The Missing Toilet Paper

I have no idea what these two are going on about, something about crops and machinery, both taking turns chuckling their belly laughs. I hitched a ride along with Dad today, needing to get away from the house for a while. Old Soibert laughs with his belly, a perfectly symmetrical half-moon that starts at his neck, protruding beneath his farmer’s overalls which are cinched over his shoulders and held on by metal latch clasps fastened at the front. Dad also laughs with his belly, but his belly is more of a fat capital “D’ shape that starts at his chest. Dad prefers fat suspenders to farm overalls, his belly protruding and stretching the suspenders to each side of its girth. Both men are strong from working hard. I have never touched old Soibert’s belly but I imagine it is the same solid hard that Dad’s belly is, not the cushy flabby kind that you would get from an office job.

“What did happen to that toilet paper?” Soibert suddenly turns on me, still laughing his belly laugh. Dad suddenly turns curious. Old Soibert is a lot like Dad, nothing escaping either of them. I have been over at Soibert’s house and seen where he likes to sit in a big lazy-boy chair that faces a window looking straight at our house, the nearest neighbor within sight of his house, keeps a pair of binoculars handy on the window sill where he can grab them if anything interesting happens. He prefers the comings and goings at our place to the evening news.

I know exactly what Soibert is talking about. I thought for sure I had escaped that particular dilemma, believing for certain I had erased all evidence of that damn toilet paper fiasco. I stammer and turn red like I always do, giving away how guilty I am. They both look at me for a while, Soibert with a big ass grin on his face, Dad wondering what the hell was going on, both waiting for an explanation. After I scratched around in the dirt with one foot, looking at the ground for what seemed like 20 minutes but was probably only twenty seconds which is still a really long time,  the two of them looking at me, making me feel even more like a freak than I felt already, Soibert finally explained what happened, since it clearly wasn’t going to come out of me. “She used a whole roll of toilet paper when she was over babysitting the kids last week. She must really like toilet paper.

Again they both looked at me, thinking that now I would fess up. But how the hell could I explain that missing roll of toilet paper and how did one missing roll of toilet paper get to be everybody’s business anyway? It is just a roll of toilet paper. Do they count the stuff after I leave? The kids I babysat, the ones  Soibert is talking about, are his two little grandchildren that live next door to him.  The kids are too young to even think about toilet paper which means that Soibert’s son or his son’s wife, the kid’s parents, figured out the toilet paper was missing and blabbed about it to old Soibert. I wonder how much of Dorchester talked about the missing roll of toilet paper.

I thought about what I might say but it all sounded too corny and embarrassing and nothing I said could make a damn bit of difference. I wasn’t going to tell them about how I dropped the toilet paper in the toilet by accident. I could just hear the questions then: How do you drop a whole roll of toilet paper in the toilet? Don’t you sit down on the toilet? But what happened to the toilet paper after you dropped it in the toilet? It wasn’t in the trash can. Where did you put it? You couldn’t have flushed it down the toilet. It would have clogged the toilet up. What did you do with it? There was no way I was going to tell them the answer to any of these questions.

Eventually, Soibert and Dad laid off me, seeing how nothing was going to come out of me. I was safe for the moment. I kept to myself the explanation about how I got my period that day I was babysitting Soibert’s grandchildren, about how my period was too new for me to know when I could expect it to come knocking on my door, about how I did not have any sanitary napkins, about how I was trying to make a sanitary napkin out of toilet paper when the roll of toilet paper fell into the bloody toilet, about how I was not going to leave a blood stained roll of toilet paper in the trash can, so that now instead of talking about a mysteriously missing roll of toilet paper, we would be talking about a roll of soggy and bloody roll of toilet paper left in the trash can, and how I carefully took chunks of that bloody toilet paper, just enough at a time so that the toilet wouldn’t clog up the toilet, knowing that if I clogged the toilet, I would forever more be known as the idiot who clogged the toilet with bloody toilet paper, about how small chunk by small chunk I flushed the toilet paper down the toilet, about how I even tore up the cardboard tube in the center of the toilet paper and flushed that down the toilet, so there would be no evidence left, hoping beyond hope that no one would notice one stupid missing roll of toilet paper. I kept that all to myself.

“Not going to tell us anything about the toilet paper, are you?” Soibert was not quite done working me for details. I looked up from the ground I had been staring into, trying to come up of an answer that could get me off the hook.

“Nope.” It was all I had.

 

 

The Flat Tire

Jim was the first to point it out and we all ran over to the picture window to see what would happen next, each of us peering out the window, hoping for any kind of excitement. Nothing much happened in our neck of the woods. A fancy sports car with a flat tire on the highway that ran smack dab in front of our house was big news. This was enough to get all of our attention and we rarely agreed on anything.

The driver got out of his fancy red sports car, walking around to the side of the car facing us as we pressed our noses up against the window, watching for details. “He’s not from around here,” Paul stated the obvious. Most everyone in Dorchester lived on a farm or worked in the farming industry, hauling milk, fixing farm machinery, storing grain, packaging meat, or making cheese. There were a couple of factories; one that made pizzas and one the made fancy wood windows and of course there were a few teachers, insurance agents and a lawyer of two, but mostly everyone was blue-collar and even the lawyers knew better than to flaunt their meager earnings with the purchase of a fancy car for fear of being ostracized for charging too much. Besides, a nice coat of paint on a new car never lasted long between the salt poured on the roads in the winter and the gravel roads spitting chunks of gravel in the summers. Mostly, everyone bought an affordable used car, a Ford or Chevy, never a foreign model car, no one knowing how to fix those things when the broke down.

“Bet he’s from Illinois, maybe Chicago, “Jim always needing to one up Paul, intoned. There were two types of drivers got noticed on the road according to the gospel that ran in our house. One type was the farmers. You could tell them easily because they were the ones that drove slower than molasses in January, looking over their shoulder, peering into the fields that they passed, looking to see who had planted which crop when, always second guessing whether they were planting at the right time to out-guess the cold and the rains. Highway 13 was just two lanes of traffic and waiting for a clear pass around the slow driving farmers was next to impossible. The other type of driver was the tourists from Illinois. You could tell them because they were always speeding, rushing to somewhere, rushing to anywhere they were not. Dad could frequently be heard grumbling about those “damn Illinois drivers, trying to kill everyone on the road,” as they managed to speed past everyone, narrowly sliding past cars, causing Dad to have to put on the brakes to prevent causing a front end collision with oncoming traffic.

Highway 13, with its ever-present traffic was a constant reminder that things did happen somewhere, somewhere other than where we lived just outside the small town of Dorchester.  While my life stalled, the real world drove past our house every day on the highway that ran north and south in front of our house, me waiting not so patiently to grow up and take off along that same road to somewhere that was anywhere but the north woods of Wisconsin. My brothers and sister were no different from me, each of us dreaming for the day we could leave.

We continued to watch out the window as the guy examined the flat tire. “Look he’s got on a fancy suit.” Chris laughed. “How’s he think he’s going to change a tire in that?” I liked the fancy suit. It was a pin-striped, dark-grey and he wore it with a white shirt. No one wore a fancy suit around Dorchester except to weddings and funerals and they did not look like this guy looked in this suit. I remembered the prom I went to with my boyfriend, Kenny. He looked like a scarecrow in that suit of his with the sleeves being at least an inch higher that his wrists and the pants being even shorter. He pulled at his collar like there was hay stuck in there, itching away at him.

“Look he’s going back in his car,” Paul again stating the obvious. We watched as he got back in the car and  rummaged around in his glove compartment. “He’s looking for the directions,” Jim burst out laughing. “The idiot doesn’t know how to fix a flat.” It was rewarding to know that we country-bumpkins from Wisconsin had something on the fancy people in their fancy cars who squeezed you off the roads trying to get anywhere but here, even if we also wanted to be anywhere but from here. It was why we pointed them out on the highway in the first place. We pointed and laughed at them for being too fast, speeding through life and at the same time wishing we had a little of what they had, hoping that one day we could drive the fancy car, like the ones speeding past Dorchester, except if we ever did get a car like that, we would stop and show it off for a bit before speeding away again.

Showing off was not something that was ever done in Dorchester. We were not raised to be show offs. Maybe it was something about the harsh winters that made things this way. If you ended up stranded on a lonely road in the middle of the night, stuck in a snow-bank in sub-zero weather, you wanted to be able to go to the house down the road for help. No one needed enemies at a time like that. Maybe it was our German roots that made us this way. I never learned very much about those roots. I never even considered my German roots much, even though my Grandparent’s first language was German. Who wanted to be German once the atrocities of Hitler were taught to you in school?  I could not imagine being a German immigrant and living through World War II as my grandparents did. They could see what happened to the Japanese immigrants during that time. It was better to learn to lay low, speak English, and blend in, not making waves. But the war was now long past and not part of our history and we were ready move out and move up in the world; at least I was.

Dad unknowingly aided and abetted my desire to leave Dorchester and shored up my belief that there was more out there than there was here. He liked to give us a peek of things outside Dorchester, while also letting us know that home was the best place to be. He met a pilot at the tiny airport north of where we lived, an airport with a run-way only big enough for little six-seater airplanes, the pilot willing to take us up in one of those planes. Dad wanted us to see how amazing our little piece of the world looked from up in that little plane as it circled our small neck of the woods. My quest to leave Dorchester just got stronger, seeing our  toy-sized house nestled in a little patchwork of farm fields and thatched woods made it look so much smaller and the outside world that much closer to obtainable.

Dad also took us all to see Chicago, our big trip to see the city and what city life was like. He was careful to take us only to the absolute worst part of the city to see the dirty soot covered high-rise tenements, explaining to us, “That’s what city life is like. You have to live all crowded together in these cubicle apartments where it’s so hot you can’t breathe in the summer. The air is all polluted too. There’s nothing good about the city.” I wasn’t buying into it though. I knew there was more to the city. Even this grimy part of the city with all the people and cars and congestion looked promising. I dreamed of being Mary Tyler Moore and making it on my own one day. I could see myself in the middle of some gleaming city twirling around as I tossed my hat toward the sky in sheer joy of finally making it, having a cute little one-room apartment with a huge walk-in closet full of fancy city clothes and high-heeled shoes.

We continued to watch out the window as the guy opened his trunk, reading along in his instruction booklet as he figured out where and how to get the tire out of the trunk. “It’s going to take him forever to fix that tire. Do you believe he has never changed a stupid tire in his life!” We were full of ourselves watching this guy work so hard at the simplest thing. “Somebody should go help him.” Chris always wanted to make things better.” Jim objected, “Let him suffer for a while. Let’s see how long it takes him.” The guy in the fancy suit got the tire out and was trying to figure out how the jack went together.” Go help him,” I said. It was getting boring watching him fiddle between the instructions and the jack parts.

I also felt stupid because I did not know how to change a tire. We had a strict line between what boys did and what girls did in our house. Girls were in charge of cleaning and stayed out of the garage which was for the boys. It drove me crazy that I was stuck in the house and never learned about cars and how to fix them. I knew I could do anything my brothers did and I was certain that anything that they did I could do better. But the garage was not allowed. I would love to be able to go out there to fix that tire and learn a little more about this guy from Chicago. I wanted details.

“I know. Why don’t we let Cork go fix the tire,” Jim finally resolved. “It will be embarrassing for that guy to have a little kid change his tire. Cork was the baby of the family and was just nine years old. This seemed a fine plan to all of us and we watched as Cork, head held high, went out there to fix the guy’s tire. I am not sure what Cork said to the guy, but he handed over the jack parts to Cork and in ten minutes the tire was changed. Cork loaded the old tire in the guy’s fancy red sports car with the jack parts and headed back to the house with a big happy grin on his face. In that moment we all felt a lot better about being hicks from the north-woods of Wisconsin.

The Race

The quest to figure out what was wrong with me started before I can even remember. It seems to have been with me since I was born. I look back now for details about where it might have gained root or where it had taken off on a life of its own. I can’t recall a time when it was not there.

From my earliest recall, I thought that there was some secret I was not getting about how life worked and constantly monitored myself against others to see where I came up wanting. It felt like self sabotage, as if there was this part of me, deep inside me where a war pitted against my success. On the playground I would choke when the ball was thrown in my direction, being all fumbled fingers. I would never get all my answers right on a test, mixing the letters on my spelling, freezing when it came to math, fumbling the answer in the same sure-footed way I would fumble the ball. I honestly considered whether other kids got some special pencil in school that helped them ease the correct answer onto their papers. I froze when called on in class, getting all blank eyed, the edges of my vision going all swimmy, the teacher’s voice coming at me down a long tunnel. As the rest of the kids looked on, I would feel my cheeks flush, willing words to come to my lips, but none would.

In fourth grade, some girls in my class wanted me to try out for a spot on their relay team. There were no formal tryouts like they have now. In my tiny town, kids just signed themselves up for what they wanted to do each year. There needed to be four girls on a relay team and three of the girls in my class were looking for number four.  I knew that I could run like the wind. I could anyway if I were not in a race, if it were not a test, if it were not something I had to win against someone else. If it were about winning, I would lose. I could not seem to stop it from happening as sure as I would fumble a ball, I would fumble a race.

The three girls on the team were looking at either me or my cousin Debbie as the last team member. This was familiar territory. I had been pitted against Debbie my whole life and had come up short. I am not sure how many times I heard my mother ask me, “Why can’t you be more like Debbie?” She would intermingle that with things like: “Debbie get A’s in school,” or “Debbie knows how to help out around the house without complaining,” or “I bet Debbie’s mother doesn’t have to drag her out of bed in the morning to get to school!”

After a time, it no longer became necessary for Mom to invoke Debbie’s name.  Even though Debbie was my best friend from birth until we separated ways in 7th grade, I grew to resent her more and more each year, Debbie becoming my standard for normal while I became my standard for everything that was not. Just seeing her became a reminder of that.

I lived right next door to my Grandmother’s house and yet Debbie who lived almost two miles away was the favored Grandchild. Grandma kept a box of toys with the nicest dolls in it for Debbie that I was not allowed to touch when I was at her house. The box was kept upstairs in the bedroom that Debbie used when she stayed the night.  There was no box of toys for me at Grandma’s house.

In addition to the special toy box Debbie had at Grandma’s house, she had a whole toy room to herself at her house. The toy room was in the attic with a window at one end overlooking the farmyard. The slanted beams in the ceiling made the place especially cozy with a soft light pouring in from that window. Debbie had ovens that made real cakes and a little table where you could have tea parties with all the tea dishes and even a place to set them in a dish drainer to make-believe they were drying after you make believed washed them. There were boxes or games stacked up against one wall.

No toy lasted in my house for very long. Games would get scattered around and there would be too many missing pieces to actually play any of them after the first week of Christmas had passed. My sister had cut the hair off all the few dolls I had while I was away at school in kindergarten. Things did not last at our house. I certainly did not have a whole playroom to myself.

I was six months older than Debbie but, due to our very different genetics, she always had at least three inches on me in height and it was me who got to wear all her last years clothes. I hated going to her house each August, just before school started, to go through all her hand-me-downs, sifting and sorting among the dresses that Debbie had picked out the year before, the dresses she liked for herself, the ones she wore new to school last year. Debbie got to go on a shopping trip to the city each year. I got to go to Debbie’s. I never wanted Debbie’s old dresses, all frilly with ruffles and lace. I was more of a tomboy to her curls. But I didn’t dare turn down a free wardrobe for school. I knew all too well that money did not grow on trees. Mom talked on and on about these hand-me-downs. On the way to Debbie’s house each year mom would want me to agree with her how lucky I was to get those clothes. I would always agree.

Each year as I tried on dress after dress that Debbie handed down to me, Debbie would tell me how glad she was to get rid of her old clothes and get new ones, feeling bad for me having to wear these old things. Each dress I would try on and have to go out to the kitchen to show my mom who was sitting over coffee with my aunt, how pretty the dress looked on me. They would say things like, “Oh now look how nice that one fits on you! Don’t you like that one?” I always said yes, and put on my brightest face. At least I did until one year Debbie pulled the cork on the whole scam, letting out of her mouth those fateful words, “No she doesn’t! Peggy does not like my old dresses!”

I don’t know if she thought she was trying to help me or if she was finally just stating some fact that needed to be known. But for me it was like a house made of cards crumbling around me. I felt the shame of it all coming in slashes of red across my face like big hard slaps. Maybe it was the shame of having to wear these dresses each year that really never fit me, were not me, the way I felt in those dresses bringing on the teasing from the other kids, the other kids smelling my shame. Maybe it was the shame of letting mom down that I felt just then, having played into this game each year for years about loving to come to Debbie’s for her hand-me-downs, it being our one time together each year, just the two of us, having heard myself just that same evening on the way over here, to Debbie’s house, tell my mother how happy I was to get these clothes, it being what she wanted to hear. Or maybe it was that I knew mom was just as embarrassed as I was,  having to rely on hand-me-downs, convincing herself and my Aunt how much I liked these clothes, making it all less demoralizing.

Mom drove me home in the quiet car that year Debbie let on how I really felt, Mom’s words hanging in the air between us, “I always thought you liked those clothes.” We never went back to Debbie’s for hand-me-downs again.

At a party with all the relatives at grandma’s house, two of my older cousins put Debbie and me together and judged us for which one of us was cuter. They looked at our hair and our eyes and the shape of our faces and noted how much taller Debbie was than me. Debbie wore a lacy party dress and had her short blond hair done up in cute little ringlets around her square face. I had on my usual mismatched tomboy attire and my thin hair was left wild and stringy against my triangular face. Debbie was selected as hands down cuter. The thing was, I wanted to be found cuter. I wanted at least that.

We all went out on the big grassy playground the size of a football field, just a big stretch of green.  Debbie and I squared off at one end of the playground and took our marks. I knew before going into it, that if I saw that I was winning against Debbie, my inner critic, that little devil that resided inside my head, that place where I was everything that was wrong and Debbie was everything that was right, would stop it all and I would just choke. I would choke. Whatever that thing inside of me was, it would take over and cause me to lose.

As we stood together that day, Debbie and I, me six months older than her and her three inches taller than me, on that starting line, I wanted nothing more than to beat her. I wanted so badly to be better at just one thing. I was small and lithe next to her tall and lanky. I knew in my heart that I could run faster than she could. I had seen her long lanky legs doing that loping run she had my whole life. My little legs could spin like the road runner cartoon if I really let them.

I needed to shut out that nasty part of me that just refused to let me succeed.  I determined to do it. On the starting line, Debbie by my side, I shut my eyes tight and listened for the go to be called and when it did I took off running. I never dared to open my eyes, knowing that if I saw myself inching ahead of Debbie, my spinning legs would just go all rubbery. With my eyes open, I would only be able to see Debbie taking the lead. With my eyes shut, I could just focus on the pounding of my feet against the green grass field and the taking in of my breath. I ran my heart out until I heard someone shouting for me to stop.

I looked back to see my classmates at the other end of the field. I was way off kilter. I could not run a straight line with my eyes shut. The girls all saw that I was running blind. They never pressed me on it. Maybe it was because they were the nice girls in class, not the ones who would spite someone just for sport. Maybe it was that in Northern Wisconsin in that part of farming country, no one was without their problems, everyone did their strange things, it being in the days of spare the rod and spoil the child, the days when children are to be seen and not heard. We all had our harsh realities and no one was immune.

The thing is they told me I ran faster than Debbie but they needed me to run a straight line. “Just do it with your eyes open,” someone said. Debbie and I were set up to race a second time. The thing is I could not open my eyes this time either. It would have hurt too much to lose now, after I had managed to outrun her, even if it was in a crooked line. I tried to self correct by veering in the other direction but I still ran off kilter. In the end, they chose Debbie as the last relay partner. I was OK with that. I had my small victory. I could run faster than Debbie. I would not be able to run the relay with my eyes closed anyway.

First Boyfriend

He was not someone who I would have picked out, not because he wasn’t good-looking – he was – it was just that it looked like he was trying to be good-looking. It was his clothes, mostly, that gave that appearance. They were never the things most of the guys wear – jeans, worn and tattered. No, he always wore black jeans or shirts with a yoke on them and a matching belt. He had moved here from somewhere else; maybe they dressed that way where he came from. It wasn’t like it was gawky or anything and it’s not like he stood out like a sore thumb for it, but it was just different. He sat across from me and behind me in my eighth grade English class.

I would never have noticed him if he hadn’t decided to leave his ID bracelet in my folder on the top of my desk during recess one day. We had two sessions in English every day. One was with Mrs. Theime and the other with Mrs. Boss, one teaching us grammar and the other literature with a break in between. It was when I came back from break that I found the bracelet, hidden inside my folder, causing my folder to bulge up funny. I was a little frightened seeing that bulging folder thinking that someone was pulling a prank on me. My worst horror was standing out; I could blush and wilt under scrutiny like nobody’s business. When I found the bracelet with his last name on it, I was a little confused. But things cleared up after class. He came up by my side, “Why aren’t you wearing it?” he wanted to know.” “You want me to wear it?” I asked. “Don’t you want to?” he responded and from then on I was his girlfriend.

The only difference after becoming his girlfriend was that now everyone in my class knew that we were together and he walked me to my bus everyday at the end of the school day. We never really talked. I never knew what to say and I suppose he didn’t either. It became something I thought about all the time though. I did not know the first thing about having a boyfriend but I thought it had to be more this. I had no idea about who he was or even where he came from. It was fun and exciting to have a boyfriend and I thought maybe I was the envy of girls who did not have one. My friends were asking me what it was like. What could I say? It wasn’t like anything. For several days we walked to the bus together and he politely said goodbye to me each time as I got on the bus. He was nice enough, anyway, and he was cute with that thick thatch of dark wavy hair and dark brown eyes, almost black even.

In the end it became too much for me. At break one day between Mrs. Theime’s and Mrs. Boss’ class I put the ID bracelet back on his desk. There was nowhere to hide it the way he had hidden it in my folder, so I just left in on top of the wooden desk. Later, my friend’s asked me why I had broken up with him. I said, “It didn’t feel right.”

First Job

I pounded on the locked and flimsy screen door, hearing the rattle of metal echo into the quiet of the morning on this little tree-lined street of old two-story white houses, each house with similar cement steps and metal screen doors.  After enough pounding to wake the neighborhood, I came to the conclusion that there was no one inside. I plop myself down on the front steps, brace my head up in my hands, waiting for something to happen, realizing that I may be here for a while. Maybe these people were just out somewhere and they would return soon giving me a very reasonable explanation for not being here.

This place is my summer job. Mom decided that I was old enough to work now that I was fifteen and found this job for me in this neighboring town through an ad in the local newspaper. In this small northern Wisconsin town of about 1,500 people the local paper runs anywhere from four to eight pages and is mostly advertisement. The ad was looking for a live-in sitter for five days a week with the weekends off and it paid $25.00 per week. That was more money in one week that I had ever held in my hand so I was intrigued yet just a bit scared. I had never lived away from home with strangers before and I was not what you would call your outgoing type, but rather more the type of person that hid behind her hair.

The first Sunday evening after being dropped off on this job was less than welcoming. I met the three older kids as they ran in and out of the room, racing around me as the baby was plopped in my arms by his mother. I loved the baby immediately, all chubby cheeks and squishy pink skin, a thatch of red hair on the top of his head and a quick smile. He was still in diapers and would take most of my attention. The room they gave me to stay in was off the living room and had no door, a string of beads, all the separated me from the TV and the chaos of kids. The Dad sat in front of the TV watching the news. I assessed the danger he might pose as he nodded to me when I was introduced to him. He seemed non-threatening enough. The mom rattled on about what I needed to know about the kids and their work schedule. I had the evenings free to myself, free to hang out where and do what I wondered.

By the time the mother was done explaining things to me and I got back to my room behind the beaded curtain, I noticed my suitcase lying open, the contents ruffled through. The little ruffians had taken every red cent I had in there, running off with it right under their parents’ noses. I was too intimidated to say a word about it though. The $25.00 I was going to make that week just got reduced to $19.00. The kids were nowhere to be seen at the present but they showed up later with their mouths and pockets stuffed full of bubblegum and candy, probably from the five and dime store five blocks down the street.

My duties included, taking care of the baby, watching the kids, keeping them out of trouble, keeping the house clean, mopping all the floors in the two-story house once each week and making supper every evening for the family. I had never been much of a cook and the mom needed to leave recipes with instructions for me to follow. She insisted it would be easy and I could learn. I was worried about the cooking, but I followed the directions and they ate what I made.

In the evenings I did the only thing I could find to do; I walked around town, stopping in the furniture shop, drug store and dime store while they were still open or I went down to the park at the end of the block and sat on one of the swings until it got dark outside. It was on that swing that I started praying to God. I prayed that there was some way that I did not have to work at this place. The only person I liked at all was that red-haired baby. The kids only found ways to mess up the house and torment me when they weren’t off finding mischief in the neighborhood. Before I had a chance to escape the house in the evenings, the mom rattled on about work and people I didn’t know and things I had no interest in. Her husband always plunked himself in front of the television set each night and I rarely heard as much as a grunt out of him. I wanted to be home where I had my own room and my own space and where I knew the people I lived with. I was lonely as hell.

On Friday, before my mom got off work and was able to pick me up for the weekend, a man dropped by the house. The mom sat on the front stoop with me as the three older kids jumped all over him. It was the first time I realized that these kids had a different Dad, their blond hair suddenly making sense to me. “Isn’t he cute?” The mom gushed at me. She was talking in a hushed voice and was gazing in his direction as she spoke. “Uhuh,” I mumbled thinking how completely weird this was. First of all, I saw nothing cute about this guy and what was she doing, getting all hazy eyed over a man she was divorced from when her husband was sitting about 12 feet away in the living room in his usual spot in front of the TV. My mom drove up to pick me up right after the kids left with their dad and I was never so happy to see her in my life. I said another prayer, asking for something to happen, anything not to have to come back to this place.

Now here I sit, this is the fifth week on this job and I am dropped off bright and early on Monday morning when they are supposed to be expecting me and there is no one home. Mom just dropped me and left for work. I don’t know a soul in this town other than this wacky family. I wonder just how long I will end up sitting here and what I can do, when a women walks up to me from down the street. Maybe she is a neighbor. “Are you waiting for someone?” She wants to know. I tell her about being the sitter. “I don’t know why no one is home.” I say “Didn’t you hear?” she asks. “They are both in jail and DES has the kids. They got into some kind of gun fight at the county fair last night. It was her ex-husband and her husband and her right in the middle of it. I don’t think anybody’s going to be by here. There ain’t no kids to babysit here.”

I put on an expression of shock and concern that a person should have on their face at this moment and did my best to keep the smile, that wanted to spread from ear to ear, off my face. In my head I just kept saying, “Thank you God, Thank you God, There is a God!” The nice woman was willing to give me a lift to the Post Office where Mom worked and that was the end of my first job.

 

Pam

Pam opens the door to her small apartment and I meet her for the first time. She is tall and lanky thin with wavy brown hair coming to her shoulders and has a quick, friendly smile. I think she is pretty. My friend Jerry introduced me to her, having known her through his brother and the motorcycle gang his brother ran with. Pam’s husband, the father of Penny, Pam’s four year old child, was in the gang and off somewhere cruising, leaving Pam and Penny home alone and needing a roommate.  I had just graduated high-school and landed a job at a pizza factory and needed somewhere to stay besides my parents’ home. As Pam and I introduced each other, I found out that Pam also had a job at the pizza factory. We could not only share an apartment but we could also take turns driving to work every morning. The deal was quickly made.

Pam was on welfare, so I had to write a note to the Department of Economic Security (DES) stating that I lived with Pam and we shared the rent but I bought my own groceries and she bought hers. I had to be at home at our apartment for the meeting with the lady from DES so that she could interview me to make sure we weren’t trying to pull a fast one on them. Pam would never cheat the system. She had too much integrity for that. I could tell that she was embarrassed to ask me to write the letter to DES and to have to ask me to be there for the appointment. I would never occur to me to think any worse of her for it. I was just so happy to have a buddy to live with. I needed a good friend at that time, the same as I needed air to breathe. I felt lost and alone with no direction, with no idea what life as an adult should look like and no idea of what I wanted for my future. Pam was a woman living on her own and making it. She was even making it with a kid in tow. I admired her.

At first Pam said she would not go out with me on the weekends. She said the she would rather just sit home with Penny, telling me she never went out. I was amazed and told her so. What was life except for living?  We were adults now. We did not need permission. We could make our own rules. We could have fun.  She was actually afraid to leave the house. I cajoled her, wearing her down, a little at a time, telling her that we could find things to do with Penny in tow, that it would be so fun, the three of us and I would help with Penny. She eventually consented, packing a bag of goodies to keep Penny entertained, and we were off, the three musketeers, taking on the world together.

That summer ran past like a dream, Pam and I working at the pizza factory, getting ready for work together every morning, pulling on own white uniforms and white thick-soled shoes that kept our feet from getting too sore standing at the lines all day long, talking about our lives on the drive to the factory, at lunch at the factory, on the way home and until we retired to bed at night. On the weekends we went to see bands that played in country fields and parks, dancing and getting high. We brought Penny along for the fun of running around and dancing in the grass. Every weekend there was something fun to do. We never left Penny alone with a baby sitter. We always went somewhere that she could tag along.

I don’t remember how it came out. I noticed that Pam had a couple missing teeth. I assumed that it was because of gum disease or a tooth problem or something dental going wrong. But she said it was from her husband hitting her. She never brought up her husband and I didn’t even know his name. It was weird to think about Pam being married. I had never laid eyes on the guy. I had heard he was somewhere in Colorado with the motorcycle gang. This was not the type of gang filled with teachers and accountants dressed up in leather.

I had encounters with this gang many times. They showed up in a bar once where I was hanging out and one of them covered in tattoos and leather, cuddled up next to me, dragging his nose ring up my neck as he recounted to me how he once killed a man and wanted to know if that thrilled me. I knew better than to bolt. I had been put in a scissor hold by one of these guys at a party once until I passed out. I was always saved by Jerry, who discovering me in distress would call it quits to my tormentor. Rocky was the leader of this gang of ruffians and Jerry was his brother. Jerry was the opposite of any of these guys, sweet and soft-spoken as butter, gentle and unassuming as a doe, but the gang never crossed him because that would mean crossing Rocky. At one party far out in the woods the gang showed up, taking over our spiked water melon, shooing us all to the edge of the woods. I always assumed Jerry somehow let on to where we were. They brought a woman along on the back of one of their bikes, calling her peachy cheeks, taking turns with her in the woods. Through the rest of the party there was always one of them yelling toward the woods something in the order of, “Are you done yet, it’s my fucking turn, get the fuck on with it.” I hid next to Jerry keeping my mouth shut.

I saw Pam open up during that summer we spent together. There was an edge to her that seemed to ease and relax over those easy summer days with the rhythm of the life we made together.. As the summer stretched on, we laughed more, played the music louder and danced more. We melted into each other in the way friends do when life is new and you get to figure it all out together. I left at the end of the summer to attend a technical college 45 miles away and had to move on. We were sorry to say our good-byes. I knew that I would always remember her.

The next summer I called Pam and asked to come by for a visit. She told me her husband was back. I was surprised, thinking that he was history for her, not understanding how she could take back a guy that left her stranded on welfare with his kid to feed and clothe. But I didn’t question her and she told me I could come by in an hour. She said to come by the back door. I found the instructions on how to park and how to use the back door strange, but again I didn’t question her. When I got there I saw her peeking out of the curtains watching for me and she actually pulled me into the apartment. When I got in and my eyes adjusted to the low light, I saw the bruises on her neck and face. She said I could only stay a few minutes because she was afraid he would come home and catch me there. The Pam I knew over the prior summer was gone. The old fear was back but now it was far worse. I tried to convince her to leave him in the same way I had convinced her the summer before to go out with me on the weekend. But I only saw the fear in her eyes grow the longer I stayed and the more I talked. There would be no more music and dancing in her life.

I left wondering what I could do. I still wonder.

The Wedding

I am the second from the left

I see Denny walking up to me as I’m leaving the church, him wearing the suit jacket I suggested over his jeans, me wearing a bridesmaid dress, my hair wild, not having enough time to properly make it up right, me four months pregnant with his child. Did he possibly know what I had gone through to get here? I am so angry, my teeth are grinding but I need to put on my smiling face. I am supposed to marry this guy, the father of my unborn child and my relatives are surrounding us, evaluating us, determining whether he is worthy of admission to the club. I tell myself that I should not care. But I do care because I am forcing this smile on my face as Denny walks up to me.

It all started earlier that evening in our upstairs apartment in a two story house out in the country twenty miles away from this church: Just this casual comment, “Why don’t you wear your suit to the wedding?” I ask. But I see immediately the resistance, the scowling look his face takes on, the tightening of his jaw, the movement off the couch and into the next room. I follow more persuasive now, “I will be all dressed up in a gown. It will look odd if you show up in jeans and not even a tie. A suit will look so much nicer.” But he does not want to even go to the wedding. “All your relatives will be there judging me. I am not going to dress up like a monkey to impress them. What’s the point? They won’t like me.” “There is nothing to worry about.” I tell him over and over again. There is nothing to worry about. My relatives are all sweet Wisconsin country people. It takes a lot to cross them.

It’s my cousin’s wedding, the cousin who I grew up with. We were best friends our whole lives and I am standing up in the wedding. I want this to be about her. I want this to be about me and her. But it isn’t about that. “Just wear the suit jacket with your jeans,” I suggest. But he doesn’t like that any better.  “That will look stupid. I can’t wear that together. The jacket is too dressy.” I try again. “It’s just a corduroy jacket, it will go. People wear suit jackets with jeans all the time.” “It’s stupid.” He responds. “I will look stupid. I’m not going.” he leaves me standing alone in the room.

I tell him about my relatives. “They are not going to judge you,” I say. “They just want to meet you. What difference does it make anyway?” He picks up on this, “What difference does it make if I go? Why should it matter? It’s just a fucking wedding.”

I have had it. This argument has gone on for too long and I want it to end. “Just wear your damn jeans and tee-shirt then.” I say. In my mind I am thinking what a baby. I am going to marry this guy. He is the father of my child. “Just wear what you want and just come to the church. You can leave right after the ceremony. You won’t have to talk to anyone.” He has stopped talking to me and picks up his guitar. The conversation is over. I know that he is not going. He has seen my anger and is not going to take the bait.  I am not worth the fight.

I have had enough experience to know that I am getting nowhere. I will have to go to the wedding alone. My relatives will see that I have chosen poorly. They know I have decided to get married. They don’t yet know about the baby. I know about the baby though, my body a walking baby factory, my belly puffing out. This is my future. I can see it clearly. I have this to look forward to, this nowhere of a relationship, this nowhere of a life that after tonight will be an open book for all my family to see, proving my mother right: I can’t attract anyone worth their own salt.

I am not going to beg for his car keys.  Maybe he will have the heart to consider that, just maybe, he could at least drive me to the wedding since I have no car.  Its two miles down a dirt road to the highway. I can hitch a ride. I grab my bridesmaid’s dress, throw it in a sack, and head out of the house. When I get to the gravel road in front of our house, I do not look back. I am not going to give him that satisfaction. Maybe he will come to his senses and come after me. I keep doggedly walking ahead. I can be stubborn too. Two can play this game. The minutes tick past with each step, only the sound of gravel crunching under my feet. The house is now out of sight and no Denny. The bastard is not going to come. I will have to hitch a ride. I calculate the time to get to the wedding and it will be close even if someone stops to pick me up. I look for cars on the dirt road but none come. The sun is setting; lights are coming on in the two other houses on this road, making the road seem even lonelier.

I curse the day I met that asshole. Why couldn’t I leave him when I had the chance? Why did I take him back? Tears run and I let them. I will come alone to the wedding. I can hear it now: “Where is Denny?” and “Why didn’t Denny come? Is he sick?” There will be concern in their voices. It will all be well meaning, no one suspecting that he is home because I told him to wear a suit, because he is too chicken to meet the relatives, because he doesn’t love me. What will I say? What can I say? He’s an asshole. I am going to marry an asshole. But what choice do I have. I’m pregnant. That’s what you do. You get married.

I am able to catch a ride on the highway. “Where you headed?” the man asks. I tell him about standing up in a wedding. I always want the ride to know I am expected somewhere, as if it’s some kind of safety hitch, someone will be looking for me, and you better not do anything stupid. I know it doesn’t mean much but it’s something. “Did your car break down?” I can see he finds it weird that I have to hitch a ride to a wedding. Who doesn’t have a ride to a wedding that they are standing up in? Me, that’s who, me with the asshole husband to be, me with the asshole father to my unborn child. “Yeah, I had to walk two miles to get to the highway for a ride.” I say. “You gonna be late?” he asks. “I hope not,” I say. There is nothing else to say.

I have the ride drop me off at my parents so I can get dressed there and do my make-up and hair. They can give me a ride the rest of the way. The only person home is my older brother. “Everyone left for the wedding,” he says. Why aren’t you there?” “Car broke down,” I grumble. “Can you give me a ride?” I hurry into my dress and make-up, quickly pulling up my sweaty hair that has gone limp from walking the dusty two mile dirt road. I had it in curlers before I left home. Home, do I call it that?  Nothing can be done about it now.

I walk into the church just as the bridesmaids are lining up to walk down the aisle. “We had given up on you,” my Aunt chastises me. “Where were you? We were going to go ahead without you!” Luckily, there is no time to explain. We have to start our walk. The music is playing now. I put my head high and take the steps in the way we had practiced them: One step, close, two step, close. I put a smile on my face and walk into the sanctuary. I look up and smile. I look down and take a step. I smile and refocus ahead of me. I can’t look into the faces, the faces of my expectant relatives. I feel my protruding belly. I am not big for four months but there is a bump and it shows in the slinky dress. I am a tainted bridesmaid.

I stand in the front of the church with all those faces of relatives turned my direction, listening to the preacher go on about the sanctity of marriage and the meaning of the vows: to remain there for each other, for the rest of your life, remain faithfully there, giving to one another, in sickness and in health, being a partner for life. I wipe a tear. Tears are appropriate at weddings. It’s OK.

I look now at my husband to be, the father of my unborn, as he walks up to the church, after the wedding, after leaving me to get here on my own, after listening to vows of marriage. He looks at me with his head down, apologetically. “I should have worn the suit. I feel out of place in these jeans,” he says to me as if this is a concession to the argument earlier.

Home Birth

“I have seen vaginas fall out of women’s bottoms; is that what you want to happen to you?” asked Doctor Cook, my home town doctor. It was 1978 and I was pregnant with my first child. I had read articles about natural home births and some had said it was unnecessary to cut into your vagina and then have to sew the whole thing back up. Doctor Cook went on; “It may not happen after the first child but it stretches everything out down there and your vagina will fall out after awhile.” That was the end of our conversation about home birth until I got home and my husband was steaming mad. Apparently, Dr. Cook called him to have a man to man because Denny knew all about our little chat about home birth. “You are not going to read any more books; the doctor thinks you’re paranoid of hospitals! What the hell is wrong with you?!” I did not discuss things with my husband. In our highschool class of 99 students, he was always on the top. Who the hell was I to question his brilliance? I was used to his ranting and stopped trying to assert my opinion soon after we married. I thought the idea that I was paranoid of hospitals was going a bit far though.

My contractions started in the evening of June 6th shortly after going to bed. I woke my husband to tell him. He immediately raced into action getting me to the car as fast as he could. I remember him pulling at my arm as I stopped for a contraction. I’m certain he was trying to move me along because he was worried I had put off telling him about the contractions so that I could have the baby at home and he wasn’t having any of that. In fact, the contractions had just started and they were quite mild, but I was curious and wanted to stop and really see what they were doing to my body.  A band tightened across my abdomen pressing on the baby. I was fascinated and exhilarated that this baby and I were finally going to meet. The Marshfield clinic was 30 miles down the road. We drove through the countryside and small towns in silence; Denny driving as fast as he could manage and still keep the car under control. There was very little traffic at that time of night. People in rural Wisconsin go to bed early.

After we got to the hospital and completed the necessary paperwork, I was taken to a small lab to be processed. A pregnant woman was made presentable for the doctors before ever seeing one in person. I was given an enema and my pubic hair was completely shaved. No reason to give the doctor any unnecessary surprises. No doctor needs to be poking around in unsightly pubic hair. We needed a sterile surface and clean bowels to work with.

Then I was taken to a room to sit with my husband until I was far enough along for the doctor to be called in.  I took the bed and Denny took the chair in a mostly white and sterile room. We were in there for about ten hours with a nurse showing up every so often to poke and measure. Denny and I had long ago stopped talking to each other. He blamed me for getting pregnant and was resentful that we had to go through any of this. After I got pregnant and after I refused to have an abortion, he told me that he would marry me but this baby was my responsibility. To be fair, we did play cards a few times to make the time go faster. Each time a different nurse came in; I noted a look of surprise come over their face. I am sure I looked closer to age twelve than to my actual ripe old age of twenty-one. On top of that, Denny got mistaken as a girl at least once, which really pissed him off. He was rather pretty back then with his baby face and long hair.

My labor pains were not very strong and they never increased in duration. Apparently, the doctor on call became suspicious and decided to look into my situation. He came in with three nurses to hold me down and a room full of medical students to watch as he put his entire hand up my vagina which hurt like hell and was the most publically humiliating thing I have ever been through. He never explained what he was doing or why he was doing it. The room full of male medical students at least looked uncomfortable, shuffling around, not looking me in the eye and the nurses looked sympathetic. After that procedure I was told that my baby was a breech baby and wanted to come out butt first. Also, my contractions completely stopped and would not start again. A nurse on duty told me that was not unusual in these situations.

The doctor decided I needed a cesarean and it was scheduled. I don’t remember having much of a say in the matter.  It was 1978 and a time when hospitals routinely did cesareans. Years later I would read articles about doctors who did cesareans because it was easier to work out their schedule that way. A cesarean could be planned and was not usually done in the middle of the night. There was a near 30% cesarean rate at some hospitals.

Dr. Cook finally made it to the hospital and as I was being wheeled into surgery on a gurney he had just enough time to tell me; “This is exactly the reason why you do not have a home birth!” I burst into tears at that moment. I had held it together for as long as I could but my tough exterior had had enough. Big sobs burst forth. The nurse, wheeling my gurney was very consoling and wanted to know what Dr, Cook had said to make me so upset. Where could I begin?

Kelly Jo Rashka was born on June 7th, 1978. I met my Daughter after waking up from amnesia. She was a perfect baby with a perfect head and perfect hands and perfect feet. There was nothing not to love. It was, of course, all worth it and has been worth it over and over for the past thirty-four years.

Even though the typical hospital stay was seven days for a cesarean in those days, I insisted in leaving on the third day. I had to sign a release to be let out early. It turns out that I was paranoid of hospitals.