By Stefani Nellen
"Mirko van de Feen?" The small man sucked in his beard-stubbled cheeks. The milk factory's thudding and chugging boomed through the walls of his smoke-stained office. "The new student?"
"Yeah," I said.
He led me out of his office, onto a steel-grid balcony that wrapped around the factory hall. I stumbled after him, my leather briefcase rubbing against my trousers. My girlfriend, Marleen, had dressed me up for the occasion.
"I prepared a presentation for the management," I told the small man's jerking back. "We talked about it on the phone. Your factory could profit from an automated scheduler."
The man grabbed the handrail and swung around the corner onto a steep staircase. He trotted down fast, faster. I dove after him into the chomping dance of conveyor belts, forklifts, and mechanical graspers. Milk splashed into glass bottles and cardboard cartons. It squirted from silver nozzles. Its scent, already on the verge of turning sour, hovered over the noise and rose from the stone floor. Hairy pink udders sucked dry by rubber pumps had been at the start of this process, which ended in the familiar sight of green and yellow flowers on the cartons and bottles. We bought this milk in supermarkets, one pack at a time, two at most. Around us were thousands.
The small man zigzagged between the machines and the workers.
I clutched my briefcase with my right hand and formed a semi-tube around my mouth with the other. "It's challenging to anticipate demands and adapt your supplies!" The conveyor belt to my left ground to a halt. "This is where I come in!" A signal rang, someone cursed. I hurried through a steam cloud, faster, latching on to the man's back with my looks.
When we'd reached the end of the hall, the small man opened a door to a locker room.
"Your gear and your time card are in here. Swipe your card at the main entrance and meet me outside door three."
I panted. "My presentation?"
He shook his head. "You're here for the student job, van de Feen. That's all. I don't know who talked to you on the phone."
I had practiced my arguments in Marleen's room. She had pretended to be the manager of the milk factory, with a painted moustache and a pillow for a gut. Now, after our chase through the noise, my speech spilled out. "You're dealing with a fixed population of dairy cows. Hence, you have a fixed supply of milk. Maximum efficiency can be achieved by predicting the fluctuating demands in different parts of the province or even the country."
The man cocked his head and chewed on his cheeks. Although we were standing still, my breath wouldn't calm down. Outside, a whistle blew and the chugging picked up pace.
"I worked for a nursing home last summer," I said.
The man wiped his nose.
"In Assen," I said. "They had a rotating menu and needed a computer program to alert them when they needed to purchase new groceries. I wrote that program. It also compared prices and gave them the cheapest offers."
"Cute." The man turned around. "We don't need anything like this here. I'll see you outside in five minutes. And don't forget to swipe that card." He left.
The locker wasn't much bigger than a toilet stall, and quite dark. It vibrated with the rhythm of the factory like a pod swallowed by a beast. I put my briefcase on the rough tiles, where it stood like a prop, and turned to inspect my working gear. A stained orange rubber apron and a pair of goggles hung on a hook. Orange rubber gloves and the time card lay on a stool. The tips of orange rubber boots protruded from beneath the stool. A club with spikes leaned in the corner.
The items taunted me, as if I couldn't possibly understand or handle them. Marlene's bedroom and my Osborne 1 floated in an irrelevant space far away from the club's glistening spikes and the black duct tape wrapped around its handle, where another had left his mark.
I put on the apron on top of suit and turned around. The rubber pushed against my knees. I put my black leather shoes next to the briefcase, put on boots, gloves, and goggles, shouldered the club, and went to door three, not without swiping the card on the way.
Door three led to the open air. A fresh breeze lifted my apron. Green flats washed against the metallic cube of the milk factory behind me.
The small man waited for me and kneaded his upper arms. "Still cold." He pointed down a dent in the lawn. At its bottom sat a heap of yellow-and-green tetra-packs. Milk Cartons. "We don't need those. Smash them."
"Smash the packs in there. Someone will come and pick up the cartons later on. This is your quota for today." He rubbed his hands.
"Why do they have to be smashed...?"
"Because no-one wants to buy them. Have fun, van de Feen." And away he went.
He didn't turn around to tell me that this was a traditional joke they played on new geeks. It wasn't a joke. He left me out in the green, cold morning with my student job. I had been right about the factory. Inside, milk was sucked, spurted and packaged, only to soak the grass out here. I should've snuck back inside, get rid of the orange rubber gear, pick up my briefcase, and try to talk to someone higher up in the chain.
Instead I swung the club and prodded my boots with its tip.
I had never wielded a club before.
My energy-rich potato and bacon breakfast filled my stomach, ready to fuel me. When I walked towards the mountain of milk cartons, my rubber boots slurped in the muddy grass.
I would go back inside and speak to someone in charge soon. I'd show them my tables and projected gains, my utility computations and histograms. My presentation's words huddled somewhere in my brain, unscathed.
Meanwhile, I would spend some time determining my smashing technique. I placed one carton on the ground in front of me. It looked very small and scared as it sat there, awaiting my blow, crystals of condensed water covering its simple flower pattern. With a growl, I let the club crash onto the carton.
Note 1: A little milk goes a long way, squirting-wise. Good thing about the boots.
The next carton shrunk, terrified next to its slain brother. Aiming for minimal squirting, I ground the club into the carton, aiming away from me.
Note 2: A decrease in whacking speed increases pain in the shoulder muscles.
Systematic exploration revealed my strength to be quick and dirty smashing. Slow pokes hurt my back. Dramatic baseball-swings strained my shoulders and chest. I placed the victim in front of my feet and let gravity drag down my club, assisting his pull at the last possible moment with a short and merciful smack.
I forgot about time for a while, until a harsh voice jerked me out of my smashing trance.
"Van de Feen? Are you nuts?" It was the small man.
"This is you quota for today. Today, van de Feen. You haven't even smashed a third. You have two more hours, and either these packs are gone by then, or you are. Smash ‘em. You hear?"
My suit clung to my skin. I removed my goggles. "I do," I panted, "have ideas that might help you out of this inefficient strategy of smashing this milk. Wouldn't you like to have exactly as much milk available as you actually need? My on-time-scheduler enables you to do exactly that! By updating its database, you will…"
The man walked towards me.
The oxygen-saturated air blazed through my lungs. "Let me speak to your manager."
The small man reached for my neck, picked up my goggles and put them back on my eyes. He said, "Agricultural Subsidizing, van de Feen."
Plastic encased me. My world became a tight, smelly affair.
The small man said, "we're paid each unit of milk we produce. Provided it's properly packaged."
My hands oozed sweat in the orange gloves. "Why don't you let a machine smash the cartons?"
His grin exposed two triangular yellow teeth. "Because we have standards."
A gust of wind cooled my face, except my goggle-protected eyes, which sat in nests of swollen lids. "I must warn you. You're enjoying a very local optimum here."
The small man grinned and kicked my club, a fraternal gesture. "That word sounds familiar. One of our former students must have used it. Local optimum. Very local, yes, but an optimum nonetheless. Happy smashing."
The milk mountain was too colossal to be attacked systematically. I threw myself into its side. The cartons toppled over. I crawled out of the mess towards my club and started to work. After the milk massacre, sweat and milk drenched me, my arms shook, and my throat throbbed. Despite the gloves, blisters covered my fingers. When the small man took me to the shower room, I felt sick.
But oh, I also felt good.
On the train home, I stroked my smooth leather briefcase. Tomorrow, I'd talk to them. Certainly, they'd listen to me, now that I'd wallowed in their blood?
Stefani Nellen's background is in Cognitive Science and Psychology, which she studied in Heidelberg and Pittsburgh. She lives in Pittsburgh and Groningen (the Netherlands) with her husband. Her fiction appeared or is forthcoming in LabLit - the Culture of Science in Fiction and Fact and Bound Off. She's the co-editor of the Steel City Review.
Photo "Milk," courtesy of Brian S., Jakarta, Indonesia.
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