"The Birds in the Warehouse" by Tyler Baker
When people ask me what I went to school for, I lie. I tell them I acquired a bachelor’s in business. They say things like, “smart” or “good for you”. When I told them the truth--I studied creative writing, they’d pause and say “oh how great”, or “you’re gonna be a best-selling author”-- the pause said everything. They were too shy to come out and ask how I expected to make money.
I’m 34 years old and I live in Rocklin California. I married my wife, Sophie, when we were 26. She’s a used car salesman and I work as a supervisor at Bulk-Buy for forty-five hours per week. It pays alright but to say it is unfulfilling is a gross understatement. Sophie works the early shift and I, the late shift, so I see very little of her most weeks. She reads my work and reacts in a neutral way-- no strong praise and no strong criticism.
On an uncharacteristically rainy Rocklin day, I finished at work and came home early. I got out of my car and went to the stairwell leading to our second floor apartment. I was passing under the iron and concrete stairs when I heard Sophie’s voice from the landing above. She was in the middle of a telephone conversation. I could tell by the casual callousness of her voice that she was speaking with her mother.
“I love him, but I just gotta say, his stories are BORING. If I have to endure one more of them I might go insane,” she laughed and the sound went up into the trees above me. “So I’m not the only one then, good. No….No. I can’t tell him that, it would break his heart. He wants to be a writer so bad.” A fat drop of water plopped into my left eye from one of the steps above. I walked back to my parked Volvo, hopped in and mulled over Sophie’s words. Boring echoed. She was right and I knew it.
Sometimes when strangers ask me what I do for a living, I say, “I’m a writer”. Then they ask, “oh wow! Anything I might have heard of?”
“You may have heard of one or two…” I say. “The Locksmith from Chinatown? No? The Holy Transmission? Brick Oven Lawyer? Hawk of the Gallows. That won the Grand Jury Prize you know?” They say, “yeah I think I have heard of that one, wow”. They’re all made up of course but it’s fun to pretend. Sometimes they even ask for autographs. Naturally I don’t sign them with my own name. I have an alias: Manfred Brookebath. Manfred can say the words, “I am a writer” without feeling like a liar. Mike Hooker on the other hand has not yet earned the title. I write, but I am not a writer. Anyone can see that. I don’t even look like a writer. I’ve never seen anyone with a baby face like mine on the back of a novel. So when they ask me where I studied, or what my interests are, I lie, to spare everyone a little embarrassment.
A BLUEJAY SWOOPED DOWN from the rafters on the front end of the warehouse where I work, darted past my face. Birds get inside sometimes and they get stuck like a wasp in a funnel trap. Customers were everywhere. Eight registers were open and I was thinking of opening lane nine when another bird whipped past me. A Bulk Buy supervisor is not paid to concern his or herself with critters from outside. A supervisor’s job is to delegate the floor staff and to reprimand them when necessary. He or she carries a radio and must endure the micromanagement of upper-level staff for no less than eight hours. This particular day I ran the break-aid and so my title was the “board runner”. The board runner doesn’t appear to be working at all, he or she stands by a computer behind the registers and looks at an ipad with an Excel spreadsheet open. The job is challenging but as far as anyone knows I could be standing around playing tetris.
An older woman paid for her groceries and approached me with surprising speed. She kept coming until she nearly stepped on my boots. She was at least a foot shorter than me but her shoulders were broad and her eyes confident. Angry. “What will happen to the bird up there?” Her breath smelled like medicine.
“Don’t worry, after closing hours, we make sure they get out of the building, alrighty?”
“You won’t kill it, will you?” She said with a frown.
“Pardon..Kill the bird? Absolutely not.”
“Well you’d better get to it sooner rather than later. They carry diseases. This is a grocery store after all.” She eyeballed me for no less than eight seconds, pivoted and took off. I had lied. The truth is, I have no idea what happens to the birds. I know for a fact that nobody takes a lift up to rescue them. We’re all too occupied with our work. The doors roll down at 8:00, I clock out at 11:30 and they’re still up there chirping. When I come into work the next day they’re gone.
My boss, Butch, came out of the office and hooked a right. His shaved head gleamed like a mirror. He wore a dry-cleaned silk dress shirt, dress pants and alligator skin shoes. He’s a few inches taller than me, making him no less than six foot six inches. His frame is enormous but lean. Muscular. He locked eyes on me and descended like a hawk. He pulled me into a handshake, crushing my fingers in his mitt.
“How we doin up here, buddy?” He smiled.
“Doing well. Busy.”
“We need to talk about your lines.” He put his hands on his waist.
“Did my lines get too long?”
“You mean you don’t know? If you aren’t paying attention to these things, I can’t help you.”
“My lines were under control. I might have been on break when it happened, Butch-- when Jean had the board.”
“We succeed as a team and we fail as a team. Don’t blame Jean. If you aren’t willing to work as a team we will demote you, Mike.” A blue jay chirped from overhead and Butch’s eyes clouded for a moment.
“No excuse, sir.” I said.
“Short. Lines. Understand? We’re always watching.”
“Yes sir.” He started to leave but turned back.
“What’s with the beard. Can’t afford a razor? You need to be more presentable from now on.” He stalked away as though his muscles were restricting motion.
It was December, which meant crunch-time for meeting his budget quota. If Butch improved upon the previous year he would get a $20,000 bonus. If his numbers declined the regionals would threaten him with demotion. It was not an empty threat-- people got demoted or fired all the time. Upper management didn’t like doing it so first they’d try bullying the worker into stepping down. The worker gets called into the office where a triangle of three witnesses sit in front of an empty chair. First they say, “close the door”, then they say things like “this is our concern”, or “you’re not meeting Bulk Buy standards”, or, my personal favorite: “you’re the weakest link.”
I’ve been a part of the witness triangle for dozens of firings. Many of them start crying when they hear the words: “the management staff and I have no choice but to terminate your employment.” As a witness to these firings, it is just my job to nod my head and look at the employee while they cry into their hands. Sometimes I hand them the box of tissues from Butch’s desk. Fear of job security is an effective motivator. They’re better off without Bulk-Buy, I say to myself. You’re the one who’s really got it bad. You’ll never leave this place.
Years ago, when Butch interviewed me for the job he used the same format-- three interviewers and myself, the interviewee. When he asked me what I had studied in school I told him the truth.
“Creative writing, huh? What are you planning on doing with that?”
“Write.” I said.
“Will writing pay the bills?”
“Not right away.” I said. He paused and then his mouth pinched, stifling a laugh. He patted me on the shoulder.
“Awesome. That’s just awesome, buddy. Someday I’ll see you on the news. You’ll be a bestseller.”
How does he get his head to shine like that? I thought. It looks like freshly lacquered oak. It’s abandoned. A truly clean slate. What a perfect place for a bird’s nest.
“We’re going to schedule you for a second interview. Supposing the background check is all good, you can about consider yourself hired, Mike. How’s that?” He smiled, showing small bleached teeth.
“That sounds great!” I said, genuinely happy to be hired. I extended my hand and he took it, crushing my fingers in his dry hand.