Between Floors

By

I slam the truck into reverse. I’m small, sitting at the wheel, but I maneuver with power. The truck is menacing, large and brown, but I back it up perpendicular to the dock using the side mirrors, and I align it perfectly, centered, to the amazement of my instructor. He checks his clipboard and gives me a silent smirk. I give one, too. I’m victorious. I’m hired.

I’m a girl.

I drive home with my sack of brown shirts, brown pants, brown hat, and belt. I show the parents who sent me through four years of college the uniform I’ll be wearing to my blue-collar job. They feign excitement. My mother gives me that look she gives me when she’s trying not to say what she’s really thinking, but it’s obvious what she’s thinking because her eyes say things for her. She’s thinking, “Where did I go wrong? What the hell is my daughter doing? Where is she going?” My mother is giving me the look that says she’s disappointed, that she expected more. She’s judging me for settling for a job that’s beneath me, or beneath her. She looks to my father for backup, but he left the room five minutes ago—or was it five years?

She says my shirt needs ironing. I say no it doesn’t. She says yes it does. She says I’ll do it for you. I say okay. I say whatever. Whatever makes you feel better, I don’t say.

We’ve been tip-toeing around each other since I moved back from New York, since I gave up trying to find that Madison Avenue job, since my ex-boyfriend left me for film school. I’ve been draping my listless body over my mother’s custom-upholstered sofas, flopping myself onto pool floats and drifting, dragging myself down the stairs for breakfast, usually too groggy to acknowledge my mother’s jabs about why I’m up so early, at noon.

 

In orientation I sit with the other new employees, drinking coffee out of Styrofoam, and watch a video about time-saving maneuvers I’ll use for the rest of my life. The video shows us how to buckle the seatbelt and start the ignition at the same time, how to open a door with your back so you can be entering data at the same time, because every combined movement cuts time when time counts most.

When the dispatch manager issues me my route, he says I’m going to be downtown in two of their tallest buildings, 101 Ross and 500 Elm. He says I’ve probably seen 101 Ross before. It’s the one with the big hole in the middle. I know it well, I tell him.

I have a hole in the middle, too.

He says I look strong, but that 101 Ross and 500 Elm share the dock at 66 Pearl, and that those buildings are accessed through an underground tunnel that runs uphill. At the height of the season, you’ll be pushing two overstocked dollies up this hill for an entire city block, he says. “You think you can manage that?” he asks.

I sit in the chair across from his desk, littered with stacks of thin paper and a beige computer displaying tracking number upon tracking number. I blink and blink, tossing the “should-I’s” and “shouldn’t-I’s” back and forth, wishing I was the kind of person who wouldn’t settle.

But I do.

I decide that when it comes to conquering a truck, once is enough. With a nod, he demotes me to “Helper,” explaining that all I have to do is meet the driver at the dock and help him unload his route.

I weigh shame and relief in each hand, equally.

 

The packages have to be delivered by 9:30 a.m. No excuses. It’s up to me to foresee the obstacles and to plan for them.

I use the time-saving maneuvers the orientation video taught us to combine movements. I enter the data while walking. I push the cart into the elevator while pressing the floor button at the same time. I sort and organize the cart while the elevator moves me. The next package is always on top, the address ingrained in my head, the door codes of the mailrooms, memorized.

“Never just stand there,” the video said.

 

“The UPS girl is here,” they holler to each other with a smirk.

“Where do I sign?” they ask me, even though it’s the same place they signed the day before, and the day before that. They just want to keep me there a few seconds longer, because they know I’m in a hurry, because I’m wearing a uniform, a fantasy. They flirt over the digital box that resembles a Speak & Spell. Their gaze makes me uncomfortable, but it’s a lesser offense than the receptionists who don’t even look up. At least to the men, I’m not invisible. I’m something for them to look forward to. A visit from the UPS girl seems to be the highlight of their morning. They give me the same smirk the field test instructor gave me when I backed the brown truck up to the dock with perfect precision. It’s a thing with all of them. The smirk.

And while I despise the smirk, I take what I can get. It feels good to be a glimmer in someone’s eye again. Even though it’s a “walking by a construction site and getting whistled at” kind of glimmer.

At 9:30 every morning, I send a message to dispatch that all the packages are out of my hands. Sending this message involves dialing into dispatch from the elevator phone, allowing my signature pad to communicate with the robot on the other end in a series of syncopated beeps. One robot tells the other that I’ve delivered my express route on time. If my robot spoke sarcasm, it would add, “in record time, with thirty-five whole seconds to spare!” Once I’ve slid into home, I get to breathe, but only that, only when nobody is looking, resting on the boxes, in between floors. But it’s not a break I enjoy without guilt. I’m not supposed to waste time not doing, not logging, not planning the next move. The voice on the video had warned me, in its friendly but authoritative tone. I don’t want the voice to be disappointed in me.

When the dolly is empty I fold it up, dragging it behind me like a suitcase. Charles, the driver, is standing in the truck sorting boxes. A new dolly piled even higher with boxes awaits. Charles has a quiet sense of humor. He laughs at my youth, my inexperience, but in a way that indicates an appreciation of its charm. I’m a novel partner for him. I feel welcome. Helpful. Challenged. Tutored.

Charles is black, with salt and pepper hair, with teenaged children. We don’t speak much about personal lives, other than when I tell him I’m going to Cancun for a long weekend. It’s a previous engagement. My new boyfriend is taking me. The details aren’t asked for or offered. Like how we met (at a happy hour) and who introduced us (my friend Gail). I never tell Charles who my boyfriend really is (Gail’s boss) or how old he is (thirty-nine). I’m wise enough to know Charles couldn’t care less about my love life.

I’m wise enough at twenty-four.

When I come home from the dock, I’m sore in new places. There are muscles around my ribs that ache. I lift my shirt and show my mother where they are. “Did you know there are muscles here?”

“No,” she says. “I didn’t.” She looks baffled by my bafflement.

I fall into the rhythm of getting things to their destination on time.

The sorting, the stacking, the lifting with the knees and not the back; the balancing of the data recorder on my thigh while I enter tracking numbers; the punching of elevator buttons; the rounding of corners while maneuvering the cart and the muscles that are challenged by that simple movement; the wear and tear on my shoes (brown) and the sweat in my socks (brown); the tucking of my hair under the hat (brown) and the taking off and on of it when I need to wipe my forehead; the dim lighting on the dock; the banging and crashing sounds of the industrial underworld; the smiles from the mailroom and the nods from reception; the doors that are held open for me because I carry heavy, important things; the small talk about work life that goes on between me and Charles—like the new code for the freight entrance on eight, and which receptionist was there or not in the law office on twelve; the moving blankets that cover the walls of the freight elevators; the hum of the truck: the big, brown, assuming, familiar truck. In all of it, in all of that rushing and planning, I find something about it, what I can’t say for sure, but, dare I say fun?

I’d been issued two uniforms, so I keep a bag of brown clothes at Dan’s house and another at home. He comes home from his office job, from being the boss, from making big decisions for clients who’ve put their livelihood in his hands. There’s a key for me under the plant if I beat him home. There’s a dog that gets fed. CDs that get chosen. Music that gets played. And pot that gets smoked. We wind our legs around each other and unwind. I lower myself into a hot bath. He brings me wine.

All of it feels good, mostly because it keeps me from feeling the indifference in the voice of my ex-boyfriend when he calls, because we are still “friends.”

Gail calls and asks me what I think of the idea she came up with for her client, Chick-fil-A. It’s something about cows writing “Eat Mor Chikin” on a billboard. I say, “Meh. It’s okay.”

At work, my mood waffles. I’m up and down with the elevators. I lift and lower with the boxes.

I’m prone to spurts of ambition, where my fantasies run wild toward the dream job I’m strong enough to grasp. Then I plunge into an abyss of couch potato-dom, where making nachos in the microwave is the only success I need.

At Dan’s, I dance in the stoned gaze of his mid-life crisis. I’m his post-divorce love toy, having a crisis of my own. I sit on the floor in front of his dog, a Standard Poodle named Jack, and I rub Jack’s chest while staring into his black eyes. They’re eyes that don’t speak the unspeakable, like my mother’s, or squint with condescension, like the guys in the mailroom. They don’t look at me, but past me, like the ex-boyfriend’s, or at me but possessively, like Dan’s. They just look at me and they see me. They’re eyes that understand me.

It’s weird.

The uniform I wear, the men who smirk at me, the pool I wallow in, the comforter I pull over my head, the trip to Cancun with my boyfriend who’s closer to my parent’s age than mine, the bars I get tipsy in, the cigarette upon cigarette upon cigarette that I smoke, the smart friends I scoff at, the attitude I carry around—they’re the excuses I make for doing all of it and nothing. They disguise the loss of hope, the disappointment, the broken heart.

Fall comes and kicks me out of the pool, and the dolly of boxes gets stacked higher and higher. On the dock, Christmas isn’t something to look forward to. It’s something to survive.

My mother’s looks of disapproval become something else to survive, the looks that say I’m not at my destination on time.

So when January falls over me, and my ex-boyfriend decides to move to Los Angeles, detouring through Texas to tell me he still loves me, I choose to believe him. I slink out from under my comforter and pack my bags. I say goodbye to Dan, to Gail, to my nail-biting parents. I bid farewell to the dock, to Charles, to the building with the hole in the middle.

As we drive I-10 until it turns into “the 10,” I feel like a box being lifted (at the knee). I feel the push, rather than the pull. I watch the blur of west Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Nevada. I roll down the window and feel the humidity turn to crisp dry air. But I don’t feel the guilt of resting between floors. Because I’m always moving. I’m logging data. I’m opening doors with my back. I’m doing my job. I’m twenty-four.

“Never just stand there,” the video said.

***

Rumpus original art by Lauren Kaelin.


Stefani Zellmer is a writer and marketing director based in Austin, TX. Her literary work has appeared in The Monarch Review and Hunger Mountain. She is currently at work on a novel. More from this author →