As evening falls on the valley, the slowly setting sun brings with it a quietness and solitude that is remarkable when compared with other times of day. Astrologers insist that planets and the moon affect people; the sun does that here, for when the sun begins its journey down the people turn friendly and laugh. This evening is not excepted; the people are exchanging jokes and tales on neighbors’ porches and workers home from eight-hour hells stretch their legs by cleaning their yards. The roads are almost desolate except for a few straggling cars; the rush to get home has ended and everyone is glad it has. Later, the quiet solitude will ease into death as people lock up and go to bed.
This death of night is resurrected at midnight, for that is when the mill shift will change. When the whistle blows, people, those awake or awakened in their beds, are reminded that the quietude of their hometown is false; the unconscious drone of machinery lurks in the background. This drone recedes from consciousness only because of its constant familiarity.
The whistle breaks this unconscious drone of the valley – it, too, ends another kind of hell, different from the five o’clock white-collar hell. The mill-workers are unleashed from their machines to do as they please. The time clock eats the line of time cards as the workers leave the fluorescent light for the dark cool. The walk fast, almost run, to the parking lot and their cars. The dislodge the dirty earplugs from their ears and let them hang from their grimy necks. Old fat ladies waddle along, while tall, lightly bearded men puff cigarettes. Black workers with their linty kinked hair jive along with their bros and sisters. All these people laugh to release the tension built up by the cranky machines – tension released by their own release. The cars begin to start – everyone racing them to make them run better, sooner. The fast cars, the ones with the mags and the elevated rear ends and young drivers, make it to the street first, the older cars with the older drivers being content with last. Everyone’s glad to get out and go home.
Joe’s hand hurt. The pain quickens as he reaches for his time card that proves his existence to the payroll office. He punches out and turns to the exit. The way out is formed by a path bordered on both sides by machines called “spinners.” Joe tries to forget these machines and tries to block out the cascading shower of sound around him. His hand pains him and makes the spinners’ presence even more obtrusive – these spinners smashed up his hand four months ago. They continue to smash his soul. The door leads outside, back in again in sixteen hours.
The short walk home is what Joe considers to be the only good thing about his job. After the heat and noise of the mill, the cool cools his sweat and the quiet settles his nerves. It usually gives him time to think about good things. But not so tonight. The good things won’t come – they are drowned out by the pain of his hand and the pain in his soul. He begins his trek home.
The walk home is a short distance – about five blocks. Autumn has set in and as a result the roads are filled with leaves. A slight rustle is caused by the wind. The moon is full and illuminates the way. Joe notices the moon’s reflection in the windows and chrome of the cars he passes as he walks.
What Joe does think about tonight is why it is that nothing works out for him. His state of existence has fallen to its lowest level and it seems that it won’t be long before he’s dragging the bottom. The mill makes up a major part of his life; when he’s there he ceases to function as a human and becomes a machine. When he’s out, each minute gone is another minute closer to going back in. He is seriously dreading every tomorrow that comes – is it worth it?
Joe feels like he has been cheated; he doesn’t know how, he just feels it. The feeling is that of something having a disheartening hold on his soul; a quiet complex machine hidden by the dark. The paranoia increases as he thinks back to his childhood.
When he was twelve, he remembers his sixth grade class went to see that great spectacle of human ingenuity – the cotton mill. He remembers how important he felt, for the annual event was a privilege only the sixth graders had. The class had had to wear coats and ties and nice dresses. The mill impressed him, he thought, splendidly. The noise and confusion overwhelmed him. Seeing machines doing tasks he had never imagined them able to do aroused his curiosity. He had never forgotten that.
He didn’t hesitate to apply for a job there when he quit school three years later. He had majestically weighed all the advantages and disadvantages like he had been taught – the mill came out ahead in his judgment. Why the hell not? No more school and plenty of money.
It went OK for a good, long time, but it had changed at some point. When – he couldn’t decide. The smashed hand made him realize that he no longer counted. Perhaps, he thought, when that had happened…maybe sooner. The machines were at least better off than he was – they didn’t have to feel the pain.
Another thought rose to his consciousness – the pep talk that he has received as a new worker. The people had told him he was an important part of their company. That had made him feel good. He felt disgusted now, the hatred for himself had replaced the elation of importance.
The light from his house brought back the reality. The reality of the gray clapboard lumber sides of the house, illuminated by the light, frightened him. All of the houses, his and his neighbors, seemed defenseless, like someone could come in and steal the lives away. The light was a symbol of hope for him, if it had not been burning, something might have been wrong at the house. It reminded him of a sermon he’d once heard about the guiding light of God. Maybe that’s what caused him to relate hope with the porch light.
The weathered wood steps creaked a familiar creak under Joe’s weight. Joe opened the door into another dark quiet. The screen door slammed and he hoped he hadn’t awakened his wife – he didn’t want to have to contend with her now. Their impotent life together was another thing that disgusted Joe. It didn’t help the pain.
Joe came inside and shut the door. He walked over to a chair and sat down. A night light burned, casting its weak light about the floor and walls. Huge geometric shadows lay everywhere. The quiet was broken every second by the tick of a clock from a far room. He could distinguish the fireplace across the room, outlined by the light.
Joe sat perfectly still. All of the thoughts had led to confusion in his mind. The confusion was aggravated by his hand. He saw himself as nothing and nothing he or anybody else could do would change that. There just was no other way of looking at it. Joe felt he must make a decision – he knew he would. Slowly he raised himself from the chair. The pain quickened. He made five light steps across the room to the mantle above the fireplace. Finding what he was looking for, he sat down on the hearth and cocked the thirty-eight. After placing the gun to his mouth, he releases the trigger.
Joe’s wife startles in her sleep – she awakens from a pleasant dream. The moon casts shadows of moving trees on the curtains. The clock breaks the silence every second…