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Merick's and Spring
A short story about a germination
The first big change that Sam noticed was all the machines. Merick’s Inc manufactured agricultural equipment, and it used to do so the old fashioned way… But you know what they say about change.
Sam had read the rumors in the paper: Merick’s two main competitors — Ross Co, and Dortch & Lam — were rolling out their own machines, and pumping their production tenfold for it. Now, Ross and Dortch weren’t in the same town, hell, they weren’t even in the same state, but they competed for the same customers as Merick’s, and so Merick’s had to adapt, or die.
So, Merick’s owners took out a loan, bought some of the fancy machines, and sure enough, production skyrocketed. Everyone loved it. Even Sam, who trusted the old ways as a matter of principle, and doubted such radical change as a matter of instinct, came to favor their presence — the workers’ bonuses were tied to their production, and production had never been higher. He bought his wife, Libbey, a new car, and he could always afford a brand new pair of shoes for his two growing boys when they needed them. Everything Sam did, he did for them, so he was glad.
Well, after a couple years, Merick’s owners sold out. Sam had heard rumors that they were struggling to keep up on the loan, even though production had never been better. Sam wasn’t paid to understand the time value of money, and so he didn’t give it much weight one way or the other; until he found out it was the creditors themselves that bought the plant, and that seemed to settle that.
The new ownership — a small group of Swiss bankers — made just a quick appearance to close the deal, and to conduct interviews for management positions (the old management was laid off unceremoniously). Sam watched from the cafeteria as the new owners brought folks in and out of the office. They looked like anyone else, and yet, and yet… there was something a little different, Sam couldn’t quite put his finger on. Something in the face, the posture, the demeanor. And what’s more, they had this air about themselves that Sam smelled immediately. The old owners certainly would have stopped by the cafeteria by now, or made a public announcement, or put on a barbecue, or something. They were personable. They were men of higher breeding, so to speak, but that didn’t stop them from breaking bread with the common laborers. Not these new owners. They acted like they were in a club, and you weren’t. More than anything else, Sam noticed this about them. He mentioned it over lunch, but his friends just seemed to shrug, or, if they were hoping for one of those manager’s positions, they dismissed Sam as “just old-fashioned”. Once the interviews were done, the new managers got a nice little parade of recognition, and everything went back to normal at Merick’s.
For a little while, anyways.
The new managers, some of which were Sam’s old friends, soon started showing up to work in nice, new sports cars, and parking in special spots with fresh painted stripes. Then, soon after, they moved out of town, into gated communities, and huge houses. The new managers came to interact with the line workers less and less — only when it was time to come and ask for changes, or for more productivity. Since no one ever saw the new owners, the new management became the face of ownership by default, and since Sam liked the old owners better, he came to dislike the new managers, even though some used to be his friends.
It wasn’t a big thing, though. It was just change, and you know what they say… Production kept getting better, and so did Sam’s bonus, so he bit his lip and kept his nose down to his work, like he always had. A little change was bound to bring a little discomfort, and to dissolve some old friendships, but it brought opportunity too, and this was natural, Sam figured. When he got married, he didn’t see his old friends as much as he used to, and maybe this wasn’t so different, he thought — a new arrangement, more better than it was worse, but life wasn’t fundamentally different. Yeah, that’s all it was, Sam judged.
Before too long, the worse got worse. Sam’s kids had grown up, and outside of work, he coached their baseball team every Tuesday and Thursday night. The managers knew, and could count on Sam to clock out at 3:50 PM every time on those days — this was never a problem, until one day, they asked him to stay late. “Mandatory training, everyone’s gotta attend. Sorry, Sam.” He’d worked at Merick’s for twenty years, and never needed to attend “mandatory training”. If he needed training, he’d get it out on the floor, and get it quickly, generally by trial and error. Instead, they squeezed all of first and second shift into the cafeteria, put up these big presentation boards, and began to preach some “corporate values” to everyone. Sam’s skin began to crawl, immediately. He could smell bullshit from a mile away. The managers were talking down all the workers like they were dumb kids in school; but they also slipped in a couple of words that seemed fancy or new just for the sake of appearing fancy or new. “They want to make themselves look smarter than us, and that’s all this is about,” is what Sam thought. He left the training feeling like they had spoken for an hour without actually saying anything at all, and never felt so disrespected in his tenure. This feeling did not sit right in his gut, no, it did not sit right at all. To add insult to injury, this was the very first one of his kids’ ball games he ever missed, the first in either of their lives.
It would not be the last.
The second truly fundamental change to the day-to-day operations of Merick’s came when the managers started giving out the “Dope”. It wasn’t drugs (not hard drugs, anyways), no, it was some kind of “performance supplement” that got its name from the “dopaminic activation” of something-or-other that Sam didn’t understand, and didn’t really care to. They mixed it into the water cooler, and gave it freely to all the workers. “It helps you hit higher production,” is basically what it boiled down to, and they were not wrong in that. Merick’s started hitting record numbers immediately, and therefore bonuses went up, and the annual raises kept coming on schedule. No one could complain.
Except Sam. He started bringing his own water into work, still distrustful by his nature of anything that seemed fake or weird. Well, once Sam started lagging behind the average, the managers came and gave him a talking-to. “My numbers aren’t any worse than they’ve ever been,” Sam said. But if your numbers weren’t getting better, then something was wrong, “and besides, you don’t want to lag behind everyone else, do you?” Sam held out as long as he could, until they changed the bonus structure to reflect your productivity growth instead of mere productivity. Sam counted on his bonus. Libbey and the boys counted on his bonus. And so, despite his reservations, Sam went in for the dope. Everything he did, he did for Libbey and the boys.
The dope was good: sweet on the tongue, mood and focus both improved, and Sam had never felt happier to be so productive… The drink imparted such a demeanor that Sam would even whistle while he worked. While he worked… It only took a couple of shifts for Sam to notice, however, that the dope would wear off right around 3PM. He would start to get tired, and weak. The surplus was manufactured, and only led to a deeper deficit, later on. He could set his clock to it: at 3PM, his judgment became cloudy, his demeanor became a little rough, and his eyelids would start to sag. Even Libbey noticed. She asked if everything was all-right at work. “You’re not acting like yourself, lately.” He explained to her about the dope, and the bonus, and while she clearly didn’t like what Sam was doing, she also had no answer or alternative. He kept on drinking it so that he could keep on bringing home his full pay for his family.
More changes began to follow, one after the other, that Sam plugged his nose and swallowed because he had to. They asked Sam to learn Swiss so that he could operate some new machinery they were bringing in, and he didn’t do so well with it, so they moved him to a lower role. As the business continued to grow, Merick’s brought in more workers from other side of the river. Quick note about the stock from the other side of the river: they always left the cafeteria a mess, and were quick to pick fights with anyone who objected to their degenerate table-talk (management encouraged employees to “be tolerant” of culture and customs from “all walks of life”, and so the table-talk went on without any more objections). Sam could go along to get along; but, though these out-of-towners were bad people, they were very good workers on account of the excess dope they drank, which made Sam look worse by comparison. And what’s more, it made his own bonus and annual raise lower — Sam was behind the curve, again, a curve that never seemed to stop stretching Sam to his furthest limit.
Sam never dreamed how far this stretching could go. If they had asked him to take second-shift work two years ago, he would have said hell no. But when they asked him to transfer to second shift, now… “The new workers need training,” the managers said. “This is only temporary,” they promised. It was the end of his shift when they broached the topic with him, so the dope was wearing off: he felt weak, and tired, and his head was too cloudy to argue. Still, he protested that he’d miss all his kids ball games, now. But the managers told him that this was the only path for Sam to get back to his regular raises, and his full bonuses. Well, that was enough for Sam. Everything he did, he did for his family, and they made it clear that this was the best way to do that. “Well, let me just run it by Libbey, and—” They interrupted: “Sam, this is a great opportunity. Anyone would be excited to take it. If you don’t want it, we can ask someone else.” Sam thought about his car — it was old, he’d need a new one soon. He suddenly remembered that his feet were sore on account of his old, worn-down boots. And he recalled, with shame, how they had to cancel their family trip to the lake last year because the bonus was too small. He couldn’t think of much else, through the fog in his head, beyond these immediate material needs. “No,” he said, “don’t do that. I’ll take the job.”
The confusion of his sleep schedule affected Sam’s body and mind more than he had anticipated. But the bonus was full that year.
The last big change at Merick’s was just too much for Sam. The machines were one thing — they did the same work, just faster. The dope, the out-of-towners, the second-shift work — that all sucked, but Sam saw some kind of dignity in sacrificing his body, mind, and time for his family, and so he bore the burden dutifully if not happily.
But pledging allegiance to Switzerland? Of all the things Sam couldn’t stomach, it was that. He couldn’t tell them why. Hell, he couldn’t even express it in words to himself. It was something that went beyond logic, or at least a logic that Sam was capable of verbalizing. It was a reflex. It was automatic.
Of course, they slipped the pledge in between all the other affirmations, as if the workers wouldn’t even notice it. With the rest of your shift, you state the company values, then you cite the productivity goals, then you “pledge my labor to the growth of Merick’s and Switzerland,” then you close with the company motto (“Help the world grow”). And of course, “this is from ownership,” so you couldn’t blame the managers, who were just following their masters’ orders. When they passed the order down to the laborers, Sam must have scoffed too loud, because the manager asked Sam if there were any problems. Well, if all the other change had stretched Sam out, then this finally caused him to snap. He’d go along to get along, but only to a point, and, apparently, this point was it. “I ain’t pledging allegiance to any country but my own,” he said. You should have heard the silence in that room.
The manager pulled Sam into his office, where he was given his first strike. Sam wasn’t aware of any “strike” system until that very moment, but the manager made it clear that if he caught three of them, he’d be out on the street looking for another job. “You’ll sacrifice everything that you worked for,” he said.
It didn’t take long for Sam to learn what sacrifice really meant. There were all sorts of procedures, piled upon procedures, ever since the new ownership had taken over, and Sam never had any problem with them; he just kept his nose down and focused on his work. Not even this was allowed anymore: one day, he caught a defect rolling off his line, and reported it to the manager, but the manager gave him another strike for breaking his SOP. “It’s not your job to inspect, it’s your job to produce." Sam gave the manager an earful: “I don’t know why we call this place Merick’s anymore, because it isn’t. Merick’s meant something different before the Swiss took over.”
Sam could tell right away, by the look on his manager’s face, that he said the unspeakable, and that his time at Merick’s was ended. It took a few days, and the anxiety that bubbled in Sam’s gut during those days began to spill over until it threatened to drive him insane, but eventually the managers cut the tension. They pulled Sam into the office, with a small army of HR administrators standing by, and explained how they were interpreting some old rule in some new way that resulted in his third strike and termination.
They fired Sam with cause, which meant he forfeit all the pension he had built up. Sam threatened to sue, but they explained to him that this was merely an procedural outcome, it was all well-documented. They practically dared him to waste his money in court.
When Sam explained to Libbey, she just couldn’t understand how he let this happen. In fact, she seemed to take their side, the managers, and their owners: “Why’d you break the rules, Sam? Why would you risk everything over something so small?” They had been growing estranged ever since Sam moved to second shift, but this, this was too much. Libbey told Sam she was leaving.
As for the boys, they were grown men now, moved out, on their own. The house went to Libbey, and Sam was out on the street looking for work, just like the managers said he would be.
Sam picked up warehouse work — there was always a new DC sprouting up here or there, even as manufacturing jobs went away — except warehouse work didn’t pay half as good as Merick’s did. Sam rented an apartment from landlords who just-so-happened to be Swiss.
Sam returned to Merick’s a year later, ready to take his old job back, prepared to get back in on the ground floor, if they would let him; but, standing in the parking lot, watching the shift change, he paused. Sam saw several things: he saw second-shifters entering hastily, all wearing Swiss colors; he saw first-shifters leaving in the same outfits, only they were shuffling to their cars, looking like battered, undead slaves. He even saw his two boys leaving, too, wearing the white and red, looking older and more run-down than Sam had ever dreamt possible. In fact, they looked pitiful. His strong boys, his pride-and-joys, looking like burnt husks of what they used to be.
Sam saw one more thing: the Swiss owners laughing and enjoying themselves up on the balcony, while the managers hovered around them planets might orbit stars.
And then it happened.
Sam’s fists clenched. A fire rose up to an inferno in his heart, a fire he’d never felt before. It burned him up and down, covering him from head to toe, a heat, a rage, a novel spirit exploding. Everything changed in that moment. It was as if there had been one particular lens through which Sam had seen the world, and in that moment it shattered, and fell in shards to the pavement; and in its place, a new lens, a red lens, came up suddenly across his entire field of mental perception.
It was a demeanor, born of a new understanding — and when the understanding registered, it felt like a switch was put into place that enabled a new electricity to flow through his entire body — a sudden unmistakable realization: that he had nothing left to live for anymore.
And the liberating thing about that realization, was the one that immediately followed: Sam understood, suddenly, that had nothing left to lose, either.