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They Eye
Paul Stokes 

            He stood, wind howling, gulls screeching, hands balled in fists, head empty, mind spent, the horizon like a distant beam of light peeking out from a key hole in the gray sky, white foam drooling down onto the shore from the mouth of the black sea. It was fine work, he thought. He knew just as well that there was a great excess of trash in the world.

          Before, he’d worked as a hand for a private company, scavenging through landfills, junkyards, and scrap heaps for valuable metals, parts, and alloys. Each day he would arrive at his assigned lot in an unmarked truck with several others like him, search the yard for as much good as he could find, drop his collected findings off at the designated area, board the truck again, and leave. This was also, as clearly as he could judge, fine work. It paid well enough, he got to be outside, and he was allowed a complete sort of solitude. Though he knew others might have found the whole thing quite bleak, he felt a sense of fulfillment in it. A world with such a surplus of trash requires that some are left to keep an eye on what is thrown away.

            It was that job, then, that led, after several years of exemplary performance, to a position at the shipping yard. It came with better pay, increased benefits, and a new title, which he was happy about, though sometimes he missed the old days. It didn’t always feel quite the same, managing the containers as they began their journey overseas to various international buyers, tech companies in need of parts, manufacturers in need of scrap, or otherwise sovereign governments which used profits gained from the storage of American trash in order to pay for their public education and health care programs. It was all the same trash, he knew that, and yet it often felt bittersweet standing on the dock, watching each ship come in, loading each one with its precious cargo, and watching each one roll away with the tide.

             He was quite sure he wasn’t tired of his daily life; he’d never needed much to get by. He had few friends, little family, and nothing so much as a hobby to occupy him during his free time. Those friends and family he did keep he would go long periods of time without speaking to. The whole idea of it felt perverse to him, the intimacy of it all. When he did return, on occasion, to his home town, where his mother still lived, he would feel, with great consistency, an almost immediate and entirely suffocating sense of familiarity.

            When he had tried, in the past, to find a kind of partner, in the hopes that he could become used to being less alone, he would, without fail, feel this same sense return. It had been at least two years since his last romantic relationship. They met on the internet, a dating site for similar minded people, and it seemed to work well for him. He could almost entirely stave off the familiarity so long as he was allowed an appropriate amount of solitude each day. This made him happy, and, before the end, he even considered having his partner live with him. Ultimately, though, it was his work, and his partner’s refusal to understand it, that proved fatal. He hadn’t made an effort to meet someone new since then.

            He sometimes sought out the help of professionals. He saw a psychiatrist for a while, but he felt little change, and, for the price, decided it wasn’t worth the trouble. He went to a life coach, but the whole thing made him feel decidedly fake. He had even, on one and only one occasion, turned to God. At the time he lived about a block away from the local church, which was a short, brick building with a small steeple and a lawn, empty save for some withering grass. He woke up one Sunday morning and felt, in a spontaneous sort of way, drawn to it. He stood up from his bed, put on a blue and white striped dress shirt, which he always kept ironed, tucked it into a pair of khakis, and took his pair of black oxford shoes, which he carefully tied before departing.

           The sky was the color of a light washed denim, and empty of all clouds. The sun was out, and its light blinding, but the cold still crept beneath his shirt and gripped him. As the regular crowd made their way to the doors they made casual conversation, but he turned his face away, picking up his pace as he pushed through the crowd. There were as many people inside, finding their seats and talking over the low, resonant hum of the organ. He sat in a pew at the back of the room and waited for the sermon to begin, his right leg shaking.

           He never ended up going back. As he stood, here, now, standing, looking out across the bay, he found his leg shaking once again. This morning’s ship had docked the night beforehand. It was now afternoon and roughly one hundred and fifty or so containers of scrap and other waste had been loaded on. The containers would be dropped off in massive trucks, placed on the dock one by one, and then either lifted onto the ship’s top deck by industrial crane, or ferried into the cargo bay via a large sort of conveyor belt. At the end of each day he would survey the site, ensuring that all cargo was loaded and loaded correctly. He was always the last to leave.

          When the time came he walked, as he always did, across a narrow pathway onto the deck, where he assessed each crate, as he always did. He counted the number of containers and verified, by their color, that those containing each specific type of cargo were located in the correct places, marking off each set of cargo with a pen and clipboard as he went. The ship’s crew were mostly on land resting or in the upper decks charting their course out of the bay. This meant he was alone, which was good.

         He then went down to the cargo hold to check the rest of the containers. The only light in the hold came from the open cargo bay doors, which stayed open until all cargo was loaded on and the ship was preparing to set sail. There was no need for any more light than that at the moment in any case, for he was completely alone in his work, and didn’t need much to get the job done.

The whole crew had done a fine job. Everything seemed to be perfectly in order. Each and every container checked and prepared to set sail. In the heart of the cargo hold he could see few of them, but he felt a sense of wholeness in knowing that everything was in its right place. He stood there, and started to concentrate on his feet, feeling the pressure of gravity against the hard, metal floor of the ship. His leg began to shake.

            He then put his clipboard down, turned, and began to walk deeper into the hold. It was a fine ship, he thought, and the whole crew had done such a fine job loading it. Perhaps, he thought, he should check over once more in the back. And so he walked further along until he reached the very back wall, whereupon a single large shipping container was placed. He placed his hand on the cool, red metal of the container, and held it there, pressing his palm against it, softly at first, and then with great pressure.

            He slid his hand along the front of the crate until he reached the latch which held it shut. He pushed down on the lever until, with a snap, it unlocked, and swung the door open slowly. The container wasn’t full, which was common with those held in the very back of these cargo ships, a strategy to save on time and energy in the loading and unloading process. He also noticed a small hole, about the size of a child’s fist, in the side of the container facing toward the bay doors. Truly fine work, he thought as he stepped inside and shut the door behind him.

           He had enough room in the container to sit against the wall of the crate, and to peer out the hole in the wall, and as the afternoon turned to night he felt, with the fading sun shining against his eyes, and the cool metal against his back, a sense of contentment he had not felt for quite a long time. Then, as the crew returned to the deck above, the bay doors slowly closed, and the ship haltingly pulled away from shore, he was completely bathed in darkness. Such a darkness was altogether unfamiliar to him, like an alien presence that comes only once in the course of a lifetime. He felt that it was all very fine, and, as he sat, his face against the cold metal, peering out into the black, he felt as if he were nothing but an eye, peering through a keyhole into the space behind the great, gray door.

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