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The Barcelona Review

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It was a matter of perseverance, or competition, or willpower, or any other good old American trait. Camp out overnight and sleep off the day's turkey. Get in the door and get it before someone else does and buy as many as you can—gaming consoles or this year's hot doll or an electric scooter or that appliance you'd always hoped your wife would want, and look—it's sixty percent off; there was a reason those 5:00 a.m. prices were called doorbusters. Camp out and wait in line and don't cut, because cutting violates the great American principle of fairness. Tolerate the crush. No bathroom. Two-thousand people standing out in the cold for ten hours. In the dark. The people are getting restless. Someone nudges. An accident. Push back. The crowd gives way to what they want. To get inside after waiting all night.

Damien, who had hit his growth spurt only two years ago, at seventeen, was a thin whip of six feet. He was chosen, the manager told him, because of his size, or more likely—or all likely, Damien thought—because of the color of his skin. This was one of the few days the manager didn't want a retiring old white man at the Company entrance, so Damien was in charge of standing between the two rows of sliding plexiglass doors. He was there not to keep an eye on shrinkage, but to remind people to wait in line calmly despite their hunt for white-hot bargains—unaware that Company store #61 had a safety violation the year before for unsuccessfully cordoning off the people who were waiting to buy whatever was priced below cost that morning. Bring tidings of Comfort and Joy, the manager said. Smile at people, but also look at them like they need to take it easy if you catch them getting too excited. So that was what he was gonna do and at least it was better than dealing with people at the register and anyway he'd be close enough to the first doors, in between the first row of doors and the second, that he could almost imagine being outside, maybe see the sun, maybe some clouds. The parking lot and people; cars, and the people, restless. Who was he kidding. Still, it was better than checking.
            So Damien is standing in the entryway between the two lanes of plexiglass doors, trying not to think about the fact that he is cold, trying not to think about the fact that he spent his Thanksgiving yesterday alone. A friend had invited him to join in their family dinner but Damien said, No, he'd get his overtime by working the holiday. They scheduled him because who wanted to work that day, nobody, everybody else had their families, but then he found out he'd have to come in at 3:00 a.m. to work the eight-hour shift and that it wouldn't count as time and a half because his time was not considered special, not even on a Friday morning at 3:00 a.m. the day after Thanksgiving, Black Friday, a day when the streets were overtaken by shoppers who had to make up, somehow, for their country's inability to turn Thanksgiving into a fully commercial event, make up for it by buying things in preparation for that most holy of holy days, Christmas.  Damien was pacing back and forth in the area the manager called, in a fit of creative exaggeration, the atrium.

The space between the two doors is closet-like at best—or, if not closet-like, then corridor-esque—and as he paces back and forth, it seems that there is no world beyond the space between these two plexiglass doors, just the climate-controlled dead air around it, and the crowd pressing in, against the doors barred shut, and he feels his eyes, sleepy, unable to let anything besides his own exhaustion in. As he paces back and forth, the faintest flicker of a memory passes through his mind, then disappears— his girl, or was, before the mandatory evacuation, before things got crazy, the salty taste of the corner of the ex-girlfriend's mouth, his finger in the crook of her skin. The crowd pushes against the doors. Only five minutes to go. They are losing patience.
            Damien doesn't doubt that the manager had him man the space he now finds himself enclosed in because the man thought the people outside would see him there and feel just afraid enough not to want to come in. He is to stand there until the doors open, and then monitor inventory for restocking, but as he turns on the outer edge of his left heel to continue pacing back in the opposite direction, his gaze weary of the space he is confined in, so much so that it contains nothing beyond it, something happens: in spite of the citation last year owing to crowd-control problems, in spite of the makeshift plastic yellow rope fence running along the store's perimeter, the crowd comes in. Three minutes too soon. Someone at some point in the line began pushing, and someone pushed back, and then, there, in the back of the line where people were too far from the beginning of the line to see the entrance, the crowd's movement is registered by the pushers as a sign that it's time to go in, and they're ready, they've been waiting all night for this, and so they push forward, happy, satisfied by their sense of advancement, as people are, always, after waiting in slow-moving lines anywhere—the post office, supermarket, in airplane terminals—and so the back of the line is pushing forward and the front of the line feels the push and has nowhere to go, and there's real force behind the movement of the mass now, so the front of the line gathers strength and advances, but where?  The people have nowhere to go, and what started in silence now gathers momentum in a terror-pitched key.  It's clear that something's wrong as the sound gets louder, hundreds of voices adding to the screams, for the only place for people to go is against the plexi, against the doors, which, being made of industrial-strength plastic, absorb the blows until the doors start warping inward, which Damien sees, looks up and over and knows, the doors behind him are locked, won't be unlocked until the official time for what the manager called safety reasons, the auto-open feature operated by the infra-red sensors disabled for this special occasion, and the crowd is pushing against the warping doors and the brown metal frame begins to give, too, and it's time, it must be, time to spend hard-earned American money on God-blessed goods in this God-blessed country, and as the customers continue their push, many of them scared now, aware that the movement is coming from a force beyond them, a force they respond to obligingly but not, in any sense, willingly.  It happens around them and they are carried along with it, and they feel the crush, and it happens, the forward rush of progress, to the point where the frame around the plexiglass cannot absorb the weight of the crowd's force any longer. The frame is designed to be flexible to just the right amount of force, and so it gives way, collapses, and the crowd pushes forward, unable to do anything else, and they press on as the doors collapse in, and now it is time, time for the store to open, which it does, the inner doors set to activate at precisely 5:00 a.m.  The weight of the outer, collapsed door beneath the people presses down on Damien as they enter the next sliding door, which gives way without any pushing at all, the people nearly, nearly oblivious to the young man they are trampling, nearly, nearly oblivious to the fallen plexiglass door they now step on and over, everyone screaming, as the only thing separating them from their bargains, from getting into the store, is that flattened plexiglass door.  The crowd keeps pushing from the back, and the front of the line has nowhere else to go, so they continue to step on and over the door, which is the only thing separating them from the nineteen-year-old young man who, at this very moment, is being crushed by the crowd above him. By the time someone understands what is going on, because it is hard to understand anything over the shrieks and the chaos of the scene and the crowd of people, pushing, Justin, a seasonal employee, finds Damien there underneath the plexi and goes to him, but cannot lift the doors by himself, so he shouts to the nearest employee, an older woman with dyed black hair and gold-tone crucifix earrings named Marlene, who calls to the young man at register four, a kid named Rodney from a small town two hours over, the town where the KKK was founded, the town with a still-active chapter, although Rodney did not know this.  Rodney neither shares nor condemns the group's beliefs, he doesn't think about them, just does what he can to be a good Christian and follow Christ's example, so Rodney goes to Justin who is trying to lift the door off Damien and together they manage though it is difficult to lift, the ten-foot door being just barely shorter than the twelve-foot entrance space. They lift it up and once it's high enough Justin gets underneath the door to hold the weight of it back so that Rodney can pull Damien's body into the store next to the shopping carts. By now there are people outside waiting impatiently, waiting though not overnight since they have just driven over and searched for parking and want to get in and out with their goddamned discount. They consider it a slight indignity to have to go to such measures to buy things they can afford; they make minimum wage and have two jobs and sometimes a third and want to make their kids happy, and this indignity, driving to the Company store at five in the morning on their one day off to buy something they know their children don't exactly need, but maybe will make them forget about their worries; they don't want their kids to feel the burden that is theirs to bear, and so if they can get their boys and girls the latest toy or piece of technology, perhaps their children will not feel their misery, as they clean toilets and prepare fast food and conduct the sale of consumer goods in this country.  As she walks from the bus stop toward the store, one of the mothers registers that a young man in the blocked entrance is shrieking, an inhuman, awful sound, so she gets out her phone and dials 911, genuinely worried now, having forgotten all about what she came for, but she doesn't know what to do as she watches the young man making the terrifying noise pull something out from under the fallen door while the other boy with all his strength holds the broken door's weight. He is mouthing words she recognizes as the Lord's Prayer because she says it every night with her boys before bed and reminds them, no matter what, that Jesus loves them, and the young man pulling at the dead, indeterminate weight beneath the door starts shouting, He's dead, oh god, he's dead, he's dead, and when the mother sees the young man's face in the distance, the tight cheekbones and buzzed black hair and skinny arms peeking out from the Company polo, she can only think of her own son, who works at a Company store on the other side of town and looks not unlike the limp body before them. She thinks, as she remains there, not limp or frozen but on her knees without having made the decision to collapse, That boy, that boy, that boy could have been my son.

And all Damien could think about as he felt the weight on him slowly constrict his breathing, as people stepped on and over him to save seventy percent on a widescreen television, was that the neighborhood he'd known, the one he called home, was a place made desolate by all the killing, their homes desecrated by the desperate nature of their survival, while the cops took another black man to jail, locked up and out of sight, a plantation of orange jumpsuits and time. Growing up around it you took it on, you had to, there was no avoiding it, so he understood why some kids turned to the very thing that scared them. The first time he saw somebody shot it was his friend, shot dead, though this friend was not the last; and Damien knew the way the cops would look at him, look at all the Central City kids, like they fucked it all up, they've seen it all, and their lives ain't worth a damn, and that was the only story they told, the only story the people lumbering into the store ever had. They got how hard it was because they've seen it on television, how hard it was to escape that story, when he only wanted to be released from it, and as the weight crushed down on him and his left lung collapsed he felt it, he was going to be released, into what, he didn't know, he didn't think salvation, he just thought about his girl's lips and his music and walking through New Orleans on Lundi Gras not thinking, just living inside the long wave of things, the arc of I-10 as it came up through the city, hanging out with his friends, going down to the memorial in Bywater because his mother once told him he was related to Homer Plessy. He figured she was making that up, saying it because they were lighter-skinned than his uncle's side of the family, because she wanted him to be proud of something, proud, or part of it, and as his second lung collapsed, he saw himself going to see the man, walking toward Mr. Plessy's arms and being received, in a place that had nothing to do with their reality, which was one they fought against and did so bravely, to think the man had gotten on a streetcar to show those carpetbaggers you couldn't make a man ride separate just because you are afraid of something. The city got worse when they moved in, because people were afraid of freedom, of their freedom, so they took him to jail for riding, the test case purposefully created because these Creole men knew to take the case to the Supreme Court because the Court would right things, rule in their favor and recognize man's constitutional right to equality, it wouldn't be easy but it would be done and it would be done in the name of Homer Plessy.  Except they lost. Congress upheld the conviction, and so separate but equal became federally recognized and mandated, and Damien had heard about the burrito place on the hill town's main street that used to be the train depot and wasn't renovated until the late 1990s, heard when they gutted the building that the old separate but so-called equal fountains were still there. Plessy himself, just a decade or so after bringing his challenge to court, registered to vote and listed his race on the form as white because he knew race was bullshit, and vote he did—or maybe he was like some of those Gentilly Creoles, Damien knew the type, who thought they were better than dark-skinned blacks because they were light, but it was bullshit, isn't that what it showed, that the man who was kicked off the streetcar for being black later registered to vote as a white man, no problem, a man born too early and a man dead too soon to see the country's first black president elected, they would not go down to the courthouse to participate in that historic moment, the historic moment where a woman with white hair would ask them each for identification and proof of residence, a simple matter of fraud protection, she would explain before turning them away, no, they wouldn't live through any of it, for Damien's breathing had stopped and his heart along with it, and as he stepped toward Mr. Plessy to shake his hand, the man opened his arms and embraced him. Damien Parsons, nineteen years old, born in the Third Ward of New Orleans, was dead.

© 2015 Kathleen Heil

see also: Take It by Kathleen Heil from issue 66   

The Barcelona Review is a registered non-profit organization

Author Bio
Kathleen HeilKathleen Heil’s stories, poems, essays and translations have appeared or are forthcoming in FENCE, New Delta Review, World Literature Today, Cincinnati Review, DIAGRAM, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Guernica, BOMB, Quarterly West, The Barcelona Review, and elsewhere. Born and raised in the New Orleans area, she is a 2015-2016 Sturgis International Fellow in Berlin.

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