Jim Meirose

The Chandelier (Or Was Gulden's a Conscious Decision?)

           Forrest Builders, manager of the big chemical plant, stood at the front of the packed auditorium behind his high gloss podium. The people in the auditorium were all employees and among them sat the special one who would receive the honors that day.
           We're here to celebrate a very special day, said Builders, waving a hand. This is the first time we've had someone celebrate fifty years with the chemical division of this company. You have to want to work to work here, he said, raising his voice and a fist—it's physical work—work that builds character through the years until you end up a strong stalwart clear-eyed clear-headed person—
           As the words droned on, rising and falling, an ornate chandelier hung high in the dead center of the huge space held the eyes of the one in the audience who would receive the honors this day. Words wound around the chandelier and mixed with the words from the podium.
           —Harry Plockerty grabbed the widemouthed gun and fired it into the chest of the Indian who tried to enter the vat room. Hunt Lorry's Hilton Inc. is the company name. And the great one is lying there dead or in a dead state. Carried off from the vat room in a dead state dead state dead state—cluck cluck cluck at home, dirty dirty dirty business.
           Loops of dust hung from the chandelier.
           What do you mean Harriet?
           —full of character—
           Hillary has been here. I can tell.
           —full of fortitude—
           Dirty dirty dirty its all dirty.
           —proud to work where we work—
           —and proud to work with what we work with—
           Just so long as the vat room is safe—
           —chemicals for the betterment of man—
           He had to be killed—he was endangering the vats—
           The chandelier hung much too high to be cleaned.
           As far as you could see the vats were arranged in rows across the great factory room.
           —for the betterment of the world—
           The vats were all of a silvery color.
           —how many products do we enhance—
           His first job ever was to patrol the corridors between the vats and ensure that no one comes in.
           —you should all be proud to be a part of this—
           This was years before they started him tapping the vats—
           —tremendous effort through all these years—
           In the vat room.
           —and we should all be rewarded when our time comes.
           The adrenaline was flowing like a pot of tea.
           Up behind the podium, the president of the company went on and on, pumping a fist up and down.
           —we all deal with danger here, he half-shouted—caustic and dangerous chemicals and their fumes. But we take the appropriate precautions here to safeguard our employees. It's a testimony to the safety of our plant that we're here today honoring someone who's worked in the vat room for fifty years—someone who has no ill effects—somebody who's healthy as a horse, healthy as a healthy horse I should actually say—
           The audience tittered at the dry weak joke. The chandelier kept hold of the eyes of the one who sat there, waiting, and words poured from it flowing over the president's, driving the president's down to the floor.
           Spot the hammer, Greystone.
           —but healthy is what we all want to be—
           Hurt the loose wreck of a man who's in your face.
           —and healthy is what we all are—
           Boat hulls.
           —because of the way we've lived—
           Creating the vast hull involves—
           —the way we've toiled—
           The Shippe towered over them.
           —we all deserve to be rewarded—
           Spat on the Shippeside.
           —actually, I don't deserve any of the credit—
           The lowering Freund.
           —all I do is cheer you on—
           Have you read Freund.
           —cheer you on through your frightful jobs—
           Harry tells me that you work in the vat room. Is that right?
           Spiders lived in webs on the chandelier.
           Yes, that's right. Why?
           —watch as the great trucks leave full of our product—
           There's spigots in there with handles on them.
           —the great trucks with DANGER written on them—
           What's in the vats?
           —you all work with DANGER—
           The end of the world.
           A lightbulb socket hung empty up there.
           —DANGER is the world you live in—
           Crullers are good with coffee.
           —no one but you knows what it's like in that plant—
           He brought crullers into work and sat down at his desk.
           —those sixteen acres—
           A Slim-Fast and a banana.
           —those great God's acres—
           In the vat room.
           —blessed to be where such a place stands—
           The floor is dusty in the vat room.
           —I don't pretend to know what it's like there—
           The concrete floor was poured years ago.
           —and you spend your days in there. All your days.
           Men in heavy overalls sweated over the screeds.
           The president clutched the podium, his face blazing. But without fear, said the president, you toil in the plant—you all toil in the plant, day after day, at your jobs—wearing your aprons and your gloves and your respirators—taking all the safety precautions—and we're rewarded by having had the greatest stretch of time go by without an accident in the plant since world war II—
           The chandelier's gilt finish was all worn away.
           —and that wasn't really even an accident—
           The masses of men all keep the good ones.
           His eyebrows rose—what did this mean?
           Concrete straightjacket.
           —it might be more accurate to call it an incident—
           In the navy, you can sail the seven seas.
           —there were no serious injuries—
           In the navy, you can catch a social disease.
           —and it had nothing to do with the chemicals we handle—
           Groupers floated freely in the tank. All of the men were at the ready. The great fish was good to eat. Nothing like a good fish dinner, said Greybeard.
           —and that pass through that vat room.

           Now here's the thing about this vat room; the vat room holds rows and rows and rows of tall spotless stainless steel vats, each with a spigot. Once a week George Greybeard has to pour off a glass of a clear liquid from each vat and take it and pour it down a drainpipe. Then he marks that he did it on a sheet on the vat. The sheet is in a clear plastic sleeve adhering to the vat. Or is this making the job sound too complicated? If I'm making it too complicated please let me know—
           He counted the bulbs in the chandelier.
           One, two, three, four—
           There are one hundred eighty nine vats in the room. He has to do four point seven vats an hour in a forty hour week to get them all done. So, he is busy.
           —but this is today.
           Hey Greybeard.
           The chandelier's chain hung from the center of an ornate circle of plaster formed by hand long ago.
           Too busy to talk!
           We can set an example for the whole rest of the industry, said the president pounding the podium—with being able to have a plant that handles such toxic and caustic acids and we all have clean sanitary jobs and everyone is clear eyed clear minded and straight.
           The chandelier chain hung six feet long.
           Toot. Toot, he said, drawing off a glass.
           He took it to the drain.
           Once a week, Boss Tom came through the place.
           How's it going Greybeard?
           Oh. It's going. I'm keeping up.
           —knowing their work is appreciated—
           Growl the fearsome rules, Greybeard.
           —knowing in the end they will be rewarded—
           Take the leak to the phone and say it into it.
           What the hell does that mean, he mused.
           Hungry stew is on the plate.
           —those of you that are new here, take heed—
           HUNGRY stew. That's the brand-name.
           —much is expected—
           Cans clutter the place with HUNGRY written in red around them.
           —but the rewards are great—
           Pastafazool. This is making no sense. What is happening in the vat room? What is sin—the vats? What is the clear liquid?
           —the great masses of people don't know what we do here—
           We can't know that.
           —but we touch them all—
           Why not?
           —in small ways, and in big—
           This plant is run on a need to know basis.
           The chandelier power line wound down through the chain, dustcovered.
           What happens if I take a week off.
           —in the day—
           Saunders covers.
           The president pumped his fists and went on, saying Working in the filth day and night, and in the fumes, and not being affected in the least by it because of the safety equipment we've got here—the safety equipment that avoids the workers being affected by the fumes that mix and spread throughout the entire plant—that you can be in for up to fifty years with no ill as we will see when we bring the guest of honor up here to get what he deserves—
           The words fell down from the chandelier like flakes of loose gilt falling.
           Part of the patty cake is to—inform the troops.
           —when we see him up here—
           —he represents all of us—
           —we should all be proud of him—
           Third men die quickly. Two is the maximum.
           —we should all want to be like him—
           Vandals, man. Vandals.
           —we should all want to last as long as he has—
           No vandals need to be allowed into the vat room—
           —it's so good to see you all here together—
           Which noose should we use, said Balderdash, preparing for the hanging.
           —all gathered wall to wall—
           The big one of course, replied Honeycutt—I didn't wind up that big one like that for nothing—
           The chandelier hung motionless for seventy-five years.
           Now, listen—here's what's important—big snappers'll take your finger clean off. Hope that idea isn't too much for you. Here it is cool and dry and silent around the vats. Except for the door when the boss comes in. One hundred eighty nine vats to tap. Need to do four point seven in an hour. Might as well say five. Five: one hundred eighty nine: forty: one hundred eighty nine is a centered cube number.
           —it's good to see these seats filled with such as you—
           King my damned pieces I reached the other side of the checkerboard fair and square—
           And OSHA—we never cared about any damned OSHA—
           The auditorium filled with peals of laughter. The president waited for the laughter to die down before continuing, saying Not that I have a problem with the government regulating us you understand, but we have come up with our own safety precautions that are twice as good as anything OSHA can come up with to protect us from the effects of the fumes and odors and all like that that come from the dangerous stuff we work with.
           Out in the audience, the one to be honored picked at the warts on his fingers as he listened to the chandelier.
           —but enough of this game of checkers this is just a board game that occurs to me when I suffer—I have to go down to the water's edge and fry up the bends fully in fresh guts and the Phillies hit the ball hard and Red Sox set the high bridge. List of baseball team names:
           Furmer Farmer tried to score again but was thwarted by Lewis and the Playboys.
           —and faithfulness—
           Horrid, horrid are the vats; as previously stated, you are a vat-man at the chemical plant. Holy smoke. Run the bases down. Down!
           The chandelier vibrated at the molecular level from the words swarming around it.
           —and she goosed me when I walked by—goosed me!
           I am the vat man.
           The president gripped the edges of the podium and lowered his voice in all seriousness.
           Now—this man we are to honor today remembers the days when they'd be up to their elbows in the stuff, all kinds of stuff, and think nothing of it—they'd handle all kinds of filth with their bare hands, and breathe in all the fumes but we changed all that though the years.
           Yeah yeah yeah I know I remember, said the chandelier.
           The one to be honored lightly smiled.
           —glamour—now, does it really matter to me what kind of a job I have no I don't think it really matters to me this one doesn't pay as good as a lot of jobs but they can't let me go nobody else could take care of these vats like I do lets see get a cup tap out a cupful carry it across to the stinking drainpipe and down it goes. What it is—lord God it stinks and what is it it's something terribly poisonous I'm sure they don't have me wearing gloves or anything or goggles or an apron and one day they brought a tall skinny woman through the vat room to show her the operation she looked and dressed important, all in black, she must have been an important person they told her the vats contained "the liquid" and that "the liquid" gets drawn off throughout the weeks by Boyland here (and I smiled broadly at being called by the wrong name) and is sent to the assaying lab—you know I've heard that term before assaying that's what they do with gold or chemicals or something like that—ass assaying ass ass ass—
           Through the years, we grew smarter—
           We had showers installed—
           We gave out heavy coveralls—-
           We gave them safety—
           But they still went over and above—
           The chandelier hung above pouring down words obliterating the president's.
           —now, I don't see any pipes coming out the bottom of the vats or going into the top or sides of the vats so what goes in how does it go in and when does it come out and how does it come out maybe it's just water yeah maybe it's a water rotting experiment maybe filthy stinking water is all it is.
           A fly crawled on a limb of the chandelier.
           The vat room.
           —those who go before you must all know full well—
           Then they sent a different woman in to watch me work throughout a whole day—women women it's always women—and I let her tap a vat and dump the liquid—and she didn't have any questions just kind of followed me around like she'd been sent in there to watch me, to make sure I was emptying every vat—there are doors screwed on to the front of the vats but the doors can never be removed and every vat is numbered: sixteen seventeen eighteen nineteen twenty twenty-one twenty-two twenty-three etc. etc. but then the day came when the liquid started to come out of the vats darker. This was about thirty years ago—and hello I love you so ran through my mind, that putrid song but one that sticks in your head, you know, well I'm not actually sure that was the name of it but it was something close and at lunch I sit and eat my baloney sandwich—
           The president grew more quiet, talked lower, more seriously.
           All these men and women who worked the shop floor are to be honored. They've been through a lot through the years.
           The one to be honored counted the bulbs hung among the chains of dusty crystal.
           —on white with yellow mustard when I was small I never used to like yellow mustard I used that browner kind of mustard Gulden's I think it was called yeah yeah Gulden's it's still called Gulden's as a matter of fact and think about it why should I have been brought up liking Gulden's just because thats what my family always used it might be one of those things where somebody made a conscious decision somewhere along the line to use that mustard instead of the other or maybe it used to always be the other and somebody consciously changed it to the brown mustard—
           The chandelier swayed slightly, imperceptably, with the movement of the earth.
           —but here I am changing it to the yellow mustard, that doesn't even look like mustard at all, methinks, I am so I said drat drat drat fully down in the tables of the law— but look—this spigot's stuck I can—
           Once more, the president was in full-throated flight.
           Some of these men and women have stayed with us for years, he said, but never before has anyone made fifty years. Never.
           —barely turn it got to be careful with these you don't want to break off the valve stem I did that once and it wasn't a pretty sight a mechanic had to come and somehow he replaced the valve without letting any of the liquid escape I wonder if its some form of acid acid yeah that's what it is, it's acid and they just don't care about me you know, they don't give me an apron or goggles or anything like that or heavy acid resistant gloves they just let me do this with my bare hands—and that woman they sent in to watch me finally spoke when I was oiling the stem of the valve with my oil can they gave me to use if a stem stuck.
           Why are you doing that, she said.
           Because this one's stiff. Feel it.
           The chandelier seemed to somehow perk up.
           She looked at me wide-eyed. This one's stiff? Feel it? What if those same exact words were applied to my you-know-what; this one's stiff, so feel it. She reached out and tried to turn the spigot and I said whoah don't do that it might open—my you-know-what might open—
           The president pounded the podium.
           —yes fifty years of toil sweat and tears in the filth and muck and fumes and the toxic dirt and dust—
           —but all kidding aside this is a hell of a job it's a busy job I got to empty four point seven vats an hour to do all one hundred eighty nine in forty hours. I walked across the floor with the cup in my hand toward that wide yellow drain with the black slimy gunk caked inside. Got to keep moving on this job—no room for sloughing off no room for snoozing—
           The chandelier had fifteen bulbs and one empty socket. Now what happened to that bulb?
           They've got to be half done by noon Wednesday that's ninety four point five vats by noon Wednesday that sounds like a lot of vats to do even in a whole week but its my responsibility. And I'll never forget—I'll always remember—I'll always remember what Zipper said when they brought the group of managers through that time all in their black suits with their black ties like its a funeral here. And he said to that large important group of managers This man is one of the most important men in the plant because of what he does—
           One of the most important men in the plant—
           —because of what he does—
           The one to be honored suddenly sat up straight and thought how the hell did that bulb fall down how did it screw itself out of the socket that lamp's about fifty feet up I'd say that's what I'd say I'd say—
           —so come on up Mister Greybeard, get this gold watch, sir, that marks fifty years in the plant with no ill effects, an example and inspiration to all of us.
           George shook the thoughts from his mind and concentrated hard as he left his seat and went up the aisle toward the big Boss standing proudly on his podium.
           What will I say when I get this watch?
           How can I thank them for all these years of pleasure?
           He mounted the stage. He took the watch. It was heavy in his hand. It hung from his fingers. He shook the president's hand. The watch hung from his fingers the way the chandelier hung—gravity; it was all gravity. The chandelier hung far above, writhing with words.
           —because of what he does—
           —because of what he does—
           —because of what he does—
           —because of what he does—
           —because of what he does—

           He turned and faced the cheering crowd before him and he smiled, and all the words were sucked into the cheering and then it was finally silent for now, under the chandelier.

Jim Meirose's short work has also appeared in many other magazines and journals. A chapbook of his work is available from Burning River and his novel CLAIRE is available on Amazon.
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