Glum smokestacks, the observers of a choked city, called to the men from their observatory. The men, denimed and bearded, made their way through silent urban mornings on city buses or three to a seat in a battered pick-up. The workday called nigh.
Jake, the pointed face foreman with greying stubble, drove to static country to pick up Mark, his nephew and the factory’s newest apprentice. With dawn’s approaching break still forming, he arrived at his sister’s small home. Mark got in silently, a piece of dry toast in his hand, lunch pail in the other, cigarette hanging from the centre of his mouth. Hungover, he swayed like a man fresh in the gallows.
“Where’s Chip?” Mark asked.
“I don’t know. He wasn’t out front when I went by his place.”
“Did you get out and knock?” Mark looked at Jake.
“I don’t run a goddamn car service.”
The gates to the parking lot were parted for the morning rush of trucks, beaters, and pedestrians fresh from public transportation. There were no names on them but everyone had their own parking spot. A privileged right, where you only got one spot closer to the door when someone retired or died. This was a man’s man’s place of work but some things had to remain gentlemanly. Through a steel door with steel shoes, Mark followed Jake inside. The air was different in the factory. It tasted of metal, a dry indifference to the humid hang of smoke clouds aplomb outside.
“Alright Mark, today is your first day by yourself on the stamper. Do you think you can handle it?” Jake asked, placing his lunchbox in the communal refrigerator.
“Chip taught me pretty thoroughly. I’ll be fine.”
“You better be. You’re only shot to move on to another station is death or retirement. Even then it’s all based on seniority. You prepared to do ten years of stamping?”
“What choice do I have?”
“You can fucking leave and give the spot to the poor mook standing in the welfare office because he ain’t lucky enough to have family who can get him in here.”
“I’m ready, Jake.”
“I thought so.”
Out on the floor Mark started up his machine. Was a time when a man would just take over from the last shift. Now, there was only one shift left.
There were three stampers in close proximity. His was for small pieces and the only one that could be run by one man. It started with an abrupt, deafening whir, and only sallys wore earplugs. He moved the flat metal from a bin to the stamper and pulled a lever. He retrieved the stamped piece and put it in another bin. As his bin was almost emptied another would replace it. Steam whistle relief told him when to piss. The end of the job just a mirage, an oasis just out of reach.
Matthew’s work has been seen in various publications including Hitherto, Requiem Magazine, Wilderness House Literary Review, The Coe Review, and Ditch Poetry. He is also the recipient of the University of Toronto’s Harold Sonny Ladoo Book Prize for his novella ‘Past Present’. He lives outside of Toronto and has recently begun to archive previously published pieces at www.matthewlaffrade.wordpress.com