Sunday, January 31, 2010

#17 - The Streak, Part II

Sharon paused in the midst of comforting me as I lay sprawled on the skating rink floor, not quite certain that she had heard me correctly. “The naked man? What naked man?”

Just then , the Hellions on Wheels both came racing up, trying to make it look like they had been nowhere in the county when this tragic misfortune had befallen me. They immediately launched into overly-dramatic poses of concern, wringing their hands and making noises of lamentation and grief. I really, really hated them with an intense passion.

Meanwhile, the rest of the skating crowd paused for roughly three seconds to determine my status and assess any possible impact this new development might have on their own lives. Upon seeing that I was clearly not dead, and noting the absence of any blood pools or exposed bone, the crowd was quickly over it and went back to circling the giant room and looking for sexual partners.

In fact, several of the skaters didn’t even bother to slow down, choosing instead to whiz around us and glare at me like I was one of the reasons for the downfall of mankind. Well, exCUSE me, Teenage Stud-Wannabe with the feathered hair, so sorry that I busted my ass and possibly broke some tenuous love connection you had going on with that slut in the designer skates just ahead of you.

With all this commotion, Sharon apparently forgot all about my request for a naked man. Or at least she never mentioned it again. Instead, she helped me to my feet, brushed me off, and our little quartet of drama and juvenile delinquency wandered off the rink.

Needless to say, I no longer cared very much for the skating rink outings. Of course, this did not deter Sharon and Mom in their quest for romantic companionship. We continued to visit the rink quite often, the Hellions continued to torment any victim they could find, and I continued to wonder what the nuns were thinking every time we rolled by in a cloud of dust.

At least Sharon tried to mix up the manhunt venues in an effort to minimize potential boredom. She and Mom would also go bowling. (Remember that point in the 70’s when nearly everyone in the country joined a bowling league of some kind? It was truly a moment of temporary national insanity.)

Trouble is, bowling alleys are not designed for children. They are designed to maximize the profits off of drunken, rowdy adults who get lit and then continue to pay for additional games even though their bowling skills slide deeper into the toilet as the night progresses. Eventually, no one cares what their score is as long as the beer keeps coming.

In this environment, the younger crowd has to entertain themselves. Granted, back in THAT day, kids still knew how to use their imagination to come up with interesting things to pass the time. (Unlike the modern age, where every new child-targeted product seems to have “and you don’t even have to drag your fat ass off the couch!” as a design principle.) But still, creativity will only get you so far in a noisy barn full of drunken people who high-five a lot. Eventually, a bored child will do anything.

You could watch the grown-ups bowl for a little while, and maybe even be slightly invested when mommy or daddy did something loud and fancy that made some people cheer and other people use naughty words. But once you had the basics of the game down, you really didn’t need to see the same actions performed a hundred times. You roll the ball and knock over the wood things. Got it. Can we go play in the street now?

Most bowling alleys had pinball machines. This was also a diversion that started out pleasantly enough but quickly lost its luster. For one thing, you had to have money to play these things. You might score a dollar or two from your distracted parents, but this stipend usually did not last very long, especially since you weren’t the right height and really didn’t know what you were doing.

Soon enough, you were out of coins and had to relinquish the controls to someone else, and eventually this someone else would be a greasy-haired male in his late teens. These guys somehow had an endless cash flow, probably the result of drug deals and/or questionable activity involving jacking open locked doors, grabbing something, and then running very fast as sirens wailed in the distance.

And of course, it didn’t take long for the greasy thugs to decide they didn’t really want you hanging around, clutching the side of the pinball machine with gooey fingers and trying to see what they were doing. Eventually, you would be strongly encouraged to get lost. If you were stupid and didn’t heed this directive, they would lean down to your scrawny level and threaten you with unsavory violence, their breath reeking of a curious smell that you would not be able to place until years later in some smoke-filled frat house basement.

Once banished from the clanging and the flashing lights, you had to select alternative entertainment options.

You could get something to eat from the trashy “restaurant” that you could find in most bowling alleys, usually with names like “Buddy’s Burger Basket” or “Chicken Shack” or just plain “Snack Bar”. This would require an influx of funding, so you would have to trek back to the lanes where your parents were bowling, wait until one of them realized that you were still alive and apparently wanted something, and then request a withdrawal.

In our particular case, I didn’t understand all things financial when it came family solvency, but I did realize that Mom was on a budget. So I kept my requests to a minimum. But those Hellion kids? They were constantly asking Sharon for something to eat, and she would always shove money their way. Then the little brats would march over to the snack bar, order the most expensive thing they could find, take one bite of it, throw it in the trash, then go ask for more money. Which they would get.

Once you had milked Alice’s Restaurant for any possible iota of fun, your entertainment choices drastically dwindled.

You could check all the payphones and vending machines for coins that were possibly abandoned by some drunk suddenly realizing it was his turn back at the lanes. Everybody used cigarette machines and payphones back then, and everybody was drunk, so if you were really diligent and timed it right, you could score a dime or two. Once you’d made the circuit a couple of times, though, the excitement paled.

You could go stand by the slightly-older kids who always managed to pile up right outside the public restrooms. I never understood the reasoning behind this choice for a gathering place, but that’s where the older kids were. If you behaved yourself and didn’t get in the way, you could pick up the latest swear words and cut-downs that were currently in vogue. You knew that you couldn’t repeat these phrases to an adult without risk of a commotion, but you could definitely repeat them on the playground and bask in the spotlight for a bit.

And finally, you could go outside the bowling alley.

This was an entertainment option that you had to earn. Not everybody got to go outside. The qualifications involved some hazy mix of your current age, the general reputation of the surrounding neighborhood, the number and quality of people in your proposed expedition party, and the frustration level of the legal guardian who really wanted you to just shut up and quit bugging them.

At some point, our little clan of degenerates bartered a contractual agreement and were given authorization for exterior travel, as long as both Hellion Kerry and I swore to look out for the womenfolk, namely Dawn and Hellion Kristy. Since I really wanted to go outside, I kept mum about the analogy that granting any type of authority to Kerry was like handing a gun to Lee Harvey Oswald and asking him not to come back until all of the bullets were gone.

The very first time we were permitted to leave the bowling alley went something like this:

Our little disparate quartet was issued parental visas, and we excitedly headed toward the entrance doors. Both Kerry and Kristy were waving maniacally and blowing kisses at Sharon, so I knew right away they were planning some type of deviltry and were merely softening Sharon up for the eventual tap on her shoulder she was going to get from a police officer. Great.

The second the double doors closed behind us, Kerry and Kristy took off running for the side of the building.

What the hell? Dawn and I looked at each, looked at the thundering terror twins, looked back at each other, shrugged our shoulders, and ran after them. Those little imps were FAST when they wanted to be, and they obviously knew something that we didn’t as they sped around the side of the building and kept running. Dawn and I were already out of breath when we ran around the corner and spied the twins rounding the next corner and heading into the alley.

This just did not seem right at all, with warning bells clanging in my head, fully aware that regret was on the horizon. But Dawn and I kept running, because we were stupid and slightly curious.

We came around the second corner, and almost slammed into Kerry and Kristy, who were standing there and glaring at an older couple, a guy and a girl in their mid-teens. The twins had obviously interrupted this couple in the middle of something, but I was too na├»ve for it to make immediate sense. I could see that both of their lips were really red and puffy, and their faces were kind of sweaty and shiny, and they were clutching each other in an overly-friendly way. Had they been kissing? Wow, this was wild. I expected my dad’s hand to appear out of nowhere and cover my eyes like he did during the parts of a movie that I couldn’t watch.

The guy was focused on Kerry. “What the hell did you say?”

Kerry: “Are you having sex?”

(Oh my GOD!)

There was a moment of shocked silence. This allowed me time to glance down the rest of the alley, and realize that there were lots of couples in sweaty embraces. And lots of uncoupled people who were just standing around, smoking cigarettes and drinking out of bottles. Nobody back here looked old enough to drive. And the whole place reeked of a smell I remembered from when Daddy used to make beer in the garage when I was very little. And there was some other smell… was somebody doing laundry?

The puffy-lipped guy let go of the puffy-lipped girl, letting her slide a bit down the side of the building until she regained her drunken balance. He took a step toward Kerry. “You want me to kick your ass?” (He’s saying this to a 9-year-old. Tough guy, right? But I wasn’t about to point this out, as long as it wasn’t my ass getting kicked.)

Then Kristy takes a step forward as well, focusing her attention on the tramp leaning against the building: “Are you pregnant?” The tramp’s eyes shot wide open, then she briefly glanced at the puffy-lipped guy with a slight look of terror. Oh really?

Puffy Daddy’s eyes narrowed, and then he started marching toward Kerry. “I’m gonna beat the-”

That’s it, it was TIME to GO. I grabbed Dawn’s hand and she grabbed Kristy’s and somehow Kristy had a moment of sanity and grabbed Kerry’s. We all turned and ran for Jesus, still holding hands and running along like some twisted, half-ass “Sound of Music” family fleeing the Nazis, leaping over abandoned tires and questionable smashed food. But there wasn’t any singing.

We raced up the side of the building, around the corner, across the parking lot, and then slammed through the front doors of the bowling alley, not stopping until we skidded to a halt behind the lanes where our Moms were laughing and socializing.

Sharon turned to look at us, somehow not noticing the sheer panic in our eyes and the sweat-soaked clothing. “Back so soon?”

Kerry: “It was kind of hot out there. We decided to come back in.”

Sharon smiled. “Okay, then. Well, we should be done in a few minutes” Then she turned and went to grab a ball.

We sat there quietly until it was time to leave, only occasionally glancing at the front doors to ensure that some hopped-up Fonzie wasn’t bearing down on us with a switchblade.

The final incident where I allowed the Hellions to lead me astray took place later that summer. And this one was purely Kerry’s fault. (I guess Kristy was distracted by some other anarchistic agenda and was probably busy ensnaring my sister Dawn, leaving Kerry to single-handedly work his evil on me.) The Moms were driving us home one night from some event or another, and “The Streak” was playing on the radio as we pulled into Sharon’s apartment complex.

This complex was relatively new. Some of the buildings weren’t even finished yet (and yes, we would sneak into them and play sordid childhood games while the clueless Moms chatted in Sharon’s kitchen), and the whole property was peppered with fledgling landscaping, including baby trees that were being held in place by thin wires anchored into the ground.

So anyway, as Sharon navigates toward an available parking slot, “The Streak” is winding down on the radio, with all the “look at that, look at that” and “fastest thing on two feet” business. Kerry turns to me and says “Know what that song’s about?” (For the uninitiated, this song concerns “streaking” which involves stripping down to your birthday suit and prancing around in public, which was actually a fad at the time. What can I say, it was the 70’s. Blame the drugs.)

Me, instantly suspicious: “Yeah. Why?”

Kerry: “We can do that.”

Me: “What, run around naked?”

Kerry: “Not NAKED. That’s stupid. But we can let our weenies hang out.”

And right there, folks, I should have signed off. Because it’s KERRY. There can be nothing good about any idea coming out of his mouth. I was outraged. But also slightly intrigued. Nudity and running? That was an interesting combo. He had me. “What do we do?”

Kerry: “We just get out of the car, act like we’re walking with everybody else, then unzip and start screaming and running.”

He sound very certain about the details. Just how many times had he done this? “Okay, let’s do it.” (Dear Mom: That was Satan talking, not me. Your loving son, Brian. You sure are pretty.)

So Sharon parks the car, and everybody piles out and starts walking toward Sharon’s building. Suddenly, Kerry lets out with some Indian war whoop thing, unzips his shorts, digs around for his little stub of boyhood, and then pops it out. I’m still new at this, so I’m a little slow on the draw, but I eventually get there, with my precious poking out as well. Then Kerry, still whooping and hollering, takes off across the parking lot. I whoop and holler and run after him.

Behind us, I think I can hear Mom screaming after us in some type of outrage. I also think I can hear Sharon guffawing and doubling over, I’m not sure, a lot of things were happening at one time.

Kerry veers out of the parking lot and sprints across the grounds in front of one of the unoccupied apartment buildings. I stagger along behind him (it’s hard to run and make sure your penis is showing at the same time, what can I say), just trying to copy his actions because I’m new to this whole scenario.

Kerry, who’s doing a lot of weird moves and is clearly more invested in the drama than I am, suddenly changes course and makes a sharp turn to the right, heading toward one of the entrances to the vacant building. I’m a ways behind him (sorry, still on a learning curve here) so I realize that I need to gain some ground or I’m going to lose him and I sure as hell don’t want to be the only one blowing in the wind.

So I pivot and race directly toward the door that Kerry has just entered, instead of following the path that he had taken. This is a critical fail point on my part. Kerry lives around here, and he knows what’s what, including the intricacies of the local landscaping. I don’t know squat.

Halfway to the door, just as I’m about to brush past one of the baby trees, I have a split-second to realize that this tree is one of those anchored to the ground with thin wires. But it’s not enough time to stop my forward momentum.

I crash into the wire, which hits me right about mid-section, and the next thing I know is that my feet are over my head as I flip over the wire and then slam to the ground on my back. The air is knocked out of my lungs and I can’t breathe. I’m in a total state of paralysis, with my hands still spreading my shorts wide open for the world to see my business.

Kerry bangs back out of the door that he just ran through. “Brian, come ON. What are you doing?”

Me: “Ulgg… unk… unhhh.”

Kerry, being an experienced hellion and knowing just how long we have before the authorities arrive, races out, grabs my arms and pulls me to my feet, pushing and shoving me toward the entrance of the unoccupied building. We get inside and the door slams shut.

Kerry: “Wasn’t that COOL!”

Me, finally catching my breath: “I HATE you. I’m never listening to you again. HATE you.”

Kerry: “Dude, shut up and close your zipper.”

Friday, January 29, 2010

#16 - The Streak, Part I

Summer, 1974.

Or thereabouts. It was either that summer or the next, making me either 9 or 10 years old. The exact time frame is a little hazy, but I remember a certain song playing on the radio all summer. A quick check of the Billboard charts shows that “The Streak” came out in ‘74, so I’m fairly certain it was that summer, but maybe not. You see, this was Tulsa, Oklahoma. We were always a little behind the times. There are some folks in that state TODAY who still don’t realize that the Civil War is over.

Anyway, it’s summer. Lately, Mom had been running around with her best friend at the time, Sharon. Both of them were recently divorced, both of them were a little bitter about men, and both were trying to get back into the singles scene. (This last bit really didn’t make sense to my elementary-school mind. If the last men in their lives had proven so unsatisfactory, why were they racing out to find replacements?)

Sharon was much more aggressive about the manhunt, convincing Mom to run around and participate in all these social activities that promised to offer a bumper crop of males who were both available and non-psychotic. Sometimes us kids got to go with, other times the two of them would dash off to mysterious adults-only rituals while we stayed with babysitters or slightly-reluctant relatives.

Speaking of “us kids”, there were two matched sets. Myself and my younger sister (Dawn), and Sharon’s kids, also an older boy and a younger girl. We were all roughly in the same three-year age span. That being the case, Mom and Sharon assumed that we would be the best of friends and get along just fine, so they didn’t think twice about leaving us all together while they went on a stud safari.

On the contrary, I did not find this to be an ideal arrangement.

I didn’t like Sharon’s kids. I don’t know what had happened in their lives, but it was obviously something that didn’t happen in mine. They were little hellions, always doing their urchin best to find trouble wherever they could. And they usually found it within twenty-three seconds of being left unsupervised. And because I was the oldest, everything was at least partially my fault, if not entirely.

And the mouths on those kids? Good God. Now, my daddy was no saint, so it wasn’t like I hadn’t heard special grown-up words before. In fact, every third word from his direction would have been bleeped in primetime, even today. But it was different when HE did it, because that’s what adults did, they cussed, and you really didn’t pay any attention. You just wanted to ride your Big Wheel until you got tired of the sidewalk cracks making your butt jiggle.

Cute little tykes sporting Garanimals should not be requesting that the Lord pass unfavorable judgment on pronouns, or offering travel directions that involve fiery destinations. This just shouldn’t be happening. And that was just the cussing. These kids also were fully schooled on every known sexual position on the planet, and would happily offer up any further intimate detail you may require. There were many times when my jaw would be hanging open in shock, until I remembered the 47 things they said you could do with such an exposed orifice, and my mouth would slam shut.

Those kids scared me.

Sharon, on the other hand, was a peach. I really liked her. She was very nice, and was always encouraging her kids to be creative and explore anything that they found interesting. (Obviously, this free-format educational concept must have included sex clinics or brothels at some point, but I digress.) She was very outgoing and not afraid to rush headlong into new situations, which balanced Mom’s tendency to remain quiet and just go along for the ride.

And the best thing about Sharon? In her bedroom, on the back of the door, was an almost life-size poster of a naked man. The first time my eyes spied THAT, I nearly wet myself. I may have been too young to really understand what things were all about, but I knew getting a gander of that naked man certainly put a smile on my face. At that point, I thought Sharon was the most thoughtful and gracious person I had ever met, arranging for this display and all.

After this discovery, I couldn’t wait for the opportunities to visit Sharon’s apartment. I would practically run to the front door. (I’m sure Mom that it was sweet of me to be so friendly and polite during these social calls.) Once inside the apartment, I would use every plausible reason to wander down the short hallway to Sharon’s bedroom, peek around the door for a quick eyeful, then dash back to the front room.)

It was very innocent, really. After all, I just wanted to look. I certainly didn’t want to do anything like the hellions described. That business just seemed so messy and rude. It would be many years before their knowledge had even the most remote application in my life. By that time, I’m sure one or both of those kids was already serving a prison sentence.

Anyway, Sharon and Mom was lookin for some mens. And one of their favorite places to participate in an outreach program was at, amazingly enough, a skating rink. This particular skating rink was in far north Broken Arrow/far east Tulsa. Somewhere over there. I’m sure the place has been gone for years. I only remember the location because we would pass this still-standing nunnery just before we got there.

Yes, a nunnery. Practically adjacent to the Skating Rink of Sin and Un-betrothed Sexual Conquest. I’m sure that if the Sisters had known what was going on within rock-throwing distance, they wouldn’t have been able to sleep at night. Or maybe they DID know and would gaze longingly out their cloistered windows. You never can tell.

This skating rink must have been there for some time before it blossomed into a place of lust on wheels. It had a great wooden floor that was worn-in just right, nice and smooth so that you no longer felt the tiny cracks between the strips of wood. There was a long concession area down one side, where you could get all kinds of fried and greasy things to eat, because it was the 70’s and nobody knew a damn thing about fat and cholesterol.

The concession area was raised several feet above the rest of the building (who knows why, it just was). The main entrance to this section had a short flight of stairs. But the OTHER end of the concession area had a thrilling feature that was wildly popular. Instead of stairs, the whole floor ramped down and around to the main skating area. Which meant that all you had to do was barely roll over the precipice, and suddenly you would be hurtling downward with a velocity that would fling your ass out into the throng of circling skaters with an amazing amount of power.

People lived for this. Cable TV hadn’t been invented yet, so you had to make your fun where you could.

Now, not everyone dared to use this ramp. I didn’t go near it, in the beginning. I barely knew how to skate at the time, so my preferred method of rink entry was to gingerly ease myself through the normal gate, and then cautiously work my way forward in that awkward-looking clunk-clunk manner that newbies have, clinging to the railing on the periphery like there were no more lifeboats on the Titanic.

Sharon’s hellions, of course, were master skaters, zipping and twirling and practically doing back flips. They’d learned how to do this long ago, just like they’d somehow learned everything else fifteen years before a normal person should. They’d win competitions, while Dawn and I clunk-clunked on the sidelines, often tripping over a strand of hair and slamming our head into the ground.

The hellions considered us failures and babies. And it was not cool to be seen with babies. The only time you should associate with babies is if you are tormenting them in some way, preferably while other cool people watched. That being the case, Hellion Number One (Kerry) hatched a devious plan. Dumb-ass Number One (me) fell right into his trap.

Kerry was suddenly being very helpful. Over the course of several visits, he gave me pointers and showed me how to do things and gave realistic pep talks. And it worked. I got to the point where I didn’t have to hang on to the baby rail, and I could actually make it around the rink without incurring a flesh wound. There was a slight possibility that I might someday be cool.

Then the hellion on wheels moved to phase two. He started talking up the massive ramp on the other side of the snack area. It was just so NEAT to roll down that thing. You didn’t go THAT fast, and if you started to fall you could always grab the handrail. Don’t you wanna try it?

I didn’t know about that.

Just then, probably acting on some evil, predetermined signal from Kerry, Hellion Number Two (Kristy) came zipping up in perfect form “I’ll show you how to do it, Brian,” she said chirpily. “Watch!”

And off she went, zipping effortlessly through the crowd at the concession counter. Two seconds later she shot over the crest of the ramp and whizzed downward, in a perfect arc, pigtails standing straight out behind her. She zoomed out into the rink with amazing grace, did this little figure-eight thing, then screeched to a halt, finishing off with a twirl and a pretty hand movement. Several people stopped eating nachos long enough to raise scorecards.

Oh boy. I had to follow that?

“Come on,” urged Kerry. “Don’t be a baby!”

And what was wrong with being a baby if it meant that you lived to see another day?

Then Kerry clicked the last of his satanic plan into place. “Hey, why don’t I go to the bottom of the ramp and wait for you? I can help you if you start to fall. Okay?”

I looked at him for a second, not really sure about that, then sighed. “Okay,” I whispered.

He grinned broadly. “Cool! Okay, I’ll go wait at the bottom.” Then he was off, hurtling down the ramp and then stopping perfectly just before the ramp spilled onto the main rink. He looked up at me and nodded his head.

I shuffled to the top of the ramp, my heart-pounding. From this perspective, the angle of descent looked incredibly severe and seemed to guarantee certain death. I looked at Kerry again. He nodded his head again.

I gulped and rolled over the edge.

Suddenly, I was moving faster than one would think humanly possible. I’m pretty sure I started screaming immediately, but the wind was whipping by my ears with such force that I couldn’t hear anything else. About a third of the way down, my legs started to roll apart, a sure sign of incompetence and a certain indicator of social doom. Somehow I managed to get my legs back together before I ripped myself in two.

Halfway down, I hit the sharpest angle of the curve, but I managed to stay upright. Wow. That was the hardest part! I just might make it after all. I stopped the soundless screaming, and I think I might have even started to smile as I approached the final stretch.

Kerry was smiling, too, but not out of any shared jubilation over my non-death. He was grinning because it was time for the big show that he had carefully plotted over several weeks.

He stuck his foot directly in my path.

In my surprise and panic, I lost all bodily control and my skates slammed into each other, the wheels locking up and sealing my doom. My feet slammed to a halt, but the rest of my body shot forward. Houston, we have lift off.

I sailed through the air, my mind vaguely registering the fact that Kerry had pulled his foot out of my trajectory at the last possible second. Clever little bastard. He could truthfully claim that he hadn’t actually tripped me. This is how politicians are born.

Then all of my focus was on the impending return from orbit. The wooden floor rushed up at me in a blur, then I crunched to the ground and slid a good ten feet across the aged, seamless wood. People scattered in all directions, struggling to get out of the landing zone. I finally came to a halt, ending with one of my skates somehow flopping upward and jabbing into my butt. I had just kicked myself in the ass, literally and figuratively. Damn hellion Kerry.

“Brian! Brian, are you okay?”

I rolled over onto my back and shook my head. A face came into view. Sharon! Nice Sharon. I liked her. How did she manage to raise these Dual Damiens?

She leaned down closer and brushed my hair out of my face. “Are you alright? Can I get you something?”

In my delirium, I blurted the first thing that came to mind.

“Did you bring the naked man with you?”

Click Here to Read the Next Entry in This Series:

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

#15 - What’s Love Got to Do with It?, Part 5

Okay, I didn’t really blow all the fuses in the building just by saying my name during a polygraph test. Although it sounds exciting and all, that was just a bit of creative freedom. It was getting late, I was tired, and I needed to end the blog post so I could get on with my current life.

Now that I’ve had some sleep, let’s jump back into things, shall we?

Eventually, Greasy Man asked enough boring questions that he was finally satisfied that he had some baseline values for the rest of the polygraph. In his mind, it was time for him to trap a possible criminal, using his superior wordplay and deductive skills so effectively that I would completely break down and confess to all known crimes committed in a three-state area.

Much to his un-bathed chagrin, this did not immediately happen. In fact, not much of anything happened at all, as far as figuring who was taking the money from the store. But in terms of that little graph-chart thing of his, there was a whole lot of something going on.

As I’ve mentioned in past posts, I’m not the most laid-back person on the planet. In fact, I’m basically a walking bundle of rapid-fire nerve impulses just waiting to implode. I get worked up about EVERYTHING. It doesn’t matter what the situation might be, my mind is racing in twenty different directions as I consider all possible ways that there could be impending death and destruction. If I’m awake, I’m worried about something.

This type of mind does not interact well with machines intended to measure body responses to stimuli in the form of questions. Especially if I’m aware that some of those questions are designed to trip me up and potentially send me to jail, even though I haven’t done anything. There’s the tiny possibility that something I say could be misinterpreted and lead to me dropping the soap in a prison shower, so my body is instantly on level-red freak-out alert.

So once the “serious” part of the polygraph test came into play, I physically responded to every question with a mad rush of adrenaline that caused the damn needle to spike like I was Hannibal Lecter. Is your name Brian? Yes. (Spike!) Is today Tuesday? Yes. (Spike!) Have you taken money from the store register and then manipulated the books to cover your tracks long enough that you could start a new life in Cozumel? No! (Spike!) Have you ever had intimate relationships with farm animals? Not that I remember. (Spike!)

It didn’t matter what the question was, my response was the same. A massive pulse of energy shooting through the machines. I was surprised that the graph needle didn’t just snap off and crash through a window, killing somebody in the parking lot.

Finally, Greasy Man just turned his machines off with a sad little click, hanging his head slightly because he knew the results weren’t going to be any good. (They better not be, anyway. He turns THAT chart in and the FBI will be knocking on my door. And the SPCA.)

Greasy Man just sat there, sighing and despondent, a state which made him look even more unattractive than I had originally thought possible when he and his funk walked in the room. Poor guy. He is NEVER going to get a date. I mean, I truly believe that there is someone for everyone out there. Unfortunately, there are cases when that “someone” requires a bicycle pump for activation.

G-Man then pulled a large book out of his briefcase and began flipping through it. Was he trying to figure out what to do next? “Chapter Seven: What To Do If Your Subject Continuously Shoots Electrons Out Of His Ass.” He turned a few more pages, sighed again, then shoved the book away. I guess they weren’t close.

He looked at me through his Coke-bottle glasses, an image that was both startling but slightly fascinating. “Well, I think we’re done. I’ll just turn this in.”

What! Oh come on, if a seismologist took a gander at that chart he would know instantly that California was now in the ocean. He couldn’t be serious.

But he was. He started unfastening things so he could get the roll of paper out of the machine. “You can go now.”

“Uh… can you take this stuff off of me?” I wiggled the wires hanging from my various body parts. “Or is this a gift of some kind?”

He looked back up at me. “Oh. Yeah. We need to take that off. One sec.” The roll of paper was putting up a fight. There was a brief struggle, followed by a surprisingly loud ripping noise and the record of my electrical flares was suddenly in two pieces. He stood there holding both sections, completely mystified.

Where the hell did he get his training? K-Mart?

He sighed again, tossed the damaged scrolls to one side, then approached me in his cloud of wretchedness. This man had no bedside manner whatsoever, ripping all the devices off and throwing them in a box. Once I was released from the electrical cocoon, he just kind of nodded at the door. I was free to go out and assault the world as I saw fit.

As I worked my way back through the maze of hallways and cubicles, I was not as intimidated as when I had first arrived and made my march of shame to the Polygraph Room, marked as a possible future convict. Not only were the test results most likely inconclusive, I had discovered that I possessed a superpower, which was kind of nice. I was Electro-Man. I glared at the office workers who had been snooty the first time I shambled through. Don’t mess with my or I will fry your ass. And your little dog, too.

Anyway, as expected, I was not branded as the culprit by the test. But nobody else got fingered, either. Corporate finally just dropped the issue and wrote off the loss. Which meant that somebody on our store team was a really good liar. They were still free to continue with their mayhem. And that’s not a real comforting thought, when you pause and reflect.

A few nights later, and the store manager showed up early for his morning shift, meaning he would have to spend some time with me. At first, I was not pleased with this arrangement because he was a boring man with little of interest to say. But then he slyly hinted that he could talk about the investigation now that it was over.

Really? I quickly shoved my mop bucket in the back room and raced to his side in 2.5 seconds. Spill.

Him: “I knew it wasn’t you.”

Me: “Of course it wasn’t me. Who do you think it is?”

Him: “Um, well, um… You know I really shouldn’t say anything, but, um…”

Me: “It’s George.”

Him, after his jaw hits the floor: “How did you…”

Me: “Oh, come on, man. He’s lazy as hell, the store is never clean when I get here, he never pays for anything he eats, and he eats a LOT. I’m surprised there’s anything left to sell on MY shift. He calls in sick all the time and I have to do a double. He’s a total worthless pig. Are you saying you haven’t noticed this?’

Him: “….”

Me, suddenly realizing something: “Why’s he never been written up?”

Him: “….”

Me: “TELL me. You owe me. I’ve done right by this place.”

Him, looking everywhere but directly at me: “He’s my wife’s cousin.”

I was floored. And pissed. This weak-ass jerk had put innocent people through a bad experience because he couldn’t man up and fire somebody that deserved it. I could have potentially lost my job just so he can keep his wife happy. I was done. “I’ve got things to do.” And I stomped off to get the mop bucket in the back. Bastard.

A few nights later, Justine popped in. She was in a foul mood, saying overly-bitchy things and getting on my nerves. When she whined about the coffee I had JUST made tasting old, I realized something was wrong. “What’s going on?”

Justine: “They’re sending me south. For sure. This is my last week up here.”

Me: “Don’t they know you want to stay here?”

Justine: “Of course they do, I tell them all the time. But there’s… there’s some people that don’t wanna work with me.”

Me: “Why not? You’re great. What’s their problem?”

Justine: “It’s the… well, you know….”

WHAT did I know? And then it clicked. There were some guys on the force who didn’t want to work with a lesbian. I sort of knew all along that Justine probably liked the ladies, but we had never talked about it. It was 1986. You didn’t talk about these things casually. Your entire world could still be ripped apart if the wrong person found out your secret and decided to use it against you. That’s why we got along so well, with us recognizing each other for what we were, wordlessly, and seeking companionship in that. Comfort in numbers, that sort of thing.

People today don’t know, or don’t remember, what it was like to be gay 25 years ago. The constant fear.

Me: “Oh my God. Justine… I… I don’t know what to say. You’re SURE that’s what it is?”

Justine: “Oh, yeah, I know. It’s pretty clear….”

I started walking around the end of the counter, headed her way to give her a big hug, screw the fact that she was in uniform. But she stopped me.

“No, don’t, cause I’m gonna lose it if you do.”

So I stood there, just a few feet away. “Are you sure? Cause maybe one of your redneck partners will drive by and get an eyeful. I can be butch, really. They see you gettin some tongue action from a stud like me, they’ll figure out something else to bitch about.”

Then she laughed, which was music, and the hard part was over and we eased our way past the hurt. For the rest of the shift, she would stop by for coffee and “some of that man tongue.” It was a good time.

I never saw Justine again. Wonder about her from time to time, and hope she’s happy. We all deserve that, don’t you think?

A few days later, my friends called about the Tina Tuner tickets. (See, I bring everything back around eventually. Just have faith in the blogs. Sayin.) Could I get someone to cover my shift the night of the concert?

Well, as I’ve previously whined about, I couldn’t. Nobody in my store cared about Tina or my desire to see her live. Nobody in any of the OTHER stores cared about Tina. Poor Tina. All those years with Ike and she still couldn’t get a break.

So it was the afternoon of the concert, and it was crunch time. I had couple of reasons in mind when I called the store manager. Foremost, of course, I intended to take the night off. Secondary to that, and it was very pleasing, was the fact that I waited until just a few hours before my shift, meaning there would be little time to find a replacement for me. The person currently on duty would be the one expected to work a double for this last-minute issue.

And who was on duty right now? George. The lying pig. My fingers were crossed that he would be stuck with it, after all the times I had covered for him.

I dial the phone.

Manager: “Yello?” (Can’t stand it when people answer like that.)

Me: “You are not going to believe what has happened.”

Manager: “What are you talking about?”

Me: “You are talking to a man with a collapsed lung.” (Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the drama queen in me surged forth when I made this call. I didn’t settle for something simple like pneumonia. Nope, I had to go off the charts with something dumb-ass but original. God, I was stupid.)

Manager: “A collapsed lung? Shouldn’t you be in the hospital?”

Me: “Oh, I was. In the emergency room. See, I have asthma, and I just got this new inhaler, and I had a reaction to it, and it shut down one of my lungs.”

Manager: “You have asthma? But you smoke.”

Oh crap. The asthma part was true, but I hadn’t had an attack in years. I just can’t stick to the supposed facts, I always have to embellish and it bites me in the ass. “Well, the asthma comes and goes. I usually don’t have a problem unless I’m really stressed. I guess I’ve been stressed about work lately.” (Trying to throw the issue back at him, natch.)

Manager: “What are you stressed about at work?”

See, why can’t I just SHUT UP when I’m trying to lie? Get to the point, and get off the phone. Geez. “Um, I don’t know. This whole thing with George.” (Ooh, that was good, personalize it with a slap at one of his family members.)

Then he surprises me. “Well, I kind of expected you to call in, with that Tina Turner concert and all.”

Totally busted. I had no response.

Manager: “But you get some rest. I’ll get somebody to cover your shift for the next couple of days. Maybe George. I think he could use the extra pay.”

So he knew exactly what I was doing. I think. And he was fine with it, even taking a subtle slam at George. I guess he was decent after all, in a roundabout way.

We said our goodbyes and hung up.

The Tina Turner concert was incredible, as anyone who has ever been to one of her concerts can attest. I was totally mesmerized way up there in my nose-bleed seats, surrounded by a bunch of queens just wanting to be her, if only for a moment.

Three days later, I called the store manager again. I was quitting, wouldn’t be back, sorry for the short notice. He wasn’t surprised. “Kind of tough down here, ain’t it?”

Yes, it was.

But it also made me strong. In some surprising ways.


And love to Justine, wherever she may be….

Monday, January 25, 2010

#14 - What’s Love Got to Do with It?, Part 4

I slowly closed the small drawer where my checkbook had been resting innocently less than a minute ago, and glanced around the store, listening for movement. But before I even had a chance to fully investigate, my inner sense told me that the store was completely empty except for myself.

You get this specialized ESP after you’ve worked in a store long enough, especially if your hours are spent on the midnight shift. You just know. You can be clear in the back of the store, changing out the mop water with the sink faucet running full blast, when suddenly you get this feeling that you have a customer. And 90% of the time your gut is right. You stroll out into the main part of the store, and there’s some yahoo clutching a wrinkled five-dollar bill and wanting a Klondike bar.

So how did this happen? If there really wasn’t anyone hiding in the bread aisle, ready to pounce on me with a vicious stale Danish, how did they pull it off? The only possibility was that someone knew exactly where to look, knew exactly when to race in, and knew exactly how much time they would have before I finished screwing around with the milk in the walk-in.

Which meant that someone had been watching me, hovering just out of sight and calculating the dirty deed. Right then, that bothered me more than the theft itself, the concept of some unknown person making plans in the dark while I walked around in the store, clueless about the impending assault.

I was really starting to hate this store.

Because there I was, once again contemplating whether or not I should call the police and report a crime against me. This just wasn’t a healthy way to live one’s life, having to involve civic authorities on a regular basis. Why wasn’t I working in an office building, where the most tragic thing that could happen would be someone swiping my stapler?

But really, I SHOULD call the police, right? Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do? Something about needing that police report just in case the criminal did something mind-boggling with my checks, and I was suddenly responsible for covering the cost of a vacation home in Bermuda. You hear stories. I didn’t want to be a story. I didn’t even want to be a footnote. I just wanted to live a simple life and maybe have sex every once in a while.

Just then, another person with her own sense of ESP rolled into the parking lot and got out of her squad car. Office Justine ambled into the store, fiddling with some new high-tech piece of gear that she had apparently just been issued and was still not familiar with the inner workings of the gadget. She finally sighed and plunked that thing down on the counter for future fiddling, and looked at me.

“Okay, who took what?” (See, she’s good.)

“I don’t know. And my checkbook.” I tried to look pitiful and in need of sympathy, because MY extra senses were telling me that I was about to be made responsible for my loss. Not only did that prove to be the case, but Justine got right to the point.

“Your checkbook? How’d they do that? You do something stupid?”

Sigh. “I left it in this drawer here and stepped away for FIVE SECONDS and now it’s gone. Just happened.”

Justine studied the drawer briefly. “Why the hell did you leave it there? There’s not even a lock on that thing. Why didn’t you just stand there and hand it to the next person that walked in?”

I quickly decided that I did not care for Justine at that particular point in my life. “I didn’t think anybody would take it. Not when the cash register is right THERE, and there’s no lock on THAT thing either. You just hit the ‘No Sale’ button and you’re in.”

She just looked at me. “That’s nice. Why don’t you put that on a brochure and hand them out in the parking lot? Better yet, why don’t you just take the tray of money and set it on the sidewalk out front? Huh? Save a lot of time, don’t you think?”

I was no longer smiling and just looked at her. She was smiling a tremendous amount and just looked at me. “Why are you enjoying this so much? Slow night?”

She picked up the gadget thing, jiggled something for a few seconds, then chunked it back down on the counter. “Might be getting transferred. Down south. Might happen pretty quick.”

“Isn’t that good? Better part of town and all.”

She poked at the gadget with one finger that had never seen a manicure in it’s life. “I like it just fine right here. I like the people around here. Good people. Most of ‘em, anyway.” Then she kind of glanced at me and then became very interested in a magazine on a rack to her right.

I was smiling again, but I kept it on the down low. Justine wasn’t the greatest when it came to expressing emotions. But I understood exactly what she was saying. And who she was saying it to.

Then she was all professional again. “I’ll go get the paperwork. Let’s write up this checkbook thing.”

“And I’ll go throw on some fresh coffee. Extra strong. No sugar, of course.”

“Never any sugar.” She slipped out the door.

Justine left a bit later, after my financial risk had been minimized with a time and date stamp. She reminded me at least three times to call the bank first chance I got. I swore and promised. She also told me to look around really good when I detailed the parking lot. My checkbook might not be that far from home.

And she was right. As I was lugging huge plastic sacks of trash to the bin behind the store, I found my checkbook lying on the lid of the bin. Which was kind of odd. The bin was inside a little walled area with a gate. You really wouldn’t know what was in there, unless you scoped it out or were maybe familiar with how these stores were organized. A faint little bell went off in my head, quiet enough that I couldn’t quite place what the bell was saying, but I definitely heard it ring.

All of my blank checks were still there, the numbers matching up with where I had left off with my scribbling in the register. All of the odds and ends that gather in your checkbook, like a lint trap for phone numbers and business cards and receipts, were still there. The only thing missing was the loose cash I had tucked in the book. Which had been about sixty bucks, because we had just gotten paid and that was usually what I allowed myself to receive as cash back when I cashed my paycheck every week. Kind of a sizable chunk for me to lose at the time, but not the end of the world. Lesson learned.

The faint bell in my head turned into a fire alarm a few days later, when the store manager called me one morning to say that corporate was investigating our store. There was money missing, but with the mess of paperwork that we filed every day (nothing was computerized then), it wasn’t clear who was to blame. We all had to take polygraph tests.

What? How could they even think it was me? I tried to get the scoop from the manager. “You know I always balance. Always. I’ve never had to call corporate.” (You had to do this if you were ten dollars over or under on your shift balance sheet.)

“I know you balance. Most of us balance. We all have to take the test. Everybody, me included.” There was an undercurrent to his voice, something odd. I didn’t know if he was telling me not to worry about it, or that I should be REALLY worried. I’m sure he couldn’t come right out and say it, but whatever message he was sending was not clear.

I hung up the phone, and that’s when I understood the warning bell that had faintly tolled on the night of the checkbook incident. Someone who worked AT my store had done this. That would explain how it had happened so quickly. It was someone that knew my habits, knew that I kept money in my checkbook and that I usually put the checkbook in my drawer, and knew how long it took me to do something like re-stock milk.

And they had come back after their shift to take my money. A lousy sixty bucks. And then they stupidly threw the checkbook into an area that only the employees would know contained the trash bins for our store.

Of course, this was all speculation on my part, but I suddenly felt like I was in a very twisted episode of “Murder, She Wrote”, just without the bit where somebody actually dies. And the bit where Angela Lansbury is involved. Or the bit where we figure out who the killer really is. But other than that, TOTALLY the same thing.

Anyway, I had to take a polygraph test. Prior to this, I hadn’t really thought much about such tests. I knew enough to understand that some people were not fond of these tests, because of the potential for false positives or whatever they are called, and the fact that professional liars can be very convincing. But I really didn’t care either way.

This all changed on that fateful morning.

Now, I’m sure things have improved since then. But at THAT time, the whole polygraph experience was so unsettling that you could easily be accused of lying about the most mundane things, like what day of the week it happened to be or whether or not a yellow balloon was, indeed, yellow.

I have a nervous nature anyway, so when I arrived in the corporate offices and was given directions to the Polygraph Room (they actually had a room dedicated to such a thing?), I was already on edge. The mere fact that you were being required to take the test made all the office workers view you with suspicion, so as you proceeded through all the Checkpoint Charlie’s in the place, your nerves were further shot by all the people who refused to look directly at you. The intimidation factor was at red alert.

So I get in this creepy room, and the first thing you notice is the chair where you assume that you will have to sit. It looks like an electric chair, where hungry people got fried for stealing chickens during the height of the Great Depression. All kinds of wires and monitors and high-voltage lines hanging off of it.

Off to one side is a man sitting at a machine that is connected by various cables to the death chair. I notice that he is fiddling with knobs on this machine, while he studies a graph that is being produced on a roll of paper that is spooling on to the floor. I also notice that he has incredibly greasy hair that has simply been brushed back away from his face, rather than being washed like it should have been for the last several years. And the body odor coming off of him that I can feel like an invisible wall? It took my breath away.

“Please have a seat,” he says, as I’m imagining that he probably has fungus growing on his body.

Well, the only available seat is the death chair, so I steel myself and gingerly lower my ass into the thing, fully expecting a bolt of electricity that will turn me into ash and bone.

Greasy Man clicks something that causes his machine to quit spooling, wipes his sleeve across his dripping nose in yet another example of how disgusting a human being can be, and then approaches me as I quiver at the terminus of The Green Mile. He attaches something to my right index finger, something else to my left wrist, straps yet another thing around my neck so that something dangles down and he affixes it to my chest over my heart, and finally grabs this flexible tube, which appears to be breathing organically on its own, and wraps it twice around my stomach.

“Just relax,” he mumbles, before returning to his station on the Starship Enterprise.

How in the HELL am I supposed to relax in this condition, with enough wires, tubing and electricity attached to my body that if I cross my legs in the wrong way I might send all known satellites spinning out of orbit? Real easy for YOU to say, Stinky Grease Man.

He turns his little machine back on, and the spool of paper starts dripping on the floor again. “I’m just going to ask you a few questions to set a baseline reading. Don’t think about the answer, just respond with the first thing that comes to mind.”

Don’t think about the answer? What the hell does that mean, don’t think? Don’t you WANT me to think about the answer so that I can say something that makes sense? Because otherwise, my answer is going to be “screw you, and please wash your hair.”

My thoughts of hatred do not deter him in any way, so at least I understand that he is not psychic. “Please state your full name.”

“Brian. Gregory. Lageose.”

Even with all the torturous devices affixed to various parts of my body and thereby hindering my functional abilities, I can clearly see the spindly printing needle that is making the seismographic line on his paper, and right after I answer I watch the needle shoot to the top of the page with alarming velocity and power. The needle makes tiny whipping movements in this position, with such agitation that it finally tears the paper and causes the whole machine to shut down. A small red light blinks on to indicate that we have a showstopper, all of the various appliances roped around my body emit beeps of displeasure, and the lights in the room actually dim.

“Oh my,” says Greasy Man. “Something seems to be amiss.”

Amiss? Well, I would think so. I simply said my name, and now we have a rolling brown-out sweeping across the county. And this is the part where I’m supposed to relax?

Greasy Man then heaves himself up, wanders over, checks all of the connections to me, to his machine, and to the national power grid in general. He doesn’t find anything worth any commentary, since he only emits a few grunts and a couple gushes of body odor, then returns to the Starship. He reloads the paper supply in his oversensitive machine, checks the printer cartridges, then unsnaps the needle printer from its frightened position at the top of the chart, forcing the needle back down to baseline.

“Let’s try this again,” he says.

“Okay,” I say.

“Please don’t speak unless you are responding to a question.”

Oh really? Is that how we’re playing this? Fine. At this point, my overwhelming hatred of him is nearly equal to my anxiety-attack level of discomfort with this whole situation. I have done nothing wrong, but corporate incompetence has led to me being a guinea pig in some twisted attempt to find the person who actually HAS done the wrong. Game on.

“Please state your full name.”


There’s a flash of sparks and the room goes dark.

Click Here to Read the Next Entry in This Series:

Friday, January 22, 2010

#13 - What’s Love Got to Do with It?, Part 3

So there I am, standing next to my rumbling car, trying to figure out what I’m going to do, now that I’ve locked my keys inside the running car. And this is a Mustang Mach II, a muscle-car wannabe that does not purr quietly. The chugging of the engine is meant to attract attention. You can’t help but notice the noise. Drunks at the blood bank across the street are fully aware that the engine is alive.

Which means that everybody in the parking lot is aware of my situation, within seconds, as I stand beside the car with a panicked expression on my face and yanking on a door that will not budge. It’s morning rush hour, so there are tons of looky-loos milling about, and of course one of them has to ask something idiotic.

“Did you lock your keys in that thing?”

No, I just want to steal this car, but I’m not as smart as you and I don’t know how to do it. Perhaps you could give me some pointers since, based on your appearance with the stained overalls and the chewing tobacco juice dribbling off your chin, you probably know some folks with some helpful tips. Then I take a deep breath and calm down. It’s not this guy’s fault. I need to quit being such a bitter, sarcastic drama queen, even if I don’t know how to act any other way.

“Yeah, I guess I did. Pretty dumb-ass on my part.”

He sidles up a little closer, quite pleased to find himself engaged in an actual conversation, since he’s used to people just running the other way. (See, I can’t help myself, the sarcasm just oozes,) “Well, get you one of them hangers.”

Hangers? Hangers! Yes, a wire hanger, so I can snake it through the window seal and try to pull up the lock knob. “Great idea. Be right back. Can you keep an eye on this for me?” He immediately beams at the prospect of this new mission, hooking his thumbs under the straps of the overalls and looking around to see who has noticed that he has important things to do with HIS life.

So I race back into the store. The manager looks at me with a quizzical expression. “I thought you were gone.”

“Thought I was, too.” Then I zip right past him without further explanation, headed toward the back room. I don’t want to talk to him at all. He’s a boring man, with boring things to say. He’ll only slow me down.

I crash through the swinging doors in the rear of the store, and nearly slam into the bread truck guy as he waddles out of the bathroom, still pulling up his pants and fiddling with his belt. Very nice. He was raised GOOD. Of course, he probably didn’t expect Jessie Owens to sprint by as he was coming out of the bathroom, but still, finish your business before you open the bathroom door. It’s just the right thing to do, okay?

Side note: The just-vacated bathroom is a major point of contention in this store. See, the manager does not want the rest of us to let the public use our private restroom. And I completely agree with that, all for it, don’t wanna clean up after these nasty people anyway Trouble is, on HIS shift, he lets anybody and their dog use this bathroom, waving hordes of people on through.

Which leads to complications on the rest of the shifts. When I tell drunken people that we don’t have a public bathroom, they want to argue with me, because they just peed in said bathroom a few hours ago with the complete blessing of the other guy, the MANAGER guy. You’re not the manager.

Look, you smelly little heathen with your ugly girlfriend, I’m the manager RIGHT NOW. And you’re not going back there.

Then you need to call the real manager. He’ll tell you I can go back there.

No, you need to just leave and go pee where you normally pee. You must live somewhere nearby, because you’re always in here trying to get a deal on the day-old fried pies.

And so it would go. Every night, at some point, there would be a discussion on who has the right to pee where. But I wouldn’t give in. I didn’t want these people in the bathroom. If I can’t see you, I don’t know what you’re doing, and in this part of town, visual contact is important to survival. For God’s sake, some of you folks will steal the Godzilla stick just because it’s not bolted down.

But of course, I did let a select few make use of the facilities. Justine, for one, was welcome to LIVE in the bathroom if she indicated an interest in doing so. For the most part, though, I was the ass that made you hold it until you got home.

Anyway, back to the quest for a wire hanger, I side-stepped around bread truck guy and sped to the little section where we keep our personal things. There was a tiny closet where we could hang things up, so I ripped open the door with a rush of excitement.

All of the hangers I could see were plastic. Great.

Just then, I heard the manager guy bang through the swinging doors. Terrific. I did NOT want to talk to him, I’d already lost enough hours of my life as he babbled on about meaningless things like bait, fertilizer and whether or not corn meal would take the sting out of poison ivy.

Luckily, the manager stopped to chat with the bread guy, who was still fiddling with his belt buckle. (Come ON, Einstein, you put the prong in the hole. How do you manage to drive a truck? Or tie your shoes?) Einstein was a talker, too, so they immediately launched into a lengthy discussion on the mating habits of the hoot owl or some such.

Just as I was about to forlornly close the closet door, I spotted a discarded wire hanger on the floor of the cubicle, shoved to the back. It was old and rusty, and was covered in that thin, crackly paper they used to be wrapped in way back in the day, advertising some dry cleaning establishment that probably burned to the ground twenty years ago. But it would work. I snatched it up and reversed my course.

I tried to avoid eye contact with the manager as he continued to chat with Dough Boy, but I guess he caught the flash of my team smock as I sped by. “Brian?”

I kept moving. “What?”

“What are you doing?”

I slammed through the swinging doors, startling an elderly woman clutching a honey bun. “Nothing. I’ll tell you in a minute.” Translation: “I have no intention of coming back in this store. Leave me alone.”

I got back outside, where Festus was still lording over the rumbling car, grinning broadly at anybody who happened to glance in his direction. (“I’m in charge!”) Then he noticed me, and the smile faded and he snapped into what he assumed was a military-like position. He was taking this far too seriously.

I ripped the wrapper off the hanger, and started twisting the curved part to unwind the two ends of the wire. This is difficult to do when you’re trying to hurry and get it done before talkative people come outside for further investigation.

Festus: “Son, I think that you-”

Me: “Just a second. Almost got it.”

Festus: “But the lock-”

Me: “Hang on. A couple more twists…” And then the ends were free. I straightened the thing out, and made a little hook on one end. I jiggled it through the top of the window and snaked the metal toward the lock. Wait a minute. Aw hell.

Festus: “Ain’t nothing to hook it on. I was tryin to tell you.”

Sigh. I’d forgotten that the top of the lock button was smooth as anything, just this little piston thing that basically disappeared into the hole when it was pushed down. This little operation was not going to go anywhere. I pulled the wire back out and threw it on the ground in frustration.

Festus: “Ain’t the hanger’s fault.”

I suddenly wanted farmer man to go do something else for a while. Thanks for the guard duty, please continue on your way to the cattle show or wherever you were headed. Say “hey” to the missus for me. I’m assuming her name is not Elsie.

But Festus was determined to assist. There hadn’t been this much excitement in his life since Billy Ray Bodean got lickered up at the barn dance and showed his tackle. “Who else has got a key? Somebody close?”

And again, I’m making fun of the yokel but he’s the one with the good ideas. Really need to work on that sarcastic thing and start listening to people.

But wait. The only other person who has a key is Dad. Oh boy. That was a phone call I did NOT want to make unless my life depended on it. And even then, there would be hesitation. Call Dad, or ascend to the pearly gates? I’d really have to think on that one.

You see, Dad had convinced himself long ago that I would never amount to anything. Which wasn’t true. I got along fairly decently and I paid my bills on time. But every once in a while I would do something completely dumb-ass, and of course he would find out, and then he’d put another notch in his lipstick case.

I sighed again. “Well, I guess I could call my dad.”

Festus: “He gotta key?”

Me: “Yeah. And an attitude.” (Like I didn’t have one. Tree, apple, not far, right?)

Festus: “Daddies always have attitudes. That’s why they’re daddies.”

I was beginning to really like this man in the overalls. Maybe he could adopt me?

Festus: “Well, son, I gotta head out. You sure you can find your daddy?”

Me: “Yeah. Just gotta make a few calls.”

Festus: “Good enough for gov’ment work. I’ll see ya.” Then he turned and headed toward his beat-up pickup.

Me, calling after him: “Hey, thanks a lot. I appreciate it.”

He just raised an arm and did a half-wave in the air, then kept walking.

I watched him go for a bit, then turned back to the store. I would have to go inside to use the phone (no cell phones in 1986), meaning I would probably have to actually speak to the manager this time. Great. Two people I didn’t want to talk to, all lined up and ready to torment me.

I walked in the front door.

Manager: “Is that YOUR car that we can hear? Why are you just letting that thing run? And why aren’t you leaving? Why is that hanger on the ground? Didn‘t you detail the parking lot last night?”

Sigh. “I locked my keys in the car. And yes, while it was running.”

Manager: “That’s pretty stupid.”

Ya think?

I elbowed my way past him and picked up the phone. Dad worked for the phone company, and was usually out in the field, installing lines in houses while bored housewives flirted with him. So I got transferred around until somebody figured out the right Dispatch center, then finally the man himself was on the line.

I told my sad tale.

Silence on the line. Then: “Why did you do that?”

I gritted my teeth. This is what I’m talking about. I didn’t do this on purpose. It was an accident. Why does this man not understand accidents? “Can you help me out. Are you anywhere near here?”

Silence on the line. Then: “No. But I’ll be there in thirty minutes.” Click.

So I sat on the curb in the parking lot, chain-smoking and avoiding the inside of the store where co-workers asked too many questions. Eventually Dad pulls up in his rig, hands me the spare key, then stands there and observes to make sure I understand how to insert the key and turn the lock. I’m in.

Dad: “Go to the auto store, make a copy of the key, and get one of those little plastic boxes with the magnet on the back. Stick it on an axle.”

Then he’s gone.

I get in the car, drive back to my tiny apartment, break out the beer, and I’m happily buzzed by 11am in the morning. Things are so twisted around when you work the midnight shift. My night is your morning. And yes, I got the stupid key box.

A few nights later, I of course had to share all of this with Justine. She was greatly amused. “I could have popped that lock for you.”

“But it was after your shift. You were probably dead to the world already.”

She took a sip of her coffee. “Would have LOVED to see your dad’s face when he showed up.” And then she cackled and snorted in her earthy way.

“You’re a BAD woman. Evil.”

She was still laughing as she headed out the door and into the night.

I got busy with some of my paperwork. (It was really amazing how much paperwork we had to do. Seriously. We had to notate every time we blinked.) Finishing that up, I took my checkbook out of my front pocket, pulling out a few dollars I had stashed in there to pay for the chocolate milk and sandwich I had consumed earlier (we didn’t get ANYTHING for free, unlike the police officers), rang it up, then decided to put the checkbook in my personal drawer in the back counter because I was tired of the checkbook banging against my leg.

Then, as I paused for a second to consider which of my chores I should tackle next, I noticed that the milk row was empty in the dairy part of the refrigerated section on the back wall. I headed to the walk-in cooler, shoved four containers of milk into the row, and went back to the check-out counter.

My personal drawer was slightly open. Did I not close that all the way?

I pulled the drawer open. My checkbook was gone.

I broke out in a cold sweat. I had stepped away for roughly 30 seconds. What was going on? There had been no time for someone to walk in here, take the checkbook, and get back out the door.

Who was in the store?

And where?

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#12 - What’s Love Got to Do with It?, Part 2

Needless to say, having a gun pointed at me was not one of the more calming and relaxing moments in my life. I’m sure my jaw hit the ground, because the whole scene came out of nowhere and caught me completely off guard. I may have even wet myself a little bit. Not sure.

Anyway, the kid with the gun. Once he saw the look on my face, he threw his head back and laughed. Then he just turned and walked away. Slowly. Like he was just out for a stroll and looking at the stars, might even stop by for an ice cream cone if Braum’s was still open.

I just stood there for a minute, with white noise flooding my brain instead of any useful electrical impulses that might help me process what had just happened. Then I realized I was still clutching the cigarette order in one sweaty hand. I snapped to and threw the damn thing down on the counter. There would be no more counting tonight.

But what should I do now? Do I need to call the police? Surely that was a crime, what just happened. It HAD to be a crime. Nobody should get away with something like that. Then again, this was Oklahoma, and some of these people have an inordinate amount of affection for their handguns. Pointing your gun at someone might not even be a misdemeanor, for all I knew. You might have to actually pull the trigger before you get your hand slapped.

Oddly enough, during the whole encounter, it never once crossed my mind to push the panic button near the cash register. That’s what the button was for, to notify the police if something serious was going down. We are fully schooled on the proper use of this button during training. Robbery? Gang violence? Crazed people with implements of death? Push the damn button!

I didn’t even think of it. Good to know that I had a completely level-head in a time of crisis and followed procedure, yes?

But could I push it now, after the fact and all? Maybe not. It wouldn’t be right for me to occupy some police officers when something much more serious might be going down somewhere else. Part of me was already convinced that the kid was just pissed at me because I wouldn’t sell him any beer, and all he wanted to do was scare me. (Mission accomplished.) I probably wouldn’t see him again.

Then again, we’re talking about a basically deranged kid who thought it was okay to wave a gun at me in the first place. What ELSE did he think would be okay? What if he’d only disappeared so he could find some of his little friends who also had access to weapons of mass destruction? I picked up the phone.

Just then, headlights bounced across the front of the store as a squad car pulled into the parking lot. Wow. Did I just make a telepathic 9-1-1 call? If so, I needed to figure out how to make some money off this newfound skill.

The squad car parked right at the front doors, and the headlights blinked off. I could now see that it was Justine, one of the officers who patrolled this area. She liked to get her coffee from our store, probably because I threw on a fresh pot every time I thought about it, unlike the slackers at some of the other stores who would let the coffee simmer down to nothing but black tar.

I patiently waited for Justine to do all her little sign off crap and get out of the car. It was always a mystery to me, this whole process that Justine would go through before exiting the vehicle. She would flip switches and turn dials and fiddle with this and that in a complex array of motions. It would not have surprised if the space shuttle had launched out of her trunk by the time she was done.

She finally wrapped it up, popped open the car door, hauled herself out and sauntered toward the store. (Justine, despite the pretty name, was not the most feminine creature on the planet. She’s one of those people who is fully comfortable with releasing an echoing belch regardless of where she might be.)

Justine opened the front door, took two steps in, glanced at my face, and screeched to a halt. “What happened?”

I was still a little rattled, so I’m sure I came out with something like “This kid… and he… and I didn’t… and the gun… and his tongue…and-”

She held up a hand. “It’s alright. Slow down. I got time. Let me grab some coffee while you start over.”

So Justine moseyed to the coffee area, quietly performing the intricate routine that some serious coffee drinkers have, where everything has to be done in a certain order, while I took a deep breath and babbled away about the beer-less bastard. She would nod every few words to indicate that my signal was being received and that I should keep going.

Then Justine calmly walked back to me at the counter, blew on her coffee, took a very tiny sip, grimaced slightly to indicate that it was still a little too warm, set the cup on the counter, and then looked at me. “He won’t be back. You’re good. But let’s do some paperwork anyway.”

She trotted back out to her car, where she grabbed up a clipboard and a folder and some other official looking things. Then she came back in the store, spread out her materials over one section of the counter, and uncapped a pen. “Tell me everything again.”

So I did. And she kept asking questions and wanting more information, pausing every now and then as I attended to other customers as they came into the store, to the point where I started wondering why she was being so thorough. Then it dawned on me. She was just trying to keep me company, staying with me until I quit worrying about being alone in the store and that jerk coming back.

Eventually, of course, she had to go. I tried to thank her, but of course she blew that off. Just doing her job. “But I’ll check back in later, in case you remember some more details or something.” And check back she did. The woman drank more coffee that shift than one would think is humanly possible.

And she was right. I never saw that kid again.

But I definitely saw more of Justine. Mostly coffee runs. You see, it was an understood policy with Quik Trip that any police officer was welcome to free beverages and, well, basically anything they wanted. It was a discreet thank you, but it also kept them coming in the store, and that’s always a good thing. Especially in the high-risk stores. You WANT officers to just show up with some degree of regularity. I was fully prepared to cook them a five-course meal if necessary

Sadly, Justine had to make quite a few “official” visits as well. That store had a lot of “runners”. These are the folks that just walk in the store, grab whatever they wanted (usually beer) and then run out the door without paying for it. There was a dividing line we had to follow: Less than twenty dollars in merchandise, you could just write it off. Over twenty? It was technically a felony, and you had to make a police report.

It got to the point where Justine always brought her clipboard every time she came in, just in case. Generally, somebody ran every night. There was nothing you could do to stop them, especially if the store was busy.

Well, there was ONE thing you could do. After 11pm, we were allowed to lock one of the double doors at the entrance. I usually locked the door people typically considered the “out” door, so the runners wouldn’t notice this road hazard on the way in.

I have to say, I did find this locked door to be quite entertaining when it came to the runners. There was something very satisfying about it when some stoner would slink in the store, grab two 12-packs of beer, haul ass to the front of the store, and then slam face-first into immovable glass. It was a crunching sound that I greatly enjoyed.

Anyway, Justine and I became buddies. And one of the things that greatly amused her was being able to subtly torture me whenever possible. Her favorite thing to ask me when she made her first appearance on any given evening? “You gotta stick the tanks tonight?”

Ah yes, the sticking of the tanks. As in the huge, underground receptacles that held the fuel that fed the gas pumps. “Sticking the tanks” meant measuring how much gasoline was left. And this was an activity that no one who actually worked in the stores wanted to do. Ever. We hated it.

Remember, it’s 1986. Things just weren’t as high-tech as they are now. In fact, in comparison, some things were pretty primitive. And this, ladies and gentleman, is how one sticks the tanks:

Each store had been furnished with this incredibly long wooden stick, maybe fifteen feet long, with inches marked off all down one side. It was like a yardstick intended for Godzilla. Because this thing was so long, we had to keep it outside. Because our store was in a crappy part of town where people will steal ANYTHING, the stick often went missing.

I actually appreciated thievery when it came to the stick, because it meant I didn’t have to stick the damn tanks until somebody ordered another one, and that was not my job. On the flip side, there was always a tiny moment of sadness when I arrived for work each evening and the stick WAS there, lying along the front of the store, waiting smugly for sticking time.

When you stick a tank, you snatch up Godzilla’s yardstick, hoist it over your should like those poles that high-jumpers use, trudge out to the various tanks, open the access cover, twist open the cap on the tank (and these caps were ALWAYS rusted shut, even if you had just opened them the night before), stand the stick on its end so that it is reaching for the stars, then gently lower the stick into the tank (you can’t just drop it in, because the stick could snap in two, and then you’re screwed).

Once the stick hits the bottom of the tank, you pull the thing back out, locate where on the stick that the wetness stops, find the corresponding inch marker, and note this figure on the official sticking report.

Now, this might sound rather simple, but it’s not. There are a number of factors that can get mixed into the process that can gum things up and cause heartache. Some of these factors are just innocent little glitches that are mainly irritating without causing too much of a problem. Other factors are downright evil and can only be due to the work of the devil.

First off, you are not allowed to stick the tanks if any customer is pumping gas at the same time. I was never made privy to the reasoning behind this protocol, but the impression was given that someone could feasibly perish if you dare to stick while pumping is taking place. So you had to wait until the wee hours of the morning, when the roads were relatively quiet and chances were slim that someone would require a petroleum product from your establishment.

Unfortunately, the only people who ARE on the road in the wee hours tend to be drunken people with focus issues. The entire parking lot could be vacant, not a soul in sight, when suddenly there’s a roar and some crazed redneck could come barreling out of the night.

Why is this critical?

Well. Each gas pump had its own tank. This store had four pumps, ergo four tanks. You would think all of the tank access points would be in a central area. They are not. They are scattered all over the parking lot. Sometimes they are in incredibly stupid places, like smack in the middle of the parking lot entrance. (You’ve seen these things and may not have realized it. You know those metal plates in the asphalt that you sometimes drive over, and they make that horrendous noise like you’ve just lost your transmission? Bingo.)


So you have to be very careful when you are sticking the tanks, because you’re right in the traffic zone, but because you’re bent over screwing around with the rusty cap or the wooden stick, people don’t necessarily see you, especially if they’ve had 14 margaritas over at Sally’s Pool Hall. They might see the STICK, because it’s taller than the store, but drunken people don’t take heed of a flimsy stick. Such a thing is not going to slow them down in their quest for some Doritos and a pack of beef jerky.

End result, you need to be very quick when you stick, and if you even THINK you hear tires squealing on pavement, you drop the stick and run like hell.

Trouble is, there are challenges that might impede you from making a hasty job of things. For one, it’s often pitch black around the tank openings. You can’t see the damn numbers. So you have to wiggle the stick around, trying to catch a glimmer of reflective light from the stars or maybe a passing plane. Or you have to drag the stick over to a better light source, which means the tank access pit is wide open while you do so, and Aunt Effie, who just needs a few eggs for the church breakfast, might break an axle when she pulls in.

Wait, there’s more. Because there are multiple tanks that need sticking, you have to DRY OFF the stick between tanks. Otherwise, you can’t tell where the new “wet line” is. So there you are, with an oily rag, rubbing away on this enormous stick, trying to hurry and creating enough friction that there could feasibly be a flash fire. As you stand over hundreds of gallons of gasoline.

Meanwhile, Justine is inside the store, sipping her coffee and laughing her ass off as I race madly around the parking lot, twisting, sticking, reading, and rubbing, not to mention running for the hills every five seconds when I hear a car coming.

And what makes Justine laugh even MORE? Fuel delivery night.

Because on those nights, there’s an additional tank to stick. This one is on wheels. And the access point is two stories off the ground. Yes, boys and girls, we actually have to climb ON TOP of the tanker truck that rolls up with fresh fuel.

Picture it. I’m clutching that humongous stick, trying not to whip it around too much and possibly decapitate the tanker driver. I have to climb up this ladder on the side of the tanker, using only one hand, of course, and this ladder has very thin rungs spaced widely apart. It’s like a demented jungle gym designed by twisted and bored sadists.

Once I’m on top of the tanker? Well, I’m sure you’ve seen these things. The tank is round, one long tube full of sloshing liquid. Meaning the top of the tanker is not flat. It curves downward to both sides. One misstep and I could be sliding and tumbling to my death. So it’s all about taking slow, baby steps, inching my way to the access cap. Twist the thing open, shove in the stick, write down the number, slap the cap back on, slip-slide my way back to the jungle gym, and try not to poke anybody with the stick before I’m back on solid ground.

And hey, I get to do this whole routine TWICE. We measure before they unload the fuel, and after they unload the fuel, so we then know how much our bill should be. (I told you this was primitive.)

So on delivery nights, after sticking four tanks and the tanker, drying off the stick every time I turn around, running from drunken motorists, cussing the laughing Justine as she pops out in the parking lot and yells at me on the tanker “Hey, you’re out of sugar! Hurry up!”, I’m usually completely exhausted by 3am. I’m covered in dried sweat, reeking of gasoline, and I just want to go home.

It was the morning after one of these delivery nights that I had another thrill-filled adventure at this evil store. Because of the delivery, I had been behind on all my other duties, just barely finishing up when the next shift arrived. I staggered out the door, filled up my car with some of the fresh gasoline (might as well), and started to drive away.

Then I realized that I had forgotten to finish out my shift report. It would only take a second to do, so I left the car running while I dashed inside, added a few figures, signed the thing and shoved it in the appropriate slot, then raced back to my car.

The door was locked. What the hell? Did I do that? WHY would I do that? The car was running, so obviously the keys were inside, but I peeked in the window anyway to confirm. Yep. There they were, dangling away and teasing me. Out of desperation, I checked the passenger door and the hatchback. Of course they were locked.

You have GOT to be kidding me.

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Thursday, January 21, 2010

#11 - What’s Love Got to Do with It?, Part I

1986, just a few days into the year. Most people were still hung over, and society in general was moving very slowly in that lethargic, oh my GOD, we have another year to deal with kind of way.

Tina Turner was coming to town, and I desperately wanted to see her in concert. She was still riding high from the “Private Dancer” album that had snatched her from relative obscurity and threw her back to the top of the charts where she rightfully belonged. The girl was blazing hot and everybody wanted a piece of that.

Well, not everybody.

Trouble is, I was scheduled to work the night of the concert, and I was having an irritatingly difficult time getting anyone to trade shifts with me. No one was interested in my dilemma. (I perhaps should have kept my mouth shut about the actual reason for the trade. Attending a concert is not quite the same as, say, a medical condition requiring surgery.)

I couldn’t even get a polite “maybe” out of any of my co-workers. Looking back, this should not have surprised me one bit. After all, I was working with a bunch of redneck guys that had probably never even heard any music that did not involve banjos and farming vehicles of some kind. In addition, all of these guys were bitter, vindictive men who hated where they worked and, by association, hated everyone who worked there with them.

You see, at the time, I was employed by the illustrious firm of Quik Trip, Inc. This was (and still is) a chain of convenience stores based in Tulsa. And actually, as far as convenience stores go, we were at the top of the food chain. Quik Trip was known for the cleanliness of the stores and the quality of the service. We actually received considerable training. And our outfits were cuter than anybody else.

But still. It was a convenience store. There was only so much glamour and excitement to go around.

And even when you work for a high-end and fancy chain like that, there are going to be some pitfalls. Not all employees got the opportunity to experience the tragic side of the corporation. In fact, most of the employees were unaware of such a thing as the “high-risk” store.

Sounds intriguing, yes? It’s not. This just means that a particular store has been constructed in a part of town that has seen far better days. That there might be some unsavory characters comprising part of your clientele. In fact, because it’s a “high-risk” store, one of your customers might even kill you and take all the Fritos and bean dip. But hey, we had a great benefits package.

I don’t know why they had these stores. Most of the Quik Trip locations were in really nice parts of town, or at least decent parts of town. All of the customers were yuppies and everyone said “Thank you.” But for whatever reason, the corporation insisted on this handful of stores in some really dumb-ass places.

I didn’t start out in a risky store. My initial assignments were way in the south of Tulsa, at that time a booming place of exploding growth. Buildings were going up so fast that the concrete was still wet. I liked working in those stores. People were thoughtful and kind, full of grace and humanity. Probably because they weren’t running for their lives to avoid being gunned down by the local crack dealer.

In fact, there was one holiday when I had to pull a triple, working from 3pm on Christmas Eve to 3pm on Christmas day. (I was the only single person on staff at that store, I have a soft spot in my heart when it comes to Christmas, and I could use the premium pay.) I expected the customer flow to be light. What I didn’t expect was what those few customers would do when they walked in the door.

They brought me food. Christmas dinner. When you work in a particular location, you get to know the regulars, and they get to know you. You see the same people every day, and you develop mini-friendships. But still, it didn’t prepare me for the neighborhood reaction when word got out that I was pulling a triple on Christmas.

Next thing I know, there’s a parade of people lugging in all kinds of stuff to eat. Before long, there was enough food stacked in the walk-in cooler that I could have lived in there for weeks. It completely moved me, decent people doing a decent thing, that they didn’t have to do. (Yes, I cried a little bit when no one was in the store.) One of those moments when your belief in the basic goodness of humanity is affirmed.

I smiled a lot when I worked in the south Tulsa stores.

Then the day came when I smiled no more.

The area manager called me up one day, when I was singing and twirling in one of the pretty stores, and advised me that he had a GREAT opportunity. One of his stores had a staff that was a little unfocused, and they needed some help getting things in order. My performance appraisals showed that I was doing a humdinger of a job, and they sure could use me up in the north part of town.

Stupidly, I let myself be flattered. (They liked me! They really liked me!) Whatever I can do, Mr. Area Manager Man, to help this company be a shining beacon to the nation. Just tell me where to go and I’ll go there at once.

“There” turned out to be the intersection of Lewis and Admiral. Uh oh. I didn’t know much about the exact location, but I knew enough about the general vicinity that my heart skipped a beat. It was an incredibly crappy part of town. What was this man doing to me? I thought we were friends.

He kept chattering away on the phone, really trying to talk up this new assignment. Now that I had been apprised of an actual address, I suddenly noticed the desperation he was cleverly trying to hide in his voice. This was not his first phone call of the day. I was no longer a humdinger. I was merely the next in line on what was apparently a long list.

I slightly hinted that perhaps I would like to stay where I was. He hinted back a little more strongly that if I wanted to move up at all in the company, that I WOULD be doing this, and doing it with great enthusiasm. Oh, and there would be a slight bump in pay if I played nice and said yes.

Oh, well that did it right there. More money? At a time when the only furniture in my tiny apartment was strategically-placed record albums? Hell, yeah. What’s the address again?

Little did I know that employees in these high-risk stores referred to the salary “bump” as combat pay. It would not take me long to understand this terminology. In fact, it would not take me long to consider using my bump to purchase protective weapons from some of my new customers. The kind of customers that did not bring you food.

Let me tell you a little bit about the location of this store.

At one time, this had been a rather plush place to live and work. It was not that far from the original “downtown” Tulsa, so my assumption is that some of the fancier families had moved to the area and created a bustling neighborhood. By studying some of the buildings from the past that are still standing, you realize that some serious money went into their construction.

I have no idea what happened between then and now, but it wasn’t good. It was a total crap-fest by the time I rolled up to my newest Quik Trip assignment, several decades after the bloom was gone from this former flower of the city.

Directly across the street was a blood bank, housed in one of the faded-glory buildings of yore. There is one thing you need to understand about blood banks that are located in low-income sections of town, especially if the star-date is 1986: One of the biggest donor segments is composed of drunks and homeless people. Not kidding.

This blood bank was actually a satellite office, so they only accepted donations on certain days. On these designated mornings, I would watch these filthy people crawl out of wherever, and then attempt to form a line in front of the building, even though most of them had the jitters of some kind and could not keep still. It was quite a sight.

Once they had been drained and received a cash payment for their services (yes, they were paid, this was not an act of generosity on their part), the drunks would walk out the bank door, stagger across the busy street with no regard for oncoming traffic, and throw themselves through the front door of our store. Once inside, they headed to the beer section and picked out the best combination of cheapness and quantity they could find.

Then they would wobble up to the counter, throw down their selection, and demand a pack of smokes as well. They would spend every last penny on beer and cigarettes. It made me sick. But there was nothing I could do, I had to ring them up. They weren’t drunk at the time of purchase, although they soon would be. And out the door they would go.

This is what some people become. And so it goes. Reflect on your life, and be thankful. Just sayin.

Directly to the right of our store was an odd, brown building. There were no recognizable windows in this building, just some very decrepit and old wooden siding, running the whole perimeter of the building. There were no signs to indicate exactly what type of establishment this might be.

But something was going on over there. At the back of the lot was a small parking lot, holding perhaps ten or twelve cars. And it was always full. Always. I never saw anyone enter the building, or leave the building, but the cars changed all the time.

It was fascinating, in a way. But creepy in another. Seriously, what was that thing all about?

As mentioned, when you work in a convenience store, you develop mini-friendships. People open up after a while. So I tried to do a little sleuthing concerning this mysterious structure.

Me: “So, what’s up with the brown building?”

Mack Daddy Yo: “That one over there? Hell, I don’t know. Ain’t got no clue. You?

Me: “Uh, no. That’s why I’m asking. Ever been in there?”

Mack Daddy Yo: “Me? Hell no. I’m not goin in there. My girl said somebody died up in there.”

Me: “Died? Really?”

Mack Daddy Yo: “Hell yeah. DEAD kinda dead.”

Me: “Wow, that’s some kinda dead alright.” (Yes, you pick up the lingo after a while, can’t help it.)

Mack Daddy Yo: “Sho nuff. Say, you got the new ‘Juggs’ in?”

On the other side of the brown death-building, once you crossed Admiral, was a porn store. A very popular porn store. Apparently, people came from miles around to peruse the wares. In fact, it was such a happening spot that, on the weekends, the porn store parking lot would fill up, and randy folks would start parking in our lot.

Which meant that one of our weekend duties, believe it or not, was chasing off the this surplus so that people who wanted to visit OUR store would be able to do so. That was a lot of fun, intercepting drunk and horny people, and trying to make them understand that they would have to move. This was known as porn duty. Me being the new guy, I usually got stuck with this thrilling assignment.

Me: “Dude, you can’t park there.”

Jerk: “Why the hell not? Who the hell are you?”

Me: “I work right here. If you’re going to BUY something right here, that’s cool, come on in.”

Jerk: “You got any snatch mags?”

Me: “Well, nothing like you’re going to find over there.”

Jerk: “Then I don’t wanna go in there.”

Me: “Then you need to move.”

Jerk: “Who the hell are you? I can park wherever the hell I want. Hell.”

Me: “You need to move. Or I can call the cops. You want me to call the cops? I can do that. Seriously. Want me to?”

Jerk: “Oh really? Well, I can kick your ass. You want me to kick your ass? I can do that.”

(Keep in mind that I’m 20 years old at the time. I don’t look like I can kick a pebble, let alone an ass. Yet I’m supposed to be Mr. Tough Guy in charge of chasing off the drunken farmers who are determined to find pleasure in lewd publications. I don’t WANT to be this guy. I’m all FOR the release of sexual tension. Go Big O! But I have bills to pay and a job to keep.)

Me: “Dude, come on. I’m just telling ya what’s what. If I owned this store, you could do whatever you want, hump the gas pumps, knock yourself out. But I don’t own it. I just work here. And I wanna keep my job. You with me?”

Jerk, pausing for a second as he sways back and forth beside his car, then: “Yeah, I guess. But I wanna see some titties. I just wanna SEE some TITTIES!”

(Am I seriously having this conversation? I graduated from high school with honors. I have two years of college under my belt. And I have no desire to look at titties. Ever. But circumstances have led to me having this particular verbal exchange with some inbred yahoo whilst standing in the parking lot of a convenience store in the bad part of town. I really thought my SAT scores would have gotten me beyond this. My high school counselors lied to me. I hate them.)

Just as Jethro is about to cause some serious hurt, there’s the familiar whup-whup of a police car sounding a preliminary warning. The farmer turns and runs like a laxative just kicked in, leaving his car behind. Fine. We’ll have it towed in the morning. In the mean time, the wino blood donors have a place to sleep for the night.

The squad car that pulls into our parking lot is being driven by my police officer friend Justine. She’s the real deal, tough as all get out, and doesn’t have a problem telling anybody to go anywhere. Therefore, I deeply love her, in a non-titty way, especially since I’m stationed here on the outskirts of hell. She helped me out a lot during my time in purgatory.

Like the night I was almost killed.

Okay, it never really got THAT far, but it could have. It played out something like this:

It’s fairly late at night for most people, but really just the beginning of Armageddon for this part of town, when all the crazies wake up from their drug-induced comas and go looking for kicks. I’m in the store all alone, trying to do the cigarette order for this week. This activity basically consists of me counting every single pack of every brand that we have in the store, comparing the totals to how many we had last week, and then determining how many I should order for the following week. This is not why I took Calculus in high school, but perhaps I’m whining a bit.

The door bangs open and in wanders some wild-eyed teenager who is clearly underage. He marches back to the beer section, picks up a 12-pack, then saunters up to the counter, all cocky and such. I immediately ask to see his ID.

(Side note: I’m only 20 at the time. I’m not of legal age to purchase alcohol, but I can sell it. Such was the twisted state of legality in Oklahoma at the time. Might even still be the case. I haven’t been there in a while.)

Stoner dude is not happy that I asked for his ID. He argues. I argue back. He calls me a variety of names that rhyme with buckhead and baggot. I don’t give in. He finally has had enough, shoves the beer toward me so that it falls on the floor at my feet, then stomps out of the store.

Great. Yet another confrontation to confirm that my life is a living hell. I go back to counting cigarettes.

A bit later, as I’m stooped over and counting some inventory on a lower shelf, I hear someone banging on the glass doors at the entrance of the store. Come on people, I’m busy here. Just open the door and come on in. I stand up and look toward the front of the store.

The wild-eyed teenager is on the other side of one of the doors. When he realizes that he has my attention, he raises both arms and places his hands, fingers splayed and palms forward, on the door, just above his head. Then his tongue snakes out of his mouth, and he licks the glass in one long, freaky trail of saliva.

At that moment, that precise pinpoint in time that I will never forget (trite, but true), I completely understood what the expression “blood runs cold” really means. This was so not right. I suddenly couldn’t breathe.

Then he peels his left hand off the glass, reaches down into the waistband of his pants, and pulls out a gun.

Which he then points directly at ME.

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