Current Occupation: Freelance Documentary Photographer
Former Occupation: Technical Writer
Contact Information: Peter Bates is a writer and documentary photographer living in Florida with his photographer wife Cheryl. Neither of them shoots sunsets or pelicans. Peter is currently working on The Bodega Project, for which he has photographed bodegas in New England and Florida at twilight, using HDR (high dynamic range) techniques. He also interviews and photographs the owners.

 

#

Cisco’s Problem

The day they laid me off

I solved a software snafu that had plagued them for weeks.

 

It was

The found sock in the fitted sheet,

The scratch of the itch between the blades,

The snatched cricket under the bed,

The oiled squeak under the seat of the car past warranty.

I didn’t tell them.

 

Current Occupation: Software Engineer
Former Occupation: Lawyer
Contact Information: Henry Crawford lives and writes in the Washington, DC area. A native New Yorker, Henry received a BA in Philosophy from Queens College and a JD from the George Washington University. For the last 12 years he has worked as a software engineer. He has practiced law, worked in the garment district in New York and began his work life as a factory hand in a Queens laminating shop.

 

#

The Orientation

[Good morning] [so glad] [to meet you] [we’ll show your around] [your cube will be over there]

[where Mr. Davidson] [had an office] [before he retired] [and Sandy from HR] [took over]

[because Mr. Davidson] [was a “lifer”] [and had to go] [he used to take the train] [up to New York]

[on weekends] [to visit a guy named Sam] [who was his lover] [but you couldn’t say that]

[in those days] [ Sam was an account exec] [so he could be] [more open] [but his secretary]

[Betsy Williams] [one of eight girls] [from a religious family] [up in the Bronx] [with a father]

[who worked as a printer] [with a union card] [and he did not like gays] [and wouldn’t work] [with them]

[since they were not] [like him] [or his buddy Bill] [who had a job] [reading meters] [for Con Ed]

[and he was let inside] [a lot of homes] [and fathered twenty children] [in his territory]

[in the neighborhoods] [between Brooklyn] [and Queens] [and one of them] [was an Irish kid]

[they called “Eddie the Red”] [who would laugh hysterically] [whenever he smoked pot]

[which he did a lot] [since coming back] [from Vietnam] [where he lost his friend] [Jimmy]

[whose mother] [Joanie] [was the brightest student at Christ the King] [but didn’t go to college]

[because that was not an option] [for girls] [so she took a job] [at the Playtex factory]

[where she never] [filled the hole] [left by her dad] [who lost his left arm] [in a car crash]

[coming back] [from the second] [world war] [and settled in as a regular] [at the American Legion]

[where he was known as Bob] [until he died] [sometime] [back in the 60’s] [so there]

[do you have any questions] [make yourself at home] [we’ll stop by later] [see how you’re doing]

[make sure] [everything] [is all right] [welcome aboard]

 

 

 

#

Day Shift at the Hula Hoop Factory

Jack and I make plastic rings out of

reconditioned railroad waste [talking hoops]

with prerecorded messages like [“Stand Clear!”]

voiced by [silver plated microchips] embedded

in [miniaturized ceramic networks] etched

into [poly-tri-coated surfaces] and it took months

to find this job and even now we're both

electronically scanned for [contaminants]

at breakfast and given steaming buckets

of [Uncle Al’s Flaming Chicken] for dinner

and we came to this town because

we heard it was good for [hula hoops]

Jack said "we'll get in on the ground floor"

[But the walking foreman said “not so fast buster”]

so today I'm working on a 10 x 10 military grade

hula hoop [first] I stretch my arms in a circular motion

grabbing whatever loose theeds come burning off

the rim [then] I loop backwards using a forward motion

[but] if I fail to grasp the [right clocking flange]

it all comes melting down onto the floor and

[I’ll be docked for the parts] but if it goes just right

it's like a [yellow heaven] of rainbow sparks

exploding in [cotton candy] vapors [smooth]

like a Don Garlits rail job [all metal flake paint]

and [coo-coo canary yellow] and [I’m happy]

like getting a family size bag of [Cheese-Ease!]

or an extra five minutes of Christmas

 

Current Occupation: I am an assistant manager at a large retail pharmacy chain.
Former Occupation: I worked at a call center with ex-cons and high school girls.
Contact Information: I'm twenty-seven years old and still feel lost as an infant. I've been writing as long as I've been able but am also terribly shy about sharing my work. More recently I've been attempting to get over my fears in the hopes that I can make writing my one and only work some day. I like to spend as much time as I can away from the harsh, fluorescent light of retail by rock climbing and hiking with my boyfriend. This is my first publication.

 

#

Alexandra, Retail Pooper Scooper

 

The automatic door opens and she walks through it. It's only thirty minutes into a nine hour shift at the most popular drug store in the world, and this is the last person I want to see. Some customers you can tell are trouble as soon as they walk in. Others you learn are trouble. She is the rare sort who falls under both categories. I'm completely helpless, stuck behind the counter of Register 36, returning a pair of reader glasses missing a lens. I know exactly where she is going, and even though I'm not religious, I mouth a silent prayer.

 

“I bought these just three days ago. Three days,” The customer tells me, pinching the stem of the glasses and shaking them back and forth in disgust.

 

“I'm so sorry about that,” I tell him, even though I'm not. I couldn't care even if I wanted to. Not when I know she is here, doing what she does. I feel a rush of cold air, and it makes me sweat. There is a strange dimming of the fluorescent lights as my co-worker approaches from aisle six and walks grimly behind the counter, the bad news jumping off her like bugs and scurrying up my dirty pant leg. I finish the return and bid farewell to a face I won't remember, tossing the broken glasses into a shopping basket to deal with later.

 

“Alexa…”Emily addresses me quietly. I try to relax myself but accidentally look at the clock. Eight hours to go. In the past hour I've cleaned up a bottle of wine that “just fell” off the shelf according to a customer wearing tight underwear beneath a pair of yoga pants. I counted a register when an older man with wild nose hair angrily accused the cashier of not giving him the right change. It's the type of beginning that makes me wonder if the moon really does do something to people.

 

“Yeah…?” I ask, even though I know what she's about to tell me.

 

“I don’t mean to add more or anything, but someone clogged the toilet in the women’s bathroom.”

 

“Awesome. It was her.”

 

“I know. I saw her. I was thinking about following her in there,” she says. It's her way of telling me she tried, which makes me laugh. I picture Emily walking into the bathroom and standing guard outside the stall door, listening for trouble, wearing a whistle necklace and Poo Patrol police hat.

 

I tell her it's okay. That it's fine. What could she have done?

 

I’m not a plumber, but it’s my duty to try to unclog the toilet. Fine. I can operate a plunger. I should have known the second I saw her walk in that this was going to happen. I’m convinced with one hundred percent of myself, believe it almost more than I believe the sky is blue, that one woman purposely poops here. She’s a regular pooper.

 

Sometimes she buys things, but usually she doesn’t. She has dubbed our restroom her personal pooping palace, and this is not the first time she’s clogged the toilet. It would have been too much to ask that this excremental event go down smoothly. It wasn’t that kind of a Saturday night.

 

On my way to the scene of the crime, I remember the time I had to pick up a shit-filled maxi pad someone left on the floor. Outside the bathroom door, I give myself a little pep talk. It’s all right, self, I say, You’ve got this.

 

I push the heavy, gray door open. The smell slaps me in the face. It is foul. Honestly, it's not as foul as the time someone dropped a load in the toilet tank in the men's bathroom, but it’s unpleasant enough for my body to take an instinctive step back.

 

I fight the urge to flee and march forward, pausing outside the stall door. From here, all I can see is brown water. A couple more steps. Just do it.

 

I do it. I stand over the toilet bowl, carefully breathing through my mouth, and assess the situation. It’s filled about halfway. There are clumps of toilet paper crumpled and stuck to the dry parts of the ceramic.

 

My first plan of action is to flush. Sometimes it’s as simple as that. I extend my left arm, stretch it to its limit to press down on the handle. It feels cold and wet, as though I’m wiping sweat from the toilet’s brow. The water rises but does not recede.

 

“Whoa, Whoa, Whoa,” I say to the toilet, out loud. The water stops at the rim, right before overflow. I breathe out.

 

Plan of action number two: plunge. In the janitor’s closet there are two identical plungers. I pick the one on the left. It looks a little newer, the orange rubber more vibrant, less used. I walk right back up to the engorged toilet, full of determination. This will not stand. I’m going to fix this.

 

I immerse the plunger in carefully. Because the water level is so high, any sudden, graceless movement could cause splashing, and I’m not looking to add “shit splatter on my shoe” to the list of awesome things about tonight.

 

With my hands wrapped securely around the handle, fingers intertwined, I slowly begin to bob up and down in a rhythmic, yo-yo motion. My plunge is full of poise and elegance, but nothing is happening. All I can hear is the sloshing of water bouncing off the walls. I put a little more wrist into it, knuckles turning white in the struggle. All this does is turn the plunger inside-out. Shit.

 

I rest the plunger in the bowl, like a wooden spoon in a pot of beef stew, and return to the janitor’s closet. I grab the other plunger and a pair of yellow rubber gloves. I slide them over my arms and enter the outhouse for the third time. I catch sight of myself in the soap-splattered mirror above the sink. Armed and ready for action, a sheet of sweat cultivating above my lip, I look like a sad sort of superhero, my gray vest transforming into pathetic armor.

 

I pull out the first wooden spoon, shake the excess water off, and set it to the side. I dunk the second sword in but only bob twice before this one inside-outs itself, too. The brown water remains unmoved, my efforts a small disruption in a giant, polluted pond. Shit.

 

Nothing is working. An uncomfortable wave of heat washes over me. I consider passing out. The truth about what I’m going to have to do to get this toilet to swallow becomes clear. The stagnant air almost hums. At this point, I’ve grown accustomed to the smell. I try to think of the term for that. Olfactory fatigue. It happens to wine tasters a lot. But this is no wine tasting.

 

I look down at my arms, up to the elbows in yellow rubber, and, with a heavy heart, accept my fate.

 

I noticed a plastic bag in the garbage the first time I came in. I reach into the can retrieve it, the handle dangling off my left wrist like a designer purse. I get down on my knees, submitting to the clogged toilet, ready to wrap my arms around the outside of the bowl and plead with it to just fix itself. But I know this will not happen.

 

“Okay. Okay,” I say out loud. It is time. I don’t let myself think any more before submerging my right arm in the shit water.

 

The brown liquid swishes around the bowl, about an inch of yellow glove remaining above the fault line. I knew this was the next step, but once I get my arm in I don’t know what to do. Or maybe I do know, but for a second I pause, look around the empty bathroom for answers.

 

“Why?” I ask. Why?

 

I reach into the throat of the beast, unable to close my eyes, and begin. I stir the shit like sand at the bottom of a lake. Shredded pieces of toilet paper sway like seaweed in the water. There is so much. It is seriously spackled to the bottom of the bowl. I dig. What the hell does this woman eat? I wonder. Below the surface, I have a handful of poop cupped in my palm like a mud patty. What am I supposed to do with this?

 

It is at this point, all alone in the bathroom with a handful of poop, that I begin to laugh, quietly at first and then uncontrollably. It’s all I have left. For a moment I consider the life choices that got me here, but I abandon the thought almost immediately. Things don’t get this exciting at a desk job, I decide.

 

I raise my excavation above sea level, extract the poop like pirate’s booty, and drop it into the plastic bag. I go in for one more handful, this time less hesitantly, before returning one of the plungers to its original form and giving it a final go. I only have to bob once before the toilet swallows in two big gulps. All that remains is the splatter on the sides of the bowl. The water is clear. The hard part of the job is done. I breathe out.

 

I take the two plungers to the closet and rinse them off in the sink. I grab the antibacterial bathroom cleaner, a roll of paper towels, and the toilet brush. I scrub the toilet until the bowl sparkles like new. I spray and wipe down the floors, discard my paper towels, peel off the yellow gloves, careful not to touch them with my bare skin, throw those away too, and spend about five minutes scrubbing my hands under sink water that never gets as hot as you need it to. It’s over. I did it.

 

In the doorway of the clean bathroom, I pause to reflect. The whole thing, from start to finish, feels almost ceremonial now. I know I will see her again. She will be back. From now on, though, it will be different. We’ve been united in a sort of sacred bond, forever enjoined by the night I scraped her poop out of the toilet with my fingers. One day we will cross paths on her way to the bathroom. We will make eye contact. She will not feel the strength of our connection, but I will.

 

On the outside, I will greet her warmly, give her my most welcoming smile. But on the inside I will only be able to think one thing:

 

I cupped your poop in my hand.

 

Current Occupation:  Development Director, Writer and Teacher
Former Occupation:  Landscaper
Contact Information: Originally from Rochester, New York, John McCaffrey attended Villanova University and received his MA in Creative Writing from the City College of New York.  He is the author of 'The Book of Ash' (2013) and 'Two Syllable Men' (2016).

 

#

Acting

“It’s ‘Sex and the City.’  I play a guy who falls in love with Sarah Jessica Parker’s character, Carrie.  We meet a party.  I make her laugh.  I’m smart.  Everything good personality wise, but she’s not attracted to me.  Physically, that is.  She ends up going home instead with a real handsome dude, but in the end he turns out to be a jerk.  That’s what the episode is about: style over substance.”

    Charles’s girlfriend, Henna, looked up from the saltine cracker she was nibbling.

    “So you’re playing the ugly guy.”

    “Not ugly…more like average.”

    “What’s the difference if you don’t get the girl?”

    Henna finished the cracker and lifted up from the oversized chair she was sitting.  She shook her sandy blonde hair, letting it settle just above her ample breasts.  She was wearing a thin white blouse over tight bell-bottom jeans.  

    “I just hate the thought of telling people that my boyfriend is playing the loser,” she said, wrinkling her nose as if standing over a rotten fish.

    Charles’s face reddened.

    “He’s not a loser.  I told you he’s got a great personality.”

    “But he doesn’t get the girl?”

    “Yeah, I heard you the first time.”

    “So…” she let the word drift as she passed and went into the lone bathroom of the one-bedroom apartment.  It was near the Boat Basin on the Upper West Side and rent controlled.  Charles got it a few years back from a friend who moved to Hollywood and was now hosting a reality show that placed divorcing couples in a locked room with a marital therapist for 48 hours.  

    “So, what?” he shouted to be heard over the sound of running water.

    Henna came back into the room, toothbrush in hand.  

    “So, what does that tell you, about not getting the girl?”

    “That she made a bad choice?”

    “Worse,” she said, pointing the brush at him. “It means you’re not coming back for another episode.”

***

They didn’t have sex that night…or the next morning.  Charles had tried both times.  After a late dinner and a half-bottle of Merlot, he had snuggled up to Henna in bed and nibbled at her ear until she whisked him away with a jab in the ribs.  He didn’t sleep well and woke with a raging hard-on, which, against his better judgment, he poked into Henna’s pelvis several times, but gave up after she didn’t rouse.  He showered, shaved, dressed and left her still sleeping as he made his way into workday Manhattan.

    It was sunny and crisp outside, perfect fall weather.  He walked four blocks to the train, trailing a few steps behind the swiveling hips of a Latina woman with bottle blonde hair and a red rose tattoo set in an exposed section of her lower back.  At the subway entrance, a dread-locked messenger lounging against a bike whistled at the woman:  

    “Where you going so fast?” the messenger said to her, “Please, stay.  Look at me.  Just look at me.”

    The woman didn’t look, descending the cement stairs in quick bursts.  Charles lowered his head and followed.  The incident reminded him of a role he once had in a made-for-TV-movie on the Lifetime Channel.  He played a salty construction worker who makes lewd comments to women when they pass on the street.  At the end of the film, one woman, the movie’s star, refuses to accept the harassment any more and corrals a group of her friends to heckle him at the work site.  The scene shook him.  A lot of it was improvisation, the actresses given creative license to say what they wanted, and he could feel a true rage emanating from them.  One actress had shouted several times: “Shake your big ass.” It stayed with him.  Weeks later, he was still checking out his behind in mirrors, and for months wore nothing but baggy chinos and sweat pants.

***

    “I need you to move closer to Sarah,” the Director barked at Charles.  He was rail-thin with Buddy Holly glasses and a shaved head.  A Rolex hung loose on his left wrist and surfer beads dangled from his neck.  He was either 45 or 25, it was hard to tell.

    “I want her to feel crowded by you,” the Director continued.  “You’re trying to get her attention, remember.  Put on the full court press.”

    They were rehearsing in a small studio – just he and Sarah Jessica Parker; the actual filming, with the entire cast in the scene, would be the next day, on location at a private Upper East Side apartment.  Charles closed his eyes and tried to envision the scene: a festive party, a trendy crowd, a hot woman in front of him, he, a misfit, coming on to her.  This was usually his strength.  He could become someone different, invading their minds, stealing their essence.  It was physical as much as mental.  One led to the other.  He would understand the character, then a transformation would happen, molecule by molecule, feel his skin changing, his hair shaping, his eyes focusing, his body emulating his mind’s acceptance of another being.  But now he was stuck.  He couldn’t find this person.  Sweat dotted his forehead and he bounced his fingers nervously on his legs.  When he opened his eyes Sarah was staring at him.  She had it nailed, he knew.  She was in her other being, ‘Carrie’.  But Charles was still Charles, and they ended rehearsal with the Director angry and shaking his head.

***

    How’d it go?”  

Henna was on a bar stool, sipping a Pellegrino with lemon.  Charles ordered a Budweiser from the bartender and pulled next to her.

    Horrible.  I couldn’t get into the character.”

    “Good.  See.  You can’t do the ugly guy.  It’s not you.”

    The beer came and he took a long sip.  

    “I don’t know if that’s it.  I just couldn’t get the right feeling.”

    Henna sipped her drink and scanned the bar.  

    “So what was Sarah like?” she asked, a hint of bitterness in the voice.  

    “Nice, I guess.  We didn’t really talk other than the scene.  She keeps to herself…like most stars.”

    “A real diva, huh.  I knew it.”  

Henna lowered her glass on the polished oak countertop and arranged her hair in the long mirror behind the bar.  When she was done she smiled at Charles.  As an actor, he had become expert at reading people’s faces.  When someone was happy, truly smiling, it showed around their eyes, the corners wrinkled up, crow’s feet formed.  The skin now orbiting Henna’s eyes was as taught and smooth as glass.  

    “So where are we going to eat?” she said, glancing again at the back mirror.  This time Charles followed the look and saw she was staring at the reflection of a wide-shouldered man with a thin brown pony-tail that offset his tanned olive skin.  He was sitting alone on a couch, in the back of the bar, wearing a black turtleneck that blended seamlessly into a beautiful pair of charcoal cotton pants.  .  

    Charles swallowed the rest of the beer in a hard burst.  He set the glass down with a thud.  Henna turned her head from the mirror and shot him a look.

    “What’s wrong with you?”

    “I’m just hungry,” he said.  “Let’s go to McDonald’s.”

    “I hope you’re joking?”

    A wave of fatigue swept over Charles.  He had made the comment to annoy Henna, but now he realized he really did want to go to McDonald’s.”

    “Maybe it will be fun,” he sighed.  “At least it will be different.”

    Henna raised her head, exposing her fragile neck.  It was the part of her body he loved best, and he would spend contented hours tracing the soft skin between her shoulder and head.  

“We’re not going to McDonald’s,” she snapped.  “Look what I have on.”  

She was wearing ‘Betsy Johnson,’ a red sweater with frilly white snowball things attached to a white leather mini with matching knee-length white boots.  

“I want to eat somewhere nice and then catch some music in the East Village.”  She glanced again into the mirror.  “That’s what I want and what we’re going to do.”

    Charles hesitated, feeling himself ready to concede to Henna’s desires, as he most always did.  But when she glanced one more time into the back mirror, his anger resurfaced and so did his resolve.  

“I don’t care,” he said.  “With you or without you, I’m going to McDonald’s.  I had a long day and have to shoot early tomorrow.   I just want a Quarter Pounder.  Some fries…maybe an apple pie.”

Henna snatched a compact from her coat pocket and dabbed rouge on her nose.  “Eat like a pig.  I see it doesn’t matter anymore.”

    “What doesn’t matter?”

    She snapped the compact shut and stared purposely at his stomach.

    “You done?” he said.

    “More like us.”  Henna rose from her seat and grabbed her bag.  “Go enjoy your disgusting meal…I’m sure it will help you get into character.”  

    Charles watched her walk away, saw her head turn at just the right moment toward the pony-tailed man on the couch.  His timing was perfect and he lifted his hooded eyes to meet her look.  Charles exhaled.  His anger left him in an instant, replaced with a deadening depression.  He threw money down on the beer and headed to the door.  

***

Henna was up watching television when he came home.  After his meal at McDonald’s, he walked the 45 blocks home, from midtown on the East Side, across Central Park, to the Upper West side.  It took him nearly two hours.  He had stopped several times, on benches to rest and watch people.  There was a hint of breeze in the night air and it brought promise of a cold winter to come.  He was chilled for the first time in months, and it made him feel clear and clean.  In overhead trees, he heard the rustle of dying leaves in the wind, withering and drying into autumnal colors, making a steady and nearly silent tick as they bumped against branches and floated down to the pavement in sweeping arcs.  

    Henna didn’t look up and the sound of the set was barely audible.  Charles set his keys down on an end table next to the couch and sat next to her.  He was carrying a brown paper bag and held it in front of her.  She didn’t move, so he opened it and pulled out the contents.  It was a bamboo plant in a decorative blue vase the size of an apple.  White jagged pebbles lay around the surface of the vase and the plant itself was one stalk about a foot high with four small green leaves sticking out at odd angle.  They seemed to be on sale at every Korean deli in the city.  

    “Four dollars,” he said.  “It’s supposed to bring good luck.”

    “Keep it,” she returned flatly.  “Maybe you’ll get a role on the Sopranos.”

    Charles reached over and rested the plant in front of the television.  

    “I’m not Mafia material.  But I could see you on the show.”

    “What, as a Bada Bing girl, a stripper?” she said bitterly.     Charles shook his head.

    “No, that’s not what I mean.  You could like the psychiatrist, Lorraine Bracco, or something like that.  You have a cool look.  Smart and sharp.”

    Henna’s eyes softened.

    “Right,” she said.  “Like I can act.”

    Charles leaned over and put an arm around her shoulders.

    “You can do anything you want.  Anything you put your mind to.”

    She let him hold her but stiffened.

    “I’m still pissed at you,” she said.  “I really wanted to go to dinner and go out.  You know, there are plenty of men who would die to have a night like that with me.”

    The 11 o’clock news flashed, the lead story a burning building in the Bronx.  Black smoke billowed across the screen, flames leaping out of windows.  Charles pointed to the Bamboo plant, oblivious to the carnage.  

    “Maybe you’ll get lucky next time,” he said.  “You never know.”

***

    Sarah Jessica Parker was late to the set and Charles and a burly cameraman drank black coffee in the kitchen with an enormous bay window that overlooked the East River.

The cameraman took a sip and licked his lips.  He was wearing a green New York Jets jersey and a backwards Yankees cap.  

“Can you imagine living in a place like this?”  He took in some more coffee.  “I can almost see all of Long Island Sound from here.”  

“The apartment was in the East 80’s, on the 20th floor of a sprawling coop.  It had panoramic views of New York City and beyond from nearly any angle.

“Must be nice,” Charles returned.

“Yeah, but can you imagine the taxes?”

Charles smiled.  People always said that when the came face-to-face with a building, a house, an apartment that was beautiful but way out of their price range.  A place they could never, ever afford.  “Can you imagine the taxes” As if that would appease their envy and deter them from living there.

“And the maintenance fees,” the cameraman continued.  “Forget it.”

There was a rustle of activity in the next room and laughter and greetings.  Charles peered through the doorway and saw the Director kissing Sarah Jessica Parker on both cheeks.  

“Time to get to work,” he said to the cameraman, draining his coffee.

“I guess so.”

The both took a last look at the view and then headed to join the others.

***

“Okay, people,” the Director barked.  “We have twenty minutes to do this so let’s get moving.”  He started to tick off commands and voices from around the room answered, like a roll call:  

“Sound?”

“Check.”

“Lighting?”

“Check.”

“Boom in back?”

“Check.”

“Background noise?”

“Check.”

Charles drifted with the cadence.  He felt terribly insecure.  Wardrobe had put him in a tight Izod shirt, collar up, Docker pants with a striped belt and topsider loafers.  The rest of the party was dressed in Manhattan chic, and he stood out like an insurance salesman at a runway show.  Makeup had also given him the comb over look and had smeared a bit of fake ketchup under his lip for comic effect.  He positioned himself and glanced around the room.  The scene was to begin with him and Carrie talking.  Then the handsome dude would come through the door, lock eyes with Carrie, who, immediately smitten, would excuse herself and follow him into another room.

“Action,” the Director yelled.  

Charles said his lines, leaning into Carrie, seeing that she saw his hideous clothes, his pathetic hair style, the offending condiment on his lip.

“Good,” the Director called out.  “Now more energy.”

Charles moved closer.  He could smell her now.  It reminded him of Henna.  Lilies.  She smelled of Lilies.  Or Lilacs.  That was what Henna smelled like.  What Sarah Jessica Parker smelled like.  What Carrie smelled like.  He looked into her eyes, and then the doorbell rang and they turned and Charles’s face blanched.  Coming through the door was the man from the bar the night before, the brown ponytail, with wide shoulders, and tanned olive skin and black turtleneck tapering seamlessly into cotton charcoal pants.  Charles swallowed and continued to talk.  But his pace quickened.  He inched even closer to Carrie, his words punctuated with newfound desperation.  He could hear the Director yelling “yes, yes” in the background, but the words were growing faint.  Sound was disappearing.  He looked to his right and in his peripheral vision caught sight of the brown ponytail.  He moved even closer as Carrie turned her head and gazed longingly at the new arrival.    

“Fantastic,” the Director yelled.  

Charles said his last line.  Now it was up to Carrie to leave, to begin a new scene: flirting with the brown ponytail, the two of them sipping Cosmos near a window, taking in the breathtaking views.  

But he couldn’t give up.  

“Where you going so fast?” Charles said, reaching over and grabbing Carrie’s hand.  “Please, stay,” he continued.  “Look at me.  Just look at me.”

As the Director yelled cut, and threw his script to the ground, Sarah Jessica Parker, or Carrie, did look at Charles, but he was long gone, and in his place was someone else, a new creation who was determined to get the girl.

 

Current Occupation: Fiction writer
Former Occupation: Journeyman printer
Contact Information: Tom Larsen worked as a journeyman Pressman for 30 years while honing his craft as a writer. His work has appeared in Newsday, New Millennium Writings, Raritan, Best American Mystery Stories, Puerto del Sol and the LA Review. His novels FLAWED and INTO THE FIRE are available through Amazon. He is presently retired and lives with his wife,Andree, in the Pennsport section of South Philadelphia.

 

#

 Bernardo

 

  Take it from me. You can fall asleep on your feet, but sooner or later your knees will buckle. Happened plenty of times running presses over at Printers Inc. It’s a crazy feeling waking up like that and sometimes, for a second there, you don’t know where the hell you are. Then it’s back in a flash and you see it’s so wrong for you. At least I did, which is why I quit.

    Clever name, Printers Inc. right? Believe me these guys were murder. The Donnelli brothers would screw you just to stay in shape and every guy there had gone a few rounds with them. Jack the midget, throwing his arms around, smacking his head like he can’t believe it. Believe it, Jack. Things go wrong all the time in a print shop. For what the Donnellis charge customers expect the best, but I can tell you that’s expecting too much.

    Then there’s Al. The “brains” of the family, a man with more tics then a cuckoo clock. Al’s the excitable type. He graduated cum laude from Harvard Law, but his face makes him unemployable. He’s also gay; a bad combination in a Neanderthal trade. I liked to work him up to a lather then get all big and crazy looking so he’d think he’d crossed a line. If that’s homophobic, so be it. Where I come from an asshole is an asshole  

    Some days I’d get a long run, twenty, thirty thousand and an hour in that press would be running itself. Forget about shooting the breeze or catching a few scores in the paper. The Donnellis wanted their pound of flesh and that meant keeping your nose to the grindstone. So you pull a few sheets and you fiddle around and pretty soon you start to fade. Maybe you were up late or you had a few too many and you know you got five more hours of standing around watching the clock, worrying about one stupid thing or another. It wears you out, I can tell you. Pretty soon the eyes are drooping and the noise seems to fade and then boom! Your knees give out. It’s a funny thing to see unless your name’s Donnelli.

 

     Most guys I’ve worked with would kill to get out of the business, but with families and the time put in it’s hard to walk away. I did it and I ain’t looking back. People don’t realize the pressure printers are under. One little mistake and it’s ten grand down the shitter. The halftones are reversed or phone number’s scrambled and it’s NFG (No Fucking Good)! Skids of product no one can use and you get to run the whole thing over. Not your fault maybe, but you made it irreversible. Shit didn’t run itself, dude. That’s not even considering the stuff that IS your fault, you backed it up wrong or it’s crooked or it offset or a million other things. Every printer I know drinks too much and most have an ex wife or two on retainer.

 

    The schmoozing thing really bugged me. You work with guys every day, but if you can’t talk to them you can’t get to know them. And I’m the kind of guy; if I don’t know you I generally don’t like you. It drives my wife nuts but it’s something I can’t change. To me everybody’s a blowhard until they prove different. So Printers was basically a shop full of grumblers who hated the boss and kept their distance. I was there ten years. I spent more time with those shmos than I did with my family, but I didn’t know where one of them lived. Take it from me it wasn’t natural.

    So OK, I may be slow to warm, but I’m no sociopath. I’ve worked in places where the crew was as tight a TV family. Worked together, played together, married each other, got divorced. I still have friends I haven’t worked with in twenty years. So when I say Printers was unnatural, I hold myself apart from it. From my first day I could see what the problem was. I was fifteen years younger than the next guy and I was pushing forty. A few decades running presses will knock the snot out of you and suddenly the old pension’s so close you can taste it. So the job sucks. It’s almost over. Get through the fucking day.

    None of this was lost on the Donnellis.

 

    Not that we NEVER talked to each other. Some days there’d be nothing else to do or you’d run into one of them in the mall and you’d have a few words, mostly about the boss. The Donnellis did this or said that, and always some big talk about getting even, dropping a wrench between cylinders or tipping off OSHA. The longer I was there the worse it got.

    OK, that’s my fault. You don’t like the job you get another or you do something to change it. But the only thing worse than working is not working. I’ve been there often enough. Sit around the house driving the old lady nuts, Try finding work when you really need it, especially when you’ve been around and expect to earn a decent wage. The trades have dried up here and everywhere, so you hold on to what you got. You might not like it, but you shut up and take it. Or you walk away and hope for the best.

    

    When I think back to how I got into printing it’s almost comical. I’d been to college a few years, but what I got out of it was either sexually transmitted or drug related. This was back in the seventies when a career was what your dad had and your dad was a loser. Guys I know now are surprised when they hear I went to college. Most of them came from working class where higher education meant finishing twelfth grade. My dad made a good living, but he was convinced a degree would have made him and he was probably right. From the time we could listen he harped on college, drummed it in our heads until we hated to be around him. He must have thought we’d go along just to shut him up and for a while we did. Then the old man died and in the end not a one of us could hack it.

    I knew I’d have to get a job, but back then guy I was pretty particular. No suit and tie, no sucking up, no working my way up the ladder, not me. I wanted a skill that would let me be mobile. Not a career but an occupation, something to pay the bills while I figured out how to make my mark. I was leafing through the phone book to see what was out there and when I got to the P’s my fate was sealed. If I’d given it any thought I would have seen the limitations, advancement, for instance. Once you’re the printer there’s nowhere to go. OK, foreman, maybe, but that’s a suck up job and the pay is only slightly higher. So where does that leave you? You’re never going to own the place, not on a printer’s paycheck. It took me a while to see my mistake. What’s good money when you’re 20 is peanuts when you’re hitting 50 and your kid brother just bought a place in Pompano.

 

    Printers Inc a real shit hole I can tell you. Funny thing is I loved the building, a hundred years old, easy, with high ceilings and big windows facing out on the city. You couldn’t really see through them, what with fifty years of grime, but some mornings those shafts of light were as soft and warm as an old flannel shirt. The place was a monument to industry, one of those brick monoliths that take up the whole block, covered in graffiti, rust belt down to the dumb waiters and the wood brick floors. From a distance the building looked haunted and up close it could break your heart. I got to like going to work in a scary looking place. When I left for the last time I pried up one of those wood bricks and took it home with me.

    It was the mouse that pushed me over the edge. Being old and semi permeable, the building was a haven for the lower life forms. Rats, bats, pigeons, the odd crackhead, and bugs! Holy Jesus! Horrible things with fat, hairy bodies and more legs than they’d ever need. And not shy about making an appearance either. You’d be smoothing ink into the fountain and all of a sudden something would catch your eye, moving fast over the wooden bricks, slipping under your press and not coming out. Gave me the willies, I can tell you. One time Big Lenny crushed three toes stomping one on his shoe, a truly funny thing to see.

    So the place was a dump and a few bugs weren’t gonna make much difference. But then Jack brought his wife in to work the phones and the Godzilla of bugs took up in file cabinet. Like she’d found a head in there from the way she went off. Jack called in an exterminator, skinny guy with a spray wand. He went along the floors and into the corners, nodding and smiling like we were all in the same boat. The smile of a man who expected more from life, but believed, in his way, he was making a difference. We watched him angling around work tables, squeezing into places no one ever thought to go, spritzing every cranny with God knows what. We stood there smirking in the time-honored way of slightly skilled men lording it over slightly less skilled men.

    “What the hell is he so happy about?” Big Lenny wondered.

    I shrugged. “Maybe he’s drunk.”

    “What kind of job is that for a grown man?” Owens shook his head. ”I stopped killing bugs when I was six.”

    “The kind you have right before you throw yourself off the bridge.” Lenny snickered.

    Owens sucked his teeth reflectively. “It’s the uniform, with the name above the pocket. That’s where I draw the line.”

    I looked down at my own uniform, then to Lenny’s, then Owens.

    “OK, but ours are cool,” Owens said in all seriousness, glancing at the name above his pocket, something long and Polish.  “It’s like a disguise or something.”

    “The bow tie,” Lenny muttered, almost to himself. “That’s where I draw the fucking line,”

    The guy wasn’t wearing a bow tie but Owens and I never let on.

 

   I first saw the mouse when I was cleaning up to go home. Things were slow and I was drawing it out. It’s the slow days that never end. I was digging through a box of parts when I spotted him under my workbench. There was something wrong with his leg or back, some deformity or old injury. It didn’t seem to bother him much, but it made me wonder what was in that spray wand.

    I watched him poke around an old gripper assembly, nosing along as the press pounded a few feet away. I figured he was hungry so I tossed a few donut crumbs over. The crumbs startled him and he darted off, but a few minutes later he was back, sniffing the length of chain, sniffing the crumbs then sniffing all the other crap that was down there. Marking thing for later, or so I thought. But the crumbs were there the next day and may be there still for all I know.

    He’d only show when the press was cranking. Maybe with the noise he thought I couldn’t see him, or maybe with the noise he couldn’t see me. What I know about mice is they’re smaller than you’d think. I’ll admit I looked forward to seeing him. What the hell, he was cute. I thought about what it must be like creeping around the old plant at night, not so bad, I suppose. There’s heat and water and plenty of junk to hide in. You can pass in or out in a million places and there are two fast food dumpsters in the alley out back. A mouse might spend his whole life in here, generation after generation passing down the secrets.

    How long does a mouse live anyway? My guess is not too long. Almost anything will kill you and tunneling through garbage all day can’t be healthy. To me mice seem super skittish and I’m thinking lots of them die of fright. When you’re that small and that defenseless you know your place on the food chain. Low man must be stressful. When your numbers up you blow all the gaskets.

    “Got a little mouse at the job,” I told the wife over supper.

    “A mouse? You sure it’s not a rat?”

    “Believe me, you wouldn’t get them confused. This guy’s tiny,” I held my finger and thumb a mouse length apart.

    “Better kill it.”

    “What do you mean? I like him.”

    “Mice have fleas and fleas carry diseases. Remember that show on PBS?”

    “I’m not going to kill him. He’s a friend of mine.”

    “ … OK.”

    “His name is Bernardo.”

    “Bernardo.”

    “ … right.”

 

    I was running Safeco’s annual report when the pest control guy showed up again. Watching him, I couldn’t help wondering what it was like, exterminating for a living. The day’s work measured in small-scale carnage, genocide, when you think about it. Sure it’s bugs and vermin, but they were living and now they’re dead. Where he goes tiny organs dissolve, synapses misfire, little limbs and segments wriggle their last. Whole populations, countless thousands wiped out in the wave of his wand. The few who survive breed a stronger strain, immune to the toxins, then stronger toxins.

    There must be consequences to his line of work.  

    He made his way toward me and smiled his big smile. I gave him a nod and motioned him over.

    “Hiya,” he studied the thumping Heidleberg, eyes wide at the wonder of it. “Boy, ain’t she something,”

    I glanced back then led him off a few paces. He stood solemn and trusting, the wand at his side. My smile was barely menacing.

    “Listen …” I checked his shirt,” … Bert, can I ask you a favor?”

    “Sure. What’s the problem, uh, …” he squinted at mine. “… Pinky?”

    “The problem is I got a thing about, you know,” I pointed to the canister.

    “ …oh?”

    “Look, I know you got a job to do, but … ”  I ran a hand over my face for effect. “You remember Agent Orange, right Bert?”

    “ … you mean?”

    “That’s right. Pleku, It’s not something I like to talk about.”

    “No hey, I understand.”

    “I mean most of the time I feel OK, OK?”

    He looked down at the wand, the canister. I did the hand over the face thing again.

    “Whaddya say Bert, can we make a deal? Do what you have to do, but can we skip around here. Just, you know,” I gestured to the immediate area.

   “I gotta tell you though, this stuff has been tested by every underwriter in the business. Seriously. The chances of you -”

    I let the smile sag.

    “… uh,” he looked around as if someone could hear us. “See, I’d have to check with the owner.”

    “Bert, look at me,” the smile gone now, replaced by a world-weary grimace. “I didn’t ask to be sterilized. You know what I’m saying? I didn’t sign on to have my liver pickled or my brain cells scrambled.”

    “Oh my Lord.”

    “You ever get night sweats, Bert? How about it?”

    “Gee no, but -”

    “C’mere,” I drew him to me. “Answer me this. Did you ever catch yourself staring into space trying to remember your kid’s name?”

    Bert turned deathly pale.

    “It’s not that much to ask, my friend. Not that you owe me a thing.”

    “OK,” his eyes didn’t quite meet mine. “It’s against company policy, but you’re right. Jesus. We’ve done enough to you already.”

    “You’re a stand up guy Bert. I won’t forget it,” I clapped him on the shoulder and sent him on his murdering way.

    Not that it would make any difference. Hosed down the way it was the building had to be toxic. The mouse came around now and then but he probably combed the whole building, soaking up poisons like a sponge. Spray day had to be the worst, though, a fresh coating of lethal substance settling over. Surely he can smell it and feel it in his eyes. Hey, I’m no animal rights nut, but I’m no sadist either. The nature of pain is to be painful. For the creepy-crawlies you can overlook it, but a crippled little mouse? I don’t know. It didn’t sit right.

 

    I didn’t see Bernardo for a while. I went on vacation and when I came back, the shop had been painted. They’d covered the presses, moved everything else away from the walls and sprayed the whole place. The color, a slight variation on the old toothpaste green made it feel more like prison than it did before. I couldn’t see why the Donellis would bother, but then Lenny told me they’d gotten a “deal” on it, some poor schlub working off his business card debt, if I had to bet. He said Jack’s wife had nagged him into it but brother Al was refusing to kick in. I don’t know why this cheered me up but it did. Something about the brothers going at it always made my day.

    The schlub’s crew really botched the job. Paint had hardened into lumps and dribbles. The floor was rimmed inches deep and the windows and fixtures had taken a dusting.  Anything that hadn’t been moved had been painted over, including the arm of my chair and my poster of Westbrook breaking a long one. Paint was everywhere. I could still smell it.

    Shortly after lunch something moved under my workbench. Crouching down I saw a gob of green inching along the green gripper assembly. The mouse was crusted in paint, just his legs moving under a green shell. It didn’t look like collateral damage either. Someone had zeroed in. On top of everything else Bernardo had been gang painted.

    Enough was enough. Those Donellis always struck me as sadists, but this was way beyond the pale. I scrunched down on my hands and knees and poked around with the dolly hook. Bernardo rolled out and I scooped him up. Oh man, it was pitiful. One of his legs was bound up inside and his eyes had been painted shut! I took him to the sink but it was hopeless. I could pick away bits and pieces but only a solvent would do the job. And then I noticed he wasn’t moving anymore. I touched his little head but it just rolled back in the collar of paint. I’d been careful with the water so he couldn’t have drowned. I might have scared him too much, but I had to do something. I was sure he was dead, but I laid him on workbench and checked on him all morning to be sure. Little guy never moved a muscle. Just before noon I walked into the lunchroom, opened the refrigerator, popped a Tupperware top and buried Bernardo in Jack’s lasagna. That done I cleaned out my locker, pried up a floor brick and took the el home.

Current Occupation: Lecturer
Former Occupation: Tax Officer, Grouse Beater, Stocktaker (one night only), Learning Materials Developer
Contact Information: David McVey lectures in Communication at New College Lanarkshire in Scotland.  He has published over 100 short stories and a great deal of non-fiction that focuses on history and the outdoors and which ranges from academic papers to light, humorous material. He enjoys hillwalking, visiting historic sites, reading, watching TV, and supporting his home-town football (soccer) team, Kirkintilloch Rob Roy FC.

 

#

The Door to Room 108

On one side of the campus building there was an ornamental loch. The council had intended it to be the focal point of a dramatic civic space that would bring together students and the wider community and which would be enhanced by swans and ducks and other serene wildfowl. Over the years, however, it had become neglected and the mouldering benches were only ever occupied by anti-social drinkers in giggling or argumentative groups. There were no ducks on the water, just the previous day’s cans and bottles bobbing gently in the breeze. Those white things on the surface weren’t swans, but discarded plastic bags from the supermarket which squatted in the middle of a vast windy car park on the far side of the loch.

 

The campus had never really imposed itself on the town. Built about ten years before, it was a striking and attractive modern building, an outpost, in this post-industrial Dunbartonshire town, of a larger college some miles away. The new campus struggled to fill courses and the building often felt empty. The vision of crowds of happy motivated students spilling out on sunny days to gather by the loch, bringing an air of culture and learning to the town, had long gone.

 

I taught a Core Skills class for a group of beauticians there on Tuesday afternoons, in a stuffy room crammed with whirring and purring PCs. But if the teaching rooms were functional, the public areas of the campus building were near-inspirational – high-ceilinged and spacious with huge windows that let in all the light that even a grudging December day could supply. Yet there was a sadness too; voices echoed and were lost and disappeared. There simply weren’t enough people to give the building life, to make it buzz.

 

One Tuesday I arrived early to set up Room 106 for my beauticians. I collected the room key from Louise at reception and climbed the stairs to the first floor. I paused at the landing window to watch the glinting midwinter light on the stagnant loch. Then, when I opened the door of 106, I felt myself almost physically blown back as an eruption of stifling hot air burst from the room.

 

I switched on the light, squirmed out of my coat and jacket, and sped over to the window and threw it open. I was already so hot that once I had it wide open I hung out of the window sucking in the cool winter air and again looked out over the deserted loch to the distant supermarket.

 

When I had recovered, I checked the radiator; not surprisingly, it was on full and was still churning out heat. I turned it off, went back to the window and opened it out as far as I dared, and then wedged the door to the corridor open, too. One more thing occurred to me; there was a door that led through to Room 108, near the window. I went over to it and tried to open it, but it seemed to be locked. Not long afterwards, the first beauticians began to arrive; even with the radiator off and the window open, the room had something of a sauna about it. ‘You trying tae stew us tae death?’ asked one student.

 

Outside, the light faded and gathering clouds hastened the dusk. The room cooled only slowly and at around half-past three I decided the students had had enough. They printed out their work and were filing over to my desk to hand it to me when there was a dull thud and the door to 108 flew open and banged against the wall.

 

‘Ha!’ one of the girls said, ‘It’s a ghost!’

 

I peeked into the darkness of Room 108 but there was no one there. I closed the door again and looked out of the window; it was dark and gloomy but there seemed to be little wind. Some freak draught must have blown the door open, though. Mind you, I’d been sure it was locked when I checked it before class. Perhaps in the heat it had expanded and stuck.

 

The girls had all gone. I closed the door to the corridor and sat at the tutor PC to catch up with the online register, with paperwork and with emails. By the time I was ready to leave, it was nearly twenty past four and quite dark outside, the northern winter obliterating all. I checked that all of the PCs were switched off and switched off the lights.

 

As I handed over to the keys to Louise, I mentioned the heating being on full blast. ‘That’s funny,’ she said, ‘no one’s used that room since Monday morning. Shouldn’t have been anything amiss.’

 

‘Maybe one of the cleaners left it on?’ I suggested, and immediately a hoarse voice sounded behind me, ‘Naw, one of the cleaners didnae leave it on.’ It was Janice, a venerable cleaner that we all knew. ‘If the heating’s left on at the end of the day we turn it down just enough to keep aff the frost. So there!’

 

‘Sorry, Janice, didn’t mean to cause offence.’

 

‘Nane taken. We know who left the heating on, eh, Louise?’ And the two women exchanged a knowing look.

 

Just before I headed out, I paused to study how the darkness seemed to invade around the building. The vast amount of exterior glass admitted light during the day, but in the evening it seemed to bring the dark closer. Louise was clearing up behind the reception desk, Janice and another cleaner were unravelling the cords of their vacuum cleaners, and a couple of dedicated students were tapping away at PCs in the library. There were other people around, of course; some blocks of offices in the building were leased out to the council and to government organisations, but they kept themselves to themselves and usually exited en masse on the point of quarter to five. I was struck by the quiet and the peace and the forlorn sense of empty space. Then I wrapped up and went into the cold outside. In the light from the streetlamps, the loch was like a sheet of dirty glass.

 

I taught classes in the main campus on Wednesdays. At lunchtime, when I was in the Core Skills staff base, I mentioned the heating and door incidents of the previous day to the other lecturers. ‘Must be some flaws in the building,’ I said.

 

Graham, a grizzled old social scientist, exchanged a look with Sally, a young Communications lecturer. I was fairly new to my part-time post but I was learning that exchanged looks were quite a thing in this college.

 

‘Have you heard the stories about Craigwell Campus, Jimmy?’ Graham asked me.

 

‘Stories?’

 

‘I don’t know what you believe about these things,’ Graham went on, ‘but there’s a lot of talk, from a lot of folk, about a ghost…’

 

The casual remark of one of my beauticians came back to me, but then I said ‘Come on – it’s a new building, we’re intelligent people, who would believe…’ As I spoke, Graham turned and looked pointedly at Sally.

 

‘I know what it sounds like,’ said Sally, seriously, ‘but I was in a class in Room 108 last semester. I had a folder of marking that I was about to give to the students. I was on my own in front of the class, and the folder was wrenched, wrenched, away from me and landed on the floor with all the work spilling out.’

 

‘It wasn’t a…’

 

‘No, it wasn’t a student acting the fool. No one was near me. I just told the students I’d dropped them, but they knew something funny had happened.’

 

‘And then there was the lady – what was her name? – that was on reception before Louise,’ Graham went on. ‘She saw something, someone, a woman, she said, in old Victorian clothes, but poor people’s clothes. None of your Downton Abbey.’

 

‘Where was this?’

 

‘Just in the space in front of the reception desk. Next time she looked the thing was gone.’

 

We were silent for a while.

 

‘What was on the site before?’ I asked.

 

‘Iron foundry,’ said Tricia, who would know, as history was her subject, ‘it shut down during Thatcherism.’

 

What appeal could a cleared industrial site that now housed a bright, modern building have for a traditional ghost? I said no more but remained convinced that there must be natural, physical explanations for the things people had experienced. Perhaps oddities in the heating system had caused the door to blow open, perhaps an involuntary muscle spasm had caused Sally to lose her folder…

 

And the figure Louise’s predecessor had seen? Well, difficult to know without knowing the person. Perhaps she was imaginative, easily spooked, prone to seeing things, perhaps had to leave for that very reason. The subject lapsed, and soon we all left for our afternoon classes.

 

Next Tuesday I was back at Craigwell Campus for my beauticians at 2pm. It was the last week before we broke up for Christmas. The day was cold but cloudy, a still settled gloom; just the sort of day for gathering round a roaring fire in an Oxbridge college while someone read an MR James ghost story. I arrived at the campus and the door swished aside ahead of me and I signed in and started chatting with Louise.

 

I collected the key for Room 106, climbed the stairs, turned the key in the lock and was pleased not to be thrown back by a blast of hot air. In fact it was quite chilly so I turned the radiator up a little. I tried the door leading to 108 and it opened easily. No one was next door; the room was in darkness, blinds drawn, with just the occasional winking of lights on PCs.

 

The students arrived, noisy and boisterous, one or two of them wearing Santa hats. They had some work to submit before Christmas so I told them to finish it, print out a copy for me, after which they could go. They booted their PCs up and were soon tapping away and chatting quietly. I sat at the tutor PC and went online. I knew that the National Library website had a wide range of digital historical maps, so that you could gradually go back or forward in time to see how a particular town or site had developed. First, I found a large-scale pre-war Ordnance Survey map of the area. A huge square on the site of the supermarket, car park, loch and campus was shown as ‘Works’ – this was the famous iron foundry. As I went further back, I learned that the foundry had been there as early as 1880, though smaller in extent.

 

The printer sang into life and there were footsteps behind me. ‘I’m finished, Jimmy.’

 

The student handed me her work and I wished her a good Christmas. As the other students worked on, I checked even older maps, going right back to Roy and Blaeu and Pont. Before the foundry the site was some distance from the main settlement of the town, but a few little dots appeared there on some 18th century maps, probably indicating cottages, or, at least, buildings of some sort.

 

Room 106 had an awkward layout, so that when I was intent on my PC, the students were all behind me. There was a succession of episodes where the printer whirred and shortly afterwards a student coughed apologetically behind me before presenting their work. Several times I became so caught up in this historical research – not really my field – that only a sense of being watched, an awareness of a presence behind me, alerted me to the fact that another student had finished her work and was waiting impatiently to be released for the Christmas break.

 

And then the time came when the last student was done. I added her work to the pile on the desk before me and wished her the best for the season. By then I had found an academic history website and was trying to find some resources about the town and its past. There was nothing about any small settlements that existed before the foundry. The latest map I’d found from before the building of the foundry, dating from 1865, did still show buildings on the site. Had people lost their homes to make way for the foundry?

 

Again I felt that sense that there were eyes fixed on me, that someone was waiting behind me. I was about to wheel round in my seat to face another student when I remembered that they had all gone.

 

The sense of someone else remained. There was silence but for the gentle bleeps and clicks that characterise any room with PCs. Neither the light nor the temperature had changed, but I was being watched, there was someone in the room with me and yet for some reason I couldn’t turn round. I’d found nothing to account for the supposed hauntings in the historical or cartographic record. But, now, I knew something was in the room, that cold eyes were fixed on me.

 

I sat frozen and admitted to myself that I was terrified. I still couldn’t turn round, but running over in my mind were all the other incidents I had experienced or heard about. And then the hairs on the back of my neck grew rigid because I heard soft footsteps, right behind me…

 

‘Jimmy, sorry, I forgot my scarf.’ Donna, one of the last students to leave, had returned and crept in the wedged-open door. ‘You all right, Jimmy? You look…’

 

‘No, Donna, nothing. Tell me, did you see anyone else in here when you came back in?’

 

‘Eh, no, everybody’s away. You sure you’re all right?’

 

It was quite dark outside when I shut the blinds, checked that all the PCs were off, switched off the lights and closed the door. Back at reception, I wished Louise a happy Christmas and said that I’d see her after the break. Already I was convincing myself that my imagination alone had created some creeping horror just out of my sight.

 

I stepped out into the chill of the evening. By the shore of the loch, I turned to look back at the building.

 

The light was on in Room 106. And was that a faint human figure visible just back from the window?

 

It was probably the cleaner, I told myself. Who else could it be? I turned back to face the loch and followed the path that led to the bus stop. I had to get home as there was still some prep to do for my classes later in the week.

 

Current occupation: writer and editor
Former occupation: publications director, speechwriter, and magazine editor
Contact Information: Caroline Taylor's short stories have appeared in Work Literary Magazine (one, two, three, four occasions) and other online and print magazines. She is the author of two mystery novels and one nonfiction book. Visit her at www.carolinestories.com

 

 

#

RULES FOR THE COMPANY PICNIC

 

1. Attendance Is Mandatory. Of course there are things you’d rather do on your weekend—visit your mother-in-law, scrub toilets, mow the back forty, rotate the tires, iron sheets. But your absence will be noted and held against you in your next performance review under the category labeled “teamwork.” The only exception to this rule is illness, the kind requiring hospitalization. In that event, you’d better be able to produce a doctor’s slip.

 

2. Do Not Expect to Have Fun. Fun is what little kids have. You are an adult. However, you must act like you are having fun, even when you fall flat on your face in the sack race and have to spend the remainder of the afternoon with a bag of crushed ice over your nose. The only exception to this rule is the boss, although when did the boss ever have fun?

 

3. Electronic Devices Are Prohibited. Turn them off. Leave them at home. Embrace a rare and priceless opportunity for real life face time. The only exception to this rule is the boss and his or her family. After all, somebody has to know how the Cubs did.

 

4. Drink at Your Own Peril. Yes, a brewski or five would indeed make the event marginally tolerable, but everybody—especially your significant other and the boss—will notice when you go over the limit. Some will even take notes—how you made a pass at the veep for operations in front of her husband, who used to be a linebacker for the Cincinnati Bengals; how you wound up twerking it on the picnic table in front an awestruck crowd of your coworkers and your supervisor, who only drinks Perrier. The only exception to this rule is if you are the boss. Then you can get blotto without fear of retaliation (unless the chairman of the board also happens to be present).

 

5. Dress Appropriately. Hot pants are perfect for twerking, especially if you know you’re probably going to violate Rule Number 4, but why give anyone a sneak preview? The wife beater T-shirt also will be noticed, raising eyebrows for what it reveals about your hirsute, flabby physique. Flip-flops are okay for footwear, provided you do not intend to participate in the sack race, the touch football game, or any other group activity (but see Rule Number 1 regarding “teamwork”). The only exception to this rule is the boss’s spouse, whether male or female.

 

6. Let the Boss Win. Of course you know how to play the game. You quarterbacked your high school football team, after all. When the boss practically stumbles over you while carrying the ball, don’t touch! Instead, fake a sudden hamstring pull. It’s not what Coach would have liked, but Coach isn’t signing your paycheck. The only exception to this rule is that cute little sexpot Sandy, from Accounting. She can do whatever she wants.

 

7. Don’t Leave Early. Remember from Rule Number 2 that you are having too much “fun” to leave early. The beer has run out. The potato salad is probably toxic at this point. The games are over, the injuries all attended to. Some folks are yawning and experiencing early symptoms of smartphone withdrawal, but you must keep that smile plastered to your face until the boss’s backside finally disappears down the road. The only exception to this rule is if you are the boss.

 

8. Help Clean Up. Even if you’re a guy—actually, especially if you’re a guy—this earns huge bonus points and will be noticed and commented on favorably in your next performance review under the category labeled “teamwork.” If you really, really have to get away the moment the boss is gone, then at least appear to be helping to clean up. Do not delegate this task to your spouse or significant other, unless you don’t mind what happens next. The only exception to this rule is, of course, the boss or the boss’s spouse.

 

9. Turnabout Is Fair Play. Don’t refuse to attend your spouse’s or significant other’s company picnic. Didn’t they give up a weekend for you? They could have spent the time shopping or watching the Cubs get creamed or lying in a hammock under the elm tree in the backyard. And, yes, so could you. But because of Rule Number 1, Rule Number 9 must be obeyed. The only exception to this rule is if your relationship is already on the rocks.

 

10. Do Not Indulge in Post-Picnic Commentary. By e-mail, by text, by Twitter or Facebook. Unless you still imagine these things are private and won’t come back to haunt you. It’s marginally okay to burn rubber as you leave the parking lot (there will be witnesses!) but far better if you can manage to stave off the full-blown temper tantrum until a time and place where the only witness is your spouse or your significant other. The only exception to this rule is if you are the boss. Then you are perfectly entitled to issue a group e-mail (or even an old-fashioned inter-office memo) about how much “fun” everyone had at the office picnic.

Current Occupation: Library Cataloger
Former Occupation: Fallen Retail God
Contact Information: I was the guy behind the counter, the one no one noticed for weeks, decades even until I pissed someone off and they complained to management. That was me. I watched small business owners be irresponsible with their inventories then blame their employees for not being able to sell their questionable purchases. I got to see the customers' surgical scars, hear tales of rehab, see the cockroaches fly out of their returned DVD cases.They were too busy to notice my sleep deprivation when they screamed at their kids just after opening. I'm not there anymore, have not been for years, and they still complain about me to higher ups.

 

#

Mr. B.

 

Mr. B. has trapped me by the photocopier

A man who smells like compost in August

wearing mismatched argyle socks

He's trying to tell me,

through his broken teeth and horrible breath

about how the WPA built bridges over Parsons Avenue

when he was a kid

 

I silent plead with the copier

to God, Allah, Vishnu, Alistair Crowley

to please, please hurry up and cooperate

Meanwhile, Mr. B, wearing zombie Payne Stewart golf pants

that would be very bright, if they were clean

is now asking me if people eat manatees

 

Perhaps?

Sea cow – the other white meat

Why not?

 

Now he has me thinking about the possibility

of flipper stew with hash browns

as the copier jams, again

I'm forced to bend down and see that he's wearing bowling shoes

Size ten

 

Did you ever go to West High?

He shouts at me

not because he's angry

but because he's deaf

Now he's talking to himself about a field trip

he took to see the GM plant in Detroit

in the fifties, or was it the forties

 

Not even pausing in his monologue

he starts ranting about his brother's $10,000 funeral

He probably has more money that I've made in my entire life

stashed in mason jars hidden beneath the cockroach stained floorboards

of his soon to be condemned home

 

I'm still pounding on the copier

continuing my prayer to the ceiling

When I get an answer

 

"Ed, you have a phone call on 7430"

 

My colleague bails me out with a fake phone call

 

I go back to the copier, Mr. B. has vanished

Later, I hear from another coworker that he was seen driving

ten miles an hour down Sullivant Avenue

High beams on

Windshield wipers going full speed

on that bright, sunny April afternoon

 

Current Occupation: Having retired from profitable work, I am playing about with either writing or photography.
Former Occupation: There were 40 years of picture framing. My company was one of the first in Washington, DC, to push for preservation as a very important aspect of a framing job. 
Contact Information: After 30 years of aimless travel, I settled down in Washington, DC. after I found I enjoyed working as a picture framer. The years of travel and those of working with customers, I have accumulated a large collection of stories, which exist as short notes. For a period, I was also, by acclamation, a interesting photographer, but my 3 children took more and more time. I had to curtail my pursuits. Now that I am retired and my children are adults, I have returned to earlier interests. The iMac which sits on my desk offers itself as a means of rendering a legible copy of a story from the dusty corridors of my mind. It also offers itself as a instructor in converting digital snapshots into something much more meaningful, might I say art. 

 

#

THE BIRD IN THE FRAME

 

    While working at the frame shop in the 80s, midweek held my favorite days. Monday and Tuesday were devoted to straightening the mess from the onslaught of rabid customers on Saturday. Mondays were devoted to the creation of clearly written work orders for the jobs that had arrived on the previous weekend. Inventory was checked and our suppliers were notified of materials we needed to complete these jobs. On Tuesdays, work began on projects that relied on materials we had on hand. Wednesdays and Thursdays were dull days of routine, free of stress. The four of us knew our jobs so well that the pieces moved around the workspace as smoothly as baseballs tossed around the diamond by the top players prior to the game.

    Fridays were Panic City. It was obvious that we had promised to complete more jobs than we actually could. At 9 AM, each worker grabbed his tools to begin the day. No one could set them down until noon when stiffened fingers would fumble a tin-foiled sandwich for lunch. Work commenced again before one. A pick-up coffee arrived in mid-afternoon. If one was lucky, the coffee was prepared the right way. During the day, our work routine was disrupted by incessant phone calls. Regardless of having agreed to a three-week waiting period for their piece's completion, the callers are adamant. "Must have!" they demand, again and again. Inevitably, one customer called to apologize, politely. He had forgotten to tell us that that photos he had left with us were to be presented Saturday night at an awards banquet. "Would we have time to finish them?" "Of course," we say, "by midday." Would we have to work to midnight to finish the job by midday? Sometimes, it was close. Somehow the parts needed for the photos slid in between the work for more patient customers. At six o'clock, tools are released, as are the workers who flee with the speed of sleepers escaping a house on fire.

    Saturday. As I write the word my body stiffens as though I were about to face malignant specters from those days. On Saturdays, the front of the shop was transformed from a quiet spot for observing the orderly traffic outside into a careening, ancient bus on a narrow, mountainous road. Its panicked passengers clutched their precious art objects and, with their bodies, softened the collisions with others. The space allotted to customers was not large enough to contain the Saturday mob.

    As soon as the door opened, they would pour in. Hordes of customers. The fortunate ones would leave soon with their framed pictures under their arms. Others, who were not so lucky, had to be satisfied with a complicated, verbal excuse.

    Now the mayhem began. Clutching his finished pieces, a customer waved sheaves of cash to catch a framer's eyes. The framer, who could help, was busy working up a design for a potential shopper's watercolor of a pair of blotchy pussies, carelessly drawn from life by a creature with the artistic skills of an alley cat with fleas. A monochromatic piece on the table engaged another framer in a quest for a suitable frame until its owner slowly explained that the green bill on the table was to pay for the packaged art under his arm. Another customer conquered the table by unrolling a large oil painting of innocently smiling children engaged in an activity that would have them, as well as the artist, arrested in forty-nine of the fifty states. Some customers leaned forward and froze; others leaned back, eyes averted, and froze. Impatient customers grabbed armloads of frame samples from a wallboard to speed up their time with us. I hate to admit it, but there were times when the framer in the front would ignore a restless customer so another framer in the back could finish their order. Meanwhile, a quiet figure stood away from the table to avoid the chaos. Patiently, she waited for a semi-private conference with a favorite framer to work on the design for an ancestor's portrait. Eventually, the mob thinned and she was helped.

    By habit, we had been braced to withstand Saturdays. At the end of the day, half-filled coffee cups littered the tabletops. Scattered about the workroom were the once perfect triangles of sandwiches, now marred by a random series of cutouts. Surrounding the take-out trays of Chinese were pellets of rice scattered into the area when a frenetic hand slapped a fork. Cleaning up could wait until Monday.

    Certain sounds told us that Saturday was definitely over. The clatter of feet rushing downstairs for the toilets. The incessant jangling of the telephone. We knew to ignore these calls near quitting time. They always proved troublesome. The hurried shuffle of the boss to lock the front door and pull down the shade. This was followed by frantic knocking at the door by a customer who thought we closed at eight, instead of six. And finally, the verbal summation of the day shaped by those of us who had survived.

     At the end of a Saturday, the avalanche of new projects would bury all of the worktables in the back room.

    As I said at the beginning of this article, midweek held my favorite days. Let me now give you an example.

    The stress of Friday and Saturday had been alleviated by the calm of the week's beginning. The shop was quiet and the work orderly. But these were also the days when an unusual customer could appear. They avoided the madhouse that was Saturday, because they feared their piece would be damaged in the melee. The undivided assistance of one of our top designers was their main desire. These demanding clients were prepared to spend an unhurried period to ensure the perfection of the finished work. Often, these pieces were the ones that made a framer's week worthwhile aesthetically.

    One Thursday, before anyone else had noticed the lady, I slipped out to offer my assistance. Our shop had been helping this woman for almost a decade. Everyone in the shop agreed that she was one of our nicest customers and, unlike some of our others, no one cringed at the thought of helping her. Over the years, she and I had spent more constructive time together than had many couples. On this day, she held a framed Japanese print of a bird, perched on a thin branch, silently singing. Her husband had acquired the piece during a military tour of Japan decades before. It was much, much older than they had thought, but I didn't tell her that.

    After I removed the print from its old frame, the lady and I began to work at finding the right materials to enhance the piece. I lost track of the time it took before I presented her with an approximation of what the piece would look like framed. Readily, she agreed to my opinion. After chatting easily about how attractive the newly housed bird would be when hung in its old place, the lady left.

    Several weeks later, our work was done. Everyone in the shop approved of the finished project. When I called her with the good news, she responded happily that she would come for it immediately. Thirty minutes later, after a quick peek at her print, she hurried home with her newly burnished treasure.

    When I answered the phone, shortly after she left, I could barely identify the voice. It was loud, raspy. I could imagine the mouthpiece flooded with spit.  Her piercing screech was so painful, hitting my ear, that I held the phone far away. She hurled unusual obscenities that would have been censored by the telephone company, if they had been listening. Eventually, I understood that she was so incredibly angry with me because her art had been destroyed while in my care.  She spoke of a treasured piece that had traveled in her husband's care from Japan to our city. It had always been handled carefully. Loudly, she declared that my reputation was fraudulent.

    When I was finally able to insert a conciliatory word of my own, I asked her to bring the piece back to the shop so I can examine the print. I hoped that she heard my claim that our insurance would cover any damage. When she slammed her phone down, I knew I had fifteen minutes to prepare. I asked my workers about the print. No one had noticed any damages, however slight.

    The intensity she presented as she came into the shop was such that, if I could, I would have asked her to leave her purse on a chair far away from our confrontation. Just in case her gun might go off, accidentally.

    When she reached the counter, I made no effort to stand at her side. I stayed behind the barrier. Three feet away from this hurricane.

    With more force than was necessary, she slammed the frame onto the counter. While her trembling finger pointed, she asked with a belligerent tone, "Do you see what you have done?"

    I must confess. I couldn't see what she was talking about. The framed print looked perfect to me. Carefully, I raised the frame and examined the print. It was unmarred. Not one obtrusive spot of a foreign color. No tears, scrapes or scuffs. Since we had replaced the scratched and dirty glass, the print looked much better than it had before we were allowed to touch it.

    Let me pause and describe the print. As I said, it was a print of a bird on a branch. You have to image that the branch was the letter "Y". It rose straight up from the bottom of the print. At the fork, both arms of the "Y" bent towards the left. One branch was now lower than the other. And, on that branch, perched an upright songbird with his head raised to sing. This image was uncluttered and very clear. The Japanese writing, cascading down the print's side, would have been a poem inspired by the art.

    I hesitantly asked for an indication of injury. She rotated the frame, pointed and declared that our framing had resulted in the print hanging the wrong way. As she, and her husband, were good customers, I confessed our mistake and that we would right it. This calmed her. I asked for a few days to repair the damage. With the righteous stride of the victor, she strutted out of the shop.

    Face with her ferocity, I didn't dare explain to her how the picture was to have been hung. As this print had decorated a wall of hers for 40 years, who am I to change its appearance. I knew enough about the appearance of written Japanese to tell her that those scribbles across the top of the print were a poem in Japanese script, which was meant to be read from top to bottom, not from side to side. This alone would tell her the correct way to display the print.

        The artist had originally portrayed the songbird as readying itself for flight into the heavens; the customer had trained the bird to search the ground for worms.

 

Current Occupation: Retired
Former Occupation: Technical Writer and Teacher
Contact Information: I am the Prose Editor for  BrickHouse Books, in Baltimore.  Also I edit an online literary journal called the Potomac – not that I make a dime from either of these activities, so they fall into that limbo of hobby/work.  Not sure where writing falls in that limbo since I do sell the occasional copy of published books.  Speaking of which, my latest, MATA HARI: EYE OF THE DAY, was published in 2015 by Apprentice House (Loyola University), and another, AMERICAN ZEITGEIST, is forthcoming from Apprentice House as well.

 

#

Information Technology

 

“Two all-beef patties?” the man responded, bemused. “Yeah, a Big Mac.  What’s that for?”

He meant the question, but I ignored him, checked the box on the form on the clipboard I carried.

This is what census-takers must feel like.  But I worked for a temp agency (Kelly Girls; I was a Kelly girl! It always made me smile when people asked me what I did and I said I was a Kelly Girl.)  I’d been assigned to do a survey in advance of the release of an animated film about Jesus, or maybe it was Moses, that was being released around Christmas, another five months from now.

“Okay. Did you know that ‘Thou shalt not kill’ is one of the Ten Commandments?”

“No shit,” the guy marveled.  News to him.  “No, I didn’t know that.  What’s that got to do with McDonald’s?”

I checked the box and shrugged slightly.

Ten dollars an hour.  This assignment would last most of a week, and then I’d move on, like some sort of Lone Ranger figure.  I liked these temporary gigs.  You can tolerate anything for a little while, if you’re being paid for it. I didn’t have a boss leaning over my shoulder.  I didn’t even have to shave if I didn’t want to, but I had anyway.

I’d already checked this guy’s responses for “some college,” “30 – 40 age range,” “$60,000 – $75,000 salary range.”  There was no box for polo shirt, chinos, or running shoes, but he did say his field was “Information Technology,” and I had him pegged for a computer programmer.

“Presbyterian,” he answered my next question, “but I don’t really belong to any church.”

       

Current occupation: Writer
Former occupation: University Professor
Contact Information: I began my working career as a stock boy. I have also been a shoe salesman, a worker in an automobile repair shop, an insurance agent, a designer for a party favor company, a screen printer, a high school teacher, a house painter and construction worker, a commercial pilot, a professional stunt pilot, and a fine artist. My artworks are in the collections of the MoMa and the Metropolitan Museum in NYC and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London among others. I have published numerous short stories world wide and seven books of fiction. I live in Ithaca, NY with my wife the novelist Jeanne Mackin. Check my website: www.stephenpoleskie.com

 

#

I Am Jitterbug

“Hey! Jitterbug! Get your ass over here and jitterbug the fender on this here Chevy.”

    Having been called “Jitterbug” since I began work here at T and A Auto Repair three days ago, I had come to accept this nickname, even though I had politely suggested I would rather be known as John.

    “Shag”, the only person in the shop the least bit friendly to me so far, had explained: “Ya see kid, around here we’re called by what we do. Now I go for things: parts, wrecked cars and all the other stuff, like Zeke’s beer. That’s called ‘shaggin’ as in ‘go shag yer ass’— that’s why I’m called Shag, even though I was baptized Walter. Now ya see that der thing ya got in yer hand, that’s a jitterbug.”

     I had said, “You mean this rotary sander?”

    Shag had said, “Whada ya, some kind of a smart ass college kid?  Rotary sander . . . that’s a damn jitterbug.”

    I couldn’t admit I was a college student who needed a summer job, and had lied, saying I was looking for full-time work. What would the owner, Zeke—sitting there sucking on his perennial bottle of beer—had thought if I had told him the truth, that the skills I listed for the job: welding, grinding, sanding, and spray painting, had all been learned in a class in metal sculpture, that I was in fact an art student.

    “Hey! Jitterbug, ya don’t got all day on that fender.”

    The boss had just disappeared into his little room above the shop.

    “What’s Zeke do up there, Shag?” I asked, taking a brief rest from my dance with the rotary sander. More powerful than the sander I had used in school, the vibration let me I know why it was called a jitterbug.

    “Don’t let him see you standin’ around, Jitterbug.” We were talking back to back, like spies in a grade B movie. “That’s his poontang room. He takes his chicks up there, so his wife won’t know. And he’s got a bed up there, and takes a nap during the day. But he’s got a secret window, so he can keep an eye on us.”

    With that information conveyed, almost as if a warning to himself, Shag began to bustle about the shop, picking up rags, and half-used rolls of masking tape, appearing busier that he usually was. Pulling up my dust mask, I went back to the task of sanding a fender.

    About an hour later Shag drove up in the wrecker, pulling a fairly new Pontiac.

    “Hey! Jitterbug, leave that fender,” Zeke shouted at me above the noise of my grinder.  “Ya see that Pontiac Shag just dragged in. I want ya ta take out the generator . . . ya know how ta do that don’t ya?  Then clean it up . . . and sand the thing down, primer her . . . and then give her a nice coat of bright red lacquer . . . can ya do all that? And when it’s dry, put the thing back on the motor . . . but let Shag tighten the fan belt.”

    Wow! It was if I suddenly had been promoted. Up until this time I had only been allowed to sand, mask-off, and spray primer, but now I was to actually do some mechanical work, and to spray a finish coat, if only on a generator. Why, I wondered, would a woman want her generator painted, and the color changed from flat black to bright red? But, I was a good employee, and did what I was told.

    I reinstalled the generator, and Shag adjusted the fan belt. Grinding away again, I could not hear the conversation when the woman came for her car, but I did see Zeke open up the hood and point out the bright red generator, which seemed to please her. She handed Zeke a check, and drove off.

    “Why did that woman want her generator painted bright red?” I asked Shag the next time we had a quiet moment together.

    “Whada ya dumb, Jitterbug? Ya think that ladies interior decorator told her that she had to have a new look under the hood?”

    “So why did I take the generator out and paint it red?”

    “Look, ya saw me tow the car in didn’t ya? Well, the thing wouldn't start. Now, chicks don’t know shit from Shinola about damn cars, so the broad calls the nearest tow truck, which happens to be us. So Zeke looks under the hood and sees right away that the damn problem is a loose fan belt, which is why the generator is not charging the battery. Now Zeke ain't gonna make much money by just charging the battery and tightening the fan belt. So he tells her she needs a new generator, that the ones that come with the car are no damn good, and that she would be better off with a new high performance ‘Spark King’ generator, which she can get for just a few dollars more than a standard one. So you paint her old generator red, and presto, she’s got a brand new ‘Spark King’!

    “But that’s not right.” I stammered.

    “Whada ya mean . . . not right, dat’s the way it’s done. It’s the auto repair business, especially when dealing with dumb broads. Ya see all the shops in this here little town. How da ya think we all stay in business? Now for the next three weeks or so this broad is gonna drive around happy as a pig in shit, watching her ammeter, thinking what a wonderful job her new ‘Spark King’ generator is doing. Then it’s gonna go on the fritz, and she’ll come back all in a huff, complaining that the generator’s no damn good. And Zeke is gonna open up the hood and show her it’s not her new generator that’s gone, but the fan belt. And he’s gonna say: ‘I’m sorry, we probably shoulda put on a new belt when we changed the generator, but yours looked pretty good, and I didn’t want you to have to spend too much. I’ll tell you what I’m gonna do, since it was sorta our fault, I’ll put on a new belt, and only charge you for the belt, not the labor.’  And the lady is gonna be so  happy that she’s not paying for the fifteen minutes or so it takes to put on a new fan belt, that she doesn’t notice she’s paying four times as much for the belt as it cost at the auto parts store up the road.”

    “And how are you so sure this is going to happen?” I asked.

    “Whadya  dumb, Jitterbug?” Shag answered. “Because when I tightened her old fan belt, I took a little notch out of it with my pocket knife, just enough so that it would go in about three weeks.”

    This must not have been the first, or the worst scam worked by T and A Auto Repair. A month before I started working here their State Inspection License had been revoked—only no one was supposed to know. One of my jobs was “official road tester.” When one of our regular customers came in for an inspection, usually a car with a dubious chance of passing anyway, which was why they came to T and A, one of our mechanics would give it a perfunctory look over, and then I would be told to “take it for a test drive” to make sure everything was up to standards. In reality I would drive the car to another shop six blocks away, where the owner was a friend of Zeke’s. There they would slap on an inspection sticker. Although I was participating in what was probably an illegal act, I rather enjoyed these “test drives” as it got me out of the shop, with its paint fumes and sanding dust, and I got to drive a lot of different cars.

    I asked Shag once what the name T and A stood for, as the only owner appeared to be Zeke, and his last name began with neither a T or and A. Was it perhaps the previous owners?

    Shag prefaced his reply with his usual mock, “Whaddya dumb, Jitterbug?” and then went on, “what da ya think it stands for? T and A is tits and ass, in any man’s language. What da ya think Zeke does up there in that little room?”

    I never brought up the question again.

    “Hey Jitterbug, get off yer sander . . . ya gotta take that der car for a test drive,” Zeke said pointing to an almost new Ford Mustang. I could not believe the little old lady standing next to it was the owner, but she handed me the keys, telling me to: “Be careful with my baby. . . .”

    This was a muscle car. No scooting down the back streets with this set of wheels, I would take the avenue, and hope to catch a few red lights, and just maybe someone out for a drag race. This thing had power, and a standard shift. Out of sight of T and A, I popped the clutch and laid a patch of rubber for half a block. This car was in good condition, and could pass an inspection anywhere. I wondered why the woman had brought it to our dishonest little shop. I slowly cruised the five remaining blocks without meeting any challengers. Maybe on the way back?

    Waiting at a light, with three more blocks remaining to T and A, I was beginning to despair, when a black Corvette sided up next to me. I could tell by the sound of its trick pipes that this guy was ready to go. I revved my motor. The driver of the Corvette did not look over at me, but I could tell we had a race. The light turned from yellow to green. Flooring the Mustang’s accelerator, I popped the clutch.

    There was a loud clank. The Mustang, didn’t accelerate, but just sat there with her motor revving wildly, until I realized what had happened and took my foot off the gas pedal. The black Corvette was disappearing down the Market Street. Opening the door, I leaned out and looked under the car. The rear end of the drive shaft was hanging down on the road, resting in a puddle of its own oil.

    I wanted to cry, but a crowd had gathered. Besides I was twenty years old and too old to cry, even though I knew that I would be held responsible for the damage to the transmission, and that it would probably take all the rest of the money I was going to earn this summer just to pay for it. And a nice policeman had come by and given me two tickets, one for blocking the intersection, and one for parking on a crosswalk.

    The police dispatcher must have telephoned the shop, for in a short time Shag arrived in the big yellow and red tow-truck, with T and A on the door, and a decal of a girl in a scanty bikini. On the way back we discussed what I thought was going to happen to me. I would probably not be fired, but then I would have to work to pay back the cost of the repair. However, if I wasn’t going to earn any money anyway, maybe I should just take off, and try to find another job for the rest of the summer.  

    “Relax, Jitterbug,” Shag said sucking on a can of beer as he drove, “Zeke will take care of everything.”

    He said it with such assurance I wanted to believe him.

    Pulling up in front of the shop with the Mustang in tow, I was prepared for the worst. Zeke and the woman owner came out almost immediately. Zeke threw himself down on a crawler and rolled underneath the still hitched up Mustang. Shag headed for the head, leaving me standing there with the woman. I did not know if she knew it was me who had ruined her car. She looked like she wanted to cry, but grown women don’t cry over cars.

    “It was my husband’s car,” she began, almost as if confessing something. “He always wanted a Mustang, ever since they first came out . . . but we had kids, and didn’t have too much money, so we always had a station wagon or van. Then the kids grew up and we were alone . . . and my husband had the opportunity to take an early retirement, and so he did. And one day he said he had decided to buy the Mustang he always wanted. Well, we were both retired, and didn’t have all that much money, but I said if that’s what you want go ahead and do it . . . we would manage. And he really loved that car . . .  washed it and waxed it all the time. At the mall he’d park it way off by itself so that no one would ding it. Then he had a heart attack and died. Well, I decided to keep the Mustang as kind of a memory of my husband . . . that was three years ago, and I finally got the car paid off. But the warranty is run out . . . and now this. I hope it’s not going to cost too much as I live on a tight budget. . . .”

    What could I say? A brief while ago I had just ruined a car, now I had destroyed a woman’s memory, I couldn’t just walk away, I would have to work here all summer paying for it.

    Zeke rolled back out from under the car. He stood up and wiped some grease off his hands onto his pants.

    “Lady you are so . . .” Zeke paused, “. . . lucky. You could have been killed!” He was looking the lady straight in the eye, and had pulled me over and put his arm around my shoulder. “You are lucky that this here kid was driving and not you. You see your . . . eh . . . fignewton coupling let go on the rialto valve, which is what caused your drive shaft to drop to the street.”

    Now, I’ll admit I did not know much about cars, I am sure nowhere near as much as Zeke must have known, but I was searching my mind and I had never heard of any such parts known as a ‘fignewton coupling’ or a ‘rialto valve’. And I knew damn straight that this was not what had dropped the drive shaft. Nevertheless, Zeke kept rolling on. Shag had returned and was listening, and nodding in agreement.

    “Now when the fignewton coupling lets go, at speeds as slow as . . . well, let’s say even ten miles-per-hour, especially if the rialto valve also gives out at the same time . . . the car is sure to roll over. You are lucky that you were not driving . . . you might have been killed. Now you should get down on you knees and thank God that it was this here kid who was driving your car when the fignewton valve let go.”

    I felt embarrassed. Zeke smiled at me, giving my shoulder a firm squeeze, which I took to mean: keep your damn mouth shut.

    “. . . ya see Lady, this here kid is a trained race car driver . . . one of the best young drivers around . . . and he knew exactly what to do as soon as he heard that fignuiton retainer blow. I mean if you had been driving Lady that car would have rolled over . . . two, maybe three times . . . and you would have been a goner.”

    I stood there proudly, picturing myself in my flame-retardant racing suit, covered with emblems: Goodyear, Exide, Mopar—T and A.

    “Now, I know yer a little short on money . . . aren’t we all? So here’s what I’m gonna do. Like I’ll work with you on this. I’m gonna give ya all the parts at our cost . . . .” Zeke went on, herding the woman into the office, and at the same time pointing me in the direction of my rotary sander.

    “See, I told ya that Zeke would fix everything. He’s a damn smooth operator, I bet he even bills her good for the fignewton coupler and the rialto valve, ha, ha. . . .  It’s too bad she wasn’t a little younger, I bet Zeke would have even had her up to the poontang room for a little banging.” Shag said, making an obscene gesture with his pelvis, while sounding pleased that things had worked out, if not for me, for T and A Auto Repair.

    I wondered if this meant that I was not going to have to pay for anything, or maybe I would get the bill for the imaginary parts.

    I was grinding the paint off a door when the Zeke and the woman came out of the office. I was expecting to see Zeke lead her up to the second floor, but they headed over in my direction. I put down my grinder.

    “Here’s my hero,” I heard the woman say.

    I turned and looked around, then realized she was addressing me.

    “Zeke’s given me such a good price on fixing my car. It’s going to be better than new. And when it’s done I want you to take the first test drive, just to make sure everything is all right.”

    “That’s okay Ma’am,” I stammered. “You can trust Zeke . . . if he says your car is all right, I’m sure it’s all right.”

    “Well, I can’t thank you enough for saving my life,” she said shaking my hand. When I pulled it away, in it was a five dollar bill.

    “Oh, I can’t take this Ma’am . . . I didn’t do anything.”

    “No, No . . . I insist,” the woman said as she turned and walked out the door, smiling and waving at me.

    Feeling guilty, but pleased at the same time, I was about to stuff the bill into my coveralls pocket when a hand snatched it from me.

    “All tips go into the shop beer fund,” Zeke informed me, shoving the fiver into his own pocket.

    “I didn’t know that the shop had a beer fund,” I said.

    “There’s a lot of things you don’t know, Jitterbug,” Zeke gibed, disappearing into his office.