Clyde Beverly, Minnesota Lighting’s Manager of Human Resources, keeps a pair of panties in his desk. He showed them to me first thing in the morning, the day I came to put in my two weeks notice. ‘Hey kid, look at these’ he said, unfurling his fist—and there they were. He’d just been holding them. They were pink and had a splotch of something like dried blood caked on the crotch. ‘Stole ’em from my wife,’ he said, ‘Had ’em on the day before she left me. Smell ’em. God they still smell just like her.’ I said no at first. I felt vaguely wrong having a woman’s panties in my face and her being none the wiser. Then Clyde started whimpering like a lost dog.
‘I’m gonna get her back, Joe,’ he said.
So I smelled them. It felt like the right thing to do, if only because everybody knew Clyde’s wife wasn’t coming back, not after the way she’d left him. She’d ended up with his car, his house, his kid, just about everything. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t sympathize with Clyde. I’d heard he hit her a couple times, and even before that I’d had my doubts about him. But that’s Clyde—one minute you’re doing everything you can to get away from him, the next you’re so full of pity you’ve got his wife’s panties under your nose and he’s grinning at you with wide, excited eyes.
In truth, they didn’t smell like anything. I guess all the human scent had worn off, what with him handling them so much.
Getting clear of Clyde as soon as I could, I split out the side door and into the parking lot for some fresh air. It was 5 a.m. and the morning was crisp and the sun was just a cresting glow over rows and rows of beet fields to the east. Fall was on the way and the days were getting so short you could hardly look forward to them, especially if you worked 5 to 5 like we did and only caught them at their edges. Still, I liked to see the long haze of light begin to rise in the distance, just beginning to cut glimmers in the space between the clouds, like veins pumping out the day. That’s when I remembered I’d forgotten to give Clyde my two weeks. I’d just have to catch him at first break, once he’d had a couple cigarettes. After all, I only had a few minutes left before the factory would cough itself awake.
When I found Jim’s truck, I opened the door and braced myself. Sure enough, he jumped like hell and looked for a moment like he didn’t recognize me. That only ever lasted a couple seconds.
‘You ever hear of knocking?’ he said.
His hands were shaking, but they always shook.
‘No. But who else would it be?’
‘Still. Even old shitheads are entitled to a little respect.’
He handed me his cigarillo, one of those thin ones with the little plastic mouthpiece. I took a long drag and blew it out the window, then gave it back.
‘They’re no Cohibas,’ he said, ‘but they’ll do the trick.’
‘We’ll be smoking them soon enough. They used to give them to foreign heads of state as gifts. I could blow a paycheck on one of those and sleep easy.’
‘Who did, the Cubans?’
‘Of course. You know, you really ought to learn something about the wider world.’
‘When we go, I will.’
‘It’ll be beautiful. You know, they used to give them to foreign heads of state as gifts.’
‘Just let me know when you want to go,’ I said.
Jim was watching some guys park their motorcycles.
‘Go where?’ he said.
‘To Cuba,’ I said, doing my best not to lose my patience.
‘Oh, right. Maybe a few months from now. I’m tight on cash.’
He offered me the cigarillo again.
‘Nah, I came for the good stuff.’
He reached under the seat and found me our half-full bottle of whiskey. I took a long pull.
‘I’m putting in my two weeks today,’ I told him.
‘So today’s the day, huh?’ he said, smiling.
‘Shut up,’ I said, ‘I’m done with this place and all the people in it. Nobody’s going anywhere. Nobody wants anything bad enough to actually do anything.’
Jim just nodded and sucked on his cigarillo.
‘See you later then?’ he said.
I shrugged. ‘Depends when I give Clyde the news,’ I said, patting the dash a couple times as I got out. As I walked off, Jim rolled down his window.
‘Looks like it’s gonna be a beautiful day today!’ he shouted.
‘Tell me tomorrow if it was!’ I shouted back.
Livie was already at work when I got in, which irked me. Mostly I just hated that the first thing I had to think about when I got to my station was her baby. And you had to think about it, what with her being so scrawny she started showing about the day she got knocked up. The heat and humidity made the painting wing of the factory feel like a cheap hotel pool in a too-small room. Add to that a stomach full of nothing but coffee and whiskey, and seeing Livie’s baby belly before the crack of dawn made me feel nauseous and enclosed, like I was the one trapped in the womb.
‘Feeling like a proud new mom?’ I said.
‘Go fuck yourself,’ she said, pushing her tits out to show off the t-shirt that I always made fun of. It was pink and said Proud New Mom in letters made out of little plastic jewels. She’d had it since high school. It didn’t make her look like a new mom at all, just another stupid girl on her umpteenth pregnancy.
‘What do you want to listen to?’ I said, setting my coffee down by the radio.
She thought a moment.
‘Big quota today. Skylights for a new Walmart or something. Better make it pop.’
I turned it on. A teen idol was singing about hardship and lost love and the exuberant relief of moving on.
‘Can’t even hear it,’ she said, and smiled.
I went and put my hand to her belly. She liked when people did that. ‘Any kicks yet?’ I was relieved not to feel anything. She said no, that it was a laid-back baby.
‘It’s because he’s a thinker,’ she told me. ‘A mother can tell. I think he’s going to end up as a doctor or a lawyer or something.’
I nodded. I guess today I was in the business of leaving fantasies alone. Livie didn’t have anything left to say either, and so, as usual, we let the bad pop music talk for us and actually did our job for a while. The first step was to get the fixture components—floor and tables, lamps, sconces, ceiling fixtures and the like, each of every imaginable shape and size— from Jim and Mary Olsen. Mary was either fifty and looked great, or thirty and looked terrible. I didn’t have the heart to ask. Either way, she and Jim were experienced practitioners of the taping station. Since the fixtures were to be sprayed with paint once we were done with them, they had to plug all the threaded holes and tape over all the places where paint wasn’t supposed to go. Once they’d done that, Livie and I hung them on a rack, a long metal beam suspended in the crooks of two Y shaped stands. It was probably ten feet long, but I might be overestimating. Sometimes I have dreams where I’m working like usual, only the rack is twenty, thirty feet long, and keeps growing longer, and no matter how fast I work I can never fill it. Then I wake up frustrated at the banality of my nightmares; it didn’t matter whether you filled a rack or not. Once you did, the crane came and picked it up and after dipping the clanging fixtures in three vats—one stainless steel treatment, one acid, one water, all the size of small, above-ground swimming pools—the crane would set another one, identical to the first, down on the Ys. So the cycle went and went and went and went and went and, well, you get the point.
Livie and I made great time getting the first rack filled. In hardly twenty minutes it looked like a branch of a Christmas tree, overburdened with decorations. The problem was, we didn’t have a crane man yet, and so once we’d filled one rack, we were stuck. Parts started backing up in our station. Livie and I kept looking at the clock until we were looking so much the second hand nearly froze in place.
Livie let out a long sigh. I nodded and walked off to the lyrics, ‘Oh baby baby, I’m going to Los Angeleeeees! And I’ll never have to see youuu agaaain.’
In the fall, Chue, the crane man, could reliably be found in Clyde’s office, bitching about cranes. Ironically, he didn’t give half a shit about the kind of crane he operated every day, so long as it went up and down and the gears didn’t stick in between. What he was talking about were sandhill cranes, those long-neck birds that mill about the Mississippi backwaters then migrate south to escape the cold. The garage doors, which stood floor to twenty-foot-high ceiling and occurred every twenty yards along the length of the factory, were kept open in the winter to let out some of the sweltering air. For that reason, Chue started a losing battle every time he came to Clyde’s office and complained, with a vigor I respected, that we ought to close the doors because the sandhill cranes were starting their migration, and if one got in, who knows if we’d get it out, given all the hazards a factory posed to an animal accustomed to freedom and flight.
‘Doors close!’ Chue said, ‘the birds!’
He was making wild gestures above his head, which I think were meant to symbolize birds careening towards their doom. Clyde had his head rested on his fists and rolled his eyes at me when I came in.
‘Fall come, birds fly south,’ Chue said, growing more indignant.
Clyde was actually sympathetic to Chue’s thing with the birds. He was just in an impossible spot. He was rolling his eyes because he knew, better than anyone, that Chue spoke flawless English. Every second-generation Hmong person in town did. Chue had even taken a literature class at the community college across town.
‘Just put doors down! Only until there no more change in season.’
Chue had written his final paper on Dickens.
‘Chewy, Chewy, Chewy,’ Clyde said, shaking his head in a way I found vaguely irritating. You say Chue’s name something like ‘tchew-eh,’ with a clipped final syllable, but Clyde didn’t bother trying to get that straight. ‘Chewy, we talk about this once a year. If we close the doors, everyone roasts.’
Chue was aghast.
‘No one care about nothing but am I hot or cold, am I hungry or am I full!’
Clyde opened his mouth, but I cut in.
‘Hey Chue, we need you on the crane if we’re ever gonna get out of here.’
Like he’d been holding his breath, Clyde burst, ‘Thank you!’ then, when Chue turned around, made a show of pretending to hammer his head against the desk. I couldn’t help but think about the panties in there, shaking around.
As we walked back to the vats, I asked Chue why he always made such a show about the birds. He dropped the phony ESL thing and said, ‘Fuck the birds. I want to know when that motherfucker is going to learn my goddamn name!’
I didn’t know what to say to that right away. Then I said, ‘Maybe you should be straight with him. He knows you’re fucking with him.’
‘I’ll stop fucking with him when he stops fucking with me.’
He stormed off, then turned around.
‘And when he closes the doors for the damn birds!’
‘I thought you didn’t care about the birds.’
‘I don’t, but nobody else does either. So what am I supposed to do?’
I mulled that over for a good long time as I worked straight through first break to lunch. Chue’s bird thing had set us back and, what with Livie being knocked up, I thought I’d better be the one to pick up the slack. I’d just go see Clyde at lunch, or probably second break, since lunch is really the only time to eat anything substantial.
Lunch in the breakroom that day was nothing but Jim shaking so bad he could hardly get his chicken salad in his mouth, Livie laying down and rubbing her belly, and Chue muttering to himself about the birds like a lunatic. So, the second I’d scarfed down my ham and swiss, I decided to go out and try my luck at bumming a cigarette off Mary Olsen, who usually smoked instead of ate. When I asked she gave me one, but then she said, in a monotone kind of way, ‘keep smoking those and you’ll end up with a face like mine.’
I searched the bags under her eyes, the creases of her cheeks, the cracks of her lips, the sharp angles of her frame, which was either thin and boyish or old and gaunt, for a sign as to whether she was cautioning me or being coy and ironic. For the life of me I couldn’t tell.
She sighed and stretched her arms wide and then bent towards her toes, only making it about halfway.
‘Every time I move nowadays I’m reminded of how spry I used to be when I started here.’
On impulse, I took my chance.
‘When did you start here, exactly?’
‘Too long ago,’ she moaned, stretching again.
Then Livie came out, her Proud New Mom shirt looking like bubbles popping in the sun.
‘Bum one?’ she said to Mary, who’d already shook another cigarette out of the pack.
‘The doctor like Marlboros?’ I said, and then felt bad about it.
Before I could either apologize or prepare to stand my ground, Livie said, ‘he prefers Camels, but he’ll take what he can get,’ and rubbed her belly without looking at me.
Then Mary looked at her with tired eyes that made me think maybe she was old and said, ‘still in the first trimester, I take it?’ and Livie nodded and said, ‘I hang on to all my babies for three months.’
The hours before next break were like slogging through mud, or maybe like trying to scratch your way out of the uterus. My mind was on babies again. Usually, when Livie and I don’t talk, life goes faster. But this time all I could think about was her baby swimming around in her belly with no clue about its inevitable doom, which made the world feel so sad I could hardly stand it. Then I remembered an article I’d read about how babies are basically amoebas half the time they’re in the womb, and thought about that for a while. Eventually I broke the silence.
‘I’m sorry about what I said earlier.’
‘It’s alright,’ Livie said, ‘I understand.’
‘I didn’t mean to upset you.’
‘I think what you’re doing might be for the best anyway, but haven’t you ever thought about just taking the pill?’
She just looked at me blankly, then shrugged and turned away. I went on working, thinking I’d crossed a line again. But then she said, ‘because then I’ll really never have one,’ and left it at that.
I hardly know if I did any work at all afterwards, though a few racks got filled so I guess I must have. When second break came, I went out to Jim’s truck for another drink. I could grab Clyde to talk about my notice anytime, but after all the business with Livie I needed something to dim my mind a little. Jim usually ate an early dinner inside on second break, but he kept his truck unlocked during the day in case I needed a nip.
So I was surprised to find him out there already, puffing another cigarillo and taking long, slow sips of whiskey. After this morning, I decided I’d knock on the window this time, and when I did, he didn’t jump and his eyes didn’t look glazed or confused or anything. He just nodded and unlocked the passenger door.
‘No dinner today?’ I said.
‘Huh,’ I said.
Jim had the radio playing that same pop song Livie and I had been listening to. It played about every ten songs on every other station. Though the rhythm was off and the singer’s voice was terrible, it did have a certain appeal.
Jim took another long pull, then handed the bottle to me. I drank until my eyes watered. When he looked at me there was water in his eyes too.
‘We’re going to have to put off Cuba,’ he said.
‘Oh yeah? Why’s that?’
‘Money’s a little tight.’
‘You said that this morning.’
I about jumped out of my seat when he slammed his fist on the wheel and blasted a honk across the lot.
‘I know I did, dammit!’
‘Shit man. I just meant to remind you.’
‘You and my banker,’ Jim said.
He took a gulp of air and let it out slowly, rubbing his hands together.
‘I overdrafted my account today buying these.’
He held up one of his thin, smoldering cigarillos.
‘Can you believe that? The bank called me and asked if I’d made the transaction, since I’ve never overdrafted before. I said it sure was suspicious, since I’d just put in a paycheck last Friday. Well, they told me I hadn’t made a deposit in two weeks. And I swore up and down that they were wrong.’
He snuffed out the cigarillo and leaned his forehead against the steering wheel.
‘I made a goddamn fool of myself.’
We sat quietly for a while. Then all Jim said was, ‘Well, in case the last one doesn’t turn up, I’d better go earn another check,’ and got out. ‘Make sure you turn it off when you’re done,’ he said, and, slapping the hood as if for luck, he threw the door shut. I sat in his wake wondering which was worse, not having any money or not having any time, until he was back at the window, tapping on it.
‘I remembered something else,’ he said when I rolled the window down. ‘I meant to tell you that if you want to go to Cuba without me, you can. I wouldn’t blame you.’
I almost told him that I didn’t actually care for cigars, and that I wouldn’t even go around the block by myself to get one, much less around the world. But then I thought he might think all the mornings I’d spent smoking in his truck were some kind of lie, which they weren’t, and anyway, he was halfway back to the factory by then.
After that, I drank a little more, then a lot more, from our bottle, which was less than half-empty by then. Whiskey always helped me screw my head on crooked enough that I didn’t have to look right at anything or anybody around me. I took pull after pull on the bottle until I felt like Harry Houdini probably did mid-trick, trapped and cocksure and alive. What the hell kind of logic was there in waiting to quit anyway? I wasn’t even quitting; I was escaping. You didn’t quit this place any more than you quit prison, I thought, as I slid over into the driver’s seat and put the truck in drive.
I was a mile gone before it occurred to me how completely fucked Jim would be without his truck. I was just watching the sky, enjoying the rarity of sunshine, and then an enormous flock of birds came flapping into view and for whatever reason I fell right back down to earth. I resolved to just drive a while longer and enjoy the day, then go back. Then I had what I thought was a nice idea and made a couple stops in between.
When I got back, the factory was a ghost town until I got down to my station and found everyone standing in a crowded circle. For a second, I thought I was walking into some kind of intervention. Then I realized everyone was standing around the acid vat. I groaned, expecting some epic leak that would be a pain in the ass to fix. Inching up behind everybody, I held tightly to the little plastic bag I was carrying, keeping it closed so no one could see inside. The group was an orchestra of murmurs and whispers. I tied a knot in the handles of the bag and ventured in further. I got so I could make out Chue, leaning on the acid vat, staring dead-eyed into the pale green liquid.
Floating in the vat was an amorphous heap of feathers and bone. Gangly and rust-colored, I knew exactly what kind of bird it was.
‘Jesus,’ I said, and somebody else said, ‘Jesus’, too.
Chue didn’t move. I heard Clyde say, ‘Livie, could you call facilities to take care of this,’ and Jim say, ‘I’ll do it,’ and Mary say, ‘Thanks, Jim,’ and then all was still until Chue shook his head and went over to the supply closet. When he got back he was wearing elbow-length rubber gloves and was holding the net he used to fish out sunken fixtures. People looked away, sneering in disgust as Chue reached toward the bird and, sure enough, when the net touched the heap it all fell to pieces. I about gagged. Then somebody said, ‘Holy shit,’ and we all realized why at once.
The corpse wasn’t a big bird at all but a bunch of little ones. They were sandhill cranes, that was for sure, but scrawny little babies that could probably hardly catch wind under their wings. They were already decomposing. Their eyes were gone and their little beaks were wide open, not making a sound. And when Chue jerked the net in surprise they all fell apart from one another and out of the net and sank and sank and sank and…
Across the vat I spotted Livie, watching the birds fall, tears in her eyes.
I didn’t wait to see them hit bottom. I just found a dumpster and tossed in my little plastic bag. When it hit the bottom it tore open, splaying its contents everywhere, so when no one was looking I rolled a sack of trash on top of it. I didn’t want anyone to have to see the expensive cigar, or the little window decal of a bird in flight, or the bejeweled pair of baby’s sneakers, never worn.
Everybody seemed to feel about as bad as I did and started milling back to their stations, heads bowed and whispering to one another. I found a spot in the procession and followed, but then Clyde was calling me over. He was standing by the door to his office next to this little goth-looking chick. She had a purple streak in her hair and fishnet stockings on under black shorts and was chewing gum, popping pink bubbles over and over. My best guess put her at sixteen.
I walked over clumsily, suddenly remembering just how much I’d had to drink. I hesitated when it crossed my mind that Clyde might have seen me take off in Jim’s truck. I figured I’d head things off at the pass. ‘Listen Clyde I’m sorry to have to do this such short notice but I—’
‘Whatever it is, save it,’ Clyde said, ‘I have a job for you.’
He put his arm around the girl and squeezed her, making her cringe.
‘Joe, this is Sarah Anderson,’ Clyde said. ‘She’s starting today and I thought maybe you’d show her around.’ He slapped me on the back. ‘Sarah, you’re in good hands here. This man practically lives here.’
As Clyde turned to leave, he whispered to me, ‘I looked it up. Wiki said those birds form flocks as soon as they leave the nest. Who could’ve expected that—a whole litter of them? Not me. But anyway, don’t mention any of the bird business to the kid and I’ll let you get another whiff of the good stuff later.’
I tried to tell him I’d had about enough whiffs for one day, but he was gone already and Sarah Anderson was talking at me a mile a minute.
‘I don’t want to waste your time,’ she said, chomping her gum, trying to sound about ten years older. ‘All I need to know is what my job is and how to do it. I’m really just here to save up a little cash. My boyfriend, Collin, and I, we’ve been planning to go to the boundary waters for, like, months, but you know how it is, sometimes, getting out of town...Sheesh. And everything’s so expensive! Renting canoes is like fifty bucks a day!’
I tried to keep pace with her, rattling along and pop-popping her gum, but I was distracted when the line started up again with an echoing groan. The first new fixture to come bobbing along was a long metal rod.
‘And doesn’t that seem strange? Paying by the day? It’s like, ok, here’s fifty bucks for a day of my life.’
Pair after pair of hands lifted the rod for inspection, each performing some small, inscrutable task: applying a piece of tape, twisting a wire, screwing a screw. Gradually, the rod began to look something like a lamp.
When I turned back to Sarah Anderson, she was staring at me. I’m not sure when she’d stopped talking.
‘What is it you do here anyway?’ she asked me, looking toward the line.
All I could think about were unborn babies and fading memories and the worthless flyways of ill-fated birds.
‘We manufacture light,’ I said.
After a while, Sarah Anderson said, ‘For who?’
And I told her, ‘It’s better not to think that far ahead.’