Proof of Your Labor

Joe Scott

Your wife will call and give you an ultimatum. The melodrama will revolve around “why.” Of course, your answers “It’s for you” and “It’s for us” aren’t good enough, because then there’s “how.” No, it’s time to quit. Time to move on. Time to live together again. She’ll give you three days to come to her in the city. But then, ultimatum unfulfilled, she will leave you (hasn’t she already left?). You will miss that arm at night which feels like your seat belt. You’ll miss the sticky notes on the mirror that say things like, “This does not reflect your worth or who you are,” and you know there’s more to miss but it’s hard to think of because what’s missing the most is something intangible and unnamable by you. You won’t, however, miss her name, because it will be on your lips always. It’ll hurt to say, but you’ll be addicted to it. You’ll say it in the mirror at your face which grows uglier by the day. You’ll say it in the middle of a bowl of cereal and let it cut through the room like a shout through a crowd—your thoughts. You can’t know if she will do this too.

What you’re doing is working to keep your home. You don’t see this as a choice. You’re staying in your neighborhood despite evacuation after condemnation by the New Socialist Order (new legislation has reigned in the sprawling cities and evacuated the suburbs). You’ve never been more alone.

Day 1 with the ultimatum: you go to a bar at the edge of the grid. Wind slaps the windows with dust. Low music that you think you might recognize seems to come up from the floor: a song that might’ve meant something to you one time on a road trip or with a girl but now it’s just noise wafting below your memory.

You shout to a guy four stools away, only other guy here (what is today, Monday?), doesn’t she know you’re doing this shit for her? That fucking bitch! And God it feels good to say that tonight. Fucking bitch.
The guy spins out of his stool and approaches. He smiles as wide as a man can without showing teeth. He takes the stool next to you. And you dread for a moment the camaraderie that you’ll have to feign with a guy like this: Khaki slacks, tucked shirt, a decidedly plain middle-aged man but unshaven, foul-smelling, and ringed. A married guy who hates his wife. He’ll tell stories about great accomplishments at his job, what a great provider he is, but the details are dull and you don’t give a shit. His accomplishments are nothing to you. You’ll do four shots with this guy. Then you’ll be in the middle of a glorious rant about your wife when he will blithely interrupt you.

“You see this shit?” the man says. He drops his hand on the bar making a wet slap. He sloshes it back and forth. “All fucking wet.”

Your rant lost, you shake your head and sigh, “The fucking cunt.”

Then the guy leaves, after a handshake and, “See you around, guy, for sure,” because he didn’t bother to remember your name.

The music, you notice now, is something painfully familiar with a plain hook and plain rock and roll drums. All memories associated with it are melted together into something indistinguishable from the melody of the song itself—a tune you’ll hum tomorrow and the next day and you’ll occasionally stop to say stupid fucking song.

The bartender comes and stands across from you. He washes glasses, waiting to see if you’re ready to tab out. He seems to be staring you out of the place, but you set that aside. You can’t help but see if he’ll take up your conversation. You speak low, understanding that he might think little of you for those words he surely overheard. You say something like how can you do something for a cunt that doesn’t even want nothing done for her? Only you didn’t say the C-word this time. You didn’t even say the B-word. You said “anybody.”

This bartender might as well be the one to tell you, and he ought to lean close to your face when he does, it’s just an existential crisis. You have lost purpose in life because of the jarring event of losing your home. You are far from unique in this moment as more than half of the country is experiencing the same jarring event, and handfuls of them are reacting exactly like you. You are a miserable, whiny asshole, the bartender ought to say, get over yourself.

But he says, “Doesn’t matter why or for who.”

Then he meets your eyes and says, “Real men finish what they start.”

When you order another shot, he gives it to you on the house. Your stomach rejects this one. Your mouth pools with saliva, but you choke it back.

Walking home through dark corridors of privacy fences, you try to forget the man who’d sat with you at the bar. You try to forget his face, but how does a person try to forget something, anything? You wish you could at least forget his name, but it’s La’Leet. You will never forget La’Leet. Repetition in your head of the conversation with La’Leet will keep you company on walks like this whether you like it or not.

In the coming months, bandits will come through your neighborhood a few times. In the grid, they’re called willing criminals. Only out here do they get to be bandits.

The first couple times, they’ll ask which houses you’d fight them over, and you’ll tell them only yours. They’ll respect that and avoid the fight. The rest of the times, one’ll keep you still with the threat of a gun or a knife while another searches your place. Eventually they’ll stop coming. You’ll remember the last one, the cries of a woman hopelessly searching through your empty house. She yelled at various times, “fuck this shit,” “this shit is worthless,” and “who the fuck lives like this.” Another woman stood over you whispering, “Don’t make me get my gun, don’t make me,” but she never showed it to you. You’ll remember the kick they each gave you in the ribs before stepping over you and going back to their nondescript van. You won’t remember, though, thinking for weeks that you’d broken a rib. And you won’t remember that feeling of watching a nondescript van cruise through a ghost town. It’ll all fade, and La’Leet will still keep you company.

Your house empties of furniture, electronics, and mirrors. Every step through it gets louder and hollower.

You’ve sat on the floorboards of what used to be your bedroom and watched the light from the window crawl up the wall. You think she made you who you are, your identities were intertwined, and then to La’Leet, that bitch.

You’ve paced from room to room trying to remember something that made you happy. You think identity is a made up concept that you can do without. Happiness is a made up concept that you can do without. Then to La’Leet, that horrible bitch was the only thing that mattered in your life.

You’ve sat cross-legged in the middle of the road in broad daylight with pen and paper mapping out the whys of who you are and the whys of not chasing your wife. At a pause in writing: Why does a man need love? Why does a man need all this time to think? You press the pen harder, then harder, and a scribble shreds the page.

Fifty odd days after your wife’s ultimatum (she’s moved on, right?), you sit on your roof and watch a storm cloud that’s about to sweep over the neighborhood. Fifty odd days of working on this house—you’ve been working, remember—your back is destroyed and your leg is burnt from ankle to thigh. Fifty odd days of work and your collarbone is broken, arm resting in a sling that you made yourself. Fifty odd days of work and all you can think about now is this storm breaking through the edge of a hot and muggy midsummer’s day.

The wind at the front of the anvil cloud kicks up a haze of dust obscuring the city skyline, but your street looks the same as ever. You know that all the yards are overrun with weeds, but from here, despite fifty odd days of neglect, they’re as green as ever. You think of color-by-numbers, black lines separating 1s: “Grass Green,” 2s: “Road Black,” 3s: “House White,” and 4s: “Big Sky Blue.” The storm is wet ink spilling across the page.

A white van drives up your street. The windows are caked with dust. The wipers have made two little spots to see through, but you can’t see anything through them. It parks in front of your mailbox.

A woman gets out of the passenger seat. She wears baggy sweat pants and a hoody. You can see from here that, through much effort of hair and makeup, she is strikingly beautiful. Right now a hundred various assumptions of why she might be here are simultaneously true. Color number 5, human: “Tan.”

She shouts, “You wanna be on TV?”

It takes you a good ten minutes to get down the ladder one handed with a bad back. The woman waits patiently. As you approach she asks if you’re agreeing to an interview. You stop. The haze under the storm seems to swirl above her head and above the rooftops and trees. You still haven’t felt the air pressure shift or the temperature drop.

“You’re doing an interview,” the woman says and walks around to the other side of the van.

You hear a door slide open.

You call after her, “You know it’s going to storm?”

The woman doesn’t respond. She’s gone, it seems.

Another woman pops out of the back of the van, similar hair, similar clothes, but no makeup. She carries a camera and tripod. “Nah,” this woman says, “Supposed to graze the city and blow up more south.”

She walks the camera around the yard looking at things through it: your door, weeds in the yard, your view of the street (long and empty). Casually walking near you, she stops. She says sorry for the bitch being pushy, but they’re both tired and this is their last shit to do today. “Seriously, if you don’t wanna get interviewed, we’ll find another guy. But just do it, alright, please?”

The first woman reveals herself in reporter clothes: suit jacket, skirt (tight).

The camera is secured on the tripod, and the camerawoman says, “Now.”

Before the reporter asks you any questions she explains to the camera what you’re doing. What you’re doing is taking part in the movement that’s sweeping the nation to renovate and save the homes and lifestyles of lower-middle class suburbia. You’re a player in a political uprising against the New Socialist Order. She asks you, why did you choose to be a part of this revolution?

Well, you didn’t know there was a movement or an uprising or whatever.

A revolution.

Sure, that.

Well, then the question is even more pressing, why are you doing this?

“Yeah,” you say to the ground, “the question never changes.” Of course this must be perplexing, but you turn it into something funny explaining that your wife asked you the same question before she left, and there was no answer good enough for her. You can’t recall exactly what she said, but it seems funny now because you’re laughing, aren’t you?

The reporter laughs with you. She tells you to try her. Maybe she can be a little more lenient than the ol’ wife.

You say, “Um…” and “Well, I…” and “It’s uh…”

Since you came down the ladder, the concept hasn’t eluded you that whatever you say to this reporter will become a stone. Your thoughts which have grown large and vague (after fifty odd days of thinking) will crystallize into a sound bite for TV audiences, for your wife if maybe she’ll watch (you can’t know), and for you. You think that somehow if your view of the world can grow big enough and wild enough you can find clarity in the center of it all, but here you must find that clarity now.

“Maybe I can’t do this,” you say.

The reporter flashes a look to the camerawoman. She pulls the mic back. “Of course,” she says, “You must be distraught over an entire life lost.” She’s speaking slowly. She’s pausing a lot. “And maybe,” she says, “Even a wife lost. It’s so much hurt for one man to bear. But all this hurting has to be for a cause, right?”

And back to you.

“Yeah,” you say. You find yourself almost crying now, because doesn’t it hurt? Isn’t your wife gone? When was the last time you said her name? Are you still doing that?

Wind rips down the street. Sand skitters across the road. It scratches at the burn on your leg. The reporter’s hair, for a moment, flies up and engulfs her face. With a whip of her head, it flows around into a stream. The temperature has dropped, and the sweat on your face seems to freeze.

The camera woman holds firm onto the tripod as if she expected this all along. The reporter seems to say with her eyes, “Hurry the fuck up you whiny bitch. Tell us who you are.”

You say then exactly why you’re doing this in the stupidest, truest single sentence there is, “I suppose it’s the way I was brought up.”

You realize it has everything to do with your mom passing away, but you don’t say that. You realize it has everything to do with your father pushing you toward a career as a mechanical engineer and your feeling of failure when you became a plumber, but there’s no need to go on. All the movies you’ve ever seen and all the books you’ve ever read have trained you for this epiphany. Its significance seems like the peak of your life.

The reporter makes every indication that your answer is satisfactory. Then she signs off. She says, “Now we’ll be rushing back to the city for shelter.” Then she asks, “Any chance a storm like this can pull you to the city?”

“I don’t know,” you say. “It might.”

You won’t ever be with your wife again. It’ll take years to realize this.

Day 1 after ultimatum missed: You can’t make yourself get out of bed. It feels like that day after the bar, hungover, the words “real men finish what they start” pouring out of your mind and flooding the empty streets. The future is dark, because you already know what you’re going to do.

What you’re doing is improving the land, making this neighborhood comply with the new standards. Isn’t this intrinsically pure and valuable labor? You have three things to get done to comply. You need renewable electricity. You need mass transit. And you need water that’s safe to drink.

Day 2 after ultimatum: you hum a generic rock song which fills you with optimism. Your garage is its own village of clutter and garbage, an educational miniature on life before the New Socialist Order. Somewhere in the refuse of your nascent and now dead identity as a family man there has to be something useful.

Standing between some dusty ten gallon buckets stuffed with jumbles of plastic tubes (you thought you’d get into home-brewing when you first got married) and a seldom used Bowflex, the bartender’s words come back to you again. That drunken night, you came home and cried through sets of leg presses, but in sobriety you can file his advice under typical shit men say about being men. Really it’s just an ideal that can only be met consistently by a machine: always complete task.

You sort the buckets and tubing out on the driveway. From the set, the heating drum is missing.

You swim into the mess. You topple boxes and unleash deepening musty odors. Your leg catches on the metal corner of something, ripping your khaki pants. By sunset you have the metal drum and a slightly shifted mess of junk.

As the new darkness of the land outside the grid covers you, you find yourself stopping and responding to your own humming, “Stupid fucking song.” Can’t you think of anything else to sing? Your wife is leaving you now. Can’t you have a sad song stuck in your head? No. Only this. And you hum.

At a corner of your house you pry out the bottom leg of a gutter drain pipe. Now there’s a concrete drainage canal in the way. You bend down and work your fingers into the dirt under it and you heave. It’s not budging. A spot on your back pops, and pain shoots through you. You’ve pulled something. You bend down at your knees and twist away from the pain and heave again. Now the block dislodges like a tooth being pulled. A thousand beetles, wet and gleaming, writhe and retreat into the grass. You put the drum here.

You place the other buckets at the other drain pipes.

Next rain, you’ll light a fire and try your water purification system (beer brewing) for the first time. Through a kerosene spill and intermittent gusts of wind, your pant leg catches fire. The heat twists up your body. The smell of burning hair will be unforgettable. You stop, drop, and roll in the wet lawn. The skin will peel. At the edges of the mark, you’ll pop pockets of pus. And the water system will work so long as it rains. You can make it out here.

If you ever meet your wife again, she’ll reel at the burn. As you try to explain how it happened, she’ll plug her ears and say, “Stop, stop.” It’s just too gruesome.

Next: power.

You think you have the means to build wind generators until the bandits roll through. They leave your water system (“What is this gunky shit?”), and they never find your tools which you’re good about hiding in the overgrowth in your backyard, but they’ve taken all the planks of your fence, turning your backyard into just a field, opening your view to the road reaching out to the next abandoned county. Not even the last few groups of bandits are desperate enough to comb through the rough in those fields.

So you venture into the city in order to purchase solar panels.

You sit in a McDonald’s and use a computer in the PlayPlace to make your online order. The cost will be most of what’s left in your accounts. Children crawl through the towering maze of tubes. Parents yell at them to play nice or to come out and finish their food. You click “confirm transaction” on a screen, and all your savings are reduced to dust.

You have them shipped to the bar at the edge of the grid because your house isn’t an address anymore.

The bartender holds them for you. When he sees you, he stares at you. He says, “I knew you were a real man.”

What do you say to him? You’d almost quit, you want to tell him. You wandered the neighborhood without working. You wallowed in anxiety over those heady questions of self-worth and identity. A bandit kicked you in the ribs. Through the abject darkness of a moonless night outside the grid, you walked toward the light-bubble that is the city. You would drink yourself into a stupor and call your wife. You would think you needed her, but you’d also need to tell her how you felt, call her a bitch and stuff. La’Leet in your head egged you on. Then, out of the darkness, a pool of asphalt came into shape. You were at the end of a cul-de-sac. You’d made a wrong turn, but you didn’t backtrack. You climbed four wrought iron fences, carefully placing your foot between the spikes at the top and hopping free without using your hands. Then you were lost. The faces of empty houses laughed at you. You broke into a random one and slept on the floor. But what do you say now, real man?

The bartender is nodding across his empty bar, his words hanging in the air.

“Yeah?” you say, as if you’re challenging the words.

He’s unsure what to do for a moment. He shrugs and busies himself with dishes.

You lift one of the panels on one side and let it flop to the floor, blowing dust in a fwoom of air.

You come back with rope and a cushion.

You fasten the rope to the panel making a basket around one end and a loop hanging off the other. You place the pillow across your chest, and as you stand the loop of rope pins the pillow to you. The panel hangs at your back.

There is no avoiding the knife that’s stuck in your back. The pulled muscle throbs. You stop to break at the end of every block, but the pain seems worse in resting. Your clothes are drenched in sweat. You remove your slacks and wear only your boxers for trip after trip between the bar and your house. After a while, you feel the irritated skin of your burn being cooked by the sun. It crinkles and bubbles.

In the light just before sunset, all the panels lay in your yard. You know that if you stop, your back pain will take over. You’ll be bedridden for days. No, you trudge out through your backyard searching for the incongruity in the rough, your ladder. It’s not there. The dandelions have covered it completely. You drag your feet out toward the wilderness beyond where your fence used to be. Clouds of white dandelion seeds break free at your legs and wisp away into the breeze. You finally stop with the clang of metal at your toe. You don’t know how far you would’ve walked had you missed it.

The ladder is wobbly at first, but with your weight plus one solar panel, it’s nailed to the earth. At the top, you’re afraid to make the last step. You stare at your left foot. Out, make sure you’re going to clear the rung, up, and step. The right foot follows easily. You go forward, and suddenly the ladder takes off, un-nailed and now pivoting against the gutter. Your stomach drops, your balls rise, and your eyes retreat into your head. You’ve collapsed flat onto the roof. The ladder clangs back into position.

With every remaining panel, you risk the same maneuver, and you succeed, flopping against the shingles, catching yourself in a push up position. Would your wife hug you for making it or scold you for being so risky? You can’t know. If you ever meet her again, you’ll tell the story without the dangerous part.

For today, you nail the panels down as a temporary fix.

If anyone still lived in this neighborhood, they wouldn’t notice these things ever, or at least they wouldn’t mention them, because how many people in this neighborhood did you actually talk to?

Tonight you lay under the stars. The pains from your back and leg keep you from sleeping, and so you just stare up, wrapped in a silence you’ve never known before. The hiss of cars doesn’t reach your neighborhood anymore. There are no occasional motor cycles ripping across the countryside. You are alone with your thoughts. Even La’Leet does not keep you company. You remember his name, but his face and his words are vague now. They are part of a nebulous mass of thought that reaches to fill your whole neighborhood. It reaches for the twilight. Out there, the thoughts are quiet.

In the morning you’ll break your collarbone when you’re on your way to piss in the backyard and you trip. Just like that, the stupidest thing. And what modesty brought you to the backyard in the first place? You were thinking too hard? You’ll remember from your wife breaking her collarbone that a doctor can do nothing but give you a sling, and so you make one.

Arm in sling, you’ll move on to solving transportation. You’ll sit in government waiting rooms with forms of request to reopen a railroad line that runs through your neighborhood. You’ll sit like an old man as you hunch in straight-backed, wood benches. You’ll stare at this one poster for hours, a photo of a neighborhood much like yours. It’s gray and flat and hideous. The houses extend past every edge of the frame and seem to go on forever. The new government message is simple enough: this is the ugly reality of improving the land.

You adjust your position as the pain seems to increase constantly. Each movement tugs at the break. You had no idea how integral this bone was to every little motion.

When you’re finally let in, you sit in another wood seat across a wood desk from a councilwoman in an ergonomic black mesh chair that rocks slightly as she stares steadily at you. She has tightly cropped, gray mom-hair. You deliver your forms and summarize their contents, neighborhood size and location, cost estimate of reopening the line, nothing about improvements already made (To what? A single house?). She places the forms in a tray on the desk. She tells you that she’ll bring your request before the board.

That’s it.

You hobble home.

You wander aimlessly through your ghost town drinking warm, murky beer. For days you’ll do this. If waiting is your task now, you can do that. You’ll walk along the unused railroad, a scar in the land that cuts triangles through square lots. And every day you’ll stand out on your street and stare up at the solar panels. They are like a secret, though, just a part of your thoughts now. On the day that you see a storm on the horizon, you’ll decide to watch it roll in from your roof. Sitting with your panels, you’ll feel this moment to be the peak of your life. You have done no greater thing, and you never will. You don’t even want to.

When the van leaves and the rain finally sweeps over your street, you will believe you finally have a choice, and the choice is simple. The solar panels will hold through the storm. Somewhere in a government office, a councilperson will actually consider your request. But with your epiphany of identity, you don’t care. Under the beating of the rain you’ll say it: “Cecilia.”

Author Portrait

Joe Scott was born in Wichita, Kansas. He currently lives in Seattle, Washington. His fiction has appeared in ArcadiaThe Adroit ReviewShort, Fast & Deadly, and Midwest Literary Magazine. He is working on a collection titled, That Dystopia You Won't Shut Up About.