Sheila Lemmons began every morning with a cup of instant coffee, a plastic-wrapped pastry (usually a cinnamon pecan roll), and thirty minutes of the morning news, which put her to sleep in minutes. The night before, she put curlers in her hair and slept on them. One morning, her hair stopped curling the way she liked it—instead her curls fell loose and heavy because her cramped hands had not secured the curling clips tightly. The doctor said it was arthritis and that her knuckles were inflamed from the labor required by her factory job upholstering couches, divans, and chairs every day from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. She’d worked there for almost forty-six years, since she was nineteen. The knuckles in her fingers and hands were gnarled and stiff like tree roots. She imagined her knuckles, angry and red, swelling beneath her papery skin. The doctor told her to try consuming more olive oil and prescribed an anti-inflammatory.
At seven each morning, Sheila’s daughter Debbie came by to drop off her four children, Joel, Sarah, Laura Marie, and Billy, ranging from age five to thirteen. Sheila took them to school on the way to the factory, except on the weekends, when she made them chocolate chip pancakes. On the weekdays the kids were already fed and dressed, and Sheila just had to herd them into the car and make sure no backpacks were missing. She usually left the house by 7:20 so she’d have time to drop off Joel and Sarah at Deer Hook Middle School out east, then drop Laura Marie off at Mills Central Elementary downtown, and finally, drop Billy off for daycare at a girl’s house a mile from the factory.
One morning when Sheila woke up with her loose curlers, she knew it would be a bad day. She spent an extra twenty minutes getting ready, trying to curl her hair with a curling iron, but the heat made her sleepy. Even then, it didn’t look right. By the time Debbie arrived with her gaggle of children, Sheila wasn’t dressed in her work uniform yet. She’d left it to dry on the line yesterday afternoon, but with a sudden sinking feeling, she remembered it had rained early in the morning, around four or five a.m. The leak in her hallway ceiling had woken her up, dropping into the pail she kept there. Her uniform was quite damp but not soaked. She slipped it on gingerly. It was 7:45 when Sheila left the house with her four grandchildren.
“We’re hunggrryyy,” the three oldest children cried. Joel sat in the front seat, while Sarah, Laura Marie, and Billy slumped in the backseat.
“I know your mama fed you.”
“No, she didn’t,” said Laura Marie, who began weeping in the backseat of Sheila’s lopsided Chevy Malibu. Sarah and Laurie Marie were sandwiched together by one seatbelt, having fastened it over their two seats since the left seatbelt was broken. Billy's legs dangled from his car seat, and he stirred from his morning nap but dozed off again.
Sheila turned up the radio and drove. She dropped Joel and Sarah off in the east, then dropped Laura Marie off a few minutes later downtown. On the last eight-mile stretch to the factory, she cranked her window down and sped, letting the breeze tousle her iron-burnt hair. It was a hot day. The radio announcer said the heat was expected to set a record for May 23. Suddenly her damp uniform didn’t seem so bad.
When Sheila arrived in the sprawling parking lot, she cranked her window back up and parked far from the building so she could walk in the sun. Her boss Phil didn’t notice she was late. Maybe it was the heat or the sun, she didn’t know, but the pain left Sheila’s hands and she felt relaxed and happy, like she’d smoked a joint, something she hadn’t done in decades. The day passed so quickly that she didn’t leave for lunch but instead got snacks and a Diet Coke from the vending machine.
In the late afternoon, a message blared over the loud speakers.
“Sheila Lemmons, please meet Phil out front. It’s urgent.”
A shudder chilled Sheila. Something about a note in his voice. She rummaged through her purse to check her cell phone. She could never hear it over the damn machines. She saw a text from the babysitter: Are you still bringing Billy today? It was sent at 10:38 a.m. Sheila could feel the pain returning, spreading through her knuckles, up to her elbows, her shoulders, until suddenly, a sharp pain like a glass sickle punctured the left side of her chest.