A CLAMOR OF VOICES
Cars are backed up two blocks in line to pull into a big-box store. It’s still cold in the suburbs of Chicago and a frenzied mob of people rushes into the store in puffy coats to fill their carts with non-perishables: 12-packs of toilet paper, tubes of Clorox wipes, bags of rice, arms full of assorted canned vegetables. An argument breaks out between two people staking claim to the last box of tissues. A woman berates a worker in the chemical aisle because all of the disinfectants have disappeared from the shelves.
I work as an automotive technician in this big-box store, a one-stop-shop for everything essential: frozen hamburger, fish oil capsules, adult diapers, flat-tire repair. In late March, I clock-in five minutes late, as usual, and strip bare in the dank dressing room that smells of oil and used socks. I ease the crisp polyester pants of my automotive uniform over my knees. The uniform is oversized, made for a man’s body. It swallows my curves, broadens my shoulders, makes me look stronger than I really am. When I walk into the auto shop, the manager tells me that our department is closed indefinitely. Climbing in and out of other people’s cars is unsanitary and has become dangerous. The manager spreads the auto technicians across departments to help with a store-wide effort to disinfect the shelves. He hands me a towel and a spray bottle of a bleach-water solution. Start scrubbing.
Thirty-five workers crowd into a small break room, shoulder touching shoulder, nerves frayed, tired feet. The city is shutting down. The store manager tells us that we will receive a letter indicating that we are essential. We are to carry this letter with us at all times and to report to work unless we are sick. This is not business as usual. We are not to take ibuprofen and work through chills or a sore throat. If we are sick, we must stay home for 14 days without pay. Unless we test positive. We will get paid time off if we test positive. We are essential. Families need their groceries and the company needs our sacrifice. I look over at Lee while the managers start praising each other for their sacrifices. Her brow is furrowed and she is playing with the rings on her fingers, twisting and removing them, rubbing them between her hands. Our eyes meet and she leans over and whispers. I have COPD. Does that mean that I could die if I get it? I take her hands in mine and squeeze them. Feeling the warmth of her well-rubbed rings, I realize that my fingers are freezing. Two managers lead a company cheer at the front of the room and insist that our mouths do the chanting.
The cleaning only lasts for two weeks. We scrub floors and clean behind shelves, scrub oil-caked banisters, disinfect cash register keys. And then, we are finished. We are passed from one department to the next, completing menial tasks. I work in nine-hour shifts moving merchandise forward on shelves. Management says that items look more attractive to customers if they are neatly stacked, perfectly flush with the outermost edge of the shelves. Under the stark glare of fluorescent lights, I declutter hanging displays of Gorilla Glue in hardware, straighten out boxes of light bulbs: 60-watt incandescent, 40-watt incandescent, 60-watt LED…
Cashiers start rationing the plastic gloves that management places near the registers. The front-end supervisor warns against wastefulness, insists the cashiers share a single box of gloves per shift. Lee tells me that she has been quietly hoarding gloves. She hides them in her coat pockets, shoves wads into her purse when no one is looking. She is worried about getting sick, but she can’t afford time off without pay. She starts wearing a mask that her niece sewed her from the cloth of a pillow case. One day, a supervisor scolds her for violating the dress code. He orders her to remove her mask. You are scaring the customers.
In the break room, I sit with John from maintenance who is complaining that his knees are hurting him again. On television, we watch nurses weeping into masks, goggled men in plastic suits carrying stretchers, bare-chested patients who are unconscious, some gurgling, some hooked to tubes. John mutes the volume with the remote and cuts into his microwaved Salisbury steak. I just can’t with this shit today. It’s too damn much. I want to ask him how he’s coping with all this. Does he miss the little things, like going to the diner across the street after late shifts, drinking his coffee slow with a plate of steak and eggs? Does the stench of disinfectant linger on his clothes, does it follow him home? Does he wake in the night, like me, with nightmares of the dead, with his chest burning? I start to ask but I stop myself, realizing that John has a distant look on his face, like he’s there but not there. His hands are moving, but his mind is somewhere else, a quiet defiance that helps him survive long shifts on his knees scrubbing toilets and wiping up dust. Later he tells me that his father is trapped in a nursing home in a neighboring suburb. Forty patients tested positive, and the whole building is on lockdown. They won’t let the patients leave their rooms, and family visitations are banned. John fears that the loneliness might kill his father. Every Sunday, he holds his son on his shoulders in the yard outside the nursing home. John swears that through the tint of the thick paned windows, he can see the life fading from his father’s eyes.
I wake up one Saturday with a raw throat, shaking with chills. I wrap my face in a scarf and drive to Urgent Care. I take deep breaths in and out while the doctor listens to my lungs. She checks my throat for strep but refuses to give me a Covid test. I plead with her. I am worried about exposing my coworkers. What if I’m spreading it to people in the aisles? She tells me that because of a shortage of tests, they are only testing patients who can’t breathe. She sends me home with a note to quarantine, and I stay home for 14 days without pay. I lie in bed thinking about what I would do if I had children to feed.
After I return to work in late April, the company starts implementing new safety measures. Neon green arrows are taped to the floor to direct the flow of foot traffic. Plastic shields are installed in front of cash registers. All workers are now required to wear masks. Before clocking in, we stand in line and wait for a manager to hold a scanner to our foreheads to take our temperatures. Every day, she repeats the same questions to each person in line: Do you have a sore throat, fever, unexplained cough? Have you lost your sense of taste or smell? Have you tested positive for Covid-19? Sometimes she abbreviates: Any symptoms? Tested positive? Sometimes, only: Yes or no? The company hires a wave of new temporary workers, and they cut everyone’s hours. The store is so short-staffed, we can barely keep the shelves stocked. One day all but four chairs in the break room disappear and one of the microwaves is missing. We stand in line to warm our food, hover in corners to eat, sit on the floor to rest our feet.
Management calls a group of us to the backroom to unload the truck that comes daily with more merchandise. I see John, hear him cursing to himself after he is ordered to abandon his cleaning to unload the truck. He climbs into the pitch-black truck bed and starts pulling down boxes, loading them onto a conveyor belt. The rest of us wait for the boxes to float down the line so we can shove them onto pallets to take out to the aisles. It’s summer and the backroom is sweltering. We’re all sweating and struggling to breathe under our masks. When John pulls down his mask to catch his breath, I see a manager bolting from across the room towards the truck. John, pull that damn mask up! If I see that mask down below your nose one more time, you’re outta here. John pauses and looks him hard in the face. Without a word, he pulls his mask up slow.
In mid-summer, I get a call from an old friend. Except to go on walks and pick up groceries through a curbside service, she hasn’t left the house in months. She works from home for her nonprofit job, stares at a screen eight hours a day. She tells me she is going stir-crazy. She misses museums and getting lost in crowds. She started pacing the house for exercise, and she’s been baking a new batch of cookies every three days. Stress baking, she calls it. When she comes home from picking up groceries, she strips off all her clothes and leaves them in a pile by the door. She sanitizes door handles. I can’t help but laugh in shock when I hear this, realizing for the first time that there are people who’ve actually been experiencing the last four months from the confines of their own homes.
The crowds at the store never die down. We work through them. We push past hordes of frantic hands to pull items forward on shelves: boxes of tea, bottles of salad dressing, cans of condensed milk. The green arrows directing foot traffic are peeling off the floor and some of the plastic shields by the registers have fallen down. The managers stopped putting out gloves for the cashiers. Lee doesn’t wear her rings anymore. She complains that her hands are dry and cracking from the sanitizer. There’s a tired look on her face all the time now, and the wrinkles around her eyes are more pronounced. She tells me that she could deal with the exhaustion if she could just see her grandbaby every now and then. Her daughter thinks that her job is a hazard and won’t bring the baby over because she’s afraid Lee will get sick and spread it.
Sometimes I put on my old automotive uniform when I need to feel stronger. Greg, who was just hired to work in hardware, compliments me on how I wear it. He asks me if I miss working on cars. I tell him that I don’t miss the smell of oil that lingered in my hair, nor the stinging cuts that always marked my fingers. But I yearn for the satisfaction of physical labor—the feeling that my work is useful and the joy of going to sleep with aching muscles. I tell him there is a hidden strength that I conjured in myself after months of climbing beneath cars, working beside men who intrinsically expected my failure. How one day, with my right arm extended into the bowels of a truck, my hand feeling around blindly for an oil filter, I heard bones in my back cracking. I stretched further in and grabbed hold of the filter. Oil dripping down my armpit, I could feel my spine straighten after a lifetime of slouching.
Later, Greg and I stand beside each other and pretend to work, moving extension cords and surge protectors around on the shelves. He tells me he plays the piano. He taught himself on a cheap keyboard, saved up for ten years to get the real thing, with marble keys and red wood. Music, he tells me, is the only way I know how to get lost completely. He likes to play in the early hours of the morning, while his kids are asleep and the apartment is dark and still. He pulls out his phone and shows me a video of himself playing Mozart’s Requiem Mass in D Minor in low light. Eyes closed, he sways back and forth, his fingers falling heavy, pounding on keys.
As the months drag on, monotonous hours blend into one another and I can no longer distinguish the days of the week. The store manager tapes motivational quotes to the break room doors, hoping to boost morale. Hauling a heavy cart stacked with boxes, I pass John in one of the grocery aisles. He is sweeping up glass from a bottle of orange juice that was left broken on the floor. He tells me that his hours were cut again and he’s struggling to pay his bills. One day, I’m not gonna stand for this anymore. One day, I swear, I’m gonna lay down this broom and walk out for good.
Beneath the rumble of crowds and the beeping cash registers, a faint murmur is rising. I tell John that sometimes, when I close my eyes and listen, I can hear it. Drowning hands stretching toward shore. Backs bent but chins lifting. A clamor of voices.
Samantha Campagna is a writer and educator born and raised in the Blue Ridge Mountains. She has degrees from Columbia College Chicago and North Carolina State University and has worked as a waitress, a public school instructional aide, a flight attendant, a retail cashier, and an automotive technician. She currently resides in Christiansburg, Virginia, and is working on a short story collection.