The women watch the clock on the wall of the factory where they sew cotton shirts and there’s an old woman over there, in the corner, bent over, and no one notices that her back is perpetually bent over like that, so much so that one day when the other women call her for lunch she doesn’t answer. She’s been frozen in that position for the last twenty-four hours. They thought she was working late the night before but she’d just stopped and couldn’t move. They gather around her, pull at her torn red jersey, and say, What is wrong with you, May! Why don’t you eat or drink or move all morning? What can we do for you? One of the women looks into May’s eyes and sees a frozen lake inside each one. May’s veined hands are still pressed down on the cloth. Someone gets frustrated and shakes May’s shoulder, What is up with you, woman? We need to eat or the boss will take this time as our lunch! He then shows up running over as speedy as a night train and curses them. What are you silly ladies doing to May? Leave her alone, you fools! He then makes a space around May and checks her out for himself. He lifts her chin and peers into the frozen lakes. Everyone go! Now! Go to lunch, you idiots! I’ll take care of this.
He watches their backs scurry out the double doors to the lunchroom, but of course a few of them are peeking through the tiny glass windows to see what it’s all about. He tries to lift her arm and it’s frozen just like her eyes. It makes a crackling sound like the sound of light wood breaking. He gently puts it over his shoulder and walks her across the factory floor, her feet dragging. He goes out the back door, climbs down the dusty stairs, his back aching, and reaches the first cellar where it’s completely dark and moldy. He goes into the back door of this cellar and goes down another flight of stairs, and there is another door, which he goes through and goes down yet another flight of stairs. He is sweating now, his little body barely able to carry the weight of both of them. There is a fire in this third level down. He looks down at the room-sized bowl of fire and looks at May. Her weight is so much that he almost falls over with her, but he grabs her just in time. He leans in and looks at her eyes again, they are all water now and are pouring out tears into the fire. May stands up, all soft and alive, and is crying, crying, crying. He stands behind her, his hand holding onto her lower back and watches her. Several moments go by. When she clasps her hands over her eyes, he knows it’s over. She looks at him, suddenly aware and awake, and they very quietly walk back up the stairs, May unaided. They go up and up until they reach the same old factory floor and he says to her, Go get some lunch, woman! I need you to be strong! and she shuffles through the door toward the other women in the lunchroom.
Notes from Guest Reader Jennifer Tseng
I admire this story’s swift pacing and lively dialogue but most of all I admire its voluminosity—the way it contains quotidian elements and elements of the unknown, side by side.