The sun was just rising like a red balloon in the melting gray of morning when Tomas Sanchez parked his old car in front of the factory. As usual, he was the first one to arrive. He went directly into the locker room and changed into his khaki uniform.
It was 6:30 a.m. by his wrist watch, and the parking lot was still deserted when he went outside. He lit a cigarette and sat down on the cement steps to wait for the bell to ring.
The sun climbed slowly. Then the other men began arriving one by one with their unkempt Monday faces. They grunted hellos at each other and disappeared into the dimly lit locker room.
Tomas listened to their conversation. He answered sometimes, smiled other times, smoked another cigarette, and watched the sky come up ash-blue over the pea-green canal.
So far, the morning had been routine, but he knew that this was to be the last such morning, and that made it different. Tomorrow was the day of his promotion to foreman; that made this morning special.
The first bell rang. Tomas jumped up and dropped the cigarette stub from his leathery lips. He stepped on the smoldering butt and fell into line smiling cheerfully; it was going to be a fine day.
The solemn line of khaki filed silently into the dim building and flooded around the huge sleeping machinery, the men’s feet stirring up the ancient dust into golden icicles of sunshine. The men formed in separate little puddles around the steel monsters and waited for the second bell to ring, talking quietly.
Then the bell rang and the workers scattered in all directions. They pushed green buttons. Angry red lights flashed. Amber lights winked. Motors whined. And the still machines grunted and yawned and came to life, humming like a swarm of angry bees, their tireless steel jaws opening and closing hungrily.
Tomas looked on and smiled. I am lucky, he thought. Tomorrow I will be foreman of the welding department. Me, Tomas Alexandro Sanchez, a foreman with my own air-conditioned office. Margarita will be happy now.
The thought tickled him. Tomas laughed. He put on his suede gloves, a leather apron, dark sun goggles, and the dented yellow helmet with the glass face guard. He loved that old helmet. He was really going to miss it. He cradled the welding gun in his huge hands and shook his head softly, remembering all six years they has spent together.
“Good morning, Tomas. I understand this is the last day you’ll be welding for us, eh?” The head supervisor winked. He spoke in an unusually friendly manner.
Tomas nodded. “I think so, Mr. White.”
The supervisor smiled and extended a thin freckled hand.
“Congratulations,” he said.
Tomas nodded, and his bronze face blushed. “Thank you, sir.”
The supervisor threw his arm around him. “Hey, no more of that sir business,” he said. “Call me Jim, all right?”
Tomas looked down at his scarred shoes and nodded, childlike. When he raised his head again, his eyes were shiny. “Okay—Jim,” he said.
The supervisor smiled. Then he began thumbing through a collection of pink slips he had been holding in his hands. He glanced down at a plastic-coated sheet and pulled out three of the slips. “Here,” he said. “You’ll be doing this yourself pretty soon. These are today’s orders.” He handed Tomas the three slips.
Tomas studied them for a second, zealously. The he took his helmet off and scratched the back of his head. He placed the helmet back on and smiled. “Eh, what about yesterday’s unfinished order?” he asked.
The supervisor frowned. “Forget it,” he said. “That can wait. We gotta get these out first, by tomorrow at the latest. They gave me hell upstairs today again. They say we’re getting too lax down here. Production is falling short. You know what that means.”
Tomas nodded. “I understand,” he said.
“Good,” said the supervisor. He turned around and signaled an overhead crane with his hand. Seconds passed, and the giant crane remained stationary, oblivious to the command.
“Come on,” shouted the supervisor. “This way. We ain’t paying you to sit on your can.” He waved his hands frantically and his face reddened, exposing fat blue veins on his neck and forehead. Then he mumbled something and hurried away, screaming at the man in the crane to the amusement of the other workers.
Tomas smiled. He pulled out a cigarette and placed it between his lips. Then he picked up his welding gun and squeezed the trigger gently. A snakelike tongue of silver wire projected outward from the tubular mouth and trembled in the rusty air. He touched the metal bar with the wire and there was a burst of fire, yellow and blue.
Tomas sighed. He held the cigarette against the scarlet tip of wire and inhaled. Then he pulled the face guard over his face and the world was far removed. Darkness alone existed, as he imagined it was in the beginning of Time; as the old padres had told him it was in Hell, when he had been an orphan in a Mexican monastery. He loved the alone feeling. It gave him a chance to be his real self.
He touched the metal bar again and there was a spark of electricity and a ball of sunshine, warm and golden. The light flickered orange shadows against the gray factory walls and magnified his own shadow to monstrous proportions. Tomas laughed inwardly. It was like being God and creating the sun again, or being the first man to make fire. He loved the feeling. He loved wielding the miniature sun in his hands. He loved the alone feeling it gave him. But he also would love his new job.
He touched another rod and watched the rusted iron melt and run in thick silver puddles. He went to another rod and did the same. The joist began to take form.
He welded another rod and thought of his wife and how proud she was over his promotion; she had actually said so. He hummed a song and welded two more rods. He thought of buying a new car and moving to a better neighborhood. The thoughts were all pleasing, all possible now.
Another rod and another and another, back and forth, up and down, and the day burned away. He remembered the time he had wanted to be a bullfighter. Even now, the thought brought a warm surge of excitement to his blood, a hopeless yearning for those lost days. But he rapidly dismissed the melancholy feeling. The past was gone and should be buried. Margarita always said that. Besides, it had been hard being an orphan. He was married now and into better times. The hours drifted away.
Tomas raised his face mask and took a deep drag off his stubby cigarette. Then he let it drop to the floor in a rain of pink cinders and stepped on it casually.
“Hey, Manuel, you better hurry up,” he called to his partner opposite him.
The other lifted up his face mask. “Yeah, what’s the hurry?” he asked.
“They’re not satisfied with our production upstairs. They say we’re going to have to speed up down here, or else.”
“Or else what?”
Tomas shrugged. “The unemployment office, I guess.” He laughed.
“Well, you know what they can do with their factory. I ain’t going to kill myself for no gringo.”
Tomas nodded, thoughtfully. He had forgotten about Manuel.
Manuel came over and stood beside him. “Hey, take over for me. I’m going to the john.” He winked. “Gotta take a little break.”
“Mano, I don’t think you should be taking so many breaks. The head supervisor doesn’t like it.”
“So? You’re going to be in charge pretty soon, aren’t you?”
Tomas hesitated. “Yes, but. . . .”
“All right men, break it up and get to work,” said an authoritative voice. It was the head supervisor.
Tomas’s face reddened. Manuel brought his body to attention and mock saluted. “Yes, sir,” he said, laughing. He waited until the supervisor had walked away, then turned to Tomas and made a face.
Tomas shrugged. He pulled the steel mask over his face and shut out the outside world again. He needed to be alone with himself. He needed to think. He had forgotten about Manuel and the other men who had voted him foreman. He touched another rod with the wire. The lights sputtered and hurled out sparks like fireflies into the darkness. They fell at his feet and died slowly, burning into his already scarred shoes.
Tomas whistled. He purposely thought of drowsy sun-baked villages in Mexico. Maybe now he would be able to save enough for a vacation. Margarita would like that. Maybe he could even take her to Mexico, to a real bull ring. But she would not like the ring. He would take her to Mexico City instead. He sang a Spanish song and welded another rod.
The time passed slowly. Tomas pulled the helmet off and wiped his forehead on his shirt sleeve then glanced up at the clock.
He lit another cigarette and welded two more joists.
Finally, the bell rang. “Break time!” someone shouted. The machines silenced, slowly and whining, their huge steel mouths frozen in the act of chewing.
Tomas lifted the helmet from his head and laid it gently on the table. He pulled off his burnt gloves, wiped off his grimy face, and brushed back his hair. Then he picked up the lunch box and pulled out the warm thermos and a sandwich. He went and sat outside on a wooden bench by a giant pine tree. The canal drifted aimlessly below. It was milky green now. Louis, Alberto, and Manuel came over and sat next to him.
“Eh, Tomas, tomorrow’s the big day, huh?”
Tomas nodded and smiled.
“Can you imagine that,” said Alberto. “Our own quiet Tomas.”
“Eh, muchachos,” said Manuel. “Now when we get one of our own blood to be boss, things will be a lot better for us, no?”
Young Manuel laughed.
The others nodded and laughed, too.
Tomas remained silent. He took a bite out of the tortilla sandwich and munched thoughtfully on it.
“Congratulations, Tomas,” said Alberto.
“We must celebrate!” chirped Louis.
“Sí,” they all agreed.
“Hey Tomas, remember those times we used to come to work half drunk from those all night parties? Those were real celebrations, eh?”
Tomas nodded nostalgically. “Ah, yes, but that was a long time ago, amigos. Long before I got married.”
“Ah, yes,” they all agreed, rather wistfully.
There was silence for a few minutes.
“Well, what about the celebration?” someone asked.
“Yeah,” said Manuel. “What do you say, Tomas? We get drunk tonight or no?”
Tomas’s face reddened. “I’m sorry, but I can’t go tonight. I promised Margarita we would go looking for a new apartment,” he said.
“You’re moving, eh?”
“Where to?” asked Manuel.
Tomas hesitated. “The Lakeview area maybe.”
“Hey, that’s a classy section,” someone said.
“Maybe some other night, then,” said Louis.
“Yes, some other night,” said Tomas.
There was a long pause in the conversation. Then Louis spoke again. “Hey, Tomas, what are you going to do about Manuel when you become foreman? He spends more time in that john than he does welding.”
Everyone laughed, including Tomas.
Manuel threw his arm around Tomas and patted him on the back vigorously. “Are you kidding?” he said. “Tomas and me are almost brothers. Why, before he got married, we used to share the same women. Remember, Tomas?”
Tomas smiled and nodded. “Ah, yes,” he sighed. “Those were good days, weren’t they?”
“See?” laughed Manuel.
The other men smiled and nodded their heads, but said nothing. Then a fellow worker came over and tapped Tomas on the shoulder.
“Hey, the supervisor says to report to the office. Mr. Jerome is waiting to see you. He said you can finish your break when you come back, Mr. Sanchez.” He winked at the others, and they all laughed. But Tomas only smiled.
“Well,” he said.
His friends wished him luck. Tomas folded the sandwich neatly and placed it back in the lunch box. Then he spilled the coffee from his cup and screwed the cup back onto the thermos.
He stood up very slowly and glanced around at his friends’ copper faces. They were all looking up at him. It was funny, Tomas thought. He hadn’t realized before how old they were all getting. He looked beyond them to the nimbus clouds forming in the pale summer sky. A cool, rainy breeze swept across the canal and rustled the pine needles overhead.
Tomas turned and started walking away slowly, thinking out his every step. He heard his friends’ laughter dying behind him, and he hesitated one last time.
Then he remembered Margarita and the promotion, and he hurried forward.
This story originally appeared in Phosphene magazine and is reprinted in The Best of Phosphene.