The final summer I worked the mill, I spent most of my twelve hour shifts in the farmpost department. “Upriver,” we called it when I was “down below” in the merchant, highway, shipping, and milling departments the previous years. “A whole nother world,” I’d tell Steph during downtime, which didn’t say much, but more than I’d intended. A different place entirely, though it still ached and clogged with steelscale and chewing tobacco, cigarette butts, and Dr. Pepper bottles. Discarded soles from soggy steel-toed boots insulated the crimped aluminum universe. I carried my own self with me, just as down below, wondering each day what relationship means, what love implies, whether or not the future exists. Meanwhile, even upriver occasionally, someone would piss in a steel drum and call it humor. “Blame it on the rain,” they’d say.
Farmpost is all rotating assembly line* that shuts down for fifteen minutes twice a day, between shifts, but runs for the rest of your life. You work a half hour per station, then bump over to the next spot—every two hours and fifteen minutes, a spell hand taps you on the shoulder for a quarter hour in the break room. The station that comes to you in your sleep is hooking: threading a green-paintclumped hook through the top hole of the four-, five-, or six-foot farmposts. Forty-two bars per minute. Half an hour at a time. The math won’t interest you on the line, and there won’t be enough daylight to burn on a calculator after your shift, so you’ll never sit and figure how many bars per station, how many bars per shift, how many bars per summer, how many bars per lifetime of a committed steel-mill worker: six twelve-hour days a week, fifty weeks each year. You won’t even stop and think, That’s a lot of life to put into a pile of metal.
I threaded bars through hooks in my dreams that summer. Each night, reliving high school glory, the hardwood drop-steps came to my left hand, while my right passed a hook through the eye of a bar. Or I would drown in the river of my dreams, reaching above the surface to hook my final bar, then my next one, then my next one. Or I would resolve an old quarrel with my sometimes-girlfriend, my one pointer finger and thumb targeting all the things she’d said and done, the other pointer and thumb hooking just one more bar, then just one more, then just one more. At the same time, my dreams spilled into my days, and on the one free evening a week I would try to make love to Steph or at least fuck her or just say the things that would keep her in love with me long after I’d fallen out of love with her, reaching out to hook a post then the next one then the next one. Steph, I’m sorry. Steph I’m sorry. Steph I’m sorry. Try saying that forty-two times a minute for twelve straight hours—the obsession goes both ways, home from work, work from home.
After you climb the three steps to the farmpost-hooking station, you tap Bubba on the shoulder. He knows you’re there before you do, already standing from the tattered, dust-stained office chair rolling across the pallet. Not too shy to tap his watch if you’re twelve seconds late. He’s all caught up, hasn’t fallen behind in years: a table full of thirty-odd bars, the quarter-mile diptank-line hooks pulling the holes off the edge to swing and steady and glide into the diptank, then through the furnace to burn the paint on. Bubba’s conscientious about spitting his chew clear of the platform and table and anywhere you might set your Gatorade, and secretly you thank him, though you still give him meanface to disapprove nasty habits. You glide into the chair and yank the arms ahead to the table, usually knocking your hard hat, your safety glasses, your forearm, your coffee, or your genitals against the table, a post, the line itself, or some other part of your body—hooking as you go. Forty-two bars per minute doesn’t give you time to crack your knuckles and say to yourself, “okay, let’s do this.” Bubba pushes a bar forward on a hook, reaches his left hand to raise a post as you push the hook with your right hand through the top hole, then you’re on your own, sore dick and all, urinary tract infection or not, bloated, gassy, unwashed from last night’s unprotected sex, wishing you hadn’t spilled the garlic butter on your jeans this morning, daydreaming about the new Shih Tzu curled in a puppy-shitted newspaper palace back at your apartment. There you are. Post hook push post hook push post hook push.
That was a decade ago, and still I reach from time to time in my dreams to get the eyes threaded, the bars caught up, even if it’s student evaluations cruising across my table forty-two Scantrons per minute. My five-year-old daughter chewed a Pop-Tart into a triangle this morning and called out, “Look, it’s a mountain. I can see everything. I can see everything,” and it’s easy to see how difficult perspective is to learn. To look from a mountain would be to see no more, necessarily, than to look through a microscope. To look from a mountain would give us no greater understanding of the past or acceptance of the future than glancing up from the bottom of the river at the bottom of a valley. To look from a mountain would only be to see differently, a greater distance, a greater range, nothing more important or more full of meaning, a different kind of detail.
Sometimes perspective happens like this: the corrugated aluminum wall fifty yards away gives out and tips onto the road uphill; the driverless tow motor floats across the concrete floor; Steph drifts past, a rusted and burnt-through steel drum translating the motion of the farmpost line. Or so it seems—given the forty-two hooks flashing by you—just as, outside the mill, a building or a crane or a flagpole seems at times to be coming right at you because a moronic cloud drifts by a mile overhead. You snap to in time to notice six of the farmposts gathering at the end of your table. Doesn’t matter how perfectly you’ve posted, hooked, and pushed, life sometimes gathers up against you, so you grab a mallet, kick the roller chair back, pound the tracks, listen as the chair crashes off the pallet into the sheet metal wall, shake the hooks—the farmpost line jolts to a stop if these bars tangle and catch, and all ten stations feel it, all ten stations stop, and you become the fucking asshole, “How long,” your crew chief will ask, “have you been here anyway?”—shake the posts, shake the mechanical misfire out of the table with your right hand. Meanwhile, your left hand will unwittingly post hook push post hook push. Until you’ve caught your rhythm. Except now you’re twenty bars behind and can’t sit down, bent over this giant bicycle chain of your life. Post hook push. At best you can gain four hooks per minute, so you push for an eternity just to slow back down to forty-two bars per minute.
The question of futility is constant. What if I quit? What if I walk the hell out? Would I die? Who would I let down, and how the hell could I get another job? The frustration sometimes made me shake, mad at an economic system that cares only that the diptank can handle forty-two bars per minute, rather than for the people who can’t recognize their anxiety for the river of hooks they’re drowning in. The frustration sometimes made me laugh, Ah, Jesus, I’m a dipshit. Sometimes I’d get a boner, thinking about the paycheck that would buy the beer that Steph and I would sweat out post hook push beside the boxfan post hook push on hi post hook push as we post hook push fumbled post our hook clothes push off, trying to fuck and/or stay in love, our pasts tangling on crumbling crud-covered hooks, pinching against themselves at the end of the table, catching in chains, and us, fighting like hell to stay in love or fall to pieces, never quite knowing how to let go.
*…shake down the bars that the tow motor sets on the horses after you cut the banding, watch your dick, those studded t-bars will roll, get the ends even on the canvas conveyor belt, let them roll, space bars evenly in the zipper table, watch your fingers as the bars ride the hard rubber waves toward the next station where you place plates nine to twelve inches from this end of the bar, get them snug or the bar will scrap, not too snug or the plate press will jam, shutting down the assembly line for hundreds of bars—imagine a line between that bolt three feet to your left and that bolt three feet to your right and space the bars such that the hole near the end would thread that line, so the next station can hook bars quickly and easily onto the limp, disfigured, paint-thickened hooks cruising along at a standard forty-two bars per minute, evenly spaced, through the diptank in order for the next station to shake down the hooks onto the cooked conveyor belt, evenly of course, for the next station to stack bars five at a time—plate-to-plate, stem-to-stem, plate-to-plate, stem-to-stem, plate-to-plate—step the binder, shoot the load down the rails, call out to the next station, “Watch your dick,” to catch bundles of five studded, punched, plated, painted, and baked farmposts off the waxed rails and stack the bundles on the table one, two, reverse the table, one, two, reverse, one, two, reverse, one two, reverse, one, two, reverse, next stack: one, two, reverse . . . but there are two catching stations, so trade sides and catch the bundles, one, two, reverse . . . then it’s back to shake down the bars…[return]
Jackson Connor lives and writes in Athens, Ohio. His work has recently appeared in River Teeth, AGNI, and Stealing Time. (updated 10/2013)