Katharine Valentino, 12/11/2017

Current Occupation: Retired
Former Occupation: My former occupations, in order, are: baby sitter, sales clerk, Rockette rookie, mail sorter, maid, assistant trainer for the blind, administrative assistant, so-called dancer, waitress, newspaper and newsletter editor, technical writer, IS specialist and literary editor.  
Contact Information: Katharine Valentino, mother and grandmother, worked for 25 years at menial jobs before acquiring a BA degree in journalism—summa cum laude!—from Indiana University in Bloomington. For the next 20 years, she worked at slightly more interesting jobs and occasionally was even allowed to write some technical thing or another. She retired in 2012 and moved to Eugene, Oregon. She is writing her memoirs, each of which, when done, she reads to her grandson. She also occasionally edits and publishes memoirs for others. Her Website is I Write [and Edit] for You.

 

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My Career–Not!

PART FIVE

Throughout more than 60 years of work, whenever I’ve been asked, “What are you?” I’ve always answered dutifully, “I’m a … [whatever I’ve been doing lately to make money].” But in my mind, I have vowed never to be whatever I was doing at that moment just to make money. 

 

Newspaper and Newsletter Editor

The following year, I became the editor of the college’s Latino Affairs Newsletter. It was only part time, but it was a real job.

Notice, I said, “I became the editor,…” not “I worked for a while editing….” So writing and editing was to become my career? All right! Finally, at age 39 I had a career! I immediately declared a journalism major.

When I discovered there were approximately 400 journalism students for every single journalism job in the country, I said, “That’s OK. I’ll be best,” and I got straight A’s. When I heard about how difficult it was to get published without ever having been published, I said, “That’s OK. I’ll get published now.” And I did get both straight news and feature articles published in the student and the local newspapers. When I heard how difficult it was to get a first job in journalism, I said, “That’s OK. I already got that first job.”

I worked my tail off, taking 15 hours of classes a week, slogging through the expected three hours of homework for every hour in class, writing articles for Latino Affairs and keeping house for my family.

I graduated with honors. Then I had lots of interviews. No job, though.

The problem was that the majority of my graduating class was 24 years old and the editors who were interviewing me were in their 30s. It was embarrassing for them to ask someone almost old enough to be their mother to work for the minimum wage then being paid to newbies.

I did find freelance work for a while writing articles for several city magazines, and then, finally, landed an actual journalism job.

In the interview for that job, I asked why a newspaper put out for Black people would want to hire a White editor. The publisher chuckled and said, “Black people can’t write. If you want to find somebody who can write, you find you a White person.” Gosh, after all that schooling, he hired me on the assumption that I could write, and he assumed that based only on my skin color.

Oh, well. I threw myself into the work, putting in 60 hours a week writing a feature article a day, editing the national and state news for localization and Associated Press style, editing contributing writers for the political, community and religion sections, writing the editorial that is expected from the editor, overseeing design and formatting and even doing paste-up.

My work paid off: A year later, I was notified that my paper and one other in another state had won “best small Black newspaper in the South.” An announcement would be forthcoming soon and I would be invited to speak at a banquet.

The paper was selected for this award in part because we carried a series of articles on an eminent-domain scheme. In the name of progress, Black people who lived in the area were being removed from homes they had lived in all their lives and were being paid a pittance for valuable property. I ran articles featuring elderly women being physically evicted and deposited on the sidewalk in tears, and I wrote editorials blasting the perpetrators of the scheme. Little did I realize that one of those perpetrators was my publisher. When he found out what I was doing with his newspaper, he made some calls to ensure it would not receive any awards. And then he fired me.

 

Silly Jobs

For a while, I worked at the silliest things: Clean wool rugs with a scrubbing brush and soap and water. Squeeze oranges in a manual squeezer for a breakfast restaurant. Hang over the railing of a balcony that encircles a large house and, upside down, paint the outside railing rungs. Scrub the ceiling of a houseboat. Seat people on three levels of a huge restaurant and try not to literally go tripping down the stairs to seat the next patrons. Do typesetting for the local paper (me, who could never write or type very fast).

Oh, and write freelance for the local paper. This was a silly job only because I was so obviously qualified to be the editor. I wrote freelance articles for some months because I knew that the paper’s editor was looking for a job in some other, warmer, town. When he found that job and moved out of the constant cold, however, the publisher didn’t even respond to my job application. Instead, he hired a man from Seattle who was less qualified than I was, who was without knowledge of the local scene, and who lasted only about three months. Then, he hired a second man from somewhere on the East Coast who lasted no more than a few weeks. After that, would you believe he hired a third man from somewhere else. By that time, I was finally willing to believe my women’s lib friends who had been telling me he would never hire a woman as an editor.

Next: I didn’t even know what “IBM” stood for. “International Business Machines,” said my friend, a long-time IBM employee, on the phone. He knew I had graduated with a journalism degree and on that basis thought I’d be competent to edit such things as:

“Definition 18: LINE Defined ln XY-Plane Passing through Point and Tangent to Tabulated Cylinder

“Syntax:
< SLN > = LINE/ < point >,TANTO, < tabcyl >, < near point >”

And so forth for four more pages to document Definition 18 of … was it 39? … definitions of that line.

I thought “TANTO” was the Lone Ranger’s friend. But silly me, I said sure, I’d do it. I showed up for work the next day. My friend greeted me, gave his computer a friendly pat and sat me in front of one of its many terminals. He handed me five pounds of the user guide I was to edit and another five pounds of instructions on using the terminal to do the editing. “If you have any questions,” he said, “find somebody and ask.” Ten months later, the job was done. I added “technical editor” to my resume and was once again pounding the pavement.

Next? A year or so working as the editor/reporter/typesetter of a weekly heating, ventilation, air-conditioning and refrigeration newspaper. I took the job because it was there and I needed rent money. I kept it for a year, learning surprising little about HVACR, until the publisher retired and closed up operation.

 

 

Like this? Read the previous pieces:

November 13, 2017 

November 20, 2017

November 27, 2017

December 4, 2017

Posted in

Katharine Valentino, 12/4/2017

Current Occupation: Retired
Former Occupation: My former occupations, in order, are: baby sitter, sales clerk, Rockette rookie, mail sorter, maid, assistant trainer for the blind, administrative assistant, so-called dancer, waitress, newspaper and newsletter editor, technical writer, IS specialist and literary editor.  
Contact Information: Katharine Valentino, mother and grandmother, worked for 25 years at menial jobs before acquiring a BA degree in journalism—summa cum laude!—from Indiana University in Bloomington. For the next 20 years, she worked at slightly more interesting jobs and occasionally was even allowed to write some technical thing or another. She retired in 2012 and moved to Eugene, Oregon. She is writing her memoirs, each of which, when done, she reads to her grandson. She also occasionally edits and publishes memoirs for others. Her Website is I Write [and Edit] for You.

 

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My Career–Not!

PART FOUR

Throughout more than 60 years of work, whenever I’ve been asked, “What are you?” I’ve always answered dutifully, “I’m a … [whatever I’ve been doing lately to make money].” But in my mind, I have vowed never to be whatever I was doing at that moment just to make money. 

 

So-Called Dancer

After a visit to the local free clinic, I was admitted to a hospital for removal of a lymph node. Two days out of surgery, I had to go to work and get paid that very day or remove myself and my son from my apartment. The sheriff was at my door.

How to get paid daily? Stand on a street corner in a short skirt and no underwear or become a go-go dancer? I chose the latter.

So I got the glitter and makeup part of dancing, anyway. The costumes were gold lame bikinis. The job—at a nightclub just outside a military training base—was not demanding once the stitches were removed. I was encouraged to learn the latest dances so the customers could copy my moves, and it was fun watching them try.

After some months of working five days a week, however, it seemed no longer possible to get off a stage at 2:00 a.m., pick up my son from the babysitter’s, drive home, fall into bed at 3:30 and get up at 7:00 in time to keep the kid from unlocking the apartment door and carousing around the neighborhood in his underwear. After the police brought him back to me a second time and told me it had better not happen again, I moved us back to my parents’ house. There ensued what seemed like a hundred interviews for office work. My skills at typing and taking shorthand hadn’t improved much, but interviews didn’t usually get that far: “Oh, you have a baby. I’m sorry. We don’t hire women with children.“

The costumes were brief. Now, we wore pasties. Yes, that’s right, pasties. Before every shift, we pasted them onto our nipples with rubber cement, and after every shift we unglued ourselves from them.

Soon, even that little glitter was gone and the makeup had become irrelevant. After all, who looked at our faces? By then, all of us so-called dancers were “topless.” Then, as soon as laws changed to allow it, we were “bottomless.” We had become nothing more than tits and ass.

We were all working for agents who had us on a circuit of clubs within a 100-mile radius. We worked a different club each day and sometimes a different one each shift. In that cheap-gas and aren’t-freeways-wonderful era, we often drove three hours a day.

When I would get to a club, I might not know what to put on, or take off, since if the club were in a city there were city laws that applied and otherwise one of three different county laws might apply. All relevant laws changed almost weekly for a while, often at 5:00 p.m., the better to catch us doing something we shouldn’t. The agents had watchers in all the courthouses who reported each day on what laws had or had not been passed that day.

So I’d get to work, put on both top and bottom, go on stage and then get a call:

“Keep it on.”

“Which?”

“Bottom.”

“OK.”

Then I’d run back on stage, remove only my top and smile nicely at the two cops chatting up the waitress and waiting to pounce on a bottomless dancer.

Wearing both top and bottom was awful: No tips and oh, by the way, when you’re on your 15-minute break we want you to give the waitress a break. Topless was somewhat better: Some tips and you still gotta carry the beer. However, if somebody touches you and you don’t like it (I didn’t), you can tell Billy over there and he’ll take care of it for you.

Bottomless was strange at first. I remember my mother’s apt opinion of it: “I do not see how a woman makes money displaying that which every single woman in the world has. It seems a common thing.”

But bottomless was best because it required no interaction at all with customers. As a matter of fact, at one club I was escorted by armed security guards when I went on stage and when I retreated to the dressing room. My security guys prevented anyone from even getting close to me. No more having to detour around grabasses. No more “Hey, I love you wanna mess aroun’?” I loved my security guys.

When I began as a go-go dancer, and later when I went topless, there was just one child to provide for. That I could do easily working five shifts a week even after we got our own apartment. Somewhat later, there was a husband who was trying to start a business, the business bills, his almost immediate illness and his two children. Providing for three more people and funding a business required bottomless-type tips and 10 shifts a week, five at lunch and five at night.

It must be mentioned that certain girls could work less than I did and make more. Certain girls went into the men’s bathrooms with customers and emerged five minutes later $5 richer. Certain girls made it known they would go home with the customer who tipped them well. At every shift where there was a certain girl, the rest of us made less money. So, 10 shifts a week it was.

For 10 years, I danced and then went home, cooked, cleaned and helped with homework, and then I danced. And that was that.

 

Waitress

The husband died. The business did, too. One child joined the military. Another went to stay with a friend’s family. The third went with his Grandma for a while. It was time to quit dancing and go back to college.

I got a grant that paid for most of my college expenses, and I soon was awarded several small scholarships that paid for all remaining school fees and even books. So school was free. However, I did have to eat and lay my head down somewhere, and that required a job.

For a while, I carried drinks at a local nightclub, charging for Tanqueray as ordered but substituting bar gin by the time taste buds were no longer operable. My ear drums were taking a toll again, though, so I got a job as a lunch bartender at a new restaurant.

“Set ‘em out.” Behind the bar, line up 60 or 70 tall glasses each with ice, a lemon wedge, a lime wedge, a celery stick, tomato juice, Tabasco and some mix that came in powder form. Line up 30 or 40 short glasses each with ice, vermouth and a skewered olive. “Count ‘em out.” When the doors open at noon, slam a requisite number of talls and shorts on somebody’s tray and turn the gin bottle upside down over them. “Keep movin’, movin’, movin’” and by 12:20 the restaurant is full of what sounds like an entire herd of doggies “rollin’ rollin’ rollin’.” By 12:30, the manager jumps the bar to help wash glasses, “Hyaa! Into those rotating bristles, “hyaa!” into that rinse. Final rounds at 12:40. “Don’t try to understand ‘em. Just rope, throw and brand ‘em.” At 12:50, “Move 'em on, head 'em up, head 'em up, move 'em out!“ Done by 1:00. “Rawhide!” 

Well, that was entertaining. But after a semester of immersion into chemically infused wash and rinse water that could made you dizzy if you took a deep breath while washing bar glasses, my hands were turning into rawhide. Plus, the pay was poor. The cocktail waitresses got the tips. I didn’t want to carry drinks anymore, so for the remainder of the school year, I went on dinner shift as a food waitress.

We were expected to “sell” food: first a drink or two; then an appetizer; then a meal with wine, finally desert and coffee, perhaps with an aperitif. We were incredibly busy. I learned to carry four steak and baked potato plates at once, or eight cups of coffee. There was so much food. I thought that going home with indigestion would be enough to keep customers away after the first time they were encouraged to overeat, but no. They came back, a little heavier each time. I was appalled. They loved it.

 

Like this? Read the previous pieces:

November 13, 2017 

November 20, 2017

November 27, 2017

 

Posted in

Katharine Valentino, 11/27/2017

Current Occupation: Retired
Former Occupation: My former occupations, in order, are: baby sitter, sales clerk, Rockette rookie, mail sorter, maid, assistant trainer for the blind, administrative assistant, so-called dancer, waitress, newspaper and newsletter editor, technical writer, IS specialist and literary editor.  
Contact Information: Katharine Valentino, mother and grandmother, worked for 25 years at menial jobs before acquiring a BA degree in journalism—summa cum laude!—from Indiana University in Bloomington. For the next 20 years, she worked at slightly more interesting jobs and occasionally was even allowed to write some technical thing or another. She retired in 2012 and moved to Eugene, Oregon. She is writing her memoirs, each of which, when done, she reads to her grandson. She also occasionally edits and publishes memoirs for others. Her Website is I Write [and Edit] for You.

 

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My Career–Not!

PART THREE

Throughout more than 60 years of work, whenever I’ve been asked, “What are you?” I’ve always answered dutifully, “I’m a … [whatever I’ve been doing lately to make money].” But in my mind, I have vowed never to be whatever I was doing at that moment just to make money. 

 

Assistant Trainer for the Blind

I was 21 and living at my parents’ house. Mama was to take care of the baby when I found work. In the early 60s, the choices in genteel work for women without college degrees or specialized training were: office worker or sales clerk. Oh, no, not sales clerk again! So, OK, let’s go to the office.

In most offices, I couldn’t be a secretary because I couldn’t “take a letter.” Or to be more precise, I could take the damn letter, but I was too slow getting all those shorthand squiggles on the paper. I never could write very fast. Also in most offices, I couldn’t be a receptionist because that position required “front-office appearance,” and front-office appearance meant no glasses.

I could be a filing clerk, though. Imagine: You pass a skills test timed with a stopwatch during which you arrange fictitious company names in alphabetical order. You pass a clothing inspection: skirt falls to just below the knee, shoes are just like those worn by the mother on “Leave it to Beaver,” white cotton blouse is starched and tucked in. You are ready to spend eight hours a day picking up one piece of paper after another, opening the correct file drawer, inserting the paper in the correct folder and closing the file drawer. The high point of your day is when you get to use your “good penmanship” to create a new folder.

Imagine my relief when a job was posted for an assistant trainer of the blind at the Braille Institute of America in Los Angeles.

What was this job? I stood beside a teenager and touched her hand every time she swung her head back and forth—a “blindism” that is understandable if you’ve never ever seen yourself but that you can be trained not to engage in. I read to a child who was blind and loved Lone Ranger books. I traipsed up and down hallways with people learning to use canes, keeping them from smashing the canes and themselves into walls. I handled the phone switchboard during someone else’s lunch period. I answered questions posed by people whose dogs led them to my desk. And yes, I occasionally even did some dreary filing.

I worked at the Braille Institute for almost a year. It was a low-paying job but fun. Frustrating, though. Without specialized training, which I couldn’t afford because of the low pay, I could never be a real trainer. I could only be an assistant.

 

 

Administrative Assistant

My next job was brief. I was hired to be an administrative assistant to a building contractor. “Office work” proved to be little other than answering the phone and taking messages. The “building contractor” proved to be a pimp who had installed his girls in buildings I presume he had built. The calls were almost always from those girls. They went something like this:

“I wanna speak to Bob.”

“Whom shall I say is calling?”

“Wha?”

“Whom shall I say is calling?”

“Wha da fuck do you care who’s callin’. Get me Bob.”

“I’m sorry, but I’m supposed to ask who is calling.”

“Fuck you. You get me Bob right now, you bitch!”

Come Saturday, I was quite ready for a relaxing day doing laundry, vacuuming and looking after my son, age 3. About 10:00 in the morning, I got a call from Bob asking me why I was not at work.

“Uh, because it’s Saturday?”

“Shit yeah, it’s Saturday,” said Bob. “It’s not Sunday, so why the fuck aren’t you at work?”

There had been a misunderstanding. For $320 a month I was supposed to listen to people cuss at me six days a week, not five. Well, as I said the job was brief.

 

Like this? Read the previous pieces:

November 13, 2017 

November 20, 2017

 

Posted in

Katharine Valentino, 11/20/2017

Current Occupation: Retired
Former Occupation: My former occupations, in order, are: baby sitter, sales clerk, Rockette rookie, mail sorter, maid, assistant trainer for the blind, administrative assistant, so-called dancer, waitress, newspaper and newsletter editor, technical writer, IS specialist and literary editor.  
Contact Information: Katharine Valentino, mother and grandmother, worked for 25 years at menial jobs before acquiring a BA degree in journalism—summa cum laude!—from Indiana University in Bloomington. For the next 20 years, she worked at slightly more interesting jobs and occasionally was even allowed to write some technical thing or another. She retired in 2012 and moved to Eugene, Oregon. She is writing her memoirs, each of which, when done, she reads to her grandson. She also occasionally edits and publishes memoirs for others. Her Website is I Write [and Edit] for You.

 

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My Career–Not!

PART TWO

Throughout more than 60 years of work, whenever I’ve been asked, “What are you?” I’ve always answered dutifully, “I’m a … [whatever I’ve been doing lately to make money].” But in my mind, I have vowed never to be whatever I was doing at that moment just to make money. 

 

Mail Sorter

I had three seconds to snatch a letter out of a huge sack, check the scribbling on the envelope and toss it into one of maybe 80 slots so a mail carrier could deliver it the next morning. Along with a hundred other people, I toiled in a basement for nine hours a day—eight hours paid plus a lunch break of precisely 36 minutes plus two bathroom breaks of 12 minutes each. About half of us were female; you should have seen the rush to the women’s bathrooms when the break siren sounded.

The person to my left was a huge peasant who allowed as how he simply tossed each piece of mail toward the slots without even checking where it was supposed to go. I, however, was determined that Mary Monroe should get her own electric bill on time, and that newly-arrived Sergio Martinez should hear from his Aunt Mariana within a week of her writing him. Somehow, it seemed the least I could do since I was not going to be able to become a dancer.

A month into this job, my boss found out I was going to have a baby and fired me. I was not sorry to go.

 

Maid

Straight A’s in high school and a year of college, and I couldn’t get a job. I was told over and over that I could not be hired because, pregnant, it would not be safe for me to sit and answer a phone or type a letter. I insisted I’d be safe enough if I could just pay rent and eat, but stridency got me nowhere in the face of company policy.

After weeks of unproductive job interviews, a neighbor recommended me to some of her overflow clients—as a maid. I washed dishes, vacuumed, scrubbed floors, cleaned windows and did mending. Sometimes I was there when kids came home from school. Sometimes I was needed just to make an old person’s home more livable.

I’ve worked as a maid several times since that first time when I was 20. It’s a good way to supplement unemployment benefits, and it is work that needs to be done, honest work where you can see the results of your labor. To this day after I vacuum and dust and mop and wash, I say with some satisfaction, “I don’t like to clean my house, but I sure do like my house clean.” Just don’t call me somebody’s maid.

 

Like this? Read the previous pieces:

November 13, 2017 

 

Posted in

Katharine Valentino, 11/13/2017

Current Occupation: Retired
Former Occupation: My former occupations, in order, are: baby sitter, sales clerk, Rockette rookie, mail sorter, maid, assistant trainer for the blind, administrative assistant, so-called dancer, waitress, newspaper and newsletter editor, technical writer, IS specialist and literary editor.  
Contact Information: Katharine Valentino, mother and grandmother, worked for 25 years at menial jobs before acquiring a BA degree in journalism—summa cum laude!—from Indiana University in Bloomington. For the next 20 years, she worked at slightly more interesting jobs and occasionally was even allowed to write some technical thing or another. She retired in 2012 and moved to Eugene, Oregon. She is writing her memoirs, each of which, when done, she reads to her grandson. She also occasionally edits and publishes memoirs for others. Her Website is I Write [and Edit] for You.

 

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My Career–Not!

PART ONE

Throughout more than 60 years of work, whenever I’ve been asked, “What are you?” I’ve always answered dutifully, “I’m a … [whatever I’ve been doing lately to make money].” But in my mind, I have vowed never to be whatever I was doing at that moment just to make money. 

 

Babysitter

Want to know how to get a kid to go to bed without fuss? Ask which stuffed animal they want to have tucked in with them. They’re so busy deciding on Elegant the elephant or Freddy the teddy bear they don’t even think to whine while you’re buttoning pajamas and tucking tonight’s best companion under the covers with them.

The kid doesn’t like tomatoes or cucumbers? No problem. Put a teaspoon or two of sugar into a little dish and let them dip bite-sizes pieces of vegetable into it. Before you know it, the sugar is all gone and so are the vegetables.

I could also fold diapers better than most mothers. I could imitate all the characters’ voices in bedtime stories. And I could usually convince a fearful 4-year-old that the good monster under the bed does a good job of scaring the bad monster away.

I did babysitting once or twice a week from age 11 to 15. I was good at it, but it didn’t mean much. There were better jobs in the world. I knew that, and I was going to get one of those jobs when I grew up.

 

Sales Clerk

Beginning at 15, I worked summers in a toy store until I left home to go to college. Too much of my time on the job was spent digging Matchbox cars out of linty pockets and jacks out of greasy purses while delivering the standard lecture on stealing. When I first took the job, I was shocked to discover how many kids tried to steal. Taking things that didn’t belong to me had ceased to be an option for me at age 5 after my mother marched me back to that bakery with two by-then ruined doughnuts, which I had to pay for. Then, I had to pay Mama back out of my allowance.

Sales at the store were rung up on a manual cash register that went “ker-chunk.” I‘ve always liked sounds—bike click, dog snuffle, waterfall—perhaps beginning with ker-chunk. I also very much liked being in charge of the store. But sales clerk? I didn’t think that was all that was in store for me.

 

Rockette Rookie

At 12, I was just about to graduate to toe shoes. The class I was taking was taught by a friend of my mother’s who had been a Rockette in her youth. The Rockettes, in case you don’t know, are … well, let me look them up on the Internet: “The Rockettes are America’s most iconic dance company, captivating audiences for decades with precision dance performances at Radio City Music Hall.”

Radio City Christmas Spectacular! Beautiful long legs in a “kickline”! Huge billboards with billowing neon lights! Quick costume changes! Glitter! Makeup!

It took me and 11 other little girls in that dance class weeks to master raising our hands above our heads in exactly the same way at the exactly the same moment at exactly the same height. I don’t remember that we ever managed the iconic eye-high simultaneous leg kick in a chorus line. But we did try.

Rockettes had to be good at ballet, tap and jazz. They had to practice a lot, so I practiced. Ballet was the most difficult of the three dance genres, but I was ready for those toe shoes. I was ready, really. I could walk across a bare floor on my bare tiptoes.

“Ouch,” you say? Oh, yeah. From that time on, I wore shoes a full size shorter and somewhat wider, and now that I’m old the dropped bone in the ball of my right foot gives me no end of trouble. So I have advice that nobody else should ever be stupid enough to need: Never wear toe shoes with no toe shoes on.

Anyway, six years after deforming my feet but before the deformities became bothersome, I took dance classes again as a freshman in college. One semester of extra hard work, to try to make up for my years away, was followed by a “required different sport.” I reluctantly chose tennis. Three weeks later, the ball I never could see hit me in the face, breaking my glasses. So I was allowed to go back to dance class and continue there for the rest of the year. Three more semesters of plies and chassés and assorted kicks gave me a leg up on the competition in my sophomore year.

By then, I was in dance class 10 hours a week, watched carefully and corrected mercilessly by a former member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company (you can look it up if you want to, but trust me, it was prestigious). I learned not only that could I really dance but also that my being tall and leggy was actually for the first time in my life to my advantage: I could keep up with the male demonstrator and was his choice in a partner when he needed to demo couples or chorus steps.

Then one day I could no longer keep up. I was pregnant.

Posted in

Bonnie Wilkins Overcott, 11/6/2017

Current Occupation:  Blogger and Writer  My blog is workinginthe21stcentury.com and compiles resources and news items, and I write book reviews and editorials about work, careers, pay and benefits, and other 21st century employment issues.

Former Occupation:  Besides working in a bakery in high school, I've worked many part time and temporary jobs and newspaper reporting. My professional work history includes Media Buyer for an Advertising Agency. American Red Cross, Disaster Services. Office Manager, Diversified Business Credit. Admissions, Capella University where I was allowed to write for the department's newsletter as part of my responsibilities.

Contact Information: Bonnie Wilkins Overcott earned a BA in Labor Studies and Communications, University of Minnesota. She lives in Minneapolis, is married and has an adult son. She is a member of Loft Literary Center and the 50+ Writers Group. She’s written feature stories for newspapers, including the Mille Lacs County Times, and the Longfellow Messenger and had fiction and non-fiction published in online literary journals including Across the Margin, The Commonline Journal, and the Work Literary Magazine.

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The Sunlight Bakery and Mel       

In the mid 1960s, in the little town of Milaca, Minnesota, 70 miles north of Minneapolis and St. Paul (“the cities”) and surrounded by dairy farms, there were no fast food restaurants or shopping malls needing part time help from high school students. I was lucky. I got my first job at the Sunlight Bakery on the main street of Milaca when I was sixteen through my mother, who already worked there. The adage “it’s not what you know, but who you know” was true.

My résumé included occasional baby-sitting for neighbors. I worked for one week during the summer as a live-in sitter for a child who had surgery and needed to be watched. I was so miserable and homesick; I refused to go back after the first week and quit giving no notice. I did farm work for my dad, driving the tractor, stacking bales of hay on the hay rack and moving them to the elevator going up into the hay mow. Personal qualities I brought to the job were extreme shyness, honesty, the kind of “make hay while the sun shines” work ethic developed on a farm and a willingness to tackle any project.

The interview process was simple. Mom, “How would you like to work at the bakery?” Me, “Sure.” Mom, “I’ll ask Mel when he wants you to start.” I didn’t need any other references. In a town of around 2,000 people everyone knew everyone often going back several generations anyway. That could be a good thing or a bad thing or a little of both depending on your family and ancestors.

The baker, manager and my first boss was Mel. Mel was a large burly man with a generous beer belly, a few strands of graying hair slicked back on his head, a grizzled face and a tattoo on his arm (when only former sailors had tattoos). Usually he had a lit cigarette dangling from his lips as he stalked around the store. Mel moved to Milaca in 1946, right after WWII, and managed the movie theater. He then went to work at the bakery and when the owner died, Mel married his boss’ wife and took over the bakery. He lived above the bakery with his wife and step-daughters. He signed checks “F. Melby.” One day my mother asked him what the “F” stood for. He told her his given name was Fauntleroy. A Little Lord he was not.

The bakery was long and narrow, squeezed in among the buildings lining the downtown business district on 2nd Avenue NE, one block west from U.S. Highway 169. On the right were racks for the bread attached to the wall and below them a work counter which held the bread slicer. There was a row of wood and glass cases showing the baked goods with room behind for employees, wearing their long white aprons and hair nets, to access the cases. On the left was a row of wooden booths smothered with many layers of high gloss paint over the years, and in those days were a light pinky-beige color. If you faced the entry you could see who was in town as they walked back and forth from Olson’s grocery and dry goods store at one end of the main street to the Ben Franklin Five and Dime Store or the Rexall or Presley drug stores at the opposite end. At the back of the store was a lunch counter lined with stools.

To the right of the counter was a door leading to the kitchen area, a rather dimly lit, dingy area. The grill, for frying bacon, eggs, hamburgers and onions, was kept hot all day. There was a commercial dish washing machine and a refrigerator. The counter inside the door was where we frosted the rolls once they were baked, and assembled breakfasts and lunches.

The very back of the bakery was like a different world. It was the brightly lit, sterile-looking, baking production area with stainless steel tables, ovens and industrial-sized mixers. This was Mel’s domain. Bins of flour and eggs were under the counters. Cakes of fresh yeast were kept refrigerated. Mel allowed customers to buy a dab to take home to do their own baking. He and his assistants spent the early hours of each day working, laughing and joking around. Always careful around me and the other younger employees, I suspected, based on its tone, the laughter emanating from the back was oftentimes the result of bawdy jokes and banter. Mel also decorated all the special occasion cakes ordered by customers. He meticulously formed flowers, leaves, piping, and lettering on the cakes with white and colored creamy frosting. In between the kitchen and baking areas was the door leading to the long, steep flight of stairs to the residence.

The bakery, open Monday through Saturday, was a place farmers could stop for a cup of coffee and a doughnut while doing business in town. A simple lunch was available. Sometimes high school students met after school for a Coke and snack. Friday nights and Saturdays were busy with customers from Milaca as well as people from the cities on their way north to lake cabins. They stocked up on freshly baked hamburger and hot dog buns, sweet rolls and bread for the weekend.

Those were the days before freeways and four-lane highways, so all the traffic went right through every little town on the route slowing down to 30 miles per hour including our one-stoplight town. Because Milaca was on the route to Mille Lacs Lake and lake country, it was bumper to bumper traffic Friday nights and early Saturday mornings to the chagrin of people fleeing the cities eager to get to their little cabins nestled in the woods on a tranquil lake up north. Children in Milaca got up early on Saturday mornings to line Central Avenue, then Highway 169, to sell freshly dug worms to the fishermen creeping by in the traffic, tugging along their fishing boats, heading north to the lakes.

The Sunlight Bakery sold rye, cracked wheat, cinnamon, and white breads. Sometimes Mel experimented with other breads like Julekake, which he offered around the holidays. If customers requested the bread sliced, we took a loaf off the rack, ran it through the slicer and put it into a plastic bag. All the baked goods, except cookies, were baked every morning. Anything not sold at the end of the day was bagged up and moved to the day-old rack and deeply discounted. Fresh bread is crusty. Stale bread is soft. Once in a while a customer would accuse us of selling stale bread as fresh because the crust was hard. Or they would go around pinching the tops of the bread and pick the softer, day-old loaf. I never knew if they planned to buy the discounted day old bread to save money from the start, if they really believed softer bread was fresher or if they were trying to con us into selling fresh bread for the day old price.

Mel used old recipes. His rolls often contained less sugar than bakers use now, but they were hardly health food. They were loaded with white flour, butter, eggs and cream or milk; not a gluten-free, vegan or sugar-free item in the bakery. Cinnamon rolls, caramel rolls, and caramel nut rolls were made using bread dough, not sweet dough, and I still prefer them that way. One of my favorites was Mel’s cherry-almond rolls. The dough was rolled flat; then spread with a cherry-almond, buttery filling. It was rolled up, jelly-roll style, and sliced into pieces. A brown sugar crumble was put on the top, one of the cut sides, of each piece before they were baked. As they baked, the center of the rolls rose up into a sugary mound. They were melt-in-your-mouth good. I haven’t found a modern bakery that competes with Mel’s bakery goods.

The bakery was open for breakfasts and lunches. Besides Mel’s chili and macaroni salad, we served burgers, malts, bottled pop, coffee and tea. A sweet roll, a cookie or pie ala mode was dessert.

The Sunlight Bakery wasn’t a forward thinking company. It wasn’t growing and dynamic. They had no marketing or personnel departments. There were no plans to expand or to franchise the brand. Their business model was to make a tasty, quality product so that customers would return.

It wasn’t a high paying job. It didn’t have the best benefits or working conditions; not even air conditioning. No one ever asked about our 5-year-goals or career path. We were paid the minimum wage, rarely received tips and then usually a nickel or dime. There was one employee benefit. We could eat and drink anything and everything we wanted on our shift.

We didn’t have titles, business cards or name plaques. There were no committees or focus groups to research market trends. Mel never worried about whether or not we were engaged. I never had a performance review. The closest thing to a staff meeting was when we had to call up the steep dark stairs leading to the living quarters to consult about a problem.

Nevertheless, as with all jobs, valuable lessons were learned and in a way I think I always compared my professional jobs with that first job in the Sunlight Bakery.

Looking back after years of working in many other situations, I realize that Mel had the innate ability to be a good boss. He didn’t have a prestigious business degree. But if you saw through the smoke constantly floating around his head from the cigarette he kept between his lips, you could see the twinkle in his eye as he tried to sound gruff and tough. If a loaf of bread slid off a tray in front of a customer while we were carrying it, Mel would pick it up and loudly announce, “Well that’s one for the trash can.” On our return trip to the kitchen, he’d dust it off and place it back on the tray with a wink. He never became impatient let alone angry with an employee as long as I worked there.

Mel always had our backs. Once, a family ate their food then told us it wasn’t fit to eat and they weren’t going to pay for it. They walked out. We called Mel down and he walked out, looked up and down the street, and told us they were probably “Hoosiers.” I’d never heard of a Hoosier before, but he meant that in the demeaning sense of the term. Mel blamed the customer. That never-ending support gave his employees confidence and made the work environment a friendly, relaxed one. I looked for supervisors that were as supportive all my working days. When I was a supervisor, I emulated Mel’s management style.

We had our share of difficult customers. When Junior came in, we gave him his coffee and put a little cream in a pitcher. If you left a full pitcher of cream out, he’d keep adding it to the coffee until the pitcher was empty. Mel gave everyone free refills on coffee, but if someone drank a quart of cream, he wasn’t making any money. Junior never asked for more cream, he’d just drink all you put in front of him.

Mel trusted us enough to leave the bakery in our care even though we were only sixteen or seventeen years old. He allowed us to make judgment calls. There was a woman who always tried to get drugs from the town doctors. Once she tried to get Marcia, my sister who also worked there, to give her money from the till so she could buy her “medicine.” Marcia’s answer was “no, that’s not my money.” Later when she told Mel about it, he told her she handled it exactly right.

The same woman always ordered a day-old roll, then she’d either dump her coffee all over it or dip it into the coffee, but she’d leave the booth a total mess. She had an uncorrected lazy eye that floated around while she talked to you making her seem even shiftier. She offered X-rated comments to my mother.

Occasionally Native Americans from the Mille Lacs reservation came into town and stopped in for lunch. I was surprised that the younger people had to interpret and order for the adults because they didn’t speak English. I realized that it wasn’t that long ago they were speaking their native languages, hunting, fishing, and foraging for their own food and living in the old ways. They often invited the community to the reservation where there was a museum and a gift shop. They performed native dances for their guests and often cooked traditional foods to share so I was used to being on their turf. It was rare to have them on my turf.

During the summer I chose the early shift. At 6 a.m. every morning, I’d get to the bakery and pull out a tray of freshly-baked cinnamon rolls. Mel and his assistant bakers already had been working for a couple of hours. With a plastic glove on, I scooped out handfuls of icing and smeared it over the top of the tray of cinnamon rolls while they were still warm. After the first tray was done, I pulled out one roll, spread butter on top, which melted and oozed through the roll, its buttery saltiness mixing with the sweetness of the roll, and poured an icy cold glass of milk to have for breakfast while I worked. Bismarcks were filled two at a time by poking them on the two injector tips at the top of the jam container. One pump down and they were filled, then on to the next two. Once a tray was filled, I repeated the icing routine smearing a thick smudge of vanilla icing on each one with a gloved hand. Gradually the cases that held the baked goods filled up.

By 2 p.m. I was done working and still had lots of daylight left to enjoy my summer. Then I could get together with friends, go bicycling, or just sit with a book in the back yard. I could also go to Allen’s Department Store to see what was new. My best friend, Karen, told me I could buy things on credit (long before everyone had credit cards and I’d ever heard of such a thing) so I could buy something before I had all the money saved, and then just come in once a week on payday to pay down the tab. My first purchase was a whole outfit that was stunning. The straight skirt was made of hound’s-tooth black and white wool and topped off with a white shirt and a red sweater vest. I loved earning money on my own and the independent decision-making about how I’d spend or save it.

I worked full-time at the Sunlight Bakery the summer after graduation from high school, then quit to go to college. A month or so later, I came home for a visit. I was in the bakery talking with some people when Mel saw me. He grabbed a long white apron, shoved it at me and snarled, “What are you doing just standing there. Get to work.” I put on that apron, took some lunch orders, cleaned up some tables, sliced a few loaves of bread and bagged up rolls and donuts for customers one more time.

 

Posted in

George Thomas, 10/30/2017

Current Occupation: Retired.

Former Occupation: I worked at many jobs. I even did some teaching, but most of my income earning life was as a machinist.

Contact Information: Born in Dayton, Ohio, I came West in my 30s. Hold an MFA from Eastern Washington University. Founded (edited for 2 years) the Willow Springs Magazine in 1977 and for six years published and edited George & Mertie’s Place: a literary microzine. My poem ³Legacy² was chosen by Washington State Poet Laureate Todd Marshall to appear in April of this year in his anthology WA129. It¹s a collection of Washington State poets. I was honored to be chosen. [Find his poetry on Amazon.] 

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HENRY MILLER'S TURDS
I have been the evening janitor
            in a college I graduated from,
            walking the dark night buildings
            behind a broom and the lines of dirt
            that intellectuals discard during every day.
I have washed their stark white thoughts
            off blackboards and sat
            with a Camel dangling in my lips,
            feet up on desk, to read
            Henry Miller's exquisite Chaos of experience,
            Tropic of Cancer,
            nothing to be jacked off at.
Two turds in a punch bowl, on a platter,
            two turds in the plugged up toilet.
            Some big horse of a professor drops
            these huge turds almost every day,
            and they clog up the system over
            and over again while I plunge and
            plunge and plunge to keep the system
            fluid. It's my job.
Posted in

Bonita LeFlore, 10/23/2017

Current Occupation:  Artist 
Former Occupation: EVP Director of Local Broadcast for Zenithoptomedia US
Contact Information: After early retirement from the advertising industry, Bonita LeFlore moved to San Francisco, started writing a novel, and returned to painting. Now she lives on the North Shore of Massachusetts where she paints and writes. Her first novel, as well as five short stories, have been published.The Claudia Stories are a linked collection connected by the "invisible" people a young woman sees on her journey to a job interview. A Good Job is one of those stories.
 

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A Good Job

    Florence liked routines. On the fortieth floor she had staked out her territory: two conference rooms, an executive suite, and six offices. The other women didn’t seem to care or notice the spaces they were cleaning.

“Start with the thirty-fourth floor tonight.” Her supervisor, Anna, checked the names on the assignment sheet. “The office manager of True North told Jovack he wants it done first.” Anna looked up to make sure that her cleaning crew was listening. “When Flo and Sophia are finished with thirty-four, they’ll join the rest of you on forty, so you can work your way down as usual.”

    Florence took her supplies and place them in the caddy attached to the large garbage bin on wheels. She checked her vacuum and made sure that the waste bag was new. Anna handed her the keys to the offices on thirty-four.

    “What’s the change for?”

    “Big party last night—big mess. They requested a special cleaning.” Anna looked at Sophia and Carmen; they had already put on their ear buds and were shaking out black plastic garbage bags.

    “I’ll page you when I’m finished thirty-four.” Florence told Anna as she pushed her bin to the service elevator where the other five women waited for the doors to open.

    “Big mess, big party—damn, these people are spoiled. They can’t even hit the garbage can.” Sophia said.

    “Yeah, it’s a joke to them.” Carmen added.

    “They have their minds on other things, important stuff we wouldn’t understand,” Florence said.

    “And we, we have our minds on their garbage.” Sophia laughed and pushed her cart into the elevator.

    The five women followed her into the massive elevator car that was used for moving furniture and large deliveries. She looked over at Sophia who was assigned to join her.

    “How do you want to split the floor up?” Florence asked.

    Sophia took out her ear buds. “What?”

    Florence repeated herself.

    “I don’t care, Flo. You decide.”

    The elevator started to climb and at twenty Florence felt her ears pop. “Let’s see how bad it is first,” she said.

    The doors opened on thirty-four and the women going to forty acknowledge the others departure.

    “Where do you think they had the party? Anna didn’t say.” Sophia turned to Florence as she held the swinging door of the service entrance open for her.

    “Let’s check out the large conference room first and then the reception area.”

    “I bet the bathrooms are going to be fill with vómito. Que va a hacer que me enferme.”

    “Sophia, English…please.”

    Sophia gave Florence a look. “You should know what vómito means. We are going to be up to our elbows in it tonight.”

    “You’re right, mierda too.”

    “I wonder how you say mierda in Serbian?” Sophia asked.

    Both women started to laugh. Russians owned their company, JVB Cleaning, but Anna and Jovack were Serbs; when Anna had her boss on the phone, she never spoke English.

    As they pushed their carts along one of the halls the lights, programed to sensors, slowly lit the corridor ahead of them.

    “I think I can smell cigarette smoke.”

    “That’s not going to be easy to get out of the air.” Florence said.

    As she walked down the hall, Florence picked up some plastic cups and napkins. The main conference room was in the center of the thirty-fourth floor. The windows faced the Chrysler Building. A mahogany table still held plates of uneaten food and the sideboard had empty bottles of wine, a few were tipped over and there were several stains on the rug. As Carmen had predicted the empty plastic glasses were on the floor next to the garbage. The two women separated and worked at opposite ends of the large room.

“You know they weren’t going to hire you, Flo.” Sophia had finished vacuuming and was watching Florence finish polishing the conference table. “Yeah, now they only hire Latinas with thick accents.”

    Florence ran her cloth one last time across the table checking for streaks.

    “They assume that we don’t speak English well enough to understand them.”

    “And…” Florence stopped and looked up at Sophia.

    “Well, they never hire Blacks, too much trouble: they’re always late or never show up.”

    “And why are you telling me this, Sophia?”

    “My grandmother always told me that if I had something good to say, I should speak and not hold it in. I like you Flo, and I think you do a good job.”

    “You mean for a Black person?”

    “No, for any kind of a person. Do you have any kids?”

    Florence took a deep breath. She didn’t want to cut Sophia off. It was hard for people to speak from their heart and when they did it should be appreciated.

    “Thanks, Sophia. Yes, I have a daughter. She ran off with a Dominican.”

    “You don’t see her anymore?”

    “She left me her daughter to take care of. I see my daughter everyday in my granddaughter’s face.”

    “Oh dios mío, estoy tan triste por ti.” Sophia said.

    “Let’s keep up our pace. We just started. We can take a break after we finish this floor.  The bathrooms are next. OK?”

    “Ugh…you’re right. Let’s get this over with,” said Sophia.

    The two women finished the bathrooms and then went in opposite directions. Sophia took the North side of the floor. It was a maze of gray cubicles; Florence could see her partner’s head bobbing up and down as she finished one cubicle and moved on to the next.

    Florence had just finished two offices. She could see a light through the opaque glass in the door of the next office. She knocked on the door and twisted the knob; it was locked. Florence was hunting through her ring of service keys when the door opened and a young woman stood facing her. She was dressed in a navy blue suit and her face was streaked with mascara.

    “Sorry.” She looked away and continued to speak. “I came in to do some work and I guess I fell asleep at my desk. Go ahead and take the garbage, I’ll just get my things and be out of your way in a second.” The woman tucked in her blouse and buttoned her jacket.

    Anna had told Florence on her first day that she might run into people working late. This was an advertising agency and they had deadlines. Anna told her not to make eye contact, take the garbage and work around them. If she couldn’t clean the office, she should make a mental note of the office number and come back to it before she left for another floor. Florence took the small basket filled with paper and dumped it into the green recycle bag. As she left, she noted the room number under the nameplate: Susan Miller VP, 3410.

    Florence moved down the hall to the next office. She looked across the floor and saw Sophia stand up and arch her back.

Sophia waved at Florence, took off her ear-buds and yelled: “Twenty minutes and I’m finished.”

    Florence had just given the thumbs-up when 3410 walked by her. The woman tossed a crumbled piece of paper at the large garbage bin, missing the target, she continued down the hall. Florence watched the woman for a few seconds, finally, she bent over and threw the paper in the bag.

    Florence turned back to the woman’s office. It was empty: there was no computer or phone. There were no pictures on the wall or books.

    “Are you finished?” Sophia stuck her head into the room. “What’s this,” she looked around, “it’s empty?”

   

    Florence remembered Anna telling her on her first night to just put the garbage in the black or green bags. “Don’t waste your time being nosey. Remember Flo: we need to keep to the schedule. If you don’t, Jovack will find someone else for the job.”

    Florence looked at her watch and then looked at the green recycle bag.

    “Yes, the office is empty,” she said to Sophia. “I did it in two minutes. I’m right behind you, let’s go up to forty now.”

    Sophia pushed her cart ahead to the service elevators. Florence reached in the green plastic bag, pulling out the crumbled paper on top; she smoothed it open, folded it and put it into her pocket.

    When they arrived on the fortieth floor Sofia turned to Florence. “See you when we clock out.”

    Florence went straight to the large office suite. It was usually spotless. All it needed was a little dusting and vacuuming. The bathroom that belonged to this office was always clean unless he had taken a shower; then there were towels all over the floor and shaving cream on the sink.

    When Florence opened the door to the office she thought she heard someone. The door to the bathroom was slightly open and the light went off.

    “Buenas noches señor,” Florence said quietly.

    “Buenas noches,” said the man.  

    His face was pale, almost ashen. The hair near his neck was wet and his shirt had a red stain on the left shoulder. When he saw her staring at him, he took the towel that was in his right hand and covered the mark.

    “Afeitar, señora. Afeitar,” he said as he walked over to the leather sofa and picked up his jacket.

    Shaving, thought Florence? How do you cut your arm shaving? She turned from him and said: “me clean” in a thick accent.

    He walked past her without saying anything. Then he pointed to the blood stained towel on the sofa. “Por favor ponga las toallas en el basura, gracias.”

    Florence nodded her head and he smiled. Florence had learned to speak Spanish from her late husband, Nat, who was Dominican. Florence picked the towel off the sofa, pushing it into the black plastic bag as the man asked her to.

    When she turned on the light in the bathroom, her eyes adjusting to the brightness, saw red footprints on the floor. Towels had been thrown all over the room. The sink was filled with smears of blood. All the cabinet doors were open, bottles had their tops off and there was a box of medical adhesive tape that had unrolled across the toilet tank.

 

    “Anna, you need to get up to forty—corner office, right now. That’s right, 4000… that’s the number, something has happened here.” Florence spoke into the crackling pager. “I don’t know there is blood all over the bathroom.” She had backed out of the bathroom without touching anything. She stood in the office, waiting for Anna, staring at her reflection in the wall of glass overlooking the city. She looked transparent, almost invisible, against the lights.

    When Anna opened the door to the bathroom she gasped. “Did you see anything?”

    “He was still here when I walked in, said he cut himself shaving and told me to throw all the towels in the black bags when I had finished cleaning the bathroom.”

    “Was he bleeding?”

    “Yes, from his arm, I think we need to call the police, Anna.”

    “First Jovack, then the cops.” She took out her cell phone and called her boss.

Anna started speaking in Serbian while she paced back and forth. “Jovack said he will call the police and that you shouldn’t say anything. Just finish the rest of the offices on this floor and then go to thirty-nine.”

    “There was an awful lot of blood. Do you think that someone else was in here with him?”

    “I don’t know. Just do your job. You saw him and he looked like he was OK? Right?”

    “Yes, but all this blood. He was very pale.”

    “You spoke to him in Spanish like I told you to?

    “Yes, he spoke to me in Spanish, too.”

    “Good.” Anna’s phone rang and she started talking to Jovack again. She turned her back to Florence and then looked over her shoulder. “What are you waiting for? Do what I just told you to. I’ll call you if we need anything else.”

    After another six offices and the conference room on forty. Florence checked her watch.  It was almost two in the morning. She started toward the service elevator and looked at her pager to make sure it was working.

    During the second ten minute break nothing was said about the mess on thirty-four. The women talked about Sophia’s boyfriend; no one said anything about what Florence saw. By 5 a.m. the next three floors had been cleaned and emptied of trash. Anna never called. Florence swiped her electronic key card and turned toward the service doors that led to the street.

    “Flo!” Anna called after her. “I’m glad I caught you before you left. Jovack took care of everything.”

    “What did the police say?” Florence said.

    Anna looked down at the floor. “They laughed at him, told him that there wasn’t enough blood for a dead bird in the bathroom. Jovack is really pissed; he told me to keep my eye on you and that there better not be a next time.” Anna looked up. “I had to clean that mess up. Next time, do as you’re told…understand?” Anna was visible shaken.

    “I’m so sorry, it’s just that I never saw anything like that and….”

    “Forget what you saw and who you saw.”

    “Yes, Anna.”

 

    At five thirty the city looked haunted: the light took another hour to fully expose the street and the buildings in Manhattan. Florence walked past a few early commuters with their ties loosened. The small brown bag and paper cup of hot coffee identified those who would soon fill the offices she had cleaned. As she descended the steps into the subway, the heat surrounded her and only when the doors to the train opened did she feel revived. Maybe she had imagined everything; maybe she had been watching too many stories on television. Yes, his face was pale, she thought, but they all have pale faces.

    The subway car held a few people in uniform: nurses and hospital workers. There were others, like her: people who had been up all night, most of them had their eyes closed. An old man in the corner seat near the door was asleep with his mouth open, snoring as loud as a jackhammer.

Florence looked at the window across from her and saw the fifty-eight year old woman whose reflection she tried to avoid in mirrors. It was then that she felt the paper she had stuffed into her pocket the night before. Not going to ruin my day. Rather read today’s message, she thought.

    Poetry in Motion was the title on the small turquoise placard above the subway door. Florence got up, held on to the metal pole and read the poem: Grand Central by Billy Collins.  It made sense, she thought; she was a part a “moving hive.”

 

By 6:30 in the summer, the sun was rising across her neighborhood. The sealed storefronts and brownstones were quite; most people were still asleep. The peacefulness gave Florence a hint of what this place must have been like in the old days. That’s what Poppy Daniels called them; he had lived in his house longer than anyone else on Hart Street. His mother owned the house before him. One Saturday night they were sitting on the front stoop trying to catch a cool breeze and he told her how cornfields grew on DeKalb Avenue.

    “Imagine that…imagine that,” Florence said, as she climbed her steps and opened her front door. Florence put her purse on the front table and walked back to the kitchen. She could hear her granddaughter, Claudia, in the bathroom. She surveyed the kitchen, looking for traces of what Claudia might have made herself for dinner the night before. Florence opened the refrigerator door and took out the last piece of cod, milk, and one egg. The rest of what she needed as she called her dinner-breakfast, was in the cupboard.

    She leaned into the back staircase and shouted up to her granddaughter. “What time is your appointment, Hon?”

    Claudia was singing along with a pop tune that her grandmother couldn’t understand.

    “I said: What time is your appointment?”

    The music was lowered and she heard the sounds of small heels click to the top of the stairs.

    “Ten-thirty, Grandma Wren. I think it will take me ninety minutes.” Claudia paused, and Florence heard papers being rustled. “Don’t make me a big breakfast—please. Only cereal. I’ll do it myself.”

    “That’s not the way to start such an important day. You need to be fortified for that kind of journey.”

    Florence felt the side of her dress with the papers in her pocket. She turned the flame off on the stove.

 

“What are you reading?”

    “Nothing, just some papers I found in an empty office.”

    “Why did you take them home? Isn’t that just trash?”

    “I guess so, but you know sometimes I get curious. Right? Just like you. You know I’ve always told you that you take after me.”

    “And not my mom?”

    “No, Lord. You do not take after her. Look at you, all dressed and polished to get to the city for a job interview.” Florence looked away.

    “Sorry. I didn’t mean to mention her. Let’s not ruin the day; it’s going to be a good one for me. I can just feel it.” Claudia looked at her watch. “Oh—it’s already late. I need to do a little reading for my Tuesday night class.” Claudia went back up the stairs. Florence heard her bedroom door close.

 

    “So Susan Miller, 3410, had been fired,” Florence said. She reread the memo addressed to Ms. Miller that stated she had become redundant. Florence went into the living room to find her dictionary. When she returned to the kitchen with the dictionary and her newspaper, she was ready to make her breakfast.

 

    The man’s photo was on page six. He was grinning at the camera and had a young woman on his arm. The caption under the photo read: Donny Palmer, CEO True North, with guest, leaving the Met Gala, in happier times. Florence held the photo closer—the woman was Susan Miller.

Florence opened the dictionary and read the definition of redundant: “no longer needed or useful; superfluous. Synonyms: unnecessary, not required, inessential, unessential, needless, unneeded.”

   

    “You be careful out there today, Claudia. The world is complicated and not always what it seems.”

    “It’s a job interview. Don’t fuss over every little thing, you’ll make yourself sick.” Claudia finished her cereal and rinsed out the bowl.

    “Come back to me.” Florence said before the front door closed behind her granddaughter.

Florence’s favorite program The View had started. Starr Jones introduced today’s topic: Sexual Harassment. “Will It End?” Starr turned to the audience. Behind the six women seated around a table a screen filled with photos of young female faces.

    “It seems that something happened to Donny Palmer last night.” Meredith almost laughed when a woman in the audience yelled out skewered. “It appears that Donny Palmer…” The screen behind the women changed to a large photo of Palmer, hands in front of his face, trying to hide from the cameras that were blinding him, as he excited the Lenox Hill Hospital.  “…may have been stabbed last night. There were no clues and he had no comments on how it might have happened.”

    “Shaving.” Florence said as she took a bite of her fish.

 

 

Posted in

Jessica R. Barnes, 10/16/2017

Current Occupation: mother, writer, teacher, scholar, musician, innkeeper
Former Occupation: corn detassler, musician, packer, customer service representative, cook, grounds keeper, reporter, editor
Contact Information: Grown from a wooded valley in rural Wisconsin and driven a perch 7,000 feet in the sky – Flagstaff, Arizona USA – Jessica has taken notes along the way and wants to share them with you. Her current occupations (a telling word) include mothering, writing, making music, teaching geography, and welcoming travelers. She does these things as magnifying glasses to examine the scraps of humanity we share. She has long been preoccupied with how the work we do for our own pleasure fits into the economy, her doctoral research was on how crafters' work fits into lives and livelihoods.  

 

#

A Chance

 

I’ve worked in a factory for three weeks.

It makes me want to play the lottery.

 

#

Robots take my job

 

Robots take my job,

Don’t let me be here twenty years on,

Let’s just end this drudgery.

 

Nostalgic cogs in the machine,

Don’t turn me on, won’t set you free,

Maybe I’m too bourgeoisie.

 

Don’t ship this work across the sea,

Don’t wish this hell on anybody,

Solidarity for people being free.

 

Machines of love and grace,

Watch over while I find my place,

A living well economy.

 

I could be loving you all day,

Or writing songs or play and play,

Robot is better at that, you say.

 

Til robots strike for minimum wage,

Til robots strike for weekend days,

Write ones and zeros poetry.

 

 

Posted in

Christian Woodard, 10/9/2017

Current Occupation: I just finished a Forest Service season out of Red Lodge, MT and am on my way to Kodiak to pack goat hunts. This winter I'll guide glacier trips in Patagonia. 

Former Occupation: I've been a newspaper writer, managed an apple orchard, gillnetted salmon, and built trails. I've had short stints as a professional kayaker, graphic and web designer, driver, and dishwasher.

Contact Information: I was born in Western New York and live most of the time in south-central Montana. 

#

Skinning the Fish

 

Graham followed, bloodying his palms on the salmonberry to catch his balance. “It’s important to be wounded,” he said. He showed his hands to the guide then wiped them on his new pants.

“I avoid it when I can,” Falco said without looking back. He followed game trails through birches which sometimes opened into cottonwood orchards where deer had trampled the meadows to mud. The elder bushes were bitten back hard. Too many deer.

They were going to fish on Park Creek. That’s what Merle and Falco called the drainage that linked their camp to the center of the island. Merle had built the camp near Park Creek’s mouth, where it carried quartz and gold dust to a black gravel delta that, at low tide, nearly closed off the bay. It was an old mining claim.

Falco was taking Graham to the pool where silver salmon collected before thrashing up a canyon. The drainage hooked behind one of the long, peninsular ribs that descend from the backbone of the island and define its bays. Merle had always called those sharp, icy mountains “The Spine.”

They were nearly to the pool when Graham whispered, “Look,” and pointed out a lone hoof track in the mud. “I think there might be a deer here.” His eyes went wide inside their heavy brows.

“I think you’re right, Graham.” Falco tried not to treat him like a child, but he couldn’t help ending sentences with his name. He led with exaggerated quietness, stopping sometimes to listen.

Graham unslung his rifle — a Savage 30-06 that still had stickers on it — and tried to walk exactly in Falco’s footsteps. It was the same, ordinary rifle Graham had used two days before to shoot a mountain goat through the hoof, across the rump, and in the gut before they could finally get close enough to kill it.

Falco’s rifle wasn’t old, but saltwater had corroded the blueing and its butt stock was chipped because he used it as a walking stick. He was hard on his body, too, which at thirty-five had bad knees and back, arthritic fingers, and deep lines around the mouth that showed through a fine blond beard. The skin above his cheeks was thin and creased, which which gave him a distant expression. From time in the binoculars, he thought.

His eyes, though, were quick and earnest. In close conversation he had the same youthful energy as when he had first met Merle at O’Hare.

Falco had stood at the baggage claim, looking for an Alaskan Hunting Guide that had rescued three Kodiak bears siblings when their mother was shot. The Zoo was flying Merle down for their bear symposium. Big beard, Falco had thought. Plaid shirt.

“You the zoo kid,” a very tall man asked. He wore a blazer. The man bent toward him and Falco could smell booze on his breath. His short dress pants made him look even taller.

Falco stood quietly until his expectations adjusted. “How did you know?”

“You smell like shit.”

Falco worked in an animal behavior lab where he entered data on a computer. He wished he smelled more like shit.

Merle leaned down again and winked. “No. I can’t smell worth a damn, anyway.”   

At the symposium, Merle had talked about how trophy hunting helped Kodiak bears. One of the scientists asked how many he’d killed and Merle said he had only taken one bear himself. “I caught her knocking down my cabin wall,” he said. “Wish I didn’t have to do it.”

“But when you take trophy hunters, do you carry a gun?”

“Of course.” Merle shook his head slightly at the scientist. “I back my clients up, if that’s what you mean.”

The man smiled. “How many bears have you pulled the trigger on?”

Merle thought for a minute and counted on his fingers. “Close to a hundred, I’d guess.”

Doctor Petersen stood quickly and thanked Merle politely for saving the baby bears.

Merle sat down heavily next to Falco. “They think I’m a peasant who accidentally dug up a pot of gold,” he’d said from the side of his mouth. “These bitches,” he finished his wine and exhaled, “wouldn’t know a tapeworm if it crawled out of their ass.”

Falco quit his job and went to Kodiak that summer. Merle flew him to the hunting camp in his 206. Neither of them had been south in eight years.  

 

Falco walked upstream until the canyon vaulted above them. Its whitewater swirled and churned into a dark pool. He pointed out the slow, dark dorsal fins of salmon resting at the inside bend. “Just cast across them and pull your lure through that bunch.”

“Won’t we scare them?” Graham scrunched his eyes shut when he asked questions. He might have thought he was blinking, but it used more cheek than eyelid.   

“I doubt it,” Falco said. “Good job walking quietly back there, Graham.” Falco picked a stem of dry rye grass and chewed it while Graham lowered himself down the cutbank and threaded his rod.

Once, in the zoo basement, Falco had found an escaped chimp tugging at a payphone. The monkey squinted at him. With a sudden violent motion it broke the telephone cord and galloped down the hall holding the receiver.

Graham glanced up at Falco and moved a few steps upstream. He swung the rod with the bail closed and the lure splashed into the shallows. Graham slammed the reel open and tried again, losing his balance with the cast. Falco turned his back to the stream so Graham didn’t feel watched.     

Falco had gone to college for animal behavior, which had all the benefits though none of the social requirements of studying people. He had had a few strong human relationships, but they’d all soured in the end. It had been that way with Doctor Petersen and the director at the lab. Merle was different, though. Merle had never meant to misuse him.

When Falco had cornered the escaped monkey it brandished the phone receiver. He knew he should return the chimp to its enclosure but crouched to speak softly and the animal came to him. It rested the thick skin of its palm on Falco’s shoulder in the sort of gesture only one free being could give to another. He let it walk its strong fingers up to his ear. They faced each other curiously.

“I’m sorry,” he’d said. Startled, the monkey jumped back, clubbed him on the forehead with the phone and run out into the hallway. Oh well. He had been sorry, all the same.  

Graham made a few casts well short of the fish, which held their place. The lure was heavy enough that he should have been able to send it all the way across. Graham relaxed into the gentle repetition of retrieving the spoon. Maybe he just wanted to fish without actually catching one.

 

When Graham had arrived three days earlier, Falco expected to see Merle get out of the floatplane, too. The old man wouldn’t be tying up at the floating dock anymore. He had flown straight into a mountain that spring, when the ceiling closed down during one of his rare runs to town. Crashes like that didn’t happen very much anymore, but it happened to Merle, and Falco still had the small bag of his ashes in the hide shed.

The new pilot was young and couldn’t get the back door handle to turn. When it did pop open a flat of eggs slid onto the dock.

“Sorry,” he said. “Rough flight.”

Falco set the eggs on a fuel drum. Graham stumbled off the plane under the weight of his backpack. His lips and eyebrows stuck out so that he looked like a pensive, balding ape. He shook Falco’s hand and then leaned in for a back-patting hug. Falco had hunted with Graham before — sheep and moose in the Alaska Range and once for brown bear on the Peninsula. Graham pretended to be a plumber, but he sure had a lot of money for trophy hunts.

Falco planned to bring the ashes into the head of Park Creek, but he was booked solid through the winter. He’d have to get up there on a hunt, and needed a strong client to make it over the mountains and back. He and Merle had always wanted to hunt up there. Once they’d watched from the plane as forty-six goats formed a line and walked out the head of the valley through a narrow notch. They could plot approaches on the map, but neither of them had made it to the high bowl that looked, from camp, like the belly button of the island.

Falco helped Graham carry his bags up the slick stairs. Camp was a collection of buildings racked by wind. Merle built the main house and a guest cabin; Falco had added a small cabin for himself. There was also a small shack leftover from the mining claim that, by unspoken tradition, they left to decay. They stretched and salted the hides in there and hung mesh meat bags from the haphazard rafters. So far, it still stood. Canning salt seeped from its foundation and the door skewed off one hinge.

The charter plane roared away from the cove. Graham set down bags at his cabin. He spread his arms and sighed deeply. “It’s good to be back,” he said, and wrapped Falco in another hug. He meant Alaska, maybe, because he’d never set foot on Kodiak. Falco imagined that Graham was the disappointing son of a powerful businessman. He tested Graham’s gym muscles under the new camo jacket. He could probably make it to the Spine.

 

Finally, by luck, Graham snagged a silver in the heavy current. After a few runs he pulled it onto the clay. The fish was pale red, with its silver scales long gone, and lay tangled in monofilament from desperate rolls to throw the lure. As Graham worked the line off, a few orange eggs rolled out onto the bank and back into the water.

“A nice fish, eh?”

“A very nice fish.” Falco used pliers to pull the rusted treble hook from where it had snagged, near her vent. “Would you like a picture?”

“Of course.” Graham held the fish gently for the photo.

“Nice. You know how to let her go, running the water over her gills?”

“I’d like to keep it.”

Falco always paused before speaking. This came off as awkwardness among people who prepared their next statement while the other person spoke. Here on Kodiak, though, he felt that clients appreciated time to weigh their thoughts. “Will you eat it? The meat will be pretty far gone.”

“No, we’ll mount him.” The fish moved quietly and Graham squirmed against it.

Clients came to escape whatever trapped him down south, and Falco didn’t like to burst their bubbles. Falco touched his waxed baseball hat. “They don’t do skin mounts on fish anymore. A taxidermist will use a photo and measurements to make a fiberglass model. You’d better let her go before she’s too weak to swim.”

“Aren’t those skin mounts in the house?” Graham squeezed his eyes closed and shook his head a little.

At times, Falco pitied his clients so much he forgot to be angry with them. “Yes, but they were done fifty years ago. I don’t think you’ll find anyone who does them, now.”

“Oh, don’t worry. I’ll find someone,” Graham said, handing the fish back. “Can you kill him, please?”

Falco didn’t notice Merle’s absence so much a shadowy presence in his own habits and attitudes. Now wordless, Merle-like hatred overtook his pity. He rapped the fish on its forehead with his knuckles. She jerked and the muscles quivered. Graham scurried off into the weeds, probably to take a shit, which he did after most exciting events.

He slid the thin tip of his boning knife into the fish’s skull, cut out the stiff gills and washed her in the water. Even so, her body undulated in the current. Dying was such a long process. Her skeleton was already soft and the throat had separated so that her head gaped free, attached only by the backbone. She was a poor, mid-sized fish. He held her over the water and massaged the eggs from her belly into the current. Salmon, he thought, most ancient of fish. Female antecedent to all. The current was probably too strong for them to be fertilized but what did it hurt.

The canyon cut its top layers through glacial sediment and volcanic ash, but the bottom was a dark corridor of smooth schist. Salmon rested in pockets carved into its overhung walls. A few bright dikes of quartz receded up the black walls, padded with moss and fern. Falco had tried to walk around it on a bear hunt last year, but his client had been fat, and they had to turn back. Even after the canyon it was many miles to the green, headwater lake.

Two days ago they had nearly made it over the mountains to that basin where spring’s lemony green held long into the fall. Falco loved Kodiak’s insistent wetness. The water that evaporated here seemed to fall right back down. There was always a bit of life crawling out of some sodden pore.

He’d had his eyes on the highlands and when he looked back down, a bear walked on a sandflat downstream. It moved slowly with steps originating in its swinging belly. Falco liked watching them peel open salmon and swallow them down. The bear looked at Falco, glanced above him to where Graham may have been pulling up his pants by now, and disappeared silently into the alder.

 

    They walked back to camp, where he set Graham up in the guide cabin with a small curved knife and a sharpening stone. Falco demonstrated how to pull the blade over the stone, and George tried with shaking hands.

“I don’t think I can do it,” he said.

“You got it, boss.” Falco opened the fish down its side and set it in Graham’s lap. It would be difficult to finish without ripping the decaying skin, but Graham needed to do something for himself, even if he failed.

    Falco got some beer from under the porch and pulled a broken plastic chair next to Graham to work on the goat head. The painstaking work of ears nose, eyelids and lips would last him the afternoon.

Falco stropped the fine tip he needed. He adjusted the diesel stove and made his first cut to pull clean, white skin away from the skull. Falco loved the inner workings of animals — where the blood comes and goes; how the bones fit into one another. Muscles peeled apart in perfect packets like they were supposed to be meat. On the mountain he was careful not to set boned meat on dirty rock or lichen. Sometimes, he would drag an animal a long way to get it to snow or a stream where he could clean it properly.

He had made Graham drag the goat to the edge of the snowfield so Falco could look down into Park Creek while he worked. It was such a perfect, blue day to walk and still early. Falco had tried to settle into skinning, but the ragged flaps of hide were dirty and he had to be careful around the hind flanks where a bullet had creased both haunches and the scrotum. Maybe his bullet. The front hoof was punctured through its hard sidewall. Viscous oil poured from the soft interior pad where the goat used to feel its footing on slate.

He blamed Graham for taking the shot, but Falco should have been a better babysitter. They had watched the small billy for a few minutes. It was at about four hundred yards, sidehilling talus. It had small glands and spiky horns and was no trophy, but it kept glancing up before moving. Falco snuck ahead to see if it was looking to more goats above.

He hadn’t been ready when Graham shot. Falco turned to see the goat hunch and stumble before trotting down the talus. It looked like a good chest hit from the way the animal shrugged, so he was slow to find a rest on his jacket, dial down and shoot.

He should have been able to put the goat down, but the animal ran before Falco got on. He’d hit it once at about five hundred, and he’d broken its front leg at even farther. That was long range for a .375, but Falco wasn’t proud. There was no reason for a fit guy like Graham to take a long shot like that. With a little patience, you could usually get inside a hundred yards. He’d never done it with a client, but once, wearing a white Tyvek painting suit, he’d come close enough to see a big billy’s strange, squared pupils. The hunters always brought camo, but goats were more comfortable with white.

Graham’s goat drug itself downhill to lay in the melted pocket under a boulder. It raised its head to moan as they picked their way down. It looked like a yellow stain in the shadow. At two hundred yards, Falco made Graham shoot again.

“Hold right where its shoulder pokes out. You can kill it, Graham.” But he’d missed and it still whimpered when he shot again at a hundred.

Sick with its distress, Falco ran up and killed it from ten yards. He smoothed the goat’s ears as it finally quieted and waited ten minutes with his fingers in the coarse hair. Falco wanted them both to calm down before they did anything.  

Falco stood slowly. “Alright, Graham?”

“I feel awful, man.” His eyebrows were pulled down tight and their wispy outer edges quivered.

Falco eyed the pass above them. Once he’d seen a bear run through that gap. It wasn’t likely, but if it happened he wanted more time before it got to the goat. He took a piece of cord from his pack and slipped it around the hind leg. “Drag him down where the ice rolls over that edge. Not too close, though.”

The guts were destroyed. They poured out in a stinking mess, purple and green and all mixed up. Above the diaphragm the lungs were roiled with broken ribs and froth from his last shot. He found a fragment of Graham’s 30-06 against the far hide and held it up.

“That’s your bullet,” he said. “Went through the chest, probably your first shot.”

Graham had a small knife out but hadn’t found a way to help. “It’s ruined, eh? The trophy?”

Falco turned downhill. The body cavity breathed rank steam across his view of Park Creek. “No. The taxidermist can fix it. At least it didn’t lose a horn, like if it had fallen off a cliff.”

“They do that?”

“Fall off cliffs? Yeah, when you poke holes in them. A taxidermist can make up a fake horn, even.” Falco worked the hide off the ribs. It was a three-year old and came off easily. He hardly had to use the knife. “The fall’s what kills ‘em a lot of the time. They’re one hell of a tough animal, and yours wasn’t in a place to fall.”   

From where he skinned, the hanging lake at the head of the valley looked like a green eye. Park Creek’s highest spring sprouted from a bank of wet stones below the lake. Falco pulled the undamaged tenderloins from the vertebrae and sensed his own hidden muscles with a sinking thrill.

Merle had shown him that the island’s interior was a secret. Kodiak’s people had always looked outward, drawing their life from the sea. But the interior — its thickets and milky streams, berry-covered highlands and long plateaus — remained a mystery to almost everyone. Pilots flew over and knew the landmarks, but Falco had run his hands through its hair.

 

He finished two beers before he looked up. Graham was running along pretty good. He had his tongue out between oversized lips, which he hadn’t opened to speak in who knows how long. Falco let out an impressive fart. It was magnified by the plastic chair on the raised plywood floor and they both paused before laughing.

“Whew!”

It was nice to see a smile on Graham’s face. He’d been taking himself so seriously since the goat. “You know, I’ve been married twenty years, and I’ve never farted in front of my wife.”

“Go ahead,” Falco flipped the skin off the head bone, “I’m not your wife.”

“I mean anybody.”

Falco gestured around the bunkhouse — antlers and bullet boxes, old gloves and knives. “This is the best fart rehearsal room in the world.” He stomped the resonant floorboards. “Makes even an amateur something special.”

Graham laughed again and with a distracted gesture put a long tear in the fish skin. He swore and jiggled his foot. “That’s it, then. The whole thing is fucked. I ruined it.”

That was the same way he was on the way up the mountain, poor guy. Always ready to blame himself. They were almost to tundra when he realized that every movement of his arm spun his scope turret. It was an expensive scope, but Graham hadn’t marked the zero, so he couldn’t tell how far off it was.

“This whole hunt. I’ve been planning it for years, and now look. My rifle is fucked.” Then he ran into the bushes to shit.

Falco said it was okay, that they could boresight it when they got to camp and if nothing else, he could use Falco’s gun. Beneath his reassurances, though, Falco’s anger rose against the pitiful, frantic energy.

Falco set down the nearly skinned head in his lap, its lips inside-out. The fish skin was torn across the belly. He reached down to the sixpack and opened one for each of them. “You’re going to have two ragged trophies from this trip,” he said, and drank half the beer in a gulp. He raised the can. “Congratulations.”

“You said the taxidermist could cover up the damage, right? Because the hair was so long?”

“He will.” After a year or two of looking at the perfectly mounted animal, Graham would forget how they’d ripped it apart. And how it lay there bawling for half an hour before they could finish it off.  Falco despised clients who mangled the pure essence of things to serve their ego. Few didn’t.

“Fuck, man. You know I feel awful about how that went.” Graham extended the tear in the skin until it separated into two strips over the gray flesh. “It’s not polite to talk about it.”

Falco lifted his hand. He was ashamed of ruining Graham’s hunt and disappointed they hadn’t made the high valley. He would be polite. “I just wish we hadn’t ruined that goat’s day.” Falco knew that Graham was waiting for an opportunity to justify himself. He’d probably start by glorifying the animal.

“It’s okay. They’re just tough animals. Magnificent animals.” Graham sipped his beer with hazy eyes and exhaled like he’d taken a shot of liquor. “I just like being in their country.”

They sounded like soothing phrases that Graham had repeated to himself before he came, but also like practice for stories he’d tell his indifferent wife. Next, Graham would say something about friendship. He always talked like Falco and Merle were his buddies, but you don’t pay your buddy this kind of cash.

“I’m glad we could go up there together,” he said.

Falco wished they hadn’t gone up there at all. “They are tough.” They both drank their beers and stared at the wall. Falco turned down the oil stove.

Graham burped loudly. Getting warmed up for a fart, maybe. “How come you never got married?” He rolled strips of fish skin into little balls.

Falco shook his head and pulled the wooden form out from the ear. Just the eyelids left to finish up. “Not fit for female company.”

“Don’t you get lonely?”

Falco was lonely but not for women. He wished Merle was there to help him hate Graham. Merle always believed that living without humanity is superhuman, but made an exception for Falco. “I was born lonely, I think. Nobody to remind me of it around here.”

“I’m the opposite. I have to try hard to get alone. Back home, everybody wants me to do something.” He laughed. “Try being married sometime, man.”

Falco coughed. “You’re not lonely, then.”

“Not when I’ve got good friends to hunt with.” Falco had to uncomfortable sense that Graham was about to lean against his shoulder. He scooted his chair away.

“Listen, man, if I could live this life, I would. Little house on the water. It’d be perfect.”

Falco finished his beer. Graham looked so mournful that the pity returned against his anger. “I don’t have to bite off farts for anybody, anyway.” “

“But I didn’t grow up to it. You must have done this since you were a little kid.”  

“Nope. My dad ran a grain elevator.” Falco hadn’t admitted that in years. “I’m from Indiana.”

“What?” Graham shook his head. “Guess I never knew you could. Until too late. How’d you start guiding, then?”

Falco laughed a little and crushed his can with a twist. “I got a college degree for it.”

“Stop shittin’ me.”

“No, I did. Animal Behavior. Had a bunch of stuck up bosses, then I met Merle by accident.” Merle was the first man he’d met who was proud of imperfection. He wore t-shirts filigreed with sweat holes. He spit into the bottom of the skiff. It wasn’t always easy to be around him, but it was easier to be around himself in Merle’s presence. Falco clenched his jaw to keep the tears back.

“I never went to college.” Graham turned the fish’s gray flesh in his hands. “What are we doing tomorrow?”

Graham had paid for a five day hunt and they were only two down. Three days was a long time to sit around camp. They could go ocean fishing, but the halibut had likely moved deep by now. They could hunt deer or chase ducks around in the skiff. “Haven’t decided yet. You think about what you want to do, and let me know in the morning.”

“What time is breakfast?” Graham stood and dropped the rank fish skin in the scrap bag.

“I’ll get you up,” Falco said.

Graham stepped outside then peeked back in through the almost shut door. “I’m sorry about Merle,” he said. “He was a good friend.”

Falco nodded slowly. He waited for Graham to close the door before slowly shutting his eyes and squeezing tears onto his nose. You got no idea, he thought. Falco finished the head and took the hide to the shed. His headlamp cast plump shadows from the meat bags. He unfolded the skin on the floorboards and poured salt from a forty pound bag. He knelt to spread salt across the flapped skin.

The hide would cure here for a couple weeks before he sent it off to the taxidermist. Every animal out of Merle’s camp had paused in this building before its immortal tenure in somebody’s trophy room. Falco liked the humid, metallic smell. Moisture from the skins of all the bears and deer and goats and even a few foxes had had joined the air in this broken down shed. He liked that their living wetness stayed on Kodiak so the hunters took nothing but dry, dead husks with them.   

The salt got into nicks on his knuckles he hadn’t noticed. Falco carefully worked the fine crystals into sinuses of the goat’s face. He turned out his light and knelt over it a long time. He listened to the dock sway under light waves. An oil drum bonged with the cooling temperature. The salt dissolved with a subtle hiss.

He cleaned salt and fat from his fingernails. Falco turned on his light, nodded to the rafter where he’d hidden Merle’s ashes and went in to bed.    

 

Falco slept badly and got up to piss. The moon was down and it was past the middle of the night by the tide. The dry skiff was about to float. His inland mind told him that a moonless night is pure dark, but the sea gathered starlight and the subtle electrical pulses of its creatures and heaved itself luminous on the shoreline.  

The Spine’s was a jagged, blank border below the stars. Merle was up there. The Coast Guard retrieved his body but up high, Falco felt, he could still meet Merle. He didn’t know if they’d recognize each other, Merle being dead. Some old trait would give him away, though — long steps on the outside of his feet, maybe. He expected to see Merle through the binoculars, striding a distant ridge.

Merle never said much, so it wasn’t right that they’d talk. Even just a wave would calm him down. In the last few years, Merle resented his clients more and more. Falco didn’t think it very professional, but as part of his unconscious imitation, he indulged himself in the same, quiet judgements: naive, childish, helpless, egotist.

To avoid confronting those traits in himself, Falco tried to live one moment at a time. He didn’t give much thought to the future and hadn’t considered what guiding would mean without Merle. He hadn’t planned to take over the operation but he was licensed for it, and the hunts had already been booked.

Graham was his first client since Merle died. Falco had put up with him so far, but the remaining three days weighed like a dense pack he couldn’t find a place to set down.

Falco hummed but it made him more lonely. The nights in October were too long to wait for sunrise. They could still make the green-eyed lake, he thought, if they got an early start. Graham was fit and if they escaped the brush before lunch they could take two days up with one to get back down. The tide filled under the skiff and it floated free to the end of its painter. He went into the main house to make breakfast.

 

He said they were going deer hunting. They ate in the dark and by the time they skiffed to the gravel flats it was dawn. Falco carried their camp and Graham, his rifle. The deer were just standing from their beds as the sun hit them.

“What about that one?” Graham pointed to a tall deer with his nose up a doe’s butt.

“That’s a little guy.” It was a nice three-by, but Falco wasn’t hunting. If they were going to make it he needed to keep Graham from shooting anything.

By lunch they had passed the canyon and were in the broad, meandering flats.  Graham had figured out they were making a dash for the Spine. “Better deer hunting up high, eh?”

Falco stayed in his binoculars, watching an eagle fluff itself by the water. “That’s where the big ones are.”  

They camped on a small rise where they could see the rolling backs of salmon headed to spawn in stillwater crooks. A small bear walked out of the alder and through the floodplain grasslands at dusk. Graham reached for his rifle but Falco touched his arm.

“He’ll scent us when he gets to those trees,” he said. The bear made the downwind birches, then turned and put its weight on its hind legs to sniff at them. It dropped its ears and loped sideways across the stream.

“He sure doesn’t like how you smell.” Falco said, and Graham smiled a little. He had peeled the stickers from his rifle, maybe seeing that they weren’t an integral part of the gun for the first time. It’s easy to get attached to things you don’t need.

Falco remembered when he’d showed his first rifle, a Browning .338, to Merle. The old man said there was a lot of extra gun there and took it to the shop. Falco had watched, speechless, as he hacksawed four inches off the barrel.

“It’ll just slow you down in the brush,” Merle had said, “You don’t need it.” It looked stubby for a while, but Falco got used to it.

He got them up early. They ate by headlamp and started walking with the first blue light. Falco angled uphill to get out of the river, where it was too easy to surprise a bear in the brush. They left the cottonwoods and every clearing stretched longer than the last. By mid-morning they were below the snowfield where Graham’s goat had bawled, waiting for them to kill it.

Bears had already visited the carcass and spread ribs and back and leg bones along the snow’s lower skirt. Falco stopped to watch the ravens fight over scraps of fat. One flew with a strip of meat and the rest harried it. “It doesn’t take long to disappear out here,” Falco said. He wished the Coast Guard had just left Merle on the mountain.

“Don’t let me die on this mountain, man.” Graham was only partly joking. “I want to tell stories when I get home.”

After four days most clients got a little homesick. Falco scanned the valley through binoculars. He could never remember where Graham was from, but it had to be shittier than this. Falco had lived with general homesickness for too long to recognize it in himself. “I wouldn’t mind turning into raven poop.”

“You know if I were younger, I’d be doing what you’re doing.” Graham heaved a heavy sigh.

Why did they all say that? Like they were victims of their age. “Nobody’s getting any younger.”

Falco led on, using his rifle as a walking stick. Graham struggled behind. He’d hurt his knee and tied a red bandanna on as a brace.   

They sat in the vibrant, antlered lichens that topped the hummocks to eat candy bars. Graham hadn’t seen them yet, but they had pushed a line of ten goats onto the bulge to their left. Ahead of them was the steep trail that he and Merle had watched the huge herd use. The final push.

“Is that the top?” Graham asked.

“I think so.” It wasn’t quite, but from there they could look down into the lake.

“Christ. I don’t think even a goat could get up that.”

They dropped their packs and went up, leaning into the hill. The ridge was too thin to stand comfortably, so they lay down and peeked over the edge. The far side was a steep gully of broken rock that emptied onto a hanging patch of ice before dropping again into the green lake.  

It was perfectly round except for a small dent below them at a rockfall. Falco had thought that the lake was Park Creek’s source. He’d imagined that this ridge was porous so that its water seeped into the stream. But they had climbed on solid rock, and the lake met the cliffs in a clean line. Falco saw now that it was a terminal basin. It didn’t drain to anywhere, and the same water had frozen and unfrozen in that pocket every year since the glacier melted.

“Is that the Spine?” Graham pointed to the serrated cliff opposite the lake.

It was. If they got on those cliffs, they could see the other side of the island, but now that he was here Falco didn’t feel like exploring. “I thought it was going to be different,” he said.

Falco shuffled forward on his knees and peed over the edge. Graham tried, but was too scared to get any out. They returned to the grassy bowl behind them to set up camp. The willow twigs around them were covered with hanks of dirty goat hair. Falco lay on his pack and glassed the herd they had displaced. They made dinner, and sunlight walked up the opposite slope. By then the goats had come down and stood near camp, even though Graham wouldn’t shut up.

“What a beautiful spot!” He said, yet again. “Thanks for bringing me up here, man.”

Falco drummed his fingers on a wet stone. He had expected this to be a sacred place but couldn’t get into the mood with Graham around. Falco uncapped his binoculars and glassed the nearest goats.

“Too bad we didn’t see any good deer, eh?”

Of course he still wanted to kill something. “You have another goat tag,” Falco said from behind the binoculars. “That one by the stream is a huge nanny. She’s got to be twelve or better.”

“You mean shoot her?”

“She’s inside two hundred yards.” There was a big billy, too, but he was farther and Falco didn’t trust Graham’s aim. “You can use my rifle if you’re still worried about yours.”

They watched her for a few minutes before Graham picked up Falco’s gun and stretched off the scope cover. He sat quietly on the ground and settled his elbows into his knees. The nanny fed toward them. She was very white against the yellow willows, and the hair fell from her flanks in twisted dreadlocks.  

Falco heard the safety tick off, the bolt draw back and the familiar clink of one of his jacketed rounds in the chamber. She lifted her head to the noise. Dusk was coming quickly, and the first stars were out above the bowl. The goats, bunched around them in the depthless, rolling flats, appeared to float as they fed.

If it couldn’t be sacred, Falco had a perverse desire for the chaos of fleeing goats and the transformation of a gorgeous wild animal into nothing but a carcass. “Just keep shooting,” Falco whispered. “If she’s still moving, reload and shoot her again.” He slid a rack of bullets against Graham’s leg.

“Should I wait until she turns?”

Head on wasn’t a great shot, but he wanted Graham to blow her to bits. He shrugged. “Your call.”  

She had a narrow face and graceful horns that seemed to almost touch in the back. He usually tried to ask the forgiveness of animals but couldn’t tonight. Graham adjusted his seat and settled the stock into his shoulder. His breathing was fast. “Damn. Can’t hold it.”

He put up the gun and stretched prone, resting the stock on a hummock. Graham’s breathe slowed and Falco hunched his shoulders in anticipation of the shot. The dark was coming quickly, but things looked brighter in the scope. Graham still had a minute or two. Falco heard the safety click back on and the rustle of Graham lifting the rifle to vertical. “Not going to shoot her?”

“That’s okay,” Graham said. “That would be a long way to carry her back.”

Falco nodded. He slumped against the pack, and his sweat chilled him. All his overlying emotions had burned out, and Falco drifted on his sadness. It was a pleasant enough night up here. He couldn’t remember why they’d come. Deer hunting. He laughed silently. “It’s a still night for a shot, anyway.”

Graham dropped the magazine, ejected the chambered bullet and handed the rifle back to Falco. “You know, you could live up here.”

Poor guy. Falco understood that Graham’s life felt like a cage, but this was a little extreme. “No, you couldn’t.”

“I mean, make a little hut from stones, eat ptarmigan and goat and deer.”

In a minute he sat up. “It’s a tough winter this high. See that line where the grass stops? The bowl is drifted full to there. There’s no wood to keep a fire going. No place to land a plane. You’d have to make it down to salt every time you needed something.” He shook his head. But, even with all those reasons, he knew it could be done. They both knew it was possible, just hard and lonely, which heightened the attraction.

“But still,” Graham said. “Maybe in that hollow by the spring.”

Falco already had looked it over. “That is a likely spot.”

“They’d probably find us eventually, though.”

“No, man. Nobody comes here.” He wondered if Graham would ever suggest a rock hut on the Kodiak Spine to his wife.  

Moonlight filled the valley, and the goats bedded on the face turned to vibrant silver splotches. A few still fed across the moraine where their feet skittered on loose stone. Falco stood with the bag of ashes. “We can catch you another fish on the way out, tomorrow. I should have helped you skin it last time.”

Graham looked up at him. “Where are you going?”

The valley had a companionable emptiness. His loneliness, most palpable in town and on the coast, was soothed by the encircling bowl. He rolled up his sleeves so his sweat could burn off. “On a walk.”

“What about bears?” Graham’s eyes showed a prehistoric fear. He pursed his lips and looked around for his stickerless rifle.

“Don’t put a bullet in your chamber,” Falco said. He smiled in the dark. “I’m going to come back in a few minutes. I might snuffle and stomp a little, and I don’t want you to shoot me.”

Falco walked uphill across broken flat slates that rocked under his feet. He climbed in a light shirt to the ridge, where the lake was already in moonlight. The moon’s shadow line crept across the Spine. When it reached his knees, he poured ashes from the corner of the bag in a thin stream along the boundary.

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Douglas Cole, 10/2/2017

Current Occupation: Poet, Writer, Teacher, Stage Hand/Roadie
Former Occupation: Construction Worker, Waiter, Caterer, Driver, Cook, Staff Manager of a Middle School, Painter, 
Contact Information: Douglas Cole has published four collections of poetry. His work appears in journals such as The Chicago Quarterly Review, Chiron, The Galway Review, The Pinyon Review, Solstice, Eastern Iowa Review, Kentucky Review, Wisconsin Review, and Slipstream. He has been nominated for a Pushcart and Best of the Net, and has received the Leslie Hunt Memorial Prize in Poetry; the Best of Poetry Award from Clapboard House; First Prize in the “Picture Worth 500 Words” from Tattoo Highway. His website is douglastcole.com

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Calling in Sick

I stole Friday from the grinding work beast 
and I went to the gym and read and slept
but still I felt those hours I’d already sold
and the existing contract sucking my soul
as though even slick and sly and careful
you can’t slip away and trick the machine 
its hooks deep electric down in us all 
and I have this image of petty low-level 
bureaucratic clerks on their detectors 
extracting the exact energetic equivalent 
of those pre-sold chunks of my life 
as I grip in trying to yank them back.

Jobs

My first job was Disabled Student Services
at a little college where I drove disabled students 
back and forth to class in this little golf cart
I might make a run every other hour or so
but the rest of the time I just sat around
playing chess with a woman with flipper arms
a birth defect and she had a crush on me
she only came around during my shifts
well a couple of years and cities later I saw her 
and we both acted like we didn’t know each other 
though you don’t see a lot of people with flipper arms
but seeing her reminded me of something 
my boss Chauncey told me when I started work
it’s not important that you be busy but you look busy 
and that’s the best advice I ever got about jobs

The Great Equalizer

I’m calling this Good Friday
paying off the last bill I’m left broke 
absolutely stripped and lined up for overtime
sitting in a meeting with a bow-tie fool
and his charts and graphs on how times are tough
underlying meaning is you’re lucky to have a job
so shut up and take what little pay you get
smug type-A fucker going home to his partner
a glass of wine television sexy time and sleep
up before the rest of us making a new agenda
corporate cog machine drone boring and loud
death’s little helper hand holding us down 
the gangplank into the grave saying think again
oh think again as sad lost confused ones pray
but death’s coming to wipe his slate clean too
little stooge man think again mouth wide open 
eyes wide open with surprise as he’s swept 
into the empty hole with the rest of us
falling flailing bowtie fluttering
burned of all that petty triumph he falls
babbling incoherent right back into the cradle
arms waving mind blazing new understanding
I’m here he says though no one understands
groping helpless he cries out I’m here I’m here

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