The Barn and the BladeWritten by Mariclare Lawson, Illustration by Melissa Fasolino
At sixteen-years-old I found myself at a pivotal point in my career: in a barn up to my knees in horse feces, six hours a day, five days a week in the middle of the 1995 summer heat wave. It was as if the ASPCA gods were smiling down on me and saying, “Young Mariclare, let God’s beautiful creatures inside your heart.” But I did not want creatures inside of me. I had never stepped foot on a farm before I accepted the job in the stable. In fact, the closest I came to wild life was stepping foot in the dog doo left on my front lawn from my neighbor’s poodle.
It was nearing the end of my junior year of high school and I still hadn’t found summer employment. I was sixteen and I had big dreams: to not work at Richlin Home and Auto, my former place of employment. The place that sold manure, spark plugs, sweatshirts, spices, and broken dreams. Richlin was famous throughout the Naugatuck Valley for its unique smell. A smell that can only come from a combination of the items for sale within the store and the overwhelming lack of hygiene of most if not all of the employees, myself included.
I heard about a job cleaning horse stables at a farm in Bethany, which was next to Naugatuck, where I lived. I had only driven through Bethany; I didn’t know people actually lived there. In fact to get to Bethany, you had to drive to the “other” side of Naugatuck. Naugatuck had two sides separated by the mighty Naugatuck River. The river was so contaminated by all the factory sludge dumped into it in the '70s, that the water glowed at night.
The “other” side of town had the famous Naugatuck Motor Inn. Famous for it’s hot tubs and HBO. (At least that is what the sign promised, having never set a foot even in the parking lot I can’t guarantee there was HBO or a hot tub or even a regular tub for that matter.) Across the street stood the candy factory where my mom worked over the summer. She was a nut checker on the Almond Joys line. The bars had to have the exact right size, full almonds, placed in the perfect position. If there was even one flaw they were taken off the line and put in a box called “seconds.” Well, guess who got all the seconds? We definitely had the best house for Halloween during what we would later call “the factory years,” a freezer overflowing with full sized candy bars.
That side of town also had the "other" McDonald’s, a Waldbaums, and a very strange video store, which we did frequent for some time because my dad boycotted Blockbuster. He did not like that they said an insincere “Hi” to you upon arrival. I was shocked to hear there were farms over there too, let alone live animals. There weren’t many animals on my side of the river.
I didn’t know any animals in the neighborhood, except our own cat Mame. And she was more like a veteran Vegas showgirl than a real animal. That cat was all attitude, looks and fearlessness. The next closest animal in my vicinity was a pit bull up the street. The family had him chained up outside. I had to pass him on my paper route. “The Route” as it became known amongst my family, was my very first job at the tender age of twelve. I don't know how the hiring process works when you barely have all your adult teeth but somehow I had landed a job.
The Route had ten houses. Ten papers. Every day my bundle would be dropped off at my house and I would have to undo the yellow binding with a butter knife, insert the coupons into all ten papers, put them in my sack and head out into the world alone to deliver the news to my neighbors.
But what I quickly realized is that these papers were not going to my neighbors. At least not the neighbors I knew. Not the neighbors whose pools we went swimming in and whose houses I depended on for Monday night Twin Peaks viewing. No, these were the auxiliary neighbors. The neighbors with, say, a pit bull.
And I’ll tell you what. That pit bull looked exactly like Joe Pesci. Not Home Alone Joe Pesci, I’m talking Goodfellas Joe Pesci. After he gets really messed up in the face. I mean, this dog was not cute.
The chain around his neck tied into a knot and then attached to the railing on the porch. While I trusted the chain, I didn’t trust the porch. He was small, but he obviously never had a mother’s love. He never heard her heart beat or felt a lick from her tongue and he certainly never suckled her teet for her warm mother’s milk. His mother’s milk was probably battery acid. I bet he was raised by a can of gasoline, a dented can.
Adding to my growing suspicion of animals in general, I heard on Eyewitness News one night that somewhere in the state, a pit bull ate someone’s face. Al Terzi sat at the anchor desk and announced it to all of Connecticut on the 6:00 p.m. news. At least that is what I thought I heard, but my sister was practicing "Fur Elise" on the piano rather loudly, my mother had just emerged from the basement with an industrial sized shop vac and began to vacuum for the seven hundredth time that day, my dad was singing the theme to Hawaii Five-0 which did not have any lyrics, and my grandmother was “not getting involved."
In the Lawson house I didn’t always have the easiest time “hearing things” or “seeing things” or “getting the facts right." There was a lot going on most of the time what with all the singing and vacuuming and that needed to be done at all times. But I do remember very distinctly seeing a picture of a dog and hearing the oft-reliable Mr. Terzi say it had eaten someone’s face off, cementing for certain any uneasy feeling I may have possessed about anything with four legs.
No one was more surprised than me when I said yes to the job on the farm, considering that the only thing I knew about horses was that they in fact had four legs, and thus therefore were not to be trusted. But I was lured by the promise of all-I-could-drink lemonade, free use of the above ground pool, and the unheard-of sum of six American dollars an hour. How did I come to this magical agreement? Did I have an interview? Nope. Did I make a phone call? Of course not. Did I know my future employer’s name or police record? Don’t be silly. I had no idea who the hell this person was or if this even was a functioning farm. What I’d be doing, where I’d be doing it or whom I’d be doing it with was all left a mystery.
During the final school play of the year, while sewing a tail to my leotard, the wardrobe lady asked me out of the blue if I needed work for the summer. I assumed she was going to ask me to help her sew costumes or make sparkly headbands. So I excitedly said "Yes." She scribbled a name and address down on the back of a program and handed it to me.
“This lady is a friend of mine and she’s good people. She’s lookin’ for someone young to do work for her. Like labor type work. You can do liftin’ an stuff right?”
“Yeah. I mean, I’m pretty strong. I take dancing.”
“OK, OK Hon good good. So you wanna do it? I’ll call her and set it all up. She’s gonna pay you six bucks an hour and she needs you every day I think.”
“Oh, she’s got a pool.”
Her heavily made up eyes blinked and fluttered as she offered me the job of a lifetime.
This is how I operated. I never asked questions that I didn’t want to know the answers to. I needed a job, I didn’t have the option to turn it down, and so no matter what this job was, I could not say no. So I figured I’ll just show up and do it. How bad could it be?
“You like horses right, Hon?”
“I’m sorry, what?”
I shoveled non-stop in the stalls in solitude and silence, pushing wheelbarrows filled with the manure of twenty-four horses, two donkeys, and what I can only guess was a miniature half mule with deep emotional problems. The little beast’s name was Miracle. According to Kath, the woman who owned the farm, Miracle was born under extraordinary circumstances.
“We didn’t think this lil’ angel was gonna make it.”
Kath wiped a tear from her eye. It was either a tear from the traumatic memories about the day Miracle was born, or a tear from the overpowering ammonia like odor that horse urine emits.
“Miracle’s a fighter. I had to yank her right out of Cowboy’s uterus. And then I slept all night in their room with them.”
“Um . . . their room?”
“Yeah, stall fourteen, back there. We were roomies for the better part of the summer and fall that year. But I like sleepin’ with ‘em, they’re m’kids. I mean it’s more comfortable than a bed, the hay I mean.”
I smiled, fascinated by the devotion she had to her brethren and scared by the details she was willing to share with a virtual stranger. At sixteen, I had never met anyone quite like Kath, and I didn’t realize people actually slept in barns with animals and their refuse. I went camping with the Girl Scouts when I was ten, but besides that I pretty much always slept indoors . . .in a bed . . . not surrounded by my feces or the feces of others, be they human or horse. So the idea of spooning with a deformed newborn half mule took some getting used to.
I was really hung up on the idea of breathing in and out for eight hours straight that hardcore smell of horse dung and urine. I mean maybe I could drift off in a room with one horse, but we are talking a fully occupied stable. It was a full house too: twenty-three horses, two donkeys, and one of God’s special species, little who-knows-what-it-was, the depressed half mule, Miracle. I mean they were all in there at night and unlike humans, horses and donkeys continue to “go” all night long. And I was not on the clock to clean up after them past 3:00 p.m.
I couldn’t help but wonder, where was Mr. Kath during all this? I knew she was once married because she had mentioned her husband in other conversations, but he was not part of Miracle’s story, which was very long, very detailed, and lasted all summer.
At three o'clock I drove back through the “other” side of town, changed into professional clothes and began my next shift. I just wasn’t making enough money shoveling shit and decided I needed a second job. After days of scouring the classifieds I saw an ad from Vector Marketing that sounded too good to be true.
“No experience Necessary. Flexible Schedule. Excellent Income.”
I drove to the Industrial Plaza and walked into what looked like an abandoned office building. Seemed totally safe and I was not suspicious in the slightest. There was clearly either a fire, a rave, or the whole plaza was built on an ancient Indian Burial Ground and was totally haunted. I was cool with ghosts. Hey, if the job was being some kind of Ghost Whisperer then sign me up. Maybe it would help me get through to some of those horses, or at the very least, Kath. I thought these were all signs pointing to success so I followed the maze of hand-drawn signs to the Vector interview.
Once inside the holding pen, I realized I wasn’t the only high school sap desperate for a summer job. Everyone had that glazed over look in their eyes along with obnoxious oversized name tags we were forced to wear. I turned to the large boy next to me and saw his name was Collin.
“This is the last resort. I’m already cleaning mini horse stables every morning. If I don’t get this job it’s back to Richlin Home and Auto. I can’t go back there again this summer. No really I can’t. I quit last summer by leaving a handwritten note in the cash register and snuck out. Also I sold a toilet for ten bucks.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Well the store had toilets for sale. It was like a wannabe home depot type store kind of. Anyways, the toilet was a hundred dollars, but I plugged it into the register wrong. I forgot a zero. So the guy paid ten dollars and left with the bowl. Long story short, I really don’t wanna show my face there again.”
I think Collin was high because he kinda “fell asleep.” But then I looked around the closet they were holding us all in and saw 70-100 percent of the kids in there were “asleep.” I felt like I was on The Twilight Zone, but it wasn’t my episode. I wasn’t the star; I was one of the extras. I was one of these people. We were all wearing lame-o-trying-to-look-professional “business” outfits that were completely ridiculous 1995 mid-grunge looks. I mean a flannel shirt with a silk black tie in the middle of the summer? The Goth look was also represented, which I can respect. I of course had on a dress of my mother’s. Everything in my closet I made myself and instead of sewing I discovered that a glue gun worked just as well. But to land a job at a prestigious place like Vector Marketing, wearing a dress held together by Elmer’s was probably not the best idea. So my mother’s Fashion Bug dress it was.
After the group interview I walked to my car still completely confused about exactly what this job was. I knew we would be selling something but I had no idea what. I prayed I would make it to the second round of interviews but I couldn’t put my finger on why. All I knew for sure was that the poor man’s Lonnie Anderson who conducted the interview mentioned a trip to Hawaii.
I returned to the abandoned office building where real jobs go to die for a second interview, and by the end it all became clear, but by then it was too late. My dreams were wrapped up in the idea of a real job with growth potential, flexible hours, excellent income and a possible trip to Hawaii. And all from selling Quality Home Cutlery Door-to-Door. Like working in an oversized horse bathroom, it was hard to say this was a job I ever saw myself doing. “Ever since I was a little girl playing with Knife-Selling Barbie I knew one day I would pay $375 out of my own hard-earned shit-shoveling money to buy a complete set of Cutco knives for my demonstrations, in order to then earn a total of $880 before taxes for three months of work.” It was almost too perfect.
My nights were long, hot and filled with sharp knives and strangers. My days were long, hot, and filled with shit from both the animals and Kath. I think I preferred my chances at night. As it turned out Kath’s husband had finally had enough and left. She “spent too much time and money” on the animals. I guess for Mr. Kath, spending all their life savings and ten mortgages on the house qualifies as “too much.” Kath may have owned that farm but it was obvious to everyone that the farm owned her. She slept every night in the stall with the sick horses. The hay was her pillow, their stink her blanket. She brought many an animal to work with her, caring for their intricate medical needs right there at her desk.
Once she found a bunny that was in desperate need of round-the-clock treatments. Despite having no veterinary or medical degree, she thought it would be a good idea to nurse this sick animal back to health at work. So she opened the drawer and placed little Peter Cottontail in a nice warm spot, set an alarm and closed the drawer. Every half hour the alarm would go off, signaling it was time for his meds. She would take the baby bunny out, and, using the eyedropper, syringe, or iron lung she would administer to him what she assumed to be his every need.
“Wow Kath. I can’t believe you did all that for a bunny you found.” I was pretty moved by Kath’s devotion to a helpless creature.
“Well these are m’kids. Gotta love ‘em all. God’s lil’ angels.”
“Your boss lets you have them in your office?”
“Well, I mean I was tryin' to hide it.”
“Oh, where do you work?”
“Oh I’m a teller at Naugatuck Savings and Loan.”
Once the sick baby bunny was nursed back to health upon a bed of crisp new twenties, Kath figured her real job was done, and what’s a little rabbit puke on some money? It’s still legal tender, right?
Wrong. As I found out in my Cutco training, it is a felony to destroy money. While Kath was abiding by her own set of laws, I was forced by the hand of my boss and the dream of Hawaii to break the law eighty times that summer.
I had to cut eighty pennies in 1995, right in half with the super shears. And of course they made it look so easy. Cutting copper with a scissors might be easy for the very strong, but I was exhausted from working in the stables all morning. I barely had the strength to cut the tomato with the pairing knife. My little hands would shake when it was the magical time in the “dem” to cut that penny. Puns aside this was known as the money shot. The kids would gather ‘round, the camera would come out, neighbors would come over, relatives would fly in from out of town, dignitaries, ex-presidents, aliens, Babe Ruth was there. I mean you name it—everyone wanted to see a pair of ordinary scissors cut a penny in half. And sometimes I just couldn’t deliver. I only got it halfway. I just could not get that damn thing to break. I was a disappointment to my cutlery, my country, and my conscience.
Sometimes there wasn't even time to shower in between my two jobs. One night, a neighbor was just about to buy a twelve-dollar vegetable peeler when her six-year-old tugged on my Fashion Bug dress.
I looked into his innocent eyes, the smell of Miracle’s urine still on my tongue.
Sure that wasn’t technically true. Of course it was shit. I mean you can’t hide that stank. I was covered in it from head to toe for six hours in a thousand-degree stable. I sat in the kid’s living room with actual flies swarming around me.
I never did get that lemonade or a dip in that above ground pool, which was actually non-functioning, i.e. dry. And it would have been awkward, me alone in the above ground pool, Kath frolicking with the emotionally disturbed miniature horses in the yard or whatever you call the fenced in part of farm. And in an above-ground pool you sure as hell can’t dive or jump or even really swim.
So I would skip the pool, make the manure pile as high as I possibly could for the day, kiss Miracle goodbye, from a safe distance of 500 feet of course (Miracle was a kicker), and run to my car. I had to make it back home in time for the night shift.