“Good Numbers” by Nadya Duke
I try not to cry till Wednesday. On Monday I pretend maybe this week will be different and Tuesday I tell myself it’s not so bad. But by Wednesday the pain has crept into every part of me, and I know I have to work for three more days, and I cry.
It upsets my Resident Advisor when I cry. She takes it personally and I’m afraid it will show up on my numbers. My numbers get too low and I’m off the rails. And if you can’t get work on a Mobile Temp Worker train there’s nothing left for you. Nothing except the streets.
It’s only Tuesday night, but it’s been a long day. There’s a clear sky and a bright moon, so we’re working late. Our RA wants to finish this crop so the train can move tonight. The weather’s warm for October, and sundown brought a lovely cool breeze that smells of apples, dirt and the tiniest bit of diesel. DaShawn from my car’s crew yells from the top of a ladder.
“Jen! Think fast!”
He throws an apple at me and I catch it, add it to my bag.
“It’s going in my bin, DaShawn. Go ahead and throw me some more!”
He winks. “Always happy to help a pretty girl. I can afford to lose a few.”
DaShawn is 63. He’s been on the rails eight years and his numbers are always good. Not just production, but spirit and values too. He says this is easier than playing football, which he did for fifteen years. I’m 45 and have been on the rails for three years.
I open the bottom of my picking bag and the apples roll into the bin. My shoulders scream with relief as forty pounds disappears. Empty, the bag is comfortable, cozy even. Straps over my shoulders, a cylinder in front of me to hold the fruit, and an expandable fabric bag underneath.
I loop the bottom of the bag up, fasten the ties to hold it closed, and climb back up the ladder. As I add apples to my bag my shoulders’ complaints get louder, reaching a full yell by the time my bag is full again. Then I go back down the ladder, every step an assault on my knees. Empty my bag, repeat.
I used to have a decent job, filing paperwork in a government warehouse. I had a little studio all to myself, just an hour bus ride from work. Then my company raised our targets. When my numbers weren’t good they let me go. I ran out of money and couldn’t find anything except the MTW.
We’ve been working harvests since April. Seven months of agony in my shoulders, my knees, my back. The doctor says there’s nothing wrong, it’s just normal wear and tear. He told me what pills to take, but I can only take the good ones, the ones that really help, when we get a day off, which isn’t often. We’re supposed to get Sundays off but during harvest sometimes they’ll pay us overtime to get the crop in.
On Monday, I always tell myself that this week we’re getting Sunday off.
Thank God it’s the end of harvest. We usually move to electronics or clothing factories for the winter. We’re inside and we can usually sit down.
My bin is full when the RA blows her whistle.
“Good work! We’re done here. Bus leaves in five and train leaves in twenty. So get a move on!”
She puts a hand on my shoulder as we climb on the bus. Her hand is warm, its dark skin marked with faded scars.
“Your numbers look good, Jen. Keep it up!”
“Thanks, Letty.” I smile and ignore the pain in my shoulders. It’s Tuesday. It’s not so bad.
On the bus, I look out the window and remember the trips Mom and I would take when I was little. We’d go to the beach, the mountains, one time to a lake where we stayed in a cabin and rented canoes.
The trips stopped when I was six and Mom lost her engineering job. She said what she did was obsolete. Companies didn’t want factory robots and automatic harvesters. People had become less expensive. No sensitive calibrations, no spare parts to stock. Just food and a bed and the occasional vaccine in the interest of herd immunity.
We get to the train, board and it takes off immediately. I tuck into my bunk, and unlike the rest of my car I don’t turn on my screen to watch a video. When we’re traveling, I like to look out the window. My bunk is great. It’s a lower and in a corner so it’s dim. Even if it’s dark out, I can see lights, and stars, and the occasional train shuddering by on the next track. I rub my shoulders, trying to erase the dents from the harvest bag.
DaShawn stops by.
“Hey Jen. Can I ask you a favor?”
“Sure, DaShawn. What’s up?”
“Well, I’m getting up and down a lot more at night, you know, as I get older. This upper bunk I have is not the greatest for that. I was wondering if you’d switch bunks with me.”
DaShawn’s bunk is in the middle of the car. The window is almost entirely covered by a cross-brace.
“No, DaShawn, no. I’m sorry. I just, I just can’t.”
“That’s fine Jen. It was just a thought. I understand.” DaShawn smiles and walks down the car, stops to talk to someone else. I turn off my light and pull the covers all the way over my face.
In the morning I wake up and our train has moved to a new orchard. The sun is coming up in shades of pink and salmon, the light is golden on the apple trees. A little boy runs by the train, sees me and waves. I wave back, and feel the tightness in my shoulders.
Today’s Wednesday. I’ll try not to cry till Thursday.
About the Author
Nadya Duke is a licensed electrical engineer who decamped many years ago to work in software development. In addition to making stuff up, she likes to cook, knit and shoot steel targets and clay pigeons. In 2013, she attended the Viable Paradise writing workshop. Nadya lives in Portland, Oregon with her adoring husband and cats named after sidekicks. Her website is www.nadyaduke.com and her Twitter handle is @nadyaduke. This is her first publication.