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First pages

Any chance I had to stare at Audrey I took. The sound of the shower turning on meant opportunity was ringing the doorbell with a frenzy. I sneaked down the hall from my room. At the bathroom I paused to breathe in the gentle steam creeping under the door. I continued down the hall to the living room and clicked on the radio in time to catch the opening notes of Benny Goodman’s “Moonglow”. The sound of a vibraphone filled the room with a pleasant quiver. The air breathed and the walls bent in to listen as a steel brush gently rasped across the tight head of a snare drum. I settled back into the worn couch and stretched my legs onto a pair of milk crates that served as a coffee table. From down the hall came the sound of Audrey humming in the shower. The song she sang was in a different key from the melody that filled the living room, but the two set up a pleasant counterpoint and occasionally merged, only to drift off in separate directions.

I heard the shower turn off and pictured her standing there, an ice princess in a palace of steam, slowly melting. I scooted over on the couch so that I could see down the hall to the bathroom door. I'd be able to catch a glimpse of her softly bathed skin wrapped in a clean white towel just before she headed to her room. Their room.

A door opened but not the bathroom door. It was the front door, through which stomped J.D. He walked up to me and lifted his leg, setting a big boot beside me on the couch. Pointing he asked, “what do you think I paid for these?”

“I haven't any idea.”

“Guess.”

“A hundred dollars.”

“Come on!”

“Ok, ok. Ten”

“Ten? These are leather boots. They're in perfect condition. Ten? They are perfect in every way. And huge.”

They definitely were huge; there was no getting around that. They even looked a little large on J.D. Behind him I saw the bathroom door open and I looked while trying not to look like I was looking. Audrey emerged brushing her long hair and started down the hall. Then she noticed J.D. and came back toward us. J.D. turned to follow my gaze and spun around to grab Audrey as she approached, saying, “I thought I smelled a pretty little rose.” He picked her up and gave her a bear hug, causing the towel to rise slightly in back. I could see the gentle flair of the tops of her thighs, and noticed a drop of water working its way slowly down. Audrey swung her hairbrush at J.D., saying, “let me down you oaf!” He set her down and she stepped back, taking in the view of the tall thin man with the giant boots.

“What did those cost you?”

“Guess.” He said.

“Never mind I don't care.”

Audrey turned and left, J.D. chasing her down the hall and back to their room. I looked at the floor where a small puddle of water had formed a smooth circle. I felt certain that if I bent toward it I would catch the gentle scent of cool perfection.

The song on the radio had changed to some lurching experimental disaster music, and in the back of the apartment I could hear J.D. and Audrey starting to argue over his latest purchase. They argued at least three times a day, with one tremendous blow up each weekend. These were followed by a chilly period, a slow thaw, grudging reconciliation, brief moments of actual warmth, heating up and boiling over into another argument. If J.D. timed things right, the heat would lead to bed rather than brawl, but timing was not one of his gifts. J.D. lived by charm and intuition, each serving or failing him from one moment to the next.

I walked over to the bathroom, which was still steamy from Audrey's shower, and breathed in her lingering scent. I continued down to my room and sat on the bed staring out the window. J.D. and Audrey had stopped arguing and there was an unusual quiet coming from their room. Apparently J.D.'s timing was on for once. I sat on my bed and tried to rekindle the image of Audrey in her white towel, water dripping down her legs. But as the noises from their room grew louder, the image changed to one of J.D. holding her, and me sitting alone, empty handed.

An hour later J.D. and Audrey emerged from their room looking disheveled but content. Audrey had her hair in a ponytail and had put on a fresh coat of bright red lipstick. She pouted.

“I’m starving, J.D.”

“Me too, gorgeous. Let’s go to the Honeybee.”

I watched Audrey unbutton her jeans and tuck in her tight t-shirt, a gift from J.D. that said “I’m With Stupid.” Her jacket was beside me on the couch, and I handed it to her, receiving a bright red smile in return.

“I guess I’ll tag along.” I said, and off we went down 6 floors in our building’s doorless elevator, emerging through the ratty lobby into the day's last sunlight. The clouds looked bloated and purplish, hanging silently in the rusty sky, and I pretended to absorb myself in their beauty while listening to Audrey tease J.D. about his big boots. 

The Honeybee Cafe was only half full and we had our choice of smoking or non-smoking. We'd been through this so many times, yet it always started a fresh argument, J.D. and Audrey arguing for smoking, me for non. I don't understand why anyone, whether they smoke or not, would want to have the smell of cigarettes ruining a good meal. If you want to smell cigarettes, go have a smoke. But if you want to eat, wouldn’t it be nice to smell and taste your food? I considered talking through it for the millionth time, but with the argument forever being made two against one, I always had to give in anyway. It seemed I needed someone on my side. Not just on this particular issue, but in general. I was tired of being alternately humored and ignored. Living with a couple is like living with your parents. No matter how old you get, you’ll always feel like a child.

We sat down next to a table of cigar smokers. My meal had not yet begun and already it was ruined. J.D. and Audrey had both brought magazines, which they started reading while waiting for the waitress. I kept trying to strike up a conversation but they only replied with annoyed looks. Reading at the table is, to my mind, another sure-fire way to ruin a meal. When the waitress finally appeared we all ordered pierogi. J.D. and Audrey returned to their reading while I tried to catch pieces of conversations drifting from nearby tables. When the food came they put their magazines down and finally started to chat. J.D. recounted the tale of how he'd scored his $20 boots at the local Goodwill, and Audrey told us she'd been assigned a semi-important author at her editing job. I just listened. I didn't feel much like talking anymore. It was depressing hearing about their wonderful successes, which however small seemed large compared to anything in my life. The food seemed greasier than usual. When I finished eating I paid my share of the bill to J.D. and left, heading out into the cool night air and the rising buzz of the Friday crowd. I wanted to be part of that buzz. The city was gearing up for a party, and I felt like crashing it.

The corner of Milwaukee, North, and Damen was the epicenter of my drinking world. Within a few blocks of that intersection lay every tavern, club, bar, and hole-in-the-wall worth wasting your liver on. But where to start. My decision-making was cut short by the sound of a voice from above my head. I looked up to find the intimidating form of Jane's Peter.

“Out for some drinking Ike?” There was something kind yet sinister in his British accent.

“I was just deciding where to begin my descent into hell.”

“You Americans are all alike. It's all about choice with you. Free yourself from choice, Ike. The best bar is the closest bar, and right now that means the Black Note.”

I knew from experience there was no point in arguing with Jane's Peter other than to watch his shaved head turn crimson, so I tagged along behind his rapid gait towards the promise of cheap beer and live jazz. When we walked in the band on stage was blowing some sort of animal noises out of their dented brass horns. I decided beer wasn't going to do it, and opted instead for a gin and tonic. I bought Jane's Peter a beer, knowing without asking that he was broke. The “broke bloke” we called him, but not to his face. We didn’t call him “Jane’s Peter” to his face either. He could get suddenly sensitive about the strangest things. I attempted conversation above the cacophony of the band.

“So where’s Jane tonight?”

Jane’s Peter made a face like he’d just smelled a stinky diaper.

“Still in California, I suppose.”

“On vacation?”

“She went there about three months ago.”

“But you two were just married four months ago.”

“Strange, isn’t it.”

I knew he didn’t want to talk about it, but I’d known Jane since college and was more interested in finding out what she was doing in California than I was in sparing Peter’s feelings.

“Does she have friends out there?”

“I’m sure she has plenty.”

The band was getting louder and conversation more difficult, so we settled into our drinks and the occasional nudges as a particularly good looking girl walked by. The band finally gave out one last raucous blast and put down their weapons. As if on cue, the bar started to fill up with a fresh crop of revelers. Two particularly nice looking girls, a blonde and a brunette, sat at the bar next to us, and Peter and I took turns glancing over, trying not to be too obvious. I leaned over to him.

“They're both hot, but I'm partial to brunettes. There's something about long dark hair.”

“That’s the first smart thing you’ve said all night. Always go for the brunette, Ike. Always. But then there's Audrey.”

“She's a bitch.”

“Second smart thing you've said tonight. Still, I wouldn't mind bending her over. You ever see her naked, Ike?”

“In my dreams.”

The brunette gave out a loud laugh, and we both glanced over.

“Well, strike up a conversation,” Peter said.

“I’m not drunk enough yet.”

 

Peter waited for me to finish my drink, then motioned for me to follow him out of the bar. I knew what was next. We walked down the alley a bit and he pulled out a half smoked joint. He lit it up and handed it to me. I took a hit and savored the damp, mossy taste. Jane's Peter always had what we called Goldilocks pot; not too strong, not too weak, just right. We passed the joint back and forth taking hits till it was down to a tiny roach that Peter held between his dirty fingernails, sucking out the last few molecules of smoke. We walked back into the Black Note but were stopped just inside the door. I could see the two girls still sitting where we'd left them, now with a few empty drinks in front of each. The bouncer asked for our IDs. I handed him mine and turned to find Jane's Peter looking sheepish.

“I haven't got my ID on me.”

“What are you talking about, how can you go out drinking and not have your ID.”

“Well don't make me feel bad about it, Ike.”

He looked genuinely hurt and I dropped the subject. I never understood how someone so acerbic could be so thin skinned. I walked back outside with Peter. We both stood there a while looking around. I looked up at him and he seemed trapped in some unpleasant thought.

“So, let's go to my place and hang out for a while, I've got some beers in the fridge.” I said.

 

Jane's Peter didn't answer but followed along when I headed off towards the apartment. I knew J.D. and Audrey weren't particularly fond of Peter, Audrey being the more likely to find his presence a nuisance, and this made me feel good. A subtle revenge for crimes I couldn't quite articulate.

When we got to the apartment Audrey and J.D. were asleep. Peter went over to my record collection, pulled out an old Dylan record and handed it to me. He knew me well enough to know I wouldn't want anyone putting a record on my turntable. No one ever did it right, and the sound of my $200 needle skipping across the first track was sure to incur my wrath. I put the record on, turned the volume down low, and fetched a couple beers. Peter pointed at the giant subway posters J.D. had gotten from some friend of his that worked for the Transit Authority. They completely covered the walls.

“These are new.”

“Yeah, it’s kind of cool the way the picture is blown up so big you can see the dots.”

“Ike, pop art was the 60’s.”

“So was Dylan.”

“No, Dylan is eternal.”

 

We both sat on the couch listening to the music. It sounded perfect. Every note. After the first song Peter turned to me as if he’d proven a point.

“Dylan is a fucking genius.”

“I tend to agree.”

 

We listened a while longer, then I decided to pry more.

“So Jane left . . .”

“Yes, yes, yes. Pursuing her dream.”

“To live in California?”

“Yes, and to write TV, or direct movies, or some such thing. I never could quite get it straight.”

“I thought her dream was to stay perpetually stoned and live off her mother’s money.”

Peter gave a rare laugh and looked nostalgic.

“We did that for a good year. Then we got married. And I guess she thought being married would change things. But it didn’t. Being married doesn’t change a damned thing, Ike. Except your taxes go up. Fortunately I have no income. So anyway, she had a little pre-mid-life crisis and ran off to California.”

“Why didn’t you go with?”

“Apparently I’m not part of the dream.”

 

We listened to the album some more. Peter seemed deep in thought. About halfway through the next song he turned to me.

“Ike, when you take a shit and you're wiping up, do you look at the toilet paper before you put it in the toilet?”

 

This was a typical Jane's Peter question and didn't faze me. I wasn't sure if it was a definitive way of changing the subject, a test of character, or a matter of genuine interest. Either way, I’d learned the best strategy was to play along and then let the topic drop.

“It depends,” I said. “I guess I look about every other time, depends what I find when I look. Sometimes you look and say, I'm not gonna have to look the next couple times. You know?”

Peter seemed satisfied with the response, and we both listened to the rest of the album without talking. After the needle lifted and traveled back to its stand, Peter got up and walked to the front door. “Thanks for the drinks, mate.”

“No problem Peter, I'll see you around.”

“You going back to the bar to find that dark haired girl? She’s probably pretty drunk by now.”

“She’s probably in someone’s bed by now.”

This thought seemed to trigger another in him, and there was pain in his face. I spoke to distract him. “Anyway, I have to get up early tomorrow for a job interview.”

Peter made the stinky diaper face again.

“Not you too, Ike. Seems everyone is working these days. It’s a damned conspiracy.”

“Well, we don’t all have rich mother-in-laws to live off of.”

“Mothers-in-law. Learn to speak proper American.”

He laughed at his own joke, then walked out. After a moment I heard the doorless elevator creak up to our floor, pause, then head back down the cement shaft. I put the record away, shut off my stereo, and turned out the lights. I walked down the hall, pausing to listen for the sound of Audrey’s breathing, but it was drowned out beneath the roar of J.D.’s snoring. I went back to the kitchen for a last sip of beer. The next day I had a 9 a.m. interview at a temp agency. I looked at the kitchen clock. It was 2 a.m.

My interviewing skills have always been lusterless. Rather than work at improving them, I've found it easier to just apply for jobs that are so beneath me that my performance at the interview becomes irrelevant. That's the theory anyway.

I overslept and arrived at 10 for my interview at Girl Friday Temp Agency. The idea of working for Girl Friday appealed to me for three reasons. First, they paid slightly more than the other agencies, about $5 an hour. Second, the absurdity of working for a company named Girl Friday was irresistible. Third, I was likely to be the only male there, thus increasing my chances of meeting girls in an environment where I wouldn't be competing with other men.

The girl at the front desk yawned and handed me a form attached to a clipboard and told me to fill it out. I felt like I was going to the doctor, and was about to make a joke about giving a urine sample but thought better of it. When I tried to hand the finished form back to her she didn't look up or acknowledge my presence, so I set it on her desk and sat down. A long time passed. I looked for a magazine but the only thing around was a worn copy of Cosmopolitan that smelled of competing perfume samples.

After what felt like an hour she looked up, took the form, looked it over, looked me over, and told me to follow her. We walked through winding hallways to a small office in back with a chipped Formica table and sat in bright orange plastic chairs. She looked me in the eye for the first time.

“Ike Geshem, huh?”

“Yup. That’s me.”

“Where did you grow up?”

“I’m not sure I have, yet.” She didn’t laugh. “Um, north suburbs. Why?”

“Look Ike” she said, “you're obviously overqualified for any job I can get you, so ordinarily I would just throw your application in the garbage.”

She looked at the form again and seemed to forget I was there. Finally she looked back at me.

“I’m guessing you need the money.”

“You could say that.”

“Ok. I'm going to send you on a job, but I’m doing you a favor. Please don’t make me regret it.”

I said nothing but studied her face for some clue as to why I merited this favor. She looked to be about my age, freshly out of college. Despite her red-rimmed eyes and dry manner, she was pretty cute, and there was something familiar about her. I thought a little flattery might warm her up to me, an offhand compliment. Her breasts were nice, but I didn't think they were quite the things to mention. Then I noticed her earrings. They were fine and elegant.

“Those are very nice earrings,” I heard myself say.

She looked at me suspiciously, got up, and left the room. I waited for her to return but she didn't. After waiting a while longer, I found my way back to the front desk. She wasn't there. I walked around the empty hallways for a while but it seemed I was alone. I went back to the front desk and noticed a card on the edge. I picked up the card and saw my name printed across the top along with the job information I would need. I stuck the card in my pocket and went back home.

J.D. and Audrey were lying on the couch with Cheshire cat grins. Our milk crate table was covered with rolling papers, tobacco, and little brown blocks of hashish. J.D. pointed to the hash.

“Try some, it's completely out of control.”

I did. It was. I saw patterns in the walls and everything had a fuzzy glow. I turned on the radio and Louis Armstrong was playing a solo that sounded impossible and gorgeous and perfect. We all smoked some more. The room seemed to curve in, protecting us from the outside world. Every time someone tried to talk their words would jumble into meaningless syllables traveling away on diverging tracks and bouncing around the room. I tried to tell them about the new job, but forgot what I was trying to say and gave up. I relaxed into our overstuffed chair and sank in and in and in, gazing at Audrey who had fallen asleep leaning against J.D.'s shoulder. J.D. was staring out the window. I looked at his eyes and could see the reflection of the sky. Every time he blinked I felt like the world had disappeared for an instant. I looked back at Audrey, her slow breathing, her mouth pouting, her hair strewn across J.D.'s shoulder, a few strands lingering at her neck. Time stopped completely and we sat that way forever. A tiny voice in my head reminded me I had to work the next day. But the voice echoed around and was washed away, and time continued sticking to this one moment.

I was still enveloped in the overstuffed chair when I woke up and had to pull myself out, like climbing out of a giant marshmallow. It was eleven in the morning. J.D. and Audrey were gone. I went to the bathroom to take care of a few matters, and fumbling with my pants found a card sticking out of my pocket. It had the address of my new job. There was a date. Today's date. And a time. Two hours ago. I finished up, straightened up, wet my hands and ran them through my hair, rubbed on some deodorant, and threw on some relatively clean clothes.

When I got outside I realized I was still pretty high. The sun just seemed a little too chipper, and the birds were singing just a touch too vigorously. I took the subway downtown, went to the address on the card and walked up to the receptionist.

“I'm the new temp from Girl Friday, they told me to get here at one but I decided to come early.”

The receptionist, a skinny blond with a pointy nose, raised a thin eyebrow at me.

“You’re lucky we’re shorthanded. Follow me.”

She had a mini skirt and high heels and legs I would have followed anywhere. She led me back to a cubicle in a far corner of the office. The desk was piled high with large stacks of paper, next to which lay a Bates numbering stamp.

“Stamp each page, both sides, in sequence. When you finish with one stack, start on the next. Someone will come to take the finished stacks once an hour. Men's room is down the hall. Kitchen is around the corner. There's a pop machine and a microwave.”

And with that she left. I watched her go—skirt swishing back and forth like a windshield wiper—then picked up the big metallic stamp and started working. It was annoying to stamp both sides of the paper, and eventually I started stamping the front of each page, then every other page. After the first hour I was stamping about every hundredth page. No one came by to pick up the finished stacks. I decided to take a little break, so I made a nice pile of paper for my pillow, and lay my head down for a quick snooze. When I woke up the office was silent. I got up and tried to find the receptionist but she was gone and the front door was locked. There was no one around at all. I looked at the card in my pocket. In addition to the job information there was a phone number written across the bottom. I picked up a phone and called. I recognized the voice that answered, it was the girl who'd interviewed me at the temp agency. She sounded tired.

“What.”

“Hi, this is Ike, I'm at the job and everyone is gone and—”

“Ike. Do you remember me?”

“You interviewed me yesterday.”

“I know. Never mind. Do you know where the Blue Bird is?”

“Clybourn.”

“Meet me there.”

She hung up. I looked around. There was a back exit but it had an alarm door and a warning that the alarm would go off if the door was opened. I had to find a key for the front door. I went from cubicle to cubicle searching through drawers. I found money, gum, condoms (I took one), magazines, love notes, gym shoes, underwear, a nasal inhaler, a small packet of white powder (which I also took), a small bottle of tequila, Christmas cards, birthday cards, graduation cards, condolence cards, decks of cards, a hammer, a toothbrush, photos, lipstick, and many millions of other items before finally I found a ring of keys. I tried each in the front door and by the third felt the satisfying click of tumblers lining up, barrel turning, and door opening. I removed the key from the ring and added it to mine, just in case I ever got locked in again. Or out.

The Blue Bird was a dark tavern where the bartender alternated jazz and hard-core punk on the stereo. The old tin ceilings, gas light fixtures, and ripped green booths had all been there since Capone's day. When I walked in it took a minute for my eyes to adjust to the dark. When they did I saw her in the corner booth. She looked like she’d been crying.

“You fucked up, Ike.”

I sat down next to her. She already had a few empty glasses in front of her and was finishing what looked like scotch on the rocks.

“You want another one of those?” I asked.

“Get two, we need to talk.”

With that she stood up and headed for the women's room. I wasn't sure whether the two drinks were for her, or one for each of us, so I just ordered the two and a glass of water. By the time I had the drinks she was back at our booth. I smiled at her.

“I like that, a quick pisser.”

She gave me a serious look.

“Ike, I did you a favor getting you that job and you're already screwing it up. That makes me look bad.”

“Sorry, I guess they didn't tell me they were all leaving and they locked me in so I . . . “

“That's not what I'm talking about. You were late.”

“Oh . . . that.”

“That's the one thing you can't do. It's the one thing they will notice, since they're paying by the hour. Be on time. From that point forward you can do whatever you like.”

She picked up her drink and took a couple good gulps. I did likewise with the other scotch. The last notes of some bebop tune mixed with the sound of ceiling fans and the clink of glasses the bartender was cleaning behind the bar. I looked around. Took another sip. Looked around. Looked at her.

“So . . . what are we doing here?”

“You don't remember me, do you Ike.”

I studied her face closer. There was something familiar there, but I couldn't remember . . . some long faded memory. She looked up at me.

“Remember Miss Ann?”

“My grade school teacher? You're a little young to be . . .”

“No Ike, I was in Miss Ann’s class with you.”

Then it hit me. Stacy. She had been my best friend till I found out that girls had cooties. Then our friendship morphed into one of those weird things where she would chase me around and try to kiss me or hit me and I'd just try to run away. I smiled.

“Stacy. I can't believe you recognized me after all these years. When did you realize it was me?”

“When I saw your name on the form.”

“Oh yeah, that was kind of a good clue.”

“Ike, a lot has happened since the last time I saw you.”

“Graduation from grade school was about a decade ago, so yeah, I would hope something has happened since then.”

She didn't laugh. She finished her drink and got up to leave. I called after her,

“where are you going?”

“To get some cigarettes.”

She walked out the door. There was a cigarette machine in the bar. Maybe it didn't have the right brand. Maybe she didn't have change. But the bartender must. I sat and finished my drink. I sat another half hour. She didn't come back. I went home.

J.D. and Audrey were on their way out to dinner and asked if I wanted to tag along. I was too broke and told them to go without me. I poked around the fridge for something to eat but ended up drinking old orange juice from a pitcher. I tilted the pitcher too fast and spilled some cold juice down my shirt. I wiped my shirt with a dirty kitchen towel, then walked around the empty apartment looking for something to do. When I passed by J.D. and Audrey's room I could see their dirty laundry lying all over the floor. Next to the bed was a pair of red shiny panties. I walked in and stared at them. I picked them up. They were incredibly soft. I held them up to my nose. They smelled like anus. I tossed them back on the floor and went to my room to sit and think.

The walls looked old and gray and the windows were dirty. I felt like I was sitting inside my own mind, waiting for a fresh idea to float by. I thought about Stacy. What was her last name? I went to the kitchen and pulled the phone book from under a stack of old magazines. What was her last name? Stacy . . . Stacy . . . my mind refused to give up the answer. I walked around with the phone book, looked back into J.D. and Audrey's room, looked at my room, looked at the bathroom, looked at the living room, looked at the kitchen. There was a roach running under the fridge. I walked over and tried to step on it but was a split second too late.

Then it came to me. Stacy Benkshaft. I flipped through the phone book and there were no Benkshafts. I called 411 but they said the number was unlisted. I made a sandwich, ate half, put the other half in the fridge, set my alarm for 8 a.m., and lay in bed thinking about the little girl I’d known so long ago, trying to connect her to the one I’d just been drinking with.

At work the stacks of paper I'd been working on had disappeared, replaced by a fresh stack and someone's leftover baloney sandwich. It was moldy, and after studying the fuzzy mold I threw it out. I tried very hard to stamp every page, both sides, just like I'd been told. I was intensely bored. Suddenly the phone next to me rang. At first I was going to let it ring, then decided I'd better get it.

“Hello?”

“Thanks.”

“Thanks?”

“For coming on time. I appreciate it Ike.”

“Stacy.”

“Sorry I left last night. I was depressed.”

“Oh, that's ok. I guess.”

“You're not mad?”

“No, I was just worried when you didn't come back”

“I'll be there again tonight.”

“Ok, I can meet you . . .”

“You don't have to. I'm just saying, I'm there every night after work, so if you want to see me . . .”

“I'll meet you there.”

She hung up. I went back to stamping and resisted the urge to take a nap. Time crawled.


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

Max V. Weiss is the author of such award winning books as Nemesis, Fault, and the sci-fi thriller, Digital Dementia.

Q. What is the inspiration for the story?
A.
A time in my life right after college that I think back on often.

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