Copyright 2002 by Marc Robinson
She was on first base. It was late afternoon, and the sun was low. There was a lot of wind, and her hair floated out to the side and the sun shone through from behind. Her hair was like a flag. With the sun behind her, I couldn't see her face until she ran to second. Then I had to watch her, even if somebody saw me.
The heat was still up because of the humidity. It would be smarter to have the company picnic some other month than August, and some place except that park by the river, where it's always five degrees hotter than town. Everybody was red-faced, and their clothes were splotched and wrinkled. Except hers. She was crisp.
I was sitting at a table under one of the trees and drinking beer with the other guys from shipping and warehousing, the ones who weren't in the softball game. I noticed Duncan watching her, too, so I asked him who she was. He said she was new and she worked in manufacturing. Her name was Carmen. She had one of those Spanish or Gypsy names, but her hair was light brown and her skin was light, so she didn't match the name. It was mysterious, and I started making up stories about her to myself.
After the game I didn't see her anywhere, so she must have gone home. Then it started getting dark, and finally there were about half a dozen of us left at one table. I kept on drinking beer. I must have had about eight by the time Debbie showed up to drive me home. Debbie's my wife. She was late. She always is.
All the way home I had to listen to her talking about the great bargains she got that day. Sometimes I can just let the noise float by, but this time it didn't work. She was bugging me. She can never come right out and say anything simple. She has to back up and change something she already said, or jump ahead of herself. Sometime I don't know whether she's talking about the furniture, or our kid, she changes the subject so much.
After she finished going on about what she bought, she told me about her mother and what a great visit they had on Wednesday. She yammered on about that for a while, telling me everything she already told me three days ago all over again. The only way I kept from yelling at her was not to say anything at all. She never notices when I shut up. If I do say something, it's about the rpm's her jaw is running or some other remark and she gets her feelings hurt and I have to apologize and we have to talk things over till she thinks I didn't mean it. That's the way it always is. Better not to waste my breath in the first place and save the air I have to use apologizing.
When we got home I looked around the house. Sometimes I notice things more when I'm drunk. One whole side of the living room was taken up by one of those big modular couches with the little square stools. There was a fishnet on the ceiling, and velvet paintings on every wall, and Oriental rugs on top of the wall-to-wall carpet. There was barely room to move.
I would have walked down to the corner and had a few more and watched the game, but the bar is closed on Sunday, so I went to the garage and pretended to work on the car. Everything in the garage is exactly the way I want. It's my place, and I don't let Debbie touch anything. I built racks on the wall with spaces exactly the right size for every wrench, and they hang there in a straight line. Same for screwdrivers and pliers. Even the trays for the sockets have a place, and I can put them in a toolbox or hang them on the wall. I spent the evening lying under the car just running my hands over the parts. I've got that car tuned till it runs like a sewing machine. I lost track of the time, and Debbie and the kids were both asleep when I came back to the house.
Monday night I got home late because I had to work overtime, but that was okay because we needed the money. If Debbie'd go get a job, it would be different. She'd appreciate money more. It wouldn't fly away from her so much.
The minute I got in the door it was an instant replay of yesterday. She went back to the same sale and bought more damn useless crap, and she had to drag it all out and show me. I couldn't take it any more. When she showed me the toilet seat covers I started yelling. She cried and whined about trying to make a nice home for us. Her idea of nice isn't the same as mine. Besides, how did she expect to keep the house if we were always in debt? What if the bank took the place back because I couldn't make the payments? We could never get another one. The bill collectors already tried to garnish my paycheck once.
We went back and forth like that for a while, me yelling and her crying, and then the kid woke up and pitched in yelling and crying, too. That was too much, and I went up to the corner and got drunk. I sat there for about four hours trying to stand a nickel on its edge because the TV behind the bar was broken and there was nothing to watch.
The kid was asleep again when I got home, and Debbie was reading the Soap Opera Digest. She was always reading that, or something about Elvis, 2 years since he died, you think she'd be over it by now. She cringed when I looked at her, like she thought I was going to hit her. She knew I won't, because I never have. But when she looks like that I want to, just to give her some reason. If she'd just argue back and tell me I'm a bastard, or even agree with me and say she'll do better. Anything but that damn snivelling. Then she mopes around with her face all swollen and her eyes red, and the minute she gets the nerve, she goes out and buys more garbage to make herself feel better and hides the stuff and I find out when the bills come. What am I supposed to do? Divorce her? We're Catholic. I couldn't afford the divorce anyway. I'm stuck.
I finally closed the joint account and opened separate ones. I gave her what she needed for the house and used the rest to catch up on the different payments we had to make. I cancelled the credit cards, too. That really got through to her and made her see we had a serious problem, and she stopped wasting money.
I stopped drinking then. I'd still go up to the corner, but not so much, and I'd shoot pool and nurse a couple of beers instead of erasing my brain. I started to spend more time at home and I had a chance to enjoy my kid. He was growing, and trying to walk and talk. I was real proud of him. He has curly white hair and dark skin from being outside every day. When we take him places, people stop us and say how beautiful he is, and they always guess his age wrong because he's so big.
It was too good to last. We found out the kid had weird bones in his legs. We thought he fell down all the time because he was clumsy or just too big, but he hurt himself once and we had to take him to the doctor. The doctor saw the bruises and thought we were slapping him around till we convinced him we weren't, and then he sent us to a specialist.
The specialist said the kid needed a brace for his legs. Weirdest thing you ever saw, a metal hoop attaching one foot to the other and keeping them way apart. He looked like a rocking horse with it on.
I was worried about the doctor bills. The medical plan at work is lousy, and I still had debts to pay off. Where was the money going to come from? My boss Carl was sympathetic, but he couldn't give me a raise until my yearly review, and that was nine months away. I started moonlighting.
I was never so tired in my life. I spent every day driving the truck around and loading trailers on the dock, and then driving a cab at night. I'd go straight from work to the cab company and drive till midnight. Then I'd go home and crash and get up at 6:30 and start all over again. My muscles felt like a collection of spare parts. Sometimes I ate in the cab, and sometimes I didn't eat at all. Once I fell asleep in the shower and leaned on the faucet and woke up when the water burned me. Weekends I'd try to catch up on sleep. Debbie couldn't get a job because none of the day care places would take a kid with a hoop on his legs, and a babysitter was too expensive.
Things were tough like that for a month, and then somebody told me Mr. Nielsen, the president of the company, wanted to see me. A lot of stuff had been disappearing from the warehouse, and when they told me to see Mr. Nielsen, I thought they thought I was the thief. I would have told them to put their job in a dark place and follow it in, except I had to have the money. So I went. I had to wait about fifteen minutes, and I was sweating blood by the time he buzzed the secretary and told her to let me in.
His office was really something. The walls went clear up to the ceiling, instead of being partitions, and the floor was wood and there were a couple of trees in pots, and all the furniture was that expensive Swedish stuff made out of leather and chrome. There I was in my work shirt and steel-toed shoes. I kept looking out the window, expecting police to drive up. It was like when Sister Mary Alice sent me to the principal's office in grade school for drawing pictures in my Baltimore Catechism. I didn't know what was going to happen, but I knew I wouldn't like it.
Mr. Nielsen got up and came around the desk to shake my hand and show me a chair. When we were sitting down, he told me they'd caught Carl, my boss, stealing from the warehouse the night before. Mr. Nielsen went on talking for a minute, but I was so relieved I didn't hear the rest of what he said. He asked me some kind of question I didn't understand. Like a dummy I said "hunh?" He smiled and asked if I wanted Carl's job.
Hell yes. I was tired of lifting boxes and driving a truck. Besides, it was time I got promoted. I went to work there right out of high school, ten years ago, and I was beginning to think I'd retire in the same damn job I started off in. The only reason I wasn't looking for a different job was because the economy was so bad there wasn't any point in trying. There weren't any jobs for a guy with a high-school education.
Mr. Nielsen gave me a hundred-dollar-a-week raise and said I'd get a review in six months and maybe another raise. I said thanks, he was real generous. We shook hands again and he told me to go to it, and if I had any problems to let him know.
Carl's desk was already cleaned out. I went in and sat in the chair. I opened and shut the drawers. There were filing cabinets, and a coffee pot, and a door I could close, and a window. I picked up the phone - my own phone, with an outside line - and called Debbie and told her the news. She was ecstatic.
After that I called the cab company and told them I wasn't coming back. What a relief. Then I went out on the dock and told the other guys. They were nice about it, but I could tell things were different already. It made me kind of sad. I could feel the fences go up when I told them the news. We stood there and joked around for a while. They kidded me about joining the country-club set. Then I went back inside and started going through the records.
Nothing was filed where I expected. The books had scraps of paper sticking out of them. There were stacks of orders in Carl's handwriting. I never could read anything he wrote. I stayed late trying to figure out what needed to be shipped, and I worked all next day at the same thing. I couldn't figure it out. Carl kept everything in his head, and he didn't bother organizing the paperwork.
A week later I was chin deep in shit and sinking fast. Customers were calling up and complaining they hadn't gotten what they ordered. Word got back to Mr. Nielsen and he paid me a visit, to find out what was wrong. I showed him what a mess the books were in and told him I needed a helper. There was a lot of other stuff to do, too, and I didn't have time to straighten out the books by myself.
The next morning there was a second desk in my office, and Carmen was sitting there.
I'd forgotten about her. She worked next door, in the other building, and I hadn't seen her since the picnic. But I recognized her right off. She still had enough of that long, heavy, brown hair that curled under her chin for any two other women. When she stood up, she was taller than I remembered, almost as tall as me. Her eyes looked like pinwheels because they both had a wedge of darker blue at the bottom of the colored part. Her smile knocked me out. It was like fireworks, and her teeth were perfect. Debbie's are sort of snaggled.
After we shook hands we got right to work. I was sitting at my desk showing her the books, and she was sitting next to me with her knees almost against mine. Sometimes when one of us moved, our legs would brush, but I guess she didn't notice. I kept getting distracted by her perfume, which was so faint I could hardly smell it. I had to listen hard to catch it, sort of, and it distracted me. I liked that perfume and I wanted to compliment her about it, but I thought she might think I was coming on, so I didn't. After a while I stopped noticing.
In the afternoon I had to go out on the floor because of a problem with some ledger cards. The guys ran out of space and stored some stuff in the aisles for a while, and now we had to figure out where everything was and where to shuffle it all. I had to work on that the next morning, too.
When I got back to the office that afternoon Carmen showed me what she figured out. Old Carl had a sort of crazy system after all. He was doing things like alphabetizing by the first name of the person who ordered, instead of the company they worked for.
We still needed to find some unfilled orders, so we took all the files and started going through them one by one. In the meantime we had them on the desk and floor. They were lying around under foot for weeks, and we had some good laughs about the confusion. But Carmen knew where everything was, and whenever I couldn't find what I needed, all I had to do was ask her and she could put her hand on the right folder. We spent a lot of overtime the next few weeks, working on those files.
She was a great worker, and great to work with. All day every day she kept busy. Even when I came in early, she was usually already there. She didn't talk much. She tried to do the job, and do it right, and she did, but she didn't let that get in the way of being nice to people. She always had a smile for anybody who came in the office. She dressed well, too, but not in those weird outfits that show more about how you spent a lot to be in the right clothes than they do about how good your taste is. She was real sensible and sweet. She was right out of college, but she wasn't stuck up. She never said anything about having more education than me. She never made me feel bad because she had a degree and I didn't and she was working for me instead of the other way around. I mean, the next world war could have been starting and she would have told everybody it had been nice knowing them, and she'd miss them. She was like that.
The guys used to come in from the dock to talk to her, but she would never tell them she didn't have time. She'd sit there while they talked, and nod her head and smile, and keep right on with whatever she was doing. Once in a while she'd say something polite, but she'd go on working. Duncan was the worst about pestering her. I had to shoo him off her so many times I finally put up a sign on the door that said If You Don't Have Anything To Do, Do It Somewhere Else. He got the idea then.
Her car was old and broke down a lot, and some nights when we worked late and she didn't have wheels I'd give her a ride home. She talked in the car a lot more than she did at work. The things she said were amazing. Like the way she described the shape of a cloud so I thought I'd never really seen one. She noticed the sunset reflected in a glass building. Or she would make some funny comment, like the time I had to slam on the brakes and go into a skid to miss another car, and a block later when a funny-looking fat-and-skinny couple was a shopping cart full of aluminum cans crossed in front of us she said, "First the drama, then the comedy". She said a lot of things like that. Smart things.
She lived in an apartment over a garage behind a big old house. It was quiet back there, with trees and a big yard and a garden. I wanted to come up and see what the place was like, but I didn't ask. I couldn't think of any excuse.
About the third or fourth time I dropped her off, I got the idea to see if I could fix her car. The sun was down, so I pushed the car in the garage and turned on the light and lifted the hood and had her try to start the engine. I looked at different things, and then I checked the carburetor. She wasn't getting any gas because her electric fuel pump wasn't working. The wiring was flaky. I put a hot wire on the pump and that solved the problem. I told her I'd bring her a wire with alligator clips on the ends tomorrow, that would stay put better than the wire we were using.
She drove around the block to try it out. When she came back she thanked me. She said there was none of the hesitation she'd been getting when the car would even run at all. I asked if I could come up and wash my hands, and she said okay. I couldn't get my hands very clean because she didn't have any hand cleaner, only soap, but I washed up and then I cleaned the sink and dried my hands. She wasn't around, so I went in the next room. It was full of books, more books than I'd ever seen except in a library. She had shelves made of boards and bricks against every wall, and every shelf was full. The top half of one wall was windows with diamond-shaped panes, and the ceiling had wood beams in it. The only other thing in the room was a butcher block table. She was sitting at the end, reading.
I asked if she minded if I looked at her books, and she said no, go ahead. She had a lot of poetry, and a lot of what I guess was philosophy, and a lot of art books. Some of the books were in foreign languages. The room was completely silent except when she turned a page. My house is on a busy street, and buses or trucks go by all the time and rattle the front windows, or somebody outside yells or honks their horn.
I picked up a copy of Kon-Tiki because I always wanted to read it, but my hands were still dirty and I smudged one of the pages, so I put it back. I was hoping she didn't see what I did to her book. I stood up.
She stood up, too, and folded her arms. "It's time I made dinner," she said.
I thought for a second she was inviting me to stay and have dinner, and I started to accept, but it was only a wish. She wanted me to leave. I changed what I was going to say.
"I like your books," I said. "I always wanted to read more." I was hoping she'd let me borrow a few.
She didn't say anything, so I said, "Have you read them all?"
She was so beautiful it hurt to look at her. I kept imagining her bedroom. I looked at her face and wondered what she looked like when she made love. I wanted to see all of her, her shoulders, and her breasts, and her back, and her arms, their shapes and the ways they fit together, and how she moved and how she would touch me. I wanted her hair to fall all around my face. I wanted to hear her say my name.
She turned a little sideways and I woke up and knew I'd been staring at her. "Well," I said, "If you have any more problems with the car, let me know."
She thanked me again and held out her hand, but I didn't shake because my hand was still dirty.
Debbie was already in bed when I got home. She used to sleep all the time when she was pregnant, and I hoped she wasn't pregnant again. She woke up enough to ask where I'd been, and I said I had to work late. Then she went right back to sleep, but I lay there wide awake for two or three hours, running movies in my mind. Movies of Carmen. The only way I was going to relax was to wake Debbie up and screw her, or jack off. Debbie doesn't like sex when she's sleepy , and I didn't want her anyway, so that didn't leave much choice.
After that I could sleep, but I kept waking up all night thinking the kid was crying, and I'd get out of bed to check on him, but every time, he was peaceful and quiet. I must have been dreaming it.
I was just sitting down at my desk when Carmen came in and hung up her coat. We said hello and spent the whole day pretending like nothing happened at her apartment, but she was kind of stiff to me and I think she knew what I was thinking when I looked at her in her apartment. It was one of those situations where she knew, and I knew, but we had to pretend neither of us knew.
The day after that was better, and pretty soon we were back to where we were before, just like nothing had happened. Her car ran fine from then on, so she didn't need any more rides home. About a month later we got the files all straightened out, and we got caught up on the inventory, and we got the books up to date. One morning around early November it was raining. I came in and put the coffee on and poured us both a cup and made a few phone calls. Then I sat back in my chair and sipped my coffee. I didn't know why I felt funny until she said, "There's nothing to do," and then I knew the reason. I had time on my hands.
She smiled and laughed and put down her cup and did a dance around the office, a beautiful dance. I asked her if she took lessons, and she said yes, since she was ten years old.
We talked about that for a while, and then some other things I don't remember, and then one of those silences fell, the comfortable kind when you don't have to say anything. She was sitting on her desk, between me and the window, and I was pretending to look out the window, but I was actually looking at her. One of her feet was on the floor and the other was swinging in the air. Steam was rising from her coffee, and she had her head half turned to watch the rain. A strand of hair was hanging across her cheek, and she reached up to brush it back. It had escaped from the clip at the back of her neck. As soon as she took her hand away the strand fell right back onto her cheek, but she didn't notice. She went on staring out the window at the rain, and her face was peaceful. She was somewhere else.
Right then I knew I was in love with her. But what could I do? I was married. I wasn't happy with Debbie, but that wasn't enough to make me cheat on her. I made a deal when I got married, and I have to live up to it. Not that I wasn't tempted sometimes, but I don't think I would have gone through with anything. But I couldn't help comparing her to Debbie, and thinking what I was missing. Carmen's slender, and graceful, and classy, and smart. Debbie's a dumpling.
I was sitting there thinking all those things, but mostly feeling like somebody just put my chest through a vacuum pump, and she turned away from the window and saw me looking at her, and she smiled. I could see she thought I was off daydreaming, the way she was a second before, and not actually looking at her, so she smiled at me, such a kind smile it broke my heart. I stood up and went to hide in the men's room. I couldn't think of anything else to do. Right up to that minute my whole world was solid and then it crumbled under my feet. The only thing was to pretend nothing had changed, to keep on keeping on the same old way, and not let her or anyone else know.
Pretending wasn't easy, because I had it bad. Head over heels. The whole thing: pangs in the chest, sweaty palms, heart flutters, blushing when she made a joke. The rest of the week was rough. I offered her comp time with pay, to make up for some of the overtime she put in, and she accepted. Not having her in the office for a few days helped me calm down.
While she was gone one of the people from personnel came over to talk about Carmen's first review, the one they give after six months. I told the lady what a great worker she was, how efficient, and showed how she straightened out all the records and files. I made sure she got credit for what she did.
The personnel lady must have recommended promotion, because they moved Carmen back into manufacturing the very next week. They made her assistant manager, and I started hearing through the grapevine what a good job she was doing over there.
Her transfer was good for her, I guess, but I missed her. But it was better for me, too. Seeing her all the time would have been hard, and this way I didn't have to worry every move I made and every word I said and every gesture, and things were a lot easier. She stopped by to talk a few times, and I was glad to see her, and so were the other guys if they were around. They all worshiped the ground she walked on. But her job kept her busy in the other building, and she never visited for more than fifteen minutes at a time.
Everything was fine right up till the Christmas party, December eighteenth. The company's grown a lot in the last couple of years. They try to keep up the old traditions, though, and one of them is the gift giving, but they split up into groups now when they draw names, and the managers are in one group. Whose name did I draw but hers. I was glad because here was a chance to show my appreciation at last.
I worked shopping for her into my regular Christmas shopping. I kept her in mind while I was wandering through the stores. I looked at books, and kitchen equipment, and most of all clothes, but I wasn't sure about clothes because they might have to be altered.
Debbie was with me when I spotted an Irish sweater. I knew it was perfect, because it was just her style and the size didn't have to be exact. I didn't say anything. I waited until Debbie wanted to eat and sit down and rest her feet. We got a burger and sat down by the fountain in the middle of the mall. I ate fast and stood up and said I'd be back in a minute.
Debbie thought I was going to the can, but when I came back with a package under my arm, she decided I must have bought something for her, since it was secret. She tried to guess what it was. I was annoyed because now I'd have to give her something in a same-sized box or she'd remember and ask me who it was for. She has a memory like an elephant.
I was just in time, because the party was two days later. Nothing got done that morning because everybody was dropping in on each other and socializing. Some of the women were setting up the tables with punch and snacks on them. When noon finally rolled around, everybody could quit pretending to work and get down to enjoying themselves.
The spirit was really good. Mr. Nielsen got up and introduced all the new employees real quick and then made a funny speech about all the things that happened that year. Then he thanked everybody for such a successful year and said he built his business by picking the right people, and he was proud to work with us. He sat down and everybody cheered and applauded. There was a buffet and a bar, and we all lined up and served ourselves and sat down at the tables.
Pretty soon the tables were full of paper plates with half-eaten pieces of ham and empty plastic glasses. People were leaning across to talk to each other, or standing by the bar, and you practically had to shout to make yourself heard. They were most of them drunk by four o'clock, when the time to trade presents came.
The managers all got together in one of the offices and put the presents on the table and then rummaged around trying to find their own. I was enthusiastic and put Carmen's present on the table first, so she got it last because it was on the bottom. There was a card on the front, where I thanked her for helping me and said I thought she was special. She frowned a little when she read it.
She tore off the paper and opened the box and took out the sweater. Everybody else already had theirs opened and they were all jabbering away, making jokes and thanking each other. When Carmen took out the sweater, the woman standing next to her gasped and shut up and the silence spread around the room from her. You could hear that silence get bigger. Everybody looked at her, and the only sound was the ice cubes melting in their drinks.
Like I said, everybody looked at her, and I looked around at everybody's presents and realized I got her something all wrong, but it was too late. Her face was flaming red. She thanked me in a little voice and put the sweater back in the box and closed it. A few people stared at me and then back at her and then they turned and started talking to their neighbors. The room filled up with voices again, but it didn't sound the same.
After that she stopped dropping by to say hi. I still see her once in a while, almost always at a distance. It's been a year now. I thought I'd forget, but my heart still does back flips when I see her. Then in the evening I go home and look at Debbie and she's like a whole other species. Every year she gains a couple more pounds, and I try not to imagine what she's going to look like when the kid's grown up and there's just the two of us by ourselves, two old people with nothing left to share.
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