Bob Thurber, 8/5/2019
Current Occupation: Writer
Former Occupation: Shoeshine boy, paperboy, dishwasher, factory worker, painter’s assistant, soda jerk, short-order cook.
Contact Information: Born in 1955 and raised in abject poverty, Bob Thurber spent his adult years working menial jobs while studying the craft of fiction. He served a lengthy apprenticeship, writing nearly every day for twenty years before submitting his work for publication. Since then his short stories have received a long list of literary awards and citations, among them The Marjory Bartlett Sanger Award, The Meridian Editors' Prize, and The Barry Hannah Fiction Prize. His work has appeared in 60 anthologies and in hundreds of publications including Esquire. Bob is the author of "Paperboy: A Dysfunctional Novel" and two collections of stories. He resides in Massachusetts where, despite vision loss, he continues to write every day. Visit his website at www.BobThurber.net.
At The Factory
I work a four-day week, four ten-hour shifts. I can't complain. All my Fridays, weekends, and every major holiday off. I work the line. All I know is the line. It's what I was hired for, trained for — which was plain dumb luck, because all that's left now is the line — just the line and the crew on the loading dock. Big shots up in Houston pushed everything else over the border. Three hundred miles dead south. Weavers, braiders, dyers, tippers, inspectors — all gone. Two hundred and eighty-six jobs.
Outsourcing, they call it.
I call it a sin.
Loading dock, they couldn't touch. Because of the union. I ain't union. Nobody on the line is union. There are fifty of us left. Quotas keep climbing. One or all of us could go any day.
The morning I got the call, I said to the line boss, Hey Fred, mind if I stumble in late tomorrow?
Tomorrow, he said. What's tomorrow?
We were in the break room, a long narrow space, formerly an empty corridor, and well on its way to being one again. After the big lay off they sealed the cafeteria, donated all the tables and benches to some orphanage. Fred and I stood between a double row of vending machines.
He frowned at the mention of my being late as he studied his clipboard.
Wait a minute. Hold on. You don't work Fridays, he said.
I said, I know that, Fred. I realize that.
Then I said, My mother just died. Her funeral is in the morning.
That moved him back a step. He leaned against the soda machine and studied his clipboard some more. I honestly don't believe he knew what to say.
I said, Hell, it's no big deal, Fred. Everybody dies. Right?
Sure, he said.
I said, I thought maybe if it's okay with you I might go to the funeral and then wander in here. You know. Sometimes it's better I work and not think too much.
He studied my face. He looked at me hard. Then he agreed that sometimes working was better than thinking. He showed me his clipboard. He slid his finger across my name, and then down.
There. That's Friday. See. He shook his head. No Xs.
An X represented a machine with no operator. If there were machines available Fred was authorized to give hours to anyone who wanted them. I told him if I didn't work I'd drink.
He kept frowning, kept shaking his head.
I said, I'll end up crazy drunk with a bunch of creepy old aunts and uncles who believe Elvis is a Saint and still alive and that aliens do nightly flybys and that JFK is hiding in a bat cave somewhere in Montana.
I then made mention of several additional mostly old horribly creepy Hispanic people none of whom I can stand to be around and one of whom has a plaster of Paris impression of Big Foot's big footprint hanging on her living room wall.
You a big drinker, Carl, Fred said.
I told him I hadn't had a drop in four years, honest to God, and that I would consider it a personal favor if this one time he could please cut me some slack, which is a stale joke around a shoelace factory.
How long you been sober? For real.
One hundred and twenty one days, I said.
That's still a lot of days, said Fred.
It's my new world record, I said.
He put his hand on my shoulder and steered me over to one of the coffee machines. He said he was terribly sorry about my loss. Then he fed the machine a few coins. He bought me a coffee.
Listen, he said. Tell you what. Coming in tomorrow is pretty much up to you, okay? What ever you want to do.
He smiled and I shook his hand. I thanked him. I told Fred he was a swell guy.
Then I emptied six sugar packets into my coffee and stirred it with a pencil. On the walk back to the line he asked if my mother's death had been sudden.
She died this morning, I said.
He nodded. Then he said what he had meant to ask was had she been ill for a long time.
I shrugged. You're asking the wrong person, Fred. I haven't seen the woman in a dog's age.
Not very, I said. She had me at fifteen. I was born on this side, about 800 feet over the border, which makes me one hundred percent legal, and would have made her a citizen too if she'd stayed. Mostly my aunts raised me. They did a good job.
But then I ran out of aunts.
He sipped his coffee and looked everywhere but at me. I think he knew I wouldn't come in.
The next afternoon, five or six hours after the funeral, I called in. I asked to speak to the line boss. It was late, right around shift change. I had to have Fred paged. Every half minute the receptionist came back on the line. Ace Shoelace corporation, can I help you?
Each time I told her the same thing: I'm holding for Fred.
One moment, I'll connect you.
This went on and on like a bad dream.
When Fred finally picked up, I told him how terribly sorry I was that I hadn't made it in. I apologized for letting him down. I said I felt stupid, and that I hoped he hadn't actually been counting me in the numbers.
Who is this, he said.
Carl, I said.
Carl? Which Carl?
Carl with the dead mother, I said.
It came out like a sob and for a moment I thought he'd hung up. Then he said he hadn't forgotten about me, that in fact the whole plant had been informed of my personal tragedy and everyone, management included, was deeply saddened by my sudden loss.
That did it for me. I lost it. I lost it badly. I told Fred the truth was my mother had been a cheap Mexican whore her whole life, had never given two shits about me, and that right now she was dancing with the devil in some cantina in hell.
I said, I know this to be a fact, Fred. Because I'm in her sorry excuse for a house and it is full of crucifixes and creeps. Fred, they are everywhere, like roaches. They're spilling out onto the road.
Then I explained my simple yet elaborate plan to throw up on anyone who tried to wrestle the phone away from me.
Fred said that he couldn't talk anymore because it was shift change.
He said he was sorry.
You don't like me very much do you, Fred?
Why do you say that?
Because this is the longest conversation we've ever had.
The next one will be longer, Fred said. I promise. Then he asked when I was scheduled again.
Monday, I said.
See you on Monday, Carl.
Hey, Fred, what about tomorrow, I said, but he'd already hung up.
My mother is dead and my boss feels bad news travels fast as my uncle Salvordor could make them I said Sal make me another mother, mine is dead Sal, my mother is dead, and he slapped me, hard, on the chin, almost a punch, so I said alright Sal, I said okay all you creeps, get out of my mother's house, get out you fuckers, get out of my sight you hypocrites, you rat turds, I couldn't see them or anything, blurred by drink but I was screaming leave, get out of my mother's house, go! and the next thing I know I'm coming to in the Emergency room which is really a two bit undercover abortion clinic, a shack with just one doctor and one nurse and I'm there with Sal, my uncle Sal, who suddenly doesn't look so good, so I'm asking the nurse is his heart strong enough to take this, so the doctor gives him the once over, and the doctor says not good, you better take these, give him two, never more than two mind you, four times a day all day, so all day Saturday I tried but Sal said no pills, Carl, no thank you no more god damn pills, but the doctor said I said, and my uncle said to hell with the doctor, Carl, get it through your thick skull your beautiful mother is dead.
And that told me something about Sal that I had never wanted to know, like it or not.
First thing Monday morning I told Fred all about the ER. I related every part of the story that I could remember. He had called or I had called, I forget which. I don't remember the phone waking me up but I don't remember dialing, either. I was on a binge, but I didn't tell Fred that. I told him my uncle Sal drove us back across the border and carried me dead drunk up three flights of stairs. I reminded Fred that I weighed almost two hundred pounds. My uncle's about one ten, one twenty tops. It could have killed him, I said.
Fred said, it should have.
I cleared my throat.
I said, Sal's gone now. He left his pills and some money that he said my mother wanted me to have, and a grainy black and white photograph of her cradling something in her arms. He says it's me she's holding but you can't tell, not really. I'll bring it in, let you decide for yourself.
Fred said he thought it might be a good idea for me to take a couple of days off. Think things over, he said. Get your act together. At a time like this by your family's side is really where you want to be, Carl. Are you hearing me, son?
I said, Shit Fred, I ain't got no family. And I'm never very good at times like these, which is why I like to work.
I hear ya, Fred said.
By then I was sniffling snots and bawling like a brat. Fred kept talking but I couldn't make out half the words. Then I went to move the phone to my other ear and I dropped it. I kept reaching and fumbling the thing because my hands were wet and I was trembling so bad. When I finally got the phone up to my ear I figured Fred was gone for sure.
I screamed his name three times before he answered.
Easy Carl. Easy! Take a couple of breaths.
I didn't think I was going to make it. I couldn't get any air into my lungs.
Then Fred said: On second thought maybe you better get your ass in here.
He said, I hate to make demands on a grieving son, a man who just lost his mother, but I've got three machines sitting idle, Houston is screaming in my ear, and I've got fresh quotas to fill. You know how it is. Can you handle two machines at once? Can you do that for me, son? Can I count on you to help me out?
Sure thing, I told him, I can do that for you, Fred. Hell, I said, what else am I good for?
Great story, beautifully crafted. Wow.
I really like the dialog.