It’s 1979. We’re in a recession and feeling it the hardest in our country home. My six kids are old enough that I can leave them home alone. At least that’s what I tell myself. I find a job as a morning prep person and night dinner cook in the small town’s favorite Italian restaurant.
I’m not a morning person. The rooster next door crows at 6:30 AM, waking the neighborhood dogs. That’s my alarm clock. Rousing the kids who sleep through the racket, I get them moving, dressed and breakfasted as I gulp down my third cup of coffee. They all pile into the local school bus and go off to their various schools.
I get to work at 8:30 AM and begin making mountains of meatballs as ‘Aunt Mary,’ the mother of the restaurant’s owner, stirs a huge cauldron of red sauce and rolls out sheets of pasta dough. Hours later we’ve made hundreds of homemade ravioli and rolled so many meatballs that my hands are cramping. It’s 2:30 PM. I leave to get home in time for the 3:30 PM bus and onslaught of starving kids rushing through the front door. They head for the fridge and snacks laid out on a table, while telling me all about their day at the same time. I’ve learned to listen to all of them at once, a gift that may come in handy one day — or not.
It’s Friday, one of the three or four nights that I work as a cook at the restaurant. Homework gets done or so they tell me, chores when I can catch them, pets cared for, and last night’s tuna casserole set out for dinner. I’m off to work again at 5 PM. The summer heat registers 95° in the kitchen of the restaurant and it feels like 110° or more. I’m dressed in short shorts, tank top and flip flop sandals like the other cooks. Massive vats of boiling water for pasta and sauce simmer as the fryers and range emanate even more heat. God is good. Tonight I get to work the salad bar and scrub huge pots and pans.
The bartender/owner brings me a mandolin to slice the salad veggies. I prefer a knife but he’s the boss. Within minutes, I manage to slice off the tips of three fingers on my left hand – not completely off but hanging and bleeding all over the wood cutting board and vegetables. The grill cook rushes to get our boss, Donnie, and after appraising the situation, he leaves and returns with a roll of black electrical tape. Whatever works, I think, and struggle to carefully place the tips of my fingers back on and tape them with my right hand. The pain is fierce.
Donnie pops in to tell me to switch places with the Gopher cook so I don’t bleed on the food. I realize then that he’s not sending me home. The dinner rush hits and I’m soon busy working the microwaves, getting food out of the huge walk-in, and setting up plates. That’s the job of a gopher.
Wild storms strike the area, breaking the heat wave and slowing business. Donnie sticks his head into the kitchen. “It slowing down, Micki. You can go home now.” The man is all heart. I grab my purse, say goodbye to the cooks and dash out the back of the kitchen to where my car is parked. The storms have slowed to a few rumbles and flashes of ground lightning as the rain tapers off to a fine drizzle.
Home looks really good — a deception of course. I walk in to find eight-year-old Nicole crying on the couch. The heat made her sick and triggered a migraine. “I told you girls not to let her out in the sun,” I snapped at her two younger sisters.
“She got away from us,” Noelle says, looking upset.
But 15-year-old Kelly has a bigger problem, forecast by wracking sobs. She’s holding Puff, my oldest daughter, Kim’s, white rabbit;, he doesn’t too healthy.
“It’s my entire fault,” Kelly sniffles.” I left him outside in the storm. Kim is going to kill me.”
I figure the poor little guy was either traumatized or struck by lightning. He begins screening, which rabbit’s do before dying. I try pouring whiskey down his throat and then warm tea but he lets out a final shriek and dies in my arms. 16-year-old Dante suggests laying him out on a table in the basement until we can bury him the next day. Kim comes home from her date and that scene isn’t pleasant. She stomps up to her room and slams the door. Mike ambles in a little later on and we all sit on the long red velvet sectional couch watching TV until my husband walks in. The recession makes it necessary for him to work five hours away in New Jersey and come home only on weekends.
We are a sorry lot that greets him with our tales of woe. First thing he does is rip off the black tape on my fingers, removing the tips that I had secured so well with the tape. I refuse to scream from the pain as he pours salt on the wounds but tell myself that it’s good that I won’t have fingerprints left on those fingers when I strangle him in his sleep. I sip on some scotch and water — not a very good year — to ease the pain and tension from this laboriously horrible day.
I get to sleep in tomorrow and don’t work Monday, which is Labor Day. The next day I can collect my paycheck. At a $1.25 an hour comes to about $40 a week. Reagan’s trickle-down economy has not yet reached the tiny town of Williamsport Pennsylvania – or me.