The Cutters

(Martha Manning Dress Factory)
I was afraid of them, I think–
afraid of their white bulky underarms,
the way they handled bolts of cloth,
pulling them from the shelves
or tossing them on the tables
almost without effort,
how they smiled at the dock foreman,
how they called me “Pet”
and said I was shy.

Bent forward over fabric,
their backs hunched,
their shoulders pushing in their necks,
they gripped the cutting machines
with strong, steady hands
and paid no attention to me
as I steered the dolly
with a broken wheel
on a crooked path through the factory.

Only 13 and barely 100 pounds
I heaved 8-foot bolts
into the bins behind the cutting tables
and stared at their broad fleshy bodies.
I wondered if their skin
was soft or calloused,
if their breasts were as plump as watermelons,
if they had big veins on their legs,
if they had lovers or husbands
whom they surrounded with their embraces.

At noon they sat at the same tables
with the men, in the shade
of the oaks outside Taystee Freeze.
They chewed their burgers vigorously
and ate their extra thick shakes
with long plastic spoons.
They cracked jokes
the other men laughed at
and I made myself laugh too.

Later while the dock foreman
slumped to sleep in his chair
or went to smoke in the alley
I stuck the invoices
on the spindle
and unloaded the smaller shipments
that came on the trucks
from Mascoutah, Alton, Belleville.
I took my time shelving them,
resting in the bins,
where I could hear the factory
grow quiet under the hum
of the upright fans.

Insect noises came in
through the high windows
and the sound of trucks
slamming their loads
down the road out of Collinsville.
The cutters bore down
on their jobs,
creating patterns in fabric,
and the scraps on the floor
became a mound of cloth.