I slipped and nearly twisted my ankle getting out of bed and trying to look out the window—as if it made a difference what the weather was. The day would be wasted at work, where I would mostly sit on the edge of the toilet, zooming in to towns in Greenland and Mozambique and the Russian Far East on my phone. My boss sat in a glass-enclosed office and scrolled Reddit all day, and it was clear from the way he talked to me that he didn’t know my name. I had lost my job as a sommelier and ended up here. I used to joke that I would rather be a day laborer than one of the petty tyrants I had spent my life tiptoeing around; that way, at least, I could keep to myself. Now my wish was granted.
I didn’t really know what my job duties were, although I was able to intuit that breaking down tomato boxes, wrapping them with twine, and setting them in the lot behind the building for pickup fell to me. Around six everyone left for the day, and I would work alone in the big empty facility until my shift ended at ten. The vaulted ceilings and troweled floor magnified every tap of my feet like snare hits. I dithered, playing on my phone; now and then I broke down a box and leaned it against the wall with the others, finishing by evening’s end however many were going to get done in my dithering style. The boss probably assumed I was sweeping and mopping. What did I care?—they paid me hardly enough to live.
Improved weather lured me outside—I spent the last couple of hours of my shifts in the lot behind the facility. I dragged out however many boxes I might realistically take care of. One night I flipped one on its back and tore off its flaps. With a razor blade I’d found on a windowsill, I cut two windows and a door in the front. My shadow reached into the bath of kudzu behind the barbed-wire fence.
I tore apart several more boxes and taped them together into some sort of hut, big enough for, say, a few cats to lounge around in.
Over time, I built the structures more and more elaborately, adding lookouts and flourishes, always thinking of symmetry. I cut out crenellations. I drew out entrance halls. I realized I needed this, enjoyed this little something. One night I made what you might call a castle, with four lookouts and a full-on gatehouse. I assembled a drawbridge that didn’t quite work, and then it was already five past ten. I would have to start the whole thing over the next day. I didn’t know where the boxes actually disappeared to—some kind of processing facility, I assumed.
On Memorial Day I was one of two employees scheduled. A professional cleaning crew was brought in. Nobody told me how I should interact, so I avoided them. I hauled every box I could find outside and built a room big enough for two people to have coffee in. I brought in two folding chairs and sat and put my feet up. I wrote “Hotel Pomodoro” over the entrance with a Sharpie. I liked to think I was daring them, whoever they were, to take it away. The next day my little cafe was gone, the asphalt clean.
I was supposed to have begun getting ready for work by now. The day was bright—I stood on my balcony and came alive in the sun. I was taking the day off: I wasn’t going to show up.
I walked to the corner store for cigarettes. An orange tabby sat at attention beside the door, pretending not to see me. “What is this, Buckingham Palace?” I said, never having felt more unselfconscious about dishing out tepid one-liners.
I bought my pack, saluted the cashier, stripped off the plastic, and strolled out into the sunshine. The skyline soared in the foreground; it looked as if the buildings were receiving medals, the tallest in the middle taking gold. They seemed to smile at me. The possibilities of today were almost overwhelming. I could walk all the way downtown. Maybe take in a movie. Or I could buy a novel and gobble up the whole thing in the park.
I decided I would take myself out for lunch downtown at the famous place I knew only by sight where the ramen was of the highest caliber.
I had no desire to call in and invent some excuse—I didn’t owe them a thing.
Was I quitting? Was that what I was doing?
At the bus stop a man I’d never seen before was dancing joyfully, barefoot, hair swinging. He leaned out from under the overhang and held out cupped hands, still bouncing. I handed him a dollar, we dapped, and the shop cat skittered out from behind the bench and scampered up the street as if our knuckles touching had launched him.
The cat stopped at the next corner and glanced back, waiting for me.
We let a car pass and crossed the street together. I started running to see if he would follow along. He did. We jogged past the shady schoolyard; a group of kindergarteners heaved a red ball toward the heavens and squealed.
The next intersection marked with an X the “downtown” of the neighborhood, a cluster of markets and restaurants with funny names: Victory Cigarettes, Zen Tool & Hardware, and, of course, Mr. and Mrs. Fruit.
Maybe I would buy myself something nice. Once a week I almost spent my entire savings on a giant television. If I were going to die on my feet, I might as well enjoy myself.
It was just now one o’clock, my in-time. If I snuck into the facility at two, when management had their daily meeting, maybe no one would see me come in late, and I could keep my paycheck after all.
The cat, who had gone ahead while I stopped to think, looked back at me expectantly. I caught up with him.
We reached the local ramen shop, the last shop on the last strip of this section of town. I had never eaten here. I assumed it was inferior to the fancy place, which I couldn’t imagine improving upon.
I looked at the menu, even though I knew it wouldn’t do. I wanted the real deal; I wanted something to look forward to.
The cat’s eyes blazed: he was fixated on something ahead, his heart thumping through his fur. He was staring into what I called the Zone, the fenced-off moonscape of wild grass and rubble between the inferior ramen shop and actual downtown. The road we stood on bisected the rocky terrain, rising up slightly before us and vanishing down. I knew it eventually led to the overpass I considered to be the border with actual downtown, only two blocks from the ramen mecca.
At the precipice of the Zone, the wind picked up. The cat paused, his body scrunched, the formerly linear stripes down his back now scrambled. He squinted nervously. I bent down to pet him goodbye and he shied away. I tried again, and he ran and hid behind a car.
The brightness of the chalky mass and the openness of the sky were paralyzing. I forged into the headwind, shifting my gaze to the sidewalk. The glaringly white concrete stung my eyes: there was nowhere to look.
I couldn’t walk straight; I slipped off the curb and veered into the road.
I was going to get hit by a car.
I stumbled back, blindly found the fence, grabbed on. I covered my face with my other arm, slid to the ground, and curled myself into a ball.
My eyes stayed shut for some time. I watched brain TV, avoiding myself. Maybe a few minutes passed, and I then heard the gentle crunch of slowing tires, and then an engine fan. I peeked through my knees—a taxi had stopped across the street. The window, opaque with reflective glare, came down, gradually revealing a woman’s impassive face, squinting at me.
In the car I asked if she could take me to the ramen place I’d just passed, the less exciting place. Taking the bus home from downtown didn’t sound pleasant, nor did I want to shell out for cab fare from there, which would approach the cost of lunch.
She asked if I meant the restaurant fifty feet behind us; I nodded. She searched my face.
The door chimed as it shut behind me. Someone—a waiter—emerged from a secret door in the wall and through the opening revealed the kitchen: immense steel cauldrons of bubbling broth, white-coated cooks. A woman stood at a steel table and portioned dry noodles into plastic bags, twisted them closed, and set them aside, staring vacantly ahead. The door closed and the scene ended.
I asked the waiter if I could sit at the bar. He led me through drawn curtains to an empty room—where was the bar? He set a menu on a table in the far corner, near the kitchen.
Although I already knew what I wanted, I picked up the menu and pretended to read him my order, envisioning the creamy, six-minute egg, the concentrated, nourishing broth, and the heap of soft yellow noodles from the other, better restaurant.
He nodded and took the menu. I waited.
Finally he came through the curtain holding my bowl, set it down, and left without saying anything. The ramen swayed—pork belly, seaweed, pickled mushrooms. This was not what I’d ordered.
The waiter burst through the curtains holding a jar of candies. I lifted my chin and writhed to get his attention.
He stomped his foot, acknowledging the mistake, set the candies on the table next to mine, and carried my bowl away.
I noticed my shoulders weren’t relaxed and dropped them. It’s only food.
A few minutes later an old man wearing chef’s whites limped into the room, holding a platter heaped with scallions and bean sprouts, clearly meant for a large party that was not there. He looked lost. Sweat streamed down his face.
The confusion on his face intensified when he saw me, as if he were just now realizing the restaurant was open.
He remained in his frightened stance, knees bent, five feet away, clutching the plate, staring past me. He seemed to be looking at my ear lobe. Then he glanced back toward the kitchen, maybe for guidance. I felt the urge to say something to him—I opened my mouth—and then the curtains flew back and the server rushed in, wove around the man as if he were a tree, and set before me something resembling what I’d ordered.
The broth was lukewarm and under-seasoned. The bewildered cook now held the heap of garnishes close to his knees, his arms tiring. He watched me eat.
He shuffled over and set it next to the candies on the table beside mine and returned to the kitchen.
The mizzling rain would have been refreshing on a certain kind of day. Not that it bothered me—it simply coated me, like a plant. My stomach growled; I had eaten three bites of ramen.
I walked in the general direction of home. Maybe it wasn’t too late to call in. Although now I would have to explain why I hadn’t contacted them earlier, in addition to lying about my absence. Lies on lies. I burst out laughing, which almost developed into weeping. I slowed to a halt, and stood, just stood there, water droplets quivering on my chin before leaping off like skydivers. At least that was how I imagined they appeared. A black SUV whooshed by, looking important.
On the bench at the bus stop sat the man to whom I had given a dollar, and sitting to his right was the cat, in loaf-of-bread position. A matching loaf—it was even the same color—of sandwich bread rested on the man’s lap. To his left were open jars of peanut butter and jelly.
He set one piece atop the loaf of bread, which he used as a table. Then he dunked his finger in the peanut butter and smeared it on the slice, and with deft, certain strokes he did the same with the jelly. He popped out another slice, slapped it on top of the filling, handed his creation to me without looking up, and went on producing sandwiches, piling them up between his legs. Now and then he glanced up at me. Maybe he was waiting for me to start eating. The window of time in which I could have plausibly said I was saving it—saving it for the first trash can once I was out of view—had passed.
I sat beside the cat. He didn’t acknowledge me. He knew I was there and accepted my presence, squinting and smiling, the way cats do. He was completely dry and smelled like fabric softener.
“Found him in a cardboard box,” the man said. “Taking a nap.”
“What did the box look like?” I said.
“What did it look like?” he said.
“It looked like a box.”
He stood, lifted the pile of sandwiches, opened a polyester knapsack, placed them inside, cinched the drawstring, set the bag of sandwiches on the concrete, sat back down, wiped his hands on his pants, and looked off into the distance.
“Anything unusual about the box?”
He looked over at me, and then at my sandwich, as if he hadn’t heard, or maybe he had and didn’t intend to respond.
I took a small bite. No granules, no razor blades. I nodded with approval, arching my eyebrows to make sure he got the message. He snorted and shook his head wildly, as if I had insulted his family and thrown the sandwich into the street.
“Crazy over there,” he said, motioning with his head toward the Zone. “Stadium is going to change everything. If they ever build it. Gonna wipe everything out. Gonna wipe out the whole neighborhood.”
Another SUV cruised by, looking official, its black-mirror windows reflecting the three of us like mangled dough.
“There’s gonna be a casino, too,” he said. “A goddamn casino. Can you believe they approved it?”
I had no idea what he was talking about. I caught myself starting to speak, emitting a truncated, guttural sound. “Ahp.”
He assessed me, first my sneakers, then my legs and shorts, working his way up to my face.
I had another bite of the sandwich. It was delicious. The jelly was exploding with strawberry sweetness. I tilted my head back and nestled it in the bend of the Plexiglas overhang. Hundreds of beads of water constellated above me, jiggling on their own, as if they were alive; every so often one broke away, streaked down the plastic, and disappeared. I got to thinking about the last restaurant I would ever work in; in the summer we served watermelon granita in crystal glasses, which either I or a runner would pass from a silver tray to guests waiting for tables. I was the sommelier.
And then I wasn’t.
“That’s why we like you—you stick up for yourself,” the manager, Jamie, had told me as I sat down to sign my termination notice.
At the time, I didn’t think it was the end of my career. The strange thing about being blackballed is nobody tells you—you gradually figure it out on your own, to the extent you can affirm it. Nothing was stopping me from trying to break back in, technically.
I remember standing in the parlor in the early evening before the rush, empty tray under my arm as I looked through floor-to-ceiling windows onto the sidewalk, watching the uneven stream of bodies, some hurrying by, some stalling; and then a woman stopped to let her dog pee on some impatiens fenced around a tree.