Quick Work No. 6

Quick Work No. 6

Posted Posted in Blog
Quick Work: Short Takes on Epic Truths

Here, in micro-flash nonfiction, writers make quick work of compelling stories.

Leading up to Multiplicity‘s second themed issue, we present five short takes on work and working. If you enjoy these bite-sized stories, check back for the feast of essays, profiles and poems in “Work,” launching online on November 18, 2020.

Melt

by Kara Knickerbocker

Sometimes I miss how solidly I walked in those steel-toe boots. I wore splotches of oil on my denim jeans and felt like art in my own body as I moved through the garage.

One scorching day that July, we three girls took our lunch break to get ice cream. Then we drove a little further, pulled the truck into a secluded field, rolled up our long jeans and stripped down into sports bras to even our tans. I remember the laughter stretching to the sky, how carefree in our double-scoop-sweet lives we were then.

Work Is Not Cancelled

by Marla Zlotnick

We are four people in tight quarters, donning masks and gloves at all times. There’s me, seasoned, focused, though not lacking in humor. There’s the polyamorous goth millennial regaling us with sexual escapades; the rock climbing childhood cancer survivor with a compulsion to hand feed chipmunks;  the middle-aged manager addicted to the phone.

Rules of quarantine are abbreviated. Physical distancing is impossible, afflicted employees cause temporary premises shutdowns for decontamination. But in Specialty Pharmacy, there’s no option for work from home. We prepare and deliver prescriptions to the vulnerable and underserved.

What’s essential is that they are not forgotten.


A Caddy and Death

by Ursula Saqui

My boss is impeccably dressed for the long drive to our monthly meeting. I’m in the passenger’s seat with a hole in my pantyhose, wiggling nonchalantly to unstick my exposed thigh from the Caddy’s leather.

On today’s agenda, we have a split penis, an exploded stomach, and a suicide.

I’m a state-contracted mortality review specialist, and after six years and over 2,000 cases, I feel relieved when people in their 80s just quietly pass away.

Overall, I hold up well watching people die on paper, until I break the cardinal rule of looking up their obituaries. Then I cry.

Financial Advice

by Meryl Baer

You’re withdrawing money from your IRA for your granddaughter’s breast implants?

You want to buy a penny stock because your daughter’s boyfriend’s father said it was a good deal?

You’re going to pay taxes and penalties on an early IRA withdrawal so you can take a cruise?

Your son told you the country’s financial system will collapse so you have to take out all your money, and he says don’t worry, he’ll take care of it for you?

So many times, I wanted to scream, “ARE YOU NUTS?”

But I could not.


Home Office, No Office

by Lilve García

I want to flirt with the idea that I am a full-time writer.
Sitting at my desk uninterrupted for a couple of hours, at least.
A cup of tea at hand, next to warm toast with cinnamon and honey. A soft, almost inaudible
Tibetan melody in the background. The beautiful flame tree of my neighbors displaying a full
bloom out my window. But then, five minutes later, my reality check. The little voice behind
the door, calling mama, that reminds me I am precisely the designated food provider of three
Charybdis. A full-time mom playing with words.


About the Writers

Kara Knickerbocker is the author of The Shedding Before the Swell and Next to Everything That is Breakable. She lives in Pennsylvania and writes with the Madwomen in the Attic. Find her online at karaknickerbocker.com.

Ursula Saqui lives in the Midwest with her family, where she is always cold and hates sitting still. She can be found almost everywhere @UrsulaSaqui, chatting about running, writing, and food.

Meryl Baer worked for a financial firm, eventually quit and moved to the New Jersey shore. Her recent stories have been published in Pomme Journal and Perspectives Magazine. Her blog, Beach Boomer Bulletin, is published at merylbaer.com.

Marla Zlotnick, a native of western Massachusetts, was happy to return home from Boston when she made a midlife career change from advertising to healthcare. Her contribution to Quick Work marks her first journal publication.

Lilve García is an emerging writer from the Dominican Republic who recently published her first volume of poetry, Poemas Tempranos. She has three kids, a degree in architecture, and an interest in science fiction.


The Quick Work series is curated by Multiplicity Contributing Editor, Kate Whouley.

Submissions to Quick Work are currently closed, but we always welcome submissions for Multiplicity Blog. More details here.

Her Town's Claim to a Kind of Fame by Suzanne Strempek Shea

Her Town’s Claim to a Kind of Fame

Posted Posted in Blog

By Suzanne Strempek Shea

I left home for college with the normal amount of angst about meeting new people.

I needn’t have wasted time fretting—I quickly found out I had an easy icebreaker.

“You’re from where?” strangers would ask.

“Palmer, Massachusetts.”

They’d nod blankly, as you do when meeting someone from a place you’ve never heard of but want to appear as if you have. Then they suddenly would stop: “Wait—why do I know that name?”

I learned to stand there and let them figure it out, which they usually did. They knew of my tiny Western Massachusetts town because since earliest memory they’d seen its name printed on the side of baby-blue cartons stashed beneath their bathroom sinks. My hometown, and its most famous product, had sneaked into their psyches.

Tampax. Palmer, Mass.

Actually, the location should have read “Three Rivers, Mass.,” the village in Palmer where the plant towered on a ledge beside the Chicopee River, 11 houses down from the one where I grew up.

I passed the place nearly every day of my young life. I cannot pinpoint when I realized the unusual and highly personal nature of the things made within those brick walls, but I have always felt a kinship with kids who grew up in the shadows of offbeat manufacturers.

I once met a guy whose town thrived because of a condom company, and a woman whose high school class partied next to a brassiere factory. As embarrassed teens, they, too, had lied when out-of-town dates asked what was made in that building over there, always giving an answer like “Shovels.” Brothers and sisters they were to me.

Tampax was just another part of my Main Street, part of the scenery, this huge structure with its odd series of angled roofs. For 55 years, it turned out feminine hygiene products, and took in several generations of employees who’d otherwise be commuting far and wide for work in our largely rural area. Their cars and trucks jammed the parking lot for all shifts. They busied Main Street, walking at lunch for a bite at Dominick’s or to errands at the drugstore or the bank.

Get a job at Tampax and you were set for life. After all, you were making something that was never going to go out of style.

Everybody I knew worked there, had once worked there, or knew it was possible to work there.

I spent three months at Tampax my first summer back from college, hunching from 7:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. at a noisy and lightning-fast packing machine, feeding into its ever-hungry maw the fashionably shaded purse containers that came free in every box and that offered a discreet way for customers to carry along a pair of products. When my machine froze, a stern Portuguese woman materialized with the right combination of impressive whacks and shoves to get those Super Pluses rolling freely once again.

On the way to lunch across the street, my line-neighbor Elmo and I stopped to admire the glass case displaying Tampax from around the world. The case held boxes labeled in languages of faraway places where the tampons had traveled and where we could only dream of visiting. Once a month, need ‘em or not, we were handed our employee bonus: a free box of 40.

The job also gave me a decent salary, a great reverence for those who do line work, and the determination to avoid it at all costs in the future. It cast a new light on my father, who, beginning in his teen years, had toiled in the filth of the Uniroyal tire factory on another rocky ledge 18 miles downriver. How could he do the same exact boring thing every single day, I found myself wondering for the first time.

“Everybody has to do something for work,” is how I remember him putting it. “I’m lucky to have a job.”

As was everybody I knew who worked at Tampax, who had once worked at Tampax, or who once had believed it would always be possible to work at Tampax.

I put that in the past tense because though tampons have not gone out of style, the small-town, old-style factory has. The first blow was a curious change in the company’s name, to “Tambrands.” Downsizing followed, ending the jobs of a couple of hundred people. Then in the summer of 1997 came word that the new owner, Procter & Gamble, would close the entire plant by year’s end. The futures of employees, their families and local businesses would be shaken, and the great building would sit empty and idle.

For the first time in 55 years, my town’s kids would have something in common with too many other kids across the country. They’d have a closed-down factory to pass.

Everybody has to do something for work. But when it comes to making tampons, and making a decent living, people wouldn’t be doing those somethings there any more.

And none of us in town will have the least bit of trouble telling anybody who asks just what goes on in that building over there on our quiet and deserted Main Street.

The answer will be simple and sad and true.

 “Nothing.”


Author’s Note: A version of this essay was written for The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1997. The factory building breathes with new life now, as the Palmer Technology Center. Tenants include those who build motorcycle seats, move libraries nationwide, create artisanal chocolates and, most importantly, make it a place where people once again go to work.


About the Writer:
Suzanne Strempek Shea
writes nonfiction, fiction and journalism, and has authored 11 books. She is writer-in-residence and faculty member at Bay Path University, where she created the MFA program and leads its annual Summer Writing Seminar in Dingle, Ireland. Suzanne is the winner of the 2000 New England Book Award, which recognizes a body of work’s importance to the region. She has a special interest in working with those writing about trauma. Her freelance work has appeared in publications including Yankee, Down East, The Bark, Golf World, The Boston Globe, The Irish Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and ESPN the Magazine.

The Presidential Classroom by Kara Lynn Puskey-Noble

The Presidential Classroom

Posted Posted in Blog

By Kara Lynn Puskey-Noble

When life gets stressful, I go to the barn and clean stalls. Forking up manure, pushing around a loaded wheelbarrow, sweeping—caring for my livestock settles my mind and clears my head.

Between the pandemic and the election, I’ve needed to spend a lot of time there lately.

In the barn, I try not to think about the uncomfortable realities of the present or the bleak pronouncements about the future spouted by social media pundits. My mind wanders into the past. The current state of the present and the future makes even high school look good.

As a 17-year-old high school senior, I was always on the lookout for anything that might improve my chances of getting into college. When my history teacher announced a schoolwide competition to attend a weeklong national honors program in Washington DC called the Presidential Classroom for Young Americans, it caught my attention even though I wasn’t particularly interested in politics.

According to its mission statement, the Presidential Classroom offered the “best and brightest students unprecedented access to the federal government and the people who shape public policy.” Only four students would be selected from my high school and the competition was fierce. It was a longshot, but I applied anyway.

To my astonishment, in January 1979 I found myself standing in Washington National Airport, fresh off my first airplane flight, scanning the crowded terminal for somebody holding a sign that read Presidential Classroom.

Forty years later, most of the details of the trip are blurry. Only the biggest revelations and strongest emotions linger in my memory. Like the cute guy from Alabama who flirted with me at the opening reception in the ballroom of a glamorous Washington hotel. Meeting teenagers from all over the U.S. and its territories was exciting, but his big brown eyes and genteel drawl really impressed this New England Yankee.

At the same reception, I met Senator and astronaut John Glenn. I was so awestruck and tongue-tied, he had to prompt me to shake his hand and say hello.

I remember the thrill of seeing the real Constitution at the U.S. Archives—and being told it would automatically drop into a protective vault below it in the event of a nuclear attack.

Jimmy Carter’s White House looked as comfortable and reassuring as Mr. Rogers’s television living room. Even so, when we were allowed to peek into the Oval Office, my first thought was That’s where Nixon sat when he resigned. It was a relief to know those dark days were behind us.

As I stood beneath the magnificent dome of the Capitol Rotunda surrounded by statues of the luminaries of U.S. history, all I could think was that I was standing where they put Abraham Lincoln’s casket after he was assassinated. We were told that the catafalque, the wooden platform built to hold Lincoln’s coffin in 1865, had been used to support every coffin laid in the Rotunda since then. Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s casket was placed atop it when she became the first woman to lie in state in the Rotunda in September 2020.

I was furious when Massachusetts senior Senator, Ted Kennedy, blew off our scheduled meeting. “The Senator is very busy,” his staff said.

I was mollified when our Congressman, Silvio O. Conte, warmly welcomed me and my classmate, Christine, and led us onto the floor of the House of Representatives before it opened for the day’s session. We stood several rings into the chamber’s semicircles of polished wooden chairs gaping at the huge American flag behind the podium where Boston’s gruff Irish son, Tip O’Neill, presided as Speaker of the House.

“Someday, one of you might sit here,” Conte said quietly.

At Arlington National Cemetery, after watching the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, one of the boys asked about Vietnam and the Fall of Saigon in 1975. “That’s history,” said the officer assigned to supervise our visit. “We need to focus on the future.”

The Smithsonian’s new Air and Space Museum opened during the hoopla of the national bicentennial celebration in July 1976. Standing in front of its exhibit of the capsule from 1969’s Apollo 11 moon flight, my thoughts flashed back to my first meeting with my high school guidance counselor in ninth grade.

“What do you want to be in the future?” he asked me.

“I want to be astronaut,” I said. “I want to work for NASA.”

He frowned at me. “Girls can’t be astronauts,” he said. “Let’s talk about more realistic options. You could be a nurse or a teacher.”

The Presidential Classroom taught me I had other options. I could work to make laws that would change stupid rules like that.

One of our final trips of the program brought us to the Lincoln Memorial. We clustered around the spot at the top of its marble steps where contralto Marian Anderson sang to a crowd of 75,000 on April 9, 1939 after the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) refused to allow her to perform in Constitution Hall because she was black. Eleanor Roosevelt, outraged by the DAR’s actions, promptly quit the group and arranged an alternate concert venue.

Almost 25 years later, on August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech from the same spot.

Standing there shivering in the chilly January air with my Presidential Classmates, I felt sure I heard echoes of Anderson singing “My country tis of thee…of thee we sing.” I swore I could hear King say, “…even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream…a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.”

Leaning on a manure rake in my barn and thinking back on that trip, what I hear loudest now are two nagging questions.

Has my generation moved this country toward that dream or away from it? Have we made things better or worse?

Things have changed. In 1979, all nine Supreme Court Justices were male; now three of them are women. Back then, the 96th Congress had only 16 voting African American members. Today’s 116th Congress includes 56. We have more regulations, but less pollution; higher taxes, but fewer armed conflicts with other nations. We are still plagued by “isms”—racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, ageism—among others. We all know the economy is still a work in progress.

I’m not objective enough to judge whether we’ve driven this country forward or plunged it off the road into a ditch, but the more I stand in the barn and think about it, the more I share the opinion of Ben Franklin, who had a keen interest in agriculture and who mucked his share of manure. The Presidential Classroom, taught me how the 81-year-old Franklin addressed similar questions in his final speech before the Constitutional Convention on September 17, 1787:

“When you assemble…[People] to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble…their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views. From such an assembly can a perfect product be expected? It…astonishes me…[that] this system approaches so near to perfection as it does.”

We’re as diverse, passionate, and opinionated as the folks in Franklin’s day. We’re definitely as imperfect. But we’ve managed to keep the republic that is this “democratic experiment” going so far. Hopefully, if we keep shoveling, then forkful by forkful, we’ll get things cleaned up enough to truly realize the American dream.


About the Writer:
Kara Lynn Puskey-Noble
is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in publications ranging from textbooks and dictionaries to newspapers and magazines. She served as the editor for Merriam-Webster’s language question-and-answer column, “Take Our Word for It,” their public radio program “Word for the Wise” (WAMC, Albany, NY), and their online “Word of the Day” feature. Her equine-related stories have been published in Massachusetts Horse, Connecticut Horse, and The Competitive Equine. She holds a BA from Amherst College and an MFA in creative nonfiction from Bay Path University.

Poll Tales by Robert Surbrug

Poll Tales

Posted Posted in Blog

By Robert Surbrug

I’ve been a passionate advocate of voting for most of my life. I’ve thrown myself into voter registration drives and taught the history of voting-rights struggles. That’s partly because I’m an historian and partly because I grew up on Schoolhouse Rock. But looking back, I see three particular episodes in my life that deepened my commitment to voting.

The Firehouse

I grew up on the Jersey Shore. My dad was a plumber and my mom a homemaker. Each weekday, as Mom prepared dinner, my beagle and I waited by the window for Dad’s van to back into our driveway. One Election Day when I was eight years old, Dad returned from work, plopped his lunch box on the counter, and announced he was going to go vote. My mother (who voted while I was in school) said, “Why don’t you take Bobby?”

I felt a surge of excitement to do a grown-up thing with Dad and to go to his polling place at East Dover Fire Department. I’d never seen the inside of it. As we left, Mom chided Dad: “Don’t stay too long bullshitting.” (Mom’s Dictionary: bullshit verb: to yap; especially men talking about idle crap. See your father.)

We drove to East Dover, and as my father signed in to vote, I stood in awe of the firefighters and fire trucks. Before voting, Dad approached three firefighters and commenced bullshitting. I tuned them out, fascinated by my surroundings. I saw people I knew from my small town enter, sign in, then vote. There were schoolteachers, waitresses, mechanics, homemakers, shop owners. Many were heading home after work, tired yet excited to vote. 

It dawned on me that these familiar folks were choosing the next president of the United States. Each vote was important. Realizing this gave me a sense of the sacredness of democracy. It was still the Cold War then. Half the world lived under some form of dictatorship. It dawned on me that voting was something no one should ever take for granted.

My reverie was broken when Dad asked the firefighters to watch me while he voted.

“Why don’t you take your boy with you?’ one suggested.

Whoa! This trip kept getting better!

Dad put his arm around my shoulder and led me into the inner sanctum of the voting booth. Back then, voting booths had a handle that closed a big red curtain around you, lending gravity to the act of casting your ballot. Dad pushed down levers to indicate his choices and then pulled the handle again, reopening the curtain with a clang.

The next time I set foot in that firehouse was 10 years later, when I, a newly registered voter, proudly entered with Dad to cast my first-ever vote.

The Bar

It was Election Day 2000, the first presidential election of the new millennium. I was a graduate student at UMass Amherst. Several fellow history grads and I met at Hugo’s, a Northampton bar, to watch voting returns. Vice President Al Gore (Democrat) was running against Texas Governor George W. Bush (Republican). Polls predicted a close race.

We arrived at Hugo’s around 7:00 p.m. sporting “I Voted” stickers on our shirts. One of us raised a bottle: “I propose we pledge to drink until a winner is declared!” We clinked our glasses and vowed there would be no cessation of drinking until we knew the next president.

At 7:50 p.m., based on exit polls, TV networks reported that Al Gore had won Florida, earning enough votes to clinch the election in the Electoral College. Only into our first round of drinks, my friends and I felt a sense of anticlimax. I headed home to watched election coverage on TV.

At 10:00 p.m., the networks began retracting reports that Gore won Florida. “Too close to call!” they now declared.

My phone rang: “Be back at Hugo’s in five minutes!”

Drinking resumed, now infused with the thrilling sense of entering wholly new political terrain. The bars closed at 2:00 a.m. with no winner projected, which compelled us to an after-hours party. That lasted until 2:30, when the networks shifted victory in Florida to Bush and reported Al Gore had called his opponent to concede. We drank a nightcap and staggered home.

An hour later, as I lay on the couch enveloped in the glow of my TV, the networks announced Florida was again too close to call and reported Gore had called Bush to retracthis concession. 

What?

More than 100 million votes had been cast, but the candidates were separated by a mere 500,000. The Electoral College was nearly tied. In Florida—the state that would decide the outcome—only about one thousand votes separated Bush and Gore, compelling a state recount.

I’d always said, “Every vote counts.” That night gave the cliché new meaning. An epiphany cut through the haze of alcohol: “Damn, every vote really DOES count!”

The Florida recount, punctuated by legal challenges, lasted over six weeks before the Supreme Court (with Justices Ruth Bader Ginsberg and John Paul Stevens dissenting), ordered it stopped on December 12—before all the votes had been tallied. When the recount was stopped, George W. Bush was ahead by 537 votes. 

The Bridge

One of the great privileges I’ve had as a professor of history at Bay Path University is leading the “One America” trip, in which students travel to a region of the U.S. for a week in January to study its history. In 2010, we took our first civil rights-themed trip.

We visited the National Civil Rights Museum in Birmingham and the Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery. We met with 1960s civil rights veteran John Perkins. But our most inspiring experience happened in Selma, Alabama, site of the Edmund Pettus Bridge—the Bridge to Freedom.

“Bloody Sunday” happened on that bridge on March 7, 1965, when Alabama state troopers clubbed, tear-gassed, and whipped nonviolent civil rights activists, led by Hosea Williams and John Lewis, who were marching to ensure African Americans the right to vote. Televised images of the incident shocked the nation and led President Lyndon Johnson to demand passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

My students learned the history before we arrived. But nothing prepares you for crossing that bridge yourself. Videos of Bloody Sunday don’t show how low the bridge railing is, or how far down it is to the Alabama River. As the students and I walked solemnly across, I looked down and got blasted by anxiety and light-headedness. I’m afraid of heights. Looking at the river so far below over a rail that was barely waist-high shot my brain full of adrenalin, cortisone, and whatever other neurochemicals make you think you’re going to die if you don’t get across that bridge fast.

Even in the grip of anxiety, I thought what John Lewis and all those foot soldiers of the Movement must have felt crossing the Pettus Bridge. The bridge’s height wasn’t their only worry. Armed state troopers awaited them on the other side. Troopers ready to crack open their skulls with billy clubs. John Lewis, who later became a congressman from Georgia and served more than 30 years in the U.S. House of Representatives, needed 35 stitches to close a wound inflicted by a trooper.

As I reached the far side and my fight-or-flight instinct yielded to the bliss of serotonin and dopamine, I realized my elevated anxiety made what the Bloody Sunday marchers experienced more real for me. I resolved to do my small part to defend and expand the rights for which they fought.

Today

As I finish writing this, I click on my TV and see socially distanced voters in long lines waiting hours to vote early amidst a pandemic and voter suppression efforts in some states.

The willingness of these Americans—disproportionately voters of color—to go through so much to cast their ballots is testimony why each of us must do our part and vote.


About the Writer:
Robert Surbrug
is an assistant professor of history at Bay Path University. He specializes in 20th-century United States history, especially the Cold War era. He focuses on the movements of the 1960s and their impact on subsequent decades, a theme he explores in his book Beyond Vietnam: The Politics of Protest in Massachusetts, 1974-1990 (University of Massachusetts Press). He is the director of Bay Path’s innovative Honors Program, faculty advisor to the Black Student Association and a faculty advisor to the Currier and Ives Committee of the Springfield Public Museums. He received his bachelor’s degree from Rutgers University and his master’s degree and doctorate from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He divides his time between his adopted home of western Massachusetts and his childhood home on the Jersey Shore.