I struggled with the weight of the box on top of the ladder. "Aren't you done yet, Mr. Yeargin?!" exclaimed the man in the pale striped shirt. "No, Mr. Slave-driver, sir." He chuckled at my new nickname for him, and insisted that be what I called him from now on. "and why not?" "Because this shit sucks, Mr. Slave-driver, sir." The work did suck, but the store opening was a week away. I'm just lucky my 150-pound body and scrawny arms hadn't given in to the very real problem of being perched precariously on top of those metal racks.
It was the spring of 2000. The office supply store was my second job after two years at a convenience store in Greenfield. But this was different. I had been training at a location out in Hermitage while the construction crews finished installing the fixtures in Bellevue. By comparison, the work was far cleaner and slightly better paying. It was your quintessential job for a teenage boy in the suburbs.
I went into work a few months after the Slave-driver comment and was met at the door by another manager. She stood there, not saying anything for a few moments. "Go back to the break area."
My heart sank.
There, several coworkers were gathered, and I was motioned to the office door. "Michael died last night on his way home. We understand if you need to take the afternoon." I was stunned. We hadn't worked together long at all, but it was hard news to hear.
I rode with a few other coworkers to his wake two days later, still not sure how to feel. I met his family, heard his mom tell how much he liked to taunt them with "Shake, Shake, Shake" at family gatherings, and a few other anecdotes from his childhood. He wasn't much older than 30 when he died.
They hung a plaque in the break room in memorial. As a guy who spent a good portion of his paycheck on Coke and candy bars, I saw it often.
A month later, a conversation with another grip of coworkers brought up the topic of who was coming in to replace him. One guy then blurted out, "you know that he was drunk when he crashed, right?"
I can't remember what I said in response to that, if anything. I just remember being incredibly angry at the comment, and then being upset if it were true. What sanctimonious asshole reduces an entire life lived to "drunk driver." Perhaps it came out wrong. It didn't matter -- I was pissed. It was probably because that while I barely knew the guy, the image of his grieving mother had stuck with me.
It still does.