What About India?
Making ends meet in the global economy.
First published by The Manchester Review, Issue 16, June 2016.
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At the start of the work day, Marsha felt fine. Perky in fact, coffee pushed aside, eyes on screen, fingers on keyboard. She'd found a bug and posted a problem report, priority 2 in her opinion. A chat box from Randy, the senior development engineer, appeared.
– hi marsha priority 3 not a functional problem
Yes it was, she tapped back.
– no marsha priority 3
Randy was one of the smartest people alive but Marsha didn't buy not a functional problem. Maybe she'd go upstairs, meander the hallways and aisles, find his cube in the heart of brainland, lay out the case for priority 2. But just then her supervisor's hand beckoned from a conference room where co-workers had been in and out all morning.
Marsha took a chair facing the supervisor, a friend, almost, same gender, a few years older. Words flowed from her mouth. Forms slid across the table. A packet appeared.
– Four weeks with full use of the facility for those four weeks. That's very generous, Marsha. Severance pay, let's see, two weeks for every year, yes, twenty-four weeks. Not bad.
The supervisor raised her face, removed reading glasses, and told Marsha her performance was not at issue, that Marsha had fallen prey to market exigencies, had been caught in a major resource action with hundreds affected.
Marsha's stomach hurt. The supervisor slid a hand her way.
– Take the rest of the day off.
Marsha told her about the bug, how it should be priority 2.
– Marsha, go home. Take time for yourself. Oh. Next week. Set up a call with Rohit in the Bangalore office. He's taking your work.
Marsha powered down her cube, slid packet and laptop into her backpack, passed security, buzzed through glass doors, maneuvered by Jersey barriers, tramped black tar and white lines, found her car, a Prius less than a year old with payments of three hundred a month. Had they needed a new car? It was a hybrid, good on gas, good for the environment. Her daughter Zoelle had taken the old car, a Corolla. Her husband Bill had a pickup, a Ranger from the nineties. Three cars were borderline necessary, not excessive, but she might have looked for a good used car, cheap, paid cash.
Marsha thought about Zo, going into senior year, looking at colleges, for the past three weeks her heart pinned to a dorm room at Boston College. Zo resembled Bill, stringy, hawkish, not tall, not short. Marsha was shorter by a few inches. She'd acquired a slight tummy bulge but nothing to fret over. Last visit her internist gave her an A – excellent labs, no lumps, sure, lose a few pounds, not a big deal.
Marsha thought about her mother-in-law, oh how she's gonna love hearing of this. She lived with her boyfriend in an apartment over the garage of the boyfriend's sister's house. Her body had gone round, her hair stringy. She dyed it barn red. She worked at the Target next to the mall. She thought that Marsha's family thought her family was riffraff, beneath them. Not true. True that Marsha's upbringing comprised salaried jobs, home ownership, savings, the accoutrements of suburban white collar life, but her family didn't look down on wage earners and Marsha didn't consider marrying Bill marrying down.
Their neighborhood was Boston suburbia. The Prius passed scraggly woods and backyard fences. Off highway crouched shopping centers, strip malls, business parks, professional parks, real parks, and developments of coiling roads with their capes, ranches, splits, and colonials, their maples, oaks, and pines, their lawns and hedges. It was mid-summer with its intense green, its drippy heat, above-ground pools, in-ground pools, sprinklers, droning mowers, the perfume of fresh-cut grass. Their house was a small colonial, circa sixties, on half an acre.
Marsha stopped at Market Basket for chicken legs, ziti, and marinara for a cacciatore. Also a small flank steak for Bill who tired of chicken and fish. And eggplant for Zo who'd turned vegan two weeks ago. Cook the chicken separate from the sauce, not quite a cacciatore.
Marsha sat at the kitchen table, laid her head on her arms, let her eyes water. Her stomach felt better. She pushed away and addressed the stove.
Zo arrived and skipped stairs to her room, responding to Marsha's call-out with a text-me. Marsha brought thumbs to phone.
– r u @hom for din
– crs ! zxxxooo (Of course. What do you think! Zo, three kisses, three hugs.)
Marsha stirred sauce with forays to the living room window. A pickup stopped out front – not Bill's, Bill's boss, Biff. The passenger door opened and Bill hopped out. A moment later, Marsha and Bill stood in the kitchen. They kissed.
– Where's your Ranger?
– Fuel pump crapped out.
But Bill had a plan. Tomorrow, Saturday, he'd be helping Biff with some inside work, hanging cabinets. First they'd pick up a pump and pop it in.
– Is Biff paying you for tomorrow?
– You know what, they asked us over tomorrow night, after the cabinets, Biff and Fran.
Fran was Biff's wife. They had a sprawling ranch with tiled patio and in-ground pool. They'd be putting out barbecue, Bill said, beer, wine, just the four of them. Perfect weather and Fran was a hoot, right?
– So he's not paying you.
– C'mon. Marsh. Hon. Baby.
Bill leaned over the stove. What smelled so good? He lifted lids. Italian, his favorite. Was there an occasion?
– I do have an announcement.
Bill cocked his head.
– When we're all assembled.
Marsha lit a small candle. Diet coke for Zo, Chianti for Bill and her. She planned to announce before eating but the moment passed. Bill never asked, intent on the cacciatore and flank steak. As the meal wound down and Zo cast her out-of-here look, Marsha rang a spoon on the side of her wine glass.
– Ta da.
Faces looked her way.
– Well, it was a rough day at work. I was let go.
Zo raised her eyebrows. Bill's mouth opened. Marsha explained the severance package, the twenty-four weeks. That they couldn't go on like before unless she came up with something but jobs were scarce. They had to budget like that income was gone.
– Mom, does this mean I don't go to BC?
– Honey, we can talk about that later. Only. Well, think about UMass. It's a great school and you can commute.
Zo jumped from the table, face red, fists clenched, her life in ruins, how could her mother do this? She pivoted, ran upstairs, slammed her bedroom door. Bill's head hung over his cacciatore remains. Marsha walked upstairs, knocked on Zo's door, talked to her through faux walnut, told her it was still early, she could apply for BC as well as UMass, see what she got in grants, look at the numbers, please. Marsha's phone buzzed.
– ih8u ih8u ih8u zxxxooo
Downstairs Marsha found Bill with the laptop. He could get the fuel pump cheaper online. Pop it in next week. Biff would give him rides meanwhile.
– Maybe we don't have to be that extreme.
– You said it yourself.
– We could get rid of the Prius.
– We'd lose on it. We have to keep those payments going.
Marsha showered, washed hair, slipped into a satin sleepshirt, blue paisley from Victoria's Secret, sat on the edge of the queen, legs crossed, blanket and sheet turned down. She wanted closeness. She needed passion. After a few things were straightened out.
Bill exited the bathroom toweling himself, eyes running up Marsha's legs and sleepshirt.
– Well, well.
– We have to talk.
Bill dropped the towel and sat alongside. He looped an arm over Marsha's shoulders. His other hand brushed her leg above the knee.
– You can't keep rolling over for Biff. We can't afford it.
Bill pressed his nose against Marsha's cheek.
– Are you listening to me? When's the last time you had a raise?
Bill brought his face away from Marsha's.
– Look, Marsh, hon, let's not get into it now.
– When then? Tell me when. Tell me!
– You know, Marsh, at least I have a job.
– Oh. I can't believe you said that.
– Throw it in my face.
Bill dropped to his knees, held Marsha about the waist with his head in her lap.
– I shouldn't have said that. I'm sorry. I'm stupid.
Bill drummed the top of his head.
– That's me, dumb as a stick.
Marsha took a few short breaths, a sniffle, a laugh.
The lights faded. Marsha's sleepshirt departed. Kisses came, Marsha on her back, Bill on his side, leaning over. His fingers roused her left nipple. His lips moved to the nipple. Marsha felt calm, felt warm, felt Bill's hand tiptoe past her tummy, felt a beam of light as from a half-open door, heard a voice, soft, but not Bill's, her daughter's.
– Mom. Mom. Why aren't you answering my text?
Marsha tilted her head to see Zo backlighted in the doorway. Bill removed his lips from her nipple and tugged the sheet up.
Zo crossed to the bed and formed a seat against Marsha's left hip.
– Mom. I'm sorry for being such a bitch.
– Zo, don't say things like that.
– No, it's true. I told Sara and my best friend tells me, she says how could you behave like a witch when your mom's in crisis? Can I give you a hug?
– You know, Mom, I can get you in at Barnes & Noble.
– Zo, you work at the Starbucks concession.
– I know everybody there. I'm in tight with the bookstore management. Like this.
– Thank you, honey. I'll take it under advisement.
Next morning Bill stood on the edge of the lawn, carpenter belt draped over a shoulder, hammers hanging, Biff due in minutes. He turned to Marsha.
– Sweetie, could you do me a teeny favor? Mom needs a ride to work.
– Did you tell her about the layoff?
– She needs to be there by ten. Yeah. I mean, how could I not?
Twenty minutes later, Bill's mom opened the passenger door of the Prius and pushed in a wide-smiling face.
– Well, welcome to the riffraff, Marsh.
She turned sideways, got a leg and half her buttocks into the car, gave a push, got the rest in. Pulled the seat belt, buckled up.
– Sorry. I couldn't resist that.
Marsha twisted toward her mother-in-law and turned her head to back out of the driveway. Her mother-in-law continued to prattle.
– Hope you're not offended. You know, you may not think so but I was really happy about your office job. There in high-tech. I thought you guys had it made. Whoa, watch out for that Beemer.
Marsha swerved as the BMW to their front poked its nose through a stop sign. Her mother-in-law threw up a middle finger.
– What an asshole. But then things started to happen. Heard it on the news. My sig other says, he says, you know what, those jobs are going the same way the rest of them, right to the Pacific Rim. That's what he said.
Marsha stopped in the fire lane by the front entrance of Target. Her mother-in-law unbuckled.
– I can get you in here. You'd make team leader in two years.
She pushed the passenger door open.
– But first take the unemployment. Take it till it runs out, every nickel, the bastards.
She leaned over for her hug.
That evening Bill and Biff were attempting forward flips off the diving board. Eight o'clock, eighty degrees, poolside, Fran and Marsha in lounge chairs, whiff of fading barbecue, dimming sky, stars, cold white wine. Biff failed to complete a rotation and splashed backside. Fran jumped to her feet.
– Jesus H, knock it off, youse two. What do you do if you hurt your back you stupid fucks?
She sat down.
– Sorry about yelling at your hubby. The stupid fucks. A few beers and they're kids again. What's the matter? C'mon what's the matter? Besides losing your job?
– It's just …
– Yeah, yeah.
– It's just that Bill hasn't had a raise for years. Not making near union wages. No overtime. Things like that.
Fran drained her wine glass before replying, voice low. They paid Bill as much as they could. They gave him forty hours every week, week in, week out, never laid off even when it got slow. A bonus every Christmas. Most guys would suck cock for that. She poured more wine.
Marsha looked around. Four bedrooms and three-and-a-half baths on two acres of manicured lawn. Three-car garage, full basement. Shrubs, bushes, flowers. Small wood lots flanked the north and west edges of the property.
– It's just that it looks like you're doing okay.
– Let me tell you, this house, which Biff built with his own hands, is once again mortgaged to the hilt.
So they could buy a few lots, put up a few more houses, hope someone bought them, at a profit. Fran went on. They used to take two weeks off, take the kids to Disney every winter, didn't do that anymore. They used to eat out all the time. Now they ate in all the time. They used to go into Boston for Bruins games. Now they watched the Bruins on NESN.
Marsha sipped her wine. Fran sipped hers.
– I see the looks, from our old friends, from high school, like, you got money and we don't. But try running a business. What would you do if we didn't have the business?
She jumped to her feet, wine sloshing.
– Stay off that fucking diving board, both of youse.
Marsha's days in high-tech wound down. There had been no formal announcement of a resource action, no list, but within departments, the marked ones were known. Chance hallway encounters induced eye aversion, a paling or reddening of the face, the half-smile nod, the gulp. Jokes – wished they were the ones getting out of there, getting a package.
Randy, the development engineer, one of the smartest people on the planet, got the ax too. Of course, he was in a different league, he would land on his feet. Google, Amazon, TripAdvisor, HubSpot, Turbine, Spindle, Facebook, Microsoft, dozens of companies Marsha had never heard of, start-ups. He would find a berth.
Meanwhile he ranted. Marsha had meandered the upstairs maze, found his cube. Three other development engineers, all male, sat there, one in the spare chair, one on the edge of Randy's desk, the other cross-legged on the floor, chubby, bald on top, sides pulled into a pigtail. Randy, lanky with tangled dark hair, leaned back in his swivel chair legs askew. He nodded for Marsha to join. She leaned against the entryway.
– Let me tell you this place cares nothing about good engineering. Or good product. It's all profit. A bunch of bottom feeders. Shovel out shit and rake in money. You know why they're laying off? The real reason?
Randy paused for a look-around.
– Because engineers in Bangalore and Beijing can be had at one-third our cost. Are they any good? Doesn't matter.
Earlier in the day, Randy had forced a meeting with Ben, the division manager, a vice-president. Randy knew Ben from younger days, from the polytechnic, both starting as engineers, Ben picking up an MBA and slipping away, climbing the ladder. Randy laced hands behind his head and reconstructed the meeting.
– So he starts off thanking me for my long and exceptional service, the layoff being no reflection on my abilities, forced by market exigencies, etcetera, etcetera. I say, Ben, for Chrissake, this is Randy here, could we drop the bullshit? Okay, he says, look around. You know what they call a senior engineer? A needless expense. That's their thinking. They want cheap.
The cross-legged engineer interrupted.
– Yeah, they want us cheap. But not them. Not Ben with his fat salary and stock options.
– Not that fat.
Randy stared at the ceiling.
– The real money's at corporate headquarters. The CEO. A few senior vice-presidents. Ben's a bit player.
Marsha wandered away, left the boys. It was hard to commiserate. Their salaries were in the hundreds of thousands. That did mean they had farther to fall when jobs and prospects dried up. More of a splat.
Marsha adjusted her headset and dialed Rohit in Bangalore for the hand-off, eight in the morning her time, eight in the evening his. Rohit spoke in that syllable-cadenced English where every sentence seemed to end with a question mark.
– I am so sorry to learn of your situation, Marsha.
– I'm sure you are.
Why did she have to say that? There came a pause.
– You know, Marsha, it is not so easy here.
Yes, jobs flowed in but the population was large and competition fierce. In high-tech regions like Bangalore, inflation overpowered pay checks. There was great stress. There was the feeling they could be spit out any time. Jobs were going to China instead of India.
– Listen, Rohit, I didn't mean to sound like that. I'm just upset.
– It is okay, I understand, Marsha, it is not your fault. Let me tell you what it is, it is the globalization of capitalism by the one percenters, just like the Hydra. Do you remember your Greek mythology? The Hydra with many heads devoured everything in its path and you could not stop it by cutting off its heads. Because two grew back for every one cut. It is the same now but worse.
Rohit's words merged and faded. Marsha envisioned Rohit in martial pose, toes out, knees bent, planted in the center of the subcontinent, lopping off Hydra heads with a two-handed sword.
– Marsha, you have no control over your destiny.
– That's not true, Rohit. There's things I could've done.
Marsha paused. Rohit waited.
– I could've got on the automation team. But no, there I was plump and happy with my day-in, day-out, not learning anything. If I'd shown some initiative, if I'd looked around, if I'd got on automation.
– Marsha, Marsha, two people on automation got cut. It is not you. One day they need twenty cogs. Next day they need fifteen. Kiss your ass goodbye.
Who got chopped in automation? How did she not know that? Rohit from the other side of the world was telling her what was happening in the next set of cubes. She wondered if he had a family? Did his wife work? Did they have money in the bank?
He was still talking about cogs.
After dinner that evening, Marsha and Bill sat at the kitchen table, Bill behind the laptop. Marsha's phone hummed.
– fabnews zxxxooo
Steps sounded on the stairs. Zo appeared.
– You won't believe it. It's amazing. Guess. Sara. Sara's thinking of UMass too.
– Yes, Mom, the University of Massachusetts.
Zo expounded. She could live at home, a big savings, not to mention the lower tuition, and UMass, what a great school. She'd commute with Sara, share expenses, use Sara's car most of the time. That's wonderful, said Marsha. Likewise, said Bill.
Zo floated back upstairs. Bill floated back behind the laptop. His eyes lifted.
– How's the job search going?
– I've got some interviews lined up.
– That's great.
– That's not great. There's two hundred people looking at those same jobs.
– Something will come in. Just keep plugging away.
Marsha leaned and glanced at the laptop screen, could see power tools streaming by. She raised the pitch of her voice.
– Yeah. Well plug this.
Bill opened his arms.
– You know. This isn't easy for any of us.
But especially me, thought Marsha. You, she thought, you got your hammers, your nails, your Biff, your loud-mouth Fran, your Christmas bonus, your, oh where I am going with this? Where am I going?
Marsha interviewed and lined up more interviews. She smiled, she talked, she demonstrated her proficiency. Supplied references. Was called back for second interviews. She expanded her search, took leads from headhunters, interviewed on the phone with a start-up in Texas. They invited her down for a second interview.
– They're paying to fly me down.
Bill needn't have worried. The fly-down transmuted to Skype. A week later the position had, in their words, no longer become available.
Bill's mom told Marsha to go on unemployment and work under the table. A friend of her boyfriend needed help cleaning offices at night, ten dollars an hour, cash. Ten dollars under the table was like twelve or thirteen reported, she explained, good money.
In October, Marsha interviewed at Barnes & Noble, settled kitty-corner from the store manager at a small table. He looked up from Marsha's resume.
– You're way over-qualified.
– Look, I like you, Marsha, I like your daughter. But I hire you, you're here a few months, then you pick up something in high-tech and, bam, you're gone.
– There's not a lot to pick up in high-tech. I could really use this job.
Next morning, the store manager called with an offer, as a bookseller, money half Bill's instead of double, but health insurance, 401K matching, holidays, vacation days, sick days. Opportunities for advancement.
As Marsha fell into the job, one event remained painful, whenever a former co-worker walked in, like Jim who used to work four cubes over. His face reddened as he stumbled through hi, good to see you, yeah, well, okay, gotta run. But the second time, not so bad. Third time, almost normal.
– Hey, Marsh, how's it going?
– Hey, Jim. Okay. They still shipping those jobs to Bangalore?
– Or somewhere. I heard they were closing Bangalore.
– Really? Well I hope you're safe.
– So far so good.
Three mornings before Christmas, Marsha opened her car door on the fringe of the parking lot, where the employees parked, and stepped into a northeast squall. Frigid fingers tightened ski jacket hood and fled to pockets. On the ground, leaves, dirt, and paper skittered; in the sky, clouds skipped against hazy sunlight. By late morning, Marsha had thawed, felt comfortable amongst her books in the stacks. Bill buzzed with fabnews. Biff had delivered the Christmas bonus check.
Marsha couldn't hear the amount. Bill was hollering and what were the sounds behind his voice? Marsha pressed the phone closer, heard traffic, heard banging, wind whistling, Biff yelling, he was coming up with another bundle.
– Are you working outdoors?
– Oh. Yeah. Just tacking down a roof while we have some good weather.
– Are you crazy? Does Fran know you're roofing?
– Hon, I'm wearing my woolies. For God's sake, don't call Fran.
A few minutes later Zo buzzed. Marsha stepped from the stacks and looked across to Starbucks. Zo's face flashed a come-hither.
– Mom, are you blocking Gram's calls? Please answer her so she stops calling me.
Zo leaned over the counter and lowered her voice.
– She can get you some year-end inventory work.
Graveyard shift, over the table, but ten-seventy-five an hour, good money. Zo shifted eyes right and left.
– Do you want an espresso on the sly?
– Could I get a biscotti?
– I can't do that, Mom. It'll show up in inventory.
A little past dark, Marsha slumped in her car seat, hands in her jacket pockets, legs and shoulders shaking, waiting for the Prius interior to gain heat. Her head started planning dinner but wandered. Sure, they would make it, Bill and her, and Zo – they had assets, they had two jobs. Others were worse off. Rohit in India. But she felt dull. She felt discarded. Her phone buzzed in her right hand and she brought it out from its pocket. An unfamiliar number, local. She swiped.
– Hey, Marsha, it's Randy.
Randy? Marsha knew he'd landed at a start-up named ECBM. Maybe they needed someone. She straightened her posture.
– Marsha, you remember Ben? Our division manager? We're starting our own company, the two of us.
– Wow, isn't that risky. I mean especially Ben, he's a vice-president. He could be CEO some day.
– Not if the other vice-presidents have anything to say about it. Look, Marsha, we'll need a few people right away, in a month or so, as soon as the funding comes in. I thought of you.
– Yeah, well, I'm certainly available.
– Great, great.
The phone went silent. Marsha thought the connection had dropped. Then Randy's voice returned.
– It's not like what you had before. More like an office manager. And the salary, well, it's kind of commensurate with that.
– Nothing in engineering?
– There's no engineering jobs.
– What? What are you guys building that you don't need engineering?
– We need engineering. It'll be outsourced.
– All of it?
– Well maybe some component integration. Look, in-house engineering's no longer a viable paradigm.
– A what?
– Marsha, our business plan wouldn't have a shot if it called for salaried engineers. Not when that work can be shipped to China.
– What about India?
Jesus, did she say that? She could see Randy's eyes narrowing, his lips extruding. His voice returned.
– Whatever. But right now China's cheaper. Look, are you interested?
Marsha pulled her left hand from its pocket, unzipped the jacket halfway, and pushed down the hood. The Prius interior felt warm. Toasty in fact.