One young man's stuggle to escape encroaching mediocrity.
ON THE LINE
A Short Story
By Blaine Acsipter
I guess I’ll have to leave tomorrow. I don’t have the rent money this month. It makes me think of being back in high school, and how it felt when the teacher gathered up our homework. Well, their homework, anyway. I hated the way the teachers looked at me and how they asked me the unnecessary questions, to which I always gave the obvious answers. No. No, sir, I don’t have the assignment finished.
The landlord pokes his head inside my door.
“Your rent’s overdue, kid,” he tells me, “You got it?”
“No,” I say. Maybe he looks at me. I’m sitting on the lopsided sofa, staring at the dark television. I can’t see him, but I know he hasn’t left or closed the door yet by the sound. Maybe there’s an expression of pity on his face. Maybe living in this city’s made him too hard to feel pity for a newly-unemployed high school dropout. I feel as though, if I were to turn around and look at him, simply make eye contact, he might ask me if I’d like another week to try to come up with the money. I only stare at the TV and at the strange, multicolored ring in the center of the screen. In a few seconds, that little, colored blot will be gone.
“Can you be out of here by tomorrow afternoon?” he asks.
“Yes,” I say. I hear him shift his weight. I hear the air moving as the door swings shut. I hear the kuh-chuck sound as the door latch catches on the frame. Everything is hard and wooden in this apartment. Every sound is too loud. Everything echoes.
I had been at the plant for almost a year. It was a decent gig: nine dollars and fifty cents an hour for plucking cellophane-wrapped, frozen, French bread pizzas off the conveyor belt and stuffing them into a cardboard box. It wasn’t a hell of a lot, not lap-of-luxury cash. It wasn’t even enough to put much away in savings, but for a guy in my position it was perfect. What did I have to save for? I worked. I ate. I slept. These were not expensive hobbies.
The woman with the soft hands came to work with me about a week ago, on Tuesday. I came to work on foot, as usual, and went in through the employee entrance to the left of the main doors and to the right of the docks. The air inside was thick with the smell of dry cheese and musty oregano, an odor that now seems permanently bonded to my clothes and hair. I snagged a smock from the basement before heading up to the second floor. Outside the door, there was a small cupboard where I picked up my hairnet and earplugs. The plugs were a pair of compressible, yellow, foam nubs on a green, vinyl string. They always hurt like crazy, pressing against the insides of my ears, but by quitting time, eight hours later, the pain would be as unnoticeable as the reek of sauce and pepperoni. Normally, an older man worked in the spot across from mine. His skin was paper-white and thin with long, wiry, silver hairs up the forearms and on the knuckles. As we waited for the line to start, I noticed he was missing.
“Where’s Freide?” I shouted to my supervisor, Mr. Vega, over the deafening rumble of a hundred thousand motors, rollers and pistons. Vega frowned and shook his head, pointing to his ears. I rolled my eyes and came down to the end of the line, where I shouted my question again.
“Out!” Vega shouted, in our brusque, one-syllable language, “Threw his hip out! Be back in a few days!”
I nodded and returned to my station. The conveyor belt where I stood, day after day, was about thirty feet long and three feet wide. As the line revved up to normal speed, mountains of ice-cold pizzas would glide past, dwindling as each of the seven workers on both sides hauled them off by the double handful. Above the main line, there was a second belt running at face level, in the opposite direction, carrying empty, cardboard boxes. We pulled these off after our current box was full. Seven other workers, standing directly opposite of the ones on my side, were also on the line, but because of this setup it was impossible to tell who they were or what they looked like. The higher belt blocked their faces. The baggy, standard-issue, smocks cloaked their bodies.
A few seconds later, I saw a white-smocked torso appear across from me. At first, I thought Freide must have gotten better, but that was before I saw the hands. They were pale, as white as the old man’s, but the skin was soft, taut, and healthy. The fingers were strong and narrow, with long nails painted a mild, slightly reflective purple. The color seemed familiar, somehow. Her forearms were long, with small, dainty wrists. Exquisitely tiny, brown arm hairs glinted gold in the fluorescent lights. In another situation, or with another girl, I might have been irritated that I couldn’t see any more of her. With the smock on, all I could see was that she was not extremely obese, but for the moment that didn’t matter to me. I was mesmerized by her beautiful hands. She rested her right ring finger on the grey conveyor belt, feeling the bumps and chinks in the plastic. I can honestly say I have never wished to be a conveyor belt as much as I did right then.
The whistle—it wasn’t a whistle, really, but a loud, electronic wank noise, like a single screech from a digital alarm clock the size of New Jersey—sounded and the line began. The beautiful hands jumped off the belt as though it had grown suddenly hot. I smiled, remembering how nervous I had been on my first day. As the pizzas slid past, I plowed into the work as I always did. I worked hard, singing a fast song in my head. I didn’t push myself for the recognition; even the supervisors thought I was foolish to work so hard. The pain in my arms that developed early in my shift and held on long after punch out time helped erase my thoughts. To be fully conscious for eight hours, doing that one, repetitive chore, would be unbearable. Today, the music in my head faltered. Its tempo became erratic, and eventually I forgot the lyrics. I was preoccupied with the identity of the woman on the other side.
I glanced across the belt at her hands again, just in time to see her drop a pizza. She pounded her fists on nothing and stomped her right foot in frustration. Chuckling a little, I watched as she tried to gather up another stack of four with both hands. She turned to the carton next to her… and dropped another one. Furious, she flung the remaining three haphazardly down into the box. I felt sorry for her, so I reached over and slapped the far side of the line to get her attention. I pulled back and plucked, first one pair of pizzas between my thumbs and index fingers, then another two between the index and middle, the middle and ring, the ring and pinky. I placed the two stacks of four in the box, then gave her the thumbs-up before returning to work at normal speed. A few minutes later I noticed her gathering the product quickly and efficiently. She could almost keep up with me. I dropped the stuff in my hands and mimed applause for her. She did a low-set “raise-the-roof” gesture for my benefit and surprised me into laughter that no one could hear.
I spent the rest of my shift wondering how long it had been since I had laughed that naturally, or at all for that matter. After eight hours, I still had no answer. On the second shift, they let everyone out at the same time, the lucky bastards. On the first shift, when I worked, you stayed until the second shift guy showed up to take your spot. If your replacement was late, you stayed longer. My replacement was late. It was 3:05 p.m. and I saw a wide, female torso come up behind my hand-maiden and gesture for her to leave. I was too irritated at having to stay late to give this much notice, until I felt her hand deftly scoop mine up off the belt where it had been resting. The once-perfect nails were a little ragged from scraping against the plastic and the nail polish was flaked, but to me, those hands seemed as lovely as before. She gave my fingers a brief squeeze of thanks. It was like a sudden sun flare. It was there and it was bright and warm and wonderful and… gone. It was several minutes before I noticed my replacement had arrived.
Smock down the chute. Hairnet and plugs in the trash. I came out the door and looked around. I don’t know why. I didn’t know whose face I was looking for, and in the cold, autumn air, most hands were covered by gloves. Slumping a little in disappointment, I walked home on the wet, drizzling streets. As I walked, I remembered why the shade of the hand-maiden’s nail polish seemed so familiar.
The dress they’d put my mother in before they buried her was that same shade of orchid. In my mind, I smelled the sick aroma of too many flowers and heard the dreadful quiet of the funeral home. I remembered the priest’s eulogy and his weak argument that, if God decided it was time for a healthy, happy, middle-aged couple to die in a horrific car crash, then it must have been part of His great plan. I remembered the condolences, and how all their lips said, “They’re with the angels now,” and all their eyes said, “I’m so glad it wasn’t me.” I had cried on that day, almost two years ago. I haven’t cried since.
The next day, the spot across from me was empty again. I felt strangely anxious. What if the hand-maiden— as I had come to call her— wasn’t coming back? What if Freide was better now? And what did it matter to me anyway? I was startled to find that it mattered quite a bit, but just then she arrived. I waved to her and she waved back. I thought she seemed as happy to see my hands as I was to see hers, but I didn’t let myself believe it. I noticed the nostalgia-purple nail polish was gone, and that her nails were now short and neatly-clipped. I went through the motions of painting nails, then turned my hands palms-up, questioningly. It was strange how easily I fell into that language of pantomime.
“No nail polish today, eh?”
She moved her hands side to side, one above the other, then tapped her fingertips on the surface of the belt. “No way. They got all scratched up last time.” She made pinching motions next to the thumb of her other hand. “I clipped them, too.”
I pointed at her hand. “I can see that.”
When the line gets moving, there’s really no time to rest, and certainly no time to have a labored conversation of hand signs. After about two hours however, the line broke down temporarily and we got an unplanned break. As the last pizza trundled past, I grabbed it, only to find that my box was already full. So, I slid it across the line to the hand-maiden, in case she had space. Almost instantly, the little pizza boat came spinning back and bumped into my hand. My faceless companion apparently had no room for it either, but I pretended to think she was teasing me, so I tossed it right back to her. We had a sweet game of catch before an irritated Mr. Vega came over and roughly snatched the poor, abused food product away from us. He put it in another worker’s box. I clasped my hands in front of my belly in mock terror, and the hand-maiden mimed applause for my performance.
We have no official lunch break on that line, but rather, we’re sent off in small groups, at half-hour intervals, starting around 11:30 a.m. The hand maiden’s group went before mine. It came back as mine was being sent off. As I was leaving, I tried to catch a glimpse of her face, but I only saw the tiniest hint of a brown ponytail poking out from behind a different woman, this one older and cranky-looking.
The remainder of the shift was the longest four hours I could remember, probably because I was thinking about the end of the workday. This is the worst possible thing you can do while on the line, but it’s what I did. I wanted another chance to meet the hand-maiden. I started thinking about what she might look like, what she might sound like. I wondered what her name was. I was dimly aware that I had become somewhat obsessed by her. It wasn’t creepy-obsessed. At least, I don’t think so. It felt similar to the high school crushes I’d had but never acted on. These thoughts chased each other like hawks in their mating flights.
Finally, the shift changed. My replacement was late again, so I ran out the door to try and catch her. Again, I looked for her, paying special attention to any brown ponytails. At last, I saw her walking out of the far side of the parking lot. Her hair was the correct length and shade. And did I perhaps see the familiar color of creamy skin between her hair and the collar of her jacket? I believed I did. Having made these observations, I proceeded to do absolutely nothing. I stood quietly, watching until she passed from my sight around the corner. I felt a thick, tired sensation like a man who is unwilling to wake up in the morning. Even as some internal voice of reason bellowed that I was letting her get away, I turned in the opposite direction, and began to make my way home.
“What the hell are you doing, man?” the reason-voice ranted.
“Oh? To do what? Jerk off and maybe play some solitaire? Gimme a break! Listen, you can still catch her. Turn around and run for it. Just introduce yourself. Have a little conversation for Pete’s sake.”
“Yeah…” said the tired voice, “Yeah, solitaire sounds pretty good.” I went home. I lost six consecutive rounds of solitaire, cheated on the seventh, and found out the ace of hearts had been missing the whole time. I vaguely remembered making that same discovery yesterday and wondered why I didn’t just throw the useless deck away. I put the cards back in their box and the box back in the drawer. I spent an hour staring at the same page of a book and thinking about the word, “inertia.” I thought of all the reasons that my life was definitely not in a rut.
Inside the back cover of the book, there were several small, white index cards, their purpose long forgotten. Some had notes from high school, and some were scribbled on, but a few were blank and relatively clean. I found a pen, not allowing myself to think too much about what I was doing. Never having had the greatest grasp of language, I wasn’t any great shakes at writing notes, let alone love notes, but I tried anyway.
Miss, I don’t know your name, but I
have often admired you from afar and—
I scribbled it out and tossed the card aside. “Admired you from afar?” What the fuck was that? Who says that? Not me, that’s for sure. I tried again, more casually. I had to sound cool.
Hi. My name’s Bill. I don’t know
your name or what you look like,
but I feel like I’ve gotten to know you
after the past couple of days and
I was wondering if maybe you might
want to sometime—
I scribbled this out as well. God! I thought, Do I sound like such a complete douchebag when I talk, too? There was only one card left now, so I hesitated a moment, thinking about my hand-maiden. I thought over our “conversations” that were based on intuition rather than speech. I thought about her soft hand on mine and the brief moment of clarity that had accompanied it; how I had almost been able to hear her say, “thank you.” I picked up the pen again and slashed a brief ultimatum on the last card:
227 W. 12th Avenue
The next day, I went to work on foot, as usual, and went in through the employee entrance to the left of the main doors and to the right of the docks. The air inside was thick with the smell of dry cheese and musty oregano. My whole body felt charged with electricity. There was a tenseness in my lower belly. I felt like someone just beginning a descent down the world’s tallest, steepest roller coaster. It was even more intense, though, because the track and the cars were falling away too, leaving me with nothing but space and momentum. As the hand-maiden approached the line from the other side, I felt all my muscles clench in anticipation of total, perfect free fall.
The note burned a hole in my pocket like twenty bucks from a birthday card. I wanted to shove it into her hand and run away, cackling wildly. I thought there was no way I could bear this feeling any longer. Somehow, I managed. I worked diligently, but slower than usual. The driving beat of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers was caught in my head. The song, unsurprisingly, was Free Fallin’.
After a great many renditions, I noticed the time had flown by. I was still rocking out, my internal radio chanting about the vampires on Ventura Boulevard, when the second shift bastard, early for once, taps me on the shoulder. I took a split second to reach across the table and grab the girl’s hand as she had grabbed mine. I tried to impress upon this touch a feeling of excitement and desperation the same way she had impressed hers with gratitude. I slid the card into her hand and left without looking back. I went directly home.
I don’t know what I expected to happen, but I think staying up until ten, imagining what I should say to her, then falling asleep til one a.m. was probably not it. I’m fairly certain that realizing the hand-maiden was not coming and diving for a couple six-packs of Bud was not in the game plan either. I tried to snap myself out of it. It was stupid, I reasoned, to expect a stranger to follow a cryptic note to my door, but when you’re miserable, lonely, and getting more drunk by the minute in the small hours of the morning, reason doesn’t exactly have the greatest credibility.
I drank myself into a slow stupor until five. I dozed for an hour and then walked to work, unwashed and still completely hammered. I don’t remember much of what happened that morning. I remember getting to work, and seeing that Freide had returned to his post. There was no sign of the hand-maiden. I must have freaked out. I seem to remember telling Friede I’d throw his hip out all over again. The cops hauled me off and I cooled my heels in the tank for the rest of that day. I paid the drunk and disorderly fine with the rent money. Maybe not the best idea, but I didn’t care anymore.
I went home and reached for the booze before I remembered I’d drunk it all. I was halfway out the door before I remembered I had no money left to buy more. I plopped down on the couch and watched TV with the sound off. For the next couple of days, I stuck to my routine. I got up at six, cleaned up, ate a little, and watched the silent television. I can’t recall a single show I watched. On Monday, I had just turned the old set off, leaving the red-blue-green ring in the center when the landlord poked his head in and asked me the unnecessary question. I gave him the obvious answer. He left.
I feel that familiar, stupid, slothful feeling again. I don’t want to move. I don’t want to think or do anything. Suddenly, a harsh, electronic buzz echoes through the hard, wooden apartment and I jump, startled. I look to my left, at the steel intercom panel next to the door. From it comes a voice, soft, sweet, and slightly gruff like a chocolate coated pretzel.
“Um… Hello?” says the voice, “I’m looking for someone named Bill.”
I sit there on the lopsided sofa, staring at the intercom, which seems to be speaking to me with the voice of the whole world. I look down at my legs and wonder if I still have the resolve to carry myself across to the speaker.