Wednesday's swing shift was coming to a close. The workmen were winding down, cleaning up, putting things in somewhat neat piles for tomorrow's shift.
Supervisors in their ties and nice shoes were walking back and forth, looking at things, doing not much of anything really, just like usual. And the workmen were wiping solvent from their hands onto their shirts and wondering what kind of microwave goodies they had in their freezers at home.
The phone rang in the foreman's office at about 10:30 p.m.
When the phone rang in the office, you could hear it everywhere in the building; it was the only phone in the factory that rang that way. On swing shifts especially, people looked up from what they were doing when the foreman's phone rang.
The foreman went to go pick up the phone. He came back a minute later.
"Riley!" he called. "Telephone! Some hopeless-sounding woman for ya! Ha, ha!"
Riley sniffed that solvent smell and looked down at the cement floor as he walked to the foreman's office to take the call. He didn't want to look at the other men -- they were pretty sure they knew who the woman was.
The woman who always called for Riley was the object of scorn and abuse around the factory -- the focus for the men's frustration. The men all liked Riley well enough, but that girl of his -- she was something else. She was the embodiment of all that was wrong with women. The married workers tried to talk Riley out of her, telling him, "You're gonna find another better woman, man, you're young, it's just a matter of time." And Riley would agree with them. The younger, single men would mock him openly whenever he took her calls at work. They thought he was weak for holding out for her. "She's a head-case," they all said. "You've got no business with a woman like that." And Riley agreed with them, too. He was an idiot, a complete idiot, to put up with something like that, when there were so many less troubled women in the world.
But he still felt he should take her calls at least. He couldn't -- didn't know how -- to just tell her to get lost. He couldn't do that to her, not with all she's been through. You wouldn't be that cruel to a total stranger, he thought.
Riley picked up the greasy phone in the supervisor's office.
"I had so much trouble getting you at home, Jesus Christ," the voice on the other end said.
But it wasn't Riley's girl. It was her mother, Claire.
"Uh," Riley said. "Yeah. I've been workin' swing shift ever since November."
"Since November?" Claire asked. "This is by your own choice?" She sounded frantic, taut and stern.
"Well, yeah," Riley said. "There's nothing really for me to do in the evenings now anyway, so I signed up for swing shift. It's a little more money and I get to sleep in mornings. I'm not what you'd call a morning person."
"You sound like the world's biggest martyr," Claire said. "And we can't have any of that right now. The family needs you."
Riley's eyebrows crunched together. "I don't mean to seem disrespectful," Riley said, "but I'm not a member of your family, really."
"To me you are," Claire said. "And to her you are too, even though she doesn't really know it right now. We really need your help."
At first he thought maybe they were putting something together, or maybe they needed a light bulb put in the basement. But as she talked, Claire added breath to her voice; her intensity wavered. She sighed and sniffed.
"Are you crying?" Riley said. "Have you been crying? What's wrong?"
"It's Charles," Claire said. "He's died. This morning."
Charles, Claire's husband, was a crazy guy, one of those old guys who you like well enough. Riley respected the man. He was straightforward. He had a firm handshake. And he always had something to say about politics. Riley liked that. He rarely agreed with Charles' predictably suburban point of view, but he enjoyed their discussions. Both men enjoyed their discussions.
"Elizabeth has told you that she broke it off with me, hasn't she?" Riley said.
"Yes," Claire said, "of course."
"I just wanted to make sure," Riley said. "She has this funny way of keeping things from people."
"You're telling me," Claire said. "I've had to live with it for twenty-five years. Gimme a break."
"So what do you need from me?" Riley said.
"Well, no," Claire said, "if you're not willing to help out--"
"No, no," Riley said. "I want to help if I can."
"Well, there's a memorial on Sunday. If you could just be there."
"Like a mass?" he said. "Is that what they call it?"
"Not that elaborate," she said. "It shouldn't take long."
"I'll be there," he said.
"And on Monday, the burial--"
"I don't know if I can go to that," he said. "I think I have to work a day that day."
"Well, that'll be fine," she said. "That'll be no problem. As long as you come by Sunday, it will be OK. I don't mean to inconvenience you, but I really feel as if it wouldn't be right without you there."
"I understand," he said. "It won't be any bother at all. Is there anything you need?"
"No," she said, "I have everyone here. Everyone's taking care of me."
"Okay," he said.
"You know," Claire said, "if you don't want to see Elizabeth at the church, I can arrange it so you're seated apart from each other--"
"No," he said. "No, that's no problem. Go ahead and seat me wherever you think I should sit."
"Okay," Claire said. "I'll seat you with us, with the family. I won't put you right .next to Elizabeth, but you'll be on the pew with me. OK? OK, that's done."
"Whatever," Riley said. "Whatever you want."
Riley imagined himself being crossed off a giant list of Claire's THINGS TO DO. And then the phone disconnected without anyone saying goodbye. He put down the phone and went back to finish his shift.
When the buzzer sounded and Riley's shift ended, he changed clothes, went out to the parking lot and got into his car.
It was dark and misty outside, and there were no stars and no moon.
There was nothing on the car radio, so he turned it off and drove in silence.
Usually when he was driving with the radio off he though about interesting things. But not tonight. Now he just thought about nothing. Before he knew it, he was at his apartment.
He locked his car and walked up the stairs to his apartment. When he got inside, he locked and deadbolted the apartment door before he turned on the light.
Inside, he checked the telephone answering machine -- no messages.
He looked in the refrigerator, and then the freezer: there was a Hungry Man Salisbury Steak in there, but he didn't want it. He wasn't a hungry man at the moment.
He put the teakettle on the stove, but then took it off before it heated up. He knew that drinking tea would just give him an upset stomach right now.
He went out to the living room and sat down on his big brown couch.
He looked at his watch and tried to figure out how many hours it was until that memorial service on Sunday. Then he took off his shoes, lay down on the couch, and thought about how funny things seemed. Later, he got up off the couch and went to bed, and he was all by himself, and he knew that wasn't all that much time before he himself would be in some kind of coffin, somewhere.
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