Dawson was rushing into the Sleepy Time Mattress Company, but
stopped short when he saw Webster Cate, the new night supervisor,
standing by the time clock. You might know Cate would be there
when he was ten minutes late.
Squirrel, Cate said, dont you ever get
to work on time?
Held up in traffic, Squirrel muttered.
Youve used that excuse, Cate said. Clock
in and get to work. Hurry up and finish cleaning so you can help
move some machines. Dont take all night.
Cate hurried away, his hands full of papers. That mans always
got his panties in a wad, Squirrel thought. Its going to
be a long night.
He put his lunch box and baseball cap in his locker. He hated
to give up the cap. It was blue with Sleepy Time Bearcats
stenciled on the front. He didnt play on the factorys
baseball team, but he had signed up and gone to a few practices,
just so he could have a cap and T-shirt.
The supervisor before Webster Cate hadnt cared if he wore
the baseball cap while he was working, though it was against company
policy, but Cate had threatened to write him up the next time
he saw it on his head. Squirrel was glad there were no rules against
T-shirts. He liked the T-shirt even better than the baseball cap.
He combed his hair, which hung down his collar like strands of
wet straw. He also combed his scraggly beard, which had a worrisome
kink in it. He stood in front of the mirror, admiring the bearcat,
a snarling tiger-like animal, reared up, ready to pounce, claws
like sabers, teeth like fangs dripping with blood. He flexed his
muscles, tried to look as ferocious as the cat, but with all his
straining, his biceps were still puny. He was going to send off
for that bodybuilding kit as soon as he got a chance.
He got the broom out of the closet and a Coke at the drink machine.
Broom in hand, he sauntered through the plant, past dark offices
and idle machines, to the back door. He drank his Coke while the
big yellow moon rose above the rubber plant next door.
He wondered what Georgia Lea Petchey was doing. Georgia Lea had
been Squirrels woman for several weeks, but shed been
Bo Mancinis woman before shed been Squirrels.
Squirrel had found Bos cigarette lighter in the cushions
Sunday while he was resting on the couch, waiting for Georgia
Lea to cook his supper. A naked woman, a looker like Georgia Lea,
with long blonde hair and big breasts, decorated the lighter.
But unlike Georgia Lea, some parts of the woman on the lighter
lit up when the flint was struck.
Squirrel knew the lighter was Bos. Bo liked to show it off
when he was liquored up. Squirrel had seen him pass it around
at the Red Wolf Saloon several times, had even struck the flint
himself and guffawed at the neon woman, the same as all the other
regulars who hung around the Red Wolf.
Georgia Lea said the lighter must have been there for weeks, ever
since she broke up with Bo. Squirrel hoped she was telling the
truth. He had to keep an eye on her, though, but how could he?
He was working, while all Bo did was sleep half the day, go hunting
and fishing when he wanted to, and collect disability. Claimed
he hurt his back when he fell off a house he was roofing. If he
was hanging around Georgia Lea,
Squirrel curled his hand into a fist and made jabbing motions
at the moon. He sighed. Shadowboxing the moon, thats all
his threats were. Bo Mancini was as big as a water tank. Bod
make axle grease out of him if he got his hands on him. He was
the hand-wrestling champion at the Red Wolf.
Georgia Lea owned a beauty shop, Glamour Coiffures. She fixed
womens hair and nails, painted their faces, sold them goop
guaranteed to make them look younger and feel better.
She cut mens hair, same as womens, even gave some
permanent waves. Shed been trying to get Squirrel to let
her fix his hair. I aint gonna look and smell like
a dad-burned powder puff, hed said. He curled a tendril
of hair about his finger. Wonder what it would look like? He could
even have it dyed. Hed always wanted to be a redhead. Maybe
hed even shave off his beard. Or have it dyed red, too.
He set the Coke bottle on a machine nobody had used in a while,
took the Levi Garrett out of his pocket, gathered up a wad, and
crammed it into his mouth. He chewed deliberately, working it
around until it was moist and soft and then stored the juicy,
walnut-sized cud in his jaw. Hed heard there was an opening
on the day shift. Wonder if itd been filled? He could keep
an eye on Georgia Lea and get away from Cate at the same time.
He heard a bumping noise and started sweeping. It might only be
a rat; some of them were bigger and more vicious-looking than
the bearcat on his T-shirt. But it might be Webster Cate, sneaking
around, trying to find an excuse to holler at him. If Cate caught
him taking a little break, hed jump on him like a duck on
a June bug.
He strolled to a far corner of the plant and pushed the broom
a few strokes, stirring up the same dust hed disturbed the
night before and the night before that. He spent most of his time
in areas where nobody else was working, which was easy to do since
people had been laid off and some departments only worked one
He liked working by himself. He could take his time and not have
anybody making remarks about his nameAllister Kingsley Dawson.
His pa and everybody else, except Ma and a few teachers, had always
called him Squirrel. Things were fine at the plant until the men
saw the name on his time card. Since then, theyd called
him Sir Allister, like it was the name of a dad-burned
He hated his name, but what he hated more was for somebody to
order him around. Sweep here, sweep there, do this, do that!
Webster Cate was always giving him stuff to do and complaining
about the way he did it. As if he didnt know how to do his
own job. Cate would be around any time now wanting him to help
move those heavy machines.
He spit into a dark corner, picked tobacco from between his teeth,
and wiped the wet flecks on his jeans.
He soon left off sweeping to go get a roll of paper towels. He
cleaned a toilet, the one Webster Cate used. He strolled back
to the doorway. The moon was higher now, and brighter. He sighed
and leaned on the broom. Shadowboxing the moon. Thats about
all this job amounted to. Not enough pay and too much aggravation.
What if he had a day job? Hed have to work harder, but Georgia
Lea might be worth it.
In his minds eye, he was picturing the mounds and curves
of Georgia Leas body when something slammed a cabinet and
an angry voice boomed in his ear: Squirrel, what the heck
are you doing?
Squirrel jumped straight up in the air. He had a helpless urge
to use the bathroom. Webster Cate was going to be the death of
No wonder they call you Squirrel, Cate shouted. His
face was red; his eyes bulged. Youre always squirreled
away somewhere, hiding from work. Come help us with those machines.
And hurry. Youve got a lot of cleaning left to do.
Dadburn! Squirrel muttered, but he followed Webster
Cate to a department where Egor Novak and Hernando Avila were
waiting. They were going to remove a broken machine and replace
it with another just as old and almost as worn out. Thisns
wore out, too, Squirrel said.
It still works, Cate said.
Novak and Avila grunted and shoved, and Cate grunted and shoved
even harder. Squirrel grunted and shoved, too, but he was more
grunt than shove.
Squirrel, Cate said, youre not pushing.
Sweat dripped from Cates face and spattered onto the machine.
You want me to hurt my back? Squirrel asked.
Hurt your back! Cate shouted.
Need some help? Jules Videau called. Videau was big
and strong, but Tobin Fitch, who was with him, was a black giant.
He looked more like a left tackle for the Tennessee Titans than
a plant foreman.
Im glad to see you guys, Cate said. A
doodle bug can push harder than Squirrel.
Everybody looked at Squirrel and laughed. Sir Allister aint
gonna hurt hisself, Videau said.
He wears that shirt nearly everyday, Novak said, but
he aint no bearcat. Aint even a healthy pussycat.
Sir Allister Pussycat, Avila said.
The men guffawed, slapping each other on the back.
Enough of that now, Fitch said, his face sober, but
eyes twinkling. Lets move this thing and get back
to work. All together. One, two, three. His muscles bulged
as the machine scooted across the floor, seemingly no heavier
than a Sleepy Time mattress.
Fitch left when they had moved the machines, and Cate turned to
Squirrel. Get on back to your cleaning. And the next time
I see you, youd better be pushing that broom.
Pussycats dont work, Videau said. They
sit on their backsides and lick their fur.
Everybody, except Squirrel, laughed.
Squirrel was glad to get away. He would like to spit on the whole
bunch of them. Always pestering him.
He worked industriously for a few minutes, wiping the lint from
tables, emptying trash cans, cleaning toilets. He looked at his
watch. It was time for a break.
He got one of the tuna fish sandwiches Georgia Lea had packed
for him and another Coke and sat down to rest. Georgia Lea was
quite a woman. Hed have to do something to make her happy,
to hold onto her. Curly red hair and a red beard might be the
answer. And that bodybuilding kit. He turned so the moon would
shine on his T-shirt. Hed look as ferocious as the bearcat
in no time.
Webster Cate poked his head around the corner. I knew Id
find you here, he shouted. Im going to inspect
the factory when this shift is over and write a report on your
performance. He hurried away, sputtering.
Squirrel sighed. He thought about Cates inspection, endless
acres of dark corners, a thousand broken-down machines, full trashcans,
dirty toilets. A bad report. If he had a day job, hed be
free of Webster Cate, but hed have a whole team of men just
like him. People everywhere; every corner lighted. He downed his
Coke and picked up the broom.
The moon was straight up overhead now. He shook his fist at it.
Howard has an MA in English from Vanderbilt University. She
writes both poetry and fiction. Her work has been published in
Xavier Review, Cold Mountain Review, Comstock
Review, Wind, Poem, Appalachian Heritage,
The Licking River Review, The Distillery, and other
journals. She has two books of poetryAnemones (1998)
and Gleaners (2005).