Josef had sensed this headache, a carbon monoxide headache, stalking him for weeks. Ten minutes before noon on Friday it finally got hooks his brain. He had been on the forklift five straight hours. The warehouse, just outside Selestat, was large, but it still had walls--walls as good as any walls at reflecting the forklift's propane exhaust back into his lungs where it could start ruining his hemoglobin and starving every part of him that needed oxygen.
He knew these headaches. At 75 parts per million CO in the air they came on early and stayed for a long time. He also knew he had another 45 minutes before this one really started to hurt. And that was enough time to get the remaining seventeen pallets, each supporting a single 2,500 kilogram wooden crate of razor blades, stacked. Then he could get outside.
Faster, faster, go, go, Josef told himself. He enjoyed the grunt of the forklift's hydraulics and the clacks of its raising and lowering mast as he willed himself into an imaginary high gear. He was in the zone--completely immune to his frail human hesitations and distractions, just making his hands and feet available and staying out of the way as the forks accomplished their mission. Raise, lower, tilt, side-shift. All unstoppable, like a football forward slashing towards the goal, already seeing the checkered orb stretch the back of the net.
Now he was a little dizzy, but his mental organization was still perfect. First thing in the morning he had spent an hour (which he now realized may have been too much time) inventorying the pallets to be stacked and noting where they would go, in which order.
Lames Circulaires--Aisle 21, pallet position 2
Doubles Trenchants --Aisle 3, pallet positions 4, 5, 6
Injecteurs -- Temporary stack in the warehouse's northeast corner, to be moved to a permanent place next week after the production run finished.
(Credit: AvalonWine.com, "Earthquake in Oregon Wine Country: A Wobbling Willamette Valley")
Five more to go. Josef began to feel unpleasantly intoxicated. The last pallet of Lames Recourbees hopped awkwardly as he tilted the forks back after picking it up. But he had it, and reminded himself to align the forklift perfectly straight as he entered Aisle 14--always enter a row perfectly straight, or else you will have problems. But as he crossed the aisle's threshold he saw his left wheels were less than 12cm away from the adjacent stacks of Circulaires.
It wouldn't matter. It would be close, but he would still get this pallet to its position on top of the stack in front of him. He began to lift as he inched forward. The space seemed to shrink, either just before or just after the left wheels made an osteoarthritic grinding noise against the stack to the left he was sure an instant ago he would clear.
He threw the steering right and hit the gas, which caused the forklift's tail to swing into the same stack the front wheels had just hit. This time the stack wobbled a little, but Josef knew it took a harder hit than that to bring the whole thing down.
There was not much further to go, and if he could just get the pallet on top of the stack he could back out, go in again more prudently, and center it. He straightened out as best he could and gently hit the gas until the wheel freed itself from the jam and rolled forward. As he continued lifting, he suddenly saw that he hadn't tilted the load back all the way, which would become more dangerous the higher he lifted it. Not quite panicking but close, he threw the tilt lever back.
Nothing happened. It was already tilted all the way back. His eyes had deceived him, which, after five years operating a forklift--operating this forklift--shouldn't happen.
Finally he got it high enough up and over the stack and was ready to put it down. It was too far to the right and needed to be side-shifted to the left. But when he hit the side-shift lever and the load didn't move, he realized the forks were already shifted all the way left. Always enter a row with the forks centered, so you can side-shift in either direction as needed when you're stacking the load. He had known that and hadn't done it.
This was bad. He lowered the pallet until it rested on the crate in the second position on the stack. The right edge of the pallet was way over the side and it would definitely fall if he pulled the forks out. He lowered it more until the stack, not the forks, was supporting most of the load's weight. Then he side-shifted right until the forks, which could now move freely, were centered. The pallet remained where it was, but now he could lift it on the forks and move it left. The old man from Strasbourg who taught him to drive a forklift a decade ago had showed him this trick.
When he lifted it again he was acutely aware of the weight of the load. He felt it in his body, even though the machine was doing the lifting. Now the feeling of lifting was in his spine and hands as much as it was in the forklift mast. Incredible strength. He moved it left, a little extra just to be sure.
Something felt wrong, a disconnect between what he was telling the load to do and what it was actually doing. He looked up and saw that he had moved it too far left, and now it was pushing against the top pallet on the adjacent stack. Scared, he shifted back to the right, but the plastic wrap that secured each of the two crates to their pallets was now torn and tangled together. The entire stack on the left was being pulled over and to the right.
Always lower the load any time something starts to go wrong was the dictum and he followed it reflexively, remembering a moment too late that the pallet on his forks was still hovering over the one below it. This time there was a full-on crack noise as the wood of the pallet smashed on the crate.
You can still work with a broken pallet, just lower the load. Please, thought Josef, please just get it down and we can start over again. He tried to roll backwards but now the pallet was stuck to both the one below it and the one to its left.
The voice belonged to Christopher, the twenty-two year-old American who had given up looking for a job in his country's wretched economy, had forsaken his university degree as worthless, and was drifting through Europe working whatever unskilled, cash-compensation jobs he could turn up in the towns he passed through. Josef mostly had him do cleaning, occasionally paperwork.
"Josef?" The voice was getting closer. In a large warehouse with echo, it's hard to tell where a sound is coming from with no visual reference.
"Chris!" Josef couldn't turn around, but he sensed Chris behind the forklift. By now the kid must have appraised the situation and was looking with dumb panic at Josef wondering how he could help. He couldn't. When the problem is a 2,500 kg crate about to fall, an extra pair of hands is just one more thing to crush.
The only chance was to lift the pallet to clear the one below it, and then roll back and hope the plastic wrap untangled or broke before the stack to the left went over.
"Chris, soyez prudent!" Josef said. He usually spoke English with Chris, he had gotten much better at English since the kid came around. In fact, he was pleased with how easily his mouth had gotten used to the noncommittal plosives and doughy unrolled "r"s of American English. Sometimes when he couldn't stop to think he'd say non, non, ici s'il vous plait or something like that.
This was one of those times--his brain was at its limit of stress now, and thoroughly poisoned by carbon monoxide.
He shifted to reverse and rolled backwards. The plastic wrap held and pulled the top crate of Circulaires down. On its dumb trajectory to the ground it struck the crate on the forks, shattering the pallet that supported it. Josef couldn't think and kept rolling backwards, and the crate on the forks fell too. The noise made by the blades as the two crates exploded on the floor was surprisingly delicate, a shimmering wintry sound made by an amazing quantity of metal.
Josef backed the forklift out of the row, kicked the emergency brake, and got off. His hands were unsteady and he was worried for a moment he might throw up.
Chris ran forward with a bin and a broom he had gotten from somewhere and began frantically sweeping up blades. He seemed under the impression that they could hide this, just clean up the mess and continue with the day. There must be two hundred thousand thousand razor blades on the ground right now, thought Josef. Two different kinds, now united.
The broom was not getting traction on the blades, and too-eager Chris began picking up handfuls and dropping them in the bin. Josef stood still but thought, you're picking up razor blades with your bare hands.
Impressively, Chris didn't cut himself until the fourth handful. Josef snapped out of it and moved the kid away from the pile. The cut wasn't bad and there was a first aid kit under the seat of the forklift. As Josef got it out he wondered what sort of forklift accidents could be helped at all by a first-aid kit. When Chris's hand was gauzed he asked what they were going to do about it and Josef told him to go to lunch.
Three hours later in M. Geissmann's office, Josef's headache had ripened and was now burrowing into his gut as a riptide of nausea. The owner was not angry, but was clearly gathering information to support some conclusion he had already made.
"You're OK and we didn't lose product," he said, "just the time spent cleaning and re-sorting the blades."
"What scares me," continued Geissmann, "is where we would be if Christopher had been hit by that crate. Illegal foreign worker, American, crushed in warehouse..."
"It scared me too. He just snuck up behind me, I couldn't hear anything over the forklift."
"You supervise him, oui?"
"That's a fair question to put to me. I do supervise him. I had him outside cleaning the sump. I guess he finished."
Geissmann ran his hands over his face and rested them on his head. Hardened gel crackled.
"I can't handle risks like this anymore. You must fire him. Go take care of that now and we can just get on with things."
"He's gone, I... I tell him to leave at four every day."
"Merde. First thing tomorrow--Monday!-- then."
Josef eased the Ford C-Max, 175,000 km old but driving like it was 225,000, into his farmhouse driveway at dusk. At noon the day had been intensely hot, but clouds had set in over the afternoon and now a pregnant breeze was blowing through the shadowland where the Bas-Rhin and Haut-Rhin parted. A few gold and pink tiles were visible on the horizon but the rest was overcast. He still felt sick and his legs wobbled as he walked towards the house.
Isolde was on the porch swing, swirling a luminous glass of green-tinted wine. On the table was an empty spire-shaped bottle next to an almost-full one. She drank a lot and made no apologies, but it didn't cause any of the problems it was supposed to. From inside, Josef smelled bacon and bread. He sat down and put his head on her shoulder.
"It's OK?" She agreed to speak English with him for an hour every evening so he could practice. He wanted to tell her not to bother this time. He could suggest speaking German tonight, which they almost never did, to honor fallen empires.
Instead he said, "It's OK." Isolde filled a second glass he hadn't noticed behind the bottles and slid it to him. It felt very cold in his hand and the air was so humid its sides were instantly flooded with condensation. "It's OK. We had an accident--I had an accident."
"On the forklift, I broke two crates. Since I started this job I always dreaded breaking crates and now it finally happened."
"It's OK. Monday I must meet with the... syndicat... union to be sure of some things. Detailles." He sipped the wine and it stung him to his core, electric and ragged. He wanted this feeling again and gulped it, catching himself before he drained the glass.
Far off over the reedy grass, lightning glowed ember-like in some fat clouds.
"Josef." She kissed the top of his head, for some reason the last male head in his family still to have all the hair. Josef could tell she didn't know what to say which was fine.
He finished his glass and poured another. This wine, he had had it before, but it never tasted or felt like this. His nerves were entirely raw and exposed from the day and it seemed this was what the Riesling wanted in its drinker.
This second glass paralyzed him with sensations of impossibly fresh fruit. He saw himself as a particle-sized man climbing the cut side of a lime with harnesses and picks.
Closer to them now, a lightning bolt touched down. The rain hadn't begun yet. Those blades, falling, he thought, or maybe he whispered. That metal... all that metal. Metal we sucked out of the ground with a straw. He felt delirious and closed his eyes, leaning against Isolde's breast.
"I don't know if I'm strong enough," he eventually said.
"I don't need you to be very strong," she said back. "Just be stronger than the hand swinging the blade."