Larissa Loses Her Job (A Lament in Three Parts)
This story first appeared in the online literary journal BLOOD LOTUS.
Part 1: The Gumball Machine
I steal the gumball machine after I’m fired from the hardware store for being one employee too many, but it wasn’t one of those Kiwanis or Humane Society or Help Small Children with Cancer charity machines—I have morals, I have scruples, I don’t steal quarters meant for sick kittens—no, my boss bought the machine so he could stand by the register chomping gumballs and eyeing middle-aged women’s asses like the piece of shit he is. He shouldn't be working in a hardware store because he couldn’t tell a flat head screwdriver from a Phillips head and wouldn’t know a hex wrench if it bit him in the ass, he wouldn’t even know a hex wrench can’t bite him in the ass, but my ex-boyfriend was good with tools and taught me how to pick crappy locks with a few paper clips and a screwdriver. At eleven at night I drive to the hardware store and in five minutes I’m hefting that bubblegum machine into the trunk of my station wagon and waiting for newspaper headlines tomorrow morning. Stealing money doesn’t get attention anymore but stealing a bubblegum machine makes people sit up and say Hey, what the hell, because I left the cash register untouched, because this is a measure reserved for desperate times, because when the gum machines start disappearing, something is f*cking wrong with the universe. I heard about this guy in New York who got fired from a pet shop because he stole a shark, scooped it from the tank and hid it under his trenchcoat and walked back oh-so-casually to his apartment aquarium, and he is something that is f*cking wrong with the universe, so while I drive home from the store with the bubblegum machine in the back of my station wagon, I know I am not that crazy.
It takes seven minutes and another couple paperclips to get all the change out of the machine and buy myself bubblegum, so I sit in my apartment chewing all night, a jobless statistic with a bubblegum machine, and half of all store theft is by employees and I used to wonder how they could do it, but now I know they are like me, have piece of shit jobs and piece of shit wages and that colander in aisle three looks pretty good and so do a few cans of soup.
Gumballs are sweet for the first five minutes but they get hard and tough and rubbery, and a lot of things in life are like this--jobs and love and home repair projects—so I stick the used gum under my Salvation Army coffee table that’ll go back to the Salvation Army someday, and when I bought the table there was chewed gum underneath already so it’s a good place for my new gum to be. It’s eight in the morning, fifty gumballs chewed, and the people outside my apartment walk to and from jobs they do or do not have and I want to say f*ck you and drop my wad of gum out the window, but I don’t because the world is not their fault and I am not a bad person, but what will I do when I run out of gumballs, when the coffee table is three feet off the floor on this massive gum wad and I have no more quarters?
Part 2: Communing With the Virgin
Three days after I lose my job I decide everyone needs more miracles, so I dress up as Virgin Mary in a white head scarf and blue silky dress and yellow cardboard halo behind my head like a huge lemon drop, and I stand on the street corner, not speaking or holding signs because I don’t know what Mary would say if she were around, but I want people to go home and tell their husbands and wives and assorted domestic partners, Hey, guess what I saw on the street corner today, but even miracles need a bathroom break, so I duck into this coffee shop. People assume the Virgin never had to take a leak, because I come out of the restroom and these two ladies gape like I’m a sacrilege and I smile beneficently since people see Jesus and Mary everywhere—camouflaged on moth wings in Texas, fried into French toast in Florida, blessing newly washed windows in Alabama—so you’d think the general public would be used to it by now.
I return to my street corner and dispense miracles: some people sneer, some ask for prayers, some give me quarters so I buy coffee, stand in line behind women with briefcases and men with bad ties and the coffee shop guy tries to hit on me after I order four cups of the house blend:
So I hear you’re a virgin, he says.
Go to hell, I say, then I get my four coffees and find homeless people to share them with because I’m thinking What would Mary do. I sit with the homeless people on a bench in the park: the schizo man who lost his job because he wouldn’t take his meds and says angels and devils give him lotto numbers, the teenage kid who ran away from home because he’s gay and his parents can’t deal, the middle-aged woman who divorced her husband, lost her job and her apartment, and salvaged just enough pride not to call her friends and ask for help. I give them all coffee and say that I love them. I ask if there is anything they want to be forgiven for and they say no, and since I’m in a forgiving mood I forgive myself in reverse chronological order for stealing the bubblegum machine and cheating on my last boyfriend and what happened on the way to my dental appointment five years ago. While driving to my six-month checkup the car in front of me was going slow and I hate being late, so I sped up to pass and hit the row of ducks in the other lane--a mama duck and her five baby ducks—I counted them, there was enough time to do that but not enough time to hit the brakes, and I felt the sick thump but I had to keep driving, I had an appointment to keep.
I haven’t thought of the ducks in a long time, start crying in my coffee, but the homeless people comfort me, give me clean paper napkins for my eyes, It’s okay, they say, you didn’t know, they say, we forgive you. My lemon drop halo is wilting so I straighten it and thank them and return to the street corner where people need miracles and give me quarters for them.
Part 3: Revised Standard Mortality Rates
A week of unemployment and I have no money, no job, no calls on my voice mail, and I ask what reason there is to go on living because research studies show that everything will kill me: chemicals in water, mercury in fish, grilled meats, potato chips, too much sugar, too much alcohol, too many pesticides, and the constant stress of worrying that everything will kill me. The next step is easy, why not speed up the process, so I visit this office on Main Street, the Association of Dead People. A short black-haired man sits behind the desk, but seems too animated to be dead.
I want to join, I say.
Who decided you were dead? he asks.
Me, I say.
He says it’s not that easy, death is a matter of paperwork glitches and filing snafus, the association helps people prove they’re alive.
You have no idea how hard it is, he says.
You look alive to me, I say.
Biologically yes, he says, technically no.
Go dance on someone’s desk, I say, make them give you a life certificate.
He shakes his head, tells me he’s tried to prove his life status by running for office, filing lawsuits, and getting arrested.
Nothing has worked, he says, I am officially dead.
Is it worth the hassle to prove you're conscious? I say. Death has benefits. You can still vote in urban areas. You don’t have to get up early in the morning.
He leads me to a conference room full of the technically dead, a support group. We drink coffee with powdered creamer, eat day-old donuts, and everyone explains where they are in their paperwork, the next steps they must take to be acknowledged. I expect their hands will go through mine when we shake, but they don’t.
I want to be dead, I say, how do you manage it?
I think the secret is not breathing for a long time, says the woman beside me, but I’ve never tried it.
I sip my coffee and think of George Washington who feared being buried alive because back then doctors sometimes missed life signs and lowered false corpses into graves, but there are many ways I am buried alive: health insurance claims, credit card bills, forms to show I have no job, all these mounds of paper cascading over my body, a figurative death or death by figures, and this room full of un-dead dead is another place of waiting, like the line in the emergency room, like the line at the unemployment office, like the line panhandling across the bridge, everyone wanting to be named instead of counted, wanting to be looked in the eye and told Congratulations, you’re alive.