The Unit

February 2013

“Let’s get rid of all the big shit first,” I said to Mike at the beginning of the worst-planned weekend of my life.

I was moving out of my Chesterfield, Virginia, apartment. It was the place I’d moved after college to find a job; I was unsuccessful. I was temporarily going to stay in a small guest room in Northern Virginia, so I came up with the terrible idea of sticking my belongings in a storage unit until I found a new place of my own. The storage unit I selected drew me in with the promise of a free first month’s rent.

Mike had agreed to help me over an extended weekend. I’d gone three hours out of my way to snag him from our hometown, as much because I wanted to work on preserving our friendship as for his help.

Following my “get rid of the big shit” strategy, we immediately threw away my dilapidated couch, and we stuck my bed in the new storage unit. Also into storage went the Bryan Chair, an oversized ottoman chair named for an old roommate. And so, on the first night of a three-day operation, Mike and I had rid ourselves of everything comfortable we had to sleep on. I was left with a leaky air bed, while Mike created a nest of blankets and clothes, which he called the Dog Bed—as in, “Nice fucking plan, Martin. ‘Get rid of the big shit first.’ Now I have to sleep on the Dog Bed.”

That weekend, Mike and I spent long days moving and short nights drinking and watching TV, including a marathon of The Walking Dead. We’d yell at our least favorite character, Andrea (“No, Andrea! That’s the bad guy!”), have a few skunked beers, and eventually flop down on our uncomfortable beds, looking forward to another day of moving the way a fisherman-scarred bass looks forward to another hook in his mouth.

We briefly discussed going back to the storage unit and sleeping on the comfortable stored items, but the storage unit itself was decidedly uncomfortable. The complex which contained it was stumble-around dark until its sharply fluorescent, motion-triggered lights kicked on. The security system chirped loudly and incessantly, five or six speakers giving a coordinated, staccato be-EEP every 15 seconds. Hallways led to rows of corrugated-metal doors, each of which gave access to an individual storage unit. More than half had eviction warnings on them—it seemed few tenants actually paid rent—and the gas station next door had bulletproof glass protecting the cashier’s area.

On the third day, fatigued and frustrated, I went into a fugue state and tossed my remaining belongings into whatever bag or box would hold them, then raced it all off to the storage unit. By the end it contained dozens of items, notably a bookcase my late father built. Both it and the Bryan Chair felt too important to stick in storage, though I didn’t plan on keeping anything there for long. On the drive out of town, I promised Mike that “I’m just gonna keep the unit for the free month,” which capped the weekend with another foolish statement.

January 2014

“It’s a damn gas station,” Mike said. He was unhappy with my choice of lunch stop.

“It’s a big one. Big ones always have the best food,” I replied, showing a depressing amount of knowledge about life on the road. I lurched the truck next to a diesel pump, and Mike huffed off towards the gas station.

Nearly a year after I got the storage unit just “for the free month,” I still had the thing; it was annoying to get to from my new home, and I’d put off retrieving my possessions until now, largely because I knew I’d have to get rid of some of them.

I’d once again done a terrible job planning the weekend. The night before, I’d left Northern Virginia in a snowstorm and gotten stranded in a small town; I passed the night in a motel with a Whopper combo meal and a six pack. When I woke up, I drove the rest of the way to my hometown to pick up Mike (who’d agreed to help me once again, for some reason) and to swap my small SUV for a friend’s truck, which was in questionable condition: It shook and wallowed at low speeds, and whenever I tried to refuel it, it’d temporarily take some diesel fuel in, then spew it back onto me, as if it were bulimic.

Unlike the truck, Mike was all about fueling himself, and had demanded we stop for lunch. After bickering for a short while—I considered Taco Bell acceptable road food, while Mike showed much pickiness for a man who prides himself on his food- and alcohol-consumption abilities—we settled on a place. Rather, I became tired of squabbling with Mike and wrangling the truck, and sloughed into the next thing I saw—the monolithic Mobil station. “I bet it even has tables you can eat at,” I said to Mike’s broad back as he stomped away.

At one of those tables 10 minutes later, with me covered in another layer of diesel and Mike making his way through a cheesesteak, a slice of pizza, and an order of jalapeno poppers, we had a typical Mike-Martin conversation: It was about beer and women.

“You bring a growler?” Mike asked. (Growlers are big jugs for beer.) “They got a station back there you can fill ’em at,” he said, and pointed at the wall behind me.

“Nah, didn’t bring one,” I said. I’d never seen a growler-filling station outside of a brewery before, and wished I could join in. “Kinda mad I don’t have one with me—I wanna support that growler-station idea. Hope it catches on.”

As Mike’s jalapeno poppers dwindled, the conversation turned to his life. It wasn’t at a great point: A close friend had just died; Mike was coming off a bad breakup; and because of legal issues he was worried he’d hit his ceiling at age 24.

I’d long since left the area we were from, and though I returned and partied with Mike frequently, the distance plus bullheadedness from both of us had frayed our friendship a bit: Our current trip had been cancelled once previously because each of us mistakenly thought the other was blowing him off. But now was a moment—one fueled by diesel and jalapeno poppers rather than alcohol and uppers—where I wanted to show my friend I was still there.

Mike looked at his phone. A text from his ex. He didn’t reply to her.  “Pretty rough back there,” he said. I knew he’d get over the woman, but maybe not the other problems from back there—our home.

“Don’t have any deep words for you,” I said. “But I’m around for you any time.” Which was only partly true—I’d always pick up my phone for Mike, but I was no longer around; I was usually on the other end of the state. I could easily explain my sadness over a left-behind growler, but when it came to comforting a left-behind friend, I could offer only a half-true platitude.

February 2014

By my final visit to the storage unit, which was solo, the complex’s security be-EEPs had become de-synchronized; they now sounded like a family of blind birds calling out for each other. The eviction notices had somehow multiplied. Outside, near the armored gas station, a woman in a wheelchair now sat in the middle of a two-lane access road, holding up a sign. I couldn’t read any of it except for the dollar sign at the bottom.

I’m guessing she had a better story than the standard beggars in the area, at least one of who visited me during every storage-unit trip. Those beggars, always male and always alone, would come hurtling across the parking lot whenever they saw me loading stuff into my vehicle. The lot was huge and mostly empty, so I usually knew they were approaching while they were still pretty far off. Even though I knew he was probably just coming to ask for money, the sight of a stranger hurtling across an empty lot towards me always sharpened my edginess.

One hand would drop to the knife I’d taken to carrying during my visits to the unit, while I fiddled with my belongings with the other hand, so as not to seem like I was staring at the guy. (Though ready for a weaponized fight, I didn’t want to come off as rude, apparently.) The stranger would continue his approach, until came something like the words, “Hey man, I got my family in a shelter, and if you could just help me out … ” at which point my hand began moving from my knife to my wallet.

One particular beggar, short and compact, hit me up on several of my visits, always just needing a few more bucks to get his life together. And during my final visit, a tall beggar showed up dressed in a crisp black-and-white outfit. His shirt sported a gaudy, Ed Hardy–type slogan, and nice sunglasses obscured his eyes. Meanwhile, I was wearing a Buffalo Wild Wings shirt and a pair of disintegrating cargo shorts. If anything, it looked like I should’ve been asking him for money, not vice versa.

Each time a beggar showed, I thought about turning the guy down. But each time, I gave him a dollar or two. When you’re visiting a place you rent because you have too many possessions to store in one spot, saying “I got nothing for you, man” feels about as credible as begging in an Ed Hardy shirt.

***

At the end of that last visit—when I’d just about emptied the unit and was ready to close my account—two objects remained, which I didn’t have the energy to carry with me any longer: the Bryan Chair and my father’s old bookcase. Even before it’d entered the unit, the Bryan Chair had scars from its years in party-centric apartments. Now, I saw that rats had eaten away much of the bottom upholstery.

Likewise, the bookcase was in bad shape. It’d moved with me a half-dozen times and showed damage from the rigors of travel; a couple of shelves were loose, and the whole thing swayed whenever I touched it. Plus, it’d become exhausting to drag around. Though it had value to me as one of the last things my father had built, I had more practical mementos.

Still, despite their damage, I had to internal-monologue myself into getting rid of those two links to the past. For instance, the Bryan Chair was a damn fine seat. It was roomy enough to host my first make-out session with my girlfriend, which happened at the tail end of a party. Mike was in attendance, and began playing .38 Special at a celebratory volume when he saw my good fortune; meanwhile, my girlfriend’s buddies looked on as if she were kissing a water buffalo. And aside from being roomy, the chair was rugged enough to absorb gallons of spilled light beer; Bryan in particular often sloshed Natural Light while we sat around, talking.

But I hadn’t seen the Bryan Chair’s namesake in years; abandoning it felt like giving up on the friendship. Rats ate it! It’s ruined! I rationalized as I dragged the Bryan Chair onto the storage complex’s junk-hauling forklift.

As for the bookcase, it was a broken, impractical link to my long-dead father—yet I still ground my teeth throughout its disposal. It was part of a set he’d built in his garage, where he kept his woodworking equipment. The garage was a frequently flooded building that smelled of cigarette smoke and stale beer, but it was still the place I usually went to after my family had fights. Whether he was right or wrong, I always felt drawn to my dad’s lair.

The bookcase was one of the last things to come out of that cave. He wouldn’t want this to stress you out! I reasoned as I carried it to the forklift. I was careful to arrange it so that the forklift’s prongs wouldn’t damage the bookcase, as if it mattered at that point. The forklift did its work and hauled my heirlooms around to the rear of the complex, where I assume thousands of unwanted items have perished.

As I drove away from the the storage unit, I for the last time passed the wheelchair woman in the access road. I realized she’d been left behind—maybe a pillar of a friend died, maybe a bad breakup ruined her, maybe legal trouble sapped her potential and left her with naught—and I wondered why I’d gotten so caught up over ditching two pieces of furniture.

I hadn’t brought Mike along that day because I didn’t want him, or anyone, around while I got rid of my things. But after I passed that woman and her cardboard dollar-sign, I gave Mike a call and asked: “Hey man, you free next weekend?”

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One thought on “The Unit

  1. Nancy Smith says:

    A lot of impact communicated seamlessly. I like it. ngs

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