by L Vocem
First published in The Americas Review
Elaine O’Connor stopped and glanced at the long aisle that divided the room in two, like a church, but instead of pews, row after row of sewing machine tables went all the way to the back. Women bowing their heads, as if in deep prayer worked arduously over their sewing machines. She realized how young most of the women looked now – just babies. Some of them couldn’t have even finished high school. She looked up at the high ceiling of the factory, at the windows side by side with some of the panes broken or missing or almost black with decades of dust. She heard the sound of the sewing machines rumbling like millions of miniature jet turbines going at frenetic intervals – on and off, on and off.
Elaine O’Connor was late today, but she tried to not let it bother her. Not that it mattered, but she was never late before. And she knew that heads would turn, leering glances would be cast and whispering gossip would befall her, just like it always did with whomever happened to be late. But she knew that she was guilty herself of the worst gossip, although she would never admit it. In fact, she was the first one to make comments, to come up with what sounded as a good reason for some woman’s tardiness, questioning the excuse they had given, wondering whether it was true, or said just to cover up something. Like what they did to the bimbo from Macon, as she had called her, and who was always late. Everybody talked about the cute thing, about the promiscuous way she waddled her rear, about her loud lipstick and overdone hair. She probably held her job by sleeping with some floor manager, Elaine had said many times, wondering which one. And the rumors went on and on, but the truth of the matter was that nobody really knew why she was always late, or why the management tolerated it. Elaine once admitted to the injustice. But it didn’t matter, when things began to get tough, she, the cutie, was the first to go.
One morning they placed a sealed grey company envelope by her table, and the next day she was gone. But it didn’t stop with her, before anybody knew what was going on, they fired most of the men in the pattern and cutting rooms; and the floor managers began to spread rumors themselves, of the factories in Mexico and Taiwan that were taking over their business by paying people less than a dollar an hour, and that their workers didn’t complain about the money, or the long hours, or meeting quotas, to them that was good money. Three months later, they installed robots where the men used to work. They did the job the men used to do, without complaining, without having to pay overtime, or gossiping, or taking smoke breaks. But the damn things didn’t work right for a whole year, so one by one, the management had to hire most of the men back to correct what the robots did wrong.
Well, there she stood, at the beginning of the long hallway, shafts of light cascaded over the room, casting their blinding force almost completely along the aisle that she was supposed to cross right then. It was close to break time, she realized. She better hurry and get to her station in the back of the room. She wished there was another way to get there, other than right down the middle, in front of everybody. All the women would be looking up shortly, the ten o’clock bell was about to sound. She had to get to her station. She wanted to walk forward, but her legs didn’t want to move, a part of her wanted to remain still, become invisible, so nobody could see her. She began by launching her right foot forward, self-consciously. “Coward,” she whispered, “coward, let’s go. You got lots to do.” She lifted her left foot hesitantly again and stepped forward, left, right, left, until she found herself finally in motion, still uneasy.
No one could tell the difference, no one had noticed her, she reassured herself. The young women at the first few rows of sewing tables didn’t look up when she glanced at them, but they never looked up anyway, or talked to anybody. All they did was work, with their heads sunk under the lamps of the sewing machines. She thought at times that these particularly young women were probably some experimental new robots the management was testing without letting anybody know. Even though they ate at the same cafeteria, and went to the same softball games, they were definitely not human. Ruddy Smith, who sat at a sewing table five rows from the front, made eye contact with Elaine O’Connor. Ruddy Smith smiled with her usual warmth, showing her rosy cheeks. Elaine smiled back, making a picture in her mind of all the quilts that woman had made. She didn’t know how she did it, not just the quilts, but find the energy to sew at home, especially after a whole day of constant sewing at the plant. But Ruddy Smith would always tell her, with the greatest patience, after showing her the latest quilt she had finished, what her secret was: she didn’t use a sewing machine at home, just a needle and thread, and a silver thimble that was given to her by her grandmother. Besides, she enjoyed doing them and she wanted all her grandchildren to have a little something to remember her by. Elaine O’Connor’s glance met Mary Kirkpatrick’s, who must have been looking at her for a while and had her usual plastic smile.
Elaine O’Connor hated that smile, full of perfect white teeth and big red lips, especially since Mary Kirkpatrick smiled too much. Like at the company picnics and softball games when she smiled that way to Elaine’s husband, giving him insinuating looks, pressing against him when they talked by the hot dog stand. Elaine hated the way she always talked to him too, flirting, staring all over, even places no decent woman should be looking. She asked John one time if it bothered him what Mary Kirkpatrick did. He told her he didn’t know what she was talking about. “Woman, you’re just crazy.” He had told her. That enraged her the most. Jennifer, her best friend, had repeated to her every time, “You are probably right, but you are so jealous of everything that moves and slightly looks at John.” And she was probably right, for Elaine O’Connor couldn’t tolerate any woman looking at John, especially if they were attractive, or smiled too much, like Mary Kirkpatrick. She felt this time she didn’t have to return a smile back to Mary Kirkpatrick, and looked away with disdain and passed her by. Elaine O’Connor wished she could look back for a second and see her stupid reaction (Mary Kirkpatrick was famous for making faces), but her pride overpowered her sense of curiosity. Helen Martinez, who sewed pockets like no one else, finally looked up after Elaine’s long glance, their eyes met for a second as she raised her eyebrows in acknowledgement.
Behind Helen, Mrs. Smith sat at her sewing machine. She tilted her head down to see above her glasses. Right there sat the best cooks in the whole plant, Elaine thought, while her mouth watered, remembering Mrs. Smith’s steaming biscuits, and that thick gravy, and Helen’s spicy fried chicken, or her chunky beef stew, which were only equalled by Ella Mae Douglas’ pies. Oh, yes. She made the best pumpkin and lemon meringue pies, and her peach cobbler was famous not only at the plant, but at church and community gatherings. Too bad, Ella Mae was among the first to get the sealed grey company envelope. She wasn’t exactly fired, or laid off. They had asked her to take an early retirement, which she gladly accepted and took it as a good gesture from the management. She now spends her time baking pies and going to Atlanta to see her grandchildren. Every now and then she would come to visit at the plant’s cafeteria and would give Elaine and some of the other ladies some of her pies, nicely packaged inside white boxes she bought by the dozen at K-Mart. Elaine O’Connor really missed that woman, with her whiny high-pitched voice and all, more than anybody else who had gone through the plant. Ella Mae Douglas always told her about her children, first the stories about college, how her son made good grades while her daughter always had a hard time. She was told with great enthusiasm about graduation and with great sadness about them going to fancier schools up north. Her son became a lawyer and the daughter a school teacher. Her son married and the daughter, who wasn’t looking for a man to marry, found a good job teaching first grade in Douglasville. Oh God, Elaine O’Connor thought, had time passed that fast? It felt like it was only yesterday when she started to work at the plant, right after moving down from Cleveland looking for a place away from the degrading screams of her Mother. A new start, fresh, away from the motorcycles, the bars, the drugs, and Eddie who constantly bruised her with what he called loving pinches
every time he got drunk. She traded Cleveland, and the cold for a mild weathered, simple living, small Georgia town. That was about the time when Ella Mae’s kids (who were about her same age) graduated from high school and found college as the best way to get out of what they thought was a suffocating and boring little town. She remembered them, and how jealous she was of the attention that Ella Mae gave them. It was not long after that she met John, then a fireman, and quickly married him, had Elaine Mary, Tracy and Meg, her three angels as, John called them. During all that time, she was never laid off, not even once. They even gave her time off to have each of her babies, and the people from the plant, including the managers, brought them baskets of food and fruits and all types of goodies. John even worked for the plant for a while as an electrician, but went into business for himself, like his father, wiring houses up in Atlanta and Hilton Head.
Jennifer Lee didn’t see Elaine O’Connor pass by and stop, or notice her blatant stare or her waving, as if she was washing a window. Jennifer Lee did zippers, like Elaine, and was intently working at her machine. Jennifer was her best friend, they both told that to everybody, and believed so themselves, and shared just about everything but husbands and pantyhose. Even at times their kids were shared, Aunt Jenny and Uncle Bud, and Aunt Ella and Uncle John. They could never figure out why Jennifer’s kids called Elaine Aunt Ella, but by the time they gave it any thought it was too late, the kids wouldn’t call her anything else. Unlike Elaine, Jennifer had been laid off more than a few times, one time even around Christmas, making their annual Christmas shopping trip to Atlanta impossible. That year they gave each other green beans and tomatoes they had canned themselves and little things that the guys and kids made. The kids loved the idea so much that they told their respective parents to do the same the next year, but fell into temptation the next year the moment they saw the TV commercials for Nintendo and the new Barbies with interchangeable hairdos. So much for that wholesome idea. Elaine O’Connor was taking her sweet time to get to her sewing table, reminiscing about all the years that she had with the company, remembering all the different faces that were no longer there, ghosty images lingering in the places where their machines stood silent, waiting for someone to push the pedal and make them go.
Finally, she reached the end of the long aisle, where opaque windows separated their room from the one where now hydraulic gizmos moving in jerky motions did the jobs of patterning and cutting. A few men in ties, with millions of pens in their pockets, stared at the machines and wrote notes in clipboards they always seemed to hold under their arms. She didn’t like going into that room since the robots took over, and they had fired or laid off most of the men again. She would say that it smelled funny, or that it was two loud or too quiet, but the fact was that she felt intimidated by these lifeless animated objects moving about, sometimes their screws or some little light coldly stared at her, alive and yet dead, with a cold hateful stare, scaring the living daylights out of her. “It’s not right!” she would tell Jennifer when the subject would come up in conversation at home or at their 10:00 A.M. break or after they gossiped about who got fired or laid off. The door opened and a young man came rushing out of that room. He stopped abruptly, looked at Elaine O’Connor without smiling, shifted his eyes in the direction where her sewing table was, noting that it was empty. He looked straight ahead again, ignoring her presence, and walked rapidly across the long aisle towards the cafeteria.
Elaine O’Connor turned around and watched his hurried walk, his underwear slightly sticking out of his pants with sweat drenching the back of his shirt. How pathetic she thought he looked. Actually, she didn’t like him. He was one of the new engineers that came around with their fancy calculators and note pads, talking in some sort of jargon that didn’t sound at all like English, talking productivity, and down-time. It was after his type began to roam the plant that they had the first lay-offs, and the first robots put in, and the new young women placed by the front, and music put in, and then music taken out. There was no stop to the things they would get into, even the women’s rest room, which was painted seven times before they could decide which was the best color. “Good lord, it was fine as it was,” Ella Mae had said once, disturbed, pointing her finger at those abrasive young men. A long deep sigh came out of her lungs. She had hoped that someone had heard it, that someone would look around at her, gossip if they wanted, or that one of the managers would come by and reprimand her, or something. Instead, the women were immersed over their sewing machines, without looking up, doing their jobs, unaware of whether she was coming or going. A floor manager leisurely strolled the distance between two rows, looking at what the women did. He hadn’t noticed her either. She wanted to scream. She arrived at the row where her sewing table was, and began to slide behind the seamstress and the sewing tables from the last row. Two of the girls even looked up. They were some new girls she had not had the chance to socialize with. One grinned, the other one gave her the look from the corner of her eyes that said they were talking, gossiping about her. They sank their heads again into the small light under their sewing machines and continued their work.
Elaine reached her table, the very one she had picked her first week at the plant. It was a new machine then, with the Union Label still shining, but by now was all scratched up, with pictures of her three angels taped to the shaft. She stood there, looking at the place where she had spent most of her life. She noticed the grey company envelope, sealed — of course — leaning against the needle bar. She felt a violent rush of fear and disdain go through her body and felt like crying. She sat by the machine and began to pick up her belongings, her photos, the things that gave that table, that machine, a sense of life. She picked up the envelope and placed it against her chest, then slammed it on the sewing table. Why should she care what they had to say, she was gone as of today. They had told her the day before at the end of the shift. Her floor manager called her into a room with not one, but three of those dumb Engineers, and at the end, after some long explanation that blamed half the world, they shook her hand and told her how sorry they were to see her go, each one reiterating that if they didn’t do that, they would have to close the plant, and then nobody would have a job. Why me, she said in her mind, realizing that until then she had thought she was invulnerable to these things. Getting laid off, fired, let go, canned, that only happened to other people, people who drank or used drugs, didn’t do their job right, or were just pain lazy, like Jennifer — she had it coming. But her? She didn’t deserve that type of treatment. The blonde engineer, the one that had just passed her, looking like a wet pig, he had to keep rubbing it in, “Elaine, you’ll be back in no time.” But she only wished they’d shut up and leave her alone. How was John going to take it? Was he going to get mad and take it out on the kids? Or her? It was too late to avoid anything.
She grabbed the envelope again and tore it open. By then everybody in the plant probably new they had axed her, she thought. She tore part of the envelope with a raging force. She realized what she had done, feeling guilt. She was just like John and no different than anybody else, she thought. She tried to place the torn edge of the envelope back together. She began again to open the envelope, this time more carefully, pealing the glued seal with her long fingernails. Inside, she found a white piece of notebook paper with torn edges and handwriting showing through. She wondered if that was how the dreaded note was supposed to look. Now that she had received the note, and it was official, she couldn’t keep it away from John.
Did Jennifer get a note like that? Did she tell Bud? Did he beat her up?
She began to open the folded note slowly, in a meticulous matter, as if she didn’t want to find out what it said. Her hands were sweating by the time she finished opening the note. “Elaine, don’t forget to bring your potato salad for the picnic,” the note said.
It didn’t have any name at the bottom, but she knew who it was from. She laughed to herself, crumbling the note in her hand and throwing it into her handbag with the rest of her personal belongings. She cleared her eyes and looked across the room. It was close to the break, she thought. The shafts of light that gave the room a sense of magic were gone, instead the room looked dark and dusty. She noticed the heads of the women across the room in an even pattern,
leaning on the sewing machines, and she heard the sound again, that screeching sound of the sewing machines, as if it was the first time she had ever heard it, like small jet engines, going on and off, on and off.