Walter Mencken 7 p.m., Dec. 10
On Ward Road, my space was the largest bedroom of the two. J had offered it to me if I’d let him display his books on the built-in shelf in the front room. I was never much for showing off my books, so I jumped at the chance to have a bigger room. I jumped on other things, too, things J latched onto first, to be honest. When he started playing softball on a team managed by the artistic director of the old Bowery Theatre, I was jealous as hell, my plays needed that kind of break, and I all but invited myself to be on the team. Which was fine by J, it turned out, since their team of “drama fags running the bags” (as his old man would call us), was in need of some talent. I’d always been a good athlete, all-league in basketball and baseball in high school, and I’d actually gone to UCSD mostly because I was going to be on the basketball team. (But after two weeks of practice, back stiff and knees aching, with no time to scope out the girls who could reject me, I quit my dream of college ball and turned my attention to other pursuits, ones which didn’t require the regular use of Absorbine Jr. and moleskin.)
We ended up doing well that season in softball, I made some clutch plays and got some timely extra base hits. We even won the championship. It was the second softball crown in as many years that J and I had won together, the first coming with the Theatre Department team our senior year in ‘88. (Two championships, not bad for the drama queers, beware of men in tights and cleats.) The best game that college season, I vividly recall, wasn’t the finals, but a tilt against one of the worst teams in the league, though they were easily the most memorable. They were quite possibly the most memorable softball team in the game’s history. They were a squad of on-campus cafeteria workers, and they dressed for each game in different costumes, depending on the theme they had chosen for that week. They had Greek Week, when they all played in togas; Sombrero Week; they even had Bikini Week (nothing like the sight of an overweight guy in a two-piece trying to field a grounder AND his own balls). But they saved their best for us.
That day it looked like we were going to win in a forfeit, none of the cafeteria team had shown up. Not a single player. Then, just minutes before gametime, a rambling old station wagon and van arrived with the entire team. They all wore military fatigues and helmets and carried plastic machine guns, and they immediately began unloading sandbags from their vehicles. It was Rambo Week. And why sandbags? For building a bunker to use as a dugout, of course, since they were absolutely committed to their theme. They built the bunker quickly, then all hunkered down, one player standing watch, toy rifle at the ready. It was performance art of the most entertaining sort. As thespians, they put us to shame.
We came to bat first, Team Rambo taking the field with mitts and rifles in hand, faces painted camouflage green. The very first pitch of the game J popped up high above the infield. But rather than catch it, the shortstop pretended to shoot at the ball in the air, then yelled “INCOMING!” and their entire team hit the ground and covered up like they were taking mortar fire. It was genius. The first time one of their batters got a hit, he threw down a smoke bomb for cover as he rounded first base. Watching him in combat attire, running through the smoke, our fielders were in more stitches than the ball itself. When I hit a liner that struck their pitcher, though not hard, he collapsed and began writhing on the ground and screaming as if he’d been shot, his teammates running to him yelling “MEDIC!! WE NEED A MEDIC!!” Never had I, nor have I since, seen a more hilarious thing in sport. Their imagination and creativity were unrivaled. As were their snacks – they had bought some genuine MRE’s at the Army/Navy surplus store and ate them between innings in their sandbag dugout.
This most recent, post-graduate, beer league championship came against a much less amusing opponent, and I recall nothing of the game except we won, but what mattered was it endeared me with our manager – the artistic director – and I even got a play read at the Bowery out of it. The reading went well, and my script was supposedly going to receive a late-night production after that, but it petered out, or the theatre did, or my inferiority complex took over, and it never happened.
* * * * * * * *
What did happen, though, is that both of my paltry jobs ended. The school year and my tutoring position came to a close, and my days schlepping bottles of booze and pounds of porterhouse and scam headshots for the agency also concluded when I quit out of guilt and disgust.
The day I left the agency was a busy one, as if they’d put together for me a sampling of all the things that made the job the circus of the surreal it was. In reality, they were simply trying to squeeze everything out of my last day that they could, having still not hired a replacement. I remember the tubby Queen being grouchy that I’d only given them four day’s notice. I’d lied and said I’d gotten a great new gig and had to start immediately. That the agency servitude was making me physically ill I kept to myself. Why ruin a perfectly good employment reference if I didn’t need to? The letter of recommendation practically wrote itself: “David was always conscientious, always a self-starter, and whenever we needed him to perform unethical or physically revolting tasks he often made a point of extorting something from us, be it cash, concert tickets, or simply our pricier office supplies. That kind of initiative and drive (he’s also a navigational wizard around town) would make him an asset to any dysfunctional company. Yours Truly, The Queen & Genghis-the-Con.”
That afternoon I did the final grocery shopping I’d ever do for them, overfilling the cart with a few million extra calories and chasing a special kind of salami all over town (I found it at the fifth market I tried, driving twenty miles in the process). I stopped by their house and put it all away, no elf porn to be seen, then I returned to the office to get my next assignments for the afternoon. It was a cosmetic and fashion run for her majesty. First I had to pick up purple contact lenses for her (purple!), then I had to fetch a dress at Nordstrom. At the department store, management informed me that this would be the last time they ever sold a dress to my boss. The Queen would not accept that she had to wear a King’s size. Instead, she’d purchase garments far too small, cram her ass into them, and hope for the best. As a result, she was returning too many dresses with burst seams, and they weren’t going to take them back anymore.
“So she better not try to return this one,” the manager tersely informed me.
I nodded, said I just worked for her, that it was my last day, and I told them I’d relay the message. I took the grape colored contacts and undersized silk outfit back to the office, where my boss was overjoyed. I told her what the store had relayed to me about her tenuous customer status, which she scoffed at.
“They’ll keep taking my business,” she replied incredulously, putting in her new contact lenses. “Or I’ll sue them for discrimination. Bastards”
That was a case no court should have had to endure. Nordstrom v. Caligula. Sitting on that jury would, no doubt, be similar to torture at the hands of ancient Romans.
“How do they look?” she excitedly asked me, showing me her now eggplant colored eyes.
“Very nice,” I told her. “I drank Kool-Aid that color when I was a kid.”
She frowned at me and waved me out, said the King had something for me to do.
“Close the door,” he muttered as I entered his office. He was upset about something, or everything, since he was always mad. He twisted hard his chunky gold pinky ring, as he was prone to do when fuming, using it like a pacifier.
“Whatd’you need me to do?” I asked.
“Be gay, man, I’m telling you, just be homosexual,” he seethed, a request I could not fill, his booze-red face even more flushed with disdain. “These women, I swear to you, they’re c-nts, every f-ckin’one of ‘em, just c-nts.”
For a charmer like you, I thought, how could that possibly be? He then proceeded to give me a set of muted instructions, sending me on what was apparently a secret mission.
“You go down to the parking garage,” he told me in a hushed tone. “You open the trunk of the Cadillac. Inside the trunk you’ll see a golf bag. In the large bottom pocket of the golf bag you’ll find a shoe bag. There aren’t any shoes in it. You keep this down, you hear me?”
“Sure, yeah, I…will.” But I had no idea what he was talking about.
“Inside the shoe bag there’s a check book. You bring that checkbook to me, not to anyone else, you understand?”
I nodded, still clueless.
“I’m gonna write you a check. You cash the check at the special bank, not the regular bank. The bank in Mission Valley. You remember?”
I said I did remember. The last time he had me cash a check at the special bank in Mission Valley, I then went and picked up three thousand dollars worth of clothes, his Winter wardrobe, from C&R. This time, based on his demeanor, I was starting to think I might be involved in paying a hitman, or at least purchasing an untraceable firearm.
“Then you take that money, in an envelope, get one at the bank,” he continued. “And you take the money to this address, and you pick up a package for me, a small package. And you bring it right back. To me. This is between you and me, you hear me? You don’t tell anyone, not that c-nt across in the other office, not her secretary, nobody. This is a private matter.”
“You and me. No problem. What am I…picking up?”
He paused as he filled out the check, didn’t like the question, and he glared up at me from under his tortoise shell reading glasses on their gold chain. “A package,” he said in a subject-ending manner. He paused, and felt the need to add something, as if I’d believe it. “It’s a part. For a camera.” But I wasn’t buying it. I had no idea what I was picking up, but it was certainly nothing manufactured by Kodak or Minolta.
So he wrote the check for fifteen hundred dollars (I peeked), and then he sent me on my way. I cashed the check at the bank, then followed his directions down into a dicey part of southeast San Diego, somewhere near Paradise Hills as I recall. Wary and nervous, I picked up the package at an ugly little house, from a man I could only partially glimpse through the front door he opened about four inches. It was just as well, I thought, I didn’t need to hang out with the guy, as I quickly exchanged envelope for package with him and got the hell out of there. The package was about the size of a checkbook box, very light, and I figured, instinctively, that it was probably drugs, cocaine I was guessing. When I returned to the office with the package, the King met me in the hallway outside, to be sure the Queen didn’t see us. He took the package, went immediately into the restroom, then emerged about ten minutes later in a delightful mood, even complementing his wife on her new Crayola contact lenses, which were giving her flabby face a Cabbage Patch doll quality. The King went back into his office, happy as a clam deep in the wet sand.
The fat lady, anxious to complete her fresh look, felt it was time to try on her new dress.
“Sheila!” she called to her secretary. “Come in here and help me!”
Sheila, in her fifties, and as sick of their act as I was, sighed and went into the Queen’s office, where she proceeded (I peeked again) to cinch in the boss’s girdle/corset as much as she could. She had to brace herself against the desk to get a good pull on those laces, but she managed to tie them down tightly. Then came the dress. Though I didn’t watch her put it on, her majesty managed to squeeze into it – a sumo wrestler stuffed into a sock – and then stood there admiring herself in the mirror on the wall. She even asked me what I thought, forgetting my jab at her electric purple contacts. I said she looked great, which she most certainly did not, the poor dress was so strained it was practically moaning in agony. Then she tried to sit down, much to the fabric’s chagrin. When she squatted into her supple leather throne, the explosion of thread could be distinctly, if quietly, heard…POOOSH!…as, literally, every seam in the anguished garment simultaneously burst.
“Goddammit!!” she yelled.
The next thing I knew, I was headed back to Nordstrom to return the dress, which, true to their aggravated word, they refused to take. I shrugged and went on my way. They took a late lunch at the agency, and I had to pick up food at the old Doodle Burger on India, where Saffron’s noodle place is now. Only the fat lady ordered that day, her hubby narcotized and content in his office.
“I want a double heavy Doodle Burger, with extra mayo!” she’d barked before I left.
A double heavy Doodler Burger came with two half-pound patties of beef. A full pound of pulverized cow, slathered in enough mayo to clog a subway tunnel, and when I brought it back to the office she dug into it like she hadn’t eaten in days (when, in fact, she was munching on Fritos when I entered). Within minutes, quarts of mayo were glopping from her chops, burger meat grinding and churning between her capped teeth, and she was giving me her next assignment for the day.
“I need you to run to the drug store and get me some pads.”
“Maxi-pads. I want Always Maxi, with wings. WITH WINGS, dammit! Don’t forget. And hurry up, it’s baby day today, they’re gonna be here in a half hour.”
A feminine hygiene run, that was a first, and thankfully soon to be a last. With wings, dammit, with wings. I would never think about birds or aircraft the same way again. When I exited her office to make my maxi-pad run, the King stuck his head out from his lair and told me to pick him up a beef-dip sandwich across the street on my way back, said he’d called it in. So I went to the drugstore, bought the winged wonders with typical early 20’s male embarrassment, then I picked up that beef-dip sandwich. When I returned to the agency, however, the King angrily discovered that they had only given him one small cup of au jus to dip his sandwich in. And that was enough, high or not, to set him off.
“How am I supposed to eat a big f-cking DRY sandwich with only THIS MUCH GODDAMN AU JUS!?!” he roared, infuriated, holding up the tiny plastic cup. “HOW??? Could you PLEASE f-cking TELL me that!! It’s f-cking RIDICULOUS!!”
He was ranting around the office, kicking chairs, showing anyone who would look just how pitifully small his serving of au jus was. I said he was right, that (and here I paraphrase) this miscarriage of justice must not stand. After he’d berated them on the phone for their paltry dipping supply, I returned to the restaurant, where they had more au jus waiting for me.
“And tell that as-hole not to order here again, he was so rude.”
Nah, I thought, I’ll skip that assignment. Let THEM tell Genghis-the-Con that he couldn’t eat their big f-cking dry sandwiches anymore, I was gone forever come five p.m. The hurricane of rage he would produce upon hearing the news would surely be unrivaled. They could deal with him. When I returned to the agency with a gallon of salted brown soak for his sandwich, and much to my dismay, baby day had already commenced.
* * * * * * * *
Before I’d experienced baby day, I thought child and teen day was the worst. On those afternoons, parents would bring in their kids for bogus auditions (they had no idea the agency was worthless and corrupt), and more than once in the hallway or in the parking lot afterward I’d witnessed a mother or father berating their child for not doing better at their audition. Never have I had a stronger urge to call Child Protective Services. Inner-city kids writing short stories about murder frightened me about a tenth as much as these aspiring stage tyrants.
But baby day took the proverbial butter pound cake (another shopping list staple, as I recall). Originally, when I’d started, it was a once per month cattle call of infants. But looking for more money from more dim bulbs, they started doing it twice a month. A room full of mothers, usually ten or more, would crowd the office waiting for their cherubs to be seen. Babies would be crying, spitting up, crawling all over the floor, when her majesty would emerge from her chambers, hopefully with no Doodle Burger remnants clinging to her jowls, and give the mothers her spiel.
“Okay, ladies, it’s showtime!” she yapped with manufactured enthusiasm. “I can only use babies who are able to sit up on their own. If your baby can’t sit up yet, then thank you and come back when they can. The rest of you, please sit your babies down together on the floor in a circle. That’s right, just put them all sitting down around each other in a circle. Okay. Now, on the count of three, I’m going to ask you all to step back from your babies, and the babies who keep sitting up on their own, BINGO, we love ya! The babies who fall over, sorry, can’t use ya! Ready? Okay. Here we go: One. Two.” A final moment of suspense, then…“Threeeeeeeeeee!!”
The mothers would cautiously step back from their babies, a few stragglers having to be shooed away by the Queen, and, depending on the week, at least half of the babies would teeter and totter and then, boop, just fall onto their backs like flailing upside-down beetles. Like Ted the Peanut Man stranded in Vic’s yard.
I couldn’t stand to watch the whole thing this time and left to use the bathroom. When I entered the restroom, I saw hubby’s shoes under the stall, heard some sniffling, smelled a spreading death, and exited quickly. (Though I couldn’t really blame him, if it were true, for needing to be high to get through baby day.) So I exited the building, and took a walk around the block a few times, until I saw all the mommies leaving the building with their babies. The happy mommies, that is, the sad ones had left earlier. The happy mommies now had the opportunity to spend money on bad photography, overspend on composite prints, and see their infant’s photo stuck into the six-inch thick book of baby photos that sat on the file cabinets. She must have represented a hundred babies or more. But all the mommies thought that their baby was special, obviously, that THEIR baby would get all the work. Except there was no work. Aside from the odd catalog or print ad or local commercial that paid you next to nothing and came around on only a few occasions during my time there. You’d been had, people.
I went back into the office, looking to kill my last hour, hoping the bosses had left to get an early start on their steaks and ice cream and vodka for the weekend. No such luck. Sheila had gone home early on this Friday, so I had to answer the phones in her place until they left.
Suddenly, the Queen cried out from her office. “David, come in here, my fingernail came off in my ear!”
I did not want to believe what I had heard, so I ignored it.
“It’s stuck! My fingernail’s stuck in my ear! David! Help!”
When I forced myself to enter her office, her eggplant eyes implored me and she turned her head to show me a fake fingernail lodged surprisingly deep inside her outer ear canal.
“Get it out!” she begged me. “I can’t reach it! Get it out!”
The nail was too far in to just grab and pull out, and I wasn’t about to touch any part of her body, but I got lucky here like I never had in my life. Sheila had forgotten her cigarettes in her desk and returned to retrieve them. She saw us in the office, asked what the problem was, then shook her head in disgust.
“Only YOU could manage that,” she teased her panicky boss. “Calm down. Let’s see it.”
This was my last image of the agency. I was at the door, ready to leave for the final time. Sheila was standing over the Queen, peering into her ear, attempting to use a pair of toothpicks as makeshift tweezers or tiny chopsticks.
“Ow!” wailed the Queen.
“Sit still!” snapped an irritated Sheila. “I almost had it.”
“I think I have some needle-nose pliers in my trunk that’ll work,” I might have told the women. But when I went down to my car to get them, I never came back. Ever.