The Last Summer in Jesus-Land

The Last Summer in Jesus-Land

It wasn’t good enough—to be stuck working the stockroom during the Last Days of a tired Kmart on the failing side of town. No, better was the gleam and shimmer of a newly-opened Super Wal-Mart that flourished just across the highway.

“Associates” from Kmart were jumping ship as fast as they could, seduced by the lure of $6.75 an hour starting, and the opportunity to work under the lightning glow of the Wal-mart’s industrial grade fluoros, among all-the-STUFF-you-could-ever-need-under-one-roof. God, to be able to wend your way from the fresh, bright produce, through the aisles of sleek electronics with the blank TVs staring out at you, to the racks of off-brand clothing wanna-be’s, to Automotive, where everything smelled like new car. All in one stop. It was all there for the taking, a middle-class Garden of Earthly Pleasures. THAT’s where you wanted to work. They gave their employees stock.

I stared hungrily at the sprawl of the Supercenter from across the highway, finishing my cigarette in my flimsy little red Kmart vest. Wal-mart had blue ones. Blue. My red vest didnt seem so vibrant any more. I straightened my name badge and flicked my cigarette away. That’s it. My mind was made up. I had to get out while I still could.

I shed my vest on the way to the car after work. There wasn’t anything I could do about the khakis and the sensible shoes, standard retail duds. They’d guess I was slinking over from the run-down monstrosity across the road, but I wouldn’t broadcast it. The car had barely warmed up before I was getting out again; I should’ve brought a bike to ride up to the entrance; the only parking space I could find was in a far corner of the football field-sized parking lot.

The doors slid apart before me like the legs of a lover. The sound of chimes floated out to me; light and happines spilled forth; a thousand intoxicating scents lulled me in. Two blue-vested angels glided out, a shopping cart between them, singing a ballad of welcoming. They lifted me into the cart, and I knelt in the basket, swooning on the crest of the beguiling music, as they wheeled me through gates of splendor. Wonderland.

The greeter, bathed in golden light, bestowed a blessing on me as I passed by. Darling associ-ettes pranced up to me, flinging garlands aroung my neck, showering me with kisses; they rested their lovely heads upon my shoulder for a moment; their tears of joy dampened my collar. Children ran alongside, cheering and waving. I was surrounded by light. On I rolled; I waved at the lines of beatific customers who turned their heads to beam upon me.

My carriage stopped in front of the Customer Service Shrine, my escorts helped me out and faded away into a throng of  revelers.

A figure of pure goodness and beauty gazed down at me; she spread her arms. “Look upon glory. Ask, and it shall be given unto you.”

With eyes shining, I fought the urge to look away, to shield myself from such radiance. But her tender smile gave me strength, and I lifted my chin, and spoke with boldness. “I’ve come for an application.”

I could see nothing but love in her eyes as she bent her head towards me. “We’ve been expecting you,” she whispered, her breath warm on my cheek. “Without you, we are incomplete. Be with us.” Her lips brushed my neck, lingered for too short a second. “You are home.”

….I reeled from the Shrine, borne aloft on wings of eagles. My hand clutched the Application for Employment; it seemed to pulse with a life of its own. I drifted towards the door, I wanted to stay forever. I would come back. I would return, and then, wear the blue with pride, beloved of my bretheren…

“I like what I see…so if everything comes out all right with your drug test, we’ll goahead and get you started.”

Drug test?

I was sitting in the main office, way back in the bowels of the Super Wal-mart, across the desk from some nameless, pasty middle-manager.

Drug test. The sun flickered and died, planes fell burning from the sky, mothers, weeping, flung their children to the ravenous gods of the Abyss. The Dream was dead. A sign, which I hadn’t noticed before, glared at me from the door of the HR department: “Our pre-employment drug-screenings can detect evidence of drug use up to 60 days prior to testing. Please don’t waste your time, or ours.”

The wonders of the Supercenter faded around me as I wandered back to the entrance, cold and alone. My feet dragged. My head hung. The greeter’s smile was a mockery—her eyes pierced me; she read my shame like it was stamped across my forehead. Junkie. Burnout. Heathen. Pot smoker.  I trudged towards the doors; they slid smoothly open again, but now just waiting to expel this human excrement from heaven. I could see out the door, right across the highway and into a dreary summer as long as an an eternity of shabby Kmart aisles.

I emerged into the day, squinting against the sunlight, which always seemed to fail to shine on the Kmart across the highway. I began the walk of despair; back to my car, and back to Hades, where our little red vests would summon images of sprightly demons cavorting in the aisles. I flung the car door open, collapsed into the seat and gripped the steering wheel, staring grimly out the window at the blue-vested cart-wranglers happily strolling about the parking lot, gathering carts, chatting and smiling like imbeciles at passing customers. I slammed the door shut, twisted the key in the ignition and reflexively reached for the stereo knob.


My hand hovered over the ‘power’ button. An idea was trickling in from the back of my mind.

Wait for it. Wait for it. It could work…couldn’t it? Carefully, my mind assembled other bits of the plan.

Why shouldn’t it work? It had to—as a matter of fact, I didn’t see any way that it could fail! Yes. Now I was fully committed. I’d do it. My heart leapt in my chest—exhiliration raced through me like wildfire; I couldn’t wait to get back to Nemo’s and set things into motion. I flicked on the stereo; my favorite song was playing as I peeled out of the parking lot.

Back at Nemo’s, where I was living during that first summer back from college, I moved with purpose.

“Quick, man, I need a sippy-cup!” I announced as I burst through the door.

Nemo goggled at me from his station in front of the TV. “Wha?”

“A sippy-cup! Do you have one?”

“I…I think so. Check the cupboard.” He twisted around in the Lay-Z-Boy to stare after me as I bustled into the kictchen. “What do you need one for?”

“I am going to pull a fast one on a corporate juggernaut.”

“What?” Nachos stopped en route to his mouth.

I found a 8-ounce sippy-cup, complete with snap-on lid. “This is perfect! Here,” I strode over to him, holding it out. “Pee in this. All night! Whenever you have to go!”

Poor Nemo. “What is going on?”

“Try to keep up, man—” things were moving too quickly, no time for stragglers, “I am going to fake a drug test. Or rather, you’re going to do it for me. You don’t smoke pot, do you? Watch your nachos.”

He righted the bowl about to slip off his lap, and was appalled. “Dude, you know I’ve never—”

“Fine! So all you’ll do is pee in this for me, and tomorrow, I’ll fake the test with it.”

“But wait a second, couldn’t I get in trouble?”

“They’re not going to know whose pee it is!”

“Are you sure?”

I was too close to executing the perfect plan for moral reservations to get in the way. “I think DNA testing would be just a little too stringent for Wal-mart standards. You’ll be fine! Just trust me. And you’re doing me a favor, so, thank you.” That settled, I went out on the back porch and smoked a celebratory joint.

Nemo filled that cup right up. All evening, whenever he had to go, he’d dutifully take the cup into the bathroom with him, and I spent the evening driving around, collecting everything I’d need to pull off The Immaculate Deception.  At the end of the night he showed me his finished product: a purple sippy-cup with an orange lid filled to the brim with urine. Awesome.

I couldn’t sleep that night; the sheer genius of the plan energized me and I tossed about, replaying the steps and trying to anticipate every possible contingency. In the morning I sprang from bed and assembled my paraphernalia: I retrieved the sippy-cup from the top of the dresser where it had been sitting all night, and after pouring out just enough of its contents to ensure the procedure was…well…dryer,  I plugged up its orifices with Sticky-Tac and duct-taped it to my inner thigh. After that came an enormous-legged pair of Jnco skater jeans, which completely concealed the slightest hint of any unusual bulges. Now, this contraption caused me to walk strangely, with a kind of rolling limp, the sippy-cup wedged between my legs forcing me to keep them rather farther apart than usual.

“You’re walking funny,” Nemo said, as I hobbled back and forth across his room, testing out Phase One.

“Thank you, Captain Obvious,” I replied, but I should have cut him a little slack, seeing as I’d just woken him up, and he was giving me as rapt attention as he could manage, tousled and bleary-eyed though he was. “This will not be a problem, however, because once again, you are coming to my aid.”

He flopped back in his bed and buried his head under the pillow. “Aw, maaaan, whaddaya want me to do now? And can’t it wait ’til after breakfast?”

“‘Not much’ and ‘No, it can’t.'” And now I paused for effect, to savor my master stroke of genius before sharing it with the world: “Where is your ankle brace?”

He pointed from under the covers, and I  rummaged through his possessions until I uncovered an unwieldy, strappy, plastic-y device which he’d used while recouping from a baseball injury in highschool. I applied this to my ankle, fiddled with the straps till I got it right, then straightened up and, bursting with pride, walked with an even more pronounced limp, back and forth across his room.

“See? See?”

He did not see. “What am I looking at?”

“Nemo!” I lifted the leg of the giant Jncos, revealing the ankle brace. “If anyone asks why I’m walking funny…”

“Ohhhhh. yeah. The ankle brace.”

“The ankle brace.  I took an unfortunate spill yesterday afternoon after the interview. Went to the ER and everything.”

And now Nemo was beginning to be infected by my enthusiasm. “That’s pretty smart, dude.”

I basked in the glow of accolades. Ever gracious, I said, “I know.”

Mid-morning, I sat smugly opposite the same bland manager as the previous day. My ruse was working perfectly. Too perfectly. No one had even lifted an eyebrow as Id limped stoically through the sliding doors earlier. “Ugh,” I’d said, and then said it again, with more emphasis, when it didn’t elicit the expected response.

“Oh, did you hurt your leg?” Bland Manager had finally asked, blandly, as I followed him into the bowels of the Supercenter.

“Yeah.” I grimaced. “Took a nasty spill after the interview yesterday. Ill be fine. More of an inconvenience, really. Errg.” The BM only gave me an absent nod.

Whatever. We sat across from each other now; he fussed with some papers and mumbled technicalities as I stared contentedly around, still admiring my own brilliance.

“So you’ll go to the testing facility sometime within three days and as soon as your results are processed…”

Blah, blah, blah and then he was waving a paper in my face, standing up and reaching for a handshake, all the while looking like he wished I’d just hurry up and leave so he could sharpen some pencils.

I shook his hand and came as close as I could to skipping out the door. The ruse had come off without a hitch–now I’d just go to the testing facility and even though I had only the vaguest notion of what would happen there I would blindly assume that everything henceforth would be all right. My summer was set. I d be wearing a snappy blue vest and working amid lustrous fresh produce and shiny merchandise in no time.

And then I looked more closely at the paper in my hand. It was a form for the nurse at the testing facility to fill out; then I’d have to give it back to BM before the three days had elapsed. Innocuous enough, but what froze my blood was a blank space, to the left of which was printed “Temperature of Sample–85-99 degrees.”

Nemo’s pee had been sitting out on the dresser all night. In a room. Room temperature.

The world grew dim and threatened to topple in on me right then and there.

I was close.  I was so close.

One excruciating moment of stomach-churning uncertainty later, everything slipped perfectly into place. I’d risen to the challenge. I was cresting a wave of brilliance, and I’d just outdone myself.

I was still employed at the Kmart across the highway. I hobbled to my car.

Minutes later, the doors of the Kmart groaned open for me and I strode through with great purpose, said ‘Hi’ to Cathy, the middle-aged Assistant Manager who always seemed to be looking around her with a sense of befuddled regret, and made my way through the aisles to the back of the store. I passed through the swinging double doors marked “Employees Only” and into the Pit of Despair. There was Kevin in the office, the rotund General Manager who lately seemed to never leave his swivel chair as he stared despondently at a computer screen, watching his little fiefdom crumble into dust around him. I said “Hi, Kevin,” and he perked up, looked around like he was coming out of a trance, saw me, and latched onto the distraction with urgent desperation.  “Oh hi there!” he said with lying, smiling eyes. “Aren’t you off?”

“Yeah, I forgot something in my locker; I’m just gonna be a second,” I said hurriedly as I headed up the stairs to the break room.

“Well, how are things going?” he called after me. “You doing ok? You liking it here?”

“Um, yeah; it’s…whatever.” I faded out as I reached the top of the stairs. I couldn’t feel sorry for him, because then I’d have to feel sorry for every middle-aged college dropout that woke up at age 45 to find themselves trying to justify a career goal that included the words “assistant regional manager” and unable to afford even a moderate midlife crisis. I just couldn’t muster empathy for anyone past 30 who saw ‘retail’ as anything more than a summer job. Call me cruel.

The break room was not empty. Damn. Deezo and Linda sat at the table, chatting amiably over generic coffee. Deezo was my age and the guy that had landed me this cakewalk of a job in the first place. Linda I barely registered, because she looked about 87 and talked of nothing but her grandchildren and choir practice.

“What’re the haps? Aren’t you off?” Deezo looked skeptical, which was how he always looked.  Linda said something that I paid no attention to.

“I left something in my locker.” I needed them to leave. I just stood there.

“Are…you…gonna go get it?”

“Yes.” I looked past them at the coffee maker on the counter. “After I have some coffee.”

Deezo looked skeptical for a second longer, then shrugged and turned back to what must’ve been an enthralling conversation with Linda.  I stepped over to the coffee maker, and fiddled around with it, the contraption on my leg growing more uncomfortable by the second.  I had to get them out of there.

“Hey, Linda, I think Cathy wants to see you up front.”

Linda always looked surprised when I spoke to her. “Did she page me? I didnt hear a page. Did I miss it?”

“No, no, it’s ok. She mentioned some pictures of her kids as I was comin’ in or something…”

She could move fast for her age. “Oh, my goodness, she got those pictures developed? I can’t wait to see them. I don’t think I showed her my grandkids yet…” In a flash she was down those stairs;  leaving a lingering scent of Elizabeth Taylor perfume and old cheese.

Deezo, with no one left to talk about choir practice, looked at his watch and slid his chair out. “Well, I’m off to stand around.”

“Don’t hurt yourself,” I said to his back as he clomped down the stairs.

That happened more smoothly than I’d hoped. Good omen.  I had to move fast. I dropped the Jncos and used my employee box knife to slice the duct tape around my leg. I popped the sippy cup into the microwave and set the timer for 2 minutes on high. Which turned out to be waaaay too long. At 1 minute the pee started boiling and running over and the smell that was wafting from the microwave was unmistakably that of hot piss. I stopped the microwave and grabbed the sippy cup, which had grown soft and malleable from the heat, set it on the counter and looked wildly around for paper towels and cleaner spray. Someone was coming up the stairs. I mopped up the microwave and the outside of the cup, screwed the lid back on and held the cup casually at my side and headed for the stairs. It was Deezo.

“I thought you were standing around,” I said.

“Meh. I changed my mind.”

“Do you work? At all?”

“There’s no one out there. Whats that smell?”

“Idontsmellanythingseeyalaterbye!” I slid past him down the stairs.

Kevin perked up again as I hustled by the office; I blithely ignored him and charged for the front of the store, where Cathy regretfully held up a hand. “I’m sorry, hon, I gotta check your bag. Store policy, you know. Oh god, hope you don’t have underwear in there.”

“Yes, that would be awkward,” I said, as I slipped a hot cup of someone else’s urine into my giant pocket.

“You’re fine, hon,” she said, finishing her inspection of my bag and clearly looking relieved that she’d not been surprised by undergarments. “See you next week.”

“Not a chance,” I mumbled through a forced smile as I waved back at her. She seemed envious that I was leaving. If she only knew the brighter shores I was headed for.

Made it to my car, finally. The sippy cup was still lava-hot and burning my thigh through the pocket of the Jncos. Delicately I removed it and slid into the front seat of the car, then wedged the cup into my crotch, that ever present built-in cup holder for those of us who don’t have cars with fancy cup caddies.

I was gonna get this over and done with. I put pedal to metal and lit out for the testing facility. But now I had another problem. The pee was steaming—even on a summer’s day; obviously still scalding hot and completely out of the acceptable temperature range. What to do? My eyes alighted upon the air conditioner. That’ll work. I flipped the switch to high; dusty, tepid air blasted from the vents. I unscrewed  the lid of the sippy cup—the car hit a bump and Nemo’s day old urine sloshed out and over my hand, burning; I nearly dropped it. Lovely. I’d have to get rid of some of this, only thing was, I had no idea how much they’d need for a sample. Down went the window, out went my left hand, clutching the cup. Have you ever tried to pour liquid out the window of a moving car at 50 miles an hour? It doesn’t cascade neatly to the ground. Nemo’s pee sprayed in an ochre fantail, all along the back of my car—the back windows, the fender, the trunk. Glorious. I’d have to deal with that later. I poured out as much as I dared, then cranked the window back up and held the still-steaming urine in front of the blasting air, which had cooled to a near-polar chill. A glittering miasma of pee-steam blew directly into my face. What a treat.

I was cold, I smelled like someone else’s pee, and my scalded hand was cramped from holding the sippy cup up in front of the vents through 5 miles of city traffic by the time I pulled into the parking lot of the Decatur Memorial Hospital’s Outpatient Medical Facility.  Behind the open car door, I reapplied the reasonably cooler sippy cup to the inside of my thigh, re-fastened the Jncos, checked that all my necessary tools were  in my pockets, adjusted the ankle brace and hobbled into the facility. What followed was as an interminable 30 minutes of waiting for my turn, squeezing my legs together in a feeble attempt to preserve the sample’s heat, my chief concern now that it would have cooled off too much by the time I took my turn.

Finally they called me. I hobbled through the door, and the pretty nurse smiled warmly; then her brow creased with concern. “What happened to your leg?” she crooned.

I swelled with pride and slid my pants leg up, modeled the brace. “I took a nasty fall. I’ll be all right, though.”

“Oh you poor thing,” she clucked. And now we came to…dear God…a cop? Panic surged through me like electricity: had I been spotted in the parking lot? Had someone tipped them off? Nemo? Was he on their payroll? And if so, who were “they”? Could you be arrested for faking a drug test? They would cart me away in handcuffs, the ankle brace, my piece d’resistance, dragging from my leg like a broken toy; goodbye Wal-mart—I’d spend the summer in jail…

“Just need to check under your hat.” The big cop smiled amiably and indicated the floppy bucket hat I wore, haute couture that year.

My…hat? Obliginly I lifted the hat, and he smiled again and waved me on to the bathroom. Didnt even ask about my pockets. Well, I’d know for next time—never try to hide a urine sample under your hat. The tops of heads are just not a good place for hiding things these days.

The nurse handed me the sample cup with a smile—either everyone here was in a good mood or they were hiding their intentions expertly; maybe they’d burst in on me at the last second, catching me red-handed—and into the bathroom I went. The moment of truth. I snatched the box knife out of my pocket, dropped the Jncos and sliced the duct tape. It was like a heist; I was practiced and smooth. Carefully, reverently, I held up Nemo’s Cup-O-Pee. I unscrewed the lid; it was still warm. Gently poured the urine into the sample cup—my God, they didn’t even need a quarter of a cup! And here I’d been fussing around with 8 ounces of liquid offal for 2 days. I watched the temperature strip crawl past 85 degrees and hover somewhere in the middle: I’d done it. It was over. I’d pass.

The toilet didn’t flush; a misguided attempt by The Man to prevent such deceptions as I was, even now, perpetrating—if they wanted to see some pee, I’d show ’em some pee. Heady with success, I poured the rest of Nemo’s urine into the bowl, silently thanking him, and making a mental note to tell him it looked as if he needed to drink more water.

The sample went to the nurse, and I floated on out the door. It was a gorgeous summer’s day—I’d just noticed that. Sippy cup, wad of duct tap went into the trash bin; a skip in my step—I let it happen this time. Wal-mart. The name sounded like a prayer.

Later, much later—the ex-girlfriend and I would end up working in the same department,  I’d do blow in a backseat with a pretty young thing from Housewares, I’d walk for hours around the store to avoid work, I’d meet my real father in the produce section, and Deezo would join a redneck gang…but those are stories for another day.

At the exit of the parking lot, I sat behind the wheel, revved my engine. I looked both ways; all clear. The sun shone, birds sang, ‘Possum Kingdom’ played on the radio…

I decided to get a chocolate chip cookie dough Blizzard.

Then the car wash.