plain china: best undergraduate writing

Volume One : Issue One


by James Dunham

Motion by Mary Kincannon


Michael said he worked once at a mayonnaise factory. Eight straight hours cracking eggs. They came by pallets twice his height. And when you get a rotten stack, damn. Damn that smell, make you want to puke. Sometimes you open up a carton, and see, you wouldn’ know the egg was rotten until you broke the damn shell, and there it go, right on into the vat. Your hands be all numb by day’s end, wrists in pain, had to put ’em on ice.


White cinderblock walls echo bay-door chain’s clanking.
Gray metal rolls up like window shade.
Outside, a ramp digs below ground level;
at the bottom, a metal grate drains rainwater.
I roll a wheeled trash can to the dock’s edge,
stopping on its giant rubber lip.

Michael told me once about the loading dock overflowing,
water sliding under the door, litter clogging the drain.
He said they took that ten-foot pole—
it made a noise you shoulda heard
when they punctured that slab-a garbage.
He puckered a hollow sucking slurp.

Now, rusting shovel in hand, he jumps down to wet concrete, frowning.
He scrapes soggy newspaper and foam cups into the blade,
plus Burger King bags, cigarettes, and shards of glass bottle.
He doesn’t speak, lets downpour soak his shoulders.
While he scoops in dripping rubbish, I don’t let the can budge.
This time the drain will not stop up.


Crow’s feet from squinting in years of sun. Hands dark, hot and calloused, veins in ridges bulging to knuckles. The darkest tan, the skin of his face hangs, but still the shape of his cheeks shows bone. A moustache in dark gray curves his upper lip, above a cigarette that dangles when he speaks. A baseball cap says Bluegrass fm. Under it, stiff and wavy, his hair sculpts a thin salt-and-pepper curtain covering his neck, some of it an oiled sheet combed up to hide his scalp. A jacket worn through on wiry arms, its iron-on patch half-falling off, reading: Virginia Gentleman’s Club.


Bowman’s made alcohol. One time some kook-head got into a accident. Wine come floodin the whole damn place, all up to muh knees and everthing. We had to evacuate, and everone was laughin like they was all drunk from the fumes. Had to pour wine out of their shoes—I ain’t never seen nothin like that. And when me and my brother was drivin home, we passed by a trooper standin there in the grass. He musta smell us from the side of the road, cause he come speedin after and pull us over.

Said, “You boys been drinkin?”

I said, “No more than usual.” Told him the whole damn thing, about that guy at Bowman’s fell asleep drivin his forklift, right into a pillar, he was dead as anything.


My dad was three sheets to the wind, drivin his pickup one night, and he hit a hydrant, knocked it clean off. Guess how much the county charge him? Two thousand dollars. He had to pay for the lunches of the guys who put in the new one and everthing. But see, he drive off after hittin it, and you know how the cops find him? They follow the trail of water in the road, cause the bed of his pickup was all filled over.


I was drivin my junk heap to work one mornin, damn fog everwhere. And there she standin; I step on the brakes, but that ain’t do no good. Damn goat. All I saw was the legs going all up on top of the car, and the noise, bluduluduluda. Opened the car door and gre-e-eat day, blood everwhere, all up on the windshield and the bumper and the hood, and that old farmer man, standin there cryin.


I ask Michael why he never takes lunch breaks, only fifteens to smoke cigarettes. He says It’s out of season and laughs at his own joke. One morning he comes in from smoking only minutes before the people scream. They’ve seen a woman shot in the back on the sidewalk.

Them FBI guys in their shiny shoes, they done ask me all sorts of damn questions. Wouldn’t even believe I work up in here. Can you believe that? It figures, don’t it? My ol car was parked up on the hill where they thought that shot come from. They thought I was the one goin around shootin people with a damn sniper rifle. I saw one of them same guys in here bout a week later, but he was all in disguise. I mean, hair everwhere, damn jeans all tore all to hell, you wouldn’t even recognize him. But I did. They ain’t gonna fool ol Michael.

It didn’t surprise me; I remembered other stories, of debt collectors from a car sold back ten years ago, pursuing until he declared bankruptcy. Of men who stole his camera, though he’d taken no pictures, after he found a plane crash in the woods and saw bodies high in the branches. He’d worked his whole life, but never “made it.” People took interest in him out of need, to enforce law, or maybe to exploit. He would die, and the world would forget.


In response to corporate policy:
That don’t make no damn sense.
to repair:
Good as new. Al-most
to a wayward horsefly:
Uh-oh, here come Bush-Cheney again.
to his doing something right:
Movin on up!
to my being late:
Where you been at, slickum?
to someone he thinks lazy:
I’m gonna paint his ass black.
to his Mormon manager:
Look out, here come preacher-man.
to the end of a work day:
Time to get on down the road
to cutting corners:
Now that’s the way that works.
to a question he can’t answer:
Put it in the compactor. Old Blue.


Unpacking boxes of colored paper, he said, James, you any good at readin people’s faces? I offered a blank stare. I was at Wal-Mart the other mornin, musta been Saturday, gettin some groceries, and this ol woman come up to me. A frown slid down, burying his eyes now turning inward. I knew she was gonna say somp’m to me. You know what she said? She said, “Mister, you got the saddest face of any man I’ve ever seen.” He laughed, Ain’t that somp’m? But I ain’t gonna tell you what else she said.

About the Author

James Dunham

Susquehanna University

James Dunham is a double-major in creative writing and philosophy at Susquehanna University. He writes mainly fiction, but also poetry and nonfiction, and has been published previously in on-campus journals and an outside journal, Glossolalia Flash Fiction.

Of his essay, he says: “I worked with Michael at a craft store for several years before coming to school for writing, and his southern storytelling always amazed me with its choice of details, humor, and poignancy. He had every working-class job I could think of, and the more I became serious about writing, the more I wanted his stories and his character to be preserved. When I took my first poetry class, the form of the sequence suddenly offered me exactly what I was looking for: a way to show a series of snapshots containing some of Michael's best anecdotes, so that they could both stand individually and also build off each other to illuminate his character. The form also allowed for description of my own interactions with him as well as the details of his person, and even a list of his unique catch-phrases. I consulted him for confirmation of the accuracy of his tall tales and received his permission to seek publication of the piece.”