Down the long hallway from the restrooms in the opposite direction from the receiving dock was the big room that had no name that held not much of any purpose but to serve as a resting place for outdated electronics and damaged office furniture and malfunctioning items awaiting clearance and returns, a sort of mortuary for unwanted junk to repose in until the time came when it would be shipped back to the originating warehouse or thrown into dumpsters at the back of the store to achieve its final end. With the memo coming down this week from corporate headquarters announcing an upcoming move to the huge mall fifteen miles away, the time to begin packing up and moving out of this current location had arrived.
"I didn't know there was this much junk back here," Pete Cole said.
The three co-workers standing around him made no comment. Even if they were getting to spend time off the sales floor, to them this was dirty work and not very pleasant at all. Dust and cobwebs were almost everywhere, and a lot of the rubble that had to be moved out wasn't light and would be hard to lift.
Pete didn't know a whole lot about his associates Amanda or Brandi or Evan here with him, which wasn't entirely his fault. He had been at this Office Express for only about a month now, and most of that time he'd found himself relegated to solitary checkout duty, scanning customer orders and straightening and filling the racks of candy and batteries and assorted business knick-knacks by the front door. There wasn't that much business at any time of the day at this store, so he never got lined up with customers and there was plenty of time to look out the windows at West First and watch the traffic go by. Before taking this job in May he'd worked behind the counter at an auto parts store and stayed busy all the time. Apparently he had been the only one there covered up in work, since the company shut down with only scant notice and he'd had to scurry around trying to find a job. He'd spent eleven years there making a decent salary with benefits, and now he was here at this sub-par place called Office Express making barely enough to warrant getting out of bed and coming in for, but he had to work somewhere to pay the bills, so he'd taken this position until he could get lucky and find something else. Good jobs were hard to find at his age. Everything was all sewn up, which was why he was here with a bunch of people you might as well classify as kids. Like these three with him now. He could be their father. Maybe even their granddad, with the way the world was these days, kids being parents when they ought to be out playing ball or other things non-adults do all damn day and night.
The task today was to empty the storeroom as much as possible. They could load bins on pallets and ship them back, mark items down and put them out on the floor for quick sale, or, if it was complete junk, pitch it. Cast it into a dumpster, never to be seen again. Pete hated throwing stuff away if it had some kind of value, thinking anything could be fixed and brought back into working condition with a little effort, but he could tell Brandi and Amanda and Evan weren't on that same page with him. They believed everything in the world taking up the slightest bit of room was altogether disposable.
"We'll be here all night if we keep trying to salvage every little thing," said Evan. "This stuff is mostly nothing but worthless crap."
Pete was on his knees trying to attach a wheel to an office chair, screwing the groove into the cylinder at the base, tightening it with his fingers until it was set and affixed as good as new and ready to go back out on the floor and get sold to some company upgrading their office. His associates stood watching, rolling their eyes almost and wishing he would go on and eliminate this current piece of useless merchandise and move on to the next.
"We've spent ten minutes on one chair," Evan persisted, fishing his phone from his smock to see if anybody had texted him in the last ninety seconds or so.
"This isn't going to take that long," said Pete as patiently as he knew how. "Most of this stuff we can get rid of, but we need to go through it all first. There's no reason to just throw things out simply to get it out of the way."
It hadn't taken that long for the silent negativity of the three to descend upon Pete's usual sunny demeanor like a dark shadow or the coming of night. He didn't really know much to offer as small-talk now to make this job go along any quicker or smoother, but it seemed like it was always difficult to carry on a conversation at this store, especially with everyone in the entire joint all being younger than him. It was like there was something present hanging in the air that made talking to them something like a chore that required a lot of effort. Conversing seemed to be the hardest part about this new job, a titanic struggle for him to somehow adopt the proper workplace banter. He did want to fit in some sort of way and not just be some strange old dude everybody had to tolerate who wasn't in tune or a part of anything. He found himself concentrating on not being annoying, trying to keep from saying something stupid or tiring and to simply be a part of the overall operation that the rest of them didn't despise. Certainly this was not like his previous job, when he'd always had an easy time talking to the drivers and the countermen and the customers who came in for parts for their vehicles. It had been easy then.
"Listen to this," Pete said, pointing upward at a ceiling speaker piping in satellite music for the store. "This song was popular back when I was in college."
"I've never heard this in my life," said Evan.
"Yes, you have," Brandi said. "It comes on every now and then. You just don't remember it because you don't know who sings it."
"It's Carly Simon," Pete said. "She used to be married to James Taylor."
"My mother used to play James Taylor all the time in her car when I was a little kid," Amanda said. "We always had to sit there and listen to her singing along with him wherever we were going. It got pretty old after a while."
"This is called 'You're So Vain'," Pete said. He stood up. "She wrote this about a few of her ex-lovers, though she never would identify who was who in the song. Everybody kept trying to guess who it was she was singing about."
No one said anything or acted like what he'd said mattered or made any kind of sense, seeming more interested in what in the room was going to get thrown away next.
Pete walked over to where a convention of printers rested in a pile of plastic and thin metal. Ink cartridges were strewn around the contents like charcoal and kindling for a bonfire, and Pete admitted to himself how it would indeed be easier to just torch this entire room and rid the world of a whole lot of outdated shit. Nobody wanted it anymore anyway.
"This is Mick Jagger singing with her," he said. "A lot of people thought he was one of the guys mentioned in the song, which is weird if you think about it, him singing with her on a song that she might have written about him."
"I thought he was only with the Rolling Stones," Brandi said.
"Maybe he needed a little extra money at the time," Evan offered.
Pete kicked at the pile of useless gizmos with his toe. Amanda, behind him, was saying again how they might as well throw all of it away, but he continued shifting the contents around as if the possibility existed there was something worth saving buried there. He thought about listening to Carly Simon the first time when this album came out. There was a bong and everyone listened to the words of the song and read the liner notes. He thought about how quiet the apartment had been with only the music playing, his friends listening and thinking and pondering, nobody talking much at all, like it was all a holy moment or something. He thought about how it was 1972 then and everything was changing and everybody was trying to make some good come out of it and make sense of what was going on around them. He thought about how it seemed like such a long time ago now but how at the same time it also seemed like it was just yesterday.
"Maybe it was old Mick who she was singing about who was with the wife of somebody's close friend," Pete said. "That's the sort of thing he seemed to always be doing at the time."
He could tell nobody cared much what Mick might have been up to in 1972.
"I do remember one of her songs from when I was a kid," Evan said. "It was a commercial and people kept waiting for ketchup to come out of a bottle."
"'Anticipation,'" Pete said, but no one appeared to be filing the information away in their memory banks.
"Flying a Lear Jet to Nova Scotia to see a total eclipse of the sun," Pete smiled. "That's genius." He looked at the speaker above their heads and nodded. "You had to be a hell of a songwriter to come up with a line like that." He smiled happily at his associates, as if he knew something vitally important they didn't, knew it here in this store even though they had all been working in this place a lot longer than he had. "That seeing the eclipse bit is about Warren Beatty," he told them. "Carly even admitted it was back a few years ago."
"Who's Warren Beatty?" Brandi asked.
Pete began to load the surplus printers into a wrap-around bin. He thought of handsome Warren Beatty as Clyde Barrow all those years back, sitting in celluloid behind the wheel of a stolen Ford Coupe with Faye Dunaway at his side. He knew he couldn't describe Warren to any of these people present right this moment or talk about the movies Warren had been in back in the day. Pete knew that even if all four of them in this storeroom were to board a plane right this instant and fly to Nova Scotia and somehow re-live the total eclipse of that long-ago sun that had occurred there he would still be unable to bring Warren Beatty or Carly Simon or this song into any discernible light. There would always be a shadow keeping them from seeing what he had seen once and was still able to see now, stopping them from knowing the things he knew, separating his world from them in their inky separate darkness.
"He was just some guy Carly knew," Pete said finally. "Maybe he's one of the guys in the song, maybe not. After all these years I guess it doesn't matter anymore. It was a big thing for a while and then it was gone, and now it's ancient history, maybe even folklore, something that went on a long time ago that's all over with now."
He felt different all at once. He was sick of this job. He wanted to finish up fast and then go home.