Red checked his wristwatch approximately every fifteen minutes. He rushed from building eight all the way to the break room in building one in order to clock out on time. As he stepped up to the time clock with less than a minute to spare, he pulled a black plastic comb from his back pocket and ran it through his thinning ginger hair. His fingers thick with work and age, held the manila timecard at arm's length so he could make out where to place the machine's arrow. It was Monday. The card, the same tone as his skin, recorded only three other punches. A.M. in, A.M. out for lunch, P.M. back in from lunch. His neck tensed as the large empty room filled with the machine's kerchunking gavel. P.M. out.
At exactly 5:30 p.m. when he punched that black plastic rectangle for the last time, the clock dutifully stamped Red's time out. Clocks shaped most of Red's days. Every morning he awoke to the bleep of his clock radio. His wife Helen had bought it after their daughter threw his manual alarm clock in the toilet back when she was a toddler. The week before his daughter's vengeance against time, Red applied for a Sears credit card to put two new tires on their car. Sears gave him three times the amount he requested, allowing Helen to buy some underwear for their little Cole, a bottle of Jean Naté body splash for herself and, when the need arose, or in this case descended, Red's clock radio.
It had been a few years since hundreds of Quality Electric employees rushed to punch their timecards under the "It's About Time" sign. Now as one of only twenty-three remaining employees, Red wanted to rip the sign down. He had started taking down signs the day after he climbed the stairs to where Hector ran a rotary switch line. The sign read "22E to 33E." That ten-inch square sheet of metal marked the area as Hector's floorboards before it became just another empty expanse peppered with rat traps. Gradually, the walls returned to their original barrenness. The vast open spaces once filled with men, their machines, parts and materials all started to look alike. Red found it easier over time to clear out things that reminded him of his former work buddies.
Red's last day on the job was all about time. When the blizzard started earlier than predicted he wanted to get home to Cole and Helen. He was still driving around on the tires they had bought back when they first got their Sears card. Even though his father gave him some cash for new tires, Red knew Vladimir would probably need it back soon. The money sat at the bottom of Red's sock drawer. It tempted Helen every time she put away the laundry but the old man was losing his mind. Every few months the Housing Authority manager called Red to report that his father had run out of money and needed groceries.
It felt to Red as though he worked at least two jobs but all at the same time. While he maintained the shuttered factory, he worried about his father, Cole and Helen. Whenever he boarded up the factory's broken windows, told Helen a joke or brought his father some of Cole's chewable vitamins, Red wondered why he bothered. What was the use of making things better if they just kept falling apart?
It was finally time to go home. In the parking lot, he cleared the snow from his car with a commercial-grade push broom and shoveled behind his tires to make it easier to get out. As he walked back to building five to return the broom, he noticed the third-floor lights on in building three. He could just go home and call Sal the night guy to tell him to shut them off. Then he remembered that they cut the phone lines to the boiler room where Sal smoked cigarettes and listened to his Radio Shack transistor radio. The wind seemed in a panic, not knowing which way to blow. An upward gust blew snowflakes into Red's nostrils as another burst pelted sleet into his left ear. He shook off the chill and jogged to the building.
Now that Red managed all the doors his keys didn't jingle any more. They let out flat metallic claps with Red's pace. The massive 13-building factory was one and half million feet of a continuous structure. Back when the factory was full of equipment and workers, the building made Red feel important. With his boiler operator's license and a knack for plumbing, he helped keep the master machine, The Monster, in operation. When his Monster was put to rest, Red was kept on as a janitor. Eventually, his black leather belt cracked and bent at the three spots where his key rings were clipped just like the dark red welted scars that steam and fire had burned into his hands and forearms.
Each building had a flashlight and a bucket of sand to the right of the entrance. For years Red picked up Sal's cigarette butts and placed them on the top of the sand, but Sal never took the hint and continued to throw his butts all over the factory's floors. The beam from the square red six-volt flashlight picked up the dust in the air that seemed to never settle. At the sunniest part of the day, Red watched the particles swirl in the vacant spaces as if people moved the air as they walked to the bathroom or grabbed Band-Aids from the first aid kit. At home relaxing in his chair on Sundays, he watched the specks in the sun. There they floated as if they were tiny astronauts until Cole or Helen walked in and unsettled them all.
When Red told his father he wanted nothing more to do with the family business of crime, Vladimir asked, "What else you got to do? It's in your blood. You won't be able to go any place without casing it." Red didn't argue but promised himself to think about how to clean a place whenever he thought about his father looting it. Eventually he found it relaxing to focus on dirt, dust, debris, messes of all kinds. It was in his father's nature to pry things open and lift things. Red felt safer with the world's decay and its respect for gravity.
On the third-floor landing in building three the flashlight's beam caught the dust behaving much like the squalls outside. Five banks of lights were on and the room was freezing. Two windows had been left open. Annoyed, Red kicked a fallen ceiling tile. Dried and hardened from no longer being part of something, it sounded like a scuttling shard of ceramic rather than a chunk of horsehair plaster. He placed the flashlight down where it shone a glowing polka dot onto the wall, waiting for his return.
In the hallway between the buildings, Red shut off the lights. Past the outskirts of the flashlight's glow, he slammed the first window shut but the other one wouldn't budge. On his way to find something to stand on, Red felt a blast of cold air from the stairwell that went to the roof. He patted his keys and headed up the steps.
Out on the roof the confident wind blew snow as if it knew where it was headed, not like the same storm frantically whipping around into a fracas five floors below. Two plastic milk crates sat a few feet outside the roof's door. Red wondered which two remaining employees had been sitting out there. He planned on taking the crates to his car for Cole. She always found a use for whatever work junk he brought her. He brushed off a few cigarette butts that the snow had stuck onto the makeshift seats. He turned in the direction the seats faced, toward the trees and pond behind QE.
When he first started at QE Helen visited with fresh sandwiches whenever he worked overtime. All the guys hooted and smooched out kissy noises as the couple left the building. Helen smiled and squeezed his bicep. The world fell away. It was simple back then. He loved. He was loved. As they walked over the bridge and onto the paths, he believed that he could cure Helen's loneliness. But now, he looked out onto the overgrown walkways and chained-off bridge, all covered in night and snow. He sighed.
Now that they had Cole and he loved Helen all he could, it was clear that there would be no end to Helen's achy clouds. He would have to just accompany her under them. It hurt him to watch Cole try to get her mother to feel better. Part of him wanted to explain how it wasn't possible to change Helen's mood. But the optimistic, desperate part of Red told him to keep quiet. He had some hope left that someday their quirky little daughter might just charm her way into Helen's heart and set off a change.
He tried to shake off those thoughts along with the cold seeping through his coat. Clapping his hands together he turned around. The blizzard's persistence made the parking lot's floodlights appear to struggle to stay on. The blanketing snow created a false sense of security by dampening all sounds except the wind.
A ruthless squall slammed the door shut. The veins in Red's neck pulsed hard. He dropped the crates and scurried over to the door as if rushing toward it would make it more likely to be unlocked. A wooden shim that the guys used to prop the door open sat next to his foot as he tried to turn the knob. It didn't turn but he tried to pull the door open anyway. The naked knob was locked. This was the only time he wished that a door had yet another keyhole. Regret slid down his throat with a gulp.
"Shit!" he whispered. He grabbed the cement block, lifted it above his head and slammed it down onto the doorknob. It bent and dented but it wouldn't turn. He hammered the knob with short firm strokes until the block crumbled in half. Other than Red, the crates, the cigarettes and that now-destroyed block, the roof was empty. Almost all the houses across the street had lights on; a few people could be seen through their windows. But there was no way they could hear him. No one was coming or going from QE until the next shift and he knew no one was going to do any rounds in the storm. He hoped someone across the street would come home. He stared at the bus stop as if to will one last bus to brave the slippery roads before the city shut them down. But no one came or went from the factory, a house, a bus or a car. For so many years that parking lot had bustled and was at least half-full at all times. After the layoffs, the few remaining workers' cars looked like pieces left on an abandoned checkers game board.
Red checked his watch. It was exactly one hour and eight minutes since he was first locked out. Thoughts of Helen and Cole came in flashes. Had they figured he was staying late because of the storm? Were they eating dinner without him? Maybe they would call the office and someone would look for him. He was mostly worried about Cole. Even though she had Helen there, Cole always treated his arrival home as a kind of rescue. Helen usually sat at the kitchen table staring at the floor as she hugged herself and chain smoked. No matter how much Cole tried to make her laugh or talk, Helen left her hovering like a seagull on an impervious, invisible wind.
That past Sunday night, Red helped Cole practice her oral book report. Really, all he did was turn on her tape recorder and then when she was done, cheered, clapped and shut off the machine. Cole's teacher assigned a book about a boy who lived on a farm and had to kill his pet pig because his family needed it to survive. Most of Cole's report was about how even though the family was poor, the young boy's mother loved him very much. The rest was about how people sometimes hurt animals even though they knew it's wrong. She went on to describe the trainers she saw whip the tigers at the circus. Although he had avoided ever reading a book from cover to cover, Red knew how people had a way of making things about themselves. Cole's report sounded like a description of the kind of mother she craved and an excuse to mention that she is P.T. Barnum's great-great-granddaughter. While they listened to the tape recorder play back Cole's report, Red heard Helen softly close the clothes dryer door. She folded the laundry on their bed even though there was space in the living room. Solitude comforted Helen, especially while people were close by.
Red rubbed his cheek to help him concentrate on finding a way down from the rooftop. There were other roofs. Twelve. Twelve other doors. Maybe one was open. Like an elderly Olympian, he carefully vaulted over the parapets between the buildings. The building had been built as if each giant unit could be separated from the rest. But in fact, the only way to extract one would be by explosion or to dismantle it brick by brick. By the fifth locked door, Red's feet were numb all the way to his ankles. Looking over the edge of the front of the building he pursed his lips. Maybe he could jump down to a cement balcony a story below. If there was no way to open that door, he could try to climb down each balcony until he reached the ground. But he'd have to safely lower himself down four times. He closed his eyes to think it through.
Then he remembered the open window. It was only one story down. The cold was exhausting. He trudged back five buildings, arthritically scaling the parapets again. He thought of the koala bears that Cole loved so much. She had shown him a picture of one resting on a branch on its belly. His body started to take longer breaks between motions but when he got to the right roof, he felt a slight energy surge.
He kept his eyes on his feet and planted them far enough away from the roof's edge. Leaning over, the view down seemed both daunting and not too bad. Maybe he could lower himself far enough down to angle his legs into the window.
Using a crate as a shovel, he pushed the snow off the edge as the wind whooshed more into its place. His ears were past stinging and burning and now felt like they would chip off if he touched them. The plan was to lower himself down until he couldn't hold onto the edge's six-inch lip any longer. Then, he'd take the fall and catch his toes on the window ledge or if he could manage, try to get his feet in the window. He counted aloud, "One, two, three, four…," as he clapped his hands fifty times to better feel his fingertips. Stomping gave him a fix on the boundaries of his shoes. A shiver ran from his gut up to his neck. For courage, he grunted a few times and then he growled out loud, "Don't make me angry. You wouldn't like me when I'm angry!" When he watched The Hulk with Cole, she taped the introduction and replayed that part often. Red said it whenever she gave him any trouble.
When he was a boy and afraid of burning his hands when he started fires, his father asked, "Just because you fear wolves, you won't go into woods?" The saying had been handed down from Red's grandfather, Boris, along with, "The eyes are afraid but the hands will do the job." To Red, his family's old Russian sayings were just shady ways to fool his mind into doing what his heart couldn't bear.
He got down on his belly at the roof's edge and looked only at his hands. He swung his legs over the ledge. As he plummeted, Red clawed at the air for a rope, a rung, a buoy, a railing, a hand. His own hands would have welcomed anything, anyone that would pull him up. His guttural bellow was thumped short by the metal A-frame vents that stood at the ground floor like a row of small houses. Red's spinal cord was severed upon impact. His loyal keys dangled securely from his hip but at the angle they hung during Red's naps at the boiler room janitor's desk.
The snow continued to dip in and out of the gully between the walls built to cover the vents. Amid snowy tempests, some flakes glided straight down.
Initially Red's body heat melted the snow. Later, more snow and ice coated his body in thin mottled layers. After a few hours, he looked dappled with sparkling white doilies.
Inside the building, the flashlight Red left on the floor was still lit; its beam was fixed on the wall where someone wrote "Out of Order" with an arrow pointing to the vacant spot where a vending machine had long ago been removed.