UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION - 04/2012
GEORGE SPARLING

WORKING CLASS HERO

         In the break room, Rudy snubbed out a Camel, drinking coffee from his thermos, griping about his landlady. I sat on a bench, fidgeting with my brown-bag lunch, prepared by my mother, who seemed a million miles away, living a dream-life, never getting this close to a man such as Rudy. He stood over six feet tall, his red, wrinkled face exposed to the summer's sun during hot days working in this lumberyard, strong fingers looking like miniature logs, calloused hands, bib overalls showing wear for all the boards, sheetrock and plywood he had handled: my first gander up-close of a working-class man.

         "Must've planked the landlady longer than usual," said Buster, the foreman.

         "Mondays. Damn, worse than the one I was born on," Rudy said. "My head aches more than my balls could ever hurt."

         "Rudy's not a commuter like you and your family," Buster said, grinning.

         Rudy slurped his coffee. He looked at me. Scrawny, the son of an executive of the company owning this yard. My only claim to brawn was as a one hundred-twenty pound high school wrestler. My hands seemed so frail compared to his. Maybe I should have masturbated more, giving them strength. I thought I could make a joke about that, deciding against it. The house in which he lived was not more than 150 feet away from the gates of the yard. Too repressed for cheap laughs, I could not allude to sex considering Rudy planked a gal that close to the break room.

         "Screwed any gal yet, Jim?" Buster asked, puffing on a cigar.

         "I go out on dates. What do you think?" I said. Rudy turned toward me, saying, "Well, have you?"

         "She has a ring around her neck. We're going steady," I lied again. "And she's Swedish. You know how easy Swedish girls are."

         Before they followed up, Buster said it was time to stop bullshitting and get to work. We punched in and then walked into the yard. Just before, Rudy took a long drag, exhaling roughly, smoke from his nose and mouth billowing through the small room. Putting out his Camel in a tin can before hitting the yard, I thought about what Dad had said about lumberyards: an arsonist's wet dream, or words to that effect.

         A driver slid lumber onto a flatbed truck outside the lunchroom. I lost some jitters listening to wood slap against steel. Its music.

         "Let's get at the damn car," Rudy said. His stride was brisk, cursing every other step, before we reached the siding. I enjoyed his profanities: their rhythm reminded me of rock 'n' roll. He snipped off an aluminum strip, a bill of lading I presumed. Then he slid open the door part way, telling me to help him push.

         "Rust and age," he said.

         The door inched open. The lumber would shoot down rollers attached to heavy steel stands. Two by fours were stacked to the ceiling. Rudy grabbed a ladder for me to climb. It seemed a hundred two by fours stuck out at odd, obscene angles.

         "Take your time. Don't hurt yourself," he said. "The fucked up jerkheads from the big Chicago yard turned the job into work."

         I had little purchase atop the chaos, falling down, smashing my head on the ceiling. It took ten minutes to jar loose two pieces down to Rudy. Not break time and already heat within the car drew out sweaty beads, watering my T-shirt. I wanted to quit. I wanted to drive home, calling Gene. We would bike to the park, throwing baseball gloves at butterflies and birds. I never pitied myself more. I heaved and humped on one piece and it would not give. I was about to take off my gloves, walking away from the shit-pile.

         "How's it going? Work the easy ones first," Rudy yelled. Too winded to answer, I heeded the advice. I chose the looser ones and a steady flow of pine reached Rudy, standing near a small pile of two by fours. He stacked them. Systematically wriggling and wrenching them loose made life easier. No one in my family, no near or distant relation, had ever stood on a pile of lumber in a sweltering boxcar: they all were white collar.

         After an hour or so of pulling lumber from the crooked stacks, my only concern was how to get through the day. I wanted to relax, sit down and watch TV at home. Break time. I drank a cold Coca-Cola from a frosty bottle, reviving me in the nick of time. I rubbed it over my cheeks and temples, down my arms.

         "You're alright. You'll make it." Rudy sucked his cigarette.

         "I helped my dad put in flagstone for the patio. At least I know something about heavy lifting." I hoisted the smaller stones, helping my dad with the larger ones. I pooped out soon, watching him arrange the stones so they fit tightly together.

         We worked until noon. I had just banged my head against the car's top edge of the door frame, this time hurting more than the last bump. I rubbed it, Rudy saying, "You hurt? Take it slower if need be." I bled a little.

         I still felt like clambering down for good from what remained of the jumbled pile. I had not needed this gig. Dad got me the job to lose my sense of entitlement. It was not referred to as "entitlement," spoiled was the word he used, telling me I was in for a shock someday. "The world doesn't owe you a living," he often said. I countered, "But it doesn't owe you a death, either." His facial expression told me to shut up.

         Rudy went to the house for lunch. After lunch, the scrambled mess of lumber became manageable. It could have been over one hundred degrees in that car. The other door was impossible to open. Half the car emptied, it was mercifully quitting time. "You did fine for the first day. How about a cold one?" Rudy said. By that I thought he meant the next day would be cooler, keeping my spirits up. I had the keys in my hand to my car parked in front of the yard's office. Rudy scanned my face, gauging my reaction to "cold one."

         "Come over to Betty's kitchen and we'll have a beer," he said, lunchbox in hand, cigarette in mouth as we walked abreast, sucking in nicotine with magnetic force while walking to the two story house, badly in need of paint.

         "OK. But I have to be back soon or they'll wonder why I'm late."

         "Tell them you worked overtime, your dad will never know," he said.

         We entered the house through the kitchen door. Rudy took off his hat revealing short-cropped hair, male pattern baldness, looking older than in the yard. He put the lunchbox on the counter, sat down, told me to relax, Betty will be down shortly.

         "Hey, hon, we have a guest," Rudy said, raising his voice to summon her.

         Betty entered. She was as old as my grandmother, maybe fifty-five years old, dressed in a red robe covering her to the knees, sheer knee nylons exposing varicose veins, a Braille map of curvy lines indicating she had done a lot of factory work, standing at machines, or else working long hours in a cafeteria. I saw women cafeteria workers like that at school, so I was not unaccustomed to her, though never as close as this, especially seeing her thin hair wrapped around curlers.

         She had a red scar on her cheek beneath her yellow eye, as faded as the wallpaper. Maybe Rudy had cut her.

         "It's Jim," Rudy said. "His dad's a big muckety-muck. What does he do, Jim?"

         "Invests money he told me. Passed the accountants' test the first time," I told them.

         Shit, I thought, why boast about dad? Rudy and "hon" will hate me for it.

         We drank beers, TV from another room providing background noise.

         "When you're finished that one, have another," Betty said, her voice lush from a long day of sitting around the house, sipping beer or eating salty pretzels all day.

         "She comes to the kitchen every time I get off work," Rudy said.

         "Rudy's a real pal. Pretty hard to get through life without one," she said. She scratched her bare arm. I saw hairy moles, and when she raised her sleeve, flabby skin.

         "I'm more than a pal, Betty, you're just playing nice with Jim," he said, opening another round. Betty flushed or was it an all-day booze rush, high blood pressure blowing its top. "Chug it down, my lad, drink eases the pain of the world."

         I watched them both down their beers in four big gulps. I needed ten fast ones before I emptied the bottle. Other beers went down swiftly.

         "You didn't see me drink beers in the yard but I did. A little trick from my temporary work days when they needed bums like me from the city to help unload boxcars here." His face, redder than before, highlighted a scowl or was it hostility towards the bad old world. An unfamiliar mien to me.

         "He's lived here since 1949. This stumblebum knocked on my door, asking if there's anything he could do for a meal or two. I sized him up and down, telling him, sure. He cleaned the place, gardened. Me living alone, my husband running away, I needed help, if you get my drift." Boozy, she certainly made herself clear.

         After more beers, I felt Betty's hand on my knee, moving toward my groin.

         "What if your tenants see us," I asked. "Rudy's my only one, love," she said. Buddies of mine had girlfriends do this to them. Then Rudy stood behind her, massaging her breasts. She rubbed until I got hard, then unbuckled my pants, pushing them down below my knees. Rudy stepped back, undoing his overalls, and a big crooked pecker bounced at a ninety-degree angle. Its big red knob surprised me. Betty rose, opening a cabinet, pulling out coiled ropes. She said, "It'll go better if you let me tie you up. A gentle tug with a rope around your neck makes for a better shot to the moon." I was so wobbly drunk, unable to fend off her off as she tied my hands, and then the noose, knotted just like in movie execution scenes. "Thirteen knots, hangman's noose" she said. "For pleasure, not death."

         Betty's reptile hand hardened my dick. Rudy pulled the noose, increasing my lust as Betty stroked my dong. I thought of a two by four, holding back. She pulled off my jeans then sucked my hard-on. Rudy stuck his big one from her rear when Betty bent over. I could not see if it was her snatch or her ass but it sure made her groan.

         Rudy grabbed me, forcing my head to the floor, thrust his shaft into my ass, then pulled out. "Need some butter, Betty," he said. He greased my rectum, sticking his meat deep into my asshole, pulling the noose tighter.

         I had heard boys in the high school's washroom say, "It's taint, neither ass nor snatch," so I knew a bit about ambiguity. When Betty pulled me to the floor, angling my hard pecker into her vagina, her fat legs against my thighs, I came, shooting out a week's worth. I let out a long "Ahhhh," the noose tighter than before, the pain feeling I might die, bestial fluid shooting through my cock dizzying me.

         Then Rudy took over, moaning, nasty-talking for ten minutes before pulling out, splashing Betty's naked rear end and robe. Rudy said, "That's how they do it in stag films."

         Betty stood up, smoothing out her robe, covering her breasts and pudenda, drawing up her nylons. She offered me a Camel.

         "I don't smoke. Dad and Mom quit just after the war."

         Betty loosened the noose. "The red marks will go away." Rubbing my neck, my fingers feeling moisture: blood staining my hand.

         I was no longer tired, my aches and pains disappearing into Betty's history.

         "War? I bet your shit-eating Pa never fought in it." He blew smoke into my face.

         "He got into it." I had not wanted to talk about Dad's experience.

         "I had to fight the Japs on Iwo Jima. I thought you had an uppity Pa. He's in charge of payroll and don't give one toot for guys like me." I had never heard of anyone speak with so much venom against my dad. I knew he hated unions but I was not about to throw that into the mix.

         "Here, I'll light it up for you," said Betty, putting the cigarette between my lips, scratching a wooden match. I puffed but did not inhale until Rudy stared hard at me, bullets from a private's rifle.

         "What kind of rifle did you use over there?" I asked, inhaling deeply, coughing, then doing it again, this time smoke going down smoother.

         "Rifle? I was a flamethrower and if I had the guts I'd burn that damn yard down."

         "Dad told me arsonists' eyes would pop out torching a lumberyard."

         Silence. I wondered how safe I was now, what the two of them might say, knowing I was just a wiseacre punk from a suburb wealthier than this town. Instead of retaliation for what I had said, they smiled.

         "Ah, I was kidding you with all that bad talk. Tell your parents what us proles do to get through life." He gave me a beer. "One for the road."

         Betty set a piece of apple pie and two doughnuts on the table. "It'll sober you up."

         I pulled my underwear and pants up, buckled-up and scarfed down the food. After I finished eating, Rudy gave me the pack of Camel's, sliding it into my shirt pocket, and I said stupefied with beer, "Thanks for everything." I walked outside, surprised that I had to say thanks. What was this, Christmastime?

         I started the car, backed up, heading to Northwest Highway. I got sleepy driving and rear-ended a car at a stoplight. The driver got out, told me off, smelling my beer and cigarette breath, cursing me. Finally, I made it home, trying to look sane and sober. When I entered the house, their eyes showed fear, their faces paler than ever.

         "I worked overtime. Had a drink or two with nice folks, smoked some fags, maybe even had the kind of fun you said I should be getting around here, like going on dates." I had zipped up the windbreaker, concealing the bloody markings at my throat.

         Mom cowered at dad's side. "Where did you get that welt?" she said.

         "A boxcar did it." I smelled my liquor as I breathed, smoke poured out my skin.

         "It's dark. Where have you been? You didn't keep your nose clean as I told you." He was furious, Mom having to hold back his arm. He was going to punch my lights out. His expression changed from anger and rage to helplessness. I let him down and was proud of it.

         "Clean up and get to your room," Mom said. The old kid stuff. I bet Rudy and Betty had never been told that. Probably were beaten or tossed out on their butts.

         I drank the warm beer slowly in my room, smoking the heck out of the Camels. I did not bother to open the window, puffing as Rudy had. I would damn certain go to work tomorrow. Maybe I would ask Rudy about those stag films. And not everyone had a partner who had used a flamethrower.

         My dad told me that was it, no more lumberyard work. Instead, I caddied at the country club.

         After I graduated and got accepted to an East Coast university, my parents paying full tuition and books, they expected me to graduate with a B.A. degree in Business Administration, but I never did.

         It was 1965, and two classmates joined the Marines. Rudy had served in WW II, my father set aside a career in business to fight in the Battle of the Bulge, getting a Bronze Star for killing six Germans.

         I felt squeezed between the proletarian world, life of manual labor, punching time clocks, bar fights, mortgages they struggled to pay, hangovers at work, toughing it with nasty bosses and a shrewish wife and fat kids with eating many potato chips, cheesecake and liverwurst sandwiches, versus my father's world of easy chairs, patios, a steady income, reading Book of the Month Club, playing bridge on the commuter trains, mother picking him up in her own car, taking Sunday drives to visit friends and relatives. I enlisted in the Marines, boot camp eons away from the roughest day of unloading boxcars as well as my parent's wishes. We shipped out from Camp Pendleton, landing at Da Nang Air Base in South Vietnam.

         In a matter of days, our platoon was in working our way through jungles of South Vietnam, seeking out the Viet Cong. After fifteen clicks, poking M-16s at scared shitless old men, frightened old and young women, children stared at us like we were aliens from the planet Krypton. My fire team, three enlisted men from the Midwest, I the only suburban jarhead of the entire platoon.

         A private kicked in a door and found a pregnant woman holding a small child to her breast. The mother was a beauty, we four admitted aloud. "Sure looks like Suzy Wong, a great fuck, giving good head in the bargain." I yelled, "Shut up, you pussy, she's protecting her child." But the other three yanked the baby from her arms, then began ripping off her clothes with their hands, slashing them off with their bayonets. They each jammed their bones into her split-legged body, taking turns, the Suzy Wong private doing what he said was "the bargain."

         I wanted to help her, knowing this was not what we learned in boot camp, getting rocks off rather than seek and destroy certifiable Viet Cong. Rudy intruded into my mind, my eyes, my heart, he and Betty and I in the kitchen, the Dictatorship of the Limbic System, that sweet zone where anything goes. That bloody noose as well.

         After the three had had their way, I jumped on her, taking out my Ka-bar, holding the leather handle of my seven-inch blade, undoing my deuce gear, tossing off my pack, pulling down my pants, then sticking and sliding Mr. Ka-Bar into her womb, ripping out fetal shards, fucking her with the blade as well my erect cock, she soon dead in the dirt.

         I stood up, blood from her womb covering my uniform, staring at my handiwork, the corpse's face co-mingling with wicked Betty's face, what was left of her torso reminding me of blood seeping out my rectum, Rudy's red flamethrower prick ablaze as the huts in the tiny hamlet burned, the hangman's noose tightening around my neck. I could hardly breathe, asphyxiation at my throat, and I grabbed the noose with both hands trying to undo orgasmic death, seeing my hands dripping with blood.

         I felt heavy rifle butts, then dragged by men in my platoon, getting face-to-face attention with the first lieutenant. "You may be on your way to brig rat status, corporal," the first lieutenant yelled at me, spittle hitting every bloodied wound on my face. After serving 18 months in Camp Pendleton Marine Prison, they released me.

         I served less than a month in South Vietnam, seeing in my cell during insomniac nights the face of the Vietnamese woman, her thin nose, dark-plum eyes, one eye bloodshot, a vein-streaked lid covering the other, her face blurring with Betty's, Betty's stained teeth and odiferous false-teeth leer blending with Rudy's as she sucked him off, my fecal ooze covering her lips, Rudy coming a second time.

         Years later, after countless jobs, I work in a chicken processing plant. Whole chickens hung by their feet pass me at eighty per minute as I kill them with a rotating saw, faster and faster the line speeds up. I'm the world's great slaughterer.








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