Monday, October 15, 2012

Unchained Melody

I start for the bus stop at two o’clock every afternoon to clock in at my summer job by four. Up our long block, where kids are screaming in the sprinklers and the new trees offer little shade; right at the swamp, where the subdivision stops, and down the creepy dirt road—buzzing with mosquitoes, overgrown with weeds—that leads to a nicer, but not that much nicer, subdivision than ours. A girl who was my best friend in elementary school, but dumped me in junior high lives there and so does a chubby, enthusiastic lady who was notorious for having rigged up a garment that was half-Girl-Scout leader’s uniform and half-Cub-Scout uniform that she wore to school events, avoiding any hint of favoritism. Left again, past Caldwell School, past an even nicer subdivision. On the right is Hessville Park: the swimming pool full of splashing, diving, jumping kids, where I spent my ten-cents-a-day summer allowance when I didn’t spend it on a five-cent cherry Coke and a five-cent bag of potato chips the drugstore after a trip to the library. Farther along the park is the brick-lined ice-skating rink, its bottom scraggly with grass, and, across from it the shelter house, where you can make lanyards and plaster casts and all sorts of other stuff for a quarter. There’s the football field, where our high school team practiced, the baseball field, where games were held in the spring. Finally, on my left, are some older houses with big trees that didn’t get eaten up by all the new neighborhoods that sprung up after World War II—and I’m grateful for the patch of shade before reaching the bus stop on Kennedy Avenue, where the bench sits fully in the sun.

The long walk pisses me off every single day. My dad takes our only car to work, there’s nobody I might ask for a ride. I hate how hot it is, how I’m soaked with sweat by the time I get to the bus stop. I hate the goddamn bus itself. When it finally arrives, I slump down in one of its cracked seats, close my eyes, and brace myself for its swaying motion, the fumes that put me right on the edge of being sick to my stomach. Even if the windows are open, there’s little moving air because they only open at the top.

In fact, everything about this summer pisses me off. I don’t want to be back in our small, cluttered house where there’s no place for me to be alone. I don’t want to let my mom iron my clothes at night after work and pack me a lunch every morning before she heads for the bus stop to go to work herself. But I do. Then feel awful about it, which makes me feel pissed off at her, which I know is ridiculous and unfair. I’m pissed off because, being at home, I can’t forget how hard she works, how much of a burden it is to pay my college expenses. But I’m also pissed off because, why does it have to be this way?

My dad sleeping the couch all the time, my brother and his guitar, his fawning girlfriends drive me wild. I adore my little sisters, I always will, but I also feel responsible for them, for making sure they get out of here when the time comes.
I hate myself for being impatient with them, which I often am, for the weight in my heart at their crushed expressions, for never saying I’m sorry even though I want to and should, but somehow can’t.

That weight, the dull anger and hopelessness that’s been gathering in my heart all summer make me feel sluggish, each step toward the bus stop is an effort. Sometimes I think I could actually fall asleep, walking

At least the mail comes before I have to leave for the bus stop, so if there’s a letter from Steve I can read it and reread it on my way. Even if there’s not, I can think about him, think toward his next visit when he’ll pick me up in his little convertible and we’ll take off after having concocted some story about where we’re going that my parents believe because they like him and because they’re probably as glad that I’ll be away for a few days as I am. A couple of times we visit friends at their parents’ lake houses; once, on a long weekend, we drive down to Indianapolis and stay with a friend whose parents are away. Mostly, though, we drive across the state line and check into a motel along the interstate. Maybe we drive into Chicago and wander around, maybe we just make out for hours at a time, meals catch as catch can. It is such a relief to be with him, close to him, to laugh.

“It’ll be okay,” he always tells me. “It’s not that long before we go back.”

But it feels like forever. Worse than the bus ride and working at the factory, is watching his car turn the corner and disappear on Sunday evenings. I never can sleep on those Sunday nights. If I do sleep I have dreams that make me wake up, my heart pounding, convinced that my life in Bloomington wasn’t even real.

“Monday, Monday,” runs through my mind as I off for work the next afternoon, another whole week of misery ahead of me.

I work in the shipping department of Rand McNally, a company that produces atlases, pull-down maps, and travel books. The whole place smells like paper and ink, which is the only thing I like about it. I might love the beautiful pastel maps spitting out of machines along the corridor I walk to get to my station if they didn’t always remind me that my own world is so small. Nice irony, though. It helps, knowing what irony is.

The shipping department is one huge room with high cement block walls, institutional beige, and along the top—open to let in the breeze, when there is one. I’m a packer. There’s a skid on one side of me piled with books, which I pack into cardboard boxes, which I set on the skid on the other side of me. When the skid is full it’s taken to the loading dock. It’s deadly boring. I’m hot and sweaty, my shoulders ache, and it feels like the concrete floor is coming right up into my feet. I try not to look at the big round clock on the wall across from me because when I think, surely, it must be fifteen minutes since I last looked, only five have passed.

There’s one fifteen-minute break, then the half-hour dinner break. I eat, reading, at the far end one of the long benches in the cafeteria. It’s not that my fellow workers aren’t nice to me. They are. But most have worked here a long time and naturally gather in small groups of friends. Anyway, I’m glad to have that little measure of solitary time. It’s still dusk when I get back to my station, that time of evening when kids are having their last spurt of energy for the day, playing tag, riding their bikes up and down the street, catching lightning bugs. Slowly, though, the high windows darken into night, and my mood lightens just a little.

I clock out at eleven, the night air blessedly cool on my sticky skin. My dad’s waiting in the car, smoking, Big Band music on the radio. Sometimes I ask him to change the station to WLS, sometimes he does. Sometimes he tries to talk to me. But I’m so tired I just want to sit there, feel the night breeze coming through the open window. Half the time, I fall asleep before we get home, then wake up, wired, and can’t sleep when I finally climb into the double bed I share with my two sisters.

On those nights, I sneak past my dad who’s already back on the couch, asleep, and go out to the back yard, where I sit on a lawn chair, listen to my transistor, and look up at the sky. “This one goes out to Cathy in Winnetka,” the DJ says. Or Marlene in Oak Park, or Ricky in Waukegan. Make-out songs. “Sealed with a Kiss,” “Unchained Melody,” “I Only Want to Be with You.”

Where were you when this song was playing on the radio?


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