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“What Can You Pen?” First Place Prose Prize

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First-place winners will be published in Westwind’s quarterly journal.

Dynamic
By Peter Holby

The bell sounds and everybody except for Jimmy drops what they’re doing and heads towards the break room. Jimmy grabs his broom and starts moving between the work stations, making little grunts as he strains to get at the sawdust that’s drifted back behind the bright red flammable storage cabinet.

In the break room everyone grabs their lunch out of their locker. Everybody except for me and Jeff has a sandwich, big piles of meat sliding around between layers of mayonnaise and mustard, tired shreds of iceberg lettuce sliding out onto the table. They’re the perfect sandwiches for these guys, like if Mike or Barry or any of them were on the back of a placemat and you had to help them find their way through the maze and find their lunch, this sloppy sandwich would be exactly what you would expect to find after all those twists and turns.

I have a salad with mushrooms and quinoa, and Jeff has what looks to me like leftover pad thai. I’m a vegan, and the guys think that’s the funniest thing they’ve ever heard. Jeff’s wife is 19 and doesn’t speak much English. Nobody thinks that’s funny.

When Mike gets to the table he’s carrying a mini cooler, one of those ones that has a little peaked roof that slides off to the side. He opens it and pulls out a six-pack of Hamm’s, and starts pulling them out of the plastic rings and sliding them across the table. Barry picks his up and looks at it like the can is made of gold. Jeff pulls back from the table and turns his nose up, like actually turns his nose up. “Fuck are you doing?” he asks Mike.

Mike takes the last beer out of the last plastic ring. He puts it down on the table and pulls his knife out of his pocket, opening it up and cutting through the rings, one at a time. When he gets through the last one he puts the plastic back in his cooler, closes it, and sits down. He looks over the table at Jeff. “I am enjoying America’s classic premium beer with my lunch,” he says. “If you don’t want to do the same, give yours to the kid.” I reach across the table and take Jeff’s beer. As I’m pulling it back Barry leans forward and stops me, putting my hand over his. “Lotta dead yeast in that can, kid.” he says. “Don’t join the rest of us savages.”

I use my free hand to take his hand off my beer. “Yeast are in the kingdom fungi,” I tell him, “not animalia.” He lets out a low whistle and holds his hands up, palms out, yielding, backing off.

“Whatever fucking kingdom it’s in, it isn’t supposed to be at lunch!” Jeff hisses. Mike cracks his beer in response.

“Fuck are they gonna do, Jeff? Fire me?” There’s a murmur around the table, a grinding sort of noise where there should be a laugh. We’re not much for gallows humor, I guess. “Besides, all disciplinary action’s gotta go through the process.” He stops and clears his throat. “Dynamic Manufacturing Solutions, LLC agrees to recognize such Union stewards, duly appointed by and acting as agents of the Union, who may receive complaints and process grievances through the grievance procedure. The Union shall provide the DMS with a written list of such stewards and alternates, if any.” He takes a bite of his sandwich, washes it down. “By the time Tom gets back we’ll be out on our ass, and Fred was the alternate.” Tom’s at home with stomach cancer. We all pitched in our vacation days to keep his lights on after his days ran out. Fred took the early retirement when it was still an option, when keeping our jobs still seemed like something that was possible.

“That’s beautiful,” Jeff says, and he scoffs, like actually scoffs. “The union cost us our jobs, and now you get to hide behind it and get drunk.”

Mike belches. “Look like I’m hidin’ to you?” Jeff gets up from the table and goes outside to smoke. “Union didn’t close the plant, either!” Mike calls at the back of his head. There’s another grinding noise that goes around the room. Jeff’s current job is building crates. Some of our fancier machines, the ones that are some kind of trade secret or something, those go in the crates, and then the crates go to Vietnam. So it’s pretty understandable if he’s a little more on edge than the rest of us.

Right around the time everyone’s done eating their sandwich and making sure nobody left them a message that morning Jimmy comes into the room, his broom still in his hand. “All clean, fellas!” he announces, and he leans the broom up in the corner and goes into his locker for his sandwich.

We’ll all go back out on the floor in a minute, and when we get there it will be spotless and each of our individual work stations will be perfectly neat. Jimmy used to eat lunch with the rest of us, but there was an accident. He was out for more than half of last year and when he came back it seemed like the best fit for him might just be keeping the place clean. Rumor went around that they were looking for a way to fire him, but Tom went and talked with management, and we didn’t hear much about it after that. I always like to take a minute to look at my station when I get back from lunch. Everything is laid out perfect, straight in line or perfectly 90 degrees with the edge of the desk, an even space about the width of your thumb in between every tool.

What happened was Jimmy was driving the forklift and clipped one of the shelves, and four or five hundred pounds of copper wire came down on him. It was one of those giant rolls that looks like it’s a spool of thread for something a thousand times your size, something that’s bigger and more powerful and more complicated than anything you’ve ever known in your entire life.

The second half of the day always goes slower than the first, the way I imagine it does for everybody who works a job where punching the clock means actually punching an actual clock. Everything ends, though, even the workday, and when we’re done Mike and I climb into his car and drive off. We’ve been riding together ever since I moved into his house, which was about six months ago. His wife divorced him and the only thing he could think to say was “I want the house,” and she said sure, knowing that he didn’t know that he would have to give her half of what it was worth. Once it was a sure thing that we were all about to be unemployed moving in with him just seemed like it made sense. It gave me a sympathetic landlord, and he got part of a second unemployment check. But we’re not going home, we’re going to John Fox’s Hall. The Hall, we call it. A lot of the guys from work were there pretty much every day anyway, and when Bill, the guy who owns The Hall, found out Dynamic was shutting down he told us that we’d have happy hour prices no matter what time of day it was. So now pretty much everybody goes to The Hall after work. I like going because Grace is there, and I like Grace. She works there, she says, because she’s desperate to bank a little money while she works her way through “bunk ass community college.” She’s studying physics.

Grace and I met because while the guys hoist pints of PBR and mow through hamburgers, I drink Sierra Nevada and only eat steak fries. After the fifth or sixth time being in there she asked me why I only ever ate potatoes. I told her that the steak fries could be served to me free of the institutional cruelty to and suffering of sentient creatures, at least on the production end. “How do you know we don’t fry ‘em in lard?” she asked. I checked, I told her. “We have salads,” she said, and I told her that they had steak or chicken or shrimp in them. “We can take it out,” she said, and I told her that if you built a salad around meat and then take it out, the salad that’s left over was usually pretty depressing. That night I hung around after last call and we sat on the trunk of her car in the parking lot, drinking and talking. That happened a few times and eventually while we were sitting there her leg drifted up against mine, and then a few minutes later her thigh drifted under my hand, and then a while after that we were upstairs in Mike’s house, trying not to hit our heads on the slope of the roof in what used to be his son’s bedroom.

I worried that that was going to make trips to The Hall with the guys something like awkward, but it’s not so bad. When I’m in the can they pull Grace aside and tell her that she’d better treat me right, and when she’s not around they make jokes about what I do or do not eat. But on this particular night nobody says much of anything like that, the guys just go through their burgers and their PBR and a real heated discussion about darts takes place, and then eventually it’s last call. After that Grace and I go up to the roof and sit with our feet dangling over the edge.

A week later it’s another Tuesday night, and Grace will be working but before we head to The Hall we go to the mall. Mike wants to get rid of his wedding band, and there’s a guy there who buys gold, tucked into what looks like it used to be a large closet. He sits behind his desk that’s almost as wide as the room and sweats like a hog that knows what’s coming, either because he’s got a neon sign a couple feet above his head or because there’s no ventilation in a closet or both. He stands up when we walk up to the closet, squeezes around the desk and shakes both of our hands. He says “fellas” about four times in that stretch, and it makes me think he doesn’t get two people at the same time very often. Selling a wedding band is usually the kind of thing you do by yourself, I guess. He goes back around the back of the desk and opens a drawer, pulling out a small round tin, a pink eraser that’s about as wide as a 1-1/8 bolt, a pair of cotton inspection gloves and something that looks a bit like a digital electrometer, except instead of a wheel it’s got four buttons, and instead of two probes it’s got one probe and an alligator clip. He takes a small metal square out of the drawer, and clips it with the alligator clip. He puts on a pair of linen gloves and asks Mike for the ring. He takes it and slides it over the tip of his ring finger, buffing it with his thumb. Then he frowns and picks up the eraser and gives Mike’s ring a quick rub. He stops frowning then and looks up at us. “Gotta be clean to get an accurate reading,” he says, and he puts the ring down on the metal square. He cleans off the end of the probe with his gloved fingers and opens the tin, dipping the probe into the gel inside. Turning on the machine, he touches the probe to the ring and hits one of the buttons on the electrometer thing. I half expect the ring to jump. There’s a current running through it and how that current comes out is going to determine the whole of that little thing’s value. Everything anyone ever says about it, the rest of its whole life, depends on how that current comes out. It doesn’t jump.

The hog man puts down the probe, picks up the ring and puts it on a small scale, then pulls a calculator out of the drawer and punches it a few times. He looks up at Mike. “I can give you 40 bucks for it,” he says.

Mike sighs. “I think I might take it to a few other places,” he says, “just to see what’s the best I can get for it.”

“I understand” the man says, and he wipes down the ring one more time with his gloved fingers as he holds it out for Mike. “Tell you what, hoss: It’ll still be 40 bucks when you get back.”

Mike starts to reach for it and sighs again. “Fuck it,” he says, “if it’s 40 it’s 40.” The man smiles and puts the ring back down on the desk, opens the center drawer on the desk and pulls out two 20 dollar bills without even having to look down at what he’s doing. He comes around the desk again to hand them to Mike. This time he doesn’t shake my hand. “Fellas,” he says, “It was a pleasure. A genuine pleasure.” Mike doesn’t say anything the whole walk back to the car, but when he sinks into his seat he puts his hands on the steering wheel and looks at his empty finger. “Fuck it,” he says again, and then he doesn’t say a single thing as we drive home, going right past The Hall without slowing down.

When we get home he takes off his uniform shirt and heads down to the basement, which is what he always does. It’s like there’s a groove between the back door, his closet and the basement steps, and it’s worn so deep that he just slides right into it, even though there’s nothing he’s hiding from anymore. I usually take a few beers out of the fridge and go sit on the roof, or on the front steps, or sometimes even in the rotting tree house that’s out back. It’s got a trap-door entrance and a section of the floor that pulls up to reveal a secret hiding compartment. Sometimes when we’re walking between his car and the house he says he’s going to tear it down. He is never looking at the tree house when he says this. I have never seen him look at the tree house.

I take some beers up to the roof and, but it’s cold as hell and the roof is sloped and it isn’t the same. I can only watch my breath disappear into the darkness for the time it takes to drink one beer, so I put the other one back in the fridge and go to bed.

A week later the Hamm’s at lunch has graduated to Hamm’s for much of the afternoon, and management knows about it but they leave us alone, maybe because of the union or maybe because some people believe in mercy or maybe because they can only consume so many souls and drink so much blood before they feel sick. I don’t know. By the time we get out of work we’re all warm and nobody even has to suggest we head to The Hall, we just get in and go.

Another night just like all the others goes by, and again it ends with me and Grace up on the roof, watching the last of the guys drive off. She’s telling me about Introduction to Particle Physics, and how frustrating it is that that’s the biggest thing she can take at Valley Community because what she’s really after is string theory.

“I get why particle theory is important. But even the name of it – the things we’re talking about aren’t particles, really. They exhibit the qualities of a particle some of the time and the qualities of a wave other times.”

“Do they?” I ask.

“They do,” she says, reaching over and taking my hand in hers and putting both of them in the pocket of my coat. “Here’s the whole thing: the things we see and touch and hold us to the earth are made up of atoms, and those atoms are made up of particles, and those particles are made up of quarks, mostly, and the quarks are vibrating strings and how they vibrate is what decides how they show up, and they’re all part of a two-dimensional membrane that vibrates in 11 dimensional space.”

She squeezes my hand and I think about how 2 and 11 add up to 13, and if you multiply them you get 22. 13 is unlucky and 22 is a bust. “Is everything ‘Introduction to…’” I ask. “Or do they still have classes that are such-and-such 101?”

She doesn’t say anything for a second. “I just think it’s interesting, that’s all.”

Grace is a shit ton smarter than I am, and sometimes I want to mention that but I’m not sure what mentioning it would do. She’s gorgeous, too, and funny and I’m not particularly handsome or funny. Grace is better than me, and it seems to me that her being better than me vibrates in a way that is real, that I can feel. I feel it in the bottom of my feet when we’re sitting on the roof, like there’s a weight pulling at my heels and I could slip away any second. Grace told me about supergravity once and it was just something else I didn’t understand, but I get that weight.

Grace and I have a lot of fun together, even though she’s better than me. Not just after-hours at The Hall. On her days off we take walks in the woods behind Mike’s house, or we play checkers and make rather personal bets on the outcome, but sometimes in our silences I want to ask her if she knows how this will end. Because I do, I want to tell her. You’ll get tired of explaining yourself three times every time you bring up something new, or maybe we manage to hold on past that and we get to the point where you leave The Hall, but either way you will be gone. I’ve heard a lot of people say they’re on borrowed time, but I’ve never seen anybody pay any time back. I’m stealing time and sooner or later she’s going to catch on.

Things keep going like that for a while. Work gets slower and slower. Tom comes in one morning, and everyone is smiles real wide when they’re shaking his hand but the smile fades as soon as he moves on to the next guy, like it wasn’t there smile in the first place, it was just reflected off Tom.. He just wanted to come one last time, he explains. Things are now slow enough to the point where there’s nothing to do, but we spend some time playing cards and just talking. A few minutes after ten Tom gets up and lurches into the bathroom. We can hear him in there and it’s an awful noise, partly because we can hear him getting sick but partly because he’s beating his fist on the side of the stall and swearing. Jimmy gets up, drags one of the pedestal fans up to our table, positions it perfectly at the center of one of the ends and turns it on, drowning out a lot of the noise from the bathroom. We can still hear the sharp thumps of his fist on the wall. After a little while he comes out and he’s pale and moving slow and we all know he’s going home. He shuffles past the table, knowing as well as we do that if he went around shaking hands he’d have to look us in the eye, and us him. Mike walks him out to his car and doesn’t come back in for close to an hour.

And then one day we’re done. Just done. We go to The Hall. It turns into a quiet night, and guys seem to slip out one by one when they realize that they can’t say “See you tomorrow,” or “See you Monday,” and even “See you around” seems like more than we can promise.

That night when Grace drives me home she doesn’t ask to come in and I don’t ask her to, for reasons I don’t entirely understand. So we just sit there and look at each other for a second, and then she leans in and then we kiss and then I get out of the car and watch her drive away. I could go inside and go to bed but I’m drunk and I want to stay drunk for a little while, so I go out to the tree house. I’ve got a stash of beers in the secret compartment, they stay cold out there this time of year, and I take one of them out and I lie down on the floor. There used to be a tarp for a ceiling but it’s long gone, and I lie there and hear the wood creak and sigh underneath me and I wonder what would happen if I stayed there long enough. I want the boards under me to splinter and collapse underneath me and I want to fall and I want the Earth to open up and I want some of that supergravity to grab hold of me and pull me down into a giant hole. I don’t know where that hole would go or how long I could keep falling, but I know that eventually there would be a bottom, and I would be willing to wait until it shows up.

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One thought on ““What Can You Pen?” First Place Prose Prize

  1. Pingback: What Can You Pen? | The Writer's Den

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