(Note: This is the latest installment of an ongoing column. Click here to the index for previous installments.)
I was working the counter when some old knucklehead sashayed through the doors and wanted a thermostat for his car. His complexion told you he had money: he was in his 60s and his face was smooth and more or less wrinkle free. Meat on people who don’t worry year in and year out about food and housing tend to maintain a youthful elegance. His face wasn’t taut or shiny, which ruled out plastic surgery. He was simply a man whose concerned lay outside the sphere of struggling to make ends meet.
Like most people with money who found their way into the part store, he was clueless. He knew the year and the model but not the make or the engine size or the OE thermostat temperature. He somehow knew he needed a thermostat and expected me to procure it for him.“I need to know what kind of car it is,” I said.
“It’s a Buick.”
“Yeah, but a Buick what? What kind of Buick?”
He glanced out the window, at the car in the parking lot. It wasn’t a Buick.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t have it here.”
“I could sell you a thermostat but it’d be a crapshoot.”
He glanced out the window again. Why the fuck was he doing that? An old Mercury was sitting in the parking lot. It looked as if it sat in a garage for three decades, taken out maybe once or twice a year for a cruise and a detailed cleaning.
His eyes expressed confusion and speechlessness when he swung his head to face me. I didn’t react. Without knowing what kind of Buick he owned I couldn’t sell him the correct part.
A sign hanging on the wall read: The wrong information will get you the wrong part every time. Guaranteed. I dragged my eyes to the sign and read it, hoping the man would mimic me and understand the point I hoped to convey.
I woke up a few hours earlier in pain. My head throbbed and my neck felt as if someone had stomped on it. As the old man stumbled to piece together a coherent thought, I scratched the back of my neck, near the base of my skull. And that’s when I felt it: something had embedded itself in my flesh. A tick? Some kind of parasite I hadn’t heard of? Jesus Christ.
The urge to run to the bathroom to investigate this thing surged through me, but I suppressed it. Instead, I maintained my composure while the knucklehead made up how mind.
“I’ll have to find out the make and get back to you.”
“Okay,” I said, thinking about the object on my skull. “Great. Do that. Have a good day.”
He waddled toward the door, slowly, as if defeated. I registered his movement but didn’t think much about it. What the fuck was in my neck?
I pushed away from the counter and aimed for the bathroom. Rodney, my boss, was standing at the printer, reading a bill that had just printed. He handed it to me.
“Jake’s,” he said.
I wanted to crumple the paper and rip it to shreds. Jake’s was one of our biggest customers. I couldn’t delay delivering their parts, not even for the few minutes it’d take me to haul ass to the bathroom to inspect the base of my skull.
I pulled their parts off the shelves, loaded them into the delivery car, and lit a cigarette. Before taking off, I spun through the radio, trying to find something loud and obnoxious to distract me, but I found only classic rock and what passes as modern rock. All crap. I settled on NPR and listened to an interview with a man who recently wrote a book about the corrosion of the social contract as corporations destroyed the middle class to bolster their shareholders.
Our parts store was located in one of the seediest areas of town. Once prosperous, it had long atrophied and decayed, a remnant of a more prosperous area, a time when industry transformed the country. Now we lived in a consumer economy, where full-time work was sparser every year, where living wages were even sparser.
Cracked and accordioned sidewalks bookended scarred streets. Color drained from houses inhabited by people too poor to maintain them. On every block you’d encountered empty and decaying houses or factories or former car dealers. People sat in chairs on sidewalks in front of early 20th century bars or barbers or grocers. The heat didn’t seem to bother them. It was probably cooler outside than in their houses and apartments—few places on this side of town had air conditioning, a fact telegraphed by box fans in nearly every window.
This area was home to transgenerational poverty. These are the victims and descendants of the victims of downsizing, outsourcing, mergers. When the factories fled, mostly in the 70s and 80s, during the reigns of Nixon and Reagan and the atrocities of their venial economic delusions, the landscape deleted and rewrote itself. As factories shuttered, the middle class fled. Those left behind were the portion of the population too poor to migrate, too poor to find more prosperous cities. These were the victims of the wealth transfer in this country. These were the hosts the wealthy parasites fed on and destroyed—and I was one of them: hence working a $9.00 an hour job at 38. In a town with a paucity of good jobs. And too poor to leave. This was a fate my father had bequeathed me, a situation he himself was too poor to escape.
This was a reality his generation had bequeathed the world.
I whipped around the Indiana State Prison, famed for John Dillinger’s daring assault nearly a century ago. Jake’s was across the street. A cop car parked in a lot a dozen or so yards away, waiting to generate revenue by snagging some fool who took the corner and forty miles per hour. I saw him half a block away and slowed down as I cruised past him, mindful to use my turn signal while turning into Jake’s lot.
I carried the parts into the garage and set them on a table. Jake, a sseventy-something-year-oldman, was leaning against a bench examining an inline fuel filter. He watched me unload his order with detached interest—eyes half-cocked, vacant. Handing him his bill and a pen, I nodded.
“How’s your day?” I said.
“I know the feeling.”
“You slow, too?”
“Everyone is. The whole town is.”
He flung the filter onto the table and signed his bill.
“Something’s not right,” he said. “They say the economy’s fine and all, but something’s not right.”
“I heard the phrase ‘economic turnaround’ on the radio today. I don’t buy it.”
“What turnaround? Ain’t no such thing, at least not around here.”
“Not anywhere,” I said. “Everyone’s suffering.”
“You see how many stores closed around the country last month?”
I had. It was in the thousands, a quiet collapse of the consumer market.
“It’s nerve-wracking,” I said.
“I got goddamn bills coming out my ears. Everything’s going up: rent, property tax; and other things are going down: benefits, wages—how do they expect people to buy cars and fix them, or even buy food, if they’re making a few hundred pennies an hour?”
He titled his head forward and to the side, closed his eyes, and scratched the back of his neck, near the base of his skull. The sight pulled my attention to my neck, to that thing on my neck. Christ. I’d managed to forget about it.
Fear jolted me. Ticks nowadays carried an enzyme that could make you allergic to a protein in meat, sometimes fatally allergic. I hoped to hell it wasn’t a tick. But then … what the fuck was it?
And why was Jake’s hand lingering on the back of his neck?
Was he experiencing a similar … infestation?
“We’re fucked,” I said. “The oligarchs have turned the West into a neo-feudal civilization and we’re too blinded by entertainment and partisanship to understand what’s happening. What’s happened.”
“I just … I don’t know what to do anymore.”
He scratched the back of his neck with his index finger, vigorously, as if trying to pick a scab.
“At the rate things are going,” he said. “There ain’t gonna be an economy—at least not for people like you and me.”
Fuck. He was right. I could picture it: Ninety percent of the world’s population living on streets or in tent cities, American children malnourished, orphaned by famine and war and genocide while the oligarchs live in cities inaccessible to poor people. They’ll wall their communities like ancient city-states, destroying all highways and roads leading into their havens, which will only be accessible by planes or helicopters or passenger drones. And they’ll keep us pacified by dope, religion, and manufactured race and “class” wars.
Anxiety seized me. My head throbbed. The thing—what the fuck was it?—at the base of my skull burned, seemed to twist like a corkscrew. I tapped it with my fingertip. It felt huge. As large as a vending machine moon ball, maybe larger.
I shook Jake’s hand and uttered some platitude about things getting better or whatever—I don’t even remember what tripe I’d spewed; then I stumbled to the car and, once inside, lit a cigarette and turned on the radio. Terri Gross interviewed someone about the systematic dismantling of the education system in America. The long term prospects, the expert argued, are grim. With China poised to take the mantle of scientific and technological Midas away from America, innovation here could call catastrophic economic contraction and social unrest. But then what do we care? Nationalism will transform us into subservient prisoners too ignorant of our chains to realize we’re imprisoned, and too dope and stupid to realize we can escape. Fuck. We’re doomed.
The thing corkscrewed again, burrowing deeper and deeper into my neck. Had it penetrated my spine? Will it control me? Has it already exerted its influence?
My hands trembled. I felt ill, as if lunch would spiral up my stomach and expand in my throat and mouth. My head hurt. I reached into my pocket and yanked out my cigarette pack. I kept a Xanax in the cellophane, a security blanket. Earlier in the day, when work was slow, I wrote on the cellophane, with a ballpoint pen, “Take in case of emergency.”
This was it.
This was the emergency.
But I didn’t have anything to drink and I couldn’t dry swallow pills, so I shoved the pill back into the pack and took off down the road.
Company policy forbids unwarranted stops while we’re on runs, but my manager was laid back and didn’t care if we made pit stops as long as we didn’t advertise it. I swung down a side street and wound my way to the main artery and parked behind the nearest gas station.
Inside, I grabbed an energy drink and ambled to the counter. A woman was standing off to the side filling out on application. Scars and bruises colored the backs of her legs and arms. She moved with peristaltic gestures, as if her arms and neck were snakes. She shook her head while writing, as if uncertain of something.
A child stood beside her and tugged her shirt.
“Can I get this,” the child said, brandishing a bag of candy.
“No,” the woman said. “Ain’t got no money for that shit. Theys crackers at home.”
“I don’t want crackers. I want these.”
“We trying to get out of the halfway house? You wanna get out and into a real apartment? Then let mommy fill out this goddamn application and leave me alone.”
The cashier, who was finishing a transaction, glanced at me and raised an eyebrow.
I didn’t flinch.
Anything to survive, I thought.
The girl skulked to the back of the gas station. Her mother gazed at her daughter, and her body language shifted, as if her bones had turned to gelatin.
“I’m sorry, baby,” she said. Then, to the cashier, “Servers wages don’t pay shit. I make two-ten an hour, plus tips, but they sometimes aren’t enough to buy groceries.”
“My sister’s a server,” the cashier said. “It’s not a glamorous lifestyle.”
Twenty-one dime’s an hour. Jesus. But then I made ninety dimes an hour. While trying to raise three kids, the youngest of whom was one year old.
The woman titled her head. Then she reached to the back of her neck, near the base of her skull, her fucking skull, and poked and prodded something near her hairline. Christ. Not her, too. The infestation was clearly widespread.
The cashier rung me up. With tax, the total equaled twenty-seven percent of my hourly wage. The base of my skull hurt, as if pierced by an icepick, and the pain rain down my body, igniting my nerves.
Back in the car, I cracked open the energy drink and popped a Xanax and lit a cigarette and headed back to the shop. The pill soothed me as I drove. Relaxation in the form of loose muscles started at a pinprick in the back of my neck and spread to my head and shoulders, arms and trunk and legs.
A few years earlier I had a good job punching numbers into a spreadsheet for a friend who owned an internet company. For nearly eleven years I worked out of a basement aiding film and anime and game geeks in their quests for memorabilia, and I made a decent wage doing it, what amounted to about seventeen or eighteen dollars an hour. The money afforded us a decent apartment and, on occasion, disposable income. Then an algorithm replaced me. Computer code, written by a man in Tokyo, automated invoicing and billing, and I lost my job.
I took the parts store gig expecting to find something in my field shortly after. I had considered it a placeholder, of sorts, a way to make ends meet for the short term. But the timeline lengthened as fewer employers in Indiana—the armpit of America—sought recruits in my field. As my prospects dimmed, as my paychecks represents a shadow of my old checks, as my wife and I struggled to make ends meet, I felt trapped. The longer I spent as a delivery driver—and, later, a counter person—in an auto parts store, the farther my experience in data entry and accounts payable receded, and so when possibly employers viewed my resume, they now saw, first and foremost, a service industry employee making a little more than minimum wage.
It was a hard life in America. Once you’re locked into the service industry, it’s hard to escape. People view someone like me as a braindead mutant barely able to function. Few people have patience or empathy for cashiers at gas stations or fast food employees or car mechanics or garbage people—if you’re employed to provide a service to people, they’re quick to condemn you and condescend to you while expecting the service you’re providing. Hell, in many cases they feel somehow entitled to the services you’re providing. And they treat you as non-entities while you’re providing it; they might as well interact with a robot or a screen on a kiosk; it’s certainly how they behave when they’re interacting with you.
Couple that with the low pay and I found little reason for excitement when I went to work each day. I liked my co-workers and manager, and some of the customers, but for the most part I loathed the job. I hated wasting time there. I hated collecting my paycheck at the end of the week. Each Monday I marveled at the paucity of money deposited into my account. I sold my labor six days out of the week, more than fifty hours a week, for fewer than four hundred dollars. I was attempting to raise three kids, including a baby, and struggling to make rent on less than eighteen grand a year.
In a world with skyrocketing property values and food costs, my long term prospects seemed grim. I shuddered at the thought of the struggles my kids would face as adults, when two-thirds of the world’s job will be automated. Christ, we’ve allowed the oligarchs to construct a hideous and psychotic world, and we’re too numbed by drugs and entertainment, and too stupid or apathetic to care.
What a world.
What a wonderful fucking world.
Of course, I’m not entirely innocent here. As a teenager, I chose alcohol and drugs over school, and in my twenties, when I should’ve known better, I banked my future on the publishing industry. But the avant garde appealed to me—it chose me, in fact; I had no choice—and I focused my effort on literature on the margins. Translation: I banked my future on a bankrupt form of art. In my thirties, slightly wiser, I went to college, nailed a 3.92 GPA, then lost my job. It had allowed me the flexibility I’d needed as a full time student. When uncertainty replaced flexibility, I took a hiatus from school. Then we had a baby, which surprised us, to say the least, because my wife was—honest to god—on birth control.
The sum of bad choices + a socioeconomic system stacked against poor people restricted my possibilities, and now I was trapped in a low-paying job with no hope. Combined with mental illness, bipolar disorder and generalized anxiety disorder, my situation seemed grim. And it consumed me: I perceived the world as a gray dystopia where the rich devoured the resources and shat out their waste and condemned us for sitting on piles of shit.
I turned the radio as I drove. Some one hit wonder from the 90s whined about love. I found another station, settled on Led Zeppelin. Not my favorite, but it’d do. I needed to turn off my brain, to stop thinking about my situation. It turned my brain into mush. Besides, the Xanax had relieved my tension; I should ride the wave of relaxation and enjoy the moment.
But … then rent. I was two hundred dollars short. Nowhere to turn, no one to turn to, nothing to sell—what could I do? I couldn’t not pay rent. I couldn’t avoid my landlord. I couldn’t put my family in a situation in which we faced homelessness. It was the job, this goddamn job; it sucked my spirit from my eyeballs and couldn’t even bother to pay enough for me to cover rent; and and and …
That thing at the back of my neck hurt again, as if it stabbed me with pincers.
Jesus. What was it?
I pulled into a nearby parking lot and turned the front facing camera on my phone on and held the phone at the back of my head and looked at the screen through the rear view mirror, which allowed me to see my neck and hairline. Expecting a monster, a tick the size of a half dollar, I saw my hair and my skin, but no tick, insect, parasite. I didn’t see anything.
I moved the phone around and turned my head to cover every angle. Nothing.
I drove back to the store, not in any way relieved. Has the insect burrowed inside me? Was it tunneling through my muscles or swimming through my bloodstream? I didn’t even know if such a thing happened. Was it now part of me?
Traffic stalled and I sat on an otherwise slow street waiting for a train to cross. Thoughts fluttered in my skull, but one popped up and persisted: what if I had imagined the insect? I wondered if stress could induce hallucinations. I thought about the situation, the poverty crushing me, working long hours for shit pay, and wondered what it was doing to my brain, my body.
The train passed by and the lights turned green and cars rolled forward. I flicked my cigarette out the window and rolled up the window. The clock on the radio read 9:30. Two hours down. Eight to go. Eight long hours.
Sometimes I wondered why I bothered. What was the point? I squandered 70-80 hours a week, 7 days a weeks working two jobs and I couldn’t make ends meet. I was short on rent and low on funds, and I had to piss away another day to help someone else fulfill their ambitions.
But then that’s what has always happened in this country: the many serve as fodder for the few. We exist to keep their businesses running while they reap the rewards, then we vanish we they no longer need us. And with automation devouring jobs everyday, with nearly a third of our population out of the workforce, it’s clear that more and more “job creators” and oligarchs don’t need us. And if they do, it’s on their terms.
I hit a red light and ignited another cigarette. A heavy set woman lumbered across the street. She wore a McDonald’s uniform, one too black and insular for such a miserably hot day. As she crossed the crosswalk, she glanced at me. I nodded. In her eyes I sensed the same frenzy, the same anxiety that consumed me, the same desperation and uncertainty.
What a world.
She reached the sidewalk on the other side of the street and turned a corner. Then she raised her hand and poked and prodded and scratched something at the back of her neck, near the base of her skull. And that’s when it occurred to me: we were all infected. The rich portrayed the poor as parasites feeding off the system, but they were wrong. We were the hosts of parasites bleeding us dry.
Daulton Dickey is a novelist, poet, and content creator currently living in Indiana with his wife and kids. He’s the author of A Peculiar Arrangement of Atoms: Stories, Still Life with Chattering Teeth and People-Shaped Things, and other stories, Elegiac Machinations: an experimental novella, and Bastard Virtues, a novel. Rooster Republic Press will publish his latest novel, Flesh Made World, later this year. Contact him at lostitfunhouse [at] gmail [dot] com