Kenny Murphy, Jr. waved goodbye and turned to go into the school building. The faint lines at the corners of Ken Murphy’s eyes crinkled just a little as he watched the little blonde boy walk away. He’d changed so much that Martha wouldn’t have recognized him if she’d still been alive. A very serious boy, he had problems they’d never imagined when he was just three, problems Murphy felt ill-equipped to deal with by himself, even three years after she’d died.
He got back on 340 moments later, hands tapping impatiently on the steering wheel as the slow moving traffic crept up the four-lane highway. At least he had an automatic shift now; the clutch in his old truck hadn’t agreed with the prosthetic he’d worn since Iraq. His eyes glanced off the wedding ring on his left hand, then back to the congested road. Brake lights flashed in the heavy fog. Murphy hated foggy mornings.
When he’d first moved to Highview with Martha back at the turn of the century, the town had less than five hundred residents. There were at least four times as many now, and the rest of the county had grown even more, with thousands who commuted all the way to Baltimore and Washington, DC. Traffic got worse all the time; what had once been a five-minute drive to work had turned into twenty.
He grimaced as he pulled into the plant. A new fence had been under construction for some weeks. Security, said the executives. Hadn’t been any need for a fence in the last twenty years, and he didn’t see the need for one now. Waste of money.
He parked the pickup in his reserved spot near the entrance to the building. A small hybrid pulled in next to him, in the spot reserved for the employee of the month. Karen Greenfield. A little older than his daughter, Greenfield was a rising star at the plant, and one hell of a leader. He knew her well from the National Guard. She was a company commander in his battalion, confident and assertive. Attractive young lady, too; every junior officer in the battalion, plus most of the men at the plant, had tried at least once to get her to go out on a date. They rarely tried more than once—when provoked, her eyes could blister enough to crack your skin. Like Murphy, Karen wore stout jeans and a casual shirt.
“Morning, Karen. You can call me Ken when we’re not on drill.”
She smiled. “If I did, I’d be the only person around here who did. Any word on what’s going on in Vienna?”
He shook his head. The day before, his boss, plant manager and vice president of production, had been called to northern Virginia for a meeting of the executives that was supposed to be secret. Nothing stayed secret around here. The rumors said they were considering layoffs.
“No, nothing. I wouldn’t worry too much. We’re one of the most profitable units in the company. They’d be fools to mess with a good thing.” Karen smiled as they walked toward the entrance of the plant. “There’s no shortage of fools in the world, Colonel.”
“I suppose you’re right. Nothing to be done for it now, though. We’ve got to get those bugs worked out of the new run. Best to think about that instead of rumors.”
They entered the building and she headed off to her office, while he went to his. Despite the confident front, Murphy was worried. The fence was just part of it: spending thousands of dollars on security for a building that had never suffered a break-in? It was a very visible reminder that the company was changing, and quickly, since it had been bought by Nelson Barclay’s Vienna Holdings.
Barclay had a nasty reputation in the high-tech industry. An incredibly wealthy man, he’d built his company by gobbling up smaller competitors, and avoided regulators by keeping plenty of campaign dollars flowing into the right pockets. He was a good friend of President Price, which didn’t do him any good in Murphy’s eyes. Murphy had voted for Price’s opponent, a struggling underdog who’d been trounced in the election.
Murphy walked past his assistant’s desk and into his small office. Like most of the rest of the plant’s workers, she wouldn’t be in for another hour. Murphy’s habit, for more than a decade, had been to get to the office at least an hour or two earlier than the rest of the shift. Without interruptions, he was usually able to get more done then than he did during the rest of the day.
Every detail of the office was organized. His desk, usually clear of everything but the framed photograph of Martha, was currently stacked with the reports that had been rushed through yesterday for the executive meeting. Like the fence, the reports, describing the efficiency of the plant and its workers, made him uneasy. They showed a solid profit, but Murphy wondered if it was enough to satisfy Barclay.
They’d know soon enough.
The next morning was apparently soon enough.
The new twenty-foot high chain link fence surrounded the plant, topped with razor wire. Raw earth was exposed where the posts had been buried. New security cameras mounted on the high fence posts pointed at the roadway and the gate. The gate was locked tight with a chain and padlock, and unfamiliar security guards stood outside the door of the plant, well inside the grounds behind the gate. A brightly painted sign hung on the fence.
Effective immediately, the Saturn Microsystems Harpers Ferry Plant is closed.
Personal items and severance pay will be mailed to all employees on completion of inventory.
Murphy climbed out of the car where he had parked it off the side of the long drive leading to the gate, his lips curled into a frown. Karen Greenfield stood next to her rusted pickup across the drive, slapping at the buzzing insects swarming around them. She looked at him, the query in her eyes clear enough that she didn’t have to say a word.
He wiped sweat from his forehead and stared at the sign and the fence in disbelief. He was Director of Operations at the plant, the number-two man, and he’d gotten no word. Why the hell had they done this?
More cars drove up the tree-lined drive to the plant and parked on the gravel next to the drive, and a small crowd formed at the gate. He’d known all these men and women for two decades. He’d worked with them and seen them around town. Now they all wore the same puzzled look. No anger had surfaced yet, but that would come. In singles and pairs, they approached him for guidance and information. He had nothing to give them.
David Firkus stepped out of the passenger side of an electric van and walked toward Murphy and Karen. David’s expression carried a noticeable lack of focus that made him seem younger than his thirty-five years, with the mannerisms and speech patterns of a ten year old. Mildly retarded, David had worked at the plant for several years. As always, he smiled when he saw Karen; he’d had a crush on her for a long time. She returned a reassuring smile. David was one of the few men in Highview who hadn’t found himself wanting to crawl away in response to a cutting glance from her.
Murphy surveyed the growing crowd as Karen tried to explain to David what had happened. David started to look confused and upset as she spoke quickly in a low contralto. He didn’t understand.
Murphy didn’t either.
By seven, the crowd had swelled to hundreds of men and women, including some from other shifts: the word had spread. They talked in low murmurs, bunched in small groups.
Murphy’s eyes darted upward when he heard a helicopter.
A ripple of voices surged through the crowd as a helicopter with the “blue blob” of the Saturn Microsystems logo on its sides appeared over the trees. It landed in the parking lot where their cars should have been, and two men jumped to the ground and approached the gate. Murphy’s boss, in a suit and tie, carried a megaphone. He must have come from corporate headquarters: no one wore a suit at the plant. The other man wore the West Virginia State Police uniform. Murphy heard the indignation of the men and women behind him. Why did he bring a state patrolman with him? Was he afraid of them?
The crowd fell silent as the two men approached the other side of the fence, but the tension remained—a tension Murphy didn’t like at all. Take away people’s livelihood all of a sudden, and there was no telling how they would react. Murphy’s boss’s eyes met Murphy’s, then looked away. No answers there.
The plant manager raised the megaphone to his lips.
“Folks, I can’t even begin to tell you how sorry I am. You know that for the past couple of days I’ve been in Vienna for a meeting with Mr. Barclay. There isn’t any way to break this easily, so I’m just going to lay it out. All three of Saturn’s US-based plants closed this morning. Everyone is laid off, effective immediately.”
An angry roar rose from the crowd.
“Hold on a minute,” he yelled into the megaphone. “Let me have my say, please. This will hit me just as hard as all of you. There’s nothing we can do. The board decided this months ago, and a new plant in Jakarta opened today. Now listen to me. The company is making a…a generous offer…of new positions for some of you. If you accept the offer you’ll have the same seniority you have now. The company will even pay your relocation expenses, and there is a good English school near the new plant.”
Someone in the crowd shouted, “Where the hell is Jakarta? We’re Americans!”
Another yell, “How much is the pay cut? What will they pay us there?”
“Is this how you saved your job, you bastard? You sold us out to some other country?”
The plant manager frowned, and then spoke again, his voice shaking, barely audible even with the megaphone. “I didn’t save my job—I can’t move to Indonesia. I’m staying on to supervise shipping out all the equipment, then they’re letting me go, too.”
“Folks, listen to me. You have to keep your cool on this. Next week, checks will go out to everyone for six weeks’ severance pay, plus extra depending on how long you worked for the company. Also, for some of you there will be an enclosed job offer at the new plant, with the new salary, doing the same job you have today. The company will pick up moving expenses. This is a generous offer. All the details on the move will be in the information packet. Now please. Go home. Go back to your families and try to figure out what is the best move for you, all right? I’m sorry, I wish I had better news, I really do. Good-bye.”
He shook his head and walked away, the state trooper following.
Someone pitched a glass bottle, the sun glinting off the glass as it spun end over end before shattering against the fence and showering the two men with broken glass. The trooper spun around and fumbled for his pistol, and someone in the crowd shouted.
Murphy backed away from the fence. Half a dozen men stood on the hoods of two trucks, shouting at the plant manager’s back.
Murphy said in a tone he expected to be obeyed, “Captain Greenfield.” He motioned to Karen and they grabbed David by the arms. Murphy hadn’t been in an angry crowd like this since Iraq, and didn’t want to be in one now. This could get ugly real quick, and David didn’t need to be in the middle of it.
“Come on, Dave, let’s get away from the gate,” Karen said. She smiled at him, attempting to keep him calm even as the crowd grew more raucous. They pulled him away from the gate, toward the woods beside the road.
David said, “What’s going on, I don’t understand!”
Another bottle bounced against the fence, then shattered against the pavement. One of the workers started to climb the chain links.
“Sir, you’re going to have to get down,” shouted the state trooper. He unhitched the strap over his pistol.
Murphy pushed against the surge of the crowd, trying to move David and Karen out of it as screams rang out.
Behind him, Murphy heard a gunshot as the trooper fired into the air. Murphy’s ears rang, and David screamed, then started to cry.
The crowd fell back from the fence, as if from the crack of a whip. The gunshot seemed to drain the angry energy from the crowd, or at least frighten them enough to back off.
Karen said, “It’s all right, Dave,” and hugged him.
“Go on,” the trooper yelled. “Get out of here.”
People started to move back to their cars. Much more quickly than the area had filled this morning, it began to empty. Murphy and Karen helped David back to his carpool as with a funereal air, the former employees headed back to their homes. Murphy looked back at the fence. The trooper still stood behind it, Murphy’s boss not far behind him.
That was all the good-bye he got, after nineteen years with the company.
He looked at Karen, and she back at him, both of them helpless to do anything about the situation. Without another word, they got back in their cars and drove away.
Sally’s Diner in Highview was as busy as Murphy had ever seen it. The usual lunch crowd was there of course, but the place was packed with an extra twenty people or so: folks like him, who would have normally been down at the plant. The old building, with its rundown interior and flaking paint, was a favorite meeting spot in Highview. On the corner of Main and Tipple streets, it was a small standalone building, a wood frame with peeling white clapboards.
Murphy had a seat at the scuffed counter, a cup of coffee set before him and an unread Washington Post next to it. The coffee had been sitting, getting cold. He absently rubbed the joint between his knee and the prosthetic left leg he’d worn for more than a decade. He needed to get some new liners; it had been irritating him lately.
Walter Haggett’s teenage great-grandson Frank frantically washed dishes behind the counter, slinging the trays of dishes and glasses around with a crash. Frank was sixteen, and should have been in school; he’d dropped out earlier in the school year. It was hard for Murphy to see the gangly, greasy-haired teenager with acne and rings in his ears and nose: he’d been a confused young kid at Haggett’s funeral three years earlier. Walter had been laid to rest during a closed-coffin service the day after Martha’s.
“Hey, Colonel Murphy, look at the tube—isn’t that your daughter?”
Murphy looked up at the aging television, tuned to CNN. Someone turned it up. congressman Al Clark stood in the chamber of the House of Representatives. Directly behind him was Murphy’s daughter Valerie, Clark’s assistant. At the bottom of the screen the words “Welfare Reform Bill” flashed.
Clark spoke, a lopsided grin on his face. “The wisdom—no, the celestial guidance—behind this proposal is almost too stellar for me to see clearly. Applaud, I tell you. Applaud! Now, I have only one suggestion, one little morsel—an amendment to offer to Mr. Skaggs’s wise proposal. Let us send a mission to the moon to carve up the cheese and give it to our senior citizens. Let us send it back in huge rockets to land in the ocean, not only providing for our dear sainted grandmothers, but at the same time revitalizing the shipping and dairy industries.”
The diners in the restaurant broke into laughter as the screen switched to Representative Mark Skaggs from Kentucky, his face flushed. It appeared the other representatives onscreen were also gripped with hysterical laughter.
“My suggestion will have just as much opportunity to help our country as the one proposed by the gentleman from Kentucky,” Clark said. “Gentlemen, Ladies: this proposal will likely bring revolution down on our heads. Our people are bleeding, fellow members of the House. Bleeding. Yet there he is, the gentleman from Kentucky who wants to take away their last bandages so the wealthy can use them as fancy headdresses.”
Voices rose in the diner again, as if by common consent, and someone turned the volume back down on the television as the screen shifted back to the anchors. The goings-on in Washington had little to do with them, anyway. If it hadn’t been for the brief view of Valerie Murphy, the news would have attracted little interest.
Murphy’s waitress poured him a cup of coffee and said, “That Clark, he sure is a card, isn’t he? How’s Valerie doing working for him?”
“She loves the job, got promoted again last year; she’s running his whole office now,” Murphy said.
“Well, isn’t that something. I remember when she was nothing more than a toddler, thought she owned everything.”
“Well, some things never change,” he said, grinning.
She laughed and walked away, and Murphy returned to the newspaper. Depressing stuff. Unemployment. War in the Middle East. Someone had poisoned the reservoir in Milwaukee.
Murphy looked away from the paper for a moment and his eyes landed on a couple he knew, holding hands over the table as they talked. He jerked his eyes away and returned to the bad news in the paper. Of course it was always bad news—at least what they chose to print. All the same, lately things just seemed to be getting worse.
“This seat taken?”
Murphy looked up at the words. Karen stood to his left, still in the jeans and flannel shirt she’d worn to the plant earlier in the morning.
“Sit down,” he said.
She did, apparently unaware of the appreciative glances from the men across the room. Karen didn’t socialize in town very often.
“What are you planning to do, Colonel?”
“Well, first I’m going to ask you to stop calling me that when we’re not on drill status.”
She smiled. “Seriously.”
Murphy shrugged. “Don’t know. I’ll get a job somewhere. Kenny can’t go without health insurance. But I’ll be damned if I know what to do. I’ve been making chips at that plant for twenty years.”
She nodded, her expression serious. “Yeah. I’m at a loss. It’s for sure there’s no other decent jobs around here.”
Murphy tossed back the rest of his cold coffee, then waved to the waitress for a refill. “Maybe you should think about applying for active duty status.”
She grunted. “Maybe. But they’d probably make me switch branches, be a nurse or finance officer or something.”
She was probably right. President Price’s predecessor had signed an executive order integrating women who applied into the combat arms, and Karen had received her Armor commission as a result. Then Price had rescinded the order; consequently, only a small number of women were grandfathered into Infantry and Armor.
“You’re probably right,” he said, “But they’d be fools to do it. Don’t repeat this, but as far as I’m concerned, you’re the most capable company commander I have.”
“Why thank you, Colonel. I don’t have any illusions though.”
“Maybe I could talk to my brother. He might be able to swing something.”
She raised her eyebrows.
“Tommy’s taking command of a brigade down at Fort Campbell.”
“That’s right. West Point.” He grinned. “I never thought my little brother would outrank me.”
“Do you believe them about the severance pay?”
“I imagine so. If only to avoid lawsuits, they’ll be scrupulously fair. But six weeks pay won’t go very far. Not for most of these folks.”
“Yes. Definitely not for me. I’m still paying off my damn student loans.”
“You went to Bowling Green, right?”
“That’s right. And this all has a familiar feeling. I grew up in Kentucky coal country. When they finally closed the mine for good, it seemed like the town was going to dry up and blow away. A lot of folks never recovered.”
“Yeah,” he replied. “I never thought I’d be facing a layoff at this age. Happened to me once, a lifetime ago it seems. I got laid off from the GM plant in Atlanta twenty-five years ago.”
“What’d you do?”
He laughed. “Joined the Army. All I had was a high school diploma, Martha, and a new baby to feed.”
He looked around the crowded diner, and said, “This sure is going to hit Highview hard. Eight hundred families…I guess more than half the town worked at that plant.”
He didn’t finish the thought aloud. Desperate people tended to do desperate things.
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