Our series on work, sleep, and dreams continues with a story by our friend Invisible Man, about race, stress, and family.
The belt sander was screeching. The high whine tore through his eardrums. It began to drown out the clatter of the polishing drum and the pulsating whirr of the milling machines. Time to replace the sandpaper.
He held the short steel cylinder at a forty-five-degree angle to the belt, resting it against the cast-iron guard, and rotated it slowly against the direction of the belt. Finished, he placed the chamfered bar into the crate to his right, picked up a new one from the crate to his left, and repeated.
The noise made the heat worse. His clothes clung close to his sweating body. The belt sander kept running. The air pressed heavy, humid and thick with greasy smoke onto his skin. The back of his throat itched and his face was on fire.
He pressed the new cylinder against the sandpaper – a little too hard – and wished he’d just changed the damn belt. With a loud “POP!” it snapped; the machine grunted and sputtered to a halt as it swallowed the sandpaper whole.
“What the fuck are you doing?” The boss’ voice boomed from behind. “I give you a simple job to do and you fuck it up!” The boss’s punch threw him to the floor.
I’ll kill you, you fucking cracker bastard! he wanted to shout back, but his tongue got stuck inside his head; he writhed and choked on the grimy floor while the boss stood with a foot on his neck. Towering overhead, the boss opened his mouth and beeped!
Sanjay opened his eyes with a gasp and a start. The alarm was still beeping. He hit the button, braced himself for a few seconds, and then leapt out of bed. It was the only way to overcome the soul-sucking weariness in his bones.
Tuesday was always the worst day of the week. Mondays you felt refreshed and could take on the job with pride and enthusiasm. Wednesday was the crest of the hill. Thursday was payday, with all the joy a replenished bank account can give; and Friday was more or less the weekend. But Tuesday always loomed menacingly in the morning, and life on Tuesday felt like a never-ending treadmill to nowhere.
Sanjay let the warm shower splash over his face and into his hair. Grime from the previous day’s work was still stuck to his scalp; he scrubbed it out and watched it swirl black into the drain. As he dried himself off, the coffee-pot bubbled from the kitchen. It was 5:30 AM, still dark, and the bus would be there in fifteen minutes. He always boiled his coffee while he was in the shower and drank it on the bus to save time. Without his coffee, he’d never be able to stay alert.
“You were snoring very strangely last night.” Sarita’s voice came quietly from the bedroom. Sanjay poured the coffee from the pot into his thermos. “It sounded like you were choking. Maybe you should see a doctor.”
“At least I got to sleep,” he called back, hurriedly lacing up his work boots. “There’s coffee in the pot; see you tonight.”
“Have a good day at work,” her tired voice came in musical cadence from the darkened bedroom.
“Oh, it’s all the same shit!” he growled, surprising himself with his tone. “Sorry, I’m just tired. I didn’t sleep well at all and I gotta catch the bus.”
“It’s ok. See you tonight.”
“See you. Have a good day at school.”
Sanjay plodded heavily down the stairs to the front door of his building, slinging his backpack over one shoulder and checking for his wallet, keys, bus pass, cigarettes, and lighter with the other. Damn it! He’d forgotten the coffee. He raced back up the stairs, retrieved the thermos, and rushed back down to the bus stop, just in time to see that prick of a bus driver drive off into the early morning mist. They always did that when they saw you were in a rush. He walked over to the taxi stand on the corner and asked for a ride to the Metro.
The sun rose lazily overhead while dimming street-lamps swept past in silence. As the taxi jolted over ruts in the road, Sanjay thought of Louis Armstrong. “Up in the morning, out on the job; work like the devil for my pay / while that lucky old sun has nothing to do but roll around heaven all day.” He’d been singing it to himself yesterday while setting up his milling machine. The boss had given him an odd look, as if he understood the bitter code in the song, but didn’t give Sanjay the credit of comprehending its meaning.
Sanjay paid the cab driver and boarded the Metro, avoiding eye contact with everyone. If some White person with something to prove wasn’t staring him down like a maniac, it’d be the first time – and, with the state of mind he was in right then, it would only lead to more trouble than it was worth. He picked up a newspaper from one of the empty seats and buried himself in the latest from Palestine. Sanjay mused absentmindedly about how the boys in the photo must have felt, throwing rocks at a tank.
Five minutes early instead of his usual fifteen, he stumbled into the machine shop, punched his card, and wearily climbed the stairs to the locker room.
“You look like shit. T’a baisé toute la nuit – you been up humping all night, huh?” Jean-Pierre gave him a mischievous smirk.
“Naw, I only have the energy on the weekend,” Sanjay shot back casually. He changed into his dark blue work shirt. “Thing is, I can’t sleep nights. I need to drink a couple of beer before bed just to get a few hours. Then I wake up in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep.”
“Sure it’s jus’ a couple.” Jean-Pierre grinned, but his tone was serious. “Smoke some weed, man, that shit knock you right out.” Jean-Pierre lit a smoke, flicking the ash against the “No Smoking” sign.
“Aaah…my woman doesn’t like it. She has a hard enough time with my smoking and drinking.”
“So get a new woman.”
“I like the woman I got.” Sanjay tensed slightly over the insult, fighting from within in his cloud of stress and fatigue against an unexpected impulse to hit his friend.
“You gotta get your sleep if you’re gonna work these machines. You screw something up, these machines mek your woman, comment qu’on dit une veuve – a widow.”
“Yup.” Sanjay glanced out the window for a last look at the sunshine, taking a deep breath to calm down. “See you on the break.” The buzzer sounded. “Colon guette-mama-o,” Jean-Pierre swore at the noise. And one by one, the machines roared to life, leaking coolant, exhaling smoke, and belching steel chips.
Sanjay pushed himself into work, his mind foggy, his muscles burning as though acid pumped through his veins. He went through the checklist of things to do and bills to pay by the end of the week as his hands automatically cycled through their repetitive motions. He was in no mood to sing today, but for some reason that line from “Banana Boat” was stuck in his head…”work all night and a drink of rum – daylight come and me wan’ go home.”
Fifteen minutes before the day ended, the lead hand – a sniveling, weak man who enjoyed a power trip – came by. Sanjay had never liked him. He continued to work with his back to the man. The lead hand leaned in. “It’s alright, kid, shut ‘er down when you finish that job.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, sorry, kid. It’s your last day. Last in, first out, that’s just the way it works. We don’t have the business to keep you on.”
And why exactly was I the last in? Sanjay felt like his heart had stopped. “Well, it’s the recession. I understand.” He spoke evenly.
“Don’t worry, you can count on me for an excellent reference,” the lead hand smiled falsely with that obsequious little twitch of his.
Shove it up your ass, you fucking White fucking bastard ass-kisser. “Thank you. Can I take your card?” It was beginning to hit him now. The lead hand reached into his breast pocket and handed him a card.
His head swirling, Sanjay punched the red “Emergency Stop” button on his machine. The coolant jets sputtered and halted. The milling cutter stopped spinning and rested on the bare metal. Let the evening shift figure it out.
Sanjay sat on a stool and lit a cigarette.
“Hey!” protested the lead hand. “You can’t shut down the machine in the middle of a cycle! And if the boss sees you smoking, he’ll never hire you back!”
“So let him come down and fire me to my face instead of sending your pasty little ass.” Sanjay blew a couple of smoke rings coolly. His head pounded and his heartbeat closed his throat tight.
“All right. Do what you want.” The lead hand went off to his next victim.
The world felt like a ship sinking in choppy seas. Sanjay’s bus home was crowded, and everyone was breathing his air.
The apartment felt wrong. Sarita wasn’t studying; she was waiting for him, lights dim, seated with her legs tucked under her on the couch. She wore one of his old shirts. She waited for him to sit down.
“What’s up?” he unlaced his work boots and put his swollen feet up on the coffee table.
“I’m pregnant, Sanjay.”
Sanjay took his feet off the table and planted them slowly on the floor. He leaned forward and balanced his elbows on his knees.
“Hell of a day for news like that,” Sanjay finally said in a small voice. “I got laid off today.”
“What do you want to do?”
“Well, it’s your choice. I never thought I’d have to deal with something like this…but whatever you want to do, I’ll support your decision.” Sanjay looked at the floor. “If it was me, though, I know what I’d do.” He still stared at the floor.
“You’ll find another job. You’re good at finding work. I’m keeping our baby.” Sarita looked straight into his eyes.
“You’re sure about that,” Sanjay said with a sinking feeling.
“I’m sure. They do enough to kill us slowly as it is, without us killing our own babies.”
Sanjay nodded. Wordlessly, he got up and put on an old Harry Belafonte record that had once belonged to his grandfather.
“Wake up, wake up, darling Cora; I wanna see you one more time. / The sheriff and his hound dogs are coming; I got to move on down the line.” Sanjay moved to the couch and put his arm around Sarita. He pulled her in close and still said nothing.
“I don’t know why, darling Cora; don’t know what the reason can be / but I never yet found a single town, where me and the boss-man agree. / I ain’t a man to be played with. I ain’t nobody’s toy! / Been working for my pay for a long, long time. How come he still calls me boy?”
Tears rolled down Sanjay’s cheeks, almost invisible in the low light of the lamp.
“Well I whupped that man, darling Cora, and he fell down where he stood! / I don’t know if it was wrong, darling Cora – but, Lord, it sure felt good!”
Sanjay lay back with his head in Sarita’s lap and stared at the ceiling. He felt like if he lived for a million years, he would never sleep again.
Originally appeared: April 18, 2012 at Recomposition