Our relationship is purely platonic. Our apartment is clean, but utterly charmless, save the claw foot tub which George agrees to scrub after every bath if I do all the dishes. Our place backs up to Oakwood Cemetery and is closer than Gretchen’s to downtown Syracuse where I walk every morning to my Kelly Girl placement at an insurance underwriting company.
My job is in the assigned risk department. Every morning I sit at my gray metal desk behind a Himalayan barricade of red folders. My task: to open each one, pull out the page containing the name of the risky customer and the insurance company to which they’ve been assigned, turn to my typing stand, roll a blank form beneath the platen of my Selectric, and type said information in the appropriate space. Finally, I put all forms back in their file and repeat. It’s a mind numbing eight hours with half an hour for lunch, and two ten minute breaks during which I’m surrounded by unknown staff who drink coffee and nibble Twinkies and Ding Dongs from an unreliable vending machine.
To save my sanity, I surreptitiously save the names that tickle my ear. I only last a week at my post, but when my supervisor opens my top drawer, she’ll find a pink pad of You-missed-a-call from: Angel Hernandez, Emery Kornitzer, Pacifico Popadopoulos, Miner Pitt, and Ivan Beaverwetter, to name just a few.
Gretchen rescues me from brain death by getting me a job where she works at Coyne Industrial Laundry. At least now we’re together. I’m stationed at a waist-high table in front of a dusty window made of glass brick. Before me, a Himalayan pile of men’s pants. My assignment: to sort according to inseam, waist, and color. Any that have holes or frayed cuffs, I throw in a box marked rags.
When my mountain of laundry is organized, I catch Gretchen’s eye over my shoulder. She’s been ripping names and company emblems (Mack Truck, Cadillac, Reese’s Peanut Butter, Sunoco) off men’s uniform shirts, and sorting them according to collar size and sleeve length. We meet in the cubicle shelving in the back, and once our clean clothing is filed according to the Dewey Decimal system of laundry, we hide in a half-full cubby. Gretchen, like me, has saved names we can laugh about. She shuffles through: Mortimer, Constantine, Reginald, Irving, and stops at Pheep. “Pheep, that’s a killer.”
I relax on the cushion of men’s navy 42X32’s “Who would name their kid Pheep?”
Gretchen grins. “Pheep, Sr.? Pheep the first?”
We’re stifling giggles, when Nobila, our supervisor, appears at the head of the aisle. “Get back to work.”
Nobila, now there’s a name, but we don’t snicker. She’s from Lebanon, where George’s mother escaped from a war. Besides I certainly wouldn’t want to be in charge of us or any of the other workers. Take Wanda, for example. She’s the first one I meet in the break room, the chubby one with straight dark hair who Gretchen said is from the Onondaga reservation. She’s passing around an Avon book. When it gets to me, she smokes a cigarette in my face until I order. “Try Skin So Soft,” she exhales. “It keeps away mosquitoes.”
I reluctantly fill out the order blank and pass the booklet to Gretchen. But before she’s pushed into compulsory talcum powder or Bird of Paradise, Unforgettable, or Rapture perfume, the buzzer rings, and we’re back on the floor.
I should probably say something here about Gretchen’s roommate, Ida Chernoff. Outside of work, she and George are who we hang out with. None of us knew Ida before her ad for a summer roommate on the message board in Kimmel dining hall. She’s an SU student too, I think pre-med, but her dark wavy hair, rosy lips and thin plucked eyebrows remind me of a 1930’s Busby Berkeley dancer. All she needs is a giant feathered headdress, tap shoes, and a sparkling tank suit. I’ve seen so many of his classic flicks on campus along with Buck Rogers’ adventures in outer space, and Brando favorites like Viva Zapata, or On the Waterfront.
Tonight we’re driving to the new Fayetteville mall in George’s Ford Fairlane 500 to see a brand new movie, Chinatown, with Faye Dunaway and Jack Nicholson. I can tell George is developing a crush on Ida, so when we pick them up, I switch to the back seat with Gretchen. George slides his arm around Ida in the dark theater, and afterwards we stick around at Ida and Gretchen’s to share a joint or two.
The next thing I know Ida is headed into the kitchen. “Anyone want deep-fried bananas with chocolate sauce?”
We stand around the stove while mad scientist, Ida, masterminds the smoky, bubbling batch. I can’t believe how much I eat when I don’t really even like chocolate. And what a mess! But I don’t have to do these dishes.
I can tell George and Ida don’t want to say good-night, so we all pile back in the Fairlane and drive to our apartment. Strangely, the back door is ajar.
I look at George. “I thought we locked it.”
He goes in first. “I did too.”
Gretchen and Ida follow us through the kitchen and into the living room. Record albums are strewn across the floor. George’s stereo system is gone.
I peek into my bedroom. The cheapo record player/radio I bought at the GE employee discount store with my dad is still on my bedside table, but the decoupage box I use for my bits of jewelry is open. The silver ring he brought me from his first business trip to Mexico is missing. The window is open, both glass and screen. The curtain is blowing into the dark. I slam down the sash and lock the latch even though a steamy thunderstorm is brewing. It creeps me out that a stranger roamed through my private space. Had he been watching the apartment? Did he escape out my window moments before I entered the room? George calls the police, but nothing comes of it.
Monday morning at 6:00AM I awake to the wall phone ringing in the kitchen. I throw on my bathrobe and answer. It’s Gretchen. “It’s raining cats and dogs. Do you think George could give us a ride to work?”
I pull the curly cord to its limit, so I can part the kitchen curtains. “I’ll ask.”
I rest the receiver on the Formica by the sink and tip toe to the three-season porch. George is on his back snoring when I wiggle his toe.
His eyes open wide. “What are you doing here?”
“Gretchen and I were wondering if you could give us a ride to work.” I turn my head towards the bank of rain-splattered screens. “Just for today.”
George’s eyes drift to his cut-offs lying in a puddle on the floor. “Yeah, yeah, give me a minute.”
I race to tell Gretchen, “We’ll pick you up around 6:30,” and hurry to get dressed. We have to punch in by 7:00 o’clock or we get demerits. Three strikes and you’re fired.
At the intersection of University Place and Comstock Ave., we come upon a massive pool of water The Fairlane sprays a wide wake until we climb the hill on the other side. A right, another left, and there is Gretchen waiting on her stoop. Just running from the front door to the car, she’s soaked.
My Timex says 6:35. We head downhill towards Coyne. Where the road levels out, a railroad underpass dips below the track, forming another puddle about the length and breadth of the one on Comstock. I’m in the front seat with George, but before either of our sleepy brains can think twice, the water becomes much deeper than it appears. The brakes fail. The engine goes silent. The car slides into water up to the door handles. My sneakers are wet. My knees. The seat.
Without a word, we crank down our windows and climb on the roof. As the passenger space floods, Gretchen’s lunch bag floats out the window. A baggie full of snickerdoodles escapes the brown sac along with her braunshweiger, lettuce, and cheese sandwich. Six black plastic squirt guns bob to the surface and circle the vehicle. They must have been left under the seat from when we were spies in Clive’s action clip for his cinematography class.
My attention turns to the lights on a police car which pulls up behind us on dry land. We slog to the officer who calls a tow truck. It’s already 6:45, so Gretchen and I wave to poor George, and sprint through the underpass on the sidewalk which ironically is high and dry. Before we arrive at Coyne, we’ve already hatched a thank you plan to craft George a blue velvet litter bag with a genuine Cadillac insignia for his Fairlane when it dries out.
Just in the nick we clock in, and Nobila tells us to pick out a dry uniform dress and change in the rest room. She’ll launder our clothes for us before the end of the day.
By noon, the sun is out, at least until the next storm blows off the Great Lakes. Wanda and Drew, a woman, shaped like an oatmeal container that no Avon product could possibly improve, ask us if we want to eat with them up on the roof. The flat asphalt is strewn with loose pebbles and a steamy skim of water. Hearing our lunches were washed away, Wanda offers me half her tuna fish sandwich. Drew gives Gretchen half her bologna and cheese. We share the two packets of cheese curls the vending machine spit out when we selected potato chips.
“You guys could have drowned!” Wanda takes a sip of coffee from a paper cup. “Hey, you want to come to my Fourth of July party?”
I look at Gretchen. “Sure.”
“Can we bring anything,” Gretchen asks. I’m sure she’s thinking potato salad.
Wanda winks, “Just BYOB.”
The day of the party, I peddle the same turquoise Schwinn my dad gave me in fourth grade to Wanda’s. Gretchen borrows Ida’s new ten-speed, and we park them together on the front porch of her three family tenement. Wanda waves from the backyard. Walking through the narrow space between buildings I can’t help but see into the window of her first floor neighbor. There’s a guy brushing his teeth at the bathroom sink. We lock eyes awkwardly until I look away.
In the center of Wanda’s small patch of grass is a picnic table covered with bowls of chips and dips. A grill smokes in the corner of the lawn next to a rusty green garden shed.
“Where shall I put this?”
Wanda smiles at the six pack of Schlitz I brought in my bicycle basket. “On the back porch in one of the coolers.”
To start with, we chat with Wanda’s brother who is plugging an orange extension cord into a stereo system. By the time Drew gets there in a red wig and cat-eye sunglasses, Jimmy Hendrix is wailing All Along the Watchtower. The backyard fills. The front yard overflows into the street. The more we drink and dance, the more time stands still.
And then there are sirens. Men in uniform pants and shirts explode from a vehicle with a flashing light. They enter the first floor next door and exit with a man on a stretcher. Is it the guy with clean teeth? The word dead echoes like a foreign term among the crowd celebrating Independence Day. A gunshot? An OD? We’re all too drunk to understand. Not until the sirens retreat, and the flashing light is no more, do I realize that dawn has drawn a searing orange line across the horizon.
Gretchen and I ride home, and I climb into bed beneath the window where a robber recently climbed out with a precious gift from my father. The curtains flap in the breeze of an incoming storm.
I turn on my cheapo stereo and place the needle on the Stone’s Gimme Shelter, Keith Richard’s unnerving twang my morning lullaby. Why is it that law cannot prevent crime, that the police arrive after the apocalypse, that all our lives back up to a cemetery? I pull the covers over my head at the thought that God is nothing more than an unreliable vending machine, giving you a body like an oatmeal container when you pressed the button for a Busby Berkley starlet. Placing your birth in war-torn Lebanon when you pulled the lever for peace. What in the world can insure that a boy named Angel won’t grow up to be a risky customer? Nothing is guaranteed. Nothing is promised.
“Rape, murder, it’s just a shot away. It’s just a shot away…”
Nothing is promised but a Messiah.