October 20, 2015
By Michael A. Calvert
When school started in 1961 and I was not in school, I took every opportunity to see Cathy at the Beverlee Drive-In. Her radiant smile warmed me as she clipped the tray with steaming coffee onto the partially rolled up car window. An all too brief exchange of pleasantries followed by her graceful walk back to the restaurant never failed to warm me more than the coffee.
I often parked my ’48 Nash next to Mel’s metallic gold ’56 Ford and sat in his car. We grumbled about our supervisor at Kroger’s and talked about our co-workers. We commented on the steady stream of passing cars. Some were customized, and some growled with glass pack mufflers, and sported dual exhaust pipes.
Mel approved of the red and white leather-look interior I had completed in my Nash. He said the tassel from my graduation cap was a much better choice than the fuzzy dice some guys dangled from their rear view mirrors.
One September evening, Mel confided that his older sister had recently told him that he had been adopted. She said her mom couldn’t have anymore children after she was born. He never got along with his sister and thought she took pleasure in revealing the secret his parents had kept from him.
I listened as he talked himself through his true status in the family. His folks had always been good to him, but now he resented them. Why couldn’t they have told him themselves? He was certainly old enough. He wondered about his real parents. He doubted that they were totally unknown. He was told that the adoption had been handled anonymously by an agency. As we parted, he shrugged and said it didn’t matter, but he brought it up several times after that night. Each time, I mainly listened. Finally one night when I climbed into his car, he announced, “I’ve been thinking about being adopted. It doesn’t matter, not really, not much anyway. No big deal. Is your Dad behaving these days?”
“Nah. When he got home from Kentucky, Dad became Mr. Nice Guy, apologized about junking my ‘51 Pontiac there, run errands, straightened up the house, and picked up Mom at the bus stop. Dad talked constantly to Mom, me and my sister – whoever was around. He was applying for jobs and even had a couple of interviews in his suit.”
“Sounds like good news, Michael.”
“While it lasted. One evening Dad didn’t show up at the bus stop. Mom had to walk two miles, after working all day. Pisses me off! No phone call for two days. He had been drinking, staying with his buddy Jim Connor, and, on top of everything, he wrote some bad checks. I don’t know how Mom stands it. I’m not sure I can stand it much longer.”
“Jesus, Michael. That’s tough.”
“Yeah, but it’s gets weirder. Then Dad stayed home, got quiet, and slept all the time. He only left the bedroom to go to the bathroom. My sister made sure he met Mom at the bus stop, but then he didn’t feel like eating dinner.”
“What’s his problem?”
“Mom’s got an appointment for him at the VA. He’s been going to the VA off and on since he got out of the army. He gets a disability check every month. Mom thinks they can help him with some medicine. I sure as hell hope so.” We stared out the windshield in silence.
“How about some more coffee? Some more Cathy?” Mel flashed his headlights as she walked by. She was soon at the window, presenting the smile that made me melt and asking if we wanted fries or doughnuts with our coffee.
“Has anyone told you you’re going to start working the overnight shift on Wednesdays?” Mel asked. “You’ve been asking for more hours, and we need another guy to finish before the store opens.”
“Great! As long as they don’t cut my hours on other days. I need the dough. What happens on the overnight shift?”
“Punch in at 8:30 at night before the store closes, open the semi trailer dropped at the back door, set up the conveyors, and start rolling cases off the truck. Dave slices the boxes open, Bob, who knows all the prices, inks it on top of the cans, and the rest of us load them onto dollies and take them out on the floor, and put them up. Takes all night.”
“Sounds like a long night. Do we get a break?”
“The union rules call for a 10-minute break every two hours, but we never take it. We go to breakfast at 2 am and take a full hour. The Beverlee and the Little Chef Diner are the only places open. Fred’s wife packs sandwiches for him, and the rest of us have pancakes and eggs at the Beverlee with policemen, second shift guys from the Timkins plant, and some drunks trying to sober up before they go home to face their old lady.”
“Cathy’s not there?”
“Sorry, Michael. She’s long gone by breakfast, but the coffee’s still good.”
“I’ll be glad to have a few more bucks in my paycheck. I went down to Ohio State and got the application for Winter Quarter. St. Charles is sending me a transcript and I signed up for the ACT test. I don’t have to submit it with a money order until November 15th.”
“You really are going to college, aren’t you?”
“Damn right. If I don’t start now, I may never go. Never know what’s going to happen. I might marry Cathy.”
Mel choked on his coffee, and laughed long and hard.
“You could have just chuckled. I have it all planned, especially our wedding night.”
On Wednesday evening, I picked up Mom at the bus stop, stopped at the the Super Duper for a few things, and had a Chef Boyardee spaghetti family dinner with Mom and the other three kids. Dad stayed in the bedroom.
I lay down in my clothes and tried to nap with no success. I was soon at the store with Mel and the other guys waiting to get my time card punched into the clock. Bob, our crew leader, unlocked the back door, broke the seal on the truck, and soon cases of peaches and peas and boxes of Cheerios and toilet paper were careening down the rollers on the conveyor. Dave wielded his box cutter with the panache of a sword fighter, Bob rapidly plunked a price on the cans, and we stacked them as high as we dared on our dollies. Building displays of sale items at the end of the aisles broke the monotony of mechanically plopping cans and boxes on shelves.
At midnight, Bob came around with an open box of Oreo cookies. He said with a chuckle, “The box was sliced open accidentally. Couldn’t be helped.”
Mel called me over to the dairy case and asked if I liked whipped cream. After I shrugged and nodded, he grabbed a can of Reddi-Wip, eased off the cap, put the nozzle in his mouth, and the white fluff roared until his cheeks bulged. He offered me a red and white can. It was irresistible. In a minute, the caps were replaced and two chipmunks ambled down the aisle.
Just before our breakfast hour arrived, Mel asked me to go with him to the Little Chef instead of the Beverlee with the rest of the crew. He was quiet as we drove to the classic diner that was open 24 hours. We took a booth and Mel dropped a quarter into the table side juke box. Only one other customer was nursing a cup of coffee at the end of the counter.
After we ordered, Mel said, “I’ve decided to move out. My stepparents have supported me long enough. I won’t have to see my sister everyday either.”
“Wow. that’s a big step. I know your sister won’t shed a tear, but it it’ll upset your folks. Are you doing this because you’re adopted?”
“Maybe that’s part of it, but it’s time. I’ll be 21 in a couple of months and I’ve got a steady job. I can afford an apartment and my car payment now that I’m full-time, but it would be easier with a roommate. Would you be interested? Sooner or later you’re going to get into it with your old man. You wouldn’t have to deal with his craziness.”
“Damn it, he’s not crazy. He’s got mental problems from fighting Hitler,” I said raising my voice so the waitress stared at us for a while to see if there was trouble brewing. I resumed a conversational tone, “We’d get along fine, and it would be fun, but… I need to put aside money for tuition, and I may need to help Mom keep the lights on. I had to pay the power bill last month. I can get along with Dad. Sorry, Mel, I just can’t do it.”
Later that morning, we were finishing up in the aisles just before the manager unlocked the front door. As I bent to pick up an empty cardboard box, pain in my lower back brought me to my knees. I couldn’t straighten my back. I pulled myself up by holding a shelf. I shuffled to the back room stooped like a hunchback. Bob took out a small, spiral-bound notebook and jotted down the facts. Mel joined us and asked if I was OK. The other guys watched as they organized the back room, broke down boxes, and took out trash. Bob said to punch out, go home and take a hot bath. Mel walked to my car and offered to drive me home, but I said I could make it.
The next morning I could hardly get out of bed. I hobbled around an empty house, and finally called in sick. Mel showed up with a sheaf of forms and said I had to see a company doctor in two days if I couldn’t come back to work. Becky, our union steward, called and had me repeat the information I had given Bob. She also asked about prior back problems, whether we had our breaks and a full hour for breakfast. She asked me twice if I was sure it was an empty box I was lifting when I was injured. Some of the forms Mel brought were to be returned to her as soon as possible. She promised to make sure I was treated fairly.
The doctor poked my back, nodded, and said I had suffered a lumbar strain. Sleeping on a hard surface was the best treatment. He suggested putting plywood on my bed. You can go back to work in two weeks. I assured him that my back was already feeling better. The doctor said it was company policy, ignored my protestations, handed me a form that said two weeks off and no heavy lifting for a month. I knew that part-time employees were not eligible for sick leave. I would fall behind on my carefully calibrated savings plan for tuition and have less money for gas and everything else.
When I told Mom that I would be off work and sleeping on the floor because of my back, she said, “Oh, honey, back injuries are terrible. Your Dad’s back goes out every month or two and it began with a bicycle accident when he was 13. I hope you don’t have back trouble all your life.”
“My back will be all right, but I’ll miss two paychecks and won’t be able to work the overnight shift on Wednesdays for a month. I’m already behind in saving for tuition. I’ve decided to wait until Spring Quarter. That will work out better.”
“I don’t like that idea one bit, Michael. You’ve missed one quarter, and you don’t need to miss any more.”
“Where is that quilt that Grandma made? I could fold it and make that my bed on the floor in the dining room.”
When I came home for dinner that afternoon, Mom announced, “Your dad and I want to talk with you in the dining room.”
I sat down at the large table with a white linen table cloth covered with plastic where my baby brother Timmy spilt milk at nearly every meal. Mom came in and Dad followed, shutting the door behind him. Dad had shaved, dressed and combed his hair. I hadn’t seen him without a stubble and hair askew in his old bathrobe for weeks.
When we re seated, Mom prompted Dad with a stern look. He began haltingly, “Michael, we know this has been a difficult time for our family. You did well at St. Charles, and you’ve worked hard to get ready for college.” He glanced at Mom who nodded slightly and continued in a stronger voice, “We want you to go to Ohio State in Winter Quarter. You’ve applied and been accepted. Your mother and I will find the money to help you if necessary.”
Mom added, “That’s right, Michael. It would break my heart if you don’t continue your education. You don’t need to worry. We’ll get by somehow. Will you start in Winter Quarter?”
“It would be easier to plan for Spring Quarter, but I’ll try. I think I can still save enough for tuition by November 15th. I won’t need to buy books and pay for parking pass until December. I think I can do it.”
Mom straightened her back and showed me her broadest smile. Dad nodded and looked almost like his old self.