The Foreman (From Novel “Mount Everest” avail. on Amazon)
Tom Panko, the pharmaceutical company warehouse foreman, sat in the dead center of the huge building, inside his tiny glass walled office, working on the yearly inventory plan. All it ever involved was taking last years’ inventory plan, and changing the date, and some of the names of who was going to do what, because people had come and gone since then. This would take Panko less than an hour; and, it wasn’t due for two weeks.
—yes, time to make up another fat document to pass up the chain, symbolizing that something’s really happening way down at the bottom of VNA; way down there yes, Mister Massengill, there is a real warehouse at the very bottom way way down below you, and this paperwork will come to you and prove that the place actually exists, and in the place everything goes on every day after day after day all year the same—but this paperwork will become the newest new inventory plan I have produced, that will be in the massive list of both our accomplishments this year—and on your bosses list, Mister Massengill, and then on his bosses list, so on and so forth, and you will come to pat me on the back, come to my glass box office in the dead center of the filthy noisy warehouse, where you come once a year, maybe sometimes twice but mainly never—he will come and finally say it finally say what I’ve been waiting for; You know Tom, you know, I have been watching you. I have been thinking of you. I do see you. Maybe, Tom, you’re ready for the next step up. Yes, my God, yes—the next step up already to God maybe, Tom—
A knock and a voice came.
Tom, said a weak voice.
The eyes in his face he had not known were clenched shut saw a woman in grey leaning against the doorframe; something else had just rushed away, what was it, what is it, what—his voice came all by itself out toward the woman.
Rose, what’s wrong, you’re all pale—what is it?
Something is wrong, very wrong, gone, yes, but no—it’s her. It must be her—yes—it is nothing but her, so listen to her you asked and she will tell—
I need to go home, said Rose weakly. I’m sick—I’m having an asthma attack—my puffer’s not working.
Should I send you to medical? asked Tom. They’ll take care of you there.
Her hand slowly came up, palm out.
No, no, no. I need to go see my own doctor—he knows my condition—medical won’t do anything but send me to him anyway—I know when it’s that bad Tom, I always know.
Okay Rose, said Panko. I hope you get better. And be sure to punch out.
She nodded, turned from the doorframe, walked from the aisle and turned the corner, leaving Tom alone as though she’d never been there. Tom clenched his lip in his teeth. The emptiness and silence of the room crept up from the concrete floor and silently spoke to him.
Okay, well—need to go do my job—shuffling people cards and sheaves of lost money people and cards and what—go to the pocking line look see do—my function—
Panko rose, stretched, and started toward the door as he tossed his pencil atop the yellow pad. It tapped down lightly and rolled and bounced as he walked on; it fell to the floor and slid under the cheap plastic molding glued up around the office, never to be seen again. Outside the office, the hiss and bang and whine of the warehouse encased Tom tightly, as he stuffed his hands in the pockets of the slacks that just like the shirt, were a couple years too-tight on him. He breathed in the noise and bang and crash and whine of the fork trucks and miles of conveyors snaking around and over the entire length of the warehouse, and headed toward the picking line, where Rose usually worked. As always, somehow it felt good to get out of the glass box and out onto the floor—to manage people—to wonder about the workload—to worry about the tall stacks of orders needing to be filled—yes, out on the floor it was better; his glass box office was just all silent nothingness. Panko got to the line, up on the black rubber mat, turned, and there was Rose’s picking partner Gene, working alone between the stock racks, his dyed black hair slicked back and shining under the neons, and a pencil just like the one just lost forever in the silent glass box, tucked back behind his ear.
Tom, said Gene. You sent Rose home? I hope so. She really is sick. I can see it.
Yeah, I did, said Tom. Can you hold down the fort here by yourself or do I need to bring down one of the checkers to help you pick?
I think I will be okay, Tom, said Gene. I’ll yell if I need help—we got a lot done before Rose felt sick—plus the day’s almost over and the lines to the packers are already almost full.
I’ll leave you alone then. Yes, like you say, the day’s almost over anyway. I’ll leave things the way they are. I think we’re about clean at this end.
Good decision, my man!
Gene grinned toothily and patted Panko on the back, the way he always did; the exact way Panko had always hated. It was the same way Gene had slapped him on the back before he was promoted, when he was still a picker working where Rose was working now. Gene grinned and slapped in a way meant to make Tom feel inferior; like Gene was really the boss. Gene always had a way of talking down to people, of bossing people, making them feel small. Panko backed off and Gene’s hand slid away.
Okay Gene—you’re it then! said Panko.
Gene bent back to his work and pulled the drugs smoothly out onto the green trays and pushed the trays down the line away from Panko, as if to say okay now, Panko, I’m done with you, you can go now, I don’t need you here. Panko turned from Gene and left, shoulders hunched slightly more than before he had seen Gene. He stretched his neck and shoulders to ward off the building sense of fatigue and weakness that told him to get back to his glass house quickly, now. He needed to sit down. He turned the last corner leading back, and stopped short as a young woman’s face turned up and smiled its large brown eyes at his.
Molly, he said. How’s it going today, Molly?
She straightened up, holding her box cutter, and leaned on the top of a half slashed open large dark case full of drugs set one her battered cart.
Oh, it’s great. It’s always great. You know.
Eyes, her eyes, I love her eyes I—
Hey I’m glad you came by, she said. I see we got two fork lift drivers now. What’s the new guy’s name?
Oh, him? His name is Eli.
Why do you want to know to want—
So then, if I need a load brought down from the racks, I ask Eli now? said Molly.
—she wants an answer say the answer yes she wants from me something yes she wants—
That’s right, Eli’s assigned to your area. I see you are keeping the pick racks nice and full.
Her smile strengthened.
Well, I try, boss.
Good work. Keep it up.
Her smile, yes, her smile got the knife sliding in her hand again back and forth back and forth back and forth--
He turned his back on her and moved slowly away.
I gave her something the smile back and forth the smile eyes—
She had said, well, I try.
The racks flowed by.
—I am the boss, yes, try to please me please this woman yes try—
He rushed into his glass box to work more on his inventory plan. The door slammed loosely shut behind him and the silence brought her up inside him, louder.
—please me yes please me—
The yellow pad lay atop the paperwork, but where was the pencil, where was it gone?
Where? Where? There—oh there, yes, there—
At once he came awake somehow, and realized his hand was under the desk rubbing hard at something lying hot wet and hidden in the threadbare cloth of his too-tight pants. He paused, he looked around—
Yes yes there is no one, no—
Luckily no one was around, thank God, so he went on gently and secretly fondling himself, back and forth and back and forth, and glanced at the watch on his other wrist—twenty more minutes; no time really to get a bite on the inventory plan; back, and forth, a little more quickly, closing his eyes, yes going much much higher than the whine of the conveyors, of the boxes sliding by, sliding by, and it all came back to him in a single violent rush.
—yes maybe it is time for your second step, Tom—
Her eyes, her hand, him, the quiet, the moments, yes—
Yes. Maybe yes, it is.
This is what it’s really all about.