From Leaving Winesburg
Our place is in our skin; our place in Fremont, our place in the factory, our place in the scheme of things.
We are gnarled. Our own knuckles rise in mountains and fall in valleys from the threat of arthritis. Our skin is knicked and uneven. Scars rise from our forearms where the skin has worked overtime to heal. And there are scars that sink, scars that the body could not compensate for, couldn’t work fast enough to fill before the fat and muscle and tendon healed. Scars, both sunken and raised, etch their way across our skin creating tiny maps of where we have been, and where we may go. Some of us have scars from doctor’s offices, where metal has replaced what we have destroyed, what have been erased by calluses and sharp edges. Our arms became well-oiled robotic limbs, lifting and turning and realigning again before we repeated the same motion. Just as machines sometimes shut down or a piece breaks, I knew I would one day, too.
The methodic whir of machinery swept through me as I listened to the careless twang of metal panels against the soapstone table. Every twelve seconds, a sharp clang followed by a tiny clatter as my arms stretched above my head to pull the slab of metal out of the tote and throw it down long enough to add a few pieces here, a few there. The line buzzed and the tow motors whizzed past. Buzz, clang, slip, clatter.
I pulled the panels from the tote, the shining sheets of metal bent at the sides, cut with holes for the rest of the parts it takes to make a washing machine. Grease soaked my Kevlar gloves and we were working with speed.
“How many do we have on the floor?” I asked through earplugs and clanging metal and sliding plastic. I was on three-man, the very beginning of the cycle. I was throwing panels. The orange tote on my right, a tray of plastic strips on my left. I pulled the metal panel, slid it onto soapstone slabs on the table in front of me. With two strips in my hand before the bottom of the panel hit the end, I flipped one, snapped the sides, slid them up the sharp bent edges. While I did this, Drew slapped a warning label on the bottom of the panel toward me, snapped a vacuum brake into the two cut slots, and put another label on the top.
“Only eighty. Hurry it up, Sweetheart,” Manny said. He was the third man. Drew slid a panel to Manny at the edge of the table, off the soapstone slabs and onto flat blue plastic. Manny lifted it, spun around and set it onto an empty orange frame and clamped it onto the moving line.
“How many do you want?” I asked. I pulled another panel, snapped the strips.
“A hundred, hundred-twenty. I want the whole break, man, right Drew?” Manny grinned, his chubby cheeks glowing with sweat.
“Yeah. I like long break,” Drew said. He balanced on his heels.
Manny rested his beer gut against the strip tray. “Speed it up, there, Sweetheart.”
And I did. We worked fast on three-man, specifically the last two rotations before a break. If we had enough pre-made panels on the floor, the two people on panels and vacuum brake could take a long break.
In the next rotation, I would be hanging consoles, leaving three-man. Someone else would come in to work alone the twenty minutes before first break at 9:20 a.m. If we got a hundred-twenty panels on the floor, Manny and Drew would be able to go to break at 9:00. A half hour break instead of only ten minutes was gold in the factory.
“I can do that,” I said.
It was hot. The massive fans that hung from the ceiling blew dusty air over us and we sweated. Drew held a vacuum brake and sticker in his hands before I set the panel down, and it became a race. We smiled at one another and only talked when we had to. Sometimes Drew was ready first. Sometimes I was holding a panel above Drew’s head. “Hurry it up,” I said.
Often, Manny would fall behind. He set panels all around him. We called the extra panels the Bank. We worked between two I-beams and if we stacked the panels correctly, we could fit a hundred to a hundred-twenty on the ground. And with the line moving at five washing machines per minute, we had work to do.
The Bank served more of a purpose, though. When we swapped totes full of parts, panels or vacuum brakes, it was important to have extra panels to put on the line. But this was overkill. It was a time to go fast so we could rest early. It was time for me to show them what I could do.
We moved smoothly, so smoothly that we were making ten units a minute instead of five. Manny put every other unit on the floor, added to the Bank. He put the other on the line to be made into a washing machine.
There were obstacles. Drew’s hands worked too hard and he broke the leg of a vacuum brake. “Shit,” he said. He ripped it out, flung it into a plastic bin under the sticker machine and pulled another from the tote. The more he broke, the more quickly we went through brakes and the more often we had to change the tote.
“Come on, Drew,” Manny said. He picked up the panel he just set on the floor and put it on the line, bared his teeth a little and squinted his tiny eyes. I winked at Drew and he smiled. I was having my own issues halfway through my tote. It was bad.. The people upstairs in the pressroom had packed it too full. The panels had sunk into one another and the grease from the press wasn’t helping them come apart.
“Fuck, they’re stuck. Pick one up, Manny,” I said.
“You guys!” Manny’s eyes darted as he picked up two panels to get ahead on the line.
There was a screw driver next to me on the side of the strip bin, just a flathead with a yellow handle caked with years of dirt and grease and factory grime. We were supposed to use it to pry stuck panels apart, but I was wasting the bank. There was no time for tools. We wore Kevlar gloves and sleeves to protect us from the unfinished edges of the panels, but it was hot and the sleeves didn’t breathe. When I wore them, it felt like I had three extra layers of skin on, skin that stuck to my own skin and sweat that couldn’t escape. I hated the slimy feeling, the way the yellow fuzz from the cuffs stuck to my wrists. I had taken mine off to work faster on this job and isntead wore only the gloves. I leaned close to the tote, stuck my fingers between the sharp edges trying to pry them apart. The metal pushed the skin from my fingernail as it wedged between, and I felt my forearms burn as I twisted and pulled.
It wasn’t working. They were stuck underneath the metal divider of the tote. My heart began to pound. I was letting Manny and Drew down. They worked hard for my breaks. I should for them. I punched the panels to unwedge them.
Drew waited across from me, vacuum brake and sticker in hand.
When it didn’t work, I yanked. Drew waited. Manny picked one up off the floor. His bank was dwindling.
Panicked, I pulled harder. And the panel broke loose, but it came too fast and too far. And then it happened.
It was a different kind of burn, the kind that I knew would hurt in a few seconds while the nerves had time to get my brain, I had time to look down. I saw my skin flap up over the metal as the bottom of the panel became unwedged from the tote and wedged again into my arm.
I removed the panel from my arm and dropped it on the soapstone rails before I looked down again.
I felt that knot of something rise up in my throat, pressing hard against the roof of my mouth. “Oh God…” But my arms were on autopilot and my body kept moving. Manny and Drew needed a Bank, a break. I continued my methodic sliding of strips, quicker this time. Between, I pulled my skin apart with my greasy gloved fingers, looked at the flesh inside. I had done it this time, cut it so deep that only white meat showed between the two slabs of skin. It was the kind of cut that stung, waited, then bled like the beginning of a sunset cracking through the muted gray of dawn. Concerned co-workers asked if I was okay and brought me back to the realization that I was still on a job, that the frame was going down the line empty and I still needed to make a washer.
“Suck, Squeeze, Bang, Blow”
“If you’re gonna drive a car, you ought to know how the engine works,” you said. You said to learn it because I had to be worthy to be in the garage while you worked on the dune buggy. I needed that knowledge to watch you work a wrench around a bolt under the hood. I had to know it that cool summer night, had to know it to even attempt to be with you. Had to know it to lean over the horizon of your shoulders. Had to know it to hold the hand that held the wrench.
I swallowed the last warm swig of the Miller Lite and chucked the can into bed of your truck before climbing off the trailer. Insect wings clacked against the plastic shell of the porch light and the back of my shirt stuck to my summer skin. You stood and turned toward me, your white t-shirt stained with grease, black smudges along the hem and the collar, across the shoulders where you reached back to scratch. The legs of your Levi’s were torn, exposing the brown skin of your knees, your skin dented from kneeling on the blacktop. You said I had to learn about the engine because I should know it. Because I was close to being with you. Because I should know what you knew. I took a seat on the wheel well of the trailer and you turned to me, eyebrows raised, the kind of raised that told me this was important. I was thirsty for this, for your attention, for the four strokes, for the shared knowledge. Leaning forward, I smelled the oil, the sweat, the Old Spice. You said the four steps were intake, compression, combustion, and exhaust. For short, people called it “suck, squeeze, bang, and blow.” Your face reminded me that harmony within the engine created harmony in your life. It reminded me that I needed to know this, that you needed to show me.
Intake. The induction stroke. It begins with the piston at the top dead center, furthest away from the axis of the crankshaft, and then the piston comes down from the top of the cylinder. The intake stroke reduces the pressure in the cylinder. Fuel and air mix in the cylinder through the intake port, then the valve closes trapping it inside. Outside of the garage, bent over the engine, I felt our hands clasped in grease, sliding, fighting to maintain the grasp. You said the oil doesn’t mix in with the gas like I thought it did. It’s there to lubricate, to make sure things move smoothly. Your lips said, “Learn this.” Your eyes said, “My love depends on it.” Breathe, intake. The fuel and oxygen mix in the cylinder of the piston, you said. They dance around one another, liquid and air, unable to become one because they are two separate entities. They tumble over one another, slice, cut, rattle for a few moments with the threat of a piston hovering overhead.
I thought about earlier that year, how the heater hummed on the wall in my dorm room at Ashland that winter. You were there for the weekend, in my bed with me. Light from the television flickered over your face as I stared up from your shoulder, your white shirt tight against your body. Your fingertips gripped the bottom of my tank top, danced on my skin above the waist of my jeans for a few moments before you pressed your palm flat against my back, turned my body toward you and I instinctively let my leg slip over both of yours. You looked at me, almost smiled, and pulled yourself up onto your elbow. It was the first time you’d ever spent the night in Ashland with me, the first time you dared to touch my skin, the first time you turned me toward you.
I rested my hand on your chest, couldn’t look you in the eye with your hand on my back, tracing my spine then wandering up over my hip.
“Erica,” you whispered. I raised my head, propped myself up on an elbow as you kept your hand on my back, lifted the other one and moved my hand over your heart. “See what you do to me?” Breathe. Mix. Your love depends on this. Your heart pounded so I moved my hand from your chest to the soft spot on your neck and shook my head.
Characters danced on the screen. White noise. Your hand rested on my hip for a few moments, began to move forward to my stomach and you pushed me to my back, climbed on top of me and rested there. The button of your jeans was cold against my skin as you leaned down, buried your head in my neck. I told myself to breathe. Breathe as if you’d had your hand there before, as if this was not new. Then I realized that you weren’t breathing at all.
“B. You okay?” I forced your head from my shoulder. Your eyes were wide, afraid. “Breathe. B, breathe.” Your face was bathed in the blue light of television. I heard you take in a small breath. “Breathe. What’s happening?” I slid my fingers under your shirt to feel your chest rise, to make sure you remembered what I said, to feel the air being drawn into your lungs. Breathe. Mix. I wanted you to kiss me.
“You. Look at you,” you said. Fuel and air mix in the cylinder, come together, the threat of a piston high above them.
With no where to go but the single bed with the flickering light, you brought your face to mine, let your stubble graze my lips, but refused to kiss me. You said you couldn’t date me because I was 60 miles from our home, but you’d wait until I graduated, moved back.
On February 29, you lost your breath again in my bed at Ashland when you finally gave in and I felt the stubble on your face tickle my lips before you pressed your mouth onto mine. When I pulled away, our lips stuck together for a second and you became mine. We’d finally come together and the secrets began.
Compression. The compression stroke is meant to compress the air-fuel mixture. As the piston drops into the cylinder, the air and fuel are forced together in a smaller, more confined space. As the piston falls, the mixture is pushed closer and closer to a spark plug at the opposite end of the cylinder, pressure continually building.
You squeezed my fingers in the driveway. Made sure I was paying attention, made sure you were my focus. Pulled me closer. Look, listen. The piston is pushed into the chamber, fills it, forces the air and the gasoline together even though it never fully combines. Make it mix. Slide in, compress, push it toward the spark plug, toward the spark. Ignite it, because burning is the only way the two can come together.
In late May, early in the summer a year and some months after the winter kiss in bed, we say we’re together, but only to each other. You wouldn’t say I was your girlfriend, but they all assumed it. I assumed it, even when you tuned out when I told you about school, even when you let go of my hand in front of people we knew. Your heart found harmony in this; mine sputtered as I drowned in the secret.
For my twentieth birthday, you buried a diamond ring in a large box, told me you bought me disc brakes for my car. When I found it, I held it in my palm, wouldn’t put it on without an explanation. Three princess cut diamonds in the middle, three round cuts on either side. You denied that it was a promise ring even though you said earlier that year that you’d never buy a ring of any kind for any girl unless it was the girl you were going to marry. I took a breath, looked at you as you shook your head in denial, let your eyes smile for you even though no one was watching.
I started to slide the band over my right ring finger, realized you were watching. I caught your eye, stopped halfway at my knuckle and took it off, slid it on the left ring finger and raised my eyebrows. Was this okay? You smiled, pulled me into the corner of the kitchen. You let your hands slide down my back and I let my finger glitter on your neck, my left ring finger.
“Can we be together in public now?” I asked.
“No.” You messed up my hair and walked back out to the garage.
But this weekend in late May was the one when we had the bonfire at Andy’s house. You picked me up in your big silver Dodge Ram, your four-wheeler and a cooler of beer in the back. All night we sat on the tailgate shooting empty beer cans with a bee bee gun by the light of the fire. You said to pay attention, to put the butt of the gun against my shoulder for a steady aim, to only pull the trigger when I breathed out so my inhalation wouldn’t shake the barrel. “Go slow.”
I held the gun like you said, looked through the scope for a glinting piece of metal far behind the fire. I held my breath. Compression. Let it out slowly, pulled the trigger. Tink. You smiled, proud. Proud that your girlfriend had aim.
People disappeared inside to play video games and left the both of us on the tailgate of your truck, shooting cans, continually pumping the handle of the gun fifteen times every few shots. The more pressure behind the bee bee, the better the accuracy.
I hit another, and after that you pushed me back into the bed of your truck with the gun in my hands, climbed on top of me like you had in Ashland, but your hands were no longer soft, gentle against my back. You pushed your hands hard against my shoulders and smashed your mouth to mine as the four-wheeler ramps dug into my skin.
“B. No. And what if they come back?” I pushed you up, but you pulled me with you, dragged me across the field to the white-walled barn, threw me against the tin wall with a dull clang and kissed me hard, forcing my head up against the cold. I had never seen you forceful with me, wondered what had changed, if it had been the number of beers you’d taken down. Maybe you knew my heart sputtered, that you had to force the harmony with physical strength. Your breathing was wild, and I believed we were together.
Voices wandered back out to the fire and you pulled me by my shirt to the side of the barn facing away from them, threw me down onto a piece of plywood on the ground and kneeled over me. You tried to pull my shirt up and the board scratched my back. I felt your fingers fumble with my belt buckle. “What the hell are you doing, B?” I shoved you up. “Let’s go back to the fire.” You walked a few steps ahead of me as we stepped into a faint orange glow from the fire a ways off. When I reached for your hand, you snatched it away, grabbed another beer, stared into the flames.
Later on, you tried to drive. I told you I wouldn’t get in the truck, wouldn’t let you do this. You glared. “Are you sure you can drive it?” you asked.
Your truck was new, lifted eight inches and rode on forty-inch Super Swamper Boggers. It pulled to the right at low speeds, sat up higher than any vehicle in Fremont.
“I can do it. Because you can’t.” I tore the keys from your hand like you tore your hand from me.
You held your breath the whole way home, let it out when I pulled into your driveway. “Stay with me,” you said as you slid over and kissed me.
“Fine.” We crept into the house, stepped over creaky floorboards and climbed into bed, but you apparently were not tired. You flicked on the rock station and the blue light from the numbers cast a glow over the whole room. The deer head on the wall stared down, the stuffed squirrel on the dresser dared to look in our direction.
You seemed to have forgotten that you pulled your hand away from me hours before, because your hands were all over me and you asked, “Can we?” You pressed your body against me, cornered me into the side of the bed, let your chest rest on mine. You swallowed my air, mixed my breath and your spit and suddenly made sense as to what you were trying to do all night.
“Can we what?” I knew.
“Come on. We’ve been together for almost two years. I gave you a ring,” you said.
“Yeah, a ring you deny means anything.” I twisted it on my finger.
“You know what it means.” You kissed my ear, moaned because you knew the sound of your voice gave me goose bumps.
“So why can’t you say it?”
“I love you. I want to be with you forever. I want to be with you right now.” You looked sincere. You were. I know you were. Closed in, tucked close to you, your body, your heart, you were asking me to put everything we had together, to be one, to exist together in a small space, a small moment, to exist in one another. It was then that I couldn’t breathe, started to panic, clawed at your chest when I couldn’t get my lungs to work. You could fix it. You were a mechanic. You made me breathe before. You sobered up quickly, made me sit and wrapped an arm around me. “Hey, come on, take a deep breath. You’re scaring me.” You stared into my face, kissed my wet cheeks and slid your legs near me. I felt the hair on your shins against my own legs and stared up at you. “Slow. Go slow. You okay?”
I caught my breath as best I could, put my head back against the pillow. You waited until my breathing slowed but my heart sped up. And I knew we were too close to go back.
Combustion. With the ignition of the spark plug, the air-fuel mixture catches fire and the burning gases push the piston through the power stroke, back away from the spark plug.
You told me this is the most important step, begged me with your eyes to pay attention while you leaned over the buggy. You said that this is what actually creates energy within the chambers of the engine. You pointed, looked at me as you talked about the heat, how it all comes together in extreme pressure, lights, and explodes with the spark plug to force a renewed space. Everything depends on this. Movement, the set-up for another four strokes, the harmony in the engine and in the vehicle. It all has to explode at some point. You turned and looked over your shoulder, my shins up against your side. “It has to.”
Pinned between the bed and your body, I asked you if we had to. You said we didn’t, but you wanted to. You couldn’t find a reason not to.
“Do you know what has to happen if we do this, B?”
“Sure, we have to do it again.” You kissed my neck, smiled at me and I felt the damp skin of your arms brush against my ribs. You were sweating out the beer, the smoke from the cigars, the smoke from the fire, even through the Old Spice. You tasted like stale bread and beer and mint and your hands were warm and strong against me.
“No. If we do this, you have to marry me.” I pushed your hands away, grabbed your face and made you look at me. “You have to marry me if we do this because I promised myself I’d only ever sleep with one man.” I wanted this to scare you, to make you stop touching me. But I also wanted you to say you understood, that that’s what you wanted.
“I gave you a ring, didn’t I?” You fell back on the metal I forced over my knuckle.
“B, say you’re okay with it. Say you’re okay with marrying me. Can you really be with me forever?” I felt my heart pound, felt you push my hair behind my ear.
“I can’t think of anyone else I’d rather be with forever,” you said as you kissed me and let your right hand linger behind you, open the nightstand drawer, pull out the tiny foil wrapper, let it glint in the blue light.
Exhaust. This piston, pushed away with the force of the explosion from the spark plug, starts to enter the cylinder again with the rotation of the crankshaft. It pushes the products of combustion through the chamber and out through exhaust valves and into the pipes that lead out from beneath the back of the vehicle.
You let go of my hand, said something about how the exhaust gets pushed through pipes to the catalytic converter to at least clean it a little before it is released through the pipes into the air outside of the car. You told me to say it. “Exhaust.” The material bounced around inside my head and I tried to remember the four steps. Breathing out. Exhaust. It begins with a breath in, compresses, combusts, and ends with a breath out, sometimes a torturously jagged breath causing backfire, excess burnt fuel. You looked up at me and asked me if I got it. I stared down at you and worried that I had.
I left your house the next morning, climbed into my car, prayed that we hadn’t screwed up anywhere and that I hadn’t somehow gotten pregnant, that I wasn’t going to hell. I prayed to be forgiven and sobbed without tears because my mascara would run, liquid black evidence. I knew I’d already have to walk into the house in front of my mother’s questions as to where I had been. Lie. Lie about it. You said you’d come over later. Just make it till later.
But I didn’t want to see you. I hated that I had basically just promised you the rest of my life without a proposal, without knowing for sure that that was what I wanted. But it was what I was stuck with. It was a fair trade: our virginities for the rest of our lives. Yet there was more space than there had ever been. I left after I told you that we wouldn’t be doing that again until we were married. That we’d already fucked up. You said you understood, even though your eyes revealed that you thought you could get it again. But for the time being, you said you understood, that you loved me.
“I love you, too,” I said, for the first time doubting whether I meant it.
Eight months later, after you took me to a company Christmas party and acted like I didn’t exist, I finally got fed up. I was home for Christmas break from school my junior year. Your birthday was January 7, a Saturday that year. I bought you a leather jacket and a flask, took you on a walk around the Sandusky River, took a picture of us on the railroad tracks. I asked if you really thought we were going to work.
At dinner at your house that night, your mother reprimanded me for not baking you a cake, for not being domestic enough to take care of you once we were married. How would I ever be able to make you three meals a day? Sew your clothes? Take care of your kids?
She was right. How could I do that if you wouldn’t even make me your own in public? If I had to ask you to say “I love you”? I wrote a promise to myself, to you, that I would never have your children. But I wrote it in Spanish so you wouldn’t know that I’d already made my decision, so I could lie about it.
The next day, on my way back to school, I stopped at your house to say goodbye, forever. I sat on the couch next to you, you let your hand rest on my leg as your basset hound looked up with sad eyes. Did he know? Or were those eyes always that sad?
“I can’t do it anymore,” I said.
“Why? What happened?” you asked, recalling me making you a promise that we’d get married after we made love.
“You don’t treat me like a girlfriend. We fight all the time about it. I’ll always love you, but I can’t do it anymore.” I reached for your hand and you jerked it away. I was not surprised.
I drew in my breath and stood, holding it until I got to the front door. When the January air hit my face, I watched the cloud of my breath float away with all the waste that was left over, with everything that had been building up. As it disappeared into the air, I smiled and climbed into my car. I turned the key, felt the engine catch and I threw it into reverse as I backed into the cloud that floated from the tailpipe. Exhaust.