"The Factory" by Elena Ferrante
* “The Factory” was originally published in Epiphany’s Winter 2014 issue, Risky Words.
In the factory—she had immediately understood—overwork drove people to want to have sex not with their wife or husband in their own house, where they returned exhausted and empty of desire, but there, at work, morning or afternoon. The men reached out their hands at every opportunity, they propositioned you if they merely passed by; and women, especially the ones who were not so young, laughed, rubbed against them with their big bosoms, fell in love, and love became a diversion that mitigated the labor and the boredom, giving an impression of real life.
From Lila’s first days the men had tried to get close, as if to sniff her. Lila repulsed them, and they laughed or went off humming songs full of obscene allusions. One morning, to make things perfectly clear, she almost pulled off the ear of a man who passing by had made a lewd remark and pressed a kiss on her neck. He was a fairly attractive man in his forties, named Edo, who spoke to everyone in an allusive way and was good at telling dirty jokes. Lila grabbed the ear with one hand and twisted it, pulling with all her strength, her nails digging into the membrane, without letting go her grip even though the man was yelling, as he tried to parry the kicks she was giving him. After which, furious, she went to see Bruno Soccavo to protest.
Lila had seen him only a few times since he hired her—fleetingly, without paying him much attention. In that situation, however, she was able to observe him closely. He was standing behind the desk; he had risen deliberately, the way men do when a woman enters the room. Lila was amazed: Soccavo’s face was bloated, his eyes shrouded by dissipation, his chest heavy, and his flushed complexion clashed like magma against his black hair and the white of his wolfish teeth. She wondered: what does this man have to do with the young man, the friend of Nino who was studying law? And she felt there was no continuity between the time on Ischia and the sausage factory: between them stretched a void, and in the leap from one space to the other Bruno—maybe because his father had been ill recently and the weight of the business (the debts, some said) had fallen suddenly on his shoulders—had changed for the worse.
She told him her complaints, he began to laugh. “Lina,” he warned her, “I did you a favor, but don’t make trouble for me. We all work hard here, don’t always have your gun aimed: people have to relax every so often, otherwise it causes problems for me.”
“The rest of you can relax with each other.”
He ran his eyes over her with a look of amusement.
“I thought you liked to joke.”
“I like it when I decide.”
Lila’s hard tone made him change his. He became serious, he said without looking at her: you’re the same as ever—so beautiful in Ischia. Then he pointed to the door: go to work, go on. But from then on, when he met her in the factory, he never failed to speak to her in front of everyone, and he always gave her a good-humored compliment. That familiarity in the end sanctioned Lila’s situation in the factory: she was in the good graces of the young Soccavo, and so it was as well to leave her alone. This seemed to be confirmed when one afternoon, right after the lunch break, a large woman named Teresa stopped her and said teasingly: you’re wanted in the seasoning room. Lila went into the big room where the salamis were drying, a rectangular space crammed with salamis hanging from the ceiling in the yellow light. There she found Bruno, who appeared to be doing aninspection but in reality wanted to chat.
While he wandered around the room poking and sniffing with the air of an expert, he asked her about Pinuccia, her sister-in-law, and—a thing that irritated Lila—said, without looking at her, in fact as he examined a soppressata: she was never happy with your brother, she fell in love with me that summer, like you and Nino. Then he passed by and, with his back to her, added: it was thanks to her that I discovered that pregnant women love to make love. Then, without giving her the time to comment or make a sarcastic remark or get angry, he stopped in the middle of the room and said that while the place as a whole had nauseated him ever since he was a child, here in the drying room he had always felt comfortable, there was something satisfying, solid, the product that was nearly finished, acquiring refinement, spreading its odor, being readied for the market. Look, touch it, he said to her, it’s compact, hard, smell the fragrance it gives off: it’s like the odor of man and woman when they embrace and touch—you like it?—if you knew how many girls I’ve brought here since I was a boy. And just then he grabbed her by the waist, slid his lips down her long neck, as he squeezed her bottom—he seemed to have a hundred hands, he was rubbing her on top of the apron, underneath it, at a frenetic and breathless speed, in an exploration without pleasure, a pure intrusive desire.
For Lila everything, except the smell of the salamis, reminded her of Stefano’s violence and for several seconds she felt annihilated, she was afraid of being murdered. Then fury seized her, and she hit Bruno in the face and between the legs, she yelled at him, you are a shit of a man, you’ve got nothing down there; come here, pull it out so I can cut it off, you shit.
Bruno let go, retreated. He touched his lip, which was bleeding, he snickered in embarrassment, he mumbled: I’m sorry, I thought there might be at least a little gratitude. Lila shouted at him: You mean I have to pay a penalty, or you’ll fire me, is that it? He laughed again, shook his head: No, if you don’t want to you don’t want to, that’s all, I apologized, what else should I do? But she was beside herself, only now did she begin to feel on her body the traces of his hands, and she knew it would last, it wasn’t something she could wash off with soap. She backed up toward the door, she said to him: You were lucky right now, but whether you fire me or not, I swear I’ll make you curse the moment you touched me. As she was leaving he muttered: What did I do to you, I didn’t do anything, come here, as if these were real problems, let’s make peace.
She went back to her job. At the time she was working in the steamy vat room, as a kind of attendant who among other things was supposed to keep the floor dry, a fruitless task. Edo, the one whose ear she had almost torn off, looked at her with curiosity. All of them, men and women, kept their eyes on her as she returned, enraged, from the drying room. Lila didn’t exchange a glance with anyone. She grabbed a rag, slammed it down on the bricks, and began to wipe the floor, which was a swamp, uttering aloud, in a threatening tone: Let’s see if some other son of a bitch wants to try. Her companions concentrated on their work.
For days she expected to be fired, but she wasn’t. If she happened to run into Bruno, he smiled kindly, she responded with a cold nod. No consequences, then, except disgust at those short hands, and flashes of hatred. But since Lila continued to show the same contemptuous indifference toward the supervisors, they suddenly began to torment her again, by constantly changing her job, forcing her to work until she was worn out, making obscene remarks. A sign that they had been given permission.
She didn’t tell Enzo anything about almost tearing off the ear, about Bruno’s attack, about the everyday harassments and struggles. If he asked her how things were going at the sausage factory, she answered sarcastically: Why don’t you tell me how it is where you work?
And since he was silent, Lila teased him a little and then together they turned to the exercises for the correspondence course. They took refuge there for many reasons, the most important being to avoid questions about the future: what were they to each other, why was he taking care of her and Gennaro, why did she accept it, why had they been living together for so long while Enzo waited in vain every night for her to join him, tossing and turning in the bed, going to the kitchen with the excuse of getting a drink of water, glancing at the door with the frosted glass to see if she had turned off the light yet and look at her shadow.
Mute tensions—I knock, I let him enter—his doubts, hers. In the end they preferred to dull their senses by competing with block diagrams as if they were equipment for gymnastics. “Let’s do the diagram of the door opening,” Lila said.
“Let’s do the diagram of knotting the tie,” Enzo said.
“Let’s do the diagram of tying Gennaro’s shoes,” Lila said.
“Let’s do the diagram of making coffee in the napoletana,” Enzo said.
From the simplest actions to the most complicated, they racked their brains to diagram daily life, even if the Zurich tests didn’t require it. And not because Enzo wanted to but because, as usual, Lila, who had begun diffidently, grew more and more excited each day, and now, in spite of the cold at night, she was frantic to reduce the entire wretched world they lived in to the truth of zeroes and ones. She seemed to aspire to an abstract linearity—the abstraction that bred all abstractions—hoping that it would assure her a restful tidiness.
“Let’s diagram the factory,” she proposed one evening.
“The whole process?” he asked, bewildered.
He looked at her, he said: “All right, let’s start with your job.”
An irritated scowl crossed her face; she said good night, and went
to her room. ◆
[Chapter 29 of Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, Book Three of the Neapolitan Novels]