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FROM READERS: Reader shares short story, 'Marlboro Ned'

Tuesday, October 22, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

Zachary Pannell is a Columbia resident and an English major at Missouri Valley College. This is a short story he wrote about the dangers of unchecked ambition.

Marlboro Ned

On Tuesday, at 11 a.m., a young man is abruptly summoned from a deep state of rest by the trio of alarm clocks aligned on the TV dinner stand next to his couch. His face glows red from the light emitted by the digital clocks, each one blinking a digital, scarlet 11:00. He stares at the mechanisms without seeing them, in contemplation of the time remaining before his shift. His head sways from right to left with a condescending air and he lies back down to sleep.

Sometime later, he wakes up to his roommate’s voice, “You gonna sleep all day, dude?” The sleeper wakes, somersaulting to his feet, and starts changing into his work uniform, a Clark Kent to Superman transformation, meanwhile rummaging through his backpack and all crevices of the couch in search of some precious artifact.

“Hey bro, you got a lighter I can borrow?”

His roommate pulls one out of his pocket and hands it to him with a sarcastic remark about its unlikely return, and a “Hey don’t forget to ...” The words merely hit the back of his head as he ran down the hall. He stopped abruptly, remembering to grab the pack of smokes off the TV dinner stand. Finally, he walked out the door, off to work, already five minutes late for his shift.

He smokes a cigarette en-route to his job at the superstore, which was only two blocks away from his friend’s parent’s house, where he is a temporary tenant. It was a relatively cloudy day, and the grayish, purplish overcast sky paid no compliment to his paleness or his irritated sleep-deprived pupils fastened tightly within dark eye-sockets.

He parks at the back of the public parking lot to avoid any off-the-clock social interaction with his co-workers, who were soul-sucking wretches with the intention to disrupt his daily tasks by asking his assistance. As for the customers at the superstore, words cannot properly express the disdain he covets for their superfluous inquiries concerned with the whereabouts of a specific brand of cereal, soda, food, or cut of meat — which were easily located with some literacy and fair vision; above each aisle hangs a sign written in bold white font on dark blue with simple lexemes that state exactly which product was located in each aisle — as well as customer complaints about aged produce (he believed the produce to be chemically-altered and enhanced by the superstore prior to being stocked into their clever, old-fashioned street market baskets). Not to mention the special place in hell reserved for the customers bold enough to ask this particularly jovial, happy-to-be-of-your-service employee to help search for a title in the bin of five dollar movies, or anything in a department outside of his jurisdiction (which was strictly in the grocery department). He takes a deep breath out of his inhaler as if the chemicals were going to give him the nourishment needed to survive the six hours of superstore labor, then lights another cigarette and ascends the green mile with all deliberate speed to the automated entrance.

As the doors glide open, he takes another puff of his Marlboro Red, a kiss good-bye to his lover, which he flicks aside in a classic gumshoe fashion, and enters into the belly of the whale. It was the first of November. Christmas music would be playing 24/7 for the next six weeks.

The shift turned out to be as mundane as he expected. Periodically, he would refer to the clock on his phone to see how long he would have to wait before taking a cigarette break. Employees were allowed a thirty-minute lunch break, or they may split the lunch period into two fifteen-minute intervals during a shift of six hours or more. The latter presented itself to him as a prodigious execution of clock-management. This did not prevent him from sneaking a smoke or two while he was sent outside to unload pallets from the delivery truck.

In the short interval of his employment at the superstore, he had timed this operation perfectly in order to arrive within the same fifteen-minute window of time. It was Monday, so the truck was likely to arrive within the first five minutes of its ETA, and he would welcome its entrance into the back bay of the colossal building, usually midway into his second cigarette.

When he wasn’t anticipating the truck’s arrival, or dining with his fair nicotine during breaks, he was a productive worker, physically capable of transporting large pallets unassisted, and had a keen eye for organization when it came to stocking shelves. He excelled at practical tasks, and stocked the shelves tidier than any other employee. When his hands were idle, he would palm his lighter, a black Bic, full-sized, with the sticker halfway worn off by the friction of his thumb and forefinger. The lighter’s safety was still intact, which reminded him that it was not his own. He’ll buy a new one after work.

Following his shift, the young man strategically split the remnants of his bank account between fast food — he always ordered chicken when he ate out — and a pack of smokes. Feeling economical this evening, he ordered a burrito stuffed with chicken and rice from the value menu, and opted for a cup of water rather than his usual green highly-caffeinated soda. Instead of Marlboro Reds, he went with his gut on this one: Camel Turkish Wisdom. He had been smoking Reds for the past few weeks, and it was time to make a change for the better. Reds were unsympathetic to his asthma. He spent the remaining five minutes cleansing his lungs, violently conjuring phlegm from their depths. The Turkish Royal’s draw smooth; he was proud to sport them.

When he arrived back at the house, his roommate was in the garage prepping for his nightly ritual. Typically, he hastened to relieve himself of his work uniform upon reaching his lair. Oh, how he loathed wearing that borrowed, navy blue tee and the second-hand khakis he acquired at goodwill. But ever since his release from the clock, he had it in his mind that his day was too stressful and monotonous to adhere to the normal routine. He had worked hard. He had devoured his workload with an earnest, careful precision not unlike the slave-laboring hands that built the pyramids; stacking and aligning edible goods in their assigned positions under an array of infinite fluorescent suns for hours. Not only had he worked hard — that was an understatement — had he slaved? He had slaved!

While attempting sleep he noticed sounds that he had never heard before on records he had listened to hundreds of times. He remembered that he forgot to vote. He remembered a mandatory employee meeting he had to attend at 10:00 a.m. He remembered why he was disappointed in himself for not voting — the ballot featured a bill that would raise the cigarette tax; something he could not afford. He tossed and turned, frustrated and apathetic about the near future. Finally, he dreamt of his employment at the video rental store, where he was allowed to smoke inside. When the trifecta of alarms and flashing red lights roused him to consciousness, he believed it to be true and lay back in hopes of experiencing it again. Smoking. Feet propped on the counter. Leaning back in the office chair. Screening the new releases before their release date. Getting paid to do what he loved most. Ahh, what a dream it was.

At 1:43 p.m., the dreamer repeated his morning ritual. His roommate flicked the light on and he somersaulted from the couch to his feet in a panic to make it to his shift on time. He had been out of his “clock in late credits” for a month, and he could not afford to be fired. The meeting. The meeting! Damn. He had to think … he must … must come up with an excuse … one like he had never had before … he must … devise … no ... what was he thinking? He must minister a plan, an act, something that he could convince his unsympathetic boss to believe.

“Tell 'em your car broke down,” said the roommate with a laugh as he evaded the nervous catastrophe.

That’s it! The car broke down on the highway this morning and he was forced to walk over 10 miles back into town. He rehearsed this act in his head as he stomped up the street, smoking his last Turkish Royal. He left his car behind to confirm immobility. He clocked in at 2:01 p.m. Two envelopes were thrust into the cracks of his personal locker, the word URGENT printed on the outside. Inside the first envelope was a prompt about the meeting he had missed, which stated:

“EMPLOYEES NO LONGER ALLOWED TO SMOKE ON STORE PROPERTY.”

He read those words over and over, his jaw hanging dumbly with shock and awe. This was treachery. After a moment, he dropped the opened and unopened envelopes onto the white superstore tile and walked steadfast out of the building. He did not even clock out. He went to the gas station and angrily flung his change onto the counter. A pack of Decade cigarettes. Decade, groups of ten. Twenty camp fires for the nourishment of his body and soul. He would smoke them all until they were gone. Once outside, he searched his pockets for a lighter. Where was the flame? He pulled the fabric that made up his right pocket, his lighter pocket, and discovered a gaping hole in the fabric. The new cigarette tax meant he couldn’t afford a new lighter. He puts a smoke in his mouth anyway and stares at his reflection in the convenience store window, bewildered, distressed, and probably unemployed by now. For a moment, he considers quitting smoking. Saving up that extra money he would normally spend on cigarettes to go back to school and get a real job.

Someone taps him on the back. It’s his roommate.

“Hey man, need a light?”

This story is part of a section of the Missourian called From Readers, which is dedicated to your voices and your stories. We hope you’ll consider sharing. Here’s how. Supervising editor is Joy Mayer.


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