Lynn Casteel Harper

Gateway Drug
April 23, 2012
 

The wave of the future would be computers. Kids at the city schools already had them and were crouching with their Apple II skills, poised to pounce upon our jobs some day. We would fall behind without these machines. Luckily, Hickory House, Inc. had some opportunities to give us. Luckier yet, the Jackson, Missouri 10,000-unit market hungered for the cheese and sausage product offered by Hickory House, Inc. By meeting our neighbors’ needs (we must first show them the catalog), we would help our school some day acquire new computers. We would prevent ourselves from falling abysmally behind and ending up stuck where we lived: in nowhere Missouri, in the hundred-mile downriver shadow cast off the St. Louis Arch, the Gateway to the West.
 
The campaign for new computers was launched in the gymnasium. It felt like the anti-drug rallies from back in the fourth grade. An energetic thirty-something—Craig or Scott or some other monosyllabic Anglo—smacked of Just-Say-No zeal, but his was not a message of resistance. He pushed a different substance as he zigzagged across the stage like a sidewinder. “You see, Justin from Franklin School got a bike!” Zig. “Mandy from North Elementary got Six Flags tickets!” Zag. He narrowed his eyes. “Some kids missed out.” Zig. “I don’t want you to miss out!” Zag. He thrust out his tongue, a display of disgust for any kid who would miss out.
 
On behalf of Hickory House, Inc., Craig encouraged us to just say “yes” to peddling tubs of cheese, links of sausage, and canisters of crackers. The more we sold, the bigger our prize-earning potential. Once we tasted the fruit of success, like Justin and Mandy who must’ve sold truckloads of sausage, our elementary eyes would open and we would know the gift of selling goods, for good. I stuffed the catalog and order form into my book bag next to my other homework assignments.
 
My parents forbade me from indiscriminate selling—no door-to-door sales pitches. Perhaps they knew what I could not: my classmates and I at West Lane Elementary were laying the bricks at the base of this pyramid for the pharaohs at Hickory House, Inc. in Indianapolis (or somewhere else we’d never been). This firm was filling their storehouses with the profits brought by foot armies of fifth-graders who meted out processed cheese in the streets of sub-suburbia. But, more likely, my folks balked at paying—or worse yet, having someone else pay—twenty dollars for spreadable cheese. Embarrassed as I was to exploit my grade-school innocence by hocking artificially-flavored hickory-smoked pig guts, more horrifying to me was the idea of bringing a blank order form back to class. My good-kid guilt eclipsed any sneaking inclination of my own instrumentality in this unhealthy triangle: an outside corporation brokering the needs of my rural school—where a thin wire fence separated the playground from an adjacent field of dairy cows—through using its own students to push overpriced product. Ultimately, I could not disappoint my teachers, my school, my community, or Craig. I sold a few items to low-hanging fruit—grandparents, the retired school teacher up the road, a longtime babysitter.
 
The lone Apple II computer our classroom cluster earned last year with the help of Hickory House, Inc. and reams of Campbell Soup labels (another school-wide drive) sat idle most of the day in the communal pod area. Good students won the privilege to play a learning game on it, usually the tragic Oregon Trail. Our task as elementary pioneers was to get from Independence, Missouri to the Oregon coast in a Conestoga wagon. Although a player could choose to be a banker, carpenter, or farmer, my classmates and I always chose the banker because he started out with the most money. We knew the farmer didn’t have a prayer of making it to Oregon. Along the way, various family members died of cholera or typhoid or simply drowned. We left them in graves marked by juvenile humor; the green letters on the tombstone read, “Here Lies Butthead.” We laughed and inched westward in our pixilated wagon. One inch equaled something like 200 miles; to say we inched along would be, in fact, an exaggeration. Because we were sunk if we didn’t arrive in Oregon before winter, we had no time to wait for a ferry. Instead, we forded rivers and sometimes didn’t make it. We tried to shoot rabbits and, if we were lucky, a bison—but usually ran out of ammunition and food long before the next outpost. Most of the time everyone died by Ft. Laramie, Wyoming—except possibly Tommy Miller, who was rumored to have made it all the way to Oregon in an afterschool marathon on the glowing hot Apple. He is a congressional lawyer in D.C., last I heard.
 
These were the games we played as the silt-stained hands of our farmers turned over the fields of the Mississippi River’s fertile crescent to subdivision developers and casino companies. These were the games we played in a county soused by floods and bled out by droughts. These were the games we played in this gateway borderland ripped through by tornadoes and cracked open by earthquakes. These were the games we played, made possible by Hickory House, Inc.
 
Delivery day came well into the fall, four to six weeks after we submitted our order sheets. Opaque white bags, filled with sausages the size of baby legs to deal out to our customers, sagged heavy from our arms. I rooted through my bag to retrieve my prize. Visions of Justin peddling his new bike with noisemakers on the wheels and Mandy riding the Runaway Mine Train at Six Flags flashed in my eleven-year-old brain. But I was like most kids. I tore the thin plastic bag to my Made-in-Taiwan prize and vacantly tinkered with it on the bus ride home. Maybe next year I would try harder to get something bigger. At home, I tossed my plastic whistle key chain in a drawer atop a graveyard of dried up markers and raced outside to play in the yard before sunset.

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Originally from southeastern Missouri, Lynn Casteel Harper is a Baptist minister serving as an interfaith chaplain at a retirement community on the New Jersey Shore. She writes for the religion section of The Huffington Post. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in CALYX, A Journal of Literature and Art by Women, shady side review, Big Muddy: A Journal of the Mississippi River Valley, and the Journal of Religion and Abuse.

 

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