The Closing Shift
by Nat Wisehart
I’ve befriended the man in the bakery’s subbasement. Or he’s befriended me.
He says this town, this whole damn valley, is a floodplain, and we’re due for another big one. He talks about the last flood like he was there to see it: the people paddling between rooftops on capsized barrows, casting fishing lines from their attic windows. When the water subsided, buildings sagged with rot, and the things hidden in the walls came tumbling out. You know how it goes: the fortunes, the bodies, the old witchy charms.
I ask him why he’s living in a subbasement if he’s so worried about a flood, and he says it won’t make much difference where he is when the water rises, and it’s not that important in the big scheme of things anyway. I work closing, so after hours I bring him expired juices, heels of the day’s bread, sugar packets, things I don’t think the boss will miss. I bring him ice to suck on.
As bad as I am at telling how old people are, I’m sure he’s not as old as his stories make him. There’s a dusting of flour and seeds in his long gray hair, on the shoulders of his coat and the knees of his pants, and that makes him look very old and sort of misplaced. Before I knew there was a man in the subbasement, I’d sweep the mess of the bakery floor right down the narrow steps. I don’t do that anymore, but he hasn’t gotten any younger.
When I’m not at work I have nothing to do, so I drive out to the hill towns. At the tail end of winter things are starting to smell like dirt, and there’s fog over the river, and pine smoke. The road follows the water, and along it slump abandoned mills with their windows boarded up. I think the man in the subbasement would be happier somewhere like that than in the subbasement, but I don’t say anything because I don’t really want him to leave. It makes the day go faster to know he’s down there, not really doing anything, just being old and dusty. Sometimes I bring things back for him from the hills: leaf-shaped maple candy from a sugar shack, a curl of bark that smells like root beer, a can tossed to the roadside with a slug living in it, a jellylike yellow mushroom I found on a fallen tree when brushing the snow from it.
Poor man’s gumdrop, he says, and drops it in his front pocket. The wet will make a good season for our fungal friends. He pats his collection through his jacket, reassuring.
Between the rain and the melt, the river is outgrowing its bed. The beautiful houses on the bank are starting to look concerned in the face of all that muddy water. At work, people run in from the street sopping wet, shaking like dogs. The street runs like a river.
Maybe this is it, I say, but the man in the subbasement shakes his head.
This is just the way spring goes, he says. Or don’t you remember?
His memory is better than mine. Must be something about the exhaustion of this job, the boredom. I step out into the dark, and I don’t know who I am aside from how people see me. In this line of work, I’m little more than glass, clear or leaded, for reflections and for seeing through. Some nights, while locking up, I look at myself a long time trying to figure it out—see-through in the shop windows, crusty with dried smears of dough, sesame seeds in my hair. Mine are the transparent hands that turn the key, locking the door behind me.
Nat Wisehart (they/he) is a mad, queer, trans writer with an MFA from the University of Wyoming. Their work appears in december magazine, Foglifter Journal, and the minnesota review, and is forthcoming from Tahoma Literary Review and The Idaho Review. Find them @NatWisehart on Twitter.
This piece was the winner of Overheard's Flash Fiction contest, with the prompt being "After Hours."