The Ancient Modern
I Tried Walking Off The Job / Joshua Alan Sturgill
Every day is filled with anxiety now, even the Sundays.
I stop and ask what’s happening?
But they say there’s no one here.
Are you the no one? I ask.
No one here, yet here we are: all of us with brooms in our hands and cigarettes in our mouths, sweeping up ash and butts from the sidewalks. Smoking and sweeping. Does that seem strange? Well at least we have jobs they tell me. Security, but no assurance. Cigarettes for free and minimum wage for keeping the sidewalks clean. Does anyone wonder why? No insurance, either. Aren’t cigarettes bad for our health? Of course. But sweeping is good exercise. That’s something they tell me.
Here’s the schedule: Morning: wake up early to stand in the cigarette line. Pack of cigarettes and a broom. Smoke and sweep until: lunch: 30 minutes. Eat fast, then: afternoon: sweep and smoke. Six days a week. Every day but Sunday. I used to think I liked Sundays, looked forward to them. But then I realized I didn’t like them once I was in them. Why? I asked myself. Why am I anxious on the one day I don’t have to do anything? I figured it out. I’m anxious on Sundays because I get jittery without my smokes and don’t know what to do without a schedule pressing on me. Before, I was fooling myself that I liked the day off, bragged to my coworkers about everything I was going to do. Until that one Sunday — I don’t know how or why it happened — I just exploded. I have nothing to think about I said out loud, what do I even like to do? And I had a whole sloppy, shaky fit of some kind and I found myself at the end of the day curled up in a ball under the kitchen table just staring at the dirty baseboards.
Not long after that, I tried walking off the job. Everyone was yelling and calling what are you doing? Where are you going? I dropped my broom smack on the ground and cussed something about the hell with this dead-end sweeping, and walked maybe an hour in some direction I didn’t know. Everywhere same people out sweeping every street. Same darkened faces looking down from the tinted windows of office buildings. Same trees at the same intervals. Sidewalks with the same clap, clap, clap feet hurrying up hurrying down. Same gray expressions on all the people. I rooted myself to a street corner and stood there with my hands on my hips like my mom used to do, waiting on our old front porch for me to come home when I was late for dinner. I stared into people’s eyes. I yelled out loud, dared them to come get me, just disgusted but not knowing what else to do. A few people looked startled, but only for a second. No one really seemed to notice.
Finally, I turn to the door of an office building behind me and jam a button on a key pad. A voice says some nonsense company name and can I help you?
Sure you can help me I yell back. What kind of hell have you stuck us in? What’s happening up there? I want to talk to someone in charge.
Please state the name of the person or department you’d like to contact says the voice.
Someone in charge I holler again, throwing my arms out in exasperation.
There’s no one here by that name comes the polite reply, please try again.
Too polite. Then it hits me. That’s right there’s no one there. It’s a computer. I said it’s a pretty convincing voice you’ve got. I was almost fooled. Are you a computer?
There’s no one here by that name. Please try again.
Are you a computer, computer? Can I talk to you?
No answer this time. So I just started talking. I think I talked into that speaker by the door ten whole minutes, whatever came into my head to say. But it never replied.
I guess you’re the no one I said.
I must have looked like an idiot talking to no better than a rock. Then the wind picked up and blew some cigarette ash around my shoes and I looked up into the glare of the afternoon sun trying to see through the tinted glass, and some kid walked past with a broom and didn’t seem to notice me without mine, like I didn’t exist without it. He puffed with the cigarette stuck to his lower lip while he swept, then stopped to shake some ash behind him, muttering to himself. Sweeping and talking to himself about something he was going to do when he was in charge.
I gave up on trying to peer through the office door and walked the hour back to my own street. My broom was laying right where I’d dropped it. Oh! We forgot you left! they laughed. Where’ve you been? I was going to tell them, but even before I could start, they had already forgotten they’d asked the question. They were on about cigarette brands and broom problems and what they were all going to do next Sunday.
Are you the no one? I asked again. But not loud enough for anyone to hear.