Derrald struggles to fit in at his warehouse job, one day at a time.
| (1341 words) THE NEWBIE Derrald was asleep in his warm bed. He was pleased that he'd added another blanket during the night. Mom knew he couldn't relax with only five. "Why do you have so many blankets anyway?", Mom had asked him as she pulled one from his bed and folded it. They'd had this same argument before; she had to remove one to make her point. He didn't care. He always recovered that sixth cover for bedtime. It had to be six; six was an even number. Six was comfortable. Suddenly, Derrald jerked. Simultaneously, he felt the jolt of both a clap to his shoulder and a loud voice. "Hey, kid. Didn't you hear me? Whatcha doin', daydreamin'?" Blankly, Derrald stared in the general direction of the questions. As his eyes focused, he noticed a shiny, balding head below his chin. Oh, it was the foreman. His sparse hairs looked like spiked black wires; some were stiffly straight, some were twisted. Derrald could see tiny white flakes of something scattered amongst the wires. He wanted to brush them away. "Derrald, kid, are you listenin' to me? Earth to Derrald." "What? Is it time to go home?" Laughing or maybe it was wheezing, Derrald's boss gasped, "You're such a card. Hey, fellas, listen to this. The new kid thinks it's quittin' time. How I wish!" Confused, Derrald took in the guffaws, the men in blue coveralls, the thousands of cartons stacked high to a vast ceiling, and a cement floor that stretched into forever. Ah, he was in the warehouse. What time was it? He felt certain he'd been here for hours; too many hours. "C'mon newbie. Time's a'wastin'. I've got the perfect job for you. Can you count?" Derrald thought this was an odd question, of course, he could count. He was always counting. He counted to six when he brushed his hair, when he brushed his teeth, and when he pulled a zipper up and down exactly six times. As he started forward to follow, Derrald glanced down to notice the laces of his new steel-toed boots were loose. Immediately, he dropped to a crouch to re-tie them. He was so engrossed in lining up the long laces evenly and then drawing out perfectly-matched loops that he failed to hear the forklift pull up right next to him. The loud-pitched beep knocked Derrald onto his butt. Chortling in the driver's seat was a man clad in the same blue as Derrald. He bowed his hard-hat head and introduced himself. "I'm Kevin. Do you always tie and re-tie your boots like that? C'mon, get up. You're workin' with me now." Derrald scrambled in next to Kevin. Now this was his style. He'd been watching the busy forklifts. They never seemed to stop. He just had to ask, "Can I drive one?" Kevin chuckled. "Whoa there. You need a tow motor licence and that means a training course first. Bob's right; you're a hoot!" As he digested this disappointing news, Derrald wondered, "Who's Bob?" Derrald was feeling resentful. How was he supposed to remember everyone's name? He was always being pushed and hurried along. Every morning, his mother pounded on his bedroom door and shouted, "Derrald, get up, now! How could you not hear your alarm?" Then, when he was in the bathroom, she stood outside. "Hurry up, you're going to be late! What's taking so long?" She could yell all she wanted, he had his routine. Could he help it that shampooing and rinsing his hair precisely six times couldn't be rushed? Shaking the container to the count of six and squirting out six mounds of foamy hair mousse soothed him. This morning as his mother screeched to a stop outside the warehouse, and shouted, "Hurry! You're six minutes late!", he'd been pleased. Returning to the present, Derrald realized that Kevin was a talker and he didn't seem to expect any comments from Derrald; he was relieved. He still hadn't figured out what to say or do with the guys here. He'd witnessed high fives, fist and chest bumps, and wrestling. Some of the older fellows shook hands or thumped each other on the back. This physicality made Derrald cringe. He preferred to keep people at a safe distance. Buffered by the rolling tow motor, he was free to observe and bestow the occasional regal nod. All too soon, Kevin stopped next to a group of boisterous men. "These fellas look like they could benefit from our company. Feel like a lunch break, kid? Fellas, this is Derrald." Kevin hopped down onto the floor with a metal lunchbox. Derrald disembarked reluctantly; dreading the crowd and only just remembering that he'd forgotten to bring a lunch. That was okay, he wasn't really hungry anyway. If he had a choice, he took his time to eat. Lunchtime here was too short. Derrald opted to sit apart from the noisy men on an empty pallet that allowed him an unobstructed view. Thankfully, no one spoke directly to him. Making small talk was so awkward; even thinking about this caused him to squirm. He was stilled by the unexpected hush. It was as if all the conversation, the laughter, the distant rattles and thumps had been muted by a powerful switch. Every man's head was turned, intently watching something. Derrald recognized the pretty blonde lady. She strolled through the warehouse several times a day. Derrald knew how to get her attention and impress the guys, he wolf-whistled. He'd heard cabbies and construction workers whistle at women on the street. Just as he'd hoped, the men laughed and cheered. "Way to go, newbie!" Grinning, Derrald stood. He'd found a way to feel connected. He held his breath as the pretty blonde lady halted, swivelled, and glared at him. "She's giving you the stink eye. What do you say to that?" Derrald shrugged. He saw the object of his appreciative whistle take a few steps towards him, shake her head, and then stalk off. Impulsively, he whistled again; a long, clear one. To his delight, his audience whooped and clapped. All the "atta boys" quickly fizzled out to the echo of rapid-fire high heels approaching. Rat-a-tat-tat. The pretty blonde lady was returning and she wasn't smiling. A man in a suit and tie hustled to keep up with her as she stomped up to Derrald. "This is him! He's the insolent one who whistles at me every day. I've had enough of his boorish behaviour. I want him to stop!" She was visibly shaking with outrage. "Now calm down, Janine. I know you're upset. This is Derrald and he's one of our special hires. I'll talk to him and explain your concerns." "Look at him! He's just standing there, smirking. Is he deaf? Cat got your tongue?" Janine almost screamed this in Derrald's face. "Don't you have anything to say for yourself?" She had uncrossed her arms and planted them defiantly on her hips. Of course, I'm not deaf, Derrald was thinking. Obviously, a cat doesn't have my tongue, how ridiculous. He was puzzled by her apparent anger. He thought a whistle was a compliment. The guys seemed to like it. They'd encouraged him. The red-faced man in the suit and tie reminded Derrald that he had hired him. "Derrald, do you recall when I spoke with you a week ago? We spoke about acceptable behaviours. Whistling at Janine is considered sexual harassment. She feels unsafe and disrespected. You know what that means, don't you?" Again, Derrald shrugged. "Derrald, your social worker asked me to give you some leeway. She warned me that you don't always focus, and you have trouble reading people. I seem to remember that at your last job you inappropriately touched a fellow employee. Didn't you tickle her when her hands were full with a tray of iced doughnuts? Is this true?" Derrald couldn't respond. When emotions were raw, he tuned people out. He was counting the buttons on his boss' suit jacket, over and over. There were six. He liked the number six.