by Matthew Oldridge
Man rises from bed and puts on his clothes,
Man takes his lunch, walks out in the morning light,
It’s the working, the working, just the working life
— “Factory,” Bruce Springsteen
I staggered in pain as the press came down on my forearm. The tooth of the punch ripped through my arm like it was butter. Blood poured out.
The machine was usually used to punch a hole for the electrical cord in the side of a nearly finished chest freezer. The freezers rolled down the assembly line twelve times per minute, which was the company’s required speed. Except for the times when the line went down. That was bad for the company, but good for the workers. Production is down, morale is up, we always say. Hard to keep morale up when the machine is latched onto my arm.
This wasn’t supposed to happen. The company always preached “safety first”, and bragged about their innovative failsafe mechanisms. So much for that.
Pain raced up my vertebrae, on its way to the center of my brain. I rested my forehead on the cool steel of the machine’s head while I waited for someone to notice me, slumped and bleeding. I heard the press laughing in my head, a sound strangely not unlike tearing sheet metal. I feebly punched against the head of the machine. The machine didn’t notice.
The foreman pressed stop on the line and alarms went off. The alarmed drowned out the constant hum of machines. Usually there was a droning buzz of sound in the factory, but the alarm was a sound no one could ignore. Workers came running, and Dave from the next station on the line frantically tried to rip me out of the tooth of the machine. My overalls tore around the spot where my arm was pinned down. The machine grinned a crooked steel smile as it dug its lone tooth into me. Dave’s forearm strained as he tried to lift the gums of the machine off my arm.
I broke out of my daydream just in time to catch the next freezer before it went by. Dave beside me mouthed, “You okay buddy?” I just nodded. Maybe he just thinks I’m slow because I’m hungover. Hell, some of the guys even sneak a few beers worth of happiness on the job.
9:37 a.m. Shift started at 9:00. I last looked at my watch at 9:34. Damn. Only three minutes passed. Break is not until 10:30. I should think about something other than being mangled by the machine. What was the score on the hockey game last night? 3-0. Is there anything good on the TV tonight? Probably not.
More freezers rolled by. Twelve per minute. One every five seconds. Five seconds to press the button and watch the mouth of the machine close on the freezer. Slowly and carefully, it punched each hole, then retracted to wait for the next one. The next one went by, then the next one. One by one they rolled by, hundreds (thousands?) of them in an eight hour shift. How are there enough frozen pizzas, sides of beef, or bags of peas in the world to fill all these freezers? Twelve dollars an hour isn’t worth this. They should give us boredom pay.
Break time. I ordered a bacon and cheddar off the snack truck in the parking lot, just like always. Fatty but good, what the hell. A lot of guys come out here to smoke on break. One guy who didn’t last too long here used to smoke two in his mouth at a time, extra tar cigarettes off the reservation.
“Need the extra nic buzz to get through the shift, buddy,” he’d say. He got too much of a buzz, apparently, and threatened to punch out the foreman.
Dave and Glen were talking about some conquest, or wannabe conquest from last night at the Cowboy’s Ranch, the bar they went to on Wednesday nights. The blue smoke from their cigarettes curled up into the cold clear winter morning. The winter sun was out at least, for all the little bit of warmth it gave.
“Did’ya see that ass in those jeans,” Glen snickered, then laughed.
“Those jeans would look better on my floor, eh?” Dave replied.
They both laughed at that. Talking about sex never gets old when you’re on break. May as well dream about big things when you’re stuck on an assembly line. They were still talking, but I didn’t listen. Something about a pussy. Probably not a cat. Words for female genitalia also never seemed to get tired around here.
Lunch time. Trying to read the paper, escape from all the noise. War somewhere, bombs dropping on some distant shore, everybody scared, nothing sacred. Nuclear meltdown somewhere. Earthquakes and disease. Unemployment up to a record nine percent. So many people losing their homes. Lisette always said I was lucky to have this job, with all the poor people in this town. Doesn’t feel like it, most of the time, when I’m stuck on the line.
The freezers rolled by as I counted out the minutes of the afternoon shift. Sixty-three minutes to go. Now sixty-two. I can do this. Just think positive and stay sane. Spaghetti and meatballs for dinner. Maybe something good on TV. Put our little girl to sleep. Into bed to read and talk about my day with Lisette. Do it all over again.
Fifty-eight minutes. Dave is bopping along to some rhythm in his head. Probably a song by Rush or Pink Floyd, knowing him. He finds that stuff “deep” and “brilliant.” Marijuana makes everything deep and brilliant, even when it’s not. Fifty-four minutes. Make a game of counting the freezers. Count the ceiling tiles. Count seconds. My daily countdown to punching out for the day.
Four minutes. These last minutes always take the longest. Three minutes. I count down from 180. I’m off by ten seconds. The bell goes. Frantic movement as everyone rushes to beat everyone else out of the parking lot. I punch out, gather my stuff.
I exit into the parking lot as the cold hits me. It’s cold, but at least I am free. Dave is beside me, and he says, “The working life, eh, buddy?”
I nod in agreement, and walk a little faster toward my car.
MATTHEW OLDRIDGE is a Math teacher and sometime writer. He’s written poems, essays, rants, and letters to the editors before, but this story was written for an “Introduction to Creative Writing” class.