White Whale Review: An Online Literary Magazine Untitled Document
WHITE WHALE REVIEW
Jake LaDuke
Jake LaDuke graduated from Western Michigan University with a BA in English (Creative Writing) and a minor in Journalism. He resents it when people in Human Resources advise that he remove his Associate of the Arts Degree from Kalamazoo Valley Community College from his resume. This memoir, "Revolving Doors" reflects one of the jobs he held while acquiring that degree. LaDuke now lives in Chicago and is currently enrolled in The Second City’s Comedy Writing Program and also serves as Assistant Non-Fiction Editor for Third Coast Magazine.

From the Current Issue
Loading...
Subscribe to RSS     Share

Revolving doors

Jake LaDuke

It’s two-till-six on a Saturday morning, and for the sixth day this week I’m plowing my car into a snow bank, alongside all the other shit-banger Oldsmobiles, rusted-out Fords, and primer-blue Chevys with no hubcaps.

When I first started working here a couple months ago, the hardest part of the day was waking up and getting out of bed when the alarm clock trumpeted 5 a.m. Now that I’ve gotten used to the sleep deprivation, the hardest part of the day comes after I’ve driven to work and just have to get out and walk inside.

“Motherfuckingpieceofshitcockass,” I say, breaking the silence after another BBC News Service story is cut short.

National Public Radio plays a crucial role in my willingness to live. I don’t have time to read a daily newspaper or the desire to sift through the pre-packaged, bullshit propaganda of network TV news, so I rely solely on NPR’s wide-ranging coverage

keep me connected to the world outside this strange fluorescent world of factory work. On a good day, NPR keeps my involvement in the robot-for-hire industry in perspective. The problem is that perspective, like any other drug worth taking, has a comedown.

“Son-ofa-bitch-bastard-fucking-cunt,” I say, bumping my head repeatedly against the steering wheel.

I assess my surroundings: the McDonald’s bags on the passenger seat, a serious layer of dust on the dash, the Pop-Tart wrappers and a couple of over-priced textbooks that cover the passenger-side floor. My car is slowly developing the same symptoms as my shower.

The plumbing in the tub varies by the day but ranges from partly to mostly clogged, such that the water backs up within the first minute of running water. The trick is to avoid looking at the buildup. A few days ago, I looked down. The image haunts me like a shitty horror film. I see the monster rise from beneath my feet, which look like veiny chicken breasts, floating in a murky, gray stew of everything


I want to wash off.

To call it dirt is a euphemism. It may start out as dirt, but at the end of the workday, it’s filth, it’s sweat and dust and woodchips and metal shavings stuck in areas they have no business being. The end result looks like dirt. But I know better.

I imagine the monster spawning in my clogged shower the way Greek gods were born from sacrificed blood and severed genitals.

As it stands this morning, I have three day’s worth of grease underneath my turquoise knit-hat, and I’m a week behind in the readings for all of my classes. I was supposed to play catch-up this weekend, but it looks like academia will, once again, be put on the back burner. I try not to think too much about it. It makes me sweat, which only increases the need to shower.

“Fuck it,” I say, grabbing my backpack from the back seat and opening my car door.

Only thirty-six weeks of this shit left.

Stepping out into the deep, cold, ass-crack-of-

dawn’s darkness, I make my way toward the

entrance. The snow crunches under my feet.

My snot’s freezing before I reach the door, where six of the smoker crew, having already punched-in, wait out the first buzzer next to the loading docks. Their tired eyes and thick five o’clock shadows make them all look like they’ve walked through a coalmine wearing ski goggles. They’re hunched over in the same formation that they were in the day I started here, still sucking on the same Marlboros they have since high school, leaning against the same factory they’ve worked at for longer than most of them care to remember, bundled up in the same flannels and blue jeans they’ve been wearing since the day their work clothes and bar clothes became one, single out-dated wardrobe.

“Little fucking cold for cancer isn’t it, gentlemen?” I say, opening the door and feeling the heat and squinting from the arsenal of fluorescent lights inside.

“How tall are you, LaDuke?” says one of them, distinguishable only by the red-tipped Marlboro bobbing up and down from his lips.


“I don’t know,” I say, fulfilling my role. “Five-nine, five-ten.”

“I didn’t know they could stack shit that high,” says the man I now recognize as the union steward, Mac Jones.

I close the door on a couple of low, hacking laughs and I smile. Jokes on a Saturday are like paid holidays, they happen, but never often enough.

 

First buzzer

I hit the punch clock just as the ugly block numbers switch from 5:59 to 6:00, and the first buzzer annihilates the morning quiet the same way I imagine a claymore would a beachfront stroll through the moonlight. I walk down the long, grey, two-fork-truck wide aisle that stretches the length of the factory toward my workstation.

Saturdays mean extended overtime. This means we’ve already punched in at least fifty hours this week. This means that if there’s a guy left in here who hasn’t contemplated slitting his wrists with his tape measure yet this week, he will today.

I work in the lightweight packing and shipping department. What I’m paid to do here involves a hot glue gun, an air-hose powered industrial stapler the size of an iron, and a machine called a Bander that as the name suggests, bands things. These are my weapons in the never-ending battle of packing and shipping doors.

When I interviewed for this job, right after the plant manager Tim St. Onge told me, this company, “…is to the commercial door industry what Kleenex is to the facial tissue industry…” He went on to point out that aside from Eliason’s quality, its shipping speed is stand-alone.

I am the only person in the lightweight packing and shipping department.

In the morning, I get a daily production list from my group leader Brandon. On that list are all of the doors that will be assembled and shipped out that day. If I finish the day’s work early, he’ll give me the next day’s, and we work off of that production list. This process is repeated until forever. On the day’s production list is anywhere from twenty to fifty order numbers. Each of these


order numbers is an order for one or more doors that I have to pack and ship for that day. Each order has, in theory at least, a corresponding piece of green paper that tells me the specs for the door(s) to be shipped and peel-off address stickers stapled to it. These pieces of green paper are filed into a giant red book with cardboard pages and tabs sticking out of it like a ten-pound Rolodex. The tabs are labeled by the first three digits of the order number. Every month, when the order numbers outgrow the tab labels, Mary, the fifty-year-old, five-foot-tall, heavy weight packing group leader and trucker liaison comes over and takes my giant red book over to her side and then comes back half an hour or so later with new and improved labels that can accommodate the new order numbers.

If an order isn’t where it’s supposed to be, or it doesn’t have address labels attached to it, or doesn’t have the right address labels attached to it, I have to walk to the heavyweight side of the factory and ask Mary if the order’s on hold. If she doesn’t know, which is usually the case, I have to take it to the foreman, Steve Asher, whose role is that of the blame delegator.

After I pull all the day’s orders, I start the packing process.

Before I started working here I never really gave much thought to who made the things I bought, and even less about the bastard paid to package it. Now that I am that bastard, I’ve developed a heightened sense of empathy.

My few months here have served as a crash course in how subtle, pain-in-the-pisser it is to make sure things go from shop to customer smoothly. Just like at the casino, it’s all probability; there’s only one scenario where the things I do go right, and there’s a bunch of ways for things to really fuck me up.

The only way things go right is if I put the right door with the right specs inside the right size box that has the right address labels on it. After the door is in the box, I lay it on its side and have to find the right hardware to ship with the door. The hardware is the hinge that hangs the door in the doorway. This step is key, because if a door ships without the right hardware it’s about as useful as if


we shipped them a new car without any fucking keys.

There’s no reason for you to know this, but my company patented the swinging door hinge that’s in almost every restaurant and grocery store you’ve ever been in.

We make doors for chain restaurants that separate the kitchen full of Spanish-speaking cooks who heat up steaks in plastic bags from the customers who pay $15 for it. We make doors that separate the grocery store stock room where the employees play baseball with ground sirloin from the customers who buy it in neatly wrapped cellophane. We make doors that cost a lot of money, and we sell a lot of them.

My company’s patent ran out a long time ago, so there are some knock-off brands, but the company assures us our door is still, ‘The industry standard’.

We are the Cadillac of the commercial door industry.

My job is a lot of work, but I’m pretty good at it. I wouldn’t still be here if I wasn’t. But when I do

fuck up, I hear about it from the plant manager, Tim St. Onge.

St. Onge is the HMFIC, directly under the owner. He’s a middle-aged guy with black but graying hair that he keeps slightly longer than a buzz so as to maintain the most aerodynamic form possible. The man is a machine. He is programmed to walk a seven-minute mile pace no matter where he’s going, and he has to pick up any piece of trash he can find on the floor – and he wears cologne as though he purchased it by the gallon. Sometimes I smell him before I see him. I’ll get a whiff of something other than sawdust or the stinging smell of metal cutting metal, and I’ll turn and see St. Onge, thirty yards away, bee-lining toward somebody who is soon to hear how he fucked up.

I’ve gotten that talk enough times to know how it goes. It always starts out the same way.

“Jacob, how are we?” He asks as if we both don’t know what’s coming. At least he doesn’t wait for a response before he continues. “I don’t think anyone’s ever been brave enough to wear that color in the shop.”


He’s pointing to the pink t-shirt I’m wearing.

“The things we do for fashion …” I say looking into his eyes, which are clearly looking at the spaces between my front teeth. Behind Tim, I see my group leader Brandon walk toward his workstation at St. Onge speed — bad news for me means bad news for him too.

“We had a couple hardware shortages last week, again,” St. Onge says handing me a sheet of paper with a few nine-digit production order numbers on it. He looks at me as though the numbers are supposed to mean something, and I’m surprised because one of them does.

“Yeah, this one was for two 82x35 DSP’s, full stainless steel…” I say, almost adding how those things are a motherfucker to pack. “I’m pretty sure I put hardware in all of those, I had to do them one-per-box because they’re so heavy.”

“Yes, that was the order you put the wrong hardware in,” He says without looking at the sheet.

Tim thinks that every time I have a hardware mix-up he needs to give me another crash-course in

why each door needs to be shipped with hardware.

“You know, the customer can’t hang the door without the hardware…”

“Yea I know,” I say. “Sometimes I just get moving so quick I get mixed up.”

“Well you know, I’d rather ship a few less doors per day if that means we do it right, as opposed to shipping more doors and making more mistakes.” He says raising his eyebrows over his sporty prescription safety glasses.

I make my apologies and promises of redemption. It’s no small wonder why all the guys rag on St. Onge every chance they get — I don’t really like the guy either, he’s a cyborg. The guy sees everything in dollars and doors. But to give the guy his due, he’s no different than any other asshole in here; he is what he’s paid to be, and nothing more.

Brandon assures me that the chew-outs I get are kiddy versions compared to how St. Onge leans on some of the other guys.


“You kidding me, guy?” Brandon says looking around to see if anyone can overhear him. “You’re his young stud out here…he prolly jerks off to your timesheet every night—seeing how many doors you’re putting outta here.”

I take a casual step away from Brandon and go back to my paperwork.

 

The first thing I do every day is sort my orders, organizing them by door size. I do this because each door is made to order and the size varies, so the box size does too. Each box is made of reinforced corrugate, it weighs eleven pounds and takes seven minutes to make. The average box is eighty-nine inches tall, thirty-nine inches wide and eight inches thick. Box making is a two-step process that consists of sliding two, giant pieces of partially stapled cardboard together (outers and inners), then sliding the open edge with creased flaps onto my chipped wooden table, which has dozens of corresponding holes on both sides numbered from twenty-two through forty-three. The idea is to stick a bent piece of metal into the size-marker needed,

and stretch the inner until both ends of the box touch the metal, then glue the inner to the outer.

Then things get really exciting.

The gluing process is the most physically hazardous part of my job. The process requires me to spray glue from a glue gun along the overlapping part of the cardboard, then quickly run the wide bottom of the gun along the trail of molten glue, pressing down with my body weight and sealing the two pieces together. There are several places where things can go wrong. The glue gun can become jammed and I squeeze the trigger with my four fingers until either a) the glue explodes out with money-shot force, covering my free hand with sticky lava or b) the mechanical device that pushes the glue stick through the hot nozzle breaks, and I have to explain to Asher—the head foreman in the shop—that I’ve broken another glue gun.

“Wott the fuck monn?” he’ll say in his deep and terribly slow voice. I’m glad he usually smiles at me when he says this. He talks so slow sometimes I think he’s going to fall asleep in mid-sentence.


Asher is management, but I’m assured by several of the guys that he has the drinking habits of a union worker. About five months ago he had a seizure and was taken away in an ambulance because apparently, he’d been on such a bender he’d forgotten to eat for a few days. By the time the ambulance got there, his blood sugar was so low he almost slipped into a coma.

Asher and I don’t talk much, and when we do it’s usually about finding me a new glue gun.

When I’m making boxes I lean them all against a big metal shelf to save room, making the tallest and widest ones first. I do this because if I have my 45’’x 97’’ boxes leaned up against a 33” x 32’’ café box, they tend to fall all over the place. The idea is that if they’re all lined up biggest to smallest, I can pull the box I need and the rest will lean further onto the one in front of it, the less space between boxes the better. When things go wrong, I get an avalanche. An avalanche takes time to sort out, and I usually don’t have any to spare if I’m going to get all of the day’s orders out. In addition to losing time, an avalanche is also an ego killer: it’s an opportunity

for the deplorable peanut gallery that is Brandon’s team of lightweight assemblers to take their shots at the new guy. An avalanche means I get to hear the not-so-smart-ass comments of everybody around my workstation who sees it, the most popular being TIMBER, WHOOPS, and RUT-ROW.

Most days, an avalanche is unavoidable — but the idea is to orchestrate the avalanche in the most time efficient way. This is something they do not teach you in community college.

When Mac Jones, the union steward once asked me why I don’t sign one of the bids for building or assembly, I told him it would break Brandon’s heart. If I were being more honest I’d have told him that staying busy at my job beats the fuck out of hiding out in the bathroom staring at an Auto Trader like it’s porn, or standing around screwing the same bolt in and out for an hour, watching the clock piss itself away, like a lot of the guys in building and assembly do. But I try to keep things friendly.

One time, I stapled up a door and carried it over to a truck driver after lunch had started.


“We all get paid by the hour here,” Mac hollered at me on his way out for a cigarette. That was one of the many times I was thankful I worked in an open shop.

The way it works is everybody goes through a ninety-day probation period, which Brandon says is a lot like high school, “If you show up, you pass …” Once you pass, you get hired in, then you decide whether you want to join the union or donate your monthly dues to a charity of your choosing.

The first time I met Mac he introduced himself as the union steward and he told me he’d get me a copy of the last contract he negotiated with management, “As soon as I walk my lazy ass to the back of the shop.”

I never got that copy. After my ninety days I became a donor to the local Habitat for Humanity.

“I’ll tell you what there, guy,” my group leader Brandon says as he takes another step closer to me and handing me another day’s production list. He always says the same thing when he hands it to me. “When you transfer over there to Michigan State, you’re gonna really miss this stuff.”

His voice is nasally on account of chronic allergy problems. One of the problems that concerns me most is his inability to cover his mouth when he sneezes.

Brandon’s about five-five, chunky, and balding. His safety glasses have thick, prescription lenses. He’d like you to think the lenses make his eyes look like a little boy’s would through the magnifying glass he burned anthills with, but in reality he probably owned an ant farm and stared at those fuckers for hours.

“What happened to your beard?” I say, while I remove my hat and take a subtle step away from him. Brandon always maintains eye contact longer than is socially necessary.

“Oh,” Brandon says, pausing for a moment and taking another step closer to me, his gut now sagging only inches away from my hand. “I guess I should tell you before Rob does… Me and Rob were trying to get the ol’ truck to start up, and I was spraying starter fluid into her while Rob was cranking on the ignition. You wouldn’t believe it, guy, the fucking thing just shot out this blue ball of


flame that just singed my shit. I’ve smelled my burning hair all night.”

Brandon keeps the remaining hair on top of his head clipped short, and his reddish-orange beard was about pinky-finger length, pre-fireball. Now, the areas around his mouth and chin are fingernail length and curl wildly in all directions.

Rob is Brandon’s friend who was recently hired in. Brandon is proud of this and attributed the accomplishment to his group leader status, which, in addition to giving him the privilege of being constantly chewed out by St. Onge, entitles him to eighty-two cents more an hour than those of us in his group.

“You know, guy,” Brandon says leaning forward, his gut pressing against my hand for one terrible moment before I recoil. “That son-of-a-bitch Rob is probably blabbing it all over the shop.”

“At least you’ve still got your stunning figure,” I say. Brandon’s red face lights up and he shifts his weight from one foot to the other.

“You could do with a hygiene class yourself

there, guy, you’ve got a pretty good grease slick going on, and those pants look like they haven’t been washed in a good two, three months.

“But speaking of hot bods,” Brandon says, spreading a familiar grin across his face. I know nothing I want to hear is about to come out of his mouth.

“The wife’s sister came into town again last night. She was playing with the baby… all hunched over, holding the baby’s hands while she takes steps… you know, total cleavage shot.” He’s holding his hands in front of his chest, his palms face-up and lifting his shoulders up and down as though he’s lifting invisible melons. “Snapped a couple Polaroids to save the moment, you know...”

“Brandon,” I say. “You telling me these ‘I-jack-off-to-my-sister-in-law moments’ is going to come back to haunt you when I write a book about it. Your kid was in the picture for fuck’s sake.”

“The only way anyone in my family would find out about your book, there, guy, is if you went on Oprah or it got made into a Lifetime movie,” Brandon says.


By now, my glue gun is hot enough for me to start the first part of the day. I shoot out a squirt of the steaming, molten glue onto my chipped wooden worktable and I stick my fingertip in it. It looks like honey, and the pain is sensational.

 

Morning Break: Second Buzzer

Even from outside the buzzer sounds like a bad recording of a volcano eruption, and in true reverse-Darwinian form, we all go back inside to work.

The snow is gone, the wind has lost its bitter harshness, and birds are starting to sing once again, tempting even those of us without nicotine addictions to go outside for a quick fifteen-minute break. I slip my safety glasses off the top of my head and wipe the grease smudged lenses on my t-shirt before putting them over my eyes. I inhale one last fresh breath and look at the trees beyond the now snowless parking lot before turning inside. I try to hold it in.

After the boxes have been made and stacked I’m

at the mercy of the lightweight assemblers. Brandon refers to them as his A-Team. These guys have taken the euphemism union pace to uncharted levels of apathetic slowness. There’s a lot of guys in the shop who have decades more seniority than Brandon does, but they all say that you couldn’t pay them enough to be lightweight group leader. This is because the position requires you to ensure the A-Team hits its numbers everyday. Brandon likes me because I’m the one person in his group whom he doesn’t have to mush. He still spends a lot of time around my workstation.

As the A-Team completes door after door with a trademarked ambivalence to detail, they stack them against the far wall, each door with a tag taped onto it. Once I finish making boxes, I head over to the far wall and match each tag with its corresponding box. Since the doors on the lightweight side usually live up to their classification, I slide each door into its box by hand in a demented tango which involves tipping the door on its corner edge and sliding the box underneath it before dipping it to the ground on its closed edge and sliding it to a pile leaned up against


my workstation. This tango is about as fun as a hernia when the doors are stainless steel.

At this point I just have to check each door’s r’s: that it was built with the right specs, that I slid in the right hardware, and that I made sure that everything else that could have possibly gone wrong has gone right. Perfect. When I fail to do so, I hear about it.

After perfection is verified I staple the box closed and cart each door over to larger piles of doors that are sorted by which trucking company is transporting it. This is where I get to do a lot of my socializing.

 

While walking back from the billionth trip from shipping back to my workstation, I see Robert, a black guy from New Orleans who’s worked here for thirty years, on the other side of the aisle. As usual, he’s blasting gospel music at rock-concert volume. Meanwhile Randy, the overweight hardware guy, is at my workstation, taking inventory of the parts he should have brought me yesterday. He stops counting when he sees me.

“How many you need today you little homo?” Randy says, his walrus-like mustache covering his upper lip like a large rug in a small room.

Randy is the closest thing to a brother I have in this place. Not because we particularly like each other, but because we know that no matter how pissed off we get at each other, not interacting isn’t an option.

I call him a piece of shit and tell him that the number hasn’t changed from the day before.

“You’re some foul-mouth, little punk, you know that?” Randy says shaking his head. There are beads of sweat threatening to leap from his receding hairline down onto his sourpuss face. “Fifty-seven channels and nothin’s on, Jake.”

Randy quotes song lyrics better than he does scripture. This wouldn’t be the case if he was a better Jehovah’s Witness, but I try to avoid that subject as often as possible. Our main topics of conversation are music, the 70’s, drug anecdotes, and other deprecating stories.

One day I showed Randy a glue-burn mark in


the webbing between my middle and ring finger. That reminded him of a similar scar.

“I got one on my hand from when my brother stabbed me,” Randy says showing me a small patch of scar tissue between his pinky and wrist. “You ever play that game when you’re a kid…I forget the name…where you and a buddy stand facing each other and throw a knife in the ground next to the other guy’s foot?”

I hadn’t played this game.

“Well, I missed and got my brother right in his foot,” Randy says. When Randy’s smiling his eyes start to squint. “My brother got all bent outta shape and took it outta his foot and stuck me right in the hand. I told you, the guy’s a psycho…even back then.”

Randy hasn’t spoken to his brother in over a decade. Apparently they had a falling out regarding what was, then, Randy’s new religion.

“The Truth’s the Truth,” Randy always says whenever I question anything from the Jehovah’s Witness’ playbook. I don’t understand how that

serves as a legitimate argument, but that’s probably because I wasn’t born knowing I was going to heaven.

Randy has gone back to counting pieces of hardware on my workstation. He takes out a handkerchief from his back pocket and wipes his receding hairline, then goes back to staring at his clipboard.

I ask him why the fuck he’s sweating, seeing as he hasn’t done a goddamn thing all day.

He looks up from his inventory sheet and shakes his head for a moment.

“You don’t know what it’s like over there,” he says pointing to his work area next to Robert’s. “I got his jungle-jive blaring, Asher keeps coming over asking me why I sent a package that he told me to overnight a week ago, and St. Onge keeps coming out from the office to give me crap about asking for somebody to help me out over there.”

I express my surprise that he doesn’t find solace in Robert’s gospel music, what with him and God being on a first-name basis, and all.


Randy’s face becomes so contorted you’d think somebody replaced his burly mustache with a big clump of dog shit and he’s smelling it for the first time.

“You know LaDuke, you’re about as classy as piss on a toilet seat,” Randy says, the sweat now drizzling down the side of his face.

This is a familiar dance. We can talk about drugs and music with mild disagreements, but whenever religion comes up, the conversation usually falls right off the fucking alter.

From what Randy tells me, it’s starting to go the same way with his daughter.

 

Company policy is that cell phones aren’t even permitted in the shop. Of course everyone broke this rule, but making a phone call during working hours on outlawed phones is a line most guys don’t cross. One morning a while back, Randy had asked me an hour before break, if he could make an illegal phone call on my cell phone to call his daughter.

This was serious. He was asking me to be an accomplice in a crime I didn’t expect him to commit. I asked why he couldn’t wait till break.

“None of your damn business, Jake.” he said with that look he gives me when he doesn’t want to play anymore.

He’d already made it my business a week earlier. He told me his son-in-law wouldn’t let him inside his house, a result of what Randy said was his son-in-law’s, “Not being able to accept the Truth.”

I gave him my phone.

At the next buzzer I went into the break room to get it back. I bought a can of Coke from the vending machine and sat down on the mustard colored picnic bench across from Randy; he seemed deeply engrossed in his USA Today front page.

He handed my phone back without looking up from the newspaper. I sat there a moment, staring at him, waiting for thanks, or an explanation. Randy just looked down at his paper. The silent treatment from Randy meant he was near a cracking point.


“You know,” I said, aware that the other guys in the break room were looking my way. “USA Today is a real piece of shit newspaper.”

Randy closed his paper and looked directly into my eyes. “Jake, just shut the fuck up and leave me alone.”

I had never heard Randy say "fuck" before. I assumed the same went for the guys who were listening in, because a couple of them were stifling laughs. This meant there was only one more verbal hurdle left to push him over.

I waited a moment, counting the vulture smiles from the other guys on the bench before continuing, “It’s one of the few publications that you can read cover to cover and actually come out dumber than you were before you read it,” I said, feeling a smile spread across my face the way the ocean feels crude oil spread from a punctured tanker.

Randy slammed his hand down on the paper and I couldn’t help but flinch.

“Goddammit Jake, just shut up! For five goddamn minutes, in your whole goddamn life!”

His face was redder than I’d ever seen it, and he stormed out of the break room through the stainless steel Eliason door.

The break room erupted with laughter and I felt my face burn. I knew that I’d accomplished something great at the cost of something equally large.

Quickly, the guilt-demons of my old Catholic upbringing rustled about in my head. I tried to justify the attack on Randy’s already damaged reputation, remembering the time I'd given him an article about the need for cohesion between science and religion written by the Dali Lama. Randy brought the article back to me after break.

“Garbage in and garbage out,” Randy said throwing the article at me like a Frisbee.

I asked him what the fuck he meant by such a statement. “Just cuz some ignorant gook writes something don’t make it true, Jake,” Randy said


with the certainty of a math teacher correcting long division.

I don’t remember the string of profanities I hurled back at him but I remember him waddling away a few steps before he turned back toward me.

“The Truth’s the Truth,” he'd said.

 

Randy finishes with his inventory sheet and waddles back to his workstation to start packaging the hardware I’ll need for the day, so I turn around back toward my workstation to see Brandon standing a few inches away from me, smiling. His breath reeks of gas station coffee.

“Didn’t mean to scare you, there, guy,” Brandon says, handing me the next day’s work list and taking a step closer, nullifying my step backwards. “You’re looking pretty rough there, guy. You need to kick the girlfriend out a little earlier and get some sleep. Tell her it’s just like the county fair, the rides close at ten.”

I look at the work list just to stop thinking about how long Brandon has been standing behind me, his

stank coffee breath creeping across the back of my neck.

“You’ve got to be fist-fucking me,” I say, now more angry than disgusted. “Sixty doors? How many did Scrappy have to do when he was doing my job?”

“About half, if he were having a good day,” Brandon says, trying to spread what’s supposed to be an evil grin across his face. I taught him the word sadistic a while ago, and he’s been trying to make the shoe fit for a few weeks now.

“But don’t worry, there, guy, that’s just your buddy St. Onge up in management taking advantage of having a young, fit, stud, that can finish the job.

“Besides,” Brandon says. “You better soak up this overtime with you leaving in a couple months.”

He might as well have puked on my chest. I’m instantly nauseous and I feel sweat pumping from my body. I feel the warmth and know that dark gray splotches are forming at the armpits of my filthy white t-shirt upon which I’d written I am not a robot.


“I don’t know man,” I say. I’ve known it for a few weeks but haven’t said it out-loud to anyone yet. Saying it out loud made the unfortunate possibility so much more real. “I don’t know if I’m going to be able to go to State in the fall. I got my financial aid letter a while ago and they’re only giving me three grand for a year that’s gonna cost eighteen.”

I avoid Brandon’s awkward gaze, which isn’t anything out of the ordinary, but I can tell he knows the mood’s changed.

“You gonna see if you can get it sorted out with student-loans?” Brandon says.

“I applied to all of State’s preferred lenders and they all said I don’t have enough credit. And my parents said they can’t co-sign because their credit is already in the shitter.”

I feel my t-shirt clinging to my back and the sweat runs warm, then cold on my skin.

I pick up my glue gun and squirt a pool of it onto my chipped, wooden worktable. It looks like molten gold and I stick my fist into it but this time there is nothing sensational about the pain. The glue

quickly hardens and I peel it away from between my knuckles.

“Gee there, guy,” Brandon says, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. The pause between his words outlasts his usual prolonged gaze. “You probably don’t want to hear this, but you’re not the only guy in here to have his dreams flushed down the drain. You think this is what everybody set out to do with their lives?”

I run my fingers through my greasy hair, pulling on two handfuls until they’re sticking straight up, I blow the loose hairs off my hand. I’m twenty years old and my thin, greasy, hair falls out like dishwater-blonde pine needles from a misshapen tree.

I look at my workstation and see the abandoned, twenty-week countdown that I stopped crossing out last week. I see myself twenty years from now with less hair, less teeth, humping this same shit job. I see Randy telling me the same acid stories and complaining how his brother hasn’t spoken to him in forty years. I see Brandon showing me his daughter’s senior pictures and telling me


how he misses the days when she would bring her girlfriends over to use his hot tub. I see myself: A top-heavy alcoholic, a cynical and self-loathing narcissist, apathetic enough to fuck up a shit sandwich and not notice, highly invested in whatever the future of Internet pornography offers.

“Fuck it.”

 

Lunch: Second Buzzer

My eyes jolt open, and the overwhelming smell of vinegar and baby powder explains the large hand wrapped around my calf before my eyes can readjust to the bright, white florescent lights.

My eyes focus in on the dark face, white teeth and pink gums of Robert Walker smiling at me. He’s wearing bright, blood-red pants with a bright, blood-red t-shirt, and topping it slightly less bright, blood-red baseball hat. Brandon and I call this his devil outfit. He has other one-color outfits in blue, beige, and black. The devil outfit is the only one he has a matching hat for. Brandon said he wore the devil outfit a few years ago on the day of the

catered, Christmas lunch they throw every year and it snowballed into this whole black Santa Claus thing. There are other names around the shop for it, but Brandon and I prefer to call it his devil outfit.

“Wakey wakey professor Jakey,” he says in his heavy New Orleans accent, pointing to the textbook lying on my chest that I’d fallen asleep reading. “You go out on the town last night Jakey?”

“No Robert,” I say sitting upright and folding my legs Indian-style, careful not to touch Robert’s hand. “Just class.”

“C’mon Jakey...WE GOIN OUT ON THE TOWN TONIGHT, JAKEY…” Robert says walking across the aisle toward his workstation to turn his gospel music back up to rock concert volume. “You a bad man Jakey…PROFESSOR JAKEY…”

Robert’s voice trails off when he reaches his stereo and starts up his gospel CD for the seven-hundred-and-fifty-thousandth time. It took me six months to understand what Robert was saying to me without having him repeat it three times.


“Tell you what there, guy,” Brandon says, popping out from behind me. “Robert’s on some good stuff today. You know if you took a few hits off whatever he’s smoking you wouldn’t be falling asleep studying.”

“Jesus-fucking-Christ,” I say hopping off my chipped wooden worktable, wiping the splinters from my greasy hair before placing the textbook back into my schoolbag underneath the worktable. “Let me get this straight, what exactly happened with his wife?”

“You mean the chicken one? Oh, man, you might want to remember this one in case you find out your girl’s banging some little Thailand-guy on the side…He walked in from the grocery store to find some other guy railing away on her, so he took the frozen chicken he had in his hand and just started beating the be-Jesus out of the both of ’em,” Brandon says.

I start to laugh, and feel a little bad about it. Aside from his wake-up calls, Robert has been nothing short of a good Christian neighbor to me. He’s constantly walking over to my workstation

with a box of past-due Hostess cupcakes, and Twinkies, and Jalapeno Kruncher potato chips, telling me to take as many as I want. I found out later that Robert has an arrangement with the vending machine guy, he gets past-due snacks and only God knows what the vending machine guy gets in return.

One morning, I was lying on my table before first buzzer and Robert came over to me with a plate full of thick slices of ham that were so covered with hot-sauce it looked like they’d just recently been ripped out of a pig.

“D’jew eat some breffast yet Jakey?” I heard Robert ask me.

“Naw, I didn’t have time, Robert,” I answered, before seeing what was in his hands.

Robert hoisted the plate a few inches away from my nose and waited for me to take a slice. The meat was cold and slimy, and I mashed it around in my mouth waiting for him to leave so I could spit it out, but he started talking to me about how long I’ve got left working here. So I swallowed and told him I’d be gone by Christmas.


After telling me about the chicken, Brandon says, “I’d tell you to wash wherever Robert grabbed you, but that’d be asking too much of you.” Brandon chuckles to himself. “Since your girl left you don’t have to wash up anymore? Oh yeah, I guess your washing habits weren’t much better when she was here.”

Brandon’s head jerks toward the door across the aisle that leads to the front office, like the first gazelle to see a lion charging toward the herd.

“Here comes the man,” Brandon says, lowering his head and scurrying off to his workstation.

I see Tim St. Onge approaching at his brisk-to-

the-point-of break-neck walking speed. Dressed in his usual black dress pants and button-down, brand name dress shirt, he walks through Robert’s rock concert for Jesus and is headed my way. His head tilted forward showing his white rooted and dark gray tipped hair, he’s looking at the ground, doubling back to pick up a piece of paper and throw it in Robert’s trash bucket. He turns back toward me, raising his gaze from the ground to look directly at me. Since my first interview with the

company, I’ve thought of Tim St. Onge as a Great White Shark.

“Jacob, how are we?” he says closing in on me from across the aisle.

“Pretty good, Tim,” I say looking at the clock.

“I know you still have a few minutes of lunch left but I was wondering when exactly you planned on leaving?” St. Onge says folding his arms close to his chest, staring at the bottoms of the dirt-worn jeans that I’ve rolled up to my shins. It’s getting colder outside and the leaves on the trees have changed to a burnt orange, but inside the factory is just as hot as it was a couple months ago.

“At the end of the semester, middle of December,” I say. St. Onge is hanging on my every word, staring at the space between my front teeth as though blood were shooting out of it. I imagine this is how Brandon stares at his sister-in-law’s breasts. “I’m going to Thailand for two weeks to visit my girlfriend who’s studying abroad, then I’m starting up at Western in the spring.”


“So your last day will probably be around when?” he asks, unfolding his arms to place his hands on his hips.

“Mid December-ish.”

“So before the holidays?” he says.

“Yes, more than likely.”

“Well, we’ll be sad to see you leave here,” he says looking over at next day’s production list. “But I think it’s a great thing you’re going back to school.”

“I’ve been going to school full-time the whole time I’ve worked here.”

“That’s right, that’s right,” he says returning his eyes to my teeth and nodding quickly a few times. “Well, we’ve been interviewing people this week and we should have you’re replacement here for training sometime next week assuming he passes his drug test.”

“Alright.”

He flashes a smile before turning on his heels

and heading back through Robert’s area to the front office door.

I look at the clock and see that there’s one minute left of my lunch break. The only thing worse than hearing the buzzer is knowing that you’re about to hear the buzzer. It’s like at the doctor’s office when he tells you that you need a shot in the ass. You hear him taking the syringe out of the paper wrapping, you smell the alcohol when he unscrews the cap, you feel the cold, wet, cotton ball dab your backside and all you can do is wait for the sting. It’s one of those ends justifies the means things.

The trouble with factory work is that there is no end point. It’s a never-ending recycling process. It’s the same day over and over with weekly quotas and daily production lists and a few three-day weekends here and there and end of the year inventory and union negotiations and biannual contracts and automation and no more than ten sick days per twelve months and funeral leave for immediate family members only and prescription safety glasses and trucking company promotional


calendars and management fucking the union and the union fucking its workers and benefit cuts and apathy and capitalism and bohemianism and sadism and drug tests before workman’s comp and big dreams crammed into small houses in bad neighborhoods and 401K’s and piece of shit cars on blocks with busted radiators and entire paychecks dumped on cheap drugs and while the tranquilized hands on the clock creep, the pages on the calendar burn and each presidential election brings you one step closer to the end of the series of accidents that have determined your whole life.

The buzzer screams its ugly requiem.

Twelve more weeks of this shit left.

 

Afternoon Break: Third Buzzer

Hugh stops speaking in mid-sentence as the buzzer rings. He doesn’t flinch; there’s no sign of frustration on his face, he just waits to finish his sentence, maintaining eye contact with me as though we were interrupted by a sneeze or a cough. Hugh’s long, fluffy whitish-grey hair is brushed back

in its usual fashion, the top stands a few inches off his head and the hair on the bottom of his head touches the top of his back and his stringy grey beard is long but clean. There’s a moment before he continues what he was saying, where his grey eyeballs take on a beady harshness I’ve never seen in them before.

“…I never saw the frontlines but we knew…we all knew where those missiles were going.” He exhales a short breath and turns toward his workstation, sticks a cassette tape into his ancient stereo sitting on the table next to his glue gun, and air-hose powered stapler.

“I’ll never forgive my country for making me a killer.”

I was sitting on Hugh’s metal workstation, silent for a moment. Hugh usually said things rhythmically; he had an almost musical way of communicating. But his last few words came out so dry, so raw, I didn’t know how to respond to them. It was one of the first real silences of my life, and I just sat there, drowning in it.


“Hey there, Spickoley, you think you’re back there in lightweight?” Merkle said to me. “Over here we get to work when the buzzer tells us to, or we get in line for unemployment.”

I slowly turn to face Merkle; his long and skinny scarecrow frame is facing me, both his hands are on his hips. His pale skin sags a little beneath his jaw line and his cheek bones stick out in a way that remind you there isn’t a whole lot between his skin and skeleton.

“I’ve still got a couple days before I’m unemployed, Merk.” I say.

“You’ll be heading on down there today if you don’t get off your ass and get to running these doors.”

“O’ Captain, my Captain.” I say, saluting him.

Merkle flashes me one of his rare, rotten-tooth smiles and turns back to his own workstation.

He is missing his back molars and his front teeth are small caramel Chiclets, filed down to the size of a toddler’s. I have no idea how old he is, but he was

in Vietnam too, though he wasn’t drafted like Hugh. Merkle wears an old, grey, beat-to-shit Detroit Tigers hat that he told me he got before I was born, back when they won the World Series. I’m not sure Merkle knows how old I am.

By now the rest of the heavyweight packing and shipping crew are waddling their way back to their stations. I follow suit, walking the ten or so footsteps to my new station, the heavyweight Bander. Since I finished training my replacement, Bob, Asher has had me here in heavyweight section of the shop. I’ve been sentenced to banding and running heavyweight doors till my last day.

Each heavyweight packer works off a tabletop made of metal rolling pins and each person’s table leads to an adjacent table of the same design that runs to the Bander. The only thing I’ve been instructed to actually do here is band wood boards to each packaged door that gets sent my way. It takes about half an hour for the speediest of the four packers (Hugh) to package a heavyweight door, and about two minutes for me to band a door, cut off any wood hanging off the bottom of the box so the


wood is flush with the bottom of the box, and flip the box onto a dolly and cart it to the appropriate truck pile, which range from ten to twenty yards away.

I have a lot of downtime between bandings.

This newfound absence of tasks has lead to the redefining the responsibilities of my job, adding a new category to my job, things I am not to do while waiting for a door to band. Forbidden activities include: reading, sitting, distracting the packers from their jobs, and writing anything not related to a serial number on wood boards to be sent to a customer.

These referendums were passed onto me from Mary, the heavyweight group leader. She explained her logic to me.

“I’m just telling you what other people have been fired for,” she said looking over my hunched back to see where I’d written, I am not a robot, on the plank of wood supporting the box.

These other bylaws, the prohibition of rest and literature, were responses to my futile attempts to

fill the new void my drastic loss of responsibilities had left me with.

The only time consuming activity yet to be kiboshed is dancing, which I do for roughly five hours a day.

“Boy, you look like you caught yourself a good case a palsy,” says Gary, the man whose workstation is next to the Bander I now operate.

Gary is the nicest racist man I’ve ever met. He’s told me that he could tell that his chronic use of the “n word” as I call it, upset me, and he’ll try to avoid using it. He’s also told me that he uses the term not to describe all people of color, “Just the no-good, lazy motherfuckers who’d shoot you just soon as look at you. You know what I mean…the niggers!”

I don’t know what he means. I also don’t know how Gary acquired his southern Texan drawl, since he told me he’d only lived in the south for a summer-long job in construction when he was eighteen. “Some things just stick with ya whether you wan’um to or not.”


I don’t consider Mary my group leader per se, partly because my job is more of a purgatory between the employed and the soon-to-be not, and partly because I’ve maintained a strong sectarian allegiance to my lightweight heritage.

I wrote Lightweights rule on the front of my white t-shirt in black any-surface marker, and Heavyweights drool on the back.

The other part of this allegiance is to Brandon, who has taken less affectionately to my replacement, Bob.

Bob’s a forty-five-year-old Evangelical Christian whose blue eyes hold within them a blandness I’d expect to get from eating of a mouthful of recycled paper. He’s a few inches shorter than me and carries a good hundred pounds more than I do. Bob also has a lisp. Brandon and I believe this may be due to his lips. They look like they’re double the size of anything a merciful God would put on a person, and excess skin hangs off his face around his jowls. Bob would later refer to it as the “leftovers” from his self-proclaimed, “former fatso days … ”

“I’ll tell you what guy,” Brandon said to me after first meeting Bob. “I’m fucked.”

Training Bob to do my job was a reoccurring nightmare, yet I couldn’t help but laugh, because no matter how frustrated I got with Bob’s slowness and chronic forgetfulness, he was always entertaining.

One day, Brandon and I were speculating about what drug Robert was on and Bob overheard.

“You guyths justh trying to thcare me.” Bob said, setting down the glue gun and refastening the baseball gloves he wore to avoid further burns to his hands. “Cocaine … thaths a California drug.”

Brandon and I looked at each other like two parents whose child just politely told them to go fuck themselves.

Religion was also an enjoyable topic of conversation.

“But what’s gonna happen Bob? You see the bomb coming down on you and there’s no God in


sight?” I say. “No white light, no pretty songs, what happens when you die and there’s nothing? What’ll your Bible be able to do for you then?”

Bob looked me in the eye and told me that he’d be long gone before that point.

“Ith’s called rapth-yur.”

 

Final Break Last buzzer

The last buzzer I hear as an employee of the Eliason Corporation sounds like the crescendo to a year-and-a-half-long industrial opera. The only thing running through my head as I made my way to the time clock to punch out was what Hugh told me.

“I’ve worked at enough factories to know,” Hugh said to me a few days before my last shift. “The last time you walk out of those doors you’d better be dancing.”

In line for my final punch out, everyone was all handshakes and dirty jokes about hookers in Thailand. Then I saw Brandon.

“I’ll miss you most of all Scarecrow,” I say, shaking his hand for the first time since being introduced to him on my first shift.

“You be sure to keep in touch there, guy.” His green eyeballs are just as magnified in his non-safety glasses as his company issued ones. “And don’t forget what we talked about, when you’re over there with your girl … ”

Brandon’s final request came a week before I left. He said that when I’m in the process of ending my six-month sex drought, he wanted me to think of him naked. He lifted up his shirt and showed me what I had tried for a year and a half to not imagine.

I walk around to Randy’s workstation where he’s putting on his jacket and turning off his techno version of the James Bond soundtrack.

“I’m outta here, Ran-Dog.”

“Don’t go catching anything off them ten year-old-boy-hookers they got over there, Jake.” He says, handing me a piece of paper with his name and number on it.


“Give me a call if you ever want to learn something.”

“Right back atcha, motherfucker.”

Randy just shook his head and walked away.

I gather up my books and walked over to the punch clock, finding the only card still on the IN side, I take a last look at the block lettering LADUKE. I push the bastard in for the last time.

I open the door and stare up at the snowflakes falling from the grey sky. By the time I make it to my car I realized, I forgot to dance.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Copyright© Jake LaDuke. White Whale Review, issue 2.1


Previous Author Prev Next Author