MIDWESTERN by Courtney Ebert

We created vessels – perfect aluminum cylinders waiting to be freighted and pumped full of high-fructose corn syrup, aspartame, carbonated water, caffeine, dyes, natural flavors, long words that (Preserve Freshness), the spirit of (American Dreams). The adjacent warehouse contained towers of stacked pallets, shiny pillars – empty bodies – stretching up as offering. Forklifts buzzed. Machines hummed – vibrated – like the inside of a wasp nest. The air pulsed with contradicting, contracting sound waves.


// On night shifts I felt on the precipice of a dream. Time warped. Slowed. Quickened. Thoughts blended and bled. Machines hissed – sighed.  //


Most of the workers were men wearing jeans, monosyllable name tags sewed to blue button-ups, beard nets, cigarettes pinched between thumb and finger. The few women working the floor, creating and inspecting bodies, wore warm smiles – or no smile at all.


// My smile could be described as warm – open – too inviting. //


Undergrad summers. 6:30 to 6:30 shifts. Full-timers encouraged education – complained of pain and exhaustion and lost boys with lost eyes. We served as relief for their bodies. Mine was still young – perfect. It was good money. I didn’t have to talk to anybody or pretend to like them. Didn’t wear makeup. Didn’t do my hair. Steel-toed sneakers, protective goggles, gloves, earplugs, over-ear protective muffs, newfound stoicism. I was automaton. Cyborg. Sexbot.


// Sometimes I can still feel the dull fire in my spine. //


I was obsessed with filling bodies. On days off I drank from aluminum cans until someone new was on my lips. I looked for markings indicating manufacturing – imperfections. The more I had the more I wanted. My eyes felt alive – wanting.


Our town makes cat litter. Ketchup. Washing
machines. Kitchen appliances. Horseradish.
Cardboard boxes. Cans. Batteries. Cows. Corn.
Nuclear energy. Now I live somewhere without
belonging. I feel like I live between spaces. They
make lawyers. Government contractors. A Future
President.  I think about going back –


– before smartphones, we spent summers in
the middle of nowhere, listening to music – fondling
around a bonfire and drinking Natty, Kamchatka, Four
Loko. Cars parked in rows like seeds planted along tall
corn stalks that went straight down for miles. Stalks
cocooned us in the dark. The dirt was dry and cold. To
have sex back then, one needed to be creative, hopeful.


// I don’t remember the last time I felt so new – shiny and light.

It feels like the end of something. //


I used to drive down Route 6 with classic rock on the radio, windows down, and pass golden brown field after field after flat green plain. I was unaware that if I continued, I’d find myself in California, maybe Massachusetts, then the bottom of an ocean – like a can – or dead body. Then, the road existed only under rolling cumulus clouds. Next to the horizon on all sides loomed crimson signs insisting HELL IS REAL without providing directions. It was there that the sun rose and fell across the whole meridian in a cascade of reds and purples. There that the moon appeared full and orange above interchanging fields. It was easy to ignore what lay ahead. The empty road seemed endless in its solitude. It stretched forward toward the coasts like a long dark vein.


// The cans paraded down roads to vending machines – grocery stores – schools – hospitals. Perfect bodies behind glass walls.  //


A black sky – full of so many tiny white stars I took them for granted. They looked farther away back then, the sky vast – the world open to endless possibilities. I was chasing a feeling. Didn’t want to date. All those first and last times. Some felt almost like something. Someone from Ireland. He played football – had an accent – a name that rolled around my mouth like a verse. I had just pierced my lip – a clunky silver hoop. Straightened my hair. Wore black eyeliner. We started in the field under the black sky. He was better than the American boys. When he finished, he didn’t rest his hands.


 // The stars are almost imperceptible where I am now. I can’t find the way without them. It feels like the end of something.  //


I thought about his hands while mine worked. His confident fingers and palm pushing and filling. I thought about his hands as mine pressed buttons – grabbed four-foot flimsy plastic sheets to whip over a layer of cans with a flick of my wrist. It had taken weeks to perfect the motion. The factory hummed loudly outside my earplugs – vibrated against my sticky thighs leaning on the palletizer. One wrong move and the cans would be crushed. Ruined. Bells and alarms rang, forklifts beeped – knocked things over. The palletizer moved with me, for me. The cans on the conveyor belt undulated in – out – in. I wiped my brow with my dirty forearm. Dust. Oil. Sweat. If I had my gloves off, the palms grew grimy and gray. I thought about his hands reaching across the ocean. Time came and went. I avoided the clock’s face. I had learned to want nothing from it. The aluminum bodies marched forward – toward someone waiting.

Photo by Ishikawa Ken, used and adapted under CC.