I packed as much as I could bring into my small dark grey Nissan Sentra, and leaving Vermont, began my minimalistic life in Nashville, Tennessee. With the cushion of a few months ability to pay the rent on a third floor studio apartment in the Tanglewood complex, an apartment consisting of a twenty by sixteen foot living space, a kitchen, and a bathroom, and a walk-in closet … I dared the world alone. Excluding the kitchen and john, the apartment was a vacant box. I’d brought an old black and white television, but didn’t have a table to put it on, so I used marble contact paper to dress the cardboard boxes I had, on this trip, packed my partial life into, and created for me not only a stand for the television, but a coffee-table-like, artificial marble stump to eat off of. A grey plastic lawn chair, I’d picked up for six dollars, served as my sofa, accompanying my coated cardboard boxes as my nearly complete furnishings.
Daring to live a hint of the high life, I laid out in the corner an inflatable mattress I’d brought for my bed along with a sleeping bag. The mattress didn’t hold air though, and I’d pump it up and lie down, and hope I could fall asleep before I felt the hard floor below it, and as I lay there I would hear feet in the hall, going to and from their apartments, but I was always a little on edge, quite expecting someone to suddenly knock at my door, a door that was the only thing between the public outside and my pajamas. Of course I rationalized I didn’t have to answer it, but what if it was maintenance, and if I didn’t answer they came in anyway? There was also a hole in the wall by the air conditioning unit, which leaked the outside in and the inside out, and on colder nights, I lowered the thermostat to save money, and slept in the closet with the sleeping bag, with the door shut and a towel wedged in the crack below it. In a pathetic sort of way, somehow I had improved my conditions; I’d turned my studio into a one bedroom flat at the same rate, and I couldn’t as clearly hear the passing feet outside either. I didn’t afford cable, so whatever I got was what the black-and-white’s antenna allowed after wrangling with it a bit, settling for less snow than snowy, the news letting me know if it was raining or not before the window did, a window which was over the hole and air conditioning unit, but next to the glass sliding doors which led to the balcony.
With an attempt at cooking, I tried to make meatloaf, but failed, and instead invented for myself meatloaf sauce. I made a large batch at the beginning of the week, so that I only had to heat it up on the rest of the nights. Being it was only me, I didn’t care if there was no variety in my meals. Meatloaf sauce and unfrosted frozen vegetables suited the purpose almost every night after every night, and a box of dandruff you added water to, made my mashed potatoes, completing the uneventful nourishment. On other nights, whatever I could add to ground turkey I did, and sometimes surprised myself with the equally if not less time consuming choice of cholesterol ridden fish sticks. Sometimes I ate pasta, but mostly the dandruff. Instant rice was another nutrient deficient staple, because it as well needed only water and but five minutes if that to cook.
What about a job? Too eagerly I searched the papers and without much discernment, found one, kneading dough for a bakery that supplied rolls to a local restaurant chain. The man at the interview kept trying to talk me out from taking it, wondering why I would want it, but I was not looking career, only wanting to pay my bills so as not to lose the overtly humble sanctuary I’d created, regardless of how much it was related to cardboard. Six-something-an-hour was money in my pocket I needed, and the work day ending at three in the afternoon allowed me some freedom in the daytime. I found my co-workers friendly enough. I don’t think the Mexican women spoke English, if they did, they never told me. If I ever did something wrong in my learning, they’d only hold up their hands and the stretched dough and show me. It was a lesson in kneading as well as miming, and the Iranian immigrants, all male, if they had played poker, you would have always thought they’d held a bad hand. They stared intently at me as if I was not man enough … either that or they wondered if kidnapping me would earn them more than the six-something an hour. They actually stated they didn’t believe I’d make it through a month. Now wasn’t that a warm welcome? I had to remind myself I was at work and not in prison, though our hair nets clearly stated it wasn’t the latter. And then, there, thrown into the mix was a guy from Kentucky. How the hell he had gotten there, I don’t know. I hear they have moonshine in Kentucky, and that might have been what had happened … but I gathered he was just as confused about me.
It was hard work and uninteresting, but they actually had a chef on the premises, and a good one at that, who cooked a buffet dinner for every lunch … and that included deserts … plural. If I had thought I’d made a mistake at taking this job, it wasn’t as obvious now.
Still, the hours upon hours of kneading was taking a toll on my wrists, and I thought I might quit, but something inside would not let me succumb within only a month’s time, because that’s what the Iranians had expected of me. The Mexicans might have thought that too, but I hadn’t figured out those hand gestures. My first venture alone would not end in failure, I told myself, but any length after that month, be it a year or two days, to me, would be justifiably qualified for a win … as you can see, I was easily swayable.
A few weeks later, my girlfriend, Ivonne, moved to her apartment in Tennessee. She’d come down with her parents, who would be leaving, and I met them, straight from work, with a face full of flour and my clothes caked in it. It was nice to see familiar faces, but unfortunately she had chosen an apartment behind a liquor store in a less promising part of town, I mean that was excluding the Jaguar dealership around the corner and down a block. I’d never seen a Jaguar, never mind a whole dealership, and I was sure it was there to tease the poor or to motivate them out of their situation and into the drug cartel. But I have to admit, I myself made it into a Jaguar without a cartel, so there is hope in another way. I worked in a car wash where I had to scrub their inside back windows in 95+ degree weather while trying not to sweat on the leather seating and not further abuse my already black and blue shins from the previous others, and when finished, smile and try not to look like a dehydrated lap dog in front of the woman in her tennis skirt or the man in his polo shirt and slacks as their key was returned to them. Who says slavery doesn’t exist in America anymore? “Yes, massa.” Well Ivonne held out a few months in that place and then eventually rented an apartment across the parking lot from me in the same complex, but after having done that, she had the strangest impression that she was living under a drug dealer due to the peculiar hours that were kept and the constant traffic in and out. I felt sorry for her. Damn that Jaguar dealership.
Well, back to work … work had an employee outing at the Opryland Amusement Park. I hadn’t yet quit the bakery, and I figured it would be a good time and Ivonne and I could get some free food out of it also … and the rides. It was not only a nice day … but became a very revealing one … and a very decisive one at that. At one point in the picnic, awards were being granted to longtime employees, and each time a person was called up, it looked like a commercial for the walking wounded … that’s if they were ambulatory.
“… This is for John Doe, for his 20 years of service … “John?”
And up would walk John bent like a guard rail where no car could make the turn … and was that a hump? The man with the microphone held John’s award down by his knees, so that John could see it, and I gathered that was because his eyelids and skull would have gotten in the way if it had been held any higher.
“… This is for Margaret Hasbeen, for her 15 years of service … Marge?”
There came Marge, struggling with her walker due to her arm in a sling.
“… And ole Pete Davidson … 40 years … come on up!”
At first I thought I’d seen a coffin and four pallbearers, but after clearing my eyes, and seeing it was only a picnic table … ole Pete and his wheelchair were helped along over the grass.
My light bulb lit while it still had a filament. “Yup … time to quit.”
Real: All of it. I mean how can you make this stuff up?
Not Real: Okay some names were my own doing … and maybe I didn’t see the coffin and pallbearers.
(More to Come)