“What the hell are you all doing?”
The assembly line had stopped, and about seven or eight men were standing around in a circle, watching while another man rolled back and forth in pain on the floor.
Mike spoke up: “Tan, Jerry here just collapsed and we don’t know why.”
Tanner shook his head in disgust and stomped over to the control switch. Abruptly, the assembly line jerked and then the products resumed their slow maddening journey. “GET BACK TO WORK” he barked.
The guys all shook their heads in disbelief and scattered to their work areas, leaving Jerry writhing and alone.
I suppose my fascination with Tanner had its roots in the fact that he seemed an awful lot like my dad. Both had big guts and slick-backed hair; both were angry, abrupt and rude. They could have been brothers. The differences were key though: while dad was constantly drunk, morose and unwilling to engage, Tanner could talk – if you caught him at any other time than when he was doing his job as the assembly line general foreman. Also, I don’t know if he was an alcoholic. I doubt it. If he was, he was a highly functional one.
I didn’t like him. Tanner, that is. He exuded a “don’t fuck with me” mien, full of scowling and menace. His constant angry frown served to provoke diligence in the workplace, which is probably why he stayed in movement. He knew full well that motivation through brutish fear meant greater productivity. And the man was all about that. Once, when we had a plant meeting, he asked “what is the goal of General Foods (*1)?” I said “to make snacks.” He shook his head. “IT’S TO MAKE MONEY” he roared. I got it. We all got it.
He brooded over the plant like an angry storm. Yet, for some inexplicable reason I felt the urge to talk with him whenever he came by my workstation. At first, his responses (much like my dad’s) took the form of single-syllable grunts. As the years droned on, they eventually became full sentences.
Then one night, he surprised me by asking for a ride home. “Don’t have a car right now, and since we’re working overtime, my ride is leaving earlier than me.” In hindsight, I suppose I was likely the only one there who didn’t fear him as much as the others seemed to.
“Sure” I said.
After the final bell blew at 2:30 a.m. I made my way to his office, and he grunted, turned and locked the door and we left.
Once on the road, Tanner opened up.
At the time I was, and said so.
“I used to be married.” He stared straight ahead. I glanced at him, then watched the road ahead of me, as the car zipped through the pools of light cast by the intermittent streetlights. This was all new, and I had no idea what to say. Just knew I needed to say something.
“How long ago, Tan?”
“We just split up a few months ago. I took it pretty hard. We were close, and I still don’t have any idea why she left.”
“Really? None at all?”
He glanced over and I was sure he was going to hit me, or yell or something. His look was one of sadness however.
“No. None. I’ve thought about it a lot too. She was an angel and I adored her. We used to do everything together. We used to go out every weekend, dancing, partying, antiquing. And we laughed a lot too.”
I could not for the life of me picture this guy laughing, ever. Or going antiquing. The dichotomous gap between Tanner the inhumane, angry general foreman, and Tanner the loving, laughing broken-hearted guy was too wide for easy comprehension.
“I never never understood it. I guess maybe I didn’t understand her as much as I thought I did. I mean, we talked quite a bit about everything. We discussed our plans for the future, and we talked about politics, and we covered a lot of deep stuff too.” He shook his head. “It just doesn’t make sense.”
I cleared my throat. “Is there any hope at all? Can you talk to a marriage counsellor or something? Would she be up for that?”
He shifted in his seat. “I don’t know if I’ll ever find out. I’d like to. After getting over the shock of coming home and not seeing her there, I thought about that.” He glanced at his watch. “But I don’t know if it’ll ever happen. I can’t ask her, because I have no idea where she is. I don’t even have a phone number for her.”
“Wow” I blurted.
“Yeah. ‘Wow’. Unbelievable isn’t it?”
The whole conversation was surreal. “Yeah, it really is.”
He went quiet. I wondered: why was he telling me all of this? Why was he spilling his thoughts? I had no idea.
We pulled up beside his apartment building and he got out. Turned back around and leaned down. “Listen” he said. “Thanks a lot for the ride.”
I wanted to tell him how sorry I was. Wanted to say that if he ever wanted to talk again, or get a ride home or whatever, it’d be okay.
“No problem” I said. “Take care. See you tomorrow.”
He grunted again and shut the door.
*1 – all names, including that of Tanner and General Foods, have been changed out of respect to him.