Monday, June 29, 2009

For posterity's sake

I have recently discovered, to my dismay but certainly not my surprise, that I have done a horrible job keeping track of my creative endeavors. I had one short story published in a now-defunct magazine called (I believe) The Heron. I can find no record of this anywhere - I can't even find the paper copy of it that I received. Hopefully it is still somewhere in my house.

Another short story of mine was published in an e-zine, although I never actually saw it because the link they gave me didn't work. Their check did not bounce, though, so I wasn't too upset.

The one piece of mine that I know for sure was up on the Net has now been taken down, unfortunately. I would have no record of it at all had my local congresswoman not sent me a news clipping:

And to think I didn't even vote for her...and won't next time she runs, either. Oh well.

I've noticed that I know exactly where most, if not all, of my rejection letters are...I wonder what that says about me?

Below is a copy of the short story referenced in the above news clipping:


“That’s not tornadic”, Matt opined. “Now if the sky was green, then that would be tornadic”. He recited to anyone willing to listen a list, obviously complied over a dull lifetime and endlessly rehearsed, of the times when he had witnessed a green sky; but I was much more interested in looking out at the actual sky through the one small window in the room. Matt’s voice droned on behind me about the tornado he saw when he used to work at a fast food joint, while my eyes searched outside, wondering what the big deal was. The sky was not particularly dark, the wind was gentle, and the rain was merely a moderate downpour, nothing to really get concerned about. I turned to notice Shannon walking up towards us.

“There were no customers there, so we all went out in the parking lot, and it had been blowing a blue streak, but then it got all still and quiet, and that’s when we went out.”

I glanced over at Shannon, thinking he might find the humor in all the Hardee’s employees standing in the parking lot facing an imminent tornado strike, but his eyes were focused far away, out the window. He tried to keep as uninvolved as possible with the people and politics here at work; probably a good idea, but it makes him pretty boring to talk to, which is too bad because he’s one of the few people here with half a brain in his head. I turned my gaze back through the window as well.

“What the hell is the siren for?” Shannon demanded, roughly stroking the scraggly red whiskers on his jaw, “It’s fine out there.”

I mentioned, while maintaining my focus out the window, that I had seen the weather report this morning, and that a cold front was coming in, bringing with it some possibly severe storms, and hopefully some cooler weather for the next couple days – a welcome break from the devastating humidity of the past two weeks. The severe stuff, I told him, was supposed to be passing to the south of us. Shannon grunted his agreement with my remarks.

“Yeah, it’s fine out there,” Matt added. “Now, if the sky was dark green, that’s a sign for tornadic.”

I looked to hopefully to Shannon again – still no reaction on his characteristic grim and serious face. Disheartened, I turned and looked out the window with him. A guy was sitting out in his car, waiting for the rain to ease up, I surmised. Finally he gave up waiting and got out of the car, holding his briefcase over his head as he rushed to the entrance. The headlights of his Buick were still on. I think we were all hoping that they weren’t the type that turned off automatically. That’s cold, I realize, but factory work will instill that type of mentality in you.

Matt was suddenly right over my shoulder and into my personal space, standing on his toes and trying to get a look outside. I cringed and shrunk from his touch when he put his hand on my shoulder to boost himself up slightly higher. He lost his balance and nearly fell into Shannon and me.

“Nah...that’s definitely not tornadic,” Matt insisted once he had stabilized himself. As he spoke, the excessively large wad of chew he kept between his lips and teeth threatened to spill over. Little bits of it were interspersed in his prominent braces. It was always uncomfortable conversing with him, as the possibility of being showered with tobacco juice was always there, and he had a habit of standing uncomfortably close when speaking.

I turned away from Matt without a word or even a visual cue that I was ending whatever conversation he might have imagined we’d been having, scanning the room for likely escape route. The room was a stark white abortion, a purely utilitarian cinder-block construction. Like the rest of the factory, there was no clock in here. The company did not want clock-watchers. Instead, they alerted us to our break times with bells over a loudspeaker, like we were caged rats or prisoners or something like that. More than anything, more than being an inconvenience, or an assault on our dignity, it was just sad – just sad that I, a grown man, viewed the simple act of putting on my watch every morning as a way to “Stick It To The Man”.

The siren ceased it’s warning, and I turned back towards the window. The sky was continuing to lighten, still raining, but any possible threatening weather was obviously well past us now. The white-collars stood up and went hastily back to their offices upstairs. Everyone else stayed put. It was hot and muggy out on the floor, and there was little work to do besides. Orders had been dropping off, probably the result of the sub-par product we had been turning out lately. Everyone had been talking about it for weeks.

“If they need us out on the floor,” Frank said, “they can come get us. That’s the supervisor’s job...give the ‘all clear’.” Frank had been with the company since the ‘50s, a fixture at the factory. He was not well respected by anyone here, especially the newer people. His reputation for laziness was not helped by his sloppy speech or his habit of napping after lunch, and his obsolescence put into sharp focus by the increasingly simple “busy work” assigned to him. It would be difficult, though, I would imagine, staying motivated while living through the golden age of labor and into the rise of the corporations.

Around the room, everyone mumbled and nodded their vague agreement with Frank. Someone else, I’m not sure who, not that it really makes a difference, floated a semi-articulated thought that we ought to stay in here all day no matter what management has to say about it. More muttered agreement. I couldn’t really tell who these splintered ideas of rebellion were coming from, or how a conformity was reached, but in the end almost everyone seemed to be of the opinion that we needed to make a stand, to air our grievances, to scream defiantly against the roaring tempest of corporate decision.

“It’s always been that way,” Frank repeated. “Stay and wait for the ‘all clear’.”

My legs were exhausted from standing all day, so I turned away from the window and went to grab one of the seats that had opened up at the long conference table when the office people left. I sat next to Laura, who had an injury and was temporarily working on assembling benefits folders to be distributed to all the workers at the factory. I glanced casually at the contents of one of the folders, and commented on the fact that over half of the material seemed to be out of date.

“Yeah, I know, “ Laura sighed impatiently. “Anita brought that up, and I told her: if you got a problem with it, go see management. It’s not my job to correct their mistakes. Talk to management about it.” Anita is the union steward. She’ll get all worked up about this or that, talk big about taking the company to task over infractions large and small, real or imagined, but in the end she’s all bluster, and everybody knows it.

“If they think I’m redoing these damn things they’ve got another think coming.” She slapped another assembled folder down on the stack to punctuate the end of her sentence. I think we both knew she’d spend weeks tearing these books apart and then reconstructing them, until she was well enough to work.

Sensing the air of hostility and anger she had enveloped herself in, I decided to get up and walk back to the window. Matt and Shannon had wandered off, so I stood alone, watching sheets of rain dance across the street. As I stared absently at the rain, I thought about how much of what we manufacture is done in the spirit of anger and hostility, how many parts just don’t quite fit right and so are forced into place with a wild hammer and fuming curses. I also noticed the Buick’s headlights were now off. I didn’t know if they turned off by themselves or if the battery had died, and really didn’t care too much about it either way. This whole damn factory could blow away, for all I cared.

Why the factory had gone to hell was fairly obvious – we switched to a new material supplier, who gave us our metal as a substantially lower price, but also a substantially lower quality. As we struggled working with the inferior new material, we fell behind because it was so time consuming and because so much of the product had to be scrapped. As we fell further behind, angry customers called, demanding their purchases be delivered immediately, and so quality control standards were relaxed, which meant that stuff that should have been rejected was instead shipped out. Our reputation after all this was obviously not good, and so we lost customers. And now here we were in what should have been the busiest time of the year for a industrial refrigerator manufacturer, with next to nothing to do.

The sirens had gone silent over ten minutes ago – if I hadn’t had my watch, I would’ve sworn it’d been about an hour – and still no one had come to get us. I held out a sliver of hope that we could while away the day in the comfort of the air conditioned bunker/conference room, but tried not to dwell on it. Instead, I eavesdropped on the several conversations going on around the room. They were all remarkably similar – they were all about tornadoes.

“Once I was in a mobile home during a tornado,” Cindy said. She rocked back and forth in her chair, simulating the motion of the trailer, I suppose.

“It was so scary and loud – all the trailers around us got damaged, but ours was untouched.” Her voice lilted up as she ended her sentence, bubbly with the good news that everything worked out all right for her.

She was holding court, most of the guys were around her, rapping off clumsily worded double-entendres which fell around her like so many errant arrows. She was by far the prettiest woman in the factory, in a way not too far different from her trailer in the story...of course, even though she made out OK, there she was, still in the trailer park.

“Untouched!” she emphasized.

“Speaking of touching...” one of her sweaty admirers began.

“Yeah, I tell ya, one hit my home once, sounded like a freight train coming through.” The attention of the room slipped momentarily from Cindy, but never quite fully, and the moment’s wavered attention drifted toward, but never really focused on, Frank.

“Like a freight train,” he repeated, far-off stare, searching for but finding nothing to add. He deflated in his chair, relinquishing any meager hold he might have had on the room. Cindy continued her story, which never really went anywhere or shed any new details, for the next several minutes to her rapt, albeit captive, audience. I thought seriously about leaving the window and moving out of earshot of her inane ramblings. Instead, I stood there propped against the window frame and waited, and waited, letting her voice lull me into a not unpleasant semi-catatonic state, and decided that maybe this was the safest place for me to be right now.

An annoying scraping noise distracted me eventually. Over in the corner, I saw the boys from Material Inspection. They were the Dead-enders – any newly hired person who was sent to work with them lasted all of two weeks, tops. Like most of the problems in the company, they were left unaddressed. They were ensconced in a bitter shell, numbly punching in every day and collecting a check every week, doing just enough to not get fired, waiting out the ravages of time and circumstance, holding on until retirement or death. They were scratching marks on the table using regular putty knives – probably the most used tools in the factory – shaped and sharpened using a grinding wheel into instruments resembling jailhouse shivs, sculpted with more care and attention to detail than they exhibited toward any actual product of the factory.

I turned away from them, suddenly more disheartened than usual. The morning had started wonderfully, a compassionate break from the routine drudgery and anguish; but now I saw that it had simply been moved to another room. The same inane conversations held over and over again - the lines of a dark and too obvious comedy. The same lack of concern...the same defeated mentality.

There was not so long ago a time of craftsmen, when pride was taken in one’s work; when a guy could get a blue-collar job and support his family. My grandfather worked hard every day, dirt forever on his hands, scraped knuckles, a couple of beers after a hard day, a gold watch and a fat pension when he retired. It was an honest, romantic way to make a living. I’m nearing the age of my grandfather when he was half way to retirement, but they keep raising the retirement age, leaving me to trudge onward like Sisyphus...the same defeated mentality.

Finally, the moment we had all been hoping wouldn’t come, had come. Ray came into the room – he must’ve drawn the short straw among the supervisors. None of them liked dealing with us. Most of the workers made a point to make sure any interaction was difficult and emotionally draining. New conversations began as if previous ones had never taken place, everyone played dumb – a supervisor would just have to start all over again, building from the ground up.

He stood there for a few moments. The conversations continued, but in a noticeably hushed tone. Eerily, no one moved. Hands on his hips, he surveyed the room with a scowl before speaking.

“OK, people, let’s get back out there. The siren stopped a while ago.”

“We’re supposed to stay put until we get the ‘all clear’ from the supervisor,” Frank challenged. “That’s the rules.”

“OK,’s your ‘all clear’. Now let’s get back out there. C’mon, people! Let's go!”

He rambled across the room, barking and flailing, dislodging people form their comfortable cliques and seats and conversations, upsetting everyone with his ruthless attitude.

Reluctantly, and with much groaning, everyone painstakingly got up from their seats and staggered slowly out onto the floor. As we left the room, the hot, sticky, dishearteningly overwhelming air of the factory weighed us down, slowing us even more.

Listening to: Atmosphere - Smart Went Crazy
via FoxyTunes