Crossing the River Acheron
The bus from Glover Park lurched forward as the driver attempted to work his way into the unyielding traffic of Massachusetts Avenue. Bill Semple boarded moments earlier and was walking slowly down the aisle looking from side to side for a place to sit. The last open seat was in the back of the bus. Great, he thought. He could relax, page through his notes and prepare for his interview. He turned to lower his torso into the seat when a small child no more than five years old wearing jeans and a red sweater jumped into the empty space. Bill was at half squat when he froze in response to the writhing bundle beneath him. The occupants of the other seats looked at him curiously. A couple seated to the right of the boy looked alarmed, his parents, no doubt. Bill stood up and nodded, his lips pursed as he clutched the rail immediately above him and looked out the windows. Embassy row was in full view with its brightly colored buildings and distinctive flags signifying the various countries that had claimed this portion of real estate as their home away from home. He looked back at the child, who was giggling, and saying over and over, “My seat, my seat.” Bill smiled broadly at him the words “Little bastard” uttered far enough under his breath so as not to be heard by anyone.
Washington D.C. was busy as usual on this spring day as Bill exited the bus at DuPont Circle, his blue suit jacket flapping in response to the wind, his sandy hair curly and combed in a youthful, unkempt sort of way. Early morning joggers dodged the herd of commuters in their quest to log x number of miles before work. Young moms pushed carriages with babies bundled in blankets to ward off the morning chill. Men and women, dressed for work, carefully maneuvered cars shoe horned into parking spaces back on to the street. The Washington monument loomed high in the distance like a beacon calling all to the day’s tasks. He boarded the metro and this time found a seat next to an older woman who didn’t acknowledge him, the exact greeting he had hoped for. He opened the folder he was carrying and read the first line of the e-mail from the agency; “You will be meeting with Don Hornsby, Warehouse Manager for Wayne Industries.”
Bill got off at Rhode Island Avenue with the crowd made up of people carrying laptops and talking into Bluetooth earpieces. He walked next to a tall blonde woman who was having a conversation with someone at her office. He couldn’t resist the temptation to listen in as the woman spoke about a colleague who screwed up and would probably get axed that day. Maybe it served him right, he thought. People should get fired for screwing up. Not like him and so many others who simply got “let go” because of the recession. Let go. The term made him laugh, like releasing balloons into the air. How harmless that seemed in contrast to the loss of income and self worth those shiftless balloons inevitably faced. Half way up the stairs he looked down in time to see the printed e-mail from the temp agency hanging half way out of the folder he was carrying. He quickly pushed it back in and clutched that portion of the folder tightly with his hand. When he looked up, the woman was gone.
Debbie from the agency called him the day before about the job.
“Wayne Industries is on its way up, a real leader in the distribution of industrial filters and waste cleaning devices,” she said.
“What’s the job?”
“It’s a great way to get your foot in the door of an organization going places,” Debbie said.
Bill could feel his eyes watering. “Debbie, what’s the job?”
“Uhh, let’s see…job title…job title…yeah, here it is. Uh...Warehouse Picker.”
“Really. Is that like...what... nose picker?” Debbie ignored his attempt at humor.
“Think of it as a start a—“
“I was a marketing research specialist,” Bill said.
“So, you’ll be working with a different executive group, that’s all,” Debbie said.
“It won’t be the same.”
“Look, Bill. You’ve been out of work for six months. This is a great opportunity—“
“I worked with VP’s and Directors.”
“That was six months ago,” Debbie said. “If I were you, I’d think about now and what you have to do to get back into the game.”
As Bill walked down the street in the direction of Wayne Industries, he remembered the day when he got the news. He was busy calling customers who hadn’t purchased any product in over a year. They were easy calls, and he found it almost fun to try to get them to say why they stopped doing business with the company. He was on his way back from the men’s room, sorting out what he would be doing for the rest of the day when Trudy, his boss, asked him to step into her office. Assuming she wanted an update on the phone project, he started speaking before she finished motioning him to sit in the chair directly in front of her desk.
“We’re learning a lot of good stuff here. I’m—“
“I think we’ll finish the list in a couple of days—“
“We have to let you go.”
Bill stopped speaking as though the air necessary to push the words from his mouth was punched out of his gut. He felt his face flush, his heart beat faster. The words rolled around in his head colliding with each other.
Bill mouthed Trudy’s last three words almost silently. Trudy looked down at her hands.
“It’s part of the company’s restructuring, because of the recession. You’re not the only one, by the way.”
How could this be? Bill thought. He was here and all was familiar: his desk, the photos of his parents standing on either side of him at graduation, his phone that bounced calls to his cell when he was out of the office. He had given his five dollars for Friday bagels and donuts to Terry Swank from accounting only this morning and he promised to meet the guys at happy hour that very afternoon. Only seconds ago his world was ordered, on course. Now it seemed to be undone in one sentence pronounced by the woman sitting in front of him. Bill didn’t know what to do, stand up, scream, throw Trudy out the window. Instead, he sat there silently, staring at her, waiting for something. An acknowledgment that this wasn’t a personal thing that it had nothing to do with his performance, that he really didn’t belong on the list, that he was a victim of some clerical error. But nothing like that was said. Trudy kept staring at her hands.
“You have to be out in 15 minutes.”
After a few months of answering online ads and getting nowhere, Bill reluctantly showed up at a temp agency, sitting in a crowded waiting room and filling out an application on one of those clip board atrocities that should have been thrown out with the selectric typewriter. He didn’t want temporary work, but his father convinced him to do it.
“You have to get work,” he said on his last visit. “It doesn’t look good to be out for so long.”
Yeah, dad, I’m sure worried about how things look, he thought. But his father had turned back to his financial paper, content that he had sufficiently analyzed his son’s problem and given him a solid solution. It was now up to him to act on it and bring about the desired result.
The agency liked Bill’s resume and the way he handled himself. But there weren’t many market research jobs for a young man recently out of school, and when they came down the pike, there were usually a ton of applicants swarming all over them. The last interview he had, his resume was reportedly one of 12 picked from 125 applicants. Unfortunately, he was the first one to be seen. By the time the interviewer reached the end of the process, he could barely remember Bill’s name.
Wayne Industries was no more than five minutes from the metro stop. The building was a two story conventional job with narrow rectangular windows supported by gray slabs of concrete laid in neat rows like so many legos. To reach the building by car or on foot, one had to cross a narrow bridge over a wide stream that looked more like a river. Bill reached this point and stopped. There had been heavy rains the last two days and the water level was high. Bill imagined for a moment that it would breach the surface of the bridge and come pouring over the asphalt roadway. He looked across the stream and saw the lobby of the building. A receptionist sat at a switchboard, a head set straddling her blonde hair like a crown. Two men sat in chairs to the right of the receptionist, one on a cell phone, the other using a laptop. He wondered if he could get their attention. He even imagined one of them coming out offering to row him across the river. For a moment he wondered if he would actually go, or maybe turn around and run before the boat could reach him. He shook off the fantasy and crossed the bridge at a brisk pace.
The warehouse smelled of cardboard, a strong odor that hung in the air like an invisible fog. A petite woman with long brown hair sat at a desk that seemed as wide as her. She greeted Bill without getting up as though she was somehow attached to the desk and the effort might be too much for her. She pointed to another desk with a chair opposite her and invited Bill to sit down.
“Don will be with you in a minute,” she said returning to her papers as though Bill had left her field of consciousness for good.
Don Hornsby was a thin man in his 40’s who seemed to stay that way by constantly remaining on the move. Even after sitting down in the chair next to Bill, he turned to his right and shouted at an employee to be sure to pick a customer order before lunch. When he finally settled down, he seemed more occupied with a pile of yellow papers he brought with him, managing to shake Bill’s hand without taking his eyes off the stack. Bill noticed his uniform, blue pants and white shirt with the words “Wayne Industries” embroidered in a red script on the pocket, the intensity of the color matching Don’s face and exposed skin. He was bald and seemed to be in a perpetual state of slow burn. His blue eyes darted around like a bird’s looking for its next meal.
“So you’re here for the picker’s job, do you know what a picker does?”
“Picks stuff?” Bill said.
“Good answer. Got a resume?”
Bill retrieved the document from his folder and handed it to Don. The redness in his face seemed to get redder. He dropped the resume in front of him.
“You’re an office guy, right? College grad?” He laughed as he kicked his chair back. “What the hell you doin’ coming for a job like this?”
“Uh, the agency sent me,” Bill said.
“Yeah, I know that. The agency only cares about putting bodies into jobs, that’s how they get paid. But you didn’t have to take it; you could have refused. Why did you come for a job that’s, let’s face it …uh…shall we say…beneath you?”
Bill stared at Don. Why did he come? He thought about his four years of college as a business major and the career path he had set for himself, a plan that included internships in the summer at major service firms in the city making calls, doing leg work, snagging every opportunity to get into the nuts and bolts of market research. After graduation he envisioned moving up the ranks of assorted marketing departments to assistant manager, manager, director, VP... to the very top. Salary perks like company cars and free trips would all be part of the Bill Semple package. But the recession changed all that as Bill watched his savings dwindle to nothing as he cashed unemployment checks that left him barely enough for food after rent and bills. Suddenly he felt a rising in his chest, a burning intensity he couldn't define.
“I don’t consider it beneath me, I want the job…”
“Let’s say you weren’t BS’ing me like you just did, and I actually considered hiring you for the job, you don’t have any experience…”
“I could learn,” Bill said.
“Look,” Don pointed to one of his warehouse people in a nearby aisle. “See that guy? He’s using a scanner, to adjust inventory… Ever use one of those?”
“I can do that.” Bill’s voice cracked.
“…What about cycle counting, do you know what that is…?
“No, but I—“
“What’s defragging?” Bill could feel his lower lip trembling. His hands started to shake.
“You don’t know, do you. How about 5S? Or, did you ever use a weigh scale or a UPS machine, or a—“
“I need this job.” Bill was standing now, not sure how or why he got up. The woman attached to her desk looked up at him; the two pickers in the first row stopped what they were doing. “I can learn all that…what you said…I can…I’ll stay late…I’ll come early…you got to give me a chance...”
Bill sensed he was moving again unsure of what set his feet and legs in motion. He was heading for one of the pickers his brain working on instinct, unclear as to what would come after the next step. He stood next to the worker, who suddenly stopped what he was doing to face Bill, his mouth open holding a batch of yellow papers in one hand and a scanner in the other. Suddenly, Bill reached out and snatched papers from his hand.
“Yo, bro, give me those,” the picker said.
Bill grabbed the scanner from his other hand.
“Hey.” Don stood up.
Bill looked at one of the papers and held the scanner in his other hand pointing it at the picker like it was a gun. The picker took a step back.
“So, what, you look for an order number or something here?” Bill indicated a spot on one of the yellow’s by sticking his chin out.
“...Then match it to a box, here and scan it in.” He pointed the scanner at a box he picked out on a shelf slightly above his head.
“Hey,” Don moved closer. “Don’t do that, you’ll screw up the inventory. Give the scanner back.”
Bill looked at Don, then at the items in his hands unsure as to how they got there. He looked back at Don, then at the picker whose scanner he had taken. He looked around; the woman at the desk was standing now, her eyes wide and one hand on the phone. All the pickers were standing in the aisles silently watching Bill. One person folded his arms as another began to walk slowly toward the spot where Bill stood.
When Bill reached the other side of the bridge he had crossed earlier, he turned around and looked back. The river made a crashing sound as it flowed past the bridge, the noon day sun turning its caps into silvery crowns that splashed from side to side then disappeared as each wave spent itself. He looked at the lobby of the building and saw the receptionist walking toward the window. He shielded his eyes against the sun and from where he stood, it seemed as though she was walking toward him. She paused as their eyes seemed to meet at the exact moment she reached the window. Her hand moved to her left as she reached above her head then paused as though considering something. In an instant she pulled her left hand down and the blinds closed shielding the entire lobby from view.
Bill thought about heading back to DuPont Circle. He could catch some of his friends after work at Smith and Wollensky or maybe The Palm. He looked at his watch and calculated they’d be there in about five more hours.
Plenty of time, he thought, to learn about scanners and cycle counting, and the world beyond the river he crossed only moments ago.