The temperature inside the Happy Ice factory was kept at or below freezing all the time—cold enough to freeze a fly in mid-air. It was the summer I got up at 5:00 in the morning to drive in pitch dark just to get into the parking lot ten minutes before the work horn sounded. It was also the summer my grandpa passed away.
I took the job at the factory because I was unmotivated to reverse my pathetic vocational karma. But shit-kicker jobs like this one padded my bank account just enough to keep supporting my weakness for thick books. It was rare for me to think beyond the uniform, stale present. The future was laid out for me like the transcontinental railroad. All I had to do was stay on track in order to acquire a higher academic degree that would prove to HR people that I am a viable corporate recruit. Such grooming would give me no choice but to be shoved into the daily grind of nine-to-five existence and affixed a title and number and specified use. I felt that if the business world really was so faceless and predictable, at least I would get my licks in harder and quicker by taking on sub-standard, minimum-wage jobs that were honest enough not to hide the fact that I could be replaced as easily as a roll of toilet paper. The bosses feed off the workers, the workers feed off each other, and the apparatus groans for ever more stiff, cold bodies.
Inside the warehouse, if we stood in one place too long, we would quickly develop the first signs of frostbite in our toes and fingers. Even when we did wear the proper attire, the wear-and-tear inflicted upon us by the factory equipment, the ice, the freezing temperature and the physical labor was so great that most of us resorted to wrapping duct tape around the fingers of our gloves and using it to cover rips in our snow suits.
The physical labor mainly included waiting for four 10-pound bags of ice to fall neatly into one large plastic bag from one of three conveyor belt-run contraptions. These 40-pound bags came quickly, so we always had to stay alert and watch what we were doing in order to catch the next bag and stack it with the others. Stacking bags of ice on wooden pallets grew into an admired skill. It was like building snow forts. The best way to start stacking the bags of ice was to start in the middle of the pallet and work our way out and up. By the time one we were finished the load consisted of a large cube seven levels high (close to 6-feet high) and weighing one ton. If the worker didn’t stack the bags right, then a ton of ice and plastic would fall over, and he would have to clean up the mess. Bags would still keep rolling off the belt, and no one could stop to help because the company had orders to fill and a quota to meet.
The noise level was almost deafening as skid loaders whizzed by just inches from my back, people shouted instructions or epithets in between ice machines clanging and chugging, and workers used jack hammers to chip away at gobs of ice that formed on the concrete floor.
One day, after thawing out in the truck, I came home from work and was told that my grandpa didn’t have long to live. Cancer cells were multiplying inside his lungs and treatment would be long and futile. He decided against doctors pumping radiation through his fragile frame and accepted the disease under the condition that his wife and four kids would gather in the same bedroom, where he and grandma started this family, to listen to his last breath.
The last memory I have of him standing on his own two feet was that year’s Father’s Day. I stood next to him by the grill as he smoked his cigarette. He inhaled his own worst enemy and slowly exhaled any pleasure he had derived from it. Occasionally, cars filled with families zipped past our house on their way to the park on the lake. This dying man looked straight ahead and made not a sound. I can only guess that the motions of the world gradually slowed down to a few blurs as his mind became entangled in the hostile grappling between reality and reminiscence. The burgers on the grill gave off a comforting, fragrant scent, but the image of my grandpa’s flesh cooking instead of the chuck beef imposed itself on my imagination and I shivered with disgust.
I desperately wanted to say something memorable to him before he disappeared from the face of the earth. The burden to verbalize my commitment and my gratitude to him warped the relationship we had always had, as grandfather and grandson: Many things were left unsaid between us because there was no reason for us to express them; from the beginning he set eyes on me and the moment I learned to call him ‘grandpa’, our own corner of the world was already set in stone. Our world consisted of watching Sunday afternoon football in the kitchen, eating grilled cheese sandwiches with jelly in the middle at the kitchen table, and playing with his model racetrack on the floor together. As we grew older, adolescence widened the distance between us, but I always made sure to reserve for him my utmost respect. It was the least I could do.
But, on that day, I didn’t take this mess of emotions into consideration, so I opened up my mouth and fumbled through an account of what my work situation was like and what I hoped to accomplish after school ended, as if he would still be alive to witness another graduation ceremony. Grandpa glared out over the driveway and said not a word. He held the cigarette between his two fingers, took a drag, lifted his chin upward, and puffed out a billow of white smoke that mixed with the smoke of sizzling meat. He was ignoring me, I knew. Grandpa was a man of few words, but he usually acknowledged another person’s presence. I dared to look at his profile for just a second. I felt an immense heat radiate from his face as if his head was the burning sun and I was a mere mortal who ignored the warnings and kept on gazing up for proof of sunspots. He was counting the days. From behind his thick lenses, his eyes told me he was trying to decide what to pack.
After his casket was buried, we started worrying about my grandma who quickly withdrew into her house and flatly refused to go to any social gathering for a while. Sometimes, when I came to visit her, she would be sitting in her easy chair in the dark looking out the front window. I understood perfectly what she was doing. I wished I could do the same thing for hours on end; just stare at the border between grass and gravel and wonder where all the hard effort had gone. The mindless labor at the ice house offered me the opportunity to phase out the rest of the green world and concentrate on the clouded contents of ice cubes. But such a glossing over of grief quickly transformed each bag of ice into my grandpa’s corpse that had lain in the casket, all genteel and stiff. His made-up face betrayed not a trace of the pain he suffered through in his own bed as he whimpered and threw off the covers as each deadly cell hardened inside his chest. Every plastic bag I dragged from the conveyor belt, lugged over my shoulder, and threw on the pallet heightened the awareness of this man’s recent departure from our world of jungle and desert. The machines churned out more ice and I churned out more strength to meet more quotas. It was the least I could do.
~Minh Allen (USA)
Return to Bloodlines: Poems and Stories about Family by Young Asian Writers (Asian Voices)