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Here’s an area of retail I’m quite sure we’ll never see Walmart get into…

Where We Find Our Losses


Suzanne Burns

     Every morning I warm up the neon open sign and watch deer scatter across the field surrounding Division 342. Their eyes, dark as plums, catch mine staring back as the overheads diffuse through a row of plate glass.

We look at each other as if to say: will they ever find what they’re searching for?

     Loss is no longer a dark business, you see.

     I hear it’s strange how the Super Store constructed such a large building deep in the woods where sundown falls an hour before it slides into the ocean. And the ponderosa cast Division 342 in a darkness that conceals the myriad of store levels, elevators and walkways.

     We are nowhere near any city. There is no passageway or portal to arrive here—but if you ever need me, if the time comes when no one else can give you what you are searching for, I will show you the way.

     That’s the spiel I regurgitate from the training manual, anyway. And I keep my smile in place like I drew it with permanent marker. I seldom agree to interviews, but when asked how I feel working among so many lost people I focus my brown eyes straight into the eyes of the news cameras, blink deliberately and say, “But aren’t we all missing something?”

My Super Store boss tells me to keep up the good press while she sweetens my weekly paycheck. If anybody asked what I am missing I would have answered “a decent walk-up with a working garbage disposal” and not thought much beyond those words.

At the Division nobody cries when they walk through the front doors. The searchers remove their coats, sometimes line up their embellishment of shoes beneath the no smoking signs. Susan the beverage girl greets them with her syrupy Texas accent and mugs of cocoa or glasses of lemon ice when the frost peels from the forest and we stay open two hours later. She coaxes them past the heavy doors. She smiles, she laughs, she waits.

Yes, the depressed ones make Division 342 their surrogate home. Widows take their pensive stay among the window boxes of hyacinth. Uncles, young girls, grandmothers…I keep my plaster smile. I never know where to place my eyes, though. Do I look away, pretend to organize a shelf of knickknacks as the bodies file in? Nothing of substance behind my gaze except the knowledge of another payday, the corners of my mouth ache as clients’ mill about the main floor.

Possessing what my Super Store boss called in last quarter’s review an ‘increasingly plasticine demeanor’ it’s ironic how I know what each of Division 342’s customers need when they enter. I call my ability the erosion process. Staring at a customer’s face long enough, the missing element seems to reveal itself like a blossoming bud. That is why I am the floor manager after only two years of service, in charge of the main entrance greetings plus dead rock stars and childhood nightmares. Plus I claim a side specialty for systematic deduction.

For instance, if a man walks into the store wearing new shoes but carrying a worn briefcase I know he is failing at business. I call them the “Willie Loman’s.” Sweet, but no eye to make a deal or tenacity of competition coursing through their genes. With their combination of humility and manners we have engaging conversations as I lead the men to Elevator P.

As the new crew takes over the sails of the once-winded businessman again fill with pride. The other men wearing suits gather around to congratulate his newest acquisition, swallow champagne. On my breaks sometimes I sneak in; never tire of the way each man reiterates his deal. In the past two years I have become quite an expert in reading pie charts and bar graphs.

342 possesses a unique combination of options I have not seen in other Divisions. Even so our chief rivals, the Warehouses of Grief spiraled beside the rotten teeth of railroad ties, always fare better. In the training manual issued to all employees, to be signed and filed along with a list of our personal sensitivities and strengths, I memorized the code of finding loss.

What you are missing I can help you find.

What I have that you need I give to you.

In the fine print stamped beneath strategies of hope and ten steps to successful customer service I also memorized the phrase:

Some think it is easier to be lost than found.

This explains the pull of Warehouses despite our ability to help everyone from Deadheads mourning Jerry to overweight girls searching for Prom gowns. The Warehouses serve expensive coffee and free cigarettes as their patrons, drab and raveled at the seams, sulk in dank individual cubbyholes. Most can quote Nietzsche through the stink, while I know nothing of even rudimentary aspects of philosophy.

There are many things I could learn inside a Warehouse. Many, many things...

     At the Division I dole out jobs according to the aforementioned sensitivities and strengths. Gary in Sports, Level 15, says I have it easy. His clientele consists mostly of teenage boys. They hobble in with football injuries, basketball travails and the occasional baseball mishap. A few girls ask for Gary at the front desk, too. The lithe type with dirty-blonde ponytails and fractured volleyball wrists.

     Before the Super Store boss approved last year’s contract to construct a stadium, Gary spent his days throwing passes or running the second leg of the four person relay in a gym adjacent to the nightmare/insomnia wing. Now he works exclusively in the stadium. The injured boys and girls lose their pain for those few moments when they can run, throw and hit as if their bodies were made to play.

Some say it is a miracle, some say it is merely mind over matter, some, coincidence. You and I know it is best not to ask questions.

* * *

Familiar with all three hundred and thirty-nine workers, hiring Matthew Clark last fall to work Level 65—the famous assassination/suicide floor—left me with a feeling of optimism. I lost the sensation of pressing my smile between book pages. Most employees come to the Division with heads too heavy or hearts too open, unable to understand this job will hurt more than any occupation.

Of course I always try to see the rewards. I’m sure you do, too, or why would you listen? But for some it is just too much.

     The ache of helping a dying child construct her one and only model rocket and watching as the clouds mysteriously part above the rocket and kite launching field. How the kid tilts head to sky, squints as hat—so big the brim looks formed to fit a parent—slides back on bald head. How the child speaks of cancer and chemotherapy and every imaginable test to measure life in a series of weakening increments before the indescribable glee. Blue torch of a plastic cone bursting in the air with a shout of sparks and color, a fairy land of glitter paint falling off the employee’s hands to stick in the crevasses of the child’s nails like so many wishes lost in a gutter. It is all too much.

     We can bring happiness. We can bring comfort…but you know there is only so much even we can do.

I thought Matthew understood our job. He met the flat gazes of teenagers wearing Kurt Cobain flannels and bleak signals of older women still sobbing at their framed memorials to JFK. He knew when to sit and share a cigarette with the girls in black and when to embrace the introspection of men who refuse to give up hope of John Lennon recording a new album someday.

He even understood the Elvis freaks. Ones insisting the “King” faked his death and now lives in a castle on a hill in Alabama. Matthew fried up batches of peanut butter and banana sandwiches, patiently wiped grease rolling off their elbows like the fat bars of Burning Love.

     At the end of his first shift I remember how Matthew asked to speak with me in the interview room.

“You sure have a lot going on in here, don’t you?” he asked.

     “I’m Anna.” I straightened a row of boxes filled with blank applications.

     “I mean, how the hell do you keep everything so organized? On my break I spoke to two men on Deck 4. They each ate favorite recipes from wives who died years ago. Another man in his fifties tossed a football with Gary. Guess he grew up on a farm. Made the high school football team but his father pulled him out of school to work the fall harvest. Does everybody find what they’re missing?”

     “Not everyone.” I turned from the shelf of applications to the sensitivities and strengths file then inside my own thoughts. Fifteen years ago when I was a ghostly ten years old I found myself standing before the same lobby doors, only I did not know how.

     A woman I called Auntie Maxine for the next three years met me at the front desk. “What’s wrong, honey?” she asked while scuttling me through a room smelling of powder and perfume.

Auntie Maxine immediately noticed the button missing from my jacket. She ushered me through the scented room where I imagined Mama—slinking into the newest dress acquired from Mr. Holden’s Laundromat—dolling for one of her dates.

Making ten cents on each piece of clothing she cleaned and pressed, Mama laughed at how some people forgot to pick up their clothes. Said they left them like abandoned children behind the row of dryers. After any customer’s ninety-day notification went unclaimed Mr. Holden let Mama paw through the forgotten clothes box. I can still see those proud hands stroking each swath of fabric as she recited fashion tips from the Laundromat’s magazines. She read the rags on breaks; I dug miniature detergent boxes out of the trash to stack like blocks.

     Auntie Maxine led me to a room filled with spools of thread and needles. Soon, a brand new button clung to my worn jacket and I couldn’t wait to show Mama.

     Mr. Holden fired Mama for too much reading and not enough pressing the night I met Auntie Maxine. I ran home to show off my button, perfect as the moon, and tell Mama how my new aunt sewed not one or two but five swipes of the needle through each hole. The black pupil of a thing would never fall off again.

     When I opened the front door I knew something was wrong. The whole of our house—box of a living room, hide-a-bed, sink and toilet partitioned from the main room with an old floral sheet—smelled like rotten oranges. Years later I recognized the smells of whiskey and rum, but that night I thought Mama forgot to empty the trash. She sprawled on the couch, one arm dangling to the floor like a dying weed while the other cupped the exposed backside of a man.

     I couldn’t tell from the angle if he was Daddy Jim or Daddy Paul or a new father figure Mama made me call Daddy even when we first met. I went outside and sat on the stoop, stared at my button until nightfall. Tilting my head from side to side to make sure my new Daddy wasn’t drooling through the screen door like some dumb animal, I grabbed the button and pulled. I wiggled the disc, stretched the thread tendons with my thumb and finger. Nothing. In desperation I bent down and bit around the button, gnawing until I felt the threads snap against my gums. I spit the button onto the walk. It shined in the night, wet as a tear.

     From the next afternoon on, three full years, I met Auntie Maxine in 342’s lobby. I never understood—but did not question—how my walk home from Owl Creek Elementary brought me to the Division. Every day I handed Auntie Maxine something new to fix. Seams on jeans’ pockets loosened, sneaker laces frayed like old mops. Every afternoon at 3:15 I watched as she riffled through a sewing box and found the exact match of thread.

     I stopped going to division 342 the day Mama died.

     I’m sure you know the story. She broke up with Daddy Carl a week before and he called our house every night. When I answered Mama ordered me to say she was gone.

     “Any fucking where but here,” she slurred on the toilet, blowing her nose in long streams of paper unwound from the tube.

But he kept calling. He kept calling…

     “You go in drawer C and the rest of the story is boring,” I said out loud while alphabetizing the newest employee file.

     “What story?” Matthew leaned against the cabinets. His cropped blonde hair accepted the fluorescent lights.

     “About the ones who don’t find what they need. They give up.” I slammed the cabinet drawer. One of my fingernails chipped on the handle and I swore to myself.

     “But what if they can’t figure out what they need in the first place?” Matthew tidied the interview desk, organized memo pads and highlighter pens as I swept the office and emptied the wastebasket into a larger hall can.

     “Then they shouldn’t come here.”

     He walked behind me, lingering as I locked the interview room door. I turned to see him disappear through the doors of Elevator A into the employee garage.

Only I walked home from work, chose a path skirting the back doors of Warehouse 618. Every night I told myself I was the only brave one working in my Division. The only one willing to check out the competition, befriend the enemy as my trek curved systematically closer to the Warehouse doors. I told myself I entertained no thoughts of crossing over, of losing my identity in row upon row of cubbyholes cast in red light.

I almost believed my lie.

At sundown music clamored from 618’s open front doors.  I quickened my pace through the mire of denizens camped along the paths.

Me, I liked the appearance of light, of night sounds dark as chocolate, bonfires cracking at strategic ends of the paths. Daring to tread past Warehouse 618 meant daring to step out of my apartment into a world of danger, a world where I could decide my fate, my punishment. Maybe even discover a cure to erase the pictures of Mama with her shattered skull, Daddy Carl squirming his fingers beneath my panties. He knew I wouldn’t call for help as he commanded me to wipe up Mama’s blood. He didn’t care about the consequences. Not one bit.

And I not only memorized the Warehouse’s clout and diabolical appeal, its bonus programs and free giveaways, but also what happens once someone crosses over. I think this knowledge stopped me, at least temporarily.

We warned Matthew to stay away from Warehouse 618, too. Warned him of the rumors, the missing reports filed—and ignored—by police. The family calling Division 342 night and day wailing “Tell me where the body is so we can send her home to the Good Lord. Tell me what happened to Alicia. To Manuel. Did she suffer? Did he scream?”

One warning is all some of us need, though, to change our lives forever.

* * *

Can you believe I never bothered to ask the boss at Super Store 185 how my walks past the Warehouse eventually met up with Kearney Street, depositing me right in front of my building every night? As I buzz the lobby I seem to forget any question of the directions to my home. Maybe you know how it feels to be a ghost in your own life, but I’ll never get used to it. All the dangling of my chains—the rusty chinks no one can see.

* * *

Matthew did well on the suicide/assassination floor from his autumn hiring until late spring. Now the lethargy of a slump eats at Division 342 like rust on a wagon. Multitudes of grass seed burst forth their silky shafts, ponderosa inhale an even deeper shade of green and the mountains are sinking back to their purple shadow, freed from the staid doldrums of snow. This should all sound beautiful and believe me, spring is filled with enough deliberate pinkness to grind contentment right in. That is why customers forget their losses, hike surrounding forest trails and speak in large voices of citrus and seashore vacations.

     I’m positive you’ve heard the vitals about Christmas suicide. Statisticians claim the forlorn shoot their brains onto the presents like so much boiled pudding. Yuletide at the Division felt great as a birthday. Matthew and I made it through the rush...healed the loss of everything from dead pets to diabetic limbs.

     So spring always hits us hard. An occasional client trickles through the front doors, usually on rainy April days, but by afternoon our work is done. Fat girls find their formals, broken baseball boys hit three or four home runs and insomniacs force themselves into dreamland before the sun, rising an hour earlier, taps its fingers against their windowpanes.

     None of us can afford working part-time so Matthew—new assistant floor manager—and I organized a plan. The Super Store laid off the night cleaners so last week we drafted a blueprint on our lunch hour, delegating janitorial duty to all willing employees. We placed Gary in charge of track and field maintenance, Susan responsible for siphoning clear water through the espresso and cocoa machines and the other workers, after close examination of their strengths and sensitivities, we assigned every project from winding spools of thread in the sewing room to stocking bars of soap scented with French perfume in the caregiver’s wing.

     Now as Matthew and I stroll through the caregiver’s wing to our allocated duty, repainting the childhood nightmare room, I tell him how I found out Auntie Maxine died.

     “She sent me a card. She knew my address without me ever telling. Said she had heart problems,” I stop in front of the lighted memorial bust of a very old woman that juts from the hallway, “and she died right here.”

     “It’s hard to imagine dying in a place that doesn’t seem real. I mean, of course I get my paychecks—see I had this front molar capped yesterday,” Matthew curls his lip, “but this job still feels a lot like dreaming.”

     I move my fingers across Auntie’s nose and lips. Touch her marble eyebrows. Dare to touch her eyes by resting my fingers against the convex curves of sight. “She didn’t look anything like this.”

     “Everyone’s perception is different. That’s why I think, if I had to choose, I would lose my sight before my hearing.”

     “What do you know? You’re still a kid. The application says you’re not even twenty. I started here when I was twenty-three, right past those doors. I took care of the caregivers.”

     Silence stretches us to opposite sides of the hall like a ribbon of taffy. I broke the rules and we both know it. Months before I let the story of Auntie Maxine slip by in so many words and sighs. Lunch hours can sometimes do that to you, all the chewing and gossiping. Now this.

Breaking Rule #1—the one and only—about never telling any employee your past, how you found the Division or what you are missing was grounds for immediate dismissal. We stare at each other, both wanting to see a signal of assurance, to gather our painting supplies and spread great drop cloths under the nightmare ceiling.

I move to collect our gear and head into the nightmare room when Matthew holds out his hand. “Why don’t we just talk in there for awhile?” The expression of a troubled, mournful man peers from his nineteen-year face. My process of erosion senses an ache resonating within him that I never even glimpsed before.

     “Only if you promise not to tell.” I guide Matthew into the circular expanse of childhood nightmares.

     Light splays from the round ceiling in the exact color, I imagine, of a womb. We float to the middle of this warm, almost watery expanse on the air of a hundred mattress pads covering the cushion of wall-to-wall down. We sit on white folds of blanket.

     “So we need to repaint the ceiling? A guy in Level 4 said the murals aren’t good enough.” Matthew props his head with pillows and stares at the fading, obligatory scenes—cow hurdling moon, friendly stars and occasional teddy bear.

     “Childhood nightmares are so scary. This section is one of the only failures at Division 342. I’m sure you’ve seen the memos circulating from the Super Store.” I hand him a chocolate chip cookie from a dispenser next to the boys and girls bathrooms. Matthew fills two mugs with warm milk and we sip the maternal cocktails side by side. The sun disappears beyond the room’s picture windows and the forest dims.

     “We’re not going yet, right? I mean, we just started.” Matthew stretches beside me. “So you help the kids have sweet dreams in here?”

     “We try.”

     “I don’t mean 342, I mean you.”

     “Yes…I try.” The words begin falling from me smooth as almonds. I feel like someone has pried open my mouth, a mouth unaccustomed to speaking, really speaking, for so many years. My forced smile wanes and I finally talk in the same voice I hear inside my head, the same voice I hear under my dreams. The intended condensed version of my life, a few sparse sentences, swells to two hours of speech plus three or four refilled mugs. At moments I pause, I cry when discussing my mother and I even talk of the spring evening I turned up on 342’s lobby doorstep in search of Auntie Maxine.

“I pleaded with the counter girl as she poured me a drink. ‘Screw your lemonade. Where is Auntie Maxine? Maxine Brightwood? She works in the sewing room.’ Pushing my way past the beverage counter and displays of books I ran towards the caregiver’s wing. She was sick,” I tell Matthew. He reaches for my hand. “I found her slumped in a chair. As she waited for a helper I instantly knew what she needed. I opened a bottle of lemon lotion and rubbed the grease on her elbows. The way she smiled and touched my hand…I’ve been working here ever since.”

     “So you only came here to find her? You couldn’t even know where this place was without some better reason than oiling up a lady that mended your clothes for a year or two.”

     “It was three.”

     “And I’ve seen your face on 60 Minutes and 48 Hours. I’ve heard you speaking of loss, how you believe everybody is missing something.”

     “I’m only reciting the shit Super Store 185 prints on their memos. The managers are required to read every propagandist word. They even test us on how well we grasp the policies. Christ, they even quiz us on vocabulary. Do you know I can spell propagandist without drooping my smile?”

     “Every word you just spoke sounds like a lie. Like you’re using some sort of reverse psychology on me. You’re lying to me about all the lying, right?”

     “What do you mean?” I say, smile again stuck on my face like a streak on a window.

“Honestly I’ve never given a fuck about the ‘everybody is missing something’ manifesto. I mean, how can you care enough about people you don’t know to even bother leading them through the Division in the first place? Jesus, I’m nobody’s therapist.” Matthew drops his mug onto the carpet of mattress. I watch as he uses the tail of his work shirt to lap the mess. His hands tremble. “I’m sorry. I just want to know if you can do other things besides naming the world’s losses? Do you only help people that are missing something?”

     “From what you say, I don’t know why I’m here at all.” I turn from his blanket.

     “Can you help people, like me, forget something?” His low words tumble out.

     “I never thought of Divisions working like that.” The black candy of night presses on every windowpane as I pause to wonder if I am capable of finding…or forgetting. 

After all these years can you believe I have never asked myself what I need?

Matthew raises his mug and sips the last drops of milk. “How ‘bout we find something a little stronger, my treat?” He stands from the cushions and I reluctantly grab his hands. As he pulls me up I say no, explain how I need to get home as excuses roll off me like the sweat of bad dreams.

     “At least let me walk you part way, then. I hear you have one hell of a trek.”

     We exit the nightmare room. Silently I hope the Super Store boss will not fire us for abandoning the ceiling job to loll about like bedbugs.

Matthew and I leave Division 342 behind us, front door unlocked as always, and stroll through the forest night. We remark on the bursts of dandelion yellowing the trails and how the moon clings to the coat of sky like one of Auntie Maxine’s faithful buttons. Warehouse 618 looms on the horizon, growing larger with each step through the trees and narrow footpaths and manzanita bushes trailing their cinnamon scent.

     We notice the smell before we see thousands of windows arching from the Warehouse walls in a honeycomb of red light. More than the aroma of whiskey and bad conversation spreads around us. I know, and I think he knows, we are smelling the death of hope.

     Warehouse 618’s front gate, surrounding the main and outbuildings like a truss, reeks of tobacco and creosote. Matthew and I linger on the outside with others who dare to cross over. We warm our fingers near the bonfires. We promise each other to continue walking by, how we will change our path to the larger trails like switching city busses until I arrive on Kearney Street and Matthew can follow Kearney to Fourth, catch the 12-B bus to his duplex on Levant.

     “Is there a special way to get in?” I have already inquired on the nuances of passing through the Warehouse gate many times at previous bonfires.

     “How many times are we gonna hav’ta listen to this stupid bitch?” a faceless man says.

     “Shut up,” a woman spits back.

     I cannot divine tangible forms in the flickering light but guess these men and women, at least twenty strong around the embers, are lost. With their gruff voices littering the air, with their grief silently begging at their feet, I know these people will never come to the Division

Knowing if I issue a group invitation to follow Matthew and me back to Division 342 I may get stabbed—or even shot—I hold a smile.

Why do I want to help these people? Was it the Super Store memos and the vanity pulsing through me last Christmas when Stone Phillips commented on the ‘smartness’ of my Division uniform—a creamy button-down shirt with taupe blazer—in a special holiday edition of Dateline?            

“I think they’re gathering the strength to cross over.” Matthew shivers against the fire’s heat.

     “I know how it works.” I whisper into the fire how, yes, I walk past 618 every work night but never dare enter the gate, sink my shoes in the loamy, wormy earth smelling of forgotten dreams in forgotten clearings. But I do not tell Matthew how much I want to cross over, too.

I say quietly, “And I know you can’t come back.”

     “That’s crazy. I’ve downed espresso in there two or three times at least.” Matthew stands closer to the fire as a slight blue tinges his nose and cheeks. His halo of hair tarnishes with soot.

     “He’s lying.” The same woman speaks again as a rotten banana of a man grumbles towards the gate. The nine o’clock bell rings. “They only let you in on the hour, and I’ve never seen anyone come back.” I recognize the woman as she walks towards me, thump of a wooden leg hollow on the walkway. “But I have seen you before.”

Sometimes on my way home from work I do stop at the Warehouse gate, but it is not what you think. Like the long-forgotten tinkers of old with their traveling rucksacks of tin I spread my job past the perpetually hopeful fields of Division 342. Before tonight I saw the gesture as another way to pad my pockets. The Super Store boss would hear of my altruism and raise my salary like a flag on Memorial Day. But maybe money didn’t propel me to the Warehouse?

     “Have I seen you before or not?” The woman approaches.

     “Yes, Anna…remember?”

     “Do you have any more of that lotion? You know, the kind that makes me,” the woman, a twig of a thing with a delicate woody smell, bends forward. She grabs my shoulder for balance. “The kind that makes me feel my leg again?”

     I pull a bottle from my coat, understand my purpose as I rub a handful of ochre cream into her crippled stump. As others gather around me the Warehouse mumblings and grumblings give way to eager hands in my pockets.

     “It’s not that easy.” Matthew shoves through the crowd flocked about me in a swirl of dust.

Old widowers grab at my coat, dig for bits of their dead wives’ home baked bread. Young girls search through my pack, nearly gutted, for a certain shade of lipstick to upturn a fresh, happier mouth in their cruel bathroom mirrors. Disenchanted youth cut off their Dostoyevskian conversations around the fire, pull Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue from a hidden coat pocket.

The night comes together like stars in a constellation.

Matthew yells through the searchers, “What if I killed somebody? Can you help me with that?”

     The excited shouts of teenagers and coo of reconciled lovers quiet as Matthew and I walk from the bonfire. We sit in a small clearing. I offer him my pack.

He scoffs. “Nothing you have can help me.”

     “I don’t understand.” I speak towards the ground, point out a mole waddling along the surface of dead leaves.

     Matthew unbuttons the top of his work shirt and inhales a heavy air. I imagine a darkness settling into the folds of his ribcage like fog over a winter sea. He speaks again. “Do you really want to know what happened?”

     “Of course I do.” I watch the mole swim its wobbly pink hands through the foliage as I position myself closer to Matthew.

     “He never sees beyond the dirt and that’s his whole existence.” Matthew stares at the sky. “Ever see a shooting star? I’ve never seen shit.”

No one can see stars—even the luminescent North Star—above a Warehouse, but I’d like to think the ones who still look for the twinkle have not completely given up.

Every night I look for the incandescent hint of light.

     “When I was ten I knew a deaf girl. She even wore an “I am deaf” sign around her neck when she rode her bike through our neighborhood. She asked me to play with her once in a voice that sounded almost prehistoric or something. I said no.”

     “That’s not a crime.”

     “She was really cute, too. Red hair, freckles, the whole bit. She wore those candy necklaces to school every day and sucked on them during lunch. Sometimes she’d break off the pink beads and try to give them to me. I wanted those beads more than goddamn anything, but always ignored her. After I turned her down so many times she stopped asking. And I never saw her ask anyone else.”

     “You deserve to spend your existence in hell because of being an insensitive, scared kid?”  I try to keep my voice even but feel a tension squeezing down my arms.

     “Aren’t you being a little melodramatic? This place isn’t hell, and that’s just the start. I’ve hurt so many women. Not calling my mom when I promised. Sleeping around. I even gave a girl gonorrhea last year, if you can believe that.”

     “If every guy that slept around came here there’d be no guys left. Same with women.” I stare at the ground and shake my head.

     “Everyone’s said long as I can remember how I’m beyond hope. Don’t bother wasting your fuckin’ hope on me.”

The ten o’clock bell vibrates the forest corridor. In the moments those bells chime Warehouse 618, the soldier guarding grief, becomes not just a building but an institution, a religion, a final, unchangeable recession.

     “It’s time for me to go.” Matthew stands and dusts off his work pants.

     I try to buy a minute or two, arrange a speech in my head. An argument about forgiveness and acceptance, how Warehouse 618 smells like an old tampon and Matthew would bore quickly in its passageways.

No matter how I try to organize my thoughts, though, all I end up saying is, “I guess so.”

     “You’ll see me again, you know,” he whispers close to my ear, “but it might not feel the same.” Matthew waves his hand through his heavy curl of hair. “Do you want to come in with me? Grab a shot of espresso and just kick back?”

I want to follow him. Step into a world with everything decided, where I would feel no sadness, pain…anything. As I ponder my decision, set my backpack on the ground to lighten the walk towards Warehouse 618, the mole scurries its hands across one of my work boots.

Do you see it? Look at that blind ball of fur inching closer to the fire. Want to help me turn him away from the flames? We can hope if he can’t see the sun rise, at least he’ll feel it against his face in that safe, green expanse of grass over by you.

I bend and pick up my pack as the mole rustles through the lawn towards his eventual dawn. As Matthew opens Warehouse 618’s gate and disappears I search the increasingly cloudy skies for a faint glimmer of even one shooting star.