He plunged into the subway entrance like a log down a waterfall, erasing himself from the world above. The train arrived on time and so did he. He stepped in, setting in motion his gradual alleviation from the burden of being. Each stop furthering his withdrawal. He swayed as the many around him swayed, numbed by the clatter of the rails, the low humming of the engine, the periodic chimes and voices of a station reached, the gush of wet air that would vacuum some, expel others, each in turn, the swaying, the clatter, the humming, the wet air, sway, clatter, hum, gush, sway clatter hum gush sway. The sounds forming a paste in his ears, sealing him from the world outside. He stared with eyes empty, and thought of the factory.
It is time. One last sway, against which he opposed no resistance, expelled him. Last stop. The car gutted itself, and the insides became a great autonomous mass. Moulded to apathy by the journey here, united by the will to remain will-less for a moment more, the crowd shifted and assumed many forms, yet did not separate. It moved forward almost hastefully. As if the weight of the mass was greater than the sum of its parts. Like a great heavy cloud appendaged with the great many beating legs of a centipede. Shifting. Lifeless. A soulless, slow moving beast making its way, aiming to surface from the underground, to be unleashed upon the world above.
Good morning, Jim. Good bye, Jim. The words dove deep into the soft quiet of his mind, stirring little on their way. The corner of an eye catching the last fleeting spark of a falling star. His mind shifted in its sleep, resolute not to wake. Jim walked on, only dimly aware of the moment as it passed. The air was cold outside and, as they exited the station and spilled into the streets, they remained one an instant more. As if clinging to the comforts of a collective womb. An imperceptible moment passed. Silence filtered through the crowd as motion ceased. They held fast. In the foggy distance, the clock tower announced quarter-to, with many resonating bells. The crowd dissipated.
Work. The bells triggered a series of motions that would eventually lead him to the Cog. In the quiet cold of the becoming morning, the meshing teeth of his rusty gears, although thoroughly inaudible under the commotion of breath, heart and guts, generated in him a soft empowerment of the legs to move against the reluctance of everyday life. He slowly set forth towards the chiming clock like a moth towards the moon, with as much abandon.
An indistinguishable mass of such mornings have led him to the factory. Repetition engraved a path, a sinewy river, through the stone and soft earth of his mind, that he had now only to follow. Motions. A ritual that had lost its meaning. As one would walk aimlessly through childhood alleys, and somehow always find home. He could feel the approach of the factory. It was, to him, as though the Cog irradiated some sort of warmth, a reminder of the sole event in his daily life that differentiated him from the lifeless forms, the automated souls that surrounded him at dusk, at dawn, like omens of his downfall.
His work was a drop of dye in an otherwise colourless world, and his body reacted strongly to its proximity. His walk, his gaze. Were one inclined to simply look. Were there anyone at all.
The factory had been built in a time of scarcity. It stood before him now, proudly, almost as a tribute to that era. Its straight lines of weathered red bricks, here veined by dark creeping vines, there interrupted by large windows of many panes. These rectangular alcoves of glass, although amply shattered, still, to this day, reflected some semblance of their once magnificence. The tepid newborn sun illuminated the last steps of his morning walk in many sparse shards of gold and crimson. One such window was his. And as the sight of it met his eye, a discreet, mostly inward, grin would always surprise his face.
He entered the factory, his motions exactly as yesterday, exactly as tomorrow, and found it empty. Quiet. His steps echoed long, as he made his way up the stairs, dislodging a few anxious birds nestled in the rafters above. Jim listened as they noised their discontent, pausing a moment as though to music, for the beauty of a sound, any sound, in the factory’s stale empty air. For the beauty of a sound that, for a moment, defied his solitude.
The room that housed the Cog, a spacious loft with a high ceiling, unvarnished darkened floors, resembled a vacant dance studio. Or so he wished to imagine. The rust-coloured bricks collected his shadow and transfigured it. The steel support beams watched on, standing guard, impassive, noble, rusting. On the floor, underneath the massive Cog, a circle of wear described his work. The engraved track in the rough floorboards, was the only real, tangible, demarcation of his progress, of his existence, over the last months and weeks. There had been no one to acknowledge his coming to work every day, to witness and measure his efforts over time. There had been no one to talk to.
His lunches were invariably spent staring out of his window, wondering which crucial enterprise, which major workings of the city before him, was benefiting from his work. He felt humbled and admittedly not a little ashamed by the opportunity given him to be significant, as well as by his lack of knowledge regarding even the broader strokes of his endeavours. In fact, outside of his daily task, he knew as little about his work as a working bee knows about the world, outside of flower and hive. Mostly, he did not allow this fact to tarnish his pride, his faith more than sufficed board the missing panes in his understanding.
As he finished his meal, his eyes wandered the length of the dead vines sprawled before him, casting shadows across across the floor. Distrustfully he stared on. Opposing his sanity to the thought that they might have continued growing since his first days. Quietly creeping beyond the grave, to darken, in ever so slight increments, his window on the world. At length, he went back to work.
In the mindless ritual of work, his mind would often wander back to his first days, as they had left a strange impression on him.
. . .
This, gentlemen, is the heart of the project, and this man, is its pulse.
The man who had spoken, walked forward, unfazed by the questioning glances. Jim recognized his voice from the phone. This was the proprietor of the factory. A tall, thin man whose build and manners much better suited a science laboratory than a factory. He shook Jim’s hand firmly, and stood examining him a short while as one examines a subway map.
Then, as though answering a question, the man simply uttered: yes, approvingly.
Glad you could join us, Jim.
Swiftly turning on his heels, the man made his way towards the centre of the room where the great mechanism stood, greeting the other men with a courteous bow as he passed. The man spoke with assurance as he addressed the room on the reason of their gathering.
The job, he explained, is simple, muscular.
The Cog, he continued, indicating the imposing contraption, similar to a ship’s wheel, only grossly oversized and laid horizontal, is to be pushed in a circle in order to rotate the massive wooden post standing at its centre. The post disappeared into the ceiling above. The subject of the Cog, the workings of which Jim could not begin to understand, was spoken about at great lengths, with many technical terms. His words carried a heavy significance, which the other men in the room immediately seemed to grasp. Jim witnessed their severe acquiescence with disconcert, and resolved to listen with regained attention.
This, the proprietor was saying gravely, is the most crucial part in an enterprise, the likes of which the world has never seen. With far reaching ramifications. All work is to be based on what will be accomplished here, in this very room, by this very man.
Jim wondered why he had been invited to this meeting. Very little of what was said was addressed to him. It seemed as though, unbeknownst to him, the interview had already taken place, and he had, without prior consultation, been awarded the job. Just why such a important position should be offered to him was beyond the scope of his understanding.
The owner of the factory concluded his speech by inviting the men to his office, where, as he put it, they could delve more comfortably into the details.
After all, nothing should ever stand between a man and his work.
With these words, he winked at Jim, and led the men out of the room. The door closed behind them, muffling their distancing steps. And then, quite suddenly, Jim stood alone. He turned slowly on himself to face the Cog. The great machine loomed, an intimidating presence at the centre of the room.
A task was assigned to him now. Very soon he would have to move. A simple task with such complex repercussions. Of such singular importance. Him! He stood still a while more, confounded, then took off his jacket. He had not expected to start work this same day. He circled around the massive Cog, trying to recall the words that had been attributed to it. Dry axle dynamics, three to one bearing loads, circular weightless gain… The words stubbornly refused to reveal further meaning. In the end, he would have to rely on what his eyes could gather, which was, quite simply, a large horizontal wheel with eight chest-height wooden arms affixed to a dense vertical wood beam. For a while, he studied the place where the post disappeared into the ceiling. Then, having no cause to idle further, he settled between two of the arms, and with one great heave initiated the first of the many, innumerable rotations to come.
The next morning he woke up early. A thought vibrant in his mind. He had dreamed of the factory. Of the committee observing him, judging his worthiness. Of the Cog. Much was unclear in his foggy morning’s mind. All but one thought. He had not been told which direction he was to turn the wheel. Yesterday’s rapid and most unexpected succession of events had confused him to the point of seemingly taking leave of reason. Jim had acted on instinct. He had settled between two rungs and had rotated the Cog counter-clockwise. Anxiety percolated from his pores. Instinct was alien to him. Up until that very moment, life had always been a controlled event, with measured choices and calculable outcomes.
The morning was well under way, and still wasn’t sure whether he was expected to work, much less what schedule he was meant to follow. The previous day’s work had left him exhausted. Empty of thoughts. Had his performance been judged satisfactory? So little guidance made him uneasy.
Half expecting a call, or a sign of some kind, he rushed through the motions of preparing for a workday. Ultimately, when nothing arose, he set off with the hope of finding someone there, who would answer his questions.
Arriving at the main entrance, he found the rusty gate ajar. This time, no one had come to greet him. As far as he could tell, the factory was empty. Not a sound could be heard but those he created. He walked up to the room. Alone again. Before him the enormous Cog stood, unmoving. Impartial to his many doubts.
After all, nothing should ever stand between a man and his work.
The words echoed in his mind, as his steps had, through the empty factory. He hung his jacket on a nail jutting from the mortar of the wall. Sunlight shone through the large window. The wood felt warm under his hands. The motion came naturally. He needed not think. With the first rotation, all doubts dissipated.
The job is simple, muscular.
He had found his place.
. . .
Little had changed since then. Except, maybe, the circle of worn wood under his feet. Regardless of the impracticality, chosen to wear the same three-piece suit he had picked-out for his fateful first day. Jim had not since been met at the door, he had not stood before any more committees, nor had he ever seen the proprietor of the factory again. To his knowledge, not a single soul had set foot inside the factory since then. No one had ever told him what to do, when to come in, when to leave. He performed a day’s work in a workday. The few unacknowledged suspicions he had fostered had been simultaneously substantiated and dispelled upon receiving the first of an infallible flow of bi-weekly checks. His salary, although never mentioned or negotiated, was many brackets above fair. To his endless amazement, he even received periodical raises, for his efforts. He dismissed his employer as eccentric and reminded himself to drown his confusion in gratefulness.
As months turned into a year, he had come to think of his loneliness, during the long hours at the factory, as a sacrifice of sorts. One he made willingly, as his modest contribution to the workings of the world. Much depended on him, after all. Much had undoubtedly been accomplished thanks to his work, and he drew much confidence in his strong constant contributions to the ambitious project.
Now another day had come to pass, trying to congeal the fog of the past into cohesive memories. Exhausted, Jim put his jacket back on, lingered a moment, watching the manifold refractions of the setting sun through his window, and then was gone.
© 2021 Etienne Robert. All rights reserved.