Editor's Note: This is an except from Elwin Cotman's new book, Hard Time Blues (Six Gallery Press, Pittsburgh.) The book will be published on the flip side of the same volume as Christine Stoddard's Once Upon a Body. The dual book comes out later this year. SixGalleryPress.com
The noise began as something like a screech. There was a vaguely human note to the cry of massive hinges turning—pain and surprise combined. Then it became a howl, like some forsaken ghost, rising until it assaulted the ears. Then a crash that shuddered your bones and made you feel like you’d split down the middle. The Careerist Vault was opening.
I had seen the great vault open once or twice. For all its size it swung out light and easy as a screen door. Employees and shoppers stopped what they were doing. You could tell the first-time customers—the ones who dove for cover, thinking a noise that big had to be an earthquake or a bomb going off.
Truth was, the shudder we felt was in our minds, a natural reaction to that disaster of a sound. After a few moments we went back to our business, pushing on through the noise, our heartbeats going faster. The noise lasted a long time. There was something sad about it.
On my blue vest I wore a button that said, HELLO, MY NAME IS ENRIQUE. HOW MAY I BRIGHTEN YOUR DAY?
It took half an hour to reach the center of the store, where we held evening meetings. It wasn’t hard to find. The 24-hour Mason’s superstore was simply that big. Walking the aisles always felt like a descent, a subterranean journey into white metal shelves and cardboard displays. Lemon-yellow signs the size of billboards said ENTERTAINMENT, COSMETICS, HOME IMPROVEMENT.
The aisles speared off from the central aisle like bones from a fish’s spine. My fellow associates greeted me. One was busy picking up the action figure packages littered in Toys. I heard the growls, howls, and roars from Pets. Families ate pasta and burgers in the Mason’s Family Restaurant. Kids splashed in a pool-sized ball pit. TVs descended from the ceiling like bulbous spiders, the latest discounts bouncing across their screens: HANNAH MONTANA BEER COZIES $9.99. FUTONS $199.99. HAIRPIECES $21.99 $18.99! I crossed Home Decorating with its life-sized models of back porches and bedrooms, studies so cozy-looking I wished to sit in an armchair and crack open one of the Styrofoam books.
Inventory prep team, stockers, sellers, cashiers, and custodians gathered for evening meeting. I joined the other guys in Home Improvement. Clark clapped my shoulder, followed by a heartier clap from my supervisor Red. The old-timer stood a foot taller than me, his lifting belt bristling with tools like some classic illustration of Blackbeard. Blue-vested associates circled the Information Desk. Night manager Dan, a pear-shaped white man, stood at the desk with assistant manager Karen, a professionally-dressed black woman in her early thirties.
I saw a lump under Dan’s left cuff, his watch. With that unstoppable Swiss demon, he kept track, down to the second, of how long an associate took on any task. I wanted to assassinate the watch. It had two smaller clocks within its face, and in its synchronized rotations showed more intelligence than the man whose wrist it strangled. Dan wore a look of perpetual bemusement, like he was allergic to associates, and was busy wondering which pesticide could best get rid of us.
The sudden smell of baby powder made me sneeze. Like the sound of the Vault, I had never grown entirely used to that sickly-sweet scent. On the edge of our circle, careerists carried teetering stacks of boxes, their feet shuffling quietly on the tiles.
From the middle of the crowd, I could hear Karen conversing with two late-arriving associates. Her voice sounded like she kept a clothes pin on her nose, and was a strong candidate for second-loudest sound in the store. The associates merged into the crowd, visibly chastened.
“Good evening everybody!” Karen said, like a Viking would say “victory” over a slain Saxon. “We had a rockin’ day yesterday. We did one hundred and ten percent of sales plan. Nine hundred, fifty-one thousand, six hundred, eighty-seven dollars. Go us! We rock! Let’s make this week rock, too. Because we’ve had all these rockin’ weeks, Corporate is raising our plan to nine hundred and eighty thousand. It’s a bit steep, but we can do it. Remember to upsell. Is everybody ready?”
“I don’t know if I could stand another night of Kelly Clarkson on the overhead,” said Clark. There was laughter.
“Hey,” said Karen, “Kelly Clarkson is rockin’. First season of American Idol? Definitely the best. Remember, Easter is coming up. Think about those Easter baskets for your friends and family.”
“Inventory’s coming up, too,” Dan said, as if we needed reminding. Three weeks to get all the merchandise on the floor for the Inventory crew to take stock. Just thinking about it exhausted me.
“Remember,” Karen said, “whichever store in the district gets the best Inventory score, every employee gets a 25-dollar Mason’s gift card. So go forth! I know we can do it! Can we get a ‘1-2-3 Mason’s’? Great! Okay! 1-2-3…”
A gunshot rang out from nearby. Everybody scattered. We were all trained in case some disgruntled ex-employee came back shooting, but for some reason I was the only one who ran to the scene.
A second shot. Sounded like a rifle, coming from Weapons. Customers hid behind plasma TVs, or grabbed their children to huddle under clothing racks. The shots kept coming, punctuated by the sales announcement on the overhead.
“Attention, Mason’s shoppers! Now is the Easter season.” Bang. “All candy is 4.99 or lower. Buy one, get the second half-price on all cans of”—bang—“purified air. For all you patriots, we’re running discounts on”—bang—“Support the Troops magnets and pins. And don’t forget to reserve your copy of the new Kelly Clarkson CD.”
A Weapons associate came down the aisle at breakneck speed. Eyes fixed in terror, he ran straight at me, and would have barreled through me if I didn’t grab his waist. He screamed and waved his arms like a duck being throttled by a six-pack ring. Only when I gripped his chin and turned his face to mine did he realize I was there.
“Dead,” he wheezed, sounding like he’d lost a lung during his run. “Dead.” I let him go and he took off as fast as he’d come, still accelerating.
Weapons. Filled with dread, I crept past model prison cells and rows of plastic cuffs, mannequins in riot police gear. Behind the glass were glocks and bazookas, assault rifles stacked like matches in a matchbook. The aisle opened into the Hunting subdepartment. Mounted deer heads lined the walls, their chins charmingly tilted, as if to say, “I’m a decapitated head. How are you?” Putting my back to the end of a shelf, I peered around at the shooter.
He was, indeed, dead. This careerist was like the others. Embalmed. His cheeks colored pink as a newborn mouse. Rosy eyelids glued shut, sutured lips painted with a straight red line.
Imagine a frog suddenly singing opera on its lily pad. Imagine the futon in your living room doing gymnastics. That’s how absurd a gun-toting careerist looked.
Which made it no less terrifying. Rifle on his shoulder, he aimed for the shooting targets ($18.99) on the wall. He blasted a camo-colored tent off the top shelf. A chill went down my spine. This section had enough gunpowder to blow up, if not the whole store, a decent chunk of it.
I peered closer. It was George. George was the only careerist I had known as a living person. We’d worked together in Produce when I started at Mason’s. George liked hunting. George wanted his weekends off but never got them. George complained that we never had steak at the post-Inventory parties. George got trampled to death by a crowd of shoppers last Black Friday. Maybe it was the fact that I’d known him that made me step into the center of the aisle. To talk to him. I’m not religious, but I made the sign of the cross.
“George,” I said. “George, it’s Henry.”
His head twitched in my direction like a mantis sensing prey. He looked asleep. They all looked asleep. Blind, they moved entirely on some weird instinct. Since he’d died, George’s wrinkles had smoothed and he sported a full beard. Strings of gray hair descended from his bald pate. Right above his collar I saw the stitch, like on a baseball, where they injected the fluid.
“Are you okay?” I asked him. “Do you need help?” May as well have asked some roadkill if it needed help. His look of eternal peace never changed as he leveled the rifle at me.
At 25, I’d had time to think about how and when I would go. The part about your life flashing before your eyes always seemed appealing, or as appealing as violent death could be. A quick rewind before the end. A last-minute Greatest Hits compilation. When George fired I didn’t get any of that.
I remember hearing the blast and falling. I figured I was dead, my brain shredded by the bullet, and I was drifting into the white peace before nothingness. Then I was face-down on the cold white tile, gulping air. A pile of tingling nerves, I climbed to my feet, checked for wounds. He missed.
The thing that was George kept its rifle aimed at me, pulling the trigger. The gun clicked emptily.
I approached the thing that was George. Prior to that moment, I’d never imagined touching a reanimated careerist. It felt forbidden, like crossing the red rope to poke a museum painting. The makeup was supposed to make him look more like the person he was, but the features of his face seemed washed-out, hazy under the black shading and pink makeup. Like he secretly knew, and accepted, his corruption.
To be on the safe side, I took a Mason’s brand “taZer” out the box.
“It’s over,” I said. His head twitched at every syllable. “Here, give me the gun.” I put a hand on the barrel. George grabbed my hand. His fingers felt boneless, but their grip was hard as rock.
His other hand flew at my throat. For a moment that mannequin face was against mine.
Under the makeup, his eyelids were shriveled. Texture of reptile skin.
Under the lipstick, his mouth was a swollen bruise.
I choked on sickly-sweetness, then got a whiff of the smell the baby powder was supposed to hide. I tasered the thing that was George in the belly. Sparks flew off his skin. I felt glad he wasn’t alive to feel it. I turned up the voltage and dry skin bubbled.
Grabbing a hatchet off the shelf, I chopped at its neck. Pink fluid spurted. The thing kept coming and I kept striking. I wanted to destroy it. It was a disgusting unnatural piece of meat and I wanted to erase it from the earth. I bludgeoned its skull until it looked like crumpled paper. I cut open its belly, spilling embalming fluid and entrails.
Kill, kill, kill.
Die, George, die.
Soon George was a limbless stump. The aisle was drenched in pink, like I’d painted a celebratory Easter slaughter. Then the formaldehyde hit my eyes and throat. I retched. My tears stung like acid. Through a haze, I watched its fingers open and close as they dragged its arms across the floor.
I felt a hand on my shoulder and spun around, hefting the ax for a killing blow.
Dan backed up with his hands in the air, slipped, and fell in fluid. Shit, I thought. I helped him stand.
“I-I’m sorry.” I hid the gore-stained ax behind my back like a kid who’d broken something. “About the ax. You can dock it from my pay.” I didn’t want to think about what it would cost to replace a careerist.
“No, you did good, Henry.” Dan gave me a quick and violent clap on the back before retreating ten feet away. “Real good. Now, let’s see if we can’t get that up off the floor.”
That was the start of the weirdness. What made the happenings of that Easter season so unusual is that Mason’s superstore #557 was known for its efficiency. Hardly anything out of the ordinary ever happened.
Okay, that’s a lie. There were times. Like when those two guys locked themselves in Dan’s office and played Thriller on the overhead. Maybe they expected the careerists to start dancing. It was fun until it turned out they’d barricaded the office and were taunting Dan from inside. The look in their eyes made me think of kamikaze pilots. They got halfway through the Vincent Price rap before Dan shot the windows out.
Then there was the guy from Sporting Goods who vanished mid-shift. We figured he’d walked off and quit, but over the next two months, tales accumulated of a feral figure haunting the upper shelves. His smell would hit me while I stocked, the reek of someone coated in his own filth, there and gone. Turned out he’d gone full Tarzan, and Dan sent a squad of his “best guys,” which unfortunately included me, onto the top shelves to catch him. Those shelves were high. We were more concerned with keeping our balance than nabbing him with our fishing nets.
It didn’t take long to find him—just follow the stench. He balanced like a bird on a wire, bearded like a mountaintop prophet, still wearing his blue vest, along with coats and skirts and whatever other merchandise he’d filched. Once plump, he looked like he’d been attacked by a swarm of fat-sucking mosquitoes. We chased him, if you could call crawling along the shelves in a scared-shitless manner any kind of chase. He leaped like a mountain goat over the aisles. Until he fell.
A month before I turned George to dogfood, a few guys in Personal Care were suspected of stealing. They, too, disappeared halfway through their shift. They’d been colleagues, patrons at the weekend bars we frequented. Nobody brought them up again, and I knew better than to ask.
These incidents could be chalked up to “human error,” as Karen called it. The careerists didn’t make errors. That was the point.
Read the rest of the story in the book Hard Time Blues.