It took strength to endure this routine. I could only do it because I understood that even dancing was in the end, stripped of everything fancy, nothing but routine. I’d never heard of freestyle dancing at the dance theater before, nor have I ever seen a great dance just spontaneously happening, but then again, I had never set foot in a dance theater before; Not even in a museum. How would overpriced doodles from the dead help me cope with the day to day life? So, I saved the tickets to the cemetery and bought something that made me really happy and which didn’t just enable me to call myself educated. Moreover, art did not make the undemanding work more bearable. Weed did though and I could see dance shows, art documentaries and/or pop cultural relevant things; all on a small screen in Ätz’s living room.
In the morning I usually took the tram to work. There was an old woman I saw a few times, gray short curly hair, her upper lip significantly hanging over her lower lip. She was wearing one of those ugly flower dresses that look like nightgowns with some extra details and I couldn’t even have admired on every younger body. Under her arm, she had clamped a stack of copies of the same newspaper, around 15 pieces, all of them the same size, some of them had the advertising brochure hung out, possibly different editions but does it make it so much better? With her other hand, she pulled one of these bags with wheels on it, which she dragged behind her for shopping. She realized I was watching her. The old lady gave me a discontented look. I replied with a rigid expression and forced myself to look away. I sat in a seat in the tram, listened to music and saw the same way pass by as every day.
Mr. Konrad and I have been locking horns a lot lately. He got caught up in little things I did, that made me personally more efficient but didn’t follow the One Way, he was preaching the staff about. I was forbidden to unpack the cartons outside the storeroom. So what was the matter with that, you probably don’t ask? Because if I did unpack books between the aisle, the boxes stood around and tragically disturbed the overall picture of the displayed works of literature for the time, I needed to unpack them there. Following this logic…where did the customers think the books were coming from? Did they think, for example, that we would bind them together in the back and glue the pages into the cover, which we would each paint individually and meticulously down to the last detail and then put them out here? No…I am already getting angry again. Basically…there was one way – Mr. Konrad’s – or no way at all. I followed THE one path. I adapted it as my own way because he assured me it was the road with the fewest stumbling blocks. Even though, that his was not the most direct, or the simplest, or the most thoughtful, at least not in my head – I left it uncommented, out of respect for the bills I had to pay. Not like, I had enough money for life either way. My living expenses alone, if I kept them to a minimum, we’re still just over three-quarters of my salary. Food, clothing, shower gel, toothpaste, cigarettes, detergents, washing powder, etc. etc. Life is fucking expensive.
I went out for a smoke with Gerhard during the lunch break. I never ate anything for lunch, no hunger, no money. Smoking also became more expensive from year to year. First you could afford them, if you just kept the lunch money your father gave you once every two weeks out of convenience in the morning and you would last easily, and now one working day was already draining the household budget – on top of it they stole a notable part of your salary in case you got sick and while we are at it, you had to pay taxes for cigarettes, that were cheap in production and were supposed to help you fully benefit from the insurance in the first place. If it went on like this, I couldn’t afford my lung cancer anymore, but it was the one luxury of my life.
“What are you up to on weekends?”
“Usually go out with my friends” I replied.
He tried another run-up after I didn’t jump on.
“Do you smoke weed? I like to smoke a lot. You know, sitting in front of the TV and a little…” I don’t know why I imagined a 50-year-old in a TV chair without a T-shirt, but full of crumbs and chips, grunting at a sitcom episode. I smiled at the thought “What now, are you smoking or not?” he ripped me out of my mind.
“I get mine from an old schoolmate.”
“Yes, and his hands are a little tied up at the moment”
I knew what was coming next. I was wondering how to ask Ätz. Gerhard asked and I said, “Let’s see”. When I got home, Ätz squeezed five grams of aluminum foil into my hand, I could have it for free, he told me when I asked him how much he wanted for it. “That’s how you make friends” he said. I sold Gerhard the aluminum ball for 50 euros, pocketed the money. As an agency fee, I justified it in my head. Gerhard was grateful anyway. During lunch break, we smoked a joint in the backyard by the garbage cans. He told me stories while I concentrated on not getting caught. No one came. Also not attracted by Gerhard’s deep growling sounds. I dumped the butt in the trash and we went back to work.
Work was sluggish that day. I cleaned up, pulled the books that stood further behind in the shelf to the front, so it looked better and stocked up where it was already noticeably necessary. In my condition, I took my time to do it and took it easy. The boss was already home at 12 o’clock, so he didn’t care. When I was finished, it took me twice as long as usual, I sat on a chair, that was meant for the customers, and went through a novel, that was meant for desperate housewives. The boss said a while ago and in private to me, it would be better if he put me in this section, because these women still have hope for a magical encounter, “there you will do good for business”, were his words. I didn’t even argue with him, I basically didn’t give a shit when he told me.
That had changed after two weeks caught between shelves full of kiss-kiss dialogues and dance invitations and loveless husbands and love promising lovers. I remember, I wished I could set the shelves on fire. Dash them with gasoline and ignite the flames with a cigarette. I would have cheered the book burning on, had crossed my arms and from time to time taken a drag from my cigarette, while the paper arched in the flames. I was indulging in my daydreams, which robbed me of the desire to really do it, and when I was wondering what I would say to the question “Why?” asked me by an shocked employee or at the latest by the policemen when they finally handcuffed me, female giggling interrupted my mentally ill thought journey.
I hated this new place, I sat closer to Celine, from here I saw her all day and Celine was just sitting at the service island. Gerhard leaned over the counter to her. He told her something and she flirted with her hair. Celine had become the center of this store. I didn’t know what they all saw in her. A vagina and no wrinkles and no harassment charges. Even the boss didn’t hold back from flirting. Gerhard told me that the old man often invited the women to non-binding meetings. Coffee, biscuits and flirtatious seduction included. The other men weren’t any better. Gerhard’s mullet rose in the wind of the air conditioner and for a second I felt sick. Obviously, my belching made a noticeable noise because Celine looked over at me and tried to involve me in her flirting.
“What about you, Nat?” she shouted across the hall to my chair.
“Mmm? What do you want?”
“Don’t be so grumpy.”
“What do you want, Celine?”
I put a scoop of grumpiness on top of it and she pulled a face. She didn’t say a word.
“What’s the matter now?”, I was bitchin’.
“Well… um… I wanted to know if you’d strip for a woman too. Gerhard here claims that “every good man would.”
“Sure, if that’s what our showpiece here says, it’s gotta be true.”
She seemed annoyed; either by my answer or my ironic tone, Gerhard grinned at both ears, which didn’t bother me, because she let go of me again and solely made Gerhard beautiful eyes. I watched it for a while until I had seen enough and threw myself back into the “Bars of passion”. It made me feel less sick.
The next day the old paper collector was back. Same dress, different sandals. Ten minutes earlier than yesterday. The old bulldog stole the free newspapers from the stands. She packed all copies of the same newspaper in the wagon bag, with which I first suspected she had at least gone shopping with. The newspaper also was actually the same, completely identical copies. She will have carried about 40 of them with her. I couldn’t figure out a reason. Either the cats shit all over her house or she tinkered with blackmail letters in her spare time. It was funny in its sadness. I got off at my stop and the old woman with the waste paper was still sitting in the tram.
I arrived at work. Everything was the same. I went out with Gerhard to the delivery entrance. The boss was there today, which caused Gerhard to show me our shared aversion to the job, which compelled us to change the tobacco-marijuana mixture drastically and put us in a bigger high than the day before.
We broke up when the joint was gone. I got my sugar croissant, my standard lunch when I really needed something. I also avoided real meals because of the awkwardness – the uncomfortable feeling of eating at work – and the money and when I came back Celine and Gerhard stood together at the service island again.
Today she wore a deeper neckline. Gerhard noticed. He almost fell over the counter. She stroked him through his mullet and he struggled hard not to purr. I didn’t find enough distraction in the bars/chains/what-the-fuck-do-I-know of passion. I took an extra-ordinary cigarette break to escape the sight of the 20-year-old in bloom and the dickface stuck in his teenage years. I smoked one and then another to make sure my stomach content stayed down. I didn’t want Celine, but what a shame this circumstance was for all my same-aged peers who were interested in her. I had smoked half the second cigarette when my boss opened the backyard door and looked at me as if I had just drowned his cat in a river.
“Yes, Mr. Konrad?”
“You know you’re not allowed a smoking break right now?”
“I thought I’d rather leave now while the customers stayed away than later when a break meant more stress for my colleagues.”
“That may be a good thought, but I ask you, Nathaniel, to refrain from doing so in the future. The break regulations exist for the reason of ensuring fair distribution of break time between the working force”
“I understand, but I wasn’t planning on taking an extra break.”
“Well, independent of that, I’d like to ask you to go back to your place of work, Mr. Schradinski.”
He waited briefly, I made no decency to move, he stamped his leg as an admonition, turned around and went inside. I smoked out.
As I walked in, I escaped Mr. Konrad’s discontented gaze. He let my disrespect run away and didn’t address it any further. I had escaped his gaze, but not the consequences he had thought up quietly and at home, rubbing his hands together.
The next day, by noon, everything seemed the same. The guardian of romanticism, the “guardian of sweetness” – I – watched over his kingdom of cuddly novels. The customers didn’t miss out in the mornings. My area was the most visited in the morning during the week when the housewives had free time because their children were at school, their chores were done and their men at work. In the afternoon, it became calmer, and I could hardly wait to enjoy less stress after the lunch break. I ate my sugar croissant, smoked a cigarette and when I came in Gerhard and Celine were about to leave. Our boss stopped us all. He had gathered almost all the employees of the staff.
“This is a new idea from the main branch to increase efficiency and work performance. Our branch has volunteered to test the new system. Mr. Schradinski will take over due to the current workload, the rest please continue as usual”.
After his speech, I followed him into the office. Mr. Konrad sat me down on a chair on the other side of his desk, presented me a sheet of paper. Confused, I looked at it. It was a real test sheet.
“You have 25 minutes, Mr. Schradinski”
“Okay”, I said.
He had an egg timer with him. He winded it up and placed it on the table. The ticking started. I went through the questions from top to bottom. They all revolved around the rules and regulations that hung out in the break room. I had flown over it once or twice out of boredom, but I couldn’t repeat a single one. I looked up to him. He licked his lips and grinned at me, then happily looked into his computer screen and clicked his mouse.
The ticking and clicking didn’t help me think up a few regulations. I wrote: “Be friendly, be sweet, be nice, be yourself, but only as much as you think others want” and gave up.
“I can’t follow the rules, Mr. Konrad”
“Are you telling me you’re neglecting your duties as an employee of this bookstore?”
What should I answer?
“I suppose so in that respect.”
“Well, Mr. Shradinksi, what do you think we should do in this regard?”
“Nothing” I couldn’t say, so I promised to be better. He knew a way to do that. He made me read the house rule book so often, at some point it became my new Bible. As with the old one, I was one of the few who had to take the trouble to read it. The “Thou shalt not kill” was exchanged in the new reading sent with “The uniform is to be kept on at all times during working hours and maintained in a well-kept condition outside these”. For Mr. Konrad, the official instruction of paragraph 18 came before the sixth commandment.
I was not surprised to find out that everyone broke the rules again somewhere. I casually mention that there was nothing in the codex about unpacking books and handling cardboard boxes in general.
A few days later, the boss was not there, Gerhard and I smoked ourselves stupid between the garbage cans. He spoke of what he had planned for the weekend and tried to persuade me to join his plan and drag my friends along. As before, I was unwilling to accept the proposal, even though now, I was better able to cope with this youthful attitude that he showed. Since I didn’t accept his suggestion – I really had to try to keep my interest in check – he ended his narrative disappointed when I pushed out the fifth “Okay” in a row. When I then, out of pure pleasure in his winding, told him that I also found his plans lame, he rowed back and said that he would only go to that party, if at all, out of irony. I acknowledged the explanation for his probable absence there with a sixth “Okay”.
“The young doves are probably fly somewhere else, you know.”
“Yeah, I get it”
He kept his mouth shut for the rest of the break. In the afternoon I had fewer customers than usual. The boss was desperately looking for a job for me. He didn’t find any. I left half an hour earlier and when I arrived at the apartment, Ätz stood outside smoking and typing into his smartphone.
“Yo boy,” I said when I got there.
“All right, Nat?”
He handed me the joint and I took a drag. I told him about Gerhard’s attempt to get involved with us and we laughed at him together. He made a joke about his hair and how Celine cleaned the mullet with a hand vacuum after the made love. I almost laughed tears. When he smoked down to the filter, he put the butt in my hand. I went to the canal grid and threw it in. I failed the first try, the butt landed next to it and I kicked the stump with my foot over the asphalt down the gully.
“Hey, Ätz, my dad distills again” I heard behind my back.
Chang was there, standing with Ätz.
“Three again, I’d say”
“Have you drunk the last ones already?” Chang asked happily.
Yes, we did. That stuff had it in it. Alone when you smelled it, it could burn your eyebrows off. Chang’s father was a backroom magician who sold his potion for a few Yuans. It’s been hard times. If there was anything to earn, anyone would do with it. Especially in this neighborhood. he used every opportunity he could get. He owned a Chinese restaurant four blocks away. When the guests didn’t come, he distilled booze, filled it up and sold it. His father had learned that in China, Chang had explained to us. From millet, he created Báijiǔ, white alcohol and he didn’t share with the tax office.
“Are you pulling it off the tab again?” Chang asked.
“35 euros again, as agreed”
Chang owed Ätz money. They had never told me the exact amount. I assumed it was a lot. Chang smoked with us, I never saw him pay a dime for it, so the Báijiǔ could only be the deposit, as he came up for the rest of the unprofitable jobbing in his parents’ restaurant. But to be precise. I didn’t know.
We went up together and rolled another one. Chang also smoked it with us, disappeared during our circle to get the liquor, and then came back with the three ordered bottles. Later that night we opened one up together. I had to work the next day, but I didn’t care. I drank to us, to Gerhard and Celine, to the ignorant tax office, my boss Mr. Konrad and the Bars of Passion…and on which one day I knew I will find a way to hang myself from.
– STARTING Chapter:
The Romans Would Have Eaten Fries
PART OF: TOXIC 24/7
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