The pretzels, my god, the pretzels keep coming. They clatter down an aluminum chute into a box and I think my job is to tape up the filled boxes, quickly grab another and slip it underneath the never ending cascade of pretzels then hurl the full box onto the pallet behind me. I’ve been here a grand total of what, I glance at the clock, oh my god only four hours. Surely I can find a better way to feed myself than this. Tape the box, replace the box, place the box on the pallet. Some ungreased part squeak squeak squeaks incessantly and the conveyor belts shudder and clang and underneath the robotic pops and the clash of pretzel against iron, I hear snatches of human voices speaking in some language I can’t hope to place.
I shouldn’t be here. I swore that I’d never resort to using a temp agency again after I stumbled into a respectable (for once) job building concert stages. That is, until the foreman gathered us together in the warehouse, by the stacks of Metallica’s pale tombstones, and told us that times were tough for everybody in this economy and poof! my non-pathetic job was gone.
A tap on my shoulder. An Asian man with thinning grey hair jabs his finger at the large pile of boxes I’d stacked. Shouting.
“What?” The bum shuga shuga of the conveyor belts booms like a heavy metal bass line over his voice. I lean closer to him.
“You do wrong!” he yells. I don’t know what I do wrong. Nobody told me anything.
When I got here the pretty blonde at the reception counter smiled at me with red, pouty lips and asked me if I was Barry. “No” I said “Greg.” “Oh yes. Sign here”. She handed me a hairnet then led me into the production room. Her heels clicked with authority. “This is Craig” she said to a burly Asian dude. He grunted and led me to this station. The only instruction I’ve gotten is a few guttural noises, so I’ve tried to copy the woman next to me. She folds up the boxes and tosses them on the pallet with effortless grace all while telling apparently hilarious stories to the woman next to her.
“I don’t know what I’m doing” I say to him.
“You do wrong!” he says. “Like this!” he moves the boxes on the pallet around then points at them violently before storming off. I have no clue what he changed.
I glance at the clock again. Nobody has taken a single break since I’ve gotten here. That can’t be legal in America can it? Tape the box, replace the box, place the box on the pallet. I have to get out of here. I can’t take much more of this.
“No no no no! I say you do wrong!” he says, appearing out of the salted mist. He throws up his hands and looks around the plant floor. He walks away without another word. I turn back to the flood of pretzels. Tape the box, replace the box, place the – I feel a tap.
“Her you switch” he says with a heavy sigh. He brought a younger woman with him. He mutters a string of incomprehensible words to her. She giggles, then rips the box tape from my hands and pushes me out of the way.
“You done!” she says.
“You come! Come!” he says, storming off. I follow him through the clank of sorting machines as the hairnetted workers attack the boxes and jars of pretzels with the fiery passion of makeup sex. They shout to each other and laugh with each other in whatever language that is.
He stops by a large crate of plastic bins and a conveyor belt. He nudges the woman standing beside the crate and whispers into her ear. She smiles and begins peeling off her latex gloves. He points. Um?! He points.
“You here!” he says before stomping off. The guy in the station next to me shoots me furtive glances while he places stickers on plastic jars. I nod at him and he turns away.
From what I can gather my only responsibility here is to put empty plastic bins on a conveyor belt where a machine will then vomit a slew of pretzels into the bins. I put a bin on the belt. Then a second. After doing this a few times without the boss’s vampiric appearance, I think I may actually be doing it properly.
The machine whirr and the weird language swirls around my head and I watch the man next to me. He has wisps of grey hair, olive skin and slanted eyes. He knows the job so well he doesn’t even look at his hands. He stares into nothingness, almost looks happy. I don’t know how anyone can be happy here. There is so much more to life than this. Maybe I’ll walk off. I don’t need this stupid temp job, anyway. I spend the next hour or eternity dreaming about the cool air against my skin as I burst through the double doors, leaving this place in the dust until I feel another harsh tap. Oh god…
“It break time.”
“It break time!!!”
He grabs me by the arm and leads me to the break room. Two asian women stop laughing when they see us enter.
“You smoke? Outside. 20 minutes. I smoke.”
Well dammit yes I need a smoke thank you. I follow his lead outside to a tiny concrete bench. I sit in the flickering lights as clouds pass over the moon. I put my lighter to a cigarette. I can see my car just over there. How easy it would be to fling this hair net down and go home. I don’t need this. I have some money saved to tide me over until I find another job. But the more i think about it, I don’t think I can do anything else besides run around in circles of soul crushing jobs. That one glimmer the few years when I actually had a job I was proud of was only a false light in a sea of stupidity and pointless production line jobs. The smoke wafted over my head. It was only me and the old man out here. Silence.
“What you name?” he says.
“GREG” I say. He nods.
“What’s your name?” I say.
I don’t bother to ask him to repeat himself. I’ll never understand what he just said. Silence looms over us again. I stub out my cigarette.
“So where ya from?” I ask, hoping that he’d be less of a maniac if I buttered him up.
“Vietnam.” he says.
I dig a cigarette out of my pocket and don’t know how to respond.
“Me my family leave in 70’s.”
“Woah” I say.
After a few more minutes, he rises and stomps another second cigarette. “It 20 minute. We go in.”
I follow him to the door. He punches in the security code and opens the door for me, waving me in, eager to get back inside.