A Narrow Slice of Time: Chapter 8

Aubrey sat on a park bench across from her apartment in the Hickson Towers. Her head was splitting with a headache that she could have called a migraine, but which did not feel exactly like the migraines she had in the past. Her skin itched, and she felt uncomfortable moving her limbs. Her flesh and bones did not feel properly connected at the joints, and her tendons did not pull in exactly the right direction. She felt like a badly strung puppet guided by an inept puppeteer.

Her key had not fit in the lock of her apartment door, and she had been turned away when she rang the buzzer by a bald man wearing a wife beater and a stained pair of boxers. She caught a glimpse of the interior before he slammed the door on her, and it did not resemble her apartment in the least. The furnishings looked like a random collection of discarded furniture scavenged on garbage pick-up days. A football poster was tacked to the wall in the space where she had hung a lovely oil painting of young ballerinas wearing pastel tutus.

She could not remember moving before setting out on her misadventure at GURUTECH, but everything seemed so out of kilter that she could not dismiss that possibility. She searched her purse and found her driver’s license in a wallet hidden in a jumble of cosmetics, candy wrappers and used facial tissues. The photo looked recent, but the name was wrong: Danvers…That damned name just wouldn’t go away.

If memory served, the street address was in Azalea Park, a borderline part of town that she never drove through at night unless she had a male companion. A.P., as the locals called it, was gradually being gentrified by urban pioneers, young couples of limited means who had been tempted into buying dirt cheap property. A couple streets over in Union Park, artists maintained studios and guerilla galleries in an area that had an even higher incidence of drug use and violent crime. The cops would show up if called to the Two Parks, but did not like to venture into Slidertown, a war zone just east beyond Dean Road. Slidertown was a devil’s playground of cinder block hovels and tin-roofed sheds peopled by cracksmack dealers, pimps and whores, stalking perverts and ragmen rummaging through dumpsters. But her license told her that she lived one and a half miles away from Dean Road at 278 Dahlia St., and that her name was Aubrey Danvers.

She thought about calling Bill Plum again, but she was afraid that he would not show up after their altercation two hours ago. She did not have bus tokens in her purse; she did not have enough cash for a taxi; and her credit cards were missing from her wallet. She considered hitching a ride, but dismissed the idea with a shudder. She had watched too many news reports about missing women found naked, mangled and dead in swamps and drainage ditches. Perhaps Bill was the only option.

She pulled out her phone and began scanning her address book. Bill was not listed alphabetically under B or P. How had she called him this morning? Oh, yes. The receptionist at GURUTECH had found him in their database and had punched Bill’s number into Aubrey’s phone. She looked in the phone’s listings under “calls sent” and entered the most recent number that came up on the screen. Bill answered after seven rings. His voice sounded somewhat gravelly as if she had just awakened him.

“Hello…Bill Plum at your ser-service,” he slurred.

“Bill, it’s me—Aubrey. Don’t hang up! Please, just listen to me,” she pleaded.

“What? You again?! What the hell do you want?”

“Bill, I’m sorry about what happened earlier today. I just feel terrible. Can you forgive me?”

“Lady, I’ll forgive you if you leave me the fuck alone. Ya hear that?”

“Oh please, Bill. I’ll make it up to you. I’ll be nice, real nice. I promise.”

“Make it up to me? What are we talking about? Make it up to me…fat chance!”

“You know Bill—make it up to you. Do I have to spell it out?”

“Oh—yer talking about…just what are we talking about? That’s a surprise. Oh. Lemme think.”

There was a long pause. She thought that the line had gone dead but heard a cough as he got ready to speak.

“All right. Where are you? Wait a minute. You have to promise,” Bill said.

“Promise what?” she asked sharply.

“Two things: don’t tell anyone at work; and two…don’t tell anyone…at work…ever and ever,” he said slowly and thickly.

“Just how drunk are you?” she demanded.

“Just drunk enough to drive crazy-crazy home and fu—“

“All right,” she cut in. “Don’t be crude. Drink a cup of coffee and pick me up in front of the Hickson Towers. I’m sitting on a bench in Julia Park.

Bill showed up in his battered junker forty-five minutes later. The car weaved a bit as he approached her, but he seemed relatively alert and steady as they pulled away from the curb. He leaned over suddenly and leered at her when they stopped at a light two blocks down the road, and Aubrey could smell liquor and coffee on his breath. Her ex-husband had beaten her with his fists when he was drunk. She remembered the evil grin that twisted Jeffrey’s features just before he hit her the first time. Somehow it seemed like it had happened again just yesterday. Aubrey shuddered, twisted away from Bill and leaned hard against her car door.

“Say now, lady, Audrey, don’t be like that…you told me that you were going to be nice. And anyway, I just was going ter ask you where you live. I swear. I can be a gentleman,” he said.

“Sorry, Bill. I know that you’re a gentleman. I’m sorry. I just don’t feel well today. The address is 278 Dahlia St. in Azalea Park,” she said.

“Oh, I’ll have to turn around,” Bill said.

Thirty minutes later he pulled up to the curb of a pebble-roofed, cinder block ranch house with a Florida porch and a carport. It was painted a dull shade of gray. Azalea bushes were planted across the front wall of the house and down one side. Crepe myrtle shrubs dotted the front lawn, and orange trees blossomed in the back yard. The residence at the address written on her license had a run down, lived in elegance that she found charming, but she did not remember having seen the place before.

Bill patted her rump as they walked up the drive way to the front door. She was tempted to swat his hand away but remembered her promise to be nice to him. She had made love to him last Sunday. Why did she feel more and more uncomfortable in his presence as she got closer to the front door?

Her key fit the lock, and she walked into the living room. The shades were pulled so she could not see much of the interior, but she could make out a bookshelf, some potted plants and a comfortable looking white sofa. Bill pressed up close behind her, ran his hand over her blouse and massaged her breasts. She resisted the urge to elbow him. His hands began to work their way down her torso and she caught them as they reached her the top edge of her pants. She gave them a friendly squeeze, pulled them away from her body, and turned around to face Bill. She decided that she might as well get on with it, though the thought of having sex with him filled her with dread and a deepening sense of revulsion. She was confused. Bill had never been a very good lover, but she had always found him moderately attractive.

Bill pulled her into a tight embrace and kissed her full on the mouth. The taste almost made Aubrey gag. Her heart hammered, and her legs felt weak. She felt a desperate urge to escape from the entrapment of his arms, to push him away and flee. He did not notice her distress and was busy sliding his hands down her pants to caress her buttocks. She tried to squirm away from him, but that only excited him more. Aubrey’s head began to swim, and she saw pinpricks of light dotting her vision. Bile began to rise in the back of her throat, and she gagged once, then twice.

“What the hell?!” a stranger’s voice boomed from behind her. The voice sounded familiar, but she could not place who it was.

Bill suddenly released her, and she began to slowly sink to the floor. The room seemed to be getting darker and darker, and she realized that she was about to faint. She lay on the floor on her side in a fetal position with her calves folded tightly against her thighs. Small nubs of carpet tickled her cheek. She heard scuffling noises and the dull sound of fists making contact with flesh. She heard Bill cry out in pain, and dimly saw him flee out the front door.

A pair of feet walked over to her slowly. She looked up and saw a tall man towering above her. She felt oddly comforted by his presence, and she wished that he would crouch down beside her and hold her in his arms.

“What the hell, Aubrey? What the hell was that? Where have you been?” the stranger said angrily.

“Please. Don’t yell…help me. I feel sick,” she said.

“Aubrey—are you all right?” The man asked in a gentler tone. He knelt beside her, grasped her shoulders and turned her so that she faced him directly. She felt comfort and rightness flowing through his hands into her body, and the headache, itching and nausea melted away as she stared up at him. He looked familiar to her, and she felt as if she had just seen him recently. The face before her was older and fuller, and the blond mustache was new. But it was familiar. Where had she seen it last?

“Who are you?” she asked timidly.

“What do you mean?” he asked. “Are you hurt? Did that man hit you on the head? How did he get into the house?” he demanded.

“Shush, shush. No more questions, please! Who are you?” Aubrey desperately asked.

“I’m your husband, dammit. What were you doing with that asshole?”

“Husband? I’m not married…who are you? Tell me your name,” she pleaded.

“Danvers. Jeffrey P. Danvers. I am your goddamn husband of twenty years come September!”

“Jeffrey…Jeff? It can’t be…You’re dead…” she moaned.

Women Jumping Out of Cars

Last week I waited to make a left turn into my neighborhood and saw a woman jump out of the shot gun seat of a car idling at a red light.  She looked as if someone had goosed her.  The driver made no effort to call her back though she stood on a nearby curb and stared intently at him.  She bounced on her toes as if waiting for him to make a move.  She began to walk away after a minute passed, and then he finally turned the car in her direction.  Negotiations had begun.

I saw a more vivid version of this story a few years earlier.  I heard yelling inside a car beside me on Semoran Boulevard.  We were stopped at a red light.  The front passenger door flew open.  A twenty year old woman slammed it shut and stomped away.  She veered behind the car, stepped onto the median and quickly put distance between her and the car’s driver.  He leaned out the window and called, “Hey, baby!  Come back!”  She ignored him and kept going.  Then he began to cuss her out in Spanish, shook his fist at her, and hit the horn once.  She kept going.  When the light turned green he made a u-turn and slowly headed in her direction.  He looked grim as if he expected no success in retrieving her.

Twenty years ago I heard yelling up the street from my house.  It was 1 a.m., so I peeked out my front door and saw a woman staggering across a lawn at the neighbor’s across the street.  Two or three men were inside a car idling at the curb, and one ordered the woman to get back in the car.  She screamed at him.  Her speech slurred, but I believe she told him to go to hell.  She knocked on my neighbor’s door–no one answered.  The man in the car yelled again, this time with greater violence.  I stepped outside and headed toward the woman.  When the men saw me they realized that a witness had arrived, and they sped away.

The woman spotted me and staggered to where I stood at the bottom of my driveway.  She asked if she could use my phone.  I let her inside and pointed to our land line.  I asked her if she wanted some coffee to help her sober up.  She glared and said, “I’m not drunk!  My boyfriend hit me!”

I retreated to the kitchen to get her some ice, and while I was gone my wife woke up.  Judy came out to the living room half awake.  She found a strange woman with crazy hair talking on our phone.  The lady’s outfit, cut offs and a sweaty tube top, gave her a street look.  I took Judy aside before she could make unfortunate assumptions and explained the situation.  The woman put a hand over the mouth piece and asked, “Where am I?”  I told her, and then she gave instructions to the person on the line:  “Pick me up at the 7/11 at Forsyth and Aloma.”

She hung up, and I offered her a ride to the convenience store.  She refused and headed out the door.  I followed after her and watched her walk up Bougainvillea Dr.  I worried that her tormentors might return.  A police car turned the corner and stopped next to her.  She waved her arms, shook her head and refused to get in the cruiser.  They let her go shortly after, and she strode away with firm, determined steps.  She turned the corner and disappeared, and the cops drove on.

Fifty years ago my mother stepped out of a car after an argument with my father.  We were stopped at a light about three miles from home.  We three kids huddled together in the back seat and wished that the nightmare would end soon.  My father drove off, and Mom’s figure grew smaller and smaller in the rear window.  I felt an odd sensation that I was the one left behind.  Two hours later Mom opened the front door to our house, came inside, and hung up her coat in the hall closet.  We all pretended that nothing had happened.

Fast Food Work is Fun: Part IV–Mistake Buddies

Tim was the manager of the restaurant where I worked.  He was a former coworker at Burger King with Jerry, the man who owned the rights to the Godfather’s franchise in the Dayton area.  Jerry did most of the hiring when a new store opened to ensure a good launch, but the individual managers made the personnel decisions once an operation ran for a while.

Tim was a lean man, a bow hunter who stalked deer, and a mean  drunk who looked for a reason, any reason, to start a fight.  He liked to hire dishwater blondes with big chests for the service counter out front, and good old boys who appeared to be none too bright for the kitchen.  He seemed uneasy around the summer job college kids originally hired by Jerry, and acted as if they were lying in wait to challenge his authority.

Dave was one of Tim’s picks for the kitchen.  He was lazy and sneaky and delighted in finding ways to get out of work.  He put a lot of thought and effort into doing next to nothing.  He hid equipment he was supposed to clean, and stacked dishes in  perfectly balanced, 2 foot high columns beneath lovingly fluffed up layers of soap suds.  Inevitably we would need the cheese grater or platters about fifteen minutes after he clocked out, and would find the former hidden behind boxes of cheese and pepperoni in the walk in cooler, and the latter concealed beneath a thick foam of bubbles in the dishing sink.

Dave had no clue about what it took to serve and prepare food safely in a restaurant.  He once dumped a glass full of ice cubes from his cup of soda in my dish washing rinse water, and when I objected he told me that it was all right because he didn’t have a cold.  He was accident prone away from work and often came in with bandages on his hands and arms.  A pizza was returned one night when a customer found a band aid in the toppings, and Dave was permanently assigned to dishwashing after that.

When complaints were made about Dave by his fellow workers he was protected by Tim, who defended him by telling us that Dave “worked hard and was a good guy.”  Jim, our night manager, told us that Dave was Tim’s drinking buddy and that we would have to put up with him until something flagrant happened.

Tim’s big mistake was having an affair with a buxom service counter girl with a big head of frizzy blond hair.  When his wife found out she banished him from their house, and he camped out in the restaurant’s office.  (I was surprised that she let him escape alive:  she was a strong, independent woman who could dress a deer with a hunting knife.  She showed me the blade one time at a company party, and it was nine inches long and very sharp.) His troubles were compounded by his illiteracy. He depended on his wife to write notices for the bulletin board, do the nightly books and figure out the payroll.

Dave’s ongoing mistake was in coming to work intoxicated.  He usually chose a Friday night, when we had the biggest load of work, to drink whiskey from a bottle hidden in his El Camino and pop Quaaludes.  He started bumping into people fifteen minutes into a shift,  and gradually became immobile while the rest of the kitchen crew moved at a break neck speed to keep up with orders.  If I spoke to him and tried to get him to do some work,  he would stare ahead with a blank look on his face and slur a few unintelligible words.  One night when he was reasonably sober Megan told him in jest that he was doing the wrong drug, that he should take some speed instead.  The next Friday he came in so wired that he couldn’t stand still in one place long enough to actually finish a job.

Tim eventually managed to reconcile with his wife by dumping the blonde and begging for forgiveness.  After he was allowed to return home he changed his personnel policy and began to hire brunettes with more average figures. At about the same time Tim gave Dave a warning that he would be fired if he came in high once more.  Perhaps in the fever of his reform Tim was led to evangelize the gospel of responsibility to others.  Or maybe his wife told Tim to lose some of his drinking buddies and sober up.

A few weeks later Dave wobbled in through the doors of the kitchen and tried to wash dishes.  He kept dropping platters and glasses, and while he didn’t manage to break anything he couldn’t seem to get a single thing clean.  He staggered and bounced off the walls as he walked down a narrow hallway between the coolers and the employee restroom, and had to lean against a wall to keep from falling over.  Jim came into the kitchen and immediately noticed Dave’s condition, who by this point was staring off into space with glazed eyes.  He had a mindless grin on his face as if he had just heard a joke that he couldn’t understand, and didn’t respond when Jim asked him a question. Jim didn’t have the authority to fire him on the spot, so he got Kenny to help him walk Dave out of the kitchen, through the dining room and down a hall to the manager’s office. Jim called Tim and spent the interlude waiting for him to arrive holding Dave upright.

When Tim showed up Dave had sobered enough to realize that he was in trouble.  Tim asked his buddy why he had come in drunk again when he knew that he was on the verge of being fired.  Dave didn’t really understand the question and could barely speak, but did manage to verbally slush, “I’m not drunk.  I’m not high,” just before he slumped to the floor.  When he managed to stand up again he repeated his mantra, “I’m not drunk.  I’m not high,” until Jim shushed him.

There was no forgiveness for Dave.  He was fired, but probably didn’t realize that he was unemployed until the next day.  I’m not sure how he got home, but I vaguely remember that Tim gave him a lift.

I never knew what became of Dave and Tim, but I like to imagine that they are still friends and get together for a snort or two when Tim’s wife isn’t looking, that they haven’t gotten into a deadly fight over a top heavy blonde with a big head of hair, and that they go deer hunting together in the fall.  When they kill a buck Dave volunteers to gut and carry it back to the pick up truck, but when Tim goes off into the bushes to take a piss, Dave hides the knives and sneaks away after slicing himself a choice cut of venison.

Fast Food Work is Fun: Part II–Christmas Party

In 1981 some friends and I rented a house in a neighborhood known as Slidertown near the southern edge of downtown Dayton.  We were a group of artists and students from the University of Dayton, and used the building as a collective studio.

That year I worked full time at Godfather’s Pizza to save up for a return to school to finish my B.F.A.  I decided to throw a party for my coworkers while the studio artists were away on Christmas vacation.  I tidied up the main room, hung some garland, made a huge pot of barbecue using my Mom’s recipe, set up a record player and bought a six pack of cheap beer.

Folks arrived in twos and threes and brought snack food, wine, beer and booze.  There was a keg outside of dubious origin that may have been lifted from the restaurant’s premises.  The party was subdued for the first hour or so, but picked up as more alcohol was consumed and inhibitions began to fall away.

I stepped outside to get away from the noise and burgeoning chaos and talked to a day manager and Debbie, a night shift manager from another store.  Snow was falling lightly in big, puffy flakes and started to accumulate.  Street lights sparkled on the surface of the snow and on the ice in the bare branched trees along the street, and the night became hushed and still.  We heard a jingling sound and muffled clop-clops, and when we turned to look up the street we saw a man wearing a buckskin coat and cowboy hat riding a large white mare.  The horse had a belled blanket on its back.  The man dismounted, tied his horse to a post in a bent chain link fence and helped himself to some beer.

I never learned the cowboy’s identity and never found out why he was riding a horse on Brown Street–the nearest stable was at least 10 miles away–as I was nominated to drive Billy home.  Billy was the son of a friend of the restaurant owner.  He had the eyes and lips of a young girl, seemed very thoughtful but was a little mentally slow.  He appeared to be sensitive, and while he could do the work at the store he often seemed on the verge of tears.  Now he was on the verge of passing out, and I had to help him into my Pinto station wagon.  He lived in Centerville, a wealthy suburb on the far south side, and I had to stop for gas.  Billy began to dry heave when I pulled up to the pump, and I ordered him to open his window and hang his head outside my car.  I was flustered as I filled my tank, and discovered the next day that I had forgotten to put the gas cap back on.

We made it a few miles down the road when Billy threw up on the side of the car. He was rendered speechless for another mile, but was able to give me slurred directions when we got nearer to his home and he began to recognize familiar landmarks. We eventually made it to his neighborhood.  The houses were mini-mansions set far back from the road amidst stands of maple and oak trees.  Billy got out of the car when I slowed to a stop as I tried to decipher his final directions, and he started to stagger through shallow drifts of snow beneath the trees.  I called out to him to try to get him back into the car, but he waved and shouted something unintelligible to me as he stumbled up a driveway that may have belonged to his father.  I waited to see if he got inside as I feared that he might freeze to death in the cold, but he waved me off as he pounded on the front door.

When I returned to the party three fourths of the booze, beer and wine was gone, nearly all the food had been eaten, and folks were scattered all over the house in small clusters.  I could smell spilled beer and pot and the delicate aroma of boozy vomit.  Dee sat in the upstairs hallway holding her stomach and moaning.  She told me that she was in a lot of pain and that she had drunk too much.  I offered to take her to a hospital, but she refused.  She was afraid that her abusive husband would find out that she had gotten sick on Jack Daniels again.  Megan, a dark haired beauty too young to be drinking anything stronger than root beer, told me again and again as she struggled to remain standing that Dee was all right.  Buford was lying on his back a few doors down, and he gurgled to me with a smile on his face when I checked up on him.  Downstairs someone cranked up Molly Hatchet on the stereo, and it was nearly loud enough to drown out the sound of a crash.  I ran downstairs and found an overturned trash can on the floor in the main room.  Beer cans, bottles, paper plates and plastic cups were spilled out in a nasty jumble, and there was broken glass nearby.  A couple rolled around on a sofa a few feet away, and the throes of their passion may have caused one of them to kick over the can.

I retreated outside again, lit a cigar and stared at the stars, and pondered my folly.  The snow stopped and the temperature dropped down to near zero, and the chill did wonders to clear my head and force me to reconsider nearly all my choices in life.

Around 2:00 I went back inside and told everyone to leave.  They staggered out in twos and threes, Dee among them having recovered as predicted by the raven haired Megan, and they wobbled and wavered their separate ways.  I got up at noon the next day and started to gather trash and sweep up party debris inside the house and out in the yard.  (Nothing calls the spirit of the holidays to mind like the sight of a crushed beer can next to a pile of cigarette butts in the snow.)

When I went back to work the next day Buford shook my hand and thanked me for throwing the best party ever.

Fast Food Work is Fun: Part I–Kenny

I worked with Kenny at a Godfather’s Pizza in Dayton, Ohio for two years in the early 1980s.  He had sad eyes and an air of dignity and stoic resignation, and went about his business without any hint of complaint.  He was about 20 when we met, was single and still lived with his mother.  He was her only means of support.  Mom had some sort of chronic illness that no one, least of all Kenny, wanted to talk about.

Most men with these handicaps would end up living, willingly or not, a life of celibacy.  Kenny, however, seemed to be able to use his disadvantages to his advantage when it came to bedding the women who worked at Godfather’s.  Perhaps his ability to carry his aura of personal tragedy with steadfast calm and easy grace brought out a feminine urge to provide comfort. Kenny also had the ability to be rather matter of fact about sex, and his straight forward approach disarmed a few of his eventual conquests.  He teased one girl by popping open her bra at inopportune times.  He would come up behind her, lightly tap the buckle through the uniform shirt on her back, and send her scurrying for a dark corner where she refastened the strap to recapture her flopping breasts.  She never got upset with him, but would laugh and say, “Oh, Kenny!”

A report to the men in kitchen about his recent activities wasn’t a boast.  It was a factual critique of a woman’s performance in bed.  He told us that one young lady, a promiscuous pizza maker who had used her sexual allure to toy with several of her male coworkers, had a vagina that was as dry and scratchy as sandpaper.  The one night he had spent with her was more than enough for him.

I liked Kenny for his easy manner and his dry humor, and respected him as a worker.  Our heaviest rushes filled the dining room to capacity, and the order tickets stacked up until we were twenty plus pizzas behind.  Kenny was one who could be trusted to pick up his speed, stay calm and help anyone who got overwhelmed by the load.  You could count on him in the heat of battle.

One day Kenny, Buford and Roy, coworkers and confidantes at Godfather’s, came up to me at the beginning of a shift.  Roy was the talker in that crowd, and he smiled at me as he told me this “funny” story:

We had one helluva time last Saturday night.  We was in this 7-11 picking up six packs and smokes when this lady comes up to us and asks us for a beer.  We drank a few in the parking lot, and she’s already far gone, and she asks us to drive her home.  She’s laughing and carrying on in the car, and suddenly she grabs Buford and shoves her tongue down his throat.  We all knew where this was heading, and when we pulled up to her house she invited us in. 

She drops her coat on the floor in her living room and starts kissing Kenny, and then she tells us that she wants to fuck us one after the other. She drags Kenny into her bedroom and they’re going at it.  (She’s a girl who makes a lot of noise). Buford and I stayed in the hall, but she left the door open so we could see what was happening.  Next thing you know this little kid comes rushing out of the other bedroom.  He’s screaming and hollering at us.  Mama just laughs like it’s nothing and Kenny finishes his business with her. 

Buford goes next, and I volunteer to hold onto the kid, who starts swearing and crying and he’s ordering Buford to get off his Mama.  The brat gets away from me, bites me on the hand, and runs into the bedroom and attacks Buford.  You should have seen the look on Buford’s face when that kid jumped on his back and started to pound on him.  Buford looks over his shoulder at me kind of confused–he wants to keep going and he wants to knock the kid off.  If he gets rough with the kid the lady might take offense.  What should he do?   I start laughing until my sides hurt and there’s tears in my eyes.  Buford’s on top of this woman, and her kid is whaling away at him, and he’s stuck in between.  Finally I decide to give Buford a break and I tear the kid off and lock him in his bedroom. 

I take my turn, and the lady’s still drunk and happy.  I have trouble concentrating because I can hear the kid  hollering for his Mama through the wall. He starts swearing again, but now he’s using curse words that a four or five year old shouldn’t even know, and it sounds so funny coming out of a little kid’s mouth that I start laughing.  Let me tell you that It’s hard to laugh and screw at the same time, but I manage somehow.  The lady is half asleep by the time I’m through, and doesn’t seem to notice when I climb off of her and zip up my fly.

The kid has gone quiet, and we figure that he fell asleep banging on his door.  We open it and he jumps out and tries to kick Buford.  Buford holds him off with one hand on his forehead, and the kid gives up and runs to his Mama.  She’s still sprawled all over the bed, drunk out of her mind, and he starts shaking her to try to wake her up.  We leave a few more beers on her kitchen table as a thank you, grab our coats and leave.

How about that for a funny story?

Roy, Buford and Kenny grinned and waited for me to laugh and congratulate them for their good fortune.  I didn’t know what to say, but  thought that they had done irreparable damage to that kid, that psychopaths were made this way.

Kenny, “sensitive” man that he was, looked away when he saw the stunned look on my face.  He appeared to realize that I didn’t find their story amusing, but didn’t fully understand my reaction.  I discovered this a few months later when Dee, the night shift manager, told me that Kenny thought that I was being unfriendly to him and his buddies.  I never went out drinking with them after work, or hung around shooting the shit in the parking lot any more.  Her tone of voice told me that she thought that I was a snob.  I didn’t defend myself.  She had cheated with Kenny on her abusive husband, and I doubted whether she would give much credit to my reasons for keeping my distance.

I gave my two weeks notice a month or so later.  When Kenny heard that I was leaving he looked up from the pizza he was cutting and told me that the place would go to hell once I was gone.  I was flattered,  pleased that he had noticed how much hard work I had put into the job. He and I were fast food warriors, comrades in arms who had survived many a supper time rush, many an insult from customers who assumed that we all were a bunch of morons, and more than a few encounters with a mean spirited manager intent on firing the next fool who crossed his path.  And I realized that at some level, against all odds and my better judgment, I still respected him and wanted to have his good opinion.

Trouble in Paradise

Many remember the good times in a relationship, the wonderful moments when two people make a connection and feel less lonely, the intoxication when love and desire begin to undermine reason, the comradeship of finding someone with whom you can share thoughts, feelings and ideas. I remember many of the these initial rush-of-love moments, but since they occurred more than thirty years ago they’ve lost some of their vibrancy.

But I can clearly recall those moments when a relationship suddenly and unexpectedly imploded, and I’ve never been able to forget the slow burn-outs when a love affair took much too long to turn to ash and blow away. A sudden rejection turned out to be a more merciful way of ending things, much more preferable to a prolonged period of being bound to someone whom you no longer really love and who you know doesn’t love you.

I ended two or three relationships, usually in an indirect manner. I would call less frequently or propose fewer dates when I began to feel the energy and good will between me and a lover begin to die. At other times I was on the receiving end of an abrupt dismissal, or was left dangling for a long time until the obvious conclusion occurred to me that I had been dumped. What went around came around, but I recall feeling devastated and unfairly treated when I was the one who was cast away. I suffered from the doubt that I was unworthy of being loved, and sometimes took three or four months to patch my tattered ego back together after a rejection. I seldom took into account that my actions might affect others in the same way.

The most devastating dump happened to me when I was a freshman at the University of Dayton. I met a girl named Madonna at a mixer for incoming scholarship recipients. She had short, blond hair, brown eyes, and was very intelligent. I noticed her when I walked into the room, but she made the initial approach and she peppered me with questions. We didn’t exchange telephone numbers, but I assumed we would meet again as we were both enrolled in chemistry and biology classes. I saw her a few days later. She was wandering around erratically on the lawn of the Roesch Library while squinting down at the ground. I was intrigued by her eccentric behavior, and when I asked her what she was doing she told me that she was studying grasshoppers. We began talking once more, and I eventually asked her out. She told me in a vague, offhand way that she had a boyfriend named Bob at Kent State, but didn’t hesitate to accept my offer.

We both were commuter students and lived at home with our parents. When I arrived at her address off of North Main for our first date she served me a beer in a frosted mug and asked if I smoked. I thought she meant tobacco (I was very green), but was brought up to speed when she pulled a joint out of a small, tin box. We smoked it and then drove to a theater showing avant garde animated movies. The weed, the surreal cartoons and the intoxication of her company made the evening float by like an odd but enjoyable dream.

I remained in a state of enchantment for about two months. I fell madly in love with her and forgot that Kent State Bob existed. Madonna was a playful lover, a good companion and a person who appeared to have a strong sense of morality. She had attended Chaminade-Julienne, a Catholic high school in downtown Dayton, took her Catholicism much more seriously than I did, and was concerned about my lack of faith. Of course spiritual matters weren’t a matter of pressing concern when we were rolling around on a sofa in her parents’ rec room, or steaming up the windows of her car.

We decided to go to the homecoming dance, and I made reservations at an Italian restaurant near her home. I could tell that something was wrong when I arrived to pick her up. She wasn’t hostile, but she didn’t smile at me or look me in the eye. She and her Mom fussed with her dress for several minutes, and then we drove in silence to Antonio’s. She spent the meal pushing her meatballs around her plate and spoke to me with difficulty. The easy flow of conversation that we usually shared had dried up, and I wondered what I had done. She waited until I paid the bill and we were sitting in my car in the restaurant parking lot to unburden herself.

She told me that her conscience was bothering her about cheating on Kent State Bob, and that she would have to find some way to choose between him and me. I understood, though nothing was said directly to me, that Bob was unaware that I was his rival. She then suggested that I take her home as she had ruined the evening. I felt sorry for her when she began to cry and tried to jolly her into a better mood. I talked her into going to the dance.

Madonna began to drink heavily almost as soon as we arrived. She mixed beer, wine and booze, and started to look ill after we had been there for about an hour. I drove her home. She told me as we sat parked in her parents’ driveway that she was going to be sick, but wanted me to come inside anyway. I held her hair back as she vomited into her bathroom sink, and then helped her get into bed. I believe that I lovingly tucked her in.

The next two months gradually became more and more hellish for me. I could tell that her affections were washing away from me, but nothing I did stemmed the outflow of the tide. As I grew more desperate to hold onto her my jumpy and sometimes irritable behavior did nothing to support my cause. I couldn’t stand the feeling that everything I did and said had a bearing on her decision, and felt angry that Kent State Bob wasn’t suffering through similar trials. The contest was unfair.

One day she told me out of the blue that I was like a pretty dress. That sounded insulting and I asked her what she meant. She explained that I was like a pretty dress in store window that she wanted to buy, but found the price too costly. She thought that one day the rough spots in my character would smooth out, but she couldn’t be sure. I was an attractive bet, but too risky. When she told me this she acted as if she were doing me a kindness.

I should have gathered up what was left of my dignity and walked away at that moment. She was telling me in her oblique way that it was over. It didn’t occur to me that I could have told her that she was like a fickle princess in a fairy tale who dangled her affection before her suitors like a prize that had to be won. Instead I hung on.

I dreaded the break up call that I knew was coming, and wasn’t surprised when she finally got up her nerve and dialed my number. But I was devastated nonetheless. Nothing prepared me for the hollow feeling in my chest that suddenly appeared when she hung up. My heart was gone and was replaced by an amorphous blob of numbness. At times the numbness gave way to a strange, throbbing sensation that was quite painful. I’ve experienced worse moments since then, of course, but at the age of 18 it was impossible for me to know that the loss I felt was not all that great. I had to learn to judge the scale of events by going through much harsher times.

No other break up ever affected me as strongly, and I guess I could thank her for that. She toughened me up. I could also thank her for teaching me to stick up for myself in a relationship, and that mutual respect is the ground of anything worthwhile that can be shared by two people. And I could thank her for teaching me to never test the love of those closest to me. But I don’t really want to.