Editor Notes: In the latest addition of the Spy’s partnership with the Delmarva Review, we share Lisa Lynn Diggar’s fictional short story of two “stockers and pickers” from the Chesapeake’s Amazon distribution center who lead lonely lives shaped from past alcohol addiction problems. While the future always holds some hope of improvement from the past, there is never certainty for the future.
There are stockers, pickers and packers at the Amazon Distribution Center. Brandy’s a stocker, finding room wherever he can for cart after cart of items, cramming bags of cat treats between lubricants, hair spray by garden hoses; there’s no rhyme or reason to the process—just stack and code for the younger pickers, who scurry like mice from one end of the two-story warehouse to the other, over five football fields in length.
Brandy prides himself in fitting the shelves like a puzzle; he’s found that he’s rather ingenious at filling up empty space. At 65 he isn’t all that fast, but he’s efficient, so the supervisors pretty much leave him alone. And he likes that—the freedom. It’s not like being on the water, but it gives him time to think. Sometimes he thinks of elaborate plans for winning his ex-wife back, but they all require time and money that he no longer has. It does occur to him on occasion that he might look for another woman—after all it’s been nearly 10 years—but what does he have to offer? A boat on the hard? And not much hard on himself these days. He hasn’t slept with anyone since Sar left him.
In the break room, he sees the pickers massaging their feet, changing out gel soles in their tennis shoes. When he first started working there, as seasonal help, Brandy would say hello to them in passing, but they’d brush passed him as if he were invisible— much like the way Sar treats him when he runs into her and her new boyfriend at the AA meetings in Dover. There are plenty of AA meetings in Kent County, Maryland, where he lives on his 36-foot wooden sloop, ‘Caillou,’ but he’ll take any chance he can get to run into Sar.
He works the day shift, going in at seven, getting off at five, then going home, opening a can of something for dinner, then settling in for a long night of counting the stars, or reading a mystery book, but mostly pining for his lovely Sar and their wild days on the horse farm.
Brandy started working the day shift at Amazon in mid-November, but, now, after Thanksgiving, they’re bringing in more and more teams of seasonal stockers and pickers. He begins to recognize the ones that’ll make it and the ones that’ll last only a day or so, maybe a week. On this particular day, the first week in December, he notices one of the new woman pickers, her body slender, girlish. She’s deliberate in her choices, taking time to exam each item before throwing it in her cart, as if she were shopping for herself.
He walks over to where she’s picking a bag of plastic figurines—fairies he sees as he gets closer. He smiles slightly, hiding the graying part of his upper front crown, a remnant of his fighting days. “Your first day?” he asks, removing one of his ear plugs, the noise from the conveyor belts deafening.
She looks him over, then takes out one of her earplugs. He repeats the question. “Yeah,” she says. “On my own.”
“It gets easier,” he says. “Once you get the system down.”
She nods, her eyes blue as the bay, but her face etched with weariness, probably in her late forties, early fifties.
“Well, maybe I’ll see you in the break room,” he says. She nods, looking down at her picking list and moving on.
The next day he runs into “blue eyes” in the break room. She’s sitting alone in a corner under the fluorescent lights, drinking a can of Pepsi, a blue bandana over her short dark hair, her nylon work gloves still on. He walks over to her table, asks if he can join her.
“Sure,” she shrugs.
“How’s your second day going?” he asks, sitting across from her at the small round table.
“They want me to go faster,” she says.
“They want us all to go faster.” He takes the lid off his cup of coffee, steam opening his pores. “They forget we’re not machines.” He takes a sip of coffee, burning his tongue, then introduces himself to her.
“Rita,” she says.
He smiles, says, “Lovely Rita meter maid” in his best British accent.
She gives him a partial smile, the left side of her mouth turned upwards. “My parents loved the Beatles—that’s about all they listened to.”
“I only listen to the oldies.”
“Sometimes I put on a country station,” she says, taking another sip of her Pepsi. “I love country music, but I’m afraid of wearing out my battery.”
“Batteries are cheap.”
“I mean my car battery—I live in my car,” she says lowering her voice.
Brandy leans in. “Can’t you find a room to rent?”
“I don’t have any references,” she says. “This place didn’t ask for any.”
“No,” Brandy says, tapping a beat on the side of his plastic cup. “They’re desperate.” He takes another sip, the coffee cooled down a bit, their ten-minute break nearly over. His boat can sleep four comfortably—a queen size bed in the aft bedroom, the captain’s quarters where he sleeps, and a v-berth in the forecabin, ahead of the bathroom. “Hey,” he says. “I’ve got room on my boat. It’s just me.”
“You live on a boat?”
“Yeah,” he says. “But it needs a lot of work before I can get it back in the water.” He gives her the basic layout and dimensions, assures her of her privacy in the forecabin.
She looks him over, seeming to calculate the odds that he’s not a serial killer, then takes another swig of her Pepsi. “I don’t have much money,” she says.
“No rent—we’ll just split the groceries.”
“You don’t even know me.”
“It’s not gonna get any warmer this winter—I have a propane heater on the boat.”
She adjusts her bandana, covering her forehead, her dark eyebrows accentuating her leery eyes. “Okay,” she says, “But don’t ask for any favors.”
“No strings attached,” Brandy says, wondering what he’s got himself into. “Meet me out front in the lobby at five—you can follow me to the boat.”
She nods, then gets up, tosses her can in the recycling bin.
No references, Brandy thinks, while stocking the rest of the day, wondering what that could imply. No family? Friends? At least he still has a few high school friends around here he can count on—and then there’s Matt over at the flower farm, a young guy who feels sorry for him, brings him bags of food now and then when he’s out of work—PB & J, bread, cans of tuna. . . Brandy pulls weeds over there in the summer, Matt’s wife Gloria, a pretty young thing, the two of them seemingly soul mates. But who ever knows? He thought he and Sar would last forever.
At five he waits for Rita at the front entrance where all the security checks are. To get in or out of the place you have to pass through them, empty your pockets. He sees Rita passing through a check at the far-end. Just a pair of red mittens in the pockets of her worn, long brown coat that seems to swallow her up. No wallet. No identity. Again, he wonders what he’s got himself into, but he waves to her, and she waves back, a gesture that straightens his posture, lightens his heart.
She walks over to him. “Thought you might’ve changed your mind,” she says.
“I’m a man of my word,” he says, wishing that had always been true.
Rita follows Brandy back to the boat in her beat-up old Ford station wagon, the back brimming with, he assumes, everything she owns. It’s a throw-back with wood panel doors. A real beauty in its day, like, he imagines, Rita was. He looks in his rear-view mirror, still trying to determine her age, her bandana now replaced by a red wool cap. They say you can tell a woman’s age by her hands, but he has yet to see them without the mandatory work gloves on—and now the mittens. He has a feeling she’s younger than she looks, maybe early forties, but he’s never been good with ages. Seems to him some people just reach an age and stick with it, while others go from young to old overnight—like him.
There was a time he could have nearly any girl that he wanted in Kent County, but now when he looks in the mirror it’s a sad state of affairs—not much left of his golden blonde hair, and the bags are heavy under his still green, but faded, eyes. He’s kept himself in pretty good shape though—not buff like he used to be, but about the right weight for his 5’10” frame.
Brandy gives Rita the grand tour of Caillou, his fastidiousness serving him well with this unanticipated guest—the small kitchen spotless, the cedar floors freshly polished, the small forward bathroom squeaky clean. She says she’s never been on a boat before, just a raft on a river, close to where she grew up in Arkansas.
“What brought you here?” he asks.
She shrugs. “I just kept driving.”
He laughs. “Welcome to the end of the earth.”
“Suits me,” she says.
He shows her the v-berth, pulls out fresh sheets from a closet, places them on the bed. “You should be more than comfortable here,” he says, fluffing the pillow.
“I won’t be staying long,” she says, taking off her hat and mittens. “Just till I find another place.”
She looks away.
“No family back in Arkansas?
She shakes her head.
“I just have my drunken brother left. I never see him now that
I’m sober and broke. I used to sell pharmaceuticals to doctors. Made a fortune, but partied it all away—including my wife.” He pats the hull of Caillou. “At least I still have this girl.”
“You have any kids?”
He shakes his head. “Sar and I never got around to that.”
“Me neither,” she says, looking out the rectangular window in the hull. “But sometimes I dream about it and it seems so real— like there’s a life inside me.”
Brandy nods. Sar was pregnant once. It turned things around for them for a short time—both of them quit drinking. He bought her peanut butter, ice cream, deviled eggs. . . The only thing that made her nauseous was fried onions. But then she miscarried.
“Hey, you hungry?” He asks Rita.
They share a dinner of mac and cheese from the box with a can of tuna mixed in. Brandy tells her all about the horse farm he used to own with Sar, how she’d ride the horses in different equestrian events. The blue and red ribbons filled the walls of the barn.
“I had this stubborn pony once,” Rita says, the nails on her left hand chewed down, just a few brown spots. It’s still hard to fathom her age, but his best guess now is mid-forties. “It would stop in the middle of the path and refuse to go any further. Once he tried to jump a stone wall for the first time with me on its back. I threw myself off and never got back on.”
Brandy laughs, picks up their cleaned plates, puts them in the small sink.
“Mind if I have a cigarette?” she asks. He gestures towards the hatch. “Up on deck.”
He joins her on deck, the stars putting on their show. Orion to the south. Dippers to the north. “I quit smoking when I quit drinking,” he says. “Almost eight years now.”
She exhales, looking lost again in her baggy coat. “Smoking helps calms my nerves.”
“It’s almost Christmas,” he says, leaning against the railing, his boat dry-docked at a low-end marina on the Sassafras River. “I always get my ex-wife a sweater. She never wears them.”
“How do you know?”
“Because she doesn’t want anything to do with me.”
“Then why do you keep buying her sweaters?”
He shakes his head slowly. “I don’t know. Habit I guess.” He barely recognizes Sar now. After she left him, she quit drinking, went back to school, her gait more rigid now, fixed—but she’ll always be that wind-swept, sun-kissed girl in his mind.
“You have a radio?” Rita asks.
“All boats are required to have one on the water—like a walky-talky for the water. Keeps you in touch with the coast guard and other boaters.”
“Do you know them? The other boaters?”
“Some of them, but they don’t really respond if you’re on the hard.”
Rita blows out smoke. “I get that.”
She crushes the last of her cigarette on the side railing. “What about your phone? Can you play music on your phone?”
“Yeah,” he says. “I like the sixties station.”
“You ever listen to country?” she asks.
“Sometimes.” He takes his phone out from his back pocket, finds Slacker radio, a country station. “This one says best of classic country.”
He clicks on it and its Patsy Cline singing “Walking After Midnight.”
Rita starts moving to the music, rolling her shoulders and hips. There’s an older couple that he rarely sees docked in their houseboat up-a-ways, but it feels like it’s just him and Rita out here now, all alone in the world.
“I lived in Nashville for a while,” she says. “I was trying to make it big.”
“Used to,” she says. “But now I just listen.”
“It’s just easier that way.”
Brandy nods. He’s gone for days, sometimes weeks, without speaking a word. Just staying on his boat, listening to the sounds of nature around him—the frogs, the geese, the screech of a lone heron that makes him feel like he’s in the land that time forgot.
“Shit. My feet are killing me,” Rita says, leaning against the railing now. “Think I’ll hit the hay. You have an alarm clock?”
“Yeah,” he says. “I’ll get you up.”
“Thanks,” she calls, climbing back down the hatch.
For a while Brandy stays on deck, staring at the lambent light on the water, wondering if he could ever be happy again. Since he’s been sober, a feeling of contentment often washes over him, that nagging need no longer there, but the sadness keeps creeping back—so much empty space in his life. He holds on to that flickering light as long as possible before heading to bed.
The next morning Brandy fries a few eggs with Swiss cheese, slaps them on toast—one sandwich for himself and one for Rita. They eat them on the way to Amazon, in his pick-up truck, deciding it makes more sense to ride in together, a thermos of coffee to share between them.
“What does ‘Caillou’ mean?” she asks.
“It’s a French word for a pebble or stone.”
“Strange name for a boat,” she says, biting into her sandwich. “Stone’s sink.”
“I know, but it’s bad luck to change the name of a boat.”
Rita looks out her side window, frost hovering over the barren fields. “Maybe that’s why I keep running into bad luck,” she says quietly.
“My name,” she says. “I keep changing my name.”
“It’s not Rita?”
She shakes her head.
“What about your parents? The Beatles?”
“I made that up.”
Brandy takes a sip of coffee from his to-go mug, swallowing and digesting this new bit of information. “So what else have you made up?”
“Does it matter?” she asks, still staring out the window.
“Well how the hell can anyone get to know you?”
“Maybe I don’t want them to,” she says, looking over at him.
They drive along in silence for a few minutes, Brandy considering his options. He could pull over and ask her to get out, end this whole thing, whatever it is, right now. But he feels a certain responsibility for her that he can’t explain.
“Well, I’m willing to try,” he finally says, pulling into the zoo of the Amazon parking lot, people frantically searching for a parking spot. “I’ll drop you off at the entrance—looks like I’m going to have to hike it.” He pulls up to the front steel doors, a crowd of workers rushing inside.
“See you on break,” she says, climbing out of the truck and closing the door.
Brandy sets his mind on filling up space, but all he can think about now is Rita—or whatever her name is. In the mysteries, he reads there are clues along the way, so that little by little all is revealed. But maybe it doesn’t matter who Rita was. Maybe it’s just who she is now. One day at a time. He has his one day off tomorrow—Wednesday, this week. Maybe he’ll buy Chinese for himself and Rita tonight.
He crams bags of cough drops into a crevice between garden hoses and dildos—the randomness of it all strangely comforting to him.
It’s mind-blowing that everything on earth is in this building. Everything that one could possibly need—except love. He scans the items, then looks around for Rita. He didn’t see her on his first or second break, hasn’t seen her all day. He wonders now if she jumped ship, or got fired; maybe she didn’t pick up the pace. Even though they’re desperate in here it’s all about control, and Rita doesn’t seem like the type to be controlled—at least not anymore.
At five he passes through security check, scans the crowd for Rita, some leaving, some coming on for second shift, but no sight of her in her red hat. He waits a while, then goes outside, looking for her in the parking lot, and there he sees her waving to him by his truck, on the other end of the lot, her red mittens high in the air, flagging him down. He smiles.
“Didn’t see you all day,” he says, when he reaches her. “What happened?”
“They fired me,” she says, smoking a cigarette.
“How come?” “I stole a frickin’ candy bar. Didn’t think anyone would notice.”
“I slipped it in my pocket—I was gonna eat it on break.”
“They could’ve had you thrown in jail.”
“Wouldn’t’ve been the first time,” she says, blowing out smoke.
Brandy opens his truck door with his remote key. “How concerned should I be?” he asks, before unlocking her door.
Rita drops the butt of her cigarette, steps on it. “I’m not going to rob you,” she says.
“I’m not worried about that,” he says, unlocking her door. “It’s not money or stuff I’m worried about anymore.” The only thing he cares about is his boat, and she’d have a hell of a time stealing it on the hard. He climbs in the driver’s seat.
She picks up the butt, puts it in her pocket, climbs in the truck.
“So, what did you do?” he asks. “Steal a loaf of bread?”
“Actually,” she says, putting on her seat belt, “I robbed a bank.”
The parking lot from the change of shifts is chaos again. Police cars flashing, directing traffic. He slowly backs out of his spot. “So, you robbed a bank,” he says, facetiously.
She nods. “$2,500.00 ⎯I used a water pistol under my sweatshirt.”
“A water pistol.”
“I didn’t want to hurt anyone.”
“Of course not,” he says, merging into an outgoing line. He breaks at the intersection, waiting for the cop to tell him to turn.
“Bruce wanted us to be like Bonnie and Clyde, but I wouldn’t touch a real gun. That’s the one thing he couldn’t get me to do. I told him if I had a gun he’d be dead.”
The cop waves Brandy on. He didn’t believe her for a minute at first, but now he’s beginning to wonder. He makes the turn and they head for the traffic light. Brandy stops on red. “When did you get out?”
“It’s been just over a year—I was on parole.”
He waits for the light to turn green. “Well I’m not one to judge,” Brandy says, accelerating.
“How ‘bout we get something special to eat tonight. Celebrate your freedom.”
They stop for Chinese, order a quart of moo goo gai-pan and two orders of shrimp toast, then buy a bottle of non-alcoholic sparkling pink champagne at the liquor store next door. The grocery store next to the liquor store has little Christmas trees out front, boat size, for $15. It’s more than Brandy can afford to spend, but the hell with it he thinks. He tells Rita to pick one out. “We can put it in a bucket with some water,” he says.
“Do you have decorations?”
He shakes his head. “My ex-wife took all of those.”
“I know how to make paper snowflakes,” she says. “And we can cut out a star.”
“I have computer paper we can use,” he says.
Back in the car, Brandy asks Rita how long she was in for. “Three years,” she says, cracking her window, then lighting a cigarette. “My lawyer used the Patty Hearst defense, said I was coerced. Bruce got more time; he had a record, but I think he’s out now, and I know he’s looking for me. That’s why I gotta keep running.”
Brandy tells her she’s safe with him. He has a small pistol that he keeps under his mattress that he’s never had to use, but he’s sure that he could if he had to.
“No one’s ever safe,” she says.
“You don’t believe in guardian angels?”
She shakes her head. “I don’t believe in anything.”
“No higher power?”
“For fifteen years it was Bruce.”
“I mean spiritual.”
She shakes her head again. “I’m on my own.”
They are quiet the rest of the way to the boat, the lights on the road fractured from Brandy’s cataracts. He keeps his eyes open for deer. It’s that time of year where they dart out from seemingly nowhere, the glow of their eyes the only warning sign.
Brandy heats up the moo goo gai-pan on his propane stove in the small kitchen. He put the small pine tree in a wash bucket by the stairs leading up to the deck. Rita pops the bottle of fake champagne. “I could never drink around Bruce,” she says. “I had to stay on my guard. Plus, he drank enough for both of us.” She pours two glasses.
“A toast,” Brandy says. “To your freedom.”
Rita takes a sip of the pink bubbly. “Sometimes I wish I was still in prison,” she says, sitting down at the small table in the galley. “Maybe that’s why I stole the candy bar.”
Brandy serves up the moo goo gai-pan, putting two triangles of shrimp toast on each plate, then sits down across from her. “That’s not a life in there,” he says.
“You ever been in?”
“A couple over-nighters for DUIs.”
“I wasn’t safe in there either, but at least I was away from Bruce.” She takes a bite of the chicken, chewing slowly. “I’m afraid if he finds me, I’ll go back to him.”
Brandy puts his fork down. “Rita, you’re not alone here.”
“I can’t stay here without a job.”
“You’ll find something else.”
“I need to learn how to take care of myself.”
“You know what?” Brandy says, clicking Slacker on his phone and putting on the classic country station. “Why don’t we talk about all this tomorrow. Let’s back burner it and just enjoy this night. We’re celebrating, remember?” He picks up his glass and they toast again, Hank Williams singing “Hey Good Lookin’.”
Rita gives him a full smile, her teeth stained, but relatively straight. “Okay,” she says.
It’s been a long, long time since Brandy’s danced. And he’s never danced sober before. But Rita said, “Just follow my lead,” and now he’s shaking his hips and spinning her around like he’s Fred Astaire. “Hello Mary Lou, Goodbye Heart. . .”
Rita starts singing along now, her voice raspy, but the notes strong, dead-on.
“Dang girl,” Brandy says, giving her a spin. “You can sing!”
“It’s been a while,” she says, sitting down, catching her breath, then starts into a coughing fit. Brandy gets her a glass of water.
“Thanks,” she says, taking a big gulp. “Think I need a cigarette.”
Out on deck the stars are bright in the new moon sky. Rita has on her big brown coat, her red hat. “Which one is that?” she asks, pointing to the brightest star in the sky with her cigarette.
“That’s Polaris, the North Star,” he says. “The one the wisemen followed to find the baby Jesus. At last they say it was that one. But it could have been any star gone nova.”
“It means ‘new star’, ’cause when a star goes nova it explodes and gets brighter— people can see it with the naked eye then. It’s like the birth of a star.”
Rita nods her head slowly. “I like that,” she says.
“You ever seen a sextant?” Brandy asks her.
“A what?” Rita asks, raising her dark eyebrows.
“It’s a navigational tool,” Brandy quickly explains. “Let me get mine. I’ll show you.”
Brandy goes back down the hatch, gets his sextant from an overhead compartment, then climbs back out on deck. Rita is smoking the last of her cigarette, her head tilted back, blowing out smoke like the starlets in the old black and white movies. “So before computers and cell phones this baby and a reliable watch were used to navigate on the water,” Brandy says, showing her the triangular instrument.
“You can find where you are by determining your latitude and longitude,” he says, drawing lines in the air, and then using two fingers to show the intersection of the two. “To determine your latitude, you point the sextant to the horizon and then sight a bright, fixed object in the sky—we’ll use Polaris.” He hands her the instrument, aligning it with the horizon, then tells her to look in the scope and sight Polaris. “Now press the clamp to release the index bar, and bring Polaris down to the horizon.” She moves the bar slowly down, then says okay. “Now we’ll read the angle. 32 degrees,” he says. Go ahead and release the clamp. Now we just need to look at 32 degrees latitude on my charts,” he says, “and boom we have our latitude line.”
They go back down in the cabin and Brandy lays out his navigational charts on the table, points out 32 degrees latitude. “Here we are,” he says, “anywhere along this line. You have to know your longitude point to determine your exact location. And that’s a bit trickier, takes some math, but it has to do with Greenwich Mean Time,” he says, pointing to the central longitude line on the map. “That’s where the watch comes into play. You can tell your longitude based on how far you are from this line and what time it is in that zone. “Here we are,” he says, pointing to their location point on the Sassafras River.
“I could’ve used this lesson years ago,” Rita says. “I went off-course and still haven’t found my way back.”
“Maybe you have now,” Brandy says, taking her hands, pressing them together.
She looks him in the eyes, then looks away. “I’m no fixed star.”
“We’re all moving through time,” he says. “We’d better get that tree decorated before Christmas passes us by. I’ll get some paper and scissors.”
Rita shows Brandy how to fold the paper again and again into a small triangle. “Now cut a straight line across the bottom. And then cut straight and curvy lines into the fold,” she says, working her scissors like a pro. She opens her paper to magically reveal a snowflake.
“We had Christmas trees in prison,” she says. “These were the decorations.”
Brandy works his scissors with less finesse, but the final result is just as dazzling.
They make several more, and then Rita folds and cuts another sheet of paper until she constructs a perfect star. “A star is born!” she exclaims, and then places it on top of the tree. They stand back to admire their work
“We should put our fortunes on it,” Brandy says. He gets their fortune cookies off the counter. Rita opens hers: “It could be better, but it’s good enough,” she laughs.
Brandy opens his and reads, “Two days from now, tomorrow will be yesterday.”
They place their fortunes on the tree, and then Brandy takes out his phone, goes to Slacker, finds a Christmas station. He clicks on it: “Oh holy night, the stars are brightly shining . . .” They sit down at the table and listen, both of them as still as can be, staring at the tree.
“Let me just hold you tonight,” Brandy says when the song is over. “Let me just hold you while you sleep. Keep you safe in my arms.”
She looks up at him, her red hat just above her wary eyes. “Just sleep?”
“Just sleep,” he says. “Let me rock you to sleep.”
She lets him lead her to his bed in the captain’s quarters, where they lie down still dressed under the covers. She rolls over and Brandy turns off the light on the nightstand. He rolls over beside her, tells her goodnight, then puts his arm around her, only the screech of an occasional heron piercing the silence of the darkness, her breath getting heavier as she falls asleep. And lying there, awake, Brandy is acutely aware that he will return to this point in time over and over again, letting the past fall away, and the future bring whatever it may.
Lisa Lynn Biggar received her MFA in Fiction from Vermont College and is writing a short story cycle set on the eastern shore of Maryland. In addition to Delmarva Review, her short fiction has appeared in numerous other literary journals. She teaches English at Chesapeake College and is the fiction editor for Little Patuxent Review. In her spare time, she co-owns and operates a cut flower farm on the eastern shore of Maryland with her husband and four cats.
Delmarva Review publishes outstanding new poetry, fiction and nonfiction from writers within the region and beyond. In it’s tenth year, the nonprofit literary journal is supported by individual contributions and a grant from the Talbot County Arts Council with funds from the Maryland State Arts Council. For information and copies, visit: www.delmarvareview.com.