A cloud of lint hovered over the seamstresses and their sewing machines like a multicolored fog over a river. To the right of each worker rose a bank of shirt pieces, stacked on wobbly pine shelving units. On the left bank were wheeled bins, where the seamstresses tossed their finished work. When a bin was full, an expediter rolled it away, a tugboat captain steering a vessel across the channel to the banks of the next assembly line, where the collars would be attached to the shirts.
Sharon Wilson sat at a serger sewing machine in the middle of the first river of workers, working on a batch of red shirts and sending red lint swirling up to join the cloud hovering above her, and never slowing, never stopping, because time was money and money was important.
Sharon was joining shoulder seams today. Yesterday she had hemmed, and tomorrow she might be back in the screen printing section, printing the popular image of the moon's first lunar base on hundreds of shirt fronts.
On wintry days like this one, Sharon shivered from the cold wind seeping in through the cracked windows, and her chapped fingers ached as she kept them moving: gripping, turning, and pulling at the separate pieces until they were joined at the shoulder. Pay was based on production and she needed money, as much money as she could possibly earn in a nine-hour day with a half-hour break for lunch. Pick up a single back from her lapful of shirt backs. Drop it atop the stack of shirt fronts stacked on the board to the left of the serger. Lift the entire shirt. Feed the material across the needle plate. Press the foot pedal. Keep going. Don't stop. Pull the other shoulder together and feed through. Wrap the threads around to cut. Toss the completed shirt onto the board behind the serger with shoulders toward the machine. Repeat. Her fingers moved faster than she could think, and she rocked back and then forward rhythmically, with the hum of the sewing machine motor fading to a blur of music within her mind.
She paused occasionally to brush material into the table's fist-sized hole, so the raw edges would slide down the chute's opening into the box beside her left leg. Sometimes she waved her hand above her head and the expediter hurried over with more work or a few more cones of thread to replace the empties. But Sharon never slowed. She couldn't afford to. A broken thread meant stopping work to rethread the needle and she could sew a dozen shirts in the time it took for that effort. Piecework employees don't watch the clock; they count their pieces. Sharon coughed the dry, hacking cough of someone who has spent too much time in a lint-filled factory and not enough time outside breathing fresh air; but she never once paused to cover her mouth, even when her body jerked with coughing spasms. Time was money and she was afraid to lose even a moment's production.
High above her head, but occasionally within her line of sight as she stood up to tie a bundle of shirts, she could see a sparrow flying through the rafters above the cloud of lint. It crashed from one age-tinted blue window to another, desperate to escape.
Just like me.
She removed the tag for shoulder seaming from the bundle's work ticket and added it to the rows of tags already attached to her daily worksheet. Each tag represented a small amount of money. Too small.
I've got to get out of here.
At quitting time, the workers lined up by the air hose to await the opportunity to blow away the dusting of lint from their hair, their arms, and their clothing. Sharon moved the air hose over her graying blonde ponytail, down the factory-second shirt she'd bought in the company store last Wednesday, over the faded blue jeans worn thin, and a brief, final blast at her scuffed tennis shoes. She sneezed and blew her nose into her faded white handkerchief. Every color of fabric she'd worked with today was on that cloth.
This cannot be good for me.
Sharon dropped her daily worksheet into the bin and stepped out into the biting, fume-filled winter air. Above, she could barely find the pale moon in the grayness of the early evening sky. It ducked behind the clouds, vanishing as thoroughly as her own lost dreams.
I do not want to be here. I want to be up there with Marcia.
Sharon pulled her gray wool coat tighter and walked across the gravel parking lot to her rusting Chevy. She started the engine and waited for the car to warm up while others drove off in their nightly race to depart. A single route led to their escape: up the hill, past the stop sign where only a few people turned left or right, and over the railroad track to Greenfield's main road. She waited for everyone else to leave and stared up at the moon with its hint of betrayed promise that was really her own failure to prevail.
"I'm going to be an astronaut when I grow up," she had proclaimed on her tenth birthday.
"That's stupid!" Jimmy never did let her keep her enthusiasm about anything for long.
"Is so." He folded his arms across his chest. "Only boys can be astronauts."
Sharon felt her dream slipping through her fingers and fought to keep it from escaping like so many others had before. "Mom! Jimmy says girls can't be astronauts."
"Course they can't." He picked up their copy of LIFE magazine. "Look at the pictures. They're all men. Besides, it's one step for mankind, not womankind."
Tears welled up in her eyes.
"I guess maybe you could marry an astronaut someday," he added. He looked up and pretended to study her. "Nah. No one would ever want to marry a dog-face like you."
Their mom grounded her for a week after they got back from the doctor's office. Jimmy said it was just a lucky punch and he knew it wasn't really broken even before the doctor saw it; Sharon was just a girl and girls couldn't really hit hard enough to break a boy's nose.
Their mother made Jimmy wash the dishes that evening. Sharon got to sit in her bedroom, listening to her mom explain the true facts of life.
Girls couldn't be astronauts or doctors or anything interesting. Yes, there was old Miss Mitchell, but look what happened to her.
Sharon could go to a nice church-sponsored college if she didn't change her mind and get married before then, but she shouldn't think about going to one of those sinful co-educational colleges where she'd meet people of different races and beliefs and all sorts of other dreadful things.
Sharon could find all she could possibly want at one of the better church colleges. After all, that was where her parents had met.
Now off to bed.
"I hope you're happy now, Mother." Sharon spoke the words aloud and turned the radio on to drown out the sound of her own thoughts.
The car was just beginning to warm up when she reached the lone remaining grocery store in their little town and checked in for her shift on her second job, working one of the three checkout lanes of Schultz's Market.
Ellen was waiting when Sharon arrived and her voice was as fatigued as her expression. "Can you work an extra hour tonight?"
Sharon managed a tired smile. "Yes." The kids were grown and gone; her husband, the necessity her mother had insisted no woman could live without, had traded her in for a younger model without so much as a thought about how a full-time homemaker like herself could survive without any job skills.
The children had drifted away like deadwood floating downstream in Brandywine Creek. They had no dreams. No ambitions. Just like her husband that way.
Maybe it's better never to dream. You don't have to live with failure.
Sharon spent the next five hours keying in items on the store's antique system, telling the customers the totals, resolving disputes over sale items, putting things back that people had changed their minds about buying, bagging up their purchases, and then sending customers off with a smile no matter what they had said to her earlier.
She didn't mind standing after nine hours of sitting and rocking to and fro with the rhythm of the assembly line; but the hours grew long and the people more irritable with each request until her time ended and she could finally escape into the night air.
She stared up past wisps of feathery clouds to see the moon still glowing impossibly far away. Beyond the reach of mortal men; certainly beyond the reach of this mortal woman.
She remembered her high school counselor, Mr. Carrico, whose bald head shone as brightly as the moon above.
"Calculus? But you don't need that to get into college."
"Wouldn't I be better prepared for college if I took a calculus course?"
She hated the look of bewilderment that spread across his face. It reminded her so much of her own relatives' reactions to her interests.
"Sharon . . . nurses, teachers, and secretaries don't need to take those kinds of classes."
"But I don't want to be a nurse or a teacher or a secretary. I want to be an electrical engineer."
She might have told him she wanted to dance naked across the gym during the next Open House and gotten a less stunned response. "That's a man's job! You--" He stopped and reached into his desk drawer. Sharon waited while he pulled out a bottle of aspirin.
"I don't understand what's getting into you girls," he said, with a shake of his head. "When I started out twenty years ago, no girl would ever have ever considered a career in science unless she wanted to become a science teacher. This year, there are three of you, all wanting to be electrical engineers."
She looked up at his words. "Three? Who else?"
"That's confidential." He stood up and gathered some brochures from his in-basket. "Here. If you're really serious about this, Purdue University has an engineering program."
"Rose-Hulman's supposed to be the best engineering school in the state."
"It is indeed." Mr. Carrico folded his arms across his chest, and the look he gave her reminded her of how her mother had looked, back on Sharon's tenth birthday, while explaining to her why her dream was an impossible one. "It's also a boys-only private college. They don't accept female applicants."
"Purdue really isn't a bad alternative." He smiled and added, "One of the other girls was quite impressed with how many astronauts had attended Purdue."
She left his office determined to go off to Purdue, become an electrical engineer, join the Air Force, and then convince the good ol' boys that a girl could too become an astronaut.
But she never did any of those things. Instead, she married Jack the weekend after high school graduation.
Marcia didn't do anything that foolish. She left her boyfriend behind and went to Purdue.
Sharon looked up at the moon and wondered who that elusive third girl student had been who had given up, and how it was that Marcia, who was pretty and popular and seemed so scatterbrained all through school, managed to succeed where Sharon had failed.
Marcia was one of the fifty-three rotating crew members working on the lunar base, one of fifteen women assigned to the project, and the only crew member over fifty. Marcia had had the foresight and the determination to carefully research everything she needed to do to reach her objective; then, while Sharon had given up and married, Marcia had studied the right subjects, obtained the right degrees, and made all the right connections to put her where she was today. "Uniquely qualified" was how the decision-makers had put it.
"If John Glenn could orbit the Earth at his age, I can go to the moon at mine" was how Marcia had put it.
Sharon pulled her gray wool coat tighter and walked to the car while the glowing moon played peekaboo behind the clouds.
It could have been me up there.
It should have been me up there.
She got into her aging rust bucket and drove home without turning the heater on. It would be a wasted effort; the heater would just blow cold air against her face. By the time the air was lukewarm, she'd be ready to park the car in front of the two-story clapboard house where she rented a small room in what used to be the attic.
The external stairs leading up to her apartment creaked and groaned with each step. She paused by her door and looked up one last time as she shoved her key into the deadbolt lock. The moon hid behind the trees, teasing her with its absence and then peeking out at her again when she opened the door to step inside. She stood in the doorway for a moment, staring at the moon, before stepping into her room and locking the door behind her.
Her landlord called this an efficiency apartment, but Sharon called it a hole-in-the-wall closet.
The kitchenette was an ancient Whirlpool refrigerator and a portable stovetop that had to be plugged into an outlet to work. A toaster oven substituted for a real oven, and while microwaves were cheap, she just didn't see the need for one.
Money was too important, and never more so than now.
Marcia had made all the right choices to achieve her dream, while Sharon and the unknown third girl student in their one-gas-station town had failed. If Sharon could go back in time and do it over, she would be up there on the moon with Marcia now instead of standing here, staring up at the moon every night while her heart longed to be there. But you cannot go backwards, you can only go forwards, and that was where she was going now.
Sharon picked up the mail from the table and stared at the envelope that had arrived years too late. Rose-Hulman was still the best engineering college in the state, and they had gone coed in 1995.
When Sharon had learned that Marcia was working for NASA, she'd signed up for some introductory engineering courses at IUPUI, just to see if she could have made it, but she'd had to stop when Jack announced he wanted a divorce.
But then Marcia was selected to work on the lunar base. Marcia hadn't let Mr. Carrico or age or anything else stand in her way, and now Marcia stood on the moon. The only impossible dream was the one you did not attempt to fulfill.
Money was important. Sharon would need every penny she could scrape together to cover her tuition and expenses.
Her half of the equity in their former home would barely cover two years of $30,000 per year tuition, and the room and board was almost $8,000 per year. She'd also need books, transportation, and a hundred other things that she didn't dare think about. Nothing was impossible if you approached it one small step at a time.
Sharon turned off the light, because electricity costs money, and stood at the window staring up at the moon's bright glow.
I'm trying, Marcia. This time, if I don't make it, it won't be because I didn't try.
Copyright © 2002 Linda J. Dunn
Linda J. Dunn is an Indiana-area author whose work has appeared in various magazines and anthologies. She is also a computer specialist at a government agency and enjoys working out at the local gym. For more about her and her work, see her Web site.