John and I are, on-purpose, living together in West Springfield. We’re in a third floor tenement with only a space heater for heat which worries his mother. But it has a claw foot tub which I love. Still no shower. The kitchen is huge with a sloping ceiling which make much of the space unusable. That’s okay. We only have a card table and two chairs to fill it.
The living room ceilings have the same attic slope. It’s cozy with his grandmother’s rattan porch furniture and a cabinet TV from his parents’ loft above the garage. Our brass bed is also out of the bat-poop loft along with a dusty dresser for John. My parents gave me the four drawer pine bureau from my childhood and a wicker rocker for which my mom made new turquoise paisley cushions.
Our first garbage day, we stroll the neighborhood and find a round mirror for above John’s dresser and a spider plant in a hanging basket for the living room window.
Since we don’t have a car, John takes the bus at the end of Elmdale Street to Springfield Community College where he is studying machine and tool design. I take the same bus to downtown Springfield where I work in the used book department of Johnson’s Bookstore. It doesn’t feel fair that he’s paying his rent with money he saved from his summer job driving a fork lift at the Breck Shampoo factory, and my wage, even as a new college grad, is so low, I have to work all year to pay my share.
But I like my job upstairs at Johnson’s. My favorite part is buying used books from customers. That means I don’t have to work the register which I hate because I’m always nervous that at closing time the cash drawer won’t reconcile with the tape because of a mistake I made making change. I’d much rather be in the back perusing the books customers want to sell. Little old ladies turn in brown paper bags full of romance novels for which we pay five cents a copy. Then they buy another grocery bag full of new romance for twenty-five cents apiece. There’s a mystery crowd, and a western crowd who do the same for their genre.
Then there are the treasures I wait for, antique children’s books with illustrations of 1920’s flapper fairies, snapdragons, and sleeping beauties. I buy almost everything I find in my genre at the employee discount before the books ever hit the floor.
Socially things aren’t the same as in college. I spend my day with two ex-librarians. Mrs. Olson, the manager, wears the proverbial steel bun and bifocals. Mrs. Gunn, her assistant, has short dark hair and a temperament that makes me wonder why her nickname is Honey. They sit side by side on high stools at their double desk doing I don’t know what while the part-timers and I wait on customers.
When it’s slow, we underlings chat while filing new books. On Mondays and Tuesdays white-haired Mrs. Stevens likes to give me recipes. Wednesdays and Fridays Reba tries to recruit me to her Order of the Eastern Star. My favorite day is Thursday because of Ernestine who has a quick laugh and a yellow Ticonderoga pencil tucked in her French twist. All are at least twice my age.
That’s why I am drawn to a young woman who rides my bus home every day. I overhear her talking to other passengers. I gather she works at Steigers Department Store. Her stop is before mine, and the rest of the way home, I always wish I had said something to her.
My landlord lives downstairs. When I hand his wife the rent check, she’s always friendly, but there’s no time to get to know her before one of her pre-schoolers yells, “Mommy.”
The woman on the first floor looks my age. I say hi one day when I’m parking an A&P shopping cart on the front porch that I use to bring home groceries and take laundry to the laundromat. I join Sandra, I think that’s her name, on the steps as she watches her boys ride Big Wheels on the side walk. But it’s hard to carry on a conversation over plastic tires grinding on concrete.
I miss Gretchen, my college roommate so much.
One night, John and I go out to a neighborhood bar to play pool. The downstairs is dimly lit and almost empty except for a few disheveled gents on bar stools. John and I step up a level to a small table under a florescent light. I am no match for John, and there’s nobody else to play against. I can’t wait to walk the few blocks home. The place reeks of cigarettes, stale beer, and loneliness.
Next morning Mrs. Gunn calls me to the desk. “One of the Johnsons would like you to help me buy posters since you have younger taste.” I stand next to her. She opens a large catalogue. “So which ones do you like?”
I point to a picture of a kitten dangling from a branch with the caption, Hang in there baby.
She arches her left brow. “We already carry that.”
I point to a sailboat steering towards a blue horizon, its red striped spinnaker billowed with wind. Caption, The sky’s the limit!
Mrs. Gunn sips her cold coffee. “Okay, we’ll order one to try it out.”
I’m back at the register when Mrs. Gunn gives the nod for my afternoon break. I head downstairs to the basement for a quick cup of tea and the peanut butter sandwich I didn’t finish since I tried to squeeze a walk into my half hour lunch.
Oddly, Mrs. Olson is at the head of the stairs when I return to the second floor. A regular from the elderly romance crowd is waiting to check out, so I step around Mrs. Olson to help the customer.
Before I’ve finished ringing her up, Mrs. Olson is whisper shouting in my ear. I panic that I’m making a monetary mistake until my brain focuses on her words. “I won’t tolerate your impertinence.”
I step back and squint.
Mrs. Olson looks over her shoulder. “Honey, will you take care of this sale?”
As Honey strolls to the rescue, Mrs. Olson leads me to the desk. “What do you mean going for break out of turn?”
I stand stiffly beside her throne feeling the lash of each accusation: Who do you think you are? Inconsiderate! Can’t do whatever you want! Disrespect for authority!
Before I can explain, my eyes well with hurt, and frustration. I hate that I’m such an easy cry. Right now I hate dour Mrs. Olson and her sneaky sidekick, Mrs. Gunn. And I hate this dead end job.
Mrs. Olson hands me a Kleenex aware of the customers who’ve emerged from the stacks. “No need for theatrics dear. Go to the break room until you’ve composed yourself.”
Does she see the irony in sending me back on break without a time limit?
I’m tempted to stay in the gray windowless room all afternoon. I’m tempted to quit, except I need the money, except that the youngest Mr. Johnson sees me through the window in the door and comes in. “So how do you like being a poster buyer?” He’s all smiles.
“Thank you very much.” All I can think to say.
“Well then, how would you like to dress our windows for Christmas?”
“You mean the front windows?
“Yeah, it’ll be lots of fun. The sky’s the limit.”
I can’t believe he uses that phrase. My shoulders relax.
“I’ll ask Mrs. Gunn to show you where we store the display materials.” My shoulders tense.
I manage to twist up a grin as I trudge back upstairs.
It’s New Year’s Eve by the time John and I are invited to our first party since I graduated. Actually the invitation was for him. To a kind of neighborhood reunion where he grew up. We take the Peter Pan bus to Hamp and walk past Smith College. It’s pitch black, no moon. A thin layer of snow on the sidewalk crunches under our boots. Our breath clouds as our words meet the cold.
I follow John up icy steps. “Whose apartment is this again?”
He rings the bell. “Davey Ketchum.” We hear music from the porch. “He’s in a band.”
The door opens. “Johnny, long time no see.” A guy with shoulder length brown curls puts his acoustic guitar aside and grabs John in a bear hug. “So glad you could make it, man.” He reaches to pump my hand. “I’m Dave. Welcome.” Then back to John. “Osgood is here, Chalmers, Morgan, Margaret Richardson, Evie Winetraub, the whole crowd. Mingle, mingle. There’s food and booze in the kitchen.”
The house is crowded, and smells like pot. Every surface is sat on. We wind through the kitchen, and I grab my first Molson’s ale.
“Great to see you!” John is acknowledged by all as we make our way through the dining room to the living room.
Everyone offers a quick update. Rhonda: tall, brunette, black polyester pantsuit, graduated Brown, currently at Harvard Medical School. John whispers additional comments as we pass: showed me her underpants in pre-school. Rob: stocky, chinos and a blue button-down shirt, graduated University of Penn, currently psychology PHD program, Ohio Wesleyan. Additional comments: Not allowed to ride his bike to Vernon Street school or sled down Clarke’s hill. Tom Griswold: law school at Western New England. Additional comments: heaved a chunk of ice at me from the top of the playground snow bank and broke my nose. His dad, also a lawyer, sent lots of presents.
When it’s my turn to offer an update, I hesitate. What are the euphemisms for I’m shacking up with my boyfriend in a tenement? I’m paid minimum wage and friendless. What would John’s additional comments be? Picked her up in a college bar?
After midnight, and more Molsons, I’m sitting on a love seat in the foyer next to a girl with long blonde hair and tortoise shell glasses. She offers no update. Instead she listens, nods, and finally puts her arm around me. “You must be lonesome.”
I cry. I can’t help it. At last, someone who understands what it is to be out of college with no clue, no plan, no peers.
John finds me slobbering. His warm hand takes mine, and we return to the freezing darkness.
At the time, I was so ashamed to have bared my plight to a stranger, to have spilled my tears without restraint. Why did someone else have to tell me I was lonely? Did I carry the same stench as those disheveled gents on the bar stools? Were they as desperate as I was for someone, anyone, to listen, to care?
One more thing, John’s comment about that girl on the love seat: she’s a pastor’s daughter.
Looking back, of course. God incarnate walked the frigid night of the soul and incarnates his people with his love for the lost.
What a friend we have in Jesus.