The Bale

1

When the other four stock boys saw the warm spilth flood Marek's straw-gold coverall, they laughed even more furiously. Three steadied themselves against each other, wailing and pawing in the cavernous warehouse.  Their perfectly shattering laughter circled him in dizzying hellish waves.  His brother David, apart from the others, pinched Marek's still quivering shoulder and pointed theatrically at the growing stain. He said “bolshoe spasibo!” thanking him in Russian for this hilarious, legendary embarrassment.

Suddenly, from the darkened corner behind them, the warehouse manager appeared. With his tangled accent, he yelled “What is this?”  He stepped into the center of the group and held his thick hands wide apart out in front of him.

The stock boys froze and shoved their hands into their sacking uniforms. They were afraid of the old immigrant, from some distant and, to them, unpredictable generation. They all stood before the enormous hydraulic machine near the garage doors.  Everyone but Marek looked fine.  His hands were bleeding.  His knuckles were busted and his fingernails were split and chipped. A sleeve was torn and his sweaty black hair was matted to his small, pale head.

"Were you fighting?" No one answered. When the manager noticed Marek's pants he crouched slightly before the shameful stain. He stared for a moment, unbelieving. Then he raised his hands into the air and whispered "Jesus" pitifully.  They all burst out laughing again. The manager's face reddened, his nostrils flared. He turned to stare at the others with wide eyes and clenched fists.

Turning to Marek, he asked “Are you alright?” Marek was still panting and trembling. He looked at his hands, then at his brother, who stared back plaintively. They might all be fired if Marek just told him what happened. But, breathlessly, he said "It's fine boss. Just a joke."

The manager shook his head, a prosecutor without a cooperating witness. It was the end of the night, so he ordered them to leave.  He stood in the center of the warehouse as the rest shuffled across the dusty charcoal concrete, across the yellow lot marks, through the few remaining broken pallets, and finally into the break room.

 2

Marek didn't want to go home that night, and he didn't want to see his brother. He changed clothes quickly and took the car he and his brother shared while David was still talking with the others. He could find another ride home.

Marek drove for a long time.  He drove down the slope of the plateau, across the canal, through the charred, ember-specked flats and into the crumbling gash of the city center as the sky turned from red to purple. Everything was salt abraded and wind worn by the river's mouth, with the grey beach eroding the buildings from one direction, the lifeless brown hills eating away at them from the other.

He parked in a lot by the riverfront, walked down the esplanade to a tin roofed bar with shiny black tar papered walls. The far wall opened to a patio built out over the water. It was noisy and crowded.

He sat at the bar before a large, stern but motherly bartender, somehow impossibly familiar to Marek. As he drank he watched her move across the bar, juggling ice and glass, mixing various amber and clear syrups with stinging spirits, all sparkling under red and blue lights, muted by throbbing music. Each move was clean and precise. She was curt with most people, and Marek imagined some kind of noble loneliness in her movements before this barking desperate crowd. He admired her command of the bar and he fantasized about her confidence and wit.

As he drank, he began to examine his hands. He held them out over the bar, palms down, looking at his nails, then palms up, wincing as he tightened his knotty fists. He saw the maroon dried blood in the spider-webbed cracks around his knuckles and dark splotches on the meaty heels of his hands.

Marek remained there all night, speaking to no one but the bartender, smiling at her when he was ready for another drink and laughing when she ignored the rude and insistent drunks. He imagined that she appreciated his manners and generous tips.

When the crowd thinned out and the music was quiet, he convinced her to have a drink with him. And when their glasses touched, she noticed his hands and casually asked him what happened.

Slowly and clumsily, slurring his speech, he told her about the terrible machine and his brother’s sickening joke.

3

“I work at a warehouse up on the plateau, packing trucks, with my brother. He got me the job a few weeks ago, but he’s worked there for years. Every night, after we’ve moved all the loads and packed all the freight, we put the torn cardboard into this giant hydraulic machine. When it gets full the machine presses the cardboard into big bales, about three feet high, maybe four feet long.

“Tonight, my brother and three other guys came up behind me, grabbed my arms and legs, threw me into the machine. I tried to fight them off, but there were four of them, so I couldn't stop them. And I couldn't really understand or believe what they were doing anyway. They locked me in, closed the door, turned on the machine and walked away.”

The bartender stared directly at him, but her nimble fingers and hands snuck across the bar and in and out of dirty glasses like hungry mice. Then she scoured the waxy bar with a sour rag.

“They stood about ten feet away and just waited. I could see them through the gate. I'd never seen one of these things before I started working at the warehouse, so I don't really know how they work. But it's a giant machine - the hydraulics are enormous - and it would probably crush a car if you could fit one in there. So I thought these guys were killing me. I started screaming. I was begging them, banging and punching the door, trying to open it somehow from the inside” - he showed her his hands - “but they just stared at me.”

“As it came down on me, I saw myself slowly getting crushed, slowly pressed to death as these guys were watching. I could see them through the gate just a few feet away. I was crying and begging them. But they didn't do anything. They just watched it get closer and closer to me. I was lying on my back as it got closer and I was crying - and then it just stopped. It stopped at the size of one of the cardboard bales. And then they all laughed even harder. They knew it was never going to go all the way down. So they just let me scream and cry and think I was dying. It was all a joke. The boss didn't come out of the office until they already let me out. He found me standing in front of the machine with wet pants. I was so scared I guess I wet myself while I was trying to get out.”

The bartender no longer stared at him. She loaded dishes into a metallic box and turned on the drumming wash, removing steaming glasses when it stopped. Once she put all the glasses away she mashed a button below the register, lowering a mechanical door over the open wall. The machine groaned and sawed as the wall closed. She glanced at him between her chores, and each time she did he felt good.

“Now I have to go back to work with these guys.  And I live with my brother, so I have to go back to his house tonight.”

She folded her towel over the sink, reached for a bottle and two cloudy shot glasses.

“He’s always done this. He’s always picked on me. He’s always been bigger than me, even though we’re twins. And every time I tell someone we’re twins, they make this funny, confused face, like they don’t believe me. Because we’re that different. And they don’t come right out and say it, but I know they’re thinking ‘How could you’ – me being all pale and thin and ugly and awkward – ‘be twins with him’ – this big, good looking guy.”

“My whole life…” he said. And again, quietly, barely whispering, he said, “My whole life…” But he didn't say anything else.

When he finally stopped, the bartender filled the little thimble sized glasses with a tawny anise scented alcohol, turned one up, and said, “I’m an only child.” He thought the two were alone, but when she spoke he heard the bouncer’s deep laugh booming behind him. The bouncer put his hand on Marek's shoulder, reached around him and grabbed the second glass. Then the bouncer said “She’s got to count the money now.” Marek realized he had to leave. He wasn't welcome. He was just someone that stayed too long. When he stood, unsteadily, the bouncer said, “You shouldn't drive. I'll call a cab.” But Marek said, “It's too far for a cab.”

He stumbled out of the building and into the hissing grey sea spray. A billowing cloudbelt shone over the bay.  The fog thickened.  As he wandered the streets searching for his car, he briefly glimpsed another thin, crooked man, his own height, with his own wiry black hair, wandering, apparently, as directionlessly as he. “Maybe that's my real twin,” he thought, “instead of the person I live with.” But then the fog closed in on him, until he couldn't even make out streetlights or buildings, and only saw a slate, white emptiness in every direction.


Jason Bernard Claxton’s writing has appeared in publications such as The Southern Review, Sleepingfish, Counterpunch, and The Journal of Radical Psychology, among others.