On the last day of fireworks season at Fireworks Supermarket, Jack from corporate is in the warehouse looking to hound the grunts, making rounds back here with his cane. He is 60 years old and manages wholesale with partners from other fireworks tents. The other workers are kids who have never worked a day in their life and hide back here, avoiding work. Rob and I try to take our breaks when no one is in the break room. Everyone meanmugs us.
My friend Logan has joined us pricing inventory for our section of the warehouse. There is no industrial fan. The section in which we work matches the temperature outside. Today’s high is 84°. I am amped up on energy drinks and sweating through my clothes. The intensity of the season activates my mania, so I work even harder. I have lost 20 lbs since May from working in this metallic room filled with gunpowder and humidity.
I hear Jack scream. I am disoriented and cannot make out Jack’s words. I walk around the corner of stacks of 500 gram cakes that double me in height, the sides of their packages reading 17 - 22 kgs, all priced and ready to set out, with my initials on every package to show my work from the first three hours of today’s shift.
“Who the hell is throwing their cigarette butts in the trash?” Every couple of hours I would walk through the side entrance of our warehouse to have a cigarette break. I have always disposed of butts correctly. But Logan and Rob smoked without me just an hour before. They had their butts stamped out and thrown in the trash.
“It was me, Jack,” I reply.
“You fucking stupid or something?”
I do not respond.
“You literal dumbass.” The fire in his ancient throat bellows. “Do you realize how much goddamn shit we would be in if the fucking fire marshall just walked through here on an inspection? Next time this fucking happens again, I’ll make sure your dirty brown ass is fired. You’ll never have a job ever again here in Springfield!”
“Yes, sir.” Throughout this exchange, I had imagined myself with my hands around his throat, pushing him up against a stack of packages, saying, “You don’t scare me.” He doesn’t know how much I want to scream, but instead I give him my compliance. He keeps his gaze into my eyes as he walks away.
Logan and Rob have their mouths as wide as sky lanterns, the O’s of their mouths in slow decrescendo for some seconds. With my hands on my hips, looking down, I look back with a shrug and remark, “This isn’t the first time.” I walk up to my brother as I wipe more sweat from my brow and say, “I am not mad at you. You did nothing wrong, but remember we’re just here because we are poor college kids—we won’t be here forever.”
I would continue working at the warehouse for an additional three summers, totalling to seven years. When I saw Jack that last year, he drove a buggy through the store and the warehouse. He wasn’t scary then and especially not now. I am glad to have had all the opportunities I have had setting the world on fire, sometimes—and only sometimes—a cigarette at a time.
Ten years later, I have been working on freelance editing and content writing for local business and making steps into starting an art community in partnership with the Springfield Regional Arts Council in light of Black Lives Matter protests that have riled up all the dormant racists. We have made plans to have an event today to make a statement, though, after some meetings and figuring out the logistics, we have chosen to push our event back for later this month.
The topic of racial inequality has exploded on my phone. I think about that summer more now that I feel I must stand up and hold my friends accountable. I have never encountered trouble with the police, but my legitimacy in relationships and jobs have been challenged because of my ethnicity. I think about how ashamed I had been for being half-Filipino, wanting to be white so that I would fit in better.
I reflect on wise words that Todd, my college adviser, passed down to me. We would talk about poetry and things I was learning in my other classes. I would vent about how race played a huge role in my life and how I wanted to make a difference. He said often, “Then burn so bright and set the world on fire, Rex—let no one stand in your way. If they do, hopefully they will burn along with you soon after.”
Rex Ybañez is an editing consultant and grant writer living in Springfield, MO. He is Filipino American, a former Pushcart Prize nominee, and a poetry outreach strategist and open mic host working in his community to help promote the arts. His poetry has been published by HVTN, HARK Magazine, DANSE MACABRE, Prism Review, Noctua Review, Young Adult Review Network, and Half Mystic. This is Rex's first prose publication.
He encourages you to check out Show Up for Racial Justice.