Fiction by Avy Packard
The morning the forklift crushed Leonard, he added real sugar, not artificial sweetener to his coffee. It was a challenge to even find the real sugar, and when he did find it—banished to the back of the cupboard, behind the cornmeal, next to an ancient box of gelatin—he needed a steak knife to jab at it like it was a block of repressed anger. He took appreciative sips, and drank quickly; considered the slick undissolved sugar that coated his tongue and wondered if that was how coffee was supposed to taste. He couldn’t remember, but it wasn’t unpleasant. That morning, Leonard drank two cups of coffee instead of one.
“Bye,” he said to his wife, still upstairs in the dark, tucked under two handmade quilts and walls of sleep thick enough to keep her snoring for several undisturbed hours. She didn’t hear his farewell, and he didn’t expect she would, but it felt right to say it anyway.
He locked the front door behind him, and twisted the handle to make sure it was secured.
Two mornings ago, he agreed to meet Trevor at Denny’s. Trevor was young with a new wife and a new baby; a combination that made him both nervous and ambitious. He wanted to go over the details one more time, but Leonard suspected all he needed was reassurance. During breakfast, Trevor’s leg bounced under the table which irritatingly vibrated the silverware on Leonard’s plate.
“I just hope it doesn’t take too long, you know?” Trevor said, oblivious to his anxious foot clatter. “Automatic suspension is no joke. They haven’t had an accident in, what, sixteen months? I’m gonna be the asshole who messed up while you’re in the hospital getting sympathy cards.” He wadded up his paper napkin and tossed it onto his plate.
“I sure hope there won’t be a hospital stay,” Leonard said, and shoveled a forkful of eggs and hash browns into his mouth. He was supposed to be watching his cholesterol. “If I end up in the hospital, then you went too far.”
Trevor settled back against the vinyl covered booth and looked at him. The clatter stopped. “Says the man who wants to stand in front of a moving forklift.” Leonard jerked his fork and egg dribbled onto his shirt. He set his fork down and wiped at it with his napkin, scanning his periphery as he did.
The diner was empty except for a couple sitting three tables away. They were elderly, probably a little older than himself. They poured syrup all over their food, even the eggs, and joked loudly with the waitress who refilled their cups; something about dogs or politicians.
Trevor continued to stare at Leonard, and it made him uneasy, that look, it was the same one the other guys at work had been giving him. Trevor stood and reached for his wallet. “I’ll do what you want me to do,” he said, and dropped two fives on the table. “But it might not go exactly how you think. You need to accept that.” He put a hand on his shoulder and hesitated before he left him alone at the table to mull it over, or at least that’s what he assumed Trevor wanted him to do; mull it over, think about it some more, think about it endlessly. The money on the table—Leonard picked it up and quickly did the math. He hadn’t left enough to cover his share of the check.
“Oh, Hey,” he spoke up. “Trevor!” The other couple turned around to look at him, as did the waitress, their friendly conversation halted. The only one who didn’t look back was Trevor who seemingly hadn’t heard him.
His co-workers had been giving him odd looks; nothing blatant or obvious, just an irregular beat in his normally uncomplicated workday. They looked at him too long, with a tinge of amusement in their expressions, or even worse, they didn’t look at him at all; their eyes passed right over him as if he were an old and not particularly useful piece of machinery that was too cumbersome to haul to the dumpster. This all started sometime after he turned sixty, at least that’s what he decided after many nights driving home from work. He thought hard and often about it, brow furrowed, barely paying attention to the road, tapping the steering wheel like the answer was in the tips of his fingers or in the worn grooves of the leather. He showed up on time, he did his job within his means, he never left early, rarely called in sick. There was nothing he did, nothing he didn’t do, no specific reason for this gradual slip of respect, but it was there all the same.
The morning the forklift crushed Leonard, he pulled his pickup into the parking lot and noted, with some relief, that by this time tomorrow, it would be over. He would be home in bed with a peaceful mind, churning in the depths of whatever mild narcotic they administered. His wife, for once, would be the one to worry. She would have to contact the insurance company, their lawyer. Labor and Industries. She would make sure he is comfortable and let him have the remote for the TV. Then after four or five months, Hal from work would call to discuss an early retirement: a payout, due to the accountant’s estimate of increased Labor and Industries payments due to his lack of progress in physical therapy. Physical therapy—where Leonard would not give it his all, but maybe only sixty percent. Leonard would tell Hal he would think about it, then begrudgingly agree a few days later. Then, he would take his wife out for dinner at the place where they made strange martinis and huge shrimp cocktails. They would discuss moving to the coast like they’ve always wanted to do. And five years earlier than planned. Trevor would get two-thousand-five-hundred dollars from Leonard and five days off for being involved in a work related accident.
Leonard decided a while ago, probably during one of those enlightening commutes home, that a small limp in his gait, if it came to that, would be worth it.
He punched the clock, chatted with the receptionist for a minute, then made his way to the locker room. He put on his reflective jacket and hardhat, pulled work gloves over his hands that had only recently started to ache with the promise of arthritis. There was a thousand-count bottle of ibuprofen planted on the shelf in his locker, the label smudged gray with his daily handprints, but he didn’t seek it out. Not today. He didn’t want it to interfere with anything the doctors might give him later.
When he walked into the loading area he did not scan the warehouse for Trevor. It was merely an hour or so past sunrise and the factory was already in revved up go-and-get-em commotion. Foremen walked the catwalks and talked into radios, forklift drivers buzzed around in the turn circle, and floor supervisors, like Leonard, walked the floor, logging in and tagging pallets to be lifted out for cargo distribution. He went to work. He tried not to check his watch every few minutes, but did it anyway, and likewise tried not to make eye contact with Trevor whenever he bounced by with a pallet in the grip of his forklift.
At quarter-past seven, exactly, Leonard walked, not too fast, to the northeast corner of the loading area. The pallets were stacked with inventory fifteen feet high, in rows of thirteen. There were crates upon crates with who-knows-what in them destined for countries Leonard would never step foot in. The packaging label on the box in front of him read Yangshan, China.
He waited and checked and rechecked and counted and recounted all the inventory in the bay. He studied a pack of invoice sheets and wrote his initials on each page for no reason. He tapped his clipboard. He checked his watch.
His radio beeped, and Leonard nearly yelped. “Leonard, you there?” Hal’s scratchy voice came over the speaker. “We’re going to need you to finish off Bay 2, before moving to the new load.”
“Yeah,” Leonard responded, holding the radio to his mouth and turning the volume all the way up, “I wanted to make sure we were done with the Milwaukee stuff before Trevor moved in the new pallets. There’s a lot of items that shouldn’t be here yet.”
His watch read 7:19. He heard a forklift and saw the top of Trevor’s cab plowing ahead on the other side of the bay. Leonard turned around and took a step backward. He planted his feet. He pressed the radio hard against his face and felt a prickle of sweat move down his face between the radio and his cheek. Leonard waited for Hal’s response, standing at the agreed upon corner, properly concealed, just out of sight, where Trevor would not be able to see him if he didn’t know he was already there.
The radio chirped on, “No. I’d rather you finish up-” but Leonard never heard the rest of Hal’s instructions. The forklift turned the corner at full speed and crashed into Leonard’s backside. It lifted him off his feet and pinned him to the pallet of Yangshan’s wooden crates. A piece of distressed board snapped in the collision, splintered off, and pierced Leonard in the abdomen. He cried out, a twisted high-pitch wail that despite his current troubles, surprised and embarrassed him by how he sounded; like a little boy, or even a little girl, who was legitimately afraid for their life. Trevor hit the brakes. The forklift jerked forward, pressing Leonard even further into the pallet. His clip-board crushed into his chest. The radio fell and shattered. His face was pinned to the crate and he thought he smelled something exotic like cinnamon and oranges.
Men responded with rough, adrenaline driven shouts and heavy footfall as they ran in their steel-toed boots. An alarm blared, the alarm, the one that screamed through the building, and made your hair stand on end, alerting everyone to stop production, shut it all down, there has been an accident.
Trevor cut the engine, and the forklift settled back a few inches, releasing Leonard. He crumpled to the floor. Trevor shouted his rehearsed lines I didn’t see him! I swear to God I didn’t see him!
A circle of men crowded over him. He opened his mouth, he was supposed to say something. He didn’t know what. He had forgotten his lines. The looks on their faces surprised him. They didn’t look angry, like he thought they might, or concerned, like he thought they would. They looked scared. Someone called for an ambulance. Someone else said “Holy shit” in a small voice. Trevor, was he crying? said Oh, Christ, oh no, Leonard? Leonard! Oh Christ, I told you, man. I told you! which was not something they rehearsed. And there was blood too, which confused him, wasn’t exactly sure what it was, thought it was oil from the forklift. He twisted his fist above his stomach, wanting to inspect himself, to find what was burning, but someone said “don’t touch it.” He trusted their judgement and fixed his sight on the bay lights hanging in the rafters and waited for whatever was going to happen next.
Before the pain finally broke through the shock, before the world washed away, forgotten, unimportant, into a white film, Leonard remembered that he forgot to put the sugar away this morning. He pictured his wife, at that very moment shuffling into the kitchen in her robe, puzzling over the block of sugar chipped away into a granulated pile on their kitchen counter. He saw and heard her clearly, shaking her head and wetting a dishrag, lecturing him from all the way home, asking him when he would ever learn to clean up his own mess.
Avy Packard writes as a hobby when she’s not carpooling kids all over the Puget Sound metro area. Currently, she is working on the gazillionth draft of her first novel.