I guess this is the working mother's nightmare. I'm still not sure, all these years later, whose side the lathe is really on.

The Song of the Lathe


     From the very first, the lathe sang. As Melinda stood at work cutting the new surfaces on the little aluminum wheels the song seemed cheery and full of promise. It was good to be working again. The little lathes she used were almost like toys and the spindles and wheels she machined on them made sprightly little clinking noises in the boxes. They were to be parts of computer disk drives someday.
     It had seemed at first as if her work life would be easy. She'd drop Billy at the sitter's and drive right up the freeway to the muddy half-paved row of prefabs that called itself El So]. industrial Park. Billy would be ready for her when she came and they'd tumble back to their little apartment. She'd feed the baby, get her clothes ready for the next day, and they'd sleep. And she'd be able to pay the rent herself and buy the baby's medicine. It seemed like her life was finally getting organized.
     It was a pleasant little shop. The corrugated metal walls of the building had no windows but the big doors were kept open unless the weather was very bad. The light that played off the other big prefab across the unpaved parking lot was not too harsh for Melinda's eyes. And the lathes sang that cheerful song in three part harmony.
      Melinda enjoyed the company of the others standing so studiously behind their various machines. When they gathered for coffee and at lunchtime at the big picnic table in the shipping department they would share the terrors and triumphs of their lives. The stories they told, about Mike's clog dancing and Laraine's terriers, Bob's woodworking and stained glass and Wendy's school ambitions, would stay with her when Melinda went back to work, and as the lathe geared up shed hear the stories turned into ballads and lyrics. An older man named Hal used the word copacetic in conversation and the lathe repeated it from then on as a refrain.
      Melinda's babysitter met her at the door with a grim face. "1 can't watch him any more," she said, pulling the lever which dropped the floor from under Melinda's feet. He cries all the time and it upsets the other kids,' the babysitter said.

It was Friday. Melinda had two days to find a place for Billy. The woman in the front apartment would take him for a week, but she wouldn't swear to more than that. Melinda wasn't entirely comfortable with her anyway. She drank a little during the day and left the bottle on the table. She wasn't really drunk though, Melinda told herself, and she won't neglect the baby.
     Wednesday the car wouldn't start. Matilda's life became an epic poem, a paean to the modes of modern transportation, every day a new stanza, exploring a new way to get to work She rode a bicycle, she rode a bus, she borrowed and even rented cars. She took a cab, only once. She hitchhiked -- the driver was talking at confused length about going to Oklahoma and needing a female passenger to make his business transactions on the way there easier. Melinda said, "This is where I get out," seven blocks from El Sol Industrial Park.
      The next day she walked.
      The song the lathe sang changed every day. It was not so light and airy anymore. The song took on a plaintive note: "What to do?" And after the last break of the day, in that interminable stretch where every minute forgets to clock out for the next to sign on, she heard the lathe singing "Here's a candle to light you to bed" and she began to feel unnerved.
     The lady in the front apartment seemed less alert and less interested in taking care of Billy, who had begun to cry like he had at the other sitter's. Melinda was aware that she had worn out her welcome there and she was looking every day for a place to take Billy. There were two centers that took infants but both of them had waiting lists that were longer than Billy's whole life up to now.
      Then one morning Melinda arrived at her neighbor's apartment and the door was locked and she could hear crashing and banging and a disjointed, slurred crooning.
Melinda stood by the door stupidly knocking and clutching Billy. When the other woman came to the door at last, Melinda could see by her lurch and squint and the way she leaned on the jamb for support that her worst fears were true. She just stared and inhaled the sickly fragrance of the secondhand liquor. How do I get out of this tactfully? she wondered.
      "Honey, I can't watch your baby today," her neighbor said. ‘I'm just sick. Tm so sorry."
     "Oh. Okay," Melinda said stupidly and backed off from the apartment. She was relieved not to have to leave Billy with a drunk person but she had an hour to find somebody to watch Billy and get to work. She went sobbing back to her apartment. Every name she thought of sank from her mind with some impossible objection. At the phone she called three of them anyway. A no answer, a busy signal, and the last she got through to but Jackie had to go to Salinas for the day.
     Melinda almost asked her to take him with her.
     She tried to call the shop but nobody answered the phone. Nobody ever answered the phone up there: the sound of the lathes drowned out the ring. She fretted. They'd fire her if she never showed up and she never made her excuses. She stared at her baby, who was lying on his back on the rug chewing on a bright orange plastic lion. She decided to make her excuses in person.
     In the bus she didn't even have to take the baby backpack off. She stood at attention the whole way, hanging on to the pole with both hands and her feet spread wide for the illusion of stability as the bus made sharp corners and changed lanes without dropping speed. Billy kicked and stretched in the backpack, pushing his hands against the bar, reaching out for Melinda's hair and yanking it. He screeched into Melinda's ear and played peek-a-boo with other bus passengers.
     The bus stopped four blocks from El Sol. Melinda's stomach fell away inch by inch with each step. She walked in the shop door and the shop locked as different to her as if she had been gone a year. There was a layer of gray aluminum dust on everything, even the people, even the coffee maker. There was a small river of unmentionable oils and solvents leading out the door to the irregular terrain where some of the workers parked and some of them took their lunches. The lathes had dropped the sweet song they used to sing and now they shrilled some severe passion to each other. Melinda stood at the doorway's big square of glaring light and looked for the foreman. He was behind the last machine scooping up spindles to test for runout. His square curled head was turned away from her
     Melinda moved slowly past the machines, stepping gently because Billy had fallen asleep. She stood next to John, the foreman, waiting to get his attention, so she could tell him she couldn't work today.<br>
&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;He looked up irritably. "So you're here," he said. "Yeah, I put the new girl on your machine because you were late. You go to Number Ten today. Hurray, we've got to ship today."
     "I can't --"
     "Number Ten's just like yours. It's over there. Go on."<br>
     "I don't want to hear your excuses, honey. It's really all right, just get me some product to ship." He turned back to the batch he was testing. "Too much runout."
      Melinda thought she must have entered a world of flypaper, because she was speechless and incapable of independent motion. Billy's hot breath moistened her neck. She couldn't stand here in this cloud of shining aluminum particles, grinding away at those wheels, with her baby on her back. Could she?
      "I've got my baby with me," she said. "I have to go home,' but her voice wouldn't project over the whine and the hum and the mumble. It was just as if she hadn't said a thing as John walked away from her barking words she couldn't hear but understood anyway: "Hurry, Lindy, we've got to ship at two. You've got two boxes to face and the tolerance has to be good."
      This is stupid, she thought, but just as in a nightmare she walked to the lathe and saw her hands adjust the lamp. Well, she could go until Billy woke. Maybe the dust wouldn't be so bad. She could face half of a box maybe and then go home. She could spend the rest of the day trying to line up a new babysitter for Billy and she wouldn't lose her job.
      The machine started up with a whine, drowning out the stertorous sound of Billy's breathing. The motor reached its speed and Melinda placed the first wheel on the chuck. The searing sound of the blade on the face came in as the high note over the sixty-cycle hum, offering a savage lullaby for Billy.
      That same sound that would have soothed her before now tightened Melinda's anxiety; she couldn't really feel Billy's weight on her back and she couldn't hear him breathing anymore. The song of the lathe was screaming a warning at her: Billy would never sleep this long. His breath was too hot and wet. "Look at your baby -- "the lathe was saying. She fished a wheel out of the jumble in the foundry box, fastened it on the chuck, spun it against the blade till the shavings stopped curling brightly off, and placed it carefully on the cardboard layered in the new box. Mesmerized by the rumbling chorus of the other machines in the shop, Melinda didn't want to look at her baby.
      Her baby didn't stir and the pile of aluminum shavings grew by her machine and the box filled with carefully placed, faced wheels and Melinda was frightened to look at her baby. All the machines stopped and she stopped her machine too as she panted, gripping the straps of her baby backpack and preparing to see her baby dead of fever back there. As she hefted the backpack she felt Billy's weight shift. Tn a well-practiced, impossible looking motion she twisted the pack around to the front, supporting all that weight on one hand.
      There was Billy sprawled and bright red. At first even in the comparative silence Melinda didn't hear a thing, not a sound of breathing. She brought her baby closer, put her hands on the
      stove-hot little body and clasped him. He breathed, he moved a little on his own; he thrashed and gasped. Melinda held him close and dry heaving sobs shook them both. She looked again at her red baby. Billy's eyelids seeped open but his eyeballs stayed rolled up. His mouth worked and he rolled his head.
      Somebody switched on a machine. Another, and then another. Billy jerked at the sound. The machines were really wailing now. John approached. Melinda knew that he could hear from the other side of the shop which machine was not running. Melinda held her baby to her shoulder. But apparently John couldn't see the baby though he could see tolerances of a hundredth of a millimeter with his bare eye.
      "Lindy, you've only got a quarter of a box done," he said gently but loud enough to be heard over the machines. "We lose the contract if we don't ship today.'
      Melinda stared at him as she picked up her backpack from the floor, though she wasn't going to put Billy into it. She thought of calling his attention to the baby but she had no more powers of speech than he had of observation.
      John seemed to be on the point of leaving . He picked up one of the wheels and squinted at it from behind his heavy black-framed glasses. "Looks good, Lindy. I'll let you know what the needle gauge says." He walked away with a handful of wheels to check. Melinda stared after him. She held her panting baby close to her breast and turned the other way, walking past the other lathes, the redwood picnic table covered with gray specks, into the square of white light by the open delivery door, and out onto the blasted-looking parking lot with its dried mud and chunks of broken cement. She marched down the curving sidewalks past the prefabs and the empty lots to the main street where the busses ran once an hour. Billy roused enough when the jolting stopped at the bus stop to begin to wail, and the song that Melinda sang to lull him was the sweet song the lathe had once sung to her.