He was not a special man, waking up in the morning every day to go to work, singing along to Willie Nelson in the car as he rolled through the grey and rising morning Ohio highways, because he found talk radio grating. Stopping to get a large black coffee in a styrofoam cup, blowing through the plastic lid to try and cool it down. His eyes felt heavy and dirty, full of sleep. 5am shift in the laundry room was quiet until everyone's coffee kicked in. There were 5 of them, and they all basically got along because that's what you do when you have to be at work that early. It took them 5 weeks to get accustomed to each other, and then someone would inevitably leave - move up to security or switch shifts or something, so that there was always a new person to have to teach and answer questions and walk that thin line between supportive and insufferably condescending because how many times can you explain the functions of a washer, even an industrial one?
The building they worked in was set across the parking lot from the main hospital building. Gwen said it was like they were importing and exporting laundry with another country - little trucks made deliveries to the dock door, and picked them up again, even though it was only half an acre away. She was constantly reading Anne Rice stories in between loads. They all sat around reading or listening to music in the pauses while the huge machines whirred and clunked and sssshhhed, creating a white noise din which isolated them in the building, fell like a blanket over the afternoon, wrapping them up the thick steamy air, and the food coma from lunch creeped up their central nervous systems. It was, in a way, extremely relaxing.
It was an afternoon like this that the accident happened. The big steam roller had been repetitively clunking and whirring for an hour when suddenly there was a screech, and the hard slow motion of the machine became frenetic and panicked. It reminded him for a flash of a moment of that moment you see in animals fucking, the sudden pitch forward in urgency. Another guy rushed forward to try and pull a lever, a plug, something. And in that moment, he saw something flash against the tight cotton sheets, he was sure of it. The guy, his name was Terry, slipped on a hanger on the floor and hit his head on the steel frame. He was okay, he didn't die, but it was a lot of blood, which meant a lot of paperwork, and Terry was gone for six weeks on workers comp.
It meant they were short handed during that time. No one new could be hired because Terry was coming back. It didn't really affect their workload, but it threw the balance of the group off. The 4 of them paired off, and he found himself talking to Gwen a lot more, about things like his girlfriend and her dogs and one day they were suddenly talking about Terry's accident, and he remembered the thing he had seen that seemed like something he maybe made up. Gwen didn't think so. She had a theory, but she said she couldn't tell him until she got some collaboration. Gwen had a lot of theories. Sometimes it is true that a person can read too much. Especially of the wrong sort of thing.
A few weeks later he was loading the giant dryers with Tom, and as he shut the massive door and bolted it shut, deep in the bowels of the chamber he saw another flash. More than one flash in fact, a quick burst of glints, like a piece of glass had been left in the laundry. To his left, Tom slammed his finger in the door, and it broke off immediately, not clean like a knife wound, but bruised and horrible and raw. There was screaming, and paramedics, and more paperwork. He told Gwen about it the next day, whispering so that the loan in from cleaning services who they had been forced to bring in now wouldn't overhear his craziness.
This time she was sure, she told him. "The machines are warning you," she said sincerely under her breath. He rolled his eyes. "They are trying to tell you something bad is going to happen, they are reaching out to you, which means they think you are the closest to them."
He thought about that, if one could be close to a machine. A computer maybe, he could see that. But huge industrial dinosaurs? It would be like a woolly mammoth trying to talk to a Rubix cube. At least that was the first thing that popped into his head. Who was the Rubix cube, he wasn't sure. He tried to think about the machines, sat there at the desk tuning out whatever nonsense Gwen was spouting now, and he focused on the Roller, sitting there impenetrable in the middle of the room. He listened for it's particular instrumental sound in the orchestra of the workday. He heard nothing.
That night he went home to his girlfriend, and they went out to a bar for dinner. She was talking excitedly about something that had happened to a friend of hers, and barely noticed that he was drinking his gin and tonics quickly. Later that night, after she fell asleep, he sat in the living room in the dark, beer in hand, and contemplated all the machinery he could see without getting up off the couch. The big tv. The computer. The air conditioner. The refrigerator singing off to the side, and the clock ticking on the wall, the light on the microwave flashing. He could hear all their individual hums, and if he shut his eyes and sipped the beer, each one seemed to be on a particular rhythm with his own heart pumping.
The next morning he stopped in the supervisors office, in the main hospital, and requested to be transferred to Security. The supervisor did not seem hopeful. "We're pretty short staffed in the laundry room right now," she said, "you know that." Walking back into work later that day, he looked around the room, at the mute humans going through their paces, amid a clockwork of moving pieces and turning barrels, and he desperately wanted to run away, his heart was gripped with a strange and sudden fear that he couldn't articulate, a feeling that he was not in control of this building, that in fact no one here had a choice, the hospital existed as a independent collective of consciousness that had nothing to do with human decision. We are not even worker ants, he thought, we are red blood cells. Pumping through the Hospital, carrying oxygen and nutrients and janitors.