It’s day one, and I already messed up my system! Oh well. Here’s the first story based on my husband’s prompt: “A day in the life of a poor person who lives in a giant metal shack.”
By Julia Shaw
Maggie woke to the sun glaring in through the Swiss cheese metal roof. She was curled up on her side, her neck at an awkward angle and her muscles groaning. Rustling filled the huge room, just one of the sections in this enormous warren.
Even though her stiff back screamed at her to get up and stretch, she scrunched her eyes closed and tried to sleep for a few more minutes. What really got her out of bed was the damp, morning breath scented air clogging her nose. She sat up and sneezed, banishing any possibility of sleep.
The room stretched into the semi-darkness. Margaret knew that, if she walked for ten minutes, dodging bodies and cots, she’d reach the far wall. But that wasn’t the way to the lav shed or the communal showers. Instead, she shoved her threadbare slippers onto her feet and walked the fifty steps to the nearest doorway. Many of the cots were empty. She sighed. The showers were going to be crowded, and only scraps would be left in the dining shed.
“I should have slept longer,” she muttered, remembering her dream. She’d been a princess in a high tower, contemplating the long, winding stairs and wondering when her servant would come up with chocolate cake. In the meantime, she’d munched on a pomegranate. But, instead of sucking the pulp off of every tiny jeweled fruit, she’d eaten it like an apple.
“Good morning, Margaret,” said the door monitor, Jess. Maggie snapped back into reality. Jess marked the time on her clipboard. “Getting a late start, are we?”
Maggie knew she should have some excuse, like she was working late at the presses, stamping out additional license plates, or that she was filling in for a friend in the company garden. Instead, she nodded.
“Well, the company will be docking a half an hour off your pay if you don’t get a move on. Why not show some initiative and try to be on time anyway?”
Maggie’s head bobbed like a marionette. If Us Corp docked her pay, she was doomed. She could barely afford to rent the bed, buy a ration book, and pay for the lav and showers every day. She knew she’d have to skip breakfast.
As Maggie walked by Jess, the door monitor called after her, “Don’t forget that three o’clock appointment with HR. Better dress sharp today.”
“Right,” thought Maggie, inventorying her meager wardrobe, “like my day could get any worse.”
After her allotted lav and shower time, Maggie rushed back to the living shed. The night shift was still sleeping, so she had to put on her best clothes in a silent frenzy. In the end, she opted for a pair of jeans with only two holes at the knees, a flannel shirt with patches on her elbows, and her work boots. She thought about the dregs of a breakfast she was skipping and told herself she didn’t care.
The presses were burning hot, dangerous, and dirty. Maggie hated them. She couldn’t afford work gloves, so she’d been burned more often than not, and she barely had enough for salve to treat her wounds, so they rarely healed before more injuries accumulated on her limited stretch of skin. Maggie had learned that being extra careful usually meant being extra slow, and the company docked your pay if you didn’t stamp enough license plates in an hour. “Enough” was dependent on the day and on the fastest worker. So, her speed and consistency changed from day to day.
Maggie often wondered who could be buying all of these plates. Were there really so many cars in the world? She vaguely remembered seeing cars zip and zoom around her the one time she tried to leave the confines of the shed. She’d stepped into a world she didn’t understand. The Outside had open land where it was free to walk or sit, and no one monitored you. She’d hoped to make a place in that world, but when the bus wouldn’t take her company money, she had panicked and run home.
That was two years ago, and since then she’d tried to be a good worker, tried to rise in the ranks of the teaming masses. Maybe, one day, she’d get a chance to earn Outside money and could try her trip again.
The clock struck 2:59 and Maggie speed walked for the door. She’d worked through breakfast, lunch, and up to the last second, hoping to impress HR and the foreman with her dedication. She zipped by the press room monitor, calling “appointment with HR” over her shoulder.
Maggie arrived, sweating and puffing, at the HR office right at 3 o’clock.
“I’m here for my appointment, Maggie Albreicht,” she wheezed at the door monitor. He looked down through a pair of half glasses at her.
“Ah,” he said, “wait here.”
Maggie stood alone int the hall, fidgeting. She breathed in slow and deep, hoping to settle her empty stomach and stop gasping before the meeting. Second ticked by, turning into minutes. She smoothed her hair. More minutes crept past, and she tried not to think about the additional five hours she needed to work to make her daily twelve so she could earn enough to get a quick meal and a bed for tonight. She used to have some extra funds, but paying for the application to Assistant to the Assistant Press Foreman had wiped her out.
“She will see you now,” said the monitor, appearing in the dark doorway.
Maggie gulped down the lump in her throat and nodded, breathing slowly and deliberately as she walked through the doorway, her steps as precise as possible. The shadowed doorway led to a short hallway, the walls lined with corrugated metal, much like the rest of the complex. At the end of the hallway was a wooden door. Maggie almost stopped in her tracks. As far as she knew, there was no wood in the entire complex. But here it was, a wooden door, staring her in the face. She lifted her hand to knock and then stopped. Instead, she rested her hand on the door, feeling the silky smooth finish. The door squeaked and moved inward as she touched it.
“Enter,” said a sparkling voice from the other side.
Warm, yellow light spilled into the dark hall as Maggie pushed the door open. The interview room was whitewashed and sparse with only a large wooden desk and two cushioned chairs. Behind the desk sat a blonde woman dressed neatly in a navy suit. The air wafting from the room was warm, making Maggie realize how very cold she was and how much her unhealed burns stung.
“Maggie Albreicht?” said the woman. Her voice had a lovely, musical quality.
“Yes,” said Maggie.
“Well, come on in and shut the door. It’s freezing out there.”
Maggie walked into the HR office, stroking the warm wood as she closed the door. She felt as if she were in a dream. She’d never seen a place like this, not when she was first officially hired onto the company payroll when she was twelve, not when she was a child growing up in the company nursery, not even on her one excursion to the Outside. Wood was so rare that most of her Outside experience was filled with gaping at the trees in the outdoor common area.
“I know,” said the woman, “it’s all rather extravagant, isn’t it? This is an ancient section of the building. I was all for taking the wood out and replacing it with solid steel, or at least chrome and plastic, but the company didn’t feel it was necessary to spend the money.”
“Very, um, frugal,” said Maggie.
“Take a seat, Maggie, or is it, Margaret?”
“Maggie is fine.”
“Well, Maggie then. You’re here to apply for the Assistant to the Assistant Foreman position, isn’t that right?”
“Yes, I am,” Maggie’s throat closed around her words. She had to squeeze them out in a whisper.
“Don’t be nervous,” said the woman, “I know it can be overwhelming in here, but just power through. If you were to get promoted one day, you would need to need to show some authority.”
Maggie straightened and nodded, thinking of that shadowy figure, the foreman, looming over all of the workers on the catwalks overlooking the press room.
“That’s better,” said the woman. “Now, we already have the position filled – we had it filled months ago actually – I was surprised when I got your application, but since you paid for it, I have to give you the time.”
Maggie’s heart fell into her growling stomach. “It’s already filled?”
“Oh yes, haven’t you met him? It was filled by Daniel Carnackie. Nice boy, if a bit dull. Between you and me, he only got the job because he has family in management.”
“Oh,” said Maggie, thinking of the fifty company dollars, three weeks of labor saved up over a year’s time, that she had paid for this interview. She tried to remember Daniel. He was already fourteen, but new to the press floor. She had figured he was a slow learner, but now she knew that he was in management training that extra two years.
“Yes, well, you can apply next time there is an opening, but I recommend that you get your management degree first. I know you’ve done a few classes, but you keep starting and stopping your education.” She clicked her tongue disapprovingly. “I know management training is hard, but you need to show the company your dedication to the position. You know, lift yourself up by your own bootstraps.”
Maggie nodded, remembering the three classes she’d taken. They were maddeningly easy, not worth the fifty dollar price tag she’d scraped together every time she took one. She had hoped that with an assistant’s salary and reduced hours she would have the time and money to take the additional seventeen classes required for a degree.
“Well, it was nice meeting you, Maggie. I look forward to talking with you again when you have your degree.”
“It was nice to meet you too,” said Maggie, realizing she didn’t know the woman’s name.
The HR representative looked down at a file on her desk, and Maggie got up. She caressed the wooden door on her way out.
Maggie finally gave in to hunger at nine pm, when her twelve hour day was finally over. She was happy that she had skipped her fifteen-minute lunch break – it meant that hour-long HR meeting only set her back by forty-five minutes.
“Hey Maggie!” Her friend Vanessa trotted up to her in the dinner line.
“What’s up?” asked Maggie as she spooned out the thin soup and grabbed the hunk of day-old bread she’d paid extra for.
“A bunch of us are going to the library to see that Margot Carter film again. Do you want to come?”
Maggie loved Margot Carter, a woman who truly pulled herself up by her own bootstraps. But she didn’t have the funds to make it.
“No, I can’t. I’m broke.”
“Just borrow from the company, silly. You know we all do it. The interest rate isn’t that bad – it’s only an extra thirty minutes of work a day. Heck, you worked an extra forty-five today.”
Maggie thought about it. She’d been tempted to borrow from the company before, but she’d never been this broke. Even though she wanted to, the time wasn’t right. An extra thirty minutes a day for however long wasn’t worth seeing the movie with her friends. She needed to think about her future.
“Maybe next time, Ness,” said Maggie.
Vanessa shrugged. “Your loss,” she said. “I’ve got to head out now, or I’ll miss the beginning. See ya!”
Maggie dipped her bread in the gritty soup and ate mechanically. Maybe borrowing from the company would be her ticket into management. Her parents had always told her it was a bad idea. They told her it wasn’t worth it. In fact, the reason she and so many had worked part time from ages seven to twelve was to help pay off their parent’s debt. But she had seventeen more classes to take. That was 850 company dollars, over a year’s worth of work. It had taken two years to save the $150 for the three classes she had taken. So, maybe it was worth it. So what if she had a child and he or she had to work hard at a young age. She’d had to do it. And wasn’t it worth it?
Maggie finished her meal and went to bed with a partially full belly, imagining her future in middle management. Imagining that she might one day make Outside money.
I wanted to say a little something about this story. I was inspired by a segment in the podcast On The Media about the lives of the poor in America. Many poor people are considered “lazy” or “taking handouts” when they very often are working hard against a system that is created to keep them “in their place” as it were.
Also, I have been thinking about the practical enslavement that happens in prison, where prisoners are expected to work for very little, while their conditions are getting worse and worse due to corporations now running prisons instead of the state or federal government. This was brought to the public’s attention in the recent prison uprisings and was supposed to change after the Attica uprising – but it really hasn’t.
Finally, I have been thinking about student loan debt, and how we put a huge burden on young people or their parents just so they have the opportunity to get a leg up or apply for jobs that require a degree.
These systems are broken, but are also often hidden from view – or are something that we think one day will be fixed while we feed into them. So, I hope this story makes you and anyone else considering the state of our nation stop and think about the individuals living and working here.
Thanks for reading! I’ll see you tomorrow for another story!
© 2016-2017 JULIA SHAW, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED