The town of Evansville is at war. The Factory did not bring this war to us. We did this to ourselves, but the Factory has created a dividing line. And everyone must choose a side.
I do not know what course of events lead us down the path we chose for ourselves, but everything changed at 9 a.m. on July 12th, 2012. Like a pebble being dropped into a smooth pond, the day The Factory opened sent ripples that would eventually reach every man, woman, and child in our town. I don’t know a single soul who would disagree with this fact, though they would argue whether the change was for the better or for worse.
A thick summer heat clung to every surface the sun could find and carried away a ghost of each as it relinquished its grip and returned to the cloudless sky. Sitting on a shaded bench, waiting for my bus, it appeared as if the whole town was slowly evaporating. I let my eyes wander lazily over the only town I had known. Not much had changed in my twenty-three years here.
A shimmer on the horizon slowly melted into my best friend’s canary-yellow pride and joy. The 1982 Trans Am was flying over the imaginary puddles that covered the street in the distance as the familiar rumble of its modified engine began to reach my ears. Dean was supposed to be at work and I grew nervous as pulled up to the curb in front of me.
“Dude! Hop in!”
His blue eyes were wide with the mischievous joy of a child who has snuck down early on Christmas morning to shake all the presents with their name on them.
“What’s going on? I thought you had to work today?”
“Bobby closed up shop for the day. Get in!”
Bobby’s was the most popular restaurant in town and as far as I could remember, it had never been closed on a day that didn’t end in “of July”, “giving”, or “istmas”.
“That’s nice, but some of us are not so lucky. I can’t miss any more days…”
One of Dean’s biggest pet peeves is when people interrupt each other so when he cut me off I knew something big was going on.
“All the shops in town are closing. Everyone is heading out to the factory. It opened this morning.”
The factory. A little over a year ago they had begun building a mammoth complex at the edge of town. Who were “they”? No one really knew, but building permits were submitted and paid for by a company named The Philos Corporation. It had become the chosen topic of conversation. Who is behind The Philos Corporation? Why haven’t they hired anybody from town to work there? But the biggest question was always “what will it produce”?
I hopped into car and immediately felt the icy cool relief of air conditioning pouring through the vents at full blast.
“No way! There hasn’t been any advertising or announcements… Are you sure?”
Dean threw the car in gear, checked his mirrors and whipped around to head out to the West end of town.
“Harold Davis found out about it first. He drove past it this morning on his way into town and said a big sign was all lit up that said ‘Now Open.’ Christian called me from inside the lobby and told me we had to get over there right away.”
The streets were mostly empty, but as we neared the edge of town we became the latest addition to a growing traffic jam. Police were doing their best coordinate the great mob of cars and foot traffic, but were entirely unprepared for the town-wide response that the news had created.
A gallery of expressions played across Dean’s face as we inched forward in silence and I knew that he was letting his imagination run wild with what we would find. I could not help but wonder if he was thinking what I was thinking.
“Did Christian say what kind of factory it was?”
“No. I asked him, but all he would say is that I wouldn’t believe him and to hurry up.”
“What do you think it is?”
“I hope it’s a beer factory.”
Cracking a joke was Dean’s way of avoiding the question. He would have told me if I pressed, but I decided to start a game of “what if the factory made…” By the time we pulled into the overcrowded parking lot, our town had the first ever robot hooker/maid factory. Exiting the comfort of Dean’s car, we quickly merged into the river of people that flowed toward the main entrance.
Sand colored stone covered the outside of the only building that was not tucked behind barbed-wire fence. Brushed steel peeked out from beneath the facade in just enough places to add a touch of the modern industrial look without taking away from the classic feel.
The moment I stepped into The Factory I knew that Christian had been right. I would not have believed him in a million years. As I stared up at the enormous sign that hung in the center of the lobby I froze in disbelief. Only the pressing of those who had not yet come inside was strong enough to make me move. Even as my feet shuffled along, my eyes would not be pulled away from the bright red letters that read “Welcome to The Hug Factory”.
A series of hard slaps on my arm shook me from the shock that had temporarily paralyzed me. I grabbed Dean’s hand to make him stop and noticed that he still had not been able to look away from the sign.
“What. Is this place?”
I let my eyes scan the room before answering.
“I don’t know. I guess… It’s a hug factory?”
A woman in a white lab coat was walking by and I grabbed her arm before she could disappear into the crowd.
“Excuse me ma’am. Do you work here?”
Her cold eyes locked onto my hand before meeting mine with an icy stare. I let go of her and muttered a quick apology. With the practiced ease of a magician making a quarter disappear, the frigid expression that she had worn was no longer there. In it’s place was a warm smile and a “How may I help you?”
“Uh… Does this place make…”
I paused hoping she would finish the sentence for me, but the smile remained in place as she raised her eyebrows and waited.
Her laugh was flirty and sent waves down the long brown hair that cascaded over her uniform.
“Don’t be silly. You can’t make a hug. But you can custom order one.”
She handed Dean and I a brochure each from the small stack that she cradled in her left arm.
“Let me know if you have any questions. Every order is 50% today in honor of our Grand Opening.”
And with those words she slipped away before either of us had time to say a word.
I studied the glossy card in my hand. On the front was a list of the various hugs offered for sale. I never knew that hugs could be so specialized. The first tier of hugs was simple. It listed Grandma Hugs, Welcome Home Hugs, and Best Friend Hugs. I skimmed through the different categories and was amazed at what I found. There were Long-Lost Lover Hugs, Toddler at Disneyland Hugs, I Forgive You Hugs…
Once again I felt the familiar slap of my best friend on my arm.
“Turn it over.”
I did. The Hug Factory also offered personalized hugs. When purchased, a team of experts would explore your life, past and present, to determine the type of hug you most needed. A laugh exploded from my mouth before I could even think of how to make a joke about ridiculous the whole concept was. I looked over at my best friend and saw a wild smile that I mistook for understanding.
“Dude! This is awesome! Which one are you gonna get?”
“Which one am I gonna get? Are you serious? This is stupid. I’m not paying for a hug!”
What started as a friendly debate that quickly escalated into a heated argument. I stormed off to find a vent for my anger before I said something I would really regret.
Pushing my way through the crowd I eventually found the help desk. A guy, who looked to be about my age, stood behind the counter.
“I want to speak with a manager.”
“Oh. Is everything ok sir?”
In my frustration I switched to my you-must-be-stupid voice.
“No. Everything is not ok. That would be why I want to speak with a manager.”
He tried to hide his offended expression behind a customer service smile as fake as plastic, but only half succeeded.
“Of course. One moment please.”
I huffed and buried my hands in my armpits as I waited. The buzz in the lobby had been steadily growing as the excitement about what was being sold grew. With all noise I almost didn’t hear the manager’s voice from behind me.
“How may I help you sir?”
Driven by the wedge that The Factory had so easily slid between my best friend and I, I whirled around ready for a fight.
“What the hell is this place?”
The middle-aged manager who stood in front of me had more experience hiding whichever emotions he felt at the moment and with a cool smile he feigned ignorance.
“Oh. Did you need a brochure?”
“No I don’t need a brochure! You can’t sell hugs!”
“I can assure you, young man, we can.”
I fought to match his controlled demeanor even though I could feel a fire welling up inside my chest.
“It will never work. You can’t sell something that people are willing and able to give away for free.”
“Can you give the hug of a grandma? Or how about a soldier returning home from war? Of course not. But we can.”
“Well maybe not me, but we have grandmas in town. And I bet we have a soldier who has come home from war too. We already have what you are offering.”
The smile of poker player who has found his opponents tell spread easily across his lips.
“Look around you. You may have grandmas, but do they offer their hugs to strangers? I am sure you have a veteran or two, but do they seek out those families that still have sons and daughters overseas? If they did, then why are all these people here?”
I could not contain my emotion any longer and slammed my fists down on the granite countertop.
“What do you think will happen when I tell them?”
He leaned a little closer and let the question linger in my mind. He knew the answer.
“Nothing. They will go on living their safe lives just as they have always done. I’ll tell you what. You seem upset. Take this voucher for one free hug from our Simple Comforts line.”
I grabbed the paper and ripped it in half as I fled back into the sweltering heat outside.
Over the next week the ripples of The Factory opening slowly spread. Hugs became the chosen drug of Evansville. A few of us staged a protest, but to the majority of the town we became the “old-fashioned ones” and a joke.
I saw Dean later that month. He pulled over while I was walking to library.
“Hey man.” He said as he leaned toward the rolled down passenger window.
His voice was guarded, but there was hope in his eyes.
“You need a ride?”
“I’m okay. What are you up to?”
“Just headin’ out to The Factory. Gonna get a Best Friend Hug.”
In that moment the line became unmistakably clear. An overwhelming urge rose up inside me to do whatever I could to get my best friend back, but deep down there was a part of me that would never let me cross to the other side. I knew what I was about to say would separate us forever and still I said it. He had to know.
“You can have one of those for free whenever you want man.”
A shake of the head and the soft whir of the window being raised is the last memory I have of him.
We are the minority, but we are strong for our strength lies in the arms of understanding. We will not settle for an artificial substitute of the food our hearts crave. We are held, and hold each other, knowing that the value of what we have is far greater than a price tag could ever hold.
Copyright © 2012 Adam Drake