On the finishing line, we earn $10 an hour while working twelve-hour shifts, three days one week, four the next. On the finishing line, there are three of us who hope we don’t belong. We are starting college in the fall—Tim at Rice University; Jason at Purdue; me, the University of Chicago. There is a line between us and everyone else on the finishing line; we know because we’ve drawn it carefully. We don’t know exactly what it means, but still we put it down and walk it.
I am there for book money, for a little extra. I am there for a set of leaf-patterned sheets, blue plastic milk crates, a small dorm refrigerator, and multi-colored History of Western Civilization paperbacks. I am temporary and already in arrears, as far as it goes.
On the finishing line, we make laminated glass windshields—large-format windshields for RVs, boats, trucks, and tractors. Infrared coating, acoustic glass, and heated glass for defrosting. We pack the windshields into crates made of wood and metal. A skinny white guy named Jay lifts them with the long tongue of the fork-truck and carries them away. He is the only one on the line who is certified to drive the fork-truck. Above us, he grins, slaloming along the slick floor.
My required summer reading for the University of Chicago arrives in the mail, a small powder-blue paperback, Plato’s Apology. Everyone in my freshman class will have read it—our common ground, a thread of conversation. The idea is wisdom is awareness. How have you felt, O men of Athens?
I am not sure what the idea is.
The first station on the finishing line is the glass-quality station. This is Lola’s favorite. Lola is small, hollow-boned like a brown thrush, with waist-length curls. A robot lifts each windshield and holds it up against an enormous red bull’s-eye. Lola examines the glass for imperfections, for any wavering or distortion. With a red marker, she circles the defects. A truck driver will stare through this glass on a deep night across Pennsylvania, a night full of bullfrogs, moonless.
The robot balks sometimes and becomes hesitant. Its long arm darts back and forth, picking up nothing. An arcane number of things must be done to set it back in motion.
And then I tried to show him that he supposed he was wise, but was not.
The idea is probably that we do not know anything at all.
In the evening, after my shift ends, I drive home slowly. My head is outer space, ringing and echoing without machines to fill it. I roll the windows down to catch the breeze. Before I turn off State Road 6, there’s a horse farm. The horses stand near their stable in knee-high, daisy-topped grass, their tails switching. I may never ride a horse again. But the muscle memory still lives in my thighs: how to lean as the horse turns for a barrel so sharply that, for a moment, she is almost parallel to the ground, my body a counterbalance to her weight, the metal rim whispering, brushing the fabric of my sleeve. I am riding a thought that is already lost to me.
For probably neither of us knows anything noble and good, but he supposes he knows something when he does not know, while I, just as I do not know, do not even suppose that I do.
I am a virgin, which is pretty ridiculous, but seriously. I am terrified of getting pregnant, as if that was the only choice. As if there were only two paths out of my body. On the line, Kelly is thin, blonde, and chain-smokes on lunch breaks. Jay, who drives the fork truck, makes her cream her pants, she says. It takes me awhile to get it. How precise it is! Hmm, I say. Ok. I don’t know. I guess. That’s interesting. Sure. Kelly goes to Jay’s silver pickup truck on lunch break. Against the sun-soaked dashboard, they press. I don’t have anything to offer Kelly, so she doesn’t talk to me again. I don’t have much to offer myself, either.
The idea is you are going to have to defend your self for the rest of your life?
We have a French exchange student, Celine, staying with us for the summer. I am not sure whose idea this was, but it was a really bad one. Our three-bedroom house already has seven people living in it. My mother turns two small alcoves into bedrooms. They have no doors, but she hangs curtains over their open arches. Celine can’t speak English at all and she does not understand anything that is happening, but luckily, almost nothing happens. The house is hot and close and surrounded on three sides by soybean fields. There is no money and everyone who is old enough works all day, every day. My parents don’t speak to one another. Celine sleeps as much as she can, as long as she can.
Who speculated about the heaven above, and searched into the earth beneath, and made the worse appear the better cause?
The second station of the finishing line, the trimming station, is my favorite. Two of us hold razor blades in our gloved hands. As the windshields come down the line, they pop up onto small, spinning stands. I hold my razor blade against the windshield’s edge and, with the other hand, spin and spin. Black vinyl comes off in long, dark curls. I find it everywhere after a shift. Down the front of my shirt, in the pockets of my blue jeans, inside my work boots. I am fast, but Carlos is faster. We race, dropping dulled blades to the floor by the dozens, flicking new ones into place.
Carlos asks me out like it’s a religion. Please, he says. You won’t regret it.
I say no. And no. And no. All summer I decline.
When I get home from work, I take off my shoes and wade across the mossy grass beneath the maple trees. My sisters jump on the taut, black trampoline. Celine and I pick black raspberries in silence, holding our hands loose, letting our thumbs tug the berries and roll them into the bowl. The security light over the corncrib struggles and flickers as the light goes out of the world.
The idea is that you can’t train a human to be excellent.
The trapped-air inspection station is the worst shift. The windshields twirl on a cone-shaped carousel. We examine the edges for small bubbles where air has been trapped in the resin as it set. When we are bored at the inspection station, the three of us outsiders play Jeopardy, make up trivia questions for one another. We do it to mark the time, but also, to mark a line. Non-proliferation. Socrates. We challenge one another to name the elements of the periodic table. We are ridiculous, performing for nobody. What property of a sound wave determines how loud it is? Steinbeck won a Pulitzer Prize for which novel?
When Carlos and I are at the station together, he talks about how far away he is from home. Carlos is from El Salvador. He came here because he was going to die there, he says. He was in the army, or he didn’t want to be in a gang. I’m not sure which. I don’t really know how to ask anything that matters. He swam and walked 2,600 miles to Nogales and crept across. Illegal, with his skin the color of beautiful dark oak and his easy, easy way. He shrugs his shoulders and whistles three-little-birds-perched-by-my-doorstep.
Carlos is kind but he cannot really hear me. He means well. I say no again. He means so well.
I know my body works. Gravity is a signal that speaks to my muscles and bones, tells them how to grow, how dense to be. Blood feels gravity, pooling in our feet. I know my body works with gravity to make me, huge and heady. But sometimes, it feels more like a struggle, a war of sinew and electricity, stretching away, trying to escape.
I have dark hair, which I wear pulled back from my face in a severe, flat knot. In this place, nobody believes I don’t speak Spanish. They speak Spanish at me, urgent, fast. I shrug and smile. They think I am joking or lying. Lola says I am not. They shrug back at me. Oh well.
The idea is that the end isn’t that scary.
My mother cleans houses all day on Lake Wawasee. Her clients come to our town on summer weekends, to wash their speedboats in the sunshine or lounge at the sandbar. Her hands are tough and gray with callouses, rough as pavement. Sometimes I help her finish a house in the evening. Toilets. White scalloped sinks. Floors on hands and knees. Last, you vacuum the carpet, backing slowly out the door so you won’t leave your footprints on the beautiful plush, so you don’t leave a single sign of your work.
Carlos makes me a small blue and black cross out of knotted thread. I put it in a shoebox with the glass jar of weed and my R.E.M. bootlegs. In the jar, the weed is velvety and gray. It reminds me of the velvet centaurea my mother plants in the flowerbeds, Dusty Miller. It reminds me of the lace wedding shawl my mother keeps in a box of gifts she will give to us when she dies. I will inherit a single pottery jug. If I don’t talk back.
If they seem to care about riches, or anything, more than about virtue; or if they pretend to be something when they are really nothing, – then reprove them…
When he first came to Indiana, Carlos got a job de-tasseling corn. Blisters, sun, and knives. He lived in a farmer’s barn with many other workers, no electricity, no plumbing, no running water. Now Carlos rents a room with four others on the second floor of an old Ligonier mansion, built in the mid-1800s, when the town was a summer retreat for Jewish families from Chicago. The house is damp and strange, full of mold. It has a secret staircase that runs from the kitchen to the third floor. It’s so hot that he can barely sleep. He doesn’t sleep. He plays his guitar and knots small cross necklaces from colored thread. Jesus tells him that he should ask me out.
Everyone else on the line tells us three imposters that we should study hard so we don’t have to come back and work like they do, the way they do. I am not sure if they mean it.
Sometimes, maybe, they mean it. Sometimes they just say it to please us. Or to hurt themselves, to whip themselves for crooked decisions. Decision comes from the Latin, to cut + off. Our choices like amputated limbs. Their choices just the same.
Charles Olson says “the body whips the soul.” It does. At night, my calves cramp and burn.
Just let me kiss you once. Just once. I mean it. Just one time. And then I won’t ask you again.
I drive Celine and my little sisters to David Rodgers’ park. We lie in the grass. There are dozens of benches in the park, along the trails, carved from trees and polished. There’s a swing out over the creek. Nobody says anything. On the way home we listen to a Cajun song. Les Veuves de la Coulée. I tell Celine it’s French they’re singing, but she doesn’t believe me.
The moon is a sow
and grunts in my throat
The week before I leave Indiana, the INS comes through and cleans up. The town is empty. Carlos is missing. Gone. Caught or fled. Mandatory overtime for everyone at the factory until they can hire new workers to replace the lost. More are coming, crossing, swimming, walking, riding on the backs of flatbed trucks. Carlos said he would come back, again and again, no matter what. But. No.
No. I am gone. I am leaving.
Now, to the work of not seeing the work, of trying to know the work better than the work knows itself, of realizing it’s all the same work.
I don’t belong here. In late August, the factory is a pit of heat and the smell of cooked vinyl and powder and machines. Who belongs to that? Who? The foreman brings out buckets of ice water and bandanas. We soak them and tie them around our necks, but it doesn’t really help. The line is running windshields for trucks—50 pounds each, wide as my arm-span. I hate to pack them. Usually one of the men takes pity and packs them for me, but it’s hot, so hot, and they are tired of me, and I only have a few days left. Maybe I need to learn a lesson. It’s a four-hour shift, lifting the windshields off the belt, carrying them to the crate, and settling them, nestling them down onto the rubber runners.
I trip and fall into the crate. Ten of the windshields are cracked. This will set the numbers for our line back the entire day. We will be off our goal. The foreman is disgusted. He puts duct tape across the open cut in my knee and sends me back to pack. He does not feel sorry for me. I am not a girl anymore. He does not say anything but I can hear it anyway. Pull your weight, you stupid girl. I am always a girl.
It is difficult, even at this moment, to assert my
language in the powerful field of your reality.
Lola bakes aluminum trays of enchiladas and tamales for my last day. Everything is melted together, each corn tortilla baked until it is a transparent, dissolvable envelope. The peppers sting and cut through the cracks on my lips. The close air, the low air, pushes in around us.
Source Note: Italicized lines come from Plato’s Apology; Song For Ishtar by Denise Levertov (New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1966); and Talking to Myself Talking to You by Kathleen Fraser (Berkeley: The Figures, 1980)
HANNAH CRAIG is the author of This History That Just Happened (Parlor Press, 2017) which was the winner of the New Measure Poetry Prize. Her poetry and fiction have appeared in journals including Fence, Mississippi Review, the North American Review, Prairie Schooner, and Smartish Pace. She lives in Pittsburgh, PA. ☆ Judge Adriana Ramírez selected “Apology” as first runner-up of Proximity‘s 2017 Personal Essay Prize.