I was eight when my dad’s family business fizzled and my mom went back to work. She got a job at a one-stop gas station, grill, and RV park, where she was expected to ring up gas and groceries in the little store and cook and serve food in the restaurant all at once, with no help. On her first day, she told me years later, a man at the end of the bar took notice of how effortlessly she managed these tasks and offered to train her to become an electrician. He needed a woman on his crew to get government jobs.
“Do you know how much a hammer costs?” he asked. “I mean a good hammer.”
“Why?” she said, wiping crumbs off the bar. My mom was tall, rosy-cheeked, and big-chested. She was used to men’s advances.
“Tools are expensive. You’d need a lot of tools to be an electrician. I’ll buy them for you.”
She looked up from her rag and her crumb pile. Before she started working at the restaurant, she had operated a soap-making business out of the upstairs of our home. She mixed the soap in an ice-cream maker and beveled the edges with a potato peeler. The tools this man was offering would be heavier and harder to wield, and she would learn they had dirty names like “pecker head,” “bastard leg,” and “inverted nipple.”
She leaned closer to him. “Say that again about the tools?”
Four years later, my mom was 30 feet off the ground, sweating through her hibiscus-pink Hanes T-shirt as she balanced on scaffolding, feeding wires down a conduit in a freestanding cinder-block wall. The wall swayed in the wind and vibrated to the beat of pile drivers pounding columns of steel that would anchor the industrial bakery my mother was helping to wire. She had almost completed her apprenticeship and was on her way to becoming a journeyman electrician. Most days she was the only woman on the construction site, and she never saw another woman in any of her night classes.
Her watch beeped to signal her 15-minute lunch break. Back on the ground, she hurried toward the lunch truck, where the men were beginning to line up.
“Hiya, Rose,” one of them said.
“Hi, Tomato,” she said, shielding her eyes as she looked up at him.
Tomato was big and solid, like one of the corn syrup silos that would supply the frosting wing of the bakery. He laid bricks by day and moonlighted as a Chippendale dancer in Salt Lake City. Manual labor had cut his body into a masculine ideal. Mom’s broad shoulders, on the other hand, didn’t ratchet up her sex appeal in the same way.
“What’s for lunch, Rose?”
“I got a peanut butter and jelly, and I’m waiting for a Coke,” she said. Before she started working as an electrician, my mom had been a regular at the metallic-smelling health food store in downtown Ogden. But soy drinks don’t cut through the heat like sugar and cold carbonation.
She ate standing next to the lunch wagon beside a 70-year-old man with white hair and a paunch. His name was Big Dee, and nobody talked to him because he was the boss. He intimidated the men but drew sympathy from my mom, who thought he was lonely. She talked to him about his family. They liked each other, and her foreman was jealous. Not of him, but of her.
After lunch, my mom made a stop at the portable toilets. There were only two or three for a hundred workers. They got emptied once a week. She could handle the early mornings, the banged thumbs, the sore back, even the July sun. But the sights and smells in the toilets were almost too much for her. Still, she needed to pee.
She closed the door and hovered above the toilet seat. That’s when she noticed it.
On the inside of the outhouse door was a line drawing of a woman. Breasts were this woman’s only notable feature, with carefully drawn nipples and areolae. One of the breasts was squirting a stream of milk, which was splatting against the safety glasses of a man who was squinting his targeted eye as a last defense. Beneath the drawing was my mother’s name: “Rose.”
“It was a very good drawing,” my mom told me years later. Before dropping out of college, she had majored in art.
After that first drawing, the other guys immediately piled on with more scribbles and epithets, all of which referred in some way to the original. The graffiti got so bad, she began to think her foreman feared a lawsuit. A couple of months after the first drawing appeared, she was fired. The owner of the company told her what was news to her, that she’d been written up three times, once for calling the foreman’s house. (“I can’t have a woman calling me at home,” he had complained, though he didn’t mind drinking with that same woman at a bar.)
Although she had completed all the necessary courses, she didn’t take the test to achieve her journeyman electrician’s license. My dad’s business picked up again, and she never went back to work. She said she didn’t think she could handle another job. She was afraid she’d mess something up and get fired again.
Once when we were talking about the graffiti, she seemingly changed the subject.
“Oh, hey,” she said. “Remind me to show you some pictures of this really cool aspen grove in Wyoming.” She was referring to a stand of trees outside Jackson, where she and my dad had ridden horses once. The trees were covered with carvings of naked ladies.
“Great, voluptuous women with big hips and thighs and boobs,” she said admiringly. “It takes a long time for a gouge in an aspen tree to take that form. If you scratch an aspen, it takes years to make a scar.”
She was remarking on how long those carvings must have been around—she imagined that lonely shepherds had made them. But the other way of reading her words seemed too obvious to ignore.
I asked her, “Are you scarred?”
She went quiet. “Do you want me to be?”
It was a question I couldn’t answer. Maybe I wanted her to admit some vulnerability. Maybe I just wanted to make sense of things. It would be a decade before I knew the significance of the years my mother had spent in that knuckle-busting world. I thought that I had been overextending a metaphor. But it wasn’t a scar those men left. It was a festering wound.
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