Graham

Archive for July, 2010|Monthly archive page

Just When I Figured It Out, Everything Changed

In Publishing on July 6, 2010 at 10:26 am

I spent a couple of hours Yesterday assessing the rocky road ahead for those of us who want nothing more (and nothing less) out of life than to create something lasting and useful for generations to come. Perhaps a single novel with a message that transcends time, or a single painting that reaches out to say “I was here.” Tall order? I suppose that it’s still possible—to make my mark, that is—theoretically. But I keep running into the suggestion that the internet is the change that rocked the world of publishing.

If you are a technical person, you probably appreciate the technical changes; if you have an artist’s bent, you might feel uneasy about them. I am both, so I straddle both worlds. I get the impact of the decline in newspaper, magazine and book sales, and the rise of self-publishing (with lower margins for profit); the use of email, Facebook, Twitter, blogging (WordPress, a major success story) and other, newer pathways; the merger of telephone technology with the internet (e.g., iPhone and Skype). In short, the internet as tool has played a very important role, without which we would not have come as far.

That said, I now suggest that the internet is not the driving force behind these changes, for the internet is nothing but a tool–a really great tool, if wielded by the right hands–but all the more reason it depends on its user more than its existence. The driving force behind these changes is people, and specifically, the most important force for change is literacy. Making one’s mark, although we may feel overwhelmed, is still high on the agenda, but literacy has prepared so many competitors that the rules of the game have changed, we don’t get the change quite yet because the new rules don’t seem to be fully in place.

Nowhere is this more true than in the ritualistic submission of short stories to magazines. I haven’t been able to find any reliable statistics, but imperically, all publishers seem to be swamped, have received many more stories than they will ever have time to read, and the number of stories goes up every year while the number of magazines still doing business goes down. Then there is this latest trend, where the publisher runs 1 or more contests, for which you pay an entry fee (translated, we will actually read it if you pay us) but no comments will ever be provided about what they read. At least that’s the way my 153 submissions over the last 2 years have played out.

The Association of American Publishers (AAP) reports that book sales last year produced revenues of $23.9B, down from the previous year of $24.3B, but the first four moths of this year (2010) saw an increase of 11.8% over last year. Doesn’t sound like the book is dead just yet. A quick check of how the self-publishing segment is doing suggests that it isn’t much of a solution to this vexing problem: “… the average self-published book sells between forty and two hundred copies, depending on which set of figures you consult.” [How Publishing Really Works.blogspot.com/2009/11/self-publishing-sales-statistic.html] — I recommend you read this one cover-to-c0ver.

I guess I have made my point. At least I feel better about my role in the great cosmic race to oblivion. My only regret is that I made you sit through it to the very end. Or maybe you left quietly somewhere in the middle. Are you there? Is anybody there?

Copyright 2010 by Tad Laury Graham

Thanks to blogspot for the brief quotation in the text above.

The Man Who Could Not Stop Talking

In short story on July 3, 2010 at 5:18 pm

As far back as he can remember, family and friends thought of Leo as a pronounced introvert because he rarely felt comfortable when engaged in small talk. His closest friends went a step further and saw him as a case of arrested development, brought on by an overly strict mother and a weak father. By the end of his junior year in high school, he had formed his own opinion on the matter, as well as developed the courage to express it in this simple phrase: “small talk is a consequence of little minds.”

Having expressed this opinion more than a few times, albeit without much elaboration, he became more confident and more vocal about some of his other opinions. This newly found confidence encouraged him to believe that he might actually have important things to say. Starting with a theory that most people prefer to avoid conflict by hiding behind the trivial and unimportant, Leo saw small talk as the perfect mask—non-threatening yet full of hints and barbs—the ultimate vehicle for expressing disapproval where censure is considered to be inappropriate.

Family and friends marveled over the changes they saw in Leo’s behavior and once again began the inexact process of searching for a suitable label, large enough to summarize every facet of Leo’s character. Needless-to-say, he would henceforth be labeled an extrovert. Those who knew him said he had always been an extrovert, but had somehow suppressed it. “That’s the only thing that makes sense,” his high school counselor told his mother, yet he continues to be afflicted with undermining doubts and self-conscious limitations in expressing his thoughts. The problem remained. If anything changed, the difference was completely lost on Leo.

In his mother’s house, only his mother expresses opinions: “my house; my rules,” Virginia would say. “Everybody else is either a poor listener or a consummate bore.” It was insights like these that made Leo desperate to get out on his own, and that caused him to lie about his age on his application for a summer job with a wholesale grocer. When he actually landed the job he felt a glimmer of renewed pride—an awakening. The warehouse foreman wanted Leo to start immediately, but agreed to the following Monday so Leo would be able to move into his own apartment before starting work—coincidentally, about a year after his father moved out. Whereabouts unknown.

During his first week at AJ’s, Leo met Rick, a full-time order puller and part-time body builder who worked the graveyard shift. Leo was assigned to the day shift, so he and Rick attended the same transition meetings, where the outgoing and incoming crews share information. It was at the end of one of these sharing sessions that Rick introduced himself to Leo, volunteering that he was called “Brick” by his friends because they said he was “built like a brick shit-house.”

“I guess that would mean you should call me genius,” Leo says.

“Permanent or temporary?” Brick asks.

“Oh, I’ve always been a genius,” Leo says. “Definitely, permanent.”

“Your employment status,” Brick persists.

“Temporary,” Leo says. “Does it matter?”

“I just like to know who I’m working with,” Brick says.

Then he seemed to lose interest, and moved on to talk with another graveyard order puller—the one they call Cowboy.

Leo would replay meeting Brick in his head for the rest of the morning. Maybe Brick didn’t understand it was a joke. Something sure didn’t feel right. For one thing, you were too flippant. Probably thought you’re stuck-up. You need to correct that impression … tomorrow, if it isn’t too late.

So what now, motor-mouth?

Before Leo could find the courage and the privacy to apologize, Brick struck up a conversation and never once mentioned the self-perceived blunder. Leo wasn’t so sure how he should take that, thought maybe Brick didn’t respect him enough to call him out, but he kept his feelings to himself.

Because Leo was only a summer employee, he was assigned to help out wherever he was needed, which meant he got some pretty tough assignments. His first was to unload boxcars from factories in the midwest at the rail shipping docks on the west side of the warehouse. His job was to hand carry wholesale sized bundles and boxes to a waiting pallet outside the box car, and when the stack was high enough, someone would bring a forklift over, pick up the pallets and disappear into the warehouse. This went on for what seemed an eternity. When he finally finished and closed up the boxcar, one of the forklift drivers says, “hop on.” They zip across the warehouse to the east side and deposit Leo on the truck loading docks, where the big-rigs were loaded to make their deliveries to the retail outlets. And when they finished, they returned for another load, and then repeated this cycle again-and-again.

After the third repetition, the process seems irrational to Leo, and he loses no time sharing this opinion with anyone who listens. Already he holds an opinion that there must be a more efficient way to do these tasks, but Joe the union rep jumps in and says, “providing jobs for labor is just as important as working efficiently for management.”

Leo is dumbfounded. “Sometimes I think you are more of a socialist than a capitalist,” Leo says.

“Is that your way of calling me a communist?” Joe asks, obviously irritated.

“Hell, No!” Leo says. “I never argue with a man who understands his calling in life.”

Joe mutters something inaudible, and walks off disgruntled. He knows he has endured an insult, but is unsure of what it was.

Unloading boxcars and loading trucks is hard work, easily the hardest job in the warehouse, certainly the hardest job Leo ever held, yet he had no difficulty holding his own with the more experienced guys. He was particularly surprised that he unloaded and reloaded so fast that the order pickers had trouble keeping up with him. Leo ignored their complaints because he thought they were lazy. This little act of arrogance caused his coworkers to file their complaint with the union rep, who tried to slow Leo down with periodic talks in the break room. Joe even went so far as to suggest that Leo was taking the food out of some kid’s mouth because he was “trying to do the work of two.”

When the union rep finally figured out that he wasn’t convincing Leo he had a patriotic duty to work slower, he suggested to Bob, the warehouse foreman, that whenever Leo got ahead of the order runners, he should be required to run orders until he has enough dock work to keep busy. Joe was certain that it would take Leo at least a year—the average time required to fully learn the job—before he was any good at pulling orders, “and a lot can happen in a year.”

Bob liked the idea because he was saving the company a little money and could take credit with management for the savings. Leo liked it because there were over 5,000 items stocked in the warehouse, not including tobacco and hard liquor, and the sooner he accepted the challenge of learning every location by heart, the sooner he would be the best order runner in the house.

From everybody’s perspective the plan worked well until towards the end of summer when each of the participants got out of synch with the others. From Joe’s point of view, Leo let him down because he learned the whole warehouse in six weeks. Joe was frustrated that, in his opinion, Leo was still holding down two full-time positions for the pay of one. The foreman was impatient because he wanted to keep Leo on order pulling full-time to get his stats up with management. But the latest wrinkle was that Leo was unhappy because he wants to go back to high school for his senior year so he can graduate with his friends. He was especially torn between finishing school and keeping his apartment because: “my place; my rules” was a philosophy with strong appeal.

A few days before Leo would have to make his decision, he was sitting in the break room waiting for the transition meeting, when Brick walks in, sees him, and sits down at his table.

“You look like crap,” he says, “and your shift is just starting.”

“I’ve got a problem.”

“What’s the problem?”

“You really want to know?”

“No … but you’ll tell me anyway.”

“I have to make a decision between quitting my job and staying in school, or quitting school and keeping my job.”

“So pick one and do what you want.”

“I want both: I want to work, but I also want to graduate. And I never want to live with Mother, again.”

“Then transfer to the graveyard.” Brick says.

“How?”

“All you have to do is convert to permanent employee and Bob will move you. Union Rules. It takes seniority in permanent status to work on an earlier shift.”

At first, Leo’s mother was against the idea, but then she realized with Leo out of the house she had more freedom. So by mutual consent Leo became what the lawyers call an “emancipated minor”—which gives him the right to maintain his own household and to choose his own path. When the union rep heard that Leo was becoming a “permanent” employee, he let him know immediately that he expected Leo “to join his brothers in protecting benefits and wages, and that in the future he expected Leo to behave more like labor than like management.” Leo was so turned off by Joe’s presumption that he pushed back, hard.

“It’s an open shop state,” he says.

“Is it?” Joe replies, taking great pains to achieve strong eye contact.

“Yes,” Leo says. “I have a choice, it’s my right to choose, it’s the law.”

“If you don’t join,” Joe continues in a slightly more belligerent tone, “you will be the only non-union member on this site. I would take that personal. I’m very proud of my record of 100% union membership. Are you sure you want to make me unhappy?”

It seemed like a threat, and Leo wondered how far Joe would be willing to go to carry it out.

“Think it over,” Joe says. “Better yet, talk to your buddies and let them explain the benefits of membership—that is, if you have any buddies, ‘cuz from what I’ve seen so far you don’t make friends easily.”

Leo’s first thought was to hear what Brick had to say about union membership.  Because he is one of three order pullers on graveyard and because Leo is replacing the one they call Cowboy (who has been waiting for the day when he could bump someone for the night shift), he felt it would be easier to find a place to talk candidly. Besides which Brick seemed like someone you can trust—a straight shooter. But on the flip side there was the rumor that Brick refused to join the union, then showed up one morning nervous and agitated, joined, and has been pro-union ever since. This gave Leo second thoughts about asking Brick. He guessed he already knew how the Brick would answer.

The third runner on graveyard is known by his religion, rather than by his given name. He started at AJ’s after coming off his two year LDS mission and continued proselytizing in the workplace until management told him to take it outside or they would have to let him go. Leo would learn from Brick that “Mormon” was named “Norman,” but rather than keep explaining the difference between his name and his religion, he started answering to either. Now all anyone ever calls him is Mormon.

Leo made the naive assumption that Mormon answers to a higher authority, and would probably say what he believed, rather than tow the party line. This god-like misconception made it difficult for Leo to approach him for a few days. Life being what it is, while Leo was working up an elaborate plan to justify “accidentally bumping into Mormon” He actually ran into him in the break room, alone, eating an early breakfast. From what little Leo knew about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, he was surprised to see Mormon drinking coffee with his meal. Mormon apparently knew Leo was coming because, as Leo walked up to him, he said, “been a long time since we had a rebel in the house.”

“You from the south?” Leo asks, sitting down at Mormon’s table. “Been a long time since I heard a Southern accent.“

“Born and raised in Alabama. That far enough south for you?”

“That so? I was born in Missouri, but we left when I was pretty young. My daddy is the one with the accent in our family.”

“Naw … yawl the one with an accent, boy. Now, what dya want from me?”

“The answers to some questions.”

“You might not like the answers.”

“I don’t have to like it, I just need to know the truth.”

“Other people been down this road and don’t much care for the cost. You willing to take the crap that comes with the truth?”

“I’m through taking crap from other people, I just want the truth.”

“Everybody takes crap from somebody,” Mormon says. “It’s just the nature of how the game works.”

“Well I’m changing the rules of the game,” Leo says, leaning forward on both arms, hands clasped.

“Mormon shakes his head. “Suit yourself.” But he doesn’t continue. Instead he looks long and hard at Leo. Sizing him up. Trying to decide where the line begins and where it ends, and how you know when you’ve stepped over it.

“Well?” Leo says, with the impatience of youth.

“It was several years ago. Things are different now.”

“You aren’t going to tell me, are you?”

Mormon paused, looked like he had slipped into deep thought. Finally he says, “his name was Stanley, nice guy, probably still is for all I know. We called him Stanley Steamer, Steamer for short, ‘cause he was always getting worked up over nothing.” Mormon trailed off, becomes quiet, seems guarded about what he says. “In any case, it was an accident. Just a coincidence, I think, that he told the union to go to Hell on the same night he had the accident.”

“Riiiiiight,” Leo is no longer hiding his sarcasm.

Mormon’s eyes begin darting back and forth from the table to the door. He lowers his voice and leans forward. “Steamer was driving a forklift into a trailer, finishing up an order with maybe thirty or forty 48-pound boxes of Skippy’s, when the driver pulls forward. The forklift drops through the opening between the trailer and the loading dock, back wheels first. Steamer lands on his back, and is buried under a ton of dog food.”

“Did he live?”

“Yeah, he lived. … It took at least half an hour to dig him out because he broke his neck, most likely the back of his head hit the loading dock. In spite of how careful they were, he became a quadriplegic and never recovered.”

“Are you sure the union wasn’t involved?”

“Did I say anything about the union? I said it was an accident, Leo. Let it alone.”

Mormon stared at Leo for a little longer than was comfortable. “You should probably join the union,” he says. “You should definitely join, and then you should shut that mouth of yours because most people around here support the union.”

“Did anyone call the police?”

“The police filed the report.”

“Were there any arrests?”

“It was an accident. You gotta hearing problem?”

“But you and I know, twern’t no accident.” Leo says, consciously trying to seem like a good old country boy.

“All I know is I gotta get back to work. Seems some new guy has raised the bar on performance, and hanging around the break room talking dirt is a good way to get escorted to the door.”

“One last question,” Leo says.

“No more questions,” Mormon says. “You have enough information to make a decision unless you’re too dumb to get it. Either way, this conversation is over.” One of the day shift order pullers enters the break room. Mormon quietly stands up and walks out. Leo was lost in thought, It was an accident. You heard him. Accidents happen. But for Leo, nothing was ever that simple. He thought he could see his future and didn’t much like what he saw.

Leo’s first night on graveyard began with a transition meeting at 11:30 pm on Sunday. Both Leo and Brick were standing outside the break room, finishing up their coffee—the transition session completed—when Brick said, “How come you didn’t tell me you decided not to join the union?”

“Didn’t think it was any big deal,” Leo said, and then just to make his position clear he said, “Screw the union, anyway.”

“Did you hear that, Mormon? Leo just said screw the union and everybody in it!”

“Yas … I heard. He’s the man who takes no crap.”

“Just the union,” Leo says, “not it’s members.”

“But the union is its members,” Brick says.

“I say it’s time for a little game of hide and seek,” Mormon says.

“You don’t mean what I think you mean?” Brick says.

“Yas, I truly do,” Mormon says. “When he lets his guard down, we must remove his pants and throw them into the next van to lockdown.”

“Technically speaking, it’s too late,” Brick says. “His 90-day probation is up.”

“Doesn’t count, he was just a temp. He wasn’t one of us.” Mormon says.

“Sorry, little buddy,” Brick says to Leo, “He’s gotta point. We gotta do it.”

“You will never get away with it,” Leo says.

“You can yell for help, but nobody will come,” Brick says. “We’ve all been through it. Best to go with the flow.”

“You aren’t going to pants anybody,” Leo says.

“Maybe, but if you’re still wearing pants when we lockdown, it could be Texas before they find you.”

Brick takes a couple of steps towards Leo and says, “you gotta learn, boy, ”while poking Leo’s chest with his index finger.

“We’re all legally adults, here,” Leo says. “That means you even touch me and its felony battery. And I will report it.”

“It’s a joke, stupid,” Brick says, backing off.

“Yeah … a joke,” Mormon repeats.

“We do it to all the new guys … as an initiation,” Brick says.

“I’m not a new guy,” Leo says. “So you can forget it.”

“Suit yourself,” Brick says. “If you’re calling me out, you got it. You’re screwing with the best of AJ’s order pickers!”

Then Brick steps onto a Clarkette and takes off at full steam. Mormon follows. It takes Leo a few more seconds for it to sink in, and then he gets it … it’s a race to determine the best! Now Leo hops onto his Clarkette and gives it full throttle. But he doesn’t forget they might be hiding, waiting for him, so he remains cautious.

At first the scent of the hunt is exhilarating and the pumping adrenalin keeps Leo going. Then he settles down into a fast-paced but strategic run at the title. He soon notices that Mormon has two order pages and was pulling four carts, so he adds two more carts and takes one more page. The dock is quickly filled with groceries, and the shift lead is at first very pleased, but it isn’t long before he is buried and can’t dig his way out without assistance.

“Hey!” He yells. “Park your Clark and give me a hand.”

“I can’t,” Leo says. ”It’s a race.”

“I’ll catch those two on their next drop, but you’re here, so get off the Clarkette.”

Leo’s first thought is interference and he is feeling anger at this intrusion. But he knows he can’t win this one, so he throws himself into loading trucks. The shift lead makes good on his promise, however, and stops the competition long enough to catch the loading dock up. Not soon enough for Leo because Brick and Mormon have already gained advantage from the extra lap. Then he hears the shift lead shout, “New guy! Go get me some groceries.” That’s one devious puppy, Leo thinks, feeling elated that the shift lead would even out the odds. I guess he knows better than to make any of us a loser in this race because a loser won’t be back tomorrow night with the same level of enthusiasm.

Leo beat Mormon by one page that night, and Brick beat Leo by two, proving to Leo’s satisfaction that Brick really is the best, and therefore the one to beat. It was on Wednesday that Leo nailed them both. Brick and Mormon were tied, but Leo was three pages ahead. By Thursday, the end of the week, Leo was unbeatable. Friday and Saturday were off days, when Leo did his homework, but he was right back at it on Sunday, which is why on Monday morning the graveyard shift started hearing complaints from first shift. Seems graveyard wasn’t leaving enough work to keep the day shift fully employed and they were getting restless.

The union rep was in the warehouse manager’s office banging on his desk and demanding that he stop “exploiting” the situation by encouraging the continuation of the contest. Joe kept talking about the “long haul” and not “burning people out.” He reminded management that the union only committed to five pages an hour in the contract and was already up to eight or nine. Management reminded the union rep that “five is the contractual minimum, and there is no maximum.” It was quite a ruckus, and Leo was glad that he had somewhere to be when he got off work.

The next morning, promptly at eight, the foreman called a brief meeting in the break room where he vented at the graveyard shift because they got him in trouble with both management and the union by letting the contest go on as long as it did. Mormon was relieved that he no longer had to work so hard and Brick was relieved that he didn’t have to prove he could catch up to Leo.

“Hey!  I’m talking to you, New Guy.”  Bob lands a piece of chalk on Leo’s head.  “Wake-up and join the team.” Leo had been dozing.

“My name isn’t ‘New Guy’,” Foreman Guy. “It’s Leo.”

“I know your name, dirtbag, and you are the new guy until we hire the next new guy. You keep it up and the next new guy could be your replacement guy. If you’re smart, you best start learning how to get along.”

Leo tried to stay focussed, but tuned out again. He was having trouble managing his time now that he was working 40 hours, up from 24, and attending classes full time. Suddenly Leo is aware of the foreman’s face, up close and looking directly into his face.

“My name is Bob, dirtbag. Don’t you ever forget it. And if you ever disrespect me in front of my crew again I will kick this boot so far up your ass you’ll be brushing your teeth with shoe polish. We understand each other, Leo?”

“Got it, Bob. No disrespect in front of the guys.”

“I’m impressed, Leo. Even a jerk like you can learn if he tries hard enough.”

The meeting was over. Leo was immediately conscious of being avoided, once again an outcast, especially by Brick and Mormon, who didn’t want to appear to be trouble makers like their new order puller. But Leo claimed he didn’t care. He thought about his situation most of the day instead of paying attention in class, and by the time graveyard rolled around, he made up his mind that he would continue the contest by himself. He would prove that he is the best no matter what those losers did.

So he hopped onto the Clarkette and opened her up. It wasn’t long before he was up to eight pages an hour, even with the shift lead making him load trucks every so often. When the shift lead left Leo alone, he moved up to nine pages, once hitting eleven in a single hour. He pulled into the bulk items aisle and slowed down to look for the pinto beans advertised on special. He found them stacked almost to the ceiling, 100-pound Burlap bags of raw palletized beans, but the only way he could get at them was to find a forklift and unstack the pallets.

He pulled forward to clear the aisle so that when he came back, he would be ready to break them down. But just as he went by he heard a rumble, followed by the sound of hundreds of marbles hitting the concrete floor. He turned around, and today’s special was piled in the aisle, blocking further access.

His first reaction was anger. “Somebody could get hurt!” He yelled, “maybe even killed! What’s the matter with you people?”

Then the thought occurred to him that these guys don’t care who gets hurt, as long as they make their point. He felt his heart pounding, he was breaking into a cold sweat and began shaking—a delayed reaction to the close call he had just had. Feeling dizzy, he sat down on one of the carts and watched Brick, from a distance, size up the damage at the other end of the isle. Then Brick walked up to where Leo was sitting and says, “Did you run into the beans, Leo?”

“Is everything a joke with you, Brick?”

“We don’t joke about a mess like this, a mess we’re going to have to clean up before the day shift clocks in. And as the senior order puller on this shift, I’m going to be asked some questions.”

“So why did you push it over?”

“What are you talking about? I’m strong, but even I’m not strong enough to push a 20-foot high stack of beans over into the aisle. Use your head, Leo.”

“You’re on their side,” he said.

“There are no sides, Leo. There’s only this monotonous, endless job that everyone tries to make the best of, except you. I’ve been cutting you a lot of slack because you’re still a kid, but it end’s here.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean everybody in this warehouse is just another jerk in your life … all you see is people out to get you. Well it isn’t about you, asshole! There’s a lot of great guys working here. If you don’t see that, you shouldn’t be here.”

Brick was as angry as Leo had ever seen him. Red faced, breathing loudly, even shaking a little. Brick reaches into his pocket and pulls out a little tin of snuff. He takes a pinch and places it between his gum and cheek. He starts to put it back into his pocket, pauses, then offers Leo a pinch.

“I wouldn’t know what to do with it,” he says.

“Nothing to it.” Brick says. “Here, take some … whoa, too much … put some back, this stuff kicks like a wild horse.”

Indeed, it went right to Leo’s head. If he thought he was dizzy before, he was so dizzy now that he thought he would faint.

“Trying to poison me, Brick?”

“I forgot how strong this stuff is. You really should start out with chewing tobacco. I’ll bring ya some tomorrow.”

“I think I’m going to die before tomorrow,” Leo says.

“Come on,” Brick says. “Gimme your hand.” He pulls Leo to his feet. “You need to spit out the chew and walk off the dizzy feeling. It’ll pass, soon as you get the taste out of your mouth. … Maybe we can speed it up. Wait here,” Brick says. “I’ll get you some water.”

Brick was gone only a few minutes, long enough for Leo to realize that Brick isn’t actually against him. He’s just in a difficult situation. The beans will have to wait, but Brick is right about the mess. Graveyard would have to finish up their share of the orders, then the whole shift would be needed overtime for clean-up.

Leo came through the pinto bean experience no worse for the wear, but within a few weeks following the mysterious collapse of last month’s special, his hair turned white at the roots. As his hair continued to grow, the white part got larger until he no longer had even a single strand of brown hair on his head. He tried dying it because he wasn’t ready to be an old man, but the results were so tacky he had to give it up. Funny thing is, the girls seem to like his white hair. “Makes you look more mature,” they said.

Brick, true to his word, showed up with a pouch of Beechnut chewing tobacco the following day and gave it to Leo. He wouldn’t take anything in return because he had moved on to snuff, and “it’s just taking up space.” Leo had wondered why so many of the order pickers spit off the dock every time they emerged from the warehouse. Now it had become part of his ritual, though disgusting, a small price to pay to begin the process of making peace with his situation.

Even Bob seemed to be easing up on Leo. Once Bob got to know him, he decided to train him for pulling tobacco and alcohol from the cage. Brick congratulated Leo and said it was an honor to be selected for cage duty because it’s so easy to steal the stuff even with the safeguards they put in place. And on the black market one can make a killing. That’s why those in the know refer to the cage in hushed whispers, as Little Fort Knox. And that’s why no-one, not even the warehouse manager, can enter Fort Knox alone, but must always follow the “Two Man Rule.”

At the end of every month, the foreman and the warehouse manager inventory the cage and compare it to sales for the month—a precaution, should the Two Man Rule fail. It was during one of these month-end audits that a discrepancy was found. They were very hush-hush about it, but those who work in the fort share information—what little they have. Even those who have no access were beginning to suspect that something had occurred because the local police were called in to investigate, and they were asking a lot of questions.

When it is Leo’s turn to talk to the police, he is told that he should make plans to be late to school because order pickers in the cage are on average detained for up to three hours. Leo’s interview takes 4½ hours, starting right after his shift is over at 8:30 am on Thursday. The good cop / bad cop team is polite about it and explains that his interview is the longest because he is the last one to train for the cage.

“There hasn’t been an incident in 10 years,” the detective says.

Leo asks if this means he is a suspect and is told that he is a “person of interest.” When he asks, “what exactly does that mean?” He is told, “in due time.”

It was Brick who said that “persons of interest” is cop-speak for “guilty as hell.”

“Do you think I did it?”

“Doesn’t matter what I think, Leo. But for the record I don’t think so.”

“I don’t even smoke or drink. Why do they think it’s me?”

“People who steal from the cage aren’t users, they’re businessmen. They sell the stuff for a lot of money.”

“I wouldn’t even know where to sell it, Brick.”

“Don’t panic, it’ll make you seem guilty. They can’t touch you if they can’t prove it.”

Trouble was, even his mother thought he did it, and she told the police she thought he did it. “Who else had access?” She asked.“ Just that nice young manager who went out of his way to help Leo learn his job.”

It wouldn’t be long before somebody leaked the police investigators’ suspicions. Everyone except Brick avoided Leo, who stayed to himself while the investigation continued. Brick provided a stabilizing influence to help keep Leo from self-destructing. The pressure built for nearly a month, and at first he could deal with it by reminding himself of Brick’s words: they have to prove it. He knew they couldn’t because he knew he didn’t do it. But in the end it finally got to him when he overheard Mormon and Brick saying he was probably never going to be trusted again no matter what the outcome. Leo stepped out from the adjacent isle and yelled at the top of his lungs, “I didn’t do it! Why doesn’t anyone believe me?” This time, even Brick didn’t answer.

Leo was becoming depressed and keeping to himself. He would make sure no one was in the break room when he ate his sandwich, he avoided eye contact with everyone, and he was barely pulling the minimum number of pages. The feeling that he was a criminal followed him from the warehouse to his high school, where he was subject to panic attacks, and he returned to being an introvert with paranoid tendencies. He ended up quitting high school and resigning himself to his fate so he wouldn’t be arrested in front of his friends.

He had been entertaining the idea of also quitting the warehouse, and then wished he had when he heard that the investigation was over and they would be making an arrest this morning. Two police officers showed up promptly at 8:00 am and entered the warehouse manager’s office. Leo knew they were there for him, but he didn’t try to escape. He parked his Clarkette and entered the break room where he sat in the far corner and waited for his arrest. Within half an hour, he was summoned to the manager’s office. He didn’t care anymore. He knew it would be over soon.

He entered the office. The manager was behind his desk, the foreman was sitting on the manager’s couch, but the police were no where in evidence.

“Make yourself comfortable, Leo.”

“Yes sir,” he says, but he remains standing.

“Please,” the manager says, motioning to a chair.

He just stands there.

“Leo,” the manager involuntarily clears his throat, “this company owes you an apology,” he reaches for a tissue and blows his nose, “for what you have been through.”

At first, Leo didn’t understand the words. “An apology?”

“We were, perhaps, a bit more judgmental than was warranted.”

“I don’t understand,” Leo says.

“The police made an arrest this morning. You are no longer a “person of interest.”

As Leo pulled the office door closed behind him, he noticed Joe, who had been waiting outside on the “will call” dock.

“I’m too tired to talk,” he says.

“Then try listening,” Joe says.

“O.K. … what do you want to talk about?”

“I just want you to know that when your buddies sold you out, the union demanded fair treatment. You’re still working here because the union stuck up for you. That’s all I had, you got anything?

That evening, at the beginning of the shift, Leo joined the union, and Joe told everyone in the warehouse that it made his day to get back to 100%. Leo wanted to tell Brick himself and give what he said were his “well-thought-out reasons,” but when he catches up to Brick pulling orders at the back of the warehouse, Brick tells Leo that he saw two police officers go out into the warehouse the previous morning and handcuff Mormon, then they led him away to a squad car. That was all anyone ever said about it. I guess Mormon was right. Everybody takes crap off of somebody.