Howard has taken to going on little walks. “Excursions” is what Charles calls them. Around the factory one way, around the other way, along the road between the factory and the field. He walks the tree line, looking for signs of the dinosaur. Yesterday he found footprints, bird-like and the size of a volleyball, and trailed them into the forest until he could almost not see the field, the rocky driveway, the factory in the distance, Charles no doubt sitting steadfast and judgmental in his camp chair.
But there must be rules. Without rules there would be chaos and he knows this, knows it all the more now, after that man and his eight years of giveaways and open borders and poor children being molested in pizza ping pong parlors. Without rules they would be right back where they were before and it is up to men like Howard, like Charles and the big man and Wells Fargo and strong Russians who ride horses shirtless to make the rules, and so he has made one: if you can see the factory, you are still at the factory, still in line, will still be among the chosen when the men in charge arrive to turn the lights back on.
Now he walks Factory Right, wending in the dusty alley between the factory and the cracked executive parking area. None other than Mr. Tom Williams, the head man in charge, used to park his pickup truck in the spot closest to the factory, furthest from the road. Howard can picture him—tall, salt-and-pepper hair, thick like the linebacker he was at Pitt. Mr. Williams bought himself a new truck every year. Ford F-150s. That was when America was great again—Fords and factories and Mr. Tom Williams stepping out of a brand-new truck with a briefcase and a hard-hat, nodding to the fellows as they streamed in for the first shift.
Howard has been trying to take advantage of these forays. He is watching. He is noticing things: the shoe near the entrance to the factory, the place where somebody has written Gracie + Frank in white paint on the side of the factory wall, the lights on the distant hill that come on every night at 7:45 p.m. He wonders if they are triggered by a computer or by a person like himself, a person who is regular, reliable, prone to habit, a person who might wait until 7:45 p.m. every day, watching the news, checking the machine to make sure nobody has left any messages, waiting and then confirming the time and then walking to the door and simply doing his job. Flick. Lights. 7:45 p.m. America needs rules. It needs lights. It needs hard-working American men to turn them on.
He wonders at how fast it all changed. The world was filled with men like himself and the light turner, men who watched and waited and did their jobs, did them like their fathers before them, quietly but firmly, without expectations or hand-outs. And then all of the sudden they were thrust into this new world, gender-neutral bathrooms and Mexicans in shorts spray-painting the green fields, chemtrails pushing information to the Russians or the Democrats right there in the clear blue sky. Right here, in Pittsburgh. Right up there. Right now.
He rounds the corner and notes the tree that seems to be growing strangely, the branches close to the factory are stunted and broken, the branches on the other side grown out and up, dragging the entire tree in what he imagines is a slow motion takedown. Could there be something, what is the word, environmental about the factory and the tree? It is certainly strange. He wonders what kind of tree it is. He never did learn the names of the trees and the flowers and he has been none the worse for it. The environment is definitely a Democrat issue and the big man is about making money, making money that will make them all great again. The big man would probably knock this tree, any tree, the entire forest down if he could. Howard decides he will not report anything about the strange tree when the new men in charge show up.
It is getting darker, the night settling in all around him as he walks. His knee stopped hurting a few days ago and he wonders if this is a bad or a good sign. He will chalk it up as a good thing, a fitness thing, all of this walking, all of this noticing is doing his body good.
He hears a whirr and stops. He has taken to cataloguing the sounds at night—the insects buzzing, animals scurrying, Charles and his wet cough. But this is a new sound, a machine sound. He backs up until he is leaning against the brick factory. He pushes into the wall and it feels lightly warm, like a sleeping thing. Up in the sky, lights. A ship. A UFO, a long gray zeppelin just hanging there, little projectiles whirring, some kind of lights displaying a pattern not written in any language recognizes. It moves slowly and then stops. A light turns on and it strafes the strange tree.
Howard wants to shout, to call out to Charles but something keeps him there against the wall of the factory, heart beating, emotion pushing at his throat like he wants to cry. He flashes on all of those movies but this is nothing like any of them. Will he be abducted? Will he be famous? Will this get the big man and the head men in charge out to the factory? Could this be the big man himself?
The machine is gigantic, half the size of a football field. It is beat up, like a warship, strafed with dings and dents and scratches, covered in smaller machines that rotate and whirr and expand and contract, like a giant insect that is covered with other insects, each of them whirring and winding to their own logic.
Howard holds his breath and watches the machine soar out of view, over the factory. He moves slowly to the other side of the strange tree and watches as the UFO pauses over the factory. The searchlight comes back on and Howard wishes that he had a camera so he could take a picture of this amazing machine blessing the factory, choosing it, smudging it like Father Castelucci on Ash Wednesday. He knew the factory was special. He knew that it would be special again.
His fingers are shaking, his heart beats wildly, the blood shoots through his veins. His vision is going shaky. He wonders if he is having a heart attack, a stroke. He finds himself sitting, then laying down. The hum feels like it is coming from inside his head. For the first time he understands why people would want to be abducted, conveyed into another world.
He wants to share this with someone, Charles or Leah or Mr. Tom Williams himself. But it is Howard who has been chosen, who has been watching, who has been here all along waiting to get back to work and make it great again. He deserves this.
The UFO swirls the searchlight around the factory roof and then the whirr moves into a new register, deeper and higher at the same time. Howard wants to stand, to signal, to say I’m here, but his arms and legs are frozen. He forces himself to relax, watch, notice.
There is no way Charles is not seeing this, hearing it at least, on the other side of the factory. The searchlight turns off and everything goes still for a moment and then the light shoots back on again with a boom and the machine explodes up, almost as if the light is a catapult that shoots the UFO into space. It is there and then all is dark and it is gone.
His hands are still shaking, his blood pumping. He is sweating despite the chill in the night air. He sits up, shakes his hands. He breathes. In and out. In and out. It was beautiful. The factory has been chosen.
He rounds the corner, practically running. He feels like he is eighteen again, like he is new and clean and anything can happen. “Did you see it?” he shouts as soon as Charles comes into view.
But something is wrong. Charles is not standing, staring at the sky, not running toward him or hiding or clenching his fists in victory or amazement or fear. Charles is sitting in his camp chair, reading his newspaper. “Did you…” Howard starts. His words come out expectant, exultant, his voice rough and excited. Something tells him to tamp it down, that showing this hand is not in his best interest. “Did you see anything strange?” he says.
Charles keeps on reading. Finally he lowers the paper. “Strange?” he says.
Howard tries to read his face but as always there is nothing there but a mild layer of contempt. Charles has his ways about him. Howard looks to the sky again and Charles follows.
“Nice night,” Charles says.
Howard lets it sit between them. The sky is black and clear. He steals a glance at Charles. He wants to say you did see it. He wants to say there’s no way anybody could have missed it. He wants to say the factory has been chosen, that the big man himself will be here soon. He wants to say wasn’t it beautiful. He wants to say we are not alone. He wants to say it will not be long now.
“You can really see the stars,” he says, “when you get just a little outside the city.”
Charles picks up his newspaper.
Rumpus original art by Lauren Friedlander.
Excerpted from Howard and Charles at the Factory by Dave Housley. Copyright © 2020 by Dave Housley. Reprinted by permission, courtesy of Outpost 19.