Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Blue Factory

Hagis was a small town nestled into wooded hills in an obscure part of the country, obscure that is for those who think only of large cities packed with wealth and population, but certainly not for those who live there, for whom it was home and indeed a much more pleasant place to spend one’s time than, say, in a post empire city, crumbling with decay and psychosis. It was a town of seven thousand souls ringed by small farms and during the warm season its air was softened by the influence of thousands of trees - oak, elm ash, maple and many others, fully leaved, green and resplendent.

The mayor of Hagis was a thin man, so thin that he seemed an animated corpse with the skin of his cheeks hanging like wizened draperies from the bone. His limbs seemed composed of twigs, his body so willowy that the task of his tailor, contrary to what it is usually required of tailors, that that they disguise bulging fat as continuous solidity, was to build out from the thin wire of skin and bone the semblance of a believable human body. The tailor had done his best but even then the impression the mayor gave was that he had just risen from a mortuary slab and that he would soon lie back down upon it, never to rise again.

The mayor was old Hagis. His family had been in the district for many generations and for the last three of them prominent enough in business and financial circles for a local historian to easily trace his line by a cursory roam through the archives of the local newspaper. His grandfather owned the lumber mill, his father the lumber mill and the hardware store and he himself the lumber mill, the hardware store and an investment company, a progression which perfectly mirrored that of the little town from farm center to a small industrial center. On the west side of town, sitting on what had once been three small farms owned by the mayor’s father, was an industrial park proudly flying corporate flags above six small factories. All but one of these factories produced plastic goods of some kind - bags, milk crates, kitchen utensils.

The one that did not produce plastic products, unlike the others who sat in neat rows, the plants so similar from the outside that it was hard to distinguish one from the other, was tucked into its own corner and surrounded by a high chain link fence. The fence was topped by coils of razor wire which gave it an intimidating, military appearance. The plant behind this fence also gave an intimidating appearance for, unlike the others faced in soft gray stone of local quarrying, it was sheeted with blue steel so dark that in most lights it appeared black. All the other factories flew a distinguishing flag and had outside the entrance to their offices at the front, a separate wall of stone proudly bearing the company name. The blue building, however, did not have a flag or a wall bearing the company name. In fact no where on the fence or on the entrance gate or in or around the building itself was there a sign telling the name of the building or the name of the company or individuals who owned it or the purpose it had for existing in the world. It was an anonymous building, a faceless and nameless building.

In the world of legal nomenclature the building was known as Franchise 604, number 61217. It was a franchise of a large corporation which was in turn owned by a larger corporation which was, finally, owned by even a larger corporation. This final larger corporation has a name so well known to the public that it is not necessary to mention it here. Suffice it to say that it is a wonderful, happy corporation priding itself on its benevolence, yet at the same time, highly profitable.

But legal nomenclature has a limited audience. It lives in the world of lawyers, contracts, judicial proceedings, etc, a world which exists only for a few well suited, well paid men and women. For the rest of the population the colloquial language produces names for everyday living you might call them, names which people use on the street, in the kitchen and in the coffee shops. In the colloquial the blue building was named ‘The Twitch’ for reasons of black humor. It was called this by the workers who came in its gates every morning, by the Hagis inhabitants who had occasion to refer to it and even by the managers who supervised the financial and production processes which went on behind its high fence and blue walls. When this name first surfaced the mother company was enraged and did its best to suppress its spread but their efforts were useless. Despite their money, power and legal weight they may as well have tried to stop a grass fire with a damp Kleenex. ‘The Twitch’ it was and they had to live with it.

The mayor and his family, two brothers and a sister, were the owners of the franchise. They never referred to the blue building as ‘The Twitch’ but rather as ‘our investment’. They had other investments, in fact many other investments, but when one of them said to the other ‘our investment’ each knew what they were talking about. They hated it when people referred to the building as ‘The Twitch’. They forbid the use of the term to their managers, who, eager to keep their positions and get ahead in the world, censored their communications with the family to eliminate the term. Yet privately and between themselves they used it all the time. If they used any other in their speaking with the building’s workers, they would not have known what they were talking about. When they spoke to the family they used the term ‘The Company’. This was a nice, anonymous name with a clear tone of respectability to it.

The mayor, after all he was the mayor, considered himself to be highly respectable. His family was respectable and the town of Hagis was respectable. In fact he and his family considered themselves to be the most respectable people in Hagis. There was another family, the Jollys, who were perhaps equally wealthy, but the mayor’s family considered themselves to be more respectable. The Jolly’s owned bars. They owned a hotel where prostitution and drug dealing occurred. Rumor had it that two of the younger son’s ran a cigarette smuggling operation, rumors which five years (since the mayor was first elected) of relentless police investigations had failed to substantiate. They were nothing more than a pack of crooks, a crappy conglomeration of low lifes in the mayor’s opinion. Recently the matriarch Jolly, an ancient lady of eighty-seven years, had publicly called the mayor ‘a corpse who runs a torture factory’, a comment reported in the local paper where the mayor had no choice but to run the advertisements for his various enterprises. The mayor had returned fire by calling Jasmine Jolly ‘a senile old bag’. Both had then instructed their lawyers to sue but this was nothing unusual as there were two lawyers in Hagis who did little but sue the Jolly’s on behalf of the mayor and the mayor on behalf of the Jolly’s. These lawyers, a man and a woman in their thirties, had been having a secret love affair during which they mercilessly mimicked and made fun of their clients. In public, however, they did not talk to one another and if one saw the other coming along the sidewalk ahead they switched to the other side of the street.

What made the mayor and his family hate the Jollys was rooted in history. The mayor’s great grandfather was a lush who drank up most of the money the family had accumulated up until his time. He drank at the Jolly’s bar where they kept for him an open tab not out of generosity but because they were able to use the leverage of the tab (a bit inflated perhaps but still the old man was liberal with his rounds) to slip a few choice properties out of the old man’s inebriated grasp. Some say this was the start of the Jolly rise for up until then they had only one bar and a five room house of prostitution. Others say that the old man was intimate with a much younger Jolly who ran the bar and that she had two children by him. A young reporter at the time who had tried to investigate this rumor had received nothing from the Jollys but laughter and enigma and nothing from the mayor’s family but threats and righteous indignation so he gave up. But when the old man died the entire Jolly clan, some fifty of them, showed up for the funeral. The bar manager with a eight year old girl and ten year old boy on either side of her, both of whom were mirrors of the old man’s facial bone structure, stood in the front wearing a widow’s veil, (in those days a significant symbol) all three weeping with a genuine emotion. One thing you could say for the Jollys is that they were not foreigners to emotion. The mayor’s family, having spent long years awaiting and longing for the old man’s death, seemed, alongside the Jollys, like so many wizened parsnips dressed in black - pale, emotionless, barely alive.

Essentially the acquiring of the numbered franchise by the mayor’s family was one in a long series of manoeuvres to outdo the Jollys. They all agreed it was a gamble. The family’s accountant, on his exploratory trips about the country touring other franchises came up with very enticing profit figures – between thirty and forty percent return on capital. The plan was to reinvest this money in housing developments and in philanthropic endeavors with the family name attached, The X Memorial Library, The X Home for Indigent Seniors, etc. They hoped by this to enshrine the family as the most prominent in the town and perhaps even in the county. The mayor’s wife, Mathild, was very keen on this. Rule the philanthropy committees and you rule the town she was fond of saying. Her daughters and daughters-in-law had already started a campaign to secure the chairs of the Garden Society, the Floral Lovers Association and the Annual Dog Show, the later now chaired by a Jolly, a foolish woman who insisted that show and athletic competitions not be seperated. However, manufacturing electrical torture machines was hardly a respectable activity. No matter how secretive they were the word would eventually get out and the consequences were hard to predict.

Mathild argued that philanthropy and job creation would wash the money clean. In fact, she was fond of saying that producing machines to torture enemies of the state would be seen by many as patriotic. After all, what were the secret police to use if they had no machines? Hot knives, blowtorches? She argued that Hagis was a practical town and that granted the product was less than ideal, still it would bring jobs and prosperity. After much discussion spread out over several years, the family decided to go for it. Part of the plan was to elect the family’s patriarch, Harold, to the mayor’s chair. Since no Jolly wanted to be the mayor (the Jollys saw the mayor as the Chief Clown) this was easy. Most Jollys did not vote and looked upon those who did as being soft headed.

The profits were even higher than predicted, fifty-one percent in the second year - a license to print money. Mathild and her legion of daughters and daughters-in-law secured the Social Triple Crown by the third year of the plant’s operation. Granted the Jolly woman started a ‘Responsible Dog Owners Association’ which drew in more members in the first year than that of the ‘Annual Dog Show’ which now had to hold its show in smaller quarters due to a boycott by the Jollys and their ilk. But this was a minor irritation and there was much to lie alongside it to balance the equation. Four Jollys were arrested for bootlegging in the first six months of Harold’s term in office. Three more were brought up on charges of money laundering, charges which unfortunately had to be dropped when the civil liberties people became involved. Five others arrested for prostitution were also let go. For lack of evidence the prosecutors claimed but Mathild was sure that someone had too much evidence, on the prosecutors and the judges that is.

Harold and three of his siblings rubbed their hands together when the annual profit sheets came in. What deliriously inebriating chunks of money! Mathild demanded they contribute generously to her endowment fund but even after that the numbers were stunning. They hired a big city tax firm who succeeded in charging far less in fees than what they would have had to pay in taxes.

Yet there was one fly in the ointment. Besides our four money counters the family had another sibling, much younger, a blow by as they say, of their deceased father’s dotage. While the full siblings were in their forties this young man, a half brother, was in his mid twenties. At one time they had tried to disentitle him entirely but the young man, primed by a local idealist lawyer, achieved full rights after waiving about certain DNA test results. After the death of his father the lawyer saw to it that he was given a cut from the family businesses, a modest cut but still substantial. The Boy, for that is what the rest of them called him amongst themselves which is the only place they called him anything for he was not invited to family business councils or social functions, took his cut and, living like a Cistercian monk in a bedsitter in the old downtown, plowed it into various schemes for social betterment. He rode a bicycle, wore second hand clothing and cut his own hair in such a way that, as Mathild said, it looked as if a rat had chewed it.

The Boy, Jonathan by name, refused to take any profits from the blue factory. He sent a public letter to the newspaper announcing his decision in the matter. In the letter he called his family ‘torturers and war criminals’. He had his lawyer and a forensic accountant pour over the family income sheets to make sure that he received no money whatsoever from ‘that hideous implement of human suffering’.

This letter caused quite a stir. Some thought the young man a trouble making pain in the ass. Others thought him a courageous young man speaking out against injustice. But then the jobs the factory provided and everyday money making was far stronger than the various shades of ethical opinion and the whole thing eventually blew over. The factory continued to produce its torture machines and Jonathan continued to refuse any of the moneys connected with it.

Jonathan was not a very physical man. This might seem like a ridiculous statement and in one way it is. After all if we are to be at all we must be physical unless one believes in emanations from the beyond, etc. But he was an idealist and idealists spend most of their time among the electrical activities going on in their skulls. In this way Jonathan was not very physical. He had a tendency to bump into things and stumble at awkward moments even though he neither drank nor took intoxicants of any kind, even caffeine. Like his half brother the mayor he was very thin, although far more healthy looking. Jonathan looked like a young man about to fill out whereas the mayor looked like a middle aged man about to die.

One reason Jonathan was not very physical was that he did not have sex. Especially with a young man sex can ground and connect to the real world. But one evening, after one of his seemingly endless social betterment meetings, this sexless life came to an end for he went to the apartment of a young woman who had long had an eye on him and succumbed to her charms which wasn’t hard for she was a truly beautiful and integrated young woman. She was a Jolly and unbeknownst to him he was repeating the experience of his great grandfather buried now in the hazy mists of the past. Emily was the young woman’s name and if you took a picture of her and placed it alongside that of her great grandmother (the one who produced two children with the mayor’s great grandfather) you would be hard pressed to say who was who. Of course she was related to Jonathan by blood in a way which only a genealogist with a full historical DNA printout of all Hagis would be able to delineate exactly. Perhaps they were second cousins with removes but certainly not close enough that it mattered for the purposes of baby making and these two, after an initial period of unproductive delirious couplings, went on to produce six children, all healthy, robust and ridiculously energetic.

One evening in their halcyon period, after making love for the third time, Jonathan took a break to describe to her the details of the blue factory. Emily knew most of this, being a social activist herself but she listened patiently until he was finished telling her he did not take any money from the family which was in any way connected to the factory. She was a little annoyed at his long windedness or perhaps even at the incipient priggishness embodied in his refusal to accept blood money and when he was finished she said, rather dismissingly, “Yes, but it’s still there, isn’t it? Still producing money and torture machines.”

Jonathan did not reply and was soon asleep but the next day what she said came back to him. It was true. No matter how pure he was himself the factory was still there and still producing machines and money. His purity lain alongside that depressing fact was a paltry thing.

This realization became for Jonathan a central reality, even, to some degree, more central than Emily for Emily, despite his love for her, was outside himself whereas the blue factory was inside, mixed into the very stuff of his blood and bone. Six months later he bought a small cabin some fifty miles outside of Hagis. He told Emily he needed a place to retreat on occasion and she didn’t mind. Sometimes she accompanied him but mostly she allowed him to use it as a place to go off on his own. Emily had some wisdom and even though she was only twenty-two she had insight into male psychology few women have at any age. During the warm season Jonathan spent half of his time at the cabin. This was fine with Emily for although she loved him Jonathan’s intensity could sometimes be wearying.

The cabin was at the end of a gravel road. The nearest neighbor was two miles away over a long sloping hill. Jonathan loved this isolation. He brought books from the library and read ten hours a day. The rest of the waking day he went for long walks and puttered about in the yard fixing this and that. Emily gave him a set of paints for his birthday and he started painting for three hours in the mornings. Sometimes he forgot what date and day it was and had to turn on the computer to figure out when he was scheduled to go back.

This was all very pleasant but it was not why Jonathan bought the cabin. Two months after the purchase he bought a laptop from a shady acquaintance. It used to belong to a man at the Hagis Old Peoples Home who died the week before. It came with a stick modem on contract with an ISP. He went up on the net with the laptop, researching. When he had what he wanted he took the machine with him on a long walk and buried it in the woods. The next time he was in town he convinced Emily to buy him a theater makeup kit when she was going off shopping. He made up a story that there were colors and dyes in the kit he wanted for his painting.

When he came back to the cabin a few days later he spent a morning practicing with the kit. All it really did was darken his skin and change the color of his off blonde hair to black but in his estimation, looking at himself in the mirror, it changed his appearance dramatically. After lunch he climbed into the car and drove two hundred miles east to a mid sized city where he bought a box of things from an electrical supply store and then drove back home.

When he got back he dug up the laptop and used it to break into the security schedule at the blue factory. There he found out that the management, under the relentless pressure from his family for more profit and thus less expenses, had taken to leaving the building unguarded between midnight and eight AM on Wednesdays and Thursdays. He also broke into the builder’s records and found out that in order to save money they had installed cheap, illegal, highly flammable insulation. Another hack gave him the route and time schedule for the Hagis police department’s graveyard shift. When this was done he went for another walk and buried the computer for good.

Two months later Emily woke up at three in the morning and found Jonathan gone. Thinking he was in the bathroom or kitchen she called out to him but there was no answer. Both worried and angry she got up and made herself a cup of herbal tea. While she was drinking her tea she heard Jonathan’s key in the door. He came in looking disheveled and breathing heavily as if he had been running.

“Where were you?” she asked.

“Out.” Jonathan replied.

“Obviously. But where?”

“For a walk.”

“At this time of the night?”

“I couldn’t sleep so why not?”

Emily looked at him suspiciously. She knew he wasn’t a philanderer so maybe he did go out for a walk but when he went by her to reach the other chair at the table she smelt smoke on his clothes.

“You smell like smoke,” she said.

“Someone was burning leaves.”

“In the middle of the night?”

“There are a lot of eccentrics in Hagis.”

This was true. But Emily doubted that one of them was burning leaves at three in the morning. Still, she didn’t want to grill him. If he wanted to be secretive, let him. They went on to talk of other things for a half hour and then went to bed.

Emily spent her mornings working at a daycare a block away from their apartment building. She had classes in the afternoon and ate her lunch at the student union building. The table she chose in the corner of the cafeteria had a copy of the local paper on it and after she was finished eating she picked it up. The front page had a half page picture of the charred remains of the blue factory. It had burnt to the ground overnight. She read the story. The Fire Chief said the blaze started at about two PM and most likely it was caused by an electrical malfunction. “These things happen,” said the Chief, a very Hagis thing to say. Some electrical malfunction Emily thought to herself but then again she supposed things could be made to appear as if they were an electrical malfunction. Jonathan sneaking around in the night, smelling of smoke.

When she arrived home that evening Jonathan had supper on the table. He was jumpy and distracted and she decided not to bring up the blue factory. Instead they talked of one of their favorite topics – the design of the house they would bring their children up in, for they had already decided to have children. They decided the house would have a wood stove, that it would be in the country and there would be a barn with pigs and chickens and perhaps a horse or two. This conversation seemed to relax Jonathan. It seemed to get his mind off something which was bothering him.

Later, after they went to bed, made love and were falling asleep, Emily said, “So, do you think I’m going to turn you in or something?”

“Of course not,” said Jonathan, “but you are a truthful woman and it is better you don’t know something you might have to lie about.”

Emily thought about this for a while and then she slid over to where he was curled up with his back to her and spooned him from the rear. “You know what I think, Jonathan?”

“No, Emily. What do you think?”

“I think our children are going to be very lucky for they will have a wonderful father.”

“Mother too,” said Jonathan and with that they fell off to sleep.