We had just gone on first break when Gerald asked me if I thought you should take it seriously if someone you knew said she was going to kill herself. We were sitting on plastic chairs outside the cafeteria, in the alcove beside the doorway, like we did every shift. Gerald usually sat across from me, and together we'd enjoy the downtime—the absence of shipping labels and all the other faces—and talk about what he should do with himself after he got out of his father's house. He was a slight, sharp-tongued Dominican kid who danced while he drove his lift, and he was getting ready to go to school for automotive technology. He'd been scheduled to start the previous semester but had put it off until after the busy season so he could save some extra money. Once he learned that I had been a teacher before getting canned and moving back to the sticks, back to the industrial park, he began looking to me for guidance. He usually maintained a carefree, humorous tone, but tonight he was asking earnestly.
"You should always take it seriously," I said, and steadied myself so he knew I meant it. "Always."
I didn't really believe it myself. I knew people in my own family who'd threatened suicide—drunks mostly—but who'd never do it. Some really do just want attention, and then others are really considering it but would never have the guts. But the commercials and the professionals never say that. The truth is you never know. At least if you take them seriously, you have a chance.
"Who is it?" I prodded, and he mouthed the answer. I told him to tell me more.
Just then, Dave, our bald, wiry supervisor, sat down beside Gerald. He had a knack for intrusion and had been moved through just about every department: picking, shipping, receiving, inventory, and back to picking. He set a one-pound bag of almonds on his lap and raised his eyebrows at each of us before popping a few almonds into his mouth. He'd just started working out again as a way to stave off turning forty-three, and he was always eating, always spouting about needing four thousand calories a day and a regimen of energizing essential oils as a means to fuel his metaphysical-physical furnace. He'd heard me ask Gerald to explain and looked to Gerald as a way of encouraging us to continue our conversation. Gerald covered well. He said something about getting his car inspected, and floundered a little, which broke his English enough so that Dave lost interest. Then he changed the subject. "So, Dave, you figuring out when I'm getting trained on the reach truck?"
"Gerald, right now I'm just sitting here with my nuts in my hand." He'd go on to say the same thing to everyone who was unfortunate enough to ask him what he was up to, and then he'd look to us each and every time so we could appreciate it.
Gerald had been talking about Laney. She was around his age, maybe twenty, and had just started working at our place as a temp. She was sassy and curvy, an immediate target for male attention, and she seemed to revel in it. Lift drivers stopped at her station for obscene lengths of time, which made my buddy Joe, our coordinator in A-rack case picking, angry enough to threaten the temps with murder because it made our cases per hour slow to a crawl. Gerald in particular roused his ire.
Laney brought a pair of stilettos with her every night, kept them in her locker and then put them on at three-thirty when we finished. She always had at least a half dozen offers for a ride home. Gerald asked her out all the time—in a sweet way, from what I gathered—and she always turned him away gently. Before clocking back in, Gerald and I were alone in the locker room, and I asked him to tell me more about what she'd said. He didn't know specifics, just that, in her words, she'd had a lot going on. She'd had a lot going on and she'd had enough and was just going to end it.
At lunch, Joe was bemoaning the lack of both good workers and a good local burrito place when we noticed Laney hanging around the security kiosk. She was chatting with Luke, the overnight guard. I agreed about the burritos but didn't say anything about what I'd learned about Laney. Luke was our friend, and he'd just been dumped by a different twenty-something who'd said he'd been looking for too much. Now he had Laney leaning across his desk, brushing her hair away from her face. They were looking at his phone, searching for movies to watch.
On the way back in from lunch, Joe and I cut through the stack-rack area, the ominous section of the warehouse where we kept the filing cabinets.
Joe's stride was a disconsolate trundle. He kept his eyes lowered and the brim of his cap pulled down tightly, the bottom half of his face shielded behind his beard. The stack racks themselves were temporary, in that each level was collapsible and stacked onto each other like Lego blocks. This way, a lift driver could build as many racks as needed to store a shipment of cabinets. It made sense with the space, but one bump from a lift and tons of freight would come down. "Don't you think Luke's just setting himself up again?" I asked.
"Probably," Joe said.
"I feel like he does this, you know, habitually."
"Yeah, well, he'll learn. Or he won't."
"But that's it. How does somebody like him not learn? He's not stupid."
Joe shrugged. "It's what people do. I keep coming back here every night. I go home, stay up until nine and then sleep until two, and when I get up, I complain to Amy until I walk out the door. And then I wonder why she lets me have it on the weekends. When we have weekends."
"You could do something else."
"Like not bitch at her?"
"You know what I mean."
"I know. But things out there don't look much better. At least here I know what I'm getting. Watch." He waved a finger. "They're gonna fuck us tonight, and it's totally out of our control because other people don't want to do their fucking jobs, and we'll have to clean it up at the last minute. And then I'm gonna go home and drink whiskey and play a video game until I get shitfaced and so into killing computer-generated enemies that I forget how much I'd like to send one of those bullets out the back of my own head. And then I'll fall asleep, wake up, and do it all over again." He turned his palms upward. "It's just my shitty life."
I nodded and looked up at the racks. One of the upper levels hadn't been set correctly. Joe saw me looking and glanced upward.
"Someone's actually gonna die here one of these days."
Joe smirked. "Maybe today's our day."
"Do the Receiving drivers ever catch hell from their supervisor for stacking like that?"
"Nope. And so they just rush through it every day. It's all about the numbers."
"Fucking habits, man."
"Paths of least resistance."
"Sure– well, not always."
Again, the finger. "If not, then it's not a habit. Not yet, at least."
"So, she's his habit, his path of least resistance?"
"Her type. It's his brand of shit."
"I guess we all have our brands."
We turned the corner onto the main aisle. A fleet of lifts led by Gerald had just left the parking area and was driving en masse toward the bulk area. Joe and I started humming "Ride of the Valkyries." It was one of our better telepathic moments.
Near the end of the night I was picking bulk—corner desks—with handwritten labels Joe had given me because one of the new guys back there had lost his printed labels, and we needed to finish fifteen thousand cases before we left. After loading the desks, I stopped at A-rack to let Joe know I had gotten them and that he could have the new guy confirm them in his headset while I dropped them off in the shipping lane. Joe was sitting silently, doling out new labels to pickers in each area. He gave me that "we've been fucked again" face and asked if I'd go into the mods to make things go quickly. Word had come down from the office to pick an additional five hundred cases or else we'd be stuck working Saturday again. I took the largest stack he had. As I was leaving, he told me to take one of the temps, a new kid, fresh from the agency. Together, we could do it in half the time.
The mods are three-floor structures within the warehouse that use conveyor belts to shuttle the product directly to the shipping lanes via a sorter. All you have to do is put the right label on the right box and get it on the belt, and the sorter takes care of the rest. The big stacks usually have large numbers of cases in each location.
In the first location, I had to pick fifty-five cases of printer toner. The bay was full. Piece of cake. The kid stood beside the belt and confirmed the picks in his headset. I stepped into the bay and tossed the cases backward onto the belt, one by one, landing end-to-end with a few inches of space in between. The kid slapped labels on each one, doing his best to keep up.
It's all touch—the throwing—and it's something that new hires marvel at when they first witness it, but it's just one of those things you get once you've been there for a while. At that point, when you know how to move in synchronicity with the equipment like that, you're a part of the machine. You know your purpose and you're fulfilling that purpose and there's something almost holy in it, and it sustains you just enough.
It starts with wanting to go home and wanting to help your friend who hates this even more than you do, but then it becomes only about the process, the cases—those things you exist for in that moment. It's a reality you can't shake, and so you embrace it because sometimes you just don't know what you're good for until you give up everything that gave your life meaning, or until they give up on you.
You set each box in motion and they continue down the belt like railcars until they ascend to the third floor and then slide upon rollers out to the sorter where they are scanned, separated, and then launched along different high-speed belts that branch out across the rafters where you can't hear the foolishness or the desperation or the fury below, just the belts that whir and hum and sound like raceways as the boxes reach their lanes and the trucks that carry them to places where people awaken to white rays of sunlight that slice down through quickening air and onto the tops of distant mountains.
And when the labels were gone and the belts had stopped, we breathed differently. We knew we'd done enough, enough to go home, enough to wake the next day and start over again.