In the late afternoon of the twentieth century, after Vietnam and before Anita Hill, in the Appalachian highlands of rural West Virginia, it was senior year, and Madonna and the Police filled the airwaves: “Like a Virgin,” “King of Pain.”
Every noon, I drove the six miles from East Fairmont High School to the little machine shop tucked on a winding back road. I’d park in the gravel lot and let the car battery run the radio while I ate my brown-bagged tuna sandwich and stared out the windshield. My classmates at East Fairmont were dissecting little dead animals and solving for y.
I was done with all that; I was impatient; I had all the credits I needed to graduate. I took morning classes so the state wouldn’t charge me with truancy, and then I left for work.
“I machine artificial hip joints for 3M,” I would say when people asked.
It was tedious, it was eight hours every weekday, it was just the whir of machines for company, the other workers attending silently to their own stations. But at least it wasn’t McDonald’s or Dairy Queen; I didn’t have to wait on people from high school. And it beat minimum wage by a couple of dollars an hour. Sixteen years old, forty hours a week: I felt lucky.
The titanium hip joints were pocked with small regular holes; they looked like halves of silver Wiffle balls. Titanium: strong and light, sleek and durable, a perfect metal for aerospace engineering or replacing the worn interiors of human bodies. I’d imagine the gloved hands of surgeons inserting the shining silver balls into the dark slick privacies of the pelvis.
In the shop, the machines were huge teal cubes, large and clean, twice as tall as I was, with hot moving steel parts at their hearts where I put my hands to lock down and then remove the half-balls. The machines all had red warning labels that showed how you could die or lose a limb.
While one piece was whirring, I squirted coolant on it, or I scraped the little razor-sharp curls, which we called burrs, off the edges of the previously finished piece. Then I lined it up in its row on the tray of the rolling metal table. When the tray was full, I rolled it over to the next station, where a man or woman stood, heavy and silent, staring into another machine.
On my breaks, I sat cross-legged on the hood of my dad’s old red Chevy and watched the sky darken. I drank my cold bottle of Tab and pondered the future. I was earning money, I was going to be the first in my family to go to college, and it was getting well on into spring. One month to graduation, then three more months’ earnings in the summer. As soon as I graduated, I could pull overtime; the boss liked me. He always smiled and said, “Everything ducky?” when he walked by my station, and I always said yes. I’d been raised not to complain, not to ask questions, to be obedient to authority and grateful for the opportunity to work.
And it was a good job. Steady. Though the building was windowless and the tasks were dull, on warm days the boss would open the big garage doors that faced onto the truck docks, and we could see the trees and sky and the little houses farther on down the valley.
The boss, who owned everything, spent most of his time in the carpeted office with the Xerox machine and the phone and the receptionist who passed out the checks every two weeks. He kept his hands clean.
More than twenty years later, I cannot remember the receptionist’s face, only her graying brown sausage curls, the striped t-shirts she wore that clung tight to her middle. And I can’t remember the faces of the other workers, either, although they were there, scraping off their own burrs with tiny flathead screwdrivers and wheeling their own metal carts to and fro, smoking their cigarettes during breaks out on the cement slab. I can recall the boss, with his squashed nose and gray hair, who was kind and seemed amused that a high-school girl heading for college wanted to work in his small factory with adults who worked there full-time, supporting families.
“National Merit,” he’d said, pushing his glasses up with a squat finger, reading through my application. “Sounds like something special.” Sometimes he’d ask me what the book stuffed in my back pocket was, and I’d pull it out and hand it to him. He’d tap the cover. “Oh, yeah,” he’d say. “I heard of this guy.” He’d hand it back. “Only on breaks, hear?” he’d say.
“Only on breaks,” I’d agree. I remember him well.
But clearest of all, more than twenty years later, is the floor manager, a tall guy—I’ll call him Gary—with his sagging football-star body and bowl-cut brown hair. He was always riding me, checking my pieces, timing my output. His eyes were brown and sad, and I’d thought at first I could like him. Sometimes he’d joke around, and I’d want to laugh, but the jokes weren’t funny. They were always racist or at someone’s expense, and his laugh sounded wrong, harsh, urgent in its need for agreement, like the laughter of the jocks at school who taunted special-ed kids in the parking lot. If you didn’t laugh along, they’d turn on you. It was best to walk away. Teachers never intervened, never protected the fat girl they called “Hair-Bear” or the lopsided boy who always got tripped.
At the factory, the regulars would knock off every night at six, and the receptionist and the boss would close up the office. They’d all go home to their families and dinners. I stayed late to get the hours, and Gary the floor manager did, too.
The big cement room would shine weirdly in the fluorescent buzz, the machines’ intricate stainless-steel centers glistening with lube, the mopped floor quickly drying. The boss let me work until eight-thirty, which gave me a full shift, and Gary, angling for a raise—whose “whole damn life is this shop, man,” as he’d declare, passionately, whenever the boss was around—stayed to close it down. He’d work on another machine or sit at a table in the corner, doing paperwork.
At eight-thirty, I would drive home tired in the red Chevy and hug my dad and stepmom and little brother. I’d heat up a plate of whatever had been dinner and sit at the kitchen counter, doing my homework, and say good-night when they headed for bed.
When I finished, I’d call Mike or my friend Michelle and talk for a while, lying on the kitchen floor with my feet up the wall and winding the long curly phone cord around my wrist. On weekends, we’d double-date at the movies or the pizza place at the mall with Michelle’s current boyfriend. Afterwards, Mike and I would drive alone in his parents’ blue Jeep Wagoneer to the strip mine. We’d park and talk about how we’d definitely stay together after I left for college: how we’d write a lot and talk on the phone and eventually maybe he could move to Texas and we could get an apartment. I’d lie warm in his letter jacket and listen while the white stars shifted a little. We’d fold the rubbers into McDonald’s wrappers.
After twenty years, the memory of Mike is still clear: his kind, believing eyes, his steady muscles. He married a local girl and started a gym. On rare visits home to my folks, I would hear fragments of news about him.
At the corner of the hip joint factory, there was a little room that I’d never been inside, but one night Gary came up and stood behind me.
I was leaning halfway into the big teal machine, squirting coolant to keep the sparks down. At first, I didn’t even hear him.
“Hey, I’ve got something new for you,” he said loudly, and I startled upward, banging my head. Wincing, I pulled out from the hulking metal.
I rubbed my skull. “What?”
“I got some fine machining that needs done, and I think maybe you got the experience now to handle it.”
“Okay,” I said, following him, wiping my hands on the pink shop-rag. He went into the little room and flipped on the overhead light.
On top of wide tables, small machines squatted, their metal skins painted a glossy beige. They had silver parts at their centers like the big machines did, but they looked simpler, like a less evolved species. Their pale cords snaked limply to the wall.
He picked up a hip joint and stabbed his finger at the slight bump that protruded at the crest of its roundedness, a tiny mound you could feel.
“You see that thing?”
“You know what that is?”
I hesitated. “A bump?”
He roared with disgust and laughter. “No, College. That ain’t no bump.” He poked at it. “That there’s a nipple. A nipple. You got that?”
“So what is it?”
I swallowed. “A nipple.”
“Right. And this here”—he flipped the switch of a machine, and a large, vertical stone wheel started to spin—“is a nipple-grinder.” His grip on the thin edges of the half-ball was surprisingly delicate. He pressed the metal hard against the rough stone edge. “You got to hold it steady,” he said, frowning, “so it rubs the nipple good.” He checked it, pressed it back against the grindstone, checked it again. The titanium was perfectly smooth. He shoved it triumphantly toward my face. “See that?” he said. “Presto. No more nipple.”
“Now you do it.” He handed me one from a tray. “Go on.”
He stood behind me as I worked, and I began to feel the soft heat of his paunch radiating against my back. I frowned intently, as he had, and shifted as though to get a better angle, and his body did not follow mine. I kept my piece pressed to the grindstone, my wrists vibrating, and then held up the piece for his gaze.
“Huh,” he said. His brown eyes were sullen. “That’s pretty good. That’ll do.” He waved at the full tray. “You do these, you can go home.”
“I go home at eight-thirty,” I said.
“You go home when you finish.” He walked out of the room.
I sighed, the tension rippling out of me, and picked up the next one. I felt shy for the shining little mounds, and afraid. I wanted to cover them all with a soft pink shop-rag and let them sleep. Instead I stood before the wheel, scraping off the little bumps, wondering why they had to be called nipples, wondering why men were so gross—why, when you were helping your father put the stereo together, things that got shoved into other things were called male, and the parts that waited with open holes were called female, and he said it so simply, so benignly, and he was my father who loved me and would never dream of hurting me, not the stepfather who’d beaten me and touched me and from whose trailer I’d run away. So who had made that up, that female-hole thing? And why did I seem to be the only person disturbed and embarrassed by it? It hurt my stomach, it felt like a slap or a blow, but no one else seemed even to notice, or if they did, like the boys in shop class, they thought it was funny and titter-worthy, like a dirty joke.
It was not that I was a prude. In the blue Wagoneer’s backseat, I got on top, I sucked Mike off with the tricks I read about in my stepmother’s Cosmopolitan, I hooked my heel on the front-seat headrest and spanned out my flexible legs so he could see and touch and lick me. I wasn’t ashamed, and I wasn’t timid. I refused to let myself stay stunned and fazed by what my stepfather had done. Sex wouldn’t master me; I would master it.
But I wasn’t a piece or a hole, either. I wasn’t a machine that just anyone could switch on, or a part they could handle and scrape.
I lined the hip joints neatly in their rows: they were little silver half-Wiffle balls. Anyone could see that. Not breasts. They went into the hips of hurt people and helped them walk again. Why did everything have to be a tit or a dick or a hole?
I finished the tray by eight-thirty, slipped out without speaking, and drove home fast on the dark curves.
So it went on like that. The other factory workers would leave at six, flipping their hands in brusque good-byes from the open garage doors as the spring wore on. They’d bend and let gravity suck them down off the cement docks to the gravel, and their truck engines would gun and they’d drive away. Then the shop would echo with the hum of just two machines, Gary’s and mine, and the buzz of the fluorescent tubes overhead, and the slap of his footfalls on the cement when he went to check on something. And night after night, when the trees turned black against the rose-colored sky and the wind blew in full of spring smells, his large hand would fall on my shoulder or the small of my back.
“Got some work for you,” he’d say, and he’d walk behind me to the little room. “What are we gonna do tonight?”
“Grind nipples.” I’d just say it. Arguing was boring, pointless.
“That’s right. We’re gonna grind us some nipples.” He’d pick up the first one and put it in my hand, flip on the machine, and steer me in front of it. “You ready to grind?”
I knew the phrase he wanted. “Yes, I’m ready to grind nipples.”
“Then grind, College. Grind till those nipples are history.” And he’d watch for a while as I held my wrists steady, and then he’d leave, and I’d hate him until eight-thirty, working fast, thinking Five-fifty an hour, five-fifty an hour.
I had almost enough saved up in my account to pay for room and board, which the scholarship in Texas wouldn’t cover. “We’re proud of you, honey,” my dad had said. “But college is for rich people’s kids. If you want it, you’re going to have to find a way to pay for it, okay?”
It was no big deal. After living with my mother and stepfather in the trailer, where we ate dry pancakes for dinner and wore strangers’ clothes dug out of trash bags, it had always been easy to do without things other kids expected: a class ring, fancy clothes. My father’s house was peaceful, and he loved me, and that was enough. Everything went into the savings account.
One warm summer night after graduation, working in the little room, smoothing off the small bumps, I didn’t hear Gary come back in. His voice was sudden and rough at the back of my neck. “How long you gonna make me wait?”
My hands jerked in surprise, and the wheel skinned the flesh off my left knuckles. A thin red thread whipped around on the grinding edge.
I turned slowly to face him, my back to the wheel, my hands holding the hip joint out in front of me like a tiny shield.
“How long?” he said.
I could feel the wheel’s air moving at my spine, a breeze through my T-shirt.
I didn’t look in his eyes. My stepfather had taught me that much. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
He smiled and spread his hands in the air between us. “What are you looking so scared for?”
“I’m not scared.”
“Well, maybe you ought to be,” he said, and his smile disappeared to wherever it had come from. “Nobody here but us. Doors are all shut.” His brown eyes looked sly, and I curled and uncurled my toes inside my shoes to inch backward, but then I could feel the cotton of my shirt blown soft against my spine all along the length of the spinning vertical wheel.
“I know you go with them high school boys,” he said, leaning closer, and I said nothing. I arched backward so I wouldn’t hit the spinning stone. His hand reached for my ribs.
“It’s eight-thirty,” I said, staring up at the seam where the ceiling joined the wall. “I need to go home.” Flexing backward, my hips started to quiver with the strain. The grindstone spun.
“Even if you scream, no one can hear you,” he said, and I could smell the orange Fanta on his breath. One part of my brain wanted to laugh, wanted to ask him if he’d gotten his lines from a bad TV movie, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t breathe, and the whole room was swimming and going dark around the edges.
“My dad’s expecting me,” I said. “If I’m not home on time, he’ll come looking.” It wasn’t true—I could stay out as late as I wanted—and I was no good at lying.
But Gary’s hand stilled, and then he slowly backed away. I straightened up, my eyes skimming past him.
“I never did anything,” he said.
I edged around him, not breathing, and moved toward the door. Slipping into the larger room, I began to run, and I tore through the door and onto the dock, leaping down onto the gravel in one stride with my car keys already in my hand.
I took the long way home up the interstate until my hands stopped shaking on the wheel. Billy Idol wailed about white weddings against the warm, dark wind.
At home, I unlocked the front door with my key. My parents and brother were out somewhere. I lifted the lid of the pot on the stove. I ate what was left and did my homework and went to bed without calling anyone, but the next day from the phone in the kitchen, I called the receptionist to say I quit.
“Huh,” she said. “Well, honey, you quit without giving notice like that, the boss keeps your last check.”
“I know,” I said. “Keep it.”
For a while I told my family I just needed some extra time after graduation to get things tied up, college forms and such, and they nodded, not knowing what college involved. Then I told everyone I would definitely be getting another job soon. But I didn’t. I didn’t even look for one, and I told no one about what had happened in the machine shop. Sexual harassment was not a phrase I knew. Maybe all men were like that, or maybe there was something about me that magnetized the crazy ones.
Back when I lived in the trailer, I had gone to my mother and told her about what my stepfather had done, the weird touching in my bed at night, and she had called me a liar. Said I was imagining things, too sensitive. I ran away, and I didn’t try telling anyone about the touching again. When I testified, I stuck to the beatings and the starving, and the police and the courts got my little brother out.
Now we lived with my dad, and he loved us but didn’t like to hear about any of it. It made him too sad.
So I told no one about the floor manager’s threats. I spent most of that summer just hanging out, mostly at home, watching movies on the new VCR or sitting under the backyard trees. Sometimes I read books, and sometimes I just stared at the green leaves shifting.
“You can’t just sit around like this, Joy,” my dad would say, reminding me of the money I still needed to earn, and I’d agree and apologize and drift off to my room.
“Well, don’t ask me,” I could hear him saying to my stepmother down the hall. “She’s not a lazy girl.” Like most Latinos in places as white as West Virginia, my father always carried, I think, a mild anxiety about proving ourselves, about not seeming lazy to the good, hardworking citizens who surrounded us. “I don’t know what’s the matter with her.”
No one did. I didn’t go to the mall with Michelle anymore, and I didn’t feel like driving at night with Mike up to the strip mine.
Sometimes, though, I would walk there alone during the day, picking my way along the bumpy brown clods of earth, the crickets’ hot drone falling and lifting in waves. I would stare at the bared bands of the earth’s interior, its uncovered layers of dark and light, the thin veins of black shine the miners dug for and the worthless brown dirt they pushed aside.
Whole tops of mountains had been scraped away. On the stripped plateaus, I’d squat and finger the flat bland grass that grew back smooth and green and thin.
I would walk and stare and sweat until a hot numbing daze fell over me and all I could feel was thirst, and the crickets’ drone made me peaceful and sleepy and I could turn at last and head for home.
But I only liked to go on the weekends, when all the men were gone and the big machines sat idle, waiting.
This story appeared in Indiana Review 32.2, Winter 2010.
Anna Cabe (Nonfiction Editor): With clear, unflinching prose, Joy Castro recalls a moment from her youth in West Virginia, the sexual harassment from a supervisor in the factory in which she worked. “[B]efore Anita Hill,” Castro details the ways rape culture operated back then, the shame, the lack of places for a young, poor, Latina woman to go for help—a rape culture that is all too familiar now. Nevertheless, the essay also remains tightly in the moment and with Castro—never allowing us to forget who is most affected, most hurt, by this abuse.
Joy Castro is Professor of English and Ethnic Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She is the author of memoirs, The Truth Book (Arcade, 2005) and Island of Bones (University of Nebraska Press, 2012), crime novels, Hell or High Water (St. Martin’s, 2012) and Nearer Home (St. Martin’s, 2013), and short fiction collection, How Winter Began (University of Nebraska Press, 2015). She edited essay collection, Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family (University of Nebraska, 2013), co-edited special issues of Brevity on gender, race, and ethnicity, and is editor of the book series, Machete (The Ohio State University Press). Her criticism and essays on questions of class, gender, sexuality, and race and ethnicity have appeared in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Salon, Women’s Review of Books, Gulf Coast, Senses of Cinema, and The New York Times Magazine.