My sister lies awake at night, listening to see if the air conditioning bearings need greasing. All night. Then, she is exhausted during the day. She naps and naps but never seems to catch up. Until the nighttime, when she lies there in the dark and silence, listening to the air conditioning engine, trying to hear if the bearings are whining.
She hasn’t always done this. She used to be a sound sleeper. Too sound, her husband would joke. My sister used to send the children off to bed with wishes of, “Pleasant dreams,” and a smile that told you she expected to have some herself. Now, she just lies awake and listens to the air conditioning bearings.
Recently, my sister lost her job of nineteen years. She is a little unsettled. She got the job when she was still a teenager, unmarried and childless. Now that her oldest son is getting ready for high school, she is probably a little closer to grandmotherhood than she is to being a teenager—nineteen years ago. That is a long time.
She worked for nineteen years as a cashier in a grocery store chain. She told me a story about a thing that happened at her job. It was an extremely hot summer day, in the middle of a heat wave, and a transient walked into the store. Homeless people in the store were nothing new. They came in a lot during the worst of the summer and hung out in the frozen foods section. Some of them smelled so bad that you couldn’t get the stink out all day.
This particular transient was a regular. He smelled bad, but to tell the truth, not any worse than some of the regular folk. He always bought lots of cat food. One day, the transient walked right up to where my sister was working the cash register and looked her straight in the eye.
“I need to see the manager.”
“Look,” my sister replied, “I’m sorry the price of cat food is too high, but there is nothing I can do about it.”
“No,” the transient said firmly. “This is something else. I need to see a manager urgently.”
So, my sister got her manager. She didn’t have time for any of this bullshit. The manager asked the transient what the problem was.
“One of your air conditioning bearings is going out,” he replied. “If you don’t replace it soon, it could do a lot of damage to the motor.”
The manager paused to ponder his reaction, while my sister listened intently. “And how do you know the air conditioner is about to throw a bearing?”
“The squeaking is keeping me and my roommate awake at night.”
“Well, thank you,” the store manager replied, somewhat bewildered, but shaking the homeless man’s hand, “We’ll get someone on that right away.”
The store manager did what he had promised and made one of the stock boys climb up a long, rickety ladder to the roof. The air conditioning bearing was squeaking loudly. There was more to discover, however—much more. There was a small shack up there, made up of discarded produce boxes. There were empty cat food cans scattered everywhere. In the center of the roof, not far from the air conditioner, was a rock fire ring with burnt charcoal in the center. The fire pit was surrounded by cat skeletons, many of the bones looking thoroughly gnawed. The store manager had the motor repaired, but the two roommates were evicted from their feline palace.
My sister said she never thought about that incident until the day she lost her job, a victim in the shuffle of corporate takeovers. Nineteen years, and now she has no idea what she will do next. Now, she thinks about that day all the time and all those cat skeletons. She had to climb up the ladder, rung by rung, the smell of barbecue in the air. My sister just had to see for herself what was up on the roof. There was the little shack, the clothesline, milk crate furniture, and there were even more cats than the stock boy had described: skeletons, bones, and skulls everywhere. Suddenly, she remembered all the evenings she had left work for home, and the parking lot had stunk like burning hair. The two roommates were sort of chubby for homeless people, she mused.
Now, she can’t get the story out of her mind. Ever since she lost her job, it is all she thinks about. She lies awake all night long and listens for the squeaking sounds that would indicate a bearing getting ready to throw. She can’t sleep a wink, just thinking about losing a job after nineteen years, making sure the bearings are still running.
♥ End ♥
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