Jared Green is an author, literary critic, and professor of English literature at Stonehill College. His poetry has appeared in Waccamaw, Tiny Seed, Emergency Index, and the anthology The Art of Living (forthcoming, Poetose Press), and his fiction and critical writing in numerous journals, including Gulf Coast (forthcoming), The Missouri Review Miller Aud-cast, Quiddity, The Write Launch, New Limestone Review, and Cagibi. His work has been recognized by the Martha's Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing with 2021 Pushcart Prize nomination in fiction, a 2019 MVICW Fellowship, and a Robert and Margaret MacColl Johnson Fellowship in fiction from the State of Rhode Island.
Because the TV had been left on and because the report was about the protests in France, the topic of that break was the gilets jaunes, which none of us could pronounce correctly. This was in the break room, where the coffee was cold already, old already. The coffee was always cold and oxidized in the break room. We wondered what these gilets jaunes were after and why they were smashing so many nice things. We wondered, too, why they wore yellow vests and Dana, who had been to France once with her first husband, said it was because that’s what they called themselves: “Gilets jaunes—it means yellow vests,” she said, spooning a heap of amaretto-flavored powder into her coffee. “The kind French people keep in their trunks because it’s like the law there? They have to put them on if their cars break down on the side of the road. It’s for visibility.”
“But what does visibility have to do with a gas tax?” asked the new guy with the round, sallow face, the one whose name was a kid’s name: Bobby. Maybe Billy. From Pedricktown.
There was silence as we all considered this question and then Andy said, simply, “Trucking.”
And we nodded. Through the windows of the break room we could see the Fulfillment Center floor, the procession of squat, orange robots like giant ladybugs skittering around with racks of goods on their backs, streaming toward the pickers who load the bins that are conveyed to the packers who put the items into boxes that get placed onto the conveyor belts that feed the packages to the loaders who stack them in the phalanx of throbbing trucks to go out onto the highways of America. So we understood: trucks. No trucks, no fulfillment.
Then out of nowhere, Andy said he was a Marxist. I misunderstood him, maybe because of his cleft palate or because this was said out of the blue or maybe because I’m always just half listening.
“Marcus?” I echoed, or thought I echoed, even though it made no sense that Andy would say he was Marcus. Marcus worked the floor as a picker, and was from Guatemala, so this was confusing.
“No. Marx,” he said, already annoyed. “Karl Marx? I’m a Marxist.”
Andy is always annoyed about something or other. This is what breaks are like: oxidized coffee and very little time and Andy, annoyed. He looked grayish-green in the fluorescent light, his thinning hair the color of mouse fur, and I thought: when did he get this old? How long have we been at this job? He looked at me with his sad, owlish eyes, weary and red-rimmed, and I remembered that he had just said that thing about being a Marxist. It seemed like somebody ought to respond, so I told him I didn’t know what it meant to be one and he said that it meant he was against Capitalism, which I also didn’t really understand.
"The workers,” he said. “It’s about the workers. That’s us. How we’re exploited?” He gestured to everyone in the break room, but they were all back on their phones. Then he pursed his thin, grayish lips, dissatisfied. “Workers of the World Unite? Like those gilets jaunes, man, on strike? Don’t you know anything?”
“I’ve heard that, I think.”
I was trying to remember what gilets jaunes meant and I knew we had just been talking about it but it was already gone. I could tell my expression didn’t please him.
“Well there you go. That’s Marx.”
On TV the protesters were burning cars, smashing windows, looting a Zara.
Dana gasped: “I shopped at that Zara.”
She sounded shaken, like she might cry. I felt like maybe I should hug her and then remembered that we weren’t supposed to do things like that at work. I thought about what Andy had said instead.
“Where, though?” I asked.
“What?” His voice was muffled by a mouthful of whatever he was chewing.
“Unite where? There are a lot of workers in the world. Where would we meet to unite?”
“That’s not the point.”
Behind him I could see a bright yellow robotic lift cruising the fulfillment floor, fulfilling.
That’s when I noticed that Andy was eating my tuna sandwich and also that he had only one arm, even though he had definitely had two the day before.
“What happened to your arm?” I hoped the question didn’t come off insulting or ignorant. Dana looked up, concerned, and something about her newly permed hair and narrow eyes made me feel judged. Maybe that was something I was supposed to already know. Maybe she was going to report me to HR for being insensitive again.
“Fuck if I know,” said Andy with a hollow laugh. He flicked at the empty denim shirtsleeve that was folded up like an accordion and safety-pinned to his shoulder. “Woke up this morning and it just wasn’t there anymore. You know how it is. Gone. What a thing, right?”
“Shit. That’s some rotten luck. Does it hurt?”
“Nah. Can’t even remember what it felt like. I’d better not lose this one, though—“ he held out his left forearm, which was a good-looking specimen. At the wrist was an age-faded tattoo of a skull pierced by a dagger, entwined by a snake. Like he had gotten it out of a dictionary illustration of the word tattoo. “Otherwise I’ll have to look for another job and I need to hang on to this one because now I have to get one of those prosthetic arms they have down at the medical supply shop over in Pitman.”
“What’ll that set you back?”
“Fucker’s titanium and gets Wi-Fi and shit, so the deductible’s like three month’s pay. But I called the Fulfillment Center’s disability claims department and they said they’re going to give me a loan. So, soon as I get the arm I can work a night shift, too, and start paying it off.”
“But you’d still be a Marxist?”
“What? What kind of question is that? That’s got nothing to do with how many arms you got. It’s a whole other kind of thing.”
And I didn’t say anything and neither did anyone else. An alarm sounded on the floor, which meant there’d been another accident and Andy said,
“Doesn’t matter for shit, though. We’ll all be replaced by robots soon anyhow.”
That night, after Beth came home from the Sortation Center and fell asleep putting the twins to bed, I sat in the living room and thought about Andy’s arm. Sortation Center people didn’t have these kinds of worries, aside from the robots, which were coming for all our jobs and probably pretty soon. Beth was tired all the time, sure, separating this thing from that, having to put stuff where it needed to go, but her coworkers usually stayed intact. Not us. Associates at the Swedesboro, NJ Fulfillment Center had things go missing all the time: teeth, hair, fingers, every now and then an eye. I’d never yet heard of a whole arm going missing, though. HR said there was something about how the company wasn’t responsible for major limb loss in our contracts, deep down, pages in, but who could get that far? I wondered if maybe it was going to happen to me someday and what would bother me least if I lost it. It reminded me of this game we’d play as kids, asking each other if we’d rather lose our smell or taste, a foot or a hand, be blind or deaf. Who knew we’d need to have this thought out one day? I folded my hands on my belly, which took up more space than it used to. It occurred to me I could lose that.
I’d misplaced the remote so I was stuck on a channel that seemed to be showing nothing but commercials. I couldn’t even remember what program I’d been watching before I’d got to thinking about Andy’s arm, or if there had been a program at all or if this was one of those channels that were just ads, morning to night. I wondered what Andy was doing, if maybe he was out uniting with other workers of the world or if he, too, was just watching an all-ad channel and drinking a beer with his one arm.
The commercial was for foaming bathroom cleaner, the commercial said “Open Happiness,” the commercial promised that Tylenol was better because it was made with love.
I thought that this was probably what Andy meant by Capitalism and I regretted that I hadn’t shown him more sympathy. I regretted that all I’d been thinking about was that I was glad it happened to him, not me. I mean, he was a mopey pain in the ass but Jesus, a whole arm. I thought about my grandmother, who worked all her life in a thread waxing factory in Hoboken and was missing two fingers on her left hand. It seemed like maybe this had something to do with our predicament but I couldn’t really remember how it had happened. I regretted that I hadn’t asked Nonna about it before she died but I was too young, too frightened she would touch me with the missing parts, which makes no sense now. Now that it’s too late. I regret a lot of things, watching commercials in the dark. Replaying all the dumb shit I’ve said to people, all the mistakes I’ve made, all the ways I’ve failed to be the right kind of person. That’s the way it always is until I take my sleeping pill and put an end to it for a few hours. That night I thought of the things I’d said to Andy, wondered if they made me sound like a dunce. But it wasn’t my fault: Karl Marx was not the sort of thing a Fulfillment Center Associate in Swedesboro has a whole lot of time for. Where did a guy like Andy find the energy?
The commercial was for Bank of America; the commercial was for ADM’s genetically modified rice; the commercial was for Paxil; the commercial said “You never get a second chance to make a first impression,” the commercial was for a sequel to a franchise that already had a lot of sequels, all of which I’d seen.
I tried to think of what had been there before the Fulfillment Center was built. Was there a forest? Another warehouse? A neighborhood of the descendants of the Swedes who’d settled here? It wasn’t even that long ago but it seemed like there was no before, only an after. And then the TV went out. No warning, just a blank screen. Actually, it wasn’t entirely blank: it was a murky gray-green, and when I got real close I could still kind of make out some movement but it was swampy, submerged. The sound was wonky, too, just staticky wheezes and random noise bursts, like the TV was trying to catch its breath. Damn thing was brand new, too. LED, 4k, surround sound. Biggest I’d ever bought and delivered right from the Fulfillment Center not two weeks before. I gave it a good whack to the side like my old man used to do with our cathode ray set but that didn’t make any difference, so I got my tools and figured I’d take a look. A sticker on the back said in big white letters:
Caution! Live parts are made accessible when the cover is removed!
Which seemed like exactly what I was there for, so I unscrewed the housing even though I barely know a thimbleful about electronics. I shone my flashlight inside and tried to make sense of it. There were the usual circuit boards and resistors, capacitors, diodes and the like but what I didn’t expect was that there would be a full heart-lung block inside, too, connected to the main board by a fibrous web of what looked like maybe nerves or veins threaded through with copper. Hard to tell what was what. There was no mention of any of this in the manual. Turned out the thin wheezing sound was coming from a ridged tracheal tube that ran up from the middle of the lungs and connected to the speakers. As for the heart, if that’s what it was, it was palsied, quivering but not beating, and the lung parts had collapsed like deflated footballs. It wasn’t clear what any of it was made from but it glistened in the flashlight beam and there was a strong iron odor, unmistakably that of warm meat. Nervous that maybe Beth would come down and see this mess and think God knows what of the situation, I thrust my hand into the interior of the set and seized the heart. I knew right away from the moist heat of it that it was real, that it had belonged to someone and knowing this made a shudder run the length of my spine. The trachea wheezed and sputtered. It sounded a little like a plea and a little like a song you can’t really remember. Because it seemed like the thing to do, I squeezed the heart gently several times and then more urgently until it began to throb on its own, which made the lungs reinflate and issue a long, guttural sigh. Then it hummed like maybe it felt some kind of deep pleasure and the sound vibrated the trachea as it worked its way out through the surround-sound speakers. The TV sparked to life, and I sat, spent, watching it from the inside as the heart pumped a steady rhythm and the advertisements flowed from one to the next: anti-depressants and online stock trades and mobile service and cholesterol drugs and SUVs and diet programs and exercise equipment and baby formula and life insurance and candidates for president. The commercial was for the Army; the commercial was for Disneyland; the commercial said to “Drink Young, Think Young.”
I switched off the flashlight and sat there, listening to all the appliances that we lived with churn and hum and churn. I thought of what I might see if I opened them all up: knuckles and finger bones, wrapped in glistening fat, a tibia striped with muscle and sheathed in skin. A nose, a uterus, a ribcage, a penis. Who knew what it took to make any of this run? Maybe there’d be Andy’s arm, a fine specimen, with a tattoo of Karl Marx holding a hammer and a sickle.
The commercial was for Botox, the commercial was for pork, the commercial was for a company that could make diamonds from the carbon in the bodies of our deceased loved ones.
That one got to me, to be honest. That one felt like it was for me alone. Back when I proposed to Beth I used the ring my father had given me with the diamond he’d had made from my mother. My father and I agreed it was very meaningful, very beautiful. In its gleam I’d always thought I could still see the shine of her eyes. But Beth never wanted to wear it. I regretted that this was our first big fight and that afterward I’d sold the ring out of spite and never told my father. Where was it now, this last piece of the woman who had loved us both with such force? I shut off the TV and sat in the suburban dark, listening to its heartbeat, to its nearly imperceptible breathing, thinking that I finally understood something about how Beth had felt. When she woke up I would tell her this, tell her how sorry I was about it all. And I thought to myself that there was no putting it off anymore: we had some decisions to make. It was time for a change before this was all there would ever be. We could be a park rangers, maybe. We could go out west like people probably still did. We could split for France and join the gilets jaunes. Or maybe just play with the twins more, sing more songs, read some books, tell them about the wonders of being alive. We could start any one of our new lives by putting all the appliances out on the curb in the dark of night. The furniture, too. Beth would understand, I’m sure, if I could just think of the right way to explain it. She’d understand that once you see a thing like this in a television set you can’t just go on like before.