The Baler

by Tim O’Connor

factory

It’s been four years since I began working at the appliance factory. I expected my hands to hurt more than they did. That was the first thought I can remember. I always imagined a man would need tough hands to last here. My dad has good ones. You feel like you were punching a baseball mitt when he shakes your hand. He used to tell me mine weren’t tough enough, that I’d need to suck it up and get them dirty from time to time. What he meant was I’d need to get them dirty every Monday through Friday for a few decades before he’d be ready to call me a man.

That was fine. I understood what he meant. He was our town disguised as a man. Hard working, raspy voice and an understanding of what it took to provide for one’s own. Mom joined in too. They met on the assembly line back in eighty-three. That’s the same assembly line that I work on today in case you were wondering. It’s an old bastard but it still does the job. Every few hours the worn metal creeks in a series of screaming churgahhs. Typically, its three, sometimes four. Every worker on the line notes when this occurs. Four churgahhs means closing time. Each wear blue shirts and matching jeans. Comfort is key. Every day is casual Friday as long as casual comes in blue.

Dad cashed in his pension six months back. He sits across from the TV most days and memorizes the paper. I see him cleaning the dishes sometimes when I visit. I never understand how there’s always so many dirty plates. It’s just mom and dad hanging around doing nothing. I’ll peak my head into the kitchen to say hello and he’ll be standing there, his back greeting me, scrubbing the dirty ones from the right and placing them to his left. His shirt is blue. Seeing it always makes me uncomfortable.

metal baler 2 - Edited

My job is just okay. I heard a teacher once say it’s all about who you work with. I found that to be mostly true. I work with my friends from school. We all met in kindergarten and haven’t spent a week apart in the twenty or so years since. Marcus is a good guy. He kicked the crap out of the school bully for me when I was still small for our age group. Elaine is our token female, although her hands are tougher than mine. I think it’s important to have a woman around. Us guys are too one dimensional. We need perspective. We need Elaine.

She was a clown during school and now uses her talents to keep morale up on the line. I remember her being the kind of girl everyone wanted to be around. She could have a whole classroom rolling around in tears. Cracking the teacher up was her specialty, even when they did everything they could to stay professional. Not around Elaine. Not in this lifetime.

After our fourth churgahhs, the three of us head downtown for a few pitchers of beer. We don’t do it every night, but we do it most. I have a nice post-teen belly now to prove it. Tonight, we cruise down to Burners which has always been my favorite on both the right and wrong side of twenty-one. I order us a light beer to kick it off because tonight will be about pacing. It’s Elaine’s birthday and she’s starting to feel the clock moving. She whines a lot these days about turning twenty-three. She scoffs after every mention of it, as if it’s some sick disgusting joke that isn’t refined enough to fit her taste. She sees the big 2-3 the same way the superstitious see thirteen. Bad News. Barf.

beer

I carry the pitchers to our booths in the corner by the mini basketball hoop. Marcus is taunting Elaine about her hangover-to-be tomorrow morning. It’s Elaine’s turn to operate the baler. That meant trouble. The baler sits at the end of the line awaiting any spare chunks of metal that happen to fall off. It’s roughly twice as tall as any of us and compresses a fresh chunk of scrap once every twenty minutes. Sometimes the compactor gets jammed because the metal is sitting funny inside. That means the operator needs to get in there and do a manual clear up. Occasionally, the baler clears it up itself and god willing, without a person inside. It’s happened before. We all like to forget.

Marcus continues to tease, “Imagine how foggy headed you’ll be when you clear that thing in the morning.”

“Shut up Marc,” I say.

“I bet it’ll take care of your headache like that,” he snaps his fingers covered in greasy peanut shrapnel, and grins.

Elaine giggles sarcastically then fake sneezes, sending a shower of spittle into Marcus’s face.

“Gross,” he yells. Elaine laughs for real this time. “Now you gotta drink it.” She says pointing to his glass. Specks of spit cut through the foam along the beers head, dotting the white surface with a spray of dark spots.

“That is gross,” I say as I pour my pint. All of us cheers and get to it. Elaine takes one sip and begins to act like she’s gagging. She was always a bit extravagant. “Ew, what kind of trash is this?” I shrug, “You know how much I make, sweetheart.”

“I make as much as you do, smartass,” she replies. “If it were one of your birthdays I’d aim a little higher than the bottom of the barrel.” The night carries on and on. We drink and scatter about the place. All the patrons are locals. All of them familiar faces. The vibe is midwestern hardy. It’s the kind of scene you’d expect a factory worker to thrive in. The one where all the men at the bar are middle aged and overweight. A majority of them have thick mustaches and wear thirty-year-old hats with retro beer logos on them. If you squint your eyes hard enough you can imagine them crushing cans of Schlitz, commiserating over another failed pennant race by the Tribe under the glow of a neon sign.

After we graduate from tipsy to something more sinister, our group reconvenes. Marcus can’t unglue his eyes from a TV. Elaine drinks on in protest. Suddenly, I remember what’s in my backpack.

“Hey, guys. Marc. Marc!”

“Huh, what?” He looks back at us like he’s seeing us there for the first time. A thin line of drool lowers from the corner of his mouth.

“Welcome back,” Elaine says in between sips.

“I brought you guys something,” I say, careful to not sound too excited. Too excited gets you roasted around here. I pull out a wrinkled roll of paper. The visible surface is blotched from marker juice bleeding through. I unroll the poster in front of them, studying their faces with anticipation. Neither of them reacts.

“Did your nephew draw that?” Marcus asks. My nephew is nine months old. I look toward Elaine, hoping that her memory is a bit stronger. No go. She stares back politely and completely clueless.

“It’s our class project. Third grade?” I’m growing desperate.

“No clue, dude.”

The paper is riddled with stick figure letters forming a random collection of nouns in all colors. The prepubescent words shout out, DOCTOR! or D.J.! One poor soul even tried to spell veterinarian. The product came out an uncertain “VETRINIRYEN”!

“Christ, you two have boozed yourself brain dead.” On cue all three of us take a swig.
Mrs. McKinley asked us to write out what we wanted to be when we were older. We attacked the project enthusiastically, criticizing each other’s choices. When the day was over we drew from a hat to determine which of us would be able to keep the banner. That’s how I got it.

Marcus’s mind was elsewhere again. “Let’s play darts,” he responded.

1200px-Darts_in_a_dartboard

“Not so fast Doctor,” I said smiling. He looked at me like I’d insulted him. I tapped on the bleeding blue veterinarian written in his poor soul spelling.

“Seriously, I want to play darts.”

I was startled with how little he cared. This was his childhood hope, his early definition of success.

“Nothing? Really?”

“I think you’d make a good one,” Elaine added.

“Stuff it,” he replied.

“Why not give it a shot,” I asked.

He shrugged. “Not enough sick animals.”

“Okay, my turn,” Elaine jumped in, eager to absorb the blow of nostalgia.

I was glad she did. Hers was perfect. Nothing was more perfect. She giggled hysterically when I pointed to the actress written in bubble letter yellow near the center.

“What an idiot.”

I frowned. It hurt me to hear that come from her.

“Why is that,” I asked. She read the disappointment on my face.

“I mean . . . come on that’s just stupid right?”

“Stupid how?”

She stared back in partial shock. “Having dreams is a losing bet. Haven’t you realized that? If we were supposed to leave this town we’d have done it already. There’s no harm with doing what we do. Don’t act like you don’t like it here.”

I looked to Marcus for backup. He stared quietly at his hands, picking at fingernails already shaved down. Elaine ruffled the hair along the back of my head.

“Cheer up kid. Marc, whatta ya say we throw some darts.”

***

Elaine died the next day. The accident was routine, common. Just as Marcus predicted. The baler jammed just before our second churgahhs. When the alarm signaled it, Elaine jumped in without fear or hesitation. Seconds later it fixed itself. A crowd formed around the machine to try and pry whatever they could lose. There wasn’t too much left for them to work on. Pardon me, I just thought you should know. The Elaine I knew liked gory movies just like regular ones. Maybe she would’ve seen herself outwardly with some strange curiosity and excitement.

I saw none of the details. There were dozens of workers between me and her. Marcus was only a few feet away. It was his turn to work the baler later in the week. That was the way we did it. Each day we’d move a step to our left until it was our turn. The next day we’d start over.

Marcus saw everything. He watched as the baler compactor closed. He looked at her twisted body as she died. That’s how I like to put it. Died with two D’s because D is a harsh letter, something reserved for the Devil or the Despicable. Passed away is bullshit. What use does it have other than to comfort the living?

I don’t want to be comforted. This isn’t about me. She didn’t pass away like some kid floating off to Neverland. Do people really think saying passed away benefits the dead once their gone? My friend died with two D’s when she was crushed to death.

Afterwards, us workers stumbled around like zombies. There was a mad influx of white into our little grey world. White coats, white cruisers. Even our faces turned white. I looked around and realized that no one knew how to deal with what occurred. No one appeared to be following protocol. No one had the proficient answer. Not even the thirty-year men who teetered on the cliff of retirement. Our factory training manual didn’t include a section on tragedy. The product of our unknowing was a cluttering of small groups. White faces spewing out white noise.

“It was quick,” all of them said.

“It was painless,” said one or two.

Marcus kept quiet. He stood there, huddled with us wearing a face devoid of his dark color. His eyes were fixed on the concrete below, clearly digesting thoughts far too deep for me to contemplate so soon after. I wanted to shake them out of him. Breath some of his tan skin back to life, but here we stood, in control of nothing.

Our boss dismissed us early. We’d done enough, he said. I drove home and let the radio do the talking. Outside the clouds were ominous and rich, the kind that threatened to unleash an ocean over your head at any moment. Only a drop or two fell. I instinctively flicked on the wipers and listened to their dry screams until I was parked in the gravel driveway besides my house.

News moves fast in small towns. That’s a terrible cliché isn’t it? Depressing but accurate. Dad rolled up in his jeep an hour later, knocking on the door with one hand and cradling a six pack in the other. I nearly asked where the rest was. He gruffed and came in; his way of offering a reassuring hello.

The beer was expensive, a product of the newest business in town. The brewery opened this past fall and stole a few of our staff. Perhaps it spared them from the baler. I thought of that as a joke, but as it passed through my mind I felt nothing like laughing.

Unnecessary spending was out of character for the old man, but he remembered Elaine liking something better than the bottom of the barrel, and I’m sure he assumed the occasion called for the extra three dollars. I can see him checking out now, moving the barcode right to left over the scanner, growing red as he reads the price.

We sat down and boozed for a while. When the river dried I brought out a few more of my own. Dad wouldn’t bring it up, so I did the honors.

“What do you think,” I asked. Clever, I thought. It was about as good as I could do.

“S’normal,” he replied. He saw my face grow red and wrinkle. “Life isn’t all about the good things. There’ll be good and bad that come your way on this earth. You gotta learn to accept the bad as life too. I know it’s terrible for you, but to run away from it would be to run away from livin’.”

I sipped and sipped. My stuff wasn’t as good as his, but that was okay. He would repeat the point every now and then as we sat at my kitchen table. Repeat like it needed to be drilled into my skull with power tools. Repeat like it was a steady regiment of medicine. Repeat it. Repeat. The hanging lamp above swayed in a nonexistent breeze as he did. His voice was raspy. I began to wonder if his vocal cords were back in the baler.

An hour later he goes. As I walked him to the door he asks me if there are any dishes needing to be done. I tap him on the shoulder and send him off with a thank you. I sat in bed for a while thumbing through paperback. I read without reading, slipping over paragraphs without recognizing a single word. Sleep came slow that night.

OSHA arrived the following afternoon. Work had stopped across our floor and we resumed our quiet huddles from the day before. They grew less silent as time went on, as if the accident from the day before only required a twenty-four hour state of solemnity. I wanted to be sick.

The inspectors showed up dressed in flannels and jeans. My mind registered them as imposters, and in turn, enemies. I’m not sure what I expected, to be honest. Maybe a Men in Black character. That would be fitting. Everything seemed alien enough.

The team of three poked the insides of the baler with their tools and nodded frequently to one another. They ran the baler continuously for the next hour, making sure to stand a healthy distance away before the lid began to close. I’ve been working less than fifty feet away from it since the day I came here. Marcus was even closer. Elaine climbed inside of it. They seemed to enjoy the robotic crushing, grinning as it closed its teeth, reopened, and closed again. They announced the machine fit for work just after two o’clock and left without another word. I think their eyes are in the baler. As they left, the machine was still running, mouthing goodbye.

***

Three weeks passed before our next visitors. They came in a gang of well fitted suits looking very sharp and were very conscious not to linger. I saw them walking towards our floor managers office and felt my heart rot in its cage. My eyes met a few of the older men’s stare along the line. I can’t say exactly what I was looking to find; perhaps sage advice or reassurance from an elder, but what I got was fear. A kind of pitiful fear that makes you realize that the world is very much out of your control and you should be terrified that it was so.

I found people have a habit of saying that they knew something the second they saw it. First love, a prophetic epiphany. You know what I mean. It’s easy to write off or reduce it to showboating, but I truly knew the second I saw these men that the factory would be shut down and in turn, our little town. One of them carried a folder with the company’s logo. Two of them wore a look of quieted shame. All three of them carried a repugnant fear of making eye contact with us dressed down in our blue. They scuttled past us these bearers of terrible news, their black clothes flapping gently as they went. Black amongst blue. That image itself was all we needed. No announcement. No heartfelt condolences from the decision makers. No reassurance that some excited little Vietnamese Burg would benefit from the factory’s arrival or that the children there would now be able to afford food. We watched them scuttle past into the office at the end of the floor, shaking hands and improvising their very best funeral director je ne sais qua. I’m sure they were very, very sorry for our loss.

The official announcement was made the following week. Monday, to be more specific. That day we were sent home early. All of us were somber and wandered out accordingly. I mentioned that the baler would be hard to move. An older worker with a hooked nose told me it wouldn’t be as hard as I think. Marcus had been one of several to not come back after the arrival of the corporate conglomerate. I became scared for him, a real genuine concern. My friend had disappeared from the floor and from the earth. I didn’t see him anywhere those few days. In a town like ours that’s a bad sign. You were either on vacation, morphing into a piss-in-a-jar recluse, dead and hidden, or you found a highway and rode cruise control into a new life. I believed the latter with no evidence, just a primal judgement. As I awoke the day of the announcement, I processed a thought that seemed to force my guts into a somersault. Marcus was in the baler. Pressed into its greedy shape. Splayed out between its teeth. But it wasn’t so. I knew because I would’ve been there, patiently awaiting my turn.

The first few days after the announcement the town entered a quiet state of shock. Clothes shops and furniture stores began to clear out inventory. Realtors became disheveled and ungroomed. Those that were in the business of transition sped around town like angry bullets. Those that were not set up residency at whichever bar had lights on.

That Friday there was a meeting in the park. A few town officials organized it hoping for a last second change to save the community. Perhaps someone would put the gathering on YouTube. Perhaps someone would feel bad. I went because there wasn’t much else to do. I’d drank up to my threshold and was getting sick of the dry mouth and headaches. I’d thrown too much on the fire, coming from all levels of the barrel.

The turn out was big. The atmosphere was complicated. Children walked around with cotton candy, ecstatic that they were given their sugar but corrupted from their happiness by their parent’s concern. Others showed up with signs, screaming out their frustrations in modern day Gregorian chants.

CORPORATE WIGS

GREEDY PIGS!

I walked around for a while hoping to find Marcus. This I did selfishly. I knew where he’d gone, and I didn’t know how to digest it, so I continued searching, playing out my dumb fantasy. I arrived mid-afternoon and stayed past sunset. The crowd’s size remained stubborn throughout that time. They moved about fidgeting, unable to fully process their new-found freedom. The sun set at its usual time, drawing out the dead hours of dusk longer than normal. Several townsfolk lit candles, giving the gathering a deep, vigil overtone.

candlelight vigil

These were the most intriguing. To them it was a death of a loved one, a remembrance to something now lost. I hated that damn factory. Every inch, every step I took on it’s floors. I even hated hearing the final churgahhs that signaled my release from the line because it meant I’d go home to eat, lounge for a few precious moments and then replay it all over again. What I hated more than anything else was the baler. I knew I would find myself inside it one day. I imagined looking back at the others as it crunched down. Their face would show horror, but it would also have understanding. These kinds of things  happen, most would say. It was painless, say one or two. No one wants it, but it’s a reality. Terrible, but a part of our world. Amen.

What form of evil makes you long for that which you hate? Do you curse it or let it run its course? These are puzzling questions and I am young. I could only study, as they held their candles together, hoping to return to the prison which gifted them their 401k, there modest ranch and their purpose on this planet. These men were now crying, their children in hand doing the same because they felt they should. Their mothers hugging them because they too felt they should.

My daze was broken when a man walked over to me. He was a few holes passed middle age and wore the familiars of whichever bar he’d called home since the announcement. I have never been able to figure out why he came to me. In all my youth, I had no sense of leadership or wisdom. To the contrary, I looked like a fool. He still came though, literally holding his hat in his hand, staring drunkenly into my eyes as if it were the face of the patron saint of the unemployed.

He stares for a moment and then asks, “What will we do?” His voice is dust covered and raspy. My father’s voice. The one taken by the baler.

“I’m not sure,” I respond.

“If there’s no work then there is no food.”

“I understand,” I say. “I’m sorry.”

The man wipes his face and I notice his mangled hands. They are trembling and disfigured.

“I’ll do whatever it takes to keep the work here,” he says. Tears begin to fall from his cheeks. His face is bent and fat with bruises. I study his hunched back; scoliosis on steroids.

“I wish I could help you, but I don’t know what to do.”

One of his eyes was glued shut and sticky. His dress blues were stained with deep, cow-like patterns of brown splotches. His knees bowed inward, his mouth hung loose on one end, showing the yellow and purple surface of his gums. Inside there was a swimming cluster of puss.

“I’ll work in the baler everyday if I have to,” he hissed, his voice now steam. The outer layer of his skin was cracked and green. A good portion had already fallen off. I could smell it dying on him, much of it clinging on well past the beginning of decomposition.
“You’ll be there one day. Without the baler there is no food.” He smiled and winked with his remaining yellow eye.

I left the park and wandered towards the center of town. The place was dark, its inhabitants elsewhere. The streetlights remained unresponsive and several stores were already boarded up. I looked north along the street, staring at where the road twisted out of view. In that moment I imagined Marcus and his new life. I filled both lungs and felt confident that he found his sick animals.
*******

Tim O’Connor is an aspiring writer from Cleveland. He lives and works in Charlotte.

 

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