MACHINE SHOP SUNDRESS
by Claudia Geagan
On an ozone drenched summer day in 1961, Mr. Stevenson gives me his black ’54 T-bird and sends me to the loading dock at Lockheed with a shoebox-sized rush delivery.
I’ve never been to a loading dock so I don’t realize in advance that it’s built for semi-trailers and don’t realize the kind of attention a seventeen year old blond in a 54 T-Bird will get when she arrives. I climb out of the car, lean in to retrieve my thirty-thousand dollar package from the backseat, and everything around me stops. The dock is higher than my head. I walk up the metal-edged steps and hand the box to the man with the clipboard, who, along with the truck drivers and Lockheed workers, is standing still, staring at me and waiting. I explain that it’s a rush and he assures me it will find its destination. I get his signature on the shipper and walk back down to the car, trying not to feel the eyes on me, and wondering if I should have found some other entrance.
I have a job in an office. In fact, I am the office. I sit alone at a chic parabola of desk in the dramatically darkened reception area outside of George Stevenson’s glassed-in confines. At George Stevenson Precision Machine I answer the phone, handle shipping and invoices, do payroll, file blueprints, type letters or wait to be needed for one of those tasks.
Between my desk and the shop is a dark walnut door that Mr. Stevenson likes to keep closed. If he finds it open, he’ll kick the stopper, glare at me and shut it.
“I told you, keep this door closed.” I don’t understand why Mr. Stevenson insists that I sit alone in the semi-darkness, just like I don’t understand why my father wants what he wants. I only know I should do what my father or my boss says. It is their world, not mine.
On the other side of that door, the spotless shop is filled with glittering lights that make the metal of the machines and the silver of the parts sparkle. The lathes whir and a radio belts out Elvis or Chubby Checker. Half a dozen machinists cut and drill and shape parts destined to put a man on the moon. When Mr. Stevenson (to this day it’s tough to call him George) is out of the office I cheat and leave the door open to hear the machines and the radio. There are five machinists from the young guy who runs the drill press to the old guy who cuts the teeth for the tiny precision gears. The foreman, John, operates a lathe. Only Mr. Stevenson runs the ultra-precision jig borer.
I had been the Stevenson’s babysitter, three sweaty little kids and one female German Shepherd. I don’t remember the name of the dog but she and I shooed the kids to bed unwashed and then climbed in a recliner together and fell asleep in front of the television. If the dog hadn’t awakened when the Stevenson’s got home, I wouldn’t have. Anybody could have walked in and stolen the children. I couldn’t imagine who would want three sticky kids, but I did think the Stevenson’s should have paid their pooch instead of me. Therefore, I was astounded when Mr. Stevenson offered me a job in his shop.
On the groggy ride home in the spring of my junior year in high school, Mr. Stevenson asked what classes I was taking.
I tried to sound awake. “Latin, social studies, chemistry, English literature, journalism, gym.”
“Can you type?”
“What are you doing this summer?”
“Mom says I should find a summer job, save up for college.” Wherever and whatever that was. I’d applied to four of them but never made a campus visit.
“Would you like to have a job in my office, help earn a little college money?”
“I have to ask my parents.”
“Ask them and call me.”
Mom is giddy. “Call him back. Call him back or I will.”
I walk the mile and a half from our pink stucco bungalow on Las Lunas down to Mr. Stevenson’s Jetsons-like shop on Foothill Boulevard. I’d like to say I trudged back and forth in the snow, diligently saving for education, but it is Pasadena and I walk on sunbaked sidewalks under a smog-clouded sky. At noon I walk a block to a diner and order the cheapest item on the menu, a seventy-five-cent grilled cheese. I forgo the Coke because I can’t afford it. Minimum wage is a dollar an hour, and I save almost every penny I earn. My mother is a sales girl at Bullocks Pasadena and my dad negotiates union contracts for Safeway Stores, but I feel poor. Dad instructs Mom to spend her earnings for groceries. My little sister pretty much lives at her friend’s house. I shouldn’t feel that poor. I come home from school and toss myself in a pool surrounded by lemon trees and bougainvillea. The house and the pool squat on a square of dichondra and though it is small, everybody’s house is small, and only my dad’s thick anger makes it feel crowded.
In the interest of economy Mother makes some of my clothes—gathered skirts in tiny prints, topped with starched white blouses, on-sale cotton remnants shaped into sleeveless dresses with Puritan collars. Dad gets stylish clothes from Bullocks with Mom’s discount. Mom does without.
My work at Stevenson Machine is reasonably interesting. I’d known nothing about FICA or shippers or invoices or blue prints, or Apollo projects, but there isn’t enough of it to fill my day. If Mr. Stevenson isn’t around, I toe kick the rubber wedge under the shop door to keep it open in case the phone rings, and wander into the shop, drawn by its mysterious activity. The machinists all wear white cotton coats that overlap in the front and tie in the back. They wear steel-toed, rubber- soled black shoes and stand on mats. I stand on the concrete floor, in a bare shouldered sundress and summer sandals, observing, but unaware of being observed.
I am engrossed by the spinning lathe and watch John adjust the chuck, angle the cutting tool, then palm the spinning wheel, check the size of the part with a micrometer, fuzz another millionth off. The sweet smell of chartreuse coolant intoxicates me. As John is short and I am tall, I stand behind him and watch him work the lathe, looking down at the bald spot that shows through his backcombed poof of black hair. The man is wiry with a huge misshapen nose and an air of trashiness about him, but he is magic with the lathe. When I wander into the shop all the men glance then return to their work, except John, who looks over his shoulder and grins.
“You really interested in this stuff, ain’t cha, Peaches?”
“Why do you call me that?”
“Cause you look like a bowl of peaches and cream.”
At home Dad inspects his family of women as if our hips and breasts nauseate him.
He watches my size eight Mom sway as she walks away and says to me, “Don’t get so fat your ass looks like that.” Mom is self-conscious about her looks. She’s generally athletic and pleasant looking, but she has a crudely carved cap on one of her front teeth and she’s self-conscious about her legs because maternity girdles left bulging varicose veins. Moreover, Dad has convinced her that her ‘ass’ is ‘fat’. His cruelty amuses him, and she tells me “sticks and stones can break my bones, but names can never hurt me.” Nonsense. Names kill a soul, and even then I knew it.
He spends dinner time criticizing what we eat. “Lay off the potatoes. No self-respecting man wants a fatty.” He looks through his bifocals at my cheek, on the prowl for a blackhead so he can accuse me of not washing. Being compared to a bowl of peaches and cream is as consoling as Linus’ blanket.
I was not quite five years old. I wore a starched white organdy pinafore that my grandmother had sewn, lacy socks and new black patent leather shoes. My curly blonde hair was pulled back with a big flower print bow. My parents and grandparents were taking me to a fancy supper club, adorable daughter used as an accessory. While Mother dressed I followed my dad around. He walked through our one car garage and out into the fresh air, tapped the tobacco tighter in his Chesterfield and flicked his Zippo.
“Stay in the house.”
I heard the big brotherly voice of a boy in the park across the street. “You can do it, Sport. Come on. You can do it.” I imagined an older boy running astride the bike of a younger boy, and I wanted that big brother.
I took off toward that voice. On the oil slick garage floor, my feet flew out from under me, and I splayed on my belly in the dirt and grime, screaming, blood running down my shin.
“Damn it, I said stay inside.” Daddy flicked his cigarette into the yard, grabbed me up with one hand and swatted my bottom with his other. “Look at your dress. You’re ruined.”
I did not go to the supper club.
That summer of 1961 passes. Senior year arrives and school starts, and Mr. Stevenson asks me to work two hours a day after school.
At school I wear white Keds and “hose” before the “panty” part is attached to them. The school forbids sandals and requires either socks or stockings. Like most the girls, I choose stockings. Stockings are held up by a garter belt, a garment currently reserved for porn videos, but in the early 1960s a garter belt is white cotton with heavy white elastic and “supporters,” soft rubber nubs that fit inside a metal hook. On top of the garter belt my sister and I wore white cotton full coverage panties.
Mr. Stevenson complains about the looks of my white tennies. He wants heels. So I keep a pair of hot pink spike heels under the desk and dutifully switch into them for work and feel guilty when I realize I have pocked the elegant cork floors of my office.
I wonder now what Mr. Stevenson was thinking, because he had to notice the floor. No, I don’t wonder. I looked older and sexier in those pointy toed, high heeled shoes. No one ever came through the front door. Those shoes and the look they produced were for him.
I remain fascinated with the shop and continue to wander out there in my pink heels. I still love the sweet smell of coolant. In the fall of my senior year, the school gives us some type of skills testing and along with being able to recite numbers backward and spell accommodate, I can recognize a micrometer and differentiate between an Allen wrench and a drill bit so the results indicate mechanical aptitude. It doesn’t matter for girls though. What matters for us is marrying and having babies.
I was fourteen when Mom took me to see a gynecologist because I was becoming a woman. I slipped into a hospital gown with nothing under it and lay on my back, feet up in stirrups. My mother stood by my head assuring me everything would be all right. No one, including me, had ever put fingers between my legs much less inside my body. The aging doctor put what looked like clear Vasoline on the tips of his gloved fingers and forced them inside of me. Then he pressed those fingers upward toward my belly button and pushed down with his free hand. My discomfort was enough to make me jump off the table if Mom had not been pressing down on my shoulders. “Don’t move, Claudia, it’s going to be all right.” Then the discomfort turned to pain. I shrieked and he quickly pulled his fingers out. The rubber glove had fresh red blood on it. Mother looked pale and her mouth hung open. The doctor offered me help up with his dry hand; “You can get dressed young lady.” At home that evening I watched out my bedroom window as Mom sat on the terrace sobbing to Dad about how my future husband will never know I’m a virgin. She twisted her Kleenex. It wasn’t her fault. She didn’t know he would do that. I thought, “What future husband?” From where I sat marriage did not look appealing.
In the fall of 1961, teenage ennui, senioritis, a sense of purposelessness permeates me. I apply to four colleges, UCLA, Cal Berkeley, USC and William and Mary. William and Mary is my first choice because it is so far away, but I am not accepted as an out of state student. The others want me, but I select USC because my best friend is going there. No one in my family has been to college.
Later I make a campus visit by myself. I park on the street near my soon-to-be dorm home, across from a car with a middle-aged white man whose pants are open. I walk on by. The group leaders give a campus tour. They explain what to do in case someone tries to rape us. “Don’t resist, because that way he won’t hurt you.” The indication is clear that this threat is thought to come from black males who live in nearby neighborhoods.
When I was sixteen, at the beginning of my junior year before I’d ever heard of George Stevenson Machine, my boyfriend du jour came to the house to study. My parents went out. When they returned I was sitting on his lap kissing. I wore a new yellow angora sweater and a dyed-to-match pleated skirt. There was no groping. The obligatory ceiling light glared down on us. I jumped off his lap. He stood up. My father yelled and insisted on taking the boy home right then. The boy sat in the passenger seat and I jumped in the back as though my presence would protect him from whatever was about to happen.
“I don’t expect you’d be responsible if you got her pregnant,” my father yelled.
The boy was only fifteen. “We weren’t doing anything to get me pregnant,” I defended. The boy stared at his hands. At home, Dad said to Mother, “that boy had an erection when she jumped off his lap.” I wonder now why that surprised him. At the time I barely knew that men desired women, never considered the mechanics of sex. I’d never seen my father be even mildly sexual with my mother.
“No one marries an easy girl.” Dad snarled and wagged his finger. As soon as I could, I headed for my room.
I graduate from Pasadena High School in June of 1962. At work that summer I wear heels and stockings with the summer frocks Mom sews and I spend a lot of time telling the phone lies to John’s ex-wife that John has asked me to tell because his ex isn’t getting the money he owes her. I say he isn’t there and anyway the pay checks don’t get handed out till 5:00. This annoys me. Other than that, I am by now good with blueprints and invoices and payroll and am occasionally permitted to put tiny screws in English muffin-sized gear boxes, which allows me to spend time in the shop. John F. Kennedy is president and as a nation, which includes me, we are excited about space exploration.
My family life is as weird as ever. Mother is making a mess in the master bedroom sewing me a white pique sundress. On a mid-July day covered in a cotton duster that she wears around the house she kneels in the middle of pique lint and short loose white threads. I stand in heels while she pins the waist and the zipper. The dress is cut low in the back and high in the front. It’s her best work to date. Dad is objecting to the detritus of dressmaking. “Helen, get this shit vacuumed up before you go to bed. I don’t want to look at it in the morning.” She’s pretending not to listen, focused on giving me a prettiness she has been denied. For once, I think the dress is stylish and flattering. The stiff pique has never been washed, and the belled skirt looks like an inverted tulip. Mom touches my hip to turn me and I seem slimmer, curvier than ever before. Her hand feels gentle. As soon as the dress is finished and hung on the back of my bedroom door, I slip into it and head to work, feeling pert and pretty instead of clownish. Mr. Stevenson is on vacation. John loiters around my desk all morning. At lunchtime, he says “Want’a go get a hamburger, Peachy?” His attention seems positive. I please John, amuse him. Dad I only aggravate.
“Sure,” I say. Bob’s Big Boy on Colorado Boulevard isn’t that far away, and the boys who cruise it with me in their cars hardly ever have money to stop and buy a hamburger. I assume that’s where we were going.
I know he would not have asked if Mr. Stevenson had been there, but I am glad he did. My curiosity and sense of adventure kick right in. John drives a metallic green Pontiac muscle car that I’ve seen parked behind the building, one with black bucket seats. Maybe for once there will be a little excitement.
“I’ll pick you up out front in a minute.” John closes the shop door behind him. To me John seems old. I know from payroll that he is almost 40, and his grammar is atrocious, but he smiles and I like that. Mr. Stevenson has taken me flying to Catalina in his Cessna with olive upholstery and red piping. He is 36, also old, but fun. The flight was exhilarating. I imagine the rumble of John’s car beneath my seat. This too will be exciting.
My own dad doesn’t have toys, doesn’t do fun things, would never have trusted me to take his car to Lockheed. He is like a tarp, thrown down to smother laughter and joy and excitement. His women should look some unattainable way and be perfectly still like tiny china figurines. The whole idea of Cessnas and Pontiacs is out of the question. Noise and power enthrall me.
John pulls up outside, and I let myself into his passenger seat, check out my white skirt and hot pink heels against the black-leather-jacket vibe of the car. But John is not smiling. He doesn’t rev the engine or even speak to me.
We don’t head down toward Colorado but out toward Sierra Madre, the wrong direction. “Where are we going?”
“I’ve gotta get something from my house.”
“Oh.” Girls do not question what men do.
The house is only a few minutes out of the way, tiny and painted canary yellow. The garage juts forward and its doors are perpendicular to the house itself. “I would never buy a house with garage doors facing the street,” he brags. “Big deal,” I think. “This isn’t exactly the Huntington Mansion.” But I say nothing.
We pull into the parking apron, and John withdraws a heavy set of keys from his pocket. “I just finished redecorating. Wanna see?”
“Oh, come on. It’ll only take a minute.”
I don’t want to be rude. I step over the threshold from the bright hot driveway into the dim cool house. Black and white shag carpet covers the miniscule living room floor and two ergonomically designed chaises take up most the space, one black plush and one a funhouse shade of purple. I stop, repulsed by imagining John and some woman, any woman, whose hair is died as black as his, reclined on the furniture.
“Look at the master bath, Peachy. I just remodeled it myself.” I am very uncomfortable without knowing exactly why, but I peek around the corner of the bedroom door and can see part of the bathroom. The side of the bed is two feet, maybe three from the door. John grabs my waist and plops me down on the bed. He throws himself down on top of me and I try to scoot back, away from him. My dress is being pulled down underneath me and I worry that the lovely dress Mom has just sewed will be ripped at the waist. I remember all that hard work she did and all the flak she took from Dad for the mess, all that she did for me to make me look pretty. So I lift my weight and when I do he yanks down my panties. Three or four thrusts and a loud grunt, and he collapses, full weight on me. It doesn’t hurt. It doesn’t feel good. “Is this sex,” I wonder. “Really?” Is this what all the fuss is about? I never get the hamburger. He drives us back to work.
I sit down in my office feeling no more violated than by my father’s outrageous condemnation or the gynecologist’s exam. I feel that I let John have sex with me with the same passivity that I exhibited when my father swatted me or I was told to lie down on a table and let a doctor put his fingers in me or when I was harangued and threatened because a boy had an erection when I barely knew what that was, all the while being told how important for me it was to attract a man. I feel angry that John is such a jerk. My virginity is gone, if I still had it after the gynecologist. But my dress is in one piece, only a little wrinkled. I stare at the empty typewriter.
I am home from work and have hung up my sundress and thrown on khaki shorts and a tee shirt. I look at my body in the mirror. I’ve heard that once you have sex you walk differently. I walk in front of the mirror. I don’t look different. I feel different, empty, a bit depressed. I don’t wear the dress to work again. I have my eighteenth birthday a few weeks later. I push the event with John out of my mind. I tell the people at work it is my birthday. “How old are you?” the guy who cuts gear teeth asks.
“Eighteen.” Out of the corner of my eye I see John blanche. I have not been thinking of myself as jail bait. I don’t yet know the word.
My period is late which it always is but I get worried and tell my mother that I had sex.
“Did you scream? Try to hit him?”
“No.” I don’t know what else to say. I am wholly responsible because I wanted to ride in his car and have a hamburger, and I walked to the door of the bedroom and I didn’t fight. I cry. She doesn’t like crying and doesn’t know how to hold or console. She has never been consoled. I think she wants to stand with me but hasn’t the courage. I want to curse about everything. About the unimportance of virginity. About why some man was supposed to be thrilled to get it. But I can’t. I am a fallen woman. Mom swears she won’t tell Dad. Within minutes she is whispering to him.
“Your Daddy wants to see you in the living room,” in her most efficient voice.
I understand that she hasbetrayed me. She didn’t have the strength not to.
Dad orders me to, “Have a seat,” and he yanks out the piano bench out for me to sit down on. He sits in the wingback chair nearby, leans forward, glares at me, starts to shake with rage. “Your life is ruined.’ He’s low, snarling, menacing. ‘No decent man will ever have you.” I sit sickened and mute. “How’d that asshole feel about having a virgin?” First of all, I want to scream, “he didn’t ‘have’ me. I’m not dinner. And believe it or not we didn’t ‘have’ that conversation.” But I say nothing. I begin to sob. Mom has retreated to a far corner. She’s over there so he can’t yell into her face and mine at the same time. “Helen,” he says, “go find Nancy.” Mom paddles away to retrieve my younger sister who I feel sure is hiding behind her bed, hoping to avoid the conflagration. In a few minutes Nancy trails Mom into the living room and sits in a chair behind me, but I catch her in my peripheral vision. Mom has returned to her corner.
“Sit on the couch where I can see you.” “I’m sorry to tell you your sister has disgraced the family name, and no decent man will have either of you.” His face is smug and oozing with vitriol, like a vicious little boy killing bugs. My mother looks down and with her craven lack of courage, she says nothing. I think “what family name?” Dad never even knew his father.
Dad’s disgusted gaze fixes on me. “I want you out of my house,” He juts his thumb toward the front door behind him. I have ruined myself and deserve to be destroyed but I can’t leave. I have no job, no money.
In that moment, I understand that, from Dad’s perspective, this is a crime against him. Not me. Now he possesses a daughter who can’t control her impulse to run through a garage at age five, who has the urge to kiss boys at sixteen, who has pimples as a teen, and now can’t even be married off to the son of one of his non-existent important friends because she is damaged merchandise. I have embarrassed him and he doesn’t think I deserve the shelter he provides.
I don’t go back to work. I am not pregnant. Dad gets John fired. I’m not thrilled about the firing because I am ashamed for Mr. Stevenson to know what I let happen, and because I can imagine the histrionics Dad exhibited in Mr. Stevenson’s office, the name calling, the finger jabbing, the foul language, the spitting anger. Better, I think, to have let sleeping dogs lie.
Half a century later I am glad that John got fired, but I consider him a forgettable asshole. The unforgettable asshole is my father. John didn’t hurt me physically, and I didn’t care if he lived till the next day. I already didn’t think virginity was an achievement and didn’t believe I was to be “had.” People can’t be “had.”
I leave for USC. The freshman year is paid for by me and by my maternal grandparents’ contributions. I rush a sorority because somebody says to. I know nothing about legacies and social connections. I know nothing about how connected USC alumni are in the social hierarchy of Los Angeles. I’m not invited back to either house I want, so I think they must know I am damaged goods. I remember standing on the sidewalk on 28th Street in the heat of a late summer afternoon, realizing that my clothes were wrong, and that I’d known no one prior to moving to school. I’m sweating in a black watch plaid wool suit which my parents thought would be appropriate. I am melting in the sun. To my parents, college is something they’ve seen in a movie. Reality is up to me.
The young heal quickly. I find other friends. A cute boy tries to force me into sex in his car after a date. I fight like I’m fighting for my life. Just when I think he’s got me, he gives up. I do not fight because I am worried about my reputation or my missing virginity. I simply don’t want to have sex with him and I think I get to say no, so I have learned that much. He turns the key, presses the starter button and heads back to the dorm.
“Why do you want to have sex with someone who doesn’t want to have sex with you?” I ask.
“You’d be surprised at how much I get that way.” He barely slows down to let me out of the car. I do not understand this, not then, not now.
During finals week the end of my freshman year my new boyfriend and I fall chastely asleep in his car in the fraternity parking lot after a movie. We’ve each been up for three days cramming for exams. His roommate wakes us at 2 a.m. I miss lockout. The pink-curlered housemother is grabbing at the smelling salts. I must appear before “girls court,” a board of prim sorority girls. The sentence is handed across the conference table by a pale red-haired Theta. I am campused (grounded) for five weeks during my sophomore year for “disgracing the reputation of the USC woman.”
“What reputation is that?” I think. She is smug and important, the queen of Girl’s Court. But with nothing to do except read I make the Dean’s List.
The explosion at home subsides. I don’t speak of this for a long, long time. When I do I am an old woman and I say I was raped and tell the story, and my contemporaries say, “Why write about that now? People don’t need to know that about you.” But I think, “Yes, yes they do need to know, because they are all complicit in this story somewhere.”
About the Author:
Claudia Geagan spent most of her life in big cities and big corporations, using her now aging degrees in English and Finance. These days she lives and writes on a leafy mountainside near the Piedmont of the Blue Ridge. She enjoys yoga and golf. Her work has appeared in The Lindenwood Review, The Louisville Review, Hippocampus Magazine, River Teeth’s Beautiful Things, Persimmon Tree and others. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.