The Union

Luke moved his eyes up and down the west bank, wondering as he always had what the river would look like without all the machinery.

“He don’t give a fuck,” Matt was saying. “Why would he give a fuck? Ain’t his girl. Ain’t his business.”

“It’s a little cold, no?” offered Luke while watching the steam rise up from the refinery stacks.

“Bah. You’ve gotten soft.”

Luke turned to him. “Fuck you, ya Cajun prick. I’ll slit your goddamn throat.”

“My ass.”

Luke squinted at his old friend, then faced forward and settled into his seat. “Yeah. Probably not.”

They crossed the rest of the bridge in silence, and once they were on the eastern side of the river Luke’s eyes fell to the marsh. It was evening and he’d always loved how the sunlight hit the water at that time. He stared out from the passenger side, listening as Matt lit a cigarette and cracked his window. Months ago, on his last visit back home, Matt had quit smoking. Again. Luke thought about saying something then instantly thought better of it.

“So I’m out of the union.”

Luke turned. “What? Why?”

Matt blew smoke, shook his head. “That same shit, man.”

“Those tests and shit?”

“Yep.”

“They’re seriously gonna boot you for that? After all these years?”

“Done did it,” answered Matt. “Pulled me off a job, pulled me outta school. I will not be a union-certified electrician.”

Luke’s eyes trailed off as he thought it over. “Bastards,” he said quietly.

“Know what, man?” said Matt. “I’m relieved. I am glad to be done of it.”

Luke looked at his friend. “Yeah?”

Matt nodded. “Yeah.” He took a drag, exhaled, glanced over at Luke. “You don’t know, man. You left.” He turned his attention back to the road, rested the hand holding the cigarette on the wheel. “I mean I know you know your shit and everything but you don’t know about that. Believe it. That shit’s got to be seen.

Luke studied Matt closely, nodding. “I believe it. Tell me.”

Matt took a long pull from the cigarette, held it for a moment, then let out a thick spray of smoke. He looked out at the shimmering marsh, shook his head. “They want your mind, brother. And that’s not an exaggeration. They demand absolute obedience. No less.”

“Like with voting.”

“Man, they will tear you down if they find out you didn’t vote Democrat,” Matt began. “I’ve seen it happen. It’s not enough they control every aspect of our jobs—and by extension, in my view, our lives. No. They want you to fall in line, son. The party line. It’s about repaying debts. We owe it all to the Democrats, we’re told.”

“I’ve read.”

“Never fails, come election time,” Matt continued, “some pasty fuck from some office somewhere comes down and gets in our face and reminds us how the union provides our jobs, buys us our homes, pays for our kids to go to school, and everything else. All loyalty to the union. And if you’re loyal to the union then you’re loyal to the Democrats. That’s doctrine. You need to do the right thing, they tell us, and check that box.”

Luke grunted. “Sounds about right.”

A couple of kids in a tricked out Honda zoomed past blaring rap music. Luke watched the irritation flash across Matt’s face with mild amusement. But it was only a flash, and a moment later it was usurped by the preceding revulsion.

“And then there’s the lie of it all,” he went on. “This idea that the union fights for workers’ rights is a fucking joke. Job security, benefits, shorter hours. Shorter hours?! Luke, I worked seven-twelves for six weeks without a single day off. Where’s my time to relax? Where’s my time to watch a movie with my son? Where’s my time to live? Tell me that.”

It was then that Luke saw something in his friend that he’d wanted desperately to see for years. Matt was more than angry. What he was feeling went deeper than revulsion. It was outrage, plain and simple. Something Luke felt often, and all too well.

“That shit just don’t factor with these people,” Matt said softly. “We’re units, man. That’s it. Just a calculation. Some prick crunched the numbers, filed some paper with some other prick, and we were activated. Happens a million times a day. Think about that. We’re just one crew on one job in one local.”

Matt reached over, dug a finger into Luke’s chest, and stared at him wide-eyed. “And you best be thankful for that job, boy. And play nice, hear?

Matt settled back into his seat and took a drag. Luke watched him, not sure exactly what to say or even if he should speak at all. There was something very different about his friend. He’d changed. Not outwardly, and not to anyone who hadn’t been reading comics with him since third grade. But Luke could see it as clearly as he could now see his hometown’s water tower rising above the treeline. He saw it, and he waited.

“We did a job with these rats,” Matt said, then flicked his cigarette out the window and closed the crack. To Luke, the sudden quiet in the car somehow intensified the scene. “Same site. They got a contract, we got a contract. That kind of thing. Happens occasionally.” Matt snorted, shook his head. “All these clowns talkin’ bout how much better the union makes it for us. Man, you should’ve seen the rats’ break area. Us, it’s fifty muthafuckers squeezed into a metal box. Sardines, with a couple of coffee pots and a Coke machine. The rats? Luke, I shit you not, they had a goddamn circus tent. About half as many crew as we had, stretched out, breeze comin’ in through the flaps…Comfortable. Relaxed. With tables of microwaves, mini fridges, coffee pots. Half a dozen Coke machines, just as many snack machines—Oh, and a big fancy sonuvabitch that offered sandwiches, burgers, salad, fresh fruit, pizza. No shit. You slide in your cash, you press a button, and you got pizza. It was good, too.”

“You had some?”

Fuck yeah, I had some. Had a burger, too. Luke, I took my lunches with the rats, man. That’s what I’m sayin’. Union can talk all it wants but when you’re there, on the ground, you see the difference.”

Luke grinned, nodded. “Privatize everything.”

“Then there’s the bumper stickers.”

Luke’s brow furrowed. “What do you mean?”

“Oh, man,” said Matt, chuckling. “The cars of these psychos are loaded down with stickers. I’m talkin’ about the real fanatics, now. And there’s a ton of ‘em. Most of ‘em, actually. Anyway, these stickers, man…They’re spoutin’ some hardcore stuff. Like centralized control of the workforce and organized labor and all that.”

Luke paused. “Organized labor?”

“Yeah. That’s the most popular one. Just the electricians’ union symbol with ‘organized labor’ in big ass letters.”

Luke stared at him, dumbstruck. “That’s straight Communism.”

Matt shot an eye at him. “That’s the union, son.”

Luke watched his friend a while longer then leaned back in his seat and stared out through the windshield. The treeline was approaching. The treeline and the hometown and the house he grew up in and everything else he’d left behind over a decade ago.

“Somethin’ I haven’t told you, man,” Matt said suddenly. “Now’s as good a time as any.”

Luke gazed through the glass, waiting for whatever the hell would come next.

“All that stuff you send me? Those articles and shit?”

Luke turned.

“I read it,” Matt said. “All of it. Every word.”

Luke studied his friend, nodding. In an instant all the changes he was seeing began to make a lot more sense. “I knew you would. Conclusions?”

Conclusions?” Matt laughed, then brought both hands up to firmly grip the wheel. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly as all traces of humor evaporated from him. “Yeah, I got one.”

The car rolled into the shade of the cypress and live oaks. Luke hardly noticed.

“I read that stuff,” Matt continued, “and I take a look at what’s goin’ on out here. And I don’t just mean here. I mean the whole enchilada, dig?”

“Yeah, man.”

Matt took another breath, exhaled deeply as he tightened his grip on the wheel. “I take a look at this thing. And I just keep thinkin’…” He glanced out through the window, shook his head. “This ain’t right. It’s wrong, in fact. This is all wrong.”

If he’d been able to peel his eyes off his oldest friend in the world, Luke would’ve seen that Randall’s Pharmacy at the end of Crest Street had gone out of business. It’d been around since Luke was a boy. “Then you, my friend, are an enemy of the State.” He smiled, extended his hand. “Welcome.”