Fiction by Kyle Swensen
For most warehouse operations, there are standards of procedure. If you see something, say something. Like a mouse. Or a bird. Or a pile of shit. If you mess up, fess up.
Ralph was telling me about chocolate mescaline and we were watching a spider descend from the overhead fluorescent lights when the trailer in dock door number three cut Paul almost in half.
He had been standing with his back to the loading plate, whistling his ancient melodies while he waited for the driver to sign paperwork, when the brakes snapped under forty-five thousand pounds of palletized coconut milk. It popped the buttons on his shirt. It pinched him against the plate and his skin went purple and tight. Blood and spittle bubbled from his bottom lip and dripped down in his chest hair. We ran over and watched. We couldn’t push the trailer away. We couldn’t pull him up. Watch is all we could do.
I was certain this would be the first time I’d see a person die. It was my tenth day as assistant manager. I was twenty-two. We stood around Paul, his blood and pee dripping down into his socks and over onto the concrete underneath, mixing with bits of glass, shards of wood, slivers of plastic.
Abdul said something soft in French.
Lydia said, “Oh my Lord.”
Joe’s face was fixed in a wrinkled frown while one hand squeezed the other hand. Quincy turned away.
Paul turned his head toward us all, frozen in the absolute violence and tremendous splendor of the moment we never knew we’d have to see, smiled a horrible smile, and he said in his wheezy, hoarse voice, “Workman’s comp?”
For most warehouse operations, there are standards of procedure. If you see something, say something. Like a mouse. Or a bird. Or a pile of shit. If you mess up, fess up. The blue mop pails are for inside spills, the yellow ones are for bathroom spills. You learn these things to prevent emergency. But when a man is pushed into an immovable wall by forty-five thousand pounds of metal and wood and coconut milk, you forget everything you’ve ever learned about procedure and begin to think about the strangest things.
Paul told me stories about war. I’m not sure which war. It couldn’t be either World War because he wasn’t that old. But he never specified. And despite the standard of procedure against keeping magazines, novels, pamphlets, comic books, etc. off the forklift, a book about some unknown but vital battle in the Civil War or Korean War or War of 1812 kept its place underneath his seat. I was supposed to report stuff like this but Paul, if not a veteran of any definable war, was a veteran of the warehouse and authority was not a part of our relationship. And if I reported his war books, I would have had to report the little sex comics Ralph kept under his seat. Tijuana bibles, he called them. Best not to be that guy, I told myself.
Paul was obsessed with strategy and formation. He kept a pair of Carl Zeiss 8×42 binoculars around his neck to see the numbers on the product labels way up near the ceiling, where eighty-thousand pounds of almonds and computer ink and peanuts and solar panels and dog biscuits and empty spray bottles sat on thin metal bars, one bump away from disaster.
Before I became manager, I worked like the rest of the guys. Monday, Wednesday, Friday I studied architecture at the university. Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday I drove forklift #228 around the warehouse, picking orders and counting inventory, drawing in my head.
As far as I know, Paul never saw battle, so it seemed to me like all he did was walk around Europe with a gun and a uniform. On more than one occasion he told me about wild boars, although he called them “muenster pigs,” like the cheese. He said, given the chance, they’d eat you entirely, bones and all. They’d wreck villages, total cars, incite terror. He once told me a story about a soldier friend in Germany who, mistaking it for an enemy soldier coming through the bushes, shot a five-hundred-pound wild boar four times in the skull with a 9mm Pistol Parabellum. The next part I still don’t know if I believe. Paul said the bullets ricocheted off the head but confused the boar enough for the man to kill it with a knife.
The man, upon returning home from duty, hung the dented boar skull in his basement above a fireplace. Paul and the man would get good and drunk and play a game in which they’d throw crushed beer cans at the head. A point was earned if the can somehow stuck on a tusk. Paul told me they’d yell, “Die you son of a bitch.”
These are the words I accidentally thought, standing there looking at Paul.
The layout of the warehouse is weird. Garage sized rooms are connected to hangar sized rooms by way of airport concourse sized rooms. It is an architectural blunder. Many new employees spend weeks getting acquainted. I spent many late-night shifts reimagining the entire building into a space that was something more understandable—Neoclassical, Postmodern, even Gothic.
The roof moans when the wind blows and leaks when it rains. The walls are scarred, the paint is chipped, the I-beams are home to spiders. From Shard Road, the building is squat and long and the siding is a faded yellow. Across this side, in enormous navy-blue lettering, is “GAYLORD SINCE 1869.” You couldn’t miss it. And when a truck driver comes inside to pick up or drop off a load, he is sent to the cage, which is just what it sounds like. Drivers stand or sit in there and wait to be told which door to back their trucks in to. Sometimes they wait in the cage for two hours because they drove twelve hours to get here and what is two more? Sometimes they wait because they’re old men and to old men, time is not money but life. Mostly they wait because leaving is not an option. Men have gotten angry, waiting in that cage. They waited just the same.
When John Gaylord stepped out of his manager hut in the corner of the warehouse floor and came to see Paul, he had rolled-up papers in his hands and look on his face that said, “Kill me.”
Paul had been stuck for about a minute.
Joe ran to the driver of the truck.
Abdul was crouched by Paul, trying to keep him conscious, rubbing his shoulder.
The truck lurched forward and Paul fell forward onto his stomach. I’ve never seen a man fall that way—hands down at his sides as if they refused to subdue the fall. We jumped out of the door and stood him up. John kneeled down and said, “You should not have been standing there, Paul.”
He was out before he hit the ground. John called the ambulance. I told everyone to go back inside and continue working, Business has no mercy, Paul will be okay. But even as I said those things to them, I wondered how any of them could continue working after having seen something so wrong and clearly contrary to the laws of nature. We all loved Paul. No doubt we mocked his speaking voice and passion for medieval jousting but he was gentle, thoughtful. He gave you words of encouragement. He followed the rules. If he saw something, he said something. If he messed up, he fessed up. The accident was not his fault.
The reason I got the job in the first place is my dad. For thirty years he gave a personable face to the Gaylord’s company. Even Joe, who was skeptical of all authority, liked my dad. At fourteen, I glued cardboard candy boxes on the weekends. The following week I rode to the bank in my dad’s red Chevy with a navy-blue check in my pocket made out to me for sixty dollars.
He wanted to show me what I should not do for the rest of my life. These people had no other options. They did not go to school. You will go to school. Your work for the Gaylord company is temporary. But, he said, you still have to work hard. Always do a little thing with big love. Don’t forget that people, not business, make the world turn.
I promised I wouldn’t. But I did.
I told them I couldn’t stay like they wanted me to. I was a student of architecture, of space, of art. I drew museum layouts and cabins and urban landscapes on the back of pick-up sheets. I sketched bridges on cycle counts. Still I stayed. When they gave a five-dollar raise and an office of my own, they were putting their bid in for my future. Time was running out for me to put my own bid in. It was my senior year of college and I was already making the sort of money a person can respect. Not living paycheck to paycheck. I still lived at home. I slept in my childhood bed. Mom cooked dinner every night. Not only was the money rolling in, I was saving it. Soon enough I could pay off student loans. How different the world would look then.
When I graduated, I had no job offers or internships. I had a senior thesis with an A- grade. I had a liberal arts degree. I struggled with myself about whether or not I was an artist. John called me the ‘resident architect’ in a way that was actually painful. He laughed and patted me on the back. Later, when he wanted to build a dollhouse for his daughter, he asked if I could design the floor plan, and I did.
Two hours before the accident, John called me into his hut and said, “I want to send you to San Antonio for National Warehouse Safety Seminar.” I said I didn’t want to go. He said if I wanted to keep my position as manager I had to go. I wanted to tell him that when they sent me to Baltimore for the first training session, I met a friend there from high school, whose situation was not dissimilar from mine, only he wanted to be there, and I paid him with Gaylord money to take the tests for me while I ordered room service from the steakhouse in the lobby and watched Seinfeld for three days.
John also broke news that our largest customer, the one with the coconut milk, decided to pull out for reasons that had nothing, absolutely nothing to do with us at Gaylord. Seven million a year out the door. This also meant most of the employees—Abdul, Lydia, Joe, Quincy. Now Paul. How nice it would have been to lose my job. I asked if I was going to be laid off. “No,” he said after blowing air out of his nose. “No.”
To get Paul off the ground, the paramedics asked the truck driver to pull away. He did not speak English well. He was muttering, “No my fault,” and he paced between the cab and Paul lying on the ground. They laid the stretcher down and asked Paul questions to make sure he was alive. He was. It seemed to me he was alive more than ever, with his glossy red blood and his great cries of pain. Vomit bubbled out of his mouth and the paramedics in navy blue rolled him onto the stretcher and had him speeding down Shard Road within a minute of closing the double doors. We watched it drive away. I heard John Gaylord say the word “insurance” on the phone, as if it were the word “death” or “bankruptcy” or “lawsuit.”
Abdul held a necklace in his hands.
Joe blew air out of his nose and shook his head.
The truck smashed Paul at 10:13 and in a matter of seven minutes, nothing was left but a small pool of blood and some orange traffic cones. I took my lunch early.
Thirty minutes for lunch was all I got and it was not paid. I didn’t have time to sketch or read. I had time to eat. Short lunch meant more money. But lunch was an integral part of the day. I looked forward to it.
John Gaylord did not look forward to it. Almost always he peeled a banana and ate it in two bites. Then he ate another. He did that today, as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. He smacked his lips and moved his tongue, and I could hear the flesh churning to a thin paste.
Down Shard Road there is a Greek diner called El Greco. There are brown drips down the kitchen walls, which are in full view when sitting at the bar, and almost every black vinyl seat has a fine yellow tear. A plastic bowl of Kalamata olives in vinegar garnishes every table. Many people are driven away by the smell. I know because the bar is within earshot and a person is never silent about a strange smell.
I sat at the bar and ordered a Greek salad like always. And like always, the fry cook, George, asked me how I was. I responded with a question: “Have you ever watched a person die, George?” Our relationship was like that; easy to form an intimate relationship over food. He said he had not. I said, “This guy who works for me got crushed by a trailer full of coconut milk. I don’t know how he’ll survive.” “Nasty,” George said. “But no. Not yet at least. I did see a pot of fryer oil spill onto the legs of a line cook in New York City once. His skin bubbled up quick. I still remember that cry.” George turned around and lowered a basket of frozen French fries into a fryer.
I finished and paid in silence, drank the last of my ice water, left the diner. Outside in the parking lot I could smell the olives. I didn’t eat them but many times at the end of the day, after I’d mandatorily washed my hands, I would smell the brine in the spaces between my fingers.
I came back. In the Gaylord parking lot, I sat in my car and listened to the hum of the air conditioner. The caution cones were still there and Paul’s blood had dried. I didn’t know he was alive. I imagined him in surgery. His manatee body all purple and hairy. Telling stupid puns to the doctor.
He never came back. Later, I heard he wouldn’t work another day in his life. I hoped he wouldn’t. I also knew it wasn’t his fault, but John in a pinstripe suit went to someplace like court to make sure that Paul couldn’t sue. I didn’t see why they couldn’t just pay the man. They didn’t talk about his wrecked intestines. Or the metal rod in the middle of his spine. Or his electric wheelchair.
The layoffs came as projected by John, and soon the warehouse was almost empty of product and people, except for small local food companies who needed our space, John, a couple temporaries, and me. I asked, “Why not me?” He looked confused and said, “What’s the matter? Now you’ll have more time to draw.”
Three weeks later, I sat staring at a bright white screen in a dark room in a Marriott in San Antonio, while a man with a laser pointer pointed his laser at cartoon images of forklift accidents. I looked down at what I was sketching on my legal pad and I imagined Paul. I imagined him buzzing along in his wheelchair, wearing his jousting garb, wheezing medieval salutations and terms of endearment. Looking, perhaps, not for a way to get out of his life, but a way to get through it.
Kyle Swensen lives in Cincinnati, Ohio with his wife, Margo, and their fish, Bingley. He—the man, not the fish—is an MFA candidate at Miami University.