Tuesday, July 4, 2017

He Didn't Belong

The break-room was packed, as usual. Our table was one of the more integrated ones, ‘cause the people in our work group liked each other. Unlike a lot of the other teams, ours had worked long enough together to know and care about the other guy. I look back now on what happened, and figure that our gang’s closeness helped to explain why ours was chosen. By him.

We had a couple of gals, a few Hispanics, three blacks and an Asian guy. The group leader, Maurice, was white like me, as was his number two man, Barney. Barney got a lot of kidding, resembling the bumbling deputy on the old black and white sitcom, but he was as highly skilled as they come, rivaling Maurice as an expert assembler. To be honest, our team enjoyed it when Maurice had time off, since his assistant was a bit easier to please and to deal with.

That day we were all there, with no absentees, not just out of company gung-ho, but because it was the day after a holiday and workers who missed a time punch after a holiday forfeited their holiday pay. Anyway, the break-time was two thirds over, and conversation was beginning to lull when a couple of us saw him.

Jan and I noticed him first, crossing the room from the entrance closest to the adjoining men’s john. Jan’s a cute blonde, divorced and a little sassy, with dark brown eyes that don’t miss much, especially any new male arrivals at our plant. She and I’d been laughing at a meme on my phone when I caught her glance wandering. Following her glance I watched the guy she’d fastened on as he breezed by three other tables and exited the break-room by the door opposite the one he’d entered by. “Who is that?” she said. “Never seen him before.”

The guy had looked familiar. But I shook my head at her. “Me neither,” I said. Now that he was out of sight, for some reason it was hard to remember his face. But I did recall that his clothes looked a bit too hip and casual for a factory. He hadn’t paused to speak to anyone, and nobody seemed to notice or acknowledge him either. Of course, there were office people who dressed in less grungey attire than line workers, but they were well-known and recognizable. Not like this newcomer.

He was definitely out of place. But after all, it was none of our business, whoever he was.

The next time I saw him I was busy working on the line. Maurice had switched me to a job Barney usually handled, since he was down the line correcting an earlier mistake. I was looking around for a tool someone had borrowed when I noticed the out-of-place man. He was standing in a walkway with one hand in his pocket, the other on his hip. His eyes were moving across his line of vision, taking in the activity of our group, not quite focusing on any one worker.

A feeling of weird foreboding washed over me. I took three steps over to where Maurice was inputting on the group’s computer terminal and tapped his arm. “Whattaya need?” he asked, his eyes on the monitor.

“Something’s bugging me,” I told him, and he turned and raised his eyebrows quizzically. I looked across the line and pointed at the guy’s retreating back. “Who is that? Is he a new office worker or what?”

Maurice surprised me. He’s been at our company over twenty years and I assumed anybody new would have been introduced at the daily leadership huddle. But Maurice slowly shook his head. “Must be a visitor with today’s tour group or something.”

“But,” I protested, “I saw him in the break-room two days ago. Jan saw him, too. He just seems to hover around, never speaking to anyone. He was watching our group just now.”

“If it bothers you, why don’t you go ask him who he is? Did he look dangerous or something?”

I felt a little embarrassed. “No, not really, but it just gave me a funny feeling--like the guy   doesn’t belong here.”

“Uh huh. Hey, did you find that monobolter you were looking for?” I told him yes and went back to the job I’d been doing. If Maurice wasn’t concerned about our Mr. X, who was I to care about him?

Later that afternoon, the Asian guy Kenny was passing by my station, going after some fasteners when he asked me, “Hey, did Maurice know who that man was, watching us like that?” I stopped working and put down my tools, kinda relieved that somebody else was showing some curiosity about our mystery man.

“You’ve noticed him too, Kenny?” Kenny nodded. I said, “Naw, Maurice didn’t know and that’s really weird ‘cause he knows everyone. Maybe you and I can ask around and find out?” Kenny nodded again and moved off toward the fastener shelves. I glanced up at the clock. Ten minutes to four, so it was time to start cleaning up my area.

Soon, Jan came over with a shovel to hold while I swept my pile of debris into it. She had a knowing grin on her face as she whispered, “I got something to show you on my phone.”

“Cool,” I said. “I’ll meet you out at your car.”

We both swiped out at the time clock and made our way to the scorching parking lot. Seated in her pickup with the AC blasting, we got our heads together to view what she’d recorded on her smartphone. Just as I’d suspected, she showed me a video of the strange visitor, or at least I assumed it was him, since his back was turned toward the camera. At intervals the view was blocked by sections of shelving, so it was clear that Jan had been hiding to get her footage.

The man in the video was observing our work team as he’d been before, but that wasn’t all he was doing. From time to time he moved his hands in an odd way, with his palms facing outward and shifting back and forth, then in little circular patterns, as if he were cleaning a window pane.

I watched the recording with my mouth hanging open, totally speechless. Jan commented, “Isn’t that bizarre? Now wait...there’s more.” On the screen, I watched as the man relaxed his arms and hung them limply at his sides, then slowly turned around in Jan’s direction. I expected the video to end abruptly but it didn’t. The man took several smooth, even steps toward the camera, staring into the lens with a completely blank expression. Then he opened his mouth.

“Tell him I am not entirely pleased.” The words came out clearly, with no emotion or inflection of any kind. The man blinked twice, turned to his left with military smartness, and walked away, followed by the view of the camera, ‘til he was out of sight.

“Wow,” I said finally. “And I thought I was curious about him. What put it into your head to video the guy? When he spotted you, why didn’t you stop or run or something?”

“It was strange,” Jan answered. “I was on my way back from the restroom when I spotted Mr. Whosis doing his thing. I had been checking messages in the john, so I had my phone with me and just started shooting, like by instinct or something. Then, once I’d started recording, I found it almost impossible to stop. As if it was what I was meant to do. When Whosis turned around I felt frozen. Not by fear, so much...just a sense that I had to know what he’d do or say.”

“‘Tell him I am not entirely pleased,’” I quoted. “Jan, what do you imagine that could mean? Who are you supposed to tell it to? And what is the guy not pleased about?”

Jan gave me a look, half annoyed, half amused. “You tell me,” she said. “I’m showing you this thing because I had the strong impression that his message was for you.”

“You had a strong impression...? Are you sure it wasn’t indigestion or PMS or something? Why in the world would he send me a message in your video? Why not just walk up and speak to me? I have no idea who he is or what he’s doing here! Do any of your strong impressions answer any of those questions?”

“Nope. Sorry.”

I left Jan, feeling a bit shaken. I sat in my own car as the AC revved up and turned the odd facts over in my head. Knowing the front office would be open until five, I drove around to the visitor lot and strolled on into Human Resources, hoping for a few answers. Did they have any new Quality Control people or executive staff who might be observing workers on the line? Did they know of any customers who’d been given the freedom to check out the plant unsupervised? Any new tall, thin, casually dressed guys with medium brown hair that they knew of?

The answers were all “no.” When I suggested they try and track down such a person, especially in the vicinity of our group’s work zone, HR promised to let Security know of my concern. I was about to tell them about Jan’s video of the out-of-place man, but stopped myself. Using one’s phone during production was verboten, and I didn’t want to get my friend in trouble.

Returning to my car, I was surprised to find a sheet of paper stuck under my driver-side wiper. Written upon it in precise magic marker lettering was the message: STILL NOT FULLY PLEASED.

Frantically I spun around, taking in the view of the parking lot, eager to spot the note’s author. But I was the only person within my scope of vision. Just to be sure, I took a jog around the lot, between all the rows of remaining vehicles, searching for someone who could have witnessed the person leaving the note on my car. No luck. Defeated and tired, I drove home.

Next day, I made it a point to check with Kenny, whether he’d come up with anything new about Mr. X. Turns out he’d questioned around a dozen people, none of whom had any idea who Kenny was talking about. Apparently, the men and women in our work group were the only ones deemed worthy to be aware of our misplaced friend.

Maurice was off that day for a doctor appointment, so Barney presided at our morning meeting. When he ended the confab with his traditional invitation for our “comments, questions or concerns,” I piped up:

“Hey, everybody. There’s a tall, skinny, brown haired guy in street clothes who’s been watching our group on and off for the past couple weeks. I know some of you have seen him.” There was a general nodding of heads and a few questioning shrugs among the group. “If he shows up again,” I continued, “my opinion is we should contact Security and let them know. I checked with HR yesterday and nobody there knows who this person is.”

Barney cleared his throat. “Right, okay. Anybody sees this fella, lemme know and I’ll give Security a buzz. Now, if there’s no other comment, we got us thirteen units to work on, so let’s stretch out and get to it.” Barney turned away toward the computer and the rest of us did some stretches and fanned out to our work areas. I glanced around at people’s faces to see if they registered any kind of concern about what I’d shared. They all seemed as nonchalant as Barney did. I sidled up to a Hispanic lady named Bridget who was close friends with Jan.

“Hey, Bridget,” I said, “you’ve seen that guy around here watching us, right?”

“Yeah...tall Anglo dude with the dressy duds? Sure, I seen ‘im.” Bridget started unwinding electrical cords for her tools and setting up for the morning’s assembly work. “Don’t know who he is, though. Figured he was some safety inspector or jazz like that.”

“Did...did Jan say anything to you about him? Show you anything?” I was being careful.

“She just asked me if I knew who he was. Told her I didn’t. What you think she showed me?”

“Uh...nothin’. Just curious, that’s all. The guy’s a puzzle. I’d stay away from him, though.” I hurried over to my work table and started setting up. As I laid out my materials, I looked over toward Jan’s area. She was busy counting parts for the upcoming inventory. When we caught each other’s eye she gave me a wave and mouthed some words: Talk to you later. I nodded back and gave her a thumbs-up.

The units we worked on that morning were longer, wider and more complicated than average. In addition to the extra assembly and materials the team had to deal with, the previous night shift had been short-handed and many of the units down the line were screwed up, so that our people were constantly called on to leave our area and go fix night shift’s mistakes. All of that made it close to impossible to keep any real vigilance in the matter of our weird watchman.

As I said, Barney was easier to get along with...but that’s under normal circumstances, and things were far from normal that day. Sub-assembly people like me and Jan were expected to jump onto the line and do installations while regular folks were fixing stuff down the line. The next couple work stations were hauling ass like a house on fire, and so we were pressured to get our operations completed on schedule, in spite of our handicaps. Barney, not quite used to the pressure from his supervisor, was riding us pretty hard so that everyone’s tempers were on a hair trigger. Mine included.

By the time first break rolled around, the Man Who Didn’t Belong was the furthest thing from my mind. That’s when the fuel tank exploded.

Fifteen minutes earlier, the chassis that rolled into our work area was found to be too long. A couple people from Chassis Prep were called forward to cut the beams down with a plasma torch and re-drill the holes for the bumper brackets. This unforeseen holdup in our schedule was merely annoying to most of us on our team. At least it caused a lull in the frantic pace we’d been maintaining for the past two hours.

For Barney, however, it was like the end of the world. The work station directly ahead of us was empty, waiting impatiently for the next vehicle to move forward. Barney’s supervisor, a no-nonsense ex-Marine, was breathing down his neck, insisting he “keep those holes filled” in the line. The half-dozen of us standing next to the unit watched nervously as Barney, planted like a shuddering steampipe, began twitching, glancing up and down the line, chest puffing out and in, fingers tightening around the heavy wrench he happened to be holding.

The break buzzer pierced the tension-filled tableau. Several things happened at the same time. The guy holding the plasma torch, face shielded by a hood of dark plastic, ignited the torch with a six-inch jet of bluish flame. Barney, turning away from the accursed chassis, threw the wrench away in frustrated disgust, heedless of its trajectory. At least three sets of gloved hands reached out to stop its flight as it impacted with the plastic and rubber release valve atop the chassis’s fuel tank. There were multiple shouts and screams such as “Look out!” and “Turn it off!” and “Hit the deck!”

I’d heard stories of disaster survivors who claimed to have witnessed catastrophes happen in slow motion, but never dreamed I would be one of them.

The fuel in the tank must have been of a fairly high temperature, since it had been sitting in the chassis yard under a scorching summer heat for some time. And the resulting pressure of that tank caused the fuel to spray out in a general cloud of deadly droplets which pretty much engulfed the neighborhood encompassing the seven or eight workers attending to the errant vehicle. The expanding cloud of gasoline met the burning tongue of the torch in a microsecond, and I watched in horror as a roaring balloon of flame blew out from the point of contact and made its way hungrily toward the all-too-flammable human beings surrounding the fuel tank, not to mention the tank itself, which was equivalent to several sticks of TNT.

As I watched death, slowly it seemed, creeping toward me, I felt an inexplicable sense of calm. It was as if I had been sleeping all this time, and just now came to the understanding that I’d been dreaming. But just as suddenly as I thought that, reality returned, for there He was.

Time had slowed to a virtual dead stop. The panting breaths I was inhaling were hot and stifling. In that, blazing, frozen world, I found myself--only myself, it seemed--able to maneuver. So, turning my head away from the flaming horror facing me, I faced the Man Who Didn’t Belong.

“What’s happening?” I asked in a ragged whisper. He was as expressionless and relaxed as he’d appeared in Jan’s video. I saw now that his face was youthful and unlined, save for a tiny mole in the shadow of his full lips. His gaze was upon the accident scene, his hands held up like they’d been in the video, moving almost imperceptibly as against a transparent window.

“Who are you? What is happening?” I repeated insistently, not sure he could even hear me.

“My name is Signal.” The Man’s words were clear and evenly spaced, with no emotion and no inflection. His eyes shifted to meet mine and I saw a clear, liquid manner of kindness in their blue-gray depths, although he never exactly smiled. “And you can see for yourself what is happening.”

“So...you knew that this was going to happen? You were watching us all this time, preparing for this moment? For this disaster?” His sight shifted back, back to the fiery tableau as he nodded.

“How can you...?” I faltered, finding no adequate way to describe his actions.

“I am here to be a Sign for you,” He told me. There was gentle authority in his voice. “But I cannot change what is about to happen. I await your choice, as the Most Pleasing.”

I looked away from Him...from Signal...and digested this for several static seconds. With death teetering on the brink of arrival, I felt as if I had all the time in the world. “What did you call me?” I asked at length. “The Most Pleasing? You mean the most pleasing person in my group, is that it?” Signal nodded, his eyes unmoving, his hands describing little circles in the air.

Then, in answer to my further questions--questions I had no words to express, Signal began to chant in a measured, long-rehearsed rhythm:

You send up your thoughts to the sky,
You hold heaven’s gifts with two hands,
You stretch out your good will to others,
You make of the earth treasures fit for glory,
You cherish life as a guardian and a steward,
You honor those to whom honor is due to the full.

“You said ‘I await your choice,’” I said. “What choice am I being given?”

“To save lives,” Signal replied. “But because you are not perfect, only three may be saved. You have often wondered why some are spared in a catastrophe when others are not. This is the answer. Those who are pleasing are given the power to choose--entrusted with divine mercy. But only those perfectly pleasing may choose to save everyone. Which three will survive?”

Several months later, Jan Masterson, Bridgett Reyes and Kenny Kwon sat at the break table of Gladiator Motors, waiting for the starting buzzer to sound.

For the last month, they’d agreed to read Paul Peterson’s mysterious note that he’d left on Jan’s work table the day the explosion took his life--and re-read the note every morning before they began the work day.

“Dear Jan, Bridgett and Kenny,

You all deserve to know who the strange man was who didn’t belong, the one we all wondered about before the August 4 explosion took place.

All I am allowed to tell you is this: You three were given a precious gift, a gift of life, a gift of survival, thanks to that unknown visitor. And as far as I know, you are always being watched, observed, evaluated by powers and authorities far beyond the bounds of our world.

Why was I given the privilege, the responsibility, of singling the three of you out, that you and only you would survive the disaster? The man told me it was because I was “Most Pleasing.”

If had only been MORE pleasing, PERFECTLY pleasing, then, perhaps, everyone could have been saved.

Could such a thing ever happen again? I have no idea.


See you all, I hope, on the other side.


Paul Peterson”

(3665 words)

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