by James Drew
My good friend describes a writer’s greatest barrier as The White Room. It’s a room of hollow words. It works so effectively against us for its ease. Its such a difficult balance. Am I making a word salad or building an artfully described world? Receiving his last critique, I’ve decided to treat it as an opportunity, rather than an obstacle.
Years in tedious factory work, coupled with a lifetime of waste-basketed stories, I’ve found that manufacturing and creative writing are akin. Both are endlessly thankless, the art often being a tedious blackhole from which light and time cannot escape. As much as I enjoy writing, and detest manufacturing, I give the advantage to factory. It pays.
A writer starts with a voided room, or building. It can be as big as a three-block long warehouse, or as small as a porta-potty. Their imagination works with their verbal skillset to build a fictional universe of his/her own manufacture.
My hand railed a yellow steel pipe. It was a five-minute walk from my car to this path to the gates of hell. Looking north to the Erie Canal, I involuntarily sung in my mind.
I was a flying monkey, serving the Wicked Witch of the West. I rolled my eyes, standing in a line, waiting to do something neither I nor anyone else wanted to do. The guy behind me had done this for so long, he talked to himself. He wasn’t skitzo, only broken, dragging himself along like a pair of horses, dragging a carriage with a broken axle. I worried as I riffled through my locker that if I didn’t apply myself, this would be my future.
I was told in orientation that though my paid shift didn’t begin till 7pm, I’d be expected on the line by 6:40 to complete my paperwork and gain my bearings. I tried that a few times till a pattern developed. There was often no relief till 7am. I was required to punch in by 7pm and allowed to leave at 6:55am. I set my boundaries. I would punch in with enough time to gather my tools and supplies and arrive at my line at 7pm.
“I really wish I hadn’t lost that job “I said, resting my head on the passenger’s side window of my father’s car, as we passed by the lot where I parked before punching in for my shift. “It’s EQY Plastics now. I’ve had girlfriends that have changed hands less than this place.” It seemed like yesterday I lamented every punch-in, deeply exhaling in relief at 7am.
“You say that every time we drive by.” My dad said, his voice annoyed but sympathetic.
“You’d be stuck in the same loop if it took you 20 seconds to pass by the best job you’ve ever had.”
The bag manufacturer was expanding, filling up a three-square block building that once housed three separate manufacturers. I’d worked in the last one we passed 20 years ago but there hadn’t been anyone parked in front of it for a very long time. I’d hoped Flex-right packaging would expand into that section. It was loud, hot, and busy when I was young. I’d eventually found it to be a ghost town.
“You hated that job!” My dad growled because he rarely SAYS anything. “You’ve always insisted that it sucked!” He slapped the steering wheel with the back of his hand, more emphatic than called for as usual. “Now it’s the best job you’ve ever had!”
“I did hate it! It was the best job I’ve ever had, and it did suck! That’s my point!”
“I don’t see your point.”
(That’s a whole story by itself.)
“I sleep much easier after a hard day’s work. A cigarette smokes much smoother when you can afford a pack of cigarettes. Dinner digests much easier when you’re hungry and can properly shit it out. I feel like I’m turning into a goddamned lump.”
“How are the running?” Jennifer asked.
A couple years older than me, she was doing the job I was now, when I started. Today, she seen to the wellbeing of 9 lines identical to my own.
“What can I say, I’m doing my best.”
“I know you are, Jim! For what it’s worth, I’ve been telling Mike the same thing!”
“Is he still being a hellbent dickhead?”
I made her laugh! The brunet, roughly my height, and a couple years older than me didn’t smile. She didn’t fraternize. I’d only ever spoken to her when I was promoted from material handler to machine operator. I admit, I struggle not to stair, when I see someone or something that intrigues me. I’m not reluctant to go where I shouldn’t but when it comes to people, I’m content to look from time to time.
Twenty years of this shit hadn’t been kind to her. Her hair was graying with her face still fair skinned. She was still stone-cold stoic, so I counted a chuckle as a feather in my cap. Focused on the job from 7pm to 7am. Standing nose to nose, shouting over the endless roar of 20 machines, we talked longer than I’d ever known her to talk to anyone. She never did answer my question; just smiled flatly, with squinting wink, moving onto the next set of machines.
Twelve hours of shouting turned voices hoarse. I supposed our voices adapted if voices do. The job was taxing on the voice, the hands, the feet, the eyes, and the ears. The colored plastic, unspooling into the converting machines was somewhat pretty. There is a white room in describing a factory. The lights were brighter than they needed to be and for being a beehive of bread bags Flex-Right Packaging was draconian, enforcing its safety rules.
Two hours, going on three into a twelve-hour shift, I was already sweaty and spent. Ripping loose bags from the suction feed spokes before they reached their hooks, I pinned washers onto the hooks and neatly placed the stack of bags into their shipping case. The machine clear I ran to the next, then the next, inspecting, measuring, and packing. (I once had a week of running around the thirty feet long machines because you do what you must do when you have a family to provide for.)
“Mike wants to see you.” Jennifer said, taking the reins of my machine.
She huffed, pursed her lips, and smiled. Her attitude, or at least her disposition had softened, perhaps having made peace with the misery and tedium of the life. It wasn’t so bad. Two days on, two days off, gave ample opportunity for life.
“Listen Jim, I’ve been meaning to say this for a while. I know he’s been giving you shit, and I admit that you’ve always had a bullseye on your back. You can be and especially were at first a huge pain in the ass, but you’ve made strides. He gives everyone shit, but for whatever reason, you are the chosen one.”
“Thank Jen.” I said sincerely. “You know, that means a lot from you.”
“Why is that? I’m just a line leader.” She said, flattered back onto her heels.
“You’ve been here practically out of high school. You hang your hat at 6:40 every day and own your charge.”
“Mike’s a bitter old man. Word is, he was a plant manager, and got canned for being a dickhead. He’s bitter and Flex-Right isn’t having it either. He’s on his way out.
“I’d heard that.”
“Just grin and bare it. When he’s done screwing with you, let me know and I’ll start the clock on your break.”
Opening the door to Mike’s office, he made it a point to remind me that he didn’t notice his employee’s presence till he wanted to. Minimizing the game of solitude on his computer, he turned, smiling his French, practiced, professional smile through his white mustache.
“Drew, come on in and have a seat.”
Like the rest of the staff, I dislike this guy, and hate it when people refer to me by my surname. HATE IT. Drew is my last name. It says it all over the pages of paperwork I hand in everyday! Why is this complicated. Sorry for having three first names! I generally invite my coworkers and older associates to refer to me as Jim, intending to establish a comfortable familiarity.
“My name is James.” My tone didn’t even bother to shade its contempt. “Jennifer said that you summoned me.”
“I’m told you’ve been wandering around the Telsco building.”
“I walk the shipping outlet along the canal.”
“Its my breaktime for one thing, and it calms me.”
I frequently called him Super Mario under the false pretense of teasing: Fuckface behind his back. Shaking his head, he’d usually growl “I don’t know who that and walk. The confrontation always ended satisfactorily to me. I annoyed him and made him go away, wishing he could find a legitimate excuse to me.
“Goddamn: being a pain in the ass gets me off.”
Returning to the present meeting-grudge-match.
“You think you’re smarter than everyone else.”
“Not everyone else no, but I’ll admit that I do get that a lot.”
Come on bitch. You know through that professional veneer that you want to call me an arrogant little prick. Please open that can of worms.
“You’re not smarter than me, son.” He chuckled in angry mania, inviting me to crack my mind-knuckles, and divebomb for the win.
I smirked push from the plastic, plastic-aluminum legged chair. Rooting the tips on the scabbed Walmart-board table, cocking my head in instigation.
“You want to know why I call you Super Mario?”
“I told you that I don’t know who that is.” He squirmed, swingling his office chair like a cat waving its tale in annoyance.
“Let me expound. He’s a small, fat, pug faced man, lost in a shitty fantasy universe, stomping on anything that gets in his way.”
“Go back to work.”
“I’m on break. I’ll be on the far end of the plant. “My lips on the doorknob, my smile grew to my ears. “Did I mention that he had a mustache?”
Am I petty? I try to use my powers for good but fucking boomers just take me there.
“Stop dropping shit in the toilet, dammit!” I roared to my wife, angry that on top of having to pull the thing out of the floor, fighting a case of pneumonia, my two-year-old son was in the way.
“It’s a toilet.” She joked. I didn’t laugh.
“I mean rubber ducks and whatever the hell else this kid is sticking in here! How the hell is he stuffing things in the toilet without anyone noticing?”
“He’s a handful, and you’re at work all day every day!”
This wasn’t my finest hour, coughing up blood, throwing tools from the bathroom into the hallway. “Get him out of my way!”
The toilet had been plugged for a couple days. I had been working at the factory on my days off and delivering pizza with whatever time I had. My wife’s shopping habit wasn’t cheap, and I thought it would by me silence. I just shit at work until I got too sick to work overtime or the pizzeria. A full day of sleep under my belt, I took the advantage to fix what should have been a simple problem. More fun still, was dragging the toilet out into the wet November air, not having found the problem.
“For then tenth time! Keep the baby in the house!” I roared to my wife. “And out of my way, because if I break this thing, Home Depot is closed, and I don’t think you want to piss in a hole till I get around to dealing with this tomorrow.
In retrospect, I had no idea how difficult it was to keep up with the kid. Like me , he was a terrible pain in the ass.
This was why I worked nonstop. I thought if she had to do it on her own, she’d learn to mother the baby on her own like every other mother. The toilet fastened back to the floor; my mood had not improved. I was coughing more violently. My wife’ pleas for me to go to the hospital, driving my resentment that she’d failed to watch the kid well enough to prevent him from jamming his bath toys into the fucking toilet. The argument shock waved, while my son sat in his diaper laughing his ass off, with common household items weaponized into a bluffed standoff.
“And I told you, that you shouldn’t be working so much!”
“Where else am I going to get ant peace and quiet?”
This wasn’t the first time that I’d said something I really shouldn’t have to my kid’s mothers. She was right. I was a workaholic. I’d always worked long and hard hours, but it was never pacifying. I stayed the night at my father’s house that night. I came home the next day to an empty house. I haven’t seen my son since November 2015. I had only met his older sister once. The peace and quiet that I’d been desperate for, crawled up my back like the angel of death.
The enormous building had been split into 3 different factories when I was Younger. Flex-Right had a different name at the time as it tended to every few years, and Telsco was on the opposite side. I’d worked in the Telsco plant when my daughter was on the way. I was drawn to that side of the plant, and I supposed the nostalgia of what had been a much more functional and loving relationship triggered the memories of a happier time. Something was driving me to find a way in. On the surface, I’d assumed I just wanted to explore it empty. With that side of the parking lot full today, I supposed the building was in use again. I couldn’t make myself comfortable raising my son. I ran from him, feeling I’d left something behind. I wonder if I felt what I had been chasing was in this abandoned building.
Flex-right had bough the Telco building years ago but couldn’t decide what to do with it. Someone had been in there. They’d left the overhead door open enough to crawl under. I asked myself if I really needed to explore the abandoned factory badly enough to crawl under a barely open door and back. I couldn’t have been that desperate, and I’d already been warned, three hours ago not to go into it.
I had been working for my father. Free of high school, like most teenage adults I turned impetuous quickly. We agreed working together wasn’t a good plan, so I found Telco through the temp agency. I felt accomplished, not realizing the temp agency hadn’t been entirely honest about the assignment.
Crawling underneath the door, I pushed myself up and brushed off my pants. There wasn’t much to behold. Looking to my left, I noticed the small, breakroom I’d looked inside on many of walks and found it lit to minimum town ordinance. The breakroom was lit. I was standing in the spot on the floor where I stood at 19. I knew for the curve of the trolly rail that ran automatically passed me. The thing always felt silly to me, like I was in the background of the Mr Rogers show. There was never anything in it so I couldn’t decide what purpose it served. It just wandered like a robot vacuum cleaner.
Telco’s production process was idiotic. The process from resin pellets to rolled film, moved onto a printing department, then to bag conversion in Flex-right accomplished a lot more. This machine did the whole thing from beginning to end in one enormous machine. It wasn’t working well, which is why I had a job: for now.
Completed bags moved slowly down a conveyor belt, where they would be cut, giving me a bundle of bags to stuff into a box. The clock at the end of the machine hanging 100 feet from the floor made the tedious, twelve-hour day, unbearable.
I was hired (assigned) this mind-numbing chore, for the fact that it had required so much maintenance that the operator didn’t have time to pack the hospital bags into their shipping boxes. The reason I had the job if I did was that it would not cooperate. Twelve hours a day, 6am to 6pm my only relief from the tedium was to make as many boxes as I could.
I consoled myself with the anticipation of my daughter. She’d greet the world soon, and I would do whatever I needed to, to make my family comfortable. Twenty years later, I haven’t seen her since she was an infant.
Pulling my safety glasses over my glazed, bald head, I looked closely at the clock. It showed accurate time with the seconds hands turning. I asked myself who would bother to change the batteries of a clock, mounted 100 feet up, in an abandoned factory for the past 20 years. Realizing that my break was coming to an end, I looked to the floor, with the intent to climb back from where I’d come.
It was closed. What the fuck? I hadn’t gone that far into the plant. I was annoyed but didn’t think it was too big a problem. They hadn’t closed the door to begin with so, I was sure. Yea, it was locked. That didn’t make sense, but not to panic. Running over to the door I’d once peer though, it made just as much sense that it wouldn’t be locked from the outside.
Oh shit…Ok, maybe panic a little. I’m trapped.
Twenty minutes went by, looking for every possible avenue of escape. Then another twenty-five. Even if I escape, there was no explaining my way out of this. I’d given Fuckface a reason to fire me. Shrugging my shoulders, I packed the fresh pack of Marb menthols, and slumped to the floor. I smirked as if the joke was on someone else. Setting the cigarettes tip a light, a glided onto my ass, spreading my legs on the concrete floor, resting my head on the cinder wall. Raising the cancer stick to my mouth I took a smooth, satisfying drag and contemplated my future; looked around and shuddered the memories tied in the dim light of this place and the memories tied to this hurtful time of my life.
Katie’s belly was bulging with my eldest growing inside. We hadn’t slept and it was clear that we wouldn’t. She didn’t like New York, longing for the simplicity of the south. She wasn’t eloquent in expressing her discontent.
“I want to go back to live with my mother. New Yorkers are assholes!”
“I’m a New Yorker!”
“So, what is it? The kids on the playground are a little hard on you, so you want to take your ball and go home?”
“You can’t hold a job, so yea, I’m going to take MY ball…” she pointed to her belly. “And get away from you!”
“What did I do?” I squealed, feeling as though I’d been hit in the side of the head with a hardball.
“Nothing!” She shook her head, packing what she could both in hers and my suitcases. “I lie. Its what you don’t do!” She stopped for a minute, writhing in manic frustration. “You don’t fucking listen!”
“I’m not a child!”
“Bullshit! You can’t figure out what to do with yourself, so you’re floundering! You can’t expect me to wait for the baby to get here to figure yourself out!”
“I suppose you have it all figured out then?”
“I’m going to stay with my mom and raise my kid with someone who knows what he’s doing!”
“That’s it, isn’t it? You’ve been listening to your cunt mother’s lies!”
I had legitimate reasons for saying that, but I shouldn’t have said it…in retrospect.
Six cigarettes later, it occurred to me that I couldn’t live on menthols alone. Whether my boss finds me, or I trigger a motion sensor alarm, I’ll have some serious explaining to do. I didn’t come in here for nothing. Something pushed me in her, like it drove me and my wife and son apart. I snuck in here for a reason. I might as well, do what I came here to do and determine what became of this shell of a building.
Worse case scenario, this is a real thing and motion sensors trigger the cops to come here and find out who is wandering around inside an abandoned but secured factory. They’ll ask me why. My answer probably won’t make sense, so deciding they have better things to do they’ll scold me for trespassing and leave me to hash it out with my boss. He’ll fire me for insubordination, at best and I’ll file for unemployment after a full day’s rest.
I thought I’d been awake too long for the sounds off footfalls. The Bob Marley clanking of chains didn’t surprise me. I couldn’t hear them so clearly back then, but I remembered an intricate chain and pully system, running in and out of the hoppers. They looked mean, and that twisted side of my mind asked what would happen if someone were to fall from the maintenance catwalk into the chain-link web. The foot falls left a shadow around the fully lit breakroom. The newsfeed still rotated with birthdays, employee anniversaries, and the ancient history of company plans on a small, ceiling mounted tube TV.
Another set of footfalls tied to the shadow of a skirted young girl, disappeared behind a hopper. Something or someone whispered to her, and she giggled. My shoulders startled with the desperate screams, and the flailing activation of the chain web system. I remembered where the front entrance where I’d punches in those hot summer days in 2002. It was made of wood, though with the plant rarely closed, it was always open.
Fluid piddled onto my forehead. Dripping down, I smeared my face, tasting iron. The scream echoed. Surely, it could be heard across the plant. Who was trapped in here and why? What was happening to this person? Why was he here. Why was he being tortured? All those questions gnawed me from the inside as I slammed the door. It wasn’t made of rickety, century old wood anymore. The building was closed in tight.
“Steel doesn’t budge.
Nursing my bruised shoulder, I turned to find a recognized resin gutting system, irrigating blood sole deep at my feet. The scream of agony turned to manic laughter. Stepping into the light I squinted, the blond, ten-year-old girl shushed me with one finger. My eyes squinted, along with the rest of my face, determined to figure out who she was as she pranced away deep into the shadows.
“Stop! Please, let me talk to you!”
The toes of one foot stubbed beneath a pipe that I should have seen. I face planted. My knees bruised and opened, pouring with my own blood and the pool forming from what must’ve been several victims soaked my hands and clothing.
“Come back, please! I just want to talk!” I couldn’t quite tell who she was, but I knew she was why I went where I was told not to go.
Soaked in blood, from my bald head to my feet, my socks now squishing in blood as if I’d been scooped up in a tidal wave, I’d caught up to the girl. She felt smart to me. I’d caught up with her because she wanted me to. Looking down to her, completely unstained, I fell in love with her strangely familiar blue eyes. I felt I needed to pick her up and hold her. Extending her arms I pulled her to me, realizing the girl was a young woman. Pulling away, I found I’d been hugged by the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen. She still wasn’t stained. For a moment, I’d forgotten the horror, I’d been chasing and trying to escape.
Blood splashed, rushing up from the cement floor, nearly drowning me as if at the base of the Niagara Falls. Regaining my footing, I’d seen the same splash pass through my daughter as if she were a ghost. I investigated the chain-link cobweb to a man, wrapped like a fly. They chains moved as they were meant to, pooping his shoulders apart. Pulling his legs from his hips. Unnatural gallons of blood soaked the walls and equipment left behind by Telco. His limbs splayed from his body, the pops of his knees and his shattering shins was audible.
“I’m not guilty!” He cried. “I didn’t mean it!” He laughed. “I’ll go back to work! I’ll do anything! Just let me hold you! Just once!”
“What is all this? Who is that?”
“Don’t you recognize him? You feel his pain every day.” The gruesome images didn’t seem to bother her until she looked up. “This is what you’ve been running from.” Roxie’s eyes watered. “a lifetime of unbearable, unacceptable losses.”
“I love you. I loved your mom, but I’d give up everything from the day she left till now to be your dad and not just your father.”
“What about my brother?”
I sometimes felt the same way with my sister. I felt left behind in favor of the girls. I couldn’t dad my son. I struggled not to resent him for losing Roxie. I’d lost it all for the regret of losing my little girl.
The poor soul did what both my father and I do under too much stress. An arm falling into the chain of networks, he dangled awkwardly making senseless jokes. My dad taught me to take ownership of everything circumstance in my life, even when it was beyond my control. He also taught me not to take life seriously enough. He said it would make me feel better, but like any coping mechanism it leads to a cocoon of self lies. Lies that lead us to fall.
Laughing maniacally as his soul tried to escape, he’d wiggled from his limbs, leaving them in the web as what remained whistled to the floor. His head spinning, splashing around above he broken soldiers, his entrails spilling onto the concrete, I turned him over. Smearing the blood from his face, I found my mirror image.
“How is he still alive?”
“He chooses to be. He suffers through the unbearable pain, the injustice, the cruelty, the near hopelessness because he can’t give up and for us.”
“Love makes us do stupid things, doesn’t it?”
“Nah. Love gives us courage.”
I stood from my doppelgänger as he choked to death. Roxie and I watched as he smiled, and the life faded from his eyes. He was free.
“I held you in my arms when you were a year or so old. All I’ve known of you since, is a smattering of pictures, a video slipped to your grandma Robin on the downlow. How do you know anything about me?”
“I’m your daughter. We’re still family because you kept me in your heart and thoughts. I knew you were out there. We Drews share dreams. We experience them together as one story.”
“Your mother didn’t tell you that whoever she was dating was your dad?”
“Are you kidding me!” Her laugh through her forward. “I figured out that was bullshit by the fifth one.” I was proud of the Drew grade sarcasm. It made me feel like I raised her. “Your nightshift is over. You’ve worked yourself to death trying to escape guilt and regret. I know you’re out there, and I’ll find you someday. Stop running and stop searching. Leave this place behind. Your life is right in front of you: waiting.”
Looking between the gruesome contrast of my gruesome lump and my baby girl, the sun shewn through glazed, broken windows. Darkness was fading outside the world, the nightmarish hell I’d made for myself. My daughter was leading me to a new life.
“I can’t decide if you look more like your grandma or your Aunt Candace.” I was beyond proud of her. She was so wise and beautiful didn’t do her justice. “You have your grandma’s smile. Just promise me you’ll leave this place behind.”
“I have my own dreams. We’ll be seeing more of each other. I stopped in, to you to live yours.”
“That’s something your grandma would say.”
I couldn’t decide whether I should say it or wait to see if she was inclined to.
“And I wanted to tell you that I loved you.”
The walls of the factory glowed white, into nothing as I hugged my daughter, savoring every ounce of pressure, squeezing every drop of love. For the first time in my kids lives I felt it was ok to love them both.
My first cup of coffee in hand, I stand, now fifty years old on my mom’s porch. I haven’t punched a clock in over a decade, and it’s taken me a decade to accept that. In 2032, it seems like yesterday that I lamented turning 40, thrashing about, unwilling to accept that I’d never work again. My effort to work defined me since I was a teenager. It had been my only relief from emotional turmoil and loneliness. No one will ever understand but I’d decided at 40 that I didn’t need anyone to. This was my pain and I needed to make peace with it.
In truth this is a largely fictional story. Based on actual events and circumstances in my life, I’ve mishmashed it to simplify my journey as much as possible. Neither our dreams or our nightmares, our hopes and our fears are linear. The timelines don’t always make sense, especially when you look back as far as yesterday. Our hopes and dreams happen in the day, with our fears and nightmares at their darkest, just before the dawn. If you ask me, God gives us dreams and nightmares to tell us when to stop searching, and not to start running.
My feet curls beneath my legs I bask in the setting sun, lighting my last cigarette for the day. My mother sits next to me; her still lovely, 71 year old smile teasingly scolds me for smoking, but she’s given up that battle. Her scold turns quickly to that shit eating grin that I’ve inherited. She knows a brighter night is coming.
My phone rings. I recognize the area code, but I’ve been disappointed by a recorded line so many times that I don’t intend to answer it.
“Aren’t you going to answer your phone?” My mother urged. Looking closer I found it to be a facetime request. I couldn’t even say hello.
“My grandma gave me your number. I’m your daughter, Roxie.”
“Hi Roxie.” My eyes flooded in shock, torn between the urge to laugh and cry. My mother pushed her way into the camera.
They knew each other. Though 21 years old she was still baby girl. I would never and will never let that go.
“So, Roxie. We have some catching up to do. Tell me about yourself.”
The sun sets on a new day.
James Drew is a Rochester author and playwright.