Sleeping with you is like wearing some other guy’s dirty underwear….”
by larry kimmel
He worked in the sintering plant that supplied cinder to the blast furnaces. It was night-shift and there wasn’t much that needed done.
The stairs to the cellar were like a fire escape, and he came down them into the cellar with a bucket load of coke, and stoked the salamander until the drum’s half-inch sides were cherry red, then turned and stood leaning over the chute where one belt spilled its load onto another belt. This was his job—to see to it that the chute stayed open. Usually he worked with a buddy, that was union rules, but tonight he worked alone.
The first belt was turning empty, coming out of the tunnel’s maw, empty. A cold draft blew down from a square hole in the cellar’s ceiling, bringing with it a light snowfall. He watched the snowflakes follow the whorl of the draft to where they vanished in the cavernous gloom of the cellar—and waited for the ore to come.
“If I didn’t love her,” he thought, “I’d leave her.”
The ore came.
An hour passed.
From his lunch bucket, he took a cigarillo, unwrapped its cellophane, and touched its end to the salamander’s cherry glow. It lit! It lit without his having to put his face next to the fierce heat to draw on it. He thought, “There’s no pleasure in such a marriage. None.”
Another hour went by.
He ate his lunch on a makeshift bench close to the salamander. Here it was warm, and when he had finished eating he stayed on the bench. He could tell if the chute was open or not by the sound it made. He drank coffee from his thermos, which he corked between swigs to keep the dust out, and smoked another cigarillo.
He remembered the terrible fights they had had as one fight, and remembered having said once ” … sleeping with you is like wearing some other guy’s dirty underwear … “
Beneath the bench he found a book that someone had left there. He opened it at the center. It doesn’t take long to read two pages of large type, but he had to shake the book every second page because the dust obscured the print in that short a time. It was a book of the sort that has no publisher or author’s name, and when he could no longer tolerate what the book suggested to his imagination, he got up and went to the chute and looked down to where the ore fell twenty feet to the perpendicular belt that carried the load to the tripper.
“No—I’d leave her before that,” he thought, and went back to the bench and sat leaning forward on his elbows, his hands lank between his knees. After a while, he hefted himself from the bench and stoked the salamander. After that he took off his goggles and hard-hat and stretched out on the bench, using the hard-hat for a head rest.
It was difficult to stay on the job when she was out there on her own, it made him powerless, and his mind would say, “If she died you’d be free,” and he’d force his mind to say, “If she left you, you’d be free,” and then he would think that if things did not change soon he would collapse on a sick bed, though he knew that things had been wronged for all time.
The hours between three and six were the longest. He tried to sleep there on the bench, but he could only doze off for a few minutes at a time, and in this half-sleep his night mind tormented him all the more. At last he gave it up and got up and leaned over the grid at the front of the chute.
He tried to let the endless spill of ore mesmerize him, but now a sense of remorse dogged him, and he thought, “It’s not what you know so much as what you suspect that taunts the mind.”
At five o’clock an argument broke out on the PA system, and finally one man called the other a “god-damn hunky,” and the other said that he’d “come over to OS 1 and kick ass,” and then the turn foreman broke in and told them to shut-up or he’d find work for both of them. After that there was silence again, except for the din of heavy motors turning the belts.
“It’s no good asking,” he considered, “one question just leads to another.”
At six-thirty he went to the locker room and showered. The men didn’t talk much in the mornings and he spoke to no one.
Later, while he waited by the clock to punch out, a day worker coming in told him that the roads where bad with ice. And then he punched out and began the mile long walk past the coke plant to the parking lot.
And while he trudged into the grey light of the winter’s dawn, he thought of his wife’s nakedness in bed, and of the warm smell of her body under heavy blankets, and of how muzzy-minded and how soft she’d seem to him when he got home away form all this steel and concrete.
(illustration: john richen)
Larry Kimmel, primarily known as a haiku and tanka poet published in England, Canada, Russia, Romania, Japan, Australia, as well as the USA, has worked at everything from steel mills to libraries. He has four collections of poetry, “the inadequacy of long-stemmed roses”; “alone tonight”; “the necessary fly”; and “a river years from here;” also a novel titled, “A Small Silent Ordeal.” He lives with his wife in the hills of western Massachusetts. More info can be found at his website. More stories from Larry Kimmel can be found in the Vault of Smoke.