The Offramp to Crazyville
In the beginning
dirty laundry sorted
Whites with whites
Darks with darks
Unsavories with unsavories
Clean wash put in order
Folded, socks bundled
Stacked in categories
Bureau drawers like store displays
Later, washing machine filled
with any and every
The dryer as storage
Piles replace stacks
Find undies, same color socks
Shirt and pants smoothed by hand
Then the smell check method
How many wears allowed
Random socks, any color
Flip the pillows over
At what point does
hair go unwashed, uncombed
Nails unclipped, face unshaved
Talking to yourself
that don’t answer
Or worse, that do
Beth is up at dawn toasting bagels and making coffee while Paul showers. She doesn’t have to be up this early. Beth doesn’t start work until 9 and Paul wouldn’t mind if she slept till later but she always enjoyed the breaking day for her own reasons. The lack of traffic and barking dogs. No school busses engulfing over-charged children. The ability to think without the cacophony of the world crashing in. Paul always gets to the distributorship long before the other salesmen. Beth admires his work ethic yet she knows he is among the poorest producers. Low man on the totem pole. He has to work twice as hard to keep up with the others. He lacks the gift of gab, she thinks, preferring to get in, make the sale and get out rather than schmooz convivially with his mostly male customers. He doesn’t lack charm but he performs better for a female audience.
She notices the slip of paper serving as a bookmark in the paperback laying beside his work papers. The name Claire written on the top of the slip. She glances toward the bathroom. Opens the book and examines the paper. Claire. 505.9673. Sexy little thing. April 23. 7 p.m. Today’s date. On the back of the slip is an address and directions. Beth tears a sheet from the pad beside the telephone on the child sized desk squeezed into the kitchen corner and copies the information.
Here we go again, she thinks. And on my birthday. Tomorrow she turns 38. She is off birth control. They are trying again to conceive but if it doesn’t happen by her fortieth, then that’s that. What is, is what is.
But now this. The last time nearly torn them apart. She found the naked pictures on his i-phone. Yes she was snooping, after he came back from the convention in Las Vegas, but that is beside the point. He swore that the lady had offered the intimate photos without any actual sex being involved but that doesn’t make any sense in her world. She was lady in her forties, maybe older, but hard bodied and with great wheels and nice headlights as Paul would say. The sessions with the counselor where Paul promised nothing like that would ever happen again. Now this! She feels sick to her stomach as he emerges from the bedroom in suit and tie and sits down for his quick, meager breakfast. She mentions not a word about what she has found but her mind is already made up. Never again! She is done!
She drives to work in the old V.W. Jetta with the torn driver’s seat and the cracked windshield and the check engine light that has been glowing since she can remember. Paul has promised a better car once they can afford it. She isn’t expecting new just something more reliable. And presentable. Meanwhile she drives the ratty old Jetta while Paul enjoys the newer B.M.W. He needs to look more successful than he is, he explains. Looking the part lands you the part, he says. And where does that leave her? An aging wife of an insecure underachiever? A woman with no talent, least of all sound judgment, who will put up with anything and everything. If she had applied herself she might have been much, much more.
Beth can’t concentrate at the clinic. The billing records are blurred and her fingers can’t navigate the keyboard. She feels sick. She goes to the bathroom and vomits. She would wonder if she is pregnant under other circumstances but hopes this is not the case. It’s the stress of discovery, she believes. Exiting the ladies’ room she notices the young man, Neal, at work at his desk. The new guy. Tall and handsome and confident. What is he, 26? He looks at her in the way that men have always looked at her, even now as she approaches middle age. She goes back to her desk but knows today is a lost day.
She calls Paul, not to accuse him but to give him a chance to explain on his own. To confess. To offer whatever explanation no matter how implausible. Something. Anything.
“What do you want for dinner?” she asks.
“Honey, I’m sorry I forgot to tell you. I’m going to be a bit late tonight. I have to run all the way across town to meet with a customer. I’ll be dealing with rush hour traffic and all of that bullshit. Why don’t we go out for a late dinner? It is the eve of your birthday, after all.”
Okay, there it is, she thinks. Nothing rings true. He was going to present her with a last minute situation is she hadn’t called first, leaving her no chance to think before the deal is closed.
All the times before, in their youth. Like a fool she believed he had outgrown his cravings like a childhood allergy. Her mind returns to the psychiatric ward. Up until that time she would have guessed that catatonic was a cocktail or a faraway country which it is, sort of, when you think about it. What she remembers most are Paul’s sweet and reassuring words that worked their way into her muddled consciousness and flowed over her fragmented mind like water over rough stones, gradually smoothing over the pain, polishing and polishing until her mind was, once again slippery enough for the gears to turn.
Lunch doesn’t go any better. She stares at the chicken salad sandwich like something vile. She abandons the food and walks to their bank nearby. The balance in their shared account is seriously short of what she expected but she has never wanted to deal with the money end of the relationship so she wouldn’t really know. She drains the account but doesn’t close it, leaving behind less than $10.
Back in the office she says to Neal, “I have had a tough week. You want to knock off a little early and go have a drink?” His excitement is undisguised. “Say four o’clock or so?” she asks.
They go to the bar at the Renaissance hotel. Beth arrives first and books a room. When he arrives she already has a bottle of expensive champagne on ice at the bar. After they polish it off she takes him upstairs with a second bottle. She issues very specific instructions in a language and tone of voice that shocks him. A little. Neal is to fuck her in the ass. Paul says she has the most beautiful ass he has ever seen. Neal is to take pictures of the penetration with her phone. He has to save himself so that after he withdraws he can ejaculate on her face while she wears her new glasses that Paul was effusive about though she questions his sincerity. He is to photograph that event as well.
After the session she quietly and stickily weeps. Back downstairs to the lounge for yet more champagne she meets a well dressed but unsightly man. Bald and thick with a huge, protruding gut. She leads him to her room and without much needed coaxing enumerates the same set of instructions. He is larger in all respects than Neal but less compliant with her wishes. He painfully penetrates her anally and takes the requested pictures but flips her over and forcefully takes her in the conventional way, unconcerned with issues of hygiene. He has nothing left for her face but forces her to lick him clean with a hairy pawed vice grip on her head. The man whose name she can’t recall, if she had asked for it at all, leaves. He throws a twenty on the bedside table. She weeps more. Kneels before the toilet and vomits again but, like from the man’s penis, little but a trickle of clear fluid ensues. Dry heaves and a flushing of her face like she has come in from the cold.
This is what prostitution is, she thinks. It comes in many forms. Not hard work but a hard life for sure. Beth loses consciousness for a short while. Upon awakening, still groggy and confused from the booze and abuse, she reaches for her iPhone on the nightstand. With difficulty she finds the sex photos amidst vacation and family. She loads the best/worst of them as attachments to an email to Paul that says “I hope you are also having fun”.
She didn’t mean to send it. She really didn’t. But it was too easy. Too easy to accidentally press send. Too easy to be reckless, in her sorry state. Too easy to be a vindictive, regretful whore.
Several minutes awaiting for the devastating consequences. Like standing on the gallows. A floor that you know will give way beneath you at any moment with the tight, coarse noose around your neck. She fishes the slip of paper from her purse mixed in with credit card receipts and what is left from her bank account withdrawal. She drunkenly dials Claire’s number, getting it wrong the first time but making a connection on the second try.
“Is this shexy little thing?”
“What?” Claire asks.
Knowing she is slurring her words, Beth tries again. Slowly. “Is this. Sexy. Little. Thing?”
“Oh. You’re calling about the ad? I’m sorry but I sold the Mazda Miata just a little while ago. A surprise birthday present for his wife, the gentleman said.”
A young woman
of modest bosom
a child really
snatched from the nest
After our first
and only child
she burst forth
great milky nippled orbs
I feared she might smother
my son, or myself
so frightful the bounty
that I went seeking
A shallow valley
where I could hear
and think without echo
sweet sounds of spring
Of birds and bees
soft breezy whispers
more negotiable terrain
You like her don’t you?
I saw you looking. You like her.
I’m trying to decide.
What’s to decide?
There are many factors to consider.
Name a few.
First the tangibles. Perhaps her legs are too skinny.
I didn’t know a woman’s legs could be too skinny. From the male perspective.
Shows what you know.
And the intangibles?
That’s all guesswork. Taken from clues.
Facial expressions. The way she carries herself. Is she kind or is she a bitch? Is she rich or poor? Is she shy or gregarious? Insecure? Egotistical?
You can tell all of that?
Of course not but I can guess. I’m frequently correct.
Wouldn’t it be easier to meet her? Get a more accurate assessment.
Too much work. I subjectify women first and then decide if the effort would be worth it.
Don’t you mean objectify?
No. The her in my mind is just as important as the her over there.
What do you mean?
My legs for example.
They’re the reason I’m here.
You’re a son-of-a-bitch.
That’s the reason you’re here. You want to go?
Let’s have another drink. What’s the hurry.
She sits on a stone
That couldn’t be colder
Than being alone
Did you hear a moan?
Moon on her shoulder
It was just an embrace
But the night became bolder
Already in disgrace
With no reason to race
Moon on her shoulder
The deed was done
She told me to hold her
The dead have no fun
But they never get older
Moon on her shoulder
The years slipped away
I could’ve told her
We’d treasure that day
The plan that I sold her
Moon on her shoulder
The color of her hair
As often as her underwear
That’s no longer there
That’s a steel guitar song
For another time
The Ohio River to Kentucky belongs
Like gin and tonic with a lime
My baby is in my bed
She belongs to another
The steel guitar moans in my head
While she’s under the cover
The sheets on my bed
As often as I
Wish I was dead
Nobody told me
The cost of the freight
Nobody told me
How long I would wait
She’s different each time
She changes as often
As she changes her mind
Are you ready for the solo?
It won’t take long
But friend I’m afraid
It’s the end of the song
Regional headquarters. On the edge of a midwestern downtown. Row after row of metal desks arranged around a grouping of metal file cabinets. A table with boxes of index cards that provided a guide, like in a library, to the contents of the file cabinets.
Around the perimeter of the room were windowed offices so the managers and professionals could view and be viewed by the floor staff and by one another. Like a complex, segmented aquarium. Working the floor involved answering incessantly ringing telephones, interviewing people and retrieving files from the cabinets. The overall purpose of these activities is not germane to our story.
Tommy shared a spacious office with two old guys – an Irishman who went by the name of Murph and Jim who probably wasn’t that old but suffered from advanced multiple sclerosis and was confined to a wheel chair so his condition made him seem to be of advanced years. Jim talked with difficulty and when his head and arms moved jerkily it was as though he were a marionette. Murph told stories all day long but they paid him no mind because they had heard them all before.
Their jobs – Tommy and Murph and Jim – were to compile and analyze data from the floor operation and field offices. There were formulas and protocols to help them find meaning from the numbers and to write reports. The work was neither difficult nor time consuming leaving Tommy plenty of freedom to explore his surroundings. He found the floor workers fascinating in the same way that a child could become fixated with ants on an ant hill. He could also see into the immediately adjacent office housing three typists – Betsy, Danielle and Linda – who clickety-clacked their way through the reports and other documents. Betsy was a pretty girl with a hillbilly accent. Danielle also had a pretty face but thighs the size of tree trunks and a big ass that she showcased proudly with short, tight skirts. Tommy imagined what it would be like between those thighs before concluding that he’d probably wind up a quadriplegic in a motorized chair like Jim’s. Linda was a towering redhead of about 6‘ 3”. She was a chain smoker and the most jovial of the three. Tommy always tried to give his reports to Betsy.
Daniel, the Director, had the only office without an interior window. He rarely emerged. Daniel had 16 children though he was still in his early forties. Apparently they were arriving in sets of two. Tommy had yet to meet the wife and kids. They hadn’t even shown up for the Christmas party. Tommy concluded that Ms. Daniel was so spent from her spawning that she lacked the time and energy for anything else. He likened her to a mother spider who gets eaten by the baby spiders once they’ve hatched. The Daniels, devout Catholics, had taken the be fruitful and multiply thing far too seriously but when the Director arrived early in the morning, slumped and haggard, Tommy thought he secretly harbored desires for subtraction or division.
Even though Tommy was the junior member of the staff by a margin measured in decades he was pretty good at the job or perhaps because of that very reason. He had yet to sour on the routine and treated the reports like writing short stories. He would sprinkle in double entendres and inside jokes and anecdotes and amusing language mostly to entertain Betsy until she confessed that she didn’t need to read a document to type it. Tommy waited for many weeks for praise or a reprimand from the home office before coming to the conclusion that nobody there was reading the damned things either.
So, unfulfilled by the work or Betsy he decided to shift his attention.
He learned that her name was Carlene. Carlene seemed to spend less time on the phone than the other floor workers and more time gliding in and out of the file cabinet pit. It was her walk that had caught his eye. Shoulders thrown back. Small, perky tits thrust forward. She swayed like a cutter through gentle waves. Rumor had it that she had a young daughter and was still married though the husband was absent from the scene.
It didn’t take much of a pretext to establish contact.
“Hi. My name is Tom,” he said with an outstretched hand which Carlene viewed with suspicion before a dainty grasp and a quick shake and release.
“I know,” she said.
“I wonder if you would help with something.”
“Well. You seem to know the files quite well.”
“I’m doing some research and I need some samples. A couple of dozen files of mixed age and gender.”
“Why can’t you get them yourself?”
“Like I said. You know the files quite well so you might do a better job of selecting them.”
“But what would I be looking for?”
“Um. Well. People with extensive experience with the agency. Not newcomers. It shouldn’t take you long with all your knowledge. And besides, I’m pretty busy right now.”
“You guys don’t seem to do much of anything except stare out onto the floor, at us.
”We analyze data and write reports.”
Carlene looked at Tommy doubtfully.
“It requires a lot of thinking,” he continued.
She squinted with a grimace. An almost painful expression. He would learn only later that it was a form of contorted smile.
“And I do my best thinking when I’m staring out the window.” Tommy tried to keep the desperation out of his voice.
“What if we need the files while you have them?”
“I won’t keep them long. And you can always come and get one if someone needs it. Or call my extension and I’ll bring it to you.” Tommy’s smile had hardened like a clay mask.
“How will I know if someone other than me is looking for a file that you have?”
“You can tell them.”
“One by one? In a group meeting or something? How?
Sensing his helplessness and exasperation, she took pity. “When do you need them?”
Tommy visibly sighed with relief at her acquiescence. “No rush. Before the end of the week.”
“Okay,” she said and walked away.
Tommy felt the cool dampness in his armpits as he walked back to his office realizing that Murph and Jim and Betsy were watching him. He slinked behind his desk without making eye contact and pretended to read a document while he waited for his heartbeat to return to normal.
He had waited patiently for the files. On Friday, after he had gathered his coat, she intercepted him as he was leaving. A stack of files in her arms, clutched to her bosom.
“I thought you forgot,” Tommy said.
“No. I just thought it might be best if you did your research over the weekend when we’re closed.”
She walked away with eyes in the back of her head because she knew he stood riveted watching the impressive show she puts on.
He took the files into his office. Murph and Jim were already gone, Jim having been collected by his twenty-something daughter who though mobil was already showing the herky-kerky movement that would someday doom her.
Tommy sat at his desk to collect his thoughts until he realized Betsy was still there. In her coat. Standing beside her desk, talking on the phone but staring at him with an ambiguous expression. He managed a feeble smile then got up and left, leaving the files behind.
Here are the things he thought about as he drove home to his young wife and infant son. Words, music notes, numbers, DNA. It’s all the same. Finite entities made interesting by almost infinite combinations. Yes there were patterns. Duplicates and so on. The way his wife, Melanie, vaguely resembled Natalie Wood. Maybe it will all be over when all of the combinations have been exhausted. All the roads traversed. Entropy. Stasis. But he knew it wasn’t true and that it was a stupid train of thought but it beat thinking about Melanie’s tuna noodle casserole or hamburger helper or whatever godawful culinary travesty awaited him or Carlene or Betsy or how he found himself in this predicament in the first place. Although he looked forward to Tommy Junior bouncing on his knee and the thought made him smile genuinely for the first time that day.
On Monday of next week Tommy felt he was in a fishbowl. He tried not to look out onto the floor because people were looking at him looking and likely knew what he found so captivating.
Carlene seemed to venture closer to the fishbowl than before. Swaying more. Chum in the water.
When he’d given the files back to her, she displayed the same grimace that passed for a smile and asked if they had been useful and he said they had while he studied her lush hair that based on her eyebrows and vaguely olive complexion was certain to be at least one shade lighter than natural. Like dark, rich honey.
Betsy who had so painfully neglected him now viewed him with interest, looking up from her typing to glance through the window that separated their offices, rising from her chair when he entered the typing pool to take the sheets from his hands rather than allowing him to place them in the in-box. Smiles. Eye contact. Touching of hands. Clasping of arms. All of the signs of courtship were suddenly there. She even winked once. The heat of his blush had surprised him.
Friday nights had always been bowling nights with buddies back in his single days. They didn’t really give a shit about the bowling so much as the comradeship and the drinking in the tiny bar in the bowling alley.
That hot August night after several Highlifes, Tommy, who was well acquainted with the gutter ball, couldn’t even manage that. Instead, his ball flew into the the adjacent lane where two pretty young women, one of them vaguely resembling Natalie Wood, were enjoying themselves.
Later, in the darkness of his parked car in the Gala Bowl parking lot, Tommy imagined he was fucking the real Natalie Wood instead of the drunk bowler he had met only a couple of hours ago.
After 6 months of rigorous and enthusiastic coupling Melanie announced that she was pregnant. A month after that startling proclamation they were married by a Justice of the Peace in a private ceremony with only immediate family present including Melanie’s glowering father who had threatened to kick Tommy’s ass even before the pregnancy. Tommy could still remember, with no small amount of shame, the ceremony with Melanie holding a small bouquet of flowers over her blossoming belly. Remembered thinking that it was the mistake of his tender young life and, if he didn’t find a way to disengage, it would probably still be viewed as singularly catastrophic in his old age.
On their wedding night, instead of screwing, they had the honest discussion they should have been having all along. Melanie confessed that she was no more thrilled than was he but they had made their bed together and now had to lie in it for the sake of the child. She told him all of this while drinking a lot of wine though even in those days they knew it wasn’t a good idea in her condition but their mothers had done it and their mother’s mothers to no ill effect.
Tommy told her that as soon as he had a good job and could support her and the child he’d take ample care of things despite the living arrangements. At least he thinks he had said that. Over and over. Even though he had learned that the dialogue in his head rarely matched what came out of his mouth.
Now he had full-time professional employment but the pay was still too low for them to live apart and there was no longer any discussion along these lines. They had mutely decided to make the best of it but not without consolations. Tommy Jr. was a good boy and father and son loved one another unconditionally. Melanie did her best to play a role she had neither the training nor talent for except for the skill Tommy had discovered from the onset. Melanie was very good in bed.
The only other room at Regional headquarters without interior windows besides the Director’s office and naturally the bathrooms was the break room, a tiny cubbyhole with a few tables and vending machines offering candy and soft drinks and sandwiches in foil packages and thin, bitter coffee that nobody drank because there were coffee pots brewing throughout the offices and on the staff floor and though it was as harsh and burnt and bitter as the vending coffee it was free. Yet the vending coffee machine persisted, defiant till the very end.
There was also a coffee shop downstairs in the lobby. Tommy and Murph and sometimes Steve and Duane and Lucille and a few others would patronize it even though they had to pay because it offered better coffee and the place was bright and cheery and the windows looked out onto the tree lined avenue. The floor staff couldn’t afford such frivolous luxuries. Tommy liked to sit at the window and watch the pretty women, in and out of the shops and the bank across the street. It reminded him that there was another life outside the Agency but at that time he couldn’t quite imagine what it might be like.
Usually though they played cards in the break room. Hearts, spades or euchre. Tommy liked euchre. He liked being Jim’s euchre partner. With awkwardness and difficulty Jim could still manage the cards if someone else would shuffle for him and he took extreme risks, probably because it was way past the day for him to be conservative. He’d call trump on a couple of pedestrian trump cards and an off-suit Ace. Somehow he had the knack of calling into Tommy’s hand.
Just about the time when Tommy had decided that euchre fit his level of risk tolerance and he’d better just leave everything else the fuck alone, Carlene walked into the fishbowl and asked him if he’d like to go to the bank with her to deposit their checks and maybe grab a hot dog and a Coke at the stand on the corner. It was a Friday. Payday was every other Friday and that was the only unremarkable aspect of the event. No-one on the floor ever came into a fishbowl unless they were summoned and that rarely had a good outcome. Carlene did this full voiced and without reservation with Murph and Jim and with Betsy looking on though she couldn’t have heard or understood what was transpiring.
They stood in line for the teller without speaking and deposited their checks. Tommy took enough out in cash for the weekend and to pay for Carlene’s hotdog. They went back to the Agency where there were two benches out front and with mustard and relish their breath talked about their marital entanglements. They changed the subject to the fictitious research project when Linda came out briefly for a smoke break. Linda greeted them and smiled bemusedly. Tommy was sure Carlene and he would be the afternoon gossip in the typing room.
“I’m a husband and a father,” he had said abruptly, consciously making sure it got said, that he didn’t say it only in his head. Rather than being shocked and throwing the rest of her meal at him, she said, “I’ve already been told. I only wanted to know if you would tell me yourself.”
“Who told you?” he asked.
“It doesn’t matter”, she said, “it only matters that you ‘fessed up on your own.” Then after her weird smile-grimace she added, “I’m sure you know my situation, as well.”
“I only know that you have a situation. I don’t know the details.”