There is a thermos filled with coffee between us on the bench seat. I had been standing out on the corner in the half-light. Two number twentytwos had passed, their disjointed doors clattering open, sucking up and spitting out weary passengers. I had pulled the black wool cap down over my ears and hid my neck between my shoulders. It is not that he had been late, but that I had been early. With one hand, ungloved, he fishes a crumpled soft pack of Newport’s from his coat chest pocket, extracts the lighter from the cellophane and brings a single, slightly bend cigarette to his lips. I open the window a hair. He hasn’t said anything, neither have i. Through the cracked windshield, he stares at the city. The city stares back. I think to myself that he is a part, a part and apart.
The street, in an area between the residential and industrial districts, isn’t really a dead end. Anyone can see that it stops at the tracks, at the cottonwoods that line the tracks, but few know that, there, it turns and continues up to the underpass. The neighbors agreed, for once, to put the sign up. The swelling, of traffic, has been reduced. Nobody has said anything. At the corner of the gravel lot in front of the employee entrance of the warehouse, we park beneath the two words, dead end, not one next to the other but stacked like the bunk beds.
There is time enough for another cigarette standing at the loading dock. This time he offers me one. A carpet of leaves hugs the pavement, concealing the city’s shatteredness, perhaps in a similar way that the three days’ growth covers his face. The moment of smoking is a softening, a softening of focus maybe, also obscuring the edges. A veil. Avail. The threads of smoke, lingering about our faces, braiding and tearing, are the words that we do not speak.
Door, coat rack, punchclock, in that order, because the company does not pay you to take off and put on your coat, is that clear? The morning light is starting to cascade through the barred windows, slits at the top of the wall, casting stripes upon the shelves and packing tables. The aisles are dark. Opposite, the wall between the office and the warehouse, with its two way mirror. Being seen without being able to see.
The trucks are late, the orders are backing up. The mirror between the door to the office and the warehouse shelves, with their shadowy aisles, is silent. It watches. Without blinking. The punchclock also watches, growling inaudibly. We have learned not to pay attention, like actors. We are playing ourselves.
He sifts through his pockets for the coins that he feeds into the breakroom vending machine, one by one. Pressing the worn button, he feels the resistance of its gritty springs in his fingertip. After some wheezing and sputtering, a Styrofoam cup descends onto the metal tray and fills with a muddy brown liquid. Leaning against the sink counter, he sips the coffee foam. Newspapers from other days of the week are scattered across the folding table. There are no windows here. He decides to work through lunch, to get out at a decent hour, he says.
The radio, high up there on the sill of the small window, coated in dust, with its cord hanging down against the wall, within our reach, within the reach of the plug, is screaming for attention. Since nobody is listening, it grows desperate. Its monologue punctuates our routine, plugging its holes, taking whatever silence is left over, reaching us alternately, sometimes up close, sometimes distant.
The hours are tapering. They get shorter when it gets busy. It seems too early to be late. But, we are standing on the fringe, in the aftermath of every day. Tape guns hang from wall nails. Box cutters gather on the packing table. The dollies line up at the receiving door. Look busy. Somebody grabs a pushbroom, somebody feeds cardboard to the bailer. The silent mirror watches us watch the punchclock, the coat rack, the door, yes, in that order.
He is standing in the doorway, his silhouette is holding the door for me. We are expelled into the ashy parking lot, into other air. The pickup is waiting patiently where we left it. the coming darkness feels heavy like wet wool, like limbs after work. The city is having trouble breathing. It is expanding and contracting at the same time. Its eyes do not rest.
This is where today starts being different from yesterday and tomorrow. We know that it is only a remainder, the little of what is left of the light. He puts his arm upon my shoulder and says,
“I will walk home
now we can breathe,” and eases the keys into my coat pocket.