"Pleasant Hell"-By John Dolan
I went to my new job on the bus, down to San Pablo Ave in Oakland, where Huey Newton shot his last prostitute. Where every weekend night the cops held light shows, red-white-and-blue cartop lights and the big star-spotlights from the police helicopters. In other words, "a bad neighborhood." And in other other words -- the real words people meant when they said that -- "a black neighborhood." (Oddly enough, "bad" rhymes with "black" in American English.) In this neighborhood I felt my shoulders very intensely. That was what they were for: for walking around here not being messed with. Because I could break a man's back with these arms. And the boots too: their solid clump, their steel toes -- made to promote orthidonture among my enemies. And the practice in pain they gave me, the nails, taking it, getting tough.
There's a way you walk at that age, somewhat like the way a bored gorilla would walk -- plenty of swing to the arms, feeling them heavy and strong as Frankenstein's, all but dragging on the concrete...and the same dead eyes he had, like nothing you saw could ever impress you. And the legs -- not walking by themselves but being thrown forward, bone-over-bone twist from the muscles of the back and ass, the quads flicking over like a Cro-Mag's spearthrower. Flapping them out with the power in your back till they land, CLUMP, one, then the other, then beginning again, as many as necessary, each footfall registering on the Richter Scale, an elephant with five trunks.
Of course this was all nonsense: I was in fact a topheavy, shy, unarmed white bookworm who had half learned a wholly impractical method of unarmed combat. If nobody killed me for walking down San Pablo Ave in this ill-bred parody of toughness, it was simply because no one took me seriously enough, or had any reason to give themselves the trouble -- for which my belated apology and thanks.
Real Panes turned out to be a beautiful big shed whose new-wood walls smelled sweet as a bakery. There was a waffled green fiberglass roof that made the concrete floor seem like a lawn. The whole place was all friendly and bright. It wasn't even plausible to be afraid. I was terrified.
They were very nice, actually; they had the clean timber smell of their warehouse and they all wore simple plaid shirts and Levi's. The manager, a guy with a moustache, explained my new job to me. He spoke to me in English and I translated as quickly as I could. He was saying something to the effect that Real Panes was a stained-glass warehouse, supplying the big crafts markets of the Bay Area with the panes for the millions of colored-glass wind chimes cool people had on their porches. He took me around, showed me to the woman who managed the office, and said, "Let's just get to work!" Then he took off in a truck. The perfect boss!
The job was very simple. There was a long room with plywood bins on each side. In the bins on one side was the warehouse's stock of panes: big two-foot by four-foot chunks of pure color dimpled like big Ryvita biscuits. The bins opposite opened onto the loading dock. All I had to do was take panes from the storage side and move them to the loading-dock side, where buyers picked them up.
Best of all, I could work alone. The woman was in an office at the far end of the room. She could see me -- she even waved in a friendly way when I looked over at her, and I waved queasily back: Hello, unknown person, heh-heh! heh-heh! -- but she wouldn't be a problem once I showed them what a good horse I could be. I would load more glass, faster, than any slave they'd ever had. I would build mountains of glass, take my terror out on these helpless panes!
The first order was for five panes of red. They'd warned me not to try to carry more than one pane at a time. I was disappointed -- why all those hours at the gym if not to lift whole sheaves, volumes of stained glass at once? -- but I obeyed, taking hold of the top of a single red pane. It weighed very little, really, considering how big it was. Sharp on top like obsidian, but I took a good grip, lifted it up and over, began the walk to the bin. Pictures of myself in a future Life Magazine spread: big arms, bland face, carrying this load effortlessly: "John Dolan, Legendary 'Scholar/Worker' of Berkeley, at work..." They did it for Eric Hoffer and he was stupid. So why wouldn't --
It didn't exactly fall, not right then. But when I tried to jerk the pane back up, it sort of decided to ignore me and went ahead with its slow slip down, like the Titanic. And when the keel hit bottom, it broke on the pristine concrete floor -- that floor that was cleaner than I was -- with the loudest noise I had ever heard.
Absolute white-out terror. Now I'd really gone too far. Tried to pass for human. And now look: I've broken their glass. They'll kill me any second now. If only they just do it quickly, not yell at me first. Kill me fast, but please, no yelling.
Shards of pure cathedral red lay all around me. I looked over to the woman's office. She was already out, marching smartly toward me. Maybe not kill me, but beat me, probably, or whip me, or at the very least scream and spit in my face for a while. OK, I was ready. Just sort of hoping it would be something physical. Get it out of the way faster.
But I have to be fair here: California people aren't cruel. Not in simple brutish ways, anyway. She came out, all right; but she didn't yell at me. She was really nice about it. I found I could translate her sounds if I focused very hard and watched her lips. I could barely hear her over the pounding of my heart and my ragged gasping breath, but I got the gist. She spoke slowly, thank God: she was saying something to the effect that breaking that first pane of glass was a ritual all their rookie workers went through. She gave me a whole speech about it, about how it was "like losing your virginity" -- I winced a little there, but it wasn't meant to be personal, and of course I grasped the analogy. She said now that I'd had my first "big break" (humor), I could relax. I nodded, off to a new start. Clean slate. Counselor talk, but meant to help. Amazingly kind, in fact. I will pay them back, be good. Back to work!
One hour later I had broken seven large panes, gashed myself badly four times (not counting the intricate network of small slashes crosshatching my hands) and executed a strikingly original blood painting on the floor. Jackson Pollock Meets the Werewolf. And loses.
The woman in the booth flinched more and smiled less each time I broke another pane. After the fifth one, she stopped even looking. Just pretended not to hear the crashes and my subsequent yelps and apologies. She was hoping that the self-flayed blood-spattered bespectacled refrigerator in human form scrunching in blood around her warehouse floor might go away if she ignored him intently enough.
Blood was everywhere. The footing was getting slick, though the glass shards did provide some traction. Every time I broke another pane I went through the same ritual: screech (discreetly); apologize to the woman in the booth and the world in general; run for the broom; sweep up the shards as quickly as I could, just to show I was trying hard; and return for another pane. Which would then slip out of my increasingly blood-slick, slashed fingers.
I tried to sweep up as much of the blood as I could. But blood doesn't really sweep. That sounds proverbial, but it's literally true. All sweeping did was take the hot-fudge trails and blobs of blood, and smear them into big fingerpaint strokes all over the concrete floor. My boots made sticky scrunching noises when they went over the almond-crunch mix of blood and tiny shards of glass.
But I stayed. Till five o'clock that afternoon I was the hardest-working glass-smasher in North Oakland. During the last half-hour, as the clock at last took mercy and rose toward five, I composed and revised my resignation speech, interrupted only by screeching and apologies when another pane shattered. At five the woman came out of her booth, flinching toward me. I could see she had worked up her courage to telling the gargoyle dripping onto her warehouse floor not to bother coming back. So I beat her to it: I quit. "Hi, sorry, no, sorry, I, no, God I'm really really sorry about the floor, I tried to clean it up -- no I mean actually I just wanted, I don't actually really think I'm very good at, suitable for -- "
She smiled. And nodded vigorously. And smiled. Everything was California again; the sun came out, everything was OK. All I had to do was quit. That made it fine. She said something consoling -- I couldn't hear the words, but like a dog, I got the point: she was petting me on the head on my way to the pound, wishing me well in my future career. She wished me all the luck in the world -- anywhere but there.
Shaking hands didn't seem like a good idea. Too messy. I settled for a submissive dip of the head and limped out as fast as my boot nails would spur me.
And then the shivering release, back in the coat and the traffic, safely invisible. The balmy wind coming off the Bay, and the reassuringly impersonal traffic hisses. And the bus came quickly to take me out of there. And the driver didn't even mind me getting on. They saw worse every day. The bus was great! So indifferent, tranquil. The bus was soft and warm, with a neutral public smell. And the black adolescent on the seat across from me stared in surprised respect at my bloody hands. And pants. And boots.
I stared out the window, resting my hands, bloody palms up, on the seat ahead of me. I let him look, but I was cool about it: Yeah, there was four of'em. Knives, yeah. Took'em off'em and used'em on'em. Fuckers asked for it, know what I mean?
Impressing black people: every white suburban boy's dream. It almost made up for the fact that I had just failed to meet the challenge of a job your average retarded hunchback would've considered underemployment.
This article was excerpted from John Dolan's new novel Pleasant Hell published by Capricorn Publishing. It is available online through Amazon.com and other booksellers.