Wednesday, 19 December 2012

The Goodwife from Under the Workbench

Here's a short story for all you lovers of fantasy:

“Don’t you know how to take inventory?” Lou was shouting--no, screaming, actually.

“Yes,” Abigail replied after taking a breath. She tried to use the voice her mother always used with Henry, the next-door neighbor with Alzheimer’s disease, when he had his episodes. “Yes, write the description and number, I rememb—“

“Then shut up and start doing it,” Lou bellowed, barging past her out the door and slamming it behind him.

She laughed, from the sudden release of tension, then laughed again when she heard herself laugh. “At least I’m not claustrophobic,” she said to herself.

Photo: Dipity.com
All she’d done was ask Lou if she could enter the data directly into a laptop instead of performing the extra step of using the paper form. She’d anticipated that maybe he’d say no: maybe the program wasn’t licensed for multiple PC’s or maybe he’d be worried that a laptop wasn’t tough enough to carry around to all the supply closets and risk having something fall on it. But she did think he’d be impressed that she’d suggested it. After all, it showed that she was trying to save him money on his labor budget. Wasn’t he always talking about being a team player, thinking proactively, and all of that?

“Oh, well,” she said, talking to herself again, and picked up the clipboard full of blank inventory forms. Three, six, seven, eight, ten…twelve tubs of laundry booster. With any luck she’d at least get an interview out of one of the dozen job applications she’d filled out yesterday.

Speaking of dozen, there were exactly twelve of these supply closets in the small college where she worked. Actually, calling it a college was a bit of a stretch. It was an unaccredited Institute that taught some halfway-decent drafting and geometry courses and let everything else slide. But it took up half a mill building, and had to be cleaned and maintained, and that was why Abigail spent her afternoons here, saving up money to go to a real college.

Right now, she was still a junior in high school, with about four months left in the year. She’d save money by going to a Community College for the first two years, and then, if she had enough money and her grades were good enough, she’d be able to transfer to a really good school. But at the very least, it would definitely be accredited.

She’d probably major in Women’s Studies. Those amazing stories of the Abolitionists and, later, the Suffragettes filled her with a kind of wonder she just couldn’t ignore. After graduation she’d work for the UN, or maybe a private foundation, helping women fight for their rights in countries where females weren’t so lucky as she was.

She finished the shelves by the door and turned the corner, counting items, shifting them around to make sure she didn’t miss anything, filling out the form. This particular set of shelves was built against one of the building’s original red brick walls.

She finished the top shelf of the first section, went on to the next, filled up a sheet of the form-paper and started another. By the time she’d finished the section and gone on to the top of the next one, she’d come to feel something close to affection for the rough, cool bricks. They marked progress: when she got to them she could move on.

But the bricks reminded her of something else, as well. These were old bricks. Their sides were chipped and bumpy, they were darkened by time and many of them were stained. Not that long ago, this whole mill yard - for that matter, the whole city and many more like it in the northeastern United States - had been a crumbling wreck, forgotten by an industry that had long since moved on to other parts of the world. But thanks to a huge effort to revive city economies, the mill buildings had been renovated, converted into offices and meeting-places, restaurants and gyms and apartments.

Like a lot of them in the area, this particular building had been a textile mill, a sweatshop where women and children had worked long hours in hazardous conditions for low wages. Yet in many ways it had been these very factories that had first empowered women. The great movements for abolition and suffrage owed their existence to the mill jobs - the mill jobs and the whaling industry, actually, but the whaling industry was another matter and she didn’t want to think about that.

This building had been a cotton mill, automating the making of cotton fabric, making clothing easier and cheaper to make, and nicer. No more sticking to homespun wool: now ordinary women from the labor-class could wear pretty calico dresses. And stick up their northern noses for managing to be prosperous and enlightened, running a thriving economy without owning slaves. Of course, the mills had bought their cotton from the southern plantations, creating the demand that had kept slavery going.
But behind the bottom shelf of the third section the wall wasn’t made of bricks, it was made of iron. “I think it’s some kind of clean-out door,” Abigail said to herself. “I wonder if the chimney it goes to is still there.” She was fascinated. Inventory forms bored the soul out of her; history thrilled her.

She dragged everything off the shelf onto the raw, gray-brown damaged hardwood floor (three five-gallon pails of floor stripper, four of floor finish and six one-gallon jugs of chlorine bleach) and tried the handle. It was sticky and she had to hit it with the back end of a screwdriver to get it to turn far enough. Then she stuck the screwdriver in the jamb and used her right hand to pry, while she pulled on the handle with her left. The door came open suddenly, with a screech that made her think of a bat.

The space behind the door was no chimney, at least not anymore. She’d figured she’d have to use a flashlight to explore back there, but a soft light shone through from the other side. She reached through and tested the floor with her left hand - cool red bricks, clean and solid - then crawled through. Above her were wooden boards: she seemed to be under a table. In front of her were more bricks, and beyond that, a large wicker basket and the edge of a brown curtain. Looks like an arts-and-crafts room, she thought. For about two seconds, that conclusion struck her as odd: she was pretty sure Alves Institute didn’t have an arts-and-crafts room. Then she decided this room must not belong to the Institute. There were lots of other companies renting office space in the building. She listened for half a minute and didn’t hear any voices. So if this was a classroom, she wasn’t interrupting a lecture. She crawled out from under the table and stood up.

She jumped. Ten feet away, directly in front of her eyes, was another pair of eyes, staring back at hers.

It was the curtain: that brown curtain hadn’t been a curtain at all; it had been a dress - a floor-length, full-skirted, long-sleeved, high-necked dress. Above the dress was a face, maybe in its sixties, framed by wisps of gray hair and practically smothered by a white bonnet. The lady must have been an actress, Abigail figured, and now she was trying on a costume.

“Who art thou?” demanded the face.

“Oh, I’m Abigail. Sorry, I…” Abigail let her words trail off.

“Thou what?”

“I’m sorry if I startled you. I found an old door and I wanted to see where it led to. I can see you’re busy. I’ll let you get back to your...” Her what, Abigail didn’t know. TV show? Play? She shot a quick glance around the room. It was full of things she’d never seen before, things she couldn’t begin to identify and would have had a hard time even describing, but none of them were TV cameras or lights or anything like that. Maybe she was practicing for a play…in costume, for some reason.

“Why didst thou hide under the workbench?” asked the woman.

“Oh, no, I - I wasn’t actually hiding in there,” Abigail explained. “I was in the Engineering Section supply closet taking inventory, and - “

“In-VENT-ory,” the woman interrupted.

“And I found this little door. It looked like an old chimney cleanout door, and I crawled through it, and here I am. Did you ever notice the little door in the wall under your workbench?”

“What wiltow now?”

Abigail had no idea what that meant.

“What wilt thou do, now that thou art here and I have seen thee?” the woman asked.

Photo: h33t.com
“Oh, take inventory, I guess.”

“In-VENT-ory.”

“I beg you pardon?”

“One should not beg for pardon until after one has mended one’s ways,” the woman scolded.

“I just meant, what did you say?”

“I said, in-VENT-ory.”

“What’s that?”

“Speak not in riddles, Goodwife,” the woman admonished.

“You keep on saying in-VENT-ory. What does that mean? What is in-VENT-ory?”

“Even a child knoweth that an inventory is the workshop of an inventor,” the woman replied. “Come, I tire of thy games.”

“So this,” said Abigail, waving both her arms to indicate the room, “is an in-VENT-ory?”

“'Tis plain to see. What wilt thou do now?”

Abigail shrugged. “Well, I have to take inventory.”

“’Tis plain, as well, that thou workest not alone; hast been sent,” said the woman.

“Tell me the name of him who sent thee.”

“Nobody sent me. I just wanted to see where the door went to,” she answered, “I work for the college, Alves Institute. I report to Lou Belden.”

“I know not of what you speak,” the woman replied. “But hear me: if thou wilt confess all, I shall not have thee cast into prison.”

“Into prison!” Abigail gasped.

“Yes, into prison. Now speak.”

“Um,” Abigail stammered, her mouth feeling suddenly dry, “I’ll tell you whatever you want. What do you want to know?”

“Tell me exactly how wastow instructed to perform thy task?”

Abigail wished the woman would talk normally, but she also supposed she herself wasn’t exactly in a position to be making demands. After all, the woman did, technically, have grounds to have her arrested for intrusion, or unauthorized entry, or whatever it was called.

“Well,” she said, “I usually start just to the left of the door, and I see what’s there, and I write it down. Like, you can see here on my paper, to the left of the door were twelve tubs of laundry booster, and beside that, there were two and a half cases of toilet paper, and so forth. So I go all the way around the room that way, writing everything down, and then if there are things in the middle of the room, I write them down, too, starting at one end and going to the other, going in a pattern so I don’t miss anything.”

“Thou writest the contents of the in-VENT-ory, and after, thou takest it?”

“I take what?” Abigail asked, shaking her head in a futile attempt to clear it.

“Art thou confounded,” the woman in the brown dress asked, “or wouldst thou deceive me?”

“Maybe I’m ‘confounded,’” Abigail replied, “because I certainly have no desire to deceive anybody. So this place isn’t part of Alves Institute?”

The woman shook her head. “I know naught of this Institute.”

“Are you guys looking for help?” Abigail asked. “I can type pretty fast, I’m a self-starter, reliable. I know pretty much all the common office software, and I’m a quick study.”

The woman looked sincerely confused, like Abigail had just rattled off a paragraph in a foreign language. But maybe, like her thees and thous, that was just part of the act.

“I’m looking for a job,” Abigail tried again. “Do you need help here?”

“We want no help from thee,” the woman replied disdainfully. “But hark, the inventor cometh.”

The inventor was a short man with yellowy-white hair, a waistcoat and breeches and tights and buckle-shoes, and a kindly smile. “What is thy name?” he asked, peering at Abigail as though she were a koala who’d just appeared in a kitchen sink.

“Abigail, sir,” she answered.

“Oliver,” he replied.

“Hi, Oliver.”

Oliver darted a quick glance at the ceiling before focusing back on Abigail’s face. “Jonathan Oliver at your service,” he said, “and my wife Harriett.”

“Nice to meet both of you,” Abigail replied. “I didn’t mean to interrupt, though. I really should be getting back to work.”

“She hath an odd tongue,” Jonathan observed.

“Yea,” agreed his wife, “and boasteth of grand deeds without ceasing.”

“Me?” asked Abigail, trying to follow the conversation. “I boast of grand deeds?”

Harriett nodded. “Wouldst take this very inventory.”

“Ah,” the inventor replied merrily, “art a knight, then?”

Abigail didn’t answer.

Jonathan’s face grew serious. “Methinks,” he said slowly to his wife, “she hath been taken by a fever, or perhaps by a sadness beyond bearing. She continually spouteth nonsense, and moreover goeth about beyond the walls of her own home clad in naught but undergarments. Let the boy fetch her husband, and perhaps after this, the Doctor.” To Abigail he said, “Who is thine husband, Goodwife?”

“My husband?” Abigail replied, looking at Jonathan the same way he’d been looking at her, like he was the crazy one. “I don’t have a husband. And I don’t have a fever, either, and I’m not crazy.”

“No husband yet?” said Harriett, looking surprised.

Jonathan shook his head. “Art of age to be married. Hast reached, I’ll warrant, fifteen years or perhaps more.”

“I’m seventeen,” said Abigail.

It took a moment for the Olivers to adjust to that news. At first, both of them shifted their weight from foot to foot and fidgeted with their hands, as though they were looking for something to do. Finally, Harriett said in the kindest tone Abigail had heard from her yet, “Fret not. Another life awaits thee than that of marriage and motherhood, in every aspect different, yet wholly as noble.” In spite of her words, though, she still looked embarrassed.

Jonathan said gently, “Art fallen ill. Let us fetch thy mother.”

“Thanks,” Abigail replied, “but I really should just be getting back to work. I feel fine, really, and I think my break must be over by now.”

“As thou wilt,” answered Harriett, “but suffer us to help thee.”

“All I have to do is go back through the little door under the workbench,” said Abigail. “I left it open. On the other side of that wall is the Engineering Section supply closet, and that’s where I need to be.”

Photo: StLouisCNR.com
The Olivers both shook their heads. Even Harriett had lost all her sternness now; she just looked sad, and so did her husband. “Thou’lt find no door in yonder wall,” he said, “whether under the workbench or no.”

Abigail turned around and knelt on the bricks, then crawled back under the workbench, careful not to hit her head. And there, in front of her, was a wall of red bricks, their sides chipped and bumpy, their color a bright, young rusty-orange red, with no stains, no signs of repair, and most importantly, no door or doorway or opening of any kind. She reached forward and put her hand in the middle of the spot where she’d crawled through the wall, half expecting the bricks to disappear and the gray metal shelf unit and pails of floor finish to appear on the other side. But they didn’t. They felt as real to her hand and as they looked to her eyes: cold and rough and solid.

Note: I answered a call from Chainbooks.com to write just the first chapters for several novels, and The Goodwife from Under the Workbench is one of them. If you'd like to contribute a chapter to Goodwife, or check out the other novels-in-progress at Chainbooks, click here.