The 'J' Machine
A Short Story by Jeremy Benjamin
Written using the suggestion "Sales"
Originally featured on 11-07-2008
As part of our series "Holiday Fiction Drive (The Things Holidays Drive People To, The Things Holiday People Drive)"

Todd was working the swing shift on a Thursday when he first became acquainted with the Zylo man. Todd punched five pilot holes into each batch of pre-formed sheet metal skins — still warm from their previous operation — measured out the distances with a T-square, clamped them down, tightening with pliers, and then stepped back behind the orange line and pressed the black button. While the machine ran, he vigilantly watched the pressure dial with one eye and the sheet metal skins (for some reason, his crew had adopted the nickname Zylos to refer to them by as of late) with the other, just in case he had to press the red button. In seven years, Todd had never pressed the red button.

He was covering for Plasky because Plasky had a “family emergency” to attend to. Plasky was full of BS, but Todd didn’t mind taking an extra shift; he liked to keep his friends buried in personal debts to him at all times, which was no different to Todd than money in the bank. Besides, he had nothing better to do on a Thursday night. Only three employees were certified to operate the “J” machine; Todd, Plasky and Spanky Jansen, and it would be a white Christmas in hell before Spanky Jansen volunteered himself to work swing shift. Spanky was not old enough to talk about retiring, nor was he old enough for jokes about his looming retirement to be funny, but he was old enough that failure to piss every three hours and go to bed at Nine O’Clock every night would be no less dangerous than getting hit by a truck. That left Todd.

The shop floor got twenty degrees colder after Four O’Clock — when the buzzer went off — and the temperature drop happened all at once. Anybody not rushing for one of the five doors to the parking lot at the instant it turned Four O’Clock experienced a chill that was like a sucker punch from inside the bones. Even the two new automated re-circulating CNC rigs that ran all night seemed to balk for a moment between the two work shifts, fluids slowing down to readjust themselves.

By three minutes after Four, everybody from the previous shift had gone home, and the last fading roar of pickup trucks exiting the factory parking lot could be heard. At Four O’Five, the hum of air compressors became eerily prominent against the cyclic sounds of the CNC machines, which sounded like amplified digestion. Working in Dispo #3 was like living inside the intestines of a giant.

There were no forklifts careening through the isles, no pleasant receptionist’s voice paging department liaisons over the intercom, and no yelling and cussing during swing shift. Todd would never admit it — because he liked the company to feel grateful for his work ethic, for the same reasons he liked to keep his friends in debt — but he loved working swing shift. He loved it with a feeling that was no different than his love for men’s magazines (the ones where big-breasted women posed with power tools) and cheap beer (the kind that filled the glass with a puff of foam before the first drop landed).

“You should go home, Todd,” said the Zylo man. The voice did not startle him. It sounded no different than the cacophony of noises emitted naturally from the various pistons and turbines of the “J” machine, except that it formed consonants and vowel sounds that only a human tongue and teeth could produce, and it was intelligible English.

As he moved a stack of warm skins from the basket to the mounting table, it occurred to him that a rational man would be sprinting to the emergency exit behind inventory right about now, and would not stop running until they reached the nearest psychiatrist’s office. He imagined Plasky’s reaction to hearing the Zylo man; Plasky would scream. Plasky would be reduced to hysterical ramblings before any air made it to his lungs, and would run in circles hollering shrill, incoherent fictions about his lawyer or the ghost of his ex wife’s murdered dog or something. Todd normally delighted in his fantasies of Plasky coming disgracefully unglued, but right now he was focused on the “J” machine with the concentration that only the solitude of swing shift offered.

“Who are you?” Todd said nonchalantly to the Zylo man as he continued to de-burr the sheet metal skins.

“A source of information. Only that, Todd,” said the Zylo man. “Information pertaining only to what is best for you.”

“Are you a ghost?” Todd said distractedly with his mouth full before spitting a whale of chewing tobacco into the nearest Shop-Vac.

The Zylo man’s voice seemed to ambulate in a rotating halo halfway between the roof and Todd’s shoulders, echoing only on certain syllables as it passed under air ducts. “How very pedestrian of you. Do you really think, Todd, that anyone owes you favors?”

Outside the shipping docks the sun was expiring, and cast long stringy shadows onto the yellow and black striped paint on the floor. Todd’s chest tightened.

“Are you God?” Todd asked, looking intently at the pressure dial on the machine.

The Zylo man did not respond. Todd continued processing skins. Four hours and twelve minutes later, Todd removed his gloves and apron, tossed his greasy earplugs in the wastebasket and ambled to the time clock with his ID card drawn. Outside it was dark. Todd looked behind him every fifth step as he made his way to his motorcycle. The doors to the loading docks sparkled under a cheap and tawdry moon the color of phlegm in a toilet bowl. The drive home felt like nothing. After the ambient vibrations of the “J” machine powered down, his skin rejected other sensations.

As the days progressed, Spanky Jansen grew more frail and Plasky wove webs of BS that were a source of constant entertainment. Plasky’s wife had divorced him five years ago after he shot and killed her dog as an act of revenge for inflicting the permanent bite scar on his left thigh. Plasky was now married to the lawyer who had won him custody of his fourteen-year-old son who was always in trouble. Everybody in Dispo #3 was audience to a distinctly different explanation for the scar on Plasky’s left thigh.

Plasky was most animated when recounting daily tales of his son’s victories in schoolyard scuffles with bullies. During Ten O’Clock smoke break, when the workers all gathered to chuckle at Plasky’s dramatizations over Pepsi and tobacco, Spanky Jansen would lean against the wall with his arms folded and regard Plasky sternly. A couple times a week, Spanky would jump up like a bubble of bacon grease in a frying pan and interject to one-up Plasky with a story of Spanky junior’s misdeeds, always starting with “There ain’t no discipline today. I remember the time when…” and ending in a sermon on the corruption of the day’s youth and the decline in working class American values.

Todd’s mind drifted to the ladies he imagined drinking coffee in the human resources office, wearing high heels, gray suits and hair bands. He wondered if they spent their fifteen-minute-breaks regaling each other with proud boasts of their daughters’ adventures in deploying mind games to squeeze the egos of boys into malleable puss.

Todd had favors in the bank. They could collect interest until they rotted.

Todd had been applying for a transfer for the past four months — since the night the Zylo man first spoke to him — and now he worked the swing shift every Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday. Every day Todd took walks along the lake and thought of things he wanted to say to the Zylo man, should they be afforded another chance to converse. Every shift, Todd listened carefully, but the Zylo man did not present himself. He filled notebook after notebook with inky run-on sentences of all the things he wanted to say to the Zylo man, wanted to ask the Zylo man. He saved them all.

Dogs’ teeth punctured skin. Lawyers did their thing. Boys punched other boys. Girls did whatever girls do. Cigarettes were smoked. Coffee was imbibed. The buzzer sounded and work resumed. Summer faded into winter. All the while, the “J” machine made permanent impressions on sheet metal skins. Sometimes Todd wanted to act out the “J” machine’s motions with heroic exaggeration to an audience of chuckleheads.

He had forgotten about the Zylo man until he approached the door with a hopeful tangle of muscle fibers in his back. It was a Wednesday night at the beginning of springtime. The trees outside stretched their atrophied limbs toward the moon, and all the kinks were audible as faint crackles.

“When you open that door,” said the Zylo man, in a voice that sounded exactly like a weak wind if wind had a human mouth and Anglo-Saxon bearing, “imagine where you wish to be, and find yourself there.” Todd loved swing shift and cheap beer.

Over the next seven years, Todd would never press the red button.

Read More By Jeremy Benjamin

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