16 September 2011

Assembly

At the factory, the truth is that we don’t know what we are making. We construct the parts of the unknown thing throughout the day, and we put them on the belts that take them through the far wall. Each of us knows the shape of her particular piece the way we know the dark behind our own eyelids. Mine is a long, flat strip of metal, three inches wide, that arrives to me straight as a bone. It looks strong, but between my hands it is flexible. I bend it into a blunt-nosed hook—a hanger without shoulders, on which nothing in the world could hang. When it moves past me, the next arrives. Of what the pieces become behind that far wall, we’ve seen not even a glimpse, we have not even an inkling. We don’t really talk about this. It doesn’t interest us. We are all women just recently too old to be called girls, used to not knowing things.

While we work, we talk to each other—our hands by now are separate from us and capable, and we have other things on our minds. We tell the kind of stories that bore everyone except the teller. “My husband broke the garbage disposal this weekend.” “My husband cut down that disgusting tree in the backyard.” We are most of us married, though not yet for very long, and the word husband is still sweet in our mouths, even when we are complaining. Hallie, who works the next belt over from me, has no husband. Every time the word gets said I see her small flinch, as if she would withdraw herself into the safety of that airless neat-as-a-pin one-bedroom where she lives (I know, I dropped her off once). I keep saying husband anyway.

Today, though, Emma has brought us a new word.

Emma mans the belt on the far side of the room, hammering two boards together into an arrow-shaped tip. All morning she has been silent, which is not like Emma, and on her face is the same look she wore a while back when she overheard Sandra crying and talking to herself in one of the bathroom stalls, and was contemplating who to tell first for maximum effect. This time Emma decides on a blanket policy. She waits until Melissa finishes describing the remodeling she wants to do in her kitchen and then she says, “So I have some news.” The implied rebuke makes us attentive. “I’m pregnant.”

We pause. At least half of us miss one of our pieces and have to reach forward and double-time to catch up. Hallie, I notice, misses two. Emma’s hands calmly hammer her boards as she waits for us to gather ourselves.

“How exciting!” Sandra says first, with a big bright smile. She somehow never figured out who told everybody about the bathroom episode.

“How far along you?” and “How do you feel?” and “I’m so happy for you,” the rest of us croon. Each of our voices is higher than normal, but they braid into a kind of harmony. We are realizing we are not that surprised. Emma was one of the first of us to get married.

Mr. Stanwick, who oversees the factory, comes in to decree that we can break for lunch as we are still congratulating her. We inform him of the news. He beams at Emma like a fond father, his fat face all red. “You be sure to take care of yourself,” he tells her. “You take all the extra rests you need.”

Emma smiles back at him, still hammering boards, though clumsily, since she’s doing it with only one hand. The other is pressed flat to her still-flat stomach. The rest of us are wondering what, if anything, she feels there, though we aren’t about to give her the satisfaction of asking.

At home that night, I tell my husband, “Emma and Bill are going to have a baby.”

“Wow.”  He appears in the doorway of the kitchen, where he was doing something to the stew he’s making for our dinner. He’s better at those things, those patience-requiring things, than I am. I go to him there in the doorway and lean against his chest. I feel like doing this whenever he reappears in my visual field again after an absence of any length (he’s only been in the kitchen five minutes or so), the same way I feel like putting my arms around certain big trees when I pass them, for the pleasure of taking their solidity into my chest.  My husband is my favorite person. He is a broad blond man, with soft eyes out of which he looks for a long time at each thing in front of him, as if there were all the time in the world and no hurry at all to figure that thing out. What he does during the day is something I don’t understand, something with equations. He always does figure them out, as far as I know.

He hugs me up against him. “Well, they must be excited. Say congratulations from me.”

I have always known that my husband wants a baby sometime, and that he wants me to have one for him. I have always considered this a reasonable thing for him to want. There’s a kindness to him that seems the rightful domain of a child, though much of the time I act like I’m that child. I tighten my arms around him, release, and walk past into the kitchen, where I dip my finger into the stew for a taste. This is my way of telling him I think I’m done talking about this for now. The flavor is thick with layers that have taken hours to make their way to where they are.

“Done?” he says, and gets our bowls out of the cabinet, which is his way of telling me that sure, we can move on to the next thing. Sometimes he will put down a notebook on his desk and walk away with the curious, beautiful black symbols trailing off into nothing, knowing that when he comes back he’ll understand what to put down next. I tell myself I just don’t have that luxury, since at my job the belts will move on with or without me, but I understand that this isn’t really the difference between us.

Some weeks pass. Emma’s stomach begins to stretch and tighten like the skin of a drum waiting to be played. Looking at her, it’s hard for me to believe there’s anything in there but air. The pace of her work doesn’t change much—she doesn’t seem to feel the need to take Mr. Stanwick up on his offer of rests, though he repeats it whenever he takes one of his strolls through the workroom—but other things about her do. She begins to wear her hair in a new way, pinned back low behind each ear, the hairstyle of a woman walking through a sunshiny field at one with the earth and all its plant and animal life. She moves differently, too, with this superior swinging that suggests she’s synchronizing herself to some natural rhythm the rest of us can’t be expected to hear. She interrupts the rest of our stories whenever she wants and talks about how she’s never felt so healthy before, so content, like she’s really found herself, and how she never really understood what that meant until right now. These word choices, along with her sweet head-shaking, make it difficult to start up our conversation again once she’s finished, suggesting as they do the smallness of whatever we had been discussing. Yet sometimes, listening to her or watching her rest her hands on top of her stomach like her own personal shelf, I find myself thinking that she’d better feel content and healthy and found. This ride, after all, is already underway, and she’s securely strapped down and couldn’t get off if she wanted to, and really nobody, not even Bill, is taking it with her.

Still, it’s hard not to envy someone who seems so sure of being enviable. By the time Emma starts to look like she’s either going to pop or lift off into the sky belly-first, two of the others are pregnant, too.

Me, I’m biding my time. I’m starting to feel, though, like there’s a sunset kind of glow on the quiet I love at home now. My husband sits beside me on the couch at night and rubs my tired hands—the right stronger and ropier from its role in the metal-bending—and I think remember this. I’m just waiting a little longer. Some part of me seems to want to see what happens with Emma. I’m interested in what her face will look like in the moment when she goes still behind her belt and board upon board passes in front of her unnoticed, for written in the set of her mouth will be a hint of the truth. And I want to see her afterwards. When she returns to work a mother and I hear her shriek in response to some sudden noise, just the way she always has, something will be resolved for me.

As it happens, though, I don’t get to see the moment in which what’s coming for Emma comes. Her labor begins on a Sunday night. She gets messages out to a few of us, and the rest have all heard by the start of our shift on Monday. Mr. Stanwick moseys by at three in the afternoon to tell us that Bill has just called to say that it’s a girl, and we all cheer and clap. A card comes, with a close-up picture of a mottled, wrinkled face, two eyes not really open. Mr. Stanwick tapes it to the fridge in the break room.

For two months, Emma’s belt stands still during the mornings, and then after lunch Hallie switches over to hammer the boards, leaving her own plastic perforated lids unfolded for the afternoon. Hallie seems to resent this disorienting switch of task more than some of us would, but Mr. Stanwick’s the one who chose her for it.

Emma returns right on schedule. On the appointed day, she pushes a stroller into the belt room at 9 AM sharp. “Everybody, this is Marnie,” she says. She unbuckles the straps and lifts the baby out for display.

This baby is all wrapped up in something pink and soft-looking. She makes some sounds that would seem to convey distress, but nothing much changes in her facial expression and Emma doesn’t seem worried, just sort of pats her and pivots slowly like the baby’s a spotlight she’s training on each of us in turn. The baby looks different now and much better than in the fridge picture, with pretty round cheeks and perfect little hands. Something is strange, though. Something doesn’t look quite the way it’s supposed to. I can’t decide what.

“Hi, precious,” Sandra says, and the baby swings her face toward the sound, and that’s when I understand what’s wrong. The baby’s head is pointed. Not so much that it’s the first thing you see, but definitely pointed at the top, capped there with an unmistakable acute angle. I realize with a swoop of sickness that it’s the same kind of angle Emma’s boards have. I look around at the others, trying to see if they’ve noticed anything. I think they have: Melissa’s hand makes a fist against her own just-visibly-pregnant stomach, and even Sandra’s smile has a determined quality. I look at Emma, whose eyes flick along our circle. Why aren’t we talking about this? I think, but then what could we possibly say?

Mr. Stanwick arrives and we make way for him so that he can come face-to-face with Marnie. “Beautiful!” he exclaims. “Beautiful.” He puts a finger to the baby’s cheek. Then, though later I will try to convince myself that I imagined this and it was only a pat, he puts the same finger to the baby’s angle-tipped head. He raises his eyes to Emma. “We’ll take care of her for you, like we talked about,” he says. “So that you can work in peace.” He flips the switch beneath the table that starts Emma’s belt moving. He gives her a smiling nod.

Emma nods back. Her face is a firmly closed door. There’s a moment in which she hesitates, and then she puts her baby down on the belt, on its back, head pointing toward the hole in the wall, the same way she always positions the tip of her boards when she’s done with them. Her hand rests on the baby’s stomach at first, but the belt pulls the baby out from under it, and the hand doesn’t put up any resistance. I watch the baby, wet-mouthed, disappear through the hole with the feeling that I’m watching something ungraspably terrible happen. It’s never seemed important or interesting to know what’s on the other side of that wall before. Now that seems impossible.

The feeling doesn’t leave me at the end of the day, when Emma’s belt reverses itself to carry Marnie back to her, squawking and drooling just like this morning, as if the hours between never happened. Or when Emma does some lifting, fussing, stroller-strapping and then sets them rolling for the door and their trip home.

“What’s wrong?” my husband asks me after dinner. He can feel the tension in my hands, different from the usual metal-bending tension.

What’s wrong is that all night I have been able to see the shape of our future child in the space between us. He will be a strangely long and lean baby, his shoulders so narrow and sloping that he will seem to have folded his arms into himself like wings. From certain angles, in certain lights, his nose will cast a distinct hooked shadow, and its curve will blend so smoothly into the curve of his forehead that his whole face will look shaped from one piece, with one quick motion. When I look at him, I will be able to feel that motion in my right wrist. His eyes will be the color of mine, but they will be as wide and steady as my husband’s, and they will look at me when I put him down on the belt and watch it carry him away. I will not be able to hold their gaze. I will have to watch out of the corner of my eye while he goes off to be fit together with Marnie and the others, for there will be others by then, into some nightmare machine of inscrutable purpose.

“We all got to meet Marnie today,” I say.

“Adorable, I bet.”

I let this stand unchallenged, watching my husband’s thumb press the bed of mine, where the tiredness usually gathers, where the dread has gathered today.

“And how’s the proud mom?”

“She seems happy. Different somehow.”

“I’m sure she is.”

“Happy, or different?”

“Well both, probably.”

What follows is a period in which my inner and outer lives don’t match: they’re differently colored. The things around me have the same shades as always, but my eyes have a new way of coating everything in skin. When I close them to sleep, I have always felt them sweeping again with the motion of the belt, but now what rolls past is a swath of peachy tissue. During the day, I find that I have to keep my gaze front and center on the part before me. If I glance front or back or to the side, my peripheral vision has a way of turning the gray of the metal into a flesh-tone. I’m finding that the shape of our future child is a heavy thing to carry. I grow heavy with it.

Emma’s still not giving anything away. Marnie is growing, but her head’s angle seems to be a constant. Emma talks about her now, in the time between when the belt carries her away and when it carries her back. Marnie woke them up four times last night, can mostly hold her own head up now, ate her first solid food, loves a certain song (how can Emma tell?).  Exhaustion smears Emma’s eyelids, but again and again, she says Marnie’s name.

We comment abundantly on these stories. We’ve settled, as a group, into pretending there’s not a single observation to be made about Marnie that we haven’t said aloud. I might think I’d imagined that shape if I couldn’t feel a sort of cushion in the air around Marnie’s head when we all look at her, off which our eyes bounce any time they approach.

I have a dream about a black room in which I can see only my future child. I would know him anywhere. I pick him up and begin running, and he is heavy but I am suddenly strong, and fast, and nimble, and the feeling is of joyous invincibility. And then the lights go on and I see that we’re running on the belt, and I hear the sound and feel the vibration as it starts up beneath me, carrying me back to where I have come from.

I wake. I close my eyes and open them several times. I lay an ear on my sleeping husband’s chest for the sound of his heart, that heavy thud.

One day four months into Marnie’s life, Hallie cuts Emma off right in the middle of explaining how really Emma’s thinking she needs to put the crib in a different room, because the air currents from that big vent seem to be disturbing Marnie at night.

“I have something to tell all of you.  Something has happened,” Hallie says.

A clumsy beginning, but then Hallie isn’t used to asking for our attention. Politely, we give her our eyes. She looks different from the way I have come to expect. Things about her are in minor disarray: her collar slightly askew, a small run across the knee of her stocking.

“I’ve met somebody,” Hallie says.

This seems unlikely. It goes against everything I have ever known about Hallie, who is by definition bitter and exacting, a rigid follower of routines that involve neither someone else nor any someone’s possibility. I start to picture him, this man who could fold himself into dimensions precise enough to please a woman who spends her days making one plastic edge meet another. He must be so pale he looks almost transparent, with a solemn face.

Then Hallie laughs. The sound is a squeak, and while she makes it she looks like a stranger. Have I ever seen Hallie smile, really? Have any of us? The see-through man I’ve been sculpting in my mind breaks apart with that sound, like fog.

Well?  What’s he like?” Sandra asks. There’s enough eagerness in her voice to convince me that she’s surprised too.

“He works in sales,” Hallie says. Which of course tells us nothing. But then, I realize, there’s not much she could say that would tell us anything important.

“That’s great,” Sandra says.

“So great, Hallie.  Bring him by, so we can meet him,” Melissa adds.

Then we fall quiet. As I work, I find that I’m no longer fighting the urge to stop my belt and run my hands over my metal hooks in order to assure myself that they do not wear skins. I see that I won’t know what Hallie’s man is like until I know him, just as I can’t know what my husband sees when he looks at his equations. I can’t know the shape of the dreams, dark or luminous, that Mr. Stanwick dreams at his desk while we assemble them in pieces below him, or the dark and luminous dreams my future child will build inside the head whose shape I will never see until I see it. There are bright threads of connection, tightening all the while, that define such shapes—the ligaments that tie parts into wholes—and these I can’t imagine. Though of course I insist on imagining them anyway, over and over, and each time wrong. Hallie is grinning down at her plastic lids, now, as she folds. I wonder what she is thinking. We are all still silent, separately absorbed. My pieces come toward me on the belt, and I bend and I bend and I bend.

Image: Amy Cutler, Trial, 2004, gouache on paper. From http://melissadixson.typepad.com.

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