During breaks he would sit in his car and drink and she would sit beside him, running her hand along the inside of his thigh, wiping dust from the dashboard, tuning the radio to soft rock and adjusting the levels. She would not drink with him during these breaks. She would sit quietly, listening to what he might have to say about the shift so far, which workers were falling behind, who was spending too much time in the restroom, the possibility of overtime this weekend. He would take sips from the brown bottle, and if she joined him early enough in the break he would often move his other hand up beneath her skirt and touch the warmth hidden there. But this was not an act driven by much desire for him, just something he thought she expected him to do occasionally.
Sometimes she would press herself into her seat when he touched her this way. She would turn her head and give out tremulous little moans, sounds she had practiced making alone at night. But it would go no further than this. On cold nights he would run the engine and turn up the heat and sip from the bottle more frequently. She would lean against his shoulder and trace a finger over the scars on his knuckles. He had been in a great many fights in his younger days. She would tell him she loved him and he would nod and smile and place a hand gently upon her knee and she would not press the issue. She knew it was hard for him to say the same words. She told herself that this reserve of his was quaint, like something a young couple would have difficulty saying in an old black and white movie, the kind her mother loved to watch over and over again.
They had two short breaks and one longer dinner break each night. They had been together for just over a year and the secrets they would never share were significant ones. They were paid at the end of the month. He had recently been granted a raise of a dollar an hour. He had been with the company for six years, most of which he could barely recall. This was the beginning of her second year and she loathed it. She dreamed of being a nurse in a children’s hospital, or caring for unwanted domestic animals. They opened a savings account together, though they both still retained their individual accounts. At the end of each month they would put what little they could spare into the joint account, it was never much, for he had child support payments and she had medical costs for the ongoing treatment of several non-life-threatening illnesses she suffered from, illnesses he could not fully comprehend.
Sometimes during these breaks they would talk about moving in together. They would talk about it cautiously and end the talk with very little agreement. He was twelve years her senior and lived with his older brother who was paralyzed from the waist down. She lived with her mother and younger sister. Her father was killed three years ago, shot by police during a convenience store robbery. A week after her father was buried her mother began dating again.
Occasionally during these breaks they would talk of deserving a better life together, though they did not specify what they meant by this. They were both moderately intelligent, but lacked the self-awareness needed to move successfully beyond their station in life. When he was not drinking or touching beneath her skirt, he would smoke cigarettes and think of his two young daughters living with their mother nearly a thousand miles away.
At times a thick silence would fill the car’s small interior and they would both experience something close to panic, though for quite separate reasons. She was concerned about her weight and the fact that she had not read a single novel since high school. He had tattoos of ornate birds on his upper arms he disliked intensely. When they made love she felt little pleasure and was often embarrassed by her dryness. The rare times he climaxed he would be thinking of his ex-wife’s breasts, of how they looked when she was pregnant with their second chilld.
The work they did was simple and mind-numbingly repetitive. The men working near him talked of hunting and action movies. They would brag of alcohol consumption and sexual conquests. She would hear talk of upcoming weddings that seldom occurred, of children born out of wedlock, of furniture placed on layaway that would rarely be owned. She thought the women at work did not like her, and she was right. He thought he should probably take up hunting and maybe cheat on her from time to time. And in a way, he was right too.
Sometimes while the soft rock played he thought of other jobs he knew he could do: truck driver, bush pilot, cop, DJ. He would sit with her hand resting on his thigh and think of how long his life would likely last. At the end of the break he would shut off the radio and the engine (if it were a cold night). They would both get out slowly and wordlessly. The door leading back to their monotonous work was only thirty feet away. She would wrap an arm around his waist, pressing her weight against him. He would inhale on his cigarette a final time and flick the burning stub into the night air. If she asked him to marry her, he knew he would say yes without knowing why. If she wanted children, he would give her those as well. He had given up many years ago. She didn’t know how to empower herself or how to express hope. The break was over and again they had discovered nothing new, nothing they could build upon.
Adam Middleton-Watts is an oddball British expat writing from the plains of South Dakota. When he’s not dissolving in the midst of a savage summer or fattening up for the next brutal winter, he’s writing poems and stories and drinking flagons of dark ale. He has had words printed in The Laughing Dog, Into The Teeth of the Wind, Icon, Illuminations, Art Times, Amoskeag, Iconoclast, Yawp, The Rambunctious Review, Vagabond city, The dying goose, Empty sink publishing, Milo review, The Bangalore Review, Four chambers, Foundling Review, Dewpoint, The Write Place, Delmarva Review, Adirondack Review, and various other publications.