by Kerry Langan
How many months has she worked here? The girl tucks a stray piece of hair into the severely wound bun on the top of her head and tallies the days, the weeks, the months. Ten, she thinks, as she places a hand in both pockets of the pants that move in front of her down the conveyer belt. She splays her fingers, feeling for holes, making sure each pouch is firmly affixed to the fabric. Before the pants move down the belt, she peels off the tiny sticker from her daily sheet, all bearing the number 9, and presses it inside the pocket. She has sent thousands and thousands of stickers into the world. They’ve traveled the globe while she has stood at this conveyer belt.
Two days ago, the forewoman announced that there’d been complaints from some stores. Small holes and tears along the seams of the pockets. A large shipment returned, reimbursement demanded. ‘You can be replaced. All of you. We could let you go today and be fully-staffed tomorrow.’ The bun girl looked down so as not to catch the forewoman’s eye. She longed to look across the conveyer belt, down a few yards, to where the girl with the braids stood. She once risked smiling at her, and while the girl didn’t smile back, she winked. For several minutes afterward, the bun girl handled pants more quickly.
Some women, the older women, are allowed to sit. They’ve worked here a long time and their legs are not strong. They are adept at tugging and pulling at fabric, their veiny hands interrogating the pockets of the pants. These women keep their eyes down the entire twelve-hour shift. Many of them are older than the bun girl’s mother who also wanted to work here. After her husband left, she came to the factory with her daughter, both of them looking for work. Her hands, though, are badly scarred from an accident with a stove, the little finger on her left hand missing. The forewoman shook her head. She turned to the bun girl and said, ‘Cut your nails. Down to the skin. Be here tomorrow at seven.’
Gray, black, and beige pants. Neutral colors. It’s difficult for the bun girl to even see the black pants against the dark conveyer belt without straining her eyes. She must look up, glance at the ceiling, move her head to look at the walls on each side of the factory. It feels so nice that she cannot resist raising her arms, stretching them over her head for just a second as her back arches and her lungs fill with pillows of air. The old woman next to her pokes her in her ribs, startling her, and the bun girl emits a sound of surprise before she can stop herself. The girl with the braids is looking directly at her, almost imperceptibly shaking her head. The forewoman, though, is at the other end of the belt and the bun girl trembles with relief.
It is dark when she goes home. Since her father left, her mother sits in the tiny cement courtyard all day, rising only to refill her cup with weak tea. When her daughter arrives, she goes into the house and cooks dinner. They eat in silence, both aware of the picture of the absent husband and father hanging from a nail on the wall. The glass on the picture is getting dustier. The day they learned that a woman in the next courtyard had also left her family, her mother dipped her fingers into her soup bowl and flicked her fingers at the photo. The bun girl would like to scream at the picture. She was supposed to go to the university but instead she is at the factory. Sometimes she imagines bringing the photo to work, placing it on the conveyer belt, watching as it moves away from her, each woman placing a sticker on her father’s face.
More days pass, more weeks, more months. The girl has been reprimanded for not working fast enough twice but her fingers are no longer nimble. The joints hurt. Hard nodes have formed beneath the skin on her index fingers. Her eyes search for the girl with the braids on the other side of the conveyer belt, but she is gone. The woman who stands there now was praised for efficiency on her first day.
It is the day before the longest night of the year, a day when gray pants move down the conveyer belt. Before going to sleep the previous night, the bun girl strove to remember words she’d learned in school years ago and wrote on a small slip of paper, “At pants shop. So tired, so sad. Help. Please, help.” She folded the note and folded it again and then once more. At the factory, she pretends to be removing a sticker from her sheet, but it’s the note that she puts deep in the right pocket of the pants. As they move down the conveyer belt, she imagines a woman, a perfect size 8, trying them on for the first time. Her hand will reach into the pockets to feel for depth and she will find the note. The bun girl does not know where this woman lives, if her hair is blonde or brown, short or long. She only knows that once this woman finds the note, she is no longer just a shopper; she is their savior. She must be. As the bun girl stands at the conveyer belt, her knees buckling, her neck wracked with pain, she holds an image of the woman reading the note, her brow creasing with concern, her hand going to her mouth. She will tell someone, she will make a phone call, she will do something to help the bun girl and the other women. This woman who shops for bargains and wears polyester pants, she will save them all.
Kerry Langan is the author of three collections of short stories, the most recent being My Name Is Your Name & Other Stories, published by Wising Up Press. Her short fiction has appeared in dozens of journals including The Saturday Evening Post, Cimarron Review, West Branch, StoryQuarterly, Other Voices, Yuan Yang: A Journal of Hong Kong and International Writing and others. Her non-fiction has appeared in Shifting Balance Sheets: Women’s Stories of Naturalized Citizenship & Cultural Attachment.