"In Limbo" - Short Story Submission

Jerry’s got his panties in a wad because when we woke this morning we found on the new pallet the same porcelain and Fabergé curios we’ve been selling now for the better part of a week. This particular merchandise is a pain to set up and that’s God’s honest: each hand-painted women’s shoe, each glittering, crystal rose, every stenciled teacup comes individually packaged in bubble wrap, so it’s not only a matter of opening the shipping cartons and setting the contents out on counter displays—as we do for books or sporting equipment—but a tedious process of slicing open the cartons, removing each stowed item, unpeeling the Scotch tape with our bleeding fingernail nubs until we unfurl about a thousand yards of bubble wrap. Set-up takes forever for about a thousand delicate pieces.

            “It’s just not fair,” Jerry says. “What did I do to deserve this?”

            I break down empty boxes and toss them into the aisle for Service to pick up later. Asking myself the same question: What, indeed? What did I do to wind up not where a true believer might call Heaven, because this is no one’s definition of paradise, but to also not find myself in Hell? Or that’s what others who’ve been here much longer than me swear, that there’s someplace worse.

Jerry curses trying to make the display endcap stand upright. A decade of this and still he can’t quite figure out how it goes together. The display stand has about fifty wire arms sticking out. Inevitably, one comes loose as soon as he manages to get another one secured. From these we’ll eventually hang porcelain figurines—moose and yodelers and milk cows—that bounce up and down on springs.

            “Who the hell buys something like this?” Jerry wants to know. “Where the hell do they put these kinds of things?”

            “Where in Limbo?” I smile wryly. “Where in Purgatorio?”

            But the humor is lost on Jerry, here, where we sleep on hard cots each night in our booth. And when we wake, there’s a new shrink-wrapped pallet of merch waiting: unpasteurized goat cheese, DVD players—whatever the cartons hold, it’s always a surprise. A week straight selling the same precious knickknacks is starting to wear on us both.

            At the register, I turn the key and the change drawer shoots open. It’s stuffed with bills and coins I don’t recognize, in denominations larger than what I knew as part of the Living. In the drawer are pale-blue bills that say 1000, and on the back is a picture of some barbarian king. The coins are familiar enough, silver and copper, and in friendly denominations: 1, 5, 10, 50. This is something else that changes daily. We never know what currency we’ll be using until I—and it’s always me now—open the cash drawer.

            “What’ve we got?” Jerry dangles figurines from his fingertips like some giant, menacing puppeteer. The figurines grin and flex on their springs in long, aping loops.

            “Forints,” I tell him, “that’s what…200 is about equal to a dollar?”

            “Never heard of it.”

            Jerry won’t touch the cash drawer since the time we were selling medieval armor and got stuck using ancient Chinese cowry shells. Around midday, Jerry realized he’d been making change in bone thinking it was wood, and so our end-of-day was way off. More than a grand. For a week after, we were stuck selling some pretty sick shit, Freak-Museum commodities like severed hands and blood worms and pig fetuses in jars of formaldehyde. The higher-ups weren’t happy with our register being so far off, and that was a harsh punishment. The shrunken heads gave us nightmares for weeks.

            This place, in what a practicing Catholic—as opposed to a recovering Catholic like me—might call Perdition, is built upon rewards and punishments. Mess up like we did with the cowry shells, the drawer gets off, and we’re stuck selling earmuffs woven with human hair. Sell out our booth each day for a week, a month, a year, and who knows? Maybe we get upgraded.

L.C.F. "In Limbo" - Tuscany Prize 2015 Short Story Submission

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