I don’t have a new song for you this week, but I thought that I would share a short story that I wrote, sticking with the machine worker theme from last week’s song. I don’t often write prose, although I do enjoy it. Here is a story that I call “Space”. I think it fits well with last weeks “Machinist’s Hymn” (which you can listen to at the end of the story).
The raw iron was delivered on Mondays and when it arrived on this Monday it was still dark, and James had just punched his time card and was finishing a cigarette and sipping his coffee in the cold wind. He flicked the cigarette on the ground and put the coffee between his legs while he unloaded the palettes with the forklift. When he finished, he lowered the loading door and looked at the shipment. He put his hand against the metal and it was cold, and the room was cold before the machines were running. He stood up to finish his coffee and threw the cup away and then he breathed into his hands and rubbed them together as he looked at the palettes that filled the room.
Dave was already working when James got to his machine, but they made eye contact as James took the keys and the wallet out of his pocket and laid it on the workbench.
“Gonna be a long week of work, Jamesey.”
“I guess that’s better than a long week of no work, huh?”
and the two men smiled and James turned on the lathe and heard it start to turn and was listening to the bearings, gentle as they slid. Dave said something else, but the hum of the machine was loud and James didn’t ask him to repeat it. He listened to the hum of the machine again and when he didn’t hear it anymore he thought about the metal and how he liked to watch the chips fall on the floor as he would make his cut and when he was done with the cut he would run his hand against the grain to feel for imperfections. He thought about the finished product being out on the oil rigs and he felt good when he thought about the oil that would be refined to fill our gas tanks and heat our homes.
Friday was pay day and the men cleaned up their work benches and turned out the lights and made their way to the time clock to get the checks. When James punched his card he saw the other workers gathered around the TV in the break room and Dave looked up from the TV and walked over to James.
“What is going on over there?”
“This whole Goddamned country is screwed. Banks have lost their asses and they’re begging Papa Government for a bailout.”
“Christ, a bailout paid for by yours truly.” and James shook his head as he said it.
The men sat for a while and watched and they cursed the government as they watched and they cursed the banks and they grew worried as they watched, but they didn’t talk about the worry, they just cursed them all some more and eventually they gathered their things and James walked with Dave to the parking lot.
“It’s pay day, and I need a drink. I’m gonna go to the Village Pub. You thirsty, Jamesey?”
“Not tonight. I think Lucy has dinner planned.” and he started his car and drove away. When he had cashed his check he called Lucy.
“Hi James. What is it?”
“Well I just wanted to see how your day was, is all.”
“I’m fine James. My day was fine.”
“I’m just driving home. I was going to cook tonight. I was hoping-”
“James. I’m busy tonight. I told you I can’t see you right now. I wish you’d stop.”
“I know, Lucy. I want to give you space. I just wanted you to know. I don’t like eating alone. You’re my wife, for Christ’s sake.”
“I’ve got to go, James. I’ve got to go.”
and he heard the click as he told her goodbye and he turned up the radio and wondered if he had been too polite to her on the phone. He listened to “She Thinks I Still Care” and he was angry with Lucy and then angry with himself.
He walked into the Village Pub and sat next to Dave and made eye contact with the bartender as he sat his coat over the bar stool and sat down.
“Well hey, buddy. I thought you had dinner plans with Lucy.”
“What do you mean she left?”
“I mean she left. She’s moved out. Says she needs space.”
“What the hell? When did that happen?”
“Tuesday night. I came home from work and she had packed a few bags. She says she needs space. She says she doesn’t know if she sees herself growing old with me.”
The bartender came over and James ordered a double whiskey with a splash of coke and Dave ordered the same thing. They each lit a cigarette and sat there at the bar, smoking and nervously tapping their smokes against the ash trays between each puff until the drinks came. After they took a sip James interrupted the silence.
“Four years of marriage and she needs space”
“I’ll tell ya, man, you just never know with some people. Some women. You never know when they’ll turn on you.”
The two men ordered more drinks and they lit more cigarettes and they cursed women for a while and then they cursed the government again and the banks. When the bartender turned the lights on they finished their drinks and payed the tabs and they walked to the car with their hands in their coat pockets and their cigarettes hanging from their lips.
James was still in his work clothes when he awoke the next morning, and the clothes were dirty and had made the bed dirty. He put on his heavy clothes and gathered his rifle and a tree stand and as he left the house he grabbed a pistol from his bedside drawer and carried it in his jacket. He didn’t expect to see many deer that day, and he had slept in, but he found a tree that faced an open field and set up his stand and settled himself in the tree. There was a moment when he had settled into the stand that he felt the wind against his face, and in the numbness that the wind can bring in the winter he did not think about Lucy. He did not curse the government and the banks. He just waited and he felt free.
In a while he pulled the pistol from his jacket pocket and held it in his hands and he thought about his grandfather, how he had never met him but was glad for his service in the Navy where he was issued the Smith & Wesson 59. He thought about the day he was given the gun from his father, when his father had returned from the hospital and knew he would die soon. He felt honored to have the gun and liked to shoot it late in the day when he hadn’t killed a deer and he knew he would not see one. When he left the tree and drove home he thought about calling Lucy again, but decided to wait until the next day, and he poured himself a whiskey and when he finished it he went to bed.
The next day Lucy did not answer his phone call and on Monday the iron shipment was smaller than the week before. The workers acted busier than normal and didn’t talk as much on their breaks through the week. James and Dave still talked but there was no laughter besides the occasional joke to lighten the mood and when they would sit in the break room with the news on, cursing the government and the banks. James did not listen to the way the bearings would glide when he started up the lathe and the hum of the machine would disappear more quickly and he thought more about the oil rigs and about his workmanship and he thought about his mortgage and how without Lucy’s share it would strap him for cash and how he would normally work overtime if he needed extra money. James was thoughtful in only calling Lucy every two or three days. Most of the time she wouldn’t answer, and when she did there was a numbness in her voice and James started to wonder if that numbness were similar to the one he feels in the tree stand in the wind.
On the Monday before Christmas the iron shipment was the smallest it had been. The workers had begun to talk more during their breaks, but there was still a nervous tension in the air that they had made an effort to disregard during the holidays. James had started to notice the hum of the lathe more, and it had started to bother him, and he had started to use earplugs so that he would not get a headache. On Christmas Eve he was off of work and called Lucy in the morning.
“Merry Christmas, Lucy.”
“Merry Christmas, James.”
“How are you feeling?”
“I’m fine James. I’m spending Christmas with my parents.”
“Lucy, can I see you? Can I come see you? Can you come home?”
“James, We’ve been through this. I can’t see you right now.”
“I know, I know, you need space. And I’ve given you space. I need to be with my wife on Christmas. I need to see you.”
“I want a divorce, James.”
“Lucy, you’re not thinking-”
“No James. I am thinking clear. I want a divorce. I’m moving on. I’ve spoken to a lawyer. I need to meet with you next week to start the process.”
There was a pause and a moment when the words were caught in him like a plugged hose.
“You bitch. I was good to you.”
“You were. I’m sorry.”
On Christmas day the season was open and James carried his rifle and the pistol and set up the tree stand without sleep and he sipped whiskey when he was settled. He waited for the sun to come up and then he waited for a deer. The Christmas wind made him numb and the whiskey made him warm for a while and then more numb and when the sun came out and there were no deer and he brought the Smith & Wesson out of his jacket and looked at it. He looked at it for a long time and he thought about his grandfather and how he must have been good in the Navy, and then he thought about how he died quickly in a car crash and he never saw it coming and it was painless and how they had never met. James thought about his father again and the pain he felt the year before he had given James the gun, the chemotherapy and radiation, and how his death was a relief to James because he didn’t have to watch the suffering anymore.
And James thought about the worker that made the gun. The gun was old and it was probably made mostly by manual machine work. He thought for a long time about the man that finished the gun. He wondered if the man had a family and he wondered where his kids are and if he had kids. He stared at the gun and he pictured the man making the gun. He pictured a boy, and then he pictured a young man full with youth and hopefulness and he thought that he must have been a hard worker.
His kids must be hard workers, too, he thought. Then he pictured the young man getting older, and his kids watching the youth fall out of him, and he thought that the gun was old and the man that made it was surely dead now and he thought that the gun would probably bring a pretty good price if he had to sell it.