There’s nothing more permanent in this world than death. And I learned just how permanent death and dying is at a very early age.
In spring 1984, my parents were at each others’ throats. Dad’s sales job at the copier company was going nowhere, and since Dad’s paltry commissions weren’t enough to cover the mortgage and basic expenses, Mom decided to go back to work as a meter maid, the job she’d held in the City of Akron before she got married. But we were living in Canton, Ohio at the time— a town that has only eight parking meters—so the job prospects for a meter maid there were pretty limited. After coming up empty-handed after submitting her meter-maid application to Canton City Hall, Mom decided to take a job as a cashier at the local McCrory’s five and dime. It paid $3.75 an hour—a nickel over minimum wage.
Dad was not impressed. “I don’t see how some minimum-wage job is gonna make up for a slow year down at Xerox,” he growled. “In a good year I can pull in thirty grand.” Thirty grand a year wasn’t exactly high living for a family of three, even in 1984.
“But you aren’t pulling thirty grand. Not anymore,” my mother replied.
“Why do you always gotta criticize, Thel? It ain’t my fault it’s a slow year. It ain’t my fault I can never get a break.” He opened a fresh pack of Trues and started to chain-smoke, blowing blue menthol fumes across the kitchen.
“At least I’m doing something to help instead of wallowing around in self-pity,” Mom snapped, and turned to me. “Melanie, I’ve been after your father for years to get out of the copier business. Too unstable. Everyone who was ever going to buy copiers already bought them years ago. But does he listen to me? No.” Mom was washing dishes by hand instead of running the dishwasher to help save on the electric bill. We were always doing things like that at my house growing up, even when sales were good for Dad at Canton Xerox World and Copier Supply. Things like pressing together scraps of Safeguard, Ivory, and Irish Spring leftover from the sink soapdish to make one big soap the whole family would use in the shower. Washing and reusing Baggies three and four times apiece (or until they just fell apart) in our brown-bag lunches. Endless spaghetti dinners, followed by endless spaghetti leftovers. Tuna Helper, Hamburger Helper, Spam. Generic cereal. Powdered milk. No family vacations, no Atari set or white Nike gym shoes like the rest of the kids on our block—instead I got purple Traxx from Kmart and a used Pong set Mom found at a garage sale.
I never complained, though. I knew better. Mom was too good at making me feel guilty. Even though my grandparents weren’t Catholic, they’d sent Mom to twelve years of Catholic school back in Sparkling Falls because the rural Ohio public schools were so awful. And by the time she graduated high school, not only had my mother fully converted to Catholicism, she’d more than mastered the nuns’ subtle art of Catholic guilt manipulation for making children behave.
Take the year I was in the first grade, for instance. Sales were down at Canton Xerox World and Copier Supply that year too, so there wasn’t much money for new school clothes. On the first day of school, Mom dressed me in a red velvet jumpsuit my grandmother had made me from a Simplicity pattern, along with a pair of leather saddle shoes Mom bought at the local Saint Vincent de Paul store. The shoes were of good quality and hardly worn at all, but in 1981, leather saddle shoes weren’t exactly high fashion among the first-grade set. When I told my mother I’d rather have a pair of blue KangaROOS, like the ones they had for sale at Stride Rite down at the Canton Mall, Mom said I mentioned anything about not liking my saddle shoes again she’d feed me a bar of Irish Spring for dinner.
Mom did enough complaining for all of us. She complained about Dad’s job not paying enough, she complained about our house being too small, she complained that her pink foam curlers didn’t set her hair properly. She complained about not having a car of her own and having to take the dirty, slow city bus everywhere. She complained about our furnace rattling too much, and when she hired a repairman to fix the rattling, then she complained that the repairman was too expensive. She complained about the price of chicken at Kroger’s being too high, she complained about Walgreen’s not stocking her favorite shade of lipstick anymore, and she complained when Prell shampoo changed its formula from green, thick, and in a tube to blue, runny, and in a bottle.
But Mom complained more during her first week working at the local McCrory’s than I’d ever heard her complain before.
She came home after her first day complaining about her feet hurting. “I’ve never stood on my feet for so long in my life,” she said. “At least when I was a meter maid they gave me a little scooter to ride around on.”
Dad snorted from behind his evening paper. “Hrumph. So now you know how hard it is to do a day’s work,” Dad said, triumphant. “Now maybe you won’t be so quick to criticize me all the time.”
“I hardly think so,” Mom said. “You spend your whole workday behind a desk talking on the telephone. I stood on my feet behind a cash register all day. I even spent an hour stocking shelves with the new shipment of Tide they got in this week. Now that’s physical labor. You’ve never done a day of physical labor in your life, Andrew. My feet hurt like the dickens and my back feels like somebody shot me through with a bow and arrow, but at least I’m doing something to help this family along financially. You haven’t brought any commissions home in over a month. Nothing! Not one red cent.”
“Thel, I told you when I gave you permission to go back to work not to lord that over my head like that—“
“Permission, Andrew? You gave me permission to work? Now see here—”
“That’s right, Thel. An’ I can take that permission away from you just as fast as I give it. Love, honor and obey—that’s what your marriage vow to me was, Thelma. Or don’t you remember that?”
“Andrew, goddamn you to hell—“
The next thing I knew, Mom threw a box of raspberry Jello at Dad, who retaliated with a cheese grater. Rather than get in the middle of that, I retreated to my room to play with my Barbies and went to bed without any dinner. My parents were arguing and throwing cooking utensils at each other in our tiny galley kitchen until well past midnight.
Things went on that way for several more weeks. Mom spent more and more time at McCrory’s, and less and less time at home. Every night she came home and told us stories about what she did that day at the five and dime. “They got a new shipment of Spam in this week, real good price. I’ll bring some home with me tomorrow and we’ll eat it for Sunday dinner,” she’d say one day. But then, the next day she’d say, “Sold out that whole damn shipment of Spam in one day. Can you believe that? Looks like Tuna Helper again on Sunday.”
As the weeks and months wore on, Mom really started to like working at McCrory’s. All the women she knew around Canton would drop by on their weekly errands to chat with her, so she was in on all the town gossip.
“Melanie, did you know that stupid Dr. Foxworthy down at your school is gay?” she said one night after working a double-shift at the store.
“Mom, what’s ‘gay’ mean?”
Mom just laughed. “Never mind. Andrew, I’ll be working another double tomorrow so I’ll need you to keep an eye on Melanie and the house tomorrow night.” Dad snorted, threw down his newspaper and went out to the garage to tinker with the car.
Even as Mom was putting in lots of hours down at the McCrory’s, Dad was spending less and less time at Canton Xerox and Copier Supply. Many days he was asleep on the couch when I came home from school.
“Why are you home, Dad?” I asked on the third day I found him zonked on our threadbare avocado couch at three o’clock.
“Can’t make any money at work, sweetheart. Nobody’s buying copiers these days. Might as well come home and take a nap.” Dad stretched back out on the couch, rolled over, and started to snore. That’s when I noticed the empty bottle of Maker’s Mark on the floor underneath the coffee table.
I shrugged my shoulders and went upstairs to do my homework. I didn’t have my after-school Catholic Catechism Development program that week, so the only homework I had was some spelling words to use in sentences and some history questions. I was done in less than an hour—a good thing, since by then Mom was putting in so many hours at McCrory’s that I often ended up making dinner. After I finished my homework I went to the kitchen to rummage around in the cabinets for something I knew how to cook.
I settled on packaged macaroni and cheese with a side of microwaved frozen peas and some Pillsbury rolls from a cardboard tube. Mom usually got home from her day at McCrory’s—where she’d recently been promoted to assistant floor manager—by seven. I planned to have dinner on the table at seven-thirty.
Seven-thirty came and went. The macaroni got cold and gummy on the table, because with Mom not home and Dad zonked on the couch so drunk I couldn’t budge him, I felt funny about eating alone. I stared at my congealing mac and cheese for nearly forty-five minutes before I finally relented and stuck my plate in the microwave to reheat it.
But before I could even shut the microwave door, the phone rang. I picked it up on the second ring.
“Evers residence,” I said, as I had been taught to do when my parents couldn’t come to the phone.
A worried old-lady voice was on the other end. I could hear a lot of other people chattering in the background. And I thought I heard sirens, too. “I need to speak to Andrew Evers, please,” said the voice.
“I’m sorry, he can’t come to the phone right now. May I take a message?”
“Sweetheart, this is kind of an emergency. Is your dad there?”
“I’ll try to get him,” I said, and set the receiver on the counter.
I went to Dad on the couch and started to shake him. He didn’t budge. I shook him again—nothing. That’s when I thought of something I’d seen on TV once and decided to try it on Dad. I went back into the kitchen and filled a plastic pitcher full of cold water. I went back to the living room and poured the entire thing on Dad’s face.
“Wha—-Melanie! What the fucking hell? Are you trying to kill me?”
“Dad, you have an important phone call.”
Dad started to roll over towards the wall. “Take a message.”
“I can’t. They said it’s an emergency. I think it’s about Mom. She’s not home yet.”
Dad glanced at his watch. His face turned gray, and he became completely sober in an instant. He got up and went to the kitchen without speaking.
I crept around the corner to listen, hiding just behind the louvered pantry door.
“Uh huh,” Dad said, his voice flat and emotionless. “Yeah. No. No, she was fine when she left the house this morning. No. No. I have no idea. Which hospital? Okay, okay. We’ll be right there.”
Dad hung the receiver of the yellow rotary-dial phone into its cradle on the kitchen wall. “Melanie, get your coat.”
“But what about dinner? Aren’t you going to eat? And I’m not finished eating yet—“
“Get your coat. Your mom’s in the hospital. Something’s happened.”
“I don’t know. They aren’t sure. Just get your goddamn coat and let’s go.”
Dad had used three swear words with me in the past two minutes, and one of them was goddamn, so this was definitely serious. For a moment I didn’t know what to do—I stood in the tiny foyer between our kitchen and our breakfast nook, my purple Traxx glued to the dirty linoleum. Dad was already halfway into his coat and heading out to the garage.
“Melanie, come on! Jesus H. Christ.”
I left the mac and cheese to rot on the table, the door to the empty Radar Range still hanging open, and followed Dad out to our beat-up green Corolla without a coat or hat.
1. The author Jill Elaine Hughes wrote the book ten years ago during work breaks at — you guessed it — a temp job.
2. The book landed the author her first literary agent, circa 2004. Said agent shopped it all over the New York publishing houses, who liked it but turned it down because they said it lacked “shelf category” (i.e., there was no “New Adult” genre back then.)
3. The book was written before the Great Recession, but given the struggles today’s youth has with unemployment, underemployment, and a lack of good permanent jobs, TEMPLAND seems even more relevant today than when it was first written.
4. The author modeled the heroine Melanie’s grandfather on her own grandpa—or “Papaw,” as she likes to call him.
5. TEMPLAND contains a murder mystery subplot.
6. The heroine Melanie Evers’ sleazy ex-boyfriend Phil is fluent in Farsi. This is integral to the plot.
7. The book depicts many real locations and establishments in the city of Chicago, including the now-defunct Zephyr Ice Cream Restaurant.
8. The author had given up on getting TEMPLAND published until reader demand for New Adult titles about starting your career led her to give it new life through self-publishing — and reader interest has been amazing!
9. If you’ve never heard of Green River Soda before (a cult favorite in Illinois), you learn about it in this book.
10. Several of the wacky bosses and co-workers Melanie encounters on her temp assignments were inspired by real people the author met during her own temp-work stints.