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"Lithium" • Nirvana (by Lori Barrett)

The email is flagged as important. It’s from your boss: No one should hang their jacket on the back of their chairs. You go to the breakroom for a coffee, run into the guy from the mailroom. Another day disemboweling our revolution for a pair of running shoes, he says, quoting Lelaina’s graduation speech from Reality Bites. You’re both among the youngest in the office and speak a language of movie quotes and song lyrics. Back at your desk, you take off you thrift-store blazer and drape it over the back of your chair. What kind of person cares about a jacket on a chair? The caffeine isn’t working its magic. Going to see stand up last night wasn’t a bad choice. Staying after your friends left was a mistake. You wanted to meet the cute comic. But you didn’t buy him a drink like you told your friends you would. You’re not brave. You spend the morning arranging a trip to Philadelphia, your boss’s travel plans not yours. You work five hours fewer than full time. No vacation, no benefits, unpaid thirty-minute lunch break. For today’s timed meal you eat takeout curry noodles in the conference room. The breakroom is full of talk about children and spouses. Not for you. After lunch you overhear the woman in accounting complaining to the office manager about the smell of curry. Your boss, tipsy from sake with her two-hour sushi meal, puts her hand on the office manager’s shoulder. I’ll take care of it, she says. She goes into her office and shuts the door. Your computer pings with another email. Eat in the breakroom, it says. And the fax machine needs more toner! Whatever. Never mind. You visit the supply room across from your desk. Then wander to the mail room. You tell the guy there you’re going to quit, and ask him if he has any leads. On the radio you both hear Kurt Cobain has taken his life. You’re both silent until he says, I feel stupid and contagious. Kurt’s own words. I’m not gonna crack, you say, quoting Kurt back to him. But you feel like you will. Stare at a dead tree in the gangway outside. You waded through a sea of guys in baggy jeans and Vans at Tower Records on Broadway to get the CD the day it came out, like a thrifted, dusty warrior princess. You returned to your desk the following morning a little more polished and a lot more powerless. Kurt can’t be dead. What about his daughter? If he can’t handle this life, how can you? At your desk you open your resume. No one else is going to save you. Add a few flourishes to your job description. Send it to a music publicist. You realize too late that your boss is standing behind you. You close the email and walk into the supply closet. Slam the door. Look what you did, your boss yells. You open the door. Bits of ceiling tile cover the fax machine. Some has slipped into the paper slot. She calls the guy from the mailroom. You watch him carry the broken machine away and wish it were you. Pull your jacket from the back of your chair and follow. 

Lori Barrett still has the trophy she won for being quietest in her high school graduating class, many decades ago. Her writing has appeared in Salon, The Wall Street Journal, Barrelhouse, Citron Review, Laurel Review, Peatsmoke Journal, and Middle House Review, where she was nominated for Best Small Fictions 2020. She’s an assistant fiction editor at Pithead Chapel and a prison writing mentor with PEN America.


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