Wilderness Year

Sean Dungan


I’m sending you psychic messages to inform you of my adventure, which might seem boring or of zero consequence, but I’m convinced that there are infinite tiny variations that could be studied, and since I’m here as part of your plan for me, which is a small model of the plan for everyone who is expected to perform somehow in civilization, I thought that you’d like to be kept informed. You can go about doing whatever it is that you do at your own job at this moment, because my dispatches will be discrete murmurs in your brain. I’m staying in touch, I’m being convincing.

I’m going to get something to drink. I’ve been given a break, along with all of the old ladies. Even though we are inside, it’s as hot as no shelter because the only air-conditioning is the cooled air that has spilled out of the freezer cases. The air-conditioning system is broken today. I have to buy a drink, because there are no drinking fountains in or near the Commissary, and the florescent tubes that hum over us all seem to speed dehydration, so that all you think of, the whole time you have to be here, is fluid and desiccation, your brain monitoring how fast it dries out by sending itself increasing-frequency headache messages. The opening to the aisle marked Bottled Juice/ Sodas/ Canned Vegetables is clogged and I have to walk down the next and then back up. Everything on the shelves is too large, gallon-sized, or stuff I can’t or wouldn’t want to drink such as little six-packs of Meeter’s Kraut Juice in cardboard packages. Juice from cabbages, though in all probability mostly water, would be a last resort. I choose from a limited selection of cranberry juices in little boxes.

This is my first job ever, which you set up for me, and you got me a military ID, and there I am in the picture on it, with an appropriately shaved head, though that was a coincidence. It’s not really the job I had in mind, because I didn’t really have a job in mind. I don’t have a boss, I have a commanding officer. He’s the Commanding Officer of the Commissary. When he’s briefing me on the first day, I’m wondering what kind of military pinball machine pegs he smashed into on his way down to become the supermarket sarge. Also I got zero instruction about the right way to bag groceries, which I think is strange. I thought that there would be an official system, but each bagger is left to invent their own, using common sense, and since nobody checks, you could do it differently each time if you wanted to. All the other baggers, the old ladies, look like they’d have it down by now, through years of experience and by sharing pointers in their own language, which I think is Korean. The CO looks at me as I pass him on the way to the automatic doors but I pretend not to notice, because I’ve decided that, since I haven’t been paid, I haven’t been paid enough to talk to anybody. You are temporarily satisfied that I’m now employed, even though, as a grocery bagger, I’m not going to be paid, and neither will any of the old ladies. Signs hanging from the ceiling inform shoppers that baggers work for tips only. I’m assuming that the ladies who work as checkout clerks get paid something, but it can’t be much. There’s nowhere to sit outside, and more importantly, nowhere to sit that’s at least shaded by something, except for one spot of curb underneath a military landscape tree, which is casting a flickery shadow on the sidewalk below. I can see it, the shadow, through a gap in parked cars. I’m walking down a row of gaps. The parking lot blows heat straight up, not on moving air, but on superheated rays of asphalt atoms.

Sitting on the curb in front of the Commissary, I’m focusing on the little box of juice. It seems to require a sharp implement to be opened. I unfold the top and try to tear off one of the corners, but the cardboard has been soaked in plastic and won’t rip. The day is unclouded, heatproof birds are singing. I open the container finally by scraping one corner against the curb until it is gone, but the juice inside is thick and syrupy, a concentrate. I toss it in a trashcan next to the commissary doors and buy a Pepsi for a dollar that one of the old ladies is selling from a cooler.

As you know, grass is always cropped short on military bases. Skinny runners of lawn line everything, stripes of molded vegetation on the sides of the gridded streets, the base looks like it was assembled from a kit, buildings arranged efficiently, planted on rectangles of grass. Assembled in layers. First a large expanse of asphalt, then the grass, then the buildings. If I were to wake up here suddenly, without knowing how I arrived, I’d think I was being punished for something I’d forgotten I’d done. It would be a purgatory; ways out would not be immediately apparent. A dangerous place for amnesia. Hopefully the brig is cooled, because if you got caught out here wandering around, and didn’t have any ID, for example, they might throw you in the brig until they could figure out who you were.

The commissary is a giant version of the slop chest on a ship. Every sailor gets to remove something they need from it every so often, and some corresponding amount is then deducted from his pay. Except that the supermarket-style commissary system was at first intended to replace the military-base black market. In our case the prices are pretty low, because you could easily drive off the base and buy stuff somewhere else. I’m sure that I’m right about the black market thing. Unless you figure out how to return my transmissions we’ll just assume that everything I think is correct. The commissary’s not a company store; it’s a benign place, unless you’re a bagger. I’m heading maybe east, up a crew-cut median of grass, which emanates humidity, unlike the asphalt, which repels moisture, and absorbs heat. I’m not a sailor either, but I could become one. Eventually a bagger could work his or her way up to cashier, then maybe sub-manager, under the CO.

The driving range is pretty crowded with men with white hair wearing baseball caps, and everyone has a sunburn. Out at the end of the green and brown grass of the range, right before the tall net that would stop an extra-powerful drive from leaving the range, and potentially ruining the order of things, a kid is steering a little caged vehicle around. The vehicle appears to be collecting golf balls with either a vacuum or some kind of scoop attached to the front. Every so often one of a white-haired men manages to hit the ball collector vehicle, which makes a muted bell noise as the ball ricochets off.

You are thinking that this will be my taste of the military, a stand-in for what in other countries is a mandatory chore, a year or two in the service of the state. In the absence of any draft, this might be it. In your mind, it’s a great combination of things: first job, a brush with the armed services. You are wondering about me, in the commissary, working, wondering how it’s going, maybe a little anxious. Don’t fret, I’ve just changed course. I think the officer’s club is a beige building on my right. A drink sounds good right now. I might be able to get in there and get something before anyone notices me, a penetrator. Shirt off is much better than shirt on, mostly because the shirt’s really sweaty and sticking to skin, and in spite of the fact that now the sun can irradiate my pale defenseless back freely. Maybe you’re roller blading on your lunch break, or eating a lunch out of a thin cardboard box, a box-lunch. The midday meal. I left mine in a locker back in the stock room of the commissary. It was half a leftover burrito wrapped in foil, stuffed in a paper bag, inside a blue JanSport backpack, in a locker cubicle with no lock.

Sean Dungan’s first book of stories, Unwelcomeness, was published in late 2007. His work has appeared in Werewolf Express, Asteroid Impaired, Snowflake and The Santa Monica Review, and was included in the Hammer Museum’s New American Writing series. He’s taught at Art Center College of Design and guest lectured at CalArts. He lives in Los Angeles but was born in Sacramento.