This is the final part of Sunshine Factory
You can read the previous installments of Coree Spencer’s memoir here:
The following morning is Friday, or as it’s known around here, “payday.” We are gluing Christmas cards with the entire alphabet printed on the front, except for the letter “L”. When the card is opened the caption inside says, “No—L”. Around 10:30 the assembly line behind me chugs to a stop. Is it another blackout? No, it can’t be. The rest of the factory, like the insides of a diseased person, wheezes, churns and gurgles, producing second-rate greeting cards. The kind of cards people send when they don’t care to send the very best.
I crane my neck to catch a glimpse of the workers on the halted conveyor belt behind me. They stand there limp- limbed, suddenly lost, without a sense of purpose. What the heck is going on? Even though this is not happening to me, a chill tingles between my shoulder blades. An air of fear seeps throughout the eight assembly lines in our area. Jane appears, seemingly out of nowhere, her face thrown off balance by a wide, gum-baring grin. For a second she looks like a twelve-year-old girl. Pinkish color actually fights for space on her mottled brown and white face. On our assembly line, while we still glue and glitter greeting cards, we all take turns stealing a quick glance at Jane. With her once-in-a-life-time smile Jane heads to the stagnant line. Dolly, who is on the line, has taken this idle time to hand out Tootsie rolls and is in the midst of putting two into her mouth when Jane stops at her side. She reaches her two-tone hand out and takes Dolly’s fleshy, full hand into hers. Jane coughs into her other hand, and then reaches into her smock pocket. For a moment I think, “Duck, she’s pulling out a gun!” Yet all the while I continue to glue and glitter as I watch this spectacle. Jane clears her throat and speaks the longest sentence I’ve heard her say. “Dolly, for twenty years of service to Sunshine, Mr. Tampoon would like to present you with this gold pen!” Jane pulls the “gold pen” out of her smock pocket and places it into Dolly’s hand. Dolly’s gray eyes mist up and the oily dark circles beneath them become shinier.
“Thank you Mr. Tampoon!” Dolly shouts this as she turns to see him looking down at her from behind his glassed-in room atop the factory. She holds the pen up to him and waves. We’re stunned. Jane starts clapping. She is joined in clapping by the others on the stopped assembly line. All sense seems to be lost. Is this a celebration –at Sunshine?
I turn and look at Dolly. What does one say to a person who has thrown twenty years of her life away? The clear, unmistakable banging of a fist on glass halts our revelry. Mr. Tampoon is giving the “back to work” signal by rapping on the filthy glass window of his hamster cage office. Dolly clips the pen to her “Kiss me I’m Irish” sleeveless smock and at the end of the day she lets everyone use it to sign their timecards.
Working at Sunshine for over a month and witnessing the “Gold Pen Incident” I get a horrifying glimpse of what my life would be like without college in it, just as Jimmy Stewart got to see what life would be like if he had never been born in “It’s A Wonderful Life.” College will be in my future of course, unless I become a new wave singer, I’m signed by Paramount Pictures, or I’m picked to run the fourth leg of the 1984 Olympic quarter mile relay team. I’ve taken to spending endless hours looking through my mother’s 1954-1955 Bay Path Junior college yearbooks. It makes higher education look like a fairyland of pep rallies, ivy-covered library buildings and tea parties with the dean. The girls in the pictures look clean, with bobby socks, loafers, pleated skirts and smart sweaters. Occasionally they are pictured as “grown up women” for special events in strapless gowns, heels and dark lipstick. I know it was long ago and these women are now old like my mom, but somehow their pictures comfort me. They make me wish to escape the dirty, sad factory, even give up living in the 80’s to go back to the fun-filled 50’s.
I vow to myself as I glue and glitter Halloween goblin cards that as soon as 11th grade begins, I’ll send away for college brochures. Anne has been accepted to University of Massachusetts starting this fall. She has already begun packing up her stuff and lately has been acting like she doesn’t really live with us anymore. Despite her usual easy-going personality, all of a sudden she actually refuses to mow the lawn or trim back the shrubbery. Why should she, she claims, if she won’t be around much longer to enjoy our freshly cut grass, or appreciate that the bushes outside our front door no longer scratch at her tanned legs, or snag her shirt.
The next morning I’m in a much better mood, now that I know the secret to escaping a lifetime at Sunshine with only a “gold pen” to show for my misery. I certainly don’t want to end up like Dolly, Jane or Sherrie. I feel stronger, yet still cling to the fear I’ll lose this job that I so desperately need to pay for college. I glance over at Sherrie as I flip/flap the greeting cards over the glue roller and slap them through the glitter. She’s found something interesting to do with a greeting card booklet. With all this mental time on our hands we should be able to rethink atomic theory, or solve the gas crisis. Instead, Sherrie discovers a special place to put the gum she’s been chewing all morning. She opens up a sales booklet coming down the line, pulls the bubble gum out of her mouth, holds it up and says to it, “Bon Voyage good buddy. Have a fun trip!” She sticks it in the middle of the booklet, right on top of a snowman Christmas card, and then sends it down the line to be stuffed into an envelope. Everyone stares at the booklet with Sherrie’s gum in it, as it passes by us on the conveyor belt. Sherrie even picks out a pre-addressed envelope to put the booklet in. Now some poor kid with the name “Fleabag Bailey” in Galveston, Texas is going to open his booklet thinking he’s found the answer to making money, money, money and winning fabulous prizes by selling greeting cards. Instead, as if his name hasn’t given him a lifetime of misery, now when he receives his envelope from Sunshine, the first thing he’ll open to is a well-chewed piece of grape Bubble Yum bubble gum staring him in the face.
I try to put poor Fleabag Bailey’s future predicament out of my mind by coming up with something I would consider good about working here at Sunshine. I look at the back of my sister Anne’s head as she works on the conveyor belt in front of me. I think of the small bond working here at Sunshine has created between us. Shared misery has always been the glue to keep our family together. Usually, Anne and I had spent our time together in gladiator fights over the last Popsicle in the freezer or who had the use of our most treasured possession, the blow dryer. I’d even torture her by hiding her Seventeen magazines or I’d invite the boy she’s dating for a peek at our shared bedroom. While giving the bedroom tour I’d casually point out her dirty underpants on the floor.
Now, thanks to our factory jobs, Anne and I have created the unofficial, “Sunshine Sister’s Society”. We’re the only two members, allied by our shared aches, pains and paranoia about being fired. Our parents refer to us in their conversations with others as “The Factory Girls”. Making it sound like soon we’ll have our own TV variety show similar to Donny and Marie or Sonny and Cher. Our parents have some romantic notion that we’re the equivalent to Rosie the Riveter, and what we’re doing is patriotic and building America stronger. Our parent’s reaction to our complaints at dinner convinces me further that they never actually listen to a word we say. They believe that Anne and I have developed a secret code language, where whenever we say things like, “God, my legs are killing me, or I swear rats ate Carol’s lunch today”, actually translates to our as, “we’re having the time of our lives”, or “who knew that factory work could teach us so much and be so satisfying.”
We’ve witnessed for years how our father’s love/hate relationship towards his high school English teaching job has ruined the life he was meant to live. For years now his pipe dream is to pack up our car and move to Canada, dragging us all with him on his quest to wander the open road and write poetry about trees. Our house is cluttered with his many pages of poetry, stuffed into books and magazines or given to us as gifts instead of stuff we really want from stores. Despite his teaching position suffocating his poet’s life, my father refuses to leave it. It has become a stand-down: either he or the job is going to win, like “High Noon at Minnechaug Regional High School”. Our mother tells my sisters and me this is why he is frequently in a bad mood. According to her, he’s a natural poet who has been forced into taking on the role of frustrated husband, father, English teacher and homeowner. He has now piled his plate so high with financial responsibilities he’s choking on them. Apparently, beer is the cure for this problem and lately he’s been upping his dosage.
Many nights, once my father is jollied up by a few Budweisers, he’ll put on one of his favorite Tommy Makem and The Clancy Brothers records and he’ll sing along with them all by himself. Our family isn’t Irish, but somehow my father believes when it comes to music, green blood runs through his veins, even affecting an Irish brogue when he sings. I have to explain my father’s Leprechaun ways to my friends when they visit during drinking hours and witness one of his “Irish” moods. A week ago my friend Tina saw him singing to our china cabinet in his boxer shorts. I told her he was practicing for his solo in the PTA Talent show.
Beer and frustration brings out the performer in my father. He has a long-running show my sisters and I call the, “I could have been a famous poet, if Minnechaug Regional High School wasn’t killing me!” show. Sometimes after this long monologue touching on all aspects of his slow death from this job, he’ll get out of his Laz-e-Boy recliner for an encore performance. He’ll take out handfuls of his poems, written on index cards, scrap paper and napkins, and with great dramatic flair, toss them onto the living room floor. After witnessing this every night I’m really afraid I might have to take up heavy beer drinking if I want to someday be a great dramatic actress. My father’s act becomes a two-person show when my mother, in her co-starring role, gets down on her hands and knees in her old blue bathrobe and picks the poems up off the living room rug.
While doing this she wails, “Richard, you’re a wonderful poet! Someday the New Yorker will appreciate your writing like I do!”
From our spots on the family room couch in the next room my sisters and I have a partially obstructed view of their nightly performances. If nothing good is on TV we’ll actually give them our full attention, making sure not to giggle too loud because, despite it being funny to us, it apparently is not a comedy.
I hate to admit it, but my parents do have a flair for the dramatic. With their exaggerated movements and gut-wrenching monologues, I’m sure they’d give any actor from the Stage West Dinner Theater in Springfield a run for their money. So far the only roles in acting I’ve had have been singing in the chorus for my third grade production of Mary Poppins, and most recently my 10th grade English class read aloud from Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible”. Our bored monotones sucked the very life out of the play and I’m sure my portrayal of Tituba would make Arthur Miller a heavy drinker. Then again, I’m not even sure if he’s still alive to enjoy too many beers.
Between Sunshine and my father, I now realize there are two careers I never want, assembly line factory worker and high school English teacher.
On Thursday, July 28th, all our family’s paranoia pays off. At approximately 9:30 in the morning the assembly line Anne is working on comes to an abrupt stop. I look up at Vinny and ask; “Do you think somebody else is going to get a gold pen?” He shakes his head, “I don’t think anyone on that line has been here twenty years.” It’s true; all the girls on the line are summer help. They’ve all been here about a month and a half like me.
Jane arrives and I see her motion to them to gather up their stuff. Anne turns and glances at me quickly. Her eyes are bulging with confusion, then she shrugs her shoulders and picks up her sandwich bag and joins the others walking single-file behind Jane. I wonder where they are being taken? Other people on the lines start asking out loud about this to no one in particular. We try to comfort ourselves with such questions as, “Are they packing prize boxes in the back of the factory or are they being taken outside to wash Mr. Tampoon’s Lincoln Continental?
I ask Vinny, “Where do ya think they are?”
He just looks at me and sighs, “I’ve got no idea.” By the fourth time I ask him this he grits his teeth and says, “I don’t know anymore than you do. You need to calm down; there’s nothing we can do about it. I’m sure they’re probably cleaning up some mess in the back of the factory somewhere.”
By the first break when we don’t see them panic starts to bubble up. It dawns on our glitter-hazed minds that quite possibly they can’t find their way back from where they’ve been taken in the factory, or they really were outside washing Mr. Tampoon’s car and they didn’t hear the break time bell. By lunchtime the word is out: FIRED! I find out right in the middle of biting into my Snickers candy bar. A large nutty lump of it sticks in my throat, scraping all the way down, making my eyes water. Paul witnessed the firing while sneaking a smoke on the loading dock.
He tells us, “Yeah, it was like a massacre! Jane took ‘em outside, told ‘em productivity was down on their assembly line and told ‘em to go home!” For a second I can’t even think of Anne. All I can think is I hope they don’t know I’m her sister, cause then I’ll be fired next.
When I get home from work I see Anne sitting on our family room couch with her slackened mouth dropped open and a Reader’s Digest on her lap. The 5 O’clock News is on TV. There is not one mention by John Quill on Channel 22 news about the terrible firing of 10 employees from Sunshine Greeting Card Factory. I ask my sister as gently as possible, what it feels like to finally face our family’s greatest fear.
She turns her red-rimmed eyes to me. “It was awful! I walked all the way home!” I want more details on exactly how it was done. Did Jane yell? Was there a threat of violence? I need these details otherwise I’ll just play it over and over in my head how I imagined it. I have already envisioned where Jane cackles, rubbing her two-tone hands together right before she dispenses with them with two words, “Get out!” Or the other scenario where I imagine Jane noiselessly pointing one of her speckled fingers to the exit sign at the end of the parking lot much like the Ghost of Christmas Yet-To-Come points to Scrooge’s grave in “The Christmas Carol”. I had even had a chance to fantasize during second break that when the firing was happening I left my spot on the assembly line, ran out and defended my sister and the others. Instead, in reality I did nothing. Not knowing what was really happening I’d done what everyone else had –looked at the forlorn line leaving out of the corner of my eye, grateful it wasn’t me.
At first, Anne won’t leave the house, so deep is her shame. My parents actually allow her to wallow in her lost job stupor for three days. She eats all the food in the house that contains sugar and lies on the couch watching daytime TV. My younger sister Shannon and I play our part in helping her recover. We don’t fight over who gets the last ice cream bar or cookie; we just let her have everything. Remarkably, this makes her cry more. Does she miss the competition over food, hate our pity, or is it because she’s putting on weight during bathing suit season?
The following Monday my father takes a hard line. I am actually surprised it didn’t come sooner. Usually, he makes us “walk it off”, or “buck up” during any hardships we encounter, like our period cramps, the boy who doesn’t call back or bad hair days. I guess being fired is something so terrifying, even to him, his usual temperament is thrown off balance. Having shaken this off, he now reclaims the man he was three days ago before the incident. He reminds her that she is paying for every penny of college so unless she gets back out to hustle up some money she can’t look to him since he is poor due to his low-paying job. To make matters worse, Anne has really gained a few pounds. My father has a not-so-secret loathing for fat people. Our family does know some fat people and we have a bunch of chubby cousins on my mother’s side.
My father will be teeth-grittingly nice to their face, but the minute they’re out of earshot he’ll say things like, “If they weren’t so Goddamn lazy they could lose some of that Goddamn weight! It’s laziness you know, that makes a person fat!” He then uses himself as a good example. “See, if you get up early, exercise every day and eat wheat germ, then you won’t get fat, like some people.” Now Anne is dangerously close to becoming lazy with the side effect of becoming fat. My father takes charge by pointing out a dent in the couch where Anne has been spending a lot of time. I know it was there long before Anne had her troubles. In fact my father really is the culprit. After all, at 200 pounds he is the biggest and brawniest one in our family and he sits there a lot when he’s in the mood for TV.
My mother comes to Anne’s rescue. She hooks her up with a minimum wage job that will last for the rest of the summer. On a tip from a patient at the dentist’s office where my mother works, she finds out they are hiring kitchen staff at the East Longmeadow Nursing home.
Back at Sunshine I find myself missing eating my lunch with Anne. In school she would never let me sit with her in the cafeteria. She was a senior and I was a sophomore. Having to eat lunch with another family member at school means you aren’t popular enough to gain acceptance from outsiders. We had dropped this pretense of disdain at Sunshine, since we are all losers here.
At the factory, they replace my sister’s line with fresh, new people. It appears they all come from the same Portuguese family. After only a few minutes of working, I can see they argue a lot and from time to time actually slap each other. It’s like watching the Three Stooges as a foreign film. Jane watches them with her cold fish eye stare. They’re making so much noise yelling and slapping each other that they don’t even notice her. They start pushing cards off the belt on to the floor. Jane hovers by our conveyor belt behind theirs, like she’s a leopard ready to pounce on this hapless family of goats. She eyes these doomed people until she can take it no more. She pulls a key out of her smock pocket and switches off the assembly line. The belt chugs to a whining halt. This does not faze the family. They chatter in Portuguese more loudly and manually push the cards down the belt, between slaps. They must think that if they keep the cards moving, no one will notice their conveyor belt has stopped. Jane walks up behind the youngest, weakest of the clan and puts a two-tone hand on the girl’s arm. This must be the first time they’ve seen Jane. A few visibly shudder. Jane motions for them to pick up their lunches. It’s silent, except for the whir of cross-eyed Jim’s forklift in the distance. Jane guides these recent immigrants towards the back of the factory. I wonder if they’ll be fired after only 15 minutes of work? We stare at the mess left on the assembly line in front of ours. After today, I’m sure they’ll want to go right back to Portugal, thinking that all of America must be like a nineteenth century sweatshop.
A little while later, Jane is back. She’s got Carol Kennedy and all the other prize box packers from the back of the factory with her. Apparently, they’ve been switched with the Portuguese family, which now has all the prime jobs in the factory, working off the assembly lines. Carol and her fellow workers first have to clean up the mess left by the family. Watching slow, uncoordinated Carol trying to keep up as she chases the cards down the assembly line is one of the more painful sights I’ve witnessed at Sunshine. I have learned something very important today. The lesson I’ve learned is that even if you do your job well, like my sister Anne, you can lose it in a heartbeat. But you can screw up royally, right in front of the supervisor, like the Portuguese family did, and actually be promoted to a better job.
Though Anne is possibly scarred for life, she manages to get on with her new job. Instead of spending her days with cheap, corny greeting cards, she now spends her time with very old and broken people. Ancient people who are so near death scare me, but somehow Anne has made the best of it. It has also given her some very interesting stories to tell around the dinner table every night. According to my father, her tales are so disgusting she is almost banned from the table. So far, he has never actually sent her packing. Instead he feigns horror, bangs his fist on the table, and then leans in closer like he’s got a front row seat at the theater. Anne’s job is in the kitchen, preparing meal trays for the patients. This nursing home prides itself on catering to what’s left of the taste buds of its clients.
Anne makes the most of her big moment while the rest of us hang on to every word spilling from her mouth. “Seeeeee, I’ve gotta memorize what the favorite juices and warm cereals each person likes to eat. I think they wanna keep the oldsters in a food coma, cause they won’t let us put much flavor or color into their meals. I guess if we gave ‘em salty french-fries or a bright red apple then they’d become more demanding, insisting on all day bingo games, or staying up late to see Johnny Carson.”
I’ve never been interested in old people before, but suddenly I find myself asking, “So what do they do all day?”
Anne makes me wait while she licks mashed potatoes off her fork. “Weeeeelllll, they mostly wander the hallways or sit propped up in the TV room, or sometimes they just lie all glassy-eyed in their beds. Sometimes I think they might be dead, you know, but then their food is gone when I go back and get their tray. I mean just when I get all their favorite diluted juices memorized, someone dies, or ya know, just stops eating.”
“So have you seen a dead person yet?” I ask her.
My father clears his throat and gives me a look, but yet again he waits for her answer with the rest of us. Not wanting to disappoint us she says, “Weeelll, I think I have, I’m not sure if this one guy was dead.” Then she adds, “ But I saw the nurse change his bedpan twice this afternoon.”
Nothing at Sunshine is ever this interesting, not even a blackout or a gold pen ceremony.
After two weeks at her new job Anne is still holding court at the supper table with her latest story.
“Weeeeell, today was Pizza Day at the nursing home. See, four large pizzas were delivered from Bruno’s. Then you know what we did with them?” Anne stops, mid-story and lowers her mouth to her plate and slurps spaghetti.
“What?…What?” I beg. “What did you do with the pizza?”
Anne slowly looks around the table, and wipes her mouth while making sure we are all paying attention. “Weeeeell, we put all the slices of pizza in this blender and pulverized them!”
“Wha..” I start to say, but my father’s hand swings past Anne and barely misses my face. I’m used to this happening so I’ve gauged how long his arm is and can, in a split second, pull my head back just out of his reach.
He yells, “Don’t interrupt!”
Anne can hardly control the smirk on her face. “Soooo, then I put the pepperoni pizza shake into a pitcher, then I wheeled it into the TV room where a lotta old people were hooked up to earpieces coming out of the huge TV set. Then I poured the pizza into Dixie cups and I put the cups in their hands. Some of them were shaking cause I guess its big excitement for them. A lot of the pizza shake ends up all over their bathrobes, and a couple of them fall asleep with the cup still in their hands.” While I try to imagine old folks drinking pizza out of a cup, my mother interrupts my vision with a lesson to be learned from all this.
“Just remember girls, you need to take good care of your teeth, unless you want to look forward to drinking your pizza through a straw when you get older.”
Meanwhile, back at Sunshine, it’s getting towards the end of August, so a lot of the summer help is slowly quitting. Some teenagers just don’t bother to show up for work. No one even gives notice. A few kids just walk off the assembly lines, and clock out like they’ve glittered their last card, and now its time to spend their days at Masquamacut beach getting a catch-up tan before school starts. Every time I see someone leave, my brain screams, “Follow them! Get out now! You want to swim in the ocean too!” But my feet remain rooted onto the cardboard pile I stand on and my arm, like a long, dead weight, slogs on with the glue and glitter.
I guess I’m not ready to say goodbye to some of the people here, like Dolly with her candy, Sherrie singing sunshine songs and Vinny, the only guy who’s ever shown interest in me, outside of old men who need me to help them cross the street. This morning Vinny is moved to another assembly line. When Jane comes over, she grabs his arm like he’s her prom date.
He sighs, picks up his knapsack and says to me, “See ya Corky!” Jane leans in to Vinny as she so obviously enjoys her moment with a man on her arm. She deposits him on another assembly line to pack mailbags. I can still see him, though. He’s near Mary Lowens now. She’s a year older than me and she’s really pretty, almost too pretty to be working here. Later at lunch I see him sit with Mary against the wall outside the factory instead of going off with the other guys to Bruno’s Pizzeria. So far I haven’t seen him offer her juice from his thermos as he did for me. I guess Vinny and I will always have our Hawaiian Punch moment. As I sneak peeks at them while shading my eyes from the glare of the sun, I figure it doesn’t matter though, cause I’ll meet all new boys when I go to college.
I finish my peanut butter and jelly sandwich and think of how I’m gonna miss all my Portuguese ladies, whom I’ve spent the summer communicating with using only facial expressions and hand gestures. I’ll even miss Jane and I don’t even know why. Most of all I’ll miss my paycheck. I’ve become addicted to getting this piece of paper at the end of every week. I’ve saved almost every penny I’ve earned at Sunshine. My sisters and I have been reminded for years now that our parents have no money for college. We’ll have to pay for everything. Despite this huge financial responsibility my mother still pokes fun at me when I practically rub Washington’s face off my nickel before I hand it over to the guy at Teehan’s deli for a large Sugar Daddy pop. All the while as I suck on the caramel Sugar Daddy I think that someday a year or so from now I might need that nickel to help pay for my dorm room or as part of a down payment on books for my first semester of college.
The Kennedy girls and I start plotting our escape from Sunshine Factory. This conversation consumes us during our lunch and break times. We decide we’ll escape this Friday, which is a week and a half before Labor Day. The plan is that for lunch on Friday we’ll hitch a ride with other workers to the East Longmeadow Deli. We’ll have a blowout lunch, “The Works”: cheese sandwiches, coleslaw and large pieces of German chocolate cake – followed by the piece de resistance: Not going back to Sunshine!
I look at the lifers working around me. I wonder if they have any suspicion about our plan to leave. Earlier this morning some girl begged Jane to take her place on the assembly line so she could use the bathroom. I watch her clock out, wave goodbye to Mr. Tampoon up in his glass office, and then walk out of Sunshine.
Twenty minutes later Jane is snapping her neck looking for the girl. She grits her teeth, squints her eyes and shouts to us, “Where is she?” Several of us had seen her leave but we all shrug our shoulders and say absolutely nothing. In a “doomed to fail from the beginning” experiment, Jane puts cross-eyed Jim on the assembly line for the rest of the day. He had just crashed his forklift into a wall earlier in the day, so he is now available to work elsewhere until his forklift is fixed. He’s so awful that the conveyor belt on the line where he’s working is slowed down to a pace where dead people would barely have a problem keeping up. All the middle-aged ladies on his line are enjoying themselves. They cover each other for lengthy water and bathroom breaks. They take turns sitting on their cardboard piles; they clean out their pocket books and comb each other’s hair. Meanwhile sweat beads up above Jim’s upper lip and his safety goggles fog up. His neck is so twisted he must stand sideways to see the cards inching their way slowly down the belt. He misses half of them and covers the conveyor belt with dribbles of glue. He runs his glue-covered hands through his hair and down his overalls. After a while I have to look away. It’s just too exhausting to watch him.
Friday arrives and with it our glorious escape from Sunshine. The Kennedy girls talk about spending the next week-and-a-half before school starts in bed. That’s their idea of a vacation – lying in a coma, oblivious to the passage of time. I don’t tell them about the nightmare I had last night. In my dream Jane, Hal and Mr. Tampoon are scratching at my bedroom window and chanting, “You’ll never get out of Sunshine alive!” It’s like a remake of the movie, “Night of the Living Dead”, recast with the employees of Sunshine Factory. I see this nightmare as a sign that I must give adequate notice; otherwise those in charge at Sunshine will haunt me. I’ll be caught in limbo between the living and the Sunshine undead.
At work today, Jane is eyeing me. My face burns. She knows. When I look at her, she turns on her broken down orthopedic shoes, and walks to Mr. Tampoon’s office. A few minutes later I look up to see Mr. Tampoon press his face against his office window while Jane points a speckled finger in my direction. As Jane makes her way back down the office steps, the lunch bell rings. I quickly weave through the conveyor belts, grab my timecard and cram it into the time box to clock out for lunch. I run to catch up with the Kennedy girls as we make it out of the loading dock exit just before Jane reaches me.
We hitch a ride with Paul, along with two other girls. We all squeeze into his car by sitting on each other’s laps. I develop a headache between my eyes as Paul drives us to the deli. Once we get there we all pile out of his car. I have a knotted feeling in my stomach and it’s not the usual empty pit feeling I have at this time right before lunch. I’m the last to pick up my tray as I slide it down the line in front of the glass covered deli cases of food. I order a cheese sandwich like we all planned. Mine has no flavor. It tastes like the plastic wrap is still on it. The Kennedy girls, who are sitting on either side of me, are licking their fingers, smacking their lips and I hear them both exclaim in stereo, “Mmmmmm…Mmmmm” from both sides of the table.
“Can I taste yours?” I ask Lori Kennedy. She picks off the tiniest corner of her sandwich and drops it in my hand. I still taste nothing. I’m cursed. I can’t taste cheese anymore.
Paul gets up from his stool at the counter and tells us, “Hey girls, the Sunshine taxi is leaving! Get a doggie bag!”
Carol and Lori dig into their German chocolate cake and squeal,
“We’re not going back!” The other two girls who came with us are inspired and on the spot decide not to go back either. Paul blows a kiss and heads for the door. I stand up suddenly, and grab my German chocolate cake in a napkin. I turn back and look at the Kennedys. Their mouths drop open and cake falls out, landing on the table.
On the way back with Paul I tell him, “See, I gotta go back cause I’ll need the extra $120.00 that I can make next week to help pay for college. It’s expensive, ya know.”
Paul laughs, “College? Man, isn’t that a waste of money? I mean, I’ll be making almost three dollars and seventy-five cents an hour next year. Pretty soon I’ll have enough money for a down payment on a wicked Camaro! Can’t have a car and college too!” Paul is barking up the wrong tree. I hate driving cars. The one driving lesson that my mother has given me, I almost went through the plate glass window of a Lil’ Peach convenience store. I would have taken out the magazine rack, The Pepperidge Farm cookie display and the Slurpee machine at the front entrance.
When I get back to Sunshine, Jane drills me on the whereabouts of the Kennedys. She snorts at me when I tell her, “I dunno what happened to them. I couldn’t find them after lunch.” They have to shut down an entire assembly line this afternoon, since four others quit during lunch break along with the Kennedys. There’s only one other summer help girl left in the factory, besides me. Jane keeps an extra good eye on us, as if we’ll both sprout wings and fly out of Sunshine. I think of Carol and Lori Kennedy, probably in their bathing suits by now, lying on top of their beds -safe—away from here. And by my own choice, I’m leaning against a cold, metal conveyor belt, watching my right arm, grab, glue and glitter greeting cards.
The following Monday the other remaining summer help girl doesn’t show up. I’m alone. I eat my lunch outside by myself. I stare at my peanut butter sandwich wishing it could talk. The only thing that keeps me going is the thought of that last $120.00. I don’t need the company of friends if I’m getting a paycheck.
To prevent Jane, Hal and Mr. Tampoon from haunting me every night, I decide to give a week’s notice. This morning when I tell Jane I’m leaving, a film glazes over her gray eyes and her upper lip curls, revealing a few of her forlorn teeth. She walks away from me without saying a word. No “thank you”…nothing. I want to run out of Sunshine Factory right now just to show her. But I walk up to my spot on the conveyor belt, drop my lunch bag on the floor and pick up a card to glue and glitter.
Jane is busy breaking in twenty-three new people today. More Portuguese immigrants and local housewives shuffle into the factory. For a brief moment they glance at me on the assembly line looking as if they believe I’ve been here forever. I remember looking at the lifers like this when I first came to Sunshine what seems like a million years ago in late June. The local housewives look like they accidentally arrived at Sunshine after stepping out of their house to pick up the morning paper. They wear housecoats and bathrobes. Some also have curlers in their hair as if they have a hot date on the town tonight after eight hours on the assembly line. They do add a touch of professionalism to this look by wearing a work smock over their bathrobes.
An air of DOOM fills Sunshine as these new lifers enter the factory. Even Sherrie’s luster is dulled as she watches these new recruits shuffle into the vacant spots on the lines. These women who are too exhausted from life to even put on street clothes anymore. Sherrie gives me another religious sympathy card, but this time to give to my father. It has a large cross on the front with beams of light emanating from it. The quote on the card says, “The Lord watches over those who need it most”. The message Sherrie writes inside says, “Sorry Mr. Spencer, old pal, but I won’t be able to hang with ya in English class this fall! PS – Your kids are cool! How’d that happen?”
As I clock out for the last time on Friday, I expect that I’ll feel free, that when I walk outside the factory the sun will shine brighter, the air will be cleaner. As in the now-banned Disney movie, “Song of the South”, I expect a cartoon bluebird will land on my shoulder and sing, “Zippity–doo-da, Zippity-day! My–oh-my, what a wonderful day!” Instead, as I walk out, I catch sight of Jane at the loading dock exit. We lock eyes. I feel like I should say goodbye, maybe pick up a greeting card that says “Missing you across the miles…” and hand it to her. A moment passes and we both look away. No cartoon characters greet me outside, unless you count my mother, waiting to pick me up in our car. I announce to her that next summer, maybe I’ll pick tobacco instead of working at Sunshine. At least there are more cute boys working in the tobacco fields.
Once I begin the 11th grade I send away for college applications and attend college fairs. At the beginning of 12th grade I apply to and am accepted to the University of Georgia as a freshman art student. I’ve never been down south, but I hear it’s warm and sunny all the time. Also, it’s not filled with so many industrial factories like here in Western Massachusetts.
Alas, my high school junior and senior summers I do spend working at Sunshine again. The Kennedy girls also join me. Anne does as well, but is fired again, but this time for talking too much. A policy at Sunshine is that even if you’ve been fired, or quit with no notice, you’re always welcome back after a short passage of time. It’s just like family. Both summers it’s like we never left. All the messes on the floor from the previous summer are still where they fell. Vinny is gone. But Jane, Dolly, Jim, Hal, Sherrie and Mr. Tampoon, like characters from a long running soap opera, continue their dramas. Almost nothing has changed except for a few minor cast replacements. Somehow the next two summers are easier now that my future plans are solidly in place. I’m still worried about being fired; yet when I see new teenagers come in I almost feel like an old-timer. My younger sister Shannon even works with me during my last summer, making it seem like Sunshine is a rite of passage for my family. I tell everyone at Sunshine of my plans for college. Sherrie finds this amusing.
“Yeah, right, once you get hooked on the conveyor belt, ya never wanna leave!” But she’s wrong.
For the last two weeks during my final summer at Sunshine I keep my one-way bus ticket to Georgia sitting on my desk at home, just waiting to be used September 3rd, 1982.
I make a vow on my thirty-six hour bus ride to Athens, Georgia that I will never, ever work on a conveyor belt again. My northern factory days are over. Only happy days of art classes, football games and real Georgia sunshine await me.
By the time I’ve paid tuition, bought books and put my money down for my dorm room, I’m out of cash. For four months I donate blood plasma twice a week for food money. Along with other college students, junkies and alcoholics I’m hooked up with needles in both arms. We receive eight dollars for each donation. This source of income grinds to a halt when AIDS is discovered in the winter of 1982.
I sign up for the work-study program on campus. One thousand miles away from Sunshine factory, my first real job in Georgia is at Bolton Dining Hall. It is the largest cafeteria on campus. Food, glorious food! I’ll get to work with hotdogs, ice cream, and chocolate milk all day long. My dream of dishing out all this food to my fellow students is crushed once they hear my Massachusetts accent. These people in Georgia consider me a “foreign” student. They claim that no one will understand my thick northern accent so they can’t put me on the food serving lines. Instead, I’m placed in the dish room with all the other foreign students from Nigeria, Bangladesh and Pakistan. I’m handed a milk crate and told to sit on this at the end of a conveyor belt! I can’t believe it! I thought college meant an end of my days on an assembly line. The trays come down the belt that starts in the dining room and end up here in the dish room where all us foreign students wait for them. Each of us has a job, to pull silverware, plates, or glasses off the trays as they fly past us on the line. I’m the last person on the belt. My job is to pick up the emptied trays, knock off any uneaten food into the garbage bags, and place the trays into a pile to be washed. My shift starts at 6:00 in the morning. My fellow workers and I have devised a way to grab a quick snooze while working. We sit on our milk crates, place our heads on the metal bar that runs down the line, and then lay one arm across the moving conveyor belt to feel for when the trays come down. Sometimes, early in the shift we get ten minutes of uninterrupted sleep between trays,
The last part of my job is to help bundle up the discarded food into garbage bags. This we suspect is then sent to feed the pigs at The University of Georgia agricultural department. These pigs are later slaughtered for pork chops and foot-log hotdogs for Bolton dining hall. So sooner or later these students could be facing the same food they discarded last month in the form of fatback and ham. This assembly line job is much better than Sunshine because I get $4.00 an hour, and all the food I can stuff myself with during my six hour shift. After a couple of months I’m a fat foreign student. I do feel like I’m part of the Wonderful World of Disney now, but not the movie, “Song of the South”. With all these students from other countries in the dish room, it looks like a parade float for the Disneyworld exhibit; It’s a Small World After All! Instead of sunshine songs, I listen to Chitra from Nigeria sing a native folk song. After Chitra is finished singing, Manny teaches us the words to “Guantanamera”. When it is my turn, I lead them all in a chorus of, “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine, you make me happy when skies are gray.”