"So," Micaila said, "you're working for the Machine?"
And I didn't feel too bad; not really; not then. As a staircase builder, I just went into new homes under construction and built the future residents fine staircases. Everyone needs a good, solid staircase, don't they? Solid oak, they were. Long lasting, beautiful, and strong. One thing bothered me, though. I'd see the lots being cleared and the big oaks being bulldozed down and hauled off to the landfill, or the shredder at best, for compost; and compost is a good thing, right? All the oak planks came from somewhere else, and I'd wonder: wouldn't it be better to use the oak they just hauled out of that lot? But the lumberyards have no use for local oak trees, apparently. I'm not sure why.
I did good work; fine work; and the money was good. One day I was working at a new house half-built on the then-fringes of Charlotte, and I saw all around the floor a lot of little footprints, and I recognized them as raccoon tracks. And the oddest thought came to mind: I envisioned the little guy coming into the new house, late at night, and thinking to himself, "Cool. The Humans are building me a nice new house!" I realized that the construction was happening on his former hunting ground. I bet the first day the bulldozers arrived, they scraped up some good bugs and he moseyed around after midnight and actually got some good eating from the disturbed topsoil. I bet that didn't last too long, though.
Later that morning, the contractor I was working for came by and brought his little daughter. I showed her the tracks. "Look," I said, "A raccoon has been in here!" And a look of pain came over the contractor's face, and he intently shook his head "no" at me when she wasn't looking. He knew where that line of thought might lead, and he didn't want to go there. I knew then that he knew what I knew, and he was a nice guy who felt sort of the same thing I was feeling, and he didn't want his kid to get that feeling at that moment.
The raccoon came back the next night, too. but his little paw prints took a shorter route. I don't think he liked the sheetrock dust on his feet very much. And I think he was starting to realize. He hadn't stayed long. There wasn't much to eat there, after all.
That was a few years ago. I still build a few staircases but after 9-11 business went bad for me. And of course as far as jobs go there is no real demand for manufacturing much of anything else around here but more big houses and office space and big shopping centers with more Lowes and Home Depots. You know they always build them almost side by side. Isn't that odd? I wear T-shirts a lot to work, but they're all made in China or Haiti or somewhere, out of fabric so thin they're almost transparent right out of the wrapper, new. The bank tellers give me looks like I'm a sort of a bum when I wear my thin T-shirts to cash my checks. They make me put my thumbprint on my paychecks. I think all the old textile millworkers must be retired or on crack now, and kiting bad checks a lot or something.
Now I have a new job, and I run a bulldozer myself. I go out into the woods and knock down the trees. I was trained by a nice young fellow who was leaving the company. He seemed distracted and apologetic, and although I asked him why he was leaving, he never really explained why.
Sometimes I still think about what Micaila said.