Zenith

Zenith

Zenith
by Andrew J. McCann

 

Originally published in Scribner’s Best of the Fiction Workshops 1998, edited by Carol Shields.
Please do not reprint or distribute without the express written permission of the author.

            One sandpaper hand squeaks against styrofoam as the other raises a Chesterfield, pinched between thumb and first finger, towards a graying, bristly chin. Second coffee, third cigarette. Their vapors spiral, a double helix in the dim factory bay, then strike a yellow girder cast from a cracked pane set high in the corrugated steel wall, before slipping into final darkness. It is a blackout darkness; the windows painted fifty years earlier against the Luftwaffe’s destruction that came, instead, through the plodding calculations of corporate accountants. Eddie Painter stands with cigarette and coffee, thinking of that incremental devastation, the acres of broken macadam where once within his lifetime the buildings stood shoulder to shoulder, heaving with life. Now the factory is a quiet place at the heart of Zenith, New York, its empty stretches dotted with brick buildings and the few ripples of parked cars.

The factory bay is silent but for the unheard cicada hum of electricity. Eddie hunches over a blueprint, the day’s first shop order, for a rework ring scrapped on third shift. The last waves of first shift workers gather by the coffee machine at the end of the aisle, waiting for the clock to force them to their workstations. He knows third shift, gone from the factory floor when he arrived at six fifteen, is queued by the time clock now, waiting to punch out, waiting for the clock to kick over the last remaining minutes and release them. That clock is everything to them; their weeks are measured by its mechanical ka-chunk, their bank accounts filled by it. He has hated that lineup for thirty years, hated their eagerness at time clicking by, their lingering in the locker room and padding of coffee breaks to cheat the clock. Each minute stolen is a victory for them, the creative act of stealing their daily bread.

He squints at the blueprints, eyes narrowing as he drags on the cigarette. A stubby pencil serves as calculator, marking fractions in the margins of the paper, its gold letters glittering in the semi-dark: ELECTRIC CITY PUTT-PUTT. He estimates feeds and speeds, calculating the time necessary to cut the raw metal to polished tolerance. Behind him, the Giddings and Lewis Manual Turret Lathe rises from a dented chip catcher, bristling cutting tools and steel blocks, her hoses a woven tangle of arteries pumping coolant, cutting oil and grease. The G&L has been Eddie’s home for twenty-five years, and only his callused and deft touch on her worn gears can coax a three foot diameter metal ring, with its intricate keyholes and slots, from an engineer’s paper design. It is the same touch that had brought pianos back to singing life after the ravages of fire, water or simple neglect. The touch that had pulled customers from up and down the east coast, and kept his garage workshop busy on weekends, and in the hours after the factory. But that had ended eight years earlier in a conspiracy of environmental regulatory paperwork, worker’s compensation insurance, and the availability of cheap, new pianos.

The frustration of reworking a ring screwed up by someone else dilutes Eddie’s concentration and his mind wanders to the previous night, to the questions Suzy had asked under the haze of the nightly news, as they sat eating stir-fry in the kitchen that had been board room, accounting department, and production control in the years the business thrived.

“Are they going to offer early retirement again this year, Eddie?”

She had been talking about travel plans to watch the following Saturday’s marching band competition at Oneonta State – whether to sleep in the van or get a motel room. Her jump from their normal, transactional dinner talk confused him.

“I don’t know, Suz. I haven’t heard anything.”

He didn’t take his eyes off the NBC News report on the Federal Reserve’s upcoming meeting to discuss interest rates.

“Do you think they will? It’s been three years in a row, hasn’t it?”

“Yeah, I guess. But they can’t force me out – I’ve got too many years in. They’d have to close half the plant to get me. And if they do that, they’d offer early retirements. Once I hit fifty-five, I’m safe no matter what happens. What made you think of that? Did you hear something?”

“No, I haven’t heard anyone talking. But…”

He sensed her effort, her difficulty at continuing, but the subject had no immediacy for him and he resisted encouraging her.

“Well, did you ever think of volunteering to retire? You can go at fifty-five, right? That’s only three weeks from now.”

The news cut to commercial, and Eddie turned to face Suzy, saw her eyebrows angle, pinching a wrinkle of skin above the bridge of her nose – her worried face. The face that he had learned to watch for when the piano restorations ran through weekends, the factory workdays blurred into one another, exhausting his ability to think. It was the face that came with some uncomfortable truth.

“Why are you bringing this up all of a sudden? What does it matter to you, anyway?”

He didn’t mean the words cruelly, but he saw them cut into her, saw them fold her brow into shadows. He knew his suspicion had forced the words. Retirement preoccupied him, as it preoccupied all of the men at the factory, and had done for twenty years. But sixty-two was soon enough. He had seen men waste away working around the house, putting in patios, flower beds, and additions that they would never use, only show off. The old-timers called them “honey-do” retirements – honey do this, honey do that. Suzy had never been like that, but he had faith in their ability to drive each other nuts somehow. And then there were the hobbyists. They would corner you at the hardware store on a Saturday and take twenty minutes to tell you about their new boat, or golf club – some new widget to complain and brag about. Eddie didn’t know which one would be worse for him; he didn’t know if he could find anything better.

“It matters to me Eddie, because I see you angry all the time. Angry at that Gary, and the men you work with. You don’t even like Stanwicj anymore. It’s a bitter anger, Eddie. That’s what bothers me. So I wondered if you would have the opportunity to leave if you wanted. That’s all.”

“Gary’s a poisonous prick. End of story. You want me to like a guy who works for two hours and spends the rest of the day bitching about the crooks in the front office?”

A beer commercial blasted out of the TV and Eddie got up to turn down the volume. He pulled a cigarette from a pack on the countertop and offered one to Suzy. She took it and waited for him to pass the lighter.

“There have always been men like him down there, and it never bothered you like it does now.”

“Maybe they’re getting worse. The less they do, the more they screw up. Then Standwicj comes crying to me to fix things. Poor guy – he doesn’t know if he’s a foreman, a team-leader, or some bastardized combination of the two. They keep sending him to classes on how to coach us for chrissakes. How do you coach a guy like Gary? You throw him off the damned team, that how you coach him. It’d make all the rest of us feel better, I know that.”

“It might make you feel better, but don’t most of the men like him?”

“Like him  – or are afraid of him. His gang will get in at the next election, no doubt. Then things will really get hot with management. I just wish he’d leave me alone to work .”

Eddie felt that Suzy’s desired conversation had gone off-track, like the wheels of a cart falling into a rutted, habitual trail. He struggled consciously to bring it back, more from curiosity than any other reason, still not understanding why she had brought up retirement.

“Why do you want to talk about retirement, anyway. I don’t think about it actually happening.”

“Eddie, maybe you should. Maybe you should think about getting on with your life and let the factory go.”

It was that questioning that had broken their evening, that still had not been repaired by morning as they sat, silent in front of the early morning news. By then he had wanted to apologize, to reminisce about the crazy days running the restoration business, when meals were meetings scheduling pianos, ordering supplies, straining towards a common goal. But sitting in the dirty light of predawn, he realized that they had reversed those days; that instead of a million issues they sat under the weight of an empty agenda. But when she asked the question, he had snapped back.

“What do you mean get on with my life? What do I have to get on with? You’d think we were hustling for the grave the way you talk. You want we should get in the van and drive around the country? Join all the other useless old people gloating over their ten percent discount at Denny’s? What’s the point to that? At least now I’m building something…”

“What are you building, Eddie? You’re working for a company that doesn’t give a hoot about you or Gary or Standwicj, never mind the damned rings. They’d be happier making them in Taiwan or somewhere. You aren’t needed there, and worse, you aren’t happy anymore. I don’t want to turn our life into mornings reading the paper and watching the talk shows, then afternoons working on the house. We can do something, Eddie.”

She paused, then continued, “John could use your help at the repair shop, for instance. I could do the books and help Mary with the baby.”

“I ain’t living through my son. He’s got to learn and fight on his own. I won’t get mixed up in his business anymore than you’d water your spring flowers – they both got to learn to get by on what comes naturally, got to dig their roots in and want to survive. If he asked, I’d go. But he ain’t asking, and you’d be meddling to offer.” Eddie stamped his cigarette into the sink and walked out the screen door, for once letting it bang behind him.

Suzy’s voice cried down the steps, “You’ve got to think about it, Eddie. It’s going to happen.”

Even as he walked into the cold spring air he recognized her tone, and knew it to be a voice that had saved their business before. But this time she was wrong. He had seven years to think about retirement. Seven years of good work and good money before he went out – and then at the right age.

In the garage workshop, lined by chisels and planes hung on pegboard walls, Eddie sat until the lights in the house went out. Suzy would know where he was and know to leave him alone.  His eyes traveled over the wood lathes, the table saw, noticing the dust lining the edges of drawers. He suddenly resented their handles, neatly labeled and fastened with samples of sandpaper cut to an exact shape. They served no purpose now.

In the far corner of the garage, John’s go-cart lay under a drop sheet. He had meant to give it away years ago, but the hundreds of hours of work they had invested together stopped him. They hadn’t raced it in ten years, but Eddie kept it lubricated and ran it twice a year. Those were the rare times he actually worked in the garage now; nothing brought him to the woodworking tools anymore. He had tried making furniture, even birdhouses, but it wasn’t the same as a living business. He was more likely to bring the newspaper out to the workshop on a Sunday to enjoy the quiet and the lingering smell of varnish. He got a rag from a drawer and, breathing the work-smell of lacquer, he dusted the equipment, work tops and edges, letting Suzy’s questions fade with the motion of his arm.

Now, at his workstation in the factory, her questions seem even further away and Eddie thinks only of the rework ring and the incompetence that created it.

The noise in the bay grows as operators man workstations and start drive motors. Eddie loads a raw metal ring onto the G&L, tightens the hold-down bolts with a socket wrench, and takes refuge in the work and in the anger. The ring will take him five hours to machine. Five hours of redundant effort, of rework hours spent on a job that the night operator ruined through laziness, ruined because it was too hard to take pencil and paper for three minutes and check the design. It was much easier to throw the ring on the machine and push GO. Much easier to stand for four hours chatting, reading the newspaper, smoking and watching the clock, while the computer worked. Easier still to pull the ring off the machine without checking it, without caring, to leave for the wash room an hour before the end of shift, letting the day man worry about the mistakes. Eddie knows there will be no reprisal for that action, and he starts from scratch, running his old manual machine that punishes mistakes immediately, visibly, in an attempt to get the job back on the Stanwicj’s schedule.

The man-door across the aisle from Eddie’s G&L opens, throwing a parallelogram of light onto the oily wood brick floor, and Gary Van Vrank enters, burly and bearded. Eddie glances at the clock mounted over the door, and then back at Gary. His eyes seem rocks plunged into the chubby face. They peer over bi-focals, confident.

“I’ve still got two minutes to punch in, Painter. You just keep your nose to the grindstone like a good working boy, and let me worry about the time.”

Before Eddie can respond, Paul Standwicj calls out as he squeezes between the machines behind the G&L, his clipboard swinging with early energy.

“Mornin’ Eddie. You got PERCO there?”

The hard jaw turns, eyes locking onto the smile as a wolf judges the herd, seeing the old, the infirm, letting Gary escape down the aisle.

“Yup. Your boy on third shift really fucked it up. Hard to believe you can cut a ring so out-of-round with a pushbutton machine.”

“I think he got the calculations wrong. Or the print wasn’t clear. I know they’ve been having trouble with that lathe too.”

“So you bring it over here to a decrepit old man running a decrepit old machine? Why doesn’t Campagni do it on the CNC? It’ll take me hours with the feed rate I can run.”

“Well…Campagni can’t fix it. You know you’re our point man. No one else can do the delicate work.”

“So you’ve got an idiot on third shift machining eggs, and a ginny on first shift who can’t do more than push a button – what kind of business you running here, Standwicj? I’ll be all morning fixing this mess.”

“You think it’ll take all morning?”

Eddie, letting the question hang, turns back to the table to tighten the clamps that hold the ring in place. He calls over his shoulder, “Easy. Why, you and the team gonna create some more rework for me?”

Eddie’s voice is even, matter-of-fact. There are no surprises because it is their normal discussion, repeated on a weekly basis. Eddie knows Stanwicj’s only tool to get production out of the men is coaxing and mollifying each of them in their own, peculiar ways. It is the job responsibility of a team leader, the flat projection of the old foreman onto the new American factory.

“Hopefully not. PERCO’s the last rush job. Actually Don wants you to go to a meeting.”

“You’re really trying to get on my good side, aren’t you?” Eddie leans around the side of the machine, reaching for a chromed handle that he pulls gently. The cutting tool moves to within a half inch of the glinting steel ring.

“Yeah, I invent this stuff just to torture you and get my best man off the line. It’s the new VP’s meeting  – they want a representative  sample of workers.”

“Why don’t you send The Eggmaker? He could entertain the new Veep with his magical math skills. Management could use a guy like him. He’d make their quarterly results come up blooming, no matter what.”

“Come on Eddie – Don wants you to go cause you’re fair and you won’t get wound up over some stupid little thing. You know how most of these guys will whine about a tooling problem or how the boss didn’t listen to their great idea of 1987. Will you go?”

“Where is it? The Big House?”

“No, the Training Center.”

“Shit. You want I should go home and change?”

“No – they’re casual up there now. You’ll be fine. Just keep those jeans clean if you can. And smoke a coupla cigarettes before you go – no smoking up there you know.”

“What time?”

“Eleven thirty. And Don said you can go home whenever it finishes. The meeting includes lunch.”

“That’s mighty big of him since I was here working before my shift even started. What happens if it runs past three?”

“Just tell me tomorrow and I’ll change your time card.”

Eddie’s foot slides to the right, eyes fixed on the intersection of tool and metal, to push a lever that starts the table spinning. His right hand turns a chromed wheel, the action identical to a WWII submariner or anti-aircraft gunner, until perfect silvery commas peel off the ring and tinkle into the chip catcher surrounding the table. Stanwicj, dismissed but content, turns to continue on his rounds.

At eleven o’clock he lifts the ring off the machine, loads it onto a palette, and wheels it to final inspection. No one is there, although lunch isn’t until noon, and he has to find Stanwicj to make sure the ring is inspected, boxed and shipped. Then he returns to his workstation and shovels metal chips into a bin and sweeps the area. He washes in the locker room, scrubbing up to his elbows with gritty soap, rinsing lemon scent into the round stone sink. As he drives to the Training Center he alternates bites from the PB and J sandwich that Suzy made that morning with drags on a cigarette.

The last two miles follow a private road through the rolling, groomed campus surrounding the facility. The building rises in flying buttresses and mirrored glass, a combination that simultaneously reaches for and captures the sky, reflecting its blue and white brilliance in gray scale facsimile. He passes the arc of reserved parking spaces in front of the building’s double doors and enters the visitor’s lot, driving past rows of cars to find a place. He leaves the van, Suzy’s floral curtains shining out of the windows, between a German sedan and American pickup truck, noticing, with a wry smile, their matching gray leather interiors.

Double doors lead to a circular room with a single desk puddled in reds and blues from a skylight set high above the doors.

“May I help you?”

The receptionist is not surprised to see a common man. Equal opportunity training, Eddie thinks.

“I’m Eddie Painter – I came for a meeting with the VP.”

“Certainly Mr. Painter. Straight down the hall, first door on the right.”

“Thank you, Miss.”

He enters an anteroom, empty except for a table laden with cold cuts, bread, muffins, juices and brownies. A stainless steel coffee server sits steaming, surrounded by unbroken pyramids of cups and saucers that imply Eddie is the first to arrive.

With a cup of black coffee he walks through another set of double doors into a room whose size surprises him. He assumed the meeting would be large; this room can only fit twenty people. He takes a chair on the far side of the U shaped table, remembering the building of the Training Center eight years before. That year they knocked down seven buildings in the plant. By that time people had stopped watching; even the old timers avoided the demolitions.

Alone, without work, his mind wanders to his son’s Connecticut auto repair shop, little more than a well-equipped garage. John had worked in the piano shop as a kid, gradually moving from errand boy, to rougher, to challenging Eddie in workmanship. Eddie thought if they had learned anything from the restoration business, it was the impossibility of making money through individual craft; a business had to make money through the labor of others. But John was trying, performing detailed work for leasers who would trade their cars within a year. It would be an insult to volunteer help. It was a dumb idea, but what else would he and Suzy do? Eddie liked to travel in the van once in a while – especially to the band competitions where from high in the stands the ribbons of shiny band members marched in tolerances that would make a machinist proud. But it couldn’t be the major event in his life. Work was Eddie’s love made visible and he was smart enough to know it.

Voices jolt him from his considerations. Eddie looks up to see five or six men, all in jeans and work boots, salad plates loaded with sandwiches and brownies, enter the room. Another group enters and it is clear that only the leaders of the meeting are missing. The men fill all the seats around the table. Four empty chairs sit against the front wall, two on either side of a projector screen. It is eleven forty, and Eddie thinks of the stack of rings in front of his machine and the money it takes to pay him to sit in the conference room. Then the doors open and the empty seats file in. Two are Union: Buddy Tines, Local 298 President, and Tony Bianchi, Secretary and Treasurer. Eddie voted for them both at the last election because they sought to work with management instead of running militant. He has never seen the other two.

The young one is slender and tall – over six foot easily. His companion is grayer, with eyes that lock on to the few personalities in the room, picking out charisma like a black light on phosphorescent paint. Sandwich was right, Eddie thinks: they are both casual, although the sweaters they wear, embroidered coats-of-arms of crossed golf clubs and blossoming trees, look as expensive as any suit. The young one speaks first.

“Not many of you know me yet. My name is Mark Pressfield and I have just started here in Zenith as V.P. of Production. This is Dennis Barston, my Human Resources Executive. I’d like to welcome you to the first of a series of roundtable discussions between senior management and the folks on the front lines. I don’t believe this has been done in Zenith before, so your patience and support are appreciated. But before we get started I’d like Buddy to talk for a minute and then do some introductions. Buddy…”

Buddy thanks Pressfield and talks briefly for five minutes about the great challenges the business faces and how union/management cooperation will be critical to their survival.

Pressfield outlines his plan to get their cost structure back in line – he likes to call it “High Involvement.” He tells them that they can’t afford to lose one great idea, that they need every brain pulling in one direction – towards productivity, quality and customer service. Then he asks for questions.

The room is quiet. Peripheral visions stretch to their maximum – checking reactions, watching for the first break. Barston suggests Pressfield give them some examples of how “H.I.” will work. Pressfield monologues for ten minutes: examples of work teams and productivity leaps at other factories – devoted, happy customers, solid profits, secure futures. The union contract is a constant, silent, backdrop for Pressfield’s speech. Nothing he says breaks the rules, but his vision of consolidated job classifications and quality teams is borderline blasphemy in a factory where move-men and crane-runners, not management, pace production.  Buddy and Tony sit with crossed arms and feet, scanning the room. Pressfield stops, the glow of passion fresh on his face, obviously hoping for conversion, expecting acknowledgment.

“Yeah, I got a question Mr. Pressfield.”

Eddie knows the questions that will be asked. They will be small embarrassments for management, small accusations that matter little. He has sat through these meetings before and knows the dance.

Pressfield’s chipmunk energy focuses on the questioner.

“Sure, go ahead Bob.”

Jesus, Eddie thinks, he’s memorized all our names.

“I’d like to know how we’ll make all these great improvements when I can’t even get tools for my machine. I mean, I sit idle at least two hours a day waiting for the set-up man to get to my machine and change tools and lay out the job.”

Eddie wonders why he doesn’t do it himself.

“Well, that’s a good example, ” replies Mark. “Many factories eliminate set-up men and have operators lay out the machine themselves. Imagine the productivity hit if we did that in Zenith.”

Pressfield is out in front of his fellow empty chairs and cannot see their reactions. The group in front looks mystified, like cavemen having the wheel explained to them for the first time. Eddie is one of the first to feel a difference, to sense that the meeting is breaking from the program-of-the-month club. Behind Pressfield, the implications are equally clear and the three men struggle for a way to interrupt gracefully. Barston, the seasoned politic, beats his blue collar equivalents to it. In a voice so low the men lean forward to hear, he addresses Pressfield.

“Mark, you know that would entail careful consideration by the union and a major rewrite of the contract. While those are exactly the issues we want to consider, we don’t want to give folks the impression that we’re jumping the gun.”

Buddy finds his voice: “Yeah, Bob, we don’t want to give you the facetious impression that those kinds of events would be foregone conclusions. But we do got to make progress in areas like this. A better question for the current moment in time is why you’re waiting two hours a day for set-up. Maybe Mr. Pressfield can look into that for you over the next week or so.”

Pressfield turns, gesturing subconsciously, working consensus. “Absolutely Buddy. I’ll have a word with the manager of Bob’s area tomorrow.”

Eddie knows that a good foreman would have asked Bob if, when he is ready for a set-up, he notifies anyone or just sits for an hour or two reading the newspaper. But Eddie knows the deal, knows the managers are little more than number crunchers and mouthpieces, and has learned to focus on his own game.

Pressfield answers more questions with energy and the insight of ignorance. On almost every one Barston backs him up, then spins the answer to satisfy the flexing forearms of the union leaders, effectively sucking meaning from the answer. Human Resources always seemed like the CIA to Eddie – omnipresent, vast, but without identifiable duties. Eddie realizes Barston could have ended up running either, could be sitting next to a President instead of a business executive. He wonders if Barston would get away with his tactics in front of reporters.

They must have really picked the crowd, Eddie thinks, to avoid any hard-cases. There are enough holes in Pressfield’s common sense talk of consolidation and streamlining to walk a five hundred person picket line through. Eddie sees some shifty eyes in those who don’t speak, no doubt recording Buddy and Tony’s collusion for relay to the hard-line opposition party. It doesn’t matter to Eddie because it doesn’t affect him But then Pressfield’s eagerness falls on him: righteous, simple and too much to resist.

“Eddie, you haven’t said anything. How do you think H.I. will go across in Building 62?”

He looks up, startled, like a day dreamer called on by the teacher.

“I don’t think it much matters.”

“To you or Building 62?”

“To either.”

Eddie sees Barston start, recognizing an opinion he hadn’t cataloged or foreseen.

“But it’s got to matter if we’re going to save this business in a brutally competitive marketplace. How can you say it doesn’t matter?”

“It doesn’t matter to me because it won’t work. It won’t matter to the rest of them because they’ll do the same thing they do every day, regardless.”

The union leaders look uncomfortable but not surprised. Eddie’s answer is the expected, negative voice. No one in the room knows his usual, positive role in public and they do not hear the danger. Eyes roll in boredom at the extension of the meeting. Pressfield is the only one who takes Eddie’s words seriously.

“I don’t believe that. Everyone wants to do a good job, to feel pride in what they do. It’s my job to remove the barriers to that end, and do it in a cost-effective manner.”

Eddie wonders what barriers keep his teammates from returning to their workstations at the proper time, from working eight hours in a day.

“That’s a nice way to think of folks, but it isn’t the way this plant works. I can’t speak for other places.”

He pauses, looks down. Pressfield steps forward, and asks him to continue. Eddie feels the sincerity behind the encouragement, a real desire to understand, and pushes forward.

“No one here cares about saving the business; we know there’s no saving, just postponement. Most only care about saving their retirement. I’ve got less than a month to fifty-five. You’ll be laying off more people soon, and the worst that will happen is I go out with an early retirement. The young blood, the ones who would care, you wiped out by reductions based on seniority. Any idea of saving the business collapsed when you knocked down the foundry and eliminated the apprentice program.”

A couple of heads nod around the table. Buddy and Tony appear interested for the first time. Pressfield is only puzzled, and Eddie wonders if he is surprised at the opinion or simply that an argument has been offered instead of the tail-wagging approval or mindless refusal of normal meetings.

“I know this plant has been through some rough times but I don’t understand your attitude. I know you guys in 62 are putting out some great work, even with the challenges you face. I’ve seen the numbers.”

“You’ve seen the numbers? What do you compare them to?”

Eddie senses the room awakening, the men around the table stirring as they realize the departure from normal word games. Consequences rise in his mind –  but for the first time in years he is speaking truthfully and with passion to someone with the power to do something. The danger in short-circuiting the chain of command is insignificant in the onslaught of joy, the thought of a factory working to do the best job possible.

Pressfield replies, “The numbers are all compared to last year – your team is up twelve percent, which, while not good enough, is a solid improvement. So you can’t say you aren’t trying.”

“Try comparing it to fifteen years ago. I guarantee we’d be down fifty percent.”

These are arguments Eddie has with Stanwicj on a weekly basis. They have been just words in those conversations but now they carry power and balance his thirty years in the factory on a pivot point. He is tired of thinking only about his work, worrying only about retirement. He is tired of young managers without history, without a desire to understand history, and he presses forward.

“Look, it doesn’t matter. You run the business how you think, make a name for yourself in the two years you’re on the job, and enjoy a promotion to another division. It’s been done before and will be done again. Just don’t expect us to do handstands for your new program when the common sense solutions that any real business owner would pursue are ignored.”

They are words saved up over years of learning to expect less from others than himself. Thirty years of sweeping cigarette butts, dropped by his teammates, off the floor. Of fixing careless work. Of listening to the taunts of company man.

He looks down at his hands resting on the table top and ignores the now openly hostile stares of the working men. Barston seems to bounce on his seat, desperate to get into the debate. But Pressfield doesn’t turn, doesn’t seek help, and the HR Manager cannot usurp the spotlight from his boss.

In the millisecond silence Buddy speaks first, in the Union voice of appeasement. He is calm and unsurprised, “Come on Eddie, we can’t get down on the place, we’ve got to keep moving forward, got to keep our attitudes up so that the company knows this is a good place to invest, a good place to keep doing business.”

Pressfield, ignoring the attempt to discharge tension, replies in a voice tight with anger, “It really comes down to whether you want to roll over and die, or fight. Whether you’re going to have a winning attitude, not just for the company and the stock you undoubtedly own, but for yourself.”

Eddie sees the words as a knee jerk reaction and knows he has misjudged the young man. There is nothing but retribution and anger in his tone. But Pressfield is not finished.

“If, Mr. Painter, you are happy with defeat, happy with shoddy work and unconcerned for the customers who depend on us, I question what value you consider yourself to the company, and, more importantly, to yourself. These are exactly the problems that needs fixing in Zenith. Now, are there any other questions or comments?”

Pressfield scans the group, now blanked by raw emotion, and turns to the three men behind him. Barston does not look happy. There is nothing more to say and Pressfield continues,                                                                “Great, thanks for spending the time with us this afternoon. Look for me on the floor; I’ll be out and about quite a bit, expecting more honest feedback and looking for the best cup of coffee in the plant.”

This gets a chuckle and the men stretch and begin to stand. Buddy and Tony are up, poised to work the crowd and distance themselves from management while taking credit for organizing the dialogue.

Eddie’s stored words have escaped and but they are flat, without energy, and for the first time he worries. He worries about the middle-managers – Standwicj and Big Don – who can lose their jobs at a whim, about the guys trying to do a decent days work who will get caught in a war conducted by a management incapable of anything but punishment. Uncertainty grows and Eddie wonders if betrayal is usually more dramatic, more conscious. But he cannot leave without finishing the job. From the end of the table, still seated with hands resting palm down on the swirling wood grain, Eddie speaks finally from anger and a sudden, strange equality.

“I’m only going to continue because you seem like an earnest young man intent on doing a good job. I’m not going to challenge the opinion you hold. You’re an educated man – all I know is what I’ve lived and seen. But if you really want to learn how this place operates look into a few things. Find out why, as I sit here drinking coffee, my machine sits idle because no one else is qualified to run it. Find out how many of your Class 25 machinists can do basic math, can read a blueprint accurately. Ask why our straight-eight workday is really five hours long for most; why the union has safety monitors on your payroll, supposedly running your machines, who are ‘in meetings’ all day every day and never do any real work. When you finish with that go looking in the nooks and crannies, behind stacks of palettes, for the card tables, hotplates and televisions that entertain your workforce at your expense. Keep an eye out for mattresses too, especially on third shift. If your conclusion is to kick the shit out of your foreman, think again. All they can do is beg us to work – they can’t bear responsibility for a business that is flushing itself down the toilet because no one will have an honest conversation and do a fair day’s work. That’s all. I’ve said too much. But you seem like someone that should hear it.”

Eddie nods at the three older men behind Pressfield and looks back down at his hands. There is no response although a few men sit down at the renewed discussion and look confused as to whether the meeting is over. Their eyes turn to the front of the room as Pressfield speaks in an even, corporate voice.

“Thanks for your input Mr. Painter. We always seek an honest dialogue in our meetings. I’m sure you’ve given us all a lot to think about.”

Then he leads the procession of empty chairs out of the room and the workers follow, leaving Eddie, jittery with receding adrenaline, in a room of slopped over coffee cups and crumpled paper napkins. He imagines explaining all of this to Suzy, sees himself walking into his building with his words marked on him like some old testament curse and realizes there is no joy in the truth. There hasn’t been for many years and he wonders when they gambled it away, and what they thought they would gain.

– – – –

Stanwicj, once a machinist, then a foreman, now a team leader bordering beggar, gives Eddie a big welcome that afternoon, glad to have him back early. He doesn’t mention the previous offer to go home after the meeting. As Stanwicj walks away, Eddie picks up a raw ring of steel, clamps it to the machining table and begins to rough out his next job. His birthday safety net hangs on him like pieces of gold as he waits for the repercussions, barely curious, only wondering how much damage he has done to others, his own immediate future empty like the unimagined retirement seven years away.

Standwicj comes back up the aisle, head scanning, on the hunt for someone. He speaks, faster and higher than usual, as he walks towards him.

“Jesus, I don’t know what happened in that meeting, but Don just got off the phone with Pressfield and he’s royally steamed. You gotta get in there right away Eddie.”

Eddie nods and walks down the aisle towards the office. At least there has been no waiting, he thinks. It is Don, like Stanwicj, once a machinist, once a foreman, now the manager of a hundred and fifty hourly workers, who will suffer for what Eddie has begun to categorize as an indulgence. Pressfield can’t hurt Eddie, can’t really hurt the union or any of the workers but he can hurt the managers who dance between the company’s production quotas and the men’s demand for overtime.

The quiet of the office is abrupt. It is a narrow room, running a desk and a half wide for twenty feet before opening into a square that holds an old photocopier and matching fax machine. Production Support used to occupy the desks, equally spaced under fluorescent lights that are bright to Eddie’s eyes. Now the desks support dust and the odd remains of a machine shop in crisis. Crumpled computer printouts and phones, too many phones, lie haphazardly on steel shelves, leading the eye in a connect-the-dot mess to the end of the corridor and Don’s office. As Eddie walks towards it the door behind him opens and Don’s voice booms out.

“You created a real commotion up there today, Eddie. Damnedest thing I’ve seen in a while – were you getting bored? You coulda told me and we’d of arranged something.”

Eddie stands aside to let Don’s round bulk pass.

“Come on down to my office and let’s chat awhile, huh?”

Don shambles down the narrow aisle between desks and wall, his neck, shoulders and upper arms arcing in an immense half circle. Eddie follows and sits in the guest chair as Don closes the door to his office.

“How you doin’ Eddie? Been to any of your marching band championships recently?” He pauses, not expecting an answer.

“You know this factory can’t run like one of your bands – you can’t expect it to. This ain’t some music score that we can keep practicing until we get it right – it’s life. A bumpy, compromised, mediocre life. You should know better than to paint a VP into a corner, especially in front of a whole room full of other people. Christ Eddie, Pressfield had me on the phone for twenty minutes wanting to know about men sleeping on the job and whether his workers can add two and two. You know how much it costs the company to pay for twenty minutes of his time? You really got ’em all wound up. You pissed off at something?”

“No. Same old around here.”

“Yeah, but it ain’t a bad same old is it? Look, I know it’s frustrating being in your position – imagine how I feel dealing with some of these guys on the floor – but all we can do is work each day to get a little better. You got to think that way or you’ll go crazy. Now Pressfield’s gonna have all the managers in on weekends and nights doing bed checks – you know the effect that’ll have – I’ll have work slow-downs and mysterious quality problems that Pressfield won’t understand. I’m dealing with you straight up here, Eddie, ’cause I know you’re a good guy. But I got a building to run and the less notice we get from the big boys the better off we all are. Now I’ve got Pressfield crawling up my ass with a flashlight in each hand, wanting production numbers from ten years ago for chrissakes, and I still got customers to serve. He’ll be coming through here next week on a tour and I want you to think about what you’ll say when he talks to you. ‘Cause he will talk to you – you made quite an impression on the man. You got anything you want to add?”

“…no.”

“All right then. Don’t be taking this the wrong way Eddie – you’re the best damn machinist I got and I like you a whole lot on top of that. If you’da heard the screaming fit I got from Pressfield, you’d know how reasonable I’m being about this. Another manager’d put you on third shift pushin’ a broom. So damnit, if there’s anything you want to say in the future try running it by me first, okay?”

There is nothing to add. Eddie is relieved, surprised at Pressfield’s and Don’s reaction. The old managers, back when confrontation was an art form, would have shot first and never asked questions. The phone rings and Don picks it up, spinning in the captain’s chair until two thirds of his back is towards Eddie. Don swivels back to face Eddie with his hand over the microphone and, in a just-remembering tone, says, “Hey, Eddie, I got to take this call, but keep your head down, huh? I imagine some of the boys are pissed off – don’t do anything else to rile ’em, okay? Thanks for stopping in.”

Eddie half nods, realizing Don is already focused on the telephone call, his shining head bobbing fluidly, and he gets up to leave. He hears Don’s calm, reassuring voice as he walks out: “Yeah, I’ll have those numbers over to Mr. Pressfield’s office tomorrow morning at seven. But you gotta understand, ten years ago the product mix was different, the rings were all the same and we could make ’em faster. Maybe I can explain when I come over….”

Eddie walks up C aisle, towards his G&L, past men watching machines spin. He knows they could be setting up the next job while the machine works, but instead they choose to stand, read, smoke.

Two rings, complete but for some necessary clean up, lie askew at his workstation, metal against metal. He squats to examine them, tracing their curve with his cigarette thumb. The edges are pitted and dinged in homogeneous, circular shapes, some deep enough, he knows, to deny repair. He glances around and sees the hammer leaning against the side of the G&L. A quality control tag is tied to its handle and he leans over to read it. The side with different categories for quality problems has two boxes checked: ‘Out of Tolerance’ and ‘Operator Error.’ On the blank side of the tag “Benedict’s Hammer” is written in a precise hand. He stands, holding the hammer lightly in his hand and with a smooth motion throws it into the chip dumpster. They didn’t wait long to retaliate and the childish violence seems insignificant compared to what he has done to  Don, Standwicj and all the other white collar lieutenants.

Then he sees the hoses and connectors to the G&L. Or at least the torch cut, blackened entrails, hanging in haggard submission to the violence done. He whirls, realization battling disbelief, to open the main compartment of the tool chest. Inside the organized shelves remain, their contents of socket wrenches, tape measures, masking tape all present. Then he reaches for the top drawer where a folder holds the photograph of John winning his first go-cart race, the management award received in 1982 and a letter, addressed specifically to him from Florida Power Corp., amongst notebooks, pens, clipped articles and cartoons. But he sees none of these items as the drawer slides open on its ball bearing runners; grease fills the drawer like mud. He plunges a hand into the viscous muck and pulls out the manila folder, scrapes the sludge off the top and opens it to find the grease has permeated the thin paper and stained the photographs and clippings to an even brown. Eddie slumps back onto the stool and lights a cigarette he doesn’t taste. When he has smoked it to a nub he goes looking for Standwicj. The relief at Don’s goodwill is gone, its existence forgotten in the furious revenge of his teammates and brothers. The terrible logic, the self-destructive mentality overwhelms and he has to get out of the cloying, coolant air, away from the grime-soaked block flooring and under an open sky.

At the loading dock he finds Standwicj, tells him he is going home sick, that two rings are scrapped and will have to be started from scratch because of his error. Any one of those facts would have shocked Standwicj, but the combination leaves him nodding in confusion.

Walking back to the remains of the Giddings and Lewis, his head down, he hears his name called.

“Hey, Painter.”

It is Gary’s voice.

“Can I have a word with you? It looks like you’re ahead of schedule today – I saw two rings already roughed at your workstation. You must be trying to make your team look bad.”

He smiles as he speaks, a good-natured grin cracking across a bearded face under the tilted, bifocal gaze. Eddie sees the smile as proud confession – the real face of the factory.

“Those rings are scrap and I’m going home sick. Why don’t you rough them out – maybe by tomorrow afternoon you’ll have them done. I don’t have time to talk.”

Eddie knows he is finished at the factory, is beginning to think he has been finished for years, and he tries to side-step Gary. His head fills with a weekly schedule dominated by car-washes and trips to the market. Retirement in grasp, everything a man should dream about –  security, free time, and some money to enjoy himself – and it only makes him ill. Another cigarette, another drag into lungs hardened by the years of abuse. How long will he last before the lungs betray him? The final betrayal, he thinks.

“Oh, you can make time for me, can’t you?” Gary continues to smile and reaches out, like a man giving a pat on the back, for Eddie’s elbow, gripping it with strong fingers, steering Eddie into an alcove behind final inspection. His smile falls, stripping the muscles until only his eyes remain tight and hard in a slack, jowly face draped from the ears. He wears Gap jeans, a pocket Tshirt, and LL Bean moccasins. Eddie gives up on getting away and listens. He deserves to listen, he thinks.

“We go back…well, shit, I remember the strike of ’66 – you and I were out there full of piss and blood. Remember how we all kept our hands in our pockets for the benefit of the TV cameras, but had nails pounded through our shoes? Those fuckin’ managers never did figure out what happened to their cars as they drove through the crowd. Those were the days all right. Look, I ain’t gonna talk down to you Eddie. You’re a smart guy, everyone knows it. But you can’t go throwin’ the Brotherhood in like this. We won’t allow it. You got a history with this place – we’re family and we won’t suffer traitors.”

Eddie looks away, towards the man-door at the end of the aisle.

“Look at me, Painter. Everyone fucks up once in a while, but you better be our number one boy from here on out. I heard somebody already messed up your workstation – I know you didn’t scrap those rings. I’ll find out who and make sure they wise up – as long as you show us you made a mistake. We’ve all fought too long for what we have to let anyone rock the boat. Unions built this country, gave every working man the rights he enjoys today, and you got to respect that.”

He gives Eddie’s elbow a little shake before letting go.

“Unions may have built the country, Gary, but our union wouldn’t have. Our union hasn’t built shit. Our high point came in ’66 when we stood outside for forty days and kicked in the doors of cars trying to get in and keep the business afloat. And over what? Can you remember. How many of us were out there, then? Thirty thousand? Gary, there are four thousand union members left in this plant – what have we built? What do we have to be proud of?”

“What do you want to be proud of, Eddie? That you can make five rings to my four? That you can do this monkey work faster than your neighbor? Make six today, what do you have to do tomorrow? Make another shit-for-brains six. And don’t knock my union. Without our work, your job would have been in China fifteen years ago and Zenith would be even more of a ghost town than it is. You drag your sorry ass back to your house, back to your little wife who depends on your fucking pay check to buy her fucking clothes, and think about that.”

Mistakes made, wasted time, betrayals ricochet through Eddie’s thoughts as he searches for a cause or even an alternative path.

“Gary, don’t go on about China – the great red scare. We blew it. Look at this bomb crater of a factory, our building with twenty year-old machines competing with modern job-shops – not in China, but up the goddamned road – and admit that we sold out, that we sold the next generation for the right to be lazy. The guys taking the work out of this factory – doing it cheaper and better – are apprentices that we trained and then laid off because of seniority when the cut-backs came. And now all we care about is retiring to live off thirty-two thousand dollar-a-year pensions.”

“What do you think our fathers and grand-fathers organized for? Exactly the guarantee of those pensions . They got ’em and now you’ve got a shot. Figure out what’s really bothering you Eddie – it ain’t the next generation – they’ll do alright. I got a kid in Northern California makin’ eighty grand a year programming – that’s today’s blue collar job, not runnin’ an oversize weedwhacker. Your John is doing okay isn’t he? Look, take a few days off, put it all into perspective and come back. All we can do is milk this place for all its worth, just like the company is doing to us.”

The words hang, and Eddie pushes past Gary, tries to push past conflicts that he has allowed to define his life, consequences he has never questioned. He tries to remember when his attitude shifted from a joy in the volume and quantity of work, finishing rings in a rhythm with the inspectors and packers until the jobs flew by and mattered. How wrong was Gary? He couldn’t base pride and satisfaction on being better than other men, better than Gary. They all worked by the consequences of previous actions, risks taken years before. 1966, he wonders? Maybe before, maybe accepted without challenge,  leaving the compromises to fester inside. He has done nothing but revisit those risks and consequences, perhaps reminded Don, Pressfield and himself of their price. As he walks down the aisle he realizes that he might never have known that price, the continuing price, and he thrusts his mind into the accelerating future, struggling with different, potential consequences.

The locker room is empty and he washes in the stone sink without interruption. He prolongs the scrub to avoid checking his locker. But it is unscathed and he gets his coat and keys and walks down the aisle and out the man-door at the back of the building. The sky is a high, hard blue and cloudless over the open flats of the factory. Behind the parking lot the top of Building 321, the Big House, is visible. Eddie weaves through the cars, relieved to be away from the oily smell of the machine shop, to have avoided talking to anyone else.

He always parks the long-wheelbase van at the far end of the lot. Even from a distance something is wrong – the van looks slumped on the ground and as he nears the gashes in the side-walls are clear – not just punctured, but shredded.

He keeps walking, past the van and onto the gray expanse of tarmac that separates buildings and lines of cars. He will call Suzy from the front gate; her car doesn’t have a security sticker to get into the plant anyway. The damage to the van has not shocked him; it seems somehow appropriate that he walk away from the building, as he used to walk when tens of thousands worked each shift and buildings still covered the acres.

Eddie is alone between buildings, small in the expanse. He lights a match, watching the sulfur flare and settle to a slow burn, then ignites the cigarette to a smolder with caved in cheeks and half shut eyes. Beyond the factory, beyond the train trestles that cobweb from the plant, all built before 1910 when Zenith proudly proclaimed itself the City that Lit and Hauled the World, there is growth and new struggle. He thinks of Suzy, her thoughtful tone so often right through the years, and then of John’s auto garage. The cigarette hangs burning in his hand, forgotten, as he trudges towards the front gate, wreaths of smoke curling, disappearing, but marking his slow progress. He thinks consciously of consequences, wondering if two pairs of hands, working together, might not stand a chance in the world beyond Zenith.

 

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Welcome to the personal blog of Andrew J. McCann - a history of interests and thinking focused on education, product design, and leadership. All views here my own!

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