Otto Baumgartner shook a pill from the plastic bottle into his hand. He upended the antipsychotic pill into his mouth, swallowing it and turning his round face down at the envelope in his hand that was addressed to Louise and had the majority of his disability check enclosed, although she had found work as a waitress in the small town of Elm Center. Something deep inside worked at him and reawakened thoughts of self-sufficiency. Walking the additional two blocks to the mailbox, he adjusted the International Harvester baseball cap on his head and slipped the envelope through the drop lid. It was a moment of feeling useful, although it quickly disappeared with the memory that rose of physical and mental breakdown and the subsequent hospitalization, all fueled by the recession. The medication was sinking in on the return route to the halfway house and settled him enough so that he became unconcerned with the surrounding world. The thoughts in turn limited his feelings of shame for a moment, and then they were back. What would his wife, Louise, think of him?
He climbed the steps of the disheveled halfway house for the mentally ill, his wiry frame quickly slipping through the door and slowing to find the living room empty except for the lonely and beaten sofa and several chairs that were no longer plush. There were secondhand lamps on end tables, but they didn't seem to add anything to the room. He stood in front of the bulletin board for a moment, looking over the mass of identical slips, paper forms that noted job openings. In the corner of the corkboard he noticed a slip buried behind several others that offered a sneaking invitation. For a moment he felt that the medication would limit his ability to do the work and thought himself less than the opportunity. He had trained himself into that frame of mind like many dealing with psychiatric medication. It was an opening for a forklift repair mechanic, and union membership was necessary. The membership issue worked at him so that he felt he might become a genuine part of the city with the possibilities open-ended toward the income-up elevator. The job paid more than the farm machinery plant where he had worked before he had been laid off, and it was a job opening. Once again he felt a muted hope. His curiosity was hooked, and he decided that he would visit the union offices the next day.
Even though there had been no rain the night before, the half-light and the cool air made the city seem washed and clean with a waking energy. The streets were mostly empty at that time of the morning as the light filtered gray. He turned onto a secondary avenue with morning-lit car traffic and the occasional passerby. As he walked the hour-long distance, the men and women that constituted the foot traffic seemed uninterested in him. The confusion of traffic sounds settled on him so that under the influence of medication, Otto felt like a newborn fledgling looking at the world through the skin of his eyes. He felt discomfort, and the bleary feeling of the meds brought about despondency so that his footsteps slowed haltingly, and by the next corner he had stopped altogether. He considered turning back to the halfway house. Who said that in his condition consideration for employment was even likely? He watched the pedestrians for a moment, each traveling to some better destination. A thought that nagged in his mind turned to a muted pride that rose in him so that he started again toward headquarters.
He found himself standing in front of a forlorn and ancient cement building with ledges on each floor and stone corner work that was nevertheless ramshackle. He climbed the concrete stairs and pushed through the dented blue copper window door to find a directory in the right corner of the apartment building entrance. On the felt board he found a second-floor listing for Dockworkers Local 701. He climbed the wooden stairs that groaned beneath his work boots and opened a frosted glass door on the landing above. There was a small empty waiting room inside and a counter with glass walls behind which an attendant sat. She had black hair and cigarette bags under her eyes so that she looked angry, if not fierce. He felt like a real clodhopper as he approached the desk. He leaned on the counter that hedged out beneath the glass.
"I was interested in getting a membership." The woman looked critically at him, assessing his wiry frame.
"As a dock worker?" Otto felt funny for a moment and then replied.
"As a mechanic for the docks," he explained.
The woman nodded sharply. "Which company?"
"Tri-State." The woman swung to her left in the swivel chair, and, pulling several stapled papers from a space in a plastic rack at her side, reached under the desk for a clipboard and fastened the papers to it.
"Here," she said, "Fill these out." Otto turned from the desk to find an orange plastic bucket chair among a row of multicolored seats. The going was slow as he filled in his name and address along with the job title and description. On the next page he filled in his previous experience and after glancing at the disclaimer, he felt he would do anything for a job and signed the form thirty minutes later. He stood and stepped forward to the window again, slipping the black haired woman the forms.
"All done?" she said.
"I think so," he said. The woman glanced cursorily over the form and pulling a pen from a holder made several black marks on the paper.
"You still need to fill these in," she said, her voice charcoal and threatening as Otto took the paper and, feeling a little embarrassed that he had missed the fields, filled in the space for his social security and driver's license numbers. He passed the slip once more to the attendant, who looked at it again and then pulled a thin half-sheet of paper from a second space in the plastic shelf at her side. She fiercely marked several columns and then glanced up at Otto.
"Your dues will be three hundred dollars." Otto fumbled for his checkbook, realizing that he would be cash-strapped after paying the dues. He wrote the union name carefully on the check and then filled in the box and the dollar amount below it. He signed the check and dated it, slipping it through the window to the attendant. She scrutinized the check and then attached it, along with the thin sheet of paper, to the application. Slipping the application into a drawer, she shut it crisply, signaling that the business was concluded. There was something about the union membership, and he felt that he was part of something greater, that the next time he spoke his voice would be louder and deeper and that his words would come with greater pride, that he was a part of something bigger than himself. It was difficult to tell, but he felt clear headed for a moment and wondered if he was adjusting to the medication or if it was that he was on his way to real employment. As he turned away, she spoke again, "Oh, there'll be a meeting at the hall down on Third and Finke tomorrow at noon." She winked at Otto.
He stepped from the building and turned in the direction of the docks, passing cement-faced brick buildings that he suspected housed small and shady businesses. The buildings turned single-story and bereft of occupants; he suspected they housed small garages and gas stations with empty and boarded up windows. He reached the turn-of-the-century warehouse district where the useless brick once again stretched twelve floors in the air. Weeds sprang up from cracks in the sidewalks, straggling alive. He heard the distant sounds of machinery and the clatter of wooden pallets and the shouts of men in the distance. He found the single story Tri State building among a series of long buildings that wrapped around the waterfront. Each called out as islands with the sounds of men working. He pushed open a glass door to find an isolated receptionist at a desk ten feet into the room. He stepped up to the desk, uncomfortable and shifting from left to right foot.
About Iowa Writes
Since 2006, Iowa Writes has featured the work of Iowa-identified writers (whether they have Iowa roots or live here now) and work published by Iowa journals and publishers on The Daily Palette. Iowa Writes features poetry, fiction, or nonfiction twice a week on the Palette.
In November of 2008, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Iowa City, Iowa, the world's third City of Literature, making the community part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network.
Iowa City has joined Edinburgh, Scotland and Melbourne, Australia as UNESCO Cities of Literature.
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Hans Lillegard is a writer/translator who has lived in Des Moines, Iowa City, and Dubuque on and off since 1986. He has found a deep and abiding respect for fellow Iowans, and loves the land from the plains of Western Iowa to the woodlands of Des Moines and to the Mississippi River valley of Dubuque. Iowa will always be an integral part of his thoughts and feelings.
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