The wallpaper of his apartment is the noise of freeway traffic. He has become so sensitive to the sound, and its variations, that for certain hours of the day he can tell the time simply by listening. Lying on his back in the dark it sounds like 6am, which is to say, rhythmic, the whoosh of each car distinct but closely trailed, almost overlapped, by the next. The sun is going to rise about seven, when the hum is overtaken by the din of commuter hours –massive engines kicking into gear, weary brakes pinching their discs, angry horns making their grievances known- but it is still an hour away, dragging itself over the continental divide, and his alarm is set for eight, which, as he lies awake, seems now to have been a gesture of wishful thinking.
It is too dark to see, so staring up he can only recall the ceiling. Like most low-end apartment ceilings, it is blank except for a scattering of unintended irregularities: some cracks, water stains, excess paint, patches to the drywall. He doesn't know precisely where they are, but he can guess. There's also a hook with nothing on it, he remembers, somewhere near the window, maybe left over from a former tenant's hanging garden or lamp or something. And the light fixture in the center of the room, which he thinks of as a pale glass breast –a woman upstairs, down on her hands and knees over a hole in the ceiling- with one bulb and one empty socket installed behind the perfect little metal nipple. There isn't much else about the ceiling.
He feels wide-awake, but dozes off, dreaming briefly of being lost in a busy Costco, pushing an enormous bottle of Tequila around in a squeaking cart, self conscious becuase people are glaring at him, and when he wakes up again. The stray predawn light has already begun accumulating in his bedroom, and as it reveals the lines and colors and textures, it also confers weight, and in the mornings it is this weight which has come to feel most oppressive. The weight presses down, his lungs are rendered insufficient, the muscles along his spine ache, his limbs become impossibly heavy and his thoughts are clogged by a frustration that emanates from deep inside his chest. It is the knowledge of the day ahead, the aggravating familiarity with routine that becomes a nearly insurmountable barrier to the day itself and is yet never stops it, merely dragging the moments out into minutes.
When the first scraps of direct sunlight hit the floor there is still an hour till the alarm goes off. His stomach feels sprained, and his intestines are marching in protest of their working conditions, so, unable to wait, he slides his legs off the bed, sits up, and turns off the alarm.
There is nothing to eat, or at least nothing he is willing to eat. He pours some coffee from a jar in the fridge, and microwaves it for fifty-five seconds. There is no cream left so he drinks half of the grimy black liquid as fast as he can and then pours the rest down the sink. For three minutes he contemplates making something for lunch, but can't. He brushes his teeth to get the foul taste from his mouth, then crawls back into bed fully dressed and sets the alarm for eight fifteen. Five minutes later he is up again –having decided to stop at a café on his way in to work.
He's only ten minutes late to work and of course no one notices. He fills his water bottle in the break room, looks through the staff fridge, then walks reluctantly to his station. Slowly the day begins moving through the long minutes. Coworkers come by his station with the usual reports and questions. As if to torment him, his eyes keep catching on the wall clock. In desperation he tries once again to become part of the slowness, to beat time at its own game by drawing out each movement into an ornate gesture. He lengthens his breath and straightens his spine. Methodically, everything is wiped clean, straightened, organized, and put back where it belongs. Even the computers, which have likely been on for days –since the last time they crashed- are dusted, rebooted and updated.
In the darkroom he pulls the calibration strips from their sleeve and curls them delicately between his fingers before loading them into the injection trays. He feels the edges to be sure they are lying flat, so they won't catch in the machine, before he seals them in and carries them out into the fluorescent light of his station. The strips run through the machine's developer baths in order to test something, which takes five minutes, then they drop lazily from the dryer onto a table. He carries them across the factory floor to the chemical supply room where the spectrometer checks something. They are approved so he throws them away and wanders back across factory floor, stepping from one rubber mat to the next without touching the cement below. He thinks of Cheever and wonders if he'll be an old man by the time he makes it back to his station, but as he turns the corner he finds the new kid waiting and no more than two minutes has passed since he left.
They work for a couple hours reviewing the printing routine: calibration procedure, loading and unloading paper types, changing the printer magazine, trimming prints, packaging them –the whole process. They move slowly and steadily towards the first break. With five minutes left he excuses himself to the restroom, and makes sure that by the time he is done there is only one minute left till break, which is such an insignificant amount that he and the new kid call it close enough.
He escapes the building and walks out to his car where he knows there is a bottle of orange juice and rum in the trunk. It's almost empty, but he adds the last two ounces of rum from the pint bottle he bought the night before and swallows it quick. Noticing the warehouse manager over at the picnic tables, as always, he makes up his mind to walk over to bum a cigarette.
"Hey, you mind?" he asks, holding out a dollar bill. The warehouse manager shakes his head and offers his last cigarette, rolling around in the pack.
"Don’t worry about it, I've got a carton in my desk."
"Ok, thanks. You got a lighter?"
As he inhales, the nicotine floats to the top of his brain and the warmth of the rum begins mildly to fray the edges of his vision. It is a warm morning, the kind that only happens when you won't be able to enjoy what if offers, and nearby the birds are twittering, though he can't spot them. The Warehouse manager is a local, scroungy and tough, with a clean shaven head and voice like a steel-wire brush –but in a nice way.
"We just got a shipment of the Fujifilm high-gloss. Get the new kid to come move it to the dark room."
"Alright, no problem."
"So this is it right, last day?"
"Yeah, it is. I didn't think anyone knew."
"Maria told me."
"Anyway, good luck, whatever it is you're doing. Shit, I wish I could still quit a job at my age, but what the hell else am I gonna do, right. "
He nods, and shrugs, "Yeah, I had to quit. I can't do this anymore."
The warehouse manager stamps out his cigarette and stands up. "I hear you. Anyway, good luck kid."
Reluctantly he goes back to work. As his blood alcohol level peaks the whole place feels far away, as if it's already part of the past. One o'clock rolls around and he goes to lunch, leaving the new kid on his own. Walking down the wide, empty street to the deli he starts to smile, thinking about the mere half of a day that remains between him and freedom. He buys a sandwhich and a small cup of coffee and sits down in his usual corner of the patio. The girl is there, at her usual seat in the shade of a potted palm tree. She looks up and their eyes meet. He smiles, and she smiles, and then she goes back to reading her book and drinking her coffee. He keeps smiling to himself as he eats his sandwich. A few minutes later she leaves without looking at him again, and he carries on thinking about her. She is tall, and attractive, though he is not sure if she is beautiful. Her face is long and the bridge of her nose is bent, but her thick black hair softens her unusual features. Her lips are usually pursed, but when she smiles, as he has seen her do only twice, they relax into her full, pleasant mouth. He might never see her again.
He contemplates buying another bottle of rum and juice, or maybe cola, to make another drink, but decides against it –drinking now will only make him tired later, and all that's left is four more hours. He orders another coffee to take back to work.
The sun has finally burned away the marine layer, and the street is bright. A rough wind is coming in from the ocean, brackish and cold and perfect. The sun reflects blindingly off of the buildings and cars. He walks along the empty sidewalk with his eyes closed, checking every few seconds to make sure that he won't trip on the curb or walk into a post. Closing his eyes enhances the scent in the wind, and he feels alive and good. Opening his eyes he glances up at the bright blue sky before pulling open the door and stepping into the factory.
Inside he can barely see, the place is so dark. He wonders if it has always been this dark and he just hasn't noticed because the days have been dim. He can't remember. His eyes begin to adjust as he walks to his station, but it is such a familiar set of footsteps that he hardly needs to see.
The new kid is working, though he's creased six copies of the same print while trying to trim them. Again he shows the new kid how to lay the print down so as not to crease it, and then he sends him off to lunch.
He checks through the work the kid had done, pulling anything that has been packaged wrong and moving on anything that has to be mounted or finished. While he is focused on filling the print queue on the computer, Maria comes around the corner and shouts to him that she'd like to meet in the conference room, now.
"Ok, you see we are disappointed you decide to leave us after we invest so much energy into training you, and I will remind that you sign a contract that prohibit you from working in the industry for two years."
"Thanks," he replies, "it won't be an issue."
"Let's hope. Anyway, I need to know how your training goes, if the new kid ready to take over tomorrow?"
"He'll be fine, he's about as ready as I was when I took over."
"Well please make sure that you review mailing times and priority orders with him."
"And don't forget your employee discount expires at the end of the day."
"Thanks, I'll keep that in mind."
"Ok, well, good luck with whatever you do."
He returns to his station where a print has jammed in the dryer, wrecking all the prints behind it. Everything will need to be redone. The clock hands hold three more long hours over him. His shoulders and neck ache to be done with it, but he has to finish the work. Starting again he loads the files into the print-queue on the computer, sends them, and waits. While he is listening to the LEDs expose the paper and feed it into the bath he hears a noise above him and looks up to see a pigeon fluttering around one of the large light fixtures. After a few seconds it lands on an I-beam rafter to rest. From down the long shelving hallway the warehouse manager emerges to get a better look at it, having heard the commotion.
"Not much to do except wait and hope the stupid thing comes down."
"Yeah, it probably thought the light fixture was a hole in the roof. If we turn the lights off overhead maybe it'll head back out the way it came in."
"Sure that might work but there's no way they'll let you turn off all the lights, and if you don't turn them all off then it'll just fly towards the lights deeper in the warehouse."
"Yeah, I guess you're right."
"Well that's a good guess." The warehouse manager smiles, baring his long yellow teeth, then he saunters back towards his area.
Times starts to move as the workload picks up and the new kid comes back from lunch. In the rush to finish the training and also get the priority orders out on time, he forgets about the pigeon. But when the night crew shows up, thirty minutes before the morning crew gets off, he remembers. The pigeon is still sitting quietly in the rafters. He points it out to the new kid.
The bird's pathetic situation makes the back of his neck tingle and his chest tighten up again, but he is almost free, and that proximity fills him with excitement. He will no longer have to get up at 6am, or pack a lunch, or talk to Maria, or print other people's stupid wedding photos, or graduation photos, or any kind of photos. It is such a soul-lifting emancipation to know that he will never return that he feels like yelling, or dancing, or climbing something. The night crew takes over the machine and he shakes the new kid's hand, waves at the warehouse manager, and clocks out five minutes early.
He drives home with the windows open, his tinny speakers rattling with all the current they can handle. He stops at the store for a bottle, and some more juice, and an energy drink. The checkout girl smiles at him when he walks up behind the person she is helping. He smiles back, but nothing comes to mind when he has the chance to talk with her. It is nothing to him though –the incident hardly makes a sound against the ego-armor of his freedom. At home he makes a drink, grabs sunglasses, rolls a little something to smoke and climbs up the ladder onto the roof to enjoy the last few hours of sunlight. It's an amazing feeling. He smiles to himself and laughs and plays some music on his phone. Birds fly past in magnificent arcs, their enormous wings stretched out, almost motionless on the soft breeze they're riding southward. Planes trail off into the Pacific Ocean, which can hardly be distinguished from the sky. The wind is chilly, but the roof is warm from being in the sun and he lays down against the grit to absorb it into his back.
From his perch he can see the street in front of his house, and the backyards of the houses on the other side. Nothing is going on. He stares at the trees swaying in the wind, amazed at how far they bend and how much noise they make while doing it. It occurs to him that he doesn't know the names of anything, the clouds, the trees, the birds, the bugs, the materials. Everything familiar is still foreign, unidentified, could be a fraud; he has accepted the world without further examination and is at the mercy of its controllers. He decides that this is the end of an era, and the beginning of a lifelong pursuit: he will pay better attention, find out the nature of things, talk to strangers, take notes, read books, make his own money, find his own way. It is exhilarating: the task, the idea of it. He is filled with the joy of life and the spirit of purpose.
His glass is empty, and he cannot recall if rum and orange juice is called a screwdriver, or a sunrise, or what the name is for it, but he is determined to look it up online after he makes himself another one.