On the day that I lost my job I woke earlier than usual. Something was bothering me, something that had been building for weeks, or maybe months. I was edgy, feeling nervous and distracted.
I was working as a mechanical assembler for a company that made telephone equipment. I spent my days riveting together metal enclosures and gluing on plastic labels, sitting at a long bench that backed up to a slow-moving conveyer belt. The pay wasn't much but the work was easy. After I had been at the job for a few years the line slowed down, there were fewer systems to assemble and the company started laying off staff, a few at a time over the span of a month. The whole telecom sector was weak, we were told. A lot of us suspected the orders were being sent elsewhere, probably overseas. The real reason didn’t matter to me. I knew the job would be gone eventually, had suspected it when I hired on. I’d been through this before.
Susan had noticed. “What’s wrong with you lately?” she had asked during dinner the week before. We were eating takeout Indian food, or maybe it was Chinese, and watching something on the television while we ate. She asked me that question suddenly, during a commercial break, and I didn’t have an answer. I didn’t tell her what I knew, that I was going to be let go and that I didn’t have a job lined up to replace the one I was losing. And I didn’t tell her either about the troubled feeling I had in my gut. Not a pain, exactly, but a tenseness that kept me up at night. I didn’t tell her any of that. I was thirty-six years old and restless. I didn’t figure she would understand.
I should have told Susan what was coming, of course, but lately she’d seemed disinclined to care about my job, about what I did during the day. We’d been together for nearly two years but we still didn’t know that much about each other. She had been married before, and so had I. That was what we had in common. She had a better job than mine, working in a law office. Susan was a talker; I was not.
Maybe it was the certainty of things changing again without my control that was bothering me. But it was more than that. It wasn’t a fear of losing my job; I was sure enough that I could find another, somewhere. No, it was something else. Something needed to happen, something significant. I just couldn’t figure out what that thing should be.
On the day that I lost my job there were sixteen people in our building who got notified, mostly from final assembly and touch-up. There were five men including me, the rest were women. We had to clean out our workbenches and our lockers, collect our last checks, and leave. It wasn't even lunch time.
A dozen or so of us hung around in the parking lot for a bit, nobody saying much. The layoff had been selective, just a few people from each department and nobody that I knew all that well. We stood near the shipping dock and exchanged trivial goodbyes. A few people wrote down phone numbers and email addresses and promised to stay in touch. I didn’t bother with that; my experience had been that once you were gone from a place, you were gone. Better to cut it off clean.
A few of the others decided to go to a tavern nearby, and a big woman named Pat—a quality control inspector from my department—asked me to come along.
“Come on Randy,” she said, “have one last beer with the gang, I’ll buy.”
I had never felt part of any “gang” there at the factory, but I couldn't think of anything else to do so I agreed. I suppose I could have gone home. But Susan wasn't going to be off until at least five, and sometimes—more often in recent months—she worked late. I didn't figure there was anything I could do there except maybe drink coffee and read the want ads. So I decided to go to the tavern with the others.
I walked to my truck, unlocked it and got in. When I sat down and closed the door I felt tired, unexpectedly so, and I didn’t start the engine right away. Instead I sat there for a little while with the key turned on, listening to the radio. I punched the buttons at random, skipping over the music and the nonsense advertising until I found a calmer voice. A man was being interviewed. He was a writer, and was talking about a big desert in South America that I’d never heard of.
“It’s a vast, empty space,” the writer was saying. “The emptiest, driest desert you can imagine.”
He went on to describe a barren plain, utterly flat, where nothing ever happened and bodies never decomposed. There were places in that desert, the writer said, that hadn’t seen a drop of rain in a hundred years.
I had traveled a little before I got married, to Europe once and to Alaska a few times. I had spent two months drifting around the Southwest and had camped in the Arizona desert for up to five days at a stretch. I had felt the sudden cool of a desert rain and seen impossible flowers appear where there had been only sand before. So I had some idea what that place in South America must be like, different from here to be sure. Here, where I had grown up and still lived, there was rain for much of the year and the trees and hills shut out the horizon. There, I imagined, you could see for hundreds of miles, nothing between you and the edge of the world. In a place like that the rain would be seen as a miracle, if it ever came at all.
I listened for fifteen minutes, then switched off the radio and sat in the truck with nothing, no noise and no talking. I felt like taking a nap but I still had that feeling in my stomach. I wondered if I was sick.
I started the truck and drove to the tavern, a run-down place along Highway 99. I had been in that area a few times before but it occurred to me now that I had never actually driven for more than a mile or two on any part of the highway. The factory was six or eight blocks away, with easy access to the Interstate. I wondered how far the old highway went. I wondered if it still went all the way to Mexico.
The parking lot in front of the tavern had only a small number of spaces, all of them occupied. I drove a block further and parked along the side of the street. I locked the truck, then went into the tavern and found Pat and three others seated around a square, glass-topped table. I took a chair from another table and sat it down at one corner, in between a guy named Darrel I halfway knew and an Asian girl I didn't know. On the other side of Darrel was a man I'd seen around the plant sometimes. I didn't know his name. Next to him and across from Darrel was Pat. She was the only one who said anything when I came in.
"Hey, Randy," she said when I sat down. "Where you been?"
She smiled when she said that.
"Had to make a couple of stops," I said.
“We figured we’d wait five more minutes,” she said, “see if anyone else shows up then order.”
That was what I knew about Pat—she liked making decisions.
We all sat there for a few minutes looking at the menus. Pat caught the eye of a waitress and ordered a pitcher of beer and five glasses. Then she looked at me and said, "So, what are you going to do?"
"Beats me," I said. "Maybe I'll take some unemployment for awhile. I don't know."
And I didn't know, either. I had pretty much figured on being laid off today; I was one of the expendable ones. But I hadn't thought about what to do after it happened. I had some savings, plus the severance and vacation payout check in my coat pocket. I had maybe six month’s worth of cash if I kept paying my share of the rent and the food. Maybe longer if I sold my car, the Mustang I’d been restoring. Susan didn’t like that car anyway, and I was getting tired of working on it.
The waitress came over with the pitcher of beer and the glasses, and we ordered burgers. Pat and Darrel did most of the talking until the food came. “I might have something else lined up in summer,” Darrel was saying. “I’ve got a friend in construction who says he can get me on a roofing crew, real good pay.” He looked over at me and said, “Maybe you want to think about it too.”
“That’s lousy work,” said the guy next to Darrel. “I did that for a while. If you build houses you want to work inside the things, not out in the rain.”
“Remodeling,” said Pat, laughing while she said it. “You guys want to be doing the kitchens, work inside where it’s warm and bone some rich housewife every day.”
The burgers came and we ate, mostly not saying anything. The music in the place had been turned up and it was hard to talk anyway. I’d been in this tavern before, maybe three or four times, but had never really paid much attention to how it looked inside. This time I noticed that there were peanut shells scattered on the floor, and antique road signs tacked to the ceiling. The lighting was dim and the glass-topped table was chipped. The place was a dive, and mostly empty of people this time of day, too early for a lunch crowd.
Before the rest of us had finished our food the guy next to Darrel—the one thinking of a roofing job—put six dollars on the table and said he had to go. Pat told him good luck and he left. I went around the table and took his place between Pat and Darrel.
Pat ordered another pitcher, and after it came she filled the four remaining glasses. Then Pat and the Asian girl went to the restroom. I didn’t try to keep the conversation moving with Darrel. He had gotten kind of quiet after the Pat’s joke about kitchen remodeling. It was common knowledge back at the plant that Darrel’s wife had left him for a fisherman, a guy with probably too much time on his hands in the off-season.
“Hey Darrel,” said Pat after she and the girl came back, “forget about this stuff for a while and let’s play some pool.”
“Sure,” said Darrel, and he slid back his chair.
They got up and headed toward to the pool tables, leaving me with the girl whose name I still didn't know. We both sat there drinking, and when she finished her beer I picked up the pitcher and poured the last few inches of it, half into her glass and half into mine. She looked at me for a moment and smiled—just a quick flash of a grin with her head cocked to one side—then went back to studying the advertisements that were displayed under the table glass. She hadn't said anything, I thought, since I'd arrived at the tavern.
"I don't think I know where you worked," I said. She sat there like she hadn’t heard me. There was a speaker blaring music nearby so I leaned forward over the table. She noticed, looked up and leaned toward me, putting her weight on her arms.
"Where did you work?" I said, louder this time.
"Storeroom,” she said. “Data entry.”
I realized I had seen her a few times; her little office in the storeroom was next to the shipping and receiving areas, down the hall from the lunchroom. I started saying something about that but she broke in first. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I don’t hear very well. Hearing impaired.”
"Impaired?" I said, and I looked back at her. I don't know why I said it like that. I know what it means, I'm not an idiot. And her hearing was obviously not totally gone; what she had said sounded fine, not like the thick-tongued speech I’d heard from deaf people before. But there was a slight accent there, something that matched her face. Second-generation Chinese maybe, but I couldn’t really tell. Anyway I was surprised. I hadn't expected this and didn’t know what to say in return. She gave me that sideways smile again and said something I didn't catch. I shook my head. She said it again, louder.
"Accident when I was a kid,” she said. “I'm deaf on one side." I kind of smiled and nodded, and I made an OK sign with my hand, realizing too late that I was being stupid. She laughed at that, and she made an OK sign, too.
I wondered how old the girl was but I was having trouble guessing. Twenty, maybe twenty-five at the outside. There was a pause between songs and the bar got quieter. “What’s your name,” I asked her.
“Janice,” she said. “I’m thirty-two.”
I wasn’t sure what to say to that; I hadn’t even asked her.
Darrel and Pat were still playing their game of pool, or maybe they had started another. I wasn't sure what to do, and I didn't want to leave the girl, Janice, just sitting there alone. We had almost made it through our beers but I wasn’t ready to move, not yet. I was looking at Pat bending over the pool table when I felt Janice’s hand. She was reaching over and touching me on the wrist. I looked at her and she said something. I leaned forward. She pointed across the room and said it again, "Pinball?"
I said, "Sure, yeah, let's play pinball." I pushed my chair back and stood up. When I did that she stood up too, a little drunk-like, with her face slightly pink. She was taller than I expected, almost as tall as me in fact, very thin. I tried not to think about it but I wondered what it would be like. I drank the last few drops of my beer and picked up my jacket from the back of the chair.
I followed her over to where the pinball machines were. The room was L-shaped, with tables arranged between the door and the bar, and pool tables to one side. Behind the pool tables were a half-dozen or so machines. The walls were covered with smoke-stained cedar paneling and more of those old road signs: “Watch for Falling Rocks”, “No Shoulder” and the like. I noticed a beer poster with a Merlin-like character holding a six-pack and I remembered the old rock tune, Pinball Wizard. I rejected the thought of making a joke about it.
"Which one do you want to play?" she asked me.
“I don’t know, you choose,” I said. I stopped at a change machine and got some quarters.
She picked a machine called Earth Shaker. "Okay," I said, "shake, rattle and roll."
After putting my jacket on top of a nearby table I put two quarters into the machine and pushed the red start button two times. I moved to one side and motioned for her to play.
She put her purse on top of my jacket then stood in front of the machine. She pulled back the ball launcher and let it go. The ball shot up the side and around the top, then bounced around a bit before dropping through a roll-over alley on one side. When the ball rolled down onto a flipper she hit one of the buttons and the ball sailed back up to the top and over a ramp, just missing a drop target. She played the ball a little bit with the flippers but lost it down the middle.
"Okay, my turn," I said, and moved in next to her. She moved over a little, just barely enough to make room and I started to play. I could feel her next to me while I pushed the flipper buttons. She booed when the ball went back up through a roll-over alley for extra points, and laughed when I banged the machine and made it tilt.
“You’re too aggressive,” she said.
"The thing’s too sensitive," I said.
I moved aside and waved her in toward the machine. "Your turn."
She moved in front of the machine, pushed her hair back behind her ears, and launched her second ball.
We took a few more turns and I used another two quarters to start a new game. I was watching the ball bounce around the bumpers, listening to her laughs and smelling her perfume and I started to get a wistful, almost sad feeling, a feeling of being alone when I didn’t want to be. I was leaning with my back against the machine next to the one we were playing, and my hands were behind me. I could feel the warm wood on the side of that machine and it was smooth, almost silky under my fingers. I looked at the side of Janice’s neck, under her left ear—the good one, I thought—and I wanted to touch her face, to put my fingers there and feel her skin.
Suddenly she was looking at me. It was my turn again.
I pulled on the ball launcher then leaned on the machine with my hands wrapped around the corners and my fingers on the buttons. She was standing behind me, close. I could almost feel her breathing. The ball bounced on the bumpers, hit one target then fell between the paddles. I didn't even have a chance to swing at it.
I turned half-way around and looked past her at where Pat and Darrell had been. They weren't there any more. "Let's leave," I said. I wasn't sure what I meant when I said that, but I knew I didn’t want to play the pinball game any more. Janice looked over her shoulder to where Pat should have been. She looked back at me. She reached over and picked up her purse. “Okay,” she said.
We paid for our lunches as we left—Pat had already taken care of the beer—and went out to the parking lot. It was brighter outside; the sun was high and the morning clouds had cleared off. I looked for my truck, remembering after a moment that I had parked it down the block. We walked there together, keeping close to each other but not actually touching.
As we neared my truck I noticed that there was a modified Volkswagen parked behind it that hadn’t been there before. It was one of those off-road things, with big tires and the fenders cut off. A license plate hung from two loose bolts on the trunk lid. The Volkswagen was strange looking, out of place, sitting there by the street. It made me think of that desert again. I paused for a moment to look in the window at the seats and the dashboard. It was sparse, just bare metal around the instruments and no carpeting. I liked it.
Janice followed me to my truck. The passenger door was right next to a telephone pole so I opened the door on my side. She got in and slid over to the other side. She looked smaller, sitting there on the front seat. I got in and closed the door but I didn't start the engine right away. I wasn't thinking too straight. I thought maybe we should go have coffee, go someplace we could talk. She said something I didn't catch.
"What?" I said.
She pointed down the street, toward the south. “Can you drive me home?” she said. I started the truck and pulled out into traffic.
We got to her place in about five minutes. The apartment was in a four-unit building that was part of a complex about a block off the highway, an easy walk to the factory. She pointed out a space for me to park and I did, with the front of the truck facing the building. I tried to guess which window was hers. I looked at my watch but I didn't actually notice what time it was. I turned off the motor.
“Janice,” I said.
She turned and looked at me. “What?”
“Why did you tell me your age?”
“You wanted to know,” she said. “Everybody wants to know but they don’t ask. I get tired of it.”
“Anyway I lied. I’m really twenty-eight. I’ll be twenty-nine next month.”
“I thought you were a lot younger,” I said. “At first I thought you might be underage.”
She didn’t respond to that, just looked away.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “I didn’t mean that…”
“I know a little about you,” she said, turning back toward me. “I know you’re thirty-six years old, that you’re divorced and you live with a lawyer girlfriend.”
The information surprised me.
“She’s not a lawyer,” I said. “She’s a legal secretary.” I wondered what else Pat had told her.
Janice was looking at me now. “Pat thinks you’re wasting the lady’s time, or she’s wasting yours. Which is it, do you think?”
“You have a strange sense of humor,” I said.
“My brother tells me that,” she said.
“I think she’s sleeping with her boss,” I said.
Janice didn’t reply to that. She turned away and looked out the windshield. She had her purse in her lap, her hands resting on top. She had slender fingers with short nails. Her skin was pale against the black leather of her bag.
“Do you live here alone?” I asked.
“My brother lives here,” she said, “when he’s not somewhere else. We share the rent.”
“What does he do?” I asked.
“He fixes computers, travels a lot.”
The cab of the truck was quiet again; I had run out of things to say. “What happens next?” I asked.
She didn’t answer right away. She was still looking out the window at the apartment building. “I haven’t looked for another job,” she said. “So I don’t know.”
She opened the truck’s door but she didn't get out right away. Instead she reached over with her left hand and placed it on my leg. Her hand was warm, light and she held it there for a moment. I decided to put my hand on hers but it was too late; she pulled her hand back, got out of the truck and closed the door. She stood next to the front fender with her purse, looking at me through the windshield. I opened my door and got out, but I didn't shut the door. I wasn't sure what I wanted. I wanted her, I knew that. But then what? And there was something else, something that I couldn't remember.
“My jacket,” I said. “I left my jacket at the bar.” My last paycheck, with the severance money, was in the pocket. I felt that anxiousness in my stomach again.
I saw she was laughing. I turned around to see what she was looking at but there wasn't anything. She was laughing at me. I closed the truck door and walked over to her. Maybe she was drunk, and maybe I was a little bit drunk too but I didn't care anymore. I decided the coat could wait; I didn’t want to leave, not yet.
She led me up the stairs to the door of her apartment. She fumbled with her keys and we went inside. We took off our shoes at the door.
Her apartment was a clutter of books and newspapers. The walls were white, and there were bookshelves, the cheap sort you get at a Scandinavian furniture store, filled with paperbacks and potted plants. There was a television set, and a computer on a small table. There was a second computer on the floor in pieces. A small kitchen at one end of the living room was clean; it gave the impression of being rarely used. With the door now closed I reached out and touched her, first on her neck, under her ear and then other places. She put her arms around me and made a sighing noise. I felt the bones under her skin; she was so much thinner than Susan.
“Excuse me a minute”, she said. She moved away from me and went into the hallway. I heard a door close and then, after a moment heard the trickle of water. I went to the kitchen and opened the refrigerator: some orange juice, a carton of milk, a few plastic boxes with leftover food; a block of white cheese, a pint of yogurt and a bottle of soy sauce; a bag of pre-mixed salad greens and three carrots; some red pepper sauce with Chinese writing. Not much else.
I sat on a stool at the kitchen counter and waited. I saw a small photo album near the telephone and I opened it. I was looking at a picture of two Asian men, one younger and one much older, when she came back and sat on the stool next to me.
“My brother Andrew,” she said, pointing to the younger one, who was dressed in a sweater and khaki pants, slightly overweight and with a kind face. The older man in the picture looked stern, formal in a suit jacket and matching pants, though he wore no tie.
“Your father?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said. “Died last year.”
“Don’t be,” she said. “He was an ass.”
“Your mother?” I asked.
“She’s dead too, but ten years ago,” she said. “Sometimes I think he killed her. I don’t mean that really, but…” She stopped talking.
Her bedroom was a mess, with clothes piled up on the floor and an unmade bed. We were standing there, next to that bed and she was kissing me. I pushed her gently down and lay beside her, my head next to hers, feeling her through her shirt, moving my hands from her neck down to her narrow hips. She ran her fingers through my hair, massaging my scalp but otherwise not moving. She didn't talk and neither did I. We just lay there. Finally I put my hand inside her shirt and under her bra. She didn’t move.
"What do you want?" I said quietly, but she didn’t answer.
We lay there like that for a long time, or what seemed like a long time. She didn't say anything, didn't make any sound. I moved on top of her and kissed her on her forehead. She put one arm around me. She drew circles on the back of my shirt with her finger.
I put my mouth close to her ear. "What do you want?" I said again.
“I don’t know,” she whispered.
We lay there together, in our clothes, until we fell asleep and the light began to fade. I woke in a darkened room and she was still there with me, breathing deeply and slowly. I looked at her silhouette in the dark, at the turn of her nose and the smooth curve between her lower lip and her chin. I imagined that curve continuing along her neck, past the shallow hills of her breasts and traveling south until reaching a border, then crossing that border without stopping. I thought about that vast empty desert. I closed my eyes again and imagined flying over sand dunes and onto a flat, sun-baked plain, going faster and faster until the world dissolved into a red horizon.
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David Pellerin lives, works and writes in Kirkland, Washington. His personal website may be viewed at www.rudderpost.com.