After her marriage fell apart, Lee landed back in Passaic. Some might have considered it a defeat to return to their hometown a 23-year-old single mother with an overdrawn bank account, especially when they’d so vocally wanted to leave.
But Lee didn’t feel defeated. She felt, instead, giddy with possibility. After all, she’d changed. Her former high school classmates wouldn’t recognize her, she was sure; she barely recognized herself. No way would she make the same mistakes. No way would she do anything as unglamorous as trawl through the Yellow Pages for a cheap divorce attorney again.
But to leave, Lee would need money, and to get money, she would have to work. Reba Carmichael—who was not Lee’s mother, but may as well have been—put Lee and Paavo up and got Lee an interview at the Pell Candy Factory. Reba worked part-time at the factory outlet and had heard there was an opening.
“It’s steady pay, plus you get to take home defective truffles,” Reba said, though Lee knew this already because Reba kept misshapen chocolates in covered glass dishes on every flat surface of her apartment, and Christmases Lee got a dented sampler of them from Reba and Reba’s husband, Two Crow. Two Crow was his last name. No one called him by his first name because, as Reba put it, “Dennis is boring as sin.”
Lee spent hours picking what to wear for the interview, though the Pell Candy Factory was not at all that kind of place.
“Blue or pink, Paavo?” Lee asked, trying on different blouses borrowed from Reba.
“Green,” said Paavo, a color he loved so much he couldn’t bring himself to acknowledge any other.
“Do yourself a favor and don’t mention Paavo,” Reba said, dropping Lee off. “Nobody wants to hire single mothers.”
“Wasn’t gonna,” Lee said, though she hadn’t thought about it one way or the other.
The man who interviewed Lee was Sam Wendt. She remembered him as the high school mascot, running up and down the sidelines. Lee had once watched the team carry him aloft to a trashcan into which they dumped him head-first to vent their rage after a particularly galling loss.
Wendt had been three years ahead of Lee, and couldn’t have been much older than she was, but he already looked like a grown man, more like a teacher than the student Lee remembered. He wore a silver pin on his shirt that identified him as a Quality Assurance Supervisor.
“Can you read?” Wendt asked. If he remembered her, he didn’t let on.
“Yes,” Lee said, with more enthusiasm than appropriate, delighted by the simplicity and clarity of his question.
“Read that,” Wendt said, pointing to a poster pinned to a bulletin board behind him, of a kitten hanging by its claws off a laundry line.
“‘Hang in there, baby.'”
“That was a joke,” Wendt said flatly. “This job requires frequent fine finger movements. Are you comfortable with that?”
To Lee’s blank stare, he added, “You’ll be fine so long as you’ve got all ten. You’re not colorblind, are you? Vision problems? Contact lenses? You can’t be unusually sensitive to chemicals. No? Good, you’re hired.”
To celebrate, Reba used a coupon for off-brand frozen pizza, separately adding canned pineapple to Paavo’s slice. They ate on the sofa, watching Alpaca Wars, a TV show about competing alpaca farms in Pennsylvania. It was okay, if a little boring; Lee preferred shows about money, like My Qrazy Quinceañera or Mansions of Morris County. Reba muttered, “I want that,” about every blanket or sweater. Paavo shrieked in delight at the badly behaved animals that spat and rolled in dirt and piled their dung in heaps. Two Crow sipped his beer, inscrutable.
Two Crow was a Lakota from South Dakota, a place that sounded to Lee like clean fields and open sky. What brought him to the paved dump of New Jersey, Lee would never know. He was an auto mechanic, but it wasn’t like there were no cars in South Dakota. Lee could almost picture Two Crow riding through the state on horseback, except her imagination wasn’t so good, and so for some reason it looked like Passaic, with a grimed-up Pizza Hut and a C-Town that sold moldy rolls.
Reba and Two Crow had been Lee’s neighbors in the development where she grew up. Each building in the development was named after a different president. Dopey and sedate, Reba and Two Crow had never had children—would’ve had kids if we weren’t so lazy, Reba joked—and they would let Lee come over for dinner when her parents were strung out or broke.
The last Lee saw her parents, she was 17, telling them she was pregnant; that the father, Randy, was a janitor at her high school; that she was dropping out to marry him; and that she was moving into the attic of his parents’ house in Seabrook.
Her parents then argued over who had messed her up worse. Her father called her mother a “crack butt;” her mother called her father “inbred Jell-o;” her father ripped out her mother’s hair by the alligator crimp; her mother tore great holes in her father’s shirt. She hadn’t known they cared. She left them like that, went to Reba’s apartment, and ate an entire dish of damaged chocolates, triumphant and full of the future.
Reba heard Lee’s parents had been evicted. Lee figured she’d see them one day among the panhandlers or the red-faced drunks downtown. Not dead, but not exactly alive, either.
On Lee’s first day, Wendt gave her a pink rubber apron with pink pockets and pink short latex gloves and pink earplugs and pink-tinted goggles. The bismuth shade was part of the Pell’s brand.
The factory made everything: tinned mints and gummy sharks and chewy-centered lollipops and heart-shaped pastilles. Lee couldn’t believe how loud it was, the collective whir of all that machinery. It took 20 minutes to walk from one end of the floor to the other. Supervisors got to ride golf carts when they did inspections. Lee heard rumors that the night shift, which had more relaxed supervision, did donuts in these golf carts, or raced, or jousted with the janitorial equipment.
Lee’s shift leader was another girl she’d gone to high school with, Danica. Lee and Danica had never been close, and Lee had lost touch with nearly everyone after she married Randy and had Paavo.
“This place isn’t so bad, if you’re not diabetic,” Danica said. “Who interviewed you? Dan?”
When Lee nodded, Danica said, “How’s this for fine finger movement,” and mimed masturbation. Lee got the impression this was a joke she made often.
Danica put Lee on lid line packing, meaning that Lee fit lids onto plastic sleeves before smacking them with a packer stamp. A dispenser poured pink and yellow nonpareils into the sleeves, but often missed, so Lee had to sweep them up from the floor.
“There’s no five-second rule here, but I’m not gonna cite you for eating off the floor if you’re like, starving or something,” Danica said.
“I’m not poor,” said Lee.
She was jumpy, worried that Danica would treat her badly because she knew had a kid.
“What?” said Danica. “That’s not what I meant.
At the end of her shift Danica let her take home a miniature gummy Happy Meal for Paavo, part of a limited production run, each item – the fries, the burger, a ketchup-swished hot dog, the soda cup – with huge, cartoonish eyes.
“Sorry it’s so ugly,” Danica said about the muddled color. “Someone poured the wrong dye into the syrup vat.”
Lee thought of Randy as her misguided, haphazard stab at a better life. The five-year difference in their ages had been large enough that Lee believed he would be wise, but small enough that he was still handsome. Janitors were union, and unions meant stability. Even the meditative way he buffed scuff marks off of cafeteria linoleum seemed stable to Lee.
What happened was, in retrospect, predictable: the school district caught wind of the rumors and fired Randy, though Lee was of age. She thought marrying him would cure his sadness and legitimize their love, which is what she believed it was, at the time.
But instead of a job he found Medieval Mania 4, a video game he claimed helped him feel in touch with his Baltic ancestry. He spent his savings on collectible swords on eBay. He adopted a funny gait because he thought men in medieval times walked on the balls of their feet, which gave him exquisitely muscled calves that he asked Lee to admire when she came home from double shifts she picked up at a restaurant to meet the rent obligations and babysitting fees they’d agreed to pay his parents. As a waitress, she was forever seeing other families: families who spent time together, who were too large to fit in a booth, who hit their knees under the table, who asked her to sing on birthdays.
On a rare day off, determined to be normal, Lee took Paavo to the park.
“Come with us,” she ordered Randy.
“Okay,” Randy said, but he didn’t leave the computer, its glare bluing his eyes.
She thought if she started to leave, that would goad him to action. She put Paavo in his shoes, raided the coin jar for quarters, packed an unnecessary umbrella.
“Can you help me? The stroller wheel’s jammed.” Paavo was stamping his feet impatiently upstairs, chanting, “The park, park, the park.”
“One second,” Randy said. Lee was glad she couldn’t see the screen from where she stood, that she couldn’t see what she had to compete with, what she was losing to.
“We’ll go, just you and I,” Lee told Paavo. The route to the park was along the highway, but they had no car. She distracted Paavo from the heat on their walk by pretending the world was made of sugar.
“What’s the sidewalk?” she asked.
“Marshmallows,” Paavo said.
“Marshmallows,” said Paavo.
“The stop light is gum drops,” she said.
“Gum drops,” Paavo repeated, uncertain.
She bought him an ice cream and he ate it in the effortful, half-drunk way of toddlers, his head tilted towards his shoulder to meet his badly-angled spoon. A bee flew into his mouth and stung his tongue, and she tried to console him but he wouldn’t be consoled, crying for his vana, his grandmother, and the terrible heat baked down on his pink skin because she’d forgotten sunscreen, and he flailed his legs against her side, his tongue swollen to an unbelievable size, she worried he wouldn’t be able to breathe, she ran panicked all the way home next to the hot asphalt highway, and even after vana had competently calmed Paavo—ice water, antihistamines, a back rub—Lee knew she was going to leave.
When she first took Paavo back from Seabrook to Passaic, it occurred to Lee that Passaic was inhospitable, that the drive into it had no promising vistas, that instead the highway followed the curve of a polluted river that gave off a sulfurous odor so powerful even the sweet vapor of the candy factory couldn’t mask it, and that at least Seabrook had lawns, even if they were patched with brown crabgrass and boxed in by chain-link fences. All Passaic had was smokestacks that gave everyone asthma. She wondered if she shouldn’t have waited, left Paavo with Randy’s parents until she was ready to take him somewhere better.
At Reba’s, they unpacked Paavo’s bag, his Ninja Turtle underpants, his nightlight shaped like a medieval castle with plastic turrets and banners and a princess waving to no one in particular.
“That’s not how vana does it,” said Paavo when Lee tried to tuck him into the bed Reba had found for him at a charity shop.
“Well, we’re not at vana‘s house anymore,” said Lee. The more he asked this question, the more her responses were clipped and thoughtless.
“Why?” asked Paavo.
“Because,” Lee said with what she hoped was convincing finality. “Give me a goodnight kiss.” But when she offered her cheek, he turned away.
Lee liked the factory for her wages, which she spent on debts, on groceries, on her portion of rent, on paying Reba a little extra for babysitting. It took her months to save up for an alpaca throw on the Alpaca Wars website, and she could only afford it because it was discolored and discounted.
“I just love it,” Reba said, patting the throw like it was still attached to the alpaca.
Lee liked the team members on her shift, even Tricia, who always wore a t-shirt that said, “I am worthy of love,” under her apron, because she’d had a baby who died.
“I heard it was because the place she lives in got lead dust. Or lead pipes,” said Danica. “Something bad for pregnant ladies, anyway.”
Lee had no problem believing this, though she had no means of verifying it. She imagined Paavo’s lungs caked with asbestos, his blood thinned from tainted water.
Wendt prowled the floor on his GEMBA walks. “Ladies,” he’d say, peering over their shoulders to check if they’d been cleaning the back end of the extruder.
“Tightass,” Danica would mutter.
Danica didn’t take the job too seriously, punching Lee’s timecard when she was running late, slipping extra candy in her purse. Lee thought of Danica as a friend, sort of.
Sitting in Danica’s car in the emptying parking lot of Pell’s after a shift, Lee asked, “You staying at Pell’s forever?”
“Hell no. I’ll get married. Kids.” Danica said this casually, like it was easy. “‘Less I get rich and famous first, ha.”
“I’m getting out of Passaic,” Lee said, though Danica hadn’t asked. “I mean, not right now. But soon.”
“Where’re you going?”
“South Dakota,” said Lee, surprising herself. She wanted money: a house or a car or a non-toxic yard or a school for Paavo. But also, she wanted a life where rich or poor wasn’t the question, because even if she had money it would still be all she thought about, like two sides of the same coin, but what she wanted was no coin at all, and the no-coin was South Dakota, Black Hills and dry grass and hole-punch stars.
“What in the actual fuck,” Danica said.
“Kidding,” Lee said. “Bergen County.”
“Oh, girl,” Danica said, comfortable now that the conversation was back in the relatable realm of fantasy. “Me too. I want one of those fucking mansions in Saddle River with a fountain out front. I’d fill it with champagne and swim in it naked. Give the finger to all my neighbors.”
“I bet the cost of living in South Dakota is like, nothing. I could have a mansion there, no problem.”
“Honey,” said Danica. “They don’t build mansions out there.”
The story of Tricia’s baby only confirmed for Lee that Passaic was not a good place for Paavo. Lee tried to set certain rules with him, to keep him safe: no drinking from public water fountains, regular bedtimes to keep him from witnessing the fights that broke out in the courtyard of the building, holding his breath when passing the river. Lee saved for a deposit on an imagined apartment and a car to get them there, but progress was slow, the sum so high she’d laugh if she didn’t need it so badly.
In a grocery store parking lot, Paavo broke free of her hand to run in the direction of the coin-operated horse ride out front. She caught him at the curb, wrapping him in both arms, the plastic sword he carried everywhere digging into her side. “Mama,” he said, kissing her wet face. She hated that he might so easily slip from her fingers, that he might so easily never see the future she was trying to build for him.
Quietly, with no formal announcement, the factory began cutting hours, whittling 30 hours a week to 23 to avoid paying health benefits. Worse was to come.
“Fuck this,” Danica said, coming out of Wendt’s office and throwing her apron on the ground with a dissatisfying, limp smack.
Wendt called in Lee not long after. The kitten in Wendt’s poster looked no more or less distressed.
“As you probably heard, we’re scaling back operations,” Wendt said.
“I’m a good worker,” Lee said preemptively.
“So is everyone. We’re going to have to let you go,” Wendt said, with the brevity of a person who had done this many times.
Lee considered Wendt. He was soft and pink, like a pencil eraser.
“Please. I have a kid,” she said. “I’ll do anything.”
Wendt removed his glasses to clean them with the bottom of his tie.
“Go back out there, for now,” he said. “Maybe we can talk about it more. Over coffee.”
Lee had worried Wendt was not touched by human needs, living as he did among raw commodities, hammer mill systems, cross-contamination hazards. She appreciated his respectable phrasing: coffee. It would be unreasonable to refuse such politeness.
When Tricia was axed instead of Lee, Lee didn’t feel bad. Better her than Lee; it wasn’t like she had a kid to support.
Lee’s arrangement with Wendt was simple. They met in the parking lot of Dunkin’ Donuts once weekly. He parked his car behind the dumpster for privacy and bought oversize cups of coffee, to justify their presence, that he didn’t drink so the coffee went cold while they did what they did. At least it was a nice car he drove, Lee thought. A BMW. Wendt could afford an occasional luxury.
Lee didn’t entirely hate those meetings. It was cheap, and Wendt wasn’t exactly a prime male specimen, but there was also excitement in the transgression. Lee felt in control, even if this control was only imagined. He’d lick the fine hairs on her arms free of sugar dust, and she’d leave bits of rock candy from the soles of her safety shoes in the foot well.
“Wait. I remember you from high school,” he said once, when Lee was on top of him. “You’re that girl who married the janitor,” he said. “Why?”
“I’m not, anymore,” she said.
It occurred to Lee that Wendt might be a shortcut. It wasn’t what she had in mind when she first came back to Passaic. Danica would laugh at her, like they’d laughed at her for marrying a janitor in high school. But she was tired of waiting, waiting. She wouldn’t love him, but she wouldn’t use him, because Wendt was interested in something she could offer. It didn’t take a lot of imagination to see a plausible, if boring, future with him.
The sixth or seventh time they met, Wendt gave her a plastic crown with inset gems.
“My folks are making me clear out my bedroom,” he said. “I have a lot of junk from when I was a kid. I wasn’t sure if you had a girl or a boy, but…”
She was pleased, like she always was when anyone thought of Paavo, and held the gift in her lap, wondering what it meant.
Lee didn’t know how people found out. Or she did. Rumors multiplied, especially once Wendt started taking Lee into his office on her lunch break. Lee tried to keep talking to Danica, until Danica snapped, “I can’t fucking believe you. Hope it was fucking worth it.”
Even Reba asked Lee about Wendt. She’d heard the rumors at the outlet shop, too, as if they’d been delivered with the pallets of chocolate.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Lee said, depressed that Reba believed the rumors so easily, that she thought they were simply and transparently true. Lee stopped watching Alpaca Wars, hiding, instead, in the spare room where she slept with Paavo. She tried leaving Paavo with other women in the development, but they were unreliable, or complained that Paavo was too energetic. Once Lee came back to find Paavo half-dressed and climbing to get a box of cereal on top of the fridge, her neighbor nowhere to be found.
“I wanted the prize,” Paavo explained.
“Let me bring him to work,” she said to Wendt. “He could stay in your office.”
“I’m no babysitter. It’s a company liability.”
Lee hated when he spoke like that, like a cowardly robot, though he was right: kids were forbidden except on bring-your-child-to-work-day, when the company hired a clown to lead a program of chocolate-related activities. But Lee thought: just this once.
The floor workers were nice to Paavo. If they knew her reputation, they did not blame Paavo, indisputably cute with his bowl cut and his plastic crown and the bendable plastic glasses she’d noticed he needed after he kept squinting at Alpaca Wars. They asked Paavo about his sword, politely pretended to duel with him, explained to him the particular points of their stations—the conching vats and the trim press.
She knocked on Wendt’s office door.
“I’m in the middle of something,” he said, sticking his head out.
“We’ll be quick, I promise. Paavo, Wendt, Wendt, Paavo,” she said.
“Rah,” said Paavo, brandishing his sword.
“Oh, Christ,” Wendt said, startled. “What did I tell you about bringing him here?”
“He’s getting picked up,” Lee lied.
“This isn’t professional,” Wendt said.
“Since when do you care about professionalism?” Lee asked.
“Get back to work. I’m still, you know, your boss,” he said, with slight hesitation, as if unused to invoking his authority, unsure how seriously she would take him. Then he shut the door.
“Whatever,” Lee said to the name engraved on his door. Maybe she had miscalculated, and his gift had meant nothing at all.
Lee squirreled Paavo away to the dry-storage room. It was well-ventilated and room-temperature, and had shelves and shelves of pre-wrapped candy stored for shipment in airtight containers on wooden pallets. The factory made candy months in advance, and people didn’t usually come in these rooms unless they were due to be sent out.
Lee gave Paavo a King Arthur coloring book and his box of crayons, all collected shades of green. “Don’t you leave this spot,” Lee told him. “Be good.” She checked in on him when she could, bringing water and snacks and candy as a reward for his obedience.
At noon the loading belt on one of the vertical spiral tunnel machines to cool molds broke, so that Lee had to call Wendt, who had to video-conference with the machine company’s technical support, and then he had to call in their technician, and meanwhile the production flow was disrupted, so she had to find tasks for the workers on her shift and make sure they weren’t just messing around with all this free time. By the time the machine was back online and things were operating smoothly again, it had been two hours since she checked on Paavo.
A bin was open, and a torn chocolate bar wrapper discarded nearby, little tooth marks in what remained.
“Paavo,” she hissed. “Where are you?”
The dry storage room held seven tons of chocolate, plus 150-pound bags of cocoa beans, Lee remembered from a training video. She clambered over and around the shelves. She had never really understood how truly versatile a four-year old was: strong enough to open a door, clever enough to climb shelves, small enough to fit in a vent. As she looked in vain for chocolate handprints, she heard on the intercom that she was being called to the factory floor.
He could have fallen into an open corn syrup vat. He could have gotten his arm stuck in a starch buck, his skin peeled back by a rotary brush. He could have been shaken violently by a centrifuge. He could have become frightened by all the strange, pink-suited people, and fled to the cold streets of Passaic, where he might be hit by a car or fall in the river. The factory was large enough, Lee realized, that they might well never find him. She felt the full weight of her unpreparedness, of her absolute unfitness.
“Paavo,” she began yelling. She left the dry-storage room and ran along the factory corridor, her rubber apron slapping her thighs. She passed Danica and the crew rolling long tongues of rainbow sour belts in wax paper, Wendt checking that the belts were trimmed evenly.
“I can’t find Paavo,” she said. “Help.”
Wendt moved extraordinarily slowly, as through treacle. “What?”
“He’s here, he’s lost,” she said, wanting to slap him. “Help me find him.”
“For fuck’s sake,” he said. He went to the intercom and relayed an order for all personnel to cease operations because a minor was missing. Lee wanted, absurdly, to object to his phrasing: this child was major. The whir of the machines stopped, and it was eerily quiet except for the squeal of rubber boots and the occasional call of her child’s name, so strange pronounced in the mouths of others.
They found him in a loading bay. He had, in some way. opened a massive paper satchel of powdered sugar, asleep in a mound of it, his crown askew, a little ghost king.
They stood in a circle, Lee and Wendt and Tricia and Danica and the rest of the search party. No one asked what happened, why Paavo was still here, if Lee had left him unattended and for how long. It was all pretty obvious.
“I think I have to fire you now,” Wendt said. He took his glasses off and cleaned them on his tie, which she recognized by now as the clearest indication that he was thinking. “I’d like to keep seeing you.”
Lee went straight to Reba’s. Only Two Crow was home, lounging in the living room under the alpaca throw. Paavo was awake, but quiet, perhaps fearing punishment. Two Crow laughed when he saw him, still coated in sugar, his eyelashes rimed with thick white. “Into the tub with you, little man,” he said. The sugar turned the bath water sweet.
“Can you sing that Lakota lullaby?” Lee asked Two Crow when they tucked Paavo into bed. “You know, the one you’re always singing? The one that goes like this.”
Two Crow looked at Lee strangely. “That’s a Clapton song.”
“Oh,” she said, embarrassed.
Later, in the living room, they watched an episode of Alpaca Wars in which a farm owner had cut down the fence of another in an act of sabotage, so that the alpacas were able to wander free. They were at the part of the show where the victimized farmer and his wife were in the road trying to corral the alpacas home. This was challenging, the farmer explained in voiceover, because you can’t use a lasso to catch them or else you’ll break their necks. The farmer kept calling the alpacas “doggies,” for some reason.
“You hurt Reba’s feelings, not coming around,” Two Crow said.
“I know,” Lee said. “I’m sorry.”
“Better tell her that, not me.” He took a sip of his beer, then added, “You’ll find a new job.”
“I guess. Everything I do, I seem to fuck up but good,” Lee said. Maybe there was no better place for Paavo and her. Maybe her idiocy was uniquely suited to, or inseparable from, the place she was born. Maybe the pollution in the Passaic River caused personality defects as well as physical deformities. “Maybe I’ll stop trying.”
“Hm.” Two Crow seemed to ponder this.
“How come you never talk about South Dakota?” she asked. “Don’t you miss it?”
“I miss having horses,” Two Crow said. “But also, I will tell you what I do not miss. I do not miss living on a dry reservation, in a trailer, dirt poor. I do not miss white people trespassing and messing with our shit. I do not miss not having no job. That, I do not miss.”
“But Passaic sucks,” she said.
“I do not dispute that,” Two Crow said.
“So what am I supposed to do?”
“What do you want? Wise Native American proverbs? Mother Earth mumbo jumbo? A rain dance to make your problems go away? Lakota lullaby?” he snorted.
“Sorry,” Lee said, tucking herself deeper into the alpaca throw. “Sorry, sorry.”
“You’ll figure it out eventually,” said Two Crow, tearing the tab off his beer. “Whether you want to or not.”
On TV, the sun was now setting, and the farmer still had yet to recover his herd. Lee stayed buried in the throw a long time, watching the alpacas dart and weave.