Workplace Surprise

by Sarah Elmendorf

Like Essie, Otis Hurd Mirabito was the sole breadwinner for his family. He had in his care a fragile, childless wife, Teresa Mirabito, called Tiny Tea by some because she was less than five feet tall, who suffered from periodic debilitating melancholy. He also had a young nephew, Micah Hurd, up from Yoayus, Tennessee when Micah's father Johnie Hurd died of hepatic complications and his mother Ella disappeared into the crack holes of Memphis.

Otis would have liked to earn his living driving truck for Mirabito Biofuels, his in-law's company, but as of yet his wife's father didn't think he was ready for the responsibility. Although forty-seven years old and married to Teresa for five years now, Otis was a patient man, so he waited, and in the meantime assumed two other positions to feed and shelter himself, Teresa, and young Micah.

Otis' primary job was facilities maintenance for Wendigo County, a thirty hour a week spot that paid a lot less than he liked and offered no benefits. For three weekdays and alternating Sunday afternoons, Otis swept, mopped, emptied garbage, repaired plumbing problems and the like in the courtroom, county office building, and jailhouse of Wendigo County.

Necessarily, he took a second job, Supervisor for the Acme Brewing Company's Beverage Recycling Center, located in the Spiratos warehouse, across the tracks from the WMD Facility. Otis toted young Micah along as his assistant.

"Got to teach you to be a working man," he told his nephew, an eleven year old with soft dark skin and the same golden eyes of Otis and Johnie. He paid Micah a dollar a day to help him in the ABC measurement room, wipe down counters, toss empties, sweep floors and steps.

After Micah finished his tasks, he played in the parking lot of the Spiratos warehouse, next to the WMD facility. He slid on ice patches, chucked rocks and loose pieces of asphalt, climbed trees and scouted out animals. Supervising, Otis would once in a while let him put a penny on the tracks for the trains to flatten; Otis then etched Micah's name in the smooth copper disk with a pick he carried, part of an all in one pocket tool device Teresa had given him for his forty-second birthday.

In the ABC measurement room, customers returned their spent premium beer bottles, only certain brands accepted, and Otis either gave them the standard five cent return for the empty, or a ten cent premium.

Whether they received the premium depended on the measurement of dregs in each bottle returned. Otis measured the dregs with a special company supplied dipstick, narrow and long enough to fit into the mouth of and down to the bottom of a longneck. If the dipstick measured above 5ml, the customer received the premium.

Otis then poured the measured dregs from the bottles into a swill bucket kept in a refrigerated compartment underneath the customer receiving counter. When the bucket was full, he carried it to the loading dock for storage in the walk-in cooler. Empties were tossed into polyurethane crates. The swill buckets were collected by Acme Brewing Company on Monday mornings, along with empties, and taken to a central processing plant in Columbus, Ohio.

In Ohio, the contents of the buckets were triple filtered, pasteurized, carbonated, and rebottled under the name of Old Mill, Premium Beer Beverage, a brew fantastically popular with lower income maintenance beer drinkers. Sold nationwide, with talk of a global market expansion to thirsty but undiscerning developing countries, the beer beverage packed more of a punch than most of its higher end counterparts and cost a lot less. The beverage's drawbacks, a flat taste and almost no head despite the "carbonation enrichment" of the recycling process, didn't seem to affect sales at all.

Otis worked the measurement room Saturday and Sunday mornings from 9:00 a.m. to noontime. One Saturday morning in springtime, when Otis drove his pearl colored twenty some year old Mercedes 300D into the parking lot of the ABC Recycling Center, he saw a dinged up green Neon pulled up close, an hour early, to the measurement room's entrance.

Now Otis was a patient man, but precise, and sometimes it irked him that other people were not as precise as he was. Rules were rules, you tried to follow them, marrying into the Mirabito family had taught him that if nothing else. He wished some of the ABC customers could pay better attention to the ABC schedule of operation, posted clearly on the signage outside the warehouse.

Otis parked near to the Neon, got himself and Micah out of the Merc, along with the small blue cooler full of lunch that Teresa had set up for them. Cautioning Micah to keep behind him and be quiet, he approached the Neon and peered into the rolled down driver's side window.

The driver, a female, was slumped down in the seat asleep. She looked to Otis to be an immoderate type of woman, somewhere between forty and fifty years old, root darkened orange hair swept up into a kind of frizzle, mouth open and snoring, closed eyes underbruised by what he guessed were years of excess. She was olive skinned, long faced, and her features, maybe pretty in her youth, were starting to mold and cave in on themselves, like a carved pumpkin forgotten on a porch in the autumn sun.

She smelled sick, a poison sick coming from her pores and her breath. Otis was reminded of the deathbed stink of his younger brother Johnie, who sold cane liquor from the trunk of his blocked up El Dorado in the front yard of his his kudzu vined palace in Yoayus, Tennessee. Johnie drank the liquor, too, plenty of it, and turned sick from it, really sick because he had contracted hep from all the other stuff he did. The whites of his eyes turned as yellow as the irises, a black man with yellow eyes, two different shades of yellow, didja ever, what a freakshow, people at the church shaking their heads. Years later Johnie died of end stage, when Ella wasn’t even around anymore to say goodbye, Micah as good as orphaned when Ella left right before Johnie died.

Sometimes Tiny Tea smelled sick, too, when she took to their bed, and closed the bedroom window drapes, sad beyond any reason to make her so, that he could see. She'd sleep her hair into a wild black tangle, unable to get up so he'd have to help her to the bathroom, or clean her and change the sheets and blankets. Or she'd lay with her eyes unblinking, staring at the crucifix hanging on the wall beyond their bed, tears streaming down her cheeks, Her rosary wrapped so tightly, not even saying the stations, so that the metal beads cut into her palm like barbed wire. Stigmata, Otis thought but did not tell her this. But she was better now that she was medicated, with special, extra medication for the times she felt the great sadness.

Micah, who watched the movie The Never Ending Story repeatedly, sprawled in the living room on the carpeted floor with pillows, said that his Auntie Tea was just like Sebastian’s pony, Falcor, who gave up his will to live and drowned while trying to get through the swamp of despair.

He could smell the poison sick of hangover coming from this woman, and the unlatched trunk of her vehicle, secured by a frayed black and yellow bungee, was bulging with empties. He could see that most of them were not of the brands accepted by Acme, and hoped she'd not make a problem about that.

Just then Essie Ayres drove past in the WMD Trailblazer, going to check oil and steam pressure levels at the WMD boiler house, beyond the Spiratos warehouse. As she passed, she smiled and waved. When he waved back at her, she beeped the blazer's horn in a "Shave and a Haircut."

Jolted by the blazer's horn, the woman snorted and smacked chafed lips together, as if tasting something rancid. Otis hoped she hadn't caught a bug in her mouth while sleeping. He back stepped away from her vehicle and motioned to Micah.

They were halfway up the metal grated stairway leading to the door of the Recycling Center when she woke up, snorted again, decided to get lively.

"Hey," she croaked, with a gravelly clearing of her throat, "Peckerhead! Where do you think you're going?"

With his hands, Otis guided Micah in front of him, and turned on the stairway to face her. "I work here, ma'am," he told her. "Can I help you?"

"Well, duuu-uh," she said, loudly, poking her head through the Neon's driver side window. "I got cans. I hear you assholes pay ten cents a can."

"Not for empties," Otis told her, "and we only take certain brands." He pushed Micah ahead of him up the stairs, unlocked the Center's door. Micah slipped inside.

"I have a list inside," he said, "but we don't open until nine o'clock."

She scowled thunderously. A strand of orange frizzle escaped its upsweep and rested into her eyes. She pursed her lips and blew it aside. He could smell the alcohol, the strong sick of poison. She was shivering. He guessed she felt pretty bad.

"Can I get a fuckin' list at least?" She asked.

"Yes, ma'am," he said.

He found a stack of ABC rules and regulations on the counter in the measuring room. Micah was already running behind the push broom. The boy smiled at him, skinny knob-kneed legs propelling him across the vast, shiny floor, smiling with dark lips, a child's square, wide spaced teeth, and strange golden eyes.

Otis took the paper to the woman in the car. "That should help you know what we accept and what we don't," he told her, handing it to her through her window.

She was scowling when she took it. Her fingers on the paper seemed to belong to another person. They were slender, long and fine, nails filed and well cared for. Behind the poison, he could smell cucumber melon hand cream.

"Remember," he said. "You only get the premium if your bottle measures above five ml."

"No shit, peckerhead," she said as he walked away.

Once in the measuring room, Otis busied himself with some paperwork for Monday's pickup. When Micah finished sweeping, he asked his uncle if he could play with his Pokeman trading cards, a big fat deck of them stuffed into the back pocket of his jean shorts, secured with a red rubber band. Otis walked the floor, looking for dust, then nodded.

With Micah perched on a stool behind the counter, shuffling and laying down his cards, making a little song with creature names (pikachupikachupikachu), Otis filled the mop bucket with hot water from the spigot in the bathroom, added a splash of pine disinfectant, and mopped the floor in the measurement room. He would sweep and mop the loading dock on Monday, after pickup.

He was pouring the dirty water down the drain when Micah came into the bathroom.

"That lady's here," Micah said.

“Go tell her to hold up, I'll be right there," Otis instructed. "And tell her to watch her step, the floor's wet."

Otis wrung out the mop, hung it up on a wall hook, and turned the bucket upside down over the drain. Wiping his hands on his pant legs, he went back into the measuring room. The woman was standing at the counter.

She was a flat assed woman, tall and thin. She wore a red belly shirt with a white stick figure appliquéd on it, holding a dripping beer mug. Above the stick figure, Otis read the words "Far from Pukin' ." Her drab pants were the low- slung type favored by females half her age or younger, and between her shirt hem and her waistband her stomach gaped, the loose scarred stomach of motherhood.

"You decide to finally open?" She asked, her voice deep and rough, but not irritated anymore.

"Ah," he said. "The early bird. What have you got for me?"

She had five accepted brand beer bottles, two of which contained the requisite five ml for the ten cent premium. Otis sloshed the dregs from both into the swill bucket, covered the bucket, tossed the empties, then counted out thirty five cents from the register.

"Thank you, ma'am," he said, "and you have a good day."

She frowned, the ditch between her large dark eyes deepening into her trademark scowl.

"Now you just hold your freakin' ass," she said. "You're not getting rid of me so easy." She reached a hand into her pocket book and started rooting around.

"What else can I help you with?" Otis asked her.

"Just a freakin' minute," she said, volume turned up. Her rooting intensified. "I just had it a freakin' minute ago."

She pulled another bottle out of her bag. "Here it is," she said. "I knew it was somewhere."

She put it down on the counter in front of him. "I need another ten cents," she said.

Otis was all set to measure the fluid level with his dipstick, but then he noticed around the brand label and through the dark brown glass that something besides fluid was in the bottle. He picked it up and gazed into it, holding it close to his face. It looked to be a good sized pink salamander curled up inside.

“Something in there," he told her, "ABC doesn't take bottles with foreign objects. Against the rules, ma'am."

He brought the bottle even closer to his face. "That a salamander, ma'am?" he asked.

She snorted again, half laughing, half snorting. "Huh," she said. "That's a good one. A salamander. No, asshole, that's not a salamander. That's an elongator. My asshole boyfriend got too drunk last night and passed out instead of pleasing me, so I had to go ahead and please myself with this bottle and my elongator."

It dawned on Otis she was talking about some kind of marital aid, something that he and Teresa had never had the desire or occasion to try. When she didn't lay in their marriage bed and weep, Otis found his wife sweet and receptive, and she had never complained about him, either.

Under his eyes, the salamander transformed itself into what looked to be a male member. Otis inadvertently dropped the bottle, which bounced off the counter, onto the newly washed and shiny floor, and broke. The member burst out of the bottle and then lay still in the shattering of glass and the trajectory of stale beer.

"Now look what you did," she said, irritated. "I guess you'd better give me that ten cents."

Micah was gaping at the member.

"Go outside, Micah,” Otis told his nephew, "Go look for bird's nests."

Still staring, Micah gathered up his cards, banded them, and stuffed them into his back shorts pocket.

"Go on," Otis told him. "Watch out for cars and strangers and don't wander off."

"Yessir," said Micah. Otis could hear his feet thumping down the metal grated steps. He could watch Micah in the trees from both of the big windows on either side of the door.

The woman rooted around some more in her pocketbook and produced a white paper napkin. She bent down and with the napkin extracted the member from the glass and the beer, shaking loose any debris it may have gathered in its escape from the bottle. She deposited it in her bag.

"You're the clumsy one," she said, still irritated. "Dropping my freakin' bottle. I'm still waiting for my ten cents, and I'll be seeing you in small claims if you damaged my elongator."

"The bottle was unacceptable before I dropped it," he told her. "It had a foreign object in it."

"You're just like my asshole boyfriend," she told him, scowl deepening into a ravine. "Not only does he pass out before I'm done, he's also a freakin' cheapskate. If you need a dime, you gotta beat his freakin' ass to get it."

Choosing his battles, Otis gave her a nickel from the register. After she left, and he had cleaned up the mess, business picked up, a steady stream of customers for at least forty five minutes, a trickle for fifteen minutes, then nothing for almost a half hour.

Otis took advantage of the down time to go outside for a smoke, see how his nephew was doing, take him one of Tea’s good turkey and provolone sandwiches. He stood underneath the almost bridal dress beauty of a flowering plum tree, and saw the boy twined around a limb and peering into a large nest of featherless infant birds, sightless, beaks open, frantically squeaking.

"Hey," said Micah. "I haven't touched them. I've only been looking."

"Good boy," said Otis, handing him the sandwich. "I knew you wouldn't touch them."

He stood under the tree, smoking and looking up at the boy. A light wind stirred the plum tree, sending torn mauve petals and fine silt dust from the river whirling into the air.

"Uncle," asked Micah, chewing his sandwich. "How did that salamander get into the bottle? Was that lady hunting salamanders?"

It was something that he often did, flipping rocks over to look for them, to look for insects, frogs, and toads.

"No, Micah," Otis answered. "I don't think she was."

"Well, how did it get into the bottle?" Micah insisted. "It had to get in there somehow."

"I think," suggested Otis, "that the lady left her bottle on her lawn overnight, and the salamander crawled in there and couldn't get out."

"Is the salamander going to die?" The boy asked, worried.

"That salamander is not going to die." Otis said. "The lady usually takes good care of him, and he's going to be just fine."

"Oh," Micah said.

He jumped down from the plum branch, and to Otis' great relief, said nothing more about amphibians.


Sarah Elmendorf is a saucy hag living in New York State with two teens and a plethora of other beasties. She works a steady graveyard shift in corrections, more intermittently in education, and has a solar powered hovel and a truck that would run on E85 if any were to be found locally. An excerpt from a novel in progress, Workplace Surprise is her first publication.

Workplace Surprise
© 2007 by Sarah Elmendorf





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