(excerpt from the novel)
I had a lot of jobs in Los Angeles Harbor because our family was poor and my father was dead. My first job was ditchdigging a short time after I graduated from high school. Every night I couldn’t sleep from the pain in my back. We were digging an excavation in an empty lot, there wasn’t any shade, the sun came straight from a cloudless sky, and I was down in that hole digging with two huskies who dug with a love for it, always laughing and telling jokes, laughing and smoking bitter tobacco.
I started with a fury and they laughed and said I’d learn a thing or two after a while. Then the pick and shovel got heavy. I sucked broken blisters and hated those men. One noon I was tired and sat down and looked at my hands. I said to myself, why don’t you quit this job before it kills you?
I got up and speared my shovel into the ground.
“Boys,” I said. “I’m through. I’ve decided to accept a job with the Harbor Commission.”
Next I was a dishwasher. Every day I looked out a hole of a window, and through it I saw heaps of garbage day after day, with flies droning, and I was like a housewife over a pile of dishes, my hands revolting when I looked down at them swimming like dead fish in the bluish water. The fat cook was the boss. He banged pans and made me work. It made me happy when a fly landed on his big cheek and refused to leave. I had that job four weeks. Arturo, I said, the future of this job is very limited; why don’t you quit tonight? Why don’t you tell that cook to screw himself?
I couldn’t wait until night. In the middle of that August afternoon, with a mountain of unwashed dishes before me, I took off my apron. I had to smile.
“What’s funny?” the cook said.
“I’m through. Finished. That’s what’s funny.”
I went out the back door, a bell tinkling. He stood scratching his head in the midst of garbage and dirty dishes. When I thought of all those dishes I laughed, it always seemed so funny.
I became a flunkie on a truck. All we did was move boxes of toilet tissue from the warehouse to the harbor grocery stores in San Pedro and Wilmington. Big boxes, three feet square and weighing fifty pounds apiece. At night I lay in bed thinking about it and tossing.
My boss drove the truck. His arms were tattooed. He wore tight yellow polo shirts. His muscles bulged. He caressed them like a girl’s hair. I wanted to say things that would make him writhe. The boxes were piled in the warehouse, fifty feet to the ceiling. The boss folded his arms and had me bring boxes down to the truck. He stacked them. Arturo, I said, you’ve got to make a decision; he looks tough, but what do you care?
That day I fell down and a box bashed me in the stomach. The boss grunted and shook his head. He made me think of a college football player, and lying on the ground I wondered why he didn’t wear a monogram on his chest. I got up smiling. At noon I ate lunch slowly, with a pain where the box bashed me. It was cool under the trailer and I was lying there. The lunch hour passed quickly. The boss came out of the warehouse and saw my teeth inside a sandwich, the peach for dessert untouched at my side.
“I ain’t paying you to sit in the shade,” he said.
I crawled out and stood up. The words were there, ready. “I’m quitting,” I said. “You and your stupid muscles can go to hell. I’m through.”
“Good,” he said. “I hope so.”
“Thank God for that.”
“There’s one other thing.”
“In my opinion you’re an overgrown sonofabitch.”
He didn’t catch me.
After that I wondered what had happened to the peach. I wondered if he had stepped on it with his heel. Three days passed and I went down to find out. The peach lay untouched at the side of the road, a hundred ants feasting upon it.
Then I got a job as a grocery clerk. The man who ran the store was an Italian with a belly like a bushel basket. When Tony Romero was not busy he stood over the cheese bin breaking off little pieces with his fingers. He had a good business. The harbor people traded at his store when they wanted imported food.
One morning he waddled in and saw me with a pad and pencil. I was taking inventory.
“Inventory,” he said. “What’s that?”
I told him, but he didn’t like it. He looked around. “Get to work,” he said. “I thought I told you to sweep the floor the first thing every morning.”
“You mean you don’t want me to take inventory?”
“No. Get to work. No inventory.”
Every day at three there was a great rush of customers. It was too much work for one man. Tony Romero worked hard but he waddled, his neck floated in sweat, and people went away because they couldn’t waste time waiting. Tony couldn’t find me. He hurried to the rear of the store and pounded the bathroom door. I was reading Nietzsche, memorizing a long passage about voluptuousness. I heard the banging on the door but ignored it. Tony Romero put an egg crate in front of the door, and stood on it. His big jaw pushed over the top and looking down he saw me on the other side.
“Mannaggia Jesu Christi!” he yelled. “Come out!”
I told him I’d come out immediately. He went away roaring. But I wasn’t fired for that.