Lynn’s job was supposed to be temporary. But after two years of marriage, and Allen’s promises they would move out of Fordyce, she was still taking the long rolls of insulation, measuring and cutting them into strips of ten and twenty feet, and passing them down the line to be packaged and shipped off. She was a quiet worker, rarely speaking to anyone except during her breaks, and carrying herself always at a distance from everyone else even then.
At the end of nearly every shift, when the insulation had found its way into the crevices of her skin and body despite the long sleeved shirts she wore, even in the hottest weather, she let her mind wander to the idea of a life that didn’t include Fordyce or the factory, that sometimes didn’t even include Allen. And while she waited outside for him to pick her up, she often found herself counting stars or the boxes of light from house windows across the highway, imagining the lives behind those curtains were better than her own. Then there would be the sweep of the headlights washing over her and the gnawing work that made her shoulders and neck stiffen seemed to lighten in the brief moment of their yellow passing beams and she would feel hopeful, in some strange way, the change in her life she wanted was about to occur.
But lately, when the car pulled up and they headed home, all the images of her past she had hoped to leave—scarred and strip-mined mountains, yellow dozers and dump trucks kicking up dust like fog—that surrounded her still sliced through her dreams. From the tops of the hills they crested, the roads below all looked to lead away from Fordyce to something new and more promising.
When Friday came it was as if the entire week’s work was kneaded into the fibers of her muscles. Fall was coming on and she sat outside, waiting for Allen with the first wisps of the cool breezes to come blowing against her temple. She sat on the loading dock in a folded metal chair. The car pulled into the lot and she saw him raise his hands in apology for being late.
“I’m sorry,” he said as she got in the car, but she didn’t say anything back. The soft cushions of the seat seemed to wrap around her small legs and back, comforting her tired body.
“I just want to get home.” She leaned her head back against the rest and turned to the window, looking up at the sky.
There were things she prayed for on these rides home. The first was that they would be met with only green lights at the intersections so she would not have to wait among abandoned sidewalks to reach their trailer. She prayed Allen had made the bed, the sheets tightened and tucked so that it felt clean and cool when she got in. But what she longed for most was to be able to run a hot bath that steamed the mirrors of the small room, forming a veil of heat and water that covered her naked body before she sat down and let the warmth work through her bones and muscles. Warm water, though, would only open up her pores and let the insulation sink deeper into her skin and she imagined the fiberglass particles as those little cartoon scrubbing brushes from the commercials, burrowing underneath her flesh, moving back and forth, up and down.
They passed through town and the lights of the football field rose above them, drowning out the sky. Weary coated her like the dust that streamed into the air while she worked in the warehouse. It hummed in her ears just like the white lights that hung above her and refracted her image off the glazed concrete floor for the ten hours she spent on her feet. But it was Friday and she was thankful for this. She turned to look at Allen, his body leaned against the door. He was always so good about letting her have those first few minutes in the car to unwind.
He saw her head turn and said, “How was work?”
“The same as usual.” She reached for the back of her neck and thought she could feel the small particles already scratching her skin.
“I’ll rub your feet when we get home,” he said and touched her arm.
She smiled at him and his goodness. “That’d be nice.”
Lynn looked at the storefronts. Their windows were covered in white shoe polish with slogans wishing the high school team victory and good luck. A train’s horn blared through the night to her left as Allen drove them down Main Street. She spotted the coal tipple’s long shadow over the rail yards. They were close to home now and past the moving train’s dark outline she looked up to see the lights of the field held only a faint burn as they were turned off, one after the other.
Once inside the trailer she went to the bedroom and undressed. By the closet, in the corner, she kept a trash bag for her work clothes and bent over to shove the pants and shirt down into the pile. She sneezed from the dust. Allen came into the bedroom and saw her standing in her underwear, one arm crossed over her bare breasts. He gave her a cup of tea.
She took the tea, leaned up to kiss him on the cheek, and walked past him into the bathroom.
The water came out of the faucet and splashed against the blue-green tub, the triangular point of the silver cold-water knob turned hard to the left. She was so tempted to do the same to the hot-water knob, but she thought of the itching. She’d done that once, when she first started working, even though she knew better, and had been kept up all night because her clothes rubbed her skin like sandpaper along her legs and back. When she woke in the morning under her chin and along her cheeks she’d had tiny bumps from scratching. She took a deep breath as the showerhead gurgled and spit before pushing out a stream of water in an even flow.
Though it was easier to let the water bounce against your back and shoulders and run the course of your body that way, she had learned long ago she might as well just step into the water, face first. The cold hit her chest and took her breath.
She met Allen the summer she was nineteen. He was home from college. They were at the lake, each with their own friends. He was thin, almost scrawny then. He walked standing straight up and rocked back on his heels, as if planting them into the ground with each step, but she could tell of all his friends he was the athlete.
They were all jumping off the Three Sisters, a set of rocks that jutted out over the water. When Allen jumped, he leapt without fear. He ran off the cliffs, did flying squirrels, high-arching can-openers, and perfect swan dives. His body slid into the water, his movements soft and smooth like the ripples of his splash. Above them cars crossed over 312 Bridge and the sound of their passing and sometimes tooting horns dipped into the ravine and echoed off the water and small mountainsides.
She hadn’t thought about the consequences of things so much then. The girls started talking to the boys; the boys challenged the girls. She and Allen were the only ones willing to jump off the bridge.
Their feet dangled over the edge of the silver railing where tiny bits of gravel gathered on the side of the road behind them.
“I’m Allen,” he said.
“Lynn,” she said.
“Where do you go to school?”
“I don’t,” she said. “I just live, I guess. Are you in school?”
He nodded. “UK.”
“You look like a college boy.”
“What’s that mean?” he asked.
“C’mon quit stalling, Jennings,” one of the boys yelled from below and Allen looked down and flew him the bird.
“I’ve never seen you before,” he said. “I’d remember a face like yours. Where’d you go to high school?”
“Does that fancy talk work in Lexington?”
“Nothing fancy about it. Where you from?”
“I’m a country girl,” she said. She had figured him to be from Fordyce. All the boys there had a preppy look about them, she thought then, and Allen was too sharp, too arrogant and smart to be a real country boy like she grew up around. “Log Mountain,” she told him at last.
“Bell County, huh? I bet you’re a real bobcat then, aren’t you?”
The boys shouted again.
“Hold on,” he called and his pitch carried across the water.
“You’re fixing to find out, I guess,” she said to him. The water glimmered, eighty feet, or more, away.
“Looks like they’re ready for us, Lynn,” Allen said. “Let’s jump it together.” He grabbed her hand as their legs kicked in the air. “What do you say?”
The sun went behind the mountain on their left but its light pushed through the trees and was still bright on the water and around the woods, giving her skin an orange glow and warmth. At the bottom she saw her friends waving, hollering again for them to jump.
“Are you ready?” he asked.
She looked at her Keds, black in patches with dirt and grime, the edge of her shoestrings frayed. “Our soles will be tore out when we hit that water,” she said and squeezed his hand as tight as she could.
They looked at each other.
“On three,” he said to her.
They fell so fast and hard she let go of his hand and closed her eyes. She heard Allen hit a second before her and then she was underneath it too, kicking her legs toward the green light. She snorted water up her nostrils and it came out her tear ducts. The air bubbles floating on the top of the water where she went through were popping and spreading away from the center, and when she broke through the surface, she held her arms up as if to grab a single ray of sunlight, so that she’d be so high above the water she’d never dip below its surface again.
Allen swam to her and kissed her hard on the mouth. The lake water on their tongues mixed together, her toes, red and burning, poked through the broken rubber of her shoes.
The water from the shower filled in her eyes and ran through her hair. She imagined the fiberglass like an avalanche falling to the ground, building momentum as it tumbled further down her body and into the drain. The cold water hardened her nipples and tiny hair follicles on her arms, legs and thighs. She took a toothbrush and scrubbed at her nails and cuticles and held them under the water for relief. As quickly as she could, she lathered a washcloth and spent extra time cleaning her neck where the insulation burned the worst. Then she dug her nails into the skin of her scalp and the shampoo suds covered her knuckles.
Through the shower door, she saw the space heater and its glowing red x’s shining. When she was finished she stepped onto the linoleum, in front of the heater, to let it warm her ankles and shins while she dried off. Water gathered in small puddles around her heels.
She was too tired to stand and hold the hairdryer, so she wrapped a towel around herself and combed out her hair with a brush, water dropping like pellets into the sink with each stroke. She crossed the hallway into the bedroom and pulled on a clean pair of panties, then her pajama bottoms and one of Allen’s tee shirts. She did love the feeling of being clean and renewed. She sat on the edge of the bed and laid her head back. She stared into the frosted light cover above her, straining at first from the brightness. Then it grew soft, and she only saw the translucence around the fixture. She tried to fight off sleep, waiting for Allen to come to bed, but she felt her eyelids flutter while she kept looking at the light on top of the covers of the made bed.
Everyone in the mountains Lynn had ever known always dreamed of leaving or staying. There didn’t seem to be any in-between. You didn’t move off to come back at some point and you didn’t stay for a bit and then move away. It was one or the other. All or nothing out of the gate. She’d been one of the ones who always wanted to leave. She’d never felt held inside the mountains the way some people had. She wasn’t afraid of the cities. Her senior year the social studies teacher had taken a group of them to Washington, D.C., and she was the only one of the fifteen, including the teacher, who was willing to ask for directions or have a stranger take their picture. She understood then that they didn’t think they were good enough for the outside world, and that when the waitresses asked them where they were from upon hearing them order in their deep Appalachian twangs, they thought it was because they spoke dumbly. But she wasn’t worried what people would say about the way she talked. Lynn wasn’t afraid to be embarrassed.
But Allen was different from her. He loved home. He always made them take the old roads rather than the interstates. On weekends she worked she knew he spent hours out in the woods, walking and marking trails. He’d never really wanted to leave, and she saw now that when he met her she became an excuse for him to come back every weekend while he finished his degree.
Lynn wanted Allen to find another job, to at least look so they could move away to a city like Lexington or Louisville. He had cousins in Toledo that worked in the Jeep factory and told him he might find work up there, but she knew the mountains were holding them inside their valleys, and the longer they stayed the more she felt like a lump of coal waiting to be mined herself and taken across the valleys to new and better places.
She stretched her arms over her head and ran her fingers along the smooth wall behind the bed. On top of her was the afghan from the living room and she smelled coffee in the kitchen. From the light coming through the curtains she could tell it was mid-morning, its glow growing brighter as it came closer to noon. She knew Allen had covered her with the blanket when he found her asleep and then went back into the other room to sleep on the couch. It was not something he did very often but from time to time he let her sleep through the night and morning. He’d be taking a smoke break about now, she thought. In her head she saw him squint as he leaned toward the lighter and the end of the cigarette turned orange, and she wanted to be there with him for his first break in the day.
She picked up the phone and called him.
“Thank you for calling K-Mart.”
“Why didn’t you come to bed last night?”
“You were so tired I didn’t want to wake you. How’d you sleep?”
“Good. I was thinking of you just now.”
“I wasn’t acting up was I?”
She could see him grinning on the other side of the line. “No, you were just on my mind. When are you coming home?”
“One of the other managers came in today, so I get to leave early. Maybe we can go watch a movie later.”
“That’d be nice.”
“Ted, tell Jorene to go on and take her break,” she heard him say. “Sorry. I need to get going. I’ll call before I come home. ”
“Okay. I just wanted to say hi,” she said and walked to a window. The phone cord stretched over her shoulder and felt cool against her neck. “I’ll see you tonight.”
Allen said goodbye and she put the phone back in the cradle. Four years of college and the best he could do was manager at a K-Mart. He was too smart to be wasting his time there, she thought. It wasn’t a bad job and she knew she shouldn’t look down on it, but it felt like he didn’t want more with his life. She couldn’t see how a man could spend his whole life in one place, and didn’t want to believe Allen was one of those men.
She walked outside and looked at the trailer and the others that surrounded it. Tiny patches of gravel driveway and even smaller plots of grass marked each territory. Her flowerbed was littered with the stalks and stems of dead flowers. The dirt was black and barren, hardened by the colder weather. Deep down she knew—she had to believe, she told herself—their life was going to be more than what it was now. She’d see to that. She wanted to go to school, get a real job in an office with air conditioning, but in order to have her chance she was sure, in a way that even surprised herself, that he had to have his first. Having the patience to push Allen toward his potential would be the hardest part of her life, and what she wasn’t sure of was if there would be enough time left for her once it was done.
The phone rang and she ran to it, expecting to hear Allen say he was coming home but it was her supervisor, Miller.
“I know it’s your day off, but I’ll pay you time and a half and give you an extra day next week,” he said.
“What time do I need to come in?”
“Four. I need to know now, Lynn.”
She twisted the phone cord around her index finger until the tip pulsed. “OK.”
Allen pulled in the driveway as she hung up the phone.
“That was fast,” she said.
“Yeah. I told Ted I was just going to go on. It wasn’t as busy today as usual. Who was on the phone?”
“Miller. He wants me to come in.”
He put his keys on the table and grabbed a pop out of the fridge. “What’d you tell him?” he said, flipping the cap off with the opener.
“I told him I’d be there.”
“What about the movie?”
“We’ll go next week.”
“Why don’t they ever call anyone else to come in? And why do you always go?”
“I’m a good worker,” she said.
“I know you are but, hell, every week they call you. This makes the third Saturday in a row.” He turned the corner to go change clothes.
“It’s good money. We need the money.”
Allen stopped, his belt already undone and hanging open, and turned around. “We don’t need the money that bad. You always say that. We’re not poor. You think you’re the only one who grew up without things, but I know what poor is and this isn’t poor,” he said and stretched his arms above him.
“You don’t know anything about how I grew up,” she said.
But he did. He knew about her father dying in a car accident when she was four and how her mother worked the third shift at Jerry’s, first washing dishes, then waiting tables. She was never home for Lynn, too busy working and paying the bills. Lynn had practically raised herself, started working at sixteen, but no matter how hard she worked or what good fortune came her way, she knew there would never be enough distance to calm her fear about living the tough life her mother had. How she came home with ketchup and grease stains on her uniform, her hands scarred from hot, spilt coffee. The varicose veins that took root before she was thirty—the dark blue like pencil lead against her tan skin—and forced her to sit with her legs elevated every chance she got. It wasn’t hard work that scared Lynn, it was the life that came with it.
“Some of us want to get on with our lives, Allen. Some of us want to move past this town and do something,” she said.
“And I don’t? That’s what you’re saying isn’t it?”
“Yes,” she said. She had turned a simple thing into a fight and now there was guilt in all this because only a man like Allen could ever understand why she worked so hard to get out from under her old life. How poverty, once you lived in it, never really left you.
Allen too had been poor and won a half-scholarship to college, but he had to work all through the spring and summer helping whichever farmer would hire him plant and put up tobacco to pay for the other half. He was so afraid of losing his chance at an education that he’d never been free with his spirit like other people their age and this was something, as Lynn fell in love with him, that made that day on the bridge so special.
And even though Lynn knew she’d gone one step too far she could not take it back. It was as if all her pride depended on sticking by what she said.
“That’s right, Lynn,” he said. “Carry that on your shoulders forever. You’re so damn busy looking at what we don’t have that you don’t seem to notice what we’ve got. What we’ve come from. I can’t abide that. I won’t.” He slammed down his bottle and the Pepsi spilled out onto his wrist. He wiped it off on his pant leg and buckled his belt.
“I’ll be back later to take you to work,” he said and grabbed the keys off the table. He yanked the door behind him so that it would slam, but the rug caught it and left a sliver of light that outlined the frame.
Lynn walked outside and watched him from the steps. Stupid. Idiot, she thought to herself. She almost cried at her coldness. He was all she had.
Seven hours on the floor. Her mind numb and back tight and she still had nothing to say to Allen. Inside the break room, she listened for the electronic whine of the clock as it neared the hour and the loud hollow click as it struck eleven and how it resonated off the mopped floor. She went to Miller’s office and picked up the phone.
“I’m not going to be done until one now,” she said.
“How come?” he said.
“Miller said the cleaning staff is off this weekend and asked me if I would stay longer and clean the bathrooms.”
“And you said yes? You’re not a janitor, Lynn. Tell him you’re leaving at twelve.”
“I can’t. I’ve already told him I’d do it.”
“Damn it. Get off that high horse of yours and just come home.”
“I’ve got to go. I’ll see you at one.”
“Lynn,” he said, but she’d already hung up, pressing the reset button.
She held the receiver for a second with her hand on the reset and thought to call back.
“Lynn, I need the office,” Miller said.
She turned to him and heard the dial tone, faint in her ear, but she didn’t say anything to him.
“You done?” he asked. “Did you get a hold of Allen?”
“Yes,” she said and put the phone in the cradle.
“Good,” he said. “Tell him I said hello when he comes to pick you up.”
“I will,” she said and walked out of the office.
“Hey,” he said. “Anything wrong?”
“No, just a fight. No big deal.”
Miller smiled. “You know what the best part of a fight is, don’t you?”
“No,” she said and shook her head. “What?”
“It’s making up,” he laughed a big laugh and threw his head back, pleased with himself.
Lynn smiled but her lips felt tight. “I’ll try to remember that,” she said and went back out to the floor. She knew what they had said to each other could be taken back, that was easy, but getting comfortable again with the idea of her life, accepting it, was a different thing altogether. She wondered if they could get out from under this.
Sweat covered her chest and shoulders, made her shirt dark in the underarms. She was rolling the insulation fast and working so hard she took off her mask and breathed through her mouth. A film of dust kept forming on her tongue and she brushed it across her front teeth to clean it. The faster she rolled the insulation the more the fiberglass grabbed at the fabric of her shirt and swirled around the air over her head.
She finished her shift and watched the other girls leave. They hung their masks from their wrists like bracelets and lit their cigarettes in the breeze. It made her remember the familiar thoughts of going home, her bed after a long night. She forgot about the fight, her stupid words. She started the prayers in her mind. Soon, the car would be close to picking her up, and she’d be able to cool down and wait on Allen.
She went to the janitor’s closet and grabbed the mop bucket and toilet brush. She filled the bucket with warm water and lemon detergent and dropped the mop down into it. She leaned against the mop and pushed the bucket down the hallway to the women’s bathroom and propped the door open with it. She worked fast, spreading the sudsy water across the tile once, and then again, digging the mop into the corners, and then ran the brush under the rims of the white toilets and wiped down the fixtures on the two sinks.
In the men’s room she did the same thing, even pulling down the light covers to collect the dead flies and mosquitoes. Then she wheeled out the mop bucket, ignoring the creak of its wheels and the click as it bounced over the tile floor and replaced everything where she’d found it.
She still had thirty minutes to wait for Allen. She sat in the chair, the night just cold enough for a coat, and she zipped it. She thought about what Allen had said, about her not being a janitor. She even thought about her own stubbornness, the way she pushed things so hard and so far when she knew better. Miller came out of the warehouse, and he stopped in front of her.
“You’re better than the regular janitor,” he said. “Maybe we ought to just let you keep on doing that,” he said.
She knew he’d meant it as a joke, even a compliment, but she didn’t look up to him. She took a final drag off her cigarette and stood. Allen pulled up. “Time to go home,” she said and walked past him toward their car.
Even though Allen was early she said nothing to him the whole way home. The moon followed just one beat behind them on her right. She felt her ears become hot with anger and her shoulders tense as they passed the drycleaner’s, the familiar bank signs and furniture stores. She gritted her teeth and steeled her jaw, upset with the routine of these same buildings, her body knowing when to lean into the curves and turns. Why was it so hard for him to see what she wanted?
In the driveway the arc of the headlights faded across the grass as she got out and went inside. They’d been quiet the whole way home and she felt his eyes stare into her back as he grabbed a beer and sat on the couch and she walked past him to the bathroom and undressed. She left her clothes in a pile on the floor, her jeans and panties mixed together in a tight ball. She pulled her hair down and let it hang over her shoulders and turned the hot water knob all the way to the right and watched as steam hit the tub and rose up toward her nose. The white rubber stop sat on top of the toilet and she pushed it down into the drain tightly and turned the space heater on.
Allen cracked open the door. “We need to talk,” he said.
“I was getting ready to take a bath,” she said and grabbed a towel to cover herself.
“It’ll only make you itch worse. At least take a cold shower first.”
“I don’t want to take a shower,” she said and slammed the toilet lid down. She sat on it and put her hand under the water and felt for the warmth. “I just want to sit in the water.”
He reached over and turned the water off. “Don’t be so hard-headed and act tough. It won’t make it go away.” Under his breath he said, “How can a woman be so stubborn?”
Lynn looked at him, almost unable to see for her anger. “You don’t know what I feel.”
He sighed at this. “You can’t change the way things are by being angry, by simply wishing them to be a different way—”
“I work,” she said. “I get up every day and I go to that damn job and—”
“I know you do,” he said. “I know it and I know why you do it, but—” then he stopped and looked at her. The water in the bathtub was rocking back and forth, putting little reflections on the walls. “I just came in here to say, I don’t want you working at the factory anymore. I want you to tell Miller you’re quitting on Monday.”
“Because I don’t want you down there. I’m going to get another job. One that pays more. Maybe call Marshall and see if the Jeep plant’s hiring.”
“I don’t need to quit my job, I just want you to—”
“You give him two weeks notice on Monday.” He stood in the doorway and looked at her. “We may never leave this place and we may leave next month, but I can’t watch you work yourself like a dog thinking it’s the only way we’re going to get ahead or change our lives.”
“And what you say is final?” She clutched the towel tighter to her body.
“I love you,” he said. “This is my problem to fix and this is my solution.”
In that small space they were pushed so close together. She could smell the coffee on his breath. “You’re sure,” she said, at last.
“Yes,” he said. Then he left her alone.
She turned the faucet back on and the sounds of the water hitting against the tub filled the tiny bathroom. When it was halfway full she put one foot in to test the water and, as if straddling two worlds, she saw herself in the mirror and pulled her hair back and held it in one hand before sitting down in the tub. The space heater came to life and she closed her eyes, let go of her hair. She slid down underneath the water and came back up, her hair wet and tight, together like rope. The room was growing warmer, strands of her hair separated and floated on top of the water and she knew if she could just sit in the water long enough, the fiberglass and its grit and everything that came with it would pull away too.