Fiction · 07/20/2016

Winners

Tofu hot dogs grill up pretty good, I overheard a well-dressed man say to another on the metro yesterday. I was on my way home from work with a few sacks of groceries, feeling sad, as I’d just spied upon a form at work outlining cost-of-living increases for this and next year, and there was a black X next to my name, Trina Mulaney.

I’m a sales associate at Winners, a home-goods store. I’m great at my job. Could the X stand for promotion, rather than termination? Or maybe they were just cutting my hours?

His friend disagreed, but I was too deeply engrossed in my worries, and A World Without Bees to care. I’d once heard that beef hot dogs contained insects, waste products, and even desiccated bees. Where had I heard that? I paused, leaning against the train door. The men were now talking about porn. Porn is constructed, exaggerated, artificial, said the first man. The second man agreed. Real sex is best. Then they started talking about Ben Stiller. That’s internet-brain for you, I thought. A new meme per second.

I got home in time to start dinner for myself and my husband Eric. I was still thinking about colony collapse disorder when I started the Hamburger Helper. I didn’t plan on telling him about the X beside my name. Why would I? We were trying to conceive a child.

Every time we made love, I would wonder—would that be the procreational act that bore new life? Or that one? I wanted it to be electric, combustible, heart-stopping. And yet, the truth was, trying to conceive can be fun, but also tiring, the kind of endurance sport that leaves teammates weak in the aftermath, with just enough energy to give a high-five before hydrating on oranges.

“This is great, honey,” said Eric, during dinner.

“Is it possible to imagine a world without honey?” I said.

“Are you still reading that book about bees?”

“The lack thereof, yes. These bees are so stressed. Did you know that one-third of what we eat depends on the viability of bee production?”

“What are the culprits?”

“Monoculture and pesticides. And invasive mites.”

“End game?”

“No bees by 2035. Eventually, no food for humans to eat. Then we all die.”

“Has anyone linked the effects of stress on bees to that of humans?”

“No, but you could. You should!” That’s what my life had become, I realized. A series of conditional verb tenses. I wouldn’t get fired if I could summon the wherewithal to have an honest talk with my supervisor, Beth. I should. I will!

I did, that Monday. Turns out the X stood for “no address on file,” but then I received a second warning (I already had one, for being late), for peeking at confidential forms. Truthfully, I had seen the file in the breakroom, atop Beth’s papers while she was kicking the vending machine.

“Is there anything else you’d like to discuss?” asked Beth.

“No thank you, not necessarily, no,” I said. Personally, I knew it was my responsibility to rat on other employees I knew were stealing, and the new girl, Tanya, was having a field day, but I felt that I couldn’t risk involvement in another scandal, just now. I glanced up at the last group picture taken of our team, at our annual Christmas party. It was a picture of 22 average-looking people, some quite sanguine, pretending to have words to exchange when not fully engaged in the business of selling bath products, rugs, sneakers, potato chips and ceramic doggie bowls.

I was the only one wearing a red Santa cap, like a decoy or corporate spy.

“Thanks, then!” she said. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

That night Eric and I made tender, fitful love. Did we just make a human? I wondered, while sudsing the pots and pans, one of which I’d bought at Winners with my employee discount.

Winning is such bullshit rhetoric, pumped up by the military and consumerism, I thought darkly, while attacking a clump of hardened grease with particular virulence. Am I winning because I use my shitty salary to buy discounted shit I don’t need, or because, despite the fact that I’ve miscarried twice, and have been attempting to conceive for another eight months, I’m still optimistic? Or am I winning because no matter what I do or don’t become, I still maintain an easy-going demeanor, so convenient when it comes to service jobs and accepting my station in life? I caught a glimpse of my own angry face in a large bubble of the dishwashing soap, and punctured it. Then I threw the pan across the room. It hit the wall behind the stove.

“Tell me the truth, Eric,” I called into the living room, where he was playing online chess. “Is this world really divided into winners and losers? Or is believing in that distinction the real lie?”

He emerged, eyes wide. “What’s going on, honey?” I wiped my hands on my apron.

“Nothing. A pan slipped out of my hands.”

+

I looked through my high-school yearbook that night, then at the few pictures I saved from my last long-term relationship, before Eric, with Christian. Two guilty pleasures, rolled into one ten minute interval! I kept my innocent sins Hobbesian: brutish, and short. I wish I was a numbers girl, because to my emotional mind, if about 99% of the world is bullshit, then I am bullshit too. The bees aren’t bullshit, but they’re dying en masse, so where did that leave me?

Two weeks went by. All my pregnancy tests came back blue.

At work, on the first day of April, I was called into Beth’s office. I thought she was going to chide me about a prank I’d pulled on one of our customers for April Fool’s Day, in an attempt to exercise my sense of humor. The self-help books I’d been reading said a sense of humor was the keystone in developing a personal identity. After I rang up her one item (a distressed chic Carpe Diem plaque), I said, “That’ll be ten thousand dollars!” The customer didn’t laugh, just looked around in fear, as if she was being filmed with her pants down.

Must be that, I thought, sitting in front of Beth, and crossing my ankles good-humoredly.

“I’m sorry about the joke,” I began. “It’s April Fool’s Day, and I just—”

“You call abetting a felony shoplifter a joke?” My eyes bugged out of my head.

Turns out Tanya had been caught on camera, putting stolen items into her backback in the breakroom. They’d gathered enough evidence for a felony conviction. During her report, Tanya had confessed to confiding in me, and told Beth that she’d made me swear not to out her.

“I hope,” said Beth, “maintaining Tanya’s confidence was worth your job.”

I felt my unconceived baby—for now, my undigested lunch—do a butterfly kick in my stomach.

No! I though. No! No! Don’t do this to me, or to Elvira (we already had a name)!

“No, that’s not true,” I finally managed. “She’s lying.” It’s her word against mine, I thought.

Goddamnit, Tanya! You know I’m pre-pregnant! You’re cruel! I was prepared to rage through the office and break-room like Lady MacBeth, breaking furniture, and reciting lines: “You think we’ll fail? We won’t fail, not if you do the right thing, and keep me as an employee! Screw your courage to the sticking place! We’ll succeed, and end this day, and our moral coil of a life, as winners!” That is what the real me would have done, if Steve wasn’t blocking my warpath. He sat smack in the middle of the room’s one aisle, snoring in our company’s padded chair.

Ten minutes later, I was collecting my few personal effects out of my locker.

On the subway home, I didn’t even hear the conversations of those around me. I’d stopped trying to make meaning out of my own mind, or the minds that surrounded me. I was a bee, prematurely pressed into production, and fainting before the final push, to the Queen.

Home, I took off my coat. I was too tired to get hysterical or cry. I’d simply have to start looking for another job. How is suicide not the logical choice in this particular context?

I know, I thought. I’ll pretend I have severance pay. Ha. Ha. Ha.

Listlessly, I opened my email. “Congratulations, you’ve won!” said a spam message, or three. I closed my eyes, and leaned back into the “office chair” I’d pilfered from someone’s tree lawn on garbage day. It bore a mysterious stain on the seat, shaped like the Texas panhandle.

If glory happens over a lifetime, rather than an instant, who can bear the climb? Me! I decided.

“I won,” I whispered bitterly, like a player who lost a tourament over a technicality. Then, again, like one declaring a different contest, on the spot, between two warring selves: “I won.”

+++

Author of a poetry chapbook, Vox Populi (Finishing Line Press), and a collection of short stories, Anatomical Gift (forthcoming, Noctuary Press), Virginia Konchan’s fiction has appeared in StoryQuarterly, Memorious, and Joyland, among other places. Co-founder of Matter, a journal of poetry and political commentary, she lives in Montreal.