“The floods bring trouble, occasionally, through the whole course of the Ohio.”
~From A History of the State of Ohio 1838
Fitting engine part A to encasement part B makes their fingers smell like burning tires. It smells worse if they do not wear the latex gloves that Eric, the supervisor, wants them to and no one does. Twisting the red nozzle onto the cylinder cues whoever is next to attach the handle and float the assemblage downline. The line snakes from the warehouse to these conveyor belts, and then to the garage docks where loaders pack them off. If only there were enough orders anymore. Demand had dried up. Everything else swelled, rain-wet and glutted.
The night before the flood, Eric lay awake beside a window too close to the road.
His wife rolled over. “You still awake?”
“It’s the cars,” she said.
“And the rain.”
“And this damned room with that window,” she said, rolling back.
He knew how she felt, but he could not bear moving into the other bedrooms. His boys were grown. One was in the war in the desert. The other was at war with the screws of cellblock C. His wife wanted their bedrooms cleaned and renovated. All that junk Eric kept piling into them had to stop. The towering boxes of mementos, the trinkets and toys in crates—she wanted it all gone. But how could he downsize memory? To him, each cluttered thing was a bulwark against entropy, an exhibit he curated for boys who never were, men who would never visit.
By the next afternoon the rains had broken records and even the trees murmured that the sandbags would not hold. When Daphne came in, Eric was at the door thanking everyone who showed up. She stopped to listen, looking him straight in the eye.
“Nothing better to do but drown,” she said, putting her headphones back on.
“I can think of several better things to do,” laughed Old Bob walking by.
Eric’s smile was more of a wince. “We’ll be safe here, regardless,” he said. He felt the same way about their jobs. Old Bob, the loading manager, could attest to that, even though Eric made him swear not to tell their secret to the assembly crews.
A few hours into the night shift the rains stopped. The line had been moving like it did when Eric had first started, back when the Stauffer’s plant was still next door. Their manager over there used to promise that the two shops would play baseball together (though they never did) the way the rubber factories did on Sunday mornings. Eric remembered those days, cheering for his father at bat, that tough sonofabitch. Not even the ‘Nam could strike him out (though it had) which is why they said it hadn’t. They said it to unhear the old-lady-wailing-at-a-baby’s-funeral crying that came from his room at night.
The sandbags along the river did not care for memory. Nor did they care that the rain had stopped. The bags had had enough and everyone in the plant sensed them giving way. They all seemed to know it at the same time. Eric witnessed the miracle of a collective epiphany. All the heads of his assembly crew cocked in unison to hear the floodwalls break in the rain-gone silence of the night. Then, that small whine of sirens grew to shake the cement-block walls as if the second coming of Christ were taking place right outside the freight bay doors.
At that moment, Eric was thinking about river water in a flood. You can’t just swim through it like it’s Lake Day, a holiday for boys who grew up jumping from drowsy oaks to ripple the water’s surface, rippled by this or that Newcomb or McKamley or Smith boy. Or more recently, by one of those Gonzalez boys who had the swimming hole all to themselves the last time Eric went fishing and saw them and felt sorry. It was sad how their father was let go for coming in late. Only five minutes, just five minutes, he kept saying. But it had to be done. Company policy. Eric remembered the deathly look when he had to tell him he was fired. He’d never seen a man so sad.
That’s when the owner first talked about personnel changes. They spoke in hushed tones by the freight garage next to an idling luxury sedan.
“I’d just as soon cut the night shift today,” said the grown son of the man (now dead) who had hired Eric years ago. “But I’ll leave it to you. It can be gradual, as long as they’re gone in two months.”
Eric looked him in the eye. His father taught him to do that, especially when the talking pulled bitterly at something inside. The owner was watching the pines beyond the parking lot.
“The night shift’s our best team. And no one moves more than Old Bob.”
“Fewer orders means less to move. Look, you’re a good man, Eric. I’d like to think I can trust you with this,” said the owner still inspecting the trees.
Later, when the sedan rolled away, its shiny tires crunching the gravel, Eric wondered about the nature of orders. He stretched the concept of an order to its metaphorical limits, so that all that was left was an imperative concealing a wasteful absence. That is when he conceived the plan to keep the crews assembling, come hell or high water.
Sometimes in the middle of a shift, memories of the days before all the jobs evacuated Northeast Ohio would lull Eric into a trance so deep he’d come out of it with fingers snapping in his face. Or someone would shake him to say over the din of the belts and the dozen hands clicking small parts into place like locust—I’m gonna be getting the hell outta here now. And he’d watch that person leave to do whatever they were going to do because someone had to stay and witness it all play out.
After everyone heard the floodwalls go, a man came to tell him he had a phone call, adding that he had children to think of. Eric marched into the office as others walked off the line and out into the wet, bristling night without so much as a nod.
Strange bodies filled the office. The new guy from loading sat on the musty sofa. Daphne walked in with a question that caught in her mouth when she saw him on the phone. She leaned against a corner stack of old monitors as Eric pressed the receiver against his face.
The owner asked, “So the equipment will be fine?”
“Sure. It’ll be fine,” said Eric, sure that the secret, painful hoping would soon be over. He had never before heard so much consternation in the voice on the other end.
“You went over the tornado procedures, right?”
“Yes sir, I have.” Eric could tell this comment was diversionary, a placeholder set just before the important thing.
“I feel dumb as hell, but I let my flood policy lapse. There’s no overstock, right?”
Eric should have been angry with Old Bob. How else could the owner know? But his mind drifted along other, stronger currents, memories of a softball game. It’s Goodyear versus Quaker Oats, circa 1971. His father cracks the ball. It’s a home run for sure but then the streak that is the ball slogs to a standstill in midair. Everything fills with a viscous amber sludge until the whole world becomes a giant snow globe. The Gonzalez boys swim by like happy fish, each one’s face morphing into the deathly mask of their father, their bloated lips mutely repeating: “It’s only five minutes, just five minutes. It’s only five minutes, just five minutes.”
The owner cleared his throat on the other end, snapping Eric out of it, and asked again. Eric answered too fast and with too much uptick in his voice that there wasn’t any overstock in the basement. Silence. Then came the laughter of children on the other end, so distinct that Eric felt he had to ask about it.
“It’s been just terrible,” said the owner. “Bill and Sandy brought the grandkids. They’re nagging at me as we speak. We’re off to our summerhouse in Maine. But, listen… You all keep that equipment dry out there. And you keep yourselves safe too, okay?”
Eric was not the same man putting down the receiver as he was picking it up.
“What do we do now, chief?” the loader asked.
“Everyone out there wants to leave,” Daphne said at the same time.
Eric rubbed his face and sighed. “You could try to get everyone to prop the machines. Build stilts if you’re up to it. You’ve got twenty minutes, probably less. After that, nothing much will matter.”
The loader wanted to say something smart about job descriptions, but Eric walked off with that dazed expression that came over him. Daphne spoke excitedly about using the palettes and the forklift to raise the conveyers.
Outside, Eric’s zippo sputtered blue in the wind and then flamed out, leaving him dry sucking the cigarette. Old Bob opened the door and passed him a lit cigarette. Sirens whirred three miles away. The wind gnawed their ears.
“Flood’s the least of it,” barked Old Bob, exhaling smoke.
The treeline was black fire along the edge of the deserted parking lot. The fact that things were being gutted, uprooted, and unfulfilled was paved into the very ground of the place.
Old Bob let his cigarette spiral off in the gust. “Smells like tornado,” he bellowed. “And high water.” He pointed a finger at the flood, his nail black from palette edges, crowbars, and safety chains. It was an ink stain blotting the parking lot. “That’ll be inside in ten,” Old Bob shouted. “What about the basement?”
“You tell me. You’ve already told about it plenty.”
“Now hold on,” Old Bob yelled. “That’s my job on the line, too, if he sees.”
“Damn right, my job!”
“Don’t you get it, Bob? Your job, my job. The whole damn line is going under.”
Old Bob shrugged. “So why do it then? Why’d you do it? Hoard up all that shit?”
Eric let the wind answer for him. Bob went back inside. Eric kept his eyes not so much on the trees as between them, wanting to slide into the shadowy folds separating them and leave this building behind. He saw himself waist high under the pines, joining the river in its wanderings as if it were Lake Day again, 1975.
Rowdy shouts from assemblers running to a rusted truck submerged in the parking lot pulled him back. After a few tries their truck turned over and fishtailed off into the night. Eric freed his ember to the wind and went in to see about the overstock in the basement.
The loader and Daphne were waiting for him.
“Old Bob said the flood’s coming.”
“Where’d he go?”
Daphne pointed, “The basement.”
Eric led them to the freight elevator. On the way down, Daphne stuck her hand through the bars of the cage to feel the breeze on her outstretched fingers. They could hear Old Bob swearing before the elevator came to rest.
“That thing’s got maybe one more ride before it cuts out,” he said, kicking water.
Daphne skipped a breath at the sight of the basement. There had to be thousands of boxes piled on top of each other. She noticed some of the special order yellow boxes for the vacuums they had assembled months ago. Unseen waterfalls brought in streams of river water to lap the darkening foundations of the boxes. A foot deep and rising fast.
Eric got out of the elevator as Old Bob got in. He ignored the old man’s protests and hit the button sending all three back up. Now he would have to climb up the ladder to get out. He submitted his last order to the shaft. “Shut everything down and get everyone to safety!”
He turned to face the towers of overproduction that had been his secret for months. He couldn’t bear to cut the night shift. Instead of leaving pre-assembled product at the warehouse, he brought in more for his lines to build with no other destination than the basement.
Sloshing between pillars of boxes, Eric remembered a favorite saying of his father’s, a distinction between what things were and what they did. In the calculus of his panic, he tried applying that formula to this situation: It didn’t matter what his secret was, what mattered is what his secret did. So what had it done? It postponed layoffs, maybe. For certain, it redistributed disaster, piling the inevitable into steeples of unwanted boxes. In the end, what it did wasn’t that impressive.
With the pinch of saturated cardboard filling his nostrils, Eric remembered reading about Dalian, a city in China where the rubber factory his father worked for went. It was in a newspaper article that had a picture of a beach, Labor Park, universities, malls, and stores full of customers and everyone looking so happy. When they closed their eyes, Eric knew that those people in the picture of Dalian could see a long stretch of years before them of baseball and the beach, quiet bedrooms and their kids somewhere other than a desert or a cell.
The lights flickered. He had to get whatever he could from the stacks soon. He chose a stack with room around it. The surge lapped his knees and his toes had turned gummy inside waterlogged boots. He leaned against the base of the tower and felt how it wanted to fall back on itself to crush him. He wondered if he wanted that too. He knew he no longer wanted to save it all. Thinking that he would not have to after that night made him lean less and less against the wobbling tower.
The lights flickered and then switched off for good. In the distance he heard Daphne’s voice calling to him. “Hey! Are you coming back up here or what?”
The water was at his waist by the time he felt his way back to the elevator shaft and climbed the ladder, through a heavy torrent of water, to Daphne’s flashlight.
“You save anything?” she asked.
He reflected for a moment. “Maybe. Why didn’t you leave?”
“You said to get everyone to safety. That’s what I’m doing.”
She led him through the water to the luminescent breadcrumbs left for them—a constellation of LEDs that Old Bob had duct-taped to the wall beside the roof access ladder. One look outside through the glass block windows was enough to confirm that their vehicles were useless now. Higher ground was their only refuge.
Old Bob had prepared a place for them on the roof with tarps and toolboxes. The loader distributed packing blankets, raw and woolen. The four of them huddled on the roof of the vacuum cleaner assembly plant. Daphne removed her latex gloves and tossed them to the river below. As Eric watched the river swallow them up along with more of the parking lot, he mistook the intermittent crashing of boxes in the basement for distant, looming thunder.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Michael Chaney is a farce of nature, a bona fide fake, and a purveyor of parenthetical innuendo (get it?). You may count his beans in Coe Review, apt, Hobart, and Madhatters’ Review, or stalk him at michaelalexanderchaney.com