WORK: A LABOR DAY READING LIST
WE ARE THE JOBS WE DO
Compiled by Matt Bell
Waste, Eugene Marten
In Waste, Sloper works as a janitor in a high-rise office building, moving from room to room, emptying trash cans, mopping floors, and other banal tasks. The book’s plot eventually revolves around Sloper’s discovery (and subsequent possession) of a woman’s dead body, and it’s the careful detail to his work that first entrances and menaces the reader: “The glass cleaner went into one of numerous pouches on the yellow plastic apron strapped to his cart, along with the other spray bottles and cleaning supplies. If pouches were empty you could use them to hold burgers and sandwiches. If a burger or sandwich no longer had a wrapper you used a paper towel from another pouch on the plastic apron. It was okay if a sandwich or burger was half-eaten. Potato salad from the deli in the lobby came in small plastic tubs that would fit into the pouches, as would donuts, bagels, rice cakes, croissants, muffins… People never finished their potato salad.” Everything the reader knows about Sloper in the early pages of this slim book comes from the way he moves through the office building: by the tasks he excels at, by the ones he refuses (he does not do detailing—”the edging, the deep dusting, kicking out”—among other things), by the liberties he takes with other people’s trash, other people’s space. By the time the plot of the book kicks into higher gear, the reader should have seen enough of Sloper at work to already know everything about who he is and what he might want next.
“Work,” Denis Johnson, from Jesus’ Son
Job: Metal scrapper
In “Work,” Johnson’s famous protagonist Fuckhead spends a day with his friend Wayne, tearing metal out of a house Wayne used to own and having a series of dream-like encounters with Wayne’s ex-wife. By the end of the day, they’ve earned “nearly thirty dollars each” and arrived at the bar to find their favorite bartender working, a woman who “poured doubles like an angel,” so you “had to go down to them like a hummingbird over a blossom.” More important than the money or the booze, perhaps, is the feeling the effort has won them. Fuckhead says, “We had money. We were grimy and tired. Usually we felt guilty and frightened, because there was something wrong with us, and we didn’t know what it was; but today we had the feeling of men who had worked.”
Green Girl, Kate Zambreno
Job: Retail sales
Zambreno’s Ruth spends her working days in Horrids, a London store where she sells perfume: “In the hierarchy of the fragrance department, Ruth is assigned to the lowest caste, that of the celebrity perfume. She is supposed to shill this perfume by an American teenage pop star with the name that makes Ruth feel a bit demoralized every time she says it. The scent is a waft of innocuous rose, housed in an ornate pink ornament laced with silver and crowned with a pastel-purple tassel. She is supposed to hold it like a chalice delivering holy water to the masses.” The concerns of her work life mirror those of the rest of her life, every moment revolving around fashion and sex and desire, an obsession with surfaces, with what it means to be a woman attracting and suffering the gaze of others: “Being a girl is like always being a tourist, always conscious of yourself, always seeing yourself as if from the outside.”
“Sungold,” Justin Taylor, from Flings
Jobs: Restaurant manager/occasional costumed mascot
Taylor’s “Sungold” captures both the seediest and the stupidest possibilities of the chain restaurant manager experience, beginning with the soul-crushing embarrassment of many of the tasks—the story starts with its protagonist Brian trapped inside the “mushroom suit” designed to promote the “organic vegetarian pizza pub” he works at, explaining that “the suit is bruise-purple, furry, and mottled with yellow amoebic forms across a cap like a stoner’s idea of a wizard’s hat blown up to the size of a golf umbrella, though I prefer to think of myself as a huge diseased alien cock.” His boss Ethan is a drugged-out minor sleazebag (who Brian sort of aspires to become or at least supplant), hiring only women he wants to sleep with (“radiant vortices of bleach, wax, and puka shells”) and then later firing them, waiting until they start stealing so that it’s not sexual harassment. Brian isn’t some contrasting character always taking the high ground—he refers to these women collectively as the “Melissa/Jessicas” and he spends most of his time scamming his boss and pretending at the very lowest levels of progressive thought, as when he mentions that he and Ethan “still haven’t managed to find a black person willing to work with us but it’s something we’re interested in pursuing.” After they lose their franchise, they reboot as a new version of the same restaurant in the same space, garnering that elusive five-star review from the local restaurant critic, the “same schmuck who gave four stars to both Panera and Carrabba’s, until “it’s just us and Outback on the mountaintop, here in flatland.”
“Where I’m At: Factory Education,” Jim Daniels, from Show and Tell
Job: Factory worker
This poem by Jim Daniels is one of the many he’s written about factory work in Detroit and elsewhere, and within that body of work it’s one of the finest. As the poem opens, the speaker—a new hire—is working “the cover welder / when the automatic cover welding gun stops / being automatic halfway through a cover.” He rushes to find his foreman, who gets a repairman named Old Green to come and fix the machine. It seems like he’s done the right thing, but later another worker corrects him: “Later, Spooner grabs my neck / pushes my face into the wall. / Old Green shouts into my ear: / You ain’t supposed to get Santino, / he’s got to find you, dig? / What’s the big hurry, boy? / You get paid the same no matter.” The speaker’s “education” continues throughout the poem, until at the end he’s also learned how not to work, taking lessons from a worker who tells him that to survive he’s got to work slower: “If you don’t know how / to break your machine / then you shouldn’t be running it.” “I work safely,” the speaker finally says, his education complete when a machine breaks down because of his actions, “I just point / to the machine, and thumbs down.”
“The Hortlak,” Kelly Link
Job: Convenience store cashier/animal shelter employee
Most jobs have at least some surreal aspects to them, but maybe few jobs are more surreal than late-night cashier. What better way to depict the experience than with a surreal story? Eric and Batu work at The All-Night Convenience, “a fully stocked, self-sufficient organism, like the Starship Enterprise, or the Kon-Tiki,” perched on the edge of “the long, black gap of the Ausible Chasm,” from which zombies frequently emerge to visit the store: “The zombies came in, and [Eric] was polite to them, and failed to understand what they wanted, and sometimes real people came in and bought candy or cigarettes or beer.” Eric waits most nights for a visit from Charley, who works night shifts at the animal shelter, where she checks a list to “see which dogs were on the schedule,” giving them “one last drive around town” before taking them back to the shelter and putting them to sleep. Eric and Batu deal with the usual convenience store problems, plus the zombies, who they come to see as not so different from some of the “real people” they encounter, each “the kind of customer that you couldn’t ever satisfy, the kind of customer who wanted something you couldn’t give them, who had no other currency, except currency that was sinister, unwholesome, confusing, and probably dangerous.”
A Manual for Cleaning Women, Lucia Berlin
This excellent (and overdue) collection feature work in some way, and the title story is among my favorites. It’s peppered throughout with parenthetical bits of pithy advice for cleaning women, such as: “As a rule, never work for friends. Sooner or later they resent you because you know so much about them. Or else you’ll no longer like them, because you do.” Or: “Let them know you are thorough. The first day put all the furniture back wrong… five to ten inches off, or facing the wrong way. When you dust, reverse the Siamese cats, put the creamer to the left of the sugar. Change the toothbrushes all around.” Much of this is used to show the separation between social classes, but there’s another smart gambit in play as well. While the surface of the story (and most of its actual words) are devoted to the practices of both cleaning women and their employers, there are brief asides about Terry, whose loss haunts the narrator. The busyness of her work (combined with the many bus trips she takes from house to house) keeps her from having to face her strongest emotions, and it’s not until the end of the story—when there’s at least briefly no more work to do—that she’s at last left with her grief.
Matt Bell is the author of the several books, including the novel In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods and the newly released Scrapper. He teaches creative writing at Arizona State University.