CHAPTER 1— GEORGE & ME
It’s almost 4 a.m. Three hours of clean-up left to go. Lunch time’s about to end, but I can’t eat. I’m totally exhausted, covered with white flour dust and stink of lard that we’ve been wiping off the ovens, ductwork, and conveyors. It was a mistake to take this temp job—an act of desperation, but who knew? It’s hard to find a decent job at my age. I turned fifty-three last April and regaining my once middle-class existence won’t be easy, but I will. I’ve got to. I slug down another cup of weak machine-made coffee.
Roger pokes his head into the bleak, white-latex lunchroom flooded with fluorescent light. “Yo! George Hampton, Mister Brenner! Time for blow-down. Fun, fun, fun!” Roger’s the senior baker here at Grannies’’ Cookies. Grannies’’ is a part of the much larger Endorf Corporation. I once held some Endorf stock. Life is ironic.
I suspect Roger isn’t happy that I’m so much older than the other temporary workers. Probably worried I won’t work as hard or fast as they. He’s probably right. I’ve got a masters
—engineering. Roger might have graduated high school . . . might have.
Now the temp I’ve been paired with, George, is struggling to his feet. We get along okay. He’s an old hand at this—a big dude, taller than my own six-feet, an African American, well-muscled, and quite possibly on drugs. He won’t stop talking. I suspect he’s using uppers of some kind. Working with him’s like having a transistor radio beside me. There’s no way to turn George off, but I don’t mind. We follow Roger to another section of the building, passing by a white board listing lost-time accident reports: one fractured arm, a broken toe. George sees me looking.
“Got to watch your ass in here,” he warns. “Shit happens.”
There’s a stretcher fastened to the wall beside the board. My empty stomach feels a little queasy—should have eaten something.
We step through a metal door that opens to a flour storage bin some thirty feet across, about three times as high—a topless cylinder of stainless steel. It’s empty now. We stand in drifts of flat-white flour dust below a spider web of catwalks, pipes, and duct-work also covered with a layer of the fine, white powder. I begin to sneeze and wipe my nose onto a lard-stained sleeve. It’s warm and humid with an overpowering smell of flour, lard, and something I cannot identify.
Octavio shows up with yellow plastic raincoats. “Put these on,” he says. Octavio is one of five Hispanic “sanitarians.” That’s what they call the permanent employees working here as janitors. The sanitarians wear dark green coveralls with name tags sewn on. Now, another of them brings us matching hoods with plastic windows to look through. Air-filter cartridges have been attached, one on each side. I put mine on and find the inside has been wiped down with disinfectant that has killed the greasy odor of the cookie hell outside, replacing it with its own antiseptic scent. The hood and raincoat feel uncomfortable and claustrophobic.
I’m already sweating as we’re given shiny, flat-blade shovels. There’s a pile of large black plastic garbage bags for us to fill.
“Take us about an hour,” George tells me.
Squinting through my scuffed-up face-plate, I watch sanitarians climb ladders to a maze of narrow metal-grating platforms high above. They look like figures in an Escher drawing.
“Ready?” one of them calls down.
“We ready!” George calls back. “But you be—”
George’s voice is drowned out by the hiss of compressed air hoses that start the blow-down, and a blizzard of white powder swirls around us. We begin to shovel and the inside of my mask steams up. Sweat burns my eyes, but I can only blink. No way to get my hands inside this hood. Eight bucks an hour, for this.
I can see George, a blurry image in his yellow raincoat, shoveling hard and fast. It’s difficult to breathe inside this hood. No way I’m going to do another night of this. I’ve got to find a steady job.
Some twenty-five or thirty minutes pass before I hear a muted shout from high above us, seconds later a metallic crash that’s followed by a shriek of pain. A spray of red splatters the window of my hood. George screams a stream of muffled words from underneath his hood. I drop my shovel and run toward him, stumbling on a sheet of metal partly hidden by the flour dust floating down. Swaths of George’s blood begin to darken as they soak into the whiteness that envelops us.
I yank off my hood and yell into the chalky haze above us, “Stop the air!” Dust quickly clogs my nostrils. Shit! I doubt the Mexicans above can hear or even see me. Christ! It’s hard to breathe. George’s left arm is spewing blood from where his hand should be. I’m frozen for a moment, stunned by this surrealistic horror.
“George!” I grab him by the shoulders, lose my grip, then grab again. He’s big and heavy, slippery with blood and on his knees now, the grotesque appendage flailing, slinging plasma as I try to drag him to the exit.
“No!” he protests—wants to go the other way. His bloody stump beats on my legs.
“My hand!” he screams.
With strength I didn’t know I had I haul him back outside the bin, then stick my head inside again and shout to those above us.
“We need help! Godammit . . . HELP!”
Blood spurts from George’s arm. I tear his hood off. Jesus, God . . . what can I do? His mouth’s wide open with a gold tooth gleaming as he howls and writhes on the now blood-slicked concrete floor.
“Hold still!” I rip the raincoat from his body, then remove my own. “We’ve got to stop the bleeding!”
Someone dressed in white comes running as George moans. “Ohhhh, God!”
A pool of blood expands around us.
“What happened?” asks a baker who stays back a yard or two from where we are—afraid of AIDS, I guess.
“He’s lost his hand! Call 911!”
The baker takes a cell-phone from his pocket and a moment later red lights spin and flash above us; now a siren wails. The air compressor shuts down, leaving us in eerie silence as a crowd of voyeurs gather; most are dressed in baker’s uniforms. I drag George to a concrete column and then lean him up against it.
“Shit!” I don’t know what to do. Nobody’s offering to help. I look at George. His face has turned an ashen gray as tears clean narrow trails through flour dust on his face.
“My hand,” he moans. “You got to find my hand! Go find my hand!”
“Lay him down flat!” one of the female bakers shouts. “I’ve had first-aid,” she says. “Make him lie down.”
“Okay.” I make a pillow for him with our raincoats.
“Find my hand,” George moans as I take off my belt and make a noose around his injured forearm.
“Hold this tight.” I shove the end into his right hand. “You’ve got to stop the bleeding!”
“Yeah. I got it, man. Go find my fuckin’ hand.”
I run back into the bin. The dust has settled—ankle-deep . . . blood spattered everywhere. I find a soft depression where we struggled, and a broken shovel handle. I squat down and rake through the accumulated flour with my hands—no luck. A nightmare. I begin to work my way out in concentric circles. Here! The hand is cool and clammy, lifeless meat. I stand and start to leave but trip on something. Damn! The shovel I was using. I get back onto my feet and run outside to George.
“Get us some ice!” I’m yelling at a group of bakers who have gathered, gawking at us. “And a plastic bag!”
I kneel at George’s side to show his severed hand. I don’t know what to do with it.
“Good man,” George says. “You okay, Willie.”
“They can put you back together, George.” His right hand’s shaking but still holds the belt tight as two guys in green come with a stretcher. Octavio hands me a plastic sandwich bag filled with crushed ice, but George’s flour-encrusted hand won’t fit. His fingers are protruding from the bag. Two more Mexicans get George onto the stretcher and I put the hand between his knees as they take off with him. I’m shaking, dizzy, nauseated.
“Better get yourself cleaned up,” one of the bakers tells me. “You okay?”
“Yeah, I’m okay.”
* * *
But I don’t look okay inside the restroom as I stand before a full-length mirror. I look like something from a horror film. Soap and warm water wash blood from my face and hands without much trouble, but my pants and shirt are caked with lard-soaked flour dust and dark, red stains.
I leave the restroom, heading for the cafeteria and find George laid out on a table. There’s a pair of medics with him. They’ve brought first-aid cases and a gurney. One puts George’s severed hand into a Styrofoam container as the other sticks an IV in his arm and then another in his right hand’s index finger. Something’s draining into him from two clear plastic bags. My belt has been replaced with a white cloth they’ve tightened near his elbow. The two medics hoist him up and plop him on the gurney. One asks questions. “What’s your name?”
“George Ham . . . pphhh . . .”
“Hampton,” Roger tells them.
“What’s your name?” the medic asks again. I guess he’s trying to see if George is conscious, or to keep him that way as the other medic turns to Roger. “Is this guy on any kind of medication?”
“I don’t know. He’s just a temp.”
I wonder if I ought to tell them I suspect that George is on amphetamines . . . might be important. I decide against it.
“All of you, go back to work,” says Roger to the vultures who have come to watch. Myself, the medics and Octavio remain.
“What’s your address?” the medic asks George.
“Ummmm . . . Seattuuul . . . uh. . . .”
“Wake up! What’s your address?”
There is no response. The medic looks to Roger for an answer.
“I don’t know.” He shrugs his shoulders.
“You should call Max,” Octavio suggests.
“Already have,” says Roger. “Max is on his way.”
A paramedic turns George on his side and rifles through a billfold found in one of his hip pockets. “2215, South Yesler.”
“Good enough.” The other medic writes it down, then makes a cell phone call. “Give me the trauma doctor,” he commands. “Yes . . . Dr. Harwood? This is EM-405. We’re on our way in with a severed hand. Our ETA is fifteen minutes . . . right.” He puts the phone back in his pocket. “We are good to go,” he tells us. “Taking him to Harborview.”
They wheel George out and as they leave, a man I haven’t seen before appears in street clothes: clean, white shirt and tie. He’s got a clipboard in one hand.
“I’m Maxwell Evens, nightshift manager.” He peers at me, but doesn’t get too close. “Who saw the accident?” he asks.
Octavio just shrugs.
I tell Max, “I was with him when it happened.”
“And your name is . . . ?”
“Brenner. William Brenner.”
He writes down my name and address.
“Brenner’s temping here,” says Roger. “His first night.”
“Okay then. Roger, you can go. I only need the people who were on the scene.” He turns to me. “What happened?”
“We were inside a bin, shoveling flour dust into bags.”
“Es blow-down,” says Octavio.
“Then something fell,” I tell him. “And a sheet of metal tore through his left forearm—broke the shovel he was using.”
“Did you have protective gear on?”
“Yes. We both did.”
“Umm.” He thinks about it for a moment. “Guess you really couldn’t see too well then, could you? So much dust, the mask and all?”
“I could see George in his yellow raincoat. And I saw the silver flash of something coming down,” I lie. I’m pretty sure George Hampton’s going to need a witness . . . if he lives through this. I tell Max how I got George out and found the hand.
“Were any others there?” he asks.
“The bakers came, but they just stood around. The sanitarians brought us a stretcher and a plastic bag of ice to put the hand in.”
“Right.” He jots down the information.
Octavio steps forward. “I should go back now?”
“No, not yet. I need to get your statement. Mr. Brenner, you can leave. Go home and get yourself cleaned up. We’ll be in touch. You’ll need to sign an accident report.”
* * *
Five minutes later I step out into the cool, pre-dawn fresh air of this October morning—almost 6 a.m. My pants are falling off. Forgot to get my belt, but I’m not going back. I need a drink, but only have three dollars with me and I can’t go anywhere dressed in these blood-and grease-stained clothes. I climb into my van and start the engine, roll the window down and breathe in deeply, savoring a breeze that sweeps away the sickeningly sweet smell of Grannies’’ baking chambers. I’m completely wired and wide awake. What now?
I cross my arms on top the steering wheel and rest my head on them a moment before trying to find a station on the radio. Nothing but early morning news and silly wake-up broadcasts. Might as well go home, clean up, and try to get some sleep. I’m missing Laurie, my ex-wife, and having someone I could tell what happened to. What’s my daughter, Mary, up to now, I wonder. I assume she’s still ensconced inside that Buddhist monastery up in Nova Scotia or I would have heard . . . I think. God, how the time flies. She’ll turn twenty-three in June. She doesn’t write or call.
Lonely as God, an army buddy once remarked. We were in basic training, his first time away from home. I didn’t understand the comment then, but I do now.