Mark is a thirty-eight year old, rough, tough, angry crane operator who started working at the steel mill the same year I did. That means I’ve known him for over thirteen years. We are diametrical opposites in nearly every aspect of life, so it’s no surprise that we never gave each other more than a passing glance along with a “Keys are in it, buddy. See you tomorrow.” A typical exchange at shift change when I replace him behind the controls of the crane.
I favor the humble practicality of mini-vans, he’s a biker; I love my wife and kids, he’s all about girlfriends and has said more than once "I’ll never bring a child into this f----d up world"; he fights tooth and nail with the bosses. Although I don’t blame him, I take the approach that those people only affect me for the eight hours I’m working. Once I clock out, their power over me is no longer an issue.
He admitted to hating his father, mine is my best friend and most cherished hero; he told me colorful stories of his mishaps and troubles with the law because of his drinking. I’ve not drank to the point of inebriation since one questionable night in college that shall forever remain in the dark annals of my own history. Mark and I could not be any more different, so it was a real shock when he approached me about a month ago and asked me for a copy of THE GAZE.
I asked who he was buying it for and he told me it was for his girl. It was his way of supporting the little guy. With no small amount of trepidation, I gave him a copy of my novel. From that point on, each time I saw him, I’d avoid him like the plague, terrified of what he’d say about my novel after he mentioned that he was the one reading it.
Mark and I have been the youngest guys on our respective turns for more than eight years, meaning our seniority put us at the bottom of the totem pole, a real disadvantage when a horrible deficit in workers forced us to work 16 hour days, every single day we came in for the last ten years. We endured the long hours and the false sympathy from our coworkers who were happy to see us stay for another shift, for the fifth or sixth day in a row as they left for home. Inevitably, Mark and I grew bitter in unimaginable ways through all of this.
Mark turned his rage outward and soon attained a reputation as a dangerous hothead. I turned that rage into the motivation to find a way out of this place. The experience gave us a bit of common ground and we respected each other for practically living at the mill against our will.
Two nights ago, a downturn forced a schedule change and Mark and I were alone in the same inactive aisle for eight hours during the midnight shift. What transpired throughout those eight hours, I would have never believed unless I’d been there to live it.
Mark brought up the fact that he'd finished reading the novel. He pointed out that curiosity won out, for he’d never have picked up a romance book otherwise, but once he realized that a woman named Samantha told the story, he was taken aback. "How the hell did you write like a woman, dude?" He told me by the first page of Chapter 1, he was hooked. He went on to compliment the work I did, expressing that he’d never seen it coming from me.
“No offense, dude. But your accent, the fact that you never talk to nobody. I didn’t see it coming, but I enjoyed it, man. I really enjoyed it. You know me, I don’t pull no f-----g punches, I f-----g tell like it is. Yeah, you did a good job, man.”
I actually thought I was dreaming this whole episode. I asked him if he had any questions about the story and he nodded. For the next few hours, I talked at length about what all went into the making of THE GAZE. When I told him that the famous place mat that launches the story was actually written in real life back when (during a serious lapse of good judgment) I left Sheri behind to put myself back together, his eyes went wide with shock. He grilled me about what else is based on reality and I revealed a few things. He said he couldn’t wait to read it again, saying that our talk has given the book a whole new meaning.
Everything I learned about Mark, which I wrote at the top of this page, I learned over this conversation. Neither one of us has opened up to anyone else until that shift. This place where we work leaves no room for any type of vulnerability, and you learn early on to keep everything to yourself, for anything out of your mouth can invite disastrous consequences.
The shift flew by. At around 5:45 A.M. we made our way past the giant scrap buckets, the old inert furnaces, the parked forklifts, making tracks in the ever present lime dust that coats every surface of the mill, collecting in our hair and throats, scenting our skin. Once outside, we removed our respirators and looked at each other with new appreciation.
“When I first met you, I thought you were just another jackass. I’m really glad I read your book, I’m very impressed, man. Very impressed. I’d kill to meet a real Samantha, man. She’s hot and she’d understand me, I know she would. And I’m so glad we talked tonight, man. You and I have seen the worst of this f-----g place. You keep doing your thing, man. I hope this becomes your way out of this f-----g place. When you finish the next book, I want one. I’m telling you right now. And don’t worry. The next time one of these a--holes here starts talking s--t about you and your book, I’ll set them the f--k straight. I’ve been telling them, ‘it’s f----g good, man. Read it! You’ll be blown away just like I was’, and you know me, I don’t f-----g lie, man. Keep doing your thing. I’ll see you tomorrow, JR. Thanks for the talk, man.”
For the first time in all these 13 years and 2 months I’ve worked in this strange place, I feel I found a friend in a coworker I’d normally never have any dealings with, and all because of THE GAZE, a book I wrote.
Javier A. Robayo