canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999


by Tony Thomas

Wind off the San Francisco Bay blew beads of rain into Jackson Barlow's face. After the three months lay off, three months when he didn't know if the plant would stay shut forever, Jackson Barlow was back on the loading dock at Alameda Precision Parts Incorporated. They called him to come in at six, instead of the eight he'd started at before the shutdown.

The corrugated metal door to the plant his pal Vinnie opened each morning at quarter of six was closed. The normal nicks and dents forklifts and trucks had banged into the loading dock had been patched with white concrete that clashed with the gray patina of grease, oil, metal, and the footsteps of working women and men. Pallets once squared in four neat, low stacks twisted up in a jagged tower.

Barlow couldn't shake off the shaky nerves that captured him during the layoff. At fifty-three he had wondered if he'd ever work again and if he did work, if he'd ever work for anything but shit wages. His muscles and memory of the delivery routes and road had gone soft. A beer gut he thought he'd never have now spread over his belly.

In the months off work the only things he believed he could do for himself were broil a chicken, bake a potato, fry a fish, and drink a Lucky Lager. Now, he yearned for his old life, his life before the layoff. Over good black coffee Barlow would gab with Vinnie, the forklift operator, while the women and men on Vinnie's crew pulled the orders and loaded the truck Barlow drove. Chip Lamont, the shipping and receiving supervisor, would show up with a schedule the computer spat out.

Barlow could always tell where the deliveries went from the size and the labels of the boxes and pallets, the order they were put in. He would create his own schedules quicker and cleaner than the computer's, schedules that stole time to stop at Flynn's. The waitress there would have his black coffee and his bear claw smothered with melted butter ready as soon as his truck pulled in. Barlow liked that woman's hazel eyes and the way she let her hair go gray. All the other women seemed to dye theirs nowadays. She'd flirt with him. He never flirted back; never asked her name. He just didn't have the nerve.

The electric motor rattled the roll-up door up. Startled, Barlow drew back. Lamont strutted onto the dock, carrying a laptop computer. His hair had grown out of his old dirty blonde crew cut. A long blue denim shop coat with "APPI" printed on the breast pocket had replaced the sport coats Lamont used to wear. Steel-toed boots had replaced his cordovan wingtips.

"Hey," Barlow said.

Lamont nodded.

Barlow wanted to walk past Lamont into the plant. He could not stand schmoozing with foremen or anyone who did. "I need the truck keys?" Barlow asked.

Lamont reached inside his pants pocket and held out a key ring with a red Gothic "V" at the center, Vinnie's keys to the lift. Barlow dropped the hand he'd lifted.

"You're not on the truck all day anymore," Lamont said.


"In the mornings you will receive incoming deliveries on the forklift."

"What about Vinnie?" Barlow asked.

"We don't need one employee on the dock and another driving the truck any more," Lamont answered. Barlow's gaze fell away from Lamont. "It was either you or Vinnie," Lamont said.

"Best tow-motor guy I ever saw," Barlow said.

"Vinnie was hired by United Airlines," Lamont said, "otherwise he would be here, not you."

Barlow's hands balled into fists and he shoved them deep inside his pockets. His eyes followed a Yellow Freight semi that rolled West toward Oakland.

"Under the new system, I am to sign all invoices. I will enter them into the computer here on the dock." Lamont said. Barlow took the keys. Lamont smiled at Barlow like the two of them were in it together. Barlow had worked at APPI fifteen years and was lucky to make thirty thousand busting his butt with hours of overtime. Lamont, twenty-one years younger, twelve years younger in the job, cleared forty-five thousand without a minute of overtime.

"Get that TCM out on the dock, now." Lamont said. "The Tull Truck's coming." Barlow wondered what a "TCM" was and what it had to do with the steel the Tull Metals truck would bring. It might be a computerized gizmo they'd gotten during the layoff.

"Don't stand there," Lamont said. "We need the forklift."

Inside the plant, big whirling fans at the end of columns of machines blasted the garlicky smell of tool oil and chipped metal into Barlow's nostrils. Barlow wondered how he'd gotten so used to it. He didn't remember these smells. Dust covered the electric forklift and its charger.

The lift's bright Safety Yellow had dirtied into a rotten-fruit orange pockmarked with dents that exposed flesh-colored metal. The rear wheels were chewed and notched, barely round. Only Vinnie's bumper sticker, "IF YOU DON'T LIKE MY DRIVING, STAY OFF THE SIDEWALK," reminded Jackson Barlow how Vinnie had kept the lift sharp and sporty like a teenage buck's Camarro. Below the bumper sticker, he saw a metal identification plate that identified the vehicle as a TCM forklift.

Driving the lift out to the dock was like gliding through a cranky dream. It didn't chug like a diesel or the bark or sputter like a gas or a propane lift. Barlow heard only the wheels' slip-slop and the crossbar's jangle when he raised or lowered the forks. He pressed himself down harder on the seat just to feel the lift's motion.

Grazing a row of pallets, he felt lucky to stop before the lift ran off the dock. Air brakes wheezing, its hoarse diesel engine grinding to a stop, Tull Metal's flatbed truck backed up to the dock carrying two tons of sheet steel wound in a roll.

As Barlow walked toward the truck, he noticed that rust scales covered the staples that cinched the steel bands that held down the roll of steel. Jagged splinters stuck out from the cracked weather-grayed pallet. No wooden beams or metal bars braced the steel. Vinnie probably would have told the Tull driver to take it back and get it right, and he would have told Lamont where to go if he didn't like it. Yet, who was he. He was barely back in the job himself, and then only because Vinnie had gotten lucky and found a better job.

Barlow walked toward the truck's cab to talk it over with the driver. At the cab, Lamont blocked his way. "The load isn't braced right," Barlow told Lamont. "Before we sign anything, let me check out the bands and--" Lamont reached inside the cab, took the driver's invoice, glanced at it, signed, and then separated the different parts of the invoice. He didn't know that it was the driver's paper and he wasn't supposed to separate it. The driver wasn't Gene the usual Tull driver, but a young white man with sandy hair and a Forty-Niners cap. That driver didn't say anything, he just took his paper. He didn't even step out of the truck to help guide Barlow as he took off the load.

Lamont turned around to Barlow and glared at him. "Come on!" Lamont said. "That roll's been waiting at Tull for three months." Barlow didn't move. "I need you to move that metal." Lamont shook the invoices in Barlow's face. "Now, Jack."

After a deep hard breath, Barlow walked back onto the dock and mounted the forklift. He wheeled the tow motor forward until his forks hung over the back of the truck. Holding his breath, leaning his head out to look beyond the lift's backstop, he angled the forks under the load. He tilted the pallet tenderly and began to lift it. The steel roll slid back, crashing against the rusty staples Lamont rushed from the front of the truck back onto the dock, waving his hands at Barlow, hollering "Drop the load!"

When Barlow dropped the pallet, its ragged boards screeched across truck bed. The steel swayed and rolled. A staple popped off the bands. The bands whipped out from the load thrashing through the air like flying razors. With a dull thud the roll of steel crushed the back of the pallet and slammed his forklift's backstop. Back on the dock, Lamont waved his arms at Barlow and asked, "Do you want me to do it?" Barlow's chest felt tight and tender, his arms tingly and sore, the way he'd felt when he learned he had been laid off. "Come on," Lamont said. "Get off that lift, Jack!"

Barlow looked straight into Lamont's steel-gray eyes and then back to the Tull driver who'd finally popped out of the cab. Was this how it was going to be, him messing up the first day, with Lamont always telling him what to do even when it didn't make sense? Wasn't he Jackson Barlow? He'd moved loads this big and bigger for thirty years. He'd never used this TCM electric lift. Yet he'd run trucks and diesel lifts and cranes. Once in the bad old days in his first job in a bucket shop up in Tacoma, he'd bent his back with a gang of guys hauling bar stock with chains. He'd moved big things all his life.

Shrugging, looking away from Lamont and back to that busted pallet and those tons of steel, Barlow said, "I'll get it." It couldn't be much different from moving a big load on his old truck. You grabbed its center of gravity and made it your own. You didn't let it get out in front of you. You didn't jerk or twist. You slow-danced until it fell where you needed it.

Barlow drew the forklift back. He tilted the forks flat and held them less than an inch over the truck bed. When the forks touched the edge of the shattered pallet, Barlow tilted the forks downward into the truck bed. The forks shrieked as they grated against the metal. He feathered the lift forward, flattened the forks until they got a bite under the pallet, took his foot off the pedal, and let the pallet slide down the forks as far as it would. Barlow repeated this dance. The load crashed and wobbled until it bunched up onto the pallet. Barlow tried to wipe the sweat off his face.

After a deep breath, he angled the forks back. Slowly, the forks eat the swinging, swaying load. As he ran the lift back, the twisted boards and splinters that had once been a pallet got stuck in the space between the dock and the end of the truck. The steel roll clanked against his lift's backstop, jolting Barlow's back and sending the tow motor skidding into a row of stacked pallets.

"Put on your damned brakes," Lamont shouted. Barlow didn't even think of hitting his brakes. That could only knock the load off his forks and send it rolling down the dock. Barlow lifted his foot off the power pedal. The forklift wobbled backward. Its dog-eared wheels spun in a pool of grease. The steel roll crashed off his forks and splashed into a stack of pallets. In the cracking of wood and a shower of splinters, two tons of steel came to a rest. Barlow leapt off the tow motor. He braced a pallet firmly in front of the steel. Then he headed off the dock and into the plant to find the banding machine.

On Barlow's way out, towing the banding machine, Lamont caught up with him "Come on Jack we got to get moving." He held his clipboard with the shipping and receiving schedule in Barlow's face.

"You'd better forget that," Barlow answered, "You need to help me secure this steel."

When Barlow dragged the banding machine out of the plant, Lamont followed. Barlow took the clipboard from Lamont's hands, as he tried to figure out how to get that steel roll on a pallet. He scanned the schedule and returned it to Lamont. He might have to wait until the afternoon, but he knew he'd find a way to Flynn's. Maybe he'd even ask that waitress to go for a drink at Oscar's.

Tony Thomas has an MFA degree in Creative Writing from Florida International University. He lives and writes in North Miami Beach, Florida, USA.







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