by A.Y. Tanaka

Eleven-fifty-five a.m. I get a head start. The boss says it’s okay. I drop the clipboard, fat with charts and calculations, on the pile of planks that’ll do for a desk, and walk down the ramp off the machine floor past the timeclock the boss says don’t punch, past the worker’s cafeteria where the boss says he’d better not catch me, out to the street that’s empty except for the Blue Moon lunch wagon pulled up to the curb outside the worker’s exit. Joe’s not the driver today, so I keep going.

The Singer repair manual’s stuck in my back pocket.

Jill’s Diner’s one block south, but I don’t know who Jill is. The sun cracks your eye, you don’t want to go there anyway, eat there anyway, the concrete stretches out — ends at Jill’s with black coffee. No sugar, no cream, I stir anyway.

And check out the manual, read snatches when I can or when I’m in the mood. It’ll come in handy if a feed dog, bobbin crib, bull cam or field coil breaks or drops out or burns up and I’m the one around who knows a thing about it.

Stir the black coffee and think. The girl near the lake who wanted nineteen dalmatians for her birthday, that’s what she said. A nice and noble gesture, if her folks don’t raise a fuss. The mess all those dogs make, and where do you get nineteen friends to get rid of them to.

And big gestures never do the job. They leave you out of money and a fool because a real man — thick to the brim, cute in a rough sort of way, self-confident — won’t need to waste his fuel on a love bribe of nineteen anythings for a flighty almost nineteen-year-old. All he’d need to offer would be himself, enough to charm the pants off any almost-decided girl near the lake. Those girls are known for fast undressing at the bell, but who knows the bell? There’d been no guarantee of a thank-you for the dalmatians.

No business talking love to her. It wasn’t love, just reaching for straws, for some/any kind of okay. So I took the ring back and tucked it behind the underwear in the bottom drawer.

Stirring time’s recovery time, black-no-sugar cupfuls of pick up, dust off, start all over.

Why I’ve got the manual. Right now I’m looking for a used machine to take apart and put back together and all-around tinker at home with, teach my fingers something. If the boss knew about it he’d shake his head. First off, kid, it’s not your specialty. Second, you’re in so deep, too late to change sides. Third, you’re too valuable — Who else can I get to take the heat for me, for these few lousy bucks?

Sorry boss, there’s no career track for lightning rods; the whole job’s an illusion. What’s real is when you keep those machines humming and stitching and happy they don’t just pay better, they love you for it. The girls love you for smoothing their way to bonus points. The boss loves you for being more valuable than his son-in-law.

. . . Stirring and brooding about last night (or the night before, or last week), the girl I saw ten minutes ago (or yesterday, or ten days ago) at her machine in the factory. Dark eyes, dark smile, dark message. The girl no one was supposed to kiss, who I kissed one night in the warehouse and whispered things to, who let me kiss her even when she knew, she said she knew, we weren’t supposed to.

When it wasn’t the warehouse it was behind the bushes next to the factory after the late shift, or in the park. Never my apartment. She didn’t feel safe, I didn’t know why. (They call it a studio, used to call it an efficiency. It isn’t, it wasn’t.)

She’d tell me, and it was almost a threat, “We can’t fall in love.” And echoed and echoed herself, ruining everything. It sounded like “*You* can’t” — all my choice and she didn’t count for anything. “Don’t pretend you don’t know why.”

Expecting trouble was her job. Mine too, didn’t know it.

(The manual says, “If, when servicing a machine, you find the needle in backwards, call it to the operator’s attention before you remove it. The average operator otherwise will not admit to inserting it improperly.”)

At work our eyes met too many times and stayed too long. If you felt like it you guessed why. It reached the boss, who knew cracks have to be caulked right now or the whole chunk falls out. He walked me near the deaf lady’s machine (it didn’t matter) and warned with steel-sad eyes not to let the whole chunk fall out.

I was smart enough not to tell him to mind his own business, smart enough not to listen to him. Nothing showed. I had the clipboard, fat with charts and calculations — not deep, just confusing — and wandered through the factory copying down production figures like I was disappointed, entering bonus points if I really had to, pretending to find fault. (That was my job, to be hard to swallow.) She had her machine, that hummed with contentment, but it couldn’t be because of me. I knew me.

(The manual says, “It is often helpful, before setting up a servicing schedule, to observe the operator work the machine. How she inserts and removes the material, how she strokes and releases the pedal, may indicate future malfunctions.”)

. . . Stirring the black coffee like Captain Queeg rolled his metal balls. Will I grow up (grow up?) to be Queeg, and will they mutiny . . .

It came on sticky and sweaty, another morning with no promise anywhere. You could feel the rust grow on our highschool- surplus lockers. I climbed the ramp to the machine floor and plowed my eyes as cool as could be through the sewing section, around the rolled, flat, folded, stacked imitation leather, plastic near the windows, paper down the middle aisle. Routine. (Why play cool when everybody knows? Maybe not everybody, or your cool head will make them forget.) She wasn’t there.

The get-ready bell rang. Three minutes later the start-now bell rang. For the first hour her machine sat shrouded and lonely like a new gravestone. Then Mae brought a girl down from real leather to work on it. She had a dull look on her face, and was clumsy, but nobody noticed.

I made two morning rounds, two afternoon rounds, bounced numbers off the hot and bitter people on the floor, hard to tell who or what I stepped on or bumped into. Late afternoon, I knew I’d have to take the wrong bus after work, down to her place. Was it a rooming house, apartment house? I didn’t know. She was always warning me to stay away if I didn’t want to get hurt, don’t get any weird-adventurous ideas, don’t think you’ve got to Know me just because — warned me she’s the only one the old wood stairs don’t groan about.

I finished checking the hour’s production on the pasting girls (you have to paste the stays and ribs before you fold and sew the gussets, at least on most of those orders), almost moved on to the folding girls, when the last pasting girl — the quiet one I never spoke to — waved me back to her table.

“Won’t see her no more,” she whispered as her paste brush danced across the paper leather. “Took the plane.”

I tried not . . . It showed.

“Plane? Where to?”

She shrugged, didn’t know. (She knew.) Getting even. (What for?) Protecting me. (Protecting me?)

You can’t run after a plane. Took off already. Can’t run after, waving your arms like a damn fool.

I stumbled off the machine floor as easy as you can with the building shaking. I grabbed a bunch of pencils from the locker and broke them in my hands, one-by-one . . . two-by-two . . . It didn’t work. I wanted to kick — The lockers, the stiff gray bank of them, asked for it. But anything I kicked would bang and ring and echo and everyone would hear and everyone would know.

The pencils, like straws.

The walk to Jill’s Diner takes longer, the repair manual makes the pocket sag (must be the extra pages), the sun cracks your eye more than it used to. The food’s terrible, but you already knew that. The coffee’s stronger, cream and sugar make it worse. I still don’t know who Jill is.