I worry the boss has mistaken my boredom for initiative
Resumés. Cover letters. Phone calls. Repeat. By my own account, I’m not what you would call a skilled employee.
I’ll admit I’ve only had one job and I don’t believe I’m welcome back. I spent last summer working for Carter’s Campground and Nine-Hole Mini Putt, where I became: “Comfortable working outdoors” (mopping plastic grass and pouring blue dye into an artificial pond where mosquitoes meet to screw, and fall in love, and start a family); “Trained in customer service” (I fed an eight-year-old a hot dog that I’d dropped in the sink and then shortchanged him because we were out of five-dollar bills); and “Familiar with landscaping equipment” (Mr. Carter, I’m the one who knocked over the porta-potties with the ride-on lawnmower).
I get hired by Pacific Meats & Frozen Foods, Inc., at their big storage warehouse outside of town. My family is thrilled.
“My son, the working man,” says my mother.
“Biking distance,” says my father.
The man who trains me is big and barrel-chested. He shaves his head and wears motorcycle T-shirts. The first thing Big Guy tells me to do is to climb up onto the forklift and go pick up a skid of chicken breasts from up front. I tell him I’ve never driven a forklift before and wonder whether there’s a certification process. This is funny to him and he has me do a practice lap around the warehouse. I skid around and bump into things. I’m nervous and uncoordinated, and he follows along and points to where certain products belong. When I hit into corners, he makes rough estimates of the damage, and says it’s all right. They’ll take it out of my first paycheque.
The warehouse is PM&FF’s Atlantic Distribution Centre. This means that food comes to us from all over (25 skids of premium Italian sausage from Germany, 8,000 pounds of frozen king prawn fresh from a shrimp farm in Thailand) and we ship it out all across the country (to supermarkets and butcher shops, to fast food chains and restaurants that serve $300 sit-downs eaten by candlelight).
During my second week, I learn shelf-stocking from a man with rotten teeth. He speaks enthusiastically of his ailment. Because, he says, he hasn’t used a toothbrush for thirteen years, all his teeth will now be replaced brand new. Which, by his account, will likely be much better than my own. “Have they ever given you nitrous oxide?” He’s much too keen to leave me with the chance to answer. “They’ll give me some of that for sure,” he says. “And maybe something stronger too, if I’m really nervous.” He relishes this thought and then lists off the post-op prescriptions he’s most excited about.
The foreman says a shipment wasn’t packed properly. We sent out twenty gallons of hot sauce whose bottles split and sprayed open and ruined an entire order. He says they have no way of knowing who packed it, but that he knows that I am new and that I am inexperienced. That order cost us $900… And this cannot happen again. When the foreman is gone, Big Guy comes over and says that he’s “one tall sack of shit.” Then he tells me about the time the foreman drank himself sick at the company Christmas party and threw up into a nativity scene. When the foreman walks past us again at the other end of the aisle Big Guy recalls, in a much louder voice, how he’s heard that the foreman now must blow through a plastic tube in order for his car to start. Quicker footsteps. This is when I realize that Big Guy is immune to authority.
A tiny man drifts around the shelves all day. He’s the one who tries to find the food that has been lost. We’ve never worked together, though I’ve seen him walking up and down the aisles looking up, searching, disheartened. Tiny Man is small in every way, and wears children’s shoes and speaks only in three-word sentences. He doesn’t seem to be very good at his job and he becomes confused easily. We read confusion off of his bald head, which turns pink whenever he becomes flustered. One day Big Guy leans over and asks if I think Tiny Man looks like an anorexic Elmer Fudd. I say that I think he looks like a miniature version of Big Guy.
The bathroom stalls are painted in histories: odes to old bosses from former employees; bathroom poetry written in iambic pentameter. Someone’s gone and drawn a tally chart on the door. The title reads: “I wish ……….. would…” Below that, the two categories are Just Fuckin’ Retire Already (||| ) and EAT SHIT (|||| |||| || ). There’s someone sobbing in the next stall.
Big Guy claims he knows my father. When I question where they met, he says prison, then asks whether my father still fights dogs and sells dope to schoolchildren. I go along with him and he smiles, then asks if my mother is still a two-dollar-feature at Venus Exotic Show Palace. I go into my pocket and fish out a toonie and flick it at him. He takes the coin and drops it down deep into his front breast pocket. Then he shows me how to pack an order properly.
In the afternoons I work with a hockey fan. The fan has made his allegiance clear by his choice of socks and jerseys, but still recites daily cheers as a precautionary measure. Once he discovers where my loyalties lie, the terrible jokes begin.
Q: What’s the difference between [my team] and a dishwasher?
A: At least a dishwasher knows what a cup looks like.
The fan can only communicate through insults.
The sports section of the newspaper is off limits to all until he has checked it over twice and added his own perspective, with blue ink, into the margins. When his team is eliminated from the playoffs, I look forward to seeing him. I reword his jokes in my head and tool them to fit my own comic timing. But when we cross paths, he tightens up, as if he expects to be punched. I take pity on him and take a vow of silence. He eats lunch in his car that day.
When my work is finished, I mop up spilled grease and dried blood off the floors. The foreman praises me for my work. He says he knows that I take pride in doing “a good job” and gives me more responsibilities. I don’t believe this is true and worry he has mistaken my boredom for initiative.
Big Guy has a fondness for practical jokes. He’s made a game of throwing wads of balled-up tape and plastic wrap at me while we’re working. So when I hear him shout “Heads up!” one morning, I turn around and make the catch. But this is not a ball of tape, it’s a dead mouse. I am holding a dead mouse and he hoots and slaps his knee. “Good catch!” he says.
Tiny Man has become his latest victim. We hide his work boots in the break room fridge and hang his lunch bag from a ceiling fan. And Tiny Man walks in circles and his tiny head turns pink. He has become an easy target and the jokes become more and more cruel. Big Guy’s favourite is sneaking up and startling him. We learn that Tiny Man is easily frightened. He jumps three feet off the ground when I drive up behind him with the forklift, honking and shouting, “Watch it!” Once when the power goes out, I swear Big Guy scares him so bad he’s wearing a different pair of pants when the lights go on again.
We have a seventieth birthday party for the mail clerk, who’s only sixty-eight. The foreman’s boss has come with cake and streamers to celebrate the occasion. As he begins to give a speech, I look over at Big Guy. He drags his thumb and index finger over top of his mouth, miming zip your lips. The workers try as best they can to bite their tongues and stifle laughter. The boss has realized his mistake but by now his speech is done. Afterward, the mail clerk stands, beaming, and gives thanks to all, to our whistles and applause. Once the food is served and the boss has gone, I spot the clerk looking down on his half-eaten cake. His smile is not a happy smile.
The foreman tells me to take home a pot roast because of my “good work.” They’re all laid out on a fold-up table, and I browse around and poke the fat. My mother cooks the roast in the oven. Me and Dad chop carrots and celery, and pour them in the pot with the meat. I slice a big piece for myself. When everything is finished and the plates are cleared away, Dad leans forward and says, thank you.
Sometimes I work the weekend shift alone for extra hours. The warehouse doors are locked on Saturdays and Sundays so I go in through the office. Both of the security staff workers look on, uninterested, when I say hello. They wear matching blue jackets and they drink from the same type of coffee mug. I wonder if they’re siblings but think it best not to ask.
Saturdays are quiet. I restock shelves and check on freezer doors. I check on temperature gauges and sweep up trash and garbage. Sometimes I play the radio through the PA system.
There’s a light on at the far end of the warehouse and I decide to shut it off so as not to be blamed on Monday. But before I find the switch I see that someone’s there. Tiny Man is over against the back wall sitting underneath a shelf. He turns and looks at me. He has a box cutter against his neck.
“Go away now,” he says. I try to think of something sympathetic I can say. “Please go away,” he says. “I’ll hurt you.”
I’m still holding onto my broom when I rush into the office. I’m only halfway through explaining when one of the two security men stands up and goes off into the warehouse. I don’t know what happens next. I guess he’s a veteran. He goes and finds Tiny Man, talks him down, jumps him, and wrestles the box cutter out of his hands or something.
We never see Tiny Man again. I believe Big Guy is the first to joke about him.
Johnathan Fahey is a writer from Moncton, NB. Currently, he lives in Toronto and works for the Toronto Blue Jays. This is his first publication.