‘Opting out’ short fiction by Niles Reddick

Niles Reddick is author of the novel Drifting too far from the Shore, the collection Road Kill Art and Other Oddities, and the novella Lead Me Home. His work has been featured in over 150 literary magazines all over the world, including Drunk Monkeys, Spelk, The Arkansas Review: A Journal of Delta Studies, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Slice of Life, Faircloth Review.

They called me Zach for a week before I knew why. Of course, I didn’t remember. I often drank so much hard liquor my first semester that I recalled very little: the night I drove my Mustang through the President of the university’s yard and ran over his, or the first lady’s, precious lilies lining the stone sidewalk to their house; the night I took a loaded gun and threatened to kill a boy who had asked my girlfriend out for a date; and then, the night that earned me the nickname of Zacchaeus, Zach for short, for getting drunk, climbing a tree, and serenading the girls in the dorm.

I knew I was going squeak by with low grades, except Algebra, which I would fail, but I had no idea I would get suspended for a semester. I was embarrassed, humiliated, and I dreaded telling my parents who had worked and saved to fund my first year. I could appeal the university’s decision, but I would have to go before a committee of faculty and staff and plead my case. I didn’t have a case. I was drunk for half a year and likely, they wouldn’t pat my hand, tell me that was fine, and that I could come back. 

I felt obliged to pay my parents back, so I took a job at the aluminum plant making block engines for cars. I lied and told my parents I opting out of the university until I could figure out what I wanted to do. I lied my way through the job interview at the plant, told the Human Resources lady that I needed to work to pay for college and that I had done well for a semester, but felt like opting out until I could save more, go back later, and maybe pick up a Management or Human Resources degree. She liked that, told me to come see her in six months after my probationary period, and we could talk about the tuition remission policy. The most important thing was I got the job. At first, it was great. I made good money and could afford pretty much whatever I wanted within reason. I couldn’t afford a Porsche, but I bought a used Impala I paid cash for.

The mist from liquid aluminum being cooled after having been melted was enough to make me gag when bursts of it swirled about the roof, and the computer driven robots that moved and gyrated better than a rock star gave me the creeps. I imagined at night, they drank, and had sex in the plant, giving birth to miniature robots that sabotaged the company’s lean processes. I think the things that bothered me most was the team meetings, the rah-rah over scoring a certain percentage with no plant accidents, and then watching people do the same routine for about eight hours in a row, every week. 

All of the repetition must have bothered Marge, too. She’s in a hospital prison back East for murdering her fellow employee, team mate, and husband Ernie. I heard he was messing with the woman in Human Resources, but I think that may be just a rumor. Marge and Ernie had worked overtime the night he disappeared. It was almost a month later when we heard she had apparently knocked him out, put him in the mold block, poured hot aluminum over his entire body, cooled him, and then got one of those robots to hoist him onto the forklift and move him into storage, where extra engine blocks were stored and stacked to the ceiling for shipment to other plants. She put him in a crate bound for a Japan plant. It was like old Ernie had been frozen in the moment, his mouth and eyes open, a regular tin man son of a bitch being unpacked in Japan. The Japanese employees were so impressed with what they thought was art from the American plant, they put Ernie in the lobby for everyone to see. It wasn’t until the gift made the company’s global e-newsletter and website that everyone figured out it was him. The Human Resources lady had the Japanese plant give him to authorities, we heard the embassy had to get involved, they shipped Ernie home, the detectives finished the investigation, and Marge was sent to the women’s prison for the criminally insane. The company changed its policy on nepotism and made sure supervisors stayed for any overtime.

The good news is that a couple of my drinking buddies are working with me now, since they got suspended from the university, too, and once in a while, we pass a flawed engine block that shouldn’t and imagine somebody, somewhere in America is having engine trouble with their new car, but it’s under warranty, so it doesn’t really matter and gives us a break from the repetition.

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