One of the first jobs I ever had that didn’t involve mowing lawns or delivering newspapers or selling candy door-to-door was sacking groceries at a Victory supermarket in Houston. I was fifteen and I’d never done something so easy for so much money. Other sackers complained and schemed about how to get into the produce department or to be a stock clerk, but as far as I was concerned it was easy street.
There was another sacker named Clyde. He was blind in one eye and missing a leg. The eye he covered with an old-fashioned pirate patch, and his artificial leg was of the kind long before the high-tech prosthetics that people have access to now. It was big and heavy and Clyde walked with a big hitch, and since the prosthetic started mid-thigh he couldn’t bend it very much.
I rode my bike to work and was supposed to lock it up outside, but Houston was rainy and I hated to leave my trusty old Murray out in the wet even though it was about as beat-up as a kid’s bike could be. Clyde was in his thirties and had been working there for a long time, so even though we were both sackers he was kind of a senior sacker and could do little things here and there that the rest of us couldn’t.
Clyde wasn’t supposed to do it but on the days I worked he’d sneak my bike in from the loading dock and park it near the indoor dumpster. It was always funny how careful he was with my bike, more careful than I was, certainly.
We had a new store manager who came on shortly after I started working there. His name was Mr. Cragsworthy and he was a bastard. No one could ever please him and he always thought you were loafing even when you had a cart full of ten sacks and you were pushing it all the way across the parking lot and bringing back a string of empties when you returned to the registers.
No one at that store worked harder than Clyde. He wasn’t quick because of his leg, but he was fast. His economy of motion was unbelievable. He couldn’t run to Aisle 9 when some knucklehead had broken two huge jars of Ragu, but he could get the mop, get to the aisle, and get the mess cleaned up and dried quicker than anyone else. Nothing was wasted.
Mr. Cragsworthy, who was a fool as well as a bastard, thought that because Clyde walked slower than the rest of us that he was lazy, so he took to calling him “One-Eye” and “Crip.”
“Hey, One-Eye! Refill the bag slots on registers one through ten!”
Clyde always smiled and said “Yes, sir,” then did as he was told with that shuffling gait of his.
“On the double!” Cragsworthy would holler.
Clyde was a big strong man and he lived about a mile from the Victory in an apartment with his mother, who had some terrible chronic illness that required his constant care. He once told me that he had to bathe her and help her go to the bathroom. At the time I couldn’t even imagine it, that level of intimate care with your own mom. I suppose in a way I still can’t, which is one of the many differences between Clyde and me. He was a man who could carry a pretty big load.
Clyde didn’t have a car and he walked to work every day. When it rained he wore a raincoat and carried an umbrella. I never saw him get angry at anyone for anything, even the nasty customers who would tip him a nickel or a dime just to be mean.
One day I had just clocked in and he was bringing my bike in through the back bay. He leaned the bike up against the dumpster and pulled a rag out of his back pocket and started wiping off the bike. “You need to keep your bike more clean,” he said admiringly as the silver started to come through where he wiped away the grime. “That’s such a pretty bike.”
I’d never thought about it; to me it was just my means of transportation. “I guess so,” I said, but it struck me as funny the way he was eyeing that clunky bike with the lazy brakes and the bar tape that was unraveled on one side and the split in the saddle so that the foam cushioning was coming out. It seemed covetous almost, that look.
Over the next couple of months he’d bring in my bike and spend one or two minutes wiping it down. After a while it was sparkling clean. So clean, in fact, that Mr. Cragsworthy saw it one day. “Hey, Crip,” he said. “Get your damned bike out of the back of my store.”
I was just about to say that it was my bike but Clyde said “Oh, Mr. Cragsworthy, I think it’s okay in here.”
“I don’t give a good goddamn what you think, get it the hell out and do it now.”
Clyde shrugged and started walking over to the bike but it wasn’t fast enough to please Cragsworthy. “Now doesn’t mean thirty minutes from now,” he said. Then he got the bike and pushed it out the back bay as hard as he could, rolling it off the loading dock. It hit the pavement with a nasty crash.
Clyde had a funny look on his face. He had reached the dumpster where Cragsworthy was standing. With his left arm he grabbed the edge of the dumpster to stabilize himself, and then he swung his left leg with all his might into the manager’s knee. That fake leg was heavy and it sounded like a wrecking ball going through plywood when it made contact. Cragsworthy crumpled in a heap and began screaming in pain. I went over to help him up and as soon as the first wave of pain receded he screamed, “You’re fired, you one-eyed sonofabitch!”
It didn’t quite work out like that, though, because Victory was union and Clyde filed a complaint against Cragsworthy for discrimination. People lined up to testify that Cragsworthy regularly insulted Clyde and called him terrible names, making fun of his disability. Cragsworthy was fired and Victory ended up paying Clyde to keep him from suing them. This dragged on for a couple of months until the manager finally left, and it took about that long for Cragsworthy’s knee to heal. He had gotten a taste of what it was like not to have the full use of his legs, and maybe it made him a bit more humble. Or maybe not.
One day after Cragsworthy had left Clyde came up to me as I was about to leave. “You do me a favor?”
“Can I ride your bike?”
“Ride it? Where to? I was about to ride it home.”
“Just for a couple of minutes around the parking lot.”
“Oh, yeah. Sure.” I was puzzled but we walked down the steps off the side of the loading dock and I handed him the bike.
He looked sheepish. “I’m probably gonna need some help.” His leg wouldn’t bend enough to get it over the top tube.
“Oh, yeah, sure.” I felt stupid for not having anticipated that.
I held onto him while, with both hands, he lifted his leg over the top tube. We almost couldn’t do it, but we did. He was sweating and looked worried. “I don’t know if it’s gonna bend enough to pedal,” he said, hoisting himself onto the seat. Then he pushed off and indeed his leg bent just enough.
He rode four or five big circles out behind the supermarket. When he was done he came back to me, and it was kind of like a plane coming in for a landing, but he stopped and I steadied him so that he didn’t fall over and we got his leg back over the top tube.
“Damn,” he said, with this enormous child-happy smile on his big, craggy face. “I been wanting to do that for a long, long time.” I’m not sure I’ve ever seen someone so happy, before or since.
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