together, stuffed into the front of Rob's station wagon.
I took the Green Line to Briton. An absolutely gorgeous girl with one prosthetic leg sat across from me. I felt an apprehensive attraction as we stared at each other without speaking for seven minutes. She flopped off the train at Government Center.
I got off at Copley and walked down Western Avenue with my new clock. The snow was deep, and the coastal wind hurt my face. I stopped for cigarettes. There was a pretty girl working at the Quik Mart near my house. "Want a designer clock?" I smiled. She loved it. The following week, I got a job there. The manager often said, "I'm extremely disappointed with your performance, Ezra." I got paid by the hour anyway.
By spring, Loughland's was closed permanently for violations of the Boston Public Health Code. That girl from the Quik-Mart came over one night after work. We laughed about how thin we were becoming, because we didn't really get paid enough to buy food. She wore perfume that smelled like vanilla, so Wotan wouldn't stop licking her hands and, eventually, I joined him. She and I stayed together for six years, working in Boston.
During that time, music became more violent. Even I found some of it disturbing. Teenagers began to commit awful crimes across the nation at an unprecedented rate. Serial killers became less exceptional. The service economy became entrenched, the chasm in wages between labor and management widened, and AIDS spread into the heterosexual population. People became angrier in general, and seemingly as a result, the space shuttle exploded. The president was shot, but he lived to finish his term, often saying, "I have no recollection of any such thing." No one knew he had Alzheimer's at the time.
Then, someone elected the former head of the CIA as president. Shortly thereafter, the U.S. military overran Panama so quickly that it was over before it was on the news ... except Noriega tried to hide in the papal embassy for about a week. Finally, they drove him insane by playing really loud heavy metal, twenty-four hours a day. As a fan, I thought that was kind of neat. I would never have left. Nevertheless, I believe it was then that some people simply stopped caring. It seemed to me that most people were not as polite to each other after Panama. I don't know why that was. Maybe some people felt America wasn't such a good, right country anymore.
I still loved America, but it was not uncommon that people believed things had gone too far to be remedied. Some almost hopefully said, as they always have, that the apocalypse was en route. Such opinions were commonly expressed at decadent parties, where people began smoking crack. One often felt it was all a last minute soiree.
The rat populations in all the major cities exploded. The great colonies had become one thousand points of light. Somewhere, some people who none of my friends knew were enthusiastically applauding the "New World Order," which I guessed meant that America, with its embarrassing wealth of rats and laser-guided bombs now called the shots globally. It seemed that like an overfed rat population, the nation would expand and then meet a screaming, horrible end. For as rats in a rat sprayer, we all feed hungrily, never even imagining the man in the alleyway who is, reluctantly, about to press the red button.
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