You’re going to think I’m making this up but it’s the Gods-honest truth. You’d think working on an assembly line in a bottling plant, nothing much would ever happen, and sometimes it seemed that way too. Other days it seemed like life’s dramas were amplified and twisted around in ways you could hardly imagine. I don’t know how many times I walked over to the bar after work, shaking my head, thinking you just can’t make this shit up.
The first thing you should know is everybody loved Louis Prima. I don’t mean Louis Prima the singer – it goes without saying that everybody loved that Louis Prima. What I’m talking about is Louis Prima the old soop at the Bottle and Can. Louis retired maybe 6 months after I started at the plant, and we all chipped in for a big party at Ruby’s Public House, the unofficial company bar. Everybody had some kind of personal story about Louis and I think in their own ways, everybody had some kind of special respect for him.
Louis, he’d been there longer than anyone could remember. He was a sight for sore eyes if you know what I mean, with this signature combination of handlebar moustache and frumpy cardigan. The guy had his own style, that’s for sure, and did he ever love to swear. Git ta fuck ta work already Mister Lazy Allen and git ta fuck out-a my hair while you’re at it. Louis knew everybody. He kept track of birthdays and anniversaries and names of kids and Lord only knows what else. I don’t think he wrote anybody up in 34 years at the plant and he didn’t need to either. When Louis Prima was in, the job always got done.
Most soops had trouble enough running their own section, but I seen Louis run 3 at once. He could do it because of the relationships he built up with the guys. If somebody called in sick, Louis would start singing, off-key, IIIIIIIII ain’t got noooooo-boooooo-deeee, and we would scramble around to cover the line until he managed to borrow somebody from another soop. That’s just the way it was. Of course upstairs they were oblivious to his singing skills.
Louis’ replacement was a guy named Byron Smith. He signed his letters T. Byron Smith, though, so to us, he immediately became known as Tee-Byron. Tee-Byron was uniquely ill-equipped to supervise anybody and the symbol of his inadequacy became the clip-board he carried with him at all times.
Tee-Byron never learned anyone’s name. I think he barely knew his own. Louis, on the other hand, knew the names of everybody’s spouse and kids too if they had any. Hell, he even knew the names of some people’s dogs and cats. But when Tee-Byron started, he’d gather us around the punch-clock at the start of every shift and he’d go down the list on his clip-board, taking attendance. Stealing Tee-Byron’s clip-board became the Prime Directive among the guys.
The very best thing about stealing Tee-Byron’s silly clip-board was his reaction. He was a clean-cut starch-collar kind of guy. When he’d reach down to pick up his clip-board and realize we’d stolen it again, his face would go crimson red, and his ears would go two shades deeper. Then he’d start on a tirade. OK, who took it? Who took it? When I find out, I’ll have your goddamned job, you hear me?
At some point every shift, Tee-Byron would put down his clip-board, and like boy scouts, we were prepared. Somebody would create a little distraction and voila, somebody else would snatch the target. We weren’t mean about it, exactly. It’s not like we made him buy new ones every day. At the end of shift it would be waiting for him on his office desk.
Tee-Byron got so furious with our little clip-board stunt he started a paper war. He was going to fix us. He started writing us up for every little infraction. There were no more gray areas, just the rules, black and white. No problem. Mr. Smith, sir, I’d like to see my union rep please. I need to file a grievance. Of course in Tee-Byron’s mind, grievances were a measure of a job well-done. He was an angry man, but completely pleased with himself at the same time.
We kept Tee-Byron plenty busy performing disciplinary interviews, writing up letters and otherwise wasting his time. As long as we took turns messing with him, nobody was going to get fired. It was all good clean fun, or so we thought.
See, we never thought of Tee-Byron as a person, if you know what I mean, with genuine feelings and anxieties and hopes and dreams. We simply thought of him as The Man and messing with The Man was fair game. We were wrong – I can say that now. He was an asshole, no doubt, but maybe we pushed him too far.
If T. Byron Smith had taken the trouble to get to know his employees, even a little bit, he would have known that Baxter Spingal was a deeply troubled guy. Baxter came in and he did his job and all that, but he didn’t talk to anybody. For a while we weren’t sure he even could talk, but I learned along the way, he could talk just fine, he just chose not to.
Of course there were stories but I don’t know if any of them were true. Sometimes I think we make up stories to help us understand this messed up world. Some people said Baxter was a brilliant scholar at the university or that he was a professor’s son, and that he killed off most of his brain cells dropping 400 or 4,000 hits of LSD. Another story was that he was in the army and suffered a brain injury in some kind of bizarre training accident. Or that he was in Viet Nam and was a prisoner in a bamboo cage, tortured by snakes, silenced by PTSD. I don’t know, maybe he was just really shy.
One day Tee-Byron somehow got it in his head that Baxter Spingal stole his clip-board. He was pretty much fed-up because we had stolen the goddamned thing on him every single day for a month. The thing of it is that since he didn’t talk to anybody, I doubt Baxter even knew anything about the clip-board caper.
Where is it? I know you took it.
Come-on already. Game’s over. What did you do with it?
Silence. Tee-Byron knew nothing of Baxter’s self-imposed silence. He expected an answer. He raised his voice.
I know you did it. I’m gonna have your job, you hear me? I’m gonna have your job.
Silence. Cold stare.
Don’t you just stare at me, I’m talkin to you. What did you do with my goddamned clip-board?
Tee-Byron gestured, pointed with his finger, stuck it right into Baxter’s face. Baxter never said a word. He just grabbed Tee-Byron’s hand, neatly broke his finger, twisted Tee-Byron’s arm behind his back and dislocated his elbow. Tee-Byron started screaming in pain and Baxter he just walked away, walked out of the building and kept on going. I guess the police caught up with him later. I don’t know what happened to him after that, I just know we never saw him again.
We never saw Tee-Byron again either. Of course there were stories, stories that he got fired, completely opposite stories he got promoted. Maybe he was off on disability. Maybe he transferred to another plant. Nobody was talking and nobody knew for sure. They brought in a guy to replace him from down east, a guy named Drago. As far as I know Drago’s still there today.