Don Bauder 4:30 p.m., Dec. 9
“So Hank pestered me into agreeing to go out with the guys on Friday night.”
I said this to Karen as we were eating dinner at her house sometime that week. I did not, however, mention that Hank had said he was also hoping to get me so wasted that I might possibly seduce a local 4-H sow. Karen and I had barbequed steaks that night, most likely, since I was still near my post-courier/delivery truck driver maximum density of 220 pounds, and we barbequed a lot at her place, on a little hibachi, or if not the real Japanese thing then a generic Pic-n-Save sort of charcoal burning apparatus that you set on the ground and had to bend down steeply to use. I remember tending the meat as if I were a tribesman, squatting beneath the stars with my long two-pronged fork – and if not under the stars then at least beneath the urban clothesline of television cables, phone lines and electrical wires.
Karen was still living in Rolando at that point, with her anorexic roommate Shauna (“Anyone else want an Otter Pop?”), in a house off of University Avenue, on the little hill behind the Home Depot and the giant Ralphs grocery store, both of which are gone, replaced by the sprawling Salvation Army Kroc Center.
“Good,” Karen replied, much to my surprise, to the news of my planned night out carousing with the men of MG Electric. “You should go and have fun with them.”
Hmm. I was taken off-guard. I figured she’d be wary, worried I’d hook up with some younger gal. But she wasn’t. Her tone, I recall specifically, communicated to me a certain confidence, an almost calm and determined sense of fate, as if rather than worry or concern, she rationally and logically took it as an opportunity to find out if that was really the life I’d rather be living as a guy in my early 20s, which concerned her almost equally with my pathological lack of money. “I’m too old for you,” “you need to be out being young and free,” blah blah blah. In truth, she had me entirely, completely, wholly, utterly and comprehensively, more than either of us was aware or probably wanted to be. My subconscious, however, was fully aware, and as that Friday approached, and with it the possibility I’d stray again or simply discover that I DID want to be out living the bar life, I found myself fighting my lower back, which was sore and stiff and locking up constantly. And my stomach was gurgling, and my “allergies” were acting up, my nose stuffed, eyes watery.
I was, as usual, a psychosomatic nightmare.
* * * * * * * *
Before Friday night could commence, however, that workday at the warehouse had to play out. And play it did. As I limped around with my sore back, sniffling with my runny eyes, my intestines in knots from the carne asada breakfast burrito (or so I then believed) that I’d choked down on the drive to work, Hank punched me in the shoulder affectionately.
“Don’t you be pretending to have a bad back, or be sick, or any of it. You’re not flaking out on us tonight, Cool Daddy-O. We are going OUT.”
Excellent. Can’t wait. Bring it on.
I had a long delivery that morning, all the way out to El Centro, the stake-bed truck so loaded down that the weight was bulging the tires. It was risky, they could have blown out on me, but it was either drive or get fired. And though I didn’t need much to cover that amoebic rent, I still needed something.
I headed east on I-8, taking it slow and easy on that ballooning rubber, rising past the greener mountain stretch closer to the city, then crossing into the tan, sand and brown peaks of the desert. I wound through the alien landscape of surreal boulder piles thousands of feet high and the occasional crystal-meth trailer in the middle of nowhere, worrying with each bend in the smoldering asphalt that my overburdened tires would burst. It felt far hotter than it should have for a late autumn day. The sun baked my left arm and magnified down onto a patch of my thigh (I was wearing shorts), burning it red before I’d even started the descent to the infernal valley floor.
At the dusty and ovenblown construction site, I was instructed by some incredibly unfriendly construction workers (they were, I overheard later, ready to all but murder their boss in an overtime dispute), to unload my truck into the large storage container they pointed to, which was sitting unshaded in the sand a few hundred yards away. It was nothing more than a giant metal box in the middle of a barren patch of crispy desert earth, sealed shut beneath Lucifer’s broiler, otherwise known as the Imperial Valley sun. I asked if they could spare a forklift for a few minutes to unload the pallets for me, that it would save us all a lot of time, but they simply shook their heads and said “Sorry, we can’t spare it.” Dicks. I could see one sitting unused right over there. Not working, they said when I commented on it. These idiots were full of it; there was nothing wrong with that lift, they were just giving me a hard time. Heat was stroking their empty skulls, and I was there to suffer the afterburn. Man oh man, it was SO hot, I was already starting to think in sentences that were verging on the abstract: this wire looks like melting licorice ropes; there is soup in my shoes; even the paint on my truck is slumping.
In this increasing stupor, I was on my own to unload a few tons of electrical supplies, by hand, with an aching back, into a storage container which, when I opened it, emitted a crematory heat that felt as if the planet Mercury had just leaped into my naked arms. It literally wilted me on contact. (BTW, did I mention that is was HOT? A buck twenty if it was ninety.) A few thousand pounds of wire and couplings and conduit later, I was dizzy, my back stiff as a board, and I was bent over inside the storage container, breathing hellishly heated air that offered little in the way of lungs. Feeling myself on the verge of passing out from it, I staggered out of the container, caught my toe on the lip of the metal doorframe, and stumbled down onto the blisteringly hot sand, some of which kicked up into my open mouth. (I’m such a tripper, I’ve always been klutzy afoot, long before I’d lost the use of much of my right flipper several years ago. Cables at baseball stadiums, metal lips, my own toes, ants, ideas, you name the thing, no matter how tiny or vaporous, I will find it and dorkdive over it spectacularly.) You phucking idiot, I thought, as I spit out cinders of sand and tried to unstick the other blazing grains from my sweaty and scorched face. I remember getting to my feet and reaching inside the cab of the truck, grabbing the second bottle of water I’d bought in El Cajon before starting the I-8 ascent (the first bottle I had guzzled during my break in the unload). Hurriedly I cracked open the bottle and poured the water onto my face, only to discover that -- and I recall the physical sensation tangibly -- in the eighty minutes it had taken me to unload the truck, the water had gone from cool to cauldron. I had just poured what felt like molten lead onto my face, and I cursed and cursed louder, so much so that the construction workers hundreds of yards away turned to see what I possibly could’ve done to myself. They had quite the group chuckle. I had definitely made it worth their while to mess with me and refuse that forklift.
Two and a half hours later, the taste of sand still in my mouth, sweat so profuse that it felt like my entire body were pruned, and with a lower back now screaming at me, I returned to the MG Electric warehouse only to find that Ray and Tommy were going at it again, ready to beat the sh-t out of each other because Ray had failed, once more, to properly count a delivery that he’d signed for when Tommy was at lunch.
“F-ck you, Tommy, I counted it right, you’re the one that’s wrong!”
“F-ck me? F-ck ME??? You just saw me recount it twice, you retarded piece of sh-t!”
They were being held back by Victor the salesman, and by Gary Gosh, another inside salesman, who was also the son of Bob Gosh, co-owner of MG. Gary was a big guy, with another of MG’s many moustaches (I don’t know what it was about MG and furry upper lips, but we certainly had more than our quota), and he carried himself like a cocksure cock. The MG kingdom was likely to be his one day, or so he thought at the time, and his attitude reflected his sense of entitlement. He’s also had three DUI convictions, but daddy’s lawyers had managed to keep him out of jail. You’re untouchable, life told him, and he lived like it. When we played pickup basketball a few times after work, he always had to assert his “dominant” status, throwing elbows like it was the NBA finals. When I blew by him once and netted a sweet reverse lay-up, he gave me an unnecessary shove. I ignored it, but Hank didn’t, and got in his face, like my little league teammate had years before, screaming at him about being a spoiled mama’s boy and a cheap shot artist. Hank was great. And he was right with the mama’s boy stuff, too. Mrs. Gosh was the company’s accountant, and she was always wandering over to her son’s desk and giving him back rubs, her bullet bra boobs sometimes pressed gently down onto the top of his head. It was odd and often unsettling, but then again maybe I was, ahem, jealous; maybe I had wanted the same rubs and attention from my own mother, that old Greek tragedy always rattling around inside my malformed psyche.
As Tommy and Ray kept going after each other, each being restrained, I heard a “Psst!” from above. I turned around and looked up to the top shelf, where Hank was peering down at me, his hair sticking up wildly as a result of an extended nap.
“Dude, I overslept, and I can’t get caught again, you gotta sneak over here and get me down.” It made me laugh.
Tommy wriggled away from Victor at that moment, charging Ray. Gary Gosh gave up on holding Ray at that point, like he kind of wanted to see a fight – he sported this evil little smile – and see a fight he did. As Tommy and Ray rolled on the ground throwing punches, I stiffly moved to the forklift, even more stiffly got behind the wheel, and drove it down the aisle to Hank. As he rode the forks down from the upper reaches, the fight tumbled down the aisle toward us, taking me off guard, and I had to stop the forks and raise them quickly, Hank holding on for dear life. The fight continued for another minute, moving back away from us, Gosh and Victor keeping their distance another few moments, until old man Gosh emerged from the front office to investigate the ruckus. At that point, Gary Gosh and Victor dived like hockey referees atop brawling players, and they pulled Ray and Tommy off each other. Old man Gosh didn’t even say anything, he just shook his head in disgust and headed back into the office. With the fistivities concluded, I lowered Hank to the floor, where he remarked, “Nice job, man. Those brawling fools had me worried, I thought you were gonna panic there and drop me right on top of them. I owe you an extra buzz tonight.”
It was the first time in my tenure at MG that my forklift skills had been the object of any genuine admiration. Hank was indeed lucky that he hadn’t suffered the same fate as those fluorescent lamps I’d turned into rain-stick shards a few weeks earlier.
“But you better stop it with that back sh-t already,” Hank added. “There’s no way I’m letting you out of tonight.”
Interestingly, when he said this, the second time he had said as much that day, it must have finally sunk deep enough into my brain, into the reaches where my bonus back pains come from, because it began to gradually loosen up, as if it wasn’t worth the effort anymore. I was committed to that night, I could not get out of it, and there was nothing my tormented cranium could do. Maybe I really did want to go out and party with the dudes.
* * * * * * * *
When closing time arrived, everyone headed home with an extra hop in their steps; the weekend was upon us. Frizz came bounding out of the men’s room, where he’d changed in to his tight blue polyester coach’s shorts and undersized t-shirt, a strip of his naked and bulging belly visible above his beltline. He might’ve snuck in a line or two in the stall, he emerged so wired and excited. He was in his late thirties, thick all around, greasy hair on a balding head, and he too wore a moustache across his cold sore-scabbed upper lip. I called him Frizz, however, not because of a physical characteristic, but because of his beloved hobby – Frisbee golf.
“Time for some frizz, gotta play that frizz,” he’d announce at the end of most work days, bounding down the aisle toward the door. “A little blow and a lotta frizz, that’s what I call a real Friday. Anyone wanna join me?”
No one ever did. He was kind of an a-shole. He liked to come up behind you and whip you with his fat-knuckled middle finger, which felt like a hammer hitting your flesh. He called it the “Chickabah.” When you heard the word from behind you, you knew that finger was about to strike.
“Goddamn you, Frizz,” said Hank when he got it last, “Next time you do that I’m gonna grab two feet of that 1-ought cable and beat you like a Hell’s Angel!”
Frizz lived with a toothless, semi-disabled older woman who seemed to have mental problems, but she was letting him live in her place for dirt cheap rent as long as he did some things around the house for her. The one time Hank and I went over to his place to drop something off, we saw him walking his mangy dog around the block, using only a length of twine as a leash. He might as well have had razor wire around the poor dog’s raw and bleeding neck.
“I had to get outta the house,” he told us. “Marti’s freaking out because I forgot to buy her more macaroni and cheese. She threw a Duraflame log at me. I’m hoping maybe she just cuts her wrists while I’m gone. My son’s coming over for the weekend, and I need that crazy old hag in a coma or something.”
He had a teenage son. What a life that kid had. Blow and frizz with dad.
These little dramas and dysfunctional survival bios always captivated me, and they still do. Much more than, say, stories of the more privileged, or the more adventurous, or the more anything. These tiny freakshows mirrored my own much more than those of my college friends from UCSD or my high school friends from my days masquerading as a born-again Christian.
As such, and right on cue, Old Paul was next out the door. He was in his seventies, a widower and “former” alcoholic who still had a nip or ten now and then. He worked the front counter, dealing with walk-in customers, and he knew everything about electric supply game. As the public face of MG, the first one you'd see if you walked in to buy a circuit breaker or some Romex wire, he offered quite the first impression. A lively and humorous personality, he unfortunately possessed a face creviced and moonscaped with moles and boils and bulges of every disgusting sort, the biggest of which was on his left cheek. He’d stroke the fleshy meatball continuously, like a security blanket, until it started to hurt one day, so he went to the doctor to have it removed. Hairy Hands Mike told us later that Old Paul had confided the story of its removal to him.
“He said the doctor cut it off, and suddenly the whole room filled with this smell that even Paul said was enough to kill a horse. That old man smells like farts and curdled buttermilk all day, and if HE thinks it stinks, Jesus. He said the doctor had to leave the room it was so bad. And then some other doctor had to come in and finish the job, the first one couldn’t take it.” HHM added that the second doctor, or so it appeared to Paul, had smeared mentholated jelly just below his nostrils to mask the odor of Paul’s fetid facial meatball.
As he passed me, Paul patted me on the shoulder. “You be careful with Hanky and them boys tonight. They’ll leave you buck naked at church with your balls painted pink.” All I could do, however, was stare at the crater where that unfathomably stinky growth had been lanced or sliced or whatever was done to remove such an alien thing. (I have a lot of room to talk, having inherited from my father a penchant for lipomas, which has left me with what I like to call my cauliflower left arm. I’ve already had a large growth removed from that forearm, another growing ping pong ball of encased fat now calls the upper arm home, with many smaller grotesqueries pocking the arm and the rest of my body. So you’re not alone, Paulie, and you are not an animal.)
Out went Ray, still mad at Tommy, Tommy hiding out in the lunchroom and still mad at Ray. Out went Odd Jim, off for a weekend of kiddie porn and masturbating with his NAMBLA buddies. Out went Victor, still stymied and commenting on how Vanilla Ice HAD to be a brother. Drunk Jim followed, hot beer waiting in the cooler in his car, and he was extra buzzed just thinking about it, since it was Friday and he could go all night. Then, with Ray having just pulled his car out of the lot, Tommy emerged from the lunchroom and headed home.
“Stupid motherf-cker ruined my weekend already. If he wasn't married to the old man's sister, his ass'd be fired so fast and he'd NEVER find a job anywhere else, the useless redneck.”
“Take it easy, T,” said Hank. “Don’t let it get to you. Get yourself a silver and blue and sit yourself back.”
Last out the door were the girls from the front office, Julie and Joleen. Julie I will always remember for being the star of a story told by one of our contracting clients. He said he’d been talking with Julie one day, she was four months pregnant at the time, when she made an obvious pass at him, said she’d had a big crush on him since the first day she’d met him. So at lunch the next day he picked her up, hurried through Jack-in-the-Box for drive-thru slop, then went back to a construction trailer at his latest jobsite, where they proceeded to have very loud sex on the floor – “She yelped, man. Like a goat,” a description I made sure to transcribe in my little blue notebook.
Exiting with Julie that Friday afternoon, petite and fair midwestern Joleen made eye contact with Hairy Hands Mike, which was enough to make HHM believe she wanted him to vanquish her loins. But she was out the door quickly without so much as a pause or a word.
“I’m SO gonna get that,” he said to Hank, who rolled his eyes.
With everyone else gone out the front entrance, I stood outside the warehouse door with Hank, HHM, and Gary Gosh, who was closing the big steel door and locking it for the weekend. They were Hank’s unlikely roommates and the two guys we’d be going out with that night. Hank isn’t the kind of guy you’d picture rooming with the boss’s kid and another salesman, but you had to live somewhere and, like me with Sandra and Heidi, he was getting a good deal, which was all that mattered. We agreed that I’d come over to their place about an hour later, after I’d showered and changed clothes.
“Cool Daddy-O is getting’ crazy tonight!” HHM declared, giving me a good-natured shove toward Gosh.
“Don’t be a pussy either and go running to your schoolteacher girlfriend early,” sniped Gosh, shoving me harder and less good-naturedly.
“Leave him alone, you pricks,” said Hank. “Give the boy a break.”
My “allergies” returned suddenly. HACHOO!!!
“Don’t you start with that sneezing sh-t either,” Hank warned me, giving me a shove of his own.
Somebody just knock me out with a right cross and get it over with already.
“And hey,” Hank called to me as I got into my car. “Bring a movie over, we’ll watch it during our pre-game warm-up.”
“What kind of movie?” I asked him
“Whatever you want, I’m curious what you’ll bring.”
BARFLY was the obvious pick, I thought as I showered back at the 32nd Street house, but we’d both seen it a few times, and I got the urge to think outside the box, at least for this group of dudes. As I soaped up and considered different movies, from Truffaut to Wenders to Les Blank to Monty Python, there was a knock at the bathroom door. Once again, Heidi had to use the facilities. She entered and took her seat, her tinkling drowned out by the shower’s louder variety.
“You have any movies?” I asked her.
“We have a few tapes. Why?”
“I need something for tonight.”
“For you and Karen?”
“No,” I told her. “For a night out with the guys.”
“Well, I don’t have any pornos. But I have a cool dissection tape from my anatomy class.”
You had to love Heidi. I politely declined. She flushed and exited. I remember thinking that when I had moved in, I figured the bathroom situation would involve me having to pee when the girls were in the shower and, oh shoot, look how I can see them naked…but it had worked out in exactly the opposite fashion. While Sandra had yet to walk in on me, Heidi had done it four times by that point. I was starting to think she might have a fetish.
Maybe twenty minutes later, cleaned up and dressed in my best torn jeans and paisley shirt, I was ready to go (I would’ve called Karen, but I knew she’d gone out for happy hour drinks with some fellow teachers). Before I left, I looked at our collected VHS tapes on the built-in shelf in the living room. Some thrillers, a little horror, a few awful comedies, no, no, no, and then…ah, yes, there we go, and I pulled from the shelf the perfect night-out-with-the-dudes-pregame-warmup-flick:
* * * * * * * *
A half hour later I was already stoned out of my gourd (we’d had a few tokes up in Hank’s room), a beer lazily held in my liquid feeling hand, and I was sinking further and further into the leather sofa at the Scripps Ranch condo Hank shared with Hairy Hands and Gary Gosh. If only Karen could see me now, I thought. We’d be through before I could get up from the sofa. HHM was on the floor, his face six inches from the TV screen, where a porn movie scene was in thrusting crescendo. When the video cut to an extreme close-up of the pounding genitalia, HHM offered his critique.
“That looks just like a slab of roast beef I had at The Butcher Shop!” (Any connection to Hall of Famer Joe Morgan would prove merely coincidental. In this dimension anyway.)
The close-up meat thrusting continued for what seemed an impossibly endless stretch. HHM turned to Hank and I with a look of pure adolescent awe in his eye and tone.
“That many strokes?” he marveled about the male porn star’s stamina. “That guy’s a champion! He should have a gold medal around his cock!”
Hank and I nodded, glazed as doughnuts, which sounded good at that moment.
“You burnouts aren’t even watching.” Which was true.
Gary Gosh returned home at that point, with his giggly blonde girlfriend, Shannon, and her quieter brunette friend, Carolina. Gosh and his gal bolted upstairs to get in a quickie, her friend left downstairs with HHM, Hank and I, and the porn movie she must have caught a glimpse of before those hairy hands hurriedly shut it off.
“Hey, Carolina,” said HHM, standing to greet her. “We were just about to put in a movie Cool Daddy-O brought.”
“So the porn movie was yours?”
“No, it’s Hank’s.”
“Shut the f-ck up, Pervis Ellison,” snapped Hank. “Why don’t you show her the collection under your bed.” Good vibe, good vibe. “Just put in that movie.”
“What is it?” Carolina asked me.
“Annie Hall.” She looked back at me with nary a clue behind her eyes. “You like Woody Allen?”
She had no idea. But the movie started at that point, if only the previews, no further conversation was necessary, my buzz wasn’t letting up, and I could hardly remember my name.
“You wanna go toke again before the real movie starts?” Hank asked me.
I declined, remarking that my high was transforming, that I felt like my head was pulling away from my neck. I was starting to feel restless, paranoid, my heart began pounding, and I felt like sitting still would kill me.
Hank just laughed. “Relax, Cool Daddy-O. We’re only getting started.”
As we started to watch the movie, something strange happened. They all loved it. Especially HHM. When Woody Allen is on his first date with Annie, and he tells her, look, let’s just get a kiss out of the way, because later, we’re going to be all nervous, and if we just kiss now and get it over with, then we won’t feel awkward later…and then he kisses Annie, well, HHM thought that was the smoothest move he had ever seen.
But my buzz was levitating me, my heart felt like it was a hummingbird’s, and I couldn’t sit there anymore and enjoy it with them, I thought I was going to explode if I didn’t get up and out and MOVE.
“I gotta walk,” I told Hank, rising from the sofa.
“What? Sit your ass down and be calm.”
“No no, I gotta walk.”
I headed for the door. Hank called after me to stop, but I kept going, passing the stairs, assaulted by the grunting and giggling sounds of Gosh and his gal getting their freak on upstairs. It nauseated me, and I bolted out the front door into the suburban forest of endless identical condominium buildings and towering Eucalyptus shadows. I wandered aimlessly, just moving fast to fight off the intensity of my high – what a lightweight! – and before I knew it I was lost. I stood there in an embarrassed panic. I had no idea where I was, or which direction I’d come from, or what building was Hank’s.
Later I would learn that Carolina was the first one to become concerned about the length of my absence.
“What happened to that peace guy?” she asked Hank.
“Oh my god, I was cracking up, that peace guy,” Hank would tell me. “I asked her why she called you that, and she said the long hair, the flowery shirt, and the torn jeans with the Woodstock patch, she figured you were a hippy.”
That peace guy. Stoned beyond reason and lost in a condo complex in Scripps Ranch.
Exactly how I’d hoped the night would begin.