Margaret had spent her childhood staring into her father’s shined shoes. He was a traveling salesman, based out of St. Louis, a man who slicked grease through his hair, handed suits on coat hangers to her mother when he walked through the front door.
The night before he’d leave on a trip, he would shine two pairs of shoes in the flickering light of Johnny Carson on the television and set them next to the door.
“You never know which one’s gonna be lucky,” he said.
Margaret would find one pair of black shoes in the morning, the unlucky pair.
When cancer took her husband, Margaret learned to sense it, to feel death hovering through the small social gatherings she’d allowed herself after his passing: the coffee time after church, the cards at someone’s house, the music night at a local college. Margaret thought that it was because she had slept next to it for so long. She had learned that death was a shadow that could awake inside of you. Wrinkled women hobbled up to her to say did you hear that so-and-so has cancer. She didn’t understand why. She was fifteen, twenty years their junior, in her mid-60s. There was plenty of time left. She looked deep into the milky eyes of the old women and felt dark organs shifting through their bodies.
So she got a job, a fulfillment center an hour north of St. Louis.
She had a simple, recurring dream when she was a child. She saw herself in Sunday dress, curled into the warm, black fur of a sleeping bear, the earth cave’s ceiling quivering with teardrops about to fall.
This was after she learned about hibernation in the third grade.
In the laundry room, Margaret bounced her back against the wall and watched her mother ironing white dress shirts.
“When dad leaves, it’s like we’re hibernating,” she said.
Her mother set the iron in its side and a cloud of steam puffed out and broke across the ceiling. Her mother looked at her with confusion, wiped her forehead with a rag. “What did you say?”
Even when her father was home, it was her mother that took her places. The carnival, the zoo, a public pool somewhere. Somehow she knew that she shouldn’t go into the television room where her father was.
“He works very hard,” her mother said.
Margaret would watch him through the crack in the swinging door. He sat in a cone of light from the television, raising a can of Coca-Cola to his mouth every few minutes.
He was a stone statue or a robot, she decided. A sad stone robot.
When he was there at dinner, he would ask her three questions: how was school? what was she learning? how were her friends?
She could’ve run wild as a teenager, but she didn’t. There was a solemn agreement between them, Margaret and her father, and it didn’t need terms, requirements, systems. They just knew.
He’d put a square of meat in his mouth, chew slowly, and watch her, listening. When she was done talking, he’d nod. “Good work, princess.”
Margaret’s parents had grown up in the same town, in houses next door to each other, and were married two weeks after high school graduation in 1948. They had her two years later. When Margaret was 21 years old, on January 11th, 1971, her father committed suicide in the upstairs bathroom with a pistol.
People told her that she had her father’s eyes and she wondered what that meant. She worried about what that meant. She tried not to think about what that meant.
On the screen, the numbers ticked down. She carried the screen with her as she slow jogged from aisle to aisle, sliding out bins and looking for the item on the screen. Remote controller. Porcelain lamb. Inflatable mattress. Black cord. Camera. Sex thing. The numbers ticked down on the screen as she rummaged through the bin. If the numbers ticked down to zero before she put the item on the conveyor belt, the numbers would begin to tick up and she’d know how many seconds she was behind.
“I think there’s something wrong with my screen,” she told the supervisor. “The numbers are going too fast.”
The young woman glanced up from her computer at Margaret standing at the door. “The system knows your pace,” she said. “It knows how fast you go and it knows how far away the bin is and how many items are in the bin. You’ll get used to working at a linear pace soon enough.”
Margaret stared at the young woman lit by the glow of the computer. It seemed impossible that a person that could believe in such a world.
She had imagined the rainforest when she applied for the job: humidity, heavy greens, brown people with spears, pythons circling up a tree. It was the first job she’d applied to since she was pregnant with their first daughter. Her face pulsated heat when she realized that it was on the internet, Amazon.
When had they decided that they could name themselves whatever they wanted?
“Why is it called Amazon?” she asked.
The trainer stood to the left of a projection screen, rubbed his round, taut belly. “You know, that’s a really good question. Let me circle back to you on that one.”
“Why do they make us go through metal detectors to go to lunch?” It was a black boy behind her, slouching.
“Now that’s an easy one,” the trainer said, sitting on the edge of a table, smiling down at all of them sitting in school desks. “It’s for your protection. Say something goes missing from one of the bins that you touch during the day. If you’re going through the metal detectors, we know you’re innocent.”
“But don’t you have cameras on us all day?”
“This ensures that you’re innocent.”
“Well, why do we have to use our break time to go through the metal detectors?”
The trainer stood up, turned his back to them. “Like I said, it’s for your protection, not ours. That’s why it happens on your break time.”
The women who played cards were perpetually preparing for a party that would never come. Margaret sat and listened to them talk about hanging flower boxes, great recipes for ham that used ginger ale, deals on glassware, an article on how to stack books. She sorted her cards and set them face up on the felt top of the table when it was her turn, smiled when one of the ladies addressed her.
She quit going after she got the job. It felt like they were all in a car and the tires were spinning on the ice. Friendships are not meant to last a lifetime, she decided.
Her daughter lived nearby with a man who was not her husband but they had children together, two little girls. It was an arrangement that Margaret had come to terms with.
“You don’t need to be working,” her daughter said. “We can take care of you.”
Margaret nodded and took a sip of coffee. They were in Starbucks and the coffee didn’t have the sharp bitterness that it used to have, that it should have. She saw her mouth filled with clear marbles, damp moss growing out of the crevasses.
“Didn’t dad leave you money?”
She told her daughter that it wasn’t about the money. It was about keeping active, to keep moving forward.
“But you have church and your girlfriends,” her daughter said. “I hear that the working conditions are terrible there.”
She told her that the people at church only saw her as a widow. She liked working because they didn’t know her from Adam. She was just another person to them.
“Don’t you want to be known? To have people get to know who you are?”
“No,” she said.
She was sixty-four years old and she still could not go a week without dreaming about the red telephone she had in college. It would be ringing and ringing in the dream because she would never answer it because she knew that it would always be her mother on the other end telling her again about her father’s suicide.
She had felt a door open up inside her at the funeral, when she was bent over, ruining her makeup in the front row. A door had open up inside her and Margaret’s father had stood in the darkness on the other side and he said, it is okay to leave.
Her aunt told her later: “Your mom found him in the upstairs bathroom. Just grisly.”
Margaret’s own kids were in elementary school when she finally asked her mother about it. Kneaded bread rising in the oven, a pot of tea between them in the small warm kitchen. Asking came smooth and easy and unexpected, like a drop of ice water falling from an icicle. Why did he do it? Her mother’s face remained unchanged, like a glass jar about to shatter from the cold and Margaret realized that her mother had not yet come out of that dark cave, nine years later, and then she wondered if either of them ever would.
Her daughters—women with children of their own, women in their thirties—wanted her to do family therapy with them. They said that she didn’t express herself enough. They said that they wanted her to have a productive relationship with their children, her grandkids. They said that they had unresolved issues from childhood. They said that she was emotionally unavailable. They said that since Dad died, she seemed more empty or maybe they were just noticing now that she seemed empty. Did she feel empty? They said that they knew she didn’t want to share about herself, that she was an introvert. One of them said they suspected that she was an ISTJ or maybe an INFJ, and that ISTJ and INFJ’s didn’t want to share things about themselves, but for her grandchildren, could she please come with them?
“Sure,” she said into the phone. “Give me a time and a place.”
Her daughters sighed on the other end, relief or frustration it was difficult to tell.
Her own father was only 11 years old during the attack on Pearl Harbor. She remembered sitting on the top of the staircase in her nightgown, listening to her parents arguing.
“They only want to sell to veterans,” her father shouted. “They think I’m some kinda kid.”
It didn’t make any sense to her as a little girl, nervous about her parents arguing all the time, nervous that her father sat silently in the upstairs bathtub for hours at a time.
But he was only 26 or 27. He was only a kid.
He quit the world when he was 39. He had seen no atrocities. He had not struggled. He worked with some success and had a family with some happiness. But yet there was the door inside of him and he had walked through it.
She wanted to take him by the shoulders and shake him. My daughters are nearly your age, she wanted to shout. And they know almost nothing.
But yet there was the door inside of her.
She imagined herself on the computer screen in her supervisor’s office, a little red blinking dot moving through the aisles. She wondered if this is how the dead saw her. She wanted to keep moving, to show her father that she could keep moving. On the screen, it said “Aisle 234, Bin 12123: A-Zoom 9Mm Luger Precision Snap Packs (5 Pack), ASIN B0002IKANW.” She found them under a pile of diapers covered in pictures of the same smiling baby.
There was never a name on the screen so she gave them one. “Cory Smith,” she said and set the package on the conveyor belt. She said a blessing over him and his family and the conveyor belt took the box somewhere far away.
She wouldn’t tell her daughters that their grandfather had committed suicide, not at family therapy, not ever.
When her oldest daughter was first born, sitting at the kitchen table late at night, she felt an open void inside her. It was a void that her daughter had created inside of her, her growing legs and arms pushing out into her insides and then leaving. It was the space that Margaret had given to her daughter that was now collapsing in on itself and she felt herself falling into that collapse and her father’s voice saying it is okay to leave.
Get up and do your job, she told herself. Get up and check on her.
She stood over the crib and looked down at the baby, a baby that she had to remind herself was her baby.
You will not hear this voice, she told her daughter. I will take this voice into myself and dissolve it for you, for our family.
One morning, their supervisor said the air conditioning was being fixed, but it wouldn’t be done until tomorrow. Margaret’s tongue felt like a thick sock in her mouth. She was sweating through her shirt, dark circles spreading out from her armpits and under her breasts. The air was thick and heavy. Her screen counted down numbers and she kept slow jogging from aisle to aisle, pulling out bins and searching for things, things that people from far away had said they wanted. Orange sandals. Scotch tape dispenser. Flea shampoos for long-haired dogs. She pulled them from the bin and took them to the conveyor belt and said a prayer for the customer and leaned over the belt and panted.
“Is there any water?” she asked. “I need water.”
The young woman looked down at her from the top of the metal stairs. “One second.” She came back to top of the metal stairs and leaned down.
Margaret reached up for the bottle and smelled her own stink. The bottle was cool and slick with perspiration. She took a long drink.
“The air conditioning should be fixed soon,” the woman said. “I’m really sorry.”
Margaret waved her away. “Just needed some water.”
But later, as she was walking to a bin far down an aisle, a shadow came over her from behind and her vision narrowed and she felt her limbs loosening. Her head was pounding. She weaved down the aisle, steadying herself on the bins, until her foot caught and she felt all her limbs relax into the fall. She heard her head crack against the concrete.
You’ve fought me your entire life, her father said. Let’s go, princess.
He looked so young.
Luke Finsaas is a writer from St. Paul, MN and the editor-in-chief of Revolver.