Down in the Garment District, Rena arrived at the rickety building where she worked. The air temperature hovered near scorching. Out through the small window, a dark haze sat on the city like a hot blanket of filth. Rena, the younger of the two black-haired ladies, was the slowest stitcher at Mr. Nopal’s factory where they made jackets. It wasn’t that she was slow, or incapable, but she couldn’t keep herself focused on the task at hand. She kept staring out the window, stopping her work to watch the boys on the street below; looking up at the clouds, finding all sorts of shapes and signs in the haze; and thinking about how to get out of Bangladesh.
Rena noticed the clock slipping toward break time. Prija, her assigned trainer and the head seamstress on her row, smiled at her. Some of Prija’s teeth were missing. For a year now, since Rena’s family signed her on at the factory, they’d been working next to each other. Rena flipped the fabric up and over her machine, indicating she was on break, and headed for the small pantry at back of the stitching area. The room was no bigger than twenty paces on a side, but there were nearly a hundred workers in there, sweating as they produced clothing none of them could afford. Rena opened the pantry and stepped inside, perusing a small shelf of various pots of paneers, curries, and vegetable soups. She turned around to find a place to sit, when Prija came through in a huff. “Rena, were you going to tell me it was your break?”
“I didn’t think you’d mind — and you were so busy,” said Rena, “plus, I’ve been here a year now. Doesn’t that afford me some privilege?”
“You work for me, recall. I must know where you go, when, and for what reason. You will not enjoy the punishment they hand out for insubordination,” Prija said, her mouth turned down in a grimace. “Besides — you’re the lowest producer in our row. You could be fired. Then what will you do?”
A chill ran through Rena, and she thought about the consequences. She was already hungry, and the forty rupee-per-day salary barely paid her taxi fare to get there each morning. But she had the necklace. “Don’t worry about me, Prija. I don’t need your lectures.”
Prija looked as if she might strike out at her. A glimmer in her eye flared, then was gone. Her eyes narrowed, and the dot on her forehead glowed. “I am in charge of our row. I will make decisions regarding break time. You could lose your work license. Is that understood?”
Rena took a breath, calmed herself. “I’m sorry, Prija. I will consult with you from now on. Can you please forgive me?” She thought about that necklace and how she could sell it. If she could come up with the money to buy a train ticket to India, she could go live with her father and leave this place behind. The thought both filled her with hope and devastated her. It seemed so impossible.
A busy factory, built many decades ago, retrofitted with impossible jumbles of wiring, pushed aside to make walkways. Towering stacks of cloth sat before each row, and several small children busily distributed garment pieces to each station. The smell of dye permeated the hallways, but in the sewing room, it smelled of body odor and spices. The sound of voices filled the air, laughing, chattering, followed by the resuming of machine noise.
“Ready to get back to work?” Prija said, as she stood up and watched Rena come out of the bathroom.
“I am. May I have your permission to work through the next break and leave ten minutes early today?” Rena asked. The older woman regarded her, not smiling.
“And may I ask why?”
“It is my mother’s birthday, and I wish to buy her something with my wages. Are we expected to be paid today, Prija?”
They settled in at the machines, began sewing. Rena waited for Prija to speak, but she said nothing. Rena worked furiously, and when she paused, her hands shook and she felt the acid from her stomach touching the back of her throat. She tried again, just before afternoon break. “Prija, may I leave ten minutes early?”
“Yes. But don’t let anyone see you going out the front. Use the side entrance, through the alley. And don’t ask for something like this again.” She spoke in halting, sharp phrases over the volume of the machine, like a machete hacking through jungle stalks.
Rena smiled as she received her forty rupees. She went back to her machine, working as hard as she could.
When Prija stepped away for her break, she shot Rena a friendly but stern look. As the sewing room cleared, Rena tilted the machine, removed the necklace, and tucked it into the secret pocket. Mr. Nopal’s wife would never miss it. She had lots more just like it, all thick gold from Pakistan.
Rena’s heart hadn’t beat so fast since she was a girl, running in the streets with her friends. The pile of fabric on her row had dwindled, and she knew the day’s production would please Prija. Ten minutes early, as planned, she stood and walked toward the door. The noise of the machines running in her ears all day was like rifle fire, and her nerves felt frayed and raw. Prija didn’t look away from her work as Rena passed by, squeezed through the narrow door, and down the steps to the side door.
The alley reeked of garbage and human waste. A concrete ditch ran the length of the narrow space, half-filled with raw sewage. A dead dog floated a few yards away. Rena didn’t look directly at it, and felt ashamed for that. She put her hand on the secret pocket, felt the bulge of the necklace, and thought of her father’s smile.
Rob Essley is an amateur fiction writer from Georgia. His work can be found at fiction365.com and bartlebysnopes.com. He likes Murakami, Herbert, and Irvine Welsh.