Paper or Plastic?

Cycling down, compressing, Ronald watches as the arms and legs hanging outside the machine snap off like muted branches.  Thick and bleeding, they fall to the concrete floor, no longer a part of what once made them whole.  Occasionally—perhaps one in five—these appendages roll towards him, but most times they do not.  Inert, they remain still about his feet, pooling, each piece preceded only by the dull thud its weight creates against the floor.  It is Sunday, pre-church, and before the morning rush.

Does he care that they make fun of him?  Yes.  More than they could know.  Does Ronald show it?  Never—not once.  He is good at this; at holding things in.   He lets them stew, boil.   That is how he cooks; how the man inside him rolls.  In the mirror, naked, he repeats:  I am rage. 

At sixteen he is hit by a car.  It hurts, but he survives.   Scars come, many, and every day he limps because of it.   So what, he thinks.  It beats the hell out of being dead.  Dead can’t bring closure.  Dead could not extract revenge.  His right hand turns inward as well, up and towards his chest.  It resembles a claw, but one which has lost the will to live.  Chicks never look at it, not if it can be helped. 

At least I survived.

He says this whenever an associate asks.  And he says it with a smile on his face each and every time.  He believes it keeps them humble, the ones he secretly despised.  They think he never hears their whispers; that he could ever possibly know.  Each of them is wrong; all of them his rage.

Mr. Gray keeps him on at Mister Food even though Corporate doesn’t want him to.  Ronald gives the man credit for that.  He really, truly does.  Mr. Gray—tall, bald, bad breath—shouldn’t have done what he did though, and only because of what it would produce.  He should have given Ronald severance; just ensure he went away.  He did not however, and soon enough Ronald finds out that Mr. Gray is no better than the rest of the people behind his back.  He never yells at Ronald, nothing as vulgar as that.  But he whispers along with the rest of them, and at times Ronald would see him laugh.

The final straw involves the baler, and the day Mr. Gray takes him aside.  Mr. Gray says it is only meant to house cardboard and plastic—that only a bale of each could be made at a time.  Ronald says he understands; that it hadn’t been he who mixed the two.  It was then Mr. Gray chooses to call him a liar, and his voice, had it been raised?  Ronald can’t remember, only that his fellow employees have stopped in their tracks to stare.  One of them had been Cara, a girl Ronald wished he could call his own.  She would never fuck him though, and he was happy he held no delusions concerning that.

  “And Ronald, really, you need to be washing your uniform more than once a week.”  Ronald nods, takes what has been given, and then watches Mr. Gray walk away.  From the side he sees him roll his eyes as he passes Patrick, Bill and Mark.  They smile in return, the secret shared and understood.  The rage comes forward then, leaping, but Ronald smiles instead, his big grin containing what will no longer be contained.  Later, while masturbating, the staff meeting at the end of the month enters Ronald’s mind.  They are always held out back, where Mister Food keeps all its excess stock.  Mr. Gray purchases folding chairs and everyone gets a seat.  Beside these seats looms the baler, metal and brown, stickered and wide.  Plastic and cardboard Mr. Gray had said, saying it as though Ronald were new; that he hadn’t been an active member of the Mister Food Team for the past twelve years.   The baler produced rectangle kids after you fed its mouth and the plunger pushed down until it no longer could.  After that came the twine, six lengths of rope you tied off in order to hold the child you created in place.  Ronald was far from wondering about cardboard and plastic as he spasmed into his hand.  He was thinking about bodies; about stacking them high.  Could it be done, he thought, and realized he had been talking out loud.

“Mr. Gray?”

“What is it now Ronald?”

“At the staff meeting—could I be in charge of the refreshments?”  Pausing, Mr. Gray finally swivels in his chair.  “Of course you can,” he says.  Ronald notices that Mr. Gray is more than enthused that he has offered to do this.  Good for me, Ronald thinks—everyone needs a little happiness in their lives.

The dosage is enough, more than, and all but Florence had taken a glass.  It doesn’t take much to persuade her however, not once Ronald puts the full force of his limp on display.  She takes the glass, sips—comments on how peachy it tastes.  Thirty minutes later all thirty-seven employees lay prone before him.  Where to begin, he thinks, and suddenly he notices how hard his breath has become; how hard his heart is now knocking against his chest.  “I am Rage,”  he says and looks around, taking each of them in at a time.  I will be stacking you, he thinks, and then goes on towards Mr. Gray.  In time—stupid fucking hand—he gets the big man up, rolling him up and over the baler’s bottom lip.  Easier, he takes the cashiers next, each of them half the weight of Mr. Gray.  Eleven of them inside, Ronald closes the safety gate and then pushes the big green button on the side of the machine.  With a start and then a screech, the plunger descends, crushing breath and bone alike.  They never wake, not one of them.  They only bleed, forming a lake like syrup to which Ronald sees no end.

  The buggie boys come next, followed by the Stationary Department.  Of them all, Sheila the office girl proves the most difficult.  Over three hundred pounds, she is more than he can lift.  Using empty milk crates, Ronald creates the leverage he believes he will need.  In, she sinks half way down, her face coming to rest beside George from Frozen Food.  Amanda is beside them, her brain exposed and grey.  Done, he looks around at the empty chairs, at the skids full of overstock beyond.  He takes in the blood that continues to seep from the bottom of the baler and arms and legs that rest within.  Should I leave them, he thinks, but knows a job is not complete until you have cleaned up after yourself.

He makes a bale using twine that will never again be white.  It does not turn out as he had hoped, not as rectangular, nor as solidly built.

From skin that runs in flaps to muscle that hangs and drips, Ronald stands in front of the baler’s open door, squints into the chamber for all the faces he can still make out.  There is Stacy and Beth, both of them covered in Shawn.  Below them he sees Richard, the man finally inside Peggy-Sue.   And there at the bottom lay Mr. Gray, his bright eyes now dull, his nose below his mouth.  They would not be laughing anymore, nor would their whispers continue to come.

Washing up, Ronald changes into his extra uniform.  He then goes out and fills the milk.  He rotates the product as he’s been taught, finds that the person before him has not.  He sighs when he finds this; dejected to see that someone had not been doing their job as they were supposed to.  Finished, he takes his empty crates out back and piles them away.  He stacks the chairs as well, the ones Mr. Gray had rented for the day.  Making his way up front, he realizes he has lost track of time; that the customers have been waiting longer than they should, many of them now tapping their keys against the glass.  Opening the doors, they look at him weird, like they have never experienced rage before.  Have I missed some blood, he asks himself, and then he looks to his one good hand.  Seeing nothing, he welcomes them in; informs them that the cashiers will be up front shortly.  The customers smile in response to this, but Ronald feels that something is off.  He doesn’t know what, only that it is there.   The customers do not whisper however, nor do they laugh.

By Beau Johnson

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