I fucked a stripper once in Vegas. Paid her with chips.
As I sit here in the dark, recounting my sins, that one comes to mind.
There’s no light, no sound. Nothing. I’ve been here for a while, but I don’t know how long, since I was unconscious until recently.
I’m lying in a pile of something. With each movement the ground shifts, large pieces rearranging themselves underneath me. But I don’t move much, because my hands are bound behind my back.
As the mental fog begins to pass, I feel a momentary surge of panic. I start to wriggle around with purpose, grasping at the tumble of objects behind me. I get a grip on one and feel it with my fingers. It’s hard and cool. After a few seconds I realize I’m holding what feels like a rigid human hand.
It was sleeting and dark when I showed up at the department store. Black Friday, 6am. I’d volunteered for a double shift. When I applied for the temporary holiday job, the plan was to land on the sales floor. But the gig they offered was on the loading dock.
As a 24-year-old college graduate–fancy-pants university, no less–I felt like a loser having to unload tractor trailers in the bitter cold. It didn’t help that my girlfriend had dumped me a few months earlier. She was in law school in NYC. Manual labor, apparently, suited me best. I had to admit that the army pants and work gloves were a better fit than a suit.
Dale greeted me as I shuffled into the break room and punched my time card. One of three white guys who worked in receiving, he was always cheerful. I never knew why. He’d walk over to a blood bank after work on Tuesdays to give plasma.
“Little extra coin, know what I’m saying?” he’d say. “Better than rolling fags.”
The first time he dropped that one I hadn’t understood what he meant. Rolling cigarettes? Nope, Dale was no hipster. At a sinewy 6’3″, Dale could swat me without much effort. I feigned nonchalance when he explained that as a teenager he occasionally mugged gay guys in the block or two of town that passed for gay-friendly.
“I gave that up after juvie. Never made much anyhow.”
After hitting the blood bank, Dale always blew his $50, immediately, on a bag of weed. He managed to get high every night, despite living in a trailer with his girlfriend and her mom. Maybe mom smoked up with him?
My drug of choice was alcohol, and I had a brutal hangover. Dale chuckles at me as I pour myself into a chair and put my head down on the table.
“Six trucks this morning. Sure as shit. Packed to the fucking gills,” he says.
I groan. It was below freezing. On a normal day, we’d offload three trailers, tops. With six, the endless piles of plastic crates and boxes–all stamped Made in China–would make for a back-breaking and tedious morning.
A lifelong masochist, I start mentally calculating how much I’d earn for each crate at $8 an hour. I could belly up for a beer for $8 in Brooklyn, or so I gathered.
Dale lets me stew for a minute or two, then he stands up, flips his long black hair, which was dangerously mullet-like, and says: “I’m just fucking with you, man. We’re up on the fourth floor again today, hauling to the crusher.”
Salvation! The department store had been the flagship of a chain of 65 outlets that peppered the Rust Belt. With a restaurant on the fifth floor, the depression-era building sat in the center of downtown, next to the 19th-century courthouse building and a 30-story headquarters of a regional bank.
The store had seen better days. Opened by a German Jew, the small corner stores grew with the city as it flexed its industrial might after World War II. Soon it was part of the nuclear family ritual: trolley ride downtown, shopping, ice cream at the soda bar on the fifth floor and then maybe a movie.
All that was dead. Decades of suburban sprawl, strip malls, white flight and factory closings wounded the city. Then the recession finished it off, wiping out downtown like Allied firebombing erased Dresden. It was a ghost town.
Only two floors of merchandise remained in the old hulk. Today, our job was to clear out home furnishings, the most recently abandoned floor.
This was a plum assignment. Management had overstaffed that morning. So we were off to the fourth floor, a wasteland of display cases, mattresses and bed frames. Most of the furniture was gone. Our job was to wheel what was left downstairs to the huge compacter on the loading dock and watch implosions.
I hunch over a dolly and begin a slow roll to the service elevators, Dale ambling alongside.
The scene on the fourth floor would be perfect for the latest Hollywood flick about life in post-Apocalyptic America. Stripped of wares, it’s surprisingly huge. I’d be hard-pressed to fling a football from end to end. The only light comes from bare bulbs hanging from metal rafters, and the silence is complete.
We start on an empty display case, perhaps a relic from another abandoned floor. Lifting the edge and wedging it onto the dolly, we’re careful not to break the glass–a mess we’d have to clean.
Dale has two friends on the dock, not including me. Randy, our supervisor, is a NASCAR fan with a beer gut and limp from an ATV accident. He’s a good guy, and has advanced paychecks to Dale. They also go for the occasional spin in Randy’s Mustang.
Then there’s Lincoln. He lives on the city’s all-black west side, and moonlights as a piano player in dilapidated juke joints. Lincoln’s tall, lanky and shy. He’s also gay. How that works for Dale, a five-alarm homophobe, I don’t know.
Then again, why does Dale like hanging with me? He’s never once given a hint that he resents my college-boy privilege. The explanation I have is that he just doesn’t get it, that he can’t even fathom why he should resent me. Dale’s a smart guy, but his brain would overload if he saw my life in college. Stumbling around manicured lawns like a scholar prince, girls everywhere, out of my league but they didn’t know it, yet.
The hours pass by in a blur. I’m on alpha waves, interrupted only for chit-chat as we crush and toss tons of bedding wares. Factory-fresh mattresses, now trash, in a town with crushing poverty. When I asked why, Randy said: “Dumbass laws man. Bedbugs and shit, maybe.”
It’s 4pm, and Dale punches out. I’ve got an hour break, and offer to drive him home.
We roll across town to the dreary north side. Classic rock on my beater’s dashboard radio. The iPod plug’s been on the fritz.
When we pull into his trailer park, my car bounces over a deep pothole, frozen brown mud at the bottom. There’s a mist in the air.
“So what’s on tap for you tomorrow, man? You’re off right?” Dale asks.
I haven’t even thought about my Saturday.
“At least you’ve got to eat you some leftover turkey.”
“We didn’t have turkey. My mom wasn’t feeling so good, and I can’t cook.”
“Well, shit, that ain’t right. I’ve got some for you. Come on in and get a plate to take home.”
His kindness is too much to bear. I argue for a minute or so, and he finally backs down. Dale gives me a fist bump and trudges off to his trailer, the steam from my hood obscuring my view as he swings open the plastic door to his trailer and disappears.
My assignment for the night is to roll the floors with Joe, a genial 30something. We bring up merchandise from dock, restocking the crap that people bought up during the madness of Black Friday. Ugly sweaters and pink sports gear seem to be big this holiday season.
Joe has taught me that the key is to move slow, in everything you do. Paradoxically, the night moves faster that way.
Despite his languid roll, it’s easy to see that Joe was an athlete. He was on the d-line of an all-black high school football team on the west side. His best friend, the nose guard, made it to the pros, where he promptly flamed out after getting arrested. I try to match Joe’s football stories with a few of my own. It helps that I played a tad more recently than he did.
We turn a corner while recounting losses of yesteryear, and nearly bump into three teenagers. Baggy pants and white T-shirts. The tall one bumps into me, and they glide on, passing between racks of winter wear.
“Yo Mr. Five-Oh, nice get-up,” one kid calls over his shoulder.
I turn to look after them, trying to decipher what he means.
Joe sees my face and says: “Reverse discrimination. They think a white boy working receiving must be a cop.”
More hours pass. It’s Joe’s wedding anniversary this weekend, and we spend some time poking around the scarves. I remember when he told me about his honeymoon–Pizza Hut in Cincinnati–and the memory makes me wince.
Joe’s off at 8pm, so I have the last three hours to myself. Since I’m the only loading dock employee still on, my job is to answer calls from the floor when they need a re-stock. But nobody’s buying up there. It’s all quiet. Happy fucking holidays.
I spend my time reading old magazines on the dock, out of view of the security camera, of course. Although I fight it, my thoughts drift to my ex-girlfriend. What’s she doing right now? Is she back home in Massachusetts? Maybe she’s out on the town with her law school pals, or with some guy?
To escape this reverie I half-heartedly push an empty dolly out of the loading dock and head to the freight elevator. Maybe I’ll do a lap of the floor to pass the time.
Turning the corner, I glimpse three shadows in the darkness, next to the elevator. I drift toward the shapes and murmuring noise. They’re on me in a violent burst of movement. It’s the three junior G’s for the floor. I catch a glimpse of ski masks. By the elevator are two carts stuffed with leather jackets.
The first punch hurts. Then it’s just dull thuds. I don’t even get my hands up. Yellow flashes seem to start behind my eyes, spreading to obstruct my vision. I sense myself falling, and then blackness swirls up–gripping me and squelching all light and sound.
I toss down the hand. It’s plastic, and I now realize where I am. It’s the storage closet off of the abandoned fourth floor. I’ve hid in here before. The big room is stacked high with creamy, Anglo bodies, their limbs splaying at impossible angles. The smooth, slender parts, some disembodied, are of men, women and children, making a mound of uniform, gruesomely-fake flesh. I’m lying in a pile of mannequins.
Shifting around again, I lay my head back and take stock of my injuries. Not too bad, really. Just a headache, which is no worse than the hangover I had this morning.
The total silence and blackness envelopes me. Slowly I drift off into a deep, peaceful sleep.