Twenty five years in the mill. Twenty five years; Fifty two weeks a year: Forty hours a week. I’ve done the math. Fifty-two thousand hours…in the mill. My whole adult life I spent at the mill. Man, I loved the mill. For twenty five years, I woke up early to drink coffee and smoke in my small kitchen. On my way to work, I cranked the FM, then the tape player, and now the CD. I cranked the radio and scream sang with the windows either up or down. Two cups of coffee, four Camels, and a half hour of loud music later, I was at the mill. I walked up to the time clock and punched in somewhere between Keith and Bruce. For twenty five years.
The mill wore you out physically. There was, quite literally, an endless supply of inventory to move from the loading dock to the warehouse and from the warehouse to the floor. From the floor, all would be melted down in the furnaces.
The furnaces lined the perimeter of the factory like a city block ablaze. The heat sucked all moisture right from our skin. The mill took the very sweat from my pores. It filled my lungs with smoke and shards of steel and asbestos dust from the walls. Eventually we all gave our lives to the mill.
One way or another the mill broke everybody. It broke me physically when I lost my fingers, and then it broke itself financially, but for most, it broke them mentally. Too many pulls of a lever, too many buttons pushed and it would drive a man insane. We all drank. We all smoked. Our three meals were caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol. This made our blood boil. Our bodies stayed fueled and our blood boiled like the steel in the furnaces. After work at the mill we let out steam drinking with ugly women in the ugly bars.
We drank at a bar called the Juke in denims and flannels drinking shots of whiskey and cases of Budweiser. Fights broke out over jokes and choice words about one another’s wife or mother. Couples out for a romantic evening to hear the band were chased out by our tales of conquests and our awkward, boisterous laughter. I look back on it now, my memories yellowed with time like bad hygiene in an old Polaroid. Yellow like cirrhosis and decay. The leaves fall down one by one.
It was October but an Indian summer when the leaves turned and fell that year. We piled into the back of Bruce’s old station wagon and began the journey we were all destined for. I left the mill that day clenching my fists. I was wrenched in anger over the bullshit Bruce put on me. “Pollack, Polka, asshole dumbass”, all these words were synonymous with one another in the Mill and in Bruce’s dialect. Ignorance, hate, and general dismissal replaced respect for individuality in a place like the Mill. We worked hard, and we fought even harder and now we were going on vacation together. Bruce made everyon angry and took a special interest in harrassing me. Bruce was such an asshole.
“I figure we can make it to the border by suppertime as long as the Pollack doesn’t fuck up the directions” Bruce said while lifting his trucker hat and scratching his greasy head. “That should put us in the cabin by nine tonight. Keith, grab me another brew would ya?”
Keith reached into the cooler at the back of the woody and handed a brew to our driver.
Besides the six-pack Bruce had ingested, a perpetual stream of pot smoke had fumed from Bruce’s front seat. Bruce was one of those guys that insisted on a diet of pot and alcohol to help him relax while driving. I was not convinced. In fact, I was growing more irritated and worried about the driver as our trip unfolded and was trying to work out a plan to take over the wheel before he wrapped us around a tree.
“Bruce, why don’t you pull over and let me drive?” I asked. “You’ve had too much to drink. You can’t even see the road past all this smoke. Pull over.”
“Screw you Polka. I’m driving just fine. Better than your dumbass anyways.” He let out a deep belch.
“Take it easy, Bruce.” Keith interjected. “I gotta piss anyways so pull over. If you don’t, I’ll just piss in your car. Pull over!”
Bruce never listened to me but Keith could usually persuade him.
“Alright then.” Bruce said as he jerked the car onto the shoulder of the road. “I gotta stretch my legs anyways”.
We all got out of the car and retreated to the woods beside the road to relieve ourselves. As I was in midstream, I was struck in the back by a hard shove. I fell into my own piss as Bruce began to laugh.
“What the hell Bruce! I’ve had enough of your crap. You always go too far. Give me your god damn keys and let’s get back on the road.” I stood up and stared into Bruce’s huge face until he smiled and handed over the keys.
“Suit yourself Polka. Just remember to drive on the right side of the road. You do know which side is the right, don’t ya?”
“Just get in the car.” I replied, keeping my head down and my pace quick.
The rest of the ride to the cabin was uneventful beside the occasional fart or racial slur from Bruce. I tried to keep my attention on the road and after another two hours on the road, we reached our cabin. The sun was setting over the hills of the Canadian border that hid the lake we were going to fish in the next morning. The quiet rustle of dry autumn leaves reached our ears and the tension between us temporarily fell away. I opened a much needed beer and sat down on the back porch to smoke before Keith rustled up some pasta for supper.
Dinner took far too long by the measure of beer cans I had stacked into a pyramid. The sun set and the moon was rising over the mountains by the time Bruce came out to slap me on the back of my head and say that dinner was ready. Spaghetti and meatballs….. and mushrooms.
We took our plates out to the back porch and ate in silence. After dinner, I couldn’t help but notice how strange Bruce was acting. All through dinner he was cordial and polite. He passed the salt when I asked and even took my plate to the sink when I was finished. This may be everyday behavior for civilized folk, but this was Bruce. I knew something was up.
At first I figured that Bruce had done something stupid like piss in the spaghetti sauce; it wouldn’t have been the first time, unfortunately. But it turned out to be much worse.
As we started a fire and lit our cigars to settle in for the evening, Bruce couldn’t contain his excitement anymore. He started to pile wood up over the fire. He was stacking the logs like Jenga blocks. My eyes began to water and I became acutely aware of my digestion.
“I can’t hold it in anymore” Bruce blurted out from nowhere. “How was your dinner guys? You feeling pretty good? I’m starting to feel it.”
“What are you talking about? What did you do to the food Bruce?” I said while wiping the tears that had begun to profusely pour down my face.
“I hope you guys like mushrooms in your pasta. You know, shrooms?” Bruce uttered as he began to fall apart and giggle like a girl scout.
That is when it hit me. I looked down to inspect my hands because I had gotten the idea in my head that I was crying blood. There was no blood on my hands of course, but they looked like someone else’s hands. Someone old and wrinkly. I looked back up at Bruce as he stood between me and the fire. His giggle became suddenly slow and deep and his body wavered in tempo with the rising of the flames of the fire.
“Looks like it’s hitting you, you stupid Pollack. Don’t go jumping off a cliff or on to the fire dumbass.”
“What did you say Bruce?”
“I said… you are a fucking idiot!” Bruce drew these words out slow and with emphasis. It slowly registered in my mind that I hated Bruce.
When you work beside someone for so long, you get used to their bullshit because it is something you deal with incrementally and on a daily basis. I took his abuse over the course of too many years in the mill. It was an epiphany when I realized that the man I worked next to for all those years, the “friend” that I got drunk with every weekend, the best man in my wedding for Christ’s sake, was actually the worst person in my life. Outside of the mill and outside of my mind, it became clear.
“Did you hear me Pollack?” Bruce continued. “ I said you’re a fucking idiot! Look at you. You’re just sitting there with your mouth hanging open catching flies. You look like some Polish retard!” He didn’t even try to suppress his high pitch giggle. I stood up and walked languidly towards him.
I am not religious. I do not believe in afterlife. I do not believe in ghosts or supernatural phenomenon, but at that moment I had what people call an out-of-body experience.
I watched myself calmly walk right up to Bruce. He continued to chuckle and goad me on. I stood stoic and numb. And then I watched myself lunge into Bruce. I struck him with so much unsuspected force he fell back into the huge fire he had built.
Keith never left his seat. He just sat and watched. Keith has still never said anything about what happened next.
I walked right into the fire over Bruce and stomped my foot onto his chest. He was pinned between my foot and the growing fire. I took a log and brought it down with full force onto Bruce’s screaming face. He fell silent and burned as I took a seat next to Keith.
Keith and I watched the fire burn down slowly into embers and we waited until the poison subsided in our minds. As the dew began to cover the dawn, I wrapped what was left of Bruce into my sleeping bag. Keith opened the back of the station wagon and I chucked the ashen parcel into the car.
We drove home in the earliest morning light with the radio blaring. When we got back into town we pulled up to the back entrance of the mill. I took the remains inside and fed Bruce to the furnace we worked in front of for twenty five years. Keith drove me home and I slept for the rest of the day.
When I arrived at work Monday morning, half of the police force was there to greet me. Keith had called the police that morning and reported Bruce as a missing person. The sheriff was quick to find the bones in the furnace. The sleeping bag had burned away completely. The death was officially reported as an accident.
In the following months, Bruce’s deadbeat wife successfully sued the mill and bought enough blow with her settlement money to put not only the mill but herself in the grave.
When they shut down the mill, both Keith and myself took to drinking full time.
Eventually the mill broke us all.