YOU REMEMBER THAT THEY teased you about being born in a factory, that it all—them and you—started early in the day one Friday morning, with dew on the sprigs of grass in the sidewalk cracks and flowers starting to reappear alongside crumbling brick and mortar, shortly after the first shift had clocked in and had begun their mechanical duties that had not changed in seven decades and would not change until years after you and they left the factory when management and the local union agreed to test a machine—just one—an industrial-sized press with touchscreens, exhaust hoses, and a generator backed up by a computer in another part of the building where you were not born but where you emerged from. And you remember that they have described the factory as assembled out of the cold air, concrete, and steel—colossal blocks of these grey ingredients mashed and then squared together—colored with the scattered ashes of cigarettes and encroaching rust, and filled with the echoes of metal chasing metal, like pegleg pirates dueling on aluminum decks, and the deadening thumps of plastic lids slamming onto plastic containers. In some ways, they are right, and you know that your story begins in a place that had started titling from its peak and onto its sun-setting downslope, that it produced small breakable goods that brightened or altered the walls of rooms in a house or a garden, and that it produced you.
In a sense, you were on the conveyor belt snaking across the southern quadrant of the factory floor. On cue, the conveyor belt stopped, having appeared from the blue-white haze at the start of Quality Assurance that looked like a science lab of platinum twists, turns, drops, and the stutters of several motors propelling products. Prior to this point in QA (one prior point, to be exact) was where Connectivity Inspectors, twisting switches and plugging cords into a small outlet mounted on top of the conveyor belt’s rails, verified that each unit was operable and behaved as advertised and as the instruction manual promised. It was here that the lamps survived the first crucial cut. If they didn’t—no juice, bulbs struggling to burn brightly, sparks and hissing from the cords—they were immediately placed into a crate labeled Production – Circuitry and would not have been seen again, if at all, until the errors were fixed; lamps were given a second chance to run through this again but never more than two. If the lamps were approved, the meter next to the outlet spiked hard to the right and showed full amps and a little glowing glass sun enclosed in the A-shaped wireframe, then a Connectivity Inspector clicked the belt back on, and the belt scooted the lamp down to the next station like messages in bottles bobbing on an artificial horizon.
And so the stream of lamps headed towards the last section of QA stations where a flock of Finishing Inspectors waited to validate that each lamp was free of dents, scratches, chips, and other superficial defects before sending it into the smoke-dark doorway at the opposite end of QA’s roller coaster of conveyor belts, where Shipping & Receiving housed its loading docks and delivery trucks. And as she had every Monday through Friday at seven in the morning for the past twenty years, Finishing Inspector 65 watched the line of lamps trickle towards her, each lamp sequentially spaced and timed like the ducks you’ve seen at carnivals and fairs, those lightweight metal birds folding over as soon as a pellet from a BB gun pinged the side, small prizes for the big mallards, big prizes for the small canary-colored ones, less of a target to hit, more skill and hand-eye coordination needed, so said the Midway Master, tipping his hat and cane.
Here, at what was then Coyne-Mecklenburg Manufacturing, the lamps rattled down the line, and Finishing Inspector 65 waited until the conveyor belt’s padded square slid under her, at which point she pushed the middle amber Pause button on her control box and grabbed the lamp after the belt stopped, examining each of the surfaces suspended in front of her, averaging one unit every minute, taking no more time than that for her evaluation, and after approving the product, slapping a small gold-foil sticker on the bottom and pushing the top green button on her control box, which started the belt again and sent the units towards Shipping & Receiving where a Shipping Specialist carefully rolled the lamps inside bubble wrap, buried them inside a mound of Styrofoam peanuts, and added the shades before taping shut the box and sliding it onto a pallet that a forklift would drive into one of C-M’s delivery trucks. A stopwatch on Inspector 65’s left ticked on the second the belt stopped for her inspection; a crib sheet on her right, a palm-sized book in a small butterfly-shaped cradle, reminded her what she was responsible for at that point in the process, should she become lost or unsure; but she hadn’t opened or felt the urge to refer to any of the stained, dogeared pages in her time standing there all those years.
But this lamp, your lamp, a lamp that was as common as a cloudless blue sky in spring and was as homogeneous as the lamps that rolled before it and the lamps that waited in line after it, this lamp, your lamp, was in her hands when the conveyor belt jerked to a stop.
And you may recall them telling you that someone at the factory had tampered with the bottoms of the new springtime lamps—not all of them, but most. The attacks, as management called them, seemed random. Some of the lamps had marks; others didn’t. All of those lamps looked the same, though they were advertised otherwise: unique for that spring season and available at an unbelievable price; Easter-tinted, hand-crafted, and European-influenced; “one of a kind.” There was no obvious reason as to why some of the lamps received the tattoo and others didn’t.
According to the costumers who contacted Customer Service, as well as the department store managers who filed concerns with the aforementioned division of Coyne-Mecklenburg, the lamps in question had a total of five letters written with a black felt-tip marker; the first two letters were initials of a first and a middle name, each chased with a period; the remaining three letters made a last name. A few of the customers found the mark “funny,” “eerie,” “spooky,” and “woo-woo,” as one woman from Stillwater reported with a ghost story–inspired tone on the phone, or as an elderly gentlemen in Eau Claire chuckled, the name reminded him of high school English classes, of which he wanted no part then and most certainly wanted no part now in the twilight of his life; he just wanted to know how the thing on the underside of his lamp could be resolved in a timely manner, either through a refund or receiving a new lamp that resembled the vandalized one he had placed on a small table with photos of his dog and his wife and next to his assisted recliner in the living room. You, too, would have known the name right away.
Some of the big department stores, such as Holmgrens, or the local ma-and-pa staples, such as Mansion of Light, which was then a major buyer of Coyne-Mecklenburg products and had labeled itself as Minneapolis’ Premier Home Lighting Destination, discounted the lamps, an action, emphasized in their communications with Customer Service, that they didn’t typically pursue unless the item was part of a heavy, widespread clearance or the store was going under, neither of which, each respective representative said back then, was happening or was forecasted at that time, unless, of course, Sales and Production continued to provide damaged items handled by employees who didn’t have pride in their work and, by logical extension, who were hired and buoyed by a human resources department sharing the same low-rung values. You may have heard that most of the customers wanted their money back—all or some—which put the squawking birds–loop of businesses in a bind as they pursued each other with regard to who exactly was responsible for what and, monetarily, how much. Per company policy, refunds, in partial or total, from C-M Home Wares were not allowed on seasonal, one-time SKUs, and the marked lamps that piled under the gathering clouds of complaints had been designed, molded and glazed, marketed, and shipped in time for Easter and what was then the upcoming new season, and now that Winter had broken down into rain, the Good Lord had died and risen, and the Twins ended April with a disastrous 5-21 record, including no wins at home, the consumers of the tagged lamps preferred, it seemed back then, to want a little more than a source of bright light, perfect for reading or relaxing any day of the week, that rested on a well-known, but highly improbable, American name permanently placed below. But “Good news,” Customer Service reps repeated, referring to the script Defaced Lamp Case #41180-1433 that management provided, “the marks are on the bottom, and no one ever has to see them and probably won’t. We can happily send you a replacement, plus shipping and handling.” But C-M’s top management, not to mention the Board itself, wanted resolution, wanted to move product, and most certainly wanted happy customers and purchasers across the tri-state area.
The lamps in question were no larger than a wine bottle—maybe you know this. A hole dominated the middle of the lamp’s base and was forged as though a drunk tried forming donuts one late evening, failed miserably, and with no one present to stop him, kept doing so. The lamp was Coyne-Mecklenburg’s answer to putting modern, yet accessible, products in the hands of everyday people living in the primary sales regions of Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. The lamp’s colors reflected the time period that you know about. One designer in Creative had hoped that his Fourth-of-July-themed lamp would be approved by C-M’s big brass as part of the summer line-up, which was a much bigger draw than Easter/spring but not as popular as Thanksgiving/Christmas, but Product Design and Development’s director nixed that, stating that it was high time C-M reinvented itself for the next up-and-coming generation of buyers, many of whom had embraced Atlantic coast aesthetics—starched collars and polo shirts, accessories, loafers, and khakis—which meant putting away the Frank Lloyd Wright angles and materials and the farmer-outdoorsman-Calvinistic minimalism that had propelled C-M in the first part of the twentieth century. Tastes had changed, they told you, and that was, after all, a long time ago.
But you may not know that, Finishing Inspector 65’s mind had been elsewhere that day at the factory when the marks started appearing—a solemn and heavy mood unable to pull up its anchor and find a new direction of wind—as she stood there holding the lamps and compared the weight of them to the weight of her sister’s chest rising and falling with each breath inside an intensive care unit at St. Paul Regions Hospital. She stopped the conveyor belt, as she had been instructed to do during training many years ago, and moved by the image of her sister, she took her black felt-tip marker and wrote Elizabeth Anne’s initials on the bottom of randomly selected lamps. And she did this knowing that she had roughly two minutes until the shift manager opened his office door on the second floor, clanked down the stairs, and searched the labyrinth of conveyor belts, lamps, workers, artificial light, and scraps of sunlight, aiming his middle-management attention on the sudden broken link in the chain of production, the disciplinary question of Why has your belt stopped? on the tip of his coffee-stained and tobacco-smudged tongue. Inspector 65 scribbled the initials while scanning the top floor. Her marker squeaked to empty, and she shook it, without drawing attention to herself, and tried again but to no avail. Behind her, a buzzer screeched, signaling that a conveyor belt in QA had stopped for too long.
The office door flung open, and Morning Shift Manager Bates flopped his tie behind him and gingerly walked down the stairs with a limp in his left leg. He searched the floor and, once he found the area in question with its buzzer and blinking light, jiggled over like a speed walker needing to urinate. “Everything all right, Alice?” Bates asked her. The other workers glanced up but kept reviewing their own lines of lamps.
“Yes, fine,” she answered as she quietly slid the marker into her jeans before slapping INSP. 65 – COYNE-MECK. ST. PAUL, MN on the bottom and next to the initials and last name, the gold approval sticker popping like speech bubbles in a comic book. “I thought there was a crack around the neck, so I wanted to double check.” She cranked the conveyor belt back to green, waited for the next lamp in line, and brushing a strand of hair from her eyes, smiled as emotionless as she could.
Bates looked at her and then at her station for a few seconds, nodded, flipped off the warning light and buzzer, sipped from his mug, tipping it back until its words No Talkie Before Coffee disappeared, noise and metal and plastic churning around them once again, and left, climbing back upstairs, dragging his left leg behind him.
Alice watched the lamp quiver on its padded square until it twisted around the corner and disappeared into the broad doorway of Shipping & Receiving.
After sitting for a few days in the delivery truck at Coyne-Mecklenburg’s warehouse, the lamp with the name travelled to the then twenty-second annual Home Furnishings Expo at the Twin Cities Convention Center that highlighted upcoming products for the spring season—graduations, Mother’s Day, weddings picking up full steam. The medium-sized truck rumbled down Garden and Floyd and entered Gate B, north side, where the wrought-iron fences divided the rising sun into long rectangles of equal brightness. The other lamps, some of which were marked with the initials and last name, headed to other destinations that have nothing to do with you.
On site and in charge of C-M’s booth and show floor at the Expo was a man in his early thirties, sporting a thin mustache, dress shirt, and black slacks, and who was a junior member of, as they were called then, the Bread & Butter sales team that handled the most promising and lucrative regions. His numbers, however, had been down that year, and the old guard let him know that he seemed to have a penchant for consistently placing last in sales measured by volume, price, and commission percentages; even the ladies, especially the recent college grads with degrees in the arts and humanities, rubbed it in in the break room; they had better numbers than him. The veterans had selected him, still being the relatively new guy, to man the booth, joking with him that, if he became too scared and pissed his pants while trying to make a big impression on a potential customer, the AstroTurf underneath him would soak it all up—no stain visible.
When the truck finally appeared on that Good Friday morning, the sales rep helped unload, set, and unpack the boxes on the fake-grass floor of the rectangular presentation area. He wandered down the nearby lanes of the competition (“our peers” he was encouraged to call them) and wondered if lamps were really his future; his personal favorite was the picnic set, from a company in Mason City, Iowa, with painted clouds and a green field on each piece and when aligned next to each other looked like a complete field. Circling his own booth, he took note of C-M’s products, many of which were brightly colored and soft on the eyes, and practiced his pitch that, with summer approaching, it would be a great time to think about installing lights by the pool or outdoor eating areas where people love to spend time with each other. He had his parents and his siblings but no one else, no lover, no filled weekends, nothing other than work on his calendar. The lamp with marks sat on a vanilla-white vitrine behind accessories that the sales rep had organized by shape and color; he made sure that the price tags weren’t readily visible on any of the items on the floor. He thought nothing more of what he had accomplished by the time the front doors to the Expo opened to the public.
A few people drifted by; some stopped; some asked questions, which he loved to answer, and some looked at the products for the sake of looking and probably, he knew, and maybe you do, too, comparing prices before humming to themselves, moving their eyes across one show floor and onto the many others before walking again.
It must have been shortly before noon when a woman in her late twenties appeared from the right corner, having just left the booth for MW Design with its English countryside–inspired pillows, linens, and beddings. The sales rep did not say anything; he did not approach her right away, taking a cue from the more successful salespeople at Coyne-Mecklenburg that it is best to let customers peruse and, as a salesperson, observe what they’re after, the flares they will send up, the trail of clues left behind.
After a few seconds, he walked over to her and introduced himself with a watered-down upper Midwest accent, which the woman noticed right away, blushed, and commented on it to him, who, in turn, blushed. The two stared at each other for a few seconds. He asked her what she was looking for in a lamp these days. She told him that she wanted to buy something nice for her new apartment, something bright and, as you may know, freeing of the old days that she had brought with her. The sales rep suggested some items that he had first unloaded. The modestly dressed woman looked at them and then scrunched her face, bypassing all of them. She slid down to the vanilla-white vitrine and lowered her head. The sales rep watched her rotate the new lamp in her hands, admire its color and design, and then turning it over, laugh out loud.
“Find something you like?”
“Yes,” she replied and cradled the lamp between her small breasts and her arms, her pooch of a tummy jutting towards the sales rep who stuffed his hands in his slacks and chuckled with her. Standing next to each other, the woman and the sales rep were as plain as you can imagine.
“I’m glad you decided to check it out,” he began. “It’s a fine lamp,
one of a kind made right here. It’s available only for this season. I just love how its glazing breaks apart those gloomy colors of winter. Imagine it in your new apartment, sitting there in the sunshine. And since we’re the manufacturer, we offer a discount if you buy directly from us.”
“That’s good because this thing has a defect.”
“Mmm-hmm,” she answered and showed the bottom of the lamp to him.
“That’s… odd.” He took the lamp from her and, squinting, did a double take. The marks were faint, the initials strongly black, the o and the e in the last name breaking up like smoke. He laughed to himself when he read it.
“Inspector 65 must have been asleep on the job that day.” The woman pointed to the gold sticker next to the inked name.
As you may guess, the sales rep was in a pickle: He was stunned that his bosses had shipped blemished products for one of the area’s biggest events, and there was no way the woman could have marked the lamp because he watched her the whole time she perused the booth. “Maybe it’s a prototype, and it snuck into the stack,” he jumped in. “Sometimes our design department outsources to freelancers who, if they have kilns and clay, will shape possible production types. That could be it.” He looked at the lamp. “Or, maybe this was his at one point before he became a living legend,” he joked, tapping the name.
“I’m pretty sure lamps weren’t like this in the 1800s. Besides, if this were his, well, then it’d be a whole lot more money than this…and quite a diamond found in the rough. Listen, I really like it. It’s endearing to me, actually. That name…it’s too good. But I’m not paying full price for this.”
“I don’t have authority to change prices or offer discounts on defects.” He grimaced, seeing his name on the leader board for Sales plummet to the bottom from the top three, having jumped there in his head when the woman showed interest in the lamp. “I’m sorry.”
“Not even twenty-five percent off?”
“Definitely not that.”
The man rocked onto the tiptoes of his brown shoes. “I’m not supposed to…,” he started to say and then buckled his knees and shoulders. “Let me see what I can do.” He returned with a caterpillar-shaped ashtray that matched the lamp in color only, not shape or sentiment. “If you would buy this, I could lower the price on the lamp, and it would offset, I think, that, and we can make a deal.”
The woman’s lips flattened as she snickered. “Oh, OK,” she said after a few seconds.
The man clapped his hands together and proceeded to ring her up. He wrapped both pieces separately in tissue paper until the lamp resembled a grey bowling pin; he covered the shade with plastic that reminded the woman that her father’s birthday was on the way—this was back then—and that, although he could have used a new lamp, he said he didn’t need one, but she knew that he did on account of his eyes starting to go after all those years teaching in her hometown. The lamp, as you know, was for her.
The sales rep offered his business card, which she took, blushing. He could be reached anytime, really, that his office door never closed, especially to her. His hands started to shake as he handed the receipt to her. He asked her to dinner, not today but soon because he would very much like a reason to ask his bosses for a Saturday night off, to take her on a date to a restaurant downtown with linen napkins, a sommelier, and a menu devoted solely to dessert, and she said that she had started seeing someone and was very flattered by the sales rep’s offer and his confidence but thought it might be best to say no, stopping any heartache and confusion early, which she politely did, summarizing her situation with her new guy. The sales rep understood and just wanted to ask her out because she was very pleasant and kind and had the prettiest eyes he had ever seen; she said thank you and looked away. Last thing he told her: I’ll find out, if you want, the story behind the name, the mark on your lamp. That’d be nice, she said, uncapped a pen, and slid his business card back to him with her name and number on it before leaving.
Weeks later the sales rep called the woman and said that he had news regarding the marks on the lamp—big news, that he knew who did it and that this person was indeed an employee at the company where he worked. The woman agreed to meet him at Pawlowski’s, which was not the upscale restaurant the sale rep had imagined or hoped for but was a diner sealed in time with red vinyl and chrome, a jukebox with records, and a menu solely dedicated to milkshakes.
Sharply dressed and doused with extra splashes of cologne, he arrived early and stood to greet the woman who, when she arrived wearing a knee-length skirt, flats, and a plaid shirt, smiled as she blushed and started the conversation cordially—mainly about the weather as it was, then, late May, nearing Memorial Day, waves of green floating around them.
After ordering their respective lunches, the sales rep started in with what he knew. Less than two days after the Expo, Finishing Inspector 65 was let go. The woman who bought the lamp was stunned at first but added that it made sense if 65 had been the culprit. The sales rep broke off a large chunk of tuna melt and dragged it through a pool of mustard. The defaced lamps had, he told her, and as you can imagine, cost Coyne-Mecklenburg money and time and trickled down onto everyone beneath the Board and upper management. What’s more, the sales rep continued, he didn’t know Inspector 65 personally, but he had probably seen her at the company holiday party, the one time all the employees assembled annually yet never mingled with anyone other than the division they worked with. Asking the waitress for change for the jukebox, the sales rep went on to say that QA was in another section far away from Admin and Sales and that he rarely had a reason to walk over there and that, along with the gold approval sticker next to the inked name and customers and retail managers contacting Customer Service, Inspector 65 left a fairly unobstructed trail back to her. The waitress returned, and the sales rep slid the quarters to the woman who bought the lamp. “She was fired,” he said. “Alice Poe.”
“What?” the woman replied, keeping one eye on what the sales rep had said and keeping her other eye on the coin slot and the flip-boards of songs.
“Inspector 65… Alice Poe. They showed up one morning and escorted her to the break room down there in QA, and then they escorted her to the parking lot where they watched her drive away with all her effects. They say she wasn’t sad at all, not a goodbye or tears or anything. She just left. Twenty years. You got one of the last lamps with marks… they think.”
“Are you serious?” The woman clicked a song. “Alice Poe,” she echoed. “Well, that explains a lot. I wonder why she did it.”
“I don’t know.” The sales rep fidgeted on his side of the booth.
“So… I just wanted to meet up and fill you in. Um, how’s the lamp?”
“You didn’t call me only because of the lamp.” She looped her hair behind her ear and weaved her shoulders as Roy Orbison sang. “We could have talked about this on the phone. It didn’t require us meeting anywhere for lunch.”
The sales rep leaned back and smiled.
“The lamp is sitting on my little end-table by my couch. It looks great, and it works so far, unless there’s another surprise waiting,” she teased him.
“Good.” He quickly stuffed a handful of french fries into his mouth.
“It’s a funny, quirky thing to see, and I love it. I love that mark. But mainly, it reminds me of my father who’s a teacher and said that we get things in pieces, some of them loose but nearby, others left to find. I love that it’s a misfit, but I’m the only one enjoying it right now.” As the sales rep nodded, she asked him about his job, what led him to Coyne-Mecklenburg and selling lamps, what he likes, doesn’t like, where he hopes to be in six months, one year, five years.
“I really just want to be a good person,” he replied, “and make enough money to live humbly and without debt, and travel, but it doesn’t have to be international because there’s so much in this county that I haven’t seen.” He mentioned Yellowstone back then, which the woman did too, her eyes brighter, and so they drew a map with a pen he carried in his folder and, after starring where they were then, condensed the country inside a napkin, implying the four main points: Maine’s oven mitten in the top right, Florida dangling in the bottom right, the broad hide of Texas covering the midsection, the infinite stretch of the West coast—California, Oregon, Washington blurred into one continuous border defined only by the ocean it fell into. Across the middle of the country, in the plain open space of the middle, the sales rep drew a car and music notes bubbling from the inside because, as you know, it was, and is, the most American thing to do.
After he was hired, he told her, he saw the archives at Coyne-Mecklenburg and some of the first lamps they used to make, that, according to company history, C-M started and took off because of a shortage of lamps, thanks to an iron-ore strike in which most of Chicago and northern Indiana shut down factories and laid off workers. Back in those days, he told her, all the lamps were handcrafted, because this was before the mass webbing of machinery, and not to romanticize it, he qualified, but things really were made slower and with precision and care and artistry. In fact, one old lamp in particular caught his eye on the tour—a lamp with a glass reservoir for oil at the back that looked like, given its size and all-black matte finish, it belonged on a military tank. But, he said, it had one of C-M’s signature features at the time. He said that you had to look at the handle, where a flat piece of scrimshaw, about as long and narrow as a breadstick, lay embedded: a dove with an olive branch between its beak flying over a rainbow, all of this in blue-black ink.
“Who?” he asked, leaning closer to her, aloud, half rhetorically, half directed at her in hope for an answer that she may have, some small but enlightening scrap of input that could clear fog or smooth water; Who, your father repeated, after finishing his milkshake and wiping his hands, figured out that the oil from the blubber could be used for lamps, that the baleen could be fashioned into teeth for combs and brushes, that the bones, once stripped clean, he asked your mother, were suitable for telling a story?
William Auten is the author of the novels Pepper’s Ghost, a 2017 Eric Hoffer Award finalist for contemporary fiction, and In Another Sun, forthcoming from Tortoise Books. His work has appeared widely online and in print. http://www.williamauten.com