by Jeffrey Paolano
At the bell Dr. Rotherstall, PhD, has but forty-five minutes to run down to her car, drive to the DMV, comply with the state requirement to renew her registration in person, and return to the classroom before the students for her next class begin to arrive.
Approaching the entrance to the DMV, in her haste, she fails to notice the pervasive gunge festooning the facade.
Inside, one finds institutional décor.
That is to say, painted cement block walls now peeling and oxidizing, exposed electrical wires, telephone lines, heating ducts and computer cabling, running overhead, without concealing ceiling panels.
The management of the various mechanical, electrical and data lines is of the poor quality associated with governmental employees.
The counter appears knocked together from a flimsy material, possibly a compressed paper composition. The bar bears evidence of having endured considerable abuse.
The floor is covered by linoleum squares. Several have been damaged in a variety of ways, gouges and corners broken away exposing the black material beneath or scrapings having removed the decorative surface leave just the bland internal material to show as a gash across the surface usually for several feet.
There are several rows of metal chairs, rusted with torn seats, lined against the wall, opposite the counter.
Any, attempting the processes’ navigation, will progress at a snail-like pace through a series of interactions eventually resulting in their obtaining the required document.
All the while realizing the same end could have been easily accomplished through the mails or even more quickly with several taps on a computer keyboard.
The client’s attention is drawn to the electric sign emblazoned with Now Serving across the top which publishes the next number to be served in correspondence to the number on the paper slip held in the lucky client’s hand, it having been obtained from the red dispenser.
Before the counter a yellow line is painted on the floor. A large sign hangs from the labyrinth of piping, ducts and wires overhead by a chain on each end which proclaims, REMAIN BEHIND THE YELLOW LINE UNTIL CALLED.
As one stands behind the yellow line waiting to be called, there is wafting in the air a stale odoriferousness.
Something mindful of an amalgamation of various vending machine treats, a lack of personal hygiene, and the interminable deterioration of the building materials used to construct the place.
There is the hint of mold, something akin to cardboard or newspapers piled in the basement or the garage which, having gotten wet from time to time, now in decomposition releases a singular rotten odor.
Should a client cross the yellow line prior to being called, they’ll issue a reproof such as, “Please do not approach the counter until called.”
Any clerk milling about behind the counter might voice this order.
I’m a DMV clerk.
Behind the counter, we clerks rotate through the numbers, taking each in turn.
In this instance, the number display reads 64.
I advance to the counter and say in what I believe is a loud voice, “Sixty-four, serving sixty-four.”
I stand at the counter with both hands flat upon it.
I look out over the crowd, with a vacant expression appearing as though I have no interest in the proceedings at all.
In truth that is not the case.
I am in fact impatient to move the process along, demonstrating my interest by calling again “Sixty-four, now serving…”
A young woman, outfitted as a professional, jumps up from her chair, holding her slip aloft, evidently to authenticate she indeed holds the magic number. “Here, here I am!”
She advances quickly to the counter, somewhat breathlessly, placing the precious document on the bar, (I suppose to offer proof of her bona fides).
She looks directly into my face, holding her registration aloft.
The lady says, “Good morning. I need to renew my registration.”
Her gaze then turns to the registration, rather I suppose in an attempt to compel me to follow her sight thereby directing my attention to the document in question in the hopes of moving the process along.
I don’t take the bait.
Looking directly into her face, I respond with, “Good morning, well we should be able to help you.”
Not because I possess a personality which may be characterized as particularly genial or effusive.
My reaction is attributable to my life’s paucity, which results in a frequent need to find ways to enliven my existence thru my idea of comicality.
Principally, in thwarting a client’s desires at the DMV.
So as with this young lady, obviously in a hurry, obviously desiring to move along, obviously wanting only to finish this waste of time, I will delay and obfuscate by being overly polite (something she can hardly complain about), engage in interminable small talk (again hardly the basis for complaint) until finally I see in her the inevitable resignation that there is not within her power the ability to cause this slow, none-too-bright, state-employed dreg to function in any way that one would readily demand in a private concern.
We, the DMV clerks, have a dog.
Each time a clerk passes the mutt it leaps up, tongue lolling from the gaping maw, drooling saliva sprays about in abandon as he flings its head in excited agitation, its body squirming with an end punctuated by the devilishly wagging tail.
Occasionally, a passing clerk will absentmindedly pat the dog, or even more rarely, scratch the animal behind the ears or under the chin while chanting, “Good boy, good Dandy, good boy.”
The clients waiting to be served, already in considerable distress, observe this additional time-wasting with increased exasperation.
By admitting I work at the DMV, I reveal all.
One imagines the vacuous eye.
The synthetic pants sporting an elastic waist band, the slight trouser flair fifteen years out of style, the faux orthopedic shoes purchased, one speculates, at the discount shoe store, the patterned shirt paired with a strangely off-putting polyester tie.
In contrast to the ignobility associated with the infrequent visit to the DMV by members of the general public, the ineffable distress associated with the employees’ daily attendance can only appall.
Here is employment pursued for reasons as varied as:
- absolutely the only option available
- the security of suckle at the public teat
- the generous medical and pension benefits
- the lack of accountability and professional standards
- customer service only to a marginal degree
Clerking at the DMV is a laid-back job. The people who work it expect to do as little as possible, as slowly as possible, and as begrudgingly as possible.
And that they do, sheltered in their sinecure.
I have the job because it is my harbor from the world’s unrelenting demands.
As regarding the other male DMV employees, given the widespread derision with which such employment is regarded something akin, I should think, to the generally accepted size of the genitals of a man who purchases a Corvette.
In consideration of the female DMV employees, one imagines the girl who never finds her fit. Bearing a face nature imprints with a spare nose, leftover eyes, lips found wanting in other applications, hair without substance or sheen, a gangly body, arms too long, legs akimbo and trunk ill balanced.
The increasingly frustrated client begins to focus on a particular individual, chosen scrupulously at random in order to allay any selection bias. While the waiting continues, so too does the scrutiny.
We as employees take notice of the staring eyes, the solemn expressions covering the seething volcanoes of enragement and frustration that occasionally boil over.
Spilling out all over the floor of the DMV as well as being spewed upon the clerks.
At such times the manager comes running from her office, ready to apply her training and experience in dealing with such outbursts.
The gendarmes having been advised are on a dead run to gain the DMV before a gun is drawn or a punch thrown.
After an interminable day applying tortuous rules, the minute step-by-step procedures, the completion of forms obsolete as the ink dries upon them to be filed unviewed until such time as the yellowed, dried to fragility, flaking into crumbling mass is addressed by a teenager hired for the summer to convert it to microfiche at taxpayer expense, so that they may be more easily stored to no purpose at taxpayer expense, until such juncture at whatever time limit established by statute at taxpayer expense ordains, they may be destroyed at taxpayer expense.
In truth we, the clerks, wonder at the abuse the public tolerates without demanding, requiring, extorting their duly elected representatives to do something about it.
The farce continues year after year, fodder for the likes of comedians, fiction writers and the tension relieving human interest stories of the evening news.
As an additional ironical twist on this banal story, at day’s end, I make my way home on the bus, having insufficient income to finance a car.
In my apartment, I retrieve what leftovers are in the fridge, heat them in the microwave, eat them in front of the TV and allow the news to sweep over me as I finish my instant coffee.
This is my endlessly repeating routine day after day until such time as Memorial Day breaks on the horizon.
Without family, Christmas is meaningless, without religion Easter holds no joy, Labor Day, the summer’s close, is hollow, Thanksgiving spent alone at a cafeteria is tragic.
However, my life lifts on Veterans Day, Independence Day and most especially Memorial Day.
I’d left for the military prior to graduation from high school. I enlisted as soon as I was old enough to be accepted.
It was my escape vehicle from the dysfunctional family abuse I endured as a youth.
The three holidays enumerated above are the days for which I live.
They buoy me up, invigorate me, and bestow solace in their grant of renewal.
Immediately prior to Memorial Day, a few days before, actually in reality more days than necessary before, I begin my preparations.
I am so thrilled by the prospect of the activity that I cannot wait to retrieve my uniform from the closet where it has hung since the last Memorial Day wearing.
Sheathed in a clear plastic bag, laundered, and pressed the uniform stands ready in pristine condition to be worn again in celebration of our brave heroic dead who having sacrificed the last measure of devotion are honored by a grateful nation.
For my part, I participate in a wreath-laying ceremony at the community cemetery. I have been a member of the Honor Guard these thirty-seven years.
There was a patch from right after I came home to the time when I regained my equilibrium during which I shunned the ceremonies. I view this as a dark period now, although at the time, filled with severity, I was unable to do otherwise.
I’ve heard it said, “Time heals all wounds.” It is unassailable. This bromide has proven to be true in my case.
Had you told me during the nadir I would feel the way I do today, I would have decked you, just from cussedness.
Oh, I have residual emotions, occasionally there is a nightmare, maybe several days I can’t seem to get out of bed, the infrequent beating my fists on a wall or possibly entering a bar where I am unknown, ginning up an argument with a peaceful patron, instigating his striking me and then pounding the hell out of him.
Any of these actions afford me several days of relief before the miseries once again advance on me requiring I act or explode.
You may wonder why I don’t drink as some do, or ingest illicit drugs, why I don’t seek professional help, why I don’t avail myself of the legitimate and illegitimate respite available to me.
All for the same reason, I am a man.
I am in control of my psyche and need no aids to see me through.
What I need is to master my demons unleashed from within myself.
Alone, I’ve wrestled my way out of the dark days.
I suppressed the rage, replaced the implacable sickness with a calm, functional demeanor.
I sequestered the vicious emotions while creating a persona acceptable to the world at large.
A persona that dampens the sizzle in my head, which prevents rational thought replacing it with a dull quietude that allows for operational effectiveness.
Opening what has been transmogrified from the bedroom closet to a sanctified refuge by the expediency of stowing the sacred uniform within its bosom, I behold the cherished relic.
As I have relayed herein above, within the sanctuary the holy garment hangs sheathed in the transparent plastic cocoon absolutely immaculate, ready to perform its ritualistic duties.
Laying the consecrated package upon the bed I slowly (speed seems somehow disrespectful) unzip the bag.
Gently, I remove the garment, picking it up by the hanger hook, never actually touching the cloth itself.
My sight is drawn to an area whereat I discover to my horror, upon the left side in the space below the breast pocket and above the patch pocket, a blotch.
Against the jungle green the stain appears to be a brown fault, maybe two inches in diameter.
I ponder its origin.
An animal may have entered the bag during the course of the year, depositing a soiling agent in its meanderings, possibly panicked by its inability to gain an exit from the bag.
I check the plastic for rip or tear. There is nothing. Thinking back to the opening of the bag, was the zipper not completely closed?
My memory is that it was shut completely.
I look for gnaw marks in the plastic or the uniform. None are visible.
Possibly a variety of bug, the stain being its eggs, splashed onto the fabric by the unstoppable force of instinctual induced reproduction.
Consequently, there should be in the bottom of the bag a remnant of the creature. I check. Nothing remains.
Flummoxed, I take a seat, the uniform across my knees arranging my senses to the futility of pursuing the mark’s origin while focusing on the need to remove it from the garment.
After a moment I rise.
Taking the costume into the john, using my washcloth I wet the stain then begin a scrubbing with the intention to blot the smudge away.
Eventually, I apply detergent, stain remover, and soda water.
Remarkably, the blemish grows. The more I work the piece the greater its extent.
Until such time as it reaches a dimension, a size, a configuration which engages a minute memory. A faint almost infinitesimal remembrance emerges from a long gone day.
Down the dim corridors of my past, sailing over the wasted years in the recollection-obliterating DMV, past the dark time with its suicidal raging, back into the foreign land, engaging the enigmatic foe there, I recall the mark on the blouse I wore the day I carried Doggie to the chopper.
The gore of his intestines smeared upon my field shirt was in this spot, of this very configuration.
The memory of tearing at the garment’s buttons, mad with a desire to have it off my body, sensing its acidity would burn away my skin.
The shuddering relief once it was removed is as real to me at this instance, all these years on, as at the moment of its occurrence, in that long-ago foreign place.
The trembling, with arms about my knees, deep in the fighting hole, the uncontrollable wailing, the sympathy of my fellows, these long suppressed visions flood back to my consciousness.
The overwhelming feeling of cowardice, shame, humiliation, failure and ineptitude emanates still from the incident in which I failed my friend at the zenith of his vulnerability.
At his moment of greatest dependence and need, Doggie found me wanting.
The branding, searing, scarring, scabbing induced by that reality marked me from that time to this, without a methodology to address, correct or relieve the blemish or atone for the sin against my Brother.
The wonderment of the imperfection’s appearance overwhelms me. I question the mark’s reality; try to shake the image from my sight.
Am I dreaming, hallucinating, am I experiencing a chimera, what manner of delusion, illusion or fantasy assails me?
The facts are these: I have worn the garb thirty-seven consecutive years; no smear has previously appeared in all those years over all that time; under close scrutiny and observation, no spot has been revealed.
I have laundered and pressed it every year after the Memorial Day ceremonies.
I have restored it to the plastic hanging bag, replacing the bag several times over the years when the synthetic material has become brittle and yellowed.
How, now after all these years, did this stain appear?
How, now after all these years, am I to understand what I behold?
How, now after all these years, am I to address this unimaginable pain refreshed in me by this event?
I am not to wring from this episode a spiritual reality, enlightenment, or peace. This I know, of this I am sure. There is no epiphany here, no revelation into religiosity. The event would be cheapened with such discourse.
No this is a singularity of its own import unbridled, unsaddled and unadorned with manmade convictions.
The truth is guilt is limited by the abilities and resources available at the time and in the circumstances of the event.
No path may be traveled beyond that limit.
What I sense is my atonement, my bill paid, my docket cleared, my suffering at an end.
I am released from the fetters and free.
What I realize is a truth wherein I am to wear the garment with its imperfection, wear it proudly as an acknowledgement I had done for Doggie what I could do.
None can be asked for more.
Jeffrey Paolano served in the U.S. Navy from 1964 to 1968. Thereafter he was a labor economist for thirty years. Upon retirement he took up writing. His work has been published in a variety of venues.