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Fiction #214
(published February 17, 2005)
Passing Time
By Greg Rutter
I had decided to work at the processing plant only because I was out of options. I'd spent two years in Sacramento, bouncing from one job to another and always seeming to come up short when the bills started to arrive. The plant paid zunion wages and no matter where you go you can't beat union wages. I was big and able to take care of myself pretty well. The man who interviewed me took a look at me, asked if there was any reason I couldn't perform certain functions of my job that I would have to do, and told me to show up at nine on Monday night. I'd be working the graveyard shift, the worst of all shifts, but the one that would pay the most. I agreed, shook his hand and headed for the door. On my way out he told me to wear clothes that were tough and that I wouldn't care about replacing.

On my way home, I listened to the radio. A man I didn't recognize sang, "Time has been moving slow, since my baby's been gone." I liked the tune and identified with him a little bit but I kept driving. It was mid-afternoon. The sun was high in the summer sky. Sacramento summers are like none I've ever experienced before. The heat gets up into the one hundreds but it's so dry that if the sun hits your skin it feels like it's going to burst into flames like flash paper. There's no relief from it. Even though I had the windows down, the heat climbed up into the car with the wind and mixed with the heat that the metal car collected. The freeways were jammed, even for the mid-afternoon.

I was on a bridge and to my right was the American River, stretching wide and cool. Right here the day before a woman had driven through the guardrail and killed herself. I passed the hole that she'd punched in the railing, which was now covered by police barricades. Maybe she just needed to get out of the heat that was suffocating us all.

On Monday night I showed up at the plant. It was a Georgia-Pacific owned processing plant. They took the trees that were cut down in the El Dorado Forest in the mountains, and processed them so that they could become lumber. Big logging trucks would come in at all hours of the day, pilled high with 10 or 15 giant logs. I followed one of these trucks in because the employee parking lot was in the same direction as the unloading area. Off the end of the largest log a little red flag waved in the breeze, warning drivers behind it about how dangerous the logs were. I realize now that I should have paid more attention to the little metaphor dangling in front of my car.

The part that I played in the plant was on the operations side. I was in charge of bringing the finished pieces of lumber, mostly long two-by-fours, over to the loading station. After doing this I had to make sure that there was more wood to be processed. It was mostly lifting, but I was young and strong at the time. Despite this it was very hard work. After the first week my hands were covered with blisters and wherever my arms weren't covered with gloves became infected from all the redwood splinters, which become infected no mater how quickly you pull them out. On days when my forklift wouldn't be working, I'd go home with my back and thighs hurting so much that I could barely work the petals on my car. And through all of this, the Sacramento heat wave endured.

Perhaps the worst part about the job was that it always felt that nothing changed.

We came to work after dark and left before the sun came up. It always seemed that we would work through our nine hours of hell and that time wouldn't change. We would always be working by man-made lights so time stood still for us. A whistle would blow for our three breaks and then it would blow twice when it wanted us to come back. Finally a long whistle would let us know that our time was over and that the next shift was starting. There were no clocks on the walls and I broke four wristwatches trying to figure out how long my shift was lasting. The only thing that ever broke this routine was on Friday mornings when they would give us our paychecks as we were leaving. Eventually I became like everyone else there and started relying on the whistles and the blackness of the night to swallow up whatever conception of time I would have.

Most of the people that worked on the operations side were like me in that they were only there for the money. Unlike the rest of the plant, we didn't have much turnover on the operations side. Almost all of the people I worked with were Mexican. Some of them were legal and some of them just claimed they were. Nearly all of them didn't speak any English, which was good because I didn't feel like talking much anyway. I was young, mean, and full of hate for my job. They knew not to mess with me and they were right not to.

Eventually the summer heat let up and changed into winter. Sacramento winters aren't terrible. The central valley gets very cool and the smog helps to keep some of the heat trapped between the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the Coastal Mountains. Mostly it's just either rainy or foggy and keeps alternating between the two until mid-April. My grumblings about the hard work and heat began to get less and less and eventually they stopped all together. They eventually patched the hole that the woman had punched in the guardrail, and the man who sang "Time has been moving slow, since my baby's been gone" kept showing up on my radio dial now and then. Time went by without my knowledge as it always did. Through it all I kept driving across the freeways to work and following logging trucks with their red warning flags.

I was living with a woman who was probably bad for me. She was long and lean, which is really just a nice way for saying tall and skinny. But despite this, and her big chin, she was very beautiful. She liked to drink and when she had her thirst quenched she would be thirsty for an argument. I didn't take shit from many people, but she was one of those people that I would take it from. She liked to accuse me of not making time for her. I wanted to explain to her how time meant nothing to me but I never really could. It always ended up sounding like I just needed a new watch to her. She would drink more and yell more and understand my conception of time less.

Finally one day she just said that she was leaving. I had just gotten home from work and she was leaving into the early morning dawn. I asked her why and all she would say was, "I have my reasons." We were sitting on the couch I had in my apartment. She stood up and tried not to look like she wanted to leave the uncomfortable silence that filled the room, but I saw through it. It was then that I was glad that I'd turned the radio on when I walked in the door, before we started fighting or else the room would be empty with our anger. The same man was back on the radio singing, "time has been moving slow, since by baby's been gone," and we'd gotten three-quarters of the way through his wonderful song before she finally left. She would have still left despite whatever reasons I listed for her to stay so I didn't bother with them. She shut the door and with my hands in my pockets, I stared at my stained carpet and my stained life and I listened to the rest of his song.

The next night I went back to work for the last time. I followed a long line of logging trucks all the way down the freeway. Only the last one had a little red warning flag and it waved as hard as I've ever seen one wave as we drove past the patched hole above the Sacramento River. The woman had picked a good spot to drive over. A nice view of the river with trees and grasslands surrounding either side of the happy wide river. I'd had my own spot picked out for quite sometime, so I respected her choice. I'd had it since I'd gotten to Sacramento. It was a big lake on the outskirts of down, near where they were building all kinds of new homes. There would be no guardrail for me to leave my last mark on the city. Just a neat pair of tire tracks in the soft mud leading into the quiet lake. As I pulled into the parking lot and I looked at the clock on my car radio. "8:54" it said and I believed it. I got out of my car and went to work.

It was Friday and we all got our paychecks. We opened them as we walked towards the parking lot. The total was much smaller than usual. It worked out to be about an hour less pay. Everyone noticed before they got to their cars and everyone was angry. I was the angriest of course. It was going to be the last paycheck I got from there. Me and 10 other guys went up to Seth Robinson's office to demand back the hour that we weren't paid for. Robinson was the foreman for the morning shift and since there was no foreman for the night shift he seemed like the logical person to turn to.

"Hey Seth, what's the deal with our paycheck? Why'd be get ripped off this week?" I said, with 10 Mexicans behind me. Not only was I the biggest but I was the only one that could speak enough English to argue with Robinson.

"It's daylight savings time today guys. The clocks got reset at 2 am. You worked an hour less today." Robinson had expected this and didn't even look up from his desk. The rest of us didn't even say anything and just turned around and left.

Back into the morning we walked. From what I understood of Spanish, a guy named Raul said that he was going to have to miss the electric bill this month. Everyone was forced to look at their budgets again and for the first time that I'd been working there I realized how much time I really had lost. It wasn't just that hour this week, but almost 9 months of my time. I left the parking lot feeling a sense of immediacy.

I drove past the patched hole above the beautiful American River and went back to my stained apartment. I picked up whatever stuff I had and left. There was nothing for me in Sacramento. The summer heat was starting to come back again and the cool American River was starting to look pretty inviting. I knew I had to get out of there. I put whatever I had into the trunk of my car and hit the freeway, driving directly into the sun that was just starting to come up and warm the tall Sierra Nevadas. On Highway 80 I passed a few logging trucks, knowing their destination. Their little flags waved and waved but I didn't care anymore. I rolled down the window and turned on the radio. The same man was still singing his song. I turned it off. I started to think about all the hours that we lose and the ones that you really miss. But most of the time you don't really notice. I would go as far as I could go, noticing how much time I had really lost.

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