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Mid-Life Crisis
by Phil Geusz
Phil Geusz -- all rights reserved
 

Ka-Chunk, Ka-Chunk, Ka-Chunk...

Every four seconds the press cycled, ten tons of automated hammer falling onto another ten tons of anvil. Huge orange rails cycled endlessly in perfect time with the press, supporting fingered arms that grasped the naked steel and advanced it from station to station as the ram rose and fell.

Ka-chunk, Ka-Chunk, Ka-Chunk...

On good days the press sounded like the footsteps of some great dinosaur. On a bad one, however, it sounded like a funeral drum beating out remorselessly the seconds of my life. Each beat produced an anonymous little stamped part that would someday be welded to an equally obscure part of an auto frame, and each beat brought home to me that my job, my life, was of no more importance than did the parts I was stacking and racking at a furious pace.

Ka-Chunk, Ka-Chunk, Ka-Chunk...

The rhythm put you to sleep even as you slave and sweat, even as your hands grew sore and your wrists fired off warning flares of pain to come. So it was a welcome surprise when the voice of my partner finally came. "Got it, Phil."

"Okay," I answered as always. The only good thing about my job was that it was classified as very heavy labor, and thus I worked thirty minutes on and thirty minutes off with a partner. Such jobs were in high demand and I was lucky to have found one. Yet somehow in recent weeks the half-hour spaces of "dead" time often seemed more unbearable than the labor.

"Hey, Phil!" called out an old friend as I headed for my accustomed seat in its obscure and quiet corner, a place where I could usually count on being left alone. "What's new and different?"

I sighed, and forced a smile. "John! Good to see you! How's things back in Paint?"

He grinned widely. "Just not the same since you left. Of all the times to get the Flu..."

My friend John was referring to the fact that I had managed to contract a serious illness right at election time. Which quite naturally swept me out of office. My hard-line stands and tactics made me controversial to begin with, and without me there personally to shake hands and kiss babies, well...

"Has it been rough on you, losing your elected job?"

"Not really. In fact, I don't miss it at all." This had surprised everyone, including me.

"I keep hearing that. But you just seemed so sunk into your Union work..."

I smiled sadly. "Maybe that was the problem, John. Now that I've gained a little perspective on things, I realize that I didn't ever really care very much for representing people after all. I was doing it because others wanted me to, not because I wanted to for myself. Just because I was capable of doing a job doesn't mean that it was right for me."

John laughed. "Your replacement is having a very hard time. He keeps cutting deals, and management keeps asking for more afterwards."

I grinned back. "Just like I always said they would. It's far better to fight the bosses up front, and never even pretend to cooperate. Even if it does frighten the nervous Nelly types."

"You know," John continued, a speculative tone entering his voice, "There's an E-board slot opening up when Frank M'Benga retires next month..."

"I know," I replied, my voice dead. Suddenly, I very much wanted to go back to racking parts.

He smiled, trying his best to look friendly. "A bunch of us would like to see a Green Caucus guy filling that chair. Like you."

I sighed. How does one reply when being offered a tremendous honor that isn't even the slightest bit interesting? "John, really, I am very grateful that you would think of me, but..."

At this, John frowned. "What's gotten into you lately anyway, Phil? You used to be such a fireball! And now it's almost like you don't care about us anymore!"

You got it in one, I thought but didn't say. I just don't care about much of anything at all anymore. Especially my union's petty little political problems. "I'll think on it some, John, but..."

"...but you don't think you're interested. That's okay, Phil. I understand." It was clear from the disappointed look on his face, however, that he did not.

Then it was time to return to work again, time to resume stacking and racking, time to waste my life away in four-second increments.

Ka-chunk, Ka-chunk, Ka-chunk.


Lunchtimes were the worst. Because of the difficulties involved in starting and stopping the press, my team took all its breaks in one big lump, giving us an hour's break. Add onto that my half-on, half-off rotation, and I had ninety minutes of dead time to kill in the middle of each day. Usually I hid in a cafeteria booth with a nice thick book in front of my face, but often my co-workers failed to take the hint. Then I had to force yet another smile onto my features, and talk inane politics for a time until the clock freed me. But even when I pretended to read, my mind was cruising darker channels.

There is nothing quite so horrible as waking up one day to realize that you are mortal, and have been utterly wasting your life. It was the Flu that drove it home, in my case at least. Being diagnosed with a disease that carries a one-in-four mortality rate is no picnic. I stayed coherent long enough to ask for a lawyer to come help me make out a will, but lost consciousness before he finally arrived. The darkness, however, came too late to save me from the realization that I had no one to leave anything to, that there was no enduring cause I'd ever really believed in, that I had no real link to anyone or anything. Losing consciousness while so sick is a good facsimile of death itself, and I found myself facing Eternity unprepared, having in my entire lifetime accomplished nothing that I could even begin to consider of real importance.

What could possibly be a more sobering experience?

Ka-chunk, Ka-chunk, Ka-chunk...


The half-hour sessions of racking and stacking seemed interminable sometimes, too. On a bad day, when the parts were large and heavy, I handled nine tons of steel with my two hands...

... before lunch. This figure seemed incredible when a co-worker first informed me of it, and never grew less so even after I had personally achieved it many times. The aches and pains were bad at first, then lessened. But over time, the steady wear and tear of such labor replaced the original stiffness with a deep sense of perpetual fatigue. Eventually, as time allowed, I would be trained to operate the press itself, to set up and change out the massive fifty-ton die sets, to do quality checks. I was told that the steel-shop engineers were quite eager to work with me on any ideas I might have to improve things- the paint shop engineers had informed them that I was bright and worth listening to. And eventually, I would even get to operate the massive industrial cranes used to shift dies around the shop floor.

Whoopee.

I told them all to take their time, not to inconvenience themselves in scheduling my training. I was content just loading parts, I explained. Stacking and racking.

The special election for the e-board slot came and went. I wrote a nice letter of support for the Green Caucus candidate.

She lost.

Ka-chunk, Ka-chunk, Ka-chunk...


I was in psychological therapy, of course. Universal Motors offered an excellent benefits package, and therapy was always indicated for a Flu victim until he was past the common window for SCABS. Two more sessions, and then I would be released as one of the lucky ones who would get to remain who I'd always been.

You can't hide depression from a trained therapist, but with a little intelligent effort you can misdirect their instincts. I carefully dropped some quite subtle hints that the idea of becoming a Scab deeply terrified me. The counselor took the bait and focused our sessions on the subject, instead of what was really bothering me. It was foolish, I knew, but I was determined to work through my problems on my own. He and I talked for hours about the happy new lives that many SCABS patients had found, while most of my brain sat back and coldly ignored the proceedings. Yes, SCABS scared me some, but I knew the odds were very much in my favor. I had run far worse risks in my time.

It was in my everyday normal pointless life that I was drowning.

Eventually I mastered loading steel to the point that I no longer had to think about what I was doing. It was then that the days became truly endless, and my mind began to really dig in and examine my plight, began seeking out the point at which things had gone wrong for me. Finding the place where I had made the decision to exchange a real life for a well-paid rut. The experience wasn't pleasant. In fact, it was downright painful.

Because the more I thought about it, the more I realized what a fool I had been.

Ka-chunk, Ka-chunk, Ka-chunk...


One afternoon, I broke out in tears.

It was overdue, really, my final breakdown. All morning my co-workers had been asking for help in dealing with a real asshole of a supervisor. In times past, it would have been a piece of cake. I would have gone over his area of responsibility, and found things wrong. In his case it would have been easy- like most genuine assholes, he was utterly incompetent. Then, without ever mentioning his name specifically, I would have reported on these problems at various quality and safety meetings, making it a point to speak both eloquently and persuasively. Most of the problems I chose to comment on would be insoluble, though the higher-ups wouldn't realize this. If I couldn't come up with any insoluble ones, my friends on the shop floor could always be counted on to create some. He would spent more and more of his life inside the plant trying to get his act together under the most severe and subtle pressure I could arrange until he either quit, was fired, had a nervous breakdown, or developed sufficient intelligence to figure out why I was riding him and back off of my people. Any of these outcomes would solve my friends' problems, which was all I would have really cared about. It was a brutal business I had been in, brutal and undignified and heartless beyond any other I'd ever known.

And yet I had to admit that somewhere along the way I had developed a definite taste for the blood of assholes.

Which, I knew deep down, was part of my problem. The bottom line had been that only way I could be effective as a Union official was to be as devious and cunning and ruthless as those around me, and then find a way to go one step further. Most of my kind seemed to enjoy the game, to glory in the petty triumphs and miserable plotting that served as the invisible spider web which held Universal Motors together. But it had always merely sickened me, serving as a depressing background that ensured the quashing of every truly ethical decision, and the stillbirth of every genuine act of kindness. In the beginning I had tried to rise above the moral cesspool that was my factory, and in the cold light of day I had to admit that I had to a degree succeeded. But real life has the tendency to express itself in amorphous grays rather than the stark beauty of black and white, and I had indulged in my share of grayness. All along the way everyone, even management through their own sheer stupidity, kept pushing me towards darker and darker shades.

Why could I not be pure and clean, as I knew I had once been? How had I allowed my soul become so terribly stained?

How could I live

The tears began to flow freely then, but in the privacy of my loading area no one would see until my partner came to relieve me. I was too busy to wipe them away, and too upset to care. Why had I allowed myself to become a stalker of men's careers, a destroyer rather than a builder? For this seemed to be my role more often than not. I had chosen my targets carefully, I granted myself; even in my angst I knew that I had injured no innocents, never hurt the undeserving. But how had it become my part to always be the one to make the kill, to be the Green Caucus man sent when nasty work had to be done? To be the enforcer, the one with scalps on my belt and blood on my hands? And why did my friends keep pushing me to go on? Couldn't they see what I was turning into?

Didn't they care

When a child, I had been unusually gentle of nature. Somewhere along the line that had changed. It didn't matter one whit that I had gained the esteem and even trust of others through my selective nastiness, for my career had not made me happy. What was the value of anything, if it did not offer happiness? Purity? Love?

Why could I not be gentle again?

Parts began piling up on the table as the agony and rage built up within me. I was doubled over now, in mixed anger and pain over the wasted years. Wasted decades, even! Why must men age and die, pass from this Earth after having gained self-knowledge at such a terrible price? What a terrible waste!

Why must I be mortal, I asked myself. Why, when clearly only now, so late in life, was wisdom even beginning to dawn?

Then I realized that the agony was more than emotional, that the burning fire lay not only within my soul. There was a terrible twisting in my torso, and suddenly somehow I was on the floor.

In the distance, just as I blacked out, I heard the press fault out as it choked on its own output..

Ka-chunk, Ka-chunk, Ka-chunk, THUMP!

And then there was only silence.


I woke up white and furry, of course. And with a whole new outlook on life. Rabbithood will do that for you, if it accomplishes nothing else.

Especially when you have no human mind to interrupt the process.

But again I was one of the lucky ones; while still in the hospital I came around enough to use language, and thus become eligible for additional treatment. By that time my wordly goods had already been sold off in preparation for a clearly inevitable commitment to the Colonies, and the last well-wishing cards from friends and co-workers had long since quit arriving. I wasn't connected to the real world at all any more, and deep down wasn't sorry. I didn't even try to protest when the barred truck came for me; the videotapes with their soothing music and safe images of other happy bunnies snuggling and grazing peacefully in the sun had taken out all of what little fight lapiform SCABS might have left in me. The only precaution I took was to call a young lawyer to manage my remaining tiny assets, and to arrange to have her check back with me every six months. Covering my tail against treachery had been a professional habit of long standing, one that withstood even my sudden change of species...

This time, the old habit saved my soul. But that is another story...

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