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Stories for the Long Silk Road

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Todd Mercer: The Retail Battle of Big Rapids

We can see them coming for us. 

They roar out of the night-dark in their pre-embargo SUVs and their armorized patch-togethers. Hundreds more of those savages are running behind the advancing line of vehicles. They’ve got weapons put together from Lawn & Garden and Hardware: wrought iron pikes, hydraulic nail guns, that kind of thing. We took heavy casualties last month. We’re weak little bitches at the moment. They might have rolled right through and wiped us out this time—and it is still going to be ugly—but we have a chance. An informer who shops both stores tipped us. Thank God. Here’s hoping the informer didn’t tell them a few things too. 

We have the entire road frontage along with part of the flank of the lot edged with six foot picket privacy fencing. Their scouts saw us putting the fencing in, yet they still came. 

“Nick! How many?” calls The Greeter from down on the ground.

I lower my binoculars, lean over the edge of the RV’s roof we use for a lookout post. “It seems like all of them.”

“Well come on then. Let’s get to the fence and see what we can do about it.” Down the ladder quick with my heart in my throat, but I’m not showing my fear. I trained myself to never show fear—I’m a goddamned mail carrier, after all. 

The Greeter’s wheeze is crackling. “This all started with Reaganomics,” he manages to say. “That’s how it all went to shit.”

“Reaganomics? What the hell is that?” 

He knocks his glasses off his nose by accident, and stops us to find them on the asphalt. 

The store goes dark on the inside. Then the parking lot lights are cut too. The Store Manager’s helicopter takes off from the roof, heading wherever all the managers live. Somewhere that isn’t Big Rapids. Which means we are on our own. It’s been a long time since they tried to squelch one of these fights with police. Now it’s will versus will, the people that live in their cars in the WalMart parking lot versus the people that live in their cars in the Meijer parking lot. I hear other towns have the same standoff with at the Target-Depots and AppleShacks. We work at these stores, we live there, we stick together.

“Forget ‘em, these guys are going to slaughter us. Come on.”

“I was going… off shift… in an hour,” he huffs, damned unsuited for these conditions.

“Collect yourself, old man.”

Even before we reach our spot, we hear the staccato thumps of nails impacting the fence fronts. If I wasn’t a mailman, I’d say we’re going down this time.

*         *         *

I used to be Unaffiliated and out of work. I’m not proud to admit this, but I used to shop at a few different places. A long time ago most people did, but now try it and no one trusts you. 

There’s no way I could have been doing as well as now, without the help of The Greeter. Four years ago I parked my old ’23 Buick beater in one of the few spaces that wasn’t claimed long term, and walked in the WalMart with a short list. I hated to leave the car, since I was traveling alone, and—goes without saying these days—everything I owned was in it. You hear what happens to the unattended vehicles of the Unaffiliated.

He was doing his Greeter thing in the front entry when I first saw him, holding his price-coding wand. 

“Welcome to WalMart. Let’s scan that arm, shall we?” 

And of course my data is in there, everyone’s is, but sometimes the whole thing feels inorganic.

I asked, “What if you don’t scan it?”

He looked over the frames of his glasses. “Then you can’t be assigned a price class. You would actually have to pay the whole cost that’s printed on the price tags.”

“Okay. So what?”

“Sir, nobody pays the full tag price. Unheard of. I simply don’t see it here.”

The eroding morality behind the price class system felt too compromising to be complicit in. Not that I hadn’t gone along over and over before. Almost everyone else does. But I couldn’t that once manage it.

The price coding people don’t let it be known, exactly how their structure works. But I know. I have to tell this guy.

“There are at least five discount classes. Maybe six. The first discount goes to the Affiliated. “

“Oh I don’t know about that sir, they don’t call me into the management meetings. Can I help—“

“Another discount class is for those who don’t mind that the goods they buy were made with child labor.”

“Sir, all I do is scan the arm, and tell you where the Housewares are located. I’m not political.”

“Another discount class—“ 

Before I said more the Greeter reached forward abruptly; he put a business card in my hand. Thinking of all the cameras on us, I turned around and went back outside before I looked to see what I had. A card with a name and a number on it, nothing else. I climbed in the Buick and hung shirts over all the windows, and called the number.

It rang twice.

“You want to work for the Vehicle Postal Service?” the woman who answered asked immediately. 

“When can you start?”

“I think you’re mistaken.”

“Did a greeter at our Big Rapids store give you a card?”


“Are you already with another outfit?”

“Do you mean, am I Affiliated?”

“Are you?”

“Not at the present time. I am considering my options.”

Are you wanted for any felonies or misdemeanors?”

“If you know who you called, you must already know the answer.”

“Okay then. We’ll need you to report to the Receiving Manager, if you’re ready to work today.”

“This doesn’t even make sense.”

“Last chance. I’m busy. Affiliated mail carrier with a free parking spot and some dental coverage, or we’ll call someone else and give it to them. We don’t hire often.

Within minutes I was delivering postcards and enforcing the lot rules. The lot rules part is the hard part.  I don’t even want to talk about that side of it. A week later, I had a regular meal.

*         *         *

In about ’28 the post office changed their longstanding notion of what a legal residence entailed. They started delivery to people whose addresses are vehicles. 

Wherever you go now, you see the same thing—houses stand empty, sometimes blocks of houses, while nearby people live in their rides. Oh, you hear of squatters camping quietly in empty places, but that’s not worth the years of jail time, in my view. 

The surest way to end up locked up as a State guest now is staying Unaffiliated, trying not to pick a team. Don’t get me started on the pathology of the times.

I started out living in rental homes. Then I landed a surprisingly good job and kept it for a long enough to ratchet back my constant background panic.  So I signed a mortgage on a Tudor with shade trees. Three bedrooms. That situation didn’t last. I reverted to renting. Then later—well, I neither bought nor rented. More and more people were getting out of houses. The government gave up trying to save the country from the abyss.

I stopped kidding myself, before the last money was gone. Bought the Buick and improvised.

The day I found a spot in the lot, and a friend in the store, and lucked into the mailman position, that’s the best day I’ve had since the year my family left out on me. After a day like that, the shoulders are a bit squarer. 

You have to make a little stand somewhere. You have to have pride in facing up to life.

*         *         *

The mail arrives at the last bay of the receiving dock, around back of the building on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Management takes pictures of all materials. I sort it, bundle up any company add-ins, and generally by noon start weaving my way through the lot. It can come to a long walk criss-crossing a short distance.

The mailman knows everybody. If I don’t know you and your car is in this lot more than an hour or two, be sure that I’ll find out what you are about. And if you’re wrong, you’re gone. If you’re wrong, I’ll know it when we talk and I look you in the eye. I’ve got a reliable knack.

I don’t put up with serious criminal activity on my lot either. Still, please lock your car when you aren’t in it. I see locks left up and I field theft reports. It keeps happening.

We get by better with diminished expectations. I tell the people in this parking lot to be glad that mail still runs at all. 

There’s an afternoon carrier who delivers to the people busy working first shift inside, the Day stockers and cashiers with preference or seniority. That’s who delivers my mail, if I ever get any. And she did. She did great. Today she brought a letter from my son who I’ve been worrying about for years. First word from him in forever. 

He’s fine, he says. Doing real well. His mother is in Florida with her improved husband. He wants me to know he finished his MBA. He’s going to be one of the managers, live wherever the managers all live. He says, don’t worry, Dad, I’ve got it all figured out.

I can’t say why I’m crying and smiling both.

*         *         *

The expectations: try to carve out a life and a space to live it. You go ahead and dare to experience love for other human beings, and keep yourself on the best path that’s open. Even doing right, some night ‘They’ may come for you. I know how it got this bad, but not what to do to make it better. For a few years the ’They’ of concern were the police, always coming, carrying people away from their families. Now it’s the other poor folks. We’re divided into tribes, and we’re at each other’s throats. 
In this town, I’m afraid they‘re hungrier than we are. 

They’re here, looks like all of them. Vehicles grouped in a tight wedge, they hit our barricades a few dozen yards down, accelerating to at least fifty or sixty miles an hour. Fencing and plywood fly backwards, skitter down the pavement, letting them on in. 

They hate us deep, they won’t show mercy.

The Greeter turns his back to the section we’re braced behind, the one other vehicles are almost upon. 

“Run!” he shouts at me, “Save yourself!” He pushes me back in the direction of the store. Before I don’t see the old man anymore, he’s standing there in his blue vest, which will surely catch him negative special attention, somebody’s grandpa who had to return to the workplace.

There’s a flare overhead. For a moment the area around us is day-bright. I see the lettering where his name tag reads, “Todd Mercer.” He’s smiling and waving at those Meijer bastards over the fence, doing his job, Greeting. He calls out, “Welcome to WalMart! Can I help you fiiiiiiinnndd anything?” when they bear down and roll right over the top of him.

It’s heartbreaking, but even so, someone’s bound to live through this attack who resides in one of these cars out here and is praying for a Greeter job. 

I’m sprinting faster than the Canadians did, back when we invaded them. I don’t care if you think I’m a coward—I’ve got mail to deliver tomorrow, assuming there’s anyone here left to receive mail. If you ever luck into a quality job like that, you keep it ‘til they bury you. That will happen soon enough, don’t help them do it to you.

Fuck those guys. We still have the lowest goddamn prices in Osceola County. 

TODD MERCER won the first Woodstock Writers Festival’s Flash Fiction contest. His chapbook, Box of Echoes, won the Michigan Writers Cooperative Press contest and his digital chapbook, Life-wish Maintenance, is forthcoming from RHP Books. Mercer's poetry and fiction appear in Apocrypha & Abstractions, Blink Ink, Blue Collar Review, The Camel Saloon, Camroc Press Review, Cease, Cows, Cheap Pop, Dunes Review, East Coast Literary Review, Eunoia Review, Falling Star, 50-Word Stories, The Fib Review, Gravel, The Lake, The Legendary, Main Street Rag Anthologies, Melancholy Hyperbole, Misty Mountain Review, Mobius: The Journal of Social Change, theNewer York, One Sentence Poems, Postcard Poems and Prose, Postcard Shorts, Right Hand Pointing, River Lit, The Second Hump, and Spartan.

1 comment:

Silk Road Mantra

by Suchoon Mo

bury me not

in the lone Silk Road

I go and go

from west to east

I go and go

from east to west

bury me not

in the lone Silk Road


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