Kennard’s wife thinks it’s strange that the people who keep other people’s things safe aren’t valued as much as the things they are keeping safe. She think it’s perverse that people can spend more than the average person’s annual income on a car, and then hire someone to protect that car who isn’t valued or well compensated. She doesn’t say this to Kennard, though; she says it about him, around him, but always directed at neighbors or friends.
“They expect him to risk his life for, what, a car? A few other people’s cars?” she says, throwing dirty baby socks into the laundry room trash can. “The value system behind it is so absurd.”
Her friend Miranda holds the baby and provides a chagrinned expression. “Yeah, well, you know,” she offers blithely. “It’s fucked.”
Listening from down the hall, Kennard coughs into his hand. Most of Tina’s friends are childless, and don’t think about swearing in front of children. Sometimes Ken or Tina will shift uncomfortably or pull away from it, but it doesn’t even register, especially with Miranda. It’s a baby, Miranda must think. It knows nothing. It doesn’t evaluate, it isn’t offended, it doesn’t care.
Tina pours her third cup of tea and sits on the arm of Kennard’s chair. It’s a hand-me-down, from Kennard’s grandfather’s living room.
Tina leans into him and spicy steam from the tea wafts into Kennard’s nostrils. She quit coffee while breastfeeding baby Nathan, and began quaffing big cups of chai, which she brewed continuously to cover up the scent of gestational sweat and early morning vomit. Years later, and with breastfeeding done, the white tea cups are brown-ringed and stained with chai, the travel mugs are gunky, their sides murky with the remnants of chai, and the sink is covered in dried tea bags.
“Do you, like, fantasize about stealing shit from people’s cars?” Miranda asks him, her eyes going wide with excitement at her own idea. “Like, do you think about taking change out of their cupholders and glove boxes and shit?”
The baby, still cradled in Miranda’s arms, strikes her in the face with a lazy, limp hand. His tiny nails need cutting, and the strike leaves a pink, irritated scratch along the side of Miranda’s face. Tina rises to claim the child and Kennard grins at the floor.
“I don’t imagine stuff like that,” he says, after things have quieted down. “I don’t know why.”
Their visitor nods, “I guess you just get used to it, being around all that wealth.” She steals a glance at Tina and adds, “Conspicuous consumption.”
Kennard doesn’t explain that in the parking garage where he works, no one keeps change in their cars. These are not people who keep track of nickels, or even quarters. They do not have to keep track of small flecks of money. The cars are money; the people are money. There is money in their fabrics, their bowels, and the bits of food clinging to their teeth. There is money in their good posture, their clean, unblemished brows, and their perfectly shaped fingernails. At work, Kennard can smell money in the oddly fresh, pleasant air of what should be a dank and stale garage. There is money in how the owners of the cars look just past him when the speak to him. There is money hanging over the expectation that his uniforms be unmolested and crisp. Theirs is the kind of wealth that cannot be stolen; at least, not by an individual man like him.
Tina stands and bounces their baby. Kennard likes how maternity looks on her. She jiggles her whole body, making her clothes swing around. He follows her legs to her hips to her waist to her arms cradling baby Nathan, then up to her face. She is smirking down at him.
“He’s too loyal,” she says to Miranda. “He doesn’t even think he has a right to their money.”
— — –
Tina had earned a philosophy degree. Her ideals had been somewhere between absurdism and Marxism, from what Kennard could tell. When Kennard met her, she was newly graduated and he was working on a degree in Food Science.
They shared sandwiches on the steps of the museum where Kennard worked, and he told her that all carbohydrates, whether refined or complex, were treated the same way by the body. After being ingested, they were converted to essentially sugar (glucose to be more specific) and used for energy. He told her that the brain could run on sugar and sugar alone, so the body learned to make sure from whatever it took in. Wheat, apples, cotton candy, potatoes, it didn’t matter. All became fuel in the end. What mattered, then, was the simple math of what you needed and what you got.
As he said all this, Tina’s face was very still. Impassive. She took a long, slow bite of rye and mozzarella.
“I think that depends on what your definition of ‘matters’ is,” she told him.
— — –
He was a security guard back then, at the museum where he’d taken Tina, and he was a security guard now, and there seemed to be no chance of that changing, at least not until Nathan went away to college.
“You could work in campus security,” Tina hypothesized one night. “Children of employees save, what? 50% on tuition?”
It was no surprise to him that a philosopher would struggle to make money. Throughout history philosophers had been shiftless in every sense of the world. To love a philosopher was to look after them. They were always tended to by others.
In some religious traditions, the great thinkers were forbidden from even attempting labor. The prosaic and practical world would taint them, or else dull the blades of their minds, it was thought. And in all of human history, it seemed that sharpened minds were needed for one purpose or another. All of that Kennard could respect.
What he could never have predicted, however, was that his abstract, philosophical wife would grown to become the policer of practicalities.
“You could get a job as a campus security officer,” she said again, another night. “At a state school. Someplace close, then Nathan could live at home. We’d save tens of thousands.”
— — –
It was Kennard who had wanted the kid, not her. She had trouble with the tangibility of a child — how a pregnancy could shift her body, how a baby could extract from her some vital, milky essence, the problem of an infant’s consciousness, the paradox of its selfhood.
Kennard said they had to decide, before they got married. He pleaded for her to make a choice, determine what she valued. To marry before solving the debate of parenting would be potentially tragic.
“Debates are not solved,” Tina corrected him. “They are settled.”
Like old houses creaking into their foundations, or falling leaves forming a pile. Debates could not be fixed or solved. They just fell, scattered, into place.
— — –
Kennard had wanted a wedding. They eloped. Kennard had wanted a child. They adopted one. They agreed to adopt; Kennard did not mind that. Tina wanted some physical distance from the reproductive process, she explained. But then she held baby Nathan in her arms and proclaimed that the baby must be breastfed.
“That is actually better for him nutritionally, right?” she asked.
Kennard played with his beard. “Yes.”
“The science is sound on that?” she said again, despite understanding the philosophy of science well enough to not ask.
He smelled the baby’s head. “Absolutely.”
— — –
The are human nutrition classes at the community college. He could take one or two during the day, then drag himself, self-deprived, into work at night. He knows she would not mind. She would support him. He works nights anyway. His days are free. All he’d lose is a few hours of sleep a few feet away from a noisy baby.
But he doesn’t want community college and tired night shifts. He wants the state school north of the city, the respectable one with the reflecting ponds and drowsy-seeming willow trees. He wants brick buildings, and sloping paths, and young adults playing in the quad outside his classroom window. He wants overpriced bookstores and professors with laboratories and knowledge they have authored.
It’s not too late for him yet. He could wear a sweatshirt and jeans that fit fashionably and be mistaken for a traditional student. An adult child. He has round corn-fed cheeks and light olive skin that does not crack, and he’s rarely in the sun, since he works nights. He could slip into the school like a fish dropped in a stream. He could get those last 12 credits, then complete a thesis. He could graduate and work as a nutritionist, in an eating disorder clinic, or for an athlete, or for Kraft.
He is embarrassed that his dreams are vague. Still, they’re his. It doesn’t matter so much where he ends up, as long as he gets out of the crisp uniform and the parking garage.
— — –
Tina comes home from the cafe where she works part-time. They still give her bags of nearly expired beans, though she no longer drinks coffee, and sometimes she squirrels away stale muffins in her bag. She stands in the middle of the living room and looks down at baby Nathan, who is on his stomach reaching for Kennard’s name tag.
She throws a carrot raisin muffin at Kennard. It’s solid and stiff as a glass paperweight. Kennard sets his laptop on the coffee table and works at the muffin’s stiff shrinkwrap.
Walking over to their child, Tina spies the website Kennard’s been looking at. It’s a glossy, well-designed page listing the many advantages of attending the state school north of the city. At the top of the page, a youthful, diverse, and wholesome gaggle of students are gathered on the steps of a great stone building. Kennard’s cursor hovers over a link to transfer student applications.
“Will they accept your transfer credit?” she asks him. “All of it? Even that weird English class? Is it too late to do a FAFSA this year? Can you get discounted parking? Have they posted the schedule for the spring semester yet? What if the classes are at a bad time? What if the classes you need are at night time?”
The questions go on all evening. They aren’t always launched at him rapid-fire; sometimes they bubble up, from deep inside her abstract, philosophical brain.
“It may take a year or two of part-time enrollment,” she declares in bed, “But I’m sure you can do it.”
He has slid far down the mattress. Somehow his shoulders are parallel to her belly button, and his feet and shins are dangling well off the edge of the bed. He didn’t have answers to most of her questions. Hadn’t even thought about most of them yet. Just thinking of the practicalities and of solving them has fatigued him. Suddenly he isn’t sure it’s worth all that extra work.
By the time she looks up the cost of tuition, he is so demoralized by decision fatigue that he doesn’t have to be told that it just isn’t feasible, and that she’s sorry, but it will have to wait, he will have to wait.
— — –
A woman in an oxblood leather jagged and frayed white leggings is pointing to a dent in the bumper of her car. She is mussing her hair with an anxious hand and demanding to see the garage’s security camera footage, to find out how this happened, and who is responsible.
Kennard leads her into the little glass room with the desk and the computer and rewinds the recording as far back as it will go so he can play it for her, sped up, colorless, and silent. He hopes they find a disgruntled trespasser destroying the bumper with an iron-toed boot. He hopes that the damage was incurred during one his shifts, somehow, without his knowledge, so that he can be screamed at, and scream in return. He wants to be wronged and self-righteous to the point of breaking. He want to be fired and collect a paltry unemployment check.
Instead, they stand awkwardly close in the cramped space and watch the tape with dull boredom, shifting their weight and listening to the hum of the fan. Twenty minutes pass, then thirty, and they find nothing.
A rich white guy comes into the garage and makes a beeline to the security office. He sees Kennard and the woman and begins to holler, saying she didn’t have permission, and that he knows that she was tipsy, and that someone saw her pull the vehicle straight into a fire hydrant. Sheepish, the woman claims the damage is a mystery, one that she and the security guard are working to solve.
Saying this, she squints in the direction of Kennard’s nametag. But she doesn’t take the time to read it, or her eyes are still too bleary from the drinking she apparently did the previous night, so she calls him “the security guard”, and then “this guy”, while the man, apparently her father, harangues her.
At some point she stomps off, her expensive heels making sharp noises on the concrete. Kennard realizes she’s not a woman so much as a child, made and dressed up by wealth but still irresponsible, younger than the college students Kennard wishes he could join.
The rich man points at Kennard and says please, remember her face, remember that she is not allowed to drive that car, or any car, except for the Old Hummer, which, at least, is Safe and will Protect Her from Herself. Then he grasps Kennard gently on the shoulder and pulls up the edges of his mouth, a feeble smile, and Kennard realizes that the man thinks he’s being kind and pleasant. That he is so isolated by his wealth that he does not know how to treat someone like a peer, that he thinks he’s being jovial anytime he isn’t grabbing a service worker by the throat.
— — –
Tina buys Kennard a copy of Food Rules by Michael Pollan. A customer at the cafe has recommended it many times, religiously. Kennard reads it at work, late in the night when the garage is still. While he reads, he must stand ramrod straight and orient himself below one of the air vents, looking out on the tarp-covered convertibles, which have been put away for the winter.
The cold from the air vents and the growing discomfort in his legs from standing helps to keep him alert. In about an hour he will slide a chalky No-Doz down his throat, to give him an extra burst.
In the book, Pollan declares that man should never eat or buy a food that his great-grandmother would not recognize. Kennard pictures the foods of his forebears: lard and flour and feet and chewing tobacco. These are the things his toothless great Mimi subsisted on. She did not know what a falafel was. She would have retched at the smell of chai in Tina’s cup.
On his ride home from work, it is 6am and the sky is a strange glowing cerulean. Kennard chews on half of a Tylenol PM and hurls the book over his shoulder. It hits the rear windshield of his car with a mighty smacking sound much like a thunderclap.
— — –
Tina trains to become a manager. This would require she work 30 to 39 hours per week, just shy of earning benefits. Miranda comes to their house more often, to watch baby Nathan and fold laundry while texting her latest boyfriend. They pay her in meals and in company and $11 an hour.
“You work too hard,” she chirps when Kennard comes home from work.
Night has shifted into morning, Tina has left, and Miranda is swaying the baby on her hip.
Kennard picks up an unfamiliar jar of baby food. “What’s this?”
Miranda is serene. “Organic, with lots of cinnamon, to prevent diabetes. And plenty of yummy omega-3’s.”
Kennard hears Nathan’s bowels go. He takes the baby into the bedroom, strips off the diaper; wipes the baby clean from head to toe. When Nathan whimpers like he’s about to cry, Kennard places a finger to the baby’s lips and speaks so quietly that he can’t even hear himself.
— — –
Kennard blinks and a car is gone. Kennard blinks and the car is back. He closes his eyes and counts to a thousand and the car is replaced with the latest model, and a specialty color. Champagne. Sea foam. Charcoal. Emberglow. Ultra-black. He turns around and everything is the same, except the owner of the Yellow Hummer has a new hair cut. Her hair champagne colored too. Things change like that. Which is to say, not much at all.
Kennard imagines taking a random night at his job and overlaying it with all the nights in his recent past. He could layer them like that, going back years, and find that little is different. Still he would be standing there, ramrod and tired. All the wealthy people would stride purposefully or sloppily across the concrete. The cars would change a bit in shape and color but remain the same. The people would update their wardrobes and their coifs and their bags but that would be it. The structure and the cool, artificially freshened air and Kennard’s uniform would all stay the same.
— — –
A janitor walks across the lot with his bicycle. Kennard must yell and run after him, tell him that he does not belong there, then see to it that he’s fired. It seems redundant, to yell at the poor guy and then also see him fired, but that’s the policy, and that’s what Kennard must do. This happens every month or so, with some new hapless custodial worker. It’s how the garage justifies keeping Kennard around. Aside from keeping up appearances and watching the security tapes, it’s the one clear job he does.
For years Kennard has withheld this aspect of his work from Tina, to her spare her a burst of useless outrage. At last, over a late-night meal of cauliflower curry, he unloads his guilt to her. He’s not sure why. He wants her to erupt with anger for him, and maybe come to hate the job as much as he does.
Tina shakes her head and says, “When they train the janitors, don’t they tell them not to go through the garage?”
Kennard nods. Of course.
She looks at her plate and shrugs, a little sad. “I’m glad those bastards don’t treat you as bad as they treat the janitors.”
After she says this she rolls her eyes, a little bashful, maybe for swearing, maybe for saying something so inconsiderate. It goes without saying that she disapproves of how the custodial workers are treated — of course it is an injustice, of course it is classist and racist and everything else — but she doesn’t voice any of this to him. It seems she’s lost the energy.
— — –
He takes an online class in organic chemistry. On his phone, he steals time away from work, doing readings, taking quizzes. There is great satisfaction to be found in petty theft, he learns. Miranda was right all along. He earns an A-.
He spills a miniscule dribble of coffee on the rug in front of elevator bank at work. His boss fumes and makes him clean it, knees pressed to the cold floor, back bent, chemical fumes wafting up, his right hand scrubbing in a semi-circular motion that makes his tendons hurt.
— — –
Nathan was the wrong name for their child. No longer a baby, the child goes by Karrie, and fears her oncoming puberty like a guillotine blade. Kennard and Tina are quick to get over their confusion, and throw themselves into understanding and being supportive. They see their baby, their daughter’s frustration, they see her, and they know that they must act.
If hormones start soon, they can spare their child years of grief. She can blossom into the person, the girl that she is, and move through society easily. This they want for her. This they promise.
Kennard holds Karrie against his chest. He meets Tina’s gaze from across the room. There are practicalities swirling behind her eyes, numbers and rational thoughts.
“We need better health insurance,” she tells him that night.
Kennard sits at the breakfast table with his daughter. He’s exhausted from work, but hope causes him to brighten.
“We’re going to find a new doctor for you,” he tells her, patting her on the back. “And we’ll help you find other kids, little girls just like you.”
Tina eats fiber cereal and cries like Kennard has never seen before.
— — –
He walks inside a hospital now, his nostrils burning from the stink of medicine and recycled air. It is chilly all the time, and bright, and everywhere he can hear beeping machines, whispering voices, and shoes squeaking against the soft floor.
He is never alone; there are always weak and delirious patients, sobbing huddled throngs of family members, doctors rushing with purpose in their eyes, and nurses in wrinkled scrubs with throaty voices inquiring about his day. He doesn’t get to read much anymore. He has a beat to walk, and must keep moving, despite all the people who wish to chat with him. He is always handing out tissues or giving directions to visitors.
He finds he has an actual purpose. In the ER, he must break up fights and keep drunks from crashing face-first to the floor. When visiting hours are over, he must escort tear-streaked family members from the oncology ward. In obstetrics, he often is tasked with carrying heavy vases filled with flowers or boxes of celebratory champagne. Some bottles have It’s-a-Girl or It’s-a-Boy printed on the side, but he tries to ignore these messages, tries not to be a pedant.
When he takes his break in the cafeteria, the pediatric nurses chat with him, ask him about his daughter. How is she doing? Was she scared to get her ears pierced? Does he have a picture of her? What has she been into lately?
He opens his phone and closes the online learning application, shows them Karrie beaming in a karate uniform. It is stained with apple juice and rumpled but she is delighted to be wearing it. He says she collects rocks, and favors brightly colored stirrup pants.
He sometimes sits at a table with the sick or just grief-stricken and encourages them to eat. Even if the soft-serve or mystery meat from the hospital cafe looks unappetizing, he chides them to feed themselves. It’s fuel, he tells them encouragingly, and your body needs it, especially now. Your body will make something good out of it, no matter how greasy or sickly it looks on your plate. The body’s ability to convert matter into energy is the one great magic we are capable of. From something still and dull and dead, we can rebuild ourselves, lay down new flesh and muscle and bone. Sometimes he starts to rhapsodize, if his dining companion is amenable. He tells them, we are all self-sculptors. We are all tiny gods.
Originally published at erikadprice.tumblr.com.