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Em Kersey

Katja pulls a cricket rocker into the kitchen cubicle, sits and props her feet on the oven door. The orange-hot coils battle the house trailers growing chill. She wraps her mothers treasured Indian blanket around her shoulders. Yesterday the propane fuel tank ran out; she has no money to buy another.

           But it doesn't matter, thinks Katja. In the morning the sheriff will come, most likely at first light. She squints at the stove clock. Almost four a.m. Still a little time before they take her away.

           Katja is drunk, but at the moment she feels sober. Her vision has cleared, for one thing. What had been a shadowy blob is once again the pocked granite coffee pot, only now it is wonderfully luminous, as if its turquoise swirls are spot lit. And her thoughts, too, have regained their clarity, their gospel truth, so vivid they are, so stark and graspable, particularly the old memories. It is anger that has roused her from the creeping stupor. Anger at the Acme Jeans Factory where she'd worked for fifteen years.

           They needn't have fired her, not for that stupid trick she'd pulled. She could have taken the stitches out, and nobody would have known the difference. But no, they had to can her on the spot, and not even the god almighty Ladies Garment Workers could stop them because she'd been a tad drunk that day, but only a tad. Her bottle of cough syrup medicine had a smidgeon of Jack Daniels left, so she'd tippled about a half pint since lunch. And besides, it was near quitting time and Friday to boot. Oh, it had been such fun to sew the pants legs shut.

           Since she did nothing but hems, she had only to run the needle over the original stitch. She had giggled to herself the whole time thinking about some customer trying on the blue jeans, and not being able to get his foot through the opening. But the foreman had caught her after she'd done a dozen or so. Her mind's eye, which Katja thinks of as being located in the back of her head, hadn't sensed his approach.

           "Just what the hell do you think youre doing?" Hendricks had said, yanking a pair from her lot box on the floor. He'd stuffed his angry fist down one leg until it reached the end and wouldn't come out.

           "Jesus Christ, Katja," he yelled, and he rammed his fist harder and harder against the unforgiving seam.

           Clara, who did pockets, and worked the machine across from Katjas, looked up and burst out laughing.

           Hendricks kept rummaging through the lot box, mad as a bandy hen. He threw pair after pair of the altered garments on the floor. "Look at this, would you? Just look at this," he cried. "Here's another one and another."

           Katja sat with her head bowed, relishing the moment. One by one the machines stopped, and now all the women were laughing, everybody except Mina, her mother, who worked at the head of the line and did inseams. Katja glanced down the long row and saw the frown on Mina's face. Only then did she feel the little clutch of fear in her chest.

           "You're going to the front office for this one, old girl," Hendricks said. His face, not a foot away from hers, was red as a carbuncle.

           That was when hed smelled the whiskey on her breath, Katja thinks. But he hadn't said anything, not until they were in the front office and the son-of-a-bitch was showing the pants to Superintendent Davidson.

           "I'll take them home and pull out the stitches," Katja whispered.

           But it was like talking to the wind. Her words, her good intentions blown away when Hendricks added, "And shes drunk, too."

           There was no forgiving drunkenness on the job. Drunkenness made the line stop.

           Katja takes her feet off the oven door. There is a faint odor of burning rubber. She has singed Mina's old galoshes, but her toes are toasty.

           She fumbles by the cricket rocker for her bottle of Jack Daniels. She takes a swig and carefully replaces the cap. "Have to keep the top on," she mutters to herself, "or it'll all spill."

           It was her mother, Katja knows, who got the worst of it. Mina had stayed on at the pants factory, sewing her eyesight away, watching for that steel devil that could plow through a fingertip and keep on stitching. Mina'd been near blind when she retired, except that wasn't the worst of it. She'd lived only a few months to enjoy the freedom and the social security checks, so you might as well say the needle got her in the end.

           Katja reaches for her bottle, takes a swallow, then another. Shivering, she cradles the Jack in her lap. Her anger is dissolving, her vision blurring. The coffee pot swims in its fading aureole of light. She sniffles, wipes her eyes. Ah, but she'd got even. Yes-siree-bob, she'd got even for the both of them.

           It was hard, though, being alone, what with all the tribulations facing her. There was nobody left, her mother dead three years ago this January, and Mina's brother, Uncle Grover, well, she hasn't seen him since heck was a pup.

           Katja groans as she rises from the rocker. She has to pee. But she must go outdoors since the trailers toilet won't flush anymore. She clutches the Indian blanket under her chin and fumbles her way through the familiar interior.

           Outside, snow falls thick as a lacy curtain. Its whiteness lights the night. She can just pick out the other trailer Mina's some fifteen or twenty feet away. When her mother died, Katja had padlocked the aluminum door and thrown away the key, slipped it through a chink in the boarded-up well hole out back, but not until she'd hauled off everything of value. She'd sold most of the stuff, except the Church of Taos, which was what Mina called the Indian blanket, explaining that it had most likely been taken from some chieftain, and that he would have been buried in it, or burnt up in it, Mina wasn't sure which, if a white man hadn't stolen it. Katja likes this idea, which may or may not be true. She likes to believe that the blanket is ceremonial.

           She pulls her thermals down, squats and does her business. It ain't really so cold, she thinks, not with good old Jack in her veins. But the snowbound stillness of the night is enough to give a soul the heebie-jeebies. She glances again at Mina's trailer and shudders at the thought of what the sheriff will find tomorrow.

           Slowly she climbs the trailers steps and goes inside. Her fingers and toes are stiff from the cold and the damned rheumatism. Katja blames Acme and the eternal sewing for her inflamed joints, even though the doctor over in Middleton had told her it was a disease. Rheumatoid arthritis was what he'd called it, and he'd written a prescription for some kind of medicine, but she can't afford it and buy whiskey too.

           She sinks into the rocker, stretches her feet out on the oven door, and reaches for her friend. Things would have been different if she hadn't lost her job, or if she could have gotten another, or if her husband, Earl, hadn't up and walked off one day, or if Mina had lived, then surely things would have been different. [BAR] Katja is startled awake by knocking on the door. For a minute she is confused; then she remembers and fumbles for the Jack. First light shows only a thimble full left; she drains the bottle. No need to put the cap on now. The banging is louder.

           "I'm coming," she yells, "I'm coming."

           She heaves her body, stiffened from napping, out of the rocker and snaps shut the oven door, twists the stoves dial to off. {I>Won't need that anymore{/I>, she thinks. Laboriously, she moves toward the trailer door, stopping for a second to glance at her reflection in the speckled mirror. Her bun has come loose. The long black hair, streaked with gray, strings over the chieftains blanket. She could have passed for a Chippewa princess, Earl had said, except for her Minnesota Blue Sky Eyes. That's what Earl had called them. She does not fuss with the hair. Her bulbous fingers tremble from the Jack, and fear of what lies ahead.

           She opens the door and goes outside. The snow has stopped; the world is a dazzle of rising sun and whiteness. Sheriff Plunket stands there with his young deputy.

           "We got the warrant now, Ma'am," he says. He pats his shirt pocket. He has a crowbar in the other hand. "Sure you don't have the key?"

           "No, I done told you I threw it away," says Katja. "I told you that yesterday."

           "Well, we got to open it with this, then," says Plunket, waving the crowbar.

           Katja follows them to Mina's trailer. She is seeing double from the whiskey. She tries to focus, shuts one eye, blinks. Her heart goes plunk, plunk, Plunket ---- Plunket.

           He pries off the padlock with one hearty wrench; the metal is old, rusty, weak.

           "Goddamn," Plunket says.

           Katja stands on the steps of the trailer. The young rookie is behind her.

           "Goddamn," Plunket says again. He reaches for a handkerchief and jams it against his nose. Stench, like an uncorked genie, flows from the trailer.

           The boy deputy backs up, stumbles in the wet snow. He hawks, spits, blows his nose, as if such actions will clear the odor from the air he is trying not to breathe.

           Katja and Plunket stand their ground. "Well, he says finally, lets go."

           The floor of the trailer is littered with rusting soup cans, cardboard milk containers, Budweiser bottles, Styrofoam egg cartons, a Quick Quaker oats box, its colors leaching. Plunket wades through the mess, picking his way down the short hall to the bedroom. Katja follows him. She has to keep an eye shut, a Blue Sky Eye, or there will be one too many Plunkets.

           He looks around the bedroom at the piles of molding clothes, the heap of discarded Depend underpants. He kicks at the dirty diapers.

           Katja wants to explain. "She couldn't keep her water," she says. "You know, she was -- whats the word? -- incontinent before she died. I, I just couldn't clean up."

           Plunket starts to pull the blankets from the bed. Dust billows, putrid, suffocating. Katja covers her mouth and nose with the Church of Taos.

           More gingerly now, with thumb and forefinger, he picks another blanket from the bed, then a dingy sheet, revealing, finally, the skeleton.

           "Jesus," he says. He backs away, bumping into Katja, who is peeking under his armpit.

           "Is that her?" he asks, turning. "Is that your mother?" His nose is muzzled with the handkerchief, his voice nasal.

           Katja nods.

           "You didn't kill her, did you?"

           Katja has to let the Church of Taos fall from her face. "Oh, no, I wouldn't a done that. She just took sick and pretty soon her foot started to turn black. It was like it was rotting and it kept creeping up -- the rot -- until it got to, well, you know where, and then her eyelids got stuck. It was like they was at half-mast and I knew she was dead." Katja exhales her held breath. She is spent, not having talked so much in ages.

           "Let's get out of here," Plunket says.

           They stand in the snow, the trailer door closed, the stench stoppered up.

           "I'm going to have to take you in," says Plunket. "You know there'll be an investigation. How come you didn't get a doctor?"

           Katja shrugs. Money was tight. It was winter. In her minds eye she is seeing her mothers dying face, feeling the feeble grip of Mina's hand on hers, hearing the whispered words: {I>Don't tell nobody, Kat. Leave me here. Ain't no burying money.{/I>

           "You been cashing her social security checks, haven't you?" says Plunket.

           Katja nods. So, they know about that, too. She tries to focus on which Plunket is speaking.

           "They owed me," she says, "The pants factory owed my mama and me." Katja gestures toward the trailer. "They owed her real bad."

           "Well," says Plunket. He puts his hand on Katjas head as he helps her into the squad car.

           Katja takes a deep breath. "How'd you find out?"

           "Why, it was your mothers brother inquiring. He hadn't heard from her."

           "Oh," says Katja. So, it was Uncle Grover who she hasn't seen since heck was a pup.

           The car is warm. She loosens her grip on the Church of Taos. "I'm hungry," she says.

           "We'll get you something at the jail," says Plunket.

           Katja leans her head back, closes her eyes. Maybe they'll give her macaroni and cheese. She likes the Velveeta kind.

About the Author (click here) © 2002 Ethel M. Kersey, all rights reserved
 appears here by permission

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