"Machine" by Beth Gilstrap

Beth Gilstrap

Beth Gilstrap

Beth Gilstrap is an upcoming writer-in-residence at Shotpouch Cabin with the Spring Creek Project for ideas, nature, and the written word at Oregon State University. She earned her MFA from Chatham University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Blue Fifth Review, The Minnesota Review, Noctua Review, and Knee-Jerk Magazine, among others.



Charlotte, North Carolina

Tight in her joints, Sue worked her machine, all the while yammering to Janine what life was like in mill housing. With a husband who couldn't read much, sewing came in handy. He made what money he could manning a school bus and mowing yards around the neighborhood. Either way, he came home drenched and stinking like onion.

“We only had the one room. Saturday was bath day and since I was the youngest the water was some kind of cold gray by the time I got in.” Sue pumped the pedal, worked the hand dial and followed the pattern lines. Stopping, she rubbed the fleshy bit of her palm, working her way up her thumb. “Can you believe that? I'd always be mad at my brothers and sisters for taking so long. They'd set the tub up in front of the fireplace but it didn't do much good. One side was always cold.”

Janine tried to listen at first, but she got lost in Grandma Sue's button collection. Matching them, making designs out of them. Smiley faces. Rainbows. Trees. Houses.

“That one looks like our house. One door on the front. One window on each side,” Sue said.

“One of the shutters is falling down on the front of mine and daddy's house.”

“Why hasn't your father fixed it?” Sue asked as the machine's pulse stopped. She dropped a pillow on the floor and seated herself next to Janine. As they dug through buttons together, Sue hoped she could get back up without falling on her face. Rolling a gilt button over her fingers like a quarter, she got Janine's attention.

“He says because mom left and he can't do everything. Says that to himself a lot. I hear him talking when nobody's around.” Janine fiddled with a few buttons of different sizes, but each one slipped from between her fingers. Wiping the house away, she scooped up a handful of buttons and dropped them back in the tin. Sue ripped a piece of yellow paper from her notepad and scooped some. With the last few, Janine pushed her pointer finger into them until they stuck. As she flicked them, the clacks made rhythm.

“Well, try to go easy on your father. He's had a hard time of it. You behave like the little lady you are and I'll get you a make-up kit for your 12th birthday.”

“Dad says I can't wear make-up yet,” she said, standing.

“Well, it'll be our secret. Just make sure you wash it off before he sees it.” Sue reached her hand up to Janine. “Help me up.” Holding onto her granddaughter with one hand and the bedpost with another, she struggled to keep her balance. “Hold that tiger.”

Janine laughed. “What the heck's that mean? Who's got a tiger?” As Sue sat on the edge of the bed, Janine put the button tin on the vanity, and went at smoothing her hair.

“It's just something my father used to say that stuck,” she said, tapping her tingling foot on the floor. “He'd say it whenever he slammed on brakes in the car. Don't say heck, you're not fooling anyone. There, that's got it. Now, let's go get something to eat. I've got country ham and I can throw some Pillsbury biscuits in the oven. I might even have some cheddar left. Does a ham and cheese sound good to you?”

“Sounds awesome.” Janine stood in front of the vanity. “Do you think I look like my mother?”

“Well, I don't know what she looked like when she was young, but you do seem to have her coloring, her hair. We could ask Rachel to cut it short if it bothers you.”

“I don't really care,” she said, moving closer to the mirror.

In the kitchen, Sue pulled the ham out of orange Tupperware. When she felt the cold salt grit between her fingers, her stomach growled. Somehow, she was back to pulling fat off meat. Popping a bit in her mouth, she sucked it until it lost flavor. She couldn't understand why kids wouldn't eat the best part. Leaving fat scraps in a paper towel, she got the last nub of cheddar from the dairy drawer and sliced it on the counter.

“What do you want to drink?” Sue asked as she got down two wine glasses.

“Do you have any Sprite? I'm not supposed to drink caffeine.”

Janine sat at the kitchen table, tapping her fingers against the metal edge. It was so cramped in the kitchen that Sue had pushed the table against the wall where you couldn't even get to one chair. She figured only she and Janine and Janine's granddad, William, ever used that table. When company came, they spread out in the dining room.

“I think so. Go check in the closet in the little room.”

Sue had helped as much as she could with Janine since her drunk of a daughter-in-law left her son. She and William had helped Hardy look for Loretta, even talked to the police. Sue said from the beginning Loretta had abandoned them, that Hardy needed to face facts.

Another man and a heap of booze is what happened to her. Sue had never said another word about the woman; she just pretended she didn't exist, that somehow Hardy had hatched his little darling on his own. This was hard to do considering she looked just like absent Mama. But Sue liked being there for Janine. When Hardy was a boy, she spent most of her waking hours at the mill.

Hardy and Janine came over for supper on Sundays and they kept Janine whenever Hardy needed time to himself. Sue had encouraged him to start dating again for several years now, but if he did he never told her about it. She even tried to fix him up with Rachel's girl but no one championed that idea except her so it fizzled before it even had a chance to get going.

Janine came in with a two-liter of Sprite. “Found it.”

“Good, now get some ice and I'll pour it for us.”

When Sue poured the soda, she blew on it so it wouldn't fizz over. “What do you want to do this afternoon?”

“Can Maddie come over? We could ride our bikes up to the park.”

“You two can't go a minute without one another can you?”

Janine nibbled at her biscuit.

“Something wrong with the ham?” Sue asked.

“No grandma, it's good.”

“Well go on and call her, then.” Sue said before taking a big bite of her own biscuit. “Mmm. I don't know how you can turn your nose up at this.”

“I'm not turning my nose up.” Janine took polite bites until she thought she'd eaten enough to satisfy her grandmother. She propped her elbows on the table. Sue noticed a beetle-shaped scab on her right arm.

“What have you done to yourself now?”

Janine looked down at the scab and poked at it with her first and middle fingers. “It's getting better. At least it's hard now. Itches though,” she said as she scratched the pink skin around the edges.

“But how did it happen? That's going to leave a scar if you're not careful. You better start putting some Vitamin E on it when the scab falls off and don't pick at it.”

“I fell off the shed,” Janine said. Her eyes widened and she broke into a fat grin.

Sue sighed, pushing back her empty plate. “What am I going to do with you, girl? What were you doing on the shed? Where was your father?”

“I climb up there sometimes when I need to think about stuff. There's a pine tree next to it and I can put my back against the wall and my feet on the tree and sort of push myself up. I get up on top and sit with one leg on each side of the, the…”

“The pitch?”

“Yeah,” she said, dropping half a biscuit into the trash.

“Just put that other one on the counter. I'm sure your granddaddy will eat it when he gets home.” Janine wiped her hands on the back of her jeans. “Well,” Sue said. “How'd you fall?”

“I was about to get down and I stood up and walked to the front. I usually just jump down onto the ramp from there, but I got dizzy. I just kind of fell over. My arm hit the ramp, but at least I landed in the grass. I didn't even realize I was bleeding at first. It turned white, then the blood came”

“It's a wonder you didn't break your neck. Was that the only injury?”

“I've got a couple bruises, one big one here,” she said, rubbing her right hip.

“So, where was your father?”

“In the house. He'd fallen asleep watching TV. He came and helped me up. He said I screamed when I fell but I don't think I did, at least I don't remember it. He washed the dirt out of my elbow with the kitchen sink sprayer then poured alcohol on it and put on a Band-Aid.”

“You make me think you need eyes on you all the time. You better not go up there anymore. What did your dad say?”

“Not to climb up there anymore.”

“Good,” Sue said. “What did you have to think about up on the shed?” She stood and walked over behind Janine and rubbed her shoulders. Janine had several different tan lines. One from her t-shirts and another from her striped bathing suit she wore when they went to the YMCA. She was a good swimmer. Always had been. Her mother had taken her for lessons when she was two-years-old. Her mother liked to lounge around the pool, sneak liquor in her purse and pour it into plastic red cups and bake herself like pottery while Janine swooshed her way around the pool all day. They'd drop by sometimes and Sue would comb the knots out of Janine's hair while Loretta napped on the couch. She'd spray leave-in conditioner in her hair and work at it from the bottom up.

“You want me to comb your hair for you? Do a French braid maybe?” Sue asked, scratching lightly on Janine's neck.

“Nah, I'm good,” she said. “Guess I'll call Maddie now.”

“Alright,” Sue said, disappointed and feeling nostalgic for when Janine was younger. She knew she'd start drifting further and further away in the coming years, just like her father had done. Just like all teenagers. She'd start getting interested in boys, if she wasn't already. Sue had had her first kiss when she was 13. On one of those carnival rides that twirls cages upside down. She and a boy named Bobby had met at the Memorial Day parade downtown and then run into each other again. Their friends had teased them and coaxed them into riding rides together. They held hands walking around and Bobby had leaned forward in the cage to press his lips to her but the cage twirled then and their faces had mostly landed on each other. She and her friends had agreed that it had counted. Bobby wrote her a letter a few weeks later. He lived down East, at the coast, near Hatteras. He wrote how he wished he could move to Charlotte, saying how once the tourists left, the beach was boring. In fall, he'd look for sea turtle nests and one time, he said, he'd been lucky enough to see some hatchlings headed to the water. He'd walked down that night with a flashlight in each pocket and his parents' Polaroid.

Janine didn't talk about boys, though. Sue didn't blame her. She didn't figure a girl wanted to share secrets with her grandma.

Janine picked the phone up and carried it off to the closet, the cord curling around the corner and under the door.

When Sue passed by, she put her ear to the door for a moment.

“Grandma says it's cool if you come over. Do you want to come here and then you can sleep over? Dad will pick us up tonight. Maybe we can get him to take us to the movies.”

“I'll take you to the movies,” Sue said, cracking the door.

Janine was sitting Indian-style on the floor, the bottoms of her feet dusted brown. Sue thought it was about time she cleaned the floors again. “You know, Grandma, you really shouldn't be eavesdropping.”

“I wasn't. Just passing through on the way to the bathroom.”

“Whatever,” Janine said, wrapping the cord around her wrist until her hand began to turn purple.

“Stop that. Your hand will fall off if you don't watch it.”

“Will not. Now, if you don't mind,” she said, looking up.

“We'll see,” Sue said.

Sue spent the afternoon working on a new pair of coveralls for William. She wanted to make some for Hardy, too but he'd told her to stop making clothes for him a long time ago. It wasn't worth the trouble when he could get what he needed from Wal-Mart cheap. Sue had always wanted another child but for some reason or another never conceived again. She figured something was wrong with her but had never had the courage to find out for sure. Women in her family were funny about going to that kind of doctor. No one ever talked about how babies came to be. She planned to have a frank and detailed discussion with Janine if Hardy would let her. She figured he'd be too squeamish to tell her about her monthlies anyway.

Sue finished the hem by hand before William got home and before Hardy came to pick up the girls. She could have relaxed and watched some TV but she got the ironing board out and worked on getting the wrinkles out of the new outfit she'd created for her husband. Idle time made her stomach hurt.

She sprayed starch down one leg. The iron sizzled on the denim and the fabric smoothed out easily. The house settled in around her as it got dark out. The crickets picked up their volume. She'd stood so long in the mill days that now it felt like bone on bone in her hips when she sat down for long stretches. She had worked the show table for nearly thirty years by the time she retired. Throwing big bolts of fabric over her shoulder earned her the men's respect and more than a cursory glance or two. These days, her flesh swung from her bones.

She heard the garage door open. William walked in with sweat stains down to his waist. She lifted the coveralls up for his approval. “What do you think of these? Can you use them?”

“Sure enough,” he said. “These might walk off if I leave them on the floor.”

“You hungry?”

“I could eat.” He walked over to the sink, splashed some water in his face, and reached for the towel she had Janine's leftover biscuit in.

“Use paper towels,” she fussed. “There's a biscuit in the towel for you.”

“Oh,” he said. “Ham?” He leaned against the counter, left the wet paper towel on the edge of the sink. “Maddie here too? Where are those ragamuffins?”

“Out riding bikes somewhere. Maybe at the park. Probably flirting with boys.”

“I'm so glad we didn't have a girl. Seems like more trouble.”

“You should see the raspberry on her elbow,” she said, folding up the ironing board. William ate his biscuit with one hand under his mouth. The last time they'd been intimate he'd had to stop. She hoped that wouldn't be the last time they'd try. Even after all these years and going through menopause, she still craved him. She'd lay awake at night thinking about it. Sometimes, she'd get up and sew something or clean. She couldn't stand to sit up in bed with the little book light he'd given her. Romance novels just added to the problem anyway.

“Do I need to put some iodine on it?”

“No, it's on its way to healing now. Your son was asleep in his glider rather than watching her. She fell off the shed.”

“Well, Jesus.”

“Don't say Jesus like that,” she said. “Why don't you go get cleaned up before Hardy gets here? If he gets here before you get out, I'll make him stay. Lord knows when those girls will pull up. I told them to be home by the time the streetlights came on but here it is and you see they haven't showed yet.”

“I reckon I will. Can I get a hug and kiss?” he asked, walking toward her.

“I don't think so, mister. Not until you take a shower.”

When William shrugged his shoulders and went upstairs, Sue finally sat down in the den. The heating pad would feel good to her right now, but she stayed put. Opening the bottle of Tylenol on the end table, she shook three pills into her palm. Since she swallowed without water, they sat in her esophagus like pebbles. Somewhere below the pain, she remembered what it felt like to be her granddaughter's age. Since she went to work at sixteen, it was that time before adolescence when she felt the strongest. Running in the fields behind their house, she'd push herself hard until she felt the ground move up from her soles to her knees and through her hips. Until bath day, she always looked a little greasy from the exercise.

Upstairs, the pipes rumbled as William started the water. Her first real shower had been on their honeymoon. They'd stayed in a motel on the way to Myrtle Beach. They couldn't wait the four hours it would take to drive to the beach. William had unbuttoned the thirty-two buttons she'd put down the back of the dress she'd made. She'd told him to be careful, she wasn't sure how good her work was yet. His fingers worked quicker than she'd expected and instead of carrying her to the bed, he'd taken her standing up, against the door.

Afterwards, in the shower, she had washed her wedding day make-up away with a tinge of regret. Now what? She had wondered, letting the heat work into her muscles.

When the front door opened, she heard heavy steps and the squeals of young girls.

“Ma?” Hardy yelled, “Where you at? I'm here for the girls. Found them up the street.”

She met them in the kitchen. “Here I am. I was just sitting down for a minute. Can I fix you something to eat before you go?”

The girls kissed her on the cheek and walked back out as quickly as they'd entered. “Bye Grandma Sue!” they both said, letting the screen door slam.

Sue rubbed her eyes with her thumbs.

“They give you any trouble?” Hardy asked, pulling out a chair at the kitchen table.

“No trouble, but I saw where she fell.”

“Yeah, I know I should've been watching her. She knows she's not to get back up on that shed.”

“Think she'll listen?”

“Doubt it,” he said. “Where's Dad?”

“Upstairs in the shower. Hungry?”

“Nah. I should really get going. I told the girls I'd take them for pizza and drop them off at the movies.”

“Wait for your father. He wanted to say hello.”

“Tell him hi for me and I'll see him next weekend.”

“Well, don't hurry,” she said, putting her hand on his cheek.

“I'm not trying to but these girls, you know how it is.”

“I certainly do,” she said. “Hey, listen, maybe next time you head to the beach we can tag along.”

“Sure, Ma,” he said, reaching for the door. “Sounds like a plan.”

As she turned the lamp off in the living room, the headlights moved across the wall and disappeared. In the dark, she cracked all her knuckles that would.