You can read the previous installment of Coree Spencer’s memoir in the last issue of Ducts:

Memoirs: Issue 22

It doesn’t take long for the paranoia I feel at work to carry over into my sleep. It’s bad enough that I spend the whole day in the factory, now I have conveyor belt dreams at night. I have this re-occurring dream that I’m on the assembly line, and slowly everyone else leaves the line for lunch, or bathroom breaks. I’m left alone as the conveyor belt speeds up. Thousands of cards come down the line like an army of menacing Christmas greetings. I look at the hamster cage atop the factory, and see Mr. Tampoon leaning over his window, shaking his fist at me. The red light at the end of the assembly line goes on, signaling a back up of cards. I turn around and there’s Jane, silently baring her yellow teeth at me. This is when I wake up and scream.

My sister Anne yells, “Cut it out!” to me from her top bunk bed.

We’re both losing sleep. She has conveyor belt dreams too. Last night I woke up and caught her standing at her dresser like a zombie, shuffling papers and magazines. When I ask her what she’s doing, she tells me, “I’ll be done gluing these cards in a minute!” She doesn’t remember having done this when I tell her about it in the morning. She does confide in me that in all her factory dreams she gets fired.

I tell her, “Yeah, me too! I get fired every night!” During my waking hours at home, I have the sensation that everything is going by me on a conveyor belt. At supper every night I stab at my food with my fork as I swear I get the feeling that if I don’t eat the food off my plate fast enough, it will move on down the table and eventually end up on the floor to be gobbled up by our hovering cats and dog.

At work I try to keep my mind off being fired by studying some of the people. I’ve come to the conclusion that we’re society’s rejects. My sister Anne, the Kennedy girls and I are unpopular high school students, but we maybe will have a decent future if we play our cards right. As for me, I figure working at Sunshine is part of the dues I must pay to later on become a famous movie star. Meanwhile, the other workers, “the lifers”, are either illegal immigrants, local people with no future, or high school dropouts.
I distract myself from this pondering about people around me by trying to find a boy who works here I could imagine I would marry. So far there is one guy I’ve noticed who would be tempting to any teenage girl. His name is Paul, and he is all the girls’ favorite. We think he looks like Rick Springfield from the soap opera General Hospital. His hair is dark, shiny and parted in the middle. But best of all it feathers back to perfection, like all the TV stars in Tiger Beat magazine. He keeps a comb in his back pocket and sometimes if we’re all lucky when he’s near us he’ll pull it out and slide it through both sides of his glossy locks. While our mouths drop he pauses a moment for effect, then slips the comb back into the rear pocket of his form fitting Levi’s jeans. I swear this little scene has caused more than a few of us to miss gluing and glittering cards coming down the belt. Eight hours a day, Paul wanders up and down the assembly lines; letting all us girls get a load of him. From what I can see he doesn’t do any real work other than push an empty hand truck around the factory and inspire the women and girls on the lines. Paul gets $3.35 an hour to look pretty. Jane has a special affection for Paul as well. She treats him so differently from us. We have to suppress our laughter as we watch her touch her patchwork hand to her two-tone neck as she speaks to Paul. She even smiles at him, which I believe is to her disadvantage. She touches her pink, plastic barrette, to draw Paul’s attention to her feminine side. Paul is only twenty years old, and Jane must be at least forty. She’s lucky she’s a woman with power and influence; otherwise she’d have no leverage with Paul. He does flirt back with her. He touches her blue smock, and Jane’s eyelids flutter as her eyes roll back in her head.

Mr. Tampoon has caught on to this flirtation conducted while on the Sunshine time clock. He never leaves his glass hamster cage atop the factory, so he calls for Jane over the loudspeaker. He catches her right in the middle of doing what looks like “The Dance of the Seven Veils” around Paul and his hand truck.

“Jane, report to the office!” booms twice over the factory’s old speaker system. For a second I see the fear in Jane’s eyes; the same fear I have everyday. Maybe like me, she feels like she’ll be fired. I’ve never danced around Paul, touching his Molson Golden t-shirt, keeping him from doing his job, whatever that might be, and still I believe that with every tick of the Sunshine clock, I come closer to my termination.

Jane’s eyes cloud over as she puts both hands in her blue smock pockets. With her head down she wends her way to the hamster cage at the to of the stairs. Paul leans on his hand truck, and winks at all of us. I don’t know why, but for a moment I want to hit Paul, right in the middle of his handsome, soap opera face.

Half an hour later, during afternoon break, I see Jane sitting alone on a three-legged chair leaned up against the cafeteria wall. Apparently, she hasn’t been fired. For someone who has definitely dodged a bullet, she doesn’t seem too happy. For the rest of the day whenever Paul is near our assembly line and Jane happens by, she just looks at him, turns and walks away.

This afternoon, right in the midst of Jane’s ruined romance, when I’m feeling safe that all the bad vibes are following her, I realize nothing good lasts forever. My comeuppance is working on the conveyor belt in front of me and their names are Sherrie and Vinny. Sherrie has just been brought over from another part of the factory to glue cards on the assembly line. She’s on the same belt as my sister Anne, while Vinny, a new guy, is placed at the end of their line to pack mailbags. Vinny graduated from high school this past June. He tells everyone he was a football player who missed a lot of his senior football season due to bad grades. Sherrie, it turns out never finished high school and I don’t think she ever will. The thing these two have in common is they both went to high school in the next town of Wilbraham. The awful thing for me and my sister is that my father teaches English at their school and he failed them both. He failed Sherrie twice. It’s nice to see my father has ruined other people’s lives, besides my sister’s and mine.

Sherrie looks like a female version of Moe from The Three Stooges” complete with a black bowl haircut. She also has a face full of freckles and a chipped front tooth and talks a blue streak. I bet my father failed her twice in English class because she never shut up and listened to him. According to my father, not listening to him is one step removed from criminal activity. I find out their link to my father when Sherrie starts going on and on about this “jerk,” “Mr. Spencer” who made her repeat the eleventh grade last year. Vinny hears this and tells her, “Yeah, he’s the same jerk who made me miss four big games last fall when he gave me an F!” I’m thinking that maybe it would be wise to not tell them he is our father.

A moment later though, Anne, who has heard all of this as well, blurts out, “Mr. Spencer is our Dad!” Then to make it worse, she turns and points to me; “Coree’s his daughter too!” Sherrie jumps off her pile of cardboard and screams, “No – Fucking – Way! You guys are Spencer’s Kids!? Jesus, Man, that guys hates me! Gave me an ‘F’ twice!”

Anne tells her, “Don’t feel bad – he hates us too!” Vinny, the failed football player, who isn’t working too far away from me loading mailbags, doesn’t say anything. He clenches his jaw and slams a mailbag onto a skid as sweat rolls down the side of his face.

Finally, noticing I’m staring at him, he erupts into a gap-toothed grin and says, “Man, I’m sorry. He’s really your dad?” Just when I think this could be a terrible situation; being surrounded by students my father failed, it turns into a rare moment of sympathy for my sister and me.

Sherrie can’t stop talking about this, “Jesus, man, you gotta live with that guy? Man, I could hardly sit in his classroom for fifty-five minutes a day!” Until this moment, I’ve only met students who worshipped and adored my father. These pet students were discussed nightly by my father around the dinner table. He’d get misty-eyed telling my sisters and me of their love of poetry, especially poetry he writes, their excellent use of grammar and most importantly, when he told them to “jump,”, they “jumped”! He’d invite the extra special ones to our house for cookouts, or possibly to serve as role models for us to aspire to. My sisters and I got to meet these legendary students the flesh. We’d watch my father show them his perfect technique on how to grill hamburgers and toast buns on both sides. I swear they stood with their hands clasped in front of their chins, watching every move my father made as if they’d be tested about this cookout on a pop quiz the following Monday. Meanwhile, my sisters and I would stand a good enough distance away, hands on our hips, or folded over our chests, with scowls on our faces.

Later on, these students would pull my sisters and me aside. We’d stare at them, squinting like Clint Eastwood did in “Dirty Harry”, while they told us, “You’re soooo lucky Mr. Spencer is your dad! He let us play cricket during English Lit!” It took working in this run-down sweatshop to realize there are kids out there who share the same opinion of him as my sisters and me.

Sherrie tells us, “I’m going to spend my lunch break looking through the whole factory for a sympathy card for you guys!” Sherrie does find one from a fresh batch of cards brought in from the printing press this morning. On the front of the card is a picture of Jesus with a shining halo surrounding his entire body. His hands are clasped together and he looks ready to weep. On the inside it says, “During this time of sorrow, remember you never walk alone.” There is something unholy about this card. All the colored dyes ran together, so Jesus’ hands are green and his face is purple. Maybe the card Sherrie gave us is just a blooper card, a fluke. By three o’clock this afternoon we realize this mistake is widespread. They have thousands of purple-faced Jesus sympathy cards. Someone goofed in the design and dye section of the factory, and Sunshine, being so frugal, decides to send them out to stores and millions of kids across the U.S. to sell to their family and neighbors. They’re packed into boxes and we glue them into sales booklets. I can’t wait until the Catholic Church gets a load of these.

My father might have failed Sherrie twice, but she’s not beaten down. In fact, I’m surprised my father wasn’t impressed with her energy level. Sherrie is Sunshine factory’s very own one-woman show, like Lily Tomlin on Saturday Night Live. While the rest of us walk a fine line between keeping up with production, and losing our jobs, Sherrie is able to talk non-stop; using full hand gestures, sometimes walking away from her spot on the line, and getting back without ever missing a card. She’s even picked up some Portuguese, much to the annoyance of the Portuguese women. Now Sherrie butts into both English and Portuguese conversations. Sherrie likes to talk to me, especially now that we have this new connection, my father.

“So what’s that drill sergeant up to lately?” she asks, “Does he kick your ass like he used to kick mine?”

“Well,” I say, “he does make us do calisthenics. And now he’s really into transcendental meditation and Middle Eastern Philosophy, like Pyramid Power. He tries to get my sisters and me to meditate with him, but so far we’ve only become addicted to rubbing the beads on the gigantic wooden Egyptian worry bead necklace hanging on our family room wall and eating pyramid chocolate we buy at the Candy Cupboard at East Field Mall.”

When Sherrie imitates a gopher popping out of it’s hole from her new favorite movie, “Caddy Shack”, I’m caught up watching her, which causes me to miss several cards coming down the line. Antigrassia pushes them back at me and says, “Loca Menina, las cartes!” Sherrie yells back at her, “Auntie Grassia, no problemo senora!”

We all soon discover that Sherrie has another talent other than gopher impressions and bi-lingual chatter. She knows all the songs with the word, “Sunshine” in them. She sings them loudly over the din of conveyor belts. She starts off with a John Denver hit; “Sunshine on my shoulder, makes me happy!” We all join her singing these songs, even me, although I do keep a lookout for Jane. I know ever since the first day with my timecard fiasco that she has made it her priority to catch me wasting time on the Sunshine clock. Jane keeps her silent, cold eye trained on the beacon of my blond shag-fro.

The following day we’re singing again. Right in the middle of the Stevie Wonder song, “You are the sunshine of my life, that’s why I’ll always be around,” Jane appears behind Sherrie. All of us stop singing, except Sherrie. She holds her balled-up fist like a microphone under her mouth and serenades Jane. “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine, you make me happy when skies are gray...” Jane’s patchwork brown and white skin burns red. Sherrie gets louder and goofier. She gets down on one knee, kneeling on her pile of cardboard and throws out her arms like Al Jolson. The workers on either side of her are furiously gluing Sherrie’s cards and their own, while she continues this showdown with Jane. I glance up at the hamster cage office and see Mr. Tampoon leaning over his glass window. Even though he’s probably one hundred years old and more likely half deaf, he somehow catches on to the excitement going on below him.

Or maybe he has spies! Even cross-eyed, twisted neck, Jim wheels by on his forklift to get a sideways glance at this rare entertaining moment at Sunshine. It feels like high school, when sometimes a couple of boys will throw down their books and duke it out while all the rest of us kids stop everything between classes to gawk at them. I crane my neck and see Mr. Tampoon has now put his double-thick glasses on as he continues to look out his window. I’m afraid Sherrie might not be fired; she’ll just be killed. To put a more bizarre twist on this spectacle, Jane, who for a full five minutes has kept her gargoyle face stone still, actually cracks a smile just as Sherrie sings, “You’ll never know, dear, how much I love it here...Please don’t take my Sunshine cards away!” This smile of Jane’s consists of her two sad, always on the lookout for a new home, upper teeth, clenched over her lower lip. She then puts her hands into her smock pockets and heads off to the ladies room. She’ll probably splash cold water on her face, sit in her broken down bathroom stall office, and reassess her authority. Sherrie giggles – she may be a high school dropout – thanks in part to my father, but she will be heard. On the assembly line we’re all buzzing about how we were about to witness an honest to goodness on the job, “girl fight”. Then again, middle-aged Jane and Three Stooges look-alike Sherrie are the two most unlikely “girls”.

The next day, as my eyes burn watching the blur of greeting cards fly by, I’m jolted for a moment as I hear the now familiar lunch warning bell. It’s the kind of bell I imagine was used to announce air raids in Nazi-occupied Europe. Instead of scurrying off to find shelter in an underground bunker, here at Sunshine this bell creates a great deal of excitement as everyone feels the anticipation of a fun-filled half-hour spent eating with co-workers. To me, this bell is just another sound of doom I hear everyday that reminds me that in half-an-hour, not only will my peanut butter and jelly sandwich be gone, but I’ll be back at my spot on the assembly line, feeling my life being sucked down the Sunshine drain.

The middle-aged lifers are particularly agile when it comes to clocking out for lunch. They want every minute available to them to smoke an extra Parliament, or suck the salt off their fingers after consuming a vending machine bag of ruffles or Fritos. I have the terrible luck today to be caught behind Dolly. Dolly weighs at least 350 pounds. Everything about her is labored – her walking, her breathing, her 50 pound arm reaching for her timecard. She looks like a large Suzanne Somers with her bleached blond hair caught up in a jaunty side ponytail. Her daily sunshine uniform consists of brown elasticized elephant-wide bell-bottoms. God, I wish she realized the 70s are over. These dated pants are topped off with a “Kiss me, I’m Irish” sleeveless smock apron that has concentric sweat stains that travel from her armpits, and reach her waist. I don’t know if she wears the orthopedic shoes all the other lifers wear, because I’ve never seen under Dolly’s ultra-wide bell-bottoms. But I guess she’s got feet, cause right now she’s using them to shuffle slowly to the timecard box. My sister Anne and the Kennedy girls are probably halfway through their sandwiches while I’m stuck behind Dolly’s labored effort at movement. Dolly turns her thick, rubber tire neck and smiles at me. I blush. I smile back at her, but she caught me right t the moment when I’m mentally pretending I have a big rifle and I’m blowing her out of my way so I can have extra time with my peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Now I feel bad about my terrible thoughts. Curse this horrible conscious of mine!

It forces me to ask, “Do you need any help Dolly?”

For a second I wonder whose voice is saying this? It’s mine, and Dolly hears it too.

“Oh, love, yes, could you watch the bathroom door for me? I need to go and my family is already in the cafeteria.”

I look at Dolly’s gray eyes, surrounded by oily rings of black. Oh my God, all my life I’ve always wanted to be another Joan of Arc, or maybe a saintly person who didn’t die so horribly. I hit my religious peak about eight years ago, but not being an outstandingly good person; I never made it to martyrdom. Now here at Sunshine, I’m given the opportunity for greatness and sainthood. I grab at it, hoping to score points towards a movie career, an Olympic gold medal, or at least enough points to guarantee a spot in heaven. Although by now, my faith in the existence of heaven has wavered since I started working full time. My saintly task is to guard the outside bathroom door, because Dolly needs to use the handicapped stall that has the door removed. Sometimes twisted neck, cross-eyed Jim cleans the ladies room during lunch. I have to make sure he doesn’t walk in on Dolly.

Secretly, I think Jim goes out of his way to try and see women using the bathroom. I stand in front of the bathroom door, clutching my lunch bag. I’m almost in tears, the worst kind of tears, tears of frustration. How the hell did I get myself trapped in this position? Goddamn my goodness! I hate Dolly! I hate myself! I hate the Catholic Church for making me feel like I must sacrifice so much just for a movie career! I keep thinking if I do one more good deed, I’ll wake up the next morning looking like Cheryl Ladd. Then some Hollywood agent will come strutting through the factory, see my newfound beauty and cast me in the latest romantic movie, with Scott Baio as my love interest. I close my eyes thinking of my love scene with Scott, as I hear Dolly groaning in the bathroom. God, when is she going to finish? I feel faint from lack of lunch. I have the taste of Sunshine in my mouth, a bland mixture of dust and glue. I’ll never eat lunch at this rate. I panic silently. I’ve learned how to do this after years of practice. I can carry on regular life activities with a smile on my face, while my heart and brain pound so ferociously I think they’ll explode.

Cross-eyed Jim shows up. With his head twisted sideways, he looks like a lizard with safety glasses. He’s got his mop and with all the grace and charm he can muster, her pokes the mop handle at my shoulder and garbles, “Ga clean it!”

I tell him, “No! Dolly is in there! You can’t clean it until she’s done!” I throw up my arms to block the bathroom door. Jim tries to sidestep me. He almost gets past because I can never tell which direction he’s looking at. Luckily, he’s slow. For a split second his face is inches from mine. The smell of cigarettes flow out of every one of his blackened pores. The scent stings my eyes. Personally, I just can’t imagine his wanting to see Dolly squat over an open toilet. All this time, I’ve been trying to block out even the mere thought of Dolly being in the building with her pants down.

I tell Jim, who’s looking at me out of the side of his left eye, “Look, she’s probably almost finished. Go clean up the men’s room!” His left eye travels down and fixates on my sneakers, as if he expects a different response from my feet. When my feet don’t tell him, “Go ahead Jim, Dolly’s waiting for you!” He turns around, leans on his mop and pushes it to the men’s room.

Fifteen minutes before lunch ends, Dolly emerges, winded from the bathroom. “Thank you baby, you saved my life!” Her doughy, moist hand places a Tootsie roll in my hand.

I watch for a minute as Dolly shuffles her way back to the cafeteria. She’ll get there just in time to turn around and start her way back to the assembly lines. Dolly always has to make her way back to the conveyor belts at least 4 or 5 minutes early, just to get there at the same time as everyone else. I stare at the Tootsie roll in my hand and wonder if I have time to eat it and my sandwich? By the time I make up my mind I have only a couple minutes left. I open my paper bag, pull out my squished peanut butter and jelly sandwich and practically eat it with the plastic wrap still around it.

Ten minutes later, I see Dolly eat her lunch on the assembly line. She leans over the belt, with her corned beef sandwich, while people around her help her get her cards glued. Everyone here likes Dolly. They all try to ignore her body handicapped by 200 extra pounds of flesh. She spreads her cheer everywhere, as well as lots of candy. After her lunch she puts Tootsie rolls on the conveyor belt. We pick them up between all the cards and sales booklets.

Leaving the factory at the end of the day, my mother picks us up, and when we pull out we’re behind Dolly’s Grand Marquis. Dolly is on one side of the car and 5 of her family members are squeezed on the other. The side of the car where Dolly is seated is dragging only inches off the ground. Meanwhile, in our car, Anne, the Kennedy girls and I discuss the big, big TV event occurring tonight. We’ve seen commercials about it for months now. It’s called MTV. The advertisements show an astronaut putting an MTV flag on the moon. According to the commercials, after several nights of getting MTV for free, we’ll have to pay for it. My father has warned us that we better enjoy it while it’s free cause he’ll be damned if he’ll ever pay for TV. He has always considered TV an invasion of one’s home. It turned kids into freaks who demanded to get things they saw advertised on commercials like non-generic soda, Gloria Vanderbilt jeans and expensive shampoo, plus conditioner. Despite these feelings my father hogged the TV most of the time. He made “TV tickets” for my sisters and me. We had to hand them to my father for the privilege of sitting next to him on our couch and watching golf or Masterpiece Theater with him. My sisters both complied and used the tickets he made out of index cards. Each one had his own official signature at the bottom, with “30 minutes viewing time” written in the middle. I tore mine up; put them back into the envelope they came in and gave them back to him. He accepted them and told me, “Great, you can just sit in the other room and count the flowers on the wallpaper while the rest of the family enjoys watching M*A*S*H.” Luckily, tonight my father fell asleep right in the middle of the Nightly News, still clutching a can of beer. This allowed me to sneak in to watch M-TV. I clapped my hands in front of his face to make sure he was out cold and then Anne changed the channel. Like we did in the late 60’s during the first moonwalk, my sisters and I hover in front of this box of magic waiting for it to enlighten us with our savage suburban ways.

The following day the factory is alive with excitement! MTV said it would change our lives and it has. I’ve never seen anything like it. It was as exciting as man landing on the moon! I can hardly keep up gluing and glittering my cards. I’m babbling to everyone on my assembly line about “The Buggles”, this new band that sang, “Video killed the Radio Star”! God, the 80’s are amazing! I’m ready to shake off the 70’s. Suddenly, I’m embarrassed to think I still own many Ronco disco records, and somewhere stuffed in our bedroom closet, my sister Anne has a handmade gold lame disco dress. We both agree that as soon as we get home all this stuff has to be destroyed, or really well hidden. Over night, I’ve decided after seeing MTV I would even give up a movie star career to become a singer in a new wave band! While standing on my pile of cardboard on the conveyor belt I have a vision of myself wearing a beautiful vintage, torn at the shoulder, diamond studded dress, with torn black hose. My hair is finally straight and spiked up in the middle, with a streak of purple on both sides. When I sing, a voice like Deborah Harry from Blondie comes out of my mouth. My audience, a bunch of screaming teenagers with spiked hair, ripped clothes, and steel-toed boots are reaching up to touch me. Then someone from this new wave audience grabs my elbow from behind. Only it’s real! I look at my arm and at the middle of it is Jane, clamped onto it like a leech, sucking my fantasies right out of me through my elbow. I don’t even get a word in on my behalf. Jane mutely pulls me off the line by my elbow. I keep it bent so she has something to hold onto, like a teacup. She escorts me like I’m a condemned prisoner down the conveyor belt line. I’m fired. I know it! But what did I do? I know I was daydreaming, but I didn’t miss any greeting cards. My arm was moving the entire time. I want to scream at her, “Stop you Awful, Awful Witch -I hate you!” But I just stare ahead as her two-tone hand grips me and my feet shuffle forward. I wish she’d say something, even talk about the hot weather we’ve been having. Eyes follow us, trying to see where I’m being taken. Jane stops at the end of another assembly line. She lets go of me and pulls an extremely young Portuguese girl off the last spot. The girl starts crying and the middle-aged woman next to her starts shouting in Portuguese. She must be the girl’s mother. The sounds coming from them are horrible, like a lone wolf in the wilderness calling out to her lost pup. The mother even reaches out to her kid, catching her hand on Jane’s blue smock sleeve. For a split second the mother turns back to the conveyor belt to smack a gluey greeting card into a passing sales booklet, then looks back in her daughter’s direction. Jane’s eyes remain fixed and unblinking as she escorts the girl back to my old spot. I take the girl’s place on the line. The mother turns her black, clouded eyes on me and hisses some guttural tongued curse on my frizzy, blond head. I try to tell her, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean for this to happen!” Her response is to shove the cards and booklets at me, so they’re a piled-up mess by the time they reach me. If I was in hell before this, then I must have fallen through hell’s trapdoor and landed here.

The only good thing is now I’m again near Vinny, the ex-football player my father failed in English class. I haven’t worked near him in almost two weeks since he gets moved around a lot due to the lack of men available to pack and load mailbags.

After a few minutes of watching me with my head down he leans in towards me and says, “Don’t worry, the two of them were slowing down production, cause they were talking so much. Jane actually wanted to keep the girl with her mother, cause she’s only 14, but it was down to moving one of them, or firing the girl.” I can hear the girl sobbing 50 feet away. The little hand of guilt pushes on my forehead, making it pulse and throb with pain. I clutch my head with one hand and glue cards with the other. Dolly must have noticed this because she puts two lint covered Bayer aspirin on the conveyor belt, and when they come down to me I pop them into my mouth, fuzz and all.

While I try to figure out how to swallow the aspirin without water I gaze over to the water fountain 200 feet away, directly under Mr. Tampoon’s glass hamster cage office. I can’t leave the line unless I get Jane’s permission. For the first time I’m sorry she’s not nearby. The two fuzzy aspirin stick to my dry tongue. I’m completely unable to whip up a drop of saliva. I’m about to surrender to my headache and just spit out the aspirin when I see a large, male hand with dark, curly hairs on the knuckles. In the hand is a metal thermos cup of what looks like Hawaiian Punch. I’m saved. I peer up and see its Vinny who has come to my rescue. He’s looking right at me, with a slight grin on his face and a small line of sweat sliding down by one of his sideburns. No boy has ever given me anything before. I put my lips on the cup and drink it down. It is cold Hawaiian Punch. I think of how at one point today, during lunch, or maybe first break, Vinny must have had his lips on this same cup! If I didn’t have such a headache I’d be better able to enjoy the romance of all this. I drain the cup and hand it back. I barely squeak out, “Thank you.” For a split second I’m filled with horror. Did he hear me thank him?

I take a deep breath and blurt out, “Thank you Vinny!” It’s the first time I’ve said his name to him out loud and I want to get it right.

He laughs, “Hey it’s okay, I heard ya the first time Coree.” He pours himself a drink and slugs it back. He then hoists a mailbag onto a skid. He said my name – he knows my name! I’m not just that jerk, Mr. Spencer’s stupid kid! I miss gluing a few cards coming down the line when I stop for what feels like a full five minutes to watch as Vinny raises his arm to his face and wipes his mouth with the crook of his elbow. I’ve seen him do this before, but this is the closest I’ve ever been to him when he’s done it. “Hey -hey Coree, your cards are falling!” He says this as he stoops to pick up the birthday cards off the floor. My face is white hot. Suddenly I’ve forgotten how to glue cards, something I’ve been doing for close to a month now. This seems to only please the Portuguese mother next to me. I’d forgotten all about her for a brief time, but now like a dark rain cloud over my head she sputters at me in Portuguese. Why does she care? I’m on the end, she’s before me – I’m not messing her up. I look her square in the face and lightning flashing as two words fly out of my mouth, “STOP IT!” She must have understood these two English words, or maybe they’re the same in Portuguese because she squints at me, then turns away.

I take the cards from Vinny. He smiles at me and I notice he has a red mustache stain on his face from the Hawaiian Punch. I gasp, realizing I must have this same red stain around my mouth. On him it looks cute, but I’m sure I look like a dropout from clown school. I try to wipe my mouth on my shirt, but I know it will take a good dose of soap and water to fix my face.

An hour later, the Bayer aspirin hasn’t helped and the Portuguese girl doesn’t stop wailing. If people didn’t want me fired before, then I’m sure my causing this family to be separated will convince them I’m evil and must be stopped. The distraught mother tunes into her child’s sobs. I feel her turn to me, sweat sizzles on her face like drops of water jumping on a hot pancake griddle. I keep my head down. Tears are making their way to the surface of my eyeballs, and my thumbs are too busy to stick into my eyes to stop the flow.

To make matters worse, Vinny is amused by my predicament. “Hey man, you’re not gonna cry too, are you? Look it isn’t your fault. Those two were yak-yaking. Jane was down here all day, just staring at them. I’m glad you’re here instead of that kid.”

I raise my watery eyes to Vinny and say, “Like I said before, I’m sorry my dad failed ya in English class.”

Leaving work this evening Vinny winks at me as we punch out at the time clock and says, “I’ll see ya tomorrow Corky!” Corky? He’s even got a pet name for me!

The following morning, I fuss over myself so long in our one bathroom trying to get my hair to lie flat that my father is forced to bang on the door. “There are four other people living in this house. Do you hear me?”

I yell back, “I’ll be done in a minute!” As I see the doorknob rattle I tug at the hairbrush stuck in my hair. All this extra time spent on my hair and I actually look worse. I had tried to feather back my hair. Instead I’ve ended up with two gigantic banana curls, making me look like Nellie Olsen from Little House on the Prairie. Just as I slam the hairbrush onto the counter top to punish it for failing to make me pretty, my father flings open the door and yells, “Out!” He pokes his thumb, hitchhiker style, towards the hallway as if I didn’t know the way to exit the bathroom.

I decide to wear my favorite green knit cowl-neck shirt hoping to offset my hair tragedy. My father sees me and shakes his head, “What the hell are you doing, wearing a sweater in the middle of summer? It’ll make you sweat like a pig!”

I shout back, “It’s a shirt, not a sweater!”

He is right about the sweating like a pig though; my armpits are already damp and sticking to my “shirt”. It’s too late to change, so I continue to sweat in the backseat of our Pontiac on the way to the factory, wedged between the two Kennedy girls. Carol Kennedy is asleep with her head slumped on my shoulder, while Lori Kennedy picks fuzz off her peanut butter bread and sticks her hand out the window to let fuzz blow off her fingers. I’m a big bag of misery encased in a bad choice of a polyester knit cowl neck shirt and hair that looks like a crime scene.

By the time we get to the factory I can’t lift my arms because the sweat stains are so large. This causes me to itch. I’m doomed. My father was right, this isn’t a shirt, it’s a sweater! Not only do I look like I just crawled out of a swamp somewhere, today I find out I have competition for Vinny’s affection. As if to take advantage of my bad hair day and perspiration stains, Jane stops by our assembly line right before the second break. Maybe she wants to make Paul jealous. She zips over to Vinny’s mailbag table like she’s a magnet and he’s a refrigerator.

I push up my sleeves and scratch at my damp skin while watching Jane stand close to Vinny’s football player chest. She looks up at his face and flutters her three eyelashes at him. As horrified as I am watching this spectacle I can only imagine how unappetizing I appear at the moment. I keep trying to pat down my hair or push it behind my ears to keep it more flattened, but like a Jack-in-the-box it springs back up like a bad surprise. I look up to see Jane still circling Vinny. He catches my eye and smiles at me. Then he turns to her and tells her he’s awful thirsty – that some water would taste real good. Jane flies off, like a butterfly that has just pollinated her favorite flower and now her flower must be watered. She comes back with a Dixie cup of water for Vinny. As he drinks she watches his Adam’s apple throb up and down. I tell her I’m thirsty too. She looks at me like I just crawled out from under a pile of dusty cardboard to spoil her romance and she mumbles, “Get yourself water at break time.” At the 3:15 break, instead of getting water, I stop off into the bathroom to stuff stiff, brown paper towels under my armpits as sort of makeshift dress shields like I saw in one of Anne’s Seventeen magazine. After that I meet up in the cafeteria with Anne and the Kennedy girls. They tell me how lucky I am to be near such a handsome, young guy like Vinny. It’s like winning the lottery in this factory. Our days together are like one long eight-hour date with two breaks and lunch. Besides my paycheck, Vinny’s the only reason I look forward to work everyday.

The following week, right in the middle of gluing “Congratulations on your First Communion” cards into the sales booklets, there’s a loud bang, followed by a loss of all electricity. It’s so dark, I can’t see in front of me. The only thing that stands out at this moment is the open loading dock entrance where sunlight streams in. I am, along with everyone else, several hundred feet from this sunny opening, and there are many twists and turns around boxes, skids and conveyor belts to get out. A heavy mix of panicked Portuguese and English fill the air. Soon it turns to screams as one voice in the darkness says, “I hear that rats come out at night, when all the lights are out!”

We are to be led out of the factory, hand-in-hand, as we all try to seek the light at the end of the loading dock. I was hoping to hold Vinny’s hand, but the angry Portuguese mother next to me grabs my hand first and squeezes really hard. At first I think she might have found her chance to get back at me by crushing my hand, but I realize she just must be really scared cause she grabs me with both her hands and mutters, “Mi hija, mi hija.” I have no idea what she’s saying. Maybe she’s asking for help in Portuguese. Antigrassia grabs my other hand. Somehow she had found me even though she works on the assembly line behind me now. I don’t know why the two Portuguese women cling to me so tightly, other than their belief that because I’m so pale, I might actually glow in the dark, creating a lighted path for them to exit this black abyss. With the two of them groping me like a life preserver, I wade through the factory. I never come across any rats, but I do manage to trip over a bunch of boxes of greeting cards, lying in the middle of the floor. One thing about Sunshine is that it has messy piles of dumped greeting cards dating back to maybe the early 60’s. Messes here just lay where they fall, turning into archeological burial mounds of spider web covered holiday greetings. Soon this factory will be buried under its own product.

Once we are all outside, we stand in the parking lot. People pass around cigarettes and Dolly hands out Tootsie rolls and sour sucker balls. Mr. Tampoon had been the first person hustled out of this sinking ship. We see him sitting by himself, in his Lincoln Continental, smoking, with all the windows rolled up. Even outside of the factory he must always have glass separating himself from us. Meanwhile, we stand, stupidly staring at the darkened building, waiting for the miracle of electricity. Sherrie gets everyone jived-up by telling us in both English and broken Portuguese that snakes from the underbrush in the parking lot come out and sun themselves on the concrete late in the afternoon. This makes us all need more candy and cigarettes. Jane attempts to control us while we’re off the conveyor belts. She is lining us up the way we’re placed on the assembly lines. It’s not working. We’re like chickens let loose all over the barnyard. Mr. Tampoon glares at us from behind his car window. We’re hanging around, enjoying ourselves in the fresh air of the parking lot while we’re on the Sunshine clock. He rolls down his window and motions for Jane to come over. He can’t stand the sight of idyll idiots so he has Jane make us clean up the outside of the factory. Jane instructs us in her non-verbal method. She waves us over with her familiar two-tone hands. We stand there, puffing Marlboros and blandly sucking hard candies, watching Jane bend over and pick up an empty soda can. She holds it up for us all to see, then when all our eyes are trained on the cream soda can she carries it over to a rusted barrel, and drops it in. She looks at our blank monkey faces. We don’t move. We need another demonstration. She finds a potato chip bag -holds it up for us, then repeats her earlier motion of walking over to the barrel and dropping it in.

Sherrie is the only one catching onto this -she’s singing, “Let the sunshine in, let the sunshine in, the suuunshine in...”, while she picks up stray soda cans. When we join Sherrie we look like we’re on a chain gang picking up litter on the highway, held together by the invisible chain of our minimum wage job. The men of course do not join us girls. They sit on the hoods of their cars and smoke.

While I bend over picking up spent Marlboro butts, I think, “Why can’t they just let us go home? It’s already 4:10!” When I ask Sherrie about this she laughs so hard, flecks of sour candy spit fly from between her teeth. “Jesus Christ man, you’re an idiot for having a father who’s a teacher! Sunshine has us until 5pm -they’ll make us stand out here until then. No clockin’ out! No goin’ home!” Then she tells me, “Hey ya know what? Ya wanna know somethin’? Last year some lady, she had a long ponytail braid and it gets caught in the end of the conveyor belt. No one could turn the belt off fast enough. The lady, she got scalped! Yeah man, we were all screaming. The lady’s scalp came right off! Sunshine didn’t even let any of us go home. Kept us working here the whole day, even though lots of people were crying! Yeah, well the lady lived. Never did come back to work, so I don’t know if her hair ever grew back!” I don’t know whether to believe Sherrie or not. She seems to like to exaggerate. She did tell us about the snakes out here and so far I haven’t seen one lying out soaking up the sun, just all the guys lying on their cars, catching rays.

Twenty-five minutes before Sunshine officially closes, the electricity comes back on. The conveyor belts are turned on before we even get back inside. Cards are piled up at the end of each line. For the rest of the shift cards and booklets come down the belt at warp speed. In this last 25 minutes Mr. Tampoon wants to get two hours of work out of us. Everything around me is a blur. I glue cards and slap them down anywhere in the sales booklets: upside-down and sideways. For the first time all summer, it flashes through my brain that I can’t wait for eleventh grade to start this fall. At least you can’t be fired from high school. Never before did I look forward to the summer ending and school starting. Now it will be a relief to be slumped in my seat during Earth Science, daydreaming with the rest of my go-nowhere classmates. At least, instead of standing on a pile of cardboard, I’ll be going nowhere sitting down.

End of Part Two