I pulled my big old battered Lincoln to a halt in the scrabble of gravel behind the warehouse. Then I stepped out, listening to the ticking as the engine settled down for a long nap. I wasn't really sure I was ready for this. It was my seventh time for that very reaction. The number seven held no luck--I still wasn't ready for it.
Over the seemingly unending months of the long northern winter I'd kept a careful count of the contents of the warehouse. Slowly the long semi- trailers had drained the contents away.
The place was almost empty again. The southernmost fields were man- high, fat with ripening ears of corn. The cookers were hissing and steaming, awaiting the first trucks. The empty cans rattled on their tracks. The weather had finally turned lovely. The warehouse sat gaping, waiting to be refilled.
It was time for Inventory Clerk to tie on his seasonal cape and leap back into full action.
The slow early season of peas was over; it was time for the hell of corn pack to begin.
I opened the door and stepped into the barrio. As usual, there was a loose gang of strangers standing around awaiting orders. They regarded me sullenly, with suspicion. I brushed by them without a word. I knew from experience I could greet them all day and all night, and be lucky to get a single nod in reply.
The time-clock was located at the front entrance to the warehouse, so I made my long way across the floor, past the full-can palletizers, with their huge magnetized heads that'd easily turn errant flesh to unrecognizable pulp. Then the bank of empty-can depalletizers, standing tall and regal and always reminding me of battleships--the operators indeed worked from catwalks twenty feet up in the air.
Hola!s began ringing my way from some of the crew who had returned from previous years. After a bit of genuine back-slapping and high- fives, I could see the bystanders relaxing. Hey, maybe that gringo ain't so bad. I disliked the ritual, but it was the only way to speed things along.
Then I spied Georges.
"Hey, Georges, you Mexican motherfucker! What are you doing up here stealing all the jobs away from the white people?"
Those Mexican motherfuckers really had their picks of our jobs!
The tension crackled greater than ever. Georges charged me, his hand going for his knife, "I kill you, you gringo cocksucker!"
The new guys clearly hadn't expected a stabbing on the first day of work. From the way they shifted around, they didn't seem to think it was such a good idea to be knifing one of the two gringos in the warehouse.
Georges' knife hand slipped between the buttons of my shirt. There was, of course, no knife. He gave my stomach a decidedly plastic pat. "A little present," he winked.
That was Georges. I didn't smoke that much anymore, but I'd wound up sharing a joint with him his first year. Every summer since, he'd brought me up a big fat ounce. "Don't listen to those Humboldt County assholes--the best grass in the hemisphere is Hecho en México."
He took a step back from me and became loud again, in a penitent way. "Señor, what are you talking about? Us Mexicans love you white people. We're forever in your gratitude for these illustrious jobs. We would have no work if it weren't for the fact that the white people are too fucking lazy to get up in the morning!"
There was some truth to my statement, at least as a reflection of the distorted local attitude. Which bowed away from the truth of why the company had invested nearly a million dollars in building the migrant camp on the property and maintaining a recruiting office a thousand miles to the south--the local pool for seasonal positions was choked with flotsam.
Sure, there was a short supply of people in the vicinity interested in exchanging their summers for a big wad of cash--old ladies and students--but over the years the company had had to turn to bringing up migrant workers. You simply couldn't keep the place going on the labor of losers. Guys with car trouble three or four times a week. Did you try putting the key in the ignition? The guys with grandma's dying twice every month. The ones who took it for granted that two weeks of hard work earned them a big paycheck, and a week off in which to drink it.
Our performance done, Georges accompanied me to the time-clock, then walked with me, arm on my shoulder, all the way across the floor to the little office built in the far corner of the upper warehouse.
"Don't worry, amigo; give 'em a week. I'm already sniffing out which ones are the assholes."
"Eh, don't worry, Georges. It's no big deal to me."
"But it's good to have friends."
I discreetly shifted the baggie under my shirt, tucking shirttail and baggie under the cincture of my belt. "Hey Georges, don't you know there's no drugs allowed on company property? That's bad stuff, I tell you! First time, they fryer your ass."
Georges lifted his arm off my shoulder, backing away hands raised. He cocked a glance at my waist. He gave me a disapproving look, but then reassured me, "Personally, I don't mess with that shit. Personally, I think people who do mess with that shit should be shot! But hey, don't worry. Above all, I'm your friend--I won't tell the big boss. But... if the SWAT team pulls you out of bed tonight, you can't say you weren't warned."
"You bastard, you!"
"But even so, it'd only be because I'm gunning for your job."
"Eh, fuck you!"
"No, no, you misunderstand. I say that because," he clenched his hands into fists against his chest, "I want to be like you. Because, like you, I'm a hard-working man. All the day long, that's all I want to do--work hard. 'Cause I'm a hard-working kind of man. Just like you. Fuck this driving a forklift: it's for pussies." His hand raised, then waved away in disgust. "Yea, I want to be able to work as hard as you do. Sit at that computer," his fingers tapped away, then mimed everything to come. "Scribble important stuff down on paper. Drink my coffee. Eat some snacks. Enjoy the air-conditioning. Scratch my ass. Pick my nose. Whoa, shit," he looked at his wrist, "getting late! Better go visit the babes up in Quality--strictly business, mind you!" Here his hands seized something in front of him; his hips began pumping. "Hey Maria, this ear of corn big enough for you? Celia, get over here, we gotta discuss quality and quantity."
"Georges, you fucking horn-dog!"
"Tough job," he slapped my shoulder, "but you're just the man for it."
Georges followed me into the office and plopped down in a chair. He always was very good at that. "Whew, man, it's so cold in here, how can you stand it. No wonder you drink coffee all day long."
Out of nowhere he had a styrofoam cup held up before I even had the top off my thermos.
"So, muchacho, the winter it was good to you?"
"Okay, I guess. Seems like all I did--besides cleaning up the mess you guys left me here--" Georges shot me a hurt look, "was sit in front of the fire and drink my beer."
"And maybe a little... " he pinched the tip of his thumb and index finger together, holding them to his lips, "huff huff?"
I glanced at the big window that looked out over the rest of the upper warehouse--and conversely looked into the office. Like working in a fucking fishbowl.
"Eh, maybe a little."
"Man, you're fucking crazier than I thought! Start a fire and then smoke some of that wack? Lucky you didn't burn down the house. Or maybe you did, but you still haven't noticed. Honey, I told you to keep the windows closed--it's getting cold in here. What windows? hah! What honey?!"
Georges looked mortified, a rarity of expression for him. "Oh, shit, sorry man. So... did you get back together with your girlfriend?"
"Ellen? Naw. She stayed gone."
"You fuck her every night like a tiger, right? What more can she want?"
"For the tiger to be around during the summer to fuck her, I guess." Which, as far as I was ever able to tell, was pretty much at the heart of the matter.
'I wouldn't be in the market for a boyfriend if my boyfriend was ever at home.'
'What are you talking about? I rush home after work every day.'
'Exactly. Every day. And I guess I should have been more specific: at home and awake.'
That was a common problem. Up here, as the joke went, there were only two seasons--9 months of winter, 3 months of mosquitoes. Hey honey, it's summer!--bye, luv ya, see ya after the first frost! Among the year-round employees, about a third were on their second or later marriage, a third were between marriages, and the final third had round- robin romances with each other every summer.
After lengthy consideration, Georges burst out, "What's the bitch's problem? Weren't you two together the summer before? What'd she expect?"
"Well, yea, but remember? That was the drought. We didn't can for shit that year. You know, the half-shifts. Christ, we even had days off. And besides, you know, the thing with Ellen was still new."
He looked perplexed.
"The bloom of love first blossomed, you big goof!"
"Oh-h, gotcha!" His voice shifted into falsetto, "Oh honey, you must be so-o-o tired. Here, lemme fuck your brains out, and then I'll order a pizza. While we're waiting for the pizza, I'll fuck your brains out. After we finish eating, I'll fuck your brains out. Is there anything else I can do for my poor baby? How about if I fuck your brains out?"
I could barely stay in my chair. "God, Georges, you sure missed your calling."
"What?" he looked horrified. "Instead of driving a forklift, I should be your girlfriend? I don't think so! I'm not that good of a friend. But I tell you what--I know a couple of guys down at the camp, I'm sure they'd be thrilled to pitch in and help you out."
"No! You fuck them, my friend. A little bit of vaseline, you close your eyes," he thrust his fist up from the elbow, face twisting in a joyous grimace, "ahhhh!--tightest pussy you'll ever have!"
I was sputtering coffee. "Stop! stop! stop!"
"Seriously, though. I'll go ask around. There's some very lovely ladies that came up this year. Get you a hot-blooded Mexican girlfriend!"
"That's okay, Georges. I can find my own girlfriend."
"Oh, of course. I don't doubt that for a minute." He made a fist of his right hand, then held it up to his eye, looking at me through it like a telescope. "Ah, found her you did! Your girlfriend, mmm, she is so-o tight." He moved his fist from his face and stared at it. "But she's kinda tiny. And pretty damn ugly. Doesn't have much to say, but maybe that's a good thing, though lemme tell you something else... "
Fortunately he didn't get the chance. The door opened and Wayne walked in. The Boss Man. King of the Warehouse, as he didn't care to be called.
"Hey Wayne," I nodded towards Georges in the corner, "what got you out of bed so early in the morning? You know me, I like it here, but you, I figured you'd be smart enough to not answer your phone yesterday."
"I was; Janet wasn't. Wayne, dear, better go to bed early tonight: you're starting up in the morning. I knew I shoulda cut the line... well! What have we here? Georges, you son-of-a-bitch, how ya doin'? Getting an early start on your goofing off, I see."
Georges held out his palms, looking pained, waving at the window, "Mr. Wayne, I am the hardest worker in all the warehouse--other than my amigo here, of course--but there is no work right now."
Wayne went over and peered out the window. "Nope. None at all. Looks like we could use only about a hundred pallets of empty cans hauled up here from down below. Just in case you forgot. You know, that's what we do around here. We take the corn, and we put it in cans. Of course, we can't do that if we don't have any cans. So I guess we all might as well go back home. Let me call the front office first--hello, sorry, we can't start up today, Georges forget to bring up any empty cans."
"Okay, okay! I'll go get the show on the whoa shit! who is that? Where did she come from? I sure didn't see any babe like that on the bus."
I glanced out the window. Standing right there at the tickets counter was a very lovely young lady. A face I'd never seen before. She definitely got my vote as prettiest woman on the payroll. She noticed us looking out the window at her. Her eyebrows lifted in a droll expression; then she stuck out her tongue.
Attitude aplenty; she'd be needing that. To prove it, Georges leered back, "That's right, baby, you show me what you can do with that tongue!"
This was strictly for our benefit--no sound but a hard rap could pass through that glass.
Wayne sighed, "That's because you didn't see her. They had to send up a second bus; it just got in an hour or so ago. But I don't see how any of this concerns you." Wayne turned to me, "Does she look like a pallet of empty cans to you?"
"Man oh man though! I'd sure like to fill up her empty can with my corn, give her the stalk and all, blow her full of that cream-style corn."
"Jesus, Georges," Wayne sneered, "your own daughters are her age."
"No way, man, I'm not that old!"
"Here, give me the number and I'll call your wife down in Texas and ask her."
Georges waved his head around like a bull. But then he froze. "Wait a minute. What are you talking about, Mr. Wayne? What's with this wife shit? You know I'm not married."
"Yep, that's what you've always told us, Georges."
Georges looked at me.
I shrugged. "You waited a beat too long with the denial."
Wayne was in stitches. "So you do have a wife down in Texas! Why, you bastard, you. When this gets out, your sorry face is gonna get slapped all up and down the place."
"You guys wouldn't?!! C'mon! I'm your friend, remember?"
"Well, tell you what Georges. Let's see how well you do your job, okay? How much you let yourself get, uhm, distracted."
"Fuck man," he snapped to attention. "Hardest-working man in the warehouse. I'm outa here. Lots of work to do." He paused at the door, turning back for a last word. "You guys, you're fucking mean, you know that? No way I mess with you."
I shook my head for a minute of silence. "He's certainly high-octane this year."
Wayne gave a snort. "Yea, well, one week in this place'll beat it out of him."
I shook my head some more.
"I don't know if you want to hear it."
"All of a sudden I have this really horrifying image in my head, and I can't make it go away."
"You sure you want to hear it?"
"Only if it's not contagious."
"I have this vision, of Georges humping away at one of his lays... I know, I know, that is pretty scary, but that's not the worse."
"It gets worse?"
"And then he says, Okay baby, I'm gonna pull out and blow my load all over your tits, so you might wanna close your eyes. She does, and he does pull out. He reaches under the bed quick, Okay baby, here it comes! And he dumps a can of cream-style all over her chest. Whoa shit, baby, check it out--where did all that come from?"
"Eew," Wayne made his ugly face. "That's gross. Hope a week is enough to beat it out of you--maybe we should put you on double-shifts. But in the meantime," he stood up, "I think I'll take a stroll and relate this as a true story."
"So what's with this woman anyway?"
"Oh, Sandra? That's Sandra Jiménez--she's on tickets. But you needn't worry your fluttery heart about her. Remember, this side of the glass," he leaned over and rapped on the window. Sandra glanced up, taking us both in. Wayne smiled and waved, then continued with me. "This side of the glass is your little world."
I rolled my eyes. Sandra was watching; when I caught her watching, she rolled her eyes at me.
"No, I mean, did Alonso not come back? Or did the canning room steal him?"
"Oh sure, he's here, he's on tickets. But... I talked to Marge last week... "
"And?" Marge was a relic from the Age of a Local Workforce.
"Hey Marge, when you coming in to fill out your application? Well, she got cold feet. Decided she's lived through enough corn packs to last the rest of her life."
"Enough for all of us. But I thought she had to, for the money. What happened? Did her kids finally grow up and get jobs--and take the grandkids with them?"
A hearty laugh rolled out of Wayne. "I think she actually kicked them all out. Or changed the lock on the door. Went down to Social Security. Added it up with the pension her old man left her. And without having to foot the feed bill for that brood, she said, No thanks, I'll pass."
"Well, good for her. And really, good for us."
Wayne gave a sad sort of nod. "Aww, she wasn't that bad."
"Yes she was. Don't get me wrong, she was great when I first started; she taught me a lot. If this was truly the greatest nation that ever was, she would have been allowed to retire with grace and dignity, instead of having to drag on for a few more years of crash-and-burn."
"Yea, she was getting a little charred around the edges." Wayne gave a giggle at the memory. "She'd be going along fine until some tiny thing would fluster her, and then she'd be making mistakes all over the place."
"And every mistake she'd try to correct she'd compound instead. Christ, last summer, about once an hour I thought I'd have to run out there and give her CPR. That or shrink-wrap her to a pallet and put her on the next truck out. Short pallet!"
Wayne snorted. "Well, anyway, I heard a rumor that this Sandra is supposed to be pretty smart. And since I was hearing the rumor from the source, I decided to snatch her up before anyone else could. And speaking of the source himself... "
I looked out the window. Sandra was leaning on her elbows on the counter, staring furiously down at some papers. Beside her, in a much more conscious imitation of her posture, was José. José, the Prince of the Camp. King Stud. "Well, if it isn't the biggest belt buckle of them all--pretty fast for him to be sniffing around. Christ, he's worse than Georges."
Sandra glanced up and saw me glancing at them. She shot an eyebrow nearly up to her hairline, the deep dark of her eyes staring into mine from inches away. It was an unnerving experience. Then she looked back down to what she was studying.
"Oh, no," Wayne straightened up and gave a salute, "he's here on official business. In his role as Señor Spanish/English."
"She's really smart, but doesn't have a word of English."
"Doesn't speak it?"
"Doesn't even understand it."
"What do you want me to do? I could trade her for a bilingual moron from the cornshed."
"No thanks. It's just that... José? What the fuck does he know about anything?"
Wayne slumped to his regular posture with a huge sigh. "Yea, I suppose you're right." He gave me a cartoon wink to let me know he was reading my mind. "You better go hunt up Alonso; maybe the two of you can keep him from ruining her." He opened the door, gave a feeble wave, and left. I watched him through the window as he walked the long length of the upper warehouse, to the main door, waving out his hellos, the King of the Warehouse out greeting the peons.
Actually, had he really read my mind, he would have said, "I'll send Alonso down to help Sandra. You, just stay there. Turn on the radio and tune it to your favorite station. Enjoy your coffee. Dick around on the computer for awhile or just get out your book and read for a few hours."
That's what I wanted to do. But it was definitely in my best interest to go get Alonso and keep José from mistraining Sandra completely.
First, though, I decided to duck out the side door and go to my car. As I swept around out of the office, Sandra looked up with a quick smile that nearly knocked my knees out from under me. Was she the most beautiful girl in our corner of the world or what? The summer would certainly be more aesthetically pleasing to look out the window and see Sandra instead of Marge. But that was the extent of that.
I sat in my car and lit up a cigarette. I sat there smoking, side- saddle, the door open, my legs hanging down to the gravel, the dome light burning. I groped down in my pants with a purpose. Later, I absently pulled out a fresh cigarette and began rolling the end, shreds of tobacco blowing away with the breeze.
One of the previous owners of my car had installed an under-the-dash 8- track deck. I'd even bought a tape for five cents at the D.A.V. thrift store, but apparently the player was no longer wired up. And as if I'd do the job myself just to hear my Great Rock Vol. III tape.
I decided to shove the bag of pot through the plastic door flap and into the deck. What the hell. First I pinched a tiny bit to fill the end of my next cigarette.
I went for a walk in the wilds along the backside of the warehouse, smoking my shortened cigarette. After that, I thought I'd smoke another cigarette, and then go back inside. I walked back and forth and went through nearly half a pack. I kept reminding myself that I'd stuffed the bag in the 8-track. And that--once home--I'd better put the bag in the freezer. I wouldn't be able to come off a pack-shift, smoke any of this, and expect to react to the 4:30 a.m. alarm.
There was a sensation in my bladder, so I decided to detour up to the breakroom to take a pee. There was barely a trickle, but I flushed and washed my hands satisfied anyway. I was about to leave, when the display of snack foods in the vending machine delayed me. I fed the monster some coins. A bag of potato chips dropped. I ate it while waiting the seconds for a second one to fall. Then I stood at the bubbler for hours, sucking down gallons of water.
Hours later, when I returned to the warehouse, bare minutes had passed. I rounded up Alonso, then nudged José away. "You have so much more important things to do."
I spent the next ten minutes--which seemed like ten voluptuous hours-- sort of hovering next to Sandra, drinking in her scent, reminding myself to pay attention enough to correct Alonso on a few minor points. But mostly my presence was unnecessary, of no use, so I soon drifted away back into the office. I sat in my chair. Unlike Georges, I really would have nothing to do until tomorrow, when the first production logs would come my way.
At midmorning, with the empty- and full-can lines flowing like speech in a stutter, I watched as Alonso went away on break. He seemed to be enjoying his unexpected top-dog status with Marge gone for good. 24 minutes later--I timed him, having nothing better to do--he sauntered back to relieve Sandra. I rapped on the glass, surprising them both, then pointed at the big clock visible in the office.
Alonso was a good guy, not much different from me. He gave a brisk nod of understanding. I could trust that for the rest of the summer he wouldn't extend his fifteen minute breaks beyond twenty.
Miraculously, a fresh pallet arrived. The other guys swept up, tossed on the plastic cap, then attacked it with their lp-fired guns, shrink- wrapping it tight. Alonso bent down, writing out the ticket, then transferring the information to the production log and row card. The pallet guys slapped on the ticket and fat-markered the number on all four sides of the cap.
During this brief moment, I watched Sandra--specifically her ass-- swaying gently away to her break. I couldn't say it wasn't a better alternative to the sight of Marge's face flushing red with petty rage.
Shortly after lunch the rumors began filtering down that we'd be shutting down early, that the nightshift had been put on-call. This came as no surprise to us down in the warehouse, tracking as we had the faltering lurch to the empty- and full-can lines all morning.
Every year it was the same goddamn thing. Every year there would be plans to have a trial run, with just a few truckloads of corn, to make sure that all the equipment was running properly. And every year the front office would cancel the trial run, opting to go into full-bore production instead. Every year, the first day of canning would wind up being the trial run, with all the machinery the jack-off mechanics had spent the winter repairing and refurbishing breaking down piece by piece. Was I the only one who caught the pattern? No. Everyone in the place just acknowledged it with a fatalistic shrugging of shoulders.
By the time the empty-can lines were officially stopped--the operators clocked out and sent back to the camp--I'd gotten the word from my sources up in Quality. Virtually the entire day's production was on hold: half of it overcooks, half of it undercooks, and an overlapping half seam problems with the lids. As well, the corn was just too young. Young and sweet and tender, perfect for eating on the cob, but turned to slurry by the time it made it into cans. What might eventually be salvaged would definitely be sold as generic, with labels reading: semi-cream-style corn.
It was an auspicious start to the summer.
I gave up around two and gathered my stuff to go home. Sure, I could have stuck around for a few hours, made some more money, and gotten a jump on the next morning's work, but why bother? I was a canning factory veteran. The work could wait for the next morning, if they even got things started back up by then. And hell, I'd be making tons of money in the coming months. But in the coming months all the money in the world wouldn't be able to buy me an afternoon free.
Really, though, it wasn't until I had backed my battered old Lincoln out of its slot, shifted into drive, crunching my way out of the gravel lot behind the warehouse, that it truly sunk in: I had the afternoon off. And it was a glorious summer day. It might be the last one I'd see. This was cause for celebration, elation at least.
But it wasn't until I lit up a cigarette--with the windows powered down and the sunshine a power itself through the windshield--that a bit of grin crossed my face.
Why, when I got home, it might take me hours to transfer that baggie from the bowels of the 8-track deck into the arctic depths of the freezer. Hell, I might take a stroll downtown and do some afternoon drinking at the Hotel Earl with some of the Garcias--a loosely knit confederation of renegade migrants who'd been coming up each summer since before the camp. They preferred the old style: driving up in their own cars, booking rooms at the local flophouse, and taking their meals under the sign of the golden arches.
I didn't blame them--for all its convenience and amenities, the company camp was not much more than a bunkbed barracks. No liquor allowed. And so sexually segregated that even the married couples had to sleep apart for the season and screw on the sly. Whereas the mattresses at the Earl practically invited a nightly pounding. And the ground floor was an insanely inexpensive old-man bar that opened at the crack of dawn and closed, well, just a few hours before the next crack of dawn.
There was a staccato of knocking on the glass. I glanced up. Sandra and Alonso stood out there grinning and beckoning me out. Those two, always playing games. I waved them off, not having time for fun. I was too busy proofing the edit of a print-out.
Within the minute, there was a pounding flurry on the door; then Sandra swept in flapping a log sheet and row card. She looked like a land- based bird struggling with the primordial memory of flight.
In just a matter of weeks, Sandra had settled in completely. Settled in and settled up. I thought it was great. She was the one who went off and hunted out the errors, leaving Alonso at the ticket counter to do the grunt work.
I let my expression remain blank. "¿Problemo?"
That was the beauty: though the two tongues sprang from different branches, there was an uncanny amount of similarities in the words. Granted, it was the American Abroad Approach, but it often worked. Fudge the English pronunciation, maybe tack on an O or an A, and voilà, you were speaking Spanish! Sometimes. And if not, at the worse you'd be left there with someone looking at you like an idiot.
Sandra did look at me like an idiot, but it was for questioning the obviousness of the situation. She gave a nod so long it nearly turned into a bow. "¡Si-i-i-i-i!"
I slipped my pen into my pants pocket and stood with a sigh. I gathered up my clipboard and flashlight, then turned to get the paperwork from Sandra. But she wasn't there. She'd turned and left and was already stomping down the ramp into the bowels of the lower warehouse.
Despite the nice sight she presented from behind, I hustled to catch up to her. I liked to have an understanding of a problem before I actually confronted it. And even though Sandra was good, her few weeks' experience didn't quite match my years. A lot of times, I could decipher the errors just by looking at the paperwork. Which saved me time when I was as pressed for it as I was today.
But she refused to relinquish her hold on the papers. They belonged to her after all. She was going to fit in fine in this place. Another petty bureaucrat in the making.
Of course there was no way for Sandra to explain what the problem was except to jab at the papers with her finger. Which clarified nothing.
Time to assert my authority. I snatched the papers from Sandra and secured them on the clipboard. Once we stood in front of the questionable row, the problem sorted itself out. The pallet that was supposed to have filled up the row wasn't there. It had been assigned instead to the start of a new row, because, despite the proof of the papers the physical reality was that there hadn't been room for it in the old row. Because, doubtless, some idiot lift driver hadn't been paying attention and had tucked a pallet from another line--destined for a different row--in there somewhere.
That was the bitch: pinpointing the bad pallet. It was in there somewhere, but the row was 25 tiers deep. To the left, the gap between the rows of bright stack was less than a foot wide at the face. But the row to the right was filled with stacks of empty pallets, and there was a full footpath between.
Counting backwards in multiples of four would find the spot, counting off the ticket numbers from the bottom pallet of every tier. I clicked on the flashlight, my sword into the darkness, the clipboard my shield. And Sandra damn near scrabbled over me in her eagerness to join the hunt.
The thing was that you could track a bad pallet down to the very tier, but if it was way up on top there was no way to read exactly which one it was. Maybe you'd have luck tracing the companion row, the one short a pallet.
Personally, I was ready to continue down this very darkness forever as long as Sandra kept being there to bump me on my way. For us to stand heads clumped together as we made out numbers by flashlight on paper and plastic.
Fortune was definitely with us. A tier or two before the suspect one, the wooden towers to our right gave way to a chest-high bed of a few low pallets of the cardboard squares that got slid between the layers of cans.
Up on there I could stand back, and possibly climb!
Climbing up the tower of stacked pallets wasn't the smartest way to do it, but it was, given the location, the only real option. Besides, I'd done just this dozens of times. I was about four feet up off the cardboard when I heard the ominous creak. Oh shit! A broken board somewhere, and mine was the weight enough to throw the whole stack off balance. I looked way up to the roof, where the top of the tier was visibly leaning. See ya later, life, it's been good to know you. Even jumping off wouldn't rectify the mistake; the motion might actually hasten the toppling. I'd be dead meat, or severely mangled meat, within the minute. Pity for Sandra to pay for my stupidity.
I looked down at her, wondering how to warn her away. Her eyes were huge black pools. Then she rushed me, grabbed my upper thigh in both hands, and pushed. I gestured at the ceiling, then out towards the center of the warehouse. "No! Go! Run!"
Her lips pouted with stubbornness. Giving her head a vicious shake she barked back, "No!"
What was I to do? Try and shake her off so we could both surely die? I didn't know whether I could physically do that anyway. Sandra had an amazingly tight grip. God she was strong. Like the stories of mothers lifting cars off their newborns.
I thought she was going to slowly help me down, but instead she held me fast. I looked at her perturbed. Sandra puffed her cheeks with exasperation, then pointed her head at the row of full-cans. Back to work, scaredy-cat. So I stretched and strained, my leg nearly numb from her grip, running the flashlight's beam up and down. I quickly located the errant pallet, and was surprised that I was able to read the ticket number markered on the shrink-wrap. Another job well done.
The amazing thing was that Sandra completely understood the dynamics of the situation, that she had to stay pressing tightly against me as she let me worm my down sandwiched between her and the pallets. Only when I had both feet back on the cardboard did she take a step away. And then only the one step.
And there we stood for the moment, surrounded--it seemed to me--by a nearly visible cloud of aromas. The sweat from us both, the smell of fear and subsiding adrenaline; and then the more subtle undertones: the shampoo she'd used that morning, the bar of soap, some scent she'd applied or that came from her deodorant; finally the gentlest fragrance of all, the almost undetectable one describing the person standing before me as a woman.
I swallowed hard.
Snatched from death's jaws, and then tightly pressed against a female for the first time in months, my body was flush with the procreative urge. And my mind was nearly in agreement. I had no interest in the end results, but oh how I longed to go through the process. I prayed the evidence wasn't too obvious. The burn of embarrassment was creeping up my cheeks, I could feel it. And I encouraged it. Go blush, go; blood rush to my head!
"Gracias," I fumbled.
Sandra tilted her head, sweeping into a smiling nod, "De nada."
I thought, quickly, to squat down, retrieving the log sheet and clipboard. The motion was no reprieve. There I was down by her legs. I had the impulse to wrap my arms around them and give her a great hug. Hell, I wanted to wrap my arms around those legs and just tackle Sandra. But I didn't. I stood up and tucked the flashlight under my arm, using my free hand to fish around in my front pants pocket for my pen. I instantly regretted that action, necessary though it was. Would it draw attention to my condition? Somebody down there was fairly screaming skip the pocket and go for the zipper! While juggling the three objects I had a brainstorm and acted on it immediately. I shoved the flashlight butt down in the pocket, replacing the pen. Oh, so that is a flashlight in your pocket; at first I thought you were just glad to see me.
Sandra gave no indication that she was aware of any of this.
I felt relieved, and giddy at finally having regained some control of myself. The pen uncapped, my hand hovered above the sheet. "Oh no!" I wailed in anguish, my writing hand slamming up to buffet the side of my head. Sandra gave a puzzled look. "¿¿¡El nombre de la paleta!??"
Her jaw dropped.
I chortled, winging an elbow at her side before noting down the misplaced number at the proper location beside the long listing of the other pallets.
Sandra socked me in the side of my arm. Hard. It hurt. I rubbed my arm in disbelief, gaping at her. She answered with a smug look. Then she moved up against me to see what I'd written. Sandra took my hand in hers, to guide the pen, then made scratching out motions over the two adjacent ticket numbers, her eyes questioning mine.
"No," I replied gently, "no otro... " I searched my brain. Sheeto?--no, that sounded like the runs, a bad case of the Blatz Flu. Papier?--no, that was German. "No otro... papel," I got it, roughly, not knowing if what I said was making sense.
Carrying her hand on the back of mine, I moved down to the middle of the page, where the final entry in the row had been crossed off, the location changed to the new row they were filling. I worked up the sheet, correcting the tier order until the pallet from the wrong line fit in quite nicely. Then I made a briefer emendation on the row card.
Sandra groaned, "Oh-h-h." Her hand left mine to slap at her forehead.
I patted the very spot. "It's okay," I shrugged.
To lighten things up, I pointed out the time frame in the time- palletized column. Midway through the 23rd hour. Someone had had their mind on the midnight lunch break. "Fucking nightshift!" I sneered.
There we stood. Our world was righted once again, and still there we stood. I couldn't really move gracefully until Sandra stepped away again; she didn't, and there we stood. These seconds as measured by a clock stretched into hours without one. The only measurement was the heat of her breath dissipating against my neck. And there we stood. Her eyes so dark, her lips so full. I wanted nothing more than to kiss her. Just once, even just very quickly. But I was not about to do that. Not in a million years.
Not until she lunged the little distance, planting her lips on mine. It was a friendly but aggressive kiss. I was primed for more but Sandra leaned away. My disappointment was momentary. She snatched the pen out of my one hand, primly tucking it into my shirt pocket. The clipboard she just batted out of my other hand, making me drop it to the cardboard. It landed with a muffled clatter.