The Way Things Are
A prequel to my free story Graffiti
Patrick Connelly felt his phone vibrating against his ass, but he had to ignore it. His cell phone had already gone off six times tonight but he’d ignored it each time, loading the last fifty containers as the floodlights on the wharf lit up the ship far below him brighter than any football stadium. Whatever it was, it was probably important, but he couldn’t answer. Any delay on his part would throw off the rhythm for all of the longshoremen who were positioning the cargo and lashing it down below. It would throw off the timing from the straddle carriers, the small tractors the port used to haul each container from storage to the crane. Since so much of the system was automated, stopping even for a minute to check the caller ID would leave everything backed up.
He hunched forward, watching the longshoremen a hundred and sixty feet below him through the glass floor of the crane operator’s cabin. They locked the shipping container into the crane spreaders and waved to the tower. Over the speaker behind him, Ethan, the terminal manager relayed instructions for placing it on the ship. Patrick had a copy of the cargo plan on the monitor above him, but he didn’t mind if his new boss wanted to micromanage things. It was the end of his first week on the job, and despite the certifications he maintained and the thousands of hours he’d logged operating identical machinery in New York, Patrick knew he’d have to prove himself.
With the joystick on his right, he activated the winch and watched the forty foot shipping container rise toward him. When it was high enough to clear the tiers of containers he’d already loaded onto the deck of the ship, he inched the left joystick forward. The cabin vibrated as the dangling container slid forward along the trolley system of the enormous gentry crane. He stopped it in place, waited a few seconds for the terminal manager’s signal, and then lowered the container onto the top of the three tiers already in position.
Patrick was never that good with people, but since he first took apart his mom’s radio when he was six years old, he’d always loved machines. For the last eight hours, he’d been carefully maneuvering one container after another into the open hatch of the ship, and then onto the deck. It was tedious, repetitive work that required constant focus and attention to detail, but Patrick enjoyed it. He loved being in control of the enormous crane, knowing each component like he knew his own limbs and shifting the roughly thirty ton cargo containers with a practiced ease. He’d loaded over three hundred containers already and he knew without even looking at the loading plan on the monitor that he was on schedule to finish the entire cargo by the time his shift ended. Since it would have taken most operators two full shifts to finish what he’d already accomplished, he figured he wouldn’t have any trouble making a good impression on his new boss.
Even if he didn’t need the money, he was also determined to keep this job for the view alone. The operator’s cabin dangled below the long boom of the crane, suspending him above the wharf far below. The front, sides, and floor were made of clear safety glass so he could see out from virtually every angle. From up here, he could see the first rays of sunlight creep over Elliott Bay and watch the ships moving in and out of Puget Sound. Fifteen years ago, he’d left Seattle for New York, where his pregnant girlfriend’s family were all located. He’d been nineteen and eager to get away from home, but he never imagined he’d miss Seattle so much. When he first climbed into the cabin just after six o’clock the night before, he’d gotten more choked up than he’d ever admit out loud. Seeing the downtown skyline behind him and the waterfront stretching out below made him finally feel like he was really home.
If it was a real emergency, whoever kept calling would call the port offices directly and they’d get a message to him on the radio. He’d made damn sure his son had the number, and he’d given it to the new school, too. It was possible the kid had locked himself out of the apartment, or gotten hurt, or even gotten lost somewhere on his way to school this morning. But deep down, Patrick knew things with his kid were never that easy.
As the last flatbed rolled two final containers beneath him, he glanced up at the monitor. He was five minutes over his twelve hour shift, and the radioed directions had dropped to single word signals telling him when the spreaders were secured, and when to release them again. He smiled a bit, knowing that his supervisor was starting to relax and trust him. He had a decade of experience, and he knew exactly what these cranes were capable of. He didn’t second guess the machine or himself, and he had an intuitive understanding of the forces and momentum involved in shifting each container, so he didn’t end up over-correcting a dozen times like most guys in his job.
As he released the spreaders to seat the last container on the ship, he heard the speaker behind him crackle again. “Damn. Shut down Crane 7 and come up to the control room.” Ethan Price, the terminal manager and Patrick’s new supervisor, sounded exhausted, but impressed.
Patrick shut everything down, drained the last of the coffee from the Styrofoam cup he’d snagged from below, and rode the elevator down to the large control tower that overlooked the port terminal. Inside, the terminal manager and two assistants were half-heartedly watching as the cargo was fully secured, hundreds of feet below.
Ethan had a huge grin on his face. “Do you have any idea how badly you fucked up my schedule? They’re going to be able to get underway this morning instead of tomorrow, and we’re not splitting credit for that with the next shift. You know our year-end bonus is based on how many containers the crew moves for the year, right?”
“I heard something like that, yeah.”
“If you can pull that off every shift, you’re going to be everybody’s new best friend around here.”
“Tonight’s job was slated for two shifts,” the assistant chimed in.
“If that was taking your last operator two shifts, he wasn’t worth what you were paying him.”
Ethan chuckled a little and brushed at his combed-over hair. “That’s why he isn’t here, right?” He leapt up from his swivel chair and shooed Patrick toward the coffee pot. He took the cup from Patrick’s hand, refilled it for him, and handed it back. “Seriously, though, we have these things called breaks. Dinner, coffee, more coffee. That kind of thing.”
Patrick dropped his gaze to his boots. “Sorry. In New York, the crew working any given terminal was expected to finish the job they started. I figured out pretty quick that the sooner I got shit done, the sooner I could go home. Of course, we were paid for what we moved, not by the hour.”
“You only get a bonus for how much you move here. It’s supposed to make for fewer accidents. Don’t worry, though. Most of these guys know a quarter of their income is wrapped up in their bonus, so they don’t care, and I’ve got enough guys on deck that they can change out with the rest of the crew for breaks. But, I’ve still got to do the union thing, so Monday night you tell me what time you want dinner and we’ll shut it down, okay?”
“Sure.” He groaned as the phone in his back pocket vibrated again. He pulled his phone out and glanced at his boss. “Would you mind if I take this? It’s probably my kid.”
“Yeah, go for it.” Ethan plopped into the creaking chair and rolled back to the workstation. “How old?”
“He’s fourteen. Fifteen in October.” The vibrating stopped right as he was about to unlock the screen. He checked his missed calls and found that eight of them were from a restricted number. Theoretically, that could be an ER, but it was most likely the jail. “It’s probably him.”
“That depends on what he’s done this time,” Patrick said grimly.
“Uh oh. He in trouble?”
Patrick sighed and tried not to smirk. “He’s my son. He’s always in trouble.” Patrick dialed his voice mail and listened to the first message.
“Uh… Pop, I… Shit. You’re totally going to kill me,” his son Jay whispered in the message. “I know you’re busy, I do, but do you think… maybe on your lunch break or something… you could come pick me up? I don’t think I’ve got a fine yet, and there’s no bail since it’s my first time… Well, you know, my first time here in Washington…” He heard his son sigh. “I’m sorry, Pop, I don’t know how much time this phone will give me, but the guard said it’s got a time limit, and I’m…” The message ended with a soft beep.
“He’s in jail,” Patrick confirmed.
Ethan glanced up at him and chuckled. “Damn. He doesn’t waste any time, does he? He too afraid to call your old lady?”
“My ex is still in New York. It’s just me and him.”
“Well, we’re done. Go clock out and take care of it. Have a good morning.”
He nodded to them both as the elevator closed behind him. He let the voice mail cycle through each message, even though he already knew what each message would say.
Patrick rubbed the bridge of his nose, suddenly wishing he could be back up in the crane again. But the days where he could hide at work and trust someone else to take care of his son were long gone. The second message was a long, stuttering apology from Jay for getting arrested again. The third message had been recorded an hour later. Jay’s voice was calmer this time, but still quiet and subdued as he left the address and phone number for the King County Juvenile Detention Center. “They said they might take me to probation and parole and get a preliminary hearing done, if you can get here before they close. I told them you’re working until six, but—” The timer on his voice mail cut Jay off again.
He’d hoped that moving his son out of New York would be the catalyst Jay needed to change. If Jay’s trouble had been with gangs, or drugs, or even friends who were a bad influence, it might have helped. But moving from one coast to the other wouldn’t keep his son from getting in trouble.
Jay was talkative, social, and obsessed with video games featuring scantily clad women and zombies—totally normal until you saw him with a sketchbook in his hands. He always had a sketchbook. There were dozens stacked in his room and more shoved into boxes in his closet. And beyond the sketchbooks, there was the graffiti.
The first time Patrick found him in an alley covering up gang tags with a rough, spray-paint version of one of his drawings, Patrick hadn’t been worried. He’d grounded him for a week, warned him doing shit like that would get him arrested, and left it at that. Two years later, Patrick had the New York City Juvenile Detention Center’s phone number on speed dial and he was at his wit’s end. No matter how much trouble Jay got in, no matter how many extra chores he had to do or how much community service he was forced into, he wouldn’t stop painting graffiti. He had always apologized, sworn he’d never do it again, and ended up hiding paint stained clothes in his laundry again within a month. Desperate, Patrick had packed up their stuff in a U-Haul truck and moved them out of New York. He’d hoped that getting away from the city, and all of the memories it held, would help. He figured that he’d at least have a little time to get settled before the kid got in trouble again, but they hadn’t even managed to unpack more than their clothes and dishes yet.
“Couldn’t stay out of trouble for more than two fucking weeks…”
Patrick unlocked his truck while he listened to Jay’s last message, repeating the address and phone number of the jail. He scribbled the information on the back of an old receipt and then skipped to the last message.
As the message began to play, another voice cut through the rambling words coming from his phone. It cut through the sound of the rail system and the equipment on the dock, too.
“Don’t let the little faggot get away!”
Patrick ended the call, shoved his phone into his jacket pocket, and tried to find the source of the voice.
Each shipping terminal had its own employee parking lot, and between each shipping terminal were vast stretches of concrete and rails used to store, shift, and move the enormous multi-colored shipping containers that the entire shipping terminal was built to accommodate. They were stacked four to eight containers high, in long rows that always reminded Patrick of city streets. And near the edge of the stack beside the employee parking lot, three men in dark clothing were circling around a smaller figure.
Patrick stepped out of his truck to try and get a glimpse of what was going on. Through the haze of pre-dawn shadows, he saw a quiet, gruesome fight taking shape. Patrick zipped his jacket tight and jogged toward the dark figures. Against the side of a rusted blue shipping container, three men were kicking a body curled up on the ground at their feet. Patrick couldn’t see anything of the man they were attacking, except that he was tiny. He didn’t look any bigger than Jay.
“Fuck,” he whispered. He dialed 911 fast, explained the situation as quickly as he could, and then set his phone down, leaving it connected.
He took a deep breath and charged into the largest of the three men.
He adjusted his stride to catch the biggest guy as he pulled his leg back for another kick. He knocked the man’s chin to the side with a quick jab, then threw all of his momentum into an elbow to the man’s jaw. He felt the vibration of the impact all the way to his shoulders, but he kept moving, shoving the man into the aluminum container so hard it clanged.
Patrick regained his footing fast and turned his attention to the other two men. One of them squared off against him, the other stood frozen with his foot a foot off the ground. The braver of the two ran toward him, trying to pull back a sloppy round house punch while he was rushing forward. The shift in his own momentum slowed him down and threw him off balance so badly that all Patrick had to do was step to the side, grab the man’s arm, and kick hard. The crack echoed around them, the sound of bone shattering muted by flesh. The man’s eyes widened and his skin turned sallow.
Generally, Patrick believed in fighting fair, but that belief didn’t extend beyond the ropes of a boxing ring. He pulled on the man’s arm to throw him even farther off balance. His shattered knee collapsed beneath him and he tumbled. When Patrick dropped his arm, the man crumpled onto the ground, screaming.
Patrick shifted toward the third attacker. The man was smaller than the other two, but Patrick had been in enough bar fights to know that didn’t count for much. Little guys were often some of the most determined and violent fighters. This man didn’t look frightened, or even nervous. After watching Patrick take out his companions, the calm amusement in his eyes meant the guy was either very dangerous, or a moron. The man circled Patrick carefully, slowly pulling out and loading a dark gray revolver.
“Who the fuck are you supposed to be?” the man asked, calmly raising the gun.
“I’m nobody,” said Patrick, watching the gun carefully.
The man chuckled and cocked the hammer of the revolver. “Well, nobody, this isn’t your business. Walk away, man.”
“I already called the police. They might not look too hard for some gay bashing asshole, but if you pull that trigger, you can bet your ass they’ll hunt you down.”
“Why the fuck would you care what happens to this little whore?”
“You can hear the sirens getting closer,” Patrick tried again. Even as Patrick said the words, he saw the man shift his gaze to the side, where red and blue flashing lights were beginning to bounce around the stacks and rows of metal containers.
“Fuck this,” he muttered, before taking off between the stacks of containers.
“Fuck this,” he muttered, before taking off between the stacks of containers.
Patrick sighed and let his shoulders relax. He shook his head to try and chase away some of the tunnel vision, then knelt beside the beaten man at his feet. His eyes were open, and blinking, but he still seemed out of it. Patrick checked the man’s pulse and then stroked his hair, checking for bloody wet spots and trying to provide any comfort he could. “Stay still, all right?” he whispered. “Help’s coming.”
The man didn’t seem to understand. He scrambled to his feet, swayed but stayed upright, and touched the back of his head.
Patrick took in the frightened expression, the slouched posture, and the defiant eyes and reassessed the situation. This was no man at all, but a teenage boy. He was dressed in a black T-shirt and a pair of fraying jeans, with long sleek black hair. His cheeks were hallow, and Patrick could see most of his ribs through the tight fabric of the T-shirt. His lips were so dry they were cracked and scabbed.
“Hey, sit still. You’ve got a nasty bump on the head,” Patrick tried.
The boy stared at him and shook his head.
“No English, huh?” He held up both of his hands, trying to reassure the boy he was a friend. “That’s okay, we’ll get you help.”
Police cars and two Port Authority golf carts with security guards stopped around them. Patrick listened to the sound of boots hitting concrete. Four uniformed police officers surrounded him, their own guns drawn. “Hands on your head!” one of them shouted, pulling out a pair of handcuffs. “Down on the ground!”
Patrick wasn’t stupid enough to argue, especially since not doing what they said would just mean they’d waste more time before calling an ambulance. He dropped to his knees and set his hands on the back of his head. He caught the sight of the boy’s worried face one more time before someone shoved him flat onto the ground, kneeling over his spine to make sure he stayed down. He cursed as he thought about his cell phone, and the ever increasing number of voice mails demanding he come bail his son out of jail.
It looked like he and Jay both had a long night ahead of them.