Wives of Serbian Machine Fabrication Shop Owners are People Too
by Patrick McNichols
As I got out of my nephew’s car in the driveway of All CNC, a little machine fabrication shop, I could see why a lot of people didn’t know about the place. The shop is located in an unassuming concrete building on the edge of the Charlotte airport. The only thing marking the building as All CNC is that it’s painted on the glass of the front door. This is more for potential customers than for people just driving by, as the place can be hard to find at times.
As I walked up to the glass doorway, I could just see their dog, Roman, sitting there looking at me knowingly. As I opened the door a loud ring let out in the back of the shop, where it’s loudest to let everyone know that someone had entered. This was the signal to Roman. Just as the bell rang he made a bolt for the door. I tried to get in, but my small stature was only a bump in the road to him; he rammed my legs out from under me and zoomed out the door before it could close. Mary then came jogging through her office door, “Did Roman get-.” She stopped there as soon as she saw me picking up my things. “Don’t worry about it. He’ll be out there doing nothing for ten minutes, then come back when he realizes it’s boring out there. Dog has no memory I swear.”
As I got up I noticed that I was suddenly all covered in white hair, as was the blue carpet we were standing on. “Is it always this hairy around here?” She took a quick look around, clearly feigning interest. “We usually make an attempt to vacuum if a customer is coming over, which reminds me, I need to vacuum. But we are a machine shop; they are going to expect us to be dirty.” She replied with that sly, crooked smile she had been embarrassed about for years, but I knew she was definitely telling the truth.
The shirt she was wearing was spattered with grease and grime and then matted with metal shavings in places. Knowing how clean she likes things to be in general, I asked her if it bothered her. Instead of answering, she picked up a napkin and rubbed it in her nose. What came out was unknown to me, but it was completely black. “Would this bother you?” She then threw it at me, at which point I answered my own question by moving out of the way with haste.
Since she was vacuuming I got a chance to see the shop in more detail. In the actual production part of the building it looked more like a mechanic’s shop but without all the cars. Instead there were large machines with identical parts sitting beside them waiting to be processed in some way. I had no idea what any of them did, but they looked complicated and there was clearly a need for a programming language to operate them. But what struck me more than sights were the sounds. How can three people make such a racket? The whole place was just noisy. Between that and the vacuuming I thought I might go crazy. So I decided to wait in Mary’s office with the door closed for some peace and quiet.
About ten minutes later Mary came in. Apparently the dog was back in just as she predicted and Peter was talking to the customers, something that she was a little apprehensive about. “He can be a little blunt, well, rude is more the word. But every once in a while he just wants to do things himself. I guess he just wants people to know that he’s in charge even though I practically run this place.” Finally I got my interview started. It had been 20 minutes and I hadn’t even gotten a single question out. Then just as I opened my mouth to ask one, a loud grinding noise came from the fabrication area that clearly sounded wrong. Mary ran out of the room promptly without a word as I cursed silently to myself for jinxing it. From the other room I could here a couple of deleted expletives and frustrated groans.
Another ten minutes later and Mary was back. “Apparently our customers got curious as to how we run our parts so well on the same brand of machines they own and they totally screwed it up. Now we are going to be forty-five minutes behind on a P.O we need to complete by tomorrow.” It was then that I just spouted off my first question about how she grew up so that I could at least get something down on paper before she was off to attend to something else.
There wasn’t whole lot of emphasis on exactly the how as the who. She specifically she zeroed in on her younger sister, Teena. “We were always fighting, 24/7.” She even told a couple of stories about how violent she got sometimes. At one point a knife was thrown at Mary when they were teenagers. I found it surprising that she laughed the whole way through that story. I wouldn’t have thought it was so funny. “I would always do something passive aggressive like mow the lawn in the morning right outside her window while she was in her ‘beauty sleep’…I’m a caretaker, not a fighter.” It was that final statement that made her decision to quit her training as an interior designer all together for parenting more understandable. “I’m way more proud of the fact that I had kids rather than some certificate that says I can decorate stuff.”
She then went on to tell some stories about her kids. I could really see that gleam in her eye that made her happy when talking about them, it was inspiring in a way. But she was starting to go on too long about them so I got her onto a subject that I didn’t know was a sore spot at the time. I asked her when she met Peter.
She shifted her wait uncomfortably as she answered, “About 12 years ago, we’ve only been a couple for 10 of them though….He was a raving alcoholic at the time.” Turned out he was in AA now and sober. But she still drank every once in a while, which turned out to be the source of some major friction in their marriage. “Even if I haven’t had a drop of alcohol for days he will still accuse me of drinking and says he can smell it on my breath and he can’t sleep with that shit around. Then he leaves and goes to work.” She smiled the whole time while saying this, but I could tell it was faked. Every time she ended a sentence on the subject she couldn’t seem to look at me. I felt sorry for her. Mary blames it on his Serbian blood, that they always have had anger and control issues. But from my perspective it’s hard to tell, but it looked like she was making excuses for him.
I could tell that this was a subject that she could talk about all day, so I tried to change the subject by asking her how they came to open the shop, as Mary was making good money working for Best Security Systems and Peter worked for Okuma Machining. It turns out that because of a conflict with Okuma, Peter opened the shop and Mary sacrificed her position with Best to work there almost salary free. A few questions later she got on Peter’s involvement with A.A. again. What did surprise me about it though was that she talked about him with sadness and not anger. It was unusual to me. But I again tried to change the subject by asking her what her job was. “I’m the accountant/machine operator/food supplier/secretary/motivator. She said that with pride and from what I knew about her it was easy to know that she wasn’t exaggerating at all. So I wondered what she did that was just for her.
“Well Thursday nights used to be when I would go and shoot pool. But now I only have Sundays. That’s the day I sleep in late in my clean fluffy sheets that I cleaned the night before. Then I clean the whole house top to bottom and mow the lawn…I guess I just feel at peace when doing that kind of stuff,” Sshe said with that weird crooked smile on her face. It seemed like a good place to end the conversation, so I just asked her what she saw herself doing in 20 years. “Hard to say, but I just hope I’m retired, and have a hobby. That’s all I want.”