Story Time: Out of Paper
This is a work of fiction.
Estimated read time: 17 minutes.
Out of Paper
He arrived to the beating heart of Augusta, to his noble duty, to the International Paper paper mill. Well, it wasn’t quite the beating heart, or the lungs, or liver, or kidneys. It was more like the intestines. It mostly went unnoticed, and seemed to lack importance, but he knew better. They made paper: paper for people who do amazing things with paper.
He stepped out of his dusky blue ’96 Honda Civic and onto the cracked asphalt parking lot situated between the Savannah and the lot of grey buildings; two conveyer arms jutted out and deposited small hills of processed kindling: kindling waiting to be made into paste, then into paper. The cold air, in concert with the moisture wafting up from the Savannah, assaulted his hands, cheeks, ears, eyes, and nose. Especially his nose. He didn’t need to look up to see it. An endless flatulence erupted from the stacks.
He gagged, then reached back into the car and pulled out his small Kroger freezer bag containing a one-pound Bar-B-Q pork Hungry Man frozen meal.
The waste burn off from the plant mixed with the muggy air. It was a mixture of byproducts removed from the wood: bark, sap, turpentine, and some thick black goo. He didn’t know what it all was, he didn’t need to, but he knew that they burned it to make the steam that helped power the place. Not only did it smell bad, it permeated everything. And on a humid day the whole town wreaked of it. It was as if the mill was a clogged public toilet hidden away in a back room that people continued to use for days but were too afraid to alert the management. It was the ever-rotting egg that gave the town its nickname: Disgusta.
He clutched his Hungry Man and marched into the building to clock in, not bothering to lock his car. If it were stolen, wouldn’t that be something he thought. After maneuvering his lunch into a frozen mob of other lunches and things unknown covered in frost, he typed into the beige, brown finger-oil stained keyboard to clock in. Part of him celebrated another victory in hereditary financial security; the comfort of the Georgia working man, even though he didn’t have anyone to support but himself.
He was always the first one there for shift change. He never had to talk to anyone, besides Michael, and he always enjoyed those conversations.
“Michael,” he said, after opening the door into the box, a small room with three large windows, a comfy swivel chair, and controls and monitors to operate the paste production below.
Michael got up from the chair. Bill stood holding the door. They nodded to each other.
Bill sat down in the still warm chair and looked out over his duties. From the left window, the pulverized kindling and pulp were washed in a large open vat. Hot jets of water and ammonia sprayed into the open container while fresh pulp fell into it from the feeding belt. The washed pulp, pushed from the bottom of the vat, was belted over to the rollers.
From the front window a series of massive rollers spun endlessly. Two by two, the ten rollers squeezed the water out of the pulp and crushed it together.
He turned to the right window as the sheets of pulp paste rolled off into another vat like the first one, but with a chlorine bleach spray to whiten the paste; people expect white paper.
There he sat, like every day, swiveling from left to right. Left to right. Left to right. Hour after hour. Day after day, for almost thirty years. He was making paper for people who do amazing things with paper. He was doing something important.
Left window: Good.
Front window: …
Bill always lingered looking out the front window. The water squeezed from the pulp in the rollers cascaded down, rolling and falling down the support beams. The daylight factory bulbs reflected and refracted through the streams and sprays creating glistening arrays of tiny white flashes and mini rainbows. It all splashed and churned in pools on the floor before flowing into the drains. Bill wished he could hear it, but an all encompassing dissonance of churning engines and gears filled the box.
Right window: Good.
Left window: Good.
Front window: …
He wondered what his waterfall would smell like, if it didn’t smell so acrid. The sudden thought allowed his brain to detect the smell. He stretched his fingers out onto the arm rests of the chair and closed his eyes. He tried to imagine what fresh air would smell like. This wasn’t helping ease his stomach. He went back to checking his windows. He tried to forget the smell.
“Hey, Bill!” said a shrill voice.
“It’s Johnny’s birthday.”
Bill turned. It was Gina, the—Bill wasn’t sure what she did.
“I can’ exactly leave, ya know.”
“Well.” Bill pushed himself out of the chair and followed Gina to the break room. Her perfume reminded him that he could smell.
The break room was square with square tiles of grey and brown carpet. A white rectangular popup table stood in the middle of the room with a stack of paper plates next to the box of cake. Bill would have smiled if the room weren’t full of faces. Luckily they all found their own spot of carpet to admire. And he had missed the birthday song. People were already holding their pieces of white Wal-Mart cake. Stan, in his brown pants and slightly lighter brown buttoned shirt, stood in one corner. Bob, whose fresh hair cut failed to distract from his balding, tried to hide himself by the refrigerator. Johnny sat at the table with a nervous smile and a sparkling blue pointy hat. A man in a suit sat next to him. Bill eased over and cut himself a piece of cake, then shuffled over to Stan, close enough to seem social, but not close enough to acknowledge him. He listened to the soft murmurs for a few seconds as the half dozen or so mingled. Then he began on his cake.
It was too late when his tongue committed to pressing the cake to the soft palate of his mouth. The air had gotten to the cake, and his Waffle House breakfast made a reentry into the world onto the floor of the break room, looking similar to when he had eaten it: smothered, covered, and chunked.
Everyone turned and looked to the upheaval, and then to Bill.
More Waffle House came.
“This air! Cake! How can any of you eat this!”
More yet, maybe bits of last night’s Zaxby’s. No one moved. Usually that would be perfect, but something had happened, and for reasons unbeknownst to him, Bill wanted someone to do something.
The man in the suit stood, walked to the sink, and filled a plastic cup with water. He grabbed a couple paper towels and carried them and the water over to Bill, being careful not to step in the vomit.
“Here,” Suit said.
Bill took the paper towels and wiped his lips and chin, then took the water. He took a sip.
“Come with me,” Suit said. “And someone clean that up!”
They stepped outside the doorway.
“Look here,” Suit said. “Looks to me like you got to get away for a minute. Maybe take the rest-a the week off.”
“But-” Bill shuffled his feet.
“But nothin’. You’re a loyal employee, Bill.” Suit put his hand on Bill’s shoulder.
“Sir, I don’ know what I’d do with the time. I’m better off here.”
“Nonsense. Get out of Augusta. Get some fresh air. God knows you need it.”
“Where’d I go? I ain’t been nowhere.” Bill shuffled his feet again. His toes wiggled in his work boots.
“There’s a nice state park just north of Atlanta. I think you’d like it. Amicalola.”
“Am-ick-ka-low-luh. Amicalola Falls State Park. Just north of Atlanta. Go tomorrow morning. Go, and when you get back I’d like sit down with you to discuss your future here at International Paper.”
Clutching paper towels, the birthday party circled around the pool of Waffle House vomit, examining their task.
* * *
He had never gone farther than Atlanta, and even then, he always came back the same day. Now he would be gone for four. While driving the straight path through the never ending corridor of long-leaf pines down I-20 towards Atlanta, he pondered what he would do when he got to the park. He had reserved a room at the lodge on the suggestions from Suit. Maybe he would watch TV, but even four days of that sounded tedious. He would stay for one, maybe two days, then go back home to… to watch TV at home.
He rounded the crowded loop in Atlanta and headed north toward the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Getting closer, he could see them. They were like his hills of kindling to be made into paste, but a far off blue rolling over the tops of the trees. They seemed imaginary as he drove. They didn’t move as everything else zoomed by. They just grew as he made his way further north. More and more of them. Soon the landscape was a turbulent sea of blues and browns. He had never actually seen mountains.
The small road into the park became a tunnel of shimmering evergreens. The road was a glossy black that reflected the hint of the green that shrouded it. Everything was wet, but not like Augusta wet. It was fresh. It was clean.
He pulled into the small parking lot in front of the visitor’s center. Bare trees and uncountable evergreens stretched out of sight. Bill opened his car door. It was cold, colder than he thought, but not unpleasantly so. The cold embraced him, it invited him to move, to bring his warmth into the wild. He stood and turned about awkwardly in the parking lot like he had lost something up in the trees. His skin pricked with the excitement of the fresh chill. He could hear the flow of unseen water. He took a deep breath like a tall glass of water on an empty stomach; the cold air swirled and twirled down into his lungs. His sense of smell came after feeling the freshness of the air, as if his nose had been trained not to do its job. Bill stood still. He could smell the sky and the earth, the trees and the rocks, the drops of water dripping from each leaf. He steadied himself with his hand on his Honda.
Bill checked into his room in the lodge above the falls. The lodge was modern, but classy in its rustic mountain build and decor. There were large wooden beams, stone walls, and a big fire place in the lobby overlooking the valley. He sat in a big chair by the fire, enjoying the warmth, the sound of the crackling logs, and the smell of the smoke.
“Come on, Jill,” a women said from behind. Bill turned and saw a man and woman looking down the hall. A little girl in a huge puffy jacket waddled to them.
“We’re going to the waterfall?” the little girl asked.
“Yes ma’am,” the man said. “It’s the highest in all of Georgia.” They went out.
Bill sat up. He thought of the rollers out of the front window from his swivel chair. His daily waterfall. He stood and went to his room to grab his coat.
As he made his way closer to the falls, the roar grew louder and louder. The point from which he first saw the waterfall to the point where he was standing on the bridge crossing over it overwhelmed Bill’s normal sense of time. He only remembers feeling an excitement, a goal, a priority. He stood, hands on the rails, ten feet from the cascade of water. He couldn’t see the top, nor could he see the bottom. He looked from left to right. Up to down. Left to right. Up to down. In every nook of rock, another pool, another tiny waterfall. They were everywhere. Tiny waterfalls that swelled as if to say thank you for appreciating their individual beauty. The mist sprayed into his face. He wondered if it smelled like those laundry detergent commercials and decided it was probably better.
He felt the bridge sway and tightened his grip onto the railing. Two young men, wearing huge backpacks had just climbed the stairs up to the bridge. Bill wondered why anyone would do such a thing. He walked here the flattest way possible. Actually drove down to another parking lot to walk on the accessible, rubberized path.
“Where ya headed with all that?” Bill asked. Why? Why did he just ask a couple strangers something? He accounted it to the waterfall.
“Main!” Bandana said.
“Main what?” Bill said. It was hard to hear. He accounted that to the waterfall too.
“Maine!” Beard said.
Bill looked to both of their faces.
“Maine, the state,” Beard said.
“We’re thru-hiking,” said Bandana. They passed Bill on the bridge and started on the stairs to the top of the falls.
Maine? The state? What were they on about? Thru-hiking? Why on earth would anyone take the stairs?
He stood there for a while yet. He started shivering and realized that it had begun to get dark. Back to the fire. Back to the chair. Back to the waterfall in the morning.
The fire felt even better now. He had earned it after two hours working on that waterfall. He sat back, closed his eyes, and let the warmth wash over him.
“Für die Katz sein!”
Bill popped up in his chair. A man his age sat in the chair right next to him. He was dirty, had a huge dirty backpack, and smelled like he hadn’t bathed in days.
“Waste of time!” he said to Bill. “It’s a waste of time!”
Bill stared, and began to dry wash his hands.
“What’s a waste of time?” Bill said.
“The hiking the Appalachian Trail! I fly in from Munich because of meine friend who wants to hike the whole thing,” the German said.
“Munich?” Bill thought out loud. The German took off his full leather boots and sat back into the chair. “Thru-hiking?” Bill asked.
“Flying home tomorrow.”
“What’s the Appalachian Trail?”
“You don’t know? Well, it’s a waste of time! Two thousand miles of it!”
Bill rubbed his forearm. His skin was uncomfortably warm. “What happened?” Bill asked.
“I vanted to help a friend, you see. He and I had planned to take some time to, ‘go out and explore!’ He said, ‘go see the world! To America!’ he said. I never wanted to hike. I didn’t know until after hiking almost to the start that I had made a terrible mistake. And I thought, there is no way I will do two thousand more miles of this!” the German said.
“Where does it start?”
“Springer Mountain. From there the trail begins. It’s thirteen point eight kilometers! Just to start!”
Bill had no idea how far that was. But he was speaking to a German! He had never met a German!
“Frank. It’s nice to meet you.”
“Sorry your trip didn’t work out. I never heard of the Appalachian Trail before. Why do people do it?”
“To waste time, I suppose.”
“I wonder what it’s like.” Bill said, as his thumbs danced circles around each other.
“It’s for the cats.”
“Für die Katz sein. Zeitverschwendung. Time wasting.”
“Here. Take my junk. I don’t want it, and I don’t want to take it home.”
“What? All this?” Bill stammered. “I can’t. It’s yours. You worked for it.”
“I don’t want it. You see me trying to go back out there? No!” Frank pushed the pack over to Bill. “Please. If you think you may use it, might as well try. You could go to the start, then come back. Or not! Go on that adventure my friend wanted so badly.”
“I… I don’t know.” Bill said.
“Take it. It’s a favor to me. Please. Now, I must shower and get a beer. It was nice to meet you.” The German was gone, and his stuffed backpack sat beside Bill’s feet.
Bill had a hard time going to sleep. He had dumped the pack onto the extra bed of the room. Several small colored bags tightly packed with different items: a little pot with a bowl and tiny gas stove and canister all inside; a tent shoved into bag the size of a Big Gulp, too small for sure, he thought; a sleeping bag shoved into another bag that seemed entirely to light to keep him warm; and a bunch of other things he didn’t recognize, but figured it should probably all stay in there. The strange pieces of gear made him wonder even more. What was it all for? What would it be like out there?
He woke an hour before the sun rose. He sat on his bed looking at the re-stuffed pack lying on the bed across from him. He tried it on. He walked around the room. Not as heavy as he thought. It reminded him of the safety harness he would wear when he used to work with the logs at the mill. The pack sat on the hips, and the shoulder straps pulled the weight to his back. He walked out into the lobby with it on. He strutted in front of the windows, pretending to be hiking.
“Going for a hike?”
Bill turned to the man who seemed to have been watching him for some time.
“Yup,” Bill said. His palms started sweating.
“Springer.” Bill said, and shot out the door before he committed himself to anything else.
An hour, Bill had been hiking up and up. He didn’t know why. He had the time, he justified to himself. Three more days. Suit would be happy. Probably a promotion. Maybe to something that didn’t smell. Maybe a job in the mountains. Maybe a job stuck in an office. It made him nervous that he was so excited to plod along this trail. He couldn’t see far forward or back, and it thrilled him to find out what was around each corner, over each hill. Maybe it was a knack for inspecting. Maybe it was like work.
It hurt. His legs burned. Up and up he went. Hour after hour. He loved it. It didn’t make sense. His body was hot and the cold air swirled around him. The trees were all that he could see, and he could hear nothing but his feet crunching into the dirt and dead leaves. The air was fresher and fresher with every breath. It washed away the Disgusta from his lungs. He was going to the top of a mountain for the first time. He was going to reach the summit of something.
Along the path, Bill noticed many of the trees were painted with a rectangular blue swath. He remembered seeing a couple trees with blue paint toward the beginning of his trek. Maybe they mark trees to be cut, he thought. He took several breaks to catch his breath after steep climbs and stopped to take his pack off. It took him six hours before he saw the sign: Springer. He rounded the corner of thick evergreens and saw the small outcropping of exposed granite.
A dark metal plaque marked the summit. Springer Mountain. Southern Terminus of the Appalachian Trail. Bill looked out onto the horizon. There were still a lot of trees on the summit, but he could still see out onto the Blue Ridge. It stretched on and on. Rolling green, brown, and blue.
Bill noticed a white swath of paint on the rock next to another plaque. This one had a man with a small pack and a hat with Appalachian Trail above him. The white mark was the same size as the blue ones were. Bill then noticed a tiny metal door in the rock where the first plaque was. He opened it and pulled out a notebook from within. He turned through the pages to the last entry.
First white blaze!!! Now on to Maine!!
White blaze. Blue blaze? The paint. Do the white blazes go all the way to Maine? What a thought! People walk all the way to Maine, Bill realized. He closed the notebook, and on the cover, small, in a non-threatening shade of red, Bill read: International Paper. He laughed, then opened it back up and wrote:
Paper for people who do amazing things with paper.
He placed the notebook back in the rock and stood up, gazed across the tree line, put on his backpack, and headed out.
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