My Own Man
fiction by Matt Dube

On his first day, Royal was given to a Russian man for training on how to keep the threads from the creel horn getting tangled or running out, all to feed the machine a room away that sewed the carpets. The Russian man’s name was Pavel, but Royal couldn’t get it to come out of his mouth the way he knew it was supposed to sound. It was one of those names that you recognized when you heard it, but couldn’t recall, like your license plate. He remembered standing on the curb outside the hospital after the doctor confirmed Janelle was pregnant and having no idea which car was hers until he saw the license plate. Then he recognized their little Dodge Dart. It was the same with Pavel. When someone else said his name, Royal knew exactly who they meant, but for himself, he called him “Sir.” Pavel stood perfectly straight in his dust coat, and when he did have to bend over to fasten two threads together or stretch to replace a spool on a higher horn, his body fell back into that perfect posture like it was a feather bed.

“There is all the lifting and stretching,” the Russian explained on the third day, “which you must feel in your body. But this job, it requires three tools only.”

Royal listened intently, straining to hear over the noise of the shuttles. 

“First, you use your splicer and it brings two strings together,” Pavel explained and pulled two threads, one from a nearly empty spool and one from a new fresh roll and pulled them both through the handheld plastic splicer. When he pulled them out, he tugged to show Royal the knot.

“Then, you must ready your knife,” Pavel said, and slid the boxcutter from his pocket. He released three inches of silver blade from the orange plastic and slashed through the knot he’d just made so that the two ends hung limp.

“Finally, your eyes,” Pavel said, and pointed at his face like maybe Royal wouldn’t know where his eyes were. “You must always be using them. Is this spool run out? Is this color the right color to make the rich man’s carpet, or of the same thickness and weight? You do not need to ask anyone but tell with your eyes what you must do.”

Royal felt like he’d been struck. He’d asked a lot of questions because it was hard to understand, the way the muted rainbow of threads that stretched up above the rack of horns became a carpet on the other end. Sometimes, when he was tired, he just stopped and looked overhead and found himself lost in the patterns he imagined being stitched elsewhere in the factory.

“Except for Pavel, of course,” Pavel said. “You must always ask Pavel your questions. This is what he is here for.”

Pavel and Royal ate their lunches together in the crew room on oval tables scratched with generations of graffiti. When the weather outside was nice, the other guys who worked in the factory ate their lunches outside, or when it was raining, in the cabs of their trucks. But Royal’s wife Janelle dropped him off at work before she drove off to her job at the grocery store. The men outside smoked and roughhoused and Royal wasn’t comfortable around them, even those he’d known before his family sent him away to the residential school. He trusted Pavel, he found his presence comforting. He liked him and liked hearing his stories about life in Russia.

Pavel told Royal he’d been in prison in Russia, for being a writer. Royal thought that must be why Pavel didn’t walk like he had eyes in his back, like most of the men Royal knew from prison. Royal called him teacher, for the patient way he guided Royal through the tasks on the factory floor. And anyhow, writers didn’t make enough to live on. Pavel had probably been a teacher as well, in Russia, before he was in prison. 

Janelle had a doctor’s appointment and wouldn’t be able to pick up Royal after work, so she arranged for Billy Western to give him a ride home from the rug factory. Royal knew Billy from around, the factory floor and town; he was married to one of Janelle’s many cousins. Billy started talking to Royal in the locker room after work when they were changing back to their street clothes, and he kept talking. He didn’t seem to be talking about anything in particular. Billy started out insulting Janelle’s dad, said he lorded it over everyone like he was a king but just lived on a mountain of shit. Before Royal could get offended, Billy moved on to something he saw on TV, and then something about a Labor Day cookout, which was more than a month ago. Royal just went with it, the same way he did the constant noise in the factory.

When he climbed up into the truck, Royal noticed that instead of floor mats, Billy had an actual rug, or at least part of one. It was a two-foot square, springy beneath Royal’s feet and with colors swirled like in a hot fudge sundae. Royal leaned back and kept his feet lifted a little above the rug.

“Nice, right?” Billy said, shifting his truck into gear. “It’s one of the perks of this place. You want some, I can hook you up.” They pulled onto the rural highway through the mountains. 

“I need to ask Janelle,” Royal said, and the other man tapped the wheel to a song on the radio.

“I got Bettina hooked up, you should see our bathroom,” Billy said, and Royal was thankful, because he’d been trying all day and couldn’t come up with the name of Billy’s wife. “Hey,” Billy said, “you heard about the union vote?”

“No,” Royal said, and looked out the window.

“Really?” Billy asked. “I figured that crazy Russian would be talking your ear off about it.”

“He’s all right,” Royal said. He’d probably have been dead a dozen times on the shop floor for doing dumb stuff if it hadn’t been for Pavel. 

“Well, you should think about it,” Billy said. “The company, they got all this money and we just want a little more of it.” He stopped to think about it a minute. “We deserve it.”

“There’s no union at the grocery store,” she said. “And so they can ask
us to do anything. If there’s an overflow in the toilets, they’ll send a bagger. Or if someone is sick or doesn’t come in, they can make me
keep working. If there was a union, well, they couldn’t do that.”

“Yeah?” Royal asked, but he wasn’t all that interested. He had signed on for the job with the expectation of the money he was making, and to turn around and ask for more seemed greedy to him. But he didn’t want to stand in the way of someone else getting more. Janelle thought the union was a good thing, asking him about it later that night when they were curled up on the couch watching their tiny TV on the one channel they could pull in on the mountainside.

“There’s no union at the grocery store,” she said. “And so they can ask us to do anything. If there’s an overflow in the toilets, they’ll send a bagger. Or if someone is sick or doesn’t come in, they can make me keep working. If there was a union, well, they couldn’t do that.”

“Hoo-boy,” Royal said, but he didn’t think Janelle knew what she was talking about. Should the water from the overflowing toilet just stay on the floor? And who would bag the groceries if there were no baggers. But he didn’t say that out loud because he didn’t want to start a fight. 

The next day he brought it up with Pavel. Pavel would know the truth.

“I am no one to trust in a union,” Pavel said, and pinned Royal with a look that said he’d seen some things in Russia that showed him who to trust. “For other people, no problem. But I am a rugged individual American,” and he slapped his chest in jest.

Royal laughed along with him, and they worked together the rest of the afternoon, loading the creel horns with yarn. Royal thought he wasn’t an individual yet, but he’d be one someday.

The day of the union vote, Pavel was absent from work. The voting was set up in the crew room where Royal usually ate lunch with Pavel; one of the women from the business office upstairs stood guard in front of the door and only let one person into the room at a time, and then she’d cross your name off a list on her clipboard. Royal went in to vote over his lunch break and didn’t know how he’d vote when he went in.

There was a locked box with a handle and a slot on the top on the biggest table, and a fanned stack of ballots and a pile of golf pencils. Royal picked up one of the ballots and thought reading it over might help him decide how to vote, but the only words on the ballot were ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ He picked up a pencil and leaned over his ballot. He didn’t care much, didn’t see how it would change his life either way. But he knew it was important to Pavel, and Pavel wasn’t here to vote, so Royal voted ‘no’ in his place and slid his folded ballot into the box. When he left the room, he felt like he’d been in there an hour, but there was no one waiting to go in and vote after him.

Pavel was back the next day, with a black eye and a mean cut across his lip. He was walking with a limp, and Royal was concerned that they wouldn’t be able to keep up with the machines. But Royal just worked faster, and he was proud of himself for how much he was able to do on his own. That was the first day at the carpet factory that he felt good about the work he had done.

During the fifteen-minute break in the afternoon, Royal went off to the bathroom, and when he came back, Pavel was sitting on a box of thread spools. He had a packing tape dispenser in one hand and was holding a roll of remnant carpet against his forearm with the other. Royal saw Pavel had already wrapped both his legs in carpet. 

“Help me with this,” Pavel asked, so Royal did, taking the tape dispenser and wrapping Pavel’s forearm in masking tape, and then did the other arm, too,

“What are you supposed to be, Carpet-Man?” Royal asked, laughing. Guys at the factory were always playing pranks, even if he’d never seen Pavel involved in one before.

“I am My-Own-Man,” Pavel said, and walked off, his legs stiff because the carpet he’d wrapped his thighs with had slipped down and stopped him from bending his knees. Royal followed him, and Pavel walked the path of the thread that crawled across the ceiling to the ten- inch machine. The machine’s operator, an older guy, was yanking on the carpet coming out to clear a jam. He stood up when he saw them.

“Hold on,” operator shouted and held up his hands. Royal didn’t know his name, but he’d seen him around. Pavel rushed in, one wrapped arm held in front of him like a shield, and jammed it into the other man’s jaw. In his other hand, Pavel had his boxcutter, blade extended, and he slashed away at the machine operator, cutting at his dust coat and through it. Royal could see blood through the man’s clothes, and he wasn’t even trying to look.

Then, there were a half dozen men on Pavel. Billy Western was one of them, and some of the crowd he ran with. Royal felt like he should do something, but he didn’t know what. Pavel slashed at the men who tried to hold him down, and arcs of their blood flew everywhere, onto the carpet threads and the floor and the faces and clothes of men who were just watching. Someone called an ambulance after Billy and the other guys pulled Pavel off someplace, and the man he’d attacked laid on the factory floor, moaning, but the machine was so loud that Royal couldn’t hear him, just see his face. They stopped the line and sent everyone home after that, though there was only about an hour left in their shift. He heard that they loaded Pavel into a police car, of course, and that it got there before the ambulance did. He didn’t see Billy in the crowds of men who talked together before they got into their cars to drive home, so he just waited for Janelle to come and pick him up.
“I heard there was some kind of accident at the factory,” Janelle said when Royal sat in her car. Her belly was starting to make it hard for her to drive without pushing her seat back, and then it was hard for her feet to find the pedals. “Bettina called me and said Billy’s in the hospital. I raced up here as soon as I could get someone to cover my lane.”

“My friend,” Royal said, and then didn’t know what to say “I don’t know why he did that.” He looked through the windshield of the old Dodge Dart as they merged onto the two lane. “I figure he thought, if he didn’t do something now, he’d lose his chance.” He shook his head to clear the blood he still saw when he stared. “I think they hurt him bad.” 

“Maybe we’ll see your friend at the hospital,” Janelle said. 

“Maybe,” Royal agreed, and Janelle talked, partly to Royal but mostly to herself, about how Bettina was trying to get pregnant and how she’d applied for a job at the school in anticipation, that kind of gossip that passed for planning, all the way to the hospital. Everything changed when you had a baby, they both agreed on that. They parked and Janelle found Bettina right away; there was already a big crowd there for Billy, with flowers and balloons, and Royal thought he wouldn’t be missed. He waited a minute and was able to slip through the doors into the ward hallway. He looked in the different rooms for Pavel, even asked at the nurses’ station for him, but found he couldn’t say the name right, or anyhow they didn’t recognize it. He returned to the waiting room and Janelle told him they weren’t going to be allowed to go back and see Billy. After a while, she and Royal ate their dinner in the hospital cafeteria and went home. The next day, the results of the union vote came back. The drive to form a union had failed.

Matt Dube's stories have appeared in Construction, Literary Yard, Front Porch, and elsewhere. He teaches creative writing and American Literature at a small mid-Missouri university and reads submissions for the online literary magazine, Craft. He stumbled into Appalachia through his wife, who was marked young by watching Coal Miner's Daughter and recognizing a kinship between Loretta and Doo and her own experience. In this story and a handful of others, Dube has been trying to excavate and find a place for himself in that complicated lineage.

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