When I was about fourteen or fifteen years old, I was hanging out in the Buy ’n Save parking lot with Soup and Chucky and some other dudes, when I saw Mrs. Bardham walk up to the storefront and set up a sign. It was a big sign, like a protest sign, and it declared in bold lettering: THE GOVERNMENT DOESN’T WANT YOU TO KNOW THIS. ON JUNE 31st, 1973, ABSOLUTELY NOTHING HAPPENED.
She stood there silently by her sign, a wordless protest against, by her own admission, absolutely nothing, until finally our local law enforcement, in the person of Officer Kevin Bacon, came and told her she couldn’t be there. For about twenty minutes, she refused to even acknowledge him.
I should mention that he’s not that Kevin Bacon, but he has been subjected to a million forms of mockery. Not for sharing a name with a relatively famous actor, but for being a cop with the last name "Bacon".
At any rate, eventually he told her to get in the back of his car, at which point she willingly acquiesced, but not before looking straight at us kids and declaring: "Every time a salamander glides slowly along the wall, every time a fire is lit in the heart of a box of flea powder, every time a ladle drops from the clouds and lands in a henhouse, every time good men do nothing when a coupon book is used as a fire extinguisher, they win."
I took those words to heart.
About five years later, I realized that was the last I saw of Mrs. Bardham. I looked for an obituary for her, and even asked around town if anyone knew what had happened to her. No one seemed to remember she existed. In fact, a few people got angry that I asked.
Welcome to life in the factory town.
We call it the factory town because if it weren’t for the factory, there would be no town. The town sprang up around the factory, and the factory sorta sprang up on its own. I’m sure it has other offices and other factories somewhere. I’m sure it has a head office, a board of directors, perhaps even a parent company. But I don’t know where any of those are. I don’t ask. No one asks.
I’ve lived in the factory town all my life. I knew that when I got older I’d end up working there, and so I did. I didn’t go beyond the borders of my little town until I was seventeen, and I was amazed at much of what I saw, as I’m sure you will be amazed at what you see, or more likely, what you don’t see, if you come into my town.
For one thing, franchises do not exist here. Every restaurant is a dive, every store a mom-and-pop or privately-owned operation. The Buy ’n Save is the biggest store in town, and it’s where everyone goes to get groceries, rent movies, buy clothes or mail letters. And assorted other things.
You’ll notice I said ’rent movies’. That’s another thing. Streaming services never caught on in our town, primarily because high speed internet only became a thing here perhaps two or three years ago. The factory had it installed, and a few others did as well, but most people just have dial-up here. Apparently there were problems installing new lines for high-speed service. Something about the lines constantly being eaten by the Thing Below. Even with the lines in place, service is horrible, as it is with our cell phones as well. As for cell phones, they’re mostly the 90’s models out here; StarTac’s, Nokia’s, Motorola Bricks that could break a toe if you dropped it on your foot. Some of the younger people in town know about smartphones, but few have felt the need to upgrade to them. They likely wouldn’t work very well.
What I guess I’m saying is that coming to the factory town is a bit like stepping back in time. We have video games, but the really good ones are only available at the arcade, which costs money to play, so you actually see more kids out playing in their lawns or back-alleys or graveyards or playgrounds from daylight to darkness. If that sounds adorable to you, you’ve never met our children.
You can rent movies, but that costs money too, and if you’re late, you get charged more, so not too many people rent movies, either. In fact, a lot of people don’t really care for things that remind them of what life is like outside of factory town. This is also why our most popular television series is a local kids’ show called The World of Warren, in which Warren, played by the president of our town’s Drama Society, whose name, you might have guessed, is Paul, runs through a series of silly sketches with his puppets and a few other members of the Drama Society, all with a budget that rivals that of me and my childhood friends with my dad’s camcorder. Everyone watches this show. Everyone loves this show. Even adults.
There are other things I can tell you, but then, we’ve only just met, haven’t we? No need to get off on the wrong foot.
Ah, yes, the factory. Well, like I said, it’s why the town is there. A good many of the adults in town work there, and those that don’t, well, they’re usually ones working in or running those little shops that keep us all afloat.
The factory is old. I’m not certain how old it is, because this isn’t the kind of town where we take pride in our history, or even really talk much about it. The building is a sprawling, ugly thing that squats like a heap of shit on top of the hill at the northwest end of town. It’s been called the worst eyesore in the county. Perhaps the state. Its name is Ashworth Global, but the factory is all anyone ever calls it. There’s only one factory, after all.
Most of the people I know are involved in it, to some degree. My friend Chucky is one of its drivers. Sam, the only woman I’ll ever love, works in accounts payable. I’m one of the I.T. professionals. My dad worked in cold storage until he passed away.
Working at the factory is just like any other job. I get in at about seven AM and am usually out the door by around five or six in the evening. I could leave earlier, or arrive later, but because I don’t often think things through, I’ve given most of my users the impression that they can call me pretty much whenever they need me, even if that means the dead of night. There’s always something going on at the factory, which means there’s always a password that might decide to randomly stop working, or an email profile that will suddenly corrupt itself, a server requiring an exorcism, or a computer that won’t boot. I showed up early a few times, and that meant helping anyone who had a problem. Therefore, I get evil emails or voicemails waiting for me if I am not there when someone else needs help.
I work in a little office with six other people, three of whom are technically network support, one of which is my team lead, and the other three are the service desk, which would include me. We handle the day-to-day issues while network has the thankless task of trying to keep our local servers running despite a flood of forces working against them. Our office has cold, white walls and we sit at a row of half-cubes, three on one side and four on the other. We have fluorescent lighting. It gives me a headache.
The hallway outside our office has no windows and is kept unlit most of the time. I haven’t learned if this is true, but my understanding is that when they tried lighting it better, the sight at the far end of the hallway caused three nosebleeds and one aneurism, so it was unanimously decided that we preferred the poor lighting to having to see that again.
The bathrooms are in that hallway.
There are areas of the factory that are under construction, and thus are not to be entered at any time, by anyone, especially not the construction workers, who keep disappearing. These areas move around a lot, but they seem to generally be situated about midway between you and wherever you need to go on a given I.T. call.
So, it’s not the warmest, friendliest or most satisfying place to work, but at least the pay is shit.
It’s there, in my shitty little office, at my cramped little half-cube, that the whole thing began. It started with me having to take Elliot Fleischer’s computer back to the office to dismantle it and find out why it was moving so slowly. He works in research and development, so any number of ungodly things could have gotten in there. I sprayed out all the dust and was chiseling out the bezoar when the man in the black suit first showed up in my office.
This guy was a piece of work. He looked like every government agent you have ever seen in any one of countless movies. He even had a bloody earpiece. I’m guessing the blood on his earpiece was relatively fresh, but he didn’t seem to notice it, so I decided not to point it out.
"Have you seen this man?" he asked with no preamble, or even introducing himself. He held out a photo that I immediately recognized as a magazine clipping of a nondescript male model.
"Sure," I said. "He’s probably been in a few different ads. They all look alike to me, anyway."
"That’s a tad racist of you," said the man. The model in the photo was as white as I am. Whiter, even, as he had blonde hair.
"I’ll be sure to donate to the United WASP College Fund," I said, handing back the photo. "If you’re asking if I’ve seen that particular one, the answer is no, but then, I’m also fairly certain that he doesn’t look like that. They do wonders with air-brushing these days."
"This is quite serious, sir," said the suit. "This man is at the center of a highly delicate government case involving corruption on the highest level, and we suspect he..."
"...might be someone you want to shut up about, considering it’s a private citizen you’re talking to?" I’d just about had enough of this guy. There was a particularly resistant bit of orangey-yellow sludge all through Elliot’s power supply fan that kept grabbing at my fingers when I tried to clean it out. This conversation was over.
But the guy once again thrust the photo in my face. "You’re certain that you haven’t seen him," he intoned, as if making a statement rather than asking a question.
I decided to quit being smart. "You got a name? An ID?"
"You can call me sir," he said.
I laughed at that one. "Dude, I don’t even call my boss ’sir’," I said.
Suit wasn’t amused. "Then call me Mister," he replied.
"Because when you’re this big," I chuckled. "Well, Mr. Mister, I’d love it if you took your broken wings and headed off down that road that you must travel. I’m busy."
"You are being deliberately uncooperative," said Mister. "I can take you in for that."
"So far, you haven’t even shown me that you have any authority to ask me anything whatsoever."
Mister sighed deeply. "Fine," he said. He reached into the breast pocket of his suit and drew out nothing at all. "Oh, um," he said. "Hang on." He checked the other side of his coat, realized he didn’t have a pocket there, then checked both hip pockets, his back pockets, and seemed to check them all again before realizing he was out of pockets. "Shit," he said. "Listen, I will be back, and when I am, I expect you to answer my questions."
He turned on his heel and I realized while watching him leave that I’d never seen a man stride off with his tail between his legs before. It was like watching a Nazi with a wedgie.
What I would give to know then what I know now. I would have told him everything. Or I would have gotten up and began to run without looking back.