THE PIECE

BY DAVE MANCINI

I peered up into the white-washed rafters of the Navy Yard building. Bulging woody biceps, sun streaming in and bouncing down on everything through the generous skylights. We could just lop a line over them with a block and fall, I thought. I don’t want to be doing this right now: it’s goddamn coffee break. And what about the forklifts? There are two of them for christ sakes. No, the boss wants the header up and dressed and he wants it done down and dirty. The show’s gonna ship and look, it’s just the same shit, different day is all.

I walked back toward my bench toward the gaping rollup door. There were a couple of guys out there, their chairs teetering on the cobblestones, drinking coffee out of those Chinese red cardboard soup containers. I thought how stupid and funny but it was really the containers laughing at me. What? I said to myself— snap out of it! I looked up at the office window and Stevie was staring down at me and he turned around briefly to laugh at something someone in the room was saying. Laughing as always— but he knew.

My stomach was a leather knot, my chest vice tight and I had a scalding headache from what was about to happen. This all just burned me up inside and that’s when the infantile calamity of my youth— me, pitted against enemies that my terrified parents had thrown up on the lantern show of my mind— came back to me in shredded sheets of thought. It was the level of denial that I had grown up with. Just what right does a person have to stand up and say, “no, I can’t do that!”? And God forbid you should ask for help. The response had always been— “You have no reason to be that angry, and don’t give me that look.” I boosted myself up onto my bench and waited, glancing at the clock. Five minutes left of break, maybe seven if I was lucky.

Guys were laughing. I could see their heads bobbing behind the work bench over on the other side of the room, sucking down their coffee and chewing up those drippy little yellow egg sandwiches. No reason at all to be so angry and tense and scared. But scared was what I was.

“You bury your anger in fear,” my therapist said to me, years later.

But it wouldn’t help me then because I just didn’t even know how bad it really was with me. The voices, a mob, were marching through my skull ranting the same brutal message. You have to pass this test. They had already done their nasty bit. Desperate now, I thought to myself, I’d just have to muscle my way through this and pray that I come out on the other side with something more than the pig stench of people laughing at me. But now, today I’m gonna find out what it’s like to be pushed out in front of the crowd just because my father— no, not even— just because my stepfather was a union big shot and I had to be proven— and to myself even. I had to muscle up respect out of these guys who really, and I mean this, gave a rat’s ass for any of this political stuff. “Better him than me,” I’m sure they’d say. It was just like all the other times in my life where I felt— so what? who cares? what happens to me doesn’t mean squat. Stop to imagine what the consequences might be if I continue down this road? What good would that do me when I was dragging this lifeless body of my own self-disrespect behind me? But my point in all this is: I learned this. The nuns whacked me hard enough and long enough and threatened more than enough to lock me in a metal closet. You don’t forget that.

In a moment a gate came crashing down and front of me and the loudspeaker blasted, “OK, that’s it. Back to work!” and I lost everything right there. There’s no way out of this, I thought. I had a terribly weak feeling in my stomach. I had to round up all these guys and heard them down to the other end of the warehouse deck, gather around the piece and see if we could pull it up into place. But the guys seem to be taking forever to put there magazines away and finish their coffee. They’re not in any hurry anyway, I thought, so foolishly in my delusional state of chemical fear. Why should they want to help me? This was the state in which I believed that I was destined to fail at anything I tried and I had learned this, hadn’t I, somewhere?

Why don’t we just throw a line around the damn thing and where are those forklifts? It was futile. I was arguing with myself. My arguments were weak and anyway the fellas were around the piece now. It was a strange angular structure, hard to grip, maybe sixteen feet long and three feet thick and deep. “OK guys, let’s get a grip on it.” I stood back to have a look around and then I jumped back into get my hands on it but it was hard to find a place to grab anywhere. Too many guys!, I blasted myself, always to myself through all the other crap storming my mind.

“Everybody on it? OK, up….” The three guys on ladders at the back of the set were ready to reach out and grab the monster as it landed on the shoulders of the wall. The piece swung up and into the space over the crowd of arms that carried it, swinging into a beam of sunlight streaming down through the room. The scenic artists were dumping their leftover coffee into the slop sing and ogling what was going on just a few feet away. They don’t have to handle stuff like this!

And now here’s this behemoth being launched, levitating over the straining necks and bulging backs of twenty stages hands. Up, up it went, the guys on the ladders still reaching out in hope of catching the beast and just then, a shudder went through the straining crowd of lifters. I heard an “Oh!” and I jumped forward to get my hands on the piece, which seemed to move backward in space. One guy then another crumpled like sticks, scurrying for  a way out from under it.

“We’re losing it!” somebody yelled.

“No!”

I screamed inside like I was screaming at the world I had come from, but it was too late. I thought I saw something like a great caterpillar start to move backwards across the sea of hands. Wrong way, no! It all reached the point of no return. The guys toward the front had their arms up in the air holding nothing, and the guys at the back were scrambling frantically out of the way, as the piece went crashing hopelessly into the deck behind them.

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