I walked to the shipper’s desk and grabbed an order to fill and a hand truck. I took an order sheet, read the list of items by warehouse location, and headed for the first item to be picked. Luckily it was a full case of Scotch whiskey. I picked it off the pallet of cases, hoisted it on my shoulder, and walked over to the shipping floor.
The floor was laid out in a grid, which turned the whole process into a game of industrial bingo with liquor cases. I liked orders of whole cases; they were easy. The day warmed as it wore on. Sweat soaked my once-clean T‑shirt, and caked the dirt and dust. I finally hit a bottle order. That required individual bottles from cases and took longer since I had to go to the bottle room.
I grabbed a cardboard box and got the top off with my cutter, building dividers with the cut-off pieces. I held the order up for reference as I walked the long racks, checking the shelves for the right bottles. The racks ran three high and a good fifty yards long of open cases of everything Buffalo Wholesale kept in stock. Dusty and close back there, awash in halogen light, everybody hated the bottle orders. I was no exception. Luckily my next orders were whole-case orders, so things moved along pretty quickly for the first part of the day. I grabbed a sheet from the order pile and a two-wheeled dolly and went out to the case racks.
It was grunt work of the first order, and the heat and humidity mixed with the dust and diesel fumes in a kind of lung-crushing heaviness that left me sweaty from just breathing. The big push came from liquor stores and bars stocking up for the holiday weekend, and that had us working overtime most nights. I was well into my orders, and had a six-case load of cheap sangria wine on my dolly. I was really pushing hard, looking forward to the spot on the floor to dump my order..
Some joker threw a perfect strike with a piece of scrap wood right under the tire. The two-wheeler jolted to a stop and I tripped forward. My momentum carried me past the dolly, and I managed to roll to the side as the glass inside the cardboard cases shattered, releasing its fruity alcoholic contents. I heard the laughing, but I wasn’t quick enough to find out who it was. I got up, checked for my own breakage, and went to get the trash can full of quick-dry to clean up the mess. The stink of cheap wine hung in my nose while I worked the broom, the puddle becoming a solid wet mass of grit. I shoveled it into the dump bin and shoved the whole mess off to the side to be ready for the next victim.
I took a break at 11:30. The sweat and grime stuck to me as I downed a bottle of water. I was still aggravated at the idiot who tripped me up. All this character building was getting old fast. Break over, I pulled a bottle order for about two dozen individual bottles for a bar on the Elmwood Strip. I grabbed an empty box, a bunch of scrap cardboard, and checked my box cutter as I proceeded along the bays of open cases. One of the other guys jerked his head to the side, motioning me to follow him around the back of the racks. I nodded back, very cloak and dagger, and followed him. It was the closest thing I had had to a lead since I started. Three guys stood back there, talking amid the din.
“Hey, yo, Andy!” Jake called.
I paused before I looked up, forgetting for a moment I used my middle name for this job. Jerry Fornes, Bill Francis, and Jake Crawford waved me over. They held the most seniority in the distribution center and were next in line for driving jobs when they came open. I had talked to Jake before, just guy stuff. He was friendly enough. He reminded me of my kid brother, strong and stocky with a thick head of curly, blond hair and a dirty blond shadow of a beard. He was quick with a hand if I needed it and showed me the best ways to do the job. I liked him and hoped he wasn’t involved in the scam.
Jerry and Bill, on the other hand, were harder to read. Jerry wore a permanent scowl and held his arms crossed and his legs apart. Bill kept his hands in his back pockets with a more vacant expression, almost as if he were constantly amazed that he was hanging out with Jerry. They were all business, all union, and always passed over for the better driving jobs. They would get out sometimes, taking loaded vans to the bars or liquor stores, but nothing that paid as well as the bigger loads. I made a note that where one was, the other was pretty close by, not that there was anything wrong with that.
“Yeah, Jake. What’s up?” I asked, nodding to Jerry and Bill. They nodded back in acknowledgment.
“Nice trip, Banks?” Jerry asked, jabbing Bill in the side.
“Very smooth,” Bill added, sniggering. “No hard feelings?”
“Naw,” I said with a smile. “But you know what they say about payback.”
“You guys know each other?” Jake asked.
“We’ve seen each other around,” Bill piped up. He stood shorter, maybe 5'7", with a muscular build and close-cropped medium brown hair. He looked like the kind of guy who might have always wanted to be a cop but wasn’t tall enough to make the cut. He stuck his hand out. I shook it firmly. He introduced himself then Jerry.
“Nice to meet you guys,” I said.
Jerry Fornes stood taller than I, wiry with skinny forearms entwined by tattoos. Some of them were the work of a pro, trying to cover up the characteristic blue ink work of a jailhouse amateur. Flecks of silver salted his black hair and goatee and framed his acne-scarred cheeks and forehead.
“Jake says you’re OK,” Jerry said, his voice grating like sandpaper on asphalt.
“Opinions vary but my mother loves me,” I shot back.
“He also said you were a smart ass,” Bill said.
“Jake talks a lot, don’t he?” I said, looking at Jake, who smiled and shrugged.
“Mostly to us, which is a good thing,” Jerry said, slapping Jake on the back. “He says you told him about doing time in Alden, something to do with assault and pissing in a cop car?”
“It was late, I had too much beer, and I needed to take a leak. Seemed like the thing to do.”
“In a cop car?” Bill asked.
“The window was open. It looked like a nice, clean place.”
“What about the assault?” Jerry chimed in.
“The cop was still in the car,” I responded.
That brought a round of head shaking, and I think the phrase crazy SOB was whispered among the bunch of them.
“So what is this, meeting of the local MENSA chapter?” I asked.
“The what?” Jake asked. I was going to explain it but decided it would take too long.
“We just wanted to see what kinda guy you are,” said Bill. “Jake says you seem pretty stand-up.”
I nodded. Who was I to argue?
“We have a little business on the side,” Jerry started. “We were thinking maybe we need to bring another guy into it, if you’re interested.”
“Wait a minute. This isn’t one of those Amway or Mary Kay kinda things, is it?” I asked sarcastically. “Because I had this neighbor, see, and he was always trying to get me into . . .”
“Be serious for a second, will ya?” Jake pleaded.
“All right, guys, what’s the deal?”
Bill and Jerry looked at each other, shrugged, and turned to me.
Bill spoke first. “You think you’re pretty funny, tough guy?” Apparently he didn’t.
“OK, so I have a good sense of humor screwed up with a bad sense of timing. Your point is what? ’Cause I have to get back to work,” I said.
“Trust me, guys,” Jake piped up. “He’s the best guy to bring in.” He shot me a dirty look, like I was blowing this big opportunity.
Jerry considered the last statement and said, “We have a partnership here, a little side business like we said. We operate off the losses here at BWB, sorta like a salvage company.”
“Salvage company,” I repeated. Now we were getting somewhere.
“Yeah, like that,” said Bill, pleased to see I was catching on. “You know, with all the breakage that happens around here, it’s a shame to let the rest of the unbroken bottles in the case go in the dumpster. So we have a market for all the stuff that would just be tossed otherwise.”
“I’m surprised management here hadn’t thought of that,” I said, playing along.
“They ain’t too bright,” Jerry said, looking around. “So you want in or what?”
“Yeah, sure. I mean, all we’re really doin’ is cleanup, right?”
“You know, I think he gets it,” Jerry exclaimed. He laughed and stuck out his hand to shake mine. “Maybe he is smarter than he looks.“
Jake slapped me on the back, letting me know that I was in with the gang.
Bill looked around then turned to me. “After the shift we’ll be at the back of the warehouse, out by the old Parker trailer in the back. Know where I’m talkin’ about?”
“Yeah, I’ll be there,” I told him, turning to go back to work. Finally a break I could use. I stopped for a second to get a drink of lukewarm water from the fountain near the shipping floor doorway and wiped the excess off my chin.
“C’mon, you chimps, back to work!” the shipper called from the front of the pick line. “These friggin’ cases ain’t gonna move themselves.”
This was going to be a long night.