Clint Walker, 11/21/2011
Current Occupation: Unemployed. Associate Editor for recently launched online literary magazine “Prompt“.
Former Occupations: Graduate Assistant/English Teacher/Financial Aid Director for small school
Contact Information: Other than a stretch of time spent living on the Washington State Peninsula, I am a lifelong resident of Central Illinois. I have spent time teaching English, and have just completed my MA degree at Eastern Illinois University. I have had short fiction published at Mary Magazine, and in the soon-to-be released November edition of Carte Blanche.
The Tallest Building in Topeka
Pneumatic punch press #39 was a bitch of a machine. It was bolted into the cement of the factory floor, just behind the “redline,” which long timers at the plant affectionately referred to as the “deadline,” even though the machine hadn’t actually killed a soul.
It came close a few times, like when Chisum dropped his hardpack into the knockout tray while he was leaning over the machine. He was lucky. He had long, greasy hair that was technically against every regulation the company had, so it could have been a lot worse. He thought he’d try to fish the pack out by hand, and almost pulled it off, when McElroy on the forklift thought he’d pull the same gag on Tammy that he had on every other woman who worked there by throwing himself off the 220 while it was moving and watching them jump back in shock. That one particular time though, his knee bumped the wheel just as he jumped off, and the 220’s tungsten forks hit a concrete pylon with a loud gong that sounded like someone picked up the factory and dropped it.
Chisum jerked just as he got his fingers past the crush bar and next thing he knew he felt a slight sting before he blinked instinctively and opened his eyes to see three fingertips tumbling across the metal tray where they came to rest against the tiny cardboard pack.
McElroy kept his job if only because there was so much chaos caused by Chisum’s crying and screaming that no one remembered what caused him to jerk. In Chisum’s particular take on the finger story, the one he tells to every new front desk secretary they hire, he never even flinched when it happened. He’s a real hero in his version.
Pneumatic punch press #39 was currently unmanned. It sat behind the deadline quietly but ready to spring to life with the flip of a switch. For the first time in years, the entire floor was quiet. Row after row of greasy belts and sharpened blades held in place by elbows and arms of hydraulic flexors made no sound and took no action. Every employee of Mekkatrex Inx had filed into the ad hoc “convention hall” which everyone there thought was a joke. The higher-ups had a meeting, nodded heads, signed a form, and within three weeks, contractors knocked down the eastern wall of the men’s bathroom, carved half the urinals and a third of the commodes out of the lime green tile, and turned the resulting empty space into the “convention hall” which looked very much like a crappier, more run-down version of the already crappy and run-down stage of the local high school just up the street. T.Q. Quackenbush designed them both.
Just about every employee was a graduate of that same school, so they all got the joke.
The seats were peeled and smelly and nearly every one of them was filled. They all faced the main stage which featured flood lights casting a wan yellow glow on a single podium that had the Mekkatrex Inx corporate logo affixed to the front of it. Behind that was Merle “The Pearl,” their plant manager, and talking to him was co-manager “Big” Jim Applegate, who everyone dealt with when they didn’t feel like dealing with Merle The Pearl. Their heads were down as they talked off mic, both absentmindedly kicking their heels into the scuffed wood of the stage while they looked up occasionally to see the last of the workers filing in to the last row of seats in the back.
When the entire hall was filled, Merle walked to the podium and flicked the switch on the microphone. The public address system, which hadn’t been used since the announcement of the great hand washing stratagem of the fall quarter, clicked on with dull whine of feedback.
Suddenly, a younger man in an immaculate black suit, his hair perfect, his jaw line exquisite, walked onto the stage from behind the curtain. He walked right toward Merle and Jim who seemed to want to engage him in some type of conversation, but this other man simply waved them off dismissively and pointed to two metal chairs behind the podium, right next to the American flag that hung limply from a tarnished golden pole. Merle and Jim took their seats like they were instructed and sat ramrod straight as the man took his space behind the podium. Some of the women who worked there gasped to themselves at this man’s beauty, although for many of them, he was just young enough to be their son.
A select few knew the score, not saying much, because they knew it was rare to see someone sent directly by corporate.
“Ladies and Gentleman,” he said. Pale blue eyes tilted down to a single index card he held on the podium.
“Mekkatrex Inx Plant Number 2324 will cease operations effective at the end of this quarter. There will be no new Futuregen plant built in the Coles County area as previously reported. That project has been relocated to Monmouth due to calcium issues in the soil. Your direct supervisors can answer any questions you may have. Thank you.” And with that, he walked away from the podium and strolled off stage without looking back, leaving Merle and Jim, both completely out of the loop, to answer questions they weren’t prepared to answer. They stood up from their chairs and appeared to have a few cross words between themselves before they walked up to the podium themselves. But most everyone was standing now, murmuring to themselves or to each other. They were promised months ago there was hope, and with that gone, nothing Big Jim or Merle the Pearl could say really mattered much to them anymore.
Merle started a sentence with the word “Please” but in an effort to get his voice over everyone else, he popped his “p” into the microphone and the result was a loud squealy report that erupted harshly from the twenty-year old Peavey speakers bolted into the concrete over the stage. It was the loudest sound that had been pushed through the subwoofers in years, and as such, a puff of compressed dust and vermiculite billowed from each speaker in a cloud before floating to the floor like poisonous snow.
Candice was the only one to see this. As the battle between the workers and Merle’s struggle with barely adequate public address equipment intensified, she watched the cancer-causing particles drift downward, eventually losing sight of them as they sank into the range vectors of the stage lights. She stood and glanced to the back corner of the room but couldn’t see Shelly. Candice pushed her way through the workers of soon to be non-existent Plant #2324 and made her way to the back exit.
She walked through the empty factory floor, following the green “Safety” line through the most injury prone area. She would know. She was the winner of “Safety Days” three years in a row. She even designed the tee-shirt they all had to wear on Safety Saturdays. It was lima bean green. They all hated her for that shirt, but at least it gave them all chances to earn “Safety Bucks” by wearing it when they were told.
The south exit of the factory led out into a ragged patch of asphalt that no one parked in anymore. The fall air bit into her face as soon as she stepped outside. She looked farther south to the edge of the property, which terminated in an endless dirt field. Shelly was sitting atop the long disused set of monkey bars which had been sunk into the asphalt in an aborted plan to install playground equipment for the children of employees. By the time word came down from corporate that no child would ever be allowed within one-hundred yards of the plant, the monkey bars were already up. And there it stood, a rusted cage for the waist-high weeds that had sprouted up within.
Candice walked up to the bars, running her hands across the rust and the rivets. Shelley sat perched above her, taking long, slow drags from her cigarette and letting the smoke curl out over the field and into the golden late afternoon horizon beyond them.
“Why weren’t you there for the big announcement?” Candice said, reaching up for a cigarette of her own, which Shelly slid for her out of a crumpled pack.
“Once I saw that the 480-I order got cancelled, I had a feeling this was going to happen. The way I look at it, I’m not going to spend any more time in there than I have to from this point forward.”
Candice took one last angry pull that terminated with an abrupt intake of air. She released the cigarette from her lips before she said, “You know Shelly, it really wouldn’t hurt you to at least act like what happened in there does matter for some of us. Or is that just too below you now?”
From her perch atop the rusty monkey bars, Shelly looked down on Candice, her eyes wide.
“Don’t act like you don’t know what I mean. You’ve been checked out of here ever since you started going back to school last year. We can all see it.”
“Really?” Shelly hopped down from the monkey bars. Her shoes hit the crumbly asphalt with a crunch. “‘We’ all see it? Don’t you mean, ‘you’ see it? I mean, that’s really what this is, isn’t it? You and me?”
“You think those people over there at Eastern are just going to roll out the red carpet for you, huh? How long can you keep hiding where you’re really from, because I’m guessing you don’t talk about us much, do you?” Candice said. “You,” she continued, pointing at Shelly, “belong in there, with us. With me. That’s where you should be. It’s where you used to be.”
“Candice, I…I had to do this.”
Shelly looked down at her feet and continued, “I knew this was going to happen.” She was talking to herself as much as she was to Candice.
“Yeah, I kind of did too.”
Shelly started to say something back but Candice heard nothing. She ground her cigarette into the asphalt with her toe, turned her back on Shelley, and stormed back into the plant. The floor started to come back to life as workers took their old positions again in a daze, firing up the machines one by one, and wondering what the point was when it was all going to be gone anyway. All sold away, every brick, re-bar, and pipe.
Candice took her place behind the deadline, flipping starter switches one, two and four on pneumatic punch press #39. It roared to life like it was angry it had been put to sleep in the first place, but it responded to her just like it always did since ever she took over that position in the wake of the Chisum Incident.
She reached into her pocket and fished out her lucky Susan B. Anthony piece. She placed it on her tucked-in thumb, and flicked it up into the air where it traveled in a long arc, end over dull end, where it missed the crush bar and landed right into the knockout tray of the press with a tiny pang that only she could hear over the noise. She realized that as the current holder of the “Safety Days” title, she just committed a cardinal sin, but the most she’d lose out on were about seven Safety Bucks that were really only good if she wanted to buy another shirt that she had designed.
Six months from that moment, just before her daughter’s tuition bill was due in, Candice would walk into Ned’s Buy and Trade with every mint condition collector’s coin she had, only to be told by Ned’s son that none of them were worth a thing, despite the fact that every coin came with a certificate of authentication. Ned’s boy would tell her that taking valuable coinage and coating it in holographic gold-plating makes it just as valueless as if you’d dip a hundred dollar bill in chocolate. “It sure looks pretty,” he’ll say, “but you can’t get to the real money anymore. It’s gone.”