The seams were seemingly endless. Mae turned the bag, her foot pressing down on the pedal, the sewing machine running fast. The rough, cotton fabric used to make the bags caught on the chapped skin of her hands. The high pitched scream of sewing machines surrounded her, woven into her consciousness so she was unaware of the noise. It was the same with the heat and dust.
Her day sewing bags at the factory started at 7 a.m. There was a thirty minute break for lunch, and they were allowed to leave at 4:00 p.m. All the women working the machines had families, and had to get home to cook supper. Mae had four children, and had just realized she was pregnant with a fifth. She was resigned to it. They did not need another hungry mouth, but they’d get by.
The bags she sewed would hold flour, and would later be stamped with bright colored logos representing the different brands: King Arthur, White Lilly, Martha Gooch. The stamps were pretty, but Mae worked on the bags, and they were just rough beige burlap.
It was a good job. There weren’t many jobs for women, and the money Walter brought in from the salt plant would not pay all their bills. A neighbor had worked here, and let Mae know she was going to have to quit. Mildred was having another baby, her sixth, and she couldn’t keep working after eight months. Her belly kept her feet away from the foot pedals. Mildred was very short. She would have to stay home with the baby, anyway, so Mae presented herself as Mildred told the foreman. He looked at the sewing she brought in, and hired her on the spot.
She was grateful to have the job, but Mae was tired all the time. There was never an end to the work, and the thousands of small tasks that had to be accomplished. She didn’t complain, though, knowing it would change nothing. She believed in putting her shoulder down and pushing through life, remembering what her mother had said; “It’s a good life, if you don’t falter.”
Her days were much the same. She worked six days a week, having only Sunday free. On Sunday she went to church, taking along her two youngest. When the children turned thirteen Walter insisted they be allowed to decide for themselves whether they wanted to continue going. So far, not one of them had.
The family was poor but well-fed, so they were lucky. Mae talked with some of the other women at work during their lunch breaks, and along with advice about the best ways to can summer peaches, or soothe a teething baby, she heard stories of children with terrible deformities, or women who were left alone when their husbands deserted the families. She knew things could be much worse. Talking while working was acceptable but difficult with thirty-five sewing machines running at once, so they all spent most of their work days mute.
Wendell Cotter was the foreman, and he was feared, though he had never been seen to raise a hand or his voice to any of the women who worked for him. He was a big man of medium height, stocky, with thin legs and a massive trunk. He carried his weight in his mid-section, and always stood with his legs planted far apart, a McIntosh apple balanced on two pencils. He had thick wavy hair, which looked as though it needed a trim, dark now, but turning quickly to a luminous gray. His dark eyes were quick and kind, and he had thin lips that very rarely presented themselves in a handsome smile. Mae had never said more than a couple of words to him in the three years she had been at the bag factory.
Mae was usually an exemplary worker, fast, efficient and dedicated. They were paying her for a job of work, and it was her responsibility to do that work as well as she could. This morning, though, she could not do anything right. Her bags were puckered, and she had missed sections on others, leaving holes that flour would easily pour out of. Mr. Cotter had noted this as he inspected the work, and he pointed it out to her. Mae was frustrated and mortified, thinking it was the new baby raising trouble with her concentration. She decided to take her lunch break to fix her mistakes.
The skipped sections were easy, requiring only additions of an extra seam. The puckers needed to be ripped out and re-sewn. The room was empty and quiet, the sun slanting in through the high windows, catching the particles that rose from the bags in swirling dust devils of light. The usual clamor was absent, the only sound the subdued whirr of her single machine, and the soft thup-thup of her ripper popping individual stitches.
Mae had her head down in the empty room, working at her task, when she heard a small movement behind her. She looked around and saw Mr. Cotter standing directly behind her. “You don’t have to fix those on your lunch break, Mae,” he said. “You have to eat.”
“I am eating.” Mae pointed to the sandwich on the corner of her machine. “I need to fix these, they were my mistake.”
“You work too hard. All those kids and a husband,” Mr. Cotter said, moving close behind her. Mae stiffened, her eyes darting to the side as she tried to see him, still working on her bags. He moved beside her and reached out a hand to Mae’s brown hair, pulled into a knot at the back of her neck.
“You have such pretty hair, Mae,” Mr. Cotter said, caressing the hair above her bun. “Such pretty hair.”
His hand slid down to her neck, and he gently rubbed the tight muscle where it joined the collar bone. Mae sat stock-still, her sewing machine silent, afraid to move, afraid to look at him. Instinctively though, she leaned very lightly into his hand. She heard him sigh, and he turned and walked away.
She sat for just a moment, then grabbed another bag and started sewing even faster, frantic to finish. What would he do next? What else might happen? She was worried, but she wasn’t frightened. What could he want from her? The rest of the day passed uneventfully. Though Mae stole occasional glances at Cotter, she never once caught him looking her way.
She walked home from work, a couple of miles. Mae was strong and tall, and her back was held straight. Even when she sat down at the end of the day, she preferred a straight-backed rocker. Slouching was uncomfortable to her. She always had tasks to accomplish. With four children and a husband, there was always something that needed to be cooked, cleaned, mended or ironed.
Mae walked into the house through the front door, and proceeded directly out the back, picking up a white enamel dishpan from the enclosed back porch as she moved. She told the two daughters who were in the house to help with dinner. She noted the oldest girl was out, as was her son, which was usual. Because she worked, she was not able to keep a garden, but the next door neighbor had a huge plot full of beans, corn, cucumbers, green onions and tomatoes. Mae moved through the garden, filling her dishpan with green beans and tomatoes. She dropped a dime in the can left on top of a fence post near the gate.
She went back to the front porch and hung a chenille bedspread on nails pounded into the frame of the porch. It was the only way to create shade at this time of day, and the sun was brutal. She had left the tomatoes on the counter in the kitchen, and sat down to string the beans, her hands working quickly over the familiar task. The basin was three quarters full, and she dropped the strings on the floor of the porch, expertly separating the cleaned beans from the others. One of the girls came out to clean up the floor. Mae’s mind quieted as she worked her tasks.
In the kitchen, Mae dumped the beans into a big pot full of water, and lit the stove. She threw some ham chunks that were too fatty to eat as sandwiches into the beans, and put the lid on the pot. She filled another large pot with potatoes the girls had scrubbed and peeled. She pulled thin round steak out of the refrigerator and dusted it with flour. She placed a huge cast iron skillet on the front burner of the stove, and left a large scoop of lard to melt. As the beans and potatoes boiled, Mae fried pieces of steak, cooking them until they were brown, crusty and so hard to chew your jaws would get tired before your stomach got full. She sliced tomatoes.
Walter walked into the kitchen, putting his lunch pail on the counter.
“How was your day?” Mae asked. She usually didn’t say anything when he got home, but tonight she wanted to hear how he was.
Walter grunted, but didn’t say anything, and went into the backyard to the shed, where Mae knew he kept a bottle of whiskey.
At 5:30 on the dot, the whole family came into the kitchen to eat. Mae put the food on the table in big bowls, and said grace, though Walter and the kids did not join her. They ate, speaking only to ask for food they couldn’t reach. After dinner, the girls started cleaning up, while Mae instructed her son to do his homework. Walter left in his truck to go see friends at the barns where they used to keep horses.
She moved into the soft light of the living room, picking up a basket of mending, and setting to work on it. Sometimes at night, she would play the piano for a while, but tonight she was too tired. She knew she would sleep soundly, because she had put in a full days work, and her body was exhausted.
One of the girls had torn her blue dress, and Mae set to work to patch the tear. The dress was faded and chamois soft, and had been handed down from daughter to daughter. As her hands worked the soft folds, Mae thought about Mr. Cotter’s hand on her neck, and how soft it had felt. She could feel his hand, almost touching her collar bone, a phantom sensation. She arched her neck.
Walter was the only man Mae had ever known, the marriage arranged by her gruff German immigrant father when she was 18. Her oldest girl was now 17, which meant Mae was too old to be having a new baby, and she couldn’t imagine what Mr. Cotter might have wanted. He had seemed so sad. She did not know what to make of it, so she just let it go. This gave her a feeling of peace.
She said nothing to anyone, and Mr. Cotter showed her no special attention after that. He inspected her work, spoke to her pleasantly, but never touched her again. Like everyone else at the factory, he just seemed tired.
A few months later, when the baby came, she had to quit the job. She stayed home to nurse the new baby, a full nine years younger than its youngest sister. This was her last baby, and as this one got old enough to fend for itself, Mae took a job cleaning house for a local doctor, and doing ironing for a number of people. She was able to work at home most days, and those days were filled with endless tasks, with one day very much the same as the last.
Many years later, after Walter was dead and buried, and all the children were gone, Mae was visiting with a granddaughter. Most women worked outside the home now, and her granddaughter was sharing stories about her work. Mae talked about her job at the bag factory. That day, and Mr. Cotter’s hand on her hair and neck came back to her in a rush. She remembered the heat of the room, and the silence, the sun. She remembered the constant ache in her back from leaning over the sewing machine. Her fingers rubbed against her hands involuntarily, her hands still callused, but softer now than before. Most of all, though, she remembered the softness of Cotter’s touch as he very gently stroked her hair, and the kindness of his voice. She spoke.
“One afternoon, the manager of the factory came in and told me I had pretty hair, and he touched my hair,” she said. Her face glowed with the memory, eyes shy at the disclosure. Her hands touched the snowy white hair that now circled her face.
Her granddaughter studied Mae’s face, curious about the girlish expression softening her grandmothers’ usually stern expression.
“Was he a nice man, Gran?” she asked.
“I think so.” Mae smiled a sweet smile, and her granddaughter smiled back.