Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal

Shadowboxing the Moon

Elizabeth Howard


Squirrel 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, “don’t you ever get to work on time?”

“Held up in traffic,” Squirrel muttered.

“You’ve used that excuse,” Cate said. “Clock in and get to work. Hurry up and finish cleaning so you can help move some machines. Don’t take all night.”

Cate hurried away, his hands full of papers. That man’s always got his panties in a wad, Squirrel thought. It’s 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 didn’t play on the factory’s 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 hadn’t 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 Squirrel’s woman for several weeks, but she’d been Bo Mancini’s woman before she’d been Squirrel’s. Squirrel had found Bo’s 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 Bo’s. 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, that’s all his threats were. Bo Mancini was as big as a water tank. Bo’d 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 women’s hair and nails, painted their faces, sold them goop guaranteed to make them look younger and feel better.
She cut men’s hair, same as women’s, even gave some permanent waves. She’d been trying to get Squirrel to let her fix his hair. “I ain’t gonna look and smell like a dad-burned powder puff,” he’d said. He curled a tendril of hair about his finger. Wonder what it would look like? He could even have it dyed. He’d always wanted to be a redhead. Maybe he’d 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. He’d heard there was an opening on the day shift. Wonder if it’d 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, he’d 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 he’d 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 shift.

He liked working by himself. He could take his time and not have anybody making remarks about his name—Allister 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, they’d called him “Sir Allister,” like it was the name of a dad-burned fairy.

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 didn’t 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. That’s about all this job amounted to. Not enough pay and too much aggravation. What if he had a day job? He’d have to work harder, but Georgia Lea might be worth it.

In his mind’s eye, he was picturing the mounds and curves of Georgia Lea’s 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 him.

“No wonder they call you Squirrel,” Cate shouted. His face was red; his eyes bulged. “You’re always squirreled away somewhere, hiding from work. Come help us with those machines. And hurry. You’ve 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. “This’n’s 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, “you’re not pushing.” Sweat dripped from Cate’s 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.

“I’m glad to see you guys,” Cate said. “A doodle bug can push harder than Squirrel.”

Everybody looked at Squirrel and laughed. “Sir Allister ain’t gonna hurt hisself,” Videau said.

“He wears that shirt nearly everyday,” Novak said, “but he ain’t no bearcat. Ain’t 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. “Let’s 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, you’d better be pushing that broom.”

“Pussycats don’t 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. He’d 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. He’d look as ferocious as the bearcat in no time.

Webster Cate poked his head around the corner. “I knew I’d find you here,” he shouted. “I’m 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 Cate’s inspection, endless acres of dark corners, a thousand broken-down machines, full trashcans, dirty toilets. A bad report. If he had a day job, he’d be free of Webster Cate, but he’d 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.

***

Elizabeth 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 poetry—Anemones (1998) and Gleaners (2005).

© Elizabeth Howard

Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal ISSN 1554-8449, Copyright © 2004-2012