Jul/Aug 2010  •   Fiction

The Philosopher's Stone

by Tom Fillion

Artwork by Costel Iarca

Artwork by Costel Iarca

There was no philosopher's stone to turn lead into gold at the battery factory. Just sulfuric acid. And plenty of it.

I drove to the factory located between the Schlitz brewery on one side and Busch Gardens on the other. Inside, I inserted my time card into the clock where it snapped like a turtle on the card, leaving the time of day instead of tooth marks. There at the factory, time flowed as slowly as the 12 volt box lunches on the assembly line.

I stuck my card back into the rack and walked through the office doors. Small rollers linked together in sections snaked to the shipping area where I stacked batteries and loaded semi-trailer trucks. It was mindless, empty work, and it encouraged a mindless, empty college student like myself to philosophize on the mindless, empty plight of modern man, woman, and society. The co-op coordinator at the university called it "a golden opportunity."

In another part of the factory, large, fiery, pre-modern machines snarled like angry dragons and spit out lead plates to be used in car batteries. Walls with asbestos sheeting blocked some of the heat from the machines but not the sound of the constant pounding. It was all for a good cause: to speed up America, to make America go faster and further in the fast lane and stay longer in its chariots.

The team straddling the assembly line added the finishing touches, pressing the tops into place and affixing tags and stickers to each battery. While they worked, the team leader at the other end of the assembly line called out and the other guys chanted in response. The team leader was a shirtless man in his thirties. His back and chest glistened with sweat as he urged the other workers to make their daily quota, to go faster and further and then some.

Behind the assembly line was the charging area. The batteries stocked with the lead wafers marinated in sulfuric acid. They were stacked in rows five batteries high. Wires ran from the ceiling to each colony. The entire section buzzed like beehives.

Nearby, vats of sulfuric acid filled the air with a strange, caustic humidity ruining clothes in weeks. Most of my clothes had small lesions blossoming into holes. With the lead, sulfur, and asbestos swirling in the air, I figured I'd be dead by the time I was thirty. Thirty-five tops. But at least I'd have a college degree and be the first one from my family to do that.

I turned the corner to the shipping department. The batteries crawled along, continuing their journey on the shiny rollers back to the loading dock and from there to be transplanted in cars for the rat race to nowhere.

A young black guy swept the area with a large push broom. Matter and dust was neither created nor destroyed here. It was just pushed from one spot to another. It never went away but seemed to multiply like loaves or fish.

He was dressed in a white T-shirt and dark pants.

"When did they hire you?" I asked.

"I'm a temporary," he replied. "My friends call me Shakespeare. 'Cause I write poetry whenever I get a chance. I already started one in this God-forsaken place. 'The pen is mightier than the broom...'"

"I like it already," I said.

He pushed the broom along the floor. A cloud of dust rose in front of the broom bristles. He pushed it into a dustpan and then swept over the same area. There was still a cloud of dust.

When I got to the shipping department, my boss, Larry Francis, who had a fair complexion that got spotty and carbuncular when his blood pressure increased, saw me.

"I need you to help load those batteries over there," he said, pointing to the nearby pallets.

The pallets were stacked with batteries five rows high. Between each row was a large piece of cardboard to soak up any spilled acid.

"Where's Sweeney?" I asked, referring to one of the other guys who worked in the shipping department.

"He's over at the railroad yard picking up a container of dead batteries. Sweeney wants to get off the dock and drive for me. I thought I'd give him a chance driving a load of scrap metal and see how he does," Larry stated.

Ulysses stood nearby laughing at the notion of Sweeney driving. He was an ebony-skinned man in his late thirties, black as dominoes. Globules of sweat dripped off the end of his nose as he inserted the long, flat prongs of the hand truck underneath a palette of batteries. He jacked up the palette a few inches, and I helped maneuver the load into the awaiting trailer.

"A couple more of them and we'll be done," Ulysses said.

"Sweeney should be back soon," I said.

"Yeah, if he can find his way," he replied with a chuckle.

"He's no brain trust," I agreed.

"No, not my boy, Jethro. He's got a strong back but a weak mind. Sweeney's wife wants him to make more money. He thinks he'll make more driving than stacking batteries. Every redneck thinks he can drive a truck."

I had seen Sweeney and Ulysses taunt each other on many occasions. They were a contrast in form, content, and beliefs. Ulysses was taller and had a medium build. Sweeney was built thick and squat like a John Deere tractor. His hair was reddish brown and his skin had large clusters of freckles. The sleeves on his T-shirt barely extended beyond his shoulders. The left shoulder sleeve was shortened further by a pack of Winstons rolled up in it. His work pants ended four inches above his brown work boots. He looked like a fucking oaf, which he most definitely was.

"Don't come to my neighborhood," Sweeney needled Ulysses whenever he got bored and needed something to do.

"Don't come to mine, neither," Ulysses jabbed back.

"I'll make a redneck out of you yet," Sweeney promised. Ulysses smiled, revealing a mouthful of gold teeth.

"You got your whole bank account in your mouth or what? How much did all that metal cost?" Sweeney asked.

"More than you can afford. You can't afford concrete blocks to jack your trailer above sea level."

"Damn your black ass."

Ulysses and I were almost finished loading the trailer when we heard squealing tires and a loud thump a short distance from the factory. It took only a few minutes before the word spread. Everyone in the factory and the Schlitz brewery across the road filed outside like lines of ants ready to encircle a picnic sandwich dropped on the ground. The assembly line came to a complete stop. America would have to wait for batteries and beer.

"Sweeney missed the turn," someone said. Soon everyone was saying it. "Sweeney missed the turn!"

I followed Ulysses and Larry Francis outside to view the spectacle. Sweeney paced back and forth near the tractor and trailer. Both lay on their sides like huge, etherized elephants that had crashed through the fence and escaped from Busch Gardens.

Larry Francis stood and stared. His face became flushed with a crimson glare like he had been splashed with sulfuric acid from one of the batteries.

"I hit a stone in the road," Sweeney yelled in his own defense. "It was a stone in the road. Everything was okay 'til I hit that goddamn stone."

Sweeney pointed down the road to an imaginary stone.

"Where's the stone then? A stone did all this?" Larry shot back. "You're fucking crazy!"

"It was a stone. I swear there was one. I know what you're thinking. You think I was speeding, but it was a stone in the road."

Ulysses looked over. A gold-toothed smile covered his face.

"I can see him now, riding high and mighty. He lost his wheels when he took that corner too fast. Mr. High and Mighty. There ain't no stone will do that. Looks like someone will be bidding on his job, come tomorrow. His wife is going to kick his big, white ass. He'll be lucky if they keep him. A stone in the road," Ulysses said, slapping his thigh.

It was only a couple hundred yards to the scrape heap and he would have been home free, probably still driving a truck. His life would have gone as normal. That wasn't possible now. It all gets back to my original point about the mindless, empty plight of modern man, woman, and society.

They couldn't raise the tractor or trailer until it was empty. Several departments had to stay to hand-carry the batteries to the back of the plant. The old, lead plates were gold for the company. They were taken out, chewed up, and melted down for the huge fire-breathing machines in the inner sanctum of the factory and recast into new plates. Similarly, Sweeney's legend began at that point, with curses, verse, and laughter transmuting over time to a comic opera of the assembly line.