It’s 38 degrees and 3:45 in the morning. I am feeding suitcases and bags into a Boeing 737 via a belt loader — a conveyor belt on wheels. The loader slowly carries them up to my colleague who sits just inside the forward cargo hold.
|I toss an odd-sized piece of luggage onto the belt. The move tightens my 50-something year-old back, shock-signaling a warning.
My first week on the job and my body is already pleading me back to an office, a nice warm cubicle somewhere with coffee down the hall.
I throw another bag. Above me passengers seem to glow as they settle inside the warm well-lit cabin, oblivious to my pain.
|The sup yells “let’s go.” to us. He screams it again, trying to be heard above the mighty spooling engines and through our ear protection. Things are often repeatedly incessantly on the ramp until the listener signals understanding. Here we are all a little deaf.
Finally, the choreography begins. The tow-bar guy connects the tow bar to the aircraft’s front landing gear and the sup gets into the tug. We fan out to wing walk. Inertia is overcome and the tons of steel begin to push back away from the terminal.
|The tow bar is released, and the tug moves back and away from the aircraft. Its sentient cargo stir.
Like war drums, the engines scream louder and louder as we scurry back to the terminal’s safety.
The engines are now too dangerous for us to be near. They scream their warning, blasting cold morning air more and more forcefully until the 5:45 begins to roll down the empty runway.
Soon, nearby low-rent neighborhoods will get their wake up call. The mighty Phoenix has risen, and it will continue to do so eight more times today.
“Where are your pants?” I awoke with my wife hovering over me. Her voice was strained, schizophrenic, trying to be two things at once: helpful and hurtful. It was Monday and she was going to work. I was sprawled out, pointed at the TV. Her question shocked me for a moment. Where were my pants? But then cool reason settled in. Where ever they were, I didn’t need them. There was nowhere I was going. I hadn’t had a job for a year, hadn’t had an interview for months, try as I may. I closed my eyes. Time was on my side. She would have to leave for work soon.
She fluttered around our house, doing the million tiny tasks required for her departure. Picking out socks, ironing her hair, choosing shoes, choosing a hat, choosing a scarf, looking at her painted lips in the mirror as time drained away. She continued until the last minute, and then rushed for the door. I saw all of this without opening my eyes. As she padded down the stairs she barked out “itte kimasu,” which is Japanese for “go, come” and means I’m going. She shut the door, leaving me with the echoes of her activity in my head. My eyes opened and I dragged myself to the TV like an infantryman under heavy fire. I switched the TV on and the world blasted into our living room, chasing away the glum morning shadows. sleepy and already bored just thinking of the day ahead, I laid my head back down on the pillow, dumbly stared into the light and sound of the TV and faded into welcome, time-killing unconsciousness.
On top of a coffee table, nearly hidden by unemployment papers and a calendar turned to the wrong month, my cell phone came alive. Buzzing and jittering, it dropped from the table like a lemming, bounced off my forehead and onto the dusty carpet. Awakened, but blinded by the beam of sunlight coming through the window, I felt around for the phone as it scurried away like a cockroach fleeing for its life.
My eyes adjusted to the light and I picked up the phone. The person had hung up. I redialed. It was a volunteer from the Incident recovery team, a group I had joined to stay busy while I looked for a job.
“Richard, there’s been a suicide. Can you respond to it?”
Like some kind of uncontrollable burp, I felt the word ‘yes’ rocket up through my throat and out of my mouth. I didn’t feel like being a hero today. I grimaced and shut my eyes tight for an instant in silent self-hatred. I wrote down the address. Traffic would be a pain. Part of me was angry that I accepted and the other part of me was angry for being angry that I had accepted.
I found my official shirt with emblem and ID, but the pants would be harder to find. Our bedroom looked like a bombed-out Salvation Army. Finally, under a beaver’s dam of underwear and socks, I found them and pulled them on. They were tighter.
The place was easier to reach than I thought. The man had shot himself on his driveway so the police were making a big deal about it. They had stretched yellow police tape around the property. Something that drove many of the neighbors crazy with raw curiosity. A nagging middle-aged stay-at-home mom persuaded her husband, who had just settled down in front of the TV, to go and see what was happening. In another house, a young mother strapped her toddler into an expensive, sleek baby cart for an innocent jog around the neighborhood. And an older couple leashed their small, mixed breed, shelter-saved dog for “walkies.” But they were all too late. The police had already tossed a tarp over what everyone thought they wanted to see but really didn’t — a crushed, seedless, gray-haired pulpy watermelon tenuously attached to a body dressed in business casual. The police were protecting the neighborhood’s innocence, something the cops had lost long ago.
In less leafy , less pricy neighborhoods, the “looky-loos” would be pressing themselves against the tape, joking and craning their necks for a better view. But not here. These were clean, quiet streets with ample parking. Where thin, golden-haired trophy wives jog-walked in black spandex under blue skies. Where one had to stealthily collect bits of information, craft them into well-spun rumors and then spread them like warm butter during chance meetings.
I parked my car and walked towards the tape. A young police officer waved me through. He gave me the name of the deceased and his wife, who was inside. I followed him into the house. He jingle jangled as he walked. It reminded me of Christmas.
The wife sat at a table in a large dining room. They hadn’t been expecting company so the room was a little out of sorts. She looked at us and the officer introduced me as a volunteer from the recovery team. “He had been looking for work every day,” she said as I sat down. “It just wore him down. After awhile, he just stopped trying.” Hearing this, my psyche chimed a dark tone.
Dave, the other responder, came in and told us the coroner was with the body now, and he’d be in soon to talk. Silence ensued. Sacred silence is what my instructor would have called it. The wife broke her silence. “This isn’t really happening is it?” she asked. “He’s not dead, is he?” She was looking at me, expecting an answer. “I am afraid he is,” I replied. She looked down and picked at something on the table top. She looked back at me. “Who are you, again?” Just then, the coroner investigator came in. He was followed by a bone-crusher mountain of a cop who made the room seem small. I got up. nodded to them both and walked outside.
I stood next to Dave on the porch. The coroner van pulled up. “Best not look when they wrap up the body.” Dave said. I heeded his advice and kept my eyes on the van. “You know,” he continued, “this is my seventeenth suicide.” His statement seemed to freeze in mid-air.
Soon, a woman in a blue coroners jumpsuit appeared. She had raven black hair and wore a bored, faraway expression on her long face. She opened the van’s door and deftly slid her cargo into the back of the van like a loaf of bread into an oven.
We went back in the house and Dave gave the newly minted widow a folder of information. We said our farewells and left her alone at the table. Her family would arrive soon. Outside, a police officer was wrapping up the tape.
I walked back to my car, a true symbol of poverty. I was embarrassed to get in it. I pulled out and drove down the street, the woman’s voice still echoing in my head. It would be awhile but I knew it would fade.
I turned onto a main intersection. Around me, tense, restless commuters were racing through yellow lights and changing lanes as if their drive home was some kind of race. I began to think of myself again and my troubles. I passed a Burger King. Someone swerved in front of me. Someone else honked. I welcomed these things. Death had once again become abstract. A fairy tale told by priests and life insurance salesmen.
Three job interviews ago when asked why I left my last job, I replied, cubicle fire. Not hired Two job interviews ago when asked what my bad point was, I said assault rifle shopaholic. Not hired. On my last interview when asked what I would change about myself, I replied that I wanted to try not to be such a perfectionist. It was a lie and it made me feel dirty. But that’s what job interviews seem to be all about. The interviewer wants to know how good a liar you are. And I suck at it. I mean I never know if I should be turning down the BS and turning up the ass-kissing or visa versa. But I am even more disturbed by interviewers who assume I am applying for the job because I love their company.
“Why do you want to work for Soul Taker Paper Pushers, Inc?”
“It’s been my lifelong ambition, right after jet pilot. And since I’m too tall to be a jet pilot…”
The real answer: A paycheck so I can feed and house my family. In my opinion, somebody who’s been unemployed for nearly a year would make a very dedicated employee. They’ve tasted the streets and have seen the respect in their family’s eyes drain away like the cash in the savings account. Someone like that is going to work hard to get it right. But can I say that? Can I bear my soul and ask these corporations to take pity on a man on the edge? I’m thinking no.
I read where interviewers were designing questions to assess a person’s self-awareness. I assume if the interviewee has it, he or she won’t get hired.
It’s job interview day and I’m wrapping a peppermint “strangle ribbon” around my neck. Out of the three hundred jobs I applied for, only one company has asked me to come and see them. It’s a job of halves: half the pay of my last job, half the hours and even coworkers who are half my age. But it offers full health benefits and I can practice my Japanese. It’ll be great if I can just find a real job later to go with it. But that’s not to say I’m in high spirits. Breakfast is the bitter bile of disappointment, self-loathing and the burning rage I feel for fate, karma or whatever it is that has dropped me into this middle-aged conundrum. I put on my game face, try not to seem excessively psychopathic and head for the office.
The interview is alarmingly short. The HR guy tells me that if I don’t hear from them by the end of the week, they’re no longer considering my application. The realization that I’m not even worth a patronizing mass email drops my mood down another floor. We say our good-byes, and he’s cordially unfriendly. Hope has drained from me, leaving a sticky puddle on the dirty carpet. Feeling dejected, I walk slowly to my car, a 20-year-old hand-me-down Toyota. I’m dragging with me a nagging fear that these are the early days of long-term unemployment. The thought fills my head like a loose bowel fills a toilet bowl — I long for a silver lever to flush it all away. Sadly, I find none.
I return to my apartment where the long afternoon shadows await. I fight the urge to lie down and drift away into a safe sitcom solace. It would be so nice to douse the frenetic fear and weighty laments in my head with the banal banter of those trapped celluloid marionettes of 1950s T.V: Lucy and Ricky. How relaxing it would be to hide under the covers and let late Lucy sweetly torment dead Ricky for dead audiences. So easy to switch them on and switch myself off. Let them prance upon the stage while I play the corpse, fading back and forth into dreamless unconsciousness, savoring a few moments of psychic peace, far away from my own endless loop of worry and regrets.
Instead, I grab my running shoes, slather myself with sun block, and head for the beach to punish my feet. As I run, the endorphins kick in and my outlook brightens. It comes down to fortitude. I have to remain positive and keep trying. Succumb to the comfy bed and pillow and all will be lost.