Dead Labor | Fiction

This story was originally published by the literary anthology The Bodega in 2013. It appears, in full in the short story collection, You, Me and the Rest of US: #NewYorkStories. The book is available in ebook and paperback at all major retailers.

"dead labor" a short piece about the retail work rat race by fiction author alex clermont writes

I leaned against a display of computer towers and computer-printed price tags on my fifth day in a row at that place that I didn’t want to be. A bank was holding me hostage downtown between Trinity and Broadway. If I left they would starve me. They would let sickness consume me. They would have me freeze under a bridge—food for vultures with bad habits.

I had begun to see things a little differently after having five years of five days in a row. Close objects had become distant as my mind went in and out of focus for hours at a time while being paid by the hour to do something I didn’t want to do. I was able to tell the time by looking at shadows cast by the natural light that somehow found its way inside that building of concrete and dead labor —the cash register became a sundial. At four o’clock I began to realize how soft my mind had become, really, how malleable reality itself was, and I began wondering about the world around me.

I could feel a customer approaching as I stared at the register to check, one more time, when and where I was.

I thought, if I punch a glass window. If I punched a decently thick glass window with enough force, but also with enough speed, I think I could kinda catch it off guard and bend it, like metal or something.

I said, “How can I help you, sir?”

I thought, if someone has a face like an animal, what does that mean? Maybe the animal that they look like is their totem—their animal guide in this world. This man has the spirit of the platypus looking after him, I think. It makes sure he will never drown. It means he’s unique, like a platypus, and that others will view his existence with skepticism until they can hold him and touch his smooth face. Maybe his platypus spirit is watching me, looking into my soul and forcing me to tell him things I don’t want to. I hate platypuses. Jigsaw animals.

I said, “Well, it’s not on the shelves, but sometimes items we’ve just received don’t get put out on the sales floor till much later. I’ll see if we have that in stock somewhere in the back. Give me a few while I check?”

I heard the customer say, “Sure.”

I thought, if I could run fast enough, with my arms spread and tilted at just the right angle, I might be able to get some lift.

I heard the inventory manager say, “Nah, we don’t got that in stock. Best bet for him would be to order it to this store and pick it up, or have it delivered to his place.”

I said, “All right. I’ll let him know.”

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I thought, I’m about ninety percent water. If I had to guess I’d say the rest of me is made up of stuff like iron, potassium… probably some bullshit like aluminum. All told, they’re pretty cheap. I wonder how much I would be worth if I was on the shelf next to the laptops? Fifteen dollars? Ten?

I said, “Okay, sir, would you like to pick it up or have it delivered to your home? Just so you know, you would get free delivery to your home since you’re using your store credit card.”

I heard the customer say, “Really? That sounds great. Can I get it delivered to my house then?”

I said, “Sure. Give me a second while I pull up your information.”

I thought, everything I see is just reflected light, but even light has a speed limit, right? It’s fast, but it has a limit. It takes time for that light to reach my eyes even though I think it’s instant. So, if the light I see bouncing off something is old, even by a nanosecond, then everything I’m seeing happened in the past. Nothing I see is happening at this moment—right now. Right now only happens when I touch something. When I’m in direct contact. That’s where it’s at. Direct contact, not seeing, is what’s real.

I said, “Have a good day sir.”

I heard the customer say, “You too. Thanks a lot for your help.”

I said, “No problem.”

I thought, I can’t stay here anymore. This job is gonna drive me insane.

I thought, I have to find something new.

As the customer walked away I slowly took off the uniformed shirt that someone else had sewn in a factory a continent away while being held hostage, as I was. I folded it neatly into the drawer under the LCD screens. Deciding to leave that place I didn’t want to be in, I walked through the revolving door and into the outside world. I wouldn’t be a hostage anymore, but I wouldn’t die either. I’d find something new, something real.


This story was originally published by the literary anthology The Bodega in 2013. It appears, in full in the short story collection, You, Me and the Rest of US: #NewYorkStories. The book is available in ebook and paperback at all major retailers.