The Lucky Ones
Marc S. Cohen
The extraordinary thing is how ordinary it all felt. There was no fanfare, no celebration, not even a goodbye party. Nobody mentioned it during their coffee or lunch breaks. Folks checked in and out and went about their business without a whisper of acknowledgement. And all the while the assembly line kept moving on, slow and insouciant.
Maybe that's because for everyone else, it was just a day like any other. For everyone else, there were still the remorseless shifts and the unceasing parade of parts, the gauges and cables and belts, the gears and knobs and cylinders and fans that plod by like captive soldiers; and in the face of it all, the knowledge that as hard as it is, and as numb as you are, you never in your wildest dreams want that procession to stop. Not ever. Because if it did, your heart might as well stop along with it.
So when the five of them didn't show up that morning, everyone acted as though they'd come down with a bug. No one realized that they would be taking a sick day for life.
Sure, everyone knew about their little pool. Dobson would collect a couple bucks from the others, and on Fridays he'd drop by the little store across the road before heading home. Sometimes they’d even win something; sometimes ten dollars, sometimes twenty. Most weeks, they came out with nothing. Only last month, they picked four numbers out of six; took their fifty clams and went out to Jack Astor to celebrate. Nobody expected they’d ever win more than that. Certainly not a couple hundred thousand times more than that.
Trudy is one of the first to find out. Since she works in payroll, it'll be her job to process the pink slips. You see, they haven't actually quit, she learns to her amazement. They just don't plan to come in anymore. Which means they'll have to be terminated. They'll be entitled to apply for unemployment. And to collect their pensions, when they reach retirement age.
There was a time, not long ago, when she was up to her knees in pink slips. The country was falling to pieces; nobody was buying trucks, certainly not the big expensive trucks they made at the plant. There was talk of restructuring, contraction, even closures. No one expected the plant to last the year. Then the men from the government stepped in. The plant would survive, they said, but there had to be changes. Many were let go, but some stayed on, albeit with reductions in pay and benefits. And yet none of the survivors complained, because how could they? They were the lucky ones.
Sinking like a lost ship, is how they put it. We're like the passengers on the Titanic who reached a life boat. But Trudy knew better. She knew they’d escaped a catastrophe far bigger than that, one of practically mythic proportions. Titanic hell, she corrected them. More like we're beasts on the Ark.
Trudy is well acquainted with that sinking sensation. You might say she's been foundering for years. Take, for instance, the time Dick came home and announced he was closing his flooring business. I give up, he said, whipping off his tee shirt and waving it over his head like a helicopter blade. Who the hell needs tiles anyways? Who cares about renovating bathrooms and kitchens when they're repossessing your home at the end of the month?
Then there's Dale, their twelve-year-old demolition crew. Not a day goes by he doesn't ravage another part of the house. Yesterday it was the lamp behind the sofa. This morning it was the pantry door. The boy's a walking mushroom cloud. The school is terrified of him. His teachers warned them he'd be left back if he didn't turn it around soon. The district social worker suggested they get him a pet, to teach him empathy. So they went and brought home a pair of terriers. Jack and Russell. Dale thought up the names. He thought it funny to name them for their brand. Doesn't matter to him which one's Jack and which one Russell. They look the same, he says, and treats them as though they're interchangeable. The dogs spend most of the day cowering in their kennel, even when Dale's at school.
Whatever Dale leaves intact is at the mercy of the elements. And the elements aren't all that merciful, either. Beneath the house runs an underground creek. Every year, the foundation drops another inch. Every year, a new crack appears above the stove. Or behind the fridge. Or in back of the sink. Someday she expects to come home to find the whole damn place gone unmoored.
That sinking feeling.
And if the earth doesn't swallow her home soon, the mice will. A non-stop party's been going on inside her walls all winter. The plaster trembles with the patter of their running and scratching. She falls asleep at night listening to her house being gnawed away bit by bit. As mousers, Jack and Russell are useless. They snarl at every other dog in the neighborhood, but of mice they could care less. So get a cat, folks tell her. She would, but for the terriers. They hate cats the way cats hate mice.
She's decided it'd be best not to tell Dick yet. Not right away, at any rate. He's been drifting deeper into indolence every day, and so this is the last thing he needs to hear. Turns out he isn't home when she gets there. But Dale is. He storms down the staircase, shooting foam bullets at one of the dogs from the Nerf machine gun he got for Christmas.
He stomps after his mother, waving the weapon in her face. When can I get a real gun? he whines.
When your grades improve, she replies.
Dad was my age when grandpa gave him his first shotgun.
That was different; they lived in Kentucky. They’re crazy down there.
Her son drops on the sofa, pouting. What’s the use of good grades, anyways, he grumbles. You got good grades, and look how they helped you.
Dick finds out about the news soon enough. The whole town's buzzing, he says somberly, as they sit down to supper. Dale jumps up and starts racing around the table, flapping his wings. Buzz, buzz! he laughs. After completing one, two, three revolutions, he crashes into his chair, knocking it to the floor. One of the stiles snaps in two.
Owww! he wails, grabbing his foot. Goddamn stupid chair! He kicks at it with his good foot, then cries out even louder, before falling to the floor. His parents ignore him.
Say they're getting ten million each, Dick continues. That should pay the bills and then some.
You know how these things ruin people, Trudy retorts.
So I should feel sorry for them, then?
Trudy blows on her soup spoon. That Dunn, she says, he’ll use up his winnings in a flash, and you know it. His wallet’s got a hole in it big as Lake Erie. He already's got the biggest satellite dish in the county.
Now he can afford to buy the whole damn cable company, Dick huffs.
Dale scrambles back to his chair, and plops himself down on the seat. The remaining uninjured stile creaks behind him.
Dad, he says, when can I get a gun?
You got a gun.
No, I mean a real gun. Something that shoots real bullets.
You're too young for a gun, Dale.
You had a gun when you was younger than me. When's it gonna be my turn?
Dick puts down his knife, leans over until his eyes are mere inches from his son's. His son gazes back expectantly.
Tell you what, Dick says, without blinking. I'll get you a gun as soon as I win the lottery....
The news people show up the next day. Their cameras are everywhere. WSYX, WCPO, WKEF. Dayton, Columbus, Cincinnati. All Ohio has come to bask in this godsend. Someone even says he saw a Fox News truck pull up in front of the bakery.
The Games Commission people are there, too. They want to make a show of it. They book the town hall, decorate it with streamers and lights. The winners are snuck in through a side entrance, like rock stars.
At suppertime, the whole state will get to watch Dobson, Davis, Lewis, Murphy and Dunn get handed their giant checks. Even the mayor turns up to shake their hands. Lord knows why he's grinning along with them; they're richer than he is, now.
You know, Trudy says, Lewis came this close to getting the axe last year. Had he worked with us six months less, he'd have been gone along with the others.
They'll all be gone tomorrow, Dick says. He's talking about the cameras, or maybe the state people. Either way, he means that life will soon turn back to normal. But Trudy doubts this. He might as well be talking about the lucky ones. As though they, too, won't be around much longer. As though they might have already made their escape.
Ask anyone in town whether they were watching the news that evening, and they'll tell you they weren't. Most tuned in to Storage Wars instead.
It's pay week, so Thursday sees the usual mad rush to ensure all the figures are in place for Friday's deposit. By week's end, Trudy's fuel tank is depleted. She drags herself home, pops a Hungry Man entree into the microwave, and drags her ass upstairs before Dick and Dale can lick the last drops of trans-fattened gravy from their plates. Soon after, they retire to the Xbox for a game of Mercenaries, but by then Trudy's already drifted out of consciousness.
The sounds of gunfire assail her dreams all night.
At some point, she notices Dick is back in their room. He's kneeling beside the window, peering nervously past the shades. The shooting is loud as ever, and thickening. He waves at her to get up and follow him. She does. They hurry down to the basement, to the box in the backroom where he keeps his old shotgun. She watches him contemplate the barrel wordlessly. Meanwhile, the noises outside intensify; it's as if an entire army has parked itself on their doorstep. Dick doesn't look up; he continues to stare at the gun. A final discharge, and before she has time to recognize where it came from, Dick has already evaporated. Then, too, does everything else.
It's 6:30 AM. Dick is dozing beside her. The noise is still there, though not nearly as menacing; now it just sounds like something jostling downstairs. At first she assumes it’s one of the dogs lapping at their water bowl, but the noise persists. Reluctantly, she slips on her slippers and goes down to investigate.
Having traced the sound to the kitchen, she hits the light and with no little apprehension peers behind the fridge. Her hand vaults her mouth, suppressing a whelp. She backtracks to the staircase, hastens up to her bedroom and cowers under the covers.
A quarter of an hour later, she asks in a low voice: Are you awake?
I am now, the other voice replies. How long were you gonna lie there before asking me?
She tells him what she saw behind the refrigerator. He sighs, then climbs out of bed. She follows him into the hall and down to the kitchen.
It takes them a minute or two to come up with a plan, then another ten to muster the courage to act on it. Each armed with a saucepan, Trudy leans the fridge away from the wall while Dick waits beside it. Amidst a pair of anguished yelps, the mouse stumbles out, its head ensnared in a trap, its body bloated to the size of a man's fist. Dick whacks at it twice with the flat of his saucepan; the first blow knocks it unconscious, and the second, sending a jet of blood across the floor, finishes it off.
The Jack Russells watch the whole episode from their crates, quiet as mice.
Then the thumping of human feet down the stairwell. It's Dale, hands firmly locked around the handle of his machine gun. The expression on his face announcing he's ready for combat.
Well, says his father, 'least we know if we ever get a real intruder, he can expect a face full of foam for the trouble.
The next week, they ask Trudy to process the Dobson crew's severance checks. Since they're technically being terminated, they get two weeks' pay for every year of work at the plant. In Ralph Murphy's case, that's thirty-two weeks' salary. Goddamn ironic, isn't it? It’s like adding one more sprinkle on his sundae, while the rest of us just gets peanuts.
Dick shows her the latest fuel bill. $574.57 for the past two months. Jesus, that's a lot of money to keep mice warm. She could so easily redirect those final paychecks. And would anybody notice? Does Dunn really intend to scrutinize his bank statements for his severance pay? Or Dobson? She needs the money so much more than any of them. They need the compensation like a hole in the head. Like a mouse hole in a mansion.
Tom Sullivan: Employed at the plant for seventeen years. Laid off October 2009. Now in his 22nd consecutive month of collecting UI.
Todd Reed: Laid off after twelve years. Last seen hocking his wife's silver at a Cashland in Toledo.
Frank Willis: Laid off after fifteen years, though he stayed on temporarily to help de-sludge the paint shop so no hazards remained. Hand-scraped and power-washed over two inches of paint off the walls. Of course, he collected no benefits during this time.
Lucy Bernard: Worked various parts lines in the Body and Transmissions Shops for twelve and a half years. She's still receiving unemployment, though she and her husband are contemplating moving to Columbus and starting an antiques business, soon as they can work out a credit framework at the Savings & Loan.
Cecil Macready: Oversaw the transfer and sale of over 700,000 pieces of equipment while the body shop underwent restructuring. On his 453rd consecutive day of unemployment.
Kelly Bailey: Laid off after her 3,165th shift.
Jules Reynolds: Laid off after his 987th shift.
Terry Ryan: Laid off after his 1,123rd shift, including 233 overtime.
Krystal Turner: Laid off after 2,865 consecutive shifts without a sick day.
Carl Ashcroft: Laid off after nine years. Spends his mornings seeing his seven children off to school.
Another long day. Rumors abound that Ted Davis is looking to buy a yacht and move down to the Florida Keys. Dobson and his wife, meanwhile, are at a dealer in Dayton, considering a pair of his and hers Convertibles.
Trudy says she's thinking of taking up smoking.
Back home, Dick tells her he's heard about a new plant in Toledo that's hiring. He's thinking about applying. She doesn't mention the couple hours' drive to Toledo. In good weather. Outside road repair season.
The sound of a gunshot spurs them to their feet. Instinctively they run to the kitchen. Jesus Christ, where's Dale? When did you last see him? Jesus Christ Almighty.
Dale is standing in the doorway at the top step of the basement stairwell. In his left hand is the smoking barrel of his dad's shotgun. In his right, he holds out the remains of the chipmunk he's just decapitated. He beams at his parents, proud as a tomcat showing off his kill.
About the author:
Marc S. Cohen is a writer, artist and musician born in the United States and residing in Canada. He writes little existential pieces about people grappling with life's indeterminacies, and the struggle to retain dignity in the face of social and economic uncertainty. His stylistic forebears include Raymond Carver, Donald Barthelme, Sheila Heti, and Joel and Ethan Coen.