I felt the fear and the sickness for the first time lying in bed one night. I was seventeen and it was mid- summer and it was sweltering hot – a humid-ex of 41. There wasn’t a breeze in sight. My parents were in the next room, discussing divorce and the division of property. I was suffocating in my own, listening to their muffled tones through the damp walls, wondering what will happen to me. Images run through my head …my life as a working adult…digging ditches in the rain…cleaning public toilets in some small town as I drink away the nights in utter solitude, wishing for the wife I never had, who sits nagging me from behind as I curse her and her painted face, drooping at the edges in front of a cracked mirror half my size…
I got lucky that week and I was hired on at Ford. I’d be loading skids bound for cities I knew I wanted to be in… anywhere but here. It was my first taste of shift work. I didn’t mind the night shift it was the mornings that nearly killed me. I was in always in a state of mental fog, no matter what the shift I was dogged from staying up all night.
It got to the point where sheet metal was ripping into my gloves and cutting my hands as the heavy parts such as fenders seemed to slip out of my grip. Or I would send a shipment to the wrong dock and my supervisor would then hunt me down like an animal and scold me in front of the other men. Or I was caught standing around too often while a super would whisk by on one of their fancy battery-run scooters. They were so quiet you couldn’t hear them until they were on top of you and then it was too late. All you heard was a whisper just before the super started yelling at you as you were caught red- handed with a stupid look on your face, blushing.
I worked on a team with a couple of regular guys who were close to my father’s age. Helmut was German and he wore thick horn-rimmed glasses. He was a big man. Al was small, thin, a bird-like nose supporting wire-rimmed glasses. They were both lifers. From the very first day they made it perfectly clear to me that I was on the low-end of the totem pole. I would have to defer to them on everything. Other than that, they were sure we’d all have a good summer. Helmut and Al had a routine. No doubt they had developed this over the years. Al pulled the hand truck and Helmut, the brute, would climb the stacks, his sheer bulk making it difficult for him, passing down huge parts to Al, who would then carefully arrange each piece on the truck. Then he’d check the line item off on the ticket. At that point the gloves came off, out came the cigarettes, it was time for a break.
Al didn’t like me touching his paperwork. It was his domain. Every once in a while, though, he’d point a bony finger at it and show me how it was done.
‘You have to pick about 250 lines a shift,’ he explained. ‘Less if you’re pickin’ from the top bins.
You never know how slow that can go. So it’s not good to pick more than the 250, you understand?’
‘Sure, Al,’ I said.
‘The kid learns quick,’ Helmut commented.
‘It must be all of that schoolin’,’ Al quipped.
They asked me a lot of questions about my parents and my status in life. They wanted to know if I was a VP’s son, born with the proverbial silver spoon shoved up my ass, as Helmut put it. They needed to know if I could be trusted, maybe I was a son of a trusted prole.
‘I just got lucky,’ I told them.
Helmut and Al started to relax. We continued at our snail’s pace. I didn’t know what to do with myself during all of this standing around. I could only smoke so much. So I’d wander around the next aisle or two waiting for them to finish. They said to be on the look-out for the scooters. Near the end of the day Al strode up beside me as I was strapping off the load.
‘We’re short six lines. But that’s on account of we’re trainin’ you.’
As the quitting bell rang, he walked away as if I had nothing to say about it.
The next morning I woke up in pain. My arms were stiff and my lower back felt like a series of braided knots. I skipped coffee and a shower, eased myself into the old Falcon, thinking that it was a company car, in a way. I cut onto the highway, listening to the farm report on the CBC. I was making good time, about to take the cutoff to the plant when the car in front of me veered off the highway. It careened into the median and like a pinball ricocheted across the lane into the car on the right and back again where it crashed into the vehicle ahead of it.
Mere seconds had passed. I slammed on the brakes and pulled onto the shoulder, checking for wayward cars about to make an impact. The car had come to rest sideways and the driver was slumped over the wheel, back tires still spinning. He was either unconscious or dead, but his foot must have been jammed against the gas pedal. Several people got out and went to him. One yanked open the door and dragged the man out onto the pavement. Just then the car burst into flames.
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