He was ancient.
“No, not like that. Look. Like this!”
The old man followed Lee’s movements as best he could, but it was clear he didn’t understand a word. It didn’t help any that he was missing three fingers.
Mohsen struggled to fold the box together the way he had been shown.
“I need a boxer, not some burned out old man! Look at him!” Lee was angry, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. He seemed ready to explode.
Tom, the owner, stood with his arms folded. “I’ve hired him,” he said, “and he’s staying.” Tom hesitated. “Just deal with it.”
Lee watched as Tom walked into his office, then he kicked the nearest box. “Great.” He stared at Mohsen with cold disgust. “He won’t last the week.”
“Give him a chance.” It was Scott, our resident do-gooder.
Lee glared at him. “Fine. You train him.” He pulled out a cigarette and stomped off to the dock.
Scott worked with him, at least he tried. It was tough since Mohsen didn’t speak English, but he slowly went through the motions of assembling the box a number of times and Mohsen eventually caught on, though his hands were so stiff it was obvious he’d never be fast enough.
“Look at him,” James said, stopping next to me with a master box on his shoulder. “He’s a freaking old man.” He was talking to me, but he said it right at him, knowing he couldn’t understand and not caring even if he could.
And he was right.
Later that morning, Lee was still fuming. “I don’t know how Tom expects us to meet quota with an invalid like this. He looks like he’s going to fall over any minute. Hey, pick it up, Mohammad!”
“Let him be,” Scott insisted.
At noontime, the stench of curry filled the lunch room. I stopped the microwave and yanked out his lukewarm plate. “Here,” I said, “take it.”
The next day was more of the same.
“Aw, come on!” said James. “If you can’t do better than that, go back to Afghanistan!”
“Iran,” said Scott.
The comments came from all of us, repeatedly, without mercy. The funniest ones came from Lee.
“Hey, Mohammad, why don’t you ask Cathy out? I hear she likes older men.”
“Leave him alone,” Scott would say.
We were genuinely surprised when Mohsen showed up again Monday.
“What do you suppose he did back in Iran?” It was Lee, standing near him with a smirk on his face. “Probably never worked an honest day in his life.”
“I’ll bet he was a shepherd,” I said.
“Or maybe a camel herder,” snorted James. “I can just see him riding one.” He did his best impression and we all rolled in laughter.
“He was a writer,” said Scott.
“What, for some foreign newspaper?”
“I’ll bet he was lousy at that, too.” Lee made an impatient motion with his hands. “Faster, Mohammad.”
Tuesday was a bad day even for Mohsen. His hands just wouldn’t move and then he put the wrong stickers on an entire cart full of boxes.
“That’s enough!” Lee yelled, and he marched angrily toward Tom’s office.
He returned with an uncharacteristically stoic expression.
A few minutes later, James came pushing through carrying a master box and practically ran over the old man. “Hey, watch where you’re going! I nearly dropped my load!”
Several of us snickered, but Lee grabbed James' shirt and shoved him hard into the wall. The box fell to the ground.
“Let him be!” Lee’s face turned red.
“Hey, get off!”
“Let him be, do you hear?”
We were shocked.
The shop went silent.
At noon, I took my lunch bag over to the dock and sat down. Lee came and sat near me, though he didn’t say anything. He smoked a cigarette, staring out into the parking lot. When he finished, he lit another.
“His fingers,” Lee said, finally. “You know what happened?”
I shook my head.
“They tortured him.”
“Yep. Wrote some articles against the government, I guess.” Lee flicked his cigarette into the parking lot.
“They tortured him because of something he wrote?”
Lee shook his head. “No. Not just that.”
He took another cigarette out of his pack.
“So, what, then?”
“He refused to betray his friends.”
We glanced at each other in a silent acknowledgement of the truth we had suspected for years.
Our lives were meaningless.
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