Collecting bottles, tossing leftovers, taking out the garbage
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for Charles H. Johnson
Everyone feared Mr. Stenner, even the coarse
fork-truck drivers, Vietnam vets, resentful of me,
a war protester and English major with a deferment,
only working there for the summer.
Peace marches and draft-card burnings were insults
to their time in ’Nam, to their buddies
who hadn’t come home. They had families to support,
and Mr. Stenner held over their heads applications
from other family men also desperate for a paycheck.
Time cards disappeared if you picked a wrong order
or were late getting back from lunch.
The vets, who had faced bombs and grenades
on the other side of the world, would not look
Mr. Stenner in the eye. It was “Yes, Mr. Stenner.
Right away, Mr. Stenner,” for they remembered Tony,
who’d complained about loading a sweltering boxcar
and the next day had found his locker empty.
One day Mr. Stenner barged in at lunch and
slapped my table with an invoice, screaming I had copied
an 8 instead of a 3 in the shipment code, calling me
“asshole” and “fucking idiot” until a voice said,
“Leave the kid alone.” It was Max, six months back
from Saigon. Mr. Stenner walked slowly to Max’s table
and stared at him. Max clenched his thermos
and stared back. No one said a word.
Everyone knew Max’s wife was expecting a baby.
Then Mr. Stenner stormed out to the shipping floor.
After lunch Max returned to his fork truck to find
his work order had been changed: he’d be loading
a boxcar all afternoon, the inside of it probably
a steaming 115 degrees.
At the five o’clock whistle Max came into the locker
room, U.S.–flag tattoo glistening on his arm, face blazing
with exhaustion. I tried to shake his hand and offer
my thanks, but he walked past me, punched
his card, and went to his car. I drove out behind him
and his red, white, and blue bumper sticker that read,
Support Our Troops. They’re Fighting for You.