Broken Highways (sample chapters)

Those who danced were thought insane by those who could not hear the music

Nietzsche

1.

I’ve fallen off the grid.

Forgotten highways and dirt road backstreets are my lifelines. Cow pastures, turkey barns, and asphalt parking lots in old, nearly abandoned towns are my homes. Removed from the white noise of the city, Earth’s heartbeat pulsates through the skin, recalibrating an emerging soul as I silently dance a dance of chaos to the rhythm of a dying sun.

From the doorway of a converted school bus parked behind a turkey barn I sit on a step and watch as the sun sinks into the earth. An explosion of colors race across a deepening blue sky, reflected back into the universe from my eyes. Scent of rain hangs heavy in the air as storm clouds retreat in the distance.

This place is empty, people are gone. I’m all that remains of a congregation that once gathered here for a weekend each month. Voices of ghosts echo inside the head. Closing eyes, a thousand faces stare back but the connection is gone. Energy has ebbed. Love has evaporated. Path fades in a diminishing light.

Welcome to my church. In the distance trees congregate to meditate. Flowers bow heads in prayer. Silhouetted against the horizon, mesas rise up to witness the ceremony. Stars emerge in the east, twinkling brightly with anticipation. Wind carries a sermon and I lean forward to listen. Eyes close, soothed by the words. Weightlessness consumes the body. Mind is set free to roam the countryside, soaring across land and water, across space and time to a place where the lines of reality are blurred, a place where boundaries and labels can’t exist, into another dimension where limitations are not known. I am but an illusion in the physical world, just another soul trapped inside a host.

Everything is a symbol.

I am a child of the Earth, born of the elements, grounded in the soil. My soul was born from a seed planted inside this host and took root in the consciousness of the universe. I am the darkness and the light, the rising and setting of the sun and everything in between. My soul has merged with the force that sparks life into everything. I feel all it feels as it fills all of me.

Opening eyes, sun is a tiny red orb sinking over the horizon. Lightning from a distant storm illuminates the sky and I pretend it’s a thought passing through God’s mind. Scent of rain remains but storms have passed without releasing a drop. Fields have dried up. Vegetation is scarce. Ground is hard, deeply scarred by cracks. Ponds, creeks, and rivers run dry. The path abruptly disappears into the charred remains of the land. There is nowhere further to go. This is the end.

Everything is a symbol.

My name is Jason Powell and I was shoved off the grid.

Every act of creation is first an act of destruction

Pablo Picasso

2.

Dallas, TX (Feb. 2003)

Maybe it was raining that morning, I don’t know, never paid much attention to such things. Rain, sleet, or snow, the weather was of little consequence in my life back then. A mechanical engineer, I dwelled inside my own head, spinning formulas, crunching raw data, never pausing to take in the surroundings. I lived inside a rabbit hole, never venturing outside to take a peek at what might be out there, never caring. I had my work, all-consuming as it was, and I had a beautiful wife to come home to. This was all I wanted, all I needed. This was my rabbit hole and I was happy. Life outside the hole was unimportant, didn’t affect me, never mattered. Maybe it was raining that morning, I don’t know, never used to notice such things.

I drove to work that day like I had for 3900 work days in a row. Vehicle of choice is a midsized two door Japanese sedan dressed up like a race car with a four cylinder engine under the hood. There’s less than 20,000 miles on the speedometer after four years. Economical and efficient, that’s me. I’m the quintessential middle class American worker. Take my picture and put it on a poster. I’m that guy, Mr. Average.

Pulling into the entrance of Intercon Semiconductor, a security guard waves me through the gate. Intercon is a manufacturing plant specializing in analog microchips for cell phones and other electronic devices. Pay is good, benefits great. This is my dream job, the high tech industry my religion. Finding a space close to the front door I park and stroll inside the building, never suspecting that today will be any different than the 3900 work days that preceded it.

Within minutes I’m alone in my cubicle on the second level, the engineering floor, reading email and responding to messages. A new email arrives with the familiar sound of a bell and I click on it. This email is from the home office in Santa Clara, CA, from our CEO, Randal Cabella.

Due to a down turn in the economy . . . lagging personal computer sales . . . the escalating costs of doing business in America . . . a foundry in Taiwan has been hired to take over some of Intercon’s chip making processes . . . new state of the art semiconductor plants are now under construction in China . . . 20% of Intercon’s workforce will be laid off . . .

Between the lines I read:

Shareholders are demanding higher returns . . . Chinese labor is cheap . . . wealthy shareholders demand more gold to line their pockets with . . . Chinese labor is really, really, cheap . . . Randal Cabella needs a raise . . . you’re just another cog in the machine . . . cogs are disposable . . .

This communiqué is intended only for the eyes of the survivors. The Corporate Carpet Bombing has begun.

“Holy shit . . .”

“What’s up, Jason?” Solomon Jones asks as he enters the cubicle. Removing a raincoat, he wraps it around the back of a chair and peers over my shoulder. “Are you reading Intercon’s latest quarterly earnings forecast?”

“No, but you need to read this.”

Solomon says nothing as he reads the memo. Taking control of the mouse he scrolls down the page and after a moment turns and states the obvious. “I don’t think we’re supposed to be reading this.”

“Do you think?”

“Someone released this email too soon.”

Gazing up at the ceiling, eyes search for the bombers I know are coming. They approach from high above, maneuvering into a strategic attack position as our little cubicle city readies for the inevitable. The bombers come from another city located on the third floor, the floor directly above us. This city consists entirely of supervisors, foremen, department heads, vice presidents, and personal assistants. They are the gods of this concrete slab and all that reside within its brick confines, answering only to a far greater god that dwells seventeen hundred miles away in California. Randal Cabella has called in the bombardiers. Above us the bombardiers are busy scratching the names of victims on the sides of their bombs.

“Says here,” Solomon begins, using the mouse to highlight a paragraph from the secret communiqué. “Says here that those affected will be chosen based on last review and, or, length of tenure.”

I breathe a little easier. “My last review was great and I’ve been here fifteen years. I’m good, right?”

Solomon smiles, “You’ve got nothing to worry about. Relax.”

Barry Smith pokes his bald head into our cubicle, eyes wide with fear. “You guys read your email yet?”

Solomon and I nod that we have.

“Well the shit’s hit the fan down in the fab. People are running around like the sky is falling in. No one wants to answer their pagers. They’re too scared of the bombers.”

The fab, or fabrication area, is where most of the actual work is performed at a semiconductor plant. This is the place where microchips are created, one atom at a time, and it operates 24/7. There are two shifts a day, each putting in 12 hours. Right now the night shift is putting in the last hour of the shift and, sadly for some, it will be the final hour of their careers at Intercon.

Families will be devastated by the loss of income. Husbands will have to tell their wives they weren’t good enough to make the cut. Marriages will be torn apart and there will be a few poor souls, too weak to cope with the rejection, who will never recover. This is the carnage left behind by Corporate Carpet Bombing. It leaves lives turned upside down, people turned inside out.

Barry is gone, off to the next cubicle spreading the tragic news. Bombs rain down upon us. From the cubicle city consuming the second floor the din of nervous chatter rises. Above the din an electronic beeping sound can be heard, sometimes near and loud, sometimes distant and faint. This sound is familiar but more frequent than normal. Chaos and terror rule the morning. Our little city of dutiful engineers is being systematically leveled by an insane corporate mind. I gaze up at the ceiling again, watching, wondering, praying.

Solomon’s hand slaps my back. “Come on. It’s time for the morning meeting.”

I look at him as if he’s crazy.

“Hey, man, we have to do what we have to do,” he says. “We’re still going to be around after the smoke clears so we need to stay focused on our jobs. Let’s go.”

Solomon leads us out of the cubicle and into the corridor. A thousand cubicles are laid out before us like some giant bee-hive maze all done in puke blue. Each cubicle is buzzing with activity. Friends and colleagues cling to one another for support. Nervously they crack jokes, doing the best they can to pretend nothing out of the ordinary is going on. And then that insidious electronic, high pitch, scream sounds again and everyone falls silent. This is how it works in the high tech world. There are over two thousand employees at this plant which means at least four hundred good people are going to have a bomb fall on their head today. Bombs are delivered through sophisticated electronic devices commonly referred to as pagers.

As Solomon and I reach the end of the cubicle city we see a man clearing out his desk of all personal effects. A security guard hired for the day stands behind the man, informing him of what can and cannot be removed from the building. Wanting to reach out, instead I turn away. It seems like the polite thing to do.

We make it to the stairwell that leads down to the fab and my pager begins alarming. It sounds a thousand times louder than ever before. Solomon and I stop dead in our tracks. We stare at the pager that hangs on a clip at my waist. Lungs cease to breath. Heart ceases to beat. The entire goddamned world ceases to rotate. Universe comes to a grinding halt. I can hear the whistling of a bomb dropping from the skies above.

Taking a deep breath I try to think of other reasons someone might be paging me at this very moment. My wife, Mary, comes to mind. She has my pager number and a knack for calling at the most inappropriate time. This would be one of those times. This would be Mary paging me. Exhaling, I remove the pager from its clip and stare at the number. I stare at it for a long time.

“Well?” Solomon demands. “Who is it? Who’s paging you?”

“I don’t recognize the number.”

Solomon turns the pager toward him and lets out an awful sigh. “Security,” he gravely whispers. “That’s the number for security. They’re looking for you.”

I cannot utter a word. All I can do is think about Mary. How am I going to explain this to her?

“Are you okay, Jason?”

Attempting to say something, a lump in the throat gets in the way. I swallow hard and look Solomon dead in the eyes, angry, hurt, hoping he somehow holds the power to make this nightmare disappear. “I thought the email said the layoffs would be based on reviews? My reviews are great. This has to be some kind of mistake.”

“I’ll go with you.”

Shaking my head, I pull myself together. “No, no, I can handle this.”

“Are you certain?”

“Yeah, I’m certain.” Awkwardly I glance around the stairwell and then hold out a hand to Solomon. “Take care.”

We shake hands and Solomon forces a smile. “You’ll be okay. You’re made out of strong stuff, Jason.”

“We’ll find out,” I reply, fully aware that I have never been tested like this before. “I’ll be alright. Cover your ass around here and give me a call sometime.”

Solomon nods. “We’ll get together soon.”

Walking back into the city of cubicles a security guard waits at my desk. He asks my name but can’t make eye contact. I feel sorry for him, wouldn’t want his job even if it meant saving my own. He hands over a box and I begin collecting my personal belongings.

Next I’m sitting at a desk in HR, signing papers and handing over the company pager and cell phone to some poor temp hired to process disposable cogs like myself. She can’t look me in the eyes either. It’s as if the bombs have horribly disfigured my face. No one wants to look at me. All eyes are averted. I feel grotesque walking down the hallways of Intercon Semiconductor for the final time.

The disconnection has begun.

Standing in the rain at a pay phone outside a convenience store, I call Mary. We need to talk. Neither of us saw this coming, thought all was good in our little world. We are not prepared for this unprovoked attack upon our household. The Corporate Carpet Bombings have come without warning and seemingly without justification. I’m part of the collateral damage of an internal corporate upheaval, just a disposable cog in the machine that no longer is needed. I’m disposable, and that’s hardest thing to accept. We are not prepared for this.

Mary answers her cell phone on the third ring. “Hello?”

The cold February rain runs down my face. “Where are you?”

“I’m at The Antique Store, restocking my booth. Do you want to have lunch today?”

“Yes.”

“What time? Noonish?”

“How about now?”

A long silence follows as Mary processes what little information I’ve fed her. “Alright,” she cautiously replies. “I’ll meet you at the Pancake House in fifteen minutes.”

“Thanks,” and I hang up.

Rain is coming down hard, soaking my clothes, penetrating to the skin. I’m cold and wet and somehow it feels not good, but appropriate. For a long moment I stand there, letting the rain penetrate down to the soul and still it isn’t enough to satisfy my mood. I have been betrayed, shot down by friendly fire, and there exists no cure for that.

More importantly, I notice the rain.

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