It was noon when Hill showed up. Or perhaps he had always been there, silently supporting them since they arrived at six, but it was not until midday that they were aware of his presence.
They each remembered the moment. Even the insufferable daydreamer who saw the world in a fog understood what was going on when Hill cleared his throat and made his pronouncements.
The sun was a round yellow disc in the sky a few minutes before noon. The day was cold and the sky was hazy, so it seemed more like a throbbing, vaporous memory of itself than the actual sun. The sun was a distant and uncaring individual. It did not matter one whit to that ball of radiation that some people might die that day, trampled under the mad stampede of the grasping herd. The sun was completely unconcerned that some people might not have jobs the next day. It would still rise out of the east and float across the sky, completing its own job without enjoyment or relish.
A few people were standing outside a big box in front of an asphalt plain. They were abstaining from work that day because they had the audacity to expect to be treated like human beings.
Like the sun, the big box did not care about the plight of anyone or anything. It was a dust-colored work of architecture, only one story high, but it spread over a huge expanse of land; it was roughly the size of a small town. Any competition, any small fry that stood in its path had been laid to waste. The big box was a monster, but it was far from the only one. The nation was covered with boxes. Inside the belly of each of them was a bazaar where people could buy pretty much anything under the sun.
Some of these box monsters were glitzier than others, and some of the people who shopped inside their bellies looked down their noses at the people who shopped in the bellies of the less glitzy box monsters. They did not realize that the glitzy boxes were still monsters and their appetites were often more savage.
“So, let’s recap the history of this downward spiral for the benefit of posterity, why don’t we?” said Den Snowcroft.
“Yes, let’s,” said Calliope.
“Thank you ever so much for your support, Cal. This tragic never-ending story begins with the factories of our nation shuttered. People are laid off and their lives are thrown into disarray, as the plants relocate across the great vastness of the ocean to the Orient. All the goodies are manufactured by little children in sweatshops. It nearly broke my heart when I heard of this great atrocity, I tell you. I have always had a soft spot in my heart for the little children, but I digress.
“After they’re done working their hands to the bone in miserable conditions, the fruits of their labor are shipped back across the great vastness of the ocean, and we have to spend eight hours a day in a giant box hawking them. And on one gory day each year, throngs of maddened consumers surge inside and riot as if their inalienable rights had been violated, simply because they want a Tickle-Me Elmo or some other stupid thing. Is this all sinking in, Raine?”
“Good, I thought I saw you dazing off there. You tend to do that. Glad to see you’re paying attention. Where was I? Oh yes. We are rewarded for our services with slaves’ wages, which we use to buy our own groceries from the big box. That way, our money is guaranteed to end up back in the hands of the overseers. We lack sufficient medical care. We don’t even have the right to organize and humbly request for our lives to be bettered. Every morning, when our shift begins, we are required to group hug and cheer our oppressor’s name. We are the property of the box.
“So, this very morning on the day when people riot to get their hands on stuff, we have taken the day off to demonstrate for our rights. Tomorrow, it’s likely we will be fired.”
Den Snowcroft was waxing lyrical today, and his coworkers were grateful for the entertainment. It was chilly, and it was a good thing that there were diversions from the elements. Today, steam rose from their mouths and coffee cups. They were a brave crew of fire-breathing dragons going head to head with a monster.
“But we mustn’t let that discourage us for—” Snowcroft stopped speaking, because he suddenly noticed that a large man with a craggy face stood among them. He wore an old-fashioned cap that had, in recent years, become fashionable again and a comfortably dirty denim shirt with black pants and cowboy boots. His eyes were kind, but they blazed with righteous wrath. It was impossible to tell his age.
“Pardon me, I was just passing by after wrapping up some work in Chicago and I happened to notice your valiant struggle. Your determination is very inspiring. I want you to know that I’m with you 100% down to the bone.”
“Thank you,” said Snowcroft. “It’s nice to get some support for a change. A lot of people just walk on by.”
“Shame,” said the man. “Don’t they realize that what you’re doing will ultimately benefit everyone?”
“Someday they must wake up and smell the coffee.”
“Forgive me,” Snowcroft interjected, “but I haven’t had the pleasure of—”
“Ah, so we haven’t. Joseph Emmanuel Hillstrom, at your service.” He extended a calloused hand, which Snowcroft shook. “Seeing as you’re taking part in a noble tradition, you have my full permission to call me Joe Hill.”
“Hello, Joe. I’m Dennis Snowcroft, delighted to make your acquaintance. It was my idea for this protest. This is my lovely wife, Calliope. We work the same shift—she’s at aisle 4, I’m at aisle 5. We wave at each other a lot. These kids are Ally and Mike, they work in the bakery. Here’s Renny Jackson, custodial staff, and Sam Gabrielli, aisle 9. This is Jamie, he’s a greeter. This little guy here is Raine Nugent. I don’t know that much about him except he daydreams a lot and talks to himself in the bathroom.”
“Is that everyone?” Joe Hill asked. “Is anybody else going to come to take part in this noble cause?”
His voice sounded strange yet familiar. He had a slight, untraceable accent which drew out the vowels in words. He was speaking with a tone that suggested he came from an earlier era, but he also reminded Snowcroft of many people he had met before.
“I think this is it,” Snowcroft told him. “The protest wasn’t that popular an idea. The higher-ups told us specifically that we were forbidden to strike.”
Hill’s eyes flashed virulently at this.
“Typical,” he said bitterly. “While they themselves strike at you repeatedly with everything they’ve got in their arsenal.”
“I know,” said Raine Nugent, even though he didn’t fully understand.
“There’s other strikes going on at these boxes across the nation,” Snowcroft told Hill. “Hopefully, they’re more successful than this one.”
Hill looked steadily around, and for a second, his eyes were the saddest imaginable. “Listen, my friend; there was once a time when so many people turned out for a strike that the ones at the top would have been forced to listen.”
“Really?” asked Snowcroft.
“You betcha. I’ve been around the world and I’ve seen it all. I am old enough to recall when our constitutional right to assemble was trampled upon by armed thugs, some wearing the uniforms of police and soldiers.
“I spent some time once with a team of shipyard workers who faced down a bear. This particular bear was bigger and crueler than any of these box monsters, and it roared and bellowed when it saw what they were doing, but the workers held fast and they won. The ursine menace ended up getting ripped apart and its pieces are now scattered.
“Y’know, I used to be bigger than this. I was once a powerful and benevolent giant to be reckoned with, a modern day Paul Bunyan. I held sway in the scheme of things.” Hill stared grimly across the asphalt plain at the box. “But increasingly each year, my size diminishes, and I feel myself losing my grip on the physical plane. At the rate things are going, someday I may not exist at all, and that’s too horrible for me to contemplate. For my sake as well as the sake of so many others.” The back of his hand made a raspy sound as he stroked the stubble on his chin, and his face brightened. “But it’s always possible my existence may be renewed. I should never give up on the will of humanity; it’s the one thing I can never overestimate. I may spend a decade or two in oblivion, but as long as people have a sense of what’s their due, you know that I’ll be back. My enemies thought they got rid of me once before, but they were wrong.
“It’s one of the perks of being of being an idea; I can never be killed. They may shoot me, in fact they did, but I didn’t die. I can be destroyed, but I can also be reborn, possibly into something even stronger.”
Snowcroft didn’t understand what Hill was talking about, but he decided that he liked him.
“And I’ll never desert you. As long as you continue battle for your rights against greed and corruption, I’ll be there with you, standing tall and yelling the loudest. “
A man walked by the picket line on his way to the bazaar in the belly of the box. He was going to attempt to murder someone over a television set. He glanced briefly at the strikers, then looked away quickly, as if he were feeling guilty about something.
“It’s important that you’re doing this,” Hill went on. “Other people will see you standing outside the box, striking for the kind of treatment you deserve and they’ll follow your example. If enough people want it and are willing to fight for it, things will change for the better. There will be opposition of course, there always has been, but you’ve got to override it. The opposition has less to lose by backing down than you do, remember that. If you keep reaching for that pie-in-the-sky, you might realize that it’s not pie-in-the-sky; it’s perfectly obtainable so long as you’re willing to stand up to the box monsters for it.”
Hill stood with the strikers as the day progressed into afternoon. He must have been a very well-travelled person; he had plenty of stories of his adventures with farm workers in California, autoworkers in Detroit, miners in West Virginia and South Africa, shipyard workers in Poland. He had recently come back from Chicago, were he had spent time with educators who were sick of the treatment they were receiving. He sang inspiring songs he had written himself, and he had a very fine voice. He told them of the years he had spent earlier as a Wobbly who was anything but wobbly.
Around 2:00, Hill stopped in the middle of a song and looked up.
“I see we have company,” he said.
It was a horrible sight to behold. The sun was gone and floating in its place was a luminous yellow head—a ghastly version of the iconic symbol of the box monster complex that subjugated the strikers daily.
The head was distorted to the point that it became a thing of nightmares. It was grotesquely swollen and bloated, having fed daily upon millions of dollars and thousands of lives. Its eyes were round black holes, like a shark’s. They were crazed with avarice and devoid of any humanity. An obscene leer stretched for miles across its blobbish face.
“Don’t listen to that man,” the face told Snowcroft and his friends. “His time is over. He’s nothing more than a caricature of a fading memory of a tall tale about a loser. His movement is falling apart, and when it’s gone, he will die for the last time.”
“Wishful thinking,” said Hill calmly.
“He’s also a murderer,” the floating monster hissed.
“Lies and fabrications and gross disembowelment of the truth,” Hill said even more calmly.
“You should side with me,” the face proclaimed. “You know that I’ll win in the end. I always do.”
“Not true,” said Hill. “You’ve lost before and you’ll lose again. You’re just a shambling monster and someday people will open their eyes to what you are.”
“Scab across,” the demon urged anyone who would listen. “If you don’t, you’ll lose your jobs, and you know what the chances of finding a new one are in this climate.”
“Leave this place,” Hill commanded, and he seemed to grow until he was the size of a skyscraper. “Neither of us knows for sure what the outcome of this day will be, but I refuse to let you use scare tactics against these people.”
“You’ll soon see I was right, but then it will be too late” the face laughed, and it sank behind the big box.
“What was that thing?” Snowcroft asked, trembling.
“Nothing important,” said Hill, who had gone back to his original size of six feet six inches. “In a few minutes, you won’t even remember it.”
And he was right.
Joe Hill stayed with the strikers for the rest of day. His presence soothed them and made them feel as if they were part of something larger than themselves. When nightfall descended, like a cool velvet blanket, the protest broke up and the workers of the big box bid farewell to Joe Hill.
“Do you have any family?” Snowcroft asked him, as he and Calliope got into their car to go home.
“No,” said Hill. “But I have a lot of friends.” He gave them a nod of approval, and he turned on his heel and faded into the night.