A Cork, a Rock, a Leaf: Hearing Life Through Brian Wilson
Beyond Passable Writing

What You Do In High School (My First Job)


When I consider the amount of time my children spend on homework now, I wonder what I did with all the time I had in high school.  The afternoons and evenings seemed to stretch out in front of me, timeless, and we made it up every day.

Like one day my friend John and I lay prone in front of my stereo determined to discern the lyrics of ZZ Top's "LaGrange."  One part came easy.  It went like this:  "Uh huh huh huh huh. . . . You know what I'm talkin' about." [BIG guitars here] Somewhere between the last "huh and the "You" he was mumbling something, but we couldn't figure it out, and not owning the record, and not having the Internet, we had only our own ability to discern.  We actually didn't know what he was talking about, but it sounded intriguing, exciting, and maybe something our parents wouldn't approve of.

Well, I guess that's the kind of thing we did with our time.

Every school night, religiously, we watched Johnny Carson from 11:30 -1:00, John falling asleep just short of the last bit of applause.  I let myself out, leaving him there in the Lazy-Boy recliner, snoring.

Most nights we walked shadowy, tree-shaded streets to the convenience store to buy a Pepsi, and back, hoping a girl, any girl, would be outside.  They usually weren't, so we didn't have to figure out what kind of cool thing we could say.  In other words, not much happened.  I certainly don't remember doing any homework.

Our big break came when we started working at Roses, a department store, because there were girls there from other high schools who we figured didn't know our shrinking reputations, and we were right.  We were poor employees, prone to laziness and mishap.  For example, one time we backed the delivery van into a house, bending the door so that we had to tie it to the van to keep it shut.  The homeowner was a little upset, writing on our delivery paperwork "Ran into house; broke off a section of brick."  When our boss, Mr. Smith, saw that, his face turned red in like one second and the vein in his neck popped out and he said. . . well, better not say what he said.  Later, we dropped a sleeper-sofa off the porch of a trailer we were delivering it to.  The man accepted delivery anyway. He was real nice about it.  I tell you, we almost ripped a new door in that double-wide.

One time my co-worker, Robbie I think, who dated my cousin once, wasn't paying attention and drove up on a sidewalk and nearly flipped the van.  You know how they say your life passes before you at such times?  Not true.  I think at that age you don't believe you can die, so your life doesn't pass by you because you don't believe you're going anywhere.

Once, riding alone in the step-van, doors open, I rounded a curve on my way to make a pit-stop at my girlfriend's house.  I took it a little fast, I guess.  The hand-truck fell out the side passenger door and rolled down the road behind the van.  I stopped, jumped out, ran back and retrieved the hand-truck, turned and looked up, only to see that the van was rolling toward me and the four lane road behind me.  I ran back to it, jumped in, and managed to stop it.  I nearly passed out.  Still, my life didn't pass before me.  I did, however, think of Mr. Smith and what he might have said if the van had crashed into a car or tree.

My girlfriend's mother said I was white as a sheet, like I'd seen a ghost.

I worked with two older guys, Scott and Billy.  Neither were very intelligent.  I'm being nice when I say that.  They really weren't playing with a full deck.  Scott believed he was God's gift to women.  He had a tattoo on his forearm and rolled his sleeves up high on his arms, making his muscles bulge, rolling up his Winston cigarettes in one sleeve.  Billy, God bless him, weighed 250 pounds, dressed every day in green army fatigues and a t-shirt, with a rope for a belt.  That's right, an ordinary white rope like you might tie a boat up to a dock with.  One time we had Billy looking all over Roses for the key to the third-floor swimming pool.  Yes, he was gullible, and yes, we were cruel.  But the boys were loyal to me, offering to "beat the #%&@! out of anyone who messed with me."  Once I almost had to take them up on that.

Generally, I worked in the deep recesses of the stock room, burrowing tunnels in and out of cardboard boxes of patio furniture, toys, and household items.  In my own small-minded way, I took some pleasure at this task, organizing the mountains of stock in various fashions.   I guess you could say we were inventory control, but we didn't do too well at monitoring things.  For example, it was months before we realized that we were missing a case of Listerine each month.  We only figured that out when we saw Leroy, our janitor, tipping one up and draining it dry one day.

On a few occasions I worked in the snack bar.  I'll spare you that story, as you may have a weak stomach.

One day, Ida Simmons, an older lady who worked in the Lingerie Department, motioned me over to her as I emerged from the stock room, trying to walk as cool as I could by the Sportswear Department where chicks shopped.  She wanted to tell me about her son, who was in college, a world away from me of course.  Standing there, listening, my biggest concern was what to do with my eyes and my hands.  Do I look over here at the panties, or at the bras, and what do I do with my hands?  I put them in my pockets, afraid I'd rest them on one of the half-dressed mannequins.  I was deathly afraid of being embarrassed.  I couldn't understand the old men I saw standing around in the Lingerie Department holding their wives' pocketbooks while their wives were in the dressing room, as if that was normal.  I mean, where's the dignity in that?

In between all this fun and foolishness, I emptied trucks of furniture, moved stock around, ran the cash registers, delivered furniture, swept and mopped floors, and cleaned bathrooms (when Leroy was on a binge).  I worked with blacks and whites, lower middle-class kids and rich kids; the young, middle-aged, and elderly; kids from my school and other schools.  I did it all.  I learned that not everyone was like me, and that some people would accept me for who I was.  I learned to talk to girls and women, as I was surrounded by them.  I learned that Scott and Billy, despite their bravado, were just insecure kids.  I experienced grace as, despite all my screw-ups, I kept my job.  I learned how to work.  You might say it was the school of life for me.  Life in and out of high school.

But John and I never figured out what they were singing.  Just "uh huh huh huh huh. . . . You know what I'm talkin' about."

But you do know what I'm talking about, don't you? 

[Any similarity between the events and persons described and actual persons and events is somewhat factual, somewhat imagined, and, hopefully, all true. Uh huh huh.]