“Pfeeeeet…pfeeeeet.” The Factory whistle blows.
“Two,” he thought. “Time to get a move on.”
He tossed off the covers, petted the dog’s head, made sure Sally was still covered by the blanket, padded barefoot to the bathroom and closed the door after him. After a quick shower and shave, he donned undershorts and socks before stepping into his Factory supplied one-piece olive drab uniform. He paused for a moment, his one-piece around his ankles, and inspected the burns on his arms and legs. The scars looked clean and healthy. That’s good. Tugging up his uniform before the pulling the chain on the single light to the left of the mirror over the sink. The bathroom relaxed back into its nighttime solitude.
Sock-footed, he quietly crept down the steep, narrow stairs being careful not to put any weight near the edge of the steps to avoid the inevitable creak which would undoubtedly wake Rufus, and therefore, Sally.
He wondered how many mornings, just like this, he avoided that third step from the bottom. No matter what he did to the support the stair riser, it always creaks if you step on its edge. He wondered how many mornings his father, his Da, avoided that same step in all the years he worked for the Factory.
His father was gone now, of course. The Factory used him until he had nothing left, then discarded him like his old worn one-piece.
Harry assume the same end would be his, once he could no longer do the job the Factory told him to do.
He walked down the hallway that ran down the length of the house from the foot of the stairs to the kitchen. The light was on and the aroma of coffee filled the first floor of their flat.
“Morning, Mom,” he said as he entered the small kitchen, picking up the cup of coffee waiting for him next to the black lunch pail sitting on the small plastic gingham covered table. It was already packed with his normal morning break snack and lunch, everything wrapped tightly to keep the Factory grime and soot off his food. When she gave the lunch pail to him, Mom had painted his initials, sort of, under the handle. His full name is Harry Houdini Oxley, or HHO. She had painted H2O in a beautiful flowing script to differentiate his pail from his mates. The initials had faded over years of use, but were still clearly visible. Whenever he would ask why she drew his initials like that she would just reply, “Oh, its silly I guess. It’s just a reminder of what might have been and what was lost.”
“Harry,” she said, nodding in his general direction, then towards the door.
“Pfeet!” pierced the whistle once more, a shorter, more urgent blast. Harry knew there wouldn’t be another warning whistle.
“Half hour, Harry.”
“I know, Mom,” Harry said as he hurriedly swallowed the last of his first black coffee of the day. He knew there would be a small thermos with more in the top of his lunch bucket, held in place by the small metal spring wire. He knew Mom would have made us lunch earlier, when she heard the first warning whistle, just as she made Dad’s coffee and lunch day after day, year after year until the Factory wore him out and tossed him aside.
“Here’s a bacon, egg and cheese muffin you can eat on your way, Harry. You can’t be late,” said Mom as she placed the carefully wrapped sandwich next to his lunch pail, not stepping any closer to her son. “No, wait. Put your boots on first.”
Harry’s black, worn, but brushed clean, steel toed work boots sat next to the back door. Harry slipped them on and tied them, before he stood up, turned towards his mother, smiled, nodded, and picked up the sandwich and lunch pail.
“Thanks, Mom. I will see you after my shift. Take care of Sally and Rufus for me,” replied Harry as he turned, opened the kitchen door and walked onto the back porch.
Mom stood in the doorway and in a low voice said, “Sally will have to start rising early and doing for you soon, Harry.”
“Mom? Are you ok?”
“Yes, I am fine, but let’s face it. I am getting older. I feel thin, sort of transparent, like ink fading in the sun,” she said quietly. “You need to go. We will talk later.”
Harry nodded and turned to walk down the path between his house and the neighbors, turned right at the road and joined the stream of men trudging toward the Factory. It was almost dawn and the Factory was still bathed in huge floodlights. Harry always thought it was odd they spent so much money to light a jet black building. Security, he guessed, but who would the Factory be protecting itself against? Without the Factory the town would die. Attacking the Factory would be just stabbing the town in the heart.
With reluctant haste Harry passed the Factory gates. It was raining now, but it didn’t matter. Harry wouldn’t see the outside again until his shift ended, twelve hours from now.
“Pfeeeeet…pfeeeeet.” the Factory whistle cried. “Shift end. Get out! Make room. Next shift is starting,” the whistle shouted.
Harry walked out through the Factory gates, his dirty one-piece had several new burn holes in the sleeves. Luckily, only one caught him today and it didn’t feel too bad. “Just a light sear,” he thought.
The rain stopped during the day. The worn lane was still wet, but no longer muddy. Years ago the Factory dumped tons of crushed stone waste along the lane, twenty yards at a time, and gave every ten workers a shovel or rake and told them to spread the stone smooth along the lane. The next day a different exhausted squad of men took the shovels and rakes and worked another section of the lane on their way home. They repeated this until all the lane was a smooth bed of stone and the workers could walk to work quicker, not worrying about walking in mud.
Harry nodded to the man walking on his right before turning left and passing between his house and his neighbors, retracing his steps from before dawn this morning. He walked up the three gray, weather bleached steps to his back porch and removed his boots. He banged the soles against each other to knock off as much soot as possible before opening the door and entering the kitchen.
“Go shower, Harry. Dinner in twenty minutes,” smiled Sally.
Sally wasn’t a morning person, yet, but she bloomed in the afternoon. He knew Mom was trying to coax Sally into rising earlier and earlier, but so far, it wasn’t working.
Harry nodded towards his wife and walked the hallway toward the stairs, pausing to affectionately rub Rufus on the head and scratch behind her ears. He walked up the stairs letting the third one squeak as loudly as it wanted.
He dumped his one-piece in the chute that lead to the back room where the laundry and Mom lived. Stripping, he stepped into the tub and started to scrub the Factory grime from his face and hands. Thankfully, his body was mostly protected by his one-piece. That reminded him of the burn on his arm. Looking at it, he decided it wasn’t bad enough to require any attention. Harry stepped out of the tub and used the flexible shower hose to flush the grime down the drain. He knew Sally would clean it better after dinner.
Mom and Sally were in the kitchen, preparing three plates with dinner. It was Tuesday and Tuesday’s dinner was corn beef and cabbage. He liked this dinner and didn’t mind that it was always Tuesdays’ dinner. Wednesday was pasta and Thursday was goulash. The dinner schedule was natural and had been the same all his life, just as it was the same when Da was alive and worked for the Factory.
He dropped into his place as Sally placed his plate in front of him, next to the homemade porter beer on his right. He made this daily beer once a month, on the Lord’s Day, after services.
Sally sat to his right and Mom to his left, each placing their own dinner plates in front of them.
“Anything new today, Sally?” Harry asked.
Sally shook her head causing her long blond hair to spill over her face. She pulled it back before picking up her fork and knife that rested on the half folded paper towel. “No, not really. I washed your other one-piece but had to dry it over the stove while making dinner. It rained most of the day.”
Mom looked up from her dinner and looked at Sally, then at Harry. “Are they becoming John and me?” She wondered. “They barely touch each other anymore. Is the Factory subsuming them as it did us?” Mom always thought there was something special in the human touch. The more touching the more human. The Factory prefers less touching, less humanity in its possessions. Harry used to kiss Sally after his shift was over. They used to hold hands during dinner. Now, nothing. Is the Factory winning? Again.
A lifetime ago, she and John left the Factory town and ran off to college. John was going to be an engineer and Sally wanted to save the environment. He studied math and science while she shared the same science class but also studied art, history and politics. Then Sally’s dad got sick and John and Sally returned home, to the Factory town, barely half way through their studies. John took Sally’s dad’s place in the Factory and worked there six days a week, twelve hours a day until he just faded away. She had those two wonderful years to remember and preserve that kernel of humanity she so desperately desired. The Factory stole that from John. At the end, the Factory took the life from his eyes, then it took his life.
“They never ask about my day,” thought Harry. “Maybe not knowing insulates them from the truth. They would only need to ask once since every day is like yesterday and will be just like tomorrow.”
When their plates were clean Mom reached across the table and gently rested her hands on the back of both Harry’s and Sally’s. They looked at each other, then at Mom.
“I am fine,” she started quietly, “for now. But I won’t be here forever. I am afraid for the two of you.”
“Afraid, Mom?” Sally whispered. “We are fine too. There is nothing to make you afraid.”
“Yet, I do fear for you, dear. The Factory is dehumanizing you, just like it did Dad. It leaches the life force from you.”
“The Factory gives us life, Mom. It is the heart of the town. Without the Factory we would all die,” said Harry. “We couldn’t live here without it.”
“Then don’t live here anymore,” Mom said in a barely audible whisper, almost as if the Factory was listening and who knows, it may be. “When I am gone, leave the town. Run. Run anywhere and start over.”
“And do what, Mom? I don’t know anything beyond my Factory job. How would we live without the Factory?”
“You are still young, Harry. You are strong. You can find something else to do away from this town and the Factory. Sally, you are a good cook. You can find a job. Get out while you can.”
“Mom? Are you sure you are ok? You aren’t sick or anything are you?”
“I am old, Sally. This town drains the life from you, but here are other places. Places without the Factory. There are places that are clean and bright. The world outside the Factory town is changing. Before other Factory towns spoil and pollute them, there are still beautiful places in the world and you need to go find them. Dad and I tried but the Factory drew us back in. You have nothing here to hold you. Promise me when I am gone, you will be too.”
“I don’t know Mom. We will need to talk about it,” said Harry and looked into Sally’s eyes.
“That’s fine. Talk about it, make a plan and prepare. That’s all I ask. Oh, one other thing. Touch each other more. Humanity is alive beyond the influence of this town. Keep your humanity alive between you two. Remember, humanity lives in the human touch.”
With that, she stood, turned and walked towards her room to start today’s laundry.
“Mom,” said Harry and Sally as one. “We love you,” as they clasp each other’s hands.