[A draft of a draft – basically me working on building the backstory of a character that’s taken on more life than most of the characters I’ve ever written.
N.B. – this will make more sense if you read the Jacob Foster posts in chronological order.]
The summer of Jacob Foster’s junior year, he found himself needing work once more. Back then his life it seemed had been balanced on a razor’s edge. Without the benefit of hindsight, he did not simply thoughtlessly assume he would survive.
He stalked down the mainstreet under the sprawling cherry blossoms past brick facades and the cracking concrete river bridge. Jacob Foster can imagine his younger self, a scarecrow in a leather jacket, his face set in nervous confidence. He has never been good at asking for things. Even as a child. He has no memories of mother, no memories of pleading or prayer ever achieving any particular end. Bella’s Grill rejected him, as does the Starbucks down the road. You need specialist experience to work at the mine (obvious, in hindsight) or the bank (rather less obvious).
-You’re in college, let us know when you get a degree and won’t leave us in three months.
-No we don’t do internships but maybe at the corporate office?
-I can’t help you, sorry. Give Edith my regards.
Scowling, he returned home, tin roofed and overgrown with weeds. Green shoots strangle the gnomes he loathes. Good riddance.
In the end it wasn’t through his efforts that he found work. His grandmother had a woman who checked up on her sometimes. She had a brother who knew of a job in a warehouse he could take.
-Shoes, that’s right. Big distribution warehouse for the whole region, Wallace and Stone Artisanal Footwear. The manager is a portly man, with thick glasses. He wears his polo shirts tucked in tight.
-And you’re hiring?
-We are. You want it? Janine tells me you’re in college. We’ll take you on for temp work if you like. Eight dollars an hour. It’s a small facility, so here, let me give the walking tour.
Dimly lit artificial corridors have been formed by the accretion of boxes. Conveyors snaked between them like rivers in ancient canyons, like city streets carrying cargo by their own volition. They deposit their burdens as if at random, but there is a formula. The manager told him about it. Green labels go into 4A. Across the hall you can see where our summer collection goes back to Distribution. Oh this one here, that’s an Exchange. Most of those go to 9A, but sometimes you have to mark them, like this one. Michele can show you how that works. It’s not hard, right?
-No. Jacob tried to stifle a yawn, but found it difficult.
-Just a couple years ago this wasn’t automated. All hand sorted. We had machines to move the stacks. Next summer we’ll be getting new machines too. Hope to cut down on how many temps we need for rolling out the summer collection. No offense. It’s just business.
-None taken. I get it.
-You’ll do whatever we need on whatever given day. Michelle over there can train you… starting a couple days from now if that works alright by you?
Relief washed over Jacob Foster. He had been judged to be good people. The rest of the process was a formality, consisting essentially of paperwork and a trip down to Corporate for a five minute to have an HR woman glower down her oversized glasses at him and scan his driver’s license.
After his first day of work they gathered around him with the mock solemnity of impromptu ritual and dragged him down to the local bar, Flemmings, down the road by the sloping gravel rise of the traintracks. Weeds pressed up between sidewalk cracks, but the red door beckoned warmly. Pickup trucks and battered cars aligned themselves one by one like penitents awaiting communion.
-Beer and a shot down the line. Beer and a shot for the new kid. Having fun yet? Don’t worry, you won’t ever. Gotta get new shoes. Those boots, boy, they’re gonna hurt your feet in a day or two like a motherfuck and you’re gonna wish you bought sneakers with your first paycheck.
-New shoes, right. And you can wear a t-shirt, you know?
-Oh, I uh, I didn’t. Well, when I got there this morning, I didn’t. I do now, right.
Abner, an old man with a sly grin passed him the drink. Bombs away.
He gulped down the shot and swallowed the beer and when it was over and the burning taste was gone from his mouth he took another sip and tried his best to answer their questions, the sort of friendly interrogation which meant well but which left him feeling distinctly uncomfortable. Jacob Foster felt no pride in his heritage or his past.
-From down in Oak Creek, yeah. No, I don’t remember when they moved there. Probably in the late eighties? Why, did you know him?
In Wallace and Stone’s intricately crafted system there was an unmistakable sense of ceaseless and automatic motion. The flow of boxes allowed everything to become a blur punctuated mostly by voices and the ringing of various harsh electronic bells. The magnificent thing was the sense in which everything became routine after mere hours.
The human mind has a stunning capacity for mindlessness. The young Jacob Foster finds peace in this fact. As he slides the boxcutter across the tapesealed container he notices only the sticky satisfying sound. Its contents are emptied, categorized, understood by the computer. The clicker flashes twenty-four times. One missing. Again. The clicker flashes twenty-four more times. Still missing one.
He carefully, methodically packed the shoes back into their boxes. With exaggerated care he pressed the black marker to the cardboard. The first day, the clock had barely moved. Sometimes now it seemed to spin by without ceasing. Other times, when he found himself inside his own head, it did not move at all.
Down the line, Louis was considering his pile of unsorted shoes, all of them untagged. His brown eyes flickered, dancing from shoe to uniform shoe. Sameness is not an obvious thing. It must be assessed carefully before the tags can come down. Louis was one of the best people there. His hands moved nimbly and carefully over the boxes.
The ritual continued. The box, after being raised and cut was dumped unceremoniously and then a new box was made to fit its old contents.
Jacob Foster looked to the clock. Five minutes tick by. World enough and time. Visions and revisions. The next box will contain four unsorted, four. It is an insignificant yet frustrating number, aggravating for its closeness to none unsorted, that glorious state of zen where the mind can truly go blank and enter into the realm of fantasy.
He is in college, talking to Adriana outside of Stephen Mullen’s party. She is absentmindedly twirling her black hair, her dress slim and short. She lays a hand on his chest casually, then in a heartbeat she is pulling him close. Later, they lay in his bedroom, her naked body illuminated by his tacky orange christmas lights. In a few moments, Rajiv will knock on the door but for this moment anything is possible.
The fantasy was not, Jacob realized, in the remembrance but in the possibility.
Jacob Foster kept moving, until break when he could dangle a cigarette in his mouth and stare out beyond the chainlink fence thin with rust past the field unshorn and stonespackled creek. Past still the thinswaying trees with leaves like fire, beyond it still the bland uniform color of suburbia. The houses radiant with interior light in the thin paleness of dawn are a premonition of the closest thing to heaven that exists anywhere here. Cicada droned in the distance.
So Jacob Foster still believed, sipping his grandmother’s gin on the back porch, ashing his cigarette into a little ornamental frog. Escape, heaven, that is everywhere he is not. That evening he will take a small gun from the basement and shoot a gnome. Grandmother will not notice ever.
-Fucker. He said to no-one in particular, looking down at the broken body before him. It was split in three distinct pieces, sallow fragile porcelain cracked to reveal a hollow interior like bleached bone. For a moment he fancied himself Arius, and tried to reconnect it but there was no point. Once set apart there was no sense in it. He left the pieces where they lay and decided that the weather would erode them with enough time. The coating, after all, was only external.
The next day he was back at work. The whole morning nothing interrupted the peace that passes when boxes pass from conveyor to palette. For a while, sure, his mind wandered. For a while he craved the distance, the distraction. He sketched fantasies of Adriana and everything he wanted her to do to him when he next saw her. When he ran the clicker gun over the labels, he imagined her kisses softly descending the slope of his chest and her nails raking across his back. But the distracting sensuality of it all passed. In time the eroticism became almost grating.
Later that afternoon, he sent Stephen Mullen a photo of an absurd pair of shoes, lime green and red stitching. Stephen replied with a question mark, and looking back Jacob Foster could not have honestly said what he had found amusing about them. Without the context of a thousand other pairs of loafers, tennis shoes, and flip flops they were just another set of ugly shoes. The distinct humor was gone and he couldn’t recollect what had inspired it.
Without even the recourse of the absurd, he turned to his oldest game. Michelle was two aisles down, and through the break in the boxes he could see her snapping the tags from individual unsorted items, and putting them into a container marked B13. He watched her for a while, and decided that she had two children, who were mostly raised by their aunt. She liked to play the lottery, and knew that when she won she would move to Maine and travel the world with the Peace Corps. When she was not abroad she would live by the sea and her true passion was dancing, which she had never had the opportunity to pursue but would if her life would just be changed by some miracle that might allow her to live out her itinerant aspirations.
Abner was a veteran. As he operated the forklift his own mind dwelled on what he had seen across the ocean in another far hellish world. As a young man he had dreamed of becoming a boxer, but now those ambitions were impossible. Now he just wanted to retire. He was counting down the hours but to be frank he had no idea what he would do when the day finally came. It would be like coming to a precipice, and the fact terrified him.
For Louis, it was tougher. But deep down he assumed that Louis had the secrets he craved. The only obvious facts about him were his competence and his contempt for the supervisor. He had no wedding ring and dressed plainly. He drove a Ford and he never once came out to Flemmings on Thursdays for the two-for-one pitcher special.
Looking back, he never asked any of them about their lives.
One warm day in July, doctors will find the tumor rotting his grandmother’s tar-caked lungs. He will go to her bedside table once, she will ask him to pray for her. He lied to her then, as he often did. It was a simple ritual, and one he believed he would come to miss. He remembers that grimsmiling lie, brushing back brown hair long turned grey and giving her a ceremonial kiss on the cheek.
She smelled of old paper. Jake imagined she might blow away and, reflecting later, finishing the bottle of gin, he found the image utterly peaceful. He doesn’t yet fear death. Why bother? A last beneficence.
The funeral was quick, blessedly so. Poorly attended, compared to his late father’s wake. At the passing of Adam Foster’s jaundiced corpse they screamed drank and fought. Jacob Foster drank with them, a child with hollow eyes. He has since burned the photos that were taken, spread them out back with the ashes. He has no love for his father’s friends the enablers and the lackeys – their actions hastened his father’s end and though Jacob does not mourn the man they were and are murderers.
Here there was only silence and preternatural stillness with no sign of soul or memory. An aged man, a tattered shawl around some bones who recites some words. Hymns were sung and Jacob Foster did not speak. Halfway through he stepped out into the weatherworn courtyard in the shadow of that city in the hills. He watched the churchspired horizon as crows danced together on gutters. Crumbling brick edifices lined the opposing street, old shops which themselves were antiques moreso than their contents which were undoubtedly pilfered from the houses of the dead. It would be apt. Morbid but the elderly died alone here all the time and family cracked open the shadowed trailers all too late for last goodbyes.
What possessions did they have worth keeping? Perhaps an old set of silverware, as Edith Foster once had. A television, manufactured in the mid seventies. An elaborate knitting set, carefully maintained until arthritic trembling claws could no longer grip the needles. Half a carton of parliament cigarettes and a bottle of prescription painkillers.
The rest can be thrown to the antiquers of the world. The armoire and the kitchen stools. The creaking grandfather clock which gave him night terrors as a child. The contents of a life can be judged and disposed of with ease. Jacob Foster has learned this; now he cannot stop thinking of it. It troubled him at night when he returned to university.
Three days from now, the weekend will come. Jacob Foster will go to Carolina, to spread the ashes. One of his father’s old drinking buddies helped him sell the house, and handed him the check when the sale was good and done. Apparently the land, the rising woods that sprawled behind his grandmothers house for measureless distances could be developed. If Jacob Foster had ever returned he would have seen fat white houses with blackshingled roofs not made of tin or aluminum. Red white and green shutters, dogs and children playing. IKEA furniture unstacked out of minivans.
-Your pa was a good man, boy. You know that. Your ma I didn’t know but day of your birth I remember your dad, Adam he was so happy we were in the bar together you know. He got the call and oh how his face lit up. You’ll make him proud I know you will.
He did not mention old Edith Foster, though he did make a muttered sound of sympathy when he shook Jacob’s hand.
Jacob Foster tapped his fingers lightly on the wooden countertop. He said nothing, but took the heavyset man’s hand and shook it tightly. The door rattled on its decaying frame. He would leave tomorrow. For good. It was in motion now.
Everyone was gone. The last day in the house he sat alone amongst the gnomes and dreamed of metempsychosis. He remembered the feeling of loss and hopelessness, rising unbidden when he first learned of her death and the communal sense of funerary anguish which gripped him for a moment but it was only fleeting. Now is it done and taken care of. His hands were tired his feet ached from work but he would not have to go back – not for now. He would be reborn soon now. Any day.
That last day, he achieves nirvana. Standing amongst the labyrinthine stacks, knowing that it will end and that he will pass from this place and be forgotten is not so horrible. He has left no identifying mark except the scribble of letters and numbers on boxes soon to be recycled and his handwriting is not so different from anyone else’s as to be truly distinguishable.
There, scrawling across the boxes he has a revelation and yet no sooner is it grasped than the bell chimes and he staggers outside into the heady thickness of the southern summer. Time to go. Jacob Foster has no desire to be bound by the past.
His tired hands fumbled for a cigarette and he realized he needed plans.
Two weeks in Eric’s house and he begins to feel unwelcome. He has never been good at asking for things. Even as a child. With a shaking hand he dials Rajiv Sansotta’s phone number. Just fucking ask.
-Fire, Jacob Foster intones with the mock power of ritual or BBC documentary, man’s greatest invention since God. The cigarette in Rajiv’s hand blossoms into life.
-Thanks for coming. He barely knew Rajiv Sansotta back then. Everything had a veneer of unfamiliarity, of possibility. They shared a bottle of whiskey in the twilight shadow, the boat rocking slightly beneath them. The slosh-crash of water is the only noise.
-Thanks for having me.
-Hey it gets boring out here if you don’t have someone to drink with, I think. Don’t worry about it. Sorry to hear about your grandmother. Were you close?
Jacob Foster does not recall his answer. He does not really recall the boat, which Rajiv’s father sold the following year in favor of a newer, shinier boat. Time spent with Rajiv Sansotta is a blur, a drunken whirlwind, never boring, never sane. He cannot recall so much of it, this best time of his life. Strange, that fact.