Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Angel in a Bottle

by Kyle Hemmings

My job all day is to hold and position bottles, mostly soda bottles, long enough for an automated metal rod to descend and push caps into a snug fit. I work at an assembly line and timing is everything. This is what I do all day, and around holidays, I sometimes work overtime. One interesting fact about these bottle caps is that some of them, especially the ones that fit over large-mouthed bottles, have riddles printed underneath. Like how many horns did the first unicorn really have. I always thought that was pretty freaky when I first started working at Cherico’s.

It was the same way I thought about my ex-girlfriend who loved showing photos of her old boyfriends' hard-ons. Like souvenirs. She could match each name with the penis. She could tell whose was which by judging the shape and size, distinguishing marks, whether it was circumcised or not. As crazy as she was, when she dumped me, I got fucked up. Truth was she said I was too depressing to be around, that I never wanted to do anything. With me, she said, it was like she was by herself.

Most of the women who work at Cherico’s are around my mother’s age, forty or fifty something, and very selective in whom they talk to. Except for Cindy, who is Korean. She doesn’t speak to anyone. Her real name is Sung-mi, but she tells everyone to call her Cindy, giving equal emphasis to both syllables with a slight pause between. She works across from my conveyor belt, facing me. She does the same job I do, in fact, she’s far more focused than I am. Before I go to work, I usually down an amphetamine, and after lunchtime, another one.

I can’t say that Cindy loves her job. I don’t see how anyone can. But I’ve never heard her complain either.

Cindy has long black hair, the face of a doll that never cries or ages-- her eyes are perfect and dreamless. Maybe she’s a year or two older than me. I’m twenty-one. But I could be wrong. Her industrious attitude and polite manner make her seem older.

When Cindy first started working at Cherico’s, we ate in the cafeteria at separate tables. Sometimes we faced each other. I tried hard to work up the nerve to smile or say hello. The most I got from her was a nod. I noticed that both of us always brought sandwiches from home or the deli down the street. Maybe, I thought, that was a point we had in common. When I did initiate a conversation, I noticed her English was poor and she blushed often.

Later, she admitted, after repeating and stressing certain words, that she was attending night classes, and she wondered if I could help her with her English. We wolfed down our sandwiches at lunch break, and I sat next to her, while she read aloud sections from a library book. Then I wrote on a piece of paper, the words or phrases she mispronounced or couldn't understand. One time, I stopped her, and said she needed to work on this particular pronunciation: I love you.

I said it again, very clear and distinct. I waited until she looked into my face. She repeated it in a dry and even tone, as if nothing more than a grammar exercise, but she blushed when she looked into my face. After that, she said she found a tutor at school, and she thanked me for the help I provided. At the job, we never made eye contact again.

Retuning to the apartment, I still have a slight buzz from the pills, like I do on most days. I do nothing but flick the TV remote on and off, lay my feet on a coffee table. My mother comes home about an hour later, and I can tell what kind of day she’s had selling ladies’ underwear from the manner she puts down her handbag, whether or not she’ll start slamming drawers. Unlike my father, who took off one day without leaving a note or some cash, she never asks whether I'm going to return to college, whether Chirico’s is going to be a lifelong vocation. She always says something like, “Well, it’s a job. Be thankful for that. There are so many without.” She always tries to see the good side of things. Today, she’s humming some top-40 tune that's a bad version--I mean a train wreckage-- of a Sheryl Crow song.

I look at the assortment of empty bottles I have lined up on the coffee table. Some are tinted, some are Snapple, some are Pepsi, some are from Chirico’s. My eyes grow heavy and I drift. But not dream. I’m aware of my surroundings. I stare at this one bottle, the tallest, fluted. I imagine a girl trapped inside that bottle wanting to come out. Finding a way to shrink myself, the way they do in Harry Potter stories, I struggle to pull the cap from the bottle, reach in, and grab her hand. But something inside the bottle keeps sucking her back into the vacuum. Or maybe it's because my hands shake so much, the way they sometimes do at Chirico's.

“Try harder,“ I tell her, “give me your hand.” She’s given up.

The girl now sits Indian-style at the bottom, her face wedged between two fists. She stares past me. A vacant look. Declaring this hopeless, I place the cap back on the bottle. I do this so she’ll start suffocating, become so desperate and angry that she’ll cry for me to come back and try again. But I don’t hear her screams. Maybe she’s too proud to call for my assistance. I want to shout out “I love you.” But within the insulation of glass, my trapped angel is listening to her own thoughts, lost in them, tamper-resistant and in no need of translation.

Bio:Kyle Hemmings lives and works in New Jersey where he is constantly recovering from a long harsh winter.

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