He plunges into the subway entrance like a log down a waterfall, erasing himself from the world above. The train is on time and so is he. He steps in, setting in motion his gradual alleviation from the burden of being. Each stop furthering his withdrawal. He sways as the many around him sway, 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 stares with eyes empty, and thinks of the factory.
It is time. One last sway, against which he opposes no resistance, expels him. Last stop. The car is gutted, and the insides have become a great autonomous mass. Molded to apathy by the journey here, united by the will to remain will-less for a moment more, the crowd shifts and assumes many forms, yet does not separate. It moves forward almost hastefully. As if the weight of the mass were 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 dive deeply 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 shifts in its sleep, resolute not to wake. Jim walks on, only dimly aware of the moment as it passes. The air is cold outside and, as they exit the station and spill into the streets, they remain one an instant more, as if clinging to the comforts of a womb. An imperceptible moment passes. Silence filters through the crowd as motion ceases. They hold fast. In the foggy distance, the clock tower announces quarter to, with many resonating bells. The crowd dissipates.
Work. The bells trigger a series of motions that would eventually lead him to the Cog. In the quiet cold of the becoming morning, the meshing teeth of the rusty gears, although thoroughly inaudible under the commotion of breath, heart and guts, generates in him a soft empowerment of the legs to move against the reluctance of everyday life. He slowly sets 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 has engraved a path, a sinewy river through the stone and soft earth of his mind, that he has now only to follow. Motions. A ritual that has lost its meaning. As one would walk aimlessly through the alleys of his childhood, 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 the light 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 was built in a time when materials were scarce. It stands, proudly, almost as a tribute to that era. Its straight lines of weathered red bricks are here veined by dark creeping vines, there interrupted by square monuments of glass. These large paned windows, although amply punctured, still, to this day, reflect some semblance of its once magnificence, illuminating the last steps of his morning walk with its many sparse shards of the bright newborn sun. One such window was his, and as the sight of it met his eye, a discreet grin would always surprise his lips, although he was never quite sure which came first, or whether it mattered.
He would enter the factory and find it empty. Quiet. His steps echoing long, as he made his way up the stairs, dislodging a few anxious birds nesting in the rafters above. Jim would listen as they noised their discontent, pausing a moment as though to music, for the beauty of a 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. On the floor, underneath the massive Cog, a circle of wear described his work. This engraved track in the maple floorboards, was the only real, tangible demarcation of his progress over the months and weeks. Of his existence. There had been no one to acknowledge his coming to work every day, to witness his efforts over time. There had been no one to talk to. His lunches were spent staring out of his window, wondering which crucial enterprise; which major working of the city before him was benefiting from his work. How much of it was made possible by him. He felt immensely proud that his work was altering the know world. Only he did not know precisely how. Nor even was he aware of the broad strokes. In fact, outside of his daily task, he knew as little of his work as a working bee knows of the world, outside of flower and hive. And although he would never acknowledge it, this somewhat tarnished his pride.
As he finishes his meal, his eyes wander the length of the dead vines sprawled before him, casting shadows across his window to the world. Distrustfully he stares 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 outlook on the world. At length, he goes 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 built and manner would have been better suited to a science laboratory than a factory. He shook Jim’s hand firmly, and stood examining him a short while.
Then, as though answering a question, the man simply said the word “Yes”, approvingly. “Glad you could join us Jim”. Swiftly turning on his heels, he made his way towards the centre of the room where the great mechanism stood, greeting the other men as he passed them, with a short bow. He spoke with assurance as he addressed the room on the reason of their gathering. The job, he said, was simple, muscular. The Cog, as he called it, a horizontal contraption similar in shape to a ship’s wheel, was to be pushed in a circle in order to rotate the massive wooden post that stood at its centre. The post disappeared into the ceiling above. The subject of the machine, the workings of which Jim could not begin to understand, was spoken about at great lengths, with many technical terms. The words seemed to carry 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 said, was to be the most crucial part in an enterprise, the likes of which the world had never seen. With far reaching ramifications. All work was to be based on what was accomplished here, in this very room, by this very man.
Jim wondered why he had been invited to this conference. Very little of this was addressed to him. In fact, it seemed as though, unbeknownst to him, the interview had already taken place, and the job had, from the start and beyond the trace of a doubt, already been his. He was humbled into silence. Why such a significant 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 he was to explain everything in detail. “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. An intimidating presence.
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, then took off his jacket. He had not expected to start work this same day. He circled around the great Cog, trying to recall the words that had been spoken about it. Circular dynamics, dry axle bearings, three to one weightless gain… His observation revealed nothing to him but a large wheel with eight chest-height wooden arms affixed to a dense 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 push started the first of the many, many rotations to come.
The next morning he woke up early. A thought vibrant in his mind. He had dreamt 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. Instinct. 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 so, that he had seemingly taken leave of reason. Jim had acted instinctively, as the hands of a clock turn. This thought made him anxious. Instinct was alien to him. Up until that very moment, life had always been a controlled event. With measured choices and calculable outcomes. Then, in the sharpness of angst, he moved forward and began contemplating the day at hand. The morning was well underway, and he knew not whether he was expected at work, nor even, for that matter, whether he had been granted the position. Had his performance, based solely on instinct, been judged satisfactory? So little guidance made him uneasy. The previous day’s hard work had left him exhausted. Empty of thoughts. There was no precedent to this.
Half expecting a call, or a sign of some kind, he rushed through the motions of getting ready for work. Ultimately, when nothing arose, he set off with the hope of finding there someone who would answer his questions.
As he arrived at the main entrance, he found what he had dreaded.
The rusty gate was slightly open. 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 went to the room where no committee awaited. Alone again. With, before him, the Cog. Unmoving. “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 took off his jacket.
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 was simple, muscular.
He had found his place.
. . .
Little had changed since then, he thought. Except, maybe, the circle of worn wood under his feet. Regardless of the impracticality, he had worn the same three-piece suit he had chose for the interview. Almost ceremoniously. 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 memory, he had not seen a soul inside the factory since his first day. 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. He received, by mail, a check every two weeks as well as several raises over time, for his efforts. But never a word had been spoken. He came to think of the loneliness he felt during his long hours at the factory as a sacrifice. One he made willingly. In the name of progress. Much depended on him. Much had no doubt been accomplished thanks to his work. He felt confident in his strong constant contributions to the project.
The memories of his first days were hazy now. Now another day had come to pass, trying to remember. A day that had left him feeling tired. He put his jacket back on, watched for a moment as the sun was setting in the distance, and then was gone.