Monday, February 18, 2008

Time Stops Here

Below is a story I wrote for a theme lit mag called The First Line. They give you the first line, you write a story from it. (This submission period's first line is in italics.) Needless to say, I didn't get this one published. (If I had, I wouldn't be able to post it here.) I suppose I could've reworked it and submitted it somewhere else, but for me, it's had its run.

I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed writing it.


Time Stops Here

In Pigwell, time is not measured by days or weeks but by the number of eighteen wheelers that drive past my house. So, my guess is when the factory shut down, time couldn’t help but stop.

Don’t it seem like nothing ever stops all at once? This place really ain’t any different. What happened here was more like the last puddle in a drought, though; it just gets smaller and smaller until there ain’t nothin’ left but mud. One month the trucks were flowin’ by—headed west with steel and wire and crates of who-knows-what; headed east with big boxes of stuff from the factory. The next month, the trucks were only headed east. Last time a semi went through here, it didn’t carry anythin’ but the innards of a man’s gutted future.

Pigwell never was great or sprawlin’ by anyone’s standards, but after the factory went belly-up, this town rolled over with it. Since pretty much everyone who lived here worked there, it wasn’t really any big surprise. At least not to me it wasn’t. I saw it comin’. All those people without any money, and the stores couldn’t help but dry up and blow away, like the dust of a ruined riverbed.

You know what they say: “Last one out’s a rotten egg.”

Looks like I’m gonna be the rotten egg in this one.

If I didn’t own the only bar left in this town, I probably woulda blown away like all the rest of ‘em. But no matter how tight a man’s pocketbook gets, it’s never so empty he can’t squeeze out a little cash to get himself tight, too. Like my daddy always said, “Booze don’t make the hurtin’ go away but it sure does lubricate the trip.”

I suppose when the money dries up completely, I’ll be outta here myself.

When Frank Petrie came here a dozen years ago and built his factory out in the scrubby fields, I bet he never saw this comin’. Of course, the Frank Petrie I met years ago wouldn’a been able to see it. He was so damn full of life then, he fairly crackled with it. The whole mess is too damn bad if you ask me. A man puts everythin’ he is into buildin’ his dream—into breakin’ out on his own—only to see it crap out on him; that, sir, is a horror no man should hafta face. Frank faced it for as long as he could, I guess, but finally, he couldn’t take it no more. I saw him leavin’ town a while back. He stopped in here for one last belt.

He wasn’t cracklin’ anymore; he was crawlin’.

The other day, Danny Watkins—he was Frank’s foreman once upon a time… Well, Danny was in here, sittin’ at my bar, doin’ his best to crawl into the bottom of one of my whiskey bottles. All of a sudden, he started goin’ on and on about how Frank Petrie was a crook, and how he’d screwed Pigwell. Before I knew it, I was mad as a wet cat. I cut him off of my booze, then I told him to get the hell out of my bar. That shut him up, and he got real sorry then, but he shoulda known better than to talk that kind of trash in my place. He’s banned for life. Well, he’s banned for as long as I own this place, which don’t look like it’s gonna be too much longer.

Don’t get me wrong. Danny was one of the only people left in town with money, but no amount of money from him or anyone else is ever gonna be enough for me to put up with that crap. Especially not in my own place.

After all, Danny Watkins’s kind of thinkin’ is what got folks into this mess in the first place, only they don’t know it. Don’t shake your head at me. I’ve had more than my fair share of time to think about it. It’s what killed the factory, and this hole some idiot christened Pigwell along with it.

What most folks don’t know is that a man can work himself damn near to death buildin’ something for himself and while he’s doin’ that, other people can work along with him—each profitin’ from it in their own way. Frank worked his ass off for that place. All the folks here, as long as they were willin’ to put in the work, got pretty comfortable off Frank’s place. Everything was goin’ fine until one day, those fools got to thinkin’ that because they worked so hard and all, they were entitled to somethin’ more.

Old foreman Danny got them all together and decided they were gonna ask the owner for a cut—their share of the money, they said. The damned fools didn’t know they were already gettin’ a cut every time they got a paycheck. I mean, Christ, half of them guys didn’t even graduate high school and they were makin’ more than some college fellas I know.

Well, this little… uh… idea of theirs came right after they’d all gotten their fat yearly raises, but the money still wasn’t enough. They saw the owner driving a Mercedes while they were driving Chevys; they saw him living in a big house in the valley while they were living in town. So, they figured they deserved a bigger piece of the pie. Of course, when they asked Frank he said ‘not yet’. He wouldn’t have minded, but it wasn’t the time for spendin’ money. Seems he was waitin’ for a big order to come through, and he had to sink every spare penny into buyin’ raw materials.

Did anyone here think of that? Nope. Everybody at that meeting came back to town and what they’d heard him say was ‘No’; he didn’t say ‘No’, mind you, he just said ‘not yet’, but that wasn’t what they heard. Or maybe they heard him right and just didn’t care.

The next day, the whole lot of them got together—right here in my bar—and after a dozen beers, they hemmed and hawed and belched and burped, and when it was done, they’d voted to go on strike. Then they all patted each other on the backs and staggered home to sleep, or to pass out, or whatever those idiots do when they’ve drunk themselves stupid.

Now, they didn’t strike right away. No, they waited until the moment was perfect; when they could do the most damage. It was right about the time when the factory was due to fill that really important order, actually. Then, the whole crew walked away from the line. Before Frank even had a chance to blink, they sent Danny up to the office with a list of what they said they needed, and one demand: pay up or else.

What the hell was Frank supposed to do when they had him by the short hairs like that? He melted quicker than a snowman in April. The whole lot of them got raises, better bennies, longer vacations. Jesus, they were livin’ like kings. Some of them guys were makin’ twice what I was makin’, and I owned my own place.

Lucky for them, the order got out on time, and the company got paid for it. But in the end, the company paid for it—if you know what I mean.

Before anyone knows it, the factory is slowly bleeding to death, and I’m ashamed to say, a lot of their blood was seepin’ into this place. I’m not complainin’ about that part, mind you. I’m just sayin’.

Then, all the boys from the factory start showin’ here up at any time of the day. I asked Hank—he worked on the assembly line—what he thought he was doin’ playin’ hooky in the middle of the day, and he just winked at me. Another one of the boys told me they could do whatever they wanted and if Frank had a problem with that, they’d make sure to hold up some orders, just to teach him who was really boss.

It wasn’t long after that the trucks stopped and time petered out for Pigwell.

I don’t expect to be here much longer. Most folks who had any sense have headed out, looking for wetter places to put down roots. Hell, I heard even Danny went east to find work. And old Hank? Last I heard, he’s moppin’ floors at some place up near the city, makin’ half of what Frank was payin’ him, even before the big strike-raise.

Me? Oh, I’m headed out, too. Time is stoppin’ in too many places around these parts. Too many other Franks are getting’ showed who’s boss, I guess. I heard tell of a place somewhere up in the mountains where things aren’t so bad. Maybe I can open another bar; put down roots of my own, you know. Maybe I can go up there to wait it out, and hope time starts back up again.

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