“Damage Report” by Emma Bell Bern

05Jan09

You’re walking, but you slow down and it becomes hard to walk any slower and keep moving at the same time, and he still hasn’t driven by.  So you stop.

You’re looking at your phone like you’re sending a text message but you’re not.  Under the other arm you have your brown, steel-toed work boots and your socks.  The work boots are a requirement of the job.  Sorting boxes at full speed, pulling them off metal-roller belts and chucking them onto pallets means that a box could easily fall on your foot—your supervisors don’t want you losing any toes.

You wear the boots every day since you got in trouble for wearing your flimsy, comfortable tennis shoes and acting like the rules didn’t apply to you. Piercings are also prohibited for safety reasons, but it seems that that rule really doesn’t apply to you because no one ever says anything when you don’t remove yours.

You always take the boots off as soon as you get outside. You free your feet right away because it’s summer and the boots are heavy, coming up past your ankles for extra support.  You have to get rid of them because you hate wearing things on your feet, even sandals, because the black pavement is so warm on your toes and because you’re a cute barefoot girl.

You’re fairly certain that what you’re doing is not okay, but you have a set of rules that you stick to. They give you moral guidance as well as a chance at still getting what you want, they’re good rules.

Besides, he started everything.  When he came close to you he always looked you right in the eye, but rarely spoke to you when anyone was around.  Every interaction was one of subtlety and provocative undertones, things lurking in the weighty silences.  He made you feel sexy so once you asked to borrow his tape gun.  You could be scanning packages up in the steel tower almost a football field’s distance from where Chad loaded his truck and sometimes when you looked over, you could see him standing there motionless, brazen, staring.  You asked to borrow his tape gun instead of getting your own for the opportunity to talk to him, another chance to play the game.

You aren’t the only person at the shipping terminal of your age; there are a few employees that went to college but no others that are currently enrolled. Since you were hired, for the three years that you’ve been a Package Handler, you still haven’t clocked the ninety consecutive days required for a fifty-cent raise. You used to bring it up as joke, suggesting that instead you be given a raise for being well-liked, but laughter from your bosses made it clear how inconceivable the idea was of paying you more.

You took the tool Chad had given you to the package you previously opened, looking for a packaging slip.  Sometimes the customer’s phone number is not listed in the phone book or printed on the label on the outside of the box but can still be found on the slip inside.  The address of the recipient on the box in front of you was not right, and you were trying to find a way to contact the customer for the correction.  Every time your company corrects a package that comes in misaddressed, you scan the package’s barcode into the computer and update the address then click the Yes box next to Charge Shipper and the terminal earns six dollars.

You needed the tape gun to seal the package before sending it back to the shipper because there was no phone number on the packaging slip and a way to contact the customer was never found. You looked down at the device and saw that the free end of the tape had rolled backwards out of the plastic runners that guided it and stuck to itself.  Using your fingernails, you unstuck the end without tearing it, and pulled it back through the track.  In the end, fixing the machine took about four times as long as it did to tape the package shut, which you could have done with any other tape gun.  You’d wanted this one.

The first time you spoke to one another you faltered because his voice did not say what you had thought you were going to hear.  His eyes met yours and he clearly said he wanted to fuck you, but never uttered a sound.  When he did open his mouth, you were unprepared for him to ask you how you were doing that morning.  In any interaction, your coworkers were a constant audience, infinitely capable of finding the hidden meanings in the carefully worded phrases and pauses of your conversations.  When he asked about your well being, you were only able to nod your head in affirmation that you were doing fine before your supervisor appeared on the other side of the rollers.  She asked you how many damage reports were still waiting to be filed on the broken packages from that morning. When you looked to where Chad had been standing, he was gone.

After you fixed the tape gun, you gave it back.  When you walked away he didn’t call out to you over his shoulder.  He could have said something in passing as you walked back to your workstation, but he didn’t. He stopped and turned all the way around to face you when he said that he owed you one. He was grinning.  He owed you one.  It was the first time he had been so forward. A tingling crept up your legs, flowed, erupting warm in your belly. For an instant you imagined all the things he had, things that you would gladly take.  He looked happy and mischievous when he spoke and you briefly held each other’s eyes.  You were the first to shift your gaze; he was looking at you like he could see through your clothes.

After the flirtation began, coming home from college took on a new sparkle.  Even though you had a job five days a week that started early in the morning, there was one man there who’s reaction you waited to watch when he caught sight of you. Imagining his double takes as he tried to sort his packages as you walked up and down the rows of vans, your mundane tasks were spiced with exhibitionism and the hours flew by.

When Chad told you that it didn’t seem like a good idea for a married man to take another girl for a drink, it was after you told him that what he owed you was a drink.  He was getting ready to leave for the day, walking back to his van and you beckoned him into the cage.  The fenced in area in which you sometimes worked had to be locked at night for security reasons—it was the only place in the terminal where packages were left overnight.  The whole enclosure was made of chain-link and there was a padlock, often left open, on the only door. You were perched on a stool at the stone age computer, using 411.com and package-scan tracing systems to attend to the stream of misdirected boxes being routed through Quality Assurance.

In that first moment of oh-I-get-it silence, you stared in disbelief, wanting to punch him in the face and fall through a crack in the cement floor.  He already had someone—a wife—and you were just a game, of even less significance than you’d thought. The cage had no roof and you glanced up at the high metal ceiling of the warehouse, crossed with chains and cables that led back down to the floor.  In the following seconds you imagined all the clandestine places you could meet, in dark bars or obscure parks, and the things you could do.  You imagined belts clunking onto the floor and seams stretching, clothing pushed and pulled off with urgency.

You hid your grimace and told him he was an asshole that day.  He had made you his fool. The initial shock of his marital status was enough to lessen the surprise that his wife also worked at the terminal during the winter.  Weeks later, you learned he had a stepdaughter who also helped out over the holidays from time to time when a coworker mentioned it in passing. It was a regular family affair.

Now you’re scratching the back of your left calf with your right foot and acting like your text messages are so important that you need to stand and ponder them by the place where the trucks pull out.  He said something that morning he told you he was married about some rules being made to be broken.  You could tell in his voice he had not yet decided which rules that applied to.

Once, he made a confession.  You were working at an afternoon job that subsidized your income, trying to look both busy and inconspicuous as you talked on your phone.  The toy store was bustling that day near Christmas and there were marbles and toy dinosaurs underfoot as you wove through the narrow aisles.

Confessions over the phone have a heightened sense of mystery that goes along with the disembodied voice. In addition, this particular shared secret had an extra air of scandal.  You were fidgeting with and rearranging an overburdened rack of one-piece baby outfits as you chatted, gliding between discussion of the weather, bra sizes, the holidays and hotel rooms.  It was during that call you made the rules clear to him: you were available but the married man must make the move. You wanted the ball in his court.

He kept asking you to speak up as you were explaining things to him.  The store was full that day and there was nowhere to turn without running into a weary parent or temporarily abandoned stroller. There were children everywhere.  The everyday words at use for the matter at hand seemed lecherous and double-edged. Near the toy car racetracks and wooden trains you told him that you could not speak up because you were trying to pretend you were working.  He laughed.

There are sexy confessions of things that you want but you’re not sure you should say aloud, even if you’ve done them before.  He confessed that he was flattered by you, by you wanting him, and it was anything but sexy.  He was older, married, and you were young and could have anyone, so he reasoned.  His words were earnest; it didn’t seem he had ever expected the flirtation to go so far.

It did not turn you on to fan his ego with your wants; that was not hot.  You had to tell him to shut his mouth, make it clear to him that you weren’t there to hold his hand, to take long walks and talk about art.  There was silence for half a second as a result until he asked what you were into. He let the syllables drop cautiously, testing the waters of permissible conversation.  You laughed at him then, at the broken tension and change of subject.  He told you that he liked to watch.  You closed your eyes, a shiver running through your body; he watched you every day at work.  You indulged him with a vague notion of a varied past and an open mind.  He asked if you ever played with yourself, making an unfortunate verb choice given your location at the time, and you told him you had to get back to work.

Today is your last day of work before you go back to school—that’s why you’re waiting by the gate, where you’ve found the courage to be so forward.  Only minutes before, gathering your things to leave the terminal for the summer, Chad was coming back from the bathroom and he stopped you, just to chat.

You discussed the sturdy boxes that came packed in the trailer among hundreds of others that said DO NOT STACK, and the packages of plate glass shaped like square coffee tables that said DO NOT LAY FLAT.  You debated whether or not someone would put donuts in the break room on Saturday morning. The range of meaningless subjects made it clear that the topics were not the reason for continuing the conversation.  A few times you snuck glances at his eyes and when they were looking back at you, they weren’t asking you what you were studying.

Finally the truck pulls up to the gate and without raising your head you hear Chad brake when he sees you.  He rolls down his window with its stubborn plastic creak. In time, you look up to acknowledge him and move toward where he sits, comparatively immobilized in his vehicle.

Your elbows are resting on the frame of the open window of his boxy white delivery truck.  You can feel the sun glinting off the metal.  There’s a company logo in big letters on the side, a matte paint on the surface of the glossy finish.  Inside the dark cavern, you know, are at least one hundred boxes of various sizes—the normal weight Chad delivers in one day—containing valuable, precious unmentionables mixed in with third grade textbooks and entire front doors.

The shatterproof glass barrier that is supposed to separate you from him has been rolled down because of the heat.  Your boots, the mismatched ankle socks peeking out from inside, sit side-by-side next to your bare feet on the hot black asphalt.  The forced conversation trips along until you can’t take the waiting and you blurt out that you have a question.  He asks you what it is, inviting you to tell him things.

Now he looks straight ahead, squinting, like he might be nervous, but he’s not fidgeting, he doesn’t seem to be in a hurry.  He leans back in the seat, relaxing a little.  He doesn’t move his eyes from the driveway in front of him and you can feel his thoughts nudging you, the tension heightened by the lack of eye contact.  You stand perfectly still, your arms crossed over the hot metal until he looks at you.  As if you weren’t shaking, with nasty, sweaty palms just from standing so close to him.  You take a deep breath.  These things always require a running start.

You tell him that you want to know if the attraction raging between the two of you is real or only the allure of forbidden fruit.  You don’t want to be spending so much time and energy, fantasizing and desiring, if there is no actual connection. You suggest to him a way to dispel the ambiguity: a kiss, or just some physical contact.

Your eyes lock, then look away at the same time and he knows you know what he’s thinking but it doesn’t matter, you’re going to wait, make him say it.  For a second a voice comes into your head and tells you to think of his wife, to picture his stepdaughter who is nearly your age. These shadowy bearers of conscience flicker through your mind.  The voice is soon out-shouted by anticipation.

He doesn’t say anything.  Maybe that should be your answer.  One more shot, a prod for some kind of response.  He looks back at the road that is not speeding by.  His hands remain on the wheel.

You stand in your bare feet on the pavement leaning towards him and for nearly ten minutes the two of you are talking, and not talking, and doing bad things to each other in your minds and then he says he has to get going.  Since he isn’t making any moves, your rules say that you have to let him leave.

For more than a moment before you move away from the truck there is silence and the two of you stare at each other.  Your eyes are looking straight ahead but neither of you is seeing the other.  You can feel the vacuum of space lurking behind Chad’s seat, tugging gently. There’s nowhere to go.  There’s the truck.  In broad daylight. The truck is dark. You can’t do it here, not in broad daylight, but the truck is so dark.

Finally you bend down to pick up your boots and walk carefully, barefoot, back to your car.  When he calls out that he will see you in a few months you wave your hand above your head because you are too cool to turn around, too hot to, and you know he will be checking out your ass.

When you get back to the car you watch in fascination as your hair follicles on your forearms constrict when the cold air blasts through the vents of your little Honda Civic.  The next time you come back to park in this parking lot you will be cranking the heat instead, fighting against winter’s goal of wiping us all out.

Your imagination is running at full speed, pictures of lips kissed raw and nails scratching skin, family photos torn in half and tearstained pillowcases.  On the way back from work you can’t help noticing every delivery truck you see. You know they are all taking specific cargo to exact locations.  For every box that slides around the dusty floor of every truck there is someone who shipped it and someone who is receiving it.  Two people waiting on a stranger to come through.

You are the possessor of a secret, one that would upset people if they knew it.  You know there are very few people in the world who really know what can happen to a box before it reaches its destination, or what may have happened if it never arrives. A third of the way home you wonder if anyone has ever gotten screwed in, on, or around any of the boxes that later ended up, soggy and soft, driver-released to your front porch.

Or imagine it this way. Imagine her mom gets up for work at her usual time—2:15 a.m. She hears her mother making coffee and can picture it as her mom sets an empty mug next to the half-full pot for her stepfather to drink when he awakes.  As she listens to the door close behind her mother, she snuggles deeper into her blankets as if avoiding the chill that she knows her mom must be feeling from the winter air.

It doesn’t seem like much time has passed before she hears Chad, hours later, but that’s only because she falls asleep.  She listens to him crashing around in the kitchen, because her stepdad overslept and is late, again.  In a few minutes the house is empty once more, as the last coughs of Chad’s pickup truck hack away down the road.  When he gets to work, he’ll exchange his personal vehicle for a big white delivery van. After driving all day he’ll come back to the terminal and drive his own car home.  She doesn’t make it too far in wondering why her parents have jobs at a shipping terminal during the holidays and have to get up so ridiculously early, usually five but sometimes even six days a week.  It made sense that Chad would stay on during the holidays because he worked there year-round, but before she can further ponder why her mom signed on for the seasonal work, she falls asleep again.

Keep thinking about it like this, this time.  Usually, she finally awakes around 8:30 a.m., to the sound of her mom coming home, but this morning her eyes open as her bed sags under the weight of a foreign body.  The look on her mother’s face doesn’t make her feel any better as she focuses her eyes.  Her mom’s skin is pale and drained but her eyes are hard as frozen diamonds.

Her mother suddenly breaks the silence she has been holding and declares that he’s a shitfuck, a worthless pile of piss, a waste of the air that he breathes and worth less than a dog’s asshole.  She says that she would like to cut him into small pieces, load the pieces into hundreds of boxes and ship them all over the globe.  She doesn’t cry at all and her daughter doesn’t know how to react to this.  She doesn’t know if it’s a good sign or not.

Picture that, later in the kitchen, the daughter pours cereal and tries to imagine herself coming across Chad in the parking lot at work, taking into his mouth another woman.  Another woman, the other woman.  Was the other woman taller than her mom?  Maybe she was shorter and Chad had to bend down farther to reach her face.  Would he appreciate that?

Even looking at her mom, it’s hard for her to feel angry because she is not married to him. No one has ever cheated on her before and she doesn’t know what to say.  They don’t talk about what the kiss might have meant, where it may have been leading or already been.  She doesn’t know if these things are important.

Empty cereal bowl before her, the daughter remembers sitting in waiting rooms with her mom, and tables full of bright-colored magazines with the address labels cut off. She remembers her mother as they looked through the magazines together. Her mom always let her hold the magazine, making her feel like a grown-up as she showed her mother pictures of women, food, and beautiful homes. Carrying the bowl to the kitchen, she thinks about the way the two of them used to look at the fashion magazines, browsing the before-and-after photos of miraculous make-up solutions claiming to make you beautiful in just five days. They looked at the pictures together, amused by how much better the before picture was, when the woman was not trying to look the same as everyone else.

After pacing the kitchen for a brief time, opening and slamming cupboards her mom leaves again.  The daughter spends the day in a daze, unsure of what will happen when evening rolls around.  The television plays most of the time as she putters around the house, but even when she sits on the couch in front of the TV she doesn’t watch it. She puts on her coat and hat a couple of times to leave but while looking for her keys both times, she forgets where she was going.

Once, around four, the doorbell rings, but it’s only the UPS man with a signature-required package. When she takes up the thick plastic stylus to sign on the electronically dotted line, she sees that the name on the box is unfamiliar. The address listed is hers but the name is wrong. She points this out to the driver apologetically, as if she is sorry that she is the wrong person; had she been someone else, the delivery might have been to the correct place. He doesn’t seem surprised or bothered by the error and goes about recollecting the box and sign-screen with natural movements.  He tips his brown baseball cap like a gentleman and is halfway down the walk before she closes the door.  When Chad arrives late that night he seems tired but she still can’t tell what has passed between him and her mom. They don’t speak much.

Try to imagine that the daughter feels terrible; she can’t speak to her mother but she wants to make her feel better. She tries to think of the things her mom always said about open communication and honesty. Her mother scolds for her leaving out details when asked about the previous night’s activities, not because she believes her daughter is being sly, simply because she wants to know everything. The daughter knows it is not her place to advise her mother, she is glad the task should not fall to her. Even though she keeps her mouth shut, she thinks her mother might not follow her own rules, and it worries her.

You keep watching as later that night, through the wall, the daughter hears the bedsprings being strained so mercilessly they seem to want to break. The primal soundtrack is not muffled. Other nights, there is a shouting match, a warm-up to the passionate release that follows, but tonight the room on the other side of the wall is silent until the bed begins to creak and moan. Feeling her unspoken fears justified and confirmed, she shifts under her blankets and pulls them tighter. She decides not to care, does not want to judge. Mostly, she tries not to listen, urging sleep to come quickly.

She never knew this side of her mother before Chad started spending the night.  Sometimes they kissed each other or touched hands during the day, minute displays of affection. It was strange to be witness to the driving force between those pecks and caresses. She isn’t sure she likes to be so well acquainted with her mom but the house is small.  More than anything, she wants her mother happy.

Chad sometimes makes a guttural noise right before, a sound unlike anything she’s heard. She remembers once when her mom told her that the outbound trucks at work were easier to load than the inbound ones. As she listened, her mom explained that everything being shipped out of the terminal only went to one place, so the order in which the boxes were stacked wasn’t important. Every box was bound for the national hub Memphis, Tennessee, before going anywhere else. This meant that if a box was sent from Portland, Oregon to Southern California it would go all the way to Tennessee and back in between those two states.

Imagine she told her mom that the system seemed inefficient as the small family sat around the dinner table. Chad chimed in at that point and tried to explain to her the benefits of this method. He spoke in terms of the gains in customer service through the traceability of the package due to the uniform path that every box followed. He believed that the systemization of everything overcame the drawbacks of inefficiency.

This girl turns her face to the cool side of the pillow; the springs twang and fade at random intervals. It’s hard to tell if they’ve finished or are just drawing breath. Imagine that sleep finally comes to her, jerking with false starts before setting over her like a thick layer of dust. She pictures a package, final destination in sight, staring sadly out the window at a receding view.  She imagines that the box watches the disappearing road with sad, soupy eyes, headed for Tennessee.

 

Emma Bell Bern was born and raised in Madison, Wisconsin before attending college at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, where she majored in creative writing and minored in Spanish. Emma currently lives in Chicago and works in a coffee shop. She plans on hanging out in Chicago for awhile, in her apartment, by herself, with piles of books and her laptop to get some writing done.


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Notes from Chad Peterson, Associate Editor
Second person is not easy to pull off effectively, but Emma Bell Bern does an admirable job in “Damage Report” and it adds a nice level of complexity to what is a very polished portrait of an intriguing relationship. There’s a touch of poetry in the language, and Bern uses it to give the piece a little flavor of melancholy. The sudden change in vantage point, while (I presume, intentionally) jarring, effectively shakes up the story and, for me, makes the piece feel more full and, ultimately, more successful.



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