The First Time I Got Paid for Doing It… for Writing, of course.
The United Church of Christ on Main Street had a hall where Ballroom Dancing & Etiquette Classes were held for eighth graders. My mother refused to let me attend.
“That’s where girls get pregnant!” she said.
Every morning as my school bus passed the church, I pressed my nose to the window glass, wondering what on earth went on in there. Halfway through 11th grade, I finally did get to check out the inside of that building. It was under different circumstances, but I thought that I might finally solve the puzzle of the mysterious goings on.
In Junior English class, we received a single-page handout detailing the International Lions Club’s annual “World Peace” Essay Contest. What a notion. It was December 1966. The Vietnam War’s Operation Rolling Thunder had flown nearly a million sorties by then, with thousands of American men joining their fruitless efforts, bleeding and dying month after month. And here I was, sixteen years old and hardly even been out of town, contributing my five hundred naïve, optimistic words on achieving World Peace.
I gave it my best shot, between vacuuming, cooking dinner, changing my little brother’s diapers and watching American Bandstand with my homework in my lap on the living room sofa. (Mummy worked nights. She passed me the baby as I entered the front door after school and she hustled down the steps and away. No instructions and no looking back.)
A few weeks later, I learned I had won first prize at our local level. $100, to be awarded at the monthly meeting of the Lions Club.
The night of the meeting was intensely cold. It was also a school night. I finished my homework and got dressed in my sister’s pumpkin-colored, heather wool Bobbie Brooks sweater with its matching skirt. The skirt was a little big in the waist so I folded it over a couple of times. It was only a little creased across the thighs. I didn’t have time to iron it. I brushed my hair and asked my mother if I looked OK. Of course I looked OK.
My parents didn’t accompany me. No one looked up as I closed the front door behind me. Maybe Andy Williams had a TV special. I drove myself to the United Church of Christ with my faithful companion, Overwhelming Fear.
The Town Hall clock was striking seven as I carefully parked my father’s Ford at the corner of Church and Main, under the glow of the streetlight closest to the church hall. All the stores were closed. Lights were out and doors were darkened. Park benches across the street were empty. The shutting of my car door echoed the melancholy stillness. The sky was so inky black that night that even the tiniest, most remote dots of starlight watched me from afar.
Ice and snow crunched under my boots as I climbed over the crusty pile of dirty snow between the street and the sidewalk and carefully ascended the frosty brick steps to the double door entryway. The stairs had been recently cleared and a snow shovel stood guard at one side. My ragged breath came out in little puffs of steam. I think I can, I think I can.
I approached the doors and gently pressed the thumb-piece of an elegant brass door handle with my gloved hand. The door swung open on bright hinges, inviting me inside. The hallway was dark, but a slant of light on the carpet showed me the way. I glanced into the room to see what awaited me; then I hung my shoulder bag and my Sunday coat on a coat rack, stuffing my gloves in one pocket, my knit hat into the other. I pushed my hair up off the back of my neck and fluffed it up a little.
Insanely self-conscious, I was steps away from entering a fluorescent-lit room populated only by a sea of men in business suits. The Mrs. Cleavers must have been at home washing the dinner dishes in their high heels. Even the second prize contest winner was a male, a Senior, and he was there in a sports jacket with his flannel-shirted father.
I literally quaked.
Somehow, I made my way to the front where I was directed to a cold, metal folding chair on the dais, facing all of these men. A vast ocean of suits and ties and freshly barbered hair. Not a word was spoken. All eyes were to the fore.
As soon as I sat down, I panicked that maybe they could see up my skirt, even though my legs were tucked modestly to one side. I was also quite cold—and lonely—in that unwelcome way that metal, folding chairs make you feel.
Without warning, a tiny spot on my left cheek, about an inch to the left of my nose, began to twitch involuntarily. My cheek kept twitching and twitching. What was wrong with me? I felt my armpits drench and my face flush as a wave of heat spread over my body. Did anyone notice? The realization dawned on me that this might be what a “nervous tic” was. Maybe. Or maybe I was having a heart attack. My father had had a heart attack.
The twitching continued. I suffered through the reading of the previous month’s minutes while the white-faced clock, high on the back wall ticked patiently.
Finally, it was time for the awards. I sat there on the cold, metal folding chair while the winner of the second prize received his award and rejoined his Dad. Then it was my turn. I can’t remember if they read my essay aloud. I stood up, approached the podium with tentative steps, and accepted a white #10 envelope.
“Thank you”, I said weakly. I can really only remember the fluorescent ceiling lights and the suits. And the smell of Old Spice.
My return trip to the entryway is unclear. I retrieved my coat and buttoned it on, digging for my car keys while tucking the envelope into my shoulder bag. The twitching stopped. I retraced my steps into the night. Inside the car again, I started the engine, put the heat on high and waited for the windows to defrost. I pulled out the envelope and untucked the flap. Drawing out the check, I held it forward, tilting it towards the lamplight to read my name neatly typed in Courier font after Pay to the Order of.