A Failure to Adjust
I always thought of myself as a hot shit, work hard, play hard, a little edgy. A good friend, but don’t get on my bad side. You know the type. But then somehow, something changed. I changed. I started to feel, not so gutsy, disgusted I guess. I was tired of working so hard and I didn’t feel like playing at all.
It wasn’t just one thing; it was everything. The three kids, four counting the husband, were driving me up the wall. The job was the pits. I wanted to just dump it all and start over, but I was forty, and that felt too old, at the time.
It was living in that second floor apartment that started it off. A four-room apartment is just too damn small for five people. All the kids in one bedroom, bumping and grinding into puberty, one screaming at the other two to get out, every time they had to change a tee-shirt, which was often. That’s my clearest memory of the kids at that age, screaming at one another, wading through a pile of dirty t-shirts. It’s no wonder. My kids learned to holler from the best of them. They thought “Pick up this pig sty,” yelled loud enough to be heard above the heavy metal playing on the stereo, was every mother’s standard greeting when she came home from work.
My husband and I weren’t doing so hot either. He liked me better before I
was pissed off all the time. He wasn’t in love with the new me. I wasn’t in
love with the old him. Suppertime was the worst. His idea of helping out with
meals was adjusting the TV set before we ate.
“Annie, quit slamming those plates around. I can’t hear the news.”
I slammed my way through Sports and Weather, then banged through Star Trek reruns while the rest of the family ate desert.
Neither of us would leave the kids. He wouldn’t leave the marriage bed. I slept on the couch. The couch, which had been peed on numerous times, by my kids, other people’s kids, and a Chihuahua, didn’t elevate my state of mind.
The shrinking apartment, losing sleep, worrying about work: that’s what started it. I work in a paper factory. Management was putting in a new wage earning system. Under this new Incentive Production Program our work gets reviewed every few months and our hourly rate goes up or down accordingly. Some smart company man thought this one up. We used to have piece- work. You bind ten score of loose-leaf notebooks; you make $1.09. You get it the next week. Now we wait twelve weeks. What kind of crap is
that and how come the union let it go by?
I pondered these heavy questions and tossed and turned on a couch that wasn’t only uncomfortable, it was just where you’d expect a couch to be – in the living room, with the TV and the stereo, and the kids, and the husband, and me waiting for the last person to go to bed every night.
So you see, there were reasons for my condition, my “break with reality,” as Jerry calls it. Jerry’s my therapist. He says, I “escaped the pressures of Motherhood, adult relationships, and the burdens of my socioeconomic status by retreating to an alternative reality.”
The fact is I was freaking out over a two-story house across the street from my best friend Pearline’s house. At the time it felt more like the house was taking an unusual interest in me, but of course, that kind of thinking was part of my problem.
This guy Jerry is the Employee Assistance Programs Counselor at the shop where I work. He still thinks I’m nuts, better, but not quite on line yet. He doesn’t say it like that. It sounds more treatable when he says it. I have an official diagnosis: Adult Adjustment Reaction. You have to have an official diagnosis so that the insurance will pay. I have failed to adjust to adult life.
They’ve got guys like Jerry in lots of the big shops now. They’re suppose to keep people glued together, functioning at maximum capacity. If you mess up on your job because of your problem, the shop’s more lenient if you’re seeing a Jerry.
My friend Pearline suggested counseling. Her cousin Leo works with me. “You know yourself Leo hasn’t missed a day’s work since this Jerry guy helped him get off the booze. Maybe he can help you too.”
I didn’t think it was such a hot idea. I didn’t want people at work to find out that all my ducks weren’t in a row, but I was screwing up. I never missed work, but I was a bitch when I got there. I needed my job.
One July day I punched out for lunch and dragged myself up to Jerry’s third floor, air-conditioned office. He wasn’t there, but I filled out the yellow form hanging on the door. I peeked through the mail slot to see if anyone standing outside, where I was standing,
could see inside. No sweat, dark as hell in the Employee Assistance Programs Coordinator’s office, so I slipped the envelope into the slot.
I got an appointment notice the next week. Jerry got down to practical matters right away. I could spill my guts on company time up to one hour a week, an additional hour on my time, his schedule permitting. He gave me a three page list of community resources: the Yellow Pages of human suffering. Phone numbers for the Mental Health Center, Detox, Battered Woman’s Shelter. The same list that’s tacked near the time clock. He also
said, “Nothing we discuss will ever be used for disciplinary action at work.”
After his spiel, Jerry asked me why I’d come. The first time I just told him
I was jittery, confused. He wanted to talk about my husband and my kids, boring stuff. I wanted to talk about the house across the street form Pearline’s house. My sweet
house. My big strong sturdy house with the pretty smooth slats and the smiley windows.
Like I told Jerry, it was the house itself, the physical structure that caught my eye. What can I say? She was beautiful.
My thing with the house started in late spring. Pearline and I had kids on the same baseball team. Pearline didn’t have a job. She had her kids, her husband, her house, the yard, and the dog. Her husband made pretty good money. Their house is on the same street as the ball field, Bridgeman Lane Memorial Park. Two nights a week I’d pick her and her kids up for baseball. I would get out of work at four-thirty, run home to make sure uniforms were clean and everyone was fed, then off to Pearline’s. The kids usually ran over to the baseball field as soon as we got there. Pearline was always late. She has a thing about not leaving the house until the dishes are done. I didn’t want to help her with the dishes, and it depressed me to watch her, knowing that mine were home in the sink with the mashed potatoes turning into cement on the plates. So I’d sit outside on her steps,
glad to be alone for a while, staring across the street.
I admitted to Jerry up front, a certain bent toward daydreaming. But hey, I still say that this house was encouraging me. That first spring evening I wasn’t even interested in that house or any house. Then, softly, so you had to pay attention just to hear it, flute music
came floating out of the second story window, pretty and kind of sad.
Jerry says I was entering the realm of magical thinking, grasping for symbolic markers, some sign for my mind to play with. The house looked perfectly normal. Common, built like a box, put up cheap, after the war, like most of the houses on Bridgeman Lane, and exactly like my friend Pearline’s. A front door in the middle, a picture window on one side, a smaller window on the other side, with windows above each of these. Painted
off-white, the house looked just like the ones I had drawn in grammar school. Well, it didn’t have a picket fence, but it had a sidewalk leading up to the front door.
It was a few weeks later when I realized that something really strange was going on with the house. I was sitting on Pearline’s bottom step again. I could see that the grass across
the street needed to be cut. I was thinking maybe my oldest son could make a few bucks cutting the lawn when I noticed the trim around the picture window was getting kind of shabby. I tried to figure how much the kids would get for scraping the trim on seventeen windows and two doors. I had never seen the back of the house, but I included four back windows and a back door in my count. I looked at the picture window and thought it
would be tedious because it had some fancy trim work that I hadn’t noticed before. Beautiful work, intricate. I thought I might not mind painting it myself. I got up and looked at Pearline’s picture window. It didn’t have any special trim. I could have
sworn the front windows of the houses were identical.
“Ever notice the lattice work on the picture window across the street?” I asked Pearline when she finally came out.
“What lattice work?”
“On the picture window. Was it always there?”
“There’s no lattice work on the picture window. We almost bought that house,” she said, trying to manage a jug of Kool-Aid, a bat and two lawn chairs. “Take something will you?”
“Sure, gimme the lawn chairs. Look at the window,Pearl.”
“Oh yeah, when they put that on?”
“Well, I didn’t notice it Wednesday.”
“Probably been like that for years. So who cares anyway?”
I cared. Now that I was really comparing the houses I noticed that the picture window on ten Bridgeman Lane was bigger then Pearline’s too.
“Who lives across the street?” I asked the next Saturday morning.
“Two women. Marlina, nice lady, and Tina, kind of strange.”
‘Well the two women have four front steps now.”
“What do you mean?”
“Used to be three.”
“Oh please. Are you fighting with Charlie again?”
“Again? You mean still? ” Charlie’s my ex-husband. In those days we did nothing but fight.
Pearline sat down next to me. She put her arm around me and gave me a sideways hug. “Really, everything O.K?” Pearline’s got good hugs. “Come on, spill it.”
Since she gave me an opening and
kept right on hugging me, I bitched some about Charlie and the kids, then I
went on a long tirade about the new Incentive Production Rates. Pearline had already heard all of this stuff,
but she let me rant and rave. I was
trying to point out that my paycheck has taken a turn for the worse, now that I
have Incentive. Well I guess I got
pretty loud and flung out some words that Pearline found “positively
vulgar.” This is the point when she
started talking very slowly and patiently, leading up to the part where I
should go see Jerry the shrink. “Annie,
I think you need help. Professional
help.” I paid attention to her, partly
because I was scared and partly because she started rubbing my shoulders.
Pearline and I didn’t talk much about
the house across the street for the next few weeks. The discussions made her nervous. After I hooked up with Jerry, I kept watching
the house, against his advice. I tried
not to, but the damn thing kept getting more beautiful. And it was growing. Slowly, very slowly, just an inch a week,
maybe, but faster than the old oak tree on the east side whose lowest branch
held a birdhouse. The birdhouse was
directly across from the second story window at the beginning of baseball
season. Now it was a good six inches
below. I started watching for traces of
construction, a pile of brick or a backhoe discretely hidden in the backyard
bushes. I found no evidence. Maybe they worked at night. Maybe I was insane.
I decided to take a picture of the
house. I took three, actually.
groaned, “Annie the house fetish. You’ll
never get well.” None of the pictures
came out, although I got some great shots of the kids in their uniforms from
the same roll.
By late August baseball season was
over. I still saw Jerry, and Pearline,
and the house a couple times a week. I
had almost convinced myself that I had made up the whole business. No more fantasizing. I needed more rest was all. I had my back to the house when Pearline got
me started again. She was telling me
about a new diet. Pearline and Jerry
both think that diet and exercise will help my emotional health.
“Oh shit,” she said.
“What?” I asked, listening for a
“Look at your house.” Pearline leaned forward in her lawn
chair. She was facing me, staring across
I stood up and turned around. The picture window. Why hadn’t I measured it? Why hadn’t I measured the whole damn house? The picture window was now a bay window,
bulging right out of the house with two smaller windows attached on either
“So they had a bay window put on the
house, huh?” I said, trying to hide my triumph.
I was about to prove that this house was jerking me around or have
Pearline for company in la la land.
“Why don’t we just ask them?”
“O.K.,” I said, ready to march right
across the street with my best friend and do just that.
“I was thinking maybe you could do
it.” Pearline had the nerve to look me
in the eye when she said this.
I wanted to strangle her. “Sure, why not? Everybody already knows I’m nuts.”
We argued on and off for the rest of
the day about how crazy it would seem to the people across the street if one or
both of us asked a few neighborly questions about the growth of their
property. We decided a covert operation
was the best course of action. I stayed
late at Pearline’s that night. Her
husband had front row seats for some motivational speaker. We waited until her kids were in bed, hoping
everyone within snooping range was asleep.
We flipped a coin to see who would measure the house. I lost.
I crouched low, peeking through the
bay window. Midnight and there was still
a light on in the kitchen. I could make
out two women sitting at a large kitchen table.
That table would never fit in Pearline’s kitchen. I could hear talking, but couldn’t make out
the words above my own heavy breathing.
Shit. Midnight. They should have been sleeping.
I decided to get the job done
anyway. What the hell. What’s the difference between a jail cell and
a room in county hospital? How much
trouble can you get into for attempted house measuring? A full moon gave me light to work by. I put myself into my work ass-backwards, my
butt leading the way as I bent from the waist, taking a few steps backward at a
time, trying to make the tape measure behave.
I wanted an accurate measure, but the tape was hooked to the house only
by the little tab thing at the end.
Pulling too hard would dislodge it.
I worked slowly and secured it with a rock every few feet. I inched my way, until one step brought my
rear end in contact with – something. My
heart froze. My breathing stopped. I stared between my legs. There stood the largest human being I had
ever seen. The woman carried a weapon, a
long thin knife of some kind, a skewer maybe.
An Amazon was about to skewer me.
That wimp Pearline was supposed to be watching from across the street. Why wasn’t she trying to rescue me? I fell to my knees sputtering, “I…I…”
The Amazon offered me her right hand
and pulled me to my feet. “Come on. Get
up.” The weapon dangled in her left
She stared me up and down and played
with the skewer, turning it from end to end, then holding it between two
fingers like a baton. “What are you doing
“That’s a knitting needle,” I said,
realizing too late that this would not be the revelation for her that it was
“You drunk?” she asked. “What’s
these rocks for?” She picked up a rock
and snatched the tape measure from my hand.
She seemed normal enough. But
than, who was I to judge?
“No, I’m…I was just here to… I
was measuring your house.”
“Marlina, come out here,” she
A light snapped on. “Where are you?”
“By the bay window.”
“Are you alone? I’m not presentable.”
“Get out here…Please.”
Marlina poked her head out the
door. She was smiling. Marlina is usually smiling. “I make it a practice never to leave the
house with my midriff bulge exposed.”
She tightened the straps of her halter-top and extended her hand to
I stared at her midriff.
“Introduce me to your friend, Tina.”
Tina was actually medium height,
hefty, about my size. She rolled her
eyes toward me, “Noise that we thought was a dog peeing on our shrubs,”
then shot a look at her house mate, “I’d like you to meet Marlina.”
Marlina shook my hand.
Tina said, “Cut the shit. It’s midnight. Why are you snooping around?”
“I thought, it seemed, your
“Here, sit.” Marlina took me by the elbow and guided me to
the steps. “Don’t be afraid of us.”
“Be afraid,” Tina said.
I went with the truth. It was all I had. “I thought your house was growing,” I
squeaked out. I readied myself to put up
a fight if Tina made a move toward me.
“Plain old garden variety nut.” Tina walked back into the house. “If you can’t get rid of her, yell.”
Marlina drew the story out of
me. It was easy after Tina left. Marlina said Tina had a special problem
herself. Tina gets upset when she’s in
tight places. A few months before, she
had gotten so upset when her boss backed her in a corner that she decked him,
right there in the accounting office.
The company agreed not to press charges if Tina took an extended
vacation. Tina sees a full-fledged
psychiatrist. She has to pay for it
herself. I’m dying to know her official
diagnosis. Jerry says, “Don’t
push.” He never met Tina, but he thinks
she has trust issues.
Marlina sat with me a long
time. We talked about other stuff
besides being nuts. She told me that she
and Tina had lived together, right in this house, for over ten years. They had made some changes in the house,
especially since Tina was out of work.
Tina is real handy, but not good enough to put in a bay window
overnight. I tried to get Marlina to
tell me exactly when the window was put in.
“Recently,” was as specific as she got.
I smiled and nodded at Marlina. She was being so nice to me. I felt less crazy then I had in months, or
anyway, I cared less. She gave me some
grape juice, then sent me home, saying, “Come back and measure away in daylight
if you like.”
When I returned to Pearline she was
a basket case. She had been peeking out
from behind her curtains with her hand on the phone ready to call the cops for
an hour. She sucked up the part about
Tina doing some work on the house. “Of
course. How could I ever have gotten
drawn into this thing?”
I stopped talking to Pearline about
the house altogether for a few months.
We kind of cooled off towards each other. She was jealous that I was starting to hang
around with her neighbors. Jerry wasn’t
so sure that it was healthy either. But
who can argue with success? He could see
that I was getting calmer by the week.
There were times when I wanted him to help me figure out how to tell my
daughter that her new boyfriend was a useless punk without pushing her further
into his hairy tattooed arms, that Jerry seemed more interested in the house,
and Marlina and Tina. I bet he had
closet fantasies about being Tina’s counselor.
Then I started having this
reoccurring dream. I dreamed that there
was a secret room in the house, up in the attic. A small room, lots of light, an overstuffed
chair with big pink flowers on it. I
told the dream to Tina. She was
smoothing an oak board by hand at the time.
She handed me a piece of sandpaper, “Like this,” she said, and made even
circular movements with her hand over mine.
“You do it.”
When I first asked Tina to show me
carpentry, she said no. She couldn’t
stand having somebody follow her around.
Now she was showing me woodworking stuff once in awhile. I’m hoping to get her to help me build a
doghouse for Pearline’s carpet destroying mutt, to sort of help bring my
“So what’s the room for?” She didn’t really seem interested, but Tina
doesn’t make chit chat, so I told her.
“For me. It’s waiting for me. It’s my room.”
“Christ, the only waiting room
you’re ever going to see is in the shrink’s office.” Tina smiled.
She actually grinned at me. Then
she was Tina again, working with no unnecessary conversation.
For the next few weeks Marlina
wouldn’t let me past the kitchen. Tina
was working on the stairwells and wanted to be left alone. Marlina and I were spending a lot of time
together, shopping for winter clothes for my kids. Marlina’s into kids. She’s even more into clothes. She likes all of that horrible miss-matched
punky stuff. The kids love to shop with
One Tuesday after work I brought
over cranberry nut bread, Tina’s favorite.
She ate two pieces with us in the kitchen. She was acting funny, friendly almost. She smiled at me again. Then something really weird happened.
“How’s your finances?” she asked.
“Tina!” Marlina was mortified. “How rude.”
Marlina’s a funny mix, loose about some things, but she’s a tight ass
when it comes to money.
Tina shrugged. “What?
I just want to find out if she can pay her way.”
Marlina stood and looked sternly
into Tina’s eyes. Her voice had an
edge. It was the first time I saw
Marlina pissed. “Tina, we agreed. We won’t ask for any money unless she can
“How you plan on finding out if you
don’t ask?” Tina laughed, leaned back
and folded her arms over her broad chest.
“O.K. Do it your way.”
Marlina gained her composure. She threw her head back, looked like a mare,
I thought she might whinny, but she turned to me and straightened up,
dignified, like the Pope had just walked in.
She said “Annie, Tina has a
surprise for you.”
“Room’s done,” said Tina. Just like that. Like I was suppose to know what the hell they
were talking about. I just stared at
them. Marlina had to take me by the hand
and walk me up to the attic before I caught on.
Tina didn’t even go up with us.
We walked up a narrow staircase, Marlina swung open the door and there
it was, the last of the afternoon sun streaming through the south window, pouring
over the slats on the new wooden floor, white sheet rock walls waiting to be
painted. My room.
That was a few months ago. Life’s better, but it’s not easy. I don’t think it’s ever going to be
easy. My daughter’s pregnant with the punk’s
baby. They’re getting married as soon as
he makes it through his fifth year of high school.
Jerry thinks my room at Tina’s and
Marlina’s is a bad idea. He says,
“having a space outside your primary home causes confusion and creates a
pseudo-reality where don’t have to face your situation head on.” He thinks “One should face the problems of
the modern adult world, work through the emotional milieu, and accept that
changing roles may cause ambiguous feelings, conflicting with the value systems
of our cultural and socioeconomic background.”
But, like I said, Jerry talks about the room and the house more than I
do now. He’s earned his money. I’ve been making incentive for months. We were working on terminating, but I had an
unfortunate set back.
I got into a big fight at Union
Hall. I was merely trying to point out
that with Incentive Production if your rate is high, the company gets a
two-month free ride. To make matters
worse if your production rate gets too
high they up the base rate, but no matter how low production rates get the base
rate never gets lowered. What really
bothers me is that the rank and file voted this mess in, afraid the company
would pack up and move someplace where people had more incentive. I used the F word. I was out of control. I don’t want my kids using that word and there
I was in a public place screaming it.
The incident got management pretty
upset. They sent out a memo: “Although a
certain few employees are resistant to change, the Incentive Production Rate
Program is a great success, a more manageable system, whereby all parties
benefit, through which, we as a team, can reach top efficiency and production.”
I figure it’s not a good time to
stop seeing Jerry. We’re dealing with
working out anger in constructive ways.
Tina thinks I should can Jerry and
run for Union Steward.
My husband, Charlie is threatening
to charge me with abandonment if I don’t stop leaving the apartment for my room
Marlina’s worried I’m going to burn myself out running between both houses.
Pearline thinks I should file for divorce before Charlie does.
I think I should go to my job, cook for my husband and my kids, drive to my room to sit and rock and contemplate future adjustments.