Bart Mendoza 5 a.m., Dec. 8
The moment I knew I had no future at M.G. Electric (not that I craved a long one) came the night the Iraq War broke out, and it occurred nowhere near the warehouse, nor during my hours of regular employment. Karen and I attended a minor-league San Diego Gulls hockey game at the sports arena with my old friend, D.J., and his longtime girlfriend, Nora. The Gulls were playing some other second-tier team: the Indianapolis Ice, the Los Angeles Ice Dogs, perhaps the Fort Wayne Komets or the Salt Lake Golden Eagles, I don’t recall. Fellow theatre department grads, D.J. and I, along with a few other college chums, frequently played over-the-line back then, on weekends, on a field at La Jolla High, and we were both athletes from high school. He and Nora had grown up in La Jolla, both were adopted, and they’d been dating since they were teenagers. In college, when she’d been attending SMU, they’d run up astronomical phone bills, survived many a fight and mini-breakup, but they always remained. They’d been together so long, no one who knew them really identified them as anything but a couple. We assumed they’d marry, have kids, and grow old in the same sweet La Jolla house that D.J. was still sharing with his parents. He had his own little wing with a private entrance that fronted a black-bottom lap pool. Why would he ever leave? I never would have. Friends would joke that we expected to be attending D.J. and Nora parties at the house when we were in our fifties. But, like the entropy all around us at that time, theirs would come a few years later, in a painful breakup that almost broke apart D.J. completely. That night, however, they were still together, Nora wasn’t yet at the breaking point with D.J.’s inability to commit by diamond, and the four of us enjoyed the puck play from great seats, just above the glass, maybe ten rows up from the ice.
The game had started, I recall, with a moment of silence for our soldiers in action, then the Star Spangled Banner was played to fervent cheers from the war-whooped crowd. Something about the moment made my stomach turn. I thought about innocent people dying, about my fractured family, about M.G., the fistfights between Ray and Tommy, and chesting up with Gary Gosh. Then it happened. The emotion of the night, of the war, of the hockey game, all of it, came to a head when one player took a swing at another, and that player swung back, and that was it…the brawl was on! Gloves and sticks were dropped and the punches flew, the benches cleared, sweaters (hockey jerseys) were pulled over heads as players grappled from goal line to goal line. Referees tried to break it up at first, but they quickly realized it was futile and retreated to the perimeter as the fight metastasized. It was violent mayhem, and the crowd loved it. Every player in uniform (and some now partially out) were brawling, fists were flying, skates slipping and sliding, bodies sprawled and tangling on the ice like alpha sea elephants battling over mating rights. Even the goalies had shed most of their armor and were punching it out. Sticks and gloves and other equipment littered the rink like garbage at the base camp of Mt. Everest. The crowd roared for more, kill him, kill him, kill him! The country was at war, the arena was at war, everything was breaking apart. And I knew. This couldn’t go on. Not this game, not this war, not my life in this city. I knew I wouldn’t quit, but I knew I was gone. The chaos and mayhem of hockey that night was a harbinger of personal things to come. I just had no idea how it would happen. I may have been able to stand up to Gary Gosh a couple of times, but completely changing my life was another matter. That kind of responsibility was not my strong suit. For me, it had always been a suit of nails.
* * * * * * * *
A couple of months later, the fate bereft day arrived. Most likely, I went to work that morning in a bad mood. Karen and I had been on the outs since I’d forced her to leave her friend Mary’s party early, when she’d believed I’d feigned illness to get away. My back had been locked for a weekend, keeping me on the floor, and then just when it started to loosen up, my roommate Sandra and her boyfriend announced that they had set a date for their wedding. This news, I recall, set my back to stiffening again, as well as giving my “allergies” renewed life, and started me on a several year belief that I was lactose intolerant. Ridiculousness through body via brain, all in the service of distraction. And I hadn’t the slightest clue. I assumed, as I always had, that I was just an inferior wreck born. Poor fool. I’d have a decade and more of wondering why my body was such a finely tuned malady machine.
That final day at M.G. began, I would guess, as typically as ever. Tommy was mad at Ray, but he had a cold, and the sniffles kept him from working up a fight. Hairy Hands Mike, still smarting from the Joleen experience, had given Hank a ride to work, after Hank’s beloved RX-7 had died, which set him in a foul mood. Pepe was still doing pushups in the back, having not been called up to active duty, as he thankfully never would be. Drunk Jim was stumbling around the warehouse looking for something to do, Old Paul was fingering the latest meatball growing on his face, while Frizz was wired on coke, daydreaming about being on an infinite green Frisbee golf course. And Ray was flicking his tongue through that gape in his missing teeth, on edge and waiting for Tommy’s cold pills to kick in and a still possible fight to commence.
My first run was out to a construction site in Rancho Penasquitos, or, as my old roommate J’s little brother and his friends referred to it, Rancho Skin-Your-Penis. It had rained the night before and it had continued that morning, I-15 wet and slick. As I exited the freeway at Mercy Road (always oddly named, especially after being the site of Kara Knott’s murder by a CHP officer year’s earlier), I felt a bang in the rear of the truck, and my brakes immediately weakened. Speeding down the offramp hill, I approached the stoplight much faster than I should have, and I didn’t think I’d be able to stop. I was sweating instantly, obscenities roared from my throat, my heart beating like a cornered mouse. I floored the brakes with one foot, floored the emergency brake with the other, and wondered if there were atheist prayers for deliverance. With no cars stopped ahead of me, I got lucky and the light turned green, allowing me to skid through the intersection, around the bend, and then roll to a stop just out from under the freeway overpass.
Silence. Son of a bitch. Unbelievable.
Out of breath and in soft shock, I was thankful I hadn’t wrecked or crashed into anyone else. When I got out of the truck, the smell of burning rubber, from tires and brakes, was thick and nauseating. As I walked to the back, I could see the problem immediately. One of the rear dualies had blown out, shedding a long piece of tread which had wrapped around the wheel and axle, tying itself in what looked like a knot. I don’t remember what I did to call in to work and let them know I was stranded, whether I walked a mile to the nearest payphone, got a lift from another sympathetic delivery driver, or however I did it, but an hour later a tow truck met me. The driver inspected the blown tire and the tread knotted around the wheel and axle of the stakebed.
“You’re lucky you could stop this thing at all,” he told me nonchalantly. I had, however, been well aware of this while in the act of stopping the thing, yelling and cursing at the top of my lungs, ready to meet any possible maker with a very big chip on my shoulder.
With vein-bulging effort, and utilizing a crowbar, the tow truck driver managed to dislodge the blown tread and replace the tire, and then he tweaked the brakes to get them back in order. The truck was good to go.
“You’re a lucky man,” he said as he left, rain starting to fall hard.
I suppose I should have felt lucky, but now I was faced with a delivery in bad weather, and I was massaged by no fortune whatsoever. A few hours late, blinding rain on my windshield like a splattering plague of locusts, I made it to the construction site, where I was to deliver my load of conduit and cable and connectors. A foreman, holding a scrap piece of drywall over his head to shield himself from the deluge (“My phucking hardhat leaks,” he lamented), directed me to unload my truck, once again by hand and by myself, into a metal storage container that was sitting in a vacant lot full of what appeared to be foot-deep mud.
After sloshing the truck through the mud to the storage container, I waited a few minutes for the rain to stop. When it did, I got out of the truck carefully and made my way to the rear, the mud a thick and sticky earthen chocolate, and I removed two stake sections to unload my cargo. The bed wasn’t full, most of the load was packed against the cab, so I started to climb up onto the bed to get to it. I grabbed a stake on the side to pull myself up, but just at the point when all my weight was on the foot I’d planted on the bed, and I was pushing my entire body up, my foot slipped and all the weight of that body came crashing down on my knees, both of which slammed onto the metal edge of the truck bed with a force of pain that shot tears from my eyes. I collapsed into the mud in agony, convinced that I’d broken both of my kneecaps. Coated in wet soil, I managed to stand up, legs quivering in weakness, and I breathed deeply to regain what pitiful measure of composure remained in my corpus. Being the loyal pleaser I have always been by nature (a displeaser, as well, and always the conflict), I dutifully sucked up the pain and unloaded my cargo into the container. Once finished, my knees were throbbing more heavily, nausea from the pain was rising in my gut, and I drove back to M.G. Electric with one thing on my mind: get signed up for that health insurance. I had been promised insurance coverage after I’d been employed for three months. It was now four months and I was in need. I wanted to see the doctor and make sure my kneecaps weren’t cracked, a ligament or tendon not damaged.
I pulled into the warehouse parking lot and was barely able to bend my knees to get out of the truck. Limping into the main office, I knocked on Frank Moe’s door. Fresh with the scent of gin and tits from another strip-club Reuben sandwich lunch special, he looked up at me from his reading glasses and asked what I needed.
“Well,” I said hesitantly, still standing in the doorway, “I was told I’d be able to get signed up for health insurance after three months, and it’s four months now, and I just hurt my knees on that last delivery, so, I was hoping, you know…”
Frank Moe paused thoughtfully, took what seemed like a difficult moment, then removed his reading glasses.
“Come on in, Dave,” he said in a resigned tone. “And close the door. I need to talk to you.”
I entered and shut the door behind me, then took a seat across from his desk. I said nothing. He paused briefly.
“Dave, unfortunately, we’re gonna have to let you go.”
Thud. What? It took a second to set in. I was canned. Really? Really. Finished. Kaput at M.G. Seeking benefits I thought I’d earned, I’d instead been laid off. Moe continued talking about how hard it was to do it, how I was the best driver they’d ever had, that old man Gosh agreed with him about that, but things were just tight, orders were down, it was the economy, that creature that was out of everyone’s control. But I was seething, my knees still burning in pain. If I’d said nothing, if I’d never mentioned health insurance at all, I was sure I’d still have a job. And I was sure of a few other things at this point, as well: that Frank Moe had a shiny new BMW parked in the lot outside, and that, as everyone in the warehouse was aware, he and old man Gosh had just bought a huge Lake Tahoe vacation house together. But they just had to let me go. Apparently, he needed my meager wages to pay his toy bills. I was disposable. His trinkets weren’t.
We’re all just widgets.
Frank Moe told me I was welcome to finish out the week, I told him no thanks. When I exited his office and returned to the warehouse, Hank asked me what was up.
“I just got laid off.”
“It’s true. I went in to ask about the medical bennies, and I got laid off instead.”
Hank was livid, beyond angry. I told him it was alright, that he shouldn’t get worked up about it. But he did. He stormed around the warehouse, punching boxes, until he finally punched a box of Romex wire and came away with a staple in his knuckle. Bleeding, he told me not to stay there a minute longer.
“Screw these idiots,” he said. “Get outta here and never come back. Don’t even think about this useless place.”
I gathered my stuff and said my goodbyes. In the parking lot at my car, Hank ran out to get in a last word.
“I’m worried I’ll never see you again, Cool-Daddy-O.”
But he had no reason to be worried. We’d stay in each other’s lives. The last time I saw Hank, in fact, was about a month ago. He was moving out of San Diego for good, headed for the central valley, and a new great unknown. Now it’s me who’s thinking we’ll never see each other again. Time flies faster as we move slower. What’s up in the Bake, my friend? What’s up in you?
* * * * * * * *
A few weeks after I was laid off, I found out from Hank that one of the drivers from a client company came in to beg for a job. He’d been laid off, as well, but had a wife and two kids to support, and he was much more desperate than I was. Moe and Gosh were moved, their mercantile hearts softened, and they gave the guy my old delivery driver job. With one condition: they’d only pay him minimum wage, half what I had been making.
I was relieved. That new BMW and the Lake Tahoe house would not be abandoned entirely. Poor babies.