If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don't put it there. –Anton Chekhov
One app took precedence over all others. I’ll call it Molly (because I don’t want to get sued). Molly had a few retail partners, usually ones that sold terrible furniture to poor people on credit. The delivery fees were astronomical and I got a healthy portion of them. Molly deliveries tended to be in the fascinating neighborhoods of greater Cincinnati. I saw towering, half-decayed buildings that bore little resemblance to their seventy year-old architectural renderings that promised utopia. Up cranky elevators and down dark hallways, I’d deliver couches, sectionals, and lounge chairs. I loved these deliveries because the money was good, the people were polite, and fuck the suburbs.
English Hills was a neighborhood in Cincinnati. Now, it’s zombie streets, rusted dark street lamps, a boarded-up store, and a single large apartment tower. I parked my van in front of the building and maneuvered the precarious load onto my dolly. The cement was cracked and more than a few times I almost lost my cargo. My mask made me sweat more than usual, so I looked as sweaty as a heroin addict delivering furniture when I reached the foyer. I was greeted by a genuinely gigantic human, bigger than the sofa on my dolly. He beckoned me through the doors, clutching what looked like a gun under his shirt.
It took some swearing, a few breaks, and a great deal of awkward effort but we managed to get the sofa into the tiny elevator. He kept his hand under his shirt the whole time, and I kept my eye on the bulge. Once crowded into the elevator, the doors slowly closed. I figured this was as good a time as any to die; also, weeks of Coronavirus symptoms described on the Internet and radio had prepared me for a far more excruciating death. But he didn’t shoot me and the elevator seemed to take a deep breath and muster strength. The lights went out and in the pitch black I felt us slowly rising.
“Yeah, it does that,” he said.
Gently, the elevator stopped its assent. It shuddered. The doors shook a few times. I waited. The lights flickered on and then slowly the doors slid open to reveal a cramped dark hallway, strewn with empty Amazon boxes. We duplicated the awkward effort to extract the sofa from the elevator. What came to mind, as we coaxed the sofa through the hallways, was the progress of a constipated shit. I regretted this metaphor when my guide opened the doors to his apartment.
We were high, high above Cincinnati. His window was open and the wind pressed my face. Beneath us, the trains bunted cargo down the hills. Beyond Mill Creek stood the Crosley Building, the skeletal cathedral of American media’s past. To the South, the Cincinnati skyline looked like the cracked teeth of a sun-bleached roadkill skull. The murky Ohio reflected the Spring sun.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” I guessed this was my guide's mother. She was tiny and old, sitting in the shadows next to the window.
“Yes it is,” I said, breathing the Spring air. The lack of human activity during the pandemic allowed the rivers to run clear and the wind to smell of flower buds. I found my tiny van, far below.
We unwrapped the sofa and the old lady tried it out and nodded. My guide turned away and lifted his shirt. He was making sure his colostomy bag hadn’t been damaged. There was no gun ; of course there was no gun. If there had been any threat, it had been me playing Typhoid Mary during a pandemic. Taking the stairs down, I thought about how these concrete towers were built like lungs. I took my mask off the second I made it out the esophagus of the building. I smoked a cigarette and scanned my phone for the next gig.
There's no such thing as a tough child—if you parboil them first for seven hours, they always come out tender. –W. C. Fields
Getting paired with another worker for the bigger deliveries in the app yielded odd arranged marriages. I shook hands heartily with a man with face tats outside the store in a sideways rain. We decided to use my van to keep the couch dry. As we dollied the couch out of the store, he gestured toward his idling truck and three wiry children appeared. “Fucking school is closed,” Face Tats said. The children surrounded us and attached themselves to the couch, helping to hoist it into the back of the van.
“Don’t touch my hand, you fag,” one kid yelled at another.
“Shut the fuck up,” Face Tats said.
“You shut the fuck the fuck up,” the homophobic kid said.
“You know I can shut you the fuck up,” Face Tats said.
“Nothing can shut me up,” Homophobic Kid said.
“I can leave you here,” Face Tats said.
“That’d be child abuse,” another kid said. I didn’t have a nickname for him yet. They all looked the same age. It didn’t seem plausible they were all Face Tat’s kids. I remembered my own brother’s thinly veiled annoyance at my insistence on existing, day after day. I could relate to that passionate annoyance now, having grown into a middle aged adult and also having become as annoyed with my own existence as my brother had once been.
“Get in the truck,” Face Tat ordered, lighting a cigarette. I was about to light one of my own and leave Face Tats to his private hell and drive to the drop-off point.
“Cigarettes cause cancer,” Defiant Kid said.
“Everything causes cancer,” Face Tats said, pointing at my steaming exhaust pipe, muttering at his lighter as it struggled to keep his cigarette lit. “Tell me about cancer when you drink Mountain Dew and sit in front of that goddamn XBox all day,” said Face Tats.
“Hey, I didn’t want to fucking be here,” Defiant Kid said.
“Hey, I don’t want you here. But if you get busted again they’re coming after me. Yeah, the shit you do has consequences for others. Isn’t that a wild fucking idea?” Face Tats asked me.
I didn’t want to get in the middle of this pedagogical argument and shrugged.
“Yeah and it’s a long way to the top, isn’t it? Look at your nasty truck. Pathetic,” Defiant Kid said. The two other kids made some sort of yell in appreciation of his dis.
“Ouch,” Homeophobic Kid said.
Emboldened, Defiant Kid sat on the couch in my van. “I’m not riding with you and getting cancer.”
“Fine, goddamn it,” Face Tats muttered, finally getting his cigarette burning. He turned and got in his truck. Homophobic Kid and the third quiet kid looked at me as if to ask permission to get in my van. I panicked and slammed the doors. I briefly thought about asking Defiant Kid to come up front and put on a seat belt, but considering the cancer he had already contracted earlier by being near a cigarette, I decided to just get to the drop-off point and get this whole fiasco over with.
As I pulled out of the parking lot, Defiant Kid put his feet up on the couch and made a dramatic fake yawn. He said something, but I already had the radio tuned to NPR. I clutched the wheel with white knuckles and pretended he wasn’t there. Soon his weird puppet face appeared in my rearview mirror. I slapped the mirror and aimed it at my own face. I put on my mask and steered with my knees. When the van reached a certain speed, the doors locked.
“What the fuck,” Defiant kid yelled. “Let me the fuck out of here. Ima go to Sonic,” he said. He began fiddling with the back door. I considered abandoning the van and walking home. “Just playing. I don’t have any money. Can I have five or ten bucks? Seriously bro. Ten bucks.”
GPS told me the drop off point was seven minutes away. This seemed far too long to wait. I hoped that by keeping completely quiet these seven minutes would pass quickly. Face Tats powered ahead of me in his rusty pickup truck. He didn’t look at me.
“Seriously, how do you screw up your life so bad you end up delivering furniture?” the kid asked. “I mean, bro. If I was you, I would seriously consider suicide or some shit. Do you live in this van? It stinks in here. Seriously bro, it stinks back here. If this was my van, bro, I’d have a refrigerator back here. I’d have my clothes hanging up. I’d just kick back on my couch, it would be sweet. I’d never be late to school or work. I wouldn’t need shit. What do you make doing this furniture shit? I mean I’d do this a while and get the fuck up out of here.”
It was eerie how much this middle schooler making fun of a stranger echoed my real thoughts when I was alone. His speech overpowered the radio and drilled right into my brain. His cadence and use of direct phrasing was directly opposite the weird, ugly brogue on NPR. Over the kid I could barely hear panelists claiming to be “super excited” over and over on some awful current events show.
“Can’t you change the station?” the defiant child asked. “Like 101 or some shit? Those people sound like my teachers. I hope they got the motherfucking virus.”
I changed the station and turned it all the way up. The bass hurt my tiny factory speakers, but it made him momentarily happy.
We pulled into an apartment complex. The speed bump at the entrance caused the back end of the van to bounce. “What the fuck bro, are you trying to kill me?” Defiant Child asked and hopped into the passenger seat. “What the fuck bro, you do live in here,” he said, shoving my empty cups, cigarettes, and spare masks to the floor. He tried to turn up the radio. “Weak,” he said, when he realized the volume was maxed. He rolled down his window and danced with the music, pointing at people we passed. I saw Face Tat’s truck, pulled in behind him, leapt out of the van, and lit a cigarette.
Defiant Kid took over. “Let me unlock this bitch,” he said. The two other kids opened the back door and slid the couch toward them. Soon the three kids had the couch out and standing on its end. “Let me show you,” Defiant Kid said to Homophobic Kid as he tipped the couch and eased the forklift under it. Quiet Kid pointed at some stairs and they rolled the couch toward them, keeping it upright.
Face Tats unfolded himself from his truck and yelled, “Don't tear the plastic wrapping, damn it.” He leaned on the hood of his truck and shook his head in disapproval. The kids quickly had the couch up a flight of stairs and were knocking aggressively on the front door of the apartment. A man appeared and dragged the couch inside. The kids became eerily quiet. I knew they got tipped. Before they could make it back, I gave Face Tats a thumbs up and jumped in my van and pulled away. Fuck the tip, the fee was enough.
Looking back in the mirror I saw the four of them cramming themselves into their truck. It gave me hope for the future of America. I didn’t turn the station back to NPR, nor will I ever again.
A census taker once tried to test me, I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti. –Ted Tally, The Silence of the Lambs
Delivering Amazon packages in a neighborhood on trash day was a doubly painful exercise in futility. Not only were there trash cans, recycling bins, and curbs lined with empty Amazon boxes and their quickly-broken contents to navigate, but often you got stuck behind the garbage truck as it lumbered through, cleaning up the glutinous orgy of trash that you’d helped to make. In this din of waste, you were always running behind.
At this time, I was working for a subcontractor of Amazon. In order to get this job, I had to put a large red magnet on the side of my van. That’s all. And as the Amazon man has replaced Santa Claus in the local lore of the children playing in the street, I found the ease of getting this gig disturbing. Children whooped and ran to meet me when I arrived. The streets were a weird ballet of garbage trucks, delivery trucks, food delivery trucks, children playing and quiet ominous houses. If I didn’t get the Covid, I could crash, break down, get shot or accidentally run over a child. All this for a few bucks. It was Christmas in Kentucky.
The software on my phone was largely the same as real Amazon delivery persons, only slower. I had maybe 100 stops to make that day. My dog was chained up in the back of the van, sliding from side to side as I made violent U-turns. I swore and pleaded when I drove by addresses. Often houses sat well off the street and I left my van idling in traffic while bounding into unknown yards. Hand-written signs on porches directed me to deliver packages at rear doors. America’s thirst for hand-delivered trash was only paralleled by my need for money.
In another time, I might have been happy to sit the pandemic out, but between my student loans, child support, bills, and alcoholism, that was an impossibility. I placed a package of what felt and smelled like cat litter next to several other packages that had accumulated on a back porch and aimed my phone to take the delivery-confirmation photo. The software stopped working. I tried to confirm my last delivery, but the program refused to advance.
Maybe twenty minutes passed as I stood in a stranger's yard rebooting my phone over and over. A light rain began to fall. I rubbed my eyes to break the spell the disgusting trash delivery app had over me and considered my options. I could abandon the packages by the road and get a drink. I could go get a drink then abandon my packages. But I didn’t have a penny to my name. I recalled news stories I had read where Amazon delivery people had abandoned their vans, engines running, mid-shift. That was easy for them; I was using my own van. And my god-damned dog was in the back. I called dispatch for the app I was using.
“Hey, did you restart your phone?”
“Why don’t you go ahead and restart your phone again.”
Icy endless pause, “It’s still not working,” I said.
“Hmm,” dispatch said.
“Has this ever happened to anyone else?” I asked.
“Oh, all the time,” dispatch said. “Something to do with the darn software. What I’m going to need you to do is take packages one by one and just go to the addresses on them and deliver them. Do that for a while and we’ll see where we are. OK?”
I’m stupid, but I’m not that stupid. I was paid by the delivery. The only way to make money was if the packages were in a row, organized so that deliveries were quick and efficient. Taking them one by one and delivering them was obviously a waste of my time. I’d double back so many times that it would add hours to the run.
“I’m going to need someone to come get this crap out of my van,” I said.
“Hold please, I’m going to get my manager,” dispatch said.
I was proud of myself for making a stand, but I knew there was no way I could win this. I wasn’t the first person to quit mid-shift. Why was I even trying?
A stranger came on the line. “Hey, what's the problem buddy?”
“This isn’t working out, I’m going to need someone to come get these packages out of my van.”
“How many did you get delivered just reading the addresses and dropping them off? The old school way?” he laughed with a forced air of sincerity.
“I’m going to need someone to come get these packages out of my van.”
“Listen boss, I know it sounds hard but stick with me here.”
I lowered my phone from my face and considered throwing it into the bushes of this stranger’s backyard. But again, it was my phone.
“I can leave the packages in a pile at the curb and tell you where they are,” I said abruptly into the phone. I lit a cigarette. This was resembling a hostage negotiation.
“I have no drivers to come rescue you,” he said, coldly. “I think I would have to call the police.”
“You would have to call the police? I have been standing here for an hour trying to get your crappy app to work in somebody's yard. I’m pretty sure they have called the police,” I said.
“Why don’t you bring the load back and we try again another day?” the stranger asked.
“Your garage is an hour away. I have shit to do,” I said.
“How many did you get delivered the old school way?” he asked again. I heard typing in the background. “Did you even try?” he tried to shame me.
“So, I’m taking the packages out and putting them on the curb.”
“I’ll give you forty dollars in cash to bring them back.”
At home, I drank cold, imported beer and smoked rollie tobacco, fresh from the newly unwrapped pouch. My dog shat in the bushes. An old friend, Mike, from Portland called via video chat. He obviously had done this as a mistake as he was surprised to see me.
“What? Why the fuck are you calling me?” he asked. His dramatic double chin told me he was laying down. “Can’t a motherfucker get some sleep around here?”
“You called me,” I said. I very seldom answer a phone call. But the humming of the freeway, the freedom from one of the worst gigs I had ever tried, the forty dollar’s worth of hedonistic pleasures I’d bought, had combined to make me feel briefly like I wasn’t dying of loneliness in a shitty city during a pandemic. It felt a little like I was talking to a friend, as humans once often did, before the pandemic.
“So, I’m working for the census. Here’s the thing. It’s, what do they call it? Pokemon Go. You have this phone and these addresses and you walk around with this bag and you collect them all. But you don’t because you can’t get in the building. It’s ridiculous. You have to enter into this cocksucking phone thirty times, ‘could not make entry,’ if you can’t get into a building with a hundred apartments in it. This is the census. Counting motherfuckers who ain’t home.” He paused to smoke. “How the fuck are you doing?”
“I, you know.” Men rarely admit to each other how terrible their lives are. “I’m still delivering shit in my van.”
“I don’t have to point out to you the similarities between the goddamn Amazon man and the Census taker. I think the difference is people want to see the Amazon man. The census taker reminds them that they do in fact live where they are, are as old as they are, and have the same terrible job they had ten cocksucking years ago. As you’ll learn, it’s all the same job. It’s a kind of nautilus of disappointment. From the corny motherfucker who designs phones, to the sociology professor who finds meaning and subcultures in it all. A nautilus of disappointment.” He laughed gleefully at his improvised, manic insight.
I considered the swirling onramps and puffy clouds. They looked beautiful through my buzz. “It is what it is,” I said. I never have figured out how to use that saying.
Aujourd'hui, maman est morte. –Albert Camus, L'Étranger
The Northern Kentucky Bluegrass Cincinnati Airport was as lifeless as its elongated, bureaucratic name. The underground train took me several hundred feet from security to the gates. As absurd as the short ride was, more absurd was the train running just for me. The sun wasn’t up, no light streamed through the atrium onto the concourse. There was nothing to see but closed fast-food booths. The floor gleamed like ice—no doubt waxed many times since the beginning of the pandemic.
My brother had sent word that my mother was dying. Flights were cheap. I’d booked one. In a moment of sentimentality while rushing out my front door, I’d grabbed The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to read on the plane. This was obvious now as a problematic choice for public reading in the current climate. While waiting for them to call my row for boarding, I dropped it.
“Now there’s a classic,” a fat man said.
Many years ago, I had been a social butterfly on flights. Now my reclusive tendencies were amplified by the terror-tube of an airplane and I spent flights staring at my knees and lusting for tobacco. I had nothing to say to this man. I grimaced.
“Especially now,” he continued.
What the hell did that mean? Is this how books got burned? This man was bald too; I couldn’t grab him by the hair and make him watch as I burnt the book. I slipped the book into my bag.
Socially distant, we boarded the plane. It was half empty. Everyone had left Cincinnati already it seemed. The Bald literary critic sat across the aisle from me. “I remember reading that as a kid,” he said, pointing at my bag like a drug dog. Had I been this annoying on flights as a social butterfly? Could I flush the book down the toilet? Would this stop him? “I love fishing,” he continued. “Lots of good fishing in Utah,” he said.
Utah was an anomaly in his line of conversation. I think it was my cue to ask him a question. I looked around to confirm he was talking to me. He wasn’t talking to the nearby people of color. Most of our fellow passengers were trying to go back to sleep, to hopefully awake on a different coast, the nightmare of Cincinnati behind them. I pictured the Great Salt Lake of Utah and wondered how fish could live in it. Damn-it, his sorcery was working on me.
“Oh yeah?” I reluctantly asked.
“Yeah, we're going to Strawberry Reservoir. You heard of it?”
It sounded like a made up name. I could feel knowledge of Strawberry Reservoir’s existence beginning to clutter my mind. “No,” I said. I wished I could pretend to be going to sleep, but anxiety had me somewhat fetally-positioned in my seat.
“Oh, you have to go. Utah. Fishing. Huckleberry Finn, you’ll love it,” he said with a menacing tone of eventuality. Perhaps the outcome of this conversation would dictate whether I got kidnapped and forcefully taken to Strawberry Reservoir. Why wasn't spontaneous public suicide more prevalent in society? If he said Huckleberry Finn loudly again, I could no longer be held accountable for my actions.
Thankfully, the plane’s engine roared as if channeling my rage. The acceleration shoved him back into his seat. Once we were aloft, he produced a neck pillow. It was the same color as his face mask. He put tiny earbuds into his corpulent, fetid white ears and finally put a plastic face-shield on. Now looking like a motorcycle cop from the 70’s, he closed his eyes.
We approached Chicago as the sun rose. From the air, the city looked like iron filings on a magnet. It’s a powerful and important city. Landing at Midway, one feels as though he is crashing into a residential neighborhood until the runway magically appears at the last minute. “Wow, I was all like uhh, right?” The bald critic was staring at me again.
As we filed out the plane he continued his interrogation, “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is good, but it’s no Huckleberry Finn, don’t you agree?”
I had a beer at an empty Chicago Airport bar while waiting for my connection. I poked at my phone and pursued the gig opportunities in Chicago. They were endless. Nearly all my gig-economy apps optimistically hummed like hungry birds. On the TV, the news showed pictures of protests in Portland. I recognized the buildings, but not the people. I continued to drink until I was babbling at a stranger sitting next to me on the flight to Portland. “I was born and raised in Portland. Boy, it’s changed. It’s tense, man. I barely recognize it now. Now I live in Kentucky. Warm rivers. People don’t judge you for smoking or having a dog. I remember getting lectured all over Oregon for smoking and having a dog. You know, that melodramatic Californian hand flap to fan away the impossible amounts of hypothetical cigarette smoke,” I rambled. The stranger refused my airplane bottles of gin and put up with my many trips to the bathroom.
When the plane finally ejaculated us in the Portland Airport, I was drunk. Drinking some terrible beer I’d never heard of at the airport bar, I checked the rideshare apps for a quote on a ride to the hospice. Thirty-five dollars was too much and so I charted a course on public transportation.
The train lumbered by landmarks of my unremarkable youth. I jumped off at 82nd avenue to buy some tiny boxes of wine, perhaps to offer to my mother at her hospice bedside, but mostly for me to drink on my journey. Back on the train, a few homeless people picked at their scalps in nearby seats.
When I’d lived in Portland previously, the homeless brought a deep and warm feeling of duty to me. Shakily nursing my tiny box of wine on public transportation, it was finally clear to me that my affection for the homeless was because I was only marginally not homeless myself. I wondered if anyone had been reticent to point that out to me back in the day. Or maybe they had and I didn’t hear it. I was probably drunk and babbling to them about suicide and architecture at the time.
I hopped off the train to check into my strange, Old Town hotel. Once a flop house, the new owners of the building had invested millions, hired a staff of hipsters, and re-opened as…a flop house. I had a tiny room overlooking the street, which was lined with tents as far as the eye could see. I peed in the sink, left my copy of Huckleberry Finn on my bed, and resumed my trek to the hospice.
A sobering walk through the suburbs at the end of the line of my third bus found me at the door of the hospice. It was a short building, cowering beneath cedar trees. A nurse interrogated me about travel and flu symptoms and recorded my responses on a piece of paper. The answer I gave to every question was, remarkably, a bald-faced lie. I had just arrived off a plane from a Covid hotspot and I felt like shit, but I was always leaving a hotspot of pestilence and I always felt like shit. Wasn’t my interpretation of the subtlety and nuance of the questions really the important part? Our pandemic response has been largely this list of questions, thus far, so our lack of pandemic response can be traced back to a democratic groundswell of carefully spoken lies. Everything has to be somebody's fault, and there’s got to be a paper trail. But these quirky thoughts didn’t save me as I walked down the hall to her room.
My mother had survived Polio, cancer, heart attacks, my father’s insanity, years of opiate and alcohol addiction, a career in teaching (the worst job on the planet), but this time the cancer, Covid, and hopelessness were too much. I was estranged from her. She had not testified in my custody trial and losing that trial turned me into the neurotic, alcoholic mess writing to you now. Hell, I had been the sober one in the family, student teaching, working, advocating with starry eyes at IEPs, volunteering with the disabled kids at the soup kitchen, and all that shit. My ex-wife, doing her best impersonation of my own mother, had awoken from her own drug-induced stupor in her urine-stained bed and stolen my son. I guessed I had put an unfair amount of blame on my mom. I realized this, looking at her now, motionless on her bed. She looked like my ex-wife the night I visited her in the hospital after a cocaine overdose in 2008. Only now I was too broken to try and save anyone. Moms, ex-wives, or myself.
Her last words were “You don’t know what the fuck your’e doing.” The nurse came in on the hour and asked if she was experiencing pain. My brother and I said, yes, every time. Her breathing slowed, became labored, then stopped. Color left her face as she ceased to be holy and became an object. We both kissed her goodnight.
I spent a few hours alone in an irrigation ditch eating wild blackberries and drinking wine. My mind was as blank as death.
While actually reading the fucking book that night, I discovered that Pap Finn described the horror of human ownership as the inalienable right of people. That, and refusing education of any kind, were what made a man American. Pap Finn was owned by his greed, stupidity, illiteracy, and alcoholism. Twain could really write a evil, cis, white male because he was one. Dang.
Looking out my window at the tents on the street, watching the homeless folk laugh and smoke, I remembered something that ties this stupid reminiscence together. As a teacher, my mother had organized what was called The Story Book Parade. Kids dressed as their favorite characters from books. My mother was always the grand-martial, dressed as the Cat in the Hat, leading the parade in a convertible rental car, exhilarated and inebriated. One year, I went as Huckleberry Finn. I had a fishing pole and a satchel in a bandana hanging at the end of a stick. I wore a straw hat and overalls. I was a hobo kid. Portland was so un-PC in 1987.
I hear it’s natural when a parent dies to be flooded with regret. The hypocrisy of having not read that book before the parade mortified me. Chilled me to the bone. And the idea of packing my stupid little bag and leaving town forever made me feel all the worse for my mixed metaphors, perpetual tantrums, and wasted years on this planet. And that I had somehow ended up as a citizen of Kentucky made the memory all the more weird. Of course the terrible little hotel didn’t allow smoking, so I went and mingled with some old friends on the street. When recognized and asked where I had been, I told them I had moved to Kentucky. Like Huckleberry Finn.