TUESDAY: Stones

BY LARRY FLEWIN

Copyright is held by the author.

IT WAS always something, a never-ending stream of somethings. Linda wanted her desk moved again; now it was too close to the filing cabinets. The radiator in shipping was spitting hot water at everyone. The boss, nice guy that he was, wanted yet another production report, this time dating back to the dawn of time. That would take some digging, time he didn’t have.

And Ted was not in again, his back he whispered over the phone. Gone out again and all I did was take a shower and reach for a towel. He was going to look into some physiotherapy, a friend of his did that you know, and did the company’s insurance cover it. He, Paul, the production manager would have to dig that up too. That’s why I have grey hair he kept saying it’s always something.

They were busy, busier than they had ever been in the last five years. The economy might have been tanking but the demand for cereal appeared to be skyrocketing. No one knew why, but it meant the demand for cereal boxes was also sky high. That’s what the company Paul managed produced, boxes. Thousands of them, all in four colours and all of them food related but especially for cereal.

Even when he ran his production lines round the clock, Paul could not keep up with the demand. Hiring new staff was helping, but training took time and mistakes happened. And with his best catcher off sick for the last three months, production figures had dropped slightly. No concern to him as they were well within his defined norms, but the boss didn’t like to see dips in his profits, even little ones. That’s when his phone would ring.

“Paul, Rick here.”

“Hi Rick, how are you.”

“Fine, just fine. I won’t keep you long. I’m a little concerned about…things. Is everything going okay?”

“Uh yeah, so far so good.”

“Well I know, but you always say that. I’m a just little concerned about our work-in-progress figures for this month, they seem a little high to me. You know how critical sales are. I just wanted to remind you that I really need a good month-end this month. Nothing to worry about really, you know. But I just wanted to be sure you know…you know?”

“Right. Okay, got it. Month end…we’ll do the best we can, Rick.”

“Okay, sounds good to me. Talk to you later. Bye.”

“Yes sir. Bye.”

And so it went, word for word, every month since Ted’s accident.

***

The commercial printing business was one of those quirky little industries that rarely ever came to light. People bought soap, cookies, tea, and cereal without ever considering where the box it was packaged in came from. It was this company, one of a declining few that spit them out by the millions. Sheets of thick paper the size of a sheet of drywall went through a printing press the size of a bus, piling up in great stacks of coloured everything. The stacks were pushed on enormous carts over to a handfed die-cutter, which punched out a foldable design onto each sheet. Those were then fed into folding and gluing machines, which literally folded and glued the box into it’s final, flat, pre-filled with cereal shape.

It was here that things could go very well, or very wrong. It was here that the catchers did their thing, literally catching handfuls of completed boxes as they exited the machines and, ironically, stuffing them into larger boxes for shipment. Being the only non-mechanical element in the entire process, their speed, and ability determined the rate of production for the entire rest of the plant. It was not a job for the weak or the faint of heart. They were of a certain character the catchers, an intense, driven group of employees whose teamwork was second to none. It had to be to get them through eight hours of a very physically demanding job.

Ted was a catcher; probably the best there was if everyone was to be believed. His hourly production rivaled that of the next three employees combined, his knack for hearing a mechanical problem before it developed and shut down the machine was legendary, and his jovial damn-them-all attitude was infectious. The tide of humanity called the day shift catcher crew produced more production miracles than anyone could ever remember. And now their leader Ted was off with an injury and the whole place felt it.

It was Wanda, the red-haired pixie, who missed him the most and went around with a mopey face most days. She worked with him as if joined at the hip, and had developed a sort of crush on him. Although she denied it, everyone else could tell and teased her endlessly about it. Ted was good-natured about it and laughed it off as nonsense while Wanda blushed fiercely. Now even that was missing.

“You sure?”

“Yes Wanda I’m sure.”

“Really sure?”

“Really sure. I checked his timecard just to be sure and he hasn’t clocked back in yet.” Wanda wasn’t the brightest. She had this idea that the timecard was the key to Ted’s recovery, so she insisted that his be kept up-to-date. That way she could check to see if he was here or not. Every day it was the same question and every day it was the same answer.

“I kinda miss him ya know, we all do. It’s not like I like him or anything but he’s so big and strong and some of those beer orders are hard to handle. I get Charlie to give me a hand when I have to catch them, but it’s easier when Ted’s around you know. Are you sure you’ve checked, is he still going to be away for awhile, cuz I miss him a little you know.”

“We all do Wanda, and yes I’ve checked. He’s still out for awhile on comp but last time I spoke to him he figured a couple more weeks tops and then he’d be in. I’ll let you know as soon as I know okay?”

“Promise?”

“Promise sweetheart, you’ll be the first to know, really.”

The whole place did it’s best to keep up to his standards, and keep his place in the line open until his return, but it wasn’t easy. Time and again they would reach that milestone of being caught up to the machinery and on the verge of meeting their catching goals when something would go wrong and it would all fall apart. Stacy’s prized lucky hairclips would come loose and vanish under her machine, requiring a full stop until they were found. Joanne’s packing table would fold in on itself or Andrea’s cart would lose a wheel. All of it apparently preventable by Ted’s mere presence, and without him a constant worry that affected his shift team. Until his physical return, they determined to soldier on as best they could.

And that’s what worried Paul the most. Without Ted, the whole place seemed to be suffering, and there was almost nothing he could do about it. He had put Charlie, the senior catcher on the night shift, in to replace Ted and hold the fort until Ted’s return. Staff had been shuffled around, placing specific people at the back of specific machines to make best use of their catching abilities. He had even reduced the machine speeds to give everyone a better chance at keeping up.

The changes had worked up to a point but the strain was starting to tell. Everyone was tired mentally and physically and it was showing. Tempers flared, jibes and insults grew nastier, and fewer people sat together at lunch. Production managers were many things but they weren’t miracle workers. You hired those, paid them well, and when they were off sick did your best to get them back as soon as possible.

And the hell of it was, Ted had actually been in a few times, just to say hi and pick up paperwork and cheques from Human Resources. When he had heard how things were going, he had actually volunteered to stay and to help out a little. At least as much as his back would allow he said. Paul said thanks but no thanks, afraid that even that little bit might overdo something and keep Ted away longer

“Are you sure? I don’t mind really. I could just go down there and see how they’re doing, you know, push them a little.”

“Thank you but no. It’s good of you to offer but I think it would be better if you take care of yourself first, and come back when you’re ready.”

“But I’m ready now, well almost. A couple more visits and my physiotherapist thinks I should be ready for light duties.”

“Well that’s good to hear. Light duties? Yeah, I can figure out something. I’ll talk to Vic over at HR and see. We can figure this out. Just call me when you’re ready, okay?”

“Yeah sure, no problem, and thanks man, you’re a prince.”

“That’s what they pay me for.”

By now, Ted had been off for three months, the victim of seemingly innocent circumstances that had somehow expanded into much larger problems. Generally speaking, his lifestyle, which consisted largely of greasy burgers and heavy drinking, was his worst enemy. It made his diabetes harder to manage, and coupled with loose attention to his personal hygiene, left him a talented if somewhat odious employee. One that was virtually the mainstay of the company.

It was the simplest of things that sometimes felled the biggest of men. A shallow slice across the arm from the sharp edge of a box led to an infection. Mild by most standards, it was enough to overwhelm his already weak immune system and move deeper into his arm. Within a week, he couldn’t move his fingers or bend his arm. Six weeks off with physio and antibiotics followed.

Employment insurance covered his wages and some of his costs, the balance being made up through the generosity of the company. His fellow employees even held a raffle to raise some money for him, which they sent along with some flowers. He was profusely thankful over the phone the next day, to the point of being tearful, which rather surprised Paul.

The day before he was to return Paul got a phone call from Ted saying he had twisted his back in the shower. He was in intense pain, was trying to get in to see a chiropractor, and could they, meaning the company, send over the forms he needed to apply for longer-term benefits. That had been a month ago.

Then today Paul got the word via a phone message that things were not going well for Ted. The diabetes was under control and the back was better but there had been a death in the family, his ex-wife’s grandmother, and as they had been close, he was off to the funeral. Meanwhile demand was still outstripping production. The catchers were all doing their best but it was clearly not enough anymore. Without their own personal rally monkey, the team at the end of the line was suffering. They needed Ted back, pronto.

Paul and Charlie took a long lunch and headed over to see what their pal needed to get back into shape and back into the line.

The door opened and there stood Ted, larger than life, a great big goofy grin of welcome plastered across his face.

“Hey guys, long time no see. C’mon in.”

The lobby was spacious and bright, one of those two-storey cathedral types so prevalent in newer homes.

“So, what can I do for you guys? Get you a beer or something?”

The two of them looked around nervously, not knowing quite what to say.

“You’re looking pretty good dude,” said Charlie. “Seems like you’re moving pretty good and all.”

“Yeah, How’s the back, they got you on some kind of therapy or something right?” asked Paul.

Ted looked at the two of them puzzled. “My back? About my back, it’s fine, really, no problems. Oh right…right…yeah…my back.”

“Seriously dude, you look pretty good for a dead man walking.”

“Yeah listen…..about that. We, uh, maybe we should talk about that.”

Paul and Charlie looked at each other.

“Well see it’s like this….my back is fine…always was….I…just…didn’t want to work for awhile. You know how it is. Daisy’s just back from Australia and there was so much pressure with the family at Christmas that I figured…well…I could use a little time off you know…so I took some.”

The silence in the room was palpable.

”Man, are you nuts?” Paul exclaimed. “What do you mean time off! All this time we think you’re dying or something and you’re just effing around? Ah come on, I don’t believe this!”

“That takes stones, man,” quipped Charlie. “Real big ones.”

“No no really I’m just fine,” said Ted cheerily. “It seemed like a good idea at the time you know, a couple of days off, maybe a week or two and then I’d be back at it. But…it ….just kinda didn’t work out that way.” He paused, staring sheepishly at Paul and Charlie.

“I’m kinda guessing you might want some of your money back, right?”

“YA THINK?!”

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