Thursday, February 12, 2009
a rough draft
I stared at the colored square in my hand. It was some sort of tiny folded pair of bright pink shorts folded into a clear plastic bag. I absentmindedly tossed the square into an empty box sitting atop my orange cart decorated by graffiti and slander, while listening intently to the conversation taking place an aisle full of bins jammed with other colored squares over.
“You know ya dun it, buddy!” echoed Tim’s voice throughout the dusty spaciousness of the warehouse. Tim was the warehouse manager and he was urging Gary to answer his inquiry honestly. My problem was that I didn’t know what my good friend Gary was supposed to have “dun.” I quietly wheeled my cart closer, while remaining out of sight of this discussion. An unnatural day-glow green shimmered onto my haphazard neck beard from a bin of tank top squares below that somehow illuminated themselves, despite sitting in the shadows far from the fluorescents 30 feet up. The shorts, tanks, tees, and other paraphernalia which we had been commissioned to pack and to ship from this warehouse had been manufactured by my current employer TriLete, the unfortunately named, yet apparently renowned supplier of highly technical tri-athletic apparel. All of the fabrics were synthetic and smelled like the garden department at a home center. I often fantasized what would happen if I started a fire in the cement confines of the warehouse. I wondered if the inventory would smolder slowly like a huge pile of burning tires, or explode like a nuclear blast due to the possible instability of the toxic synthetics involved with the apparel. Would the massive smoke cloud be a colorful one as it rose above the city of Portland before being carried off by prevailing winds to pollute the stunning vistas of the Columbia River Gorge due east of town?
“No, Tim, I have never done that.” Gary’s voice answered with a determined certainty that I had not heard in his voice for a long time. He was trying to end this questioning as efficiently as possible. Working under the tutelage of Tim was an interesting prospect. He was about ten years older than either of us and his size was somewhat imposing, yet he was as dim as anyone either of us had ever encountered. Tim’s daily uniform was generally composed of a tight yellow or pink T-shirt with the short sleeves rolled up, plastic black pants (that thankfully provided a swishing sound in order to alert any of us of his impending presence), a key chain dangling from his waist and a fanny pack in order to keep his lip balm and giant bottle of nasty smelling cheap cologne handy at all times. He drove a white Trans Am and his hair style might be considered a mullet in some circles, but I always likened it more to the depictions I had seen of the ancient Roman heroes and their curly locks. This wasn’t quite accurate either, because the hair seemed more inspired by the shape of a Roman warrior’s helmet. Maybe that was the reasoning behind the affectionate nickname we had for him: The Roman Meal Man. Sometimes it was awful to work for such a buffoon. It was humiliating knowing that he was our leader. Most times however, it was an extremely entertaining prospect. After all, we could do pretty much anything we wanted.
“Aw, buddy, even after you’ve had a whole mess to drink?! Ya know that sometimes ya just can’t hold it! Ya know ya dun it. Everybody’s dun it,” boomed Tim proudly. For Gary this was not one of those fun times. I had to fight back a sudden surge of mixed emotions that flooded into my face, but I did not want to alert Tim of my proximity and be drawn into his line of interrogation. I could hear Gary clear his throat.
“No, Tim, I am honestly telling you that I do not wet my bed,” Gary’s response came, along with the squeak of the wheels of his cart turning away from Tim in the aisle next to where I was leaning transfixed. “I need to finish picking this order, so, uh…” he drifted off.
“Whatever, buddy, I bet some of the other buddies’ll own up!”
I jumped up immediately and turned my cart and sped to another aisle further away from the front of the warehouse, where Tim’s office was. I didn’t want to find myself involved in a potential census survey regarding bedwetting.
A few moments later I approached Gary in the back of the warehouse, mimicking Tim’s groaning style of breathing. Gary leaned against his cart, shaking his head in disbelief.
“Did you hear that?” he inquired, exasperated.
Gary and I had known each other for most of our lives. We first met as little kids at a mutual friend’s birthday party. The events of that now legendary night had become obscured by our revisionist memories. We had both become convinced that the birthday party had been a crazy assortment of dangerous hard drinking eight year olds, hell bent on trouble. The events of the sleepover over the years had gone from an outdoor pizza party with games and a variety of flavored sodas to knife fights, drugs, a brutal beating, mass property destruction and graffiti around the neighborhood. No matter how my mind fights against believing it, I cannot shake the invented vivid memory I have of Gary shot-gunning a can of beer while standing on the hood of a convertible pissing onto its empty seats at three in the morning. Whatever the case was, we had become friends and remained friends for the next fifteen or so years. I had witnessed Gary go through a lot of bad times over those years, but I had never seen him struck with such a confused fear as he was after this encounter with our boss.
“Yeah man,” I replied laughing, “that was awesome!”
“Chuck, you are a sick freak,” he said as he removed his glasses and attempted to wipe away the idea of a smug smile appearing upon Tim’s sleeping face just as he leaks a wet and warm present for his startled young girlfriend in their bed. My laughter died as I inexplicably began to join in on the visualization. We both stood in silence for a while trying to comprehend where we had gone wrong. I was blaming Gary for getting this job for me. Gary continued to try and pry his recent memory out through his eyes.
“Ya know ya dun it, buddy,” I quietly mumbled an impersonation, exaggerating the heavy breathing, before bursting out with more laughter. Gary continued rubbing his face, then replaced his glasses and made direct eye contact. I returned his gaze expectantly, trying to encourage my intention of humor with my eyes. After a couple of beats, he jumped towards me reaching out to grab my t-shirt with one hand while swinging wildly with the other. I dove to one side, barely avoiding his grasp before spinning around and running away. Gary pursued me for about thirty seconds until I ran behind Slack for protection.
Slack was the assistant warehouse manager. Slack was known as Slack for a reason. The prior day, he and I had spent the entirety of our eight hour workday standing around talking about our histories. He almost never worked and he had moved beyond the point of trying to trick people into believing that he worked. In this environment, however, this only brought him the useless title of assistant warehouse manager. The reality was that none of us worked much at all. We were over-staffed and not paid enough to be motivated. Most importantly, our boss could be out-witted by a first grader. The conditions were not conducive for a long-term productive career opportunity, but they were very helpful for a lifestyle filled with alcohol fueled late nights.
The idea for doing this job was not due to lack of motivation, I liked to believe, but to not have to take the job home with me. I had big dreams of someday owning a record label and a companion fanzine that would become a legendary starting point for many incredible bands. In other words, this job was just something to tide me over until the success starting rolling in. Gary’s dream was not so dissimilar. He was a co-conspirator for the fanzine, which we had begun photocopying every so often for the prior couple of years. He also was focused on starting a band. Neither of us had any musical talent, but that never stopped most of our musical heroes of the late 70’s punk and post-punk era. Most of our actual work towards achieving these goals was spent sitting around drinking beer and discussing the awesomeness of our ideas rather than producing results.
At that particular moment, I was crouching behind Slack’s squared, Fred Flintstone shaped frame, in order to avoid Gary. Slack was humming “Brick House” to himself, unfazed by this sudden interruption. His non-response immediately diffused the situation and Gary and I began recreating the drunken Tim-bed-wetting story for him, both over playing the groaning speech patterns of our leader. Slack’s eyes widened in wonder as his mind tried to grasp this bizarre reenactment. We could see the wheels of his mind turning from disbelief to the realization that this actually did occur. He began to sing “She’s the one, the only one, built like an Amazon” rapidly to drown out the nightmarish environment we had thrust upon him. He bounced into a jerky dance causing his erratic sprawling hair to bounce back and forth on top of his head in the opposite direction as his body as he moved away from us, using the Commodores’ lyrics as his response to our attack. Gary and I looked on with bemusement as Slack disappeared from view.
At that same moment, Jovin slipped by the aisle on the opposite end, tip-toeing like Elmer Fudd hunting “wabbits,” trying to sneak in to work a few hours late. Jovin was late nearly every day, but generally managed to go unnoticed by Tim and our more uptight co-workers, the ones who take the job seriously and one day hoped to take Tim’s place at the top of the pecking order. This time, Jovin was too late. Talk of his absence had already made the rounds. Slack had tried to cover for him fruitlessly by inventing a Jovin sighting, when Tim had confronted him.
Gary and I had remained standing dumbfounded a moment after we saw Jovin move by, before jetting off after him. He was a tall and skinny guy who had an unreasonably deep voice and jet black hair. He had just turned nineteen and had the odd habit, when he finally showed up to work, of disappearing again immediately without leaving. Gary theorized that Jovin had built a shelter out of empty boxes that he could hide under unnoticed by the rest of us. It seemed probable to me, but wondered how none of us had ever discovered it.
Convening again in the back of the warehouse, as far from Tim’s office as possible, the three of us huddled secretively like junior high students who were cutting classes for the first time.
“Where have you been?” I asked in a tone, letting Jovin know that I was expecting something funny.
“Slept in,” he responded flatly, while staring at something that apparently was behind Gary and me. Jovin often did this. He would stare intently at something other than who he was addressing. Not only did his stares have the ability to create confusion in whoever he was speaking to, he created an unsettling feeling as well. I’m pretty sure he was from the hills outside the suburbs.
“They’re onto to you today dude,” Gary told him conspiratorially. “Maybe you should get out before anyone else sees you and then call in sick.”
The three of us contemplated this idea and glanced around for a quick escape route.
“Buddies, I need you all to come up to my office for a meetin’,” Tim’s serious voice boomed from the speakers overhead.
“I wish he never discovered how to use the interco-,” I began to say before being cut off by Tim’s heavy breathing.
“Let’s go guys.”
Gary led the way, as the three of us entered Tim’s small dark office. Tim was sitting at his desk with his arms crossed on top of the desk calendar in front of him. Christ, Helmet and Sandy took up all of the chairs available on the opposite side of Tim’s desk, all glaring at Jovin as though he was about to be executed. Slack stood behind Tim looking intently at the floor, being careful not to make eye contact with any of us.
“Come in buddies,” Tim invited with his most authoritative tone, trying to emulate the “Major League”-era tough guy Tom Berenger - most-likely his idol. “Something has been brought to my attention. We’re all buddies here, buddies, but when I hear that some of us are showing up late, I get concerned. I won’t name names, buddies,” Tim continued, while pursing his lips, “but we don’t want to start any Semitism around here.”
I stared at Slack’s down turned head, which slowly began to vibrate. The long cables of hair that spiked accidentally from his head waved about in reaction to what he’d heard. His right hand was completely white as he held it firmly to his mouth, trying to press the burgeoning laughter forcing its way out. I looked away from Slack to keep myself from laughing along. Jovin stared empty-eyed ahead, knowing that this discipline meeting was for his sake, but clearly not caring. Gary’s head was slumped over as far as his neck would allow, focused on the floor at his feet. His neck and forehead were bright red and he looked as if he was about to cry.
“When buddies start showing up late, it can create some anti-Semitism and we don’t want that here,” Tim added for emphasis, making sure that none of us had misheard him.
Helmet held his head high, proud that his complaints had led to this scene. My eyes continued to scan the room for somewhere to focus.
“When we start getting Semitism around here, buddies, then we can’t get things dun. So we need to all show up on time, so we don’t have these Semitism issues. Okay, buddies?”
Everyone but Gary and Slack looked at Jovin, who nodded slightly with his eyes focused on the window behind Slack. Sweat had formed on Gary’s forehead. Slack’s legs were twitching as his oxygen was running out. I clenched my eyes and grabbed the bridge of my nose in disgust.
“Okay, buddies,” Tim concluded with certainty, “Let’s go take a break.”
With that conclusion for the completely pointless meeting, all of us burst from the confines of the office into the open space of the warehouse. Immediately, Slack and Gary began to gasp for air as they both howled uncontrollably. Slack put his arm around Gary and began to cry into his shoulder. I looked on in disbelief at what was just spoken with deep sincerity. Helmet approached me, asking what all the laughter was about.
Though Helmet and I didn’t like each other, we managed to get along. His tiny red moustache twitched with irritation as he looked on at the hysterical twins that had now dropped to the floor. Helmet had begun working long before Gary and I had started our employment at TriLete, so we weren’t certain what his name really was. We had begun calling him Helmet upon our first sighting of his tightly bunched red-headed afro, which floated just above his scalp and hovered in a frozen waterfall down the back of his neck. Slack referred to him as The Sheik, which was the superior name, but too good to spoil with every day usage.
“What’s wrong with them?” he asked in a very serious tone.
“Um, I suppose they uh…I don’t know,” I gave up, wanting to avoid continuance of this garbage.
“You guys make me sick,” Helmet blurted before turning around abruptly and storming off to his desk pressed against the outside of Tim’s office. Helmet, Christ, and Sandy were all long time friends, brothers, or cousins, or in-laws - no one knew for sure – who had belonged to an unusual religious cult, which was loosely related to Christianity. From what we could gather, the cult was an offshoot similar to Mormonism, except this nonsense was preached by some farmer from the rolling fields just off of I-5 south of Salem during the mid 70’s. I think his name was Ed: founder of the Church of Ed. We didn’t know much else, except that they didn’t celebrate things like birthdays or national holidays; instead they had their own list of Holy Days, which meant they were not allowed to come in to work at all.
Helmet wanted to be in Slack’s managerial position and took everything very seriously. Christ was sitting on Helmet’s desk reading from his Bible. His book was stuffed with markers and sheets of paper, which were presumably notes from intense studying, but I happened to know otherwise. Those random pieces of paper were scribbled with NFL stats and the lines of the upcoming weekend’s games. He was on the verge of a complete breakdown. He had just turned 22, had been married for four years and had two kids with another on the way. We called him Christ, because he was the only one of his clan to advertise his beliefs sanctimoniously and he had a severe persecution complex. Sandy, on the other hand, was completely comfortable with his life in the Cult of Ed, which made him the most tolerable. He was a giant man with a friendly disposition, who rarely spoke except to inject the occasional quip. Gary was always wary of Sandy, feeling that he was the dangerous one.
Jovin was nowhere to be seen.
Slack and Gary had managed to untangle themselves from the floor and wipe the tears from their eyes.
“Let’s go smoke,” Gary commanded after a long exhale. He and I walked to the back door of the warehouse and stepped outside. Slack headed off to the snack machine to buy his daily dose of Plantation Brownies.
The weather outside was cool and eerily hushed by a heavy white haze, isolating us from the views of the city that we normally enjoyed. Jovin was already out back holding a cigarette.
“What will you guys give me if I smoke an entire pack at once?” he queried under his breath.
“Huh? Are you serious?” Gary returned exasperated.
“I’ve always thought about trying it,” he replied, smoke spurting out of his nose with each word.
Gary lit his cigarette and then mine. He generally lit my cigarettes, because I was incapable of doing so. Matches, lighters: the conditions didn’t matter.
“I’m not giving you anything,” I uttered blankly, while still trying to comprehend Tim’s speech.
“I’ll give you a heapin’ pile of Semitism buddy,” Gary groaned using our boss’s voice. “Besides, that cigarette you’re smoking is one of mine,” he added, as himself, while pointing a finger at Jovin. “Where are you gonna get a full pack?”
Jovin looked back directly at Gary for several seconds as he sucked down the last few drags of his cigarette. Gary laughed, but I turned my head away and stared at the parking lot surrounding the building. Jovin’s staring made me extremely uncomfortable. He was like a crossbreed of Dangerous Redneck and Deadly Ninja dusted with a pinch of instability.
“Hey, so I was thinking that we should hang out tomorrow night,” Gary’s voice interrupted my fear.
“Huh?” I looked back at Gary; Jovin was gone. “Why? What’s up?”
“Rose is having a girl’s night, so I’m supposed to stay away from the apartment.”
“When did she find friends?” I smirked.
“Didn’t I tell you?” Gary began, taking my joke as straight. “She got a job last week. Some sort of holiday temp thing.”
“Some crime shit at the Mall,” he paused for effect. “Um, yeah, anyway, she brought back one of her little co-workers the other night. She’s a cutie. You should tap that.”
“What are you talking about?” I exclaimed, irritated in advance at his oncoming sales pitch.
“Dude, I’m telling you, she’s totally your type! Rose agrees! She’s got that short dark hair you like so much and she’s a dwarf.” Gary was always using the “dwarf” line, because I once mentioned, a long time ago, a non aversion to a particular shorter than average woman.
“Where do you get that?! One stupid comment, ‘cuz of one hot short chick I pointed out! One time!”
“I’m serious man!” he shouted me down. “You’d like her.”
“Like Nancy from high school? She was a short brunette,” I added sarcastically.
“Yeah, and she could chew tobaccy and spit like a real man,” Gary finished for me. “I know that you were all about her. Whatever happened to her anyway?”
“How the hell would I know?”
“No, I’m dead serious. She’s a cutie. You’ll dig her,” I nodded, showing him that I was listening. “So, I’m thinking this: she’s supposed to come hang with Rose at seven, so we can go grab some Dino and wander, or hit the Commodore Bar. Then, at some point, we’ll slip back to the pad and we’ll introduce you to…uh…to the chick.”
“You don’t remember her name?” I asked quietly, finishing the smoke.
“Suki, Sandra, Cindy, Susan, Sassafras something like that,” he paused, “you know I don’t remember names! What do you think? Rose is down with you meeting her too. She’s on your side.”
“Yeah, well, that’s one person then. I figured we’d hang out anyway. It’s Friday, isn’t it?” I asked as I held the back door open for Gary. “Sassafras? What is that?”