A right of passage for a sixteen-year-old in East Longmeadow, Massachusetts is getting a summer job. This fits right in with our Spencer family work ethic-no fancy “sweet sixteen” celebration will make me feel as good about myself as holding down a full time job. Many nights around our supper table my two sisters and I are reminded by our father of how our turning sixteen has given us a newly gained usefulness.”See, now you can bring in your own money. If I were smart I’d start asking you girls to pay rent and foot your own bills. But I tell you what; I’m such a good guy I’ll let you keep your money to put toward your college. I put myself through college and now I’m a better person for it. You want to be a better person don’t you?”
My father has left out the part about how his own father died when he was a toddler, forcing his mother to accept welfare to care for her three young sons, and that the government picked up my father’s college tab. My mother told my sisters and me this once when we had lunch at Friendly’s at the mall and made us promise never to mention that we knew this. We continue to let my father re-tell his “paying for college himself” story and of course never mention his “welfare years”.
Getting a summer job will also introduce us to other members of our community’s blue-collar society. For some teenagers it will pay for a coveted car and a super hi-fi stereo. For others, like my sisters and me, it will pay for college.
We get a choice between an indoor job, and an outdoor job. The outdoor job is tobacco field hand, meaning you’re picked up at the end of our street in a cattle truck that looks like it’s straight out of the prop department from the movie, The Grapes Of Wrath. The truck takes you to Enfield, Connecticut to pick tobacco across the street from a minimum-security prison where the prisoners also work the fields. The indoor job is factory worker, where you have a choice of many factories lining Shaker Road, including American Saw, Milton Bradley and Springfield Gun and Rifle.
My eighteen-year-old sister Anne and I decide to become factory debutantes. Somehow this seems easier and less like hard labor than working in the tobacco fields. So far the only jobs I’ve had are babysitting, paper routes and a failed lawn-mowing business with my father. I also helped my father teach tennis to kids for a couple of years, something he has done for the few months off in the summer from his high school English teaching job. After the failed lawn-mowing business I don’t know what we were thinking by teaming up together once again. We hated each other, but our love of money brought us back together. We sabotaged each other. I would make faces behind his back as he lectured all the kids on the perfect backhand, then I’d intentionally aim for his stomach when I’d demonstrate volleying at the net. Soon instead of letting me show off my fancy tennis moves he just used me to chase tennis balls and pick them up after they were whacked by the kids, then I put them back into a plastic bucket. He’d retaliate by firing me for mysterious reasons like my bad attitude, my no hustle on the courts, or for having a dirty look on my face. I was re-hired when he needed me to help carry equipment back to our van or hand out water cups to the kids. I was fired and re-hired so often I felt like Billy Martin, the manager from the New York Yankees.
I’ve never had a “real” paycheck job, but Anne has spent the last two summers working at Fenway Golf-serving up ice-cream cones and buckets of golf balls to the sporting citizens of Western Massachusetts. She has said she had her fill of soft serve ice cream and miniature golf, but I really think she won’t go back because of Bob, a boy she met at Fenway Golf last summer. He shared her love of the band Journey. They quoted the songs to each other in love letters. I’d tear apart our shared bedroom looking for these letters, both feeling sorry for Anne that her life is reduced to corny love letters, yet feeling jealous over this boy Bob calling her his “Journey Girl” at the end of each love note. Bob disappeared at the beginning of fall last year, causing Anne to go on a three-week binge of eating only celery. Her shoulder blades stuck out and she’d taken to standing on our bathroom scale watching for her weight to go down. This summer Anne decides a change is necessary.
My mother drives us to the employment office of one of the smaller factories, Sunshine Greeting Cards. All the other factories intimidate us. Milton Bradley is in a building so huge and scary it looks like The Pentagon, and well, we actually can’t figure out where the front entrance is. Then there is American Saw and Springfield Gun and Rifle where we’d be working with things that can kill you, or at least give you a nasty wound. Sunshine Greeting Cards seems small and safe-the worst we could suffer is a paper cut.
Now for me there will be no more carefree summer days. Days I had spent in a damp bathing suit, wandering the neighborhood in flip-flops only changing into clothes to work a few hours babysitting or helping my father toss tennis balls to kids a few times a week. I’m walking through this employment door to become an adult-an official card-carrying nine-to-fiver.
At the reception desk sits a woman wearing a gray-blue wig that could be worn backwards and look just as good. She turns to us, crinkling her nose under heavy glasses, “Are you here for summer work? Fill out these papers, and I’ll have you speak to Hal.” I stare at the papers and see SSN and DOB written on them. It might as well be French for all I can understand them. I look over Anne’s shoulder as if I’m cheating on a math exam. She glares at me, covers her paper and turns away from me. I twirl my pencil, tap it on my knee and stare at the wall.
When Anne is good and done she turns to me and whispers. “DOB is date of birth and SSN is Social security number, you idiot!” Finally, I get to use this nine-digit number that was sent to me typed onto a small white card. I see the person referred to as “Hal”. He’s a pale, waxy, perspiring man-child. I’ve never seen anyone so beaded-up with sweat outside of a tennis match. Hal is gesturing to three olive-skinned people. The three seem to have trouble with their English. I’ve heard about these people-these Portuguese people, but I’ve never seen any until now. None of them live in our hometown-but lots of them work in our factories.
Hal’s translucent eyelids flutter as he reads our applications. My sister might make the cut-she’s had a real “paycheck” job, while I’ve only had “pocket change” jobs. Anne sits next to me gnawing on her fingernails as if they provided the same delicious flavor as a nutty-buddy ice cream cone. Despite her professional skills, Anne remains silent as she turns her right thumb over and inspects it, finds the perfect spot for a nibble-then gorges herself on her own flesh. Maybe it was a fluke she worked for Mr. Palmer at Fenway Golf. It was kiddie work selling tickets to the miniature pitch and putt course and sprinkling jimmies and nuts on sundaes. We’re in the real world now, and all our extremely obvious shortcomings will be recognized as soon as someone will be paying us minimum wage, $3.35 an hour.
I’m transfixed by Hal’s dampness. I wonder if it bothers him? Does he notice? My mind starts to drift off as his thin lips describe the job to us. Thanks goodness my alert, nail biting, older sister Anne is next to me absorbing these important instructions, while I tune out like a radio caught between two stations. Hal’s lips stop moving, and I’m snapped back to reality as I feel his damp, warm hand shaking mine. As soon as we exit the employment office, while I wipe Hal’s sweat off my hand on to my cut-off shorts, I ask Anne,
“So did we get the jobs?”
She turns to me and rolls her eyes, “God Coree, weren’t you listening? We report to somebody named Jane on Monday at 8:30! We’ve got four days left of freedom!”
I don’t sleep for the next four nights. When I close my eyes, I have the sensation of being swept up into the whirlpool of the working force. I try to picture what the factory will look like. The only factory I’ve seen the inside of is “The Saltwater Taffy Factory” in Kennebunkport, Maine. The employees there wore colored yarn pigtail wigs, and painted-on freckles. They laughed, and waved to us from behind a glassed-in conveyor belt filled with multi-colored taffy. I could work there.
The 7:30 Monday morning alarm bell rings, and I roll out of bed. I’ve slept in my clothes and made my peanut butter and jelly sandwich the night before. I join Anne on our front porch steps, waiting for our chronically late friends, Carol and Lori Kennedy, to join us for a ride to the factory. We see several pale, soon-to-be sun burnt boys from our neighborhood walk down the block to catch the truck to the tobacco fields. We give up waiting for the Kennedys, and our mother drives us to their house a few blocks away. She lays on the horn, until the Kennedy girls lumber out of their house. Carol has a bag of Wonder bread and Lori has a half package of bologna. They create their sandwiches in our car on the way to Sunshine.
We meet with a traffic jam moving down the long stretch of factories on Shaker Road. It’s a long, slow procession of cars that could be mistaken for either a parade or a funeral. We’re dropped off at the loading dock entrance in the back of Sunshine Greeting Card Factory. The opening of the loading dock looks like the cave entrance that opens and swallows up all the innocent blond people in the 1950’s film, The Time Machine. The blond people end up becoming food for these horrible red-eyed Morelocks who toil beneath the earth. I’ll be the first one eaten, since not only am I blond, I’m as pale as a corpse.
Once inside the factory I realize that this won’t be anything like “The Saltwater Taffy Factory”. The people here don’t look like cheerful Umpa-Lumpas from the movie, Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory. In fact, the employees here look a lot more like the Morelocks from The Time Machine.
Right away, it becomes obvious who the new employees are. Once we walk about twenty feet from the entrance, all of us “new workers”, bunch up together like ants on a Ritz cracker. Meanwhile, all the old time workers, “the lifers”, crowd around a pole with a metal box attached. The lifers punch their time cards in the box and scuttle off to various parts of the dark, high ceilinged, dimly lit factory. There are a few small windows at the very top of the factory walls, but they look like they’ve never been washed and allow for very little light and are up so high no one can look out of them to contemplate life or watch a bird build a nest.
This is when we meet our supervisor, “Jane”, who appears before us like a silent apparition. Her pin-straight, bobbed, brown hair is heavily streaked with wiry gray strands. It’s parted on the side, and playfully held in place with a pink plastic barrette shaped like a tiny bow. This pretty, pink bit of whimsy belies the real Jane; she is not cute, frilly or sweet. She opens her mouth to reveal teeth that haven’t seen the business end of a toothbrush in years. They look like stalagmites hanging from the roof of a cave. It seems as if working in this factory has stolen whatever beauty she’s ever had. What strikes me most about Jane’s appearance is when she raises her hands to separate us into groups; her skin is a patchwork quilt of livid white blotches, and mottled brown color. It’s as if God couldn’t decide on a flesh tone for Jane: so he left her terribly spotted.
Jane takes a watch out of the pocket of her baby blue checked smock and informs us that we’re all late clocking in and that as a result we’ll lose our first quarter hour of pay. I’m sure she must be joking with us, like this is factory humor-but she isn’t laughing. She isn’t even smiling. Somehow I get the feeling it’s moments like this that get Jane to work every day.
She rolls her eyes at us, and points to the wall where the time cards are filed and instructs us, “Punch-in, and report to your work stations!” All nineteen of us run to the wall, and I find my time card, “Spencer, Coree.” I get to the punch-in clock first, and in my rush I stick my time card in upside down. When I pull it out, instead of clocking in on Monday morning, it looks like I’ve clocked out on Friday evening. I don’t move. I stare at my time card until all the other workers push me out of the way of the time card box-like we’re all monkeys at the zoo, and I’m blocking all my fellow chimps from getting to the feeding station.
I turn and address Jane “I think I put my time card in wrong...”
She cuts me off with, “Just get to your station!”
Lori Kennedy and I have been put on the same assembly line, while my sister Anne is placed on the line in front of ours. Carol Kennedy is escorted off with two other girls to the shadowy wastelands of the factory, behind several skids of boxes. We learn “skids” in factory lingo means a large wooden pallet that boxes are piled on-then moved around the factory on forklifts.
Lori and I might be on the same line-but we aren’t next to each other. Sunshine Factory has devised a way to keep production up and talking on the clock, down. On the assembly lines they place a Portuguese speaking person between each English speaking person. Not only does this not cut down on talking during work, now it’s even noisier, because people must shout in Portuguese and English to reach the person they are speaking to, on the other side of the person next to them. Antigrassia is the barrier between Lori and me. She’s a tiny, antique jeweled, middle-aged Portuguese woman, who speaks non-stop to her friend Ava on the other side of me.
Jane stands behind me to teach me “the skills.” She must have an allotment of only twenty-five words a day, because she attempts to teach me like I’m Helen Keller and she’s Annie Sullivan. One of her two-toned hands grabs my hand from behind, reaches over the conveyor belt, and snatches up a “winking Santa” Christmas card. She glues glitter to the front of the card-then glues the back of the card, and places it in the sales booklet coming down the line. I try to repeat her actions without her manhandling my arm. My card drips with excess glue and I miss the sales booklet coming down the assembly line, and accidentally glue my card to the conveyor belt. I feel Jane’s cold eyes on the back of my neck, and hear Antigrassia jabbering loudly next to me, pushing my messy, gluey card back at me. Jane assures me in English that I’ve done wrong.
She says, “NO!” Jane grabs another card, and repeats her motions. I’m still just mesmerized by her two-tone skin. Antigrassia tries to help me. She smiles, holds up a Santa card and then in rapid-fire Portuguese talks me through the gluing procedure. I don’t know what’s harder: trying to learn my job by having Jane forcefully manipulate my arm, or being instructed in a foreign language. I finally catch on and after only thirty minutes I feel like a machine. My arm, as if acting on it’s own accord, repeats the same movement over and over. The death of all my ambitions is creeping up on me. I want to turn and run. This is all a huge mistake. I’m not meant to be here. This doesn’t seem like the first step to my dream of becoming a famous movie star, or Olympic gold medal athlete. Sally Field only had to endure this kind of humiliation for a couple of hours in the movie Norma Rae.
I’m not special. I’m really just a regular person. I’m so unspectacular, that now I’ve become the lowest kicker on this blue-collar chorus line of greeting card glitterers.
With only one arm busy, my brain has plenty of time to philosophize about my new environment. I ponder the question, “How can Jane be so grim when she’s surrounded by glitter, and happy Santa Claus cards all day?” Jane seems to be devoid of everything greeting cards represent. I also ponder the lack of men working in this factory. As if to keep the few doses of masculinity around here, I notice that the men have the easiest jobs. The seven or eight men I’ve seen so far aren’t even good looking: but still all the women notice when one of them whizzes by on a forklift or carries a piece of paper from one end of the factory floor to the next. We all look up from the assembly lines as one of these “fetching” specimens walks by in overalls and safety glasses. One guy in particular catches my eye. His name is Jim. Jim’s neck is perpetually twisted sideways, and he’s cross-eyed, yet this doesn’t stop the factory from letting him drive a forklift.
Time passes slowly here. But two hours into the workday, the conveyor belts speed up. I pile cards next to me that I can’t glitter fast enough. I feel like Lucy and Ethel when they worked on the assembly line in the chocolate factory. Unfortunately, I can’t shove these cards into my mouth, or fill my hat with them, like Lucy and Ethel did with the chocolates. Antigrassia sees this pile, and points to the cards, like it’s a dead rat next to me. She’s speaking to me, but I understand her Portuguese about as well as I understand our dog Brandy when she’s barking at me. I try the same tactic I use on Brandy when communicating with a foreigner. I look at Antigrassia, and I speak very slowly and clearly.
I tell her, “I’ll —glitter—-these—-when—-I——get—a—chance!” I’m sure that when I speak this distinctly, that my English will make as much sense to her as Portuguese. My slow speech apparently seems to convince her that I might be learning disabled, and she smiles, repeating her earlier instructions in slower Portuguese.
A feeling a lot like I had last summer when I was dragged out by an undertow on a family vacation to Old Orchard beach, comes over me. After my face had scraped the bottom of the ocean floor, I almost suffocated when I couldn’t figure out which way was up or down. Now I grab the Santa cards, which pass by as a red blur, spin them on the glue roller, and just slap glitter down anywhere. Sometimes, I accidentally glitter over the poetry written inside, “Have a Ho—Ho—Ho—-Happy Holiday!” Now both Antigrassia and Ava are chattering at me. Somewhere, Jane’s ears pick up on this louder than usual Portuguese. It’s an unofficial alarm bell for her. In a moment her silent pinched face is behind me.
“What’s this?” She inquires, pointing a livid, speckled finger at a pile of unglittered cards at my side. Her eyes burn the back of my head like two red-hot nickels pressed to my skull.
Without turning around I tell her, “I’ll do these, I promise!” She stands behind me, like she’s watching me perform open-heart surgery. My armpits dampen. All 5’2″ of Jane seems to glean delight from my near nervous breakdown at the young age of sixteen.
Just when I’m prepared to fake a fainting spell like actresses did in old movies, there’s a bell. All the conveyor belts slog to a halt. It’s 10:45-break time. I’ve heard about these things. People who work eight hours a day have breaks for the “three C’s”, coffee, candy and cigarettes. There’s a stampede as people fly off the assembly lines. Jane doesn’t move from behind me. She watches as I glue, and glitter the cards next to me.
When I’m done she says, “The boss needs to see you.”
“OH MY GOD!” I think, “I’m going to be FIRED!” I follow behind her blue checked smock. Carol, Lori and Anne huddle together and watch me go past. I’ve already been separated from the pack-like I’m a deer hobbled by an injury and now Jane is a mountain lion going in for the kill. She and I climb old cement stairs to a dingy, glassed-in room at the top of the factory. It looks like a hamster cage over-looking the whole factory. Waiting for us inside the hamster cage is the head Sunshine guy, Mr. Tampon. He’s so old he looks like he ran this factory before there were child labor laws. He’s wearing a bow tie and suspenders, and in his hand he holds my time card.
He shakes it at me, “Who are you trying to fool? What’s the meaning of clocking in this morning on the Friday clocking out space?”
As in all events where my intelligence is brought into question, I break into a huge, inane smile, “I’m sorry, I accidentally stuck my time card in up-side-down.” Then to back myself up I add, “I didn’t know there was a correct way to stick my time card in the box. It’s my first day!” All time stops for a moment as Mr. Tampoon drinks in my chuckleheadedness.
With fire in his watery eyes he shakes the time card at me until his voice comes to him, “Let me tell you Miss Spencer, if I catch you pulling a stunt like this again, I’ll dock your paycheck! After that you’re FIRED!” I like the way he called this a “stunt”, as if I was Evil Knievel planning for months to jump Snake River Canyon on a motorbike. Mr. Tampoon dismisses me with a wave of my illegitimate time card.
Jane informs me at the bottom of the steps, “You have eight minutes left on break!” All eyes are on me as I join the rest of the workers in the cafeteria area, which consists of squeaky metal chairs and tables with “Discarded by the East Longmeadow School system” printed on them. There are three vending machines: one for candy, one for coffee, and one for cigarettes. On all of these dull aqua blue machines are painted stick figures, representing people enjoying all three of these things. I guess with one’s wit’s so dulled from factory work, stick figures are necessary to understand what to do with a Hershey Bar, or which end of the cigarette goes in one’s mouth.
On the candy bar machine there’s even two stick figures of what appear to be 50’s teenagers at a sock-hop. I have no idea what dried-up old Baby Ruth’s and Clarke bars have to do with dancing, but one thing for sure is that no one here is doing the twist while they break their teeth on a petrified Milky Way.
There is much chatter in the cafeteria about my appearance in Mr. Tampoon’s glass hamster cage office atop the factory. I didn’t realize it until now, but everyone witnessed him shaking my time card at me. I also learn that Mr. Tampoon is cleverly nicknamed, “Mr. Tampon”. Even the Portuguese workers are talking about me. I know this because, as my mother always claimed was bad manners, they are blatantly pointing at me and whispering to each other. I have a feeling that I’m quickly acquiring a reputation as a shifty troublemaker. I bite into my Charleston Chew candy bar, and it shatters like an icicle and all my favorite part, the chocolate coating, flakes off. I look down at the sad, stale chocolate flakes lying on my lap and littering the table, then I cover my face with my hands, and push my thumbs into my eyeballs to stop the tears.
On the ride home from work I sit in the front seat next to my mother. Anne and the Kennedys are in the backseat. Even in the car I’m separated from others. Do they tolerate me only because they can’t avoid me? As my mother discusses her day working as a dental receptionist, I sit with my eyes fixed, frozen and focused on the road in front of us, hoping our blue Pontiac is headed for a brick wall somewhere to bring me sweet relief from this job I’ve gotten myself into. My mother sounds a million miles away as she prattles on about her day.
“You know the Ramseys, right girls? You know their son, Tommy, right? He’s in the 11th grade-well, you’ll never guess!-he’s got gingivitis! Such terrible gums, can you imagine? He comes from such a nice family-how can he not floss his teeth?” In the past, I’ve always enjoyed my mother’s gossiping about our town folk’s oral hygiene habits, especially a popular boy with bleeding gums, but today I hear her, but I’m unable to respond, just like I’ve read about what happens to people who are in comas. As I stare at a dead bug splayed out on the windshield I hear Carol Kennedy in the backseat explaining how she’s working in the best part of the factory. She’s in a far-off corner of the building, out of sight of Jane and Mr. Tampoon. Best of all she’s off the assembly lines. Her job it turns out is packing prizes into boxes. These are the “valuable” prizes advertised at the back of the greeting cards sales booklets. Kids can win these prizes when they sell 20, 40 or 60 boxes of Sunshine greeting cards to their neighbors, family and friends. These prizes are mostly cheap, plastic stuff, like transistor radios, watches and pocketknives. By far the most interesting prize Carol packed today is the life-size Brooke Shields doll head. The head comes complete with blush, lipstick, combs and brushes-so anyone at their own whim can change Brooke Shields hair, make-up, even her famous eyebrows. Carol tells us that oddly enough, a lot of boys pass up transistor radios and pocketknives for the Brooke Shield’s head.
Once home Anne and I are greeted by our father, sitting in his lazy boy in the living room with a Budweiser and his Runner’s World magazine. We are well aware that we will receive very little sympathy from him about our grueling new jobs. He considers adversity the pathway to being a good person. If something is too easy he becomes suspicious and will make it harder for my sister’s and my benefit. In the past he has had us walk off most of our injuries, also claiming band-aides were for sissies. It seems his main job, as our father is making sure we never get too soft.
My whole body aches as I cross the threshold of our front door. I look at him sitting there, shoes off, feet kicked up on top of a ragged old hassock. I know he spent about two hours today teaching tennis lessons in Enfield, Connecticut. I have moved on because I need more than the $25 a week he used to give me for being his tennis slave.
He barely lifts his head from his magazine as he says, “Before you two girls lie down in front of the TV like slugs wasting the day, the patio needs to be swept and the clothes needs to be brought in off the line.” Anne slumps and heads for the backdoor, prepared as always to do as he says, no matter what.
I stop, jut out one hip, put my hand on it, using my other hand to point at him in case he’s not sure who I’m talking to and I say, “We’ve been working hard all day, why can’t you sweep the patio?” I know I shouldn’t have said it, but I couldn’t help myself, my exhaustion has made me bold and stupid. In a moment my father’s Runner’s World is on the floor, leaving his hands free to find their way around my neck.
He squeezes with emphasis as he asks, “What’d you say? What’d you say?” He presses more tightly as I struggle to remove his hands and I simultaneously kick at his shins.
I’m barely able to gasp out the words, “I’d tell you what I said if you’d get your hands off my neck!” In the meantime I’ve managed to knock over a pile of his New Yorker magazines.
For a second his grip loosens as he looks down to see the mess, then he lets go as he warns me, “Just watch that smart mouth of yours!” As I turn to leave I feel his calling card, an open handed cuff on the back of my head. Somehow my father and I can’t, as my mother says, get through the day without “throwing bouquets” at each other.
Out in our backyard Anne blandly pulls down the clothing off the clothesline-just tugging them off so that the clothespins either snap off the line, falling to the ground, or just remain on the line half broken. I grab the broom from our shed out back-smacking several trees over and over with it like I’m taking in batting practice. I stand in the middle of my father’s homemade patio created from leftover, multi-colored cinder blocks he got from Kelly-Fradett lumber mart. Between each cinder block, ants have fastidiously built their homes by piling up sand one grain at a time, leaving a hole for the entrance. I smack the broom across several of these anthills, wiping them out. Ants frantically scatter-I look at the mayhem I’ve caused. In a minute I’m down on all fours poking with a stick, trying to reopen all the ant holes. I finish sweeping the patio, leaving the remaining anthills alone.
Later on, Anne and I do lie on the floor of our family room. It is carpeted using leftover two-foot carpet samples, making it fit in with the rest of our crazy-quilt, 70’s look in this room. Anne and I fight over who gets to lie on top of the shag carpet covered spots. I hurt more than the first day of soccer practice when our team was punished for being lazy by having to run wind sprints for an entire hour.
Our father looks in on us, shakes his head and clucks, “Are you two going to eat your supper lying there on the floor?”
While Anne looks at the ceiling as if actually contemplating this, I shoot back with, “We sure are!” We do make it to the supper table, my sullen attitude tempered by my stupendous exhaustion. I have my eyes closed when my father reminds me to chew with my mouth shut. My lower jaw feels like lead as I try to get it to meet its upper half.
I lie in bed thinking I can’t possibly go through another day at Sunshine-but just like I believed I couldn’t make it through another day of 10th grade, I’m up at 7:30 in the morning and an hour later I’m back on the assembly line reliving the nightmare of the day before. Can I do this everyday for the next couple of months?
When I get home this second evening I do what I do all the time when I have something to endure that I hate, which lasts any amount of time. I draw up a two-month calendar, and then I make two big, black X’s over Monday and Tuesday. I stare at all the un-Xed out blocks left on my calendar.
There are still a few hours of daylight left in this lovely summer evening, yet somehow meeting up with other neighborhood kids for a softball game at the baseball diamond near our house seems too exhausting. I need to save my energy for standing on my pile of flattened cardboard boxes at my spot on the assembly line tomorrow. I’ve quickly taken a que from my fellow workers to make a pile of cardboard to ease standing on cement flooring for eight hours a day. At the end of every shift, like squirrels hoarding nuts, we all hide our stash of cardboard for the next day. It’s terrible when someone’s stash goes missing, either through theft, or being accidentally thrown out.
The following morning I hear two Portuguese women on the line behind me yelling at each other. I turn towards the angry conversation and see they both have their hands on opposite ends of a large, plush looking piece of cardboard. The more they tug, the louder they get, until Jane shows up. This only quiets them somewhat, until Jane yanks the cardboard out of their hands and points to the conveyor belt as it starts up for the day. The two women’s eyes tear- up as they take their spots on either side of a teenage girl. Their eyes never leave the cardboard, which is now in Jane’s hands as if she took their pet bunny or first-born child. We all watch as Jane simply creeps away with the cardboard and disappears behind a stack of boxes. Couldn’t she have just taken out an exacto knife and cut it into two pieces and split it between the two women? But no, she just takes the lovely piece of plump cardboard and takes off for who-knows-where. She probably has a huge stash of it somewhere deep in the factory where no one can find it and she sits on a huge pile of confiscated cardboard while others suffer standing on the cement floor.
It’s weird; I’ve taken to looking at cardboard quite differently now. When I see a stray box at the supermarket, or lying discarded like trash on the side of the road, I think of how lovely it would be to have it flattened out and lying under my feet at Sunshine.
Anne and I have now learned to come into the house through the back door to avoid our father and his list of chores to extend our workday. If he doesn’t actually see us, then I think he forgets we exist and sits blissfully in his bubble of magazines, poetry books and beer. We sneak in the back door, put on our swimsuits and slip silently into our above-the -ground swimming pool. We don’t splash around alerting our father to our presence-instead, we lie floating on our backs like two dead bodies.
After this first week on the assembly line at Sunshine I start to suffer from an illness that afflicts our whole family. It’s called, “I know they’re going to fire me from this job” disease. My entire family has it, and now I do. My parents started this by coming home every evening with new tales of jobs that were teetering on the brink of total collapse. Their stories are creative and filled with a cast of characters that would make any soap opera writer jealous. Apparently my parent’s charms, especially my father’s cause other people to want to get rid of him. Conspiracies are huge, carefully plotted and soon to be carried out by the villains my parents work with. My mother plays defense at her job by being relentlessly cheerful, be-bopping around the dentist’s office like a bagful of happiness, spilling over and covering the people who work there with a sugar coating. Who could ever get rid of someone who has a personality that is a combination of Santa Claus and Carol Burnett? My father, on the other hand, has taken a different approach. When his dander is up, he is like an underwater volcano that threatens to erupt at any moment, covering his enemies with hot molten lava. The day my father loses it with his tormenters will be a day they will rue.
As for me, the hatred I have for this job is already outweighed by the shame and fear of actually losing it. This gives me headaches and keeps me up at night. I’m sure the Portuguese women on either side of me are actually a hit team disguised as two smock-wearing middle-aged ladies using a foreign language to plot my downfall. Whenever they look at me and laugh, which is often, I’m sure they’re discussing how funny it will be when Jane and Mr. Tampoon grab me by each arm and escort me from my spot on the assembly line and toss me into the parking lot. Then Antigrassia and Ava will divvy up my cardboard pile and celebrate how they no longer have their conversations obstructed by my presence.
By my second week while working on the assembly line at Sunshine I ponder who else is plotting my downfall. I know I can put Jane at the top of the list. She just walked past me with her hands shoved deep into the pockets of her blue checked smock. She slows down when she gets to me, stopping twice to get a look at me from both sides. She is silent, like the fog we read about in The Hounds of Baskerville this past year in English Lit class. As soon as Jane passes I see Lori Kennedy about five feet away from me-she looks up from the cards on the conveyor belt and smiles at me. What does that mean? I see my sister Anne on the line in front of me. Her face is a slack mask of dull concentration. Her slightly buck front teeth are fused over her bottom lip. I study the back of her head, which is covered by her dutifully straightened and curled under version of the Dorothy Hamill wedge haircut. It is now in the midst of slowly curling up despite her earlier labor at taming it. It’s looking a lot like plastic when it’s held over an open flame. Anne, our younger sister Shannon and I all have this haircut, but since we’re cursed with raging curls, we have instead all ended up with atomic mushroom cloud versions of Dorothy’s straight, shiny bob. Instead of commiserating over our shared beauty curse, my sisters and I torture each other constantly about the shameful fuzz that grows out of our heads. We hide each other’s brushes; hog the blow dryer and regularly point at one another’s head and laugh. I look at Anne with her tortured hair and know that an extension of our hair wars could now be extended to include our jobs. Maybe Anne wants me out of Sunshine too-maybe even Carol Kennedy, far off in the prize packing part of the factory secretly hopes I’ll be given my walking papers soon. According to my father, when it comes to your job, you can’t trust anyone.
The lunch bell interrupts my paranoid mental meanderings. I play it cool with my co-workers. My father also tells us not to let your enemies know you’re on to them. He regularly plays pick-up basketball with his enemies, who are disguised as co-workers, neighbors and friends. He bowls with them, and invites them over to our house so he can grill hotdogs and hamburgers for them. They’ll never suspect he’s aware of their plots to steal his job when he regularly feeds them picnic food. I won’t let anyone know I’m onto his or her plans to get rid of me. I’ll even take my chances and eat my peanut butter and jelly sandwich with my enemies.
At the sound of the lunch bell all the Portuguese and local women lifers head to the cafeteria. They sit at the tables, in their flowered work smocks, smoking and gossiping about us-the new summer help. A few of the men jump into their souped-up cars and burn rubber to get to Bruno’s pizzeria for beers and meatball grinders. The rest of us, summer help, about twenty teenagers, sit outside the back entrance. We lean up against the brick wall, soaking in the real sunshine, outside of Sunshine Factory.
We discuss our favorite topic of gossip, JANE! Maybe if I can get everyone thinking about how horrible Jane is, it will distract them from thinking how great it would be if I weren’t here.
Once we’re all gathered around I tell everyone, “I bet that right now Jane is eating her lunch in her private office, you know, the broken down stall in the ladies room!”
Lori points out, “You know I’ve never seen her eat her lunch with anyone else. She must hide somewhere, or maybe she isn’t really human and she doesn’t eat food! She just crouches in a corner somewhere thinking up evil things to do to people!”
Anne leans in and whispers, “I heard Jane and cross-eyed Jim are boyfriend and girlfriend!”
We all scream as Lori Kennedy squeals, “What if they start having spotted, cross-eyed babies!”
“OOOhhh Gross!” I scream as I squeeze my eyes shut, “NNNooooo!”
I use the bathroom after lunch, making sure Jane isn’t lurking in the broken down stall near the back. I hold my breath as I check each stall; afraid she’s waiting to pounce. I’m alone. I spend a full two minutes staring at my face in the mirror. With the greenish fluorescent, prison lighting, and the mirror that looks like a flattened out car fender, I look positively ghoulish. I’m afraid I’ll end up looking like Jane by the end of the summer.
After these first two weeks, to my surprise, I’m still here, and I’m slowly getting into the rhythm of sacrificing my life to the factory. We’re supposed to get paid once a week, but since we’re new, the Kennedy girls, Anne and I will receive our first paychecks this Friday after two weeks of work. This is the first time I’ve ever been taxed-it’s weird, I’m giving money away that I’ve never seen-it’s as if a silent hand has swept in and just taken fourteen dollars a week out of my check. Believe me, I’ve been multiplying over and over for two weeks now, $3.35 an hour X eight hours a day X five days a week. I should get $134 in each check-but when I open my envelope for the first time there are two checks for $120 each. Where’s my $28! I feel robbed and violated.
Anne, who had taxes taken from her Fenway Golf checks the last two summers smirks when she tells me, “I told ya, the government will find ya as soon as ya start making money!” I try to look at the bright side-this is the most money I’ve made all at once! I feel incredibly significant-I’m so important the government has not only located me, but they’ve located my source of money and for their efforts they have taken $28. I close my eyes and try to think that my $14 a week will go to good things like helping nature and feeding poor people.
My father dispels this quickly when at supper he points a fork at Anne and me and tells us, “You wanna know were your tax money really ends up? You know all those deadbeats using food stamps to buy cigarettes and potato chips at the grocery store? Those criminals ripping off hardworking taxpayers with their welfare checks-that’s where your money goes! Just think about that next time you see someone paying for their beer with food stamps. Once you start paying taxes you’ll find out how many lazy-good–for-nothing people there are in the world! That’s where your government sends all your money!”
Other than the government, and welfare cheats, two other people are happy about Anne and me receiving weekly paychecks-our parents. On a regular basis they have borrowed from us, but paper route and babysitting money is small potatoes compared to $120 a week. My mother is the one who asks to borrow the money, never my father and she has always carefully written down on a 3X5 index card how much she owes us. She places these cards into our SIS savings bank books. My mother pays us back every time so I know it’s okay when she asks Anne and I to hand over $100 each. My mother promptly creates two index cards with IOU’s handwritten on them. We head to the A&P right after leaving the bank to buy groceries. After buying a week’s worth of food we pile the bags into our VW van and at the last minute she announces, “We just need to make an emergency run to the liquor store to stock up!” At Kappy’s Liquor Mart we grab another shopping cart and fill it with a case of Budweiser, gallon jugs of Ernest and Julio Gallo red and white wine, and jumbo bottles of gin, vodka and sweet vermouth.
At the checkout the cashier jokes, “Having a big party, huh?”
My mother smiles broadly, “”Well, maybe, yes!” This is what we buy every week and believe me there is no party at our house-this is our regulation stock of liquor to keep my parents functioning in the manner they are accustomed to. On the way home my mother assures us, “Listen girls as soon as your father’s teacher’s paycheck comes in the mail next week you’ll get your money back!”
I have to say it is a little scary how quickly all my money changes hands-I never get to hold and caress the money or lay it out on the floor to obsessively count it and categorize it, like the cold hard cash I had in my hands after a night of babysitting or a week of delivering newspapers. It just went from a piece of paper with Sunshine Factory and my name printed on it and suddenly it’s several bags of food and a shopping cart full of liquor that will take very little time for my family to devour!