Fiction: “Written on the Wall in Chalk” by Lee Oleson

A story of our post-9/11 Great Depression. This piece is an eery and all-too-telling portrait of today’s Americana. —The Editors

The laundry, off a side street, has a small sign over the front door that says Capeti & Brothers. It’s a large, two-story building with no windows. From inside comes the roar of machines.

Schroeder finds the front door locked, so he knocks, then notices a button and pushes it. A bell rings. A buzz unlocks the door. He goes into a lobby with linoleum floor, plastic chairs, a table, and a Plexiglas window sealing off an empty office. A woman appears in the office, comes to the window, and hands him an employment application and pen through a round hole in the Plexiglas. He sits at the table, fills out the application, then turns it in. The woman takes the application and says, “Wait.” Schroeder sits in a chair, opens his knapsack, takes out an apple, decides not to eat it, and puts it back in the knapsack.

Ten minutes later a man in slacks and white shirt comes into the lobby from a side door Charles hasn’t noticed. The man looks familiar. Schroeder is trying to place him.

“Are you Herman Muiz Schroeder?” the man asks, looking at the application.

Schroeder nods. “Yes.”

“When can you start?”

Schroeder is wondering what the pay is. He doesn’t ask. “Anytime,” he says.

“Today?”

“Sure,” Schroeder says.

“Now?”

Schroeder nods.

***

Two months later Schroeder, now with an income, has his car working again and is driving downtown. He comes to a stop at a traffic light and looks over at a building across the street. The windows of the building, which has no identifying sign, are filled with cement blocks. The wall of the building comes flush to the sidewalk. Written on the wall in chalk is “WHERE’S MY FUCKING BAILOUT?”

The hours at the laundry are from 5 PM to 3 or 4 or 5 AM. It’s an industrial laundry, cleaning uniforms for factories and auto shops. There’s a break after three hours and another at “dinner,” which is at midnight, and no other break. The day supervisor goes home at 6 PM, leaving no other supervisor, but likes to show up unannounced.

Near Schroeder’s workstation is a desk and chair used to fill out forms. On the wall by the chair is a steam pipe covered with brown foam insulation. Schroeder notices an indentation in the foam exactly the size of a person’s head. If you sit in the chair a certain way, he notices, and lean back, your head fits neatly into the indentation, forming a pillow. It’s comfortable—perfect for sleeping—but when Schroeder tries it he can’t sleep. The thought that the supervisor showing up makes him nervous.

One night he’s sitting at the desk filling out forms, and the supervisor, wearing a suit and tie like he’s going to church, walks in. It’s 3:45 am. The supervisor looks at Schroeder sitting at the desk and gives a friendly wave. “Just dropped by,” he says. “To see if you needed any help.”

***

In the fall work slows. Instead of working to 4 or 5 AM, Schroeder works to 2 AM, then all overtime stops. Three weeks later he’s laid off. When he comes into work one Monday he’s called into the supervisor’s office. The supervisor’s name in McEmamy. He’s young, handsome, with a bright smile and he’s always been friendly to Schroeder. “I have some bad news for you,” he says.

Schroeder has a girlfriend, Marie, he hasn’t known for long. The two of them are in a diner. She’s eating Jell-O with whipped cream; he’s eating apple pie.

“These men call me up,” she’s saying to him. “I don’t want anything to do with them. Why are they always calling me up?”

“Who are these men?” he asks. “How do they get your number?”

Marie ignores the questions. “Men!” she says.

***

Schroeder’s friend Ricky, who drives a truck, is having a good year. “It’s been the best year ever,” he tells Schroeder. “Made more money than I’ve ever made.”

Schroeder says he’s been laid off.

“Sure,” Ricky says. “Everybody’s getting laid off. I go into New York, the streets are quiet. At bus stops where there were twenty people waiting now there’s two.”

Ricky has a new car, a Volkswagen Passat. “It’s a beautiful car,” he says. “German engineering. Not just some rickety cheap shit car. This car is well-made. I’m not going to drive around in any old rickety cheap-shit car.”

***

Diane, Schroeder’s ex-girlfriend, is talking about going on a cruise and suggests Schroeder go with her. Schroeder wonders about this. They’ve broken up months before and aren’t getting along well, not even as friends. The first question he asks himself is, what would the sleeping arrangements be? Question two, who would pay for the trip? If Schroeder paid his life savings would be wiped out. If Diane pays—he wouldn’t let her pay. He couldn’t face it.

He thinks it’s just talk. She has no intention of going on a cruise with him. She doesn’t like him and has told him so. “You’re too serious,” she tells him. “You never want to go out. You don’t like movies. Every time I mention a movie you have some objection. You say you don’t want to see “Slumdog Millionaire.” How could anyone not want to see ‘Slumdog Millionaire?’”

“It has too much violence,” Schroeder says.

“It doesn’t have too much violence. Where did you get that? It has violence but not what you call violence. I know a dozen people who’ve seen it and nobody objects to the violence. And you complain about the violence and you haven’t even seen it.”

“I don’t want to see it,” Schroeder says.

“That’s what I mean,” she says.

***

Now that he’s laid off Schroeder thinks he should be cooking more, instead of buying unhealthy fast food. He has the time. Instead he cooks the same as before, no more creatively, no more time spent. He eats the same unimaginative meals as before.

He looks for work. There is a job listed online he knows he can do. Instead of emailing his resume (which seems to accomplish nothing) he goes to the street address of the job to hand in his résumé in person. He finds the location in a large modern building with mostly empty offices. He goes into the office of the company, a job service, and finds a secretary eating a roll and taking a cup of coffee at her desk. She looks bored. No one else is in the office. She appears surprised to see him.

Schroeder says he’s come to turn in his résumé for a job.

“We don’t have jobs here,” the secretary says. Schroeder says he saw the job listed online. “Oh, we just put those out there to keep our name out,” she says. “We don’t have jobs. You can sign the list.”

She hands Schroeder a clip board with hundreds of names and phone numbers on it. There is no indication of the type of job being signed up for. The list goes on for pages. Schroeder puts his name and phone number at the bottom of the list.

***

Schroeder is spending too much time on the computer reading stories about Alex Rodriguez and Barack Obama and the economic collapse. Being on the computer so much, he decides, is a disease. He finds himself emailing news stories to friends who email him back with stories that are equally distracting. One morning Schroeder finds an story entitled “Russian scholar says the United States will collapse—next year.”

“There’s a high probability that the collapse of the United States will occur by 2010,” the scholar says in a lecture at the Diplomat Academy in Moscow. The story says foreign media were invited to attend the lecture in which Igor Panarin, the scholar, argued that Americans are in moral decline, saying their great psychological stress is evident from school shootings, the size of the prison population, and the number of gay men.

Schroeder prints out the story and shows it to Marie, his new girlfriend, who doesn’t know him well and asks him such questions as, how old are you, really? Why have you had so many jobs? How many times did you say you were married?

Surprisingly, Marie takes the story seriously. Schroeder intended it as a joke. Schroeder never knows quite what to expect from Marie, who has a good job and drives a new car and tells him how many foreign countries she’s visited. Schroeder has been to foreign countries but not nearly so many and his dilapidated car (he thinks Marie thinks) is evidence of a lack of financial resources, which it is.

Marie reads the whole story, including a part in which the professor predicts the United States will break up into six autonomous regions and that Alaska will revert to Russian control. She reads the story over and over. Schroeder wishes she’d forget about it, but she wants to discuss it.

“You know,” she says after she’s read the story for the fourth or fifth time. “This doesn’t make sense.”

“Why not?” Schroeder says.

“It says Alaska will revert to Russian control. I lived in Alaska five years. You know what’s in Russia across the Bering Straits from Alaska? Siberia. There’s nothing there but ice and gray wolves.”

Schroeder agrees, hoping Marie will change the subject and after a while she does.

***

The next day Schroeder visits a place he’s applied for work at two or three times before. He waits in the lobby for forty-five minutes, then the plant manager, who Schroeder has talked to several times, appears. They shake hands.

“Perhaps you remember me,” Schroeder says. “Just thought I’d check.”

The plant manager remembers him. He is very polite, perhaps a little apologetic. “At the moment,” he says. “We don’t have an opening, but…in a month or two…”

Schroeder asks if it’s all right if he checks back in a month or two.

“Sure,” the plant manager says. “Check back in a month or two. Things should get going again by then…in a month or two.” His smile is vague, uncertain.

Lee Oleson grew up in California and graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, majoring in Dramatic Art.  For several years he was a newspaper reporter in Massachusetts, Tennessee, and Washington, DC.  Since then he has worked various industrial jobs, and now lives in Newark, NJ.

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