The alarm on his iPhone grates and pulses. Simon folds the pillow around his head. The dull ache emanating from where his skull is fused to his spine causes him to fumble for the water bottle on the nightstand. The cell phone is across the room plugged in on the dresser, its intermittent wailing, grinds up the sloshy thoughts in his brain. Sitting up, Simon gulps the water into his dry stinking gullet. Dribblets trickle from the side of his mouth as he swallows, splashing off the hair on his chest, causing odd sensations.
Flipping on his slip-ons, the shower is beckoning. Hanging a clean pair of underwear on the towel rack is the ritual that precedes adjusting the water from the bath faucet to just the right temperature. He pumps out a glob of shampoo to cleanse the natural oil from his hair, oil from some unknown heritage. The washrag scratches at the dead skin and dry patches. Reaching all the places comes with a little discomfort these days. Days. They stretch out like roads to nowhere. They end with a crash, a stumbling fit of distress, like a wine glass striking a stone.
The uniform is claustrophobic. Twenty pounds that Simon gained leading up to the holidays causes the space between the buttons on the shirt to pull apart slightly, not enough for his belly hair to peek out, but enough to draw derision from properly dressed patrons. The ones with manicured nails and jewelry are particularly pointed. One catches it in the narrowing of eyes and the tendency to look away from his neck hair and moles. Moles. Simon turns his head back and forth in front of the mirror. The brown spots are growing, and the gray is encroaching in the follicles. If he knew this is where he would be at his age, he would have tried harder in school.
The chariot is old. The exhaust leak is getting louder. He can't hide his poverty as he churns down the road to the Mega Mart. Simon quit brushing his hair. Shaving is just something to do when the hair becomes itchy and bothersome. He quit caring what people think about his appearance years ago. Since his nagging girlfriend left he just waits for his boss to say something before he chops the hair and tames the dog tail living on his chin.
The walk to the door is uneventful. He travels back to the service desk, he's the punching bag for angry customers. He works claims and returns. He stands stone-faced and apologizes all day. Giving back their money isn't enough. Mega Mart is wasting their time and money. The eye roll when he refuses to refund the shipping is mild. Some people yell. Fingers jab at him like angry surrogates for weapons. His ruminating dread is interrupted as he reaches for an energy drink.
“Who is it today? Iron Man, the Terminator. You'll be back!" Jasmine is a dark-maned princess with high cheekbones and sparkling hazel eyes, the alpha to his omega. It's her job to be so sickeningly sweet, you can cut her words like birthday cake. Simon wants to love her in the way a violent man loves a victim. Victim. It's ironic, he is that all day to Jaz, to the angry customers, to everyone really. Simon perfects the art of turning the cheek like a painter protects his stroke, his face frozen in an expression between apathy and aloofness.
“Here she comes. This one is yours Si.” Jaz only takes the easy ones.
To say a real bitch is getting ready to return something does the slander disservice. The wig makes him fumble his pronouns. The low register of the voice is either excess testosterone or a pack of Marlboro's a day, Simon isn't sure. It's obvious the item is broken and they want a full refund. Looking up from the return, Simon sees lips curled in a sneer and teeth smeared with lipstick. The words get louder and more animated.
“I need your card to give you a refund.”
“I don't remember what card I used.”
“Then I can't issue the credit.”
“Then just give me the cash!”
“I'm not allowed to refund...”
“MANAGER! I want to see your manager! This place sells garbage!” They turn and broadcast the proclamation to anyone within earshot.
“I'll call them.”
The melee that follows is like watching dogs sniff each other while simultaneously snarling and posturing. The dance is a two-step of accusations and apologies. Simon stands to the side as his manager blames the situation on Simon's incompetence. He convinced himself a long time ago he didn't mind being that guy. Everyone needs a back to step on.
“Thanks for handling that.” Simon bows to management.
"No problemo, you gotta problem you come talk to me." The manager's habit of talking in overused movie quotes makes Simon want to write down all the clever things his mind cooks up to say back. The words are never spoken, they just fester in his thoughts. Who is he kidding the only comeback he utters is 'I'm Sorry.' If he was any more pitiful he would collapse into kibble suitable for the local county animal kill shelter.
Lunch comes after a dad informs him that Mega Mart ruined his son's birthday. The little boy blubbers at the counter. Simon looks at him with a blank face. He wants to say 'Get used to it boy,' yet he just stares at the dad, nodding agreeably.
His bologna, covered with pasteurized cheese product frowns at him from between slices of white bread. The sweaty can of diet soda and bag of chips reminds him of his place on the social ladder. The food is lifeless and bland, like him. He stares at the vending machine. A pack of powdered donuts sings to him. Digging a dollar out of his wallet, he feeds the slot. He gets shivers from the sugar rush. It's the closest thing to a feeling he's had all day. Simon makes love to the confection with his teeth and tongue. He left just enough soda in the can to wash it down. The bubbly effervescence boils the sugar and flour out of his cavities.
The day grinds on like gravel under a bootheel. Heel. He is always the heel, the butt, the end of the meat roll that no one likes to eat. The sugar high is blunted by afternoon customers. They aren't after blood like the early mob, just indifferent. The customers ignore him, as he piles the returns in a shopping cart.
Pushing the cart around the sprawling expanse, his emptiness is contrasted by the full racks, rows, and aisles. Mass-produced merchandise packs the shelves. Precious resources are trapped in products with carefully engineered life spans. Single stitched fabrics, machines with one crucial piece made of plastic, made to break, made to separate you from your hard-earned money, made to not last. Everywhere signs advertise easy credit. 90 days same as cash, buy now pay later, four easy payments, they say anything to get you to open your wallet.
Simon doesn't like working here, but he finally realized he has no choice, no options, and no alternatives. Mega Mart will hold his hand all the way to the grave. One day he will graduate to the greeter position. He will have to learn to fake a smile. Nobody wants to be greeted with a face of stone. He curls up the edges of his mouth as he passes a mirror on an end cap. He is startled by the face looking back at him, like a villain in a comic book movie.
His last fifteen-minute break is spent on the loading dock. He spots a barely smoked cigarette sticking from the sand on top of the trash can. Simon pulls it out by the filter as another Mega Mart employee, whom he doesn't recognize, walks up and fires off an unfiltered Lucky Strike. Simon holds out his hand for the lighter. He fires up the leftover rig even though he doesn't smoke.
Looking out over the litter-strewn alley the man says the soothing words Simon needs to hear: "Life sucks then you die."
Simon taps an ash and nods wondering if he will pick up the habit from the Quicky Mart on the way home. The curls of smoke burn his eyes as he fights off a cough.
“Thanks.” Simon crushes the butt into the sand and forces himself back to the return desk for the last leg of his shift. It's dead. Jasmine mutilates a chunk of sugar-free gum as she doom scrolls on her cell phone alternating between giggles and huffs. Simon stands like a statue, frozen. The manager ignores his catatonic state and prattles to Jaz about her latest bad date. He knows he should move, yet his mind is trapped by indecision. The people walking by ignore him. He makes himself blink so his eyes don't water.
Then he sees it. A woman is holding a baby. The babe turns its head to him. Simon sees the face of God in the child. The paralysis releases. He suddenly exhales, as if he had been holding his breath for hours. The child smiles. Its innocence and purity shatter his exoskeleton. Simon looks at his phone. It is time to go home. He looks again and the baby is gone.
The ride home detours to the Quicky Mart. The woman recognizes him, “You want your regular?”
"Please." He glances at the neat rows of smokeable tobacco boxes. He looks at the prices. He can't afford another bad habit. She hands him a paper bag, "Thanks."
The city zooms by. The dash lights of his sedan flicker as the sun cuts the skyline in half with an orange glow. His apartment beckons as he slams the door on his car, a sack under his arm. The old man down from him is sawing the dusk with a harmonica.
He peels the sweaty, hot sneakers from his feet. His socks, damp from perspiration are hurled onto the floor. Simon turns on the news channel. The planet is dying, and the sixth mass extinction is underway; war, famine, and disease are killing humans in unprecedented numbers. Everything is going to get more expensive and if you are lucky you will die comfortably without a body riddled with cancer.
Simon does the only thing he knows to do, he peels the plastic cap off a cheap pint of vodka and takes a few gulps. As his brain relaxes, the first trickle of tears from the edges of his eyes is a relief. The screen becomes a blur as his eyes glaze over. What comes over his face is a kind of quivering sadness. His bottom lip wiggles as he sucks in a ragged breath and takes another swig. The tears flow now, streaming down and dripping from his chin. It's over, he made it one more day.
The feelings flow now like his tears. He doesn't have to hide his emotions anymore, the mask is dissolved in a torrent of fluids, pouring from his face. After he lets it all out he walks to the sink and splashes water on his face, rubbing it dry with a paper towel. He pulls up his favorite album on his phone and plugs his ears with tiny speakers. The music flows through him causing ripples of shivers to race through him. Sleep will come soon, until then he will be lost in a world that understands him, a world that accepts him for who he is.