I call this one "Ode to a Trainee Manager."
When you enter this town of ours, I would want you to read the following, to enlighten you as to how it is here with us at this time in history. It seems only right. Even in medieval times they used to put up signs that said, "Plague! Keep Out."
This is what I'd say...
We have made nothing in this town in over a decade. It's as though a plague befell our men, as horrible as any of the plagues that fell on Egypt. Our men used to manufacture cars, sheet metal, mobile homes, washers and dryers, frame doors, steel girders for bridges and skyscrapers. Our town had contracts from Sears and Ford and General Motors. Everybody worked in the factories, bending metal into the shape of car fenders, gaskets, engine blocks, distributor caps, sewing vinyl seats for Cadillacs and Continentals. We had hands throbbing to make things. Factories were our cathedrals, pushed up out of the Great Plains.
The din of sound, the subterranean rumble of machinery, filled our consciousness once upon a time. You would have felt the buffeted sound of hammers in our encasement of snow when winter gripped us, locked away from the world outside, making things as snow fell heavy across the plains, isolating us. Our furnaces bled against the snow, a crucible of fire amid the plains. There was peace, then, and security, all of us moving under the bowls of streetlights on ploughed streets, proceeding slowly home in our cars, exhausted, as the machines of our existence ate the night shift. You'd have seen the slow trundle of trains full of gleaming cars we had built snaking out to the great cities on the East and West Coasts.
If you happened to come upon us in the summer scorch, you would have seen our men in stained yellow T-shirts, dripping sweat, eating down by the river from steel lunch boxes, guzzling ice-cold Coca-Cola or buckets of cold beer. You would have seen the way they used to drag their forearms across their mouths with easy satisfaction, rise and stretch and walk the factory yards, smoking in long, deep pulls. You might have heard the pop of a bat at the lunch break, our men out in the fields behind the factories rounding bases, sending balls over the brownstone perimeter of our existence. There was cheap beer in the dark shade of run-down bars for men who needed it, and an allotment of whores down by the vast labyrinth of viaducts and foundry cooling pools. We had a chocolate factory, too, where our young women in confectionery hats pasted fudge and caramel drops and taffy brittle on wax baking sheets. You would have come across them smoking against the blackened brownstone walls, pale ghosts covered in flour. They had that luxurious odor of cocoa and cinnamon ingrained into their pores.
And on a warm summer's night, you would have found us in the collective destiny of a drive-in movie, us in our machines in the humid air of summer heat; heard the shrill cries of the drive-in mesh speaker filling our heads with the horror of living in the Cold War, as giant ants from a nuclear holocaust attacked New York City.
It had a perpetual motion, this town of ours, compact and inexhaustible, self-sustaining, the eternal stoking of furnaces went night and day with us in splendid isolation, the keepers of industrialism. You would have believed, like us, that the means of production would never stop ticking, but you would have been wrong.
Our factories by the river are abandoned now, windows smashed, sprouting tufts of grass through collapsed roofs. We are at war with ourselves in the greatest calamity our nation has ever faced. We kill each other in deals gone wrong, in a black market of drugs plied in the shadow of our abandoned cathedrals. Our adolescents slink amid these ruins, scale the chain-link fences, rip the copper piping from the factories, sell it. Rusting fire escapes lead to stairways to oblivion and darkness. There are prehistoric-looking machines dragged out into yards, cannibalized of anything of worth, carcasses of industrialism. Our daughters spread their legs on shop floors where once our men pounded steel. We are encircled by cornfields, hemmed in by crops that it doesn't pay to grow anymore. The commodities exchange has gone to hell. There are butter mountains and wheat mountains, rotting stockpiles of food that need to be destroyed because of overproduction and bottoming prices.
We are now a town of trainee managers. Oh, happy are ye that inherit the deep-fat fryer! What we do now is eat. It has become our sole occupation, our idle hands have found something to take hold of. We take hold of burgers, mostly, in a carnivorous display of sublimated longing for our dead machines. We have McDonald's, Burger King, Arby's, Hardee's, Dairy Queen, Shakey's, Big Boy, Ponderosa, Denny's, International House of Pancakes...
Not that you'll ever read this on any signpost outside our town. I've been writing that requiem for years. It was a piece I wrote in journalism class. Ever since I joined the Daily Truth last year, I've been trying to slide it into an article. I've been polishing that bit of philosophy like my old man used to polish his '62 Olds. I've been trying that philosophy on for size like women change dresses. I kind of sneak it into conversations down at bars, or at career day at the local junior college. It's like looking at the innards of my own consciousness, that philosophy of mine, a hemorrhage of memory, the entrails of feeling, all raw and bloody. Last year I thought, hell, it can go into the town's time capsule, but my editor, Sam Perkins, this fat irascible asshole, took me back into his office and chewed my ass real good. He said, "We got a history that ain't about words in this town." And this from the goddamn editor of our local newspaper..." 'A history that ain't about words.' Jeez almighty!" I just had to shake my head. What they put in that time capsule was parts of a washing machine, a sewing machine, fenders and steering wheels, tires, a switching mechanism from the old railway yard, and a baseball hat from the local UAW, among other things. They buried them in this sealed crate and then covered it over down near the baseball diamond out on County Road Five. Sam Perkins says, "Language changes. It ain't worth a damn. But this here is the immutable architecture of our past, the machines of our age." He said that to the people gathered there around the pit. Sam's the editor primarily because he knows words like immutable, and because he presses the flesh like a politician. He is the Truth in this town, at least he was, once upon a time. Sometimes I call him the Truth behind his back. I'll say things like, "The Truth has spoken. You must accept the Truth."
See, we're fighting a losing battle here in our town. Sam's taken me aside over the last few months. He says, "Circulation ain't worth a damn." I like that word, circulation, the analogy to blood. It hints at what we once were. "I'll be damned if this folds...," he says when he's drunk. I already have the final headline in my head -- PAPER FOLDS.
I still mess with that essay of mine when there's nothing to do, when I'm stuck at my desk waiting for the AP wire to feed some lifeline into the paper that must now be filled each day. We don't have a war, so it makes my job hard. I kind of wish we had a war. We have lots of good kids here who could die beautiful, patriotic deaths. Shit, you have to miss Vietnam from a journalistic point of view. But things are more insidious now. It's not hard to find casualties, what's hard is to get people to admit they are casualties. It's hard to get them to admit there's a war going on. I tried that line, just like I said it there, the "It's not hard to find casualties, what's hard is to get people to admit they are casualties," down at Lakeview Junior College Career Day assembly, and Dean Holton just about shit his pants. I was shouting into the microphone. "You ever wonder about Japanese cars, the names they give them -- Accord, Cressida, Corolla. It's like the Japs are only getting into the English alphabet, like they're just learning the ABCs." Dean Holton got the school band to start playing right over me there in the auditorium. Three cheerleaders flipping across the stage raised an uproarious cheer that I like to think was for me, but it wasn't. You know, maybe Sam Perkins is right about language not being worth a damn. The Japanese speak a language of equations and numbers. Two plus two will always be goddamn four.
I get away with all this here in the town because nobody wants my job. The Truth really serves as a repository for the court systems to file public notices. My grandfather, the ice monster, started the paper, as he started much of the social fabric of this town, years ago when he made his fortune selling ice, hacking out blocks of ice for all the homes in town and out on the farms. Then he got in on the ground floor of refrigeration units. Made a fortune all over again. His legacy still hasn't melted. And there's the house he left behind, a mansion really. It's what brought me back home, the anchor of my heritage.
Television is where it's at these days. The written word is dead. They got this Linda Carter doing Eyewitness News. She's got legs that go to the ceiling. She's the new town oracle, with these lips that were made for sucking cock. Hell, even I watch her, the enemy. She's always on location. The town is just a backdrop for her radiance.
Sam's scared shitless we're going under. "I want to retire with dignity," is what he says. He gets all shaky sometimes. He says softly, "You know I'm dying, Bill. I got the cancer inside me," but that's pretty much bullshit. He's lost. He wishes there was something that would kill him. He drinks warm bourbon late into the night behind the bubbled glass of his editor's office. He keeps this banker's lamp burning all night. Down below us is the old foundry works, a scaffold of towers and walkways covered in rusting sheet metal, a labyrinth of massive snaking pipes and chimney stacks that have done no work in ages. Sam's taken me to the window at night, surveyed the nightmare. Down there in the yard is where most of the drug deals go down. It's where you get sucked off at night. "Right under our goddamn noses," is what he says in his shaky voice. He wears this typesetter's leather cap sometimes when he gets all weepy. "We need a scoop!" is what he says, just shaking his head. There aren't any scoops left, not here anyway. His father, Jasper Perkins, ran the paper for years. I know this story ad nauseam. Blah, blah blah...What I'd like to say about him in his obituary is -- THE TRUTH IS DEAD.
All I'm left with is creating postscripts to a dead town that I hash out in full-page spreads for the Auxiliary Firemen's Wives' charity bakeoff. The bakeoff is the story we're going to lead with for tomorrow's edition. I was thinking of a headline -- AUXILIARY FIREMEN'S WIVES SELL THEIR BUNS FOR CHARITY -- but, shit, you can't slide anything by Sam Perkins. Maybe in a hundred years someone's going to read my article on the bakeoff, and they're going to understand just how fucked things got here in our town in the late twentieth century. That's the thing about language, all right, you have to deconstruct its meaning, you have to decode Auxiliary Firemen's Wives' Bakeoff into an almighty fucking roar of despair.
And then comes a call from Pete Morris down at the police station on West Twelfth. We go way back to elementary school. He said, "We got a situation, Bill," which is something he never used to say. It was just something they said on cop shows, "a situation," but now, when Pete calls, it's always about "a situation." I'd been thinking about writing an editorial about that, about the accretion of new words into our subconscious, but I've been having to write up too many goddamn bakeoffs to get any real work of my own done.
Pete said, "You know that Ronny Lawton, that troublemaker out on Pine and Sixteenth?"
I said, "Yeah, what about him, Pete?"
"I'll tell you what about him. He just called in a missing person's on his father," Pete said. "Looks like it might be time to drag the river."
I said, "Pete, jeez almighty, you got anything more definite than that? I'm leading with the Auxiliary Firemen's Wives' Bakeoff for tomorrow's edition. You have to come up with a body to get that off page one."
Copyright © 2000 by Michael Collins