Whenever we heard the word layoff, my siblings and I thought of the food we’d soon be eating: watered-down beef stews and jar upon jar of canned beans and tomatoes that had been put up at the end of the previous summer. Meals during a layoff or a strike were always an inferior imitation of the ones we’d been raised on, as if someone had replaced our mother’s cooking with a cheap, generic version, all bland vegetables and thin broth.
Our mother was a fabulous farm cook, able to mix, roll, and cut biscuits as easily as blinking. Her mashed potatoes made us feel so good we’d swear there was some narcotic in them, and her dumplings were so light and perfectly salty that we’d ask for them on our birthdays. Once, some kids from Indianapolis came to our farm and went home with a crock of our mother’s chicken and dumplings. Their mother wrote to thank us and said, “The kids keep talking about your food! They won’t eat anything now without mentioning the meals you made them.” Our mother read the letter out loud to us, then tucked it into her brassiere and said, “See, your mother’s famous in the city for her cooking.”
But all that changed during the layoff of 1980. Because of the energy crisis, fuel costs were high, and new construction was bottoming out. Management at the Celotex ceiling-tile factory laid off workers with the lowest seniority. The cutoff was thirteen years of service; our father had worked there ten years. No one knew how long the layoff would last, and our mother went back to work to help make ends meet.
When I got off the school bus in front of our house with my four siblings — Derrick, Darren, Dina, and Dana — I spotted our mother standing proudly on the front porch, dressed in her new work outfit. The McDonald’s shirt was short sleeved and made of rough polyester. We’d not eaten at many fast-food restaurants, and seeing our mother in her uniform made me feel as if we’d somehow been promoted from farm family to suburbanites. The five of us stood on a bald patch of ground as she modeled the outfit for us on the front porch. The circles under her eyes were so dark it seemed she’d drawn them on with makeup. It was early spring and still fairly cold, and I could see goose bumps on her fleshy arms. A gust blew off my hand-me-down cap.
“Well,” she said, twirling around, “what do you think? How does your mother look?” She smiled, exposing her new dentures. Our mother had grown up poor in Vigo County, Indiana, near the coal mines, where dental care was scarce. By the time she was thirty-eight, gum disease had taken nearly all her teeth.
“It’s pretty,” said Dana.
Mom stopped twirling. “Uh-oh, your mother got kind of dizzy, kids.” She had on mascara to accent her large brown eyes, and her curly hair was pulled back in a bun. She seemed excited about going back to work. Our father had taken on spare jobs auctioneering and hauling livestock to make up for the loss of his check.
“There’s stew in the refrigerator,” our mother said as she walked down the steps. We started to complain. “No, none of that. Your mother added some more potatoes to it. It’s good.” She gave each of us a kiss and said to Derrick, who was the oldest at sixteen, “Don’t let them drink too much milk. Let’s make it last.”
We all trailed Derrick inside. I went to the long window in the living room and watched our mother use a lint brush to tidy up her uniform before she climbed into the rusty station wagon. Dad would be home late after running a load of pigs from Wabash to Crawfordsville.
Dina and Dana set the table while Darren and I heated up the stew. Derrick was outside, feeding the hogs and piling bales of straw against the walls of the barn. (Dad had left him a note: “News says ice tonight. Put bales up.”) I looked out the window for Derrick, but it had already started sleeting, and melting ice trickled down the glass, obscuring my view. When Derrick came back inside, he was soaking wet. He stripped down in the pantry and darted through the kitchen in his white underwear while Darren threw yellow corncob holders at him like darts. We all snickered.
At the dinner table Darren ladled stew into our bowls, and the steam rose into our faces. I was sad to see only two potatoes in my bowl. We slurped the broth hungrily until Derrick told us to slow down.
“This stuff isn’t any good,” our little sister Dana said, sopping up her stew with a slice of white bread.
“It’s fine,” Derrick said. “Just eat and be quiet.” Sleet pinged off the windows. He seemed ashamed. “Here,” he said to me. “Take some of my potatoes. I’m getting full.”
I didn’t protest.
After dinner we did our homework and watched an episode of Alice, a sitcom about waitresses who work in a diner. Alice set a slice of meringue pie down in front of a customer, and my mouth watered.
“Wish we had some of that,” said Dana, who didn’t have any homework but was writing out the names of the primary colors on lined paper.
We decided to make our own dessert: cinnamon toast. In the kitchen we set up an assembly line and quickly toasted, buttered, and applied sugar and cinnamon to five slices of bread. We’d wanted two each, but Derrick had told us to be frugal. We gobbled our toast down, grains of sugar falling onto the kitchen table. Darren brushed the granules into his palm and popped them into his mouth. Dina ate only half of hers, then offered the rest up for bid. Darren bought it for the price of doing her porch sweeping for one day. Tiny ice pellets pelted the roof and sides of the house.
“Sounds like someone’s throwing sugar out there,” said Dana.
The next morning there were two surprises: school was out because of ice on overpasses and bridges, and our mother had brought home day-old Egg McMuffins for breakfast — a whole sack of them. We’d never had the McDonald’s breakfast sandwiches before. Dad sat at the table smoking a Salem, a thin blue coil of smoke rising from the cigarette in his fist, a large glass ashtray on a stand next to him. He licked a stray piece of tobacco from his cracked lip, looking tired, maybe even hung over; I caught the scent of beer mixed with menthol. The roads had been even worse near Indianapolis, and he hadn’t gotten home until nearly daybreak.
Mom took the McDonald’s bag from the refrigerator. “Let me just warm these up in the oven,” she said. “Can one of you kids pour some orange juice? I’ll put on some coffee.” The house felt cozy, even though the propane heater was set low.
“Ice will melt by afternoon,” said Dad, mashing out his cigarette butt. “Carl’s got another sixty head to haul over to Kokomo. Should pay fifty dollars.” He lit another Salem. The familiar sound was comforting: the scratch of his match, his breath blowing it out.
Mom placed the plate of sandwiches before us. “Free,” she said. “They’ll let us have day-old stuff as long as we don’t talk about it. They’d just have to throw it out anyways.”
Dad didn’t seem as excited about the fast food as we were. He tapped his cigarette ash into the tray, then gently put the half-smoked Salem on the edge, as if it were as special as an Egg McMuffin.
The English muffins weren’t flaky, like our mother’s biscuits, and the egg was seasoned too much, but none of us cared. We ate as many as we could. There were plenty, and they were free. We ate Egg McMuffins all day and went to bed with stomachaches.
For several days straight we ate leftovers from Mom’s new job. Then one evening our supply ran out. Mom was at work, and Dad was talking on the phone in the kitchen. The chores had been done, the pigs and cattle fed. In a few weeks the real farming would start up, but for now there was nothing to take Dad’s mind off the lack of work. It felt strange to have him at home in the evening. Ever since I could remember, he’d worked the four-to-eleven shift, which meant he was gone by the time we came home from school, and we were asleep when he got back. He seemed antsy on the phone, smoking and staring into space. “They’re gonna keep us off until summer, I suppose,” he said in a low voice, as if talking about a funeral. “All right, then,” he mumbled. “I’ll talk to you later.” He hung up. We were all staring at him.
“What?” he asked.
“Dinner,” said Dana, fiddling with her candy necklace.
Our dad had cooked for us only once — when our mother was in the hospital for an emergency hysterectomy — and it had been a disaster: black pancakes with charred bacon and burnt toast.
“Come on,” he said. “Get your shoes on. We’ll go see what your mother’s up to.”
I was excited. We hadn’t been to visit her at work yet, and I wanted to see how they made the French fries. Derrick chose to stay home, but the rest of us piled into the pickup truck and headed into town. The skies were crystal blue, no sign of the bad weather that had come through just days before. Along the way Dad jotted down names of farmers whose paddocks were full and looked like they might need livestock hauled. By the time we arrived at McDonald’s, he’d filled three pages of his scratch pad. He tucked it into the pocket of his work shirt, and we walked through the doors of the restaurant.
The dining area was full of people, including more than a few of Dad’s out-of-work union friends. Behind the counter Mom was tucking burgers into small boxes while a teenager the same age as Darren was thrusting a hand shovel — the kind we used to feed sows — into an enormous mound of French fries. Mom’s face was sweaty, and the entire restaurant smelled of fryer oil.
We followed Dad to a table of flannel-shirted men, some of whom I recognized from company picnics and union potlucks during strikes. The men pulled two tables together so we could all sit down.
“So, what do you hear?” asked Dad.
“Not much, other than this could be a pretty long layoff,” said a guy with bushy sideburns.
A friendly man tried to get Dana to play rock-paper-scissors with him, but she scooted closer to Dad and ducked her head. The food on the men’s trays looked good. I wished Alice the TV waitress would show up and slide a wedge of chocolate cake before me.
“I’m hungry,” said Dana. Dina nodded in agreement. Darren poked me in the ribs, a warning not to chime in. We’d come looking for freebies, but we both knew Dad wouldn’t take food in front of the other men. I noticed Dad’s eyes had dark circles underneath, just like Mom’s, and his hands shook faintly.
“My tummy hurts,” Dana said.
Dad stood up and motioned for me to come with him. Darren stayed at the table with the girls and started to tell the men about how he had been elected vice-president of the local Future Farmers of America chapter.
Dad and I went to the counter, where Mom finally caught a glimpse of us as she delivered bags to the drive-through. Her face lit up. Then Dad pulled his wallet from his pocket. She narrowed her eyes and shook her head, but it was no use. He stepped up to a register and ordered four cheeseburgers, four bags of fries, and four vanilla shakes. While the cashier added up the meal, Mom shook her head as if she had water in her ear. The leather of Dad’s billfold was thin, and some of the stitching had come loose. I saw the plastic accordion sheaf in which he kept all of our school photos, Dina’s on top, and I saw a ten-dollar bill: the only money in the wallet. Mom was distracted now by the orders flowing in, her brown curls contained under a hairnet as she darted from one station to another. The girl behind the register took Dad’s money and gave him a few bills and coins in change. He headed back to the table, balancing the food on the tray.
The shakes were sweet. Darren dipped fries into his. Dad went without dinner, not even a cup of coffee. The men laughed and took turns telling stories about the ceiling-tile factory. It was good to see Dad chuckle. He told about falling asleep on the picket line and allowing several scabs to cross without his knowledge. The scabs decided the place was too hot to work in anyway, he said.
When our mother had a fifteen-minute break, she came over and sat on Dad’s lap. Her ruddy face glowed as she bragged on us: “They’ve been real good about doing without.” She tousled Dana’s brown curls. “But we sure will be glad when they call you all back.” She kissed Dad’s head before she hurried to return to her station. When we left the restaurant, she blew us kisses, and though I acted embarrassed, it was all I could do not to run behind the counter and give her a hug.
At home that night Darren and I lay on the floor in our upstairs bedroom, pressed our ears to the heating register, and listened to Mom and Dad talking in the living room. Dad said he was sure he’d get another five hauling jobs; Mom said she would cash her first paycheck on the way home the next night. “I’ll fix the kids a real meal on Saturday when I’m off. How does mashed potatoes and chicken-fried steak sound?”
“Your biscuits too?” Dad asked, laughing, and the smack of a playful kiss reached our ears. Their talk became muffled, the words indistinct. Sleepy, Darren said, “That sounds good. We haven’t had Mom’s biscuits in forever.”
The layoff would go on for another two months.