Disclaimers: See Part 1
A Special Note to Our Readers: Hoosier Daddy is a work in progress. You will likely notice a few inconsistencies here and there as you make your way through the online version of the story. We have made some tweaks and subtle adjustments to the plot, most specifically to timelines. For this, we ask your indulgence, and promise that in the final, published version of the book, everything will make sense. If not, we reserve the right to blame our editor.
Disclaimers: None. All of the characters are ours.
Violence/Sex: No violence, but some quirky sexual encounters and lots of big trucks. This story does involve a consensual, loving and romantic relationship between two adult women. It's not graphic, but if sexual encounters in bathrooms or behind lemon shake-up stands offend you, you may want to consider another story selection -- or at least one that isn't set in Indiana.
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Copyright: Ann McMan and Salem West, April 2013. All rights reserved. This story, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any format without the prior express permission of the authors.
It rained all night. I was sure of it because I spent most of the night sitting up watching it come down. Fritz finally got tired of watching me watch the rain, and wandered off to his bed. I kept thinking El would call, but she didn't. I kept thinking I might call her, but I didn't. It was plain that we were at what Grammy called sixes and sevens.
I still wasn't sure what that expression meant. But I remembered a line about it from Shakespeare. Was it Richard III?
“But time will not permit: all is uneven, And every thing is left at six and seven.”
Yeah. Well if memory served, things didn't pan out so well for him, either….
I was fidgeting. “Antsy.” My mind was skating.
Six and seven. Stuck in the middle of…what?
Maybe it was just a bad throw in dice?
Or Baggo Cornhole?
Shit. Thinking about that sure wasn't helping.
This was ridiculous. Pathetic. As bad as I felt, I wasn't the one who'd lost a family member. Wanda Miles was dead. Dead because of circumstances that should have been one hundred percent preventable. I knew the Krylon métier well enough to guess that they would blame it all on a preexisting heart condition. It wouldn't matter to them that Wanda sat on a straight chair in a front office for more than three hours, feeling nauseated, dizzy, and short of breath. It wouldn't matter to them that no one called the EMTs until she finally passed out. It wouldn't matter to them that they knowingly put a moron with no sense or training in charge of an entire functional area of the plant. And it wouldn't matter to them that the shift supervisor—a man with training and better sense—knew what was happening and still did nothing to intervene.
The only thing that would matter to the Krylons was how they could manipulate the OSHA investigation, and prevent the union from making hay out of Wanda's misfortune.
In my opinion, it was too late for that one…. As Buzz would say, that bus had sailed.
Idiots. They were all idiots. Soulless idiots.
Wanda was dead.
I didn't know her, but I knew who she was. Wanda was forty-five years old. She'd worked at Krylon for about ten years. She was short, and always wore pink. She had a pronounced dimple in one cheek that always made her look like she was smiling. She played the piano at the Moravian church. She had three kids.
I could imagine how this news was spreading through the company rank and file like wild fire.
“It's probably better if you don't,” El said, when I asked her if I could call.
I tried a thousand different ways to take the sting out of that simple phrase—but none of them worked. Even though I knew in my viscera what she really meant and, against my will, I understood all the reasons why her declaration made sense.
Everything had changed. Everything.
Wanda was dead.
And El was no longer an agitator. She was an organizer . Now, there was something to organize around.
A game changer.
Out of the same mouth proceed blessing and curse. Isn't that what the bible said?
It was perverse to think that I wasn't feeling morose and preoccupied because El would be leaving. I was feeling morose and preoccupied because El would be staying —but she'd be staying in a way that meant there no longer was an “us.”
That's what she said to me. There is no us .
My cell phone vibrated again. Then the house phone rang. I ignored them both. I knew it was T-Bomb. She'd been trying to reach me off and on all night—probably ever since she found out about Wanda.
I'd left Albion right after El told me about what had happened at the plant. I didn't really have the emotional stamina to stay around and face the fallout from the news. I knew it was probably pretty shabby for me just to disappear like I did. But since everyone was off celebrating with the Keortges, I thought I could make my exit quietly, without the fuss I knew would ensue once the others heard about Wanda.
It was impossible to imagine what it would be like at the plant tomorrow. Frankly, I didn't care if I ever set foot in that place again.
I thought for the thousandth time about the letter from Don K. I knew now what my answer was going to be. Don K. could blow his thirty pieces of silver right out his tastefully clad ass. I had no idea what I'd do next—I didn't really care. I knew my parents would let me work at the Fast Mart until I figured something else out. And I had enough savings to be okay for a while.
Maybe I'd move to St. Louis and try to get back on at Boeing, or head to Louisville to finish my MBA? I could rent my house for a year…it wouldn't be hard. Grammy would keep Fritz.
He had reappeared shortly after sunrise, wanting a pee break and breakfast. Now he sat at my feet, with his chin resting on my leg. I reached down and scratched the top of his head.
Maybe I wouldn't leave him behind? He was my best friend…the only real constant in my life, besides Grammy.
My cell phone vibrated again. I stared at it.
And T-Bomb. I still had T-Bomb.
Fitz jerked his head up and looked toward the kitchen. Then he took off barking. I heard the porch door open and close. Then the barking stopped.
“Hey? Friday?” an angry voice called out. “Where the hell are you?”
I sighed. It was inevitable that she would show up. And it was my own damn fault that I never locked the back door.
“I'm up here, in the living room.”
T-Bomb barreled into the room like the thunderstorms that still were raging outside.
“What the hell is the matter with you? I been callin' you all night.”
“I know. I'm sorry…I needed some space.”
She took off her rain jacket and hung it on a hook by the front door. “ Space? What the hell does that mean? Everybody's in a swivet about Wanda Miles.”
“You know? How'd you find out?”
“El told me before she left.”
“Left?” She glared at me. “Where'd she go?”
I shrugged. “I have no idea. Off with Tony.”
“She left with that other agitator?”
She sat down on a chair that faced where I lay sprawled across the sofa. “Is that why you took off without telling anybody?”
I nodded again.
“You two have a fight?”
I was tempted to tell her to mind her own damn business, but I knew that would be a lost cause.
“Why would you ask me that?” I said, instead.
“Because you look like damned death warmed over, that's why.”
I didn't reply.
“You been up all night?”
I sighed and nodded again.
She sat there for a few moments without saying anything. Then she got to her feet.
“Where are you going?” I asked. I realized that I didn't really want to be alone any more.
“I'm gonna go make us some coffee.” She headed for the kitchen. “It won't do us any good to both sit here like zombies.”
I decided to get up and follow her.
She was right, after all. Wallowing in my own self-pity could wait. I had all the time in the world to indulge myself with that. Today, we needed to talk about Wanda—and what the fallout at work was likely to mean for all us all.
T-Bomb was filling the coffee pot with water. I got a bag of beans out of the pantry, and pulled out the grinder.
“Why don't you just buy damn Folger's like everybody else?”
“I hate that kind of coffee. It tastes like hot water.” I dumped a hefty mound of beans into the grinder.
“Well, I'd rather drink hot water than that sludge you make.”
I sighed, and scooped some of the beans back out, and returned them to the bag.
“You're a wuss,” I said.
“I'm a wuss?” She huffed. “People who live in glass houses shouldn't throw beer cans.”
“What's that supposed to mean?”
She poured the water into the coffeemaker. “It means that every time you get your heart broke, you crawl off into a hole and hide from everybody.”
I chose to let the earsplitting noise of the burr grinder be my response. Besides, I couldn't argue with her about the broken heart. The truth was, I'd never felt this hurt or despondent. And I knew it was going to linger for a good long time. Probably forever.
I dumped the ground coffee into the filter and handed it to T-Bomb.
“How did people find out about Wanda?” I asked her.
“Joe Sykes got a call during Jailissa's victory lap. That pretty much brought everything to a halt. It was starting to rain by then, anyway, so we all packed up and left.”
“Has anybody been to see the family yet?”
She nodded. “It's pretty terrible. Them kids is all to pieces. You know, their daddy lives up in Terre Haute with his new wife?” She shook her head. “I sure hope she's ready to take on an instant family.”
“God. I just can't believe this happened.”
“I know.” T-Bomb leaned against the counter while we waited on the coffee. “But as hot as it was yesterday, it's amazing that they didn't cart more than just one person outta that sweat shop.”
I stared at her. “You know what this probably means, right?”
“Hell, I can think of all kinds of things it probably means. Which one did you have in mind?”
“Yeah. The parking lot at Hoosier Daddy was overflowin' with cars last night when we rode past it on the way home. I never seen it like that. People were parking along the road and over in the NAPA lot.”
“You think El and Tony were there?”
“Of course they were there. It's where they do business. I bet they filled up the rest of them union cards last night. People are hoppin' mad at them Krylons. I even heard some mumbling about a sickout tomorrow—but you know nobody'll do that. People care too much about their paychecks to let being pissed off get in the way.”
That was true. “What about a slowdown?”
T-Bomb raised an eyebrow.
“What?” I asked.
“Are you sure you know which side of this nightmare you're on?”
I was offended by that inference. “I'm on our side.”
“Our side?” She scoffed. “Do you even know what that means?”
“Hey, look,” I was losing my patience. “I'm not the enemy here.”
“That's my point, Friday. There ain't no enemies here—except maybe them Krylons and the dern knuckle-draggers they put in charge.”
“Well I'm not on their side.”
“So are you gonna sign one of them authorization cards?”
I shook my head.
“Because if I do, everyone will think it's because of El.”
She gave a bitter sounding laugh. “Hell, that don't make you unique. Half the men in that plant would sign-up if it meant they could get close enough to her to cop a feel. Most of ‘em ain't smart enough to figure out that she don't play for their team.”
The coffeepot beeped. We filled our mugs and headed back to the living room. Fritz trotted along behind us.
T-Bomb reclaimed her seat on the chair. I walked over to the desk and retrieved the offer from Don K.
“I want to show you something.”
She took the envelope from me. “What is it?”
“Don K. called me in for a little chat last Thursday.” I nodded toward the letter. “I think that's what you call a bribe.”
T-Bomb looked confused. She pulled out the sheets of paper and looked them over. I saw her eyes grow wide as she read. When she finished, she dropped the pages to her lap and glared at me.
“Are you gonna do this?”
I shook my head.
“Why not? Are you crazy?”
“Oh, come on, Bomber. How could I work for them after what happened to Wanda?”
“Don't be stupid.” She held up the sheets of paper and shook them at me like a rattle. “A job like this one would allow you to fix some of the things that killed Wanda.”
“I'm not going to be a puppet for the Krylons.”
“The Krylons ain't gonna be runnin' things there in another month. They'll all be off on a beach someplace, countin' their money.”
I was stunned by her reaction to the offer from Don K.
“You seriously think I should do this?”
“Because I'd be letting them buy me off. And because I'd have to promise not to have anything more to do with El.”
She huffed. “I think that part already took care of itself, don't you?”
“Besides,” she continued. “Once this dern vote thing is over with, it won't matter who you're carryin' on with. The UAW will move on to the next place, and you and El DeBarge can pretty much do whatever you want.”
I didn't reply.
“Look, Friday.” She leaned forward on her chair. “When this buyout first got announced, we all celebrated—and not just because it meant we'd all keep our jobs. Weren't you the one that told us that them Japanese companies had better benefits and better workplace conditions than a lot of the plants that had unions?”
“So why wouldn't you want to be a part of that?” She glanced down at the papers again. “And get a damn big raise in the process?”
I was amazed that her reaction to Don K.'s offer was nearly identical to El's.
“I just can't do it. Not anymore. Not after Wanda. It'd be like taking blood money.”
“So you're gonna just run away and let assholes like Buzz Sheets keep raisin' up a whole new crop of Wandas? Is that it?”
“No, that's not it.” I was getting angry, and I was tired of trying to disguise it. “I have no fucking life here.” I waved a hand in frustration. “It's like living in a goddamn fishbowl—and I've had enough of it. I finally meet the right person, and she ends up being the wrong person…all over again. I'm sick of this twisted pattern of hope and disappointment, where I'm only as good as my last fucking failure. I want out. Enough is enough.”
My tirade hung in the air between us like a passing storm cloud. T-Bomb didn't say anything. She folded the letter and slid it back into its envelope. Then she took a sip of her coffee.
I sat watching her while I waited for my heart rate to settle down.
I took a deep breath.
“Don't you have anything to say?” I asked her.
“Yeah,” she said. “You need to suck it up, cupcake.”
“ I need to suck it up?” I pointed a finger at my chest.
“Yeah. You.” She slammed her mug down on the table beside her chair. “You think you have it so rough? You got no clue how hard life really is for me and the other five thousand rednecks that are chained to those damn assembly lines. We ain't got no options—and we ain't sittin' on any offers for a better tomorrow. That truck plant in that damn rusted-out town is all there is for us. We can't give Don K. the finger and walk off to some greener pasture just because we're offended by his…methods. There ain't any greener pastures for us. The only choice we ever have is to just keep takin' whatever him and his candyass flunkies keep shovelin' at us until the Japanese take over—and hope we're lucky enough not to end up like Wanda before they get a chance to make things right.” She huffed, and dropped back against her chair. “So you just keep right on sittin' here, weepin' and wailin' all you want about how none of your precious ‘relationships' ever work out—and blame whoever you want. Cause you and I both know that the only thing they all have in common is you.”
There was a reason that T-Bomb was my best friend. As painful as her words were, the truth they conveyed was impossible to deny. She knew it—and she knew that I knew it, too.
I didn't want to cry, but I was having a hard time avoiding it. I wiped at my eyes.
“I'm a mess.”
“You ain't a mess,” she said. Her voice had come down out of the rafters. “You're just scared. Hell. Everybody who pays attention is scared. But it's time for you to stop being a prisoner of your fears. If you don't, you'll just end up in the same dang place, no matter where you go to hide.”
I nodded. “I know.”
“So. Are you gonna talk with El DeBarge?”
I shook my head. “Not anytime soon.”
“Because she's got a job to do—and she said that meant there was no more us.”
“Did she mean right now—or never?”
“You didn't ask her?”
“Of course not.”
“Don't be stupid. She's the best thing to happen to you in…hell…probably forever.”
“Do you really think that?” I felt like I was five years old, wondering if it was really safe for me to try to cross the street by myself.
“Would I tell you that if I didn't? Would Grammy…or Luanne? Or Ermaline? Hell. Even Joe Sykes seemed to like her.”
I actually smiled at that. “He did, didn't he?”
T-Bomb nodded. “Though I don't know if I'd take that as a good reason to keep seeing her. He ain't exactly got the best instincts, if you know what I mean.”
“Except for Jailissa.”
T-Bomb rolled her eyes. “That's just creepy, is what that is.”
“Luanne said she believed it was a pure love.”
“Yeah? Well, Luanne also believes them green olives that have the little red pimentos inside ‘em grow that way.” She slowly shook her head. “The human mind can be a terrifying thing.”
“You'll get no argument from me on that one.”
“You know what I think?” she asked.
“No. But I'm sure you're going to tell me.”
“Smart ass. I should just let you die wonderin'.”
“But you won't.”
“You're right.” She sighed. “I think you need to just cool your jets and see how this all plays out. You don't know enough now to make any big decisions—about the job, or about where this thing with El DeBarge goes or doesn't go once this union mess is over with.”
“I'm tired of waiting around for things just to happen.”
“Then do something about it.”
I was confused. “Didn't you just tell me to wait and see how things play out?”
“I meant that you shouldn't run away. There ain't a thing wrong with fighting for what you want.”
“But I'm not sure I know what that is.”
“I think you know exactly what that is—it's just easier to pretend you don't. Then it ain't your fault if it don't work out.”
I stared at her. “You should be a shrink, you know that?”
She smirked. “Hell. Maybe I was wrong about them greener pastures.” She extended her hand, palm up. “That'll be eighty-five dollars.”
Nothing was settled or changed for me. I still had no idea what I would do tomorrow when I walked into work. I still thought that any shot I'd had at a future with El had flown right out the window on a stack of union authorization cards. And Wanda Miles was still dead.
But somehow, for just a moment, I felt better.
I guess the bible was right. Knowing the truth really does make you free.
When I got to work at a quarter to seven on Monday morning, I noticed a ragtag group of people milling around just outside the gates that led to the Krylon parking lot. They were leaning into car windows and chatting up anyone who stopped on their way into the lot. I had a sneaking suspicion that I knew what they were up to, but I was wrong. Instead of being handed a union card when I pulled forward and stopped, a man I didn't know gave me a small, postcard-sized photo of Wanda Miles. Pinned to the back of it was a pink heart cut out of felt. The message on the card read, “Wear this today to honor Wanda—one of our own.”
I swallowed hard, thanked him, and drove on.
I had my answer ready for Don K. I'd stayed up half the night crafting it and re-crafting it. After working through a dozen drafts that were as varied in tone and complexity as The Gettysburg Address and Hirohito's surrender to the allies, I decided upon a single sentence.
I was quitting.
It wasn't that I didn't consider all the things T-Bomb—and El—had pointed out about what might change and improve once the Krylons were gone. I thought about all of that. Even though it strained credibility, I tried hard to believe that it might be possible to implement a better, safer, and more worker-centered operational model in a manufacturing facility that was firmly planted in the middle of a “right-to-work” state.
I wanted to believe it—but I didn't. Deep down, I knew it was a lost cause. Just like my odds at having any kind of a future with El. I was giving up on that fantasy, too.
It was time for me to move on. After I delivered my response and worked out my notice, I was going to collect what was left of my savings and my self-esteem, and I was going to find temporary housing in Louisville, so I could finish my MBA as quickly as possible. Then? I wasn't sure about what I'd do after that. But I was pretty certain that whatever it was, it wouldn't involve staying on in Princeton.
Not in this factory, anyway. I was sure that I had value to add someplace—but it wasn't going to be here…not at a place where aspirations to be the best we could be were sacrificed on the altar of the least we could get away with. I was tired of living my life like a lemming—with no better sense or prospects for a brighter tomorrow. Enough was enough.
I was getting out, and that's all there was to it.
As soon as I stepped inside the door, I realized that something was different. For one thing, it was quieter. There was still a mild cacophony of machine noise, but it was nowhere near as deafening as usual. And there were sizeable groups of people standing around in random locations.
I walked over to the time clock to punch in, and noticed something attached to my card.
You gotta be kidding me…not again?
I pulled my card out of its slot and read the folded paper clipped to it.
ATTENTION ALL LINE SUPERVISORS AND PROCESS MANAGERS
Please be present in the company cafeteria at 7:15 a.m. for a mandatory meeting with
Mr. Tam Shigeta, Director of Operations, Ogata Torakku USA.
He will share important information about the future of this manufacturing facility.
Your prompt attention is appreciated.
Oh shit. This couldn't be good news.
I looked around. Judging by the expressions I was seeing on most of the faces around me, everybody else shared the same opinion.
What the hell had happened? And when did Tam Shigeta get here?
This had to be about Wanda.
Along with their somber expressions, most people inside the plant seemed to be wearing the pink, felt hearts that had been passed out in the parking lot. It was like a curious double entendre: a memorial for Wanda, and a talisman for whatever was about to befall us all.
I didn't see Buzz or Joe—but I did see Luanne. I walked over to where she stood, holding up a section of wall near the canteen entrance. I thought she looked a little pale. No doubt Wanda's death, and whatever was happening here this morning, had taken some of the shine off Jailissa's victory on Saturday.
I held up the notice. “Do you know anything more about this?” I asked her.
She shook her head. “Only that a crew of big dogs from Tokyo came roarin' in here like samurai warriors yesterday.” She lowered her voice. “I heard that Buzz Sheets got canned…and Earl Junior.”
I was surprised. “Really?”
She nodded. “I took a casserole by the house last night, and Wynona told me that this Shigeta fella personally walked Don K. out to his car.”
“Don K. is gone?” I was incredulous.
Luanne scoffed. “Him and his golden damn parachute. Good riddance, if you ask me.”
I didn't know what to say. Don K. was gone? Buzz and Earl Junior, too? And now this mandatory meeting about the “future” of our plant?
And why was it so damn quiet in here?
“Are they shutting us down?” I asked Luanne.
“You tell me,” she said. She clucked her tongue. “It don't look good—half the lines ain't runnin.' They started a phased work stop last shift.”
A work stop at seven-thousand-dollars a minute was a big deal. A very big deal.
“Where's Joe?” I asked her.
She made an oblique gesture. “He came stormin' back here after he heard about what happened to Wanda. Him and Don K. had words—and Don K. fired him.” She slowly shook her head. “Jailissa is all to pieces about it…we ain't heard nothin' from Joe since last night.”
“Good god. Don K. fired Joe?”
She nodded. “Joe never wanted Earl Junior to get that warehouse job—but nobody in the front office would listen to him. You know, he's worked with them Miles girls for nearly fifteen years.”
Maybe I wouldn't have to worry about handing in my letter of resignation? Maybe there wouldn't be anyone left to receive it?
I glanced at my watch. It was seven-ten. “I guess we need to get in there and find out what's happening.”
Luanne sighed. “I wish I had time for a smoke.”
I didn't tell her that I had a feeling she'd soon have all the time she wanted.
We followed a somber and morose-looking group of men and women toward the meeting location. As our group narrowed to file through the doors that led into the cafeteria, it occurred to me that we probably looked like sheep, being led to the slaughter. Once inside, I saw three people wearing khakis and dark blue Ogata polo shirts standing together on a low riser near the steam tables. Tam Shigeta was easy to pick out. He was tall and handsome, and looked exactly like every photo of him I'd ever seen in Bloomberg Business Week . I had no idea who the other two were. They were not Japanese. Something about the woman reminded me of El…she looked small, but powerful. They all appeared calm and composed—which put them all miles ahead of us.
Once we had all found a place to sit or stand, Tam stepped forward to address us.
“Good morning, everyone,” he said in perfect, unaccented English. “My name is Tam Shigeta, and I am Director of Operations for Ogata Torakku, USA. I can appreciate that these circumstances seem unusual. But I hope we can clarify things in short order—and allay any fears that you or your direct reports might be experiencing due to current conditions in the plant. I'm going to read a short statement, and then we'll do our best to answer any questions you have. Copies of this,” he held up a document, “will be made available to each of you as you leave here this morning. Please share it with employees who work in your respective areas. Additionally, a new web site, ogataUSA.princeton.com , and a toll-free information line, will be up and running by this afternoon. For the near term, any notices or communications related to plant operations during this transitional period will be posted there.” He looked over the room. “Is everyone clear about that?” He waited for a majority of heads to nod. “Good. The web address and info line number are printed on the bottom of the statements we'll be handing out. Encourage all of your direct reports to use it. Now, I'd like to introduce you to two people who will be helping to lead the Ogata transition team. Janice Baker,” he turned and indicated the dark-haired woman standing beside him. “Janice is a fifteen-year veteran of the automotive manufacturing business. She has a Ph.D. in industrial engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology, and has been Ogata's Chief Operations Analyst for the past five years. Steven Haley,” Tam indicated the other man on the riser. “Steve heads up Ogata USA's Human Resource Development Division. He's been with us since 1997, when we opened our first North American plant in Marysville. You'll be seeing a lot of both of them.” He turned back to face us all. “Now I'd like to ask for your indulgence while I read this short, formal statement.”
He paused a moment before starting. The only sound in the cafeteria came from frozen cubes dropping into the storage bin of the ice machine in the corner.
“Prior to the formal acquisition of the Krylon Motors Princeton Plant and its ‘Outlaw' brand several weeks ago, Ogata Torakku performed careful due diligence of all processes, equipment, and human factors related to the sale. We soon became aware of a series of disturbances across numerous processes that were causing plant operations to deviate from accepted and safe operating states. We also discovered that a post-acquisition/pre-transition reallocation of crucial operations and maintenance funds had occurred. Ogata intended for those funds to immediately address crucial training, process improvement, and deferred maintenance issues that were deemed likely to endanger human life or result in catastrophic consequences. That did not occur.
“We are all part of the Ogata Torakku family. The foundation of our great company is “Success by Purpose.” As a corporation and as a family, Ogata Torakku is deeply saddened by the tragic loss of Ms. Wanda Miles, and we will honor her by ensuring that no other Ogata Torakku employee is ever placed in a dangerous or inappropriate workplace situation.
“As you will soon learn, the Krylon family and many members of their senior management team are no longer associated, in any capacity, with this transition process, the Outlaw product line, or operations in the Princeton plant.
“Effective immediately, this entire facility will be put into safe state, and a team of internal and external evaluators will perform an assessment of the compliance status and associated vulnerabilities of all plant process, equipment, and personnel resources. They will work in tandem with the OSHA investigators, who we expect to arrive within the next few days. This team will also consider root causes, and determine immediate, near-term, and long-term response actions. The first stage of this assessment is beginning as we speak, and it will address the most critical concerns for worker and workplace safety. We anticipate, based on our initial evaluation, that we will be able to return the plant to full operation in several days.
“Until we have restored safety to the plant floor here in Princeton, Yutaka Ikeda, our esteemed CEO, has personally granted that all employees not essential for basic plant operations, or those participating in our assessment, will be placed on paid leave, effective immediately.
“Unless you are contacted by Steven Haley, Ogata's Director of Human Resource Development, you are free to leave, and should plan on returning to your workstations within the next few days. Please check the web site or the toll free information line referenced at the bottom of this memo for updates about the resumption of normal operations. Thank you.”
He lowered the paper and looked out over the room. “Does anyone have any questions?”
At the front of the room, Big Otis Fishel, a manager in the transportation unit, took off his Outlaw ball cap, and scratched his head.
“So, you're really gonna pay us to sit home for a few days?”
Tam Shigeta nodded. “Yes, sir. We will.”
Big Otis still seemed dubious.
“And, we'll still have a job when we come back?”
“Yes, you will.”
“And benefits, too?” Big Otis asked. His question was like an accusation.
“Yes, sir,” Tam replied. “We will be transitioning each of you to the Ogata Torakku benefits plan during the next few weeks. You will have no loss of coverage. Once it's implemented, we think you'll like the new package, and the lower premium costs, much better.”
Big Otis looked around at the rest of us. “That's all I got.”
Tam smiled at him and addressed the room. “Any other questions?”
There were no takers. After a few nervous glances at each other, we all looked back at Tam, or stared at the floor.
A few more seconds ticked by. More ice cubes dropped into the stainless steel bin.
“Okay,” Tam nodded at us. “Please, enjoy this unplanned time off. We look forward to seeing you all in a few days. Remember to check the web site or the toll-free info line for updates about your schedules. Janice will meet you at the doors to hand out copies of the memo for you to share with your teams. Thank you.”
We all waited while Janice Baker made her way to the back of the room.
I looked at Luanne. “I guess we need to go and get this done.”
Her face was a study of mixed emotions.
“I don't care what time it is,” she said. “I'm gonna need a drink after this.”
From the riser, Steve Haley raised a hand. “Is Jill Fryman here?” he called out.
Luanne and I exchanged nervous glances.
“Here,” I answered.
When he saw me, he gestured toward the riser where he stood with Tam.
“Would you mind staying behind for a few minutes? We'd like to speak with you.”
Great. With my luck, I'd get fired before I had a chance to resign.
I nodded at him.
“Janice will talk with your team,” he said.
I gave Luanne a forlorn look and she squeezed my arm.
I took a deep breath and made my way toward the front of the room.
“Please sit down, Jill.”
Tam Shigeta indicated one of the plastic chairs that stood next to a round, Formica-topped lunch table. He and Steve Haley waited for me to be seated before they followed suit.
The cafeteria had emptied out. As anxious as I was feeling, it was hard not to wonder about the conversations that were all going on out in the plant.
When Steve Haley took his seat, he set a small stack of the leftover prepared statements on the table. A manila folder sat on top of them. FRYMAN, JILLIAN A. was neatly typed on a tiny label stuck to its tab.
He didn't open the folder, or pass it to Tam. I guessed they both were already familiar with its contents. I just wished I shared their understanding of what it contained. Knowing Don K., it probably made for interesting reading.
Tam saw me looking at the folder.
“I'm sure this feels awkward to you, Jill. But I want to assure you that this conversation doesn't portend anything ominous.”
I raised an eyebrow at that.
Tam smiled. “Okay…nothing any more ominous than the announcements we've already made.”
I nodded. “That's a relief.” I looked over at Steve Haley. “I think.”
“What do you know about Tiger Teams?” Tam asked.
“A little,” I said. When he didn't reply, I realized that he was waiting to hear my definition. I cleared my throat. “Well, it's a catch phrase used to describe a group of people who are tasked to conduct oversight assessments of operations and processes. They identify vulnerabilities and recommend corrective actions. I think they're more common to IT and aerospace industries than they are to auto manufacturing.”
Tam and Steve looked at each other.
My nervousness inched back up a few notches.
“That's true,” Tam said. “But we're about to change that dynamic.”
I didn't reply.
“I was surprised to learn that you did your undergraduate Co-Op training at Boeing in St. Louis,” Tam continued. “What kind of work did you do there?”
I was pretty sure he already knew the answer, but I told him anyway.
“The program emphasis was on process improvement—Six Sigma and lean manufacturing. Most everything related to that.”
“You went through the industrial technology program at Southern Illinois?” he asked.
“And now you're working on your MBA at Louisville?”
I nodded again.
“How is that progressing?” he asked.
Steve Haley chuckled. “I got my MBA at Howard while working full time, too. It's brutal.”
I agreed with him. “That's why I chose Louisville. It's a quicker and easier drive than IU in Bloomington.”
“How much more work do you have to do to finish?” he asked.
“Two terms— or four classes.” I shrugged. “Two electives and two Capstone projects.”
Steve gave me a sympathetic nod and smiled. I guessed he was about my age, or maybe a few years older. He had a kind face and an easy demeanor—I surmised that he was pretty good at his job.
“Are you at all familiar with kaizen?” Tam asked.
“I've heard of it. Isn't it a Japanese term for improvement?”
He nodded. “We call it ‘change for the best.' Know anything about how it relates to business practices?”
“Only what I read about it on the Ogata web site after the buyout was announced.”
Tam laughed. “You do your homework.”
“I never realized there'd be a quiz,” I said, in an undertone.
“I'm sorry, Jill.” Tam said it like he meant it. “That's not what this is.”
I took a deep breath. “Okay. What is it?”
Steve Haley spoke up. “When we received word about the circumstances surrounding the death of Wanda Miles, we realized that we needed to expedite the transition process. We're assembling a Tiger Team to address the hazards, risks, and vulnerabilities that must be corrected immediately before we return workers to the production lines.”
Tam nodded in agreement. “After that phase is completed, they'll stay on to help us address near-term fixes and, ultimately, long-term fixes.”
The door to the plant opened. Janice Baker poked her head inside.
“I'm sorry to interrupt,” she said. “But could you join me for a few minutes, Steve?”
He nodded and pushed back his chair. “Sorry for the disruption.” He looked at me. “I'm sure I'll see you later, Jill.”
I noticed that he took the pile of memos, but left my personnel folder behind.
I began to wonder if Janice's interruption had been planned? Now I was alone in the empty cafeteria with Tam Shigeta, an icon among Fortune 500 companies.
He, however, seemed perfectly at ease.
I think he sensed my discomfort.
“I'm sure you're wondering why we asked to speak with you,” he said.
“To be truthful,” I replied, “I really have no idea.”
He laid his hand on top of the file folder. “I'm not going to pretend that we're unfamiliar with your tenure here. And it's apparent to us that you've been grossly underemployed at Krylon. Your education and background experience are exemplary. You're a Six Sigma black belt with Lean Silver Certification—yet you're still punching a time clock. Why?”
I sighed. “Frankly, I've been asking myself that same question.”
“Until recently, I'd have had a good answer for you. Now?” I shook my head. “Now, I just don't know why.”
“I'm aware of the…offer…Don Krylon extended to you before his departure.”
I didn't say anything.
“I'm also aware that you haven't made any response as yet.”
I was prepared to tell him that I came into work today, intending to do just that. Instead, I decided to indulge my curiosity. “Did he explain why he made the offer?” I asked.
Tam nodded. “He characterized it in slightly more sanitized terms than I would have used.”
“I don't find extortion to be an effective, or acceptable, form of negotiation.”
“That's good to know.”
“You'll find that our methods have very little in common with the Krylon business model.”
“So, I guess that means you'd like to rescind the offer?”
Tam leaned forward. “On the contrary. We'd like to amplify and expand it—for an entirely different set of reasons.”
I was surprised. “You're not interested in enlisting me as an internal ally to thwart the UAW's attempts to organize the plant?”
He smiled. “No.”
“So you're not worried about that?”
“I don't find it productive to worry about things I can't control. The tragic death of Wanda Miles has made the likelihood of a union vote a near certainty. I'd be surprised if Mr. Gemelli and Dr. Rzcpczinska didn't already have the requisite number of signatures they need to file with the National Labor Relations Board.”
I was surprised that he mentioned Tony and El by name. I wondered what else he knew about them.
“What if they do have the signatures?”
“If they do, then we enter the customary 30-day campaign period that precedes a vote. Hopefully, that would give us enough time to show the employees of this plant that our standard business practices and compensation models are competitive with, and sometimes superior to, what they could expect to achieve under union auspices.”
“You wouldn't close the plant?” I asked.
“Is that what Don Krylon told you?”
He took a slow, deep breath and stared up at the ceiling. It was clear that he was making an effort to remain composed.
I studied him. He was a good-looking man—probably in his mid-forties. He seemed unusually tall for a Japanese man—but then, I had to admit that I hadn't known many Japanese men. He had a beautiful head of thick, black hair that looked like it had just been cut. There was a thin, white scar, about a half-inch long, above the corner of his upper lip. It was odd how that one thing changed his appearance. It made him look approachable…almost ordinary. Not at all like what you'd expect from last year's Automotive Executive of the Year. I noticed his hands. They were smooth and unmarked. He had long fingers. I wondered if he played the piano. It looked like he could reach an octave with no problem. He wore a gold class ring…I didn't recognize the seal, but I was pretty sure it from one of the Ivies.
Tam lowered his chin and looked back at me.
“I take it that was a misrepresentation?” I asked.
“You might say that.” He shook his head. “Although I won't deny that Ogata would prefer to commence its Princeton operation without that particular variable at play, we certainly would not abandon our plans to transform this campus into the flagship of our North American manufacturing centers.”
“So, you'd still bring the Mastodon to Princeton—even if the plant organizes?”
“I didn't say that,” he clarified. “We're looking at several options for diversifying product lines here. And that was the case even before the UAW became a player in the transition. But we would never consider closing this facility. The Outlaw brand is a tremendous asset—and it's just beginning to hit its stride as a mainstay of the international automotive market. We think Ogata Princeton has a bright future. And we'd like you to be a part of that.”
There wasn't any ready response I could make to that. In fact, my head was reeling from these revelations. Don K. had done his level best to intimidate me, and countless others, by wrongly asserting that a pro-union vote would drive Ogata away from Princeton—thereby putting all of our jobs in jeopardy, and destabilizing the economic health of the region.
In fact, the only economic health he cared about protecting was the one tied to his own net worth.
I dropped my gaze and stared at the letters of my name, printed on the index tab of the manila folder. They were a tidy combination of straight lines and curved lines. Symbols that, when taken together, identified me, summarized me—differentiated me from everyone else.
I was FRYMAN, JILLIAN A.
I was also Jill.
And now I was some hybrid named “Friday Jill,” too.
But most of all, I was me.
And somehow, I'd allowed the Don K.'s in my life to lead me to lose sight of that. And just when I'd decided that “me” was lost for good, there I was—neatly typed up and slotted into place exactly where I was supposed to be. Right here, in the middle of this god-forsaken assembly plant, located in one of the most conservative, right to work states in the nation.
Oh. And there was one other tiny detail, too. I knew that I was more than ninety-nine percent in love with a labor organizer. That unique characteristic now defined me as neatly as the pattern of straight and curved lines that combined to spell the letters of my name.
I felt a strange sensation, sitting there on that hard plastic chair in the quiet of the company cafeteria. It was palpable—like a tingling that started from someplace deep inside me, and spread outward along my arms and legs. All the positive and negative atoms that had swirled around me for weeks finally came together in one, explosive charge.
To say that I knew who I was would be inaccurate. I'd always known that. But the curious, mini-epiphany I was experiencing was reminding me of things I thought I'd lost touch with—like why I stayed at Krylon in a dead end job. And why, against all reason, I clung to the life I lived in this big, sprawling, backward space that seemed so small.
I didn't have fewer choices. I had the same number of choices I'd always had.
And I was beginning to understand what I needed to do.
Tam was watching me. Probably in the same way I had been watching him a few moments ago.
“You were going to quit, weren't you?” he asked. His voice was quiet, almost like he was afraid someone would overhear this part of our conversation—even though we were the only two people in the cavernous space.
I looked back at him without saying anything. I didn't really have to. I nodded—but it was so slight a gesture that it would have been easy to miss if he hadn't been paying attention.
He saw it.
He pushed my folder away and sat back against his chair.
“I grew up in a small town, too—Rikuzentakata, in the Iwate region. My father was an oyster farmer, like his father before him. I never had any aspirations to leave, or to have a different kind of life than the one that had defined my family for generations. I certainly never imagined that I'd end up manufacturing monster trucks, halfway around the globe.”
“But here you are,” I said.
He nodded. “Here I am. And my journey wasn't that dissimilar from yours.”
I found that hard to believe. “How so?”
“Education. My parents were simple people, but they embraced the country's cultural belief in the value of post-secondary study. I was enrolled in a vocational program with Kanto—part of the Toyota Group. From there, it was an easy transition to our local public university—the only affordable option for my family. Ironically, it was because of my years working the assembly line at Kanto that I landed the scholarship to attend TTI at the University of Chicago. The rest….” He waved a hand. “The rest is the rest.”
“How does your family feel about your success?”
He looked down at the table. “Rikuzentakata was wiped off the map by the tsunami that followed the Great East Japan Earthquake. When the town seawall failed, the waters swept away everything in sight. The waves were more than forty-two feet high. None of my family survived.”
I felt sick and horrified. I didn't know what to say. I'd never read about this in any of Tam's official, company biographies.
“I'm so sorry,” I began. I knew it sounded inadequate, but I couldn't find better words.
“It takes time,” he said. “But you learn to live with it. I only shared this with you so you'd know that I understand part of your… dichotomy .”
He nodded. “What it's like to be part, but not part, of the place that made you. Only in my case, I never got to choose to leave it behind. It left me. So in a real way, my job—my mission—is to help make this place be the best it can be for all the people who do choose to make their lives here. Does that make sense?”
Kaizen. Change for the better.
Yes. It made sense. But there was something else we needed to discuss. I wanted everything on the table. Tam had been honest with me, and I felt I owed him the same courtesy.
“I feel confident that Mr. Krylon informed you about my personal relationship with one of the UAW organizers,” I said.
“Are there aspects of this that cause you concern?”
“Not really,” he replied. “You're a professional, and I have every reason to expect that you would conduct yourself accordingly. Besides,” he smiled at me. “I've known El for years, and I know she'd never behave unethically.”
Tam Shigeta knew El?
I'm sure I must've looked like a deer in the headlights. He took pity on me.
“We were classmates for a semester at the ILR School in New York,” he explained. “She's a pro…they don't come much sharper. Or tougher.” He folded his arms. “Any other concerns?”
I shook my head.
“Good. When Steve comes back, he's going to talk with you about becoming one of the plant reps on our assessment team. At the end of that process, we'd like to move you into a role that more appropriately fits with your specialized skill sets.”
“Okay….” I wasn't sure exactly what that meant.
“We're going to be creating a new operational excellence unit at this campus, and we'll need to staff it with analysts, managers, and a director. I see you as a key player in that process, particularly related to the application of Six Sigma and lean manufacturing principles. You have real value to add, Jill. And I want you to be a part of this process.”
Value to add. I was amazed that Tam used the same phrase I'd bounced around earlier, when I was certain that my tenure at Krylon was over.
But this wasn't Krylon. Not any more.
And I had a choice to make.
The door to the plant opened, and Steve Haley appeared.
“Are you ready for me?” he asked Tam.
Tam looked at me. “Are we?”
“Yes,” he said to Steve. “We're ready.”
To Be Continued…
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