The astronaut and his guides were making their way toward Assembly when Sally Jerzik lost her finger in the box press. People said her screams were louder than the conveyors, louder than the hoppers even.
I worked in the Safety Department, the seven-to-three shift, my first job out of college. I’d probably been there about a month when the astronaut was brought in to tour the factory. It was all just a PR stunt to get headlines and bolster Christmas sales: an astronaut photographed next to a toy spaceship. The supervisor called me to the accident scene.
“Where’s she now?” I asked him.
“She’s OK. The ambulance came and took her to the hospital.”
“What do you mean what happened? Isn’t it obvious?” He was jittery and his voice quavered. There was blood splattered all over his pants.
“Tell me what happened,” I said. “It’s for the report.”
“She stuck her finger in the machine and whack! That’s what happened! We’ve got to clean up this blood. Where’s Maintenance? Someone call Maintenance! The astronaut’s coming. Where’s the finger?”
“You mean her finger is still here?”
“Of course it’s still here. It’s got to be here somewhere.”
I took two steps back from the press, watching where I put my feet. Beneath the machine, the puddle of blood looked violet under the fluorescent lights. The supervisor instructed his line crew on the search pattern. “You take the floor. You backtrack along the conveyors. I don’t want that finger slipping out of here in a box!”
“When you find the finger,” I told him, “put it on ice and bring it to the hospital.”
“Of course I’ll bring it to the hospital. What kind of idiot do you think I am?” He wheeled on his crew, glowering like a murderer. “For God’s sake, get cracking! The astronaut’s coming! Someone bring some ice!”
The factory employed nearly two thousand people, most of them on the assembly line, so there was always someone getting hurt. I filed accident reports and comp claims, gathered information for insurance forms, and filled out various internal documents. When things were slow I often roamed the warehouse or met Virgil in the cafeteria for coffee. Virgil was a safety technician, same as me, and had been with the company awhile. He was usually a little drunk, his breath sweet and ragged, like orange peels left in the rain. He liked to ramble on about his days in the theater. Apparently, Virgil had been a pretty good actor in his prime, and he was fond of telling stories about how he traveled the fifty states, parts of Europe, as well. But, like the rest of us, it was the factory for him now, the day shift and one week off in fifty-two, plus ten holidays, and no use complaining.
One Tuesday we were called down to First Aid, where we found a woman lying on a cot, her head wrapped in bandages; part of her scalp was said to be missing.
“She was cleaning under the conveyors,” the supervisor said, “over by line 132, and I guess she turned her head wrong. A sprocket ate her ponytail. We phoned the ambulance.”
“Is she all right?”
“It took a good chunk. We salvaged what we could and put it in a bag.” The supervisor pointed to a blue ice chest on the floor. “She’s supposed to wear a hairnet. We’ve warned her time and time again.”
The woman appeared to be fifteen or sixteen at most. The gauze around her skull was stained red, and mats of long blond hair poked out from underneath. Her body shimmied beneath the sheet, floating the fabric up and down, like a mild epileptic seizure. Her eyeballs bubbled around under her lids like boiling eggs.
I whispered to Virgil, “Will her hair grow back?”
“Not without a scalp,” he said. “I’ve seen it once before; it’s like trying to grow corn without dirt.”
“But some of it’s got to grow back.”
The supervisor shrugged. “She might as well start buying hats,” he said. And then, “It was bound to happen.”
The woman was mumbling softly to herself now. I stood there smelling disinfectant and hot plastic (the perpetual smells of the factory) and wondering pathetically who loved her, and about her life on the outside. A trail of blood seeped between her eyebrows and tried uselessly to pool on her high, round cheek. Suddenly, she opened her eyes, looked off toward the wall, and said, “It’s dark in here. Why’s it so dark?” Only Virgil had enough sense to tell the child to get some sleep.
On our lunch hour, Virgil and I sometimes drove to the parking lot of a fancy restaurant overlooking the Quaboag River. The owners paid a man to make rock sculptures on the riverbank for the entertainment of customers. All afternoon the sculptor waded into the rusty current and heaved stones out, then stacked them on the shore, where he shaped his wet creations. Beyond the river, sandstone cliffs rose to a sky bloated with snow, powder blue and gray and full of promise. We sat in the car and watched, drinking a little from Virgil’s flask.
“What’s he making there?” I asked.
“It’s a copy of a Remington,” Virgil answered, “a lonely buckaroo, a cowboy riding west on prairies teeming with bison.”
“Are you sure?” I said.
“Of course I’m sure,” he said. Then he asked, “What’s wrong with your ear?”
I was picking at the inside of my right ear.
“I’ve got this fluid leaking out,” I said. “It itches sometimes. I can’t stop scratching.”
“How long have you had that?”
“A year or so. It usually comes at night.”
“Edgar Allan Poe had fluid in the ears,” he said, “and he went crazy.”
“Are you kidding me?”
“No, no,” he said, “it’s true.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“What’s your pillowcase look like?”
“Black as hell.”
He shook his head. We drank some more from the flask.
“He could get killed,” I said of the sculptor.
Virgil frowned and said, “The water’s too shallow. He’s not going anywhere.”
“How do you know?”
“It’s only three feet deep. Look at his legs.”
“But the rocks,” I said. “They’re heavy and covered in slime.”
“He’s an artist. Artists don’t get killed on the job.”
I swallowed numbly and thought about that while the first flakes of snow hit the car. Below, the sculptor waded in up to his waist, oblivious to the cold.
I patted Virgil on the arm and said, “You know, they say a guy over in Finishing died on the job — ten, fifteen years ago.”
“No one said anything about painting toys,” Virgil said, twisting the cap back on the flask. “That’s not what I meant.”
The man from Repair’s pants were down around his ankles, and blood was streaming down his thigh.
“What happened?” I asked.
“He got it pinned in the floor rollers,” the Machine Maintenance supervisor told me. “He says the machine was off. The ambulance is on the way.”
“Are you all right?”
“I can’t feel my leg. It’s hot, like I’m on fire or something,” the man from Repair said, holding a towel to his crotch, evidently to stop the bleeding. “I think it got one of my testicles,” he said.
“One of your testicles is gone?”
“I think so. It’s hard to tell.”
“What were you doing on the rollers?” I said.
“He was jogging,” said the supervisor. “They get bored and they go for a little run. So I’m told.”
The man from Repair looked too sick to argue.
“Now you see the problem,” said the supervisor. “We try and try.”
In back of the plant, out by Molding, workers were complaining about a powerful smell coming through the windows on hot days and making some of them ill. Virgil and I walked into the woods to find the source. He kept a few paces ahead. I looked up and saw purple and brown clouds swimming like gigantic jellyfish. Virgil took off his shirt and held it to his face. “Something’s dead out here,” he said.
“Remember the time we found that dead fawn?”
“There was never any fawn,” Virgil huffed.
“Out by the docks, last year. Don’t you remember?”
“No,” Virgil said. “This way.”
I followed Virgil up a small knoll and into a flat green clearing where a fieldstone wall ran crookedly toward an abandoned farmhouse. The storm was whipping freely, buckling the grass and saplings. Power lines snapped wildly in the wind. Virgil had the look of a scout, alert to the possibility of ambush. “It’s over there,” he said.
“Come on!” he shouted. “We’re close.”
The clearing dropped off around a pool sunk deep into the ground, its walls crumbling, the water black and stagnant. Floating on its side in the middle of the pool was a yellow dog.
“There,” Virgil said. “You can see where he tried to claw his way out.” He pointed to where the steep walls of the pool were gouged and scarred.
“His fur looks so new,” I said. “Like a blanket.”
“It’s beautiful,” Virgil said. And then, almost to himself, “Poor, poor fellow.”
“I wonder whose dog he was,” I said.
Virgil bent his face toward the ground as though he were going to pray. His shirt was still in his hand, and he cradled it like an infant, with carefulness only a drunk can muster. “Imagine swimming for days,” he said. “Can you imagine?”
The packers sat at their tables, their wrists spasming rhythmically. A woman at table seven called to me.
“I have a suggestion,” she said. “If we lower the table and put this tray over here, I can do more boxes.”
“You want to do more boxes?”
“If you lower the table, it will make things easier.”
She was old and strong and beautiful. Scars crisscrossed her wrist, still pink where the sutures had been: an operation for carpal-tunnel syndrome. She can do more boxes now.
There was one time, toward the end, when Virgil tried to save them for a little while. We were in the boiler room, measuring a flywheel for a guard we were planning to install. On the wall was a row of gray circuit breakers. Without warning Virgil began throwing switches, one after the other. When everything but the emergency lights was off, he slumped to the floor, his spine riding the cinder blocks down. The silence was like that of caverns and tombs.
“They’re safe now,” Virgil said softly.
“How much have you had to drink?” I said.
“No one can touch us here. The door’s bolted and I brought supplies.” Virgil pulled the flask and a Hershey bar from his pocket. “We can hole up for days. They’ll have to smoke us out.”
“We’ll get fired for sure if they find out,” I said.
“I’ve got a good feeling,” he said, looking around the room. “You ever notice how there’s never enough trash cans? Why do you think that is?”
“There’s one over there, Virgil.”
“Is tomorrow Friday or is that today?”
Virgil closed his eyes. The only window was high above our heads. Through it, a rectangle of tired light fell to the floor.
“When I was a kid I saw this miracle,” Virgil said. “The Mother of God was appearing and people flocked from miles around to see. She was making the statues weep.”
“I heard about that,” I said. “Over in Torrington or someplace.”
“I remember these sick people were there,” he said, “people dying of every disease you can imagine, and they were touching her tears like it was medicine, like it was going to make them better. I knew all along it was hopeless.”
“People will believe any damn thing,” I said. Then I asked, “How do you think they made the tears?”
Virgil opened his eyes, an absolute calm on his face, his body motionless. “It was a miracle,” he finally said. “That’s all.”
The boiler let out a hiss, and I said, “We should go. Take my hand.” And, lifting Virgil, I led him outside.
We walked in darkness past the sleeping machines. A group from Repair was swarming toward the boiler room. A supervisor kept yelling, “I need more light! I need more light!” But no one seemed to answer. We made it to my car and drove straight through the main gate. It was one of those bleak days when the clouds drop to earth, blanketing the world in fog. I turned on the headlights and plunged into the veil. Virgil fell asleep with his head against the door.
Years later, the toy factory would close down and move to a place where bodies came cheaper and it hardly ever snowed, and when it did everyone left the assembly line to gaze in wonder out the windows.
But I’ll always remember the morning that last October when we were called down to Packaging.
“The man at station six doesn’t look well,” the supervisor said. “I don’t like his color. The whole line is falling behind.”
“What do you want us to do?” Virgil asked.
“I have reason to believe he’s intoxicated. I want him tested. According to the schedule, he’s not even on my rotation.”
“I can’t test for bad color,” said Virgil. “I need more than that.”
“For crying out loud, just look at him!”
Virgil and I approached the man and saw not just his poor color, but something the supervisor had overlooked: his clothes. They were obviously prison fatigues. The state-penitentiary work camp was only a mile or so away. He’d probably figured the factory was a good place to hide, given the general noise and confusion, must have just strolled in through the loading docks after the ten o’clock break as if he belonged there and sat himself down in the nearest empty seat.
“Hello,” said Virgil, moving up beside him.
“Hello,” said the convict. “I’m really getting the hang of this. It’s not so hard.”
“The line is falling behind,” said Virgil.
The convict smiled fearlessly. “It’s only my first day.”
“You forgot to change your uniform,” said Virgil.
“I’m a forgetful person on the whole,” said the convict. “Maybe I should go.” He stood up from the stool, smoothed out his jumpsuit, coughed, then paused a second. “So, how do you get them to stay?” he asked.
“Who’s that?” said Virgil.
“All of them. Just look around. I’d go crazy in here. Probably end up hurting somebody. Who knows?”
“We pay them,” said Virgil.
“I guess that makes it all right,” the convict said.
The three of us walked outside into the belly of a northern gale. The red oaks lining the parking lot were tearing at their roots, begging the wind for mercy. Virgil gestured toward a field of swaying reeds.
“The woods go for miles through there,” he said. “It’ll take an army to find you.”
“Thanks, old man.”
“Head east,” said Virgil. “It’s your only chance.”
With that, the convict shuffled off through the reeds and soon became no more than a pale dot against the forest. Virgil and I sat on the grass and watched him vanish by degrees.