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Onion Eater : Andrea Worth


      Delores set dinner on the table. Two ham and cheese on rye from the bakery at Powell and Geary. She unwrapped one sandwich and scooted it over to the kid, left the other sandwich enclosed in its thick paper. Then she plucked a cigarette from behind her ear. Lit it. Sat still as slab watching the smoke curl up and away.

      "Dee," that's what the kid called her. "Not hungry?"


      "That's a waste of twenty cents."

      "Goldie," Delores sighed, "I'll eat later." Anything she ate now, would feel like a rock in her gut.

      The kid took a slurp from the mug of coffee they were sharing. She stared back at Delores without blinking. "So," she puttered her hands back and forth along the edge of the table, thubbing out the sound of a drum roll. "What's happened?"

      Delores stubbed out the cigarette. No use in waiting. If there was something to know, the kid would persist until she knew. "I was cut from my job today," she said. "Permanently"

      The drum roll stopped. The kid hunched forward, mouth hanging open. A rare expression of surprise. Delores could hardly believe it herself. She was the only female cable car grip in the city and over the years plenty of people rode the Powell line just to see her. But of course, that was during good times, and these days, most folks spat at seeing a woman work grip while so many men stood on the corner begging food. Since '31 they'd been slimming her hours down anyhow.

      Delores continued, "They had to scale back on workers. Buckley has the wife and the kids, so he keeps the job."

      Goldie slammed her hands on the table. Shot up. Her chair clattered backwards. Hands to hips. Fingers digging pock marks into her school uniform shirt. The kid started walking in small circles, as she did sometimes when she was perturbed. "Well you have me. I'm practically family right? No, I am family. Just explain that to them. Then ask if they've seen old Huff-and-Puff Buckley work? You'll get that job back."

      "Not gonna happen Goldie."

      The kid ran on indisputable logic. A one-plus-one is two kind of kid. At eleven years old she seemed to know better than most how to operate in the world. But of course, life didn't always ride a tide of logic.

      She stopped moving in circles and looked up at Delores, "What's your plan?" She bit her upper lip, making it thin and whitish, something Delores had seen the kid's mother do. Funny that Goldie, who didn't remember her mother, could so perfectly mirror her.

      "Something will come along." Delores said. That was all the plan she had, of course the kid wouldn't like that one bit.

      "What will the nuns say when you don't pick me up wearing that grip uniform? They've been set in calling you my father, and I never bothered to correct them. You put on a skirt for a regular woman's job and they won't know what the H is happening."

      "Goldie, don't curse."

      It had always been this way with Delores, her being confused for a boy or a man. She wasn't as tall as a man, she didn't wear her hair cropped, and she was well-enough endowed to notice, but it was the more masculine qualities that most people saw first. The thick forearms, veined hands, wide shoulders. The walk.

      "Dee, are we going to be out on the street? What'll happen?"

      Delores scooped the kid up and into her lap – an attempt to remind them both that Goldie was still just a little girl. "Don't hassle it kid. I'll make everything alright." Wasn't that her dime in life?

      Goldie sighed and put her head on Delores's shoulder.

      "You got all your fingers and toes and never been hungry a day in your life and got a good mind. So clearly I'm not terrible as a replacement part, right?"

      The coffee had lost its steam. In one swallow, Delores drank what remained. The liquid felt like a line of cold through her middle.



      After listening to Our Gal Sunday, the kid went to bed. At night, Delores always thought the apartment seemed too large. Too quiet. She wouldn't have minded so much if Abigail were around. That woman had a way about her that filled an empty space. Abigail left them both not long after Goldie was born. For the last eleven years Delores had tried to be mother-like. Learned how to scramble eggs and pat the kid on the head if she cried. She didn't look like a mother: nice hair and dresses and all of that. But she'd always provided. The kid had two pair of shoes, two shirts and her own hair brush.

      Delores imagined Abigail perched on the fire escape, smoking. Or stretched out on the floor saying, Damn I wished we had a peach tree. She loved pulling fruit right off a vine. Abigail and the warm curve of her neck, honey colored hair, soft skinned limbs. Too thin and not very honest. She gave Delores the then unnamed Goldie on the shore of the San Francisco Bay. The Golden Gateway. Back when it had been nothing but a flat beach, no bridge construction then, just blasting on both sides of the bay. Testing to see if the land on either side of the water could support bridge anchors. The air had vibrated with the sound of the blasting bombs as Abigail held the baby out, "If you have any mercy, you'll take her."

      Delores removed the weight from Abigail's arms. The baby squirmed as her blanket uncoiled and fell into the damp sand. Abigail turned and faced the open ocean. Her hair was hanging limp, even though there was a full out wind coming up off the water. She said, "I want to stay, but I'm not strong enough to be any kind of mother."

      She wanted to say something, whatever would come, but when she opened her mouth sound spread through the gateway. Rock cracking open. She could feel it in her chest and breath. Abigail walked away, along the line of ocean foam. Delores stood motionless with the baby until Abigail became a dark spot on the horizon. Until she became too small too see.

      There she was, with this kid. Nearby a few fishermen sitting on one stick stools. Poles in the air, fishing lines in the water. All of them looked toward the dust and smoke that rose over the gate. It seemed impossible to her then that there could ever be a bridge able to withstand the slicing wind. Grey weight of fog. Earthquake. The baby started to cry and Delores stood there in all that hard sound, wondering how the work would all get done.



      She should have gone out looking for jobs. Instead, after she got Goldie off to school, Delores jumped street cars, cutting all the way across the city. At Presidio she walked a dirt road that wound down near the beach. At one of the buildings used by the bridge district she sat down in the dust. She hadn't been back to this area since the day she got Goldie. Too much to remember. It had been their place, hers and Abigail's. A place where they came to get away from the city, lean on one another in the sand. Drink bathtub gin and laugh at nothing. It all looked so different now.

      In front of her, the bridge construction. Hundreds of wires stiffening up from somewhere within the ground. The wires gathered together in thick bundles, like muscle chords along bone. The chords stretched up and over the tower, which looked like a ladder to the sky.

      A man chumped down beside her. He held a shaking hand out and she briefly took it. "I'm Rover," he said. He stank like bad whiskey and hobo camp.

      "I see the work is going again." She'd read it was stalled out because the cable bands from Pennsylvania were all weak.

      "Oh yeah. See that there, up there?" Rover pointed to the upper part of the cable, a large machine Delores didn't recognize. "Hydraulic jack. Puts pert near four-thousand pounds of pressure along the bundled wires. There's about 25,000 wires for each main cable, they got to squeeze those wires together and then wrap them with steel thread. Cable bands will be bolted on about every fifty feet."

      "You seem to know a lot about it."

      "Yeah." He slid a bottle from his pocket and took a pull from it. Then he reached back into his pocket and brought out two other objects. Steel rivets, about two inches in length. "Got these. From this very bridge right here."

      Two men in leathered hats walked passed them. Heads high. Rover flared his hand into the air, "Fitzgerald!"

      One man kept on. The other stopped and approached them.

      "How's it Rover?"

      "Thinking of coming back to work. Here you're going to need bodies once you get to working roadbed."

      "Yeah, we'll be needing rivet punks." Fitzgerald shipped his gaze to Delores for a moment.

      "I could maybe start back with runts in the Friday afternoon clean up crew. How bout that, boss? I hear you got a safety net now?"

      Fitzgerald said nothing. Just sauntered away. Chin up. Shoulders back, as if they were solid plates grooved into just the right place along his spine. A someone who had everything in life well aligned, Delores thought.

      "I'm a bridgeman you know, or I used to be." Rover whispered. "Lost my nerve."

      He was looking down at his bulbed knees and skinny legs.

      "I come from a coal town. Knew plenty of miners that lost their nerve," she said. "Some days one of my brothers would have a funny feeling when he woke. Something not quite right. Sure as shit there'd be an incident somewhere in the mine that day. Next day some miner would be standing in the row, ready to go, but unable to move down the step. Everything in your body goes numb. Like you're being erased from the world. Ain't a good feeling."

      "That's exactly right. Not working, it's like I don't exist." Rover paused and looked back to the construction. The hydraulic jack worked its way along the cable, and behind it another machine wrapped steel thread over the wires, like wrapping a string around a finger.

      She stared down at her own knees.

      "But I'll tell you this," Rover said, "This bridge'll be here long after I'm dead and gone. But I was part of it. My sweat and tears are in there and that's got to mean something."

      "Damn correct." Delores rose to leave. She wondered what it would be like, working the bridge, constructing something that would last. She reached down to shake Rover's hand. He turned the rivets over one another, and then thrust them at her. "Keep them."

      She should have objected, but her fingers seemed to move on their own accord. She dropped one rivet into each pocket. As she walked away she could feel the extra weight, and for some reason, having a bit of the bridge with her, was a comfort.



      When the school door slapped open, Goldie was the first one out. As usual. Together they walked away from the crowd of children, toward Noe.

      "Any luck on a job today?"

      "Went to watch the bridge construction. Going again now that the foundry got them the cable bands." Delores said.

      "There's an idea. Can you do foundry work?" The kid was relentless.

      Delores looked around. They lived in the Irish neighborhood. Families mostly. The people were familiar, yet she didn't know any of them well. Nameless wives sweating, hanging laundry, hollering to no one. Husbands talking with one another on the corners. Dirt-creased children tearing all up and down the streets, playing stick ball and Pom-Pom Pullaway. Kids Goldie's size, but she never played with any of them.

      "Dee, I have been working on our plan. How about this. Since I don't actually need school, I could see about becoming a newsy. Alls I need is money to buy the papers, then I can find a good corner and sell. I can yell loud."

      "How about this: no."

      Compared to the families in the neighborhood, she and Goldie weren't desperate for money. She'd made a good living as a grip and put plenty of it into socks, which were now in a bag under the bed. Plus, she bartered for plenty of things, scrubbed walls sometimes in the bakery for a few meals. Other things.

      "No? Alright. Alright. I have a few other ideas I'm working on."

      "Look at this," Delores pulled the rivets from her pocket and showed them to the kid. "I got these from a bridgeman. You wouldn't believe how far the work has come along. Some kind of miracle and now we got a piece of it. One for you, one for me."

      As they walked, she repeated almost word for word what Rover had told her. About how a whole complex system of wires being compressed and wrapped. Each cable would look like one solid unit. An illusion, and after a while, no one would know any different.



      When she was young, Delores and her parents and her three brothers lived in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where there was more coal dust sifting through the air than air. They lived in a two room company house on a bricked road. Palettes on the floor. Newspapers lining the wall for warmth. Her mother's two best possessions were wooden spoons, which hung on nails beside the stove. Aside from those two spoons, nothing really belonged to them Everything else they ate, wore, touched was on scrip at the company store.

      She helped out as she could. Quit school. Collected coal that had fallen from the trains. Cut wood. Took the wash in when it froze to the line. When she got a bit older one of her brothers got her a string less guitar third or fourth hand, and the next year, another brother procured a few strings so Delores took to hopping trains, singing for people on the streets of Pittsburgh. Some weeks she returned home with a whole dollar. One morning she heard her parents whispering to each other in the darkness, "What will become of her? Near grown up and by the looks, isn't going to be the marrying kind. No work for her in a mining town."

      Shortly thereafter, one of her brother's was injured in the mine, Delores put on his clothes, decided to take his shift. She had been down in the mines, unauthorized, with her brothers since she first learned to walk. She knew how to lay track. Everyone knew it. But when she stepped in with the boys and men she'd known her whole life, they threw rocks at her until she ran back.


      Next day she left home. Headed west, like everyone. Looking to get something. Some kind of life she could slot herself into.

      Grip was the first and only job she'd had in California. She'd been so fascinated by the cable cars going up and down those high pitched hills that for weeks, having nothing else to do, she'd position herself at the Powell Street Station. Stood near the underground whir of the mechanics. Squinted at the grips, scrutinizing. Memorizing their every move as they locked the cable car in at the bottom of the hill, turned the wooden circle to get the car pointed right again. One day they were short a man and she trotted over to help. Worked the whole day. Next morning, she went back. Kept going back.

      One day Abigail came up behind her, jabbed a finger to her chest. "You ain't a man. Any fool can see that. I'll let you buy me a drink."

      A job. A girl. For the first time she felt that she was part of the world's mechanisms.



      Delores dreamed of the hydraulic jack. Compression. She woke with an idea fogging her insides. She found a sheath of oilcloth. Rummaged through the kid's sewing supplies. Set to work. When the kid appeared, standing in a slice of sun, rubbing her eyes, demanding to know why her box of buttons was upturned, contents scattered, Delores told her to take an orange and "Get gone to school, be good, and all that."

      After sewing all morning, working until her fingertips were blood dotted, she finished stitching. Held the garment up. It looked like a casing. Fastened, it would be a fleshy colored tube. She wrapped a thick material around her torso, pulled it tight. Buttoned. The material went from under the arms to the waist. Made her middle look smooth and flat solid. She donned the brown work shirt then her work boots. Looked in the mirror.

      If she hacked her hair shorter, she could pass. If she didn't speak much, didn't get to know anyone too well. Her interior organs seemed to press together. Resisting confinement. Her breath ticked tight. She recalled how her brothers had had to acclimate to the mines. How they'd had such a hard time at first, breathing underground. But after a while, it seemed natural.



      At the edge of the bay, a few dozen men were milling around the work-gate, trying to get close to the pushers. Delores knuckled through to the front, but when she came face-to-face with the man Rover had called Fitzgerald, she felt a nervous hum form in her throat. She turned away and looked out over the bridgework. The workmen had already started hanging girders out from the side of the San Francisco side tower toward the earth. Slices of light from the rising sun spread through the tower openings.

      "Wha'd ya do Boy?" Fitzgerald said from behind her.

      Delores turned. He looked at her hands, which were thick skinned and sufficiently scarred.          

      "I been a grip, over ten years. I can do anything. Hear you need hands."

      Fitzgerald gave her circular look. "I never forget a face. I know you?" He raised his eyebrows.

      Below them, near the water line, a derrick lifted steel legs from a barge and set them at the base of the tower. The steel limbs hocked out hard sound as they were stacked one on top of another.

      Fitzgerald sighed. His chest and shoulders seemed to deflate as he looked toward the place where she'd been sitting the other morning with Rover. He nodded in recognition. "I don't have any skilled work for you. Do yourself some good and get outta here."

      Delores felt a pounding somewhere under the material. She knew she should turn and run. He could call her out in a second and the other men around her would kick her down, then kick her up the road. Beat the audacity out of her. She took a deep breath. She could feel each and every rib.

      "Listen, it's not that I want to take a job from someone else, but I got a kid you know. And there's no one else to take care of her."

      Fitzgerald shifted his jaw back and forth, as if he was trying to snap something into the right place, but couldn't. He tapped his fingers against his Adam's apple. Delores thought he was going to step aside, pass her through. Instead he said, "I can't do it."



      That evening Goldie held up a gift. A woman's print skirt: white with red flowers. It was a damned ugly, lovely garment. Clearly made with superior skill.

      "First day all year the nuns haven't slapped my hands. I made it so you could look nice looking for work."

      What would she do, try to be a hired girl? She knew nothing about cooking, decent laundry. Office girl? She couldn't type. Waitress? That was only five hundred a year, maybe.

      Delores grabbed a hammer and a few nails from the kitchen drawer. Took the skirt from the kid and secured it to the wall in the sitting room.

      "Dee." Hands to hips. The usual.

      "Kid. It's art. We've never had a thing so colorful as that in this place. I couldn't wear it outside where it would just get dirty."

      Nothing more was said.



      Near midnight she heard the ruckus.


      Delores threw her legs out of bed. Forced her eyes open. She'd been waiting for this. She heard wood pushing against wood. Kid must have bumped into a chair.


      "I'm coming."

      A door slammed.

      Delores moved through the apartment and went to the hall closet, yanked the door open and circled an arm around Goldie. "All you'll find in here is the mop and broom."

      The kid sobbed. "Where were you? You were gone. I was looking everywhere and where were you?"

      "Just a dream. That's all."

      She picked Goldie up and carried her through the darkness. A path she knew by memory. Through the kitchen and out onto the fire escape. All the while the kid was mumbling, "Not a dream. It's not a dream. You just leave and no one knows where you are and I'm all alone."

      She settled into her chair with Goldie on her lap. Her nightshirt damp now with the kid's tears. "You can open your eyes. Stars are bright tonight."

      Delores always told the kid that there was no such thing as total darkness. That the stars were windows to the souls of other people, always out there.

      "Come on. Look at them. Oh now, there's the line of three. Those are for my brothers." She missed their heavy hugs and the way they would spit right before they had something important to say. By now, they probably all had wives and children, probably looked nothing like the lank limbed boys she recalled. She called out to them as if they were right there. "Hey boys."

      Goldie stopped sobbing and her breath came in even chops. But the muscles in her legs and arms were still clamped tight.

      "And look, we can even see the cluster of road sisters tonight. How about that?" The sisters were the girls Delores had come to California with. They'd helped her take care of Goldie for the first year, before they headed back to freight trains. A life of singing Jimmy Rogers's songs. On occasion, one sent a letter from Chicago or New York.

      "Tell me the story of onions." Goldie said. There was a whole collection of road sister stories that Goldie loved to hear.

      "Alright then, alright. At Mona's all the women came around to dance. But every week there would be one woman who ended up broken hearted. Sometimes a person you love doesn't love you back. But the road sisters, when they were here, they didn't allow no crying. If you were broken hearted you had to take your drink and a onion outback, peel the thin skin off and eat through one or two, depending. Get all the water out of your eyes, look up at the stars, which they called the consolations."

      "Did you eat onions Dee?"

      Once a week. Once a week she ate onions. Because Abigail had lived The Life. Oldest profession in the world. Lady of the night. Goodtime girl gone wrong. Prostitute. It was how she made her money, that was all. Abigail wouldn't ever talk about it, except to tell anyone who asked to mind their own business. Delores lived in one room above Mona's where Abigail would spent her free afternoons, and two nights a week. Then everything changed. She never said aloud that she was having a baby, but once it became obvious, she came up to Delores's place, gripping a packed bag. Looking like she'd finally come to stay. The next couple months, every hour, except for when Delores was pushing the cable cars, the two of them were together. At night Delores whispered stories, they would get an apartment or maybe a house. She bought a baby stroller and some of those ugly little blankets. If the baby was a boy Delores would bring him up to be a grip. Abigail remained quiet, tears slid from her eyes. It was an emotional time, that was all. Or so Delores thought at the time.

      "Goldie," Delores said, "At some time, everyone eats an onion. Most eat more than one. Can't always have exactly what you want."

      The kid opened her eyes and focused on the sky. "Where's the bright star Dee. The brightest one."

      They searched the sky. "There. Right there. Yeah, that one's Abigail's. See her? She's looking out for you the best way she knows how."

      "But how does she know where to find us?"

      For that, Delores knew of only one answer.

      It was a quiet night. No wind. Night roamers had fallen asleep and delivery boys weren't out yet. They were in-between the street and the stars. In-between late night and early morning, out of reach from either.



      Late afternoon on Friday Delores went back across the city. Work boots, grip shirt, the buttoned binding, a reference letter. She also had the things that Rover had given her: rivets and the knowledge of a weekend cleaning crew.

      She avoided the bridge district offices, where men were lining up for their pay, taking off their hats and gloves, getting ready to call it for the weekend. She saw Fitzgerald. He stood talking to two other men, kept his lips moving as she skirted past. She headed for the shoreline. Kept her eyes locked to his. Waited for him to make a move. But he didn't follow.

      A group of three men had gathered near the base of a derrick. Beside the massive machinery, they looked like matchstick men. One big-eared man and two others who were slipping long arms into jackets.

      "Three hours on Fridays and half day on Saturdays. You'll be paid Saturday when you leave. And it's cold as a frozen hell up there. I mean it."

      Delores stepped in beside them and nodded, as if she'd heard all this before. When the men started off, the big eared man grabbed her arm.

      "Name's Del," she told him. She held the two rivets, turned them over and over in her palm. "Fitzgerald sent me down for clean up. Said you needed the help."

      "Yeah ok, ok. Get going." Then he laughed and gave her arm a harder squeeze, "Better work on this noodle."

      She ran to catch up with the others. Hopped the derrick. Rose about a third of the way up the tower.



      On the steel girders of the bridge, she stood before a silver haired man. He wore no hat no jacket. Just coveralls, t-shirt, large block arms, and stiff boots. The wind was a wall of pressure. She had to lean in to avoid chipping backwards.

      "I'm Butch. And that over there is Jimmy. And this," Butch pointed to a weed thin kid, who seemed to be shaking a bit, "This is my brother Racket."

      Delores nodded.

      "Ok, Jimmy, you're on beams monkey boy. Get anything that's not secured and swing it over to the derrick." Butch pointed beneath them, "Del, start with the net."

      Delores looked around. The girders coming out from the side of the towers were like the crossline of the letter T, and under the crossline was a trapeze net. It looked like giant web and it extended just over the width and length of the working area, about forty feet below.          "Gather all that junk that's down there, get it near the edge and we'll pull it out. Ain't afraid of heights like this one here are you?" Butch laughed and smacked a hand against his brother's shoulder. Racket's chin quivered.           

      "Not afraid of heights, no" She grinned. Looked down into the net.


      For a moment, there was nothing but wind at her skin. Worldlessness. The sound of rushing, rippled air. She landed feet first in the net, then sloped backwards. The webbing stretched beneath her, then rolled her back to a standing position.

      The net was like a tunnel under the bridgework. There was nothing and no one to reach out to. Almost like working a mine shaft, except mines were airless, confined, and compacted with cold. In the net, the air moved. She was suspended above the beach, where anything as long as a bread box was secured in the net. Must have been countless smaller objects that went right into the bay, then into oblivion. Delores jumped up and down, the criss-cross of ropes expanded then firmed with the motion, bounced the objects nearer her until she was surrounded by hand tools, rivet guns, hardhats, wood planks, two large bottles of booze, a couple boots. She repeated the process across the net, then gathered and dragged the discarded items to the edge.

      Overhead, through the slats of steel girders she saw that the cables stretched so far up it seemed they were hung from the sky, rather than coming up from the ground. A cold blue was beginning to press through the evening red in the sky. Not much daytime left. But she knew she could work this job, even in total darkness. Not held by anything solid, but by something strong enough.