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issue 19: july - august 2000 

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Comfortable
by
Abel Diaz


1.
 

"Come in, Paul. Please sit down." Sandra does her big sister voice. That’s how I know I’m in trouble. Her office is like a catalogue display—soothing gray walls complement modern black furniture. So this is Human Resources. I’d always pictured a sterile lab: scientists in white coats and safety goggles, inventing new ways to squeeze the life out of a working man.
      "Don’t mind if I do." I drop into a leather chair, marshmallow-soft, and help myself to the candies on her desk.
      "We reviewed your workbook and…" Her face knots up as she searches for the right words. It makes her look constipated. "Well, we worked very hard on these booklets, Paul."
      "You sure did, Sandy." I wink. It’s best to humor these corporate whore types. I figured out way back that they honestly believe in what they’re doing. Like their job is some kind of cause. All that loose stool spilling from their company-issued mouths is S-I-N-C-E-R-E.
      "This was a good chance for everyone to improve their performance. We were a little upset that you—especially you—did not take advantage of this training opportunity. Frankly, Paul, some the things you wrote actually disturbed us." Sandy flips through my tattered booklet. "All these references to a blue and yellow ‘Potty Clown’ were just…inappropriate."
      "I’m sorry I let down the team. But believe me, I plan to work extra hard to make up for this."
      "That won’t be necessary. We don’t feel you’re cut out for retail, and you’re not taking us seriously. So we’re terminating your relationship with Furniture World."
      I start to object, but I stop. She’s got me; there’s no arguing with her logic. I don’t give a fuck about them, the customers, my job, or myself. Basically, they’d be insane not to fire me.
      "It’s been an honor, ma’am." I slap my plastic employee-badge on her desk, and tear off my red shirt. My nipple ring dangles in her face. The lamps spotlight my full stomach tattoo. She stares at the skull with eagle wings and the RANGER banner beneath, but they don’t register. To her, it’s just graffiti fused with skin. I have to admit, after four years away, it doesn’t mean much to me either.
      She’s caught off guard by the grotesque bubble-gum lumps where hot metal once ripped apart my shoulder. Her hand goes for the phone, but she keeps her composure like true management material. "Since you came in, we’re paying you for the rest of today."
      "That’s very generous of you." I pull off my work pants and dump the whole Furniture World costume on her desk. "But I don’t need your handouts." I walk to the door in my Batman boxers. My ass peeks out a hole in the back.
      "Please leave the building immediately, Paul, or I’ll have to call security," she stammers. It’s the first time I’ve heard her voice break. They must not cover intimidation in HR college.
      "I’ll be in touch, Sandra," I say, hopefully with enough threat in my voice to keep her worried awhile. Then I’m on the sales floor. I get a few whistles as I make for the exit.
      It’s my fourth job in six months, and I’m 26 years old. What am I doing? I’ve got some clothes in the car; on the way home, I’ll grab an application at Linen’s Etc. I don’t want to work there, but…You know.

2.

      "You got fired again?" Gloria gasps, more in anger than surprise.
      "I’m sorry." I don’t mean it, but it’s something I’ve gotten used to saying.
      "How the fuck are we gonna pay the bills?"
      "Look, Gloria, I picked up this application. I’ll have a job in no time."
      "Good," she says. She grabs her Jansport gym bag and starts stuffing it with clothes. "You’re gonna need the money."
      "What’re you doing?"
      "Leaving."
      "Sweety, come on."
      "Shut up! I’m sick of this shit, Paul. Sick of supporting you. I ain’t your mom." She throws a picture frame at my head to highlight her point. "I’m done!"
      "Then let me leave. I can’t afford this apartment."
      "Figure it out." She opens the door and stands there, stooped over by the weight of her bag. "You know, this’ll be a good experience for you. Now your lazy ass is gonna have to keep a job, ‘cause I’m not gonna be here to pay your rent." She laughs, like it’s the funniest thing she’s ever said.
      "Gloria, I can’t help it. I’m better than these jobs."
      "Don’t give me that shit! You think I wanna work at Denny’s? You think anyone does? If you think you’re so goddamn special, why don’t you apply at Microsoft? I hear Bill Gates is looking for a new CEO." The door slams in my face, and I hear her laughter all the way down the stairs.
      So she’s gone. It’s a big deal, but really, it’s not. It’s just the end of another fragile alliance. She found someone who didn’t cheat on her, and never went out with his friends; I found someone who put up with me. It was comfortable, but those are the hardest relationships to keep. They require a totally changeless environment. It’s like sleeping on a wood bench: if you shift slightly, in any direction at all, you’re no longer comfortable.

3.

 We’re spread out on the soccer pitch in a stadium used for headquarters. There’s wounded Rangers everywhere. Helicopters with big red crosses dart around like meat-trucks, dropping fresh slaughter off at the butchers. A lot of us are crying. I’m crying. It was just too much. The Somalis kept coming and coming.
      I think when it started, we were helping Delta Force storm a clan meeting. But all I remember afterward is trying to stay alive. Waiting, praying we’d get rescued, and killing.
      "So I guess we’re heroes," Smitty sighs, blowing cigarette smoke through his nostrils. He’d been here before, in the Gulf. He’s seen this shit before. "Carlos and Jason are dead."
      My uniform’s been marinated in sweat, adrenaline and blood, then dusted with rust-orange Mogadishu sand. There’s a flaky crust of my own piss and shit down both legs. My shoulder’s a mess. I’m wailing like a baby. Fuck heroes.
      "Got a year left," Smitty says, "but I ain’t re-upping. I think I’m done."
      Me too.
      I wake up back in my cold, empty bed. Jesus, Gloria took her body heat too…

4

     "Thanks for shopping at Linens Etc. Did you find everything okay?" Asks the new girl at the register behind me. She’s still regurgitating the crap they fed her at orientation.
      That’s mistake number one: Don’t talk to the customers. Ask them a question like that, and they might say, "You know, I was looking for…" There’s your lunch break—shot. Sometimes they spill their life story, like we’re volunteer therapists. Either way, it’s more work for us.
      "Well…Oh, never mind. Yes, thank you," the customer says. Close call.
      "Can I get your zip code?" New Girl asks. Mistake number two. I know we’re supposed to ask, but come on! The ones that answer take an hour to ponder this difficult question: "I uh…hmm…let’s see…it’s…Well, I don’t write myself. Ha ha!" On a bad day, we get the nuts that switch to panic mode: "Zip code? Why do you need that? You don’t need that. What are you gonna do with my zip code?"
      I’m going to sell it to the FBI, you acid dropping motherfucker! Get a grip. It’s for marketing, you freak.
      Either way, it’s another waste of time.
      I look over my shoulder and give New Girl a thorough inspection. She’s ripe. Maybe I’ll take this one under my wing, or under something hairy, now that Gloria’s gone.
      I’m ambushed by a loose formation of shopping carts. Here’s my chance to teach by example. I snatch the first lady’s merchandise right from her hands. The old bag starts farting and puffing, but I don’t stop to acknowledge her indignation. Instead, I proceed directly to step two. Without asking her a damn thing, I type in an imaginary zip code and start zapping her crap with the gun. BEEP! BEEP! I read her the total. While she’s digging around for musty old bills, I’m tossing her blankets, silverware, glasses and plates into one large bag. I snatch the money from her doughy fingers and shove it in the cash drawer. I throw back some change and BAM—done in less time than it took Miss Linens Etc. 2000 to pry a zip code from a brain-fucked shopper.
      "Excuse me, sir," the old goat starts to bleat. "Could I get two separate bags? I have a bad-"
      "NEXT!" I cut her off with young, healthy lungs. She tries to raise her voice, but I out shout her again, "Next customer, please!"
      Luckily, a callous lizard in pink lipstick pushes the hag aside. She starts dumping her own goods on the counter. I watch her fake tits pop out every time she bends over the shopping cart. Thank God for these goofy aprons we wear.

5.

      In the manager's office . . .
      Scott: All right, Paul, have a seat.
      Paul: What’s this about, Scott?
      Scott: We’re sending you home early today. Another customer complained.
      Paul: Yeah?
      Scott: Yeah. You used the word "shit" in front of her and her children.
      Paul: Who?
      Scott: The lady who complained. I’ve asked you before to stop swearing in front of customers.
      Paul: Why?
      Scott: It offends people.
      Paul: What people? Shy people? Shy people shouldn’t shop.
      Scott: When you’re working the registers, you’re the last person these customers see. You complete their shopping experience. Bottom line, you represent Linens Etc.
      Paul: I don’t represent shit.
      Scott: It doesn’t reflect well on us if you’re up there saying "shit" all the time.
      Paul: I don’t believe this shit. I really don’t.
      Scott: Just stop saying "shit" at the registers—okay?
      Paul: What am I supposed to do if a patron wants my opinion on Utica towels, and I need to tell her that they’re shit?
      Scott: Look, Paul, I can see I’m not getting through to you. I’m writing you up on this. If you swear out there again, I’m going to fire you. If that’s what you want, just keep carrying on the way you’ve been. ‘Cause I can make you unemployed. Understood?
      Paul: Shit yeah, Scott.
      Scott: All right, just get out of here.

6.

      Rachael leans in and tells me, all hush-hush like, "I just heard Scott tell Liz he’s going to fire you. Soon as you clock-out."
      I can’t tell if this is a rare act of employee solidarity, or if she’s just so excited by the news that she had to tell me herself. It doesn’t matter. Anyone who gives me a heads-up like that is a friendly, regardless of her motives. Before I can thank her, she’s off to her register.
      So they’re sacking me, after I’m done busting my ass on a weekend, Spring Clearance Blowout. Fucking roaches, man. There’s no honor in retail.
      A train of customers pulls up to my register in a straight line of shopping carts. I start ringing them up like a robot, just going through the motions. Scott’s fat, white blur catches my eye. I take a second look, and I see he’s following two teenagers.
      A lot of people steal here. It’s too easy. This place doesn’t even have a fake surveillance camera, let alone a guard. People steal our sheets and bring them back for credit. They use the credit for the merchandise they really want, but couldn’t steal. I just watch; I don’t get involved. Managers only notice when it’s black kids. Then they get all righteous and follow them—like now.
      One of the kids walks out the door, but Doug grabs the other one by his sleeping bag sized jacket. There’s a Chicago Bulls logo on the back. "Hold on, sir. You forgot to pay for those."
      "Get off me, man," Chicago Bulls growls. Everyone in the store stops, slack-jawed and drooling, to gawk at the entertainment.
      "You need to pay for those," Scott is jabbering, and trying to get inside the boy’s enormous jacket. This is his moment. Scott: hero, legend, manager of the month.
      "Back the fuck up!" Chicago Bulls whips a pistol from his coat pocket. My skin tingles. Shoppers are yelling and oh-my-goshing.
      "You haven’t paid yet." Scott looks freaked-out. He’s sweating like a rainforest, but he hasn’t let go. I don’t think he can.
      I scan Chicago Bulls’ face. He can’t believe he has to shoot this fool, but he will. I can see it. He’s so scared that, just like Scott, he’s running on autopilot. In an instant, they’ve been reduced to fight or flight. No higher brain function at all.
      I look around. I desperately need to make eye contact with someone—anyone—else who’s still rational. All I see are gaudy flesh statues.
      "Get offa me! I ain’t gonna tell you again," Chicago Bulls warns. It sounds sincere enough.
      I wonder where they’ll hang Scott’s posthumous citation?

      Scott D. Kirkland, killed in the line of duty. He was a credit to the Linens Etc. apron. For his ultimate sacrifice of single handedly charging an armed shoplifter and preventing the loss of a Martex Moon Shadow sheet set (Queen, 280 thread count, suggested retail $129.99, Item # 040418000508), he is awarded the highest honor possible: Manager of the Year.

      I’ve got two options: let this cocksucker, who’s about to fire me, get his brains remodeled; or
      With my eye on the weapon, I close the distance between us. He’s no gun collector. It’s just a 9mm Beretta, similar to the Army model I’ve fired a bazillion times. This toy is a cheap piece of shit.
      I know what I have to do. It only takes a second. So simple, but you need a body that moves, even when fear takes your mind hostage. It’s a job skill I’m having trouble marketing.
      I seize the gun and twist. The kid panics and fires, but not in Scott’s face. The explosion vibrates through my hand, through every ounce of my body. Hot lava erupts from the spot where the pistol’s slide snaps back, spits out brass, chambers a new round, and tears half my thumb off. The meat slips right from the bone. My left fist is up, and I bury it in his soft throat.
      He drops, squirming and gurgling; choking on spit and blood. I’ve got the gun. No one’s shot. I hear someone crying and I think it’s me.
      I’m not angry. He was stealing from Linens Etc., not me. I am not my job. In fact, if Scott wasn’t so fucking stupid, no one would be hurt right now. I feel closer to the kid on the floor than my own co-workers, crowding around to get a closer look.
      "We’re heroes!" Scott throws his arm around me like we’ve been best friends since birth.
      I pull off my apron and wrap it around my leaking hand. It’s throbbing so hard, I feel like throwing up. "Yeah, I’m the Amazing Unemployed Man."
      "What?"
      "You know what I’m talking about. Let’s get it over with."
      His face does something ugly. I think it’s shame. "I’m not…I mean, I can’t fire you now."
      I don’t even bother to quit. I just break away from the herd, and go sit down outside. After the ambulance comes, after they stitch me up, I think I’m done. I’ll pick up an application at Cross Hairs on the way home. They sell quality firearms, not like that cheap Beretta. And I can probably get an employee discount…
      

2000  Abel Diaz

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author's bio
       

Abel Diaz was born in California in 1975. He lives in Kent, WA., where he attends college full time. His work has never been published before, anywhere. Contact: aaabeldiaz@yahoo.com
       
                              
navigation:                         barcelona review #19                    july - august 2000
-Fiction James Meek: These Lovers
James Meek: And the Days Grow Shorter
Lynn Coady: Jesus Christ, Murdeena
David Ewen: God's Breath
Patricia Anthony: Owl Says
Abel Diaz: Comfortable
-Essay Barbara F. Lefcowitz: Rope, Pockets, The Bidet
-Interview Patricia Anthony: Worlds at War
-Article July and August in Barcelona
-Quiz Toni Morrison
Answers to last issue's William Faulkner Quiz
-Regular Features Book Reviews
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