Surprising nobody, the company absolutely refused to meet with the people from the Council. Not only did they get shot down via email, the guards at the pie plant threatened anyone who came by, waving long guns around and generally being aggro. Hannah and Moji managed to convince the Council to let them try a different tack, but… it didn’t go well.
Once the workers at the Ubermart realized what Hannah was saying, there was an immediate and outraged reaction.
“A lot of us rode hours in the back of a shitty truck, away from families and everything to work in this place. You think we’re gonna let you fuck that up for us?” Even in the dim twilight, Kalle could see the hot redness in the woman’s bare face.
“We’re not going to fuck it up…” Moji began.
“You’re damn right!” There was a low and ugly cheer.
“We want to make it better for you!”
“Heard that one before.” It had gotten harder to see individual faces as the crowd grew. The voice was older, male, roughened by smoking or illness or both. “This a union pitch? Fuckin’ save it. I know how it ends: closed plants, lost jobs…we’re barely hanging on as it is.”
“If there’s a union,” Hannah said in an even tone that somehow carried like a shout, “it’d just be all of you. Together. We’re not trying to run this. We just want you to have your own voice.”
“But you’re not listening to what the voice is saying,” red-faced woman countered. “We want to work. Yeah, the hours are long and it’s hard. It’s better than starving. We know. We’ve been there.”
“Us too,” Moji said. “It’s how we learned to help each other. If you don’t think we had the same trouble here as anywhere, you’re wrong. We just took a chance on each other instead of everyone-for-themselves.
“So, what, then?” Another voice came out of the crowd. “You offering us all a job?”
Moji, wrong-footed by the interruption, began “Not a job, but—”
The rest of whatever she wanted to say was drowned out by jeers. There was a low, almost subliminal buzz coming from the crowd that Kalle hadn’t felt since big stadium games way back in the day, or street riots more recently. Seemed like things were just about to pop off.
“We should go,” Yasin warned. Kalle tried to edge towards Moji, whose one-on-one with an older white guy in a cap was escalating. A voice yelled something from near the door of the Ubermart and Kalle found herself almost automatically going into a defensive crouch, ready to run or fight or both.
Whatever was happening back there was starting to draw people away. The crowd slowly started to thin out and voices quieted. Yasin motioned to Kalle that she should stay where she was, and she swallowed her annoyance at being treated like a terrier long enough for him to get halfway across the parking lot.
She rejoined Hannah and Moji, who had extricated themselves and were huddled by their bikes.
“This isn’t the way,” Hannah was saying. “We’re pushing against them instead of organizing with them.”
“These are the loud ones,” Moji shot back. “For every one of them who’s yelling there are probably ten that can be reached. I agree, though, that we need to be strategic. Maybe in smaller groups…”
Hannah shook her head. “The problem is that they’re living in a closed loop: factory to here and back to the factory. They don’t have anywhere to be in small groups. They’re isolated and precarious, and they’re naturally going to be resistant to anything that feels like a risk. Right now, that’s us.”
Moji looked off towards the tree line. “What about if we—”
“There’s something you probably should know.” Yasin jogged out of the lengthening shadows to join them.
“What’s up?” Kalle asked.
“There’s a dead guy in there.”
Nobody knew what to do, so Emily stepped up and offered to take care of the body. Some folks thought his family was from Syracuse. Emily said she’d send some emails, and mostly people were just glad to have the corpse out of there. They could do an autopsy at the clinic, and Hannah quietly intervened to make sure it happened.
It was Yasin’s idea that everybody at the Ubermart have a meal together. Most of the Syracuse people seemed to have been pretty close with the guy—who went by “Hank” or “Cap”—and he’d been a big enough personality that he was known at the foundry.
Cap hadn’t been young, and death came earlier than it used to, but even so it was unexpected and scary. People needed something other than a curtained-off cell on the concrete.
Leila and Blair were part of the crew who helped run the Uncommons. They pulled together folks from a lot of the farms and shops to create a huge feast. Planks were brought and laid over sawhorses. Vanloads and mule-carts full of food arrived throughout the day and got chopped and prepped and seasoned under a big lean-to by the front door of the Ubermart. A guard stuck his head out partway through the morning and then ducked back inside.
When the flatbed truck arrived with all the men from the foundry, the back edge of the parking lot had been transformed. Kalle had hung strings of little solar bulbs over the tables, and someone had gathered wildflowers: nothing fancy, but just enough that it didn’t look like the soup kitchens where everybody had queued up more than once. Chili bubbled in a huge pot over a methane burner, spicing the breezes that brought the cool of the evening.
The men had already started eating when a small caravan of trucks and carts arrived with women from their bunkhouse nearer the foundry. It had been Moji’s doing. This was a chance for the workers to be in community, however that looked for them.
The folks from the ‘Quois kept mostly to themselves, though Yasin floated back and forth and eventually pulled Justin over to one of the big tables. Kalle noticed weed smoke drifting overhead—awful stuff, from the smell of it, compared to the hybrids she’d got used to from Murphy’s farm—and raised an eyebrow. Moji gave a subtle motion of the head towards where a plastic bottle full of clear liquid was being passed around. Hannah gestured to Dex and Bee, who made sure the vehicles were ready for a fast exit if things got out of hand. Everybody had seen what grief and anger and booze could do.
The vibe, though, stayed light. Justin was more animated than he usually ever got, and Kalle knew he hardly smoked and never drank. He seemed happy rather than high. It was a good sign.
Hannah made the call. She and Moji took themselves out of the pool of lights and let Emily, Kalle and Bee—who were people the workers knew—join Justin and Yasin. Bee received a raucous thank-you from the table, which she accepted with grace. She named all the farmers who had contributed to the feast, each of which received a cheer. Pies and tarts made their way down the table and were swiftly demolished.
Yasin glanced for a split-second at Kalle before seizing the moment. “Here’s what these guys are talking about,” he began, and Kalle felt her heart begin to race. Things were on a knife-edge and it would be so easy for the mood of the crowd to turn. “They have so much food—so much fresh food—that they can literally give it away. To strangers. For nothing.”
There was a silent pause and Kalle wanted more than anything to check her escape route, but she didn’t want to move.
“Is it, though?” One of the men at the other end of the table leaned forward. Kalle saw a little crumb of tart in the corner of his mouth.
“It’s for nothing,” Bee confirmed. “I mean, people did it because they heard about your loss and wanted to do something. It wasn’t a lot from each farm, but it adds up, you know? It’s how we do.”
Yasin’s eyes crinkled in a smize over his mask. Easy, Kalle thought at him. Please, go easy.
Justin surprised Kalle by stepping into the break in conversation. “I guess it’s just kind of a habit we all got into from when things were really bad. Anybody who had enough to share just did, and eventually we just figured out a way to make sure that it got to the people who needed it. And, you know, it feels good to help out when you have to be separated all the time. You can see somebody else once in a while, hear some different stories, maybe get to know somebody a bit. Once you get used to doing things that way it makes you not want to do everything all on your own.”
“I’ve been to town,” said Yasin. “There in better shape than anyplace I’ve seen since all the shit started. Seems like they figured out something that works, and nobody seems like they’re working 12-hour days.”
“Oh, hell no,” Bee blurted. “I mean I’ve done it from time to time, everybody has, like at harvest time or whatever. But usually you don’t have to.”
Kalle wasn’t really sure how it ended up with her volunteering to get smuggled into the foundry inside a 55-gallon drum, even as Yasin was wheeling her off the truck. Events had kind of moved fast after the meeting.
Not all the workers wanted to strike, but enough of them said it was time to make a stand to at least convince the rest not to rat them out. Hannah and Justin’s plan got folks fired up. Kalle realized, hunched over in the dark confines of the barrel, that she may have let herself get carried away in the excitement.
She felt the hand-truck roll over a threshold and settle to a stop. Moji had an old comrade at one of the chemical supply companies downstate and managed to get a uniform shirt and an RFID prox card for Yasin. Kalle heard the beep of a scanner, some muttered words as the guard waved them through. The barrel shifted back up onto the hand-truck again, and they rolled on.
Eventually, Yasin let out a breath. “OK,” he said, tension tightening his voice. “So far so good.”
“Good job,” Kalle whispered.
“Delivery guy is always basically invisible,” muttered Yasin, “and the guard’s only paid to check the paperwork. If he thought I didn’t look like a ‘Lurleen,’ he didn’t say anything about it.”
“You could be Lurleen.” Kalle shifted, as best she could, from one uncomfortable position to a different uncomfortable position. “That might work for you.”
She could just barely hear the soft snort. “No, thanks.”
“Lurleen it is, then.” She was definitely going to have bruises from this experience, she realized.
It turned out the map Hannah had drawn from people’s memory wasn’t all that accurate.
That, or Kalle had gotten all turned around in the dimly lit hallways as she crept from corner to corner, her heart repeatedly punching her in the chest. She was petrified that she was going to get busted by a security guard around one of these corners, and that the whole rest of the action would be blown.
She stopped, let her breath slow, and tried hard to retrace her steps in her mind. She pulled out the map and studied it: what if this intersection was actually that one over there? Then, the foundry floor would be right at the end of the corridor.
She padded back the way she had come, her attention perfectly divided between the bottoms of her kung-fu shoes and her ears, trying to make absolutely no sound and listening for any footsteps.
She ducked down the long corridor and turned at the end, coming right up against a glass door with the flat-black square of a card reader by the side. MANUFACTURING, read the placard. Yahtzee.
All she had room for in the barrel with her had been a little fanny-pack: just big enough for some water, a handful of pressed fruit-nut bars, and DB’s magic box. The box talked to the card reader and broke it in some way that DB was really excited to explain and that made absolutely no sense to Kalle. That was OK, though. The Dreamboy got so enthusiastic about his exploits: he was like a reverse magician, eager to explain to you exactly how the trick worked. But especially at this moment in time, Kalle was just interested in the magic.
She unzipped the butt-case and the bars fell out, clattering on the floor. Kalle froze, listening like a cat, her mouth half-open because somebody told her when she was a kid it made your hearing better. After a few breaths, she crouched, quickly gathering up the bars—that was when she heard the sound of a door opening off to the left.
Fuck me. She crammed everything in the ass-purse and held it in one hand as she scrambled desperately for a place to hide in the empty hallway. At last, after she could clearly hear boots on the linoleum getting closer, she found an open door: a supply closet with just barely enough room for her to cram in and so silently close the door behind her.
The bootsteps approached, paused. Kalle could hear a door handle being jiggled. The steps moved on, passed slowly right outside the closet door. Kalle decided to hold her breath before realizing she hadn’t inhaled since she closed herself in there. She carefully let air slip out of one side of her mouth as the boots faded off to the distance. Another pause, then the boots got closer. She could hear the long flapping sough of a fart as the guards headed back down the hall to wherever they’d come from. Kalle waited. She stayed there long enough for the guard to go back behind a closed door and for the fart to dissipate, because… gross.
Finally, she opened the door in super-slow-motion, and glided back down the hall with exaggerated steps. She lowered the bum-satchel carefully to the floor and unzipped it a little at a time. The magic box had the look of all of DB’s tricks—messy, wires hanging out everywhere—but his stuff always worked, so she pulled it out gently and held it in front of her. The card reader would probably go beep when it did whatever the magic box made it do. Those things always go beep. So, she raised herself up into a crouch, like a runner, and held up the card part with the wires dangling like some kind of talisman.
She flipped the card to its other side and held it: still nothing. Kalle felt her mouth go dry and her bladder suddenly fill. What had DB said? So many things. One part, though, about ‘pressing rather than tapping,’ so she leaned forward with her whole upper body and pressed the card against the black square of the reader.
It sounded as loud as a fire alarm to Kalle.
Click-click, double-beep, and that was enough for her. She jammed the box back in the booty-bag and broke into a tiptoe run back to the warehouse. The barrel sucked, but right now a place to hide was worth it. She slipped in, contorted herself and closed the clips that held the lid on, panting to catch her breath despite being bent double. And now, she thought miserably, to wait.
She felt relief and anxiety when the workers all finally got there. She could hear voices and footsteps in the distance, which meant she could get out of the barrel and lose herself in the crowd, at least for the few minutes it would take for the really scary part to begin.
She pulled up the mask she’d gotten from Yasin, counting on the anonymity of the generic cheap cloth the workers were all issued. A few turns down hallways in the old pie-plate factory and she found the women’s room. The plan was that if anybody asked, she could say she just had to pee. It was, she realized, actually true, so in she went.
She joined the crowd as if she’d come in with them. They were bottled up in the hallway outside the MANUFACTURING door as an increasingly frustrated guard kept slapping and banging his card against the reader. No beeps or clicks. It looked like Dreamboy’s magic had successfully fubared the thing, and Kalle felt a silly swell of pride in her chest. She loved that kid.
The guard moved them all back outside, which fit the plan perfectly. A couple of workers complained in an exaggerated way and Kalle shook her head. There was always somebody overacting in capers like this. Luckily the guard had already gone back to the office to call and complain at somebody else, so nobody but the workers were there to see Hannah, Justin, Dex and three other militia covering the driveway with long guns.
The workers fanned out in front of the building, staying far away from the door and from the militia. Kalle wanted to go stand by Hannah so bad it was like a taste in her mouth, but she knew she had to let the last part play out. Cigarettes were lit, people sat on the ground or with their backs up against the building, and the morning was mostly silent except for some low conversation and the occasional chirp of a bird.
The door slid open with a hiss. The guard came out, a harried expression on his face. Kalle watched him register the armed people in the driveway, and as he reached for his pistol Dex raised her gun and fired smoothly. The wireless taser slug hit the guard right in the chest and he crumpled. Hannah surged forward and disarmed him quickly. Justin jogged into the building, and Kalle heard the distant yelp as the second guard was tased.
Hannah popped the magazine out of the first guard’s pistol and did the same with the one Justin brought out. She tossed the guns on the ground in front of the entrance.
“This factory is closed,” she said. There was a second’s stunned silence, and then somebody hollered “Yeah!” Hannah cracked one of her rare smiles as the laughter turned to claps and cheers.
During the strike, a micro-economy was created at the Ubermart with people starting to work other jobs to keep the little community going. The company sent security, but the city people were better armed and stood them off. Hannah finally convinced the company that they were better off working with the Council than abandoning their plant, proving to them they could have a stable workforce instead of having to restart somewhere else.
And Yasin? He got tested and started quarantining. The vote for him to join the crew in the Bubblehouse had been unanimous.
About Paul Daniel Ash:
Paul’s short fiction has appeared in Wanderlust Journal, Utopian Eye, the Montpelier Bridge, and elsewhere. A teacher of English composition at the university level, he has written and edited textbooks for Salem Press and Bloomsbury Press, and was one of the co-writers of the non-fiction Recovery Dharma. His poetry will be featured in Subversive Futures, due out in the latter half of 2021. He lives in Montpelier, Vermont with his wife Michelle, a German Shepherd Dog, a Maine Coon Cat, several thousand books, and an old truck.
Feature image by Igor Ovsyannykov from Pixabay