This was in Orange right after the war. They
used women at the factory there to paint the clocks. Our hands
were steady. We were patient, perfect for the delicate trimming,
outlining the numerals with the radium down to the marks on
the sweep face, sketching hairlines on the minute hand. I had
sable brushes I rolled on my tongue to hone a point sharp enough
to jewel each second. The paint was sweet and thick, like a
frosting laced with a fruity essence. We'd thin it with our
spit. Rich and heavy like the loam in the garden. It was piecework.
At the long tables we'd race through the piles of parts, my
hands brushing the other hands, reaching in for the next face
or stem. The room was noisy. Alvina sang to herself. Blanche
reeled off recipes. Marcella clucked. We talked with our eyes
crossed over our work, "She had to get married. They went
to Havre de Grace by train and were back by noon the next day."
We paused between each sentence or verse as we dabbed the brushes
to our lips. It was as if our voices came from somewhere else.
I'd look away, out the huge windows to the brilliant sky. I
can still hear the buzz above the table as something separate
from the people there, another kind of radiation in the room
that never seemed to burn out. The stories and the songs blend
into one ache.
What more is there to tell? Our bones began to break under the
slightest pressure-getting out of bed, climbing stairs. Our
hair rinsed out of our scalps. Our fingertips turned black and
the black spread along the fingers by the first knuckle while
the skin held a wet sheen. Our hands were negatives of hands.
The brittle black fingernails were etched with bone white.
But this was after so many of those afternoons at the plan with
its steady northern light. I remember cursing an eyelash that
fluttered onto a face and smear my work, how I damned my body
for the few pennies I had lost, the several wasted minutes of
work. "I'll racy you, Myrna!" There were many factories
in Orange, and their quitting whistles at the end of the day
were all pitched differently. The white tables emptied, the
heaps of silver parts, like ashes, at each place. Another shift,
the night one, would collect the glowing work and ship it somewhere
else to be assembled. We ran to the gates, to the streetcars
waiting, to the movies that never stopped running. It was all
about time, this life, and we couldn't see it.
"It's Time" originally appeared in
The Florida Review and is included in Martone's collection
of short stories Seeing Eye (Zoland Books, 1999).