Triptychs – Chapter 11
“Oh,” said the dark-haired girl at the counter. “You need to talk to Terry; he’s the guy in the blue shirt, over there.”
“Uh . . . ”
“Over there, by the stairs. See - ?”
“Oh, okay.” I looked back at her, and smiled. “Thanks!”
“Sure.” She smiled back at me, really warmly; knowing that I was going to be one of her co-workers, I guessed.
The Pioneer Bookstore, again; the ground floor, with the sweatshirts and the souvenirs, and the Regional Interest books. Monday; meaning, Reporting For Work Study day.
Yeah. The First Day Of Work. Almost as fun as the First Day Of School, but without the downside of learning interesting things and getting credits for it.
“Uh . . . hi, I’m here to start my work study - ?”
“Oh! Oh, yes,” he said, looking up from his monitor. Distracted; blinking. He was middle-aged, maybe, thin, with graying hair and a gray mustache, and glasses. “And you’re - ?”
“McCarthy. Trevor McCarthy.”
“Trevor; good, glad to have you.” He stood up. “I’m Terry.” He offered his hand, and we shook. “Ummmm . . . ” He looked back at the monitor for a second, and sat back down, and then he was shuffling around papers at his workstation; he sorted out some pages, straightened them up by tapping their edges on the desk, and stood up again. “We need you to fill out a few of these forms; let’s go to the employee break room . . . ”
Forms. Paper forms.
What is it, with paper forms? I mean, we live in the twenty-first century; I had my MacBook in my backpack, I could have filled out any information that Hayward State needed, online. I could have done it last week, or even before that.
Hell, I already HAD filled out all this crap, with my FAFSA, my federal student aid application, and then my Hiring Authorization Form . . .
And even the Hiring Authorization Form had been – you guessed it, a paper form.
But, no; these forms had ‘Pioneer Bookstore’ in block letters on top, so I guessed the Pioneer Bookstore really, really needed all this detail for its very own paper files, because, is information ever really, officially stored, unless it’s stored with hand-written ink on cheap, photocopied-a-million-times paper pages - ?
I pulled the little plastic chair up to the cheap table – yeah, the employee break room was just like every other employee break room you’ve ever seen; all white, a cheap little refrigerator and a little metal sink, and the smell of burned coffee, under fluorescent lights – and started block-printing into the blanks.
Name. Social Security Number (and doesn’t THAT make me wince, every time I write it out?) Home address. Home phone. Cell phone. Emergency contact –
I put Cole down as my emergency contact, as usual. My mom has a cell phone, and she almost never turns it on. I’ve given up trying, with her –
The door opened abruptly, and I jumped, a little.
“Here we are. This is the break room; go ahead and fill out the forms, and, uh . . . ” Terry blinked at me, as if he’d forgotten I was there. “Oh. This is – ” and he paused a second, obviously trying to remember my name.
“Hi,” went the kid. The curly-black-haired kid with the baseball cap, from my Learning Community. “You’re Trevor, right?” His voice was hesitant.
“Yeah. And you’re Noah.” I grinned up at him; and of course he looked away, and down, a little.
“Oh, good, so you know each other . . . Well, why don’t you go ahead and finish filling out your forms; and then if you could wait here for a minute or so, I’ll have Corbin come and show you around - ?” He was already leaving the break room, obviously forgetting to explain to us who this Corbin person was. The door closed behind him.
Okay, maybe more than just slightly-awkward. We’d never spoken to each other before – I only knew his name from when he introduced himself to the Learning Community, in a voice so soft that Cynthia-the-facilitator had had to tell him to speak up. Twice.
And since then, since that first day – I’d barely even seen him.
“Oh, cool,” I said, as he pulled out his own chair. “I’m glad I’ll be working with somebody I know.”
“Yeah,” he went; dropping down into the chair, and fishing into his backpack for a pen. His head already down over the paper forms; his eyes hidden behind the brim of his hat.
“I’m a Student Assistant II,” I went on. “How about you?”
“Yeah. Me, too.” Back to his forms, already filling in the blanks.
It wasn’t hostile; I knew, from the short, soft, stumbling introduction he’d given, that first day of our Learning Community. And even more than that, I knew it from the comforting, reassuring way his friend, the Not-Erik-Guy, had squeezed his shoulder, after he’d finished talking.
No, it wasn’t hostile, it was totally shy; and since he couldn’t see me, I grinned over at him, sympathetically.
“I’m working afternoons, two hours a day; how ‘bout you?” I said, after a few beats.
“Yeah,” he went; not looking up.
“Starting at three?” Meaning, three o’clock.
“Yeah.” In a soft, shy voice.
“Cool! Sounds like we’ll be on the same shift.” I grinned over at the top of his baseball cap.
“Yeah,” came the answer. Shy, definitely. But I wasn’t sure it was exactly enthusiastic . . .
“ . . . and you’ve already seen the break room,” Corbin went on, as we came down the stairs; giving a little, kind of half-wave towards the break room door.
“Right,” I said. Grinning at his back.
As it turned out, Corbin was the same enthusiastic-as-hell cash register kid that had rung up my textbooks, a couple of weeks back; and he was just as enthusiastic and full of charm now as he was back then. I was almost laughing during the five-minute joke of a tour he’d given us, as I thought about what I’d tell Cole about the whole thing. I mean, he’d barely looked at us, he hadn’t even asked our names, or anything.
“So, let’s get you started.” Corbin pushed his way through another door, and then through a pair of swinging double doors –
Oh, wonderful. The loading dock. Half-filled by some big cardboard shipping boxes, like, REALLY big, four feet on a side, four feet high, on wooden flats.
“You guys will be on receiving, to start,” Corbin went; in his bored monotone. “It’s actually easier than packing up the returns at the end of the quarter; you’ll be doing that, too. Here, I’ll show you what you need to do.” He looked around, a second; then he walked across the dock, and pushed a big, red button with the palm of his hand. “First, it helps to have some light . . . ”
An explosive grinding noise, and two big corrugated doors at the end of the dock slowly rolled themselves up, and up, and the light came spilling in –
Well. It may have been a loading dock but it was a loading dock with a view. A capital-V, View. It was almost exactly the same view I’d showed off to Cole a week and a half ago; the place we’d stood was right across the street from the dock, the big, signature, Sixties-skyscraper bulk of Warren Hall looming to the right. And beyond, the whole, stunning, mind-boggling view of San Francisco Bay, and the San Mateo-Hayward Bay Bridge, and the dark green hills of the Coast Range looming up over everything, in the background.
I’d seen it all before; duh. But I figured Noah hadn’t; judging by his reaction, anyway. I saw his face in profile, his mouth open, his blue eyes staring out from under his baseball cap –
Yeah. It’s that kind of view. And I was somehow weirdly pleased, that somebody else, some other person besides Cole and me, was experiencing it too; was having the same reactions to it that we’d had –
Corbin, of course, was impressed as all hell by the view.
“You’ll need to close the doors when you’re not here,” he went. With the barest glance at the absurdly-beautiful scene outside. Then he pulled something from his pocket, a boxcutter, as it turned out – and he was thumbing a button; and he went up to a plastic-covered envelope on the outside of the first big shipping crate, and began carefully, quickly slashing at the outside margins of the envelope with the kind of precision that showed way too much experience.
“This is the packing list; the packing list is key, you’ll be checking all the books in this crate against the packing list. You’ll be using the SKU number, not the ISBN number; remember that – and you’ll file the list with Terry or me at the end of the day. So, try not to cut it up.” He carefully pulled some yellow sheets of paper from the plastic envelope. “So, here’s how you open up the crate – you have to be really careful not to cut up any of the books, we can’t sell damaged books at a profit – ”
* * *
Open the crate; start by climbing up on top of it, and cutting along the tape that holds down the flaps: then, climb down, and cut downward along one of the vertical edges – but angle the blade outward, away from the books inside. To do that, you have to start the cut a little to one side of the edge, like, maybe a third of an inch or so. And you need to have a steady hand, the cut doesn’t want to go straight.
Repeat the cut, on the next vertical edge. And then the one after that.
Pull down two of the sides of the crate; making sure you’ve remembered to cut out the packing list from its plastic envelope first, so you don’t have to lift up one of the sides, swearing, to find it, like we did on our second box.
Inside the crate are the bricks; the bricks are key. They’re six or eight or more textbooks, depending on size, shrinkwrapped together so thoroughly and tightly that, I swear, you could build houses out of them, easy. Each brick comes with its own barcode, and SKU number, and those are the numbers that need to be checked off against the packing list. Remember, as you do it, that Corbin told you that next year, maybe, the Pioneer Bookstore was supposed to have some late-twentieth-century, hand-held bar code scanners that would automate the whole process; but for now, everything was done by hand, reading tiny little numbers and marking them off on a paper list.
Check the numbers off the list – then, get the books out of the shrinkwrapping. Using your boxcutter; trying not to slice up the books, or your hands, in the process. It isn’t easy; there are layers of shrinkwrapping around each brick, and they’re THICK.
Pile the freed-up books onto the big, flat-bed dolly, for later transportation up to the second floor in the freight elevator. Keep the same SKU-numbered textbooks together, with at least one of the paper labels, because that’ll make it easier for you to shelve them, when Corbin bothers to reveal the Mysteries Of Shelving to you.
Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
Actually, it was even more mind-numbingly frustrating than that. In the second crate, all the bricks of shrinkwrapped books had, themselves, been turned into one, huge, solid mega-brick, with, like, yards and yards and yards of thick plastic sheeting, wrapped horizontally around the individual book-bricks; it was like the textbook printer had really wanted to mummify the books, or something. Books of the Pharaohs, maybe, or Textbooks In Bondage.
The loading dock wasn’t air-conditioned; duh. And, it was hot, in the Hayward Hills.
It was dirty, sweaty, manual labor.
And of course, the sheer ridiculousness of it all, the totally absurdity, was enough to get me laughing.
Noah leaned back from the brick he was trying to un-shrinkwrap, his face glistening with sweat under his baseball cap, and he, like, looked at me –
And that really pleased me; weirdly enough. He hadn’t been looking at me, much, not directly, anyway, and he’d been really quiet, not saying much at all.
Not that he was saying anything now; not verbally, anyway, but his expression was priceless, the question in it was saying more than he’d said in the last hour.
“What - ?” I’d laughed, leaning back for a second against the bricks in Crate Number Two.
A kind of a shrug from Noah, as he looked back down at his un-dismantled brick, shreds and sheets of cut-up shrinkwrap littered around where he was sitting.
“I was just thinking . . .” I said; “this isn’t exactly what I had in mind, working in a bookstore. You know?”
“Uh-huh.” His head still down, as he cut carefully away at the thick shrinkwrap.
A companionable silence for a few beats, as I hefted out my own next brick. The shrinkwrap really WAS thick, and a little gritty; I mean, how can you get books dirty? Machine tools I could understand, maybe, or something manufactured industrially, but – books?
“Still,” I went on, grinning to myself a little – “I can’t really complain. A loading dock like this is almost like a family business for me.”
That got me a look from Noah; another eloquent, questioning look, and I had to laugh at it, just a little.
“My family’s into shipping,” I told him. “Dockworkers; as in, the Port of Oakland and the Port of Stockton. ILWU, the International Longshore Workers Union.”
“Really?” He actually seemed impressed.
“Uh-hum. I even had a summer job with the Port of Oakland, this year; my uncle Dennis got it for me, he’s a longshoreman there.” I couldn’t help feeling a twinge of pride, as I said it.
“Really?!” Yeah; he was definitely impressed. That’s cool; a lot of people, wouldn’t be.
“Yeah.” I looked around the loading dock, and I had to grin. “It wasn’t anything like this, though. I was mostly doing data entry. And, it was all a lot cleaner.”
He looked around, at the loading dock, the shredded cardboard, the cut-up sheets and sheets and sheets of shrinkwrap plastic. “Yeah. Well, that wouldn’t be hard.”
“No shit,” I laughed. And I went back to peeling shrinkwrap from my own book-brick, thinking; there’s got to be a secret to doing this, some better way; you know? This wasn’t the CD-DVD jewel case kind of shrinkwrap, this was a lot tougher . . . Thicker, and kind of clingy.
“So,” I went, after a few quiet beats. “What about you?”
“Huh?” from Noah.
I deliberately didn’t look up.
“How about your family? Where’re you from - ?” I said it gently; the kid just radiated, shy, I-don’t-want-to-talk-about-it. But I was curious.
“Oh,” came the response; kind of neutrally. Then, silence, for few seconds; the ‘Thunk’ sound, as I dropped a brick’s-worth of books onto the flat-bed dolly. Then: “We live in Tracy. I grew up there; my dad’s in HVAC, you know, Heating, Ventilation, Air Conditioning?”
“Yeah,” I said, a little shortly. I knew about HVAC because of my dad.
He didn’t seem all that willing to go on. “And my mom stays at home; she takes care of my little brother and my sister.” A pause, as he pulled away the last strip of plastic from his own brick. “He’s fifteen; and she’s eleven.” Another short silence, as he thunked his books down onto the dolly, and lifted his next book-brick out of the crate, and picked up his box-cutter, thumbed out the blade, and began carefully dismantling the shrinkwrap. Then – “I’m the first one in my family to go to college.” It came out shy, really shy.
“Oh,” I went; blinking, just a little. “That’s cool. That’s really cool. I’m almost the first in my family to go to college; my mom did, she got her degree, and she does accounting. But that’s about it, for us.”
“Uh-huh,” went Noah. He carefully made a cut in his book-brick, moving his blade slowly. The silence grew, for a stretch of seconds. “So, what does your father do, at the Port - ?”
It was the first thing he’d volunteered, the first thing he’d said to me that wasn’t responding to one of my questions, and it so totally made me wince.
“My dad’s kind of out of the picture,” I said; trying to keep my face blank. “It’s my mom’s family that works at the docks. They’re my whole family, really.”
“Oh,” he went, after a short beat. “Okay.” And he looked back down at his shrinkwrap, and carefully sliced away at it, cut by cut by cut; and the silence kind of grew, between us.
And that made me feel – kind of bad, actually. I’d figured I’d actually been getting him to open up to me, a little, anyway; and that was fun, and somehow I’d also thought that helping him to get past his shyness was a good thing to do. And we WERE going to be co-workers all quarter, after all.
So, in my usual foot-in-mouth kind of way, I tried to recover.
“So, you’re from Tracy?” I asked it neutrally, back to peeling my own shrinkwrap.
“Uh-huh.” Back to quiet-and-shy, definitely.
“Two of my uncles – my uncle Patrick, and my uncle Ryan – they live in Stockton. They both work at the Port of Stockton.” Stockton being a San Joaquin River deepwater port town, in the Delta; and a hell of a lot closer to Tracy than CSUEB, Hayward Hills.
“Cool,” he said. Then, after a pause – “I’ve been to Stockton. A lot.”
“I’ll bet,” I said; grinning over at the top of his baseball cap, as he looked down, not seeing me. I waited a couple of beats, then – “So, how did you wind up here in Hayward, instead of Sacramento State, or UOP - ?”
And as soon as I said it, I wanted to swallow my words; I so totally wanted to swallow my words. Like I said, is anybody, anybody else in the world, as good at saying exactly the wrong thing as I am - ?
See, that’s not the kind of thing you ask about, at Hayward State.
California State University, East Bay really is an okay school, as State University campuses go. I did all the research, before I decided to apply; I researched everything, almost as thoroughly as Cole would have done. No; Hayward State is okay, it graduates engineers and business majors, and nurses –
But, for whatever reason – mostly accident, mostly geography, I’m pretty sure – for whatever reason, it’s easier to get accepted at CSUEB than any other campus in the State University system. The cutoff deadlines are more generous; the enrollment slots are always there –
You really shouldn’t ask anybody, why they chose to go to Hayward State.
And of course, Noah saw right through me; he so totally did. I may be good at saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, I may be the world’s best at that, but I can’t cover up for it, after I say it; I’ve never been able to, and I knew the embarrassment was painted all over my face.
And as I looked at him, all embarrassed, it came to me – he was amused. Under the brim of his baseball cap, his blue eyes were amused, and he was clearly trying not to smile . . . and it also came to me, that ‘amused’ was a good look, for him.
“I don’t know,” he said, after a second; looking back down at his book-brick. “I’ve got a couple of friends who were coming here . . . it just seemed like a good idea.” He shrugged.
“You’re not commuting, are you?” I just blurted it out, as the thought occurred to me; it would’ve been a killer commute, way too long and horrible traffic both ways.
More amusement in his upward glance. “No. I’m in the dorms.” Another little look downwards, another slight shrug; then one side of his mouth actually began to curl up a little, in a sideways-smile. “I thought it was time to get away. And, I thought it was time to let my brother have his own room.” The sideways-smile deepened, and he flashed me a quick, shy, ironic look from under his baseball cap.
“Yeah,” I grinned back at him. “My friend Erik – he said it was pity for his little brother, that finally got him to move out. Even though it meant more student loans, to do it.”
Uh-oh. Those blue eyes disappeared under the brim of his cap, again; I could just feel his mood change. It must have been me mentioning Erik, again; maybe he was a ‘phobe - ?
So of course I had to go on, I had to push it, a little.
“And so now, two years later, they both go to San Francisco State; and they wound up sharing an apartment in the Haight, a two-bedroom apartment. Go figure.” I paused a second, to finish unwrapping my book-brick. “They’re actually really close; it’s cool to watch them, together.”
“Yeah?” from Noah; still from underneath the bill of his cap.
“Yeah,” I went; seriously, because it was true, Erik and Jason really ARE tight, and it is fun to hang with them, to see it. Then I glanced over at him, at his downward-looking baseball cap, and I had to grin. “Or course,” I went on, casually, “it helps that they’re both gay.”
“Both of them?” I felt a flash from his eyes, as I cut away at my last book-brick, and I tried not to smile.
“Yeah. Well, Erik’s into guys, exclusively; like me. Jason’s dated boys and girls both, though mostly boys. But they don’t really label themselves, they just like who they like, and what happens, happens. You know?”
Long silence, then; just the sound of the boxcutters on the shrinkwrap, and the incredible view outside the loading dock, San Francisco Bay turning more golden in the autumn afternoon.
“Do you have any brothers? Or sisters?” From Noah, a little abruptly; and it was so totally not what I was expecting, it caught me off-guard.
“Huh? Me? No. Not – ” I started to say, ‘Not by blood, anyway’; meaning Cole, of course, but I bit back the words. Too Much Information. “No, I’m an only kid.”
I looked up from my book-brick; Noah was looking out the loading dock at the incredible view, the light reflecting back into his face, under the baseball cap. “I really miss my brother and sister,” he went, in a small, different kind of voice, and I just blinked at him. “Well, I miss my whole family, of course . . . but I really miss my brother and sister. Especially my little brother; we’re really close, too . . . ”
And I watched him blink, fast, twice, three times, and I realized – he was homesick. Away from home for the first time in his life, shy as hell – duh. He was homesick, and hurting.
“Yeah,” I said; looking back down at my own, last book-brick, just to give him some space. “Yeah.” Back to slicing away at the shrinkwrap.
Another long silence, in the heat of the late afternoon. My back was beginning to hurt, from bending over so long. Then –
“Are you into baseball?” from Noah; out of nowhere. Head down, behind the bill of his baseball cap.
“Huh?” Me, caught by surprise, again.
“I thought you might be into baseball. I mean, that first morning, you were wearing that Oakland A’s cap.” A quick flash of his blue eyes up at me, then back down at his shrinkwrap.
“Ummm – no, not really.” I was at a loss, for just a second. I shrugged. “I was on my swim team, in high school. The cap – well. It’s just because I live in Berkeley. Next to Oakland. You know?”
Another pause. “Oh,” he went, eventually. “Okay.”
Silence, again; one that left me blinking, off-guard.
“Umm – so, are you into baseball - ?” I asked, finally. Tentatively. Like I didn’t already know the answer.
A shrug of his shoulders, without looking up at me. Silence for a second, then – “Yeah; yeah. I was on my high school team; Varsity.”
Meaning, I guessed, four years of high school baseball. Most likely. “Oh,” I went, as I stood up to put my last books onto the flatbed dolly, with a metallic ‘thunk’.
“Anyway,” Noah went on, taking his time with his books, not looking up at me – “I thought you were maybe into baseball, that first day in the Learning Community. And that’s why I was looking at you funny, that day.” He said it deliberately, like he’d been thinking about what to say.
A little shock, of recognition; a little shock, and it startled me. I knew what he was pulling.
And it was all so totally, utterly false, so transparently not-true, and kind of touching at the same time, that I couldn’t help but grin over at the top of his head, delighted; it was all I could do, not to bust out laughing.
“Ah,” I said instead; in a level voice. “Sure.”
Oh, cool. So I was right, after all; and I really wasn’t the only queer boy in our Learning Community; cool. How cool!
Of course . . . we, Noah and me, might not ever be Best Gay Buds, or anything; it was pretty obvious, he was deep in the closet, if nothing worse. I really hoped he wasn’t from one of those horrible Fundie, anti-gay families, or anything. But he was definitely queer or bi, and he knew it; that was clear from the careful way he’d just denied it.
And, who knew? Maybe between Cole and me, we could give him a hand, help him out with his attitude, a little - ? Oh, how totally cool!
And of course, I couldn’t say anything like that. I couldn’t even hint at it; and laughing would’ve been the one, single, worst thing I could do, much as I felt like laughing.
“So,” I went, instead. “What’s the ‘P’ for, on your cap - ?”
That got me a quick, involuntary flash from his eyes, before they were hidden by the bill of his cap, again; it obviously wasn’t what he’d been expecting.
“Oh,” he went. Another short pause, as he shifted gears. “That was my team; the Pirates. The Holy Cross Pirates . . . My brother’s on the team, now. Well, he was; and he will be again this year, I mean.”
Uh-oh, I thought. A Catholic high school; that couldn’t have been easy, for a gay boy –
And just then the door in the back of the loading dock opened up, and Corbin came walking in. “All right, guys,” he started; looking around at the progress we’d made, and the crates we hadn’t touched yet, and not looking real impressed. “Time to pack it in for the day; I’ll show you where to park the books you’ve already done, and you can give me the packing slips; I’ll give them back to you tomorrow, so you can finish up . . . ”
I was tired by the time we got out of the bookstore, and I really just wanted to get home, and take a shower, and do some of the reading I had to do . . . but.
You don’t just say, ‘See ya,’ and walk away, after starting work with somebody; you know? Especially after some of the shit we’d revealed to each other –
Well, shit that he’d revealed accidentally, maybe; without realizing it, maybe. But I’d done my share of blabbing, I’d still been upset by what happened Saturday night at home, and I’d wanted to fill the silence, I’d wanted not to think too much, and maybe I’d told Noah more about me, and Erik and Jason, and Cole, than I’d expected . . .
You don’t just walk away from a first-workday like that. Without making a gesture, anyway.
“So,” I went; outside the front door of the bookstore, both of us with our backpacks on our shoulders; both of us hesitating. I looked away a second, at the hill, and the trees, and all the people flowing by; then, back at him. “Want to go for a quick coffee, or something - ?”
Those blue eyes back down behind the bill of his cap again, at once. “Ummm . . . thanks; but I can’t, I’ve got a study date with my friend Ron.” A quick, sideways look, then back down. “I’ve barely got time to get a shower first, as it is.”
I shouldn’t have; but fuck me, I couldn’t resist.
“Oh . . . well, you can’t be all stinky for a date. Even if it’s only a study date.” I was grinning at him, at the top of his cap, so totally wide. “Next time, maybe?”
I saw him flinch a little, I swear I saw him flinch; and then, amazingly enough, he looked up at me, and there was a kind of crooked amusement in his expression. An AWARE, crooked amusement.
“He wouldn’t care,” went Noah; “We were on the team, together, all four years. But I’D care. But, sure; coffee next time, for sure.”
“Deal!” I grinned at him, a second; and then he was walking back to the dorms, and I started climbing the slope of the hill, headed back to the parking lots, and the truck.
Thinking; hmmm . . .