$1.25 an hour
We sat in rows along a wooden bench,
each place equipped with metal stick, lever,
and a bulb. Our task: to count the slip straps,
to package them in sets of twenty-four.
The drill was simple. You slid the slip strap
down the metal stick. Each time you did
you hit the lever with a click. Click-click, click-click,
click-click. Twenty four and then the light stayed on.
Click-click, click-click. In the heat between high school
and college, Juanita and I laughed and practiced
Spanish as we slapped the multi-colored slips of cloth
down on the growing stack. Click-click,
click-clack. A lark, a way to save a bit. July and August,
fat beads of sweat crawling down our backs.
On Route 110 squat factories nestled, lacking light
and air, swallowed in the dull roar of low flying planes.
We tracked the days on calendars of windowpanes
and clocks of tapping feet. After each pack of twenty four,
we wrapped them with a rubber band and laid them
in a box, senuous slivers of color, traveling unnamed,
a cardboard box of bound up strands mailed
to the odd location where they made the strapless slip.
I was horrible at this. I missed the light and clicked
and clicked until my pile overflowed the stick.
I couldn’t make my quota. Juanita slipped me bundles
from her box when the super turned her back. Click
clack, click clack. Dark haired girls worked beside us.
Twins. One so pregnant her wrinkled smock rubbed
against the bench. One morning she came in with one eye
bruised, a puckered lip. No questions. Just click and click.
Those girls hated us. In the listless room, where we ate our twenty
minute lunch, they crowed behind their hands and turned
their backs whenever we sat down. I don’t know how,
but the manager found out that we had other plans,
did not expect to keep on clicking straps, but wanted to
escape this clicking mess come September. He fired
us and we went out the door and stood beside the highway
carousing in the sun, drunk on an early release, our fingers
like the wild wheat of fall, waving and ready for the harvest,
streaming like threads of silk in conquered air.
Night Work: Walter E. Fernald State School
Once on a clear night in the spring
I stood in the nurse’s station
with the new boy they brought in,
a black boy with arms as thin
as reaching branches of a lilac bush
and eyes wide as an empty pond.
Blind. Deaf. Perched him
on the counter, lifted a spoon
of applesauce to his lips and watched
as he sucked it in. A dark form
moved in the doorway and the prisoner
came in. Jim. Part of a special
release program. As though throwing
the retarded and the damaged together
would somehow heal them both.
There must have been something
of the father in him, because he lifted
that sliver of child to his chest
and cuddled him, as if this were
the seed of his race, its scarred history,
as if somehow the hardness of his hands
could reach past soundless dusky shadows,
slip into moving blood, fill an aching belly.
He jostled the boy as if he were a normal child
and, for a moment, I thought there might
be a reaction, some remnant of a smile
on the boy’s face. But when Jim handed
him back, I saw the boy’s face as blank
as ever and realized it was really me
Jim had come to see, slipping out
a joint, teasing, trying to pull me out
into the star-blown night.
It was a fluke, the way the boy ate
the applesauce. After that no one
could get him to eat, not even
from a bottle, much less a spoon.
They put a tube in his nose,
lay him in a crib in Ward 1
where the hopeless cripples stayed.
—Judy Kaber, Belfast, ME