My first job out of college was working third-shift at a factory that made electric meters, and I only got the job because at the end of the summer the whole operation was shutting down and moving to Reynosa, Mexico, which meant many of the regular employees had already quit. The old-timers who remained wore shirts that said things like: NAFTA—No American Factories Taking Applications. Occasionally a meter would come down the line defaced with puffy paint: America! Dallas Cowboys! My degree had been in the lucrative field of Interpersonal Communication but more than anything I wanted to write. Friends who knew this told me what people always tell writers about the parts of their lives that suck: it will make great material some day.
My supervisor at the factory was a woman named Cookie. My first night on the shop floor she stared and stared at me, scowling, as I worked my machine. When she finally got up from behind her desk and came over to my station, I prepared for the worst.
“You from Mulberry?”
“Are you from Mulberry?”
Then she said she was Shawnda Gipson’s mom—a classmate of mine since grade school. Her cousin Judy, in fact, had been my babysitter growing up. “I knew you looked familiar,” she said. “Finally placed you.”
The machine I operated made a little piece for the electric meter called an overload. I’d stuff my thumbs in the machine’s safety sensors and it would lurch to life, hissing and humming. First it spit industrial-grade glue (this sludgy green paste) onto a piece of tin. Then it dropped a copper bar onto the glue. Then finally, with a crunch, it crimped the tin around the copper bar. I would load a long metal tray with 50 or 60 of these finished pieces and take them over to a huge oven and bake them for 45 minutes. After they had cooled, another worker came and collected them for whatever he did at his station. In the course of a night I’d make some 800 overloads. Sometimes quality control sent them back because too much glue had gotten onto the copper bars. Sometimes they got sent back because they had too little glue. Indiana humidity and the glue’s viscosity gave the machine fits. Russell the line tech—this soft-spoken giant with smudged glasses and a 5 o’clock shadow—was always over tinkering with the ratios after the woman in quality control, Nancy, chewed him out. When he complained about her, I commiserated. And when she complained about him, I commiserated. My degree in the lucrative field of Interpersonal Communication taught me to play them off each other.
“That first night on the shop floor was a wake-up call I damn well intended to heed.”
But that first night on the shop floor, goddamn—I was mad at myself for being there. I hadn’t done a serious job search, and honestly I hadn’t known how. Purdue had a career center I tried to utilize but all that ever came of it was an interview for a job selling office supplies. And the interviewer admitted that she’d only called me because she saw creative writing on my resume and thought it sounded “neat.” She herself had been a drama student down at Indiana University.
“So what do you really want to do?” she asked in the interview, while all around us brainiac engineering students in ill-fitting suits talked in hushed tones to pasty-faced recruiters. “What’s your dream?”
I vaguely mentioned writing novels but she wanted to know what I’d always wanted to do since I was a kid. Since I was a kid? I shrugged and told her I’d always wanted to be a cartoon voice. I said I liked Saturday Night Live, doing impressions. She asked what kind of impressions I could do.
“I do… Yoda,” I said.
I looked around at the other interviewees in the conference room talking to their future employers. The fluorescent lights hummed. We looked pathetic in our suits, and I hated us all. The interviewer leaned down into my line of sight. She goaded me to do my Yoda impression. Come on. Let’s hear it. And because sometimes the only way out is through, I cleared my throat and croaked: “Do or do not—there is no try.” And her eyes lit up. She told me it was really quite good.
“You need a talent agent.”
“I don’t know.”
“You should make a demo. I mean, seriously.”
My first night on the shop floor—making and baking my 800 overloads while Cookie Gipson scowled at me, trying to figure out where she knew me from—I played the scene over and over in my mind: Do or do not—there is no try. And I thought about how the interviewer had phoned me up the following week, inquiring about whether I’d made my demo tape yet. She really thought I should. I lied and told her I had, that I was taking her advice and looking for a talent agent up in Chicago. It made her happy to hear that. “I’ve always regretted not following my passion for acting,” she said. “And now I sell office supplies for a living. You don’t want to do that.”
She was right—I didn’t want to do that. I also didn’t want to be making overloads for electric meters. In the 3, 4, and 5 o’clock hour I fought sleep by deriding myself for being so stupid, and I vowed to never end up like this again. I could make such a vow because in the fall I was starting an MFA program in fiction and would have three years to write my novel. It was loosely based on the six summers—from ages 13 to 19—I’d spent detasseling corn in the vast open spaces of north-central Indiana. I would work hard, write every day for two or three hours. I would be smart. Not everyone could write and publish a book in three years but I would be the exception to the rule. Not everyone could go straight from their MFA program to a job as a creative writing professor, but I would somehow figure that out, too. That first night on the shop floor was a wake-up call I damn well intended to heed. I brought books to read during our five-minute coffee breaks and the half-hour we got for lunch. While I worked, I dreamed up my novel’s scenes and characters and conflicts. I remember relishing the thought that none of my co-workers at the meter plant had any idea that I was, in fact, a secret genius.
I had such blind faith in the future that a month prior to taking the factory job—at the tender age of 23—I’d gotten married. I had loved my wife since I first met her in biology class freshman year of high school. I was the painfully shy kid whose face went red as a stop sign anytime a teacher said his name, and she was the extrovert with opinions and stories and smiles. Junior year she was an exchange student to Denmark, and after high school she nannied for a year in Palo Alto. We kept in touch through letters and phone calls, and one Valentine’s Day—after six hours on the phone long-distance—she said she loved me, like, really loved me. When she returned from nannying and started college, we lived in the same dorm and became a couple.
We decided to move in together after I graduated—it only made sense given that we spent every waking moment together. But she still had a year to go. Her folks threatened to stop paying her tuition.
Our one ingenious response was that she could apply for a Rotary Club International scholarship—the same club that had sponsored her Denmark trip in high school—which would pay for her to study abroad. And if we got married, I could tag along and start a master’s program in communication.
That’s how we started talking marriage, and that’s also how we became students of all things Singapore. I don’t remember how exactly we settled on Singapore—they spoke English there, and they had great universities with communication programs, and maybe it seemed like a truer cultural exchange than someplace like Australia or England, which we figured might endear her to the Rotary people. The internet was still in its infancy at this point but we used it to learn about Singapore’s culture and climate and infrastructure. We spent weeks working on her letter of application, fine-tuning sentences and perfecting the tone. Then we mailed it in and waited, fingers crossed. I thought vaguely of tropical heat and snakes and living in a city (which was hard to fathom since I’d grown up in rural Indiana in a town of 900.) But it seemed possible. Exciting even. Then came news she was a finalist for the one full-ride scholarship Rotary offered.
On the day of the interview, she dressed up and stuffed a leather folio with copies of her resume and writing samples. She was nervous, and I was nervous for her. But I knew she’d impress them. She impressed me. I had never known anyone smarter or funnier or with more talent for being a good person. If they saw in her even an ounce of the potential I saw, they’d cut a check on the spot.
In the interview, they asked her what kind of government system Singapore used. She blanked and said democracy.
The answer was constitutional monarchy. Several weeks later, when the letter came stating that she’d come in second for the scholarship, she blamed it on that one botched response. Just like that the dream of Singapore was gone. In the meantime, we decided—to hell with it—let’s get married anyway.
That May, after I graduated, we took our vows. I had no job, and no good prospects for a job, and somehow we’d have to scratch together the cash to pay for one more year of my wife’s college education. We took what little money we had in savings and spent it on a five-day honeymoon to San Diego. We biked Coronado Island and swam in the ocean and drank copious happy hour margaritas. We were so young and in love. One night we came back to our hotel room and the phone was flashing. My creative writing mentor at Purdue had somehow tracked me down. A spot in the MFA program in fiction had opened up last minute: Did I want to apply?
My wife wasn’t keen on my joining the MFA program but knew I likely couldn’t make $12,500 a year doing anything else. We agreed that if upon graduation she got a great job in some far flung place, I’d quit and go with her. I’d only have wasted a year. What were years, anyway, but things that came easy as dawn after a long night-shift on the shop floor? Why not go to Singapore? Why not get married? Why not join an MFA program? Why not write and publish a novel?
Looking back, my innocence and ignorance in those days is appalling. Other people seemed to see me better than I saw myself. My first week at the meter plant, a guy I went to high school with stopped me in the hallway. “The fuck are you doing here?” he asked, as though I should have known.
“Working?” I said.
We were most of us scabs that summer. The guy I went to high school with, Jason, had been a regular full-time employee when the plant announced it was shutting down. He’d gotten job second-shift at another factory and for the summer was working both, putting in 18-hour days. He was the most weary-looking twenty-something I’d ever seen in my life. And then there was Verna, in her sixties, stooped and craggy, whose badge proclaimed this to be her 19th year of employment. I commented one night that 19 years working third-shift was an impressive feat. She nodded and glanced around at Cookie Gipson—and then the quality control rep Nancy—and said without missing a beat: “And I didn’t get where I am by sleeping my way to the top.”
And then there was Janet with the bouffant hair who told us about all her sexual conquests. And Blondie whose husband, Bobby—a character right out of a Springsteen song—had burned himself up in a drag-racing accident. And Keisha who liked to tell us about this heroin user she knew who’d been shooting up into the heels of his hands, and how his hands had ballooned into catcher’s mitts. “I don’t want no catcher mitt hand,” Keisha said, shivering with the thought.
“Looking back, my innocence and ignorance in those days is appalling. Other people seemed to see me better than I saw myself.”
And there were the handful of lunch-break Bible studiers, leaning over their Good Books together in the break room. And the pornographic graffiti artist whose sketches appeared nightly in the bathroom stalls.
I thought I was better than them. Different somehow. On break, I read Richard Ford’s Rock Springs.
I was oblivious to the irony of finding meaning—and beauty—in Ford’s blue collar Montanans while feeling superior to the blue collar Hoosiers surrounding me. That fall, in fact, Ford gave a reading at Purdue and read “Great Falls,” which begins: “This is not a happy story. I warn you.” How I loved that. Afterward, getting my book signed, I (like an asshole) made sure to tell him that I’d read it while working third-shift at a factory. With his ice-water blue eyes, he looked at me and said, “That’s what it’s all about.” He signed my book, “With the pleasure of meeting you.”
I don’t recall my last night at the meter plant, only that I was happy it finally came. My enduring memory was from the week before. During our 3 am lunch hour we were told there was a surprise for us in the cavernous warehouse adjacent to the shop. We arrived to a picnic. There were tables and chairs. Big yellow coolers of tea and orange drink. Ice-filled buckets with cans of pop. Someone had brought in half a dozen burn barrels and filled them with charcoal and lit fires and laid out grills over the top for hamburgers and hot dogs and crocks of baked beans. I’d never seen happier people than us scabs shuffling into the warehouse to the smell of hot dogs.
I remember sitting at a long table covered with a checkered plastic tablecloth and listening to my co-workers talk and laugh and tell stories. It reminded me of family reunions I’d gone to as a kid. It occurred to me I was going to miss these people when the work was said and done.
And I couldn’t have known it then but it was the last fond memory I was going to have for a long time.
That fall, a month or two into the MFA program, my wife went off for a weekend—to Iowa to watch a football game—and while she was gone I had a few drinks at a party and made out with someone else. This is what writers do, I thought. I can do this because I’m a writer. But how ridiculous that sounded the next morning, back home and waiting for my wife to come walking through the door. I sat on the couch and quietly freaked the fuck out. I can do this because I’m a writer?
“She was confused. Shocked. She cried for three straight nights. She screamed that I had ripped her heart out of her chest and stomped it on the floor.”
I had no one in my life, no wise person, to turn to for advice. To do so would only have exposed me anyway. I didn’t know what the hell to do. I didn’t have the guts to be honest with my wife, and neither did I see how I could keep from her what happened. I wasn’t a secret genius. I was young and scared. Sitting on that couch freaking out, my idiocy—not just about the party but about everything, about school, work, writing, life—opened up below me like a sinkhole. I didn’t understand and didn’t want to understand how the bedrock of who I thought I was had become so permeable and weak. I couldn’t own my carelessness or pretension or privilege. So when my wife got home from Iowa, I choked down all my anxiety and said nothing, telling myself it was better that she never know me. I waited until maybe a week later—when we were having an argument over something else—and told her I thought maybe we’d made a mistake getting married. She was confused. Shocked. She cried for three straight nights. She screamed that I had ripped her heart out of her chest and stomped it on the floor. On the night of my birthday in November, I packed my things in Hefty bags and moved out.
In one of our rounds of arguing after I suggested we’d made a mistake getting married, she said, “Think of this like a story! You wouldn’t just throw out a first draft. You’d try to revise it. Try to fix it.”
“Sometimes,” I said, still in the mire of denial and self-loathing, thinking I was protecting her, “you do.”
Another afternoon I’d come home from a class to find her sitting at the kitchen table with the first short story I’d turned in for workshop. It was about a Methodist minister in Iowa, keenly interested in Buddhism and driving I-80 to an interfaith conference in Chicago. He’d spent the night prior with the family of a teen in his congregation who had hanged himself from a basketball hoop. They’d cried and prayed, and it was morning now, a new day. He drove through the cornfields of Iowa, pondering Nothingness, wondering if he’d helped the family at all, if we can ever really help each other. In the end, he had a vision of wading into the corn like a kind of laying on of hands. He put down his sun visor to keep the glare out of his eyes.
I had been proud of the story, its homage to pain and ambiguity. I loved the idea that when people read it, they’d never look at me the same again. I would be a mystery, an enigma, someone indelibly hurt—but by what? Someone worthy of all the pity and awe and love you could throw at a person.
“I just read this ten times in a row,” my wife said when I came in. The story lay on the kitchen table. There were tears of frustration and hurt in her eyes. “And I don’t get it. Like, not at all. Not one bit.”
Right then, all I wanted was for her to hate me enough to be set free. I said, “Maybe that’s the problem.”
The coming weeks were a mess of tears and guilt and fallout with family and friends, all of whom were blindsided. Her brother said if he saw me around he was going to kick my ass. Her dad tried to get me to come out as gay so the marriage could be annulled. My mother told me to get down on my knees and pray, and my father just shrugged and said, “Steve knows what he’s doing.” I stayed with friends for a week in a house on the railroad tracks, then at my brother’s house.
Eventually somebody in the MFA program mentioned they had an efficiency apartment they were looking to sublet, in a crumbling redbrick Victorian on South Fourth Street. The place was filthy. Water-stains spread across the ceiling, cracks down the wall. The carpet was industrial gray and threadbare. When I moved in, my worldly possessions consisted of the twin bed from my childhood, a board-and-cinderblock bookshelf, a few dozen paperbacks, a table, a chair, a desktop computer, and a tiny TV that pulled in one station. In my fridge at any given moment was a jar of grape jelly, a few eggs, a bottle of hot sauce for sprinkling on Red Baron frozen pizzas. But none of that mattered. After the shit show of the last month, it was mine. One afternoon I sat down at the computer, ready to start on the plan I’d envisioned those long nights on the shop floor last summer. I’d write for several hours a day. I would be smart. Driven. My hands hovered over the keys for several long minutes in anticipation. I made a paragraph and read it over. It wasn’t right. I deleted and tried again. Terrible. With sudden clarity and horror it occurred to me: I didn’t know—not really—how to even write a single sentence.
At the end of “Great Falls,” Richard Ford’s narrator arrives at a revelation concerning the mess of his parents’ marriage. It’s possibly “just low-life, some coldness in us all, some helplessness that causes us to misunderstand life when it is pure and plain, makes our existence seem like a border between two nothings, and makes us no more or less than animals who meet in the road—watching, unforgiving, without patience or desire.” How those lines resonated with me at 24, wounded by my own stupidity, anxiety, and regret, sitting alone in a filthy apartment after having hurt many who cared about me over what amounted to a comparatively small transgression.
My summer at the meter plant felt like the embodiment of that dark border between two nothings. If you showed up late even once you were fired, and one night a guy came in after he’d been bitten by a bunch of stinging ants and gone to the ER with anaphylaxis. What a cold fucking world.
But then again, he’d showed up. To make his rent, feed his kids, get through the week: he’d showed up.
The lunch-break Bible studiers had their faith. The pornographic graffiti artist had a few minutes in the bathroom each night, perfecting the lines of his raunchy drawings. Russell the line tech had Nancy in quality control to complain about, and Nancy in quality control had Russell to complain about. And Verna had the dignity of not sleeping her way to the top, and Jason, pulling those 18-hour days at separate factory jobs, possessed more grit and tenacity than anyone.
We may have been helpless, and no doubt we misunderstood life—who doesn’t?—but we were more than animals meeting in the road. We were people, flawed and cold in certain respects, yes, but full of care and commitment, too. Exhausted, beat down, sometimes despairing, we could still find cheer in each other’s company over hot dogs in an empty warehouse. That’s not nothing. In fact, from the solitude of my efficiency apartment on South Fourth Street that winter, trying to write a novel and failing miserably, the warmth of community seemed like an indelible gift. A kind of forgiveness.
I couldn’t take back any of the mistakes I’d made but in acknowledging them I could discover something that connected me to everybody else. It became clear: if I wanted to seek penance for my ex-wife whose heart I’d stomped; and for my co-workers at the meter plant whose lives I’d unfairly judged; and for myself; I’d have to grow up and stop leading a pretend life.
I’d have to sit in this room all alone and learn to write a sentence.