There's a world out there, above the sediment where slithering creatures lurk and hide from overbearing masters, which I perceive through the lens of one operating beyond normal operative efficiency.
I get up, throwing the covers over my body; fine fibers worn at the tips, frayed by years of frugality. My wife rolls over in bed, empathy under duress of sleep. We pray for better times, our morning ritual. Oddly, the rug feels softer underneath my feet, ten thousand hairs bearing me up on aching backs. Standing in the duplex living room, art on the wall, the works elude me, purchased to make use of bare space, hiding smudged drywall, where every nick and blemish is a dollar against my security deposit. My head hurts—raped by sensory feedback. A large bookshelf looms seven feet tall, fixed to the ground, an obelisk filled with trinkets: an altar to my life populated with miniatures and comic books. The colors are so vibrant now, Kirby crackle exploding across spines, infiltrating my perception. A hammer befitting of a god, striking down cosmic terrors. A mighty man, crimson avenger, beset by evil, thwarting a dark god at war with the Highfather. All this rushes in. I am a bank in panic, the world drawing on my soul. This feeling that I linger on. It's terror, isn't it? A sudden existential awareness, that I have never felt before. It's 4:35AM. Time for work. But my hands are numb, and a choking breath is forced down my throat.
The production facility towers over the valley, from the sleeping motorway, yellow halogen lights guiding me into its warm bosom along the empty access roads. Arching windows, cathedral portals dressed in aluminum scaffolding, to let in God’s light to shine on the worker, they hold back the hellish cacophony of the City of Dis. How magnificent they are now. So brilliant and powerful. Gates of Heaven, warding off hell below. I never conceived of it before, a world behind the world. My mind is open and accepting, optimistic, enthralled with opportunity. Inside the machina howls and screams. 10,000 bottles of craft beer string along belts of plastic, covered in production puss, beer snot, yeasty butter. The level of detail, granularity of process, I am awakened to it. Something is different. I see the world not through better eyes. How did this come to be, and why? Still, my mind is hazy, but I can hear in the clamor my supervisor. He runs up to me, shouting above the glass symphony.
“How you livin’?” he says.
I make a neutral nod.
“Overnight didn’t do shit! We got 12 pack after this, then changeover to twenty-two ounce. It’s fuckin’ bullshit, man! They don’t pull their weight… Hey, can you change over the slitter-sealer so Alfonse can do the filler today?”
I sway, half aware that I’ve ascended a six inch boundary wall. I can barely think. Too much detail.
“Did you hear me man? You okay?”
“Yeah… I’m fine. Sorry. I’m still waking up.” He looks concerned, a man without control, struggling to make sense of the world.
“Fuck, man. Get your head in the game, man. We are counting on you.”
“Okay, yeah. I gotcha’.”
The machine is a Pearson Slitter-Sealter. It’s worn to nothing, boasting neglect of the highest order. I told them without confidence, warned them. Now I see it for what it is: a sad creature crying out and groaning for love and affection. My hands deftly reach for some lubricant, and I begin to refurbish the machine. My hands have known the rollers, the blade, the flap rails, but never with such intimacy. My heart weeps for the mechanical spirit that dwells within. Blistered paint, scored edges, powdered steel of striped bolts. In ten minutes I apply the repairs. (Had to commandeer Jake’s work bench and tools.) Another twenty, I calibrate and align the boxes. Out of the corner of my eyes the manager arrives in a stupor. He too is tired, a man blockaded by job politics and departmental incongruence.
“Looks clean,” he says. “What have you done to it.”
I explain in words I’ve never leveraged, with a beholden confidence that I’ve never known.
“Ok, we’ll see how it runs… Have you filled out your time sheet yet? Also make sure to log the maintenance. We need to track all changes.”
I’ll take care of those later. Still I reply, “Sure, yeah. I’ll do that after we start sending boxes through.”
“You don’t look so good,” my manager says. He’s not the kind to be concerned, but I can see it in his weathered eyes. He knows that I’m not okay. “If you need to take a sick day, you can.”
“Slitter-sealer is ready. Don’t worry, I… I’m fine. Just tired.”
My coworkers have pounded their energy drinks, filled with chemicals that I can name, stimulants I can taste with my mind. So beautiful and clear. Clean and precise. They are struggling with their machines, so I step in. A helping hand to take care of the auxiliary parts. But I am busy adjusting the PSI of the casepacker elevator. It was off by 13PSI. Alfonse is running beer from bright tank 13 but forgets to set up the T valve for sanitation. Bacteria PPM is negligent, but sanitation is procedure. As I walk to the tanks I can hear two pumps cavitating. The whine of the centrifuge shows indication of a mechanical failure also. I sent two emails from my phone to the production heads. When all is said and done we start the run and the pipes buckle under the weight of fifty-five short tons.
Chaos. Disorder. Defamation. A typical run, in full swing, watching the bottles fall. My heart is sinking like a ship as I watch the machine expertly rend and destroy boxes. Perfection attenuates with experience and reality, and despite my best efforts, the boxes are not uniform. Fighting them is like fighting back a tide of salt water. Hopeless as a child preserving a sandcastle at high tide. So the day is normal as it always has been, an exercise in futility. My co-workers, ruined husks of men, struggle through the slog. My heart weeps for them. During the run, after the case packer PLC board shorts, we haul boxes from the final conveyor to a pallet. Hand stacking, grueling effort. I am able to work through, diplomatically, my co-worker’s heroin addiction. I counsel him above the fury of the machines. He understands, even if the others don’t. They fear me now, wondering what has happened to my mind.
“When did you get all philosophical and shit?” Alfonse interrogates me. “You stay th’ fuck away from me.”
“I had no intension of offending you,” I reply. But Alfonse walks away. He is crying and doesn’t know why.
At 1030AM the Production Efficiency Council starts: a patchwork collective of department heads acquiescing the petulant needs of their workers. I had originally involved myself, if only to haphazardly complain. But my mind is focused like a dagger as I enter the sterile room. Bob Tito, the COO sits in, working halfheartedly next to his underpaid executive assistant, typing on his tablet PC without a keyboard, defying conventions to appear smarter than he actually is. He is detached from the proceedings as usual.
“How is the bottling line this week?” He asks us. Though, to be fair, his voice is more accusatory than inquiring.
I decide to speak up. I never do. Yet something about the morning, about my mind, so clear and brimming, I am compelled to unleash a new mindset full of facts without confirmation bias.
“It’s not good,” I murmur shaking my head.
“What do you mean?” Bob replied.
“We need an effective schedule for preventative maintenance and oversight on how these machines operate. Every time we do 12 pack, my guys down there struggle to get the job done.”
“Well,” Bob stops me short. “We’ve been over this. There are some new procedures that should be coming down the line to help get our efficiency up.”
“You said that 3 months ago,” I counter.
“Well, these things take time,” he replies. “We are still working through the transition down at the production hall.”
The company line of diffusion of responsibility. Typical neglect. I remember my nervous breakdown. The two weeks of medical leave as I adjusted to anxiety medication. Meetings before that arguing over wage increases, while companies half our size pillaged my team for labor at thirty percent higher wages. It all came to a head and something breaks in my mind. A restraint that I have held back for my whole life.
“I don’t think you understand Bob,” I said raising my voice.
Bob stirs, sits up, wondering where my energy has come from. His assistant flashes a look of concern, of intrigue. A lecture, long needed.
“I don’t think that this company understands what my team deals with, Bob.” I spout defensively. “I just fixed the rollers on the slitter-sealer. They were stripped down to nothing. You couldn’t get your hand trapped in that machine if it were caught in it because there’s nothing left on the teeth that move the belt. The PSI gauges are all broken on the case packer. Cavitation in pumps 14 and 18. Operational efficiency down 15 percent due to dosing product locations and pipe infrastructure. Who planned this shit show? Where is our preventative maintenance? We rely on a team of mechanics to take care of this, but we only act on break-fix events. Do you expect us to fix this? Most of my team comes through the door without any training, with no idea what they were doing. Will they know how to fix a machine with no mechanical backgrounds?”
Bob sputters a reply, filled with anger, but none of his words take shape. His face is red and indignant, but fear hides behind his eyes as I leverage my encyclopedic knowledge.
“You see,” I continued. “Every meeting I go to we always hear about how great we are doing. We always hear about how great the company is producing. But we are the ones doing it and don’t even get a fucking watch! We get no training, poor pay, poor hours… I worked nine hours a day, six days a week for four months. I have to take medication now to get through those doors every morning. Sure we get free beer. It must be a convenient opiate to keep us complacent, alcoholics without any motivation or ambition?”
“That’s enough!” Bob shouts. “You can’t talk to me like that.”
“I’m not finished,” I interrupt. “No, you see, what this is all really about now is money. When the company spends thirty million dollars on a new packaging hall in Virginia but doesn’t pay for 5 days of on the job training for new hires to have the necessary tools to do their jobs it kind of makes me wonder where your priorities lie, how you value us. I don’t need to remind you that during the industrial expansion of the 1920s Henry Ford paid his works 50% more than his competitors. His employees were loyal to him and output more than ever before. But you wouldn’t know that because half the people that run this fucking company barely have a High School degree!”
I start to heave, on the verge of tears. My voice breaks. “These people that I work with, they are my friends. And every day I watch them suffer. They are drug addicts. They are addicted to gambling. They are struggling to deal with their broken families. And you want to tell me that it’s all taken care of? That you’ve done your best? What are you paid to do exactly, other than give us pompous speeches about achieving goals that we have no part in setting?”
I decide to stand up. And they all watch me, with fear in their eyes.
“This morning everything became so clear. My mind could comprehend this asinine delusion. This company operates so ass backwards that you couldn’t tell it to… you… you could—”
Washed out, I feel my body collapse and hit the ground hard on my side. My trembling hand reaches up and feels my face. My nose, its bleeding. My nose is bleeding! I didn’t feel good. It was all wrong. The wonder I had felt before, the freedom of an open mind disappeared, displaced with anxiety and uncertainty. And as the life flowed out of me, so did its magnificence.
The fog is thick with confusion. I see shades move around me. Shouting. They are calling 911. That’s good. The brewery was built next to a hospital. I close my eyes to rest.
They made a movie about someone that got special abilities at a cost. My body still and fading away, I imagined the cameras, the director halting the scene, the grip adjusting the lighting on my face with a diffuser, the executive assistant to the director walking through the frame to drop off a coffee, the frenetic white noise of the extras milling about to adjust their blocking, fight for camera time, all this coming to a close against blackness. Credits close, vendor logos roll, the people leave the theater disappointed in a sad ending: the ending of my life.
All I can hear is my wife, her voice shouting against the tide of grey.