E y e o f t h e N e e d l e
(originally published in Threepenny Review)
He was a noisy fellow, with puffy eyes and rounded shoulders. Everywhere he went he made enemies. He always said, "It's not my fault. People take me up wrong. They misinterpret what I say." He told that to his mother who lived with him in a three room flat.
She said, "Manny, what's the matter with you? A nice boy like you, and no friends. No girls. No nothing. You've got a bad disposition."
In truth, Manny was no boy. He was thirty-five years old. He usually tried not to answer his mother. He'd grunt, then brush his hair with his fat palms off his face.
"Well, that's life," he would say crossing one huge leg on top of the other and squat further down in his favorite chair, and clean his fingernails with the end of a fork that rested on an old ashtray.
His mother would shake her head and go back to her knitting.
"Who ever thought I'd see the day when a son of mine would end up like this?"
Then Manny would start to sing the beginning of Carmen, his favorite opera. He'd sing lightly at first and then, inspired by silence, louder and faster, until the neighbors started to knock.
"Hey, take it easy in there," they would holler through the walls.
"Go to hell," Manny would growl. "I'll sing in my house if Ifeel the urge."
Then he'd jump up, and rush off to the factory he worked in nights.
It was snowing that night, and Manny pulled his long, boots up over his pants, threw on his raincoat, and went to the door.
"Take your umbrella," his mother said.
Manny turned for the umbrella, but then changed his mind and went to the door without it.
"Do you have your umbrella?" she called out shrilly.
"Yes, ma," he answered, and left.
He walked heavily down the old, wooden steps that creaked andsplintered under his weight. The hallway smelled of dirt and cold. A fat, grey cat was curled up on the bottom of the steps, out of the cold. Manny pushed his shoulder against the door and went out into the snow.
Manny had no friends. He worked at night doing piece work. He made the bottom of flannel pajamas. He worked in a long, dark room with fluorescent lighting, over a low, wooden, table, covered with cloth.
Manny started towards the factory. It was six blocks away. The snow fell lightly, keeping people off these streets that wound around each other without any plan, leading the walker astray.
"Manny!" he heard, from high up, somewhere behind him. It was his mother's voice. He didn't look back. "Manny, your umbrella! It's snowing. You'll get pneumonia."
He kept walking.
"And be careful when you cross the street. You remember what happened to your father on a snowy night like this!"
"I remember, ma," he called to the snowflakes that fellover his wool cap. "It was nine years ago yesterday, ma." He knew she couldn't hear him. "It's time to forget."
His mother couldn't forget anything. Whenever it snowed she reminded him of his father who was run down by a car on a snowy night.
Manny bent inside his quilted lumber jacket. He felt the snow fall lightly on the back of his neck, soft and gentle. It made him feel calmer. He walked heavily, watching his boots.
He stopped at the corner when the light flashed red, thoughthere were no cars were in sight, and waited for it to flash green.
On the front door of the factory a sign read, "Pajamas, Piece Goods and Other Works." He pushed the door open and went in.
One other man worked with him. His name was Jacob. Jacob would sit at the other end of the long table, facing Manny. Both would bend down over their work, rarely talking, looking away iftheir eyes happened to meet.
Manny always came in at nine, and worked until two in the morning. Whenever he came in, Jacob was there. Manny would nod his head and say, "Good evening."
Jacob wouldn't answer.
It went on this way for years.
One Christmas evening Jacob had boasted about his teeth.
"I've got perfect teeth," he said, and grinned at Manny.
Manny was impressed. He didn't have anything that was perfect.
That night Manny came in and Jacob wasn't in his usual place.
He was sitting at the far end of the table in the huge, open factory room. The fluorescent lights were shining right on him.
"Jacob," he called loudly, "why are you sitting there?"
Jacob did not reply.
"Answer to me!"
Jacob did not look up from his sewing for a moment.
"I need conversation tonight, Jacob."
Manny was sick of it. He grabbed a bunch of cloth in his hands, stuffed it in his basket and packed it all under his arm.
"Enough is enough," he muttered loudly, and pulled his hat far down, almost over his eyes. "A man can only take so much," Manny's voice echoed in the open space. "There's a time for everything, Jacob."
Jacob didn't hear him, or if he did, he did not reply.
Manny covered the basket with plastic, pushed the door open and went back, trudging through the cold, snowy night.
He felt like it would take him forever to reach his apartment. The snow, tossed by the wind, flung into his face. He decided tobring something home for his mother and looked around for a store that was still open. Most stores had closed long ago.
He crossed a small street. Leonard's was still open. He thought it might be. Leonard hated going home to his sick wife and stayed as late as he could. It didn't matter what kind of weather.
Manny saw the light on. He pushed the door open. There was no one behind the counter. Leonard was probably in the back, doing inventory.
"Anyone here?" Manny called out.
Leonard, a guy in his mid-sixties with tufts of grey hair,loose jowls, and slippery green eyes came shuffling out. He had on the same wool overalls he always wore, with a vest over them.
"Who else would be out on this kind of night?" Leonard said when he saw Manny standing at the counter, looking over the stock.
"I want to bring home something for my mother," Manny called out. "What you got here?"
"What's the occasion?"
"There's never an occasion with you, is there?"
Manny kept looking.
"Some people have, and some don't have occasions." Leonard eyed Manny up and down.
Manny didn't care. He pointed a big finger at a shelf.
"Give me that box of chocolates there."
"For your mother?"
"You can't fool me," he said with a greasy smile. "There's someone else for Manny. Finally. Isn't there?"
Manny kept pointing and said nothing.
"Should I wrap it in pink?"
Manny's finger started trembling.
"A good looking dame?"
Manny thought of his mother always saying the same thing to him. Manny started chewing his tongue.
"What you got in your mouth, chewing tobacco?"
"Give me those chocolates!"
"I can't. They're sold."
Manny's mouth hung open. "They're not."
"This afternoon, before it started to snow." Leonard pulled the box off the shelf and showed Manny a piece of paper on it. It said
Manny wanted to cry. "Get me another box."
"It's the last one I have. You usually see me carry these kind of chocolates?"
Manny turned heavily and pulled his coat up tighter.
"Where are you going? There's other things here. Bring your ma a bunch of bananas."
Manny hated Leonard. he pulled his wool cap down even furtherso he couldn't see him, and went to the door.
"Where are you going? No one else is open."
"On vacation," Manny said as he got to the door. "Me and my ma, we're going on vacation."
"Yeah," Leonard said, "I heard that before."
Manny pushed the door open and cold, wet air washed him. It calmed his nerves. Made him feel clean.
He started walking heavily back towards his apartment. When he got there, he climbed the stairs and shook the handle to the door. Locked. She was probably sleeping.
He reached into his pocket, got out the key, and turned itas softly as he could.
A raspy voice called, "Who's there? Answer!"
"Only me, ma."
"You're home too early. What's the matter?"
Manny said nothing. He took off his wet coat and pulled off the galoshes one by one.
The voice got more strident. "What's the matter? Did the factory close down?"
Manny fell into a stony silence.
"Can't you answer a person who talks to you?" His mother's thick voice bounced off the walls. "Am I such a villain? Such a sour disposition?"
"What should be the matter?" Manny called back, and reached fora piece of brown flannel that he brought home to work on. He snatched it and stomped over to his favorite chair.
"What's the commotion? What's going on?"
"I'm trying to get circulation," Manny called louder, "into my very cold feet."
Manny sat down with the flannel and looked around for some needles. He kept them everywhere. The cord from the hanging light touched his head. First he brushed it with his hand. Then, he pushed himself up, grabbed and pulled hard, three times in a row.
A high light breezed all over the room. Manny tugged at the cord. It shone more fiercely.
"The light's shining under my door," his mother called. "Make it lower. I can't sleep."
"Am I such a monster," Manny called, "that I'd shine the light so my mamma couldn't sleep?"
"You never know," her creaky voice answered, "I wonder sometimes."
He yanked the cord and lowered the light. "Better?"
His mother said nothing. She did not come out, thank him, or tell him she knew it was hard to sew in the dark.
Manny felt his face grow weary. He began to fold the flannel, laying out a pattern. He couldn't remember which way it went, thelong way, the short way? It felt like sawdust. He folded it into a neat, little hanky, lifted it up and blew his nose. The flannel was damp in the middle from Manny's nose. He turned it over and wiped it on his mother's favorite table, rubbing it gently, back and forth.
For the first time in years, Manny's strong hand was trembling. He couldn't work. He sat heavily, holding the fabric with one hand, and picked up a needle with the other. He held it to the light.
Through the eye of the needle, Manny saw the years passing. He saw him and his mother when they were young, saying these same things to each other. He saw that nothing would ever change.
"Mamma," he yelled out, "it's snowing this evening."
No answer. She was probably sleeping.
Manny picked up his needle and threaded it slowly.
A little, round clock ticked loudly on top of the closet. Manny listened to it. A half hour had ticked away. He had wasted time,wasted money. He wouldn't be paid. Mr. O'Knotten paid him five dollars for each basket he filled. On an average night he'd fill ten baskets, other nights he'd fill eight. On a good night, he'd fill twelve baskets. Once he'd filled sixteen.
Manny listened to the clock. He started crying softly. It soon grew louder. Sobs rose from the bottom of his enormous belly. He gasped for air. Banged the edge of the table.
His mother's door flew open and she came running out, wrapped ina torn cotton bathrobe.
"Manny, my baby, why are you crying? Tell your mamma."
He just cried more and more until his cheeks puffed out and his tears streamed like juice down his face.
"Tell your mamma, my baby."
Manny cried, "No. Leave me alone. I want to get married. Ican do it. Once I filled sixteen baskets."
"Sixteen baskets he's filled and he wants to get married," his mother moaned. "Manny, Manny where's your brain? You can't make a family on sixteen baskets."
Manny cried harder and she went away.
Later, he peeked through a crack in her door and saw her sitting in her chair, wrapped up in a shawl, staring at nothing. He saw her face was pale and wrinkled. He saw her white with age. He saw that she was going to die. He saw he would be alone.
He couldn't wait.
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