No. 2, Corn Roguer (Age 13)

rogue : An inferior or defective specimen among many satisfactory ones, esp. a seedling or plant deviating from the standard variety.

The final bell of the school year rattled the lockers and released an explosion of screams from the students. I sat on the middle school steps and watched ponytails and ribbons rush by. The din of a hundred heel-snapping flip-flops accompanied a blur of brightly colored cotton and denim. It was 1982. Eighth grade was officially over and I had only three months before I’d have to negotiate the horrors of high school. Would I still need to pretend I was having my period in gym class? And what was I going to wear?

“Hey, Piggy!” my friend Kate’s voice shouted from inside the school. Piggy was a name we called each other because we snorted when we laughed. We both played drums in the middle school band. She was talented; I had no rhythm and talked during rehearsals. The music teacher had wanted me to play the clarinet, “Because you can’t keep a beat and you’ve got that overbite.” But clarinets were expensive, and my Granny Idela was still playing drums in a country band on the Jersey shore. Granny Idela was cool. I wanted to be cool, too. So I tortured the already mediocre orchestra with my half-ass drum rolls and paradiddles. 

“Don’t you have to catch the bus?” I asked.

“No, I have a drum lesson at West Music. My mom’s picking me up later. Hey, did you and Lisa see the sign-up sheet for New Pioneer?”

“No, we’ll probably just keep working at the Palazzo.”

“We should all sign up. Come on,” she pleaded, gripping my arm in both hands and bouncing up and down until a drumstick fell out of her back pocket. “It pays $3.85 an hour and you get one big check at the end of summer.” She paused here, raised an eyebrow and said, “You get weekends off.”

Weekends off?

Hot damn! If the Palazzo Motel would settle for my presence on weekends only, I could work every day of the week. Bing! Bing! Bing! Bing! My eyes lit up like a slot machine. My parents had recently filed bankruptcy for the first time and money was tight. Lisa and I would have to buy our own school clothes. More money meant more clothes, which I believed would get me on the fast track to popularity. It was a prospect well worth working seven days a week.

“Sure, why not.”

“You have to hurry, though, it’s first-come first-serve.” She bent to pick up the drumstick and her backpack fell forward, banging her on the head as a few markers escaped and clattered on the sidewalk. We snorted.

“I’ll go find Lisa and see if she wants to sign up, too.”

Corn rogueing was the first of three jobs I would have working the fields for which Iowa is famous. It’s the first step employed by farmers to assure the genetic purity of seed corn. Seed corn is planted in rows that are either all female or all male. Six female rows and two male rows alternate for endless miles across Iowa’s landscape. This is what gives seed cornfields a rippling pattern and makes them fun to stare at when speeding down a treeless Iowa highway. The male corn occasionally pops up in the female rows, and the deviant, misplaced male cornstalks are called rogues. A corn roguer walks the miles of rows with a hoe, hacking the male cornstalks out of the female rows.

On the first day Lisa, Kate, and I waited among a small crowd in the high school parking lot with our Little Igloo coolers. It was 5:30 a.m. when the bus pulled in, and thirty young women clawed over one another to get to the rear seats. The bus was driven to one of the many fields contracted by the agricultural company. After piling out of the bus and ignoring a lecture by the crew chief, we spaced ourselves every few rows and started walking. We reached the end of the field and turned around, drank a Dixie cup or two of water, and headed back in. We repeated that for ten weeks.

“Piggy, this stinks,” I whined to Kate. Two weeks in and I was complaining every morning.

“No fooling. But we will be so loaded we can buy as many school clothes as we want,” she grinned, pushing some sweaty hair out of her eyes. “And think about how tan we’re going to be. I’m sure it’s all going to be worth it.”

In the hot Midwestern sun the tiny hoe felt more like a sledgehammer. The prolific cornstalks had leaves like scalpels. We were doomed to get welts and cuts on every inch of exposed skin. Supervisors gave us no pity and we were expected to continue rain or shine. 

We routinely prayed (begged, really) for tornadoes and inclement weather to end the day early. Thank God, or thanks perhaps, to our endless curses and paganisms, thunderstorms would blow in and flood the fields while we waited on the bus. The storms stopped as abruptly as they had started, however, and we often had to return to the now muddy fields.

By week three we gave up on Kate’s tan prediction. We all got brutally sunburned instead; the dirty skin on our necks and noses was peeling off in thick chucks. In response to the job sucking so much, we made up a song to the melody of Eddie Grant’s “Electric Avenue” and sang it at the top of our lungs as sweat blinded us and sharp hoe blades caromed off our ankles. It went something like this (I can still remember it after more than 25 years):

Out in the fields there is violence
Ah la la lots of work to be done
No place to lay out or party
And we can’t have fun ‘til we’re done . . . oh, oh

We’re gonna rogue down through this corny avenue
Before it gets much higher
We’re gonna rogue down through this corny avenue
It’s hotter than a dryer

We need lots of food for our lunches
And we can’t afford a thing in the store
We are just so hot and so sweaty
And our feet are weary and sore . . . oh, oh

When I got my fat check at the end of the summer, I didn’t go gangbusters shopping for school clothes like I thought I would. Instead I hoarded the money, rifling through sale racks and parting with the cash only when I found exactly what I was searching for. Lisa bought a few clothes and then squandered the balance on cigarettes and McDonald’s french fries.

“Sandy, can I borrow two dollars?” was Lisa’s familiar request throughout our entire adolescence. I would give her the money or buy her cigarettes and in return she would do some of my chores. Usually it was just washing dishes or doing laundry, but if she was really broke, I could get her to cover my two days of “doggie duty,” the dreaded task of cleaning up after the dog. Few and far between were my days of searching for those tufts of greener grass, each clump a verdant tombstone for petrifying Schnauzer poop.

It was nice being the one with the money.

Advertisements

No. 3, Ice Cream Counter Girl #1 (Age 14)

Counter Girl: A girl that only looks good from the waist up. Or in other words a girl whose lower body hides behind the counter.

UrbanDictionary.com
 

“Don’t forget to wear beige underwear,” my friend Angie instructed me.

“What?” I asked, as I skillfully guided Ms. Pacman around the perimeter of the video screen, gobbling pellets and avoiding ghosts. Wakka wakka wakka wakka.

“The pants. The pants are see-through. Remember? I told you yesterday?” Angie knew the details of our work uniforms right down to the thread count (140, believe it or not). She’d gotten her uniform a week before and had probably tried it on a dozen times, self-consciously checking every angle in front of the mirror. At least that’s what I did once I got mine.

“Yeah, you said something about that. Oh, no!” I watched Ms. Pacman disappear under a pile of colorful ghosts. I clucked my tongue and accused Angie of wrecking my game.

“Shut up. Did not. I told you those old ladies at the Dairy Cream have gross panty lines from their underwear. We have to wear beige ones so they don’t show. Duh.”

Angie was right. The slacks I’d soon wear were nearly transparent. After a certain age no one should be allowed to wear white pants. Some of the Dairy Cream’s more sizeable ladies wore theirs one size too small, shamelessly showing off the plight of their pastel bloomers. Sure, it gave us something to gossip about, but after a while I simply found no humor in watching underwear creep up someone’s dimpled behind. A 100% polyester shirt completed my uniform, the first of many I would wear over the next several years.

The owners of the Dairy Cream were a retirement-aged couple. The wife was a roly-poly moon-faced woman named Maggie who fancied those horn-rimmed magnifying glasses one can find on dusty racks in drugstores. Her husband looked like Dennis the Menace. They were pleasant enough except when scolding us for using too much hot fudge. “That costs extra!” Even back then, when Dairy Cream employees made just $2 an hour (far less than I made cleaning rooms for family friends or for suffering through the woes of farm work) extra hot fudge cost 75 cents. Sure enough, whenever I was loading hot fudge onto my mother’s sundae or a friend’s parfait, I would turn and see Maggie’s mouth hanging open as I spooned their profits onto an item that was already a freebie.

This particular Dairy Cream served hot dogs, pork tenderloins, and bastardized versions of several McDonald’s sandwiches. They had soggy onion rings and French fries as thin as matchsticks and just as hard, harder even. And of course they had ice cream. We had contests to see who could make the tallest cone, the widest cone, and the cone most like a circus animal. I was an incredibly gifted cone sculptor, though I rarely ate my masterpieces, having recently entered the requisite teenage mania of calorie counting, and only allowed myself tiny vanilla cones at carefully calculated intervals. This was followed by a two-hour session of aerobics to “Holding Out for a Hero” or some other pulsating song from Footloose. Usually while wearing leg warmers. And a headband. Made of terry cloth. 

The strangest and possibly only interesting detail about the Dairy Cream in Estherville was its popularity during tornadoes. Everybody went out for ice cream when the weather turned sour; which inevitably happened after we’d cleaned and prepped for closing. Like clockwork, the dining area filled to the brim with eager storm-tracking cone-eaters as soon as the tornado siren sounded. Thunderheads rolled in and the wind picked up, and 50 people arrived for malts, cones, and of course chilidogs since we’d already cleaned the machine. While the thunder clapped outside, inside, the piercing screams of babies sounded like cymbals crashing inside a Chevy Nova. Patrons gawked out the windows and ignored the cries, allowed their ice cream to melt all over the tables onto our just-cleaned floors. Hypnotized by the goddamned weather.

Those storm-driven frenzies made me dread closing shifts. And I only worked the closing shifts. So when my friend Christy landed another job at a family restaurant in mid-June of ’84, I was right behind her. But I didn’t let go of the Dairy Cream right away; instead, I decided I should have two jobs. Looking back, I don’t think it was about needing or wanting two paychecks, it was more the idea that there were two jobs I could have, that I could apply for and easily get. At age 14 it was already the second occasion I’d held two jobs at once. Sadly, trying to mesh the work schedules of two employers and high school proved too complex for my busy teenage social calendar, and led to my first dramatic resignation.

Here’s how it happened: some friends were having a party on a night I was scheduled to work at the Dairy Cream and I couldn’t find anyone to cover my shift. I was desperate. At fourteen and fifteen, Lisa and I were already well-seasoned party girls. We drank grain alcohol every chance we got (Mad Dog 20/20 comes to mind) and hung out with guys from the local community college (okay, so maybe we were more like groupies). Word on the street was these college boys would be around that evening, and I sure as hell wasn’t about to waste valuable primping time sweeping up crunch coating or scrubbing fry baskets. I decided to quit my lower-paying job at the Dairy Cream instead of missing the party. I folded up my white slacks and polyester top, strutted into the store, and plopped my uniform on the counter in front of Maggie.

“I’m quitting. I have another job.” I turned on my heel and then sprinted out the door. I was smiling. Was it freedom I was feeling? The freedom to change a plan, or change direction, or be spontaneous? Was it control?

Was it simply: possibility?

Or, it might been the girlish glee and anticipation for the bash I’d be attending later that night. Hindsight sometimes requires bifocals. 

Still, that moment was both an end and a beginning. A single gesture foreshadowing my life as The Serial Worker.

 

 


No. 4, Family Restaurant Counter Girl (Age 14-15)

Transient: A person or thing that is transient, especially a temporary guest, boarder, laborer, or the like.

In the dark of night, Estherville, Iowa, appears as a giant metropolis from atop Half-Mile Hill, a sloping stretch of asphalt leading into the dormant town of 6,000 residents. Lights seem to go on for miles, a luminous deception to motorists approaching from the west. An A&W restaurant had been situated on the crest of Half-Mile Hill for several years, capitalizing on the expansive view and its convenient location next to Estherville’s only drive-in movie theater. When the drive-in closed, the failing A&W was purchased by a couple who gave the place a thorough makeover and renamed it Grandma’s Revenge. They kept the drive-up booths and the homemade A&W root beer, expanded the menu threefold, and improved the burger selection. My friend Christy had hopped on her moped as soon as the help wanted advertisement appeared in the newspaper. As previously mentioned, I was right behind her. But not on a moped, I had to be driven. I’d been banned from mopeds until further notice. I had terrible balance back then and was always wiping out, breaking the blinkers and knocking the kick stand off my sister’s moped, not to mention the large patches of skin I’d left on several local roadways.

Grandma’s Revenge was a much cooler place to work than the Dairy Cream, and I was getting paid $2.25 an hour. A few popular girls were waitresses there, including the owners’ daughter, Connie. I wanted to be a waitress, too, but they only hired blue-eyed, tow-headed girls for those positions. With my flat chest, brown eyes, and brown frizzy hair, I was stationed behind the counter instead, a few feet in front of the dreadful kitchen where they put older girls with bigger butts and bad skin. Those in the back of the restaurant had the freedom to dip french fries in tartar sauce to their hearts’ content, so I secretly wanted to be back there with them. Of course, the food freak in me would have counted every fry and measured the tartar sauce, too.

I did all those duties expected of a counter girl: I washed glassware, prepared beverages as the waitresses ordered them, took food from the kitchen window and schlepped it over to the counter window, refilled the salad bar, and answered the phone for takeout orders. Grandma’s Revenge also served ice cream floats with the A&W root beer. The mugs holding those famous floats had to be washed immediately and chilled in the cooler; grown customers pouted and whined like children when we ran out of the frosty glasses and had to serve their float in a room-temperature glass. When I encountered these grumblers I let my face ice over with a well-rehearsed stare.

Once in a great while I would get to wait on a table in the dining room. The first time it happened, I was unfamiliar with both waitressing and tipping.

“Looks like they left eleven dollars too much,” I said as I handed the money to Christy, figuring she knew best how to divvy it up.

“That’s your tip, dummy.” She handed the money back to me.

“No way. I get to keep all of this?”

Duh. You can’t give it back to them.” Christy rolled her eyes and gave her head a shake to emphasize my stupidity. I put the money in my pocket and began clearing the table.

I started thinking. I multiplied and divided and added some numbers, and in the middle of sponging a sticky orb of ketchup it dawned on me that my girlfriends, those blue-eyed blonde nymphs, were taking in a huge haul of cash while I washed dishes and took orders from the drive-up stalls for a measly $2.25 an hour! A clot of envy formed in my stomach as I went over the numbers again in my head. X number of tables with X customers, ordering X dollars worth of food each equals . . . That is so unfair, I told myself. They weren’t doing anything more difficult than I was; yet they were making five times as much money. I promised myself that one day I would get to be the waitress. The brunette waitress.

Events were few and far between at Grandma’s Revenge. Interesting events were fewer and farther. Most of my time was spent in anticipation of Craig sightings or rearranging my schedule in order to play drums in the marching band during Friday night football games. Craig was the owners’ son. He was in college and worked in the kitchen during his summer break (guys could only work in the kitchen). I had a crush. He had blonde hair and blue eyes and a face full of teeth. Whenever I caught a glimpse of his head in the service window I’d turn red and drop whatever I was holding. By the end of our shifts together my fingers were singed from the coffeepot, my shirt was spattered with chicken fat and ketchup, we were down at least one frost-worthy mug, and nervous energy had steamed my polyester uniform with B.O.

Connie was aware of my infatuation with her brother and felt perfectly comfortable broadcasting this information.

“Hey, Craig, Sandy likes you,” she informed him while I stood next to her.

“Gross, I do not! God. You are such a liar.”

Craig feigned concern for my self-esteem, “Connie, knock it off.”

“What? She thinks you’re cute. She told me so.”

I would run off and cower in the bathroom, forced to work the rest of my shift in a fog of embarrassment. I spent the summers of ’83 and ’84 in that fog, making root beer floats and hanging out with the toilets —and finally decided that was more than enough. The following summer I would have my driver’s license, and I was going to be mobile. Maybe I could get myself some of those tips.

 

No. 6, Drive-Thru Counter Girl (Age 16-19)

McJob: An unstimulating, low-wage job with few benefits, esp. in a service industry.

Counter girls come in all shapes and sizes. I know this from experience because I have been all shapes and sizes myself. One might be a big-boobed lovely in a tight pink sweater, leaning over to pour your coffee as she presses a runaway eyelash to her lid (not me). Another might be an old woman with six chin hairs and breath to yellow linoleum (not me, yet). Urban diners might find a few with rusty, infected earrings, or clothing stinking of mildew, or maybe flood pants and greasy hair (my friends). And there will always be those fat, lazy, out-of-shape girls with bad bras and pimples (me, at moments).

However blessed or cursed she (or I) may be with physical endowments, the fate of the counter girl always the same: we are universally regarded as moronic. So when my friend Jason said, “Why don’t you come work at McDonald’s?” I thought he was pulling my leg.

“You’re kidding, right? You want me to work at McDonald’s?”

What was he thinking? Hadn’t I endured enough wearing see-through pants at the Dairy Cream? What about the grim situation at Grandma’s Revenge, where I wasn’t manly enough to be in the kitchen and I wasn’t blonde enough to wait tables? Was I doomed to be a counter girl again?

Yes (sigh). I was. Lured in this time by Jason, an assistant manager at the McDonald’s restaurant in Okoboji, Iowa, a miniature resort area with an amusement park just thirty minutes west of Estherville. The area is home to several lakes around which the Midwest elite built shamefully elaborate summer homes and let their children run wild. Jason desperately needed more employees but hesitated to ask me, not wanting to look bad if a hired friend turned out to be a lousy worker. His current crew was largely composed of wealthy summer kids forced to take jobs “for the experience,” all of them despondent that their summer would be spent flipping burgers and serving their equally-privileged peers while earning $3.35 an hour. They were, “Like, so embarrassed!”

The turnover rate was high, and Jason managed the chronic absenteeism by hiring an eclectic collection of Esthervillians who were surprisingly reliable and capable of carpooling. There was my sister Lisa, whose warp-speed work habits earned her the nickname Lightning; her best friend, Lynn, a seasoned drinker and sex addict; Maryann, a twenty-McNugget-eating blonde; Christian, a pedantic comedian with a bloated ego; and Tina, a young woman who would years later marry the pedantic burger boy.

These people became my first temporary family. They were the first group of coworkers with whom I became emotionally entwined, who filled a hole that continually yawned open and slammed shut. But, like the countless temporary families that would follow, I wouldn’t miss them when I moved on—they were immediately replaced by fill-ins: a recycling of coworker understudies in the theatrical drama I imagined my working life to be. 

Tina and her family spent summers in an RV park on West Lake Okoboji. They had a lovely home nearby but for some strange reason enjoyed living in a mauve trailer that smelled like a port-a-potty. I spent many nights in that trailer (along with countless other couches and cars in the area) and days could pass without my needing a single reentry into Estherville. Tina and I (with Lisa nary a shadow away) quickly became sleep-deprived party girls. We worked the late-night or early-morning shifts and always had a subtle odor of fast food in our clothes and hair, making it mandatory that we confine our socializing to members of the McDonald’s crew.

This turned our working world into an incestuous stew, roiling with catfights and the drunken fruitfulness of coworkers with grossly conflicting gene pools. Jason and I even dated for a couple months during my first summer at the Mack Shack. Regrettably, I was uninterested in sharing any emotions at the time, unable to separate myself from the meticulous and orderly work machinations monopolizing my brain space. I was intent on charging ahead, propelling myself through time and on to whatever came next—even if it was just mopping. There could be no boyfriends. I was an emotional stone; my personality floated far away in a sea of insecurity and self-loathing.

Some nights, Lisa, Tina and I stayed out so late we had to sleep in one of our cars in the McDonald’s parking lot. We set our Swatches for 5:30 a.m. and like polyester-clad characters from “the Night of the Living Dead” marched inside to make Egg McMuffins, smelling strongly of booze and beer, hair matted and full of twigs from making out with coworkers in local wooded areas. More often than not, my head felt as though someone had screwed off the top and poured in salty road grit.

It was after these early mornings that I took little siestas in the women’s restroom. Yes, you read correctly; I slept in the john. If there were enough people working on a given day, a ten-minute absence went unnoticed, so a few times a day I napped with my head on my knees in the bathroom using my crossed arms as a pillow. And yet, no matter how bad the hangovers, no matter how wretched and awkward the lavatory slumber, my performance was always rock solid; it’s the Midwest way.

A handful of aspirin and a socially unacceptable amount of pickle slices later, Tina and I resumed our status as the ultimate drive-thru team: super fast, super accurate, and super friendly. Lisa provided the ballast of our power trio, running bags of food back and forth from the bins to the drive-thru window, feeding her addiction by occasionally snatching handfuls of fries from customers’ bags. The manager loved us because we worked as though someone were pointing a gun at our heads. The customers loved us because we pasted smiles on our faces no matter how bad our grease burns (two words: beef tallow). They would get their shakes, they would get their Big Macs, and they would get their fries (most of them, anyway). Everything was going to be just fine . . .

Yet, despite our obvious success as fast-food automatons, I still craved the attention of customers, even yearned for it, secretly desiring everyone’s approval and admiration. It was without rationale, this longing, and it expanded beyond any reasonable internal drive. It was a force that seemed at times to stand behind me, hissing in my ear, slapping my head and kicking me in the back. Faster! Faster! Hurry!  

Then, behind the stainless steel counter of a Midwest McDonald’s (a counter I had personally scrubbed and polished to a mirror-like sheen) an imaginary fan club signed up members in my mind. Look at Sandy go. She’s so fast. What would we ever do without Sandy?

I took on two other jobs that summer and, for the first time, experienced the marvels of sleep deprivation. Having multiple jobs guaranteed my escape from the boring tranquility of Midwest summers. As much I wanted it to be otherwise, that first summer in ’85 wasn’t the end of my relationship with McDonald’s—the franchise in Okoboji sustained me through other employment gigs, always providing a solid platform from which to branch. It simmered in the background the following summer, again in the winter of ’87 and in the spring and summer of ’88.

We all make bad choices (and trust me, I’ve made plenty), but I don’t think working in a fast food restaurant was one of mine. Until you’ve served several thousand rude assholes with a smile on your face, cat-napped on a public toilet, swept and mopped miles and miles of tile, won the take-the-shake-machine-apart contest two summers in a row, dined on a meal of pickles dipped in ketchup, and slept fully clothed in a blue LeCar in a McDonald’s parking lot—have you really, truly lived?

 

No. 7, Home Health Aide #1 (Age 16)

Aging: Reaching the end of useful life; obsolescent

“Gross, it smells like pee in here,” I said as we stepped inside the tiny house. Mom pressed a finger to her lips to silence me, but her forceful shushing shot spit in my direction. I lurched as it hit my cheek, knocking over a lamp and—from what I could hear in the next room—waking up Charlie, the male half of the elderly couple I was there to baby-sit.

“Jesus Christ, be careful,” my mother hissed. Then in a singsong voice called out, “Yoo-hoo!” followed by a three-syllable “Hell-oh-oo!” I grabbed the fallen lamp and propped it against the wall just as Charlie came tottering around the corner with his walker. His pants were unzipped and his mouth was hanging open. That’s just great, I thought—people who talk with their mouth stuck open have difficulties forming consonants. Nothing like trying to communicate with an old fart who only uses vowels.

“Hi, Charlie!” My mother’s voice feigned affection with impressive ease. He moaned something incomprehensible and waved at my mother like he was a teen queen on a parade float. His wife, Mildred, began bleating from the living room as the woman finishing up the night shift arrived from another room to greet us. Her eyes were ringed in black half-moons and nearly all of her hair had escaped from the rubber band tangled at the nape of her neck.

“Good Lord, these two take it out of me! Charlie’s been sittin’ in his chair all morning calling out other ladies’ names and Mildred has already gone to the bathroom six times.” I looked at my Swatch and noted it was only 8:00 a.m. Six times?

“Good to know,” Mom said. “By the way, this is my daughter Sandy. She’s only sixteen but she’s a hard worker, ain’t you, Sandman?”

I forced up the corners of my mouth.

Only greed and my obsession with accumulating work hours had enticed me to take this job in Wallingford, Iowa, a microscopic town bumping borders with Estherville. It also paid $5 an hour, tax-free. Mom worked there as well, and she and I were simultaneously working at understaffed fast food establishments in Okoboji and regularly competed to see who could tally up the most hours.

“Hey, Ma, I worked 56 hours this week.”

“Oh yeah? Well I worked 72. Shirley’s mom is in the hospital with pneumonia and I got to cover her shifts!”

“Hey, Ma, that one guy Steve has a raging kidney infection and they gave me all his hours! I worked 63 this week.”

Ooooo, you beat me. I only had 61.”

So went my summers in the Heartland.

I rarely slept that summer of ’85, and times when I should have been awake I was falling asleep in mid-sentence, or while driving, or while drunken skinny-dipping. Seriously, I nearly drowned twice, though it never prevented me from once again plunging into a rough lake with a fifth of gin in my stomach. I may have had youth on my side, but these sorts of festivities wore me down. So whenever Mildred took a nap I took one also, usually sitting up, posed for any unexpected guest. Sometimes I’d drift off to sleep while making the bed or peeling apples at the kitchen table. Despite my history of lavatory catnaps I was not about to sleep on their toilet. I squatted unnaturally over the elevated oval, trying not to touch anything that might have old people juice on it.

I was usually asleep somewhere in the house when their grandson showed up—that, or I would be in the process of stealing their medication. Mom had recommended the Lasix, a diuretic used to lessen the water around Milred’s heart. She lost seven pounds overnight from a single dose and I wanted in on that kind of weight loss. As long as I wasn’t jamming my fingers down my throat, I figured it shouldn’t matter how I maintained my thinness—just so long as I did. I once tried some of Charlie’s Haldol, a sedative and sleep aid, but I really wasn’t interested in sleeping soundly, only in staying up all night and being skinny.

I wasn’t very confident with this particular round of occupational thievery. I felt paranoid all the time and thought there were cameras trained on me as I rifled through their plastic forest of prescription bottles. I practiced an ignorant reaction in the event I was found out:

“You’re kidding me. These aren’t aspirin?” I even felt I could explain the ten-dollar bills I steadily snatched from Mildred’s purse. Most of my legitimate earnings went to car payments and auto insurance, and so I pilfered for party fare.

“Oh, that money. I was going to get Mildred another book of stamps.”

Mildred was in her late 70’s, wiped out physically from the ravages of Lupus but mentally sharp as a tack. If she felt like being a pain in the ass (which was always) she asked to be taken to the bathroom over and over and over again. She could walk with a walker but needed help getting onto the toilet, a task about as easy as lifting a corpse if you’re an underfed half-drowned hung over workaholic. She also needed her food cut into roughly 50 pieces and half of what she ate became lodged in her false teeth. I had to remove the gooey dentures (with my fingers) and help her flush out lingering food particles with flat ginger ale.

Charlie was another issue altogether. Nothing could possibly make a teenager fear aging more than an old man playing cowboy with his catheter tube. You see, Charlie had to be catheterized at night, and there is no greater revulsion than putting a condom catheter on an 80-year-old man’s atrophied penis. I had to shut off the human in me and pretend someone else’s hands were attached to my arms: Okay, so now I am touching his penis. Oh. Gross. And now . . . now, I am touching his balls. Sometimes, he’d get a little excited and grunt and giggle like a schoolboy. Thinking of it now still makes me gag.

To make matters that much worse, in the middle of the night, he’d yank off the catheter and the ten yards of medical tape attaching it to his nuts and he’d swing the bulging bag of urine over his head like a lasso. Urine sprayed everywhere, creating the scene that frequently greeted me when I arrived in the morning. If the night shift person announced that Charlie was still in bed, it was code for “Charlie is covered in pee and smiling about it.”

I doubt I would have worked there beyond that summer and the following events guaranteed none of the other aides would either. Charlie had Alzheimer’s, and a few times that summer he’d hopped into his truck and driven around town. He usually ended up in a neighbor’s driveway. The day the police found him wandering ten miles from home his children took away his keys and driving privileges. He was still allowed to tinker in the garage, even though he tripped and fell more than once, scaring the be-Jesus out of the help. In late August of that year he broke an arm, and his children put him and his wife in a nursing home. Mildred said she’d just die if her kids put her in “one of those places;” and she did just that.

They buried her two months later.

No. 8, Home Health Aide #2 (Age 16)

Quitter: A person who quits or gives up easily, esp. in the face of some difficulty or danger.

My mother and I sat at Minette’s kitchen table playing cards and drinking milky tea. We had a clear view of Minette as she lay on a mechanical bed in the living room. Her arms stretched out in front of her as she squeezed the remote control in both hands, growling and grunting as she tried and failed to find something entertaining on the console television.

“Shouldn’t we help her?” I asked. “Should I get her the TV Guide or something?”

“No, she’s fine. If she wants help, she’ll ask for it.” She laid down a full house and let out a small whoop. “Listen, Sandman. We’re only here for emergencies and she knows that. It’s what she wants. Once in a while she’ll come in the kitchen and we’ll talk for a while, but you shouldn’t worry about doing a thing unless she specifically calls for you. No fawning!”

“So I just sit here at the kitchen table until she asks for something?”

“That’s right.”

“I sit here the whole time?”

“That’s right.”

“Six hours. I sit here at the kitchen table for six hours?”

“That’s right. Now, I have to get to work and start making the biscuits. You know how those old farts complain if their biscuits aren’t puffy. I’ll be back this afternoon to take over,” she promised, stacking the cards and lighting a cigarette as she walked out the door. I instantly regretted offering to cover her shift.

Mom had been caring for 60-year-old Minette on a per diem basis, convinced when she began that Minette’s advanced emphysema would be a marvelous smoking deterrent, inspiring her to quit a decades-long habit. The job paid a nominal flat rate per shift and because of its lack of physical demands, it was an effortless way for my mother to supplement her earnings from a fast food restaurant. Except she still wound up with too much work and not enough sleep.

The drive from Estherville to Minette’s Okoboji home only took twenty minutes, but to an overworked, sleepless driver it was a painful eternity of near misses and automotive risk-taking. So when Mom asked for my help I took the bait. I had a hard time saying no to money. Or, maybe I had a hard time saying no to work. Or, perhaps I just had a hard time saying no . . .

This was one of those moments I wished I’d had the sense to say no thanks. Minette had emphysema. She’d suffered horribly for eleven years and was openly pissed about her imminent death. She was quite comfortable being mean and nasty to her caretakers, and passed the day mumbling insults from her sequestered throne in the living room.

“Can’t even remember which pills are which . . .”

“Too stupid to work a real job . . .”

Being sympathetic proved difficult if not impossible. On the one hand, she chose to smoke for years and had therefore drawn the bath that ultimately drowned her. On the other hand, she suffered a great deal in the final years of her life, and was probably hooked on cigarettes long before the medical community thought it might be a bad idea. Now, each gasp for breath made her ribcage bulge, her torso a grotesque barrel of air nearly splitting the thin skin covering it. Day after day—and with The End being the only end in sight—she woke knowing that her blue skin, matted hair and bedsores were part of a nightmare from which she’d never wake. 

“Sandy, I’m back,” Mom yelled as the screen door slammed behind her. “Hi there, Minette. What’s shakin’? I brought you a sausage and cheese biscuit.”

“No eggs on that, right?” Minette hated eggs.

“No eggs, I promise. I didn’t just scrape them off like last time.”

“Thanks, Pam. Your daughter was a big help.” I was? I hadn’t lifted a finger. Was she being sarcastic?

“Thanks, Min. She’s a hard worker ain’t you, Sandman.” Mom winked at me. “I’m going downstairs to check the laundry.” Laundry was the code word for smoking. Minette was jealous of smokers and Mom had to hide in the basement with her cigarettes. I listened to Minette’s lungs gurgling in the next room as I waited for Mom. I knew right then that I couldn’t—I wouldn’t—continue being her caretaker. I didn’t have to. I covered just one more shift before deciding I’d earn plenty of money working at my two other jobs; though I really enjoyed the brief time I got to tell people I had three.

Three jobs? All at once? Why, yes.

What an odd thrill for a young woman.

(And my mother never quit smoking.) 

No. 9, Fast Food Counter Girl (Age 16)

Legend: a collection of stories about an admirable person or a person who is the center of such stories.

My mother became manager of the Estherville McDonald’s after paying her dues as a burger flipper, salad maker, and super-speedy biscuit baker. It never crossed our minds to be discomfited by her fast food career, as she was always quick to remind that “a job is just a job,” and to be being completely honest, Mom was the fastest burger flipper and biscuit baker west of the Mississippi. I was far more embarrassed as a sixth grader when she worked at the beef packing plant—and that wasn’t because of what she did, but because of her blood-soaked clothing and the pieces of flesh clinging to her bib overalls at day’s end.

After work she’d retrieve us from school in our copper Ford pickup, then drag us into the grocery store bloody clothes and all, opening a carton of cigarettes and smoking through the aisles, lightly quashing her butt out on the floor then quickly lighting another. Sometimes she’d poke a finger in her nose and crank her arm a good turn or two when I looked in her direction. Then, for extra effect, she’d pretend to deposit the tiny payload in a seam of her overalls, hee-hawing at how horrified I was by her behavior. Sixth graders are fragile, and it didn’t help that my mother has never been bound by social convention. 

In September of ’85 my mother suggested I work for her at the Estherville McDonald’s, as it was impractical commuting to the McDonald’s in Okoboji once school had started. I said yes when she promised a raise to the tune of $3.85 an hour, though it seemed a foreseeable nightmare switching to a small town McDonald’s after a summer working in Okoboji. At the Okoboji McDonald’s at least six crewmembers and as many as three assistant managers closed the store on weekends. Plus, I didn’t know many of the customers; most were tourists and drunken boaters.

Now I would be working in Estherville, where it was just one employee and one assistant manager closing a store with twice the square footage. And instead of vacationing strangers, the customers were my classmates, friends, and relatives. I would also be working with my mother—the legendary Pam Breiner. Everyone loved working with her. Not only did she sport trendy hairstyles (at the time it was short with the top half platinum and the lower half her natural black—the skunk, I think it was called), but she laughed constantly, swore under her breath, was compassionate to a fault, and yelled “Oopy!” whenever she farted—which was often.

(A short aside: In regards to Mom’s relentless gastrointestinal output, my younger sister Charity said to me just last week: “Farting—I think it leaked out of Mom when she died, and went into us, her mad farts. I bent over to put clothes in the dryer the other day, and out, totally spontaneously, flew one of Mom’s “quacker” farts, and I actually looked around like, where the hell did that . . . Oh my God, that was from ME?!?) 

Working with my mother was a traumatic fusion of pride and humiliation, though I never displayed either emotion, I was too busy trying to impress her by forcing my face into an “I love working” mask and resisting the urge to whine. Mom had long before taught us to value employment (or at least the necessity of it for existence). We couldn’t always count on dinner or domicile, but we could count on Mom headed off to work in a frenzy, a genuine smile on her face, returning with an exhaustive plop in a tattered chair for a cigarette, a sense of satisfaction knowing a job was well done. I both respected and loathed her zealous work ethic—it was a tremendous burden to labor at her caliber, and a tragic reminder that hard work sometimes gets you nowhere. Look where it got her.

Serving the Estherville McDonald’s endless stream of customers practically on my own proved exhausting. To sustain myself during nightshifts, I’d sneak into the cooler and stuff an entire cheese Danish in my mouth. Too often I’d be found and hurried along to deal with a rush, with no time to wipe the icing from the corners of my mouth. A dozen cars would be beeping for window service and there would be a line at every register, even the ones clearly marked closed. Having so recently been a drive-thru superstar in Okoboji, I was frustrated by the inability to demonstrate my fast food skill set under these circumstances, and was constantly filled with bad worker shame. I desperately wanted to give jobs my all, far beyond their ability to give back. In doing so, I knew I wouldn’t feel bad if I filched or left on short notice.

It became clear my days were numbered when I tried to cut myself a short month after I’d started. The plan was to slice my thumb, then arrive at work and show the open wound to the manager on duty and ask, “Does this need stitches?” Then I’d be hustled off to the doctor and not have to work my shift. Seriously, it sucked that much. I locked myself in our upstairs bathroom and tied a bandana around my left thumb, tourniquet-style, and waited until it was bright purple and tingly. I held it under running water and started slowly etching into my thumb, trying to envision a quick and painless whack into the bulging skin. It would split open; a yawning hole relieved of pressure, splaying out to reveal those hidden layers underneath.

Resting on my elbows, I scraped the blade back and forth, casually wondering if this particular activity might warrant a trip to crazy town. In the end, a simple lack of courage prevented me from joining the ranks of self-mutilators that day. I couldn’t bring myself to bring the blade down hard. I could barely filet a callus. So I gave up the butcher project and went in for what I decided was my last shift. I knew Mom would understand. My imminent exit was a lovely little secret . . .

That night I ate my cheese Danish outside the cooler.