Friday, April 20, 2012

Love in the Seventies

By Colleen Sutherland

Sheila pedaled home on her bike, cursing out the bell bottom pants that flapped in the wind, threatening to get caught in the gears. That happened too often. Bicycle clips never worked because bells had too much fabric. Still, she wouldn't be one of those old ladies who wore something that was in fashion decades before, refusing to change with the times. Bell bottoms were in, so she wore them.

The trailer park was at the edge of town, far away from Sheila's job, but then trailer parks are always at the edge of civilization, accessible to the occasional Midwestern tornado. It was where the young started out, where the failed elderly spent their days before going to a nursing home. It was where rednecks drank their beer in old lawn chairs propped against the sides of their trailers so they wouldn't tip over when the beer got the best of them. It was where students lived.

Sheila worked at the insurance company downtown as a secretary/receptionist. She handled claims, too, but wasn't given the title of claims adjuster because then her boss would have to pay her more. If she complained, he would find another student's wife who wouldn't.

She put up with it because she and Bill needed the money so he could continue his studies at the university. There was their future, his education ending perhaps in a medical degree if he could get his grades up enough to get into the state's medical school. It was the cheapest school in the United States, the lowest rated, but maybe even that school might not accept him. If nothing else, he would get a good white collar job, then it would be her turn to go to college.

Meanwhile, they lived in a third rate house trailer in this dusty trailer park. Bill worked as a handyman to cover the rent. When he wasn't busy mowing lawns and repairing toilets, he was supposed to study. Sheila typed his papers for him, sometimes late at night, editing them as she went along to make them fit the guidelines the college provided. Footnotes seemed to be beyond Bill, so she did a little research on her own to pad out the papers to the required length.

She did the cooking and cleaning, too. Even the garbage was too much for Bill to take out once a week.

“Your own fault for marrying such a deadbeat,” her mother said. “In my day, we chose better.”

Her mother's day was post WWII 1940's and 1950's. Sheila didn't want her mother's life either. Her parents had been married for 39 years and hated each other for 38 of those. Her mother's idea of a career was to survive long enough to be a widow.

Sheila had read the Feminist Mystique and was a member of a Woman's Liberation group started at the university. Sheila was the only woman in the group without a college degree and felt the others held her lack of education over her.

“It will get better,” she told them. “I just have to get through three or four more years of this.”

She thought she would like to work on a journalism degree when it was her turn. She talked about it with her friend Emily, two trailers down. Emily and Greg were the closest friends she and Bill had. Emily was supportive, another liberated woman.

Sheila parked her bike next to the trailer and locked it to the hitch. All the trailers had them though none of them had gone anywhere in a decade. Bill's car, a Ford Pinto, wasn't there. He must have a late class. He always drove the car. It was only twenty minutes on foot from the university but he needed to be able to get around, he always said. There were parts to pick up for the trailers, there was research at the public library, there were conferences with his professors. Her time was pretty much set by her work, but he needed to get around on a schedule that changed from day to day. If it rained, he could always run over to the insurance company, throw the bike in the trunk and drive them both home. But that depended on him noticing it was raining. If he was in the union coffee shop, he couldn't see outside.

A mangy old tom cat peered through a break in the trailer's metal skirt. It was Big Red, the trailer park cat. He didn't belong to anyone, but lived under Sheila and Bill's home. He seemed to mark his territory daily so the house always smelled of male cat piss. She caught Bill feeding the tom one day with bits of hamburger.

“I like cats,” he explained. “And Big Red isn't hurting anyone.”

“But we can only afford meat once a week,” she said.

“I do the shopping,” he said. “I'll cut corners somewhere and get him some cheap cat food.”

Big Red was already huge and getting bigger. She soon found out that other men in the court were feeding him, too. The old Tom was always around mooching. When the men guzzled their beer and held confabs, Big Red was there, too, watching for snacks to start falling on the ground as they got tipsy.

Sheila could have joined the women in their kitchens but all they talked about baking cookies and their children. She was too liberated for that nonsense, but not liberated enough for open marriage. She knew certain couples in the trailer park were experimenting with wife swapping. Bill told her about it and kidded her about joining in. “Spread our genes around,” he said. “Darwin would approve.”

Bill roared up in the Pinto. Wasn't he supposed to be in a class?

“Guess what!” He had a small box in his hand, a grocery bag in the other.

A present? He hadn't given her so much as a daisy in months. He handed her the box. She shrieked when it began to shake.

“Don't open it out here!” Bill grabbed the box and together they went inside. She opened the box there to find a kitten. “It's purebred Siamese,” he said. “My prof had one left. He says they are so rare in this county. He figures we can breed her and sell the kittens. Nice money-maker, he said. Look, she has papers and everything.”

A cat. Like they needed a cat. But Bill was convinced they could make some money and as he said, he liked cats.

“If you take care of it...and that means taking care of the cat box...OK,” she said.

And for a while it was OK. The kitten was cute, of course. She shredded the curtains but those had been in the trailer since it was new, over a decade ago. The hot Midwestern sun had already started the shredding process, the kitten just sped that up.

It was the cat box that soon became an issue. Where could one put a cat box in a small trailer? Sheila put her foot down on having it in the tiny kitchen. Bill first placed it in the bathroom, but that began to stink as he began to forget to change the litter. Finally, it went into the second of the bedrooms, the one she used as an office when she typed his papers. Typing in the living room area meant he couldn't watch television, so she shared her space with Meow Shuo Hui, the name Bill gave the cat. It meant “shiny brightness,” he said. Sheila gave up, changed the litter herself, and kept the windows open, at least until winter came. Then she tried not to breathe. It got worse as Meow Shuo Hui got older. Whenever the smell got too bad, Bill went for a walk, he said, though that usually meant visiting some others in the court. He especially liked to talk to Emily when she was baking, he said. Her kitchen always smelled so good.

The odor in their trailer became intolerable. “Horrible!” Sheila screamed at Bill one day in March. “I can't take it any more!”

His solution was to let Meow Shuo Hui outside where she could run around the trailer park pissing and pooping wherever she wanted which sometimes in children's sandboxes. Sheila certainly heard about that from the parents. Nobody ever complained to Bill. It was a woman's lot to hear complaints, she thought, and mentioned that to her feminist group, who gave her no sympathy.

“What a jerk,” was their usual comment about Bill.

Meow Shuo Hui was turning into a fine female Siamese, with long whiskers and lovely brown and beige coloring.

Then came a summer day when the men were sitting around drinking their beers just outside their screen door. Bill was in the middle of them, talking about women's liberation and how that just meant more sex and income. Sheila, looking out the office window, noticed that Big Red wasn't among them. He was sitting on top of the air conditioner looking in at her. Meow Shuo Hui was meowing plaintively at him. Mid-sentence, Bill went over to the trailer and opened the door to get a beer and the cat flashed out past him.

“Stop!” Sheila came running out of the trailer but it was too late. Big Red had Meow Shuo Hui, biting her neck and humping her with everything he had. The men cheered him on.

The three kittens were the ugliest Sheila had ever seen. It took her months to find homes for them, since Bill was against taking them to the pound.

“Enough is enough,” Sheila said. “When she goes in heat again, I want a purebred Siamese tom here to take care of it. Talk to your professor.” By the time the spring semester rolled around and Meow Shuo Hui was once again in heat, they were ready. They drove to Yankton to pick up the tom, with the promise to the breeder that they would pay him $75 once they sold the kittens.

Meow Shuo Hui had been yowling her loudest Siamese yowl for two days, making sleep impossible. The tom took one look at her and was ready for action but Meow Shuo Hui ran from him and hissed. “Stay away from me, you fool,” she seemed to be saying in her expressive snarls. She climbed to the back of the couch and swatted at him. Behind her, on the other side of the window, seated on top of the air conditioner, was Big Red.

“Scat.” Sheila pounded on the window, but Big Red did not move. Sheila scooped Meow Shuo Hui up and put her on the floor, holding her in place. The tom knew what to do and took care of business.

For two days, Sheila was there to round up the female for her rape by the tom, watched passively by Big Red who was always on top of the air conditioner, always watching through the glass. Meow Shuo Hui was not a happy cat but her yowling finally stopped. She settled down and the tom lost interest.

Bill put the tom in a box and drove him back to Yankton. He wasn't gone long when Meow Shuo Hui suddenly began to pace around crying to get out. Sheila was firm. “You stay put!” But when Bill got back two hours later and opened the door, Meow Shuo Hui flew out and there was her true love to meet her in a tangle of fur and paws.

In the following weeks, Bill took bets from the men around the trailer court, taking a ten percent cut. “See,” he told Sheila, “I knew that cat would make money for us.”

Then Sheila's mother got sick. Her father paid their airfare to go to Connecticut to take care of her for a while, leaving their pregnant cat with a friend in Sioux Falls. They were gone for three weeks. Everyone at the trailer park wondered not how Sheila's mother was, but how that other mother was faring. There were some that wanted to drive to Sioux Falls to find out, but with the Arab oil embargo on, no one could afford the gas to make the round trip.

When Bill and Sheila flew back, they took a side trip with boxes to pick up Meow Shuo Hui and her brood.

They arrived at the trailer court that evening. The neighbors came pouring out of the trailers like sardines out of cans. Big Red came out from under the trailer, pacing anxiously.

Sheila sighed. She plumped Meow Shuo Hui out of the back seat of the Pinto. Big Red sniffed her over. Then came the box...with the five ugliest kittens anyone had ever seen.

Bill gave his friends their winnings, though none of them won much. Almost off of the men had been betting on Big Red. They sat with their beers and lawn chairs late into the night, petting Big Red and smoking the cigars Bill bought with his pool earnings.

The next day Sheila had a miscarriage. Toxoplasmosis because of the cat litter, the doctor said.

It was just as well. Somebody had to pay the bills.

(Note:  These Decade Love Stories are very loosely based on my own life.  Some of the events happened though not always to me.  Every one has been fictionalized. My intention is to follow each decade to the present with stories.)  --  C. Sutherland)

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