American Fiction

   “Listen, can’t you hear them?” Dan heard a woman’s voice coming from the production room. He waited for a response, as if waiting for the crash after something fell. When the crash didn’t come, he went back to work. His boss got the order on Thursday a week before Thanksgiving, and somehow they managed to get the materials printed and delivered on Monday, and the temp agency came through with two workers for the three day week before Thanksgiving. It was a risk, but it was go temp, or go home. Most of the temps he had used this year were good, except for one woman who left in an ambulance. He wondered if she got disability.

    He texted his boss: I think we’ll be okay. The paint on the prints dried perfectly, and temps seem decent - one kid in particular is sharp.

    “Hey Dan,” Kevin knocked on his door. “I’m not sure what we do here.” Kevin was the sharp grad student, so not a kid.

    “Show me what you got,” Dan said as he followed Kevin into the production area.

    “Watch,” Kevin said as he pointed to the shelving unit in front of Amber, the other temp. This morning the floor to ceiling shelving unit was half full with boxes, now the entire shelving unit was full, a wall of boxes.

    Kevin took a box off the shelf and set it to the table behind them.

    “Can you leave the boxes there?” Amber said.

    “We need the stickers and prints from this box.” Kevin said.

    “Don’t you hear the voices?” Amber said. “I can’t deal with what they’re saying.”

    Dan listened but all he could hear was the soft hum warm air coming out of the ducts. Dan looked at Kevin and Kevin rotated his index finger around his right ear. 

    “My hearing’s not good,” Dan said. “What are they saying Amber?”

    “I can’t tell what they’re saying, but they’re talking about me.”

    Dan motioned to Kevin, and they stepped into the next room.

    “She’s not a complete picnic,” Kevin said.

    “Yeah. Did Amber put all the boxes there?” Dan asked.

    Kevin nodded. Through the doorway, they looked back at Amber, and she was struggling to put the box back on the shelf. 

    “Your work’s too heavy for her, so we can’t switch.”

    “She’s making me uncomfortable too. I’m sure she’s harmless, but it’s freaky.”

    “Is she doing a good job collating?”

    “Yeah she is, but I don’t like my back being turned to her.”

    “Okay, we’ll move your table around, so you’re facing her. And we’ll make up some empty boxes to replace the ones you take down. Do you think that will work?”

    They rotated the table and Amber was more comfortable after Kevin taped up a box and slid it into the gap.

    In his office, Dan thought of his brother, Brian. He hadn’t thought of his Brian in months, until last week when he realized Thanksgiving was close, which was a big reminder of Brian. He didn’t want to think of Brian, wanted to control when he thought of Brian. He had too much to do, he needed less distractions. Amber had similar signs, like clothes looking like they had been worn all week, maybe slept in. She was hesitant around strangers too. Brian stank of dirty clothes, an unwashed body, and stale beer. He didn’t get close to Amber, but she didn’t have a smell, if anything a hint of staleness. They were about the same age. He guessed she was mid to late thirties. It was surprising as her clothes weren’t dirty. They were neat, with signs of wear. And Amber knew how to present herself, with her auburn hair gathered in a black plastic clip, the black sweater buttoned so it didn’t sag or look too big. He guessed, at one point, she was a normal kid growing up, the apple of her parents’ eyes until something fell apart and life became difficult. He could sense himself getting nervous, edgy. They had a lot of work to do in a short amount of time, and things had to run like a clock if they were to meet the deadline. Work was stressing him out, but seeing someone struggling like Brian caught him unprepared.

    Around ten he called for Kevin, and Dan closed the door after Kevin came into his office.

    “How are things going?”

    “Okay, I’d don’t mind the work. It’s a break from studying, but she’s odd. I might ask to be re-assigned. She’s a downer.”

    “I need you. I’ll get a different temp tomorrow.”

    “That’d help. But, it’s nice to have someone to chat with when you’re doing mindless things.”

    “Have you tried chatting with her?”

    “No, but I don’t think she’s chatty. At least with the people I know.”

    “I haven’t talked with her either, so I can’t help you there. I’m come out in a while, but I need to get this work done first.”

    When it was close to lunch Dan checked on the temps, and they were working quietly. 

    “How is it going Amber,” Dan asked.

    “It’s okay when the radio’s on, and boxes on the shelf. They ‘re still talking about me, but I’m ignoring them.” The radio was playing an old doo-wap song.

    “How about you, Kevin?” Dan asked.

    “I’m okay,” he nodded towards Amber, “but I could be better.”

    Dan ate his lunch slow, caught in the world of things he didn’t want to do, like spreadsheets or call the temp agency. Delaying the call could leave him with only Amber, the worst option.  He did a quick SWOT analysis of both Kevin and Amber, and it wasn’t close. He had to keep Kevin, but he wanted to figure out what to do with Amber. After lunch it was different as the radio was louder, playing soft fifties songs, and Kevin asked Dan if he could speak with him.

    “I called temp agency,” Kevin said, “and they said you hadn’t called about the problem, so I asked to be re-assigned for tomorrow.”

    “Oh no, I need you Kevin. I’ll call now, and tell them I want you, not Amber. Will that work?”

    “It will.  I feel bad, but she’s too out there for me.”

    “Hang in there. I’ll pretend we’re finishing the project early. I don’t want to hurt her feelings.”

    “It doesn’t matter,” Kevin said. “If you call the agency about a replacement for her, they’re not going to use her again any time soon. You know, they’ll do their end of day call with her, like they do with all the new temps, except they’ll tell her she’s not going back.”

    In his office, Dan sat in his chair hesitating. On one hand this was an easy decision, but on the other he was playing with someone’s wellbeing. He didn’t know how to categorize Amber. She wasn’t drunk or stoned, but she wasn’t stable. How did she even get assigned by the temp agency? The reason for using a temp agency was to screen the short term hires.  With the recent cold weather, he could’ve put an ad in the paper, and the next day he’d have ten people on the fringe asking when they could start.

    When he thought of Amber, he thought of Brian. They had different issues, but they were both lost people adrift in this world, after falling through the storm grates of a normal life. No friends, no family, they struggled on their own or with the help of patchwork programs from the state.

    He went to the production room. He wanted to know where Amber lived, what her life was like. He was hoping there was somebody there for her, wherever there was. Maybe she had a Mom or an Aunt, or even a half-way house. He sensed she didn’t. Or if she did, they weren’t enough for her. But how to ask her where she lived without coming across like he was hitting on her.

    “What are you guys doing for Thanksgiving?” Dan asked.

    “I’m here,” Kevin said. “I decided to stick around as it’s my first semester here, and I need to earn some money. I’ll find a bar somewhere to hang at. Or watch TV.”

    “I’ll see my folks. Should be a low-key family gathering,” Dan said. “How about you, Amber?”

    “I think,” Amber looked between Dan and Kevin before continuing. “I’m waiting for a friend to make up her mind if she’s having a turkey.”

    “No family in the area?” Dan asked.

    Amber shook her heard. “They’re all gone.”

    “Where did they go?”

    “I think Florida. Can’t take the cold.”

    “Why don’t you join them?” Kevin asked.

    Amber looked at Kevin as if he asked her if she was going to the moon. She didn’t know how to answer. “I don’t think my car will make it. I don’t know where they live.”

    “Oh,” Kevin said. “Did you drive to work today?” 

    “No, I don’t want to lose my parking spot.”

    Kevin and Dan looked at each other, and didn’t say anything.

    An hour later, Kevin knocked on Dan’s door. “Did you call the temp guys yet?”

    “No, I will right now.”

    “No, don’t. If you can get her to turn down the radio, it’d help.”

    “Are you sure?” Dan looked at Kevin, who looked away. “I can’t lose you Kevin. I know Amber isn’t your responsibility, so I’ll call.”

    “Let’s see what it’s like the rest of the afternoon before you call those guys,” Kevin said. “Right now, her music is killing me.”

    Last Thanksgiving the stars aligned to create a huge family mess. Brian showed up drunk, arguing with Dad until he pushed Dad, and Dan had to tackle Brian and drag him outside and it ended with Dan sitting on Brian’s back, as he lay face down in the damp grass, not harmed but defeated. And Dad couldn’t be a father, instead he had to yell at what he couldn’t understand and tell him never to come back.

    Drunks are difficult when you’re not. They’re hurtful when they get belligerent, either to themselves or to others. Brian got hurt last Thanksgiving. Now the other siblings were hurting. What happened to the big brother who wanted to play board games after school?

    Sometimes he blamed Brian for being drunk, but there was some truth to what Brian was saying about not getting what Katie or Dan got - be it attention, or the benefit of the doubt, or okay with him being quiet. Stuck between Katie, the shining first born, and Dan the baby, Brian was going to have some moments of doubt. But it was more than middle child syndrome.

    The specialists couldn’t pinpoint Brian’s issues. A form of autism was their best guess. A cop-out diagnosis because they said this is what it is, we think, and there’s nothing much you can do about it. Dad didn’t want to hear that, thinking in words like defect, and neither did Brian. He was quiet, but okay in high school, had decent grades, but never had friends. And once Brian was out of the house, it was difficult to get him back inside. Outside the organized life he found others who didn’t fit into opportunities, who didn’t want to talk all the time, and they liked to party. Now he had friends, a community, living on the street. For six years he’d been outside.

    Dan went back to his spreadsheets, hoping Kevin could put up with Amber’s odd behaviour for another day. He liked Kevin’s unscarred optimism on how to live his life; Kevin saw something, so he went for it. He could pick and choose his options. If only it was as easy for everyone. How will Kevin respond when life doesn’t open up? Then again, Kevin was playing it safe, staying within himself, finding other options in case he wanted to bail, and here was Dan trying to hold a temp job together for someone who was a few sandwiches short of a picnic. Or a few drumsticks short of Thanksgiving.

    At half past four, Dan called his sister Katie. The guy she was dating, Jim, was a cop. If she asked him, he’d ask around to see where Brian was.

    “Hey Katie, I got an odd question for you?”

    “Lay it on me.”

    “Have you seen or heard from Brian?”

    “Funny, I asked Jim last week, and he called me earlier today. He heard Brian’s in the old paper mill in Parchment. He’s with a few other guys.”

    “I feel like we should find him, help him, but I don’t know how?”

    “Yeah neither do I.”

    “I was thinking of stopping at the homeless shelter. They do a big Thanksgiving meal, and I can drop off a picture of Brian and tell them to call me if he’s there.”

    “I did last year. They took my number, and said if they saw him, they’d tell him we’d like him to call. He didn’t call.”

    “Do you think Jim would go to the paper mills with me?” Dan closed the door to his office as the easy listening station had grew louder over another slow song from the fifties.

    “No,” Katie said. “Jim said Brian’s got his little group, and if they saw him buddy-buddy with a cop, they’d ditch him.”

    “Can you go with me? Be my eyes and ears in the back of my head?”

    “I am not going there.  Jim says it’s dangerous. Not so much the guys, but everything’s falling apart, there’s big pits to fall into. Besides, what good would we do? Brian is making his own choices. He’s a grown man. We can’t force to do anything.”

    “You’re right, but” Dan said. “I think of Brian, the fun we had as kids, and then I think I’ll get a call one day, asking me to identify a body.”

    “Dan, I’m sorry. You must feel horrible, but I don’t know what we can do. And the last thing I want is to have him come over and piss off Mom and Dad again.”

    Kevin, knocked on the door, and shook his head. “Sorry, it’s after five, and I have to go. I’m not sure this is going to work. No talk just radio.”

    “Hold on sis.” Dan covered the phone with his hand.

    “Kevin, I’ll pay you time and half. I’ll pay you on the side if you can stick it out?”

    “I feel bad, like I’m taking advantage of this, but I can’t say no,” Kevin said. “You got to call them and tell you want both of us back tomorrow.”

    “Sure can. Thanks Kevin, really, and see you tomorrow.”

    “Sorry sis, I’m back,” Dan said as he put the phone against his head. Dan followed Kevin into the production room and watched he put his coat on and leave out the side door. He looked at Amber, sitting by herself, still collating, not minding the mind-numbing repetition, and he thought of the times he’d come from baseball practice and see Brian drawing elaborate pictures of his own superheroes on scratch paper. And how his face would light up when he saw Dan, happy to have some to be a friend.”

    “You still there?” Katie asked.

    “Yeah, kind of.”

    “Leave your card at the homeless shelter, and if Brian calls, great. If he doesn’t, it’s his call.”

    “Okay, agreed,” Dan said. “I have another question for you.”

    “Sure, what now?”

    “I might bring a woman over for Thanksgiving. Only for a bit.”

    “Whoa, what have you been hiding from me, little bro?”

    “It’s not a date, just somebody who has nobody.”

November 12, 2021 20:14

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