The pain wasn't always so obvious.
by REBECCA FLOWERS
A gray-haired man in a green, water-wicking jacket bought The Valley News at the Circle K gas station in Hanover, New Hampshire, spraying his cash and coins on the counter. Peggy, the cashier, helped him sort his money.
He asked, “I gave you two dollars?”
He put his knuckles to his forehead. “There’s something wrong with my head.” His hands were veined green like his jacket. He suddenly bent over the counter, cheeks scrunched and teeth clenched.
“You okay?” Peggy asked. She stretched her arms toward him.
“Bad toe,” he said, rotating his ankle. He took his paper and left. A regular. Peggy was scared about how he’d cringed.
The pain wasn’t always so obvious.
* * *
A girl with blue eyes and curly brown hair came into the Circle K complaining of a broken gas pump. When Peggy tried to fix it, her cash register stalled. Peggy called for Laura, her co-worker. Laura has popping blue eyes and hair pulled back painfully tight in a barrette. She’d been in the back, baking banana bread because the baker was out. The cash register made Peggy fall behind. Customers started to line up and Peggy had to run off to grab Laura. Peggy wanted to do her job well, to keep the customers happy. When Laura came out front, they rung up the customers until the store was empty. Around 4 pm, Peggy put up the plastic sign: “Next Register Please.”
“I’m gonna take a short break,” she told Laura. “You working on bakery?” Laura nodded.
Peggy takes frequent smoke breaks instead of a formal 15 minutes. She leaves by the side door and leans on the bannister around the cement wheelchair-accessible ramp. She tips her cigarette ash into the red mulch in the nearby planter. Sometimes she scratches circles off of a green lottery card, then puts it back in her pocket, hardly looking at it. She holds the cigarette between the fore and middle fingers of her left hand. She’s been smoking for thirty years. She doesn’t like the way people look down their noses at cigarettes in Hanover, a wealthy college town.
After a minute or two, Peggy threw the stub into the plastic cigarette receptacle and went back inside.
The Circle K has a certain rhythm. One minute the store is empty, then five people come in all at once, right when Peggy has to pee. Kids buy Zingers and Doritos and peanut butter cups. Road trippers pick up their Miller Lites. Regulars need their Marlboros. Peggy walks her wall of cigarettes, stacked like a kaleidoscope more vivid than the lollipops kitty-corned from the register. As she walks, her name tag flips back and forth between “Margaret,” and “Peggy,” Circle K sales associate. I think of her as Peggy because that’s the side it was flipped to on the day we met.
“How long have you worked here?” I asked.
“About a year,” she told me. She had worked in the U.S. Postal Service beforehand. “A big difference in pay,” she said.
A friend who saw her would later tell me it looked like she had no teeth, but I disagree; they're there, just well-packed and smoke-stained. Peggy’s eyes are big and watery, her face finely lined like the creases in her gas station scrubs. Her red-brown hair grows down to the tops of her thighs. Laura has a habit of standing behind Peggy and brushing Peggy’s hair when things get slow. Once, Laura ran over to the CVS to buy a brush because Peggy didn’t get the chance to comb out the knots that day. Peggy hasn’t cut her hair in 13 years, since her son Jared was a baby. He would curl his fingers so tightly in her hair she would be too afraid of breaking them to take them out.
Peggy had to get back behind the counter with another co-worker, Joseph, to help a customer. I waited for her by a little black table attached to the counter. A lottery ticket reader and pages of lottery tickets were stacked neatly on top of it: Mega Millions, Price 4, Lucky for Life.
Peggy returned. “Is there anything else I can help you with?” she asked. She started cleaning out a coffee container claiming 100% Colombian premium coffee in the corner of the store by the bathroom. She gave me little fragments of her life as we talked, the smell of stale coffee wafting between us. She told me about her sweet, kind grandmother. She told me that she was an emancipated minor. She told me that she wished she had listened to her parents. She told me she’s a single mother now, with two sons.
“I do the best I can to raise them,” she said.
“Do you ever have fun?” I asked.
“Don’t have the money,” she said. “The most fun I get is when a customer buys me a scratch ticket.”
She’s never won. “But I guess it was fun to scratch the ticket.” She shrugged.
Peggy works forty-plus hours a week and she still has trouble affording her car. She’s four months behind on rent. Her cable was just shut off. She’s waiting for her lights to get shut off.
Peggy’s eyes reddened as she counted off her troubles. She held a roll of paper for the coupon machine, turning it over and over and playing with the loose end. She said she'd gone “to the state” for help. “They looked at me and said, ‘You are not 150% below poverty level.’” Tears were dripping down Peggy’s chin. She only reluctantly wiped them away. “If I was on the streets, that would be a different story,” she said. She has to work hard to get to sleep. She has to try not to think of her bills.
It’s different for the Dartmouth students who come in here. They don’t know how to change a tire. They hand her their credit card right at the cash register even though the machine where they would swipe it is right next to them. They don’t even pay for their credit cards; their parents do.
Customers often ask Peggy “how’s it going?” Sometimes she answers “good.” Sometimes she says nothing at all.
* * *
When Peggy wrote out her family tree, she did it line by line in my notebook as the soundtrack from Dirty Dancing played over the radio. She was in a good mood today – or maybe it was just the bright red Circle K shirt that made her face light up.
“Margaret Harrington,” she wrote her name at the top in long, squished letters that would fit in government boxes. Her great-grandparents were deceased. So were her grandparents. So was her father. As Peggy wrote the name of her brother, Edward Harrington, two years older, she asked, “Where is Yellowstone?”
None of us at the counter remembered. “I’ll just put Midwest,” she said. “He sends me pictures. He tells me he just bought a new house. ‘Oh, you just bought a new house but you’ve got nothin’!’”
As she wrote, a guy in a baseball cap and with fuzz on his chin showed Laura his empty leather wallet with a groan of pain. He asked for some cigarettes and paid with a credit card.
“What do you do when your power’s off?” he asked Laura.
“Buy a new generator,” Peggy murmured from her work.
“I meant, what do you do for entertainment?” he asked.
“Go to Dartmouth campus,” Laura suggested, but the guy didn’t agree.
“I don’t want to be that guy just hanging out with the college kids,” he said.
“Sounds like you need a dirty magazine,” said Peggy. The guy joked with Laura before taking his cigarettes and ducking out of the fluorescent-lit store, tucking his empty wallet into his pocket. Peggy handed my notebook back to me.
Over the next several weeks, I gathered a sketchy timeline of Peggy’s life, filling the pages behind her family tree. She was born in Florida in 1967 – “the day the man walked on the moon,” she said as she threw out stale hot dogs from the hot dog roller. “Well, the year. I don’t know about the day.” The year was 1969. I didn't correct her. Her first memories were of a locked room. Her mother and biological father – she often made the distinction of “biological” – kept Peggy and her brother in there when they went to work. She and her brother would cry and try to break out. They quickly figured out how to pop the panes of the windows and squeeze their small bodies through. They grabbed at the branches of the big tree outside, finally free. Then one day Peggy fell and was knocked unconscious. The neighbors noticed. And then, so did the state. Peggy and her brother were removed from their parents’ care.
Peggy’s grandmother – a small, petite blonde who liked to tell stories of her never-ending lines of drying diapers – fought for Peggy and her brother, and won them back from the state. She fostered them for two or three years before they went back to their mother. In the meantime, their parents got divorced. The timeline for Peggy is messy. Too much was happening at once. But she remembers that she saw her father for the last time when she was six.
Three years later, Peggy’s mother married a farmer from New Hampshire,. Farm life consisted of 4 am wake-ups, cows that kicked, a growing family of younger half-siblings who Peggy said she helped raise, and step-siblings who Peggy said looked down on the rest of them as trash. Farm life also consisted of tobogganing down the slopes of the 300-acre farm, going swimming in the pool or the lakes with t-shirts and shorts on over their bathing suits, and one incident in which her step-father shot an albino porcupine before it could quill a blandly interested cows in the snout.
In high school, Peggy encountered what she terms “debby downers” – people who said things like: “You live on a farm, you smell, you’re a pig, you’re a cow.” Peggy always thought: “Yeah, I make the milk you drink every day.” One girl took it too far. Then Peggy did, too. She pressed the girl’s head down into the bowl of the toilet. A teacher screamed outside the bathroom door while Peggy flushed. Peggy walked out, hands in pockets, saying, “What’s up? It’s okay. She’s in there crying.”
In her teenage years, Peggy did something really rebellious: she and her friends decided to go to Bread and Puppets. The theater company, which is still active today, staged morality plays and protests against the U.S. wars, against capitalism, against global warming. Audiences chewed on rye sourdough bread as they watched – the founder, German immigrant Peter Schumann, said he thinks they have a better audience when they’re munching. Peggy remembers puppets everywhere, and thousands of people, and tents, almost like Woodstock. Everyone was listening to music, hanging out, and drinking. It was a sharp contrast to learning how to shoot on the farm.
When Peggy was 16, she moved into her grandmother’s house. Her grandmother needed her. She suffered from poor circulation and she would sit in front of the TV in her chair until Peggy helped her up to bed at night. One day, Peggy came home and propped up her grandmother’s legs to slide lotion between her toes, like the doctor ordered. But when she lifted one of her grandmother’s feet she saw that it was black. Gangrene. Her grandmother didn’t want an ambulance, so Peggy helped carry her to the hospital, where they cut off the blackened leg. Five months later, the gangrene had taken her other foot, and they cut off that one, too.
Peggy started working at Pizza Hut. But people kept trying to undermine her, she said. People, she said, who wanted her job. She switched to McDonald’s but fast food wasn’t her thing. “I was much better at waitressing,” she said. “Oh, I made good tips.” She lengthened the “o”s as she said it, the ghost of a young girl briefly visible behind her eyes. She got married, had a daughter. From then on, she would measure her life by the ages of her children. Peggy started taking classes in business and management at the Community College of Vermont, but then their apartment burned down and she had to move. The move made it too overwhelming to continue with classes. Then Peggy passed the Postal Service exam and became an equipment operator for the White River Junction Post Office. The years passed. She divorced and moved to White River Junction to be closer to their office. A year later, she became pregnant with her second child, Jared.
She remembers her first child, Chris, a young man by then, videotaping the birth. “We want to remember this,” they told the nurse.
“It’s pretty gross,” the nurse had protested. She thought filming was inappropriate.
“Of course it’s gross, it’s a birthing!” Peggy said, laughing.
After it was all over, Chris thought holding his baby brother in his arms was awesome.
Meanwhile, after working for 14 years at the Post Office, Peggy got fed up with a female supervisor who, according to Peggy, had no personal skills. One day, Peggy just said, “I’m going home. I’ll come back tomorrow or I won’t.” She didn’t. She cashed in her retirement plan to pay medical bills.
In the next few years, Peggy worked at Cumberland Farms, a bearings manufacturer, and Fujifilm. Nothing lasted long. Her son Chris had been working at the Circle K and told her to send in an application. So here she was, spending her afternoons working the counter, cleaning the bathrooms, and mopping the floors.
* * *
“Once I saw a dead body,” Peggy said one day.
She was 12 or 13, on a field trip. They stopped by a baseball field. The bathrooms were out of order, so a group of girls snuck into the woods behind the field to pee, and that’s when they saw him: the town drunk, passed out and baked in the sun.
“He looked like a hairy gorilla,” Peggy said. The girls all screamed and ran out of the woods. Peggy imitated their crying and blubbering.
“All I can remember is the hearse pulling up,” she said, “the word 'coroner' written on it.”
The next time Peggy saw a dead body, she was 18. She took a trip with three girlfriends to Florida. They rented an apartment next to two convenience stores. One night Peggy and her friends saw an elderly couple staggering into the street. The woman sent the man into the first store, Peggy thinks for beer, but he came back empty-handed. So the woman beat him up. “I just remember a little white purse, just hitting him in the head with it,” Peggy said. The woman sent the man into the second convenience store, and he came out empty-handed yet again.So the woman pulled a gun out of her little white purse and shot the man right between the eyes.
Peggy mimed her and her friends packing, taking imaginary shirts from imaginary shelves, and saying hysterically, “‘Gotta get our bus tickets for the morning!’” They left the next day.
“Here I thought you were just boring old Margaret,” Laura said somewhere between staffing the counter and mopping the floor.
“Yeah, rock on!” Peggy said as she turned to her, throwing up hand horns. “I don’t wanna grow up, I just want to be a Toys R Us kid!”
Peggy said if she saw a dead body now, she would walk out calmly: “Okay, let’s call the cops.”
“Why would you be so calm now?” I asked.
“I’ve had my children. I’ve seen life,” she said. “I’ve seen my grandmother die.”
* * *
We were sitting in Peggy's new 2018 Jeep Renegade. The new car smelled faintly of cigarette smoke and something fresh. It was impeccably clean and the seats and wheel covers were dotted with butterflies and roses. Peggy switched her Uber app to “online” and we waited.
The Circle K parking lot was quiet at 6:30pm.
Peggy’s phone lit up, a call to West Lebanon, from “Kenneth.”
“Here we go,” Peggy said. We set off along the river, the light slanting through the trees.
“I don’t like driving,” she told me. Some people drive like they’re in the city, she said. Kids cross the street and only turn to look for cars halfway. Sometimes the people at the crosswalks just keep coming.
Peggy learned to drive on a Chevy Chevette, her friend Scott directing her through turns as she burned through gears and clutches. When she was ready to take her driver’s test, Peggy borrowed her grandmother’s car while she was in the hospital. Peggy passed, but when she got back her uncle yelled at her: “You stole your grandmother’s car! Give me the goddamn keys!”
A few weeks ago, Peggy had been driving a new student to Molly’s, a restaurant on Main Street in Hanover, when her old Jeep had suddenly slowed to a stop. No warning. No apparent reason. It was embarrassing, Peggy said.
For a while, Peggy had to catch the bus and rides with her son, Chris. One night she had to walk the 14 miles home by herself. In the dark the animals rustled in the woods by the side of the road. Peggy said she wasn’t scared; she doesn’t mind the animals. She worried about the cars.
“The Domino’s drivers don’t slow down, they go--” she made a zooming noise.
The next day her legs hurt.
Since then, Peggy had somehow acquired a new Jeep with the help of her son, though the old one was still in the shop.
Peggy pulled out the grey plastic shield in the visor to protect my eyes from the setting sun. We crossed a bridge over the Connecticut into White River Junction. Kenneth, the guy who had called Peggy’s Uber, was waiting behind the Coolidge Hotel, which had a clock tower with a triangular pane missing between the I and II on the clock face. Kenneth had white hair and was wearing a maroon sweater that looked like it was inside out, a white tag sticking up by his neck.
“I thought I was gonna be in trouble,” Kenneth said. No cars had been available anywhere near him. He didn’t want to be stuck. He was a regular, Peggy told me later, along with a man who lived with him and helped run his lighting shop. According to Peggy, they were just friends.
“You sell many lamps today?” she asked Kenneth.
“No, I got nothin’ done.” He kept coughing every few minutes.
“I know Illuminations is going out of business soon, a big sale over there. I don’t know if that will help you guys or not,” Peggy said.
Kenneth didn’t respond.
“So how long you been in the business?” she asked.
“21 years. Now I have no money,” said Kenneth. He looked out the window at the cherry blossoms. “But it’s getting better as I get older.”
Peggy dropped him off at a yellow house with black shutters on a steep uphill from the river. He handed her two dollar bills and made his way to the door.
“He takes Uber a lot because he can’t afford a vehicle,” said Peggy as we drove away. She tries not to pry. “’Cause 30 years is a long time to be in the lamp business.”
Back at the Circle K side door, Peggy hitched her foot up on the lower bars around the cement ramp. Her green and pink flannel shirt flapped slightly in the breeze as she smoked, her phone in her right hand with her Uber app still on. Every now and then thequiet was interrupted by the delivery guys carrying out stacks of black-clad pizza boxes from the Domino’s next door.
Peggy said that last Friday there were a whole bunch of parties, a lot of Uber rides. She picked up some kids in suits and dresses at a camp past the Canoe Club. I told her it was probably a formal, like a prom that Greek houses have every term.
“That’s weird,” she said. “Because when I was in high school there was only one prom a year.” She remembered going with her first boyfriend, and she had been the only freshman at the prom. Later, he joined the Marines but was discharged – “not honorably,” she said. Peggy found out he was seeing another girl. She decided she didn’t want to play that game.
Peggy hasn’t had many men in her life. “I’ve had seven,” she said, the number rolling off her tongue like she had been thinking about it for a while. She only got married once, to a Frenchman, short and pudgy. They had a son. But she would work 40 hours a week and any overtime she could get. And the Frenchman would only work his 40 hours and be done. When I first met Peggy, she had told me that his laziness had been their main problem. Then she told me about other problems.
“He’d stalk me through the house,” she said now. She would go to the bathroom and he would follow her in. She'd tell him to get out. She wanted to go grocery shopping and he would want to go, too. He would say she only had a half hour to go, he would time her. She took as long as she wanted. He thought she was cheating – all those hours driving back and forth from her job at the Post Office. One day she’d had enough of his craziness, his creepiness. She took her son and moved to White River Junction, right next to the Post Office, and filed for divorce. She hasn’t seen him since. She said she got out just in time.
“He said that if I stayed any longer, he was going to kill me.”
Peggy finished her cigarette and we got back in the car. She wanted to show me where she usually parked, under a tree behind Molly’s restaurant.
“Did you love him?” I asked as we stopped at an intersection.
“Yeah.” She sighed. “Yeah, I did. But I was losing my mind so that’s enough.”
Soon after, Peggy met the man who would become the father of her second son. But he was seeing another woman while they were together, and he married her.
“He chose her over me and his son,” said Peggy. “And that’s okay with me,” she said. She likes her single life, she told me.
Neither of her sons know their fathers – not 14-year-old Jared who wants to be a chef, and not 24-year-old Chris who’s living with his wife in Canaan, New Hampshire.
“Is that hard for them?” I asked.
“Yeah, it is, for the youngest one,” she said. “He has a hard time grasping why.”
We sat under the shade of the trees, waiting for another call. Her hands were folded one over the other on her butterfly-covered wheel.
* * *
Peggy likes her job at the Circle K. “They let me run this ship,” she said. But she told me there’s not much going on there.
The clients mostly fall into the categories of young and old. The young ones come in for Juuls and the older ones play the lottery like a casino. They all buy beer and cigarettes. They tell themselves they’re gonna try not to speed on the interstate even when they’re itching to get home. There are winners and losers.
Laura and Peggy know one man as “Mr. B.” He’s hunched, wears a green puffed jacket, and shuffles in his shoes. He spends a half hour going back and forth between the cash register and a little table where he scratches off lottery numbers. He says something like “Give me four 21s” every few minutes, and Peggy tells him something like, “Okay, Mr. B, you have $8,” every few minutes after that. Mr. B walks with his Swiss army knife out, deployed in a shaking hand that he rests on one counter, then another. When Mr. B leaves, Peggy walks over to the table and clears the gold shavings from the tickets into her hands.
A man in blue jeans and a blue shirt, both splattered with white paint like daubs on a sky, and one eye crossed in towards his nose, came in to play the lottery after Mr. B. He made multiple trips between the cash register and outside, the Circle K door opening and closing with a soft sound like the pressing of foam. He and Peggy spoke in a lingo of multi-plays, picks, and holes. Peggy told him that Mr. B just came in, but he didn’t win much.
“He doesn’t need it,” said the guy in blue.
“I don’t know about that,” murmured Peggy.
One day, a scruffy guy came in and handed Peggy his lottery ticket. He knew he hadn’t won, he’d never won. But he asked Peggy for five more.
“You know what?” he said. “Twenty bucks would make my day.”
Sometimes the customers tell Peggy they’ll give her 10 percent if they win, they’ll take her out to dinner in France.
“I’ve never seen it,” she said. But it’s the dream. Peggy has plans for that money. She’ll have a nice house. She’ll travel. She’ll sleep till noon, she says, neck back, eyes closed, and arms relaxed as though she’s basking in the summer sun. She’ll just have a good life.
But then she straightens her neck again, and she hunches back over the cash register. She has to keep working.