artist resource
literary resource
twin cities community
Pure Hash Mental Contagion
Featured Writer

by Norine Joy Francis

About the author
Norine Joy Francis started writing when she took a summer job as a ranger in the woods of Vermont after graduating from college. She began keeping journals during that time, spending endless days without human contact.

Born in the suburbs of Grand Rapids, Michigan, Norine moved to Minnesota to be near her family and fell into working on TV commercials. She then spent a decade working in varying capacities of the art department on many feature films including Untamed Heart, A Simple Plan, and Joe Somebody.

I met Bob when I was working as a cashier at Meijer Thrifty Acres. It was the summer before I was to begin college. It was just my father and I living at home. My older sisters had all moved away and my mother had recently passed away unexpectedly from a rare blood disease. Looking back, I guess my mom must have known what was coming, but the only indication I ever got that she was sick, is that just before she went into the hospital, she seemed so needy. I couldn't even come within five feet of her without her reaching out to grab me for a hug. I usually managed to shrug her off, being a teenager with way more important things on my agenda.

I was checking out groceries that summer at the Meijer's down on Plainfield Avenue. Seems the most interesting thing about growing up in Grand Rapids Michigan is that when people asked me where it was, I would hold up one hand, flat, with the fingers together to resemble a mitten and direct my other index finger to the middle. I couldn't wait to get out of Michigan. One day this guy keeps coming through my lane to buy a pack of gum or something and it wasn't even an express lane. He's about my age, thin -- almost painfully thin -- dirty blond hair, and when he hands me the money I notice his hands are greasy with dirt under the fingernails but I also notice he's cute in a lost dog sort of way. I'd never seen him at school so he must go to another district or he's already graduated. There I am in my stupid smock with ballpoint pen stains in the pockets, plus it's about three sizes too big for my petite frame. My black hair is straight and almost to the middle of my back. I part it in the middle and keep it out of my face with a blue bandana folded in a triangle across my forehead and the ends knotted at the nape of my neck. One day the line manager tells me I can't wear the bandana anymore because it's not part of the uniform. I can't stand him. Sometimes I think he just comes up with this stuff out of the blue. If he's so concerned about the uniform, why can't he find me a smock that fits? So this guy's just standing there making small talk while fidgeting with the coins in the pockets of his pants and I keep smiling at him and I notice the line manager glaring at me from three aisles down.

Eventually he asks me for my phone number. When he calls me later he wants to take me to a place in downtown Grand Rapids called Stoney's. I'd heard of it before. It's a restaurant that has the reputation for where the more popular kids from school hang out. The outside of the building has all these field stones on the front. Living in the suburbs, I didn't get downtown very often but I knew my way around. By the time I'd reached seventh or eighth grade I was already taller than my other sisters so I couldn't wear many of their hand-me-down clothes. My mom, being a home economics teacher and an excellent seamstress, would make a lot of my clothes. Every few months, she would drive me to the fabric store in downtown Grand Rapids and help me pick out patterns. I could choose any fabric that caught my eye. Some days I would show up at school in some of the most wildly imaginative outfits. I proudly displayed my one-of-a-kind creations until one day I overheard some of the other girls talking in the hall. A few nights later I'm standing in the living room in front of the TV, my mom on her knees on the floor, straight pins in her mouth putting the final ones in the hem of a skirt with alternating broad horizontal bands of green, brown and purple when I suddenly burst out; "I hate this, why can't I have store-bought clothes like the other girls at school!"

I had been downtown since then. When I started working at the Thrifty Acres a couple times I left for work an hour early, convincing my dad I was on a longer shift when actually I was scheduling appointments at the Planned Parenthood to get a prescription for birth control pills, not that I really needed them. I hadn't even come remotely close to having sex, it's just that you never knew, and if it was going to happen I was going to be ready. I didn't want to do anything stupid or anything. My girlfriend Judy got pregnant when she was sixteen and had to leave school to have the baby. She confided in me when she first found out. We were in her younger brother's tree house in their backyard when she told me, and that she was too afraid to tell her mom. For three months she continued to leave the empty cardboard tampon tubes clearly displayed in the bathroom wastebasket so her mom would believe everything was on schedule. Eventually she had to tell her, she didn't have a choice, obviously. At first her mom wanted to kill her, but then she was really cool and supportive and everything.

When Bob comes to pick me up he has this rusty old brown Chevy van with a cracked windshield. He told me the former owner had an accident in it, hit his head, went into a coma while in the hospital and eventually died. That might have been why he got a really good deal on it, he said.
We're getting ready to leave and my dad's asking him about a million questions. I'm just standing waiting to get on with my life but Bob is being really cordial and answering everything like it's no big deal. I guess my dad felt like he needed to be double protective, since he was covering for my mom being gone. I remember I was sitting in class when the principal came to the door and everyone in the room looks up because the principal never comes to the door. She talked with the teacher a minute and then the teacher came over and asked me to get my things and go with the principal. We were walking down the hall and she told me my dad was here to pick me up. When we got to the end of the hall by the front doors and I saw my dad -- I knew. He didn't even have to say anything, I just knew. It wasn't until we were in the car and he was driving that he started to talk. He starts talking and I'm looking out the window and it was like everything was different, the same street, same houses, just somehow distant.

Bob is driving me to Stoney's when I hear a little whooshing noise and look down by my feet and I notice the floor of the van is so rusted that there is a little hole where you can actually see through to the street below. When Bob sees me looking down he assures me it's safe as long as I don't step down too hard directly on that spot. He tells me he plans to have one of the welders from the factory where he works help him fix it one of these days.

Probably about the third time Bob and I go out, he picks me up in the coma van and we're headed downtown when he suggests we go to his apartment to listen to some music. It's a really warm night and I'm wearing a halter-top. He's driving with one hand and starts to rub my shoulder with the other. "You have a nice back". . . I can hear my mother's voice. I'm about fourteen and extremely aware of every change that's taking place in my body. Sometimes at night I could be lying in bed feeling out of sorts when my mom would come in and rub Jergens on my back. I loved the soft smell of cherries in the lotion on my skin and I would melt away to sleep. Bob parks the car on the street in a neighborhood I'm not all that familiar with. We walk up the dark sidewalk and go into the brownstone building. His upstairs apartment is small and the walls dingy. The room is minimally furnished with the exception of a huge complicated-looking reel-to-reel system set up against one wall on a thick board supported by some cinder blocks. He crosses the room and after switching a few knobs, the reels are spinning and Jerry Garcia starts crooning. I look around, there's a picture of a desert on the wall and a sleeping bag on a mattress on the floor beneath it. He asks me if I like The Grateful Dead and before I get a chance to reply he tells me his goal is to have all of The Dead back to back on a seamless recording. He guides me to the sleeping bag and we lower ourselves. As he settles in next to me he flips the stringy hair out of his grey-blue eyes and gazes at me. Bob has been out of high school for a couple years now, working at a factory in Grand Rapids. He apologizes for not having very much furniture and then confesses that he hasn't been all that happy with the factory job he's at and is thinking of moving to New Mexico -- completely starting a new life.

He starts stroking my hair and kissing me and in between, asks me what I think of the idea of moving there with him. I wanted out of Michigan, but I had a vision of myself staring down that little hole in the bottom of the van listening to an endless stream of The Grateful Dead on the tape deck all the way to New Mexico. I didn't know how to tell him I needed someone whose goals were set a little higher. I told him instead I had plans to go to college in the fall and I wasn't ready to make a huge commitment like that. He said if I wanted time to think about it, that was cool, but he was still planning on leaving soon. I said I didn't need any time to think about it and maybe he should just take me home now.

When we get back to my house he shuts off the engine and we're sitting in the van in the dark. He tells me he really likes me and he seriously wants me to consider moving to New Mexico with him. We start kissing again and I find it enticing. Then he puts his hand down my pants and my heart starts to race. He's rubbing me and the next thing I know his finger is inside me. He's kissing harder and thrusting his finger faster and I don't know what to make of it. I try to relax but all I can think of is the dirt under his fingernail, the grease from the lathe or whatever. I push his hand away hard and suddenly jerk away. "I have to go," I said. I'm halfway out the van door when I hear him call after me, "I want you." I slip quietly upstairs past my dad's room. In my dark bedroom, I tear off my clothes and crawl into bed. I pull the covers up over my head and listen to my heart still thumping. I lie there and think about my mom and if she was in any pain before she died. I wonder if it hurts to have a blood disease and if my blood is bad.

It's the end of my shift at Meijer's. I've given my notice and soon I'll be packing for college. I'm balancing my cash register, putting the checks in one pile, coupons in another, adding up the bills, then the change. I haven't heard from Bob in about a month. I'm sixteen cents short.

The mail comes and there's a letter. A plain white envelope addressed to me in scrawling writing. I turn it over and notice there is a small, dark stain on the flap. I open it and start to read. It's difficult to decipher the chicken scratched writing, but it's from Bob. He starts explaining why it's been so long since I've heard from him. He tells me he made it to New Mexico and it's beautiful there. He says he got another job right away in a factory, but he had an accident. He cut off the end of his finger just below the first knuckle. It's very painful and difficult to write, but he'll do the best he can. In between the words there is the occasional darkish stain and I realize this is dried blood. He says that as soon as he saves enough money, he'll be sending me some and then I can come down there. He signs it, "I miss you, Bob". I imagine him sitting there at his table or whatever - maybe he has a table in his new life - with a big wad of gauze bound around the end his finger as he tries to maneuver the pen. I wonder if it was the same finger Jerry Garcia cut off. I wonder if it was the same finger that was inside me.

©2006 Mental Contagion • Making Space for Visual Artists & Writers