“We went on strike only once, and the Pinkertons made sure we quickly buckled. I can still remember the site of them charging, sticks in hand. Tall and hard, they towered over most normals. We barely came up to their knees.”
[Note: A version of this story was originally published in the League of Ordinary Gentlemen.]
by Winky Wee
Below me, the Great River churns.
When you look at it from a distance, the river enchants. A single winding ribbon of dull, darkened Earth-tone, it dampens the blaring and gaudy palate of the Toadstool Forest. Its slogging, muddy flow somehow anchors the entire fairytale setting to a kind of freakish realism. The intensity of the surrounding landscape twists the river’s surreal nature into a thing of childish beauty.
This is the view — the one from afar and up above — that the families behold when they visit. The youngest confess plots to “accidently” fall in, while their mothers joke about happily drowning in its velvety folds. The fathers attempt to impress the young, twenty-something tour guides with in-the-know sounding questions about the operation’s “specs.” Each somehow thinks they are the first to utter these banalities, that the wondrous view below has played muse to them and them alone; such is the power of the river’s spectacle. And from a far, it is a spectacle. A wonder. Perhaps even a miracle.
Zoom in, if you are willing, and the saccharine picture fades. Examine it up close and you will note the river does not flow so much as excretes. The lumpy brown currents don’t swell, they glop. Its eddies, so mouth-watering from afar, suddenly look grotesque and fetid, a raw sewage line inexplicably unearthed for show.
When you stand just over it, the Great River looks like shit.
It amazes me that people still believe otherwise, but the Great River isn’t actually on its way to become your next Wonka Bar. It isn’t even chocolate, not anymore. It’s a rich porridge of the factory’s liquid waste with enough gallons of blue and red food coloring added to make it a uniform brown, mixed with shovelfuls of artificial tapioca thickener that make it move the way one imagines a chocolate river might move. I tasted it once, on a dare from Billsby-Boo. It tasted how I imagine a vat of watered down Dr. Pepper might taste if you left it out in the blistering sun for a few days. So while it isn’t exactly toxic, the Great River hasn’t been made of real chocolate in twenty years. Not since Mr. Bucket discovered that the workers used to get drunk and pee into it at night. Now it’s simply something for the tourists to photograph, a pretty carnival sideshow to impress the rubes.
I startle when I hear the door to the river’s source chamber open. Worried it might be management, I quickly pick up my shovel and resume the endless process of shoveling and mixing tapioca. My shoulders initially scream in agony for just a moment, before the repetitive motion lulls them back into their regular dull ache. Still, I was wise to jump back into my labors. The interloper is indeed my shift supervisor.
Working hard, or hardly working?
He smiles as he says the words, but there’s no mirth there. He says this same phrase every time he checks up on us, and we’ve learned to give a chuckle lest he stop and ask questions about our GGE!® goals. Out of the corner of my eye I see him make a check mark on his clipboard, and then he is gone. I slow a bit but don’t dare stop, on the chance that he doubles back to try and catch me napping. And God do I want a nap. I’ve been working seventeen hours straight with no break, and I still have twelve more to go before I’m allowed my weekly half-day off.
I bite down on my tongue to hold back sleep, wipe the sweat from my hands on my stained white lederhosen, and return to what I do all day, every day: shovel shit into other shit.
When my shift finally ends, I lumber as quickly as I can back to my dormitory. There are places, dark shadowy places, on the factory campus where you can go to buy fermented soda. It’s technically against the rules, but since it seems to help us blow off steam management pretends to look the other way. Sometimes when I get off I go and just drink until the next shift. But not tonight. Tonight I can barely keep my eyes open, and all I want to do is sleep. I pass the amusement park gift shop on my way to the dorms. The shop is dark, but the day-glow posters in its windows are still visible. They say. Your Purchases Help Save the Oopma Loompas!
According to the Official Factory Tour Guidebook, Wonka, Inc. gave us jobs to save us from the predators of our homeland. The indentured servitude of the Oompa-Loompas, the company insists, is first and foremost a humanitarian act. I used to wonder when the people outside would finally realize this was a lie.
In truth, the first of my kind who traveled here did so to earn their fortune. They signed lucrative labor contracts, and believed when they returned home from the riches of foreign lands they would bring some of those riches with them. They never returned, of course. The contracts were legal enough, but each stipulated payment be rendered upon the workers’ return to native soil. Since the law allowed the factory bosses to hold our passports and Visas at their whim, the choice was an economically stark one. Release the workers and pay them a sizeable chunk of the profits, or hold onto the poor sods and continue to get labor for the cost of cacao-bean flavored Nutri-Porridge and dormitory upkeep. From that vantage point, the decision was laughably easy. More dormitories were built, and military missions of humanity were sent to Loompaland to save the savage Oompa-Loompas for their own good.
In my youth, I used to innocently envision teams of zoologists returning from long scientific expeditions from Loompaland. In my mind, these scientists would reveal that whangdoodles, hornswagglers and snozwanglers didn’t exist. Is this true?, people would ask, aghast. I’d say that factory deserves a closer inspection! Later I realized the lies aren’t persistent because the world lacks better evidence. The lies are persistent because the world wants to believe them.
Tiffle-tuff, who’s assigned to my dorm floor but works as an ottoman at the Main House, occasionally gets to watch whatever television show Mrs. Bucket is watching as he kneels underfoot on the the carpet. He says that according to the cable news shows there is a movement to change the laws to allow all factories to provide humanitarian aid to Loompaland. Apparently up until now Wonka, Inc. has had a special exception. Tiffle-tuff was incredulous. Were there even enough citizens in Loompaland to fill all the other factories, he asked laughing.
Tiffle-tuff is very young. He doesn’t yet know what would happen were we allowed to mingle with our female folk.
What do Oompa Loompas like best?
The Special Educator is always perky. She exudes perkiness from every pore of her body. All of us in the Special Education Room respond as one, replying that what we like best is making the children smile. The responses we speak are projected behind her in giant letters for us to read, but we don’t need them. We don’t just hear these questions once a week in class. We hear the Special Education questions in our sleep.
Setting up the Special Education classes was one of Mr. Bucket’s first actions after he wrestled control away from the Old Man. Charlie Bucket had been the youngest executive ever at Wonka, Inc., and there was little doubt he’d be the handpicked successor when the time came. For Bucket, however, the coming time was too far away. Within a year of being promoted to VP of Marketing he succeeded in having Wonka ousted by the Board. Worker conditions were big in the news back then, as was the Old Man’s opulent lifestyle. Mr. Bucket fanned the flames of the press, leaking whispers of the reforms he would implement were he in charge. In short order the board had little choice but to give way to progress.
Upon being named CEO and President, Mr. Bucket implemented his new management system, the Great Glass Elevator!®. According to Mr. Bucket, the more you let an existing executive make from a corporation, the more he would want that corporation to succeed, so that even more money poured in; eventually, once the executives had their fill, the financial rewards would flow downward. “Glass ceilings are OK,” he said in his first Ted Talk, “if you can push those glass ceilings up to the clouds!” GGE!® books and seminars became the craze of the business world, and more often then not Mr. Bucket was off doing book tours and speaking gigs. The Special Education classes were a byproduct of GGE!®, as was turning the edifice of the campus into an amusement park. Come see the Ommpa Loompas, the public was told when the park opened. Come see them sing and dance for you.
And what is it Ommpa Loompas love to eat more than anything else?
I wonder at the Special Educator’s smile. It never breaks, either up or down. She makes everything she says sounds like it’s part of a song, even though she’s just speaking. For a long time we wondered if she wasn’t an automaton, like the ones Bucket built for the park’s Hall of Famous CEOs. I got to see the Hall, once. You get to hear words of inspiration, prerecorded from the mouths of all the great ones: Ford, Gates, Galt, even Bucket himself. At the end of the show there are even Oompa Loompa automatons, who sing to the tourists as they exit.
Oompa Loompa, doom-pa-dee-do
I have a perfect riddle for you
Oompa Loompa, doom-pa-dee-dee
If you are good, you’ll listen to me.
What do you get when you kill all the jobs?
Tying the hands of society’s makers,
Giving unearned things to society’s takers?
What do you think will come of that?
Six years into Bucket’s reign, we tried to unionize. It didn’t go well. We had no access to the press and never really had a shot at winning the battle of public opinion. Politicians accused us of Marxism, and the public judged us ungrateful. Wonka, Inc. had saved us from the whangdoodles, our primitive religious beliefs, and ourselves. What right did we have to demand anything?
We went on strike only once, and the Pinkertons made sure we quickly buckled. I can still remember the site of them charging, sticks in hand. Tall and hard, they towered over most normals. We barely came up to their knees.
What is the most honorable life an Oompa Loompa can lead?
I try to look happy enough as I answer: To work without comment, and serve our betters.
It is much later, and I am back to shoveling tapioca.
There is, I suppose, a certain nobility embedded in the simplicity of any small task, and I try to find it now. I empty my mind, attempting to be nothing but my movements. I am calm now. My shift is scheduled to end in a little over twenty hours, but by then I will be long gone. By then we all will.
It is the annual Children’s Day at the amusement park. Within the hour the yellow school busses will begin delivering wave upon wave of young normals, freshly released from their elementary schools for the day, running about to see where all their beloved candy is made. They will come to taste, to experience, to marvel, to spend, to be the living embodiment of a merchandiser’s wet dream.
The signal will be the mid-morning shift whistle.
The Pinkerton Boys were too massive a foe, but we will have little problem with ones so small. Some we will drown in the Great River, stuffing their little bodies into the tributary piping. Others we will asphyxiate in the Wacky-Gum Vacuum Sealing room, until their bodies swell and turn blue. Sill more will have their throats slit and be tossed into the Squirrel Pits. (Do squirrels eat flesh? I truly do not know.) The few adults we capture will be shrunk to our size by way of the long candy knives, and these acts we will video that they might be shown on television.
These are a wild, desperate, evil acts, but they are the only ones left to us. Even were we not planning to take our own lives afterward, our actions will be so heinous that it would be unlikely any of us would live long enough to stand trial. Let’s see them try to gin up support for capturing and breeding Oompa Loompas for every factory after that.
We are the Oompa Loompa, and we will be heard.