A tiny, older girl with big eyes, battling cancer, who always makes an attempt to smile, even when she’s in great pain, Tori and I know very little of each other, have simply said “hi” and “bye” for these diminishing six years.
For the first two months of this winter I was sure it was my last winter as a dynamic force in my own life, as a man who could defend himself against the young thugs constantly testing him, to see if he was ripe yet for the harvest.
The guys I worked with were cool as I deteriorated before their eyes, going from the most productive worker to the guy struggling to walk down the aisle, leaning on one case while he lifted another. Even “old-ass” Tony went from seeing me as an inspiration, that some old guys could “still put it on your young asses” to calling me “old man.”
My supervisor Ron, found me in the back room a couple times trying not to pass out as I hung on the bailer attempting to relieve the pressure on my hips. He never asked me the obvious stupid question—of course I was not alright, just kept an eye on me and never gave me up to the boss, that I might be a workman’s compensation issue. He trusted me not to go that route.
George, the 70-year-old, 4-pack-a-day, 120 pound Virginian, for whom I did all the heavy lifting, would come to me every morning, his still functioning hips and my arms making us into one lopsided, conjoined stock clerk as we lifted the juice and milk unto the U-boats—my right arm is literally stronger than all of George, but the old dude could still walk and stand and squat.
Larry, our boss, just kept asking me if I was good enough to continue and often finished my work and sent me home.
His boss, John, took the responsible approach and hired a kid for me to train, and another, and another, and we’re still waiting for one to show up for work…
About a month ago it got so bad I went to Doc, who told me I was an idiot and that knuckleheads with a high pain tolerance were hard to doctor, making the placement of cortisone shots hard and compounding simple injuries by trying to “be a tough guy.”
By this time I was walking like a 90-year-old arthritis patient and my coworkers would just stop and stare. Doc suggested "time off” and I told him I could only take a day, because my boss's wife was having an operation and I didn’t want him having to fill in for me. Doc shook his head and gave me the one day slip and the steroids, muscle relaxers and pain pills on top of the magic shot in the ass.
The first night back to work, after my friends and family and slave girls had told me I should consider disability or just writing full time, my mother even wanted me to move in with her and take a sabbatical, and I expressed more interest in being homeless, which made the old girl cry. The women at work looked at me in horror, trying to convince me to file a compensation claim and get an operation…
I barely remember my first night back. When I would start to throw up or pass out I would go to the walk-in door and squat against it, using the heater inside of the aluminum frame [all freezer doors have heaters in them] as a heating pad, counting down until I only had two hours left, so I could take the pain pill that would get me arrested for having it without the prescription bottle, but unwilling to risk it being stolen. [Most markets I worked in have had pill junkies who would stalk coworkers obviously taking medication in order to steal medication from coats, purses and backpacks.]
My goal was to not take a pain pill, a goal I fell short of six times. I have now completed six shifts without a pain pill and am walking normally, only having trouble standing. However, I did not believe I would make it this far. I honestly thought I was done, just didn’t want to quit, was simply determined to have the choice of quitting taken out of my hands by loss of consciousness. I was hoping, praying to the pagan ghosts in my addled brain that the hoodrats would strike and I could go down stabbing and eviscerating one or two of Master’s meat-puppets.
When it came time for me to limp back into work for my second shift after seeing Doc, I felt weaker, was in more pain and had no confidence I would make it through the night. I had been having difficulty keeping track of time, would black out on my feet and wake up still doing my work at a pathetic pace. I have never had trouble with impact pain, with the pain of being beaten. But the pain of bodily failure, when something inside is bent or broken, translates to a feeling of weakness incomparably worse than having a rib snapped, the ligaments in your jaw ripped, your chest cartilage pounded in, your kidneys hit so hard that your blood burns and your piss is red for a weak. To all that pain no internal indictments of unmanliness gathered to curse your shrinking soul.
I had taken a half hour to check the dates in the cottage cheese section as I leaned on the case, very much in doubt that I would be able to lift a thing, with every step shooting pain from heel to shoulder and an image of Doc shaking his head after I demanded only one day off, with that “I didn’t spend 10 years and a half million dollars to learn how to take out the trash you fucking idiot caveman” look on his face.
I looked white as a ghost in the bathroom mirror.
Ron had actually asked me if I was okay.
Steevo didn’t tease me, but hung his head when I hobbled by.
Old-ass Tony winced when he saw me hobble by his aisle.
I tried to unhitch the tow-motor to pull out a pallet and work the light stuff off the top, and the strain of tilting the lever-like control arm [something a three-year-old could do] brought me to my knees.
In disgust I had limped out to the cottage cheese case and started policing it for freshness, something I could still do, something I had once hired a 75-year-old woman to do when I discovered most of my clerks couldn’t read, let alone remember the difference between sell by, best by and use by.
I was really convinced that I was done.
I had been getting relief by working the bottom shelf in a squat as this stretched the sacrum [the ligature that covers the lower back bone that mirrors the pelvis]. Then, after cleaning the bottom shelf from a squat, my left knee gave, the one above the ankle I had just sprained from my awkward gait. I rose from a squat with a silent whimper as the joint clicked and popped, enraged at myself, but not enough to submerge the pain. Anger at my failing body and the drive to punish it for being inadequate to the task had always been my last reserve when facing injuries in the past. But that rage was now just a muted echo down inside that sea of pain.
When I stood, Tori was next to me, little, frail, with enormously pretty brown eyes. I had noticed her standing above me and not saying anything a few times when I was in the hallway to the freezer we shared as I squatted against the wall. Now, I could no longer squat. I was done. I was really thinking about quitting.
Then her little voice—which is always something of a whisper, even when she’s not feeling like hell from her chemo—came up to me from below my left shoulder, “I’ve been watching you for months. You’ve been in terrible pain. I admire you so much for being so strong, for not quitting. It’s helped me. I know you can beat it.”
I could not speak, it hurt too much. I just ground my teeth a little harder and nodded. Tori walked back to her work station, in considerable pain herself, and I headed back to the tow-motor that had so recently defeated me, not remembering now if it hurt or not.
Yesterday morning, after working a full order in half a shift, I was headed up front to leave, past Tori’s work station, walking normally for the first time since October. I looked up to see her smiling at me, smiled at her, and she smiled back, no words required.
In my mind, Tori’s an angel that shall never be cast out.