Tales From Mephitis, Chapter 13: The Camel
“You cannot teach a man anything; you can only help him find it for himself.” Galileo
Frank figured it was about time he broke down and got himself a few items. He ordered a Pizo Headlamp to use as a headlight while riding in the dark, a cheap poncho so he had at least some rain protection, and a Casio wristwatch to keep track of his time.
He viewed the watch with a sense of irony. At that mill so many years ago, he had been obsessed with the passage of time because he was held accountable for every single minute of downtime and production time. In rebellion he had ceased wearing a watch, and there was a painful withdrawal period.
In all those years since, he’d refused to own one. Now however, once again, he found himself doing the opposite of what he’d become accustomed to.
When the August schedule finally came out, he was relieved to see Dodgers hadn’t had another ‘lapse’; he was on it, and he had picked up another few Tuesdays as well.
Anton and he continued their discussions as best they could between tasks. Frank let him bring up what he wished; he had no intention of pushing his views on the younger man.
It was still hot as hell, especially on the ride home after a long day. He continued to ride wearing a sleeveless tank top, shorts, running shoes and a headband. It’d been years since he was out in public in such clothing; or the lack of it.
This was peak summer tourist season now, and he was seeing more out-of-state plates and expensive cars. He found it surprising how often he was frankly ogled by women driving past in those cars. He knew he was much younger looking than his years physically, except for the hair. And it was good for his old male ego to see that women were still taken by him.
But what surprised him even more was when young women did a double-take. That, he didn’t expect. Was a muscular man that unusual now? Maybe it was. Virtually all the males he’d seen; young, middle-aged, or old, were flabby or fat.
But as good as it made him feel, he felt the cool wind of caution: There was no way he was going to make an “Old Fool” of himself. He had never forgotten the lesson of that scene in “Death in Venice”, which Herr Aschenbach should have seen a warning to himself, of the clownish old man trying to keep up with a rowdy bunch of younger men on the ferry. Frank had no intention of doing that to himself, or hurting Melissa: She was the one he loved. And his youth was over.
But on the other hand, he was surprised to realize he was serving as a good goad for the old “boys” at the dumps, because they all suddenly had decided to go on diets. Each of them had weighed themselves on the bale scales and announced their target weight.
Rod said he didn’t need to diet. But he did set aside a set of barbells someone dropped off, saying he was going to "start working out” and he surreptitiously snuck an accordion-armload of Richard Simmons areobic tapes to his car.
Even Hoppin’ John said he was thinking about riding his bike again around town, even though his doctor told him he was in “great shape”.
Frank would have given his left arm not to have to ride a bike anymore.
He suspected Tina was on Hoppin’ John about dieting by the surreptitious way he had of hiding what he was eating. He was a gourmand: This boy loved to eat. His idea of ‘dieting’ was not ascetic, to say the least.
He brought in a pile of cold cuts one morning, saying “the old lady” said they should eat it up as it was about to go beyond the “Eat By” date. He and Tom sat down and made two sandwiches out of a pound of ham; the inch-thick wad of meat slices just folded in half between a couple of slices of white bread, and lubricated generously with Miracle Whip.
Anton had told Frank that shortly after he began work there, one day his lunch disappeared from the fridge. He asked out loud where it went.
“I ate it.” John dead-panned.
“I thought it was mine.”
“Well, until after the first bite.”
“Well where’s the rest of it!?”
“I ate it.” He then had devoured his own lunch as well.
Anton said he exploded. Frank thought to himself that he would have kicked his ass then and there. He came from a culture where if you stole a potato chip off someone’s plate you were going to get dropped. And he’d seen it done more than once. You don’t touch a black man’s radio, and you don’t touch a Long Islander’s food.
Frank had seen Hoppin’ John bring in a nine by sixteen-inch Lasagna for lunch and eat it all. One hot afternoon the little Japanese lady gave Rod a soggy “Seafood Sub” from “Subway”, saying it was leftover.
“Thank yooouuu.” Rod had meowed and put it in the little fridge. When John came back from driving, Rod showed it to him.
“You want that, Hoppin’?”
“Leave it in there.” He replied, his blank expression showing a flicker of lust. “Leave it there. I’ll have it Monday.”
Now, this was on a Friday: That gooey, dripping, white bread sub with seafood was going to sit there for three days.
Frank figured John would probably die. He didn’t, but his diet nonetheless had a chronic effect on him.
The odor of Hoppin’ John’s excrement had achieved legendary levels, respected and feared by all. When he headed for the bathroom with that look in his eye, everyone gave the bathroom wide berth for at least an hour.
“You don’t want to go in there now.” Rod warned Frank once after he’d told Rod he’d be right back; he had to take a leak.
“What do you mean?” he had asked, suspicious.
“Hoppin’ John’s in there dropping a Dougie, and you don’t wanna be anywhere near that bathroom after he’s done. He’s got the worst smelling shits…He means well, but he does shit well.”
“What!?...I think I’ll take your word for it.”
“Look at this!” Rod gloated later that day. As he approached Frank, he held up a twenty-dollar bill with both hands. “I told this old lady that I help alla time that it was my birthday three weeks ago, but she missed it because she hadn’t been here for a month cause she had knee surgery. So she gave me this! Hahahahahahah!!”
Frank knew the woman he was talking about; a sweet elderly woman with bad knees, bright orange hair, bright clothing, and too much perfume. “He has no sense of shame or honor.”
“They told Della she was gonna have ta switch to another medical plan.”
“What? Who said?”
He had the confusing habit of launching into a topic out of the blue; apparently expecting that somehow you were able to read his mind.
“At the place she works, C.W. East. They said that she either had to lose a lotta weight or she’d have to go on another plan that would cost her more. That ain’t right. Why should she have to pay more?”
“The true teacher is life itself, and the world is the only schoolroom in which we can learn what we so evidently require.” Manley Hall
Frank found himself enjoying his discussions with Anton. He had never expected to be talking about philosophy at a dumps. Politics; yes. Everyone has an ‘opinion’ about politics, whether it’s rational or not. But this Anton was an intelligent young man who asked intelligent questions.
Frank was not looking forward to September for his own sake: He was going to miss the distraction their talking provided him here, and yet for Anton’s sake he knew the young man badly needed to get out of there; one way or the other. If he wound up stuck there he’d die inside.
He reminded Frank of himself in one aspect: He too seemed to have received no guidance from his parents or elders, not given any direction for his efforts. As a result, he was a ‘Wanderer’ in spirit as Frank was. He was surprised to find himself feeling fatherly toward him. He was interested in the younger man’s thoughts and opinions. He mused that ironically Anton filled the void left in him by his own children.
He had thought he had a good relationship with them when they were growing up, and immensely enjoyed being their father; protecting and teaching them. He had been looking forward to having the grown man and woman as his friends. He never dreamt that wasn’t going to happen.
As so often occurs, you are blindest with those who you love the most. Both held a private view of him as an idealistic, preachy fool. It took him a long time to admit it to himself, which meant he played the fool in their eyes for far too long for there to be any chance of a relationship now.
It made him be cautious of not presuming he knew what Anton really thought of him. And he knew that even if right now Anton found what he had to impart interesting, even helpful, there would come a time when Anton would have to break with him in order to live his life.
Frank did not intend to try and hold onto what couldn’t be. He deliberately adopted the traditional Eastern teacher-student model: It was the student who sought out the teacher. The teacher did not force himself on anyone. If Anton was interested about something he’d ask. If he wasn’t, Frank sure as hell wasn’t going to volunteer his views. That was the mistake he made with his kids.
“Who the hell was that playin on your radio when ya pulled in, Big Rod?” Tom asked after the morning ‘dick talk’ had waned for a moment.
“’Three Dog Night.’ They’re my favorite.”
“Who you kiddin, Big Rod. I hear you in your car with Brittany Spears cranked!” The room guffawed and coughed.
“I like her too. So what!?
“I thought you were hot for that Country Western Singer, Big Rod.”
The tone of the hoots of laughter told Frank he was about to hear another story at Rod’s expense.
“Get any more letters from her, Big Rod?” Hoppin’ John sneered.
“Noooo, I didn’t. Thank you very much.”
“He went to a concert at the Civic Center and this singer had a bunch of people come up from the audience to do a line dance ta one of her songs.” Tom told Frank, red-faced with suppressed giggles. “So Big Rod here goes up, and he signs up for her fan club, see, an she sends him a form letter thanking him for bein in the show....”
“It wasn’t a ‘form ‘letter! She signed it! You don’t sign ‘form’ letters!” Rod spat. He seemed to be getting more worked up than usual again, this one must hit something.
“He bought this photo they took at the concert...” Anton chimed in, laughing hysterically at the memory of it. “He brings it in here...And there’s Rodney, up on stage, and she’s lifting his hand up, and he’s leering like a toothless ape, sweatstains under his pits to his waist....”
“He was sure for the longest time him and her were gonna run away together...Just as soon as she dumped her husband...” Hoppin’ John taunted.
“I never said so! An she never liked him anyway! Also; he didn’t like her havin me up on stage like that! He was jealous of me! An she gave me tickets ta backstage for her next concert!”
“We tried ta tell him they did that to everyone that went up on stage, it was just a gimmick! But he wouldn’t believe us!” Tom sputtered out between gagging coughs. “An when Anton called her a ‘Water-Retentive-Sea Cow’...I thought he was gonna explode!”
“It was just like that time he met that ‘woman’ on that website, probably was a fag anyway, Rod...”
“She was not!”
“’She’ said she had two houses and a big boat down in North Carolina, an ‘she’ wanted him to run away with her! He was all set ta leave Della an go! Except ‘she’ disappeared, didn’t ‘she’, Big Rod?”
“Nice, nice guys. I think it’s about time for a ‘Whammy’ on you, little Tom!”
“Hey, hey, hey, just kiddin Big Rod. Don’t start with the ‘Whammy’ shit. Hey, those tomatoes you gave me were pretty good! Ya gonna have any more?”
“Probably. She’s always leavin them too long, an they start to get spots. I set em aside cause I don’t think ya should sell rotten tomatoes, so I set em aside. She gets pissed cause I don’t make as much for her at that stand as the others do at her other stands, but what da frig? It’s not me tryin ta sell rotten tomatoes, and can I help it if it rains and nobody comes? She sez, ‘How come it didn’t rain at the other stands, an they made three times what you made?’ I said ‘I’m not takin any money!’ She’s just a bitch! An this year she sez she can’t pay me under the table, so I got ta claim it! I’d tell her to pee on my face, but Della sez we need the money for Kerosene, so I gotta stay there.”
“What is this ‘Whammy’?” Frank asked Rod later.
“I got special powers to put curses on anybody. I call them my “Whammies”. He made circular motions with his right hand in front of him. “I do this. And then I say what’s gonna happen ta somebody. I first whammied a dog that jumped up on me when I was in a suit. I told him he was going to get killed by a car, and he did: That day. Also; I told someone at Syco that pissed me off she was going to get cancer and die and she did. I can make people sick.”
Also; I have tele-pathetic confusication with my cat ‘Blackie’. He was a stray cat an I was feedin him every day. I told him ‘Be here at ten am tomorrow and I’ll take you inside as a pet.’ At ten am the next morning; there he was, comin out of the woods. So I caught him and took him inside.”
“You had to catch him?”
“Yeah. And he’s fast too.”
“Ever let him out?”
“Nope. He’s a housecat. If I let him out he’d run away.”
Ken Leanord came in on Friday, obviously making a special trip, to insist they get together and talk about old times. Frank was reluctant. Finally, he acquiesced; not wanting to resist so long Ken saw he didn’t really want to do this. He found a way to get him to agree to come to their house without having to bluntly state he couldn’t come to Ken’s for lack of transportation.
The afternoon he was to come over, Melissa suggested Frank make a fire in the outdoor fireplace, that maybe he would like that, being an outdoorsman. It wasn’t long after he got it going that he heard Ken’s Explorer pull in. He met him in the driveway and brought him around back. As they walked Frank remarked to himself that Ken had held up well over time.
“I figured we’d sit outside here under the trees. Too nice to be indoors. How are you doing, Ken.?’
“Good, good. I’m getting a little unsteady on my pins though...Hey, nice place you have here.” He said, glancing around at the landscaping.
Even though most of the blooming season had passed, the trees and Mel’s perennials plantings amid the stonework she built created a peaceful, park-like feel. They sat down in a couple of lawn chairs.
Before Frank could say anything, the older man reached into his pocket and fished out a piece of paper. Puzzled, he waited.
“I had to write these things I wanted to talk about down, so’s I wouldn’t forget them...Don’t want to forget them.” His hands shook badly as he tried to unfold the paper. “Goddamn it. I shake so goddamn much now. Sometimes I can’t even read my own writing...There we go.”
Frank recalled that over twenty-five years ago, before Ken had even retired, his hands were beginning to tremble when he was nervous. And he was often nervous back then.
“How’s Dotty?” He asked, then immediately winced. Supposing his wife was dead?
“Huh?” Ken looked up from his paper. “Oh, her. Ah, she’s fine.”
“You ever see Cindy anymore?”
“Cindy. The girl who used to work in the lab.”
“Cindy? Oh, not in awhile. Her and her husband divorced years and years ago.”
He could see Ken didn’t want to talk about people they had known at all; he was impatient. Frank sat back and waited. So, what did he want to talk about? Ken held the unfolded paper up to see it better. Glancing over, Frank could see there were numbered questions or statements in a spidery, shaky, scrawl.
“Do you remember when Earnest Everret was being transferred back here from Philadelphia? You remember how I got blamed for letting the news out? And I didn’t have anything to do with it!?”
“Uh, yeah, I think so. I remember that it bothered you. Why was it such a big deal that no one could know?”
“I don’t know! But Personnel said I did it.” The old man said peevishly. He suddenly seemed agitated, re-living what was, apparently, something deeply irritating to him.
“Did something happen to you because of that...’rumor’?”
“Well, no. But that’s not the point, see? I didn’t do it. I don’t know why they’d say I did.” He looked down at his sheet. “Remember when Pete Como came as Quality Chief and he said he was gonna change everything? And he went and changed the standards I had gotten okay’d? Without asking?”
“And remember when they dissolved the Quality Division and put us under Production?” He said it as if it was an outrage, an abomination.
“Uh, I was already working on the Paper Machines when they closed you guys down.”
“They took away all our power, and we had to report to them.”
“Would you guys like some coffee”, Melissa asked, walking down the steps. Frank couldn’t help noticing anew how graceful and youthful looking she was.
“Huh? What? No.”
She froze for an instant at Ken’s brusqueness, but said nothing, just turned and went in.
Frank tried to steer the conversation off and get him to talk about something else, but it was no use. The older man would perfunctorily answer, irritated, and go right back to his bitter list.
“This is going to have to come to an end, REAL soon.” Frank decided. “I see I made a mistake.”
He let Ken read off the rest of his items, but he made no further attempt to make conversation. The old man didn’t want any anyway; he just wanted to air his ancient grievances.
Each one of those things on his ‘list’ was a trite, self-aggrandizing trivial incident that he had blown up in his mind to being of historical, nay, Biblical, significance. As politely and as quickly as possible Frank sent him off.
Oddly enough, Ken seemed quite satisfied with the visit; after all, he had gotten to savor the taste of bitter old injuries once more. He shook hands with Frank, grinning broadly and earnestly expressed the wish that they do this again real soon.
“I can’t believe what I just heard.” Frank told Mel. “All the same old grudges over slights from thirty years ago. Hasn’t he thought of anything else? Learned anything new? Seen anything differently?”
“He’s the norm; frightening as it is to consider. Has he always had such a low opinion of women?”
“When I asked if he wanted any coffee, he talked to me as if I was a servant, an irritating servant.”
“He was... is... a misogynist, for sure. Women were only good for waiting on him. To him women are household appliances.”
“What a creep.”
“I’m afraid so.”
His old acquaintance’s fixation bothered Frank. He couldn’t understand how someone could stew for so long over something that couldn’t be changed. Mel put the question to the I Ching. He was skeptical, to say the least, that anything remotely apropos would come of that. Strangely enough, the answer she got did provide him with the key.
Ken had worked in that mill for his whole life, all but three months of it within one department; Quality Assurance. It was a cake job; he stayed clean, never had to physically exert, no production stress and he didn’t have to solve problems. He could stay ‘above the fray’ and just walk in and out of all the production units, observing with a bemused distance all the problems involved in production.
He cultivated the image of the local sage, the affable ‘good old boy’, the suave ‘woodsy’ gentleman, who constantly, unsuccessfully, flirted with the women on the units. He never did understand they found him repulsive.
A brooding resentment among many on the production side was the result. They longed to de-fang the Quality Assurance Department anyway. There was far too much time being lost fixing “cosmetic” quality problems insisted on by people like Ken, who had no appreciation of how hard it was to run a unit. That was the perspective and bias they brought with them to the table when the ‘New Management’ arrived in the early 80’s.
The Quality Department lost its independence and was placed under the Production Department. For his last couple of years Ken endured what he felt was the ultimate humiliation of reporting to those same people whom he had viewed with amused contempt.
He took an early retirement at fifty nine. By then he didn’t go out as the ‘Affable Sage’ he liked to think of himself as; but felt himself to be dismissed, ignored, and humiliated. And he’d been fruitlessly, bitterly stewing, nursing those injuries, over and over and over, for all these years.
He was another warning for Frank of what he did not want to age into. He thought about that meeting a lot over the next few days. It seemed to him that Ken’s fixation on “setting the record straight” was because of his desire for ‘justice’.
And he wasn’t alone in that; nobody likes to have an ‘undeserved’ bad image. Nietzsche labeled the need for justice as a camouflaged thirst for revenge. Frank thought it was more than that as well; it was justifications of our actions to posterity, correcting what we feel are distortions or lies. And that desire runs headlong into enormous obstacles.
There is the immense inertia of the past; changing the ‘established’ versions of events is like trying to hold back the ocean while bucketing it out. And there is also the sobering thought that most people would prefer to believe the distortions and lies.
The more he thought about it; it seemed to him that Ken had just become more ‘himself’. Frank had seen the same characteristics that he saw here in his backyard twenty some odd years earlier. They just weren’t so prominent; more of a background coloring.
Dr. Carl Jung had said that old men who haven’t grown and matured, become more like women in their emotional behavior in their old age; querulous and bitchy, and that old women who haven’t grown become more mannish in theirs; strident and arrogantly aggressive.
He didn’t know if that was true or not. What he had noticed is that the die seems to be cast early in our lives, and it guides and influences our behaviors right up until death.
Dr. Alfred Adler thought that each child developed a unique characteristic way of dealing with the environment in which it finds itself, a strategy in other words, and this “Lifestyle” as he called it, is the pattern for all the person’s relationships with people and the world for his or her entire life.
Dr. Sigmund Freud claimed that if a childhood-based neurosis is not ‘cured’ by the time the patient was forty, it never would be. And he never did have a successful ‘cure’ after he broke with Bleuler.
None of those two theories lent much hope for personal growth or change. At least Jung saw life as having an innate drive toward transformation and growth. But was he right? And was it change, or development?
“It’s like a Destiny. So why try to change, if it is unalterable? The Acorn will be an Oak, the Rose a Rose, the Weed a Weed, the Hero the Hero, and the Victim the Victim? Is that what it is?
If you were born to greatness, good for you; but if you were born to be at the bottom of the ‘pecking order’ tough shit?
I refuse to accept that. I will never concede that at least I cannot change....Or does that just say something about my specific make-up?
This is getting close to circular reasoning.
Just keep putting one foot in front of the other.”
When he got home the next time he had a flat, Melissa met him by the road.
“Will you please start riding my bike?” She insisted as they walked. “Why are you being so stubborn?”
“It’s your bike. I know how much you love it.” He told her as he wiped the sweat from his brow. “I just don’t want anything to happen to it.” That felt very lame even as he said it. The truth was he had no idea why he was being so persistent in riding that old bike.
“I haven’t ridden it in twenty years. It’s just hanging up there in the barn under plastic, doing nothing. Would you please use it? I don’t want to see you keep getting flats and then walking home after working so hard. Besides, it’s got a type of handbrake you can use sitting upright. You won’t have a headache after every time you ride it like you do with yours.”
“Well, she was right...Her bike does ride well, and these brakes on top of the bars are a hell of a lot easier on my neck.” He thought as he rode in the next morning. He had gotten his timing down now so he arrived just in time to punch in.
Every day there he watched the boys run Rodney over the coals and contemplated his reaction. If Rod had really looked like he was being bullied, he would have stepped in. But it wasn’t as simple as that.
Half the time Rod gave as good as he got, or joined in with the others taunting Hoppin’ John. And almost all the time he was enjoying himself immensely, especially when he said something so offensive it made the others groan; he lived for that.
And he seemed to ask for insults and taunts by his irritating behavior; as if negative attention was better than no attention. No, it was only occasionally that he grew quieter and retreated into himself. It was a subtle shift; the others never seemed to notice. He hadn’t figured out the pattern yet.
What triggered that hurt? And he was sure Rod was being hurt when that happened. He wondered if he could help him.
Every day he was there now, someone else Frank knew from the markets or the Mill showed up. And they all had to introduce themselves to him; every one of them had aged and changed so much as to be unrecognizable. Only their voices and laughter were the same.
For their part, the ones from the Mill marveled at his “agelessness” and bemoaned their various ailments and the heartlessness of the Company: This one had lost two toes to “Sugar” and was not long for the world, that one lost an eye to a wire, another lost an arm to the calendar stacks, that one had a hip replaced, another a shoulder, another a knee. On and on it went.
The initial humiliation had worn off of Frank by now. He still didn’t enjoy it, but he no longer ground his teeth in anger.
“As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; they kill us for sport.” He thought as he watched Paula and Sharon leave.
He had known when he saw Sharon that soon Paula would want to see for herself. She was quieter than he expected, her usual vivacity was gone. And she too had aged rapidly in the six years or so since Frank had seen her last. There was something ‘not right’ with her, something neither of them said, but he sensed. She was ill.
“Hiya, Frank! What are you doin here? How’s Mel?” The burly man in shorts boomed out.
“Hey ya, Tomas. Good, she’s good.”
“Tell her I say hi, huh? What are you been up to, huh? Stayin out of trouble?”
“Too late for that.”
“Yeah, I hear ya. Hurts to much ta hit people now though, don’t it?”
“Yeah. Hell, it hurts to get outta bed now.”
Tomas roared with gusty good-humored laughter in agreement. “You’re Goddamn right! I look in the mirror now and say ‘Who the hell is that old f*cker?!”
“I know what you mean.” Frank laughed. “When I see myself, it’s like ‘That old bastard has got to be the Ugliest Man in the world!”
Tomas was a hothead back when they both worked at the mill and had been known as a tough customer. He and Frank got along well and treated each other with respect, but both of them secretly itched to see who would take the belt if they threw down on each other.
Those days were gone. He was much heavier now, a big barrel-bellied, but still fierce-looking, old man with pure white hair.
“You see what they did to my knee?” He indicated his right knee below his Bermuda shorts. It was swollen and covered with several nasty white scars.
“Jesus! They worked you over good!”
“Bet your ass. Motherf**kers.”
“So, what are you doing, Tomas? Still at the Mill?”
“Nah. I left long time ago. I worked for the International Brotherhood of Papermakers as a Rep....Did you hear I retired?”
“No.” Frank thought the way he put it had a strange feel behind it.
“Oh. Well...I took a psychological disability early retirement...” He grew animated. “You’d a loved it, Frank!... The shrink asks me if I still dreamt of ‘Nam, and I slam my hand down on da table!” He pounded the side of his truck to demonstrate, his face contorted like a lion as he roared. “’You NEVER stop dreaming! YOU NEVER STOP DREAMING about ‘Nam!” I yelled at him!” He leaned back, grinning. “I scared the sh*t outta the geek!”
“I’ll bet you did.”
“Hi, Buddy!” Rod had noticed Tomas and walked up without a qualm about interrupting. “Guess what? We’re gonna set a date to vote on the Union!”
“It’s about f**kin time.” Tomas told him. Frank nodded goodbye to Tomas and went to help another car.
“Some of the guys are worried, like what if the Union stroked...” Rod mewed.
“What?” Tomas pulled his chin back in puzzlement, frowning.
“You know, if the County won’t do what they said they would, so the Union would have to stroke...”
“The Union would go on strike.” Tomas corrected him.
“When did it stroke?”
“Ugh, never mind, Rod.”
“Also: I think we oughta get free winter coats from the County...”
“Go for it.”
“Hey, Rod! Where the f**k are them ‘Playboys’ ya said ya were savin for me?” Farina called out. He had pulled in early for lunch because it was Friday. Ray always left at 11:30 on Fridays, so the boys could kick back and relax.
“Behind the stereo!”
“Gotta go, Rod. See ya next week.” Tomas saw his chance.
“Okay...That’s fine.” Rod whined, then saw another ‘regular’ pull up, and launched into his next repartee. “You c**ksucker! Whattya doin in here this early!?”
“Mind your own f**king business.” The large, broad fellow with the salt and pepper spade beard muttered good-naturedly. “Ain’t they fired your sorry ass yet?”
“IIIII don’t think so. They know I’m the only reason people come here. The people love me, Jack!”
“That’s cause they don’t know you. If they did, they’d sign petitions to get you fired, and tossed in jail!” Jack told him with a grin.
Frank watched his eyes. There was pain there and unhappiness behind the jovial exterior; a sorrowful man putting on a brave face for some reason.
“Ooooooh, nice! ‘Buddy’. Ya stabbin me! I can feel that old knife right in my back!”
Tom came back from the warehouse, walking along the bridge. He got near the doors and held up his cellphone toward Rod.
“You gettin this okay, Ray?” he said loudly, pretending to be talking to Dodgers. “See that?...You at it again, Rod? Letting everybody else do all the work while you gab away? I gotcha on video again, Big Rod. No Union yet, ya know, still time for Duck Dodgers ta can your ass!”
“Better listen to him.” Jack smiled, getting into his truck. “Nice knowing ya.”
“Look at this!” Rod held up two large empty bottles of Bacardi’s Rum as soon as he had left. “Every week he drinks two big bottles. Oohhhooooo. That’s a lotta booze!”
“How do you know it’s just him drinking that? Maybe he has help.” Frank asked.
“Uh-uh. He’s alone with his two kids. His wife left him last year.”
“Hunh. ‘Wer Man Sorgen hat, auch hat Likuer’.” “You don’t drink, Rod?”
“Nope. I don’t like it. Sometimes I have a ‘Cooler’s Lite’ at Christmas. Mary gives me a bottle of something every year for Christmas, an it lasts me the whole year.”
“You’ve seen her. She’s the one that brings me in three sodas and a box of donuts every week. I save things for her.”
“Right.” He did remember her now.
She was maybe fifty, hard-looking and worn-out, her graying dark hair always piled up, wearing shapeless jeans and a sweatshirt over a now shapeless body. Yet she was no doubt a beautiful young woman once; you could see the lines.
But now her hard eyes scoured you suspiciously, as if to say ‘What are you up to? What do you want?’
“So...Does Della drink?”
“Yeah. She drinks some kind of pink wine. I don’t like it. I don’t like any of it.”
“Then how come you take the bottle from Mary?”
“Cause it’s free.” He looked at Frank as if that were the most insane question he’d ever heard. After a minute he said: “My parents were drunks. My father was worser than her. He was a fireman. But he was always drunk.”
“A fireman? Where? In Milan?”
“No. I grew up in North Genoa.”
“Did you like it?”
“No. I had trouble.”
“What do you mean?”
“I ran to the lockers and for the bus as soon as the bell rang. Bullies always used to beat me up. I got back at them all once on the bus. I caught a whole jar full of bumblebees and brought them onto the bus. I shook it up and then I opened it.” He broke into a mirthless laugh. “That showed em.”
“My grandfather was the bus driver. I had ta sit up front all that year after that. Our house had a long shed attached to it. At the end of it was our toilet. You sat on the edge of a board and shit into a pit. Just outside that was our well. My mother one day, she just kicked my father out. Then she kicked me out. I got home an found all my clothes on the front lawn!”
“That’s tough. How old were you?”
“I don’t know... thirty-three.”
“Oh, for Christ’s sake. I thought you were a kid or something. When did you move to Milan?”
“When Della and me got married. We got a trailer now, a long one, in the trailer park right in Milan. I got a brother too. But I don’t talk to him. I ain’t talked ta my mother or father or brother in five years.”
“I don’t talk to my family anymore either.”
“Got any kids?”
“I got a son an a daughter. He’s thirty an she’s twenty-eight. He’s a prison guard. He’s got a son with his wife. She’s got two kids from another guy who’s a psycho. Was in the army in Iraq and is all f**cked up. He just got outta prison. His two kids don’t listen to my son an she lets them do whatever they want. They hit Nathan an she don’t do nothing... ”
“Wait a minute. Who’s ‘Nathan’?”
“That’s my grandson. He’s four. When my son makes them stop hitting Nathan, they say they’re gonna tell their father, an he sez ‘Gaw head. I got more guns than he has.’”
“Your son has a lot of guns? What kinds?”
“All kinds. He keeps them in a big thing with glass and a lock. They pick on Nathan an she doesn’t do anything. That ain’t right.”
“What do you mean; ‘they pick on him’?”
“They’re always pushing him down, or taking the things we give him.”
“You know, we buy him toys and stuff cause he’s our grandson, an they’re just jealous cause we don’t buy them stuff.”
“You buy things for one of your son’s kids, but not the other two?”
“Why not? They’re not our grandsons.”
“But wouldn’t it stop the problem if you also bought something for the other two? They must feel left out.”
“I’m not spendin money on them two!”
“Never mind...How about your daughter?”
“Sara. She lives in Rochester. She does something with a drug company. I don’t know where she gets all the money. She travels all over.”
“For the job?”
“No. Her an her husband just go everywhere. She borrows the money I guess. She thinks we’re makin Nathan fat just cause she saw a picture of him we put on ‘Facebook’. It was just the clothes he had on, they were too small.”
“Is he overweight?”
“The doctor sez so, but we don’t think so. He’s just big for bein so little. She thinks everybody’s too fat, cause she’s thin, but she thinks her boobs are too big so she’s gonna have some a them cut off. She told Della it was our fault Nathan was fat because my wife is fat. When she told her that, Della almost killed me she was so mad. She made me call her and tell her she wasn’t welcomed anymore if she was gonna talk like that. So I called her an told her I don’t like her talking that way to her mother, she should know she’s sensitive about anyone talking about fat.”
“Here’s one of yours, Big Rod.” Tom said none-to-softly. He motioned with his chin outside, and the others’ heads swiveled to see where he was looking.
An incredibly obese middle-aged farmwoman was struggling to carry her plastic bin of empty plastic containers to the tray. She was sweating freely from under her short dyed-blonde hair, her enormous torso threatening to escape in every direction from the confines of the too-tight short-sleeved pullover. Her upper arms were like Christmas Hams and her knees and ankles perhaps existed somewhere under the bulging folds of suet-white flesh.
“There ya go, Rod! Just your type!”
Hoppin’ John, Little Tom, and Farina burst out laughing. Anton just stared impassively, bored.
Another car arrived and Frank went out to handle it, as he did he watched, puzzled, as Rod pretended to go into a trance and raised his arms out in front of him, his eyes blank and his toothless mouth open. Once he was out the door, he turned left and headed straight for the unsuspecting woman.
She had bent over to sort her recyclables. Her butt was toward him, the shorts pulling dangerously tight over her gargantuan buttocks and up between her legs.
To Frank’s horror, Rod began pumping his pelvis awkwardly as he lurched toward her, his open-mouthed head jerking up and down in time with his hips, arms outstretched, hands grasping.
Frank couldn’t believe what he was seeing. He was afraid to call out to him to stop it, for fear the woman would hear, turn, and see him. The drivers were whooping with laughter.
At the last moment, just as Frank couldn’t stand it anymore and was about to yell regardless of what happened, Rod stopped on a dime a yard away from her just as she straightened up, turned and looked at him.
“Would you like some help with that?...Here. I’ll do that for you.”
“Why...Sure. Thank you. That’s very nice of you to offer.”
“Oh, it’s nothing. That’s why I’m here.”
Not long after they were buried in a surge of cars. All three lanes were full, and backed up past the trays. Anton and Frank had their hands full. Frank looked up past the cars to where Rod was engaged in one of his fully-focused conversations, standing like a slumping candle, talking earnestly to an elderly man leaning on a cane next to his SUV.
It had to have been at least ten minutes later that Frank happened to look up again, and Rod was still in the same position, talking to the same old man.
“You know who that was?” Rod asked him later on after the man had gone, and so had the traffic.
“That was Mitch Barrator!”
“Mitch Barrator! Don’t you know who he is?”
“Obviously I don’t. But you’re about to tell me, aren’t you? Proceed.”
“He’s the head of DPW. He’s Duck Dodgers’ boss!...And he likes me, he’s my buddy. I talk to him all the time, an let him know how bad everything’s running, and give him my suggestions on how to improve. Ray hates it that he’s my buddy. I call him up all the time when I need sumthin. He’s real friendly. I put in a good word for ya, buddy. I told him what a good worker you are, and that you never get tired.”
“Well, thank you.” Privately he wondered what this Barrator guy thought of Rod standing there talking and not working for almost a half an hour with him while the place was packed.
“See this guy?” Anton asked. He indicated a very old man, with a slack mouth, wispy hair, and a somewhat vacant stare. “He’s a World War Two vet. He was there on D-Day. He was a parachutist.”
“No shit? I’ll bet he’s got stories to tell.” Frank went over to assist a woman with her garbage and then stopped to get the old man’s.
“Oh, thank you, young man.” the elderly gentleman said, a little startled to see Frank suddenly appear and haul out his bags with either hand.
“Young man, huh? No, thank you.”
“You know, I’m 93 years old.”
“No kidding. Well, that’s amazing. You look great.”
“Yessir. I was In Normandy on D-Day. I was a paratrooper. Landed in a tree. Chute got tangled up in some branches.” A drop of clear mucous clung to the end of his nose.
A middle-aged woman stepped nearby as she sorted her recyclables.
“Oh, excuse me. I didn’t see you. I’m 93 years old.”
“Well.” The lady replied, a little ill-at-ease as she looked briefly into his running, rheumy eyes and then away. “That’s wonderful...that you’re so...active at your age.”
“I was in Normandy on D-Day. I was a paratrooper. Landed in a tree. Chute got tangled up in some branches.”
“Uh-oh.” Frank thought. “Another one whose needle is stuck in the groove. I wonder if he says anything else?”
After a while the old fellow had apparently told enough people how old he was, and as his recycling was done, he decided to leave. He got into his still-running car and turned the key, squealing the starter horribly.
Everyone winced. Without looking up, he concentrated all his efforts on moving the gear lever to ‘drive’, and put it in reverse instead. The car lurched backwards a yard or so before he stopped it. A few more moments of intense concentration, and he got it in ‘Neutral’ and stepped on the gas. The engine roared impotently. Unfazed he tried again, and this time got it right.
The car lurched forward drunkenly, swaying side to side as he aimed at the exit road. As he passed him, Frank stepped aside, then reached forward and slammed the open trunk down shut.
“Man, I hate it when these old farts don’t have the sense to take themselves off the road.” a hard-looking blue-collar type muttered, watching him go. “One of them geezers side-swiped me last month. Fifteen grand worth of body work....Sonofabitch.”
There were moments during the course of a day that sometimes made Frank stop what he was doing for a moment with a heartfelt sense of poignancy. Once it was when he was throwing piles of trash on the pad into the hopper.
He saw a framed wedding photo, the glass broken, lying amid the wet trash and broken toys. It showed a beaming, slightly chubby young bride, her copper colored hair piled high, all in white lace, holding a bouquet of spring flowers.
“What happened to make that picture either so meaningless or so painful? Behind this photograph are the sorrows, and maybe joys, of a couple who started out with such hopes. At least she did by the look in her eyes. Don’t know about him.
Looks like it was taken in the early eighties or late seventies. Maybe they had kids. How do they feel about how their parents behaved toward each other, or them?
It just seems so wrong to have such a hopeful face wind up on the floor of the dumps and tossed away without any witness.
…Hunh. My Ex tossed her wedding pictures as soon as we seperated.”
Another time it was while he was emptying a box of books someone dropped off into the Gaylord. He picked up a loose-leaf scrapbook that was lying in there. Curious, he flipped through the pages. It was the work of a young boy, maybe ten. On each manila page was glued a bird feather, and in a child’s awkward hand the name of the bird laboriously written and the date. It was from 1960.
“Wasn’t there anyone to whom this meant something? If the man who made this as a boy was dead now, was there not at least one of his children that would have wanted to keep this as something precious?
The past is gone; all we have left are mementos, small fragments of traces of existence.
Once they are gone, all of the past is too, as if it never existed, as if this person never existed.”
The tossed away photo albums he saw also pained him. The only evidence of all these lives, once so full of experiences, were so meaningless now that they were discarded by what should be loved ones like a used tissue.
He wondered how much of his feelings toward these mute mementos of other people’s lives was due to his own sense that when he and Melissa were gone, he too would be dismissed, forgotten contemptuously.
His own memorabilia, like his gymnastics medals, his Art awards, notebooks and journals, all would wind up in a place just like this; rudely tossed in by uncaring hands.
A battered blue pick-up pulled up and he instinctively walked over to meet it. He glanced down at the bumper sticker for a long moment, then smiled. It read:
“The system ain’t broke. It’s fixed.”
“How ya doing?” he greeted the driver, a barrel-chested man of maybe forty with a mat of tousled hair atop a jolly fat man’s face. An old Black Sabbath T shirt stretched across his big belly.
“Can’t complain.” He breezily replied. “At least I’m on the right side of the dirt, and I’m workin. Just got off one job milking cows and I’ll go home, catch a few hours sleep, and then it’s off to the pallet company. Two part-time jobs equals one full job.”
A delighted laugh burst from Frank.
“Hey, I like that. ‘On the right side of the dirt.’” He smiled as he took one of the trash barrels and the man took the other.
“Watch out for that one. It’s heavier than a dead minister.” That brought another chuckle from Frank. “Well, that’s what it’s all about, right? Bein on the right side of the dirt? Oh, hey! Anybody want that pot?”
“Take it if you want it.”
“I heat with wood and the house gets really dry. This’ll be perfect to leave filled with water on the woodstove to add a little humidity. Thanks!”
“No, thank you.”
Rod appeared when a cargo truck pulled up. A short, wiry-looking leprechaun swung down from the seat, went to the back and threw up the roll-up door.
There were eight big bags of garbage lined up at the tailgate, leaking liquid that made a slimy mess of the plywood floor. Maggots crawled over the wet surfaces. The rest of the van was filled with stacked plastic racks of baked goods; several different kinds of breads and rolls.
Frank winced at the scent. He grabbed two of the bags and headed for the hopper with them.
“Here ya go, Buddy!” Rod chirped, handing the driver two empty racks like the ones on the truck.
“Great. Thanks Rod. Ya want some Italian bread and Rye bread?”
“Sure. Thannnk yoooouuu.”
Rod took the two full trays of bread and maneuvered them through the doorway. He set them down on the dust covered tray near the hopper.
“I’ll get his tickets.” He told Frank a little too casually.
After the baker drove off to deliver his goods to unsuspecting stores and the public, Rod explained that he comes in twice a month and always brings in stuff, so “We give him a break on his stickers.” He loaded his arms with loaves and started for his car.
“You want any?” He asked Frank over his shoulder.
“Definitely. What are you going to do with all that bread? Freeze it?”
“Don’t have a freezer. No room in the trailer. I bring this to a lady who gives me eggs for them.”
Rod took the next Saturday off, so Frank had the honor of working with Jon Barrator, the grandson of the head of DPW, Mitch Barrator. The twenty-year-old was of average height and weight, but exuded softness, slackness. His brown hair was cropped right to the skin; his large lipped mouth sagged lethargically. Basically, he looked and acted as if on Quaaludes.
Jon was of the “Millenialist” generation, as the mass-media have dubbed them. The ones from the more ‘stable’ households wore their hair shaved close like Jon, those from the more dysfunctional families wore their hair like the hippies of the 60’s and 70’s.
Frank was always amazed to see how popular his generation's rock anthems were worshiped by this generation. The odd thing though was that these kids’ political views were the antipode of his own generation’s when that music came out. These kids saw the 'U.N'., ‘Liberals’, women, ‘gays’, Blacks, Mexicans, Chinese, Russians, and anybody not them as the enemies. They believed in Zombies, the collapse of the West, and video games; not much else.
Anton immediately had him go downstairs and do the cans. He slowly forced himself to his feet and shuffled out of the office and down the stairs.
“Normally, I’d want three of us out there with the cars.” He told Frank after Jon had left. “But he wouldn’t do a thing out there. He’s a case of nepotism pure and simple. Absolutely worthless worker; lazy and knows he’s invulnerable. Shows up for work or doesn’t show up as he chooses, and never tells anyone. Makes me sick.”
They headed out to the trays. Down below there was the crash of aluminum cans.
“He’ll fart around with that all morning. He’s always stoned. You have to order him out of the office to help people, then he drags his feet like the Living Dead.”
Anton was right: He dragged that job out until lunch, and after lunch he just sat in a chair by the stereo. Unless Anton specifically told him to go help someone, he sat. During quiet periods, he told Frank a bit about himself.
“I’m just killing time here till I finish my on-line MBA degree, then I’m gonna get a job in international trade with City Bank. I heard some old farts are about to retire.” He bragged to Frank confidently.
“You like on-line courses? How are they?”
“F*ckin great.” He nodded, his eyes slowly closing and opening one at a time like a completely shit-faced hippie. “I always ace them and I never study for any of the tests because they’re all essays, and I’m great at them because I’m brilliant and talented.”
“And modest as well.” Frank added stone-faced.
It went right over his head. He just looked at him slightly puzzled.
As he never wore gloves the whole day, Frank noticed he was a nail chewer. He also smoked and ate with those filthy fingers.
The only time Frank saw him get excited was when he was talking about a porn site he’d found; he got as giddy as a schoolgirl. Frank was surprised to hear he him say he liked and visited the same ones as Rod, and that the two of them enjoyed comparing notes about who they chatted with on them.
Frank waited outside for the late model slate-blue pick-up truck to pull up alongside of him, and then reached into the back for the first of two barrels of garbage.
The male Boomer who got out on the driver’s side looked vaguely familiar; salt and pepper hair, black mustache, the remains of a semi-athletic build. The short woman with long blonde hair who clambered down from the passenger side was instantly recognizable however, and he groaned inwardly.
She had been his son, Travis’s art teacher when he had lived with him and Mel. So then that was her husband, the one all referred to as “Coach” at the school.
Travis had adopted, and fostered, the role of the female teachers’ pet, but being gay, had been studiously ignored by “Coach” even when he was obviously being harassed badly by the “straight boys”.
“Hi!” she chirped cheerily. “How are you?”
“You know very well. The gossip in that little ‘town’ is damn near the speed of light. Twenty to one you either never or rarely ever come here.” “Good. Yourself, Joan?” He studiously ignored “Coach”. “Maybe you can’t kick the sh*t out of everybody who you think is an asshole, but you don’t have to have anything to do with them either.”
“Oh, fine, fine. How’s your son, Travis? He was such a good boy!”
“No, no he wasn’t. Not really.”
That set her back, but she recovered quickly. Saying the unexpected truth to people who would never dream of being that honest is often fun, especially when the other party is pretending a familiarity that doesn’t exist.
She had asked Mel and Frank into her class a couple of times to show her bored students that it was possible to make a living as an artist.
Like so many art teachers, she was plainly plagued by a feeling of inadequacy; seeing herself as an artist, who, in her own eyes, had ‘sold out’ and opted for the steady paycheck instead of pursuing her ‘art’.
“Oh, thank you.” she said as he took from her the box of newspapers she was trying to lift. “You know….”
“Here it comes.”
“I guess I made the right decision to go into teaching after all. At least I have a retirement.”
“Who knows what is bad luck, who knows what is good luck.”
“You have a nice day.”
“Oooooh. Looks like we’re gonna get Toad. I heard from Beatrice that it’s done already.” Rod moaned as he broke what he obviously took to be abysmal news to Frank a little later.
“So, who’s Toad?”
“Toad Madison. We call him the Toad cause he’s Dan’s snitch. His real name is Mat. He’s from Milan too, but he usually works in Genoa. You won’t like him.”
“Cause he’s not a worker. He’s lazy. He drinks a thirty pack of Keystone Light every night. Ooooohh. I wish Anton wasn’t going. Now Ray’ll be here all the time.”
“Cause the tree doesn’t fall far from the apple. Toad is his little buddy. He sucked up to Ray to get this job.”
“You mean replacing Anton?”
“Yeah. Tom’s really mad cause he was next in seniority, an Toad’s scared of him. He should have gotten the job, not Toad.”