Photograph by Al Sevener
An excerpt from When Strangers Meet at Devil’s Elbow, a novel by Randy Evans (copyright 2017, Little Traverse Press)
“. . . have to stop your pay on Friday.”
The personnel manager had said more, but the unexpected news shocked Rebecca Randall so much that she only registered part of his last sentence. She sat still and silent on the other side of his large desk with her hands folded in her lap. He peeked up from his paperwork, like a voyeur, to see her facial expression, thinking, nothing more than a widening of the eyes. Most people had nothing to say, but you could tell a lot from their faces.
You bastard, you fired me! Better keep quiet. He’s an idiot. She lowered her head. He lowered his.
As the grandson of the company founder, Harrison Kindig had sifted down to the paperboard mill’s lowest management position. Most of the time, he felt like an actor faking the playing of a musical instrument. People rarely asked him for advice. Most of the time, he sat alone in one of the few closed offices. He filled the time mumbling or thinking random thoughts. He hated to lay off office people, because he knew he might be next.
“Oh, I knew our days were numbered when the Clean Water Act passed . . . we had to stop making colored paperboard . . . so the dye spilled the Kalamazoo River with bright colors for a few days. Muskegon Orange was our best-selling shoebox board!”
He peered out of his floor-to-ceiling cubicle window at the long rows of gray desks occupied by accountants and schedulers sitting at odd angles like gravestones in a cemetery. He glanced down at a globule of pancake syrup sticking to a liberty bell on the bicentennial tie he’d worn every Friday for nearly forty years. He wore short-sleeved shirts even in the winter. He had foregone long-sleeved shirts since the day a supervisor caught his long sleeve in the rotating blades of the pulp beater at the wet end of the board machine. By the time the poor man arrived at the dry end, he had become a sheet of paperboard. Only his belt buckle survived the city-block long machine. Harrison used the buckle to make a safety poster, until people complained, and began to call him an idiot.
Rebecca’s dismissal at the mill had come out of the blue, abrupt—like sudden death. She fixed her eyes on Harrison’s orange pocket protector bulging out from his dull-laundered shirt. Then came a scream—high and loud and long. The scream went on and on, until she uncle chef her hands and clamped them over her mouth. She looked at the pear-shaped personnel manager in bewilderment. Where had the scream come from? How far had the sound traveled? Had the sound penetrated walls to the outer office? Had people heard the scream in the break room or the parking lot?
Harrison looked shivery white. He kept opening and closing his mouth, at a loss for words.
Finally, he said, “Okey Doke.” He spilled coffee on his paperwork as he reached for the phone to call security.
When her mother died Rebecca hadn’t screamed or even cried. When her brother died, she hadn’t either. Not when her father had picked up and left town for good. But today she had screamed, as if losing her job had been a fate worse than an overload of death or fear of abandonment. Hours later after returning to her apartment, she still couldn’t speak or move. Her routine had been altered. Her orderly and quiet life disrupted. She had worked at the paperboard mill since graduation from high school. What would she do next? She wondered.
Rebecca sat upright on a red vinyl kitchen chair, a remnant of her dead mother’s kitchen. In the dull morning light, she faced the sooty factory window of her loft apartment. Her coffee pot gurgled on the counter. If anyone had been present, and had asked what seemed to be troubling her, she would have pulled at her long and straight brown hair, and said, “Oh, nothing.”
For a decade, Rebecca had come home every morning from the night shift to eat breakfast at the diner across the street from her apartment, and then drop into a nest of pillows on her small bed, pet her cat and cuddle her stuffed bear. After four hours, she would rise and shower to work her day job at a nearby nursing home.
But this morning, Rebecca couldn’t sleep. She edged her chair closer to the window. Her breath made small circles on the cold window panes. She felt stiff from sitting. When she had arrived from the mill into the cave-cold apartment an hour earlier, she had turned up the thermostat and sat down. Now she felt a bit dizzy. She needed air and light. Soot from the mill smokestack had silted her windowpanes like a gauzy veil. For the first time, she counted the panes in the old industrial window—sixteen grimy panes obscured by a hundred years of sloppy paint jobs on the grids.
Rebecca used both hands to raise the latch, and pushed open the hinged casement. The reluctant latch groaned. Pale morning light and a cold breeze filled the kitchen. She opened her eyes wider and took a deep breath. Spring would soon be here. A whirr of pigeons wings flapped above her. She ran a restless finger across the dust on the window sill, and watched dustballs fly away. She tried again to fathom the devastating news of the day. She knew others would take what happened as entirely common—who hasn’t lost a job? Maybe she would have handled herself better if she had been given more notice, she didn’t know.
Rebecca could only think in tiny thought fragments. Bits of nursery rhymes and pieces of her dead mother’s admonitions drifted in and out of her mind as she sat back down on her kitchen chair. Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall . . . think positive . . . all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty together . . . had a great fall . . . take a deep breath . . . think positive . . . the itsy bitsy spider climbed up the water spout. She swallowed the bird to catch the spider that wiggled and wiggled and tickled inside her. . . . honey, life isn’t fair . . . nothing’s for certain . . . down came the rain and washed the spider out. When you’re older you’ll be glad you have long legs. Most women dream of having long legs. Makes you look statuesque.