Billy Collins 10 p.m., March 12
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- The Abnormal Width of Normal Heights
The Early Daze, part 16
Tommy left the TV on his desk the entire week, and it was tuned to the war every second. Orders were down, the days dragged, and we all found ourselves watching that violent screen more than we should have. It was much the same reason people slow down to see if there’s anyone vivisected in the road at the scene of a car accident. Morose curiosity, satisfied malevolence (see Gary Gosh), resigned disgust; sometimes all three, since we are all (not just Gosh) prone to cruel moments of kill-them-bastards fever, even if we’ll never admit it. The visual experience reminded me, especially the nighttime bombing footage, which seemed to be all we saw, of watching the old video game Missile Command. Surreal and yet disturbingly familiar. War as entertainment. We were the new generation of war viewers, like the carriages full of spectators who snacked on biscuits as they watched in their top hats and hoop skirts the civil war Battle of Bull Run in 1861, except now we didn’t even have to travel. Vietnam had been the television war, but this was the LIVE television war. With captions and graphics and all sorts of cool stuff to make you forget what you were really watching. And there we were, a bunch of warehouse phucks, pushing brooms, and driving forklifts, and filling a diminishing volume of orders, waiting for layoffs to hit at any moment, as real bombs exploded from the tiny TV on Tommy’s desk. The most twisted entertainment you could watch, snuff films by another name, a feast of war porn to keep our bored and rebellious cockminds occupied.
Pepe was the exception. He spent most of these dragging days doing pushups in the back of the warehouse. I haven’t mentioned Pepe up to this point, I realize, which isn’t surprising, since he was a small and soft-spoken and harmless kind of guy. He was doing pushups because he was in the reserves, and he was convinced, now that the war had started, that he would be called up to active duty. Everyone at MG hoped that wouldn’t happen. The poor guy wasn’t cut out for the toughest elements of the warehouse trade, a real battlefield would kill him on sight. He was from Tijuana, with an early balding pate, and a wispy black moustache that made him look like the world's oldest fourteen year-old. He crossed the border into TJ every weekend to stay with his parents at their house in one of the poorer colonias, or so he told us. We never really knew what to believe with Pepe, since he would sometimes tell stories, out of the blue it seemed, about his weekends in Mexico; stories that were so unbelievable we often couldn’t restrain our laughter during his telling of them. His best tale involved being kidnapped by drug dealers and held for two hours in the back of a van. The next time he told the story, however, he was held for six hours in the back of a sixteen wheeler. By the third telling, Pepe had been removed from the truck and placed in the back of a limousine with the head of a cartel, who had mistaken Pepe for the brother of a rival cartel leader. Pepe had only been able to escape, he claimed, by leaping from the car when it was stopped at a light and running away. Wow, we all marveled, giggle giggle giggle, you’re pretty lucky. The last time Hank heard the kidnapping story, he told me later, Pepe had added a final detail.
“And the cartel leader told me they had AIDS,” Hank repeated in a nerdy Pepe impersonation. “And he said that the whole car was infected with it too. So when I escaped, I had to be quarantined for three months in a hospital.”
Hank just shook his head as I chuckled. “He was kidnapped by an HIV-positive car, dude, come on, what the hell is that? The poor cat is sick. He probably will end up in Iraq.”
With the onset of the war, sold under the name Desert Storm for popular consumption, everything around the MG Electric warehouse seemed to be succumbing to a sort of commercial and emotional entropy. On edge from a variety of factors, everyone was sort of slowly cracking and crumbling. Arguments about the war weren’t common, but leave it to me, the college dork slumming, to get the ball rolling and cracking into a thousand entropic pieces. When Gosh and I went at it about the war for a few minutes, he started chesting up to me, and I just laughed and moved away, which made him even angrier.
“You think it’s funny when your country’s at war?” he pursued me, nuclear nationalism dripping from his Magnum P.I. moustache. “You think I’m joking?”
He was right back in my face, and I had no desire to go any further with him, but I was cornered against the racks of steel conduit. “No, I don’t think you’re joking, Gary. But I do think you should let me go now, I have a delivery to make.” But he didn’t move. So I stood taller, ready to defend myself it he acted.
At that moment, to my relief, Ray and Tommy (usually the combatants), along with Hank and the others, were in between us breaking up a fight that was never really going to happen. Gosh had been waiting for them to step in, I could tell from his reaction to their appearance. He seemed, in truth, almost as relieved as I was. He might like a shot at me in a dark alley, but with everyone around and daddy just inside the office, nah, I wasn’t worth it. And, certainly, neither was he.
“Ease off there Cool-Daddy-O,” Hank said, pushing me backward, which he didn’t need to do, I was practically walking away as it was. “I don’t want Gosh getting in any lucky punches. He’s got a few inches and alotta reach on you. You college drama geeks are soft as tomatoes, I know how you roll.”
One afternoon soon after that, when it was once again slow and I had no deliveries to make (an increasing occurrence as the economy floundered), I found myself somehow in the middle of a discussion about race with Hank and Tommy. I can’t remember how it had started, except that it probably had to do with the war. I want to say I made a comment about the makeup of the armed forces in terms of economic class and race, or how relatively easy we three white people had it compared to others of color, or some purposefully pompous and poorly timed crap to that effect. This catapulted us into a conversation that turned heated and resulted in Hank being disgusted with me.
“Oh, so now you’re saying being black is like being born without an arm or half a head, or some shit like that,” he cracked back at me sarcastically, not getting my lousy metaphor.
“That’s not what I’m saying at all.”
“You just said it!”
Tommy, for the second time in a week, found himself playing peacemaker in a dispute in which I was involved.
“Now now, boys, let’s not let a little thing like hostility, or Cool-Daddy-O’s mental incapacities, get in the way of being friends here.”
Hank walked off, grumbling and muttering about how ridiculous I was. Not that I could entirely disagree. I could have left well enough alone and not opened my mouth at all that day. But I had the pest in me. We had to talk, someone did, there was too much going on in the warehouse psyche not to. But all it had gotten me was anxiety. Twice. When it was supposed to have offered relief from such. Two onside kicks failed. Smarty-pants strikes again. My back started to hurt that afternoon, for no explicable reason (or at least none that I was aware of at the time), and I only remember it did begin to hurt because I clearly recall Hank, still disgusted with me, walking into the lunch room at break and finding me on the floor.
“So Gosh finally knocked you out, huh?” he asked me, stiff but exaggerated grin on his red head.
“My back. It feels like I have a knitting needle stabbing me.”
“You’re okay, Cool-Daddy-O, two-thirds of life is denial. We all think you’re a dick today. Accept it, don’t TRY to deny it in this case. And all your pain will go away.”
Two-thirds of life is denial. One of Hank’s favorite lines, along with “The key to happiness is denial.” Contradictory, and yet not. Life as is, no credits offered. As mortal and rational creatures, faced with the reality of a cold, indifferent and irrational universe, and the certainty of death (the ultimate insult to the human mind, conscious and sub) I always knew that Hank was mostly right about denial, but I was hesitant to give him credit. I was too full of myself then. But I was envious of his unselfconscious wisdom, as well as his willingness to admit when he simply didn’t know something. Hank has never tried to pretend he knows more about something than he does, which I haven’t always been able to say of myself. It is what has made him one of the most honest people I’ve ever known. Often difficult, but as straight up as you get.
Hank and I kind of stayed at arm’s length for a few weeks after we’d had our socio-political falling out. But I re-earned his respect when I once again had to go chest to chest with Gary Gosh.
We had a big delivery to make one morning, out to Indio, east of Palm Springs. Date country. It was such a big delivery it was going to require both trucks. Pepe was chosen to drive the smaller stakebed, which was as overloaded with electrical supplies my bigger truck was. Once on the freeway, with me leading in the big truck, we cruised slowly north on I-15 into Temecula, then only a fraction of the sprawling mess it is today. And here Pepe and I became separated. Or, more accurately, I separated myself from him. I thought I remembered a shortcut from my US Courier days, so I turned off the freeway and headed east. But then I noticed Pepe wasn’t behind me, that he was still on the freeway. Oops. I thought about turning around, but for some reason, I just kept going. We had no way to contact each other, and I figured I’d just meet him at the jobsite. He had the paperwork, he had the directions, he’d be fine, and I remembered, or I thought I did, the general location of the jobsite, which was a new tract of homes being built. It would be a large site, I’d see it once I got close. I assumed we’d be fine. But I’d messed up badly, and I soon found myself with my overloaded stakebed on the mountain road (the “Palms to Pines Highway,” though in this direction it was the pines to palms), creaking and braking my way down the steeply snaking highway. Then I was unable to find the jobsite. I had to call in to the office from a payphone in Indian Wells, getting a dumb earful from Gary Gosh, which I endured so I could get new directions. I ended up getting to the construction site about an hour and a half after I should have, and as I pulled in I saw Pepe doing pushups under the desert sun as he waited for me. I apologized to him and offered no excuses, I’d just screwed up. We unloaded the two trucks by hand, sweating buckets and getting dizzy. To cool down and rest, we took our lunch break in the greasy air-conditioned splendor of a Del Taco. Driving home on I-10, we hit a colossal desert sandstorm that lasted for a few miles. I had the truck’s massive engine floored on level highway and never made it over forty miles an hour, fighting through the blinding and swirling mayhem of Coachella sand and twigs and trash.
When we arrived back at MG Electric, three hours later than we should have, Gary Gosh pulled me outside to rant at me. What the hell was my problem? Why the hell was I getting back so late? Did idiot Pepe screw things up for me? Or were we both just trying to cheat them out of three hours wages? He was chesting up again. Look, I told him, first, it’s not Pepe’s fault at all, I screwed up, it’s all on me. I explained that I got off the freeway when I shouldn’t have, that I was an hour and a half late getting there, that we unloaded by hand, it was hot as hell, so we took lunch before we headed back. It took us a few minutes longer to drive back, I added, because we hit a sandstorm. Sure you did, he said, nose to nose. Gimme a break, I nosed him back, dock my three hours pay, I don’t care, I told you what happened, believe it or don’t believe it, I don’t phucking care, that’s the truth. I could tell he wanted to punch me as I walked away and left him there.
Hank met me at the warehouse door. “Atta boy, Cool-Daddy-O, I’m proud you stood up to that prick.”
So was I, when I thought about it. I’d surprised myself. Hank was rubbing off on me.
* * * * * * * *
Karen and I had been doing well since I’d called her to rescue me from my night out with the warehouse guys. The good stretch ended at a party given by some old friend of hers. I was in a bad mood to start with, for whatever forgotten reason. But I remember distinctly being bothered by everything about the gathering. I hated the neighborhood, somewhere in the Spring Valley/La Mesa badlands of blah, and I hated the cutsey décor on the lawn of the house. Garden fairies and big spangled butterflies, and a doormat with something irritatingly Holly Hobby about it. (My ideal doormat for the day would’ve been black with dark gray letters that read: “I live here. You don’t.”) Inside, at the actual gathering of humans, I didn’t like anything about any of them. Karen had said most of the people would be on the conservative side (if most means all, then she was right), but she really liked her friend Mary and wanted to be there for her. I was ready to scream within five minutes. Instead, my stomach churned, my intestines burned, and I was soon begging Karen to leave because I thought I had food poisoning (and I was grateful just to think so, I had to get out of that house quickly). I pestered her for a half-hour until we left. We rode in silence back to her place. My stomach was fine, all the churning and burning had ceased. She didn’t believe I’d really been sick, that I’d lied. At her house, she didn’t want me to come in. I drove back to 32nd Street wondering how long this newest, coldest silence between Karen and I would last. I felt a terrible sadness overcome me. A feeling of abandonment, of being totally alone, without love. More than just cry, I felt like I wanted to punch my fist through the windshield and wail out the open window. My back started to stiffen and lock on cue.
When I got home, Ulf once again wanted to give me a rubdown. Again I declined, this time less politely, and for a moment I genuinely thought he could be a serial killer back in Sweden. This could just be vacation for him. Or a transfer.
* * * * * * * *
I missed a couple of days of work with my bad back, spent them on the ugly carpeted floor of my bare white bedroom on 32nd Street. Karen and I didn’t speak to each other. When I returned to work, on a Wednesday morning I think, I had no idea that the day would be my last at M.G. Electric. I would get a rude and enlightening lesson on the cold and cutthroat side of commerce. How we were all just widgets, after all.