#13 Working Girl [memoir]

This story begins in the bedroom I shared with my sister in the apartment we lived in with our parents on Twelfth Street in Santa Monica. It's  #13 of my  "On the Street where I Live Stories."  Yep, I've got many miles to go. 

 Miss Mouse Goes to Work 

I woke to the ringing of a far off phone; I knew without opening my eyes that the light beyond my bedroom window was still grey, the sky and the sidewalk matching shades of slate. Too early to even think about waking up. I burrowed deep into my pillow, desperate to stay in that sweet half-sleep state when the morning can be anything you want it to be. I’d stay in bed until about ten, then, like most days that summer, I planned on hitting the beach with my best friend. 
It wasn’t just the ringing phone barging in uninvited from the living room of our apartment or the daylight’s insistence on pushing past the window, my mother’s voice was breaking through too, the musical tones of her English accent getting louder, clearer, closer. Then came the knock on the bedroom door. I gave it my back, tugged the covers over my head; my last remaining chance at peace was to fake being asleep but I’d never be able to pull it off if my mother got a good look at my face. I’m a lousy liar. I can’t help it, the truth writes itself all over my face.
“Simone, dear?” The bedroom door opened and my mother called out in a stage whisper loud enough to wake the dead yet somehow not my dead-to-the-world younger sister flopping around on her matching twin bed. She’d come home late last night, probably stoned or smashed again.
“Are you awake love?” I could feel my mother leaning over me now, a mix of tea and toothpaste on her breath. “Ive got some really great news! 
In our family ‘great news’ was winning the pools. Sitting at the used desk my parents bought from Wertz Brothers, the cherry wood finish and leather-inlaid top belying its’  bargain price-tag status, my dad did the pools every Sunday like he was going to church. He sat at that desk, squeezed in between the couch and the front door, and in jacket and tie, he pored over the English newspaper for the football scores of his favorite football teams back in England. Making and marking his selections neatly and deliberately, he mailed his entry back to Littlewoods in the U.K. in a crinkly thin blue air mail envelope that I coveted—I’ve always had a thing for a blank piece of paper, envelopes included. Week in, week out, my dad stuffed his dreams along with his money in that weekly envelope; it wasn’t as though he never won, he just never won big. 
That didn’t stop him; even a tiny ten pound win kept him going. Whether he was working or not —out in the field checking the oil facilities for an L.A. based petroleum company, or when that job didn’t work out, selling life insurance for the International Order of Foresters, or both before and after that, any number of the commission-based jobs that seemed to be the only positions available to the average unemployed fifty something man in Los Angeles—he never skipped the pools, never thought he was just throwing money away. It was a shot. Maybe he thought it was his only shot, his last shot. They didn’t talk much about money, my parents, not in front of us anyway, but we knew, of course we knew. At some point my father had actually gone so far as to have his head shot taken, his chin cupped in one hand, arm propped on his knee, staring into the camera with a serious expression on his face, like he had big things on his mind. I wish I’d never found that photograph, down in the bottom desk drawer; it felt like I’d seen him naked. I much preferred the picture of my father, glamorous and distinguished in his WWII officer’s uniform even if the man in the old sepia tinted print was gone. Winning the pools was my parent’s last dream; a win would cause plenty of noise. Tears, I imagined, and joyous hugs. No, my mother’s great news wouldn’t be as great as that.
She started peeling the covers off my face.
“Simone, are you awake? She needs someone to start today.”  Her whisper was turning into a hiss.
Oh, please, please can you please just leave me alone. “Hmnhmnhmn. Sorry mum, gotta go beach.”  
She grabbed my shoulder and started shaking.
“Come on now, wake up.” By now her nostrils would be flaring. “If you hurry you can drive in with me. She needs you there this morning. Simmy! It’s a job! You said you wanted a job.” 
I did, but this morning? As in, now? 
“Okay, okay,” I managed to rise up out of the bedcovers, “What do I have to do?”  
She told me the hours were from seven thirty to eleven thirty in the morning which meant I could make some moolah for school and text books and still be on the sand by one. I could enjoy what, according to my mother, were the best days of my life in the best years of my life. I would go on to college and in four years when I graduated, I’d find a lifetime of work awaited. Unless I was lucky enough, she suggested, to marry the right man, a rich man. ‘It’s just as easy to fall in love with a rich man, as it is a poor one.’ I idly wondered how that worked, and if it was so easy, why my mother hadn’t. But this was the seventies when a woman without a man was like a fish without a bicycle. I wasnt my mother. Marriage was the very last thing on my mind. I was going to be a writer.
There wasn’t money for university, any extra cash that my parents ever had was long gone, spent on my older brother’s education so I was starting city college in Santa Monica in the fall. I could make the money to transfer to UCLA later, take English classes, read all the great literature, all the important books. Then I’d move to New York, get a job at a magazine. Mademoiselle, if I was out-of-this-world lucky. Write short stories on the side, the Great American novel. That was my dream. My Great American Writer Dream.
And that’s how I found myself trying not to yawn while Rosemary, the manager of the employee cafeteria at my mom’s work, explained that all I had to do was make some sandwiches, and help out at the register if it got busy.
“Have you worked a register before? Know how to make change?” 
There went my face again, giving me away. I didn’t have to say a word, she knew. 
“You’ll be fine,” she assured me. “Here, go put this on.”  She handed me a huge expanse of white fabric, “and put your hair back in a pony tail. Then I’ll show you the register.”  
On my mother’s advice to dress conservatively I’d worn a simple white cotton skirt and a cute little scoop neck t-shirt. Yellow. Checking myself out in the women’s locker room mirror, I thought I looked okay. Until I put the apron over my head, wrapped the apron strings twice around my waist, tied them tightly and watched as all five feet four skinny inches of me disappeared behind the cloth; the apron hitting my bare legs at mid-calf, the Keds that I was wearing without socks, making me look like a flat footed duck. 
Pulling my hair into a ponytail, I wished I’d had my glasses fixed. They were bent out of shape from being stuffed in my beach bag without a case and I’d been too lazy to bother taking them in for an adjustment.  Now they dangled unevenly from my ears. They slipped down my nose. I pushed them back up. They slipped down again. I pushed them back up again. I spent my life trying to hide the fact that I wore glasses at all, let alone lop-sided ones. My prescription was so strong I was doomed to wear the worst kind of glasses; glasses so thick the other kids called them Coke bottles and me, Four Eyes. Glasses that magnified my eyes to about ten times their size so I looked like a bug, or if you take my mother’s word for it, a ‘mouse’.  My parents first noticed what they kindly called my ‘wandering eye’ when I was five. I’d worn glasses ever since. I was supposed to wear them all the time but once I hit puberty, I slipped them off and on constantly, especially if there were cute guys around. And at my high school in Santa Monica, there were always cute guys around. 
Seeing myself now, staring back from the mirror in the General Telephone employee locker room, I prayed for a lack of cute guys. A dearth. Little Miss Mouse. That was me. 
With that last minute burst of confidence-boosting self-appraisal, I rejoined Rosemary in the food prep area.
“Here,” Rosemary said as she spun me around and untied the apron. “Let’s just take this like so—”  and with a couple of flicks, she undid my apron, gathered the fabric in folds until the apron skirted just above my knees. “That’s better! Now let me show you the register.” 
The menu was small, one sheet with the prices posted in marker, taped to the wall. The lunchroom was set up cafeteria style so the employees served themselves, Rosemary showed me how to use the cash register, making sure I knew to press the TOTAL key really hard to get it to open, the cash drawer jerking out noisily. The money was laid out neatly, like Monopoly stash, all the presidents facing the same way. 
Anna, one of the older kitchen helpers who not only wore her hair up in a tight bun, but also wore a hair net over that, taught me how to make the sandwiches.  She showed me how to slip the loaf out of its plastic sleeve in one deft motion, and deal the slices out like a deck of cards, in neat rows down on the counter. To spread the mayo on all the slices of bread before I moved on to the next step.
“Like factory,” she said. “It’s faster you do like this, all same thing. All mayonnaise. All egg salad. All lettuce.”    
I was on the egg salad step, carefully spreading it all the way out to the corners of the bread, just like my mother made them at home when Anna stopped me. 
“No like that.” She was a few feet down the counter, mixing up a batch of tuna. “Just one time, up and down.”  She waved her own knife in the air, back and forth showing me how to wield it properly. “Whoosh. Whoosh.  Fast, like factory.” 
With her hair covered, Anna could have been an old time factory worker herself, like my mother had been in England during World War II. Before she’d met my dad, my mum worked at an airplane parts factory where all the employees had to wear their hair up and covered after one of the girls got her own long hair caught in the works. By the time she was eighteen, my mother had already been working for years. She’d left school at fourteen, taken her younger brothers to the English countryside when the children of London were evacuated during the blitz, and returning home, she’d been a ‘clippie’ running up and down the stairs on London’s double decker buses, punching passengers bus tickets. She said the stairs kept her slim. 
I’d done mostly babysitting and a few temp jobs; folding jeans and stocking the shelves at for an about-to-open Gap store, helping an elderly lady pack up her kitchen, working the gift wrap counter at a department store. Nothing too taxing. Nothing the least bit dangerous. Pretending I was some sort of factory girl too, I cradled the tub of lettuce against my hip, and moving along down the sandwich line, I tossed a piece lettuce on top. Finally, making sure the slices were neatly aligned, I cut the sandwiches in two, triangle style.  
“Like this?” I asked Anna, showing her how I’d placed them, fillings facing out, on a rectangular serving tray. 
“Yes, good.” 
I was almost afraid to ask. “What should I do now?” 
“Now?”  Anna nodded her hair-netted head at the large stack of bread piled at the end of the counter. “Now wheat.” 
Feeling like a pro, I grabbed a loaf and got started. “Egg salad on wheat. Got it.”  
“Your mom is Enid? She’s nice lady. Always smiles and calls me love. She’s English, your mom, right?” 
“Yeah, from London.” It was weird hearing a stranger say nice things about her. 
“She’ll be here soon.”
“Oh, yes, she always take break now. Now and teatime.”
“Tea time?!” 
“Yes, but she drink coffee. She no like the tea here. She say hot water no good.” 
“No, the water has to be boiling. That’s how they make it in England. You have to pour the water on the teabag when the water comes to a roiling boil.” I wondered if Anna would know what that was, a roiling boil. “You know, boiling like crazy.” I made what I hoped were crazy circles with my hands. “Otherwise the tea comes out weak and watery. It’s awful.” 
“There she is, your mom. I told you she coming now.” 
I looked up and there she was, walking up to the counter, smiling.
“Hello love” she said to Anna while she reached over to give me a hug. 
“I tell you so”  Anna nudged me, beaming.
“Well, how’s it going, my Simonetta?”   
“It’s good, fine.” I said, pushing my glasses up with my thumb. “Just making sandwiches.” 
“You need to get those bloody glasses fixed, darling girl. It won’t take but five minutes, you know?”  

She turned back to Anna, “So how’s my girl doing, Anna? Is she being a good helper?” 
“Oh yes. She’s good worker. I almost wish Claudia no coming back tomorrow.” 
“Claudia?” my mom asked.
“You know Claudia! The little one? She no work today so Rosemary say she going to call you.” 
I was too embarrassed to ask if that meant that I didn't really have a job and I wasn’t coming back tomorrow, that’s what it sounded like.
My mother asked. “And Claudia will be back tomorrow?”  
“Tomorrow, yes.” 
“Oh, I see. I thought Rosemary said—well, never mind. I’m sorry Simmy, it can’t be helped.” 
“It’s okay, Mum.”  But I felt weirdly disappointed.
I rang up my mother’s coffee—10¢—and took her money and suddenly there was a crowd of employees all streaming in for their break and wanting coffee at the exact same time. Rosemary had me man the register, raking in the dimes. Sometimes someone would want a piece of pie with their coffee but no one at all bought the sandwiches. 
“Later” Anna said. “At lunchtime. You’ll see” 
“What time is that?” 
“11:30 to 1:30” 
“But isn’t that when I’m supposed to leave? At11:30?” 
“Leave? Oh, no you not leaving. I need you for lunch time! You no want to stay?” 
“Oh no! I do! I just thought—” 
“—I tell Rosemary I need help all day.” 
So I’d stay. But I didn’t even make it to lunch. 

I was zooming along, slicing up some ham and cheese on rye, when I saw something dark and splotchy discoloring the bread. I looked around to see if I’d used ketchup by mistake and almost fainted when I saw that it was my own blood, pouring off my hand and staining the bread a rich, ruby red. I’d cut my finger and while I rushed to the sink, trying to stop the bleeding, the blood kept coming. By now the red was streaming down my arm, onto the white apron and onto the floor. One little finger but that blood was everywhere. I swaddled my hand in about a roll’s worth of paper towels and went in search of Rosemary or Anna. 
“Um, do you have a bandaid?” I asked, feeling like a fool and trying not to cry. 
“Oh shit!” Rosemary said. 
Anna helped me with my bloody finger while Rosemary called my mother, who called my father.
When I was a kid back in Niagara Falls, I’d broken my arm falling into the tomato patch in our backyard. I remembered my mum had called my dad to come home and take me to the hospital then too. Knowing he was coming to get me was the only thing that stopped my tears. I was grateful he was coming to get me now.
“Lucky I happened to be home,” my father said when he picked me up. “My afternoon appointment cancelled.” 
We left my mum at work with the promise to call and let her know I was okay, that there was absolutely no danger of gangrene, and no danger whatsoever that anything would have to be amputated. 
I never thought a second about what my mother did all day. Whether she was nice, as Anna said, or not. Or what it was like for her after being home raising us kids for most of her married life, to have to go back to work in her forties when we moved to California. Had she thought that her workdays were behind her when she met and married my dashing dad all those years ago? After spending her life raising us kids, taking care of the house, enjoying her days reading and gardening and baking, in midlife she had to change with the times. Like women all over the country she got herself out there and got a full time forty hour a week job. Spending her days plugged in at General Telephone, a card carrying member of the Communication Workers of America, she dispatched repairmen to all the broken down phone lines in town, and then my mother came home to dinner, laundry, and cleaning and somehow managed, like Anna said, to always be smiling. 
I was not my mother. She’d worked in an airplane parts factory during the war. When she was even younger than me, she’d worked on the London buses, running home at night alone with the threat of real bombs exploding around her any moment. 
And here I was, unable to make a few lousy sandwiches without making a mess. 
I was not my mother. I wished I could be a real-life heroine, I wished I’d be called on to do my part for my family, my country. I’d love to find the courage to face my fears while facing the world with a smile the way she did. 
I could try. And one day I could write about it. That’s about all I could do.


postscript: my mother died in April of 2012. 
She was almost eighty-seven years old. 

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