Happy Valentine’s Day! To celebrate, enjoy the following excerpt from Russell Roberts’s The Invisible Heart: An Economic Romance.
George Sutherland rubs his eyes and goes over to the rusty basin in the corner of his motel room in hopes of finding a little bit of hot water this morning. He is sick of Mexico. Sick of the dirt, sick of his job, and sick with longing for his wife and children back in Ohio. He has been in Mexico for almost four months, two months overseeing the construction of the HealthNet factory that has taken the place of the one in Matalon and two months making sure everything is running smoothly. In a week he will turn the plant over to the new permanent manager.
George throws on the same clothes he wore yesterday and goes out to the pickup truck. The engine hesitates, no more eager than George to face another day, but George nurses it to life. He heads for the airstrip on the edge of town.
Along the way he passes a jumble of corrugated tin shacks in an open field. A goat and a pair of chickens wander here and there among half-naked children. The children hurry to the side of the road and wave wildly. George grins in response and waves back.
He is picking up two VIPs from corporate headquarters in Virginia, coming in this morning. There is no airport, just asmall airstrip for private planes. George parks the truck by the chain-link fence surrounding the airstrip and waits. His mind is a blank. He just wants to get this tour of duty over with, collect his money and head back to Ohio. He passes the time staring off into the distance, thinking about his wife and kids. After about thirty minutes, a small jet touches down. It coasts to a stop across from George’s truck. The plane’s door opens and two people clamber out.
The first is a young man, much younger than George had expected. He can’t be more than thirty-five. He wears a suit. The woman who steps down after him is even younger, maybe thirty, tops. She is dressed casually in chinos, a simple white T-shirt, and a photographer’s vest. George waves to them and catches their attention. They head his way.
“George Sutherland, Interim Plant Manager. Welcome to Mexico,” he says.
The young man hesitates. George smiles. He must have expected a more elegant greeting party.
“Hello,” says the young man finally, extending a hand in greeting. “Rob Blankenship, Director of Public Relations, HealthNet. And this is Alice—she’s a photographer.”
Alice who? George thinks, wondering at the man’s rudeness. He suspects this is Blankenship’s first trip to Mexico. In addition to the expensive suit he wears, he carries an overnighter of buttery leather that must be worth a month’s wages for most Mexicans. Blankenship is not happy climbing into a very dusty pickup truck in his nice suit. Alice is distracted—her eyes search the landscape, seeing it for the first time. She wears a big Nikon around her neck and carries a large bag full of more equipment. They climb into the truck. Both passengers carry their bags on their laps. Blankenship does not want his $300 leather bag to bounce around in the back. Alice is concerned for her cameras.
“Sorry about the truck,” George says. “This is about as clean as you can get anything down here.”
“So how is the plant coming along?” Blankenship asks. He does not want to think about the truck.
“It’s fine. Everything is just about in place. On schedule. You’ll get some good pictures.”
“They’re for our annual report. I also need some background for a press release now that the plant is operational with all of the bugs worked out.”
George grimaces. The bugs have been worked out from day one.
“Alice here is one of our best freelancers,” Blankenship continues. “She can make a factory look like a cathedral. Or whatever you want. We had a plant in—”
“Stop the truck!” Alice shouts suddenly.
George screeches to a stop. He sees nothing. Alice, who sits at the window, is out of the truck in a flash. She is heading for the jumble of huts, goats and kids that George passed on the way to the airport. The kids swarm around her. A goat tries to nuzzle his way to the center. When the kids discover that she wants to take their picture, they become even more animated. It takes Alice a while to calm them down so that she can start shooting.
“Artists,” Blankenship laughs. “Only an artist can find poverty picturesque. So these are the homeless?” he asks.
“I’m afraid not.” George answers patiently. “This is where most of our workers live. That woman over there hanging out laundry is the wife of one of our supervisors.”
Blankenship is stunned into silence. George can’t decide who he feels sorrier for, the workers back in Ohio who have been replaced by the parents of these kids, or the Mexicans who are working twelve hours a day for a fraction of what his friends back in Ohio used to make.
“People here make about $8 a day,” George continues. “A supervisor might make $10. That comes out to a little more than $2,000 a year. You can’t afford much of a mortgage on that when you have six kids.”
“I knew we moved this plant here to save money. I just never realized how the people here live.”
“That’s how they live.” And that’s how they die, George thinks to himself.The two men sit in silence in the dusty cab. A few minutes later, Alice climbs back into the cab, shaking her head in amazement. “Those children have beautiful faces. So innocent, yet so—. . .” She searches for the word.
“I don’t care about those kids, Alice,” Blankenship interrupts.
“Give me that film.”
“Some of those families are HealthNet employees. Just give me the film. We don’t need those pictures turning up somewhere they don’t belong by mistake. Just give me the film.”
Alice’s shoulders slump. She opens the back of the camera and gives him the film. Blankenship pulls the film out from the canister exposing it to the air. The three ride on in silence for the ten minutes it takes to get to the factory.
“This looks like a perfect replica of the plant in Matalon,” Blankenship says cheerily as George pulls into the parking lot.
“From the outside. Inside it’s a little, well, simpler.”
“What do you mean?”
“There’s none of the safety equipment we have back in the plant there. There’s no OSHA to force us to put it in. Out here, if we have a higher accident rate, there are no worker’s comp payments to worry about.” George tries to say it matter-of-factly but he’s angry with the way things are run.
Blankenship hears it. He reddens slightly but says nothing. While Blankenship goes off to find a phone to check his voice mail back in Virginia, George takes Alice to the main floor of the factory. She flits from place to place like a small bird, full of nervous energy, looking for the right angles. George envies hervision. He can’t understand what she’s doing working for HealthNet. Everyone makes compromises, he guesses.
“Let me know if I can help you with anything,” he offers.
“I’m sorry about your pictures back there.”
“That’s OK. Blankenship isn’t just a jerk. He’s also a fool.
That camera he took the film from was the second one I had used, with a different lens. There are plenty of good shots on a roll of film in my first camera back in my bag. He missed those.”
“Could you do me a favor? Can you make a set for me?” He stopped and took out his wallet. “Here’s my card with my home address back in Ohio. Can you send me a set? And tell me how I can get in touch with you back in the States?”
“Sure. You like pictures of kids and goats?” Alice smiles.
“Yeah. Kids and goats. Thanks.”
The rest of the day seems endless. Alice explores the factory while George spends the day taking care of Blankenship, giving him information about the factory and making sure he stays happy. George almost feels sorry for him. Blankenship has a constant need to assert his authority. Maybe he has so little back in Virginia, coming to Mexico gives him a chance to bully people. George doesn’t care. He just wants to get rid of him. There is only another week of work here before he is finished and can return to the States.
Finally George takes his guests back to the airstrip where pilot and plane are dutifully waiting. Then he returns to the plant. The sun is almost on the horizon. Shadows dapple his desk, but he leaves the lights off. He picks up the phone and dials home to his wife Cathy in Ohio. He tells her about the tribulations of theday, playing host to the young executive from Virginia. As the sun goes down, the Mexican countryside beyond the window blurs and softens. George asks about the kids.
“They’re fine,” she answers.
There is something in her voice, some hesitation that alerts him.
“What’s wrong?” George asks.
“Really, they’re fine.”
“Come on, Cathy. Tell me what’s going on. I need to hear about them. I want to help.”
“They’re OK. They’re just having a tough time in school. You know how kids are.”
“What are they saying?”
“Oh, George I don’t know exactly, you know how kids talk. They—”
“What are they saying, Cathy?” George finds his voice rising despite his efforts.
“They’re saying their Dad’s a traitor. You know what a union town Matalon is.” Cathy waits for the explosion. But it doesn’t come.
“Do you remember the first time you saw ‘The Bridge Over the River Kwai?’” he says quietly.
“Sure.” She has no idea where this is heading but she is relieved that George is calm.
“I do too. I don’t know why I remember, but I saw it at the drive-in.”
“Hey! Who’d you go with?”
“Relax. I was only eleven. I was with my folks. So I actually saw the movie.”.
“It’s always been one of my favorites,” he continues. George is sitting in the dark now, the office shrouded in shadows. The darkness has closed the distance between them. He has almost forgotten that he is in Mexico and that his wife is a few thousand miles away to the north and east. “Alec Guiness, the British officer, cooperates with his Japanese captors in building a bridge. While he knows that the Japanese are the enemy, he sees the building of the bridge as a way to restore the morale of his men. When I took this job in Mexico I knew I might have regrets. But I took it for us. We needed the money. It’s that simple. I also thought it would be good for my morale to stay busy. And it’s only temporary. But maybe I’ve just been fooling myself. I feel like Alec Guiness at the end of that movie. I’m a collaborator with the enemy. I feel dirty. I—”
“Oh, honey. You didn’t have a choice. We’ve got a mortgage to pay. And mouths to feed. The other people at the plant wouldn’t have turned it down either. We were lucky. But you didn’t shut down the plant here. HealthNet did. And no one here in town could have started up that new plant there. Would you feel better if they gave the job to a stranger and we were going hungry?”
“I know you’re right. But I still feel bad about it. And I’m sorry to put you through all of this. I just pray something turns up soon that’s permanent.”
“Any new mail?”
“No, honey, nothing that matters.”
George has sent out forty letters to potential employers. Most have been answered with a brief form letter thanking him for sending his resume and letting him know that he will hear from them if something turns up.
“I know you’d have told me already. I have to ask. I can’t help it. I’m sorry. So how’s the town doing?” George asks.
“Awful. Not many people have found work. Soon people are going to start running out of money. Ed’s Appliance Store went broke last week. Nobody is going to be buying a new television for a while. Even Circuit City might be pulling out, they say.”
“Nope. And I ran into Susie at the grocery yesterday. She says Jack hasn’t sold five cars this month. They’re on their last legs. And that’s the best dealer in town. You can imagine what the others are doing. The town is falling apart, George. It’s falling apart.”
“There ought to be a law. But there isn’t. So we have to do the best we can. Don’t worry Cathy. We’ll make it somehow. And the town will too.”
“I love you, George.”
“I love you too, Cathy. I’ll talk to you soon.”
He lays the phone on its cradle and sits in the dark for a few moments, thinking about his wife, his kids, his town. Finally, he rouses himself out of the darkness and locks up the factory for the night. He didn’t tell his wife that part of his guilt comes from his love of the bricks and mortar. He is ashamed of the pride he takes in seeing this new factory completed, the workers hired, the equipment in place. But it’s beautiful to him. And he knows he has done the job well despite his bitterness.
Heading for the truck, he stops to admire the stars. Back home, the stars are so much dimmer. Here, they are a canopy of light lashed down to the horizon. He looks up at the splash of the Milky Way across the heavens and wonders how he will find a way to feel clean again. But the stars only wink and dance. He finds no answers there. The staccato bark of a coyote jerks him back to earth. He climbs into the truck and heads into the night.