“There’s Something Wrong”
At one of my jobs there was a guy who worked mainly nights several times a week. His name was Oliver and he had a hard time of it. I would see him arrive at work walking down the highway sometimes just after I got there, as he either did not drive, or couldn’t afford an automobile even if he could drive.
Oliver was—to me—a completely pitiful fellow. He just was not put together right. That’s the only way I can describe him. And I’m speaking as a person who is himself not put together in perfect symmetry. I have crooked teeth, am blind in one eye, tend to go to fat; and am not, frankly, good-looking. So I’m not picking on Oliver when I say this.
He was very thin--his arms and legs were like elongated sticks. Oliver’s torso, also, seemed strangely stretched, as if formed in a kind of rectangle with no deviation from shoulders to hips, which made the addition of those fragile-looking limbs that much weirder. His face was somewhat effeminate and chinless and he wore a bit of downy beard almost as a challenge to this unfortunate situation concerning gender. There just seemed to be something intrinsically wrong with him.
Even his demeanor was somewhat annoying with a high-pitched voice and a speech impediment that tended to make the ‘sh' sound whenever he tried to form an ‘s’, which would also sometimes trail off into a whistle at the oddest moments. It didn’t help that he occasionally tried to discuss things which were not pertinent to the job at hand and he would now and then try to engage co-workers in conversations about subjects only of interest to Oliver.
His job was as a kind of janitor at the place where I worked and he did a commendable job mainly, except when some real muscle power was needed and he always needed help in such situations. Fifteen or twenty pounds seemed to be the limit he could move without help. He was the picture of physical frailty. Of course I wondered if he had gotten the job in some kind of aid program, but I didn’t care about that. He worked and seemed happy to do so.
What did bug me about Oliver were some of the co-workers. It is the common wisdom that bullies vanish when high school is over and people move on into the adult world of jobs and marriage and parenthood (or life as a single person making a living for those of you among the politically correct). But this is not true. The tendency for cruelty in some continues—as near as I can tell—forever. I’m sure that there are notorious bullies in old-folks homes tottering about on their walkers and terrorizing their fellow inmates.
Oliver suffered from bullying. Often I wondered if he was even aware of it the way that I was. He would speak to someone in authority and get a cynical reply. Or he could ask for some help from those whose jobs it was to respond and they would make fun of him and answer with classic snark. For his part, Oliver seemed accustomed to it, or he had learned to let it roll off his back with a smile. I never once saw him get upset or angry or tearful. It is quite possible he didn't even notice it as cruelty.
I, on the other hand, did get angry. Many were the times when I wanted to scream at the assholes and get in their faces and maybe bash some teeth out. Finally, one day I did respond to a fellow in lower management who complained about misfit Oliver.
“I see the way people talk to Oliver,” I told him. “If Oliver ever complains, or if anyone challenges the company on his behalf, I will tell them what I have seen and heard. This place will get the shit sued out of it.”
Almost immediately I noticed that no one bothered Oliver anymore. No one said anything snide to him. No one made fun of him, or even smirked at him when his back was turned. But rather than feel a sense of victory or accomplishment I instead began to worry about him. Maybe I’d done him a disservice. It wouldn’t take any effort at all for someone in higher management to decide to get rid of him. There is no difficulty at all in the USA for a corporation to shed a part-time worker who is already dirt-poor. Especially if the company feels any kind of economic threat from them whatsoever. Perhaps I’d doomed his employment by speaking up. Maybe this was the lull before termination.
Maybe two weeks later I noticed that Oliver had been absent for a few days. He had not appeared in late afternoon to do the cleaning into the evening hours before walking along the highway back to wherever he lived. I asked another laborer and they didn’t know where he was.
Finally, one afternoon I saw him reenter the building, pushing a trash bin with broom and mop. “Hey, Oliver,” I said.
I asked him where he’d been. And he proceeded to tell me that he’d had a bad case of the flu and had been in bed for most of a week.
“Well, you look OK now,” I told him.
“My mama always said I was really strong,” he replied. And he raised those poor stick-like arms and made a muscle pose.
And for the first time I thought not of Oliver, but of his mother, which had never occurred to me. What is a poor woman going to do if she has a kid like Oliver? A child who is imperfect physically, and not quite there mentally or socially. No money. No one who really cares or who can help. What she does, I suddenly imagined, is tell that child that he is strong. That mother informs him that he is smart and special and can do whatever he needs to do. She does that because that’s really all she can provide before she is gone and her imperfect baby has to find his own way in a society full of assholes and bullies.
“That’s great, Oliver.” And I had to make a dash for the bathroom to hide.
Later, I heard Oliver talking to someone. “I think there’s something wrong with Bob. He was crying.”
|Not put together just right.|