Empty Space

by Heather Bell Adams

My right knee jerks up and down
and my hands won’t stop shaking.
Why so jumpy, Lorraine whispers,
and I shake my head but don’t answer.

I look down at my hands,
wrinkled and brown from years spent working outside;
they ache when the air is damp.
The nails are short and mostly clean;
I scrape the dirt out with my knife at the end of each day.

I think of the new foreman,
not more than twenty years old.
The sun behind him, his foot in a heavy work boot
propped on the lid of a plastic paint bucket.
Look, you’re gonna hurt somebody, he said.
Yourself or somebody else.

I stared at the white bucket
the splotches of dried paint along the side,
light yellow like butter.

Sweat dripped down the foreman’s neck.
You could see the muscles in his arms.
I’m not saying you’re totally done, man.
But with the heavy stuff –
we just can’t have you handling that.

Okay, there’s the shaking.
But I can put stuff down if I need to
and pick it right back up again.
It’s not like it happens all the time.

That kid shaking his head,
his own hands strong and smooth,
gesturing when he talked, palms up
as if to say I’m trying to be reasonable here.

When I told Lorraine, she frowned.
She’s going to understand, I told myself.
She will put her hand right here
on my arm and squeeze.
But she wrung out the dishcloth
and draped it over the faucet to dry.
It was bound to happen sooner or later.
There’s nothing you can do, William.
You have to expect it at your age.

Now I sit on the cushioned bench
listening to the organ wheeze and cough
feeling the cool air through the vent in the floor
and waiting for what’s coming next –
the body of Christ filling
the empty space in my hand.


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