Telna nailed the barrel shut. It takes longer than she expected. The nails don’t want to drive straight. Tink. Tink. Tink. The nails, like expectations, bent.
The barrel rocks.
The cold of the warehouse sinks into her fingers. Long and thin, they crackle in the chill and she’s left her gloves at home. This skews her nailing; her hands are stiff. She doesn’t want this: disappointment and cold hands. She’s had enough of both. Enough of drudging eight hours behind a register, the back of her legs veined and aching, her feet swollen and angry like fat, squalling infants. She’s had enough of young managers with cocked eyebrows and slick dicks touching her behind the frozen foods. Telna can clerk like a racehorse, sleek and nimble. She knows the price of every item in the store, tuna fish in cans and lima beans in bags, the price of a half-pound of oranges and which tubs of ice cream sell out first. Telna sucks in air, the arctic of the warehouse icing her lungs. She’s had enough of cold and quiet and loneliness.
Telna wishes she was somewhere warm.
But the barrel needs nailing so to distract herself, she whistles a country tune, a song her father loved. When she batters her thumbnail, she curses and then belts out a line from the song her dad used to sing, something about broken hearts and neon moons. It helps.
Barrels aren’t easy to find nowadays, Telna thinks. Unless you work in a distillery or a winery. Few places have wooden barrels just sitting around, waiting to be borrowed. This one smells of oak and the whiskey aged in it long ago. More recently it served as decoration, a kitschy exhibit piece in the grocery store where Telna clerks. For the last three weeks it sat center stage in a display between aisles six and seven, overflowing with Christmas ornaments and ribbons, bags of walnuts, candy canes and chocolates. She’d draped the barrel in popcorn strings and silver tinsel and then stacked fruit cakes, wrapped in clear cellophane and beveled in lopsided pyramids, in front of the display.
Telna loves Christmas. Her father used to sit her in his lap as they watched the horses on TV, the gate sprung open, the thrust of power as the horses dug into the dirt then sped along the track. If Daddy won, she might get a new bicycle or a doll house. One year he bought her a child’s swimming pool but it was too cold for water so they filled it with snow. She misses his barrel-chested hugs.
He was the one who taught Telna how to wield a hammer. After he died, and the debts piled up her mother said Christmas was for rich people. They spent what money they got on rent and food and her mother’s Virginia Slims. Telna took the job at the grocery when she turned 16, in part because employees got a 10% discount on food and half off all items past their sell-by date.
She’d started celebrating Christmas again, organizing the staff Christmas party 22 years in a row – including the one held earlier tonight in the warehouse. The employees handed around Secret Santa gifts, ate deli platter sandwiches and cookies and drank prosecco and wine coolers. She’d even laughed and smiled when the store manager Earl, tipsy after several glasses, kissed her under the mistletoe. Everyone saw.
They’d been together seven months, but kept the relationship on the QT. Earl didn’t think managers and staff should date. Still some nights after the store closed, he’d grab her at the waist and two-step them across the empty warehouse or down the freezer aisle. Afterwards, he’d follow her home to her studio apartment, lick the underside of her breasts and kiss her behind the ears until they both feel asleep on her secondhand futon. She imagined a lifetime of these late night snuggles.
Then his wife showed up at the store to buy lemons, belly bulging, eight months at least and annoyed that Earl hadn’t called to say what time he’d be home. She looked 12 or 22 but definitely younger than Telna’s 38 years.
One of the wooden staves pushes out, the way a pregnant woman’s belly might stretch when the baby within extends her arms.
The barrel holds. Telna is impressed. The metal hoops hold the staves in perfect, perpetual alignment. So tightly wound that neither air nor light nor sound can enter or escape. She pauses to appreciate the quality workmanship. Few things live up to their promises nowadays.
Earl hadn’t liked the barrel when Telna chose it for the Christmas display. He stood in the grocery store aisle, the overhead strip lighting bouncing off his bald spot as he shook his head. Telna shimmied and offered to dance naked for him after work that night. He laughed, smacked her ass and sauntered back to the front of the store. Telna maneuvered the barrel onto the display platform.
The store closed early for the party and after a few hours of drinking, everyone staggered home. Now Telna works slowly, methodically.
A muffled sound, almost a grunt, bounces off the warehouse walls.
After she slams the last nail in place, Telna drives the forklift over. Parked in the corner out of the way for the party, the forklift moves, agile and almost silent, across the open floor.
She noses the forklift into the furthest, darkest spot of the warehouse, a cavernous labyrinthine. Only Telna, the store’s oldest employee, knows every row, every turn, every hidden corner. She plants the barrel, then backs out.
Beep. Beep. Beep.
She wished this Christmas had gone better. She realizes now she’d expected too much. Telna sighs. Time to move on, she thinks. Maybe she’ll move to California, swim in the Pacific or visit wine country. She’d be interested to see the kinds of barrels they use out there.
Jamie Etheridge has been nominated for Best of the Net, with writing published or forthcoming in JMWW, X-R-A-Y Lit, Burnt Breakfast, Eastern Iowa Review, Every Day Fiction, Inkwell Journal and Wild Word Magazine. She can be found on Twitter at @Lescribbler.