Work (Home)

Stayfree Carefree

by Owen Abbott

  Fall 2013 Fiction, Memoir & Poetry Anthology  |  Contents  |  Authors  |


2007. I  watched my supervisor writhe on the cold warehouse floor, screaming in pain. Nothing I could do. Everyone was watching and standing still. Making Christmas wreaths.

I decided I was done with warehouse work.


2010. I'm working in a warehouse again. Twelve hour shifts, weekends and Monday. During training we had to watch an hour-long video about unions. The recorded voice spoke with the familiar mimicry of a corporate-shill pretending to be human. Told us unions tear communities apart.

A skit was presented, showing middle-aged employees getting together at a local pizza shop after work. They are happy, laughing, joking. They are friends. One of them joins a union, and from then on, she isn’t invited. All of her friends turn on her and laugh at her behind her back, during their once-friendly occasions. This is the way they think we live. Friendly after-work get-togethers at a pizza shop.

To conclude, the voice assures us that it’s not trying to tell us not to join a union—the voice is our friend. It just wants us to consider the possible consequences of our actions. The voice says that it’s looking out for us—that unionizing is a weighty decision, not to be made lightly. “After all,” it says, “a union would jeopardize the fun, fast, and friendly environment!"

A managerial suit asks us if we have any questions for her about unions when the video finishes. We have none, and she smiles.

Yesterday, my job was to fill semi-trailers numbers 50-58 with boxes of cheap merchandise for distribution to superstores. Some of it heavy, some of it light. The boxes of   slide down the conveyors rapidly, and I fill each trailer from floor to  ceiling with walls of the boxes, keeping them as compact as possible.

A box labeled “Stayfree” comes down the conveyor into trailer 52, followed by one labeled “Carefree.” I set them aside and move to  work on the other trailers.

The lunch bell rings. A man stops me on my way to the break room and asks how I like the job..

I say, “It’s good. I'd like to stay here.”

He looks at me and says, “What you want is to go to college.” Tells me  he should have gone himself, but missed his chance, had a son, and now he’s too old. He’s not free. He’s not carefree.

"Go to college," he says again.

I’m used to this speech.


2007. When I was working in the wreath warehouse, I brought a book to read during lunch every day.

One day an old man came by during lunch. I was sitting on the floor. He told me that you’re not supposed to sit on a cold concrete floor, or else you’ll get hemorrhoids. I never sat on the floor again. This concluded my higher education in the warehouse world. Then he noticed my book.

He was surprised. Asked if I was “some sort of college-boy.” I told him no. He told me I should go. A crowd gathered around. All of the people on break were staring at me like I was a circus animal.  

Lunch ended. We returned to our workplaces. A woman in the back said to her friend, “I used to bring books to work, but I didn’t read them.”


2010. I  accumulate a large number of boxes labeled “carefree” and “stayfree” in trailer 52 and build a wall to the ceiling out of them, facing out and ordered, “Stayfree, Carefree, Stayfree, Carefree.”  I wonder if whoever unloads the trailer will see it and get the message, or if he’ll just unload things.

I filled the trailer. It went on its way. Message in a bottle.

New trailer comes in. This one has holes at the top of the walls for ventilation, and sunlight comes in. I drive to this dimly lit warehouse when it’s dark, and its dark again when I leave. I’m no longer used to sunlight. Somebody has written on the truck’s siding in permanent marker.

Get out of here! Live for today! Education is a money machine! Leave the daily grind, it’s pathetic!

Trailer graffiti. Like the bathroom hieroglyphics you see in men's room stalls, but more inspirational and heartfelt and depressing.

Whoever wrote it — he’s stuck.

Like the man with the son who told me he’s too old. He’s locked — inside the walls of cheap merchandise they pay us to build.

Still as far as getting a message across, it beats arranging boxes of tampons.Stayfree, carefree.”

Go to college,” the permanent marker message says.


2002. When I was in high school, I aced the tests but didn’t do the homework. I didn’t care. I sealed away my future.

The guidance counselor, spec ed teacher, and school psych analyze me, and have me sent into special education: a black mark on my life — a source of shame. I watch for four years.  Normal kids are pulled into my special ed class, and then manipulated.

One kid comes in — he’s the new kid. He’s shy. This is initially the reason why they put him into the class. Not for a learning disability, but for being “emotionally disturbed.”

But he’s normal and he becomes my friend. Sometimes he voices his opinion. Says that he doesn’t think he’s supposed to be here. She tells him that he is. That she didn’t make a mistake. She recommends that he start taking pills. Teachers can diagnose things.

Over the years, he changes. He becomes what she wanted him to become. Invariably, this happens to every normal person that gets pulled into the class. Every R.P. McMurphy is lobotomized. I become the Big Chief.

Stay quiet. Be polite. Pretend.


2006. I’m eighteen; I have to attend a meeting. An “IEP” meeting — the mass produced “individualized education plan” meeting which goes the same way for every one of us crazy students.

The teacher puts a thick packet of information about me on the desk  and  tells me to just sign it and initial it and sign it again and then I can be on my way. The psych sits in a chair next to her saying nothing. “It’s just a formality,” the teacher says. “Don’t read it — that’s a waste of time.” Reading things is a waste of time?

Teachers kept taking away my books. Over the years I lost two Ray Bradbury anthologies and multiple novels. Never returned. I spent too much time reading in classes.

Reading things is a waste of time.

I insist on reading through the packet anyway, past the wishy-washy first page, into the second, into the third where things start getting hidden. It says I have severe antisocial disorder” with a clear lack of emotions.” Emotionally disturbed.

I’ve studied psychology. “Sociopath” is an obsolete term. The blanket term used today is “Severe Anti-Social Disorder.” A sociopath will use any means to gain an end. Operate without empathy. Thought to lack emotions. Not necessarily criminal, but calculating and capable of criminal acts. “Antisocial”  appears to mean everything from psychopath to sociopath to shy.

They're trying to mark me as a cataclysmic case. This is her diagnosis as a teacher. She smiles. She has something to gain.

I am her bolstered credential. I am her job security. I am a means to an end.

I push away the form. I’m not signing.”

She stops smiling. She tells me that it would be illegal for them to keep this file on record if I don’t sign. That it would have to be shredded, all of her work would be shredded. She urges me to sign. Tells me college could be a possibility for me if I sign.

“Think about the bigger picture!”

I didn’t sign.


2010. I woke up this morning and some of my fingers had fallen out of joint. Must have happened  during the night. Byproduct of long hours of manual labor and an old injury from my time as a woodsman. I’m used to it. I put them back into place and go to the computer lab to write. It’s my weekend.

Stayfree, carefree.


2007. My supervisor came to work twenty minutes late.

She was a larger woman, middle-aged. She came in panting heavily. I’m sorry… I’m late…” she panted. Car… broke down… Had to walk…” Everyone was making wreaths.

It’s a long walk in the cold.

Her face was bright red.

I focused on my work. Ten minutes later I heard the first scream and  looked over to see her slumped over her table, her face was scarlet.  

Everyone stared. Nobody moved. Everyone was making wreaths.

She was screaming like she was dying.

She was a step away from me. Nothing I could do.

Someone with a radio called for the big boss. The big boss came in. Stood before the woman. My supervisor was now lying on the concrete floor now. You’re not supposed to sit on a concrete floor or else you’ll get hemorrhoids.

He looked down. Pulled up his radio. Said, we have a code blue.” Then walked away.

Everyone kept making wreaths and staring while she kept screaming. I tried to block it out of my mind. They had a code for this. “Code Blue.” This meant a procedure was being acted out. Everything going according to plan. Someone had called an ambulance. I tried to focus on the wreaths, those jolly symbols of disposable income.

When I was a woodsman I used to cut the boughs off balsam trees, thousands of pounds per day, and sell them to the wreath warehouse. At twenty three cents per pound it was a good job until my truck caught fire and burned to death. That’s why I had to go to the warehouse for employment.

The ambulance arrived. Pimple faced manboys with a stretcher came in, and the slack jawed leader looked down at our supervisor. Her face was scarlet as she clutched her chest. She was still screaming on the floor.

Uhhhhh.” He says. Ma’am. What I’m going to need you to do… Is get up, and get on the stretcher.”

This was the plan being followed. This was the procedure. This was code blue?

They got her out. Eventually. Once she stopped screaming. Once she stopped panting and the red in her face  started to diminish.

At the end of the day, she called from the hospital. Told us she “threw her back out.”

When I was a woodsman, I would cut down the trees that remained standing but that were really already dead. It occurred to me often when I was at the warehouse and  when I was at school  that I was like the trees — standing dead.

When I came back to the lower half of the state, I thought about the people. There are people here.

There were people in the northwoods too, of course, but not as many. And when election season came, a politician rallied the people against the library. He blamed the library for everything from high water bills to the ineffective volunteer fire department to the lack of funding for a public cemetery. He concluded every speech he made, every tirade with the paper, with the statement, “I hope you all join me up on this journey.”

I still don’t know what that meant.

Here in the city, there are people that don’t do that. They don’t rally against libraries, they don’t scapegoat  everything in sight for the sake of scapegoating.

This is what I believed too.

While in the city,  I think about getting a job in retail. At a bookstore, preferably. I apply at Harry Schwartz, but their entire chain goes out of business. I apply at Barnes and Noble.

I call. A woman answers the phone and I ask if anyone has seen my application and if I can speak with management. She laughs  and says, “We get dozens of applications each day.” Emphasizing “dozens.” Okay.

I apply at half-priced books, but I already know I won’t get the job.

Through our early experiences, we are forever marked as leaders, followers, or outcasts. These are my experiences. Survival in the woods. Warehouse work. Temp work. Warehouse work.

At the library, I’m looking up a Vonnegut book on the catalog computer. A high school kid in line behind me is talking with his mother in line at the card catalog computer. He’s talking about a job he’s hoping to get. I take a notecard and the pencil provided. Write out, “best of luck!” and walk away, leaving it on the keyboard. Maybe he finds it, maybe he doesn’t.

Stayfree, Carefree.


2008. I went to the public computer lab, one day, to write.

I walked in and there was utter silence. Usually the place is packed with students, but it was almost empty. Most of the people were sitting at the computers on the far, opposite side of the lab. There was no sound of typing.  

I walk to the center of the lab, and sit down across from one of the  few people  sitting in the center of the lab.

Within seconds of my booting up, the man across from me shouts, “I’m going to kill you!”

I look up. Blink a few times. He’s looking past me, at a young couple  sitting at a nearby computer. They’re frozen. I look around. Everyone is frozen. Everyone is looking. The people who work at the lab are no place to be seen. Everyone stares at the man.

Every few seconds, the man has another outburst. “Going to dump your bodies in a ditch!”

Another pause.

“I got connections!”

Everyone is still silent. Everyone is still staring.   I am at the wreath warehouse again, where everyone stares and nobody does anything.

Who is this man?

A sociopath?

I was marked as one of those, too.  

I think—if I don’t have emotions, if I don’t have fear, I can stop this man.

I stand up and tell the man to leave. Silence. Now he’s staring at me.

The couple that he initially threatened leaves quickly.

The man repeats his threat. This time he directs it at  me. “I got connections.”

Yeah, yeah. And you’re sitting in a lab, looking at MySpace.


This is the anatomy of my experience. The experiences I wrote out on another application to another book store. They look so different on the application.

2007-2010: Job Title: Woodsman. Reason for leaving? Seasonal.

2008-2009: Job Title: Temp. Reason for leaving? Temp.

2010-Present: Job Title: Warehouse Worker. Reason for leaving? N/A.

Will I get the job? Perhaps not. Our early work experience  marks us forever as leaders, followers, or outcasts. But I might as well try.

Stayfree, carefree.


end of story

© 2013, Owen Abbott Go to top