On my first day at the book warehouse, D., the boss, is complaining of sore muscles and a bad headache. Baseball on Saturday, drinking with the boys on Sunday. “I done indulged too much,” he says wearily. His manner is relaxed and friendly. Even though he warns me “it’s lonely as hell out here,” I think to myself it won’t be too bad. R. works here, too. I talk to him later about his sister, who is 16 and has cancer. Her parents don’t want her to know. At first, he wanted to tell her. Now he’s not sure.
We joke about communists, homosexuals, long-legged women. The talk is dumb and easy. I want to share my feelings, but hold back, not certain whether that’s because I resist reducing the rich dimensions of my life to a joke, or because I simply can’t laugh at myself. But as the days pass by, I relax more and more, cursing the stubborn weight of the heaviest boxes with the same abandon; easing into the bawdiest, yet somehow innocent, humor; talking freely about the absurdities of my life, the hurts and mysteries and foolishness, too.
In the delivery van, downtown, we pass a pretty girl. D. rises from the driver’s seat, gyrating his hips.
“I couldn’t help myself,” he moans.
“You common fucker,” R. scolds. “She was only twelve years old.“
Idly, we talk about the rich life. R., who’s just finished college and has spent all his savings, dreams about his ship coming in. D., after more than ten years with the company, and a family to support, says that if someone gave him a million dollars he’d do some deep sea fishing, then buy some property, maybe a trailer court. “A trailer court?” R. asks incredulously, appalled at D.’s lack of adventure. We take turns being the butt of one another’s jokes. There is a genuine affection among us, but I wonder why it almost always is expressed as abuse, however friendly.
D. wonders whether hiring an all-white pitcher for his all-black baseball team will be a problem. R. tells us about the redneck in Town Hall the other night who objected to blacks and whites dancing together. “I’m not prejudiced,” the redneck said. “I have seven niggers working for me.”
D. shakes his head.
“That word nigger never cut no shit with me.”
And all the time, surrounded by books. I feel like a prostitute might working in a VD clinic. The sour excess of my particular affection — words — surrounds me. All the wise and wonderful, all the cheap and fucking words of our time. Two dollars an hour to box and unbox them, count them and stack them. Two dollars an hour to spend the day in dreams, in past and future worlds, in imaginary discussions with my father, dying of cancer, too. “Two dollars just isn’t enough,” R. says. “Not for this job. Not for any job.”