I’m no horror writer, but I’ve lingered over their work enough to know that they deal primarily in the fear trade. I begin my story with this observation only because, in like vein, I have carried with me these many years, in the farthest recesses of my mind, a story that, if not generally horrific, at least qualifies as the most fearful period of my long and humble existence. Truth be told, it’s not so much a story as a series of recollections that begin with an article I came across in the local paper a few months after I moved into that second-floor apartment out on Mill Street. The article described an event that took place at the local paper mill, an ancient small-town icon, now long closed but in whose employ I served for six months or so back in my mid-twenties.
I’m at something of a loss to dredge it up all again now, what with the details having grown a bit hazy from the ravages of age. But there is this one image, a starkly clear and terrible one that returns to me over and over, almost as if to taunt me, to ask of me why it is I do not remember more. I have a hypothesis about this which I cannot prove, but which I think applies rather well to this case. I believe the images laid down in our minds at very early ages have a far more lasting impact than those we experience as adults. This could be so simply because those early images are with us for a longer period. More likely, it’s because at a young age the mind is still in the curing stage, no more than a lump of moist clay that hasn’t begun hardening in earnest until sometime around early adulthood. In either event, this particular image has never left me, though I find that as I have aged, it does now go dormant for increasingly lengthy periods. It’s a banal image really, scarcely worth a mention absent the context of the original story—a single sheet of ordinary typing paper, fresh from the package. Only here’s the thing—in the corner of this otherwise unblemished sheet of pure white paper is a faint brownish stain that has no earthly business being there.
But first things first. I grew up in the town of Brunswick, Maine, a small, excruciatingly ordinary town adjoining the south side of the Androscoggin River. It’s a large river, at least by Maine standards, and as it makes its way between Brunswick and the neighboring town of Topsham it encounters a modest hydro-electric dam, over which it tumbles and roils before passing beneath the old box-truss bridge that connects Topsham with Brunswick. I not only spent my entire childhood in that town, but, in fact, lived in the very same house through all of it—same bedroom, same everything. When you grow up in such a manner, you become rather inured to the sights and events you encounter in your town every day. I’ve been gone a long time, but now, on those rare occasions when I return, it’s actually an odd sensation to see, for example, the establishments that have remained, more or less unchanged, for the three quarters of a century since my birth. Most all the old establishments have gone the way of the dodo. There’s no more Rexall of course. No Western Auto or W. T. Grant. No drive-in movies (though the one out on the Old Freeport Road has the great screen frame still standing, a defiant giant that refuses to succumb, despite all that nature has thrown at it over the years). There remain, though, that small handful of odd establishments that manage somehow to remain in business despite the relentless onslaught of globalization, modernization, and urbanization. There’s still the original Fat Boy’s drive-in restaurant where the waitress brings food to the window of your car (Not a drive-through, mind you; someone actually walks out to your car and hangs a tray of food on your window). There’s J&J Dry Cleaners, an establishment that’s been the anchor of north Maine Street since back in the days before anyone thought to question what on earth “Martinizing” actually meant. Indeed, Maine Street itself still serves as an iconic element of life in Brunswick, book-ended, as it were, by the great gray Congregationalist Church at the north end and the Topsham Bridge at the south, the intervening mile or so comprised of the sort of diagonal parking and locally-owned establishments whose owners stand out on the sidewalk each day in white aprons, casting leery gazes upon any Walmart or Target truck that has the temerity to drive by.
There were two additional iconic structures at the north end of Maine Street during my childhood (both of which remain standing today, against all odds). One was on the Brunswick side and was known in those days as the Mill Outlet, presumably because, in some ancient age predating even myself, it actually served as a mill. It certainly had that look to it, the look you see driving through Lowell or Lawrence, Massachusetts—four or five stories of sprawling red brick and evenly-spaced windows, consuming countless acres and usually adjoining a body of water. Ours was like that as well, though not nearly as prodigious as those endless affairs in Massachusetts. By the time I was born, whatever milling had taken place there was ancient history and the building had been converted into something approximating an indoor shopping mall (this long before any actual malls had been conceived or constructed in this country). My main memory of the place as a small child was walking across the wide pine planked floors and listening to the subtle squeaks as the timbers yielded ever so minutely to acknowledge my passing.
From the back windows of the Mill Outlet you could look out over the churning waters of the Androscoggin as it raced over the falls and wound its way between the great rocks and under the Topsham Bridge. And if you looked across the river and slightly to your right, there, on a promontory of granite protruding out into the river, stood the Pejepscot Paper Mill. As a child, I never had occasion to go into the place, but I imagined all sorts of strange things happening inside. One thing that was abundantly apparent, even to my juvenile perception, was that some surpassingly noxious chemistry was taking place in there. You smelled it anytime you came within half a mile of the building. You saw it when you looked down into the river and saw the four-foot-thick layer of cream-colored foam riding atop the water like a poorly drawn draft beer. The concept of water pollution as a social issue was, of course, the concern of a still-distant future.
Sometime in the late-seventies the plant was closed down, its milling activities no doubt rendered uncompetitive by the many foreign concerns that were increasingly making their presence felt by American manufacturers. From then on, the complex of buildings stood abandoned, their cream-yellow paint slowly succumbing to the onslaught of one brutal Maine winter after another. I all but expected the main building to slide off the promontory and into the river, though it never did, being no doubt constructed of that sturdy post and beam one encounters so frequently in this part of the country. If memory serves (which, I will readily confess, it does with decreasing frequency and reliability these days), it was about ten years prior to the closure that the bit of the paper mill’s history involving me came to pass.
I mentioned Mill Street earlier, so named, no doubt, because of its proximity to both of the eponymous Brunswick and Topsham concerns. Without belaboring the point, let me summarize by simply observing that Mill Street was no high-rent district. Indeed, to most Brunswick residents, it was a section of town to be avoided, populated as it was by mill workers and a generally low-income sort of family. Mind you, we weren’t in the utterly abysmal class of Moodyville, but that, as someone once said, is a story for another day. I had been a resident of Mill Street for perhaps a year by this time, having arrived at this impecunious state through the simple expedient of losing my position at Washburn’s Lumber Yard when that always dodgy enterprise finally went belly up around the time the Nixons were unpacking their boxes and moving into the White House. Having enjoyed no success finding suitable employment in the months that followed, my increasingly impoverished state had caused me to seek less expensive accommodations.
Finally, after many months of fruitless searching, I happened upon a brief ad on the back page of the Times Record. It stated simply that the Pejepscot Paper Mill was looking to hire a few able-bodied men for various and sundry duties, said duties to be explained upon the commencement of work. Being of generally sound mind and body, if limited industrial experience, I walked tentatively into the mill’s hiring office the following Monday morning and took my place in a queue that comprised fifty-odd men. The times were generally difficult nationwide, but even more so, as ever, in Maine, and the mill was regarded as a solid and reputable place of employment, what with the next best alternative something in minimum wage.
The ad in the paper had, perhaps purposefully, made no mention of just how many positions were being filled, the better to engender optimism on the part of respondents who thus had no idea how to gauge their chances, numerically speaking. In the event, I came eventually to the head of the line, answered a surprisingly small number of what seemed perfunctory questions, and was told I would hear back within a day or two. In fact it took three days, by which time I had just about written the whole thing off and mentally moved on with my life. Indeed, it was the morning of the third day (a phrase itself fraught with optimism, now that I see it written down), and I had my jacket on and my hand on the doorknob, ready to recommence my search, when the telephone rang and a man from the mill asked unceremoniously if I might be available to start work the following morning, promptly at eight. An hourly wage was proffered and I accepted without hesitation, perhaps so quickly as to sound downright desperate, it occurred to me after hanging up the phone. Still, it had at no time in our brief conversation appeared as though negotiation was an option, and so I quickly overcame my reservations and set about preparing for my first day of proper work in over nine months. Of course, my specific duties never having been defined, it quickly occurred to me that there was little I could do by way of actual preparation aside from getting a proper night’s sleep. This I accomplished and with much optimism (and the smallest bit of trepidation) I appeared as directed at the employment office the following morning, a few minutes early, as it happened.
But before I get into how that first day on the new job went, it is worth digressing for a moment to mention a related incident, one whose relevance to the main story, while not entirely obvious now, will, hopefully, become at least somewhat more apparent before we’re finished. Because my Mill Street apartment was so close to the paper mill, I saw little point in burning the cup or so of gas it would have taken to drive the four hundred yards from my place to work. Instead I chose to walk there that first morning, the weather being pleasant and clearer than usual, benefit of a couple previous days of good steady rain that had finally abated the preceding night. Walking to the paper mill, of course, necessitated walking, as well, across the Topsham Bridge, an undertaking with which I had no previous experience whatsoever, despite all my years living in Brunswick. Thus, I was unprepared for one particular aspect of the bridge, the see-through steel grating with which the roadbed was covered. I had heard the rumble of the grating through my tires on countless occasions driving over the bridge, but I had never fully appreciated the visual impact of standing directly above the swirling waters of the Androscoggin for the somewhat extended period of time that it took to make my way from one end to the other.
In fact, the view downward was sufficiently hypnotic to cause me to stop in mid-transit and simply stand there mesmerized, an effect greatly exacerbated by the preceding days of rain, which had caused the ordinarily turbulent waters to rise dramatically, so that they now passed no more than ten feet beneath the steel surface, swirling with a ferocity and a din I had had little prior reason to encounter at such close quarters. Long story short, it took more than a little mental fortitude to force myself the remainder of the way across to the mill, and, by the time I arrived, my already considerable anxiety at the prospect of new employment was compounded considerably by the crossing, so much so that I resolved on the spot to drive the quarter mile thereafter.
As for the new position, I was one of a dozen or so new men who started that Friday morning, and I appeared indistinguishable from the rest, or so at least it appeared from the standpoint of the supervisor whose job it was to get us acclimated. He herded us about the mill, from one enormous machine to the next, providing the obligatory introductory tour of facilities whose power and cacophony made me wonder if there might ever come a day when I would find it all unremarkable. I had reason to believe this was possible, though, for many men passed our group, walking nonchalantly around the machinery—some of which was as big as trucks or buses—ignoring the new men totally and showing no more regard for the monstrous devices than if they had been shopping for groceries. Our tour guide spoke on more than occasion about the importance of safety in our new profession, and took care to point out the painted yellow lines demarking areas near certain machinery the crossing of which meant the assumption of inordinate risk—risk, he pointed out, albeit ambiguously, that had been the undoing of more than one former employee. He also, toward the end of the tour, made note of a prominently displayed sign indicating that forty-seven days had elapsed since the last injury. I wondered if this was to be regarded as a high or low number, but elected not to pursue the matter.
After an hour or so of indoctrination, we were introduced to and summarily sent off with our respective new supervisors, with no remark as to who was being assigned where or on what qualifications or requirements each assignment had been made. It all appeared a bit random, even borderline haphazard, so much so that two supervisors who were assigned new men appeared not to have been made aware of the fact in advance. Fortunately, my new boss appeared to be expecting me and came across as a decent enough sort. He, in fact, offered that he had been waiting for me a good long while, though he chose not to expound on what precisely this might mean. He then introduced me to the three other men with whom I would be working, each of whom gave me a perfunctory nod, a quick once over, and returned to whatever they had been doing previously.
My duties in the early days were several and varied, ranging from the moving of large heavy boxes and rolls of finished paper products from one location to another, to the reading and recording of various indications on the machines, the latter of which responsibility included notifying the machine operator if any readings appeared out of the normal range. I quickly learned that the machine operators were the more skilled among our ranks, and that I might, one day, aspire to such a position, but only after having paid rather a large debt in sweat, dedication, and tenure.
And so it went for some weeks. The work was steady, the paychecks cleared the bank, and before I knew it, I was caught up on old bills and had begun entertaining the unfamiliar notion of putting a bit away each week against some future day when my pecuniary fortunes might again be less than ideal. I had fallen into a rhythm whereby I rose each morning, drove the quarter mile across the bridge to the mill, worked until six or thereabouts, and then took the reverse route back to the apartment. Then came the day when, to my great chagrin, the car failed to start. And, as if this fact alone were not sufficiently annoying, it happened, as well, to be a day when it was raining, though only lightly. So I was left with no recourse but to walk the bridge again, as I had on that very first morning. As chance would have it, this was also the day that unusual things began taking place at the mill.
Fortunately, walking across the bridge did not present quite the psychological challenge it had on that first day, for I hit upon the simple expedient of keeping my sights trained on the approaching mill as I crossed, rather than looking down through the grating at the water below. In addition, the river had abated to its usual level, so that the sound of the roiling water, while still present, was not nearly as disconcerting as had been the case on that first day. In the event, I arrived only slightly late and only a bit damp from the drizzle. My colleagues had, of course, traveled to work that morning in the same weather, albeit primarily by automobile, and as a consequence a good deal of moisture had accumulated in various parts of the mill floor, decreasing gradually as one’s distance from the front entrance increased. Which is how I came to slip only moments after arriving.
I was walking past one of the largest roller machines, its incessant basso thrum already reduced in my mind to background noise, just one more instrument in the overall symphony of sound that the mill exuded. As I passed before the enormous thing, I stepped to one side to allow a coworker to pass, and, in so doing, planted my right foot on an inconveniently located damp spot. My foot shot from beneath me and my natural reaction was to try to catch myself, whereas the preferred outcome would have been to simply fall where I was. Instead, I struggled to gather my feet and, in the couple of seconds of frantic thrashing about, stumbled precariously close to the front of the machine—so close, in fact, that by the time I had stopped flailing and regained my balance, both feet were well inside the yellow safety lines the supervisor had taken such pains to point out on our first day indoctrination. Indeed, I had come close enough to the great rollers so that the noise they made suddenly registered in my head again, and with far greater volume than it had at any previous time in the plant. Apparently it had been a closer call than I appreciated in the moment, for two of my coworkers who witnessed my fall and subsequent recovery stopped in the midst of their tasks and simply stared, incredulous, at where I now stood. After what seemed an interminable few seconds of no movement on anyone’s part, one of the men gestured in a way that I took to mean I should walk toward him and away from my proximity to the machine.
“Best watch your footing there, friend,” was all he had to offer, in what seemed at the time a tone of rather forced joviality coupled with more than a little relief. “We don’t want to be having to reset the count, now do we?”
My confused mien caused him to gesture with subtly upraised chin toward the safety poster on the wall, whose accident-free-day count had risen to nearly a hundred in the days of my employ thus far. He then went on to amend his initial assertion.
“It was all manner of hell, I can tell you, when old Baxter…well…when we had to reset it last time. It had got up to over three hundred fifty—nearly a year.”
I gave him a perplexed stare that indicated I was unfamiliar with the name he’d mentioned.
“Baxter, you know, Reg Baxter. He’s the poor fellow who…well, you read the papers, yeah? Not the sort of thing the lads round here care to discuss, if you take my meaning. Wasn’t any need for it neither. That much I can tell you. Thirty-two years of service and a month to go until retirement. Had no business out on the floor anyway. Damned shame…”
He shook his head ruefully and simply walked away, leaving me standing there, pondering just how close I had or hadn’t come to causing a reset of the safety calendar, while wondering what on earth my colleague had been talking about and who the hell Reg Baxter was. Well, of course, there wasn’t any internet in those days, so it appeared that a trip to the Brunswick Town Library was in order. Luckily for me it was a Thursday, the one day of the week the library stayed open ‘til nine.
It was with a mix of anticipation and anxiety that I served out the remaining hours of that fateful day—a day during which I performed my tasks with more than the usual degree of care, keeping in the very front of my mind the close call of that morning. Fortunately the morning’s rain had cleared by lunchtime and the weather had become quite pleasant by the time I left that evening. With my car still out of commission and my reserve funds as yet inadequate to alter the situation, I opted to walk to the library, which was but a half mile or so down Pleasant Street. The library was not, I must here confess, a place where I had spent any significant amount of my time in recent years, but I knew its location well enough, for you drove straight past it any time you drove in the direction of central Maine Street. My general lack of familiarity with the place and its proceedings was, though, no impediment, for I had only to make the most passing mention of the case to the librarian on duty for her, like my colleague earlier that day, to begin shaking her head ruefully. It seemed everyone in town except for me was familiar with Reg Baxter’s case. She directed me to the library’s microfilm reader where there were stored the past several years of Brunswick Times Record issues. For the next hour or so, I sat at the reader, unmoving, transfixed by the details of the Baxter accident. It was, as my colleague had earlier opined, a grim affair, and one that left me with an utterly new perspective on my employer.
Reg Baxter had started working the mill at a very young age, performing odd jobs at a time when employers weren’t nearly as particular about child labor laws as they are today. He had never made it past high school and was employed full-time long before his eighteenth birthday. Which is how it came to pass that he became eligible for retirement a year or so before his fiftieth birthday, a good deal younger than most plant retirees. His educational limitations notwithstanding, Baxter had risen to the ranks of machine operator and, eventually, floor foreman, a position from which he would rise no further as the executive ranks required a good deal more schooling than he had ever managed. But a foreman he was, and a damned good one by all accounts. Things only began to get difficult for Baxter when he reached his mid-forties, at which point nearly thirty years of lifting boxes and wrestling paper rolls came back to exact a painful vengeance on his lower back. But Reg was a team player above all else, and, pain be damned, he was out on the floor every morning with the rest of his crew. Still, there were days when his back spasms were so severe and came upon him with such violence that he would literally be driven to his knees for a moment or two, during which increasingly frequent episodes he would grimace terribly while managing to look surreptitiously about in hopes that no one had noticed his debilitation, which, of course, everyone had, but about which no one spoke a word.
Then came the day, in the early months of this very year, when Reg took things a bit too far, pushing box-laden hand-trucks from one end of the mill floor to the other, exerting all his strength with wrenches against recalcitrant machines, and generally punishing himself so thoroughly that when he arrived the following morning, it was all the man could do to walk from his car across the parking lot and into the building. More than one coworker urged him to declare a sick day and take a well-deserved rest, most especially seeing as how it was by now common knowledge that he had made his intentions known to retire in two months’ time. But, Reg being Reg, he only cracked a grin, threw on his hard hat and made for the mill floor, meaning to have another go at a particularly enormous and recidivistic rolling machine, long past its prime, that he had been nursing along for over two years with skillful applications of lubrication, adjustment, and vituperation, the latter of which, to all appearances, had the most salutary effect of all. The specific facts of what happened later that morning are uncertain and vary with whose account you believe most.
Four men claimed at the time to have actually seen it happen, and their accounts were as different as the men themselves. But, as different as their details were, a single salient element of all the accounts was consistent and indisputable. One moment Reg was standing in front of the prodigious and antiquated rolling machine affectionately known as Big Erma (for a former plant manager’s wife), and the next moment, without so much as a shout or a “see you round the bend,” Reg Baxter was gone, drawn between the rollers at full speed, which was considerable given that the machine rolled something in excess of twenty five tons of paper an hour. Each of the main rollers was twenty two feet in length and seven feet, give or take, in diameter, and their mass and rotational velocity were such that they took no more notice of Reg being ingested than a car rolling over a June bug.
As for how it happened, one man swore that Reg raised a wrench in the wrong manner and that it was the wrench itself that went in first, with Reg’s arm and then Reg himself following directly thereafter, all in the blink of an eye. Another man swore before God Almighty that Reg simply suffered another of his back spasms at an inopportune moment, which caused him to pitch forward and into the monstrous thing head first. But the most unbelievable account was that of a young summer helper who said that it looked for all the world to him as thought Reg had simply walked up to the thing and offered himself as though on purpose—a sacrifice was how he put it. And while everyone agreed that if your aim was to do yourself in you could do worse than to leap into one of the great rollers, there was general agreement, as well, that Reg was not the sort disposed to such a hideous and desperate thing. The story mercifully omitted any of the particularly graphic details of the event, except to say that the plant was closed for two days following the accident, and that while the closure was nominally out of respect for the dead man, a good portion of the downtime was given over to cleaning up the mess.
Having exhausted the library’s store of articles on the accident, I walked home as the evening darkness gathered, climbed the staircase to my apartment, and fell immediately into bed, where I lay the entire night staring upward into the blackness and not sleeping so much as a minute.
The next morning, I made a point of rising earlier than normal and arriving at the mill a half hour or so before the day shift normally began. There was a conversation waiting to be had, and I meant to have it that morning if it could in any way be arranged. The foremen had a general tendency to arrive early as well and mine was no exception. I was able to catch him in the coat room, the initial look on his face one of surprise at my unnecessarily early arrival, which look quickly morphed into one of concern for the fact there must surely be a reason for my earliness and that it might in some way require of his time.
“John,” I began, confirming his worst fears, “I wonder if I might have a word before we get going.” He nodded silent acquiescence and turned for a currently empty office.
“What can I do for you, son?” he offered, closing the door behind us.
“I spent yesterday evening at Curtis Library,” was my laconic reply, the words emerging as if in expectation that this simple statement would carry with it all that needed to be said in order to get the conversation going properly. As it turned out, it was more than sufficient.
“Reading up on Reg Baxter, I’ll expect,” he replied. “That explains the bags under your eyes.”
“Well,” I said, “didn’t take nearly so long to read about as it did to think about.”
“Either way, it don’t make for a good night’s sleep.”
“No, sir,” I agreed, “it most certainly does not.”
“What is it I can help you with? Not sure there’s much more I can add to whatever you found in the paper. Seems like they interviewed half the plant before they were done. Whatever there was to be said’s pretty much been said by now.”
When he put it that way, I wasn’t even quite sure what it was I’d expected to ask him about the event. “I guess I’m just looking for a little…perspective on what happened. I mean, it’s one thing to read about something like that in the paper, quite another to hear it from those that were there.”
He walked to a window that looked out across the production floor. “Not sure what I can tell you that’ll make you feel any better. I expect I knew Reg as well as anybody. Fact is, I wasn’t even in the building when it happened. I was off in the north warehouse doing something or other. It was only when I heard sirens coming across the bridge that I thought to go see what was up. Next thing I knew, we were all having a meeting with the general manager, telling us what had happened and that we were to take the rest of that day and the next off from work. Guess my strongest memory of that meeting was the quiet. They’d shut down every piece of equipment in the building by then and the silence was something remarkable. I suppose a poet’d say it was deafening.”
“What was it like in the days afterward?” I asked.
“Even with the machines turned back on, it was a pretty quiet place for a long time. Not much small talk. Just a lot of gestures, heads shaking, that sort of thing. And people got real strange whenever they had occasion to be working around Big Erma, which I suppose is understandable. Didn’t help none that there were stains they couldn’t clean up. After a couple nights of trying, they just gave up and refinished some of the boards. That’s why the floor around Erma looks better’n the rest of the place.”
“Look,” he added, “it’s getting on time to hit it out there. Best I can tell you is keep your wits about you and don’t dwell on what happened. I also don’t think it’d benefit you none to try discussing it with the other guys. Some of ‘em was pretty tore up over it and they don’t need to be reliving the thing. It was bad enough the first go-round.”
With which peremptory remark he stepped to the office door, opened it, and was out onto the mill floor before I could offer a rejoinder. Which is not to say that anything suitably appropriate had come to mind anyway. I sat there alone for a moment longer before rising and joining the rest of the men who were only just arriving.
As it happened, my work that morning included keeping periodic tabs on Big Erma, specifically on certain operating parameters that had been drifting in and out of tolerance in recent days and which required more or less constant adjustment if the ancient thing was to keep operating properly. That was the beginning of how I came to focus an increasing amount of my attention on the machine, not only that day but in the days that followed. In fact, so engrossed was I in the nuances of the great machine’s operation that the gauges came to be of less and less importance and I found that I could make more perceptive assessments of the machine’s temperament—if that anthropomorphic descriptor can appropriately be applied to an industrial machine—by simply standing before it and employing my senses. I could hear the deep thrum of the rollers as they spun round, drawing paper from the presses, and tell you whether the motors were functioning properly. I could see whether the paper was beginning to drift to one side or the other as it wound onto the prodigious spools. And, most unexpected and strangely satisfying, I found that I could feel the machine’s vibrations resonating up through the mill’s ancient floorboards, through my legs and in my chest, and from these deep rumblings discern with remarkable perspicacity its operating state. I found myself looking for excuses to spend as much time as I could in the area.
It was around this time, as I began honing in earnest my listening capabilities with Big Erma, that I noticed a peculiar thing. As I increasingly grew to trust my ability to discern her moods from the signals she transmitted through the floor and into my body, I perceived, as well, an even deeper rumbling, far beneath that of the antiquated machine, one whose source I could not, at first, place. As I gained in my understanding of the machine’s inner workings—each gear and motor, belt and roller, it bothered me more than ever that I could not identify the source of the very deepest of all her rumblings. And it was completely by accident that I finally discovered its source. My body had grown so used to the machine’s sounds and vibrations, that it was with total delight I discovered, while walking home one evening across the bridge, that the mysterious resonance I had been perceiving was, in fact, the Androscoggin herself, crashing and rolling around the granite promontory on which the mill stood.
Armed with this astonishing new realization, I scarcely slept that night, so anxious was I to get back into the mill the following morning to test my hypothesis. It seemed reasonable enough. I had spent a good deal of time in the preceding days digging through file cabinets in the basement of the building and talking with the men who had been there the longest, seeking out and scrutinizing records that documented the construction and earliest days of the mill. Big Erma weighed many many tons and was anchored, it was said, clean through the foundation of the building and directly into the granite bedrock beneath, using bolts the size of my thigh. Indeed, it seemed likely the machine was doing as much to hold the main building onto the promontory as any of the massive pilings and timbers ostensibly employed to that purpose. Sure enough, as I stood before the machine that next morning, intermixed with the thrum and whine of steel on steel was the scarcely discernible low-frequency murmur of water impacting stone. It came to me almost as a whisper and felt delightfully different, though nonetheless unmistakable, depending on whether I was feeling it through the floor or by placing a hand on the machine’s massive iron frame. As the days advanced, I found myself more absorbed than ever in the symphony that Erma produced. It became for me a chorus…voices…talking, telling me what she needed, what she desired. And it was on one such day, when I had given myself over completely to the chorus, that the thought suddenly entered my mind—had old Baxter heard the symphony as well?
“What’s up with him?”
“Tough to say, but it’s all I can do to pry him away from Erma these days.”
“Think he’s trying to make operator early?”
“Nah. He knows the score. Knows how long that takes. Tell you what though. He’s developed one hell of a knack for knowing what’s wrong with the old girl. Know what he said to me the other day?”
“Says to me from out of the blue ‘She’s got a cracked gear tooth on the main inner spline needs tending to.’ Mind you, that’s damn near the deepest part of the machine. Ain’t anybody been that deep into here in over ten years.”
“And we tore her down day after that and god damned if there wasn’t a broken gear tooth on the spline. If it’d’a stripped any further, would have cost us a whole damned transmission change-out. Far as I’m concerned, he can stand there and stare at Erma all day if he wants.”
“May be, but the fellas are saying he’s going a bit soft over it. Did they tell you the other thing?”
“What other thing?”
“Lunch breaks, smoke breaks, whenever there’s five minutes off…he’s out on the bridge…”
“On the bridge? Doing what”
“That’s the thing. Doing nothing. Just staring out at the water, seems like…Know what he told me a couple days ago? Told me he hears the river conversing with Erma.”
“I’m serious as Erma blowing up her transmission.”
“Does he know about Baxter?”
“Course he knows about Baxter. Everybody knows about Baxter.”
“No, I mean does he know about him?”
“Beats hell out of me. Weren’t nothin’ in the papers about that business.”
“Well, somebody might oughta’ have a chat with him about it, if you take my meaning. We don’t need any repeat performances. You know as well as I do that none of those explanations for what happened to Baxter was anything approaching the truth. Last two weeks of his life, that man stood there staring just like this fella’s doing. Didn’t nobody say anything to him at the time and look at what it got him.”
It’s only in recent days that he has changed—evolved some might say—beyond simply hearing and feeling what Erma’s got to say. This morning, for the first time, he sees a faint image standing there before him, superimposed directly before the machine. But it’s so very difficult to focus upon—translucent, evanescent, a phantom image frequently disturbed by workers as they walk around the machine. But the following day it’s a bit clearer, that first ghostly apparition beginning to take form. And the day after that—the third day—it’s so clear it’s almost like he’s watching a TV show. Except that it’s just a single image, no more than five seconds of the same scene, repeating, repeating, repeating. It’s a man, one he’s never met, never even seen except in a single grainy old newspaper photograph. But it’s a man he knows nonetheless, standing there with a massive wrench in his hand, proud and assertive directly before Big Erma’s massive main rollers. The man looks for a moment at the rollers, glances back over his shoulder, offers a smile and a subtle beckoning movement of his head, then disappears directly into the machine.
And, God help me, I want so bad to follow…