Voluntary Separation

7:56 a.m. -- Nate twirls his cigarette between thumb and forefinger, neatly separating coal and filter. He tucks the butt into the back pocket of his jeans unthinkingly, a habit of nearly two decades. Every night he has fifteen or twenty five to throw away. He opens the door and punches in (tan card, week two, day three, NRUBICON typed across the top in script, the B half a line low) by the time it clicks shut, sealing him off from the world outside for another eight hours (interrupted for two tens and a half, off the clock of course).

In the hierarchy of a midsized plastics shop, the material handler falls somewhere between chief peon and petty king. With no official power, no ability to reward or reprimand, they still can profoundly impact your day. The fair ones spread the shitwork around, rotating everyone equally through the jobs. The truly good ones match jobs to ability and temperament.

The chimps (and Nate decided his second day this one is prime chimp material) play favorites.

Just inside the entrance to the molding side of the factory, the chimp has left his clipboard on a pallet half-filled with packed boxes. The top sheet lists today's work assignments. Nate is in Cell Four, along with Marvin and Leon.

"Guy!" Nate waves the clipboard until five and a half feet of stringy crewcut swaggers over.

"What do you want?" Emphasis on the 'you'. Guy's voice is just nasal enough to pierce the constant snarl of the regrinders, and manages, somehow, to be both whiny and arrogant at the same time, like the sixth grade bully who kicked you in the calf and then ratted you out to the teacher for leaving line to chase him.

"I was in Cell Four twice this week already."

"So?" Nate just stares. Guy breaks contact first, and Nate knows he has finished making an enemy. "You're working Cell Four. If you don't like it, tough shit." Guy stalks away.

Of the six production cells in the plant, number four is the least desirable. Inspecting and packing plastic widgets as they fall out the bottom of an injection molding press is dull at best. Cell Four is mind-numbing, two presses making complex parts that need to be sorted, inspected three different ways, and precisely packed. In this plant, only the material handler, supervisor, and maintenance are allowed to touch the press controls, so even though Nate knows enough about molding to make the tiny adjustments needed to keep things running smoothly, he must sit and watch, and regrind the bad parts.

8:59 a.m. -- There are no clocks visible on the production floor (the owner thinks people with a clock to watch will do that rather than work. From what Nate has learned about him in the six months he's worked here, the man's an ass who's never worked a production job in his life, a failed engineer whose first three companies went bankrupt from poor management. Not surprising, considering the second one was purchased with money embezzled from the first, as far as the ever-present and generally accurate grapevine claims, and the third folded because the owner's former business partners learned the product being made was the subject of a patent infringement lawsuit filed by the people he used to work for, back in his design engineering days), and Nate is unable, still, to wear a wristwatch. Marvin pushes back his cheap orange chair and holds up his pocket watch. Nate is lighting a cigarette before he clears the door.

Leon is the last into the winter sun. He is tall, starting to go bald in a kewpie doll|kewpie-doll] pattern. Although he's been out of the Navy for years, he retains a military bearing. Nate can tell when he's been drinking on company time, because his posture grows crisper and his diction formal. Today, his back is perfectly straight, shoulders square.

"I should slaughter that little turd."

"Get in line," Marvin says.

Leon doesn't say anything else or look at either of them. Nate fieldstrips his second cigarette, the butt vanishing efficiently into his pocket, the fourth one there (so far).

Inside, Guy is waiting by the presses, leaning on the granite-topped cart Nate uses to check the flatness and thickness of the parts. "You're two minutes late," he says, pretending to look at the stopwatch hanging from his neck on a slender cord. Leon sits and starts fitting irregular lumps of foam into his box, cushioning the delicate vanes and spikes of the parts he's packing. Marvin holds up his pocket watch. "What's your point? Your watch is wrong."

Glares and mumblings all round, but in five minutes the routine of production has re-established itself.

12:07 p.m. -- Leon sits down at the plastic picnic table Nate has staked out, facing away from the table. "Hey, kid."


"You don't belong here."

"It's a free country."

"That's not what I mean. You do not belong here, in this shithole. Not today. Do you understand me?"

"I've worked in worse places. Did I ever tell you about the time I baled hay?"

Leon's face changes. "Don't be stupid. Don't make me say more than I have to or you will belong here, do you understand? You do not want to be here." Leon rises smoothly and walks across the browning grass to his car, beckons. Nate stows the cheap blank book he's been jotting notes toward a poem in. He hunkers beside the car.

"There's a thunderstorm in my head, Nate. I've been feeling it coming. The air is not moving, heavy with moisture. The lighting has been striking my fingers all morning. The bottom of the clouds are flat, like a stack of plates."

Nate looks into the car, nods.

Goes to the timeclock.

Punches in from lunch.

Punches out.

Guy is there. "What do you think you're doing?"

"Getting as far away from you as I can."


The next time he sees Guy is on the news.

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