by Tyler Barton
Fletch and Gil and Sal and Del are stuck on the side of the highway in Kansas, waiting for Triple-A to come and fix the broken tire of their sprinter van. The hole in the tire is shaped like the hole in the center of a soda cup lid, and Fletch has already put his fist inside it, and Del took a picture. That was fun, but it only took up thirty seconds. There are so many more seconds to go.
This all happened while they were transporting the harness to which a life-size dinosaur is suspended (by Gil and Sal) to allow the actor (Del) to climb inside the suit and make the dinosaur come to life for the hundred and ten kids at a rural elementary school tomorrow morning. The dinosaur itself is by now secured at the motel near the school, as the flatbed Mel hauled it on had cruised cleanly down the highway, while the sprinter van shuddered to a stop. The men picture Mel sitting in her room, feet up, beer in hand, trash on the TV—but sadly Fletch and Gil and Sal and Del are here, on the side of the highway, where they’ve just learned that Fletch, who drives the sprinter van, has been living inside it for a month.
“So that’s why all the clothes then,” says Gil, pointing his thumb to the back of the van.
“And you know this is company property, right?” says Sal. “This van isn’t ‘quote’ yours.”
“Is it very comfortable?” says Del. “You been dreaming much?”
Fletch smiles and nods and recognizes it is time to shift the conversation. They have been here for thirty-three minutes and judging by the dispatcher’s long pause in looking up their location, they may be here for thirty-three more.
“Okay, so listen guys—I have a poll.”
“Shoot,” Gil, Sal, and Del say simultaneously.
“If I took all the clothes from the back of this van and stuffed them into the hole in the front right tire, do you think that we could create enough pressure and mass inside the tire to at least get the van rolling toward exit eleven?”
The discussion consumes twenty minutes, at which point it is decided that the only way to declare a winner—yes, the men are still young enough to believe that an argument means someone must lose—is to remove the busted tire, and then shove the clothes, garment by soiled garment, into the blown-out hole.
Fletch insists it will work even though he knows it fucking will not. Gil and Sal oppose it all with vehemence, even though they find it truly amusing. And Del just wants to commit every detail of this night to memory so that he can use the story in his next job interview as an example of what happens when, in the workplace, you enter a state of flow.
Monique was haunted not by the lives she watched rust away at the table games, and not by the tobacco smoke that wafted from the slots, and not by the gun a big loser once fired at one of her pit bosses and missed and hit a man holding an ice cream sandwich and killed him, and not by the server who stabbed a gambler with her lapel pin when she saw him slip a pill into her water.
Monique was haunted by the dry foam that built up bit by bit in the corners of her mouth as she gave the staggering daily pep-talk her team of dealers and pit bosses never seemed to fully appreciate. In these moments, what happened at the corners of her mouth ashamed her, yes, but she just let the spit collect. Because if she wiped it, it stuck to her hands, and if she rubbed her hands on her pants, she could feel it down there, a stain on her leg. Plus, there was something she wanted from the spit. She stared hard at her employees, searching for the image of her mouth in their eyes—that dark gap parenthesized with dry saliva. She knew what these people saw as she hit the harsh notes of her lecture, but she wanted to see them seeing her—no, be them seeing her. It was almost as if looking at them hard enough might allow Monique to witness herself.
It never did. It only made her speeches meaner.
The blogs said to own your flaws. Religion said to ship that shit to heaven. Day after day, rant after rant, Monique could not spin this plaguing trait, nor could she gift it off to God. The spit was like a stray cat that fed in her trashcans—it wasn’t hers to name and hug, but neither was it leaving, not without a fight, not with all this food to eat.
The installer stares at the black rubber mat. The intern stares at the paper in his hands. The installer touches the mat, which lies flat on the gallery floor, with the tip of her orange sneaker. The intern turns the paper 90 degrees in his hands. This is art. They know that much. “Well, it’s not art yet,” says the installer. “Right,” says the intern, “it’s not art until we install it.” The installer nods, “Correct.” The intern grips the center of the mat’s long edge, and then begins to pull. “Okay,” the installer says, stepping in to help, “I like what you’re doing here.” But the mat falls back down when they let go. “So listen—it’s not called To Pull,” says the installer. “I know that,” says the intern, looking at his paper. “You think I don’t know it’s called To Lift?”
The installer kneels down beside the mat and begins to gently lift from the mat’s middle, raising her arm so slowly it begins to tremble. The statue takes slow shape, looking no longer like a black rubber mat, but almost like a dark lord’s cloak, or like what one of the kids had called it yesterday before kicking it over: the mouth of the cave of the devil himself.
The intern watches, whispering under his breath, “Yes, yes…” and does not step in to help the installer. She’s got it. Her arm is shaking, but she’s got it. When the mat falls, they both say words hurtful, arbitrary, and mispronounced. “I don’t want to have to do this,” the installer says, dialing a number on her cell. “Oh, God,” says the intern. “He’s going to murder us.”
“Hello, Richard?…Hi, yes…Great…I mean… Listen, it’s about the mat.”
“Yes, well—we lifted it,” she says, while the intern shoots the mat with a finger gun.
“He said to flip it over,” the installer says after hanging up. “And then to lift.”
Tyler Barton is a cofounder of Fear No Lit, home of The Submerging Writer Fellowship. Find his fiction in Kenyon Review, The Iowa Review, Subtropics, Wigleaf, and elsewhere. The stories here are pieces of a larger manuscript of connected microfictions about the dread of labor, titled TO WORK: A Verblist. Find him @goftyler or tsbarton.com