Michael Anthony

 

Crosses To Bear

Georgie Allen aimed her pickup through the plant gate, trying to escape what she had witnessed. Once out on County Line Road, she sped past those random white crosses adorned with plastic flowers and photographs, each a makeshift memorial to a life lost, likely the result of an illegal drag race gone wrong. Not needing any reminders of mortality, she kept her eyes on the mile long straightaway.

As her truck rolled to a stop beneath the traffic light at the corner of County Line and Quincy, Georgie noticed a spot on the leg of her pants and leaned forward to brush it off. It wasn’t dirt. It was blood, dark, brown, and dry. Her eyes rimmed with tears that she swept away with the back of her hand before glancing across the intersection at Hecht’s Service Center.

Working beneath a car on the lift, Sam Hecht didn’t see her. In no mood for talking anyway, Georgie hit the gas. All she wanted to do was get home, shower, and grab a beer to blot out the memory, which she knew would take more than just one. If only she still had some of her cousin Billy’s weed, then maybe she could disappear inside those numbing clouds for a few hours.

Nearly halfway home, Georgie thought about how the day hadn’t started bad, although that scarlet sunrise did portend a hot day. She remembered hoping those massive exhaust fans along the plant roofline would be working. Otherwise, the stench, the heat, and the dust that spiraled in the shafts of sunlight would make breathing more difficult than usual. Her concern was real because since the new owner, Cleavon Longworth, took over, plant maintenance had been curtailed, a victim of cost cutting. So were security, decent benefits, overtime, and jobs.

Even before what had happened that morning, Georgie wished she’d be long gone. But, having spent too many years mixing those powdered chemicals and dyes, and not enough developing skills she could use somewhere else, she was stuck.

The Hillside Diner slipped by her window in a blur of chrome and glass, its parking lot empty. Time was you couldn’t find a seat at shift changes when folks in coveralls and grimy work clothes streamed into the place. But, with the other plants along the Winnebago River already shuttered, you could sit just about anywhere, anytime. Georgie was glad she wasn’t waitressing there either.

At thirty-six, Georgie’s options were few. She felt caught in a riptide and no matter how much she struggled, the thin shoreline of opportunity drifted farther and farther away. Georgie was resigned to the reality that it was the Longworth plant or unemployment, which definitely wouldn’t cover food, rent, or her truck payment. Forget vacations or new clothes. Other than that green floral dress she wore only to weddings and funerals, it was jeans, tee shirts, and boots anyway.

Chasing those thoughts away, Georgie parked her truck in the driveway alongside the white Cape Cod house she was renting from her Aunt Mona.

Mona gave Georgie a break in exchange for maintaining the place: mowing the lawn; repairing the plumbing; and, all the other chores any homeowner faces. Georgie slipped the key into the lock on the side door to the kitchen. The damned thing always stuck, especially when it was humid, like today. A shove along with a twist of the doorknob finally did the trick.

Georgie pulled two bottles of beer from the refrigerator. They were sweating practically as soon as they hit the table. She glanced at the calendar next to the window, the one that had hung there since she moved in some nine years earlier. With her Aunt’s penciled notations, it was little more than a fading reminder of a family now mostly gone.

Standing her work boots by the door, Georgie grabbed those two bottles and went into the living room where she collapsed onto the sofa across from the TV. Positive the local news, and maybe even the station down in Des Moines, would be covering the incident, Georgie left it off. That first bottle went quick.

Her cellphone rang. It was Sheila, the gossipy hairdresser from Snazzy Cuts over on Third. Georgie let it go to voicemail. When the little icon popped up in the corner of the screen, Georgie listened. “Hi, Georgie. Just heard. Gimme a call.”

As Georgie started on that second bottle, the phone rang again. This time it was Vern Engstrum with whom she had worked until his tremors started. Doctors told him it was neurological damage likely from the chemicals he’d been handling. Irreversible.

“Hey,” Georgie said in a near whisper. “Nah. I’m good. Sent everybody home after being interviewed. Okay. Thanks.”

Georgie put her phone on do not disturb and dropped it onto the cushion beside her. Tears again lined her cheeks; dotting her shirt. Another swig might dull the pain. Closing her eyes, she saw three faces and inhaled with a shudder.

Two more beers finally brought some relief, drawing a curtain on the morning she prayed remain closed, at least for a while. The house was silent. She dozed fitfully until those jarring memories came crashing back, waking her with a jolt.

A trio of knocks pulled Georgie from the sofa. She charged the door, ready to confront whoever was messing with her, probably a nosy neighbor wanting details.

Georgie shouted, “Go away!”

“It’s me. Sam.”

She opened the door to see Sam Hecht, a paper cup of coffee from the Hillside Diner in hand. Muttering, “Thanks,” she motioned for him to come in.

Sam sat in the chair opposite Georgie, saying nothing, just watching her sip the coffee. Black, no sugar, the way she liked it. Sam was not there to pry, but for her. If Georgie wanted to talk, he’d listen. If not, that’d be okay too. That’s what comes from knowing somebody as well as he did her.

Peering at Sam over the edge of the cup, Georgie started to say something, but the words fled like startled birds. Sam saw a profound sadness in her eyes.

They had known each other since that first bus ride to kindergarten when he sat across the aisle from her, wanting to say hello but was too shy. Georgie later admitted she secretly wished he had so she wouldn’t have felt so scared. Over the years, from grammar to high school, their friendship matured along with them, going from classmates to friends to intimates. Georgie took Sam’s virginity the summer before their senior year. Actually, it was Sam who begged Georgie to do it.

They graduated Harrison High together. Sam had planned on going away to college to become an aerospace engineer, but that dream was buried alongside his father not six weeks after graduation. He took over the family garage. Instead of designing vehicles to transport people to the International Space Station, he was repairing transmissions; rotating tires; and, up to his elbows in grease six days a week. It was pretty much the same for a good many of their classmates. Septic tank cleaners, meat processing plant workers, health aides at the state hospital. The list of dead end jobs folks in Cedar Ridge did to survive was endless and heartbreaking.

Georgie once told Sam, “They should rename this damned town Cemetery Ridge: The place where dreams go to die.”

As their lives slipped away, one day at a time, they’d rekindle their intimacy. It was an easy going kind of thing, no pressure. Both dated other folks. Hell, Georgie was even engaged once. But through it all, they had one sacred rule, never broken. If either was in a relationship there’d be no calls for late night comfort.

So, here was Sam at Georgie’s side again. He sat quietly, his eyes meeting hers only when she searched for his. Scores of questions swirled around his mind. Yet, not one crossed his lips. It was that way for the good part of an hour. That coffee he had brought her was finished, the empty cup on the table between them. More than a few times, Georgie would shift on the sofa, about to say something, but didn’t. Finally, she sighed, “Really ‘preciate you being here.”

Sam smiled.

“Longworth told everybody to take the rest of the week off. If I didn’t need the paycheck, I’d seriously think about never going back.” Hearing no comment from Sam, Georgie turned. “Wadda you think?”

“Not my decision.”

“No shit, Sam. Just wanted your thoughts.”

“Look,” he said. “I don’t know how anybody can go through what you did and not have doubts. I know I would. But, what choice you got?”

Georgie chewed the inside of her cheek mulling what Sam said. Part of her wanted to just curl up beside him in bed. The other part wanted total darkness. The kind only a midnight fog rolling in from Mesquaki Lake offered, extinguishing streetlights, the plant’s night sky glow, the red lamp shining above the fire box on the telephone pole; every last trace of light, even the stars. She needed a blackness so impenetrable that it would swallow memories too. “If you gotta get back to work it’s okay.”

“Not a problem. But I’ll go, if you want.”

Georgie wasn’t sure. It just felt good having him there, a warm counterweight to the cold finality of that morning.

A car door slammed, followed by the sound of feet shuffling up the walk. Muffled voices whispered on the front porch. The doorbell rang, then, again. Georgie didn’t budge. Sam said, “I’ll tell ‘em to go away.”

Georgie’s jaw clenched along with her fists as knocking alternated with the bell. Sam slipped by, saying, “Stay here.”

He opened the door to find a reporter pressing a microphone against the screen. Behind her, a lanky kid trained a video camera on him. Sam kept the screen door latched.

“We’re with KLIO News. We’d like to speak with Georgina Allen. Get her comments on the incident at the Longworth plant. Is she here?”

Repeating what he had so often heard crooked politicians mumble, Sam said, “No comment.”

“Are you Mr. Allen?”

“I said no comment. I’m asking you to leave the property. Now.”

“I understand. But, we have statements from the sheriff, the plant owner, and the manager on duty. We think it important to provide the perspective of workers like Ms. Allen.”

Sam glared through the screen door. “Last time or I call the sheriff.”

The reporter stood firm. Sam felt a hand on his shoulder. Stepping around Sam, Georgie said, “Wadda you want?”

“First, I’m sorry for the loss of your coworker.”

“Friend,” Georgie interrupted. “Héctor was my friend.”

“Your friend,” the reporter repeated. “I’d like to ask you a few background questions about Mr. Machado. How long did you know him?”

“Eight, nine years.”

The questions continued. How was he to work with? What’s his family like? Only when the reporter asked if there was anything Mr. Machado might have done to provoke the incident did Georgie explode, stopping the reporter. “Listen, I told you about my friend. Anything else, talk to the sheriff.”

“I’m just trying to understand why such a well-liked man as Mr. Machado would be targeted? Were there any animosities between him and the alleged gunman Aaron Stedman?”

Georgie flung the screen door open and stepped out, backing the reporter and cameraman to the edge of the small front porch. “My friend’s dead and a few more are in the hospital and you’re asking about animosities? Only since the President came through here last month stirring shit up.”

Sensing a potentially big sound bite, one that might even go national, the reporter pressed, “Are you blaming the President for this tragedy?”

Georgie squinted. “Look, maybe he didn’t load the gun or pull the trigger. But he sure as hell pumped Stedman full of hate when he said immigrants are taking Americans’ jobs. Héctor was born here just like his father and grandfather. He was as American as you or me. Only reason he was murdered ‘cause his name was Machado.”

“So,” the reporter asked. “The alleged gunman blamed Mr. Machado for him being laid off at the plant?”

“Wadda you think?” Georgie growled. Heading back inside, Georgie spun around. “You wanna do some good? Show pictures of Héctor’s family. Let the President see the faces of three kids who’ll never hug their father again because of the hate he brought here.”

Georgie slammed the door shut.

Sam stood in the middle of the room, his arms welcoming her. With her head on his shoulder, Georgie cried. They remained like that for minutes, his shirt drenched with her tears and his own.

As the merciless sun sank to the western horizon, turning the Winnebago River into a meandering ribbon of gold, Sam drove Georgie across town to the neighborhood known as Little Guadalupe, where most of the Latinos who worked in the plant lived. They pulled up in front of the Machado house. A good two dozen people milled about the yard with at least that many more inside, packed shoulder to shoulder, every chair occupied, every corner filled. Georgie knew most from the plant, others she recognized as cousins or friends of the Machados.

Georgie edged through the crowd, whispering, “Perdón. Excuse me.” She found Inez amid of cluster of women, all sobbing, their backs heaving. Inez looked up and shook as though an earthquake rattled her body. Georgie knelt at Inez’s feet. Though surrounded by the large gathering, their shared grief insulated them from the constant hum.

Inez gathered Georgie into her arms. They spoke in a silent language formed by syllables of love and affection for Héctor. Inez didn’t have to thank Georgie for being Héctor’s first, and best friend at the plant. Nor did Georgie need to thank Inez for welcoming her into their family, dubbing her Tía Georgina to the children.

*  *  *

Multiple news crews covered Héctor’s funeral, all brought there by Georgie’s stinging indictment of the President that had gone viral, even drawing a rebuke from The White House press office. Georgie’s words also irked Cleavon Longworth, whose political ambition had brought the campaign to the plant in the first place.

Hoping to lower her profile, Longworth suggested she not speak to the press anymore, for her own good of course, and to keep her comments to herself around the plant. It took every ounce of restraint not to tell Longworth where he could shove his aspirations for a position in the administration.

She returned to her spot on the plant floor not ten feet from where Héctor had worked – and died. At the end of her shift, she hung back. When the next shift arrived they found a white cross painted on the floor where Héctor used to stand.

It was painted over when Georgie returned the following morning. By the time she left, it was there again. This went on for nearly two weeks until Longworth called her into his office. He said that if that cross appeared again, she’d be fired immediately and charged with criminal destruction of private property.

Georgie detoured through Little Guadalupe on her way home to check on Inez and the children. She stayed for dinner.

Arriving at her workstation the next morning, Georgie expected to see the plant manager waiting for her to paint that next cross so he could escort her off the premises. Instead, she looked down the row and didn’t see one cross; she saw forty, and beside each stood a coworker from Little Guadalupe.


Michael Anthony is a writer and artist living in New Jersey. He has published fiction, poetry, illustrations, and photographs in literary journals and commercial magazines. Most recently these include the Tall Tale TV Podcast, Dime Show Review, Apeiron Review, and Goat’s Milk Magazine. His work may be viewed at: MichaelAnthony.MyPortfolio.com.

 


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