Blood On the Carpet, by Carol Tarlen

In my two-room apartment I am banished to a narrow piece of foam on the kitchen floor while my grandchildren occupy my bed like a small peacekeeping force, sweeping aside sheets and blankets in the arid heat of an Indian summer night. The windows are closed against the screams of motorcycles and fights hurled from the bar across the street. Lack of humidity inspires my grandson’s nose to spurt blood. I bring him a cloth as he leans over the toilet, a red stigmata swirling into the commode. In the morning blood stains my carpet.

My sister sends me a birthday card two days late, writes that work is hard, she now has 80 people to supervise. She works eleven-hour days, doesn’t get home until nine. Her two children make their own dinner, watch television alone until bedtime. Her best employee left work one night, drove to his ex-wife’s apartment, shot her boyfriend, then put a bullet in his brain. The company’s decided not to replace him.

When I was laid off the job I’d had for the last 15 years, I couldn’t even be rude to the boss. I needed a good recommendation. I was soon replaced by a 26 year-old college student willing to do full-time work for half-time pay. Although I got another job within the same institution, I was put on a six-month “trial period,” a euphemism for getting fired for no reason. “You just aren’t what we’re looking for. It’s a bad match,” are the reasons most often given. What this means is, “You’re fucked. Apply for unemployment immediately.” “Just smile a lot and don’t say anything,” a friend advises. Although I’ve lasted four months now, I’m nervous. I forget to be silent. Servility escapes me. I was forced to take a $400 a month pay cut. Now I find it difficult to pay the rent and eat simultaneously.

My brother calls, says he can’t make my poetry reading. Sunday’s his only day off from the factory. He has to fix his car, then visit Mom, fix dinner, watch the playoffs with her. She had wanted Cincinnati to win the National League pennant because during the Depression, Daddy played for one of the Reds’ farm teams. She can still remember the past, some of it at least, but it’s the present that’s defeating her. My brother says he’s got too many responsibilities. Varicose veins are throbbing his legs as he stands all day on a concrete factory floor, making tiny, intricate wires for medical equipment. He says a friend of his got a bad review at work and shot his supervisor. Job stress and murdered, the new way to downsize the American workforce.

It’s Saturday. I’m allowed to relax. I ignore my carpet’s demands for a cleaning and read the Village Voice. An article about a working class leftie who infiltrates an upstate New York militia. The white, frightened, unemployed members own a lot of weapons. His black friends are predicting a race war. He writes that when he volunteered to fight famine in Somalia, he was kidnapped twice, shot at, had to hire a bodyguard, so he bought a Colt .38 police special made in Cleveland. The head of the food program was an Algerian journalist tortured by the French during the revolution. He saw the gun’s wooden handle sticking out of the writer’s pants. “Fucking Americans and their guns,” he said.

When the OJ verdict came in, everyone at work were bent over radios. The black clericals cheered. The white women were silent, grim. The Latinas and Filipinas didn’t give a shit. The next day, one by one, all the honkies talked to Eunice, the African American who answers the phone. They had decided the acquittal was just, even the Irish guy who gets a lots of personal phone calls. Our supervisor insisted over and over again that she refused to read or watch anything about the trial. “I did what Dominic Dunne wrote in the New Yorker,” she said. Eunice nodded sympathetically. A few days later a friend called. “You should have seen the pale faces around here,” I heard her say. Then she laughed.

My daughter takes me to dinner for my birthday. We order beer. “Make a wish,” she says as we raise our glasses. For about twenty years now, I’ve wished for world peace, an end to racism, economic justice. I raise my glass. “My wish is to pass my probation and keep my new job.” Alicia works at a national corporation that makes a profit by competing with the post office for express mail and underpaying and exploiting its workforce. She was blackmailed into signing a statement against a coworker management wanted to fire. They politely brought up her attendance record. She has two kids, one of them learning disabled. She has to take off a lot. “Screw the bastards,” she answers. “Screw ‘em all.”

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