The following is a chapter from the novel I've been working on for the past few years (Working Title: Across Time). The book is nowhere near complete. Where the stories are meant to be the warp and weft of a tapestry, they are still disjointed. I've still got a lot of weaving to do. Still, I wanted to share this chapter as it is at this point. It is a vignette, a small glimpse of this character's life. Enjoy...
The snow fell on Kelly’s shoulders as she walked quickly toward the factory. Her mind wandered to another place – another life, perhaps, where she was empowered to be herself, whatever that meant.
She really had no idea who she was anymore, did she? With a slight shake of her head, she rejected that line of thinking. A dead rabbit lay to the side of the road, a sudden victim of vehicular manslaughter. It was dusted with the powdered sugar snow. Like all April precipitation, it was soft and wet. Kelly’s jacket was soaked.
Pulling up her gloves, she shivered and turned her face toward the sky. ‘I love this chill on my face,’ she thought,’ but when I can feel it through my jacket, I can’t wait to get to work!’ The factory was actually an old wire mill. The company had been in that place for a very long time. The industrial revolution era building stood on the corner where two old roads came together in a dead end curve. Row after row of ancient brick buildings lined the sidewalks, cracked and worn by the feet of thousands of workers over the years. Not far away one could find two or three pubs and one pizza shop that had been serving the best hamburger pizza in town since the 1950’s. The unusual rectangular pies came in sizes all the way up to the size of a small dining table! It wasn’t often, though, that she got to enjoy any of these delights. If she was lucky, her husband took her to a diner close to their apartment where they got an old fashioned hand patted “hamburg,” as they called it in this small New England city, and a chocolate malted frappe.
She approached the dirty red brick walls of the wire mill. Although the bricks had the build-up of a hundred years’ smoke and dust, the outside was downright “spiffy” in comparison to the inside. The Floor Boys did sweep the hardwood floors at the end of each shift, but dust fell from the huge ceiling fans like the snow that fell from the sky. Kelly walked past the ancient open-caged freight elevator to the coat racks, where she set her books down on the floor, then doffed her thick winter jacket, and hung it on a hook. Crossing the floor to the time clock, she nodded at some of the first shift employees she passed along the way. Her husband would already be here, clocked in and watching from somewhere on the floor to be sure she was on time. She was careful not to look any of the male employees in the eye. She knew her husband might interpret even the slightest smile as a flirtation. Approaching the clock, she pulled her timecard from the rack and noted that she had only moments to spare. Pushing the card into the clock, she made sure it stamped, set it back into the rack, and headed toward the braider floor
Kelly’s job was to walk the floor checking the eighty-plus wire braiding machines for empty spools. The machines pulled bare wire through a center around which varying numbers of spools of thread spun very quickly, creating an insulation barrier around the wire. It was her task to notice as quickly as a braider stopped and to remove the empty spool, replacing it with a new one of the same color. That is, when they worked as they were meant to. Unfortunately, many times the braider just kept on running, twisting insulation around the wire short a strand. In this case, Kelly had to stop the machines, locate the point where the spool ran out, and begin the rethread at that point.
If the braiders always worked as they should, it would have been a simple task to stand back and watch for them to stop when the spools ran out. However, she had to keep walking steadily, pacing around the floor, watching and listening for the sound of a machine with one less strand or the silence of a stationary machine. It had taken her a few months to learn that sound, and to notice the difference in the patterns of threads that wove around the wires.
When a spool ran out, Kelly would stop the machine by pushing back the wide lever on the front. Taking another spool from the nearby supply, she removed the empty, tossed it in a bin, and placed the new spool in its place. Rethreading was tricky. She had to get the thread end around the wire, simultaneously starting the braider back up without catching her hand in the web that wove around the wire. Pop off the old spool, rethread the new. Wire cutters were her tool in trade. Rarely did she use them on wire; rather, they were meant to snip off thread where it often snapped while continuing to run.
Every afternoon five days a week Kelly clocked in for the second shift at the wire mill and began her nightly walk around the braider floor. It was a job she had never expected, and each time she stepped on the floor she felt the strange sense of butterflies that plagued her. She wasn’t a particularly brave person, after all, and fear gripped her every chance it got. It didn’t help that some of the stories told around the mill about workplace accidents were sometimes rather gruesome. She had once forgotten to tie her hair up into the signature ponytail and just about had a panic attack when she realized what she had done. One of the most oft repeated tales was one of a braider operator who had gotten her long locks caught in a braider, losing chunks of hair and scalp before someone was able to push in the lever to stop the braiding process. Kelly couldn’t help imagining the poor woman, dripping in her own blood like an extra in a B-horror film.
This day started out like any other. Kelly was always tired by the time she arrived on the floor. She had a five am wake-up call every morning to get ready for school and six hours of classes with homework in between left her ready to go home for the day. The walk from the bus to the factory was enough to wake her up at this time of year, though she was always tense in the anticipation of seeing her husband awake for the first time that day. Stepping into the first row of braiders, she breathed relief that he wasn’t there. Most likely he was working upstairs with the copper spoolers. Kelly immediately began the first walk-around of the day. Once she was into the rhythm of the machines, she allowed her mind to wander into the distance of imagined worlds. That was where the poetry was born.
It wasn’t until she was well into a reverie about a strong young woman making her own way in medieval Britain that she heard her husband calling her name. She had walked the circuit of eighty braiders, blindly doing her job for about two hours, and it was time for her first fifteen minute break. Though this was what they called a “sweat shop,” the unions in other factories had years ago worked toward requiring somewhat humane working conditions. At the sound of her name a second time, she quickly completed the spool change she was doing and turned to him. “I’m on my way!” she yelled, to be heard over the clacking of the braiders.
“You were late today!” He barked at her, a scowl marring the porcelain beauty of his ivory face. There were many women who would have committed murder to have his complexion and long eyelashes. The ethereal quality of his skin made it seem like paper, his violet eyes that had once seemed glorious were now hard and cruel. Shuddering, she shook her head.
“No, I was on time.” She whispered with a quake in her voice.
“Don’t contradict me!” His voice was flat, quiet. He didn’t want anyone else to hear the names he was prepared to call her.
They sat together in the break room while he berated her for arriving at work later than he thought she should. Silent tears wracked Kelly’s body as she shrunk low in her chair. His body was taut, as if he held back horses. She had long since learned to read the clues in the way he held himself. She knew now that if she said one word, he would have punched her without second thought. Other workers came into the room periodically, opening and closing the refrigerators. Some sat at tables nearby. If anyone noticed the demeanor of the couple in the corner, none gave indication.
Back on the job, Kelly allowed herself to vent silently. She was the only braider operator on the second shift, so the floor was hers. She stewed and worried, wondering if this was the way her life was intended to be lived for the endurance. Tears trailed her cheeks unchecked as she leaned into one of the machines, stopping the revolution of thread. It had run out, ages ago. The tiny path of missing thread wound almost to the top of the apparatus where the wire pulled through, fully insulated. She would have to carefully hold the single thread of the replacement spool up to the spot where it had broken, slowly start the machine, and watch as it was incorporated into the weave. Once it was repaired, she would snip off the little tail of thread where she held it at the top. It had to be seamless. After a few false starts, she got it, but not before her frustrations welled up within her until she could no longer hold them. She hated herself for the life she was living, for the choices she had made, and for the stupidity that she was convinced had caused her husband’s anger.
There was only one thing that relieved the frustration she felt during times like this. Snatching the wire cutters from her pocket, she clenched them into her fist and jabbed herself in the forearm, scraping upwards at an angle. She stood quietly then, watching the blood well up in the cut. It wasn’t nearly as deep as it could have been. Still, the blood filled the chasm in her epidermal layer, pooling at the entry point. She watched, feeling a strange sense of relief and wondering why it didn’t hurt. Perhaps nothing could physically hurt anymore. There was nothing steel-toed boots, fists, or spontaneous spousal body-slamming hadn’t already done.
It seemed to Kelly that she stood still watching her blood exit her body for hours, but in reality only seconds had passed. She began to feel a sting as the first drops ran down the curve of her forearm. Shaking herself into reality, she grabbed the corner of her work apron and wiped the drop away. Applying pressure through the dirty apron with the palm of her hand, she quickly walked to the ladies restroom, where she stood awhile longer, holding the pressure. Even after she washed the cut with soap and water, the blood seeped slightly through her sleeve. Later she would find a few sticky bandages and apply them, hiding the wound with her sweater. By the time she was back on the floor, three-quarters of the machines had come to full stop. Apathy had no effect on efficiency. She soon had them up and running again.
Another two hours of pacing, listening, stopping, threading, and doing it all over again. Kelly felt the churn in her stomach that meant she was getting hungry. “Getting” was not really the operative word. She was usually hungry long before now. Mornings brought yoga, hot tea, and toast. For lunch, she usually carried an apple and a tea bag for in her purse. It was simple enough to get an empty cup from the cafeteria, fill it with hot water, and brew a hot “cuppa.” In fact, if she was careful enough, she could make that teabag last through more than the one or two cups she usually drank in one sitting. The apple sated her for a while, but it had become a practice of hers to savor it as if it were an actual meal, cutting it into small pieces, eating slowly.
This meager austerity had little to do with a need for Kelly to lose weight or lack of financial means, though in some ways both were true. When she met her husband, Kelly had been a slip of a thing with a tiny waist. She had never been athletic, but she enjoyed running and climbing, which had kept her limber and fit. In the few years since they married, she had put on about 10 pounds, a fact which he never hesitated to point out. Recently, if she as much as looked at a second helping of potatoes, he would look at her with those hard eyes. Just the day before, he had told her as if in warning, “Fat people have a certain smell, you know. You can always tell when a fat person has been in the room.” Kelly was careful now about how much she ate. If she ate more than she thought she should, she had learned the art of purging.
The other reason for her paltry eating habits was her personal lack of money. All that she earned went to her husband, who paid the bills and put the excess in the bank. He controlled the shopping, though she had some input into the particulars of their grocery list. However, she never had any cash on hand. Thinking about this now, she recalled the time, not long after they had moved into their apartment together, when her husband gave her a five dollar bill and told her to pick up sandwiches at a local pub. The ham and cheese sandwiches with spicy brown mustard on rye were a specialty of the pub, and quite delicious. Kelly remembered how she had bounced out, anticipating the mouthwatering delicacy. When she paid for the sandwiches, on a whim she had also purchased a package of chewing gum. She stuffed a juicy stick of gum into her mouth, tossed the wrappers, and grabbed the bag with the sandwiches. Heading home, her heart soared. It was a gorgeous day, she was newly married, and she was going to have a great lunch with the man she loved.
By the end of the afternoon she was left bruised and bleeding because she had spent the twenty extra cents, then argued for her right to spend twenty of her own hard earned pennies. Now, Kelly carried no money unless she asked for it. Asking for it was a shameful thing, so she did very little of that.
Pondering the loss of her personal power – even her identity, Kelly walked the floor, trying to ignore the gnawing in her stomach. ‘Lunch will come soon enough,’ she thought to herself. Taking stock of the darkness outside the big, filthy windows, she knew it could not be much longer before her meal break. Somewhere on another floor, her husband was doing his job. He would be down when it was time. She kept walking, stopping machines, and trading out spools as the time drew on. Her stomach continued to gnaw, growling at her. She sang quietly, knowing the sound would be obliterated by the clacking of the braiders. As she rounded the back row, she came near an area where a mysterious day shift employee sat to supervise another aspect of the wire preparation process. As she approached, she thought about the woman who sat there. Kelly had met her only once at shift change. They had spoken, and Kelly had learned that this matronly woman in a flowered smock had been with the company for twenty years and was due to retire soon. That conversation stayed with Kelly, for the very thought of working in this old stale building day after day, month after month, for twenty solid years filled her with a dread she could not name. Each night as she passed the desk, Kelly had noticed a bowl filled with candy. Thinking of that candy now, Kelly salivated. Today, for the first time, she gave into temptation. She stopped next to the desk, looked surreptitiously about, and snatched a piece of the candy. It was a kind she had never seen before. She looked at the wrapping carefully. It was made of cellophane and was designed to look like a strawberry. Upon opening it, Kelly found a silver reflective wrapping around a red hard candy. She was so hungry by now, she thought she might drool! She popped the candy into her mouth. ‘Oh my!’ She thought, ‘it’s fantastic!’ How could this tiny piece of hard candy be so wonderful?
Now, Kelly had never been able to find out how many licks it took to get to the chocolate in the middle of the famous lollipop. True to form, she bit into the candy, expecting it to slide off her teeth a few times before she succeeded in breaking it in half. It didn’t happen as she thought it would. Instead, she bit right through the crunch and into the softest, most delicious flavor she had ever tasted. It was strawberry-like, but with a thick syrupy texture that coated the tongue. In that moment, Kelly felt that she had never tasted anything so delicious, nor could anything come close. She walked the floor for the next thirty minutes feeling an almost unearthly sense of bliss.
That euphoria was shattered when she turned from a braider she had just completed re-spooling to find her husband standing next to her. She jumped with a squeak. “Whoa, you scared me, babe!” She laughed. He was in no mood for laughter. “I’ve been standing here for two full minutes and you just now noticed me? What are you doing, daydreaming about your lover?” He was growling. She turned to look up at him.
“You’re kidding, right?”
“No, of course I’m not joking. What other reason could there be for you not to know your own husband was standing next to you? You might as well get all that out of your mind. Nobody else would want you. You’ve gotten so fat. I’m surprised you can walk around this place.”
Her eyes widened. “Why are you talking to me like that? What did I do now?”
He grabbed her by the forearm. She almost pulled back in pain, for it was the one she’d cut. Years of self restraint kept her from flinching. “You know perfectly well what you’ve done! I heard them talking about you as you walked in!”
“Who?” She was incredulous. What was he talking about?
“The men in shipping, of course! You know, you pass them on the dock! You’re the one who struts by them every afternoon just in time for them to see you. You’re such a slut! I don’t know why you think they would want you, you fat bitch!”
Kelly was stunned. She couldn’t remember any men talking about her. She came in the only door employees were allowed to use, always in a rush because she had to clock in by three in the afternoon and her bus dropped her off blocks away at two-thirty.
“But, babe, I just…”
He cut her off. “Nothing. Say nothing.”
His hand rose, half way. She closed her mouth. “Now see what you almost made me do!” he growled between clenched teeth. “I don’t want to hear a word out of you.”
Acquiescing, she followed him to the coat rack, and on to the loading dock, past the old elevator she had passed on the way in. They sat together on the empty dock, for it was dark now and the shipping department was closed. She shivered in the chill. The snow had stopped, but the skies were opaque with heavy clouds, promising more precipitation before the end of the shift. He handed her the paper lunch sack he had grabbed from the break room refrigerator. She opened it, taking out a thermos of grape drink and two sandwiches made with peanut butter and marshmallow spread on white bread. They ate in silence. He glowered at her while she shook from distress and cold. She would much rather have eaten lunch in the warm break room. The weather outside matched too closely the way she felt inside.
After lunch, as they separated to go to their respective job sites, Kelly chanced a furtive glance at her husband. He looked at her with burning eyes and turned abruptly away.
Kelly spent the rest of her shift considering the meaning of working in this dismal place being married to this hateful man for twenty more years. How does she do it? She wondered, thinking about the first shift woman, about to retire. The same place, the same path, hour after hour, day after day, month after month, year after year. It was enough to make a woman give up. More than once during that evening, she discovered her fingers toying with the wire cutters that hung from her belt loop and envisioning pools of blood at her feet. I wonder what he would do then, she thought, moving from braider to braider doing her job.