Taking a Break on Steroids


It was 5:15 a.m.

I’d been working a cart of Dairy onto the retail floor and had come to the compactor to throw in my corrugated paperboard.

But one of the Overnight crew was making a bale.

I asked him to show me how. He let me help feed wires up and around the bale to secure it. He threw a skid down in front of the machine to catch the bale. He set a switch, hit a button, and the bale flopped out of the machine onto the skid, neat as you please.

Hmm. Someday I’ll be doing that too.

I even got the pallet jack myself, moved the bale outside for recycling pickup.

Lungs filled with fresh cold air in the predawn, I rolled the pallet jack back up the concrete ramp to the shipping area, where I was now able to feed the compactor my box waste.

All I had to do now was roll my now empty rocket cart into the “parking area” and ask Jed, CAP 1 crew supervisor, what to do next.

But I failed to fully account for the caprices of this particular rocket cart. This type of cart has two shelves, shin and chest level respectively, that normally stay in place with spring-loaded pins. Only some carts, like the one I had, had a securing pin that didn’t work. You always had to be on the lookout for a bum cart.

I wasn’t.

I swung the upper shelf up and held it up there while setting up to twist my body enough to fish up there for the pin. I was too slow.


The shelf fell back down, mashing the top of my right hand, which had been resting on the bracer rim.

The pain was sickening. Wincing, I moved away, swinging my hand in the air.

“Hey, you all right?”

It was Jed.

Everyone loved Jed. He cared about you, and he laughed a lot. Not like some asshole who laughs at everything; I mean, Jed was a genuinely jocular guy, and his cheer had a way of rubbing off on you.

“That was stupid, I’m sorry,” I said. “Man it hurts. But I’ll be okay.”

Trouble was, I felt light headed.

Oh no don’t pass out, I told myself. My head buzzed. I tried to look at the floor and breathe. Blood welled up from nerve endings in the top of my crushed hand.

“Hey, you’re gonna need to get a Band-Aid on that.”

I followed Jed over to the shipping and receiving door, to the first aid kit.

He fished a Band-Aid out.

I rested my hand on a nearby stack of plastic skids. “Mind doing the honors?”

“Okay, just don’t expect me to kiss it for you.”

I tried to smile, concentrating on breathing. It didn’t add up. I get bit by my crazy dog all the time, laugh it off, throw on a Band-Aid and go about my business.

“Bob, you all right?”

“Yeah, yeah . . . just feel a little light headed . . .”

Next thing I knew Jed and Brandon (Brandon is boss of Overnight, with whom CAP 1 overlaps) loomed over me, head balloons, their hands on their knees.

Still wearing the padded windbreaker I’d had on to work the cooler, I lay on my back on the concrete floor, twenty feet off from the compactor/baler, twenty feet from the shipping door in front of me.

It took me a while to realize I’d fainted. I had come out of a twilight state; no, worse, an unconscious state, a dream state, which, to be truthful, was blissful. But now I was back in the world, and the shame was beginning to creep in from around the edges. How did this look? I’d been in la-la land, flat on my back, out of commission. Traumatized.

“I don’t know what happened. I mean I know I hurt my hand, but that . . .”

“Did you eat today?” Brandon asked.

“No. At three in the morning I’m afraid I don’t much feel . . .” I murmured.

“That’s okay, we’re gonna bring you some granola bars,” Jed said.

They also got me a bottle of water, which I drank as I finally sat up.

I wound up in the break room with Jed and Brandon, who filled out an Incident Report. It wasn’t just Walmart covering its own ass for liability. These guys were kind, trying to help me figure out what had happened.

“That must have really looked like something, when I fell down,” I said.

Thinking about it, I was curious. I didn’t remember falling, wouldn’t have any elbow bruises or anything that might indicate a helpless, clumsy fall.

Jed got up from the break room table to demonstrate. “It was really something,” he said. “You had your arms out.” He gestured this: the Frankenstein monster. “And you just fell kind of smooth . . . with your head forward.” Arcing back as if about to fall, he jutted his head forward, chin on chest, like a man knowing he was going to fall but protecting his head from cracking the hard floor.

I got sent home at 5:45 a.m., but not before promising Jed I’d see a doctor and find out what had happened.

Well, it turned out to be quite a week. I called in sick the next day, Sunday, out of simple embarrassment to see the people there.

I went to the school – my other job – and felt okay until late Tuesday, when the fatigue that had dogged me ever since the fainting had turned into something worse: gastrointestinal distress. I ran home even earlier than usual from my half-job at Mayer High School and took up my position on the toilet at home. Worst case of diarrhea in my life.

Had to call in sick Wednesday and Thursday at the school because of feverish chills and the chronic runs.

Called in sick for the Walmart job Saturday for a reason nobody there could have known about.

Sometime midday Saturday I felt my strength returning. And my pride, even anger.

I told my wife, “Fuck this. I’m gonna fight back.”

I ate like a horse, got dressed, even walked the dog up the hill and back. Set the alarm for 2:30 a.m., drank blessed coffee which I’d laid off of for four days, and made my 4 a.m. Walmart shift-start on Sunday.

Saw the old crew. And realized who my friends were, my real friends.

“Bob’s back,” said this old guy whose unctuous sanctimonies always struck me as passive-aggressive dodges for his essential insincerity. And when a woman I’d marked as a friend didn’t respond to my hearty “Hey, how you been?” I was downcast. I figured those two had been talking about me. Something about how I wasn’t tough enough for the job, how I shouldn’t come back. How if it had happened to them they wouldn’t have come back. All that bullshit.

Some gal who works Pharmacy saw me coming down the back corridor and said, “Bob! How are you?” And there was nothing but genuine interest. Jed himself was cordial and warm. Those were friends.

It’s occurred to me it may not be such a thing to be ashamed of, falling out like that. I mean, look at a tough guy like Tony Soprano, with his panic attacks and falls. But I’m not to be confused with Tony Soprano, and if there’s an act that’s not me it’s this Big City tough guy I used to try to affect.

I also flirted with the idea I could sell my fainting episode as the trance of a visionary. Black Elk took gravely ill when he was a boy. When he passed out he had a vision of the Sioux people and their spiritual and existential jeopardy at the hands of the white man. But I have no vision of any kind. In fact, I can’t see too well without my reading glasses.

I’m afraid the reality is that it was just Bob Gitlin falling down.

I had been ashamed to think of how I must have looked, having passed out. Sure. It might have got around I fainted because I saw my hand bleed. Well, maybe the little incident was a sort of mild, triggering trauma, but the core problem was a physiological predisposition, some intrinsic medical conundrum.

The nurse practitioner said I’d had a low-grade infection, provenance unknown, and that that’s what caused the faint. He also said the blood results show I have a slightly elevated blood sugar level. He wants to see me again in six months.

Meantime I guess I had better do my sleeping in bed at night, not on the shipping dock floor. I mean, it won’t do.

I’ll live down the shame.

Maybe the worst shame is something nobody even knows about.

I was at peace lying on that floor.

One thought on “Taking a Break on Steroids

  1. Ok. I know this was a serious event, but I burst out laughing five times at least.
    As to your peaceful and pleasant interlude, I had the same experience when a car hit me, and knocked me out. I remember floating through the air on my back. Violets fell from a sunny blue sky and fluttered around me. God, if there is one, had gifted me.

    Strange isn’t it?


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