The Woman Left Behind is Still Behind Him
by Shea McCollum
Celine almost couldn’t find the factory on her first day because of the awning. She had followed the directions left to her by her husband and taken the hillside road down into the valley. But instead of a factory, all she could see from above was an endless stretch of farmland. She was about to turn back to see if she had missed some fork in the road when she noticed the way that some of the distant barns seemed to ripple in the breeze. She continued making her way down the road until she found herself underneath a giant painted awning in whose shadow the factory lay hidden. There she joined the crowd of women that had gathered outside, waiting for the foreman to call out their names.
“Cigarette?” a lanky woman offered Celine her carton. She accepted gratefully and they smoked together in silence. Celine kept sneaking glances over at her between exhales. Almost all of the ladies gathered there, Celine included, looked nearly identical with their red lipstick and newly purchased trousers. They had all clearly seen the same poster in town with the bolded caption The Woman Left Behind is Still Behind Him. But this woman beside her was bare-faced, maybe a good ten years older than the rest of the crowd, with boots so broken in it looked as if she had been born with them. She didn’t seem nearly as nervous as Celine felt, or else she was better at hiding it.
“I wonder if they’ll give us an advance today,” Celine said to break the silence.
“I wouldn’t count on it. The foreman only pays on Fridays,” the woman replied without looking at her. “And don’t plan on making what your husband did. You’ll probably get about half.”
Celine glanced over at the woman about to ask a question when she answered it for her. “I worked here during the last war.”
“So, you know what it’s like inside?”
The veteran woman nodded.
“Is it difficult?” Celine asked. “The work, I mean. Were you able to get by okay?”
For a moment, the veteran woman’s lips twitched into the ghost of a smile, but she kept a straight face. “If you can learn to use an electric mixer, you can learn to use a drill press.”
The only other job Celine had ever had was on her grandfather’s farm. At the age of five, she and all her other young cousins were hired to sit in the dirt and pick all the grapes that grew near the bottom of the vine. They got five cents for every basket they managed to fill up. When she outgrew that, her parents put her in school, and after school, she had married her husband Richard. She’d spent almost every day since taking care of him and their house and eventually their two boys. The idea of working had never even crossed her mind.
Except once, a few years earlier, at a dinner party she and Richard had hosted for some of their friends. They were discussing how at the textile factory one town over, they had started to hire more and more married women whose kids were old enough to take care of themselves. Celine had only half been paying attention to the conversation until one of Richard’s friends turned to her and asked, “Celine, when the boys are in school, do you think you’ll ever get a job like Richard?”
Celine’s immediate reaction was to laugh. The image she got in her head of donning a matching set of jeans to her husband, of hauling heavy objects around (as she imagined much of factory work was consumed with), of returning home covered in sweat and grime only to have to cook dinner just seemed ridiculous to her.
But Richard cut in before she could answer. “No, the day Celine gets a job will the day all of hell freezes over.”
As it turned out, all it really took was the Japanese bombing Pearl Harbor.
Celine had never seen an airplane in person before. She had only seen grainy images of them in the newspaper or flying very distantly overhead. She had certainly never seen a half-finished plane, like the one that sat in the center of the factory floor. It reminded her a bit of a whale skeleton she had seen many years before hung up on the ceiling of a museum. There was something about seeing that unfinished beast that felt a bit like glancing behind the curtain. Seeing all the little bits of machinery usually hidden under the hard shell exterior was a bit like being given insight into how the magic trick that is flying works.
But to Celine’s dismay, the foreman led her and the other new recruits past the plane to a station for riveting. The foreman showed them how to do it, making sure to always keep their hands behind the tool so they wouldn’t accidentally drill themselves.
“Here’s a stack of sheets to get you all started,” he said. “Bolts are in a box over there. Before you get low, someone with a cart should be by to drop some more off. If you finish before they do, come and let me know.”
He was curt but not unfriendly. It was obvious that having to direct women in the factory made him a bit uncomfortable. But he was grateful for their presence nonetheless and made it known in the little ways he could. Later that week, when Celine recruited one of her neighbors to come work in the factory, she’d found an extra bonus in her paycheck and a little note thanking her for her service to her country.
Celine found pretty quickly that the veteran woman, whose name she’d learned was Margaret, was right. The work wasn’t difficult. Actually, it was a lot like housework, rhythmic and a bit boring but not altogether impossible to master. She entertained herself throughout the day making friends with the women working beside her or listening to the radio. The foreman had it playing constantly at a low level throughout the factory, giving updates on the war effort. Celine never understood why until one day in the middle of a reporting on the previous week’s victories and losses when the factory spontaneously burst into raucous cheers.
“What’s going on?” Celine had managed to get Margaret’s attention over the chaos.
“The plane that they’re talking about, the one that took down the Germans,” she said breathlessly. “It’s one of ours.”
That was the first time that Celine understood what it was they were really doing there. It was easy to forget while mindlessly drilling plates together all day where the planes were going when they left the factory. That the bolts that she secured could be the same ones holding her husband’s life together from 20,000 feet off the ground. And from that moment on, no matter how tedious the work got, it always felt like it had an air of sacredness to it.
The only time the radios were ever turned off was when the foreman got on the loudspeaker to announce that there was a plane flying overhead. Everyone would stop what they were doing and wait in silence for the buzzing outside to stop. Of course, there had been only a few bombings on U.S. soil since Pearl Harbor and almost all by water, but the foreman would take no chances.
Every day the workers were given an hour break for lunch. Some of the women who lived nearby would run home to make food for their children before coming back, sweaty and more exhausted than when they had left. But those like Celine who lived farther off stayed and gathered under the awning together to eat out of their tin lunchboxes. Sometimes, Celine would invite some of the ladies over to her house in the evenings after the children had gone to bed and they would all drink scotch and talk into the late hours of the night as their husbands used to do.
She had even managed to convince Margaret to come by on occasion. Outside of the factory, she was somewhat less brusque, especially when they managed to get a drink or two in her. When Margaret was feeling particularly social, she would regale them with stories of the different jobs she had worked over the years. She made them howl with laughter at her telling of the time she worked as a switchboard operator and mixed up the lines between a divorced couple and a pair of newlyweds or about the one day she spent as a department store clerk before she got fired for refusing to wear pantyhose.
“But my favorite job by far,” she would always end her stories. “Has been working in this factory. It’s the only thing they let me do that matters.”
When Celine wrote Richard her weekly letter updating him on life at home, she sometimes mentioned these stories or gave updates about how their sons were doing in school, but she would rarely mention her work in the factory, even though she was doing exceedingly well. It was as if her years of sewing little buttons onto children’s sweaters or polishing delicate china had actually been training for the precision work required in the factory.
When she started finishing her riveting work faster than the women with the wheelbarrows could supply her with new materials, she went and told the foreman, who gave her increasingly more difficult jobs. Winding delicate copper wire into intricate patterns, dealing with tiny screws half the length of her pinkie nail, gluing and peeling fabric on the wing only to glue it back again.
Celine grew comfortable working alongside the remaining men at the factory. So much so that sometimes she would forget her place. One day as she was working beside one of the new recruits, a young man who couldn’t have been more than a few years older than her eldest son, she noticed that he was holding his hand in front of the drill.
She tapped him on the shoulder. “You’re actually gonna want to hold it like this,” she said showing him with her own drill. “That way you won’t accidentally get your hand.”
He looked at her for a moment with a blank face before glancing back over at the other men at the station. They were all looking up from their work at him waiting to see what would happen.
“I think I know what I’m doing,” he eventually said in a flat voice, turning his back to her.
After that, she was careful about how she talked with the men. She made sure to give all of her instructions in the form of questions to let them feel like they were the ones teaching her. Instead of “This is how you hold a drill” she would ask, “Am I doing this right?”
Eventually, Celine had advanced enough that she had worked on every step of the process that it took to make a plane and was pretty sure she could assemble one from scratch all by herself. That’s when the foreman placed her and Margaret in charge of training and looking after the new employees that were still trickling in every week. Being able to look at the bigger picture of things like this, Celine had begun to brainstorm ideas for a plane of her own. She showed them to Margaret, who helped her work out the technical details that turned her ideas into actual designs. Celine kept these sketches in a notebook, knowing that after the war, the factory would go back to making commercial planes, at which point she might gain the courage to pitch the foreman some of her ideas.
And then one morning, just as everyone was getting settled at their stations, one girl shouted above the chatter, “Turn up the radio!”
Someone did just in time for them to hear the announcer say, “President Truman has just informed us that the war in the European theatre has ended with the unconditional surrender of the German army.”
And as soon as he said this, the uproar in the factory was uncontrollable. People stopped what they were doing to hug each other, to laugh, to cry. It was so wild that for the first time since Celine had been at the factory, the foreman called for an early lunch. All the workers flooded the streets and joined the people of town already there celebrating. They drank wine and talked about what they would do now that there would be no more scrimping, no more saving up pennies or donating scrap metal. They speculated how long it would be before their husbands would return and what they would say to them when they did.
And at the end of their lunch hour, still flushed with excitement, still buzzing with conversation, they made their way back to the factory where Celine spotted Margaret hurrying in the opposite direction, a stack of papers tucked under one arm.
“Is everything alright?” Celine stopped her as she passed.
“You delude yourself into thinking things can change, but they never do,” Margaret said and brushed past her.
Celine looked down at the road at her for a moment before following the other women back inside the factory. There she found the foreman standing on the factory floor, waiting for them.
“I want to thank you all for your time here,” he said. “But as the men are expected to return home soon, your help is no longer necessary.”
Celine watched him in a daze as he began to call up all the women individually to collect their final paycheck.
“Mrs. Rodgers,” he shouted and Celine floated to the front of the room. The foreman flashed her a wide smile as he shook her hand. But still, he couldn’t meet her eye when he said, “Thank you for your service.”
Shea McCollum holds a BA in Creative Writing from Pepperdine University. Her work has previously appeared in The Kudzu Review and Canyon Voices Magazine. She intends on pursuing her MFA in Fiction next fall.