Writing Contest Winners

Fiction

1st Place

Secrets

by Robert Rini

AT NIGHT, the Mail Annex is jammed with the same boredom and brutality as Dayshift, but you come in vulnerable after sitting by the swings in the park, or going to school, or toying with a plate of green curry chicken. The noise hits you first, then the heat, then you pass into a drafty hangar of a hundred Big Machines, catwalks, banks of blinking white lights, warning buzzers. You gulp down your heart and say it's nothing. It's nothing. You flip down your shades, set your headphones right. Thinking doesn't help, so you streamline your thoughts, ignore the ice water trickle in your guts, and focus on your machine.

Trouble is, you can't. The Hazardous Materials are taking down the tent in the parking lot.

Balaganda tapes her hands like a boxer, thwacking green friction tape off a roll. She's lean and mean and the color of mahogany from Bengal, Benares, somewhere you can't remember that reminds you of flying fish and spice trees. Dark beauty. She could dress in scarves and jangling coins and ride an elephant in moonlight with a red dot on her forehead. Instead, she squats in pink flammable sweat clothes on Loading Dock 17, cupping a cigarette like a weary soldier in an old newsreel.

Against all odds, you think you love her.

She operates the Big Machines. She studies ESL during breaks, and after work her husband picks her up in his ice-cream truck. He looks like a Bombay schoolteacher with his gold wire-rimmed glasses and moustache, a neat brown man who walks as if pulled by his drawstring, a forward-falling shamble in the same flammable sweat clothes as lovely Balaganda. He works loading cargo at Sea-Tac Airport. He studies engineering. Weekends, they drive to Alki Beach and sell Creamsicles, Nutty Buddys, Rainbow Pops, Atomic Bombs.

Balaganda. Creamsicle. Dove Bar. She wants to be called Bobbie like a "real American." She hardly notices you. Not much to notice. Your fingers are wrapped in green friction tape, too, and you're pushing two and a half tons of packages in a Gympack—a rolling metal cage, an eight-foot cube of boxes on wheels. Headphones on. Mahler. People expect something strange because of the hair, but Mahler is one of the little secrets you keep to preserve your sanity.

You got secrets:

You tell people you boxed Golden Gloves, but you never really got that far. You got pasted in the preliminaries by a southpaw with the Virgin of Guadalupe tattooed across his chest. You drive a beater Toyota pickup to work, but in your garage at home there is a cherry 1970 El Camino SS with a short-block Chevy 359 engine. Secrets. In another city, on another planet, you dropped out of a doctoral program with all the course work done, your dissertation nearly complete. You just walked away.

In your heart of hearts, way down deep, you want beauty, truth, a night of Mozart and stars.

You sit beside Balaganda in the break room and she offers you sticky rice and a plum. Your heart lifts on silver wings. You offer to get her a juice, and strolling to the dispenser, Raymond the Crazy Expediter cuts you off.

Raymond is an Expediter, maybe 6' 6", who looks exactly like Lurch in the Addams Family and sucks blue jawbreakers until his mouth is a huge blue hole. Always blue. Ex-military jarhead, typical postal trash, you want to stiff-arm him down a flight of stairs. Don't deny it. Okay, all right, admit it; you're trapped by all these stupid cultural male roles, all that macho training scrimshawed on the walls of your skull.

"Are you knocking boots with that little savage?" he asks.

Something explodes, and suddenly you've got Raymond against the condiment table and you are breathing death into his face. You can't speak. You can hardly see. Everything freezes up, the time thing. Raymond's Lurch head leans back with a few tiny relish cubes on his eyebrow from the condiment tray. His big blue mouth hangs slack.

"Never," you finally manage to say, every word a clenched fist. "Never say that."

"Let me the fuck up," he says.

And then it's over, things start moving again, your peripheral vision returns, people return to their curries and apples and noodles and the sounds of the Factory floor come clamoring into your mind. Raymond storms out of the break room.

"Oh, boy," says the Mad Monk. "You really did it now."

Here comes Jinx with big Texas strides. Jinx is 18 years old and has spiked hair the color of Orange Crush and black-thorned vines tattooed around her biceps. She can do one-handed push-ups and regularly beats the Mad Monk at chess. She has to be from a slave planet of gladiators.

Today, she's all angles and edges, muscle taut and thrumming like the rubber band on a balsa wood airplane.

"So," she says, tossing another envelope at your head, "that bitch Raymond says he's gonna seriously fuck you up. Dude, he's serious." She glances around. "What are all these army men here for?"

"Don't you watch the news? That's homeland security. We're big news."

"Yeah, here's some anthrax for you." Jinx tosses another envelope at your head as you operate the Big Guy. The Big Guy is the OCR machine, a low-slung beast nearly a hundred yards long that sorts mail by zip code at high speeds, 40 envelopes per second. You load it too fast, don't loosen the mail first, you get a hellish paper jam, and a paper jam at these speeds will destroy maybe 50 envelopes before the machine shuts down and sets off a bank of lights and a siren.

"And if the anthrax don't kill ya, Raymond's gonna kill you," she says, aiming an envelope at your head.

"Knock it off."

The envelope glances off your forehead, but you ignore it, concentrat- ing on your headphones: a Deutsche Grammophon recording of Henry Purcell's music for the funeral of Queen Mary, a morbidly tedious dirge used in A Clockwork Orange, a movie you have seen a dozen times. Jinx hates movies; she prefers raw satellite feed she steals from a neighbor's dish or film stock dragged through industrial solvents, one of her late-night projects when she's too wired to sleep. Most people are wired around here, although regs strictly prohibit the use of illegal . . . and so on. Supers don't care since it keeps people manning the machines, oh yeah, zip zip zip. The candy machines in the break room stock No-Doz, and some folks wash them down with coffee or cans of Mountain Dew because of the high caffeine content, but the real bruisers are passing tiny packages in the parking lot and jitterbugging back from break all crazy like they're chewing a ball of aluminum foil.

CNN IS FLICKERING on the TV in the break room. The Vietnamese huddle in the corner. The Filipinos exchange glances, the Chinese are silent as river stones. The Blacks don't take any crap, but they wait for their grievances to be reviewed. The Mad Monk sips coffee from a Thermos and plays chess, working out his crazy religious theories on pawns and kings, muttering millennial designs with glee as if he can't wait for the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to come galloping through the break room lopping off heads. He wants them to smite Raymond the Expediter for pushing him around and Jinx, who keeps beating him at chess.

Everyone falls into line with the exception of a few Crazy White Guys Who Flip, a category crammed with the maladjusted who end up doing crazy things. Oh, some freak out and shoot, but some do REALLY CRAZY THINGS like jam baloney sandwiches into the OCR machine. Or proclaim themselves King of the Ottoman Empire.

There was one Crazy White Guy . . . you know the stories. You're one of them. You've walked away from better jobs without blinking. You've walked away from entire lifetimes without saying a word. You would have quit a long time ago if not for one thing. You know. The Apple of Your Eye. The Love of Your Life. A Stranger Unto You. Balaganda.

Call her Bobbie.

It's funny. There are fifty boxes of letters announcing, "You Have Already Won a Million Dollars." You're wheeling a cage of them between rows of OCR machines and concentrating on the music. You're listening to Itzhak Perlman playing Debussy's Girl With the Flaxen Hair. Balaganda steps into the light. Inertia. Unstoppable Force. You can barely hold back the Gympack and manage to swerve left and crash into an OCR machine, sending a pearl-string of white lights blinking. An alarm screams—this one an exhaust whistle so shrill listening to it is like chewing on tinfoil. Balaganda is all right. In fact she hardly seems to notice, glancing up shyly, her mind somewhere else far more important, maybe studying her English, conjugating verbs in this harsh new language, or maybe calculating the cost overhead on Nutty Buddys, maybe back in Bombay with what's-his-name sitting in a park with elephantine ferns and palms and the ruins of a weather-beaten Buddha lying on his side crawling with gibbering monkeys.

"Energies," she sniffles, and you're ready to nod dumbly and agree because she would know about energies, karmic energies—you feel them, too—and you've waded through the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

"Energies," she says. "I neat to take ann-tee-histamines."

Ah, yes. Allergies.

The Super puts you on Double Probation, files an incident report, warns you the next time you are SOL. He's a sweating pink man with a face the color of prime rib, a face that should arrive with a tiny cup of horseradish. He gets even redder and puts his hand on your shoulder, breathing breath mints into your face, saying, "I don't like you. Not even a little. We don't jibe. Cannot relate. Legally, you can sit anywhere you like—I can't stop you—but this place runs on people working together, all kinds of people, diverse type people, which means they have their own strange customs and they'd be much happier—everyone would be happier—if you just left them all alone . . . OK?"

In your mind's eye, a scythe lops off his head.

Now, the super's head looms in pinkness and you need to stabilize yourself with deep breathing and relaxation techniques you learned in Special Ops. No, you were never in Special Ops. Techniques from an infomercial. Breathe deeply. Are you breathing deeply?

Breathe deeply.

She's standing by the punch clock pulling off friction tape, surrounded by men in army fatigues. They scan her body with a metal detector, but you can't hear their comments. You want to walk up and tell her something . . . but instead you squeeze past and check out. Outside, the night sky is a fine spray of stars.

The ice-cream truck is waiting by the curb, and inside, in the glow of an overhead light, Balaganda's husband studies an engineering textbook.

You frisk yourself for your keys and hear something in the bushes. Raymond is hiding behind a ragged Scotch broom.

"I see you, Raymond," you say. "Your boot."

Silence.

"Come on, Ray."

"Fuck you, man. They got your little foreign chick."

"Sure, Ray. Sure thing. I'm going home."

You drive home through dark rain-slickened streets with the radio playing, long-distance dedications drowning out the hissing tires and this desolate stretch of the city, and you hum along, streaming past these weak yellow lights of all-night convenience stores, carpet warehouses, porn shops, bars stinking of the special loneliness of swing shifters, until you finally rise from the city on an overpass that coils left as you shift gears and punch in another radio station in one gorgeous fluid movement.

At home you doze off in your easy chair facing the War, but you dream of beautiful lotus blossoms drifting down the Ganges, smoke rising in shrouds from funeral pyres, ashen sadhus with brilliant white teeth. And somewhere, somewhere in the land of secrets, an elephant stands silently in a moonlit field.

Freelance illustrator Robert Rini recently showed his work at Roq la Rue Gallery. He plays guitar in the garage band the Simpletones and once operated the Big Machines at the Mail Annex, the setting for this story.

 
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