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
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
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>
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
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
"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
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.