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.

 

 

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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.

Driving lessons

I had been labeled at an early age as a bad driver.

I was seven years old the first time I drove anything. My older brother wanted me to drive the lawn-mower tractor so that he could ride along on the wagon in back along with the rest of the cousins. He ordered me to get into the driver’s seat and grab the handles. At that time I still felt that I could do anything that my older brother could do, so I was excited to drive for the first time. I climbed up to the seat and took hold the handles the best that I could. The tractor had the type of handles that came out like a large V. I grabbed the ends of that V with purpose, but it took the entire length of my arms stretched straight out to reach each handle. I had to lean my body entirely forward, standing off the seat to just get the grip. Then my brother started the engine and those handles started to rumble in my hands vibrating and jumping as the motor spurted. I had a full load of my cousins on a trailer hitched to the back of the tractor. Then my brother put the gear into forward, yelling that I needed to steer as he ran to join the cousins on the wagon.

I just hung on to those handles not knowing what to do next. I did not have a clue how I might steer that tractor. The rumbling handles made my hands numb and turning in any direction, stretched out the way I was, seemed impossible so I just I hung on as I watched the tractor move across the stretch of green lawn. When I saw the metal poles of the swing-set come rearing into view, I heard my brother yelling at me from behind, “Your need to STEER!”. I pulled at the handles with my numb little hands but there was no budging. Just before contact with the metal pole of the swing-set, I jumped off the tractor and ran. Hearing the screams of my cousins on the trailer, I turned around and watched as the tractor crawled in jerks up the pole of the swing set, the back wheels grinding into the ground as the front wheels inched up the pole until the pole bent and collapsed, the tractor falling to the ground finding new purchase on the pole, chomping away at it like a hungry animal. My cousins all flew off the trailer, scrambling in different directions, screaming. All I could do was watch as the swing-set was turned into a mangled mess of twisted poles.

There was also the time that my cousin Debbie came over on her moped. I must have been about twelve years old at the time and I was having some friends over for a sleepover. We found the alcohol stash my parents had and decided to give it a try. I was a little tipsy by the time Debbie decided it would be fun for us to take turns driving her moped. I was the first to give it a try. This time I was ready for the vibrating handles and I knew enough to steer. Debbie explained to me how to rev it up and give it some gas to make it go and how to lay off the gas to slow it down. I took a couple spins around the yard and realized that I had forgotten to ask her how to stop the thing. In my inebriated state the only thing that I could think to do, under these circumstances, was to run the bike into the house. I broke a bone in my foot and caused enough damage to the bike that it would not start after that.

By the time I was sixteen and wanted to get my license, the stories of my inability to drive were legend.  I took the Driver’s Ed course in high school, sliding behind the wheel in a car meant for students, a car that had an extra brake on the passenger side so that the instructor could stop the car if the student went careening off course. I fully expected that the teacher would need that brake when it came my turn to drive.

Mom tried going out driving with me on a few occasions before I went to take the driving test to get my license. She sat in the passenger side placing her feet up against the dash to brace herself for the inevitable crash, hanging on to the cushioned door handle so tightly her knuckles turned white. Each time I turned a corner or took off from a stop-sign a little squeal would erupt from her mouth. Mom was not the best driver herself and was probably not the best choice for a teacher but it was all that I had. The words I remember her saying while I drove: Watch out! Where are you going! How fast are you going! Slow down! Are you watching the road! Oh Crap! I think we are done! I hate doing this!

My Dad’s answer to driving lessons was to let me drive the car by myself in our driveway. He insisted that I needed to spend eight hours driving in the driveway before I could go take the driving test. We did have a long driveway with a loop at the end but there is only so many manuevers a person can do in a driveway. To this day I can drive backwards better than anyone I know.

By the time I took my first driving test I was a nervous wreck. I was happy to put my hands on the steering wheel to keep them from shaking. It was hard to hear the instructions of the man giving me the test over the beating of my heart.  I made several errors including driving on the wrong side of the road after botching up a Y turn. I had to wait six months to try again, that being how often the instructor came to our neck of the woods. I passed on the second try, but just barely.

After finally getting my license, I could drive by myself but the extra car that my parents had for the kids to drive was an old Rambler that was a stick shift. I had never learned to drive a stick. After complaining long enough about wanting to drive that car, Dad finally gave in and decided to teach me. We were sitting at the kitchen table, looking out the window at the Rambler sitting in the driveway. He waved his hand in the direction of the car. “There’s nothing to it. It’s like a letter H” he said explaining which gear is in which position and how to ease on and off the gas when going from one gear to the next. “Go give it a try it if you want.”

I was not one to look a gift horse in the mouth and went out to the Rambler, sliding into the driver’s seat, checking out and memorizing the position of first second and third gears. I managed to move the car in fits and false starts to the end of the drive way and then I got it to cough and sputter down Highway 13 to the gravel road that turned past my Grandparents’ house. Getting it out of the driveway was the hardest but once I had it on the dirt road and  going things went well. But I got stuck again at the first stop-sign with someone coming up behind me. I was blocking traffic. My panic at causing someone to wait for me to figure this out caused me to make things even worse. I just kept killing the car each time I went into first. Eventually, the man behind me got out of his car,  got in the passenger seat beside me and proceeded to teach me how to drive a stick shift. It was easy once I was shown how to do it.

I came home gloating about how I learned to drive a stick. I never told Dad or any of my family about the man who had to stop and show me how. It was better that I figured it out on my own without help. It was one victory that I had, proving that I was not a bad driver. The problem was that I knew I needed help so in my heart I knew I had not really made the victory.

It was Mohan, my best friend that last two years of high school who finally taught me how to drive a car. We were skipping school and I was driving the Rambler with Mohan in the passenger seat. Mohan came from a family with five kids, all of them girls. Her Dad always wanted a boy and Mohan decided to be that boy for him. Her Dad sold cars and Mohan knew cars and how to fix them. Her name was Cindy Mohan but she gave up the use of her first name because it was too girly. She had shoulder length blond hair that she parted just off the center, always wearing it in a ponytail low on her head, always wearing the same uniform, a jean jacket with a tee-shirt and jeans.

As we were driving the twenty miles from school to the nearest Shopko, she noticed that I was driving all over the road. “I know,” I acknowledged. “I am a lousy driver.” I will never forget what she said in response: “No you’re not. You just need some confidence. You need a little practice. We need to take a road-trip this weekend and you will drive.” For her that was all that was to it.

It was the most amazing thing I had ever heard but I knew that she was right. I could learn to drive. Just because I did not know how to drive did not mean that I “always”  had to be a bad driver. All I needed was practice. We did take that road-trip, driving to her Aunt’s house in Milwaukee, a five-hour drive each way and I drove most of the time, arriving home at the end of the weekend a competent driver.

The Smelt Fry

I wanted desperately to go to the smelt fry in town, but Denny was having none of it. Living out in farming country in the Northern half of Wisconsin, there were few things that ever really happened, the smelt fry being one of them. Smelt are tiny fish, that look like salmon, but rarely reach seven inches long. After being spotted in streams by flashlight late at night, the swarming schools are swooped up in nets. The oily little fish are brought into town, floured and battered whole, then dipped in a deep fry and heaped on a paper plates to be passed out to a waiting line of people who each paid their five dollars at the door, each taking a seat where-ever they can squish in, sitting side by side along room-long folding tables with rows of folding chairs, all lined up in the fireman’s hall. Many of my family would be there, including my grandparents, aunts and uncles and a few cousins.

I had sewn a new skirt from remnants I got when I was still working at the Ben Franklin store in a neighboring town before I had Kelly, quitting that job when I went into labor, becoming a stay at home mom. I had saved the remnants to make something for myself that wasn’t a pregnancy muumuu. Kelly was now two months old and my waistline was back to 24 inches and I made a skirt that cinched my tiny waist into 23 inches. The full skirt was light blue, matching my faded blue eyes and had a white ruffle sewn in the bottom. I wore the skirt with a matching white lace vest that fit tight on my tiny hour-glass frame showing off my best curves, which were now plentiful from breast-feeding. My body felt back to its old self again after the long months of pregnancy then recuperation from a cesarean birth, I was ready to show it off a bit.

Maybe Denny sensed the joy I felt in that new skirt and my recently returned figure and felt threatened by that, thinking perhaps I would be swept away by some handsome farm hand with a redneck tan. Or maybe he just hated to see me having fun; because he dug in his heals and flat-out said he was not going. There was no more talking about it. The subject was closed.

I had been stuck out in that old farmhouse we lived in, with nothing but the fields and the garden for company for two months. My only trips into town were to get the groceries and to take the diapers and dirty clothes to the laundromat for washing. It was true that I wanted to show off my returned figure, that I wanted something back from my old self, a girl I still remembered as independent of being a mother and a wife. I loved my new baby daughter beyond a love that I could have ever imagined having, but I was still a young woman, only twenty-one years old, wanting more than diaper changing and grocery shopping.

Maybe if my life as a new wife had some fun and laughter in it, I would have felt differently that evening. Denny turned out to be a solitary husband, coming home from work each day from the factory, not offering up a word, taking up joint, blurring his vision behind red eyes, picking up his guitar, or disappearing into the bathroom for an hour or more at a time, with the door locked, or sitting in front of the TV watching the news, anything to tune me out it seemed. If I tried to pick a conversation with him, he turned his back on me, making it clear that he felt trapped into marrying me, that he only married me because he had to, because of the pregnancy. He was doing his bit working at the factory, paying the rent, paying for the groceries.

Denny also decided that I was responsible for “the kid,” as he put it. I was the one who wanted to have her, he told me. I could not understand, though, after having her, after seeing her as a real live perfectly formed creature, with little fingers and little toes, a person who looked to you for comfort, who relied on you for everything to stay alive, who showed her gratitude with those eyes peering back at you, by nuzzling in and curling up against you, by wrapping those tiny little fingers around your one big finger, how could he not fall in love the way I fell in love. But he didn’t. Kelly might as well have been a hamster in a cage that needed feeding or a cow that need milking. She only represented a mouth to feed, a diaper to be changed, a chore that needed doing. Not that Denny did those things for her. I did all of that. He explained to me that he was the wrong sex to be doing that type of thing. Men did not change diapers. That was all that was to it. Men just did not have the stuff it took to feed or care for babies.

It was a Sunday and I had spent the whole day taking care of Kelly while Denny sat around the house finding ways to ignore the fact of our existence. He knew that I wanted to go to that smelt fry. I told him about it earlier that week and let him know my family would be there, expecting me to show up. I came out to the kitchen to let him know it was time to get ready to go. I had already gotten dressed up, had my blue skirt on and my make-up and hair done. He just said he wasn’t going, said it like he was choosing chocolate ice-cream instead of vanilla. He turned to walk into the next room and picked up his guitar, closing me out the same as shutting a door in my face.

Denny’s guitar woke up Kelly who had been sleeping in the basinet not more than a foot away from where he sat hang-dogged over his guitar. I stood just inside the door watching from the kitchen, waiting to see if he would pick her up. I decided not to run to her like I usually would. Surely if I stayed put, he would see her there, right in front of him, her little crying snivels. How could he not do something for those cries? But he didn’t. He did not halter his playing on the guitar, not even a twitch came to his bony shoulder that stared blankly back at me, even while Kelly’s cries turned from sputters to full-out wails for help, he just kept on playing his guitar, head down, absolutely no reaction, nothing.

What little spunk I had in me would be worn out of me in the two years we remained married, my resolve quietly disolving like a setting sun, but there was still some of me left this early on in our marriage. I looked at this situation just long enough for the steam to build up in me. I exploded into the room with an energy that took over my usual easy-going nature, took over the place in me that could never say no, took over my shy quietness. Through clenched teeth I hissed loud enough to be heard over Kelly’s wailing, in a way that allowed no retort: “I am going to the smelt fry. You can stay home as long as that’s what you want and, as long as you’re staying here, you might as well take care of your daughter. If you hadn’t noticed, she is awake and needs to be changed and given a bottle. The bottle’s in the fridge, just warm it up, make sure it’s not too hot. It doesn’t take a brain scientist to figure this out. You can do it!” With that I left before the dust could settle.

I went to the smelt fry, but the entire time I was gone, I worried Denny was home doing nothing, just letting Kelly cry. After greeting all my relatives and making excuses for Denny not being with me, I went home early. Kelly was fed and diapered and asleep. He managed to do what needed to be done.  I knew though, I could not just leave her with him. She needed someone who loved her.  I would be the one Kelly would turn to in life, I would need to be there. I knew also, that I was trapped in this marriage, I was trapped the same way Denny felt trapped, like a skunk in a cage.

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.”

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.

Five Kids

“I never wanted five kids” mom says casually as we are rolling cinnamon and sugar into a layer of store-bought dough that had been rising all morning in a warm sunny window. “The doctor never told me about birth control until after the fifth one; I really only wanted one or two.” I am fifteen years old and convince myself that being the second oldest means that I am safe; that I am a wanted child. I imagine what my family life would look like with just my older brother and me. I could not help thinking life would be calmer and more in control than our current reality which was anything but that.

Doctor Cook and Doctor Phefercorn have a clinic that services our small town of Dorchester as well as other small towns on southern edge of the north woods of Wisconsin.  I often hear my Aunts discussing which one of them they go to and which one is more of a quack than the other. Dr. Cook once diagnosed my sister with a spider bite and sent her home when what she really had was rheumatic fever and should have been sent to the hospital. The doctors are respected but not trusted.

Most families in the area have five kids except a hand full of very large Catholic families. Those families are talked about: “There is no way that one family can handle that many kids. They have to be getting welfare. How can anyone even keep track of that many kids?” Maybe most people wait for the doctor to bring up birth control.

Mom is proud of the fact that we always have food on the table and there is always a bowl of fruit in the kitchen for us to snack on. Mom grew up in the far north woods and life was not as easy for her. As a child, she sometimes wore clothes that her mother made from gunny sacks. Milk and cheese were not on the table at every meal.

I know very little about my mother and what it was like for her as a child. The rare snippets I have are from little things that she let slip in rare moments when her guard is down. She doesn’t like to talk about the past. If I ask a pointed question, the response is something like, “Oh I don’t know, that was so long ago, why do you want to dredge up that old stuff?”

I have been to the little shack, in the north woods near the equally tiny town of Spirit, where my mother’s parents lived and where my mother was raised.  The grey, wooden shingled one story house seemed swallowed up by a  field of tall, wild grass where rabbits waited for me to feed them Twix cereal. The house was sparse and poorly lit and my grandmother’s ailing sister, Great Aunt Tillie, lived in an overly humidified bedroom on the side of the living room. Mom talks about the miles and miles she walked to school through the woods in knee-deep snow. The relatives before Mom came over from Germany to be loggers. I guess there is not a lot of money in logging.

I never wonder very much about my mother’s past or about what her dreams might have been and what she wants from life. She is just my mother. She is the person I fear at times, hate at times and respect at times but she is never a fully realized person with wants and needs of her own, separate from mine. We are living the generation gap. In her world you do not talk about dreams and desires. The belief that you can be anything you want to be in life is one I pick up in school. For Mom, life is hard and you do the best that you can and then you die. You play the hand you are dealt.

I don’t think I will have five kids.