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Quinté Shepherd started working in the warehouse not more than a week after he graduated high school. He didn’t enjoy the tedium, but his weekly paycheck helped him tolerate the dust and labor for the summer.
Every day he rode to work on MARTA, Atlanta’s public transit system, Quinté would repeat, at least I’m getting, to motivate himself on the journey to work. Things had become different for Quinté during the last few months. He imagined himself growing older, riding trains with strangers, and funneling his income into fare-boxes and turn-styles for the rest of his life.
He began to see his future, stagnating, swaying back and forth in morning and afternoon rides to work then home. He wondered if growing-up and never fulfilling his dreams would honor the sacrifices of the people who died so he had access to education. He considered how long he could endure the tracks of survival, stopping at stations, obeying the signals of when and where to get-on and off.
When Quinté arrived at work, he put his things down, and moved to his side of the warehouse. He set the radio to W-103, the local R&B and Hip-Hop station. “Burn” by Usher, played, as Quinté waited for the announcement about the Free-Money Bag radio contest. The contest had been ongoing for five weeks, and Quinté hoped he’d win the money and take at least a week off during the summer. He thought he’d visit a beach or just avoid work for few days. He didn’t care, as long as he got a few days to himself.
He stepped away from the radio and the large warehouse fans at the ends of the warehouse began to turn. Quinté coughed a few times as the warehouse dust was unsettled and began moving through the air. “Burn” continued to play, and Quinté stared at the massive number of boxes he had to move to the loading dock.
He made good progress considering the number of boxes. It was the largest load Quinté had moved all summer. He began humming to the next song, “Right Thurr” by Chingy, as static filled the air.
The radio was on the other side of a large stack of boxes, and Quinté couldn’t see who was changing the station. The static cleared and Quinté heard a promo for Y100X, Atlanta’s New Rock Station.
The DJs were staging a publicity stunt. They were placing a guy named Fat-Kid into a barrel and planning to roll him down a hill. Puncher, one of the DJs, had made up a song to the tune of “Roll out the Barrel”. He began the song, singing every note off key. “Roll out the Fat-Kid. Roll him down the hill!” Puncher repeated the lyric several times.
Quinte began thinking of missing his chance to win the Free Money Bag and he yelled, “Turn it back!” in the direction of the radio. Quinté dropped the box he was carrying with a thud and started toward the radio when Bart, the truck driver stepped around the pile of boxes.
Bart’s voice was an odd cross between Barney Fife from the Andy Griffith Show and the character Martin from the Martin Lawrence show. He greeted Quinté by acknowledging the large number of boxes he had stacked near the loading dock.
“Daaaaamn! he yelled as he looked over the boxes. “I hope there ain’t no more of them.”
Quinté’s ears began to twitch because the sound of Bart’s voice annoyed him to no end.
“Quinté,” said Bart. “Do you know who changed the radio station this morning? I hate that other s—.”
“What do you mean by s—?” Quinté asked.
“Oh, I didn’t mean nothin’ by it. I always listen to my station before I leave. It’s been like that for years. The summer’s no different.”
The commotion on the radio picked up as Fat Kid raised squealed into the radio. He always sounded as if he was about to cry. “I can’t take it in here. I want to get out!”.
Puncher, his fellow djay, began to laugh. “You don’t need to get out, Fat-Ass. Stay in there, let’s roll his fat-ass down the hill!”
“Is this serious?” Quinté asked Bart.
“It’s a part of the show.” Bart responded.
“Push him!” yelled Puncher.
“And you called my station, s—?” said Quinté.
Fat Kid yelled, “Nooooooooo!” There were squeals, audible thuds, and heavy breathing from the radio.
Bart began to laugh. “That’s quality entertainment.” He said to Quinté. Then he looked over the boxes again. “What’s your count? We’ve got work to do.”
Quinté furrowed his brow and clenched his fists. He began staring at Bart then he relaxed when he thought of his job. “307,” Quinté gritted.
“Daaaaaaaaaaaamn! I may need to ask for help today. This is just half the load. James hasn’t even brought the luggage, this is only gifts,” Bart said to Quinté.
Quinté still had his fists clenched, “I was surprised when I packed it yesterday,” he said.
Bart looked at the boxes again. Yelled, “Daaaaaaaaaaaamn!”and he walked away.
As Bart left, Quinté took a look at the immense number of boxes he still had to move. He felt the heat rise in the warehouse, and he went to stand near a fan to cool off. His mind began to wonder, and he traced the arching steel support beams of the warehouse.
The beams held up the roof, but to Quinté, the steel beams looked as if they were holding up a lie to protect them from God’s eyes.
At both ends of the warehouse, there were massive fans meant to suck out hot air. Quinté wiped the sweat from his forehead then looked toward the spinning fans. He considered them useless as the hot air blanketed his skin.
The warehouse floor was composed of dozens of aisles with eight tier high shelves that were twenty feet tall. Years and years of dust had accumulated on the shelves, and Quinté believed the shelves would collapse beneath the weight of the dust and boxes.
On one side of the warehouse house, luggage was stored, on Quinté’s side, gifts and other items. Quinté thought about his future. He imagined sorting and allocating merchandise, he could never afford, then shipping it to stores, he’d never heard of before working at the warehouse.
Then he imagined, one day he’d manage the warehouse. He examined the massive fans, the grey floors, and the sweat that was accumulating on his t-shirt. Quinté couldn’t decide if he want to be the emperor of boxes for the rest of his life.
“Q!” A low raspy voice called. “Q!” the voice called again.
Mr. James was a short, medium to light brown black man, who weighed two hundred twenty-five pounds. He was from New York and spoke with a very heavy accent. James was the only one who ever called Quinté, “Q!” Mr. James called again.
“Mr. James where are you?” yelld Quinté.
“On the Yumi luggage aisle!” he yelled. “I need you to catch some boxes for me.”
“Alright.” Quinté found James on a ladder about seven shelves high.
“You ready?” James dropped a box and Quinté watched it hit the floor. “That’s fine, but catch the next one.”
Quinté looked up. This time one of the largest boxes on the shelf was falling toward his head. Quinté’s eyes widened and he stuck his hands into the air. The box crashed through his hands and was stopped with the aid of Quinté’s face and chest.
“You got it?”
“Yeah!” Quinté groaned.
Mr. James started climbing down the ladder. “I’m glad you young guys are around in the summer. Could you imagine me climbing up and down this latter with that stuff?”
“Nah, can’t imagine it.” Quinté responded, as he rubbed his head and placed the box on the floor. “Where do you want me to take these?”
“I got’em. You can’t take my job. Just leave’em there. I’ll handle it.” James picked up the box that had crashed into Quinté’s head then he began to kick the box that fell to the floor earlier. “Oh,” he stopped. “who changed the radio station?”
“You-know-who did it.”
“Yeah, Bart always does that. I can’t wait ‘til he gets outta here. Quinté, how many did you have this morning?”
“I have 249. He’ll need someone to ride in the truck with him today.” James began to snicker. “He…he…he… I’ll see you when you get back.” James turned and continued to kick one box while carrying the other. Quinté thought of riding in the truck with Bart all day then he thought of pretending to be sick or leaving early.
It was 9:15AM and Quinté was helping Bart load the truck. “Daaaamn!” said Bart. “We’ve got 556 boxes to deliver and we’ve gotta drive about 120 miles. We ain’t gone get back here ‘til 6:30PM.”
Quinté didn’t respond.
“I wish I had a helper everyday. I remember helping my dad when I was younger. He used to make me stack fire wood for’em. He was particular about the way I stacked things. Now, I’m lookin’ at the way you stack things, and my daddy would have a fit.”
“Ain’t nothing wrong with my stacks,” said Quinté.
Bart moved over to a stack of boxes Quinté had just placed onto the truck.
“See, these thermometers, you can’t just leave’em on the bottom, they’ll break. Then, you’re not loading according to store, PH19 is before PM4. You can’t just do this any ol’ way. You should ask me what to load, and I’ll tell you where it goes if you can’t naturally figure these things out.”
Quinté’s brow furrowed and he looked down at his watch. It read 10:15AM. Saved by the bell, Quinté thought to himself.
“It’s break time.” Quinté announced to Bart.
“We’ve still got 225 boxes to load.”
“They’ll be here when I get back.” Quinté turned away from Bart, left the loading dock, walked through the warehouse, and into the air-conditioned offices of Bright’s Luggage and Gifts.
Quinté passed the buyers who were on their phones and wondered how those people got to sit in those offices. He continued to the restroom, and while washing his hands, Quinté tried to remember the last time he’d seen sunlight between 8AM and 4PM. On weekends, he thought as he began to examine himself in the mirror.
While looking over himself he began to notice all the dust that had accumulated on his shirt after only a few hours of work. This can’t be good for my lungs, he thought to himself. How do people do this everyday?
In the break room, Salíf and Mr. James were arguing about gay marriage in the upcoming 2004 elections. Salíf had come from Guinea many years ago. He spoke loudly and expressed his opinions confidently. “Man should not be with a man. God did not make Ah’dam and Steve.”
Oh Brother, Quinté thought as he continued into the break room and sat down. “They are all people,” said Quinté.
“The boy is right, Salíf. You can’t vote for George Bush because he doesn’t like gay marriage. There’s a bigger picture,” said Mr. James.
“I cannot vote in this country anyway. I am just saying you should choose the man that will stop the gays.” Quinté laughed when he heard Salíf’s rationalization. Then he continued.
“Salíf, you shouldn’t deny them their legal r—”
“Q! How are things with Bart?” James interrupted.
“That guy is a jackass.”
James started to laugh. “He…he…he… Did he show you how to stack boxes?”
“Yeah that,” Quinté sighed, “He’s crazy! I’m going to ask to stay here.”
“They won’t let you, too many boxes.”
Salíf chimed in. “You should tell that man to shut up. I
would not put up with him all day. I would hit him with the truck and come back without him.”
“Nah, that’s too much explainin’ if he just fell off the truck the wrong way that might work. It’s better when it’s an accident he caused.” Quinté imagined running over Bart, and he thought death may be too nice of an experience for him.
Mr. James changed the subject. “You two are nuts. I was watching the Democratic Convention the other day. Did you see that new black guy, Barack Obama? He had a good speech that introduced John Kerry.”
Bart entered the breakroom. James, Salíf, and Quinté fell silent.
“Yeah, Obama had a good speech, but I hope Kerry doesn’t win because of it. That man is too ugly to be president.” Bart poured a cup of coffee and sat down. “I normally don’t take breaks, but I just got a phone call from one of my old firefighter buddies. He said, they wanted to take a picture of the men who responded to the Olympic Park bombing back in ’96. I wasn’t on duty that night, but I remember cleaning the blood off the bricks the day after. I can’t wait ‘til they find Eric Rudolph. They’ve been looking for him for about eight years now. I tell you, if I ever saw him, I’d shoot him. He ruined our Olympics.”
“I was there the night after the bombing. It got better,” Quinté added.
“I just want to see that son of a bitch get what he deserves.”
Quinté looked around at Salíf and James, waiting for them to say something about revenge and how it doesn’t change things, but the looks on James and Salif’s faces suggested, they had given up on educating Bart a long time ago. The thought troubled Quinté because he didn’t know how to make Bart understand killing Rudolph wouldn’t solve a thing. He wondered what would make James and Salíf leave this debate alone.
“What time is it?” Salíf asked.
“It’s 10:20, we still have 10 more minutes,” said Mr. James.
“Fantastic,” said Salíf. “What is the Money-Bag up to now?”
“It was $10,000” said Mr. James.
“I would quit this job for a week if I got that money,” said Salif.
“And then you’d be in the mush line at the welfare office after the week is over,” Bart inserted.
Salíf raised his voice. “What did you say?”
“You know, mush, they used to give it to the welfare people back in the seventies.”
Salíf rose from his chair and placed his coffee cup on the table. He walked over to Bart. “Bart, I have never been on welfare, so I do not know what you are talking about. You seem to know about this mush, could you tell me about it?”
“I didn’t mean to offend nobody. The only reason I mentioned it, is because it was good. I used to eat it. You don’t have to get in my face about it.”
Salíf moved from the table and began to speak in French. He left the breakroom and curses from another language resonated down the hall.
“See it’s hard to get people to understand that you’re on their level. Just because I’m white doesn’t mean a thing. Quinté, you’re pretty young, but did you eat mush when you were little?”
Quinté quickly prepared a short speech with a few choice words for Bart. It would’ve probably gotten Quinté off the truck route and maybe sent home. Quinté shifted in his chair. “Why the—.”
James interrupted. “It’s ten-thirty, time to get back to work. Q! Let me talk with you for a second.”
“I’ll see you out by the truck,” Bart said to Quinté as he left the breakroom.
Mr. James walked with Quinté to a quiet location. “If you would’ve done something crazy you would’ve been out of here. And then I would’ve had to go with him. I’m not ridin’ with him, so be good.”
“I don’t like that jackass. Can’t they find somebody else?”
“No. Just don’t talk to him. Back in my day I would’ve beaten him up by now. I wouldn’t have cared. But, I’ve been here for 18 years. He’s been buddy-buddy with Mr. Bright, the owner, so whoever crosses Bart ain’t here that long.”
“Y’all should stop puttin’ up with this s—.”
“Don’t curse at me,” said Mr. James. “You can’t let Bart push your buttons. People that lose their minds with Bart aren’t here that long. You gotta keep your job.”
“Can’t we tell somebody?”
“They’d just send him through sensitivity training and he’ll come back, unchanged. This will all be over by 4 o’clock. Just stick with it, and it’ll work out. I’ve seen people like him come and go.”
What about me? Quinté thought to himself. How many times had people like him, come through the warehouse and left because of a little opposition?
Quinté got used to not speaking to Bart and stacking the boxes on the truck with Bart’s specifications. The silence furthered Quinte’s disdain for Bart. His voice grew more annoying.
“You gotta set that box on the left, not there where you thought it belonged, because I gotta put this here. Ask me where everything goes before you move it. I’m particular about these things. Ya see?”
Bart and Quinté finished loading the truck by 11:30AM. While pulling off, Quinté thought about all the dust and boredom he was leaving behind. He found it pleasing to see the light of day between the hours of 8AM and 4PM during the week. And another plus, the truck had A/C.
As they pulled onto the street with the windows up and A/C blasting, Bart felt around his shirt pocket and pulled out a cigarette. Quinté cursed inside, and in anticipation of the smoke, Quinté rolled down his window. Bart lit the cigarette and the smoke blanketed the cab. Quinté’s eyes began to water and he finally had to break the silence.
“Could you put that out?” asked Quinté.
“I’ll do you one better. Close your window.”
“How will that help?”
“Just close it.”
Quinté closed his window and Bart opened his. The smoke began to travel out of Bart’s window. “See, now all the smoke will fly out of my window before it gets over there. I’ve done this before, you can relax.” Bart took a pull on his cigarette. “Didn’t you just graduate high school?” He exhaled.
“Yeah, class of ’03.”
“I remember when I graduated, me and this black girl named Amber Jones drove up and down the street kissin’. She was buuuh’laaack, too, darkest person I’d ever seen.”
Quinté shrugged and erupted. “Man, what the f— is your problem? Do you say s— like this all the time or are you just f—–’ clueless? Who raised you?”
Bart let his cigarette burn and he began to look left and right before making their first turn out of the loading area. The sound of the turn signal clicked, loudly, as it if was a bomb timer counting down the seconds before detonation.
“You ever heard of Cumming?”
Quinté gritted out a response, “Yeah. We played all three Forsyth County High Schools in football.”
“When I was a kid, my daddy and just about the whole town was a part of the Klan. And after they’d seen us in the car kissin’, I drove all the way to Texas. I didn’t want my dad to catch me. He and his buddies would’ve probably killed me.”
“That’s nothin’. When I was 10, I had a sleep over with a black kid from my school. We were out in the barn, because my dad didn’t like black people in the house. We were out there pretending we were robbers hiding from the law, and I heard my daddy’s voice he said,
“Bart get out here!”
“Yes, Daddy! I yelled, and I told Lorenzo, to stay in the barn. I went outside to see what he had wanted and there was daddy with my brother and 10 of his friends. They grabbed me soon as I set foot outside the barn. They tied me up and beat me. And daddy said,”
“I don’t ‘low niggers in my house.”
“I will always remember that day. And that’s why I had to get out of Forsyth County as soon as I got old enough.”
“So, you just left?”
“Yeah, I had to get out of that place and see what else is out there, if I didn’t I would’ve gone crazy.” Bart took another pull on his cigarette.
“It ain’t cool that you went through all that, but you can’t say whatever you want to people just ‘cause you been through some s—. We all be through s—.” Quinté sat back in his seat and the engine became a hypnotic grumble. He started to think about the boxes in the warehouse. How someone stuffs things inside them and seals them. The boxes are then stored on shelves where they collect dust. Eventually, someone will move the box from place to place, but the same things are still inside.
In Quinte’s mind, Bart became a box. The exterior, dented a little, maybe written on with a sharpie, the box masking the clutter within, his flaps would bulge, because inside he’d have a bit too much for one person to carry.
Provided the people in contact with the box knew how to negotiate such abnormalities, they may experience difficulties in relation to sharing space with the box. Problems would seep from the box, and the box would be unaware of its effect unless confronted by someone willing to sacrifice something to change things forever.
Quinté imagined himself as a box. He wondered if he’d be shelved, or allocated, or maybe just stuck in a warehouse collecting dust, wishing he had moved earlier. He thought maybe he’d just stay in one place wondering why he was placed on this particular shelf in this dusty gray world, waiting like all the other things on shelves.
Quinté contemplated if someone else would place more things inside his box? Or if someone comes with a marker, would they mark him with labels that signify his place in the world? Or would he be stored high on the shelves, or if he would be placed in a dark storage room in the corner of a warehouse. I’m not a box Quinté thought to himself. I’m not a box.
Quinté took a long look out of his window then he looked over at Bart, who was preparing to take another turn.
Bart took another pull on his cigarette and exhaled the smoke. He flicked the cigarette out of the truck cab then rolled up his window. Quinté thought to himself, this is my last day with boxes, as the window closed, some of the remaining smoke crept over to his side.
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