Leveling the Flow
“Come on you guys, we gotta get gas!”
“Fuckin’ shit, man!”
Alex is awakened by the voices of his friends.
“I’m outta here in five minutes, with you guys or not, so get your asses outta bed!”
The room comes into focus. Cindy Marshall’s bedroom. It still doesn’t feel like his. He used to love this room when he shared it with Cindy on the sly—sneaking in together after midnight, quietly fucking in Cindy’s single bed until dawn, hiding alone in the closet from her father’s morning good-byes, Cindy cutting school, sleeping in and playing house all afternoon together. But since Cindy went away to school in San Francisco last fall, this has just been the place he keeps his stuff and sleeps.
An alluring dream draws him deep into his pillow for a moment. A second later he panics. Fear and adrenaline force his stinging eyes into the light. He absolutely cannot miss another day at work. He thinks Get up you fucking asshole. “Now!” he bellows as he rolls onto the floor and pushes himself to his feet. Jesus, it feels like I just went to sleep. His head thunders like a crashing reverb box. He squeezes it, palms to his temples, elbows extended, trying to still the roar. He draws a long slow breath to bring himself back to life. He doesn’t have to recall the music from the night before—just a few hours ago—because it’s still ringing in his throbbing ears. Did we really sound that good? Will it sound that good when we listen to the tape tonight? Or were we just so fucked up we thought we sounded good?
“Fucking shit, I hate this job,” he groans. But he doesn’t really hate his job. In fact, in the brief working life of his twenty-three years, he’s never really cared about and enjoyed a job the way he does this one. Alex Conrad is the flow-solder man. The entire computer factory runs through him: that huge over-lit workroom full of Asian and Latin girls, stuffing circuit boards as fast as their skinny little fingers can move, racking and stacking and lining them up for his flow-solder machine, and all those techies and ties in the testing department waiting for the clean, solid boards that only he can send them. Even Joe-boy and Eddie in chassis and harness go into a holding pattern when the flow solder machine goes down. No, he may not ever say it, and he resists the idea on principle, but he really does love this job. He just hates going to work on three hours of sleep.
Alex hears Joe-boy in the kitchen turning up the volume on his daily frenzy. He’s usually the quintessential laid-back bass player—too cool to hiss more than two words unless he’s talking about music. But he hates to wait and he hates to be late. Since he’s the one with a car, Joe-boy has taken on the job of getting everyone to work on time. “I’m goin’ out to warm up the car.” His voice glissandos up in a reasoned threat that echoes down the empty hall outside the south bedrooms. “You guys better get out there.”
“Hey, man, I been up for an hour, so shut the fuck up!” Alex hears Dave blast in from the studio they’d constructed in the garage.
“What?” Joe-boy says, “You been listening to the tapes?”
Silence. Dave is fucking with him. Alex forgets his aching head and sits up, eager to hear what Dave thinks of last night’s session.
Dave lets him hang a moment more before exploding, “Pretty fuckin’ good, man!”
“Aw right!” says Joe-boy and Alex can hear the patter of the little dance he’s seen Dave go into when super excited. He can hear him playing Andy-boy’s shoulders and head like timbales. In the pause that follows, Alex’s eyes drift to a distant focus, and he wishes again as he does every day, as he knows Dave and Andy-boy are wishing, the same unsayable wish.
The urgency of the moment intrudes. “I gotta go warm up the car. You better get those guys up—if we don’t get some gas before work we’re screwed ‘cuz there’s not gonna be enough to get home.”
Dave is pounding the walls in the hall. “OK, OK, I’m up, I’m up!” Alex croaks and staggers to his feet. A wave of nausea and dizziness staggers him. He leans on his knees a moment, then straightening up, he yawns and stretches to fight it off. Trying to rouse his still-sleeping mind, he surveys the trash and possessions that clutter the room: piles of clean and dirty clothes, beer bottles and candy wrappers, an alto recorder and some bongos, an eight-track car stereo complete with naked oval speakers, a jungle of African violets in the window on the chest of drawers he stole from his father’s sister. Behind him is the mattress he stole from an aunt on his mother’s side.
He notices he’s still wearing last night’s clothes. That’s good. I just got time to piss and go.
The pressure in his bladder is becoming painful. Bursting into the hall he hears the bathroom door slam. “Shit!” Eddie always beats him to it. The other bathrooms are with the other bedrooms on the far side of the sprawling ranch-style house. So, clutching his early morning erection, hunched and shuffling like Quasimodo, he busts down the hall, crashing into Dave. “Sorry, man, I gotta piss.” Nearly pulling the slider off its track, he stumbles onto the barren concrete patio and scuttles to the edge of a backyard wild with fennel and thistle.
Ripping down his fly, he thrusts his hips and throws his upper body back, relaxing to the verge of falling over. As his erection subsides, the relieving flow begins and he drains himself into a star thistle. Pungent steam rises in the cool morning air, blending with the sweet scent of fennel.
He remembers this yard from years ago when it was a construction site. The house was built and the quarter acre yard was graded and ready for topsoil and landscaping. That was as far as it got. Like the inside of the Marshalls’ house, it was never finished. But while the floors and the walls remained bare all these years as the Marshall family fell apart, the backyard grew up and filled out on its own terms, like the three Marshall girls, wild and thorny, fragrant, green.
He wags his dick and flips it loose into his jeans. The Volvo’s horn is blaring. Turning to the house while buttoning his fly, Alex wonders at the ease with which even a drunk can button up his 501’s, and why he is having so much trouble. Working his jeans with one hand and pulling the slider closed with the other, the heavy glass door derails with a thud against the jamb. “Shit!” he spits, and bends to fix it, but the sound of the horn spins him back toward the kitchen, still buttoning up.
In the kitchen he splashes water on his face and swishes out his mouth. He tries to run his fingers through his matted hair and pull it into some kind of order behind his ears and down his back. The horn sounds again and now Joe-boy is racing the engine. “This is getting serious man. I have got to brush this shit pretty soon.” His face still dripping, he checks his wallet, pulls a hair tie from his pocket and races to the door.
The white ‘65 Volvo station wagon is lurching and halting in the street like a dragster at the line. Alex is pulling his hair into a painful ponytail as he runs down the driveway. Music is pouring from the Volvo along with the morning smoke. The vocals are muffled but it’s a tune they’ve covered. Alex knows the lyrics:
I’ll be the roundabout…
The words will make you out-and-out…
He’s never been sure what they mean, but he isn’t thinking about them now: he’s thinking about getting stoned.
Eddie is hanging out the backseat window bellowing in a cloud of smoke. “You better run, man, ‘cuz he’s pissed. He’s taking off.” As the last one out, Alex knows they’ll make him go around and sit behind the driver’s seat and he also knows that Joe-boy will gun it just as he reaches for the door. He does. Peals of laughter pierce the music. The Volvo jolts to a stop a car-length ahead. On cue, Eddie kicks the door open, “Well… come on… get in,” they chorus.
Of course, Joe-boy isn’t really pissed at all. He’s laughing, stoned and jammin’ with his air-bass to the tape. A glance at the watch glued to the dashboard shows that Joe-boy cracked the whip fifteen minutes early. If the gas line isn’t too bad they may get to work with enough time for doughnuts in the parking lot. Air-bass solo concluded, Joe-boy pops the clutch.
“Here, Con-man, I think it’s dusted.” Eddie hands Alex a black plastic film can and a pipe made of brass fittings wrapped at the elbow with adhesive tape, now blackened and shiny with wear. The familiar warmth and heaviness of the old pipe is reassuring as he weighs it in his palm. Con-man glances up at Eddie and Dave, checking his audience, and carefully fills the pipe with loose flakes from the bottom of the can. Eddie notices Alex using only the shake and calls him on it. “Come on, man—whose money you tryin’ to save. Bust off a good piece and get some real smoke goin’!”
The Con-man theory is that if you just use the shake and never actually break the buds you’ll never run out. “Don’t you want it to last?” he asks.
“Man, that only works with hash,” says Eddie
“Well, anyway,” Con-man says, biting the shrink-wrapped stem of the pipe and grinning like a hirsute Douglas Mac Arthur, “It’s full, so fire me up!”
Alex is suddenly serious, even solemn, as the flame in Eddy’s hand descends upon the bowl of herb. He exhales through his nose and seals his lips around the stem, preparing for the blast of heat and pleasure—the first hit of the day.
When the coughing subsides and dope is again cushioning his brain, Alex rests his head against the window, gazing through the freeway cars and trucks on the 405 coming into Irvine, and thinks of Cindy. She hung up on him last night. It had felt so good talking to her in the dark, in bed, instead of from a phone booth. He’d known he would be waking her in the middle of the night, but at first she’d sounded warm and soft, like she loved him and she missed him—like she’d been dreaming of him. Until she woke up a little more and started to think.
“Are you at the house, Alex?” The question was an accusation.
“Where do you think I’d be at 2:30?”
“Well, who’s paying for this call? Are you using one of those phone card numbers?”
“No, baby, no. I can cover the phone bill.” He knew she’d assume that he was lying.
“No you can’t—you guys never pay your fucking bills.” She paused to hear him lie again and when he started to mumble she reamed his ear. “Listen, Alex, the phone guys have already been here asking me about calls on stolen credit numbers. I mean, I can keep playing ‘em off, but if you’re not using a pay phone they’re gonna know right where you are and we’re both gonna get popped.” She paused for a breath and he thought she might be softening, but she was just gathering for her next attack. “How can you be so dumb? They’re probably listening to us right now!”
“No they’re not. They got better things to do than stay up all night trying to catch some two-bit long-distance thieves. They published those numbers in the Free Press for Chrise sake. We don’t have to be that paranoid.”
“You’re the one who made me paranoid about it in the first place! And they were interested enough to come by and hassle me.” There was a breath or two of silence while the truth of what Cindy was saying settled in. “I don’t know Alex. This thing just isn’t working.”
He sighed. He didn’t know either. He searched for something else to say—to make “this thing” between them work like it always had before. “I was tired of talking to you from a phone booth, Cindy. I miss you. I love you baby. I just had to talk to you—here, you know—before I went to sleep. I knew you’d be in bed. I want to be there with you, baby. I wanted to hear your voice…”
“OK, OK, you heard my voice.” She was still irritated—his long distance pillow talk hadn’t had its usual effect. “What, did you think maybe I wasn’t alone?” This was new territory. How did she know what he was thinking?
“No, that’s not it. I just…”
She cut him off, “Just quit using those numbers, Alex. I can’t take the stress. Now go to sleep.” And she hung up. Just like that. She’d never done that before. They sometimes take ten minutes just to say good-bye. He almost called her back, but instead he lay awake wondering if maybe she did have another guy up there in San Francisco. It would serve him right for not going with her.
But he didn’t think he’d really had a choice.
Con-man and his band had been moving in on the Marshall house like squatters for years. By the time Cindy went to college they were the only ones left living there. Alex had to stay with the band when Cindy left: it was his band—he was the front man, the singer, the song writer—but also it was part of the deal Cindy cut with her mother to get Cindy to college and away from the band.
The Marshall house had always been the cool place to hang out for the kids in the neighborhood because the parents were never home. Ellie Marshall, the Finnish ice queen mom, was out seven days a week in her Caddie with a fifth of Cutty in the trunk, buying and selling Orange County by the standard lot. She was never home before 2:00 AM and was gone again by 8:00 the next morning. She’d worked her way up from subdivisions to malls and hotels by the time she quit coming home all together. Bob Marshall, Mad Man Marsh, was an aerospace engineer and a right-wing hard-ass to be avoided if possible. That became easier and easier as “overtime” evolved into living on his boat with his girlfriend.
Every guy in the band had gone out with at least one of the Marshall girls. Alex started with freshman fantasies of the oldest one, Margaret, but she turned out to be a chip off the old ice queen. Amy, the middle sister, was Alex’s age, but she hung around with the band for more than a year before she got around to Con-man. Though Alex didn’t like the fact that he was the last one she tried, he didn’t mind at all when she finally lead him back to her room. But by then he had his eye on Cindy.
Even when she was a freshman and Alex was a senior with a pick-up truck and a rock-n-roll band, Cindy had seemed like too much woman for him. She was big and loud and tough. She didn’t hang around with her sisters or with the band. In fact nobody seemed to know where she was most of the time. “Out with her biker friends,” was all her sisters knew. People worried about her. One afternoon Alex saw her climb off the back of a Harley in front of the house. Tight purple hip-huggers tucked into knee-high boots, braless in a see-through halter, a wild blond halo of wind-blown hair—she was magnificent. The guy on the bike was about the most dangerous looking freak Alex had ever seen, but she was laughing and punching his arm. And when she kissed him on the cheek and shouted, “See he later man,” he seemed to shrink. She was totally in charge. She was like no girl Alex had ever seen—or even known about. He didn’t worry about her after that. He just wanted her to notice him.
It was Joe-boy who brought her to the band. They were at school together after Alex graduated. Once Joe-boy and Cindy were a couple, the band started practicing in the Marshall’s garage. When Cindy chose Alex over Joe-boy a few months later, there was nothing either life-long friend could do about it. Joe-boy spent some time sulking and jealous but the band was bigger than any of that. They were turning the garage into a studio. It was important to keep Cindy happy. Her mother was a little harder to please.
Ellie and Marsh had been too self absorbed to see that the band was taking over their house. By the time they did, it was just another piece of property in a very complicated divorce. Margaret and Amy were out of the house and Cindy was a high school senior riding the crest of a teenage dream: on her own, in her own home, with her own live-in rock-n-roll band. As her part of the divorce process Ellie made one last show of maternal interest. She wanted Cindy away from the evil influence of “all those hippie boys.” She threatened them with the police, but Cindy told her mother, “If the band goes I go with them.” So Ellie tried bribery and Cindy made a deal with her. She would quit living with the band if her mother would put her up in an apartment in San Francisco and pay her way through college. The band would stay and “house sit” since there was no way they could sell or rent out the unfinished luxury slum that the place had become. Ellie probably figured she could sell it out from under them after the divorce settled. Cindy knew the band was relocating to the Bay Area eventually anyway.
But eventually can seem like a long time.
Everyone was happy but the Con-man.
Lady finger, dipped it moonlight,
Writing ”What For?” across the morning sky…
The Grateful Dead. Saint Stephen. Cindy’s song. Alex doesn’t remember hearing it begin. He doesn’t know where they are.
Joe-boy passes the end of the long line of cars before he realizes it—a block from the “camel stop,” as he calls it. “Shit!” he says, pounding the steering wheel, “It’s never been this long!”
“Forget it man,” Dave cautions as he sees Joe-boy scanning for a chance to cut into the line of edgy drivers.
“Yeah,” says Eddie, “we’ll all get fired if we sit in that line and come in two hours late. Let’s just borrow some gas from Marvin and go fishin’ tonight…or we could all get up a little earlier tomorrow.”
The last comment is directed at Alex, but he’s looking at the phone booth he had planned to use while Joe-boy gassed up. His face is flushed. He’s sure Cindy is getting up this morning with another guy. He won’t be able to call her until break. Hunger and nausea combine and he almost screams for Joe-boy to stop the car. I’ll quit my job. I’ll quit the band. I’ve just got to get out of this goddamn car and call Cindy.
But he doesn’t do a thing. His feelings fade to depression and self-loathing. You’re so fucking weak. No wonder she’s got another guy. The Volvo feels like a hearse the rest of the way to work. He takes no part in the fishing plans to siphon gas out of parked cars later that night.
The car is booming with the epileptic boogie of The Eleven when Alex rises to the surface and begins to hear the music again. They’re just turning into the parking lot of Computer Automation, Inc.
“That’s what I like about Pete—he’s the first drummer we’ve had that can do 5’s and 7’s smooth. He knows where the one is without poundin’ on it.” Dave is obsessing again about the new direction—the new wave of jazz/rock fusion they all hope to ride to fame and fortune.
“Yeah, well, sometimes I wish he would pound the one a little more so I’d know where it was,” says Eddie.
“You don’t really gotta hit the top of the measure when you’re playin’ sax,” says Joe-boy. “You just follow me and Pete.” He pauses for the music. “Listen how Lesh brings these guys back to the four beat.”
Talk is suspended as they listen for the eleven beat jam to change back to four/four.
“I tell you, man,” says Joe-boy in hushed reverence, “that’s about the greatest moment in rock-n-roll so far.” Just as Eddie and Dave begin to loll with the music and the dope, Joe-boy punches out the cassette and yanks open the door, “I gotta go to the lumber truck and get some dough. I haven’t had anything to eat since that pizza last night.” There’s general serious agreement and everyone but Alex flops out of the Volvo. Even in the silence of the empty car he hears the next two lines of the song:
Without a warning, you broke my heart.
Taken it baby, torn it apart
Lyrics Con-man and Pigpen can both understand. He rolls out of the backseat and walks toward the opening in the side of the huge concrete box that is the computer plant, waiting just outside for his crew.
“What’s the matter with you, Alex?” says Dave as he reaches the entrance ahead of the others. Dave is the only one besides Cindy who still calls him Alex. He’s known Alex since long before he became the Con-man.
“I don’t know, man, I can’t take this grind anymore.”
“You mean work?”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“This is the best work we ever had, Alex. We’re all at the same place, on the same shift, making good money, we’re practicing more than ever and sounding good—hey, we got it made here.”
“Yeah? What about some regular paying gigs? Is this how we thought it was gonna be? We only really work a couple times a month. We had more gigs back in high school.”
“There was no disco in high school. We were a top 40 band in high school. Is that what you want to do?” He knows the answer and continues, “Look, we’re doing it right. This disco thing is gonna fade. You had the right idea in the first place when you started us off in this direction.”
“Yeah, right, you guys hardly even need a singer anymore—pretty soon there’s gonna be no vocals at all.” Alex is surprised at the sound of his own self-pity.
Taking him by the upper arm, Dave turns Alex aside and presses him against the wall next to the entrance. “Listen Alex, you know that’s not true—and besides, it’s not about any of that shit is it? This is about Cindy.” He turns his head, looking a little disgusted, and takes a quick breath, gathering steam. “Man you gotta get over it. She used us. We used her. Everything worked out fine. Whatever happens next has got to be about us, not her. It’s not like you guys were gonna get married or something.”
Alex stares at the asphalt and sighs. He can’t look Dave in the face because he’s afraid Dave is right and he doesn’t know what to say.
“Look, Alex,” says Dave, softening his approach. “We’re not ready to go to San Francisco yet. And I’m not ready to give up on L.A. yet either. Cindy’s not going anywhere.” He moves in closer to Alex’s down turned face, trying to make some eye contact. “And even if she was, you know what the guys’d say—you can’t break up the band for pussy.” He follows up quickly to reassure his friend. “That’s not how I’d put it, but that’s how it gets said.”
Alex is laughing and mad at the same time, “Oh, yeah, right,” playfully punching Dave’s arm, relieving tension, “Yeah that’s all Cindy is, motherfucker, nothin’ but pussy, sure.”
“Naw…but you know what I mean,” says Dave, giving in but holding out.
“Yeah, well, you know, man, I’ll never run out on you guys.” They are painfully close to hugging when Joe-boy and Eddie walk up laden with coffee and doughnuts from The Orange County Lumber Truck. They join the listless stream of young people filing in to begin another day of work.
“It’s the happy hipsters! The hippie hapsters! Whad-id-is, bruthahs? Whad-id-is?” As soon as they hit the cool, dry air of the plant, Marvin Lewis, the floor manager is coming at them like a smiling predator. His big perfect teeth reflect the brilliance of the florescent lights that give the vast interior space a surreal, brighter-than-daylight quality.
Eddie addresses him with bored sarcasm, “Yeah, what is it, Marvin?” Eddie usually takes the lead in the group’s dealings with Marvin because Eddie is Latino and Marvin seems to go easier on them when Eddie does the talking. Marvin actually likes his hippie bruthahs. He considers hippies to be part of The Movement. They’re the only whites who have the slightest understanding of what he has to go through being the only black man in management. The Con-man and his boys are the only ones he jives with. He speaks school English to nearly everyone else in the plant. But his bait and cut style leaves the happy hipsters feeling manipulated: he chums the water, then reels them in without a fight, since their freedom to rip back on him is severely restricted by the fact that he is essentially their boss.
“Well, well, well,” he sings, “you got the dough… you got the jo… you boys look like you’re all ready to go.” Marvin is a real performer—a carefully constructed parody of what he thinks white people expect a hip urban black man to be like. He’s got his captive audience laughing so hard they’re spilling their coffee. Now he’s completely got the drop on them from a management point of view. He singles out Dave first. “Well, Mr. D. you can start by goin’ in there and talkin’ to Freeman in sales. He wants last weeks data and I think he’s got some new tests he wants you to run.” The look on Marvin’s face tells them their work day has begun. Dave walks away without a word.
Marvin steps deftly between Joe-boy and Eddie. Putting his arms around their shoulders, he speaks to them conspiratorially. “Foreman says you guys are gonna have a couple-a light days—you must-a been kickin’ some butt last week—so later on I’m gonna pull you off the line for a little while—there’s some stuff in shipping I need you to do.” He propels them gently by the backs of their necks toward the chassis and harness department, his voice rising, “I’ll see-y’all at break about it.” Eddie and Joe-boy slump away shaking their heads. Marvin turns around to Alex, leaning against a chain-link divider—exhausted at just the thought of the next eight hours. “Come on, Con-man, let’s go see how it’s flowin’.”
They walk on shiny industrial concrete down the wide center aisle of the plant.
Alex has heard about “The Plant” since before he can remember. This same sort of floor—the glacier polish of a million tons of forklift and work shoes—is his earliest memory of visits to the factory where his parents worked. As a kid the cold concrete, the size, the noise, and the seeming importance of the work, had impressed him with a sense of awe, like the feeling he had in church. But with three shifts going day and night and his parents working 48-hour weeks, the plant was more present in his life than any religion.
Computer Automation is smaller and quieter, but the reverence is still there when he sees the concrete and feels it pound his heels. The ominous scent of ozone has replaced the forklift exhaust and rather than the metallic din of heavy industry, a murmur of voices can be heard above an electronic buzz, but the same impression of urgency and importance is here each morning as he walks to his machine.
On his left are the blue-collar benches of the chassis and harness line—rows of work benches cluttered with tools and the hollow brown husks of sheet metal that are the exoskeletons of pre-natal computers. Silent men on stools with nut drivers and solder guns hunch like industrial monks over the precise routines of their work, ignoring the threat of the overburdened shelves above them that groan with future tasks: multicolored bouquets of wire, tubes and sockets, metal flats and hardware—the parts and pieces of their jobs.
To the right is the white-collar world of the testing department. To secure against theft, it is completely enclosed by a six-foot chain-link fence that gives it the look of a refugee camp. Seen through the fence and dressed alike, the techies lose their personalities. The moving light from the diodes and screens reflecting on their white shirts and eyeglasses is more distinct than their faces. Their hushed voices blend with the hum of hundreds of tiny fans.
They walk on toward the flow solder machine, smoking and groaning at the end of the aisle. Beside it, a huge square opens in the high concrete wall where the stuffing room seems to have been added on. The warm yellow light of the room is bright yet diffuse, allowing no shadows and flattening its features so that it appears as an unreal glow, like a movie projected on the wall, that darkens the rest of the plant by contrast. Though the overall impression is of frenzied activity, no one in particular seems to be moving. There is the musical tinkle of female conversation, but the work is fast and close and no heads turn as they speak among themselves. The tableau of stuffer girls vibrates with the work of their hands and their eyes at a frequency that generates rack upon rack of printed circuit boards, crowded with components ready for tinning.
“The girls are lookin’ good this morning. Had most of a full crew here two hours ago, so they’re about three racks ahead of you.” Marvin is giving Alex the run-down. The flow solder machine is really Mavin’s baby. He takes it apart and puts it back together every few weeks. But it was his skill with the stuffing department got him promoted off the machine to floor manager. Somehow the ladies don’t mind being told about their mistakes the way Marvin tells them.
“Put any fresh bars in yet?” Alex asks, starting to let the job take over.
“Oh, yeah. Check it out. It’s topped off and smooth.” Standing next to the machine now, they look in silent fascination down into the caldron of roiling liquid metal. Alex and Marvin share a moment of admiration for the simple power of this machine. But Marvin is soon back to business. “You’re gonna have to adjust the fountain your self—I’m can’t do everything for you.”
“I know, man. I can handle it.”
“Yeah, well I wish you guys were doin’ bennies in the mornin’ instead of smokin’ weed.” He’s jabbing, but Marvin is cool. He’s partied with the band before. He just prefers benzedrine.
“Man, Marvin, you know we just take like one hit to get right.” Marvin grins and starts to walk away. Alex knows Marvin could really get his goat if he wanted to and he’s glad to be let off the hook, but he tags Marvin one time as he leaves: “Go jack up your stuffers, man, ‘cuz I’m gonna be caught up with ‘em by break.” He’s pleased with Marvin’s confidence in him and with his own confidence in running the machine. He will be caught up by break if the de-ionized water holds out. He shouts to Marvin before he disappears into the stuffing room, “How much DI we got?”
“Culligan man was just here,” Marvin shouts back. “You got all you need for days.” De-ionized water is used by the board washer. Not only flux and oil must be scrubbed from the boards before they go to testing, but even excess electrons. Only de-ionized water can do the job.
The rolling racks of boards look like cooling trays at a doughnut shop, waiting for the glaze. Alex selects a board from the nearest rack. If he’s careful he will only ruin a couple boards leveling the flow. If he’s lucky—and good—it’ll only take one.
The excitement he feels as he starts the work is the same that he feels before he performs with the band. He breathes deeper and faster, his heart pounds, but he’s focused and steady, anxious to put his rising energy to work.
The flow solder machine is shaped like a huge, doorless refrigerator on its back. The solder fountain at the center is formed by a rectangular frame of sheet metal called the collar that extends from below the surface of the pool of melted solder to a few inches above it. The operator controls pumps that force the molten metal up through the collar. The solder surges from below, bulging over the top of the constricting frame, but the heavy liquid resists the upward push and pours over the edges of the collar, back down into the surrounding caldron. When the pumps are adjusted correctly, the solder welling up through the collar forms a smooth crest of hot moving mirror over which the boards are slowly drawn by conveyor chains that run the length of the machine. When the fountain is level only the undersides of the boards touch the ridge of sticking liquid, fusing the board’s connectors with the wire legs of the components.
A thin layer of motor oil smokes on the undulating surface of the melt, tinting the silvery sheen. Flamelessly burning away, it must be replenished hourly to prevent a layer of sludge from forming on the molten mass. A hood and fan cover the machine like a floating gazebo, but Alex still hacks up a brown remnant of the smoke each day after work. Even though he knows it’s poison, he secretly likes the smell of the scorching oil.
He concentrates intensely on the test board. Leveling the top of the fountain sets up his whole day. Too low and some components will remain loose and be lost in the washer—too high and the solder will flood the top of the board and all the components will be ruined. Once the fountain is level it will only need periodic adjustment when new bars of solder are added. Most of his day will be spent mounting boards on the conveyor chain, watching them as slip through the flux and hit the solder, then moving the warm, solid boards to the washer, and stacking them to dry for testing—fast, rhythmic work that allows him time to think.
Alex’s mind is engaged with the machine. His hands are on the pump controls, crouching slightly, eyes level with the top of the fountain, as the first board moves across the foaming mass of purple flux at one end of the machine and approaches the wave of solder. He starts the solder lower than it needs to be and raises it slowly, his hands moving among three large knobs at his waist. Leaning into the warm weight of the machine with his face as close as possible to the stinging heat, he grins at the sizzle of the flux, like water on a hot skillet, as the leading edge of the board touches the solder.
He’s there. The center pump is perfect. Luck is with him. Just the slightest torque on the outside pumps and the top of the fountain is a smooth, straight edge of silver. One board is all it will take today.
When the next board comes through perfect, he starts his run—going into a kind of frenzied trance. In his two years of factory work, Alex has discovered a mental zone that keeps the work and the clock moving quickly without noticing the effort, but leaves him long stretches of uninterrupted thought. He’s written some of his best songs during these times. But today he’s worrying about Cindy and the boyfriend he’s sure she’s got and the phone police and the bills. Even so, the work trance is so effective he’s turning out solid boards faster than they can be stuffed. He’s ahead of the girls ten minutes before the break.
The deionized water is in a pressurized tank on the other side of the wall. The washer whines, and he knows it’s time to open the input valve and fill the reservoir.
When everyone else heads to the Lumber Truck for coffee and sugar at break, Alex runs straight to the phone by the john. He can’t go the whole day with Cindy’s disapproval in his ear.
This time he calls collect, but it’s busy. Still busy. And busy, again. Sounds like the same operator over and over. He feels like an idiot. Who the fuck could she be talking to at nine-thirty on a Monday morning? He realizes that he knows nothing about her life in San Francisco. Why would she even think about him anymore?
On the fifth try it rings. She sounds reluctant to accept any charges from Alex Conrad.
“Cindy? How are ya, baby?” Afraid of silence, he goes on. “Don’t be mad about the phone thing, Cin, I won’t use it anymore and they won’t bust us for that one call.” The silence he dreads is aching. “Cindy?”
“OK, Alex, I’m not mad. But I gotta go.”
“I love you, Cindy,” sounding like a question.
“I love you, too, Alex, but we gotta talk and I don’t have time right now. I’d call you tonight, but you guys never hear the phone when you’re practicing.”
We gotta talk?
The ominous words. “Whadaya mean we gotta talk? We talk all the time.”
“Oh, Alex… What?” She’s talking to someone else, the mouthpiece muffled.
“Look, Alex, I really gotta go.”
“Who’s that with you?”
“It’s just my ride and he’s gonna leave without me if I don’t get off, so…”
Panic. Fear. Nausea. “Who is your ride? What’s his name?” He tries to sound casual, but emotion thickens his voice.
“Jeff, Alex. His name is Jeff and I gotta go. I’ll try to catch you around five—so be there, OK? I gotta go now.”
“Cindy?” Nothing. Hung up on twice in twenty-four hours.
He steals an extra ten minutes of break hiding in the corner stall of the john, waiting for tears that do not come.
Alex knows that something is wrong as soon as he comes onto the floor. Everyone from chassis is over by the solder machine. They’re mopping. Marvin is conferring with a group of ties. Though silhouetted by the glow from the stuffing room, he can tell they are all looking at him as he appears at the end of the main aisle. The aisle is running like a creek with hundreds of dollars of DI water that spilled from the washer when he left the valve open and ran to the phone. Much worse than the cost of the water, it’s also at least a full day of down time.
He leans against a bench, dazed. He hears his own moaning lament, “Oh fuck… oh, shit… oh, fuck… oh, shit…”
On Marvin’s signal, Eddie tiptoes through the water to where Alex stands immobilized. “You fucked up, man, but I don’t think they’re gonna fire you. He wants you to go to his office so he can yell at you in private.”
“He doesn’t want me to help clean up?”
Eddie shakes his head half smiling, “Naw, man, he doesn’t want you anywhere near that machine anymore. He’s takin’ it kinda personal. Says he’s gonna train me on it and put you back in chassis.”
Joe-boy’s car is rigged with a hidden button to start without a key.
He had to get away from their faces. Marvin. The guys. Everybody. Looking at him. He didn’t really think about what he was doing or where he was going. He just had to get away and the car was where he went. After a couple of consoling hits, it seemed to make sense to reach under the dash board, start the car and drive in the general direction of home.
He remembers the gas when the Volvo dies on the 405.
The place he leaves the car on the freeway is close enough to the Marshall house for him to walk. Pocketing the pipe and cleaning the dope out of the car as best he can, he hops the fence into the neighborhood. The angry curses spitting from his mouth keep his other feelings from surfacing, but he thinks vaguely of the phone cops and paranoia breaks through. The contraband in his pocket becomes a lump of evil obvious to anyone who looked at him. Suddenly everyone in this neighborhood of stay-home moms and housekeepers is looking at the freak with all the hair. He has to get off the street. Cutting through a neighbor’s back yard, he comes down to the Marshall house from behind.
The fennel is warm and oily in the high sun. The pleasure of its aroma lifts his head as he slides down the slope at the back of the lot. The fragrant shade at the bottom is familiar. Along its edge winter runoff from the hill has left a swath of soft, sandy soil where Cindy had planted a patch of lawn, a private place between the fennel and the hill. He can feel her here, and smell her. This is where they first made love. Falling down upon it now he grasps in desperation to hold it still—to keep the moving earth from turning. The unwatered blades tear from the ground, chaff scattering in the warm breeze.
We don’t need no piece of paper from the city hall
Keepin’ us tied and true, no…
He feels the tears escape his eyes. They fall into the dying grass, unseen.
Thumbing through Los Angeles takes the rest of the day, working his way north. By midnight he is sleeping in the sand at Zuma Beach.