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?

 

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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.

No. 10, Bus Girl / Pizza Maker (Age 16-17)

Tip: A small sum of money given to someone for performing a service; a gratuity.

“Taco pizza?” I said as I peeked inside the cardboard box Lisa brought home from work. Inside was a cold pizza covered with wilted lettuce and shriveled tomatoes. A dozen packets of taco sauce were crammed under the crust.

“It’s totally awesome,” she squealed. “Have a slice.”

“It sounds totally sick!” Cheddar cheese and ground beef belonged on a bun with ketchup, not on a crust. Still, my hesitant nibbles turned into enormous bites, and before long I had eaten half of her dinner.

“Jesus Christ, were you hungry? Don’t they feed you at McDonald’s?”

“Tonight was my last night. I had a cheese Danish.”

“Seriously?”

“Seriously. I love those things.”

“No, I meant did you seriously quit.” 

“Oh, yeah.”

“Really? We need someone to bus tables down at Paul’s.”

“Really? I’ll apply tomorrow.”

And so I did just that, locking in job number ten without missing a day’s pay in the transition. Of course, the only thing I knew about Paul’s Pizza when I signed up for dish duty was that when Lisa came home from her shifts she smelled really bad. She stunk. I never thought to connect the dots and just assumed she was boycotting deodorant again. Turns out it was actually onions, and I’d soon have the same stinky cloud following me around. 

As you might imagine, there is nothing exciting or even interesting about bussing tables, and so in between the stretches of time I spent standing on concrete hunched over a stainless steel sink full of dishes—stretches of time I can accurately trace to the birth of my very first spider veins—I ate pizza. Lots and lots of pizza. I tried every permutation of ingredients, searching for that perfect combination of greasy meat and vegetables.

It was my senior year of high school and I’d completely given up any attempt to live as a culinary ascetic—and had packed on seventy pounds. Let me put that in perspective. I consumed an extra quarter million calories beyond what my body needed—in just under a year. This weight gain coincided with (or perhaps catalyzed) an extremely late burst of physical development. I cleaned tables and washed dishes and had far too many people watching as my body began to bust open at the seams.

“Hey, Sandy! Can you get table ten?” I wiped my hands on my apron and grabbed a bus tub, pausing to look through the smudged circular window. To the left of table ten were a few girls from my senior class; to the right of table ten were some jocks. I pushed open the swinging doors and headed straight to the table, looking into the bus tub so as not to meet anyone’s eyes. I loaded up the dishes and thought I’d gone unnoticed when the table of girls started whispering.

“It looks like someone’s been eating too much pizza.”

“Shut up, she’s standing right there.”

“Oh my god, that is so sad.”

As though on cue, the jocks filled in the balance of my humiliation by laughing and elbowing each other, their snickers punctuated with mooing and oinking. I fought back tears and wiped the remaining sauce from the table before heading for cover in the kitchen. 

If only that experience were an isolated incident. As one of the few bus girls I spent way too much time sweating in that dining room. And Paul’s was always short workers so there was never a break. Not for me. Nor for the pizza makers (which was sometimes me, but not often enough). A handful of shifts were so busy unattended pizzas spilled from the motorized oven onto the floor.

One night in the middle of the madness, Lisa stepped on the end of an industrial mop, causing it to pop up and whack her in the mouth, just like in a cartoon. It bloodied her face and snapped off half a tooth. She was whisked away on a dental emergency (we were all jealous) as pizzas continued to fall like stones.

“Sandy, get over here and help make pizzas! Let’s go! Let’s go!” someone called from the pizza line. I took a towel and followed the bloody path out the back door, then hustled to join the pizza makers, wondering all the while who was going to do the dishes. After a few pies passed my station, the manager starting yelling.

“Sandy! Cheese!”

“Huh?”

“Cheese!”

“What?”

“Cheese!”

“Yeah, I put cheese on them.“

The manager turned to me, exaggerating her annunciation and gesturing with her hands like one of us was deaf (not sure which one, but one of us).

“Please. Go. Get. More. Cheese. Out. Of. The. Cooler.”

Good Lord. She could have said that in the first place. I allowed a moment of fantasy in which I called her a bitch and we rolled around on the floor, me pulling her hair like my sister pulled mine when we fought, then I went into the cooler and stuffed a handful of mozzarella in my mouth. My head was still tipped back when Cheryl the Delivery Girl burst in.

“What are you doing?”

“Um . . .” I swallowed as much of the cheese as I could, choking a bit (my mouth was dry). “I’m refilling the pizza table. Lisa broke a tooth in half so I’m filling in.”

“Can you help me load up my car for the next delivery?” Cheryl stood just inside the cooler door organizing a pile of wrinkled money and checks.

“Do you always carry that much money with you?”

“No, these are my tips.”

“No way! Those are your tips?” There were some fives and tens mixed in with the singles.

“Yeah, some nights I make over fifty bucks. Grab some taco sauces, will you?” Just then my boss flung open the cooler door.

“What the Christ in Hell are you doing in here?” she yelled.

“Um, I was uh . . .”

(Hopeless.)

Eight months, hundreds of bus tubs, and thousands of unneeded calories later, I was hanging out with Lisa while she got ready for the prom I wasn’t invited to. I’d decided to work instead of going stag with all the other dweebs, knowing I’d stand by the wall and be universally ignored. Instead of satin and uncomfortable sandals, I got to squeeze into my requisite polyester slacks and a horizontally-striped shirt that gripped the expanding chest I no longer wanted.

I told Lisa, “I’m thinking of being a delivery driver.”

“Doubt it. For starters, you have to be eighteen. Don’t you know everybody hates the delivery drivers?”

“No. Why’s that?”

Duh. Because they make tons of money and never have to smell like onions.”

Hated or not, the more I thought about the cash, the faster I filled with Tip Envy. I promised myself I would one day be a delivery driver. I just had to get my hands on some of those tips. Why was I never the one to get tips? Where were my tips?

“Are you going to stop by the dance later?” Lisa’s voice tugged me from my reverie.

“Yeah, right. I’ll just swing by at midnight when I smell like Farmer Dan’s onion fields.”

“Okay!” Lisa shouted over the blow dryer, her feathered blonde hair shielding her eyes from my envious stare. I reached up and shoved a handful of frizzy curls behind an ear.

To say I was happy to be finished with high school is an understatement. I quit working at Paul’s Pizza as soon as I tore off my tissue paper gown, then immediately signed on for a second summer at McDonald’s in Okoboji. Lisa was nary a shadow behind me. Finally, we’d be free of the tang of onions.

It was far better smelling like French fries.

No. 11, Coupon Book Delivery Girl (Age 17)

Hoodwink: To deceive or trick. 

Midwesterners, bible beaters, and countless other Holy Rollers have a reputation for giving everyone—most notably solicitors and traveling salesmen—the benefit of the doubt. Trust now, ask about stopping payment on the check later. My lapsed-Catholic mother was no exception, and let anyone who wasn’t an ex-husband into our home. All they had to do was knock. Avon, Amway, Mary Kay—my mother either bought the shit or sold it. Did she need encyclopedias for her children? Why, yes she did! How about a badass vacuum for our rugs? How did they know? Got Jehovah? Well . . . they were always invited in for coffee.

I remember thumbing through piles of Watchtower magazines, wondering why my mother was interested in such an amateurish display of cartooning skills. As far as I knew, Jesus was just a creepy figurehead on Granny Idela’s walls, his holographic eyes always following me around, watching me pick my nose, knowing when I touched myself under the covers. Outside of weddings and Lisa’s and my brief tour of remedial catechism we never went to church (yet were routinely threatened with eternal damnation). When I was a pre-teen a friend’s older sister once asked me if I was a virgin. I actually thought “virgin” was some kind of religion, and so my answer was, “No, I’m Catholic.”

The phony coupon book hoax was one of many sales campaigns traveling through our area that summer of ’86. Oblivious to any imminent deception, I followed the instructions in the Estherville Daily’s (tiny) Help Wanted section and arrived unannounced at the Palazzo, the motel where I took my first job and still worked occasional shifts. The advertisement said drivers were needed to deliver coupon books. It also mentioned a flexible schedule and tips. Tips? I could hardly believe my luck. I was already working as many hours as possible at McDonald’s in Okoboji in a tardy effort to save for my freshman semester at Iowa State University. I was convinced a job with tips might put the kibosh on my financial worries.

There was definitely something seedy about running a business out of a motel room, and my skin hardened into gooseflesh when I put my hand on the doorknob. I relaxed when I smelled the familiar odors of soiled comforters and neglected carpet, when I saw two beds pushed against a wall unmade. Every head looked up when I entered. I recognized a few housewives, some retirees I’d seen guzzling coffee at the Estherville McDonald’s (free refills for old farts), and my math teacher’s daughter.

“Um, yeah. Hi. I’m here about the delivery position?” It came out as a question even though I’d rehearsed on the drive over. A woman with arms the size of pencils walked out of the bathroom and approached me.

“Hi! I’m Sherry. Did I hear you say you want to deliver?”

“Um, yeah.” I stepped backwards a foot as she leaned into my personal space. Her breath smelled like cigarettes and Crest.

“Okay. Well, as a driver you are in a contracted position so you don’t need to fill out any paperwork. You get $2 for each book you deliver plus ten cents a mile and any tips the customers give you. Does that sound acceptable?”

“I guess so.”

“Alright, just sit down here until we have a run for you.” 

She handed me a map of rural Estherville and I settled into a club chair with oily stains on the arms, careful not to let my skin touch the fabric. I listened as the telemarketers cold-called Estherville residents and sold nearly every one of them a coupon book filled with hundreds of dollars worth of reduced prices and free stuff. Callers were going through the phone book one name at a time, hunting down the penny-pinchers and promising them cheap haircuts and free ice cream cones. The coupon books were sold with unbelievable ease. A tinny voice crackling through a phone’s receiver was all consumers needed to give away their credit card numbers and first born children. Housewives and retirees were snapping up those coupon books like two-for-one boxes of Hamburger Helper.

At last it was my turn to deliver. It was not the paradise I’d expected. I got lost trying to locate the rural residences (every single one of them), and drove up and down miles of dirt road playing connect-the-cornfield at unsafe speeds as I beat on my steering wheel and cried. I quit three hours later. I wasn’t going to waste another minute breathing in dirt and allowing my Le Car to fill with a bouquet of manure each time I opened the window. How in the hell was I supposed to get any tips?

I pulled up to a tiny diner in the middle of a town I never knew existed until that moment. I hopped into a Superman-style phone booth on the side of the building and called the one room office at the Palazzo Motel.

“Listen, um. I, um, have a flat tire? So I’m, uh, not going to be able to finish.” I tried to sound flustered.

“Are you sure you have a flat tire?” was the accusatory response that came from the receiver. Perhaps I wasn’t the first flat tire that day.

“Um, yeah. I called my dad and he’s going to come and change it for me.” I could hear the skinny lady whispering to someone. “Um, yeah. So listen,” I went ahead and interrupted, “I’m not going to be able to come back in so I guess umm . . .”

I pulled the phone away from my mouth and heard her talking as I dropped the receiver into its cradle. I went into the diner, got an ice cream cone, and drove home.

Mildly embarrassed by my flat-tire tale, I never returned to get paid the promised pennies per mile. Instead I kept the coupon books I was supposed to deliver, figuring I was coming out on the good side of the deal since they cost $30 each. What the retailers, the buyers, the telemarketers and I didn’t know at the time was that soon the coupon books weren’t going to be worth the paper they were printed on.

Within a month the majority of Estherville’s shopkeepers, storeowners, and restaurateurs were forced to invalidate the coupons. It was a huge scam in which the retailers took a beating. They’d paid a huge chunk of cash to have a coupon in the books, believing a sales pitch about how it was a sure-fire way to increase business. Only the books were so popular all the hairdressers in town were giving every haircut for free, the dairies were running out of ice cream, and the fast food restaurants were running out of fries.

And I never got any tips.

No. 12, Corn Detasseler (Age 17)

INFLORESCENCE: A flowering or blossoming.

I longed to be a corn detasseler ever since my days as a corn roguer. There is no logic for this desire beyond the speculative delight of not having to carry a hoe. That, and most people I knew who’d done it came away with fistfuls of cash. It was a two-boon job: money and hoelessness. Searching for anything more interesting will likely prove futile.

Sure, I could tell you how the corn dust made my fingers swell to the size of quality German sausages. I could tell you the spicy skin problem then spread to my arms and legs, making me look like I’d gone skipping naked through an acre of poison ivy. I could tell you detasseling is the second step employed by farmers to assure the genetic purity of seed corn, performed by riding machines or by walking the fields on foot. I could teach you how the male portion of the corn plant—the pollen-bearing inflorescence called the tassel—is removed from all female plants to avoid self-pollination or contamination. I could start with this (and it appears as though I have), if only to lead you through the details and on to the next transition . . .

My friend Sampson was working as a crew chief the summer of ’86. I was recruited to help a small team with half a dozen acres, a job too small for professional riding crews. He said he’d pay me $5.75 an hour. I signed on pronto, imagining detasseling corn to be far easier than rogueing it, and knowing that working with friends made even the worst jobs manageable. Besides, I thought if I had a great tan no one would notice my dimpled thighs.

Sampson was transitioning from an unrewarding first year at a state university to a musical theatre school in New York City. We were both on the fringe in our small community. Sampson’s family lived in a trailer park, and it was no secret that my family kept tarantulas and hermit crabs as pets, not to mention the prolific bat population in our attic. We were both in swing choir.

Sampson was a terrible crew chief and together we were the world’s worst detasselers. He thought nothing of shirking his responsibility to the farmer who’d hired him. He, too, was in it for the tan. When the rest of his crew was working, Sampson and I would duck out of view and run ahead a couple hundred yards. We’d trample a small area of corn and make a fort, sitting down to rest and eat melted jellybeans until the other detasselers were within earshot.

After a couple days I tried (and failed) to cajole Sampson into actually working. I liked horsing around just as much as the next girl, but I was embarrassed by our performance and concerned that our shoddy detasseling might come back and bite our asses.

There was little motivation (melanin or otherwise) to continue after the first week. Never mind the corn rash. It was loath to be remedied, my skin far too traumatized to make any money worthwhile. My solution, as always, was to tender my resignation and work more hours at McDonald’s.

I whined to Lisa about my suffering. She half-listened, simultaneously chewing her fingernails and smoking.

“I don’t have any near enough money for school and I don’t even care. Detasseling sucks.”

“You know,” Lisa cut in, “if you don’t mind putting off college we could join the military and do the buddy system.”

“The buddy system? What the hell is that?”

“Well, if we sign up together we can attend the same boot camp and get a bunch of money for college when we’re done.”

“When would I be done?”

“Four years.”

“Four years?”

“Yeah, and I can get stationed near Jeff.” Jeff was Lisa’s new husband. He was in the military.

The following week Lisa and I filled out our paperwork and sat for the mandatory tests. Shifts at McDonald’s dragged on interminably as I waited for news about the status of our applications. A week later Lisa and I went in for the results. We waited on a dusty tweed couch, holding hands as we giggled about the haircuts we’d have to get for boot camp. Lisa was called in first. I was called in less than five minutes later. She rolled her eyes and flared her nostrils on the way out the door.

In the office I sat ramrod straight in a metal folding chair, the only chair in the room other than the one the recruiter sat in. His hands gripped the sides of a manila folder. He wasn’t smiling. “I’m sorry, Miss Breiner. The United States Military is denying you entry.” My mouth fell open and his voice faded into a soft drone as it listed my positive qualities, weaving in some benign indication that I was a slight psychological risk. Slight.

“Lisa!” I screamed across parking lot outside the recruiter’s office. “They said I can’t join the military! Can you believe it?” She stubbed a cigarette out on the sole of her boots and flipped her Farrah hair from one shoulder to the other.

“Well, I got in but I can’t go because apparently I’m pregnant. Can you believe that?”

I let out a tiny scream. “Oh my god, let’s go tell Mom!” We hopped into her aging Fiat and drove home to share the news. Before we reached the town line I’d forgotten all about the military.

Lisa and I spent the rest of the afternoon sitting at the kitchen table drinking milky tea with Mom. She was excited about her first grandchild but not about becoming a thirty-eight-year-old grandma.

“Well,” Mom sighed, chugging the last of her tea and wiping her mouth on the shoulder of her T-shirt. She lifted a cheek and let out a fart. “At least Sandy’s going to college.” Mom winked at me, “You’ll make us all proud, won’t you, Sandman.”

(No pressure or anything.)

Sure Ma, I thought, I’ll make you proud. I’ll just pave that road to riches with money from student loans.

Sallie Mae was destined to be my new best friend.