The boss held his newborn son, nude and dripping, to the lamplight. Like a sort of skinned squirrel, wrinkled, purple and red. The boss turned to his wife, pale and spent amidst the white sheets. “He’s much smaller than I expected,” the boss finally said.
Smoke uncoils out the factory’s ten smoke stacks and the darkness spreads over the town. Children call their black sand castles “coal castles” and the black snow is “coal dust.” Old men remind strangers on the sidewalk that nobody actually knows what it is.
The boss’ son dreams of a heavily trained army of Pinkertons roaming the streets, brandishing their sticks in his name.
The boss’ son wears white breeches and brandishes a riding crop like a General storming into battle. When enraged, the boss’ son thrashes at the air with his crop, sometimes at the machinery, sometimes at Pembleton’s face.
“If my wife died in childbirth then I would understand why I hate my son,” the boss tells his lover.
Pembleton finally falls to the floor with a bloody face and blood pouring between his fingers. We don’t hear his screams over the machinery nor can we hear the fearsome cry of the crop through the air, though we feel it in our marrow.
The boss sits in his office overlooking the work floors. He is a shadow, a voice, a name at the bottom of a new series of pay cuts. We have seen only his hand on a doorknob or the wisp of his white hair. His yellowed teeth we know from our dreams.
The boss’ son sneers and spits at the floor where Pembleton writhes.
The boss keeps two farm boys stationed by his office door. He dresses them in navy blue uniforms like policemen and calls them Pinkertons to his son. As in, “if you ever come near my office, child, my Pinkertons will smash in your brow with their sticks.”
The boss’ son pulls us from the machines and lines us against the back alley walls to brow beat us again. The boss’ son struts along our rows wagging a finger in the black smoky air. From the unattended machines, we know, pour hands and heads and legs of plastic infants. The limbs pile like bodies in a mass burial.
At night, the boss dreams of his son overthrowing him. He dreams of a Popular Uprising with his son at the fore. The boss smiles as he thinks of his son with friends now, friends who believe in him, friends who are willing to kill and die for him.
The boss’ son dreams of Vietnam. Of orange smoke and burning children, their blackened skin crumpling to ash like paper on a lit cigarette. He dreams of strange animals emerging from the darkness with blood in their eyes. “I would kill them,” he tells the boss’ lover, “with my Bowie knife. But afterward I would feel as if my brother had died.”
The black smoke curling from the ten smoke stacks blots out the sun.
The boss curses the day he bought that pony. “It should be a horse by now,” he thinks. Later, without warning, he tells a group of strangers at the polo grounds, “in fact, it should be dead.”
On the street below, the townsfolk openly wonder what all goes on up there. “They make plastics… you know…” This satisfies nobody.
The boss’ son calls us cowards for not overthrowing him. He tells us we will never have our precious higher wages or health care or forty-hour work weeks until we are not afraid of him, as true men are unafraid of other men. “Although you consider me a mere boy,” he sneers. He tells us that had he been a few years older he would have fought in Vietnam. He tells us he is unafraid to die for his country.
“All my life I only smelled what you call the terrible noxious smell of molten plastic.” In the mouths of children, beef jerky and Coors, cakes and marmalade taste of plastics.
The boss’ son drank grape juice on a picnic cloth outspread on the green lawn, while the boss watched from the polo tournament. In white linens the boy seemed a puff of smoke. His little face smudged with juice, like a dog or a heathen. Right then, the boss considers his son proof of the absence of divine justice in the universe.
The boss’ son challenges us to open combat in the break room. He thrashes us while we eat our Cheetos and drink our cola. He says, “you’re just afraid because of who my father is. Well, he doesn’t care if you fight me. He wants you to fight me. He’s pitting you against me right now.”
Pembleton’s ghost howls and rattles his chains outside the boss’ office. Seeking vengeance or recompense or some form of apology, he cannot say. Go in, we tell him. His Pinkertons can’t hurt you anymore. But Pembleton’s ghost lacks all courage.
The boss’ son rides past the convenience store while we drink our Coors and eat our beef jerky on the curb. He is astride his white show pony. The riding crop wisps through the air and the pony neighs with delight. Steaming dung piles gather under the pony.
At night we smell of the black smoke and melted plastic and our sweat and the metaphoric blood on our hands because of Pembleton and the real blood from where the boss’ son has nipped our ear lobes and our necks. The boss’ son tells us from a cafeteria bench, as we punch our time cards, that if he were the boss he’d see us docked for a most lackadaisical day of work. Outside, the parking lot smells of his pony’s dung and the flies fill the air with their buzzing.
The boss built his factory on the highest shoulder of the highest bluff overlooking the town. Rumors of why he chose this site are varied. Some consider the boss fearful of floodwaters. Others of Communist hoards. While others believe he considers himself one of the gods.
The boss’ son pulls us aside and, over the roar of the machines, he quotes Chinese maxims or explains that he is reading a book about the construction of the Great Wall. He will say, “I feel… what’s the word… at peace with Eastern Philosophies. You may think it queer for a fellow, in a factory like this, surrounded by brutes and black smoke, to consider these weighty profundities. Perhaps you’re right. But it’s my Birth Right, isn’t it?” Other times he will say, “I will go to a private college. Did you go to private college? Of course not.”
We see Pembleton’s ghost by the candy machine in the break room. He tells us his soul will remain tormented until he is freed. Pembleton’s ghost has settled on vengeance as the means to freedom. He does not remember telling us these things already. He has forgotten some of our names, but won’t admit it.
The boss wears tweed jackets and maroon slippers. The boss drinks too much whisky and claims, to his son, to have fought a brown bear to a draw.
The boss’ son pulls us one by one into his office. He reads from a list of failed initiatives and missed quotas. When we yawn or stare off, the boss’ son thrashes the Playboy ‘02 wall calendar with his crop. “Do you know who my father is?” he says, smirking coolly.
The limbs pile like bodies in a mass burial.
After Pembleton’s funeral, we consider grabbing the boss’ son in the parking lot. A burlap sack over his face. We will strip him naked and tie his wrists and ankles with cords. We will drive him to a public square. The public fountain bubbling behind us, we will thrash him with his crop until the stripes across his pale figure make him a sort of bloody tiger. We will snicker loud enough for him to know it is us, and then we will leave him mewing in his urine.
There is nothing but black smoke.
The boss dreams of his own bloody head on a pike.
We shy away at the last moment when Saunders admits losing the burlap sack.
The boss’ son crouches behind his pony with his Bowie knife clenched between his teeth. His face is painted green and brown. He waits for the boss to emerge. “With or without his stooges,” the boss’ son has vowed.
The boss never emerges.