All of the years I was in college and law school, I received financial needs aid scholarships. But that money did not pay for everything. Most summers I worked at the Allied Chemical and Dye plant in South Point. My father and my maternal grandfather worked there. But sometimes I could not get on there.
However, I could always work at the Pepsi Cola bottling plant in Huntington. The owner and his wife were friends of my benefactor high school teacher and her husband. Loading Pepsi trucks did not pay as well as the Allied Chemical job, and it was harder work, but the job was always available.
I was working there the summer before my last year in law school. The empty trucks started rolling in around 5:30 PM. The beds of the trucks were constructed of shelves, two cases deep on each side. We pulled the cases of empty bottles off of the trucks and stacked them on pallets that the forklifts moved to the washer turntable. The employee running the turntable would pull the bottles from the cases and then place them on the turntable to feed into the washer. Out of the washer, they moved in single file on a conveyor belt past a light where another employee examined them to be sure they were clean enough to refill.
After they were refilled, the bottles came off the conveyor belt onto another turntable where an employee put them into empty cases and stacked them on pallets. Summer nights were hotter than hell in that plant, and the air was always sticky with sugar. After we had finished unloading the trucks, we broke for dinner, about 8:30 PM, then after dinner we reloaded the trucks with full bottle cases. We would usually finish a little after midnight.
During our hour-long dinner break, we usually walked a few blocks to a bar where we drank beer, ate cheeseburgers and fries, and if you left a nice tip, the waitress would let you grind out a slow dance with her.
That summer as I walked down to the bar the first evening at work, I noticed a pretty girl sitting on the front porch swing of a house across the street. I could hear she was listening to music. On the other end of the porch, a middle-aged woman did needle work as she rocked back and forth in her rocker.
One night, soon thereafter, I remember it was warm, the sky was clear, and there was a slight breeze. I saw her sitting there in the swing as she had been the past two nights. I couldn’t walk on. I stopped and, as I looked at her, she turned, looked directly at me, and smiled. I told my friends to go on, crossed the street, and walked over the grass to the porch railing by the swing.
“Hi. My name is Doug. I hope you don’t mind. I just saw you and…what are you listening to?”
“Angel of the Morning.”
“I love that song.”
“Me too. My name is Shawnee.”
“Really?” I looked at her in the sunset afterglow. She had a smooth, soft, tawny skin that was natural, not the result of a tan. Her eyes, almond shaped and grey-green, caught the fading light. Her straight, dark auburn, almost black, hair fell to her shoulders. Her cheekbones were high and prominent. Her lips were full. She wore only a simple thin cotton sundress, pastel pale green in color. Her feet were bare. She wore no jewelry.
“Yes, my mother named me that because I am one-eighth Shawnee Indian on my father’s side, or at least that is what he told my mother.”
“I’m sorry. Is your father dead?”
“I don’t know. I have never met him.”
I didn’t know what to say. I had always been that way with girls to whom I was attracted. So, I did what I always did. I shut down and withdrew. “Well, I’ve got to get back to work. Can I come over and talk to you again sometime?”
“Sure. That would be nice.” She smiled. I felt like she somehow knew what had happened. I felt like she was thinking, “It’s OK. Don’t worry. I understand.”
The next night she was there again. I crossed the street and stood by the rail. We talked. I learned that she had just graduated from Huntington High School and had obtained a job in the women’s shoe department at Anderson-Newcomb. She was saving her money to buy a car for her and her mother, who worked across town at a bakery. I complimented her on her appearance. Actually, her thin cotton sundress revealed, rather than concealed, her toned body. She wore it sensuously, but innocently, with no calculated artifice.
We talked about the best used car for her and her mother to buy. We talked about our favorite songs. Hers was “I Say a Little Prayer.” Mine was “This Guy’s In Love With You.” We never spoke about anything personal. We just couldn’t. It was so awkward with her mother listening to everything we said. Finally, I asked,
“I am off tomorrow night. Would you like to go out to dinner with me?”
I saw Shawnee glance at her mother, who nodded her head “yes.”
Shawnee looked at me, smiled, and said, “Yes.”
I told her I would pick her up at 7 PM.
Friday night, dressed in clean clothes, with a fresh shave and shined shoes, I picked her up in my father’s car that I had spent hours detailing for the occasion. Shawnee looked like a dream. She wore low heel brown leather sandals, a pale pink sundress, and nothing else. She smiled shyly when I held her hand as we walked to where I had parked the car on Third Avenue in front of her house.
I opened the passenger door of my father’s blue 1966 Impala. She got in. I walked around to the driver’s side and got behind the wheel. Shawnee smiled at me mischievously then slid across the bench seat until she was sitting next to me. I expected her to ask where we were going to eat, but instead she excitedly confided,
“I have a surprise for you. I will tell you when I get to the restaurant. I can’t wait.”
We drove in silence. I stole glimpses of her. She looked so exotic. She wore no jewelry. It occurred to me that diamonds and pearls would only cheapen the innocent sensuousness of her natural beauty. I noticed her hands, her long graceful fingers, as she turned on the radio and tuned it to her favorite station. I wondered if she played the piano. My mother played the piano. I drove in silence, enjoying her singing with the radio, “I Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You.” I thought, how wonderful to be with her.
I am ashamed to admit this now, but before I picked her up, I went to the restaurant. It was one of the nicest restaurants in Huntington, and I tipped the valet to say, “Good evening Mr. Mann” when I returned. I tipped the Maître d’ to say “Good evening Mr. Mann. It is good to see you again. Would you like your usual table?” Lord, I was so stupid. I didn’t realize that I was doing exactly the wrong thing. I was so pleased with myself. Shawnee seemed impressed.
We were seated at a dimly lit table in a back corner. The waiter brought us a bottle of red wine. “Compliments of the restaurant owner, Mr. Mann.” He poured us each a glass then left.
I help up my glass and offered a toast. “To Shawnee, a vision of beauty.”
“I am sorry, Doug, but I don’t drink. I am only 18. How old are you?”
“I am 24.”
“Really. I had no idea you were that old. You should know better than to do what you did.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You can’t afford to eat here regularly. You paid them to say those things to impress me. Don’t get me wrong, I am impressed that you went to all that trouble and expense. But it wasn’t necessary. I like you for yourself. It’s just that simple.”
I was shocked. I said, “I am sorry. It’s just that I really wanted you to like me.”
“I do like you.”
I reached across the table and took her left hand. I pulled it to me, turned it over, and then involuntarily recoiled at the sight of her palm. A round scar the size of a quarter had been burned into the fleshy pad below the thumb. She jerked her hand back and put it down in her lap.
“What was that?” I asked.
“Nothing” she said.
“No. I really want to know,” I demanded.
“It’s not important. It was a long time ago. One of my mother’s boy friends wanted me to do something I didn’t want to do. I’ve forgotten all about it.”
“Let’s talk about something else,” she said. “Here is the surprise I have for you. My mother’s first cousin is the supervisor of the night shift at the Pepsi plant. He has always been nice to me. I guess its because I don’t have a father. Anyway, I am sure that if I talk to him he can get you a better position with more money and less hard work. Wouldn’t that be great? And I was thinking that I could fix you dinner every night and you could eat with me. That would save you money. You need to start thinking about getting ahead. And don’t worry; I will get rid of mother. “
“Shawnee, thank you. That’s very kind.”
I looked down at the table as I hesitated. I knew she was eager to hear my answer, but I also knew it would not be what she had expected. It’s funny what you can instantly realize. Shawnee was a poor, working class girl. Yes, she was smart and she was beautiful, but she was pure and she was innocent. All she wanted was a poor, working class guy to love her and share her world.
I prayed “Dear God. Please.”
I took a deep breath and said, “Shawnee, I don’t need a better job at the plant. I am a rising third year law student at one of the top-rated law schools in the country. This time next year I will be practicing law.”
Shawnee looked at me incredulously. Then I saw it in her eyes. Disbelief turned into belief, followed by a look of horror, then betrayal and sadness. I watched helplessly as she covered her face with her hands and started to cry. Through her tears, she pleaded, “Take me home. Please take me home.”
We left the restaurant in silence. We drove in silence. When I stopped the car in front of her house, I reached over to touch her, but she recoiled from me, flung open the car door, and, still crying, ran across the yard, up the steps, and into the house.
I could hear my father say, “Rich people are not happy. Anyone who has money got it by exploiting the working class. The only purpose of higher education is to obtain a license to steal. If you associate with rich, educated people, they will corrupt you. There are no lawyers in heaven.”
I cried. I thought I cried for Shawnee. Then I realize I cried for me. I had left the working class, but it had not left me, and so I could never be middle class. I was lost. I knew I would be lost forever.
I looked for her the rest of the summer but she never came out onto the porch again. I never saw her again. But I have thought of her often down through the years.