Tales From Mephitis, Chapter 14: Toad Stool.
Anton’s last day was one of the days Frank was off. During his last weekend at work, he had made no mention of leaving and seemed withdrawn. Frank was scheduled to work the next Tuesday, Toad’s first day as foreman. Tom Cassius was there as well. The office was rife with gossip and grousing. Hoppin’ John sat in the foreman’s chair as usual, slurping coffee, the others lounged around the room. When a strange car pulled in, the room fell silent. Frank was aware the others were all waiting like wolves.
“It’s always tough being the new boss” he thought. He watched stone-faced but curious as Toad got out of his beat-up sedan. He was forty, of average height, skinny through the arms and chest. He had a weasel-like look about him, his round head perched atop a long thin neck with a protruding Adam’s apple. He shuffled on his toes peculiarly, with mincing steps that were a little over-balanced, like he was always on the verge of toppling forward. He wore a work uniform with matching ballcap and short jacket.
“What are you doin here?” Tom accosted him as soon as he came into the office and sat down to lace up his boots; he was looking for a fight.
“This should be interesting.” He knew that how Toad handled this would lay the groundwork for how he’d be treated as long as he was here.
“Workin.” Toad replied, trying to sound casual, but the nervousness was there and apparent.
“No good.” Frank thought. “They’re going to pick up on that. Back him down: Now.”
“Workin? As what? A laborer?” Tom sneered, obviously angry. He intended to make Toad say it.
“Foreman, I guess. Heh heh heh heh.” Toad said, reddening a bit, trying to defuse the tension with a self-deprecating laugh. Frank would quickly learn it was a characteristic.
“Foreman… For now.”
“For how long?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know.”
“I guess till Anton gets back. Hey, I just go where I’m told.”
“You didn’t have anything to do with it, huh?”
“No, lissen, I just do what I’m told.”
“Toad won’t come out here. He’ll stay in the office the whole day.” Rod confided in Frank later that morning out by the trays.
“Cause he’s a scared a bees.” He indicated the barrels for plastic and glass beverage bottles. They were swarming with yellow jackets. “But I’ll have to eat my lunch in my car.”
“Cause Ray’ll be here now, and they’ll sit in there for hours talking. None of the drivers will eat here now either.”
He was absolutely right. Toad made no appearance that day, and Ray indeed came for lunch and stayed for a full two hours. In the afternoon Toad seemed to spend a couple of hours baling downstairs. “Seemed to”; because the roar of the skidsteer was very intermittent and Rod explained that Toad was spending a lot of time texting girls. Though he had a forty-five-year-old girlfriend named Angie, he was also trying to make George Farmer’s daughter, a twenty-four-year-old with a “killer butt”.
Toad apparently had a reputation with Rod for being a Don Juan. He told Frank that Toad even let women dump their garbage for “BJ’s” instead of stickers at Genoa. Frank’s ‘Crap Detectors” instantly went off. He had heard enough lurid stories about so-called sexual adventurers to know that they were just bullshit, plain and simple, made up to impress the ‘guys’. Like Byron’s cell phone photos of his “Ex-girlfriends”.
“Who told you that?”
“How do you know its true then?”
“Cause it is, that’s all. Everyone knows it.”
Frank decided to introduce himself, because Toad showed no sign of wanting to do it himself. His first impression was confirmed that he was actually quite timid and trying hard not let it be known; clearly someone who was going to have a hard time here.
Over the next few days as they worked together, he loosened up and began to talk about himself. He’d only taken this supervisor job he said because it brought him four dollars more an hour, and he needed the money bad. He said he hadn’t made any mortgage payments in six months. So far, he’d heard nothing from the bank, but he didn’t know how long he’d get away with it. He only paid his property and school taxes every other year, preferring to pay the penalty than come up with the money yearly. This was the year he had to pay up and he didn’t have it.
He was a huge tall tale teller about himself. As Frank was a listener who let the speaker have free rein, Toad soon felt encouraged to pump himself up. Rod listened in more often than not, but the difference between he and Frank was that Rod believed at face value what he was told. Frank didn’t. It wasn’t too long ago he had been like Rod, but the events of the last years had changed him radically. He ‘stood back’ while he listened now, and judged what he was hearing.
Toad told them every morning about his gambling exploits of the night before. There were houses in Milan that ran clandestine poker games for big stakes. He claimed to be a whiz at cards; nobody could beat him when his luck was running. But when it wasn’t running, like now, he lost big. Frank listened with a jaundiced ear to the descriptions he gave of the games and how much liquor was drunk and pot smoked there. It didn’t seem to him that any serious gambler would get stoned or drunk if he was playing for big stakes. Toad assured him they did.
He painted himself as a great womanizer, Rod was right about that. Frank had already been able to observe him in action with the girl with the “killer butt”, and though he didn’t believe a quarter of what he told him, Toad was able to put across a boyish charm. He claimed to be juggling three girls at once, not including his girlfriend. One night he said he was even awakened at three a.m. by a woman desperately imploring to let her in because she wanted him so bad.
The “BJ” story went like this. Some woman supposedly came in to the Genoa station with no stickers, but needed to dump her garbage. She offered Toad a bl*wjob instead of stickers. So, Toad told his boss, Dougie, to lock the gates and not let anyone in. He and the woman, who wasn’t bad looking at all, mind you, went around the corner and she performed. When she was done she said she and her husband liked to watch the other having sex, would Toad like to get bl*wn again with her husband watching? He said he drew the line there. In the same breath he claimed to be serious about his girlfriend Angie, though he said that she was too old to be squeezing into those skin-tight jeans.
“I don’t know how the hell she gets into them. And she’s skinny.”
“Well, does she look good in them?”
“No. She’s too old. Even her daughter told her so and told her she was embarrassing her. I agreed with her.”
“What did Angie do?”
Keystone Light was his beer, nothing else, and he began drinking on the drive home after work and didn’t stop till he was blotto in the wee hours. But he claimed he put away only two beers on the road.
Frank found that a majority of the workers did the same thing. Little Tom, for instance, always stopped off at the convenience store down the road for a Coors Lite “Tall Boy” for the ride home. The clerks were well aware of why these men were buying single beers: They even provided a brown paper bag just big enough for the can. The convenience store franchises made most of their money from beer sales, as well as from take-out lunches and dinners for busy blue-collar workers and working moms. The food was cheap in quality but it was also cheap in price; and they didn’t have to cook or do any dishes. If they ate in the car, they simply threw the garbage out the window while driving
And Rod was right; Toad did maintain that he put away a thirty pack a night, which Frank was stone-facedly skeptical of as well. He would have to been up all-night pissing. Frank mentioned that must cost him a fortune.
“Heh, heh, heh.” Toad responded with his customary wheeze. “Nope, I gets most of it for free.”
“What do you mean?”
“He trades beer for stickers!” Rod interrupted accusingly. Toad looked at him severely. He was not scared of Rod at all, and like many timid men, once he found someone he wasn’t scared of, he used them to bolster himself.
“F**k you, Rod. That’s illegal. These are tips from grateful publical customers.”
“It’s because I work, something you don’t know nuthin about, that’s why they bring me and Dougie cases. I learned about work from my old man. I’m not lazy like you.”
“Yeah, right. You’re lazier than anyone else here. The only reason you got this job is cause ya bl*w Ray!”
“Ya know, Rodney;” Toad looked exasperated. “Ray told me he wants me to do what Anton couldn’t and straighten your ass out, one way or the other. You’re gonna be baling from now on, no more of this spending all day talking to your women.”
“I don’t think so! The Big Rod does what The Big Rod wants!”
“You been here eight years and ya still can’t run the garbage baler without f**king it up! Frank’s been here only a couple a months and he can run any of the equipment without a problem, but you f**k up anything you touch!”
He was also a self-proclaimed champion arm wrestler despite having as skinny an arm as Frank had seen, as well as a superlative hunter of geese, ducks and deer. He claimed he grew up eating rattlesnakes because his father raised them for the bounty. He had them in cages all over the property. Frank had heard years ago about locals that used to do that when they had bounties on the Timber Rattlers, so that wasn’t a stretch for him to believe. But when he thought about it, he remembered that if Toad was indeed forty, and he told Frank that himself; it meant he was born in 1971. That was the year the bounty on Timber Rattlers was dropped and the snakes became a protected species. Toad had made that all up.
More often than not he came in with a hangover and spent the morning in the office lying on the couch. He had constant stomachaches and heartburn too, and claimed to have had his throat “stretched” three times already for that. When Frank asked him why then did he persist in eating Jalapenos on everything he ate, Toad replied that it wasn’t the peppers, it was the two 2-liter bottles of Mountain Dew he drank daily that gave it to him. He was a classic example of those men that ate very spicy foods to prove their virility.
Frank knew a couple who made their living selling homemade spice mixtures. They made up sample batches of their dip mixes for customers to try at craft fairs. At every show there was always at least one fellow that would scoop up their hot pepper mix on a cracker and after eating it pronounce “That ain’t hot!” That would be Bunny’s cue to look at her husband and hold up her hand with her thumb and forefinger about an inch apart. It was their sign for “Another one with a little d*ck.”
Labor Day weekend was the next weekend and Ray told Toad to make sure he had someone put out the sign telling the public about the change in schedule for the holiday weekend. He asked Frank to do it. When he came back after setting up the sign, Toad told him he’d tried to convince Ray to forget about it, but to no avail.
“You wait. It won’t matter that the sign is out or not. Nobody’s gonna see it.” He told Frank.
“That sign is four feet tall and four feet wide.”
“It don’t matter. They’ll still show up here on Saturday, and the gates’ll be locked, and they’ll be pissed off, and when we come in on Tuesday, there’ll be piles of bags left at the gate. You watch.”
“You’re kidding. We’ve been telling everybody all day about the holiday hours, until I’m tired of hearing myself. You saying they don’t listen then either?”
“Nope. Watch this...” Toad approached an old red pick-up truck as the occupant got out, beaming a smile at them. “Hi. How’s your day goin? You know we’re closed this Saturday for Labor Day?”
“Gosh! No!” the man responded in complete surprise.
“Happen to see the sign when you drove up?”
“No. No I didn’t. There’s a sign?”
Toad glanced at Frank as if to say “See?”, and turned on his heel and with his hands in his jacket pockets tottered forward for the office.
The fellow was a heavy-set, white-haired Boomer. In his youth he must have been the quintessential farm boy. His hair was close cropped on the sides and back, but longer on top, creating a shock of snow-white hair surmounting a child-like face of innocence and wide blue eyes. The beagle on the front seat and he were reflections of each other: Both had a happy-go-lucky, brain-less attitude.
“Really? You’re gonna be closed Saturday?” he asked, puzzled. He paused for a moment, gazing at the ground, his brow furrowed with the effort of understanding. He looked up to ask for clarification. “But Saturday isn’t Labor Day. Why are you closed for Labor day when it isn’t Labor Day?”
“Cause we’re closed on Monday.” Rod explained to him.
“You’re closed on Labor Day?”
“Well, then why are you closed on Saturday?”
“For Labor Day.”
“But it’s not Labor Day. Labor Day is Monday.”
“We’re closed Monday, so we’re gonna close Saturday cause we’re always closed on Monday.”
Rod’s ‘explanation’ was just making the poor fellow’s head spin. As he listened earnestly, trying to penetrate this mystery, the fellow’s Beagle was sure his master was being attacked by the goofy-looking creature facing him. He began running from side to side in the cab, barking furiously, promising awful retribution on Rodney if he dared lay a hand on his human. When Frank grabbed a barrel of trash from the back of the truck, the dog launched himself against the rear window to let him know he wasn’t going to be ignored either.
“County workers gets it as a holiday, but we don’t open on Mondays, so they gave us the nearest Saturday.”
“But why not Tuesday? That’s closer to Monday, and I’ll bet less people will be put out if you closed Tuesday rather than Monday.”
“Cause County workers likes to have a Saturday off now and then, like normal people gots.” Rod replied, an edge of aggrieved indignation detectable in his voice.
“Golly, sure, I bet...Okay...So, you’re gonna be closed this coming Saturday, right?”
“Okay. Well, thanks for tellin me...”
By now, Frank had taken care of all of the man’s garbage cans, and the fellow laid his hand on the door handle to get in. His face registered complete shock when the handle didn’t move. He jiggled it again with no affect.
“What?” Another jiggle to make sure of reality, then he peered lower through the window, as did Rod. That sent the dog into foaming paroxysms of rage, and he clawed frantically at the window to get at him. “Oh, gosh! It’s locked!...Now, how did I do that?”
“I don’t think you did.” Frank interrupted. “I think your buddy here did.”
“Oh, for goodness sakes. I’ll bet you’re right.”
“I’ll check the other door.” Rod offered helpfully, and headed for the passenger side. The Beagle launched himself in that direction.
“No! Rod! Wait! The dog...” Frank yelled.
They all saw the dog’s paw smack the button down, locking that door too.
“Got a spare set of keys on you?” Frank asked the forlorn customer, who was staring dumbly at the dog.
“Huh?...No, gosh darn it, I don’t. They’re at home.”
“Got anybody you can call?”
He thought rigorously for a few long moments.
“This happens alla time.” Rod noted. “Dog’s do that alla time.”
“So what do you do then?”
“Nuthin. They gotta call some one to get them before we close.”
The man’s innocent eyes were a study in hopeless confusion.
“I’ll be right back.” Frank told him.
“Where you goin?” Rod asked, puzzled.
“To get a piece of baling wire.” He went downstairs and using the bolt-cutters, snipped off a four foot length of the wire. As he went back upstairs, he bent one end into a short hook and the other into a loop for a handle.
“Here.” He told the fellow. “Slide this down between the window and the body and try to snag the latch mechanism. “If I do it, your dog’ll be all over the window and push the button down each time I get it up.”
“Ohhh, I getcha! Just like on T.V.!” Rod said delightedly, clapping his hands, which set the dog off again.
“Where’d ya learn that?” The man asked him, as he took the wire and began fishing. Rod came over to watch and offer advice. The dog pounced after him.
“Never mind...Rod: Why don’t you go back to the other side? You can see better from there, and guide him.”
“Gotcha covered, Buddy.”
It took a few tries, but the increasingly flustered old farm-boy finally succeeded in getting the button up long enough for him to jerk the door open before the Beagle punched it back down on him again.
“Geez, thanks, guys. I don’t know what I would have done without your help.”
“That’s what we’re here for.” Rod proudly told him.
“I’ll bet that dog doesn’t come to the dumps anymore.” Frank opined as the relieved man drove off lecturing his dog earnestly about messing with the locks.
The sound of a racing engine made them look toward the entrance. A little pickup was careening down the tarmac.
“Uh-oh. Better get out of her way. That’s Diana. She’s a bank teller. She drives crazy. She’s always in a hurry.”
“And she drinks like a fish.” Toad added, having rejoined them.
The truck screeched to a halt and a chubby young woman leaped out.
“I’m on lunch! I only gotta few minutes!” She informed them in a husky, exasperated voice. She wore a low-cut dress that her breasts and ample belly pressed hard against. She flew around the trays, flinging articles with abandon onto the trays. Rod and Frank helped her, and in less than three minutes she was done and leaping into the car again.
“Thanks guys!” she shouted. “You’re the best!” She slammed her foot to the floor, and the truck fish-tailed down the exit road, squealing around the turn.
Later, while pushing furniture into the garbage hopper while Toad ran the baler and Rod directed, Frank got frustrated because a couch kept hanging up on the big yellow safety pipe that stretched across the mouth of the hopper on the pad. No matter which way he tried, the couch was too tall to fit under it. Finally, enraged, he grabbed the couch by one end, swung it completely over his head and flung it in like a javelin over the pipe down into the hopper. When he looked across the hopper, still snarling and panting, he saw Rod’s eyes look like they were going to bug out of his head. He looked so ludicrous Frank broke out laughing.
Toad sent Rod out to Cumby’s to pick him up some menthol snuff, Mountain Dew and a sub for him. When Rod got back he couldn’t wait to tell Frank.
“Know what I did? Toad told me he wanted me to tell the guy he wanted extra hot peppers, so I told the guy to load it!”
“Did he eat it?”
“Yeah! You shoulda seen him! He was red and cryin an everything!”
“But he ate it?”
“Yup. The whole thing!”
On Fridays after Ray had left early, the ‘boys’ were all back to their old noon hour routine, with Toad joining them in their puerile genital banter. Frank strictly avoided those gatherings. Rod had broken another overhead door while working with the others baling magazines on Wednesday, then broke one of the joysticks on the skidsteer, and plugged up the baler again by pushing too much in at once. The others raked him over the coals for being such a dumb f**k, which he took with good cheer.
Later out by the trays Frank got an insight into the method behind Rod’s madness.
“When I used to work at Syco, before I got the job in the warehouse there, they used to make us all switch stations every week so’s everyone knew all the jobs. But I hated this one station, the one that extruded these tiny little tubes. The others I could do good cause they were bigger and I could see them easy, but those little ones I had ta bundle up thirteen to a bundle and I couldn’t see them.”
“How about glasses?”
“I don’t like to wear them. Hate em. I got a pair of bi-locals, but I won’t wear them. I can’t stand to wear a hat either. So, what I did was whenever they put me on that station, I’d f**k it all up and that would shut down the whole line. What a mess! After awhile they just skipped me on that station.” He crowed triumphantly with a big toothless grin on his stubbled face.
“Ahhhh. Got it. Just as I suspected. He’s pulling a ‘Syco’ here too. He only wants to stay out here by the trays milking his private dairy herd of customers. He doesn’t want to be away from this easy, lucrative niche. So what does he do? He f**ks up any other assignment he’s given. Haven’t they caught on to his strategy after all this time?” Frank mused looking at this strange bird. There was more that went on behind that simpleton exterior than he let on, and of a very cunning nature.
When the tray for magazines gets loaded up, it’s the equivalent of military pressing a hundred pounds or more in order to lift and dump it. The workers made it easier on themselves by using a broom to push the majority of the magazines and catalogs off down into the bunker instead of lifting it.
There were some “regulars” who came there for the express purpose of rummaging through that tray for coupons or magazines, and God help you if you dump that tray on them before they’ve gone through it.
Frank usually perused the pile himself, looking for ‘The Economist’, ‘The Journal Nature’, and ‘Consumer Reports’. And for the first time in years he had a good chance to assess the range of popular print media; both to assess content, as well as political leanings. Several points stood out. Right or left, there was a distinct tone of populism and an indignant awareness of a loss of a standard of living and way of life; with the blame focusing now squarely on the rich, the old ‘Establishment’ of the 60’s.
And stunningly, people were being drugged with an incredible array of pharmaceuticals with horrific side effects; this despite the proliferation of articles about the hazards of prescription meds and supplements. The patient was being asked to bargain with the devil; to accept the risk of worse ailments to alleviate the symptoms of others. Take a medicine for high blood pressure and risk impotence. Pop a pill for heartburn and risk a “greasy discharge”. Depressed? Take this and run the risk of suicide. Worried about breast cancer? Eat these pills to protect you from it and get ovarian cancer instead. Cholesterol a bit high? Pop some of these and risk “sudden death”. Stressed out? These pills will calm you down, and may give you a massive coronary. Arthritis bothering you? Take these pills and kill your liver.
He felt a certain weary cynicism skimming all the articles on premature puberty, the de-masculinization of young men due to exposure to estrogen in the water and chemicals in plastics, the unremitting numbers of cancers, and the epidemics of diabetes, obesity and Alzheimer’s; because they were nothing new. All this was known and reported on back in the 60’s, then the 70’s, and again in the 80’s, and the 90’s. Yet nothing was ever done about it, though the causes were known.
He estimated that better than sixty percent of the people he saw there had undergone joint surgery. And nobody, but nobody, seemed happy with their experience; either it was a botched operation, they got hospital acquired infections, or it just plain didn’t help.
One day he found the June issue of ‘The Journal Nature’ in which they covered the release of the sixty year long British study on children born in 1951; the famous ‘Cohort’ study.
“Great. Got some reading material for lunch.”
What he came away with after reading it didn’t surprise him: They found that the single over-arching factor that was the best indicator of adult success or lack of it was the socio-economic strata the child was born into. The higher the strata; the better the child did as an adult. The lower the economic class the child was born into; the worse he or she did. Their health was also directly correlated with their economic status: The higher, the better the health; the lower, the worse. Charles Dickens said as much over 200 years ago.
Frank watched as the blue mini-van drove up. He’d already begun recognizing regulars; and this was one of them. It pulled to a stop and Judy swung out. She was maybe forty, with unwashed dark brown hair, the Lycra neon blue tights hugging her childbearing-weary body. The side door opened and her progeny clambered out; each with a garbage can of recyclables to sort through. Frank didn’t look forward to helping her because she didn’t rinse out any containers.
He got the uneasy feeling, looking at her kids, that he was seeing the effects of inbreeding at first hand. There was something ‘off’ about all their eyes: Except for Judy’s dark wolfish ones, as she hungrily appraised Frank’s body again. The two boys were thin, stone-faced, and weird. They never said anything, just moved like zombies. Her eldest daughter was huge breasted and pregnant, with a face that denoted pain but no sign of intelligence. She too never said a word. Her youngest daughter was, to judge by her cute face and tiny body, maybe nine or ten. Except, that is, for her breasts. They were embarrassingly enormous: F cups on a skinny twig of a body not much more than four feet tall. This one seemed livelier, but her eyes were disconcertingly independent in their movements, and her mouth twisted strangely when she talked.
Frank remembered to the day when he first noticed that girls were suddenly maturing surreally early. When he was growing up, girls did not begin developing breasts of any dimension until at least ninth grade. But there he was, in the fall of 1987 at his son’s elementary school to chaperone an outing of third graders, stunned to see the little girls wearing bras to contain obviously mature breasts. It wasn’t fair to them. Their women’s bodies attracted the stares and attention of men that their child’s minds were unprepared for.
All that day in September Toad had hid out downstairs, or in the office talking on his cell. In the afternoon it got very busy suddenly and Rod and Frank found themselves out straight. Finally, it slacked off near quitting time.
“Don’t you ever get tired?” Rod asked him, leaning on a barrel, exhausted for once.
“It’s just me face.”
Rod stared at him blankly.
“Yeah, I get tired.”
While they were still catching their breath, Toad came upstairs and started bitching at Rodney that the C and D was overflowing.
“There’s two of you up here. Am I supposed to bale, take care of the paperwork and keep an eye on that too? If you’re not going to do your work, why do we need two of you?”
That was the first time since Frank had been hired that anyone even insinuated he was not working. It took all he could do not to blow up. He began striding back and forth furiously, hands on hips. Toad disappeared. Rod stared at him pacing like a lion.
“You okay?” He asked Frank cautiously.
“I ain’t gonna be dissed.” He growled, his brows knit and jaw set.
“He dissed ya, didn’t he?”
Frank didn’t answer; he just headed for the office, then into the breakroom looking for Toad. Finding him looking out the window, he confronted him.
“You got a problem with how I’m working?” He demanded bluntly, fists on hips, the sleeves of his T shirt strained by the girth of his arms.
“No, no, not you.” Toad stammered, reddening.
“You got a problem with me, you tell me now to my face.”
“No, no, it’s not you….It’s this place. It’s just getting to me.”
“We just had a rush of cars, we’re gonna wind up a 700 day, and almost all of it happened just now.”
“Oh. I didn’t know you were so busy.”
“Now you do. So; you have no problem?”
“Hell, no. You’re the best worker we got.”