Art by Felix Beaudry
The morning crew trickled in just before five. Drowsy eyes, long commutes behind them. They were a quiet bunch, James, Ruby, Cyrus, Marques, Aisha. Kev coaxed only muted greetings from them as they slid off their damp parkas and peacoats. Locker door hinges squeaked, combination locks clicked shut, wet soles screeched across the epoxy-coated concrete toward the time clock. One by one, they punched in their numbers, the chorus of bleeps like a tuneless video game score. So many sounds, but not one of them chatter.
In the stockroom, they lined up on either side of the laminate folding table, wielding box cutters, slicing through packing tape and box tops. They dumped out the plastic-wrapped contents, stripped them of their packaging, folded them, and separated them by garment type and SKU. Modal sweaters, distressed denim, boxer briefs. Later, when the sea of cardboard had diminished, they’d transfer the units to the bays, braving twelve-foot platform ladders to put each item in its rightful place, only to have their pristine piles swept onto squeaky carts and wheeled to the sales floor, the visual staff rushing about, pretending to make autonomous creative decisions but only executing the same merchandising direction as thousands of other visual teams with the same clothes, the same fixtures, the same belief that all of it meant something. Then the managers would analyze reports and it would all move again.
None of it showed the real work: the black mornings, the dim stockroom, the ripping, the tearing, the slicing, the unpackaging, the stacking, the ordering. Precision that stayed hidden behind doors labeled “employees only,” where the small group was a hive, buzzing about, each action frenzied but choreographed in the dull honey light of the fluorescent bulbs above.
Kev looked on in admiration, proud to oversee such efficient laboring. Running his finger along the day’s schedule, however, he realized one bee was missing. Arnold often crept in after the shift had begun. Kev found him at a table in the breakroom, head down, nuzzled in the crook of his folded arm.
“You giving us a head start?” Kev asked, attempting lightness.
Arnold sat up then, revealing the crimson tracks along his neck, fresh blood glistening in the slits. The flesh on his knuckles was gnarled, open. There were pregnant circles under his bloodshot eyes, dark with missed slumber. He’d battled something, most likely someone. Kev shivered, imagining Arnold’s “old lady,” Regina, on the receiving end yet again, her face contused, her body wounded.
“Give me a few minutes, man,” Arnold said. A directive, not a plea.
There was a scar just behind Arnold’s ear, a dark pink keloid that curved around under his cheekbone. Arnold said he’d had it most of his life; one of his mother’s boyfriends had thrown a bottle at him. Kev felt for him, that someone had wanted to hurt him. Arnold had been a boy once; all boys needed love and never stopped needing it, even after they became damaged men. Or at least it had been comforting to think so. Kev had willingly been naive about Arnold in the hopes that he’d become a little less naive about living.
But now it was clear Arnold was in no condition to work, and Kev was in charge.
“But, like, are you good to work?” Kev asked, trying and failing to sound more forceful. “You don’t seem okay.”
“If I couldn’t work, I wouldn’t be here. Why you all up in my shit all of a sudden?”
Kev hesitated a moment, unsure of how best to tread.
“I’m just doing my job, Arnold. I hope you know that.”
“Yeah. Always doing your job.”
Arnold rose from his seat. He pulled off his hoodie and scrunched it into his locker. His fitted undershirt rose and fell with his twitchy movements. Kev caught a flash of the pale ivory skin on the small of Arnold’s back, a brief reminder of the softness he’d seen within him. Then Arnold brushed past, knocking his shoulder into Kev’s. Kev stumbled back briefly, stunned. Arnold showed no concern, proceeding to clock in.
With Arnold, Kev had tiptoed along the line of decency, been too lenient. It was impractical for the men to coexist as subordinate and boss when, off the premises, they were alpha and beta. There’d been whispers amongst the other stock associates, allegations of special treatment. Kev’s superiors had warned against entanglement with Arnold. They feared his leadership ability would be compromised.
The two men’s connection made little sense to outsiders. They were hired in the same class of recruits. Arnold was hardened, a rangy fellow with dark protruding eyes and a narrow chin. There was a severity to him, a sullen machismo circulating under his skin. By contrast, Kev was unremarkable. He was stout, bouncy tangles of his misshapen afro obscuring his forehead, uneven spots of stubble across his rounded cheeks, so as to appear soft and childlike, belying his seriousness.
They worked side by side the first week, digging into shipment boxes, learning what items went where, nodding along as DMX and Beenie Man blasted from a Bluetooth speaker. There was lots of banter, cajoling, a levity that jumped from mouth to mouth to counter the monotony of their work. But there’d be quiet, stolen moments, too. The team would be stationed at the processing table and someone would joke about one of the salespeople or something they’d seen on TikTok or a SportsCenter segment from the previous day. Arnold would look down but laugh along with everyone else, his hands maintaining pace. Once the group moved on to another topic, Arnold’s lips continued moving but made no sound. Kev could never make out what Arnold was mouthing in his private world.
The job was a stopgap for Kev. He spent his free time holed up in his Crown Heights studio programming drum patterns, recording and looping his untrained vocals, and posting the demos online. That was his path, but he never slacked off at work, approaching each task with ardor, enjoying its instant gratification. There were metrics, data, visual indicators of progress. Music was different. You invested hours, days, months, years, and yet no one else would appreciate it. In the stockroom, conversely, time didn’t only pass—there was a sense that he’d done something with it.
Arnold’s future was less defined. He was content to take home a paycheck. He was aware that stockwork could be a portal to something meaningful; he just didn’t seem to want more. He stepped into each day unsure of who he would be, and Kev admired this about him, the shapelessness of his life.
Kev had never known true risk, part of a family whose love language had been organization, his parents always swooping in to grab his hand before he touched the fire. Arnold’s existence made Kev question the muscle memory of predictability. He wanted to know the invigoration of staring down a life that was meant to be controlled. Arnold lived without the guardrails.
The rookie crew worked the most undesirable shifts. A hazing. They filled in the sales floor after the last customer had exited. They took in Friday night deliveries. Their happy hour fell close to midnight. After work, they’d storm nearby bars and lounges in Murray Hill, sweaty and spent, oddballs next to the finance types who swarmed the neighborhood. Others would peel off, but Arnold had staying power, downing shot after shot. The first drops of liquor would trickle into Arnold’s bloodstream. His resolve would melt and it would feel, for just a moment, that the gentler person inside him stepped out to see if the coast was clear. This was the best Arnold. There was a beauty, too, in being needed by a wild thing too volatile to accept protection. The more he stumbled and slurred his words, the more obligated Kev felt to look after him. Kev imagined this was what it’d be like to have a brother.
But brother or not, Kev proved feckless when Arnold courted danger. Once, he watched silently as Arnold slammed his fist into a fellow drunk’s eye socket. There was a wet crack when the punch landed. The man went down, conscious but disoriented. They’d exchanged words over the man’s girlfriend, who, unimpressed by Arnold’s brutishness, rushed to her boyfriend’s aid. Then, the arms that had at times been draped over Kev’s shoulders, the fingers that had accidentally traced a line across his cheek, a momentary act of humanity, those same fingers had balled themselves into a rock made of bone and flesh and smashed a face.
“Without provocation, she smashed her open palm into Arnold’s face, and again before he grabbed both her bony wrists.”
Another night, the closing team had just exited the building, en route to a pub. Regina stood just outside the door of the employee entrance, in plaid pajama pants, her hair tucked into a shimmery bonnet, as though fighting Arnold were the last item on her to-do list before bed. She was feral, burning eyes, dry, olive skin, a maroon scab in the center of her bottom lip as pronounced as a skunk stripe.
“You just gonna disappear?” she asked, her voice low but cutting.
Without provocation, she smashed her open palm into Arnold’s face, and again before he grabbed both her bony wrists. He squeezed them like he was wringing out hand towels. Regina writhed, trying to get loose. She cried out that he was hurting her; he didn’t relent. The other team members dispersed, affording them privacy. Kev remained, his brother’s keeper. He watched Arnold wrangle Regina with ease, a dance he’d rehearsed. Once Regina realized she couldn’t break free, she calmed. Arnold let go and she backed away, tucking her hands into her armpits.
Arnold walked off and Kev rushed to catch him.
“He’s not a good person!” Regina yelled after him. “Whoever the fuck you are, he’s not your friend.”
They decided to skip the pub, instead heading to the nearest subway station. Waiting on the platform for the 4, Arnold asked, “What is it you like about me?”
“What kind of question is that?” Kev asked.
“Just tell me, man. All the shit you seen me do, and we ain’t nothing alike, and you ain’t run the other way yet. Must be something you like about me.”
Kev shrugged. “I don’t know,” he said. “I think I just like seeing the world through your eyes.”
Arnold grunted at this. Kev feared Arnold would try to make him small, call him a faggot or something.
“Let me find out you a poet,” Arnold said, smiling.
Circumstances shifted when Kev was promoted to back-end supervisor.
With the new role came more money and responsibility, more power. But, too, more complexity between the men, unsettling their dynamic. At the time of Kev’s promotion, Arnold had congratulated him, but struggled to take direction from Kev, dismissing each request with indignance at first, only to do what Kev had asked moments later. Arnold aside, Kev found quick success; he settled into a rhythm, he impressed his managers, and he won over the others. He was a worthy leader. The company’s leadership ethos was to run the store as if your name were etched across the exterior. If your livelihood and the livelihood of all those around you depended on your next decision, how would you act?
For some time, Kev circumvented conflict with Arnold. He could navigate his friend’s bullishness during shifts, shaking off the initial friction because he knew Arnold would eventually fall in line; even he had to domesticate his worst impulses to earn a paycheck. At the same time, there was little overlap in their schedules. That meant fewer pub nights, less frequent peeks at Arnold’s duality. Kev told himself it was a casualty of his position, a situation beyond their control. Neutrality was convenient. He felt he’d always lived experiences but hadn’t shaped them, and he’d been okay. Here, too, he’d be okay, Arnold would be okay, and this thing between them would be okay.
But Regina convinced him otherwise.
It was just a few months after Kev’s promotion, still early enough in the role for some duties to feel uncomfortable, but long enough for others to feel like old hat. He was in one of the satellite rooms, organizing shoes, jewelry, and accessories. Though he liked the work of supervision, he appreciated occasional reprieves, the chance to disappear into something menial, unaccompanied. The door was propped open with a rubber wedge, so he could carry bins back and forth with ease. In the distance, he could hear a woman’s voice rising above the Muzak.
He emerged onto the sales floor to find Regina near the Fiftieth Street exit, both eyes swollen and purple. She was frantic, maddened, shoving stacks of jeans off tables, kicking over two-ways. She asked no one in particular how the store could employ a monster like Arnold.
The section had cleared of everyone except Arnold, who stood there in silence gritting his teeth, his facial muscles tensed. Kev saw how he struggled to contain himself. Arnold gripped the handles of his utility cart with a charged intensity, occupying his hands. It was the earlier scene, almost note for note.
Except this scenario couldn’t play out like the other, not on company time. Two loss prevention agents escorted Regina out, failing to see a desperate woman’s cry for help.
Kev, feeling compelled to act, completed an incident report, detailing everything he’d observed and the necessary context to understand it. Arnold was still the man he’d been up till then and he didn’t look any different than before. Kev still felt beholden to him, still observed this unspoken code of their friendship, still liked the magnetism of all those rough edges. But Regina reappearing reminded him that he couldn’t feign innocence. Innocence implied powerlessness. Innocence implied ignorance. In this situation, Kev was neither powerless nor ignorant. He didn’t want to change Arnold, to make him better. That seemed a fruitless mission. He wanted to absolve himself of blame.
Soon after, Kev received word that there’d be a swift and thorough investigation.
Returning to the stockroom, Kev found Arnold had taken his spot amongst the others. The box cutter he’d chosen had a dull blade. He forced it through the layers of packing tape, leaving jagged edges on the box flaps, unworried about preserving the product underneath.
Kev inched forward.
“Can I talk to you over there?” Kev asked, pointing to the bays.
Arnold paused to consider it. His terms, not Kev’s. He nodded and backed away from the table, box cutter still in hand. Kev noticed, but he said nothing. They stepped into an opening just out of view of the processing table, neatly folded stacks of graphic T-shirts lining both sides.
“You always wanted to get me alone,” Arnold said.
It was a nasty thing to say and, unexpectedly, Kev seethed. He’d always worried that the others suspected something, and hearing Arnold name it, Kev felt wounded and defensive, exposed. Rejected.
“What’s going on with you, huh?” Kev asked, clinging to whatever bits of composure he could. The more the skin tightened around Arnold’s jaw, the more clearly Kev could see what lay ahead.
“You’re scared of me. Little chickenshit,” Arnold said, a twisted smile on his face.
Kev tried to remain steady.
“I think you need to go home, man. You know the rules.”
“What if I don’t? The fuck you gonna do about it?”
Arnold jammed his index and middle fingers into the soft tissue of Kev’s shoulder. Kev, anticipating an attack, didn’t falter.
Locking eyes with him, searching for empathy and finding only emptiness, Kev said, “Don’t do that to me. I’m not Regina.”
Whatever self-possession that controlled Arnold vanished. His hands flew to Kev’s neck, with such assuredness it was clear this would always be the outcome. Kev didn’t fight back but he lost his balance, the weight of his body dropping into the bay. It was unlocked and collided with the one behind it, causing a clang that startled the others. Arnold held on. Kev let his body fall slack. He heard James, Ruby, Cyrus, Marques, and Aisha’s feet scuffling toward them but he’d made this bed, and if only for a minute, he wanted to lie in it, feel its firmness.
Kev found it hard to breathe, to muster resistance. Arnold’s hands were warm and stable, the worn surface of his palms dry and coarse against his skin. He could feel it now, how the bones in those fingers had fought and scrapped and clawed, how they wouldn’t stop until the job was finished.It was exactly as he’d imagined.
Fall / Winter 2023
Jefferey Spivey is a Des Moines, Iowa-based author and copywriter. His forthcoming short story collection, The Birthright of Sons, won the 2023 Iron Horse Book Prize and will be published by Texas Tech University Press in January 2024. He was also a 2022 de Groot Foundation COURAGE TO WRITE grant recipient. His short stories have appeared in Punt Volat, A Gathering of the Tribes, Typehouse, decomp, and Havik.
Felix Beaudry (b. 1996, Berkeley, CA) employs industrial knit fabric as an extension of his subjects’ skin to explore intersections of the individual and familial in the geographical and identity-based communities they inhabit. His recent solo exhibitions were held at SITUATIONS (NY) and Tatjana Pieters (Ghent, Belgium). His work has been incuded in group exhibitions at Marianne Boesky Gallery (NY), New Discretions at Foreland (Catskill, NY), Golestani Gallery (Dusseldorf, Germany), and the RISD Museum (Providence, RI). Felix lives and works in Kingston, NY.