Yellow Finger

As Danny was driving to his first day at his new job, he listened to National Public Radio. Three very intelligent people were discussing the evolution of the American retail landscape. It was during this discussion that Danny first heard the term “big box.” Indeed, his destination on this day was a “big box store,” Finlay Supermarts. As its stately profile loomed over the asphalt horizon, he understood the term.

But his attention was quickly snatched away by the asphalt itself. It was new and black, and a frightening old clean purple man in a Cubs hat was painting fresh yellow lines for the parking spaces. When Danny had been here last, just a week earlier, the asphalt was faded and stained by the dozen and two chemicals that drip from cars when their structural integrity fails, due to time or poor maintenance. In the meantime, it had been stripped and repaved by machines working under lights on tall poles, in the shadows of five hundred moths.

The clean purple man was almost done with his job. He only had a few handicapped spaces to finish. When Danny got out of his car, he stared for a moment at the bold yellow lines against the super-black asphalt and he was seduced by the succulence of the meat of his country, just as he was by the smell of bank lobbies and turned soil. He kicked the sole of his shoe against the asphalt, rough and hungry to soak up sunlight, then against the yellow line, smooth and full of the friction of the skin of the forearm. He left a scuff behind, but he wasn’t the first. Most of the lines were marred by the treads of tires. It was then that he unlocked his car and searched under the seats for his Polaroid camera. From that moment on, he took a close-up photograph of the parking lot every day that he worked. He created a record of the slow fade of man’s work on Earth. The sun sucked the black out of the asphalt the way the color is sucked from an icy-freeze drink, leaving behind pale green, pink, or purple ice which is no good for eating and must be dumped so the plastic cup(1) holding it can be washed out and used again, only so the relentless cycle of filling, emptying, and washing could sap its color, as well.

As Danny walked toward the store, he noticed that the clean purple man was turned away from him, having moved his operation to the parking spaces in front of the next store in this snaking strip of thriving businesses(2). Danny had showered right before leaving the house, and the breeze through his car window was fresh and satisfying. Now, with the attention of the clean purple man diverted, he wanted to feel the new yellow line with his own skin and not that of the black shoes he had bought in compliance with the Finlay dress code. Danny bent down and dragged his finger over the yellow, and found that it was a very fresh line, just put down by the clean purple’s snorting machine. His first instinct was to rub his finger against his thumb, but he resisted. He had nothing with which to remove the paint. He would wait until he got to the break room, where he could wash in the employee sink.

Danny walked through the first automatic door, into the vestibule, and through the second automatic door, and once inside the store he was accosted merrily by Teddy, one of the CSMs(3). Teddy was a husky handsome guy with cornrows and big muscular arms. He grabbed Danny around the chest and jumped off the diving board into the world of Finlay.

As they were falling, Teddy held Danny up like a newborn baby, like his own newborn baby, as if to say, “This is my one child, world, behold.” The rush of faces and name tags were like drops of syrup on his tongue, absorbed in a burst of flavor and instantly forgotten. Danny was a goldfish(4) in a bowl trembling with the thunderous laughter of his guide. Teddy told him that work here was like play because of all the great people to work with and the fun they had.

Another factor in Danny’s lack of focus during his orientation was the yellow paint on his finger, by now completely dry and therefore not easily washed off. He’d hidden it in the pocket of his jacket, but when Teddy handed Danny his W-4 tax form, there was nothing he could do to hide it. Teddy saw it and with a gust of laughter nicknamed Danny “Yellowfinger.” It stuck, and Danny became famous for some other stuff after he left Finlay's, and when he was buried, his gravestone was a limestone finger with a yellow tip. When necessary, the paint is refreshed by the progeny of his greatest nemesis.

Little Numbers

1.Teams of men and women work for long hours in air-conditioned rooms to compose the bright colors and attention-commanding text of the plastic fast-food cup.

2.The local economy was breathing deep and laughing now, and stores like Finlay were sucking up new hires greedily, whacking steadily away at stacks of dusty applications, tossing out the ones whose submitters had long ago changed addresses and telephone numbers. Store managers shared stories in the bars and restaurants where they congregated after work, stories of new hires both competent and incompetent, new hires who would never understand the corporate culture and those who seemed prepackaged for their new places of employment specifically. Those who didn’t fit the pants, as the managers said, were moved to the night-crew, a group wholly devoted to the maintenance of inventory and up-keep of the store, a droopy-minded bunch with lockers full of powdered Gatorade and Doral cigarettes and scuffed old high-top sneakers.

3.“CSM” meant Customer Service Manager, and was the halfway point between the hourly associates and management. If a CSM had a good manager, he or she could expect to be groomed for an assistant manager position, either in their store or another. Finlay Supermarts in particular prided itself on nurturing its own talent. Lucky and industrious CSMs were the first to be considered for transfers to other cities, where they would earn higher wages and find their possibilities for sexual encounters widened considerably. This was Teddy’s story. He’d been transferred from store 590, in the next region over. Since beginning at store 286, he’d experienced a true sexual renaissance. Had Danny been more observant and less confused as he was being shepherded past cashiers and sales associates, he might have noticed the carnal bond between Teddy and a half dozen of their female coworkers. The way their gazes dragged when they met. Indeed, though Danny greatly enjoyed Teddy’s companionship and felt at ease in conversation with him, he harbored a pinch of envy in a little leather pouch hanging in the shadows below his heart. Women, they felt comfortable around Danny and liked to hug him or make jokes of a comically sexual nature. But with Teddy, they had brief, serious exchanges in empty aisles and next to sweaty cars after the store closed. It was never anything more than that, not anywhere near the store, for Teddy was professional. But Danny speculated on the private lives of his coworkers daily.

4.Danny’s first pet was a goldfish named Russell. Russell shared his bowl with a green translucent rock with rough edges, the way obsidian breaks, but you could tell by an equatorial seam that it was molded, and you could read on the bottom that it came from a factory in Lookingglass, Tennessee. Teddy’s step-great uncle Harmony Charwell was born in Lookingglass and spent his formative years there. When he was ten, the family house was burned to the ground because of the Ku Klux Klan. The family stayed with Uncle Bernard until the new house was built. Harmony and his cousin Wilbur were forced to share a room, and late at night they would compare their bodies. For Wilbur it was just play. For Harmony, it was a sort of sexual scribbling, testing color and texture, shape and quality of light. He ran his crayon outside the lines, haphazardly, clumsily. Then he tired of coloring books and longed for clean naked paper as big as the sky and a crayon that could in a single mighty stroke connect Tokyo and Nashville.