Desolation Row–The Skinny Kid on the Assembly Line

I made it through my freshman year with decent grades and went back to live with my parents over the summer.  Without skills or prospects, I decided to take whatever job I could find in the industrial park by the airport.  I applied to all the factories that had listings in the want ads.  My only previous work experience was flipping burgers.  None of the better-paying companies would hire me.  I ended up taking a job at a place called J.W. Window Components.

The factory made only one product–an aluminum chute and pulley contraption that worked inside a window to hold it open.  The factory didn’t manufacture windows, just the component which they sold to other factories that did make windows.  I spent eight hours a day hunched over a greasy table, threading the little pulleys and placing them on a conveyor belt in groups of five.  You were supposed to keep track of how many you made.  I was terrible at it and always lied about my totals.  The lifers were all rough, older women who would say flirty things to me.  I was never sure how to interpret their crude comments.  Was it a good thing to look like a “tall drink of water?”  At any rate, they worked circles around me with hands that moved like mad crabs as they raced each other to a hundred.  Perched on a worn-out stool with metal screws biting into my ass, I struggled to keep up.  My admirers all had the sense to bring little pillows.

By the end of the shift, the area between my shoulder blades would be screaming in pain.  We would line up to clean our hands from this can of yellow jelly before wiping them off with a shop rag.  The grease from the tables got into the pores of my forearms like blackheads.  I had to soak in the tub for an hour to ever get them clean.  The smell of that factory lingered in my clothes after they had been washed.  I couldn’t wait for the summer to be over so I could throw them all away.

Most of the workers smoked.  I always took my breaks outside just to be in the sunlight.  One day there was a downpour and everyone was forced inside the break room.  A hundred people were talking at once.  Whenever there was a crack of thunder the lights would flicker.  The smoke stung my eye and I felt light-headed like I was going to vomit.  Unable to take the asphyxiation any longer, I went back to my place on the line and just sat there by myself with everything motionless and quiet.  The walls and most of the machinery were painted an industrial shade of green and black power cords hung down from the rafters like serpents.  The place had an abandoned sense of beauty.  Voices spilled from the doors of the break room as a horn sounded and the workers returned to their stations.  A loud hum filled the factory as the conveyors were turned back on.  I realized, not for the first time, that hell was a human creation.



I started going on fast food runs with a psychopath named Bart who drove a silver Trans Am.  It was a tire-squealing race against the clock as lunch breaks were a mandated half-hour.  The car would bottom out every time we careened into a parking lot and Bart would yell obscenities out the window if there was the slightest delay at the drive thru.  We usually made it back with just seconds to spare.  The factory manager, a Jeffery Dahmer look-a-like, would glower at us at the timeclock upon our return.

Every morning, Bart either complained about his car breaking down or being hung-over.  He always looked horrible, clutching his stomach like he could barely stand.  He had a course red beard to match his bloodshot eyes.  Early on, he explained in a long-winded, uncomfortably personal narrative how he was thrown out of the Army on a psych discharge after nearly murdering a fellow soldier for making him walk home in the rain after losing his virginity to a German prostitute.  He even had a lawyer since, obviously, his emotional problems were the government’s fault.

When I expressed skepticism, he angrily responded, “Well, when I went in, they tested me and I was fine.  When I left, I was crazy, so what the fuck else did it?”

It didn’t seem wise to question his logic.  Emotionally he was a human bomb.  I suppose it provided me a thrill to be around him, to walk him up to the edge and watch him stop short of killing me.

By the end of summer, I had saved enough money to buy a different car and a TV for my dorm room.  The company was hosting a picnic.  I was ambivalent about attending, but Bart made me promise to go.

I ended up getting drunk for the first time.  Bart practically forced the beers down my throat, becoming bellicose whenever I tried to stop.  At a certain point, I lost count.  In the middle of a blackout, I found myself on a volleyball court.  I could barely jump in the loose sand and whenever I chased the ball to make a dig, I ended up falling over.

“I thought you said you were good at this game,” Bart exclaimed in disgust.

I ended up passing out inside my car.  It was dark when a policeman tapped on my window with his flashlight.  I must have been sleeping for several hours because I felt completely sober.  I rolled down the window and the officer asked if I’d been drinking.

“Yeah, I’ve had a few.” I admitted.  There didn’t seem to be much point in lying.

He asked me for my driver’s license and instructed me to follow him back to his car.  I sat beside him in the front seat with the dashboard and CB radio glowing cozily in the darkness.  He wrote me up for underage consumption, speaking to me in a way that was gentle and fatherly without trying to make me feel any worse about myself.  I just kept my mouth shut and answered his questions as succinctly as possible.  He peeled off a copy of the citation and explained the importance of showing up at my court date before he led me back to my car.

“Now I don’t want you driving anywhere,” he said.  “I want you to just stay here and finish sleeping it off.”

“Ok,” I said, “but I really do feel fine now.”

“Well this puke out here smells plenty fresh to me.  I think you’re in enough trouble.”

After he had left, I sat there for about twenty minutes listening to the crickets chirping.  Then I started the car and drove home.

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