When nothing happened out of the ordinary during the next night’s shift, Joe began to wonder if the tall man with the silver pointed shoes had even been real. Had Joe even met him? Was he losing his mind? If he was, he had every right. First of all, working midnights was not natural, and he was pretty sure that any number of studies had been done to support the claim. Human beings were meant to sleep at night.
Secondly, his stress level at work was bound to be taking some sort of toll on him. He had been supervisor of the entire shift now for almost four years, ever since Ross got burned and endured a long hospital stay and months of rehabilitation before retiring. Many said he got a settlement, and it wouldn’t have surprised Joe one bit if that was fact. Being burned still wouldn’t have made it worth it.
Then, there was Michelle. Any man would have been affected by that. Who couldn’t be? If he was in the process of losing his mind, he had every right.
The conversation, or the dream if it hadn’t been real, had him thinking though, and they weren’t at all good thoughts. Joe had believed he was content, but he now realized that wasn’t the case, far from it. It was the feeling he had early in his marriage to Michelle. Busy getting his degree in journalism and working, he had dreams of living in big cities and driving a nice car. The job in the plant paid the bills, though, and even after graduating and after all these years he remained. Why was he stuck here? Why did he stay here all these years and watch his life pass without so much as a whimper of resistance?
By the time he went home after the next shift, he busied himself with these very questions and even began to wonder if working at the plant was worthwhile anymore. He enjoyed it though, or at least he thought he did. It kept him occupied so he didn’t think about things so much all the time. He had friends at the plant. They came to his house and watched football. They hung out sometimes on the weekends, and he watched them drink beer and took them home when they drank too much. But while all these things were worthwhile, Joe didn’t really need to work anymore. There was the matter of the insurance after Michelle. The house was paid for, and what with his mundane and simple life he didn’t need much. He didn’t want much, or at least he hadn’t thought he wanted much until recently. The thing he most wanted he couldn’t have.
By the time Wednesday’s shift rolled around, Joe had decided that Al was probably a dream, or at least a figment of an overactive imagination. During his first break, Glenn, who had filled all of the hoppers on the presses and given his breaks, joined him sipping coffee and sitting in front of the plant listening to the cycles of the machines and watching traffic trickle by in the night as people went about whatever business had them out so late.
“You ever see a guy walking around late at night?”
“You mean like a hobo or somethin’?” Glenn asked.
“No. I don’t know. No, like any normal person, dressed nice?”
“I don’t think so.”
The topic of conversation sat there ready to die before Glenn rescued it.
“You see somebody?”
“No. Not really. No,” Joe said. Then he continued. “I thought I saw a guy walking around back one night.”
“Just walking. Dressed nice. A tall guy wearing a black shirt. He had a thin moustache. Boots. He was out back.”
“Never saw anybody out back,” Glenn said.
“Well, if you see someone, would you come get me?”
“Sure. We’ll check ’im out.”
Joe and Glenn seemed to decide that would be a good course of action, and the conversation turned to sports. Of course. Glenn’s Cardinals were making a run. By September they would be in first place. Glenn was certain. As far as college football went, Alabama might not be as good this year. Then again, they probably would be. They were due for an upset though.
Life ambled on, and by the time Thursday’s shift arrived Joe was beginning to forget the tall man. He had other things to worry about. Joanne’s carpal tunnel was acting up. Old Man Moore had abandoned his signal for number one and gone back to flipping his invisible birdy. If the suits up front didn’t sell something, the plant might have a shutdown in September. It had happened before.
Joe almost had another week in the books by Friday, and after dinner breaks he made his rounds and gave out paychecks. It was the job Joe enjoyed most. Not only were the paychecks pleasant- although expected- news, he got a chance to chit-chat with each of his employees. He did care about each of them, almost as if they were his children.
Luther, with his bald head covered by a ball cap that had nothing on its front – the man who could make a three tone sound of train whistle-, always told him what he planned to do first with the money. T.J., a tiny man with a tiny voice and enormous black beard (most people thought he colored it with store-bought dye), usually thanked him and acknowledged “Well, it is that time of week”. At least he smiled. The young guys folded the checks and stuffed them into pockets and sometimes mumbled, “Thanks”.
When only one check remained, Joe walked to his car, sat inside, and studied the deductions and the result before placing it in his glove box. Then, he leaned back and wondered what he and Michelle might have done on the weekend if she was still around. That’s what he was doing when Al pecked on his window.
“Al!” Joe said, surprised. He climbed out of the vehicle.
“How’s it going, Joe?”
“Fine. Fine, Al. I, well, you know after the other night –“
“Thought you were imagining me or something?”
“Yes. That’s right. I did. I get so tired on midnights.”
“Well, T.G.I.F.,” Al said. “But, after all, isn’t every day the Lord’s Day.”
They laughed and then Joe said, “You’re out early again. Not as early as last time, but early.”
“Couldn’t sleep. I don’t sleep. I have plenty of my own work to do.” He turned and sat on the edge of Joe’s old, silver Caprice and folded his arms as he leaned back. “So, give it any more thought?”
“What’s that?” Joe asked.
“Oh, don’t tell me you’ve forgotten already. Vandy. The championship.”
“That’s funny. I did think about that. Funny stuff.”
“Oh, Joe. It’s not funny. It’s reality.”
Joe looked squarely into Al’s face and found not one hint of humor.
“Joe,” Al continued, “you, I, we can make this happen. I know you want it.”
“It’s been a long week, Al. You’re going to have to be a little more to the point. I’m not with you.”
“Joe, you give me what I want. I give you the chance of a lifetime. The chance to do what you’ve always dreamed of doing. The chance to give your team a championship to boot.”
Joe’s pulse began to race. What was this man saying? He thought he knew, but the proposition was almost unbelievable. He pinched his leg and tried to breathe. It certainly seemed as though he was awake, but he was beginning to wonder.
“What’s my end of the deal?”
“I think we both know,” Al said, laughing and rising to his full height from the edge of the car. “It’s not as sinister as it sounds. You always wanted to play football. Didn’t you.”
In fact, Joe did. He played in high school. Well, that was being kind, because he didn’t get to play much. At 5’10” tall and 160 pounds at the time, pretty slow, and not very strong, he usually watched from the sidelines as Doug Brown carried the ball. It wasn’t much better for defense either. He was behind Terry Smith at free safety. He tried to kick but didn’t have the leg strength. He had always wanted to play football.
“Your back’s not what it used to be either, is it.”
How could Al have known that? His back had never felt right after he strained it moving a mold one evening. It hurt when he awoke and every time he worked in the yard.
“I couldn’t play now even if I wanted to,” Joe said.
“Oh yes, yes you could. And you could awaken feeling like you did when you were eighteen. Remember that? You could be young again, and so strong this time.”
“Al, no man can give me back what time has taken away.”
“Go home at quitting time,” Al said. He turned as if to walk away. “I’ll be by to see you. I think I know where you live. We’ll discuss it then.”
Joe thought about what he usually did on Friday mornings. He always went to the bank and made a deposit with the teller Mary. Then, he often went to Hardee’s and had a biscuit and gravy and talked with some of the men sitting around drinking coffee and solving the world’s problems. How did Al know where he lived?
“Don’t go to the bank,” Al said. “Go straight home. It could change your life.”
Al began to walk away and looking over his shoulder gave Joe a wink and a smile. Joe turned his head back to the plant and when he turned back to cast his gaze over the parking lot once more, Al was nowhere in sight. Joe jogged in the direction Al had walked, and then, even though it was slow and more painful than when he used to run a little, he hurried across the lot. Al was nowhere to be found.
Back inside the plant the presses chugged, molding plastic, making parts, and creating new things seemingly from nothing. Glenn buzzed by on a tow motor to fill the last of the hoppers one more time. Joe moved out of the way, dazed, and staggered into the supervisor’s office where he shut the door behind him. He sat in a rolling chair and leaned back thinking about Al. Was he being asked to give up his soul? What could it mean? And even though he had done nothing wrong, Joe felt a pang of guilt.
After the last of the employees packed up and left and Joe had finally managed to square away the week’s work, he ambled to the parking lot. He started the car and sat inside for a bit letting the air conditioner begin to work. Looking to the glove box, he considered the check inside and then thought about going to Hardee’s. What could it hurt? He could always deposit the check on Monday. He was tired. Maybe he needed to rest, because his encounter with Al had to be some kind of crazy dream, a trick his mind was playing. When he thought back on it later, he realized he never even remembered driving home, but he made it and stumbled inside and into his recliner. He had begun to doze when he heard the sound.
Al had cleared his throat.