I knew she was trouble when she walked onto the shop floor. There was a "don't mess with me" attitude about her that belied her small stature and would be out of place here. Not that she necessarily would instigate trouble, mind you, but that trouble would sniff her and break out all over the place.
"Uh, I'm not sure this is the place for you, hon," I muttered to her under my breath in the break room that afternoon. "I mean it looks like ya know what you're doin' out there on the floor, but, trust me, this is a hard job on a young woman. Makin' truck-bed shells from scratch for the regional trade is pretty much man's work. We ain't got a union, but we got customs and understandin's."
"You seem to be doing all right here, Ruth," Cleo said. She was keepin' her voice down too. The group of guys starin' at her from across the room weren't in earshot, if we kept it low, but they were leanin' in our direction and grinnin' and muttering to each other like they were bettin' on which of them was gonna ball her first. They were like that—every damn one of them out on the floor. Except for Tiny, of course, but he was just Tiny. You didn't often know what Tiny was thinkin' about anything, and everybody—and I mean everybody—stayed out of Tiny's way.
"Yeah, but the foreman is my brother-in-law," I answered. "I get the cat calls and suggestive talk too, but it only goes so far—and my brother-in-law ain't no saint about it either. But I'm no curly blond pretty thang like you is, anyways. I'm just an old, dumpy broad with sons as old as some of these losers."
"I need the job, Ruth," she said. "Got two young ones at home and no husband there, and Winchester Shells is about as good as it's gonna get by way of puttin' bread on the table. As it was, it's a good thing I know how to fork lift and power drill, or I'd have to be down on a pole at Big Jim's."
"Hey, hear that guys? Little Miss Sweetbutt here is invitin' us all down to Big Jim's for a pole dance tonight."
Dutch was one of the sassiest and most obnoxious of the bunch. Our luck he was passin' by from the Coke machine and heard that. She'd be in for it all afternoon now.
The circle of guys Dutch was saddling up to again gave appreciative cat calls and a few other remarks layered on top of each other that I couldn't make out in the babble, thank gawd. ". . . an maybe a lap dance after," was the remark left floatin' in the air when the rest died down. That was from Ed. Now, Dutch was the nastiest talker, but Ed was the one I made sure I wasn't alone with on the floor—brother-in-law or no brother-in-law. Ed was one piece of work.
"So, you see how it is, Cleo," I said when I turned back to her. She was givin' Dutch a pretty hard look, and he was givin' her a look back that told me I'd want to keep her close to me the rest of the afternoon if I could. "It's a bit worse now that we ain't got a supervisor on the floor for this shift. Ralph retired and they ain't bein' real fast to name a new supervisor. And I can see why not—none of them over there is worth a shit, except maybe Tiny sittin' by himself at the other table. But Tiny keeps to himself mostly. He isn't the kind who'd walk around telling guys to get the fuck back to work. Though they'd go if he did, of that I'm sure."
"Tiny?" Cleo said. She had the stunned look wrapped in a laugh about her.
"Yeah. Ironic, ain't it. But it's the name he saddled with when he rolled in here, and I don't know if I ever heard a Christian name for him. But he's OK. Tiny's OK. All by himself, of course. And any regular guy would look OK against this gang of cave men."
They both sat there for a few moments taking in Tiny. The joke, of course, was that Tiny had maybe a size and half on the biggest guy in the bunch of bananas sitting at the other picnic table and still ogling Cleo and muttering images of them with Cleo under their breath that had the other guys sneering and chuckling. But though he was big, Tiny wasn't fat—more like solid, solid muscle. And square jawed farm-boy looks like he might be a step behind the smartest guy in the room but that if you were in a brawl, you'd want to look around to make sure he was on your side. And Tiny was probably the youngest of the bunch. Couldn't have been much out of high school. The other guys didn't even try to pull him into their circle—but they walked a wide path around him. They didn't give Tiny any lip—just more or less treated him like he wasn't there.
"So, what happened to your old man, sweetie?" I asked, trying to pull Cleo's attention away from the mounting tension and testosterone level in the room. "I doubt the 'left you for a younger, prettier model' works in your case."
"Nope. John was OK. More than OK. The love of my life. Got caught in a mineshaft collapse over in West Virginia. You might have heard about it. Around Christmas the year before last."
"Aw, sorry to hear that, hon. Still, if I was you, I'd keep lookin' for other work even while your tryin' to do the job here. These men will eat you right up. It might be better if and when they got a supervisor in here for this shift, but . . ."
"Thanks, but I'll manage," she said as the buzzer to end the lunch break sounded. "I'll manage because I have to."
The first of the troubles happened early that afternoon, right after lunch.
The guys were at the benches, cuttin' the fiberglass panels for the shells and using power drills to drive the rivets in shells bein' assembled. Cleo was on the fork lift, takin' stacks of fiberglass panels from where they'd been delivered out on the lot, past the guys at benches, and back to the storage area at the rear of the old airplane hangar that made up the shop floor.
As Cleo would make a pass by the guys, they'd toss out passes at Cleo, which got raunchier and more pointed with each of her slide bys. On one pass, Dutch turned and took a step into the corridor Cleo was usin' to track the fork lift and yelled out, "Any trouble with that gear shift, girl?" And he unzipped himself and exposed his dick to her. "I got somethin' for you to shift here tonight," he yelled.
The guys around him hooted and hollered and bunched up as they took a step out into the passway too. I headed for the open steel stairway up to the offices, afraid this was going to get ugly. I looked over at Tiny in passing, but he was still at his bench, goggles on and sparks aflying from the cuttin' tool he was usin' on the fiberglass. It didn't seem he was seein' any of this, and I didn't really expect him to do anything about it—I was mostly just glad he wasn't mixin' in with it.
I hit about half way up the stairs as Cleo was coming back with the empty fork lift from the back of the hangar. I held my breath as I saw her bearin' that fork lift right for the bunch of guys—and at dangerously high speed. I was frozen. I couldn't have raised anyone from the office in time even if I'd kept runnin' up those stairs.
Guys scattered in all directions as Cleo bore down on them with that fork lift—all except Dutch, who just stood his ground with a mean expression on his face. But then he too lost the chicken game, even though Cleo brought that fork lift to a stop within two feet of where he'd been standin' before he dove to the left. When he stood up, we could all see that he'd peed himself down one pant leg. And Cleo no longer was the center of attention. The other guys were gathered around Dutch and pointin' and laughin' and makin' fun of him.
Only three of us in the hangar were lookin' at Cleo. Me; Dutch, who was wearin' a venomous stare; and Tiny, who had stopped and raised his goggles and was lookin' around, more mildly interested in why work had stopped on the floor than commitin' to anything.
That broke the tension on the floor that day—but not by much. Most of the guys got back to work, but two of them stared at Cleo whenever she came near them—Dutch with his mean "gonna get vengeance" stare, and Ed, who was givin' Cleo an interested look in a way that made shivers run up my spine.
That evening I made sure I was there to walk Cleo out to her car, thinkin' that if anyone was to plan on doin' anything to her, this would be the time and place.
I'd put her in her car and told her to watch her back and to think twice about comin' back to work the next day—with her just smilin' at me and thankin' me for my concern, but saying she thought she'd stick it out—when I heard the door into the hangar squeak as it was pulled open. And when I turned, I saw Dutch comin' out of the hangar door. He was staggerin' a bit, lookin' drunk. But then I saw blood on his face.
I looked back in the car at Cleo, and she just smiled and raised a wrench from the seat beside her, and all I could do was think, "Well, girl, you've gotten into the center of it now." But I also felt good, maybe for the first time in months. I told myself that Cleo maybe was only makin' it worse for herself, but I couldn't help feelin' a whole lot of 'you go, girl' too.
It was maybe a week of the guys movin' around sullen but subdued on the shop floor before trouble flared up again—but when it did, it was a doozy.
This time it was Ed. And Ed was a whole new level of worry over what Dutch had been. Dutch was pretty quiet now, still favoring a swollen jaw—and, I had no doubt, festering some hurt.
This was early morning, before scheduled work. I was in the office, talkin' with my brother-in-law, askin' him to try to do somethin' to ease what was goin' on down on the floor, but not gettin' anywhere. "If she's going to fit in, she's going to have to do the fitting in," was all Jack would tell me. And as much as I hated to admit it, I knew he had a point, that what he was sayin' was reality, even if it wasn't right or fair.
"Well, at least get us a shift supervisor," I said, being as stubborn about it as I dared. My brother-in-law wasn't what you would call close with me. He wasn't that close with my sister either, if truth be told—and I didn't want to be the cause of any extra trouble in that department.
"I'm workin' on it," he said. "May have to bring someone in from the outside. Not much talent in that way on the floor now."
Got that right, I thought.
I was leavin' the office and standin' on the steel platform outside the office door, high above the shop floor, and I could hear the sound of power equipment down on the floor. Someone was in early.
I looked down and saw that it was Cleo. She'd obviously come in early to get some of her quota assembly work done before the guys who were crowding her showed up. But she had missed by one. As I watched, I saw a guy comin' through the open outside door and onto the shop floor—and movin' toward her. It was Ed.
Once again I was frozen in place—for a moment—but this time I pulled myself away and entered the office and demanded that my brother-in-law come out and at least take a look at the sort of stuff happenin' on the floor.
When we got back, Ed had Cleo up against the bench, her back to the bench, and he had an arm at either side of her, cagin' her in, and he was leanin' in to her. I was about to scream somethin', but a piece of power equipment started up down there and they wouldn't have heard me over that anyway.
As I watched, I saw that Cleo had a power drill in her hand, and it was on, and she was pointing it south between her and Ed's bodies. A second later Ed was jumpin' back and backin' away from Cleo like maybe he'd just saved his manhood—and maybe he had.
"Looks to me like everything is under control," my brother-in-law muttered, and then he turned and went back into the office.
Late that afternoon the clincher was put to everything. I had been up in the office and could see as I came down the stairs that the circle of guys were gathered around the door of the break room and were being real quiet—all too quiet for these guys.
I came down the stairs as catlike as I could and moved over to where they stood. One of the guys turned and put a shushing finger to his lips. There was a gleam in his eyes I didn't like all that much. "Not sure you want to see this," he whispered.
I gave him a disgusted look and pushed him aside so I could move to where I could see into the break room through the crack in the door.
Cleo was on her back on one of the picnic tables, her jeans on the floor at her feet, and Tiny, also without trousers, was standing between her spread legs and was movin' in and out, givin' her a good fuckin'. And she wasn't resisting it. Cleo looked like she was have a fine old time of it.
I started thumpin' guys on the arms to the left and right of me and pullin' them away from the door. I threatened in a hush whisper to say somethin' louder, to let Cleo and Tiny know we were out there, and the guys reluctantly started movin' away and leavin' for the day.
The next work day, it was quiet as the grave around the shop floor, and everybody had their noses in their work just like we was being closely supervised and ready to give the day's work we was being paid to do.
At lunch, Cleo suggested that she and I go over to the burger place just down the street a bit rather than take our lunch in the break room.
"You saw, I assume?" She asked when we had our burgers and were sittin' at a table on the place's patio.
"Saw what?" I didn't want to step on my tongue in case she wasn't talkin' about what I thought she was.
"Tiny and me. In the break room yesterday afternoon."
"Yes," I said tersely.
"And most of the other guys too? They saw too?"
"Yep. All of them, I think."
"Good? You mean you did it there on purpose, so they'd see?"
"Yeah, I did. I didn't want the guys gettin' their fat lips one by one. It could take some time, and we needed to establish what was what. That it was Tiny and me. and if they didn't like that, they'd have to go through Tiny."
"You mean like what Ed tried to do to you at the bench yesterday morning?"
"Yeah, you saw that?"
"Yeah, I was up at the office door with my brother-in-law. By the time we could do anything, Ed was backin' off."
"Guess he valued his dick more than he wanted me," Cleo said. And then she laughed.
"So, you and Tiny? And Dutch's messed up face last week. That was Tiny?"
"Yeepp. By the way, his name is Cal. Tiny's name is Cal. You bowled me over when you called him Tiny that first day. There's isn't anything 'tiny' about that man. But I think that's funny, and it's what you all call him, so I've been callin' him that here too."
"Tiny's a nice guy, Cleo. I know you're bein' givin' a rough time here. But usin' Tiny like that . . ."
"Tiny and me were sackin' out before I came to work here, Ruth. In fact he's the one who told me about this job. This ain't about usin' Tiny—although he's quite useful, I admit. This is about takin' the tension off the shop floor and cuttin' out all of the crap. Tiny and me are fine. Tiny's the best fuckin' I've had since my husband died."
"Oh, well, then. I guess you plan on stayin' on the job here."
"Yes, I guess I do. But, I was thinkin' of movin' up a bit, maybe. That empty shift supervisor's job, for starters."
I looked around at Cleo's face. I couldn't tell if she was serious or just joshing me. But I more than half hoped she was serious.