Kay’s dad had told her the night before that she shouldn’t go in the GM stamping plant. “It’s no place for a woman,” he had said.
But she felt like she had no choice. No place for a woman? Was there any place on earth for her? Ever since Carl had been killed in Vietnam two years ago, there had been no place for her. Would this country provide a place for her? For her and her daughter? Not likely. The $4,000 in life insurance barely covered the funeral expenses. She was destitute and living with her parents. And now, after working at the garment factory for a year and a half, she had heard that General Motors would be hiring the first women into its Cranston stamping plant. All she knew about the place was that it paid $5 an hour and would provide insurance benefits for her and Carla.
Carl had been drafted into the Army right out of high school. If she had known she was pregnant, he would not have been sent to Vietnam. As it turned out, she conceived on his last leave the week before he shipped out. Kay still didn’t know she was pregnant when she received word of his death three weeks later. She went about burying him in a deep cloud of pain and grief. She still could not remember parts of that time. There was the funeral and all the friends from her high school class—the other cheerleaders, the boys who had played on the football team with Carl, and some she didn’t even remember.
She and Carl were so occupied with each other in high school that there were many classmates they never got to know. Between every class, they would meet under the stairwells or in the corridor between the cafeteria and the gym, and hold each other, making their own reality in the midst of the childishness of high school. All they ever had needed was each other.
Today, inserting the hard plastic earplugs as she had been instructed earlier, she wished Carl was here with her. This was a noisy, unfriendly place, and she and the other eleven women, the first ever hired for factory work here in Cranston, warily eyed the confusion swirling around them. As she walked onto the plant floor, she heard shouting from behind and was alarmed at first, thinking that someone was hurt. But as she and the others soon found, the shouting was just the catcalls and whistles that seemed to emanate from every corner of the smelly, barren place.
Tow motors, platform trucks, and fork lifts raced by the women, the drivers craning their necks to get a better look at the female presence. The women followed their corporate guide along the congested aisles, stopping now and then as the guide deposited them, one by one, with white-shirted foremen. Kay was finally shown to a line of car door outers streaming in an unending line down a conveyor belt. The stacker tucked the door panels together and hastily stashed them in an orange cart. The foreman left her standing there with the man and she watched him, trying to see how she could possibly manage to do what he was doing. Shouldn’t they have asked her if she could do this job? Maybe asked if this was the job she wanted to do? But no…it was very quickly time for her to take over the job. The man showed her how to snap three of the doors together at their corners, and she put on her thin cotton gloves and learned what she had to learn how to do in order to survive in this place. The doors came so fast that she did not know what to do with them, and then they were sliding off the conveyor and onto the floor, and the foreman was there shouting at her, and she could see men beyond the huge, sweaty whiteness of his shirt laughing and pointing at her.
When the conveyor was started again and the panels started coming, she was ready and fought for all she was worth to see and feel how these heavy, slippery pieces of steel fit together and went in the rack beside her. In a half hour, the cotton gloves were shredded and turning red from the cuts on her hands. The humidity of the day engulfed her as the temperature passed 100 in the plant, with no fans anywhere to stir the heavy, oil-laden air, and her tears and sweat mixed together, blinding her. She fought the panels for hours, oblivious now to the catcalls and insults from all around her, and somehow made it to the lunch whistle. She couldn’t remember the way out and stood fixed in place.
The 95 decibel noise of clatter and clang had been replaced by a humming noise—all the electric motors of the presses idled in place as the half hour lunch break came. Finally, she started in what she thought was the direction of the only women’s restroom, about a hundred yards away. All the way there she was followed by the catcalls and whistling, and took the time now, as she walked slowly along the main aisle, to look to the sources.
“Hey, baby. How about a blowjob?” called a middle aged man who elbowed his partner on a maintenance cart. The other man was embarrassed now that she was looking at them and nodded slightly to her. Then she felt a slap on her ass as a cart came whizzing by within inches of her.
She could not go on and found a place to sit on a guard rail, watching the insanity of this place in disbelief. Maybe her dad had been right. This was no place for a woman, this place full of lunatics and insulting men who acted as if they had never seen women before. She thought then of Carl. He would have beaten these people up. No man would ever have dared to treat her this way when Carl was alive. And the thoughts of Carl gave way to the thoughts of her daughter Carla. Nothing would change the facts of her plight since Carl had been killed. She was the one who needed to be strong to take care of Carla. She was the one who now had to make a living and provide health care for her daughter. With the girl’s breathing problems and asthma, the medical bills had steadily mounted, and Kay already owed over $6,000 to the hospital and doctor. The family doctor had told her not to worry about the bills, but she still got one every month. The hospital was threatening legal action. She wiped her eyes on the sleeve of her blouse and stood up. Now that she was off the line, she felt some strength returning to her, and as she started up the aisle once again, she felt that Carl was walking here with her, that the mental picture she had of him would protect her.
By the time she reached the sign for the restroom, her tears had subsided. She slowly descended the stairs to the press pit, where the only women’s restroom was located, feeling as alone as she had ever felt in her life. She stood before the huge metal wash trough, not knowing how to even turn it on. She stared at her reflection in the steel mirror on the wall above the trough and barely recognized herself. Her face was streaked with dirt and oil from where she had rubbed the tears and sweat away. Her blouse was pulled half out with an oil splotch down the middle. And as she stepped back and looked down to her feet, she saw that the oil stain covered her down past her thighs. It was itching, burning her now that she had the time to recognize the feeling. She lifted her blouse and the skin of her stomach was red from the door panel solvent. She opened her jeans and peered under her panties, and she was red all down her front. She buttoned herself back up and accidentally stepped on the water activator on the floor. Glad for this simple pleasure of running water, she washed her bloody, torn hands, the powdered soap stinging the wounds, then began splashing cold water onto her face.
Shortly, she had washed her face and was peering once again into the mirror, patting herself dry with a paper towel when she heard the women’s voices. “Bastards,” she heard one of them say. And another, “I think I broke my fucking hand.” Then there was laughter as several other women came into the restroom. “You hit him a good one!”
Kay glanced away from the mirror. She looked rough. And then she noticed the others looked beat also–they were disheveled and sweaty and dirty like she was. They jabbered among themselves as they washed up, and some of them sat on the benches in the restroom, the only safe place they knew of in the forty acres under roof, eating their lunches. Kay did likewise, glad for their company, and pulled her bologna sandwich out of the children’s lunchbox she had picked out at the Uncle Bill’s discount store the evening before. And before she had eaten her cookies, the three minute whistle blew and the women trooped up and out of the hideaway and back to their jobs.
Once again came the catcalls and whistles from every shadowy corner of the plant. But by now most of the women knew what Kay had learned—that the men would shut up with only a glance in their direction. And as the ladies peeled off from the group and went back to their jobs, they exchanged barely perceptible touches and pats from each other—maybe only the fingertips brushed at the arm’s-length end of a wave or a hand against a shoulder, a solidarity they could not yet name but felt.
And then Kay was there again, at the end of the line where the car doors would soon approach her at a speed of 8 doors a minute, one every 7.5 seconds, 480 solvent-dripping, steel car doors every hour. Another whistle blew and the place exploded with noise over the next few seconds, every press starting up again, every conveyor rattling on its sprockets. She barely had time to pull on her oily, bloody gloves and begin defending herself against the onslaught of doors.
She wanted to cry again. The first few doors reopened the wounds on her hands and the oil burned her stomach and thighs, and the sweat blinded her after only a couple of minutes. She had forgotten to reinsert the earplugs, and the noise was hurting her ears, her feet hurt from standing in one place so long, and she had blisters on her heels from walking in the rough leather work boots hastily purchased when she bought her little, blue lunchbox the night before. The minutes went by, and then an hour had passed, and Kay wanted to lie down and sleep, but the doors kept coming, seeming heavier and heavier so that she had to force herself through each lifting movement. She wanted to quit, but she knew that by lunch today she had already made $20, an amount that would have taken her nearly two days to earn at the garment factory. Her daughter needed for her to have this job. She needed to have this job and its earning power if she was to get back on her feet and have a life again. She would die in this stinky, horrible place before she would quit. The tears came and mixed with the sweat and oil and grime, and she stacked car doors.
When she thought she could not continue for another minute, when the doors were indeed becoming too heavy for her fatigued muscles, she felt a tap on her shoulder. She turned and there was the black man of about 30 she had noticed earlier in the day as he ground steel at a work bench along the door line. He motioned for her to let him take her place and handed her a folded up piece of oilcloth. As she moved aside she accidentally kicked the foot control, shutting the line down.
He turned the line back on and she watched, trying to learn how he did it, as he deftly snapped the doors together and easily slid them into the slots in the orange cart. She unfolded the oilcloth and found that it was a makeshift apron fashioned from the material used to shield the aisle ways from welder sparks. She had noticed other workers wearing the bright blue material earlier, and now held it up to herself and slipped the top string over her neck. The cloth draped easily down her front, and she tied the strings of the homemade apron behind her back.
Her foreman loomed up the aisle, charging towards her position at the door line to see what had cost him a few car parts in his little world of noise and steel, an angry look on his face. And then beside Kay were two other men—Milt Jeffers, the union’s shop chairman, and his sidekick the production committeeman. The chairman glanced at her bloody gloves and nodded to the stacker, then stepped on the foot control to shut the line down. The foreman continued toward them, though by now his approach was downright sheepish and tentative. He had been told by upper management that the women must survive; he would be fired, he had been warned, before any of the women hired that day were fired.
Then Milt was shouting at him, and pointing at the conveyor and then at Kay. The anger of earlier was replaced on the foreman’s face by a look of terror. He knew he had made a mistake even coming over to the line. Earlier he had noticed her bloody gloves and had not acted. He could have helped the girl, but he needed the parts for his quota, always the quota, the only thing that mattered in this place, his boss pushing him to do more than was possible, the car parts valued more than life itself.
And then the break whistle blew and Milt shouted, “You’ll do what the fuck I tell you to do.” His voice seemed to echo in the sudden quiet and several men gathered around to see how this situation involving the powerful shop chairman and the lowly production foreman would play out.
In a minute, Milt turned back to Kay. “Let’s see your hands.” She gingerly pulled the oily, bloody gloves off and showed him where her hands had been cut by the panels. Even though the wounds looked a horrible mess, she really didn’t feel any pain.
“You walk her up to the plant hospital?” Milt said to the black worker.
He nodded, motioned for Kay to follow him, and off they went. She looked back once, saw Milt Jeffers pointing at the line and shouting at the foreman again, and smiled her first smile of the day. Management was the enemy. The union was her friend.
© William Trent Pancoast
* New Hire was first published by Night Train
William Trent Pancoast’s novels include WILDCAT (2010) and CRASHING (1983). His recent fiction has appeared in Revolver, Steel Toe Review, Monkeybicycle, Night Train, and Fried chicken and Coffee. Pancoast retired from the auto industry in 2007 after thirty years as a die maker and union newspaper editor. Born in 1949, the author lives in Ontario, Ohio. He has a BA in English from the Ohio State University.