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Archive for September, 2010

(If you haven’t yet met Richard, you can do so here).

Once, in college, after a long night of studying, my dad borrowed his friend’s bike for the ride back into town. He says the last thing he remembers is heading onto the bridge back toward his house. When he woke up, he was riding out of town on a rural road. Sensing that his head was wet, he reached up to find it bloody.

When Jake and I first heard this story, many subsequent discussions surrounded the topic, “we don’t do anything cool.”

Of course, falling off a bike and hitting your head hard enough to jumble memory is hardly something one should hope to experience. But you might at least hold it in the back of your mind, an enticing reminder that certain blunders or awkward situations sometimes make decent stories.

I have a few such stories from my parents, those that I’ve set on the pinnacle of story-dom. These are not the types of stories I wish would happen to me in the same way that I would wish for my life to include traveling and dinner parties, but they stand as a landmark of sorts, between two college kids I do not know and the mom and dad they are today. There is a coming-of-age satisfaction in knowing that I could feasibly fall off my bike while riding home after a night of studying.  Should I be lucky enough to chance on repeating one of these pieces of family folklore, though: well, then that kind of milestone warrants a call home–which is just what I did when I was first sent by an employer to buy cigarettes.

When my dad was in college, he was living in Ann Arbor, Michigan, down the street from a laundromat. While washing his clothes, he fell into conversation with a woman with dark glasses. She was heavy set, with a circle of curly gray hair lining her withered forehead, and she somehow convinced my college-age father to trek down to the store to buy cigarettes on her behalf.

The part of the story I heard time and again was the shopkeeper’s voice as she chided him for his cigarette preference.

“Eves?! You want Eves? That’s a woman’s cigarette!” Papa would sometimes say in a high pitched chirp, perhaps when questioned by a checker, or when buying something for someone else. It was like a fluttering call you might pick out from a clatter of bird songs, the words running together like a warble, rising in trill and descending on the last note. “You did not know that? That’s a woman’s cigarette.”

“I’m buying them for someone else,” my Dad responded to the mocking.

But similar to the responsiveness one might receive when reasoning with a song sparrow, the storekeeper was unconvinced. “You did not know that! That’s a woman’s cigarette!”

***

Richard would often call me into his office with the words, “Do you have a minute?”

I would be doing something like rearranging the colored metal frames so that they sat just one centimeter apart instead of one and a half. Or I might be rewriting the price on a piece of tape so that the six resolved in a perfect circle rather than over-crossing its tale. I could easily become lost in these tasks, but generally, a minute’s neglect would not affect their outcome.

So, go I would to Richard’s door, where he would lean back in his chair and cross his hands on his sweat-shirted belly.

“How are you today.” he would say, his drooping eyes quiet and observing, his questions always seeming to end in a period. “What did you have for dinner last night.”

As it happened, during the time I was working at the frame shop, I was eating ratatouille just about every night. Jake was in Montana for a month, and we were in the midst of a rather massive eggplant, pepper, and tomato harvest. I would make a batch of ratatouille and polenta, eat it for lunch the next day and for dinner the following night. Usually it would last me another three meals on top of that until I could cook up another batch. I was a little crazy for ratatouille. I could not get enough of the stuff. Richard asked me to describe it the first time I answered the dinner question. By the fifth or sixth time, his response was, “Do you always have ratatouille.”

His questions reminded me of a play I wrote around the age of ten, a short skit that a few neighborhood kids performed under a clothesline in the backyard of the next door apartments. The plot centered on Mad Man, played by our neighbor Tirzah dressed in a pink Tutu, and large glasses, lipstick running ear to ear. During each of the three scenes, she would march up to the clothesline, knock on the white painted pole, and when “answered,” ask one of many questions that my ten-year-old mind considered to be utterly absurd. “How many glasses of water did you drink this year?” “Do you keep chickens in your kitchen?”

“Do people wear leotards to your Pilates classes,” Richard liked to ask me. “I have one, you know.” Without waiting for an answer, he turned on his swivel chair to take a magazine from the file cabinet. He paused on a page displaying fluted ceramic cookware. “You should get some of these,” he insisted. “They’re great for making ratatouille.”

A day without Richard became a very boring day. He was once out sick for a week and each day, his empty office drowned me in disappointment as I stamped my time-sheet, a whole day of uninterrupted work ahead of me. I would pull a stool over to my work area and resign myself to four monotonous hours of un-labeling and relabeling, of cutting tape to fit just right on the tiny back of the frames. On these days, the tape pile of old labels grew to the size of a softball as I fell into a rhythm. It dwarfed the tape-scrap ball rendered on days where Richard was present, on days when he would call me over every half hour and ask about my dinner, or suggest that he might come to my Pilates class in a leotard.

He once devoted an hour of my paid time to convincing a customer that I was an avid runner and would be interested in participating in his running camp across Oregon desert. “She loves to run,” Richard told the man in a zip-up Oregon Ducks jacket.

“I’m really not a good runner,” I protested. The prospect of running in a high-altitude desert was nausea-inducing.

“Well, you can walk, too.” He turned to the man, “Don’t you have some people ride horseback.”

“No, not usually,” the track coach turned out his lips as he shook his head.

“You can ride horseback if you need to.” Richard interpreted. He gathered the camp website and sent me to the back to the computer where I spent the following twenty minutes obediently clicking through pictures of lithe, tanned high schoolers running uphill. “Registration is closed,” I responded to Richard’s questioning raised eyebrows when I returned.

“They’ll make an exception,” he assured me.

***

Some days, for Richard, were idea days. “Jessica, do you have a minute,” he called, and I pressed down the edge of brown tape and slid off my stool.

“Do you want a candy bar.”

I didn’t really. I said, “sure.”

“Or a soda pop.”

“Do you know what a Circle K is.”

After giving me directions to the nearby convenience store, Richard overturned a box of Winston cigarettes onto his desk, and handed the empty container to me with a twenty-dollar bill tucked inside. “You can get whatever you want. Will you get a box of these. Here’s a sample.”

He also wanted a bag of Cracker Jacks. You might not expect frame stores to draw organization ideas from candy displays, but it seemed Richard had been considering all morning. “How do they hang the cracker jacks?” was the question riddling his thoughts. I was having a hard time just fathoming what he was saying. Where I come from Cracker Jacks come in boxes.

In response to my blank look, he began to speak more slowly. “I want you to go to the store and take off one of the Cracker Jack bags and touch the spot where it was stuck and feel if it is gummy. And feel the strip to feel if it was gummy.” He walked me into the frame shop and explained the current disarray that might be gummied and hung into orderly submission. We returned to his office and he drew me a picture, drawing large circles around the allegedly gummy sites. “Just pull one off and feel if it is gummy.”

I was clueless. “They put hooks on the boxes now?” I kept thinking.

In my defense, the diagram would have been more helpful had he drawn it vertically so that it might have appeared less like stout box-cars on a train track and more like suspended bags of popcorn. Or maybe I was thrown by the word “gummy.” “Gummy,” I repeated to myself as the bell on the front door rang when I exited. “Feel if it is gummy.” This would be my mantra, for it really was all I had to go on.

In my confusion, I forgot about the cigarette box I was holding, about the momentous errand that it signified. I was so excited that I texted my dad as I walked. Then, I sent a text to Jake. “Richard sent me to buy cigarettes!” I wrote. And Jake responded, “Nice!”

I was basking in glow of the threshold before me until a picture of my fifth grade D.A.R.E. officer tossing neon key chains skidded across the chalkboard of my conscience. The only real memory I have of these sessions, is the time our pony-tailed officer told us her favorite word to write in her very messy hand-writing was “minimum” and she scribbled it across the board, a landscape of indecipherable bumps, above which she threw two “I” dots. I would scrawl this on my folders and in notebooks after that, writing it without looking, trying to make it more indecipherable than ever before, but then sifting through, distinguishing “I” from “N,” “M” from “U.” It may well be that this is the only tangible thing I drew from hours of D.A.R.E. discussion, but I did not miss the whole point. When your friends suggest smoking, you suggest another activity, but what of the boss scenario? D.A.R.E had not addressed this. I didn’t very well think I was going to stop Richard, but was I enabling?

Buying cigarettes is harder than I would think, harder than I would hope, too, being that I consider myself a fairly non-judgmental person. Then, again, I place far too much self-worth in my grocery basket, loving the trips full of produce, moving quickly through the line when I have to buy mayonnaise or bottled sauces. I couldn’t even buy cheap beer without explaining to the cashier, “I’m not going to drink this. It’s for the slugs.” Call smoking as “filthy” a habit as you want, such elitist shopping is all sorts of despicable.

Still, I couldn’t help feeling hugely conspicuous as I tossed the empty Winston box onto the counter with an air of non-cholance. “One of these,” I sighed (Whatever those are.) A large man in line behind me called out, “Cigarettes stunt your growth!” I tried to imagine the size of the overalls that were adorning him. They could have curtained a shower. “Yes, well, I know that.” It was odd to feel the need to defend myself to these men in the Circle K. Just like that, I had disowned Richard, condemned his habits. My dad could buy womens’ cigarettes in the face of a disbelieving shop owner, but despite the glistening opportunity for legacy, I was clearly not up for the job. I felt a little sick.

And what of the Cracker Jacks? They were just like the drawing. I diligently felt the joined part. Neither side was gummy.

***

A Pilates client and regular customer at Richard’s shop recently informed me that Richard passed away this winter. I had begun telling her about his questions and his playful conversation. It’s odd to now know that he isn’t there. I have passed by the storefront since and laughed to myself, or wondered if someone else was being questioned in the same way, a new person to replace me. I could imagine Richard saying to his current employee, “Jessica was a moron. She didn’t know that cracker jacks came in a bag.” And then again, I couldn’t. He at least gave the impression that he thought I was smart.

In the stories from my parents, the characters themselves are as much a landmark as the actions—the slapstick injuries, the buying of cigarettes. There is a landlord who could only gape at my dad’s broken window and repeat, “Why did you do that?” There is the friend who hoped to impress dinner guests with his German before visiting the bathroom and instead declared, “I am a toilet.” There my mom’s pompous classmate who walked on the edge of a bog and fell in with his camera, the teacher who folded her lip. These figures are iconic and, more importantly, they’re everlasting. My parents have a whimsical fondness for these bit-part players, and even though I’ve never met them, so do I. I can’t picture my mother’s white haired professor any other way than with three fingers bunching her bottom lip, her jaw dropped in an absent-minded nod. Short as her screen time may be, this woman completes the picture.

I think Richard will be the same way, to my kids at least, his lips curling up at the edges as he speaks of horse heads and soda pop. Really, he’s still behind his desk in my mind, too. Where other characters will devolop, Richard is a constant. He dutifully smokes through a pack a day, dreams up ideas for hanging frames. When it comes to such questions of reality and fiction, I have no real need for proof.

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A New Job (Richard, Part I)

When I walked into a downtown frame shop last September and handed over my resume, I was unaware that the job would be just what I was looking for. Not even when an older man in a navy sweatshirt and sweatpants, sandals over his socks, stepped from a back office, did I see the opportunity set before me. He had whitish curly hair and droopy eyes. I had been listening to the CDs of David Sedaris’ Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim and had lamented my lack of odd experiences, of window cleaning jobs, and strange characters. There was much possibility in the way Richard smirked at me, comedy gold in this small man with a protruding pregnant belly. But, I was short on money and had been searching long enough. Stories were not the first thing on my mind; I just wanted a job.

Richard pulled up a stool in the middle of the shop where we were surrounded by walls of wood and metal frames and his eyes scanned me.  As time would go on, I would become accustomed to being regarded by Richard. I would learn to gaze back with an amused half-smile painted on my face. The first time it happened, though, I shifted uncomfortably. The stripes on my pants suddenly seemed gaudy, my sandals a poor choice for the Autumn day.

Richard always spoke with his chin tilted toward his chest and his eyebrows raised so that his eyes peered up at you with a skeptical look that said, “I think you are lying. But so am I.” His sentences poured out in a lofty jumble that seemed to swim across top of his throat, and resulted in questions that always ended in a period. “Do you have good handwriting,” was the first questioning statement he put to me.

Had I expected to be interviewed on the spot, this would have been an easy question. If I had spent half as much time concentrating on solving math calculus equations in high school rather than troubling over how they looked on the page, I might never have had to take math in college. Instead, I took math in college, and my handwriting, when necessary, can be impeccable.

“Is that a yes. Can you be on time.”

I nodded.

“Are you good at math . . . we had a woman from the university work here and she labeled everything wrong. All of these frames. So, we have to get you in here to re-check all of them.” There were walls of frames, doors and drawers of frames. As I would later find out, one door could be slid to the side, and behind it would reside another wall of frames. The sides of Richard’s mouth curled upward as he shifted on his chair. “Leah was a moron.”

Given that my only three requirements so far were that I have nice handwriting, be able to do math and be on time, I couldn’t decide whether his judgment of my predecessor was unfair—How could you honestly deem someone a moron based on such a simple job? Or perhaps it was completely just—anyone unable to meet such standards surely lacked aptitude. Still, this discussion of Leah the “imbecile” raised my apprehension about my own capacity for this position. The next question did nothing to help it.

“Do you have a sense of humor. Am I going to make you cry.”

I have cried when being corrected at the ballet barre, countless times while doing homework, and at some point during every other job I’ve had. It was nearly impossible I wouldn’t cry at this one. Pressing these instances to the back of my mind, I lied, and shook my head.

“Then come back tomorrow,” Richard told me. “Be on time.”

***

I do not expect to be asked “Do you want a Valium?” more than once on my first day of work, especially if my new boss is doing the asking and I do not for a second doubt that an affirmative answer would have him rifling through his desk for said pill. Given that I was asked, though, had I ever before needed a Valium, my first day of work at the frame shop was probably the day.

Fifteen minutes before I was set to “be on time” for my first day of my new job, Jake called with horrible news. His dad was not doing well, and we were going back. We were able to arrange for my friend to fly us in a small airplane, and we wouldn’t leave until evening. I went to work, but there was no saying when I might be back in Eugene to work again.

So, as it turned out, without any prodding from Richard and before I ever laid hands on a frame or calculator, I cried of my own accord–for Jake and for Scott, for my own frustration that I was being called away just when things were falling together–as I told him how I needed to leave.

Richard approached me. “Do you want to go home. That’s a serious question.” He spoke slowly now, articulating every word. “I’m not worried about the work. I’m worried that you’re going to have a nervous breakdown right here. The frames will still be here. So if you want to go home and sit in your arm-chair and drink tea or whatever, you can do that.”

I nodded but made no move to leave.

“Do you want a Valium.”

A while later, I went to his office with a question about a frame. Seeming to forget that I had initiated the encounter, he said, “You have four choices. Come closer.”

“One,” he held up a cigarette.

“Two,” he pointed to a jug of yellow Gatorade. Sometimes, in school, at times where a teacher was assigning paper topics, I would refrain from choosing one of the first few options in hopes that something better would come up later. Other times, when all topics were potentially undesirable, it was best to raise my hand more quickly. I accepted the Gatorade.

Richard turned to a framer who was already standing in his office, “Will you go in the back and get her a glass so she can have some Gatorade.” His directions had no urgency to them, which explained why Kelsey only nodded, but didn’t move. Richard continued.

“Three,” he pointed to a bag of Cheetos. The fourth was an orange, which I also took, to eat with my Gatorade. He handed it to me with a couple of paper towels, then turned to Kelsey again. “Will you get her a glass and pour her some Gatorade.”

I felt the need to connect somehow with Kelsey, but I didn’t know what was accepted interaction. Richard was clearly in charge, but his was a loosely defined position. He seemed to do little but walk between his office and the shop, offer people things he found in his desk drawer (e.g. Milwaukee Brewer pins), and speak mock-seriously to anyone who would listen. Were they amused and resigned to his antics or was I alienating myself from the others by accepting Richard’s edible offers?

“I’m going to give you another chance,” he said, again holding up the cigarette. When I again shook my head, he paused and raised his eyebrow toward Kelsey, who stood silently leaning on the door. “Then can you bring me something back from Montana. A pony.” Pause. “I have a horse head,” he added “from the desert.”

This was hardly what you could call a segue, but I offered “A taxidermied one?”

“No, it’s just the head. I got it from my ex-girlfriend.” His hands were clasped on his belly, making it look as if he were holding a puppy inside his sweatshirt. “The rest of the horse is buried somewhere, right next to where I buried my ex-girlfriend . . . Will you get her some Gatorade.”

A few moments later, Kelsey handed me a paper cup of neon liquid. I thanked her with a smile that tried to say, “You really didn’t have to. I mean I guess we both know you kind of did, or we wouldn’t hear the end of it,” and we continued to work in silence.

Pricing frames is oddly comforting in times of stress, there on a clean butcher-papered table, where all the colors have a number and the stickers go in the same place each time. I peeled my orange and tried not to drip onto the frames. I checked my math and wrote more neatly than I ever had before. These were my last few minutes of feeling normal for weeks and I was in an unfamiliar shop drinking yellow Gatorade with fruit, Richard peering through the spattered window of his office.

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