Caesar Mortus Est
This is a story about the night Caesar had his head crushed in by a falling brake drum. It happened a few days after I'd quit. He was bending over in the rear of the warehouse, rummaging through a bunch of batteries, looking for a big boat battery that inventory said was in stock but which nobody could find. Fat Sal (curly black hair, sandals and tie-dyes, dynamite clarinet player, and a temper like Vesuvius) was working the forklift a few dozen feet away, his thick forearms
forcing and pulling the levers and gears, making the thing lurch, tremble and groan. Suddenly and without warning he was speeding about twenty miles per hour in reverse. The brakes wouldn't work, he couldn't get it out of gear, and a palette of brake drums waited high overhead, shivering on the forks like a tree full of snow. He cut the wheel to avoid slamming into the wall behind him. The tires squealed and the forklift leaned, spinning in tight circles. Caesar--still searching for the battery, muttering to himself in Spanish--looked up to see what was going on. Before he could react a few loose brake drums slid off the raised palette, dropped ten feet, and one of them landed on his head. Fat Sal and the forklift finally slammed into the next row of shelving,sending auto parts and dust bursting all over like giant hunks of confetti. Caesar was lying there, dead, his head obscured by a big red and white cardboard box. BRAKE DRUM, it said.
Then there was the night Angelo and I had a girl he knew deliver a pizza to the warehouse at a prearranged time. He said go up to Bald Hill on a Saturday night and the car parked with the girl's leg hanging out the passenger side window--that was her.
We met her at the front door, smuggled in the pizza, then sneaked upstairs to hide. After about two minutes of gorging ourselves the entire pie was nearly gone. Of course Caesar caught us, strolling into our aisle looking for a fan belt. All he said, after a sigh, was, "You guys... man." He walked away shaking his head with a huge tear up the ass-crack of his work pants.
Or how about the time Caesar dragged me into his office to show me my production counts from the previous week. On the first day of the previous week I was the second least productive worker on the night crew. On the second day I was the most productive. On the third day I was in the middle. On the fourth day I was second to last again. On the fifth day I was last.
"What do you make of this, Billy?" he said. "I see you have the ability to perform at a high level. Look at Tuesday! You were running around like an animal. You were doubling up orders like a maniac. But that day makes me angry now, because I'm wondering where it's been, man. Where's that drive on the other days? How do you explain this?"
I said, "I don't know."
"You don't know?" he said. "That's all you ever say."
"Maybe I just had a good day," I said.
"A good day?" he said. "You kids come in here and just slack, slack, slack. Don't you have any pride in what you're doing? Can't you just do this for me? And the owners wonder why I can't get your asses in line." He paused for a moment. "Get out of my office," he said.
"Am I fired?" I asked.
"Just get out of my office, man, and get to work, will you?"
But while this conversation was happening all I could pay attention to was a snot that was hanging half out of his nostril towards the tip of his nose. It crept in a bit when he angrily inhaled, and crawled back out when he exhaled and sighed.
He always walked home alone from work, looking at his feet, or at the way his shadows must have stretched and doubled beneath the row of dim street lights. One time we watched him from the parking lot, all of us standing around our cars, some of us getting stoned, not saying anything for reasons we refused to even remotely acknowledge.
Caesar was tall and athletic, with a tough-guy mustache, but soft- spoken and afraid most of the time--at least, when he wasn't trying to compensate by overly asserting himself at the most bizarre opportunities. (I said No, Thaddeus! No jazz in the tape player! Only classic rock! Because it's what everyone else wants to hear!)
And nobody ever visited him at work, like my girlfriend visited me sometimes, or the Dave Rodriguezes' wives, or how Thaddeus' girlfriend visited him, or Fat Sal's roommate, who got off work a little earlier than we did, and came by once in a while and hung out for the last half hour or so, drinking beer.
Caesar never got any phone calls, either. Except once that I could remember and that was his mother calling from Queens to say that Caesar had to drive out there after work to comfort her because her cat had suffered a vague, near-fatal injury. He left Fat Sal in charge for the night and drove out right away, instead. With big black magic markers we scribbled pictures of dead cats and taped them up all over for the day crew to find in the morning. Dave Rodriguez #1 drew a picture of a dead Caesar that looked just like him. Of course Caesar came back to make sure that everything was taken care of, arriving about ten minutes before we were going to lock up and go home, and there we stood like a bunch of idiots while he marched around the place and tore the drawings off the walls. The well hidden ones, though, they were still being discovered months later.
Thaddeus called in sick one day so Caesar fired him on the spot, over the phone in one of his bursts of authority. Because we were suddenly down a person Caesar was forced to make the rounds of the warehouse with the rest of us, pulling the rubbery, dusty parts off the shelves. About forty-five minutes into it, though, he tripped on a hose that he was carrying and tumbled down the steel grated staircase, spraining his wrist and tearing the ball of his right palm to shreds, while also ripping a big bloody hole in his left knee. I had to drive him to the hospital while Fat Sal took control again. All Caesar kept saying on the way there was how embarrassed he was that he fell down the stairs in front of the guys. I didn't dare tell him he had something weird dried up in his mustache. It was a huge glob of something blue, with some packaging twine stuck to it. When one of the nurses finally pointed it out to him, he looked at me and shook his head, picking it out and throwing it on the floor.
Things like that were happening all the time.
Caesar fired Dave Rodriguez #1 because he was selling crack to some other workers, including Thaddeus, Dave Rodriguez #2, and Vinnie With the Mole That Was Shaped Like a Thumb. Unfortunately for Caesar, the other workers couldn't all be immediately fired because that would have crippled his workforce and the place would have ground to a standstill. Dave Rodriguez #1 initially accepted his firing, probably ultimately pleased that Caesar chose not to press charges. But when Dave Rodriguez #2 told him that everyone else had retained their jobs, Dave Rodriguez #1 flew into a rage which culminated in him appearing at the warehouse late one night, cracked out of his skull, with a switchblade glimmering in his left hand. He immediately attacked Caesar, slicing one
of Caesar's fingers all the way through the tendons while Caesar tried to avoid him and talk him down. There was shocking white stuff that was clearly visible beneath the pink and red of his wound, and blood was spurting everywhere. Then Dave Rodriguez #1 rushed him and sliced a huge gash into Caesar's face, right across his cheekbone. Finally Fat Sal slammed Dave Rodriguez #1 in the back of the head with an exhaust pipe and knocked him out bloody and cold. Caesar kicked him in the face twice when he was down, then had me call 911 while he sat in a folding chair and freaked out over all the blood.
One time Caesar asked Fat Sal how his hammer was hanging and Fat Sal lost it and accused Caesar of being a homo, threatening to quit, stomping around the place in his sandals in circles and yelling.
Or the times when the owners would be around and Caesar would stand in their little conversational group with his hands on his hips, laughing too loudly at their jokes.
Or the times we, Caesar's workers, would show up for work before Caesar. The day crew would run around calling us Caesar's Boys, telling us how much they envied the fact that we got to work so closely with him--got to spend so many hours and hours of quality time with him. We'd laugh, but still...
Like the time the short-lived Pumpkinhead called Caesar a lying spic and threw his clipboard at him and quit right there, right there on the spot, his humongous head emitting every swear word I've ever heard, and all of this on only his third day of work. Caesar only stood there, taking it in, not making a peep, taping shut the same box over and over and over again while Pumpkinhead spewed on and on.
And it all ends when a giant brake drum falls from a forklift and brains his sorry ass.
There was one other time that Caesar dragged me into his office. "Sit down, Billy," he said. "You've been here for a while, and you seem to get along well with most of the guys."
I didn't say anything, but sat, so he continued.
"I wouldn't think you'd have too much pull with a guy like Sal, but you seem to have some authority with some of the younger, newer guys. I was hoping that maybe you could try to--you could maybe help me out by keeping the jokes to a minimum. If you could just have the guys lay off a little. It's like--it makes it tough to do my job. It kind of undermines my... authority. I know it's a silly request, but..."
I stared at him. He was twisting a pencil over and over in his hand, doodling quick little check marks or boxes now and again on his blotter.
"So what do you say?" he finally asked. "Can I count on you? To do this for me?"
"Yeah," I shrugged. "I guess."
"Good," he said. "Good, great, thanks." He lead me out the door with his hand on my shoulder, smiling. I quit two days later, cut all ties with every person involved in that operation. And then a week after that the brake drum fell on his head.
That goddamned auto parts warehouse where I used to work it makes me sick to my stomach to think about that place. That disgusting place where all your snots turned black from the vulcanized dust. We wandered around with our stupid shopping carts like the walking dead, getting home too late again on a school night, a feeling of dread hovering just beyond every aisle we maneuvered through, and each night fraught with another million ridiculous, inescapable, exhausting tragedies.
Just imagine yourself standing in line at the video store on a random visit back to town and suddenly Fat Sal, who you haven't seen or even thought about in years, is right there beside you. He's of course telling you the brake drum story, which you can hardly believe but also which you can hardly believe you haven't heard. He's got this look on his face as though he can't decide between talking to you or to the floor, or just walking away, and you're wanting to melt into a pile of goop and flashbacks right there on the crappy little video store rug beside him.
That migraine fan belt smell seeping into your hair and clothes. The trebly tape-player blasting guitar-rock through the warehouse rafters. The black, slimy dust working its way up your nose, into your throat, behind your eyeballs. Sal on the forklift, laughing as he massages the levers, smelling the electric diesel smell, calling the forklift his sweet bit of honey. Thaddeus freestlying Run-DMC rhymes at the top of his lungs up and down the aisles in his sweatpants and his black t-shirt which proclaims, in big gold letters, that Thad is Fresh. The Dave Rodriguezes laughing, posing macho, trashing each other's wives in Spanish. Pumpkinhead shouting incomprehensible obscenities, his knuckles scraped and bloody from clumsily misdirecting his shopping cart up and down
the narrow aisles. Angelo, sneakily sipping sticky peppermint schnapps in the bathroom, drunk again and worthless. You, Caesar and Sal, finishing up even later than usual on a Friday night, a truck's rear door somehow unlatching up top, sliding slowly but loudly down, trapping Caesar inside...
"Let me out! Let me out!" He's banging from inside the truck, laughing. "It's dark in here!"
"Give us a raise! Give us a raise!" The two of you are laughing and banging back.
He's still laughing when you let him out twenty seconds later, him telling Sal that he saw Sal's mother in there, hiding in the back, wearing nothing but a garter belt and a g-string.
On Monday you return to work and are surprised to find that you have indeed been given a raise. It's only fifty cents on the hour, but you know that it's the best he could do. Caesar smiles and brushes you off when you thank him.
"I just couldn't get the thing out of reverse, Billy," says Sal three times in a row, back in the video store, staring at your feet. He looks older. Fatter. Tired. Worn. "Can you believe that?" he continues, his eyes still turned down. "You remember that forklift, and where the brake drums and the batteries were, right?" He looks up at you. "You haven't forgotten that, Billy. You wouldn't forget that. You remember all that, right?"
Michael McCole received a graduate degree in writing and literature from Hollins College. He recently published another story about Billy in the Notre Dame Review. His work is forthcoming in Pleiades. He lives in Colorado where he works for a technology company.
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