Sorting the Piles
By Lolita Hernandez
No doubt about it, Diego was well catching his backside in Detroit and for no good reason that he could figure out. It was clear that he simply didn’t have the language to frame his predicament, but in his gut he knew damn well that coming from a shit-ass, lizard-shaped island in the Caribbean left him without teeth for lethal biting, a tail with which to whip anybody, or skin leathery enough to withstand the crap the man slung his way, day in, day out.
Here he was in a scrapyard with all that crap soaking into his pores, occupying space in the creases of growing bulges he had worked so hard to tame while in prison. He could feel the shit taking a set when he rolled his neck or his pansa quivered. And now, look at him in such a chubby and emotionally fucked-up condition, trying his damndest to win back Skye as a girlfriend and her aunt as a substitute mother. The killer was that he was making real serious progress, as far as he could tell. The aunt was on his side. The bacalao she fixed for him the other night told him that. So was Skye, although not likely real soon to make moves toward any side of his bed. He would have to work much harder for that one to happen. But that first night back in the warmth and love of their kitchen nook he resolved to clean up his act and stay in their aura. They were givers, but you can’t take from ladies without returning something, an in-kind to hold his place in their lives.
The answer of where to begin sorting out his dilemma began in the scrapyard, in the cab of the crane with the big magnet. You never really realize how you can find yourself after becoming one with a piece of machine, how you can merge with its rhythm. How you can find your body twisting and swerving in sync with it. It’s like first sex; nothing or no one else will do. It’s your first love, or so you think at the time. Who can explain how deeply Diego identified with that steel? It was out of the blue or should we say oily grey of the metal. Sometimes sharp, sometimes blunt. Always hard. Basically, an island country boy lands through some circuitous route from green land and salt water to the middle of the wreck of Detroit’s decline and all of a sudden, he’s at home, more nestled than he ever felt on Lagarto. Not like the loneliness of New Jersey. No way. Forget about Toledo. And now here he was finally, feeling real, feeling strong, feeling himself, feeling as if he could for the first time in his life be whole. He didn’t even bother to figure out how he found himself in this kind of family way, but there he was, married to joysticks in the cab of a big CAT crane manipulating a magnet capable of picking up tons of steel and somehow lifting his heart.
The crane with the magnet had become his gig after he had proven himself worthy of staying in the Duke family yard beyond the ninety-day probationary period. He had progressed from sweeping dust and debris to light-duty equipment, which meant forklifts, Bobcats, and tower duty at the mill or baler. All of that had been totally new to him, but he discovered in himself a natural talent for light and heavy equipment. That was a good discovery. What had he known about equipment beyond the saws, hammers, and trowels he learned to use while building his abode with his father back on the island? Or the truck that he drove to deliver tortillas in Detroit? Tortillas? He was a world away from that soft floppy format of maíz or harina. He was now somewhere that demanded strong teeth, flexing muscles, strong pansa. He was in a marvelous land of opportunity. Diego eyed each piece of equipment in the yard hungrily. He had moved up to a brand-new world beyond tortillas and floor-washing. He could be somebody here. That was for sure.
At Duke’s, miraculously he had passed his initial interview by basically putting his heartfelt good intentions on his sleeve. He did his best to convince Joe, the yard boss who spoke to him at Juano’s suggestion, that he was one hard and sincere worker. Diego’s friend Juano had been working at Duke’s for several years, so Joe believed him. It was Joe, a wiry white man, after having lived fifteen years of his life in the yard in every capacity possible, who gave Diego his break. Joe had a feeling that Diego would put his all into the job because it meant his all. He had a feeling about this guy, and Joe, a man with a touch of Romanian and a big dab of Polish, prided himself on his ability to work with diverse elements in the community. He knew that Diego had the right stuff. Then finally after the ninety days had passed, that magic moment when Joe said, Hey, Diego, you think you’re ready for that big guy up there? pointing at the crane with the magnet. Wow am I ever! It only took Diego a couple nights of training, and he was swinging the magnet from that crane as if he and it had travelled down the same birth canal.
One cold October night he was sorting metal on the afternoon shift. He absolutely didn’t mind afternoons because he earned a five-cent shift premium. He liked the big money. Halloween was just around the corner, and you could say that subliminally the approaching arrival of witches and wizards stimulated all manner of fantasy in Diego’s already overactive brain. Or you could just say he was already sunk into the routine of the job even at that early stage; maybe it’s best to say that he was so competent that he could move without thinking, thus freeing his brain up. Whatever it was, fantasies took over. His life began to take shape in the twisted steel that heaped out for his inspection and manipulation. The operation naturally lent itself to the kind of deep meditation required to separate shit from gold. He was alone in a fully enclosed cab that sat high above the ground, at eye-level to the pivot point of the crane’s boom. The workers operating the cranes looked like Lego figures locked in predetermined grooves, all same-shaped and same-faced—except that Diego had something roiling under that frozen exterior of his. For some reason Felipe didn’t turn on his small boom box that night, so only occasional squawks from the two-way radio provided a kind of rhythm. That’s how the process of sorting out Lagarto from New Jersey, from Toledo, and now Detroit began in the cab of the crane, focused on the rhythm of the side-to-side, back-to-back sway of the boom and the thrust of the magnet. As he sorted out the metal, he began remembering scenes from his life. Since being awarded the magnet crane, he had been spending his evenings moving steel around in an almost aimless pattern that surely would make no sense to someone unfamiliar with scrapyard operations. The magnet would swoop up a pile and move it to one spot, then pass back and forth spreading it—some for the metal baler, some for the mill. But a few evenings after reuniting with Skye and her aunt, he began sorting as if moving memory from one side of his cranium to the other, with a purpose not even he could immediately comprehend.
And so on and so on, his evenings progressed, with him mouthing a litany of names, places, and events of what he wanted to compact and what he wanted to grind. For sure, he wanted to grind his stepmother and her bitching daughter. One time he thought he could see the stepmother’s face leering up at him from a flat, thick, serrated piece of metal that lay off to the side of the pile he was trying to whittle down. The piece looked like the remains of a cutting wheel, the kind of wheel that moved perpetually and would slice you into little shards. He slammed that piece with the magnet, causing some nearby workmates to look up. No mind, Felipe grinned like no tomorrow and gently lifted it, having determined that it was just the right specs for feeding to the mill grinder. He saw another piece with rolling gentle curves. That piece reminded him of his real tía in Lagarto. It didn’t even look like metal, it looked soft, a place to rest, to hope. With yard lights and the full moon, the piece began to look like two hands flexing toward him. He lifted the curving scrap and laid it to the side.
He began maneuvering the crane again from side to side, the magnet swinging back and forth just inches above the piles, causing steel to shift like waves in the ocean. Some piles below his cab gleamed silently when the moonlight hit them; he heard nothing in his cab only the rocking inside of his head. He recalled the moment his father brought him to the house they had built a half mile or so down the hill from the house he then shared with Diego’s stepmother. In it he had placed a little bed, dresser, and chair. Also, a table for eating his meals and a radio. He tried to look pleased that he would have his own place, that he would be the envy of all his friends and cousins, that he could run around naked if he wished. But instead, he sucked a deep draw of air and willed the tears to not flow because he understood then that he would never really have his father again for himself. He understood himself to be truly alone in the world.
At that remembrance Diego stopped all movement with the joy sticks. He almost lost his breath. He turned the crane off and stepped down. Joe yelled out at him. Hey, I was wondering if you were going to take a break. It was, indeed, break time, and Diego had fortunately stopped at the right moment. He continued for that night and the next few in a strange world of faces filing before him, some smiling like his mother’s as she blew him a kiss adios, others scowling like those muthafuckas who smashed him up good in Toledo. His cousin Reynold took the shape of a long, slender piece of steel. When he first saw it he wondered from where it could have originated. It almost looked as if it had been sheared off some larger sheet. He stopped for a moment and observed the piece as it landed almost at the top of the mound he was sorting. Again, he found himself in a past he had managed to tamp down, the moment when Reynold made that suicidal leap from the cliff of El Punto de Vista in Lagarto to the ocean and he was powerless to help. He became a grown man with tears slowly sliding down his cheeks, thankful that no one could see.
He shook his head because for sure he couldn’t keep thinking in that vein. He had to move forward, forward. Come on Diego, let it go. Move on. It was then that Skye and her aunt made an appearance, bearing food and drinks. He didn’t see them in the steel as he had the others. They were just there, floating between pools of grease, mounds of dirt, and piles of metal. He could smile for a minute then return to the swinging magnet. Back and forth. Pieces of metal shifted from one side to the other. It was his prerogative to decide what to do with each piece. It could sit there for a while, and no one would notice that he hadn’t made a decision about it. All the yard denizens had their own shapes to sort, even Joe or Juano. In the mountains of metal, who could tell another’s evil from his good? The lovers from the killers? As long as Diego moved the scrap, and heaps of it went to someplace for grinding or compacting or analysis of some sort, he was on the job.
Lolita Hernandez is the author of two collections of short stories, Making Callaloo in Detroit, a 2015 Michigan Notable Book, and Autopsy of an Engine and Other Stories from the Cadillac Plant, winner of a 2005 PEN Beyond Margins Award. Her short fiction and poetry have been published in a wide variety of literary venues. She is also a 2012 Kresge Fellow. After more than thirty-three years as a UAW member at General Motors and twelve on the faculty of the University of Michigan Creative Writing Department at the Residential College, she recently retired to Las Vegas, Nevada, from her native Detroit.
Read “Arrivals and Departures,” another work of short fiction by Lolita Hernandez published in issue no. two of Three Fold.