short stories ~ literary fiction ~ social commentary
copyright © 1999 - 2013
It’s not like I grew up in a bubble. I’d seen some terrible things by my sixteenth birthday. Okay, terrible’s the wrong adjective. Life’s life after all. Bad things happen, again, bad’s the wrong adjective.
I had a brother never born, a best friend’s soul stolen by bad choices and an abortionist’s suction tube, another friend ripped from my heart and this world by drug addiction.
I think I’ll stick with my adjectives.
Though young, I remember the fall of a president and a civil rights leader, dead, murdered. I grew up with movies such as Black Like Me with James Whitmore, Easy Rider with Peter Fonda and a movie I never tire of: Twelve Angry Men, with every actor working at the time.
My friend Justine’s genealogy springs from Spain a few generations back. She’s the archetypal governor’s daughter right out of Zorro and likely the most beautiful woman I know. Yet, I’ve seen hate and ignorance, rarely overt, directed at her. We got busted once for shoplifting, evidence planted in her pocket, for example.
Young at the time and maybe a bit starry-eyed, I thought we left ignorance and hate behind in the 60’s as the 70’s took hold.
Really, it’s not like I grew up in a bubble.
The summer before my last year of high school, I landed a job on a loading dock at a distribution center for a major grocery chain. Mom, of course, thought I should’ve applied in a store, maybe a bagger or cashier.
Mom’s a girly-girl, could have modeled for Barbie dolls. Like Justine, she’s got a perfect beauty that’ll suck the air from any room. I’ve got some curves, no mistaking me for a boy, but I got Dad’s big bones, broad shoulders and robust legs. I imagine what we would call an Indian back then, Native American today, slapping me on the back and saying: “Strong, sturdy woman! Give many babies!”
I wanted to work on the dock because I could and they had to hire me.
I was ignored for the most part, tolerated when someone had to deal with me, giving me busywork off by myself. I’d pitch in anyway, throwing freight, following leads, guessing what to do.
In my third week, sore and a bit more respectful of how our food gets to the market, the foreman, Mark, shouted out a zoo truck must have turned over because monkeys were crawling all over the dock outside. Naturally, I went to see – three black children unloading a truck.
I say children, my age. Chocolate faces and exposed backs glistening from sweat and an early morning sun. They chanted, a musical grunt with each beat of a crate changing hands. I’m not an evangelist, never was. Each Sunday as I stand with my parents over the grave of my unborn brother or I remember Barbara’s eyes watching me from her dead face, I know there can be no God.
Moments like on the loading dock, watching the incarnate, flawless dance, I have no doubt of God’s hand in human affairs.
I turned back on my supervisor. “You think that’s funny?”
“What are you, girly? A nigger-lover?” An eighteen-inch crowbar tapped against his palm.
He reminded me of juror number three, the Lee J. Cobb character. I held his eyes, paces away. “It’s just not right to hate anyone just ‘cause they’re different.”
“I don’t hate them people as long as they know their place.” Mark smirked, the crowbar finding a slow rhythm. “You know what this is?”
I bobbed my chin.
I got halfway to the office before I decided not to quit. I swept the floor like it’d never been swept before.
With wild eyes and a raised voice, hands punching at the air, I told what happened.
“He threatened to hurt people!”
Dad, always with calm reason. “He’s likely a boaster, with no real stomach to confront anyone. Did he actually taunt anyone or just hide in the safety of the warehouse trying to impress you with his manliness?”
I giggled. “Waving the crowbar like he was, he looked like one of them great apes protecting his territory.”
“Takes a monkey to know a monkey?”
“That’s not funny.”
“No, it’s not.”
I watched the guys I worked with, listening carefully. I agreed with Dad. Though they spent much time trying to impress each other with what I would call hate-talk, I don’t believe any would do physical harm to another person.
I got the idea of soft-bigots, people who say hateful, insensitive things with the intent of being funny or trying to impress, not fully aware of how hurtful the words are, not aware they’re referring to actual human beings and not straw people. I regret not getting chesty, marching up to Mark, maybe a finger on his chest, calling out his bigotry, soft or otherwise. My thoughts, feelings and actions can be as pure as mountain spring water and meaningless if I remain silent, if I stay in my place.
I was seventeen in their social subculture, not mine. He was my supervisor. I’m sure I can think up more excuses for not doing the right thing.
One morning when I got to work, punching in, I saw Mark about twelve feet off the ground on the forks of the forklift, struggling to free a crate from the racks, obviously slipped and wedged.
He growled like a great ape, tugging to liberate the crowbar. The crowbar did not refuse the invitation, smacking Mark squarely between the eyes. He slipped, went backwards, landing on a pile of boxes.
People rushed around.
I stooped to Mark, pressing my handkerchief to his forehead. “I guess that’s a Mark-be-cool-tool now.”
I didn’t mean to be funny, yet some people laughed.
The only permanent damage was to Mark’s pride and my handkerchief. The nickname for the crowbar, Mark-be-cool-tool, stuck the rest of the summer and I hope, to this day.