Introduction: She was a beast whose dominion surpassed that of any king, queen, czar or monarch. And when she died, the world she ruled died with her. But I remember her, in her days of glory.
On a cold winter’s night, plumes of smoke billowing from her nostrils could be seen from miles away. If you approached her beware: her roar would deafen your ears and the molten metal inside her belly would singe your eyebrows. Make no mistake, those who grew careless were maimed or killed.
Her name? General Motors Powertrain (GM), once located in Tilton, Ill.
After my freshman year of college, I returned home and worked at GM as a janitor. This is a fictional story about that summer.
Day 1: I went to the kitchen for orientation by the day shift janitor, Mr. Washington. The kitchen and cafeteria — both air conditioned — were laid out in a rectangle, roughly 200 feet long and 100 feet wide.
I entered the southeast kitchen door and spied a tall, lean older man sweeping the cafeteria floor. Too insecure to interrupt, I watched.
He swept with a measured pace, using a rhythm as smooth as a golf pro: with his left foot forward, he’d rock his weight from back right foot to front left, catching the momentum to propel the broom and a line of dirt two feet forward. When he finished sweeping, he waved me over.
“Mr. Washington, I’m…” “No one calls me Mr. Washington — I’m Achilles.” His sparkling mahogany eyes and perpetual smile disarmed me.
I edged closer to him as if I was an orbiting moon and he the planet Jupiter, pulling me into his gravitational field. “Lend me a hand, Richard.” “It’s Dick,” I sputtered. “Moby Dick, now that was a great book,” he chuckled.
Just as we finished putting the tables back, soot-stained faces lurched into the cafeteria like zombies. “Poor devils,” he muttered. “Working in 120 degrees, breathing in foundry dust.
I would get used to the workers sleeping on the tables, and I’d wash the table tops around their sleeping heads and arms, leaving a soapy outline like “chalkies” — police outlines of dead victims.
Day 2: I followed Achilles like a puppy as he taught me the job. Stock the shelves, change the cooking oil in the fryers, sweep, mop, wax and buff the floors and load the dishes in “Big Bertha,” an industrial dishwasher that resembled a lunar module crusted with slime.
As we ate lunch, I told Achilles I’d decided to quit college and work at GM. Having never said this before, I wanted his opinion.
“Gotta warn you,” he winked. “Ever hear of Spontaneous Combustion?”
“No,” I replied.
“Well, it happens when you cash your first GM paycheck and you stuff all those $100 bills into one pocket — whoosh! Your pocket bursts into flames. So, spread those bills around — four or five different pockets —OK?”
As I laughed, he told me about himself: “At 16, my father died, so I quit school, worked to help my mother, who was a seamstress, raise my three younger sisters.” I ached to ask him where he got his name, Achilles, but I didn’t. I had heard the saying, “Find their Achilles heel,” which meant look for a person’s weak spot, but how did that relate to him?
Day 3: I’m on my own. Achilles was gone for two weeks. I’d just taken the pies out of the oven, when a sequoia-size man squeezed my arm: “College boy, see that guy sitting at that table?”
“Yes sir,” I said.
“Bring us a whole apple pie.”
“Uh, sir, I….”
“Don’t make me break your arm,” he growled.
Trembling, I put on an apron, hid the pie under it and delivered it.
Day 4: Same problem, different pie. “Cherry pie, college boy.”
Day 5: I arrived at work exhausted and irritable. Having never done manual labor, my muscles ached. So, I decided to scrape the slime off Big Bertha.
Perched up high on a ladder, scrapping with a putty knife, I heard a man below, “Did Achilles tell you to clean the dishwasher?”
I pretended I didn’t hear. “Kid, the second shift janitor is an old man who can’t work like you. You’re making him look bad, so GET DOWN NOW!”
I ignored him.
The man grabbed the ladder, shook it, harder and harder until, down it fell, with me on top, pinning him to the floor. My mind screamed, “Hit him! Hit him!” I rolled over, ran into the bathroom, and threw up. Where had my rage come from?
At lunch, the pie man approached me, but Mercedes, the baker, said, “I’ll handle those buffoons.” Turned out the buffoons were her sons, whom I soon befriended.
Conclusion: At the end of my last day of work, Achilles walked me outside. Pointing up, he asked, “What do you see?” “Twin smokestacks, pumping out ash,” I said.
Achilles replied, “I see a beast at the end of her reign. When she dies, those stacks will grow cold. Dick, go back to college, get your degree.”
And that’s what I did, with one change. I took an elective class in Greek Mythology, and read about Achilles, the Greek warrior, who was killed in the Trojan War. I learned that his mother told him to make a choice: “Remain at home and live a common life in obscurity or die a glorious death and be remembered forever.”
But my question remained unanswered, “Why Mr. Washington was named Achilles?”
Whenever I sweep my driveway, I’m pulled back to that moment when I first spied Achilles. And I wonder about my own children, who have seen me sweep 1,000 times.
What do they see? An older man, tall and lean, pushing a broom. His body swaying with a measured pace and a perpetual smile upon his face. Whoops! The smile part is still a work in progress!
(The content of this article is for educational purposes only and should not be used as a substitute for treatment by a professional. The characters in this story are not real. Names and details have been changed to protect confidentiality.)