When he was fifteen Glen promised his father he wouldn’t quit anything again after he lasted only a half-hour as a busboy in a restaurant and another half-hour picking strawberries.
The restaurant job at Carmella’s Restaurant in town had actually lasted ten minutes, not a half-hour, because he was trained by a senior bus boy first. When the first customers walked in and sat down at a lone table, the waitress handed Glen a basket of bread and told him to take it over to the customers. Glen hesitated inside the kitchen, then went over and whispered to the waitress, “Which table?”
“Which table?” she cried, and he winced. “Which one do you think?”
Glen looked out at the couple sitting next to the window and lingered as the waitress rolled her eyes and stomped away from him. Then he gently put the basket down, took off his busboy smock, and slipped out the back door.
At Ackley’s farm, Mr. Ackley taught him how to pick strawberries. It took ten minutes for Glen to pick up the technique of bending over, fussing with the leaves, finding the strawberries, snapping them off, and dropping them into a container. He was to be paid five cents for each container he filled. But after fifteen minutes, he felt hot, and bending over like that was killing his back, so he lay down in the row of soil. He picked and nudged his body forward, picked and nudged his body forward. Then he heard a shout from Ackley’s house. It was Mr. Ackley.
“What the hell are you doing?”
Glen stood up, holding up an almost-full container of strawberries and pointing at it.
“What the hell is that? You’re picking like a goddamn Chinaman!” Mr. Ackley roared, walking over to show Glen how to pick the damn strawberries again. He shoved the container back into Glen’s hand and walked away.
Glen stood still until Mr. Ackley had rounded the corner of his house, then carefully placed the container of strawberries on the ground and walked home.
The waitress had been a nasty thing, and Mr. Ackley was prejudiced against Chinese people, but his father didn’t care. He’d better not quit anything again or else, he said, because once you start quitting, it gets too easy to quit. It becomes a habit.
Now Glen was nineteen, and he’d just finished his second year of college. An agency in Huntington had gotten him a summer job at Lombardi’s Ice House, the largest distributor on Long Island. Every freezer in every store seemed to have a bag of Lombardi’s ice in it, though Glen never noticed until after he worked there.
Glen took a bus from the train station to the ice house, which was on a side street just off Main Street in Huntington. It was an enormous plant with two large trucks backed up to a dock. Inside, a machine churned loudly next to busy men, some around his age, some older. Mr. Lombardi, a completely bald man wearing all khaki, brought him into the plant and told him he was to work at the conveyor belt. A guy named Frank who worked on the belt behind Glen showed him how to pick up the bags of ice as they rolled along the belt, then place them into a larger bag. Four ice bags were to fill a larger bag, and the next guy had to staple it together and carry it to a palette. When the palette was filled—four bags around and eight bags high—it was to be wheeled to the back room. The front room was kept at forty degrees, but the back room was at ten. Glen looked outside where it was a sunny ninety degrees, and he started work.
A little man they called Angel, who wore what looked like a train conductor’s hat, worked at the head of the belt. Ice poured at intervals from a spout into a bag that Angel held open. He would then pull the bag through a machine that quickly tied it, drop it on the conveyor belt, and open another bag for the next interval of ice. A set of bags was clipped right under the spout, and all Angel had to do was pull one open. He was very fast, and he made it look easy. Behind the belt, next to Glen, was a huge bin of ice forming into cubes and tumbling their way toward Angel’s spout.
After about a half hour Mr. Lombardi appeared at the entrance, his face red. “Relay, relay, relay!” he spat out. “It’s as easy as ABC!” The guys around Glen worked faster. “I got a list as long as my arm!” Lombardi screamed, and went back to his office.
Glen looked outside at the gently stirring leaves of a tree across the street, thinking of a dream he’d had the night before. A girl he didn’t know was in his dream, and she leaned back in his arms. He said to her, “Nothing matters except you here like this.” She said the same to him. Then the dream shifted and there were people after him, intent on killing him. They cornered him in a room, and he escaped only because he knew it was a dream and woke himself up, his heart beating fast.
Someone behind him shouted because he’d missed a bag, and Mr. Lombardi was at the entrance again. “Move, move, move! Relay…Relay!” he screamed.
Break time was ten minutes long, and Glen raced with everyone else to a corner deli where he bought coffee and a roll with butter. Everyone sat around a tree. One of them, a man who worked in the back, paced in front of them, lisping, “Free Manson. Free Manson…” Glen looked wide-eyed at Frank who just shrugged and smirked.
One guy named Mike was shorter than the rest but tougher looking. He did most of the talking during the break, and soon Lombardi was yelling at them all that break was over and to move it, move it, move it. Glen still had half a coffee left which he gulped down.
Before noon a different guy with a blonde mustache was stapling bags for Glen. He leaned over and told Glen he wasn’t bagging right.
“I’m bagging right,” Glen said, glancing over nervously. “I’m putting them in the bag.”
“You’re not doing it right,” the guy said, and Glen looked open-mouthed at the blonde’s smirking face.
“Yes, I am,” Glen said, continuing to bag. “Look, I am putting these little bags of ice into this bigger bag. I am bagging them right. See?”
“Bag them, then, and shut up,” the guy said, pushing at Glen’s shoulder, and Glen stopped bagging to face him. He knew there was no avoiding a fight.
“What’s your problem?” Glen felt his voice shake, and the guys behind yelled at him to pick up his ice bags.
Glen only partially blocked the blonde’s punch to his cheek, then rushed the blonde, who was lighter than he expected, ramming him into an almost-filled palette of ice. They wrestled to the ground before hearing Lombardi’s booming voice, and a bunch of guys yanked them up.
They told Lombardi that Gutman, the blonde, had started it, but Lombardi told Glen and Gutman they both had to work in the back chopping ice off the floor.
At first, Glen and Gutman chopped far from each other, using heavy steel poles. Soon, Gutman edged closer. “Sorry, man,” he said.
“All right,” Glen said, feeling at his cheek, trying to move his stiffening jaw from side to side as he chopped.
At lunch Glen sat outside on the dock against a wall. His mother had bagged a pepperoni sandwich for him. His fingers were frozen and his cheek started to hurt more. He pulled a little book from his lunch bag, Letters to a Young Poet by Rilke. He couldn’t open his mouth very wide so he took small bites as he read. His mother had also packed an apple, but he just shook his head at it and shoved it back into the bag.
There was a commotion at the other end of the dock. Guys were yelling out at the street. Glen saw a girl, about his age, going by. Some of the guys shouted after her and made obscene gestures. Frowning, Glen watched her rush past as they continued to shout. He thought of his dream the night before, and felt some vague promise of a future with a girl like the one in his dream….”Nothing matters except you here like this…” he remembered, looking at the swaying trees.
Mike was standing in front of him now, his face serious. Glen stiffened where he sat against the wall as Mike motioned to him with his chin. “You like reading, man?”
Glen looked at his book, then back up at Mike. “Yeah.”
Mike stood above him, nodding. “That’s good. That’s good.” And he walked away.
The sun was just beginning to warm his numb hands when Lombardi shouted that lunch was over. It had only been a half hour. Glen closed his eyes before getting up…The walk into town was a short one. The bus for home came every twenty minutes….But he couldn’t quit. This was his summer job. College money. No choice. He got up and remarked to Angel on the way in that he should have taken a job at an ice cream shop instead. Angel didn’t laugh or say anything.
Glen was back working the conveyor belt, and Gutman was working on the palettes. The noise of the plant became deafening, and Glen started talking aloud to himself.
“This is the most boring job I’ve ever had….How can anyone do this for eight hours with these little dinky breaks….I hope that whole palette falls on Gutman…That was some dream last night…some dream.” The guy stapling next to him didn’t hear him or wasn’t paying attention.
Someone relieved Angel for a while, and things slowed down with a new bagger. The guys yelled at the bagger to hurry up, so he got mad and walked away.
“You go. Go,” Glen’s stapler urged. “You can do it. Go.”
Glen hurried over to Angel’s station, flipped the switch, and started bagging. The first shot of ice went right through Glen’s hands, ice and bag crashing together to the floor. The second shot of ice came before Glen could get the next bag open. He opened the bag in time for the third shot, but couldn’t get it through the tying machine right and had to try three times before he got it tied. Meanwhile four more shots of ice poured at his feet. Guys were either yelling or laughing when Lombardi stormed in and shut the machine off. Glen looked down at the pile of ice that covered his feet and climbed halfway up to his knees.
“What the hell is going on in here! You!” He shoved Glen out of the ice. “Get in the back room and chop. Where the hell is Angel?”
“In the bathroom,” someone said.
“Go pull him out.”
Glen walked into the backroom and chopped ice until the next break, then ran with the others to the deli. He was one of the last to get his coffee and roll, wolfing down the roll and curling his frozen fingers around the coffee cup. The nut still lisped about freeing Manson, Gutman still looked like he wanted to fight, Mike still did most of the talking, and the rest yelled crudely to every girl they spotted.
Near five o’clock Lombardi came in to scream at everyone that he still had that list as long as his arm, that he didn’t need any of them, and that they’d all better relay, relay, relay the last goddamn ten minutes or else. Angel set the machine faster and they raced to five o’clock, but they still had to fill the last palette before they could punch out, so they didn’t get out until 5:10.
“Pretty good,” Glen said to Mike on the way down the dock stairs. “I only got thrown into the back room twice, and my face punched once.”
“See ya, man,” Mike said, looking gravely at Glen.
Glen pulled the book from his bag as he walked to the bus stop. He wondered if the agency would have a different job for him when he went back the next morning. He’d take anything they had besides this.
He threw up his hands when he couldn’t cross the street in time to catch the 5:20 bus. Rather than cross and wait for the next one, he walked along Main Street, finally wandering into a little book store. An old woman was behind the register and said a warm hello to him.
“Hi.” Glen held up his book. “Do you have any by this guy? His poems?”
Her face brightened. “Are you reading that for school?”
“No, just on my own.”
“That’s wonderful, wonderful,” she said, leading him to an aisle. “Do you like poetry?”
“I like stories more than poems, but I like this guy.” She was browsing a shelf. “I like the Russian writers a lot. Chekhov. Tolstoy. Those guys.”
She stopped browsing and looked fully at him. “What happened to your face?”
“Oh. Uh, punched.”
“It’s nothing. I get punched every day.”
“You do not,” she laughed. “Come with me.”
He followed her to a little back room that looked like a miniature living room. There was a table and more shelves filled with old books. She motioned for him to sit. Then she went behind a curtain and turned on sink water. She gave him a small cold towel and told him to wash his face.
“You really need ice,” she said.
“It’s too late for ice,” he laughed. Then, realizing, he laughed again. “I should have thought of that before.”
She was beaming at him, and he suddenly felt embarrassed. “I have something for you,” she said.
“No, no. I’m all right.”
“No, not for that cheek.” She was browsing shelves again. “This.” She pulled out a book. “Take this.”
He took a thin black hardcover from her. It was Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin.
“I don’t have any money on me. I can’t—”
“I want you to have it.”
Glen looked at it. “Really?”
“It’s a beautiful book. You’ll love Pushkin. What a writer.”
“Didn’t he die in a duel?” he laughed as he got up.
“Oh, yes, but you won’t.”
“I’m not so sure,” he said, feeling at his cheek. “Thanks. I have to catch my bus.”
She led him to the front of the store. There was a new customer there, a young woman looking in the fiction section, and Glen remembered his dream. The old woman smiled at Glen. “Come back and let me know what you think.”
Glen nodded, smiling back, and walked out. He hurried across the street for the bus, but missed it again. Then he stood against a building in front of the bus stop, flipping through the Pushkin book, reading individual lines of print. “Wow,” he nodded. “Wow.”
He looked up to see the six o’clock bus coming in the distance, and told himself that he’d make the 5:20 the next day. He nodded at the idea of not quitting, of never quitting, as he thought of the flip side of things—-the old woman’s smile; the girl in his dream leaning against him; the girl passing the ice house; the woman in the bookstore. Mike’s random respect.
He wouldn’t quit. He’d read Pushkin or Rilke or Chekhov during his breaks, watch the leaves stirring on the trees across the street, remember his dreams, and stay completely away from Angel’s station.