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Fiction by Kent Kosack

Campland is a Store is a System is a Sphincter is the World

Here is Terry, mid-dangle, mid-life.

Camplanders call this The Saturday Dangle.” The precise moment at the end of a twelve-hour shift at Campland on the last Saturday before Christmas when an employee’s adrenaline and patience and feigned holiday cheer collapse, forcing them to face their exhaustion and bitterness with backs stiff from genuflecting over so many customers’ feet: hikers’ enormous bunions and skiers’ bone spurs and runners’ blackened toenails; these service-class schlubs excreted by the anus that is working retail in America in December; these employee-dingleberries dangle from the fifteen-foot-high metal storage shelves in the cold solitude of the warehouse, trying to stretch their backs and cores, to allow their spines to realign as they ignore the manager paging for more sales help, the muffled Christmas music seeping in from the store and, in Terry’s particularly pitiful case, ignore his irritable bowel syndrome which one second is knotting his intestines into a Monkey’s fist and the next is threatening to untie said fist into a pool of effluvia in his plaid boxers.

He’s been working sixty-hour weeks this past month to save up for an extravagant holiday. Campland gifts for the until-recently-estranged family:

  • A new multi-tool for his father to fiddle with in his nursing home or slit his wrist in a flash of lucid resolve.
  • A six-person tent for his brother’s growing family to bicker in under the stars.
  • A top-of-the-line down mummy bag for his sister-law
    who, according to his brother, always complains of the cold—Terry wonders if she means the temperature or his brother’s lack of empathy—when they go winter camping. And this world is cold, Kendra, Lord, Terry knows it. But numb toes are a thing of the past, dear sister-in-law! No more cramming the whole troop into a three-person tent, Bro! Let’s warm it together!
  • And for his niece Marge, the highly-coveted UGG boots.
    Marge is his favorite, this walking olive branch who called him—him! The one his brother taunted as Turdy Terry” for his IBS, for his shit apartment and shit job and shit life—called Uncle Terry out of the blue to invite him to Christmas. Good tidings we bring to you and your kin! For this teen he hasn’t seen in ten years and who seems determined to bring her family together he nabbed a pair of this year’s hot ticket item.

His brother said she’s been dying for a pair. Terry doesn’t know why the boots have caught on. They’re warm, sure. Cozy. But they’re just boots. Yet Campland has almost sold out of them. Not just Campland, but every shoe store in northern New Jersey. Hell, every store in the tri-state area. Campland only has inventory because it usually solely sells camping equipment and related rugged footwear to explore the outdoors/stylishly contribute to ongoing ecocide. Admittedly, UGG boots are a bit outside its norm, a tad off-brand. But Bill, the store manager and son of the founder and owner, has been branching out, thinks himself a visionary, the Steve Jobs of discount camping store managers. He’s opening Campland to new markets, new customers, and, he says, new economic trails and peaks and vistas.

Though Terry is often fearful, he wasn’t worried at the start of his shift because three weeks ago he put aside a pair of eights for Marge, tucked behind last years’ Tevas in the warehouse. Sure, putting something on hold is against Campland’s strict first-come, first-served policy. Normally Terry would never violate Campland law. But this is for Christmas, for Marge. For his family.

#

So, why is Terry dangling?

Because this same Bill, ten minutes ago, eight minutes before closing time, at nine fifty-two, dragged his daughter into the Bootery and hurled his catchphrase at Terry: Working hard or hardly working?”

Terry wasn’t sure if what he does can be called work, though he is paid for it. Does it contribute, in some meaningful, productive way, to society? Can selling shoes be categorized with other, more productive occupations: engineer, teacher, plumber? He couldn’t say. Yet, if anxiety and exhaustion are the metrics used to define an action as work, then he is a workaholic. Employee of the month. Of the millennium.

Bill pushed his daughter forward. My little Laura here wants to try on a new pair of UGG boots. She doesn’t like the color of her current ones.”

Laura sat on the bench and begrudgingly stuck her foot up for Terry to inspect the soles. The outer edges of the heels were worn through. A textbook case of supination.

Bill, normally I’d be happy to help. But I’m not feeling too well. A stomach thing. And we’re about to close and all. And we don’t have much inventory. We’re sold out in a lot of sizes.”

Campland never turns away a customer in need, Terry. No, sir-ee. Don’t be such a Grinch. Laura, tell the man your size.”

Laura sulked and mumbled something, either hate or fate or eight.

Did you say eight’”?

Laura, answer the man.”

Yeah,” she said as Bing crooned through Campland’s crackly speakers, his baritone as rich and smooth and nauseating as a pitcher of eggnog.

Well, that’s a popular size. A common size. Maybe the most common.”

Meaning?” Bill asked.

We might be sold out.” Terry pressed his hand to his stomach as it struggled to digest the only thing he’d eaten today: two and a half sesame bagels spackled with some off-brand breakfast schmear that was more Xanthan gum than cream cheese.

We’ll never know if you don’t measure her foot, Terry. She probably doesn’t even know her true size. We’ll make it work.”

True size,” Terry echoed. His stomach started to tremble and throb. Maybe she was a ten? Or a six? Maybe there was another pair back there, overlooked. Or some new inventory that came in that he missed, a whole heap of UGG boots wrapped on a palette in the warehouse. He bent to measure her foot with the Brannock Device and—fuck. Bill’s daughter shuffled through the world in narrowish eights. Bring us some figgy pudding, Bing demanded.

So, her size?”

Eight,” Terry whispered. He thought of the Turkey thawing in his brother’s fridge, the big dead bird waiting to be stuffed. Of Marge, her boots beneath the tree, her face when she opened them.

Sorry?”

Are you? Truly?”

I mean, what’s her size?” Bill said, eyeing Terry with confusion that was teetering towards distrust.

Eight.”

Bill clapped his hands. Ok, grab a pair and we’ll be all done here.”

We’re sold out.” We won’t go until we get some.

No way.”

We are.”

Take a look in the back for me. I’m sure there’s a pair. It’s Christmas, after all.”

Terry walked to the warehouse, breathed deep of the rubbery and stale air. He’d have to lie. That’s all. One little lie to save Christmas. He stood in the warehouse and counted to one hundred then returned to find Bill at the computer, grinning and pointing at the screen. Says right here we have one pair left in stock. The computer never lies.”

There might be a pair.”

Might has nothing to do with it. It says there’s a pair right here.” Bill beckoned Terry over to see the proof on the screen.

There is. But it’s on hold for someone,” Terry confessed, quietly releasing a stream of nervous farts. Turdy Terry strikes again. So bring it right here, Bing insisted.

Bill laughed. On hold? Campland doesn’t do holds. You know that.”

It’s on hold for me,” Terry said. He wants to hold it together, to hold himself up, to be held, for his bowels to hold fast. I put them on hold for my niece. For Christmas.”

Dad, can we just get the boots and go already? I’m bored. And this place stinks.”

In a minute, crumpet. Terry, if you wanted the boots, you should have bought them. It’s too late now. The customer is always right at Campland. Now, be a good Camplander and go grab us the boots,” Bill said, pointing at the warehouse doors like Terry was a grade schooler he could put on time-out and not a forty-two-year-old man with certain rights protected by the Department of Labor.

Terry didn’t say he hadn’t bought the boots because he couldn’t afford them. Didn’t say he opened a new credit card account this week so he could buy them for his niece so he could afford to give his family better gifts than mailing them the single discount card of cats playing with tinsel that his ex had bought in bulk a decade ago and which he has since sent to the group every year.

He hurried to the warehouse, the tightness in his stomach migrating to his intestines. He approached the racks of shoes and boots waiting to carry strangers through woods and over mountains. Up the metal shelves he climbed looking for Marge’s, now Laura’s, chosen boots.

#

So, here is Terry, dangling.

He spies the boots on the top rack. He reaches, elongates his core, presses his chest against the cold metal rack, strains his shoulders and stretches upward like he’s putting an angel atop his brother’s Christmas tree. He’ll get something else for Marge. She’ll understand. You can’t buy reconciliation anyway. They’ll still have dinner together, turkey, stuffing, mulled wine, smiles and laughs and holiday cheer. They’ll catch up, make up for ten lost years.

A faint gurgle in his gut turns to a growl and percolates down through his intestines to his anus. He prays for the peristalsis to stop long enough for him to reach the bathroom but first, Bill must have the boots. Terry pulls himself up, grabs the box of boots and drops to the ground, shitting his pants upon landing.

The evacuation sends shudders through them and feels existential, like he is expelling fifteen years at Campland, the customers, the questions, the towers of shoes, his aching feet, his empty bank account, his useless associate’s degree in history, his ex leaving him for the otherwise hands-off super of their building, his mother’s death, her hand one minute clutching his, the next laying lifeless in her lap in the casket at the wake, the acrimonious battle over his meager inheritance and his subsequent decade-long estrangement from his family, the military industrial complex, neoliberalism, the people suffering in sweat shops in the developing world to feed this insatiable American hunger, the whole rancid American Dream—it all rushes forth and down and out of him.

Terry is no longer dangling.

He stands in his own filth a minute, outside himself, watching a man named Terry who sells shoes for a living and just shit his pants. Turdy Terry. He doesn’t like what he sees.

He drops his pants and his boxers, removes his Campland vest and cleans himself with it. He removes the UGG boots from the box, examines the rubber soles, presses his face to them, hard, until the new treads indent his skin. He places his badge and soiled boxers and vest back in the box and renters the store, boots pinched in one hand, box sitting on the palm of the other like he’s delivering a pizza. Bing is gone. Lennon is now singing about this being Christmas, wondering about what we’ve done.

Terry, what happened to your face?” Bill asks.

Terry hands him the box and walks past him.

Laura, you smell that? Terry, Jesus, what’s that smell?”

Figgy pudding. Merry Christmas.” Terry makes his final exit from Campland to the sound of Bill screaming and his daughter retching and Lennon wishing him a good New Year, wishing him one without fear.

Kent Kosack

Twitter: @KentKosack

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