Winner, 2011 Balcones Fiction Prize
Unlike the heroines of domestic fiction, Katherine Karlin's women face their biggest challenges outside of the house. The characters in this debut collection encompass a broad range of contemporary American experiences: a struggling young woman in post-Katrina New Orleans persuades a welder to teach her his trade; an orchestra oboist hears a confession from a beloved teacher; an idealistic aerobics instructor decamps for revolution- era Nicaragua to pick coffee on a farming collective.
In each of these stories, Karlin offers rare insight into the place of work in the lives of women, her narrators keenly observant and attuned to the humor that arises when life doesn't turn out as planned. But even more remarkable is the fullness with which she renders characters who make us wonder how they've escaped the notice of other writers. In unadorned prose that evokes complete worlds with deceptive ease, Karlin shows us people immersed in the negotiations of survival, just at the edge of being able to make sense of their lives.
|Publisher:||Northwestern University Press|
|Edition description:||New Edition|
|Product dimensions:||5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)|
About the Author
Katherine Karlin is Assistant Professor of Creative Writing in the Department of English at Kansas State University. In addition to publishing stories in various journals, her work has been anthologized in The Pushcart Prize and New Stories from the South.
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SEND ME WORKStories
By KATHERINE KARLIN
Northwestern University PressCopyright © 2011 Katherine Karlin
All right reserved.
Chapter OneBYE-BYE, LARRY
Larry Michalik did not die a glorious refinery death. He did not explode in a fireball as the spark of a welder's torch ignited methane fumes. He was not sheared by the claws of railcars coupling in the yard. He did not dive into the mouth of a flare stack, leaving behind his work boots on the diamond-plate catwalk. He did not wander into ah empty tank, purged with nitrogen, and drown in the oxygen-free air. Larry Michalik merely lowered his union coffee mug one morning, dropped his head, and went out like a flame. We thought he had dozed off. For the rest of the shift we prodded him with the eraser end of a pencil, jotted down his readings, and silenced the alarms buzzing on his control board. Only when Larry's relief showed up did we realize he was dead.
Here's where I should eulogize Larry. For the most part, oil men ate easy to like. When I started this job they all looked the same to me, but I make a point of drawing from each a story. On the evening shift, in spring, when the refinery lights twinkle against the darkening sky and we fish plastic bottles out of the sludge pond, I get them to reveal something personal. One keeps a girlfriend and a whole secret family in Florida. Another committed acts of sabotage before the '83 strike. A third has a brother serving time. You never know what a man will tell a young woman, warm and receptive, who is not his wife. I don't care if the stories are true; the moment is full and tender. Days later I will pass the same man on the hot tarmac of in the bright light of the control room and electricity crackles in the air between us. We don't even have to look at each other.
But strip away Larry Michalik's blandness and there was more blandness. The closest thing he had to a hobby was Ann-Margret. He taped in his locker a life-size poster of young Ann-Margret in a minidress and go-go boots, her chin tucked coquettishly and her hair blown into an after-sex tangle.
"I tell you what, Gina," Larry said to me once. "She looks better at sixty than you do in your twenties. Better than you ever will."
I dug my fists into the pockets of my coveralls. "I like the movie she made with Bette Davis," I said. "You know. The one where Bette Davis is a drunk old beggar woman and Ann-Margret's her daughter being raised in a convent overseas, who thinks her mother is some fancy society lady. Then Ann-Margret brings home her fiancé, who's, like, the prince of Spain, and Bette Davis has to get Glenn Ford to help her clean up and pretend she's rich." My voice cranked up a notch with excitement. "Right up to the end of the movie you expect her to admit that she's just ah old drunk, so the daughter can tell her she loves her for who she is. But what's cool is that Bette Davis pulls it off. It's the only movie I ever saw that says lying is the best policy."
I watched Larry's face for a sign of recognition. He just looked into the distance and said, "She was just a young filly in that one. What a beautiful girl."
The fact is, I just didn't care much for the deceased.
Before the wake we stumble off the midnight shift and gather at Stan's taproom. The wives will meet us at the widow's house, bringing tuna casseroles and Jell-O molds. Stan's is nothing more than a room with a long counter and a single neon Rolling Rock ad and a mirror so corroded it reflects nothing. I sip a beer and roll cork coasters down the length of the bar; dressed in my girl clothes, a denim jacket frayed at the collar and a short denim skirt, I feel bare.
Franny Sadlowski and Chessie Cesare sit on the next bar stools. Chessie, our shop steward, has the Philadelphia Inquirer open to the business page. Franny reads aloud a quiz from a copy of his girlfriend's Cosmopolitan called "Ate You Truly Honest with Him?" Here's what I know about Franny. He has a round little potbelly like a piglet. He's thirty-nine and his girlfriend is seventeen.
About Chessie I know this: he's forty-three and has a long, sad Sicilian face. After his divorce he moved in with a real estate agent, ten years his senior. In the mornings he takes his coffee and newspaper out on the balcony of their condo and props his feet on the railing, and he watches his real estate agent go off to work in her mint-colored suit, her hair a shimmery blond helmet, joining the other attractive divorcées who stream out of the building every morning—a river of travel agents, executive assistants, event planners. Chessie has come a long way from his South Philly days.
Besides that I know little about Chessie's private life. Because we're both Italian, I thought he'd extend a little old-fashioned paisano camaraderie. But when I angle for stories, his face slams shut like a check valve.
Franny asks, "You're away on a business trip, and carry on a flirtation with a handsome co-worker. Do you tell your significant other?"
Chessie looks glumly into his beer. "I don't carry on flirtations."
"You don't go on business trips," I say.
"The hell I don't. I was in Alaska." That's another thing about Chessie: he did a stint on an icebreaker in the Coast Guard. "And even there I never had to flirt. I've never had trouble nailing a woman. What girls there were up there, I banged them."
"Inuit chicks?" Franny looks up from his magazine.
"Nah, man. These were American girls. Cheerleaders."
"Oh," Franny says.
The other mourners are paying their tabs and flapping the front panels of their jackets, birds about to take flight. My tongue feels swollen to twice its size, and I pull it out of my mouth with my fingers.
"Put that thing away," Chessie says.
"It feels weird," I say. "Does it look too big?"
Franny peers into my mouth. "You'll make some guy very happy."
"Look, don't point that at me," Chessie says. He thinks I want him. In fact, Chessie lacks the imagination necessary to conjure up a world in which not every woman wants him. But it would be more accurate to say I want to be him. Of at least, I want to have his swagger, his confidence, his ability to divine the cool from the uncool by the grace of his presence. I want to unlock that strongbox, his mind.
There on the business page is a three-column picture of our current plant manager, Margo Allshouse. The photo was snapped from a low angle to make her look tall against a distillation tower, her arms folded, her mouth set with determination. She is wearing a tailored suit and a hard hat. She's our first woman plant manager, and carne to us fresh off a lockout she'd engineered downriver.
Famously, during a recent grievance procedure, Chessie jumped to his feet and said, "Lady, we make gasoline. What the hell do you do?" For weeks it was a mantra around the plant. The guys at the catalytic cracker embellished the story by having Chessie grab his crotch. On the docks they were saying he had unzipped his fly and freed his penis, flexible as a chicken's neck, to waggle at Margo Allshouse. By the time the story hit the distillation units, Margo Allshouse had yawned and said, "If you had two dicks I could still outfuck you, Chessie."
Now most of us think Chessie's vendetta is getting a little old, and as he starts to read aloud from the business page more of the men slap money on the bar and head for the widow's house. "The brawny Delaware Valley oil worker is becoming a thing of the past." He swallows some beer. "That's a quote. Fucking Margo Allshouse."
I pull some crumpled dollars from my skirt pocket and smooth them out on the countertop. "She assumes we don't read the business pages," I say.
"Tell me something I don't know," Chessie says.
"Okay," I say. I handle my tongue again, considering his challenge. "I'll try to think of something you don't know."
I could tell him that I've seen Margo Allshouse around town, at Miss Kitty's and at Patsy's, cozying up to the bar with the other corporate dykes, wearing silk blouses and drinking ice-clear martinis. These ate the women who laugh too loud and look around to make sure we're watching. I've always resented them encroaching on my territory, and wished they would crawl back to the B-schools they crawled out of.
Still, I once tapped on our lesbians-in-arms connection to my advantage, on a particular evening shift when I got my period and I didn't have a single tampon in my locker. A few years earlier some of us had petitioned for a Tampax dispenser in the women's change room, but as soon as we got it we busted the lock and stole all the goods, and they never restocked it. A janitor had told me that the executive women's room had tampons for free, baskets full of them, wrapped in pink wrappers and rose-scented like bouquets. They were there for the taking.
This was around the holidays and I'd been eating a lot of fatty foods, butter cookies, and bundt cakes. My flow was as thick and clotted as the grease from a Christmas duck. So I put on my coat and walked down River Drive, between the noisy cat crackers and the hissing steam lines and the jungles of dense pipe, careful to skirt the icy puddles, until the road opened to a cluster of low brick buildings: the executive offices. It was easy to break in; after big office parties we used to help ourselves to the leftover cake and punch once all the managers and secretaries were gone. Because I was the skinniest, the men usually hoisted me to a second-floor window that had been left open a crack; I could slither in and run downstairs to admit the others. On this night I was alone, but I was able to scale up the drainpipe and work my way into a conference room.
The women's bathroom was everything I dreamed it would be. A fantasy of feminine hygiene. I struggled out of my coat and dropped my coveralls to insert a tampon, suited myself up again, and stuffed every pocket with extras. I put tampons in the hip pockets and back pockets of my coveralls, in the thigh pockets where I usually carry a pair of Channellocks, in the deep, wide pockets of my Carhartt jacket. I tucked some in the sweatband of my hard hat.
The hallway smelled of disinfectant and the exit lights shone on the waxed floor. In my work clothes I felt like a dirty blight. Tampon paper rustled with every step I took. Behind me I heard a door opening, and the crustacean click of a woman's heels. I froze. The clicks carne closer and I turned slowly. Because I was so stuffed with tampons, my arms were bowed like a gunslinger's. And there was Margo Allshouse.
Of course, she didn't know me from Adam. She might not have recognized that I was a woman. She saw the Carhartt, the steel-toes, the coveralls. She saw the hard hat. She saw I didn't belong there. And I suddenly remembered a story about a guy who was fired for driving out of the refinery gate with a carton of toilet paper he'd lifted from the supply shed. The men shook their heads in wonder. "Guy gave up a fifty-thousand-dollar-a-year job for thirty bucks' worth of toilet paper."
This would be my legacy. Fired for stealing tampons.
So when I saw Margo Allshouse I panicked. I figured the only chance I had was to appeal to a sense of solidarity; if I was lucky enough, she had one.
"We know each other," I said.
"Excuse me?" Her beady eyes stared a hole into me.
"You know. Like, Miss Kitty's."
I waited for a flicker of recognition, but this encounter was too far out of context for her to digest. I could see Margo Allshouse was flipping through her mental files, probably figuring out how to tire me. And I remembered the last time I had seen her someone put that old song on the jukebox, "How Lovely to Be a Woman," and she and her friends were singing along, guffawing. So I started singing it, making up the words I didn't know.
"'How lovely to be a woman'—remember?" I rolled my hips a little. "'And have one job to do, to pick out a boy and train him, and tell him what to do.'" As I sang, I backed toward the stairwell. At least I had the presence of mind not to sing a Janis Ian song, which, even facing joblessness, was more of a cliché than I could stand. Before Margo Allshouse could collect her thoughts, I was out of the building.
I told the men that story, about how I climbed in and stole tampons. I told them about seeing Margo Allshouse and my escape. But I didn't go into Miss Kitty or the song. Too much back-information can kill the anecdote.
We step from the dark of the bar into the morning. It is one of those foggy cool days of a Delaware Valley autumn. Across the street there's a Wawa that sells wrinkled old hot dogs and slushy drinks; next to that is the Iron Age shoe store, now closed, and a beauty supply shop next to that. Only hookers, gimps, and bikers live in the refinery town, where the tap water tastes like diesel and the rumble from the units rattles the frame houses. My co-workers drive ten, twenty miles to treeless subdivisions where they can escape the fumes. From the plant chimneys down the hill steam rises in parallel stripes slanting across the sky toward Wilmington. The flare burns low and blue and barely visible against the mist hanging over the river. The gasoline tanks sit like fat white buttons on gray gabardine.
Franny lays a hand on my shoulder and leans heavily against me. "I have a rock in my shoe." He slips off his Florsheim and tips it; a clear tiny pebble falls to the ground. "Well, it felt like a rock."
I drive. Franny and Chessie climb in the backseat of my Saturn and fall asleep—Franny wheezing slightly, Chessie wagging his head back and forth as I round corners. I take River Road, past the locked-out plant Margo Allshouse left behind. The parking lot is empty except for a lone security guard. A cooling tower faces the street and the cedar louvers, once alive and springy with algae, ate splintered and bleached like bones in the desert.
Larry Michalik lived on a wide flat macadam street with wide flat homes. Pickups and SUVs are parked in the driveway and along the curb outside his house. By the time we arrive the wake is in full swing.
Larry's widow sits in a folding chair drinking a tumbler of bourbon and holding a cigarette. She has short red hair and wide-set eyes. She looks like a woodpecker. Most of the co-workers gather by the server where the drinks are kept, in front of a mirror with a braided gold frame.
Chessie and Franny vanish into the crowd while I pay my respects. "I'm sorry about Larry," I say.
The widow eyes me.
"I worked on his shift," I add. Her mouth twists up at one comer in kind of a grimace. She waits for me to say something kind.
"He loved Ann-Margret," I say.
"That's the best you can do?" she says. She has a whiskey voice, like a lot of these wives.
Shouting erupts from a knot of men standing near the liquor. Franny tells the story of how he tried to fax his dick, back when we still faxed things. We'd read about a couple of women in Seattle who xeroxed their asses and faxed them around, and Franny got inspired. Standing on tiptoe, he laid his penis on the glass top of the copier and gently, gently lowered the rubber lid. Problem was, Franny had chosen the older xerox machine, with the mechanism that glided back and forth as it exposed the image, and Franny had to dance a dainty side step to keep up.
I take my leave of the widow and get a Coke to drink. Some of the wives who know me tousle my hair and tell me not to take any shit. While we are drinking, a ripple runs through the room like a breeze scuttling litter. I look over some of the men's shoulders and see that Margo Allshouse herself has arrived, an unusual thing for a manager to do. Often they'll send flowers to the funeral home, but a personal appearance is rare. Chessie turns his back to her, and as he does he happens to face me, blocking my view. "Ain't this some shit," he says, not to me in particular.
Margo Allshouse wears what she probably calls casual wear, a maroon silk blouse and wool skirt and low heels. She looks great. At once I feel ashamed of my denim skirt. Margo, of course, knows exactly the right thing for a wake—attractive, but not too sexy—and it occurs to me that if I were taller, smarter, had paid more attention in school, I might have been a power lesbian too. My bare legs glow like milk.
Everyone quiets down as Margo takes the widow's hand in hers and shakes it firmly, like a man. "Mrs. Michalik, we're so sorry about Larry. He went like a soldier."
Larry's widow examines Margo Allshouse with eyes spaced so far apart she has to turn her face one way and the other. Then she says, "One crack about Ann-Margret and I'll knock you from here to Christmas."
Excerpted from SEND ME WORK by KATHERINE KARLIN Copyright © 2011 by Katherine Karlin. Excerpted by permission of Northwestern University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
The Severac Sound
Send Me Work
Into the Blue Again
Stand Up Scout
The Good Word