Raising my hand to my forehead I pray, “In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.” The day has begun. It’s 4:39 am and the alarm went off nine minutes ago. From pinkie to wrist it throbs. My clenched hand should’ve come down with force on an alarm-blaring phone but instead met solid oak, a night table built by the Amish I’m sure. Alarm disabled and after some time was had letting the expletives run their course, I unplugged the brick and fell back in bed until woken by the alarm of a bruised hand. I’m tired. It’s a workday. This is rough. Feeling my hand and wrist, everything’s in place, probably.
August mornings are hell but not in the way we imagine hell to be miserable. It’s hot. Who said hell was hot. My bedroom’s three floors up in my parent’s house. Forced air, instead of being conditioned to pleasant cool and coming up vents, greets in the form of an oscillating fan blowing hot air from head to toe so I can evenly shrivel up into a dried prune. The house lacks forced air like you find in those fancy homes being erected in the suburbs. No such thing back in 1917 when these walls went up. The heat resting on me is the kind one gets when opening an oven to check on a peach pie. That sudden rush to the face rests like a cloud on my person. Heat trapped under the cooked roof in the rafters and sandwiched by the drywalled ceiling refuses to budge. Not a drop of rain all weekend.
My room bakes, and it’s occupants, of which there is a single soul, suffers well. This is my room. Taking another would mean convincing a sibling to evict their four cooler walls a floor below. Don’t have the oratory skill and tenacity to pull the wool over their eyes. Besides, one night up here and the’ll B line back to their oasis. And they fight dirty. I digress.
It’s Tuesday morning and I’ve the pleasure of working at my Father’s plant this summer as I did the last. Not his plant, to clarify. Were it, I’d sleep under some desk on top of a cool vent. Enjoying the company of an easy-on-the-eyes young lady crazy enough to want to join me, of course. Second day into the work week and my body aches from yesterday, which isn’t normal. Monday, yesterday, was a Civic Holiday up here in Canada. The usual suspects had to show up for work. That means if you don’t know how to treat someone with a gunshot wound or patrol the neighborhood ready to, in the most extreme cases, inflict that brand of law enforcement, you had the day off. Should be rested but my body demands more time dammit! Last week I pushed physical limits working overtime as though a mafia loan was coming due. Still believe hard work hasn’t killed anyone. It’s killed plenty.
I like nothing about my summer factory job on the presses. One of those damned if you don’t, damned if you do experiences life forces on you. Hate the work but happy it covers school and school ain’t cheap. Father’s right. Seems school’s the only way out from a lifetime stint in the plant. So I’ve been told every day of my waking life. “Wanna work in a factory like me your whole life Son!” he’d say in a heavy Polish accent. “Don’t take school seriously. See what happens,” he still goes on. A smile and nod after he’s done “sharing” went and continues his way, but throwing a curve now and then with some crack about gladly taking his job is a hand I play when the lectures become a bit… you know… much.
Since coming to Canada in ’64 the family’s never owned a car, so a crowded, overly loud bus shuttles this trio an hour-and-a-half to the plant. My Father and Brother will accompany me for the hike. Our shifts line up this cycle and their company is what I get for pulling a row of lemons on this slot machine. We’ll trek 15 minutes to the subway station. The 41 Greenwood bus departs there. Same tired advice doled out last time my shift lined up with Fathers is standing at the ready waiting to be spewed. “Don’t work fast. Keep a steady pace. Not to slow though,” he’ll go. “And don’t take anything from anybody and don’t do anything dangerous. Oh, and keep your mouth shut. Don’t run it off like your smart little educated self knows how.” This would go on until we boarded the bus. I’d pay to avoid it. This is playing out while lying in bed with a wounded hand. Is it asking much to fold and turn in for the day. What am I going to do if Jesus calls me to become a Trappist. They’re holy men who can tolerate their fathers, mostly.
In the kitchen an over-sized bowl of Cheerios is parked before me. Stop adding milk the second the bowl’s contents begin jumping over the rim. Have to eat as much as possible. Need energy. I’m an always hungry guy in his early twenties and this is it ’til lunch. Go count calories somewhere else. Look away if dieting. Another half-bowl is consumed for optimal performance. My brother Oscar, opposite me at the table follows suit. Dad butters toasted rye, washing down old country bread with ancient world green tea. Guess he’s not hungry. Nobody talks. Not because it’s early. Dogs don’t bark when they eat is why! Since time immemorial I’ve been told just that when trying to stir conversation at picnics like this. Might of guessed we’re not of Italian descent.
No one showers. Working men, the type with calluses, shower after work. Done with breakfast, cold cuts are stuck between rye. Mustard and mayo join in. Some mornings I’ll add pickles, but I’m exhausted and weighed by the monotony that will be working the presses in a few hours. Mother’s made her Husband sandwiches the night before. Oscar and I, no longer hatchlings, fend for ourselves. Construction-sized lunch coolers, the kind that are sat on while eating, is not how we roll. Said we’re not Italian. Simple grocery bags house the sandwiches and piece of fruit each. A book is nestled in my bag under the food. It’s the kind of literature with potential to turn men into saints or dangerous enough to plant the desire.
At the door we pat down pockets, double checking for wallets and phones before we’re swallowed into sweltering darkness that’s illuminated in fits and spurts by street lights. On route, I walk faster than the company, trying to avoid conversation. Glimpsing back, Oscar’s giving off a look of death. He’s being spoken to. Think he’s blocking it out though. There but not. A worthwhile skill I should acquire. I’ve done one better by avoiding the one-sided conversation in the first place.
The subway station is closed at this hour, so we walk past the “$500 Fine for Trespassing” sign posted where buses leave and illegally enter the bus platform. The 41 is waiting for it’s passengers. Everyone who boards walks past the same sign while the 41’s driver doesn’t look up from his morning paper, sipping his coffee without raising his head.
Must be a bureaucratic headache to update the sign, so up it stays, and factory workers like us go on breaking the law. More likely the 9-to-5s have never boarded our bus from this station at an hour roosters count sheep. They wouldn’t have the faintest, and if they did, would they do anything. So we go breaking the law. “Arrest me,” I mouth taking my seat, imagining being approached by a special constable. No one’s ever held up my Father for this offence in the decades he’s been doing this.
The bus we board is the oldest in the fleet. Overhear it in a conversation between the driver and another guy dawning a TTC uniform. A fellow driver of the Toronto Transit Commission bumming a ride to his post. “She’s the oldest in the fleet. Been in service all of 40 years,” says the driver. I’ve the privilege of riding this artifact for the next 90 minutes without a pretty girl keeping company. I’m alone at night, on the bus, and in my daydreams. Virginia would more than suffice, but as I begin to think about that dark hair I’m brought back by the rattles and shakes the bus gives off leaving the station. Looking over the aisle, I see my Father genuflecting on cue with the Crucifix of the Rosary. He begins to pray with that crown of roses.
Leaving the house this morning, he turned towards the crucifix mounted on the living room wall and mouthed a quick prayer with palms together and fingers straight. Exiting the house, another prayer was begun before catching up to Oscar. And now a third, the Rosary. I see the beads. He’ll pray it a few times before we arrive. He’s always been a man of faith. It’s rubbing off. Almost not angry at my circumstances, almost.
Oscar’s one seat in front, reading the business section of a day-old. Easing in, I take out The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton and begin reading the few dozen or so pages left. The book’s transformed me in ways unimaginable, bringing back a faith I’ve long abandoned. My attitude towards everything’s beginning to change as Merton’s words sink in. Slamming fists on night tables, cursing, and desperately wanting to hold the hand of Virginia aside, falling into this read, on this ride, is providing leased peace. Peace I’ll have to work to keep from getting evicted with today’s expected trials.
Half-way to the plant the bus is sardined with factory workers headed to the same industrial zone past the city limits. No longer mind the pushing of bodies against my person or the loud conversations in every language except English. Immigrants the majority of us, or like Oscar and I, the Sons of one. Joan Osborne’s What if God was One of Us plays in my head as the bus reaches capacity. Please Joan, not now.
Progress is slow as I reread whole pages three and four times, but not because of the noise or because of people pushing and causing me to lose my place. I’m reading revolution. Soaking in the words and buying into every syllable. Re-vo-lu-tion! Can’t read this like a normal autobiography of a man journeying towards God because it’s not.
Filled with more than I can handle, the book is closed and so are my eyes. I fall into a meditation on the little I’ve consumed, comparing Merton’s shortcomings and weaknesses to my own. I’ve repeated this reading of a few pages followed by meditative silence on the way up to the plant for all of July and most of June. A nudge from Oscar wakes me to a near-empty bus. “Get up. Want to walk back a stop!”
“Another day in paradise,” Oscar says under breath to no one in particular while suiting-up next to my locker. We’re shedding our civvies for something bland, factory-fitting. Standard attire for the elite of North Korea. Steel toes a must. No toes equals instant return trip on the 41. Zero tolerance. It’s 6:30 am. Too early for the night shift to begin clearing and for the day shift to swarm in. Place is ours for the next few. Gives us a chance to change and prepare in peace. He’s never said anything, but I believe Father prefers us not to see the posters lining the insides of most lockers because he hustles us out as regulars and summer students from both shifts trickle in.
Early birds, we wait for seven to come, sitting and staring out the windows that face the highway in the giant break room. “Go to the bathroom if you haven’t yet,” my Father says. His order a well timed one that’s rooted in an incident which went down last week. An hour into my shift I needed to go, so I called over the Line Mechanic to man my station while away. Well, the Mechanic didn’t like me going an hour into shift and conveyed his dislike to his Boss – my Boss. Later that shift an orange-mustached, 50-something tells me in not so jovial terms, while co-workers gawk as if at the circus, that if I need to go it would be before starting shift. Didn’t talk back as instructed but let the incident be known on the way home that day earlier this summer. Next morning the top union guy comes around and lets me know I can go to the bathroom every five minutes if I want. “Thank you,” I said in awe.
Like astronauts psyching themselves before launch, we get up nice and easy and walk to our lines. Father, who like a guardian angel will intervene in keeping his line from jamming and stalling, hovers everywhere at once on a line that produces 5,000 metal closures a minute. Heinz baby food lids. Stuff’s all in Spanish and going to South America, which is rumor like most of the words that exit mouths here. Oscar mans the packing station at the end that line. I head to the opposite end of the plant to stand toe-to-toe with presses that punch out the bottoms and tops of aerosol cans at a rate people who haven’t seen can’t believe. Won’t see my kin until break.
I relieve a summer student who gives off the warmest greeting. She’s being liberated. Hands in the air with a smile punching through her exhaustion. Her prayers answered the moment I turned the corner and came into view. She’s packing aerosol can tops and gives me a quick, “Hi. Bye.” And as though I’m doing time for a crime I didn’t commit, I’ll be packing tops for the next eight hours. Worst part of shift is the start. Every moment is bad but the absolute worst is when the person you’ve relieved leaves and you feel for a minute that this is still their station and put on the burden of the job, which like shackles, they’ve just taken off.
The Mechanic tasked with keeping this behemoth running introduces himself and then disappears with the same determination as the girl I replaced. Freddy, I think his name was, or at least the name I glimpsed sewn on his shirt. Word travels and in the plant’s small world of line mechanics it travels faster than viral. Freddy must think I’ll ask him to take over while I head to the restroom in 10 minutes. But that, like the beginning of every shift, is the least of my concerns as I scan my line and see the precut sheet metal in the feeder about to run out. Ready or not!
A quick pace is familiarized in a heartbeat as it’s forced upon me. I’m bagging thousands of aerosol tops, give or take, into a long paper bag every 30 seconds. The finished tops come off the line and slide into a metal half circle tightly bunched one behind the other on a track about waist high. My station, the place where I serve the majority of my time, is as wide as I am tall. Markings etched into the steel track let me know when enough tops have accumulated to fill a bag. When that happens I make a break in the scorching tops and with one hand holding the mouth of the paper bag over the end of the track, slide in the tops with the other. Bag full, I fold the excess paper over and rest the erect snake on a skid in the aisle. When full, the skid will be taken away and replaced with another. It goes this way uninterrupted until the order for this particular top is filled. Rinse and repeat.
With 32 decibel earplugs wedged in, the roar of the machines finds another avenue to travel and irritate me. It creeps up through vibrations in the concrete floor. The place shakes and I want out but chained to my station I remain. Can always quit but need the money because Daddy didn’t put any away like I will for my son, if I don’t become a Trappist of course. Everything happens for a reason and Jesus enlisted me again this summer at U of Hard Knocks. Better learn my lesson this year. Gotta make graduation.
Sighing, I prepare to bare the next eight hours by letting my labour go. That means I’m giving it up to Jesus. “Not my will be done but Yours,” I say working away. He’s willed me here. Chance didn’t see me manning this line, Jesus did. So with every bag of tops so hot they make my palms red, I give it to Him.
“Dude, take your break and be back in 15 okay Guy,” Freddy interrupts.
15 minutes. Enough time for this starving man to wolf down two sandwiches, my lunch. No time to chitchat with guys not as hungry. Won’t make it to lunch if I don’t eat now. Lunch will have to be bought. Hope I didn’t forget my debit. I throw the sandwiches back. Refilled, hunger pains won’t revisit until an hour before lunch. Back to the machines with minutes to spare.
Arriving before the end of break always catches the line mechanics. Most are hardened from years of working within these windowless walls and don’t give an inch let alone a smile. Being able to go on break, even two minutes before they’re scheduled, is a form of killing them softly with kindness you wouldn’t believe. Thank you Fugees. My intentions are good.
Freddy flips his frown for a second in gratitude and about faces to the break room before others of his trade. Mechanics always break after the labour. This whole thing of being kind to others I’ve just implemented and among other actions, attribute to the book I’m reading. Jesus resides in all I’m learning, especially in grumpy mechanics who don’t want to exert an ounce of sweat to relieve a fellow Labourer needing to use the restroom.
My line is at the tail-end of massive ovens that gauntlet 100 feet. Part of Litho, the department where sheet metal is painted with logos and graphics and then baked-on as the sheets move down the ovens. Later they’ll be punched into metal closures for baby food or turned into aerosol cans for shaving cream and such. The edges have a nice glow as the sheets exit the ovens on the other end, a throw from where I stand. Heat’s unbearable. Place is a steel foundry. Can’t say how many fans meant to cool us, blow the suffering around instead.
In the course of the last two months, at least since picking up Merton, and thanks to some intercessory prayers from my Father, I’ve decided becoming a Saint a worthy vocation. Took 20-some-odd years to figure out, but Saint Padre Pio make some room up there for me.
This bagging of hot aerosol tops is making my arms ache and palms burn and is boring as heck, but in spite of all, it feels good because it’s not just working for the sake of working, an end in and of itself. It’s what I’m doing for Jesus at the moment. Holy work. I realize I’m a common labourer working a line in a plant that makes metal closures and aerosol cans, but it’s much more when placed at the foot of His cross and done for His greater glory. My partaking in the work and offering it to Jesus, all of it, is prayer and contributes to His divine plan because of a simple choice I’m making to will it so.
Lofty thoughts don’t last as hunger pains demand to be felt. I’m miserable when forced to work tired and hungry. Don’t notice how beat I am because my stomach is consuming itself and masks the body’s exhaustion. All I begin to think about is food and today’s cafeteria special when as if she were strolling through High Park with a parasol instead of baking here with me, Virginia, a summer student with beauty that has gravitational pull, walks by. Yes, the girl under the desk in my daydreams. As she graces past I mouth a polite hello and hold back sound as she wouldn’t hear with earplugs on anyway. She gives off a deep look going by, face slanted and eyes piercing, telling me more than just good day in the second or so our eyes connect. Tops are building up and about to spill. I force myself from Virginia’s gaze and get back to work.
Turning towards the skid, I manage not to drop the bag of tops as I lift my head to see this curvaceous girl my age, thank you Jesus, within arm’s reach, sitting on the neat row of tops I’ve built about knee-high. “Hi Bruno. How’s it going,” she yells without straining to get her volume up.
“Good,” I manage, applying full audio this time. “It’s going good. How you doing?”
“Oh you know, could be better. Any beach would do.”
“Yeah,” I say nodding at a loss for words and thinking about what I could add that would make me sound witty. I’m such a loser.
“Listen, I was wondering if you wanted to go out Friday night and catch a movie and a bite,” she says, dark hair bunched in curls flowing over her shoulders.
A deer in headlights. My mouth open and eyes emitting a look I hope to never see someone giving me, I retrench. “Um,” I say while beginning to remember what the summer students and some of the full-timers said about Virginia. “Ah,” I’m looking for an escape because none of what’s spreading regarding this this very beautiful girl has been good.
She’s been rumored to have gone out with several of the full-timers this summer alone. Moves from one to the next without reserve. I lean towards her while packing another bag of tops and let go: “Virginia, you’re a very nice girl.” Always bad when you hear a guy open with that. “My head’s in a different space and I’m not looking to get into a relationship right now.”
“I’m just asking you out to a movie and maybe dinner,” she says.
“Yes, but I know where these things lead.” I say sure of myself and her intentions. “And Virginia, I don’t want to go there with a girl like-,” I catch myself mid-sentence and put on a smile hoping she’ll go away, praying she didn’t hear that last part over the noise of the presses.
Face turning red, she’s ablaze after the hit and soaking in the reality of being shot down. “Okay, well see you ’round.”
Maybe I’m the first guy she’s approached who’s said no, but I won’t be the last. I’m not taking a number and what just happened is more than okay. It’s the way it should have gone. Mine’s going to be a God-written love story with a girl who’s keeping that special gift for her husband. Not that God can’t work miracles. Maybe Virginia is that girl, but God, along with giving me a discerning heart, gave me a brain to flush these things out. The thing between my ears is telling me she’s not in His plans for me. “She’s pretty hot eh!” Freddy yells into my ear, causing me to jump and break from looking at Virginia walking away.
“Here to relieve me for lunch, Freddy?” I say recomposed and proud, dignity intact.
Break room is packed. Cliques like in high school around every table. Hate cliques. Was a floater during those acne-infested years and nothing’s changed. I get along with everybody. Hate picking permanent crowds to associate with so I don’t. Today I sit with the machinists. The guys who make custom parts for the machines that breakdown because they’re old and the guy in charge of this outfit could care less about modernizing the place. A lot of machinists are employed because parts can’t be bought for machines like these, past their prime.
It’s a lively bunch, filled with characters like every table. After buying the cafeteria special, which today is stuffed peppers, potatoes, and a side of vegetables with a pop, I park in an empty slot next to Helmut. “Helmut, now there’s a strong German name,” I say looking to talk and get my mind off the doubts beginning to plague me about events that transpired a few heartbeats ago.
“Yeah,” he says in the remnants of a German accent, not looking up from his food.
“Can I ask you about someone Helmut,” I say confident he’ll give me a straight Christian answer. “You know her Father. I’ve seen you talk to her a few times too. Not that I was counting or spying or anything-”
“Who?” he interrupts.
Placing the fork pierced with food that’s almost in his mouth down, he turns to me. “Bruno, from our many conversations over the summers it seems like you’re a good Catholic boy, so listen to what I’m about to tell you.” Helmut is Evangelical and knows the Bible verbatim. He despises Catholics but more than tolerates me.
“The woman you end up with doesn’t have to be pretty. You’ll see that outer beauty is fickle and doesn’t last as you and whoever you end up with grow out of your younger selves into people ugly like me. Now, as long as she remains faithful and is a half-decent cook, you’re ahead. Getting more than that is gravy, but don’t go chasing trouble Bruno. Listen to what I’m telling you,” he says and pauses to emphasize. “Virginia, you let her be. Don’t go on and get mixed up in that.”
“Well that’s that,” I say relieved. “God doesn’t always talk through Catholics. On rare occasions, He’ll use a Protestant”
“Hah!” Helmut grunts, beginning to laugh or hack, trying to keep his lunch down. “You keep thinking that Son.”
“Seriously, thank you,” I say in a stern voice, letting on I’m not joking.
“No problem kid,” he says shooting back a look of appreciation as he gets back to his lunch. “Now eat your lunch before you have to head back to that damn press,” he says with a mouthful of food.
“How do you know I’m working the presses?” I ask. Only people who know I’m on the presses are the guys in that section and my Father. Machinists don’t venture into my area often. Heck, they just get the order for the part, make it, and have whoever needs it come and pick it up from the machine shop.
“Your Father’s not the only one looking out for you kid,” he says with eyebrows raised, munching on a carrot and giving off a smile.
I think back to the washroom incident with Orange Mustache and how my Father and Helmut are not the chummiest of buddies but they do talk. Can’t believe Helmut had anything to do with that, but I’m grateful he stuck his nose out. “Hey! Get to your station Bruno,” my brother says pointing to me and then to the door he files past. Summer students don’t enjoy the luxury of a minute extra for lunch.
Four more hours and this place won’t be my problem ’till the morning. General contentment settles in as I head to man the line again while basking in my new disposition towards drudgery, welcoming it because it’s being offered up. Can’t exactly offer up lying on some tropical beach with a cold one. On route back I take the long way, avoiding Virginia on the palletizers. Freddy forgoes the greeting and instead rushes off to chow with the wrenches. Presses are pounding the sheet metal without letup today.
The sheets that feed into the presses, one at a time, are long rectangles, and the presses, as there are multiple heads simultaneously punching out tops from each sheet, are made of indestructible metal alloy. It’s impossible stuff to work with according to Frankie from the machine shop. He repairs the heads and told me just that on one rare occasion he and not a line mechanic was doing the work of replacing some chipped heads on the line I was manning.
Precut metal sheets are punched in staccato and discs are spit out like machine gun bullets. The skeletal remains of the sheets drop into a bin that when filled makes its way back to Hamilton to be melted and resold. Once born, the discs slide into a series of smaller presses where they at each stage take more of the their end shape – aerosol tops. That’s where they acquire all that heat, the constant bending. Which so happens to be how they come to me, nice and hot. Scars prove it.
Half the tops are sent to the front of the plant where five aerosol can finishing lines run. There, tops and bottoms meet a rectangular piece of steel and the trio is fused into aerosol cans ready for filling. The other half of tops are shipped to the States where they have the same aerosol can finishing lines in Chicago but no presses to make the tops and bottoms. Hence, why I have a job.
Bagging and stacking, I notice the Mechanic who ratted me out talking to Orange Mustache. Thinking they’re hidden from view and that I’m to busy to look up and spot them, I pull a fast one and turn around giving a big wave and smile. Caught off guard they look down and away and then disperse. Love it. Really don’t care what they think. Maybe if I push back, next year when I’m not here and some green horn takes my place, they’ll cut the kid some slack. Anything to help advance the cause of the labour movement. Lech Walensa would be proud.
Mid-afternoon’s the hottest part of the day. The plant takes up seven square acres and a flat metal roof covers every inch. It does a great job of letting the heat in and keeping it here. The sun scorching the place coupled with ovens not a few dozen feet away is making me sweat like I’m being wrung-out before hung to dry. A cool breeze of the variety felt when hanging clothes outside in the late summer would be nice. I hydrate but at this rate of fluid depletion I’ll be knocked out for the bus ride home. For the life of me, I can’t fall asleep for an afternoon nap but have me sweat it out in this sauna for eight hours and Bob’s your…
Guys in here, my Father, take this all year. Just as bad in the winter. Maybe worse. Everyone’s bitter and cold and bundled up. Nothing is placed so as to touch the exterior walls. Cooling seven acres in the summer is impossible and so management surely fails keeping it warm when Jack Frost visits. Rather have that than this. I’m melting away. But that’s always the case isn’t it. Greener on the other side. The key to avoiding that trap is to believe the grass there is actually landmine-riddled mud. “Break time,” Freddy blares an inch away, again sneaking up like Swiper from Dora the Explorer. Swiper stop swiping.
“Ever heard of personal space,” I mouth inaudibly so that Freddy sees my lips move by doesn’t grasp.
“What?” he shouts a fist away from my brow.
I nod my head and yell, “Exactly!”
In the break room I buy two Gatorades and head to an empty table near the back. As suspected, everyone crowds around the tables near the entrance and leaves me be as they file in for last break. Everyone that is except Gunther, another German immigrant who’s got two fingers left on one hand. “I’ve sacrificed the other three for this company,” he says catching me staring.
I know my lips are blue from the Gatorade but I’m tired enough to not care. I’m in a semi-stupour. The kind you sometimes find yourself in when tired and daydreaming, looking at nothing in particular but comfortable enough not to move because you’re actually sitting down. To engage in conversation, I give myself a snap-out-of-it slap. It does the job and gets me going. “Sorry for starring.”
“You’re not the first and won’t be the last,” he says. “Apologize to yourself for the slap,” he laughs.
“Funny, I was thinking that earlier.”
“About my two-fingered hand? Okay kid, you gotta move to another table. I’ve got a crossword to finish,” he continues in a thick accent and laughing.
“No, no, I meant about what you said. That line. You’re not the first and won’t be the last. I rehearsed that line on myself about a girl I didn’t want to take a chance on. She asked me out today but I chased her away because of what’s been said about her.”
“I see,” he says staring at me over the brim of his reading glasses. “This girl wouldn’t happen to have an Italian father who’s a millwright with heavy glasses?”
“Okay, you sit at this table alone everyday and you know about her,” I say with hands in the air. “Any doubts I was nursing are gone.”
“And what makes you so holy and upright young man,” he says looking at me with arms crossed and gazing away.
“You heard me. You’ve discounted Virginia because of what you’ve heard others say about her. What if it’s not true, just the rumour mill on overdrive. Don’t discredit people like that Bruno. You’re a smart kid. Think for yourself. And in my opinion what they’re saying about her is bull. None of it’s true. But don’t take my word for it. Think for yourself.”
I nod in approval of his advice. Know he’s right despite what Helmut told me earlier. Getting up red-faced, I head back early. Along the way I play with the notion of stopping in to see Virginia. Working away stacking finished aerosol cans on pallets as they come off the line, she motions with her head to come over when she notices me standing in the aisle looking at her. So I do.
The walk up the palletizer is eternity and when finally there I say: “Virginia, I just wanted to apologize for the way I acted and for what I said this morning. That’s all. I’m not looking for you to accept my apology and offer forgiveness because I was a jerk. I’m just here to make it right and say I’m sorry. You didn’t deserve that.” Her mouth open, face frozen in disbelief taking it in. She doesn’t say a word which strikes me because Virginia is never at a loss. Grabbing the brim of an imaginary cap, I pull down and walk away, maybe forever.
Back at my line time runs free. I’m consumed with what’s happened. First with Helmut and then Gunther and now with Virginia. Do I really think myself high and mighty. Must if I waved her off like she was some street walker. All because of some dumb rumors. Now I know for a fact God doesn’t speak through Protestants. Gunther’s Catholic thanks to his wife seeing him through his conversion. I know this because I spend an unhealthy amount of time picking the brains of those much older.
I’ve got a long way to go if I want to become a Saint. Thinking myself better than a girl who’s been labeled as something she’s not is the first of many lessons. For now, I push through to the end of my shift. Ryan, a fellow summer student and my relief, comes around the corner pointing to me. This signals his takeover to which I reply with a salute. I take a look around before leaving, making sure I’m not forgetting anything like a bag of money.
Taking off my boots in the locker room, Oscar does a double take my way and says, “Wipe that crud off of your mouth.” With the back of my hand I wipe and see a blue streak. Gatorade. “Virginia!” I let out to late. A clown with blue lips apologized to the prettiest girl who’s ever asked me out. Actually, the only girl. Offer it up Bruno.
Waiting for the bus, my brother and I are the picture of exhaustion. Father, not so much. Three decades in the plant have taught him how to avoid the fate of working to death. “How was your day,” he asks no one in particular.
“Good. Uneventful. Good. Yours?” I ask.
“Better now that I’m with my boys.”
Oscar shoots a smile without Father seeing, and the three of us sit there on the grass in the shade and wait for the 41. The same tin can we rode this morning pulls up and I find the same seat and plan the rest of my day. I’ll stop in at St. John of the Cross and sit there for a while in His presence before going home. It’s what I need at the moment, the most important thing filling the acres of my soul these past two months. Easy does it. I try not to jump ahead as I’ve first to suffer the ride back. It’s worse than usual, but then everything is when you’re hungry and tired, aspiring Saint or otherwise.
I wave off Oscar and Father at the entrance of the Church. “Pray for us,” Oscar shouts sarcastically just before the door shuts out the world behind me. The Church is empty except for Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. I sit and release the burdens of the day. I’m at peace for some time. No apparitions or revelations. Just Jesus hidden in plain view for everyone to see and visit and worship. I’m the only one here though. “It took a while Jesus, but I’ll be a regular,” I say breaking the silence. “I place my life at the foot of Your cross.” Saying this brings immense consolation and then I close my eyes and fall back into Him.
Creeping in and out of sleep an hour or two later, I decide to head home and wash up and have dinner before I do something really dumb like fall forward and knock myself out on a pew. After a quick shower I go into one of the unused rooms in this massive house cluttered with unopened boxes and kneel before a window. I recite the Rosary, Divine Chaplet, and read from a Polish book of Catholic prayers before enjoying the same cold bowl of cereal had at breakfast. Don’t care for the hot pot of meat and potatoes Mom’s made.
The house boiling, I take it outside and sit on a lawn chair where some shade and breathable air is had. Another uneventful day behind me. After this I’m going to bed to be reunited with my pillow. Sitting, I think about the book I’m completing, The Seven Storey Mountain, and the affect it’s having, making me do stuff I wouldn’t otherwise. And not trivial things like practicing mindfulness or being happy just because. It’s delivering real soul searching, life changing stuff and causing me to act on it. Today is proof. Going out of my way to apologize. Stopping to visit Jesus when all I want in the moment is food and sleep. I’m being pulled in and letting go. No longer assuming control over anything. I abandon everything to Him, especially the incident with Virginia.
Cereal unfinished, lines of thought go on tangents and overwhelm me on this summer evening that’s filled with daydreams of joining the Trappists. These thoughts scare me. Enough for today, I’m off to bed and my room, which is the mess of perfection I left it.
Setting my alarm, I see an envelope icon indicating an unopened text. I don’t recognize the number but realize who it could be from. It reads: “Bruno, I accept your apology. Unexpected, but that’s just it about you. You can be rude and a jerk as you said yourself today, but I’m over that. There’s something about you Bruno Jankowski. You’re not the carbon copy every-other-guy, so don’t be quick to jump to conclusions about me. And don’t think I don’t know about the lies. For future reference, I’m an open book. Don’t be stopped from reading because of the fake reviews people have scribbled on the back cover.”
I hesitate. A few minutes pass and then I respond to her text with one of my own: “Virginia Capri, I feel like I’m in grade school adding in your last name but you started it. It’s 7 pm and I was going to bed, but in the process of setting my alarm I received your text and it knocked me flat. I don’t know how you got my number but I’m happy you did. Listen, I’ll cut to it. I’d like to make up for today by taking you out for a dinner and movie Friday. Of course, if you never want to talk to me again that’s fine too. Good night Virginia.”
I’m tired but unable to fall asleep while waiting for a reply text from the prettiest girl who’s ever asked me out, the only girl. I’m nervous Virginia won’t take me up on my offer. To think a few hours ago I was confident she was someone else, the person everyone except this really old German guy with two fingers said she was.
The ring of an incoming text wakes me as I find myself having fallen asleep clutching the phone. Blurry-eyed, I grab my glasses and read: “Either you’ve been sweating it out, anticipating this text and hoping I’d say yes, or you’re pleasantly surprised by my relatively quick response but not caring if you actually ever crossed paths with me again. Hope you’re sweating it out, for obvious reasons. And just in case you’re having trouble interpreting this text; yes, I’d love to go out with you Bruno Jankowski.”
Putting the phone down on the night table, I stare at the letter beside it. The one I slammed this morning when the alarm went off. I didn’t mistake empty space for the phone. My clenched hand came down on more than just Amish oak. Hitting the letter, I wanted it to disintegrate and break the night table it was on. All this pent-up emotion towards a letter because in it lay the beginnings of my future. I’m asking for acceptance into the Trappist Novitiate at the Abbey of the Genesee in upstate New York. Held off mailing it today on the way to work, so I go on staring at it until my eyes begin to shut and I abandon it to Him. “In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.” The day is done.
photo credit: Daniel Tibi