Wheels of Industry

Our supervisors have purchased bullwhips. They are intended to keep us obedient and productive. Violence persuades.

Of my country, this factory occupies a third of the land. I have lived here since I was born, and I have worked here since I was young enough to perform simple tasks. The factory produces articles of clothing. Why? Because in my country every citizen is required to wear clothes that bear the dictator’s likeness. No other clothing is permitted. The people are given choices of what they want and where they want it. Example, if you want a T-shirt, there are many things you can get on it: a color patch of the dictator’s face, a black and white patch of the dictator’s birth year (1948), a black and white patch of the dictator’s motto—A Closed Fist Shuts an Open Mouth—the dictator’s last name in white letters, and your citizen number in white numbers. These patches can be placed anywhere in good taste on any article of clothing. Example: the red T-shirt I’m wearing has the dictator’s face on the center chest, the dictator’s birth year on the left and right sleeve, and the dictator’s motto on the center back. Limited customization tricks people into thinking they have a choice in the matter, when in reality, they do not; that is, they must wear the clothing and at least one patch.

Realize: This factory is so large that I have never been in any of its corners. In my section, situated in the middle of the plant, illustrated on maps posted at various locations, I see factory in every direction as far as I can see. It is like looking at the ocean or sky, knowing each isn’t limitless though your eyes tell you otherwise. I see the sky once per day, to collect vitamins from the sun so I will be healthier and I will be able to live longer and work longer and better. I have not seen the ocean, yet, but I have been told it takes breaths away.  

“2-1-2-2-7,” my section supervisor says, addressing me. His voice breaks my concentration and reading the customization sheet so to ascertain which patches Citizen No. 43,479,023 wants on his sweatshirt. The patches for men are in small blue bins and the patches for women are in small red bins. I scan the bin’s code with a Radio Frequency (RF) gun, which transmits the removal to inventory. This way, the factory can tally how many patches are left and when and how many they will need to manufacture in the coming days.

“Yes, sir?”

“You’ve been chosen for a special task, 21,227.” My supervisor resembles a rat. He has black hair, a black moustache, a long nose. He is thin.


“You’ve been selected to help fix the cogs in the industry room.”

“I do not know how to perform this task, sir,” I say, afraid that if I make a mistake I will be whipped, or if the mistake is too grave, shot.

“They will show you how.”

“What about Citizen No. 43,479,023?”

“I’ll take care of him.”

I hand him my customization sheet and RF gun. He gives me an overhead map of the factory’s layout with a red line marking my current location to where I am supposed to go.

“What about my UPH, sir?” I must pick patches for twenty-five Units Per Hour.

“Don’t concern yourself with it. We’ve taken you off UPH for the time being.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“Hurry along now.”

I am relieved to be unconcerned with my UPH, so I focus on the map—a square, laminated piece of white paper, like the square sections of the plant. The path leads south, by the map’s compass, and through the rest of my section, into the next where after us pickers are finished, the bags containing the clothing and customization sheets are sent to the setters, who make sure the citizen numbers are arranged correctly and are straight. They use a ruler to establish a level surface on a light box with a white opaque top and a light bulb in its center and green tape to connect the numbers together so they are one object to handle rather than several. The light box helps a worker locate defects—small holes in numbers or patches.

I am unsure of the exact time it takes to reach the end of the setting section, though I believe it to be an hour by foot. I am not ranked high enough use the shuttle cars.

Realize: They teach everyone how to read and write, because being able to read and write helps us become better workers; we can communicate with each other about work-related matters.

Next, I enter the press section, where workers press patches, letters, and numbers onto clothes. It is hotter and noisier in this part. I do not know how to operate the presses. They are large black metal contraptions that use steam.

It takes me another hour to reach the edge of the packing area, where clothes are packaged and forwarded to the shipping bay. The map indicates that I should turn right where a door stands.

In the dark, my hands do not locate a light switch on either wall, so I swat at the air, finding a string. I tug on the string and the light bulb shines over the first flight of many stairs. I count ten per flight. On the first landing there is a rack of flashlights and a Water Distribution Unit (WDU) in the corner. Our leaders are not stupid. They know a dehydrated worker will soon be a useless worker. I remove a flashlight from the rack and pluck two batteries from the battery well. The light is dim, and I attempt to illuminate more of the stairwell, but the light does little good when the stairs stretch for what must be kilometers.

While peering over the railing’s edge, I accidentally drop the flashlight. It spirals downward—still lit—until it disappears in the blackness. There should be a sound when it hits the bottom, so I listen for the tiny clank.

I think: destruction of company property. I think: they can kill me for this. Panic. Grip railing. Release some tension.

In the dim stairwell I scan the walls for mounted security cameras, though there are none. There may not be an immediate punishment. They know, as well as I, that the fear of consequence is often worse than the consequence itself. I lift another flashlight and set of batteries.

Periodically I glance over the edge, checking for lights or anything that hints at a bottom, and much later, when I reach the bottom, I survey the landing and spot the flashlight I had dropped, along with its batteries, which must have escaped upon impact. Oddly, the flashlight is intact.

I place it and its batteries in the rack. The other I will put away when I am convinced I will no longer need it. I consider checking the flashlight I dropped to see if it works, but I do not. When they ask me if I broke a flashlight, I can say: I do not know. They will ask: are you lying? I will say: no.

Another WDU. Drink more water. I have learned to never pass up water, because when I have, I have always regretted it.

The door reads: AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY. I do not know if I am authorized personnel, but I have been summoned to perform a job. The map led me here. I reach the next door. It is light brown and reads: WOI in white letters. I return the flashlight and batteries to the rack beside the door then open it and walk inside.

Giant gray cogs, unmoving, stretch from the floor to what I presume must be an eventual ceiling. I squint, attempting to find it, but it is no use. Only cogs.

“These are what you call the Wheels of Industry!” a voice shouts. I do not know from where it came. The room is circular—the tower of cogs rests in the middle—so I walk toward the opposite side of the tower surrounded by a yellow railing, meant to protect bystanders from a churning machine.

“Hello?” I say.

“Around back.”

When I reach the back of the tower, I see a man in greasy overalls working on a cog with a wrench. He is leaning down, but as soon as he notices me, he stands. The man reminds me of a bear: tall and big with plenty of extra fat. His clean-shaven face does not fit his body.

“Like I said, welcome to the Wheels of Industry,” he says.

“Thank you.” I extend my hand and the bear wipes his right hand on his overalls then shakes.

“I’m 1-1-9-6-4,” he says. “You’re 2-1-2-2-7, right? The one who’s supposed to help me?”

“Yes, but you will have to teach me.” I try to control my nervousness. I do not want it to distort my voice.

“Teach? No need. There’s a steel-toed boot stuck where two cogs meet, which is gumming up the entire system. We need you to get it out.” He points, though I cannot see where the boot is. He walks to a panel in the wall, a few meters away, and slides the panel to the side, revealing an aluminum ladder, workbench, and numerous tools. He selects the ladder and erects it next to the tower. It is a tall ladder, but not one that requires added support. “You’re up,” he says, pointing again.

“Find the boot and remove it?”

“Right. And be careful. The cogs will begin moving when the boot is out, so you’ll have to act fast. Getting out of the tower will be the hardest part.”

I refuse to show fear while climbing the ladder and entering the tower between many cogs. The tower is dense, easy to find and navigate footholds. Soon, I locate the boot wedged in between two cogs. I take out my knife, standard issue, and cut through the leather, sawing off every piece I can.

The cogs will move quickly, likely grab my hands and arms, when I free the boot. I continue to slice, throwing each piece out of the tower, hoping the cogs will crush the rest. My skin leaks sweat. Finally, after withdrawing every last portion I can, I put my knife away and grip the remaining leather with both hands. With one jerk it snaps. Instantly, the tower wakes with metallic groans, and the two cogs smash the remaining steel toe. I jump to the center, a circular disc, and hold onto the pole in the middle that runs from the bottom to the top of the structure. One, two, three rotations, and I leap through the hole in the cogs and hit the ladder. We both fall to the ground.

Once the clang has subsided, I check myself for injuries. There are none apparent, though the fall was painful.

Days later, I learn my “heroic act” has come to the attention of those who maintain the company newsletter. They interview me for an upcoming issue.

Q: “Were you afraid you would be killed while removing the boot?”

A: “Yes.”

Q: “Are you proud that our esteemed leader has noticed your efforts and praised you for them?”

A: “Yes.”

Q: “What would you like to say to your fellow countrymen?”

A: “You are able to eat, to drink, to sleep, to engage in activities the dead cannot. Realize yours is not a wondrous existence, but at least you are alive.”

I do not say: Realize it can be better than you can imagine if we rise against our oppressors.

Jason Jordan holds an MFA from Chatham University. His forthcoming books are Cloud and Other Stories (Six Gallery Press, 2010) and Powering the Devil’s Circus: Redux (Six Gallery Press, 2010). His prose has appeared online and in print in over forty literary magazines, including Hobart, Keyhole, Monkeybicycle, Night Train, PANK, Pear Noir!, and Storyglossia. Additionally, he’s Editor-in-Chief of decomP, accessible at www.decompmagazine.com. You can visit him at his blog at poweringthedevilscircus.blogspot.com.

Garage Sounds

A dirty jar on a top shelf falls over, drops to the concrete floor and explodes. Glass shards fly… my mother’s bare legs… my baby sister…

My Grandfather was a yardman who worked for the Lehigh Valley Railroad. But he got a foot caught in a coupling and had to pick a new line of work. He and Grandmom and my mother moved to Philadelphia in ’31, to a row house on a narrow side street full of Polacks and Eye-tals. He worked 10-hour shifts at a high-whining machine that pulled wire. Turned him almost deaf. During the war, the plant converted to munitions. There was an accident, an explosion.

Grandpop’s stuff lay stored in the garage, a corrugated metal building off the back alley, where a box containing his souvenirs from the Great War called to me from a high shelf. I stood on an upended bucket and reached for it. “Get down from there,” Mother said. I elbowed a jar aside and toppled backwards, and she lunged forward to catch me while shielding Becky from flying glass.

Becky fills the rinse tub then feeds wet clothes into the wringer. Her hand disappears between the hard rollers. Finger and wrist bones crackle. She screams.

Between WWII and Korea, our family moved in with Grandmom. I was eight, but pipsqueak Becky ran the show; the rest of us were there for her amusement. She’d plead: “Poppy, make me ’nother pitcher.” My Father would unclip the grease pencil from his butcher’s smock and sketch a horse, a cow, or the dollhouse he promised to build her. At night, he’d play piano with Becky next to him on the bench, his big hands pounding the yellowed keys, each covering more than an octave—Love Letters in the Sand, Red Roses for a Blue Lady, The Little White Cloud That Cried.

Becky took piano lessons, classical, hours, years of practice, recitals. She could read anything, was a natural. “I want to play with a symphony someday,” she told Mother while they did laundry in the garage. “It’s gonna be my ticket outa Philly.” I could see her fingers move in time over an invisible piano though I could not see her from beneath the hood of our ’53 Chevy Bel Air. “You’d better keep practicing, Beck, ’cause that ticket of yours won’t even get ya outta Kensington.” She turned her face away from the wringer and stuck out her tongue at me. The rollers caught her thin fingers.

Carmen catches my hand then lies back, her body a study of shadows against the cool tuck-and-roll. I brush my fingers across her quivering stomach. She moans.

My Father’s hands shook so bad, from being sliced open by knives and band saws, that he’d stopped sketching. But he showed me how and I got good enough to attend the Museum School of Art, on a scholarship, looking to become the next great illustrator for the New York agencies. I lived at home, which got tricky when I had girls over—not that there were many, not that my folks were prudish. Our family had developed a bawdy sense of decorum from living in a row house and listening to the neighbors on all sides go at it… either threatening to kill each other or screwing on sweltering nights. In either case, Mother’d turned up the TV volume and we’d ignore the clamor.

In my senior year, I dated the model from my figure drawing class. She was dark, not Negro, but Puerto Rican mixed with something else. When she modeled nude, nobody cut class. Painting her, I thought of Natalie Wood in West Side Story and got excited, kept my artist’s smock loose so as not to embarrass myself. We were in the back seat of the car on a late Saturday afternoon. Carmen removed her panties. I entered her. Our thighs slapped together. Her moans filled the musky garage that smelled of old grease.

The slap of Father’s hand against the side of my face explodes in my ear. He fakes a hook and hits me square on the chin with a right cross. Lights out.

I faked my way through my first couple jobs after college. For some reason, my talents didn’t impress the New York agencies. Then Carmen got pregnant and we had to move back to Philly and in with my parents and Granny. Becky had moved out, got her own apartment, and was working the perfume counter at Wanamakers, her left hand showing no sign of being crushed.

When our son was born in July, I took time off from my ad editor’s job at the Inquirer, but Mom and Granny stepped in to do the work and I was the odd man out. The newspaper became my refuge, and I stayed late and left for work early, trying to avoid restless nights with a colicky baby in that airless train car of a house.

Carmen and I argued, retreating to the garage for our donnybrooks. “We gotta get outta here, Bobby,” she yelled. “My cousin in Miami owns apartments. He’ll rent to us.” “We don’t even have enough money to drive there,” I yelled back, “and what would I do?” We continued going at it, both of us wet with sweat. Inside the house, the baby cried. Carmen moved toward the door: “Maybe I should just leave you and the kid. It’d be better for both—” I spun her around and slapped her hard across the face.

My Father slid inside the garage. He pushed me back then smacked me alongside the head. My cheeks burned, more from shame than anything. He came after me. I didn’t try to stop him.

The fire had burned the entire block. We climb out of the cab and enter the garage. I listen for the old sounds as I strike the match.

I stood on the balcony of our Seattle condo and watched an approaching winter storm. The phone rang. Carmen took the call and yelled at me to pick it up in the kitchen. “Did you see it on the news?” Becky said.

“Mom and Dad’s old house and the whole block burned.” “Christ, had they moved everything out?” I asked. “Yeah, all except the junk in the garage. That damn thing didn’t burn. Go figure.”

After years of coaxing, my parents had moved the month before, to a retirement home out the Avenue. They’d sold the old Chevy and had given the rest to Becky or to the Salvation Army,  shipping a few photos and boyhood trinkets to me. “They’re really freaked out about the house,” Becky continued. “Can you and Carmen come east? It’s been a few years. Ted and I can put you up since the kids are away.”

I phoned our son in San Jose to let him know what was up. The red-eye flight to Philly was bumpy, the jet pushed around by strong crosswinds.

We slept the following day and didn’t make it to Madison Street until the next afternoon. “How’d this thing escape the fire?” Carmen asked, motioning to the garage. The neighborhood was gone, nothing but piles of rubble, like post-war Dresden. I keyed the padlock and opened the swinging doors. “I remember this place,” Carmen murmured. “I’m sorry,” I said.

Inside, the shelves were crammed with bottles and jars, a hoarding habit my Mother had never shaken. A tarp was thrown over the ancient wringer-washer. Paint cans, car wax, thinner and tools were dumped in a corner, rusting. The place smelled old. I smiled, remembering my afternoon delight with Carmen. But it was too quiet. Gone were the engine sounds, crying babies, tinkling pianos, arguing, moaning, the churn of machines, the flap of clothes hung out to dry on lines up and down the alley. The bell from a trolley on Allegheny Avenue sounded two blocks over. It was like I’d never heard it before. It was all wrong.

I pulled my Grandfather’s box of war junk off the shelf. Carmen caressed my shoulder and we kissed. A bucket of rags rested against the wall. She handed me the matches. I lit one and tossed it into the bucket. The flames flared and the tinder-dry frame caught fire. The crackling-popping sound of the garage burning followed us down the alley and out onto the wide boulevard.

Terry Sanville lives in San Luis Obispo, California with his artist-poet wife (his in-house editor) and one skinny cat (his in-house critic). His short stories have been accepted by more than 100 publications including the Fifth Wednesday Journal, Birmingham Arts Journal and Boston Literary Magazine. He was nominated for a Pushcart Prize for his story “The Sweeper.” Terry is a retired urban planner and an accomplished jazz and blues guitarist—who once played with a symphony orchestra backing up jazz legend George Shearing.

Trailer Trash

His eyes didn’t smile. Thin lips and ungenerous, intermittent staying in the house and in it. And in it he took off and went places, no one knows. She. Wide hips, all the better to give birth, my dear. She wanted that baby more than anything. Still born with him standing arms at sides, helpless to fix. Only the old trailer truck. Go see Uncle Herman, ease the grief and grow up some. No more lies. He, handsome sputtering liar, new jacket, new name, new lady. Back at the ranch she waited, grief burning a hole in his heart. Made him want to be bad. Stick a knife in the wound. His wound.



p style=”text-align: justify;”>Dancer/choreographer turned abstract painter/writer, Neila Mezynski has fiction and poetry published on Kill Author, Snow Monkey, Word Riot, Dogzplot, Mud Luscious, Scrambler, Rumble among several others.