It is October 13, 2008. Reports of government bailouts and the largest gain in the history of the Dow Jones are on the national news, while in local news reports, there has been a significant increase in the numbers of power shutoffs for customers due to unpaid bills.
Jason goes to visit his mother, Tracey, and her tone is unwelcoming. She criticizes his facial tattoos and gives him five dollars. Jason is ungrateful, and Tracey scolds him for calling her “outta the blue” and asking for money. Jason responds by saying that Tracey had said that she had money when he called her and that he has traveled a long way to see her. Tracey explains that she did in fact have money at the point at which Jason called her, and Jason suddenly notices that his mother is “strung out.” Tracey and Jason argue when he confronts her about her drug use, and she claims to need the drugs for her back. When Tracey insists that Jason pay her back the five dollars the following day, he rejects the money, asking “how . . . did this happen?”
Chris goes to visit his mother, Cynthia, at her apartment, and when he arrives, she asks if Chris is hungry. Cynthia is wearing a uniform for her job at a nursing home. Chris asks what happened to Cynthia’s house, and she explains that she “got behind” and changes the subject. Cynthia wonders why Chris delayed telling her he was out of prison, and Chris explains that he needed those six weeks to adjust. When Cynthia notices Chris’s Bible, she tells him that she has heard rumors about his newfound faith. Chris credits the Bible with saving his life, and Cynthia invites him to relax on the couch and make himself at home.
They engage in small talk, commenting on each other’s changed appearances since Cynthia’s last visit to Chris in prison, and Cynthia tells Chris about her two maintenance jobs, one at the university and one at a nursing home. As their conversation falters, Cynthia becomes emotional and apologizes for her inability to visit Chris in recent months. Chris hugs his mother to comfort her and changes the subject to his mother’s friends. Cynthia curses Tracey’s name, which reminds Chris to tell her that Jason is also out of prison. Because Cynthia blames Jason for Chris’s prison sentence, she becomes angry when she hears the news. She asks Chris what happened in the first place to get them into such trouble.
It is July 17, 2000. Reports of “expanding opportunities for minority employees” in American companies like Johnson & Johnson and General Electric make the national news. In the local news, more Reading children are able to receive free and reduced school lunches thanks to changes to federal rules concerning eligibility.
Sounds of arguing and raised voices echo through the bar, where Chris, Jason, Jessie, and Tracey all yell at Cynthia to tell them the truth about what happened at the plant. Cynthia claims innocence, promising her friends, her son, and her son’s friend that she knew nothing about the removal of the machines that led to their losing their jobs. Tracey accuses Cynthia of betraying them, but Cynthia denies everything Tracey suggests; Cynthia warns them that the bosses are “going to use this opportunity to renegotiate [their] contracts.”
This information incites even more rage in Tracey, who threatens to strike if the bosses ask them to work longer shifts. Her words inspire more anger in Jessie, Chris, and Jason, and Cynthia cautions them by explaining that...
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some workers who have been at Olstead’s for many years are earning a lot of money and that the bosses “don’t want to carry the burden anymore.” She goes on to state that the factory could be moved to Mexico, where labor is less expensive, and when the others claim that the union will interfere with this plan, Cynthia responds that “the union don’t got a lot to say about it.”
At this point, Cynthia tries to change her tone and her message to be more supportive. She reminds Tracey and the others of what happened at a nearby plant when the union demanded too much. Jessie expresses confusion, and the others express disbelief and shock, so Cynthia points out that the bosses dismantled the machines without warning and likely moved them to Mexico. Though her friends, Chris, and Jason are angry with her, Cynthia insists that she is trying to help them. Finally, Cynthia informs them that the bosses intend to ask everyone to take a sixty-percent pay cut if they want to keep their jobs; soon, their benefits will also be cut and their hours extended. She suggests that they speak with Lester, the union representative, to confirm what she has said. Tracey breaks down in tears and threatens to burn the factory down.
It is August 4, 2000. On the national news, George Bush, the Republican presidential candidate, is traveling in the Midwest.
Cynthia sits alone in the bar, fantasizing about going on a cruise for her birthday. Stan asks her if she wants him to turn up the air conditioning, but Cynthia refuses. She looks for Tracey and Jessie, but they are nowhere to be found, and she explains to Stan that she was hoping they might follow tradition and come to the bar to celebrate her birthday. Stan reminds her of the trouble they’ve had, which inspires Cynthia to remember what it was like when she first started working at the plant. She was proud of her union membership back then and felt as though, as a black woman, she had been “invited to an exclusive club.”
Now, Cynthia is wracked with guilt for what is happening to her friends. Cynthia tells Stan that she suspects that they promoted her specifically to be the scapegoat and that she hasn’t been sleeping well lately. Stan reminds her that she is not the only one losing sleep, and Cynthia defends her ambition, citing her mortgage, her car payments, and Brucie’s decline as reasons she can’t step down from her position. Stan’s sympathy for their friends is unshakeable until Cynthia loses patience and tells him not to “get sanctimonious with [her].” Stan promises to mind his own business.
Cynthia laments the fact that her friends and her son refuse “to take the damn deal” and acknowledges the pain of hurting her own son, hoping that his job loss will mean he will move on from Reading to better things. Stan pours Cynthia another drink and tries to reassure her that she is not to blame and that many people are in similarly difficult situations. He informs Cynthia that he has decided not to vote in the next election, remarking, “no matter what lever I pull it will lead to disappointment.”
Tracey and Jessie come into the bar, and the atmosphere becomes icy. Tracey insults Cynthia to her face, and Cynthia tries to leave the bar as she tells Tracey that she “coulda taken the deal.” Tracey protests, and Jessie accuses Cynthia of wrongdoing; Cynthia defends herself, believing herself to be merely the bearer of bad news. Tracey is irate because the Olstead bosses refuse to allow her to access her own locker and personal belongings, and Cynthia explains that she tried to warn Tracey beforehand. The two women argue while Jessie orders a beer from Stan. When Tracey attacks Cynthia for coming to the bar in the first place, Cynthia reminds Tracey that it is her birthday, stating, “this is where we’ve always celebrated”—a reminder that gives Tracey pause.
As Tracey smokes a cigarette, she reminisces about Cynthia’s twenty-fifth birthday, when they spent the weekend in Atlantic City with their husbands and enjoyed champagne and seafood together. Tracey mentions an incident at the craps table during which a large-breasted woman “giving a full-service vibe” approached Brucie, who was winning; Cynthia reacted to the woman’s advances by attacking the woman’s breasts with her fingernails. The two women wrestled on the floor of the casino, Tracey remembers. Tracey reveals that at that time, she thought to herself that Cynthia was the type to “fight for what she loves, even if it meant getting scrappy and looking ugly.” The Cynthia from the casino, Tracey explains, is the Cynthia she is missing as their jobs hang in the balance. Tracey asks Cynthia to walk off the job with her and the others, but Cynthia refuses, explaining, “one of us has to be left standing to fight.”