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Drop Me Off the Cliff

By

On this particular night, I drink the brown stuff that burns my throat and tastes like the sweat of working men and women. I am full of sorrow for the people of Michigan, which had just been declared the 24th Right to Work state, because I feel feel feel they are just part of a small tradition of dismantling the strength of people who come together. People who clock-in together. People who sweat together. People who have lunch together and talk about their families—their sons struggling in algebra and their daughters suddenly wanting to start dressing like Kylie Minogue even if maybe she looks a little bit more like America Ferrara, people who struggle together and fight together dismantled. Plucked off. One by one. People who stop seeing through the lens of a “we” and begin to see it singularly: alone, individual.

When the vote for Michigan is in, I whimper in my sleep. The 24th Right to Work State. This cannot be stopped. I wake up with wet cheeks and tears on my pillow. “Night terrors” —that’s what they were called when I was growing up and oh so sensitive. Night terrors are worse than regular nightmares. They soak my bed at night. All the fibers of my mattress soaked through and no choice but to sleep on it over and over again. Night terror on top of night terror. When I change the cases on my pillows I will see them there—big sad Rorschach stains.

I decide to take the dogs for a long walk. Clear my head. I stop too long in front of a house with a girl bent over herself on the front porch, crying. A younger version of the girl, with the same shiny brown hair and different silky bows comes out of the house, likely her sister. She asks, “Are you crying?”

The older girl only denies it. I walk home feeling sadder than I was before I walked the dogs.

Walking the dogs won’t save me. Fresh air won’t save me. I make coffee. I used to take sugar in my coffee. Then I heard a story about sugar workers. Thibodaux. That made me sad, too. Thibodaux, Thibodaux… sounds like a tongue and a thumb and a hunk of dough. Sounds like a word that makes a schoolyard rhyme. But it’s not a rhyme; it’s a massacre. When I first heard of the massacre it gave me that same feeling I have now. I want to blame somebody. I want to blame myself. Maybe if I purchased my products differently? I’d like not to blame myself.

It was 1887, and 10,000 sugar cane workers demanded an increase in pay to $1.25 per day. It’s the kind of thing that gets my heart pumping. Picks my spirits up. People coming together making demands like that. No more doormats. It reminds me of that first protest I waged in my grandmother’s hallway. Let’s keep Ralph! Let’s keep Ralph! Me with my best friend and homemade signs, on a hunger strike and demanding the dog.

Of course the sugar workers’ demands were of much more consequence. They demanded that they get paid in real currency. Not the pasteboard tickets they were getting paid with—stupid company script as useful as monopoly money anywhere outside the company store.

Their demands ignored, they went on strike. State district Judge Taylor Beattie, organized a local vigilante group. White guys that donned masks at nights. Guys that didn’t have a problem carrying out this order —all blacks within the city limits would need to show a pass in order to leave.

On November 22, as the sun began to rise, burly muscled vigilantes shut down the main road in and out of the city. The sugar workers—black and white together—were boxed in. I imagine the women and men trying to leave. What if they needed food or medical attention? I could see the determined faces of fathers and mothers and uncles met with the butt of a gun. Grown workers’ hands shielding the eyes of the children. These three days of violence are known as the Thibodaux massacre. The sugar cane workers and their families were executed in the town and surrounding swamps. Little brown faces picked at and buzzing with flies. “Why?” a kid might ask her mom or dad.

“Because we want to get paid regular money,” would be the answer.

“Do they not have money?” the kid might ask.

“No, they have plenty money,” the parent would answer.

“So why don’t they give us the money?” she’d ask some more.

“Because they don’t want to,” would be the answer.

I try not to let the story get to me. I’ve heard about massacres before and I’ll hear of them again. I try not to let that little girl on the stoop get to me. I’ve heard little girls lie to cover up their feelings and I’ll hear it again. Be resilient.

I find a nice place by the lake to go running. I wear the soles of my sneakers out as they pump against the pavement. My toenails become thin and weak. They crack down the middle, the edges clinging to my socks as I pull them off my feet. The dark blood reminds me of a movie I saw about coal miners, little kids with faces etched in black, dark streaks across their cheekbones. Black lung. More company scrip. It also makes me think of the Philippines and being poor and having no shoes.

I tried to escape it all with the run but it just made me think. And the thinking doesn’t stop. It comes in flashes. Funny how these flashes come to me with my hundred-dollar sneakers beside a lake doused in hipsters with their fancy espresso coffee drinks. I know this life would not be mine if it weren’t for the work of the unions. I know that here in America those same shoeless Filipinos were stuck picking grapes in Delano, California. And if it weren’t for the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee or the United Farm Workers there would be no unemployment insurance for those workers. There would be no health insurance. There would be no portable toilets in the fields. Delano, California would have just been a crueler place than the Philippines with all the luxuries in reach—taunting and taunting. So many migrant stories are pierced with the blood of splinters on feet. Yet here in California in the field stood migrants with bloated splintered feet, were it not for the UFW. Simply put, if it weren’t for the union I wouldn’t be here running.

***

April 20, 1914, also known as Greek Easter, striking miners knelt with their families in prayer. Dyed red eggs sat on the table. Nobody knew these prayers would be the first of many in the union tent camp. Company “guards” attacked the camp with machine guns. They shot and burned nineteen people. Four women and eleven small children died in an embrace. Their bodies charred together with fear. And I wonder what the surviving parents told their children. I wonder how they explained that John D. Rockefeller wanted them to die, their uncle to die, their dad to die, their brother to die, their little baby cousin to die.

Because they don’t want us to be in a union. They might have said. But still, to the kids, it didn’t make sense why the eleven small children had to die because they didn’t want us to be in a union. And maybe those little kids grew up hating the goddamn union because it was the reason their daddy died. Or maybe they grew up not hating the unions but just confused about the whole damn thing, and whenever they saw a dyed red egg they thought of blood shed and unions and workers. And when they look on the television and see people saying they want a Right to Work state they say to themselves that sounds alright to them.

***

I don’t have neighbors anymore like I did when I was young and had night terrors. When I was young and had night terrors, I would hug my body against the wall and pretend that on the other side there was a person. I would listen very hard for my neighbors’ snoring and imagine that it was not the wall I was hugging but their big safe bodies.

It’s winter and I have to buy a gift for the toy drive at work. I stop by the Toys R’ Us, where the average sales associate makes $8.18 an hour. The CEO, Gerald Storch, made $6 million last year. I know this because Toys R’ Us is owned by Bain Capital. Bain Capital was founded and run by Mitt Romney and his golf cronies, men who made it their highest goal to turn a profit off of the loss of their worker’s dignity. I know this because I spent many afternoons haunting Toys R’ Us trying to get the employees to sign a petition demanding a living wage of fifteen dollars an hour. The reason it was so hard to get the workers to agree to ask for more money was because the managers of these stores spoke to them first. They said, “If anyone from a union comes in here, do not speak to them.”

So by the time I saw someone in the store—a girl with too much hairspray and chola eyeliner and pink jewelry, she shied away from me and asked, “Are you from the union?” and while she did that she looked all around the store, up toward the ceiling like she wanted to see if the cameras would catch her talking to me.

The way CEOs, like Storch, turn a great big profit in this economy is by marking up the prices of their products and keeping the labor costs down. Their employees have no job security. They are all at-will. At-will means something different than what it sounds. It means that an at-will employee can get fired whenever, however, whyever. At-will means at the employers’ will.

So I’m standing in this chaos of a toy store, I see a man. He looks to be in his forties, a regular dad type. He’s got a beard and a hat and a mustache. The type of facial hair his kid probably rubs his or her face into at night. The type of facial hair that gets crumbs stuck on the tips during Christmas, gives him away as the one who ate the cookies left out for Santa. The dad holds a toy, a big spaceship or something with little figurine people being coddled in a plastic casing.

I see him trying to stick his fingers in the plastic casing. He’s trying to pop out the figurines. He wants those little plastic people so bad for his kids whose kisses got lost in all the facial hair.

He wants them and can’t afford them, so he’s trying to steal them.

It makes me so sad I want to cry and, even worse, I want to know why the hell everyone else is not crying with me. What’s worse than being sad is feeling like it’s wrong to be sad. Or that you’re the only one who feels this way. The only one who notices.

And so I bottle it up with the night terrors.

I will go to the liquor store and buy a bottle of something. Anything. No. Not anything. Not a cocktail. A tough drink. A worker’s drink. Something brown that burns my throat. I take it home and chug down shots and think of all the massacres. I feel their pain, not just in my thoughts but in my body: Thiboduax with the sugar and Ludlow with the coal. And then there’s Everett with the shingle workers, the one the Wobblies started off singing their fight song ‘Hold the Fort’ and after I get a couple in me, I start belting out tunes myself.

And then suddenly something about a bunch of worker guys with low voices singing this hymn-like harmony makes me all nostalgic. Makes me think we could be doing better somewhere and it aches again.

It brings me down—all the massacres. So many fucking massacres. I hear cars zoom by with their loud rap music, like they’ve got something to prove in my neighborhood at night. But really there’s nothing to prove here. It’s a quiet street. Not like the one I grew up on. Not like the one where I would listen down below and hear a baby crying and would whisper lullabies into the night, to the thick brown carpeting, hoping maybe someone down there would catch on. But the baby kept crying and instead I heard the ding dings from the microwave and wrappers from candy bars and Jerry Springer on real loud. Sometimes the phone rang, the baby was ignored and you just wanted to tell them to pick her up already. Hold her. Somebody hold her!

But they didn’t. There was a dripping faucet in my own apartment to keep me company and a wall I would hug and hope it would hug me back, because I was all alone and there was nothing out there to change that. It made me fill with terror that I bottled up and sweat out and whimpered into the night.

***

The night I got the bottle I think of Matewan, where this shitty detective agent took this shitty job to start evicting families who were living in the Stone Mountain coal camp, just on the outskirts of Matewan, West Virginia, in Mingo County. I think about how those shitty detectives stopped to eat dinner at the Urias hotel. How fucking fantastic that they paused to eat because in that moment they created opportunity, they built a bridge of hope. Thinking about this, in my own dark night, I touch myself. Let my fingertips graze over my privates. I am drunk, remember? I am alone. I am home. The dogs are sleeping. It’s my time—time to breathe deeply in and out. I imagine those detectives walking to the train depot to catch their five o’clock train back to West Virginia. And I know the story. I know what happens next. The anticipation pulses in my blood. I’m full-on masturbating, thinking about how the fucking beautiful rock solid hero Chief of Police Sid Hatfield intervened. And it doesn’t matter my orientation. It doesn’t matter how much I make or if I live alone or with someone or what my favorite color is because Sid Hatfield hands over the arrest warrants to the detectives. I’m gulping breath like possibility. And, better yet, there in the dark around the restaurant and in the bushes were the evicted miners and their families. In my own dark, I can see it clearly, their eyes. Hungry eyed, armed, and ready for victory, in windows, in doorways, on rooftops.

And there it goes. Boom boom bang, “Ain’t No Power Like the Power of the People cause the Power of the People Don’t Stop. Say What? Ain’t No Power Like the Power of the People Cause the Power of the People Don’t Stop.” And I’m thrumming myself. And my legs are spread right and my breath is out hard and this is it— the uncapping of the terror. I am getting braver I am with hope I am getting bigger.

And suddenly, when it is all over, I put my head down and cry into my hands because I am just here and I remember that is what made me whimper in the first place.

I whisper to myself: screw singularity. I say it’s not about me. It’s about us. It’s about eleven small children. It’s about little figurine people encased in plastic. It’s about a girl crying on the stoop pretending like she’s not crying on the stoop. I say drop me off the cliff. There are hungry-eyed workers who’ll catch me.


Melissa Chadburn is a lover and a fighter, a union rep, a social arsonist, a writer, a lesbian, of color, smart, edgy and fun. Her essays and short stories have appeared in Guernica, SLAKE, Salon, The Rumpus, and a dozen other places. She’s currently writing A Tiny Upward Shove, her teenage foster care narrative. Reach her at fictiongrrrl(at) gmail.com or follow her on twitter. She loves your whole outfit right now. More from this author →