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Machine Fink

by Mike Phillips

Part 1 appears
in this issue.

“Where have you been?” Billy asked Fritz as he returned to the melter deck after the lunch break.

“Boss-man’s office,” Fritz replied, lifting his chin haughtily and affecting an air of importance.

“What did he want?”

“Oh, there he was, wiping the slush from the rims of his brand-new Cadillac when he sees one of his poor working stiffs walking conveniently by and so he decides to ask this poor, common man what he thinks about the new contract offer.”


“Yes, sir, he brings me into his office and gives me a soda, not a pop but a soda, from his own personal refrigerator, and he sits me down and starts trying to pump me for information.”

“Like what?”

“Oh, like if the guys think the new negotiator is doing a good job for them, or if we know how hard times are for the company, cost of healthcare and liability and gas prices up and all that sort of thing.”

“So, he thinks we’re stupid.”

“Oh no,” Fritz said in an exaggerated tone. “He went out of his way to say how much he valued the opinion of us common folk. And that if I should ever have any suggestions, or had anything that I’d like to talk about, I should just feel free to come and see him anytime.”

“Just don’t forget to make an appointment first.”

“Right enough, I’m sure.”

“What a self-righteous jerk,” Billy said in disgust.

“I’ve got a few better ways of putting it than that.”

Unable to think about anything else but the machine fink since that morning, Billy could wait no longer, “Well, did you get it, the bait?”

Holding up a grease-stained paper sack with pride, Fritz said, “Straight from the Old Mill.”

“What kind?”

“Pink frosting with sprinkles.”

“Good choice. You get one for me?”

“You’re not out of the doghouse with me yet, Billy boy.”

Billy lost his smile and looked away.

Fritz grunted with satisfaction. “You get a box?”

Subdued, Billy said, “Yeah, you really think this is going to work? I mean, if they are as smart as you say, how are they going to fall for something like this? It’s classic Saturday morning cartoon stuff.”

“Well then, let’s just hope they don’t watch as much TV as you do.”

Billy picked up the box and handed it to Fritz, saying, “Hey, speaking of, any word on the contract?”

“Nothing official yet, but I think the guys are ready to play hardball.”

“That’s no good,” said Billy, feeling his gut tighten. “I can’t go on strike. The landlord would kick me out in a heartbeat.”

“Stick by your union brothers and we’ll take care of you. That Boss-man don’t care a lick what happens to you so long as he can keep his stock options paying off.”

Setting the trap, Fritz said, “You call Shelly, see how’s she’s feeling?”

“Yeah, I went home. She’s doing a lot better.”

Fritz eyed the young man carefully, but said nothing.

When they had finished their preparations, Fritz and Billy went back to work. The rejected product from Comstock Metals was melted down. It was now in the form of five hundred-pound, brass billets. Billy began unloading brass turnings, using a pitchfork to pull the tangled clumps from a bin and put them on the conveyor.

The turnings were thick with cutting oil and soon the melter was churning out inky black smoke. Fritz turned the exhaust hood to its highest setting, the deep rumble was deafening, but the heavy metal fume and soot was soon cleared.

The turnings not only produced smoke, they also caused tiny islands of impurities to rise to the surface of the molten metal, growing to continents in the hellish ocean on the surface of the melter. Fritz could hardly keep the slag scraped off and feed the melter at the same time, even on the conveyor’s slowest setting.

It happened in a moment. While he was shaking the slag from the scraper in a bin, Fritz felt heat, sudden and painful, in his right leg. He dropped the scraper and looked down, finding a burning rag shoved into the back of his right boot. Using a heavily gloved hand and a corner of the protective apron he wore, Fritz beat the flames, shouting for help.

“I’m coming!” Billy yelled back, grabbing a fire extinguisher.

But as he ran toward the burning Fritz, Billy’s feet were pushed out from under him, and he landed hard on the concrete floor. Thinking only to save himself by motion, Billy rolled to his side. Something touched him and he jerked his hand back, foiling an attempt by the fink to get the pitchfork.

The fink was already on the move. The overturned box fell off its prop, but not to the floor. The edge stuck on a junked candlestick. The brass shone brightly, seemingly an exclamation point to punctuate the fink’s success. The donut was gone. A flash of pink streaked across the floor and over to the control panel.

Back on his feet with a fire extinguisher in hand, Billy raced toward Fritz. The fire was burning stronger and stronger despite the big man’s efforts to stamp out the flames.

“Get down. Close your eyes,” said Billy.

With a practiced hand, he pulled the pin and squeezed the handle, releasing the dry powder in a cloud of white. He swept the flow from side to side, covering Fritz’s leg from top to bottom. Soon the flames were out.

Breathing heavily, Fritz looked up at Billy and said his thanks. Billy nodded.

While they had been putting out the fire, the conveyor had accelerated to full speed. More and more turnings spilled into the melter. Smoke boiled out around the exhaust hood.

The fink had somehow loosed the pendant from its coupling and tether. Fritz and Billy watched in confusion as it bobbed along, seemingly under its own power. They could almost make out the shape of a little man covered in soot. Before they could react, the control flew into the melter with a great splash.

“The fan!” Fritz shouted.

Picking himself up off the floor, he raced through the growing blackness to the exhaust hood controls. Glad to find the switch turned off and not broken beyond repair, Fritz turned the exhaust back to its highest setting. Even as he did so, there was a great clanking noise from above. The sound was followed by the grinding of machine parts.

The exhaust system came to a sudden stop. Smoke filled the deck.

“There he is,” Billy shouted, too loud now the air handler was silenced. “Look, you can see him.”

Sure enough, the vague outline of the machine fink could be seen climbing the ladder to the roof. Covered in soot from head to toe, he looked just like a little man. The machine fink was the size of a doll, if the proportions of his body were not exactly those desirable to be made into a plaything. Even with his small size and rather plump stomach, he was quickly making his way up the ladder.

“Get him,” Fritz said as he started toward the ladder.

“But you’re hurt,” Billy said.

“I’ll be fine,” Fritz replied. “If we don’t get that little rascal now, who knows what he’ll do next.”

Up the ladder they went with all the speed they could manage. Twice Fritz stopped, breathing hard, and one of these times Billy moved up over the back of his legs, thinking to hold the big man to the ladder should he black out.

There was no need. After a short rest, Fritz began again with a new determination, up the ladder and out onto the roof. They couldn’t find the fink at first, but the path left by the little monster was unmistakable. Snow was deep on the roof, and it looked as though the fink had more swum than run from the trapdoor.

“There he goes,” said Fritz, following the trail around the smokestacks.

The cold of the day stung his lungs as much as the need for oxygen. Something sailed past his head. Fritz didn’t realize what it was until Billy threw his next snowball.

This one did not miss. The fink was bowled over by a snowball that was nearly half as big as he was. Billy shouted in triumph as the fink tumbled headlong and sprawled helplessly against the parapet wall at the edge of the roof.

“Got you now,” Fritz said as he closed the distance.

The big man slid to a stop astride the fink, trying to reach him before he had a chance to regain his senses. Fritz was too late. He screamed as the fink bit hard into the meat of his hand. Shaking his hand, he tried to smash the fink against the metal post of an escape ladder, but to no avail.

The fink was too fast once again. He had seen the ladder and before Fritz could bash his brains out, the little monster was gone.

“I’ll get him.” Billy shouted, putting his hand to the ladder, looking down.

The fink was already to the bottom, running lightly across the sidewalk and into the parking lot. As they watched, it came to the first car, a shiny new Cadillac. Without pause, the fink climbed up onto the tire and disappeared into the engine compartment.

Fritz and Billy froze. They gave each other a peculiar look.

“Well, I think our job here is done,” Fritz said suddenly, showing his teeth.

Billy smiled in return, saying, “I couldn’t agree more.”

The excitement over, Fritz remembered the hurts he had suffered. He wound a shop rag around his bleeding hand and sat on the parapet wall to inspect his leg.

“Oh, that looks bad,” Billy said, taking the rag away from Fritz and binding the wound. “Think that thing has rabies?”

“Yes, well, I don’t know. Maybe I’ll see the nurse. Let’s get back to work. We’re going to have an awful mess to sort out.”

“Okay,” said Billy, offering his shoulder. “Let me help.”

Fritz nodded, looking Billy in the eye.

“Wait. Look there,” Billy said, turning back toward the parking lot.

“What is it?” said Fritz, not knowing what he was looking at.

“Boss-man’s going home early.”

A car door slammed shut as they returned to the roof edge to have a closer look. The engine of the Cadillac roared to life. The sound of it was perfectly turned, the best in automotive engineering America had to offer, a work of art. The car backed out of the parking space and glided up to the security gate.

“Uh, wonder where it went?” said Fritz.

“Maybe it took off,” Billy suggested.

A truck was coming down the main road. Because of the snow and ice, it was moving slowly. The Cadillac’s engine revved, wheels spinning on the slippery pavement. Just as the tires grabbed and the car shot forward in front of the truck, a great clunking sound rang out. The engine stalled.

The truck driver honked the horn and hit the brakes but there was nothing he could do. The truck slammed into the Cadillac, tossing it like a toy into the ditch. A moment later, the Boss-man got out of the car. The truck driver had pulled off the side of the road and was coming to help, but the Boss-man lit into him.

The car alarm went off, the bleating horn punctuated by flashing headlights. The Boss-man reached into the car, but nothing he did silenced off the alarm. Smoke started pouring out from under the hood. Flames shot out from the wheel wells.

“Time to go,” said Fritz.

“I think he can handle the rest himself,” Billy agreed.

“Thanks for helping me out,” Fritz said as they headed back to the trapdoor, his leg causing him to limp as the pain bit sharply. “Say, uh, I should be out of the med-station by the time shift is over. Why don’t you meet me down at the Woodshed and let me buy you a beer? I’d like to suggest a few names for that new grandson of mine.”

Copyright © 2013 by Mike Phillips

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