Saturday, September 28, 2013
Helium.com Flash Fiction---Night Owls
(Author's note: More Helium.com flash fiction, and you can read the four-hundred word version here.)
“Hey newbie, you're late,” Billy and Jack yelled almost in unison from the old picnic table as I stepped out of the factory and into the crisp night air. Except for my friends, the silent and calm nature of the empty factory patio was a welcome relief to having spent the last four and a half hours dealing with loud noises and always demanding production quotas.
My two middle-aged friends have filled the rickety old table with a literal late night feast of sugary soft drinks, overstuffed sandwiches, potato chips that drip with fat, and high calorie snack cakes. To them the overabundance of junk food is how they cope with the circumstances of working nights for what must now close to twenty years. Though both have paid a price with growing health problems that range from simple obesity and high blood pressure to diabetes for Billy.
“Yeah,” I said rushing over to join them for the all too short period of time night shift was allowed for lunch.
“My new assistant doesn't know his head from a hole in the ground. I had to recheck most of my production run before Janice in Quality Control found the defective items he let slip by.”
“Oh Christ,” Billy said while Jack shook his head in silence, “you definitely don't want her running off to the new supervisor. I saw those two try to sneak out of the supply room unnoticed last week.”
“Doesn't this sound familiar?” Jack finally said after swallowing a bite of his sandwich. “Seems like it was yesterday that you and I were complaining about this new temp worker named Chuck Barnes who messed up nearly every simple production run.”
I wanted to offer a retort, but I just bite into my own sandwich because I was both hungry and wanted to ignore the truth in Jack's statement. Because in fact it did seem such a short time ago that I limped into the plant as a new hire still upset at the injury that cost me my football scholarship. It all unraveled for me during last game of the season when Clemson played the University pf South Carolina. We were halfway through the fourth quarter playing offense hoping to add to the small three point lead we struggled to hold.
My teammates and could tell the Gamecocks were getting both pissy and desperate with the clock edging ever closer to the end of the game. I was one of the wide receivers and the play called for me to run down field just enough for a first down since we wanted eat away at the remaining time as much as possible. When the ball was snapped everything went into super slow motion. I even remember how pretty the football looked as it spiraled in my direction after the quarterbacked released it. However that is the last thing I remember.
I still harbored a great deal of resentment against the hulking linebacker that seemed to have a personal grudge against me. When he and one of his buddies finally succeeded in ripping my knee apart all they got was a fifteen yard penalty while I was carried out unconscious on a stretcher. It only took three days after that for the team doctors to decided I would never play again. At the same time a university bureaucrat reduced my full ride scholarship to half. They might as well have just pulled the entire thing since my family couldn't afford that amount.
I didn't go back to my hometown of Saluda, South Carolina despondent though because I had a plan. It involved getting a job at one of the nearby factories and working my ass off for two years saving every cent. Instead I actually go and screw things up even further.
Not a month on the job my girlfriend comes to me in tears carrying the pee stick from an in-home pregnancy test. With a baby on the way and a new and disgruntled father-in-law looking over my shoulder a short time later I found myself permanently exiled from the world of higher education along with any chance of getting ahead in life. I had gone from a life filed with possibilities to being condemned to living in what is jokingly called a “right to work” state constantly under threat of my job being outsourced overseas, benefits being reduced, to smarmy management types looking score some points with the front office by catching the workers doing something wrong.
It was Billy and Jack with all their years of experience that showed me the ropes and forced me to learn enough to be useful to management that was always circling the workers like vultures. I owe those two wise old owls, forever condemned to night shift, everything. Without them I wouldn't be able to feed my family or keep a roof over their heads. At the same time, I passionately hate them because they most certainly represent my future and I die a little each night thinking I will live out the rest of my life eating lunch under the stars while wondering how things could have been so different for me.