issue 44: September - October 2004 

 | author bio

Where I Work
Ann Cummins
It's piecework that brings in the money. You get four bucks an hour or ten cents a pocket. The old-timers can sew two pockets a minute and make eighteen an hour. They're a whiz. Most get between ten and fifteen. Me, I get four, today maybe five. This is my third day. You don't worry if you're no good at first. You catch on. You're guaranteed the four bucks no matter if you can't get one pocket on in an hour.
      Sam Hunt with the measuring tape comes to my machine and measures the straightness of my stitching. He wears the tan vest, tan creased pants, brown polished shoes, white shirt. He has a perfectly formed nose, neither upturning nor down-turning, and when he stands in front of my machine, I can smell a mysterious cologne coming from him. When he comes this close, I can see that the white shirt does not stick to any part of his skin because he does not sweat.
      But the fat sisters from Galveston sweat like pigs. Turn up the air conditioning! they'll yell. Today at lunch, I sat with the fatties from Galveston, Texas. You can hear them all over the lunchroom, talking about our Oregon summers, complaining about the heat and rain. They say, My bones never ached like this in Texas, and they wish they could move back there. In Galveston, the fat sisters plopped their rumps on the beach and watched the hurricanes come in. I have never seen a hurricane. When I sit with the Texans they tell me all about it.
      And they say, How's your love life, darling? These women mull things over.
      It is my duty to make them laugh. This is a social skill my brother, Michael, taught me. Make them laugh, he said, and you won't get fired.
      Make them laugh or compliment them. Don't tell lies. Don't say things like, "I'd like to tear her little twat out"; if you have to say something like this, say it approximately, not exactly, or you'll scare people. He told me I scare people, and that's one reason why I can't hold a job––and because I tell lies. If you have to tell lies, tell little ones, he says. Try not to talk out loud when you're not talking to anybody.
      At lunch yesterday, when they asked me about my lover, I said, He has a waterbed on his roof.
      A waterbed on his roof? they said. In this rain?
      Some laughed, some didn't. It’s difficult to say what will make the women around here laugh.
      But I admire their industry. They hardly make mistakes. Sam Hunt docks you a pocket for every mistake, and these add up.
      Sam Hunt drives a scooter to work, a very little one. I have seen him from the bus window. He drives on the edge of the road, on the white line, and the Sandy Street bus could squash him like a penny. Then who would see to the timecards? It takes a certain kind of man. Serious. Not a drinker, I'd say. Nice-fitting suit, gleaming face.
      My brother says my face is better than what you usually see. I would marry my brother in an instant, though he’s sinister and disrespectful.
      Michael drives a taxi and knows the timing of the traffic lights by heart. He drives two fingered, with his foot both on and off the gas pedal, never speeding up, never slowing down, through the city neighborhoods. Some nights I sit on the passenger’s side and the customers sit in the back. My brother’s taxi smells like fire. Cinder and ash. In the ashtrays, fat men have stuffed cigars.
      I wouldn't mind a fat man. A fat man would be somebody you could wrap yourself around and never meet yourself coming or going. If I married a fat man, I'd draw stars on his back every night. I'd say, How many points does this star have? Now pay attention, termite, I'd say. How many points does this star have?
      In his taxi, my brother totes around the downtown whores. Some have the names of the months. June, July, and August. Ask them how much they make a night. Depends on how fast your brother drives, they say. Hurry up, baby, time’s money, they like to say. And they spend it in Riverside Park, just junkies in Riverside Park.
      It smells like garbage under the bridges in Riverside Park, and those houses over there? In the housing projects, don't go up to a black woman’s door. They don't want you. Don't go up to the men on the steps. Keep your hands at your sides. Walk fast or run. Don't look in the windows of a car slowing down. Walk slow if there're dogs or they'll chase you. Keep your hand on your purse. If somebody approaches you, if he gets within ten feet, say, I am fully proficient in the use of semiautomatic weapons. My brother bought me a gun when I moved out on my own, because a woman living alone in this city should be able to defend herself. You go for the knees. We put cardboard circles on a fence post in the country. I can hit them a majority of the time. If you go for the heart or head and murder a person, you could be held liable by the dead man's family, even if he broke into your apartment. This is the justice system in our country, my brother says, and he's right. The justice system in this country treats us like a bunch of stinking fish.
      There. A perfect pocket. This is a keeper, so that’s one. These are my practice days. They give you a couple of practice days to start out, and after the third day or so you begin to develop a system. Like, one thing is not to stop when you're coming to a corner—not to slow down or speed up and keep your hands going with your foot on the pedal, and just turn the corner without thinking. If you ruin one, put it in your purse—if it's really bad.
      Next week we're moving to a new line. Sam Hunt said when he orientated me that we're moving out of the blue and into the white. We'll have enough blue by the end of the week. How's your eyes? he says. The white stitches on the white material can blind you, so remember to blink often.
      There's something wrong with my eyes. I can't cry. I'm just a happy idiot, my brother says, but I say there's something wrong with my eyes. They are deteriorating in my head. I have that condition—you read about it, where the eyes dry out unnaturally. I don't cry.
      All of the women at this table wear glasses. And smoke. The lunchroom's like a chimney. And they say, How's your love life, darling?
      The reason I'm not married yet is because I haven't found the right man. I don't know who he is, but I'll know him when I see him, and he'll look like something, and he won't whore around. Which, I'd shoot him, any man who whored around on me. Like that man in the laundry room. He was married because I saw the ring. And he says, How thin are your wrists? Look at how thin your wrists are. See, he says, I can put my fingers around you and not touch any part. A married man said this.
      A lot of the good ones are married. He had green eyes and a friendly manner, and he asked me which was my apartment. He lives right above me—him and his wife. Says, Come up and watch TV sometime. I may just do that. I would like to see their home and their furnishings.
      I will ask him to help me move furniture in. When I get my first check I'm going to buy a lamp, a nice brass one, and when I save enough I'm going to buy a brass bed, too, and one of those checkerboard coffee tables, the kind with different colors of wood in squares, and some rugs, throw rugs, and ask them to dinner, the man and his wife, which, you could never ask anybody to dinner at Michael's house because nobody ever does the dishes, and there's nothing in that house but Bob Marley posters and dirt and screaming fits.
      My brother has paid my rent for the last time. If he's got to have such a screaming fit about it.
      Outside the window in my new apartment on the east side is a mystery tree. We don't know what it is. I've asked around but nobody knows. On a muggy night if you don't turn the light on, you can see animals in the tree. Opossum. Eight, nine, ten of them, gliding along the mystery tree and the tree's branches all in a panic. Black like tar, the branches gleam in the moonlight, all the little opossum claws scratching where you can't see or hear. Shall I open the window? my brother said when he came over. Want some pets? Hold on to your hair. They could get into your hair. He says they're rats, but I have seen them up close. On this, he's wrong. He says this because he's jealous.
      Who pays your rent? he says. He says, who the fuck pays your rent?
      My brother has paid my rent for the last time if it's such a big deal.
      "My brother had a fire in his taxi."
      "My brother drives a taxi and somebody started a fire in the back seat."
      "Ain't that something." She's the nice one. She says, Sit with us, honey, and tells me about the Texas hurricanes. She's someone you can talk to. "Did he have insurance?"
      "What’s the difference between a tornado and a hurricane?" The woman has bitten her fingernails to the quick. You can see it from here.
      "A tornado? You know, I never considered it. Hey, Lynn. What's the difference between a hurricane and a tornado?"
      "One's by sea, one's by land."
      "One thing I do know. They can both come up on you in a minute."
      "Same with a fire. My brother had a fire in his taxi."
      "Ain't that something."
      "Somebody left a cigar or cigarette burning in the back. It went, just like that."
      "Anybody hurt?"
      "They're made of straw. That's why the seats can go just like that."
      Then you're walking.
      So let him walk. See how that feels.
      In the projects a man came up to me. He said, Woman? Woman? He said, where can I find a pepper grinder? He said for fish, that he was cooking fish and he wanted some fresh ground pepper, and then started laughing and laughed his fool head off.
      In the projects, you can get shot and nobody's going to look for you. In the projects, someone has busted out every street-light, and there's glass in the street, and children playing in it. In the projects, you can walk down one street, up another, a street without lights so you don't see the dirty yellow walls all alike, street after street, with dogs that'll chase you and black women who don't want you, and it smells like garbage in the projects. Those people are filthy.
      I don't care if it is cheaper there. He says, You don't have to worry. I'm not going to let anything happen to you. Don't make me cry, Michael. Joyce, I'm not going to let anything happen to you, he says. I told him I'd cry, but there's something wrong with my eyes.
Damn! Now that thread's broken. Where’s Sam Hunt? Where’s that weasel? Run the flag. Got a problem, he says. Pull this little string. I'll see your flag and respond. They can't be having girls run up and down the aisles looking for the weasel. That way if anything's missing or disturbed anyplace in the vicinity, we'll blame it on Betsy Ross's ghost, he says to me. He has equipped every sewing machine in the place with a little flag. If you have to go to the bathroom, raise the flag, take your purse, don't put it on the floor in the stall because the weasel is not responsible for stolen or lost property.
      Somebody should burn that man up.
      There are instances where fires occur by spontaneous combustion, and instances where water will not put a fire out. There are oil slicks on the ocean. In dreams, too—there are people burning on the ocean or in impossible places, instances where burning oil floats on water and your clothes are on fire, and your hair is on fire, and in the water the fire goes inward. If it's dirty with oil and muck. Sometimes there's no way to put the fire out.
      In such a dream, go into a well. Make it from rocks. The bottom of the well is very smooth, and the rocks are cool. Close your eyes. Put your cheek against a rock. If you're dizzy, reach your arm out. Touch the other side. Twirl in a circle. Put yourself in a blue well, and keep your eyes closed. Turn around and around until the fire stops.

* * * *

      "Joyce? what is it?"
      "My thread broke."
      "Your thread broke? Do you remember how I showed you to reload your thread? Did you try that? Here. Show me. Remember? Here, now, you hook it around this wire first. Remember. Okay, good. That's right. Yes. Down the pole, into the needle. You pull that back or it's going to knot when you begin to sew. Good. Very good. See? That wasn't so hard. Was it?
      "How you doing? You getting along okay? You getting to know people?"
      "Let's see what you've done today. No, now you're holding your material too tightly. That's what'll give you the tangled stitches. Remember how I told you to roll it under the foot—just like it's a rolling pin and you're making pie crusts. Remember? You bake, Joyce? Just roll it under the foot with a nice, steady movement."
      "Yes, I bake."
      "No, now this one's not going to work. See, you've got the X in the corner. You can't overshoot the pattern or you'll have a little X. See? And here's another one.
      "Joyce, where are the rest of them? I counted sixty pockets out for you this morning. Now I count—let's see... Where’re the rest of them?"
      "That's all you gave me."
      "No. This morning I counted out sixty, and now there are ... They can't just disappear. Let's see. Forty-eight–
      "This is your third day? You're not picking this up, are you? Maybe we should transfer you to pant legs. There aren't as many angles. Come and talk to me when your shift's over."
      "I can't. I'll miss my bus."
      "Catch the next bus. Come and talk to me. We'll take a look at your file. See what we can do."
      I can do this.
      This is a cinch. Go forward and backwards to lock in the stitch. Be careful not to overshoot the pattern—be careful not to overshoot the pattern because that's when the X occurs. You can't rip it out because the buying customer will see where the ripping occurred. Now that's ruined. Put it in your purse.
      Here's the rest of them. These are ruined. I forgot about these in my purse.
      Forgetting is not lying. I'll say, I didn't lie. I forgot, and that's the truth.
      What’s she smiling at? What’s so funny about that pocket? That's a hilarious pocket. These women will laugh behind your back. They listen in on every conversation and then they laugh behind your back. Well, fuck them.
      I can do this. So, let them laugh. You go forward and backwards. Every system has its routine. In a house when you live alone, you check the rock by the front door when you come home to see if it's been moved in your absence. If it's been moved, someone has gone in your house. This is just real funny. I'd like to squash her pea-brain. Now that's ruined.
      Check the rock and you check for broken windows before you unlock the door, and you keep your gun in the drawer by your bed. I'm going to tell him to give me another chance. This wasn't so good today, but tomorrow's a different story. My brain's ruined for this day. That's a sad thing how a woman will just laugh in your face like that. They think they're so hot.
      You keep your gun in the drawer by your bed. If, at three in the morning some person breaks in your house, you take the phone off the hook, dial 0. You don't have time to dial 911. You've got your gun and you're kneeling in bed or on the floor, and you say, I'm fully proficient in the use of semiautomatic weapons. I live at one-one-three-four East Holly. You're saying this to the operator who will call the cops.
      Say, "I am fully proficient in the use of semiautomatic weapons –
      "What are you looking at?"
      "What did you say?"
      "I didn't say anything."
      "Yes, you did."
     "What are you looking at?"
      "Hey, don't worry about it. Don't sweat it. Sam's okay. Gets a bee in his lugudimous maximus every now and again, but he's okay."
      "They're going to fire me from this job."
      "Nah, they ain't going to fire you."
      "He's going to look at my file."
      "They look at your file, and then they look at you."
      "You've got to–"
      "Don't look at me."
      "Now, honey–"
      "Don't look at me! Don't look in my face."
      Don't look anywhere.
      They open your file and then they fire you. Everything is ruined now. So who cares.
      These are ruined. I've ruined these. Meaning to or not doesn't count. Did you or didn't you? Did you or didn't you? he'll say. He'll call me on the phone. Did you or did you not? Michael will say. I'll say—
      When Michael calls—
      I'll say, I didn't get to these yet. These were misplaced. I'll say. I'll say, I forgot about these in my purse.
      This place is filthy. Somebody ought to clean this place up.
You just do your work. You just pay attention.
      I'll leave my coat in the locker. I'll sneak out the back way, and I'll leave my coat in the locker.
      I'll say, These are my practice days, Mr. Hunt. I can do this.
      I'll sneak out the back way.
      I'll catch the Sandy Street bus. If I miss the Sandy Street, I'll catch the Burnside. I won't look at the bums sleeping there. When I walk across the bridge, across the Burnside Bridge—if they ask me for money, I'll look straight ahead.
      When Michael calls to ask me how it went—if my brother calls—
      I'll say, Not too bad. That's what I'll say.
      He'll say, Way to go, Joyce. That's money in the bank.
      For dinner, I'll make mashed potatoes or I'll make rice. I'll sit at the table by the kitchen window. I'll watch the sun go down.
      I will set my alarm for six so I can catch the Sandy Street bus at seven because the Burnside bus will get me here too late. Sam Hunt sees to the timecards. Don't be late or you're docked pockets, and these add up.
      I will set the alarm for six and I'll go to bed at ten. If I wake up in the night—if a dream or nightmare wakes me... I must not wake up in the night. A working girl needs her sleep.

© Ann Cummins

This electronic version of  "Where I Work" appears in The Barcelona Review with kind permission of the publisher and author. It appears in the author´s collection Red Ant House, Mariner Books / Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003. Book ordering available through amazon.comamazon.co.uk

This story may not be archived, reproduced or distributed further without the author's express permission. Please see our conditions of use.

author bio
Ann CumminsAnn Cummins is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins University and the University of Arizona writing programs. She has published stories in The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, and The Best American Short Stories 2002, among other publications. Her first short-fiction collection Red Ant House, Houghton Mifflin Company, met with much critical praise. The recipient of a Lannan fellowship, she divides her time between Oakland, California, where she lives with her husband, and Flagstaff, Arizona, where she teaches creative writing at Northern Arizona University.

photo: Steve Willis


issue 44: September - October 2004  

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