By Sudip Bhattacharya
It was a Friday night in central New Jersey, an oasis of strip malls and neon clouds, when one man, shorter in stature (which is critical to keep in mind when speaking about various shades of men), told another how badly some days, he’d wanted to ram his car into a wall rather than go back to work.
The taller one, nondescript, named Rajesh, burst out laughing at this, causing the other to slowly grin and take more sips from his mug, the liquid burning down his esophagus, part of an age-old tradition of human beings wanting to fuck themselves up to feel “good.”
Admittedly, the whole ramming-a-car-into-a-wall thing was intended to be a half-joke. Or an extreme version of what was swirling within the shorter man, known as Manabendra, or Mana, for short (pun intended).
Yet, it was half of a reality. Of a real feeling. Still, Mana chugged, and soon, he was beginning to smile more, to feel loose. To sway.
Sarita would join them soon, dumping her engorged purse on the floor, ripping off her mask, and calling over one of the servers. Manabendra hadn’t spoken to Sarita in quite a while. Translation: a few days. Both Sarita and Mana had aspired to be journalists, speaking truth to power, wearing a very serious face while asking very serious questions of very unserious people, such as local politicians who’d love to stress how “loving” the community was what they represented, following another hate crime, or someone at a local city council event rambling about the “globalists” or better yet, some immigrant of color complaining about all the “undeserving” “illegals” swarming into New Jersey all the way from Venezuela.
For a year, they worked in the same newsrooms until the hyper-local papers were guzzled up by the larger corporate hellscapes, with Ronald Reagan smiling from below their feet, sweltering. Sarita, given her particular situation, decided to freelance when she could but shifted mainly into other avenues of office work, as well as Uber and DoorDash on the side, though being a female Uber driver meant men hitting on you as they vomit over themselves.
Regardless, Mana remained in the “biz,” now writing glorified PR for local businesses, such as spending an entire afternoon interviewing a local diner owner of a 60-plus-year-old diner celebrating its anniversary. This was the essence of the problem he had now with his job. All he did, he exclaimed to Rajesh, was interview people turning 100, who could barely speak while trapped in their beds, as their family members hung balloons, or write up articles on how “important” a local business was to the “community,” when such terms and concepts are barely examined. What does it all mean when it’s still a diner cooking subpar food with workers who could care less because they’re stuck with hours they never wanted? What about the diners themselves? Is it really that hopeful to hear about people who’ve spent almost every day at an establishment that burns pancakes and serves coffee that tastes like hot tap water?
“What about the Black guy?” Rajesh commented as he scanned the room, spotting someone here and there who had a nice smile of their own. “Deleterious? Denzel?”
Sarita, at this point, was tearing into her buffalo chicken burger that she’d ordered, the sauce running down her hands.
Mana couldn’t stop glancing at her, wanting to say something, anything.
“His name is Demetrius, you know that,” he responded before adding how much the editors loved him since Demetrius had been there for the past several weeks. “He has a way of talking that they really like, and I dunno …”
“The whole Floyd thing got them more focus, more support,” Rajesh added.
Sarita kept chewing, although she cast a side eye, before checking on her DoorDash app, seeing if there were anyone else ordering a late-night snack or toilet paper she could drop off before her next shift.
“I don’t know about that …” Mana said, although Rajesh was now looking up at the TV set, with large men ramming themselves against other large men, with some grunting and falling and not moving after a certain time. Eventually, Rajesh got up to order more courage for everyone, including Sarita, who was now scrolling through various orders, trying her best not to stain the last clean skirt she had for that week.
Perched on his stool, Mana tried not to stare or be a weirdo. Yet, it was difficult not to think about past moments drifting in and out of his consciousness. A group of ogres cheered, and another group plowed through the front door, laying claim to space at the bar. Some watched Sarita from across the room.
Mana swayed, eyelids drooping. Hitting a proverbial wall. His body sank into sludge. Loose lips led to words somehow spilling. Gibberish mostly. The next morning, as he lay in the back of his car, grateful it was the weekend, he also very much wanted to punch the person he saw in the window. And so began his slow recovery from goon to somewhat presentable for the remainder of the day, the smog rising like phantoms. The local ShopRite peered through like a poor man’s castle.
At the same time that Mana was sinking and slinking away to his apartment that he shared, which always reeked of bad breath, Demetrius had spent the previous several hours at one of the countless gas stations/convenience stores/bathroom spots for truckers littered all across the beloved Garden State, home to James Gandolfini and state troopers who shot and almost murdered Assata Shakur. In fact, just as Mana was still sinking into his mug the previous night, Demetrius had parked at a convenience store, surrounded by faces and voices staggering into the convenience store part of the gas station enterprise, none of them wearing masks, of course. Wearing his mask, Demetrius bided his time until the lines inside had dwindled, since most people were on their way to the bars and chain restaurants at the heart of every major suburb in the area, chasing after a version of themselves they could somewhat stand or believe in. Demetrius, on the other hand, had no time for any of that. He assumed he never would.
Instead, he bought some beef jerky, some Gatorade and proceeded to watch YouTube videos concerning the U.S. shipment of arms to Ukraine in support of far-right fighters. Apparently, being a Nazi was okay again. However, in the midst of this spiral, another email, sent to his work email, flashed at the top of his phone.
He groaned and took a breath. Hesitation was there, but he knew better. Also, he recognized the email. It had been possibly the third or fourth email sent by a group of employees at a local distribution center for a major company known for shipping items overnight. It was owned by a man who enjoyed firing off his metaphorical penises into the night sky.
We are still being told we need to come to work even if we’re sick. We’re being treated less than people. We are planning on —
A deep sigh. The trees in this part of MIddlesex surrounded him. The road he was on had been a stretch of warehouses, with large parking lots and clusters of trees and bush. Still, you could hear the distant hum of traffic. Everywhere you’d go, you can always hear the distant hum of traffic or hear someone honking.
The game plan was never for Demetrius to return to the suburbs from where he grew up and tried to survive. When he and his parents moved into a larger home with a lush green lawn and a driveway they could park their cars on (as everyone else would do), letting the cars sparkle under the sunlight, Demetrius was still fairly young, around seven or eight. Admittedly, he wanted to move, having seen all the TV shows and having passed by towns where it was so quiet and calming without the constant worry of being run over by an impatient and callous driver or the fear of never having the space to roam, like in certain parts of the county.
But he’d soon realize how isolating it could all be. It was mostly just him, with other students being nice to him at school but no one really talking to him or being interested in who he was. He was never bullied, but none of the students asked about him. A few friends, here and there, scattered. That was all. Plus, to get anywhere of value, you’d have to bike until your limbs would fall off.
After working for a few months in upstate New York, in areas where towns were crumbling, where old factories loomed like skeletons of ancient monsters, Demetrius was compelled to return. His brother owned their family home now, along with his brother’s wife, Samantha. They welcomed him back, although his brother insisted Demetrius search for some PR work instead. Samantha would often tell a joke to deflect the rising tension, but she too didn’t quite understand what the purpose of local newspapers was anymore since there was social media and larger papers that could report on anything significant.
After having deleted the email, out of sight and out of mind — a looming strategy for the past several weeks — he returned to his YouTube and to submitting the last vestiges of articles just in time for the next day’s print edition. Since working at the Middlesex Courier, Demetrius volunteered for all assignments related to local “fluff,” as some would call it, from 100-year-old great-grandmas wanting to talk about some hazy memory growing up to interviewing local council members of local towns, eager to promote a saccharine “we’re all immigrants” narrative about their community and people.
The previous weekend, Demetrius, who was African American, had been fortunate to interview the mayor, who was Indian American, of East Brunswick, a suburban town consisting of Arabs, Koreans, Indians, and whites (and some Black residents), discussing the “founding” of the town, minus the dispossession of native land and the lingering paranoia over property crime. The mayor insisted Demetrius return next year for Columbus Day, when the town would celebrate its “Italian American residents,” much like they did other groups (except for the Indigenous, since that would be a bit “divisive,” according to said mayor).
Certainly, a part of Demetrius would feel the urge to complicate or, rather, unveil the truer narrative simmering beneath. It was his reason for wanting to be a journalist in the first place, what his parents always urged him to do. Yet, they weren’t there when he was upstate and he was pursuing what he felt was the correct line, and in response, had found himself vulnerable and overwhelmed. They weren’t there when he’d receive calls in the middle of the night or when his editors would constantly have meetings to “discuss” his “role.”
They weren’t there on nights when his heart would be beating out of his chest as he’d try and stave off another panic attack while driving down a road that had no separation between him and the river below.
They weren’t there when all he could do after a certain point was stay inside most weekends, having snatched up a rotisserie chicken from the Stop and Shop, hiding in his studio like inside a bunker, as the world around him hummed and scrambled for more.
“Fucking bitch,” a man with an unkempt beard (the stray hairs poking out every which way) and barely able to stand yelled over the phone.
Another man smoked a cigarette a few feet from the gas tanks, nonchalantly puffing out globs of smoke. He reminded Demetrius of a cousin of his, someone he’d grown up with until they fled for the open pastures of secluded living. Sometimes, he’d stay in touch, text, or over some months, call and see how some family or friends were still coping on the outskirts of Hamilton.
The ads started to play now as he finished submitting his last piece into the editing system that their editors could review. There were ads for Wawa, ads for clothing services that would determine what outfits to wear (to cut down on time in the morning when rushing forth into the world), and ads for Netflix shows that Demetrius would play while falling asleep. This time, all he could think about now were his parents, his cousins, and his friends he still texted with but hadn’t seen in months. His brother glared while eating breakfast as if he was about to fight the fruit loops, the dress shirt without a single crease. Samantha was also about to head out in a few, but handed him a cup of coffee and asked what his next writing assignments were, despite it always now being the same, which Demetrius had appreciated, or told himself he did.
More trucks ambled past, situating themselves side-by-side, while a police siren echoed from miles away. Over the treeline, one could spot lights glowing in the sky, like some sort of vortex. Bright lights from the cluster of bars and restaurants that offered the same menu, and comfort, each and every day. Not too far from them were still the quintessential suburban homes, two floors at least, with a mailbox, with a lawn that you needed to hire others to maintain. Yet, as Demetrius would notice during some of his drives, as he’d scour for more Gatorade and beef sticks, there were smaller houses too, houses that sunk into the ground, alongside vacant lots, with vape shops and Walmart along the border between towns. High rises materialized, filling up with refugees from the nearby cities.
The American Dream, as exemplified by the construction of the suburban sprawl, had been concocted on a bargain that ultimately never resolved the looming issues of U.S. capitalism. The suburbanite, usually still a working person but, like Demetrius’ parents, people who were more or less white-collar professionals, traded in class consciousness and class struggle for a nice home and more space, believing that they would no longer endure the trappings of being a “working class person.” When in reality, the problems inherent to capitalism had never gone away, such as the lingering fact that even as a white-collar professional, you had to abide by the whims and desires of your employer. Your time was his time. Your work was based on his needs. If you lost your job, given that there is no real functioning long-term and humane social welfare system in place (not since the saxophone man), the nice lawn, the cars sparkling, the additional rooms attached, all of it would no longer be yours to keep. Never mind the bargain that had been made, a bargain that allowed for major companies to still dominate public policy, would start to corrode American society at-large, with health insurance costs skyrocketing, with affordable housing becoming a rare commodity fought over like an artifact. The American Dream was indeed a stress-inducing farce, wearing down a person’s bones and soul.
Later that night, while his brother and Samantha slept, Demetrius watched some videos on YouTube about politics in Ethiopia before choosing to watch naked women grinding on one another instead. Eventually, he’d message someone on an app, tell them they looked beautiful, and subsequently drift away until all he thought about was a woman he knew upstate who said he had a nice smile. They would have sex on top of a lion, breathing fire, soaring through the star-filled sky, headed straight to the sun.
“Have you been in contact with employees at this warehouse in Princeton?” A pause. “’Cause they’re saying they tried to forward you info but never heard back …”
The Middlesex Courier main office had been tucked between a pizzeria, Chinese takeout, and a gym. Usually, you could hear someone on the treadmill stomping, and groaning. The walls were exceptionally thin. The parking lot always had cars, even late at night, for some reason. Brave individuals possibly visiting friends in the area, no longer caring about paying off parking tickets. A skill to have in the U.S. is avoiding debt collection agencies, learning to recognize certain numbers, and making up voices when answering by mistake.
Surrounding the strip mall were houses, many of them ranches, many of them sinking into the ground, it seemed. Late at night, voices and shadows would appear in some of the windows, as lights would glow like portals. Often, all you could still hear were the sounds of traffic buzzing on the freeway hidden behind the rows of houses and brown hedges.
A part of Demetrius wanted to admit when Mana stood by his desk, questioning, that he didn’t care about what happened in the warehouse. He was perfectly ok with the routine assignments, the routine questions he could ask of local mayors incredibly elated to show off their latest “multicultural” mural with the stenciled-in people, some of them colored bright yellow or purple.
But that was only partially true.
“I would ignore them,” Demetrius said, finally. As expected, it was just him and Mana now at the office, with the disembodied voice of some grumpy sports reporter hidden in the back row.
Mana tried not to, but before he could reel it in, he’d already arched his eyebrows, and tilted his head. Internally, his chest was slowly gathering steam, bumping against his chest.
“I think we should talk with them,” he said, clenching and unclenching his left hand as he held onto a piece of paper, scribbled on with some notes he no longer cared to decipher anymore with his right.
Demetrius, this time, looked up from his laptop and sought to read Mana’s face as Mana proceeded with reasons why, some of which matched Demetrius’ but nonetheless didn’t change the situation at hand. If they were to proceed with this story, they would require the backing of some of the main editors, many of whom were encouraging them to focus on other types of stories, stories that “appealed” to a broad swath of older readers and those who’d maybe seek to buy ad space someday.
Strange. Frustrating. Oblivious. These were the words that came to mind whenever Demetrius would hear or think about Mana, or interact. In fact, when Demetrius started his new career at the Courier, on his very first day, when all he wanted to do was start emailing and building up his network, it was Mana who decided to take him out, to get him better acquainted with the neighborhood that Demetrius had been “detached” from for so many years, as if he was Odysseus returning from some mysterious journey overseas, when all he did was live and work a few hours away in the bowels of deindustrialized America.
Still, he felt he had no choice and grudgingly accepted his role as “guest,” while Mana drove them into the heart of Desi America or, as Mana said, “Little India,” where all around them were saree shops and uncles with fat bellies seated on street corners, muttering to one another with their arms crossed. They would park somewhere in the more residential parts and walk downtown instead. Mana, gesturing in each and every way as he talked, persisted in his role as “guide,” while Demetrius noticed faces peeking between blinds, some watching him intently as he strolled by. The back of his neck felt hot. Once downtown, in line at one of the main restaurants, where the owner would patrol as the mostly female staff served plates of food in an almost factory-like setting, Demetrius could still feel the eyes watching.
“And this is something that could really get us more interesting stories too, down the road, of course,” Mana finally concluded.
“What about Jim? When should we tell him?” Demetrius said coolly.
Mana absorbed the question, a smile oozing, although as usual, he was confused by Demetrius’ demeanor and goals. When Demetrius appeared as the new hire, staplers and new notebooks in tow, Mana had initially felt hopeful.
Yet, during their first staff meeting, a glorified check-in between a handful of reporters who remained some form of full-time status while driving for Uber on the weekends and editors logged in through Zoom, Demetrius spoke about “excitement for being part of the team,” his “belief in news reporting that appealed to people’s sense of community,” and an acceptance of the “shifting ground of news reporting.” To Mana, Demetrius seemed more suited for PR, his arrangement of words and emotion exuding brand loyalty and a “belief” in the higher-ups’ “vision.”
Was Mana wrong to think this? Was it too presumptuous? Perhaps Mana could attempt to comprehend Demetrius’ precarity as a fresh employee within a newsroom filled with faceless masters, some of whom were journalists themselves but more likely, journalists who played the game well to be in the positions they were in, which included finding ways to cut away “dead weight” for the paper’s proclaimed future, so it can “adapt” for the 21st century “storytelling” journey. The “dead weight” in recent weeks had been the staff photographers, an assortment of veterans who would mutter in the back row during meetings, arms crossed, chewing on the ends of pens. Now, all the reporters were encouraged to snap images off their smartphones. Mana initially rejected this idea, especially when it was freezing outside, and most of his images of burnt-down buildings and people entering another “historic” diner had been incredibly blurry. Rumor had been many of the photographers were doing freelance for weddings and similar events, probably muttering between the shots, with blue and purple ink staining their lips.
Demetrius purchased a camera of his own, which he slowly lifted up for the black boxes on Zoom to view and congratulate him at one meeting. Demetrius’ “determination” was appreciated, said one black box to another.
“Next time, just let someone else know ahead of time,” said Mana. “I know you’re busy and trying to catch up with everyone. But, we don’t want people like this to lose faith in our paper and what it can do to help them.”
“Understood. And thank you for understanding …” Demetrius replied, his every utterance causing Mana to nearly wince. “But I think it’s best we still talk to Jim then before we do anything.”
Standing there, Mana could feel the tectonic shifts below him. He could picture the people at the warehouse fainting below the conveyor belts. A scene of his old high school popped into his head, with the other boys shoving him against a locker, busting his lip. Shadows that loomed over him.
Back at the bar, as Mana recounted what happened, Rajesh shook his head.
“What a bitch,” Rajesh exclaimed, who then proceeded to order more drinks for the table. Mana himself felt slightly lighter having shared what he did, although he now felt silly too. As Rajesh called out for others across the crowd, Mana glanced at the empty screen of his phone, hesitating.
Calling Sarita after work had resurfaced. But immediately, the usual shame and regret would surge through him. Instead, the bar lights twinkled, shadows kept looming in his head, more “friends” would appear, slapping him on the back and laughing after another day of fucking around at a desk or stitching together some DoorDash deliveries for a decent amount of access to feeling loose and brave and confused in the morning. Rajesh and the others eyed legs, chests, hair, and ass across the room, dissolving into the crowd as best they could, while somebody Mana scarcely remembered, some guy who wore a fedora unironically in his Facebook (excuse me, “Meta”) profile, if Mana was correct, kept insisting that the future of the “West” lay in the creation of biodomes with strict policies deciphering who was “in” and who’d be “canceled” in the real world matter-of-fact. In the good news department, according to this “expert,” Desi men of “high value” such as them would certainly make the “cut.” The man, Mana recognized, swung his legs while perched on the stool next to his. Seeking to emotionally disengage, although the disgust was starting to burn holes into his chest, Mana took sips and nodded when he felt he needed to. Everyone seemed to be having a perfectly satisfactory time, with some women grinning and others accepting drinks, although what would happen next was still a huge unknown. The man, however, kept shoving his phone into Mana’s face, displaying his latest “insights” on Facebook.
It was then, before parts of his mind had completely melted away with him puking in the parking lot, that he decided the next day he would email back to the employees, seeking a way to visit the warehouse and get a glimpse of its Manichean functionalities. Its internal logic and nightmare routines. Its people whose working lives are kept hidden from the public in various ways.
It was also at this similar point in time when Demetrius, after having made plans with someone he met online and enjoying thinking about the prospect of meeting them, the fantasy carrying him along, started to wonder more about the warehouse too. Although he was less enthused by any notion of being connected with any of the employees who’d hoped to make a connection with him. Still, he couldn’t shake off the details of the emails, how much it reminded him of what he’d heard from the parents of his friends whenever he and his parents had visited their old neighborhood years ago, feeling like a millennia ago, truth be told.
Right after moving, his parents noticed how few friends Demetrius had been making in his new environment, and so they’d find time on the weekend, between grocery runs and random errands, to meet with old friends. It was during these periods of suspended reality, in which Demetrius, while watching TV with some friend, would peek into the kitchen, and catch one of his friends’ parent’s eyelids drooping, nodding off in mid-conversation, only to jolt back awake and make a joke about the long hours with Demetrius’ parents, and offer them a stiff drink.
Demetrius’ mom, over time, would also offer people visiting their new home a stiff drink to drag them back into the moment they all meant to be sharing or to at least push them through. Demetrius’ dad usually would still be in the backyard, grumbling about the landscapers somehow missing all of the extra weeds. Muttering to Demetrius, his father would be absorbed in the soon-to-be ritual task of pulling crabgrass, like alien parasites, out of the ground, the soil tumbling out.
Later that week, Demetrius would cancel his date and, over the weekend, start to dig into some of the company records instead. Learning about all the fines the warehouse’s main owners had paid over the last few months alone. Learning about how certain numbers represent people who faint, throw up or lose their senses during their shifts.
Demetrius would pause on digging deeper for a few days, so he could still be in the correct frame of mind for his hard-hitting reporting at the Courier. It’s difficult to ask fun and engaging questions of someone whose grandparents are verging on 101, when all you keep seeing are silhouettes lying motionless right below conveyor belts, glasses littered across stained kitchen tables, brimming with dark brownish liquid like sludge, or the echoes of one’s father bellowing into a phone at a telemarketer a coworker calling on his day off. Usually, his father would drag in some new breath and settle. Often, he’d go to the backyard while the TV was left on, blaring.
It’s difficult to ask someone about their days doing some arcane dance (the “honky tonk” blues or something like it) when the ground around you starts to feel like it’s muddy. The echoes and flashes turn your vision blurry. Your feet are heavy. Versions of yourself in never-ending competition, wrestling one another for the steering wheel and gauge. A pink sky overhead.
Before moving northwards into Canada’s icy innards and towns full of moose-wearing plaid overalls, Mana’s parents, especially his mother, chided him for not being more “strategic” about how he proceeded in his reporting. Belief wasn’t the issue. Mana’s mother truly recognized the value of Mana’s work, but what she didn’t quite comprehend had been his sometimes over-the-top (her words) zeal/obsession/spiral over particular topics and issues. Her hand against his cheek while at the Newark airport, the air oversaturated with the sound of honking and people yelling about other people honking, she insisted that Mana “take time to think” before he’d zoom ahead to another assignment.
Her hand was rough, and he focused on the crescent scar right above her left eye, where she fell during one of her shifts several years ago. All he could muster at the moment was some type of smile, and some bits of Bengali he still clung to for moments such as these. On the ride back, ensnared in the gut of the turnpike, cars inching forward every several hours, Mana was thrown back in time, during the days when his father would return from work, his tie already loosened, not saying a word as he sat on the couch, and sipped. The days when he’d quickly wash up his lip in the bathroom before either of his parents returned.
There was so much he wanted to say, to share. About those days. About the shadows of people looming over him. Over them. How else do you react to such things? How else to respond, other than to feel goosebumps spread, other than to feel the heat in your chest, in your ears? In your head, like it would screw off and fly into the air at any moment.
But he believed this would simply scare them. Plunge them into fear over him. Make them even more anxious than they needed to be.
Which was reality. Desi parents have a way of overreacting. A papercut can sometimes turn into prayers that one’s child doesn’t suddenly get infected and perish. A callback perhaps to their own precarity growing up under the shadow of colonialism and its aftermath.
Regardless, some would argue, such as Sarita, that it was still possible to broach the subject over time. To plant seeds for broader discussions along the way. Silly, Mana believed, as he took an exit and, instead, chose to swerve and honk his way through the local roads, taking his chances, wagging a fist cartoonishly at times. Exaggeration being a key form of protection, of showing others you’re not one to test.
Unless, of course, you’re an employer or, rather, an editor whose main function has been to “maintain decorum” and a pipeline of ad revenue. A long story short, Mana did visit the warehouse, located as it was deep in the forests of Middlesex, on a road filled with similar-style warehouses with massive parking lots and motels a few minutes’ drive away, and some languid gas stations that looked abandoned, save for the lone Sikh man, his beard Gandalf gray, bundled up while on a foldable chair, watching videos on his phone, chuckling and coughing.
The warehouse, as one would expect, was draped in sweat, the stench of vomit, and unburnt lead. Let in through a backway, Mana pressed his back against the walls, his eyes adjusting, absorbing. When Mana relayed this warehouse visit to Demetrius weeks later — when they would argue whether or not to share what they had with another outlet, or blog instead — a part of Demetrius couldn’t help but feel somewhat impressed by Mana’s navigating the innards of a corporate behemoth. Although a part of Demetrius couldn’t help but feel somewhat impressed by such actions, it was quickly followed up by confusion, amusement, and some frustration too. When word spread of Mana’s rendezvous, Demetrius had imagined Mana being apprehended by management far sooner for some reason.
“It was just me,” Mana said one late afternoon as another editor in the rotation called his desk, forcing him to press the phone into his ear to muffle their voice. Still, it wasn’t difficult to hear the other person bellowing, then retreating, then bellowing again. Apparently, management didn’t appreciate Mana’s “visit” and let it be known as one does. “I was the only person they contacted, yes,” said Mana, pricking Demetrius’ ear.
That evening, as the stomping of feet on conveyor belts resumed, as someone grumbled desks behind, Demetrius returned to his usual routine, finding a new gas station/minimart to haunt. Still, he’d look up more information about the company, as well as return to previous pages of government material he’d downloaded eons ago. People had been wasting away within its jaws, and yet all its main “leaders” had to do was pay fines. Indeed, the company had poured money into both the Democrats and Republicans, including some who considered themselves diametrically opposed to one another’s agendas. U.S. democracy at its finest ebb, having evolved from excluding us to now, finding other ways to diminish certain peoples’ voices and interests by manufacturing a political “status quo” in which the left-wing, the objective vessel of improved humanity, is edged out as the far-right populist rails against China and coalitions are forged between “sensible” Republicans and Democrats.
This was no time to be sanctimonious, however. This was a time for action that would push beyond such bounds of “conventional” discourse and politics. It was evident what was occurring in their very own county, and yet, the “both sides” narrative was rearing its head in the guise of responsible editors and their most loyal. Truth be told, stability was a major incentive, especially as he would wake up daily, with his brother staring at him across the table, swallowing pancakes while avoiding the syrup dripping onto his tie, asking him — no, telling him to stay on his new, refined path.
His brother did love him, and cared about him. Samantha would remind him of this, although more recently, she’d drop in other such factoids and parables that did have an effect, i.e., “I read your article last week, and you do have a way of putting the reader in your shoes” was one of her latest comments, quickly adding, however, “It would be useful for some firms in Manhattan though.”
When Mana received the text from Demetrius about finally working together, it did feel like some form of diabolical destiny, the astute one allying with the brash and bold. The sidekick with the smarts allied with him, the heroic modern Seymour Hersh — though technically, Hersh was still alive, so —
“What’s the plan?” Demetrius asked from across the table of the Chinese takeout next door.
Some workers wanted to speak with them, Mana explained. They wanted to share their truth.
“Good, but how many do we think we need? And, how do we get a statement from the company, so we can actually run this by Jim.”
“I’m thinking … four?”
Mana paused. Their Kung Pao chicken was glowing. They returned to their cars, drove to a ShopRite parking lot, and consumed their food on the car hood, the frigid air working against their hot and sour soups.
“Next time, we should meet somewhere indoors,” said Demetrius, as his hand shook, bringing a chunk of chicken and broccoli close to his mouth, the soy sauce leaving inky pools on the car.
“You’re always welcome to chill at my place then,” Mana said. “My roommate usually is out on the weekends, probably watching a movie and falling asleep like some dumbass.”
As Mana rambled on about this roommate, who seemed to be aimless and yet uptight at the same time, Demetrius chewed, retreating into the plan forming in his head, like a cloud gaining shape. Soon, Demetrius would tell Mana his family was expecting him. A part of Mana knew this wasn’t the truth, having spotted Demetrius a few nights ago, chuckling inside his car at a nearby 7–11. Mana, at the time, didn’t have the energy to say hello, or want to try and spark a conversation and so returned home with his bag of caramel corn and slushie. Still, Mana remembered, but knew better than to say anything, as Demetrius got back into his car, disappearing into the orange sun.
In a few moments, Mana would text Rajesh, text his roommate, text someone else, and not read their responses, as he too would try and find a new bar to be in, someplace with TV screens jutting out from every side of every wall of every inch, people cheering at scenes, yelling, cheap drinks spilling. Someone is always too eager to sing, stumbling as others around them cackle and applaud. It was always the same hits. It was always the same type of people, very much anxious for approval. The same crescendo of voices, the same echo.
Minutes later, he found himself at a bar he’d never been to, in a town he’d typically coast through or stop at the Dunkin’, ready to puke, someone yelling and clapping for him. Joy. Spirit. A concept of living at the tail-end of capitalist hubris and the suburbs coming apart, its guts oozing onto barroom floors and cul-de-sacs with greenery and acne-scarred roads. Mana swayed and laughed at everything he believed was funny at that particular series of moments, his legs swinging a few inches above the shiny floor.
In the first week of the pandemic, according to Priya, at least four employees had no choice but to stay home. Still, they were only allowed one day, two at most, before they had to return to work, ultimately coughing and sneezing until some had to be escorted into a backroom/”healthcare facility,” which was basically a closet with one supposedly trained nurse, who’d take their temperature and instruct them to “rest” for a half-hour, swallow an Advil, and head back to the main floor.
“Some had to leave, especially the older ones,” Priya related, the N95 mask hugging her face as they remained at the corner cafe in a town a few miles away from the warehouse. Both she and Langston, her male co-worker, didn’t want to go inside, despite their breath slipping through, forming tiny clouds around them.
“And you brought this up to management?” Mana asked.
“Yes,” Priya said.
“Do you have written proof of that and of what management said?” Demetrius added.
Shifting in his seat, Langston kept glaring across the street at the silhouettes of people rushing by. No steam lifting off from their cups. No sips from him either, as he leaned forward, his hands stuffed into his coat pockets, his eyes fixed ahead. Darting. Maneuvering between car headlights and parking meters. A desire to run was building. A desire to run, chase after the silhouettes. A desire to hide, melt away into his bedroom sheets, shades drawn.
Priya nudged him. Instantly, he remembered when Priya informed him that sometimes he looked like he’d been constipated. That was one of the first things she’d said to him when working together. There was a level of annoyance crawling up his throat like bile, but he’d made a decision (in a series of decisions) to perceive moments such as these as moments of honesty that’d been missing from his life. It didn’t hurt that such “observations” about him by Priya were undeniably humorous or unique.
Admittedly, that annoyance would linger, sometimes slither behind his eyeholes. Sometimes, the compulsion to disengage would worm its way into his frontal lobe.
“Talk about what Jerry said to you when you came in with a Black Lives Matter shirt,” Priya said.
“I wasn’t the only one,” Langston said.
“Yea, but you were the only Black person he spoke to about it,” she said, turning back to Demetrius and Mana to fill them in further about the situation.
At their workplace, there’d been nearly an even split between African American workers and Asian and Latino workers, most of whom were recent immigrants to the area. There had been instances where the various groups interacted with each other, but it was mainly during their lunch breaks, and even then, prior to some of the organizing, much of it was random, or superficial, like asking about how peoples’ weekends went.
Here, Langston intervened, clarifying that in some cases, there was also prejudice among members, with some of the African American employees distrustful of the recent immigrants.
“They do keep their distance from their Black coworkers if we’re being honest,” said Priya.
“But some of it is also bigoted stuff,” Langston responded, now leaning back in his chair.
Priya faced Demetrius and Mana again, narrowing her eyebrows at them. “People are shitty, newsflash,” she said.
“Listen,” Priya said to him, “it’s real. I’m not saying everybody is but some are.”
“I’m not saying you’re wrong,” Langston clarified, “I’m just saying some folks definitely take it too far.”
“I’ve heard what some folks say in Hindi,” she said, “It’s wild. Wild stuff.”
“Again, no disagreement here. But.”
“I feel like our core organizing group has more Black folks in it.”
“Yea, and that’s because they don’t recruit other people we need.”
“That’s just me. One person.”
“Maybe more of the Asian workers need to have more conversations too.”
“With the people they know. ’Cause I know that sometimes people sit back too much and think others will just come through …”
“Right. But it goes both ways.”
“Never said it didn’t.”
The sky was pink. Trash cans were thrown. Shopping carts at the ShopRite rushed across the jagged asphalt. The conversation whirled inside Mana as Demetrius warmed up his car. Neither of them really spoke after the interview, although there were so many things Mana wanted to say, or contend with. One of which being at what point should they release something, or share it with one of their editors. And which one? Believing they only needed one more person to speak to, he bided his time, as he too warmed up his seats, and punched in the GPS back home, to a night of thoughts swirling.
Ultimately, Demetrius advised they should “sit with” what transpired, the new knowledge, and discuss more the next day. Of course, Mana disagreed. Yet, he told Demetrius to have a safe trip home, and navigated past the fleeing carts, like on an obstacle course. Time was not their friend, Mana recognized, especially if they hoped to play a positive role in the organizing efforts. Still, it was evident, based on Demetrius’ body language, that if there had been an attempt to explore this reality, it would’ve combusted, or led down a path unknown.
Maybe he was wrong, Mana thought, as he went past the third Papa John’s on his left, as he got back onto the freeway, along with thousands of others debating what they should’ve said or done hours ago, years ago. Channeling themselves into self-destructive hobbies. Maybe he was wrong, Mana told himself, repeatedly.
Still in his car, waiting for the heat to swell, Demetrius thought the same. Worry began to creep in. Maybe he was wrong after all. Turning on his Spotify, he too forged a path through the carts, grumbling about how some people would rather purchase from a Papa John’s than some local place. Then again, as he learned early on, a family-owned business can be just as exploitative. In fact, a family-run operation can be far more odious and overwhelming than a corporate entity. Far more demanding too, and layered in responsibilities that lead to dead ends. The difference is, the people owning it smile a lot more, and toss around phrases you can picture on a poster somewhere at a dentist’s office.
Regardless, Papa John’s was a terror to taste buds. Once on the freeway, he made a mental note of this, playing with alliteration if ever he could finally write articles he could be proud of. That part of him was growing. A love for how words could fit together in ways that were unconventional or, at the very least, not routine. Nikki Giovanni had said in an interview what was the point of being a writer if you simply dictated life as seen. Then again, there’s always the danger of slipping into abstraction, into the type of writing that views confused thoughts as a symbol of a writer’s brilliance. Still, the mind was swimming in probable scenes, ledes that could grab the reader by their collar, and pull them in. But patience was also critical in getting to that place of literary power. Patience was what Mana’s soul desperately needed if they had any chance to get published. Either they pave the best path ahead, and reflect, or all their hard work is washed away or worse yet, never recorded in the first place, dutifully ignored by men and women wearing smiling faces.
Priya was fired, Langston texted Mana who texted Demetrius, who didn’t know what else to do but eat another beef jerky stick in his car, the wrappers piling. Fortunately, the article about Diwali being celebrated for the first time at the local golf club had been filed, although he’d just begun investigating more recent OSHA violations at the company. Apparently, given the distribution company’s insistence that materials ordered by customers be delivered overnight, employees had been fainting more often, with some climbing shelves to find that Star Wars coffee mug someone purchased before it was too late.
Priya got fired, Mana texted. Let’s publish this.
Sighing, Demetrius knew what he had to do. The silhouette of trees swayed, as he grabbed his phone.
“Jim will not approve of this story, not yet.”
“But you said. We could tell them we’re working on a series on this. We could do a smaller piece. We could tell him …”
“We need to talk to someone from management,” Demetrius pushed back, “I can do it. Get a quote at least.”
“What if they don’t budge? Or say anything?” Mana said, his eyebrow raised.
“They’ll probably send me an email with some PR stuff.”
“What? What are you thinking?”
“Did something else happen …?”
“No. I just hope we’re not buying the company time, or giving them new information,” Mana replied.
“That’s not our role to figure out,” Demetrius answered.
“Why not? I mean, I’m doing this for a specific purpose.”
“I have a friend at another paper nearby. It’s more hyper-local,” Mana suggested.
“It doesn’t matter. We need more people on record.”
“What if we don’t?”
“Have we tried?”
This time, Mana admitted that the only people he’d contacted were Priya and Langston.
“We need more people to talk to, more employees,” said Demetrius.
“You seem to get along with the editors better than me,” Mana stated.
“It just worries me.”
The bile. Demetrius could taste it. But he waited.
“If I don’t act the way I am,” Demetrius started to explain.
“I know,” Manu intercepted.
“Let me finish,” Demetrius persisted. “If I don’t act the way I do, I won’t be around that long.”
“Yes. I get that too.”
“It’s not exactly the same.”
“It’s you and me, really.”
“It’s you and me, dude.”
“But not always. Not really,” Demetrius said, “You know that.”
The anger was building. Frustration.
Deep breaths. “I’m going to call Priya,” Mana concluded. “And I’ll update you as soon as I can.”
Plaintively, they agreed to “discuss” more of what had been mentioned soon, perhaps by the end of the week. Each of them knew the other was lying and indeed, the conversation that had been stirring regarding their positions in the cubicle world, in the world of reporting while the world burns, would be put off for far longer than was probably not the best.
Still, neither of them felt like giving in. Maybe that was a solid step?
In due time, however, Demetrius himself would drive back, past the trees, past the malls, past the houses he’d biked and seen when far younger when all he wanted to do was escape. Now, all he desired was to rest, to recover. To be in his bed, to hear his brother yelling at the TV and Nancy laughing at him for yelling.
All he wanted now was to do more than sit in front of a Wawa, the neon glow engulfing him. Figures shuffling out, grunting. People as lost and miserable as him and pushing off such thoughts for another day. If anything, Mana was correct that something had to be done. They couldn’t just treat this story like all the other stories. This was life or death for the people involved. You either work or you starve. You either work and get sick and live inside your car so you don’t get your family sick, or you starve. You lose yourself in your work, placing items as inhumanly possible on metal racks, on conveyor belts swimming, or you still hold onto a version of who you are, barely.
As Marx once said, “Guess I was right, bitches.”
Chuckling at his own joke, Demetrius made a note to log back onto his dating app as soon as possible.
The dark strands of hair on Sarita’s arms were usually extremely curly, as if she slept inside a sauna every night and every morning. Self-conscious, self-doubt salivating, on some days, she’d wear long-sleeved shirts in August, beads of sweat pricking her forehead. On weekends, she’d want to compare her hair with Mana’s, as they’d sink into the sheets, the sunlight peeking through.
“Your hair looks more like pubes,” she said once, laughing.
“You’re a bully,” Mana responded, trying not to appear amused, shifting the topic to how many pancakes they should order from someplace they actually never liked but had a cheap delivery fee.
For a few months, the weekends would persist in this way, with Sarita’s roommates, despairing on most days about being “trapped” in the suburban sprawl, absent. The “city” (a.k.a. Manhattan’s myth) called out to them most Saturdays and Sundays, as they’d pretend to be locals, and in some instances, were capable of doing so in and around Times Square, a hub of fantasy and stereotypes. They could, for some hours, be who they wanted to be, albeit limited by their credit card debt and bodies.
“Do you ever regret being a reporter?” Sarita asked, nearer to the end of their time together, as they passed bottles in the dark, the orange sun hovering over the nearby Walmart and the trees between them. Stripped down of their leaves. Their skin, various shades of brown and red.
Such questions irritated Mana. It would be much later, when the texts would become far rarer and he’d spend more time overhearing his roommate snoring after another night wandering when Mana would realized that the irritation came from him not wanting to admit that, yes, he did have those doubts. That there were evenings when he’d scroll through social media, stinking of anxiety and sweat, the regret mounting on his chest like a pyramid of bricks.
Tears, however, kept sliding dark lines across Priya’s face, as she slapped the table like you’d see in cartoons when excitement and joy flood one’s senses. It was a response to the jokes flying from Langston’s obviously chapped lips, which Juliana had remarked on, to which Langston insisted she keep her “insights” to herself. After a while, Langston himself started to cough from another tall tale regarding one of their managers who apparently couldn’t stop himself from passing gas during a fire drill.
“He didn’t come back that day, do you remember?” Langston insisted, his voice rising like steam. “Do you remember he said he was sick the next day? Probably had poop stains.”
“Gross!” Priya exclaimed. “You’re gross!”
“I am what I am.”
Staring at them, until realizing, even in his slightly cloudy state of being, how creepy he must look, Mana took another sip from his mug. Soon, he hoped, courage or lack of self-awareness would funnel through, pumping through his veins instead of anxiety and diabetes. Perhaps the anxiety would melt away for the time being and be replaced with nothing instead. Nothing was better than this constant consciousness of each and every word, of each and every misstep. Or a sense of distance from those around him at times. A sense of distance that always seemed impossible to bridge, even with all of the laughter and TV screens filling every inch of the bar with reverie and stamina.
Little did Mana know, however, that since meeting them all that late afternoon (it was Langston’s idea for Mana to meet their other coworkers at the facility), Demetrius had been switching out the mugs of courage with mugs of soda. Having arrived a few minutes late, wrapping up another deep dive into the East Brunswick “Festival of Lights and Community,” Demetrius had noticed Mana already swaying in his seat, mumbling, and chuckling. Clearly, Mana was the cusp of several realities, the objective one butting heads with the subjective fragments daring to break through.
Ordering a soda for himself as well, Demetrius had done his best to shake hands with as many people as possible, maintaining a smile that wasn’t too excited nor too fake. There were several workers there, including Angela, one of the few black women who worked at the distribution center. They were unable to shake hands, given Angela was a couple of tables away, with Maria, who kept painting a story with her hands in the air, a scene that Angela had to comprehend. But once they traded glances, Angela raised her mug slightly off the sticky table and Demetrius did the same, resisting the urge to rush over and ask questions about the working conditions at the facility. This was never his strong suit, to view times such as this as an opportunity to do more than function as a reporter on the clock.
Then again, asking questions, talking, trying to adjust for the dynamics of dialoguing beyond the who, what, and when would oftentimes cause panic instead. The irony of it all. People often assumed people like him enjoyed conversation. Yes, when he was caught up in the usual routine of the workday, of the 9–9 he’d be on, as some would say. The switch had been flipped. The questions that were pertinent would flow through him, almost like divine messaging. Yet, when it came to the day winding down, his brain would sputter. What else was there to ask beyond the event itself? Why smile, or tell a joke when, clearly, one had all the evidence or facts, or lies (i.e. East Brunswick festival to celebrate themselves as “one big happy family”) that was necessary for an article that someone could breeze through in less than fifteen minutes? Why shouldn’t he be recovering, watching videos, the glow of a neon sign burning his scalp, beer jerky bubbling in his gut like some cauldron?
“How long have you been a reporter? Were your parent’s reporters? Or writers?”
Ensnared in an exchange of words, partly due to Demetrius’ attraction, he focused on Juliana again. The glow of the neon sign slowly fading.
He admitted that his parents worked typical office jobs, but had always encouraged him and his brother to read, write, and learn about the arts. They supported him, maybe to his detriment, he joked, to take on additional debt to get a master’s in journalism instead.
“My parents want me to get a master’s too, as soon as possible,” Juliana said, taking a sip. Her black hair in a bun. Her uniform stuck to her. Still, she smiled, and explained how her parents felt she was “wasting her time” working. Both her mom and dad had been long-time Texans, Chicanos to be exact, and had moved to the Northeast for their children to attend the best schools, and to get jobs that were stable.
“Joke’s on them,” she said, “Nothing’s stable anymore.”
“He’s better than Mahomes, dude!” Emil, another co-worker, yelled. He, Luis, and Sandra rolled their eyes at each other and crossed their arms.
Grins emerged onto Juliana’s and Demetrius’ faces, although deep down, Demetrius agreed with Juliana’s parents. Still, somehow, he was ready to move onto some more benign topics, when Juliana finally asked if he still thought being a journalist was useful, or better yet, if he felt useful doing it.
A needle pricking the skin. A gust of freezing cold wind on someone’s eyelids. By then, the questions had been rising within Mana, along with a sense of shame, a sense of embarrassment, confusion, some humor mixed in with irony, and a self-deprecating attitude. Putting two and two together (and wondering the origins of such a phrase, of all phrases in the totality of the English language), Mana had surmised that someone, most likely Demetrius, had switched his drink. Consequently, he’d been glancing over as Demetrius had been “talking” or, clearly, at least to him, trying very much so to continue a conversation with Juliana, smiling when he had to, asking questions when necessary.
But now, Demetrius was peering down at his drink a little bit too long. Even in his sinking state, albeit too lucid for his own liking, Mana sensed the tensions building. A memory stinging.
“You know, Demetrius is … one of our best writers …” Mana said, too aware of how his words had been sliding into one another. Still, he managed to pronounce them, enunciation being a virtue. “He can make a … community picnic sound like the best thing,” he’d added, before smiling and wiping his chin with his hand, the drool coating the palm of his hands.
Could he have done more for him and Priya to be more than estranged souls? Could he have salvaged something more? Could he have just listened to what she had to say, even if he still disagreed with her viewpoint? Reporting was important. Would be necessary. Yet, what about what she’d said could’ve pushed him away like that? Why? Why? Why?
A deep breath. Another smile at Juliana, who had returned to the moment as well. To the present. A joke had been shared by Demetrius, who also ordered them more sodas. The joke, though, a culmination of some niche lingo Demetrius had stitched together from the comments section of a YouTube video over some line about Das Kapital and techno-feudalism, mixed in with a critique of Andor and The Sopranos, didn’t necessarily “land.” Juliana did comprehend the cleverness of it, although it wasn’t necessarily insightful or entertaining either. Overhearing it, while choosing a seat next to them now, Angela remarked, “Wow, do you live online?”
Juliana laughed. So did Mana.
Finally, Demetrius joined in. Admitting, at some level, how ridiculous he sounded.
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