HARDHAT

by Garry Eaton


 
From a bar with big windows overlooking docks on the Hudson River in New York City, I'm watching as a crew loads cargo into the hold of a small freighter I'm booked on for passage to Europe, leaving today. Then the unexpected occurs. On the TV over the bar, a flabbergasted announcer relates that John F. Kennedy has just been shot on a street in Dallas. It soon becomes clear the situation is dire. The President might not live.
 
Many people in the bar get up to leave almost immediately, realizing there is somewhere else they need to be. Those who remain fall silent for the most part so as not to miss the next announcements. Having nothing more to do until we sail, hopefully this evening, I keep one eye on the TV and the other on activities on the dock below, and wonder whether this terrible event will delay the departure.
 
I notice through the glass a young man at the rail of our ship, almost at a level with me, wearing a blue turtle neck sweater against the cold. From there, he is directing the loading, watching the dock below and passing signals to a crane operator. When a worker on the dock below shouts something to him, he leans over to listen. Not hearing, he leans out farther, cupping an ear against the wind. When he finally understands, he stops for a moment, with his head bowed, perhaps his eyes closed, gripping the rail in front of him with gloved hands. The signal he next sends to the crane man above is an urgent, slashing motion, one hand dragged quickly across his throat, and it means "kill the lift,"--as if stopping immediately might somehow gain them time to reflect, to avert disaster. A little red sailboat making a slow ascent up the side of the ship to the hold glides to a halt in its canvas sling, where it hangs for the rest of the afternoon, yawing slightly in the cold November wind.
 
After several more shouted conversations between dockworkers separated by wind and distance, a moment arrives when everyone seems to have heard the news, for all work on the dock has ceased. Workers are coming out of the holds and warehouses, sidling along docks and huddling in bunches, talking, smoking, waiting, temporarily leaderless. After conferring awhile, without any apparent decision being made, they begin to wander off, singly or in pairs, carrying their extra clothing and lunch buckets. They seem to have decided, out of respect, in solidarity with a popular President, that this day's work is done. Others, less certain, undoubtedly including some just hired on for a day's work, and in need of every dollar, continue standing around.
 
The foreman in the turtle neck who halted the loading still stands at the rail, hands in pockets, staring into space, apparently absorbed completely by his thoughts. Eventually giving a baleful shrug, he raises his coat collar against the wind. Removing his hardhat with one hand and brushing through his stubby hair with the other, he peers for a moment into its brim. Then he lifts his arm, and rearing back in practiced, baseball style, flings it as hard as he can out into the harbor. Before it even reaches the water he has stepped through a hatchway behind him, and disappeared.
 
The slow work stoppage has taken from a half to three quarters of an hour to complete. The men are all gone from the dock now. The wind has lightened, and it has begun to snow. Big, soft flakes drift slowly down, blinking out like small lights as they disappear into the black water. The snow is thickening, and soon there will be whiteout. The tugs, the docks and the big hulls are fading into dim masses with no clear outlines. Inside the bar, hoping to fortify myself against an evening of diminishing possibilities, I signal for another beer. My waiter stands with his back to his customers, arms folded, staring hard into the TV overhead, as if searching for something he has lost. Tears of grief are welling up and streaming down his face, and TV reception fades in and out fitfully. Eventually the signal is lost entirely against a background of static, but he continues to stare anyway at the snowy screen. Then with a sigh, wiping his face with his apron, he reaches up and turns the TV off. Finally, he pours me my beer. "You better have one for me too, buddy," he says with grim humor. "I think I'm gonna need it."

inside the glass and out
swirls of white
erasing the day

(First published in Contemporary Haibun Online, vol. 2, # 3, September, 2006)

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