Portrait of a Robot, fiction by William Trent Pancoast

He doesn’t know how he got this way. Crazy, that is. Most things, you think about them long enough, you come up with an answer. All he knows for sure is that he got to work this morn­ing in his Chevy pick­up, the laun­dry is done, there are ham sand­wich­es in his lunch pail, and that next Sat­ur­day he gets to see his kids.

The draw die booms at the front of the line and he switch­es on the con­vey­or. Pan­els come, and it’s load, hit the but­tons, load, hit the buttons.

It seems nois­i­er than usu­al this morn­ing. They’ve turned every­thing up a notch again. Air hiss­es like angry snakes at his feet, scrap clat­ters down the chutes, the floor vibrates: squeal­ing, clang­ing, grind­ing, scrap­ing, shear­ing, the hun­dreds of press­es going to war.

He reach­es for the but­tons and a tremen­dous explo­sion brings him off his feet. He starts shak­ing, can’t help it, and turns off the con­vey­or. A 40-ton die has just been dropped by a crane twen­ty feet from him.

Could get squashed like a bug in here, like old Hen­dricks on the door line, got his head caught in a welder. Said it was suicide…Ha! …some­thing spooked him and he fell in.

Then he sees the fore­man charg­ing along the press line. The boss don’t scare this guy any. “Get me the safe­ty man!”

Turn that con­vey­or on.” The boss’s eyes are blood­shot from his night­ly drunk.

He feels his shoul­der twitch. No. Hit­ting him again might get him fired. Felt good the time he floored him, though. The boss looks up to the ceil­ing and acts real sad, like maybe he’s got prob­lems, too. “What’s the deal?”

He points to the die. “Get the line going and I’ll call safety.”

He thinks of Granddad’s farm for some rea­son. When they lived in that coal camp he used to hike back to the home place to see Gramps. If only the old man could be here. He’d know what to do with this place—maybe plow it under and start over.

Get the con­vey­or on.” He feels his shoul­der twitch again and it scares him. Boss takes him upstairs, he’ll get time off, just get behind in child support.

The fore­man shakes his head and walks away. Guess he don’t need trou­ble either. He turns on his belt and loads the pan­els, hits the but­tons, sinks into the rhythm.

At break he heads up to the lock­er room with Al. He downs most of the Coke he bought at the vend­ing area. Al grins and fills their cups from his bot­tle of bour­bon. Al was in his divi­sion in Korea. Nev­er knew him there, but it’s a sort of kinship—that and the fact they grew up not ten miles from each oth­er in South­ern West Virginia.

They sit watch­ing the black smoke curl out of the stack at the pow­er­house. The drink goes down easy. “Cou­ple them kids went home already. Dou­ble time and all they can think about is get­ting out of here.”

He shakes his head. “Nev­er been hun­gry, I guess.” Dou­ble time, though? That’s right! Today is Sun­day.

Al laughs. “Lit­tle brats don’t know what work is. Like to get ‘em out in the fields for a day.”

Al pours him­self anoth­er one and holds the bot­tle out. “I’m good,” he says and in a minute they ride the esca­la­tor down to the press room. As they split up he thinks about what Al said about work­ing the fields. He nev­er mind­ed that, even the tobac­co cut­ting. Come to think of it, those days sort of shine out from all the rest of his life.

He sets his drink on the greasy die shoe and pic­tures Grand­dad, Uncle John, Dad and him and the oth­er kids out there. It was always sweet and damp in the morn­ing. They’d be hot by noon, sweat­ing and hun­gry, but there would be lunch of beans and taters and corn­bread. Good thing, in a way, Korea came along and he got out of there before he went in the mines.

The drink eas­es the morn­ing along, and the noise can’t get to him; but the building’s vibrat­ing now. He always won­ders why it don’t fall down.

He wish­es he knew how he got this way. Depres­sive neu­ro­sis, the doc­tor always calls it. This time he’s going to make it, though. Got the best job anybody’d want. Made good mon­ey the last cou­ple of years when he wasn’t sick. He was going to quit, but the doc talked him out of it.

Wish­es he was still mar­ried. But it don’t do a bit of good to think back all them years to how it was. It’s him being crazy that did it. She and the kids just moved out one day while he was at work. All he ever done was try to make a living.

The doc fig­ured it was from Korea, some sort of delayed reac­tive neu­ro­sis. Guess so, but he is nev­er able to come up with any­thing real bad that hap­pened there. All he remem­bers from the last few months of being mar­ried is he was real tired and fell asleep in his chair every night.

Well…least he can retire in 12 more years. You work hard, you get what’s com­ing to you. Don’t know what he’ll do all day, though. Don’t do noth­ing now when he has a day off.

The lunch whis­tle blows and he shuts down the con­vey­or and press. All there is now is this loud hum from all the 440 elec­tric motors wind­ing down. He checks the meter—only eleven hun­dred more pan­els and they’re fin­ished. He grabs his lunch pail, buys a Coke, and heads upstairs to the lock­er room.

He’ll call the kids on the phone when he gets home today—that’s what he’ll do—make sure Tom’s keep­ing his grades up. Ain’t every­body can afford to send their kids to col­lege. He hopes Tom knows that.

William Trent Pan­coast‘s nov­els include WILDCAT (2010) and CRASHING (1983). His short sto­ries, essays, and edi­to­ri­als have appeared in Night Train, The Righteyed­deer, The Moun­tain Call, Sol­i­dar­i­ty, US News & World Report, and numer­ous labor publications.Pancoast recent­ly retired from the auto indus­try after thir­ty years as a die mak­er and union news­pa­per edi­tor. Born in 1949, the author lives in Ontario, Ohio. (more infor­ma­tion avail­able at williamtrent​pan​coast​.com)


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