A close friend of mine, a local model, was killed in a highway pileup after a semi-truck jackknifed in rush hour traffic and knocked three cars into the guardrail. I had to help claim her body and it was the first time I'd ever seen a human being in that state, dead with strange cleaned gashes. No blood. I couldn't sleep for days with the strange mesh of fear and grief wrapping itself around my face, my chest. I started taking the bus to work so I wouldn't have to drive anymore. A few months after my friend's death, a new billboard went up along the bus route that she had done. It was my friend, her arms folded over her chest, a wry grin on her face, with the words "Get Tested For HPV Today!" and a number to call. When I first saw it I didn't recognize her face, wasn't expecting it in any other context from mourning or grief. Then I became furious, like it was a cruel joke. I called the number on the billboard, and the woman who answered understood my sadness but said she just set up the appointments for testing, but that I should set up an appointment, since it was the most commonly transmitted STI in the United States and some strains can lead to an increased risk of cervical cancer.
I called my friend's dad, who told me the ad agency's name, but said my friend knew about the campaign, and was proud of the gig, and the money she had made from it was helping allay the costs of the funeral and burial. That's not why my friend did it though, to pay for her own funeral. She wouldn't have even considered that a possibility. I had to keep seeing her face on my way to work, suddenly emerging from fog to smirk down at me on the bus as I drowned in the severed voices of a podcast about American cakes. I couldn't take another way to work because I still wasn't over my fear of driving and felt I may never be. My friend, she wasn't doing anything wrong, just trying to make it in whatever weird way we have to make it. An HPV billboard is a paying gig, and it might actually help people, but she didn't want it to be her grotesque tombstone, she wanted it to be a funny story she'd tell people decades later. Can-you-believe-it type stuff. Look what I had to do for my craft. The echo of the orchestra's last furious note when the conductor cuts them off. My friend's father said I was making the tragedy about me, by calling in tears, in anger, but that's not my fault. The whole world is about me. It is for all of us.
When there was someplace to go at five when the time clock automatically punched me out then I sped out, my plum Pontiac taking me coolly down the streets of Tallahassee and to the bar with fake rain sprayed onto the outside of the windows to meet up with a friend or two, or to a second run movie on fifty cent Tuesday. There wasn't usually someplace to go. My friend who got me the temp job at Stitches, the t-shirt factory, was a full timer, she had to stay, to load boxes if there was a rush order, the bosses chanting the mantra of unity. I'd wait in my car, we'd drive back into town and sometimes sleep together if time and body pushed us to it. Me, I believed in unity. This was the third job I had in a row that made me sign an agreement that unions are the undoing of America. I needed money. Tallahassee is only a place you can stand with a couple bucks and a couple beers.
We made t-shirts for Coke, for Walk America. I was not usually on the floor, I was carrying documents and orders from office to foremen. Loading boxes when Atlanta called, the bigger orders. A factory for Coke shirts, it sounds like a joke, a factory that makes the screens of fruit for slot machines. To worship a corporation is to worship a megalith of metals, plastics, warships and bone. Now, years later, the news chides the protests, says they are aimless, runs a sad story when the CEO dies, his products and profit brought us so much joy. Midway knighted itself The T-Shirt Capital of Florida to honor the factory, the jobs. All companies are glorious, slinking across the land with wings dragging behind them, throwing immense shadows down upon towns. Those who are in drought hope it means rain, and those scorched are thankful for the shade. I loved my friend years before, my coworker, but even by the time we worked together it was only the mist of memory conjured by the scents of some florid industrial soaps or a painful smile in the right dim light.
Glenn Shaheen is the author of the poetry collections Predatory and Energy Corridor, both from the University of Pittsburgh Press, and the flash fiction chapbook Unchecked Savagery. His full length collection of flash fiction, Carnivalia, will be released by Gold Wake Press in 2018.