Today I will be sharing a short story. Before you dive in, please note that although parts of the story do take place in a grocery store, it is not based on the grocery store where I work. That being said, I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it!
Barney’s Beach Bread is the kind of freakish establishment that could only survive in the redheaded stepchild of America that is Florida. The sunshine state is home to dizzying heat, Mickey Mouse worshippers, the infamous Florida Man, and Miami. Barney’s Beach Bread is supposed to appear as a kitschy, mom-n-pop sort of corner store, but since its inception has grown into a multi-million dollar corporation. The small storefront that was once only a minute blight in an otherwise sleepy beach town spread like an unseemly rash across central Florida, which is to say that there is now a Barney’s Beach Bread, a Barney’s Beach Beer, a Barney’s Bodega, and/or a Barney’s Boutique on nearly every corner from Daytona to Orlando and beyond.
What exactly is it about this alliterative monument to all that is garish that draws people from far and wide to come peruse the aisles of nonsense? Well, I certainly couldn’t tell you, but much like raccoons to a Taco Bell dumpster, people do come in droves to browse shelves of off-brand dry grocery items, novelty Floridian souvenirs such as sticks of butter shaped like alligators and candy corn in the shape of semi-automatic rifles. We also purvey venison jerky, and cookbooks with titles ranging from Cooking With Hard Liquor to Paleo Diet Friendly Smoothies. We are a horrifying hodge-podge of gift shop, grocery store, and roadside attraction.Sometimes, tourists come on the off chance of running into Barney, the big man himself.
And, speaking of the slimiest crocodile out there, Barney has been on the cover of Money Magazine, he was named one of Time’s Most Influential People a few years back, and, if you believe what you hear in the break room, he was once interviewed for an episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show, which mysteriously never aired. Suffice it to say, that he has more money than God and is worshipped accordingly.
I, personally, have only had the pleasure to bow and scrape before his comely visage once. To celebrate my fifth continuous year of employment in one of his little satellite stores, I was invited to a banquet, at which all of the attendees were part of the Cult of Barney. The real kicker, though, was that it was a segregated event. All of the “regular,” employees who were being honored convened on a different day in a different venue. And the ones like me were all lumped together in a basement of an auditorium in front of Barney for a quick photo-op and the good ol’ take and shake. Much like a high school graduation, all fifty-three of us were given a “certificate of thanks,” from Barney, a sterile handshake, and we were on our way. Had I even bothered to ask why we were separated, I’m sure logistical and accessible concerns would have been cited.
I shouldn’t complain, I really shouldn’t. With the way my medicine works, or more accurately, the way it sometimes doesn’t work, it’s been hard for me to hold this job, and my immediate boss, Sandra, has been very accommodating for me. I have hardly any real responsibilities at work: my official job title is “packaging specialist,” the gender-neutral and politically correct term for bag boy. I put plastic items, wrapped in plastic packaging, in plastic bags for people who pay with plastic cards, all while wearing a plastic smile. It’s enough to make my head spin, which it frequently seems to, although I’m told that, too, is just a symptom.
That’s the thing about Florida: it’s got a lot to offer. If you like booze, we got it. Beaches and buxom babes? That too. Aging Republicans with a vendetta against Gen Z college students? Sure thing. College students with designer jeans that look like they came from Goodwill? Oh yeah, we’ve got ‘em out the wazoo! But mental healthcare? Not so much. It’s easy for people like me to slip through the cracks.
Dr. Mueller says that it’s not good for me to be too stressed, which is why he also encourages me to limit my hours at Barney’s and avoid alcohol. He advises me “not to engage with my auditory hallucinations,” because that “only serves to further elevate the dissonance between reality and the patient,” the patient being me, of course. My alleged hallucinations are way less condescending than he is, though, and I think he only uses words like “dissonance,” because he doesn’t think I know what they mean. Nobody really talks like that. Even though he has several very official-looking diplomas hanging on the wall behind his desk, he’s way out here at the sliding-scale clinic in the middle of nowhere, not in an office of cushy private practices with decorative fountains in every room to create white noise, thus maintaining patient confidentiality. In other words, he’s compensating.
Pop-Pop is the one who got everybody calling me Gee instead of Geraldine. We had a lot in common. My cousins would always say, “She gets it from him!” when I did things that seemed normal to the two of us that were weird to everybody else. While people chalked Pop-Pop’s habits up to eccentricities and old age, when I mirrored him, my actions came to be called “symptoms,” though nothing added up to any one, definitive problem. I think the prevailing idea was that I was just weird and would maybe even grow out of it. Luckily for me, I grew into it. For instance, I shave my head twice a year. It cleanses me, it protects me, and it certainly saves time in the morning. My cousins thought it was weird, crazy even, but Pop-Pop understood. “You’ve got a firecracker mind,” he said with a shrug. “You’ve just got to convince them that you’re not going to bust on them. Then you can get away with anything.”
When I tell Nancy that I read something about a virus in the news, she seems a little skeptical. Nancy doesn’t read the news, though, because she says it interferes with the purity of her aura. “It’s always good to keep at least one foot planted firmly in reality,” she tells me with a chuckle. “Two on a good day.” Nancy is a counselor and caseworker who was assigned to me as part of a program at Dr. Mueller’s practice. In order to be seen by the doctor, I have to be in therapy to show that I want to get better. At least, I think that’s the idea. That doesn’t explain why I still see and hear stuff that no one else does, let alone what I’m supposed to do about it. It doesn’t bother me, but it really bothers Dr. Mueller. Sometimes I wonder if he thinks I’m giving him a hard time on purpose, just to make him earn his fee. I know a lot about lots of different conspiracies, even if they sound far-fetched. I usually don’t mind my sessions with Nancy because I can be myself around her. “I’ve seen it all,” she tells me frequently. When we first met, she said, “Don’t think of me as a therapist. Think of me as an encourager!” She also says I don’t have a “firecracker mind,” that there’s actually no such thing, but that I can learn to control my thoughts, which are, apparently, “disordered.” Dr. Mueller says the disorder is actually my whole personality, which seems like a crock and a lifetime guarantee of appointments at the clinic. But what do I know?
I am intrigued by the possibility of an unknown virus sweeping across the country, and I insist that Nancy at least reads the headline on my phone so that she can see I’m not making things up or “being delusional.” She glances at the screen and gives me her very best “harumph,” and scribbles something in her notes. “Are you worried about getting sick?” she asks me.
“No, not really. I’m already sick in the head,” I joke.
“We’ve talked about this before, remember? What do we say when we have the thought, I am my illness?”
I cock my head theatrically and pretend to think really hard about it. “Uhm…. well… let me think… Do we say, I am a magical being comprised of numerous, multifaceted illnesses that no one can agree upon and also a bunch of blood and guts and stuff?”
Nancy looks at me blankly, that pleading and threatening smile crossing her face despite herself. Finally she sighs and says, “Let’s move on.”
The customers at Barney’s don’t seem too worried about a virus, considering the way they pile up on each other in the checkout line and gobble down gummy bears as they wait for the line to move. A few of them mention it to the other employees and me in idle moments, but only in passing. Floridians are hardy people. While we certainly couldn’t drive in the snow found in northern states, we have no issues driving down I-4 in a hurricane while trying to eat Taco Bell. Point being: Floridians aren’t scared of much, and a little virus isn’t going to distract them from the important business of summer barbecues, Republican conventions, and coleslaw wrestling.
One day, most likely a Wednesday, which is our slowest afternoon of the week, I spot someone I haven’t seen before striding out of one of the little manager’s offices along the back wall and onto the sales floor. I’m probably staring, gawking even, but if this is the weirdest thing I do all day, I’m golden. He’s wearing dark jeans, which I almost mistake for slacks, a button-down shirt that has clearly never been worn before based on the way it’s still perfectly creased along the folded lines of its former packaging. His hair is a shaggy, glorified mullet and his bangs, which are in his eyes, are also an unnatural yellow color I recognize as having been bleached. Just as I’m contemplating approaching this fellow, Sandra darts back out of the office. “Here! I forgot to give this to you!” the young man turns around and Sandra places a violently orange nametag (shaped like an alligator, of course) in his hand.
“Thanks,” he says, and smiles.
“You’ll have to come to the PPE meeting–that’s personal protective equipment–before you can start,” Sandra says. “We’ll schedule it for tomorrow, if that’s okay?”
“Sure,” he responds.
I want to know why we’re having a meeting about PPE and which department this new guy will be joining, but suddenly the voice of God rings through the front end of Barney’s, “Jay to the floral department, Jay come to floral, please,” and after a moment, I realize that’s Howard paging me to the little alcove near the meat counter that passes for the floral department, most likely to clean up a spill, but possibly to flirt with me. I scamper away to see what the trouble is, and by the time I’m halfway there, I’ve already forgotten about the new hire.
“Hey, Jay-Jay,” Howard says when I arrive. He’s describing the process of lengthening the shelf life of the flowers, but I’m not listening. The whooshing sound the store makes is getting louder and I can see the butcher watching us talk (while we’re both supposed to be working; we are on the clock, after all). The butcher has a huge knife in his hand and a black, rubbery apron over his white coat, under which is a Barney’s pullover sweater. It’s important that the customers don’t seen him all smeared with blood and other gunk because nobody wants to think about the fact that they’re eating an animal carcass that’s been dismembered beyond recognition when they sit down around the table to feast on Meemaw’s Famous Meatloaf on Great Uncle Floyd’s birthday or whatever. Howard sees me looking at the butcher, and he tries to stand in my line of sight so that I can only look at him and not the other man. But I’m not lusting after the butcher. I’m watching him lick blood off of the knife, his tongue long and forked. The whooshing sound of retail grocery continues to hiss as if the building itself were demonic. The butcher points his knife at me and makes a slow, slicing gesture, and– “You know what I mean, Jay-Jay? These sunflowers are so pretty, but the orchids are nice too. Which is your favorite? Are you… are you even listening?” His bland face is marred by the disappointment of not fully capturing my attention and I shake my head vigorously, as I do when I see things that others don’t.
“I… uh… I gotta go,” I say finally and walk back towards the front of the store.
Fourth grade, a blazing Floridian October day, just far enough along into the school year that all of the kids have decided who their friends are, and more importantly who their friends aren’t. And there I am, slouching in front of the class while my teacher, (bless her heart), tries to pry an introduction out of me like a vulture to a locked Dumpster. “Can you at least tell us your name?” she asks, trying not to show how frustrating she finds me. I’m holding class up, holding up progress, of all things.
“I’m Gee,” I say. I shake my head, trying to shift my jumbled thoughts into some semblance of order.
“Your real name, dear,” the teacher says.
“Gee is my real name,” I protest. “Nobody calls me Gerladine, except when I’m in trouble.”
“Okay then. Can you tell us something about yourself? Maybe, where you’re from or what you want to be when you grow up?” the teacher insists.
I stand there, terrified to open my mouth, until for reasons still unknown, I blurt out, “I’m a nomad!” sending the class into laughter. From an unidentifiable source came the sentiment, What an idiot! Immediately followed by, Who put that there? And just as the walls of the classroom begin to crumble, my alarm clock goes off and I have never been so relieved to fall out of bed and land on the floor. While the alarm wails its urgent cry, I take deep breaths and stare up at the ceiling. “I’m okay,” I mutter to myself. “It was just a stupid dream.”
The PPE meeting occurs the following day, and boy is it a long one! Sandra, as nice as she is, cannot read very well, which makes her perfectly suited for the world of customer service. Not only is she easily confused by the fine print on coupons (which most customers are surprised to learn exists), but when the customers do read it and interpret it incorrectly as they are bound to do, they still get their way because Sandra lacks the basic reading skills necessary to argue. That being said, it is incredibly tedious to get through these meetings because Sandra insists on reading the dossier that Barney’s corporate offices have sent to us word for word. “B-b-barney’s cares… about all of… you-y’all-yuns… and want-t-ts, to…” I sit in the back of the little conference room because Sandra tends to play music during these sorts of meetings, and I’m the only one who ever dances to it. I don’t want to be obsequious. By the end of the meeting, I can barely hear Sandra and she’s reiterating that Barney’s will be responding to the increasingly real threat of a virus that little is known about, save for that it affects people’s ocular nerves. Starting today, all Barney’s employees are required to wear extra PPE, which will be given to us in the form of thick, rubber goggles that cover our eyes and noses. Sandra demonstrates how to put one on and everyone tries not to laugh. I am the only one who does not succeed, and a squawking chortle escapes my mouth. Sandra waves her hands, and I settle back down. She removes the goggles and finishes slogging through the rest of the readings from corporate. “We are… all in this… to-get-her,” she pauses, and realizes her mistake a moment too late. “Together!” she crows victoriously. But people are already leaving, ready to get back to work, goggles and all.
“I was right!” I tell Nancy the next time I see her. “You didn’t believe me, and I was right! Ha!”
“Are you happy about being right? Are you happy that there’s a virus that’s killing people?” Nancy asks. She’s tired today, I can tell by the cadence of her voice and the fact that she hasn’t mentioned her aura once.
“Who said it’s killing people?” I ask, suddenly concerned that I may have missed something in the news. “Oh God, what if me being right killed someone? What if I caused this virus? What if I made it all up and then it came to fruition because that’s how evil I am? What if none of this is even real and it’s all just a simulation and–”
“Breathe, Gee, breathe,” Nancy can see the panic rising in me. Her eyes are focused on my heart chakra (otherwise known as the chest) which is reddening with the heat of anxiety. “Let’s reality check. Where are we?”
The possibility of finding myself at the center of a conspiracy seems as real as Nancy sitting across from me, and buzzwords like “reality check,” only serve to remind me who’s in charge here.
“Planet Earth,” I reply.
“More specific,” Nancy doesn’t want to play games today.
“In your crappy office!” I gesture wildly to the glorified closet where Nancy works. For all of Nancy’s efforts, the motivational posters on the walls and the CD of whale song that plays on repeat, the office sucks. It’s not her fault that she’s a fledgling counselor and is thus relegated to the most low-income part of town. Nor can she be blamed for the fact that the neighboring businesses are owned by cat colonizers. I think the idea is for the cats to be caught, fixed, and released, but cats defy the laws of natural science and the known universe, which is to say that somehow despite their inability to sexually reproduce, they still seem to increase in number by the day.
Nancy is looking at me expectantly and I realize that I missed something. She makes a face quite similar to an eyeroll, but I’m sure she wouldn’t roll her eyes at me. “Sorry,” I murmur, unsure of what else to say.
“You don’t need to apologize, Gee. I just need you to pay a little more attention. Remember, the vibrations of your words have an impact.” She pauses, then adds, “Sometimes I think you have more of a listening problem than a perception problem,”
“What is that supposed to mean?” I ask.
“I think you just see and hear what you want to sometimes. Let’s go back and work on the self-soothing skills we were just practicing.”
“No, I really want to know what you mean,” I insist. “Are you saying that I have selective hearing? Like, I’m pretending that I can’t hear you or something?”
“I wouldn’t say you’re pretending…” Nancy says carefully. She doesn’t want to upset me, and she can see quite clearly that I’m getting heated, that my firecracker mind is sizzling. Does she think I’m crazy? Off the rails? So afflicted by madness that I might do something rash? I raise my eyebrows, encouraging her to go on. “You’re… kind of an anomaly, Gee. You’re very high-functioning, and… no one is really sure…”
“You know, you’re right! It’s such a great life! The glamorous adventures of a full time mental patient! I’m having so much fun working all the time so I can pay for the meds so I can function well enough to keep working, so I can pay for more meds!”
Nancy raises her hand in a gesture to silence me and I surrender. “You can take up the medication issues with the doctor. I don’t know the ins and outs of psychiatry, only counseling.” She’s told me this a thousand times.
I cry when I’m angry, which only serves to further piss me off, and as the hot tears come bursting forth from my eyes I let out a sort of low growl, and Nancy’s expression of pity becomes a little less pitying. “Tell me what you want, Gee, let it all out, it’s okay.”
“What I want?” I shriek. “What I want is a normal life! Normal friends! Normal people! Normal everything!”
“Okay… okay…” Nancy says, in that breathy voice intended to soothe. “It’s all okay.” It’s not, it’s definitely not all okay, but I’m not going to argue about it with Nancy any further. By the end of the session, she’s talked me down to a state of semi-calmness and I’ve agreed to do five self-soothing activities before I do “anything harmful to my inner child.” The moment I’m back home, there’s a beer in my hand. I’m not supposed to drink at all, since I’m on so much medication, but some demons need to be drowned, not discussed. I fall asleep after consuming several beers, the fuzzy sound of Nancy’s whale song CD, the soundtrack to my dreams.
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Work is rough the next day. I take the bus to get there, and I always plan to take a route that will get me there at least thirty minutes early because the busses in this town are horribly unreliable. Nancy praises this as organization, timeliness, and punctuality, nice normal values that illustrate my ability to function properly. In reality, it’s an ingrained habit that stems from a deep-seated fear of losing my job, which is the only thing keeping me from living under a bridge or in a shelter. How’s that for insight?
I sit in the back of the bus, on the long seat with my legs out in front of me, focusing all of my energy on trying not to barf. I’m half dressed for Barney’s, but I keep my name tag and apron in my backpack. I don’t want any of my fellow bus-riders to know that I, a Barney’s employee, can’t afford a car, especially as Barney’s is hailed as one of Florida’s best workplaces. I also know that lots of people have bad intentions, and on the off chance I’m being followed, I don’t want identifiable information such as my workplace and name on display.
Each bounce of the tires on the poorly-maintained roads nearly propels the contents of my stomach out of me. I pick a shiny spot and focus on it, only to realize the shiny spot belongs to the bald head of a man a few seats in front of me. I like his shirt, I decide, I like that it has parrots on it and that the parrots are all best friends living in the rainforest. As I’m making up a story about how the parrots all met and their complex, yet necessary social hierarchy, I realize that I’ve made it all the way to my destination and have successfully kept my stomach in check. I snatch up my backpack and hurry out of the bus. “Thanks, Frankie!” I say to the bus driver.
“You’re welcome, dear,” she replies.
As my feet hit the pavement, the thought that it could be a good day hits me and then I see the parrot-shirted gentleman has gotten off at the same stop. I almost want to tell him how happy his shirt made me, but then I think that might be weird. As I stand there debating, he approaches me and I smile at him. “You’re looking excited, young lady,” he says. He’s got that northern accent that’s been diluted from years of living in Florida, ice cubes melting in sweet tea.
“Yeah, I’m just happy that the sun’s out today! It’ll be a nice day to be outside” I reply. “I really like your shirt,” I finally say.
He smiles, but not in that sterile, stranger-danger kind of way people usually smile at me on the street. This is an entirely different animal. “I really like your legs. I’ll give you ten dollars if you let me touch them,” the smile is still plastered to his face, and I wonder how I missed the fangs.
I feel something rising in me, quite possibly vomit, and I surprise myself by screaming, “Ugh! You absolute boner! Get away from me!” He is long gone by the time I stop screaming, and I wonder why I didn’t scare the parrots away, why I didn’t hear their wings flapping. Suddenly, I’m aware that people are staring at me like I’m in the wrong, not this creepy pervert who thinks it’s okay to be nasty to someone just minding her own business. But he’s gone now, and I’m still here, firecracker mind exploding all over the sidewalk. I probably look like a crazy person. What would Nancy think?
The ordeal has almost made me late to work, and I still have to walk a couple of blocks from the bus stop to the store. I walk too quickly to keep prolonging the inevitable, and just as I’m racing up to the service entrance of the store, my breakfast eschews further digestion and instead winds up all over the pavement. No one seems to be around and just as I’m wiping my mouth off and preparing to go inside and act like nothing happened, I see Howard stamping out a cigarette on the sidewalk. “Rough night, huh?” he says, his lip curled in disgust at the puke all over the ground.
“Like you wouldn’t even believe,” I mumble.
CDC States Little Is Known about Highly Transmissible Virus
Top medical researchers have never encountered anything like the virus that seems to be causing quasi-hallucinations in infected persons. “It’s not the same kind of thing that affects a person with a mental illness. I want to be very clear about that,” stated Professor Doctor at the Important School of Science in a press conference. “This is a real sickness, affecting real Americans. I will not rest until my team has done everything within reason–everything humanly possible–to find a cure for this virus.”
Upon onset, symptoms include dry eyes, watery eyes, lazy eyes, crossed eyes, and excessive, uncontrolled blinking. Post-onset symptoms include seeing, viewing, and witnessing things that are not actually there.
The CDC is recommending that individuals cover their eyes with see-through material whenever possible, avoid unnecessary driving, and avoid sharing cosmetic products that touch the eyes, eyelids, or eyelashes. Click HERE for a list of appropriate facial coverings for any and all occasions…
“What are you good at?” Nancy asks me one day after I haven’t seen her in a few weeks. My hours at Barney’s have been cut and the money goes to other things.
“Huh?” I ask.
“You know what I mean. Your skills, your assets, your strengths. What do you like about yourself?” Nancy says.
“I don’t know,” I answer flippantly. “What, am I supposed to have, like, a list of this stuff? I’ve been kind of busy, you know?”
“Doing what?” Nancy’s pencil is poised above her legal pad.
“Trying to, uh, survive?” I’m sure she’s scrawling something about my sarcasm as a defense mechanism, but I know craning my neck is pointless. She never lets me read her notes, which only serves to piss me off and make me wonder what kind of secret and terrible judgments she’s making about me. “Do you seriously not get how much energy it takes to just hold myself together?” I ask.
“What do you think you want out of life?” Nancy is clearly working an angle here, I’m just too obtuse to see it.
“What the hell kind of question is that to hit someone with at 9:00 in the morning?”
“Are you saying that you need to reschedule future appointments?” Nancy says mechanically. Sometimes I wonder if she’s really a robot, and as that possibility blooms in my head, she’s already asking me other questions, already scribbling more furious notes on her legal pad, and I feel like I’m going crazy, or maybe I’m just crazier than usual.
“No,” I finally grunt at her. “It’s hard for me to wake up in the mornings because my meds make me so sleepy, but without them it would be even worse. It’s fine.” She looks at me expectantly; apparently the question still stands. “Friends,” I say. “I just want a couple of people who I don’t have to pay to talk to.”
The new guy learns quickly, and in no time he’s on a register like the alpha of a pack of wolves. There have been several new hires recently, and it concerns me a bit that I don’t know what any of these people’s faces look like. The new guy is soon entrusted with showing the other new hires the ropes. For whatever reason, I feel… weird when I look at him–I mean weird in a different way than I normally do, and as a result, he’s on my mind too much. He sort of prowls around when no one’s looking, and once I almost thought I saw paw pads where his fingertips should have been.
It’s slow today, slow enough that I’m the only bagger at the moment, and the new guy’s register is alight like the full moon above a pack of wolves–the wolves being him and me, of course, and the moon having a giant, orange 4 on it. We’ve been working together for a while, but haven’t actually spoken outside of routine work conversation, “Ramen noodles are on aisle three,” that sort of thing. I want a moment alone with the guy so I can introduce myself properly, thus getting a feel for what exactly has him stuck on repeat in my mind.“Oh, you’re so quick!” the customer says, as I fling her groceries and her Officially Licensed Barney PopFunko into a plastic bag.
“Thank you. I have one speed: constant anxiety,” I reply. When the customer doesn’t laugh at my little joke, I tell myself not to take it personally, and I try to keep my cheeks from reddening. The cashiering new guy doesn’t laugh either. As the customer declines my offer for carryout service and waddles out of the store, I prepare to burst onto the social scene that is the front end of Barney’s sales floor. “Hello! I’m Gee!” I announce, thrilled with my success.
“Yeah. I know,” he replies.
I was not prepared for this, and suddenly my firecracker mind is burning. This guy is
clearly a mind-reader and probably knows everything about me, and as I ride the scenario out in my head (it ends with him sucking out my brain through my pupils and livestreaming the whole process on LinkedIn.) I realize I’m wearing a name tag, as is he. I begin to scold myself, “Oh you moron! Where the hell is your common sense? You absolute dingus!” and the realization that I have accidentally said these last thoughts aloud hits me, and with increasing desperation to save whatever shredded lettuce leaves of dignity I have left on the salad of life, I begin to dance. I flail jerkily before a face I am beyond thankful is half-hidden behind goggles and continue to berate myself, stopping periodically to add some beat-box noises, “Absolute dingus! Couldn’t find anything–choo, pow, chow! Even if I had uh… some wing-us…”
“Are you… uhm… having an… episode? A seizure, maybe?” says the new hire, whose name tag reads Dylan.
I finally stop the song and dance routine and try to play it cool, knowing I am far less cool than a cucumber, knowing I am, indeed, the crouton. “Me? No, nah, of course not. I’m practicing.”
I check my phone surreptitiously and note the time. “I’ve got to go. I’ll see you around.” I try to wink, a skill I’ve never mastered, and then realize he probably can’t see my eyes clearly because of all the goggles. Well, I suppose that could’ve been worse, I think. I guess it can only get less weird from here.
I head to the break room and clock out, then I go into the bathroom to take a breather before I walk back to the bus stop to go home. I don’t want my coworkers to know that I ride the bus to work, let alone where I live. Howard somehow found out that I ride the bus, and occasionally he will offer to drive me home or at least to the bus stop, especially on rainy days. He’s probably trying to be nice, but I know a lot of things about a lot of different conspiracies, and people like Howard are at the center of them. I’m not about to get microchipped!
I slide my apron off over my head and untuck my orange polo. I desperately need a new pair of shorts for work because there’s a small hole in the crotch of my only pair. When the apron is on, it conceals the hole, but I have to be careful of how I move, which has become second nature. After work, though, I untuck the shirt to indicate to customers that I am not on the clock (and therefore I am neither obligated to be nice to them, nor reveal the location of those hard-to-find sale items such as dairy free cottage cheese and anti-melt ice cream.) and the shirt is just long enough to conceal the offending hole. The bathroom is a one-seater and as I take my throne I listen to the loud dance music being pumped in. I fumble with my goggles in the privacy of the bathroom, and feel a little bit silly worrying about my coworkers seeing me without my PPE. Having my face hidden already feels normal. I almost feel like I’m preparing to parade around pantless. Nonetheless, I take a quick glance at myself in the full length mirror and do a double take. Normally I’m focused on the sign that reads, “Are U Looking UR Barney’s BEST?!” which is typed in Comic Sans and taped to the top of the glass, but this time, I see someone I don’t know peeking at me. Really? I think. C’mon brain, this is the best you’ve got?A mirror that doesn’t reflect… wait… I realize this pretty gal who’s staring at me is, well, me. I don’t own a mirror bigger than the one that’s in my compact (which is collecting dust in a shoebox beneath my bed) and I’ve never bothered to fuss over my appearance much unless I was trying to prove a point to Dr. Mueller, so it surprises me to see that I look… pretty normal. Maybe even normally pretty.
I exit the bathroom, smiling to myself at this little realization, feeling like I’ve won some prize in a game I didn’t even realize I was playing. I feel like I’m on cloud nine! Does that necessitate the existence of eight other clouds? And why is the ninth one superior? Would the tenth one, presuming it exists, be even better…? As soon as I see a cluster of my coworkers standing in the break room looking at me like they’d seen a ghost or worse, an unexpected district manager, I tumble down from whatever cloud I may have been on back into reality where I am just Gee. They’re looking at me like I’m in trouble, and I round the corner like I’m leaving the break room. I open the door and let it creak shut, but I stay there, lurking on the threshold, listening to them.
“I don’t think she’s, like, retarded,” Emmet is saying.
“Omigosh! You can’t say that!” Claudia scolds. She’s tiny, abnormally so, and is always talking about how she “forgot to eat breakfast.” It doesn’t take much detective work to figure out that she’s starving for attention and food. “That’s, like, you know, a bad word. You’re supposed to say ‘special needs.’ It’s important for people like her to feel connected to a community. You know? Or else they’ll, like, shoot up the store or jump off a bridge or some shit.” She giggles a little bit, undoubtedly enjoying lording her knowledge from her half a semester of Introduction to Psychology over the boys.
The third figure there snorts and I realize it’s Dylan. My stomach sinks and Claudia continues. “That’s what happened with my sister’s boyfriend, anyway. He was, you know… Anyway, when they broke up, he went totally crazy! He’s on all these pills and stuff. But that’s my sister for you. She’ll go out with just about anyone.”
“Sounds like she goes for the low-hanging fruit,” Howard says.
“Whatever,” Claudia says. “I’ve got to go. I’m volunteering at the homeless shelter today. So annoying. My mom makes me do it, for, like, character building or some shit. It’s literally awful. Like, hello? Showers exist, people!” I hear her fake nails tapping the time clock as she clocks out, and I realize she’s probably going to find me hiding here. As I am frantically trying to concoct an explanation for my eavesdropping, I hear the double doors that lead into the stock room flap and surmise that she’s exited out of the service entrance so her mom won’t see her sneaking a cigarette and a kiss from Kyle in the produce department.
“Low-hanging fruit? What does that mean?” Dylan asks after a moment.
Emmett laughs as the meaning of the idiom clicks for him. I’m pretty sure Emmett is a vampire, which would account for the way a seemingly-recent high school graduate like himself moves and speaks with the mannerisms of a Victorian, gentleman caller. Even his laugh sounds stiff and forced, though I’ve seen his eyes water in mirth. I don’t know what to think. “See? He gets it,” Howard says.
“I still don’t,” Dylan insists.
“Look, it’s like, if you want an apple, you’re going to eat the one that’s easiest to pick. Why tire yourself out with the effort it takes to climb to the top of the tree when the one on the lowest branch still gets the job done? See what I’m sayin’? It means keep your standards low. Look, you’ve seen me put the moves on chicks all the time by now. I always go for the ugly ones. And if they’re insecure? Even better. Don’t even get me started on the ones with daddy issues. You’ve gotta convince them that you’re as good as they’re ever going to get–and then? Boom. BJ’s for life!”
“That’s ridiculous,” Dylan scoffs. I don’t stay to hear the rest of this conversation. I’ve had enough and on the entire bus ride home, I’m so angry, I can’t believe my firecracker mind doesn’t incinerate everyone in the vicinity.
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By my next appointment with Nancy, my anger has nearly surpassed the mysterious virus on the scale of all that rages. Nancy says that the current events we find in the newspaper are not evident of the currents of my heart, and she encourages me to meditate on what my innermost voice says to me. I’m trying to tell her about the conversation I overheard in the break room last week.
“What a mcfucking windbag! What an absolute bag of dongles! How could anyone be such a boner? How could anyone mistake me for ‘low-hanging fruit,’” I embellish that statement with air quotes vigorous enough to gouge a person’s eyes out. “Did he lose custody of his last brain cells when he got divorced, too? I may not be all that and a bag of chips, but I’m certainly a whole-ass apple pie! I could do far better than a trollish wad of farts like Howard!”
“Settle down, stop flailing, and stop cursing. You’re in the presence of your own inner child,” Nancy says. “What does your innermost voice say to you right now, Gee?”
“You mean the nice voices in my head? Or the ones the aliens put there? Or the one that bosses me around?” I say, wishing I were kidding.
“What message is inscribed on your heart, Gee?” Nancy says. “What does the warrior within you say to the adversity of life?”
“Uh… it says… ‘suck my dick,’” I snap. I’m tired of this hippie-trippy stuff, but I can’t say that directly to Nancy because I don’t want to make her mad, and when she looks askance at me, I try to clarify. “My soul dick, of course. My metaphorical dick. My spiritual dick.”
“I’ll be frank with you, Gee, I don’t think you’d know what to do with a man, even if you could catch one,” Nancy says abruptly, her pencil clattering onto the floor. “I also think you’re treating these sessions like a joke and that you’re not getting anything out of them because you’re not putting anything into them. Do you want to keep talking about unattainable men? Or do you want to learn how to function properly? How are you doing with your activities of daily living? How compliant have you been with your medication regimen? Have you abstained from using drugs and alcohol? How is meal planning going?”
“I’m interested in men! Not salads!” I shout at her, and I hear several frightened meows from outside. The cat colonies are temperamental.
“Then I think you should find some who are a little bit more up your alley,” Nancy quips.
“So you’re saying I should stay with my own kind of fruits?” I growl at her.
Nancy sighs. “You said it. Not me.”
BUS RIDE PLAYLIST
“Sweet but Psycho” Ava Max
“Teen Idle” Marina and the Diamonds
“Hoodie” Hey Violet
“Adam’s Song” Blink-182
“Call the Doctor” Sleater-Kinney
“Dear Agony” Breaking Benjamin
“Pessimism Song” the Memories
“Animal” Three Days Grace
On my next day off, I arrive at the address Nancy has given me, a “mental health drop-in center,” way out on a county road in a weird little strip mall. It’s a drab, squat building with a window A/C unit that doesn’t seem to work, and crepe paper chains hanging like ghosts in the windows. When I finally get off the bus and stretch my legs, I notice that the weather looks especially Floridan today. On the east side of the street, a storm is clearly brewing, while on the west side, the sun sparkles like it just learned how. Apprehensively, I walk up the two steps to the center’s front door, which is locked, much to my surprise. I’m pretty sure there are lights on, so I gingerly knock on the door. Why are you being such a weenie? I ask myself. You’re Gee, aren’t you? Yeah, I’m Gee!
Moments later, a squat little lady trudges up to the door and lets me in. She’s wearing a purple sweater set, complete with a matching purple maxi skirt. Around her neck is a tangled glasses leash, a gaudy necklace made of seashells and a huge ID card that reads VOLUNTEER. “Hi there, sweetheart,” she says. “You must be Samantha. We’ve been expecting you.”
“Who?” I say, confused by the unusual reception.
“You’re not the new volunteer?” she asks.
“Oh, oh,” the woman cuts me off at once, and there’s that smile again, pleading, threatening. Her voice is fake and sweet as Splenda. “Come on inside and we’ll get you settled. We have lots of fun here, you’ll see.”
I follow her down a wide hallway into a sort of day room around which a few people are seated, focused on a board game I’ve never seen before. The volunteer notices me looking at the group and says, “Someone will teach you how to play. It’s not hard at all, don’t worry. I just need you to fill out a couple of forms first.”
“Forms?” I say. “Why do I have to fill out any forms? I thought this was, like, a drop-in kind of place. Like, where anybody could hang out.”
“Well, yes. But no,” she says. She leads me past the day room into a kitchen and I start to wonder if she’s going to throw me in the oven and cook me a la Hansel and Gretel. “We just try to make sure the right people are here. And we’ve got to keep everybody safe. It’s really just paperwork. You understand, don’t you?” She hands me two forms and a ballpoint pen, uninterested in any response I may have to her question. I read over the forms quickly, and sign my name, agreeing that I will not bring any firearms, illegal substances, medication, sharp objects, or anything containing gluten into the center. I am then asked to fill out demographic information. I check the appropriate boxes: White. Female. Aged 18-26. High school graduate. Diagnosis… “Why do you need all this info?” I ask the woman.
“Is there a question you don’t understand?” she replies.
“No, that’s not what I said. I want to know why you need all this information about me. Why do you want my medication list if I can’t even bring my meds in here? I don’t even have an official diagnosis! Everything just says “not otherwise specified!”
The woman pastes her smile back on and touches my forearm, a gesture intended to soothe that has the opposite effect. “Of course you have a diagnosis, dear. You probably just don’t know what it is. These are our rules. If you don’t like them, no one is going to make you stay here. We need this information in case there are any incidents. You know, for legal reasons. You’re welcome to fill out the forms and join the group in their game. But you don’t have to. We’re not going to force you to stay.”
“Alright then, I’ll see myself out,” I snap.“You will be missed,” the volunteer says rotely, the way I say “We appreciate it,” to customers, the way Dr. Mueller’s receptionist says, “I’ll let the doctor know.” And as I get outside, I realize that is the true conspiracy, the one unfolding before my eyes as I gallop down the blazing sidewalk, and I realize why this drop-in center is on the outskirts of town, why the sliding-scale clinic is all the way out in Stark near the state penitentiary, why I am mysteriously never scheduled to work on days when Barney himself visits the store, what Nancy really meant when she asked me if I wanted to “function properly.” “You can’t just push us aside and force us to hide way out here because you don’t want to admit you failed us!” I scream to no one. “There’s not a damn thing wrong with me!” I see myself in the window of the center, this raving, crazy woman on the sidewalk and I turn to her and say, “Yeah, you’re crazy! So what? You’re a damn firecracker! You’re worth it, you sweet, wild weirdo!” My fists are clenched so tightly my nails nearly break the flesh of my palms and I hear the door of the drop-in center open, and I hurry away. I run. I run towards that glowing possibility that only I can see just past the horizon, firecracker mind lighting the way.