A mixture of soot, dirt, dust, and whole decades of neglect covered every window on the second floor of The Continental Conveyor Building, but I could still manage to see through one – barely. Putting my face close to the window, I spotted the first snow flurries of the winter – thick, fluffy wet flakes that swirled, dipped and danced in the north wind that, even inside, I could hear roaring down Houston Street.
Below me, a stack of Dallas Morning News papers were piled under a dilapidated metal awning. A handful of paper carriers dressed in plaid jackets and winter caps with pom-poms were popping the strings that held the bundles with their 6-inch blades, ready to roll and probably double bag because of the snow.
Suddenly one of the group let loose a loud peal of laughter. Who knew why? The weather, a private joke, something obscene someone said, or perhaps at his crappy luck being a paper carrier and picking up papers at 4 A.M. in the snow and palpable gloom of this bone chilling North Texas morning.
Then as I made to leave, I spotted my reflection in one of those muck-smeared windows. And I couldn't help myself. I busted out with a loud peal of laughter at the ludicrous sight of me standing there with my wispy beard and long hair stuck under my Pinkerton Security guard cap, looking like someone going to a costume party dressed as a security guard, instead of actually being one.
I would have preferred to watch the paper carriers, but I needed to finish my round through the warehouses, put the skeleton keys placed strategically along my itinerary in the back of the little round clock strapped over my right shoulder then turn them so that it registered on the paper inside the clock. All just part and parcel of my mind-numbingly boring piece of crap job. Anyway, it was all I could find in Sherman, the midsize Texas town where I'd gone to college. I'd graduated in May, but poor planning on my part had led to having a girlfriend who still had one year to go.
This route snaked through the first warehouse – cavernous, dark, filled with shadows cast by conveyors with belts, looking like dinosaurs, stretching their long metallic necks all the way to the high roof. My flashlight guided me to the three places where skeleton keys waited. I turned them and kept going. After that I locked the door to the warehouse, unlocked and locked the gate, actions just as rote as they sound, except for now near the street, out of the corner of my bleary eyes, I caught sight of more snow flurries.
Then as I crossed Pecan Street, I suddenly slide shuffled, did my best Gene Kelly. “I'm singing in the snow, just singing in the snow. What a glorious feeling . . .”
Now another gate and door, and yet another warehouse. This one different – newer, well-lit. This was where I took breaks, sat, and read. That night a thick collection of Japanese poetry, I was halfway through the four pillars of haiku, Basho, Buson and – who ever the hell was next?
The readings fed my mind and the ping-ponging from one warehouse to the other gave me enough exercise. But as for the rest of my life, it totally sucked. Maybe working a crappy job during the midnight shift wasn't the best idea I'd ever had? Had it only been a bit more than a year ago that my girlfriend Debra and I started dating?
One day still stuck in my head. After Spanish class I'd stepped out of Hoxie Hall and immediately one tree rained its yellow leaves on me, as if some toggle switch had been flipped and suddenly it was no longer late summer but early fall. And there, in front of me on the sidewalk, was Debra. Her blond hair, pulled back. Her round moon-like face lit up, yellow leaves falling on her, sticking to her white argyle sweater. She was smiling. And slowly it dawned on me. She was waiting – for me.
By seven I was back at the red-brick guardhouse, where I cranked up the electric heater and dug into my usual snack, pbj on a folded piece of home-made wheat bread. With the inside light and the outside dark, I could see myself in the window's reflection. And, honestly, I looked like something the cat drug in – like a 19th century romantic poet shortly to perish from consumption – pale, sickly and unfortunately without even one hint of the ethereal.
Not only winter had kept me from the sun, but this job during the appropriately named graveyard shift was sucking every piece of life from me. Maybe that was one reason for the problems with my girlfriend now.
Yet that morning outside Hoxie Hall, her smile was so open and loving. We'd been dating for a while, but I'd never seen her look that way before. As I walked toward her, my face must've shown my confusion, for she laughed when I got closer. Then she took me in her arms and gave me a warm, lingering hug.
“I've got a surprise for you,” she whispered, huskily.
And by the way she said it, I knew it meant sex, which would be interesting and by necessity a quickie, since we both had afternoon classes and were both far too-nerdish to skip.
After a half hour, the workers started to show up. Some were quiet, huddled together. Others were big-mouthed, swapping lies and dirty jokes, full of early morning bonhomie.
The phone on the desk rang. “Security,” I remembered to answer.
An elderly woman's voice came over the line. Even early in the morning, she sounded so very proper, careful to enunciate each syllable, “Mr. Handley has been unavoidably detained this morning, so you will need to stay over a few minutes.”
In the background, I couldn't help but catch my boss, sounding like his usual self, “Son of a fucking bitch. Where's my god damn pants?”
“Right in front of you on the bed. If it was a snake, it would've bitten you!” Mrs. Handley snapped back.
“Uh, yes ma'm, I can stay.”
“Thank you,” she answered, then quickly hung up. I guess, she didn't want to stay on the line longer and risk putting her husband's stellar reputation at risk. A hoot and a half, that. To all the guards, it was an open secret our boss was a drunk and a mean as hell one, at that.
When the time clock struck eight, the workers grabbed their time cards from the gray aluminum racks \on one side. Then they punched in and filed the time cards at its twin gray rack on the other side. I stared out the window. I'd never had to work past eight before. I now had zero idea what to do.
One of the last men to go by stopped at my desk and came out with, “Hey, man, you went to the college, didn't you?”
I glanced up to see a big guy in his late twenties probably, easily six feet, two maybe three, but going to paunch early. “Yeah, but it obviously hasn't done much for me, has it?”
“Well, you'll go on and get something better, I bet. Me, this is it, man. Anyway, I figure maybe since you went to college and everything you could help me with this little problem I'm having.”
“Really?” I couldn't help but laugh, and wonder if this guy was pulling my leg. I looked around to see if his friends were ready to pounce, but nobody else was in the guardhouse.
“Yeah, I need some advice, man, and I'd really appreciate it if you could spare a little of your time.”
“Listen, I took 3 hours of psychology, and believe me, my life isn't exactly working out real well right now, as you can probably see. I'll listen to your problem. I got nothing else to do. But don't count on my words delivered after a long-ass night of walking around like some kind of zombie back and forth between two warehouses to add up to much.”
“Okay, I'll take that as a yes.” He then plopped into the nearest chair. “Now here it is in a nutshell. It's my wife, man. She's driving me crazy.”
I shrugged my shoulders, as if to say, what else is new?
“No, it's not like that. It's weird. I hadn't told nobody about this, but, you see, my wife is – uh, 16.”
“What?” I asked, my jaw suddenly freezing wide-open.
“It's my own fault, I guess. She told me when we met she was 18. Well, I believed her and everything. She seemed like she could be. She looks mature for her age. Anyway, right before we got married I found out. How am I supposed to have a relationship with a girl? She's a high school kid. She should be going to proms, homecomings, hanging out at her locker, smoking in the bathroom. Shit, I don't know. But, you see, here's the thing. I don't want a girl for a wife. I want a wife that's a woman that wants to be a mom, so we can have a family. What the hell am I supposed to do with this girl?”
I swiveled in the chair, then planted my hands on my thighs, “Listen, if I'm honest, all I can tell you is: hell, if I know.”
“Come on,” the man looked at me with an expression of total earnestness. “I'm counting on you. Really.”
I shook my head. Had half a mind to give up, but instead asked, “Well, have you tried, I don't know, counseling, marriage counseling?”
“No, she don't want to. I wanted her to go to Pastor Pervis. He's at the Baptist Church on Grand. He smiles too much and wears white shoes sometimes, but he's okay. But Beverly, that's my wife, she won't go. She says the problem is me.”
“You ever think maybe she's missing out on stuff, high school stuff, you know, going out?”
“Maybe you could take her out. Does she like movies or dancing or, I don't know, picnics?”
“Hell, if I know. To be honest, I don't know her all that well. We got married way too fast. But maybe you got an idea there, man. Maybe I can take her on a picnic when the weather gets better, or, I don't know, a movie at Sheriden Mall? Anyway, thanks for listening to my b.s. I tell you, man: life sure is shit some times.”
“Well, I haven't done much for you, but I do wish you luck.”
After we shook hands, I thought to myself, “What the hell do I look like -- somebody who likes to listen to everybody's frigging problems?”
A quarter of an hour later, Mrs. Handley, driving a 1977 white Cadillac Coupe Deville with Landau vinyl roof, dropped off her hungover husband. Then she backed out spraying gravel as if she was in as big a hurry to get away from him as he was to get away from her.
As Mr. Handley entered the guardhouse, both eyes bloodshot as hell, a big thermos of hot black coffee in his massive paws, he croaked in his usual raspy, whisky voice, “You're relieved.”
In seconds, I was in the driver's seat of the big as a tank used Mopar piece of shit, I just bought – the only thing I could afford And, right away, the conversation with the guy with the child wife replayed in my head. A professional, of course, would've done better, but, after having worked a graveyard shift, I felt like maybe I'd helped the guy some. He seemed happier after I talked to him. But for myself, I had zip, rien, nada.
As I drove past the wind-stripped and naked oaks, past the always sad looking white-frame houses with ever-more peeling paint, that day Debra met me outside Hoxie Hall popped into my head again. The sex we had later was good. It was always then – at the beginning. But it was never about the sex. It was the look on her face and what it told me. That she was in love, really, in love with me.
Now as I drove over puddles of melted snow, after leaving my crappy-ass job, all that was really on my mind was a year-ago look on my girlfriend's face, a look in real life that had been gone for such a time, I'd long ago given up on ever seeing it again.
I curbed my behemoth Chrysler, trudged up the sidewalk, and after checking the steps for ice, bounded up to the porch. Then I unlocked the door, thinking once again I return to an empty house. By this time, Debra was either in class or in her lab, tracking her genetics experiment with fruit flies.
I heaved a deep sigh, felt especially sorry for myself, as I dumped my dirty lunch containers into the sink. Eager to get my stupid uniform off, I made a beeline to the bedroom. But as I entered, I was surprised, by Debra sitting in her bentwood rocker.
Then I began to snap to the fact that Debra wasn't wearing one stitch of clothes. Quizzically, I eyed her and began to notice even more: her naked body was covered with baby oil and a joint in a hemostat roach clip was at her lips.
“Uh, hi,” I said, as I hung up my parka in our bedroom closet.
“Hi, yourself,” she answered, intent on finishing her joint.
I took off all my Pinkerton gear, careful to hang up everything, so I could use it tonight. Then I quickly slipped on my warmup pants and black tee.
'What's up?” I asked, trying to act as nonchalantly as any guy could with a nude, well-oiled woman smoking a joint in a rocking chair in front of him.
“Nothing much,” Debra said, then took a final deep pull.
She sat, looking at me dreamily, and, for a second, I seemed to fall into her sky blue eyes.
“ Uh, Debra, what's going on? Classes called off?”
“Maybe – might as well be.”
“Well, this is – uh, an interesting turn of events. I'm a little out of practice, young lady. So I need to know how should I proceed here? With caution or full steam ahead?”
“I don't know. Caution is sometimes called for, but it's not always appropriate or appreciated.”
“Well, you may have something there. But, really, Debra, help me out here? What the hell is going on?”
She shook her head and frowned, a hurt look showing up on her face. “Idiot, I did this for you. You're always complaining we don't have sex as much as we used to. That I'm so distant and don't love you enough. And blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.”
“So you thought greeting me nude, already oiled down, and a little stoned would perk up our sex life?”
“A girl can hope, can't she?”
I laughed, bent to kiss her lips and immediately found them warm and wet with floral, smoky hints of cannabis. In my mind, still, no matter how hard I tried, I could not conjure up those yellow leaves dropping from on high, but now I no longer cared.