By Michael Gutgsell
When I came home to Cleveland, where my parents had recently moved, the cafe where I had worked the previous summer had shut down. That was the first of a number of businesses that closed shortly after I left. A few years later I fancied myself the black widow of small, locally-owned businesses. With Cafe Limbo’s closing, I had no job to go back to, though I needed the money: I was looking forward to studying abroad in England for my junior year.
Though I knew I needed a job, it was difficult to actually find one. As the days turned into weeks, my mom got increasingly pushy. At one point she dropped me off on a road riddled with potholes and lined with boarded-up warehouses and told me to apply at every single fast food joint along the stretch.
“Look at this place! Do you want me to die in a Rally’s parking lot?” I practically yelled.
“Don’t come back until you’ve applied. Once they see you, they’ll hire you.” I’m sure my mom’s reasoning was along the lines of–you’re nice, polite, and have a good smile–but I wasn’t so sure the downtrodden of Cleveland wanted my bright white face serving their children Happy Meals, “on my way to study abroad!” I dragged myself away from the car and immediately a man asked me for money.
“I don’t have any money,” I snapped, “Why do you think I’m here? I’m looking for a job!” I despaired.
Maybe it was the abject misery with which I asked for jobs, but I didn’t get any calls. Later on in the summer, when I finally had a job, my boss told me over a crowded cage of finches that I was “too gay” to get a job in East Cleveland, “between the Jews and the blacks.”
Finally my mom sat me down at the kitchen table and showed me an ad for a job working for a traveling carnival. Seriously. While that would make a great story, I’ll tell you right now I didn’t take that job. When I got there (the entire ride having been spent by my mom telling me where “carnies” came from–mostly prison) I arrived with jaded eyes, and all I could think was: “What rock did these people crawl out from under?” I was more sure than ever, in a smug, self-glorifying way, that my Cleveland summer would end in my stabbing in some dilapidated, pathetic spot, and then my mother would regret pushing me into this degradation! I was basically Maggie, Girl of the Streets.
Leaving the library one day, I passed a pet store. I went in to look at kittens, figuring if anything could cheer me up from my abject loneliness it would be the sight of clumsy little furballs. The lady working there was nice–a big, hearty, warm woman named Laurie. I asked for a job and she said she’d talk to the owner, who then walked in.
He walked belly first, like a stately queen in his khaki uniform. He had slow, roving eyes and large lips. As Laurie turned to him and told him I was looking for a job, his eyes took me in, head to toe.
“Orientation is Tuesday at six,” he said, like he was inviting me back to his place for drinks. And then his wife stepped into the room. He introduced her proudly, defiantly. She was as large as her husband, with thin grey-brown hair pulled into a knot behind her wide, inscrutable face. She knew, but she’d never say anything. I knew that from the start and I bore that uncomfortable knowledge throughout the whole ridiculous, delirious summer.
I had finally landed my summer job, because of kittens, because my boss was a gay married man, and because at that point, I would have taken anything.
To be continued…
Michael Gutgsell is a regular writer for Tumbleweed Diaries. You can read more of him on his weekly blog, Making a Mess of It, or on the blog for Tree House Humane Society, the no-kill stray cat shelter where he works.