Saturday, October 31, 2015

Chapter Three

I just pulled up this week's post for FRBP (final review before publishing) and discovered it was written in what I at first thought was a foreign language. While trying to make sense of this development, I suddenly went into flashback mode. I mean, I think it was flashback mode, it's my first flashback. It was just like the ones on TV.

There I was, buzzing around the planet in a UFO, I had been abducted by aliens, cool. It all came back to me in a rush of disjointed images. I'll detail my experiences in a future post, but the bottom line, for now, is that the only probing I experienced was an extended interview by an academic from the planet Tralfamidore. We ate warm, homemade, chewy chocolate brownies, swirled with peanut butter, and washed 'em down with ice cold whole milk.

Also, they loaned me a Chromebook, at my request, so I could work on the post you should be reading instead of the one you are. The problem with that idea was that I didn't realize that the empathy beam I'd been exposed to when I went through quarantine would result in my composing in Tralfamidorian without even realizing it.

So now I'm sitting here with a glass of flat Asti Spumante and trying to work with a Tralfamidorian to English translation app that I got for free from Cnet that needs a lot of work. I'm never gonna' get the translation done in time to hit my deadline so I'm posting the third chapter of my novel, it's all I've got on hand.

MEMco, our parent company, mandates a just in time inventory system. 

Have an OK day.

Chapter Three

Snort’s temp, whose name is Ernesto, was still stacking ‘em high and tight back in the trailer Snort had abandoned when he was paged to Fantasy Island. I wonder why he took off like his ass was on fire? he thought, and why didn’t he come back? He was working at the front end of the 45’ trailer that had been nearly empty when he was escorted to it by one of the shipping bosses and turned over to Snort. He had no idea that Snort had managed to injure himself while hustling to get to the shipping workstation. God this is boring. He had composed  a bit of doggerel with a militaristic tone that described the job he was doing and captured the rhythm of the movements necessary to do it:

Pick the box up from the belt
huh, huh, huh, huh
Stack that box on top of the others
huh, huh, huh, huh
Make sure that stack is high and tight
huh, huh, huh, huh
You might get hired in my brother.

The aforementioned belt was part of an elaborate system of conveyor belts that served as a sort of circulatory system of the warehouse. The six interconnected buildings, with nearly forty acres under roof, housed an elaborate system of conveyor belts whose purpose was to move consumer products manufactured all over the world, from receiving to processing or storage, processing to shipping, and then on to SmartMart’s stores.

Ernesto was twenty years old, a high school grad that lived at home and who had gone from one dead end job to another since leaving high school three years ago. Dead ends as far as he was concerned, but the various employers he had worked for didn’t see it that way. Most had a path that could, at least in theory, lead to a well-paying job -- eventually -- maybe. First, there had been McDonald's. He had begun working there while still in school, and with nothing else that was particularly appealing or lucrative available to him in this rust belt town long past its glory days, he had become a full-time fast food worker after graduating.  

The manager of his particular store liked Ernesto, as well as his work ethic, so he raised his pay by twenty cents an hour when he became a full-time employee and gave him some literature about becoming a management trainee. Ernesto quickly discovered that working part time to keep gas in the old Ford his grandfather had given him was an entirely different experience than working full time but not making enough money to move out of the house. He discovered that tedious work was that much more tedious when you had to do it for forty hours a week. Overtime was rarely available. His colleagues were mostly high school and college students (he had little in common with either group) as well as a sprinkling of unfortunate folks that seemed destined by fate to work at low-level jobs forever. This last group included an ever-growing cohort of people over fifty that had been forced by circumstance to start their working lives over, and from Ernesto’s perspective may as well have been a hundred years old.

Next he had tried retail, or as he called it, fast food without the grease. Same deal. Work hard for a few hundred years and you might, assuming you weren’t crushed by company politics, bad luck or a bad economy, make some decent money someday.

Now he was a temp, hoping that he might stumble into a job and a company he liked, one that was worth betting his future on.

Pick the box up from the belt,
huh, huh, huh, huh...

“Stop right there Kenny!” said King Jon, “don’t take another step!”

Kenny, always the good employee, froze like a proverbial deer in the headlights. Now the center of attention of this random, impromptu  assembly of management and labor, he stood still as instructed, looking around, baffled. He was dirt smudged from his labors, he had blood drops on the front of his t-shirt and a clean, shiny SpongeBob band-aid on his forehead. Let it never be said Martha didn’t have a sly sense of humor. Noting that his left foot appeared to be partially stuck to the floor, he looked over his shoulder and observed his own footprints on the floor behind him  Fred, starvation issues temporarily abated, sounded like he had swallowed a bug in his attempt to suppress laughing out loud. He was waving both hands simultaneously while gasping, “Sorry, sorry.” 

King Jon pivoted back in Arletta's direction. She was standing serenely in the doorway, carefully maintaining  a neutral expression but not about to walk away just in case this show got even better. The two union guys, one of whom was the aforementioned Tom, job action evangelist, were peering over her shoulders, wondering what was going on.

“Guys,” said King Jon, addressing the union reps, “Look, we have a situation here, as I said. I’ll have Arletta track you down as soon as it’s resolved  and we’ll figure something out, Ok?” he asked, flashing an insincere smile.

“Yeah, sure,” replied Tom in a flat tone, not smiling. He and his companion turned and headed back to the floor. No words were exchanged until they passed through the main cafeteria and then the double doors that served as the portal between the two worlds. Once they were out on the floor, Tom, the union president paused, turned to George, his vice president and said, “What an asshole, a situation he said, always it’s a situation, looks like everything is more important to him than dealing with the union. Well, we’ll just see about that.”

“What are we gonna’ do Tom?,” asked George.

“You’ll see, believe me, you’ll see,” Tom replied in a tone that suggested he had a clever plan hidden up his sleeve that he could unleash at any moment. Actually, he had no idea what his next move would be. He was sure he was being messed with though, and that he had to come up with something.

Artie returned to the conference room with solvent and a pile of shop rags and had set about freeing the victims of the Zenith Tar Pits, as the conference room would henceforth be called. “I’ll leave you in folks in Artie’s capable hands,” said King Jon as he carefully made his way out of the room, deliberately ignoring Rick and hoping Snort would go away. Arletta had already left, disappointed that the situation was resolving without further hilarity. Regarding her job as monotony made manifest she was always on the lookout for what she called monotony busters to help get her through the workday.

Rick, also stepping carefully, walked over to Snort, offered his hand and said, “Hi, my names Rick Dixon, nice to meet you. Looks like you’re not having a good day so far.”  

A baffled Snort automatically stuck out his hand, shook Rick’s, and cleverly replied, “Uh, hi.”  

“Artie,” said Rick, would you mind helping out my friend...,” looking at Snort inquisitively.

“Kenny,” Snort said.

“My new friend Kenny,” Rick continued, “He clearly has to speak to Ki..., uh, Jon about an urgent matter.”
Rick favored Snort with his perfect smile. Snort lit up like a Christmas tree. He didn’t know who this guy was, but obviously he was important. Perhaps he was the answer to Snort’s prayers. Artie, having no idea who the guy in the suit was but assuming he was the most powerful corporate weenie left in the room said, “Sure,” and went to work.  

While Artie dealt with Snorts problem Rick said to Dick the dick, whom he knew was a rabid football fan, “So tell me Dick, are your Browns going to have a chance this year?” Snort, who knew next to nothing about football, followed the conversation avidly. He was hoping for a chance to make a relevant comment but was cautious for fear of saying something that would reveal his lack of knowledge. I really need to learn to speak sports, he thought, maybe that would help, it couldn’t hurt...  While hoping for a chance to insert himself into the conversation he adopted what he thought was an interested, knowing look and turned his head back and forth to each speaker as they expounded and looked as though he was following the most interesting conversation in the history of the world.   

Rick knew that none of the parties involved were interested in resuming the meeting. Frontline management wanted to get back to the floor to make sure everything was more or less under control. Besides, he knew that the morning meeting was seldom a productive use of anyone's time. As for King Jon and Dick the dick, he was aware that King Jon no longer had a reason to care about the numbers. Dick the dick definitely cared, but so far everything they tried hadn’t worked and Dick obviously had no fresh ideas.

Snort remained vigilant, hoping for a chance to insert a comment or at least find a way to kiss the guys ass without being too obvious about it. At a point in his very near future, once he found out that Rick was the new general manager, he would kick himself for not having been able to come up with anything to try and take advantage of the situation.

“You’re ready to roll Kenny, just be careful walking out of here,” said Artie.

“Nice meeting you Kenny!” said Rick, extending his hand.

“Umm, yeah, you too,” Kenny replied while shaking Rick's hand, “Excuse me, I gotta’ go talk to Jon.” He fled the room in search of King Jon, relieved to escape what was for him at least, an uncomfortable situation. Step, step, step…

“Me next Artie, I’ve got to get back to Shipping,” said the starving Fred. This statement was greeted with more or less good-natured howls of derision by his fellow managers as Artie proceeded to free him.

“Take care everyone, see ‘ya next week”, said Rick as he carefully walked out of the room and headed towards the nearest restroom. Several muted conversations broke out among the remaining managers. Did this mean Rick was the boss come next week? Was King Jon outta’ here or would there be a transition period? What about…?

The tone that indicated the first lunch period had arrived sounded and all activity on the Shipping/Receiving docks came to an abrupt halt. Trailers were abandoned and merchandise moving devices, small hand jacks to huge forklifts and everything in between, were left parked wherever they happened to be the second the buzzer sounded. The hungry and bored employees all rushed in the direction of the double doors, some of them literally running. The good news was that they only actually worked seven of the eight hours in a given shift -- a twenty-minute break that had a way of morphing into a half an hour, as well as a half hour lunch break, accounted for the missing hour. This was compensated time by tradition, and now by contract. The bad news was that a half hour lunch break didn’t amount to much when you had to get to the cafeteria, locate your lunch and/ or hit the vending machines while everyone else was trying to do the same thing.

Mike and Marty watched the river of rank and file flow past the shipping island and Mike noted that as usual most of the equipment in use had been abandoned in the exact spot it happened to be when the tone had sounded. “Thanks guys!” he said in an unctuous tone, addressing the river as though it could hear him, or cared, while he gave them a royal wave as they went by. “Thanks for following the rules and taking a sec’ to not block the dock with equipment so Housekeeping can tidy up while you’re gone. Aw, fuck ‘em right? they’re not in the union.”

Building one, that housed the truck well or, the Pit, was a huge rectangle that could hold sixty trailers. Broadway split the rectangle approximately in half, lengthwise. One end terminated at the double doors that led to the offices and cafeteria, this was the shipping department's domain. The other end of Broadway terminated at an opening into building two that was large enough to easily accommodate the forklift traffic heading in and out of building two, the high volume building, that was tiny in comparison to building one. This end of building one was the domain of the receiving department. If you stood on Broadway facing the pit, behind you would be lanes demarcated by yellow safety paint that contained pallets or “flats” of  merchandise that were either entering or exiting the building. Behind these lanes was the Merge, also called the Sort. This was an enormous, bi-level structure that was suspended from the ceiling where cases of labeled merchandise arrived, via the belt system, that had been processed all over the facility, came together. The Merge was like a railroad switching yard. Electric eyes read the labels and shunted a given box onto the belt that terminated inside the trailers parked at the shipping docks. Each trailer, once full, would be dispatched to a specific SmartMart store.      

A lone housekeeper had been patiently sitting on the battery of his tug waiting for the lunch tone to sound while parked in some seldom used receiving lanes at the end of the Receiving departments portion of the dock.  He stood up and cautiously threaded his trash train through the obstacle course that had just been created by the rank and file as they fled the docks for lunch. A trash train consisted of a tug, a dumpster and a flat. Trash cans are dumped into the dumpsters which are emptied by taking them to the Compactor Room where a hydraulic lift is used to pick them up and dump the contents down a chute so the contents can then be compacted via the push of a button.

A tug is a simple machine that consists primarily of a large battery, a small electric motor and a connector that’s similar in concept to what you see on either end of railroad cars for connecting them together. The operator stands upright to drive it and only has three possible functions to choose from - go forward, go back or stop. The connector (aka the alligator) is on the back and used to connect to flats (wheeled carts, as opposed to pallets, which are also called flats) and dumpsters so they can be pulled around the warehouse. Flats and dumpsters have heavy metal rings on the front for an alligator to connect to, as well as an alligator clip of their own on the back so they can be linked together to form a train.    

A dumpster is a smaller version of what most people think of as a dumpster, a metal box about six feet long, four feet wide and five feet tall with four wheels, one at each corner. The two wheels up front swivel so it can be steered. A flat is a metal and wood platform approximately 4’ x 10’ that also has four wheels. The front wheels also swivel for steering purposes, the other two wheels are located in the middle and are stationary.  There are removable upright bars on both ends to stabilize whatever load you happen to place on the flat. The one in front is also used to pull the flat around by hand when that is what’s called for. When used as part of a trash train there is also either a scavenged, huge cardboard box or wooden crate that’s used as a plastic box. Pallets of incoming merchandise are frequently shrink wrapped and the warehouse generates so much plastic that a compactor designated for shrink wrap only is used to compact and generate bales of plastic.

The warehouse also generates an enormous volume of cardboard. Some in the form of boxes but mostly pallet sized sheets that serve as stabilizers layered between the rows of the stacked, shrink-wrapped merchandise endlessly arriving from all over the world. One-half of a flat is taken up by the plastic box and the other is dedicated to stacking these sheets of cardboard, or boxes when necessary. All the cardboard is compacted in a machine that when full will generate a huge bale of cardboard. When enough bales to fill up a trailer have accumulated, either of cardboard or plastic, a recycling company is called and comes to pick them up. Selling these bales generates a modest profit and enables Smartmart to burnish their green credentials.       

Complicating Ernesto’s plight was the fact he had fallen in love with a blond girl next door type.  She was a full-time college student that worked part time in the office of the temp agency that placed him at SmartMart. He had stopped by the office to pick up his check and  casual social lubrication had, to the surprise of both of them, led to going out for coffee. This had turned into an intense four-hour conversation. She, who also lived at home, had texted her mom that she was having coffee with some of the girls from work and that no, she wasn’t hungry and would not stay out too late. A few minutes later four hours or so had gone by and her phone rang three times, stopped, and then rang three more times and stopped again. It was her younger sister calling (who knew what she was up to and trying to get ahold of her sister as discretely as possible) and the code meant it was important.

She called her sister and was informed that their parents were getting jumpy because it was getting late. They had begun considering whether or not to call or text her for about an hour and were slowly and steadily becoming more anxious. They, like all good parents, had discovered that the endless struggle to rationally decide when to hover versus when to ignore  never ends. Though she lived at home and was a million miles away from being able to make it on her own, she was a nineteen year old part time college student certain that she could get along quite nicely without anyone's help, except for when she didn’t feel that way and was consumed with doubt about ever being able to function on her own. She sent a “just wanted to let you know I know it’s been awhile, be home soon, love you” text to her mom and then drove home consumed by thoughts of Ernesto as Ernesto drove home consumed by thoughts of her.

Snort headed straight for King Jon’s office as soon as he escaped the Zenith tar pits and was in the process of declaring his fealty to the company and its rules as King Jon listened and tried to appear patient and attentive. He interrupted only to ask questions that weren’t actually questions. They were statements designed to get Snort to either get to the point or run out of gas, or both, and go away.  

“So, if I understand you correctly Kenny, one of Martha’s magic cups have falsely accused you of recreational drug use and you’re a bit freaked out about it, right?”, he said with a half smile and his wise father tone when he saw the opportunity to finally bring the conversation to an end.  

“Well yeah, I guess that's it,” Snort replied somewhat sheepishly, “it’s just that….”

King Jon pounced before Snort could find another on-ramp to Seemingly Endless Rant and Ramble highway. “Kenny relax, you’re the last person anyone around here would suspect of being a druggie. Look on the bright side son, all that’s going to happen is that you’re going to get paid to go to St. Barts emergency room on company time and pee in another cup. Not bad work if you can get it, right?”

“I guess not but..”

“Excellent! let’s get Fred on the horn so we can figure out who’s gonna’ transport you.” He picked up his phone and punched in the code and paged Fred. “Fred Francis, call 001, Fred Frances, 001 please.

Fred was leaning up against a counter in the cafeteria and consuming a bag of Act II microwave popcorn, extra butter, and washing it down with a Mountain Dew from the vending machine that everyone knew had coldest soda pop. He was a very happy man. But then King Jon’s page emerged from the cafeterias P.A. speakers. Crap!  He washed down a mouthful of popcorn with a large swig of ‘Dew, carefully placed his gourmet repast on the counter and walked over to the nearest house phone and punched in 001.

King Jon picked up the ringing  phone in his office and said, “That you Fred?”

“Yup, it’s me Jon, what can I do for you?”

“Hey listen, Kenny tripped on your dock and I sent him to see Martha ‘cause he picked up a gash on his forehead. Believe it or not, he managed to somehow turn one of her magic cups the wrong color and now we need to get him over to St. Barts to clear this up so you or one of your guys need to transport him.”

“No problem Jon, I’ll call Fantasy Island and have Marty or Mike take care of it, give us a half a minute, OK?”

“Thanks, Fred,” said the king.

“Thanks, Jon,” Fred replied, hanging up the phone.  For some reason it had become a sort of fad for management types to both say thank you when ending a conversation, a conversational convention most gave no thought to but left Fred, not your usual management type (at least he fervently hoped so) puzzled as to the why and wherefore.  I wonder what happened to you're welcome, he thought, I should  google it. By the time he lifted the receiver on the phone the notion went in one brain cell and out the other, displaced by the memory of his abandoned snack. He hung up the phone returned to the counter to retrieve it only to discover it had vanished during his brief absence. Shit!  He started looking around and saw Annie the cafeteria girl tossing it into one of cafeteria trash cans. He heaved a heavy sigh, walked back to the phone and picked up the receiver. He started to punch in the number for the shipping workstation, got an idea, and hung up without making the call. He headed for the office of the King.
Snort and King Jon were enduring awkward small talk. King Jon was hoping Marty or Mike would show up soon and relieve him of this doofus before he started in on his favorite subject.  Snort was mentally sorting through possible ways to bring up said subject, the one that sent him rushing down the shipping dock in the first place. There was a knock on the open door of King Jon’s office and Fred, much to King Jons relief and Snorts disappointment, stuck his head in.  

“Hey, Guys...listen, Marty and Mike are busy so I’m going to do the transport myself,” he said.  

“We can use my new car if you want,” said Snort, “I just got a new Cobalt, well, new to me anyway, I mean, I guess that’s obvious, since they don’t make ‘em anymore, you know? It’s an SS, pretty quick if I do say so myself.”

Fred, who hated small cars said, “That’s OK Kenny, no point in burning your gas for what’s sure to be a waste of time, adding insult to injury so to speak, we’ll take my van.” Fred loved his aging Ford conversion van, he had converted it himself. It was a combination camper and party mobile that was never quite finished as he was always improving something. “You ready?” he asked, taking his keys out of his pocket.

“Uh yeah, sure,” Snort replied, standing up and following Fred out of King Jon’s office. He followed Fred down the hall that ended in the lobby that was Eddie's domain. “Hey Eddie,” he said, “Kenny and I have gotta' deal with something, don’t know when we’ll be back, if we take care of business quickly we may stop and split a ‘ho on the way back.”

Kenny instantly turned beet red.

“Chill Kenny, just a lame joke, one of my few natural talents,” said Fred.              

“Oklay bloss, Eddie replied, hey, I’ll betcha’ a bottle of pop you don’t know who made that line famous. I’ll give you a hint, he’s an Asian-American Icon, I …

“Layder Dude,” Fred replied in his best-stoned surfer voice, cutting Eddie off as he went through the front door to the employee parking lot. He paused at the end of the short sidewalk that was framed by  the two “butt out” cans for smokers to deposit their nicotine delivery systems before entering the building. “Now, where I did park the Mystery Machine,” he said, looking to his left and right. “This way Kenny,” he said, going right, “At least I think so.”

The conveyer belt that was delivering boxes to Ernesto so he could keep stacking ‘em high and tight, that had had been slowly but steadily bringing him fewer and fewer boxes, came to an abrupt halt. The silence was deafening.

When he had been escorted to Fantasy Island by a human resources clerk and then to the trailer he was working in now, the merge and the thirty conveyer belts that fed the shipping trailers were running flat out. The system produced quite a racket but if you worked in building one your brain stopped paying attention after a while. The fact that the merge and the belts were suspended from the ceiling and you didn’t see the flowing merchandise (unless you were looking straight up) until it reached the sharp 45 degree drop down into the trailers contributed to this phenomenon.

Ernesto examined the controls mounted on the front of the machine that marked the terminus of the belt that fed directly into his particular trailer. When the conveyer belt dropped down out of the sky to the dock it was connected an expanding/contracting wheeled device that you pulled as far into the trailer you were loading as needed. As the trailer filled up you pushed it back out towards the dock. As far as he could tell all they enabled him to do was turn the belt on or off.  Snort had told him not to turn it off unless the merchandise had suddenly stopped flowing altogether, which probably indicated that there was a jam up somewhere between the merge and the trailer. But pushing these buttons was having no effect whatsoever. It seemed like the whole system had been turned off. He walked out of the trailer and stepped out onto the dock. You could almost hear the crickets chirping. Some guy seemed to be functioning as a sort of dock garbage man far down the docks, no one else seemed to be around. He started walking in that direction assuming the guy could tell him what was going on. As he was making his way there when a rather short, rather large African-American woman emerged from the portal to the offices and headed in his direction. When she spotted him headed in her direction she made a beeline towards him.

“Ernie?” she asked, “Hi hon, hey, are you Ernie?”

Have an OK day.  

©Mark Mehlmauer 2015

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