Andrew J Hill
1983, Fox Valley
Peter Huston, a young man of eighteen years, stood for a moment in the tiny parking lot outside a shoe store in the town of Little Chute, Wisconsin. The town was situated in the flat landscape of the Fox Valley, where several other slightly larger towns and cities sat hugging the resource of the Fox River. Bridges scattered the river dividing the region into the Upper and Lower Fox Valley, having been built in the mid-nineteenth and twentieth centuries. However, there was no longer a feeling that boasted of the signs of an industrial pulse. An abandoned paper factory — ah, the infamous paper makers! — gave the impression that this age was now over. Dams and locks, visible from various automobile bridges traversing the Fox River, controlled the otherwise haphazard and natural current. In a parking lot two miles east of highway 441, Peter looked across the top of the tan Honda Civic where he saw his mother closing the car door opposite him. He had gotten out of the car an instant before her, which had allowed him to stand to observe her at this precise moment.
Peter’s blue eyes, after pushing aside a few stray brown hairs from his forehead, looked at his mother’s figure. She had a strong build, brown eyes, wavy auburn hair, and a smile that had won over his father Paul the first time he had seen Emily Sussex, his bride-to-be. They courted five months and married soon after. Six months after the marriage, they had their first son, Peter. Shortly after—four years to be precise—they had another. Then only two years later a daughter. They were and became a working family.
As lightning strikes without warning or discretion, tragedy struck, rearing its menacing head. Paul Huston suffered an early death in the paper-making plant where he had worked. The report in the local paper had been indifferent. Peter painfully remembered the morning his father had not come home. Paul worked the night shift, normally returning in the early morning hours. That particular morning, he did not return. In fact, he never came home from the hospital.
Peter winced, realizing the significance of the pain that had throbbed in his young heart, hearing the news of his father’s death only one week later. He had visited his father in the hospital but had not been with his father at the time of his actual death. It had been in July two years ago, when summer breezes were warm and worries dissipated easily with the picturesque sunset at the end of long days. Peter had been sixteen years old. The evening before his father’s injury, he recalled a mural-like image of the sun disappearing in the horizon, a silo jetting up out of the wild, green grass, and its silhouette marking the ground in front of him. He remembered the shape of the red barn, one of its doors slightly cracked open and hay spilling out onto the ground. He remembered the silence of the surrounding trees — weeping willows, oaks, maples, and elms. And he remembered the warm exuberance of Elizabeth — Lizzy — who put her arm around his waist for the first time.
Back in the present, Peter opened the door leading into the shoe store. He and his mother entered. At the counter sat an old man playing with the end of his mustache. Short and surly, he looked at the two from a distance. Thinking about the kind of boots that would suit the work at the frozen pizza factory where he had recently gained employment, Peter gazed at the assortment of work boots to his left. His mother was standing beside him.
“Can I help ya?” asked the man at the counter.
“Uh ... yes, I’m looking for a pair of work boots. I’ve just been hired by the factory just down the road.”
“Yeah, but it’s now owned by Kraft.”
“Yer lookin’ at the right boots der in fron’ o’ you. The two Caterpillar brands up to the top left, those are the most popular ones. Then, der’s one uder pair ... uh, looks as if we’re sold outa dem der ones. You’ll wanna try ‘em on first.”
Peter nodded his head, and plopped down on the stool. The shoe clerk proceeded to check the size of Peter’s foot.
“Put yer fewt in der.”
When he grabbed Peter’s foot, Peter felt impatience in the man’s grip even though he was the only customer in the store.
“That’s it, a’right, looks like a size ... eight. I’ll check in the back for both pairs.”
Before Peter could answer him, the clerk dashed into the backroom to check the stock on the work boots. Coming out of the back, he scrambled onto the sales floor with two boxes balanced in his arms.
Peter tried on the first pair, the smell of black leather striking his nose. He struggled to put the laces through the small holes, but by-and-by pulled the shoestrings tightly out and away from each other just before tying them together in a graceful bow. The black soles of the shoes were as clean as a whistle. Peter admired them in the mirror, turning them sideways and upside-down. He got up, and walked around with a proud gait of having landed a job despite a tough economy. His father’s reputation surely hadn’t hurt his chances of being hired on.
“How do they feel, young man?”
“I like them. I’ll take them. How much, sir?”
“Now, hold on’a minute. Don’tchya wanna try on de uder pair?”
“No thanks, sir. I like these.”
The clerk looked displeased as Peter took them off and placed them back in the shoebox. Putting his tennis shoes back on, Peter looked at his mother as he went to the counter to pay for the work boots.
“That’ll be seventy dollars ... minus the discount ... so, uh, fifty dollars is your total!” chirped the salesclerk.
Reaching into his back pocket, Peter took out his wallet, fidgeted for the money, and placed two scrunched up twenties, and two five dollar bills on the counter.
“Thank you, sir, have a nice day!”
Peter and his mother Emily Sussex left the shoe store in good spirits. She, proud to have her son beginning to work a full-time job and, he, proud to be working one. In reality, Emily needed the income to support the family. If Hannah and Daniel were to have a shot at college—neither Emily nor her husband had gone—Peter had to work full-time for at least five years.
* * *
Still having three days before he officially started working at the factory, Peter sat in the den — the downstairs living room consisting of two badly decorated couches which faced the television placed neatly inside a large entertainment center — and looked out the window of the quad-level house. The dry winter atmosphere was holding something back from the inhabitants in the Fox Valley. The air was harder to breath than in summer. And a snowstorm might break through at any moment of this particularly cloudy day.
The billowy grey and white swoop of the clouds brought by the biting wind beat against the shutters outside the window in front of Peter’s innocent face. He turned back around on the couch where he sat to gain a full view of the den, situated a half staircase below the main entrance of the house. A light wooden railing outlined the six carpeted steps descending into the den. Across the room from the couch the television emitted a flickering light, and the slight noise of a news channel mumbled in the background. Peter let out a sigh, relaxing. In his lap between his two clinging arms were his new black leather work boots.
His mother Emily came to the top of the stairs from the kitchen on the main level. “Ready to eat?”
“Without the others?”
“Hannah isn’t comin’ home till after her music lesson.”
“I’m not sure ... he was supposed to be home by now.” She looked at her wristwatch.
“Alright, I’m coming ... what’s for dinner?”
“Spaghetti and meatballs.”
After helping his mother set the table, Peter sat down on the long side of the kitchen table.
“Give me your plate.”
He handed her his plate, and watched her plop on a generous serving.
“That’s enough,” he insisted, before she dished out any more.
“Yes,” he said with an unnecessarily stern tone.
At this moment, the back door flew open, and his younger brother Dan came flying through it.
“Whoa, Dan ... slow down!” Emily commanded.
“Time for dinner?”
“Yeah, yer late!” answered Peter.
“I didn’t ask you, Pete. Mom, time for dinner?”
“Same difference,” sneered Peter.
“Why didn’t you wait for me?” demanded Dan.
“You were supposed to be home an hour ago, mister,” Emily replied in a strict tone.
“I suppose so ... ” Dan trailed off.
“Go wash your hands.”
When Dan came back to the table, Emily continued, “Hand me your plate, young man.”
He listened attentively to his mother, handing her his plate. He watched her scoop a copious amount of spaghetti onto his plate.
“How was your day, honey?”
“Alright,” he managed to get out with a large bite bulging from the corners of his mouth. “Stevey and me got into trouble during recess this mornin’. He dared me to throw a rock over the fence, so I did it. Miss Grayheart got mad and I had to take a time-out in the corner.”
Emily suppressed a smile and said, “Well, now, don’tchya do that again, deary! She was right, Miss Grayheart.”
Dan was a mischievous ten-year old, in that he never instigated but always did what his playmates asked him to do, without hesitation. A thought from his friend Stevey was, a second or two later, a done deed for Dan. Once, he had pulled — with no small grab — the pony tail of a female classmate. Boom. Done. In tears, the girl screamed out.
Dan also had no conscience. Stevey did, apologized, and grabbed Dan’s arm as they booked it back into the school from the playground.
After only ten minutes at the dinner table, Dan had already finished. “May I leave the table?” he asked politely, looking up at his mother.
“Stay for at least ten more minutes. We’ve only started to eat. What have you got to do, anyway? You surely aren’t going to do homework,” she teased.
“Yes I am,” he countered.
“And I’m not your mother,” she said sarcastically. “Stay for ten more minutes.”
He squinted his eyes in disapproval.
“Peter’s got the job at the factory,” she informed Dan.
“Big deal,” Dan lamented every second of the ten minutes.
“I start on Saturday.”
“I’ll be working at night, after you go to bed.”
“Why are you doin’ that?”
“For money, o’ course,” Pete said looking at his mom for approval.
“He’s exactly right, Dan. Someday you’ll have to do the same.”
“Work on Saturday night?”
Emily couldn’t suppress a small laugh.
“Not necessarily on Saturday night.”
“What are you gonna do, Pete?”
“I dunno yet ... well, work in packaging, I think. That’s what they told me.”
“You should thank your brother, Dan. You might have a chance at going to college with the money he’ll make for us.”
“College? Why would I want to go there?”
“You’ll understand later on in your life, Dan ... it’s been ten minutes. What are you still doing at the table with us?” she teased.
At that moment, Hannah entered the house, coming through the back door. She was twelve years old, had straight blond hair, brown eyes, and had a strong confidence about her at such a young age. She watched as Dan darted from the dinner table. He was off in a lightning flash, down the stairs into the den to turn on the television.
Emily was asking Pete a question. “Are you ready for Saturday night?”
“Yah, got my work boots, blue jeans, a red flannel vest — I’ll stay warm in the refrigerated workroom. No one wants the job in the freezer, so I get my start there, right, mom? Where no one else wants to work, I’ll earn almost four dollars an hour. That’s good, right, mom?”
“It’s good for now.”
“How much do you make there?”
“Well, a bit more than that — around seven dollars an hour. I’ve been there about two years.”
“And what do you do there?”
“I do what you will be doing, Pete. I work mostly in production which is next to packaging where you’ll be.”
“Do you like doing it?”
“I have too, dear. For you and the family. From Saturday forward, you’ll be contributing your part too.”
She looked away from Pete, and looked at Emily. “How was your day, honey?”
“Hungry? There’s one more plate on the counter.”
Emily pointed to the empty plate, and got up. She went to the stovetop with it, scooped up the remainder of the spaghetti, and brought it to Hannah who was now sitting at the table.
“Pete, I’ve got to start the dishes. Finish up, and come help me dry them.”
* * *
The next morning, Peter walked his younger brother Dan and his younger sister Hannah to school. Situated a mile from their home, the middle school’s brick walls stood in contrast to the playground equipment in back of the building. In the front, the rectangular entrance had red brick posts on either side, holding up the structure. The light blue doors, glass in the middle of them, swung open as Peter pushed it.
“Where is your classroom?” he asked Hannah. But a moment earlier she had already started up the stairs to the right of the entrance. When she reached the top of the stairs, she waved to the two brothers, thinking I don’t need their help
Peter turned to Dan and asked, “Where is your classroom?”
“Not up there. It’s to the left, down that way ... ”
“That’s my teacher, Miss Greyheart,” he exclaimed, seeing her come out of the classroom.
Dan smiled as she looked down into his light green eyes, placing her hand gently on his head of nut brown hair.
“Ready for class?”
She was of medium-height, and had straight, dark brown hair that neatly fit the contour of her head. Her nose was long due to the length of her face. Her lips burst with a pink glow; her brown eyes looked serious but friendly. Her shoulders reached out smoothly from her neck, her arms hung down — the right one bent at the elbow, ending in her soft hand and fingers touching Dan’s ruffled ten-year-old hair.
“And who’s this? Your brother?”
“Yes, Miss Greyheart.”
“Hi, I’m Peter.”
“Nice to meet you, Peter. Your brother Dan is very intelligent.”
Dan felt pleased.
“I’ll see you in class,” she added, continuing to the teacher’s room.
Peter and Dan arrived at the entrance to the classroom moments later. Outside the classroom, Peter instructed his brother,
“Put your coat on the coat hook.”
Dan slid it off, taking each arm out of the coat.
“I know what to do.”
“Alrighty then, well I’ll see you at home later on. Remember to come home right after school lets out, ok?”
Dan looked up at his brother, nodding his head.
“Buhbye,” Peter said.
When he turned to leave, Miss Greyheart appeared at the entrance to her classroom.
“Nice to have met you, Peter.”
“You too, buhbye.”
He made his way out of the school, and his thoughts for some reason or another returned to the new job before him, his father’s death, and Lizzy. Unconsciously, he began walking north toward downtown Appleton.
Crossing the Telulah Street Bridge, which went over highway four forty-one, he looked out through the fence attached to the concrete sidewalk structure overlooking the highway and then lowered his eyes to see cars whizzing past underneath the bridge. The structure — in the middle of a residential neighborhood — calmly lifted itself over the busy highway. He heard the honk of a horn, and, to his surprise, saw his mother inside of their lanky rectangular-shaped burgundy-colored Buick. The metal spokes of the hubcap were shining in the sunlight. On her way home from work, she had seen Pete stopped on the bridge and so she honked the horn and motioned for him to get in the car.
“Ya got Hannah and Dan off tuh school?”
“Yah, a half hour ago.”
“I can take you wher’ever you’re goin’. I’ll turn around. I stopp’d at the groc’ry stor’ on de way home.”
“Aw, I dunno; I kina wanna walk downtown.”
“Walk all the way downtown? Let me at least take you to the downtown bridge,” she insisted.
He got in and shut the door.
“You must be tired.”
“Yah, worked all night. You’ll be startin’ Monday?”
“Nah ... Saturday.”
“Now, Pete,” she interrupted and then took a long breath. “You have to promise to stay on at the factory at least until Dan is finished with high school. I don’t wantchya givin’ up. Ya got to be strong, do ya hear me? It’s hard work at the factory. And I wasn’t sure you’d last long if you didn’t know what’s in store for ya. I’m worried you’ll wanna leave after only a week or two. Maybe only after a day or two. That’s normal, completely.”
“I had to do the same thing you’re doin’ now. It’s the crossing over. Crossing over — that means taking full responsibility for your life and your family’s. With your father Paul around, it was much easier. That’s my aim for you, Pete. It’ll be easier for us all if both of us are workin’. And I hope, for Dan and Hannah’s sake, that they’ll never be forced to take on such a task — working to keep us afloat. Pete, in a way, you are the father now. You and me both.”
Pete looked at his mother with tenderness, somewhat bewildered. He was also shocked by what she was saying to him, overwhelmed. Not completely understanding the situation, in his youthful desire to be strong, he promised to do his best. Tears welled up in his eyes. He felt what he did not yet understand, what he could not know. The sentiment of brotherly sacrifice that comes before another brother’s successes in life.
“I will do my best."
After crossing the Fox River Bridge near downtown, she turned off Main Street and stopped the car in a neighborhood just north of the river. The beauty of a small city park and the music building at Lawrence University witnessed this tender scene of a mother and a son embracing in the quiet moments of morning in the Fox Valley.
* * *
For Pete, the first six months passed quickly. His first night, he looked around the different areas of the factory with a grim look. The calm tour of a place just before beginning a new job is always met by the abrasive first moments and first days of confusion and uncertainty. Metal machines jerking, noises humming and popping in the ears, unfamiliar faces both kind and mean, and the cold temperature in the packaging and production rooms. The coworkers — Mexican, Hmong, Costa Rican, and El Salvadorian — went about their various activities in unison, instilling a deep sympathy in the young man.
At first, he marveled at how all the activities were harmoniously aimed at the production of frozen pizzas. How did everyone know what to do at each precise moment? He also thought of his brother and sister the morning he had brought them to school. He felt a pang, thinking that one day they might have to work here. A Mexican worker moved his hands and fingers quickly, putting toppings on the pizzas while a short, intelligent Hmong worker with round glasses checked the weight of the pizzas. Another Hmong worker was behind the packaging machine in the middle of replacing a large roll of industrial plastic. A supervisor watched keenly — hands in his pockets — to make sure the packaged pizzas moved smoothly along into the next room where a machine packaged them. Peter and his mother worked in a medium-sized factory that produced frozen pizzas. The area where they primarily worked was divided into a packaging room and a production room. The production room preceded the packaging room in terms of the overall pizza-making process.
The first six months Peter worked at the factory the shifts were eight hours in length. At times, he worked a month straight without a day off. This wore down his body, and he began to take weekends off when possible. After six months, the management changed the shift system to twelve hour shifts for three consecutive days, then two days off, two days on, and, finally, three days off. This cycle continued on ... the three days off were good, but really! The first day he slept the whole day through. Good for business production. Not for his affective soul.
At this period of his life, returning home to work in the morning to take Dan and Hannah to school brightened his mornings after the drudgery of the factory work.
“Wha’dya want for breakfast, Dan? Pancakes?”
“Sure, if there’s enough time. I have school in half ‘n hour.”
“Sure there’s enough time.”
Exhausted, Pete mixed the ingredients together to prepare pancakes for his brother.
“Get out the maple syrup and strawberry jam.”
It only took ten minutes, and the smell in the kitchen now reminded them of the pancakes their father had once prepared for them.
“Do you remember when dad used to make pancakes, Pete?”
“Of course I do.”
“Is that why you’re making them now?”
“I’m making them for you to eat before you leave for school. Here’s the first one, careful, it’s hot.”
“Hmmm ... it’s good.”
“Of course it is, I followed dad’s recipe.”
“Are there any for me?” interrupted Hannah, bursting into the kitchen.
“Of course, but you’ll have to hold on a minute. I’m just starting another.”
“It smells good in here, like when dad used to make pancakes on Saturday mornings.”
“We just thought the same thing.”
“Well, the next one’s ready ... who wants it?”
“Me!” the two cried out in unison.
“This one is for Hannah. The next one is for me. Then, I’ll walk you two to school.”
“Where’s the brown sugar?” Hannah asked.
“It’s in the pantry.”
“Where in the pantry?” she asked as she shuffled through the food items in the pantry.
“It’s in there, keep looking. It’s right there.” Pete pointed to the right lower corner of the pantry.
She took the bag of brown sugar to the table and took out a spoonful to put on her warm pancake.
“Hmmm, it’s good!” she exclaimed.
After several more bites, Dan burst out, “Hurry up, Hannah, we have to go!
“I’m almost done, wait a sec.” She wiped her mouth with her hand, leaving half a pancake unfinished on her plate, and running towards the front closet to get her backpack. She sat down to put on her shoes.
“Can someone help me with my shoelaces?”
Peter came to help her, bending down.
“This is how you tie a shoe, remember?” He showed her again. “Tomorrow, it’s your turn to do it by yourself. Dan? Are you ready? We’re leavin’ now!”
“I’m right here!”
“Oh, Dan, I didn’t see you!”
* * *
A crisp morning air put them all in a silent mood as they headed to the middle school. The three siblings were woven together in an unbreakable bond during these early morning hours. Pete thought of the factory, its machines, and the money he needed from it to help the family. The two younger siblings held hands and looked around themselves as they made their way to school once again. Although Pete was happy walking them to school, he experienced a small pang at the thought of returning to the factory later that night.