Thursday, May 13, 2010

Collective Bargaining, by Jay Robinson

1. Intersection

Economy, she told him, is synonymous with evanescence. At the intersection of Main Street and Liberty, four blocks from their apartment, nothing behind their reflection in the window shops’ windows. Once upon a time, he wanted to say, there was this thing called industry. Once upon a time, it was a different time. Now it was Saturday, early spring. No desks at the GM dealership. Only a red phone placed in the center of the showroom floor, and left off the hook. Spreadsheets balled-up like dust in the corner. I hope they’re not on hold, she said, plucking a blonde hair off her shoulder. For a moment, she flew it like a kite in the breeze. Above them, no hawks hovered in the cloudlessness. And all the manikins one block north, he added, have filed for unemployment. She looked at him dubiously, auburn eyebrows titled at the angle of exhaustion or sudden unfamiliarity, he couldn’t tell which. Did  it matter? It is what the newspaper reported, he insisted after a pause. He turned a quarter over and over between his thumb and forefinger. But she wasn’t buying it. Because she didn’t have patience for other people’s humor, couldn’t admire the crocuses. Because even her hyacinths mocked her with their bald resiliency. So she stared at the steaming cup of coffee in her hand as if she could only see her reflection in silhouette, or when she expected someone else’s. Where were we walking to again? he wanted to know. But she was thinking of the abandoned steelworks on the other side of the city, and had been for weeks: If she moved in there, she wondered, would she need to redecorate? Would she want to? Lemon sheets to match the blast furnace! A bright orange duvet to soften the mill train! Tiger lilies like sparks in all the windows! Even the ones that hadn’t been shattered by the baseball-sized hunks of quartz she would stack into a pyramid as a monument to indifference. Sometimes their affair was as volatile as the stock market. Sometimes he was as unaware of it as the weather. It didn’t make sense, therefore, when he started short selling in the fall, which–he would say to anyone on the other end of the phone–is another of the ways we see ourselves. Was it even an affair anymore, he asked his secretary, after you married? And by winter she had resorted to insider trading, which meant mojitos with Chad from Accounting after hours at the Sheraton. Once upon a time, we believed in fairy tales. Once upon a time, he liked to say, a story wasn’t just something we were telling ourselves. But nobody wears those slippers anymore, she wanted to tell him. Rain boots are all the rage now, no matter the weather. Neither, though, was saying anything at the moment. The cold breeze lifted their hair at the same angle. They stared down Main Street at the lack of Main Street. And without a glance, they started walking in the same direction. Away from home.

2. Absence

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. It was the Winter of Their Discontent? No. It was more than that. It was the Winter of Their Plunging Portfolio. The Dawning of The Great Separation, and it all started in the spring. Some of the best minds of their generation, she told herself, staring out her window, had filed for bankruptcy. Some of the best minds of their generation, he thought, popped pills to stave off their madness. But for every pound she lost, he felt more bloated. As if someone had inflated his body with the space hers no longer required. Or the value of his client’s mutual funds. His diet, she claimed, resembled a Bull Market. But he said the question of whether or not to Supersize it was rhetorical, and every time she ordered a Cobb salad, called her The Incredible Disappearing Woman. Even though she was only a size four to begin with, unemployment had leveled off. Why don’t you ask for the burger on the side? she told him. She slid another packet of ketchup across the booth. He hoarded the salt. According to a recent survey, he joked with his boss, she protested these and other nicknames. Then she didn’t come home for two nights, and he called her The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy instead. She chopped her hair; he didn’t shave. Every time she peed in the second floor bathroom at her mother’s ranch house in Kalamazoo, he suppressed a gag reflex sitting on their re-upholstered couch in the basement, Coke can on the ottoman. He watched re-broadcasts of Tigers games he couldn’t remember watching as a teenager. Bottom line, he liked to say, There are only losers. Back at home, she laughed, told him it was impossible for a building to be evacuated, grammatically speaking, when the smoke detector shrieked. Something was burning, but they couldn’t locate the smell. Was it indoors or out? he wondered. He excused himself and walked across the hall to answer the phone at his desk, and she burped in the mailroom at her office three miles away. One night she claimed symbiosis was all that was left of collective bargaining. Didn’t she have it backwards? he decided. Then again, she’d had two martinis, and he knew exactly how many Buttery Nipples he’d had. I made him sign a contract to solidify the details of our intimacies, he heard her joking with Pam when he came back to the bar. And he forged his father’s signature on the bottom line. When this baffled him, she completely understood. By the next afternoon she’d packed up and left. But in the absence of sense and each other, he kept talking on the phone. One sentence following another. He liked the comfort of talking dirty, even if he couldn’t do it correctly. What aren’t you wearing? he would ask. What can you afford to take off?

Jay Robinson teaches Creative Writing and English Composition at the University of Akron. He's Co-Editor-in-Chief / Reviews Editor of Barn Owl Review. Poems have recently appeared in 32 Poems and The Laurel Review, among others.