Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Bird on a Wire

It’s summer break, and we take up residence in a crappy little apartment above the dime store in the small town where Steve grew up. The living room, furnished with an old twin bed substituting as a couch, a battered easy chair, and a couple of end tables, overlooks the black asphalt siding of a building about thirty feet away. The bedroom window overlooks an alley. Beneath it, there’s a line of trash bins for the businesses along the street.

The trash gets picked up just about the time Steve gets to sleep after having worked the third shift at the steel forge. “The Trash Family,” has the contract to do this. It’s a seedy-looking bunch: the dad, his wife, and four filthy kids. According to rumor, one of them was born in the trash truck. Not a rumor: once the dad left all four kids in the trash truck, went into a bar and brought out a hamburger cut in four pieces, then returned to the bar and drank into the night. Also not a rumor: every single morning, their beat-up trash truck grinds to a halt beneath our bedroom window and the mom and the kids jump out and crash and bang trash into the truck, all the while screaming obscenities at each other.

The building across the alley is being remodeled and all day long workers drop plate glass windows and other debris into a truck below. In the middle of the night, when Steve’s at work, I wake up to the sound of what I’m sure is a newborn baby crying until someone tells me that feral cats have taken up residence in the empty building.

I’m gargantuanly pregnant, clueless about being a wife, freaked out about being a mother. A guy at work told Steve he heard that I’d rolled out a piecrust with a Campbell soup can—which I might have done, if it had ever occurred to me to try to make a pie. Most days, I lie around on the uncomfortable “couch” in our sweltering apartment, reading and dozing in front of a rickety table fan, until Steve wakes up and we take a drive through the country in his blue MGB convertible. Sunday’s we’re required to hand over the church bulletin as a ticket to the family meal--often fried chicken, which Steve’s mother makes in an electric skillet in the garage so she doesn’t mess up the kitchen. “Garage-fried chicken,” we secretly call it. It’s good, though. And a free meal, which is no small thing, considering.

The high point of my week is driving to Fort Wayne for Steve to take an evening class at the IU campus because he flunked public finance in the spring. I talked him into taking art appreciation so I can read the textbook and follow along. I research and write his final paper, on Picasso, and am mortified when it receives only a C+. I don’t get C’s—well, except for the farmhouse semester, which is how we ended up where we are. I didn’t take any classes in the spring because I was too embarrassed to go to class, pregnant. I so miss being in a classroom, one of the few places in the world I feel like I belong.

But I don’t need to go back to college, according to Steve’s parents. I’m a wife now, a mother. That’s where my responsibilities lie.

“That’s ridiculous,” Steve says. “You’re going back. We’ll figure out a way.”

Meanwhile, I keep…growing. I can no longer see my feet. I’m woefully ignorant about childbirth itself, not to mention actually caring for a newborn—at the same time terrified and resigned. One morning, when I’m standing in the shower, the perfect outline of a little hand crosses my belly. For the first time, the baby is real.

My due date, August 5, arrives. Nothing happens.

We drive to a town just over the Ohio border for dinner with Steve’s parents. The drinking age is 18 there, so there’s a constant stream of cars full of kids heading there from the small Indiana town where we live. Coming back, we get behind a car that’s weaving around, slowing down, then speeding up whenever Steve’s dad tries to pass them. They pull over on the roadside and stop, probably so someone can throw up or take a leak. But rather than taking the opportunity to get past them, Steve’s dad pulls over behind them. He and Steve get out, stride over to the car. One of them drags the driver out, the other takes the car keys and throws them into the cornfield that borders the road.

It is the most exciting thing that has happened all summer, and I lumber out of the car and stand at the side of the road so I don’t miss anything. “Get back in here,” Steve’s mom says. “Get in.” But I don’t. I stay there until Steve and his dad are on the way back, laughing and hooting about what they’ve just done. Before dropping us off at home, Steve’s dad stops at the police station to give them a heads-up that there’s a car needing assistance just this side of the Ohio line.

The next night, we’re at the drive-in, watching a movie adapted from a book I loved, and I’m pissed off, giving a running commentary about what a mess they’ve made of it when I feel the first labor pains. Steve wants to leave for the hospital immediately. But I say, no. The movie is so truly horrible I really have to see it through. The pains aren’t coming that often, maybe every ten minutes or so, and they’re not really pains yet, no more than cramps.

We get to the hospital near midnight. I’m admitted, pushed to the maternity ward in a wheelchair, and installed in a labor room. Nearby, a woman is screaming and moaning and I think, oh shit, that’s me before this is all over. The contractions stop almost immediately, as if my whole body decided, “No!”

I’m released in the morning. We’re back by late afternoon, but the contractions stop again. Early afternoon, the next day, they start up again, but the thought of going back, turning into a moaning, screaming person, freaks me out so badly that I refuse to go. “You saw that movie,” I say to Steve. “You can deliver the baby.” I know I’m acting crazy, but I can’t help it. Of course, I end up going.

This time it’s for real. I’m scared to death, it hurts, and whatever they’re giving me doesn’t help very much. But I don’t scream. I moan sometimes, quietly. Little sounds come from my throat, not quite crying. It’s nearly midnight by the time they take me to the delivery room, where someone places an ether mask on my face and everything goes away.

Morning. There is Steve with a yellow rabbit with blue velvet ears he’s bought for the baby: Jennifer Rebecca. She’s beautiful, perfectly formed, ours. So new her arms and legs still move as if in water.

I can’t wait to get out of the hospital and go back to our apartment, but when I’m released three days later, Steve’s mother insists that we stay at their house for a few days. I’m miserable there—still sore from the birth, weepy with fatigue, depressed because none of the clothes I had before I got pregnant fit me and we don’t have enough money to buy new ones. She doesn’t help, just hovers over me, reminding me of the soft spot on Jenny’s head, critiquing my burping technique, telling me to tip the bottle this way or that. When Jenny wakes up in the middle of the night, crying, I pick her up and stumble through the dark house to the kitchen, where I take a bottle of formula from the refrigerator, put it in a pan of water, turn on the stove. While the bottle warms, I walk back and forth, talking to Jenny in a low voice, trying to soothe her. We won’t be here forever, I tell her. We’re going back to Bloomington the minute we can. She’ll like it better there. I promise.

Finally, when she’s two weeks old, we do. Steve and his dad load up a rental truck with our belongings and some hand-me-down furniture. The day after Jenny was born, his dad taken it upon himself to sell Steve’s MGB and replace it with a red Dodge Dart. “You need a sensible car,” he said. Which was true, but I’m still furious. One of countless reasons I’m so glad to leave is that it just kills me every time I hear the guy who bought it drive past on Main Street, shifting gears. Like somebody has hijacked our real life.

Steve drives the truck, his dad drives the Dodge Dart. Jenny and I ride with his mom in her impeccably clean Thunderbird—well, except for the ashtrays. Those are always filled; she smokes like a chimney. Classy cigarettes: Benson & Hedges. The windows must remain rolled up during the trip, she says firmly, and we don’t dare turn on the air conditioning. Jenny might catch a chill. Apparently, it’s okay to smoke, though, and she does for the three-plus hours it takes us to get to Bloomington.

Steve’s parents help us unload our stuff. Thank God, they don’t linger—and finally, finally we’re alone in our new apartment with no one to answer to but ourselves.

Over the next few weeks, our friends filter back to campus. Some show up at our apartment, but don’t quite know what to say. A nice, childless couple in our building offers to babysit sometimes, so we go to an occasional weekend party. But we don’t really fit in anymore. Steve works at Sears most football Saturdays. In the afternoons, I sit out on our little balcony with Jenny, listen to crackle of the loud speaker, the band playing, the roar of the crowd, and feel a million miles away.

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

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Wednesday, October 24, 2012

For What It's Worth

One day in October, Steve comes home from class and reports that the Baggers have overtaken the Business Building to protest the fact that Dow Chemical is on campus, doing job interviews. Dow makes napalm, which is being used to make the incendiary bombs dropping on Vietnam—“jellied death,” the Baggers call it, because it burns the skin of its victims right down to the bone.

“Goddamn Baggers,” he says. “It’s mess over there. I couldn’t even get to class.”

There are more of them on campus this year, but they don’t all wear Army Surplus clothes and carry green rucksacks. Some wear ratty jeans and Levi jackets. They’re regular kids from the dorms, upperclassmen who live off-campus, even the occasional fraternity or sorority member. They wear buttons that have a circle with a straight line drawn from the top through the center on them, overlaid by an inverted “V.” Peace. They hold up their index and middle fingers in a “V.” Also peace.

The rallies in Dunn Meadow are getting bigger. There’s this song on the radio all the time, the Buffalo Springfield, “For What It’s Worth.” Ominous and addictive. A slow tremolo on the electric guitar bending the notes, the dirge-like rhythm of the bass drum. “There’s something happening here/what it is ain’t exactly clear…”

Meanwhile, Steve works two jobs, goes to class, studies. I’m mostly home, taking care of Jenny. I go to campus twice a week for the sociology class I’m taking, but I feel like a ghost and don’t linger.

I only know enough about the war in Vietnam to know it’s nothing like World War II. I know Vietnam is a country somewhere in Eastern Asia. I know the Vietnamese didn’t attack us; we’re there because if that one small country falls to the Russians, it will tip the scale and set off a reaction like Dominos falling. According to the American government, it is our duty to halt the spread of communism throughout the world. It is crucial to ensure our safety and the safety of the rest of the free world.

I know about napalm, which horrifies me.

Steve would be headed for Vietnam when he graduated if he hadn't dropped out of R.O.T.C. the minute he could. And last winter, when his entire hometown found out "had" to get married, a family friend who worked at the draft board sent him a married-with-dependents form to fill out. This deferment was discontinued recently, she said, but there was this one form left and if he filled it out and got it back to her immediately, she could push it through--which she did.

My brother is going, though. Soon. He got in some trouble and the judge said he’d dismiss the case if he enlisted upon graduating from high school. He didn’t wait that long. He dropped out of school, joined the Marines, and went to boot camp in the spring.

He’s in Vietnam when the Tet Offensive starts at the end of January and, suddenly, it seems like the war is everywhere. Newspaper headlines, radio, TV. Once, at the shopping mall, I’m mesmerized by a display of a dozen or so televisions lined up in rows, the same image on every screen: huts on fire, dead bodies stacked like cordwood, survivors running or on their knees, screaming. Above it all, helicopters hovering like giant black birds.

More and more people, important people, are starting to say the war is wrong. Senator Eugene McCarthy, the “peace candidate,” wins 42% in the New Hampshire Democratic Primary, to Johnson’s 42%.

“We have misconstrued the nature of the war,” Bobby Kennedy says soon afterward. “…We have sought to resolve by military might a conflict whose issue depends the will and conviction of the South Vietnamese people.” He announces his own candidacy, admitting personal responsibility for the early military buildup, then states, “…past error is no excuse for its own perpetuation.” He says that if elected, he’ll actively seek peace.

In a surprise move, LBJ announces he won’t seek or accept the nomination for president, and it looks like Bobby’s going to be the Democratic candidate. But he’s dead within weeks, assassinated at the Ambassador Hotel in L.A. the night he won the California primary. McCarthy scares the crap out of most grown-ups, even those who oppose the war—a situation exacerbated by the riots in Chicago during the Democratic Convention at the end of August. Vice President Hubert Humphrey wins the nomination, an old pol with a predatory, shark-like grin that makes my skin crawl.

I cast my first vote for Nixon in the fall. Not because I like him, I don’t. And I really don’t like his running mate, Spiro Agnew, who’s a loud-mouthed jerk. But I loathe LBJ—and choosing Humphrey seems like choosing to stay on LBJ’s path.

Truth be told, it’s also true that I’m somewhat put off by the “peaceniks.” I agree that the war is wrong, I want peace as much as they do. But I also want what I wanted when I made up my mind I wouldn’t live the way my parents did: a college degree, a family, a nice house, clothes—lots of them, a reliable car. Most of the people I know who’ve gotten involved in the antiwar movement are kids from well-to-do families, for whom everything I want would simply have been given to them—if they still wanted it. And If, eventually, they get tired of protesting and decide they want a comfortable life, their parents will be more than pleased to help them make that happen.

We have no such net. Ready or not, we’ve got a grown-up life. Steve took a job in Indianapolis after graduating in June. We have an apartment, two cars. A funny, feisty one-year old girl just starting to talk. “Want,” she says, holding out her hands. “Goggie,” at the sight of any four-legged animal. “Fass,” when I push her on the swings.”

The war seems far away. I keep busy learning to be a wife. A friend I’ve made in our apartment complex teases me because I always take a shower and put on something nice when it’s time for Steve to come home for work. Because I’m always glad to see him.

But I am always glad to see him. He’s so certain—that he loves me, he loves Jenny. That we can handle anything that comes our way. That everything will be just fine.

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

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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?


Thursday, October 4, 2012

Tomorrow Never Knows

One of the guys in the fraternity house rents a farmhouse way out in the country, where he lives part of the time, but mostly gives wild parties. It’s a decrepit place, a falling down wreck of a house that smells like beer and sweat and cigarettes. The floors are sticky, the windows opaque with layers of smoke. It’s infested by field mice that scurry around corners, into holes along the floorboard. There are mousetraps everywhere, waiting to be sprung, and someone starts hanging the dead mice by their tails in a row above the porch. Someone else makes a sign with black magic marker: “Mice, Beware Your Brothers’ Fate.” Once, someone finds the perfectly preserved skeleton of a mouse in the downstairs closet, poised for flight. The guys think all this is hilarious. Especially the dubious practice of sitting outside in battered lawn chairs after class, drinking beer and shooting at mice with the hunting rifles the small town boys brought from home.

There are bedrooms, available to everyone, pretty much occupied morning, afternoon, and night.

So much more appealing than, say, spending your time studying.

And there’s always music, always loud: The Stones, the Animals, Wilson Pickett, James Brown, the Moody Blues. The Beatles’ new “Revolver” album plays over and over so many times that I know the sequence of the songs by heart, all moving in my mind to the end cut on the first side, “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Its agitated droning, the screeching electric guitars and discordant violins, the unrelenting drumbeat, the wild whooping both excite and unsettle me. I’ve been so dogged about getting away, not being the person my upbringing had set me up to be, hiding the person I’d been before college and might become again if I’m not careful.

Now the Beatles are telling me to let go, give in to the void. Love is everything.

It’s druggy music, but I don’t know that then. Drugs are just beginning to get to Indiana, they’re not even on my radar. By spring I’ll be pregnant, married, living off campus in a dinky red and white trailer in the middle of someone’s muddy backyard. One weekend, we’ll go to a party where once clean-cut fraternity guys who’ve let their hair go shaggy, who’ve given up their khaki pants for blue jeans, their starched oxford shirts for blue work-shirts and lie around smoking marijuana with their sorority girlfriends, who’ve traded their Villager outfits for jeans and tie-dyed tee-shirts and wear rolled-up bandanas to keep their unruly, growing-out hair in place. Where the music has become edgy, hallucinatory, edged with the anger and rebellion that will soon surface for real and change everything. The Doors, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, the Who.

We’ll leave because we feel ill at ease, left behind. Because don’t we dare smoke marijuana, we don’t even dare risk being where other people are smoking it. We’re still shell-shocked by finding ourselves a married couple, with a baby coming. The last thing we need is to get busted for drugs.

Now, though, fall making its way toward winter, it is rebellion enough just to be out at the old farmhouse playing house, partying, knowing our parents would be horrified if they could see us, knowing there’s no way they can find out what we’re up to unless we decide to tell them—and we won’t. Why should we? It’s just us now, it always will be.

They think they know what’s best for us, but they don’t. They don’t really know us at all.

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