Haute Dish The Arts & Literature Magazine of Metropolitan State University Icicles
Spring 2005


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Fully armed
Michelle Livingston

I know it like the back of my hand. People say that a lot. Sometimes it makes me a little worried. Maybe all those people know about a secret hand line-up, and they’ve all been staring at their hands to practice, which would be the obvious thing to do if there was going to be a line-up, and I’ll be judged unfit to keep mine because I couldn’t spot them in the crowd. I don’t spend enough time looking at the back of my hands, or my wrists or my elbows or shoulders either. You can never be loving and appreciative enough of your arms.

I once worked overnights 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. for a worldwide shipping corporation as a data entry specialist. I had just taught myself to type the year before, using a software called “MAVIS BEACON TEACHES TYPING!” in which a very proper woman in a red suit named Mavis stood in front of a chalkboard on my computer pointing to the letters I should type. It was like piano lessons, and I would race through the typing games for hours, desperate for Mavis’s smile of approval. I got up to an insane 120 words per minute with 100% accuracy before the games bored me, but it was unimpressive compulsion rather than admirable endurance. After my keyboarding placement exam, the shipping company said that if my performance had been any indication I would be the fastest and most accurate input data specialist they’d ever had. They said my temporary status would surely turn permanent within the year, which would mean plenty more money and benefits than my pizza slinging job. The accident-free driving hours pins on my pizza hat began to tarnish.

Of course, after a month at the shipping corporation, I wished I hadn’t given such a good impression on the placement exam. Everyone else, the temps and permanent workers alike, typed at a leisurely pace, and typing the fastest wasn’t any fun. There were no incentives to do well; everyone who lasted the year without excessive absences was offered a permanent position. There were no windows and it was always the middle of the night until it was time to go home; by 3:00 a.m. everyone around me started to look like murderers. There were no cheering red-suited Mavises on my screen. But the company already knew what I could do, so I was stuck typing fast. I would get my gargantuan stack of orders and night after night key my way to the last sheet.

You could tell who had been there the longest, because when people are up all night they start to get tree rings under their eyes, with the darkest rings at the top. I was one of the youngest people there, except for a boy who looked like he might have been born there, so pale and ringed was his face, haloed in silky milky baby hair with cowlicks. His girlfriend had had a child at age 14, and in order for them to both finish school, he’d been nightshifting ever since. I started sleeping with a buddy of his who worked three rows behind us, mostly because it was hard to date anyone who didn’t work in the night—you’d have to leave just before the end of the movie or just before the bars got going, and during the dinner hour you would want only to sleep.

My own habits began to resemble that of the other nightshifters; a big meal right after work (whether dinner or breakfast it didn’t matter) with the requisite Marlboro Reds and endless pots of coffee, maybe a Cherry Coke for good measure. A nap, sometimes accompanied by an interlude of zombie groping with the other nightshifter. Great difficulty stepping into the brightness of sunshine outside, then, soon, avoiding the sun. Attempts to focus on a class or two, and failing those, slightly more victorious attempts to focus on daytime television. After several angry months I settled on a soap and acquired favorite gratuitous characters. Any dinner would seem unappetizing; but a nap, oh a nap. Just as the good sleep was coming the alarm would sound and it would be time for work.

Candy began to take on messianic qualities; if I got through 30 pages I could have an M&M, and if I lost count? Damnation, I’d have to start over. I lost count a lot and only got through two snacks a night, which is probably why I wasn’t as large as the others yet; a woman who’d started the same time as me and kept her husband’s mug propped up by her screen had already gained 40 pounds and two tree rings. She gestured regretfully at her ever widening bottom and said, “I think a lot about getting Bennies.” Several days later when I said I’d thought about it, that the amphetamines she’d mentioned sounded like a good idea and asked where I could get some, I found out she was talking about the other Bennies: health insurance, retirement, dental. I was too exhausted to be embarrassed. I started to question my soul.

The weekends were made for catching up on sleep. I’d sleep all day and into the night, and wake in time to watch space show reruns, whose futures of humanoid life began to seem more likely now that I was avoiding the sun. Red Dwarf, Battlestar Galactica, and the mother lode: three episodes of Star Trek Deep Space Nine shown every Saturday night between 1:00 and 4:00. a.m. I caught up on two years of these shows in a couple of months, an endless loop of outer space age theme songs . The wars seemed shorter that way, the annihilation of ships, species, worlds, and characters like melting marshmallows in hot cocoa—regrettable for a moment, but delicious.

After my fifth month at the corporation, I started to have an unusual problem as I slept. My arms would fall asleep, all the way up to the shoulders, all the way into my fingers. I thought it was probably because I was a stomach sleeper, that I was sleeping on my arms while my hands were under my pillow. I started sleeping on my back and my sides. But still I’d wake up and couldn’t feel my arms. It was an alarming lack of sensation. I’d hunch over and bang my arms together, sometimes missing and swinging them diagonally; in the mirror a woman danced like a chimpanzee. Feeling would come back slowly. If I banged my hands into the counter, pleading physically for them to stir, I wouldn’t realize how hard I’d done it until later that day. I started to wake up with a jolt to feel for my arms. I started to love pins and needles. I wondered how long my arms would have to be asleep before I’d need amputations; the mystery of people who hacked off their own arms to get out of wayward farm equipment or tree falls or bear traps had been unraveled: an arm without blood feels nothing. It begs to be removed.

I’m no fool, I went to a doctor. The visit cost me half my paycheck, and the doctor said: Nerve damage. Carpal tunnel. Physical Therapy. Surgery. It turned out there was actually a condition called Saturday Night Palsy; “the permanent injuries incurred when someone has passed out in an awkward position and is sleeping too deeply to respond to the body’s signals to move.” He advised me to quit my job while there was still time, because, perhaps, there was still time. Saturday Night Palsy. What a great name—just like the fever, except for drunken grandpas instead of disco queens. I thought about starting up a band called “Saturday Night Palsy” with others who had the condition (although realistically, we would have been more of an a capella group.) I imagined explaining Saturday Night Palsy to potential suitors over dinner (as they fed me, naturally), or as they whisked me around the dance floor by my waist, my hands swinging out lifelessly to slap the other dancers.

So I quit. Two weeks later I started as a receptionist, and for a year, play acted at being genial, vapid, and at ease. Somehow I was seen through; I was advised to find a more suitable position. But hell, that isn’t so bad. I got to keep my arms.

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