I witnessed Charles Allan Speakman in a blue jumpsuit, standing on a tower of metal shipping containers, arms open wide, illuminated from above by a 400-watt ceiling flood like some junkie messiah. Those of us who knew him stared up with reverence and understanding. Those who didn’t shouted at him to come down. There was a certain melancholy finality to the moment, even if, at the time, we didn’t know if we’d foreseen it or if we’d just wished for it long enough for it to come true.
People who worked with Speakman in Fulfillment had hated him right up to the point where he was about to jump. He’d come to work stoned too many times, told too many nasty jokes, stayed up through too many nights, high and weeping and praying and calling out to the ghost of some sainted girlfriend who ODed lifetimes ago on a distant planet. Now he was up in Receiving, sixty feet above the concrete, finally doing what he said he was going to do all the times we’d gotten out of our tents in the small hours and said, “Chuckie, will you please just shut the fuck up?”
It was all sad enough that I knew I’d never forget it. At the time, I had not done anything as significant as try to take my own life or save someone else’s, though working in Fulfillment reminded me on a regular basis that it would one day be within my power to do the one or both of those things when the time was right. I’d turned twenty the week before. Speakman had turned 35. I would eventually learn we shared the same birthday.
Delta Shipping was inland from Waxahachie on FM 813. Most of us who’d come down from Ferris or Pecan Hill or Dallas camped outside the facility to save money on gas and went home on the weekends. We were all month-to-month and management didn’t care as long as we set up in the dirt on the far side of the parking lot. There were coyotes and sometimes a king snake coiled in someone’s shoe.
For the most part, it wasn’t so bad. But individuals like Speakman—and I’d seen a few in the three years I’d been in Fulfillment—broke up our system and disrupted the community, making us tired and cranky and liable to ask ourselves troubling questions by the end of a shift. Personally, I’d grown concerned that he would one day do something so momentous and memorable that management would finally make good on their promise to replace two-thirds of the seasonal hires with automated packing systems. We feared robots far more than coyotes or a snake bite on the foot.
“Don’t do it, Chuckie!” someone screamed.
“Do it!” screamed someone else.
I wondered if any of these people would care enough to shout those things at me if I were standing on top of six metal shipping containers, poised for a final swan-dive. Unlikely. Speakman was the guy we loved to hate, and his impending death felt like history, limned as he was by the single 400-watt flood directly above. That he’d set it all up for dramatic effect didn’t make a difference. We had our drama, just like the coyotes had theirs or the mosquitos that hovered over our tents at twilight.
I looked around Receiving. There was a small clearing in the forest of forty-foot-long shipping containers stacked five and six high. They arrived on trucks and enormous Taylor forklifts moved them in twice a week. All fifty of us were standing there on the freezing concrete floor, most barefoot in sweats, windbreakers, the occasional pair of ratty pyjamas, some still wrapped in their sleeping bags.
We gathered when someone yelled that the loading dock lights had come on. We thought the place was getting robbed. But now we just stood there looking up like a crowd of true believers, shouting for someone to do the thing each one of us thought about from time to time: advancing everything forward, all at once, to the very end, being done with it all in one impressive stroke. I had to admit I wasn’t that heroic, which was probably why no one would care if I’d been the one up there about to jump.
“I’m gonna do it!” he called and most of us cheered, even the ones who hadn’t fully understood and who therefore thought it was their duty to dissuade him from his moment of greatness.
“Fuck this life!”
“Fuck Delta Shipping!”
Someone yelled, “Get down, Chuckie! You’re high!” but the majority responded so angrily that whoever said it wouldn’t dare repeat himself. We looked like angry refugees. Our cries echoed off the corrugated steel like we were wild beasts in pain. Delta Shipping had done horrible things to us. But it was steady work.
In the morning, we sat in metal folding chairs at a row of plastic auditorium tables in Fulfillment. At each table was a Human Resources Specialist who would debrief us. Lucille von Obersdorf was assigned to debrief Nate and me. She informed us that Speakman hadn’t jumped.
“He jumped,” Nate said, puffy hands folded in his lap, left thumb tapping the pink stump where his right thumb used to be.
“No, he didn’t, actually.” Lucille von Obersdorf didn’t like that sort of talk. Speakman had climbed down, she said. He was at this very moment in another part of the facility with the manager in a video conference, talking about options. Everyone was concerned. Delta was a family. Nothing had happened.
“No, ma’am.” Nate shook his head. “Chuckie one crazy motherfucker. He was high as hell. He jumped.”
Lucille von Obersdorf wore a bright red satin blouse. Her hair came down to the middle of her cheeks in sharp points. I stared at the flat circle of turquoise hanging around her neck.
“No,” she said, then rotated her stare in my direction. “Nothing transpired.”
She slid two squares of paper across the table. Each one had OPEN INCIDENT on it with a serial number. There was an app. We could type the number in for further information.
The day was already heating up. I stood with Nate outside the enormous steel doors at the far side of Fulfillment and stared at heat wobbles on the parking lot.
“What do you think?”
He looked at me, burped, and scratched his belly scar under his filthy Mickey Mouse sweatshirt. “It’s bullshit. Chuckie took a dive.”
But, in all honesty, I didn’t think he did. I remembered Speakman lying down up there under the light. Eventually, people got tired of shouting for him to do it already. I went back to my tent because my shift started before dawn. But now I had the day off and, like the others, had time to recollect and wonder and ask myself what I was feeling. Greatness had come and gone. The preponderance of history had emerged like a submarine just beneath the waves only to disappear into the dark before any of us had a chance to truly comprehend what had happened.
We packed orders for online distributors, drop shippers, regional outlets, and e-commerce retail clearinghouses twenty hours a day. We listened to the coyotes yip in the dark and shook king snakes out of our footwear at dawn. Because we were making payments and supporting drunk ex-wives and had committed certain violations, because we were tired and were products of our upbringing and had messed with things that should not have been messed with, we were inconsolable. We longed for a savior to come, some weeping hallucinating prophet to take our pain away and return us to a place of undefiled innocence.
Speakman was let go but continued to camp out with us on the far side of the parking lot, though no one could forgive him for not jumping. One Thanksgiving, he went to Houston with a girl named Coretta and didn’t come back, though he was still haunted by the memory of having almost touched Eternity that night in Receiving and by the ghost of his ex-girlfriend, who, we learned, was not dead but just in a long-term coma in Maypearl.
I saw him again, years later, in the bar of the Pickwick Hotel in Hauberk, Missouri, his hair dyed brown and answering to a different name. I bought us all the drinks I could. Then we wandered the wet streets in the dark. But I didn’t bring up that night in Texas. I felt ashamed to point out his great failure, for I could see that he was changed and emptied, that his moment had gone down beneath the waves back to that dark place where the infinite opens but once in each man’s life. And as I watched him stagger down the empty street towards the Greyhound Bus station, the traffic lights changing for no good reason, I could see that Speakman was already old and soon he would disappear forever from this earth. But my moment was yet to come.
Michael Davis’ short fiction has appeared in over 34 magazines and journals and he has published two collections of stories, Gravity and Cruel Stars. He has an MFA in fiction writing from the University of Montana and a PhD in English from Western Michigan University. He lives in Europe where he works as an academic editor and freelance journalist.