On Keeping Cool

ac

Empty

The only noise in the office this morning is the humming of an over-worked air conditioner. The struggling appliance is perfectly wedged into place and secured by a single pane window on top. Our clever maintenance man hammered a nail into the window frame so the window cannot be lifted from the outside by a nefarious passerby and the a/c unit stolen, again.  Unfortunately, it also means that I am unable to lift the window to escape in the case of an emergency, most likely a fire.

The maintenance man addressed my concerns as adequately as possible.

“Just go out the door if there’s a fire.”

Ahhh, yes. The infinite wisdom of the maintenance man.

Underneath of the a/c unit, its electrical cord dangles listlessly like the tail of an exhausted beast with almost nothing left to offer. Yet, it must keep giving or it will face a fate worse than the broken vacuum, a fate on which nightmares are built, a final meeting with the most nefarious of the nefarious, Junkman.

Junkman is always on the search for devices and appliances with precious metals inside. He drives a rusted out pick-up truck with wooden rails rising from the sides of the back of the truck, obviously to increase his junk load capacity. Once in the dirty and callous hands of Junkman, the air conditioner will be smashed open and its guts ripped out to be scrapped.  The rest will be tossed into the nearest alley, left for the city or conscientious neighbor to pick up and properly dispose of in the dumpster or recycling bin.

The thought of this ending makes me sad. As I dwell on thoughts of this air conditioner and air conditioners of days gone by, like the ones that were stolen from the basement or the ancient unit that used to cool my childhood house, I hear heavy footsteps. Someone is rustling around in my co-workers desk and opening his candy dish. The office is not empty and I am not alone.

Maintenance people are here. Their numbers are multiplying and have doubled as of late, while office staff members are dwindling.  It is a disturbing trend especially as the building crumbles around me.  The bricks are falling from the exterior walls a few at a time.  New cracks appear in the plaster on a daily basis and connect with old cracks.  A mega crack is being formed in one of the hallways, perhaps too great for maintenance men to handle.  However, with all of the extra maintenance men tromping around in their muddy boots and dirty t-shirts, one might think the decomposition of the building would slow.

Alas, this is not the case. More building problems only means more maintenance workers and less time to spend enjoying the hum of the window air conditioner in a dilapidated and almost empty office.

Air

Transformation
“I don’t think you really believe that, I think you are just saying a bunch of words,” the man flatly stated.

He filled the chair across from me with huge arms and legs and a puzzled expression. A huge silver cross hung from a chain around his neck.   It was possibly removed from a church altar but looked like a normal sized piece of jewelry on his chest.

Confusion and frustration triggered a tic, his left check twitched and his left eye blinked. He clenched his jaw and ground his teeth back and forth.  I almost reminded him of what his dentist recommended after his last visit but decided against it.  The timing just wasn’t right.

I was about to explain that the maintenance man was not leaving spiders in his bathroom, again, when Lazy Man rushed through the door.

“Puney,” he gasped, out of breath from the short shuffle to the office. His eyes were bleary behind thick lenses.  He wore house slippers and a white t-shirt with a hole in the center of his chest.

“My wallet has been stolen. I’ve torn my place up and it’s gone.  It’s nowhere.  I think I know who took it, too.”

He sighed, “She needs help but I need my wallet.”

Lazy Man sighed again and again.

If Lazy Man was a balloon, he would be almost completely deflated by this time, a shriveled piece of rubber begging for air.

The next day, Lazy Man returned.

He shuffled in wearing tennis shoes and jeans with a clean t-shirt. His eyes were clear and there wasn’t a single sigh on the horizon.

“I just wanted to let you know, I found my wallet. It was in my coat pocket in the closet. I hid it too well from myself.”

He laughed and shuffled back out.   A red balloon escaped from a bundle for a birthday and floated up to the sky, a bright spot of color against the sky of blue.

red

Judas

Embarrassing
The investigator barged into my office with the force of a tropical storm. She had a bad haircut and wore a masculine outfit of pleated pants, a button-up shirt and ugly, scuffed leather shoes.  If I had a proper warning, I would have boarded up the windows and left town.

“I’ve been calling and I rang the doorbell. Why didn’t you answer?”

My mouth opened to say that I had not received any calls in the past hour, the doorbell never sounded, and lastly, who the hell are you? Clearly, if I had notice, I would not be there waiting.

The woman continued in an almost apologetic tone, “It doesn’t matter. My name is Debra Dedmaus and I am here to investigate a claim of neglect.”

I snickered in spite of the uncomfortable tension.

“Is something funny?” she asked. “Because there is nothing funny about child neglect. Now, if you will take me to Alison F. Orgets apartment.  I will handle things from there.”

This was not a request. It was a demand.

I led the terrible Deadmouse woman down the hallway past the numbered doors.

One, Two, Three.

We stopped in front of Four. I knocked, with several light tippity-tap-tap-taps.  Deadmouse waited a second and commenced to pounding on the door.  Plaster crumbled from the ceiling overhead and landed on her dark hair.  Ha! I thought, serves her right.

The door opened a crack, a woman in a bathrobe stood behind it. She saw me and opened it the rest of the way.

“Hi Puney, what’s going on?”

Deadmouse stepped in front of me, wielding her official badge from her agency.

“I’m here to investigate a report of neglect,” she repeated the same line from earlier.

She glanced down at her clipboard and went on to add, “It came from a P. Bones. I assume you know each other,” she smirked.

Ali looked at me in disbelief. I used my mind powers to open a hole in the ground into which I hoped to fall until I hit the Earth’s core.  Again, my powers failed me and I remained standing. I didn’t feel so much embarrassed as I felt small and ashamed.  I set into motion an unstoppable chain of events which would prove to be as cataclysmic as the original sin.

I was Judas and had just delivered the kiss of death.

ju

Be Here Now

Countless

clock

“Sorry I’m late,” the woman said with a wheeze as she set multiple plastic bags on the ground.

A loaf of white bread tried to escape from one bag and a suspiciously trumpet shaped form bulged from another. The bags overflowed with goodies and random trash she had acquired from her daily travels.

The bags surrounded the woman like a hoop skirt forming a wide base from which the rest of her slender, emaciated body emerged.

I looked at the clock on the wall, faithfully ticking forward, minute by minute; it kept track of the time that no one else minded.

The clock’s plain face and black hands represented order and social responsibility that belonged to another world, another place and definitely a different time.

“Want to reschedule?” the woman generously offered as she watch my eyes travel from the clock to my appointment book and back to the clock.

A quick mental calculation left me with approximately 12 minutes before the next person was expected to be 20 minutes late.

Sweat beaded from the edge of the woman’s scalp. Her eyes darted nervously back and forth.

She wore a purse strapped across her chest which she deftly opened with one hand and checked on the contents with a quick glance. Satisfied, she looked back at me.  I assumed from the gentle and loving look in her eyes, she was caring for a baby bird and ensuring its little feathers remained unruffled.

“No,” I said, summoning the strength to be present.

“Let’s meet now.”

Warranted

Grain
hc

Three men in green uniforms stormed the building today.

By stormed, I mean they respectfully walked down the hallway with heavy, black boots. They stopped in front of the designated door where they knocked and politely announced themselves as public servants ready to serve.

Like bloodhounds on a scent, they knew they were close when the front door opened. The men in green had to be calm and patient or the little bunny might just scamper out the backdoor as she had done in the past.

“No reason to look inside,” the man who answered the door explained. “She is gone, like I said. She left out of here about three days ago and I haven’t laid eyes on her since then.”

The men in green were smart and hated to waste gas on a fruitless trip. In fact, they brought an extra roomy vehicle so the bunny would be comfortable as she was transported to her new home.

It took some creative coaxing and a teensy, tiny threat and the men in green got inside where they witnessed a miracle, performed more frequently than expected, especially in their line of work.

Lo and behold, the sudden and unexplainable appearance of the missing woman!

After the woman was gently apprehended and assisted to the backseat of her pre-arranged transportation, the man who answered her door came into the office. He spoke with gratitude that went against his grain, perhaps misdirected or drug induced, but nonetheless genuine.

“Now she’s safe,” he said over and over again.

“Thank you.”

Ice Time

Phase

ice

After a minor disagreement, my only coworker, Earl, stopped talking to me.  I thought he was in a meditative state, reflective and quiet.  Perhaps he was dealing with a health issue or his aunt died seven years ago on this date and he was remembering the cinnamon apple muffins she used to make. 

Then I asked him a question about office supplies and he ignored me.  I asked him another question about the mail and he still ignored me.

Ah-ha, he isn’t wearing his hearing aid, I assumed.  No need to make a mountain out of a molehill. He simply cannot hear me.

I walked by his desk to drop off an extra pack of staples as a good-will gesture and he spun his office chair away from me towards the wall.  He pretended to study the blank calendar.  From his new position, it was clear that his hearing aids were both firmly in place.  Suddenly, I realized what was happening.

This was the silent treatment.

I thought the mostly unwarranted punishment would end by noon.  Much to my surprise, it did not.  In fact, it grew worse as he refused to eat lunch with me. I ate my peanut butter and jelly sandwich alone, remorseful of whatever thing we argued about earlier in the day.  The silence of the office was deafening until he started watching videos of old stand-up comedians, starting with Richard Pryor.

As I struggled with the peanut butter sealing my tongue to the roof of my mouth, I flashed back to grade school.  I sat alone with a PB&J at the end of a long white table, unfolded from the cafeteria/gym wall with a bunch of confident, athletic, and well-adjusted kids.  In retrospect, I see that they were actually mutants and I was the normal one.  

I wished for a carton of cold chocolate milk to wash down the pangs of childhood loneliness but more so for the all- natural peanut butter as it clung to my throat.

It was only at the end of day that the ice melted and Earl began to communicate again.  I breathed a sigh of relief, it was just a passing phase.  We were both in the parking lot and Earl raised his hand to wave as I got into my car.  I waved back, humming Hakuna Matata, when I realized he was waving to the police officer who had pulled up next to my car, likely investigating a 911 call in the immediate area.

Too bad throwing shade isn’t considered a crime. 

I drove off a little sadder and certain that life is too short for a grudge, even if the grudge is only for a day.

The Fall

Dream

rosie

Falling makes you feel some kind of way, as my friend Mika would say.  It’s a feeling of disconnecting with the ground, going from upright to stretched out flat, and then wondering what happened and if your hip is broken that lingers long after you stand up again.  Falling is unnatural, uncomfortable, and overall, a brutal reminder of our mortality.

Someday, its ashes, ashes, we all fall down.

After a festival this year, my hubby and I walked behind another couple, we were equally overserved and unbalanced.  We laughed and sang and danced and gasped when Ann fell to the ground.  Her body tipped forward and she moved unrestrained through the air and reconnected with the ground in slow motion.

“Noooooooooo,” we yelled from behind her and grabbed the air, interrupted by a lack in depth perception and delayed response time.

Ann hit the ground with a force, and fortunately, her chin slowed the momentum of the rest of her body.  The woman came to a complete stop and lay motionless on her side; red beads of blood started to form on her face and shoulder.  She stared up at her partner, Mark, in disbelief.  He stood over her, wide eyed and open mouthed.

We followed his eyes further down to his clumsy feet, one of which stood firmly on a black flip-flop.  It was obvious, the fall was the flip-flop’s fault, clearly.

Tears blurred Ann’s eyes and she blinked hard, hoping the fat drops of salt water would disappear, reabsorb, and retract back into the depths from which they managed to escape.  The sharp pain in her skinned palms and the red blood gathering on her face and the crushing disappointment in her head assured her that this was not a dream.

“You were supposed to catch me,” Ann said as she looked up at her fiancé.  Her voice accused and questioned at the same as she came to terms with his lack of action.  She was establishing was what real from the ground up.

She was no longer certain that this was the man she wanted to marry.  The fall shook her sense of security in her uprightness and confidence in her destiny.  The world felt a little less safe, less predictable; it was something she might learn to accept someday.

Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.

Exposed

Pensive
A woman wearing a soft red beret on a mess of grey hair clutched her plastic bag of precious things to her chest. She leaned against the window as the bus rolled away from the stop.  Beads of sweat popped out on her forehead and trailed down her face.  The windowglass cooled her feverish cheek and temporarily grounded her thoughts which were racing high above public transportation.  Her heart skipped two beats and returned to its normal rhythm.

Good, it still works, she thought about her old ticker, grateful for the reminder. It was the answer to a pending question that the woman forgot to ask.  She felt a strange relief in the occasional proof of her vitality. She wanted to get home but still had two more transfers to go.

A young mother with a crooked wig sat across the aisle from her, distractedly holding a fussy baby. The overwhelming smell of a soiled diaper permeated the air.  It was impossible to ignore for the other patrons of the bus, yet, the woman stared out the window with blank eyes, nodding in and out of consciousness.  Every once in a while, she remembered the weight in her arms and gave it a jiggle before her head fell backwards or forwards, overcome again with sleep.

Another child stood on the seat next to the young mother and hopped back and forth from one foot to the other. He wore shorts and a dirty Superman t-shirt stretched tight over his round belly.  He looked at the woman next to him and licked the back of the seat in front of him.  He looked at her again and he licked the window.  He looked closely at the woman as she dozed with the infant in her arms and still saw no reaction; he grabbed hold of the seatbelt strap and started licking the metal attachment.

The woman with the soft red beret watched from across the aisle as the boy explored his world by taste and begged for attention. She stopped herself from yelling at the young mother, “Wake up! Your boy is going to fall or catch a terrible disease.”

Maybe the licking is a part of a terrible disease that he already has, she wondered, probably caught from licking the window on a previous ride.  She pursed her lips and bit her tongue; it wasn’t her place to say something.  You don’t tell other people how to take care of their kids, she reasoned.  Guilt made knots in her stomach as she nervously watched and hoped her next transfer would come before disaster struck.

The boy continued to lick the seatbelt, perhaps absorbing some necessary minerals otherwise missing from his diet. He was a little deer at a salt lick in need of mineral nutrients or in this case, bus goobers.  Then the baby began to move about.  She reached up with a pudgy arm and grabbed at her mother’s blouse; her chubby fingers surprisingly strong.  She pulled the edge of the shirt lower and lower, and exposed a single sagging breast, indecent even by the standard of bus culture.

And still the bus rolled on.

bus

 

 

Man to man

Ralph had been missing for two days. He had not come in for bus passes, canned goods, or dish soap.  There were no requests for leftovers from lunch or burned DVDs.  Not once had he stopped by the office for a cup of coffee and a separate cup of sugar and creamer filled to the brim.

Something was definitely wrong.

After reviewing the facts of the situation, or lack thereof, I left the office to further investigate the situation. I envisioned a car accident or beating, he was likely hurt and holed up in his apartment, too weak and injured to come out for help.  It was time to check-in.

I jogged up the creaky stairs and down the hallway, dodging dust bunnies as they rolled across the dusty hardwood floor. Worry and dread propelled me towards Ralph’s apartment door more quickly than my usual leisurely stroll.

I tapped at his door and waited. Hearing no noise from within, I tapped a little louder.  Shave and a haircut, two bits.  I put extra emphasis on the two bits.  Still no response.

“Ralph,” I softly called. “Are you in there?”

Suddenly, the sound of footsteps started up the stairs. My co-worker, Mr. Jay emerged from the stairwell and proceeded towards me and the unanswered door.

“Still not answering?”

I shook my head. He pounded on the plain, white door.  Bang, Bang, Bang, Bang, Bang.   The sound reverberated down the hallway, triggering a sprinkle of plaster chips to fall from the ceiling.  There was no mistaking that someone was at the door.  One might even think it was the police from the aggressive knocking.

knocking

A chair scraped across the floor and someone limped towards the door. My suspicious were about to be confirmed, I grimaced and braced myself for the worst.

“He’s in there all right,” Mr. Jay said with a knowing nod and left to return to the office.

The door knob turned and the door opened a crack. A dark eye peered out, recognizing his visitor, the door opened a little wider.  A sliver of face appeared through the crack.

“I’m sick,” Ralph whispered.

Long fingers wrapped around the edge of the door and a bare shoulder appeared; it was the same smooth brown as his face.

“Are you hurt?” I asked.

“It’s just an old injury,” he said, evasively. “I haven’t been able to walk for the past few days.  Sorry I haven’t been into see you,” he apologized.

“How did this happen? I asked.

He looked off and away, “It’s just an old injury. I’ll be better in a few days.”

“Did someone do this to you? Tell me who did this to you. “

I demanded names. He naturally refused with a sad giggle.

“Could you send Mr. Jay back up here? I need to talk to him about something.”

“Of course,” I agreed, “I will send him right up.”

I left, certain of a break-through in this mysterious case. We would get justice for Ralph.  Whatever crimes had been committed again him would not go unpunished.

“Mr. Jay, Ralph wants to talk to you, man-to-man. I think its something important.”

Mr. Jay stood with a stoic face, already understanding the importance of this request, “I’m on my way.”

He returned no more than eight minutes later. It was enough time to go up the stairs and down the hallway, knock and wait for Ralph to answer the door to reveal a terrible secret and to return.

I met him just inside of the door in the office.

“Well, everything ok?”

There was a lot of buildup to this moment, I felt anxious and excited, ready to spring into action. Some things can only be shared man to man. I respected that space and stepped back to let the mutual sharing take place.

“He asked if we have any extra pizzas,” Mr. Jay said in an irritated voice. “He just wanted pizza.”

And so it goes.

Thanks Vonnegut for providing the only possible phrase to end this short story.

von

Small Talk

fireworks

After any holiday is a good time for small talk. Someone did something somewhere and thus a conversation is born. As an introvert, I take advantage of these times. Like a rabbit in a garden of lettuce, I get while the gettin’ is good.

My hair dresser, who prefers the term “stylist”, always wants to chit-chat while she is washing and snipping away at my hair. I try my best to appease her throughout our sessions but usually fall into a blissful silence. I love having my hair done and don’t have much to say. People aren’t expected to carry a conversation with a surgeon, usually because of the anesthesia, but also to let the expert focus on his/her work.

I take this same approach towards my stylist (I prefer “hairdresser”) who disregards my silence and continues with the chitty-chat. In my best effort at normal human interaction, I had a good question ready for her at my last appointment.

As she was sudsing up my hair, I asked, “So what did you do for the fourth of July weekend?”

Nailed it. She did lots of things, including a trip to her grandma’s house on Lake James.

As she detailed the boat parties, fireworks on the water, live bands and skiing, I remembered the one and only time that I went to Lake James.

It was on the fourth of July, too. I experienced the floating booze parties and water sports, first hand. They hadn’t changed much in over a decade by her descriptions. Boats still congregated in great numbers, dropped anchor, and the boaters hopped into the water to drink beer out of ice filled coolers and to float the day away.

Everyone ends up with a sunburn, dehydration, and varying degrees of a hangover (for those who are of age, of course).

When I was there, it was at a time when people had cell phones but they weren’t “smart” like they are today. People weren’t addicted to them like we are now, myself included. I was lucky enough to have my very own cellular device which was silver with a hot pink, rubber case. There were actual buttons to dial the numbers and a little antenna on the top. As a highly prized piece of advanced technology, I took the best care of that little phone.  I can say with absolute certainty, it was not with me on the boat.

Looking back, I’m not sure how I got the message out on the water, in the middle of a floating booze party that my mom was in the hospital, but I did. The only thing I knew was that there had been a firework explosion and she was involved.

I wanted to tell my hairdresser/stylist that I had been to Lake James on the fourth of July, too. I wanted to share how I always wanted to go back to see the fireworks on the water. I wanted to share with her something real, but then that wouldn’t have been small talk, anymore.