Excel Slip by Bill Tope

Monday, July 10, 2023
Dweet takes a job at a slip factory to get him through university, and learns more than he bargained for; by Bill Tope.

Image generated with OpenAI
I've got to make some scratch, thought Dweet desperately as he motored down the highway to the darker, murkier side of the city. He was on summer break from university, having just completed his first year. Turning into a gravel parking lot on the corner of Front and Ridge, he parked his turquoise '64 Impala some thirty feet from an old brick factory building festooned with a metal sign that said: Excel Slip. Dweet alighted from the vehicle and walked past the parked bread truck, to the entrance. Finding the door ajar, he peeped inside.

A voice from the nether regions of the factory floor beckoned: "C'mon in, Dweet." Although he had been born Eric Harold Dweet, II, Dweet took no offense at the casual address. When in grade school, he had been in class with two other Erics and had, by the ingenuity of his first-grade teacher, been rechristened "Dweet." The appellation stuck - and proliferated - to the point where even Dweet's parents and siblings so addressed him. A face to match the voice emerged from behind tall stacks of palleted bags of something or other and said, "Hi, Dweet. You're right on time - keep it up, Dude!"

"Hey, Larry," said Dweet, addressing his new boss. Larry was the son of a friend of the family, from back when both families lived down south, in the furthest regions of Illinois. Dweet had known him all his life.

"Hey Larry, what kind of mileage do you get out of that bread truck?"

"Maybe five or six miles to the gallon," said Larry. They both knew that the price of gasoline in the summer of 1973 was just twenty-six cents per gallon.

"Be right back, Dweet," said Larry. "I gotta take a shit, like nobody's business," and he hurried off to what Dweet speculated was the restroom. Which gave him time to take in his surroundings. Standing in a row were four large wooden vats, with an array of paddles suspended over each one. In front of the vats and extending spider-like throughout the factory, was an assembly of roller skids, elevated to about waist high. And far in the back of the space were perhaps fifty stacks of what, upon closer inspection, proved to be powdered talc, clay and some chemical that Dweet could neither recognize nor pronounce. He peered at a quantity of flattened, unconstructed cardboard boxes and saw emblazed upon each one the name, "Excel Slip." Dweet shook his head uncertainly. At last Larry was back.

"So, did your mom tell you what we do here?" he asked, drying his hands on his stained white t-shirt.

"She said you make slips," said Dweet.

Larry grinned. "Well," he said, "not quite. We make slip: the clay slurry that artists pour into molds to make ceramic pieces. We mix up the chemicals, package the slip and then sell it out of the factory."

"Yeah, that's what I meant," said Dweet. Actually, he thought he'd be making women's underwear. He'd felt his two years of home ec in high school, which he'd finished the year before, would stand him in good stead. He'd sewn a gnarly shirt as his final project.

Larry nodded. "Good," he said, "I didn't want there to be any misunderstanding. We work just one shift now - the day shift - but we're hoping to add an evening shift later on. You might want to get in on that," he went on. "You can earn time and a half for anything worked over forty hours in one week."

Wow, thought Dweet dourly. At $2.32 per hour, time and a half would garner him the sumptuous hourly wage of almost three and a half bucks - before taxes. He grinned his appreciation at his new boss. He felt like his face was frozen in place.

"Okay, let's get you broken in," said Larry, who proceeded to take Dweet to each work station - four in all - and teach him how to do each task. First up was box-making. "We'll start with the small boxes," Larry decided, and went ahead to show Dweet how to take a flattened box from an endless stack, bend it into shape, and then apply a strip of adhesive tape, with which to hold it together. "This is mostly what you'll be doing," Larry informed him. Dweet watched him and became almost instantly bored. "You got that? Think you can do that?" asked Larry unnecessarily. Dweet nodded. "Okay, then," said Larry, taking out an old-time pocket watch, "go ahead, see how many you can make in one minute."

Dweet edged up to the assembly table, inched the tape dispenser a little closer, and held his hand up before the stack of flattened boxes.

"Go!" snapped Larry.

Moving with the fluidity of the chemically unenhanced, Dweet grasped box after box, bent them into shape, and applied the tape. This is easy, he thought with a confident air.

"Stop!" shouted Larry, who then came forward to assess the other man's performance. "Four," he announced. In just one minute, thought Dweet. He felt very proud of himself. "Not too bad," conceded Larry, "for a start." Dweet winced a little. What did he want, he wondered, the world? "I had a guy used to work for me," Larry told him, "who could do sixty in one minute." Dweet regarded him skeptically. "No shit," added Larry. "One. Per. Second. I don't know how he did it, but he did it." Larry grinned stupidly. "That's okay, now you got something to shoot for," Larry said philosophically.

"What happens when I get that fast?" asked Dweet just for the hell of it. Larry stared at him blankly, but the other man didn't know what his boss found more improbable: that Dweet would become that quick, or that it would garner him a raise. But then Dweet reminded himself that even a ten percent increase in pay would only net him less than two additional dollars per day. In college, Dweet was a business major, but he needn't have been, to know that this was what his instructors referred to as a dead-end job. He heaved a sigh. He was already tired and he hadn't even started yet.

As the morning unfolded, three other men - Dweet's co-workers - stumbled in, in various states of intoxication; all were at least hung over. First was Don, a bearded, walrus-sized man somewhere between Dweet's eighteen years and Larry's twenty-nine. Don had an Errol Flynn mustache and wildly sprouting, thinning dark hair. Next was Barney, a short, wiry little fellow of perhaps forty-five. He boasted Popeye-like arms, and shoes which were easily a size fourteen. He looked to Dweet like a muscular penguin. Rounding out the crew was a disheveled but ageless figure of average size, named Grover. All were introduced to Dweet; they greeted him with general disinterest. That first morning, Dweet went to work making boxes.

Two mornings later, Larry emerged into the mixing room and shouted, "C'mon, guys, we got a boxcar to unload." Everybody but Dweet groaned; he didn't yet know what was in store for him. Everyone drifted across the concrete floor of the factory, towards the huge sliding door in back of the building. Railroad tracks ran into a spur three or four feet back of a ten-foot-wide concrete loading dock. Larry slid the door of the boxcar open with a shrieking of metal against metal, then dropped into place a five-foot aluminum dock plate to span the distance from the loading dock to the floor of the boxcar. Peeping inside, Dweet could discern stack upon stack of talc, powdered clay and some bags of chemicals that were stenciled in a foreign language. In the morning sunlight blazing through the open door, Dweet could discern a haze of particulate matter. It was beautiful, in a way.

"Dweet," ordered Larry, removing his button-down shirt to reveal a white sleeveless wife-beater and a prominent beer belly, "climb on up there and hand the bags down to Don and Barney." Compliant as usual, Dweet hoisted himself atop the bags, which were stacked twenty high, and began scooting the bags from the rear to the edge of the stacks. The other men, in turn, grabbed the heavy bags and dropped them onto huge wood and metal dollies. They stacked them sixteen tall, meaning that each hand truck weighed in excess of 800 pounds. With a crotch-rupturing grunt, they conveyed the trucks into the facility, where they off-loaded the bags in rows against the wall. This proceeded for four hours, at which time Larry re-emerged from wherever, and the team broke for lunch.

"Thanks for the help, Larry," remarked Don sardonically, wiping his face with a yellow bandana. All 300 pounds of him quivered with fatigue.

"Hey," protested the boss. "I was figuring out your timesheets. You want to get paid, don't you?"

"Hell," said Don, "you can just make my check out to my bartender, if you want to." At this, everybody laughed, and Larry was off the hook for squandering four hours to figure the timesheets for a total of five workers, including himself. Unspoken was the fact that no one's hours or rate of pay ever changed. Dweet wondered idly why his boss had opted to remove his shirt in the first place.

As had become his custom, at noon Dweet ate lunch at the local Burger Chef, devouring an enormous sandwich, a large order of fries and a huge milk shake, all for less than two dollars.

"Where do you work?" asked the pretty girl at the counter as he paid for his food. Dweet, proud to be earning a wage at last, told her. "I hope they pay you well," she remarked. Dweet exhibited a modest grin. "Because," she went on, "you sure look like hell," referencing the head-to-toe spattering of slip, talc and dust he sported. In response, Dweet smiled weakly and took himself outside, to eat in the parking lot, away from civilized folk. As he walked away, she smirked. No factory workers for her, she thought smugly; she dated an attorney.

At a quarter to one, Dweet returned to Excel, walked back into the plant and looked round. No one else had returned from lunch; they were late. A practice which was replicated often in the days to come. Dweet listened to the stillness; it was remarkably quiet. Finally the others returned, in a group, and Larry, his face red and his eyes bloodshot, blurted, unnecessarily loudly: "Where'd you go for lunch, Dweet?" Dweet told him.

"You shoulda been with us," cried Barney, pausing to unleash a greasy belch.

"We went to Fast Eddie's," said Don, who was walking anything but steadily. When Don nearly slipped to the floor, Larry cackled giddily.

"We had us a few brewskies, I guess," revealed Don. Dweet nodded. Everyone just stood around like zombies for a few moments.

"Are we going to finish unloading the boxcar?" asked Dweet, jerking his thumb in that direction.

Larry blew out a tired breath. "Tomorrow. Let's make some more slip; we got a pickup scheduled for tomorrow. Barney showed you how to mix it up, right?" Dweet agreed that he had. "Alright, then, we need 600 gallons for tomorrow, for the college, so you get started." Larry rubbed his hands vigorously together and Barney and Dweet began transporting the elements from the storage room to the mixing vats. Dweet, with the exuberance of youth, had begun ripping the bags from the stacks and slinging them rapidly onto the noseplate of the truck, when Barney laid a tired hand upon Dweet's shoulder.

"Slow the fuck down, boy," he said gently. "You makin' the rest of us look bad." Dweet caught on instantly and began stacking the bags at a more deliberate pace. "That's a good boy," said Barney approvingly, patting the young man on the back. Barney, thought the other man, smelled like a brewery.

Each vat, Dweet learned, produced 150 gallons of prepared slip, which required 800 pounds of powdered elements as well as around 75 gallons of water, more or less. As the liquid and solid elements were combined, the mixture was churned by the paddle array, which was lowered into the vat, after the fashion of a large base mixer. As the mixture developed, Dweet employed a small oar to keep the mess from sticking to the sides of the vat. Dweet was quick to realize that this wasn't rocket science.

Larry, meanwhile, positioned himself across the room, before what resembled nothing so much as a gigantic milk shake spigot, from which he filled boxes - which were lined with clear plastic bags - with the slip. Pipes ran from each of the four mixing vats to the milk shake dispenser, thus providing a steady supply of liquid ceramic slip. At length, two vats - those of Barney and Dweet - were ready.

"Open her up, Barney," yelled Larry. Barney, who was fully three sheets to the wind, used his Popeye muscles to pull the valve lever past the open position, all the way to the other side, opening the pipe up to twice its proper diameter. A wet, murky overflow was the result. As the slurry began spilling out the spigot, Larry shouted in alarm, "Barney! Close the valve. Shut it off. Shut it off, you asshole!" With each iteration of the command, Barney, who thought that he heard his boss say, "Open it up wider!" endeavored to do so. Eventually, Barney stood by his mixing vat, with the value lever, now broken off from the supply pipe, clutched in his hand. The little man swayed unsteadily on his feet, smiling happily at a job well done.

Larry, meanwhile, at the big milk shake spout, tried to collect the overflow with the plastic bags, but it was hopeless. His work station was inundated with slick, curdling ceramic slip. "Dweet," he suddenly shouted, "flip the emergency stop!" Of course! thought Dweet, who had been fecklessly watching events unfold; why didn't he think of that? Moving to the next mixer, Dweet grabbed the lever affixed to the pipe running from the communal supply line to Larry's station. In three seconds he had shut off the overflow.

Muttering crossly to himself, Larry stalked through the puddles of slip to Barney's vat, where he found the dwarf-like man himself, passed out with his head resting placidly against the wooden side of the vessel. Larry kicked the shoe of the unconscious figure, but getting no response, threw up his hands in dismay. "Dweet," he began, but the other man knew what was coming. Before Larry even gave the order, Dweet was mopping up the treacherous river of slip.

About a month into Dweet's residency at Excel, out of town deliveries became an added responsibility of the plant. Some customers, it seemed, owing to the increased incidence of urban crime, were no longer willing to venture into the big city to get their ceramic fix. So a medium-sized truck was leased and twice weekly deliveries begun. A new man, Barry, was hired to ferry the art supplies hither and yon. On his initial expedition into the suburbs, however, Barry ran into trouble. Getting lost near Davenport, Iowa, he drove around lost for nine hours, until both his fuel and his gas money were exhausted. Not willing to face his new boss, Barry simply parked the truck in a no-parking zone and walked off. He hitchhiked back home. Larry, meanwhile, learning from the customer that the delivery had not been made, called the Highway Patrol and reported the vehicle as stolen. It wasn't until 20 hours later, when Barry finally walked into Excel and apprised the crew of what had befallen him, that they all learned the truth. Larry and Don took Amtrak 400 miles to Iowa to pay the $200 impound fee and fetch the errant truck. It was by then, of course, utterly empty. Larry was not happy: he told Barry he'd have to work off the towing and impound fee and of course, Barry quit at once. Larry must have expected that, for he took it in stride. Until Barry asked him for a reference, that is, whereupon Larry chased his former employee from the premises, brandishing a slip-slickened wrench.

Near the middle of summer, business picked up considerably, so Larry hired a new worker: sixteen-year-old Gerald, on summer break in anticipation of his junior year of high school. Emulating oil and water, Gerald and the by now old hand Grover did not mix well. Grover, who was prone to protracted lunches at Fast Eddie's, and Gerald, who was too young to drink, but found time to criticize everything that everyone did, were soon at odds.

"You got to lift with your legs," Gerald enjoined Grover. "You lift with your back, then you'll screw yourself." Grover, a man of few words, just rolled his eyes. Gerald started out working with Barney, Dweet, and Don at divesting boxcars of their bags of minerals. After thirty minutes of frenzied, back-breaking toil, however, his teenaged shoulders had had enough. "Really, Larry," he implored. "My back is killing me! Give me a different job, can't you?" and he clutched his ailing back for effect. Not wishing to lose the manpower, Larry moved Gerald to the mixing room, which meant that the young man would have to work with Grover. Upon hearing of this arrangement, Grover frowned unhappily, but said nothing.

It wasn't long before there was trouble. "When you wipe your ass," Gerald lectured the inebriated Grover one afternoon, "fold the paper three times, and you're set to go. Don't just keep bunching paper up in your hand," he urged. Gerald had taken a personal, rather unseemly interest in the consumption of toilet paper allotted to the men's room. He determined - correctly, as it happened - that Grover was a major cause of not only the abnormal depletion of bathroom tissue, but of the stoppage of the factory's only toilet. Grover sat quietly at the small collapsible table in the break room, sucking on a newly-lighted cigarette. In his hand he held a medium-sized kitchen knife, with which he was busily eviscerating a peach. As Gerald prattled on, Grover closed his eyes to shield himself from the sheep-like bleating of the teen, but this proved unsuccessful. "An' ain't I tol' you, Grover, you gots to lift with your legs, not your back?" Grover said nothing. "Say," said Gerald, "are you listening to me?" Still Grover did not respond. Gerald was relentless. "You know," he said with a superior air, "that's not the way to cut a peach..."

Wham! The knife whistled through the air, or so it seemed to young Gerald, and it landed resoundingly on the surface of the table at which they both sat, missing Gerald's extended index finger by nanometers. Gerald snatched his hand from the danger zone and without another word, beat a frenzied exit from the factory, never to return. When Larry sought out Grover to see what had become of his young co-worker, the knife was still vibrating, having pierced the surface of the table.

One day, several weeks before his university classes resumed, Dweet found himself anticipating - and dreading - another episode of overtime. As he was looking at the clock, closing time came and went. He glanced at Larry, who was actually sweating - a first - in the sultry summer evening. He filled bag after bag with the liquid slip, pushing the boxed bags along to the next man, who would then twist the ties that held the bags closed. Dweet, as was usual, stood at the end of the assembly line, lifting and then transferring the cumbersome boxes to the truck, which was parked just outside the front door.

"Hey, Larry," he spoke up. "Isn't it about quitting time?"

Larry shook his head. "No, man, we got to pour and crate up another thousand gallons tonight." Everyone looked up at once.

"Thousand gallons," squeaked Barney, breathing with some difficulty.

"That's a hell of a lot more work," observed Don, pausing in the taping of the filled boxes of product.

Larry looked from one to the other of his crew and said, "I'll make it up to you." How was that possible? they all wondered. Larry regularly worked them twelve hours with the inducement of overtime, then a day later told them all to come back in tomorrow for just a half day, in order to keep their total hours under 40 for the week, thereby cancelling out any overtime.

"How you gonna do that?" muttered a cranky Grover.

"I'll make a beer run," he told them. And, suiting the action to the word, Larry embarked just minutes later for the all-nite liquor store and returned bearing a case of bottled beer. Setting the beer on the break room table, he snatched up a beer and then stood aside as three of the other four grabbed beverages for themselves. Dweet, to everyone's surprise, did not drink. They each inhaled two beers in rapid succession and then returned to work. For twenty minutes. Then it was time for another libation. And so it went. After another hour and a half, Larry excused himself to go back to the liquor store; this time returning with not one, but two cardboard cases of Falstaff.

By 10:30, the tempo of the work had fallen off somewhat, whereas the pace of the drinking had picked up considerably. Dweet stood and mopped his brow with a bandana, rubbed his forehead with a cold can of pop. He stared at his co-workers. Don was sitting like a Rodin sculpture on a short stack of talc, oblivious to practically everything else. Barney, meanwhile, was vigorously stirring a kettle of slip. Dweet thought this curious, and when he approached the vat he discovered that it was in fact quite empty. And Grover, who'd had a severe cold earlier in the day, was coughing and hacking up a bile-like sputum that fell to the floor, where it puddled in little green pools. Larry was nowhere to be seen. Probably working on timesheets, thought Dweet with a frown. Dweet took a great breath, then exhaled. "Screw this," he said to no one in particular, and scooted out the door and to his car. When he walked in the door of his residence, Dweet found the phone jangling off the hook.

Inflating his cheeks with air, he answered, "Hi, Larry."

"Hey, man, where the hell'd you go?" asked his boss.

"Work had stopped, Larry. Grover was spitting up all over the place and..."

"That's alright," said Larry. "Don't you worry about what the others are doing; just watch what you're doing."

"I can't work a line by myself," Dweet pointed out.

"I'm working now," explained Larry. "Come on back, we'll get this thousand gallons poured." When Dweet said nothing, Larry added, "If I can't have you when I need you, then I won't have you at all." Dweet silently digested this. "Come on back," urged Larry. So Dweet returned to work, arriving at ten minutes past midnight. But no work was accomplished. Everyone stood around drinking beer for thirty minutes more before Larry, having made his point, dismissed them all, telling them to "work half a day tomorrow." Dweet sighed all the way back home again.

Days later, now in mid-August, the crew struggled through an afternoon where the temperature rocketed to over 100 degrees. Larry dragged out a prodigious fan, but it only moved the copious dust around with the hot air. Also, when the fan was plugged in it made the lights flicker. At noon, Larry received a package from the home office; it contained paper respirator masks. He dutifully passed them out. Barney donned his mask but had to punch a hole in it in order to smoke his cigarette. Dweet fastened a respirator over his mouth and nose but found it so confining and so hard to breathe through that he stripped it off. Little did the employees know then that, in nature, the talc contained an abundance of another mineral - asbestos - with which they would become reacquainted later in life.

Just a week later, near the end of the month, another boxcar was dropped on the spur, but because they were so busy, the crew didn't immediately tackle the transfer of the bags. After two days, Larry told Dweet and Don to begin the unloading. Pulling the door open, Don fell back, coughing raggedly.

"What is it?" asked Dweet, standing just behind him.

"Shee-it!" barked Don, stepping away from the boxcar entrance. "There's something dead in there!" He had served a year in Vietnam, and knew death when confronted by it.

"What is it?" asked Dweet again, stepping forward. "A dead dog or a squirrel or..." He gagged. "Damn! That's gross, man! Get Larry."

When Larry arrived, he reacted as had the other men, but told them that, smell or no smell, they had to get busy; the sooner they cleared the bags, the sooner they could discover the source of the smell and get rid of it. Dweet and Don reluctantly went to work. With the door open, the smell was much less pronounced, and they proceeded apace. Several hours later, Dweet, from his perch upon the stacks, was shoving bags to the edge when suddenly he gasped, then disappeared for a moment. Appearing again, he told Don, "Get Larry."

"What is it this time?" asked the other man. "Did you find the stink?"

Dweet jumped back down to the floor of the boxcar. He was deathly white. "Yeah. Found it." He said nothing more till Larry had been summoned, whereupon he said to his boss, "It's a guy." Larry looked at him quizzically, and Dweet added, "A dead guy."

Larry immediately took charge. "Okay," he said, "come on out, both of you, and I'm calling the cops." Dweet followed the other men back into the factory, his fingers tight around a tiny, elegant ring with a sapphire inset into the shimmering gold band. He kept it out of sight.

"Should we move the bags out of the way?" asked Don.

Larry shook his head. "Hell no. This is a crime scene," he said, just as he'd seen the cops do on Mannix on TV.

When the police arrived, they spent some little time in the boxcar before the medical examiner's office came and took custody of the remains. They took the body to the county morgue, closed and secured the door of the train car, and strung yellow crime scene tape across the loading dock. They then interviewed everyone, asking them if they knew Jasper Conner - the deceased - how long had the train car been there; where was the manifest; and a hundred other questions. Work ceased for the rest of the day; Larry was careful to take them off the clock. Reporters turned up and asked nosy questions, took photos, and all the rest. The next morning, it was business as usual, except for the continued presence of detectives swarming over the boxcar. Dweet mixed four vats of slip by himself and then made boxes. Larry stopped by Dweet's work station.

"How many are you up to now?" he asked.

Dweet shrugged. "Six or seven."

Larry shook his head and walked back to his office, then returned momentarily and addressed the crew: "We have to work over again tonight. I've got to ship a thousand gallons tomorrow." Everyone groaned. "I'll make it worth your while," promised Larry. Dweet knew what that meant: by seven, Larry would have bought two cases of cheap beer, and by nine, everyone but Dweet would be drunk, and by eleven, passed out. He heaved a sigh and briefly considered taking up drinking, but at length dismissed the idea as unworkable.

Excel Slip was perhaps a half mile from the river and a quarter mile from the red light district, which catered to the river rats - the characters who worked the barge traffic - and other local alcoholics, assorted lowlifes and riff-raff in the city. It was not unheard of to receive visitors, especially when the factory operated at night. Such was the case on the last day of August, which happened to be Dweet's nineteenth birthday. He glanced up from the rollers, where he was applying twist ties to gallon bags of slip, and did a double take. There stood three women in the doorway. They were lewdly caparisoned, in scanty clothing, hot pants, and the like. This immediately got his attention.

"Is Larry here?" shrilled one of the women. Dweet blinked, then shook his head. "Nuh uh," he said.

"Pity," she went on. "I owe him a blow job." Hookers! thought Dweet, his eyes wide and staring. Larry, he knew, was married.

"Could I give him a message?" asked Dweet, finally proving he could talk. Before the prostitute could answer, Larry bustled through the door.

"Hey, Belle," he said with a big grin.

"Hey, sailor, are you ready to collect?" she asked, batting her extended eyelashes at him. The other two hookers smirked, then cleared their throats. "Oh," Belle went on, "this is Sandy," she indicated a woman of about forty with huge breasts, long blond hair and a tiny waist. "And this," she pointed at a tiny brunette wearing yellow hot pants, "is Francine. Since you're such a regular customer, I thought I'd give you your choice tonight." She smiled gaily. "We're just on our way home anyway; I thought I'd introduce you. They got a new name for it - it's called 'networking.'"

Larry reached out and squeezed Francine's yellow ass cheeks appreciatively, then said, "No, not tonight."

"Well, that's a first," remarked Belle.

"I have to save it for Delrita tonight," he explained, referencing his long-suffering wife.

"That's right," agreed Belle. "This is Friday. I completely forgot. But then, why'd you want me to stop by tonight?"

"This is Dweet's birthday," said Larry, waving a hand at the other man. "This is a present for him."

Belle eyed Dweet speculatively and took in his broad shoulders, flat stomach, and chiseled face. "Can I borrow your office again, Sugar?" she asked Larry.

"Dweet's ready to surrender his cherry," said his boss with a shit-eating grin.

"A virgin, then," said Belle, running her tongue over red lips. "Don't worry, Hon'," she told the young man, "I'll be gentle," and, taking Dweet's hand, she led him back to Larry's office. Dweet went along as if in a dream.

A moment later, Don ambled into the room, saying, "Where's Dweet? We've still got 300 bags to offload."

"He's getting laid," Larry told him.

"About damn time," remarked the big man.

"It's my birthday present to him. He's nineteen today."

Don nodded and began eyeing the other two women. "My birthday's next month," he said hopefully, smiling.

The women were unimpressed. "Nice try," said Sandy with a little sniff.

Several days after the dead man was discovered, Excel was visited by a trio of somewhat dubious characters. Looming in the doorway, they were lavishly overdressed for their surroundings. One man, who was ostensibly the leader, was clad in a blue pinstripe suit, a black dress shirt, and a white tie. The others were similarly garbed. Surveying the layout of the factory floor, the leader stepped through, immediately brushed dust from his suit jacket, and winced unhappily. Dweet, who was making boxes yet again, looked up when the man whistled imperiously. Dweet furrowed his brow.

He said, "I ain't no fuckin' dog to be whistled at!"

This rolled right off the other man, who calmly drew a large, menacing revolver from a holster inside his jacket and pointed it at Dweet's chest.

Dweet's eyes grew large. "Can I help you?" he asked meekly.

The other man, mollified, nodded and replaced the weapon in its sheath.

"Who's in charge here, Rover?" he asked.

"That would be Larry," replied Dweet, and he gestured to the office in the back of the factory.

"Watch him," ordered the alpha male, and one of the other goons leaned against the door jamb, his arms folded. The other two men strode purposefully in the direction of the office. Dweet, still in shock, took a flattened box off the stack, bent it into shape, and applied a strip of tape.

The mobster opened the door without knocking and banged it against the opposite wall. "Yo, Larry," he said expansively, walking into the office unbidden.

"Can I help you?" asked Larry, watching the man's right hand drift towards the bulge in his jacket.

"Right answer," said the man with a grin. "Me and you got some business to discuss." He closed the door.

Five minutes later, the head goon emerged from the office and approached Dweet again. Dweet snapped to attention. "You found the dead man," the leader said. It wasn't a question. Dweet nodded dumbly. "What did you find on the corpse?" asked the man. He pronounced it "carps."

Dweet stared at him. "Find on him?" he asked, baffled. "Nothing. I never touched the body." he lied, "It was behind several stacks of clay. I couldn't have touched him if I tried." The other man absorbed this information and offered no response. "The cops pulled the body out of the boxcar, and then the coroner, I guess, took him to the morgue. I never even saw his face," Dweet swore.

"You don't know what he looked like?" asked the mobster shrewdly.

"Well, not till I saw his picture in the evening paper," replied Dweet. "Who was he?" he asked, but then immediately regretted it.

"He was an employee of mine," said the other man so softly that Dweet could barely hear him. "A delivery boy," he added as an afterthought. "He was carrying something," he went on, "and now it's gone missing." Dweet was dying to ask what it was but he was afraid to learn the truth. Continued ignorance, he reasoned, was a prudent strategy. The third man emerged from Larry's office and joined the other two. When they turned to depart, Dweet had sudden misgivings.

"Uh, I did find one thing," he admitted, his face growing warm.

"Where is it now?" asked the thug, looking at Dweet like a wolf looks at a newborn lamb.

"Right here," said the teen, pulling the sapphire ring from his finger and handing it over. The man hesitated a moment, then accepted the bauble. After another moment, he dropped the ring into his pocket, and the three exited the premises.

Barney walked in then and said, "How you hangin', hooch?" Dweet paid him no mind.

"Larry!" he said breathlessly, and hurried to the office. The door was still closed. He pushed it open. He didn't know what he expected to find, but this wasn't it: Larry was sitting at his desk, utterly unharmed. He did seem somewhat subdued, however. There was an odd smell in the air.

Larry looked up. "Are they gone?" he asked. His face was inscrutable.

Dweet nodded. "Yeah, they just left. They were after something that was on that dead guy. They thought I might have it."

"Did you?"

"No! I'm lucky they believed me. They might have worked me over."

Larry blew out a tired breath and stood up. Then Dweet noticed a wet mark, the size of a dinner plate, in Larry's crotch.

"I guess you were scared, too," Dweet remarked, empathizing with his boss. "They were some scary dudes. At least they didn't hurt us," he said brightly. He smiled. Larry smiled back, and it was only then that Dweet could see the gaps where Larry's two front teeth had once been.

The next morning, Dweet arrived, as usual, before anyone else did, and, using the key given to him so that he could let himself inside in order to make the coffee, he drew up short. The factory was in shambles. Everywhere he looked, the floor and walls, even the ceiling, were covered with slip. It was dripping from every surface and puddled inches deep in places over the uneven floor. On Dweet's heels came Larry, who likewise froze in place.

"What the hell...?" he began, standing in the doorway and then tiptoeing across the floor.

"What is it, a leak?" asked a baffled Dweet.

"No," replied Larry. "Look." And then both men saw it: every box of slip had been sliced open, spilling the fluid over the floor.

"Vandals?" inquired Dweet.

"They were looking for something," replied Larry, turning over a box that had been sliced open. "Those guys here yesterday were looking for something."

"What?" asked Dweet. "They asked me if I found anything," he remembered. "All I found was a ring."

"Where is it?"

"They took it," replied Dweet. "It didn't seem important enough to make them do this, and besides, I handed it over." Who were they?" asked Dweet.

"They didn't leave their calling card," said Larry. "But they weren't collecting for the Red Cross," he pointed out. He grinned. His vacant teeth had been restored.

Dweet stared at him. "I thought they busted your teeth out," he said.

Larry laughed, removed, and then replaced the teeth. "I did that in basketball in high school," he said. He chuckled. "No, they didn't rough me up. I wouldn't have put it past them."

"They pulled a gun on me," said Dweet.

"No shit?"

"I wonder if they found what they were looking for?" asked Dweet.

"Not before they opened every freaking box of slip," Larry pointed out. There were literally hundreds of eviscerated boxes. "Grab a mop," said Larry. He walked back towards his office.

"Where are you going?" asked Dweet.

"I've got to make out the timesheets," replied Larry.

"Huh," said Larry, folding up the newspaper and depositing it in the waste receptacle. "That guy, Jasper Conner; it says here he died of a broken neck. He'd been beaten, too."

"I thought maybe he was murdered," said Don, taking up the paper and reading. "I mean, it was suspicious, him in the boxcar and all. And then there were those goons snooping around and asking questions. They told Dweet that Conner was a delivery man. I thought maybe he ripped them off on a delivery and they offed him. The paper says he was from Chicago," said Don. "Maybe he was in the mafia," he suggested with a silly grin. No one else smiled.

"What could he have been carrying?" asked Dweet.

"Drugs," said Larry. "What else could one man carry that would be worthwhile to kill him for?"

"Did the police find any drugs in the boxcar?" inquired Don.

"They ain't taking me into their confidence," said Larry. "But they went through every bag in the car. Made a hell of a mess. I don't know," he said, thinking out loud, "if it was me and I had to leave the city in a hurry, I wouldn't travel with whatever I ripped off. Too dangerous. No plausible deniability; they find it on you, whatever it is."

"What would you do with it?" asked Dweet.

"If I could, I'd send it ahead - like in the mail. To wherever I was going to end up; and..." Suddenly they all looked up as the mailman walked through the entrance, bearing in his arms a small, shoebox-sized parcel.

"Excel Slip, a delivery," said the postal worker. "Who gets this?" Nobody moved. Finally, Larry came forward and accepted it. The mailman withdrew. Abruptly a shadow fell across the doorway.

"Hi, guys," said Gerald a moment later, suddenly oozing through the door. The others said hello, except for Grover, who stared hard at the young man. "Say," said Gerald nervously, did you get a package this week, yesterday, or today?" The others exchanged looks. Nobody mentioned the parcel they'd received.

"What kind of package?" asked Larry, moving back into position and decanting another gallon of slip into a plastic bag, then shunting the box down the rollers.

"A small box," explained Gerald. "From Chicago."

"How was it addressed?" asked Larry.

"Just Excel Slip."

Larry shook his head. "No. Sorry." Thoroughly discommoded now, Gerald scowled and beat a hasty retreat. Taking the parcel back from the shelf on which he'd placed it, Larry tested it for weight.

"Weighs about five pounds," he remarked, then extracted a pocket knife, slipped the slender blade under the wrapping paper, and slit it open. A thick, heavy manila envelope reposed therein. Removing it, Larry cautiously opened the envelope and poured the contents out onto the table. They all stared at what appeared to be several hundred sheets of thin pasteboard, perforated into thirty rows of thirty tabs, each a quarter of an inch on a side. Each sheet was approximately eight inches square. They blinked, baffled.

"Blotting paper!" said Don suddenly, his eyes aglow.

"Blotting paper?" repeated Larry, none the wiser.

"This was what the little pecker was expecting?" conjectured Grover, sipping another bottle of beer.

"Guess so," murmured Larry. "What the hell's it for?" he asked.

Don rolled his eyes. "Didn't you guys ever do drugs back in high school?" he asked incredulously.

"What is it?" asked Barney. "Cigarette paper?"

Don laughed out loud. "You roll a cigarette in that paper and you'll get off, I guarantee it," he promised. "That's about a jillion hits of LSD - acid, man!" he exclaimed.

Larry wrinkled up his nose. He didn't use drugs, unless you counted nicotine, caffeine, alcohol, and sometimes pot, which he did not count.

Dweet looked suddenly interested. Drugs, like sex, was something with which he had scant familiarity prior to his association with Excel Slip. Having finally lost his virginity, he was feeling newly daring. "You mean," he asked eagerly, "that each little square is a hit of acid?"

"Yep," answered Don, assuming the unaccustomed role of instructor. "Each hit will knock you on your ass for hours."

"How do you take it?" asked Barney, always in the mood to get high. They scrutinized the tabs: on each tiny square was inscribed a cartoon figure, which Don identified as "Mr. Natural," from a comic book called "The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers."

"You just eat it," Don said.

"How many?" asked Grover, taking up a full sheet of tabs.

"One should do the trick." Don grinned knowingly.

"What do it make you do?" asked Barney, separating a tiny square from the sheet and slipping it between his lips. He chewed rapidly.

"You see shit, smell shit, hear shit," replied the other man.

"Oh, it's like beer, huh?" asked Barney in all earnestness. "How long do it take to work?"

Don shrugged. "You never know. "It depends how much LSD they put on the tab, how strong it is, how old it is." Without another word, and by general agreement, everyone approached the cache and separated several of the squares apiece, gobbling them down. Then they all sat around on their hands, waiting expectantly for something to happen. And when nothing did, they were all a little disappointed. Ten minutes elapsed before Larry hustled them back to work, their drug experiment now forgotten.

As Barney and Grover mixed batches of syrupy slip, Larry filled bags, and Don tied the twist ties, while Dweet, of course, made boxes. At first, everything seemed quite normal. "Hey," said Don, looking at Larry. "There ain't no bag in this box." He seemed very agitated.

Larry furrowed his brow. "What? I just filled it."

"The hell!" squawked the other man, hyperventilating. "The box is full of slip, but there ain't no bag in here!" Larry looked in the last half dozen boxes he'd filled, and sure enough, none of them contained anything but slip - no bags. The liquid clay had seeped through the cardboard and leaked onto the floor, where it puddled up.

"Goddamn it," seethed Larry, looking around for someone to blame, only to realize that he was himself responsible. "Dweet," he shouted, "take these boxes to the dumpster, will you?"

Dweet, who had been rapidly making boxes, arrived a moment later, breathing heavily. "Hey, Larry," he said, panting. "I'm up to twenty boxes a minute now!"

"Great. Dump these boxes, would you?" Dweet swept them off the rack with a flourish and ran to the dumpster with them. Larry made sure he'd inserted bags in each of the remaining boxes and began decanting the slip again, into the bags this time.

"Hey Larry!" shouted Dweet, back at the box assembly station. "I'm up to seventy-five boxes a minute!" Larry shook his head and blew out a weary breath. The ivory-colored slip was a fantasmic purple now and began to glow and throb, almost like a beating heart. He looked up to find Barney stirring maniacally at one of the slip vats.

"Shit," Larry thought. The man was stirring the broken vat. The water supply to that kettle was shut off. "Barney," he called, "don't use that vat; it's broken, man." Barney didn't listen but continued with the frenzied stirring.

"Hey Larry," bellowed Dweet again, "I'm up to three hundred fuckin' boxes a minute now! That's" - he did some mental arithmetic - "eighteen thousand boxes an hour!" Then he screamed like Tarzan.

"I found something, Larry," yelled Barney, audibly striking a solid object with his paddle.

Larry walked to the mixing vats and said, "What is it? What've you found?" Sticking his arm into the vat, which was empty but for a foot of stagnant water, Barney brought up a wooden box, about one foot on a side. Larry accepted the box and shaking off the murky liquid, placed it on the floor and used his screwdriver to pry open the lid. Spilling the contents onto the concrete floor, they all knelt around, inspecting what they'd found. "Well, I'll be damned," muttered Larry, taking up one of more than a score of copper plates, each about the size of a dollar bill.

Don peered closely. "Is that what I think it is?" he asked.

"It's what got Jasper Conner killed," said Larry somberly. "As sure as shittin'."

"I don't get it," said Dweet. "What is it?"

"A printing plate, off an intaglio press." When Larry glanced at Dweet and saw that he was none the wiser, he said, "It's an honest-to-God US currency plate for producing fifty-dollar bills!" Everyone absorbed this in silence for a few minutes. They were all newly sober.

"So," said Don softly, "this is what they were after."

"Is it counterfeit?" asked Dweet.

"I ain't no expert, but I'd say this is the real deal," said Larry. "It wouldn't be so valuable otherwise. This makes real money."

"This makes some sense," said Don, hefting one of the plates. "I mean, they sure ain't going to murder someone for a box of LSD. Even though it sells for two or three dollars a hit and there are hundreds of thousands of tabs in the box, you'd need a gang of high school kids to hang out on street corners, selling the shit. Can you imagine?" He chuckled. "Running an army of teenagers selling drugs on the street - what could possibly go wrong?" he asked rhetorically.

"I've got to make a call," said Larry, drawing to his feet. "I know a guy at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in Fort Worth. He can maybe tell me if there's a reward for finding this sort of thing." He walked back to his office.

The following week, Dweet returned to university, and Larry, without saying a word to anyone, suddenly disappeared. Don received a call from Excel's home office, informing him of his promotion to plant manager. Which Don was only too glad to accept, since it paid a bounteous two hundred dollars per week, more than twice what he'd received as a laborer. More to the point, he could now devote himself to performing executive tasks, like preparing timesheets. But what of Larry? Nobody knew. Had he scored a big finder's fee for the printing plates they'd discovered? There was a modicum of resentment; after all, they had all been instrumental in turning the items up. It was all soon forgotten.

At the end of May, Dweet reappeared at Excel, this time with long hair, seeking employment for the summer. Don hired him on the spot. "I got a call from the new owners," he told everyone. "The district manager is coming by today," he informed the others.

"Who is it?" asked Grover, slipping another hit of LSD between his lips. Don had discovered that the hallucinogens gave the men renewed strength and energy and increased productivity and anyway, he had an unlimited supply.

"I haven't met the man yet," replied Don. At that very moment, a bread truck pulled up to the loading dock. As a man stepped out. Don strained to see, but he couldn't tell much about the features of the man other than the way he was dressed: blue pinstripe suit, black dress shirt, and white tie. Don hadn't spotted the bread truck.

"Uh oh," said Don. "Look who's back." The others watched mutely as the man climbed the stairs and walked through the front door. There was something about his carriage that was familiar. He drew up before them.

"Larry!" cried Don, surprised. The other man grinned. "What are you doing here?" asked Don. "What happened to you? Did you get the finder's fee?" Larry clearly had a story to tell.

"They offered me a big finder's fee," admitted Larry, "but I asked them if they could get me a job instead."

"What, with the Bureau of Engraving and Printing?" asked Dweet. "Are you going to Fort Worth?"

"No. Firm out of Chicago. Bureau of Engraving didn't offer a fee, but I found someone who would." He smiled smugly.

"So you're back?" asked Don, reluctant to relinquish his new position.

"I am back," Larry agreed. "As the new district manager of Excel Slip!" he boasted. "In charge of the six midwestern factories." He preened. They all absorbed this news.

"New threads?" observed Don, fingering Larry's fancy lapel.

"Work uniform," said Larry.

"Say, Larry," said Dweet. "You're the boss now. When are we going to get a raise?"

"You're due for one," agreed Larry, nodding. "Keep your eyes on Washington," he advised. They stared at him.

"The minimum wage should be going up any day now," he said.


  1. This was super realistic! Ultra-realism…like some drawings that are almost like photos. But the voice in the piece was even more engaging. It was almost sad/sympathetic/amused. I could picture this factory. The realism of minimum wage work was the point, I feel. The end was a bit weird for me. But I don’t know anything about gangsters and factory ownership. I would like to read more from this author!

    1. Hi June! Thanks for reading; I wasn’t sure that anyone would want to wade through 8400 words, and I’m glad you did, only to deliver some very enlightened observations. I take one exception to the points that you made: you said that the point was a “minimum wage job.” Actually, back in 1973, the U.S. Federal Minimum wage was just $1.60 per hour and these workers gleaned the rich bounty of $2.32 per. (Ha-ha). You point is well-taken, however. I really appreciate your comments.

  2. Good one, Bill. Your story created a sense of intrigue and mystery that kept me engaged throughout. The introduction of multiple characters and their interactions added depth and complexity while the twists and turns, such as the discovery of the printing plates, injected excitement and suspense. The goons added a sense of menace and the inclusion of elements like drugs and prostitution added a gritty realism to the story. Again, nicely done!
    -David Henson

    1. Thanks once more, David. You know, I had to research even a sort of tongue-in-cheek fiction such as this one: you should’ve seen my scrambling through Google, trying to figure out how many hits of LSD would comprise five lbs. of acid. Yikes! I really appreciate, as always, your astute comments.

  3. Dweet and his coworkers at Excel Slip enduring so many goofy and gritty misadventures that they become a family of sorts. The workplace is a community and it can be fun to be a part of the right community. The story reinforces the idea that many people work less for the obvious financial rewards and more for the secondary social rewards.

    The piece is also another Bill Tope love letter to the early 1970’s. I can only imagine this time when a middle aged boss could employ the services of a sex worker to celebrate the birthday of his teenage employee… What an era!

    I also admire the story’s strong characterization and setting.

    Great job!

    1. Hi Adam, and thanks again for your observations on the psycho-social ghetto that was the 1970s. By this advanced date, fifty years later, all the business majors, like Dweet, have probably driven their erstwhile business concerns soundly into the ground; who knows, maybe today Dweet is Larry’s boss, and takes Clarence Thomas on lavish yachting trips to Indonesia…(but enough of dysfunctional American politics). I’m so glad you enjoyed the story, Adam; you’re right, it is a bit of a love letter to the 1970s. Things always look less inimical through a lens frosted by time. The reality is that time has taken an onerous toll on the participants of the era; in fact, they have all perished, but for the benighted figure of Dweet himself, who lives under a rock somewhere in the American Midwest. All kidding aside, thanks to you and the other readers, for your astute comments and thoughts. I really appreciate you.

  4. I agree with Adam. Dwight could probably get a better job than this. Why not work at a burger joint the following summer? But he went back for more. Sometimes jobs can be a place where you "work through something". During the seventies, in high school, I had a job in a vintage clothing shop. The boss was an abusive man who had joined EST. He was also a simpleton. "Vanilla or chocolate. Take a stand. Your flavour in between makes me sick." Why did I stay there? I bought all the rare clothes with my pay check. I also learnt how to tell him off, get fired, then take a new job in the hospital's record department. But then that is another story. Thanks for an entertaining look back at this era. Your prose, as usual, is engaging.

    1. Hi Rozanne! That’s insightful – your comment that a job is not just some place you work, but also a place where you “work through something.” I believe that you’re right. You mentioned your job in a vintage clothing store and from your own prose I can readily imagine your so occupied. And your next job, in the hospital records dept., which you called “another story”; I’d love if you would put it to paper. Put something to paper, please, I’ve missed your prose! Say, I’ve got it: let’s get married (not necessarily to one another) and tie the old knot (Ha-ha). Lovely to hear from you again, Rozanne.

  5. Rozanne CharbonneauJuly 11, 2023 at 4:48 PM

    Thanks, Bill. I have a story coming out here on July 17.

    1. That’s welcome news, Rozanne. As I’ve mentioned in the past, you are my favorite FOTW writer of dramatic prose; Hawley my favorite for the crazy variety. Thanks for letting me know.

  6. My appreciation for Bill's work increases with each story I read. I agree with June, I enjoyed the litany of events and anecdotes, but I adore the voice and tone. I kept waiting for all the separate events to tie together, which they did. I never had the honor of working in that sort of environment, but fully believe Bill's depiction. Thanks for sharing this wonderful story.

    1. Hi James! I always appreciate your comments, as they encourage me to apply quill pen to parchment (vellum?) once more. I’m still chuckling over Death getting aced at Monopoly. Looking forward to your next story.