True Story of Work in the Wild West – Part I March 27, 2008Posted by caveblogem in Other, writing.
I’m posting this because it has been sitting around on my hard drive doing nothing for almost a year. Names have been changed, naturally.
The furniture store-owner’s son walked me to a tall stack of chests of drawers, unfinished pine, sticky with sap. Like the trees they came from, they smelled cleaner than they were. He said “do you think you can take the top one down?”
I tried not to be distracted by his goofy grin. It could have been caused by an accident, I thought. He had several large scars on his cheeks that maybe tightened the skin above the corners of his mouth. They say that if you smile, your mood will follow in the wake of that facial expression. Must be nice to be perpetually amused.
I didn’t think about the chest’s drawers until I got it half-way down to the ground. They slid out a bit, and I almost dropped it as its weight shifted. I had to wrestle it down quickly. I wanted to hit him but I faked a smile instead. He mistook my dumb luck and haste for strength, I think. The rest of the interview centered on what hours I could work.
I probably got the job because I was a college kid, like him. He went to the same school, before he dropped out to run the warehouse. Poor grades and a couple of drunk driving arrests had brought ultimata from parents re-convinced of the pointlessness of higher education.
The memories of college he still had were fond, and as the only member of his family to attend, he thought himself the family brain, although they probably employed him to keep an eye on him, to manage the family reputation.
He decided that I was stronger than his father thought, that he could report that I had passed the test-Daddy had been wrong about another college kid. When would Dad learn?
I was ready to start that weekend, but he wasn’t, having accidentally doused his pants leg with ant poison and not thought carefully enough about possible consequences. A customer found him quivering, frothing at the mouth, on the warehouse floor, and he had to spend Saturday and Sunday in the shower, drinking water to dilute the nerve toxins.
“Zippy,” what all the salespeople called him, was late Monday morning, understandably, I guess. So I had to wait at the store until he came in to open the warehouse. It seemed reckless, to me, given the owner’s temper, to call his son “Zippy.” But somebody explained that morning, in a hushed voice “his mom and dad think we call him that because he races around, doing a dozen things at once. I call him “Zippy” cause he’s a F—ing idiot.”
He was an idiot, in some ways, but he didn’t slash through the top of a box with a razor knife, scratching through several layers of lacquer and about an eighth of an inch of wood. That was me, a morning of that first week. He didn’t turn a corner too quickly with a lop-sided headboard, trying to grab it as it crashed against the floor. That was me again, broken pieces clunking inside the box while I hid it behind some others, later that same week. We all make mistakes. The key is not to let them eat up the profits.
Dave, the other new guy, looked ill when we got to the warehouse, sitting outside, back against the wall. But he was just pale and thin.
In just a week he had learned not to exert himself unnecessarily. He didn’t even look up as we got out of Zippy’s truck. A big eighteen-wheeler was at the dock already, driver already out and walking towards us. I went in to take a look around. Dave stayed up front to deal with Zippy and the driver.
Soon, Dave found me in the back. “Hey,” I said to him.
“Ninety-six iceboxes coming, let me show you where Zippy wants ’em.”
I followed him. Standing up, he was tall, but not as tall as me, freckles, dark brown hair and eyes under a fitted high-school baseball cap. We walked almost all the way up to the loading door. Not too far to carry the iceboxes. But the empty spot was only four feet wide.
He nodded, face an unreadable blank.
For some reason, about half the profit the company made that summer was in oak iceboxes with brass handles. They looked like antique iceboxes, the kind they used to store food in, but these were used as end tables or television stands mostly, two feet tall a foot and one-half wide, maybe a foot deep, slightly top-heavy because their tops were solid wood, and front-heavy because of the door. This shipment came in cardboard boxes.
I was a few days newer than Dave, so I told him I’d try to talk Zippy into expanding the space, or putting them somewhere else, but Zippy didn’t take well to logic, like the rest of the family.
For instance, the warehouse was laid out in alphabetical order, by manufacturer’s name, with glaring exceptions that annoyed his peevish mother. Since stock fluctuated constantly, the spaces had to be adjusted repeatedly, and the furniture had to be repaired repeatedly, before being sold.
I found him and told him the iceboxes wouldn’t fit.
“‘Slike, no problem,” he said, nodding and looking into my eyes the way he always did when he knew he didn’t know what he was talking about, when he made up his stories. It was as if he thought that he would find your soul in there if he looked hard enough. Maybe he thought he could see your brain, or his own, or his reflection, or a horsey, I don’t know. It wasn’t a hard, intimidating sort of stare; it was searching, childlike. I looked away and he got up and came to help us, to prove himself right.
There was room for only two rows, eight-feet deep, which started getting pretty high. Soon Zippy decided to build steps in one of the rows. I grabbed a box, handed it to Dave. He handed it up to Zippy, who kept building up.
When we got to a height of seven boxes, the whole mess started wobbling, of course. So Zippy grabbed a couple of wooden planks from somewhere and put them on top of row seven, thinking it would stabilize things. Maybe it did for a while.
Then half-way through level eight I handed a box to Dave, who wasn’t looking at me anymore at all, he kept his eyes on Zippy and the shaking stack of boxes as he reached down to me. He saw it let go before I did, crouched and dove for a leather sofa. I dropped a box and backed away as the top four levels came crashing down.
Dave got the worst of it, I think, unless you count the iceboxes, which would now fit much more easily, now that they were smashed. He hit the sofa, but at least one of the boxes caught him in the small of the back, leaving a huge welt near his kidneys and knocking his breath out. He was too angry to talk anyway.
Zippy fell right into the avalanche, which might have been the safest place, although he was battered, bloody and bruised. Probably lingering traces of any poison deadened the pain-he kept his silly smile. None hit me, but I felt pretty bad for Dave, who had amazing self control. Perhaps he blamed himself.
I was almost surprised to see Dave the next day. But the injuries seemed to give him a new sense of confidence. He was sitting up straighter and seemed glad to see me. I was planning on spending my next day off looking for work, but that was still two days away.
“One hundred-twenty barstools on the truck outside. Zip wants them on the rack.”
The rack had been built a couple of months before we were hired, but was only half-full of furniture, because it was fifteen feet high, with three shelves, and there was no mechanical lift.
“What the . . .?”
“Zip says he’ll be on the rack. He wants us to throw them up to him, he said.”
For the rest of the day we took turns hurling boxes of barstools at the boss, just like he asked, except maybe harder. Sometimes they fell back down after hitting him. And sometimes we’d even try to slow their descent, just for the look of the thing.
I’ve never been able to quite duplicate the simple joy that physical labor gave me that day, hurling heavy, lopsided boxes at him, while safe on the ground. Even so, sometimes I’d just hand the boxes to Dave. It meant even more to him.