Page 42 of Wheels

This - though Zaleski had neither the philosophy to see it, nor power to change the system if he had - was a reason why North American automobiles were generally of poorer quality than those from Germany, where less rigid factory systems gave workers a sense of individuality and craftsmen's pride.

As it was, Frank Parkland did the best he could.

It was Parkland who ended Rollie's status as a relief man and assigned him to a regular line station. Afterward, Parkland moved Rollie around to other jobs on the assembly line, but at least without the bewildering hour-by-hour changes he endured before. Also, a reason for the moves was that Rollie, increasingly, could handle the more difficult, tricky assignments, and Parkland told him so.

A fact of life which Rollie discovered at this stage was that while most assembly line jobs were hard and demanding, a few were soft touches. Installing windshields was one of the soft ones. Workers doing this, however, were cagey when being watched, and indulged in extra, unneeded motions to make their task look tougher. Rollie worked on windshields, but only for a few days because Parkland moved him back down the line to one of the difficult jobs - scrabbling and twisting around inside car bodies to insert complicated wiring harnesses. Later still, Rollie handled a "blind operation"- the toughest kind of all, where bolts had to be inserted out of sight, then tightened, also by feel alone.

That was the day Parkland confided to him, "It isn't a fair system. Guys who work best, who a foreman can rely on, get the stinkingest jobs and a lousy deal. The trouble is, I need somebody on those bolts who I know for sure'll fix 'em and not goof off."

For Frank Parkland, it was an offhand remark. But to Rollie Knight it represented the first time that someone in authority had leveled with him, had criticized the system, told him something honest, something which he knew to be true, and had done it without bullshit.

Two things resulted. First, Rollie fitted every out-of-sight bolt correctly, utilizing a developing manual skill and an improved physique which regular eating now made possible. Second, he began observing Parkland carefully.

After a while, while not going so far as admiration, he saw the foreman as a non-bullshitter who treated others squarely - black or white, kept his word, and stayed honestly clear of the crap and corruption around him.

There had been few people in Rollie's life of whom he could say, or think, as much.

Then, as happens when people elevate others beyond the level of human frailty, the image was destroyed.

Rollie had been asked, once more, if he would help run numbers in the plant. The approach was by a lean, intense young black with a scar-marred face, Daddy-o Lester, who worked for stockroom delivery and was known to combine his work with errands for plant numbers bankers and the loan men. Rumor tied the scar, which ran the length of Daddy-o's face, to a knifing after he defaulted on a loan. Now he worked at the rackets' opposite end. Daddy-o assured Rollie, leaning into the work station where he had just delivered stock, "These guys like you. But they get the idea you don't like them, they liable to get rough."

Unimpressed, Rollie told him, "Your fat mouth don't scare me none. Beat it!"

Rollie had decided, weeks before, that he would play the numbers, but no more.

Daddy-o persisted, "A man gotta do something to show he's a man, an' you ain't." As an afterthought, he added, "Leastways, not lately."

More for something to say than with a specific thought, Rollie protested,

"For Cri-sakes, how you fixin' I'd take numbers here, with a foreman around."

Frank Parkland, at that moment, hove into view.

Daddy-o said contemptuously, "Screw that motha! He don't make trouble. He gets paid off."

"You lyin'."

"If I show you I ain't, that mean you're in?"

Rollie moved from the car he had been working on, spat beside the line, then climbed into the next. For a reason he could not define, uneasy doubts were stirring. He insisted, "Your word ain't worth nothin'. You show me first."

Next day, Daddy-o did.

Under pretext of a delivery to Rollie Knights work station he revealed a grubby, unsealed envelope which he opened sufficiently for Rollie to see the contents - a slip of yellow paper and two twenty-dollar bills.

"Okay, fella," Daddy-o said. "Now watch!"

He walked to the small, stand-up desk which Parkland used - at the moment unoccupied - and lodged the envelope under a paperweight. Then he approached the foreman, who was down the line, and said something briefly. Parkland nodded. Without obvious haste, though not wasting time, the foreman returned to the desk where he took up the envelope, glanced briefly under the flap, then thrust it in an inside pocket.

Rollie, watching between intervals of working, needed no explanation.

Nothing could be plainer than that the money was a bribe, a payoff.

Through the rest of that day, Rollie worked less carefully, missing several bolts entirely and failing to tighten others. Who the hell cared? He wondered why he was surprised. Didn't everything stink? It always had. Wasn't everybody on the take in every way? These people; all people. He remembered the course instructor who persuaded him to endorse checks, then stole Rollie's and other trainees'money. The instructor was one; now Parkland was another, so why should Rollie Knight be different?

That night Rollie told May Lou, "You know what this scumbag world is made of, baby? Bullshit! There ain't nothing in this whole wide world but bullshit."

Later the same week he began working for the plant numbers gang.

Chapter 15

The portion of northern Michigan which encloses Higgins Lake is described by the local Chamber of Commerce as 'Playtime Country.'

Adam Trenton, Brett DeLosanto, and others attending Hank Kreisel's cottage weekend in late May, found the description apt.

The Kreisel 'cottage' - in fact, a spacious, luxuriously appointed, multibedroomed lodge was on the west shoreline of Higgins Lake's upper section. The entire lake forms a shape resembling a peanut or a fetus, the choice of description depending, perhaps, on the kind of stay a visitor happens to be having.

Adam located the lake and cottage without difficulty after driving alone on Saturday morning by way of Pontiac, Saginaw, Bay City, Midland, and Harrison - most of the two-hundred-mile journey on Interstate 75. Beyond the cities he found the Michigan countryside lushly green, aspen beginning to shimmer and the shad-blow in full bloom. The air was sweetly fresh.

Sunshine beamed from a near-cloudless sky. Adam had been depressed on leaving home but felt his spirits rise as his wheels devoured the journey northward.

The depression stemmed from an argument with Erica.

Several weeks ago, when he informed her of the invitation to a stag weekend party, which Brett DeLosanto had conveyed, she merely remarked,

"Well, if they don't want wives, I'll have to find something to do myself, won't I?" At the time, her reasonableness gave Adam second thoughts about going at all; he hadn't been keen to begin with, but yielded to Brett's insistence about wanting Adam to meet Brett's supplier friend, Hank Kreisel. Finally, Adam decided to leave things the way they were.

But Erica had obviously not made plans of her own, and this morning when he got up and began packing a few things, she asked, "Do you really have to go?" When he assured her at this stage he did because he had promised, she inquired pointedly, "Does 'stag' mean no women or merely no wives?"

"No women," he answered, not knowing if it were true or not, though suspecting not, because he had attended suppliers' weekend parties before.

"I'll bet!" They were in the kitchen by then, Erica brewing coffee and managing to bang the pot about. "And I suppose there'll be nothing stronger to drink than milk or lemonade."

He snapped back, "Whether there is or isn't, it'll be a damn sight more congenial than around here."

"And who makes it uncongenial?"

Adam had lost his temper then. "I'll be goddamned if I know. But if it's me, I don't seem to have that effect on others apart from you."

"Then go to your blasted others!" At that, Erica had thrown a coffee cup at him - fortunately empty - and, also fortunately, he caught it neatly and set it down unbroken. Or perhaps it wasn't fortunate because he had started to laugh, which made Erica madder than ever, and she stormed out, slamming the kitchen door behind her. Thoroughly angry himself by this time, Adam had flung his few things in the car and driven away.

Twenty miles up the road the whole thing seemed ludicrous, as married squabbles so often are in retrospect, and Adam knew if he had stayed home the whole thing would have blown over by midmorning. Later, near Saginaw, and feeling cheerful because of the kind of day it was, he tried to telephone home, but there was no answer. Erica had obviously gone out.

He decided he would call again later.

Hank Kreisel greeted Adam on arrival at the Higgins Lake cottage, Kreisel managing to look simultaneously trim and casual in immaculately pressed Bermuda shorts and an Hawaiian shirt, his lean, lanky figure as militarily erect as always. When they had introduced themselves, Adam parked his car among seven or eight others - all late models in the luxury ranges.

Kreisel nodded toward the cars. "Few people came last night. Some still sleeping. More arriving later." He took Adam's overnight bag, then escorted him onto a timbered, covered walkway which extended around the cottage from the roadway side. The cottage itself was solidly built, with exterior walls of log siding and a central gable, supported by massive hand-hewn beams. Down at lake level was a floating dock at which several boats were moored.