Monday, November 12, 2007

Chapter 3

Monday came as cold and uninviting as Sunday had been. I caught a ride to work with Doug as usual. The computer repair place I worked for was not exactly on his way, but hey — what are friends for?

“Good luck at that magician’s class tonight, Houdini.”

“Thanks,” I said.

“And not just with Sheila.” He flashed me that knowing grin of his as I climbed out of the car.

“Go to hell!” I responded and slammed the door.

He waved and smiled again as he drove away.

Work was slow. There were only two calls all day, and somebody else handled both of them. I spent most of the day trying to appear busy — shuffling and re-shuffling repair orders, studying the new tech manuals from Hewlett Packard, and shoe-horning twenty minutes of paperwork into two and a half hours. I kept telling myself not to watch the clock; it wasn’t going to make the day go any faster. So, every time I was convinced an hour had passed, I glanced at the time, which turned out to be every ten minutes. That means I only looked at the clock forty-seven times that day.

At twenty minutes to five, I called for a cab and told them to meet me out front at five. When the cabbie picked me up at five-thirty, I gave him the address of the university and told him I was in kind of a hurry. Big mistake! If you have ever ridden in a cab through Chicago after telling the driver to hurry, you need no further explanation; if you have not yet experienced this singular mode of transportation, justice would not be served for me to attempt to describe it to you. Suffice it to say, class didn't start for another forty-five minutes after we arrived. Plenty of time to cross the street to Denny’s for something to eat and hopefully calm my racing stomach.

While gorging myself on a steak and half a bottle of Inglenook Red (it was all they had), I tried to determine my motives for going through with this nonsense. I really had no delusions of grandeur about becoming a great magician; maybe I could learn a few sleight of hand tricks to entertain my friends at parties, but that would undoubtedly be the extent of my prowess.

My thoughts were extremely jumbled and ran something like this:

You dumb cluck! Seventy-five bucks just to learn a couple of cheap card tricks that you will probably never be able to do right, anyway.

“They wouldn’t give me my money back.”

You’ll be wasting your time, the class’s time, and the instructor’s time.

“I don’t relish the idea of dropping seventy-five dollars for nothing. I have to at least try it. Besides, Sheila is in the class.”

Big deal! She won’t even notice you unless you happen to make a complete ass of yourself, which I must say is a definite possibility.

“Maybe I won’t. I really think I can do this.”

That only works in nursery rhymes. It's going to take more than a couple of tricks to impress a girl like that.

“If that doesn’t work, I’ll try something else.”

What? Your good looks? Your abominable wit? Your utter poverty?

“Whatever it takes.”

Maybe she dropped the class like Doug did. She won’t even be there tonight. Then what are you going to do?

“I guess suicide is always an option.”

Now you’re talkin’, pal.

“Leave me alone!”

This last must have been aloud, because the waitress, obviously startled, dropped an armload of dishes at my feet.

“Excuse me, sir?”

“I’m sorry. I was just thinking out loud. I didn’t mean you.”

“Oh. Is there anything else I can get for you, sir?” A note of wary caution crept into her voice.

“Just my check, please.”

“Yes, sir.” She produced it hastily from her apron pocket and scurried away before I could say anything more to her. Feeling guilty, I tipped her the last three dollars I had in my wallet. So much for asking Sheila out for coffee after class tonight. Oh, well, payday was Wednesday. Maybe then.

I told you she probably won't even be there.

I almost snarled out loud again, but caught myself just in time. I paid the tab, shrugged into my coat and hurried back across the street to the university. Not two steps inside, I realized that I had absolutely no idea where I was heading. Glaring at my watch, I saw that it was already twenty-eight minutes after six.

You're going to be late again, Brent ol’ buddy. At least things were off to a good start.

Crossing the floor to the information desk, I asked the girl at the window (she appeared about ready to go home) where I could find the magician’s class.

“That’s in room 204,” she said, as she gathered up her books. “In the Andrews Building.”

“Uh… and how do I get to the Andrews Building?”

She favored me with a look that said ‘You should know that without me telling you, and if you couldn’t find it in your handbook you should have been here half an hour ago to find it.’ Although there were other sentiments in that look, I can’t repeat any of them.

“You have to go back outside.” She grinned at my grimace of discomfort. “Turn right. It’s half a block down on the other side of the street. You can't miss it.”

I’m improvising on the last part of her directions. What she actually said was ‘you have to go back outside, turn right. It’s half a block mmmph nndnb mmmph cenmmphdn.’ She had slid the glass panel on the window closed and was wrapping a scarf around her nose and throat.

I left the building and headed down the street to the right, and there it was! Just like she almost said it would be. Even I couldn’t have missed it. (I began to wonder what was going to go wrong.) I even managed to find room 204 with no trouble.

Who says the age of miracles has passed?

Hesitating briefly at the door, I again had to beat down the impression that I should just walk away from the whole thing.

Seventy-five dollars down the tubes just like that.

(Most people talk to themselves; I have this nasty little voice in my head that ridicules me.)

This is going to make a good impression — fifteen minutes late on the first day. The instructor is not going to be pleased, and Sheila is going to think you are unreliable.

“Oh, shut up!”

“Fighting to overcome my inertia, I pushed open the door and strode confidently into the classroom. Well … almost confidently. At least I didn’t trip over the threshold. The instructor looked up sharply from his notes at my interruption.

“Yes? May I help you?”

“My name is Brent Teller. I uh… I signed up for this class.”

“Good evening, Mr. Teller. We are so glad you could join us tonight. In the future we would be grateful if you could be here on time. All of us this evening, including yourself, I am sure, are extremely busy people. That would explain your tardiness tonight, would it not?

“However, it is grossly unfair to the other students to expect them to adjust their schedules to conform to the needs of one individual. More importantly, it is now necessary for me to begin my lecture again. Your seat is that one over there. You will have to check with someone else for the needed materials for this class.”

The instructor pointed to the only empty chair in the room. It was right next to Sheila! Even his tongue lashing seemed to fade into the background at my sheer good fortune. I stood where I was, unable to move.

“Are you hard of hearing as well as tardy, Mr. Teller? Or is that seat unacceptable to you?”

“No, sir. That seat is fine, sir. I’m sorry, sir. I can’t imagine why I was just standing there like that.” I walked over and dropped meekly into my seat.

“Don't worry about him — around campus he’s known as the ‘Old Grouch’.”

The voice was music in my ears. I glanced at Sheila and all the cute, trite, witty opening lines I had rehearsed for this occasion immediately fled my mind. I could think of absolutely nothing to say. Zero. Zilch. Not a word. Not even a stutter.

“Hi. My name is Sheila Walker.”

“I — I know.”

That was a statement of incomparable brilliance! Try something else, Einstein! “My name is Einstein — uh… I mean, Brent Teller.” By now I was completely tongue-tied and could say no more.

I sensed that I was being watched — probably by ‘Old Grouch’ — and swiveled my head towards the front of the room. ‘Watched’ was not the correct term; glared at would be a more appropriate choice. Stapled, bent, folded and mutilated would also work. Glare all you want, mister — the most beautiful girl in the world just spoke to me, and nothing can spoil this moment!

“Mr. Teller! May we proceed, now?” he asked icily.

“Please do, sir,” I smiled.

He continued throwing daggers at me with his eyes for a moment, cleared his throat, shuffled his notes, and began his lecture again. “Magic has an history as lengthy and as varied as that of mankind itself. What we know as magic was most likely first associated with the people…”

I was no longer listening. He seemed to have already forgotten our confrontation and my mind was beginning to wander. Thinking about Sheila; her eyes, her smile, her voice. Which coffee shop could we go to after class? How long was this class, anyway?

I stole a glance in her direction. She was studiously transcribing notes from the old codger’s lecture. The way her slender hand moved across the paper held me mesmerized. Doug’s voice repeating ‘awestruck’ ran through my mind, and I ignored it. No ring; beautiful hands.

She was absolutely the most beautiful girl I had ever seen. Her long hair cascaded around her shoulders in waves the color of raven’s wings; beautiful hair. Her amazingly blue eyes were set high (not too high) and wide (not too wide) on her pretty, dark-complected face. Beautiful eyes. Her nose was small and petite (just right) and turned up slightly at the tip. Beautiful nose. Her lips were dark and full… sensuous. Beautiful face. Beautiful girl!

She was wearing a white, knee-length, knit skirt and a white wool sweater that clung to her (but not too tightly) in all the right places. Around her neck was a finely worked, delicate gold mesh necklace with what looked to be a very old, and extremely expensive, gold locket suspended from it. Beautiful necklace.

She must have sensed my eyes on her (read staring) because she looked up from her note taking with a slightly perplexed expression on her face. Not wanting to make her uncomfortable and unable to look away, I adjusted my notebook to allow me to observe her (read still staring) out of the corner of my eye, and tried to concentrate on the lecture.

I managed to copy of few of what I thought were the more salient points. What did Bob Seger say: ‘She had points all her own, sittin’ … (oops! Sorry.)

The monotone of a lecture stopped. It couldn’t be eight-thirty already! We had just started, hadn’t we? The clock said eight-thirty. Someone must have jockeyed the hands; but I heard ‘Old Grouch’ saying, “That’s all for tonight. There will be a quiz over this evening’s material on Wednesday, at six-thirty sharp.”

I was fully aware that the last comment was solely for my benefit, but I let it pass without reacting. I was preoccupied with gathering my notes — and my courage. I had devised a plan. It involved my getting out the door ahead of Sheila and waiting for her. Once we were both in the hallway it would be easier for me to ask her for a date (I hoped). I had already decided to stop at the bank, withdraw a crisp new twenty dollar bill (screw the checking account) and take her somewhere for coffee. Or hot chocolate. Or ice cream; if she wanted ice cream on the coldest day in January, who was I to argue?

I stood in the hall fidgeting. She was almost the last one out and headed down the hall alone. No time like the present, Brent boy. You’d better hurry.

“Uh… excuse me, Sheila?” It sounded like a croak. “ Umm, I don’t want to, uh, bother you, but, uh…”

The coffee was superb. Even the ice cream in January was delicious. The conversation was not at all forced.

“Of course it wasn’t forced, you dumb ass! ‘Excuse me, Sheila. Umm, I don’t want to, uh, bother you, but, uh… Nice class, wasn’t it?’ GOD!”

“So I didn’t ask her out.”


“She’ll be there on Wednesday.”

“You won’t ask her out then, either.”

“I might.”

“No you won’t, chicken!”

“I am not a chicken! She looked tired. I was tired. I wasn’t sure my timing was right.”


No matter how strenuously I argued, no matter how perfect my rationalization, and no matter how many excuses I made, that was the crux. I had chickened out, made some ridiculously asinine statement, and now here I sat at Denny's drinking coffee and not enjoying an ice cream sundae — alone.

“She probably would have turned me down, anyway.”

“Hey! That’s my line,” said the Nasty Little Voice.

“Sorry.” I am going crazy. This is the second time today that I have been in an argument with myself. And lost! Paranoia. Nerves. Mental instability. Psychotic behavior. Stress-induced insanity. I was familiar with all the terms.

Tuesday was interminable.

Wednesday was worse. I was late for work, spilled my first coffee of the morning (and my second) and then proceeded to get lost on the way to my first service call. Damn road construction, anyway. The call had come in from Hammond, Indiana, about thirty miles away. No problem — we make runs to Hammond three or four times a week.

So there I am in my service van, tooling east on I-94, looking for the Calumet Exit. First I see the sign ‘Calumet Exit ½ mile’. The next sign I see reads ‘Exit Closed’. Great. Just great.

Now I’ll get caught in a detour that leads absolutely nowhere close to where I want to go, I thought miserably. Which, as it turned out, is exactly what happened. Despite my best efforts, I could not get within two miles of where I was going. So, after driving around downtown Hammond for an hour, I decided to simply report back and tell the boss that I couldn't find the place. I was sure he would believe me — I had managed to not find the place several times in the last few months. He would probably just shake his head, throw up his hands and mutter something such as, ‘Teller, I swear I’m going to buy you a map or send you to school to learn how to read one first.‘

Bingo! His exact words. Followed by, “What the hell took you so long to get back here?” (It was four o’clock in the afternoon.)

“I got lost, sir.”

“Lost?! How did you manage to get lost coming from Hammond? Christ, you can see the skyline from there!”

“Yes, sir. But not from Gary, sir.”

“Gary!” His face and bald head had turned an unhealthy shade of purple. His eyes bulged from their sockets. I thought he had choked on one of those Altoids he was always sucking on. “What the he—; how in the f—; Never mind. I’m sure I don’t even want to know. Give that repair order to Dolph. Charley, would you mind running out there first thing in the morning to handle that, please?”

“Gary?!” he said again, looking at me. He turned and stormed back into his office, muttering something about firing or strangling somebody with every step.

“Don’t worry, Brent,” Charley said, patting my shoulder. “I’m sure he didn’t mean that part about firing somebody. Strangle, maybe, but not fire. He knows you did your best.”

Somehow, I knew that when Charley drove out there, none of the exits would be closed, none of the roads barricaded, and he would return by ten that morning after fixing the blasted computer system that some inept temp had probably crashed.

“Yeah, thanks, Charley. I think I’ve had enough for one day. Cover for me, will you? I'm going to leave a few minutes early so I can cash my check before heading off to class tonight.”

“Sure. What kind of class? Going to learn how to read maps?” he grinned.

“Not funny, Charley.” I grabbed my coat and stalked out of the building.

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