The night had been another blur of soup cans and cereal boxes. My fingers smelled like cardboard. I stocked the grocery store shelves for eight hours under the power of licorice and orange juice; I could not drink coffee. It did not matter how many all-night shifts I worked, I could not negotiate between the bitter taste of coffee and how tired I felt. When I first took the job I was kept awake by Pepsi, always from the can as the taste of aluminum stayed on my teeth and gave me some physical sensation to cling to all night. With each shift I felt worse and worse until I realized that it had been weeks since I had any vitamins and so I began the routine of drinking a half-gallon of orange juice every night.
Of the whole crew I was the only one who didn’t have a mustache or smoke. We were paid Friday mornings as we left work and so when we returned that evening everyone smoked Marlboros. Throughout the week everyone smoked progressively cheaper brands: USA Gold, Jacks, Liggetts, Monarchs, and by Thursday night the mustachioed crew were pooling their quarters to share a pack of plain, white label, generic cigarettes.
I would always sleepily drive home to the sound of morning dj’s goading the rest of the world into wakefulness. When the days got shorter I would collapse into bed at dawn and wake up around the time the sun was going down. During my high school years I had managed to faithfully listen to classic rock stations without ever hearing Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven”, almost as if it really did have hidden satanic messages and God was hiding it from me. Nearly every time I tuned in I heard the jockey say, “That was Zeppelin with the classic, Stairway to Heaven.” This went on for years before I ever heard the complete song. Daylight felt like a great song that everyone knew but me. I might hear the last few notes but never really enough to appreciate it.
I was easily sleeping twelve hours a day at this point, losing weight but never exercising. I saved nearly every dollar I made at the grocery store because I was never awake to spend it. It was a strangely warm November day that I hit a sad and disgusting low that made me fully realize my bright future was not on the graveyard shift working for thirty cents over minimum wage. I came home to my little upstairs room and noticed a scent that was a pale reddish-brown in its stink, a vague smell of death that was only slightly deader than me. This didn’t stop me; nothing could stop me, from falling into the grave that was my bed and pulling up the covers like a dead man pulling the sod over his very own body. I awoke ten hours later to a smell that was no longer pale, it was pungent and putrid and I had no idea what it was. I canvassed my room. There was nothing under the bed, nothing under my desk, nothing in my drawers, nothing in my closet, nothing on the shelves. Could this foul stink be me? Was my zombie-like state of being bringing me so close to death that I was decomposing while I still breathed? Panicked now, I thought to wash everything in the room. I stripped off the work clothes that reeked of cardboard and Monarchs and threw them in the laundry. In my underwear, I desperately sought the source of this smell. My sheets! Surely the stench of work had infiltrated my own bed. I threw off the sheets and immediately found the origins of the odor. At the foot of the bed there were four inches between the mattress and the bed frame, it was there that I found…a dead squirrel. In the unseasonable warmth it must have crept into our house thru a screen door. It died in my sheets and I slept with it. I reached for a plastic bag to use as a glove, picked up the squirrel and took it out to the trash.
This is actually a true story from when I was 18 and working at a grocery store.