Fiction

The Cherry Factory

By: Rachel Reyes

October 21st, 2017

According to the newspaper clippings on your office wall, you are the brilliant Oscar Markovich, fourth-generation business owner, scrappy and shrewd, fast-talking and foul-mouthed, seventy-six years old but still going strong like a sturdy draft horse. You’re always the first one to arrive at work and the last one to leave, they say, profit-focused and proud, but never too proud to grab a broom and sweep the factory floor at the end of a long day. And, they say, you’re a hero: the man who once upon a time gallantly rescued his family’s crumbling operation from bankruptcy and transformed it into a booming steel-and-smokestacks maraschino cherry manufacturer, the pride and joy and eyesore of South Chicago.

Tonight you guzzle cold black coffee as you hunch over your desk, poring over a stack of inventory and sales records from the past five years. You shake your head as you pencil in the dismal numbers for this quarter: sales are down, again. Some hero you are.

The clock ticks, ticks, ticks. You take another sip of coffee and hear the swish of the liquid as it leaves the mug, hear the muscles in your throat contract as you swallow. You shudder. At any other time of day, you would be working with the steady hum and whir of machinery in the background, but the last employee clocked out an hour ago. The equipment is off. Lights are out.

Glancing at the records again, you imagine tumbling down the steep slope of the plummeting sales graph and splattering like a jar of your maraschinos. Which, blast it, no one is buying anymore. You know the excuses: Sure, they taste good, but they’re just too darn expensive nowadays. I’ve got a coupon for the store brand—two for one! Now the grocery stores are ordering fewer and fewer boxes. And in the past year, three of the business’s biggest clients—Applebee’s, TGI Friday’s, and Chili’s—dropped Markovich’s for other cherry suppliers. People don’t know a thing about quality anymore.

You tidy the papers and slide them into the file cabinet. Then you pull a massive jingling ring of keys from your pocket, find the key you’re looking for, and slide it into the keyhole in your desk drawer, turning it so slowly you can hear the tumblers click and rotate. As you open the drawer, your shoulders relax: it’s still there. Four tall stacks of bills, next to a small jar of cherries and your Glock. A steady income, a desperate measure, a life raft, a saving grace, whatever you want to call it, it’s here, cold hard cash, baby, and it’s kept you afloat for the past year.

You already know how much is there, but you count it again, bill by bill. It’s not enough to make up for lost sales, never is, but it’s enough to pay your workers this month. Enough to pay the loans on the new conveyer belt and computerized machinery. Enough to smooth over the cracks and put up more smoke and mirrors, enough to persuade the rest of the world that you’re fine, that business is fine, there’s nothing to see here, move along now, you’ve got it all under control.

#


October 12th, 2017

Johnny Phillips plunges a mop into a bucket of pink soapy water, squeezes out the excess liquid, and swings the mop across the floor, gritting his teeth as he scrubs another red stain that makes the place look like a crime scene. He must mop these floors five, six, seven times a day, at least, but they seem to get sticky again every time he turns his back.

But he’s not complaining. When Oscar Markovich offered him a job at the factory three months ago, Johnny wanted to drop to the floor and kiss the man’s red-stained tennis shoes. Since Johnny was released from prison, he’d been looking for honest work, work that didn’t involve duffel bags or syringes or midnight meetings in the Walmart parking lot, but no honest employer would give him a second chance.

Oscar didn’t care about that. When Johnny showed up for his first day, Oscar actually shook his hand and told Johnny he was family now. And Johnny wasn’t the only one who’d been given a second chance: over by the vats, stirring the cherries with a long steel paddle, is Hector, one of twenty-something ex-gang members. At the rinsing station is Elaine, a former cokehead who’d been sleeping on a bench in Millennium Park until Oscar took her in, gave her a job, even found her a place to live.

Johnny continues to move the mop back and forth across the red stain until it disappears. Oscar seemed to know more than anyone that a single screwup, or a lifetime of screwups, doesn’t make you a bad person.

“Hey Johnny boy, over here.”

All the way at the packing station, Juliette (another ex-con, four years, grand theft auto) waves at him. As Johnny makes his way over, she points to a heaping mess of glass, cherries, and crimson syrup bleeding all over the floor. “Fell off the conveyer belt,” she says, adjusting her hairnet. “Splattered everywhere.”

“On it,” Johnny says, dashing to the supply closet.

When he returns seconds later with a broom and dustpan, Juliette has stopped the conveyer belt and is resting her elbows on the packing table, staring at something in the distance. Johnny follows her gaze to the window of Oscar’s office, which faces the factory floor. “Looks like the boss is back,” she says. “I was worried he’d died or something.”

“Don’t say that,” Johnny says. “He’s just busy.”

He watches Oscar, small and distant, moving around in his office. It’s the first time Johnny has seen him in four days. Usually Oscar was there before anyone else, and he’d put on a white coat and hairnet like the rest of the workers and make the rounds at least twice a day, sampling cherries, making sure everyone was taking their breaks when they were supposed to. He’d always ask Johnny about his girlfriend, his son, and how they were doing, and actually seemed to care about the answers.

“Wonder what he’s up to, then,” Juliette says.

Johnny shrugs. Oscar is on the phone now, leaning back in his big office chair, looking businesslike and confident as always. Nothing wrong there. He knows what he’s doing. And besides, Johnny is still getting his paychecks, so as far as he’s concerned everything is fine.

#


November 29th, 2017

You’re at your daughter’s house in Wrigleyville, drumming your fingers on the kitchen table, wishing you hadn’t agreed to stay for dinner. In the kitchen, Molly is the picture-perfect bustling host, grabbing plates, stirring the spaghetti, darting to the table to set the silverware, darting back to the oven to take a peek at the garlic bread. She’s nimble-footed, rosy-cheeked, and smiling like she’s in a fifties toothpaste commercial.

Her back is facing you as she drains the pasta. “You work so much, I worry about you,” she says with likely rehearsed nonchalance. She shakes the colander. “Wouldn’t it be nice to finally retire? You deserve it, after all the work you’ve done.”

Under the table, your hands curl into fists. “The day I retire is the day I drop dead and you have to drag my body from the factory.”

She frowns, like you’re a puppy who’s just had an accident on the Oriental rug. “Don’t be like this. I’m trying to help you. I care about you. And I care about the business.” She sets down the spaghetti, a bowl of sauce. “I’m worried it’s not doing so well, and it’s not your fault, of course, but you’re getting older now…”

“The business,” you say, “is doing spectacular.” You fend off images of the plunging red graphs, declining sales, grocery aisles filled with jars nobody’s buying. You desperately conjure up the drawer, the cash, the saving grace.

Garlic bread, out of the oven. Molly brandishes a bread knife, starts to slice, slice, slice. “Show me the numbers, then.” Slice, slice. A challenge.

You fold your arms. “I don’t have to show you anything. It’s my business, damn it, and I say my business is doing spectacular.”

“You’re so secretive about everything,” she says, pulling out her chair with a screech. She starts to scoop spaghetti on your plate, but you grab the spoon from her hand, giving her a long, hard stare.

“I could help you, you know,” she continues. “With running the business. I did go to college for this kind of thing.”

Here she goes again. Pulling the I-went-to-college card, a prize she may as well have been given along with her diploma. She thinks she’s smarter than you, just because she went to college (which you paid for, by the way, without a single word of thanks), just because she graduated on the Dean’s list and with honors and summa cum la-di-da, you don’t care. She doesn’t know a damn thing about running any business, let alone the factory. When you were her age, you learned how to run the factory from experience—watching your father work and actually listening to him, repairing the equipment when it broke, and working long hours and not leaving until the work was done. Not from textbooks or theories or PowerPoint slides.

“Besides,” she says, breaking a piece of garlic bread in two. “You’ll be passing the business onto me soon anyway.”

This is where your conversations end up every time. The clock is ticking is what she’s saying, and she’s biding her time, drumming her fingers together, waiting to claim the throne, disguising it all with a Barbie-doll smile, pretending she wants to help you, poor old doddering Dad, you work so hard, you could use some help. Please. You don’t need help. You taught her how to walk, how to tie her shoes, how eat with a spoon, for fuck’s sake, and you don’t need her telling you how to run your business.

“Savannah did a funny thing the other day,” she says now, twirling her spaghetti with a fork. Changing the subject. Right on cue.

You make eye contact. She has the same gaze as you, hard and dark, that goes perfectly with the rest of her. But the worst part about it is that it’s completely your fault. Without realizing it, for these thirty-five years, you’ve raised her to be just like you: controlling. Stubborn. Possessive. Ruthless. You better watch out.

#


December 17th, 2017

On a painfully bright December afternoon, Vince, the manager at the 76th Street Dairy Queen, watches the white van drive past the front of the building. Moments later his phone buzzes, and he quietly excuses himself from the counter and slips away to the loading dock. The van’s usual driver, a silver-haired man with hawkish eyes and red-stained white tennis shoes, has already opened the trunk and has started unloading boxes onto the steps.

When the old man sees Vince, he smiles. Shakes his hand. Asks how he is doing (well enough), how school is going (failing Ethics 101, but exceling in Entrepreneurship), how long until he graduates (three years and not soon enough). As usual, the man pops open one of the boxes, which is stamped in several places with the company’s cheerful smiling cherry logo, and tilts it towards Vince for approval.

Vince smiles as he peers inside. Everything is orderly, airtight, and perfect, as usual. And getting the shipment from the maker, the big man, the king himself? That was a luxury, every single time. Satisfied, Vince pulls out the usual fat brown envelope from his pocket and hands it to the old man, who instantly looks relieved, but quickly masks it.

Without saying good-bye, the man climbs back into his van and slams the door. As Vince steps back inside, he glances over his shoulder. The man has opened the envelope and is now counting the cash, muttering to himself.

#


January 10th, 2018

Sitting on a plush red couch in the lobby, Phoebe Chang bounces her leg as she checks the contents of her messenger bag: notepad, check. Recording device, check. Camera, check. She touches the ballpoint pen she’s deliberately tucked behind her ear. Hopefully, she thinks, this plucky-young-reporter-in-the-big-city look would make up for the fact that until today, she’d only been assigned police reports and obituaries.

She closes her eyes, feeling slightly nauseated. So what if her boss only assigned her this story because Josh, the regular features writer, was getting tonsil surgery? So what? She’d prove herself. She’d done so much research for this piece that she could rattle off Oscar Markovich’s birthday (March 26th, 1942), how he liked his eggs (over medium, no exceptions), and where he went to college (trick question: he didn’t).

“Who the hell are you?”

Phoebe quickly rises from her chair, and several pens fall from her bag and onto the floor. Oscar Markovich himself emerges from his office and strides across the lobby, hands balled into fists as if rearing to fight.

“Mr. Markovich,” she says. She forces herself to smile, even though the man looks like he wants to tase her with his eyes. “I’m Phoebe Chang, from the Southeast Chicago Observer. You called us yesterday.”

Something seems to click into place, and his expression softens. “Of course,” he says, wringing his hands. His eyes dart up and down, side to side, as if he doesn’t know where to look. “I completely forgot. I usually don’t have visitors. And call me Oscar.”

As they shake hands, Phoebe glances at his white tennis shoes, almost completely covered in red stains.

“Well, I suppose we should get started, then. Come on.” Oscar leads her down a long hallway and pulls a hairnet and a white coat from a supply closet. As Phoebe puts them on, he pulls an enormous, jingling set of keys from his pocket and unlocks a large steel door.

The sickly-sweet smell hits her like a punch in the face. When she inhales, it’s like she’s swimming in a river of cough syrup. Phoebe clamps a hand to her nose, and Oscar chuckles. “You get used to it,” he says, raising his voice over the machinery. He is already walking away. “Keep up. And don’t touch anything.”

She follows him, careful not to run into the milling workers, all wearing white coats like her. After she catches up, she pulls out her notepad and recording device. “Are you, uh, ready?”

“Whenever you are.”

“Okay.” She presses RECORD and glances at the first question on her list. “Mr. Markovich—Oscar, sorry—why don’t you start by telling me a bit about the recent upgrades?”

For the first time, Oscar smiles. “Well, we replaced nearly every piece of old equipment, but we also installed a new computerized system that works with the cherries at every stage of processing.” He points to several large vats filled to the brim with pure crimson liquid. “For example, now a computer mixes and weighs the ingredients for the maraschino syrup, and it also keeps track of exactly how long each batch of cherries is marinated.”

“That’s fascinating,” Phoebe says. “Now, as I understand it, this will be the first time you’ve updated the equipment since you inherited the factory in 1983. What motivated these upgrades? Why now?”

“It all came down to efficiency,” says Oscar, leading her down the center aisle of the factory floor. All around them machines are whirring and clanking, blurringly fast, as the workers stir and rinse and jar and package the bright red cherries. “With the new equipment we can process more cherries every hour, every day, at a lower cost.” He turns to Phoebe. “Not that we were inefficient before, mind you.”

Phoebe nods. “And how much have you spent on these upgrades?”

“Five million. It’s a lot of money, I know. A lot of money.” Oscar is talking faster now, louder. His dark eyes dart around the room, and he wipes sweat from his forehead. “But it’s an investment. This new equipment, and this little article you’re writing, is going to drum up business. Not that business is doing badly. It’s doing fine. Great. Wonderful. Spectacular.”

He stops walking. Pulls off his hairnet. “Will you excuse me for a moment?”

He doesn’t give Phoebe a chance to answer as he walks towards the factory entrance in long, quick strides, leaving her alone in the middle of the floor. She feels workers staring at her, this outsider, not with hostility, exactly, but as if they are trying to figure out who she is.

When Oscar returns ten minutes later, he is smiling. He beckons Phoebe to the jarring station and shows her how cherries are weighed and funneled into the jars, with the enthusiasm of a mom showing you pictures of her kids. Oscar seems different now, and he answers the rest of her questions, darts around the factory to show her every single piece of new equipment, and even poses for several photos.

When Phoebe leaves the factory an hour later, she brings her sleeve to her nose. Her eyes immediately start to water. Even in the frigid winter air the sickening cherry syrup has clung to her like a ghost of crimson past. She shakes her head. The factory smelled so strong you could hide a dead body in there and no one would know.

That would be a killer first line for her article. Literally. But she quickly shakes her head. She would definitely get fired for that. Just a joke, just a joke.

#


January 20th, 2018

It is only six forty-five, fifteen minutes into his shift at the Lowe’s checkout counter, but Tom Landry is already counting the seconds until he can clock out, rip off the stupid red vest that makes him look like a deranged Girl Scout, and retreat to his parents’ basement to play Fortnite. He leans his elbows on the counter and picks at a scabbed-over zit on his chin, scanning the aisles stocked with two-by-fours, power drills, curtain rods, and other home improvement goods. His parents often said the best ‘home improvement’ they could make was to kick Tom out of the basement. But he’s only twenty-seven. He has time.

He hears the dying-pig squeal of the cart with the squeaky wheel, getting louder each second. Soon afterwards an old man emerges from one of the aisles, walking quickly and pushing the offending cart toward Tom’s checkout lane. This guy, Tom thinks. The guy with the slicked-back silver hair and tough leathered face, the don’t-mess-with-me mobster glare, the white tennis shoes with questionable red stains.

The man approaches Tom’s register and starts unloading his usual items: seven packages of LED grow lights, two coils of black rubber tubing, AeroGarden nutrient solution. He’s been coming here every few weeks or so for the past year. Tom knows the type: retiree, too much time on his hands, wife probably dead, took up indoor gardening to pass the time.

“Find everything all right?” Tom asks, not caring as usual.

The man shrugs, checks his watch, bounces from one foot to the other, checks his watch again. You and me both, pal, thinks Tom.

Something’s different. “No peat moss tonight?” Tom says. It’s pathetic, really, how he’s memorized this man’s usual purchases.

The man freezes. “No,” he sputters, eyes going wide. “How did you—what did you—never mind.” He shakes his head and takes a few deep, rattling breaths, as if trying to calm himself.

This is awkward, thinks Tom. Is he having a stroke? Should I call 911?

But just as quickly, the man recovers, pulling out his wallet as if nothing has happened. “I don’t have all night,” he says, tapping his foot.

Tom quickly rings up the total, opening the cash drawer. This man pays in cash every time, exact change, spreading out bills and lining up his coins on the counter until he has the right amount, something that always infuriated Tom. But tonight, the man simply pulls out a handful of crumpled bills, throws them on the counter, grabs his stuff, and leaves. Moves pretty fast for an old guy.

Whatever, thinks Tom. He watches the man disappear through the sliding doors and into the night, then checks his phone. Only six fifty. Fuck.

His gaze wanders to the magazine kiosk next to the register and lands on the headline of one of the newspapers. Business is ‘Spectacular’: Inside the Markovich Cherry Factory. Next to the headline is a picture of the old man who just left the store, stirring a river of cherries with his bare hands and smiling for the camera. Huh.

Six fifty-two. There’s time to kill. So Tom reaches out, grabs the newspaper, and starts reading.

#


February 22nd, 2018

Late in the evening, the doorbell rings twice. You set down your newspaper, brace your hands against your armchair, and heave yourself to a standing position. Your arms shake and you bite your tongue to keep yourself from hollering in pain.

You open the door. It’s Molly, smiling on your doorstep, bearing a casserole wrapped in shiny tinfoil. The third one this week.

She steps inside and wipes her boots clean of slush. She looks you up and down. Frowns. “Where’s your cane?”

You shrug, leaning against the wall as you feel your knees quake. “Don’t need it.”

Last week, you fell when crossing the street. Just a fall. No big deal. But no one else saw it that way: as soon as you hit the ground, bystanders swarmed you like vultures to a dead deer, getting in your face and blasting you with bagel breath: Are you okay, sir? Can you hear me, sir? Don’t worry, sir, help is on the way. Someone called an ambulance. Someone else started to direct traffic. Two more someones covered you with their coats, and three others pinned you when you tried to get up. Sir, you’ll hurt yourself more. Sir, stay down. Down. Sit, stay, roll over, fetch. Good boy.

Molly sighs, sets the casserole on the counter. “The doctor said you need to use a cane. You need to listen to him. Your bones are fragile, and that’s why you fell in the first place.”

She goes to the living room and hands you the hospital-issued cane. It was a patch of ice, you want to shout. Everyone slips on ice. Your bones are fine. You have a bruised tailbone, not a broken hip, but they kept you in the hospital for three days.

You take the cane from her hands, smile, and throw it across the room. You’ve admittedly walked with the cane once or twice here and there, and you secretly admit it helps a lot with the pain. But there’s no way you’ll use it when she’s around, watching you, relishing this opportunity to treat you like a burden, a stubborn old coot, with jelly for brains. You’d rather suffer than show her loud and clear that you need help, that you’re weak, that she was right all along.

She sighs. “Since you’re recovering, I’ve been going to the factory, checking that things are running smoothly.”

Of course she has. Thank God you’ve put a second lock on your office door.

“And I’ve told all the employees what happened. They’ve all signed a card for you.”

Your face burns as she hands you a yellow envelope. A tight ball of anger glows in your chest, like heartburn but worse. Now all your workers know you’re weak. They’ll think less of you. With shaking hands, you rip the envelope and open the card, and a hundred signatures greet you, crammed letter-to-letter.

Your breath catches in your throat. You read the names, the notes, the get well soons. Johnny, Elaine, Hector, Tim, Juliette, Jude, every single one of them signed this. You want to hate this stupid card so much, but you can’t bring yourself to do it.

“Thank you,” you say instead. “This is nice.”

Molly nods. For a second, the fire flickers out of her eyes. In the dying evening light you see creases on her face you swore never existed before. You wonder briefly if you’re being too hard on her. She’s your daughter, after all. Maybe she is looking out for you. Maybe she does care.

You shake your head. Impossible.

When she shows herself out, you wait ten minutes before picking up your cane, hobbling to the kitchen, and slicing up a piece of the still-steaming casserole. Chicken and broccoli. Just like your wife used to make. You remember how, after Tamara died from cancer at forty-four, the teenaged Molly spent hours scouring her mother’s cookbooks until she found the recipe, just because she knew you liked it so much.

How things have changed.

You lift a trembling forkful to your mouth. As much as you don’t want to eat it, your stomach is growling, and (though you hate to admit it) you know Molly is an excellent cook.

#


March 6th, 2018

“Grandpa.” Tap. “Grandpa.” Tap. “Grandpa.” Tap tap taptaptap.

Savannah sighs. She’s knocked so many times now, but Grandpa Oscar is still in his office, still on the phone, still not paying any attention to her, even though Sunday is always their day, even though he told her he’d be “done in a minute,” whatever that means.

Tap. Tap. Taptaptap. Nothing.

She shuffles away, her pink tennis shoes squeaking on the floor. He’s no fun anymore. Mom said that he’s getting older, and that he has to use a cane now and needs a lot of rest after going to the hospital, probably for the rest of his life. She’s mad at him all the time now. Last week, she yelled at him for giving Savannah a piggyback ride. At dinner yesterday, she yelled at him again for not taking his medicine.

But sometimes, Savannah comes home from school to find Mom home early from work, on the couch surrounded by open photo albums and crumpled tissues. She’ll show Savannah pictures of Grandpa from years and years ago, back when he had thick brown hair and stood tall instead of hunching over like a question mark. Mom’s favorite picture is of Grandpa with Mom as a little girl on his shoulders, surrounded by pink cherry trees. It’s Savannah’s favorite too.

In the center of the lobby, she closes her eyes, stretches out her arms, and starts to spin as fast as she can. She’s a helicopter now, like the ones on TV. Her arms whir as fast as propellers, lifting her off the ground. She’ll fly straight up and crash through the ceiling, like in Willy Wonka, and she’ll sail through the sky, past the clouds, into the stars, away from this boring, boring, boring room.

She forces herself to stop spinning, swaying on her feet but managing to stay upright. When she opens her eyes, she’s facing a wall stacked high with narrow metal shelves, all empty. She smiles and rubs her hands together, the way the evil guys always do in the movies, and races to the red couches, pulls off the thick square cushions, and piles them in front of the shelves. She begins to climb, up and up and up, until she’s able to touch her hand to the ceiling. She glances at the ground. If she can’t be a helicopter, this is the best way to fly.

Three. Two. One. She pushes off the shelves, sails through the air for the shortest second ever, and lands with a soft thud on the pile of pillows, arms and legs splayed like a starfish. She laughs. And laughs. And jumps to her feet to do it again.

But when she puts her hands on the shelves again, the wall starts to move.

Her heart beats faster. She takes a deep breath and pushes the shelves with all her might. With a loud shudder, the wall moves again, rotating like a revolving door, leaving a crack as wide as Savannah’s hand. She pushes. Harder. Harder. The wall moves a little bit each time.

A hand clamps her shoulder.

“What the hell are you doing?”

She whirls around. Grandpa towers over her, his hands on his hips, breathing through his nose like a dragon, staring at her with eyes as sharp as daggers.

“Get away from there!” he shouts. “Get away!”

He reaches like he’s going to grab her, but she ducks around him and runs to the couches. She can’t make her heart stop beating, but she’s never seen him this mad before, making that awful face, looking like he wants to hurt her. She starts to cry. “I didn’t mean to,” she sobs. “The wall—it just moved.”

But Grandpa isn’t listening. He’s pushing on the other side of the shelves, and slowly the wall rotates back into place. He’s shaking his head, saying something so quietly she can’t hear it.

She curls into a ball on the couch, wishing she could build a fort from the cushions and disappear.

“Savannah?”

Grandpa sits next to her, putting a warm hand on her shoulder. “I didn’t mean to yell.” He briefly closes his eyes. “I’m sorry. Will you forgive me?”

Savannah nods. She whispers, “Are you going to tell Mom about this?”

Mom would be so mad at her. She’d yell at Savannah in the car, and send her to her room, or take away her Nintendo DS, or worst of all never let her see Grandpa again. Savannah holds her breath.

To her surprise, Grandpa shakes his head. “No, no, no. Definitely not.” He lifts her chin with his fingers and brings his face close to hers. His breath smells like cherries. “And I don’t want you to tell her either. It’ll be our secret. Okay?”

Savannah smiles. “Okay.”

#


March 26th, 2018

At exactly six p.m., Dr. Sterling Yates steps onto his balcony, holding a tumbler of single-malt whiskey in one hand and a well-thumbed copy of Finnegan’s Wake in the other, ready to collapse into his chair. It had been a long day grading papers, suffering through department meetings, and trying (and failing) to convince a classroom of undergraduates that Ulysses was, in fact, quite a light, pleasant, and enjoyable read.

As he settles into his chair, Dr. Yates gazes into the distance at his usual view, at the crumbling apartments, warehouse rooftops, chain-link fences, the cracked, weedy parking lots. For once, the sky is clear, free of grit and fog, and there is a slight breeze, just enough to pleasantly riffle the pages of his book but not strong enough to knock over his glass. He closes his eyes and inhales the faint syrupy-sweet odor of cherries, ever-present, drifting over from the factory across the street.

He swirls his glass and opens his book. In the ignorance that implies the impression that knits knowledge that finds the nameform that whets the wits that convey contacts that sweeten sensation—

He looks up, scrunches his eyebrows. Something isn’t right. But he can’t place it.

that sweeten sensation that drives desire that adheres to attachment that dogs death that bitches birth that entails the ensuance of existentiality.

The breeze kicks up, sending a wave of what smells like wet skunk, foul and musky, over the balcony. Without warning, it slices through the pleasant cherry perfume and invades Dr. Yates’s nostrils, causing him to cough whiskey all over his sweater vest. He stumbles to his feet, eyes watering. What in God’s name is happening?

Leaving behind his glass and his book, he ducks inside his studio apartment, tightly shutting the door behind him. After a few deep breaths of clean, untainted air, he is able to collect himself. He stares out the window, directly at the tall smokestacks of the cherry factory that create his personal skyline, and it clicks into place. The cherry factory. Of course. Everyone knows it employs a deplorable slew of ex-convicts and gang members, homeless people and heroin addicts, because the owner is either incredibly merciful or incredibly insane. Dr. Yates is not one to judge, of course, but he knows what these sorts of people are like. They’d be smoking cannabis on their breaks, or dealing it right under the owner’s poor unsuspecting nose.

Dr. Yates won’t stand for this. So, as he does every other time he sees something suspicious, he pulls out his cell phone, dials the police, reports what he saw—er, smelled—and immediately feels much better.

#


April 19th, 2018

Late one night, you are in your garden, green and lush, dense and humid. Your last safe space, your biggest secret, the only place where you have control. You say this because Molly took your car keys last week while you weren’t looking and refuses to give them back, saying it’s a ‘safety issue.’ Now she drives you to the factory every day while your beautiful baby blue Bentley sits in the street, collecting frost. Safety issue, your ass.

Leaning onto your cane, you slowly walk between rows of plants, adjusting tubing here, replacing peat moss there, refilling nutrient solution. You take your time to straighten the stems of each plant, tall and vibrant. There’s room to grow. But some of them still droop from the weight of themselves, unable to stand on their own.

Somewhere out there, Molly is plotting, zeroing in. Every time she visits, always unannounced, she’ll ask you if you need help climbing the stairs, opening the doors, getting up from chairs. She follows you everywhere; the bathroom is the only place to have real privacy now, and who knows how long that will last. She always leaves brochures on your table, trifolds in soothing pastel shades, advertising places with lure-‘em-in names like Chestnut Glen and Sunset Village and Comfort Estates, names that mask the antiseptic hells they really are. Places that smell of canned tuna and death, with white walls and nurses who force-feed you crushed pills to induce complacency. Give these homes a chance, Molly says. Your life will be so much easier. You deserve to rest. See, this one has Bingo on Tuesdays.

Telling you that you deserve to rest? That’s like telling a fish it deserves to spend some time out of water. Rest is a death sentence.

You grab a basket and weave among the rows, gathering leaves. The business, your business, your father’s and grandfather’s business, all they had built, is slipping away from you, little by little. You’re only seventy-six, and you have time left, but Molly doesn’t seem to think so. If she gets what she wants, you know exactly what will happen: after throwing you into a nursing home, of course, she’ll fire all your loyal workers, those ‘criminals,’ she calls them, and replace them with machines. She’ll change the recipe for the cherries, use cheaper ingredients, make the quality decline in a way that would make your father and grandfather throw tantrums in their graves.

And that’s not even considering your biggest secret. Everyone’s onto you, it seems. The cop on the sidewalk yesterday—his gaze stayed on you a second longer than normal. The guy at Lowe’s, who’s never said a damn thing to you about your purchases before. And is it your imagination, or are there more men in suits out and about lately? Do they have walkie-talkies? You’re slipping up, maybe, talking too fast, saying too much, losing your temper, falling, limbs flailing, out of control.

You set down the basket to replace a section of tubing that has fallen from one of the pots. But after you nestle the tube back into the peat moss, it falls out again. The plant above it is withered and brown. A lost cause.

The correct thing to do is to replace the dead plant with a small green seedling. You have a whole tray of them, small and eager, growing in a special tray along the far wall. You’ve done this dozens of times before. Clear out the old, make room for the new. But instead, you take the tube for the third time and jam it in the pot as deep as it can go. This time, it stays.

#


April 25th, 2018, 1:28pm

“Thirty-three Code One.”

The officer blows a bubble with his gum, pops it, and leans into his mic. “Thirty-three, go ahead.”

“Ten-twenty-three, 3250 Ames Street South.” The radio crackles. “Got a warrant to search, suspect inside, doors locked. Refusing entry. Been about ten minutes now.”

The officer stuffs another piece of gum into his mouth and revs the cruiser, his hands on the wheel. He puts on his sunglasses. “Copy. On my way.”

#

April 25th, 2018, 1:38pm

It’s a Wednesday afternoon. You’re in your office, your Nokia pressed to your ear, talking to Vince from the Dairy Queen. Behind you, someone’s been banging on the factory door for the past twenty minutes. But you don’t have time to deal with that right now, because Vince is complaining about how your product is total shit now, and how he’s going to get a different supplier, but you can’t afford to lose him, he’s one of your biggest clients—

Click.

You stuff the phone into your pocket. The pounding on the door grows louder, more chaotic. Like a pack of monkeys throwing random punches. Someone’s shouting. You go to answer it, but not before grabbing a few things from your drawer and putting them in the deep, baggy pockets of your jacket, the one you wear constantly because you’re cold all the damn time now.

Briefly, you squeeze your eyes shut. Inhale. You crack open the door.

You’re immediately thrown backward as cops rush in, one after another after another after another, three, four, seven, eight, too many to count. A sea of blue uniforms. Like liquid, they pour into every empty space in the lobby, the hallway, then the factory. The factory! Your heart races as you swim past them through the heavy steel door, which you stupidly left unlocked thanks to your addled mind, your foggy forgetfulness.

The white-coated workers stare and whisper as the cops march down the center aisle, weave around machines, duck under tables, open supply closet doors. They elbow the workers out of the way, telling them to ‘step aside’ like they’re pesky ragamuffin kids. You march to one of the officers, clenching your cane, because no one talks to your employees that way. But the officer holds up his arm, repels you.

“We got a warrant to search the place,” he says in a thick Chicago accent, smacking gum. “For illegal substances.”

You step back, watching the scene like you would a car crash: it’s horrible, but you can’t make yourself stop. They’re all over your space, combing over every inch of the factory floor with no sign of stopping, wiping their filthy shoes on your floor, dirtying the air with their cigarette and chocolate donut breath. It makes you feel naked, the way they’re poking around, tinkering, moving things without your permission. It’s like they’re messing with your mind.

The officer with the bubblegum points you to the lobby, tells you to wait there until the search is over. You hate that you actually follow this order, that you’re actually listening to this guy who probably started shaving yesterday.

Two more cops immediately flank you, lead you to one of your own couches. You bury your head in your hands. Why are they here? Well, you know why. But who told them? Who tipped them off?

You see another officer walking the perimeter of the lobby, running his hand along the wall. He stops at the empty metal shelving unit. Traces the seam on the wall with his fingers. Your stomach plummets.

The officer rears back and pushes the shelves. The wall groans, splits at the seam, and rotates inward. He pushes again, harder. “Hey guys, over here!”

Three more cops sprint over, brace themselves against the shelves. One, two, three,and they push the wall completely away, revealing a small, dark doorway.

You want to kick yourself. You’ve gotten too careless, too cocky. Stupid, stupid, stupid. You should have done a better job of painting, caulking, plastering the wall, disguising the entrance. You should have thrown some props on the shelves, boxes maybe, photographs, jars of cherries, you don’t know, but it’s pointless now. Pointless.

Another officer taps you on the shoulder. A lady cop. She gets right in your face. “We’re gonna get a warrant to search behind the wall, and it’s gonna be an hour or so, so you need to wait here.” She says this slowly, in a do-you-understand kind of way, like you’re a kid, or an idiot, or the batty old stodge that you are. All you can do is nod.

It’s fine, you tell yourself. There’s another door behind the entrance. It’s locked. And the key is in your pocket. They have no way in.

But as the minutes drag on, you can’t stand it anymore. You tap your foot, run your knotty, disgusting old man corpse hands over your head, anything to keep you busy. They can’t get in, you try to tell yourself. You’re safe.

Still, you imagine them storming the entrance, swarming the basement, stomping through the orderly rows you spent months building, bumping into tables, shaking the leaves. You imagine them coming back with garbage bags and plastic gloves, ripping the plants from their troughs, scattering peat moss on the floor, dumping the disembodied leaves and stalks like body parts into the bags. They’ll clear out the tables, the tubes, the pots, and spray the walls, the floors, the ceilings, until there is nothing left but a big white room, with no trace of your hard work or desperation to save the factory above.

And then it sinks in. For the first time you allow yourself to think the thought you know is true: it doesn’t matter that you hid everything for this long. It doesn’t matter that you have the key. They’ve come this far. They’ll get in. They’ll find a way. You no longer have control.

So you quietly excuse yourself and duck into the supply closet, just off the lobby. You lock the door from the inside.

You pull out your cell phone. After a moment of hesitation, you dial, then press the phone to your ear as the cops start to jiggle the doorknob.

#


April 25th, 2018, 1:51pm

“Hello? Dad?”

Molly glances into the rearview mirror before changing lanes. In the backseat, Savannah is kicking her legs back and forth, playing her Nintendo DS, singing along quietly to Taylor Swift on the radio. “Can’t stop, won’t stop moving, it’s like I got this music—”

Molly hears him say something, but it’s faint. She presses her phone to her ear. “What was that?” she says. “Dad, I can’t hear you.”

She approaches a stop sign, and as she brakes, she takes her remaining hand off the wheel and shuts off the radio. Savannah groans. “Put the music on! Put the music on! Put the—”

“—Savannah, honey, I need to talk to Grandpa. Please be quiet.”

Molly starts driving again, slowly, trying to concentrate on what he’s saying now. It’s garbled. He sounds like he’s breathing hard. She hears some knocking in the background, along with other voices. “Dad? What is it? What’s wrong?”

She swerves, narrowly avoiding a curb. Someone honks at her. She clenches the wheel harder. He’s lost somewhere, she thinks, dread rising in her throat. Maybe he’s wandering around, in some alley in Englewood or something, although what would he even be doing there? It’s three-thirty. He should be at work. He’s always at work, no matter how much she tells him to take a break.

This is all her fault. She should’ve been with him today, at the factory, to make sure he didn’t wander off. She should have made sure he stayed safe. She clenches the wheel. “Dad? Talk to me. Please.”

Shallow breathing. More pounding. More shouting.

“Come to the factory,” Dad finally says.

#

April 25th, 2018, 2:10pm

The cops scream at you to come out right now. This isn’t funny. Come out, they say, or we’ll knock down the door. They pound their fists on the flimsy wood, like spoiled, smelly toddlers who got their favorite toy taken away. The door rattles, threatening to splinter. But now you are calm.

Inside the closet, a mirror hangs from a rusty nail. You turn and take a long look at your droopy, pockmarked face, those hollow, dark eyes. A face like a rotting peach, and behind it a brain past its expiration date. This is who you have become.

From one pocket, you take out a jar of small cherries.

From the other, you take out your pistol.

You close your eyes and transport yourself back in time, to the original brick-and-barrel cherry store. To the sunlight filtering in through tall windows overlooking Lake Michigan. A pyramid of jars in the storefront window, stamped with the Markovich’s logo. A single modest vat in the center of the room, a deep glistening pool of maraschino syrup. Your grandfather, putting a large hand on your skinny nine-year-old shoulder, telling you that the business would be yours someday. Your father, beckoning you to his hospital bed thirty-six years later, handing you the keys to the factory.

All empires fall, you tell yourself. But it wasn’t supposed to happen now. It wasn’t supposed to be you. You had built it, all on your own. You were the one who saved the business all those years ago. And now it’s toppling, crumbling, melting like a sundae in hundred-degree heat. You did this. You failed. You failed your grandfather, your father, everyone. And you’re so, so, so sorry.

“Dad? Dad? Are you in there?”

Molly’s voice rings like a bell. Just in time.

You quietly unscrew the jar and place a single cherry on your tongue. You lift the gun to your temple.

“Dad, talk to me. Say something. Please.”

You bite the cherry, chew, and swallow. How many of these have you had over the years? No matter. The barrel of the gun is cold against your skin.

“Please,” she says again.

All empires fall. But maybe, somehow, Molly can take the wreckage you created and put it back together. It’s her turn now, whether you like it or not.

At this moment you realize everything is quiet. Someone has turned off the factory machinery. The cops outside have ceased their stomping and shouting. All you hear is the rattle and gasp of your lungs, the windchime wheeze of your own breath.

You start to open your mouth, your rehearsed good-bye on the tip of your tongue. But Molly starts to speak.

“Remember,” she says quietly, “the day you took me to the orchard with Mom? You pulled me out of school, sometime in March. We drove five hours to Indiana, just to see the cherry blossoms.”

You sigh. You know exactly what she’s trying to do. And it’s not going to work. “You were only six. How do you remember that?”

“When we got out of the car, the trees…seemed to go on for forever, in every direction. They were the brightest pink I’d ever seen. Even pinker than that Barbie dream house you got me for Christmas.” Her words tumble out faster, a sudden downpour.

Your fingers on the trigger start to cramp, sending shocks of pain down your arm. Enough already, you want to scream at Molly. Just leave me alone for once!

“You took my hand,” Molly continues. “You took my hand and we ran together through the rows of the pink trees, up and down the hills. It was amazing. Like running through paradise. It was the best day of my life. Remember?”

As she starts to cry, something uncoils in your chest. It wasn’t supposed to go this way. You were supposed to be long gone by now, on your own terms, a big fuck you to Molly and the police and everyone else who’s tried to undermine and control you and tell you how to run your factory, your life. You adjust your sweaty fingers to keep them from slipping from the gun. You can do this. Won’t it be amazing, you tell yourself, to achieve a final act of victory after failure after failure after failure?

“Daddy,” Molly sobs, rattling the doorknob. “Please, come out. I need you. Savannah needs you. I love you. Please…just please come out. I’m sorry. I’m sorry!”

Nice try, you think, forcing yourself to ignore her cries. It’s a trap. When you come out, she’ll snatch your keys and throw you into Sunshine Demons Nursing Home to rot while she burns the factory to the ground.

Molly sobs harder. A blip of doubt crosses you like a distant passing plane.

There’s no way she actually cares. Right?

But if you didn’t want her to come, why did you call her?

If she doesn’t actually care, why did she come?

You close your eyes and suddenly you’re under a brilliant blue sky, breathing hard after running for what felt like miles. Pink petals whirl in the wind and caress your arm, kisses of silk. A tiny hand tugs at your shirt. You lift your daughter onto your shoulders, and she wraps her arms around your neck and squeals. More laughter, behind you. When you turn around, your beautiful, smiling wife lifts her Polaroid camera and snaps a photo.

“April,” you say.

Molly sniffles. “What?”

“It was in April,” you mutter. Your eyes prickle. “If that was the best day of your life, you need to get the facts straight.”

You lay down the gun. You’re not stupid enough to think that this is the end to all of your problems, that you will be greeted on the other side with unicorns and rainbows and all of that vomity happily-ever-after crap. Never. But you’ve decided that it’s not the end, period.

Taking a deep breath, you reach out and slowly turn the knob. The lock’s hidden tumblers shift and rotate beneath your hand, clearing the way, until at last the door you have kept closed for so long finally opens.

#


THE SOUTHEAST CHICAGO OBSERVER

April 26th, 2018

Caught Red-Handed: Marijuana Farm Discovered Below South Chicago Cherry Factory

Those who live near Markovich’s Cherry Company in South Chicago say they can always smell the cherries, even from blocks away. “The smell is so strong, you could hide a dead body in the factory and no one would know,” joked one woman, who desired to remain anonymous.

But over the past year, several residents and passersby filed complaints about a different kind of smell, leading investigators to discover a sprawling marijuana-growing operation in Markovich’s, hidden in a secret basement accessible by a false wall disguised as a shelving unit.

After several officers discovered this false wall while searching the factory, the owner, Oscar Markovich, 76, locked himself in a supply closet with a handgun, intent on ending his life.

But soon after, his daughter Molly Markovich, 35, arrived on the scene and convinced him to come out. After embracing her, he immediately collapsed. He is now being treated at Sacred Heart Hospital for shock and mild concussion.

He is expected to make a speedy recovery as he faces charges for marijuana possession, sale, and cultivation.

We had no idea he was hiding pot,” said Johnny Phillips, one of the factory’s employees. “I don’t know how, since I was, you know, working there every day, but he must’ve been careful. Not careful enough, I guess.”

Markovich’s Cherry Company is the largest producer of maraschino cherries in the state of Illinois, as well as a family business, with Oscar Markovich as the fourth-generation owner. Since his arrest, his daughter Molly has assumed ownership of the factory, which is closed until further notice during the investigation.

I’m shocked. He must have been struggling so much,” she said. “I found a whole drawer of files in his office the other day. Business was doing so poorly, and he didn’t even tell anyone. I could have helped him, you know. He didn’t have the break the law. But I guess he wanted to fix it himself. That’s what he’s always done.”

He really cares about the factory,” said Phillips. “But maybe he lost his mind a little. It’s sad, real sad, how someone like him could go downhill like that.”

Molly Markovich says she’s not going to waste any time. “I’m going to make this right,” she said, holding back tears. “He gave me his keys. I’ll get the business up and running again. I’ll make him proud.”

Meanwhile, Oscar Markovich is taking the events surprisingly well. “Of course I’ll go to prison,” he said from his hospital bed. His dark eyes seemed to shine with buried secrets. “But if you expect me to rot in a cell, you’re dead wrong. Someone has to teach my daughter how to run the factory.”

Categories: Fiction

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