Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Living and the Dead

I have oftentimes wondered if I am already dead. Perhaps I died many years ago and everything since is merely the frantic imaginings of a dying mind trying to finish the story, or perhaps I’m at a pit stop in purgatory where I get a glimpse of what my life might have been.

When did I die? There’s really no telling. It could have happened in the blink of an eye, as they say, and I just stubbornly continued on with a life that was no longer real. Parts of the story I crafted for myself would make sense: I married one of the only boys I knew as a child, the kid who lived down the street from me. My son is the sort of child I believe my father was, and my daughter is the kind of person I would aspire to be. But then there are all the other things I could never dream up that have entered my story. And yet I dream things all the time that shock or frighten me, things I didn’t even know my subconscious was capable of inventing.

I didn’t have a particularly dangerous childhood. Swimming in a lake with minimal supervision, walking the streets of my town after dark by myself, dancing with an umbrella outside in a thunderstorm. These weren’t uncommon activities when I was young, though not many kids would get away with this sort of behavior today.

When I was about seven years old, my mom called me into the kitchen. “We have to drive up to the Dells because Joe’s car is broken down and he needs a ride home.” Joe was a young man who worked at the same place as my father and was friends with my parents. (Points to my mom for not leaving the seven-year old home alone, right?)

I climbed into the backseat of the car, leaving the front passenger seat free for Joe. “Come sit up here by me,” my mom instructed.

“Why? Why can’t I sit in the back?”

My mom misheard or misunderstood what I was asking. “I’ll tell you when we get there,” was her answer.

I climbed into the front seat and buckled my seat belt. Nowadays kids that age shouldn’t be in the front seat and would probably still be in a booster in the back, but at least I had my seat belt on. We were oblivious to the fact that what we were doing would be considered dangerous by someone.

I sat in the front seat and pondered what her secret was. She’d tell me why I couldn’t sit in the back when we got there. I couldn’t think of a single reason why the backseat was off limits and if it was why she couldn’t tell me now. I sneaked a peek into the backseat but it looked like it always did.

Thirty minutes later we pulled up to the gas station where Joe was waiting for us. I hopped out to give him the front seat and climbed into the back and immediately said to my mom, “Okay, tell me now. Why couldn’t I sit in the backseat?”

“I just wanted your company up front for the drive here,” my mom answered.

“But why was that a secret?” I asked. “Why couldn’t you tell me that until we got here?”

My mom laughed. “No. That’s not what I meant. I just meant that I’d tell you when we got to our destination so that you could get into the backseat.”

That thirty-minute suspense-filled ride with the flop of an ending is one of those curious inconsequential memories that have stuck with me. We all made it to the Dells and home safely. But the perils of children in front seats have now become ingrained in me as it has with most mothers. And this is one instance in my childhood when I remember very specifically that I was doing something that would now be considered “wrong”. It is certainly possible that I could have died that day. But any ride in a car is potentially deadly. That’s just the heartbreaking truth of the world we live and die in.

Joe’s car was repaired and he was back on the road within days. Later that summer he was driving with his girlfriend when she decided she wanted to recline the seat to take a nap. He turned around to move his bow and arrow off the backseat, taking his eyes off the road and inadvertently drifting across the center line into oncoming traffic. He was killed immediately. Sometimes I think of him still living his life in his last moment, images of him getting married and having children flashing through his mind, getting to finish the happy life that he had only just started. Or maybe he is parked in purgatory and allowed to view his story to see how it would all turn out. Then again, maybe he’s still living his life for real because my story is the dream and I was killed in the car that day before we ever picked him up. His accident was just a chapter in the fictional life lived only in my mind.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Odd Jobs

I order almost everything online. From a trampoline to strappy heels to zombie bowling, I can find anything I could possibly want without leaving my home. So I get very excited when I see the UPS truck turn onto my street. But often the truck will turn into a driveway a few houses away from mine, because the day’s shipment is for them and not me. “Darn,” I think to myself. “Foreskin again.”

You see, my neighbor has a job in which he has foreskin delivered to his house. If you ever get a skin graft, ask where the skin is coming from. It might not be where you expect. He assists in the operating room for the procedures, helping the doctors with the skin that he has sold them. One time he had a little old lady on the operating table moments before her skin graft, and she lifted her head and asked him, “Where does this skin come from?” “It’s human foreskin,” he told her honestly. A week later he was back at the same hospital assisting in an additional procedure on the same lady. Once again she asked where it was from and he repeated his answer. This time she had a follow up question for him. “Is it your foreskin?” she asked him.

It is not.

My neighbor has had his fair share of odd jobs. When he was younger he had work doing experiments on mice. He told us about this job one evening while we were having drinks in my kitchen with his wife. My cat was acting peculiar near the couch, and I said it was just a year ago that we had a mouse come inside and the cat tortured it until I threw them out. “That reminds me of a job I once had killing mice,” he recalled. “First we would hold them between the shoulders,” he said as he put his hand on the spot between his wife’s shoulder blades. She shrugged him off, exclaiming, “Don’t use me as your example!”

“I would put a little cotton ball inside a thimble and then put in a drop of ether,” he explained. “It had to be just the right amount to get them asleep but not kill them. If it was too much you would have to do some chest compressions to revive it for the experiment. I never lost a mouse!” he boasted. He never lost a mouse because he had to keep them alive until the second step in the experiment, when he would stick a needle into the mouse’s heart and withdraw all the blood from the mouse’s body.

We’ve all had our share of odd jobs, haven’t we? My husband has held more jobs than anyone I know. He was a UPS loader, UPS driver (probably for foreskin and he never even knew it!), pizza chef, ski lift operator, encyclopedia salesman, scissors assembler, forklift operator for a veggie canning factory, battery stuffer, ice deliveryman, and corn detassler, among others. Most of those jobs were all in one summer.

I’ve had a few odd jobs, mostly from temporary work. One of the strangest was being squished with four ladies into one office above a German restaurant. Each of us had a desk against one of the walls. I was hired to help process hundreds and hundreds of orders for Hummel figurines. The orders had been taken by telephone and mail by the other ladies who sat in that office. I had to go through boxes of these hand-written paper orders that were many months old and input them into the computer. As you may have guessed, there was a bit of a delay between the original order and when the customer actually got their porcelain statue of a baby in a rain barrel having a bath.

The women who worked there were a diverse lot, but always friendly and entertaining. I was not asked to answer the phone at all even though there was one on my desk. One day the 80-something who worked there complained how one of the other women never picked up the phone when her line was busy. I told my sister about my job and how I didn’t want to get stuck talking to any of these people and she said, “Just answer the phone and say the name of the business and then, ‘Can you please hold?’ They’ll say yes and you can then put them on hold until your coworker gets off the phone.”

So I decided to try it. The next day I answered the phone and after stating the name of the company I said, “Can you please hold?”

“No!” came the voice of an angry man on the other end of the line.

After that call I learned that I didn’t need to ask them if I could put them on hold. I would just say “Please hold” and transfer them immediately. Still, they could manage to get a few swear words in at me before I was able to press the Hold button.

The worker they had shipping out the Hummel figurines for those that had been ordered and arrived at the shop was not exactly the strongest link in this chain of orders and deliveries. He was a gang banger named Steven with a tattoo of “Blvd” (the name of his gang) on his hand below his thumb and pointer finger. He was always very nice to us, though, and I appreciated knowing someone in the ’hood in case I ever got into trouble on the mean streets. Even though he didn’t show up to work regularly, he was kind and polite and would take our lunch orders and then go down into the kitchen to bring us up our salads chilled from the fridge and plates of piping hot French fries. (No one ever partook of the free schnitzel or spatzel or sauerbraten or pork knuckles, even though we were all German.)

Not only did this company take orders for expensive yet worthless knickknacks, they also sold them in a tiny upstairs shop next to the office and overflow restaurant seating. A woman and her daughter ran the sales counter and were in charge of those of us in the office. The woman liked to talk about how she was once a model and how she was English, though I could detect no accent that anyone would ever mistake for even a British colonist. Her daughter was the reason she had the job, for the daughter was living with the owner of the restaurant. She was a young, beautiful blonde who drove a red convertible and had a monthly thousand-dollar clothing allowance from her grandparents. She would breeze in for a half an hour, chat with the ladies, and then talk on the phone with her friends, organizing their next activity, which often involved boating on the lake or shooting guns at the range. She was not married to the owner, but she had changed her name from Sheila to the feminine form of his name. (Hint: there is a famous Julie Andrews movie with the same names.)

One day when we were all in the office working away (or gossiping about the owners and the 80-something’s recent ex-husband, who had been revealed to be quite the philanderer), the little gift shop was robbed. An expensive Disney animation cel of Mickey Mouse was stolen right off the wall. The English ex-model saw a young woman grab it off the hook and sprint down the stairs and out onto the mean streets of the city with her pricey new work of art. The police were called, but I don’t believe they ever found Mickey Mouse. For all I know it ended up in a lab with a thimbleful of ether pressed to its twitchy little nose.