Where did the sun go when it rained

It’s not too hot until strangers in parking lots feel comfortable saying it. Summer happened a long time ago when all the kids were let out of school this Spring. In just about a week, we can all shake our heads at the checkout counter while we admonish the weather, until then, hold your breath like you were underwater to keep from clearing your throat in public. Wearing a mask makes cleavage of the eyes. Can’t help but tantalize. Icebergs only peek. Powder blue cream filled and witch hazel green, little black curled up spider legs trace a soft pink veined lemon wedge squinting sourly. Is it redundant, to ornately describe the look of eyes? 

Sweat beads down the sides. Long bang cuts across one like a scythe slicing hay for strangers who respond hello. Deep brown like chocolate pudding with a semisweet pupil dotting the center. Do I want to eat these people’s eyes? A superhero. A test answer. A victim in a crime report. When you lack the guts to ask, you mask. You leave it to eyes. What do your silent, light absorbent orbs say about you? Of all the colors of the world, which do they offer back above the mask confessing your true feelings about the view you’re facing. How long has it been since you really smelled the words you were saying. We’re not as sure of what you said as you are of what you had for lunch with onions on it. Without the nose, with buried cheeks and hidden chin, our eyes take over for the entire face and apologize to the world they waste as they search only for their favorite colors. Gray lumps of unwashed wool. Teal waves off southern oceans spill tears down peachy lids of grainy sand. And black. The favorite color of anyone who can’t pick one. They’re all there huddled around a smoky fire in that deep and penetrating night. And wood fire red brown. And pauper pupils wearing corneas like golden crowns. Dull silver throwing sparks growing sharp. Furrowed down. 

So we’re all supposed to be superheroes now. Secret identities. Private public lives and public private ones we post online. Can’t shake hands, but can roll eyes. Can’t bitch about the weather, except that the sun has his mask off and he’s breathing all over all of us. We want to ask where’s the rain, but we don’t know who we’re talking to, they did get a thunderstorm two towns over. Can’t even suffer drought the same any more. Can’t stand the taste of my own words. And without the rest of the face in the way, my eyes keep giving away my secrets. All I see anymore is people’s true colors. All I hear is what eyes have to say, and buddy, it puts mouths to shame. 

Who is that behind that mask.
Where did the sun go when it rained.

Chickeninity

I forgot how much this work likes to graffiti your hands and wrists, and, even in the off season, we all started getting poison ivy again. I figured it out. It’s coming in with the firewood. I’ve spent hours at a time just working and lingering in my pasture, one among the herd of eleven goats, and I discovered hoof issues, an abscess, and two, at my best estimate, a week from giving birth. Five more to kid after them, fingers crossed.

I built a new chicken coop in that time. Spent eight hours cutting midsized White Oaks and tracing them with a draw-blade until they were nude and pink. Night before last, around eight fifteen, Roan was in bed, my wife and I went out and carried every one of twenty five chickens to the new coop. After having helped me with this chore, she no longer eats chicken. For now. It is an ever-intimate experience holding a helpless animal in your arms that fully believes you are about to end it. I’ve been in this game a while though. I tuck one like a football between my belly and elbow and grab the other one by its feet dangling upside down so that I can carry two at a time. I care for the animals, I do, enough to separate my humanity from their chickeninity. It’s an awkward situation. I believe until that terrible day comes, the birds really just want their basic needs met and enough space to be left alone to chicken. I built that for them. It’s the best coop I’ve ever made.

Every chore was a domino in succession. Knocking that one out freed up the next old, disgusting, decade worth of shit filled domino to fall. A half an old tractor shed sequestered off a decade ago to put chickens in. It was hard, I’m still coughing up dust that probably has particles of my grandfather in it, but at the end of the day, the goats essentially lost a disgusting neighbor, annexed and upgraded their condominium and now have a whole building to themselves, to hopefully fill it up with healthy babies.

Having land is one thing, but going out and spending time there is the only way to keep it.

That love…

Love sets your responsibilities. I find the phrase ‘falling in love’ intriguing. In a ‘saying the quiet part out loud’ way. When there’s nothing under you, we call it falling, but once you’re grounded, we just call it gravity. That constant nagging attraction our species has been trying to escape ever since we lost our first forest. We are the orphans of titans. Longing, and loss, are textures of our love. Strands within our braids. Should we leave one out when we weave our happiness, that stitch will fail. We fall in love, I know I did, and then we live with falling everyday, so that it becomes a peculiar particular gravity conjured up in the cosmic draw between all bodies. Stars are born out of the oscillating pressures and biochemical dynamics between us. Love has set schedules, and early morning alarms in neat fifteen minute increments, love forces you to obey at least one of them, love abolishes laurels, and hiding places, and high grounds. We climb in almost all external endeavors, be it power, be it corporate ladders, be it chakras within yourself, be it up on crosses or pulpits or podiums or high towers. But. But, we fall in love. I don’t know. I don’t know if I buy that. There’s got to be some middle-ground between always either climbing or falling, and if there is, it’s that incessant gravity. Climbing, falling, resolution. Sounds like a story. Perhaps that’s a more fitting phrase about the nature of love.

That love sets your story.

Bear Stories

Almost more frightening than seeing a bear is someone telling you they saw a bear. An older guy, older than my dad, who, if you saw on the street, you’d call homeless, but out here in the woods wearing a backpack with a red bandanna decorated black paisley tied around his head, just a hiker. Supposedly, who came around the corner and surprised two bear cubs up a tree. Never saw their mother. He says. But had a sense she was nearby. He tells us this as he is headed in the opposite direction, toward the almost can’t be called a town a few miles behind. Where we ate cheeseburgers and charged our phones and filled two collapsible water-bottles with cheap fizzy gas station wine. Dad and I. This guy is filling our heads with thoughts of bear and I swear I can smell every ounce of that half pound burger I ate called the hiker, ironically, likely pieces of it beneath my fingernails, grease left off in my scant facial hair. Old man hikes on but we really don’t, we’d walked all day and by design were camping close-by, maybe a few dozen yards from the place he treed the cubs.

There used to be a shelter here, but it burned down and all that is left is a giant set of concrete steps and the half buried slab it leaned on. The site isn’t popular. I can tell because of how little walking it takes to gather up a waist high pile of firewood so I can light up these woods right until the buttcrack of bedtime. Dad teases me about it. Less than an hour and a young man comes bee-bopping down the trail buried between two earbuds. He sits on our orphaned steps and talks to us about joining the army at the end of summer. And this trip is one half vacation, one half training. He can’t be in his mid twenties. One of those ultra lightweight backpacks stitched with the word Osprey. He hikes light. Carries very little water. Trusts his legs to get him more. He started further back than we did, and he isn’t done for the night. By his projections, another six miles before dark. His stories are scary-exciting like inheriting land or landing that new job. Red tee. Spiky black hair. Sweat sheened tan skin and built skinny strong. He did not stop to get a burger.

I have to drink most of my wine because my wine bag busted from the carbonation. Dad goes to tent an hour before my firewood is spent and I dirty up a couple pages and watch the flickering darkness for the twinkling of bear eyes or old men who smell like damp tobacco and liberal patchouli. The trees catch hot breath off my tall fire and juggle it between branches, busking for my attention, and I give it to them, two ever-open quarters I flick out from my pocket, like boomerangs, always seem to fly back to me whenever whatever I gave them to is finished.

I’d rather see a bear than hear a story about seeing one.

If I knew it was there in the dark staring back at me licking its lips.
Even that would be easier than waiting.

From the Minds of Children

I imagine the very first writers as scavengers. Hikers. Walking village to village, collecting what noises each individual, isolated collection of humans have thrown at rocks, hills, rivers, trees, seeing what sticks, forgiving what doesn’t as nothing more than babble. The idea that one great thinker sat down to put down language is absurd. That is not the way the human mind works. It is far more likely language was discovered by children. Babies even. Probably the first of us to erupt into laughter, and then, call it a giggle just after. I’d be amazed if an adult ever invented a single good word. Grown ups just name things after what they heard, the sound they make. Bark. I give that to an old person. Scrape. Cough. But not grass, not oak, not maple or throw. Little children safely insulated inside their villages gave title its title. And the rarest of humankind, the poet, made a career out of restlessness. Searching out the particular phenotype of a phrase as it evolved up and down the Euphrates. Moving on and contaminating the next group with how their neighbors call after their dogs, how they describe the blood red hearted logs that stink like shit. Red oak and red cedar and straight as an arrow Tulip poplar.

Poplar, staring into startling coals, dodging embers as they explode. Poplar. I’m sure that was popular. Right off the bat. Bat. A simple mind came up with that. But it took a genius to collect it and put it beside strings of others and carry it just as if it were as important as hard crusted bread or zucchini seeds or dried meat. Lion. Easy. Giraffe, not so much. Cat. Lizard. Leopard. Sherpa. Sauna. Stain the plate orange lasagna.

Every word is a moving target. A symptom of evolution, a flower off a creeping vine. A changing thing. Which explains all of relativity. A cold hand in less cold water does not equal the word warm. Because cold, and water, and warm, are just words. Just noises. Sounds that bubbled up from our throats and just so happened to get stuck against some unwitting, innocent object, also evolving, moving, changing.

All the quirks in existence can be explained by the little sentence printed along the base of side view mirrors on cars. Objects will appear larger in the construct of language than they ever are in the construct of reality. Because they were made that way. Like a microscope. What does it show. Truth. Indelibly. Definitely. Yes. But no. Not at all. In no way whatsoever, also. Does that make sense? That some truth can only be made clear via distortion, manipulation. The world around us must be twisted like a sopping dishrag in order to find out what it’s made of, emptied, when articulated fully. Through a little bent glass a microcosm of bacteria, cellular structure, viral culture materializes. The invisible can be made visible if you close one eye and squint the other one just right with the right amount of light aimed up through an empty space below a downturned, concentrated, scrunched up face. Point that same bulb of clear melted sand up at the stars and you’ll reach a far different conclusion. Darkness. Blankness. The dankness of empty, far off, lonely and desperate outer space. Is that true? Of course it isn’t. To see what isn’t out there more clearly a distortion of a totally different type is required, perhaps a couple bulbous lenses and a linear tube and no light at all whatsoever, and you’ll actually begin to peer into the past. Planets zoom past. Stars already dead and gone still filtering into wide open curious minds. And is that the truth, through a telescope, the other worlds that can be seen with one eye pressed into a cylinder, stared into well placed mirrors, seeing almost every single thing to forsake one’s self. Yes. And no. It is a trick and a truth. And yet, if we discounted the view, how much of our universe would we lose. The galactic framework of our marvelous blue green white marbled planet.

Language. Literature. Words. How much they have in common with low light, bent glass and mirrors. More than we would ever be comfortable with. Which is how we got ourselves into this mess. Trusting the noises that erupt up out of us more than the cavernous realms that gobble up and regurgitate them back at us.

If the words do not exist to articulate, or describe any section of this, it’s not there, it doesn’t exist. We haven’t really figured out the methods or status of the divine, so it isn’t there, we’re all atheists. Believers are worse about it than outright disbelievers. The word belief says it all. By not being the word known. Why would we not back up and readjust the microscope. How could a self respecting scientist peer down, give the knob a little twist, and not resist the conclusion they desire. The easy one. Nothing. It seems pessimistic, but nothing is the thing people hope for more than any other gift of life.

We don’t go back to the drawing board, pack the hiking pack, travel the world, asking children how they call the air we breathe, how they articulate the depth of the sea, or the fullness of space. We call it invisible. We invent words like empty. Void. Lonely. Where children paint pirate ships and abandoned train cars and alien worlds.

I like to imagine those first poets wandering the countryside, scavenging for noises, grunts, moans, taps and clicks and pounding fists and the futile, barbaric yawp of men and women and non-binary minds alike. I like to hear them unifying a thousand different sounds all around the same little bent growing trees, itchy vines, purple flowers. The same exact thing. With an entire spectrum of half names and partial titles and God’s honest gut impulsed recitals. Wheat. Corn. Cabbage. Turtles. Titans. Continents. Mountains. Clouds. Ponds. Wells. Swells. Sand dunes and rock slides and full on white death avalanches chasing what they hope to carry and are soon to bury. The strong survive to sing about it. Track down a poet, and share with them umph for umph the story of it.

Oh, to be a writer in those days prior to words. An author of sounds and noises and explosive bodily functions and the shushing of waves and how the wind sounds like rain and the scream of a bee sting and the gentle sugary buzz off honey. To have lived and walked and traveled before there were enough maps for there to be a thing called lost. Life its self was purely a prize before the invention of the word cost. Surely made up by a grown up. The word responsibility. Probably ripped off from some child running full speed and leaping across their sleeping parents screaming the word ability. Life, dripping from the lips of babes like honey, stingers still in the tips of their fingers, and an old person coming up from behind and to chastise them by putting the word be in front of it. Shape up. Be life. Belief. In endless things we ought to know.

What I wouldn’t give to be a poet back before poets. Before farmers. Before politicians. Before lawyers, and office managers, and kings. When no one had anything. What choice was there but to grow. To scavenge. To walk the countryside and listen to water babble, worse than children about making up words and schemes. Back when sleep was the same as dreams. Birds flew in clouds and stars were dancing bears and shifting soldiers and long handled cups with cracks in the bottom leaking rain. When poets wandered like water the path of least resistance, and filled their bellies every night by telling stories and filling minds. When a single word held in it an epic tale. Chasing after dogs and cats, their epic tails. Recounting every noise of every tribe as they try to describe the exact same blade of auburn colored cattail headed grass. Talk about an epic tell. The boom off the tree that fell. The infinity of a field and how that feels when it has blistered your heel and decides to hold on to your foot print, and let everyone know the way you went.

I like to think how we didn’t start telling stories until long after the world decided to keep us in its story. Story. How many blades of grass, how many different species of trees, how many you’s and me’s, are in that word, alone. How many poets did it take to settle on that word, story. And to this very day, no matter where you are, you’ll find a different definition. We’re still fast at work on a new edition, every single writer ever, wants a crack at a new expression.

But they haven’t heard. They haven’t listened. Too obsessed with ancient religion.
To remember, the best words have always been born from the minds of children.

Write your own worst critic

Select a passage and reflect upon it as a reader.

from Forever-Open:
“Churches are vessels for memories. God, not so regularly. You get to the afterlife looking for a house of worship, you’ll probably be handed a hammer and nails. We have no evidence whatsoever to believe a divine current running throughout the universe has much if any interest in our buildings.”

Wherever this magically misplaced confidence comes from I’d sure like to know. Wouldn’t we all appreciate the authority to declare when, where, why, what God is or isn’t. Where does he get off, or maybe he never got on, please step down onto the same plain of existence the rest of us all call home. Wake up buddy. God is memory. God is the church. The church is God’s will manifest on earth. What would you have us do, light candles and sit in a circle in the woods and pass around a stick and tell ghost stories. I just hear that kid, the worst kid you can imagine, who nothing is ever good enough for, and he’s invented the best possible hardest to argue excuse to get out of going to church ever. God isn’t even really in there anyway. Meh. Hammer and nails, what does he know about building things, do a lot of carpentry work hiking through the woods hugging trees, do you? Though it is beside the point, because in what world do we go to kids like this for theological pontification and advice, but isn’t their mere existence in the world evidence of God’s interest in buildings? What are humans, I mean, chopped liver, ant hills are still part of nature, why aren’t buildings? Giant, like, I don’t know, termite mounds or some shit. Know what I mean? Of course ‘the divine current’ is interested in that. Get a haircut. Get a job. Wake up take a shower and go to church. It’ll be good for you. We skip over most of the gospel stuff anyhow. Don’t get hung up like Jesus, I mean on Jesus. Let me show you these letters written by Paul.
All this church stuff will start to make a lot more sense.

Forever-Open

Once I was a week’s vacation for a church janitor. On paper, the position is called sexton. But in truth, I cleaned bathrooms. Lots of other work too. Dusting under stained glass windows. Polishing hundred year old timber. Lightly mopping myself out of the sanctuary. I took the trash. The church was massive and historic. Built in the late eighteen hundreds. Episcopalian. On paper, high church. And it takes a lot of work to hold that title. I was only there a week. But I had just finished spending two and a half months principally living in the woods.

My first day off trail, I held the keys to a century old building.

The tick tock of hard heeled boots on marble floors. Bowed in iron floor grates that would take deep spooky breaths ever so often. Seeing stained glass scenes at different times of day. Not just mornings. It was early November, upstate New York. The space was warming. In every way I needed. Empty churches have always felt like home. Growing up the middle son of a Lutheran Pastor, whose ministry crossed several churches and state lines in the course of my childhood. We’d spend a lot of time at a place most people see only once a week. I remember playing hide and seek in graveyards. I think of it now, but in no way back then did I even question for a second if what we were doing was wrong. Proximity. And creativity. The blinders all children see the world within. And here I was again, alone in an intentionally intimidating, hollowed-out space. Empty enough to fill with echoes even of slight gestures. A no whisper space. A better not start unwrapping that cough drop until the hymn starts up again space. And I had it all to myself. Keys in my hand. And a list of chores my credibility was attached to. It was an interesting overlapping of experiences to say the least.

I have known many church janitors, or sextons rather, in my lifetime. Never thought twice about any one of them. Didn’t really process that it was a real job. Definitely refused to recognize a church’s dependence on that position, almost as much as a pastor even. I saw it done to perfection. I saw it taken advantage of. You never could have convinced me to believe I’d be one one day. That guy with the keys dangling from a belt loop. Trust. Access. Responsibility. Fifteen an hour. Fifteen hours. Ornate, immaculate linens with real wax candles in gold colored holders. Dripping. Rafters forty feet, I don’t know, felt like a hundred, maybe somewhere in between, dark stained support beam skeleton and light yellow white painted spaces. Altars etched with latin words. No crucifix. All crosses and cups full with grapes and stained glass scenes with farm animals and children.

The organ made you move with or without making music. A true to form pipe organ. Powerful, to say the very least. A mountain range of volatile motion capable of capturing the most experienced hiker in an off trail outward bound mouth hung down might be drooling a little as I stare off into space mind racing while an organ erases anything that may have previously fulfilled the expectations I had for a word like powerful, to say the most. Boxy boxed off section of pews for the choir. Two pulpits. Or one pulpit, one podium. I believe they corrected me on that too. One of them was an eagle, wings outspread legs arched forward the instant before a strike. A larger than life Holy Bible invitingly spread wide open on its back. Air conditioning screaming up from the basement. Intricate black trails of sediment locked in ancient white sheets of carved up ground smooth granite. The weddings, white dresses starkly contrasted against dark stained wood. Line of men standing shoulder to shoulder nervously smiling and poking each other with elbows to deal with the anxiety. A room full of people. Breathing. Whispering. Passing hard candy down from grandma. Twisting spinal columns to see if the Narthex was loaded, safety off, bride in the chamber, groom sat out a hundred yards like a target. Wavering in the wind of childlike anticipation.

Churches are vessels for memories. God, not so regularly. You get to the afterlife looking for a house of worship, you’ll probably be handed a hammer and nails. We have no evidence whatsoever to believe a divine current running throughout the universe has much if any interest in our buildings. I had just walked eight hundred miles across four states, I spent a little time in the whole east coast’s backyard. Trees blurred together into forests before me, mountains overlapping ranges like skyscraping waves far out in the ocean. Three walls and a tin roof made me feel like royalty. A fire, all alone, out in the woods, kept me in lively company. All my needs fit in tiny waterproof sacks stuffed in a bag on my back. Worship is experience. Church is a hostel. A place for the traveler to find some reprieve. Reflection. Catch your breath. Invest it into a little friendly conversation. But God isn’t like us. It has its own ideas about architecture. Besides, time, nature, weather, inevitability is constantly trying to diminish and tear these places down. There is a literal team of hard fought individuals who show up, clock in, grind gears, push pens, stack paper, answer phones, clean bathrooms, dust windows, shut off the alarm when the new rector accidentally sets it off. Rector. Another word for pastor. And congregation, a word for a herd of fresh shorn, darty eyed, collar throated, had too much corn with a touch of bloat, sheep. Also, God can’t take credit for sheep. Or any domesticated thing. Even feral, untouched by man, there’s a good argument to be had that we can’t rightfully credit a possible creator of the entire universe with the detailed shapes and design of anything we find here on earth. But possibility. Potential. Different. Of this sort of metaphysical work, there is evidence. And one could put up a decent argument that churches operate as modes of restriction imposed on chaos. A roof to block out earth’s roof. Windows that can’t be seen through. Doors that open so wide but with copper locks buried inside intended to keep them closed.

Memory. Not creation. Canon fired, for fear of allowing any more genesis to take place. Heels echoing against hundred year old paint still streaked with the brush strokes of hands upheld sixty feet up a ladder now buried in the ground. A brass lettered placard in the Narthex tells the church’s story, lists crucial dates, responsible parties. Behind the altar, a musky sacristy. Silver orbs on silver chains to swing burning sage. Choir robes. A refrigerator full of holy wine. Crackers in the cabinet. Crackers on the cross. Crackers in the pews. I was never a fan of that point of view. Can’t get comfortable in an audience. Felt fine polishing where they sit though. Sweeping off where their feet had been. Mopping away the winter boot prints. Running a bleach soaked rag over their toilet seats, where their naked bodies had touched down, where the holy leftovers of water were graciously offered, stagnate in the corner of the stall. Wondering if they realize there is wine in there. The wine in our urine. The blood in the wine. The wafer. The meal heard round the world, still got deposited down the side of some tree, or planted into empty space beneath an overturned boulder.

“We are called to the table,” I spoke out loud, my deepest booming voice directly into the cold embrace of this massive historic church’s hollow breast. “Later on, we’ll be called to the bathroom.” The rounded trailing sounds of once-words fizzle and fuse into the wood grain, the three inch thick stained glass window panes, down, into imperceptible spaces in pristine, glass-faced marble, inhaled by raspy high heel hungry grates embedded in the floor up front.

“We are called to this table, to eat, drink, and prepare to be called away from this table.”

I am standing as upright as I possibly can behind the widespread wings of a golden eagle, heavy book on its back like a turtle shell. All alone in a titanically empty room. The keys that unlock it are in my pocket. I was thin. Hardened. Incorrigible. Feeling invincible. Called. Walked to the very hostel I’ve spent my entire life arguing with and running away from. Not to talk, or lecture, or give a sermon, or even edit one. But to sweep. Mop. Clean bathrooms. I remember thinking as I worked one day in the sanctuary, how every person who pursues a pastoral ministry, should start by cleaning a church, head to toe. From the altar, to the restroom. Body of Christ, indeed.

“The point was not so we could come here and be given the tiniest proportion of bread and wine to take a little slack off our worried minds about where we go when we die. The point was, we’re already dying. Hunger is your daily reminder. Thirst, a warning sign. It’s unavoidable. We all extend out and can be traced back to the table like a vine. We are mutually severed. Every time.”

Lights turn on in the hallway. Doors that enter from the back of the giant room are suddenly traced by bright rectangles.

“This place. This is the hostel. At the base of the mountain. It is not the mountain top. We’ve taken a hiking, walking, working person’s philosophy, as a reason to stop. Rest. Reprieve. Take in the view. If you like it well enough, you never have to leave.”

The light go off. That side of the sanctuary returns to dark. I lean a little forward, both fists resting on the pages of a tremendous bible, on the back of a golden eagle. The light is fading from the darkest stained glass first, the reds have gone brown, the purple and royal blue now black, only yellow and white still allow the light of a quickly setting sun to pass.

“The point was not to forsake knowledge in pursuit of belief. Jesus, of all people, knew you’d be hungry again tomorrow. And the next day. If we’re lucky, there will always be more work to do. This place is a hostel, a temporary relief along a journey. Church is something you carry with you. Into the world. Over the mountains.”

“Worship is simply a quieted, hollowed-out space inside yourself.
Where the doors are forever-open and bear no locks.”

UPS Guy

My phone went off loudly around five thirty in the morning. There’s no way for a phone to go off quietly that early. A gentle coffee warmed voice asked me if I was who I am, and asked if I was available to work that day. Foggy headed, half asleep, almost too tired to speak, I could not think of a good excuse. Yes ma’am, I said, and sealed my fate. I could expect a call from a driver within the next two hours. Shipping things for a living seems a precarious venture. It forces us to treat the mundane with a misplaced urgency.
You’re handing someone an impossible job.
Demanding they do hard work gently.

The United Parcel Service, UPS, hires what they call driver helpers, for the month of December. If you get called in for the orientation, you begin to glimpse what you’re in for etched in colorful posters advocating daily stretches. Stared into a television monitor watching all the wrong ways to lift heavy things. At least sixteen of us around the table. My manager told me maybe five worked a full day, and of those five, no one worked two. I was one of those. Not because of the work, but because of the structure. You would never know if you were needed until your phone rang sometime before six in the morning. It worked on a daily basis, you see, and so you did as well. There are particular rungs down at the base of the economic ladder where a day off is a sort of miniature death sentence. If I had an open Thursday to offer, I said yes. Even though I had no clue what I was saying yes to. Until my phone rang about an hour and a half later.
My driver was on route.

They had given us all a hat. A brown toboggan. But the driver would have the rest of my uniform. Because UPS delivery persons have special security clearances, that let them enter airports, schools, and businesses. Each of their shirts and pants and issued hats has a long tracking number associated to it, and they use it. You’re probably not going to find old UPS uniforms in Goodwill or any other consignment shop. Which also makes the dull brown a sort of symbolic color for the company. UPS has strong suggestions for how an employee should represent their self when wearing this uniform. Like the military. There is no casual piece of company clothing. Branding control. Marketing cohesion. Which trickles down to guys like me, putting on my tremendously oversized milk chocolate colored coat and pants in an Exxon bathroom, where I was asked to leave my car parked for the entire day, a potentially twelve plus hour shift. I hopped up into the cab with a guy named Jeff, and we took off exchanging introductions. All my options and freedom of movement and control sitting locked and turned off totally abandoned in a cramped gas station parking lot.

It is also important to note, I’m working and living in an area that I am entirely unfamiliar with. Having only moved to Upstate New York that November, working now for UPS in December. The man actually gave me one of their GPS and shipping information handheld tracking devices, like I had any idea what to do with the fragmented five digit house numbers and road names that may as well have been in a different country. Jeff took it back when he saw me looking up addresses on my phone. He understood. Accordingly, he had quit this job just the week before. Jeff had come down with the flu, and was forced to call in sick to his active, high energetic and technically demanding job, and his supervisor told him no. So he quit. ‘Supe’ called him back four days later, five days into December, and with no apology, simply offered him a shift. The one we were both part of at this very point in the story. He has three kids, loves to snowmobile, is good at his job, started like me as a driver helper, took that position to something basic in the warehouse, and in just a short time, they had him driving his own truck around his own hometown. He loved it. And several people on his route loved him.

Waves, conversations, playful jokes about someone’s yappy dog, bigger more dangerous animal owners came out smiling and waving and clearly knowing. One young military wife came outside with a Christmas card after I had just dropped a package off on her front stoop, with ten dollars inside, for Jeff, or as he demanded, the both of us. And he gave me a five. I learned more about the area I had moved to in those high up violently shaken and crazy chaotic scanning barcodes and staring down mailboxes than the entire month before. I learned more about reading addresses and following road signs instead of verbal commands and diagrams and actively oriented maps on my phone. I scanned the horizon for highway signs and little flat green strips hosting street names. House numbers, how they hop across the street, very rarely move along sensibly linearly.

Cat piss covered front porches and wide open mudroom doors and setting down Amazon packages in front of houses I could not fathom anyone actually lived in. Though they did. Dogs tied up in rough outside conditions. Jeff throwing his hands one over the other sliding back and forth, dangerously smiling wildly and bouncing up from his seat, as we skated left and right across a mile long, frozen sheet of ice someone calls a driveway. UPS trucks are only two wheel drive. At least most of the trucks were, Jeff attested. Made it all that much more fun to slip around in. I detested it, as I smiled politely, and gripped the base of my bucket seat, as a friend of mine would say, hard enough to pinch the vinyl.

I live for days like this, challenges like these, but that does not mean I do not get tired. Psychically, physically, empathically exhausted. I do. And that started around five thirty in the evening, twelve hours now from when my phone first started ringing. Glancing into the back of the truck, it still looked brimming with odd sized gift boxes and brown cubes and dented rectangles one big plastic eye wrapped around paperwork stared back at me. A monster in the middle, something flat and massive, a baby crib I guessed, but never said out loud. I made the rookie mistake of casually asking what we do with the packages still in the truck at the end of our shift.

Something happens to people when they work in ridiculously difficult conditions so long they get numb to them. When someone new comes through and experiences it, they can’t help but feel a twinge of resentment. Of reminder, that oh yes, what I am doing is hard, in some ways, demeaning, and in one clear instance, humbling. They see it anew in the eyes of the trainee. And the trainee, feels for the first time the same fear and exhaustion this tried and tested worker put down and submitted to a long time ago

Corporate, as Jeff called it, never communicated to a driver directly. Always through this supervisor, who was out to get him, to hear him tell it. He had for a long time suspected, but never knew to what level they truly tracked his time and movement on the job, until he was seated in his supervisor’s office, three sheets of paper on the desk in front of him, all cataloging and detailing a five minute pit stop he had taken. Not during his recorded lunch stop, which was entered into the device. He had pulled off the road at a gas station to grab a Mountain Dew. It was five minutes as the record showed. And he was told to not let it happen again, or he might be better suited to the warehouse.

Three kids. Loves to snowmobile. Appreciates he gets to raise them in his own hometown.
Defending five minutes.

Needless to say, there is no option to end the shift until the truck is empty, he told me. He had it take him over fourteen hours in a single shift, in the past. So I asked, what if I needed to leave early, could I even be dropped off at my car, just asking out of curiosity, of course. We were over forty five minutes from there. Jeff said he would gladly take me back, but I’d be setting him back just about two hours in recovery and driving time. I told him of course not. I did my breathing exercise. I also sometimes force myself to smile. I made a joke at my expense. Caught a glimpse of myself reflected in the dingy window. Hey, I see you. UPS guy.
Who else could do what you do?

Meet a stranger out in the world, change into a strange uniform in a bathroom, hop into a truck and head off into the never less known. I wasn’t home until after ten that evening, making it a nice clean twelve hour shift. I got a check for a hundred dollars, after taxes. And I got to be a UPS delivery guy for a day.

And on top of that. They let me keep the hat.