Gnomes and Thunderbirds
written by Abteen Bagheri-Fard
Hello. Thanks for visiting this page. I have created this website so I can tell you
something—something that happened May 6, 2006, which was and will be forever, the day I got
fired. My mother told me that if I wanted to write about it, I should change the names of all
those involved. This would be for everyone’s protection. I’m not interested in protecting
anyone, so here’s my disclaimer:
All characters appearing in this work are factual. Any resemblance to real persons,
living or dead, is purely intended.
My name is Michael Graham. I got fired from my job at the Arlington Gnome and
Appliance Factory in Brainerd, Minnesota. At Arlington, they make everything from pots to
garden appliances, to forks and knives. But they’re mainly known for their garden gnomes.
That’s where I worked—the garden gnome division. It’s on the first floor. At around
8:00 am each morning, I came in with my red tin, cylindrical lunch box, grabbed a hair net, some
goggles, and some colored latex gloves and sat at station number 2. Station 2 was (and probably
still is) a long conveyer belt that ran unpainted garden gnomes between me and ten other people.
Our job at Station 2 was simple: we colored the gnomes. But we didn’t color the whole gnome
—no, the job was split into five different stations. Station 1 did the eyes, Station 2 did the hats
(that was us), Station 3 did the pants, Station 4 did the shirts, and Station 5 did the hair and
beard. By the way, I’m in love with Nancy Richter—she worked (probably still does) at Station
I wasn’t allowed to listen to music on my headphones at Arlington. Our ears needed to
be “free” in case there was an emergency or a fire. One time a gnome caught on fire. I don’t
know how—but they’re made of plastic and I believe that’s flammable. It was just kind of
burning, going down the conveyer belt—its face melting and dripping everywhere. Julio put it
out using half a can of his energy drink. Nancy hugged him and said thanks. I wish Nancy
noticed me. Unfortunately, the layout of the warehouse had it so everyone at Station 3 was
facing the other way. I wish Nancy wore a backless dress to work. I wish Nancy worked naked.
Well, she did notice me. You see, my first month at Arlington, I used to get bored
quickly. To pass the time when the conveyer belt was moving slowly, I’d use the airbrush to
paint other objects I had brought in for fun. I only had the color red at my disposal so it would
be things like a small racecar and once, a red plastic dog. One day, I had nothing to paint so I
started very carefully airbrushing my fingernails. At lunch, Nancy noticed my red fingernails
gripping my bologna sandwich and approached me. She said she couldn’t help but notice my
choice of nail color. She liked it very much. Then she excused herself for asking the question,
but politely asked if I were gay. By mistake, I said yes.
Yes was my ready-made go-to response. In cases of extreme nervousness, it is the
correct answer 60% of the time. I have included a list of when it would be appropriate:
• “Would you like to get some coffee?” Yes.
• “Are you single?” Yes.
• “Are you free later?” Yes.
And when it wouldn’t work:
• “What’s your name?” Yes.
• “Where do you work?” Yes.
• “Who is your favorite actor?” Yes.
Clearly, it is also a less than adequate response when dealing with the occasional inquiry
regarding sexual orientation.
So for the next week I did nothing but spray paint gnome hats and wonder how I could
get the girl in front of me to revaluate my sexuality.
I’m going to pause here. If you’ve read this far, thank you. I hope you find my
displeasure amusing. If you would be so kind, please click one or two of the advertisements on
the side. I recommend the one about weight loss. My mother says it works. If you are reading a
printed version of this story, please disregard this message. Sorry for the interruption.
Juilo was suave. He was a 25-year-old Venzuelan guy whose parents ended up in Little
Falls, just south of here. I worked directly underneath him, even though I had two years more
experience. He was the “Stations Manager.” On Fridays, he wore cream-colored suits with giant
double-breasted lapels and unbuttoned green floral shirts. Around his neck a little crucified gold
Jesus nestled into his tiny forest of chest hair. Over all of this, he wore a plastic see-through
raincoat to preserve his look and to protect his suit from unwanted paint splatter. On Fridays, he
“TGIF! Who’s coming with?”
David McCormick usually said yes. Larry Price, the floor manager, usually said maybe.
And Nancy usually said no. Julio, like me and David McCormick, was in love with Nancy
On days other than Friday, Julio would position himself next to Nancy at Station 3 and
make jokes. I wonder if Nancy liked them. I’ll provide you with one of many of these scenarios
stored in my memory bank:
One Tuesday, Larry Price was going around with his clipboard, counting the number of
gnomes drying at the end of the belts. He did this every day at 2 o’clock. Larry wore short-
sleeved dress shirts with colorful ties. Basically, he looked like a bus driver—a moderately
stylish bus driver. He was fourteen or so gnomes deep when Julio caught him picking at his
“You can always pick your nose, Price. But you can never choose your face.”
What followed was a moment of confused silence broken by Julio’s eruption of laughter.
Larry joined in, laughing nervously and Nancy laughed brightly and smiled. I couldn’t really
hear what happened next but I think Julio turned to Nancy and said,
“But you don’t have to worry about that, Nancy. Your face is beautiful.”
Or at least that’s what I would have said if I were given the chance. No I wouldn’t.
Maybe I’d use the word splendid. “Your face is splendid.” “You are sweet like Splenda.”
During lunch breaks on his way over to the vending machine, Julio would usually punch
me in the arm and say one of three things:
“Hey Fuckhead, good job on the hats.”
“What’s up Gay Boy?”
But on one special day, he said something else. He didn’t even punch my arm. At lunch
break, he came up to me and whispered,
“Hey Mike, I got to show you something.”
I was busy browsing through the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition, making sure to hold
the cover up close to my face in case Nancy looked over to see what I was reading. Amused, I
agreed to follow Julio outside to the back of the warehouse. As we walked by Nancy, I dropped
my magazine. She picked it up.
“You dropped this,” she said, noticing the hot babe on the front cover.
“Gee thanks,” I said.
I turned to Julio.
“Hey Julio, I’ll meet you outside. I have to speak with Nancy.”
He said he’d wait out by the door. I had been preparing what I would say for days. I
turned to Nancy, nervously.
“Hey Nancy,” I said.
“Yes?” she said.
“I was wondering.” I paused and looked at the girl in the g-string bikini, staring up at
“What?” she said.
This was my big chance. I looked back up at her, but I did this thing where I made my
vision blurry. That way, she’d think I was actually looking into her eyes, when really, all I saw
was a blurred face. Then I lost it.
“Do you like word of the day calendars?” I said.
Not the plan.
“I guess. I’ve never had one,” she said.
“Oh well, I have one at home.” I paused. “It’s really great.” I made a last minute effort
to save it. “It’s splendid.”
She seemed slightly interested.
“Oh, what’s today’s word?” she said.
I thought about it for a while.
“Mercenary,” I said.
“Oh,” she said.
There was a long silence. I started to walk outside. Then I stopped myself.
“Oh, Nancy?” I said.
“Yes?” she said.
“You can have mine,” I said.
“Your what?” she said.
“My calendar. It’s only April and I don’t write in it or anything,” I said.
“It’s ok,” she said.
That’s when I stopped talking.
Outside, Julio was leaning against a wall.
“Come on,” he said.
He led me past the lake and we walked up a steep hill to the nearest road. I looked
around but saw nothing.
“The surprise is on the left,” he said.
I looked to the left and there it was. About twenty feet from the road, buried under
deliberately placed branches and leaves was a teal 1955 Ford Thunderbird.
“I’ve checked for the last week and a half. It hasn’t moved,” he said. “There’s no key
I looked over at him, a bit uncertain of his intentions. Then I thought aloud.
“There must have been a murder here.”
I checked. No blood. No semen. Just dirt, leaves, rust, and the occasional dead
mosquito or fly. Not what I’d come to expect from television.
“Mike?” he said.
“Yeah?” I was admiring the fiberglass top, the fender skirts and the twin exhaust pipes,
still clouded with smoke. Then I interjected.
“Julio. It’s splendid.”
“Yeah, Mike.” He coughed. “It is … splendid.”
He looked over at me.
“I want you to help me fix it up. You’re good with an airbrush. What do you say? How
about that candy apple red you’re so familiar with, huh?”
I was easily persuaded.
“Of course, I’ll compensate you for your time and effort,” he said.
Then it hit me.
“Nancy will really like this, don’t you think?”
“Oh yeah, sure, Julio.”
He unveiled his “plan.”
“Gonna bring out a generator, plug some Christmas lights into it and string ‘em up
around the top here.”
My mind was going numb. He continued, laughing.
“And then Nancy and I will go inside for a picnic. You think I’ll get with Nancy?”
Then a pause.
“Well, I guess you don’t care. But, how does that sound? Engine’s shot but she’s got a
full gas tank. Oh, and I’ll find a Y-block V8 so I can take her for a spin some time. But for now,
When he was done talking, we started climbing down the hill.
“Watch your head Gay Boy,” he’d say, as we ducked under branches.
When we got back to the warehouse, lunch break was almost over. Nancy was sitting at
one of the tables, making origami flowers out of white paper. She handed one to Julio.
“And one for you,” she said, as she pressed one into my palm.
I brought it up to my nose.
“Wow, they smell beautiful.”
“That’s weird,” she said. “They’re paper.”
I lowered it down into my right pocket and took my seat at Station 2. While I fingered
the flower, Julio was blabbering to Nancy about something he saw on “The Today Show.”
Sexting. Teenagers texting each other about sex.
Alright. Since there’s no use, I figured I’d publish a poem I wrote for Nancy on this
What a beautiful light
Shines in this place
In the Brainerd night
What a beautiful face
Julio, no. No Julio.
On the first day of Julio’s “plan,” I met him up on the hill past the lake after work. Julio
had all the painting equipment there. He had rented it from a used car dealership’s auto repair
shop. He was sanding down the paint while I cleared out the leaves and dead bugs.
“So it’s not exactly like the airbrushes back at the factory,” he said. “But you’ll catch on
quick,” he said.
“How will she know you did all of this?” I said.
“What do you mean?”
“The cleaning, the repainting. How will she know you didn’t just hop into someone
Well, I guess it was someone else’s.
“I’ll tell her about it,” he said. “Don’t you think she’d ask, man?” He said this as if I
were dumb. Dumb because I was getting no credit.
“Let’s hurry it up. I’m taking Nancy to dinner on Friday.”
“Dinner where? TGIF?”
“No. Dinner in the car, baby.”
At the end of that night, my hands were dark and sticky from the dead bugs and dirt that
had transferred from the leather upholstery to my skin.
By Wednesday, we had already begun painting. I was laying on the candy apple red,
carefully circling the taillights. Julio was cleaning the exhaust pipes with a toothbrush.
“She’s looking sexy,” he said to me.
“Thanks,” I said.
It took me about two hours to paint the doors without getting the side mirrors or the
Thursday was ‘80s theme day at work. Nancy was wearing pink leggings, black leg
warmers, a black tutu, and a black lace top. I had forgotten and came to work in jeans and a t-
shirt. They wore jeans in the ‘80s. I know that for a fact.
“What are you supposed to be?” she said.
“I’m just regular,” I said.
She poked my nose with her finger and scrunched her face, smiling.
“I’m a material girl,” she said.
Julio had a jheri curl, a red leather jacket, and was wearing sunglasses inside.
“It’ the thriller look,” he said.
Unenthused, I went over to my position at Station 2 and grabbed the airbrush. I started
working and Larry Price started playing a Talking Heads album over the intercom. Home is
where I want to be, pick me up and turn me round. I looked over at Nancy. She and Julio were
reveling in their ‘80s splendor. Splendid.
I called over David McCormick and said I needed a bathroom break. Then I walked up
to Nancy. The words from the intercom rang true. I feel numb. Born with a weak heart.
I tapped her on the shoulder. She couldn’t turn around or else she’d miss coloring in the
gnome pants. One of the gnomes would be pantless.
“Today’s word of the day is cosset.”
“Oh?” she said. “What does it mean?”
“It means to treat with excessive indulgence; to pamper. Or as a noun: a pet, especially a
“You can be my cosset. I want to cosset you.” I thought inside my head. I wondered if it
could be used in that way. The calendar said it was a transitive verb. I don’t know what that
“Thanks for a word I’ll never use, Mike” said Julio.
“That’s a cute word. Cosset,” she said. She continued to paint the gnome pants,
mindlessly. I walked backward toward the bathroom as everyone else was moving to the music.
Feet on the ground. Head in the sky. It’s ok, I know nothing’s wrong…nothing’s wrong.
Later, during lunch break, Julio grabbed me and we went up to put some finishing
touches on the car.
“We’re almost done. I want you to cosset this car,” he said. He laughed. “I guess I was
wrong. I did use the word.”
We had finished painting the night before. We only needed to clean the rims and tires. I
went over every steel part with a handful of cotton balls dipped in rubbing alcohol. Julio looked
“I’m gonna go get the Christmas lights tomorrow. Thanks a lot. Don’t worry about
anything else. Oh, and here’s something for all your trouble.”
He handed me a free pass to the Great Lakes Aquarium.
“Thanks,” I said, faking ecstasy.
You must think I’m a dope. But I’m not a dope.
When I went back inside, Nancy handed me what she was working on during lunch break
—a blue paper flower.
“How’s it smell?” she asked.
“Like paper.” I said.
“That’s weird,” she said. “These ones are sprayed with perfume.”
On Friday, I came in to work with my red tin, cylindrical lunch box, grabbed a hair net,
some goggles, and some blue latex gloves and sat at station number 2. In my pocket was a blue,
crumpled paper flower. I pulled out my headphones and put them on. On came the sweet
sounds of a pre-pubescent Michael Jackson and his brothers as I began spraying away hats. Over
Michael’s sugary uttering of Come on and take it, girl, Larry Price’s voice came on over the
“Michael Graham, please remove your headphones.”
I didn’t take them off. After all, to me, he sounded like he was saying, “Cheese and
Ham, we are using telephones.” In front of me, Julio was pointing to his ears and mouthing the
words “Headphones. Off.” Of course, he was wearing a cream-colored suit. Nancy was just
looking over her shoulder. I took them off and placed them on the surface in front of me. Then I
hummed the rest of the tune and asked David McCormick to cover for me. I told him I had to
use the bathroom. I also asked him for matches.
“Getting high, Graham?” he asked.
I had thirty minutes before lunch break, so Julio couldn’t disturb me. When I got into the
bathroom, I checked to see if the sinks were sturdy and stepped onto the one closest to the
window. After some struggle, I managed to climb out and land on the gravel outside. Then I
walked the forty yards toward the back of the warehouse and began walking up toward the lake.
When I climbed to the top of the hill, it was exactly where we left it. No Christmas lights
yet, but beautiful. I admired all the hard work for a bit and then I climbed into the front seat,
popped open the gas tank and took off the parking break. With one hand against the shiny
candy-apple red trunk and one on my Walkman, I began pushing the car forward. I hit play and
the Jackson 5 continued right where they left off. All I can do since you've been gone is cry. I
put both hands on the trunk. It didn’t budge for a while. And don’t you ever wonder or worry
your head of what I do. After I got the tires over the first few rocks, the car really started
moving. The hill started getting steeper and the car gained momentum and moved faster—
bumping over rocks, dirt, and twigs. It rode all the way to mouth of the lake. And then the nose
touched the water.
I thought back to Nancy and Julio sitting there. On Thursday, it was the material girl and
the thriller zombie. Today, it was the lost, pretty girl and the TGIF enthusiast.
From my back pocket, I pulled out a rag and dipped both ends into the gas tank. Then I
walked over to the trees beside the lake, where I had hidden a can of gasoline. I started dousing
the leather upholstery in that sweet cyclobutane and watched it wash and dribble over the candy
apple red coat. Who’s loving you? I, I, I gotta know yeah. Then, using my foot I pushed the
whole damn car toward the lake and threw one of McCormick’s matches at the rag hanging out
the gas tank.
The flame started small at first but then it spread across the trunk, the seats, and the hood
as the car slowly sank into the water. Thirty seconds later, the whole thing blew as a film of
gasoline caught fire right on top of the lake. My legs felt like butter. Michael Jackson was
asking, Don't you know I …. sit around … with my head hanging down? The car was sinking but
the gas was still burning. I hurried back to the warehouse just in time for lunch. And I wonder
who’s lovin’ you.
When I got back, Nancy was braiding violets out of purple yarn. She didn’t give me one.
Julio stood up.
“Hey Mike? Where are you coming from, man?”
I said nothing. I just grabbed Nancy’s hand and said,
“Nancy, I love you.”
She said ok.
“Come here, I want to show you something,” I said.
I grabbed her hand and started walking out the back toward the lake. Seeing this, Julio
stood up and started to follow.
We ran toward the lake and Nancy was running with me. I was holding her hand so tight
my fingertips were turning white. She didn’t have a chance to speak. The whole time through
the trees, I could see the fire. And we kept running while the mud and dirt caked around the lace
flowers on her 1-inch heels. I ran her to the edge of the lake. We stopped and stood still.
To Julio, we probably looked like two charcoal silhouettes pressed up against an orange
horizon. I didn’t look back. We were staring at a burning lake.
“Let’s get away from this place,” I said.
She looked at me, too confused to respond.
“You’re too sweet,” I said. “Like Splenda.”
I heard footsteps running up behind me but I didn’t budge. There was a tap on my left
shoulder. I turned around and saw Julio’s fist coming straight at my right eye. And then I saw
stars. As my eye filled with blood I looked at Nancy and said,
“I’m not gay, baby.”
“I know,” she said. “But don’t call me baby.”