The International Writers Magazine: Dreamscapes
Fiction: The Collector
Lou sat slumped over on the edge of his bed, his belly keeping him less slumped over than he wanted to be, debating whether he wanted to call in sick or not but then decided not to. He slowly rose, groaning off the bed, removed his shorts and got into a cold shower, shaved, then finished his morning ritual with a micro-waved, left over McDonald’s coffee, lit the stub of a day old cigarette, and began another reluctant, long day behind the wheel of his re-built 1992 Ford van. First he had to shuffle through the pile of faxes lying on the floor; too many for the shallow plastic tray to hold, and decide which stops to make first. After that his day would be set in motion.
4:00 AM Monday and the beginning of a crappy day and another, long shitty week to look forward to. The fax machine didn’t stop running for almost an hour spitting out the usual Monday morning load of high mileage, low paid bull sh*t missions.
Lou had been a prominent manager in his company but longevity as a white color company man was not in the cards. Competition and technology outpaced his employer and he was forced into a low paying and insignificant job as a collector; sometimes driving seven hundred miles each day, returning home late at night. His wife of twenty three years left him for a younger man who was a well paid upper level manager for a competitor. This really burned his ego. Not the younger man but the fact he worked for a competitor. Veronica was a socialite and enjoyed the good life…something he could no longer offer or afford. She was a good looking woman who didn’t do hardship at all well. Lou was forced to sell their home and move into a two room modest apartment that smelled like a week end in a pool hall…stale beer and cigarettes…all he could afford with his new pay. He couldn’t blame Veronica for leaving. He would’ve done the same thing. But he was still hurt.
Lou often thought about how his professional life had come to such an abrupt end. It raced in his mind over and over as he pushed himself through the pile of faxed instructions, chased a few aspirins with the remains of last night’s beer, and readied himself for the long day ahead. Then once in his faded white van he looked at the first fax that gave directions to his first stop. At five in the morning there was little traffic on the lonely road to the interstate. Every day started the same way. Piles of faxes, re-heated coffee, stale cigarettes, stop at Mac Donald’s for an egg biscuit and coffee then Burger King for an on the road lunch. If he was lucky he could be home for a Wendy’s dinner on the road. Today would be longer because it was the first of the week. Desert would be Aspirins before bed.
Lou had loved his job before all the changes, as he had loved his wife, but hated his new position. It was a demeaning career move for which the only other choice was to quit. Now it was more than a chore. He had nothing to look forward to each day but to grit his teeth and get home. What else could he do? Jobs were rare for a man over fifty. He couldn’t refuse when his ass-hole boss offered him the position. That or no job at all, he was told. Clients no longer used the expensive equipment anymore; they were all dinosaurs on the market. His cell phone was the only connection he had with anyone; seldom used for anything more than calling for directions, but it was convenient. His company missed the boat and when they finally got it, it was too late. There were too many competitors by the time any manufacturing and marketing decisions were made. That delay entering the market had cost him and his friends’ good jobs and pensions. He felt too old to put up with this crap. He just felt Old. Period.
First stop and he was relieved to get out and stretch his legs. Luckily it was at a Seven-Eleven and the fresh coffee and pre-made chicken salad sandwich tasted pretty good as a mid-morning snack. He hurriedly finished his business, jumped into his van, and headed for the next stop. It was nearing lunch when he found the next stop at a Burger King. This time it was a hamburger, fries and a Coke from the drive through to save time. It tasted better, fresher than the chicken salad sandwich, then back on the road again. His ass was numb but the day was going well. Another cigarette. This time he would have a new one, rather than the left over butt in the ashtray.
Three more stops and he was finished. Not bad for a Monday. He was home before eight. He put the heavy collection bags into his closet behind a pile of dirty clothes. Time enough for a little TV, a cold beer and a left over Wendy’s Taco Salad from his last stop. Tomorrow it would start over and the fax machine would spit out more orders. Not as bad as Monday but a start to another pissy day anyway. Collections aren’t what they used to be. He was tired. Social Security, if he was lucky to get any and can last long enough, is only six years away. Thinking about that depressed him even more. Drink another beer. Fuck’em.
Lou looked forward to only one day in the week and that was Friday but not for the reasons most people welcome Friday. TGIF meant something more to Lou and other collectors. Besides being pay day it was the only day he didn’t get a load of faxes. It was a day to meet with his jerk of a boss, deliver his heavy bags of weekly collections and a chance to talk with guys. Lou used to work with them before the company reorganised, now they were doing the same thing, just so they could keep a job before retirement. Then they would all get together afterwards and share stories about equipment failures, women they met along the daily routes and other small talk to help work out their anxieties. They would talk about the guys laid off that week, a friend who committed suicide over his failures, who just got divorced, like most of them, and the dwindling collections. They would compare how many miles they covered that week and what their short term expectations were. There were no long term prospects in this business. Although there was a bright spot with the opening of a new Hooters restaurant and Lou thought that would bring on a flurry of discussions and rare laughter. He smiled. That was rare. He was almost there. The shopping mall office was quite small. Outside an armed guard was posted in front of the glass door with just a number painted on it. Windows were blacked over with paint. Lou felt like he was going into some X-Rated store to buy some sex toy. Secrecy seemed to be the company’s policy.
Lou entered the main office, after a three hour drive, carrying several heavy, sealed canvas bags on a small hand cart. After a few moments of back slapping; shaking hands and small talk with his former co-workers and friends, he sat down to await his turn to see the boss and deliver his bags. He remembered when he needed several trips to his van to get all the bags, but now only one trip. That wasn’t so long ago, either. The future looked less promising with each passing year.
There were only seven guys now that covered the entire state; each driving hundreds of miles every day to pre-assigned, faxed destinations within their assigned areas. These seven were what remained of a state-wide work force that at one time were more than twenty times in size; hundreds of collectors and technicians reporting to dozens of regional managers; daily coffee and donut meetings; business dinners and company family picnics. All disappeared in budget cuts and lay-offs. Offices closed, picnic benches and tables rotted away and some assets disposed of to pay lawyers. The few remaining workers were not only collectors they also served as repairmen, technicians, and salesmen.
Most were former executives, middle aged, like Lou, that were forced to accept lower paying jobs, diminished medical benefits, and self regulated 401-K’s and they were all tired. Those that were divorced were divorced for the same reason as Lou. The wives moved out to keep the good life. Homes were sold, the wives got the money and the collectors lived very modestly in small apartments. They all had a lot in common. That made it easier to discuss and compare their lives.
Lou’s name was finally called into manager Art Buckwell’s office, where piles of bags lay on the floor next to his desk; stained and worn bags marked with the name of other collectors, and each with a lead security seal and lock just like his. And, like his, each would have a tally sheet inside with today’s date, confirmation signature on each of the faxed assignment sheets with amounts collected and a summary sheet stapled to them all. Included would be a mileage expense report. Weekly reimbursement at thirty-eight cents per mile was usually more than his meager salary. Lou thought about trading in his old Ford van for something that would get better mileage, and optimize his travel reimbursements. Maybe next month.
Buckwell opened Lou’s bag, spilled the contents into a large plastic bucket, looked at Lou’s tally sheets, faxed assignments, expense reports then handed him his paycheck and expense check, from the week before, with new collection bags: his name neatly stenciled on the flap. Buckwell shook Lou’s hand with comments of gratitude for a fine job, as he walked him to the door. There was no need for further discussion. Buckwell knew he would one day be a collector, too, if he was forced into making that decision. Lou knew Buckwell would never make it because he was too young and the company would not last long enough to allow him the chance to make that choice.
‘Don’t worry, Lou,’ he said as Lou turned to leave, ‘we’re hoping to begin a cellular phone division soon and we have you in mind for management.’
‘Thanks,’ Lou whispered to himself.
He had heard the same thing for almost three years but nothing changed. Nope. Collections weren’t what they used to be. He remembered when it took many employees in his division to cover his territory. Since cellular phones became popular, few people stopped long enough to use the old pay phones. All the quarters, dimes and nickels he collected each week no longer filled his bags.
© Richard Corwin March 2006
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fiction in Dreamscapes