“A Bottle of Mezcal”


The days of great, winking gods.


Friday morning, the dawn is as colorless as the light in my refrigerator. I make coffee and stare out my apartment window. One of them, I have several. Windows, I mean. Each one gives me a different perspective on the alley outside.

Most of the furniture here has a tag dangling from it. My landlady is in the used-furniture business. I own the couch and the bed, the rest can be yours. The television went five years ago, but there are plenty of them in bars.

I try to imagine how the day will go. After I get out of work this afternoon, I will have a shot of tequila at The Driftwood. For starters, I know myself too well.

The scrap of paper on the kitchen table is my hand-scrawled review of The Vivisection Winos album that the stranger handed me last night in the bar. I proofread what I have written for Dirty Streets:

“The mere act of owning a Vivisection Winos album is guaranteed to make you the hippest person on your street (I’ve seen your street, so that’s not saying much). The suddenly popular avant-garde jazz outfit’s latest, The Big Bong Theory, is weird and distant, like finding David Lynch’s brain wrapped in plastic and hidden in your freezer. Robots make love to this. The Big Bong Theory is the summer-evening soundtrack for serving cocktails to women wearing strapless gowns and high heels. True, it has moments during which your dentist could dislocate your jaw and remove your teeth and you wouldn’t feel a thing. Yet the beauty of it eventually overwhelms, like standing in a forest amid trees so tall that they disappear into the mist. Every track sounds as though it were recorded while it was raining. The Vivisection Winos tell stories not as a writer would, but as a painter does.”

Style is carried along on weird filaments inside the head of all artists. I am born to do this kind of work, this kind of writing.

But it doesn’t pay a drinking man’s wage. Writing for the weekly alternative paper isn’t a living wage for a middle-aged man, unless you want to sleep in your parents’ basement. And I did just that, until they died. So seven years ago I had to take a second job.

On my first day at the toy factory, I am hit on the head by an empty plastic bucket. It happens while I am reaching down into a large cardboard container – it’s called a gaylord, about four feet square and four feet deep – filled with the polyurethane powder that feeds the furnace molds. The powder is measured out in one of the buckets and placed within reach of the two machinists standing on a platform over me. One of them dumps the powder into a mold and tosses the empty bucket back into the gaylord. The other uses a pneumatic socket wrench to bolt shut the machine, then with the palm of his hand he smacks a big, green button, swinging the arm holding the mold into a furnace. After a few minutes the polyurethane emerges as a scorching-hot child’s toy. On some shifts, the toy is a yellow plastic refrigerator. On other shifts, it is a miniature dining-room set. Other furnaces scattered around the factory floor cook and expel different toys that train children for their adult roles as homemakers or illegal immigrant kitchen help. Tiny sinks, tiny ovens, tiny frying pans.

The empty bucket doesn’t hurt much. I set it aside and continue filling more buckets with powder, right up to the line drawn on the inside of the bucket, getting the powder as close to the line as I can. I am pretty good at filling those buckets. I have a future with this company.

Another bucket hits me on the side of the head.

The bucket falls inside the box. I reach inside and grab it and toss it aside without looking. But I think: “That wasn’t an accident…”

A few minutes later, another bucket hits me on the back of my neck. I look up at the machine platform. Two guys in sweat-stained T-shirts, the machinists, stare back. The expression on their faces is: What are you gonna do about it?

By the end of that first shift I’ve been hit by the buckets 27 times. I don’t do anything about it. I just keep loading the buckets and stacking them on the platform, and the machinists keep dumping them into the molds, running them into the furnace and pulling out little yellow refrigerators.

The time clock buzzes at 3 o’clock. My shift is done. I drive home with my clothes and hair and ears filled with polyurethane dust and figure that is enough. I have been living like a hobo with my thumb to the wind for years now. It blows around me with the whine of a pedal-steel guitar, an ache that I awaken to every morning. I don’t need to take shit from high-school dropouts to remind me of all that. At The Driftwood that night, I am a melancholy marinade.

But I get up early the next morning and go back to work. And I get even faster at loading those buckets. Get ahead of the machines. I handle the buckets well enough to advance quickly through the company, leaving the buckets behind as I am promoted through a series of life-draining tasks. My favorite is a warehouse assignment where the toys are assembled, packed in boxes, the boxes stapled shut and stacked on wood pallets to be shipped around the country. I like the guys in the warehouse. They just don’t give a shit.

Sammy, an ungainly goof, walks a clever line between competent enough to keep his job and incompetent enough to avoid being promoted out of the warehouse. Sam – I never do learn his last name – is slapping together the ovens one afternoon when he reaches for a new stack of the black-tinted plastic windows for the little oven doors. The window on top of the stack is covered with a smooth layer of dust. Sam calls a couple of us over to check it out, and with his fingernail delicately scratches in the dust, MERRY FUCKING XMAS.

We are laughing so hard that Sam can hardly steady himself enough to snap the little plastic window onto the little plastic door, slide the oven into the box and staple it shut. “I wish I could see that kid’s face on Christmas morning,” someone howls. For the rest of the afternoon, we snicker and call out to each other, “Ho, ho, ho.”

Now I am a machinist. A slave to the whims of the furnace cycle. During breaks between feeding molds into the furnace, I wipe my sleeve across my face, swing my baseball cap around backward on my head, lean on the railing and look out across the factory floor. My hands are calloused and red from pulling the hot toys from the furnace, but no one here wears gloves. It is a tough-guy thing. From my perch, I can see a new guy leaning deep into his gaylord, scraping his buckets along the bottom, loading them for the next round of toys.

I read books on my lunch break. I am the only one who does. On summer days I sit, alone, at one of the picnic tables out back with Nineteen Eighty-Four, reading.

Oceana was at war with Eastasia. Oceana had always been at war with Eastasia.

My break ends.

I watch the business of toys. We are a colony of worker ants, scrambling to assemble pleasure. I see the supervisors gesturing, the fork lifts scurrying and a couple of guys on break standing in an open delivery bay door, escaping the heat. Two dozen women hover over an assembly line, cutting plastic plates and plastic silverware away from the thin plastic frames holding them together, a part of the manufacturing process. They fling the forks, spoons and plates into a box creeping down the assembly line and flip the plastic scrap at a pile on the floor. With the exception of the secretaries in the air-conditioned offices up front, and the two quality-control people – who everyone avoids – these are the only women in the plant.

Every 15 minutes or so, a ripped-up old soul staggering behind a push broom sweeps away the scrap pile. In my seven years, I have never held that particular job.

Between the machines’ cycles, I sometimes have great notions. I write passages in my head for the novel that I will someday publish to great acclaim, Dylan Thomas Died Here. And Over There. But mostly, I have mediocre thoughts. I watch the women leaning over the assembly lines, see their shirts darkening with sweat, and try to imagine what they are talking about. They are always talking. I rarely speak to my platform partner. The roar of the furnace is too loud, like yelling across the mouth of hell. We don’t have anything to talk about, anyway.

Nor do the assembly-line women have anything to say to me. I wipe the sweat from my brow, lean on my railing and wonder if they have noticed me up on that platform. It is, after all, a position of responsibility, and calls for high levels of physical strength and endurance, unlike pushing a broom. When you reach the platforms, you are an otherworldly being.

Some of these women are attractive, their long hair tied up and out of the way, or corn rows carefully tucked beneath shower caps to hold off the polyurethane dust. It is hot in the building, in the summer they wear shorts. I fantasize about slipping out the door when the shift ends at 3 o’clock with a couple of them, and maybe a few of the guys, for beers at the topless bar a half-mile down the road. Maybe dance to Booker T. & the MGs’ “Green Onions” on the juke box.

But they never ask, and I never ask. They don’t consider me one of them.  I don’t consider myself one of them. The other machinists lounge on their machines like great, winking gods, full of confidence and scorn. They use the same words that I do, but their gestures are a different language. They shrug, and the world rolls from their shoulders and into the gutter.

I’m sitting at the picnic table, staring beyond the cars in the parking lot, eating my meagre bologna sandwich, Nineteen Eighty-Four at my elbow. Unexpectedly, one of the assembly-line women is talking to me. “Is that your book?” she asks. I’ve seen her over the summer, wondered if she was one of the girls from my old high school. Some of them danced at the topless bar for a few years, but they usually end up here. So I’m told.

“Yeah, I’m reading it.”

She looks at it, but her expression is like a dog trying to read a clock. Nineteen Eighty-Four. “Oh,” she says. “It’s old.” And walks away.

I slip the book into my lunch box and go back to the machine.

To the numbing clatter of the machine, and its unrelenting cycle of time.

The time clock buzzes at 3 o’clock. I pick up an empty plastic bucket and fling it at the new guy leaning over the big box of powder. It hits him on the back of the head and skids across the floor.