Monday, November 12, 2007

Chapter 2

It snowed Saturday morning — and Saturday evening — and Sunday morning. In fact, it turned out to be one of those freak winter storms that deposit twelve inches of snow every four hours, with blowing winds, freezing temperatures; in short, a real record setter. It was of the genre that all the sadistic weathermen in this country love because it gives them a chance to unearth all the old, musty, dusty record books with their yellowed pages and quill written numbers; and then on the evening news (usually with that ludicrous smile on their face), they report that 'we haven't had this much snow in this short a period of time since 1563'; or 'it hasn't been this cold since that day in Norway when Leif Ericson set sail to discover America.' And all those other things that we, the general populace, have absolutely no desire to hear but sit through all glassy-eyed because we can't bear to change the channel.

Late Sunday morning (actually early Sunday afternoon) I crawled out of bed and turned on the TV for the news. O'Hare airport was closed. The city streets were blocked with snow and it was cold. I didn't want the weather. I wanted the sports. I wanted to know whether or not the Bulls had beaten the L.A. Lakers the night before. (I had money in the pool at the office and I desperately needed to win it.)

Just as the sports came on, the telephone rang. I have always been envious of those "more fortunate than I" individuals; the ones with an overabundance of phones (more than one) in the house. My boss had two in every room, including his three johns. (I don't know why ­ I only work for the man.) My solitary phone was not in the living room; it was in the kitchen, behind a wall, attached to a very, very short cord; much too short to enable me to talk on the phone and see the television at the same time. I should have bought that damn answering machine while it was on sale at Radio Shack last week.


I resolved not to give in to the Pavlovian response to answer it.

Rinnngggg! Rinnngggg!

Somehow, each ring sounded more urgent than the last. But I held fast and didn't jump to find out who would be calling me at this hour.


“Okay, okay, I'm coming.” I could always get the scores from the paper.


“Hello?”, not sure whether I was more upset at the person calling, or me for bothering to answer the phone in the first place.

“Hello, Brent? It's Doug.” He sounded awfully chipper for this early in the morning. He rushed on. “Hey, do you have any plans for this afternoon? None? Good! Kim and I want you to come for dinner. Say about two o'clock?”

“Doug, have you seen the weather reports for today? There's forty-eight inches of snow on the ground, it's -153° below zero, O'Hare airport is closed, and you want me to come over for dinner?”

“Brent, we live in the same apartment building. All you have to do is walk up two flights of stairs.”

“So I was kidding … see you at two.”

I hung up the phone and hurried back to the living room just in time to miss the sports and catch a special bulletin on the weather.

“Continued cold and nasty all day. And for Monday” … CLICK.

I didn't need him to tell me it was colder than a witch's… well, pretty darn cold, anyway. I could hear the wind whistling in around my windows. The landlord had told me when I moved in that he had just had the place completely caulked and reinsulated. Either he forgot my apartment or the man had lied to me; not that I want to be the one to call him a liar. I guess it's possible to forget one apartment, isn't it?

For some unknown reason the paper hadn't arrived that morning, so I opted to avail myself of the opportunity and take a little nap until lunch time. It seemed almost no time at all before I was asleep. I have no idea how long I slept before I started dreaming, but that dream I definitely remember.

I was in the magician's class; it appeared to be the last session, final exam time. I saw myself standing at the front of the room doing and saying absolutely nothing. I saw everyone but Sheila, though I could hear her calling my name from somewhere, as if over a great distance. I attempted to answer but found myself unable to form a response. Movement was denied to me. And so I remained, completely incapacitated. I watched helplessly as, one by one, my classmates began to disappear; not walking out — simply vanishing. Finally my tongue was loosed and I began to shout.

“Wait! Wait! You can't just walk out on me. So I can't pull a rabbit out of my hat! Give me a chance, will you?”

POOF! Someone else disappeared. I heard Queen singing “Another one's gone, and another one's gone. Another one bites the dust.” POOF! I was the last one remaining; there were no voices now, no more singing. I watched as I too began to fade. Starting at my feet and progressing steadily upwards, I was passing inexorably out of existence. Mesmerized, I could do nothing but continue to watch until only my eyes survived.

Something woke me up, though I have no idea what. I don't think my mental faculties could have endured observing myself vanish — that would wreak havoc on a normal mind — no telling what might have transpired with one such as mine.

Needless to say, I didn't go back to sleep that afternoon. It was almost time to head up to Doug and Kim's for lunch, anyway. I had just enough leisure to run out and grab a bottle of wine for dinner. I know, I know… O'Hare was closed. But this was almost a special occasion; it was dinner with my best friend and his wife, which meant that I didn't have to cook anything — or worse yet, eat my own cooking.

Cold! God, it was cold!

By the time I had trudged the two blocks to the liquor store, I thought my nose had been frostbitten. As I walked through the doorway I realized that I had absolutely no idea what Kim was preparing for dinner, so, after ten minutes of vacillating between a Beaujolais, a Merlot, and a Chablis, I determined that the only wise thing to do was buy a bottle of Asti Spumante. I knew there would be a dessert of some kind, and with that sweet, sparkling wine, I couldn't miss. I also purchased a half-pint of brandy; I didn't want to risk a more severe case of frostbite on the way home.

Pausing under the awning above the entrance to break the seal and take a hearty swallow, I could feel its artificial warmth stealing its fingers through my entire body. A little over half the bottle had evaporated by the time I unlocked the door to my apartment. Funny, I didn't think alcohol evaporated at temperatures below freezing.

I hung up my coat, pulled off my boots, and checked my watch. Two o‘clock exactly. Rather than rushing upstairs, I instead stretched out on the couch for almost eight minutes. They expected me to be at least ten minutes late; they wouldn't have known how to react if I had been punctual. So, you see, I was simply acting out of concern for their health and mental stability. The last thing I wanted to do was catapult them into severe catatonia.

“Why late and not early?” you ask. It inevitably seems to produce disastrous results whenever I arrive early. I made it early for graduation — a week early. Nine o‘clock on a Saturday morning, me in a coat and tie, and not another soul around. And then there was the day I took off work to stand in line for Bob Seger tickets. I pulled into the parking lot of the stadium at six-thirty in the morning, pleasantly surprised to encounter no one else already waiting. I sure didn't mind being first in line. I stood there until ten, when one of the maintenance people came by pushing his broom. He looked at me rather strangely for a moment, and then asked what I was standing around for.

“Bob Seger tickets,” I told him somewhat smugly. “I got here early so I could be first in line.

“Yeah. You'll be first in line, all right. For next year's concert. Seger played here last night. Man, that sure was some performance, too! Ain't never seen nobody put on a show like that man. Did all 'is big hits, too. Musta played for over two hours. Yep, that sure was some show.”

He walked away shaking his head and singing “Katmandu” while I stood there silently swearing in every language I knew … which didn't seem to be enough, so I repeated myself, verbally this time.

The point I am trying to make from all of this is that I don't go anywhere early anymore. I have this inexplicable aversion to headaches.

At exactly 2:08, I swung my feet of the couch, pulled on my shoes and trotted up for lunch. Oops! Forgot the bottle of Asti. So what's another minute or two?

My mouth began salivating in anticipation. Kim was a great cook. (Brent Teller's Dictionary ― 'great cook': one who is able to use a microwave oven for more than heating tuna sandwiches.) I was betting on pork chops smothered in a milk gravy, a tossed salad, baked potatoes with sour cream, broccoli under a melted cheese on the side, and probably cherry pie for dessert. Can't wait!

“Hi, Brent. Come on in.” Doug met me at the door. “You like your burgers medium, don't you? I can't ever remember.”

Burgers? “Medium is fine.”

Burgers! I risked a brutal case of acute frostbite walking two blocks in this freezing cold to get a bottle of wine for your dinner and you want to serve me burgers?

“With lots of steak sauce and onions. I brought a bottle of Asti.” Burgers. I don't even like burgers.”

Great! Let me open it,” Kim said as she came in from the kitchen and kissed me on the cheek. “Good to see you, Brent. How have you been all week?”

“Just fine, Kim. You're looking as gorgeous as ever. When are you going to pack your bags, leave this bum-for-a-husband and move in with me?”

She smiled. “Brent, you're always such a flirt. Besides, you wouldn't know what to do with a female around the house all the time.”

That shut me up. Scared me, too. She hit pretty close to the truth on that one.

“Dinner's almost ready,” she called over her shoulder as she returned to the kitchen. “Sit down and make yourself comfortable.”

Kim, Doug and I had all gone to high school together. Kim and I had dated a few times, but never seemed to hit it off. I was moderately shy and not so moderately awkward in high school ( and college, and after college … ) In addition, I was recurringly broke. Kim and Doug had gone to the senior prom on their first date and ended up married by that August.

I first met Doug when we were sophomores in chemistry class. We were assigned as work partners and immediately developed a rapport. Allow me to preface this story about Doug by saying that he is not the type of individual one would consider to be a class cutup. However, given the proper circumstances he can hold is own with the best of us… uh… I mean, best of them.

Early in the semester we were doing an experiment to measure the rate of expansion of several gases when heated. I was trying my damnedest to pull it off. I enjoyed the class immensely and needed a decent grade.

Doug tapped me on the shoulder and whispered, “Watch this.”

I glanced around to see what he was doing and instantly realized he was not following the correct procedure. My first indication of something amiss was that his test tube was angled at about thirty degrees from vertical, aimed towards the front of the room. The next thing I noticed was that he had jammed a rubber stopper into the opening.

“Doug, do you know what you're doing? Man, with a cork in that thing and you heating that gas with a Bunsen burner it's going to —”

“Shhh… Just watch. I dipped the stopper in indelible ink. Now, a little more to the left… a slight adjustment in elevation …”

POP! The cork sailed gracefully through the air and nailed the chemistry teacher square on the forehead. I couldn't help but chuckle. Doug winked and grinned at me and my calm façade vanished in a wave of uncontrollable laughter. I didn't even notice that we both got suspended for three days. When we came back, the mark was still on Mr. Jameson's forehead and I started laughing all over again. That landed me another three-day suspension. Needless to say, my chemistry grade was not as high as I had hoped.

As time went on Doug and I became good friends. We did all the things that high school males do as friends; we worked the same job, drove similar cars in the same life-threatening manner, we dated the same girls (he more than I), and like any other average, American teenage males, we got kicked out of Kmart together. Just ordinary, everyday, average adolescents.

After graduation, he hired into a machine shop and I went to college. After cramming four years into five and switching my major three times, I transferred to DeVry and managed to obtain a computer technician's degree. Doug had recently been promoted to lead machinist and I was starting my career as a repair tech, still paying for three years of college. What I don't understand is that he frequently asks to borrow money from me. Not that I mind; he almost always pays me back. Maybe married life is simply too expensive.

My thoughts were jerked back to the present by the sound of Kim's voice. “Doug tells me that you are still going through with this magician's class. I never knew you were all that interested in magic.”

“Oh, well, you know me, Kim. Once I start something I don't like to quit until I finish. And I think being a magician is a great idea — they do a lot of good in the world. They entertain people, make them smile, and in general, help to ease the burdens we bear.”

“And,” Doug added with a smirk, “the school wouldn't give him his money back. But the biggest reason, I think, is some girl named Sheila. You should have been there, Kim. You would have thought he had never seen a pretty woman before.”

“I have so. Lots of times.”

“Yeah, sure. We're standing in line, right? And all he's doing is arguing with me about how he thought this was a stupid idea and how he didn't know why he ever let me talk him into it and on and on and on. Then, this girl walked in and asked for the registration forms for the magician's class. Ol' Brent here stops ranting and raving in mid-sentence and his jaw drops to his shoetops.” He demonstrated by making a google-eyed face and then continued, “And I'll be damned if the next words out of his mouth weren't, and I quote, ‘Doug, buddy, maybe this wasn't such a bad idea after all.’ Then he saunters up to the counter and asks, loud enough for everyone to hear, for the same registration forms. The lady hands them to him, and out of ten or twelve empty desks, he picks the one right next to this Sheila. As he's sitting down, Mr. Suave here drops everything in his hands on the floor … ”

Kim was holding her sides, she was laughing so hard. Doug possessed quite a talent for storytelling. Personally, I wasn't enjoying the whole fabrication as much as either of them seemed to be.

“But how did you find out her name was Sheila? Did you find the courage to ask her, Brent?”

“No, he looked over her shoulder and read it off her registration card,” Doug answered, still laughing.

“I really fail to see all the humor in this situation. So I changed my mind about being a magician — I decided that I kinda liked the idea. Maybe I was a little clumsy when I dropped all that paperwork, but that could have happened to anybody.”

“Sure,” Doug agreed. “To anybody who was watching her and not where he was putting the stuff. Come on, Brent, admit it! That girl had you awestruck.”

“Well, now that you mention it, I do seem to recall her being rather pretty. But awestruck? Isn't that just a little strong?”

“Maybe. How about dumbfounded? Speechless? Mesmerized? How about…”

“How about dropping it?” I felt my temper starting to flare. Doug's a nice guy and all, but sometimes his needling gets to me.

He raised his hands as if fending off an attack. “Okay, okay, but I would still like to see how much attention you pay to the instructor tomorrow night.” He was still chuckling.

The burgers were gone and the wine was empty, so we adjourned to the living room. Doug turned on the TV and he and Kim both lit their customary after-dinner cigarettes. There was some movie on; a western, I think. I had trouble concentrating enough to watch it. I kept drifting back to my dream.

“Brent, did you see the highlights from the Bulls game? That slam-dunk was really somethin', wasn't it!”

“I don't know; I missed it. The phone rang … some guy with a dinner invitation just as it was coming on. I couldn't see around the corner.”

“Oh. Sorry about that. I keep forgetting you've got only the one phone stuck back in the corner of your kitchen, and the cord's so short you have to press your ear to the wall. But it was great! You should've seen it.”

“Oh well, you've seen one, you've seen them all.” I tried to sound convincing.

The conversation lapsed into silence as we sat and watched TV throughout the afternoon and into the evening. None of us were at all uncomfortable with the fact that there was very little conversation; we had known each other long enough to be content with the silences, too. We didn't have to banter idle talk back and forth just to make a pretense of communicating. We knew there was virtually no point in wasting our breath talking about the weather, or bills, or the past we could not change, or the future we could not know. We had reached a peace with our individual and collective philosophies.

At least I was cognizant of these truths; Doug and Kim had both fallen asleep.

So, I sat and watched the western, and a black and white movie, and then an Alfred Hitchcock feature, and then …

I never did see that slam dunk. I woke them up around seven o‘clock, thanked them for dinner, and for letting me watch their color TV, and headed back downstairs to my drafty apartment, my black and white TV and my short phone cord.

“Drive careful, Brent,” Doug called. “Remember, it's cold and snowing, and drifting … ”

“Smart ass!” I called back up the stairs.

“And O'Hare airport is closed.”

Damn! I forgot to ask him for my twenty-five bucks back; but I was already at my door and didn't really want to climb back up those two flights of steps. I could always catch him tomorrow, if he remembered borrowing it at all. Can I claim charitable contributions to my friends as an income tax deduction?

1 comment:

Magdalen Islands said...

You're a good humorist and I've enjoyed this chapter. It is funny!