He lies flat on the bed, his hands interlocked underneath his head. He can hear the pounding of that press, the smooth rhythm as the machine slams its mouth shut and pierces and forms the thin metal into something useful and sellable, then repeats the process over and over again. Nick just stared straight up, the movie in his mind projected clearly on the ceiling. He could hear the beep of forklifts as they announced themselves when entering a pedestrian walkway. He could smell the grease that he could never scrub from his skin, it was part of him now, that black lubricant rooted in every follicle. He could see Tommy doing his version of the robot dance at break time, the entertainer and his adoring and dirty finger-nailed fan club laughing with gusto at Tommy’s overrated abilities. He could see Chuck, his red hair weed-like, looking at the Niagara press lovingly, his eyes lost in the machines gears, ready to pounce on that metal vagina. There’s Lester in his typical flannel, trying mightily not to succumb to the light breeze that threatens to topple him over. He could see the ominous time clock that offered hope at the end of shift but snatched it from you each morning with a wink and a smirk. He could see the Coke machine, the rogue dispenser, waiting for the masses to push their dirty cash into his slot, prostitute-like. He sees the salesman , white starched shirts, colorful ties and black shoes. They walked with a purpose and with the correct posture. He watched as they went to the shipping department to check on an important order, the only time they engaged any of the warehouse barbarians. He sees the bathroom, where grease, shit and cigarette smoke permeated the air, a smog of a foul smelling blue collar cologne. The silver roach coach, full of plastic wrapped, microwaveable sludge, a heart attack in a vacuumed bag. The zombies shuffling into a single file line, ready to throw their money away on a rubbery sausage and egg biscuit and some stale fritos. He remembers Her from orientation. A smoke-grey business suit with a off-white blouse underneath. Her voluminous raven-colored hair cascading down onto her shoulders, the flash of white when her sensuous lips parted even slightly. He could see her bosom pushing out, heavy and intimidating, sitting high on her chest. He captures her smell in his mind, lilacs, a hint of citrus and lavender. He plays this movie over and over again, the ceiling bringing the factory back to life, his mind like a worn out reel, a scene that always closes with Her, running on a continuous and tortuous loop.
Orchid Pointe sits in the Southwestern corner of Ohio, a forgettable speck on a Rand McNally map. The town was never consided to be thriving but there was a time during my childhood when Orchid Pointe was a place people could find work with a decent wage. They could find a restaurant besides burger joints, to take their wife or prospective love interest. Being a factory town, there were many bars and a few strip clubs where the lonely tucked bucks until their wallet was emptied. St. Bartholomew’s church always had a sizable crowd on Sunday morning, people went out of obligation more than faith but they filled the seats which in turn filled the donation plate on a weekly basis. This wasn’t a bustling town with yuppies and artists forlornly sipping coffee, their melancholy darkening the breeze. It was a town of blue collar people who put work above all else, with family a close second and The Hot Bunny strip joint running third. The kind of place that you can borrow a screw driver from your neighbor or get a piece of advice from the old-timers sitting in the McDonalds, their coffee a constant companion. You could head over to Cincinnati if you needed some culture or a zoo or maybe 5 star restaurant that served braised ox tail.
But in Orchid Pointe, during my childhood, it was a town that you felt safe in. A lot of folks left their doors unlocked, its not that they didn’t have fear or that they were too trusting, its just that the town was small enough that nobody was a stranger. If Danny Smoake broke into your house, somebody would know him and the town would mete out its own justice, usually a busted up face and then all was forgiven again. The police were used mainly for alcohol related offenses, DWI’s, public intoxication and disorderly conduct and the such. Unlike today, where the Orchid Pointe PD are more vigilant, more prepared to use physicality and a stun gun, years ago the police were in the background, a painting on a wall. The neighborhood’s policed themselves back then, autonomy reigning supreme.
When I was twelve, back in 1995, my parents rented a home on the westside, the more affordable part of town. We rented because my dads credit was shit. He worked just enough to cover the bills but not an hour more. He worked semi-regular at the Filmore Lanes bowling alley. He had previously worked at Hamilton Steel but one of their requirements is mandatory overtime and my dad had no interest in going the extra mile for himself or the family. With his spotty work history and penchant for walking off jobs, he had no chance at getting on at the towns biggest employer, Terrapin Paper Company. Their standards were higher than all other local businesses, so dad didn’t even bother with an application. He would just wax lanes and clean shoes at the bowling alley, an inspiration to no one, especially me.
My father, Richard Cobb, was always a bit of a fraud to me, a master illusionist. He loved to dress in a manner that gave the impression to people that he didn’t work in a bowling alley. Turtlenecks and tweed jackets, cardigans and corduroys, Van Heusen dress shirts tucked in military-style, into severely creased dark denim jeans, mud-colored wing tips a last touch to fool the masses, to fool himself. He considered himself to be an intellectual, a supreme being in a common mans town. I can still see him sitting in his beloved and well-worn recliner. One leg crossed over the other, a sophisticated seating position, his reading glasses riding low on his face. His bone-white coffee cup sitting to his right on the faux marble end table, a small lamp illuminating his reading zone.
He always chose a novel that was a critically acclaimed piece of literary fiction, or appeared on some arbitrary list of the greatest novels of all time. They were always books that I had never heard of, especially as a boy but even into adulthood I still wouldn’t recognize most of the titles if not for my dads obsession with them. Novels like:The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. There was never a genre fiction book in his lap, dad loved his classics, he was quite keen on letting mom and I know how smart he was or thought he was. He would throw out quotes from various books as if he had written that beautiful prose himself, when he had free time from Filmore Lanes. I can still hear his baritone voice laying down his version of love, wisdom and parenting.
“In the first few seconds an aching sadness wrenched his heart, but it soon gave way to a feeling of sweet disquiet, the excitement of gypsy wanderlust.”
Or “You’re the only girl I’ve seen for a long time that actually did look like something blooming.”
Or “Because life slips away and because I need for the rest of my journey a star that will not play false to me, a compass that will not lie.”
When I was a kid, those magical words were a strange music to my ears but a child is easily fooled, and with those quotes from a different time, my dad just furthered his manipulation, his transformation from bowling alley shoe cleaner and waxer of floors to a poet laureate. The problem was dad used those excerpts as a parenting tool, spewing his fraudulent knowledge upon me, when in reality, I needed a dad that could help me with my algebra. If I was stuck on an equation, he would quote a passage from The Old Man And The Sea, some bullshit about perseverance and ruffle my hair before he headed back to his recliner, his parenting duties accomplished with fictional words from dead authors.
Even today, I don’t consider my childhood to be some tragic story, a lame excuse to rid oneself of all blame and place it like a bullseye on your parents back. My dad lacked focus at times, too caught up in his pseudo Mensa world but there was no malice with him. He never berated me with unsophisticated put-downs that some parents leveled at their kids. He wasn’t abusive in any form, verbally or physically. Its just that he wasn’t a father in the typical way. He would read me books as a child, a bedtime story but he never wanted to play catch with me or take me to the movies. If I needed advice about a girl, I wanted a dad who would make time to talk with me, give that proverbial dad speech about sex. What I didn’t need was a reference to an obscure sonnet with words I didn’t understand. I guess what I truly wanted was to engage my father in an activity that didn’t involve prose or the language of books. I wanted my dad to have a conversation with me with his own words, the language of a caring father.
When it came to being a good husband, my dad fared about the same as he did as a parent. He wore the gold band on his finger, he contributed a portion of his salary to keep the lights on and some food in the fridge. He took out the trash occasionally and bought mom the occasional discounted flower, and of course he copied other people’s ruminations about love on her birthday cards but he never truly seemed to love my mom for the right reasons. Her dreams and hopes ran a distant second to his own. He never inquired about how her day went, whether she needed someone to alleviate her stress. He just wasn’t that type of husband or man. My mom was just a companion piece to my father, like a wallet or a cheap watch. Its almost as though she was nothing more than a required ornament in his off- kilter view of himself as an aristocrat and her being by his side was mandatory for the suave man he claimed to be.
The rare times they went out to dinner with friends, dad was always more attentive to mom, easier with a compliment and he’d toss her an original tender word or two. He would place is hand over hers as it rested on the table, a symbol of love and togetherness to their friends. To mom though, dad was just pushing his con in his fictitious world, she was just a bit actor in his plot to fool everybody.
While my dad lacked the ability to love my mom or even truly respect her, he did have a preference for molding her into a wife that suited his image of what the wife of an intellectual should be. He constantly reminded her that how a woman talks is how she’s viewed by society. Talk like a tramp, and people see a promiscuous woman. Talk rapidly, and people see you as crazy. Use vulgar language, and you’re just a uneducated simpleton. He would set catalogs on her bedside table, a subtle nudge that she could dress a little classier. Those catalogs went straight to the garbage can, mom wasnt amused.
My mom, Delores Cobb, worked as a dispatcher for Blue Line trucking company. She would sit in her office with her CB radio and send all the lonely truck drivers to their destinations in Topeka, Del Rey and all points in between. Mom made a fair wage and she enjoyed the comradery she had with those faceless longhaulers, their snippets of conversation, the static filled echoes of two strangers seeking guidance in the night.
Dad was not a fan of moms career choice and it wasn’t because he viewed her job as not befitting of a bright mans wife. No, he was just jealous. Many a night at the dinner table, as he passed the dinner rolls, he’d question mom like an interrogator. Who was she flirting with? Why did she wear those form-fitting jeans? Why did she change her hairstyle? An endless parade of questions trying to get to the crux of the matter, who was she fucking? He never asked that in front of me but it hung in air, a suspended accusing finger pointing she straight at my mom. She always brushed him off with a roll of the eyes or in the name of diplomacy she would ask him whose bed she was sleeping in every night, whose dinner table was she sitting at, whose ring still choked her finger. That would placate him for a spell, because she was home every night.
Until one day she wasn’t. When I was 18, mom left Orchid Pointe, just as the decline began, heading to Augusta, Maine with a truck driver named Glenn. So maybe dads suspicions were justified to a certain degree but I never faulted mom for her choice. She waited until I was 18 and close to getting my own apartment before she sailed away. She handed me an envelope with a few thousand dollars she had saved. I was happy mom was leaving, not from a sons perspective, but from a freedom perspective. I wanted her to find happiness in the Northeast and hopefully Glenn helped with that, my mom deserved a richer life than the loveless and fabricated relationship with my dad. Maybe she would learn how to smile again.
Dad didn’t take the news so well. His beloved books gathered dust on the shelves. With all those potent quotes throughout literary history waiting to be absorbed by him, he chose to abstain. He just sat in his favorite recliner and stared out the window, maybe thoughts of mom flooding his mind as he had an epiphany of sorts about what he did wrong, what caused mom to run. Or maybe he thought of the bowling alley and all the hope that died there, maybe he finally had some ambition to improve his life to leave a legacy for his only child. Turns out my dad was thinking about California through that glass portal, he left 2 months after mom did, heading west with his books and his fake title as a supreme being weighing the car down as he left Orchid Pointe. He didn’t hand me an envelope though, he slid a book into my palm, Absalom! Absalom! by William Faulkner. I haven’t spoken to or seen him since.
Two years later, 2003, Terrapin Paper closed its doors and bolted for Mexico and its cheap labor. The biggest employer in town was gone and a riptide of consequences fell over like dominoes. Bars and taverns closed shop, restaurant’s soon followed suit. The Hot Bunny had no one tucking bucks anymore so they boarded up too. Terrapin Paper employed thousands of people who in turn pumped cash into the small businesses and the churches and community projects. When the cash dried up, long standing establishments called for the wrecking ball and gathered their families and headed for Cincinnati, Dayton, Columbus or even Hamilton.
The town lost half of its residents in one year, a mass exodus leaving a dying town. A town that stopped policing itself, crime rising as the desperate searched for answers thru burglary, shoplifting and huffing aerosol cans. Those of us that stayed, the ones who didn’t escape Orchid Pointe, scraped and clawed to eke out a living, hoping to find some form of happiness amidst the gloom of a city that offered nothing more than concrete and acreage. It took me years to find my way out of the muck, find some kind of meaning in an otherwise dreary life. The town was awash in beige now, a color of mediocrity and emptiness. All that beige concealing the bright hues of love and hope, of dreams and hidden treasures. The dark night of the soul was the town we inhabited now, a place of shadows.