Appears in the just relaeased anthology – available here: http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/off-the-rocks-volume-15/16793233
or visit Sniplits and take a listen : http://sniplits.com/storiesbytitle.jsp#
“Your hair’s rats nest,” Maddy says as Gracie’s slides into the front seat of Maddy’s car.
“Holy Spirit has a nice nest. He shreds paper towels to make it.” Holy Spirit is Gracie’s pet rat.
“No rat talk,” Maddy complains, even though she’s the one who started it.
The cousins are factory girls on their way to work. They’ve both seen plenty canal rats, fur wet and slick as they scurry and skulk behind the big machines. Maddy has never seen a real rat’s nest.
Gracie says nothing more, but thinks about how she found Holy Spirit in a trap her brother set. Its neck wasn’t snapped like the mice in the other three traps. The rat’s spine was intact with a streak of gray hair running down it matching the premature streak on Gracie’s head. These two facts were twin miracles to Gracie and she named her new pet Holy Spirit.
Incredibly, Gracie’s usually unyielding father let her keep the rat and ordered her brother, Peter, to leave it alone. Holy Spirit and Gracie have been friends and roommates for over a year. When Peter comes home, as soon as his keys jingle in the front door lock, Holy Spirit stands on his hind legs with his whiskers tickling the air. If he squeaks and gnaws frantically at the bars of his cage Gracie thanks God for giving rats such a fine sense of smell and jams the back of the desk chair under her bedroom door.
“What? If you can’t talk about the rat, you’re not going to talk to me at all?” Maddy steers with one hand and stares at Gracie. She’s never seen Holy Spirit, but has heard entirely too much about him. It gives her the creeps to think that her cousin and that rat have the same streak in their hair. At nineteen, Maddy has already been married and divorced. Maddy believes marriage is more than Gracie can hope for if she doesn’t start acting normal. But, what can you expect from a girl with a rat and a run-away mother? “Your skin’s never going to clear up until you start taking care of your hair.” Too much silence makes Maddy nervous. “I’m trying to be helpful.” She’s tried to convince her cousin to keep her weirdness to herself. The whole shop knows that Gracie keeps a snapshot of her mother in some poetry book that she takes out before bed every night so she and her mother and Holy Spirit can pray together. Maddy shakes her head – abandoned by her mother, left with her wacko brother and depresso father – no wonder her cousin is a loser. Maddy’s father and Gracie’s father are brothers. Maddy thanks God she ended up with her parents and not Gracie’s.
Gracie is content to pick her cuticle and think her own thoughts. She hears her cousin’s comments as a far off buzz. She is still in the trance of an early morning dream. After they drive in silence for few more minutes, she says, “I dreamed I landed in a field of purple coneflowers. I was a Monarch.”
“Christ. Don’t start yapping about being a bug at work.” Maddy has heard stranger things from Gracie.
“It was a dream.” Gracie looks out the window, embarrassed for her cousin because God is watching and Maddy is being mean and taking His name in vain.
When they arrive in the parking lot Maddy nods at a paper bag on the seat between them. “There’s your bologna.” Maddy makes Gracie lunch every morning. She thinks Gracie wouldn’t eat otherwise.
Gracie smiles, happy now, because God sees bologna sandwiches, too.
The cousins stand in line and wait to punch in. It is 5:43. The girls – all the employees (excepting supervisors) who work the line on this floor are female – are not allowed to punch in before 5:50. Babs is already in line and, like most mornings, she looks through her artificially long lashes and sips coffee from the cup Maddy just bought from the vending machine. Babs is a bottled brunette. Her hair is the impossibly rich color of polished mahogany. Even her crow’s feet are pretty. At forty, she still looks good in tight jeans. Babs hands the paper cup back to Maddy. Maddy places her lips exactly over the lipstick stain before she takes a sip. They pass the cup back and forth until the coffee is gone. Then Maddy buys another cup. In exchange, at break-time, Babs supplies Maddy with a Pecan Sandie or some other home-cooked treat.
Gracie bends over the coffee machine to retrieve her cup.
Maddy sighs. Gracie is doing it again, sticking her butt in the air instead of bending at the knees. Big butts run in the family. Maddy wishes hers was smaller, but at least she doesn’t present her backside to the girls in line at the time clock every morning. How many times has she told Gracie to buy some pants with a waist that isn’t two inches below her breasts? Maddy knows she is no Babs, but at least she is not Gracie.
By 5:49, there are twenty girls in line separating Gracie and Maddy. Every time a new girl arrives, Gracie steps behind her. If they think about it at all, the girls know why Gracie takes the last place in line. She is waiting. This morning, like most mornings, she does not wait in vain. Joe the janitor raises his mop in greeting.
“Good morning, Gracie.” Joe smiles at the floor. He can rarely look directly at her. If he could bring himself to knock on the door of the Employee Assistance Coordinator she might loan him Overcoming Social Anxiety, one of the many CDs in her extensive collection. Joe has a little pot belly which he holds in when he says, “Good morning.” Gracie likes his pot belly, but appreciates the effort when he holds it in for her. She especially likes the hair that he has kept in a thin ponytail at the nape of his neck for the three years she has known him.
“Good morning, Joe.” She feels a double wash of pleasure because she knows Joe will try to be near the time clock at the end of shift, and, if he can summon the courage, he will say, “Good-night, Gracie.” All day, she will feel the pleasure of his name in her mouth, and her name in his mouth.
Gracie’s job is boxing. It is a paper factory. Boxing, the end of the line, is the last job before shipping. Sometimes the paper that comes to her is in the form of pads, sometimes diaries, guest or phone books. The books are always blank. National Blank Book supplies potential: blank pages that people fill in with their own lives. Gracie has a phone book with her number written inside to give to Joe when he is ready. In her life so far, Gracie has called thirty-seven different phone numbers. She knows thirty-six by heart.
As she stands at the end of the line unfolding boxes, getting ready to receive baby books, she remembers the where and when and why of the phone number she has called that she is not sure of. Maddy had sent her back into the house to call the factory early one snowy morning to see if the main lot was plowed. She must have misdialed because instead of the recorded menu an anxious man answered. “Martha?” he said. “Are you alright?”
“Excuse me, I’ve misdialed,” Gracie said and hung up. She thought then, and thinks now, that it was the last digit that she misdialed, a four instead of a five. It will be one year this January since Gracie dialed this number. Every night since then, Gracie and the photograph of Gracie’s mother, and Holy Spirit pray that the man and his Martha are alright.
The first baby books take ten minutes to reach her. They were assembled yesterday, saddle stitched, and wrapped in puffy baby blue or pink covers on one of the more efficient machine lines upstairs. Manual lines, like the one Gracie works, are only used for small special orders and even then only for special packaging. These are high-end books for lucky babies, $49.99 on sale. They are being reduced from $59.99 before they hit the stores. People able to buy $50.00 baby books like to think they are getting a bargain as much as everyone else does. Each book needs a heavy paper sleeve advertising the mark down, one insert with National Blank Book’s website slipped in the front cover, and one insert of coupons for organic baby food slipped in the back cover.
There are only three girls on this line: Gracie, Babs, and Jocko. It is an elite line, of sorts, considered less boring, and certainly less noisy than the machine lines. Babs and Jocko get the books before Gracie. It is their job to sleeve and insert and also to spot inspect. Every girl on a manual line has her own inspection number.
The three girls have been working this line together for months. Gracie loves lining up the books, the exactness of the piles, the right angles, and the meditative rhythm that the job invites. Of all the girls in the factory, it is Gracie who never complains about the tedious, dirty nature of the work. If it had ever been put to them, which it has not, there isn’t a girl in the place who would say they dislike her. There is something neat and tidy about her disposition that is in direct opposition to her outward appearance. She spreads good will with little consideration to a person’s worthiness. She is easy to like, and from a certain distance, easy to ridicule. And they do make fun of her. Even Babs and Jocko – who have grown, each in their own way, exceedingly fond of Gracie – are not above remarking, “Oh, see the little holy girl,” when Gracie falls to her knees at break time.
But the girls never ridicule Gracie to her face. Up close, one on one, her lack of artifice can be frightening. You never know quite what she is going to say, what she is likely to reveal. She is the resident weirdo and if Gracie’s public communication with the divine is not proof enough that she is potentially dangerous, her unfailing honesty is.
Gracie holds her “inspected by no. 44” stamp and waits for the first baby book to reach her. The first books are blue. She piles them in short stacks of five and slides two stacks at a time into boxes which lay open on their sides. She finishes two skids of blue books before the first pink baby girl books appear ahead of her.
As soon as she sees the first pink book, she says a special prayer. On the puffy cover is a stork carrying a bundle. The bundle is tied to the stork’s beak with a satin ribbon exclaiming, “It’s a Girl!” Through the plastic wrap, Gracie sees the bundle cut in half by a smudge line. Ink or glue? She can’t tell, but knows it’s not part of the design. There were no lines cutting the “Boys” in half.
She rejects five books before she calls, “Foreman.”
Babs and Jocko freeze. Gracie has never called, “Foreman,” before.
“What?” Babs says. Gracie holds up a book and points to the hazy line. “Shit.” Babs falls on the work table like she’s been mortally wounded.
The old woman, Jocko, pulls up an extra wide stool, which she bought herself, years ago, to accommodate her stout patient body. She takes a pretzel out of her smock pocket.
The foreman squints at the books. “Jesus,” he hisses. “No one caught this?” A vein pulses in his neck. His face turns deep red. He scowls at Babs and Jocko. Although neither of them is used to holding her tongue, both women remain silent. It’s rumored that the foreman lost a good job in a munitions factory for throwing a vice grip and breaking a co-workers foot. This is an exaggeration. It was a toe and the vice grip was dropped in anger, but not on purpose.
Gracie is calm. She feels a strain on her heart and asks God to help her hold whatever comes. She lets these books, Babs whispering, Jocko chewing, and the foreman’s scowl hum in her heart like a prayer. When the foreman’s glare reaches her, Gracie says, “We caught it.”
“Watch your self,” The foreman snaps. “The Plant Manager is going to have my head for this screw-up.” The foreman has only been on the job a few months and is not savvy enough to have figured out that these girls can make his life hell if they don’t like him.
“Good for you,” Babs says when the foreman is out of earshot. “This new guy is a jerk.”
The girls wait for him to come back with instructions. Jocko buys two cups of coffee, pours three packets of sugar in each, and places one in front of Gracie. “In the old days somebody would have arranged an accident for that asshole’s car by now.”
“Jocko!” Babs manages to be flirty and fake surprise simultaneously.
“Just a little history lesson.” Jocko pulls an electronic game out of her smock pocket and starts tapping on the keypads. She sips the sugary metallic coffee and remembers piece work with the nostalgia some people might recall a week at a beachfront cottage. If it were 1988 they would be finishing up the unpacked blue books or calling the union rep to decide how to proceed. But it is 2007 and Jocko is happy enough to be idle for a few minutes and wait for the foreman since she will make the same $12.82 an hour, no more, no less, no matter what she does.
The foreman comes back in ten minutes. His face is back to its normal ruddy color. “Okay.” He tugs at the waist of his blue Chinos. “Here’s what’s going to happen: the second floor is going to fix the covers and you three are working overtime.”
Babs groans and shoots, first him then herself, with her index finger.
Jocko, now eating a banana, shakes it at him. “Overtime has been voluntary since before you were born.” The fat on her upper arm echoes the banana’s movement.
Even people who need money and are willing to work extra hours for it want to be asked and thanked for doing so. This is one of the many things the foreman does not understand. To the girls, until proven otherwise, he is not a man so much as the company itself. This too, is beyond his comprehension.
“No food on the line,” he says without looking at Jocko. He’s afraid of her. The old foreman was sure, but couldn’t prove, that Jocko was one of the rabble rousers who torched cars during the union trouble in the early ‘90s. The old foreman liked Jocko. He knew, if he passed this speculation on, the new guy would show the old woman a little respect.
Jocko chews. She’s been through eleven foremen and the births of twelve grandchildren. She’d rather buy the grandchildren gifts than baby-sit so she takes every minute of overtime she can get. This new guy doesn’t know about her grandchildren. He doesn’t know that, off the top of her head, Jocko could name the ten best workers who are likely to say yes to overtime.
“Look,” he says. “If you girls don’t want OT, I’m going to have to call the Plant Manager again.”
Gracie pulls a hand through her hair and hits a snag. “I’m not working overtime.” Since she and Holy Spirit have become roommates she needs to get home before her brother. “The Plant Manager’s extension is 228.”
The foreman mistakes her earnest tone for sarcasm.
Jocko snorts. Babs makes a show of squelching a laugh.
At lunch time Maddy takes Gracie by the arm, sits her down at the long lunch table, and slides in next to her. Girls that rarely speak to Gracie say hello and smile at her. Gracie is hungry and tired. She is used to sitting with the brown bag her cousin provides and having lunch and prayer alone. She is confused and surprised that the other girls, especially Jocko, said no to overtime after she did. They seem to think she was making a statement, but the only statement Gracie meant to make was, “I’m not working overtime.” She is even more surprised that girls she barely knows are interested in ruined baby books. They want the story. She hates to disappoint them, but there is no story, just Gracie saying, “We caught it.”
Babs wants to take Gracie out for a beer after work. Gracie doesn’t want to go, but Maddy is her driver, so Maddy is invited too, and will not pass up a chance to have a beer with Babs.
“A half hour,” Maddy assures her. “You’ll beat Peter home.”
In the Lime Light Café Babs twirls a straw in her Strawberry Daiquiri. “You’ve got guts. Like that actress.” She winks at Gracie and asks Maddy, “What’s her name? The one in Silkwood?”
Maddy hasn’t seen Silkwood, but Gracie is no movie star and Maddy would laugh at this misplaced attention if it came from any one but Babs. She pushes a smile through her teeth.
Gracie doesn’t register Babs’ compliment or her cousin’s envy. She is trying to pray with Holy Spirit, but she is not getting through, so she is praying for Holy Spirit, sending her prayers to him.
At home, her prayers hover over Holy Spirit as he crouches in his cage. Gracie is late. Keys jingle in the front door. His nose twitches. He begins to squeak. Peter is early.
“Please.” Gracie pushes her Coke away. “I have to go. Something is wrong at home.”
“We just sat down,” Maddy says. This is why driving Gracie to work is such a sacrifice. She always has to go straight home after work. Maddy gets an idea. “How about this?” She grins at Babs. “I’ll drop her off and come back. We could get something to eat, maybe?”
“We’re supposed to be toasting Gracie.” Babs sips her drink. She loves Strawberry Daiquiris and half the fun is having an audience to watch her drink them. Her boyfriend John likes the effect Daiquiris have on their love-life, but stopped relishing her every sip long ago. “Anyway,” she pouts. “I promised John chicken and dumplings.”
“Let’s go.” Maddy rises. Gracie and Babs’ stupid boyfriend have ruined everything. Jealousy nabs Maddy so fast that she doesn’t have time to block it. The fact of her jealousy disgusts her. She barely pays attention to whatever pleasantries are being exchanged between Babs and Gracie. Discounting the straight and partnered Babs, Maddy hasn’t had a love-interest since the annulment of her two month marriage. She squints trying to look inward to see if she is in love with Babs. Maddy doesn’t particularly want to be a dyke, but after her disastrous marriage and a string of high school crushes on unobtainable girls she has to concede that she probably is. Her foot taps involuntarily. “Bye,” she says gruffly. “Gotta get home before she turns into a pumpkin.”
As Maddy and Gracie drive home in silence, Gracie’s father leans against the door frame of her bedroom, chewing on an unlit cigar. “What are you doing, Peter?”
Gracie’s brother is bent over Holy Spirit’s cage. He has lit a sparkler and is stabbing it between the bars. Holy Spirit cowers in the corner opposite his nest. Peter has been blocking the rat’s access to the nest. The rat’s whiskers twitch. His eyes are beadier and brighter than ever.
“Fourth of July.” Peter grins at his father.
“It’s June second, you sick bastard.” His father steps into the room.
Peter lets the sparkler fall on the floor of the cage and, even though he is twenty-eight years old, covers his head with his arms. Holy Spirit scrambles to his nest.
The next morning, Gracie is worried that Maddy won’t let Holy Spirit in the car, but Maddy is taking a cat nap when Gracie walks out her front door carrying the cage. Gracie puts the cage on the back seat. Maddy registers the fact that Gracie opens and closes the back door before climbing in the front, but not as an event significant enough to explore.
Holy Spirit is quiet all the way to work because Gracie pinched a tiny bit of a sleeping pill from her father’s supply, folded it in a piece of bread, and gave it to Holy Spirit for breakfast. There is a towel over his cage. He is crouched in the corner, groggy but not quite asleep.
In the front seat, Gracie looks straight ahead. She accepts that yes is not the answer to every prayer, but she had prayed that Holy Spirit would be allowed in the car. Maddy sleeping and Holy Spirit quiet as a mouse can only be good omens.
Inside the factory, Gracie’s prayers continue to be answered with “Yes.” She sneaks by the time clock, cage and all. Despite her newfound popularity, as far as Gracie can tell, not a soul notices her. For this bit of grace, as she walks to her station, she offers up a prayer for her favorite website mypetrat, which suggests, if you are afraid of negative reactions from the rat phobic public, you should put a towel over the cage and carry it low, at hip level like a piece of luggage, when transporting your pet.
Gracie places the cage on the floor at her end of the long work table. She lifts the towel, less afraid of getting caught now that they are at the work station. The room is huge and filled with work tables and machines and skids of raw materials and finished merchandise. There are plenty of obstacles to block the view of Gracie and Holy Spirit. Holy Spirit is wide awake, wild eyed, and sitting on top of his nest box in the corner of his cage. He doesn’t sniff at the bars to greet her when she kneels to offer her finger. “It’s your Gracie,” she coos.
She tries to accept what is happening. She tries to calm herself and Holy Spirit, but is visited by an unaccustomed rush of anger. Why should she have to give up Holy Spirit? Why should Holy Spirit pay for Peter’s drinking? “Better get that thing out of the house,” was all her father said when Gracie got home and found Holy Spirit shivering in the corner of his cage last night. Gracie didn’t have to be told what happened. She saw the sparkler on the bottom of the cage. She knew the whole story by the bruise on her brother’s lip and the look he gave her, slumped in his chair, the TV on with the volume off. She knew her father, as a trade off for splitting his son’s lip, was offering up Holy Spirit. She knew there was no way to change this.
Her face is flush. Her hands tremble. “This is where I work,” she tells Holy Spirit through hot tears. “Like I told you last night, you can visit me, right here, at my station. I can bring you breakfast. It’s better this way. You’ll be with your own kind.” She unlatches the little metal door.
Holy Spirit jumps off the orange juice box filled with shredded paper towel where he makes his nest, sits up on his hind legs, and stays in the far corner.
“I have to go to punch in.” She grieves at the distance he is keeping and panics at the thought of leaving him alone. What will she do if, according to plan, he is gone when she comes back? “I’m going to push the cage under the table so no one sees you.”
Jocko and Joe the janitor have both noticed that Gracie has changed her routine.
Jocko watches from the time clock and thinks Gracie keeps bending over because she is sick.
Joe stops sweeping to watch Gracie. He makes no assumptions about why she is squatting by her station, but has a bad feeling and is glad when Jocko punches in early and walks to Gracie.
“That’s it, huh, the pet rat?” Jocko speaks so softly and close to Gracie’s ear that, at first, Gracie thinks the voice is in her head. “Ever tell you I have a crazy son? When he was teenager he had one of them rats.”
Now Gracie knows it is Jocko speaking and understands that while Jocko’s whisper is a blessing it is also a warning. The others will be along soon. She snaps to attention.
Jocko misunderstands Gracie’s abrupt change of demeanor. “Christ, I’m not going to say anything.” She is offended that she, Jocko, might be mistaken for a snitch. “Your old-man making you get rid of it?” She shakes her head at the thought of Gracie’s father making her give up her beloved pet. Gracie nods. “Rat got a name?” Jocko’s heard the name, but only remembers that it is something ridiculous and religious.
“Holy Spirit.” Gracie stands and looks anxiously down at the cage.
“Jesus, you rat people are strange. My kid named his Twinkie. Said it was gay. That kid thinks every body is gay. His was some kind of fancy rat, special long haired breed. This one looks like something that swum up out of the canal.” Babs, usually the first to punch in, walks toward them. Jocko nods. “Here come the troops.”
Babs walks over to Gracie’s station like gossiping with Gracie is part of her morning routine. “What’s wrong with Maddy?”
“She didn’t sleep last night,” Gracie says.
Babs looks over her shoulder at Maddy, who is slumped near the coffee machine, scowling over her cup.
“She doesn’t have to take it out on me.” Babs moves to her spot never looking down at the caged rat three feet from her. “If she thinks she’s getting a honey bun at break, she’s crazy.” Her saddle bag of a purse drops from her shoulder onto the floor with a thud. She finally looks at Gracie. “What is going on around here? You look like you lost your best friend.”
Gracie freezes. Holy Spirit has ventured out of his cage and hops on her left shoe. She knows he is looking up at her, but makes herself smile at Babs.
Jocko takes her place opposite Babs. “Better punch in, Gracie. It’s after six.”
Gracie tries to take courage from the weight of Holy Spirit on her foot. She feels him sniff her ankle. She looks down. He sniffs the floor now, half off her shoe. Look at me, she thinks, help me decide what to do.
He does not look at her. He looks under the long table. His tiny heart, like Gracie’s bigger heart, beats fast. The underbelly of the work line is vast. The table itself is four feet wide and ten feet long. The table’s eight legs are thick and old. They are made of metal and smell of rust. The floor below the table is strewn with boxes and trash bins. There are other human feet besides Gracie’s. A banana peel overwhelms the smells of gum and metal and people. But it is the smell of rat that both calls and terrifies Holy Spirit.
Gracie is aware that people are talking. She does not have enough room in her head to listen to them right now. She looks up. To accommodate the huge machines, the walls of the first floor are fifteen feet high. The biggest machines are the size of her father’s shed. She hopes her heart will hold the size of the room, the angles of metal and wood and brick walls, which she sees now as if she were a small scared creature. She feels the room pressing in and expanding endlessly. Outside a cloud moves. Sun blinks through the big windows. Everything changes. The change is painful, too bright, too fast. The cloud again covers the sun. The windows blink again. Everything changes back. She is terrified. Holy Spirit is terrified. The play of shadow and light blink on and off.
“What?” she asks, angrily. She knows it is a matter of reading the signs. “Danger?” she hisses. Gracie has always known that God is capable of anger toward his creatures, but until now she didn’t know she was capable of her anger toward Him. There is a hand on her shoulder.
It’s Jocko, who sees the rat on Gracie’s shoe, but says nothing.
“The others will torment him.” Gracie is not talking to herself or Jocko or Babs or the foreman who has brought the baby books and stands at the other end of the line. “No,” she says. “No.” She is praying, and for the first time, her prayer is in the form of an argument. All night she prayed and prayer helped her decide to bring Holy Spirit here. But that was night. It is day now and His message is not clear.
Holy Spirit climbs up the leg of her stool. He sits on the seat, his whiskers working overtime. She bends to pick him up. She means to defend him. He jumps off the stool. The girls and the foreman hear the soft thud of him as he hits the concrete, but the big machines have started up and Holy Spirit is just another thud in the factory.
When he shoots out the end of the table opposite Gracie and stops for a split second at the foreman’s foot before he darts across the floor, they all see him. They have no time to respond to the rat scurrying across the concrete, which is after all, not an unknown happening at National Blank Book, because Gracie, having just lost Holy Spirit, and unused to the ordeal of arguing with God, falls exhausted to the floor.
When she wakes up, Gracie is lying on the bench by the north wall with her head on Babs’ lap.
Maddy arrives, called down from the second floor. “Fainted?” She says incredulously.
Joe’s hands shake as he delivers Babs a wet cloth. Babs lays the wet cloth across Gracie’s forehead and says curtly, “If you don’t want to drive her to the doctor, I will.”
“Who said I don’t want to drive her to the doctor?” Maddy claims stroking space on Gracie’s head.
Gracie sits up and blinks.
The foreman says, “The nurse isn’t in until this afternoon. You okay to walk to the car?”
Maddy does not drive Gracie to the doctor. Gracie refuses to go anywhere but home. Maddy helps Gracie into the house, heats up chicken noodle soup, and listens to the story of Holy Spirit, shivering in his cage last night.
“How did you get it past me this morning? You going to wait until your idiot brother tries to kill you before you get your own place?” Maddy is full of questions, but Gracie is finished talking and sends her away. Gracie wants to be alone. She has some questions of her own.
Peter is not drunk when he comes home that night. He puts the big bucket of Friday night fish on the coffee table and watches a tape of Oprah until his father shows up to plunk three plates, three glasses, and two liters of Coke on the coffee table.
The father is the first to speak. “Tell her it’s time to eat,” he says.
“Gracie,” Peter yells. “Time to eat.”
When she doesn’t come out, the father yells louder, “Gracie.” When she doesn’t come out the third time, he bangs on her door. When she doesn’t answer her locked door, he orders Peter to break it down.
Gracie rocks in her chair by the window with her eyes closed while her father and brother call to her and bang on her door. She cannot be two places at once and she is with the girls, who are on the line working overtime after all, as they try to finish up the pink baby books without her. Gracie envisions a calm place around Holy Spirit’s cage so he will come back and she will be able to offer him clean paper towels and apple cores in the morning. She is doing the only thing that ever works: she is praying, trying to convince the voice in her head that she is contrite and doesn’t want to argue any more, she is done throwing and ripping things, that the storm of her discontent is over, or so she believes, she just wants to bend her will to a greater will, she asks the greater will to keep Holy Spirit safe and not to punish him for her lapse of faith.
Her door opens with a violent tearing of the door jam. Peter comes crashing onto the floor at her feet.
Their father is right behind Peter. He sees Gracie’s books, strewn across the floor, her upturned lamp, her room usually neat as a pin, looking like it took a mob hit. He picks up the ripped photo of Gracie’s mother. “What the hell is this?”
Gracie, glossy eyed and not willing to be torn from the factory yet, answers in a hoarse whisper that gives her father a chill, “Mom.”
“Get up,” he yells at Peter, who is still on the floor.
Peter dusts himself off, cocky, like he just slid into third base. “She’s buggin’ out.” This he states as an accusation. He is too happy that it is Gracie, not him, disrupting the household to realize there could be trouble here.
“You hurt Holy Spirit,” Gracie exhales this statement calmly and takes a deep breath when it is done.
“It’s uncivilized to live with rats,” Peter sneers. He has been pushing against the sister he cannot understand or control since they were little kids. He defends himself from his lack of understanding, as always, by attacking. “Get up.” Peter grabs her arm to pull her out of the rocking chair, but his father claps him on the back of the head. He reels around and faces his father. “Christ, you’re hitting me?” He yells close to his father’s face. “You choose a rat over me?” They glare at each other. Peter has never stared his father down before, not sober.
Gracie rocks. ““I’m taking your car, Peter,” she says flatly.
“Like hell.” Peter would give anything to sit on the couch with a bottle of Jim Beam and let Gracie take the damn car. It’s a rusted piece of shit Escort, anyway. But who knows what giving in this time would lead to? “Look at her eyes, she’s on drugs.” If he lets Gracie take his car he will be stuck here with his pissed off father, who has banished even beer from the house. Even his stash of Cold Turkey in the toilet tank is gone.
Their father looks from son to daughter, shaking his head in disgust. He used to like them, when they were small, didn’t he? A Child’s Garden of Verses lies in two pieces on the floor in front of him, ripped down the middle. It couldn’t have been easy to rip that binding. He’s not sure he could have done it himself. She is crazy as a bed bug, he thinks. He’s afraid of both his kids, afraid of his own kids in his own house. How did he end up with two nutty kids? It was their mother leaving, he decides, as he has decided many times over the last twenty years. Why, in middle-age, is he saddled with two adult children? He doesn’t think striking either of them will create the oasis of calm after the storm that discipline usually brings this Godforsaken excuse of a family. “Work it out,” he says. “Or, I swear, I’m going to crack your heads together until I get some peace.” Just a little rest, that’s all he’s ever asked for. He steps over a hump of afghan warning, “I’ve had it with you two,” as he exits the room.
Peter glares at Gracie, who is rocking again, with her eyes closed. “Psycho,” he whispers, hoping she stays in whatever alternate universe she’s gone to. He decides he better leave the room and the house and find a nice quiet bar. He’s a little short of cash and looks around Gracie’s room to see if she smashed her piggy bank.
He is picking quarters off the floor when Gracie groans and gasps, “Bite and run.”
Peter straightens up and lets four dollars worth of quarters fall to the floor. He is trapped. Gracie is between him and her bedroom door. He watches her top lip quiver and is terrified by the slice of upper teeth that push forward and glint against her bottom lip. Her eyes focus on something behind him, through him, and he feels violated. He wants to run, but is weak in the knees. He sits on the disheveled bed, which is pushed against the back wall. It takes all his strength to holler, “Dad.”
Gracie’s heavy breathinggets heavier. Her eyes dart around the room. She jumps up, and with a sweep of her arm, sends the rocker flying. It lands in front of the door, further blocking Peter’s escape.
In the living room, their father turns up the volume on the TV.
Gracie crouches and backs away from Peter and the smell of human fear. She has smelled it all her life, but until now has been able to contain it in her heart. It has never pressed on her like a vise before. She matches fear with fear and there is no more thinking, no more praying, unless pure instinct is a form of prayer.
Peter summons his last dram of courage and leans forward to move the rocking chair so he can get out of the room, but his sweat is rank and Gracie can not tolerate any movement from him. She is on him. Her hand is in his back pocket pulling out his car keys as her teeth bear down. She feels an awful release and satisfaction as her teeth sink into the flesh of his forearm. His blood is metallic, sweet and thick as factory coffee.
In the shop the girls work on, with Maddy taking Gracie’s place. Conversation has been thin. Every half hour Babs calls her boyfriend, John, to let him know that she is still stuck at work. The foreman, Maddy, Babs, and Jocko, think they are alone in the building. There hasn’t been a second shift at National Blank Book since WalMart started purchasing from factories farther south. They hear the occasional truck horn sounding from the Interstate and the crackling of the long tubes of florescent lighting illuminating their small section of the first floor. It is dusk and the fading light bruises purple against the dusty red brick walls. The first floor, one huge room with a couple of small offices and bathrooms down a short hall, seems to grow bigger as the light fades.
At seven o’clock, just before the foreman comes to tell the girls to take a break, they hear the door to the men’s room swing open. They hear the stream hit the urinal.
“Let’s see if he washes his hands,” Jocko whispers. They hold their breath and listen for the sound of the flushing urinal, which they hear, and the sound of water running from the faucet, which they do not hear. Babs giggles and Maddy smiles for the first time all day.
The foreman arrives on a forklift that he rides like a sit-down lawn mower. “Break time. Be back in thirty minutes.” He pushes a lever forward, and moves the forklift in front of a skid of finished baby books. He pushes another lever to scoop up the skid, and then he drives away to the loading area.
The girls sit around the table, sipping coffee, eating Fritos and peanut butter crackers from the machine. “Kiss and make up,” Jocko advises Babs and Maddy. “Overtime is boring enough.”
“If she tells me why she’s being such a bitch.” Babs folds her arms over her chest, exaggerating her cleavage. Her eyes narrow. She points with her chin. “What’s he doing here?” Joe stands a few feet away from the coffee machine clutching something to his chest.
Jocko waves him over. He makes no move, except to pull the bundle closer. She walks slowly over to him. “What you got there?” Joe’s eyes are red. “You in trouble, Joe?” He looks at the floor. She takes him by the elbow. “Come on.” He walks with her, but refuses to give up his bundle. She offers him her stool and motions, with a finger to her lips, for Maddy and Babs to be quiet. He sits. She asks again, “What you got there?”
“That’s Gracie’s sweater.” Maddy gets off her stool to get a better look.
His hand spreads protectively over the sweater clutched to his chest.
“You stole your girlfriend’s sweater. How romantic,” Babs teases.
“It was on the back of her stool.” Joe’s voice is muffled by emotion and the sweater. “I thought it might help.”
“Catch the rat? Because it smells like her?” Jocko nods her understanding. “I’m not sure we want to catch it, Joe.”
His hair is mostly out of the pony tail. Maddy thinks he must stick it in a rubber band in the morning and that’s the end of grooming for the day. What a pair he and Gracie make. She reaches for the sweater.
Joe steps back and blocks her with his shoulder. “Look.” He pulls the bottom edge of the sweater and a tail unfurls. Its pink nakedness dangles and slaps against his thigh. The tail swings like a pendulum before coming to a dead stop at six o’clock. Collectively, the girls step back.
“Yikes,” Babs whispers. “Is this going to get any freakier?”
Joe peels back the top edge of the sweater revealing the head of the limp rat. “Is it the right one?” He doesn’t know what answer he is hoping for, since he believes this rat is dying as he speaks. “He’s still warm, but I don’t know if he’s alive.” Joe stiffens, afraid. He had no fear of the rat before he brought him to the girls.
“It’s him,” Maddy says. “Look at the gray streak.”
Babs makes eye contact with Joe, no easy task. The rat’s eyes flutter. Babs flinches, but doesn’t move from her spot. “That’s right open your eyes.” She coos.
Jocko scans the room. “Better dead than injured, that’s when they’re really dangerous.” She sees no trace of the foreman, but most of the big room is dark. “Rats bite. Put the damn thing in the cage.” Holy Spirit’s eyes open fully, two beady bullets aimed directly at Maddy. “Shit.” Jocko places the cage on the table and hands out empty boxes. “Not the best defense, might work as a shield if he comes at one of us.” She smiles weakly at Joe. “Be more humane if it dies quickly.” She looks over her shoulder toward the loading dock. “Hurry up.”
“Don’t worry he’ll take his full thirty minutes,” Babs says.
Armed with cardboard boxes, the girls form a circle around Joe and the rat. Holy Spirit swivels his neck to keep an eye on Maddy. Maddy is filled with dread. “Why is it staring at me?” Locked in eye contact with the half-dead rat, she holds her box to her chest. She feels misunderstood by the rat and the world.
Babs huddles closer to Maddy. “All it needs is an inch. They can collapse their skeletons and sneak through a hole the size of a nickel.”
“If the thing bolts, we step out of the way and let it go,” Jocko snaps.
To add to Maddy’s agony, her body reacts to Babs standing so close. The tingling of her body makes Maddy angry. She does not want to be attracted to a woman who flirts with rats. If it wasn’t for the rat, Gracie wouldn’t have cut their drink at the Lime Light Café short, and Maddy wouldn’t have asked Babs to get something to eat, and Babs wouldn’t have brought up her boyfriend, and Maddy wouldn’t have to feel her self turning into a dyke who is jealous of a rodent.
“Okay, Joe.” Babs is excited. “On three. I’ll slam the cage door behind him. One…”
Holy Spirit, exhausted but in survival mode, strains to get traction on the burnished steel surface of the table top. The smell of Gracie’s sweater is overwhelmed by other human smells. He squirms for dear life and gets his front legs free from Joe’s clammy palms.
“To hell with this synchronized routine,” Jocko says. “Just shove it in.” Joe hesitates. The rat shimmies out of his grip. Gracie’s sweater falls to the floor as Babs lunges. Shocked, she finds herself pinning the rat to the table by his naked hind leg and she yelps.
Joe rocks on his heels. “Don’t hurt him,” he pleads.
Babs closes her eyes and hold on.
There is a gash with dried blood on one of Holy Spirits haunches. A patch of fur has been ripped off. The rat’s long yellow incisors appear for the first time. Jocko, Maddy, and Joe stare at them. Holy Spirit twists his body into a C to face Maddy. His buck-teethed incisors spread farther apart and his eyes shoot through her.
“That thing is going to bite somebody.” Jocko raises her box. “I guarantee it.”
Babs agrees and releases her grip. Holy Spirit springs forward.
If Maddy had a gun she’d blow the thing to smithereens. But all she has is a cardboard box. Even half dead, Holy Spirit is alive enough to skitter between Maddy’s box and the cage. He falls more than jumps off the table. Triumphant, she slams the box over him. Maddy, on all fours, her torso covering the box, no longer tingles next to Babs. The sides of the cardboard box dent, but do not collapse, beneath her. Her senses open up. She focuses on his wheezy wisps of rat breath, hears him move slowly around the perimeter as he tries to find a half inch between concrete and cardboard. She can tell by the diminished scratching below her mid-section that the rat’s energy is fading. She notices the floor that she kneels on, sees its tiny ruts and craters and places where drops of machine oil have soaked in, complex as the surface of the moon. She concentrates on the rat, the box, the floor, everything that is not Babs sipping coffee in her tight jeans, leaving lipstick stains on her coffee cup.
Holy Spirit stops moving. Maddy listens to the silence. She smells the oily floor and the cardboard box, a woody hay-like smell. My God, she thinks, cardboard has a smell. The box presses into her chest. Even dented it takes her weight and corrals the rat. She feels an appreciation for the utility of the thing.
“Maddy.” Babs is loud.
“Snap out of it, Maddy.” Jocko is louder. “Step back and let the thing crawl in some corner.”
“He stopped moving?” Joe kneels and peeks under the side of the crumpled box. His cheek grazes the concrete. “Is he…?”
“Maybe.” Maddy sees that Joe is twenty, maybe twenty-five, not the forty year-old she took him to be.
“Jesus H Christ.” Jocko throws her hands in the air. “You’re going to get your nose bit off.”
Joe, more concerned about Gracie than his nose, lifts the box off Holy Spirit. The middle of the rat’s body heaves unevenly like a ripped bellows then deflates and stills. His hind legs stick straight out behind him. The pink toes of his back feet obscene in their vulnerability.
Jocko is all for asking Joe to find one of the maintenance guy’s big wrenches and using it to hurry Holy Spirit into the next world. But the girls and Joe seem hell-bent on wringing as much drama out of this thing as possible so she just shoves a stick of gum in her mouth and chews on her irritation. “Don’t assume he’s dead,” she says peevishly.
Maddy can’t take her eyes off Holy Spirit, how disgustingly rat-like he remains, splayed on the floor. An unwelcome tenderness mixes with her disgust. She tries to shake it off. She doesn’t want to feel tenderness for a rat, but the emotion seems to have a life of its own and twines around the disgust. Disgust is so familiar that she doesn’t consider shaking it off, so both feelings cling to her. She wants to, but is afraid to touch Holy Spirit. Even dead or half-dead, those beady are still on her. If dumb Babs touched the rat, surely Maddy can. Why dumb Babs? She hadn’t known, until this moment, that she thought Babs was dumb. She hesitates over the matted haunches and bloodied back of Holy Spirit, and has to stop herself from crying.
Holy Spirit is not dead. His (terror tells him?) to be quiet, but in his exhaustion he cannot control his innate impulse to cry his alarm. He squeaks, a faint pathetic noise, a lamenting frightened cry not unlike sounds Maddy has made herself, a noise from her own throat that has woken her up out of deep sleep in the night.
Maddy closes her wet eyes and strokes Holy Spirit’s hind section with her index finger. She has never been blessed with the gift of good timing. If she had waited a minute longer the rat would not have had strength enough to twist his torso and clamp down on the fleshy part of her hand between thumb and forefinger. She sees the blur of his incisors spread and sink in before she feels the pain. She screams. Holy Spirit hangs on limply as she draws her hand away. The effort of the bite has finallykilled him. For a horrifying second, the rat’s body hangs and pulls on Maddy’s flapping hand.
Babs and Jocko are both yelling, but Maddy only hears Joe’s moan, loud and close. She sees his mouth open to a perfect O as she shakes the rat off. The jerking of her hand makes the injury worse, but then Holy Spirit’s incisors retract and he falls to the floor. There is blood and a strip of Maddy’s flesh between his teeth.
As activity swirls around Maddy, she has one thought – the rat chose her because she was mean to Gracie. Someone holds her hand over her head. Someone pushes her into a seated position on a stool. Someone says, “She’s in shock,” and wraps her hand. Someone speaks frantically into a cell phone.
The rat lies on the table not four feet away. His eyes are closed. Maddy is transfixed by the deep brown and grey of his fur. The pure gray streak down his spine is still clean. If it wasn’t for the spots of matted blood and the rat’s sharp teeth, if you could forget that it once swam in sewers and ate four day old pork chops from garbage cans, you might want to run a finger across the silky fur. If it didn’t have a chunk of your hand in its mouth.
A door slams. They all have the same thought, the foreman.
But it is Gracie who walks out of the shadow toward the line. There is no way to hide what has happened so they wait, holding their collective breath, as she approaches. Her face is expressionless. The girls and Joe brace themselves for the knowledge to hit her.
“Hello.” She smiles almost shyly at them. She looks down at the table where they are looking. “Oh.” Her voice quivers. She looks down again and puts a hand over Holy Spirit. She does not touch him. Her hand floats above his body. She feels his warmth emanate up into her palm and become a tingle in her chest. She thought she felt him dying as she drove to the factory and now he is safely dead. She prayed for his life, but knows her prayer was answered. She feels the boundlessness of his death, the sorrow, the ecstasy, and the open space of it. She takes a step back, puts both hands over her heart, raises her face and says, “Thank you.” She made mistakes, she doubted, she lost faith, but there is mercy. And there is her heart, where Holy Spirit still lives.
Gracie looks at Joe. He is shaking. His t-shirt is wet with tears. “It’s alright,” she assures him. She looks at her cousin’s bandaged hand. She looks at Holy Spirit. “Maddy needs an ambulance,” she says.
“On its way,” Babs says.
“He was mad at me.” Maddy feels weak, like she might fall off the stool. Gracie nods her agreement. Maddy is shaky, but reaches for Gracie and covers her hand with the one her cousin’s pet did not bite. They look at each other and know that something has changed. Maddy suspects that the change will exclude her from making Gracie’s lunch and picking her up for work. From now on, she thinks, bologna sandwiches will make me sad.
“Somebody better go out to the parking lot. The EMTs are gonna need to be shown the way,” Jocko says. It is Jocko who wrapped Maddy’s hand in Joe’s clean handkerchief and Jocko who holds the wrapped hand above Maddy’s head now.
“You go,” Babs says. “I’ll hold her hand up.” Gingerly they make the switch. The handkerchief is stained red, but the bleeding has stopped.
Gracie lets go of Maddy’s hand and kneels. Her body sways. She is praying, Maddy knows. They all know. They are all praying.
Jocko, prays for her arthritic ankles as she runs to meet the EMTs.
Maddy’s shocky thoughts become a prayer for a woman her own age to flirt with. Her hand throbs.
Joe breathes, asking only not to collapse.
“Poor baby,” Babs responds to Maddy’s grimace.
“It just started to hurt. I can stand it.”
“Whatever I did, I’m sorry.” Babs knows this is an odd time, but thinks there might never be another time. She frowns with concern.
“No more flirting, not with me,” Maddy says.
Babs mouth falls open; a theatrical but genuine response. She is a woman who flirts. She knows this, but sees no harm. It’s just her way.
But it is not Maddy’s way.
“Oh.” Babs is tongue-tied by understanding. “Okay.” She feels an ache in the arm that is holding Maddy’s bandaged hand in the air.
Gracie is not oblivious to Maddy, Babs, or Joe. They are in her prayers. Her prayers are not penance or petition. She is reaching out to something that she always reaches for, something beyond her understanding, waiting for her out there, and pressing out from inside her. The image of Holy Spirit’s dead body pings painfully against her heart before it rises to settle, soft and fury. Gracie rejoices for Holy Spirit. She offers up her joy.
Her joy is barely grazed by the foreman’s footsteps followed by a question directed at her and Joe, “What are you two doing here?” He watches Gracie get up off her knees. Then, seeing Maddy’s head on Babs shoulder, adds, “Isn’t this cozy?”
“Have you noticed the dead rat on the table?” Babs likes the sound of her own deadpan. “Maddy’s been bitten.”
He takes in Holy Spirit. “Oh my God.” He leans back, away from the scene. “That thing isn’t real.” He thinks they are playing a joke. Then he sees Maddy’s crudely bandaged hand. He believes the blood on the handkerchief and now he believes the blood on the rat. “Oh my God,” he repeats. He is not good with blood or rats or women, really. “Okay, you bandaged her hand, you got pressure on it, you’re elevating it.” He is the certified First Responder, responsible for safety. He tries to think, what next? Pulls his cell phone out of his pocket, but is too flustered to remember to put a 1 before 911 to place the call. The revolving red light of the ambulance shines through the windows. “Someone already called.” He states the obvious. “Oh, thank God. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” Babs says.
Jocko flicks the main switch and they all wince from the sudden glare. The EMTs are quick. Maddy says she can walk. The EMTs insist she lie on the stretcher.
“Don’t you need the rat?” The foreman asks the EMTs as they strap Maddy onto the gurney. “In case the hospital needs to test it.” He is relieved to have come up with something useful.
The girls and Joe look at Gracie. “Oh yes, they’ll want the body,” she agrees.
They all watch Maddy being wheeled through the bright factory.
Gracie takes Joe’s hand. If it wasn’t for the baby books and stopping at the Lime Light Café, Holy Spirit might be alive at home in his cage, and she wouldn’t be holding Joe’s hand. Gracie sighs and accepts that things happen in God’s way, not Gracie’s. “Do you believe in death?” She means to calm Joe with this question.
“I think so.” It is excruciating for him to speak, not about death in particular, but to speak at all. And he is overwhelmed. And it is after 7:30 and he is not yet frying eggs and watching TV in his efficiency apartment.
“You won’t be alone anymore,” Gracie says.
He knows what she means, and it is what he would have asked for if he had found the courage to ask. He smiles.
They all walk to the window to watch the flashing lights play on Maddy as she is loaded into the ambulance. Holy Spirit’s body is in specimen bag on the floor of the front seat as they drive away.