“What’s up with you and your lady?” Hank asked me as he climbed onto the pallet that I’d just scooped up with the forklift. It was a few months into my M.G. Electric tenure, holiday season fast approaching. “You still going out with her?”

“We’re fine, I dunno,” I replied with my usual lack of interest in the subject, as I maneuvered the forklift in my typically inept fashion.

“You gotta go out with us, Cool Daddy-O. Girlfriend or no, you ain’t married, you can still have some fun.”

Hank had been trying to get me to go out with him and the guys for a few weeks. I kept putting him off.

“One of these days,” I told him, convinced I would never take him up on the offer. “You sure you’re gonna be alright up there?”

Hank had asked me for a lift up to the top shelf, about twenty feet high, where he said he was going to take a nap during lunch. He was hungover at least half the week, it seemed, and he’d try to sleep some of it off during the noon hour. But sleeping in his car was uncomfortable and hot, so he’d decided to try napping in a secret corner of the much cooler warehouse.

“It’s fine,” he assured me, as I peered up to that top shelf. “I made myself a little sleeping area up there between the Carlon boxes and the EMT overstock. Perfect place to snooze. Hoist me up, baby.”

I raised the pallet into the air, stopping level with the top shelf. Hank said thanks and stepped off, disappearing into his little cave in the boxes. As I lowered the pallet, I accidentally lurched the forklift forward, which slammed the pallet into the lower shelf, cracking a few plastic outlet boxes. I looked around, no one had seen me, whew. I was already having trouble learning to drive the forklift, I didn’t need another setback.

“I heard that, Cool Daddy-O,” came Hank’s voice from his upper berth. “What’re you, drunk? What’d you break?”

I pretended not to hear him, backed the forklift up, then lowered the forks and drove away.

When I parked the forklift and plugged it into the charger, Odd Jim was at the warehouse work table, organizing an order for one of his clients. Odd Jim was an inside salesman, an average white man in his forties, hair always neatly trimmed, dress shirts and polyester slacks always pressed, if a decade outdated, and his shoe of choice was the (always polished) dress boot, the type with the short zipper up the side. His desk was immaculately organized, as were his account books (Moe and Gosh were loathe to computerize, for whatever reason, and everything at M.G. was done on paper). I don't think we said more then twenty words to each other during my entire time there, but even with that limited direct contact, Odd Jim seemed too neat, too organized, too polite. Although the obvious warehouse dude rumor pegged him as gay, there was something more to his overly compartmentalized appearance and work habits that struck me as odd. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but he just seemed…off.

“Did I hear something break?” he asked me.

“No,” I lied. “I just knocked over a box of outlet covers.”

A few years after my time at M.G., I heard the intro to a television news story about a man arrested at the border with thousands in cash and a suitcase full of child pornography. Then they said his name and flashed his mugshot. It was Odd Jim. Turned out he’d been running one of the larger child porn distribution rings in the country. I read later he’d agreed to keep running his business in order to entrap his “clients,” hoping to reduce his own sentence in the process. Apparently, all his organization and neatness had allowed him to have an unusually long career in the child porn game, but he’d finally made one slip and that had been it. It’s such a cliché to say yes, I knew it, in the aftermath of something like that. I didn’t know anything. Although in retrospect, I think he reminded me of a man who’d put a fear into me one day when I was eleven or twelve. A neatly dressed and groomed guy like Odd Jim had followed me around the mall one afternoon when I was there by myself. Though I sort of noticed him, and made an attempt to lose him, I hadn’t been truly worried until I was given a warning by a female employee at Miller’s Outpost, who actually called security on the guy because she thought he had his hands down his pants and was playing with himself while he was following me around the store. As soon as she’d said this, I was gone. Before security or cops or anyone else could arrive I ran out of the store as fast as I’d ever run. At the crowded bus stop area of the mall, I all but hid in the bushes until my bus arrived, and I darted onto it at the last moment only when I was certain I’d lost my pedophile shopping center stalker.

Odd Jim. Odd world. Odd existence.

                     *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Whenever I was driving the forklift, Ray was nervous. Even though he couldn’t do half of Tommy’s shipping/receiving job, Ray was still the warehouse manager, and he was responsible, in theory, for making sure things ran smoothly, orders went out, that merchandise wasn’t being broken. And there was the rub for Ray when it came to me and the forklift.

He’d told Hank to give me driving lessons, but they had so far proven useless. I was decent at unloading pallets from delivery trucks, but retrieving pallets from the warehouse shelves, especially the upper ones, was my glaring weakness.

One afternoon, a few guys had called in sick and it was busy. Ray was taking care of a few orders, and in a rush told me to get the last three boxes of fluorescent tube lamps down from the top shelf and load them onto my truck for a delivery to a customer. I gulped, with a strong desire to suggest that perhaps I wasn’t the best man for the job. But I had too much male pride to admit my shortcoming in this area. I hopped into the driver’s seat of the forklift and headed down the fairly narrow middle aisle. Turning the lift perpendicular to the shelves, I lifted the forks high into the air and slid them under the pallet without a problem, as I should have. That was the easy part. Now I had to back the forklift out, at a slow and steady angle, sliding the pallet out from its tight space on the shelf, while turning just enough to allow me to free it completely and then drive back down the cramped aisle. I took it steadily and slowly, tapping at the controls gingerly, adjusting the pitch of the forks, teasing the steering wheel and accelerator. I was looking good, so good, and then Hank’s voice rang out behind me.

“There you go, Cool Daddy-O, you got it!”

I turned instinctively in the direction of his voice, and as I did I jerked the forklift just enough to send the three boxes….INCOMING!…plummeting to their deaths, crashing to the floor, shattering thirty or forty lamps in the process. When I picked up one of the boxes, it sounded like a fat cardboard rain-stick, all you could hear was thousands of pieces of thin broken glass tinkling off each other.

Hank patted me on the shoulder with a laugh. Ray did neither.

“That’s it,” he told me, more disgusted than I’d ever seen him. “You’re just the delivery driver from now on, and that’s it. No one in this warehouse better let Cool Daddy-O near that goddamn forklift again. Everyone hear me?”

He walked away angry, feverishly flicking his tongue between the gap in his missing teeth.

“Don’t sweat it, Cool Daddy-O,” said Tommy. “Ray can barely tie his own shoes. Hell, he wrecked the last delivery truck we had.”

“F-ck you, Tommy,” Ray yelled from the front of the warehouse.

“I love you too, as-hole,” Tommy replied. “Make sure to f-ck up more of my paperwork this afternoon, okay? Idiot.”

“So you gonna go out with us this Friday or what?” Hank asked me.

“I’ll try,” I told him, putting him off again. “Talk to me Thursday.”

At that moment, Victor, one of the salesman, came out to have a smoke. Victor had a very pale complexion and a thick brown moustache, which was always kind of striking to me, like a naked person wearing a tie. He lit a smoke and looked at us in amazement.

“Can you believe that Vanilla Ice dude ain’t black?” he asked us, literally stymied by this revelation, as if he’d just discovered Jesus wasn’t white. “I heard that Ice Ice Baby song he sings and I said there’s no way, gotta be a brother. I bet he’s lip syncing and it’s really a black dude singing. Gotta be. Seriously. Don’t you think?”

Surprisingly, no one felt impassioned enough to engage him on the topic.

Harry Hands Mike now emerged from the front office and joined us.

“Joleen wants me,” he said to Hank. “The way we look at each other. Raw lust, baby.”

Joleen was a corn-fed Kansas girl who worked as one of the administrative assistants in the front office. HHM was infatuated with her, though on the surface she wasn’t his type at all. He went for the surfer chicks, which his current girlfriend was. But she was also a burgeoning coke-head, and prone to moodiness (usually when out of blow), and she seemed to drive HHM crazy much of the time. But she was petite and tanned and hot, and that’s what matters to most guys, most of the time, in most corners of the earth, so he endured it. The thought of calm and quiet little Joleen, with her fair, midwestern skin, her shapely body hidden by tomboyish and unrevealing clothing, it really got him going. They flirted a lot, but Joleen had a boyfriend, or a fiancé, or some guy in her life, but no one had ever seen him. Word was she was leaving to go back to the Midwest soon, but she always denied it.

“She better not leave without hooking up with me,” HHM remarked. “I’ll make sure that doesn’t happen. I won’t let it.”

Though he hadn’t said it in an ominous tone, Hank told HHM to shut up, that he sounded like a rapist.

“I won’t need to rape anyone,” HHM replied. “Trust me. We want each other. Bad.”

HHM went back inside, and Hank turned to me.

“I’m not waiting until Thursday for an answer, Cool Daddy-O,” he said. “Friday night. You in or out?”

I knew I couldn’t get out of it without being a jerk.

“Fine,” I told him. “I’m in.”

He smiled. “Atta boy. We’re gonna get you so drunk they’ll have to barn the livestock early that night.”

Ah, excellent. I could hardly, ahem, wait.

Comments

CuddleFish June 17, 2010 @ 7:10 p.m.

Oh Lord, now we're in for it. :) Can't wait to read the next chapter.

BTW, I know what you mean about Odd Jim. It's exactly like in the movies when you see ordinary normal people dealing with someone who just seems to not quite fit in and that turns out to be the bad guy or whatever. We knew a guy who was a shoe salesman at a department store, an altar boy, he would play ball over at the fields, he had been a volunteer with the Little League. He had come over to my house once or twice (at the time I had a nephew living with me who played ball, and he was also a pal of my children's father), and yeah, I got that "little off" vibe around him. Sure enough, one day turn on the TV and there he is, doing the perp walk, busted for molesting boys at a ballfield in South Bay.

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